Going Native in Toledo – Update

It’s been far too long since I updated you about the progress in my native garden project, so let’s fix that today. In re-reading my earlier posts in this series, I discovered that I hadn’t shared very many photos either. I guess I was more focused on writing about the ecological basis for this project, and hoping to get everybody up to speed about the critical importance of native plants. So you can go back and read those earlier posts if you’re interested in the background stuff. Today you’ll see photos and get a few more details about what’s been working and what’s not. (Depending on what kind of device you use to read this, you’ll see a link to “My Native Plant Project” at the top or bottom of the blog, so you can find those posts all together.)

When I started this project, I was so enthusiastic that I started ripping out everything that wasn’t a native plant. That was a mistake, and I’m glad I stopped myself from continuing that. I’ve come to accept that this will be a years-long learning project, and I may end up keeping some of the non-natives that I have a particular fondness for.  There are some allium cultivars here that are structurally interesting and attract lots of pollinators, so they can stay. And the 15-foot tall Rose of Sharon shrub is a hummingbird magnet, so it stays too.

Hoverfly on NE aster w sig
Hoverfly on New England aster

But at this point, I have about 60 species of natives in my garden. After three growing seasons, I’ve started to become more familiar with the habits of some of the plants and am able to make better decisions about when and where to add new plants or more of the same species.

New England aster monster
New England aster last August – what a monster!

For example, I know that New England aster can take over the entire garden while you’re at the grocery store. In late June I cut it down to three feet tall and it’s back up to about six feet again and leans over onto the less-sturdy plants around it. Its purple and yellow flowers are beautiful, and are important for migrating monarch butterflies and other late fall pollinators, but it’s definitely a tough one to control. I’d like to try putting in some goldenrods and other asters for fall blooms, and maybe then I can eliminate some of the N.E. aster.

Here are some photos of the first native bed I started along my east fenceline.

Various views of my garden - EB - blog (1)
My first native bed, in its third year

You can see a gap in the middle where some plants had to be removed, but the rest of it is doing great. Scanning from right to left, you’ll see common boneset (white flowers in back), pink coneflower, monarda (bee balm), and Sullivant’s milkweed, and then across the gap there’s rattlesnake master, cardinal flower, blue lobelia, black-eyed Susan, New England aster, and shrubby St. John’s wort. It’s funny, last year the black-eyed Susans were on the right side, in front of the coneflowers, but this year they showed up on the left side. Apparently they’ll move around from year to year, so you have to be prepared to go with the flow. There are some other plants mixed in this bed too, but I want to show you closer shots of a couple of these amazing native plants.

First up is rattlesnake master, a plant that grabs your attention simply by saying its own name. And if that’s not enough, just look at these wonderful globe-shaped flower heads! In this wider shot, it’s on the right side.

Various views of my garden - EB - blog (3)

Rattlesnake master flower heads - blog - NIMT
Rattlesnake master

I’ve got some cool photos of insects on those globes, but I’ll save that for my update about Kim’s Big Bug Year.

The shrubby St. John’s wort is also a beautiful plant, and I’ve regretted putting it back there in the corner where it’s mostly hidden. The flowers and leaves are so pretty. But thanks to my friend Kate, I’ve got two more young plants of that species that I’ve just put down as specimen plants in another new bed. First a wide shot, then a close up:

East bed alternate view with shrubby St John's wort - blog - NIMT

Shrubby st. john's wort with bumble bee
Shrubby St. John’s Wort with bumble bee

If you look back at that wide shot above, you’ll see my swing, and behind it two huge boxwood shrubs. I want to take those out and put some natives in there eventually. Have you ever smelled a boxwood shrub? It’s not something you want to sit beside for any length of time. The only reason I’ve hesitated removing them so far is that there’s only a 3-foot tall fence behind them, so when they’re removed there won’t be anything blocking the view into my garden from the road in front of the house. It’s not that I don’t want anyone to see the garden, but the reason I tucked the swing back in that corner is because it’s the most private part of the yard, and I like that. If I could buy mature native shrubs that were already five feet tall, I would do that in a heartbeat. But whatever goes in there will take years to grow big enough to give that privacy back. Decisions, decisions. Oh wait! I just realized I could plant something on the other side of that fence and let it grow up, and then remove the boxwoods. Aha, a plan materializes!

I’ve had some manual labor help lately too, and I’m glad I did, even though it was shockingly expensive.  There was this area back by my shed that had shrubs that were declining and just kind of ugly — there was hibiscus, purple smoke, and a huge arborvitae, along with a few raggedy hostas that didn’t like all the sun they got there. Here’s what it looked like before the contractor arrived a few weeks ago:

Before shrub removal 7-16-20
Before….

And a few hours later, I’d already started filling it with native plants…button bush, ninebark, shrubby St. John’s wort, white snakeroot, purple coneflower, and Riddell’s goldenrod. I’ll be adding some more in this bed after I go to the last native plant sale of this year in a couple weeks. It should look great next year.

