Friday, August 30, 2013

Native Pollinator Garden updates - 29 August 2013

The 2013-14 School Year will be upon us next week.  Yesterday I went around to the four Native Pollinator Gardens to get them ready for the school year.  I try to keep maintenance on these gardens to a minimum.  After the plants have become established they are never watered.  The plants are largely left to grow on their own in the ways that they want.  Sometimes this means that they stay put in nice little well-behaved clumps.  Other times it means they ravage across the garden like barbarian hordes, invading new spaces by sending out runners or dispatching seeds.  Sometimes new plants appear out of nowhere, pioneers looking to form a new colony far from their distant parents.  Sadly, sometimes it means that individual plants die.  So a garden that is planted one year will probably not going to look the same the next year - even without a gardener puttering about.

That is okay.

These are spaces designed to be habitats and outdoor classrooms.  They are not formal or even informal gardens where everything must be in its perfect place, because the "perfect" place for a plant to my eyes might not where the plant ultimately wants to be.  The gardens are planted with a plan that they will evolve and change, whether I want them to or not.  In the long run, I think they function better in their role as a habitat if they are allowed to make those changes.  Perhaps it would be better if I didn't refer to these spaces as gardens, but rather as habitats.  After all very little gardening takes place in the spaces.

Despite my general hands-off policy toward these habitats, they do require occasional maintenance.  For instance, when school is in session each of these habitats has a path so students can access the interior.  This path often becomes overgrown and must be cleared.  This might mean moving (or removing) some plants that have self-sown or it could even mean trimming a few plants that exhibit especially vigorous growth.

When planting these space, I always plan for a buffer space around the edge so plants are not flopping over onto lawns, sidewalks, etc..  When plants self-sow, they often fill this blank space taking advantage of the lack of competition.  Some of these plants may also need to be removed if they are too tall for the space.

Weeds.  Every garden/habitat will eventually get its weeds.  They might sprout from wind-borne seeds, or an animal may have deposited them, or they may have been lying dormant in a seed bank buried in the ground.  Regardless of their origin, they appear.  When I find a plant in one of the schoolyard habitats that was not planted there I evaluate it in three steps:
  1. Is it a tree or shrub seedling? If the answer is yes it is removed immediately - all woody plants that have not been deliberately planted are removed as soon as they are noticed.  If the plant is not a tree or shrub, go on to step 2.
  2. Is the plant native or non-native?  If it is a non-native plant, it goes immediately.  I know that many non-native plants have a great deal of value in habitats, but most do not.  These gardens/habitats are meant to be filled with native plants to serve as habitat for native pollinators.  If you want to attract native insects have their native host plants and nectar plants available to them.  Non-native plants are not welcome at all in my schoolyard habitats. For native plants, go on to step 3.
  3. Is the plant growing in a pathway or right on the edge of the habitat?  If it is and can be easily moved, it will find a new home in the habitat.  If it can't be easily moved, it unfortunately goes bye-bye.  If it is not right on the edge or in the middle of the path, then the response that it gets is "You're free to grow.  Welcome to the party."
So this was the approach that I took when I went to perform maintenance on the gardens yesterday - I was actually gardening for a short while. Each of the gardens/habitats had some weeds (mostly dandelions, thistles, and turf grass that was growing from root fragments not completely removed when the gardens were planted).  The two oldest gardens/habitats had some plant so pull in the paths and a few from around the edge.  So how do they look now?

To the gardens!  From youngest to oldest.

Mount Pleasant Discovery Museum
This space was planted on June 26th this year.  The space was initially lawn on top of clay soil, with next to no topsoil.  The plants used here were leftovers from the next garden, with the exception of a few larger plants transplanted from the oldest habitat. Every plant (except the transplants) in this space cam from either a 2" plug or a 2" pot.  This meant that they were small plants with a small root system.  They had one job this summer - stay alive.  Because they were planted so late in the year, the staff at the Discovery Museum was watering these plants regularly to get them through our rather dry months of July and August.  Next year is when we shall see what this space can look like.  The plants in this space were intermingled throughout the space with the idea that it would look more like a small piece of a natural meadow when mature, rather than a planned garden.

