Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Rain Garden is Born


Wow.  It’s been a while since I last scribed some words here.  I just realized I never wrote about the rain garden I installed in the fall of 2014.  So let’s jump back to then.
I’m proud to report I lived up to the promise I made my wife to keep the front yard native garden tidy, deadheaded, and weeded.  Fortunately that work resulted in permission to expand the garden).  After that expansion, can you imagine my surprise when my wife said, “Why don’t you add more space to that garden?”  She saw how long it takes for a native planting to fill in and start looking good.  She didn’t want to lose another year waiting for a project to beautify itself.  But of course she reminded me the same rules would apply.  Tidy, deadheaded, weeded.  No problem!  Within mere milliseconds I was out there laying out the new bed. 
As I looked at the space, I thought I’d try to be a landscape designer.  A winding path between the old bed and this new one would like nice and make it pleasant and comfortable to walk among the plants.  It would also make it much easier to photograph pollinators and flowers.  Knowing I wanted to eliminate as much lawn as possible and maximize the garden space, I measured the width of the lawnmower.  The lawnmower was 19.663456 inches wide.  That’s how wide I would make the path.  Ok . . . I reluctantly rounded it to 20 inches.   
Sod removed from the new garden
With the age-old trick of using a hose to outline the edge of the bed, I marked the border and began removing sod.  My mind now having totally converted to reducing the ecological wasteland of lawn, I was thrilled as each square inch of turf grass came up.  I was using a mattock to strip the grass out of the rock hard clay and that was hard work.  My plan was to shake off as much dirt from the grass roots as possible, and then invert the clumps of sod to use as mulch.  With this in mind, I piled all these clods of grass on a large tarp. 
Over the course of several days I continued to prepare this 25 x 7 foot space for planting.  Once I got down to bare dirt, I drew up a plan to group each of 7 species for a dramatic succession of blooms through the seasons.  Butterfly Milkweed, Blue Vervain, Wild Bergamot, Little Bluestem, Virginia Mountain Mint, New England Aster, and Swamp Milkweed were the plants I chose.  Then it rained and the space became too muddy for me to plant. 
Rainwater flows down the driveway
During one of the downpours I noticed the water ran down the driveway and pooled in one spot at the edge in front of this new garden space.  Once the small pool got filled enough, the overflow moved on down the drive and into the street.  Hmmm . . . I wondered if a small trench at the edge of the driveway could capture this rainwater and move it into the garden.  Could I make part of this space into a rain garden? 
This is too exciting.  I couldn’t wait until the rain stopped.  You’ll remember how impatient I am in things like this.  So, in a raincoat and armed with an umbrella and a small shovel I marched out and dug a tiny 3 inch trench through the grass border.  Hokey smokes.  It worked.  The water moved from the driveway depression into the garden.  Any neighbors observing this must have thought I was trying to recreate Gene Kelly’s dance scene from “Singing in the Rain” as I moved back into the house. 
Reading up on rain gardens and suitable native plants for this lower section of the new garden and with some guidance from my friends at the Rain Garden Initiative, I chose to add some more Swamp Milkweed, and Blue Flag Iris, Dense Blazing Star, and Obedient Plant to the plant list.
Percolation testing
To determine how deep to make this area, I performed the recommended percolation tests by digging three 8 inch deep holes and filling them with water.  Once the water was totally absorbed, I again filled the holes with more water and started measuring the time and drop in water level.  In that dense clay, it took 12 hours for the water to disappear from the holes.  But that was sufficient.  I learned the idea is to collect the water and let the deep-rooted native plants facilitate absorption into the ground thereby filtering the water. 


String level helps determine depth of garden
With percolation data collected, I scooped out a sloping depression of 8 inches deep by 6 feet by 7 feet.  Since this entire bed was in a sloping area, I used a string level to determine how deep I should dig at various parts of the space to get my 8 inch depth.


