Taking Care of the Bees & Other Creatures this Fall

What’s your favorite flower this year?  That’s the question our local gardening magazine posed to its readers this issue.  Many candidates came to mind, but I realized my criteria in Fall for a good flower is one that blooms late to feed the bees and other pollinators that are still around scrambling for nectar and pollen to sustain them or their babies through winter.

So my favorite flowers right now include the dandelions that have responded to our recent rains with a bloom worthy of Spring.  Every time I see a dandelion now, I don’t respond with a desire to pull it, but with a word of encouragement because it’s not a weed when it has a happy bee gorging in the middle of the flower.

Other favorites that are feeding bees and other pollinators:

Cosmos are tough annuals, and still blooming despite some frosty weather.
Scabiosa has won my garden awards for several years for being the last flower blooming in November.  It’s one flower I keep deadheading instead of leaving the seed because I know it makes new flowers as long as it can.
Violas and Pansies planted now will make flowers to please me and the bees during warm spells this winter.

As always, there is one really important thing pollinators and especially bees need in Fall:

WATER.  At my house, the seasonal ditch dried up in August, and standing water is rare in our arid climate.  I keep water in the birdbath and in the flat little saucer with pebbles for the bees.  I notice signs that other bigger creatures like the squirrels and rabbits and field mice sneak water when I’m not watching from the bird bath top that I left sitting on the ground. I got pretty angry with the ravenous rabbit over-population this year, but when I see one lonely bunny hunkered down in the dry leaves under the trees, I can’t help but leave water out for her.  I know I’ll be rewarded with hungry baby bunnies in the Spring, but as the cold winds of Fall send chills through the gardener, my heart goes out to all the creatures who live outdoors during the long winter season.

 

Use Red to Make your Garden “Pop”!

by Sandy Swegel

A friend is a marketing guru and always talks about wanting to make things “pop” whether its brochures, interior design or gardens.  Fall is a great time when colors pop. We naturally think of New England with its amazing Fall display. In fact, East Coasters coming to Colorado are often disappointed their first Fall. It is gorgeous here, but it’s pretty darn yellow. Yellow aspens are beautiful, but yellow and brown don’t pop as red does.

A neighbor has a wild red unkempt thicket of shrubs and trees along his fence that makes people stop in the road to take pictures. The key to its glory (besides the fact that it requires virtually no upkeep except watering) is huge shrubs and small trees…all with lots of berries: orange Pyracantha with blue Euonymous, intermingled with red viburnum berries. The whole thing is held together by a wayward Virginia Creeper vine that is one of the plants that does red here in Colorado.

Most of our gardens may be better organized. But a wild uncontrolled area that “pops” with bright reds and oranges is a joy to behold as the growing season winds down. Then the regular yellows and golds and browns of your xeric garden or your fading vegetable garden look beautiful against their red backdrop.

 

It’s Always a New Beginning for Gardeners.

Thinking about the beautiful creation stories explored in the services of the eve of Rosh Hashanah that our Jewish friends celebrated yesterday reminds me that for the gardener, things are never really at an end.  There’s always something new to begin in the endless cycles of life.  Whether it is Rosh Hashanah or the upcoming Autumn Equinox or any of the lunar celebrations, every culmination or harvest is also a time to begin something new.

The need to keep beginning is especially true for the food gardener, especially if you want to keep eating.  So many foods are dependent on seasons – cool season, warm season.  It may seem with the great ripening of tomatoes that the vegetable garden is complete this year, but if you want to keep eating, you need to keep planting: cool season crops, lettuces, sturdy greens that you can eat on all winter.

Some of the things it is time to begin:

Begin a hoop house or cold frame.
If you haven’t already seeded fall greens or carrots and beets, make haste and do it right away.  They need to grow to a good size before winter, so you can harvest even through the snow.

Begin a leaf pile.
Are you ready for collecting fall leaves and beginning again (or adding to) your leaf mulch pile?  Leaves are going to fall….and if you’re ready, your neighbors will bring you all the leaves you want.  A simple sign in your driveway that says “Bagged Leaves Wanted”  will catch the attention of your neighbors who want an easy way to recycle.  Our neighborhood gets over 2000 bags a year that people drop off.  The first year was only about 300 bags….but each year it has grown till we quit counting after 1000 or so.

