November Work: Cutting Down the Meadows

Last week, I performed what has become for me a ‘rite of November’: cutting down the meadows at our cottage on Lake Muskoka, a few hours north of Toronto. I have to admit, it isn’t my favourite chore of the year, though I acknowledge I don’t actually have a lot of “chores” up there, given the naturalistic way I garden. But it’s definitely the most labour-intensive – amidst the least pleasant weather conditions of autumn, as it usually turns out. This year it was blowing a gale as I assembled my wardrobe and tools:  hedge shears, rake, cart, bundling cloth and ropes, rubber boots, extra layers under my waterproof jacket and fleece band to keep my ears warm. I started out with the big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), the tallest of my prairie grasses, at 7 feet with its turkey-foot flowers. Considering it’s growing in shallow soil atop the ancient rock of the Canadian Precambrian shield, rather than the deep loam of the tallgrass prairie where its roots can extend far down, I think it’s rather happy at the cottage, and I took a selfie of us together before I chopped off its head!

Janet Davis-Lake Muskoka-Big bluestem in the meadow

Since my meadows and beds likely measure only about 1600 square feet or so, it’s not a lot to hand-cut with the hedge shears. People wonder why I don’t use a string trimmer, but I find that holding the weight of a trimmer just above ground is harder on my back than bending over and chopping the stems manually. I understand you can buy a harness for the trimmer, so that might be an improvement – but there’s something hypnotically satisfying about working with the shears.

Shears-cutting big bluestem-Lake Muskoka

As I work, I rake and pile the stems into windrows near the cart where I’ll eventually pack them up into bundles to carry by hand up the hill behind the cottage to a place out of sight where they can break down.

Cottage meadow-Lake Muskoka-November 15

If I don’t cut the meadows, the heavy snows of winter will soon bend down the grasses and forb stems, but the thatch that accumulates makes it less attractive for self-seeding wildflowers and daffodils emerging in spring. So if I want the scene below in mid-summer, it pays to prepare for it by cutting old growth.

Cottage meadow-Lake Muskoka-July 31st

And if I leave the switch grass (Panicum virgatum) standing after it turns colour in fall….

Switch grass-October-Lake Muskoka-fall colour

…. it will look like this in May.

Switch grass-May 15-Lake Muskoka-uncut

So I remove all the above ground growth in November.

Switch grass-November 15-Lake Muskoka-after cutting

And if I’m travelling during this late autumn window (as we have on a few occasions), the daffodils will still come up in the meadow the following spring, but it’s a bit of a struggle.

May 15-Big bluestem-Lake Muskoka-uncut-daffodils

In short, if I want this…..

Cottage bed & Orienpet Lily-July 31-Lake Muskoka

…I have to do this.

Cottage bed-November 15-Lake Muskoka

And if I want this…..

View of path-Lake Muskoka-July 31

….I have to do this.

View of path-Lake Muskoka-November15

I could hold off on the cutting until late winter or very early spring, when the ground is still frozen (as I do in my city meadow), but timing doesn’t always work that well up here and a fast thaw means I’m cutting on mucky soil. And since most of the seed-eating birds have flown south and those that remain seem adept at picking up seed from the ground, I’m happy to clear out this…..

Path through meadow-Lake Muskoka-November15

…. in order to enjoy this next summer.

Path through meadow-Lake Muskoka-July15

Beyond the chores of this month, I love the varied browns of November. I’ve even blogged about Beguiling Brown in the Garden. And I enjoy inspecting all the seedheads as the plants complete their life cycles. Plants like showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), its white panicled seedheads shown below alongside the charcoal autumn foliage of false indigo (Baptisia australis). (Incidentally, though these plants flower at the opposite ends of summer, they’re among the best for bumble bee foraging.)

Seedheads-Solidago speciosa & Baptisia australis-November

Here is the candelabra-like seedhead of culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) with the ubiquitous button-like seedheads of wild beebalm (Monarda fistulosa).

Seedheads-Veronicastrum virginicum & Monarda fistulosa-November

Those seedheads above, of course, are proof that the attractive summer flowers, shown below, attracted the pollination services of the appropriate wild bees.

Flowers-Veronicastrum virginicum & Monarda fistulosa-summer

And the late summer-autumn season has also allowed the various grasses to shine, below, including – apart from the big bluestem – Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum).

Big Bluestem & Indian grass-Lake Muskoka

November is the perfect time for dormant seeding native wildflowers, so as I’m chopping the stems, I also do some fast sowing into the meadows, using my boot toe to kick little bare spots into the soil, then grinding some of the seeds just below the surface, while leaving others exposed. I do this with New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), below.

Fall seeding-New York Ironweed-Vernonia-Lake Muskoka

Chopping, raking, piling, carrying. Chopping, raking, piling, carrying. After a good day-and-a-half in blustery wind and intermittent cold rain, I manage to take 8 tied bundles of stems up the back hill to a spot on top of the pile of blast rock that was cleared when we built our home here on this waterbound peninsula 16 years ago. In time, the vegetation will decompose amidst the staghorn sumac pioneers and create a more complex meadow planting here.Compost pile-Lake Muskoka

Finally, as I finish washing out the cart, coiling the garden hoses, cleaning my tools, bringing everything indoors and preparing to drive back to the city in the waning light of the third day, I gather up a handful of the stems I’ve put aside in my cutting. Because apart from enjoying vases filled with summer flowers in July…..

Bouquet-July meadow flowers-Lake Muskoka

….. it feels virtuous, somehow, to accord these plants the same respect in November.