Sign indicates this is a rain garden in progress
Plants in place, I put my upside down turf to cover all the bare ground.  Ah . . . this really didn’t look good at all.  I knew the neighborhood association would start getting complaints about the unsightly patch in my yard.  To tell the truth, it was UGLY.  What to do?  It came to me in my dreams.  Put a sign up.  So I put together a small sign indicating this was a Rain Garden in progress and included a QR code pointing people to a the Rain Garden Initiative web site that explained rain gardens. 
A few years ago toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie gained us undesirable national attention when our region of half a million people was without water for 3 days while the water authorities wrestled with fixing the situation.  Given the dramatic impact this water quality issue had on all of us getting our water from the City of Toledo, I imagined I’d be busy answering the doorbell.  I’d be fielding questions from neighbors about how they too could put a rain garden in and thereby help filter the algae producing chemicals from our stormwater.  Well it’s a good thing I didn’t set up my desk by the front door because that didn’t happen.  However, the sign did produce questions from neighbors who saw me as I worked in the garden. 

The next summer the garden had started to fill in and was looking ok.  The number of butterflies, skippers, bees, and wasps was incredible.  Already the deep rooted native plants were doing their work.  A friend of mine who deals with stupefying mathematical equations, figured the rain garden portion of this planting holds 209 gallons of water and a one inch rainfall on our driveway produces 582 gallons of runoff.  During a slow to modest rainfall event, all the water goes into the rain garden and it never overflows.  Only twice, in major downpours, have I witnessed the water flow out into the street and then only in a trickle.  This 16 second video clip shows the water flow. 

video
This totally fascinates me. One day my wife couldn’t find me in the house.  It was raining and she suddenly realized looking out at the front of the drive would solve the mystery.  Sure enough, there I was with an umbrella, watching the rainwater move into the garden.  
What used to take 12 hours for 8 inches of water to be absorbed into the ground, now takes only 2 hours.  Incredible!  All the water that used to quickly run off into the Maumee River laden with pollutants, is now filtered before it makes its way to the waterway, before it reaches Lake Erie, before it’s reclaimed at the Toledo water intake, and before it returns to our tap for cooking and drinking. 

Garden as it looks today - 1  1/2 yrs after starting
Last summer we had an overabundance of rain.  I spent a lot of time under an umbrella at the end of our driveway.  This year we’re in a major drought and everyone is praying for rain.  Bare ground is cracking and trees are dropping their leaves.  Neighbors are watering their gardens and some their lawns.  This 1½ year old native garden is doing fine with only two minor applications from the hose.  Nonetheless, I wouldn’t mind spending some time under the umbrella marveling at the efficiency of this garden’s natural processes that our disappearing wetlands once provided. 
 
Hummingbird Moth on Wild Bergamot
Northern Broken Dash skipper
The rain garden is loaded with life.  Friends have helped me identify Meadow Fritillary butterflies, Northern Broken Dash and Delaware skippers none of which have I seen here before.  Numerous species of bumblebees, other native bees, and hover flies are always present.  The Wild Bergamot seems to be a favorite of the day flying Hummingbird moth.  Clean water, pollinators, and an abundance of life.  I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t have a rain garden filled with native plants.

Delaware Skipper



Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Flush of Spring

Last week the temperatures rose to 70 degrees and the sun beckoned me to do some yard work which I had been putting off.  However as I started to assess the needed work I was gladly distracted by numerous spring wildflowers which had suddenly burst into bloom.  Enthusiastically putting aside the rake in favor of my camera I threw myself into trying to capture some images. 

Spicebush in full bloom
Spicebush blossom
A Spicebush we planted 3 years ago had escaped winter browsing by the ever growing deer herd.  While several smaller Spicebush specimens had been pruned by these large, white-tailed herbivores, this larger shrub exhibited a full load of yellow blooms nicely contrasted against the darker background of the ravine.  My goal this year will be to harvest some seed for growing next year. 