Begin to fertilize perennials.
If you fertilize with natural fertilizers like blood and bone meal, now is a good time to begin fertilizing perennials and shrubs.  Natural fertilizers break down slowly so Fall is the best time to put them (and compost) out around your plants so they have time to soak in all winter.  Synthetic fertilizers like Miracle-Gro should wait until Spring because they’d stimulate a growth spurt now when the plants should be shutting down.

Begin to clean up.
Start cleaning up diseased leaves and broken plant debris.  Your plants will be healthier next year.

One thing NOT to begin:  Don’t cut down green growing plants because you’re anxious to put the garden to bed.  Some minor experiments have proven to me, that plants that are allowed to die in place and get cut down in later winter or early spring have a better survival rate than plants that get cut down in Fall.  This is especially true for Agastache one gardener I know discovered.

Begin to plant a TREE!
A REALLY IMPORTANT THING TO BEGIN NOW:  Plant a tree.  There are often healthy trees on deep discounts at garden centers.  The best time to begin a tree in your garden is always RIGHT NOW.

 

Seeds in the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Now that we’re at the peak of summer, you’ll start to notice that your garden is likely to have more seeds than it has flowers.  The heat and long days of summer have stimulated seed formation in most plants and this is a good thing.  Don’t just deadhead the seeds and compost them… there are lots you can do with flowers gone to seed.

Collect the seeds to grow again.

Once seedheads have dried a bit (turned brown) and the seeds are loose, you can collect the seed…either to save in paper envelopes for next year or to spread around the garden now where you’d like them to grow next.  When collecting seeds to grow next year, pick the healthiest plants with the best color. You probably know that some plants are hybrid and don’t necessarily come true from seed…but sometimes they do, so I like to risk it.  This year we let a squash grow in the compost pile even though everybody knows squash don’t come true, but it was cute…and now we’ve been eating great acorn squash a month earlier than the garden’s because the plant didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be good.

Eat the seeds.

This is especially yummy before the seeds mature when they are still green and tender.  Green herb seeds and cool season vegetable seeds are little flavor powerhouses.  It’s time to nibble on broccoli flowers or herb seeds – cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, even basil.  All the flax in my wildflower patch has gone to seed.  I’m gathering them to sprout and either put on salads or dehydrate into crackers.

Gather the dry seeds for birdseed in winter

Sunflower and flax seeds are some of the seeds that birds like, so I gather extra dry seed to put out in January for the chickadees. I leave most of the seed on the ground for them… but sometimes it’s hard for a tiny bird to find seeds through a foot of snow.  Besides, if I put the seeds in the bird feeder, I (and the cats) get the pleasure of watching through the kitchen window.

Let the seeds be.

You can grow perennial beds of annuals.  There’s a phrase to get your head around.  The plants don’t overwinter but by letting the seeds drop, they replant themselves.  Let the cilantro and dill and parsley and leeks seed themselves around and you never have to start those seeds again.  The little seedlings will produce good plants for you this fall and some will wait for Spring to grow.  I love it when Nature does all the work.

 

Squash Bees

by Sandy Swegel

My friend and local pollinator expert Niki fretted greatly this Spring because there weren’t any bees in her yard.  She grows her native plants and large vegetable gardens in her yard that is surrounded by typical perfect looking suburban lawns. Despite her pleas with neighbors, they maintain suburban perfection by pouring pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on their lawns, and over time, the bee count in her yard has dropped precipitously.

But there was no fretting during a recent tour of her garden.  There were still very few honeybees but the garden was abuzz with many native bees and native fly pollinators.

Niki eagerly led us over to her huge squash patch.  She did the usual humble gardener thing of apologizing for her garden and how poorly the plants were doing.  Naturally, her plants were double the size of anything in our yards. We walked right into the squash bed as she gently lifted a giant leaf so we could see…a “Squash Bee.”  With great animation, she described how one bee comes early in the morning and throws itself completely over the pollen…and then proceeds to eat all day long.  This bee seems oblivious to us and looked like it was lounging in its own little opium den, covered in pollen and eating as much as it could. Niki lowered her voice and said, “Sometimes there are two bees.”  The male comes first and then is joined by a female…and the two of them spend the day in a frenzy of mating and eating, mating and eating (she watched). Once they finish one blossom, they moved to the next one.

