Thursday, September 19, 2013

Serendipitous Garden Combinations

Simply stated, my flower beds can look a bit chaotic.  I love plants, especially native plants, but I love the animals that live on and with them equally as much.  When I come across a new plant, I buy it and figure out where I'm going to plant it later.  If a few seedlings come up, uninvited and unplanned, I'm likely just to leave them where they sprout, rationalizing that they obviously like the conditions there.  If a plant supports a good cohort of insects, I'm likely to let it remain in my garden, even if it sports tattered foliage for part of the year or if the color of its bloom clashes with the blooms around it.  I love my gardens...but I can see how other people might not be quite so enamored of them.

That disclaimer out of the way, occasionally I find unplanned combinations of plants growing in my gardens that really please me, or a single plant that is just simply special in a truly visual sense.  Since this is, ostensibly, a garden blog, I thought I would take a moment and share with you a couple of the "pretties" from my garden during the last month or so.

I find myself absolutely loving this combination of blue sage (Salvia azurea) and sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes) from my front garden bed.  The blue sage in this photo is a horticultural variety that stays shorter and blooms a deeper blue than the standard species.

It was a good year for blue sage - here is the standard wild type out in the front tallgrass area, with Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the background.  Blue sage is beautiful in that setting, too, but something about the airy mist of sand lovegrass seedheads surrounding the vivid blue of the salvia just satisfies me.

Another nice combination I've just discovered this fall is how well bigleaf aster (Eurybia macrophylla) combines with almost anything that is blooming near it.  Here it is snuggling up with summer phlox (Phlox paniculata).

Bigleaf aster is actually native east of the Mississippi, so I'm stretching to call it truly native for us. 
However, it is performing well in dry shade and it's more native than hosta, for example, so I'm starting to embrace it with open arms.  I have a lot of dry shade.

Here it is with brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba).  The waning summer phlox are in the background. 

Bigleaf aster is tall - about 3' - and I was not too excited this summer as I watched it gain its full height in leggy splendor.  In fact, if I'd been more on the ball, I'd have cut it sharply back in mid June.  When it started blooming, however, the individual stems gracefully sank down into the surrounding plants, making it look like the single, bigleaf aster plant was significantly broader and shorter than it really is.  With the petioles of the flowers responding to gravity and turning the individual blooms to face upwards, the panicles ended up looking like baby's breath, winding among the stronger blooms of the other plants in the garden - a very nice effect.

I think I've written before about fameflower or rockpink (Phemeranthus calycinus, formerly known as Talinum calycinum), but I really want to show off this clump of it. The foliage looks rather like a rangy version of moss rose or sedum.  Like moss rose, it thrives in poor soil and hot sun, with little water.  I've never had to water it.

The blooms are held 6-12" above the foliage on long, slender stems.  They don't open until the heat of the day; they close as the light weakens in the evening.  The bright magenta color shows up magnificently in the hot, afternoon sun of the summer.  Truthfully, though, it's hard to get a good photo of the entire plant because of the spacial separation between flowers and foliage, but the picture above captures the feeling it leaves me with.  I highly recommend it, although finding it may be a bit of a challenge. 

This plant reseeds a bit, which I truly love.  It's not enough to be a nuisance - in fact, I wouldn't mind if the plant would reseed a bit more frequently.  The seeds must be fairly heavy, because I've never found a seedling very far from the parent plant.  I've transplanted a couple of these seedlings and passed a couple others on to gardening friends; they transplant and reestablish quite readily.  I don't feel like I'm using fameflower effectively yet, but I'm slowly moving my new plants around to see what I can figure out.   Hopefully I'll be sharing some stunning combinations including this plant in future years.

Well, only 3 plants in this post, but it's late and I find myself thinking longingly of bed, so I'll sign off for now.  Hope all your fall blooms are reviving your gardening spirit after the heat of the summer!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Spanish Needles

You'd think that the name would have been enough to warn me.

It didn't, however, and it probably won't stop me in the future either.  Hopefully, in the future, though, I'll be a little more careful about limiting my exposure!

What am I talking about?  Why Bidens bipinnata, Spanish needles, of course.

You see, when this plant starts growing each spring, it is beautiful.  It is a deeply satisfying green, with foliage that gives the impression of ferns.  Maxing out at around 24" tall, while handling heat and drought without blinking, for most of the summer Spanish needles looks like the perfect plant for prairie gardens.  Around these parts, we need plants with pretty foliage - too many of our prairie plants have medium green leaves, of a medium size, on a medium to large plant.  Grasses provide the primary contrast, but trust me when I say they can quickly get to be too much of a good thing.   Ferns soften.  Soft green, ferny leaves enrich and brighten.  So ferny plants that don't melt away in heat and sun have an almost irresistible allure for me.

