Let nature take its course

I was unconcerned when I first noticed an infestation of aphids on seedpods of the Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata, below). What harm could be done to this vigorous native? Probably none, and I planned to let nature takes its course.Aphids on milkweed

Its course, as it turns out, was to attract beetles that have quickly stripped aphids from several sets of seedpods. I expect all aphids will be gone in another few days without intervention on my part. Given the few disease and pest problems in this garden, I suspect that natural controls occur many more times than I’m able to witness.Aphids on milkweed

Certainly, I notice dragonflies darting across the koi pond, and with the notable lack of Tiger mosquitoes in the vicinity, I suspect dragonflies are the reason. While much of the zipping about of the dragonfly defines its territory, other movements are predatory, though the violence of the capture of the mosquito occurs at a speed that I cannot see.Dragonfly

This afternoon, I noticed the start of webworms in the Silver Cloud redbuds (Cercis canadensis ‘Silver Cloud’, below). To the best of my recall, the stinging caterpillar of the White Flannel moth did not infest the redbuds last summer, but a year earlier a significant portion of the trees was defoliated in late summer.White Flannel moth caterpillar

At the time, I was unaware that the caterpillars were one of the stinging types until I stooped to pull a weed beneath a redbud’s arching branches. A few were dislodged from leaves onto my bare arm, and with the stinging parts facing up I was stung only when I flicked them off with my hand. This is not the first time I’ve been stung by caterpillars, and as I poke my nose too close, too often, it will certainly not be the last. The sting is painful enough that you will pay closer attention the next time.

I am interested to see if this webworm will be the same, but possibly it will be another caterpillar. In any case, I expect no long term damage to the redbuds. Though I do not spray pesticides, when I happen to notice an infestation I will closely watch it from start to finish. I read that a large portion of a bird’s diet is caterpillars, but I have yet to see it, and it seems this will not be a solution for the caterpillars. If the infestation becomes too severe, I can take action, but I don’t recall ever needing to do anything.  Caterpillar on golden chain tree

Several years ago, one of two weeping Golden Chain trees (Laburnum x watereri ‘Pendulum’, above) was infested with another stinging caterpillar. I watched over a week as the small tree was completely defoliated. I thought that I might have let this go too far, but the following spring there was no obvious loss of vigor, and with this experience I am curious to follow the progress of this year’s webworms.

Where are the bees?

Much about the fate of bees and other pollinators has been discussed by government and gardeners in recent years. I cannot argue, except in my small part of the planet where there is no sign of their diminished numbers. On any sunny afternoon from July through September, the gardener need only stroll past his small patch of Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) to reassure that wild bees have not disappeared. Here are more bees and wasps than can be counted, and a more timid gardener might fear to linger too long in close proximity to such a quantity of stinging beasts.Mountain mint

I’ve been stung a time or two, though I can’t recall the instance, and perhaps never while observing the Mountain mint that fully captures the attention of pollinators while they feast on its nectar. Rarely do bees notice as I come too close, attempting to identify one of the many that is not readily recognized. The frenzied scene appears to be a bout of competitive feeding, with the scrumptious nectar not exhausted until late summer.Wasp on Mountain Mint in mid July

Admittedly, the patch of Mountain mint is not so small anymore, and the gardener looking to add this pollinator favorite should be aware that natives can also be aggressive. I advise that it is easily controlled, with roots pulling readily if it should stray too far. Certainly, there is no flower in this garden that is effective for such a long period, and none that attract pollinators for several months.Passionflower

For reasons beyond my limited comprehension, seedlings of ‘Little Joe’ Joe Pye weed ( Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’, below) growing in damp muck at the edge of the koi pond flowered weeks earlier than others. With ‘Little Joe’ and native Joe Pye in the swampy rear border of the garden beginning to flower as the seedlings faded, Tiger swallowtails have been seen in greater abundance this summer.Swallowtail butterfly on Joe Pye weed

While the native Joe Pye grows on tall stems that arch with the weight of the large flowers, stems of ‘Little Joe’ are more stout, growing to a more appropriate height for the garden. While a few seedlings of Joe Pye are found, these are scattered and are never a concern.

Summer rain

Each August afternoon, the gardener scans the western sky for storm clouds that might bring relief to his parched garden. For weeks, scattered storms have looked promising, only to veer slightly off course. In fact, the garden is surviving this dry period with few problems, so I whine only in disappointment that another garden is irrigated, while mine is not. The long time gardener feels entitled to complain about the unfairness of nature, even while he knows his grumbling will not bring a drop of moisture.

One of the assorted crocosmias flowers in early August.

One of the assorted crocosmias flowers in early August. Leaves of a toad lily and hellebore in the background show signs of damage from the summer’s heat.

