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The time for planning is now!

You can never start early enough. I am finding that I am always running out of time, or coming up against other constraints. I have some garden additions and changes that have been in the works for some time, or that I have started and abandoned due to other priorities. My latest interest is adding a straw bale garden. I have always had a smallish vegetable garden for some tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and beans, but this has generally fallen below expectations. I have much more luck with native plants and would be ok with just doing that if not for having a fresh vegetable loving spouse, who loves to see some ROI from me spending countless hours outdoors. The straw bale concept has some immediate potential benefits, such as allowing a slightly earlier start to the growing season, and not having to prep the soil. Soils around here at the spit end of the ancient glaciers are mostly rock with some more rock in between. I have been digging those out of the same 10 square yard for years now and there is no end to it. They keep coming, seemingly pushed up from the deep on some conveyor belt. Anyway, the straw bale idea seems an ideal solution, even though getting the bales plus the 3 weeks of bale prep will likely be a painful and frustrating endeavor all of its own.

What else am I behind on? Let me check.

  1. I am building out a few walking paths – that is about a quarter done – I am waiting for slightly warmer days to clear out some prickly underbrush
  2. I have some 20 young trees (less than 2 feet tall) that need to be planted. They are overwintering in a leaf pile right now. I can’t get to the ideal locations until I extend the paths, and I can’t plant until I clear the brambles. There is a time constraint in that I want this done before the birds select their nesting area. And with the light expanding daily this is much sooner than you would think – I have already seen birds exploring the bird houses. I have until mid February at best
  3. The bird houses (12 right now) need to be inspected for rot, rehung in some cases, or cleaned (again). since the fall cleanup rodents of all sorts have moved in. While they don’t bother me the first and foremost intent is to provide nesting locations to the feathered friends. There may be some evictions, but to date I have let the critters move out on their own time. I realize full well that removing the bird houses in the fall would be a better option, but have I done that? Of course not.
  4. I have to move some Common wood aster plants. At a summer and fall height of 3-4 feet they are shading out some smaller blueberry bushes.
  5. I need to re-harden some of the existing paths – adding some gravel and border stones – this is likely not going to happen until the temperature hits mid 40s or even 50s
  6. I still have leaves everywhere, and I still need to bring down a few hundred square feet of perennial stalks. It should be first on this list, but I keep pushing it off into the future. I want this done before mid February as well…
  7. I took some seeds from perennials I want to expand – American bellflower (biennial in this area) and Carolina lupine in particular. They are in cold (fridge) storage right now and I will need to put together a little temporary greenhouse in early April to grow some more seedlings. I used to do more of this in years past but I am running out of room in the garden, so I need to be picky about what I want to add
  8. The wildlife pond is still a work in progress. I need to purchase the bedding material and some rocks. I am going to repurpose an ancient mini kettle pond that has been filled with building materials so many decades ago. I know I have peepers, frogs and toads already and my neighbor had some salamander sightings in his yard over the last couple of years. I just want to add a little wetland feature, but this has seemingly not been a real priority as I started this some 3 years ago.

If I can accomplish some of these tasks over the next month, things are looking up. The perennial woodland garden is mostly mature and needs very little attention during the growing season. I may even invest in a deck chair or two and enjoy it, or think about my list

This is a topic I have talked about in the past, but I was reminded of invasive species when I encountered this setup to evaluate the control/eradication of Japanese knotweed along the CCRT path in Eastham. the contraption consists of nothing more than a wire mesh laid over knotweed roots. I guess the idea is that the shoots will be cut at the base by the wire, depriving the root base of nutrients. We’ll see if it works – the plants looked pretty healthy to me, but their circumference had not made it to decapitation level yet… Japanese knotweed is a real scourge not only on Cape Cod but anywhere it is taking foothold. I hope we can find a non-toxic way of getting rid of it, or at least control it. Another way to deal with (some) invasive plants is eating them. NEWFS (New England Wild Flower Society) had a webinar on this recently (“Managing Invasives Through Eating: A Conservation Diner’s Guide”) and lately I have seen more and more posts on the internet of people doing exactly that. That is definitely something I want to explore further – although – how much knotweed do you want to eat? The supply seems never ending and if you are forced to eat too much of it, then well, it could turn out to be the next broccoli or pea… making children cry at the dinner table everywhere.

While eradicating Japanese knotweed from our landscape is beyond my capabilities, I have other non-native fish to fry right here in the woodland garden. When we bought the house and land many years ago, it came with some established plantings already. I have a 20 year old Butterfly bush, a handful of Morrow’s honeysuckle and some Burning bush plants. My rational mind says to take these all out, but there are also other things to consider – what is going to shield me from the neighbors or the street? The big bang approach does not work in my case, so I am taking a multi-year crowd-and-replace angle, which goes something like this: Plant native bushes around the 10 feet high and wide Morrow’s honeysuckle and over the course of a few years trim the target while allowing more space for the growing natives. Eventually take down the target. This is a long-term approach but it keeps shielding and shelter in place. I know it may make more sense to take care of this immediately, but I am not known for drastic measures, at least in the garden. This is the guy who prefers to dig and saw by hand power tools be damned