A tiny crack in this plant's perfection starts to form when it starts to bloom, sometime around mid July.  This gloriously ferny, sweet green, luscious mound of plantness puts forth dinky, insignificant flowers with tiny, yellow petals, many of which appear to be missing.  Oh, well, I tell myself, the foliage is still gorgeous!  If the blooms are not glamorous, at least they don't detract from that rich and wonderful foliage.

Before I know it, the seed heads are forming and are being pushing upward, on ever lengthening stems, to the outer reaches of the plant.  At first they look attractive, rather like green fireworks.  Ah, here is the beautiful bloom at last!

Then the seeds actually start to dry and mature.  Their color changes from green to black.  The base of the old flower dries out and its hold on the seeds loosens considerably.

Suddenly, every time I pass near one of the plants, I find that I have several long, black, needle-like seeds attached to my jeans...or my shorts...or my skin.  If I brush against them the wrong way, the darn things HURT!  They truly do feel like needles, trying to puncture me in their need for a new resting place.

Now, every time Becker and Blue go out, they come back covered with those same little, black needles that seem intent on burrowing deep into their fur.  The needles drop off onto the floor, ready to impale unsuspecting, bare feet.  Sometimes I even have to pick them out of the dogs' coats before I can simply give one of the dogs a pat on the head without skewering myself.  Small bowls full of Spanish needles start appearing on my countertops.

Meanwhile, outside, the plants have suddenly gone from glorious, ferny green to scraggly brown...weeds.  When I go to pull them out, battling the heat and drought just so that the poor dogs will quit coming inside with their fur full of these little weapons, I find that the plants aren't shy about puncturing my hide from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet.  It turns out that it's impossible to pull the dead stems of Spanish needles out of the ground without brushing various parts of my anatomy up against those fragile and determined seed heads!

"Carry me away from here!" the seeds plead, while clinging tightly, sometimes painfully, to my clothes and skin and hair.  "We're done here!  We need some place fresh to establish next year!"

Oblivious to their cries, irritated by their insistence, I can't wait to get all of the Bidens bipinnata plants pulled up and carted out to the burn pile.  Clinginess can be so darn unattractive!

So will I let Spanish needles grow up again next year?  Greg will tell me I'm nuts if I do.  He'll tell you I'm nuts, too!

Well, Greg knows me pretty well.  I probably will let the Spanish needles grow again next spring.  The lure of the beautiful, fresh green foliage is just so strong in the spring and early summer.  Next year, though, I promise myself I'll pull them up as soon as the flowers bloom!

Or at least as soon as the seed heads start pushing out to the plants' perimeter.  Assuming, of course, that the heat and drought don't have me totally boxed up inside....

Jerusalem Artichokes: Spider Heaven?

Although I've tried to establish them at other times and in other places, I decided to try Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), a member of the showy sunflower tribe, again this spring.  I planted several groups around the yard, including this particular clump, which is located just a few feet from our compost pile.

I've noticed quite a few insects on these Jerusalem artichoke plants over the course of the summer. The leaves are pretty tattered, but the plants still grow stoutly on.  Presumably they'll be blooming soon, but they don't seem to need to bloom to attract insects.

Over the course of the summer, on this one little clump, I've seen crescent butterfly caterpillars, cicadas, grasshoppers galore, preying mantises, and wheel bugs, just to name the insects that come to mind most easily.  This would be a good plant to pick for a species diversity highlight, come to think of it!

I've seen some spiders here and there, as well.

When I went outside yesterday morning, though, I noticed something I don't think I've ever seen before:  within 2' of this unprepossessing clump of greenery, there were FOUR large female garden spiders in their webs, with a 5th less than 10 feel away above the compost pile.

Here is Spider #1, on the south side of the Jerusalem artichoke clump.  Yesterday she had both a grasshopper AND a cicada in her web.  When I took her photo this morning, she had finished with both of those and was waiting for another meal.

Less than 2' away to the west, but on the other side of the chainlink fence is Spider #2.

Spider #3 is on the north side of the clump, between the clump and the compost pile.  As you can see, this morning she has caught a cicada in her web.  She was busily repairing the damage the cicada had done and she paid absolutely no attention to me as I took photos.

Less than 2' away to the west, but again on the other side of the chainlink fence is Spider #4.

Last of all is Spider #5.  She's in the empty compost bin to the north of our regular bin.  She had the remains of a meal in her web yesterday;  this morning she hadn't repaired her web and was on the wood pallet surrounding the pile.  She is distinctly skinnier than the other 4 females.  Has she laid her eggs already?  Is there something wrong with her?  I have no idea, but I'll watch and see what happens to her.

