Who Let the Frog Out?

by Carl Strang

Native wetlands are represented in my little yard by a container water garden.

The container holds water lilies and a few emergents.

The container holds water lilies and a few emergent.

Early this summer I began to notice little sounds and movements when I passed the container. My suspicions were raised, and eventually I was able to spot the little green frog peeking out of the water from time to time. Green frogs are notorious wanderers, and this little guy not only had traveled more than 100 yards from the nearest wetland, he had detected the water in my container, its surface at least a foot above the ground, and had managed to climb up into it. I hadn’t seen the frog in a while, but I decided I had better empty the water garden for winter earlier than I usually do, in case the frog had not wandered on. The first days of the month were relatively warm, so a safe release was possible.

I set the emergent pots in the emptied vegetable garden. Feeling with my fingers, I detected no frog. Same for the cavities in the supporting bricks, same for the water lily pots.

I set the emergent pots in the emptied vegetable garden. Feeling with my fingers, I detected no frog. Same for the cavities in the supporting bricks, same for the water lily pots.

Next came the careful bailing. The frog peeked out when I reached this level.

Next came the careful bailing. The frog peeked out when I reached this level.

I scooped him into the bucket.

I scooped him into the bucket.

A mud-bottomed stream flows past the subdivision. This is where the frog probably came from, and I carried him down there.

A mud-bottomed stream flows past the subdivision. This is where the frog probably came from, and I carried him down there.

I emptied him onto the leaves at the edge of the stream.

I emptied him onto the leaves at the edge of the stream.

A touch to his back end was enough to stimulate a leap into the water. The frog swam vigorously to the center of the stream and burrowed into the soft mud. He should survive OK, but I don’t expect a return to my garden next year.

Pocket Prairie

by Carl Strang

This is the time of year when the view out my back window is best.

The diversity of blooming wildflowers hits its peak in late July.

The diversity of blooming wildflowers hits its peak in late July.

My neighborhood for the most part is a wildlife desert. It’s amazing what a little habitat can bring, though. These native prairie flowers attract diverse pollinators, and bumble bees for instance always are present in the daylight hours. The red blooms are royal catchflies, which never fail to bring hummingbird visitors in July and August. Later, goldfinches will be after the seeds in the purple coneflower heads. My original planting plan is history, as most of these plants are seeding into the tiny spaces left between. My main work has shifted from planting to thinning, keeping the better competitors at bay so as to maintain a balance of biodiversity. That makes me a member of this community, too.

Celebration

by Carl Strang

Yesterday was a day of milestones, celebration, with just a touch of poignancy. My new tree was planted.

A Hill’s oak, in its new home

As I shared last spring, the green ash in my front yard had become infested with emerald ash borers. There was no saving it, so sadly I had to let it go. As I considered replacement possibilities, my thoughts turned to Hill’s oak. I love oaks most of all among tree groups, and Hill’s oak is a species I have seen doing well in the clay soil of the savanna ridge at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Spring Bluff Nursery had the species, which they call by its other name of northern pin oak (though recent taxonomic work makes clear that northern scarlet oak would be a more accurate name), and for an extra fee they were willing to go beyond their usual delivery boundary and plant it for me. That was one cause for celebration.

The other was that Thursday was the day I completed my first full week of 3-mile runs (excepting cross-training days) since I strained my back in mid-April. It has been a long road back. Too little activity, and too much nursing of an extremely painful left side, had left me with an atrophied left leg and total loss of cardiovascular conditioning. Physical therapy, gradual resumption of core exercise training, strengthening exercises, eventually bicycling, and finally awkward bits of jogging, gradually put me on the road to recovery. I hope to run a half-marathon in the spring.

I had saved my last bottle of Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Stout for this day. Only one batch is produced each winter by that Michigan brewery, and none had been available since spring. As I finished my post-run pizza and sipped the last of that beer, I looked out the window at the new tree. It occurred to me then that this tree will be growing long after I am gone. It will shade generations of children waiting for school buses. Its brilliant autumn color will draw the eyes of passing neighbors. Such buried poignant thoughts perhaps are behind all celebrations. So here’s to oaks, to distance running, and to future generations!

Sweetgrass Harvest

by Carl Strang

Two springs ago on a whim I bought 3 plugs of sweetgrass at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s native plant sale. I planted them in 3 odd corners of my flowerbeds, and haven’t paid much attention to them since. As I was catching up on gardening in recent days I found that one of the plugs apparently didn’t make it, one barely is holding its own, but the third is going crazy, spreading as much as 2 feet in all directions from the initial spot. Sweetgrass, also known as vanilla grass, traditionally is used as incense, producing a sweet vanilla odor when burned. I decided to try harvesting this year’s growth. Traditionally sweetgrass is formed into braids, and so I cut the leaves and divided them into bunches.

Here are my clumsy looking braids, tied and ready to hang for drying.

The grass hasn’t flowered in my yard, but my understanding is that the species isn’t a heavy bloomer. Certainly I have yet to encounter flowers in the field. If the vegetative growth in my garden is typical, it can do fine without producing seeds.

I am guessing about everything: whether to harvest while still green, whether to braid while still green, and where best to hang it. I figured it would begin to decompose and its odor might go away if I waited for the leaves to senesce. It might not be flexible enough to braid when dry. My kitchen seemed an open enough place to hang the braids. Certainly after 24 hours my entire downstairs smells delightfully of vanilla. If any reader has experience with this and can advise me otherwise, I would appreciate it.

Garden Bloodroot Disperses

by Carl Strang

I have planted 3 bloodroots in my shaded garden flowerbed. They are the earliest of my native plants to flower each year, and all have multiplied by root expansion. This year they demonstrated their fecundity in a different way. A fourth plant, growing several feet beyond the nearest established bloodroot, has matured enough to flower.