Some more suggestions can be found in this article, https://www.gardenista.com/posts/go-native-10-indigenous-alternatives-to-common-invasive-plants-garden-design/, although I am not a fan of all the suggestions – planting west coast natives on the east coast does not make sense to me. Native neighbors from east of the continental divide could work as the wildlife supported is the same or similar by-and-large, but west coast plants are part of a very different ecosystem altogether.

geranium time to shine

Things change quickly in the woodland garden this time of year. The flowers of the wood poppy and Virginia bluebells have moved past their prime, and while those two are now moving on to seed production, this is the time for the spotted geranium to come into its own. The plants have self seeded over the years, but they are not as abundant as I would have hoped, at least not when compared to the self seeding prowess of wood poppy and wood aster. Plants don’t have a schedule to keep, and while our attention span is regulated and fleeting, they are happy to take all the time they need…

I have to confess that this plant is more of a native neighbor, despite it also being known as Atlantic camas. It’s natural distribution hugs the Atlantic coast line from Florida north to Baltimore but then it extends north into Ontario, bypassing New England. I got some bulbs of this Lily family member from Prairie Moon Nursery, and put those in the soil last fall. The leaves appeared about a month ago and now white (with a blueish hue) flowers are appearing from the bottom.  It looks great in a woodland setting.  It likes rich, acidic soils, but can tolerate other soils too if there is enough water. 

Camassia scilloides

The bulbs are edible and were once a major food source for some Native American tribes and early European Settlers, but they are very hard to distinguish (at least until the flowers appear) from┬ámountain death camas┬ábulbs which are quite deadly when consumed. But don’t let this worry you as I would file this plant under “too pretty to eat”.

Another spring. This one kind of snuck up on us, after being stuck inside for so long – voluntary at first due to the gloomy and cold weather, then forced upon us by you know what. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to do much in the garden this year. For one I started a new job and while I am lucky to be working and loving what I do, the circumstances have made it so that the usual wrappers around work (leave the house/commute/reverse commute/arrive home/unwind) are not applicable. So it makes for long days and garden chores being pushed to the next day, the next week and even the next month. It is mid May and I am still cleaning up fall leaves…

Also, I missed getting out and about – I usually get ideas from nature and what others have done with her building blocks, but this year has proved tough- Audubon and the NEWFS sites were (and at time of writing are) closed, and you almost need credentials forged or give a DNA sample to gain access to horticultural places and garden supply stores. And no, I don’t do curbside. I like to pick things out myself…

However, now that the temperatures are going up ever so slightly and the day is stretching past 7 pm I am getting a bit of planned work accomplished. We are in year 9, or is it 10? – Regardless – definitely far enough along in the life cycle of the woodland garden, so that I don’t need to worry about the plants as much. They self seed, they expand by rhizomes, they battle for resources among themselves, they are setting their own rules for co-habitation… I can focus on some other activities that will enhance the experience of the occasional visitor and the folks (us) who live here. I am building out paths to reach parts of the yard that have been overgrown with brambles long before we arrived on Cape Cod a decade ago, while expanding on a berry bush garden that only existed on paper and in my mind for too long. American cranberry, winter berries, blueberry plants along with choke berries, service berries, and elder berry plants. Hopefully a smorgasbord and shelter for birds. I doubt I will bother with harvesting and maximizing yield, although I am looking forward to a handful of tasty treats once in a while. And if I get really ambitious this year I might make some progress on the wildlife pond that will hopefully get some use by some of the amphibian residents around here.

Grand plans that will take up the little free time I have, but I also need to take time to experience what’s been accomplished so far…

Virginia bluebells doing their thing…

October 1, and there is still hummingbird action in the woodland garden. Prior years had fall storms and hurricanes bringing the torrential rain and wind, and that usually meant the end of hummer season. Last year they were gone by September 6th – I can’t recall the storm but it meant they moved south – hopefully without too much harm done. Hummer action was put to a halt, and the flowers they fed on were beaten down and ripped apart by the elements. Right now I still have some cardinal flowers and blue lobelias blooming, providing some sugars and sustenance. By “some” I mean 10% or so – most have gone to seed. But these plants are very successful in the garden, only being upstaged by the common wood aster. I must have at least 500 or so blue lobelias and cardinal flowers this year (90 to 10 respectively on the 100 scale) – I certainly did not expect this proliferation having started with 5 plants of each species. While in years past I have let nature do its thing, this fall I have resorted to cutting off the seed pods and in some cases I have cut the plant all the way down to the basal leaves. Even then I suspect to see many more Lobelia sp. popping up in the beds and the lawn next spring.

They DO exist!

Here I am weeding away around a nesting box, which I thought totally abandoned. It is September after all and from this time of year on through the winter the only residents I’ve observed in the past don’t have feathers and don’t fly. Imagine my surprise as a little creature lept from the tiny doorway onto the black cherry tree – a flying squirrel! To be exact it is a Glaucomys volans (or southen flying squirrel). I am not sure if there are more of them about – they are known to seek each other’s company to keep warm in the winter. There should be plenty of food (berries, fruit, seeds) to keep them fueled up, but I am going to stay away from that particular nesting box from now on. So much for bringing it in for the winter…

Summer is here!

