August 31, 2013

Garden lessons learned: summer 2013

Swamp Milkweed buds

It's time for the quarterly "Lessons Learned" meme and, frankly, I'm in denial. I don't want summer to end. As usual, I feel a little blue as the season winds down. Our summers here in the north are so pleasant, and they don't last long enough.

Summer hasn't technically ended yet, and I'm planning to make the most of the perfect weather in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, here are a few lessons I've learned this growing season:

A regular guest

1. A lot more goes on in my garden during the day than I realized. This is the first summer I've worked full-time from my home office, which gave me a near-constant view of the backyard. I always knew diverse wildlife visited here, but I didn't realize it was such a major stopover. The regulars are too numerous to list here, but two new ones I hadn't seen in my backyard before are cooper's hawks and wild turkeys. I haven't captured a decent photo of a hawk yet, but after several attempts, I had a bit of success with the turkeys.

Turkeys running away from me into the neighbors' yard

2. Wild turkeys eat, among other things, wood ticks and acorns. No wonder they like my backyard. It's an Oak opening leading to a forest, so it's full of ticks and acorns! I guess I'm glad the turkeys like to visit here--they haven't damaged the garden much, and they eat ticks!

Who knew Swamp Milkweed would thrive in this spot?

3. Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) likes my garden! Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa)--not so much. I guess that makes sense because bright sun (which Butterfly Weed prefers) is hard to come by (and perhaps not adequately drained in the spot I picked) in this garden. But I found the perfect spot for A. incarnata. It's a spot where several other plants sadly expired in the past. Dappled shade/sun; moist, deep top soil; bordered by Ferns and surrounded by ground cover plants. I'm so pleased it's happy here.

Screen capture from a video that I hope to upload later

4. Monarch butterflies like Swamp Milkweed! Several sources and people have told me it's one of their favorite Milkweed species. I didn't see many monarchs in my garden, but one in particular spent a good hour nectaring on the Swamp Milkweed.

Why didn't I plant Zinnias this year?

5. I miss Zinnias. No, I really miss Zinnias! This is the first year in more than a decade that I haven't planted them. I was trying to practice crop rotation. And because I have very limited space for sun-loving plants, I ditched the Zinnias this year for more Cosmos. It's great having more Cosmos, but Zinnias will be back in my garden next summer.

Not a rusty patched bumble bee, but a sweet guest pollinator, nonetheless

6. The rusty patched bumble bee is threatened. In January, the Xerces Society filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildllife Service to list it as endangered. I also learned that, fortunately, the rusty patched bumble bee is still quite common at UW-Madison's Arboretum--particularly in the native plant garden. I've been volunteering there this summer (I'll include more details about that experience later). Even during my limited time at the native plant garden, the rusty patched bumble bees were plentiful. They do, indeed, seem to like our native plants!

What gardening and nature lessons have you learned and relearned this season? If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, please share your winter musings.

To join in the Lessons Learned meme, share a new or a previous post you've written regarding things you've learned. No Linkys necessary: Simply share your link in your comment on this post.

Please also join Donna at Gardens Eye View for the Seasonal Celebrations meme. Posts that cover both memes offer a chance to reflect on the past season and look ahead to the next at the same time. Both memes will be active until the equinox, when we'll post the wrap-ups. Cheers!

August 28, 2013

Traveling back in time to celebrate
a wealth of local wildflowers

It's Wildflower Wednesday, hosted by Gail at Clay and Limestone!

I've waited way too long to share highlights from a summer hike at Lake Kegonsa State Park, near my home. Click here for a map of the excellent hiking trails and other activities to enjoy at this Wisconsin state park, which is open year-round.

I can't believe it was more than a month ago that we hiked a couple of loops of trails here! Obviously, these photos are outdated, but no matter what time of year you visit, it's a great playground for discovery.

On the day that we visited, we saw these native plants (among many others) in their natural setting:

Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus)

Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya)

Gray-Headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)

Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens)

Lake Kegonsa is a 3,209 acre fresh-water lake with a maximum depth of 30 feet, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It's a glacial lake--one of the "4-Lakes" of the Madison, Wis., area: Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa. Early settlers referred to Kegonsa as "First Lake," because it was the first of the four that they encountered while traveling north up the Yahara River.

The Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Indians named the lake "Kegonsa," which means "lake of many fishes."

But more information about this lake and the other three will have to wait for another post. Today, for Wildflower Wednesday, I'm celebrating the wealth of native plants that thrive in the park's woods and on the prairies--accessible along the more than five miles of easy hiking trails.


August 24, 2013

A break from the tangle and fray


A while back, I read a passage from John Muir's "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf," and though I was moved by his description of the sea, I didn't really "get it." Muir--the naturalist, botanist, and founder of the Sierra Club--describes reaching the Gulf of Mexico, after traveling largely by foot from Illinois:

"Today I reached the sea. While I was yet many miles back in the palmy woods, I caught the scent of the salt sea breeze which, although I had so many years lived far from sea breezes, suddenly conjured up Dunbar, its rocky coast, winds and waves; and my whole childhood, that seemed to have utterly vanished in the New World, was now restored amid the Florida woods by that one breath from the sea."

