Saturday, March 18, 2017

It looked like a mild winter until...

We've been having a pretty mild winter this year.  The average temperature in the U.S. in February 2017 was 7.3 F above the 20th century average.  Comparing photos I'd taken in 2014 and 2015 with this year indicates that this year we are 2-4 weeks ahead, based on the blooming of the crocus and forsythia.  On March 14th we finally got a good dose of snow in our neck of the woods (west-central Maryland).

This late snow is out of place with the forsythia that has been blooming since late-February this year.

About a week before the snow storm I took a walk around the woods to see what was starting to come up.  The first thing I checked on was the spicebush.  It usually begins blooming shortly after the forsythia.  This year, while the forsythia had been in bloom for a couple of weeks, the spicebush was just getting started.
March 10th and the flower buds on the spicebush were just opening.

The next plant I checked was the pussy willow, Salix discolor.  This native tree/shrub is one of the earliest blooming native plants and is an important source of pollen to early season native bees.  Since this species is dioecious, only the male plants are sources of pollen; however both male and female flowers have nectar.
The buds of this pussy willow are just opening.  When fully in
bloom the flower buds of this male plant will be covered
with yellow pollen-bearing anthers.

Looking down on the ground in the leaf litter I found a number of Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica, that had just come up.  Sometimes the new leaves have a purple tinge to them, but that color quickly fades to green.  The spikes of flower buds follow quickly after this first flush of leaves.
These Virginia bluebells have just come up.

Also showing up on the ground was white avens, Geum canadense, which is pretty common in this area.  While its not particularly beautiful in bloom, it does fill in gaps in the shady understory and its wispy white flowers break up the sea of green leaves.  In the early spring it is by the light colored veins on the deeply divided leaves.
The leaf markings on this white avens rival those of some Heucheras;
however, as it matures the dominant leaves will be smaller and the veination less noticeable.
The plant to the left in this photo is purple deadnettle, Lamium purpureum.  This introduced species is scattered throughout the shady areas.  While weedy, it does not appear to be causing too much trouble with the other plants.

These violets look a little like garlic mustard, ...
Also noted among the fallen leaves were fresh leaves of some native violets, probably woolly blue violet, V. sororia.  These nearly round leaves have finely serrated margins (crenate) and fairly smooth leaves.

They can be distinguished from the over-wintering garlic mustard rosettes that have longer, slender petiole and leaves that are deeply veined and more deeply toothed serrate leaf margins.

Garlic mustard has deeply veined leaves that
look tired, having been out all winter.
Garlic mustard is not the only invasive species that is evident right now.  In fact late winter is a good time to spot some invasive species since they tend to come to life a little before most of the native species.  Multiflora rose and barberry are both leafing out now making them stand out in the woods.  Since the soil was soft I was able to pull a number of these bad guys out of the ground.  This is also a good time to spot Japanese honeysuckle growing up in the trees.  Now is a good time to  cut these climbing vines and deny the roots an early burst of energy.

Most native honeysuckles have the two terminal leaves fused together
like this just below the flower bud.

While not growing with the same vigor as the Japanese honelysuckle at this time, the native coral or trumpet honeysuckle is also leafing out. Flower buds are beginning to form, though the normal bloom season is closer to mid-spring.

Monday, February 13, 2017

New Plants for 2017: Just Getting Started

The seed and plant catalogs have been coming since late December and I've made a few selections already.  Here's a run down on seeds and shrubs that I have ordered so far.

The tubular flowers of fireweed mature into long
seed pods, as seen on the lower right.
Fireweed, Chamerion angustifolium (formerly of the genus Epilobium) is a tall perennial that puts out hot pink flowers in mid-summer.  Growing in part to full sunshine and average soil moisture this will be a welcome addition to the small meadow that I am developing.  The tubular flowers are very attractive to a number of native bees as well as hummingbirds.

Fireweed is named for its tendency to appear in great numbers after fire has cleared the competing vegetation.

The tiny seeds, ca. 1 mm long, need to be cold-moist stratified for 60 days for good germination.  The tiny seeds also need to be surface sown, as they need light for germination.  I started the stratification in damp sand last week, so I should be able to get them into trays in early April.

