Category Archives: Pollinator Gardening

In Appreciation Of Pollinator Gardens…Large and Small

This summer’s “Better Late Than Never” pollinator garden is coming along and, as in years past, will get even more colorful as the end of summer approaches. I’m happy to see that private and public gardens and gardening for wildlife is a growing trend across the country.

I recently returned from a trip back to my home state of Wisconsin, where I  visited a couple of county parks my late father helped make possible many years ago near the beginning of this movement in public gardening. My mother, sister, and I are certain he’d have been very pleased with the progress of this prairie reclamation in the middle of southern Wisconsin farm land.

At Dorothy Carnes County Park & Rose Lake State Natural Area we watched as dozens and dozens of purple martins flew back and forth to houses set up for them, butterflies soared through prairie plantings, and a group of special needs children returned from a morning hike.

 

 

The next day we visited Korth County Park  on Rock Lake and hiked down to a bench overlooking the water. Visitors can hike or bike along paths skirting the lake, and both parks have shelters used for picnicking. I feel so lucky to have visited these lovely and well maintained public spaces.

Our pollinator garden is tiny in comparison but there’s so much life in it too. This year I had trouble finding the peach porterweed that the butterflies adore, but a few weeks ago noticed that a number of them had reseeded from the previous summer’s garden. These volunteer surprises make this garden extra special.

Other “volunteers” this year are red gomphrena, rudbeckias with huge blooms, many zinnias, celosia, sunflowers, cosmos, hyacinth bean and moonflower vines on the arbor, cleome where the compost bin had been, and a lone dill plant. It’s truly an old fashioned cottage garden for the pollinators and the enjoyment of anyone who stops to look!

 

 

We also added a few new plants this year. Verbena ‘Lollipop’ and pentas for butterflies, cigar plant, pineapple  and Mexican sage for hummingbirds, African blue basil and purslane for the honeybees,  and red ruellia too.

The Mexican sunflowers, tithonia, are also slowly getting larger and will add their bright orange blooms that the butterflies love as the summer wanes. The annual milkweed is in bloom now too.

Perennials that return are always welcome in the garden!  The butterfly weed, purple coneflower, and salvia greggii are old friends.

A woman approached me the other day as I was watering to say thank you and said she’s created a pollinator garden of her own after following the progress of this small space in the middle of Crestline Village.

Talking with her and others has been so gratifying. I hope my Dad is watching from wherever he is and smiling at our efforts to create a beautiful space for community and nature too. If you’re in Crestline Village, I hope you’ll take time to stop and appreciate this little slice of pollinator heaven!

By Kris Blevons

 

 

Larkspur and Poppies – The Better Late Than Never Garden in May

Village Living, our neighborhood newspaper, did a nice story on pollinator gardening that ran in an April issue. It was a very good and informative article, but I fretted that the picture was of me weeding, and not very exciting. What a difference a month makes!

The bachelor buttons are putting on their annual show, tough plants that come back year after year to dazzle with their varied shades of blue, lavender, pink, and white flowers. I throw out more seed each January (I’m too busy during the holidays to sow it any earlier.) of select blooms from the previous year’s garden.

I’m pleased with the larkspur this year and marvel how it is a constant now, though I add more seed of it as well, not quite trusting that it will reappear each year. In May, on a warm morning, I walk through the small space, marveling at the abundance of bloom.

The  ‘Indian Summer’ rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan’s) have returned and are blooming. This is exciting, as I wasn’t sure if they’d be cold hardy in this open area. They’ve not only returned, but have sown themselves in another spot as well. Excellent, I think.

 

 

 

I move on, strolling around the corner of the back bed beside the compost bin. There’s a verbena blooming that I didn’t plant – I’d noticed it for the first time last year, and here it is again, a lovely lavender flower carpeting the ground beneath the blooming bachelor buttons.

I glance to my right and see a white snapdragon, clinging to the edge of the compost bin, a virtual annual espalier, only surviving the city worker’s weedeaters by hugging the weathered wood. We’re having to take the old compost bin out, it’s looking pretty ramshackle, and folks are beginning to throw trash in it.  So many survivors have seeded themselves around it, and I’ll miss the surprises it offered.

