Winter scenes from the prairie garden

Purple giant hyssop:

stems bending to the right to nearly horizontal, the dark brown flowers frosted with snow

Goldenrod:

a thin stem pointing to the left, exactly horizontal, the light brown flowers lightly dusted with snow

Bee balm:

two seedheads leaning to the left with white snow hats, with half a dozen seedheads out of focus on the right

Pearly everlasting:

snow covering small, limp, white seedheads

Purple coneflowers:

about a dozen spiky, nearly black seedheads with snow hats that are taller than the flower

Giant snowflake on false indigo:

one big snowflake on a stem, with a much smaller snowflake on a brown leaf for a size comparison

Rudbeckia:

seedhead pointing to the right poking out of a snowbank, the dark brown bracts looking almost like spider legs

Another rudbeckia — this one held onto its color:

black-eyed susan with most of its yellow petals still intact, frosty on top of snow

Rudbeckia stamens and stems:

dozens of stamens and a few seeds randomly scattered across snow

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2017 garden in review

At the end of another cold snap, it’s fun to look back at pictures of the garden in its prime.

Front view of the front yard:

a 15-foot section with 10 different types of white, yellow, and pink blooming native plants

Successes

Obviously, as I’ve documented at length already, black-eyed susans were the star of the show. Blooming from late June to mid-August, taking up a huge spot right in the front of the garden closest to the street, they were amazing.

closeup of one black-eyed susan in the sunshine at the right, with dozens more faded in the background

This is the year that the cup plant “leaped” — more than a dozen new plants grew away from the original cluster.

five one-foot-tall cup plant seedlings, the one on the right in shade

Bonus: these were young enough that they were just my size. (The older ones are several feet above my head, so I usually don’t see these flowers up-close. The ones at the top of this website were taken when I was holding a camera above my head while standing at the top of a ladder.)

closeup of a cup plant flower blooming on the right, with three budding stems on the left

White snakeroot, which was in our backyard before we were here, spread to a new area in the backyard, and also to the front yard:

two-foot section of tiny white flowers

Joe-pye weed seedlings made themselves comfortable between the pine tree and the sidewalk:

two dozen seedlings less than a foot tall, in a relatively small space

Fails

Of course, not everything succeeded.

Trout lily and bluebells didn’t grow, but this was completely my fault. I never got around to planting them, and the little pots blew over in the wind and then something ate them.

two trout lily leaves standing straight up in a square pot with a white plant marker

Blazing star was eaten by rabbits (though I planted more seeds in the fall to try again).

several green stems that have been chewed off at about an inch tall

Vegetables didn’t grow, again. Tried in a different spot this time, too. This might be the last time; we can rely on farmer’s markets and the co-op for our fresh veggies instead.

five white plant markers in a dirt plot next to concrete

Even the path through the garden: it disappeared around the end of June, engulfed by plants that I didn’t have the heart to pull out (or the time to transplant).

three stepping stones surrounded by short and medium green plants

Mixed results

Every year it seems as if one non-native perennial fades or doesn’t survive, and this year it was evening primrose’s turn.

blurry photo of two four-petaled yellow flowers

Allium: perhaps fading like other perennials, perhaps just overshadowed by
bigger, flashier plants around them.

two blooming and one budding purple allium

New plants

From the Landscape Revival plant sale: bishop’s cap, native false indigo, and three kinds of milkweed. (More stories to come another day about milkweed.)

five small potted plants lined up next to a retaining wall

Lobelia from a friend. This is one of my favorite photos of the year because I have no idea how I managed to get the tussock moth caterpillar to photobomb this flower. One day I was transporting caterpillars from the backyard (which ran out of milkweed) to the front yard (which had plenty) and apparently chose that moment to stop and take a picture of a lobelia!

purple flower in focus on the right, with a blurry finger holding an orange-and-black caterpillar in the top left corner

Donated plants

Purple giant hyssop, yellow coneflower, joe-pye weed, and pearly everlasting, dug up from our front yard to donate to a Wild Ones fundraiser:

cardboard fruit box holding about a dozen small potted plants

Surprise!

