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!

 

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

Butterfly Milkweed: PPA’s 2017 Plant of the Year!

You know that feeling of pride you get when a friend receives a well-deserved award? I feel exactly that way about an outstanding prairie wildflower that I’ve been growing here in my meadows on Lake Muskoka for many years. So, when I heard that The Perennial Plant Association chose my very favourite perennial – butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa — to be their 2017 Plant of the Year, I decided to honour it with my own blog.

Asclepias tuberosa-Apis mellifera1

The PPA award is not the first laurel to be bestowed on this lovely wildling. In 2014, it was awarded the Freeman Medal by the Garden Clubs of America, as a native deserving of wider garden planting. And the GCA president asked me if I would donate my photo of a monarch butterfly on the flowers, below, which I was happy to do (see down this page).

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch butterfly

Despite the plaudits, butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is not the easiest perennial to grow, unless you happen to garden on a sand prairie. It has a deep tap root that makes it rather difficult to transplant. And seeds are often notoriously slow to germinate and grow, sometimes taking 5 years to grow enough to set flower buds.  But give it a little rich, free-draining, gravelly soil and lots of sunshine, and watch the pollinating insects pile on. Foremost, of course, is the beautiful monarch butterfly, which uses it – as it does all milkweed species – as food for its caterpillars. If you’re lucky, you might see the female monarch ovipositing on its leaves or flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch ovipositing

Come back and you’ll see the little egg on a leaf….

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch egg on leaf

… or perhaps right in the flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch egg on flower

Follow along over the next few weeks and you’ll see the various instars of the developing caterpillar munching away on the leaves….

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch caterpillar

…. and the flower buds.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch larva

But monarchs aren’t the only butterflies fond of butterfly milkweed. Many others love the nectar-rich flowers, including the great spangled fritillary…

Asclepias tuberosa-Great Spangled Fritillary

…. hairstreaks, below, and many others.

Asclepias tuberosa- hairstreak

Bees love it too. On my property, I often see the orange-belted bumble bee (Bombus ternarius) nectaring….

Asclepias tuberosa-Bombus ternarius

….and the brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis), too.

Asclepias tuberosa-Bombus griseocollis

Here’s a little video I made of the brown-belted bumble bee foraging on my butterfly milkweed. In the background, you can hear a red squirrel scolding and a lovely Swainson’s thrush singing its flute-like song.

Naturally, many native bees seek nectar from butterfly milkweed.  I’ve seen long-horned (Melissodes) bees….

Asclepias tuberosa-Megachile

…. and tiny, green sweat bees (Auguchlora pura), all enjoying the flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Augochlora pura

Honey bees are avid foragers, too.

Asclepias tuberosa-Apis mellifera3

Okay, you get the picture. This is one superb pollinator plant!  But how should one grow it, and with what companions?  I have grown it in both reasonably rich, sandy soil, and very dry, lean, sandy soil, and I can attest that it prefers more moisture than other prairie plants, such as gaillardia and coreopsis. This is what it looked like near my septic system this July. I managed to keep it watered by running two hoses up the hill behind my cottage, but it was a struggle until a few rains came.

Drought-Milkweed

However, if summer rains are abundant, it’s happy with those more drought-tolerant natives.  Here it is growing very wild in dry soil with Coreopsis lanceolata.

Asclepias tuberosa-wild planting

And it does well in fairly dry conditions with Anthemis tinctoria.

Asclepias tuberosa & Anthemis tinctoria

On the other hand, it does well in reasonably rich soil with my Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, where I can run the hose if rains don’t come (like this summer)…..

Asclepias tuberosa & Crocosmia 'Lucifer'

…. and peeking up through my grassy monarda meadow, near a lush pink lily.

Asclepias tuberosa & Lily & Monarda

I’ve grown it with Penstemon barbatus ‘Coccineus’….

Penstemon barbatus & Asclepias tuberosa

…and with blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta).

Rudbeckia & Asclepias 2

And I’ve seen it looking pretty with daylilies and catmint in a friend’s garden, too.

