Hello new year

The new year started off with an unseasonal day – almost 40 degrees and sunshine. By now we would be expecting things to be encased in ice or some amount of snow, and the garden thoughts would be reserved for browsing seed catalogs and planning the spring.

Not that there is a lack of yard work to tend to – the yard is a mess with leaves and downed branches everywhere still. On a positive note all trees and shrubs were planted (I usually end up overwintering many plants as I don’t get them in the soil before first frost), but additional work was needed to secure the saplings from rabbits, and I have been wrapping them in wire cages. There has been no shortage of these grazing herbivores all of this past year, but the real damage is being done now as the feeding options are reduced to young bark and stems.

While the nesting season is a few months out for most bird species, there is some activity already with a tufted titmouse pair investigating housing options by visiting some of the several nesting boxes I have throughout the garden. Some are occupied with mice and in one box, flying squirrels, but there are plenty of empty ones that never saw activity last year. I guess optimizing nest box utilization is something I still need to figure out – at most 25-30% of the nest boxes are being used by song birds, year to year.

Rather than catching up on the many yard related tasks, we kicked off the new year with a walk around Cliff Pond in Nickerson Park in Brewster. We had not done this since last winter and it is a beautiful part of the Cape. This time of year you don’t run into crowds, and you can easily observe the many highbush blueberry and winterberry shrubs, which would be missed when everything else is in leaf. I was surprised to see the water being so low, despite there being plenty of rain this year. The shoreline has extended another 30 feet or so and is 3-5 feet below what I have observed in the past. I have visited and fished this kettle pond for at least 20 years and while there are always some changes, this seems to be a drastic difference from past visits. I wonder if the continued (and accelerated) development on Cape Cod is starting to affect the water table – we all share one aquifer after all.

It is now early July and flowers are starting to appear in bigger numbers. I feel this is a bit later than last year (that was a super hot and dry summer). I have yet to see monarchs in big numbers this year, the damp and overcast weather which we been having for a while might be delaying them a bit, or maybe the fact that the Cape is getting built up quickly, shrinking their habitat even more is really the underlying cause. Hopefully not, as this has been a banner year for one of their host plants, Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Despite rabbit grazing I have a hundred or so plants.

Another favorite of mine is Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) – this one is frequented continuously by bumblebees who make the best of the miniscule flowers.

I love the smell of both of these, although they are quite opposite on the spectrum. The milkweed is quite flowery and comes at you in heavy waves, reminiscent of perfumes that were worn in the 70s. Actaea racemosa has a distinct mothball smell that you won’t notice until you are up close.

Unintended residents

Unless you start off with a virgin barren plot of land, and radiate the hell out of it, you are going to be contending with other plants, whether you like it or not. Some of these could be have been planted by a former home owner, and these are now established and adding wild life value. Others blow in with the wind or are dropped by birds and mammals. In my woodland garden, I choose to keep an eye out for what is going on, but I mostly let things be. I try to promote native perennials as much as I can, but beyond removing oriental bittersweet and pulling Japanese knotweed wherever it pops up, I am not engaging in what I know is a futile battle. I also left some of the original plantings as they provide shelter and privacy. But anything that has been added in the last 15 years (wow time flies) has been of the native, close neighbor, and/or biennial/perennial kind. I also don’t follow the English garden plan of distinct marked plots. It’s a bit of a free for all, in a plant sense, and as the garden has matured, it has become more dense (visitors call my yard the ‘jungle’). One advantage is that there is less room for unintended plant visitors and they are kept in check by the plantings already duking it out for resources.

But, despite that, they manage to surprise me and pop up in unexpected areas. I know there are gardeners out there that would go in panic mode about these trespassing weeds, but some of these have aesthetic or wildlife value as well. One of them is Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria) (previously mentioned as a plant I noticed a town or two away) which has now taken up residence in the yard, in a spot where I did some clearing to make room for additional perennials. The seeds might have been there waiting for an opportunity like this.

Another one is the ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). This is an early flowering plant and actually seems to coordinate its appearance with another white bloomer (Foxglove beardtongue – Penstemon digitalis), so much so that I can call this the ‘white phase’ of the garden, as most other plants are not ready yet to push flowers. This is also a Eurasian plant that has taken over this continent. I tolerate it as it is an early food source for bees and other insects while not much else is around. It is also easily identifiable by its rosette leaves when juvenile. So you can find it. move it, or remove it.