Bouquet-November meadow seedheads-Lake Muskoka

To capture a little of the atmosphere of what it’s like to perform this task in November, I’ve made a short video to enjoy here. (Please excuse the wind – it was impossible to find quiet moments.) The good news? My back and I are still on speaking terms!

 

Monkshood & Snakeroot for a Fall Finale

What a luscious October afternoon! I looked out my back window and was drawn, as I always am this time in autumn, to the furthest corner of the garden, where a little fall scene unfolds that I treasure more because it’s a secret. Want to see it?  Let’s take a little stroll past the messy pots on the deck with their various sedums and swishing sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) out into the garden past the table and chairs that haven’t been used since… when? August?

Janet Davis-garden-autumn

Keep going to where the lovely chartreuse Tiger Eyes sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’) is currently doing its Hollywood star thing in brilliant apricot…..

Tiger Eye Sumac-Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger'-fall color

But what’s this scene, just behind it?

Tiger Eye Sumac-snakeroot-monkshood-Janet Davis

Yes, two stalwarts of the autumn garden – and I mean autumn, fall, October!  Autumn monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’) and autumn snakeroot (Actaea simplex), aka fall bugbane. Each year, they flower at the same time, and enjoy identical conditions in my garden, i.e. the most moisture-retentive soil (lowest corner of the garden by a few inches), with reasonable midday sunshine but dappled shade a good portion of the day. The fragrance of the snakeroot is fabulous, something a little soft and incense-like, or reminiscent of talcum powder (in the nicest way).  Colour-wise, I love blue and white, from the earliest anemones-with-scilla in April to this shimmering, assertive finale.

Janet Davis-Actaea simplex & Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii'

And did I mention pollinators? As in bumble bees of different species, honey bees……

Pollinators-autumn garden-fall snakeroot & monkshood-

(WHO has the beehives near my house? I’d love to know)…..

Honey bees-Apis mellifera-Actaea simplex-fall snaekroot

……hover flies…..

Hover-fly on fall snakeroot-Actaea simplex

….and paper wasps, below, as well as ants and cucumber beetles.

Paper wasp on fall snakeroot-Actaea simplex

Monkshood is deadly poisonous, but its pollen seems to be an attraction for bumble bees and honey bees once the asters have finished up.

Bombus-Fall Monkshood-Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii'

Finally, do note that the snakeroot is not any of those fancy-schmancy dark-leaved cultivars like ‘Brunette’, but the straight species with plain-Jane-green-foliage,. And that it used to be called Cimicifuga, but the gene sequencers have now moved it into Actaea.  It is a lovely plant and should be used much, much more.

Muskoka Wild – Gardening in Cottage Country

Gardening in cottage country.  Ah, the whispering white pines, the towering red oaks and sugar maples, the lacy hemlocks, the shimmering trilliums… and the pee-gee hydrangeas?

It is a strange paradox that when people head to their summer retreats in Muskoka, Georgian Bay or the Kawartha Lakes (or any other wilderness area), they often feel the need to recreate the type of manicured city landscape they left behind – one that fails to capture the unique sense of place inherent in the spectacular, rugged terrain of cottage country.   After all, don’t we seek escape to a granite island or forested shoreline in order to appreciate nature in the wild, not to subdue it with our own sense of urban decorum?

Natural shoreline-Lake Muskoka-kayak

But when that decorum includes a Kentucky bluegrass lawn sweeping down to the lake’s edge, one that needs fertilizing to stay green and mowing and edging to stay neat, it seems to me that we have not only turned our backs on the notion of wildness, but threatened it as well.  We should all be aware by now that fertilizer runoff has a harmful effect on water quality, increasing the phosphorus levels, encouraging the growth of algae and adversely affecting the shoreline habitat for fish.  But apart from the environmental effect of a lakeside lawn, the idea of having to replicate the humdrum chores of an urban back yard at a place where you should be snoozing in a hammock,  reading the latest bestseller, and kicking off your summer sandals just seems wrong.

Book and hammock at Lake Muskoka

Of course, the ideal cottage landscape is the one that’s been altered the least, the one that retains the native low-bush blueberries, blackberry, black chokeberry, wild raspberry, bearberry and myrtleberry, below .

Myrtleberry-Gaylussacia baccata-Lake Muskoka

It’s the landscape that respects the bush honeysuckle, the creeping dogbane, white meadowsweet and common juniper, while rejoicing in the mayflower, wild strawberry, violet, Solomon’s seal, trout lily, trilliums and red columbine.

Aquilegia canadensis-eastern columbine

It appreciates the bracken and marginal shield ferns in the dry places, the cinnamon and royal ferns in the damp spots and the sensitive fern and lady fern in the shady forest.  It’s the one where children and grandchildren run down paths carpeted with pine needles; where the shore is edged with white turtlehead, blue flag iris and swamp milkweed, below.

Swamp Milkweed-Asclepias incarnata-Lake Muskoka

The place where wild goldenrod and an assortment of asters offer up an easy bouquet for the Thanksgiving table.  And it does all this under trees that grow in familiar communities – red maple, white pine, beech, red oak, paper birch, hemlock, moose maple, staghorn sumac and trembling aspen – while giving shelter to songbirds, chattering jays, chickadees, barred owls and woodpeckers.Woodpecker-staghorn sumac-Lake Muskoka

Gardening Between a Rock and a Hard Place

But what if leaving the cottage landscape au naturel is not an option?  Construction doesn’t always leave the land in pristine condition, and sometimes a cottage property has been “tamed” by the people who owned it before you came on the scene. What then? For me, it was necessary to come up with a fast landscape plan after we built our Lake Muskoka home in 2001-02, a construction project that left the sloping bedrock exposed and barren of vegetation. But perhaps I should back up a little here.

