An off year

The relative absence of Tiger swallowtails this year has been noted, and with peak blooming of Joe Pye weeds, the scattered few are clear evidence of this downward pattern in comparison to recent years. From caterpillars to honeybees, and butterflies (probably Japanese beetles also), there are cycles beyond my comprehension, so even with only a few swallowtails (below) there is little reason for concern. If there are few this summer, it is possible there will be more next year.


Until this week, there were few honeybees, which are now attracted to the full bloom of Mountain mint. Butterflies are drawn to Joe Pye, bees and wasps to Mountain mint, with limited crossover though they are in close proximity. In the absence of swallowtails, carpenter bees take full advantage to fill the void.

In bloom, the patch of Mountain mint encourages caution, with hundreds of stinging pollinators. But, my experience is that bees and wasps are too distracted in their frenzied feeding unless the gardener is foolishly intrusive. I’ve been stung a time or two.

Only occasional small butterflies and moths are attracted to several clumps of milkweed and coneflowers (above) in the garden, and surrounding an old farm pond on the neighboring property. Rarely are Monarchs (below) seen, but bees regularly harvest nectar, and the annual invasion of bright orange aphids has begun. I will watch to see if aphid eating beetles arrive soon, and if not, stems will be cut to the ground.


Surviving the deluge, again

Hopefully, plants have been properly placed to withstand the week’s deluges. All survived our very rainy late spring, so I don’t expect problems, but several additions were made in recent weeks, so we’ll see. How tolerant one or the other is to constant dampness will be seen over weeks to follow.

Joe Pye weed thrives in saturated and dry ground, though nothing is dry around here today.

The problem area at the lower end of the rear garden was constantly wet a year ago, but considerable digging was done to channel runoff in late winter when planting beds were expanded. So far, so good, but inches of rain falling each day can drench even well drained areas.

A few weeks ago, I was concerned by the transition from the damp and mild spring, to hot and dry, but of course that’s long forgotten. Today, I watch tall maples and tulip poplars sway in another storm, and hope that none come crashing down.

One gordlinia in damp soil failed a year ago, but another in drier soil has grown into a shrubby, small tree.

I’ve returned from two weeks of travel, which happily avoided areas deluged by the week’s rainfall. I see a bit of washout in the garden, but hardly enough to clean up after. Weeds are no more of a problem than any other time when nothing is done for two weeks, and most everything looks much happier than the day I left.

I am surprised to see the yellow, small flowered passion flower vine (Passiflora lutea) on the far side of the koi pond. A year ago, there was no sign of it, and I figured it was done in by too much shade from hydrangeas and other brush that is so dense to discourage efforts to keep the area even slightly managed.

Oakleaf and Tardiva hydrangeas have grown into a dense thicket on the far side of the koi pond.

One of two purple flowered passion flower vines has made meager efforts to grow, but the first was scalded in early July’s heat, and the current growth is weak enough not to encourage much optimism. Probably, both will be fine, but I have higher hopes for the yellow flowered vine which was not going to be as easily replaced. I wish I hadn’t planted it where it’s so difficult to get to, but the gardener is accustomed to disappointment, and this one is relatively minor.

Okay, if you can stand the heat

Predictably, with recent heat and humidity, powdery mildew has set into dogwoods (below). Regular spraying with a fungicide will prevent this for gardeners concerned with every little flaw, but there is no long term detriment, so why bother? Perfection is not a requirement in this garden.

Powdery mildew is expected on Cherokee Sunset dogwood by mid summer.

A seedling Bottlebrush buckeye is long established beneath a River birch at the rear border of the garden. A second (below), planted along the shaded southern border, flowers two weeks earlier, though I would judge the degree of shade to be roughly equivalent. That a seedling shrub could grow large enough to be identified clearly shows the degree that this wetland area is maintained. It’s not, though the worst of brambles are occasionally chopped out.

Years ago, this area dried out enough to support witch hazel and an evergreen holly, but a mostly dormant spring came back to life, and today it ranges from swampy to damp, but is never dry. Recent deluges, with more rain on the way, will not be a problem for wetland shrubs that were planted after others failed.

Variegated Duet beautyberry is not ideally suited to damp areas, but it has survived consistently swampy conditions this year.

While Tiger swallowtails remain scarce, bees, moths, and smaller butterflies are plentiful. Mountain mint (below) is nearly at peak bloom, which will attract pollinators for weeks to come.

Back to nature

Edges of the koi pond are overgrown, both by unintended invaders and ones I planted that have grown more vigorously than expected. The invaders include a small area of cattails, seeded from the nearby wetlands, I expect, and yellow flag irises that were planted in the bog area of the pond (where they have nearly been crowded out) that have spread to displace desirable Japanese irises.

In ever smaller open spaces, stilt grass has set in, with the dense growth making it difficult to gain access to pull this invader. Joe Pye weeds that grow in damp spaces between partially submerged boulders are tall growing seedlings of natives, and not more compact types planted in soil at the pond’s edge.

I debate giving in to turn the margins of the pond over to nature, for it is a laborious project to prune wide spreading Oakleaf hydrangeas so that yellow flags and cattails can be chopped out. Several snakes that reside in the dense growth are a minor concern, but a discouragement whenever I’m tempted to push through to pull a few handfuls of stilt grass.

From the start it was intended that growth should lap over boulders at the pond’s edge, so that the pond would appear as natural as possible. Perhaps this has gone too far, but there is no easy way to chop out cattails and yellow flags, and the entire mess is a few degrees wilder than I prefer.

