Working through the Plan

Working through the 2013 summer project plans

Like many gardeners, I use winter as a time to plan our garden projects.  Our kitchen table will be laid out with garden books, (my recent favorite is Landscaping with Native Plants of Wisconsin by Lynn Steiner, Voyageur Press).  I will make use of a sketch pad for drawing and making notes and many garden catalogs that start filling our mailbox in January are my inspiration.  The native perennials from Prairie Nursery are the foundation of our gardens (I am a little biased…we offer so many great plants that love our sandy soils).  Next year’s plans include adding more native shrubs, and I am itching to try shrubs we’ll have available next year; Low bush Blueberry and Snowberry!

Lowbush Blueberry-Vaccinium angustifolium

The grand plans afoot for our gardens and landscape next year:

  • Take out the remaining stand of thirsty Ox Eye Sunflower and replace it with Downy Sunflower, a plant happy to live in our sandy soil
  • Move the millions of volunteer Lanceleaf Coreopsis that have migrated into the adjacent lawn,
  • Add more Little Bluestem and Prairie Dropseed and asters to the hillside garden
  • Take out the section of garden overtaken by Norway maple tree roots…
  • Revamp woodland gardens, move and transplant Columbine, Wild Ginger and the ever spreading Woodland Sunflower in the shade garden
  • Move Oak tree saplings from the Prairie gardens next to the towering 50 foot oak tree

My winter planning this year also includes adding a new butterfly garden.  I am using the Pre-planned Karner Blue Butterfly garden from Prairie Nursery.

Our part of Wisconsin is home to the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly, and this garden is chock full of plant they use for food and habitat. This kit is perfect for a spot next to our garage, a south facing site that needs plants that can take the heat!The list above is a long one, but my winter enthusiasm for summer projects is boundless and optimistic!

I truly believe gardeners are inherently optimists.  We plant our perennials (and annuals) with a hope that they will thrive and grow to be beautiful specimens in our gardens.  When a plant does not live up to our expectations, most gardeners I talk to, will say, oh well, let’s try another plant and hope it works out.

We start every garden year with the same sense of purpose and hope most farmers embrace:  Yes, the rains will come, the pests and diseases will be few and I will achieve a great crop this year.  The joy of seeing newly transplanted perennials gradually forming a beautiful garden is rewarding, and when planting native plants the return our investment sustains native wildlife, and work to preserve soil and water conservation.  Knowing these simple native plants attract a myriad of creatures; pollinators, butterflies, birds, insects and animals to our backyard is my motivation.

Swallotail on Blue Flag Iris-Iris versicolor

Now, get to it!  As a recently crowned 50 year old, I realize that I don’t have the energy and “get-to-it-with-it-ness” (my Grandma Millie’s old saying) that I had in my 30’s!  I am undeterred however; yes, projects happen at a little different pace than they did when I was 30.  I look at the gardening a little differently now.  My time in our gardens is such great exercise; good for my joints and my psyche, allowing me time to process and ponder life, and reducing stress.  As for keeping up, well, I have a partnership strategy, thankfully, my garden helper in my Husband Wayne.  He is retired, and when not fishing on the Wolf River or nearly Lake Puckaway, he has the patience and time to spend in the gardens carrying out the plans when I am off to work at Prairie Nursery.  As a team we accomplish our projects at a reasonable pace, and it is a gift we have spending time together.

So, we have the winter to rest up, re-energize and, with my plans in hand, I am ready, optimistic hopeful for a great garden year ahead!

Our First Snow!

It’s snowing!

This past weekend the temperatures in Wisconsin were a balmy 68 degrees.  Our family was gathered at our farm and the Grand-kids played hopscotch on the driveway; ran around the barnyard enjoying the early November balmy weather.  This changed overnight.  In the space of a few hours we went from 65 degrees on Saturday morning transitioning to 38 and flurries at dinnertime. Wisconsin is the land of extreme temperatures changes.  We say that if you don’t like the weather now, just wait ten minutes…..

