New England Stone Walls Tell a Story

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We’re famous for our stone walls here in New England. Many of us have them on our properties, but often you’ll find them in our woods as well or see them alongside our interstates as you drive by–remnants of long ago homes or farms that no longer stand.

When I was doing my yearly weeding of my slate walk last weekend, I noticed the lichen on the stones. This year, there’s so much yellow, it almost looks as if we painted them with paint that has now weathered off.

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But notice something else (once you finish looking at the lichen in the above 2 photos). I also realized that the walls contained my “gardening history,” so to speak.

In the top photo is a tiny succulent that escaped from a container long ago. I no longer have the container or the succulent, except in this stair crevice.

The next photo shows my begonia grandis alba. This still does come up in my yard, but it has sown itself into the wall as well. I love that.

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Here’s sedum Angelina, from a nearby planter.

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This creeping lysmachia came from a planter years ago. Now it pops out of the wall and the steps at random intervals.

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And this is a blue campanula. It pops out of the wall in 3 places. I had it growing up on top, but the Spoiler hated it so he had me compost it. The plant apparently had other ideas, and popped out through the wall. I always think of this as the plant that thwarted the Spoiler!

So that’s my garden history in my stone wall.

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!