Natural Variation in Rose or Swamp Milkweed

I noticed last year that the rose or swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) I planted had significant natural variation in the leaves. The photo below shows three different plants – note the variation in color and size as well as the shape, size and texture of the leaves:

The plant to the left has fuzzy rounded leaves:

The middle plant has longer, paler and less fuzzy leaves:

And the right-most plant has long and narrow leaves that are not at all fuzzy. It also is significantly taller than the other two plants, and has not yet begun to bud:

I find the natural variation fascinating and would love to learn more about it. For example, if I knew more about botany would I know that one of these plants would be better adapted to drier soil based on its characteristics?


New Gardens

It has been a busy gardening year so far. Back in January and February I ordered three bare root Paw-Paw trees from Twisted Tree Farm, a nursery in New York state, plus more bare root trees and shrubs from the New Hampshire State Nursery.  We picked up the trees from New Hampshire in April and planted them in about a week. Most of them have done spectacularly well since, and I will need to add a separate post with photos. I ordered 10 each paper bark birch and alternate-leaf or pagoda dogwood trees, both of which already grow on our property. Unfortunately their crop of dogwood failed, but we received the birch and they all look great. I also ordered their songbird shrub package, 5 each of 5 different shrubs including service berry, american cranberry viburnum, hazelnut, elderberry and beach plum. When we were picking up our order they also had spicebush, so I snapped up 10 of those as well. These were all little sticks going in, so I’ve been impressed. Here is a birch tree:

Paper Bark Birch

I also ordered a pre-planned “shade garden” from Prairie Moon Nursery, and attended the 2018 Grow Native Mass Plant sale in Waltham, Massachusetts. The Grow Native Plant Sale is where I bought the majority of the plants for my garden last year, so I knew the plants were great quality and a great value, and bulked up again.

I had to create a small new garden for the 3 “Green & Gold” or Chrysogonum virginianum I found at the Grow Native Plant sale. They like shade so I grouped them under the Japanese maple in front of our house. I left the existing ferns but covered the rest of the grass and plants with newspaper and mulch to give the plants a chance to establish. Only the plant on the right is blooming, but the other two look healthy:

Three Green & Gold, 2 varieties of fern, and bird bath

The bird bath in the photo above doesn’t have gradually sloping sides, as a bird bath should, and so was essentially ignored by the birds in favor of puddles in nearby tarps. I added a few flat stones and a piece of tile this spring, and it has since been popular with the birds, chipmunks and squirrels for drinking, and even as a bath by a brave few! I hope to replace it eventually with a small pond.

I prepared another new garden bed under a crabapple tree for the preplanned shade garden I ordered in February. Since the plants were late arriving, I used some of the space for other plants I picked up at the native plant sale, including fringed bleeding heart, creeping phlox, foamflower, white turtlehead, and two gorgeous maidenhair fern:

The maidenhair fern looks so delicate I never would have thought to plant it, but in the wonderful new book Native Plants for New England Gardens (published by the New England Wildflower Society), I read that it is a surprisingly tough plant. It is easily one of my new favorite native garden plants!

If you are not ready for a book, this is a helpful list of Native Plants that Attract Pollinators. You may have noticed that I’ve linked to the Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder for plant details above – I have found their information more helpful for gardeners than some of the more local resources – I especially love the Comments section and “Plant of Merit” designations.

Why I Love Gardening

I am always amazed by how quickly a new garden fills in. Year one is always difficult – the garden is so sparse that I freely admit to over-planting. But the reward comes in year two.

Here is my foundation garden last year at about this time:

June 15, 2017

And here it is this year:

In foreground starting from back left: Cranesbill Geranium ‘Rozanne,Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker’s Red,Viburnum Nudum ‘Brandywine,‘ then three New Jersey Tea in front, and a Butterfly Weed in the bottom left corner. The background has wild strawberry groundcover, Summersweet Clethra ‘Ruby Spice’ on the left, and Winterberry on the right

So rewarding! Everything has filled in so nicely. The red Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) above looks so much better than last year, when it just flopped over onto the ground. I suppose it didn’t take the stress of planting well, though it has clearly recovered. Another view:

Wild strawberry, Penstemon and Cranesbill

I only lost two plants, both of them butterfly weed, though I don’t think butterfly weed is a difficult plant. One of them looked sickly almost from the time I planted it last year – I didn’t expect it to survive the winter and it didn’t.  The other I planted too close to the bird feeder – I think it was trampled by squirrels and I know it was stepped on by garden visitors. I would have given up as well.

