Snagged on a goldenrod stem while tumbleweeding through the neighborhood.
I’m still contemplating my new year’s resolutions but before looking forward, I want to take a quick look back. Here’s a short list of what happened in my garden in 2016:
Pasque flower simply didn’t come back, after a couple years of doing well. This was a cultivar, and I bought a native to replace it.
Purple prairie clover started fine but was eaten by rabbits.
I scattered swamp milkweed seeds in the fall of 2015, but nothing sprouted.
Wild columbine thrived in its first year in the yard, after being transplanted late the year before
Strawberries not only survived their first winter, they produced several berries. The plants spread far in late summer, so we’re hoping for a real crop next year.
Our first-ever grapes, after years of relatively healthy grapevines! (Though not surprisingly, something ate them before we could.)
Some kind of super-tall (8-foot) aster.
Unintentional beauty of onion flowers, which were leftovers from 2015 and continued growing on their own.
More and more insects (and other creatures) are finding a home, or at least dinner, in our garden. These are some of the things spotted for the first time:
summer azure butterfly (I think)
a similar, but I don’t think the same, butterfly
another kind of wasp (I think)
some kind of orange dragonfly
swamp milkweed leaf beetles
candy-stripe spider fighting a Japanese beetle (more to come on this encounter)
whatever this little orange bug is
hibernating wooly bear caterpillar, accidentally uncovered when doing late-season planting
I always have several blog posts in my head and an even longer list of potential ideas, but it’s hard to get them written. So there were not nearly enough blog posts in 2016, but I posted almost daily during the growing season on Instagram.
My biggest personal success was becoming a master naturalist. I anticipate this will become a bigger and bigger part of my life going forward.
As a master naturalist, I am required to complete 40 hours of natural resources volunteer service per year.
As someone who loves nature, this is not a chore. For example, I’ve wanted to take part in Three Rivers Park District’s seed collection events for the last couple years, but this was the first year I made time for it – and I’m glad I did.
How to volunteer
Minnesota Master Naturalists divide service hours into four categories:
- Citizen science
- Program support
Activities such as wildflower planting and invasive species removal – stewardship – are where my interests most naturally lie. I’ve been doing citizen science, unofficially, in my own front yard (observations such as the 2015 monarch adventure), so I may join official projects in the future (ladybug project, bird counts, etc.).
Could this blog and my corresponding Instagram account count as education / interpretation? Perhaps. I spend way more than 40 hours per year on each, with taking photos, editing and posting photos, writing and editing notes, and most of all, research. But for now, that is a fun hobby.
How I volunteered
My husband and I participated in a City of Roseville service project in July, then I kind of forgot about this until the fall and had to cram in a bunch of events. (It’s not a surprise; I am an experienced procrastinator.) So my autumn was extremely busy packing in as many events as I could to reach the quota.
“Don’t count your naturalist service hours before they’ve hatched.” Isn’t that how the saying goes? Yes, I waited too long to get started; but FOUR volunteer events I had planned to attend were cancelled due to weather – two for rain, one for extreme heat, and one for a winter storm. A fifth was supposed to last two hours but so many volunteers showed up that it took only one. That’s a lesson to me to get the hours in early next year because something may come up to prevent my planned events from happening.
Here are the descriptions I submitted when reporting my service hours:
7/16 City of Roseville, 1.5 hours: Email solicitation: We’ll be doing shoreline planting along Bennett Lake in Central Park. Holes will mostly be predrilled [they weren’t, and it was quite difficult to dig through the thick roots on the shoreline] and many hands are needed to install hundreds of plant plugs in the designated area. [My husband participated, too.]
9/1 Bruce Vento Nature Center for City of St. Paul, 1.5 hours: Collected purple prairie clover and sideoats grama seeds until sunset. Beautiful evening.
9/3 Crow-Hassan Park Reserve for Three Rivers Park District, 3 hours: Collected purple prairie clover and white prairie clover seeds and now can easily tell the difference between the two. [Unbeknownst to me, an Instagram friend was also collecting seeds at this event!]