New garden bed July 29 2020 - blog - NIMT
…and after! So much potential!

That’s one of the shrubby St. John’s worts front and center, ready to be the star that it should be!

This year also brought the first blooms on the gray-headed coneflower that I grew from seed and planted in 2018. I had been impatiently waiting for them, and when I saw them finally bloom last month I could have jumped for joy. I raised them from teeny tiny seeds and they are spectacular! I did that! (Well, the Earth did that…but I helped.)

gray-headed coneflower - blog
Gray-headed coneflowers beside tri-color beech tree – nice combo

That tri-color beech tree was here when I bought this property, and I thought it was probably going to remain a small tree, but I’ve seen some in the neighborhood that are forty or fifty feet tall, so I guess I’ll find out…in twenty years.

So that’s a good update for now, I think. Maybe next time I’ll show you some of the other native beds. I’m having so much fun growing native plants, and–especially this year–have enjoyed spending much more time than usual just being among the plants and insects. My fellow Wild Ones members have continued to be generous in their support of my new-ish garden; they give me plants and advice whenever I need it. And when I visit their mature native gardens, I feel better about what I’m doing. I see that, even for the most experienced among us, this is a process of trial and error. It’s messy and it’s hard work, and it’s never done. But it’s definitely worth it.

Yucca_filamentosa from Wikipedia
Yucca photo by Moriori on Wikipedia

I’m going to finish up here with a sort of warning — a “buyer beware” message. Three years after moving here, I’m still waging an epic battle against the yuccas (Yucca filamentosa). There are probably 15 of them scattered around the property, front and back. They look like they would be native to the desert southwest, but it turns out they’re native to the southeastern part of this country. I’m still a bit confused because the USDA Plants Database shows them as native to Ohio as well as much of the eastern US. But regardless of whether they’re natives or not, I have a strong dislike for them. And yet many people plant them around their houses, probably because they’re evergreen, and they don’t require any watering or other maintenance other than cutting down the enormous flower stalk that towers above the leaves each year. But they multiply prolifically, and turn into these monstrous multi-plant clumps that are so tough to eradicate that a web search on “how to get rid of yuccas” turns up hundreds of results. (Some of the videos are quite entertaining, like this one, and the one where Mike doesn’t think I’m trying hard enough.)

Yuccas removed from yard Aug 2019 - blog
A few yuccas I dug from my yard last year

Despite what Mike-on-YouTube thinks, I am trying hard! I’ve tried digging them up. Nope, life’s too short. I paid landscapers try to eradicate some of them two years ago, but they used a stump grinder which only served to chop up the massive root system and sprout hundreds more of these horrible plants. Last year I chopped one off at the ground and painted herbicide on the stump. It came back anyway. Earlier this summer I paid the teenager next door to try to dig one of them out. He spent more than four hours digging up ONE plant, and it re-sprouted a month later. (That poor kid will probably never come over here again after being defeated by a yucca.) Here’s a pile of the roots from that one plant — and this is only about a third of them!

So I’m experimenting with another technique now — I’ve covered the yucca hole with two layers of thick cardboard and a heavy layer of mulch. I’ll check on it next summer and see if I’ve finally managed to kill one of them. Stay tuned for my next yucca update, in which I fully expect to report that they’ve tried to kill me in my sleep.

Maybe Dorothy Was Right

It’s been more than two months since I’ve written here. My absence hasn’t been because I don’t have anything to say, or anything to show you, but rather because I have too much to say and can’t figure out how to channel it into something good and uplifting. The turmoil in our society has become something that weighs heavily on me, and it’s getting harder to stay optimistic when there’s no end in sight.

Monarch on butterfly milkweed
Monarch on butterfly milkweed

My usual solution of going to nature for solace doesn’t always help anymore. But I cling to it, still, out of sheer determination to not succumb to despair. I admire my blogging friends who have been able to write regularly and optimistically. I know some of them will be reading this, and I am so grateful for their writing about nature. They are my inspiration to sit here now and try to put some positive energy out into the world.

I want to show you some bits of my native plant garden and the critters who live in it. After the early-blooming spring ephemerals are done, most of the other native plants in my garden don’t bloom until at least late June. I’ve had to be patient, but that makes it so much more exciting when everything finally bursts into bloom. I took this video of my biggest monarda patch yesterday, trying to show you the dozens of pollinators buzzing over it. This section is about 10’x3′ and there were easily a couple dozen bees working through the flowers.

You’ll notice how that bee in the close-up portion goes completely around the flower, making sure to get every possible bit of energy it can from it before moving to the next one.  That patch of monarda is about four feet tall and I can stand right up against it with my face only inches away from the buzzing bees, and they don’t pay the slightest attention to me. It’s such a calming, meditational thing to do.