I know that soon the onslaught of heat will be too much for these winter beauties and they’ll begin to flag.  I already see signs of summer’s encroachment; sunflowers and zinnias have sprouted and grown from dormant seeds that have taken advantage of spring sun and warm soil.

I stroll and strive to savor every moment.  Motionless, I watch honeybees move from poppy to poppy, blurring my eyes to better see the morning sun shining through the beds of blue and pink. Gardens are transient and I know in another month (because this garden is  “better late than never”) when the seeds for the summer garden are finally sown, this early morning vision will be a distant, beautiful memory.

By Kris Blevons

 

 

 

 

 

Early Spring in the ‘Better Late Than Never’ Garden

bachelor buttons…

The past week we had two nights below freezing, and I wondered how the ‘Better Late Than Never’ Garden would fare across the street from the shop. I’d been checking it regularly, hand weeding the henbit. This pesky weed (Did you know it’s edible?) was determined to come up between the ferny larkspur, flat poppy leaves, and the blue gray foliage of bachelor buttons that looked like they were just beginning to stretch up toward the sky.

 

 

 

 

This garden is truly a stepchild of the garden world. I was out of town the day the temperatures were forecast to drop. I knew everyone at the shop was moving the inventory into the greenhouse – a big job and one that I’m sure would take a good part of the day. I let the garden go, hoping for the best.

sweet pea and oriental poppy…

With the first cursory glance as I parked my car across from Emmet O’Neal Library and walked up the sidewalk toward the garden,, everything still looked green, a very good sign. Looking more closely, the only damage appeared to be to the few sunflower seedlings that obviously didn’t get the memo that it was much too early to sprout, and were now black and quite dead.

Maybe the fact that I didn’t thin the crowded seedlings out like you’re supposed to kept everything warm, snuggled up together, I thought. Whatever the reason, it was good to spot even the sweet peas that I’d recently planted on one of the front arbors. I was looking forward to seeing them begin to climb up the fishing line I’d strung along the metal of the support.

I’m hoping some of the poppies coming up near the arbor in the front beds are the gifted seeds from a friend. She was given them on a garden tour to Maryland last spring and offered them to me to try, saying the color was exquisite. I can’t wait to see!

ipheion bulbs and larkspur…

Though there are always sights like that to look forward to,  many large flowering shrubs and trees in our landscapes may well have been affected by the last cold spell, their buds frozen. One of my gardening friends mentioned she was particularly worried about her summer blooming hydrangeas, and I’m concerned about my fringe tree blooms.

Only time will tell, and we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed. Until then, enjoy the beauty apparent in the fresh green hue of unfurling leaves and the return of the many  pollinators that grace our gardens and landscapes. Be prepared also to plant the  flowers, herbs and perennials that they appreciate…and that we do as well. Happy gardening!

By Kris Blevons

 

 

 

 

It’s Blooming! The ‘Better Late Than Never’ Pollinator Garden

Kris - Better Late Than Never Garden Summer Prep 2016

Preparing the beds…

The pretty but very shy bright yellow goldfinches that have found the ‘Better Late Than Never’ Pollinator Garden across from the shop were still coming to the last of the bachelor buttons, larkspur, and some sunflowers that had seeded from last year’s plants when Bert and I began prepping the four beds for a new season mid-June.Better Late Than Never Garden - Early Summer Prep

So, rather than pull every bachelor button and larkspur out to make way for new, I left what had been the prettiest colors of both, including a lovely lavender larkspur. Who knows, maybe some seeds of it will return in next year’s spring garden…Kris - Better Late Than Never Garden Summer Prep 2016

The beds needed some additional organic matter, and we added bag after bag of topsoil, soil conditioner, and PlantTone to each.

Better Late Than Never Garden

Front beds, early July

Bert and I took turns with my heavy pick axe, each strike of the tool working the amendments in without turning the soil, since that would only turn up buried weed seeds to the light where they’d happily germinate and grow. Then I took a garden fork and loosened it even more.Better Late Than Never Garden

Any good garden begins with this all important work. Remember this in your own and always add more  to your soil before replanting for the new season. We usually have bags of soil conditioner and topsoil in stock, and the PlantTone is a great organic amendment that adds nutrients too.

