The Fish Can See Clearly Now

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I always say that my backyard pond is the one place in my yard where I spend the most time and do the least amount of work.

That definitely isn’t true on the weekend when I have to clean it, however. It’s an “old-fashioned” pond–pre-formed, not liner with rocks on it, so that in and of itself causes a lot of issues.

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It was put in over 35 years ago–before they knew about putting in filters and building filters into the waterfall feature–so I have to plop a filter box onto the bottom to house the pump.

But despite all the drawbacks, it works to keep some smallish fish alive, even through New England winters. And the sound of moving water definitely helps you to feel cool on a hot day!

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The fish are probably 12-13 years old–I’ve lost count now–and when I was cleaning it this year, I found a 2 year old that I didn’t know that I had. So that’s always a nice bonus. We’ll see if it lives long enough to grow into an adult, although if it’s made it this far, chances are good it will survive.

I don’t generally put plants in the pond anymore although I used to. The photo at the top of the post is from several years ago. The fish, rooting around in the gravel and the mud just made a much bigger mess for me to deal with when I was cleaning. I want the fish to eat the algae that forms–and there’s plenty of that–and any bugs that might fall in. Obviously it works or the fish wouldn’t have survived this long.

I also don’t use that fountain feature. The birds loved it a little too much. They would try to perch on it, which was really funny to watch, but then they would tip the whole fountain and pump over if they were heavy enough–think something like a mourning dove.

Even the robins would sometimes knock it over flying too quickly around it. So it had to go.

But the end of the day, to sit beside the pond is one of the best things in life.

Ants and Peonies Work Together

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Back when I was working in retail gardening, I confess to telling a little white lie: if I thought someone was likely to douse their peonies with heavy doses of insecticide to rid them of the ants that always appear before (and perhaps just shortly after bloom time as the above photo shows), I would say, “Oh no, please don’t do that. The ants are eating the sap so the peonies can open.”

It worked like a charm and my favorite pollinators, the ants, were spared.

Of course we know that the peonies don’t need the ants to “eat the sap” for them to open. It’s more of a symbiotic relationship, akin to the way that the ants pollinate things–although this isn’t a true pollinator relationship.

What is happening here is that the ants are attracted to the peonies sugary sap. In the process, they keep other predators at bay–things like aphids, which are prevalent in this early spring, and thrips, which affect so many of our ornamental flowers. Ants might even be thought of as the peonies own natural insecticide.

You can read more about this beneficial relationship here at this fact sheet from the University of Missouri.

But of course no one wants to bring ants into the house if you want to enjoy peonies as a cut flower. There are a couple of ways to solve for this. First, cut the peonies in the evening, or first thing in the morning and leave the cut flowers in a cool place (a shed or garage) for several hours so that the ants, if any, can leave the flowers.

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If you cut the flowers at this stage–or slightly larger–you can gently shake or wash the ants off to know that you have removed them all. That way there’s no guessing. Make sure that there’s enough color showing in the bud that the flower will open. This bud is just a little bit too small yet.

Finally, I am sure that most of you won’t get to the point where you’ll rejoice when you see ants in the garden as I do. But if you see them on your peonies, thank them. They are protecting them from other insects pests–so you don’t have to!

And once the blooms are fully open, they move on. So once again, no insecticide needed. It doesn’t get any better than that!

The Freedom Lawn

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We’ve grown a little too obsessed with perfection. It’s everywhere we look. If we turn on the television, all we have to do is tune in to the commercials to see that we are being sold a bill of goods: buy the perfect vehicle, or clothes dryer, or clothing, or grass seed and we too can be perfect (and don’t even get me started on the pharmaceutical commercials!)

What exactly is a “Freedom Lawn?” Well, like the name suggests, it’s a lawn that avoids inputs–so no fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation or other input beside mowing. So what happens?

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As you can well imagine, nature happens. Wildflowers–or to the uninitiated–weeds grow. And granted, not all wildflowers are welcome. For example, we have far too much plantain in our lawn. But it’s there and it’s not terribly unsightly and were we motivated it’s fairly easy to remove with a stand on step weeder–so clearly we’re not terribly motivated.

This strip is right next to the driveway as you might be able to tell. Plantain loves compacted soil. So we would be working at cross purposes by trying to remove it and grow grass in a spot where folks keep driving.

Dandelions are creeping back in, I notice. That’s one thing that doesn’t bother me at all. If you’re a “lawn person,” they drive you crazy. If you’re a pollinator person, you rejoice, because they are one of the earliest flowers for pollinators. Just deadhead them before they seed. I think I can still count them on 2 hands so they’re not a nuisance.

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And violets. I love the violets. I would have an entire lawn of violets if I could–again for my pollinators. This lovely little one is a species of viola moderate that I planted called ‘Freckles.’ The photo at the top of the post afe all wild violets.

Certain butterflies will nectar only from violets–why would anyone want to get rid of them? (Again, you can see that I am clearly NOT a lawn person!)

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Ants have naturalized these muscari for me. Maybe you can see why I am fond of ants. They also spread my violets around.

