Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wildflower Wednesday: "Frosty" Blooms

Once again it's time for Wildflower Wednesday, a meme created and hosted by the champion of native plants, Gail at Clay and Limestone.  Unless I dip into the archives this winter, this may be the last WW post for me for awhile as the temperature is supposed to dip below freezing the next few nights, meaning an end to any wildflowers locally until spring.

What better way to end the wildflower season then but with the appropriately named Frost Aster.  My last Wildflower post featured pokeberry, but I also included a photo of an unidentified tall aster growing next to the pokeberry.  Mr. McGregor's Daughter suggested it might be a Hairy Aster.  Now I have a hard time telling one aster from another, but after looking at the plant more carefully and researching it in my two favorite sources,  I am 99% sure that this is what I have growing in many places around the farm.

Aster pilosus is a widely branched, spreading aster with tiny white flowers about 1/2" wide.  The flowers have 15-30 ray florets and a central yellow disk, distinguishing it from other types of asters.  Another distinguishing feature are the tiny white hairs on the stems, which is no doubt where it gets its name.  In Illinois Wildflowers, author Don Kurz calls this a "Hairy Aster," but the website Illinois Wildflowers calls this a "Frost Aster."   Frankly, I think "Frost Aster" sounds much more appealing, don't you?

Deer sometimes eat the leaves, stems, and flowerheads of this plant, while songbirds enjoy the seeds.  But it is most attractive to insects, particularly most species of bees as well as to some butterflies.  The caterpillars of various butterflies and moths, including the Pearl Crescent, feed on the foliage.  Because the Frost Aster is one of the last plants to remain in bloom before a heavy frost, it is an important source of nectar for many of these insects.  Yesterday the blooms were full of bumblebees and other types of bees, though the photo above was the only one I managed to get in focus, and unfortunately, all you can see of a bee is a black spot in the middle of it.

Aster pilosus is common throughout the state of Illinois and is not fussy about soil, thriving just about anywhere.  Both sources say it will grow up to 3 feet tall, but a few of my plants are twice that height.  I thought this quote from the website was interesting:

"This plant can be quite attractive because it is often covered with small white flowers during the fall, helping to extend the season of bloom in wildflower gardens and elsewhere. People often pull it out of their flowerbeds without realizing what it is, and instead attempt to grow exotic flowers that wither away into nothing under the hot Midwestern sun, unless they receive constant water, fertilizer, and attention. The Frost Aster, on the other hand, flourishes without any special treatment."

This is not a plant for everyone, however, especially if you don't have a large garden area.  Yes, it's a pretty plant in the fall with its frothy white blooms, but until fall quite frankly it looks like a weed.  All summer long I  looked at the area above and wondered what was growing here.  I debated about cutting this all down, sure they were weeds, but I didn't want to disturb the goldenrod that usually blooms here, too, and well, it was in the back out of sight and there was so much else to do in the garden that I let it go.  Next year I might be a little more ambitious and cut this all down, but considering it's a prolific self-seeder, I'm sure there will still be some Frost Asters hiding out in the back, keeping the bees happy until winter arrives.

To learn about other wildflowers, be sure to visit Gail today, and why not join us for Wildflower Wednesday?

Monday, October 25, 2010

An Alternative Method for Vole Control

This morning Frances posted an excellent tutorial on how to control voles in the garden.   I hadn't planned on doing a post today, but just by chance this afternoon my own Vole Patrol was on duty, inspiring me to present an alternative method of controlling these pesky varmints that can dig up your precious plants.  For this, the lazy gardener's method of vole control, no hardware cloth or tools are needed. 

All you need is one dog who has a keen sense of smell and likes to dig.

You will notice the now deceased vole to the left of the photo.  For the faint of heart, I did spare you the sight of the other more disgusting photos.  Suffice it to say that Sophie still thinks everything is a chew toy.

The second requirement for this method is a cat.  In this case, the credit for the vole capture goes to Tarzan who initially caught the little creature.  How Sophie managed to wrest the vole away from Tarzan is a mystery, as I missed this exchange.  However, Tarzan seemed content with letting Sophie have the spoils.  Cooperation in completing garden chores is always a good thing.