When stratification is done, I'll just smear the damp sand/seed mixture on top of the soil.
Another new species for me will be goat's rue, Tephrosia virginiana.  This member of the legume family likes dryish sandy soils in part to full sun light.  It has feathery foliage and puts out pink and yellow pea-like flowers in early to mid-summer.  Since this plant has a deep taproot, I will use it on an embankment that I want to stabilize.

Relative to fireweed, the seeds of goat's rue are huge, 3-4 mm long and about half as wide.  These seeds have a thick outer coating and will need to be scarified before giving it about 2 weeks of cold-moist stratification.  In addition to this I also got a packet of inoculum that contains the bacteria this plant needs to fix nitrogen from the air. I'll mix this with the seeds prior to starting the stratification process.  I think seeds will germinate with it, but not having the right bacteria can compromise their development.  

I have encountered this with another legume, partridge pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata, where I saw much better growth from seeds that had been treated with inoculum than for those sown without it.

In addition to these I got some additional seeds for rose verbena, Glandularia canadensis, and spotted beebalm, Monarda punctata.  I was pleased with the rose verbena I planted last year.  While it does not call for it, I moist stratified the seed for a month and got excellent germination rates.  It formed a nice ground cover and bloomed well with clusters of deep magenta flowers.  I purchased more seed because it is listed as marginally hardy in zone 6 and I was afraid that there would not be enough seed produced last season to produce another crop for this year.  Since our winter low temperatures this year have not dropped below 15 F, we are having more of a zone 8 winter, this species may make it through until spring.  In any case I'll have more plants to fill in and maybe share a few with others.

Rose verbena as it's looking in mid-February.  It's taken some damage,
but it's looking good close to the ground level.

The spotted beebalm I had a few years back has petered out.  I think it lost out to more competitive plants around the vegetable garden.  It is a short lived perennial and relies on having good places for new seed to germinate to continue in the garden.   For this new crop I will put it in spots with leaner soil and where its seed can germinate without being covered by other plants.

As far as shrubs, I'm just reinforcing some of what I got last year:
Eastern Red Cedar, only one from the three I planted last year was successful.  This year I'll get them in the ground sooner and do a better job of clearing away competitive plants.

Chokecherry, I'm 1 for 2 on this species.  For these I will need to clear a larger space so they can get established.  Once established they should grow quickly on their own.

American hazelnut, these are surviving well in somewhat shady locations.  I have identified several other woodland edge areas where it would be nice to have this native shrub fill in.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What worked in 2016

Looking back on how my plans for incorporating the new native plants worked this past year revealed more successes than failures.  Here's a rundown on what worked, what didn't and what I learned.

Plants from seed
Probably my best result came from seed for rose verbena, Glandularia canadensis.  After about 6 weeks of cold stratification I had very good rates germination after a week under lights.  I didn't see any plants from direct seeding outside done at the end of February.  Either that wasn't long enough or the conditions just were not right.  Surpizingly the plants are still leafy green outside (we are on the border of zones 6 and 7).

I also had good results with the annual Texas sage, Salvia coccinea, after a month of cold moist stratification.  We also had a lot of these coming up in pots that had been stored in an unheated garage, but none from seed that was left outdoors.

 The failure here was with Indian blanket, Gaillardia pulchella.  This one germinated during stratification.  I planted the sprouted seeds, but they were weak and didn't amount to much, even after being potted up.

Rose verbena was blooming by mid-July
and continued through the summer.  

This American bellflower is a favorite of native miner bees. 
A biennial that is really happy here is American bellflower, Campanulastrum americanum.  I started a few from seed in 2013 and now have volunteers scattered around the flower beds.  Another name for this species is tall bellflower; mine typically reach 4-5 feet when in bloom.  The deer browse on this a little early in the season, but tend to leave it alone after July.  It can get rather lanky, so it is best toward the back of a border or in the shade where it does not get so tall.

New Perennials

The white flowers of wild strawberry are another way
to distinguish it from mock strawberry, which has yellow flowers.