Purple prairie clovers on the left; white prairie clovers on the right. They look similar, but the purple ones still had narrow leaves, while the white ones were bare stems. Also, the purple seeds are light and fluffy, while white seeds are hard.
9/8 Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan, 1.75 hours: Collected wildflower seed: mostly bush clover, plus some monarda and five spiders. Wrapped sweet everlasting, flowering spurge, and whorled milkweed pods in knee-high nylons to catch the seeds when they ripen (someone else will collect them in a week or so). Mosquitoes were awful.
9/13 Coldwater Spring at Minnesota National River & Recreation Area, 1 hour: Dug up buckthorn shoots from an area that has been undergoing removal and treatment for 4 years. It would have been longer than 1 hour, but the crew leader took us “newbies” on a trip to the spring, with a wildflower and grass search (and nature jokes) along the way.
9/14 Eastside Heritage Park for City of St. Paul, 1.5 hours: Collected Canada wild rye (other volunteers collected side-oats grama) for the City of St. Paul’s Seed Squad. I brought a coworker along, too! Simply beautiful autumn evening in this small strip of prairie and there were hundreds of grasshoppers and native ladybugs and several orb weavers. I love collecting seeds.
9/16 Ney Nature Center in Henderson, 3 hours: Monarch tagging event: Arrived at sunrise to observe monarchs in the trees, but we only found one, and it was out of reach and flew away. (The director speculated that yesterday’s storms kept new monarchs from moving into the area.) Later we walked through the prairie and again found one, but it too flew away. After a break, I ventured out again on my own, and with the sun now shining, I found several active monarchs and my first-ever viceroys! I caught five monarchs but tagged three because two escaped. (My technique got better as the day progressed.)
9/20 Coldwater Spring, 1.5 hours: Dug up burdock and mullein. Muggy and mosquitoey.
9/29 Como Regional Park for City of St. Paul, 1.75 hours: Seed-collecting: a small amount of golden glow (which I would call green-headed coneflower) and a large amount of gray-headed coneflower, with a large group of Conservation Corps members.
10/1 Sand Creek in Jordan for Great River Greening, 3.5 hours: Dug holes in non-native canary grass to help plant 500 trees and shrubs to restore the riparian zone in a former corn and hay field. A photo of me was used later in the week for the thank-you message to volunteers!
10/8 St. Peter farm site for Great River Greening, 2.5 hours: Chilly morning for planting wildflower plugs (rough and dotted blazing star, blue-eyed grass, butterfly weed, stiff tickseed, western spiderwort, wild strawberry, and more) in fields that just last year were used for corn and soybeans. This project will benefit soil health and water quality and increase habitat for pollinators and wildlife in the Seven Mile Creek watershed.
10/15 Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve for Three Rivers Park District, 3 hours: Collected nearly half a grocery bag of anise hyssop seeds; our group ended up with three full bags combined. There was also a lot of gray-headed coneflower (one bag). The group also collected liatris, thimbleweed, ironweed, and white prairie clover but not purple prairie clover. Overcast day, but the woods at the prairie’s edge were very colorful.
10/16 Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, 1.5 hours: Buckthorn pull using weed wrenches. Amazing how big of an area can be cleared in just a couple of hours, when a group works together.
10/19 Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary for City of St. Paul, 1 hour: Collected big bluestem and Indian grass seeds.
10/22 Crow-Hassan Park Reserve for Three Rivers Park District, 3 hours: Collected seeds from the relatively rare golden aster, a slow and painstaking process. Also collected liatris, a much quicker process that yielded almost an entire grocery bag of seed, and one bag of showy goldenrod stalks. Others in the group collected gray goldenrod and bergamot. Bright sunshine and almost hot by the end of the session.
Blazing star (liatris) with seeds on the left; the same stem without seeds on the right.
The master naturalist program also counts travel time as part of the volunteer time, so it was at this point that I surpassed the required 40 hours. But since I was at only 31 hours of actual service, I kept going.