Oh – what’s that small flash of purple just behind the Spicebush?  Ah, it’s the Common Violet I once
Common Blue Violet
thought was a weed and tried to rid from our property.  Fortunately I was able to see the beauty in this common native plant and furthermore last year when we saw a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly in the yard we learned the Violet is the butterfly’s only host plant.  Now we get to enjoy both the plant and the butterfly. 
Downy Yellow Violet

In another section of our yard, the Downy Yellow Violet is proudly showing its color.  How’s a person to do any work when there is such beauty
everywhere I turn?

This Bloodroot found a home in an old tree stump
The river of Bloodroot that bloomed last week has now let go of its pure white petals and unfurled its large green leaves.  These will absorb the sun’s rays before the trees leaf out, blocking that source of energy.  The leaves will carpet the shaded ground until late June or July when they’ll gradually die back, waiting until next spring’s warming soil to again release the annual showcase.  Wait; off in a corner of the yard, right in the center of a long decaying tree stump is a Bloodroot in full bloom.  What a sweet flash of brightness in this already shady area. 

Spring Beauty
And now another long awaited blossom grabs my attention – Spring Beauty, aptly named for its gorgeous, small white to lavender flowers.  The petals sport pinkish lines often called “nectar guides”.  These contrasting lines point numerous native pollinators to the available rewards. 

Yellow Trout Lily
White Trout Lily
Trout Lily leaves
Oh my – scads of Trout Lily show interesting white and yellow flowers.  I’m told that it’s pretty unusual to have both white and yellow Trout lilies in the same area.  So we consider ourselves blessed to have a lot of each.  I understand like the Spring Beauty, it takes 7 years for a plant to bloom after the seed germinates.  Each year the tiny bulb pulls itself deeper into the ground.  Back in the day when I wanted a luscious green lawn, I tilled this ground sowing grass seed.  Year after year I used a power thatcher to rip apart the ground urging grass to grow.  Now that I've shunned a lawn in this area and left nature to resume its work, dozens and dozens of Trout lily
leaves poke up through the remaining grass.  Thank goodness they had to persistence to put up with my abuse.


Today is Earth Day and there’s a hint of mixed rain/snow in the falling temperatures.  I had to put on a warm jacket to walk the yard, looking for the remnants of last week’s spring blossoms.  While these flowers may have buttoned up like it did, I know the next surge of sunshine and warmth will bring another flush of native blooms to enjoy.  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Leaf It Alone

One of the reasons I’m so interested in using native plants in our landscaping is to restore life to our property.  The insects that can only live on the native plants are a major part of the food web, bringing in birds which eat these protein morsels and feed them to their young.  Like many I've learned that the fall generation of Monarch butterflies migrates to Mexico.  I never thought about what other butterflies and insects do during our cold winter months. 

Children Playing in the Leaves
(photo by Susan Bibler)

When I was a youngster and the fall bounty of multicolored leaves started to fall, I had such great fun jumping in and out of the leaves raked into large piles by my parents.  As I grew a little, it became part of my chores to perform this fall cleanup.  Somehow it just wasn’t as much fun playing in the leaves when I had to rake them up over and over again.  For years in the fall I used to rake all the leaves to the street where the city picked them up and took them away.  Later I learned the soil could really use this organic matter that I was sending away.  Early in the fall when the leaf drop wasn’t too much, I’d run the mower over them, shredding them into small pieces and letting this organic material work its way into the ground and decompose.  When the fallen leaf cover got too thick for that, I’d shred them with a leaf blower attachment and use them for mulch or put them into the compost pile.  But things changed for me this past year. 

Polyphemus Moth
Two years ago I had fun raising some Polyphemus moths from eggs Candy Sarikonda had given me.  When they hatched, I pulled some leaves from each of their native larval host plants and let the little guys and gals decide what they liked best.  This sample included oak, black cherry, elm, locust, and maple.  Overwhelmingly they chose oak as their food of choice.  Over the course of the summer and early fall, they grew.  Wow did they grow!   They became total eating machines for a good part of the summer.  These caterpillars ate and ate.  Five times they outgrew their skins, and shedding them to allow for more growth.  Eventually they decided they were ready for the next phase of their lives and they spun cocoons (moths made cocoons, butterflies make chrysalis).  As part of this process, they wrapped leaves around themselves, providing an excellent hiding place.  Most of them emerged within a month.  After letting their wings expand and dry for 24 hours we released them.  Although they were able to fly within several hours after emergence, allowing this extra time to let their wings become strong gave them a better chance of evading predators.  Since these moths have no mouth parts, they only live three to five days.  Their sole purpose at this point is to mate and propagate.

