Perennial Plant Transition

Over the last year I’ve experienced a subtle shift in interests and activities that has led to me blogging less and getting out and enjoying nature more. I still garden as much as ever, but just haven’t felt the need to share so many updates here. My organic kitchen garden is what it is and I still get produce and enjoyment from it in equal measures, but except for a couple of new-to-me crops I’m growing this year, there isn’t much to report. Instead I may be sharing more of my nature explorations, some of which I’m hoping will happen in my own urban perennial garden at an increasing rate.

When I discovered iNaturalist last year I had already been photographing the interesting flora, fauna, and fungi I’d encounter in my explorations. Having a place to share my finds, obtain or confirm identifications, and learn more about the organisms I encounter motivated me to spend even more time out looking around. As I began finding more and more flowering plants in shady habitats I started thinking about how I could incorporate them into the shady urban gardens around our home.

Photo Jun 26, 6 28 22 AM

Over the nearly thirty years I’ve been dragging the gardens back from the neglected wasteland they used to be I relied heavily on ferns and hostas to fill space and create some interesting contrasts in texture and color. At one point I had nearly ninety varieties of hosta, most of which are still going strong. Patches and specimens of native and exotic woodland plants, especially spring ephemerals round out the plantings and mostly provide flowers only early in the season. While they do attract pollinators, especially bumble bees, during their blooming period, hostas don’t produce a lot of flowers for the space they occupy. Since I’ve declared the garden a pollinator habitat I’ve been paying more attention to which plants bees and other insects are visiting in the woodlands and savannas in our area. The removal of some trees in a neighbor’s yard have opened up the canopy more so I’ve started experimenting with adding more floriferous and taller natives.

Photo Jun 26, 6 28 02 AM

I started slowly, first purchasing a single plant of a cultivar of Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium cv.) which did poorly at first because we were out of town when it really could have used some watering. Then I started seeing more about nursery plants being treated with neonicotinoid pesticides which, by design are harmful to insects. While the different interested parties go back and forth over the level of threat they pose in this application, I decided just growing my own plants from seed was probably the safest approach. I’ve had a full semester course in plant propagation and years of experience propagating my own plants by various methods, including from seed.

poke milkweed

The first species I wanted to try was Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) which I encountered dangling its clawlike flowers in the woods of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve where I often walk. I purchased seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery and sowed them shallowly in a single pot that I left outside over the winter to simulate natural conditions.

Photo May 20, 12 12 23 PM

I think nearly every seed germinated this spring and after they’d grown a few true leaves I transplanted them into individual pots. To keep them safe from the squirrels who sometimes dig in my plant pots I kept them inside the propagation cage I built from recovered deck wood. As they’ve grown and I’ve started pots of other species, I realized I was going to run out of squirrel-proof room so this weekend I took up another construction project.

Photo Jun 26, 6 26 33 AM

For years an unused trellis(?) has been laying behind the compost bins. It’s a simple frame of 2x2s with a layer of chicken wire that I realized would be a good size for another propagation box.

Photo Jun 26, 6 26 42 AM

I put together a wooden frame with a slatted bottom and hinged the trellis to the top for a lid to keep squirrels out but let the sun and rain in. I did find chipmunks can get through chicken wire but they rarely do and don’t do as much damage as the squirrels. It’s only 9” deep but that’s sufficient to get plants started and then they can be moved to the taller cage if they need to grow on more before transplanting.

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One of the next plants I would like to grow is Early Figwort (Scrofularia lanceolata) as it produces a lot of nectar for the size of its flowers. The specimen above was growing in an open prairie, but I’ve seen it in shadier edge conditions and believe it could thrive in my garden.

My list of seeds to obtain for this garden transition has been growing and I’ll be spending some time this summer deciding which species to focus on next. My goal is to have a long season of bloom with no interruption in nectar sources for the pollinators I’m fortunate to have visiting the small oasis I hope I’m creating for them.

Photo Jun 26, 6 29 50 AM

Do you consider pollinators when you select plants for your garden? I would appreciate hearing about your successes in the comments below, especially with native plants that grow in partial shade to shade.

A Cunning Plan

I know it’s only early September, but I’m already scheming how to make next year’s garden better. A couple of things that are influencing the basic layout are probably going to come into play. The first one I employed this year and have been happy with the results so I’m going to repeat it.

2015 Garden

This is my 2015 garden in two phases. The basic plan I’ve been using for a few years is shown on the left and consists of twelve equal sized beds I rotate crops through. I’ve grouped together the families I devote the most space to: Alliaceae (Onion, garlic, scallion, leek, shallot,) Solanaceae (tomato, pepper, tomatillo,) Fabaceae (beans, peas,) and Miscellaneous, the beds where I grow a variety of early, cool weather things like lettuce, spinach and broccoli that later get replaced with squash and fall plantings of leafy crops again.

On the right in the Solanacea this year I extended the adjacent beds to create a little more planting room where the path would normally go through. It’s meant a little more walking around, but I’ve been able to grow a few more pepper and tomato plants. In between the Miscellaneous and Fabaceae sections this year I had a little serendipity where my Bush Delicata squash grew. It ended up taking over most of the bed and the path between it and the pole beans. When I thought about it, I don’t need that path now that the smaller crops are gone. The pole beans are grown for drying so I don’t need to get to them before the squash is done, probably. It can stay.

2016 Garden

That brings us to the beginning of next year’s plan. In 2016 I will rotate everything around four beds clockwise. Think of  a volleyball team. I’ll continue the “Mutant E” arrangement for the Solanaceae, and now look! In the second stage (on the right) I’ll be able to put squash family plants in the middle of the three Miscellaneous beds and let them ramble across the paths. This is especially making me look forward to the 2016 season because today I received a gift of hulless pumpkin seeds and I want to grow some Red Kuri squash, a variety I don’t believe comes in a bush form.

I’m always looking for ways to cram more into my limited growing space. So far I’ve employed as much vertical growing as I can think of and now I’m temporarily utilizing paths. Do you have any brilliant tips for getting even more out of a small garden?