10/29 Allemansrätt Wilderness Park in Lindström for Great River Greening, 2 hours: Planted baby bur oaks for a study of how trees from three different regions (Roseau, Twin Cities, Des Moines) grow in today’s Twin Cities climate, done by Great River Greening and the University of Minnesota. Each group planted 30 trees from each of the regions in a former hay field that is now a 125-acre city park named after the Swedish philosophy that citizens have a right of public access to wilderness and a duty to conserve and protect it.
11/19 City of Roseville, 1 hour: Buckthorn treatment at Cottontail Park: dragged pre-cut brush to piles in the park in preparation to be shredded early next week. It was scheduled to be a two-hour event, but more than 20 people showed up and we finished in one hour.
12/17 City of Roseville, 2 hours: Hauled pre-cut buckthorn and brush into piles for pickup. Six of us braved below-zero wind chill and several inches of fresh powder snow to drag limbs and trees from a frozen pond up a small hill. It went much faster after we figured out a “bucket brigade” system to pass the brush.
12/22 Allemansrätt Wilderness Park in Lindström for Great River Greening, 1.75 hours: Mulched the baby bur oaks that were planted in October. Sunny and relatively warm.
12/27 Lost Valley Prairie SNA, 2.75 hours: Lopped, hauled, and burned brush (mostly buckthorn, of course) to clear a limestone outcrop. [My husband participated, too.]
Before and after:
And that made 40 hours of service.
As fun as these events were, I need to spread them out more next year so I don’t get so exhausted trying to make it to every event left. I really appreciated the organizations that held events during the week; every weekend during September and October had multiple options on Saturday mornings, and I could only do one at a time, so that was frustrating. (How about Saturday afternoons? How about Sunday afternoons? How about weeknights?)
I absolutely love collecting seeds (as long as the weather cooperates). It’s so peaceful and relaxing and stress-relieving. Next year, when I will have presumably met my 40-hour requirement long before fall, I will almost certainly still participate in seed-collecting as often as I can.
I need to get started way earlier than I did this year. It felt like I was doing service events twice a week for months, and I still needed to scramble in late December to hit 40 hours. I learned my lesson and will get started right away in 2017, so buckthorn-clearing events in a snowstorm are an option and not a requirement!
Though I can honestly say it’s fun to volunteer, even in the winter.
In mid-June I spent a week in the “prairies and potholes” area of western Minnesota, studying to become a master naturalist at Lac qui Parle State Park. Master naturalists are “well-informed citizens dedicated to conservation education and service within their communities.”
Studying the plants, insects, and animals in my yard has become a serious hobby. I knew I would do this training eventually to solidify my study. Last fall, I realized: if I’m going to do this someday, why not now?
I decided to do this particular naturalist training because…
- I wanted to do the program in one week, instead of the varied other options spread over multiple weeks or months. I thought it would be good for me to focus my mind and not be rushing to class from work or other obligations.
- I wanted to do a “destination” (to me) because that meant I could also focus my time outside of class, and I’d get to explore another part of the state – the Minnesota River Valley and its extensive history.
- It’s very close to the Lac qui Parle Mission site, part of the Minnesota Historical Society, where I work. I thought it would be a good opportunity to spend time at this site, and it was – I visited it three times during the week.
So I started referring to my weeklong training as “naturalist camp.” Our class was headquartered at the park’s visitor center, full of mounted animals:
It was gray and moody – or raining – much of the week. View from the classroom:
Glaciers. I learned about them growing up in Wisconsin, and this was a good reminder about how they form: more snow falls than melts, and it builds up and turns to ice under pressure. One thing I noticed was that glaciers don’t literally retreat, though that word is used a lot; instead, the front recedes due to melting. The most recent glacier in this area, the Wisconsin glaciation, determined a lot of Minnesota’s topography. The Minnesota River “bends” north because the land tilts, probably because of glacial lobes.
Geology. Soil is not dirt! Sand is the biggest particle, then silt, then clay. Lester loam, the state soil, is a mixture of the three. Morton gneiss (“nice”), a pink-and-gray rock that is quarried in southwest Minnesota, is 3.5 billion years old, one of the oldest stones in the world. It has been used for decorating buildings in the Twin Cities and across the country. Morton Outcrops is a scientific and natural area where visitors can see this rock.
