Invasives

 

The blue circle surrounds one of the worst invasive plants in North America, Celastrus orbiculatus, commonly called Asian or Oriental Bittersweet. It can destroy the crucial habitat zone at the edge of woodlands, where native shrubs and wildflowers typically gain a toehold outside the shade of the deep woods, and where many species of animals live dependent on this mini-environment. Bittersweet grows rapidly, girdling trees as it climbs, often killing them. Its roots outcompete everything nearby, and its shade prevents seeds of other plants from sprouting.

The berries are eaten and spread by animals, and by humans attracted to their crafting potential. Since crafters are nice people, we can fairly assume they only perpetuate this vine from a lack of knowledge. Wherever you see Invasive Bittersweet, remove it.

I have another patch under my hornbeam, that I’m wearing down with constant clipping, but it still tries to sprout. As will often be the case, this one’s roots are too deep and extensive to dig up. The technique for that is monitoring, and starving the vine by removing all green parts. 

The lime circle shows my garden’s worst weed, Wintercreeper Euonymus (Euonymus fortunei). This too makes berries attractive to birds, threads itself all over the place, and sprouts like crazy in the flower beds.

The yellow circle shows a Callery pear. Even with the parent cut down, I will have to get rid of these for a long time. And for proof of how active birds are in delivering seeds, in this same little spot under the oak (no more than a foot in diameter), you can see American Holly, poison ivy, wild grapevine, and Virginia Creeper.

 

If you’re digging volunteer plants from your beds or lawn, and they come up in company with grasses and weeds, here’s a tip. Fill a shallow container with water, and soak the roots until you can tease out just the ones you want. This also helps with badly potbound plants from the nursery.

Unfortunately, that nice-looking erigeron (center left) got dug up by a critter after I planted it, and I didn’t see in time to keep the roots from drying out. Raccoons this time of year are the culprits for many gardeners. They are looking for beetle grubs, to snack on them before they turn into less tasty adults.

A design tip… (A neighborhood cat snuck herself into this photo.) When you’d like a rock feature, but can’t lift and place anything large and heavy, buy some concrete flagstone pavers, at Lowe’s (where I bought these), or any garden center that carries them. Then stack them in an irregular pillar, and top with garden art or a birdbath. 

You might not believe it, but these are hostas. This tiny variety is called Munchkin Fire. The dark heuchera is one I grew from seed, and the chartreuse and burgundy heucherella is named Solar Eclipse.

Finally, here’s a simple and great combo for small hanging baskets like this pair. The golden flower is a Supertunia called “Honey”, that starts chartreuse, as you can see upper right, and matures yellow-gold. The other plant is a tomato-red, black-leaved wax begonia—and if you’ve been a big spender this season, these are very inexpensive. 

Weather, and a Disappointed Woodpecker

 

Through April our weather came in a pattern, of warm, bright days early on, then midweek below freezing. I still planted out my perennials, which can take temperatures in the 20s, but had to keep trucking the annuals, and a new hydrangea, out and back inside the garage. (Hydrangeas are basically hardy, but their big leaves can’t take frost.)

Below is a picture of some interesting light, shining under a block of cloud, very dark.

All during earliest spring, a red-bellied woodpecker was making a nest hole. I saw him on the trunk of my sugar maple drilling away. And cleverly, he had chosen a spot just under a shelf mushroom, so the opening was almost impossible to see. But somehow after all his labor a pair of starlings moved in. The woodpecker has been going up and down and calling—I don’t know if he’s harassing them to get his own back.

What do we do about starlings? Nothing. I mentioned in another post that starlings are the best natural answer to Japanese beetles; they love to eat the grubs out of the lawn, and will also eat the adults, so on the whole it’s good to have them. Not every invasive species helps eradicate another one. The trouble, for the woodpeckers, is shrinkage of habitat. We would do better these days to stop thinking of habitat as “out there”, and recognize that a lot of what is left for plants and animals to exist in, constitutes human habitat. Humans dominate three types of environment: urban, suburban, and rural. Species that are well adapted to live in human habitats outcompete wild ones that live among us for lack of choice.

Common woodpeckers have made inroads in our world, but they need “snags”, dead boles of trees, to craft their holes. Most human spaces don’t preserve dead trees, because of the hazard of falling limbs. Woodpeckers among us have to compete with starlings, but even in the wild they can’t always avoid their nests being stolen, by squirrels, among others.

In short, more woodlands, and more connected woodlands, should be our goal, rather than motion sensors, firecrackers, and other ideas people have had for scaring off starlings.