Several of the cocoon-wrapped pupas showed signs of emerging but the weather got cold and they didn’t emerge.  Candy told me they would overwinter in their cocoons and I should expect them to merge in the spring around Easter time.  And on one bright warming spring day, there was a flutter of wings in the cage.  They had successful survived that brutally cold winter. 

Like many of the Giant silkmoths (the group to which the Polyphemus, Cecropia, and Luna moths
belong) and many other insects, they wrap themselves up in leaves for a good winter’s nap.  Take a look at this group of leaves.  Only by turning them over and carefully looking would you be able to see the well hidden Polyphemus cocoon.  (See a larger photo essay about these stunning moths at https://www.dropbox.com/s/w6bilvu8mx9wi2e/Polyphemus%20Moth%20-%20leaves.pdf?dl=0)
Polyphemus Cocoons hidden in Leaves
Without careful inspection you’d never even notice these overwintering creatures hidden in your leaves.  You can imagine what shredding the leaves would do to these creatures.  If you rake your leaves into your garden, or loosely arrange them around your trees and shrubs you’ll be saving these fascinating moths from certain death.

This year as leaves start to coat my yard, I’m raking them into the garden beds and forgoing shredding.   And now that I think about it, it’s a whole lot less work for me.  Good for the moths, good for me.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Not even an Ant


Existing Native Garden Bed installed last year
Recently someone wrote and asked how our native plant gardens fared over this record breaking winter in Northwest Ohio.   Oh my gosh, double gosh even.  I knew I was tardy in posting here but didn’t realize how negligent I’ve been.  My extreme apologies and to answer your question Matt, the gardens came through the deep snow and cold temperatures without a second thought.  This is yet another reminder that these native plants are perfectly adapted to conditions here.   They evolved here over thousands and thousands and thousands of years with their roots in these soils, coping with fluctuating temperatures, and seasonal water variations that make me uncertain what to wear from day to day.  In fact, our gardens performed so well that several weeks ago we expanded the native plant garden in the front of our house close to the street.  I was delighted to remove some more lawn from the yard.  I want to say in Perrysburg we like to use dynamite to get weeds extracted from the rock hard clay soil but that’s probably somewhat of an exaggeration.  In this case an hour with a pick mattock enabled me to strip the turf grass from the designated 3 foot x 10 foot area.  I was going to use the removed turf as mulch so I set about shaking the soil from the short roots of the extracted grass.  As I knelt there playing with the dirt, I watched some ants working to repair the disturbance I had made to the adjacent garden bed. 
Preparing the additional space

And then it hit me.  I’ve had this experience before  but this “in my face” reminder was still a thought provoking incident.  This grass harbored NO life, at least none that I could see with my naked eye.  There were no earthworms, spiders, millipedes, or pill bugs.  There wasn’t even an ant.  Nothing moved.  And this was a lawn without chemicals.  We had switched to organic lawn care a few years back and never looked back. 

Native Bumblebee on Wild Bergamot
Yet just a few inches away, inside the border of the existing native garden, those ants seemed focused on clearing out the entrance to their home on which I had unceremoniously scattered some dirt.  At least three species of native bumblebees were feverishly working over the nearby fading blossoms of the Wild Bergamot.  A small Katydid was perched on the underside of a Sneezeweed leaf, and numerous other winged insects were going about making a living amongst the foliage of the Swamp Milkweed, New England Aster, and Smooth Aster.  A hummingbird scooted in for a quick sip of nectar at the newly blooming Cardinal Flower.  A Silver-spotted Skipper elbowed its way into all the activity.  A foot to the right tiny bees seemed excited the Partridge Pea was now blooming, and some other insects watched from the relative safety of the Virginia Mountain Mint. 