The goal, for the pond and the garden, is to be lightly managed. This enables maintenance of this acre and a quarter with no assistance, and I much prefer a jumble of foliage and flowers rather than tightly sheared balls and cubes. But, there is a limit, and I question if the margins of the koi pond have crossed this line.

Progress with new plantings

A considerable number of plants were transplanted in late winter. Expanded planting beds in the rear garden, and cutting into the already small section of lawn irked my wife, though I believe that now she approves of the new plantings (of course, she refuses to admit it). All plants that were moved are doing well, or well enough, though leaves of the Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica, below) have been red for weeks.

This is a bit concerning, certainly a sign of stress, though it is encouraging that no leaves are dropping. Perhaps the stress is related to the deluge of rainfall through May and June, and less to do with the transplant that was accomplished in early February with a five inch deep freeze in the ground. The giant ice cube (the tree) was moved from a spot that was far too shady, where it was once planted for lack of a better place, into an area of nearly full sun that should be more ideal, with the additional purpose that it would soon shade an Autumn Full Moon Japanese maple that has struggled and would never thrive in the summer sun.

A tree peony, catmints, and native carex were planted on the side of the ironwood that will turn eventually from full sun to part shade, and a small, red flowered paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Akebono’) was planted on the side that will remain sunny. I’ve been tempted to fill open spaces beside the paperbush (with another peony?), but I know well from several yellow flowered paperbushes (above) in the garden how quickly the shrub will grow. So, for now a few dark leafed heucheras are planted in the bare ground that can easily be moved some day. Pieces of vigorously growing sedums have been transplanted in recent weeks to cover the edges of the planting beds, and a week of severe heat has not done them in as I feared was inevitable.

With most of the garden mature, it takes a little getting used to having to wait a few years for things to fill in. This will test my patience, but I figure if I can hold off planting through next spring there should be enough progress to keep me satisfied.

For better and worse

In a diverse garden where no insecticides are used, the interconnections of every level of wildlife become more apparent. Or at least, I presume that interactions occur, and why wouldn’t they? There is no doubt that the number of birds has increased over the years as the density of trees and shrubs has increased, and Japanese beetles (below) and various chewing caterpillars seem fewer. I suppose the two must be related.

Every summer, Japanese beetles chew Ostrich ferns in part sun while other ferns, and ones that are more shaded are not bothered at all.

I notice that the caterpillars have not defoliated the Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) this year. Each of the past few years the tree has nearly been stripped of foliage, but no caterpillars were seen this year, which is probably a good thing since the leaves of the tree are noticeably smaller. I presume that a vigorous tree like the Catalpa can be stripped of leaves annually and not suffer, but this can’t be so. It’s likely that caterpillars will be back some time in the future, so this year is the one when the Catalpa can regain its vigor.

It’s been a few years since the redbuds (Cercis canadensis ‘Silver Cloud’, below) have been partially defoliated, which typically begins in mid summer (now), but today I see no sign of the tiny tent caterpillars. The first few times the caterpillars appeared I was concerned, but the defoliation didn’t get too far along until mid September, a few weeks before leaves would be dropping anyway. So, I concluded this was not a big deal. 

I am not observant, or patient enough to witness birds eating caterpillars or beetles, but of course they do to some extent. A necessary part of this equation is that the gardener must be willing to suffer through some damage from insects, and in this large garden there’s always another tree or another flower to distract from the few that are less than perfect. Here, the trade off is an easy one.

The swamp milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata, above) are in full bloom, so an infestation of aphids (below) is not far off. I have little doubt that aphids will not have an off year. As long as there are milkweeds, aphids will be here to cover stems. A few years ago, a beetle appeared that made a small dent in the population, but there were far too many and a few weeks later the damage was done. Certainly, there are non lethal methods of getting rid of aphids, but I’m not going to pick them off or drag hoses a couple hundred feet to knock them off the milkweeds, that are past bloom, and why bother? Probably, I should chop the stems and toss them in the compost pile before they turn brown, but it doesn’t hinder the milkweeds’ growth for next year, so I’ll observe, and maybe the beetles will be back again.

Rough around the edges

As expected following a wet spring that promoted overly lush growth, the recent spell of heat (and no rain) has caused more than a few problems in the garden. None too drastic, but in sunny areas the look of summer has set in to stay. Most days, I’m certain I look a little ragged, as well.

This is the time, of course, when shade is most appreciated, for the garden’s residents (fauna and flora) as well as a place for the gardener to escape. While hostas (above) and hydrangeas in a bit too much sun have taken their typical turn for the worse (fading, not failing), ones in shade, and even dry shade show no ill effect. The garden is not irrigated, so an extended drought is likely to result in a few brown leaves, even in the shade, but the only plants requiring attention are ones most recently planted.

Earlier in the spring I planted two Korean wax bells (Kirengeshoma koreana) from densely rooted one gallon pots near the more common yellow wax bell (Kirengeshoma palmata, above). Many soft wooded perennials are subject to wilting in the heat, and particularly after a wet period, but wax bells will collapse in a hurry, so I must watch these and dump a bucket of water if storms don’t arrive first.

I also notice that tiarellas (above) and several heucheras are wilting in the heat. With no rain in the forecast for another week, a sip of water or two will be necessary.

Small numbers of Japanese beetles have been spotted. Some leaves of the pussy willow with pendulous branches have been chewed, but today there are no beetles to be seen. Since the pussy willow is a beetle favorite I am encouraged that damage to the thick clump of Ostrich ferns (below) along the path from the driveway to the deck might be minimized if there are fewer than usual.

In any case, beetles are never a problem in the garden, with only minor damage to a few plants. Since no insecticides are sprayed, I attribute this to clean living and hard work, though I suspect birds are more likely to be responsible.