One of my favorite plants is this Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum), with its cheerful lemon-yellow flowers and glossy leaves. This one is about four feet tall in its second year and looks fabulous. A friend gave me another small one and I can’t wait to see how big it will be next year.

Shrubby st john's wort

Anemone virginiana - tall thimbleweed
Tall thimbleweed flower, only an inch across

Last year I put in two Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) that another friend gave me. They’re blooming this year and I’m in love with their dainty little flowers and the “thimbles” that remain after the flowers are spent. This plant has large lobed leaves below bare, thin stems that tower a couple feet higher and support the flowers. When I’ve found thimbleweed on my walks in local parks, I’m always struck by how easy it would be to overlook it. So many native plants seem to be overly enthusiastic (“we’re gonna take over everything!”) that it’s nice to have a few that behave themselves better. I’ve got these at the front of a bed where they’re easy to see and enjoy, and they won’t get bullied by anybody else.

I found this little grasshopper eating a leaf on boneset. I watched him. He watched me.

grasshopper collage

One of the first times I noticed Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) was when I photographed a Snowberry Clearwing moth feeding on it a couple years ago as I hiked in a state wildlife area. I took a series of photos that remain some of my favorites. Here’s one of them from that day.

Snowberry clearwing moth feeding on blue vervain

I also found a dragonfly on this plant along the shore of Lake Erie last fall. Dragonflies aren’t pollinators and so it’s not common to find them perched on flowering plants like this Common Green Darner was during fall migration last September.

Green darner on blue vervain

And here’s a pic from my garden this week, where my own Blue Vervain is just beginning to bloom. The tiny purple flowers bloom from the bottom to the top of each spike, with just a few blooming at a time. I just adore this plant!

Blue vervain - verbena hastata

I’ve noticed that I often use the word “love” to describe how I feel about some native plants. Since I’m spending lots more time at home these days, I’m getting to know my plants more intimately, and I’m feeling very connected to them in a way that feels like love. I take care of their needs. I mourn when the rabbits chew a young plant down to the ground before it even gets a chance at life. I spend lots of time just wanting to be near the plants, to enjoy their beauty and the unceasingly fascinating world of the insects who come to eat them. The garden is my connection to something larger than myself, something intensely gratifying and life-affirming.

When the pandemic first arrived and we were just getting used to lockdown, I wrote about desperately missing my friends. As time went on, I wrote about starting to enjoy some time without a busy schedule. These days I see a few of my friends regularly (outdoors only, and always six feet apart). As my schedule has gotten busier again, I find myself wanting to hold on to as much of my “home time” as I can. Sure, there’s a lot to see “out there,” but this place is where my heart is, and where I find peace and a connection to the natural world. So I guess I’m a bit like Dorothy in discovering that you don’t always have to leave home to find what you need. #TheresNoPlaceLikeHome

Young rabbit in my yard
One of my resident bunny twins chowing down on ferns

Wee Folk Wednesday

The Violet Fairy w sig

For the past couple of years, I’ve been carrying around some wee folk in my camera bag. They love to pose with beautiful plants, so I thought I’d start sharing some of their photos here occasionally. I hope you find them as charming as I do!

There’s a patch of violets behind my shed, and it’s getting bigger and lusher each year. I know some people don’t like them for exactly that reason, but I love them and allow them to spread freely through the lawn. Tonight I transplanted some of them to another spot closer to the house so I can enjoy them more easily. The Violet Fairy approves. 🙂

Your Pantaloons are Showing

Every year when I go to the woods searching for the latest native wildflowers, I’ve got one particular species in mind as my most-hoped-for find: Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria).

Dutchman's Breeches wildflower at Goll Woods

These dainty little pantaloons are common in moist shady woods throughout the eastern US, and are sometimes also called bleeding hearts or little blue staggers.

The straight little stems holding waxy white and yellow flowers rise above the basal clump of fern-like compound leaves as if to say, “Here we are, look at us!” You might think they would stand out and be easy to spot, but that’s not the case. In fact, they’re so tiny that you have to be looking for them or you can easily walk right past them.

Here’s a wide shot for scale — the big tree stump was about three feet tall. The red circle indicates the Dutchman’s breeches:

Dutchman's breeches - wide view for scale - red circle

Now that you have a sense of their size, you’ll understand why I imagine them to be fairy laundry hanging out to dry.

Last year I found an entire grove of them under a magnolia tree…I would have believed it if you’d told me there really were wee folk living in there. They probably scattered and ran for cover when they saw me inspecting their skivvies on the line.