Squash plant that volunteered in the flower garden — though it waited until October, so no actual squash were produced:

short squash vine with one yellow flower, viewed from above

Bishop’s cap, which I bought in June and normally blooms in the spring, apparently didn’t want to wait for next year, and bloomed in its original pot in July:

closeup of the top of a narrow stem, with four white star-shaped flowers and six buds

New bugs

Peachtree borer moth:

black moth with a narrow orange band around its abdomen

I wasn’t sure how to describe this one on Google to find its name, so I posted it on Instagram and asked for help. Within minutes, I got an answer: brown marmorated stink bug nymph.

roundish reddish bug with darker red stripes and black spots around the edges, facing downward on a milkweed leaf

(More posts to come about new bugs.)

Fun photos

Culver’s root with a stalk that split into six:

green plant with one stem that became six

Four-petaled spiderwort:

purple flower that usually has three petals, but with four

Rabbit caught in the act:

rabbit with its body facing away but turned back toward the camera, visible in the space between plants

Pretty American Lady butterfly next to a faded coreopsis:

black-and-orange butterfly with big circles on its wings, with its proboscis in a yellow flower

In closing

Here’s what I wrote on Instagram in June, on my first master naturalist anniversary. I think it summarizes my year’s exploration nicely.

Today is my master naturalist birthday: one year ago I earned a certificate for completing the prairies and potholes course. Taking this class was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because it reinforced my growing interest in the natural world. Since then I’ve learned a lot and committed to environmental stewardship through events such as invasive species removal, wildflower planting, and seed collecting. But my favorite place to explore remains my own front yard.

large monarch caterpillar eating common milkweed buds

Previous garden recaps

Harvesting milkweed seeds

Late this summer I decided to participate in a million milkweed challenge. A local environmental restoration organization asked volunteers to collect seeds from common milkweed, whorled milkweed, and butterfly weed, which will be used to grow plants and also used in seed mixes. Milkweed is vitally important because it’s the only thing that monarch caterpillars eat, and its flowers also attract other pollinators.

At one point in June, just one small section of our front yard looked like this, so in late autumn there were plenty of common milkweed pods to be found:

about 20 tightly packed common milkweed plants, all budding and blooming

Here are some

four brown milkweed pods pointing in three directions off one stem

and here are some

three brown milkweed pods, one pointing to the left and two stacked and pointing to the right

…though I decided to just leave this pod.

one green milkweed pod covered with mostly adult large milkweed bugs and a few larvae

I didn’t collect every last pod, especially leaving the ones that had already opened so the seeds were starting to fly, so there is plenty of seed left over in the yard to regenerate next year. I still ended up with a table full of ripe pods:

a round wire table, viewed from above, covered with about 175 milkweed pods

I decided to remove the seeds myself, rather than turn in pods, and that meant I had a lot of work to do. Since the collection process had taken place over several weeks, by the time I began working, not all the pods were in good shape anymore. Some had already opened and started to separate

closeup of several of the pods on the table, four of which are open to show brown seeds, and two that have seeds that have started to fly away

and some of the pods had gotten a little damp due to weather, so I found a few pods like this:

closeup of one open milkweed pod with white lines and three green spots within the brown seeds

Those squiggly lines aren’t worms, they are sprouts!

a similar pod from the side, taken apart with two seeds removed below to show that they have sprouted green growth

(I discarded pods like this and only included fresh seeds.)

To remove the seeds, I held on tightly to the “fluff” end of the pod, then scraped downward across the seeds to loosen them into the container.

a thumb pressing down on the end of a seed pod, above a container with seeds

This pod is going smoothly.

the same pod with a section of seeds removed to show white beneath

This one ended perfectly: all the seeds came off easily.

a hand holding a different pod, all the seeds removed so only the white strands are showing, neatly folded

But sometimes, no matter how tightly I held on, the seeds didn’t cooperate — and with not a lot of patience for picking up seeds one by one, when that happened, I set that pod, fluff, and seed aside.

a thumb holding a mess of fluff with seeds still attached

Wayward seeds still attached to their “parachutes” floated all over

a dozen white fluff balls scattered among fallen tree leaves on the ground

two milkweed seeds caught on zinnias

and once I realized just how many seeds were falling through the wire table down to the patio stones, I put on a tablecloth and caught quite a few that were missing the container.

another photo of tree leaves on the ground, but moved over to see patio stones covered in milkweed seeds

About three hours and 159 usable pods later, I had one gelato container filled to the brim:

side view of a clear plastic container completely full of brown seeds

And what I’m left with now is a bag half-full of fluff.

looking down into a brown paper bag with lots of milkweed fluff in the bottom, with more caught on the edges

I recently heard that a Canadian company is starting to make jackets using this for stuffing instead of down or synthetics. Maybe I could go into business! (Though at about one coat or pillow a year, it wouldn’t be a very lucrative business.) The fluff is super-soft.