New Addition Area to Native Garden
Sure.  The eye appeal of many of our native plants is alone worth our efforts and the aspect of lower maintenance certainly appeals to many of us.  But for me, my feelings have evolved and I’ve come to believe it’s all about life.  And we certainly get that with our native gardens.  Not only are the gardens full of life.  They make our lives better too.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

Ever Learning


The snow was up to my nose and the temperatures hovered around a balmy 10 degrees Fahrenheit.  In our area the winter sun rises and arcs low enough through the sky to shine directly into my home office window.  Without leaves from the backyard woods to intercept the bright rays, the light is just too strong to keep the blinds open.  The direct sunlight along with the reflection from the snow makes it impossible to see my 
computer screen.  So on most days now, I’m reluctantly closing the blinds and burying my nose in my work. 

On one particular day a few weeks ago while clicking away at my keyboard and squinting at a bunch of tiny little numbers moving across my screen, I heard a fluttering on the windowsill, on the other side of my light barrier.  The sound went away quickly, and I returned to my work.  Moments later the sound returned.  OK, that’s it.  I had to know what it was.  Slowly rotating the louvers, I was able to glimpse a bird I’d never seen before at our home, yet alone elsewhere.  On noticing a small patch of yellow on this smallish bird, I thought “oh, it’s a goldfinch”.  But huh, it’s winter and the male goldfinches couldn’t even be close to start putting on their brilliant yellow summer plumage.  Well, it’s certainly not a warbler.  But no one will ever confuse me with a knowledgeable birder. 

We live within a half hour drive of the famed Magee Marsh, home to Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO).  Magee Marsh, and the adjacent Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge sit on the southern shore of Lake Erie, the shallowest but most bio-diverse of the Great Lakes.  Legions of fantastic avian creatures stop here in large numbers on their long and arduous northward migration from their winter homes in the tropics.  The protected ecosystems here provide just the right mixture of shelter and food to enable the feathered songsters to rest and refuel on the abundant insect life.  Once they’ve renewed their energy and winds are right, they take off on the journey northward across the vast lake.  Thousands of birders from all over the country, and even some from other countries flock here to experience the annual gathering of dozens and dozens of different songbirds.  For many years only a weekend event, the bird watching community has expanded the official festivities into “The Biggest Week in American Birding.”  Throngs of serious and merely curious birders have had a most welcome impact on the local tourism industry.  There is so much publicity surrounding this annual natural event a person can’t help but learn or think they’ve learned about the celebrated birds. 

And that’s where I now realize I fall into that category of “thought I learned”.  As I looked again at our small bird with yellow patches, I kept thinking it’s a warbler but always came back to “it cannot be a warbler.”  I had listened, admittedly distracted by all the surrounding activity, to several area ornithologists while they identified, banded, and counted scads of different species during the celebrated week of birding.  I was under the impression the warblers all go way south to the tropics for a nice winter of sitting on the beach, sipping margaritas and enjoying other good time activities.  Oops -I guess that’s what I’d do if I was in the tropics for the winter.   Well whatever the birds do down south, in spring they head north in three waves to hit the Lake Erie shore between late April  and late May.  Given my confidence of having “learned” from the experts. I was sure this backyard bird was no warbler.   Or hey –maybe this was one of those rare cases that gets birders all atwitter with excitement and they would flock by the carloads to observe the unusual sighting in my backyard. 

OK –I pulled out my Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds.   Yikes, this creature sure had all the field Yellow-rumped Warbler.  I surmised it had to be incredibly rare at this time of the year.  Posting a few pictures and asking for verification, my friends confirmed it was indeed the winged vertebrate shown in the field guide. 
markings of a

During the week, the bird continued pecking into the crevices on the windowsill and the corners of the outdoor deck rafters jutting out above my lower level office.  There must have been some tasty insects camped out there trying to hide out from predators.  As the week progressed, this cheerful bird continued to distract me from my work.  Fortunately before I posted the sighting to some rare bird network, I learned not all warblers go to the sunny south.  This particular species does winter in our area.  Whew – embarrassment averted.  It turns out this is perhaps the northernmost part of its overwintering area, but by no means was the bird’s presence rare, or even uncommon.  So don’t look for my name in the rare sightings journals. 