Weather has always fascinated me.  I grew up in on French Island-near La Crosse, Wisconsin. French Island is a strip of land about 3 miles long and 2 miles wide situated between the Mississippi and Black Rivers.  My home was about a mile off the banks of the Mississippi.  I have great memories of living between the rivers; swimming, fishing and ice fishing for pan fish and bass, boating and camping on the banks were part of our daily life.  Living on the river the weather was quite changeable, the fronts swooping down the Minnesota hills west of us, to form storms that blew across the island.  Thunderstorms were my favorite; the booming of the thunder amplified by the river valley.

Mississippi River Valley
La Crosse, WI

My Father and Grandfather loved to duck hunt on the Mississippi.  The great fall migrations of ducks travelling through the “Mississippi flyway” filled the skies each fall with Mallards, Canvasbacks, Coots, Wood ducks and Geese making their way south; in fact 40% of all North American waterfowl, (326 species) use the Mississippi river as a migratory flyway*.

*US Fish & Wildlife

Growing up, my Dad, and his black lab Cinder spent countless hours on the river duck hunting, they woke early; at 3-4 am in order to be in place for hunting; my Dad and Cinder by his side, tail wagging fiercely, making their way to the truck and returning home later with their rewards of a successful day on the river.    Everyone had a part in the hunt, Mom and I made lunch and thermoses of coffee, my brothers helped with the decoys and gear, and in time hunted with Dad.  We waxed and plucked feathers and prepared the meals together.  My Mother is a wonderful cook; she created the most amazing roast duck filled with wild rice, onions and bacon….yum!  Hunting was part of our life on the Island, just as it was for the French settler Moses Xavier Goyette and other French Canadians that came from Montreal to settle the island along the river in the 18th century.

My Grandpa Hanson told us a story of a remarkable and tragic weather day on Veterans Day; the Armistice (now Veterans) Day Blizzard of 1940.  That day dawned beautiful and warm, with temperatures in the 50’s.  In this day and age we are blessed with weather forecasts that predict oncoming storms, however in 1940 forecasters did not predict the weather changes…. In a span of a few hours, a strong low pressure and cold front from the north met up with a moist warm front from the Gulf of Mexico creating a super storm across the Midwest and plains states.  Duck hunters on the Mississippi started their day in shirtsleeves, anticipating a successful day of hunting.  The skies were filled with ducks of every kind, (actually fleeing south away from the cold front).  In just a few short hours the weather turned; heavy rain fell; temperatures dropped to freezing; rain turned to ice then snow; 70 mph winds created swells of 15 feet on the river tossing hunters into the waves, and unfortunately many drowned or froze to death; all toll 150 died.

We still learn lessons from weather; hurricane Sandy certainly is evidence of Mother Nature’s unrelenting and catastrophic power.  Although we have sophisticated prediction models available; the unpredictable nature of our ever changing climate and weather forces us to stand back, take stock, and respect Mother Nature.

The snow squall currently blowing past my window this afternoon is beautiful.  The west to east winds swirl around the stalks of the native grasses and flowers blowing fine snow settling amongst them.  In time the field will be covered in a thick blanket of drifts and mounds covering Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, Frost Aster and Rough Blazingstar. The snow brings valuable soil moisture to Wisconsin after a very long hot summer and historically dry year.  I am in awe of the power of the winds and snow swirling at the moment and am thankful for the change from summer to fall and winter.  The snow and cold is a reminder of the change of season that is inevitable, a sign that there are things we can predict-we hope!; the coming snows, the slow crawl of days toward the Winter Solstice, and the turning of the sun lengthening days towards spring.

Fall maintenance, should we rake cut and clean up?

One of my favorite comics is Peanuts.  The great Halloween special we all love shows the Peanuts kids running and jumping into piles of leaves, and Linus emerging from the pile…classic!  As children we loved the crunchy sounds the leaves made as we raked them from the lawn, and the fun of hiding amongst the piles, its a great memory to be sure.  I still like walking through leaves in my backyard. 

Do these same crunchy leaves have something our garden wants? Yes, they do!