Foxglove beardtongue has been proliferating throughout the yard. The plants have numerous easily identifiable seedlings that you can transplant if you have additional space. But apparently it does not need our helping hand to do well

Another opportunist plant is native but is an annual – Erigeron annuus (annual fleabane). This member of the Asteraceae family has immense food value – The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract a variety of insects, including Halictid bees, masked bees, Sphecid wasps, Vespid wasps, Syrphid flies, soldier flies, blow flies, Tachinid flies, flesh flies, plant bugs, and miscellaneous beetles. Various insects feed on the foliage, roots, and other parts.

As usual, it has been quite some time since my last post, and at this time of year that means I am outside. The garden is doing well although we already had several drought spells. We will see what July brings. A mid summer drought that lasted almost two months last year is still impacting plants in this season. Several shrubs had dead sections or flowering was stunted, but let’s be patient and see if this is to be repeated. Weather has become unpredictable but the benefits of a woodland garden with mostly perennials is that you can let things happen. I don’t care much about the remaining lawn and we’ll see who the winners and losers are in the long run. In the meantime, local wildlife is enjoying the abundance of asters (common wood aster in particular and new england aster as a close second) and I am somewhat helpless against the rabbits that have come in to graze. The plants are still able to recover and push new growth but a little help from the coyotes I hear nearby would be welcome. Wildlife has been continuously on the move over the years (some years no rabbits but wood chucks, some years it is the pet category coming through (neighbors’s cats which have potentially met their match in a coywolf or more likely an SUV this season) but I think additional pressures of incessant land grab and development are putting these creatures in closer proximity in the remaining open spaces.

I had not seen wood cocks (Scolopax minor) in quite a few years (I wrote about them in a blog here at the time), and was surprised to literally stumble on a nest of 3 chicks and a adult just last week. The nest, if you can call it that, was inconspicuous among the leaves and brambles in an area of the woodland garden I had ignored for some time. They did not mind the neglect, that was clear. I was even more elated when not a week later I saw 3 more adult woodcocks pecking and traversing another section. The chicks could not have grown that fast so I likely have several breeding pairs setting up residence this year. But I am not going to go look for them and disturb them in the process.

Just today I had another unusual visitor seeking shelter among the perennial sunflowers and asters – a weasel (most likely a short tailed weasel – Mustela richardsonii). Showing the two color pelt (light on the bottom and grey-brown on top and a black tipped tail). The tail does not seem long enough for it to be a long tailed weasel, but I am not a weasel expert, although I have worked with some in the past) I had seen minks in the neighborhood near the water but this little guy was new to me.

Following up on my weasel friend – who seems to be a resident and not merely passing through as I have had sightings every day. The local bird population is aware of this little predator too as they announce the whereabouts with frenetic alarm calls. The weasel came up to me but realized my hand was not prey – I am not sure about their eyesight, and darted off. I have not seen the rabbits since his arrival. He is significantly smaller than the old rabbit but apparently they will go after them given the chance.

Cherry on top

Well, not exactly, as white oak is really the dominant species where I live. But there are other trees in the understory and for the longest time I could not identify this tree with a smooth grey bark. I finally figured out that it is a Pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica). It is classified as an early succession tree so I was puzzled at why it would be in my established woodland garden, but in a way it made sense as they were all located on a hill bordering a kettle pond – there is a good amount of erosion and other tree species have not made any inroads. This is a much prettier tree than the more abundant black cherry (Prunus serotina) that I have all over the garden, but that assessment might be because all of these black cherries have Black knot – the fungal disease that causes black, swollen knots to form on the branches and twigs of the tree. The knots can eventually girdle the branch, causing it to die.

Pin cherry is a small tree that grows to a height of around 30 feet, while black cherry can grow up to 100 feet tall – my neighbor across the street just had one taken down that was immense – I could not get my arms around the trunk.

Pin cherry has a more slender and open growth habit, and the leaves are smaller and more finely toothed. Black cherry supposedly has a denser canopy but due to Black knot I could not verify this. Black cherry leaves are larger and have a more pronounced serrated edge. They are also more oblong in shape and have a dull green appearance.

Both produce cherries that are edible to us, but that is purely anecdotal as birds get to these as soon as there is a hint of color.

Update: I found an additional cherry species among a stand of pin cherry trees, namely sour cherry (Prunus cerasus). This one is native to Eurasia but has been introduced and escaped in the wild quite some time ago. The leaves are rougher than the other cherry species. The fruit is edible, so much so that they are quickly disappearing off the tree, but I haven’t seen the culprit(s).

Repeated lion sighting

Well, not exactly. But I am lucky enough to get the beautiful lion’s mane fungus coming back this year. Hericium erinaceus is an edible fungus that looks out of this world. Maybe ‘lucky’ is not the word I should use as it is living on the timbers that hold together a stairway alongside the house, but if deterioration is a fact of life then this is certainly one of the more interesting means to accomplish that. It could be a companion appearance for a while to come as this fungus has been documented as surviving for 40 years or more.