Tall Marigolds and Zinnias - 'Better Late Than Never' Pollinator Garden

Finally the beds were ready for planting. After raking the beds smooth, it was time to sow the zinnia seeds in the two front beds. I also added lots of plants.

Malabar Spinach Vine - 'Better Late Than Never' Pollinator Garden

Malabar Spinach…

'Better Late Than Never' Pollinator Garden Summer 2016Tall cutting marigolds from a small grower north of Birmingham, tall purple and red gomphrena, a beautiful deep purple salvia and peach porterweed for the hummingbirds, angelonia, pentas, purslane, ornamental okra just for fun, pink mandevilla and malabar spinach vines on the two arbors, as well as seeds of moonvine and hyacinth bean to climb them too.

A few weeks later the last of the bachelor buttons and larkspur were pulled out, and the back two beds were planted with lots of sunflowers and tithonia, the orange flower the monarchs loved last year.  Annual milkweed that had returned from seed was already blooming, and I noticed that a yellow lantana and perennial butterflyweed  had come back from last year too.Annual Milkweed - 'Better Late Than Never' Pollinator Garden

Cleome and Zinnias 'Better Late Than Never' Pollinator GardenOf course the old fashioned Cleome, or spiderflowerhad reseeded, but I also added another, shorter variety and a few more perennials this year, including coneflowers and caryopteris on each corner of the two back beds.

Coneflowers...

Coneflowers…

 

 

 

'Better Late Than Never' Pollinator Garden - Looking Through The Arbor

 

 

 

 

Just as plantings change and evolve with the years, so do structures in the garden. Pinkie painted the back fencing white this year, and we added a trellis piece painted a beautiful blue. I think we should try to grow sweet peas on it this fall, though I’ll have to tie string onto it for them to climb on.

The days have passed. It’s now August and the true heat has settled in; the zinnias love it and are in a riot of bloom: California Giants, Cactus, Peppermint Stripe, Northern Lights – beauties every one.Zinnia Collage

Watering, pulling stray weeds, and deadheading are the important chores on hot summer days, but sometimes I have to stop and simply watch. I see tiny skipper butterflies, bees, and even a garden spider weaving its web near the arbor and bench.

Garden Spider - 'Better Late Than Never' Pollinator GardenThe sunflowers and tithonia will be blooming soon. They were planted a few weeks after the zinnias. I look forward to these towering bee and goldfinch magnets, in every color from pale yellow to deep red, and the brilliant orange flowers of the tithonia too. And, just the other day I threw out some seed of tall yellow cosmos, another butterfly flower.image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunflowers and Zinnias - 'Better Late Than Never' Pollinator GardenThe garden will reach its exuberant crescendo in the coming month before beginning a slow descent into fall. The zinnias will most certainly get mildewed leaves, and the heavy sunflower seed heads will droop on sturdy stems. But for now, it’s summer, and the garden is glorious.

By Kris Blevons

High Summer In The Garden

Last year about this time I wrote about the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. I hope at least some of you are also participating, either formally or simply by planting some nectar rich flowers and providing for wildlife in your landscape.

Rudbeckia 'Indian Summer' and PollinatorHigh summer here in Birmingham brings sizzling heat and lots of it, along with the welcome abundance of life in pollinator gardens. In mine the perennial summer phlox, coreopsis, coneflowers, butterfly weed, salvias, rudbeckias, and daylilys are abuzz.Zinnias and Skipper

 

Annuals, especially those in the sun, are also capturing bee, butterfly and hummingbird attention, and I try to plant a variety for each in my sunniest beds.  Angelonia, gomphrena, zinnias, batface cuphea, Mexican heather, purslane, and more jockey for space.

Red Cuphea, Zinnias, LobulariaI take walks through my landscape early in the morning before leaving for work (And the heat builds.), deadheading, weeding, and simply admiring too.Dalily 'Joan Senor'

 

This is the tail end of daylily season, and on summer evenings I pull off unsightly yellow leaves, faded blooms that might be hanging on, and then cut spent scapes to the ground.

Kris' Garden - JulyAfter they’re completely through blooming, if foliage looks rough, I’ll grab a handful, twist it, and cut it completely off. It will reflush with more sightly looking leaves lasting until the end of the season. Remember, you see foliage more of the year than flowers on most perennials. Plan for that when deciding where to plant them or if you’re dividing and/or moving them.Stressed Gomphrena

If it’s been very dry, the early morning hours are spent watering any plants that look wilted. If they’re left without water too often, the stress will weaken them and they’ll be more susceptible to disease and insect attacks.