On my home farm every fall, we spread a great many leaves in our gardens, and mow many leaves with the John Deere to chop the leaves finely.  The trees on our property are mostly maple and birch bearing leaves.   This chopped leaf “mulch” is applied to our gardens, both flower and vegetable and we spread the remaining leaves on our lawns.  Our soil is very sandy, and the leaf mulch adds valuable nutrients to our gardens and makes a huge difference in the health of our gardens and lawns!

Like us, critters love the leaves; in fact many depend on the leaves in our gardens.  A wide variety of inhabitants make leaves their home for the winter, the thick layers of leaves provide shelter from the snow and storms, a cozy place for insects, spiders, salamanders and butterflies such as the Mourning Cloak to hibernate in winter.  For microorganisms and invertebrates leaves are food that they consume and in turn break the leaves down to add to the organic matter in our soil.   

Toads and salamanders make nests in the piles of leaves left in our gardens.  In late September I was filling our birdbaths, including two old garbage can lids turned upside down on our front terrace.  Lifting up the can lid I was amazed to find two bright Blue Spotted salamanders!  

Blue Spotted Salamander

Leaves had piled around the birdbaths, and this site, which is in the sun most of the day, facing south; so on the late September day, the salamanders had found water and heat of the leaves piled on the timbers of the terrace. My presence sent them scattering, but it was an encounter not to be forgotten!

How about the prairie garden?  Conventional garden wisdom and advice steers us towards removing everything and “putting our gardens to bed” for the winter.  I believe our need to cut and remove every stem from the garden stems from our Puritanical need to make things neat, but personally I love to let the spent stalks of the flowers and grasses be in the fall..the ‘mess’ is what makes our prairies and native landscapes a habitat!  The stems and stalks of native wildflowers and grasses provide much needed shelter is valuable food for native songbirds.  Goldfinches, Chickadees & Juncos depend on the seed throughout the long winter.

Birds love native plants

Insects and Butterflies deposit their larvae on flower stalks becoming ‘nurseries’ for the winter. Goldenrods are host to a parasitic fly; the Goldenrod Gall Fly-Eurosta solidaginis that lays its egg in the tissue of the plant in spring.  The egg forms a fly larvae and the gall forms to “host” the larvae for a full year.  The galls remain on the plants all winter long and the fly emerges in spring.  Kirk in our office tells us that he and his children have a tradition of searching for the goldenrod galls in late December, and they collect the fly larvae from the gall and use it for ice fishing, making the fly larvae a tasty treat for pan fishing!  If there is a hole in the gall, then this tells them a Chickadee found the larvae for a yummy burst of protein.

The beauty of the grasses in a winter prairie landscape is worth preserving; the brilliant red of the Little Bluestem and gold-brown stalks of Indiangrass and Prairie Dropseed above the snow is so beautiful.  These grasses are our bird feeders in winter and Goldfinches will strip every single seed from our Big Bluestem.  In my backyard Turkeys will venture right under our picture window to eat the seed of Indiangrass!

Thus ends our case for leaving our gardens untended in the fall…yes, to some it may look a little messy, and yes, we can still rake leaves and cut back and remove specific plants; especially any that may have suffered a disease such as powdery mildew, but I urge you to leave some Purple Coneflower and Black Eyed Susan seed heads for the creatures; the benefit of the seed, food, nest and winter homes we created far outweighs our need to clean up in fall.  After all, fall and winter is a time for resting from our garden labors and exertions.  We can now turn to indoor pleasures; baking pies for Thanksgiving, looking forward to family times together and planning next years garden with the great optimism for a wonderful year to come.

A conversation between God and St Francis….

Pondering Dormancy

Winter is fast approaching, I know this to be true, it was 19 degrees at my house this morning–burrrr!  Time to get the wood stove started!  Are we ready to be Dormant?  When I think of the term dormant, visions of the grey skeletal branches of trees in winter come to mind, the ghostly crooked stalks of this summer’s prairie flowers and grasses beneath grey skies and snowy landscapes during our long Wisconsin winters.