Asclepias tuberosa & Hemerocallis-Nepeta

Butterfly milkweed’s blooming season is so long, it counts numerous July and August plants as companions. Here is a bouquet I photographed on July 17th, 2010 with blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), false oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides), veronica (Veronica spicata ‘Darwin’s Blue’) and blue vervain (Verbena hastata).

Asclepias tuberosa & bouquet companions

… and a collection of little bouquets I made on August 16th, 2013.

Asclepias tuberosa-August 16-Bouquets

If you want to know absolutely everything that might flower at the same time, here’s a montage I made one year on July 7th, 2014. Yes, that’s butterfly milkweed near the lower right corner. See if you can guess the rest!

Asclepias tuberosa & plant companions-July 7-2013

I have planted dozens of young butterfly milkweed plants here at Lake Muskoka over the years, like these ones offered by the Canadian Wildlife Federation (along with suitable nectar plants), as an encouragement to ‘bring back the monarch butterfly’. Most took, provided I irrigated them for the first summer; a few didn’t.

Canadian Wildlife Federation-Milkweed

But I have also managed to grow many from seed, which is harvested from the typical milkweed fruit capsule.  The ones that were most successful were those I guerilla-sowed, using the toe of my boot to kick them in along the edge of a gritty, community pathway midway down the hillside on a neighbour’s property. Under that granitic gravel, below, there was actually rich sandy soil and adequate moisture, given that the path sits mid-slope on the hill. But this tough environment best replicates the natural ‘sand prairie’ that butterfly milkweed likes.

Asclepias tuberosa-growing in gravel

You can also buy a seed mix in multiple colours:  ‘Gay Butterflies Mix’, below.

Asclepias tuberosa 'Gay Butterflies Mix'

Want to try your hand sowing butterfly milkweed? Follow these seeding instructions in a propagation guide in the Minnesota newsletter of Wild Ones:  “Collect when pods are cracked open. Remove down; cold stratify in fridge in damp sand for 90 days. Broadcast on soil surface in spring when soil is warm.

Best of luck growing this worthy award winner!  You and the pollinators – including the lovely monarch butterfly – are worth the effort.

My Cups Runneth Over (With Bees)….

(Hmmm. I just re-read my title and almost changed it, but decided not to. Snicker away – I’m going with “cups”.)

My second yellow-gold blog for July (the first was on companion plants for blackeyed susans) honours another composite prairie perennial that has pride of place in my meadows at Lake Muskoka.  Cup plant or Indian cup (Silphium perfoliatum) gets both its common name and Latin specific epithet from the way the leaves encircle the stem, thus making the stem appear to pierce the foliage – i.e. a ‘perfoliate’ habit.

Silphium perfofliatum-cottage

This clasping leaf arrangement creates a kind of ‘cup’ in which water can collect after rains, supposedly providing drinking water for birds and insects. Alas, insects are often found floating in the water, with some experts suggesting that it may actually act as a deterrent against insect pests that might climb up the stem.

Perfoliate leaves-Silphium perfoliatum

While it is a fabulous native, indigenous to moist woods and prairies in much of mid and east North America, including my province Ontario, its tendency to colonize makes it problematic. In fact, though it is classified as “threatened and endangered”in Michigan, it is “potentially invasive” and banned for sale in Connecticut. I received my fleshy roots from the compost bins of Toronto’s beautiful Spadina House gardens, and the gardeners gave me fair warning that it was invasive, and hard to dig up to control its spread. So I don’t; I merely enjoy it and give thanks for it when the bumble bees are nectaring on the big yellow flowers.

Bombus impatiens on Silphium perfoliatum

Here are bumble bees in action, along with a surprise visitor for whom those itty-bitty leaf pools are no deterrent, when tasty cup plant seedheads are the rewards for ascending that thick stem.

Honey bees love cup plant as well. There are no apiaries near my cottage on Lake Muskoka, but I photographed this one in the meadows at Miriam Goldberger’s Wildflower Farm an hour so south.

Honey Bee on Silphium perfoliatum

Butterflies like the monarch enjoy cup plant, too.

Monarch on Silphium perfoliatum (1)

I grow cup plants near my stairs so I can photograph the pollinators at eye level.