Davis Cottage-Lake Muskoka-Slope-2001

Our south-facing property was the driest, hottest patch of land on a little peninsula jutting out into a small bay on the southeast part of Lake Muskoka.  Except for a row of towering, white pines at the shore – survivors of a fire that razed parts of the peninsula ridge decades earlier – and some red oaks here and there, the vegetation was scrubby, its growth constrained by shallow, acidic, sandy soil formed from the granite and grey gneiss rock underlying much of the region.  Sloping on a moderate angle to the lake, it was a challenging site for construction of a four-season house big enough to accommodate children, friends and far-flung relatives for family reunions.  With no road access, all supplies arrived by barge, including the concrete truck that poured the foundation, massive steel beams, roof trusses, lumber, appliances and furniture.

Equipment on barge-Lake Muskoka

When all was finished, we were delighted with the cottage (that’s the rustic euphemism we assign to homes of any size on Lake Muskoka); the views were spectacular from all sides and a screened porch extended the hours we could be outdoors dining and reading.  But our ecological footprint had not been light.  Much of the bedrock on either side of the site had been scraped bare of vegetation by tractors and line-trenchers.  Worse, the front of the cottage dropped away sharply onto sloping granite, making exiting the doors on the lower level to reach the lake a treacherous exercise.

Lake Muskoka Cottage-before terracing-2002

My objective in landscaping was not simply to re-green the site, but to re-shape the contour of the land, adding a front plateau to let us safely access the hillside.  It would feature a new woodchip path to replace the path that meandered across the property long before we built there.  We would also need stairs leading to the lake and dock, and I played with various concepts, below, as we worked on the house.

Cottage-Lake Muskoka-Concept Sketch for stairs

But beyond the structural changes, I wanted to return our land to a richer, more complex diversity than it possessed before we began to build.  I knew that the pines and oaks would eventually re-colonize the property, along with blueberries, junipers and sumacs.  In the meantime, there would be years of vibrant sunshine to nourish whatever I chose for my palette.  And even as I transplanted tiny pine saplings, I began to dream about those wild, flower-spangled meadows I had grown up with as a child in Victoria,

White Pine Seedling-Lake Muskoka

It wasn’t just a desire to naturalize an already natural site that appealed to me.  I was also pushing back against the way I’d been gardening in the city, rebelling against the need for constraint and order that comes with beds and borders and neatly-mown lawns.  It made no sense to think that way about a cottage landscape; not only would it be out-of-step with the natural environment, it would be out-of-synch with how I had changed, physically and philosophically, as a gardener.  More and more, I wanted a landscape that was not just for me and my kind, but one that would appeal to other species:  the bees, katydids, butterflies, birds and chipmunks that would soon call the meadows home.  I also wanted that sense of aesthetic pleasure that comes from observing a truly changing canvas with a roster of plants to provide a shifting tapestry from April to October.  Most of all, I wanted my meadows to be low-maintenance.  

Katydid on Rudbeckia hirta-blackeyed susan

After the last of the construction equipment was removed from the site, a barge arrived loaded with a tractor and different kinds of soil.  For the most conventional garden beds – the spaces between the four doors on the lower level – rich triple-mix consisting of equal parts of loam, peat and manure was chosen.  For the open meadows on either side of the cottage and the sunny hillsides in front of them, we settled for a local, low-grade, sandy soil, emulating the environment found in natural sand prairies.  On the steep bank dropping from the newly-shaped path under the old white pines in front of the cottage, we elected to spread a locally-sourced forest soil called “trimmings” that contained the roots and seeds of whatever might be found naturally growing in similar conditions nearby. 

Lake Muskoka-Cottage Landscaping-2002

My objective that first summer was to prevent the new soil from washing down the slope in rainstorms.  As a fast-germinating cover crop, I seeded the meadows and hillsides with a combination of creeping red fescue grass (Festuca rubra) and black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), mixing about 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of the wildflowers into 4.5 kilos (10 pounds) of grass seed.  A few weeks and many hours of hand-watering later…..

Lake Muskoka Cottage-watering seeds-Summer-2002

….the first blades of grass emerged, followed closely by the first tiny leaves of countless blackeyed susans.

Lake Muskoka Cottage-Blackeyed Susans-2003

A biennial, it makes a rosette of foliage in its first season and sends up flower stems the following summer, before setting seed and dying.  I still laugh at the photos taken of me in year two standing amidst thousands of cheerful black-eyed susans.

Janet-in-blackeyed-susans

Into the rich soil of the doorway garden beds went big golden yarrow (Achillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum).  This is how the path and a doorway bed looked a few years later.

Lake Muskoka-Cottage Path & Bed-2007

At the base of the richest meadow, I planted an assortment of prairie grasses, including big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium),Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum), below.  And over the next few years, I did an autumn sowing of seeds of a roster of tallgrass prairie perennials that would become the flowery backbone of the meadows: foxglove penstemon, heliopsis, monarda, gaillardia, sweet blackeyed susan, gray-headed coneflower, asters and showy goldenrod to add to goldenrods already on the property.  That plants were native was not as important to me as their drought-tolerance, a vital attribute for a landscape that would rely on rainwater — while acknowledging that dry summers would take their toll on plants growing in shallow soil.