There are two genera of native squash bees, Peponapis and Xenoglossa, and they are specialist bees. Cucurbits are all they pollinate.  And they are very resourceful and start pollinating earlier in the morning before the honey bees are even awake.  So take a look under your leaves one morning and peer deep into squash blossoms.  In areas with healthy squash bee populations, there can be as many as one bee per every five blossoms.  Another marvel of the natural world….hidden in plain view before us.

Of course, while you are peeking under giant squash leaves, don’t forget to look for that pest of the squash kingdom…the squash bug…and pick it off and throw it away.

The International squash bee survey: http://www.ars.usda.gov/Research/docs.htm?docid=16595

 

 

What a Plant Knows

Back when I was a teenager, summer reading was all about pulp fiction and romantic novels, except for the summer when I read everything Arthur C. Clarke ever published.  Now that I use podcasts for pulp novels and nonfiction, I can spend summer on eccentric or unusual new books.  What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses is my latest extraordinary discovery.

Author Daniel Chamovitz points out that it has been over three decades(!) since Secret Lives of Plants was published and there has been lots of hard scientific research about plants since then.  Chamovitz emphasizes over and over that plants DON’T experience the world as humans do, but they do sense the world in their own ways.

Some tidbits from this provocative book:

Plants are aware of the world around them.

They can “see” in that they differentiate between red, blue, far-red and UV lights (better than we can, incidentally).

They can “smell” in that they are aware of aromas and minute amounts of chemical compounds in the air.

They can “touch” and respond differently to different kinds of touch.

They are aware of the past and can remember past infections and conditions and change their physiology based on those memories.

They can communicate with other plants and warn them of predators.

And my favorite:  plants dance…all plants move in a great spiral when they grow and when they adapt to their environment.Broccoli, Organic Romanesco

This book isn’t a metaphysical exploration of plants. It is a long scientific discussion of specific plant actions and reactions. For people like me who want to know why plants do things…why they thrive and survive sometimes and why they wither and die sometimes, ‘What a Plant Knows’ is a great treasure.

 

4 Things to Learn from Botanic Gardens

Waterwise strip of plantings at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

by Sandy Swegel

I’ve been going to our local (and extraordinary) botanic gardens, The Denver Botanic Gardens, DBG, every two weeks this year.  Every year I intend to go but get busy and only get there once or so.  But I bought a family membership that included six tickets per visit….so now I’m getting to see the gardens and making new friends every time because I invite all kinds of people so I don’t “waste” the tickets.  Even though I’m a professional gardener and am in other people’s landscapes all the time, I am learning so much. I encourage you to go with observant eyes and watch how public gardens are designed and managed. (On the weeks I don’t go to the DBG, I take a hike in the nearby foothills to see how Mother Nature designs and manages gardens. She’s a bit messier.)

Some of the things I’ve learned this last week:

Plants want to Mingle.  Although DBG tags its plants so we know what is what, they aren’t really a single specimen sitting alone…all the plants grow next to one another and through each others’ branches and leaves.  A tall flower that falls doesn’t need to be staked right away…it starts to grow up toward the light from its down position and still looks great growing out of the groundcover.  Trees and giant viburnums are all artfully pruned so they send long arms through each other, never having to stand alone.  Old trees keep their place, but new ones of a different variety are planted nearby. The old one’s broken trunk and nasty gashes are covered and the new tree doesn’t look so scraggly.

The same plant can look so different in another setting.  The DBG has a policy of gentle tolerance toward reseeding plants.  As long as they look good and aren’t choking out other plants, the repetition of salvia or verbena from one display garden to another gives a feeling of unity to the entire area.

Giant Buddleia bush at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Photo by Sandy Swegel

Giant plants look great at the periphery.  Giant shrub viburnums or 15-foot tall lilacs or this massive Buddleja alternifolia ‘Argentea’ planted along the far back of a garden area are stately and give a sense of structure and enclosure to a garden. Some of the nearby trees seem small in comparison.  But a garden full of small plants can look like just a lot of little things that are hard to distinguish from one another.

Use more Art and Light and Water.  Sculptural pieces of art, strategically placed solar lights, and even very small water features turn a garden from beautiful into delightful!  As dusk descends on the Denver Botanic Gardens, strands of lights and solitary spotlights come on turning what was a lovely day into a magical evening.

Tour your local Botanic Garden soon.  You’ll find like I did, the inspiration for dozens of ways to do things differently in your garden.

http://www.botanicgardens.org/

Photo credits: Sandy Swegel