This time last year we had already had our first frost – not unusual around here – but this year, summer started late and it’s just now starting to cool down. Today’s high is 11 but the next two weeks, if you believe the forecast, will be in the high teens and low twenties. With overnight temperatures nowhere near frost warning levels.
Even so, and swarms of Monarch butterflies notwithstanding, autumn is upon us. Trees know it – leaves are starting to turn yellow, red or plain brown and fall. Native perennials know it too. Foliage is holey and ragged looking and flowers are going to seed, creating some lovely images as they wait for a bird to gobble them up or a strong wind to shake them free and send them flying. Here’s a few of my favourites, ready now for collecting (or not!).
Last Day of Summer…
Here in the County September has been even more lovely than usual. The vacationers have mostly gone home, beaches are clean and quiet, it’s been sunny every day and the temperatures have been in the mid to high twenties – warmer than most weeks this past summer!
Perfect for people – a bit too dry for the garden though. Every morning, it seems, a long ‘branch’ from one of the tall sunflowers breaks off – too weak, without water, to carry the growing weight of expanding seeds. The Hostas and Hemerocallis (Daylilies) are starting to wither away; leaves from several tree species are turning brown and falling. Everything is looking really, really, droopy. And although temperatures are due to fall back to normal soon, there’s no appreciable rain in the 14 day forecast. Just when trees and shrubs need it to shore up strength in anticipation of winter dormancy.
Although I’ve been enjoying these languid days, swimming in Lake Ontario after an hour or two of relaxed yard work, small creature activity in the garden has become somewhat frenetic as bees and butterflies try to capture as much nectar and pollen as they can before it’s too late. I’ve been fascinated, in particular, by the Swallowtail butterflies this year. Far more numerous than I can ever recall, their wings are divided so that, unlike a monarch that will land and sit still while feasting, the front half of a Swallowtail wing flutters continuously while the bottom half seem to remain motionless. This habit makes them appear to be forever on the move, anxious to move onto the next Zinnia or Echinacea bloom.
Looking forward to some rain (and who thought anyone around here would be saying that, after our record breaking spring and early summer rainfalls!) and wishing you a slow luxurious fall into the colder months.
I recently started following the Royal Horticultural Society on Twitter (@The_RHS); I’m not sure how this feed came to my attention, likely it was Twitter itself, that clever creature, that suggested it. It was a good suggestion. Even though it’s a British organization, and the information they share is abut British gardening and British plants and British garden shows, the RHS does, not infrequently, post tidbits that are relevant over here. Also, their picture are very pretty.
Plants for Bugs is a “a four-year study into wildlife gardening, which was undertaken at RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey…” as in England, just southwest of London. The scientists set out to determine what sort of plant typically found in an English garden does best at attracting insects: native or non-native.
Garden commentators in North America have, for many years now, been battling it out (sometimes quite heatedly) over this question. There are extreme gardeners who ONLY plant natives and those who couldn’t give a whit if a plant is native or not, as long as it looks pretty. Most commentators fall in the middle – wanting to use natives when possible but not closing the door to aliens (aka non-native plants).
The arguments for using natives run along the lines of they are more drought tolerant (true, but only if it’s a drought tolerant plant to begin with: you wouldn’t stick a native Marsh Marigold – Caltha palustris – in gravelly soil on a south slope); they’re better suited to our climate (until you factor in climate change and how Prince Edward County’s Plant Hardiness Zone has gone from zone 5b to zone 6a in the past 20 years); and they provide better food – nectar, pollen and roughage – than non-natives.
It’s this last assumption that the folks in England wanted to measure. In 2009, they created 36 planting beds, each nine square metres, and planted some with a mix of plants native only to the UK; other plots had plants that only grow elsewhere in the northern hemisphere while the rest had plants that grow in the southern hemisphere. Then they waited, and counted the invertebrate life that showed up.
“By the end of December 2013 (four full years of recording) approximately 80,000 invertebrates had been counted and more than 300 species identified.”
The peer reviewed papers that have so far resulted from the study have led the RHS to come up with key messages for the home gardener. To quote from the RHS site:
From the first paper, that studied pollinating insects:
- The best strategy for gardeners wanting to support pollinating insects in gardens is to plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions.
- Emphasis should be given to plants native to the UK and the northern hemisphere, though exotic plants from the southern hemisphere can be used to extend the season
- Regardless of plant origin (native or non-native), the more flowers a garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.
From the second paper, that studied insects that chomp on plants, suck the juices from plants or eat other bugs that suck or chew:
- The best strategy for gardeners wanting to support plant-associated invertebrates is to plant a predominance of plants native to the UK.
- Plants native to the Northern hemisphere are likely to support only marginally fewer (less than 10%) invertebrates in some functional groups (including herbivores and some predators) than UK native plant schemes. And exotic plant schemes based on Southern hemisphere plants will still support a good number of invertebrates, albeit around 20% fewer than plants from the UK.
- Regardless of plant origin, the more densely your garden is planted or allowed to grow, the greater the abundance of invertebrates of all kinds (herbivores, predators, detritivores and omnivores) it will support.
I’m guessing these messages will appeal to many North American gardeners as well.
For me, the takeaway is to plant densely using a diverse mixture of annuals, perennials, shrubs and bulbs to create as long a flowering season as possible.