Well, it has been here for some time now, but it took some time to heat up this year. The tropical plants on the porch have survived the cool June nights and are now adding new leaves. As for the garden, the sunnier spots are in full bloom with milkweed, butterflyweed and beebalm feeding monarchs, wasps, bees and hummingbirds. It’s a matter of days before the perennial sunflowers turn the whole area bright yellow.

I shrunk the lawn by another 40% this year and the perennial beds are now several yards in width. I have populated the newly gained land with marsh milkweed, cardinalflower, blue lobelia, and obedient plant as anchoring vegetation, with plenty of room left to fill in next spring.

One of my new favorites is campanula americana (american bellflower). I grew it from seed last year but only a few plants survived the slugs. I had totally forgotten about them but they are now 4 feet tall and full of blue flowers. The bumblebees just love these! I hope to get some seed so I can start them up again next year. They are biennal in this area.

Campanula americana

bumble bees on Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed). Despite the name, this plant does quite well in dry areas. Since it is so popular with insects, I have plans to add several hundred to my garden. While the flower is somewhat showier than common milkweed, the latter has a much fruitier and amazing smell.

One of the flowers of Opuntia humifusa (prickly pear cactus). The plant was given to me by a friend a few years ago, and now I have a little cactus patch with at least 20 flowers. Maybe there will be fruit this year. In the past I have seen chunks taken out by animals, but the cactus seems to weather this treatment well. The fruit, however, may be more attractive as a rodent snack.

Filipendula rubra, or queen of the prairie – it tends to spread from it’s original location, but I noticed the plant can get outcompeted by taller perennial sunflowers. I have been aiding the queen by weeding somewhat, making sure the leaves get plenty of sun.

This Monarda dydima is quite happy to take over whatever space it can find, easily shading out other plants. Make sure to combine it with early bloomers that tend to go dormant anyway, or plants that can stand a crowd. The roots of beebalm are shallow and can easily be dug up and transplanted elsewhere.

I planted one 8 gallon pot of this purple beebalm about 3 years ago, and it has taken nicely to its home. It is not as popular with the hummingbirds (they definitely prefer the cardinal red blooms), but bees and butterflies are quite happy to partake in the nectar.

Asclepias tuberosa – butterfly weed

Echinacea purpurea – purple coneflower

Need additional ideas?

Every year I make the promise to keep up with the blog, but every time I find myself spending any available time in the garden, sometimes from dawn to dusk. Many plants have not yet found their story and image on this blog, I am afraid. Hopefully this site is not your only source of ideas, because you only get a snapshot of the plant’s lifecycle at best. Of course you can always come by for a visit to take a look, or to see whether I can put some plant material aside in the fall (that is when I usually start envisioning the next growing season and try to find suitable homes for extras)

I would also take a look at what the county or your town has in terms of native plants. I have had great luck with the Master Gardner Association of Cape Cod (gardeners@barnstablecounty.org) – I obtained many young trees and bushes (i.e. hazelnut, sweet pepperbush, etc.) at very reasonable prices. They are not able to provide plant material at all times of the year, but with some advanced planning you can secure native plants for your garden.

There is also CL Fornari, who most of you may know from her Saturday morning plant show on one of the local radio stations. While CL does not focus on native plants (it is a call in show and most callers worry about their vegetables and flowering shrubs), I greatly appreciate the fact that she is chemical averse in her advice, and will do what’s right for pollinators. She also has great advice on trimming and cutting, and she has lived here long enough to know the impact of weather and salt on our plants, including the native perennials we have. When it comes to growing your arsenal of general gardening skills and knowledge, I would definitely give her a listen.

A few years ago I also met Rachel Goclawski – she is an avid forager and has given me great insight into the medicinal and culinary aspects of many of the native plants, as well as the invasives. She enourages wild plant conservation and foraging techniques that don’t deplete the wild populations. But more importantly, she has found great ways to deal with the invasives. For example, rather than trying to fight Japanese knotweed with chemical warfare or manual labor, why not eat them? She is on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cookingwithmrsg/

I know I am leaving out many other sources, groups and individuals, but I will add links or contact info as I think of it. Now it is time to go into the garden!

Call me Cylon

I know, the title is an odd reference to the cybernetic antagonists in the old Battlestar Galactica science fiction series, but the male hummingbird that arrived in the garden a week or two ago reminded me of one of those robots with the red “eye” going from side to side. Said hummer went face to face with a chickadee and in a similar manner aggressively flew left to right just inches away until the relatively bigger bird moved to a different perch. That was apparently not enough for our “Cylon” and he pursued the animal relentlessly until it flew off altogether. This was near the sunflower seed feeder, not anywhere near the nectar feeder which is on the other side of the yard. I’ve seen hummingbirds chasing and displaying this behavior within the species, but this behavior toward other birds is new to me…

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