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We used to have much more clover but since my neighbor’s landscape company mistakenly poisoned my property, most of it was killed off. It’s just beginning to return, thankfully. Where the plantain has run amok used to be wild clover. Ah well.

As the season progresses, I get tiny little St. John’s wort coming up–I’ll post that at some point. The plantain blooms. And of course we get more unwelcome wildflowers like purslane and the vetches and oxalis–not welcome to us, but valuable to wildlife like the later nesting goldfinch who love the seeds.

So rejoice and enjoy a more nature looking lawn–and maybe even consider a “freedom lawn.” Your birds and pollinators will thank you.

Bee Aware

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You may remember this clump of bulbs from a week or so ago. I love my “minor” bulbs as they are called (to distinguish them from the tulips, daffodils and hyacinths–which I also love but which aren’t nearly so reliable for me).

These lovely ones are called “Glory of the Snow”. Their botanical name is chionodoxa. They also come in pink and white but I love the blues in the garden.

On a very busy evening, I was rushing out of the house to a choir concert but I happened to notice that there were bees all over this clump of flowers. So the next day when I had more time, I sat down on the walkway to try to figure out what was happening.

I was delighted to see the same bees building nests in the ground right there all around this clump of bulbs.

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If you look just past the green cord in the photo, you can see the excavation where the bee has dug its tunnel. There were at least 6 or 8 of these tunnels all around the clump of bulbs.

I guess that I won’t be planting here this year.

Spring Clean-Up

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What?! Dead trees again?! Actually no. Take a look at what’s beneath them. See all those leaves? Every cultivated garden bed in my yard looks similar to that. And it’s going to for awhile yet.

I postpone my spring clean-up until at least May most years. Some years, things happen and the beds never get cleaned out. In that case, I call this “mulch.” Nothing terrible happens to my plants. I don’t harbor over-wintering insects (at least not the bad kind–more on that later) and I don’t have a whole slew of fungal diseases.

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So why–or perhaps more important–how can I tolerate this look–in my garden beds? (Here’s what this really looks like, with some of the spring foliage coming up through it, in my “wildlife garden”.)

It’s pretty simple: These leaves are sheltering all kinds of over-wintering things: good bugs like spiders, over-wintering larva of mourning cloak butterflies. The stems of the upright perennials may be sheltering bees that use hollow stems like mason bees (which don’t sting, by the way). I have ant colonies under here (and you know that I love my ants and consider them pollinators). I have earthworms. I know that I have ground beetles because I see lots of them all summer.

So I ask you–with all that “goodness” going on here, could you put up with some ugliness for a bit into the spring?

Because I tell you, I sure can!

Dead Trees?

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Why are you looking at 2 dead trees? I know that I am always whining about spring coming too slowly to Connecticut (actually I usually say that it doesn’t come at all and that all we have is winter and July.) But surely this isn’t a post about that.

No, it isn’t. And if I carefully think about it, most years, our trees leaf out about the first week of May and stay in leaf until the first week of November when the leaves come down almost like a blizzard. If we’re lucky, there’s enough time between leaf fall and snow fall to get them off the grass.

But the 2 dead trees are important. They are in the portion of our yard that will shortly be leafy woods. We leave them there as “snags,” or wildlife nesting places.

Even if they were to fall, there is enough land around them that nothing could be harmed.

And there are several fallen trees in our tiny woods as well, to provide cover for small creatures and habitat for their young.

Most people don’t have the ability to leave a type of wild place like this in their yards, but a brush pile out of sight can also work (on a smaller scale, of course).

We need to try to provide habitat for our wildlife or we will lose it.

Gardening for Some Other Pollinators

I’ve talked about gardening for bees and butterflies and some of nature’s “happier” pollinators.

But what happens when we garden for some of nature’s less popular pollinators? I think I mentioned that ants are some of my favorite pollinators. Here in the northeastern United States, they pollinate our spring ephemeral wildflowers. In fact, they pollinate anything with a specialized structure called an eliaosome.

Without getting too technical, this is a food source for the ants–and a way of dispersing seeds for the plants. But don’t just take my word for it. Here is a post that explains things far better than I can and lists several of the plants that rely on this wonderful means of seed dispersal.

Plant pollination isn’t the only reason that I love ants–but we’ll save that for some other time.

Another great pollinator that’s a sort of “out of the box” pollinator is the beetle–or more correctly, beetles. Most of us see beetles in our garden and we run of some sort of chemical but did it ever occur to you that they might actually be serving as pollinators? There are several types that do as this article can attest.

And it doesn’t really require any effort to attract these “out of the box” pollinators. They just show up in our gardens, particularly if we aren’t using pesticides to begin with.

The next time you see an insect–or insects–in the garden, before grabbing something to spray it with, try to determine its function. It’s said that 90% of all insects are benign. If that’s true, you might accidentally be spraying pollinators–and no one wants to do that.

We all have phones that have cameras now–snap a photo and try to ID the bug before deciding it doesn’t deserve to live. Chances are, it’s just something harmless–or even better, something beneficial.

You’ll be helping your garden, your ecosystem and our planet.