Archives for August 2013

Flashy Coneflower Cultivars: How Do Bees React?

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When my dad was puzzled by some new gadget he’d seen, or the crazy ranting of a politician, or anything that seemed to have little purpose or value, he’d say, “I can’t do much with that.”  I laughed every time he said it, unaware of how much those memories and that one-sentence philosophy would stick with me in years to come.

The phrase “can’t do much with that” popped in my head recently when I went to a garden center to replenish my supply of houseplant potting soil. There was a big table of coneflowers outside and I drifted over to check out some cultivars that were screaming for attention. The entire display area was alive with insect activity. I had my camera with me, so figured this would be a good opportunity for close-ups.

The first “purple” coneflower I noticed was ‘Hot Papaya’ (above). This was a very lush, striking plant, but bees and butterflies were ignoring it.

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The next plant I saw was ‘Raspberry Trifle’. No bees were around, but I did see a few beetles like this one on the outer edges of some petals.

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A lot of bees were on this echinacea cultivar. (I forgot to jot down the name.) Although the flower petals are a neon-ish color of coral, the flower structure is very similar to the straight species of purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea.

My very unscientific survey brings up the question: Do bees and other pollinators know what to do with the busy, complicated flowers of certain native coneflower cultivars? According to Doug Tallamy in his popular book Bringing Nature Home, flower shape and the amount of nectar stored in each flower is important because “each species of native bee evolved to forage in flowers with particular morphologies. Bumblebees, for example, have long ‘tongues’ that can reach nectar pools at the base of flowers with long corollas, while sweat bees have relatively short tongues.” When a bee’s expecting single flowers and finds doubles, will it still try to reach those nectar pools?

It’s not to say we should ignore the exploding numbers of native plant cultivars available or forego having these plants in our gardens. It’s just that, now, it seems more critical to explore all possibilities for the decline in pollinator populations, even though some of those reasons seem beyond our control. Just this week, I learned about more county-sponsored pesticide sprayings in neighborhoods not far from me. I’m also seeing more advertisements by landscape companies offering “mosquito eradication” services.  Are all these pesticides targeted to mosquitoes or are they wiping out other, more beneficial insect populations?

Sometimes I wonder what my dad would think of all this. He was an organic gardener (mostly vegetables) and didn’t worry much about what kind of flowers bees liked. He just knew the bees came, they pollinated plants, and the seasons passed, just as they had for centuries. He knew when things were within his control — and when they weren’t. Things seemed a lot simpler then, but the goal is the same: work with nature’s framework, do the best you can, then sit back and enjoy it all!

Sun Scorch On Viburnum Leaves

Sun-scorch on Viburnum nudum leaf

Viburnum nudum – leaf scorch

Sunburn, scorching, cellular damage. This all happened to a beautiful native plant, Viburnum nudum (Smooth Witherod) that I moved from a shady spot in the backyard to a sunny place by the front door. I had bought a huge, new pottery urn and was trying out different planting ideas for effect. I put the viburnum inside the new pot and decided to leave it a few days to see if I liked it. It rained for a while. I forgot about the urn. Then the sun came out.

Predictably, it was a big jolt to the viburnum’s system to be out in the sun all day. For months before, it had nestled comfortably under the trees, in its original nursery container, amidst a stash of plants I wrote about here. Then, abruptly,  it was in sun and heat, both intensified by the temperature inside the urn.

So, no, the leaf-scorching wasn’t caused by over-fertilization or disease or over/under-watering. It was caused by the timing and inattention of the gardener (me).  One of those uh-oh moments that happen when you’re paying attention to something else.

Fortunately, the viburnum is starting to recover nicely. It will not suffer permanent damage (I hope). It will remain in the sun, with plenty of water in the final weeks of summer.

Next year, I’ll be more diligent, but don’t you think the sun’s rays are getting more intense and harsh every year? It may require a whole new approach to plant care and garden design.

As Close As I’ll Get to Growing Vegetables

Everyone but me is successful at growing vegetables — at least it seems that way. I hear people talk about their heirloom tomatoes and their exotic cultivars of chard and radishes and how they cooked a mess of green beans for supper last night. Well, here’s the extent of my “crops” for the year:

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The potatoes in the vegetable drawer sent out these gigantic pink shoots before I realized it was happening. Admittedly, I don’t cook as much as I used to, but was still shocked to find such long, healthy shoots growing in the cabinet. I started to use this photo on an Easter blog post but figured it might come across as sacrilegious. Anyway, this is the sum yield/production of vegetables at my house.

Main reasons why I can’t grow anything but potato shoots:

1. Deer (as many as seven on the property at any given time) 2. Voles  3. Moles  4. Rabbits  5. Squirrels  6. Chipmunks  7. Assorted predatory insects  and caterpillars  8. Steep hillsides  9. Not enough sunny areas to produce healthy crops, even if reasons 1-8 didn’t thwart the process.

Even herbs (other than basil and spearmint) won’t grow. The soil is so loamy and fertile it keeps Mediterranean-type plants too moist and spindly. Trees, shrubs, and wildflowers love the soil and shade — just not herbs or most vegetable plants.

Here are some ways I could compensate:

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– Grow lettuces in a giant teacup.

– Wear one of Julie Rothman’s temporary tattoos of a carrot or tomato on my arm. People might assume I grow vegetables, or that I’m a big fan of eating them.

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– Get a scarecrow or two, like these at Sunny Point Cafe in Asheville. The deer would be undeterred probably, but the neighbors would believe we’re busy growing vegetables over at our house.

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Oh…. I think I’ll just go sit down …. maybe make a list for the farmers’ market or the grocery store. I’ll remind myself of all those long, hot days spent hoeing vegetables when I was growing up. I’ll remember why buying them sounds so appealing right now.

Maybe a friend will take pity on me and offer some homegrown heirloom tomatoes. It’s hard to find a good tomato, you know.