Since I was seeing good results from a hardy cultivated strawberry from the local master gardeners I thought I would try out some of the native species, wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana.  Planted in mid-spring, these small plants settled in enough to put out runners to start new plants a foot or two away.  Got some flowers but no fruit this first year.  Looks promising as a fruit-bearing ground cover for next year.

These white woodland phlox, growing in my woodlands
are similar to ones I transplanted to under the pines.
I also planted both woodland and creeping phlox, Phlox divaricata and P. stolonifera, in open shade under some pines.  This is an area where I am trying to replace a mass of vinca.  These species do well in the shade of deciduous trees, we'll see how they handle the consistent dry shade of evergreens.  The woodland phlox that I planted in the spring disappeared in the middle of summer but put forth new growth in the fall.  The creeping phlox, which is more tolerant of dry soils, was planted in the fall.  We'll see which of these two species is more successful here.

In this same pine-rich area I added more Foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia, and hairy alumroot, Heuchera villosa, as seedlings.  In general the Heuchera survive these conditions much better than the Tiarella.  It was probably too dry for the young plants to get established.  While the Heuchera grow better, they are also more subject to browsing by critters, deer or rabbits of both.  Next time I get some Tiarella I'll try it in a moister location, perhaps under a walnut tree.

The flowers of blunt mountain mint are very attractive to pollinators.

A new native I added to the garden was blunt mountainmint, Pycnanthemum muticum.  I had been trying out hoary mountainmint, P. incanum, for a couple of years.  Planted in a partly sunny location, it has been rather slow to grow.  I planted the blunt mountainmint in a slightly sunnier location nearby and it grew to about 2' and was covered with dense pinkish flowers.  As showy as the flowers are the silvery bracts at the base of each flower.

I have been trying to get some blazing star, Liatris sp., to grow for several years.  It seems they get started, then disappear.  I'm pretty sure I'm losing them to some small mammals, ground hogs or rabbits.  This year I tried plains blazing star, L. squarrosa, with mixed success.  The ones planted in the open disappeared, while the ones surrounded by other plants were able to survive.  We'll see if these can get established.

Plains blazing star in bloom.  This species has
button-like flowers rather than spikes
Another regionally native plant that didn't bloom but seems to be getting established is vasevine, Clematis virona.  I didn't notice them much during the growing season, but when I cheked for them this past week I did find that the wiry vines had grown several feet.  I hope I can share some photos of its bell-shaped flowers next summer.

New Shrubs

This gray dogwood managed to bloom before it got pruned back by deer.
My main 'reclaimation' project last season was to displace invasive wineberry, Rubus phoenicolasius, and Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica, from a steeply sloping hedgerow.  I don't want to destabilize the slope, so I have been cutting back the invasives and treating the stumps with herbicide.  In 2014-15 I put in some smooth sumac, Rhus glabra.  This year I added gray dogwood, Cornus racemosa to the top and middle slopes and American hazelnut, Corylus americana, to the shadier lower slope.  Most of these were planted bare root in the spring and they seem to have survived their first year.  The biggest challenge for the dogwood is deer browsing.  This was also a problem the first year I planted red osier dogwood, C. sericea, but after a year the deer seemed to lose interest.  I have read that deer will browse more on new plants, especially those from a nursery, because their leaves are more tender and they are higher in nitrogen.  After the plants settle in, the leaves toughen up and become less appealing.  I hope it will be the case here.

On a disappointing note, only one of the five bare root red cedars, Juniperus virginiana, survived.  I have my lone survivor surrounded by chicken wire to protect it from deer.  I'll probably need to keep it caged up for a few more years, especially during rutting season.

Now its time to start planning for next year.  Let's see, what should I get????

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Not all plans work out

Three years ago we cleared out a section of garden that was over run by English ivy.  The plan was to put in some new native species as well as watching to see what would sprout up from the soil that had been covered with ivy for a number of years.  To the newly cleared space I put in some goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), and a strawberry bush (Euonymus americanus).  As a ground cover I got a bunch of Virginia jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), which looked like the 'Lance Corporal' cultivar, with reddish chevrons on each leaf. These were followed up the following spring with American alumroot (Heuchera americana), Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) and Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

A jumbled mass.  Blue lobelia is recognizable on the left with spent flower stems of the alumroot.  The glossy leaves of Solomon's seal are evident on the right.  In the center you can make out the red flowers of the jumpseed, but the leaves are barely discernible.
Over the next 3 seasons I let the plantings develop without much interference, except for pulling out Japanese honeysuckle and garlic mustard.  Additional species that cropped up included natives like white avens (Geum canadense) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) as well as introduced species like mock strawberry (Duchesnea indica) and a cultivated species of columbine that had been reseeding itself for a number of years through the ivy.