I’ve noticed some of the small white gomphrena that I planted quite late are struggling. I don’t think they’re getting enough sun, and they’ve gotten parched  more than a few times. I’ll be keeping an eye on them.

Summer Phlox and BeesThe summer phlox and coreopsis are in full bloom and the bees love them. I watch tiny skipper butterflys light  on the coreopsis; they move so fast! When these two play out I’ll cut the faded flowers off the phlox and wait for a second, smaller display.Bee on Coreopsis

The coreopsis will be sheared back since there are too many small flowers and not enough hours in the day to deadhead each one.

As with most summer blooming perennials, I’ll cut stems back completely to neaten the garden and give late blooming plants room to shine when the weather finally cools.

 

 

imageHonestly, though, it’s really too hot to do much more than water, deadhead, and pull opportunistic weeds that seem to come out of nowhere. Even as I water I’m dreaming of my vacation north to see family and friends. I know my garden will be here when I return, grown even more lush with high summer’s heat and, hopefully enough rain too.

By Kris Blevons

 

 

 

 

From Seed – The ‘Better Late Than Never’ Garden Puts On A Show!

Better Late Than Never Garden - Spring 2016I’ll be honest, my hopes for a beautiful spring show in the ‘Better Late Than Never’ garden weren’t that great. Weather and time last fall seemed to conspire against me – no beautiful transplants of pansies, snapdragons, or foxgloves were put in the little plot across the street, even as everyone else was planning and planting their home gardens September through December. The summer garden went to seed and was finally pulled out with Ben’s help, in November.Better Late Than Never Garden - May 2016

Sometimes, though, nature helps us along. Walking to my car at the end of early winter days I’d glance at the garden, its four beds seemingly lifeless plots of earth. If I had time I’d walk through, looking to see if any seedlings were emerging. There were, zinnias and sunflowers mostly, seeds dropped from fading blooms,  germinating in the still warm soil. But I knew these were destined to freeze in the upcoming winter chill. Oh well, I thought, maybe I can get something in after the holidays.Better Late Than Never Garden - May 2015

Larkspur and Oriental Poppies - Better Late Than Never Garden May 2016The weeks of late summer through fall had passed quickly. We held Molly’s wedding at the shop, and autumn plants and loads of pumpkins arrived and went. The days flew by during the frenetic holiday season that ended as suddenly as it started. January, and a new year,  had arrived.

I finally had more time to concentrate on the little garden across the street with the apt name. I’d noticed,  on the few December days I had a moment to look,  that there were tiny bachelor button plants everywhere in 3 of the beds. I couldn’t do more than try to thin them out, though, with what little time I had.

Better Late Than Never Garden - May 2016They’d  bloomed in the garden the spring prior and had most definitely reseeded, but with barely any thinning were carpeting 3 of the beds quite thickly. I watched them fill in with some alarm. Would they smother themselves out because they were too close together? I decided to let well enough be and see what would happen.Oriental Poppy and Larkspur - Better Late Than Never Garden Spring 2016

Spotting  that bit of growth in the garden energized me. Even as the bachelor buttons were putting on their amazing growth spurt through January and February, I was tossing out seeds of larkspur in all shades.

I’d choose a few Botanical Interests seed packets off the rack, larkspur in shades of blue or mixes of blues, pinks, and whites. Eyeing the beds, I imagined perfect color combinations, letting the seed slip through my fingers onto the uneven soil.Better Late Than Never Garden - Larkspur and Oriental Poppies May 2016

I scanned the garden each morning, hoping to see some spots of green. Impatient, I would scatter more seeds – packets of sweet alyssum, oriental poppies, mixed colors of larkspur – willing an abundance of  flowers for spring.

Oriental Poppy - Better Late Than Never Garden - Spring 2016 Finally I saw the ferny foliage of the larkspur here and there between the crowded bachelor buttons and the distinctive blue-green foliage of the oriental poppies appeared too.