Late autumn

I’m several weeks behind on posting these photos of the garden. Most of these photos were taken October 20 and 25.

The last turtlehead held out until the 20th:

a tall spike of green seedheads, with one pink flower sticking out the top

The new native false indigo turned yellow:

eight stems in the sunlight facing downward somewhat like an open umbrella, each with up to 20 yellow oval leaves

So did the whorled milkweed:

narrow stem with narrow yellow leaves, hard to distinguish against a backdrop of maple leaves on the ground

Lots of pretty goldenrods:

one goldenrod stem with white seeds in focus in the front, with several more out-of-focus behind

A gathering of large milkweed bugs on bee balm:

six black-and-orange bugs with their heads together in a circle off-center on the right of the seedhead

Butterfly weed seed pods popped open:

a cluster of more than a dozen skinny, brown pods with many white seed fluff balls all around

Culver’s root:

three levels of leaf whorls, yellow and starting to curl

Stiff goldenrod:

unsymmetrical fluffy seeds on one stem

Beautiful red stems of giant purple hyssop:

one short stem with lots of lime-green leaves in front, with dozens of tall, skinny red stems throughout the background

The spiderwort cultivar resprouting:

about two dozen very short leaf clusters

Hepatica leaves visible, though I didn’t see flowers reblooming like many other people did:

two hepatica leaves poking up out of tree leaf litter

A squash, unexpectedly growing in the flower garden:

short green vine with one yellow flower blooming and two buds

Part of a paper wasp nest, probably carried in by wind:

small gray section of the outer layer of a nest

Milkweed fluff stuck on bee balm:

one seed barely visible through all the fluff, perched on the right side of a seedhead

Bees and turtlehead

I could watch bees crawl in and out of turtlehead flowers all day. Mostly it’s just bumblebees and honeybees that do this, because they’re big enough to open the flowers. And I see more bumblebees than honeybees here.

bumblebee that is almost all the way out of a dark-pink flower, viewing almost straight into the flower's opening

They force their way into the “mouth” of the “turtle” and rustle around inside for quite awhile, then exit and find another flower to repeat the process.

Video of a bumblebee from a few years ago:

Sometimes they need to stop and regroup after they exit, brushing the pollen off their antennae or eyes, I assume.

bumblebee with a small yellow pollen basket, holding on to a light-pink flower with a leg up near its eyes, viewed from the side

This flower has a honeybee inside, barely visible.

looking straight into the 'mouth' of a dark-pink flower, the bee is not distinguishable but the back of the flower is dark

This year, at first, I thought I had noticed a difference – bumblebees climb out backwards, while honeybees turn around and climb out face-first – but then I saw a bumblebee turn around, too. (And the video above shows a bumblebee that turns around, so I had seen that before.) In fact, I don’t seem to have any photos of bumblebees backing out. So much for that theory.

just the head of a bumblebee emerging from a light-pink flower

same bee a fraction of a second later, with its front two legs and its body visible to the thorax

This one is my favorite: looks like it was quite the effort to squeeze out of this blossom.

three light-pink blossoms, with a honeybee emerging from the lower right flower horizontally and tilted, looks like it's pulling itself out with its front two legs

Only a little hint of the insect inside.

one bumblebee leg sticking out of a light-pink blossom

September surprises

Every autumn I seem to find a surprise or two in the yard, usually spring flowers that should be long-gone. Four years ago it was an iris. I’ve also found late-blooming snowdrop anemone more than once.

This afternoon, while checking up on the status of the yard, I spotted this single wood violet.

one purple violet in the grass and creeping charlie

The vegetable garden is also a good spot to find late bloomers, usually plants that just didn’t quite get enough time to finish before the first frost. But today I spotted beans that are making their first appearance of the year. There are two plants, each completely tangled up in thistles. (When they didn’t appear on time, I didn’t bother weeding the garden.) Strange time to be starting!

two bean flowers, the background nearly all poky thistles