For approximately two weeks I didn’t get much work done while I enjoyed the chirps, fluttering, and antics of this little Yellow-rumped Warbler.  Fortunately my boss wasn’t terribly upset (I’m self-employed).  Without a green sprout in sight, this distracting visitor reinforced my understanding that our conversion to landscaping with native plants has enriched my life.  In the past several years as we’ve continued the journey, gradually replacing our landscaping with native plants, we’ve stopped feeding the birds with store-bought birdseed.   Yet, we have more birds with a greater variety of species than we had before.  The native plants, unlike the old non-native ones, are providing the
habitat and food sources for this greater biodiversity.  While enjoying this little wild bundle of feathers, I’m sure my blood pressure was down and on retrospection I realized I slept better at night.  I’ve been reading lately about how important nature is in our lives.  Like the native plants that bring wildlife such as this bird into our yards, we’ve evolved over thousands and thousands and thousands of years intricately woven into the rest of nature around us.  It’s only in recent history where the number of people living in cities has surpassed those living in the country.  Studies are disclosing that stress, disease, and poor mental health, among other human problems are exacerbated when we live and work in areas devoid of nature.  Welcome little warbler and safe travels until we meet again.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Reminder


Today I was reminded why I’m passionate about landscaping with native plants.   In the blustery 20 degree temperatures with a minor snow storm underway, it looks like everything is buttoned up for the winter.   The few leaves refusing to let go of their woody origins are all a bronzy brown.   The leaves on the ground poking up through the gathering snow are shriveled and creating interesting patterns.    It looks pretty barren.  Even inside looking through the window, I’m thinking a little hot chocolate would feel good.


And then a movement on the scarred Honey locust tree catches my eye.   Almost perfectly camouflaged, a small creature peeks underneath some loose bark.   Working its way slowly up the tree trunk, it examines every little fissure and occasionally finds something interesting.   This little Brown creeper isn’t looking for birdseed.  Like over 90 percent of all terrestrial birds, he’s after what he was genetically programmed to eat.  He was born to live on insects.   And he appears to be making a healthy living even in these frigid temperatures and blowing snow.   Apparently there are enough protein laden insects and larvae holed up in nearly invisible hiding spots for him to find.   How amazing!  

So…..what’s that got to do with native plants?   If you’ve followed along on this never ending journey of mine, we’ve learned together that these insects too have to have something to eat.   And their food is native plants.   Everything eats plants or eats things that eat plants.   Our insect friends as I’ve come to now label them, are, like our little avian explorer, genetically programmed to only eat native plants.   So….I love native plants because I love nature.  And to me, nature means clean air, clean water, healthy food, and a wondrous world where all life is connected.   I love being just a small part of this incredible web of life.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Great Compromise


Over the past two years of this journey, I’ve come to hate lawns.  We live in a suburban neighborhood with great expanses of turf.  I’ve learned these green spaces I once thought  the
Front lawn
epitome of good suburban landscaping are in fact, an ecological wasteland, often the source of much air and water pollution, and a huge waste of the opportunity to do good with the land.  So I’ve wanted to rip out the front lawn and put in a native wildflower meadow.  But my wife was concerned the neighborhood would complain about a wild looking garden and see it as a weed patch.  She was adamant; no front yard meadow for me.  So we compromised and struck a bargain.  This would be an experiment.  I could put in a small butterfly/pollinator garden in the front near the street, bordering our neighbor’s yard.  If I would agree to deadhead the plants and keep things looking tidy and formal, she would go along with a trial.  If successful, then I could create a larger butterfly garden on the other side of the driveway eliminating more lawn.  Fully understanding it might take three years for the plants to get established, and experimenting with different ways to make this a formal garden that met her appearance criteria, we struck the deal. 