I have yet to find an exact determination of this fungus – many sources repeat that this is native to Europe (where it is actually rare and declining), while others describe this as a common fungus of the northern hemispheres, including North America. There is also some reference that there may be several subspecies in different regions. Frankly I don’t care and I just love the way this fungus looks!

Lion’s Mane fungus in October 2022

Hericium erinaceus has a following in the culinary world, where young fruits are used as a specialty mushroom dish. I’ve yet to do sample it in a cooked fashion but I have tasted it and it has a nice mushroom taste. If you were looking for a more detailed description on the flavor notes and olfactory qualities don’t look to this resource.

At the time of penning this blog post, the Lion’s Mane has withered to a memory. The lifespan of the fruit is a mere few weeks, and deterioration sets in rather quickly, with the structure yellowing and being predated upon by slugs and other critters – they seem to find it quite tasty. So if you are seeing these you may want to harvest sooner than later.

A tree champion lost

For years I have been trying to find a copy of “Shrubs of the Northern New England Forest”, by Michael L. Cline. It was recommended by a plant enthusiast I met at Wells Reserve at Laudholm, some 8 or 9 years ago. I looked for it at the usual online vendors such as Amazon and eBay, knowing that it was likely out of print. Going through some old paperwork I found the original note, reminding me to give this another go. I was sad to find out that the author had passed a few years back – https://www.tinmountain.org/wp-content/uploads/Michael-L-Cline.pdf – he seemed like quite the tree guy, and I wish I could have had a chance to meet him. While he is gone, his legacy lives on in the Tin Mountain Conservation Center in New Hampshire. Hats off to you, sir.

Straw bale garden visitor

OK, I am 9 days into prepping the straw bales, on track to start planting in early May. This is my second year of doing this, adding 2 more bales to a total of eight this time around. There is a bit more planning involved, but the benefits are a higher yield, and not having to contend with the soil which seems to be 50% rock. Great for native plants, not so much for tomatoes and cucumber plants. I am hoping the lessons learned from last year will get even better results. I packed in plants too tightly, did not provide enough support wires and did not anticipate the bales deteriorating and shrinking, leading to structural collapse. All to be addressed this time around!

While I am anticipating some visitors for the fruits later in the season, I was not ready to host friends looking for a hot bale

Thamnophis sirtalis (common garter snake) – about 24″ in length

OK, Sanguinaria canadensis might not be the shortest blooming plant in my woodland garden, but it is probably a very close second to Jeffersonia diphylla (twinleaf) – whose blooms often don’t make it to the end of the day. The bloodroot flowers bloom for a few days, tops. The petals drop with the slightest rain or wind. But often that is all that is necessary to get the job done – bees are already out this time of year to assist with pollination. The stem and flower are the first to emerge, and often the leaves are still unfurling (like in the picture below) when the flowers are starting to go.

I have had these for almost a decade now, and they are doing well, although I might have to rethink that vision of expansive beds of bloodroot. The singular plants from a decade ago are now small clusters, confirming that this plant spreads by rhizomes. And I have found plants in random places in the yard, indicating that some seeds germinated as well. But nature does not care much for the human clock and bloodroot will do its thing at its own pace.

Don’t be fooled by these leaves – those are from a neighboring Delphinium tricorne (dwarf larkspur)

Original post: http://www.capecodwoodlandgarden.com/2013/04/22/sanguinaria-canadensis-bloodroot/

I’ve had these in the yard for a year or two now, and I am happy I added them as they are quite versatile, doing well in all sorts of woodland conditions as long as there is some dappled shade. While they seem to be quite dainty, they showed some resilience when an eager delivery man decided to take a shortcut through this part of the yard and was walking all over them. I was surprised to see the stems bend and bounce back almost immediately.

At this time of year they are one of the earlier blooming plants but you would not know it unless you get up close. The flowers of the buttercup family plant are small and grouped in follicles. The leaves are light green and quite attractive. What I like best are the leggy one to two feet stems that are a light tan color.

The common name refers to the bright colored roots, which have been used in dyes and have antibiotic, immuno-stimulant, anticonvulsant, sedative, hypotensive, uterotonic, and choleretic properties. Berberine is the main alkaloid found in the plant and it has medicinal and supplement properties. In large quantities it can be toxic however. Either way, I won’t be digging up these beautiful open-structured shrubs any time soon – I expect them to gain some height up to 2-3 feet and spread from suckers. This plant plays well with others and the leaves provide a great accent with other groundcovers like foamflower.

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