While my method produces the desired results with a minimum amount of work, if you do have a problem with voles, I highly recommend you follow Frances' advice.  Besides, there are a few disadvantages to my method: you can't plan the procedure, the digging used to draw the vole out is sometimes harder on the plants than the vole was, and it's hard to convince Sophie that her new "toy" is not allowed in the house!

I apologize if this left you a little disgusted, so here's a much prettier photo to cleanse your palate.  While I was convincing Sophie to come back inside without the vole, I noticed a Monarch floating above the garden.  I was so happy to see it, because I thought all the Monarchs had left already, and I followed it with my camera for several minutes.  Instead of landing, though, on a pretty bloom remaining the garden, it stopped in the grass.  Who knew I still had dandelions blooming in October??

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cirque du Prairie

Although recent days have been warm and sunny, the days are definitely getting shorter and nights are much cooler.  The ground has been covered with a light frost several mornings, but nothing serious enough to affect the garden yet.  But even though the plants that survived the summer's drought are still hanging on, one group of performers has already packed its bags and left for their winter home in Florida.  That's right--the circus has left town!

What, you didn't have a circus in your garden this summer?  If you missed it, let me share some of the most popular acts that appeared here this season:

There were balancing acts high above the floor of the Big Top.

Tightrope walkers . . .

 Acrobats . . .

. . . and Contortionists.

 There were so many daring feats they made me dizzy just watching.

This performer scaled a sheer vertical cliff effortlessly without any ropes.

There were numerous balancing acts that would make your head spin . . .

The lion tamers were equally brave, showing no fear of the mighty cats with their powerful jaws. 

There were jugglers as well who could catch a stick in mid-air.

And what would a circus be without the clowns?

  I think we might have had a flea circus visiting, too, but I repeatedly sent them packing!

(Please note: The juggler, clown, and "lion" have not vacated the premises
but will be overwintering here.)

And the most breath-taking of all--the trapeze artist, swinging from high above without a net. Gasp!

There were many times over the years, back when my four children were growing up and I was teaching full-time that I thought my life was a three-ring circus.  But life goes at a much slower pace now, and my juggling talent is seriously diminished.  Instead, I'm content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on my little circus performers.  I do hope they come back next summer for a return engagement.

Friday, October 15, 2010

October Bloom Day: Enjoying the Moment

October is a bittersweet time in the garden.  A glass-half-empty kind of person would say that it's only a matter of time before the first hard frost brings all of this to an end.  A glass-half-full kind of person would breathe in every scent and be thankful for each lovely sight, no matter how transitory.  For today, let us be in that second group. 

There is certainly enough still to enjoy in the garden.  Surprisingly, there are even some new blooms amidst the dried seedheads and withered stems.  The biggest surprise for me was the new blooms on Hemerocallis 'Moonlight Masquerade.'  This daylily bloomed for the first time this spring, but I had no idea it was a re-bloomer. 

Though even the asters have mostly faded away, this one at the front of the butterfly garden surprised me with its pink, not purple, blooms.  Could this be the Aster tartaricus that Gail gave me last year?  If so, I won't feel quite so bad about all the plants I pulled out this summer, thinking they were weeds.

The pineapple sage is finally starting to bloom.  It's a late bloomer anyway, but this seems unusually late. Perhaps it needed the cool weather to finally put out some blooms.  And yes, I know it's blurry, but it's been rather windy here lately.

I was also excited to see some blooms for the first time this year on the lemon verbena.  This is an annual here in zone 5, but last year's plant never bloomed even though it grew very tall.  The blooms aren't that showy; the real feature of this plant is its fragrance.  I can't walk by it without plucking a leaf and rubbing it, releasing its fresh lemon scent.

Other new blooms come from a new-to-my-garden plant, a gift from Cheryl.  This 'Strawberry Vanilla' hydrangea is a new hybrid this year, and I was surprised when we found it in our local garden center.  Its delicate white blooms with pink centers are pretty, but I'm anxious to see if next year it will fulfill its promise of white to pink to nearly red blooms, looking like a double dip strawberry-vanilla ice cream cone.  