Late last summer I carved out an area approximately 13 feet x 8 feet set back about 5 feet off the road and bordering our neighbor’s front yard.  With a desire to create as much biodiversity as
Fall 2012 new butterfly garden
possible and having something blooming throughout the growing season, I bought 13 species of native perennials suitable to the clay soil and partial shade of the site.  To save money I bought plugs, the smallest size of plant.  Two of these, Purple coneflower and Smooth aster were already growing in an adjoining area.  So the idea was that these two would extend down into the new garden helping to tie the two areas together. 


The late summer morphed into fall.  As was expected from first year seedlings, none of the new plants bloomed.  Fall came and headed for winter.  Then winter came and off and on covered the plot with snow.  When spring made itself known, the seedlings showed they had taken last year to set their roots and rewarded me with vigorous growth.  They spread out to fill in what looked last fall like a pretty sparse planting. 


Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
The Foxglove Beardtongue was the first to bloom.  The little towers of light lavender and white blooms attracted many bees.  As those flowers faded, several transplanted Ohio Spiderwort opened up with a few colorful blooms.  The Purple coneflowers had taken hold and over several weeks opened into their normal eye-catching display.  While they were still blooming the Butterfly milkweed transplants started to show signs of blooming.  This species of milkweed with its deep tuberous root sometimes doesn’t take well to transplanting, but last summer I thought I’d give it a go anyway.  They did produce a couple of very small blossoms but quickly shed them possibly in an effort to better establish their roots in the hard clay soil. 
Sand coreopsis

The Sand coreopsis burst into a huge splash of yellow.  Watching the numerous species of native bees and other pollinators vigorously working over the flowers was a daily delight for several weeks.  These plants produced so many blossoms and were so full of life.  Nonetheless I became concerned when all the flower stalks fell over and lay on the ground.  They continued to bloom but didn’t help give the appearance of a nicely tended garden that I needed.   Next the Black –eyed susans opened their bright yellow petals.  Those faded pretty quickly and the plants looked pretty sick.  It was only then that I learned that this species is a fairly short lived perennial.  I pondered what to do with the sketchy looking Black-eyed susans. 

Each morning I was eager to check out the garden and see how it was looking.   My early morning visits would flush out a small flock of American goldfinch feasting on the Sand coreopsis seed.   And that’s when trouble began.  While I thought the seed heads just looked natural, to my wife the spent blossoms looked unsightly and she felt the birds had plenty to eat from the numerous native plants in the backyard.  I struggled with my vow to keep the plants deadheaded.  The Purple coneflower blooms had now also finished and gone to seed.   The Goldfinch and other birds also liked to harvest these little pieces of protein.  Several spirited discussions ensued and it was hard for me to realize my wife was really trying to live up to her side of the agreement while I was struggling.  She offered to help me cut the seed heads off.   So we did it together.  I had to reluctantly admit that this trimming made the garden look more tended.  But ouch!  We were losing a part of the benefits these native plants provide.  My wife wasn’t pleased as I mumbled unhappily during our deadheading sessions. 


Gray-head coneflower
Wild bergamot
Now the Gray-head coneflower and Wild bergamot were blooming. And my gosh, I’ve never seen so much life, so concentrated in one little patch of land.  At least 5 different species of bees, several different butterflies, and skippers worked over this small but colorful group of plants from morning until night.  Even in the windiest conditions, I’d see pollinators eagerly harvesting the bounty these native plants provided (1 min video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNNXfPAUg1E).  But these plants too went to seed and more “discussions” ensued.  Again my wife had to remind me of our pact.  I harvested some seed to donate for use in our Wild Ones events and the winter seed swap program.  Then begrudgingly I went about cutting off seed heads.   My better half was aggravated and asked why I was so reluctant to honor our bargain.  That really made me stop and think about it.  I knew the native planting was good for the pollinators, birds, and the planet and I didn’t want to give up any of the many benefits these plants provided.  At the same time I was also disappointed the way the garden was looking.  It certainly wasn’t the grand showcase I had imagined. 