Prairie Nursery, Westfield, WI

Dormancy is defined as “A state of quiescence during the development of many plants characterized by their inability to grow, though continuing their morphological and physiological activities”.  The pause in physical growth patterns, a time of rest after a long season of growth….bears hibernating in caves, latent, sleeping awaiting the emergence of spring.  Yes, this is an apt description of all of us lounging all winter long, the short days and long dark nights, resting yet longing for colorful first of spring flowers and longer days of summer.

Prairie Spiderwort-Tradescantia bracteata

When undertaking a native prairie seeding, typically, spring is thought to be the most traditional time to plant seed. There can be definite advantages to a fall seeding. When we seed in fall, the seeding is dormant, and the seed will remain in the soil all winter long to germinate in spring.  The seed’s exposure to cold and snow (or rain) in winter softens and stratifies the seed. This process works to break down seed germination inhibitors and “tricks” the seed into germinating in spring.  Studies have shown that fall seeding will result in increased germination of most wildflowers.  Warm season grasses may though show a decrease in germination when seeded in the fall.

Fall planting takes advantage of cold, moist winter conditions, breaking seed dormancies and promoting earlier germination and faster seedling establishment the following spring.  This early seedling establishment is especially critical on sand, which heats up and dries out quickly in spring and on clay, which gets rock-hard when it dries out and restricts root development.  Wet clay soils are also difficult to work and plant during moist spring conditions.

Fall Seeding Advantages

  • Seed overwinters as it would in nature and comes up in spring on its own schedule when conditions are right.  This breaks most seed dormancies naturally over winter.
  • In general, flower species exhibit increased spring germination with fall seeding.
  • Recommended for droughty, sandy soils because seed germinates earlier in the season, when moisture levels are optimal, and before summer heat.
  • Recommended for clay and wet soils.  Clay and wet soils are easier to work in the fall than in spring, and seeds will germinate earlier in the season.  Clay soils often remain wet well into spring, and by the time they can safely be worked, the heat and drought of summer are often right around the corner, which can reduce the success of seedling survival.  Fall seeding on clay and wet soils encourages earlier germination and better root development prior to the onset of summer.
  • Fall seedings do not require watering, as the seeding is dormant.

Fall Seeding Disadvantages

  • Warm season grass seed typically exhibits reduced germination.
  • There is no opportunity for early spring weed control by cultivation or Herbiciding.
  • Be careful on erosion prone sites.  Plant erosion prone sites paired with a nurse crop of annual rye.

Fall seeding may in some cases be done as a “no-till” seeding.  This technique works only on sites that have had all weed eliminated by smothering (organic method) or herbicide use. If the result of this process reveals dead vegetation which is very sparse with a good deal of mineral soil present below the dead vegetation, you can seed right into this vegetation.  First cut down any vegetation with a lawnmower and rake it off, the cut vegetation may impede seed to soil contact.  The seed will work its way down into the soil through the freeze and thaw process throughout winter.  This method can only be accomplished in the fall.  This method will not work in spring as the seed will not be worked into the soil without ground freeze and thaw.  It is important to roll the seeded area so the seed is impacted into the soil.

No worries about seed germinating in the fall.  Most native seed requires a soil temperature of 70 degrees to germinate, and in most areas, seeding in early to mid fall germination will not occur.  In our region (Upper Midwest, Northeast,Great Lakes and Lower Midwest/Plains states), the timing of our seeding is from mid September until soil freeze up.  In fact, we can plant on partially frozen soil as long as the seed makes good contact with the soil at the time of planting.

After seeding, we’re done!  No need to water, no need to worry…we just wait (not so patiently) for spring.  For now, find that couch and grab a slice of pizza and your remote…I mean find that pair of skis and break out the hummus and broccoli..spring awaits….the beginning of a new prairie adventure!

One of my favorite poets, Robert Frost has his own words of dormancy….”A Winter Eden”:

A winter garden in an alder swamp,
Where conies now come out to sun and romp,
As near a paradise as it can be
And not melt snow or start a dormant tree…

Prairie, Milwaukee, WI Mid-Summer