I had noticed leaves here the past year or two.

I would not have planted a bloodroot up against the edging like this, but it’s not an unreasonable place for an ant colony to do so. Ants are the main dispersers of bloodroot seeds, as well as those of a number of other plant species that bloom in our forests in early spring. Their seeds tempt the ants with fatty outgrowths called elaiosomes. Using these as handles, ants carry them to their nests. After consuming the elaiosomes the ants discard the useless (to them) seeds, having conveniently (for the plant) carried them into the protective soil.

This is very satisfying. Mine is not a hands-off garden. I have to work diligently, for example, to constrain the zig-zag goldenrods. But in this case I welcome the ants’ partnership, and look forward to watching the expansion of this newest bloodroot colony.

Spots of Color

by Carl Strang

Familiar landscapes become delightfully transformed in this season. Some eye-grabs of color are planned; here is an example from my garden.

An additional element of enjoyable surprise comes in finding such changes in an area one is monitoring through the year. Mayslake Forest Preserve’s savanna had a couple early color explosions. One was in the sumac colony.

The Hill’s oaks also are turning up the red (or, if you prefer, turning down the green).

Now is the time. Get out and enjoy it. Soon it will be gone for another year.

Alocasia Over Winter

by Carl Strang

Though my gardens are dominated by native species, I accent them with horticultural additions. This insures visual variety and color through the season, and allows for more of a blend with the neighborhood as a whole. One feature I added last year was an urn with a big-leaved tropical Alocasia ‘Sarian’ and a couple New Guinea impatiens. In the fall I brought the urn indoors, to see if its plants might survive the winter. I placed it near the orchids to take advantage of the added lighting there. The impatiens didn’t make it: I wasn’t able to keep the urn watered well enough. The Alocasia survived, however, and on June 20 I moved it outside.

Two leaves had persisted through the winter, and a fresh one expanded before I moved the plant back out. I added a couple new impatiens, and the accent is complete.

Bloodroot and Bees

by Carl Strang

While I enjoy seeing the daffodils and Siberian squills blooming in my yard in early spring, what I most anticipate are the first native wildflowers, the bloodroots.

This year as I checked out the first two bloodroot clusters in bloom, I noticed a dark spot in one of the flowers.

This proved to be not just one bee, but two, apparently mating. As this choice of perch makes them stand out visually, I assume it was not a random choice, but a sign that these bees include bloodroot as a food source and therefore are potential pollinators. As I have a growing interest in native pollinator-flower partners, I looked into what is known for bloodroot. Literature available on the Internet indicates that native bees of several families are known to visit bloodroot flowers. Members of the Adrenidae may be the most important bee family for that plant, but other pollinators belong to the bee families Apidae and Halictidae, with other Hymenoptera as well as Hemiptera and Coleoptera mentioned.

Though the flowers were dancing in the wind that day, one of my photos was sharp enough to show some detail. My references on native bees are limited. As best I can tell, given what is visible of coloration, furriness, wing venation and especially antenna length on both individuals, these are “long-horned bees,” members of tribe Eucerini, family Apidae. In other words they are native relatives of the honeybee. They nest in tunnels which they dig in the soil, and are solitary rather than social colony-formers.

Garden Experiment Results

by Carl Strang

In earlier posts I described the gardens around my home and this year’s experiments in which I am trying to improve them. In one experiment I trimmed patches of zigzag goldenrod and Culver’s root so as to get progressive increases in height front to back, hoping to produce little walls of flowers. The best result was in the sunnier patch of goldenrods behind the urn.

Yard 4SE 2b

The effect is being enhanced day by day as the Virginia creepers on the nearby silver maples increase in color.

Yard 26SE 10b

Earlier I mentioned how the Culver’s root did not respond well to the trimming. I still suspect that this year’s cool cloudy summer had an impact there. On the other hand, I’m convinced that such trimming will not work in the shadier part of the garden, so next year I will apply the same treatment only in the sunny area.

As shown above, the urn was a good addition. I also like how the variegated Solomon’s seals worked out.

Yard 10MY3b

Finally, in the vegetable garden, I got very poor results with Swiss chard, but the Tuscan kale grew well and I will expand its allotment next year.

Yard 26SE 1b

Soon we enter the season when gardeners dream their plans for next year.

Micrathena gracilis

by Carl Strang

A couple years ago I was pleasantly surprised to find, in the garden beds around my home, a few orb-weaving spiders of the species Micrathena gracilis.

Micrathena gracilis b

It was a happy discovery, as this is a forest spider, and it was, like the little firefly Photinus marginellus, a sign that the micro-woodland I had established around my home was successful.

I first encountered Micrathena as a child in northern Indiana. They were common in the woods there, and on our fall squirrel hunts we had to watch for them. It was distracting to get tangled in their webs, and these spiders can bite (the sensation is comparable to that of a biting fly, i.e. something one wants to avoid if possible). During my 5-year stint as an assistant professor of biology in Pennsylvania I found this spider there, as well. I noticed that the spider’s thorny-looking, black-highlighted white abdomen mimics the silk-wrapped debris from earlier feedings clustered near the center of the spider’s web.

When I moved to Illinois 28 years ago I soon noticed that only Waterfall Glen, DuPage County’s southernmost forest preserve along the Des Plaines River, seemed to have Micrathena, though they were fairly common there. Since then they have expanded north and west. A decade or more ago I first saw them at Willowbrook Forest Preserve, close to the center of the county. And now I find them each year in my yard in west central DuPage. Like the broad-winged tree cricket I featured last winter, this spider’s expanding range tells us that nature is dynamic, always changing, worth monitoring.

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