Panicum virgatum-switch grass-Lake Muskoka

The Meadows Mature

Now, fifteen years later, my meadows and garden beds provide a bounty of flowers (and beautiful bouquets). There is something in bloom from the first daffodils of April…..

Daffodils-Cottage-Lake Muskoka

….  to the last goldenrod and asters of autumn. This is showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), down by the lake in late September.

Solidago speciosa-showy goldenrod-Lake Muskoka

Monarch butterflies lay eggs on the butterfly milkweed….

Monarch ovipositing on Asclepias tuberosa-butterfly milkweed

….producing beautiful caterpillars and a new generation of the iconic butterfly…..

Monarch caterpillar on butterfly milkweed-Asclepias tuberosa

….which, when it prepares to fly south to Mexico in early September, sometimes stops on our dock to soak up a little salt from the feet of sunbathers.

Monarch butterfly eating salt on toe-Lake Muskoka

Myriad pollinating insects and hummingbirds visit the flowers, like this ruby-throated female on my crocosmia flowers (which, amazingly, have overwintered for years)….

Ruby-throated hummingbird on crocosmia-Lake Muskoka

…while goldfinches enjoy the monarda seeds….

Goldfinch eating monarda seed-Lake Muskoka

…..and ruffed grouse are regularly spotted in late summer wandering through my meadows.

Ruffed grouse-Lake Muskoka

Though there are a few deer on our peninsula, they seem to prefer the young sumac shoots to my perennials….

Deer-Lake Muskoka

….. but groundhogs enjoy purple coneflower and coreopsis from time to time.

Groundhog-eating coreopsis-Lake Muskoka

In truth, the meadows are so profuse that I am happy to share a few plants.  Yes, there are exotics some might call “weeds”, e.g. oxeye daisies, buttercups. birdsfoot trefoil, musk mallow, cow vetch, hawkweed and quackgrass, but they are kept in check by the vigorous prairie plants.

Weedy wildflowers-Lake Muskoka

The only work required is to use a trimmer twice each season to keep the path across the property clear.

Path-cutting-meadow-Lake Muskoka

In November, I need to cut down the meadow grasses to reduce the thatch that builds up and to keep things neat for the daffodils that emerge each April.   And, of course, to prevent the meadow from transitioning naturally to bush, it’s necessary to keep out any blackberries and sumacs that might want to jump the path from the steep slope to the lake.

Autumn cleanup-Lake Muskoka-meadow grasses

My cottage neighbours know where to find a bouquet of fragrant daffodils in springtime.

Daffodils-Lake MuskokaThe bumble bees know where to find beebalm with sweet nectar.

Bombus-impatiens-on-Monarda

And I know where to find photographic inspiration and beauty all season long, like this single day, July 7, 2013, when I collected all these flowers at the cottage.

July flowers at the cottage-Lake Muskoka

Let’s take a little tour of the property.

A Tour of My Muskoka Garden Today

Coming down the stairs from the cottage, we see the little patch of wildness I call the “east meadow”. The soil here is shallow and the plants — tall cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) at the bottom of the stairs and beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) and false oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides) in the meadows — tend to suffer in a dry summer.  On this side of the stairs is a large stand of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ and other plants.

Janet Davis cottage-Lake Muskoka-East Meadow-2017

Here’s the view of the cottage through the beebalm and heliopsis in the east meadow.

Cottage-August-2017

Here’s the stairway to the lake, below, with a little viewing deck part-way down. The slope, composed of soil called ‘trimmings’, features plants native to Muskoka, including sumac (Rhus typhina), meadowsweet (Spiraea latifolia), common juniper (Juniperus communis) and wild blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis). Oaks and maples sprout on the slope as well; some are encouraged but it’s necessary to thin the forest a little here.

Slope to Lake Muskoka-Janet Davis cottage

In early summer, that little section below the bench is a lovely confection of foxglove penstemon (P. digitalis) and lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata). Both of these native perennials share a love of dry, gravelly soil.

Pentemon digitalis & Coreopsis lanceolata

Here’s a short video of foxglove penstemon at the lake shore.

On a grassy part of the slope to the lake, I combine butterfly milkweed with blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia hirta & Asclepias tuberosa-Lake Muskoka

Looking west down the path past the scented ‘Conca d’Or’ lily (one of the strongest Orienpet or Oriental x Trumpet hybrids), it’s amazing to me that this flat terrace was created from a once steep and treacherous slope.

Llium 'Conca d'Or'-Path

Moving along the path, the bed (using the word ‘bed’ very loosely) at the eastern end of the cottage is filled with more fragrant Orienpet lilies.  Over the years, I’ve discovered that certain perennials exhibit good drought-tolerance, like Veronica spicata ‘Darwin’s Blue’, just finishing below. This bed also contains English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), ‘Walker’s Low’ catmint (Nepeta racemosa) and ‘May Night’ meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa).

East garden bed-Lake Muskoka

The most satisfying garden section at the cottage has been the small, sloping west meadow, aka the ‘monarda meadow’ for its predominant wild beebalm, Monarda fistulosa. This is how it looks today,as the large prairie grasses at right are just beginning to fountain.

East Meadow-path-Lake Muskoka

In early August the west meadow features some good perennial partners with the monarda, including ‘Gold Plate’ yarrow (Achillea filipendulina)….

Monarda fistulosa & 'Gold Plate' Yarrow-Lake Muskoka

…. gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)….