In September as the flowers of the jumpseed are opening up,
something goes after the leaves, eventually skeletonizing them.
While it was interesting to see 'new' plants coming in, the overall planting was too chaotic to look good as a whole.  One problem with the new scheme was that the goatsbeard gets tattered by mid-summer if it gets too dry.  This can be fixed with a little more care and watering through the season. Also the long flower stems of the alumroot add to the confusion. The biggest disappointment was the jumpseed.  It looks nice early in the season with its striped leaves, but by late summer the leaves are decimated by some insects.  What remains is a jumble of wiry stems going every which-way that detracts from the spikes of red flowers.

After letting this area go for several years and not seeing any improvement I decided it was time to make it a little more formal by adding more defined layers to the garden.  While a random planting works in the distance, close up the human eye is looking for more defined structure and order.  In general, lower plants will go in the foreground, near the stepping stones.  Medium sized perennials go to the middle and the bushy goatsbeard stays in the back.  This new planting will be easier to maintain because it will be easier to identify the 'weedy' plants over a background of low sedges than it was before.

First I removed as much of the jumpseed as I could see.  Then I pulled out any encroaching English ivy and honeysuckle.  I also pulled out some native trees that seeded in, like butternut and box elder.  The lower-growing alumroot was already near the path.  For additional low-growing plants, I transplanted several species of sedges from elsewhere on the property.  Their lower stature, defined form, and contrasting texture will help show off the taller perennials.

Here's the garden after removing the jumpseed.  The back right is dominated by two goatsbeard, and the fencing is getting covered with virgin's bower (Clematis virginiana) that was planted in 2013.

In the foreground is one of the sedges I moved into the garden.
It could be Carex laxiculmis but I won't be sure until it blooms.
Also shown here are Alumroot and white avens,
at top with its deep red autumn color.
Since the Indian pinks don't like to be moved I left them in place and instead transplanted all the columbine to the middle ground.

The Solomon's seal was doing well, but they were getting hidden by the jumpseed.  I put some sedges around the Solomon's seal to give them some vertical space.

One of the sedges I chose has 1/4-1/2" wide blades and  grows in clumps about a foot wide.  These went in along the path and are scattered with the perennials to provide some height variation. Also it's evergreen so it will be around all year.  The white avens that is indigenous to this site has deeply lobed leaves that blend well with the alumroot.  The avens can get lanky and will benefit from some cutting back late in the season.

The other sedge is also clumping but has very thin, light green blades.  I'm pretty sure this is rosey sedge (Carex rosea).  It grows very well on partly sunny to shady sites.
The strawberry bush is known for these brightly colored seed pods in early fall.
Where the branches are touching the ground I am seeing new roots forming.
I'll separate these from the parent plant next season.  This is an easy way to propagate this shrub.

This unknown columbine was planted by a previous owner and
has been reseeding itself for a number of years.  Definitely not a native, but it looks good here.

So here's the garden after clean-up and planting.  It looks a little sad now since leaves are falling off and the plants are settling in for winter.

Weeded and replanted, we'll see what happens next year.

If all the transplants come back and the weeds don't return in force the new garden may look something like this overlay drawing.

As drawn here the goatsbeard, Indian pinks, and columbine are shown in bloom.
The sedges and alumroot line the stepping stones, from lower right to upper left.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Last Comments on Stiltgrass -- This Year

I've been talking a lot about Japanese stiltgrass control and how I am trying to eliminate it from my property.  One of the really insidious features of stiltgrass is that in addition to its normal seeds produced on tall stalks, it also produces a second set of seeds on flowers enclosed in stems close to the ground.  These are referred to as cleistogamous flowers.

