November 30, 2013

Garden lessons learned: autumn 2013


Of all the transitions between seasons, this is the weirdest one to write about. Moving from autumn to winter seems to happen faster than the other transitions, and it feels odd to write about "autumn lessons" when we've had "winter" weather for a couple of weeks.


Of course there's plenty of material for this "Lessons Learned" meme, because I learn (and re-learn) every season of the year.


So here goes. Here's what I learned during autumn 2013:

• Get the camera ready for the Purple Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis). This misty plant has a similar effect to Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)--clouds of soft fluffy color in early autumn. Plus, it blooms from August through October. I discovered a patch at the cottage this year, and the purple/pink cloud of inflorescence was magical in the afternoon light. But I didn't have a decent camera with me. My bad.

• Sow perennial seeds in late autumn. It's easier and cheaper than purchasing and planting perennial plants in the spring. This autumn, I planted seeds for Agastache foeniculum, Boltonia asteroides, Carex pennsylvanica, Conoclinium coelestinum, Mertensia virginica, and two species of Asclepias. Who knows if any of them will germinate and grow next spring, but the investment in seeds was minimal. Plus, it's kind of fun anticipating which plants will appear.

• Add some veggies to the display. Swiss Chard, Pansies, and Ornamental Kale all perform well in my autumn climate--long after the first frost and into the late winter. I'm already planning my autumn potted arrangements for next fall.

• Wear comfortable sturdy, supportive shoes when visiting public gardens or traveling. I thought I'd packed the appropriate "comfortable" shoes for my London trip this fall, but after only one day of walking through airports and London streets, my feet ached! By the time we got to Kew Gardens, walking was painful. My fondest memories of Kew are sitting down outside the Orangery restaurant and taking a slow tour through the Grass Garden (including sitting breaks). Fortunately, I had other shoes along to wear for the rest of the trip. But next time I'll be ready with hiking boots or athletic shoes with extremely supportive, durable soles.

• Prepare for a quick seasonal shift in November if October is mild. This fall was brief. It almost seemed like we went from summer to winter overnight. No complaints here, because the extra warm days were nice. But I need to remind myself to be ready for the sudden blast of arctic air.


Now it's your turn: What gardening and nature lessons have you learned and relearned this season? If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, please share your spring lessons.


To join in the Lessons Learned meme, share a new or a previous post you've written regarding things you've learned. No Linkys necessary: You can simply add the link in your comment.


Please also join Donna at Gardens Eye View for the Seasonal Celebrations meme. Posts that cover both memes offer a chance to reflect on the past season and look ahead to the next at the same time. Both memes will be active until the solstice, when we'll post the wrap-ups.


November 26, 2013

Plant of the Month: Ornamental Kale

I can't decide which Ornamental Kale I like best. As a relative newcomer to growing them, I chose 'Glamour Red' and 'Kamome Pink' this fall. They're all fun additions and offer vibrant color even to northern gardens, well into November and often December.

Brassica oleracea acephala 'Glamour Red'

'Glamour Red' is a drama queen with its shockingly bright magenta burst.


And its veiny hardy green foliage.

Brassica oleracea acephala 'Kamome Pink'

'Kamome Pink,' in my limited experience, holds up a little better to freezing weather.


It's not quite as dramatic, but it's equally lovely.

Ornamental Kales prefer full sun or a touch of shade and well-drained soil, according to Cornell University's Home Gardening Guide. They also:

  • Grow to a height and spread of about 12-18 inches;
  • Tolerate frost, often remaining colorful into early winter;
  • Are nonaggressive and noninvasive; and
  • Are edible, although questionably palatable.

  • Personally, I simply like the way they look--even at the end of fall.



    Happy Thanksgiving to our American friends!

    November 20, 2013

    On dogs, butterflies, and bruises...

    "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the 
    rest of the world."    ~ John Muir

    dog walk
    By KAAY. Click on photo for full citation.

    Sometimes the answer to a problem seems black and white.

    But it's important to consider the gray areas.

    For example, dogs are man's best friends.

    I don't have a dog, but if I had to choose one nonhuman animal to accompany me in a survival situation (and I couldn't have a horse), that animal most likely would be a dog.

    dog love
    By Michael McPhee. Click on photo for full citation.

    Many of my friends, and most of my family members, have dogs. They're cherished members of their nuclear families as well as our larger extended families.

    dog run
    By 4028mdk09. Click on photo for full citation.

    We don't want them to hurt or to suffer in any way. That's a black-and-white issue for most of us.

    And then there's the issue of the disappearing monarch butterflies.


    It's easy to put off thinking about them until next year or until they're endangered. Or worse, yet, to give up and think there's no hope for them, or to simply not care. There are so many factors stacked against them. And all they are, afterall, is ... butterflies.

    It's not like they're man's best friend.

    dog tilt
    By Vindhyana. Click on photo for full citation.

    This issue is a little more gray.


    Consider the words of John Muir at the beginning of this post: "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." Are monarch butterflies "canaries in the coal mine"? What impact would their extinction have on the rest of the world? Put another way, are their disappearing numbers trying to tell us something?

    So much has been published about dogs and butterflies, and most of us care deeply about both of them. Again, black and white.

    Unfortunately, what helps one species harms the other:
    • Monarchs need Milkweed--that's all the caterpillars can eat;
    • But Milkweed is toxic to dogs.

    milkweed seeds

    I harvested seeds from two types of Milkweed this fall: Swamp Milkweed and Whorled Milkweed. I asked friends and family if they wanted seeds for their gardens to help the monarch butterflies. Several without dogs didn't hesitate to say "yes."