Contrary to my youth, when an afternoon storm was cursed for fear it would cancel the day’s ballgame, summer rainfall is always welcomed  by the gardener. I’ve noticed trees in the neighborhood, and the foliage of a few dogwoods in the garden has faded in the recent heat. A soaking rain will remedy this, and even a few substantial thunderstorms will give enough relief so I can put this worry behind me. One thing is certain, I will not be dragging hoses around the garden. Many trees and shrubs in this garden have thrived for a decades without my assistance, and I figure this cannot be any worse.

Nectar is continuously produced by pentas through the summer so that hummingbirds visit several times each day.

Nectar is continuously produced by pentas through the summer so that hummingbirds visit several times each day.

I chuckle when I hear that plants are fragile, incapable of surviving without the guiding hand of the gardener. Certainly, I’ve lost a plant or two from neglect, but that’s a few out of hundreds (maybe thousands). In this garden, more problems are caused by weeks of rain that encourage overly lush growth, which then cannot tolerate a spell of heat. This spring, several yellow leafed coral bells (Heuchera, below) were lost in a week of hot temperatures that followed three weeks of clouds and rain. Disappointing, but not surprising.

This yellow heuchera was lush and full after a rainy May, but it declined quickly in the summer's first heat.

This yellow heuchera was lush and full after a rainy May, but it declined quickly in the summer’s first heat.

If I gave the lawn much thought, its current state would be a slight concern. There are patches of green and brown, and in the stress of summer a few too many weeds have crept in. I’m convinced that none of this is much to be bothered about, and as soon as temperatures cool a bit, and rain picks up, the lawn will perk up. No doubt, the lawn, even the brown parts, are not dead, only dormant and distressed. If I had full say in the matter, which I do not since my wife claims the final word on just about everything, the few remaining areas of lawn would be dug out and planted. Instead, I’ll put as little effort into the lawn as possible, and be very understanding when it goes dormant and turns to brown in the heat of summer.

A bit out of control

The edge of the koi pond is getting a bit out of control. Not all of it, but of one hundred twenty feet of stone partially submerged in the pond, a section of perhaps thirty feet of mixed irises has been infiltrated by Japanese silt grass and other annoying weeds.

Japanese irises and Oakleaf hydrangea spill over the edges of the koi pond.

Japanese irises and Oakleaf hydrangea spill over the edges of the koi pond.

Two circumstances contribute to this weediness. One, though my recovery from recent surgery is going remarkably well, it will be weeks (or months) before I am able to squat and bend while balancing precariously on boulders at the pond’s edge. The root of the problem, and the secondary difficulty is that this section of the pond is overgrown by Oakleaf hydrangea, a seedling panicled hydrangea, and Joe Pye weeds so that the weeds gained a foothold even while I was fully capable.The bog filter

A more minor concern is the Northern Brown water snake (or two) that has taken residence in in the pond recent years. Recently, the snake was caught red handed, dragging a small koi into the shallows, the first time that I’ve witnessed the snake(s) doing what I know full well that it’s been doing all along. In any case, I cannot figure a way to rid the pond of the snake, and there are so many koi that the natural predatory cycles are unlikely to make a dent in the population.

For the purposes of clearing the invasive weeds from the pond’s edge, my temporary infirmity is the greater challenge than my concern over a confrontation with the seven foot water snake. With consideration for my current limitations, I have decided to ignore the problem, thus far with limited success.

Painted fern growing in a mossy rock at the pond's edge.

Painted fern growing in a mossy rock at the pond’s edge.

I am pleased that I am able to keep up with the worst of the weeds in the remainder of the garden, so that it does not become a one acre weed patch. But, mostly I am overjoyed to be able to regularly stroll the garden, despite wretched heat that is extraordinary, even for August.

It’s hot out there

Given that gardeners are individuals of outstanding character and judgment, I suspect that many are content to remain indoors as much as is possible through the worst of summer’s heat. Regardless of their good sense, there are generally fewer flowers to attract the gardener, and with any luck, drier ground is less likely to grow prolific crops of weeds that demand his immediate attention.

Canyon Creek abelia is a pleasant shrub that flowers through the summer.

Canyon Creek abelia is a pleasant shrub that flowers through the summer.

Certainly, there are weeds, with the tolerance of a range of conditions (drought and heat) a part of what defines a weed, but most everything grows slower and there is less urgency on the gardener’s part to be doing something every day.

In the second week following surgery, I become more antsy by the minute. Typically, I’m happy to lounge about on a ninety degree afternoon, but after several days of enforced inactivity, I welcome the heat, and happily sweat while plucking the few weeds that appear daily. Whether this is beneficial to my recovery, I have no doubt the surgeon will tell me, but I’ve had my fill of lounging.

Pineapple lilies flowered this year through a spell of heat and dryness so that the flower stalks lost rigidity. From the top this one is still splendid.

Pineapple lilies flowered this year through a spell of heat and dryness so that the flower stalks lost rigidity. From the top this one is still splendid.

