Phlox var. Serendipity


Notice all the lovely purple, pink, and white garden phlox in this picture. (Garden phlox varieties all belong to the species Phlox paniculata, native to the eastern half of the United States.) Notice how it’s growing behind taller plants such as Rudbeckia and Boltonia. That was not my plan when I planted this garden 15 years ago or more.

The phlox varieties were planted in a group in the back of the border. They were the tallest plants in this border and were intended as the cornerstone of the summer garden. But of all the native plants I’ve ever grown, phlox is the one the rabbits and deer seem to like most.

I thought the phlox was gone. It certainly hadn’t bloomed in at least 10 years. I planted the taller Boltonia (thin stems, not yet in bloom) and Rudbeckia, plus some sunflowers and numerous other species, to fill in the gap it left behind. But there it is. There’s nothing like a little garden serendipity.

I think the reason the phlox is staging a comeback is that it’s now surrounded by other plants that critters like to eat (they LOVE Boltonia). And the border is so colorful and full because there are so many plants that the critters, even the rabbits nesting in this very bed, can’t possibly eat them all. The very cold winter probably helped as well. Everything is doing well this year: A lot of the critters got killed off. Hooray for the balance of nature.

I love garden surprises like this one. I just can’t figure out how to make the phlox more visible. If I move it forward it’s more likely to get eaten . . .


Where are the butterflies?


This morning my husband took this picture of a tiger swallowtail nectaring on sweet joe pye weed (see the previous post for info about this lovely plant). I expect to see lots of tiger swallowtails in my garden; they especially love the bright-purple ironweed (Vernonia fascilutata), which is in bloom now. This year I’ve seen only very few–perhaps two or three the whole season.

The same goes for great spangled fritillaries, painted skippers, sulphurs, red admirals, hairstreaks–maybe one or two the whole season so far, whereas I usually see them throughout the season. Many years I see abundant red admirals nectaring on the blooming ninebark. Their larval food, nettles, grows in several waste places nearby. Not this year.

red admiral DSCN0726

In the spring, I expect to see clouds of Peck’s skippers and spring azures. Both breed in my garden, the skippers on the abundant grasses, and the blues on the flowering parts of many native shrubs. This year, again, there were just a few of each. Both these species go through two or three generations per season, however, and I’m now seeing many skippers, almost as many as usual, nectaring on the flowering perennials. Here’s a picture of a Peck’s skipper on a New England aster, taken last September.


Now the populations seem to be recovering, after an almost butterflyless spring. So here’s what I think is happening: The very cold winter killed off many eggs and overwintering adults, and the late spring gave the few that remained an even later start. Now that the plants have bounced back, the butterfly populations are rebounding as well, so we are seeing almost normal numbers in the summer generations (many butterflies go through two or three generations per season). My guess is that this is happening to all our nonmigrating local butterflies.

So a lovely summer with lots of foliage and flowers is great for our resident butterflies. But it will not help the monarchs. Right now eggs should be hatching on the abundant milkweed in my garden. But I haven’t seen a single monarch–egg, larvae, pupae, or adult–this year.

7/25/14: In the garden this week

I’m going to cheat a bit here and refer you back to last week’s post for specifics on seasonal garden chores. It’s still a good time to prune woody plants if you don’t want to wait until next winter; you still need to keep weeding; and now that tomatoes are ripening their fruit, you certainly want to cut back on watering so the fruits don’t crack. Again, most areas around here (Bergen County, NJ) had an inch of rain this week, so there’s no need to water at all.

What’s really going on in my garden is flowers and native grasses.


In this picture you see orange butterflyweed, still going strong; Rudbeckia subtomentosa, just reaching full bloom; anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), licorice-scented lavender flowers at bottom left; bright purple ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata); and, on the right, little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium), which is just stalking out now.


From dawn to dusk, the garden is so full of pollinators that it would take a motion picture to really show it. Notice the bee working its way around the central disk of the Rudbeckia flower. One row of tiny true flowers blooms at a time, as you can see clearly in the last picture in this post, and this bee knows that and it taking full advantage. Isn’t the color of the ironweed lovely?


In the midst of summer we see hints of fall. This cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum) is ripening its fruit in the summer sun. This plant produces one of the prettiest fruits I’ve ever seen, and it remains on the plant for most of the winter–the birds only eat it as a last resort. Most viburnum berries are devoured as soon as they ripen.

Speaking of ripe fruits, grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa), black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), and elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) are all ripening their fruits now. I hope I can get enough chokeberries and elderberries to make a little jam before the birds get it all.

Happy picking! 