Dutchman's breeches under a magnolia tree w sig

I’m not sure why, but I often find large clusters of this plant at the bases of big trees. Here’s one I found last week:

Dutchman's breeches cluster at base of tree - blog

This group had some teeny tiny new flowers in it:

Dutchman's breeches babies - blog

Here’s another shot of new-ish flowers:

Dutchman's breeches - very new tiny flowers - blog

Dutchman's breeches (3)

I always try to photograph pollinators on wildflowers, and I was doing that on this visit as well. I didn’t see any insects using these flowers, and I discovered that only long-tongued bees like bumblebees can reach the nectar deep inside these blossoms. Other insects have to settle for the pollen, apparently. And ants like to eat fleshy appendages on their seeds, so they carry the seeds to their nests, eat those parts, and discard the seeds, which can then germinate and make new plants. And that’s one way the seeds of this plant are dispersed to new locations. Cool little fact, huh?

I eventually found the owner of this laundry, napping under the clothesline. He sure looks like he’s enjoying life, doesn’t he? I hope you’re finding time to slow down and enjoy the simple things in your life too.

Gnome under Dutchman's breeches laundry LOL v2 blog

P.S. Happy 50th Earth Day! I marked the occasion by planting a native chokecherry tree in my yard today. 🙂

Wildflower Progression in NW Ohio

I’ve been going out once a week to check the progression of blooms among our native wildflowers here in northwest Ohio, and things are definitely starting to happen. The day I went to survey them last week was quite chilly, with temps in the low 40s. I was even pelted with beads of graupel for a few minutes after I stepped out of the car. (And as I write this today, I’m watching a steady snow falling outside my window…winter doesn’t want to let go of us just yet.)

As expected in these conditions, the Bloodroot was tightly closed against the cold.

Bloodroot closed on a cold day - w sig blog
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

I was pleased to find that the variety of blooms had increased since my prior week’s survey. There were still lots of Sharp-lobed Hepatica and Spring Beauty blooming, but Purple Cress was the superstar on this day. Its tall stems lifted it up above the carpet of leaves formed by all the other plants that are still thinking about whether or not they want to poke their heads up yet.

Purple cress w sig blog

And here are the Spring Beauties:

Spring beauty - native wildflower - blog
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

I discovered a little bee that’s a specialist pollinator of these flowers — meet the Spring Beauty Mining Bee (Andrena erigeniae). The term oligolecty is used to describe this kind of specialist relationship between a bee and a particular flower or genus of flowers. Interesting stuff, isn’t it?

Spring beauty mining bee specialist pollinator - blog
Spring Beauty Mining Bee on…wait for it….Spring Beauty!

The Yellow Trout-Lilies were just beginning to rise from a carpet of spotted leaves. The other day my friend called them Dogtooth Violets, and I thought that seemed a strange name because they’re not violets. So I came home and read about this species in one of my favorite reference books (The Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders). That’s how I discovered that the “dogtooth” part arose because of their similarity to a European version of this flower (Erythronium dens-canis), in which the corms apparently look like dog’s teeth. Still not violets though.

Trout lily twins - blog
Yellow Trout-Lily (Erythronium americanum)

The seeds of this flower are dispersed by ants, ground beetles, and crickets. Once a plant is transported in this manner, it will eventually begin spreading by means of underground corms. Trout-lilies form big colonies through a type of cloning process, and only about 1% of the plants in a colony will bloom in any given year. A few years ago a friend took me to visit a little colony of them not far from my home, and now I realize that there must have been many thousands of them still underground, biding their time. This is a photo collage I made from my visit to that colony:

Trout lily collage w sig

And here’s Harbinger of Spring, also known as Salt & Pepper (Erigenia bulbosa). These flowers are so tiny, I always feel victorious when I find them on the forest floor

Harbinger of spring - salt and pepper - blog
Harbinger of Spring, aka Salt & Pepper (Erigenia bulbosa)

These pretty white blooms are Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), a member of the buttercup family. I like its distinctive three-lobed leaves.

Rue anemone cropped - blog
Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

I had intended to show you one more species today, but I think this is long enough. And I could probably devote an entire post to that other species, so perhaps that’ll be coming up next.

Hang in there, everyone, spring is really coming and soon we’ll all be able to spend lots more time outdoors getting our recommended doses of Vitamin N (Nature). Be safe and be well. 🙂

My Big Bug Year Begins…Soon

By now everyone has heard of the tradition in birding called a “Big Year,” in which you see how many species of birds you can find in a calendar year. There have been books written and movies made about this practice, and the competition can be fierce in some circles. This afternoon a friend told me she’s going to do a big birding year in 2020, and I got an idea: I’m going to do a Big Bug Year!

Great spreadwings ovipositing w sig
Great spreadwings ovipositing (inserting eggs into the branch)

I’ll include all arthropods, so that means spiders will be fair game as well as any type of insect (including my favorites — odonata!). This is purely a personal project; I’m not competing with anyone because that’s what sucked the joy out of birding for me. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself.  I’ll probably actively search out places to find new species, but I still want to enjoy each encounter, and hopefully take the time to learn more about each new critter I come across. This Big Bug Year will cover the calendar year 2020, so it has officially begun even though I haven’t found any insects so far.  I started the year off sick and even if I hadn’t been bedridden, it’s still winter in Ohio, after all. I might get a jump start if I head down to Texas in March as I’m hoping to, but otherwise I wouldn’t expect to make much headway up here in Ohio until probably April.

