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.

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New Resident

This morning I went to the garden, did a little maintenance, harvested some salad greens and spinach, and snapped some images with the intention of doing a little garden post here. Then we went on a long afternoon of hiking at the county’s newest forest. I’ve got a gazillion images from that hike to process and I’m too pooped to write much anyway, so here’s a short video of a bee moving into a hole in the log I drilled and put out only yesterday. I’ll take a shot at ID once I’ve worked a little more through my backlog.

 

Another Accommodation and Another Native Bee

In case you were wondering, I did put a new roof on the birdhouse I found with the bumblebee nest remnants inside. I used some of the abundant pieces of cedar left over from last summer’s deck renovation. I cleaned out the old mouse and bee nest material  installed the new roof similarly to the original, though this is thicker wood. Inside I made a sort of hollow nest using some wool.

Bumblehouse1

Stalking around the garden the best place I could find where I could easily keep an eye on it turned out to be a bed in the angle of the house and deck. I nestled it onto the ground and heaped up some leaves around it leaving the opening visible and inviting. Here I can check it as I come and go and, with any luck, notice if a bee goes in or out.

Bumblehouse2

When I placed it, which was actually a few weeks ago I had hoped that the nearby crocus would help entice a bumblebee to move in. It was only this weekend, however, when I spotted my first queen bumblebee of the season. She was visiting the Scilla that blanket the garden and that so many bees are going ga-ga over.

Native Bee

Speaking of which, I managed to snap a picture of another native bee resting on the back of a Helleborus bloom.  So many bees! Spring is truly, finally here.

Scavenging for Bee Homes

Last year I meant to put up a nesting structure of some kind for solitary bees but never got around to it. This week I remembered I should be getting something ready so it could be in place this spring when the bees are looking for a place to lay their eggs so I got to work. I had been planning on making one that consists of a wooden block or log with holes drilled in it. Then I started seeing different kinds that were bundles of bamboo and decided I would attempt one of those instead. Looking around and doing more reading I also learned that the hollow stems of plants that have died back for the winter can be used, too.* So it was that I found myself wading around in the snow in the yard with my pruners. I hope the neighbors didn’t see me clipping off anything that was still standing, peering at the cut end and dropping it before moving on to the next plant. In the end the only thing I found that might be suitable was the stems of turtlehead (Chelone lyonii.) The pithy hosta stems were especially disappointing because I’ve got so many of them.

Nesting Tubes 1

So far I’ve got, from left to right, some black bamboo, the turtlehead and a golden bamboo—I used to have some bamboo plants and now I’m wishing I’d kept more of the canes! There is quite a range of cavity sizes from the 3/32” minimum I saw one site recommend on up to about 1/4”. The lengths are what they are and may not be ideal as the block-drilling instructions indicate. I just cut everything so it would have a node near the end to block it off. I’m going to try to get out to some other places to forage for appropriate stems before winter is over, too.

Nesting Tubes 2

I’m excited to see if I can attract any little bees to whatever makeshift housing I build for them. Between these, the birdhouse I plan to deploy for bumblebees and the prospect of a honeybee hive surviving the winter it looks like 2014 is going to be an interesting year.

Have you put out nesting sites for bees like this? I’d be interested in hearing about how they worked for you.

 

* I probably read about it at Honey Bee Suite. Rusty writes about other bees as well as the honeys and if you haven’t already checked out her web site you really should.