 

 

Here’s the way I’ve got the dripline area under the roof at the back of my house improved. Pea gravel is pretty cheap, and looks good for pathmaking. Year to year, you will have to top it up, but in a sheltered, compacted area like this it lasts longer. Worms have a lot to do with the sinking into earth of gravel. The blocks against the garage wall are for cactus and agave.

 

The stick fence defines this bed and makes a little habitat for garter snakes, salamanders, moles. I haven’t seen any garter snakes, but I hope I have one or two! This is a shade-to-sun bed, where I have heuchera at the edges, moving into some lupine and the only delphinium I have that came up from the seed I planted. And you can see the lilies with some deer baffling to keep them uneaten.

 

Bug Troubles

 

Stands of daffodils shining here and there in the garden are great to see when everything is still wintry. My plan to keep them to the margins and path edges, so I don’t have to worry about the foliage being in the way before it goes dormant, looks to be working well. Next time I order bulbs, I’ll get more of the jumbo King Alfreds, probably my favorites, but also more late-blooming varieties and white/pinks, and plant them in concentric semicircles, going out into the lawn.

The second photo shows my plants before the weird troubles. The third photo shows the growths, something between a gall and an excretion, that I believe are caused by mites on my impatiens. If I pick the little beads off, I find they’re made of sticky sap.

But this is a good lesson. My plant room, full of such pretty things a while back, now has several sad specimens, missing their leaves, or with leaves that look burnt at the edges. Because I discovered these bugs, I assumed the leaf damage was fungus. It’s not unusual for mites and other sucking insects to spread disease. I did some research, though…

In gardening and in other areas of life, it’s worth being on the lookout for converging events, and not drawing the conclusion that if one problem precedes another, the two are related and not coincidental.

Anyway, my plants seem to have suffered from overwatering and possibly overfertilizing. This year I skipped peat pellets and tried potting mix. The peat pellets have their imperfections, but they were good for germination, and naturally wilt-resistant. Because this year I started mostly native wildflowers, which are perennials as well (where I usually sow garden annuals) I don’t have much basis for comparison. It does seem I got less germination and have had issues with sogginess.

The potting mixes have water-retentive additives, and NPK (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous) additives, so in fact I might have harmed the seedlings both by watering too often and repotting too soon. I should have waited a few weeks, too, starting them. It was hard to judge without prior experience with these particular plants (and I was eager to get going), but the longer seedlings live in the windless indoor environment, the more opportunity for bugs and diseases.

The news isn’t too bad. I have six flats of strong perennials, almost all natives. My beleaguered seedlings are making a comeback, and quite a few were never badly affected. But this year’s seed-starting adventures have been a little different!

More Plants on the Way

 

My cats Ed and Chester get to go outdoors once a day, on their leash. This is a huge excitement for them, and both guys run around the kitchen begging, until I’m finished with lunch and coffee, and the time comes. They’re a classic pair of brothers, Chester big and easy-going, Ed small and full of mighty schemes—so Ed gets his treat first, since Chester can wait and he can’t.

The worms are waking up now, and the moles in the garden have been rooting just under the leaves. Even a human can watch their tracks and hear them rustle.

The other day Ed pawed at one until he managed to extract it, and pick it up in his mouth for a second. Then he dropped it, and we both saw an amazing thing. The mole leaped off the ground to escape, went gliding down an incline (using loose skin to soar like a squirrel, I have to assume), for a distance of 15 feet or more. As soon as it hit the ground, it burrowed in. Ed spent a good while trying to recover his prey where last seen, but the fun ended with being picked up and put indoors, as always.

The first picture above shows my heucheras, started in the fall from seed, now full-size plants. I couldn’t guess anything about their progress, because the whole idea was an experiment. The best gauge of when hardy perennials (whose foliage can take temperatures below freezing on occasional nights) can be planted, is when their counterparts in the garden have put up strong growth. These new heucheras can go in the ground in April.

Another group that have got too large are the verbascums, from seed I collected from Southern Charm, a pretty peachy variety. They took off right away, while most perennials take a few weeks to germinate. But my garden verbascums have a good rosette already, so my new ones will soon be hardened off enough to plant.

The second photo shows the leggy impatiens and coleus, also alternanthera, from a winter spent on shelves by the patio door. I chopped them this week, to make two flats of new ones out of rooted cuttings. 

The third photo shows some charming spotted trilliums, five out of six of which I’ve found, sprouted from bulbs I planted last fall.

 

 

Little Finds

 

Above are some volunteers, seeded from garden fixtures, or annuals I grew last year. 

