Thursday, July 10, 2014

State of the Garden -- July 2014

I'm feeling quite angst-riddled with these images. Maybe I'm feeling penned in by 1,500' of garden. I know I've not exhausted what I can learn, but in order to learn I feel like there are areas I'd like to start from scratch in (or maybe I just need an acreage). I've already done that by removing butterfly bushes and sowing wildflower and grass seed in their place. Still.

Above is the shot up from the deck. I try to take photos from the same place whenever I go outside as a way to gauge evolution -- death and birth.

Here we are at ground level. I like the tall clumps of Coreopsis tripteris (left and right of the sumac), but that's about it. What's my problem?

Here is looking toward the main gate. You'll notice 75% of the weeping bald cypress suddenly died after it leafed out. My prettiest small tree will be coming down, which is maybe just fine -- it's too big for that space and doesn't do much for wildlife. The smokebush is also a bit overbearing, though it's a bird nest mecca every year.

Turn around and you see the arbor and gigantic river birch. I need to limb it up to let in more light on the ground, but if I do that I'll have to watch my neighbor mow her lawn and play with her kid on the new trampoline. 

Looking out a hole in the garden gate toward my narrow river 'o' prairie, which is looking ok in the sunnier area, not so much in the 50/50 spot closer to the fence. I reseeded prairie grasses a week ago and they are starting to come up finally -- lesson learned about bed prep and watering.

Back in the main garden a massed mess of forbs. Some monarda cultivar is taking over on the right, and the grey headed coneflowers have had a resurgence after a down year or two; whoever said you couldn't use grey headed coneflower plant in a small garden didn't plant thickly enough.

At least the Asclepias sullivantii is blooming. Just the one plant though. Smack dab in the middle of the path. I never can get it to set seed.

Looking back toward the deck and birch. This is why I get chiggers every year, chiggers being the main reason I'm not enjoying the garden much. I've had about seven million bites the last two years and refuse to go outside as often until August when they are non-biting adults, and when it's too muggy to go out anyway.

My garden slopes a bit, and here is the top of the hill behind some moisture-sucking red cedars that shade this area about half the growing season. So I have to contend with a wet soil in spring, dry in summer, sun and shade. I've had a hard time finding the right plants, so am sullying any good plantsman rep I had -- if I had one.

The Baptisia australis is looking good, but the annual infestation of genista moth larvae has begun and it will be 100% defoliated in about a week. The birds never eat the larvae. Why not? Once the baptisia vanishes for the year the white woodland asters behind will get blasted with sun, but it will help the Salvia azurea. 

Sunflowers are starting up. I've let them go nuts in my veg beds against the house -- I love to look out of my office and living room windows to see bees at work, and in a month or two, birds flower hopping for seeds. It's not a pretty sight aesthetically right now, or at any point really, but I'm making a sacrifice in this area. Next year I'll use both beds for prairie forb crops. 


Gene Petersen said...

I have found it difficult to establish understory species under a closed woodland canopy but one great native shrub that has done very well in wet/dry/sun/shade conditions is American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia). Wafer Ash (Ptelea trifoliata) is another one but it is more of small tree. Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) is also good but it can't stand to be waterlogged for very long. Being in the citrus family it is a host plant for Giant Swallowtail butterfly larvae, which I have seen a few times in Eastern Nebraska. A very attractive natïve grass that does well in these conditions is Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix). And last but not least my favorite native forbs for these conditions are Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) and White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima).

Gene Petersen said...

Benjamin, when I go for prairie walks in June and July I go bare legged and hose my legs off as soon I get back home. My legs get scratched up a bit but I have found that it makes a huge difference with the chiggers, to which I am extremely susceptible. I don't react to mosquito bites at all but chigger bites have me itching for two weeks. And unlike mosquitos, you don't know until after the fact.

Gail Spratley said...

