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

City Girl Goes Wild

You may recall that I recently wrote about my desire to plant native wildflowers in the  yard at my new home. I also mentioned that I had joined my local chapter of Wild Ones, a national organization devoted to preserving biodiversity with native plants.

My native flower garden is barely started, but I’m already taking full advantage of my Wild Ones membership to learn as much as I can while I continue my garden plans through the winter.

My first native plants for my garden (1024x768)
Starter plants from Wild Ones members

I’ve been blown away by the generosity of my fellow Wild Ones members: Not only do they freely share their knowledge about native plants, but they’re more than happy to give me seeds and plants from their gardens.  I came home from my first meeting with starter plants of common boneset, cardinal flower, New England aster, blue lobelia, and swamp milkweed. All of these have been transplanted into my new garden, along with some bulbs of Turk’s cap lily given to me by my friend Judy.

My chapter regularly participates in conservation stewardship events around the Toledo area, either to remove invasives or to plant natives. I haven’t yet been able to help with any of those, but a few days ago I was able to volunteer at one of our seed cleaning events. Members collect dried flower heads from their gardens, and then we extract the seeds from them and offer them to the public at the annual Toledo GROWS Seed Swap in February.

Ironweed seed heads - Wild Ones event - for blog
Ironweed seeds being processed

The species I worked with first was Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea), which just happens to be one of my favorites. The yard at my new home is mostly full of non-native plants, but there’s a huge, beautiful native ironweed plant in my front yard. I enjoyed watching all sorts of insects feeding on it all summer long, and I’m eager to plant more of it along the fence in my back yard.

Here’s what it looks like in bloom. Just imagine these incredible purple flowers towering over your head. The plant in my yard was easily 7 feet tall this year!

Silver-spotted Skipper on Ironweed blog
Silver-spotted skipper feeding on ironweed
Ironweed seeds cleaned at Wild Ones event - for blog
My little work space at the seed cleaning event

Our group of about ten people spent three hours processing seeds on this particular day. After I worked my way through a large bag of ironweed, I moved on to Riddell’s goldenrod (Oligoneuron riddellii).

Riddell's goldenrod v2 - Wild Ones event - for blog
Riddell’s goldenrod seed pile in my processing tray

As you can imagine, this kind of work creates quite a bit of dust in the air. After a couple hours my nose began to tickle, and I joked that I would probably be transporting enough seeds home in my nose that I could just sneeze in my garden and plant ironweed.  I didn’t think too much more about it just then, but later that evening I must have sneezed a hundred times!

I also brought a small quantity of ironweed seeds home with me using the more traditional method of a paper bag.  I can’t wait to see if I can actually grow these beautiful plants from seed. I’m told it’s as easy as sprinkling the seed on top of the snow right now, in December.  Sounds too easy, doesn’t it? But I’m also told there’s a lot of trial and error involved in this stuff, so I’ll need to be patient and persistent. That will be the hardest part for me, I’m sure.

A couple months ago I went on a tour of the Native Seed Nursery of the Toledo Metroparks. This facility grows native plants to use in restoration projects in the various metroparks in the globally-rare habitats of the Oak Openings region. The tour was arranged for our Wild Ones members, and was led by Penny Niday, who is the nursery coordinator and who also happens to be on the board of our Wild Ones chapter.  During our 2-hour behind-the-scenes tour of the facility, we learned about the incredible work done by the small staff and their many volunteers.

I worked a couple volunteer shifts in their greenhouse last summer, but I had no idea of the broad scope of what they do there. We saw lots of seeds in various stages of processing:

Native Seed Nursery - Little Bluestem drying - for blog
Little Bluestem seeds drying on a giant tarp
Native Seed Nursery - seeds drying on floor - for blog
More seeds drying in the loft of the big barn

And we saw some of the farm equipment they use. I was impressed with Penny’s descriptions of how they had modified some of the equipment to do exactly what they needed it to do. And I also thought it was very cool that much of this work is done by a team of mostly women. While we were there I saw women driving tractors and combines as easily as if they were Honda Civics.  And I have to admit to a bit of envy and a desire to see what it’s like to climb up in the cab of one of those monsters and rev the engine. 🙂

This particular piece of equipment is called a carousel planter. Notice the four seats across the back, each with its own little rotating tray with holes for plants.

Native Seed Nursery - carousel planter - for blog

Believe it or not, this entire rig gets pulled behind a big tractor, and each person has to continually replace the plants in their little rotating tray, as the plants drop down into the field beneath them. They have a whole team of people who follow along behind them to resupply them with plants periodically. I forget the exact number, but I think she said the whole operation requires about a dozen people doing various tasks as this thing moves through the field. I found this video of a similar (but smaller) machine so you can see it in action. Very impressive stuff!

This whiteboard shows some of their stats on the day we visited:

Blue Creek Seed Nursery whiteboard with stats (1280x794)

Native Seed Nursery - view from loft down into main floor - for blog

That’s a view of the main part of the barn, looking down from the loft area.  I’ve now got a new appreciation for all the work involved in this operation, from planning which species are needed for specific locations to making sure they have them processed in the right quantities and at the appropriate times.

And this city girl sure got a thrill from being around all that farm equipment that day! Who knows, maybe one day they’ll let me take a turn at the wheel of one of those monster machines. But until then, I guess I’ll content myself with my own small-scale native plant operation in the city.

If suburbia were landscaped with meadows, prairies, thickets, or forests, or combinations of these, then the water would sparkle, fish would be good to eat again, birds would sing and human spirits would soar.

~~ Lorrie Otto, the environmentalist who was the inspiration for the founding of Wild Ones

(In case you missed it above, here’s a nice article about the Native Seed Nursery, including photos of the awesome women who run it, and a video of some of their equipment in action.)