Monday, August 7, 2017

The Mid-Summer Garden

A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining,
the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing,
and the lawn mower is broken.
 ~James Dent

Ah, mid-summer, when the garden is bursting with flowers...

and humming with activity.

What would summer be without flowers in the garden and birds, bees, and butterflies to flutter about them?

This summer I am beyond excited to see a good number of Monarch butterflies in the garden - more than I've seen in the previous three years combined.

Such a hopeful thing sign!  We've also been fortunate this year to have a cooler summer with enough rain to make up for last year's bad drought.  Mid-summer has brought some big storms, but other than a few downed plants, my garden is not complaining about the extra water. 

Mid-summer has also brought new blooms to the garden.  I am in love with the color of these 'Shell Pink' Balloon Flowers, winter sowed a couple years ago and finally in bloom.

'Shell Pink' Balloon Flower
Does anyone else grow Sweet Peas?  I grew them for the first time from seed this year.  They sulked after being transplanted and I thought they might die off, but they rebounded and began blooming in July.  The smell is divine!  It's a plant I don't seem to see often in other gardens, despite being one of those 'cottage favorites'.

Some other plants blooming in my garden for the first time this year include Black Cohosh, Whorled MilkweedGray-headed Coneflower, and a pretty pass-along daylily.

Clockwise from top left:the greenhouse garden, Black Cohosh, daylily, Swamp Verbena, Gray-headed Coneflower, Whorled Milkweed
The vegetable garden is producing green beans and zucchini aplenty by mid-summer.  The garlic has already been harvested with turnips, carrots, and bok choy sown in its place for fall.  I thought I hadn't gotten many snow peas this year... until my kids informed me that they had been going out and eating them off the vines every day.  The coveted snow peas kept producing until mid-July, petering out just as the beans kicked in.  I am still eagerly waiting for that first ripe tomato, though, which should any day now.

vegetable garden
While there is always work to be done in the garden this time of year (thanks to weeds, weeds, and more weeds), one must stop and just soak in its beauty once in awhile!  In my opinion there's nothing like walking through the summer garden in the early morning, when the air is still cool and the birds are beginning to wake.  

Alas, in the early mornings I am usually stumbling to the coffee maker while mumbling incoherent things to my wide-awake children.  Thankfully summer evenings are often just as lovely, if a tad warmer!

I hope everyone is enjoying summer and all the beauty it brings.
As always, happy gardening!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ghost Pipe Plant

All gardeners have bucket lists - plants they'd love to grow, gardens they want to visit, plants they want to see.  I was excited to be able to check one of my bucket items off the list this week.  While walking near some woods, I spotted a plant I had always wanted to see since first hearing about it: the Ghost Pipe Plant!

Ghost Pipe Plant
The Ghost Pipe Plant (Monotropa uniflora), aka Indian Pipe or Corpse Plant, is a perennial wildflower that is native to parts of North America and areas of Asia, European Russia, and northern South America.  This tiny plant is fascinating in that it doesn't contain any chlorophyll.  It is usually completely white, but will sometimes have some pink or even red coloration.

Instead of getting energy from the sun, the Ghost Pipe plant is parasitic.  It grows on types of mycorrhizal fungi which in turn grow on tree roots.  The mycorrhizal fungi, which usually grows on leaf litter, gives nutrients and water to the tree roots in return for sugars from the tree.  The parasitic Ghost Pipe steals some of these sugars from the fungi.  It's quite a complex relationship, which is why these plants are somewhat of a rare and delightful find!  They are pretty much impossible to transplant or propagate.

emerging Ghost Pipe plants
Because it does not need the sun, Ghost Pipe can grow in deep shade.  It is mostly found in damp, rich, mature woodlands, which is the type of place that I found this colony of Ghost Pipe plants growing.

Like its botanical name Monotropa uniflora suggests, each stem just has one flower which blooms for a week or two anytime from late spring to fall.  The flower is pollinated by small bees, after which the flower turns upwards and is then replaced by a seed capsule.  The stem turns black and dies off, but the perennial root mass will live to bloom the next year.

Ghost Pipe was used medicinally by some Native Americans tribes as an anti-convulsive and an analgesic, as well as to treat conditions such as eye problems, bunions, and fevers.  It is still occasionally used by herbalists, unfortunately leading to over-harvesting in some cases, making this plant even rarer.   Interestingly, grizzly bears have been known to dig up the root mass to eat it.  While raw Ghost Pipe is mildly toxic for people, it is said to be edible (though bland) in small to moderate amounts.  When cooked, it is said to taste rather like asparagus, though I would not recommend picking this plant at all.  Rather I would advise leaving these tiny wildflowers undisturbed so that more people can have the fun of spotting such an unusual plant. 

I know I got a thrill out of it!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Excited For Aphids

Every year without fail, some of the leaves on my River Birch change, becoming weirdly distorted and deformed.

This leaf distortion is actually caused by aphids - Spiny Witch Hazel Gall Aphids, to be exact - which feed on birch leaves starting in the spring and then eventually move on to Witch Hazel trees for the second part of its life cycle.  The infested birch leaves ultimately shrivel up and fall off the tree prematurely.

So it's a bad thing for your tree to be attacked by aphids every year, right?

Surprisingly, it can actually be a great thing!  The infestation of aphids is usually not heavy enough to harm the health of the tree.  It does, however, attract all sorts of beneficial predators to the garden.

The infected birch is like a magnet for ladybugs.  There are always a lot of them on my tree.  They eat the aphids and lay their eggs there.  The larvae that hatch eat even more aphids and eventually turn into even more ladybugs for the garden.

ladybug larvae eating aphids on birch leaf
Other interesting insects attracted by the aphids include this Tree Cricket nymph. Tree crickets and their nymphs love aphids and scale insects and can be beneficial to a garden (though they can occasionally become a pest for orchards as they also like fruit).

Tree Cricket nymph on birch leaf
Believe it or not, there are actually beneficial wasps to have in the garden, such as this little Mason Wasp.  They prey on many larval insects including aphids and are non-agressive and rarely sting.

 My favorite things that are attracted by the aphids, however, are the birds.

Baltimore Oriole
Most of the birds that I see eating aphids on the tree are ones that I see commonly at my nearby bird feeders.  The Baltimore Orioles, though, have never come to a feeder (despite my attempts).  I only see these beautiful birds up close when they come for the aphids.

It makes you almost want an aphid infestation, doesn't it?

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