Your garden looks bounteous and abundant to me. I love the subtle variety in texture and color in your photographs. The Asclepias sullivantii is lovely, well worth stepping over or around. Chiggers are a horrible nuisance. My son had them one summer and had to be coated with a vaseline-like ointment that had sulfa in it. So I wonder if a powdering with sulfa would help? It works to discourage ticks, rampant here in FL during spring and summer. We buy some sulfa powder from the drugstore and put a generous amount in a tube sock. Then swat your socks, shoes and legs with the sock, leaving a yellow powder. Might be worth a try.

Gail Spratley said...

Correction, SULPHUR powder, not Sulfa. :)

Benjamin Vogt said...

Gene -- thanks for the tips. As for chiggers, I wash as soon as I get in WHILE having repellent on. :)
Gail -- The chigger nymphs should be done biting soon, I hope. And I agree, sullivant's is worth the inconvenience this year.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Please note that I'm commenting only because you asked for help. I LOVE your garden!

Visually, you could use some large-leafed plants and/or extremely fine leafed plants to provide contrast. I've had good lucky with Rudbeckia maxima (large leaves and blue green color), compass plants (large leaves; be careful about it getting overpowering, though), and Letterman's ironweed (very fine texture and stays in a beautiful clump). Amsonia hubrichtti is supposed to be really good for fine texture too, but I've only grown A. tabernaemontana and 'Blue Ice'. Blue Ice is nice, though - shorter, with a nice shape.

And, difficult as this is, I'm thinking you probably could use some thinning in your garden. I have a horrible time doing this and my garden is perennially overgrown (no pun intended, but pretty apt anyway). When I can make myself do it, I'm inevitably glad I've done so.

In the shade area, I've had good luck with elm-leaf goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia) - I love it, but I don't know how it would handle a soggy soil in the spring. Also brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) does really well for me - to the point of having to pull out a lot of seedlings. Bradbury beebalm (Monarda bradburiana) is a new addition to my shade garden that I'm loving this year. And bigleaf aster (Eurybia macrophylla) has been great. Oh, also summer phlox does well in part shade conditions.

Not all of these are native to Nebraska itself, but all are North American natives that have done well for me - so they might be worth giving a try.

Hope this helps. Your garden is SOOO full of life that it's just gotten a bit too exuberant for the "control" part of human nature. Good luck with it - and keep having fun!

Gaia Gardener: said...

Oh, more thoughts.....

Chiggers. I, too, am VERY sensitive to them. If I possibly can, I shower as soon as I get inside. Also I spray with Deep Woods Off or some other strong repellent before going out, if I know I'm getting in tall stuff.

Once I have them, I dab each bite with 1% hydrocortisone cream per package instructions (twice a day, I believe). If I have a lot of bites, I take chlortrimaton (chlorphenyramine) per package instructions, especially at night so I can sleep.

Benjamin Vogt said...

I grow Rudbeckia maxima, Amsonia hubrichtii and illustris, Solidago ulmnifolia, Rudbeckia triloba, and bigleaf aster. :)

As for your chigger recs, I shower ASAP when coming in, but no after-bite treatment has ever worked. I've tried it all, even mouthwash.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Last, but not least, try some short plants near the path. I LOVE fameflower (Talinum calycinum), which stays 8" tall in foliage, with dainty magenta pink flowers dancing another 8" above the foliage. Perhaps Missouri evening primrose, lanceleaf coreopsis, gaillardia, prairie onion, nodding pink onion, or golden ragwort (good for part shade) would be other ideas next to the path.

I'm looking forward to learning from what you do and what other people suggest, too.

Benjamin Vogt said...

But it looks so good in winter!!! If I thinned it out it would look malnourished for 6 months of the year. I guess I've begun to, too much, garden for the off season when I think it looks way better. Flowers are so overrated. :)

Diana Studer said...

that glimpse to the great outdoors, unbroken ocean of green lawn - gives me agoraphobia. Nothing to catch the eye or hold the attention. A frightening abducted by aliens feeling. IN your garden is delightful!

Unknown said...

You have a wide range of native species! I love it, wild and free. I also see my garden change and evolve every year. I don't have any advice, other then I appreciate your blog so much!

