The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

October 3, 2019

Native calico asters are the stars of fall

A fall favorite of mine is our native calico aster. It is found in all eastern US states and Canadian provinces.

Around our local area, I’m seeing more of these plants than usual. The relatively rainy growing season may have something to do with it since they prefer semi-damp environments. More frequent rain means that it will be more likely they will be able to establish themselves in spots where they wouldn’t be found in drier years.

In late summer and early fall, these asters produce a display of 5/8-inch diameter, white flowers with pale yellow centers. You often find them along hiking trails, roadsides and the edge of fields. In my yard they’re popping up around my wood chip pile, an old compost heap and other places that don’t get touched by the mower that often. They range in height from about a foot to over five feet tall depending on their location and how long they have been growing there. They are perennials.

Even though they are not known for their scent, I sometimes can detect a faint sweet smell from mine if I put my nose right up against the flowers.

Calico asters are a good source of late season nectar for pollinators. I’ve noticed many honeybees and other small pollinating insects on mine. As the season progresses, the flower centers change colors as they age adding hues of pink, blue or maroon here and there, giving it a “calico” appearance.

 

The flowers are just starting to change colors.

The flowers are just starting to change colors.

Calico asters can be confused with other similar-looking species. However, if you look closely, you’ll notice the plant has another distinguishing characteristic, its flowers grow from only one side of the stems.

Mammals such as deer and rabbits sometimes browse on the foliage. Some species of butterflies and moths do too.

The stems are strong enough to stay standing through much of the winter adding interesting contrast to otherwise empty expanses of white snow.

These likable flowers make a great addition to a wildflower garden. Plant breeders have worked with them and have come up with improved varieties that are more tame and will look at home in your main flower garden.

Bob

 

May 16, 2019

Ornamental pear trees may become invasive in the future

Ornamental Bradford pear trees are in full flower right now. They must be everyone’s favorite tree, or you would think so because everywhere there’s a housing development there’s at least one Bradford pear tree planted in front of every house. Even municipalities and businesses are planting them.

They do have a certain charm and they’re quite eye-catching when they’re in full bloom. But there’s so many of them now that they’re beginning to just become part of the background visual-noise instead of  being an accent in the landscape.

Landscapers plant Bradfords because of their flowers, shape and moderate size, and even though they are an introduced species, they are believed to be non-invasive by many. That has been the case in Michigan until recently. There’s evidence that these trees have become tired of being well-behaved and have decided to cut loose from their suburban lawns. This was pointed out to me a couple of years ago by a local, well-respected naturalist. To drive home her point she said all you had to do was look at the number of wild Bradford pears growing all along the highways.

Well, I drove the entire length of I -275 this week and was surprised how many out of place Bradford pears there were. They weren’t overcrowding any one area but there were plenty of single trees and small clusters of them. When you’re looking for them you begin to see them everywhere.

Even though this tree was covered with flowers, no bees were around. Bees seem t prefer other kinds of flowers if given the choice.

Even though this tree was covered with flowers, no bees were around. Bees seem t prefer other kinds of flowers if given the choice.

These more boisterous, escaped trees are claiming some area for themselves and have the potential to push out the native plants. The conventional wisdom that they are sterile and unable to reproduce may be true but something is going on. It brings to mind what Jeff Goldblum’s character Ian Malcolm said in the movie Jurassic Park, “Life uh, finds a way”.

In some other states Bradford pears are already a big enough problem that they have been place on those states invasive species list and are no longer recommended for planting.

To be fair, Bradford pears may never become a problem for us. I remember early in my career when, for a short time, some people worried smoke trees might escape and become invasive. Some trees did take root out of place here and there but the smoke tree invasion never materialized.

Maybe it’s time to think about developing a replacement for the Bradford pear if for no other reason than to add more variety to the suburban landscape.

Bob

April 26, 2019

Natural nest building material for birds

The other day while I was relaxing on our front porch, I had a chance to watch a female robin work on building her nest. She was collecting mud and other muddy debris from the edge of a water puddle to use to cement her nest materials together. She’d look around for the right bit of mud and scoop up a big mouthful then fly off to her nest in a tree on the other side of of our yard. She’d work with the mud and when was done with it, she’d fly back to the puddle for more.

Watching that robin reminded me that nearly all songbirds are in the process of making their nests right now. Although they are perfectly fine on their own, we can help make it easier for them by providing natural nesting material.

Different species of birds use different materials for their nests. It’s usually a specific size of material that they are looking for. Some larger species may use primarily sticks and twigs, other birds may prefer pieces of grass. Many species line their nest with soft material.

