Milkweed Magic

Milkweed in budJuly has arrived and the long borders are glorious after a cool and rainy spring. Summer is here and while the tended gardens are beautiful, I have a confession. It is not the the glorious flowers of astilbe, bee balm, phlox or even the majestic delphiniums which have caught my attention this summer. No, it is a lowly native plant patch which beacons me and Gibbs, each day, down into the lower back field. Milkweed moundSometimes it is in the morning with a cup of coffee. Other times it is in the glare of the mid day sun. Often it is late in the day. Halfway down between the barn and the lower field, the scent pulls me forward. It is heavy and sweet and as identifiable, once experienced, as that of lily of the valley or lilac. The milkweed patch, Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed, has taken root in the well composted horse manure pile of the back field. Milkweed patchAs unromantic a start as can be had. In the morning, the flower heads of the milkweed are thick with dew, in mid-afternoon the patch hums with life and in evening the scent seems the sweetest. To stand at the edge, or even in the midst of a patch of milkweed is a revelation. Milkweed moth and honeybeeThere are moths, bumblebees, honeybees and milkweed beetles meeting for some afternoon delight. A visceral experience of sight, sound and scent. Beetle loveAt the recent Fourth of July party, a good part of the afternoon involved several trips down to the milkweed patch. All who traveled there seemed amazed. I have to believe they were being more than polite and the surprise and appreciation at the life in and scent of the milkweed patch was genuine. There are many interesting facts about our native milkweed. It was named for the Greek God of medicine, Asclepius and as expected it has many medicinal uses. The latex like substance exuded from the plant when it is cut or damaged has been used to treat warts. The milkweed plant contains cardioactive glycosides which gives protection from predators to those insects who ingest it. Good news for the monarch caterpillar and butterfly which feed exclusively on Asclepias species. The silky parachute of the milkweed seed is six times more buoyant than cork and five times warmer than wool. The floret of the milkweed has the ability to trap the leg of an insect seeking nectar.  Milkweed flower closeupA structure called the corpusculum does the trick. This helps ensure pollination as pollen is dispersed as the insect struggles for freedom. The coarse fibers of the stalk have been used by Native Americans to make twine.  You can read much more about this plant from the experts but there is no substitute for standing near the milkweed patch where you can hear, smell and see all the life which it supports. I would not recommend this species plant for the manicured border but there are other garden worthy species available such as A. tuberosa, Butterflyweed. Milkweed and flying beesCommon milkweed is coarse and can be invasive as it spreads from both seed and runners but if you have a sunny field area it would make a great addition to your landscape. Milkweed pod and seedI look forward to visiting the flowering patch which will last another week or two but I know, in mid-October, the milkweed will again please the senses as the seeds ripen, the plush parachutes open to catch the breeze and they lift and float to fields unknown.


What's that Noise?

The gardenThe mornings are cool now that fall has arrived. The cool mornings actually arrived a week or so before the official fall date. There has been a frost down in the valley a mile away but no frost here yet which means that the gardens are still looking full and lush although there is decline in the air. The afternoons are clear, warm in the sun and cool in the shade, kind of days.  When I step out the front door on these warm afternoons there is a loud hum. DSC_0012The oak tree anchoring the entry garden looks as though it has a bit of matted fur all over the trunk and limbs. Climbing high into the branches, English Ivy, Hedera helix, has made a home. Now before you get all excited, yes this plant is invasive and on many invasive lists but here in northwestern Rhode Island it has not spread by seed. Here, it just has climbed high and when it climbs high it flowers. Hedera helix in flowerThe flowers of English Ivy are creamy umbels which have an incredibly sweet fragrance.  Their sweetness is appreciated by the bees. I know there is more than one kind of bee enjoying the nectar. I can see bumblebees and I think there are honeybees but I have not taken life and limb in hand to climb a ladder into this bee haven. English Ivy flowersI am content to stand under this tree and just listen to the happy hum. These are not the only 'bees' in the garden. In July as I started to pick the climbing beans in the vegetable garden I heard the familiar and angry buzz of hornets. Looking for the source I realized that they had and were still building their nest in the top of the tutuer on which the beans were climbing. My first response was to back away and leave the beans right where they grew. Hornet sprayMy second response was to purchase hornet and bee killer. I thought long and hard about the implications of applying this pesticide in the vegetable garden. Hornets can be quite aggressive and if I had an allergy to bee venom I would not hesitate to remove these trespassers. But while hornets are not great pollinators they are great predators. Most of us have experienced hornets hovering over a soda can or descending upon the fallen fruit in an orchard but they also eat a variety of insects. I do think there was less damage on all the Brassica plants in the garden this year. The cabbage looper often etches a lacy leaf pattern on the brussel sprouts foliage which does impact the size of the actual brussel sprout. Bee's nestSo, I left the nest and have watched it grow all summer long. It is really a marvel of engineering. BEESThese critters are doomed anyway since the first frost is imminent. Have you ever left a wasp nest alone just so you can observe what goes on in and around it?

