Pollinator Garden Progress

Over a year ago I dug into converting my perennial gardens to include more native plants as resources for pollinators. The first thing I did was dig out several large patches of bugbane (Actaea sp.) to make room for more of a variety of species. While the bugbane was actually a favorite of the bumble bees, it was a prolific seeder and it’s high, dense leaves crowded out many other plants. I did keep one small patch contained between the house and a brick patio, but the rest I tore out with a vengeance, along with a couple other weedy species. I then covered the area with a double layer of cardboard that stayed in place through the fall, winter, spring and summer until I took it up only recently.

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Between the cardboard treatment and the strategic relocation of the Eutrochium and a couple of Hosta I ended up with three decent-sized areas of bare ground waiting for me to plug in new plants.

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I had bare-root Rudbeckia laciniata and Asclepias incarnata I got from Prairie Moon Nursery. The plants were very robust so I expect them to be awesome next season.

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I also had several Agastache foeniculum in pots I grew from seed as well as seed-grown plugs of Allium cernuum, Elymus hystrix, and Symphyiotrichum shortii.

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To round out the variety a friend gifted me a boxful of excess Polemonium reptans from her garden and I purchased some end-of-season sale Monarda of some cultivar whose name escapes me at the moment. It will be interesting to watch for visitors to the Monarda as there is a discussion going on currently in some circles about the attractiveness to pollinators of cultivated varieties of native plants.

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Since digging squirrels are an ongoing problem at Brakewynde I covered the most vulnerable of the transplants with plastic hardware cloth. The smaller plants were going dormant anyway so I just gently bent them to the side. The bare-root transplants had taller, stiffer stems so I placed cobbles on either side of each one to keep the plastic from crushing them.

After the transplanting was complete we had several days of gentle rain showers to help settle them in and then the leaves fell in earnest providing an insulating layer. My intention is to get the plastic off next spring as soon as shoots start to appear. Despite having quite a few plants there is still space to fill so I’m going to spend some time this winter prioritizing which species I will be obtaining early next year. I’m very much looking forward to enjoying a greater variety of blooms in 2019 and, with any luck, a greater volume and variety of visiting bees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths and beetles.

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I Changed My Mind

One of the benefits of time and experience is that you can change your mind about things and change your actions relative to your new perspective. When I began creating the gardens at Brakewynde nearly three decades ago I knew little to nothing of native plants and their value in the landscape. I undertook a “Me vs. The World” approach of planting and nurturing what I liked and ruthlessly weeding out what I hadn’t planted myself or didn’t recognize as contributing to my efforts.

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For years I waged a futile battle against the blue wave of Scilla that bloomed every spring, choking out the smaller plants I was trying to nurture. Then, when I began to appreciate the value of these obnoxious aliens to pollinators, I softened my view of them. Now they provide a reliable attractant for stalking bees in my own back yard. I no longer waste time trying to eradicate them or to grow plants I know they’ll outcompete. But I don’t feel particularly bad when I unearth and probably kill their abundant bulbs when I’m digging and planting as I was last weekend.

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Another plant I tore out every time it dared to pop up was White Snakeroot, Ageratina altissima. The leaves are boring, the flowers are small, white and boring, and most importantly, I hadn’t planted it. Then, this year I did a little project. I made a chart of all the flowering plants in the gardens at least to genus level and dutifully checked off which ones were in bloom each week of the growing season. I wanted to see where the flowering gaps were that I could fill to make my garden more pollinator friendly. The first revelation was that after the riot of spring bloom there wasn’t much going on until the Hosta kicked in later in the summer. The second revelation was that there were only a few species that trooped on blooming through October, Ageratina being the most conspicuous one.

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The Snakeroot first got my attention when the Monarchs we were rearing in the house started to emerge and I looked for flowers to place them on outdoors in case they needed a nectar snack before heading off to Mexico. They were the tallest plants still in bloom and seemed like a logical choice. It was then that I decided that in the future instead of ripping them out when they appeared where I didn’t want them I will transplant them to more appropriate spots and cultivate them as valuable members of the pollinator garden.

Curious about the ecology of Ageratina altissima I turned to one of my new favorite resources, HOSTS. It’s a database of lepidopteran caterpillar host plants around the world.

In HOSTS I found that the caterpillars of the Clymene Moth, Haploa clymene, live on Ageratina. Above is a pretty specimen of that species I found in the garden. I’m going to keep my eyes open now for caterpillars on the plants and perhaps try to rear some if I discover any.