Birds will collect all kinds material for their nest. The latest research however suggests that made-made materials such as cloth, string, or drier lint among other things, may cause harm to hatchlings or in some cases even adult birds. So what can we do to help?

The easiest the thing is to let a corner of your yard go wild.  Encourage helpful plants such as shrubs that provide small twigs; milkweed and thistle that produce down for nest lining; grapevines have stringy bark that birds remove in strips for their nests; pine needles are a favorite for many birds; lengths of fine grass are a very attractive building material.

Many bird species like to line their nests with moss.

Many bird species like to line their nests with moss.

Invertebrates such as spiders will set up shop in your wild area and begin to spin webs. Those webs in turn will be used by hummingbirds as nest building materials.

Consider leaving a bare patch of soil in your natural area that you can soak with water to make mud for birds to use.

As an alternative to having a natural wild area in your otherwise manicured lawn, you can collect the aforementioned material yourself and leave it in a spot where birds can easily get at it.

Many species of birds lay more that one clutch of eggs through the summer therefore need nest building material on and off during the summer.

Although birds will sometimes cause a gardener problems by damaging fruit, the good they do by eating harmful insects outweighs the bad. Plus, it’s a lot of fun watching birds as they work on building their nests.

Bob

November 15, 2018

Tree leaves help build soil

I’m running behind in my fall garden projects including taking care of the fallen leaves all over my lawn. Maybe it just feels like I’m behind because of the snow we’ve been having recently.

This past weekend while driving back from up north, I spotted several people catching up on their fall tree leaf clean up. They were easy to spot because of the plumes of smoke rising up from their lawns and ditches. By the way, this was happening out in the countryside where leaf burning is still fairly common.

I enjoy the smell of burning leaves as much as the next guy. When I smell leaf smoke, it reminds me of my childhood when nearly everyone in the neighborhood burned their leaves. It actually was a pretty good tactic to get the kids out of the house. As a matter of fact, the neighborhood kids looked forward to raking the lawn because of the fire afterward.

Of course nowadays most communities have ordinances restricting leaf burning. And Michigan has a state law regulating open burning of leaves so we don’t see or smell much of it anymore.

As much as I enjoy it, as a gardener I wouldn’t burn leaves even if it were allowed. They are just too valuable as a soil amendment to let them just go up in smoke.

Valuable soil building components found in leaves are destroyed by burning.

Valuable soil building components found in leaves are destroyed by burning.

I you think about it for a bit, trees have huge root systems that absorb soil minerals from a deep and wide area, nutrients that may not be available to other kinds of plants. Those soil nutrients, along with carbon from the atmosphere, are used by trees to make their leaves. That’s a lot of plant nutrients that trees make for us when you consider the shear volume of leaves each tree produces every year.

The mineral components of the leaves quite are valuable, providing much more fertilizer value than manure. Even more valuable than the mineral elements are the carbon compounds that make up the bulk of a leaf. When leaves break down in the soil they provide humus, that magical ingredient that experienced gardeners know is the secrete to a flourishing garden.

I remember several years ago a friend of mine used to pick up bagged up leaves from the curbside in the city and take them home to use because she didn’t have access to enough leaves. One day just as my friend was about to depart with a van full of bagged leaves, the homeowner came running out of the house shaking her fist and yelling, “put those leaves back!”  The funny thing is those leaves were about to be picked up by the trash collectors and taken to the landfill.

The biggest drawback to leaves is their tendency to blow around and not stay put where they are needed. That can easily be taken care of by cutting them up into smaller pieces. I use a leaf vac with a collection bag to shred and collect most of my leaves. Some of the heavier and tougher leaves like cottonwood, I run over with a lawn mower first to make them easier to vacuum up. Then they either go right into the garden as a mulch or into to the compost pile if there are any left over.

Instead of looking at leaves as trash that needs to be bagged up and hauled away, I like to consider them free soil builders provided by mother nature every year. In case you were wondering, my friend did manage to escape with her misbegotten load of contraband.

Bob

 

September 26, 2018

Turtlehead plants for your fall garden

During an afternoon walk while visiting our daughter Robin, we came across a grouping of Chelone, more commonly known as turtleheads. We found them growing in the 606, an elevated park planted by the city’s talented landscapers.

You don’t need much imagination to see why they are called turtle heads; their flowers really resemble a turtle’s head, especially when they open their jaws!

These fascinating plants provide additional color to the autumn flower garden palette all the way until frost.

While Chelone are native to a large part of the United States, just a few small, local populations are found in the wild in Michigan. They prefer sunny, moist areas but can grow well in just about any fertile garden soil.

Chelone plants are available from many plant nurseries.

Bob

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