    Of course, I mentioned to the dog owners that Milkweed is toxic to dogs, so they'd have to be careful where to plant it. Frankly, that brought the enthusiasm about planting Milkweed down to about a one or two, on a scale of one to 10.

    My goodness, I can't blame them. A dog is a part of the family. Dogs chew ... on just about anything. Dogs that chew on Milkweed might get sick. Black and white, right?

    I'm terrible at sales--especially in situations where I completely understand the "No, thanks." So when a dog owner says, "Oh, well, I can't grow that because my dog might eat it," I give up.

    But this post is about the gray areas. If you have a dog (or a horse, or an outdoor cat, or any other mammalian pet), but you also care about monarch butterflies, consider the gray areas before you give up on the monarchs.


    Here are just a few ideas on how pet owners can protect their pets and also help prevent monarch extinction:
    • Plant Milkweed in fenced-in gardens that your pets can't reach;
    • Support organizations and public gardens dedicated to supporting and protecting the monarch;
    • Volunteer at a nature center to help maintain monarch habitat; or
    • Consider rearing monarch caterpillars in a safe container or tent, away from predators (including pets). Click here for instructions on how to do it.

    If you have other ideas on how to protect both pets and monarchs, please add them to your comments.

    For more information about the status of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and how you can help, visit the World Wildlife Fund or the Monarch Joint Venture.

    Monarchs have been on our minds and featured on our blogs more than ever this year, because they're "near threatened," according to the World Wildlife Fund. Man's best friend is, arguably, the most important and cherished species for human survival. But there are gray areas--ways we can support both.

    For months now, the song "All I know," written by Jimmy Webb and popularized by Art Garfunkel has been going through my mind. It's a simple song, really, and some might call it overly melancholy. But I find it powerful and wise in its simplicity. It applies to human interactions, but also to how all earth's creatures--including man and his best friend--interact and "bruise" each other. Here's to working on the gray areas, and making the bruises less severe.

    (For a poignant video set to the music of "All I Know," click on the picture below.)

    November 15, 2013

    I saw a black swallowtail today

    Today was a gift.

    I didn't expect to participate in Garden Bloggers Bloom Day this month. But believe it or not, there are a few flowers still blooming here.

    In fact, today I saw beautiful blooms, foliage, moss, berries, and even a black swallowtail butterfly! It's Nov. 15 ... in Wisconsin! We've already had temperatures in the teens (-8C) ... and measurable snow!

    Seeing a swallowtail is very uncommon this late in the season. And because I wasn't speedy enough to photograph it and positively ID it, I can't be sure. But I did, indeed, see a black butterfly with yellow and blue markings! My neighbor saw it, too. We were both out raking and talking, so I couldn't run off and say, "Excuse me while I chase that butterfly so I can get a picture for my blog ..."

    Anyway, I had my iPhone in my pocket while I was raking, and I captured a few shots. The quality is a little grainy, but here are the blooms:

    Mums, Alyssum, and even a bright yellow Pansy!

    Saturday is Foliage Follow-Up. Does Moss count as foliage? Notice how this Moss is sending out new growth? Is that strange for November?

    Common for November, around here, are berries aplenty, including on the Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) and the Yew bushes (Taxus spp.).

    Back to raking tomorrow. But I still can't believe I saw a butterfly on Nov. 15!

    Oh, and lady beetles, too.

    November 10, 2013

    Artful grass displays at London's Kew Gardens


    I'm not a grass person. But during our recent trip to London's Kew Gardens, I decided to move beyond my comfort zone, open my mind a little, and spend some time in Kew's Grass Garden.

    I may just be a convert.

    Was it because of the perfect weather (18C/64F, partly cloudy, calm)? The fact that I was on vacation? The season? Or something else?

    Perhaps it was because of the incredibly artful way that Kew has arranged its grass collection: 550 species from around the world. And the time of day: midafternoon, which meant the sun was shining on, around, and through the grasses in spectacular ways. How could I resist?

    I took 225 photos at Kew--63 of them at the Grass Garden, alone. It was lovely. Here are a few highlights:


    Shenandoah Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum), native to most of North America.


    Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea), native to Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. This particular cultivar is 'Poul Petersen.' It forms purple flower spikes in the spring and summer that resemble Lavender from a distance.


    Hare's Tail (Lagurus ovatus), a Mediterranean grass.


    Medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae), native to Southern Europe and North Africa.


    Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana), native to Southern South America.


    Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), native to much of the Eastern and Central U.S. and Northern Mexico. I've been meaning to add this grass to my garden because I find it attractive, and because it's one of the few grasses native to my area that thrives in partial shade.


    Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum), native throughout most of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. This cultivar is 'Squaw,' which blooms with a cloud of pinkish flower heads.


    Himalayan Fairy Grass (Miscanthus nepalensis), native to parts of Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.


    Blue Grama Grass (Bouteloua gracilis), native to much of the U.S., but common in the Midwest and West.


    Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica), native to parts of Asia, Micronesia, Melanesia, Australia, and parts of Africa. This cultivar is 'Rubra.'


    Korean Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha).

    I could go on and on. But the true beauty of the grasses at Kew extends beyond their individual merits to the way the botanical garden has them combined in artful waves of color, texture, height, and form.











    (Just four days after our visit, London experienced a major windstorm. Fortunately, Kew reported it lost only 12 of its 14,000 trees, and the damage otherwise was minimal. I wonder how the Grass Garden fared.)