Connecting to Our Food Web Dedicated to educational resources towards building and sustaining viable food webs and ecosystems Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 Welcome to My Jungle Sat, 01 Jun 2019 08:00:00 +0000 "Difficult to establish" can be an understatement for some plants. Over the years, I have out of necessity made a "three strikes, you're out" rule for how many times I allow myself to fail with a plant before accepting defeat. Globeflower (Trollius sp.) for example has a reputation for being difficult, but it is still one of my most regretful three strikes addition to "the dead list" because it has such a beautiful flower. Every time I see it in the nursery I still want it; but "the dead list" stays my hand. I just don't have the preferred sunny bog or pond edge to be successful. I could build a bog, but Trollius also despises the extreme heat of St Louis summers. It looks good the year of planting with a lot of watering but it never makes it through to the next year.

I have also failed at establishing bird's foot violet (Viola pedata), or so I thought. Also reported as being difficult to establish, this native violet grows best in a well-drained soil in full sun, but it will tolerate some shade. It is also in my three strikes dead list. Imagine my surprise then to find a healthy volunteer specimen growing in conditions not considered optimal…somewhat poorly drained soil and almost full shade. It has made it through one winter, so I think it has established with absolutely no help from me. Figures! I don't know where it came from, but it is for sure a welcome addition to my jungle.

I may never be willing to install a bog garden for water loving plants, but I did build a small sunny crevice garden in order to grow plants like our native hoary vervain (Verbena stricta). I already have a history of killing a hoary vervain plant, so this is my second chance to get it right. In my previous planting, I assumed it required the same conditions as its native cousin blue vervain (Verbena hastata), but the two really are quite different in their soil preferences. Blue vervain makes a great rain garden plant due to its preference for moist to wet soil conditions, whereas hoary vervain prefers a well-drained, medium to dry soil. Some other added Illinois natives expected to do well in the sunny crevice garden include pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), devil's bite (Liatris scariosa), cleft phlox (Phlox bifida), field pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta), fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus), small skullcap (Scutellaria parvula), Antelopehorn (Asclepias viridis), narrowleaf mountainmint (Pycnanthemum tenufolium) and royal catchfly (Silene regia). So far, no signs of unhappiness!

Welcome to My Jungle - May, 2019 Wed, 01 May 2019 08:00:00 +0000 Bearded irises are blooming in the jungle and the arilbreds are leading the way. Arilbred iris hybrids are produced from crossing the finicky-to-grow aril irises with the more common and easy-to-grow bearded irises. They tend to have a touch of the exotic from their aril iris parentage, but the ease of cultivation from their tall bearded iris parentage. As previously implied, arilbreds bloom earlier than the tall bearded irises, more in time with the standard dwarf bearded irises and the intermediate bearded irises. And because of their earliness, large bloom and added height, they are great transition plants following daffodils and tulips.

My "plant thug" list has a new member, one so bad I am on a total eradication program. No mercy! This all happened because I was looking for a new native plant that would do well in somewhat moist shade. I came across small-flowered leafcup (Polymnia canadensis). Its leaf shape looked interesting to me, offered some added height and its growing requirements seemed to fit my site. In my research, I did see mention "may self-seed in optimum growing conditions." Boy howdy! I have must have optimal conditions! I should have given that statement a little more weight in my decision. I still think it is a neat plant, but unfortunately if left uncontrolled, it may take over my jungle and start a new movement. So yes, "some" native plants can be invasive if they have the potential and are given optimal conditions. Check and check!

After removing hundreds of little small-flowered leafcup seedlings, I decided to walk around and evaluate plants I actually want to spread around. Just sticking to natives, some of my favorites include wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica), prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum), doll's eyes (Actaea pachypoda), wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). So what makes the difference? They all spread politely without choking out neighbors.