Another new plant was purchased at a clearance sale late in August.  Plopped in the butterfly garden and then promptly forgotten, this gaura apparently has suffered no ill effects from my neglect.

The Knockout roses have also put out a flush of new blooms, enjoying the cooler weather. 


While some annuals succumbed to the heat this summer, many others have been invigorated by fall temperatures.  The double impatiens have done well all year.

I had forgotten just how neon pink these geraniums in the old fern planter were.

After a near-death experience this summer, the verbena (name forgotten, but it's not 'Homestead' verbena this year) is finally coming into its own.

And, of course, you can't beat 'Victoria Blue' salvia for an eye-popping purple accent each fall.  It is one of those annuals that will hang on until the bitter end this season.

Sweet alyssum, usually overlooked, finally is commanding some attention.  I didn't realize how much it disliked heat; it looked nearly dead most of the summer.

The containers are looking pretty ratty, though.  If I were more ambitious, I'd start cleaning most of them out, but I did replace a few plants--pansies and violas take the place of the now-defunct petunias.

Flowering kale and a cheery mum add some fall color. 

The detritus of the vegetable garden is partially hidden by some fall color as well,
 including the purple ruffled kale.

It makes a winning combination paired with yellow marigolds.

But the real fall color isn't in my garden at all, but all around me. 

The golds, oranges, and vivid reds of autumn can be seen by looking up, not down.


Even the ash trees, not normally the showiest in my yard, are putting on a show.  Their time is brief, though--this photo was taken two days ago, and this afternoon I noticed that the wind has already helped half the leaves to fall.  If ever there was a time, now is the time to go out and enjoy every moment, or as the oft-quoted line from Elizabeth Lawrence says,

"Everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn."

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is hosted each month by the ever-entertaining Carol of May Dreams Gardens.  Do stop by to see what is blooming all over the world right now.

Monday, October 11, 2010

2010 Post Season Garden Awards

All across the country right now baseball fans are cheering on their teams, hoping they reach that pinnacle of the All-American pastime--the World Series.  Inspired by another Rose, and fellow baseball fan, I thought this would be a good time to give out post-season awards.  However, since neither Rose, a Chicago White Sox fan, nor I, a fan of those not-so-lovable losers the Chicago Cubs, have a team to cheer on in the post-season, we are turning our attention to our gardens instead for candidates worthy of being named MVP.

First let's look at one disappointing candidate who was not even considered for an award.  These 'Royal Magenta' supertunias performed beautifully last year, spreading through the porch planter and trailing down its sides, just as I wanted them to.  Because of their coachability last year, I gave them a starting position once again this year.  But although their early season batting average was high, they went into a late-season slump and eventually had to be cut from the team.

Other Supertunias were equally disappointing over the long haul.  These 'Creme Brulee' looked good through the heart of the season, but totally disappeared by September and had to be sent back to the minors, replaced by those September dependables, pansies and violas.  And we won't even talk about the calibrachoas!   Their batting slump started much earlier in the season, prompting the owner to question the wisdom of spending the money to acquire them in the first place.  However, unlike the disloyal management of the Cubs who traded two of my favorite players, Ryan Theriot and Derrek Lee before the end of the season (I'm still mad at them for this!),  I'm going to chalk up their poor performance to a difficult season and give both the Supertunias and calibrachoas a chance at starting again next year.

This season was a difficult one for my garden team this year.  Many players folded from the heat and lack of constant rehydration.  But there were three that seemed unfazed by the less than ideal field conditions.


First off, the Golden Glove (for fielding percentage for those of you who are non-baseball fans) award goes to the Susans.  Last year I planted two, maybe three, of my very first Rudbeckias--one or two 'Goldsturms' and one Rudbeckia hirta.  This year there were too many to count, and I have no idea which plant is which.

