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.

 

Tuesday Teaser

I realize I haven’t done an update on my native garden for quite a while, so I’m working on that right now. In the meantime, enjoy a close look at one of my monarda fistulosa blooms. It’s gorgeous even after most of the petals have dropped to the ground.

Pincushion look on spent monarda flower w sig

Two-Fer!

Dragon- and damselflies don’t often perch on photogenic flower heads, so when I found this one yesterday I was pleased. Of course it’s not a flower, but close enough.  This is a female emerald spreadwing damselfly (Lestes dryas), clutching the seed capsule on a stem of seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia). I’m calling it a two-fer because it’s an ode on a native plant, two awesome things for the price of one!

Another emerald spreadwing female - on seedbox native plant w sig

I discovered seedbox last fall while helping to collect seeds for my Wild Ones chapter, and instantly fell in love with its square seed capsules. They’re filled with tiny little seeds that rattle when shaken. Each seed capsule has a hole in the top, presumably so the seeds can fall out when the plant is blown by the wind or otherwise jostled. This plant has lovely yellow blooms in the summer, but they aren’t nearly as interesting as these little brown boxes, if you ask me. 🙂

Seedbox square seed capsules - native plant - w sig

 

Holy Lupines, Batman! (aka Blue Week)

Today marks the end of the annual celebration known as Blue Week here in the Oak Openings region of northwest Ohio.  Blue Week is an event of the Green Ribbon Initiative, a consortium of local organizations working to protect the biological diversity of our area.  I serve on the boards of two nonprofits who are members of the Green Ribbon Initiative (Toledo Naturalists’ Association and Wild Ones Oak Openings Chapter). I wrote more about Blue Week two years ago in this post, if you’d like to read about the significance of the Oak Openings ecosystem.

When I started my native garden project, I was eager to have wild lupines growing in my yard. These native flowers (Lupinus perennis) are the iconic symbols of Blue Week, and the reason for the timing of the celebration each year. I was given six tiny lupine plants in the fall of 2017 after I’d volunteered at our Metroparks Toledo native seed nursery. I planted them in the sandy soil of my garden and watched all but one of them die over the first year. The surviving plant didn’t bloom last year, but just look at what it’s doing now!

Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (2)

I’m overjoyed to see this plant thriving in my yard, and am encouraged to try to add more of them. Luckily for me, a local nursery is selling them now, and I was able to get a few more. I put them in the ground several days ago, right beside the existing lupine. Unfortunately, a small rabbit has made a home in my garden and he ate all four of the new lupines a couple days ago. But there are still a few tiny leaves on those new plants, so I’ve fenced them off and will see if they can make it.

That naughty bunny also found my sky blue aster to be tasty, chewing several inches off the top of the young shoots about a week ago. I think the aster will be okay too, but that bunny is lucky he’s cute enough to make me tolerate his ravaging of my plants.

This afternoon I spent some time in my backyard trying to photograph this interesting plant to help you see how beautiful it is. So I’m going to stop with the writing and just show you the pictures. Enjoy!

Wild lupine in my yard on 5-19-19

Wild lupine in my yard
Note my 2nd year native garden along the fence in the back of this photo — looking great!
Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (1)
I find both the flowers and the foliage beautiful on this plant
Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (4)
The flower stalks bloom from the bottom to the top
Lupine blooming in my yard - blog (3)
Looking down from above one of the flower spikes — isn’t that gorgeous?!
Lupine with rain droplets w sig
The leaves are magical after a rain!

And finally, this is what it looks like when you find a larger number of lupines together. This was taken at one of our local metroparks.

Blue lupines (2) (1280x853)

A Visual Ode to the Holiday

Insect Valentine's Day - heart - damselflies in tandem

These are Familiar Bluets in their heart-shaped mating wheel. These damselflies belong to the insect order called Odonata, and we often shorten that to “odes” when talking about them among other ode lovers.

And below is a photo of one of my favorite woodland wildflowers, Dicentra canadensis. As you might imagine, it’s related to the pink bleeding hearts that are common in gardens, but the pink ones are not native to North America. This plant has little yellow bulblets that look like kernels of corn, thus the common name of Squirrel Corn. I hope to get a photo of those sometime this spring.