Monarda fisulosa & Ratibida pinnata

…. and false oxyeye (Heliopsis helianthoides)…..

Monarda fistulosa & Heliopsis helianthoides

In June, the monarda meadow features the odd wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), now less populous than they were a few years ago, when their blue candles glowed in the grasses.

West Meadow-Lupinus perennis1

I made a little time capsule video to remember my meadows this week, in a summer when rain was plentiful (to say the least) and the flowers all reached for the sky.

Bouquets from the Meadows

The cottage beds and meadows have yielded lovely bouquets for the table, whether in June with the lupines, false indigo (Baptisia australis), oxyeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and large-flowered penstemon (P. grandiflorus)…

Bouquet-Lupines-June-Lake Muskoka

….or later in summer, with cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), blue Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), purple blazing star (Liatris spicata) and the many goldenrods (Solidago sp.) that flower at the cottage.

Bouquet2-Midsummer (2)

Sometimes I add stems of Allegheny blackberry (Rubus allegeniensis) and nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) to the summer wildflowers, like the little nosegays below.

August meadow flowers

20 Great Cottage Perennials for Bees & Butterflies

Except for the fragrant lilies, which are just for me, my criterion for including plants to the cottage beds and meadows is that they must be useful to foraging insects and birds. Here are twenty of the best:

1. Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) – Ironclad, low-maintenance native perennial attracts bumble bees at a critical time in late spring when bumble bees are provisioning their nests.

Bombus-on-baptisia-(6)

2, Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) – Bumble bees are the pollinators for this native perennial, which flowers in June.

Bombus on Lupine perennis-Lake Muskoka

3. Blackeyed susanRudbeckia hirta – Lots of small native bees and butterflies enjoy foraging on biennial blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia-hirta-with-native

4. Blanket flowerGaillardia x grandiflora – Provided it’s regularly deadheaded, blanket flower will bloom until autumn, attracting myriad bees.

Bombus griseocollis on Gaillardia x grandiflora

5. CatmintNepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’ – Long-flowering and a bee magnet, catmint has aromatic foliage that discourages deer.

Bombus on Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low'

6. Lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata) – One of the easiest, most drought-tolerant perennials for early summer, this coreopsis attracts lots of bees and its seeds attract hungry goldfinches.

Bombus on Coreopsis lanceolata-Lake Muskoka

7. Foxglove penstemon (P. digitalis) – Another easy, adaptable native perennial, this penstemon flowers at the same time as coreopsis, above, and enjoys the same rugged conditions – dry, gravelly soil.  Bumble bees forage on it extensively.

Bombus on Penstemon digitalis

8. Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta) – This vervain epitomizes “hardy and drought-tolerant” and is the most foolproof perennial in my dry meadows. Guaranteed to bloom and attract bumble bees.

Bombus on Verbena stricta-Lake Muskoka

9. False oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides) – In the ‘be careful what you wish for’ category, this one is easy from seed and likes to take over the meadow. A negative is its attraction to rosy-apple (red) aphids, but lots of native pollinators enjoy the flowers, including the wasp below.

Wasp on Heliopsis helianthoides-Lake Muskoka

10. Wild beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) – Easily the most valuable perennial in my meadows, attracting bumble bees, hummingbirds and the lovely clearwing hummingbird moth, below.

Hummingbird clearwing moth on Monarda fistulosa-Lake Muskoka

Bumble bees are plentiful in my meadows during the blooming period of the wild beebalm. This is my west meadow today, August 7, 2017.

11. Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) – I have blogged at length about this plant, named the Perennial Plant Association’s 2017 Plant of the Year. It attracts many types of pollinators, including the monarch butterfly, which lays its eggs on the plant to be foraged by the developing caterpillar.

Asclepias-tuberosa-Monarch-butterfly

Butterfly milkweed is also very popular with bumble bees of all kinds. Here’s a video I made of a bumble bee nectaring while a red squirrel scolds and a Swainson’s thrush sings in the background.

12. Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) – With its willowy stems, this perennial is the most graceful in my meadows, and attracts small native bees.

Native bees on Ratibida pinnata

13. Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) – The tallest of my meadow perennials, this one is a colonizer, but so popular with bumble bees that it can be forgiven for laying claim to as much territory as it can.

Bombus on Silphium perfoliatum-Lake Muskoka

I was surprised one year to see which animal was snacking on the 8-foot tall seedheads of my cup plant. Not a deer, but a…….

14. Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) – Hardy with aromatic leaves that repel deer, this sub-shrub is an excellent companion for big golden yarrow. Bumble bees and honey bees adore the tiny, lavender-purple flowers.

Bee on Perovskia atriplicifolia

15. Blazing Star or Gayfeather (Liatris – many species, esp. L. ligulistylis, below, and L. spicata) – I adore all the blazing stars, and so do the butterflies. Rocky Mountain blazing star, below, is particularly popular with monarch butterflies and with the great spangled fritillary shown.

Great Spangled Fritillary-on Liatris ligulistylis-Lake Muskoka

16. Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) – Preferring more moisture than many of the prairie natives, this tall perennial (the one below is the cultivar ‘Fascination’) is a magnet for bees and butterflies.

Painted Lady on Veronicastrum virginicum 'Fascination'-Lake Muskoka

17. New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) – Wherever there’s an extra bit of moisture, this tall ironweed thrives in late summer. It attracts bees and many types of butterfly, including the painted lady, below.