Here in mid-October you can see the height difference
between the regular flowers and cleistogamous ones.
While removal of the upper flowering parts of the plant will help control the spread of stiltgrass and reduce the total number of seeds produced, that second set of seeds keeps the local population going.  These cleistogamous flowers are particularly relevant in mown lawns, where these ground-hugging flowers survive the regular trimming.

An approach that I am expanding on further this year is to use a stiff rake to pull out the stilt grass from the lawn.  This works best when the desired grass is clump forming.  The rake can get locked into the creeping stolons of the stiltgrass, while the clumping grasses are not snagged (too much).  Timing is critical -- wait until late in the season when the expanding lateral growth of the stiltgrass makes it easier to snag, but before the cleistogamous seeds begin to mature.  This year I did a thorough raking at the end of September.  That worked out with the timing for overseeding the lawn with a more desirable grass seed.  When I went out a week later I noticed that some of the stiltgrass in the lawn did have seeds forming in the lower stems.  Next year I will do the raking in early or mid-September to reduce the chance of actually spreading any matured stiltgrass seed while raking.

Here are the piles of stiltgrass and other debris I raked out in preparation for overseeding
the last week of September.  The 4 smaller piles are from an area I overseeded
with tall fescue last year; the larger piles are from a new area I started this year.
After drying for a couple of days these piles were carefully carried away to a segregated brush pile
to avoid spreading stiltgrass seeds.

A general strategy for removing invasive plants is to start with a manageable sized area and clean it up thoroughly.  In subsequent seasons expand the area for cleaning.  This reduces the chance that the previously cleaned areas become reinfested.  Trying to do too much at once risks leaving many seeds or plants behind that will reinfect your 'clean' areas and real progress will difficult.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

An August Drive: Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway

August isn't only for pulling stilt grass.  If you don't take some time off to enjoy nature, it could drive you crazy.  With that in mind, we took some time off and headed south to Asheville, NC for a couple of days via Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway.  These were beautiful drives with terrific overlooks, lots of green and many plants in bloom.  Not surprising, but these are not great roads if you are try to get somewhere by a given time, so we did have to bail out by mid-afternoon each day.  Here are some of the natural highlights we saw travelling the backbone of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Thunder storm moving up the Shenandoah Valley south of Luray, VA. 
Mounds of blooming virgin's bower were a common
sight along the route.  This particular photo was
taken near Cherokee, NC.

We started at the northern end of skyline Drive in Front Royal, VA.  All along the way we saw numerous wildflowers in bloom.  Plants we could ID at 35 mph were eastern Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium), several species of sunflowers (Helianthus sp.), wild bergamont (Monarda fistulosa), threadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) and tons of virgin's bower (Clematis virginiana).  We did manage to finish Skyline Drive then jump out to I-81 to get down to Marion, VA so that we would have an easy drive into Asheville the next day.

Later on in the trip we drove the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Cherokee, NC.  Here we saw similar plants in bloom but maybe different species from further north.  A couple that I feel pretty sure about here was spotted Joe Pye weed (E. maculatum) and thin-leaved sunflower (Helianthus decapetalus).

This spotted Joe Pye weed was growing on a steep slope next to
the Blue Ridge parkway.  The leaf shape and the purple stem are
clues that this is, in fact, E. maculatum.
While I didn't ID this sunflower on-site, I think it is thin-leaved
sunflower (H. decapetalus).  Some clues are the large teeth
on the serrated leaf, the long bracts under the flower head
and the purplish stem.

View to the northwest from near the Craggy Gardens visitor center.
One of the last botanical stops on the trip was at Craggy Gardens, near Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi.  Among the plants noted there was Mountain ash (Sorbus americana) with its long pinnate leaves and large clusters of orange berries.  The plant that impressed me the most here was hairy alum root (Heuchera villosa).  The bloom period for it is mid-August into early fall.  This is a species that I have been growing for a while at home, but this was the first time I have seen large quantities growing in the wild.

These Alum Root were growing out of a north-facing rock wall
at the Craggy Gardens visitor center. 
This thistle patch was popular with the butterflies.
Here's one of the few Monarchs we encountered.