Bold jumper - spider - cute face view w sig
A cute little jumping spider!

I’m excited about this! As I started thinking about it, I checked my observations from iNaturalist and was stunned to discover that I’d photographed and identified 293 species of arthropods in 2019.  (All but two of those were in Ohio.)  And I’ve got around 100 photos that haven’t been positively identified yet, so that number might increase. And I haven’t checked, but I’m sure a large percentage of my observations in 2019 were moths I saw at Mothapalooza, and since there isn’t a Mothapalooza in 2020, I would expect my species count to be lower this year. But again, not competing, so the numbers are just interesting, that’s all.

I think that my interest in studying insects marks an important step forward in my evolution as a naturalist because insects are at a lower trophic level in the food web, and therefore more foundational to the ecosystem. Learning about insects has given me a deeper understanding of how all of life truly is interconnected.  (And, by the way, a few years ago I’d never heard the term “trophic level,” so that’s progress too.) Put simply, trophic levels are a way of looking at the food web by describing who eats whom in the process of passing the sun’s energy through various life forms.

Trophic pyramid from Ck12 dot org - creative commons license
(c) CK-12 Foundation; Licensed under Creative Commons

As you can see in this graphic, the first trophic level is composed of plants and algae. The next level contains insects and other herbivores, i.e., those who eat the plants in the first level. And so it goes up the pyramid. The higher levels consume those in the lower levels. When you see it illustrated like this, it becomes very clear that everyone needs to eat plants, whether directly or indirectly.

When I first started learning about native plants through my membership in Wild Ones, I found that one of the keys to their importance is that they are hosts to many more species of insects than non-native plants are. A “host plant” is one that a specific insect species can use to raise its young. Insects have complex chemical relationships with plants, and there are some plants that just cannot serve as food for certain insects or groups of insects.

Fifth instar monarch caterpillar on my hand w sig
Last instar of monarch caterpillar, after eating lots of milkweed
Bringing Nature Home cover image Tallamy
Doug Tallamy’s book explains all the basics of insect-plant relationships

The most widely-known example of this is the monarch butterfly. The monarch absolutely must lay its eggs on milkweed plants, because when the tiny caterpillars emerge from the eggs, they can only eat milkweed. That’s it. If there’s no milkweed, then the monarch butterfly will quickly go extinct. Some people suggest that the caterpillars would evolve to be able to eat something else, but research has shown that type of evolution to take a very long time. There’s simply not enough time for a species to evolve in that way before it dies out. And so it is with many insects, including the pollinators that are crucial to the human food supply.  Therefore we need to increase the proportion of native plants throughout the world in order to increase the chances that we can save a diverse enough range of insect species that our own survival won’t eventually be threatened.

Starting to get the idea now? I’ve been amazed to discover some of this stuff, and rather incredulous that it wasn’t taught to me in school. This basic understanding of how ecosystems work should be presented to all of us in high school, if not sooner.

So, let’s get back on track. (Bear with me…I’m trying to wrap this up!) Why do we care how many species of insects can live off of any particular plant? Don’t we hate all insects and kill every one we find? Well, it’s true, many people do live that way, unfortunately. But I’m hoping to get people to see insects differently, and learn to tolerate them rather than killing them indiscriminately. (Before all the vegetable gardeners write me angry emails, I’m not suggesting you allow the insects to devour all of your crops. But maybe, just maybe, you can allow them to have some of them?)

Song Sparrow with food - blog
Song Sparrow with a beak full of protein for nestlings

Kim's Big Bug Year logo 2020.jpgI’ll end with one more mind-blowing fact that you may not have heard: Birds have to feed their babies with insect protein. Lots of it. You may feel good about helping birds when you hang seed feeders in your yard. But that only feeds birds after they’re fledged from the nest. Even as adults, birds still get the majority of their nutrition from insects rather than seeds, but baby birds need insects.  And ONE brood of baby birds can eat 6,000-9,000 caterpillars before they leave the nest. Here’s an article from the National Audubon Society that explains more about the research on that.

So if you’re a bird-lover, it makes sense that you will want to start growing native plants to support the entire life cycle of the birds that could potentially nest in your yard if they know there’s going to be a good enough supply of caterpillars there. It’s sure worth trying, isn’t it?

I hope you’ll check back in here occasionally to read about progress with my Big Bug Year. I’ll bet we all learn something from it.

(In the meantime, if you want to learn more about using native plants in your yard, hop over to the “Learn” page on my chapter’s Wild Ones website.)

