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.

September Ends

I got out yesterday for a nice hike, nature walk, some naturalizing. I’m still not sure what to call these walks. With the weather changing somewhat precipitously I wanted to grab the opportunity to spend what the forecast indicated would be the last sunny day of my long weekend. As luck would have it, the clouds moved in before I got out. Consequently it was difficult to get decent photos, especially in the woods. Still, it was a nice, rejuvenating outing.

Despite there still being flowers in bloom there wasn’t a pollinator to be seen. The temperature was around 50°F/10°C. In the prairie there was a lot of bird activity but that and the occasional pile of coyote scat were the only signs of animal life. Seems I nearly always see something new and interesting on my walks and this time was no exception. It was very quiet out so a rhythmic tapping sound in the prairie caught my ear. A little searching revealed a downy woodpecker hunting on a tall forb’s woody stem. Makes sense but I haven’t seen that before.

September was kind of a disappointing month here for me. There was so much rain and then when we went north to do some camping there wasn’t much to see. Still, even though we came back a day early because of the cold and boredom, I did get some last-of-the-season observations of pollinators, a good, long look at an accommodating ovenbird, and an encounter with a wonderfully-disguised hemlock looper moth caterpillar. I also made some fungus and moss observations I’ll work through trying to identify before I post them to iNaturalist this winter to combat cabin fever. I’ve also got dozens of bumble bee observations there I want to add to Bumble Bee Watch, but their system isn’t as streamlined as iNaturalist’s, in my opinion.

As autumn turns into winter my walks are going to be more for exercise than nature observations so I’ll resume listening to podcasts while I’m out. My search for good natural history content hasn’t yielded much so I’m open to suggestions.

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.

Leaving Leaves

Yesterday I finally got around to the yard leaf cleanup. I’d been putting it off until the majority of leaves had fallen. Having oak trees around means that’s comparatively late and with a vernal witchhazel that holds its leaves all winter it also means I’m not going to get everything. But no worries! The leaves aren’t really  going anywhere anyway.

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Years ago it occurred to me that I was wasting a LOT of time raking leaves and either putting them on the curb for the city to pick up or shredding them into the compost bins. For the free organic matter I wasn’t sending away I was putting time and effort into speeding up a process that would happen eventually on its own. So I stopped. I only clear them off the paved surfaces and the very small lawn in the back yard. There is no lawn in front. Over winter some of this free, natural, organic mulch tends to shift around and leave bare spots so I like to pack one of the compost bins with dry oak leaves to replenish those areas in spring.

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Because my gardens are all in varying degrees of shade I’ve relied quite a bit on hostas to fill up space. Until I stopped raking I had problems with slugs chewing on the leaves. Conventional wisdom is that getting rid of that organic matter discourages slugs. When I started leaving the leaves the slug damage stopped. I can’t be certain why, but I suspect it’s either that they had more to eat at safe, moist, ground level and left the hostas alone or that this healthier habitat for invertebrates encouraged slug predators that are keeping them in check. In any case, my hostas look great all season.

Habitat Signs

Not only are my plants healthier now, this lazy approach to gardening has helped make it possible to certify the yard as a wildlife habitat and to provide resources for pollinators as well.

Recently I’ve been coming across articles encouraging leaving fallen leaves for wildlife like these from The Xerces Society, The National Wildlife Federation and Habitat Network. How do you handle your autumn leaves? I encourage you to do some reading and, if you’re able, consider leaving them in place. Wildlife and your back will thank you.

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.