I’m seriously serious about composting. Almost the first thing we did after buying our Prince Edward County property was build this huge compost bin. I think I had seen something like it on a BBC gardening show. I think we had fantasies of being able to drive the shovel of a small garden tractor into the bins to turn the stuff over. No more using shovels or pitchforks for me.
The system works, in its own way, like a charm, (my) manual labour involved notwithstanding. There’s no water where it’s situated at the back of the field so it generally takes longer for plant material to break down than it did in my small city black plastic with a lid composter. But that’s OK because I have three bins to work with.
The first year I pile new stuff in one bin, filling it to the top by the end of the season. The next year I start fresh with the next bin and let the first just sit there, using a heavy fork to turn stuff over every now and then, to get air to the bottom of the pile.
I start the third year by screening the first year’s material – dumping finished compost in the third bin, and putting the unfinished stuff in the second bin to continue breaking down. This leaves me with the first bin empty and ready to use.
Sounds complicated but it’s not. Until this year. Mid May something sprouted in the middle bin. Now, a lot of things sprout in the compost bins — tomato seedlings, Rudbeckia, various weeds, garlic, Virginia Creeper…but this one plant seemed to have strength and purpose. It became large very quickly and was obviously some sort of squash so I left it alone. I like squash. And I loved the huge leaves this vine produced – so much larger than the leaves of anything I had ever purposefully planted! And by mid July it was obvious – it was a pumpkin vine. I had grown pie pumpkins last year and one seed survived the winter.
So now I have a withering vine (it is August after all, and it’s been rather dry the past few weeks) and six good sized pie pumpkins growing. And I notice, on Saturday, a large burrow going into the middle compost head, directly under where the pumpkin sprouted. It looked like it could have been made by a skunk or a fox, hopefully not by a rat!
On Sunday I went out back to dump kitchen scraps and the whole centre of the compost pile had been torn out. There, in a hole in the middle, was this. I very quickly left the immediate vicinity. And spent the day puzzling about what creature in our back field was brave enough or big enough to attack such a huge nest.
I have to confess I don’t have just one favourite plant – I have dozens. And the list changes every year depending on things as mundane as the weather (too dry to produce many flowers, or, so dry the whole plant just dies) or as esoteric as did I grow it from seed (or it was given by a friend or relative).
In mid July there are quite a few favourites – one of them is Echinacea purpurea – Purple Coneflower. It has lively purple or white (the alba variety) large daisy-like flowers, self seeds readily and transplants easily. Best of all, bees and other bugs love its pollen and nectar. If it’s happy in its location it can get quite tall so needs to be either near the back of a border or in the midst of other tallish things.
My newest heartthrob though is Echinacea pallida – Pale Purple Coneflower. I started these indoors from seed two winters ago; last year I planted them out – kinda spindly looking things with short narrow leaves.
No sign of a flower at all. They survived the drought though, with minimal watering, so that made me happy.
This year they exploded – almost literally – sending up first much larger leaves and then enormous stalks topped with a beautiful and delicate flower. Much like the Purple Coneflower, except it differs by having narrower petals that droop down instead of pointing out like a daisy.
Also, the flower stalk itself is many inches long, making it perfect for cutting.
Ti top it off, as the Missouri Botanical Garden plant page says, this native plant can: “tolerate Deer, Drought, Clay Soil, Dry Soil, Shallow-Rocky Soil.”
In other words, this perennial is perfect for my garden and also for many other gardens in the County!
Let me know if you’re interested in growing these yourself – I’ll try to harvest and save you some seeds.
Let me confess first that I should have known better. In fact, I DID know better, yet I did it anyway. I planted something in a spot I knew was just not suitable, a spot that was already getting a tad overcrowded, didn’t have quite the right requirements, a spot that meant something, sooner rather than later, would need to be moved.
The victims are two pots of Silphium perfoliatum (Cup Plant) I started from seed the winter of 2016. I was excited to see the seeds offered at Trenton’s Seedy Saturday that year – I remembered studying this plant at school and seeing pictures of HUGE clumps growing in a moist meadow near Ottawa. Called a Cup Plant because the leaves grow together at the stem to create a cup that catches water, it’s in the Aster family, and the same genus as the Silphium laciniatum (Compass Plant) – another favourite.
Many bee and butterfly species are attracted to the small sunflower-like yellow flowers and small birds gobble up its seeds in later summer into the fall.
But did ya see the word ‘HUGE’ in the previous paragraph? And the words ‘moist meadow’? Four to 10 feet tall!! Clumps six feet across!! What was I thinking???
After starting them indoors in four inch peat pots then transferring them to one gallon plastic pots, I planted them in the Island Bed – about two feet from a prized Paeonia tenuifolia (Fernleaf Peony – given to me by a friend many years ago as a root division with a single eye) and three feet from a joyful Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple – which is itself slated to eventually be VERY tall and wide!). I knew they had to be at the back of something and I didn’t want them to be all by themselves in the middle of the yard, not even the front field where it gets very wet (ie floods) in the spring – something the plant actually appreciates.
In semi-desperation I planted them where I was able, thinking I’d have a few years before they (or their neighbours) would need to be moved. Alas, this year, their first full year in the ground, the clumps are already about seven feet high — that’s with flowers yet to spring forth from the top!
Lesson Learned (yet again…): think of the mature size of a plant before planting!