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.

If you build it…

by Carl Strang

Our yards are habitats for wildlife. We have no choice in that. We can, however, influence what kinds of wildlife will visit us or live with us on the land. This is true even for a tiny yard like mine. Here are some examples from my prairie flowerbeds, which are approaching their peak now.

Prairie garden 26JL09 b

I have planted royal catchflies all out of proportion to their presence in our local prairies.

Royal catchfly b

As a result, I can count on regular visits from ruby-throated hummingbirds in July and August. Here is this year’s happy camper, photographed through the kitchen window.

Yard hummer 1b

I kind of like this impressionistic view of the same bird.

Yard hummer 2b

Red tubular flowers shout “hummingbird” to ecologists, and to the birds themselves. I wonder if royal catchfly flowers also have evolved the means to defeat nectar thieves.

Bombus bimaculatus yard b

This Bombus bimaculatus bumblebee behaved as though it were in one of those sticky-slow-motion nightmares. The hairs on the royal catchfly calyx either were affecting it chemically, or physically had grabbed it. It wasn’t struggling strongly, so I suspect the former. As far as I know, no bumblebee has a tongue long enough to reach the nectaries of this flower from the front. Bumblebees are known to pierce such flowers from the outside, getting nectar but bypassing the anthers, therefore not serving the plant’s need for cross pollination. Such nectar thievery could provide selective pressure favoring any adaptation in the plant that might prevent the would-be perps from being successful.

In any case, I have plenty of bimaculatus visiting my other flowers, and also a few Bombus griseocollis.

Bombus griseocollis yard b

A final species for this time is the monarch.

Monarch larva b

This half-grown caterpillar is doing well on one of my butterfly weed plants.

Progress on Bumblebees

by Carl Strang

Earlier I posted some background on bumblebees . I find that I made an error or two there, I since have found additional species at Mayslake Forest Preserve, and also some added web sites specific to Illinois bumblebees that have helped immensely. The total list for Mayslake at this point includes 5 species, and I showed a photo from Fullersburg Woods of a 6th, Bombus vagans, in that earlier post. There are 9 species total for Illinois, of which 2 are rare. (Here I am not counting the nest-parasite “cuckoo bumblebees,” of which there are 2, but which I have not yet encountered). To this point in the season, the most common species has been Bombus bimaculatus, both at Mayslake and in my garden at home. It has a yellow thorax except for a black dot on top, the first (basal) abdominal segment is yellow, the second segment is yellow in the center front edge but black on the ends and back edge. Otherwise the abdomen is black.

Bombus bimaculatus 2b

The patch of yellow on the second segment often is small and hidden by the wings, so care is needed to distinguish bimaculatus from another common species (though perhaps less common locally than I implied in that earlier post), Bombus impatiens. The main difference from bimaculatus is that the yellow on impatiens’ abdomen is confined to the first segment.

Bombus impatiens queen 2b

One correction I need to make to that earlier post is that the dead bumblebee I featured was not Bombus fervidus after all. That bee had a black basal abdominal segment, where in fervidus the first 4 segments all are yellow. I have found a few live members of the dead bee’s species at Mayslake.

Bombus auricomus 10b

This is Bombus auricomus, which is regarded as “uncommon” in Illinois. Here, the first segment is entirely black, segments 2 and 3 entirely yellow. The sides of the thorax are black, and as the next photo shows, there is a large black area in the center of the dorsal (top) thorax.

Bombus auricomus 2b

At Mayslake I have seen only a few of these, always in the same place, so I believe there is only one colony of them on the preserve. Compared to other bumblebees they are large and very active. Bombus fervidus is at Mayslake, too.

Bombus fervidus 3b

Here you can see that the basal segment also is yellow, as is the entire thorax except for a black band across the back between the wings. In that earlier post I mentioned the ecological significance of differences in tongue lengths among species. Get a load of the tongue length on that fervidus!

Bombus fervidus tongue b

The 5th Mayslake species to date is Bombus griseocollis.

Bombus griseocollis swamp milkweed 3b

In this one the forward edge of the second abdominal segment is orange, but the back edge is black. The color on the second segment extends closer to the edge than it did in bimaculatus.

Bombus vagans, which I have seen at Fullersburg but not yet at Mayslake, has the first two abdominal segments yellow all the way to the back edge.

Bombus vagans 1b

That leaves only one species of bumblebee which is said to be common in Illinois but which I have not yet observed: Bombus pensylvanicus (listed in some references as B. americanorum). That one is most similar to B. auricomus, but typically has the top rear part of the thorax black or orange, and the first abdominal segment has some yellow on its rear edge.

Here are some web references. For a really nice diagrammatic comparison of these color patterns you can download a pdf file called “Bumble Bees of Illinois and Missouri”. A site with additional identification and ecological information is the beespotter site.