Water macro invertebrates. A local woman brought water samples, and we used guides to identify the creatures. The coolest: caddisfly larvae, which builds its own shelter (the one in the image at the bottom left created a long tube out of tiny rocks).
Water quality can be significantly improved by removing dams, allowing the water to flow naturally and fish and wildlife to move freely. Then mussels are happier, too. It makes sense, but I had never thought about this. We all have a responsibility to take care of our water, whether urban or rural.
Terri, the Lac qui Parle State Park manager, talked to us about the park, past and present. The area is known for geese, but the goose population has dropped dramatically. The state is working to mitigate flooding, which happens frequently, by moving some elements to higher ground. For example, there’s a newish upper campground (home to the only camper cabins in the state with air conditioning!). And the largest cottonwood tree in the state is technically outside the park, but just barely.
Hutchinsonian ratio: animals of similar species that live in the same area vary in size by 1/3, which helps reduce competition because they’re different enough. For example, northern harrier hawks, ferruginous hawks, and red-tailed hawks live in the same grassland, but they each have their own niche.
A real, live archaeological dig!
What I liked the best
I’m sure this is no surprise: I loved learning about wildflowers of the prairie. There were dozens of (human-seeded) flowers around the visitor center, which we thoroughly studied. It was fun to see numerous changes in just five days – flowers that finished blooming and flowers that started blooming.
We learned about the rule of thirds for native plants, which says that what you see above ground is only 1/3 of the plant because at least twice as much is below ground in the extensive roots. I also learned how to identify a few grasses, such as porcupine grass (needle-and-thread grass). This one is fun because it has long seeds with pointed ends that drive themselves into the ground.
One afternoon, we explored the Nature Conservancy’s Chippewa Prairie, one of the last remaining native prairies in Minnesota (less than 2% of the state’s original prairie remains).
The class was in this prairie for an hour and a half or so, and though we didn’t travel far, we explored thoroughly. We identified 36 flowers and grasses…
…and even stumbled upon a grasshopper sparrow’s ground nest with several eggs!
There was a monarch butterfly observation station in the visitor center. This wasn’t created for us, but I sat in the back of the room, next to this display, and watched the caterpillars grow quickly over five days.
Even when we were in the classroom, we were often able to experience real items like these pearl buttons made from clam shells:
…and this Ojibwe sweetgrass basket, made by one of my instructors during a workshop at Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post:
…though some of our lessons were slideshows and not show-and-tell:
What I liked the least
- Because we had to complete capstone projects by the last day of class, part of our class time was reserved for group work. Similar naturalist trainings that last longer than a week – meeting one evening per week for three months, for example – don’t dedicate class time to these projects. I understand why this was necessary – it would have been hard for groups to get together outside class in just one week – but I wonder how much more we could have learned if those hours were devoted to class lessons or field trips instead.
- Similarly, there wasn’t enough time at night to complete all of the assigned readings. I’d like to believe I would have stayed on track if I would have had a week to read the three chapters, instead of one night, though of course I’m a procrastinator so there’s no guarantee. But I did try.
Things I learned that I’ve already put into practice
- Just because a plant is native, that doesn’t mean it can’t become aggressive under the right conditions. I’ve started pulling some of the plants in my garden that are spreading too far and too fast.
- Goldenrod with galls: I learned these occur only on Solidago canadensis (Canada goldenrod). When I saw them a month later, it was the first time I ever thought of the scientific name before the common name! I don’t think I will ever switch to scientific for most plants, but this one stuck because it was said so often.
- Lingering knowledge about new-to-me organisms, like the caddisfly mentioned above: I saw this insect mentioned a couple weeks later on Instagram, and I knew what it was! Same thing with scurfpea flowers – I had never heard of them before, but the day after class ended, I saw them at the Jeffers Petroglyphs historic site, 100 miles away.
Other things I will do
- Finish reading the curriculum guide and textbook. The textbook is beautiful and I hope I can dedicate some time to completing it soon.