Frankly, my reaction to that passage when I first read it was that Muir was tired, worn out, and delirious. And maybe he was. He became very ill with typhoid shortly thereafter. But he was also making commentary on the fact that great bodies of water, and the spots where they meet the land, are very similar the world over.

"Forgotten were the Palms and Magnolias and the thousand flowers that enclosed me," he continues. "I could see only dulse and tangle, long-winged gulls, the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, and the old castle, schools, churches, and long country rambles in search of birds' nests. I do not wonder that the weary camels coming from the scorching African deserts should be able to scent the Nile."

To really fully understand what Muir was talking about, you have to visit a beach or fondly remember a visit from earlier in your life. Whether it's a sandy or a rocky beach, if it borders a large body of water (an ocean or a great lake), the experience that overtakes all the senses is like no other. It's a universal experience--largely the same, no matter what continent or hemisphere (with the exception of a beach in winter!).



Even the plants are similar--Grasses, Sedges, Willows. While the plants shown here were found along the Lake Michigan shoreline, they'd be similar on the U.S. East Coast, the West Coast, or even a coast on a different continent!


The Sea Pea (Lathyrus japonicus), for example, is a legume native to temperate coastal areas of Asia, Europe, and North and South America. Also commonly called Beach Pea, Circumpolar Pea, and Sea Vetchling, it ranges around the world on marine coasts and inland shores, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.


Even gardeners and botanists need a break sometimes from the tangle and fray of abundant plant life. Nothing beats a day at the beach to appeal to our minimalist tendencies ...


The drag of the waves on the elements of the beach.


A child's creation--labored over for hours, and gone with the flash of a tall wave or the heavy foot of a wandering mammal.


Evidence of man and his companion; his best friend.


A solitary bird feather--sparkling in the sun, filtering the sand, and fluttering in the soft breeze.


Small rocks and shells unappreciated and ignored, unless we stop to take a closer look.


And the slowly setting sun, making long shadows on the sand and beckoning us back for another day ... as they did when we were small children, begging our parents to "please, please, please" let us stay at the beach just a little longer.

"How imperishable are all the impressions that ever vibrate one's life! We cannot forget anything. Memories may escape the action of will, may sleep a long time, but when stirred by the right influence, though that influence be light as a shadow, they flash into full stature and life with everything in place."

~ John Muir, "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf"

August 20, 2013

Garden book review: lost and found

The Organic Garden
A practical guide to natural gardens--from planning and planting, to harvesting and maintenance.

Author: Christine and Michael Lavelle
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Hermes House
Published: 2003

I rediscovered this book the other day. I remember glancing through it when I received it as a gift nine years ago (can it be that long?). During the interim, it was buried under a pile of other books on the shelf and was neglected ... until now.

"The Organic Garden," is chock full of ideas on how to garden without pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides--and how to encourage a healthy, productive garden in the process. I've been committed to organic gardening since long before I received this book. Actually, I think it happened when we lived in our previous house--which was 13 to 18 years ago. Many of the techniques are familiar to me, although there are always things to learn and re-learn.

This book is in limited supply, but you can get copies on Amazon, eBay, or through used-book sellers. The authors also have published more recent books on the same topic, with slightly different titles (search for "organic gardening" and "Lavelle").

Like most of my favorite garden books, it has excellent photographs and step-by-step instructions on how to do everything from no-dig gardening to companion planting to willow weaving.

I'm embarrassed that I neglected this very useful book. But I'm also extremely pleased, because it will offer many hours of quality reading during the cold months ahead. For now, I'm putting it in a prominent spot so I won't neglect it again!

Thanks to Holley at Roses and Other Gardening Joys for hosting the Garden Book Reviews meme.

August 15, 2013

Plant of the Month: Whorled Milkweed


This diminutive plant is somewhat nondescript...from afar.


In a field surrounded by tall grasses, Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)--at 1 ft. to 2 ft. tall--tends to blend in.


But if you look closely, it's a rather lovely, delicate plant. Like other Milkweeds, the umbels of its closed flower buds open to distinctive-shaped blooms with a unique pollination structure.


It's an attractive plant in all stages of development--from emergence to budding to full bloom. And it's hardy in USDA zones 4-8.

Plus, it has the added benefits of being a larval host for the monarch butterfly and it's recognized by pollination ecologists as attracting large numbers of native bees, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.


Whorled Milkweed is toxic to livestock and horses if eaten in large quantities. It grows best in dry sandy, clay, or rocky soils, and in sun or part shade, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. It's not the best plant for my garden, but ... maybe I can find a place for it. (These photos were taken on our "wild" lake property to the north.)


When you look down through the foliage, you can see how Whorled Milkweed got its name. Frankly, I'm a bit fascinated with it at the moment.

(I'm linking this post to Dozens for Diana and Foliage Follow-Up. Thanks, Diana and Pam, for hosting these excellent memes!)

August 11, 2013

Please join me for a pollinator party!

Location: my tiny potager in the sun.

Guests: Goldenrod soldier bugs, bumbles, hornets, flies, bees, moths, and Cabbage whites.

Party crashers: Japanese beetles.

Conditions: 79F, light breeze, sunny.

Refreshments: pollen, nectar, dew.















Thanks for joining us! Plenty more refreshments are available, so please stop back for the next shindig.

(To learn more about Goldenrod soldier bugs, click here.)