Trimming Experiments

by Carl Strang

My woodland garden  is mainly composed of native plants. It is a garden, nevertheless, and there is an effect I want to create. For one thing, I intend for there to be a general increase in height from the flowerbed’s edge back to the house, punctuated by shrubs. Also, I want to maximize floral displays. In some cases I trim plants to achieve both goals.

October yard 4b

This photo from last October has, in the center, a patch of zigzag (broad-leaved) goldenrod, at this point in seed. I had trimmed it, and got the effect I wanted. However, other patches did less well. Also, I have had inconsistent results trimming Culver’s root. I have learned not to trim the latter species after June 15, but even then sometimes they don’t bloom. So, this year I decided to experiment.

Zigzag goldenrod trimmed 1b

In two patches of zigzag goldenrod, and two of Culver’s root, I trimmed the plants closest to the viewing edge of the flowerbed, but left the back halves untrimmed. The above photo shows one of the goldenrod patches. Here are the trimmed stems as of last weekend.

Zigzag goldenrod trimmed 2b

They are not sending up new shoots from leaf axils below the trims, as they usually do. Furthermore, many of the untrimmed stems already are preparing to bloom, at least 3 weeks early.

Zigzag goldenrod trimmed 3b

I applied the same treatment to Culver’s root. The trimmed ones again did not send up side shoots, as the following photo shows.

Culver's root trimmed 2b

The untrimmed ones are flowering, but are taller than I want to see in that part of the garden.

Culver's root trimmed 3b

On the other hand, the flowers are nice and seem to be standing out better than usual. This is the normal blooming time for this species.

Culver's root trimmed 1b

I deliberately placed the Culver’s root in front of the smooth arrow-wood (shrub) so that the latter’s dark foliage background would bring out the white flowers.

The season is not complete, so I may still revise my assessment. I have two hypotheses as to why the trimmed plants are not preparing to bloom. One is that with all the gloomy, rainy weather we have had this year, there wasn’t enough light to support axillary shoot growth. The other possibility is that the plants in each patch are connected, and when some were trimmed the patch resources were sent to the ones that were intact. I did the trimming early, on May 23, so I don’t think that is the cause. I also trim the asters in the back yard. This year I have not had to trim the asters nearly as much as usual, and the trimmed plants are not sending up a lot of side shoots, so I’m inclined to blame the weather and try the same experiment with these woodland plants next year. On the other hand, I like the effect I’m getting with the taller Culver’s root and may limit the trimming to the goldenrod.

Back Yard Gardens

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I shared my woodland gardens. Today I want to show the back yard. We’re not talking big. For instance, here is my wetland.

Yard 3JL 13b water garden 2009

My prairie is in two parts, both of the postage stamp scale. One part along the back fence will peak in blooming later. For now, some non-native day lilies are providing color.

Yard 3JL 16b fence bed

The other prairie plot has flowers through more of the season.

Yard 3JL 18b prairie

At the moment, the main eye-catchers are butterfly milkweed, white wild indigo, and spiderwort. Others will come along later.

Yard 3JL 19b prairie

On the same scale I also tuck in a vegetable garden.

Yard 3JL 22b vegetable

As I mentioned yesterday, gardening involves inquiry. Though the back yard is the sunniest area I have, the sun doesn’t really reach it until late morning, limiting what I can do there. I have had poor results with carrots and with garlic, for example, and no longer grow them. Beans have given such inconsistent results that I have abandoned them, too. This year I am focusing more on greens, adding Tuscan kale and Swiss chard to the old standby, lettuce.

Woodland Gardens

by Carl Strang

In an earlier post  I outlined my general, less-than-purist approach to gardening. I emphasize native species, but add others to make connections to my neighbors’ landscapes and to keep some color going through the season. Any gardener knows that there is an element of inquiry in the art. For instance, I have not had success with Jacob’s ladder in the main woodland garden in my side yard, but it does fine in the front.

Yard 10MY2b Polemonium

This year I am experimenting with a variegated form of Solomon’s seal in the front and side yards.

Yard 10MY3b var sol seal

My small side yard is dominated by 3 silver maples. Beneath them I have an understory with witch hazels, smooth arrow-wood, Juneberry, and pagoda dogwood. A mix of native woodland plants has something blooming for a good part of the season. Earlier the wild geraniums flowered.

Yard 23MY 3b geranium

These are supplemented by some non-native amsonias in the background.

Yard 23MY 12b Amsonia

If you look closely you may see the small pawpaws that ultimately will overtop the amsonias. These are growing from seeds I brought back from a vacation trip to southern Ohio, though pawpaw is native to northeast Illinois, too. Mid-summer brings a gap in blooming woodland wildflowers.

Yard 3JL 9b green textures

Though personally I like the variation in textures and shades of green, I like to bring in some color with tuberous begonias and hostas along the edge.

Yard 3JL 8b begonia hosta

This year I also added an urn with some New Guinea impatiens and a tropical Alocasia ‘Sarian’.

Yard 3JL 10b side yard container

I’m interested in seeing if these will keep going if I bring the urn indoors for winter.

P.S. this is the 200th post of this blog.

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