Perhaps they also deserve the Silver Slugger award for batting percentage, since they had to slug it out with all the other volunteers for space on the field.  But the Susans didn't seem to mind, finding space where they could, and cooperating well with all their teammates.

Always eager to please, it's hard to miss their cheery faces, especially when the sun intensifies their golden glow.  They were chosen for the fielding award, since they were so talented at catching flies . . . and bees . . . and butterflies.  (Okay, so maybe this analogy is getting a little old . . .) 

You might have been surprised that I didn't choose my signature flower, the Purple Coneflower, Echinacea Purpurea, for some type of award.  True, it achieved its usual superstar status this summer and is surely destined for the Hall of Fame, but I decided to look at season-long performance rather than just a one or two-month blaze of glory.  Though the Susans have mostly turned to seed like the coneflowers, there are quite a few of them still blooming and keeping their field positions. 

The last two awards also go to consistent season-long performers:

Rookie of the Year has to go to the Salvia, 'Wendy's Wish.'  I was looking for another 'Black and Blue,' which did so-so in my garden last year, when I spied the hot pink blooms of this new salvia.  Little did I know when I bought this plant what a superstar it would become.

Trying to capture the appearance of the whole plant defies my camera and my photographic abilities.  A photograph on a bubblegum trading card just can't do it justice; this is one player you have to see in person to appreciate.

Nope, not much better.  You'll just have to take my word that it has bloomed non-stop all summer and, purely by accident, became the focal point of the lily bed once the lilies stopped blooming.  Add to its impressive stats that it is also a hummingbird magnet.  Several times as I was weeding or watering this flowerbed, a hummingbird would come to sip nectar from its blooms. 

And now the most coveted award of the season--the MVP--goes to 'Lucky Lemon Creme' lantana!  For many years different varieties of lantana have been used in containers, but this was the first time I planted it in the ground.  It soon became obvious to me that it loves the outfield much better than being a designated hitter.

Never before did I realize what a butterfly magnet this plant is.  It was a great season for butterflies, and every one that visited my garden made time for a refreshment stop at the lantana. From the Red Admirals Painted Ladies (thanks, Shy Songbird!) . . .

. . . to the sulphurs . . .

. . . to the numerous Buckeyes . . .

. . . to the Tiger Swallowtails, as well as many other types, the lantana was a favorite, often covered in a fluttering of wings.  This butterfly magnetism was a quality exhibited by several other plants in the garden, but what really vaulted the lantana into first place for MVP were its other statistics:  blooming non-stop all summer, no need to deadhead, drought tolerance, and exceptional growth.  To be fair, it may have had an advantage over other annuals and perennials this year because of field conditions-- lantana loves heat, and  that was something we had plenty of all summer long.  I might add that other varieties of lantana probably would have performed just as well as 'Lucky Lemon Creme.'  I picked this soft yellow to border the lily bed so that it wouldn't clash with the oranges and reds of the lilies.  But since my color scheme eventually went out the window as usual, next year I might opt for a more colorful lantana. 

As a final justification for the awards for 'Lucky Lemon Creme' and 'Wendy's Wish,'  just look at these before and after photos.  You'll see in my first attempt at drawing on a photo, a crude red oval showing the location of the lantana in mid-June.  A flat of small lantana seedlings were planted here between two plantings of alyssum.  Next year the border will be all lantana, since the alyssum didn't perform nearly as well.  In the middle you'll notice a blue circle indicating the barely visible 'Wendy's Wish,' which I located only after zooming in and in on this photo.

Here is the same bed now--no need for arrows, because both are clearly visible, though the lantana, to the far left, looks white in this sunny photo.  Some cynics might accuse both of these players to have used performance-enhancing drugs to achieve this stature, but I assure you other than a few infrequent applications of fertilizer to the lantana and probably none on the salvia, both 'Lucky' and 'Wendy' are true natural athletes.  Their physical stamina this season edged out all the other competitors.

Since both the lantana and the salvia are annuals, their contracts will have to be renewed next year.  But rest assured, this owner/gardener has been so impressed by their superstar performances this season, that I will do whatever it takes to sign them again next year!