Bronze and Black-Anise and Swallowtails

DSC_0024-ButterflyBronze fennel and black swallowtails, Foeniculum vulgare purpureum and Papilio polyxenes,  go together like wine and cheese. Both groups are most welcome additions to the garden. I added bronze fennel to both the long border and to a high, zinc container. The container holds scented geraniums, dichondra and bronze fennel which gives height and color to the planting. It was placed next to the narrow walkway to encourage tactile guests to reach out and 'play' with the plants thus releasing a bit of scent. I may be the only one who actually does this on purpose. I never have been able to keep my hands to my self. DSC_0002-Container It has been a great season for butterflies in the garden. DSC_0014-little butterfliesThere are many this year of all shapes and sizes and one would think they would be easy to photograph as they just flit from flower to flower but they are surprisingly shy and wiley. Capturing them in flight is a challenge. Not so these beautiful larvae.
IMG_1288-Monarch caterpillar
I counted six on the bronze fennel. They are quickly devouring this plant. I hope it provides enough food for them before they grow into adulthood. IMG_1287-six monarch caterpillarsI do worry about them since their markings are so distinctive it would seem to make them easy prey for some scavenging bird. There are many birds here this summer as well. Indigo buntings, cardinals, tufted titmouse to name a few. That is a subject that deserves its own post. For now, it is time to enjoy the butterflies in all their stages. Are you seeing more butterflies than usual this season?  

Back to the Cold

The birdLast week I was frolicking with the Sandhill Cranes on the golf course in Titusville, FL. My Mom has a winter home there and mid-January seemed a good opportunity to visit with her and enjoy the warmth. Timing is everything. I was away when the cold arctic air descended on much of the country last week. Florida was sunny and relatively warm. When one leaves the garden for a week in June there are drastic changes. In January, not so much. The only major change was to the thermometer. Cold rhodieThere were subtle changes. The rhododendron leaves exhibit a curling response to the cold and when it is very cold, they really shiver. There was a sprinkling of snow on the garden when I returned. When the temperature dips to single digits it is best to have a heavy blanket on the beds both inside and out.Light snow on hollySome things are out of our control and only time will tell if the low temps have caused any major damage. Many gardeners take chances with plants which are on the edge of their hardiness zone. I rarely take that chance any longer. Mother Nature has trained me in this regard. What about you? Do you have any 'On Edge' plants which you are worried about this winter?     

Guess who's coming to dinner?

High 49 F
Low  40 F
Dsc_0002 (2)
The rye grass in the corn patch must look like quite a delicacy to the white tailed deer.  For now, they are content to munch on the grass but as soon as the snow flies and then covers the ground, the deer will start on the rhododendrons and needle leaf evergreens and anything else that they can find.  I have friends who are hunters and one has told me that there is very little in the woods for them to eat this year.   It wasn't a very big acorn year and acorns are a deer staple.DSC_0018 I let Tucker out to chase these deerDSC_0002 off to the woods and he sniffed the air while they looked his way.  He then rolled over in the grass and took a lawn bath.  The deer went back to grazing until I opened the door to let Tucker back inside. Dsc_0003 (2) They are bold, beautiful and quite destructive.  It is time to spray the trees once again and this time I will be adding some very hot, Bhut jolokia peppers! DSC_0088 I expect to hear some snorting in protest.  What do you use in defense of deer?