While prowling about this afternoon, I see the first flower of Gordlinia (x Gordlinia grandiflora), the hybrid of Franklinia and Gordonia that is similar to the Franklin tree in flower and foliage. While Gordlinia is evergreen, all leaves have turned brown in recent cold winters, as well as this past winter when temperatures barely dropped below ten degrees. I presume this will occur annually, and I will no longer fret when the shrub looks horrid in late winter.

Gordlinia flowering in early August. It will continue flowering into September.

Gordlinia flowering in early August. It will continue flowering into September.

Despite this minor shortcoming, Gordlinia seems a perfectly acceptable substitute for the two decade old Franklinia that declined in recent years, and finally was cut out a year ago. I would happily plant another Franklin tree if one of reasonable size could be obtained, but it is a rarity, so I’m convinced to be content with the next best thing.

In recent years the early flowers of Gordlinia have been besieged by Japanese beetles, but I’ve observed their early exit in recent days. In any case, Japanese beetles are rarely a bother in this garden, though I do nothing to prevent them. Possibly, birds assist in controlling the population, and even on the hottest summer day there are plenty in the garden.


Goodbye beetles

Just as Japanese beetles were becoming bothersome, destroying every flower of the purple Passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata, below), they have vanished, though certainly not due to any action on my part. My displeasure counts for little in this garden. Passion vine blooming in late August

I suspect that the beetles’ movement into the next phase of their lifecycle is determined by the number of days since they have emerged from the ground, and without a doubt has nothing to do with running out of foliage or flora to dine on. Several buds remain on the passionflower, and the vine continues to grow and flower into late summer.

The yellow flowered passionflower (Passiflora lutea, below) is  just beginning to bloom, and of course it will not be bothered by the beetles. With my post surgery gimpiness, there was more danger in reaching the small yellow flowers, but I managed to grasp woody hydrangea branches to steady myself as I inched along damp boulders at the koi pond’s edge.  Yellow passionflower

Yes, I understand that this is only a garden, and my health is immeasurably more important. But, I’m getting along much better than expected a week after surgery, and after a downpour this afternoon I was anxious to explore.

The yellow passionflower is planted at the far side of the koi pond so that it is reached only by pushing through Oakleaf (Hydrangea quercifolia) and panicled hydrangeas (H. paniculata), Japanese irises (Iris ensata), and a variety of weeds that have infiltrated the pond’s edge this summer. The vine has grown up through the hydrangea into an overhanging Okame cherry, with stems that droop back down onto the hydrangeas. While vigorous in growth, foliage of the yellow passionflower is not dense and it does no harm to supporting shrubs.Panicled hydrangea seedling

The panicled hydrangea that I clung to for dear life is a seedling of the nearby ‘Tardiva’ (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’). While ‘Tardiva’ has been eclipsed in popularity by newer introductions, it remains a fine shrub with long lasting white blooms. Flowers of the seedling are larger, and stand more erect, and it is likely that some day into the future when I am able, this volunteer will be chopped out, so that it will not live to maturity.

Passionflowers and beetles

Early flowers of the passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata) were undisturbed by pests, but now, as dozens of Tiger swallowtails have appeared in the garden, so have Japanese beetles. Beetles find flowers as they open, and a bloom that would typically last for a few days is destroyed by midday.Passionflower

There are readily available controls for beetles, and I suspect any gardener is tempted while watching a dozen of them munching on a single, newly opened flower. But, the beetles do relatively little damage, and no long term harm, so I’ll watch for the moment the flowers open to enjoy while I can.Passionflower

There is somewhat more concern at the moment about aphids that have infested a shrubby crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia indica ‘Gamad I’, below) . The infestation is in its early stages, but I’ve seen this before. The prolific numbers cannot be managed by natural controls, though there is evidence on the shrub of a variety of predators. This is a long way from the reach of  a hose, and dislodging thousands of tiny aphids from beneath a thick canopy of leaves seems difficult, so the least toxic control is insecticidal soap, which I have used on rare occasion with moderate success.Aphids on crapemyrtle

There are continuing decisions that the gardener must make, when to plant, or weed, but grander decisions must be made on how his garden will be managed. Here, the first consideration is the corollary effect of my actions, so most pest damage will be tolerated so that pollinators are not disturbed. Dragonfly

In this garden with five ponds, the gardener’s most useful ally in pest prevention is the dragonfly. While ineffective against the crapemyrtle’s aphid infestation, they work miracles in diminishing the numbers of mosquitoes. A year ago, the dragonfly population surrounding the large koi pond was down, for whatever reasons, but numbers have rebounded this summer. At any moment, as I sit beside the pond, there will be a dozen brightly colored dragonflies zipping across the pond, with others perched on arching stems at the pond’s edge. The effect on the population of annoying Tiger mosquitoes is apparent.