Sunday, August 3, 2014

Summer Notes: Birds, Pollinators, and Prairie Flowers Over Six Feet Tall

 See more at Illinois State Climatologist
We are at the midpoint between the summer solstice and the fall equinox, a time of warm weather but slowly declining light as the earth wheels toward the dark hinge of the year in late December. Climate weirdness continues. The summer has continued cooler than average. In fact, this July is tied for coolest on record with 2009.
Just two years ago we were enduring the second warmest on record, and in a drought besides. With the abundant rain this year, in my yard, at least, there is full-on abundant, riotous growth.

It's that time of summer when, if you are a tidy gardener, everything is weeded, ship-shape, well groomed, and so on. You could go on vacation right now, and things wouldn't be too out of order when you got back. Or you might be harvesting tomatoes, zucchini, and basil from your well-tended beds. Then again, it might be that after careful beginnings, all you can do right now is  throw up your hands before the boisterous, blooming, buzzing confusion, say "ok, ok, I give up," pick some vegetables, resolve to weed when you can, but mostly find yourself doing a lot of standing and staring full of gratitude and amazement. Particularly if you're aiming for native-plant-based, permaculture-influenced biodiversity. This year a family health issue has led to my spending a great deal of time visiting the hospital. When I am home, it continues to astound me just what plants, birds, pollinators and assorted small mammals can get up to.

Birds and Pollinators
Pagoda dogwood berries all gone
Right now in my yard the pagoda dogwood's fat deep purplish navy blue berries are ripe, hoisted delicately on their upright little red stems. Though not for humans, they are a feast for the birds. On a recent Saturday morning five robins, several sparrows and a squirrel were already brunching when a mourning dove showed up to investigate and a male cardinal reconnoitered from the garage roof before joining in. Every summer I enjoy this scene, a sign of food so abundant that the robins don't even bother contesting the territory. House finches sat on the electrical wires in the alley, gossiping, while chimney swifts circled, chittering high in the blue sky. Are their favorite aerial insects more abundant over non-pesticide-treated, abundantly planted areas?

Trying not to disturb anyone, I first observed a bumblebee buzz-pollinating a tomato flower and then walked carefully and respectfully past the dogwood to the narrow back bed where the prairie plants, assorted herbs (mint and oregano) and a couple of pollinator favorite non-natives (nepeta and Russian sage)--in all shades of bright yellow, purple, and white--are on full display. As are the pollinators. I leaned against the fence that separates this area from the walk to the alley and just watched.

Bumble bee on cup plant
Literally hundreds of pollinators were circling, landing, creeping, resting, sticking their heads inside blooms, getting nectar and pollen. I saw: sweat bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, miner bees,  a leaf-cutter bee, small carpenter bees; a few bees that I couldn't tell what they were but was pretty sure they were bees; two kinds of butterflies; at least three species of predatory wasps; not to mention flower flies, syrphid flies; and numerous small creatures flying so fast that though they glittered in the sun, it was difficult to tell what family they were from. It's enough to take your breath away, even if you've seen it before--yesterday or the day before, for example. It's not called high summer for nothing.

This is normal, I told myself. this is what everyone would see, would be used to seeing if we stopped using pesticides and planted gardens full of mostly native flowers.

I live in the middle of the block. To my north lives the gardening friend with whom I set out to attract hummingbirds some years ago. She raises butterflies, and grows native plants, too, and we've been trading plants-on purpose and not--for so long that it's sometimes hard to say which plants started where. Tons of pollinators and birds over there, of course.

To the south, very nice people (with cute little daughters) maintain what might be considered an average yard. They have grass with a little clover mixed in, three serviceberry shrubs next to the patio and a row of hostas in front of the garage. To their credit, they don't use pesticides (hence the clover). To look from my yard to theirs is to feel as if one is in one of those old "visible difference" ads on TV.  Or in an experiment in which their yard is the control, and mine the experimental conditions--or vice versa, now that I think of it. On a day like today you could see and compare. In my yard, birds and pollinators galore. Directly over the fence? Nothing. The demarcation is as sharp and dramatic as the fence that separates the two yards, a Berlin wall of sorts.

Prairie Flowers
Vernonia fasciculata
If you want to attract pollinators it helps to have at least eight species of native plants, preferably
selected so that they bloom from spring through fall. As I discovered this summer, I have over fifty species of natives alone and even the non-natives, including vegetables, herbs and weeds, are pollinator friendly. In spring the flowers tend to be short, attractive and well scaled for a small back yard. By late June, when the coneflowers and false quinine start, three to four feet tall is a good average, and still manageable.

But starting in late July, look out! These flowers are big, bright, sprawling and assertive. They have to be to stand up to the grasses such as big bluestem with which they share the tall grass prairies. Some designers suggest that late summer stars such as vernonia, cup plant, compass plant, rigid goldenrod and sweet black-eyed Susan might be too tall, too overwhelming for the small garden. But I love the feeling of excess, the sheer grandeur of exuberant life and well-being they impart. It's fun to see flowers at eye height or above, a pleasure to be surrounded by color, to walk under an arch of cup plant flowers leaning over the fence toward the garage. These plants demand respect. They are not charming, but  have an exuberant charisma your tame, overbred hybrids lack. To avoid feeling crowded, it does help to arrange them with shorter plants in the foreground just for balance and proportion's sake. Right now viceroys and yellow swallowtales are sunning themselves on the coneflowers. Very soon, if not already, the male bumble bees will be camping out nights on the cup plants. Later, when the plants set seed, the goldfinches and other small birds will perch and gorge themselves. And during the winter, solitary bees will be tucked in their nests in various hollow stems or in the ground, waiting for spring. A garden is so much more than flowers alone.


Related Posts:
Spring Notes: Plants, Birds and Bumblebees
A Short Journey by Bicycle
Diary of a Dry Summer
Hummingbird Sightings


5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Lovely essay! I see similar results in my home garden. This has been a fabulous year (in my yard) for diversity of butterflies.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Thanks! Yes, conditions have been remarkably good.

Diana Studer said...

We have a 'Berlin Wall' neighbour, who removes anything green that dares to show its head, on principle.
BTW The Berlin Wall itself is now a nature conservation area. With butterflies and all!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Too bad about the neighbor! I didn't know that about the actual Berlin Wall. Seems fitting, somehow.

jeansgarden said...

I love those tall, exuberant flowers of late summer. When I was at Buchart Gardens in British Columbia several years ago, they had a wonderful planting of tall goldenrod with Joe Pye Weed. -Jean