Here is a photo of Spiders #3 and #4 to show you how close these webs are to each other:  Spider #3 is in the bottom left of the picture, while Spider 4 is in the top right corner.  The greenery on the left side of the photo is the north side of the Jerusalem artichoke clump.

Addendum, 2 hours later:  I decided to pop back outside and see how my gaggle of spiders was doing before I posted this.  Spider #5 has, indeed, produced a huge egg sac, hanging in the shelter of the pallet she was resting on.

She still hasn't tried to make another web.  She looks tired;  I suspect she won't last much longer.

Spider #4 seemed to have disappeared at first, but then I noticed her on the fence, near the top.  Is she starting the process of making her egg sac?  She appears to be spinning silk....

Spider #3 had cut loose the cicada hanging from her web and she appeared to just be resting.

Spider #2 was busily consuming something - perhaps a moth?

And Spider #1 was just waiting for another meal to show up.  The greenery in the background is, again, the clump of Jerusalem artichoke.

Last but not least, looking around a bit more closely, I noticed another fresh egg sac only a couple feet away from both Spiders #1 and #2.  Neither looks like they've produced an egg sac yet.  Could there have been a 6th garden spider in this gaggle?

The last little bit of information I found interesting:  While I was out doing my second check on these gals, I saw almost a dozen grasshoppers in and around this little area, as well as seeing a cicada hiding under a leaf, and a wasp flying by.  There may be a bunch of spiders hanging around this spot - but it appears they all chose their location well!

Friday, September 06, 2013

Glimpses Into Other Lives....

It's such a busy time of year outside right now.  Oh, not busy for me, the gardener who doesn't like heat, but busy for insects and flowers and birds and so many other living things.  I do a walkabout and come back with dozens of photos of interesting glimpses I've been given into other lives.

Of course, much of the time I'm not sure what I've really seen, so I have to research the animal or plant and try to find out.  Sometimes I'm successful...and sometimes I'm not.  Sometimes what I learn seems worth a share...and sometimes not.

Here are a few glimpses of other lives that I've been privileged to observe recently....

Do you ever wonder where other animals sleep?  No safe bed to curl up into....  No obvious shelter from the elements....  No protection from the many, many predators sharing the world with you, night as well as day....  Well, the evening before last, I looked out my kitchen window and saw a dark shape among the leaves of our green ash tree.  Binoculars showed me a rather tattered black swallowtail butterfly clinging to a leaf about 15 feet above the ground.  It seemed rather exposed from my view in the kitchen, but when I grabbed my camera and went outside to take a photo, I had a hard time getting a clear shot.

Maybe it wasn't so exposed a location after all!

Then yesterday morning, about 9:30 a.m., I started out on a walkabout with the boys.  As I went through the back yard, movement fluttering out of the green ash caught my eye.  A large, black swallowtail came out of the tree, to rest on one of my rose bushes.  I quickly caught the image with my camera.

A well worn, female eastern tiger swallowtail, Papilio glaucus, black form, is what my research told me.  To paraphrase the meme currently going around, she looks like she's lived a full life and will slide sideways, screaming "Ya-hooooo!" into her grave!

When I pulled up the images of the sleeping butterfly from the evening before, it was also a female, black form, eastern tiger swallowtail.  Is this one I saw yesterday morning the same one I saw sleeping in that green ash the night before?  Probably.  We don't have that many swallowtails around, let alone worn out, black form, female, eastern tiger swallowtails.  Interestingly, as I look outside right now - about the same time I left on my walk yesterday morning - I notice that the spot she chose to rest in overnight is illuminated brightly by the rising sun.  It would have warmed her perfectly to start her day's duties of eating and reproducing.  Did she pick that spot "consciously" so that she would get a good start the next day, or was it just serendipity that she came to rest there?  One of life's tiny mysteries to which I, at least, will probably never know the answer.

Speaking of never knowing, it's common at this time of year to see funnel webs in the grass, but it's uncommon to see the spiders that build and live in them.  Not being the sort to tear a web apart to see who made it and lives in it, I looked for years without being granted the gift of seeing a funnel web spider.  Then, several years ago, my stubbornness paid off and I started catching glimpses of spiders darting back into their vortical holes.  Once or twice, I was cautious enough to even get a photo or two before caution overcame the spider's curiosity and it retreated back into safety.

This year I have several funnel webs in amongst my flower blooms, a foot or two above the ground.  They're not particularly beautiful, binding the swaying blossoms and leaves together while catching debris in their sticky matrix of silk, but I leave them be as part of the (literal) web of life keeping its precarious balance in my gardens.

Two mornings ago, I was rewarded for my forbearance with a grand appearance by one of my funnel web spiders, standing guard at the entrance to its home while displaying its daily catch, neating bound in front of it.