Morey Public School Academy
This garden was planted on June 4th this year.  Like the above garden at the Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum, all plants were small plants from 2" pots or 2" plug flats.  Before this garden was installed, this space was also bare lawn over clay soil with almost no topsoil.  These plants were laid out in more of a planned pattern than the above garden - every square yard had up to 5 plants of the same species planted in it, with several adjoining squares planted with the same species.

The plants here were regularly watered for about 2 weeks but have been on their own since then - the clay soil and a thick layer of mulch retains any water that they get very well.  Like the space at the museum, the only job for these plants this summer was to stay alive.  Some of them have managed to grow quite well and send out blooms.  Most of them are focusing on developing roots that may reach down 15 feet for some species.

Winn Elementary
This garden/habitat was planted on June 5th 2012.  It is currently in its second year of growth.  Every plant in this space was originally in a 2" pot.  This space has several challenges.  Again it has clay soil with almost no topsoil.  Also when a heavy rain occurs, hundreds of gallons of water come off the roof and wash over this space, moving the wood mulch around - resulting in some areas with bare soil and other spaces with 6 inches of mulch.  The growth of the plants this year has alleviated this problem to some degree, but the mulch still moves.  One nice benefit of the clay soil is that with the mulch moisture is retained very well.

This garden was plotted out much like the one above with clusters of 2-4 plants of a species intermingled with clusters of plants of other species.  Having several plants of any given species located close to each other ensures better cross-pollination by insects.  Unlike all of the other gardens/habitats, this one is not surrounded on all four sides by buildings or sidewalks.  The west side is bordered by the front lawn of the school.  When this garden was planned, we put in a sweeping curved edge that incorporated two existing ornamental crabapple trees into the garden.  The asters around the crabapple closest to the school entrance have decided to live up to their species' potential and actually look too large in their space - these plants will be moved next spring to a different location in the garden.  The school principal recently told me that since the garden was put in place that teachers and students are using the front of the school for the first time ever.

Saginaw Chippewa Academy
This is the oldest of the four gardens/habitats, having been planted in June 2011.  It is in its summer of growth.  It is the smallest space of the four, being only only 16ft deep by 36ft wide, but it has the best soil - there is a thick rich layer of loam here with lots of organic matter.  This space also receives lots of runoff from the roof when it rains, especially the area near the stairs.  The plants in this space were a mixture of 2" pots and quart containers.  Plants in this space planted in clusters just like the 2 gardens above, with the taller plants generally placed nearer the building and shorter plants near the edges.  Many of the plants here have vigorously self seeded and taken up some of the empty space.

All of the Common Milkweed in the habitat has spread from two transplanted plants.  Common Milkweed will not stay where you want it, it spreads not only from seed but also by sending out long horizontal roots from which which clones of the original plant arise.  Because of this tendency to grow where it wants, Common Milkweed looks "weedy" in a planned space.  Milkweeds are the only host plants for the Monarch Butterfly.  This garden is first and foremost a wildlife habitat and is certified as a Monarch Waystation - the Milkweed can grow where it wants.

As you can see from the photos, the pollinators very much like the pollinator garden.  A special bonus for me, the presence of so many invertebrates in the garden has attracted the attention of tiger beetles.  I noticed one of the fast running predators in the garden twice while I was weeding - unfortunately there were no pictures.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Native Species Profiles - Three Rudbeckias are better than one

Many people are familiar with at least one plant in the Rudbeckia genus.  Cultivars of the Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) are among the most popular garden flowers.  They bloom profusely and for a very long time.  I have several clumps of them in my garden at home.  They also grow wild throughout Michigan (and just about every other state and province in North America - 47 states and 10 provinces).  It grows easily in sunny habitats like prairies, fields, and roadsides.  It also does well in the light shade of open woodlands.  It tolerates a range of soil conditions from mesic to dry - the plant does wilt easily in dry conditions.