The petunia sprouted up in one of the pots I brought in from the patio. It stayed small for a long time, by the drafty patio door, and even struggled when I took it up to a windowsill and overwatered it. I wasn’t sure yet what plant it was. Finally, it got to be time for seed-starting, and putting up the lights and shelves. Once the petunia was warm and pampered, it took off. I usually buy petunia seeds in watercolor patterns, that have the pretty veins. This one looks true-to-type.

In the lower half of the second picture, you can see an impatien that seeded itself, and had picked up genes from both the red and pink ones. It’s producing a Rembrandt tulip effect, with marbleized streaks of color, so that each flower is different. But the overall effect is a coral.

The third picture is of hellebore seedlings. Seemingly, every seed that dropped last year germinated. I have hundreds of them, and literally removed more than a hundred to start in pots. I don’t know what I’ll do with them all, but I can see lining paths with them. The deer don’t bother them, and they bloom in winter, so a little hellebore hedge ought to be a good idea.

 

 

The Time Is Now

Photo of springtime flowers in circular planters
Photo of emerging crocus

 

A few cheerful pictures from my old garden. I’d forgotten how nicely the trout lilies (Erythronium) spread themselves. I haven’t grown them for years.

And that is my theme today. As I said in an earlier post, I had two trees cut down, a dead ash and a Bradford pear. I have space now to add new trees, and I’ve ordered several shrubs, mostly native to the midwestern U.S. Here are the ones I’m adding: Red-twig Dogwood, Blue lacecap Hydrangea, Smooth Sumac, Elderberry, Nannyberry (viburnum), Clethra, Blueberry, Aralia, Ilicium, a climbing rose called Fruity Petals, and an arborvitae called Tater Tot.

Of trees, I’m planting two apples. I had an apple tree in my old garden. I didn’t spray, so the apples were scabby and coddled (bored by the larvae of the coddling moth), and attacked by apple maggots. But they were usable, if peeled and cut free of brown spots. I put bags of apple chunks away in the freezer, to make pies and cobblers with.

The tree was a Golden Delicious. The flavor of home grown apples is always above comparison to store bought, although store bought have improved a lot in the 21st century. Golden Delicious used to be sold at the grocery, but I feel like I haven’t seen them for years. Anyway, 2022 is a fine year to plant those things that require waiting for. If you’ve been wanting fruit trees, or blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, grapevines, whatever, it won’t help to put off planting them. You’ll only wait that many more years for a harvest.

Also, slow-starting perennials with worthwhile flowers, like peonies, or plants that naturalize and look beautiful in swaths, like Virginia Bluebells, will only get to their high point if you give them a start. Also, and most imperative, your habitat project, if you’ve been planning one.

Our world has had tough times, and the future is uncertain. In the garden at least, it’s time to get the ball rolling, so you can be pleased with yourself in two or three years, and in the meantime look forward happily.

 

Arty Fun for My Garden

 

Creative container projects are found all over the internet, and it’s great to recycle what you can. If you want big effects without huge expenses, try decorating with paint. In this case, I bought the 5 gallon pots above from a garden supplier on Amazon, and the price for five of them was around $30. You’ve seen, I’m sure, how large ceramic pots can cost upwards of $30 for a single one. The treatment I’ve given these, to get the marbleized look, is simple. Use a sanding sponge to prep the surface, and add a base coat of outdoor paint. A dark color gives good depth when you add white on top. Using outdoor craft paints, add a second base layer after the first is dry, and dab on accent colors. The real trick is in the Magic Eraser, a Mr. Clean product. If you buff the paint while damp with the Magic Eraser (paint damp, eraser dry), it blends the paint into these marble patterns, and removes any appearance of brushstrokes.

 

Here’s another paint project with very cheap materials. These are collected sticks, wired to bamboo stakes (for fixing them in the ground), and painted from some of the half and quarter bottles I’ve accumulated from various projects. The trellis is really optional, I just happened to have it there and wanted to jazz it up a little. But you can teepee the sticks easily. The purpose is to give a colorful and quirky support for flowering vines. I’m going to try Cobaea this year.

Last fall, I got curious about the flower stalks on my heucheras. I’d never heard of starting these from seeds, but I Googled, and “they” said it could be done. The seeds were in a bowl by the back door glass, and stayed tiny for months. Last week I put up my first round of seed flats under lights for the indoor growing season, so I repotted my small heucheras and carried them up to the lights. They’ve been getting sizable and all seem to be a basic type, with round leaves that come out red and turn bronzy. Great for edging a shady border. 

Meanwhile, it is a good time in zone 6b to start perennials. For three reasons: Because they can be slow to germinate, because they can be slower growing to size than annuals, and because if they get overlarge for indoors by April, they can be hardened off and kept outdoors, even planted in the garden, being frost hardy.