Bleeding hearts - Dicentra canadensis - Squirrel Corn - Goll Woods w sig

Insects and wildflowers are much more interesting to me than cultivated flowers and candy so I just wanted to present the Nature Is My Therapy version of Valentine’s Day. And by the way, is it spring yet?!

Special Garden Visitors

At the risk of getting ahead of myself before I catch you up to real time in the new native garden series, I want to share some observations from my garden today. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the primary reasons I’m creating a garden full of native plants is to provide food for our native insects at all stages of their lives, from larva to adult. As I get started with the garden, I’ve been eagerly documenting every insect I can find on my plants. These are just five of the species I found today as I did yard work.

This first one was near the garden but not feeding, at least while I was watching. This is a tiger bee fly (Xenox tigrinus), and I just found out that it’s a predator of carpenter bees, which probably explains why it’s in my yard — I have plenty of those. This very large fly lays its eggs at the entrance to a carpenter bee tunnel, and when the fly larvae hatch, they find and eat the bee larvae.

Tiger Bee Fly - blog
Tiger bee fly (Xenox tigrinus)

I always enjoy learning about the relationships between various insects and plants, so this is a fascinating discovery.

These next four species were all feeding on common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), one of my favorite native plants. Whenever I see this plant in other places, it’s covered with insects, so I had high hopes for seeing a good variety of bugs when I planted this.

In this picture the boneset is the tall one with white flowers at the back of the bed.

boneset in my garden

Not only is it pretty, it has a subtle sweet fragrance I adore. So here are four species I found on the boneset today.

First is the stinkbug hunter (Bicyrtes quadrifasciatus) — isn’t that a great name?

Stinkbug Hunter
Stinkbug hunter, a solitary wasp

I’ve read that this wasp preys on the non-native brown marmorated stinkbug, making it a most welcome insect in my yard!

Next up is another wasp, the grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia mexicana). Interestingly enough, this species sometimes uses abandoned carpenter bee nests for its own young. One more inter-species relationship discovered today.

Grass-carrying Wasp - Isodontia mexicana
Grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia mexicana)

Next up is yet another wasp, the beewolf (Philanthus gibbosus), a species I hadn’t noticed before today.

Beewolf - Philanthus gibbosus
Beewolf wasp (Philanthus gibbosus)

And finally, one of my favorite diurnal moths, the lovely little ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea). They’re very common but I always get a thrill when I find them.

Ailanthus webworm moth - blog
Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea)

I had trouble getting a sharp photo today because it was breezy and this guy was moving pretty quickly as he crawled around the flowers to feed. But just look at the pretty patterns of orange, black, and yellow. Most of us are well aware of the beauty of butterflies, but fewer people notice that there are lots of gorgeous moths as well. That’s probably because most moths fly at night, but there are quite a lot of them that are daytime feeders (diurnal) too.

So there you have it — my nascent native garden is already proving its value to the ecosystem!

Going Native in Toledo — Series Intro

Backyard preview through redbud blooms - blog teaser
Peeking into the backyard through the redbud blooms

In the spring of 2017 I moved to Toledo, Ohio. I bought a house with a lovely yard where I would finally be able to experiment with native plant gardening. I’m beginning a series of posts to document what I’m doing — the plans, the failures, the successes — and to provide information about why native plants are important. This is a learn-as-I-go project, so it might be messy (and maybe even embarrassing) but I figure that will still be entertaining for you. 🙂

This series will be intermingled with my usual posts about dragonflies and birds, but you can always find the posts in this series by choosing “Native Plants” from the Category drop-down on the right side of the blog.

Here are a few earlier posts that serve as background to the upcoming series:

Ohio Has the Blues – May 22, 2017 – in which I tell you a bit about the Oak Openings region of Ohio and the rare plants and animals found here.

Going Native in Toledo – September 6, 2017 — in which I define “native plants” and dream about my garden plans.

City Girl Goes Wild – December 12, 2017 — in which I join Wild Ones, an organization devoted to preserving biodiversity with native plants. And I actually begin collecting the first plants for my garden project!

I’ll need to do a couple more posts to catch you up on what I’ve done so far this summer, and then I hope to keep up in real time.  I hope you’ll want to read the series — to commiserate with me about my mistakes and celebrate the successes. In the meantime, here’s a little teaser pic for now.

Garden teaser for blog July 2018