Silphium perfoliatum

But they’re in my meadows as well. Though they prefer adqequate moisture in the soil, they are surprisingly drought-tolerant (as they’ve had to be this hot, dry summer), but will develop yellow leaves and stunted flowers in time. Here’s a colony below my bedroom window amidst sweet blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) still to come into flower.

Silphium perfoliatum in meadow

They make good companions to gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), which bloom at the same time.

Silphium perfoliatum & Ratibida pinnata

They are easily the tallest perennials I grow. Last summer (a season of good rains), I lay down the loftiest stems so I could do a measurement. Yes, 9 feet.

Silphium - 9 feet

I leave you with a little narrated tour…..

….and a cottage bouquet showing cup plant flowers in the bottom tier, surrounded by summer flowers like ratibida, perovskia, liatris and goldenrod.  Yellow/gold for July 2016, over and out.

Bouquet-Cup Plant & friends

The Wright Stuff: A Plantswoman’s Muskoka Garden

Spending most of the summer on Lake Muskoka a few hours north of Toronto as I do, I am far away from the public gardens where I tend to get my regular photo fixes. Fortunately, I have a lovely friend in the nearby city of Bracebridge who generously invites me to pop by her spectacular garden whenever I feel the urge for a hit of colour and beautifully designed borders. Her name is Marnie Wright and over the years, we’ve found we have much in common – including our age!

Marnie Wright

I first met Marnie on a GWA (Garden Writers’ Association) tour in Portland, Oregon, and later on a local garden tour where I mentioned I was working on a long-term colour project. “My garden has quite a lot of nice colour happening now,” she said. “You’re welcome to come by anytime.”  That was my first visit, one warm July day when the blackflies and mosquitoes were still rather hungry. I was completely wowed by Marnie’s wonderful little house and by her abundant gardens filled with interesting structures and whimsical folk art, like these big-eyed dragonflies.

Wire dragonfly

Marnie’s lived in her house for 34 years on a 91-acre property hewn originally out of an alder bog.  Thus the two acres on which she actively gardens has a high water table and can be very wet in spring, once the deep Muskoka snow melts. But summer-damp conditions are perfect for a host of perennials, especially the daylilies (Hemerocallis) Marnie loves to collect – she even grows some from seed.

Daylily bouquets

So if you visit in July, you’ll see rainbow displays of daylilies in the borders.

Daylilies

Some — like beautiful ‘Jade Star’ — grow with blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’) around the three linked ponds in the centre of the gardens….

Daylily & rudbeckia

…and some of the seed-grown ones mix casually with gloriosa daisies and echinacea around a rugged shard of lichen-encrusted Muskoka granite near the barn at the end of the driveway.

Muskoka Granite-Echinacea-Rudbeckia

Despite the generally moist soil, xeric-loving verbascums tend to self-seed and thrive in a long border with beebalm (Monarda didyma).  The key to their success might be the long ditch Marnie created behind the bed to drain away the water and create a more mesic soil.

Verbascum border

Yes, Marnie’s place looks gorgeous in July, with its roses and summer blossoms……

House -July

…but was just as beautiful this week, on a fine August morning when old-fashioned summer phlox (Phlox paniculata) was doing its ebullient pink thing and pairing oh-so-nicely with the goldenrod that also grows…..

House - August

… by the millions, along with flat-topped aster (Doellingera umbellata), smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum leave) and obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana)  in the fields surrounding the house.

Goldenrod-Aster-Physostegia

Summer phlox also makes a nice companion to these pale globe thistles (Echinops sphaerocephalus)…

Phlox & Echinops

…and enhances the vintage garden chairs that Marnie paints a rich purple. These ones are perfect for relaxing in while enjoying a campfire…..

Purple chairs

….but the chairs have looked lovely through the years no matter where they’re situated.

Purple chair

Purple pops up a lot in Marnie’s designs – especially in her annual favourite, ageratum, seen here with dark purple heliotrope.

Ageratum & heliotrope

And in the Verbena bonariensis that looks so lovely in an unusual pairing with yellow blackberry lily (Iris domestica, formerly Belamcanda chinensis).

Belamcanda & Viburnum

Speaking of roses, there was even the odd August-flowering rugosa rose attracting bumble bees to its abundant pollen.