Painted Lady on Vernonia noveboracensis-Lake Muskoka

18. Sweet blackeyed susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) – A tall, easy-going perennial – and my favourite of the rudbeckia clan, this late-summer beauty attracts its share of native bees and wasps.

Native wasp on Rudbeckia subtomentosa

19. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) – There are at least a half-dozen species of goldenrod that thrive on our property. Some are invasive enough to be nuisances, like Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Others are rare enough to be prized, like Solidago nemoralis. But my favourite is one I seeded myself, showy goldenrod, Solidago speciosa, below.  One of the latest-blooming perennials, it is often in flower well into October, nourishing the last of the bumble bees before our long Muskoka winter.

Bombus on Solidago speciosa-showy goldenrod

20. New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) – At the very end of the season, around Thanksgiving time in Canada, the various asters provide a late, vital source of nectar for all the bees.

Agapostemon virescens on Symphyorichum novae-angliae-Lake Muskoka

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Adapted from a story that appeared originally in Trellis, the magazine of the Toronto Botanical Garden

A Tour of My Spring Garden

Come along with me on a little tour of my garden in mid-May!  I’ve meant to do this for several years, and this is the perfect week, since the cool weather up til today has kept everything looking good. Not just that, but I splurged last autumn and bought quite a few spring bulbs from my pal Caroline de Vries, who owns Tradewinds International in Mississauga, Ontario. And my pal Sara Katz planted most of them. But for some reason, loads of my old tulips seem to have multiplied this spring, adding to the party. Let’s start in my front garden. Isn’t this fun?  Though I’ve picked a lot of pinks and oranges, that luscious, black ‘Queen of Night’ is absolutely essential to make this garden ‘zing’.

Tulips-Janet Davis Front Garden-Toronto

Here’s a closer look, with the creamy fothergilla shrub and dainty ‘Thalia’ daffodils.

Tulips-Janet Davis Front Garden2-Toronto

Study the first two photos and you’ll see that my spring bulbs emerge in a sea of green foliage. While a front garden full of invasive, agressive lily-of-the-valley might provide a beautiful, fragrant background for all these bright hues, it’s definitely not recommended as a design tool. Nevertheless, if you happened to read last spring’s blog about how to make a fresh-picked lily-of-the-valley hat, you’ll know that I’ve done my best to come to terms with these perfumed thugs.

Lily-of-the-valley-invasive-Janet Davis garden

I love finding pretty groupings to photograph, like the one below.  And that dusty-rose tulip is a bit of a mystery. It might have been mislabelled – I didn’t order it – but it looks like ‘Champagne Diamond’.

Tulips-Janet Davis front garden

It’s pretty gorgeous, whatever it is…..

Tulipa 'Champagne Diamond'

I have nine Fothergilla gardenii plants in amongst the spring bulbs. Their foliage turns spectacular colours in autumn.

Fothergilla gardenii-Janet Davis garden-Toronto

Here are some of my favourite tulips. Let’s start with an oldie, ‘Perestroika’. This tall, late-flowered cottage tulip has multiplied over the years.

Tulipa 'Perestroika'-Janet Davis Garden

And ‘Carnaval de Nice’ has stuck around pretty well, too.

Tulipa 'Carnaval de Nice'-Janet Davis Garden

This is ‘Crispion Sweet’ – isn’t it lovely?

Tulipa 'Crispion Sweet'-Janet Davis garden-Toronto

‘Rococo’ is a luscious parrot tulip – and parrots are usually divas when it comes to longevity. But I planted these several years ago.Tulipa 'Rococo'-Janet Davis garen-Toronto

Here’s the lovely, late tulip ‘Dordogne’, below right, with ‘Queen of Night’.

Tulipa 'Queen of Night' & 'Dordogne'-Janet Davis Garden-Toronto

There are loads of daffodils in the front garden as well. I decided to stick with white to cool down this hot-coloured scheme, so there’s a combination of ‘Thalia’ with (below) pure white ‘Stainless’ and orange-centred, spicily-perfumed ‘Geranium’.

Narcissus 'Geranium'-Janet Davis garden-Toronto

The Back Yard

I have more spring happening in the back garden, so let’s head there. It might be fun for you to see it from my bedroom window.  That big cloud of white in the centre is Malus ‘Red Jade’, my lovely weeping crabapple planted over the little pond.

Back garden-upper view-Janet Davis-Toronto

If we head down to the deck, you get the view below.  That’s fragrant snowball viburnum (V. x carlcephalum) right in front of the deck, just about to open its incredibly-perfumed flower clusters.  The garden was designed to flow from the deck to the dining patio, which makes summer entertaining fun.

Back garden-Janet Davis-Toronto-Malus 'Red Jade'

This is a closer view of ‘Red Jade’. It’s an alternate-bearer, meaning every other year it puts on a great show like this, followed by masses of tiny red fruit.  It flowers very sparsely in the ‘off’ years.

Malus 'Red Jade'-pond garden

Here’s a view of the back of the house, from under the crabapple.

Janet Davis House-through crabapple

I’ve had the pagoda lantern for a long time. Though this little garden isn’t classically Japanese, it had a bit of that feel, so I though the lantern worked with the pond.

Malus 'Red Jade'-Janet Davis garden

I love this fresh combination in the lily pond garden, underplanted with self-seeded forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica).  Later, there is magenta phlox here.

Daffodil & Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'-Janet Davis Garden

The back garden is on the north side of the house, so it’s shadier. The tulips in my west border here tend to be surrounded by ostrich ferns, which would fill the entire garden if I let them.