Relax, You Don’t Have to Rake Those Leaves!

leaves and rake

Imagine a world in which fall is a time for enjoying the beauty of the season before the onset of winter, without the burden of hours of raking, leaf blowing, and garden cleanup. Just think about it: If you don’t have to face the drudgery (and futility) of trying to make the outdoors as “neat” as the indoors, what else could you be doing on a gorgeous fall Saturday? How about walking in the woods? Or going on a country drive to admire the fall foliage? Or picking apples with your family? Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Gnome in the woods - fall leaves - blog

Allow me to suggest that this utopian world is already here, if we can just change our way of looking at things. And I know some of you are already saying, “But the neighbors will disapprove!” And I get it, I really do. It’s tough to resist a lifetime of cultural conditioning. But please keep reading.

Back in the day, it was considered important to “clean up” your garden each fall, but now we know better. I’m not suggesting that we don’t do any garden cleanup, just that we reduce what we do.  There’s a growing movement to begin looking at gardens as part of the ecosystem rather than just something pretty for humans to look at. Our species has a tendency to try to bend the natural world to our will, rather than considering ourselves part of it and trying to work with nature rather than against it. This encouraging new perspective impacts our choice of plants as well as how we care for the overall ecosystem in our yards.

Now we understand that if we remove all the fallen leaves from the ground, we’re killing innumerable caterpillars who overwinter in those leaves. By destroying caterpillars, we’re killing many of the butterflies and moths who would have graced the garden next summer. Some butterflies migrate south, that’s true. But so many of them overwinter in our yards, whether as adults or in pupal or larval forms tucked into crevices or leaves.

Hollow stems of boneset left for winter
Hollow stem of boneset, ready for overwintering insects

The way we tend our gardens in the fall has a huge impact on the amount and diversity of wildlife it can support there in the next spring and summer. Many of our native bees spend the winter tucked into hollow plant stems, like those of our native monarda (aka bee balm). That’s why it’s important to leave some of those stems standing over the winter. In my garden, for instance, I’ve cut my 5-foot tall monarda down to 3-foot stems, so any insect that wants to use those hollow stems will have easy access.

Hollow stems of monarda left for winter (2)
Monarda stems cut at about 3-feet tall, so insects can overwinter in them

And let’s talk about birds….

Sure, seed feeders help get birds through the scarcity of winter. But did you know that seeds only comprise a small percentage of a bird’s diet? They get most of their nutrition from spiders and caterpillars or other insects, many of which spend the winter tucked into fallen leaves or hollow plant stems. Well, they do unless you cut all those stems down and blow all the leaves away.

Brown creeper w sigCan you start to see how restraining your fall cleanup impulses can result in having more birds in your yard? I sure hope so, because that’s the whole reason I’m writing this.

What I’ve been doing the past couple of years since I learned about this is to gently rake most of my leaves into the garden beds around the yard. Not only does this preserve the insects who are tucked into them, but it helps my plants survive the winter and it enriches the soil as the leaves break down. Now I admit, some of the leaves get mulched up by my lawn mower as I do that final mowing of the year in late October, but other than that, I restrain myself from removing all the leaves that drop after that.

Many birds come to the yard in winter to flip leaves over to find food, or to harvest the seeds from the native plants I’ve left standing for them. Goldfinches are pros at this and I’ll often see a dozen or more of them bouncing around on brown stems in the garden.

And if you like to take photos, that’s one more great reason not to cut down your flower stems in the fall. You can get some lovely images of frost and snow on spent flower heads.

Frost on flower head - reduced size - blog

Try it this year and see if you can’t get used to it. It’s just a matter of thinking about what we want our priorities to be, isn’t it? And if anyone comments on your yard, why not take that golden opportunity to tell them why you chose not to rake those leaves? You never know who you might influence with your actions. (#EachOneTeachOne)  Feel free to copy the image below and use it on social media with a link to this post. And thanks for reading!

Fairy - leave the leaves @NIMT

Fall Nectar Bonanza

I just came across a website that claims a native plant garden will starve pollinators of nectar because none of the natives bloom into fall. To that I say, “Poppycock!” We’re well into October now, and every day I watch incredible numbers of pollinators on the native goldenrods and asters blooming everywhere around me. I stand in my garden amidst a buzzing cloud of bumblebees feeding on the New England asters. I go to a park and see the goldenrods vibrating with butterflies and bees.  I took a very short walk today and photographed a dozen species of butterflies, many of whom were feeding on asters. I present the beautiful proof here for your enjoyment. #PlantNativesForCryingOutLoud

Common buckeye on asters w sig
Common Buckeye, feeding on asters
wild indigo duskywing on asters w sig
Wild Indigo Duskywing, looking a bit tattered, feeding on asters
Bronze copper on asters w sig
Bronze Copper, feeding on asters
Meadow fritillary on asters w sig
Meadow Fritillary, feeding on asters
common checkered skipper on asters w sig
And Common Checkered Skipper, also feeding on asters

 

Lookout, It’s an Ambush!

