Native Garden Update (Going Native in Toledo series)

It’s still early in our growing season, but things are starting to happen in my native garden. Many of the spring ephemerals in my shade garden are finished — the Virginia bluebells, large-flowered bellwort, and Dutchman’s breeches are done flowering. Others are still going strong — Jack-in-the-pulpits are bigger than ever, wild ginger has hundreds of hidden fuzzy flowers below a gorgeous carpet of leaves, and red columbine is standing tall above everyone else.

Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

In the rest of the garden, there’s a lot of growing going on, but most of my native plants won’t flower until June. One of my earliest bloomers is this patch of Golden Alexander (Zizea aurea), a member of the carrot family. I think it looks great alongside the cobalt gazing globe and my new blue turtle, don’t you?

If you look closely at this photo, you’ll also see the 5-foot tall tree stump where I had to remove a dying elm tree earlier this year (back by the fence). I’ve planted a chokecherry tree to replace it (you can see the cherry tree if you look for the wood stake that’s supporting it). I wasn’t able to get a straight native of Prunus virginiana in a large enough size, so I opted for a cultivar. Cherry trees are one of the families that support the most numbers of insect species (bird food!), according to the research of Doug Tallamy at the University of Delaware. I believe they’re still doing work to determine how much difference there might be between a straight native and a cultivar in terms of whether the insects will have any aversion to feeding on them.

A few years ago I bought a bare root version of the straight Prunus virginiana (because that’s all I could find) and planted it in my front yard. That one is about 7 feet tall, but it’s still not much more than a central trunk with a few tiny branches. It always makes me think of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree — it looks rather forlorn and is taking forever to grow. So that’s the compromise I made with this new cherry in the back yard — a larger tree to have faster impact on the ecosystem. I’m anxious to see how it grows compared to the one in the front yard. My garden is still a work-in-progress and a massive experiment; I make mistakes, but I learn from them and hope that by writing about them, I might give someone else a boost up the learning curve in their own native garden journey.

Nomad bee on Golden Alexander
Brown-headed cowbirds, brood parasites par excellence

While admiring the Golden Alexander, I photographed some insects who were using it (of course!). And I learned something interesting as I researched the bee in this photo. It’s a nomad bee (genus Nomada), also known as a cuckoo bee. iNaturalist says that there are more than 850 species of these kleptoparasitic bees, who lay their eggs in the nests of other bees so they don’t have to tend to them. You’ll notice that this bee isn’t as hairy as most bees, and that’s because it doesn’t have to collect pollen to feed its offspring. You may know about brown-headed cowbirds, who are similar brood parasites in the bird world, laying their eggs in the nests of different species, who then raise the cowbird chicks as their own, often at the expense of their genetic offspring. It’s a brilliant reproductive strategy, isn’t it? You get to spread your DNA without having to do any of the work. Fascinating stuff.

Screen to hide my neighbor’s junk piles

I recently bought a mesh privacy barrier to hang on one side of my fence because my neighbor keeps adding more junk to his piles on the other side of the fence — tires, ladders, and blue tarps galore. It’s become a distracting eyesore for me when I’m trying to enjoy the garden, and I’ve also found that too often my otherwise lovely photos of insects and flowers end up with a blue tarp in the background. I’m not a huge fan of how this mesh screen looks right now, but I think that it’ll fade into the background after the wrinkles fall out of it and I get used to it. But even so, I already notice that it’s helped take my mind off of what’s on the other side of the fence. With my sensory processing sensitivity, distracting things like that are hard to let go of, and I often noticed that I’d be sitting on my swing to relax and suddenly realize that I was feeling irritated about all of his junk. Now I’m back on track to make my garden a restful haven. 🙂

Just look at all that lush plant growth already — the monarda (aka bee balm/bergamot), New England aster and bluestem goldenrod are already 2-3 feet tall, with roots that are at least that long underground. That’s one of the reasons that native plants are so easy to care for — their deep roots make them able to survive drought conditions that many non-native plants can’t tolerate. In years when you might have to spend money to replace exotic plants that died, your natives will still be solid, not costing you a penny in replacement costs. #PlantNative

American lady butterfly in the pussytoes patch

Remember last year’s garden update when I told you I planted a patch of pussytoes so I could attract American Lady butterflies? Well look who’s here!! There have been two of these here over the past two days, and they’re spending a lot of time in the pussytoe patch. That means they might be laying eggs, because this is the host plant that their tiny caterpillars need to eat. (I have to admit that I was so excited after I took pictures that I forgot to look for eggs.) But what a perfect illustration of “If you plant it, they will come,” right? I find this just incredibly cool.

I’ve added some new plants already this year — some Ohio spiderwort, a lovely native witch hazel, and a nice nannyberry shrub that I’m going to put in my front yard…I think. I added a few more wild onion (to replace what the rabbits ate), and some dotted horsemint (can’t ever have too much of that beautiful plant). I’ve also gotten more serious about making little wire cages for young plants; it’s amazing how much damage my resident rabbits can do if I don’t keep an eye on things. I was so disappointed the morning I discovered they’d eaten every single bloom on my Dutchman’s breeches. It was as if someone had stolen the tiny pairs of pants off the laundry line!

Isn’t this boxelder bug gorgeous posed on the Golden Alexander? Notice the red eyes. Each spring I have to refresh my memory about the difference between boxelder and milkweed bugs; they’re similar in size and shape and both marked in black and orange. I’ve noticed quite a few boxelder bugs in the garden lately; I understood why when I learned that they eat maple seeds — I’ve got two maple trees that produce enormous quantities of seed ‘helicopters’!

I hope you enjoyed this garden update as much as I enjoyed showing it to you. It feels so good to see my garden beds get lusher each year as the native plants spread themselves around with wild abandon. I can’t wait to show you what it looks like in just a few short weeks — the rapid transformation is always surprising!

3 comments

  1. […] Remember when I shared my excitement about having watched American Lady butterflies in my patch of pussytoes? If you recall, I planted these native flowers last summer because they’re the host plant for the American and Painted Lady butterflies that I hoped to attract to my garden. Well, a couple days ago I was overjoyed to find more than a dozen of the American Lady caterpillars feeding in the pussytoes patch. […]

  2. Gorgeous, all of it, Kim. Even the brown screen, if it keeps the junk pile beyond hidden.

    You’re inspiring me! I’ve already decided to let a large section of lawn I inherited at my new house in Vermont go, turning it into a native wildflower patch to attract all the good bugs. That strategy worked well for me in Idaho, so I hope it will here, as well. And less mowing is always a good thing. Seeing your success, including the lady butterfly on the pussy toes, makes me eager to get started.

    Ain’t spring grand? Can’t wait to see what else comes to your beautiful garden!

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