 

I’ve written about my Bradford pear, its stinky flowers, and its being fed on by the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker. I had an ash tree snag, as well, the tree killed by the Emerald Ash Borer, that arrived some years ago in Southeastern Ohio and has done a lot of harm in the forest. I got them both cut down last week. I was going to have the pear’s weird branches, that threatened to tear the trunk in half, cut off, but the tree cutter suggested removing it. And the truth is, I don’t know of a good reason not to remove a Bradford pear. Some states are even offering bounties and free replacement trees for the disposal of them. 

Like other invasives, they’re bad because they spread aggressively in nature. Birds eat the fruits, and eliminate the seeds, and the thorny callery pear (the underlying species of the Bradford variety) takes over roadsides and woodland edges.

(You can see, by the way, from the state of the snow, how much animal traffic I get in my yard.)

 

A Pretty Bloom and Some Seed-Starting Info

Photo of blue penstemon-like flower of strobilanthes

 

Strobilanthes dyeriana, the Persian Shield plant common in garden centers in the summer, is native to Myanmar. Some species of Strobilanthes are grown for their flowers, but Persian Shield is used for foliage. One of mine, that I brought to overwinter indoors, has put up dozens of flowerheads. Now some of the blooms are open, and as the photos show, they come out a pretty blue-purple, and with a shape like a penstemon flower, about an inch in length. (The two aren’t related; Strobilanthes is in the Acanthus family, and penstemon is in the plantain family.) 

 

I saw an article last year, in the New York Times where, discussing the collecting and sowing of wildflower seeds, a native plant expert said the Butterfly Weed, Asclepius tuberosa, is difficult to start. I’ve actually had good success with it, so I thought I’d share my method and observations.

I collect a couple of pods, which as you can see gives more than enough seed. I put them in an open container in my garage. When they split naturally, which takes some months, the seeds will puff out from the expanding floss. The floss, once the pods have opened on their own timetable, pulls loose from the seed easily. That makes sense. The seed wants to root itself somewhere, not be carried by the wind forever.

My intuition is that the cold of being in the garage in winter, while it probably matters, is less key to germination than letting the pod reach the stage of splitting, and planting seeds that need no tugging to remove the floss. I sow them like most others, upstairs in my cat-proof room with the lights and shelves, just tucked under the surface of the medium, and I get several new plants going that way.

The Birds Need Us

I’ve seen it said, in more than one article over the years, that backyard feeders aren’t needed, that the birds can fend for themselves and find enough food foraging in nature. In our current state of habitat loss and climate change, I think we should be rejecting towards any argument based on “everything is fine” for our struggling species, someplace else. That formula for avoiding habitat action has been around for decades.

The naturalist Edwin Way Teale, in Autumn Across America, wrote about the decline of the sea otter, which at the time (1950s) was making a comeback. Sea otters had been hunted to near extinction for the fur trade. As Teale recounts, the trade maintained that somewhere on planet Earth must be other populations of sea otters; that if they finished off the Pacific Northwest population, an abundance of other otters would be discovered to make up for it.

The Ivory-billed woodpecker was steadfastly stripped of its habitat. As recently as 2005 sightings were being claimed, that haven’t yet panned out to a certified rediscovery of the species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service in 2021 ruled the Ivory-billed extinct. This loss, also, came about on the strength of believing no single instance of habitat destruction had to be decisive. Somewhere there would be habitat; somewhere, then, magic belief could continue to place unseen remnants of endangered birds’ populations.

Now, we have a patchwork of wild areas, often widely separated by highways, farm fields, towns, industrial sites. Birds expend a lot of energy when they have to fly miles to find food. Not knowing where food might be, they can lose the gamble, and damage their health going too far without a resting place of insects and seeds, water and shelter, to restore themselves.

Insects are in steep decline, due to pesticides. Without insects, breeding birds can’t feed their young, and insectivorous birds can’t feed at all. New weather patterns, and more severe weather, which we are all aware are happening right now, stress wildlife. Heavy winds and rains stop birds and small mammals from foraging. More rain washes more pesticide residue into watersheds, and kills more wetland-dwelling insects, which reduces the numbers of birds.

We need to make our yards oases. My feeding station above is the most popular, though I have others. I give suet, a substitute source for insect fat, and a nut and fruit blend. Birds like shelter close by; they prefer that sense of safety. If you have an evergreen, like my rhododendron, set up a feeding station almost among the leaves, and the birds will be grateful. And do, unless you know for a certainty there’s plenty of food out there, feed them year-round.