In addition to the plants, we did come across some interesting animals.  We had a small bear cross the road in front of us on Skyline Drive (no chance to take a photo).  We saw a lot of eastern swallowtails (Papilio glaucus), but only a couple of Monarchs.

The craziest insect we saw was a fast moving caterpillar which I believe to be of a pipevine swallow tail (Battus philenor).  I'm not sure where it was headed, I didn't notice any pipevine nearby, but it could have been in the undergrowth.

This pipevine swallowtail caterpillar was racing across a retaining wall at a scenic outlook
on I-81 from TN to NC.  It's fleshy antennae were waving around wildly.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

August - Prime time for battling Japanese Stiltgrass

Japanese Stiltgrass, Microstegium vimineum, is a major invasive grass species in the Mid-Atlantic and encroaching on New England.  It forms a dense layer of vegetation that shades out native plants and other desirable species.  In late July and through the rest of summer it puts on a growth spurt jumping from 6 inches to over 3 feet tall.  This is the prime time to take action to reduce its numbers for next year.  As an annual grass the main goal is to keep it from setting seed and, eventually, the seed bank will be depleted.  Unfortunately that can take 5 to 7 years, but if you don't start doing something today, waiting longer will just make it that much harder.

I've published posts in 2014 and 2015 on my approach to dealing with stiltgrass, and I've had to go back several times to remind myself of what to do and when.  So here goes...

Freshly pulled Japanese stiltgrass.  There is a lot of leafy growth
for the relatively small root system.

Letting the pulled stiltgrass sit in the sun for a day or two helps to kill it
and it reduces the weight of the debris.  Before pulling,
 the stiltgrass in the bed was about 3 feet tall.
In planting beds where the grass has gotten several feet high pull it out by hand at the end of July or early August.  Its shallowly rooted and easy to pull, especially after a little rain.  Perennials are more deeply rooted and are harder to pull.  I've found that by loosening my grip a little I can leave perennials like New England Aster in place, while pulling out the grass.  Also at this time the stiltgrass is taller than many of the desirable plants so by grabbing the tops I can leave the lower growing plants undisturbed.  One of the reasons for pull now is to let some light reach the soil and induce more stiltgrass to germinate.  This late germinating grass won't have time to mature and will be killed off when the temperature drops.

In areas to large for pulling I usually wait until blooming is just starting (end of August-early September) and then weed whack it close to the ground.  The idea here is to prevent another season of seed from maturing.  Unfortunately stiltgrass is very slow to decompose and can form a mat layer that also shades out the native seed bank.  Where the cut grass is particularly thick I try to rake it together in piles in the shade where any viable seed is less likely to germinate.

This is an area of lawn that has been seeded twice with a low-mow  blend of fine fescues.
It has not been mown for at least 4 weeks.  There is much less stiltgrass than in  unseeded area to the upper right.
I'll wait until the end of August (ca. 2 weeks) to mow this lawn (I've already pulled out the stiltgrass from the bed).

For lawns that are full of stiltgrass the recommendation that I'm am trying to follow is to leave it unmown from late July to late August.  Then, just as the flowers begin to form, cut the lawn at a lower level.  The idea here is that constant mowing encourages the stiltgrass to form cleistogamus flowers low on the plant.  These flowers self pollinate and are difficult to remove.  While I'm not sure if it's true, it seems that letting the plant put its energy into upper open flowers will reduce the number of these lower flowers.  These upper flowers can then be sheared off and the plants may not have time to recover with a second bloom.

The final stage for the lawn is to rake out the remaining stiltgrass in mid-September and overseed with a desirable cool season turf grass.  The cool season grasses will germinate in the fall and fill the gaps previously inhabited by the stiltgrass.

This shady area was solid stilt grass 4 years ago.  Now, after 3 years of annual weed whacking
and some pulling there is more diversity.  The tall grass here is Virginia wild rye, Elymus virginicus,
which is now going into bloom

I am happy to report that following these practices is showing promise.  In the lawn overseeding with a low-mow blend and 'deferred' mowing has reduced the density of the stiltgrass.  Also in some of the natural areas I am seeing less stiltgrass and more diversity.  One species that is doing well in the shade is Virginia Wild Rye, that I seeded in two years ago.