Welcome to My Jungle - April, 2019 Mon, 01 Apr 2019 08:00:00 +0000 The lawn art (with early flowering bulbs) project was a success. Last fall I planted a number of very early blooming bulbs in a sunny turf area, specifically dwarf iris (Iris reticulata), squill (Scilla sp.) and crocus (Crocus sp.). The iris were first to bloom in late February, followed closely by the other two species. And though the iris and crocus were readily visible even from a distance, the squill were too small and delicate to be easily detected…meaning they were easily stepped on. Bloom started to fade about a month later, just in time so as not to interfere with a first mowing. I already plan to add a few more crocus and dwarf iris in complementary colors to expand the already blue and white color palette.

Just recently I started a very small rock garden project. My inspiration was the desire to grow certain plants that require sharp drainage (mainly xeric and alpine plants), of which the jungle does not provide. The "soil" mix I decided upon consists of 9 parts coarse sand or granite grit, 5 parts compost, 4 parts pea gravel, and 1 part Turface. My goal was to create a quick draining media that still holds just enough water to get through our summer heat and humidity. Equally important was the location of the garden. It does no good to use a well-drained media if the whole thing floods during or after a rain storm, so I sited it in a relatively well drained, sunny location along the edge of my back driveway. It is known rocky soils (scree) with limited organic matter (water holding component) are usually not hospitable to soil-borne pathogens, and when alpine plants are placed in wetter soils they usually quickly succumb as a result. I speak from experience on this unfortunately. Last year I yet again trialed a few plants just using the soil media without the added decorative stones. I wanted to see if they would survive a winter before taking the next step. This was a relatively wet and cold winter, so it was a good test. Let's just say I had reason for a happy dance. For the first time after several attempts, I claimed success with a Daphne species, two Echium species, an Eryngium species (Sea Holly) and a Saxifraga species (Rockfoil). High on my success, I started laying out decorative stones this spring for added visual appeal. The toughest part of this project is mixing the soil media. Apart from the Turface, every component of this mix is heavy, and if the bags are wet from being outside, then even more so. I find this mix is too heavy for me to easily and adequately mix in a wheel barrow. I instead use a heavy duty fabric drop cloth, the kind you use when painting. I just spread out the cloth close to my project and start measuring and dumping ingredients on top of the cloth. I mix with a square-ended shovel after each ingredients is added, and I find it best to add the pea gravel last (the picture to the left was taken just to demonstrates the relative components). I think I have one more load to mix in order to finish off the base. If all goes well, some small boulders may be in my future. It's still in the early stages, but I have high hopes for this new avenue for plant collecting.

Welcome to My Jungle - March, 2019 Fri, 01 Mar 2019 08:00:00 +0000 New Organic Grower, developed a blocking mix a number of years ago that is basically 3 parts peat for structure, 1 part perlite for aeration, 3 parts compost/garden soil, lime for pH correction and a base fertilizer for nutrient needs, which is made up of blood meal, rock phosphate and greensand. This mix works better than standard potting mix when making soil blocks (growing transplants without a pot). A blocking mix needs to be more fibrous so it can stand up to wetting it to the consistency of brownie mix, then being formed into blocks using a soil blocking tool (purchased or made). Using Eliot's recipe, I usually make a batch in a wheel barrow, then dry store the finished mix in a large lidded garbage can for convenient access. The recipe can easily be scaled back though if a smaller amount than two bushels is needed. And just like in the kitchen, I have been known to make substitutions when I don't have all the called for ingredients. In general I prefer perlite over sand because it's so much lighter and easier to mix, but sand works just as well in terms of drainage if that is all you have at the time. I have used all compost instead of adding garden soil and that seems to work just as well too. Substituting fertilizers though takes a bit more consideration. This recipe calls for organic fertilizers, which in general are low in analysis and slower in their release of nutrients to the plants. If synthetic fertilizer(s) are substituted, one of the slow-release fertilizers like Osmocote® may be the best option to avoid the potential for plant injury due to over-fertilization/salt burn. Follow the label for the appropriate amount to add to the volume of planting media being mixed. Because this recipe is intended to meet organic standards, the amount specified for lime would be for agricultural lime (calcium carbonate) rather than hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide), which is not allowed as an organic input. If hydrated lime is substituted, less is generally needed because of its higher neutralizing value. I compared two Bonide® brand limes which are readily available to home gardeners, hydrated lime and agricultural lime. After comparing the analysis on these two specific products, the hydrated lime turned out to be 14% more reactive, meaning you would need to use 14% less of it to get the same effect compared to the Bonide® brand agricultural lime. Remember though, just because you use less does not mean it is the cheapest. I have found that Eliot's advice on mixing order to be really sound, particularly if you are mixing the full recipe or larger. It is tough to mix it all at once, especially if you used sand instead of perlite…unless you are blessed with one of those small cement mixers. It is so much easier to get a uniform blend of the lime and fertilizers if you mix it in the peat moss first. Ignore the picture I took of the individual ingredients in the wheel barrow before mixing…I did that just for demonstration. Start out by adding the lime to the peat moss and mixing thoroughly. Next add the perlite (or sand) and fertilizer, then mix again. Finally add the garden soil and/or compost and one last mix. Then to make soil blocks, add water until the mix is like paste. Soil blocking tools (metal expulsion mold) of various sizes can be purchased, or someone handy could devise their own from re-purposed materials.