I can't tell what poor, hapless creature served as breakfast, but I appreciate finally getting to see (and share) in this facet of garden life.

My final share in this post, to keep it from getting too long, is both a simple joy and a non-mystery with a mysterious component.  On my walkabout yesterday morning, I found that the dotted gayfeather, Liatris punctata, have started to bloom out back. 

While capturing their luminescent purple spikes, I came across this beautiful bumblebee, busily gorging on fresh nectar or pollen.

I don't recall having seen, around here, a bumblebee with so much rust on it before.  I carefully looked through the bumblebee species on, but found nothing that matched both the rusty hair on the terminal abdominal segments, as well as the patches of rust on the thorax, so I put in an ID request there.   Since I did see an American bumblebee, Bombus pennsylvanicus, on their site with the rusty hair on the terminal abdominal segments (but not on the thorax), and that species is common here, I'm suspecting they'll just tell me it's a different color morph of American bumblebee, but maybe not.  Now I anxiously await their verdict!

So many thousands of other creatures, busily living their lives while sharing our small acreage....  Actually, I guess, I'm phrasing that incorrectly.  In the overall scheme of life on Earth, it's not "our" acreage.  I should be saying that we are sharing the world with all these other creatures, while we have the privilege of caring for the small acreage that we and they, both, live on...for now. 

And I truly feel privileged for getting this opportunity.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

(Warning!) Rant: Too Much is Too Much

(Note:  this isn't a gardening post!)

How much is too much?

My mother-in-law passed along several issues of Architectural Digest last week and, for kicks and giggles, I started thumbing through them over the weekend.  One article, in particular, has stuck with me, raising my blood pressure every time I think about it.

A husband owns a business, geological services, in New Orleans.  He wants to move his business (and family) to Houston.  His wife sees a home there, which hasn't been lived in for some time, and tells him that if he'll buy that home, she'll move.

He buys the home.  It's a large mansion on 4 acres, completed originally in the early 1930's.  Of course there are repairs and updates and remodeling to do:  plumbing, wiring, heating, cooling, a new roof, bigger closets, a bigger kitchen, a family room, a conservatory....

Among those more normal things, which any well-to-do family buying an older home would want and expect to do, here is a list of things they've done in the last 14 years that were touted in Architectural Digest:

1.  Reopened a closed quarry to mine limestone, so that they could exactly match the limestone on the outside of their home, during expansions, with the limestone used by the original architect/builder.

2.  Had their decorator go on buying trips to New York, Los Angeles, and Paris, often with them accompanying her.  They have found (and used in their home) a huge chandelier once owned by Napoleon III, 16th century Italian painted ceiling panels, a 17th century Brussels tapestry (in the wine cellar) and a "museum quality" 18th century Italian mirror - among many, many other beautiful pieces of antique and more modern furniture.

3.  Installed an antique chapel - imported from France - adding an 18th century chandelier and 19th century stained glass windows and pews to it.

4.  Imported (from France) the antique cobblestones with which they surfaced the driveway.

Am I jealous?  Believe it or not, no.  As I've gotten older, I've learned that the more I have, the more I have to take care of, in one way or another.  I'm finding that simpler is better, at least for me, personally.

What is infuriating to me is that this is a "relatively ordinary" rich couple who is doing this.  This isn't a mogul whose name is on all our lips.  These aren't the Rockefellers or Carnegies or Hearsts.  These folks aren't someone particularly special or unique right now.  And they can afford to do this (and ARE doing this) in a time when poverty is climbing, jobs are scarce, and the middle class - those poor blokes who just want to be able to own a 1200 square foot house on a 0.1 acre lot somewhere - are being squeezed out of existence.

Is the house gorgeous?  Oh, my, yes.  However, as beautiful as this house is and as special as the activities are that has brought it into this sort of condition - I have a real problem with having an entire class of people who are able to do this in our "egalitarian" country.  Should people be rewarded for hard work and initiative?  Definitely.  But there needs to be a limit to those rewards, a limit that is reached before the level of, literally, living like kings.  I don't think our Founding Fathers were trying to establish an economic aristocracy when they revolted from England.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Newly Emerged Mantis, Ready to Gorge!

This morning, as I rejoiced in the cooler temperatures and bright sunshine while doing an abbreviated walkabout in the garden, I happened upon a tangle of light brown that caught my attention as I passed by a brown-eyed Susan.  Taking a closer look, I realized that I was looking at a newly minted female mantis, trying her best to be inconspicuous beneath the remnants of her old exoskeleton.

Checking out, I'm pretty sure that she is a Carolina mantis, Stagmomantis carolina, one of our native mantids.   Beware, all ye insects and other small creatures that visit the front garden in the next 2 months - I'm sure her appetite will be mighty and her hunting prowess great!