Another resource I consulted was the list of insect visitors to this species at Illinois Wildflowers. It’s extensive! I’ll be staking out its blooms in coming seasons as I work to add to the list of pollinators in the garden.

Finally, the grim side of White Snakeroot—it’s poisonous to grazing animals. What’s more, the toxin can be passed on through milk and meat to humans who consume it and it’s even suspected to be what killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother! Good thing I’m not planning on pasturing cattle in the gardens any time soon.

Three New Crops: Part Three

Several years ago a horticulturist friend of mine gifted me with a paw-paw fruit to taste. It had been grown by another friend of his and he thought I’d appreciate giving it a try. I liked the taste and was impressed with the large, beanlike seeds. Since I’m always trying to grow random things, I potted up the seeds in some number one nursery containers I had sitting around and waited to see what happened. If I remember correctly–this was eight or ten years ago–they actually took over a year to send shoots up. When they were a couple feet tall or so I planted them along the west fence in the back garden which was the brightest spot at the time but still shady. Those are the conditions paw-paws like.

Fast forward to the spring? of 2017 when I was looking at the garden and noticed something weird on the largest of the trees. When I got closer I could see it was the pendulous maroon cup of a flower. Closer inspection revealed that there were several more on the tree. It was finally blooming!

As luck would have it, our next-door neighbor also has paw-paw trees and when I told them we had blooms, he suggested we cross-pollinate them since they are supposed to not be strongly self-fertile. We traded pollen back and forth between our trees several times as more flowers became receptive and I tagged mine with the dates. The flowers were also being visited by what may have been small flies. The flowers are not sweetly scented but are rather more carrion-ish.

Not all took and some that started forming small fruits failed and fell off.

In the end there were two that looked promising hanging just above head height.

Paw-paws fall off the tree when they’re ripe and ready to eat so I rigged mesh bags below them to keep them from just becoming squirrel and chipmunk chow.

I think that would have worked, but somehow one of the little buggers managed to chew a fruit through the mesh and ruin one end of it. Not wanting to lose them completely, I picked them a little early and cut them open after trimming off the damaged bit.

The flesh was soft and sweet-smelling, though maybe not as much as if I had been able to leave them on the tree longer. If you haven’t tasted paw-paw you should if you ever get the chance. It’s the most northern growing of the members of the custard apple family and definitely has a tropical flavor sort of akin to banana or mango but unique.

Now that I had some, what to do with them? Two of our best besties were in town that weekend and we were going to dinner at their place so I offered to take care of the cocktail course. I found a recipe online for something called a Paw-Paw Rum Runner that called for both fruit-infused rum and puréed flesh.

They were good, but I think the rum overpowered the flavor of the fruit. Additionally, I felt like I was wasting some of it in making the infused rum. That bit of fruit became inedible and didn’t really impart much flavor to the booze.

Just as before, those many years ago, I saved the seeds from both fruits and potted them up in my homemade compost. There are now seventeen pots sitting in my propagation area waiting to possibly, slowly, eventually bring this tropical-flavored native fruit to the gardens of my friends and neighbors.

Three New Crops: Part Two

We eat our fair share of hummus in our household. Since it’s so easy to make, we buy cases of chickpeas and whip up our own whenever we get a craving. So, it only seemed right to try growing our own chickpeas, a.k.a. garbanzos, a.k.a. lots of other names. I started shopping around online for varieties that would grow in our zone and settled on Golden Garbanzo from one of the larger heirloom seed companies. The seeds didn’t look like the chickpeas I’m used to but I went ahead and planted them anyway.

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They grew great! The plants were small with beautiful, finely divided leaves. Their flowers were rather pretty, too. They reminded me of the flowers of the lentils I once tried to grow, only larger and less blue. Those flowers were tiny! They also seemed to be free of pests, unless you count what must have been a rabbit who bedded down in them one night knocking a few of the plants askew.

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Unlike last episode’s rice they all ripened at pretty much the same time. I only picked a few early dry ones and then, when they were just about ready, we were going out of town and rain was threatening. We went to the garden, cut off every plant and stuffed them in a bag to bring home. I spread them out in the basement to finish drying. When we returned they were nice and dry and I was able to thresh them the same way I do my other beans.