Pink tulips & Ostrich ferns-Janet Davis Garden

This is ‘Mona Lisa’ – isn’t she lovely?

Tulipa 'Mona Lisa'-Janet Davis garden

‘Ballade’ is one of my favourite tulips – a very good perennializer.

Tulipa 'Ballade'-Janet Davis Garden

‘Texas Flame’ is no shrinking violet (!) and though I started with eight or so, I still have one or two that return each spring.

Tulipa 'Texas Flame'-Janet Davis Garden

If I ever knew the name of the orange beauty below, I’ve forgotten it.

Tulip orange

Same with this lovely, lily-flowered tulip…. maybe ‘Jacqueline’?

Tulipa - lily flowered -Janet Davis garden-Toronto

Native  Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) bloom in the ferns with the late tulips.

Mertensia virginica-Virginia bluebell-Janet Davis garden-Toronto

Where it’s sunnier, in the front as well as the back, there is elegant camassia (C. leichtlinii).

Camassia leichtlinii-Janet Davis Garden-Toronto

In my west side garden, Burkwood’s viburnum (V. x burkwoodii) is filled with fragrant blooms this year.

Viburnum x burkwoodii-Janet Davis-Toronto Garden

To access my east side garden, there’s a gate from the driveway fitted with a rusty, old heating grate. Have a peek down the path…..

Garden gate-see through grate-Janet Davis-Toronto

Let’s go in and walk down it   If you look back, you can see the gate.  See the arched stems of Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum)? They’re one of my favourite natives and so easy to grow.  That’s European ginger (Asarum europeaeum) at the base of the black walnut tree.

Solomon's Seals & path-Janet Davis garden

There are bleeding hearts in this pathway, too.

Bleeding heart-Dicentra spectabilis-Janet Davis garden

So that’s my garden in mid-May!  I’ll leave you with this little video of my 2-year-old grandson Oliver, who enjoyed “tiptoeing through the tulips” in a thunderstorm a few days ago. Toddlers and tulips….. time is fleeting, and I’ve learned to enjoy them both for the short time they’re around!

 

The Siberian Squill and the Cellophane Bee

My front garden in Toronto is filled at the moment with hundreds of native cellophane bees, Colletes inaequalis. Sometimes called Eastern plasterer bees or polyester bees (and grouped generally with mining bees), they get their common name for the viscous, waterproof, transparent substance (sometimes compared to plastic wrap) that the females secrete to line and seal the brood cells they burrow in the ground. Their species name means “unequal”, and refers to the unequal segments of the right and left antennae.  They’re one of the earliest bees to emerge in spring and can often be seen on April-flowering native red maples (Acer rubrum), like the one below in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery…..

Colletes inaequalis on Acer rubrum-Toronto

…. and non-native pussy willows (Salix caprea), also in the cemetery.

Colletes inaequalis on Salix caprea-Toronto

My front garden is also filled with the little blue flowers of the non-native, spring-flowering bulb Siberian squill, Scilla siberica.

Front Meadow-April 20-scilla

They’ve been slowly spreading there for at least 20 years, probably much longer, since we’ve been in our house for 33 years and it was soon after I saw the “blue lawns” in our neighbourhood that I decided to plant a few of the little bulbs. Needless to say, the scilla likes our slightly alkaline clay. Quite a lot! Though considered invasive, they are not listed as a serous threat, like Japanese knotweed and dog-strangling vine, since they occupy fairly specific niches and disappear after the foliage ripens. In my garden, they emerge with the crocuses…..

Scilla siberica and crocuses

….. and stay in bloom for the fragrant hyacinths…

Scilla siberica and hyacinth

….. and windflowers (Anemone blanda)….

Scilla siberica & Anemone blanda

And Corydalis solida ‘George Baker’

Scilla siberica and Corydalis solida 'George Baker'

There are thousands enough that my little granddaughter is free to pick handfuls of them.

Scilla siberica bouquet

Later, my front garden will be filled with daffodils, tulips and the bottlebrush flowers of Fothergilla gardenii.….

Front Meadow-May19

….and later still, sun-loving North American (not necessarily Ontario) prairie natives like echinacea, rudbeckia, liatris, vernonia and aster, chosen for their appeal to native pollinators.

Front Meadow-Summer

I also grow many non-native plants like meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa),  catmint (Nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and Knautia macedonica and sedums, also chosen for their appeal to native pollinators….

Front Pollinator Garden-Summer

…. like the little native metallic sweat bee (Agapostemon virescens), here on knautia….

Agapostemon virescens on Knautia macedonica-Toronto

….and ‘Mainacht’ meadow sage…

Agapostemon virescens on Salvia nemorosa 'Mainacht'-'May Night'

….and native bumble bees of all kinds, here on knautia….

Bombus on Knautia macedonica-Toronto

….and catmint….

Bombus on Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low'-Toronto

….. and later in the season on echinacea…

Bombus griseocollis on Echinacea purpurea-Toronto

In late summer and autumn, there’s a mix of non-native sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and native obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana).

Sedum 'Autumn Joy' & Physostegia virginiana

Monarch butterflies congregating in Toronto before the long flight over Lake Ontario as they migrate to Mexico adore the sedums (as do bumble bees and honey bees)…..

Monarch-on-Sedum-'Autumn-Jo

….. and native carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica) do some clever nectar-robbing to get at the nectar in the corollas of the obedient plant.