Gene Petersen said...

What gardeners find visually appealing varies a great deal. The current trend even with native plant gardens seems to be isolated soldiers evenly spaced in a sea of mulch. To me that is only a few steps beyond monoculture lawn in appeal. What appeals to me is what I see in very diverse ecosystems that have been altered little by humans, whether it be forest, marsh, prairie, scrubland, or desert. It is a mix of randomness and order that is very difficult to imitate by intent in a garden, especially in a small space. That is because plants distribute themselves naturally by various means and then compete for resources within micro climates and soil conditions. What wins in each spot is the plant best adapted of those that were distributed there to the specific conditions, conditions that we as primates cannot fully sense. Plants in nature grow as densely as conditions will allow, and that is really when they are at their best. To my taste what you are doing is a great approach... plant natives and near natives, plant seed when you can, plant very densely, and over time let the plants distribute and sort themselves out to a certain extent, with some editing to maintain diversity. In my opinion you can't plant too many species. Many will fail but some will surprise you. You can't necessarily go by published preferred conditions. A very obvious but important point to keep in mind for native plant gardeners who do not live adjacent to native plant communities is that you are the only source for introduction of new species. Scattering some seed of new species in late fall or winter is an inexpensive and natural way to introduce new species. Many of those you will never see but the ones that are well adapted to the conditions will show up, even when scattered within a dense planting. One of the great joys provided by my two acre upland prairie is watching it evolve over the years. It is now 8 years after the initial seeding and I am still finding new species every year. My goal was to emulate what John Weaver described as true prairie, which may now be the rarest prairie type of all. I almost gave up after 3 years but patience has paid off.

Gene Petersen said...

Continued... Benjamin, as you know, the fact that you are planting native species is far more important than how your garden looks to you, but we all want our gardens to be visually appealing to us as well. You also know that your garden already looks fantastic, but I understand your angst, and that is not a bad thing. It drives us to experiment and improve as gardeners. To me the greatest joy of gardening and landscaping is being involved in the dynamic process, not reaching some preconceived end result. You probably don't need my advice but I will throw out a couple of suggestions based on what I see. You have a lot of prairie forbs in your back garden but I don't see prairie grasses. Prairie is mostly grass. You want a higher density of forbs in a small prairie garden, otherwise you will have few of them, but the grasses and forbs are adapted to live together. I wouldn't recommend planting the stalwarts of tallgrass prairie (big bluestem and Indian grass)in a small garden or you won't see much else. However the bunch grasses add a lot, particularly little bluestem, prairie dropseed, rough dropseed, sideoats gramma, and porcupine grass. My other bit of advice involves diversity of conditions, which of course promotes species diversity. I see it as a good thing that you have some slope. If you want to redo an area or expand I suggest making some mounds and adding some different soil types in patches, like some very sandy soil and some pure silt. Throw some rocks and gravel around. Dig some shallow depressions. This will result in patches of different species. One of the pluses of a small garden is that such alterations are achievable. Another plus is that you don't have such an extensive seed bank of invasive exotic species as you get near agriculture. Also, don't be afraid to disturb some areas every year, even with a tiller. I don't mean completely tilling an area, just running over the surface lightly. Disturbances are a part of nature that contribute to diversity. It will bring back some species that have faded away over time. I hope this helps stimulate some ideas and enthusiasm, just as reading your articles has in me.

Corner Gardener Sue said...

Hi Benjamin, I hope you've had a great birthday. I clicked on the first photo to see it full screen, and looked at all of the photos before going back to read the post. It all looked fine to me. I like not being able to see much dirt.

I know about wanting to make changes. I have been thinking I have way too many purple coneflowers, and this evening, went around pulling some out. I especially looked for those that were starting to take the space of some plants I want to have more room to grow.

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Anonymous said...

I didn't do anything last like maybe 5 years. Because my parents do enjoy work in the garden and I let them do everything they want. And one time, when my mother had a birthday, I bought her broadfork tiller and she was as happy as she probably has never been! So, make your parents happy and buy them broadfork!