Rose with bee

Marnie is a great collector of interesting vintage objects that find their way into the garden.  Some find a functional use, such as this coffee table – formerly an old wash-tub table from the Beatty washing machine factory in Fergus, Ontario …..

Bench & table

….while others are more picturesque than pragmatic, like this old watering can paired with a Rex begonia on the potting table.

Watering can

A recent acquisition was this bell wheel from a local church, now taking pride of place in a flowery border.

Bell pull wheel

The odd reptile can be found climbing the back wall of the garden shed….

Lizard

…which, in itself, is a delightful bit of rustic, old Canadiana.

Garden house

Glass objects find their way into the garden, too. On the left are decorative glass totems that Marnie made using thrift store vases and plumbing pipe. On the right is a glass ceiling fixture from one of the grand old Lake Muskoka lodges.  Somehow, I can see this with flickering candlelight (solar, maybe?)

Furnishings

I love all the beautiful vistas that Marnie has created.  These perfumed lilies frame a view to her little “dock”, with a miniature Muskoka chair overlooking a tiny, lake-like pond.

Lilies & dock

Look past the Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium) towards one of Marnie’s rustic arbours in the centre of the garden.  Squint a little, and you can see the little succulents….

Vista

….she’s growing in the old picture frame leaning against the bench.

Rustic arbor

There probably isn’t a perennial combination that Marnie hasn’t experimented with in her borders at some time or other.  I loved this July vignette, of queen-of-the-prairie (Filipendula rubra), sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica ‘The Pearl’), gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides), Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) and spiky Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum).

Pink and white July combo

And this August combination features the bold pea foliage and yellow flowers of American senna (S. hebecarpa), paired with echinacea, summer phlox and scented lilies.

August border

She works her design magic in pots and planters scattered throughout the garden, often with plants she’s grown from seed in one of her small greenhouses. This pot features a variegated phormium with red and yellow kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos), calibrachoa, golden globes (Lysimachia procumbens) and other annuals.

Pot-Phormium-Anizoganthos

Outside the barn where she keeps her mowing tractor (45 minutes weekly manages the lawns), there’s always a fun combination.of annuals in whiskey barrels. This year’s colour scheme uses red, purple and white flowers.

Whiskey barrels

Her window boxes are luscious! I particularly loved this one from a few summers back, with orange Thunbergia alata, yellow Bidens ferulifolia, blue Salvia patens, chartreuse Ipomoea batatas ‘Margarita’, purple Ageratum houstonianum and peach Calibrachoa.

Shed Window Box

In the shade next to her front door is another window box with tuberous begonias, salmon fuchsia and purple violas, among other annuals.House windowbox

Behind the house are her two small greenhouses, which help her get a spring head start on annual seeding. In summer, one is filled with small figs and the other with a jungle of ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes, Marnie’s favourites — safely protected from hungry deer and growing tall in the warmth and humidity.

Greenhouse tomatoes

She passes me a handful and I swear they’re the sweetest little tomatoes I’ve ever eaten.

Sungold tomatoes

At the end of a long path beyond the greenhouses flanking the forest is Marnie’s swimming pond, which also features an assortment of water lilies and other aquatic plants and a windmill to aerate the water.

Pond

The cool water offers welcome relief on hot summer days – not just for Marnie, but for her old dog April.

April in pond

Another spot where visitors can escape Muskoka’s summer heat is the shade garden near the road.  Here a path wends through giant hostas and other traditional shade plants that revel in the rich soil (all entirely organic).

Shade garden

Here Marnie tries out seldom-seen perennials like devil’s bit scabious (Succisa pratensis), which is happy in shade like this or in full sun, provided the soil remains moist.

Succisa & bee

It grows tall enough to look lovely beside deep-pink Astilbe tacquetii ‘Superba’.

Astilbe & Sucissa

There are lots of rusty foxgloves (Digitalis ferruginea ‘Gelber Herold’), left, that self-seed throughout the shade garden. And I love the jewel-like, blue fruit of the North American native umbrella leaf (Diphylleia cymosa), one of many big-leaved perennials that thrive here in the dappled light.

Digitalis & Diphyllea

Whenever I visit Marnie’s garden, I come away with the impression that she has managed to do something that other skilled plant collectors and designers often forget to do. I think you might agree…..

Fairies