Make room for milkweed!

In my case, I have been doing exactly that for a number of years. Many years ago I found if difficult to even find these plants. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) was still being sprayed and removed, and you could not yet find swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in the garden centers. Dial forward a few years and now they are all the rage. Well, they should be. You may not find common milkweed in the garden centers quite yet, but you are more likely to find a few plants with seed pods nowadays, and if you go online you should have no problem. I am not going to go into the plant descriptions as I did that a few years ago already, but I want to make a passionate plea to have you add milkweed plants to your garden mix. They are not only crucial to the survival of the monarch butterfly, but there are hundreds of other insects, hummingbirds, and small herbivores that need this group of plants to stick around. And we should be generous with the space we allow the milkweeds. Volume matters!. A dense thicket of milkweeds is better than a single plant here or there. Monarch caterpillars are easily spotted, and even though they may taste foul, enough of them still fall prey to hungry birds and other animals. Providing shelter is a good idea. OK, common milkweed can be a bit of a bully as it sprouts new plants from its roots in an ever growing circle, and it may end up in your lawn or some other designated area. Maybe you don’t need to mow as much, and can leave them be for a few months? Common milkweed are almost impossible to transplant – the root easily goes down 8-12 inches or more and if you are lucky to get enough root material, it will likely not be until next year you will see some fruit of your labor as 1 out of 20 will come back only. (I tried this too many times). Aside from common milkweed you should have good luck with Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed). This one is a lot more sedentary, but I find it does well only for a year or two, and then the original plant gives up. The key is getting new seedlings started on a continuous basis. I have some butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) as well but propagation from seed has been spotty at best, and the mature plants like it sunny and dry. They don’t like to be shaded out, and as my yard is full of plants trying to outdo each other they are finding it difficult to maintain a foothold.

Asclepias syriaca July 2021
It will be difficult to find a better smelling flower than common milkweed, although some might find it overpowering – a friend of mine referred to common milkweed reminding him of the old ladies in his hometown, which left me with nothing but question marks. This is a garden blog, not a psych evaluation after all…

I have close to 200 milkweed plants in the sunniest part of the garden – 30% would be common milkweed, 65% marsh milkweed and the rest is butterfly weed and some whorled milkweed plants I started from a seed catalog. The yard is now also a monarch waystation site, although that by itself is not that hard to attain. (https://monarchwatch.org/)

This was an unusual plant to find at a plant store in October last year, but they were on sale and the basal leaves had a nice dark green color, so I took them home and planted them among the pines and black cherries. Much to my surprise they survived and thrived. The plant adds a whole other set of leaves and goes for a good foot or more of height to display the yellow flowers. The plants offer a beautiful yellow in a very early and otherwise fairly barren spring.

Packera aurea May 2021

This member of the Asteraceae family is at home in swamps and wet woods but it does very well in a much drier environment. The plant can grow up to 3 feet tall. The picture above is from mid May.

Ragwort has a bad name, especially when it comes to pollen allergies. I am not sure how much pollen Packera aurea produces, but the plant is also mildly toxic and can cause skin allergies. It did not in my case – I handled these plants extensively, and I am someone who gets blisters at the mere mention of poison ivy and goldenrod. Just be aware that it could have an effect. This plant has quite a bit of medicinal application – it is used in diabetes and blood pressure remedies. It also gets honorable mention with treating menstrual pain, menopause symptoms, pain reduction, bleeding, and congestion.

Tradescantia virginiana has done well in the woodland garden over the years, but the plants that get more sun have been prolific bloomers. Of course, with the wet weather we have been enduring they all are looking a bid sad and wet right now. I am planning on adding more spiderworts later this year, in a spot where they will get the additional light and space. While spiderworts generally tend to do fine in most locales, I noticed that the flowers are bigger and the stems are more upright compared to the ones nestled among the ferns and common wood asters. Those tend to flop and lean more on the surrounding plants, and the flowers get lost in the surrounding greenery, so they are less of a show case. They are exactly the same species, and from the same year and place of purchase. The only differentiator is sunlight and elbow room.

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 mountain death camas bulbs 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…

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