Garden at Wildwood visitor center - mid-August
A small portion of the lovely gardens at Wildwood Metropark

After my walk in the woods today, I stopped to admire the flower garden at my local metropark. It’s a beautiful garden of both natives and non-natives, and I was checking to see if there were any interesting insects hanging out there.  My passion for native plants has turned me into a total bug geek, and I can’t resist looking beyond the simple beauty of the flowers to find the other hidden lives within their parts.

Since I’d been on a fitness walk, I only had my cell phone with me and so I started trying to take photos with it. But it’s terrible at macro shots. And so when I saw something new, I ran to the car for my real camera so I could document my cool discovery.

Jagged ambush bug on black-eyed susan - dorsal view w sig Kim Clair SmithThis is an ambush bug, a member of the assassin bug family. I believe this one is a jagged ambush bug (genus Phymata). This is the first ambush bug I’ve ever photographed, so I was very excited to discover him hiding in plain sight on top of a Black-eyed Susan flowerhead. As the name implies, they hunt by sitting in wait for a hapless victim to wander within reach of their lethal grasp.

After photographing his dorsal side, I slowly moved around to get a lateral view. Often when I’m shooting tiny subjects like this, I can’t fully see the details until I zoom in on the LCD screen on the back of the camera. And as I did that, I had to restrain myself from giggling out loud when I saw this adorable face:

Jagged ambush bug on black-eyed susan - side view Kim Clair Smith

I know, it might be adorable to me, but I wouldn’t want to be a small beetle trundling around those petals, I’ll tell you that. I mean, just look at those forelegs — they give you an indication of the reach he’s capable of.  And little did I know then, but I was about to see one of these guys in action. Well, sort of.

I moved along, photographing other insects, and then came upon another great piece to the story of the jagged ambush bug. I found this second one with a recently-acquired victim! All I can tell is that it’s some kind of bee. As I took my photos, the bee seemed to still be moving slightly, so that’s why I figured I’d just missed the grab.

Jagged Ambush bug with bee prey sig Kim Clair Smith

If you look closely at that last picture, you can see the bug’s proboscis stabbed into the bee’s abdomen. After he grabs his prey with those powerful legs, he injects poison that liquefies its insides. The insides are then sucked out through a rostrum, a straw-like structure inside the proboscis. Is that not cool or what?!

Aren’t we lucky these things are so small? With its powerful pincer legs, an ambush bug can easily take an insect up to ten times its size. Imagine a dog-sized ambush bug lurking in the shrubbery as you take your evening stroll…yikes!

Okay, that was a little bit unnerving, wasn’t it? Here’s a nice calming photo of the trail in the woods…take a deep breath…and forget all about ambush bugs. For now, at least.  😉

Red trail at Wildwood - lush and green in mid-August

 

 

 

 

Native Gardeners: Monkeys in Clothes

I’ve been struggling with my transition to native gardening, on a couple levels. The first and most obvious is trying to manage the more aggressive plants while nurturing those that need more space, light, or water.  I’d been told that Monarda fistulosa (Bee balm / bergamot) is aggressive, but I was stunned when it virtually took over my entire bed in its second year!

My first year native bed July 16 2018 - blog
Year one – July 16, 2018 – Monarda barely visible
Garden year 2 on July 22 2019 v2 - blog
Year two – July 22, 2019 – an explosion of Monarda!

And many of these plants get so tall that they need staking so the ones on the perimeter don’t flop down on the ground. (For reference, that’s a six-foot fence.) And in my first year, I was so enthusiastic that I got too many plants and just put them in the ground without enough consideration of their mature heights, so I’ve got some shorter plants that are being bullied by taller plants around them.  I knew better, but enthusiasm won out over reason. I’m working on that, I’m learning as I go, and I’m sure I’ll figure the logistics out eventually.

But on another more troubling front, I’ve been feeling conflicted about what this transition means in terms of the opinions of my neighbors.

Overgrown weeds by Keturah Stickann on Flickr - blog
This is NOT the look we’re going for!      (Photo courtesy of Keturah Stickann)

It’s no secret that native plants aren’t as “neat” as the cultivars sold in most garden stores. As I mentioned above, some of them get tall…really tall. Most of them don’t have obvious clumping forms that indicate where one plant begins and another ends. In other words, they can look messy. Or, dare I say it, weedy.

I’m certainly not the first person to struggle with this dilemma, and if I lived in a neighborhood with an HOA (Homeowners’ Association), I’d likely not be as free to experiment as I am here. Not long ago I lived within the confines of an HOA, and I had to get written permission to replace a rose bush with a purple coneflower beside my mailbox. No kidding.

