Digging Out the Phenology Notes

Another sign of spring: Blossoms on star magnolia in St. Paul.

Yesterday, I wrote about how some plant experts suggest gardeners handle the extremely unusual warm spring we are experiencing. The usual advice for spring in Minnesota would be to back off and stay out of your yard and garden until at least mid- to late April. But I think this year we may need to shift away from the usual advice. That’s why I dug out some notes I had on phenology, the study of nature signs and how they can be used to guide garden activities.

In the days before Doppler radar, USDA Hardiness zone maps and even university extension, gardeners relied on birds, bugs and flowers for advice on when to plant what. I’m not sure how reliable this advice is, but here are some typical spring activities and what to look for to guide when to do what:

  • When crocus bloom, remove the mulch on your strawberries. (It’s happening here.)
  • When yellow forsythia bloom, prune roses and fertilize the lawn. (Happening here.)
  • When leaves first emerge on lilacs, plant lettuce, beets, spinach and other cool-weather crops.
  • When the aspens have leafed out, plant pansies and other hardy annuals.
  • When lilacs are in full bloom and the barn swallows return, set out your tomato plants and basil.
  • When irises bloom, set out your squash and melon transplants.
  • When dandelions go to seed, it’s time to plant petunias.

What guides are you turning to this topsy turvy spring? What are you doing differently this year?


Winter Weirdness

Salvia in January

I’m not sure which is more disconcerting–that I spent 15 minutes outside today wearing only a cardigan and was comfortable doing it, or that I found an unusual number of signs of life in the garden. Just a reminder: It’s Minnesota and it’s January.

Yet, today when I pulled aside some leaves I found this Salvia sending up several new shoots. In the backyard, the Clara Curtis daisies I ripped out in October had sent up new leaves — green ones. And, in the vegetable bed, a few sprigs of parsley were growing. Now all of these plants are decidedly in the hardy category. I have found parsley under snow in spring before, but still, there are far more green things in my yard than is usual for January (when things are usually covered in snow).

We’ll see what the rest of winter holds. But, so far, it’s just weird.

A Good Year for Milkweed — and Monarchs

A bee lands on milkweed

Walking around the ponds near our house this spring, I’ve noticed this has been a great year for milkweed (Asclepias) with stands of it everywhere and many of the plants now in beautiful bloom. I like the look of milkweed for both its broad leaves and pink, pom-pom flowers. But milkweed’s real benefit is that it is the only plant Monarch butterfly caterpillars feed on. Last year, I planted a special type of milkweed to attract butterflies — and it worked, except that the caterpillars ate the plant down to the stalk!

I’ve seen Monarchs three times in the past two days (no photos yet), so I’m hoping that this year’s big crop of milkweed will mean an equally large crop of butterflies.


New Guide to Protecting Pollinators

After almost 50 hours of Master Gardener training this month, there is one image that I cannot get out of my mind. During the lecture on growing fruit, the professor put up a photo of some workers in China, up on ladders in the middle of an apple tree that was covered with blossoms.  The workers were pollinating the flowers by hand because excessive pesticide use in the area had killed all of the bees and native pollinators for apples.

Pollinators — bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, birds, and a host of other insects and animals — are crucial to food production, whether you are growing a home garden or apples for the world market. That’s one reason I was so excited to receive a review copy of the Xerces Society’s new book, Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies, (Story Press, 2011). This is a well-illustrated, down-to-earth guide to why pollinators matter, what is happening that threatens pollinators, and the simple things any of us can do to increase the world’s pollinator population. (In a nutshell: Plant flowers and back off the pesticides.)

While considerable attention has been given to diminishing populations of honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder, honeybees are not native to North America. They are hugely important in pollinating some crops (almonds, especially) but the average Midwestern garden is far more likely to be visited by bumble bees, orchard mason bees, or the guys who seem to love it at my place, leaf cutter bees. Most of these bees (and 90 percent of all North American bees) are solitary insects who play a vital role in helping us produce vegetables and fruit as well as helping to control problem pests.

The book provides detailed instructions on how to provide habitat for pollinators, what plants to plant in various regions (I was pleased that more than half of the recommended plants for the Midwest and Great Plains are in my garden now, with more to come), and how to recognize and support the pollinators in your yard.

So how do we support pollinators? The simple answer is to provide a diversity of plants. If possible, choose plants that are native to your area and plan for a sequence of blooms from early spring through fall. Try to provide habitat as well, such as a bee house or nesting sites for ground nesting bees.  Don’t be too obsessive about keeping your garden cleaned up — a pile of brush can be home-sweet-home to many pollinators. They also like holes in the ground and hollow logs, if you have one hanging around. Also, plant “sacrificial plants,” those that you know may be eaten by caterpillars or other larvae on their way to becoming butterflies.

That’s the simple answer, but for more detail and some fantastic bee and butterfly photos, check out Attracting Native Pollinators. If you are a member of the Minnesota Horticultural Society, the review copy I received will be in the hort society library in a few weeks.

The Persistence of Plants

The ground fell out from around its root, but the tree keeps growing.

The tenacity of plants always amazes me. Faced with poor soil, too much sun, too much shade, competition from other plants–whatever the obstacle, many plants will continue to send out roots, sprout flowers or produce seeds. For a case in point, consider this photograph taken earlier this week at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising, Mich. My husband and I took a short vacation there this week, enjoying the cool breezes off of Lake Superior, the incredible rock formations, doing some gentle hiking, and talking with the friendly folks at the Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore, where we heard a soulful and fun performance of Cole Porter music by six opera singers performing as part of the Pine Mountain Music Festival.

But as we took the long drive home yesterday, I kept thinking about this tree. The sandstone that connected it to the mainland here fell away some years ago. Still, the tree grows, hanging onto the soil and its nutrients by this single exposed root. Now that is persistence.

I Spotted a Monarch

I did not have my camera with me, but I spotted a monarch in my front garden yesterday afternoon. It’s perhaps the third one I’ve seen this year, compared to dozens in a normal year. The prevailing theory about the monarch shortage is that it is weather related–cold spring, dry summer.

Bee Condo Update: Solitary Insects Move In

As I noted a while back, critters have taken up residence in my bee condo. But they do not seem to be orchard mason bees. When an orchard mason bee moves into a condo like this, the signs are a rough mud plug in one of the holes. The bees use the holes to protect their offspring and fill the holes with baby bee food before plugging it up for safe keeping.

I have mud plugs, finally, but they are not rough. They are smooth, which I originally thought was a wasp, but the holes also include lots of cut up grass, which is not the usual m.o. for orchard mason bees. I did manage to catch a photo of one of the occupants leaving the condo the other day. He is longer than a bumble bee, also thinner, with a pronounced waist. Unlike the orchard mason bees, which are usually bluish, this bee was black and yellow.

Having long ago reached the limits of my knowledge of insects, I sent the photos above to David Zlesak, an extension educator at the University of Minnesota, editor of the U’s Yard and Garden News, and an occasional contributor to Northern Gardener. David is not a bee guy, but he knows an insect guy–Jeff Hahn–who checked out my photos and determined that it’s probably a leaf-cutting bee living in the bee condo. Leaf-cutters are solitary insects and effective pollinators. Their only negative is the leaf-cutting. I do have quite a few plants showing holes, especially one rose, further confirming the leaf-cutter theory. As Hahn noted, “They probably like your house just fine.”