- Participate in volunteer nature events. It’s a requirement to maintain my master naturalist status, but it’s fun and interesting work. I focus on service positions, such as collecting wildflower seeds in the fall and removing invasive species like buckthorn in the winter.
- Try to figure out how not to sound like a know-it-all when on hikes “for fun” with my family and friends. I’ve already been on several such hikes, and I don’t think I’ve pulled it off yet.
- Think about how to turn this interest into more than a hobby. Now more than ever, nature needs our help.
For more information
A month ago, the Twin Cities was under a frost advisory for two nights, and I panicked and picked all of the tomatoes.
There was a very light frost, barely even noticeable, and I learned my lesson to leave the tomatoes on the vine and just cover them until the first hard frost.
Except that the next week there was a hard frost advisory, and it still didn’t freeze. It’s 72 degrees on November 5, and I just heard that the Twin Cities has now set a record for the longest growing season ever. Things in my garden just keep on growing.
cabbage, which we waited maybe one day too long to harvest and now a critter is eating it
The leaves are starting to turn.
purple giant hyssop
But some flowers are still budding and blooming.
autumn joy sedum
turtlehead, covered in dew instead of frost
and more yellow coneflowers growing in an unusual spot: the side of the planter
Remember back in late June when I whined that there were no monarchs in my yet? The very first monarch I saw was this tattered female in mid-July:
I also saw a few others, like this one two days later that tried and tried to get the unopened joe-pye weed to work before giving up and flying off to the fully open purple coneflower
and this gorgeous male two weeks later that spent more than an hour in the garden, splitting time between the now-open joe-pye weed and the cup plant
and I saw evidence of caterpillars
but until late September, I never saw even one caterpillar in my yard. After last summer’s excitement of fostering 13 caterpillars over two generations, this was disheartening, especially after bad news about the freak March snowstorm that killed many monarchs in their overwintering habitat in Mexico.
But I tried to stay positive with news from real friends and internet friends about monarch and caterpillar sightings in the area, even though I was seeing fewer butterflies than last year. The reports seemed to be more numerous as the migration generation was growing.
As the season was winding down, I had a blast at Ney Nature Center in Henderson, “hunting” monarchs at sunrise to tag them for their journey to Mexico. There were far fewer sleeping in the trees than the staff anticipated – in fact, we only saw one (and it got away). I then spent many hours walking through the prairie and saw quite a few monarchs
and my first-ever viceroys! Such a convincing monarch mimic. This butterfly is much smaller than a monarch, though that’s not obvious unless comparing them side-by-side. The biggest visual difference is that viceroys have a black line through their lower wings, while monarchs do not.
In the end, I caught five, though two escaped, so I tagged three.
And then – on the first day of autumn – I found a caterpillar in my front yard, moments away from beginning its transformation. I brought it inside, where it created its chrysalis. It stayed that way for two weeks, to the point where I was getting worried that the process had failed. But then, the green darkened to show wings forming inside.
The butterfly emerged the next day, but I wasn’t home until the evening and so I decided to keep him inside overnight. Then next afternoon he was so antsy to get outside that he climbed out of the (nonsecure) mesh cage (really, a laundry container without a top). Fortunately, I had anticipated this and covered it with a towel, so he didn’t escape. But the release day was chilly – barely 50 degrees even though it was sunny – and I wondered if he felt tricked when I took him outside; he was suddenly in no hurry to move.
After I let him climb onto my finger, he flew right up to a tree, like all of last year’s monarchs did, but this one perched in the shade. I knew he was not going to warm up there, so when he was still there an hour later, I climbed up a stepstool and took him down to find a better spot.
The backyard was somehow much warmer, so he rested on my finger for a few minutes while his wings warmed up, and then away he flew.
I’m thrilled to find out that our common milkweed still attracted monarchs late in the season, when it didn’t look so good anymore. This year we added three other types of milkweed as small plants in the backyard garden, and hopefully 2017 will be the year the swamp milkweed seeds take off, too. The more variety we can provide for summer-long habitat, the better.