Sterile lawn in front of traditional house - Photo by Milly Eaton from Pexels
This lawn doesn’t support any life…it’s sterile and depressing. (Photo by Milly Eaton via Pexels)

Native plant gardeners have discovered that we have to be careful to design our gardens so that it’s obvious that we have a plan. We have to include clearly marked pathways, bed outlines, and sometimes even educational signage, so that our gardens won’t be mistaken for neglected weeds.

By deciding to transition to native gardening, I knew that I would be going against what’s accepted as normal gardening in our culture. We’re supposed to have pristine green lawns and neat beds of flowers lining sidewalks and foundations.  But once I learned how unhealthy that type of environment is — for us as well as for the earth that sustains us — I just had to make some changes.

Shrubby st. john's wort Kim Clair Smith
Shrubby St. John’s Wort in my garden

These days, when I drive through neighborhoods of cookie-cutter-non-life-supporting-barren lawns, I feel sad and depressed. It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten so far detached from the natural world that we try to kill any signs of it that dare to encroach on what we’ve claimed as “ours.”  As a culture, we have forgotten that humans are part of the natural world. We need to rethink our connections to the rest of the life forms on this planet, or be prepared to suffer the consequences when we break critical links in the web of life because we don’t understand or care about them.

As an example, we have red foxes living in our urban Toledo neighborhood, and I occasionally delight to see one of them trotting down my front sidewalk early in the morning. Recently my neighbor told me of a minor disagreement between two other neighbors.  Apparently one person said they should be feeding the foxes, and the other one said they should trap them. My reaction to all this: Why in the world would you do either of those things?! Why not let them be, and just be glad that they’re here to help control rodents in our neighborhood? Jeez, people make me crazy sometimes.

Fork-tailed bush katydid on purple coneflower Kim Clair Smith
Fork-tailed bush katydid, a good food source for birds in my garden

Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve been a nonconformist. Periodically when I’m eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, some people are uncomfortable with and judgmental about my choice.  I think that’s because they think that my decision not to eat meat is an implicit criticism of their choice to continue to eat meat. They’re curious about my choice, and ask questions about it, but then want to argue when I explain it to them. It’s frustrating and exhausting.

Tiger swallowtail on butterfly milkweed Kim Clair Smith
Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly milkweed in my garden

Humans are social animals, and we evolved to understand that we needed the approval of the other humans in order to survive. We no longer need that approval for sheer physical survival, but it’s still painful to be misunderstood by others. Being a nonconformist is a difficult choice, but it’s usually driven by a belief that we are doing something that is less detrimental than the accepted traditions of our society. But even with a strong conviction that we’re making the right choice, it can be difficult to endure the harsh judgments of others who don’t understand our motivations.

Eastern calligrapher fly Kim Clair Smith
Eastern calligrapher fly in my garden —  great little pollinators!

So, those of us trying to grow native plants often face criticism from neighbors who may not understand there’s a higher purpose to what we’re doing. They may assume we’re lazy, or that our gardens will attract insects that they deem pests. I’ve learned that a garden buzzing with a variety of bees and flies is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, but most people still try to swat the bees or run away in fear or disgust.  Or they may think that we’re trying to be rebels just for the sake of being different. And people don’t like those who violate the norms of society.

I’m lucky that my backyard is mostly shielded from view by a privacy fence, so I feel free to do what I want back there. But my choice to forgo chemical lawn care means that my lawn isn’t anywhere near what would be considered proper by most people. I’ve got tons of crabgrass and other weeds in the lawn and it’s a little bit embarrassing when someone wants to see the garden. I mean, I’m SO proud of my native garden, but I understand that other people won’t see it the way I see it.  Where I see pollinator habitat, they see messiness and insects — Oh, the horror! But am I willing to put toxic chemicals on the lawn just so people will approve of me? Nope.

I recently read an article about nonconformity that claimed that people will perceive you differently based on whether they think you’re breaking the norms on purpose or out of ignorance. If they think you’re doing it with full understanding that you’re breaking the norms, they’ll be more accepting, and may even respect you for it. But if they think you just don’t know any better, well, you’re destined to be scorned.

I’ll end this little rant with my favorite advice about being a nonconformist, which comes from author Evan Tarver:

REALIZE THAT YOU’RE A MONKEY IN CLOTHES

This might make you feel uncomfortable, but this makes me extremely comfortable. The best way to beat social pressure is to realize that deep down, all you are is a monkey in clothes. You’re a primate, an animal, and all your fears about not fitting in with society are silly when you think about it in these terms. In fact, for me, it creates a bit of absurdity that allows me to laugh in almost any situation, making it easier to do what I want even if other people won’t get it.

So what if you don’t follow society’s defined path? Who cares if you ignore the social pressure you feel and march to the beat of your own drum. Ultimately, all you are is an advanced primate who finds him or herself playing house every day. So, where is the real risk when deciding whether to go against the grain or not? The worst that can happen is that a bunch of other monkeys in clothes get mad at you for not fitting into a box they understand. Silly monkeys.