Early Saxifrage

Early saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis, formerly Saxifraga virginiensis) is one of the first native plants to flower in our rock garden. A seedling early saxifrage, basal rosette hardly larger than a nickel, was large enough to provide nectar for a tiny blue butterfly, a spring azure. I love native plants for their connections to their natural world.

Seedling early saxifrage/
Seedling early saxifrage.
Spring azure on flowers of early saxiftage.
Spring azure on flowers of early saxiftage.
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Little bluestem meadow in autumn

Little bluestem and other native plants around the pond.
Little bluestem and other native plants around the pond.

The native grasses and wildflowers we planted around the pond this past summer have done very well. Quite a few flowered in their first year and I was able to collect seeds from little bluestem, Indian grass, hoary vervain, and showy tick-trefoil. Although I did not have enough little bluestem plants to complete all the areas I wanted to plant, I am delighted by the shape of the meadow as it winds down for winter. The reddish foliage of the little bluestem is standing upright, doing exactly what one wants a native bunch grass to do, that is, to provide food and cover for wildlife and to hold the soil.

There is some black plastic draped around the pond edge yet. It is starting to be brittle from more than a year of UV exposure and looks awful. We have moved it around, and will employ it again in the spring in its tatters for yet more weed-killing solarization. I cannot think of any other way to tackle the non-native forage grass (Phalaris?) which dominates the moister areas here.

Monarch caterpillars on young swamp milkweeds in newly-planted swale.
Monarch caterpillars on young swamp milkweeds in newly-planted swale.

I continued to plant the swale area throughout the second half of the summer and into the fall. Almost as soon as the swamp milkweed plugs were in the ground, monarch caterpillars appeared on them. We had two generations of American painted lady caterpillars feeding on our field pussytoes and plantain-leaved pusstoes. I planted several dozen white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) seedlings in diverse damp places and a big patch of pink turtlehead (C. lyonii) at the front of the swale planting. I have high hopes of Baltimore checkerspot butterflies finding my young turtleheads after seeing one Baltimore in the area this summer.

Big bluestem grass and other vigorous native plants have been planted on this slope.
Big bluestem grass and other vigorous native plants have been planted on this slope.

The bank between the vegetable garden and the farm lane (to the pond) was planted in September in a big push to get seedlings into the ground in time to root well before winter. For this sloping site I planned a “tall grass prairie” of tall, vigorous species: a backbone of big bluestem with other good doers like wild bergamot and wingstem. They seemed to have taken but there will not be enough fuel here to have a weed-suppressing spring burn next April. I suspect that this planting will require a certain amount of patience, imagination, and faith in native plants next summer. Note to self: Plan to burn in spring of 2016 and don’t fret.

Antenarria
American painted lady caterpillar on plantain-leaved pussytoes.

Although native grasses are wind-pollinated, and thus not usually considered important for pollinators, they are the host plants for several species of butterflies and nearly all the skippers. Because we have black locusts (NOT my doing and a big problem), we have lots of locust-dependent silver-spotted skippers. We also saw lots of Hobomok skippers and a few satyr butterflies last summer. I hope our skipper diversity will improve as I add more native grasses.

Pond Project: Planning for pollinators – plant grass

The backbone of my pond naturalization project will be little bluestem. One of the most widely distributed native grasses in North America, it is tough and adaptable, handsome, and companionable to all the showy flowers anyone could want in a meadow or eastern prairie. It is not nearly as tall as big bluestem, so you can look out over an expanse of little bluestem. It is not as fussy about soil fungi as lovely Indian grass, so you can start with little bluestem and let it create the soil into which you can plant fussier plants in subsequent years.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a neat bluish-green clump for most of the summer.

Little bluestem seed awns.
Little bluestem seed awns.

It starts to elongate its flowering stalks in late summer, getting about mid-thigh high in most soils. It really comes into its own in late September and October when the leaves turn red and the seed awns are fluffy and white and catch the slanting autumn light. It is great winter fodder for herbivores. Bison like little bluestem hay, and so do domestic rabbits.*

Little bluestem thrives in dry and sandy soils, which is what we have got. I won’t put it in the damp soil next to the pond – that is the future home of blue flag iris, swamp milkweed, and cardinal flower. The dry, sandy surround of the pond – remember this is an old farm pond, not a naturally occurring wetland – will be planted in a flowery butterfly-attracting meadow of, yes, little bluestem. Continue reading Pond Project: Planning for pollinators – plant grass

Golden Ragwort: Plant This, Not That – Southern Ontario edition

Two American bloggers, Pat Sutton and Debbie Roberts, at Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens, have started a Plant This, Not That series, to promote using native plants rather than invasive aliens. As this is exactly what I was doing a couple of weeks ago here, promoting maple-leaved viburnum, I have decided to take up the challenge posed by Sutton and Roberts, and write a Southern Ontario edition of Plant This, Not That.

Golden ragwort (Senecio aureus, syn. Packera aurea), my overlooked and under-used native plant for this post, is a wonderful little flower I would like to see used in many more gardens. I propose it as an alternative to the European garden flower, leopard’s bane. In this case, it is not because the non-native replacee is nasty. Leopard’s bane is not invasive in my area; in fact, I’ve never seen it as a garden escapee. It is just that the native golden ragwort has a role to play as a host plant for insects, is just as pretty, and has no downside as a garden flower. Why not plant the native? Continue reading Golden Ragwort: Plant This, Not That – Southern Ontario edition