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The first thing I noticed about them was that they were hard, like rock hard, and very rough. As a test I cooked a few. After over an hour of simmering they were still pretty chewy. I started looking around for more information on garbanzos and found out there are different kinds. These turned out to not be the big, round chickpeas you make hummus, falafel, etc. with. What I think they are is a kind of flour chickpea that’s meant to be ground and features in many Indian dishes where it’s known as gram flour or besan. Great. Well, at least I love Indian food.

Again, I spent time messing around with different ways of pounding up these little pebbles. My cast iron mortar and pestle worked OK.

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Like the rice, I could only process small quantities at a time. They had a tendency to pop out of the mortar, but once the skin was cracked they broke up pretty easily. Then I just sifted them through a fine mesh strainer to get any stray remains of the skin out. It was pretty tedious so I dinked around at it off and on (mostly off) for months.

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Then I had a brainstorm. In the cupboard is a coffee grinder we reserve for spice grinding. I figured it was worth a shot and tried a small batch. Success! In less than fifteen minutes I was done and had a small jar of soft, protein-rich, home-grown garbanzo flour.

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Now I just need to decide what to make with it. It’s got to be something kind of special considering the work I put into making it. There are scores of good recipes online for Indian food and I’m open to suggestions.

Three New Crops: Part One

I’ve mentioned in the past that I try to grow something that is new, at least to me, in the garden each year. 2017 was something of a banner year in that respect because I actually planted two new foods in the garden as well as reaped a harvest that was a loooooong time coming.

It’s been a while so I don’t even remember how I got the urge to try growing rice. As a food I’m rather indifferent to it and regard it more as a starchy way to soak up gravy from curries. In any case, I came across Duborskian while paging through a catalog and became intrigued. It is a cultivar that originated in Russia. As an upland variety, it doesn’t require flooded paddies to grow.

Having never grown a grain before I looked up what information I could online about planting and spacing. I chose to start the seeds indoors under lights in small cells since we have so much bird and rodent predation of seeds in the garden. I figured giving the plants a head start would avoid that pitfall. Germination was high and I ended up with around 130 plants, if I remember correctly. Spacing suggestions varied so I opted for a fairly close spacing, plopped the seedlings in their holes, and kept them watered as I watched them grow through the summer. They, of course, looked like grass.

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Most of the plants survived and eventually formed graceful seed heads as the grains plumped up in late August.

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Soon individual stalks started turning brown indicating they were ready to harvest. Growth wasn’t completely even so this happened over a period of time. I suppose in a large field conditions might be managed for more even growth so it could all be harvested at once. Because I just had a small bed I just snipped off stalks as they looked ready and hung them upside down to finish drying.

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Once the whole crop was in and dried it was time to separate the grains from the stems. I beat them inside a plastic storage tub to release most of them and rubbed off any stragglers by hand. There wasn’t much breeze on the day I decided to do this so I resorted to using a box fan to blow the chaff away from the heavier grains as I dumped them back and forth between two tubs.

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I ended up with a modest total of 260 grams of unhulled rice when this stage was finished.

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The next stage was when the project started to suck. The brown hulls adhered tightly to the grains so I needed a way to get them off without crushing them. There are some contraptions online that people have built that look like they work well, but I couldn’t see making something like that for my small crop. I resorted to hulling small quantities at a time by rubbing them between different combinations of surfaces. I started this process in October and, because it was so much not fun, I just finished it this April.

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For the first round I wrapped a rubber jar opener around a block of wood and rubbed small quantities—actually a pinch at a time—on the surface of a clay brick. Most of the hulls would come off and I would take them outside and winnow by dumping from bowl to bowl if there was a breeze or by blowing on them if there wasn’t. I was in and out of the house a lot.

Next, I dumped the rice on a tray a bit at a time and sorted through it by hand, removing the grains still wrapped snugly in their hulls for reprocessing. Then I resumed the rubbing.

I lost count of how many times I did this.

As you can see in this image, some of the grains are still a little greenish and there are some dark ones, too.

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Last week, I finally said “screw it” and ran the last grains over a grippy plastic cutting board with the bare surface of the brick. It didn’t break all that many grains and worked a little faster. At the end I was left with a large pinch of recalcitrant grains I tossed out for the birds and chipmunks to enjoy. I now have 145 grams of cleaned rice to enjoy after I cooked a small test batch. It tastes like rice. Nothing remarkable. I won’t be growing it again.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.