Each day as the plants grew, more and more people asked what was growing in the garden. I’d explain, smiling, about plants  reseeding and seeds thrown onto the ground on cold winters days. Most people looked incredulous. From seed? Yes, I’d answer, seeds, and a prayer for spring.

By Kris Blevons

 

 

 

 

Gardening For Pollinators

Phlox 'Chattahoochee'I like to feel I’m doing a good job of gardening to attract pollinators. At any rate, my home garden and the ‘Better Late Than Never’ garden across the street from Oak Street Garden Shop seem to have lots of bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies, so I must be doing something right, right??!!??

Butterfly on Parsley Hawthorne Tree

Swallowtail Butterfly on Parsley Hawthorne

Researching pollinator gardening information for a garden talk and workshop recently, in the midst of wading through article after article (There are a lot of posts on honeybees and their decline, and numerous writings on attracting hummingbirds and butterflies to your garden.), I came to the conclusion that it basically boils down to this:

Your home and yard, garden, landscape, whatever you call the space that surrounds your home, is your personal ecosystem. The health of it and the pollinators that visit it depend on how you build your soil, what you plant, and how you choose to maintain it. 

So my choices have been to try to have as diverse a plant pallette as possible (I admit, I’m a plantaholic. Who knew that would play right into gardening for pollinators?) and to eliminate pesticide use almost entirely. I’m gratified when I hear of others that are trying to do the same thing.

Snapdragon

Bees love snapdragons!

I use organic soil amendments like PlantTone and Annie Haven’s Moo Poo Tea, have learned to live  with a few holes in leaves, let the ladybugs eat aphids (If they really get too bad, I wash them off with some soapy water.), and practice patience, knowing that most of the time an infestation of insects doesn’t last forever. I take great joy in bopping Japanese beetles off of my roses into a bucket of soapy water early in the morning when they’re most sluggish. I know each year they’ll be back – it’s just part of the garden’s cycle.

If you feel you have a large problem and must spray, start with the least toxic form of chemical control, and understand that even products labeled organic can be harmful to good bugs as well as bad.  ***Always read the label and follow directions carefully!Kris' Garden Late March 2016

I’ve learned that planting large swaths of color will attract bees, and that they prefer blue, purple, white, and yellow. I’ve learned to grow a wide variety of plants, including plants with a scent, herbs in particular. I’ve learned that while double blooms on flowers are attractive to us, they’re not especially useful for pollinators, and that they much prefer single, simple blooms. I’ve learned that flowers that come back from seed that drops in the garden (zinnias, sunflowers, bachelor buttons, larkspur to name a few),  perennials, and any of our native shrubs, trees, and wildflowers are preferable also.

Chionanthus virginicus - Fringe Tree

Chionanthus virginicus – Fringe Tree

Most importantly, I’ve learned that it’s not that hard, and actually quite a bit easier, to garden naturally. I have some clover in my grass. And you know what? It’s okay, because I have bees foraging it. Somewhere there’s some great honey in the making!

 

Our last average frost date is mid-April. In the coming weeks we’ll be stocking more and more plants for your pollinator gardens. Here are a few suggestions:

For Butterflies:   Zinnias, Gomphrena, Pentas, Marigolds, Verbena, Asters, Yarrow, Butterfly Weed

For Bees:   Purslane, Mexican Heather, Pentas, Sweet allysum, Bee Balm, Asters, Rudbeckia, Coneflower, Zinnia, Snapdragon, Sage, Basil, Rosemary, Agastache

For Hummingbirds: Cigar Plant, Salvias, Heat tolerant Fuschias, Agastache, Petunia, Hamelia, Lobelia, Bee Balm, Penstemon, NasturtiumsRock Outcrop Kris' Garden Late March 2016

Host Plants For Caterpillars:  Fennel, Parsley, Dill, Carrots, Zinnias, Viburnum, Oak Trees, Cosmos, Milkweed, hollyhocks

These lists are by no means exhaustive, but are meant to be a starting point for your pollinator garden. Some of these plants are best planted in the fall, while others are more heat tolerant.

*** Alabama’s watersheds, rich in animal and plant life, absorb  the brunt of chemical and fertilizer runoff from homeowner and commercial pesticide and fertilizer application. Be mindful that what you (and your neighbors) put in the landscape can adversely  affect these areas and the life in them.

By Kris Blevons