With their dark brown central disk and yellow rays, if there is one common wildflower that the majority of people could probably recognize it's the Black-eyed Susan.

Rudbeckia hirta

Black-eyed Susan in a meadow habitat

Basic Information

Black-eyed Susan 
Rudbeckia hirta

Height:  1-3’ tall

Habitat:  prairies, fields, open deciduous woods

Flower Color:  yellow with brown center
Bloom Time:  July – September

Black-eyed Susans are not the only Rudbeckia species that can be found in Mid-Michigan. The Thin-leaved Coneflower (Rudbeckia triloba) is found in the same types of dry habitats as R. hirta.  I find it to be more common in shaded habitats than the Black-eyed Susan.  Its overall range is considerably smaller than that of the Black-eyed Susan.  It can be found in east of a extending from Ontario southwest to Texas, with two small populations in Colorado and Utah

Also known as the Brown-eyed Susan, R. triloba also has brown disk flowers surround by yellow rays.  However, the flowers of the Thin-leaved Coneflower are smaller (1.5-2.0 inches across) and more numerous than than those of the Black-eyed Susan (2.0-3.0 inches across). 

Rudbeckia triloba

Basic Information

Thin-leaved Coneflower 
Rudbeckia triloba

Height:  2-5’ tall

Habitat:  fields, prairies, thickets, open woods, roadsides

Flower Color:  yellow w/ brown center

Bloom Time:  June – October

A third species of Rudbeckia that is common across Michigan is the Cut-leaved Coneflower (Rudbeckia lanciniata).  Also known as the Tall Coneflower, this species can reach heights of 3 to 12 feet.  Unlike the R. hirta and R. triloba, the Cut-leaved Coneflower prefers wet habitats such as floodplains, wet woodlands, and swamps.  Its range is similar to that of the Black-eyed Susan, being found in 45 states and 8 Canadian provinces.  Like most other Rudbeckia species the Cut-leaved Coneflower blooms consist of yellow rays surrounding a central disk - the disk flowers are yellowish green.  Each bloom can be 3 to 4 inches across.  The rays on the Cut-leaved Coneflower tend to droop more than those of other Rudbeckia species.

Bee on Cut-leaved Coneflower

Rudbeckia lanciniata

Cut-leaved Coneflower in a Cedar Swamp
Basic Information

Cut-leaved Coneflower
Rudbeckia lanciniata

Height:  3-12’ tall

Habitat:  wet woodlands, swamps, shrub swamps, floodplains

Flower Color:  yellow

Bloom Time:  July – October

Two other species of Rudbeckia have been recorded in Michigan: R. fulgida (Showy Coneflower) and R. subtomentosa (Sweet Coneflower).  R. Fulgida can be found in wet habitats across the southern third of Michigan.  A single record of R. Subtomentosa was recorded in Gratiot County in 1894.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Appreciating the rain

 I'm only happy when it rains
I'm only happy when it's complicated
And though I know you can't appreciate it
I'm only happy when it rains 
               - Garbage
                                                 "Only Happy When It Rains"

It rained during the night.  It is raining today.  Rain is also forecast for tonight.

Why is this a big deal?

Average rainfall for the month of July in Alma is 2.77 inches.  This year the recorded amount for July was 1.09 inches.

August has been even worse.  Average precipitation for Alma in August is 3.45 inches.  Through the 26th, only 0.51 inches of rainfall was recorded. Since August 8th less than .10 inches has fallen.

Overall conditions in Mount Pleasant have not been quite so bad.  Mt. Pleasant nearly met its July average with 2.80 inches recorded - 2.87 inches is average.  However, August rainfall has been nowhere near average.  Average monthly precipitation is 3.33 inches; of which only 0.68 inches had fallen through the 26th of the month. 