Blocking Mix Recipe from Eliot Coleman's The New Organic Grower, 1995

  • Using a 10 quart bucket as the unit of measurement
  • 3 buckets brown peat
  • ½ cup lime (agricultural) Mix
  • 2 buckets coarse sand or perlite
  • 3 cups base fertilizer Mix
  • 1 cup blood meal
  • 1 cup soft rock phosphate
  • 1 cup greensand
  • 1 bucket garden soil
  • 2 buckets compost Mix
Welcome to My Jungle - February, 2019 Fri, 01 Feb 2019 08:00:00 +0000 My jungle still has the look of winter sleep, but a few plants are starting to stir. As expected, the buds are swelling on Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) and fragrant dawn viburnum (Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn'). Daffodils (Narcissus) and Italian arum (Arum italicum) are pushing, but unfortunately, so is the purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum). After looking closely, I noticed the hellebore (Helleborus spp.) blooms developing close to the ground but looking a bit rough around the edges. The same sub-zero temperatures that dinged up the hellebore bloom doesn't seem to have fazed the leaves of Prague viburnum (Viburnum x pragense), purple stem dwarf sweet box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis 'Purple Stem'), cow's tail pine (Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Duke Gardens') or Japanese Sacred Lily (Rohdea japonica). All add green color in a time of drab, but also texture and form beyond the standard evergreen conifers.

Regardless of what it looks like outside, the calendar tells me it is time to get prepared for planting the vegetable garden. First is knowing when the last average frost date occurs for the area, because planting dates for different groups of vegetables are based on this date. From state weather records averaged over the last 30 years, I know the median date for the last 32°F freeze for the St Louis metro east is roughly the 2nd week of April. First to be planted are the cold hardy vegetables, and as you can guess, they like the cold and are tolerant of frost. Cold hardy vegetables need to be planted in the window four to six weeks prior to the area's last average frost to mature before bolt-inducing heat. For me, February 24 through March 16 is my target window for direct seeding cold hardy vegetables like kale, kohlrabi, leaf lettuce, onion, pea, rutabaga, salsify, spinach and turnip. Soil temperature also plays a factor into early season planting. Pea for example requires a 45°F soil temperature for optimal germination, so avoid planting too early in the target window if soils have not warmed sufficiently.

A number of cold hardy vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and parsley are planted in this same window, but as transplants. For those growing their own transplants, plug trays should have been seeded roughly six weeks prior…the 2nd to 4th week of January. For the rest of us, purchasing transplants is an easy alternative. This is also the time to source vegetative material for planting horseradish (root), onion (set or plant), potato (tuber), rhubarb (crown or plant) and asparagus (crown).