As I spent time reluctantly removing the dead flower blossoms per our agreement, I noticed that the Sullivant's milkweed had not done well at all.  The Gray-head coneflower was flopping over like the coreopsis.  The Virginia Mountain mint was struggling.  The only plant that was truly thriving was the Sneezeweed.  In spite of all the life that flocked to the year old garden, the whole space didn’t look very good.  Huh?
 
Sneezeweed
On my early morning inspections I wear a pair of slip on boots to get me through the dew laden grass.  One early fall morning I found the Sneezeweed had bloomed magnificently.  The bright yellow flowers were already alive with the bees and a few butterflies.  This plant had grown to about 4 feet tall and showed no signs of falling over even with the heavy burden of the flowers.  As I walked to the edge of the bed bordering the neighbor’s yard, I heard the sound I hadn’t paid any attention to all summer long.  Squish, Squish, Squish.  Oh my gosh!  The ground was soaking wet.  What’s going on here?  I was puzzled but had to leave for an appointment and solve this some other time. 
The next morning I went out earlier than usual and found the answer to the soggy ground puzzlement.  Apparently all summer long my neighbors had their underground sprinkler come on for a short time early every single morning.  Yikes!  So that’s why the Sneezeweed was so happy.  It really likes moist conditions.  That’s why most of the rest of the plants were not doing well.  For the most part all these were prairie plants with deep root systems, well suited to the dry soil where they evolved. 
OK.  Now I’ve got several problems to solve.  Why can’t I happily tend this garden as my wife and I agreed?  After all, it’s better than the ecologically dead zone that used to be here in this 100 square foot of lawn.  Even without the benefit of seed for the birds, it’s still way better than lawn.  And furthermore, if I meet the tidiness and formal appearance criteria needed for a continued happy marriage, I get to make a bigger garden on the other side of the driveway.  Even less lawn, more nature, pollinators, and butterflies.  OK.  Now I’ve got my head into the game and vow I’ll spend the time to do this. 

The second problem is that I populated this garden mostly with plants that don’t like having wet feet.  I can’t get the next door gardener to change his watering regimen.  Their lawn’s roots are only a couple inches deep and need a lot of water in the hot dry summers we’ve been having.  And they like their lawn green and lush all summer long.  I’m not ready to turn this garden back to lawn so I’ll replace the plants with ones that like a lot of moisture. 

As I dug out the plants and relocated them to other areas until I figure out where they should go permanently, I realized I had crammed way too many species into this small area.  I had gone for biodiversity and placed 14 different types of plants here.  Grudgingly I had to admit there is no way that would have created the stunning garden that caught the neighborhood’s attention in a favorable way.  With the crowded species necessarily growing through each other, it was a far way from a formal design.  OK, I’ll limit the new arrangement to no more than six species.  With a tape measure, paper and pencil I measured and roughly sketched out a new design. 


Eastern black swallowtail
Now excited to get this right, I knew I needed to get plants that like the moisture, and a variety that would provide color all season long.  I couldn’t find a way to get an assortment of colors for each season without growing the list to seven.  And with that there was only one spring bloomer, the Foxglove beardtongue.  Armed with the design and plant list, I headed down to the native nursery.   Fortunately it is nearby and the owner, Jan Hunter, has been rigorous in preventing me from buying plants that won’t do well in my clay soil.  She advised adding one more spring plant.  Golden Alexanders bloom in the spring, like the moisture, and is a larval host plant for the Eastern black swallowtail butterfly. 

The revamped garden awaits
 next years growth
I'm frustrated because  I'm starting over and have lost a whole year and a half in developing this garden.  But I’ve learned a lot about garden design (I hope), and something about myself as well.  Now all the new plants are in and I’m enthused about how this should turn out.  Now, dear neighbors, please don’t turn off your watering system next year.