Two new stars

This post is about two native plants, one that I planted for the first time this spring and one that’s been in my garden for many years.


This is Verbena stricta, or hoary vervain. It’s about 3′ tall, prefers full sun and dry soil, and is coming into bloom now. I planted it for the first time this year to provide some contrast to the incessant yellow (Rudbeckias and sunflowers) of mid- to late summer. I put it in several different places, and it’s doing well in all of them. It’s supposed to be a butterfly magnet, but there are few butterflies in my garden this year (that’s an upcoming post). I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. 


This towering plant is Eupatorium purpureum (sweet joe pye weed). It’s the shade-loving, dry-soil-tolerating joe pye weed, and it’s supposed to be 4′ tall. It’s been in this shade garden, which gets a few hours of morning sun, for at least 10 years, and most years it doesn’t even bloom because the deer repeatedly lop it down. This year it’s spread across my entire shade garden and is over 8′ tall. I’m not complaining. Another beautiful relationship. 

Who’s eating whom?


Aphids are attacking the pods and stems of one of my many red milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) plants. As you know if you’ve read previous posts on this blog, I don’t do anything about aphids. And they attract predators to the garden. Sure enough, if you look very closely at the photo, you’ll see a few very, very tiny white bugs. Here’s a closeup:


I believe that these are minute pirate bugs, which eat aphid eggs. These photos were taken yesterday. Today there are many fewer aphids to be seen on these particular pods, although there are some elsewhere on the plant.

I’ll keep you posted!

7/18/14: In the garden this week


It’s the lazy part of summer, when only the bees are busy in the garden. But there are always a few things you can do:

— we’re getting lots of rain, so there are lots of weeds. Keep weeding!

– keep newly installed perennials and woody plants well-watered throughout the growing season. The recommended amount is 1 inch per week during dry spells. We’ve been getting 1-2 inches of rain every week, there’s no need to water. Established plants should not need supplemental water.

prune woody plants as needed. From the plants’ point of view,this is a good time to prune: they have mostly finished growing, flowering, and fruiting, so they have energy to put into making scar tissue. So prune back shrubs or trees that have grown too large for their sites. The next pruning window will come after leaf drop in the fall.

– for better bloom next year, remove the flowers of spring-blooming shrubs such as lilacs and mountain laurel after they finish blooming. The exception, of course, is fruit-bearing shrubs such as native dogwoods and viburnums. And if you want to prune back fruiting shrubs or trees, wait until after the fruits have ripened and the birds have eaten them.

monitor the vegetable garden for pests and diseases and take action immediately. In particular, remove plants affected by borers and wilt, and hand-pick to keep pest populations low.

– now that tomato vines are ripening fruit, cut back to 1 inch of water per week. Remember to take rainfall amounts into account when determining how much to water. Water in the morning, and water deeply. Continue to stake and tie tomato plants and to remove suckers.

remove spring crops such as lettuce and peas and replant with quick growers (greens, beets, carrots) in their place. Keep picking squash and cucumbers and beans. Most vegetables taste better young.

perennials should need no care except pinching to promote bushy plants and keep plants short when necessary

lawns do not need watering because we’ve had ample rain, and they need no fertilizer until early fall, if then. Mow with a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the grass. Remember that the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow.



Garden renewal


This spring, I did a lot of renovation in my perennial beds. Two very tall and enthusiastic plants, Rudbeckia subtomentosa and Monarda fistulosa, had spread into the fronts of the beds, shading out smaller plants. I dug out and gave away what amounted to hundreds of plants and replanted the fronts of the beds with a variety of lower-growing grasses and perennials. In this post, I’ll show you some of the new plants; most are now in bloom.

The photo above shows a spot that was completely replanted this spring, except for the existing little bluestem grasses that frame it on either side. There are sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa [yellow, left]), orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum [white, left]), dotted mint (Monarda punctata [white, right]), and lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata [yellow, right]), and other things that haven’t bloomed yet. Look carefully on the right and you’ll see nodding pink onion (Allium cernuum) full of buds. I’m very pleased with this arrangement of new and established plants.

_DSC6449 Here’s a better view of the dotted mint in a different perennial bed. Behind it you’ll see another new addition, a hoary vervain (Verbena stricta) that’s now showing buds. It will replace the blue/purple of the monarda, which is almost finished blooming.


And in yet another bed, here’s lovely light purple wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), another low-growing lover of dry soil. This is a plant that you have to hide from the rabbits. Some years they find almost all of it; other years, like this one, it blooms for months.

Why is this year different from other years? Look for an upcoming post about short-term changes in the native plant garden.