Everything need the rain.  Soils are cracked, plants are browning out and dropping leaves early, wetlands are mudflats or drier.  It is probably too late for many of the crops in the field at this point.

If you could listen hard enough you might hear the plants slurping in the water as it filters into the ground.

So right now, as the song says, I'm only happy when it rains.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A red belt is always in style

I went out this morning to look for Monarch Caterpillars.  The short story is that I didn't find any.  However I did find this:

My best guess is that it is a Red-belted Bumblebee (Bombus rufocinctus).  The Red-belted Bumblebee is named for the rust/orange colored bands on its abdomen, but it is highly variable in color.  It is fairly common and ranges in a band from British Columbia east to the coast of Maine.  Usually I find only the Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) so finding any other species is exciting.

If anyone thinks my identification is incorrect please let me know.

For more information on the bumble bees of the eastern United States look at this guide published by the Pollinator Partnership and the US Forest Service.

Friday, August 23, 2013

First Monarch Caterpillars of the Year

Monarch caterpillar photographed in 2007 at Fayette State Park in the Upper Peninsula

This week we found our first Monarch caterpillars of the season - one on Wednesday and two yesterday. They are currently munching away on Common Milkweed leaves on our dining room table.  Only the three caterpillars so far.  This is not good, we had a great year for Monarchs in Michigan and the Northeast last year, but the rest of the country did not.  Overwintering populations were way down in Mexico and it has taken the butterflies a long time to make their way to Michigan this year.  Overall, I have now seen the three caterpillars and only four adults this summer.  Please plant milkweeds and other native plants to help our Monarch populations recover. Look here for more info on planting native plants for pollinators.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Crazy as a Loon

So I'm up here in the north woods
Just staring at a lake
Wondering just exactly how much
They think a man can take
I eat fish to pass the time away
'Neath this blue Canadian moon
This old world has made me crazy
Crazy as a loon
Lord, this world will make you crazy
Crazy as a loon
                            -John Prine
                                        "Crazy as a Loon"

Well, this picture wasn't taken in Canada; it was taken along the auto tour route in Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in 2008.  However, this Common Loon (Gavia immer) was definitely acting "loony".  

There seems to be some confusion about the origin of the word "loon".  Some sources list it as deriving from an Old Norse word for "diver", others from a Middle English word (possibly derived from a Dutch word) for "crazy person" or possibly "clumsy person", or from the Latin root luna for "moon" from which lunatic (crazy person) also arises.  There is also a Scottish word loon which means refers to a lad - and we all know that young "lads" can act crazy at times.  Just like this loon.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

An Unseen Wasp

Often when I look back at older photos that I took years ago I notice new details in the photos.  I usually get around to organizing my photos in some sore of manner based on what is in this photo.  For instance, this photograph ended up be filed under Wildflowers>  White> White Wood Aster.  I have probably looked at the thumbnails for this sequence of photos dozens of times, but today when I looked at them I noticed something.

Ichneumon wasp on White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata)

A wasp. 

I am sure that I noticed it when I originally took the photo - there are actually eight photos in this sequence and the wasp is in all of them, but somehow over time the wasp got overlooked.  I guess it's good to always go back and review files periodically.  Bonus- this photo was taken exactly five years ago today (21 August 2008)

Ichneumon wasp on White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata) - close-up crop of the above photo

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Common" species of Mid-Michigan

The word "common" has many definitions including the following: occurring or appearing frequently; familiar; of the best known or most frequently seen kind.

Mid-Michigan has many common species some of which are so, well, common, that the word even appears in their name.

Common Arrowhead

Common Blue Violet

Common Cattail

Common (Eastern) Garter Snake

Common (Canada) Goldenrod

Common Milkweed

Common Mullein

Common Snapping Turtle

Common St. Johnswort

Common Yarrow