Welcome to My Jungle - January, 2019 Tue, 01 Jan 2019 08:00:00 +0000 Does unseasonably warm weather in the middle of winter cause woody perennials (trees and shrubs) to "wake up" too early? As with all things in nature, it all depends. Most trees from temperate climates require the accumulation of winter chill (500 and 1,500 chill hours) and subsequent heat during their dormant phase to resume growth and initiate flowering in the following spring. Chilling hours are the number of hours of exposure to about 45°F, and are measured from leaf drop in autumn until mid-February to early March. Chilling hours for fruit plants usually accumulate between 35°F and 55°F, with 45° considered optimal. The Midwest Regional Climate Center is close to this ideal; they assume if the temperature at each station at the top of the hour is greater than or equal to 35°F and less than or equal to 45°F (35°F <= T <= 45°F), then the station's season's chilling hour accumulation is increased by 1 unit. As of January 6, 2019, the collar counties of St Louis, with a few exceptions, have accumulated at least 501-600 chill hours so far. This means any temperate woody perennial requiring less than 600 chill hours has most likely met its cool-temperature requirement and is ready for stage-two of breaking dormancy. In stage-2, the temperate woody perennial must then receive a certain number of growing degree-hours (warm-temperature requirement) in order to resume growth. Normally, most temperate woody plants adapted to our climate accumulate sufficient chilling hours by roughly mid-January, then begin accumulating growing degree-hours before resuming growth in the latter half of March. Where we normally run into problems is when temperate woody perennials accumulate their chill requirement too early in the season, resulting in accelerated budbreak and an increased risk of exposure to freeze damage. For this reason, low-chill cultivars should be avoided in our region. They tend to break bud at the first winter warm up, then are severely damaged by returning freezing temperatures. For example, 'Cresthaven' peach is well adapted to our region and is reported to require 950 chill hours. Compare that to 'UFBest,' a peach cultivar developed for central and south Florida, requiring only 100 chilling hours. If 'Cresthaven' is following the books, it should still be snug in its dormancy, while 'UFBest' would be primed for a winter kill.

Welcome To My Jungle -- December, 2018 Sat, 01 Dec 2018 08:00:00 +0000 Many gardeners are trying to attract more native insects, both in number and diversity into their landscapes in an effort to collectively patchwork a healthier ecosystem. There is an increased number of research projects focused on plant-insect interactions, trying to determine whether natives have a home field advantage over non-natives or cultivars of native plants. Several studies suggest that wild bees prefer to forage on the nectar and pollen from native plants...though not exclusively, while some studies have shown no preference one way or the other. Annie White, in her 2016 dissertation (The Univ. of Vermont), reported insect pollinators on the whole prefer to forage on native species over native cultivars. Because this preference was not true in all cases and also not exclusive suggests that some native cultivars may be equal to the native species. The Mt Cuba Center has an interesting report rating cultivars of our native Phlox paniculata. In it, they note P. paniculata 'Jeana' not only stood out for its mildew-free foliage, but found 'Jeana' attracted more butterflies than any other garden phlox in the entire trial. I checked to see how 'Jeana' performed against the native species, but was disappointed to learn the straight species did not survive. In a more recent HortTechnology article by Baisden et al. (2018), researchers found altering leaf color of native species from green to red, blue, or purple reduced insect use of a plant for growth and reproduction; concluding such native cultivars are not the best option when selecting plants to support insect-based food webs. No consistent pattern of use among the species and cultivars though were found for other traits such as variegation, fall color, habit, disease resistance, or fruit size; though the authors did suggest increased fruit size may present a problem to certain bird species. Additionally, there is concern native cultivars with reduced usefulness (i.e. red, blue or purple leaves) in terms of ecosystem health will potentially breed with native populations and hypothetically reduce the overall usefulness of the native species. The cat may already be out of the bag on that front, but the question still remains.

The take home to all this is nature is complicated and insects follow no hard rules. Many native pollinators would not hesitate to feed from an open apple blossom, even though it is not native to North America. More research is needed to understanding insect preference across the whole spectrum of plants for us to have a better understanding of a healthy ecosystem. So far though, research tends to support an overall preference of insects for native species…at least based on the limited number of species and locations included in studies to date. Keeping that in mind, those who want to make their landscape more inviting to insects and other wildlife should at the very least attempt to increase plant diversity, with a focus on incorporating native plant species. View your landscape though another lens: one that includes retention of leaf litter for overwintering beneficials and feeding your soil; plants that provide food (insect-based food web), shelter, nesting and landing sites for birds; and plants that additionally support a diverse population of insects.