Xylocopa virginica on Physostegia virginiana-nectara robbery

The final chapter in my front garden consists of native goldenrod and rich purple New England aster, below, both valuable to native pollinators.

Bombus impatiens on Symphyotrichum novae-angliae-Toronto

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But back to my garden in April. The little blue Siberian squill is why the native bees are there. Cellophane bees are a vernal species. As noted in this excellent bee brochure from the City of Toronto , “As soon as the weather becomes warm enough in late March or April, Common Eastern Plasterer Bees start emerging from their overwintering burrows in the ground. Males cluster around virgin females that are digging upwards to reach the soil surface and the mayhem that ensues can sometimes result in some bees being killed in the crush. Once they have mated, the female excavates a burrow in the ground, showing a preference for nesting in patches of bare, or sparsely vegetated, soil.”

Colletes inaequalis is a polylectic species, or a polylege, meaning it gathers pollen from a variety of native and non-native plants from early spring to mid-summer, when their life cycle ends. According to observers, the plants it has been observed using include Aesculus (buckeye, horsechestnut), Amelanchier (serviceberry), Anemone, Anemonella, Arctostaphylus, Aronia (chokeberry), Cercis (redbud), Claytonia, Crataegus (hawthorn),  Dentaria, Dirca,  Erythronium, Hepatica,  Prunus (cherry), Ptelea, Pyrus (pear), Rhamnus (buckthorn), Rhus (sumac), Ribes (gooseberry, currant), Rubus (blackberry, raspberry), Salix (willow), Spiraea, Staphylea, Stellaria, Taraxacum (dandelion), Vaccinium (blueberry, huckleberry, myrtleberry, cranberry), Viburnum  and Zizia.  And in my garden, the unequal cellophane bee is the principal visitor to my thousands of non-native Siberian squill.

Colletes inaequalis on Scilla siberica-Toronto

My abundant blue squill also attracts other native spring bees, including the lovely Andrena dunningi, below.

Andrena dunningi on Scilla siberica-Toronto

I also have a large fragrant viburnum (V. farreri) in my back garden. Native to northern China, it bursts into bloom with the first warmth of spring.

Viburnum farreri-Fragrant viburnum

As soon as the scented flowers open, my viburnum is literally buzzing with native bees and butterflies, including  mourning cloaks (Nymphalis antiopis) that have overwintered nearby…..

Mourning cloak butterfly-Nymphalis antiopa-on Viburnum farreri

…and the odd overwintering red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta).

Red admiral butterfly-Vanessa atalanta-on Viburnum farreri

The existential problem (not for me, but for some rigid native plant proponents) is that the alien floral nectar and pollen is making life possible for these native bees. In fact, since nobody else on my street has much in bloom at the moment and there are precious few red maples or native spring wildflowers in bloom, I am 99% sure that these bees nest in my own garden in order to attack this non-native nectar feast in early spring, as they emerge from their overwintering places.

I live in a city – in fact, the fourth largest city in North America – in which sun-loving plant species are largely all native elsewhere. As the Toronto bee brochure cited above notes:  “Much of the native landscape in our region was originally forested, with the Carolinian and Mixed Forest Zones being the ecological land classifications for the area. Forests are generally not good habitats for bees, although bumble bee queens and a few early spring bees can be found foraging on the early spring flowers that are in bloom before bud burst.”  My ‘native’ forest (including the maples, birches and willows on which my spring bees might have foraged) was mostly cleared, beginning more than 200 years ago, leaving a grid of streets and roads and buildings and an urban forest very much of the “planned” variety (boulevards and parks), save for our wonderful and extensive natural ravines. Though there would have been patches of meadow and bits of relict, sunny black oak savannah near High Park, most Toronto-specific native wildflowers would have been shade-lovers.

City of Toronto-urban canopy

As the city’s bee brochure makes clear: “In comparison to native forests, an urban environment with patches of parkland, ravine, and large numbers of urban gardens, provides an abundance of floral and nest-site resources for bees. An evergreen forest may have no bees at all, a deciduous forest very few. But within our city there may be over 300 bee species and the average backyard garden will likely contain over 50 species, with some nesting and foraging there, and others visiting for pollen and nectar while nesting on a neighbour’s property.

Pollination ecology is a complicated subject. Douglas Tallamy, in his excellent Bringing Nature Home: How You can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, writes that: “There are subtle chemical differences in nectar among plant species, but by and large, nectar from alien plants is the same as nectar from native plants.”  That seems fairly clear and, extrapolating to the physical needs of Homo sapiens, carbohydrates are carbohydrates; it makes little difference whether they come from local maple syrup or granulated sugar or fructose, we will be hypoglycemic if we don’t ingest sufficient amounts. (Interestingly, “deep ecologists” separate humans from the rest of the evolved animal world – and assign us the shame of interacting in any way that benefits us above other creatures. But that’s a big and thorny subject for another day.)  Tallamy goes on to say: “That said, there is growing evidence that our native bees, the andrenids, halictids, colletids, anthophorids, and megachilids, prefer native flowers to alien flowers.”   He then cites the thesis findings of U of Delaware student Nicole Cerqueira, who compared visits of native bees to native and alien plants and found evidence that they showed a statistical preference for native plants in 31 instances.  I’m not sure my garden is comparable, given what I’ve said about Toronto and its “native” plants, but I would be interested in seeing if quantity, i.e. massed plantings of bee-friendly alien plants, might play a spoiler role in what native bees like andrenids and colletids prefer……

In the meantime, do garden organically and do plant lots of plants for pollinators from spring to fall.