Blooming now are blue-eyed grass, mouse-ear coreopsis, and the cranesbill, beardtongue and viburnum in the photos above. The blue-eyed grass and coreopsis started blooming at the end of May/beginning of June and are still at it, the others just began blooming in the last week. A friend gave me the coreopsis last year, so this is the first time I’ve seen it in bloom and it is a stunner. I love the rich gold flowers, and will need a few more for some much needed late spring/early summer color:

Mouse-ear Coreopsis and Blue-Eyed Grass in early June

The blue-eyed grass is one of my favorites. I purchased three of the variety ‘Lucerne’ last year and they bloomed just about all summer long. Blue-eyed grass is a type of iris, and I’ve actually spotted two or three of the native plant elsewhere on our property! I moved one to our garden to see how it does since it was lost in the grass of our yard. I believe the species has a much shorter blooming period than ‘Lucerne,’ but reseed more readily.

The butterfly weed and New Jersey tea are getting close to blooming – next week will be colorful:

Butterfly Weed and New Jersey Tea ready to bloom

New front garden

I put in a new front garden this summer to replace some of our lawn. My goals were to plant native shrubs and wildflowers that would attract pollinators and birds, and beautify the yard as well.

After planning the garden on paper, and ordering a load of way too much compost, I prepared the garden bed by outlining the garden with a hose and laying down cardboard on the grass, and watered the cardboard until thoroughly wet. I then covered the cardboard with about two inches of compost. When I planted about two weeks later it was easy to cut through the turf and cardboard, which had already softened. If I had planned further ahead I may have left it longer to more thoroughly kill the grass and weeds underneath.

New garden bed to the left, compost pile under blue tarp. The crabapple is beautiful blooming behind the Japanese maple. These two are non-natives which get to stay.

My first purchases were bargains from a native plant sale in May. I planted  lowbush blueberry, boneset, wild bergamot, a summersweet clethra, a winterberry, wild strawberry, blue-eyed grass and butterfly weed. The garden looks a little pitiful after the initial planting on May 18:

Gardens always look better with a layer of mulch, however sparsely planted! We were lucky to have a big pile of mulch from trees cleared for our septic:

I’ve added more plants here, such as Viburnum Nudum ‘Brandywine,’ Obedient plant, swamp or rose milkweed, more summersweet clethra and winterberry, and New Jersey Tea:

I purchased soaker hoses and coiled them around the new garden:

Can you spot someone making himself at home in the mulch? I was very happy to see him. He is well camouflaged towards the lower left:

He was less happy to see me:

I think the garden was more or less complete by the date of this photo in late June. I added some tall perennials at the back to fill in while the shrubs grow – Joe Pye Weed and garden phlox, as well as mixing in some beardtongue ‘Huskers Red’ and switchgrass for contrast, and cranesbill geranium for blooms:

This is butterfly weed, asclepias tuberosa, easily my new favorite garden plant. It started blooming in early July and then just kept going:

The cranesbill geranium ‘Rozanne’ bloomed practically all summer:

This is the beautiful summersweet clethra ‘Hummingbird,’ a dwarf variety of the species that will grow 2-4′. The species can be seen in the background – less showy but it will be 6′.

I don’t know if this butterfly weed will make it – it never looked very good:

One of many early visitors:

Rose milkweed just before blooming:

The garden phlox took off immediately, attracting a good number of butterflies:

This is a grouping of New Jersey Tea and butterfly weed, which were supposed to bloom together and to bloom when very little else is blooming. I’ll reserve my judgment until next year for the New Jersey Tea. Behind the New Jersey tea is the viburnum nudum ‘Brandywine’ to the right, and the boneset to the left.

Summersweet clethra – the species on the left is in full bloom, and apparently peaks a little later than ‘Hummingbird’:

The rose milkweed was very leggy but made up for it with beautiful foliage and blooms. The bumblebees liked them too! I may put in some plant cages to help them stand up next year:

The blooms of this summersweet ‘Ruby Spice’ are pink, but not as showy as Hummingbird. I’ll reserve my judgement until next year:

The boneset was extremely popular with the pollinators:

You can see how tall the boneset is in this photo – it is way in the background behind the garden phlox. I love it but it may be too big for this garden – I do have another spot for it, and may move it next spring. Also in this photo, taken in late August, the summersweet is past peak but still very pretty, and butterfly weed is still blooming!

As if you needed more incentive to plant rose milkweed:

Future wildflower meadow

Our first order of business at the dome was planting the new septic field with wildflowers. My goal was to plant native grasses and wildflowers that would attract and sustain pollinators. I made the mistake of skipping topsoil, so we started with this inhospitable field:

Septic ready for planting?

Yes, I should have cleared out all of the rocks, roots and stems!

For seed I selected the Northeastern Pollinator Conservation Seed Mix sold by Ernst Conservation Seeds  produced in collaboration with the Xerces Society for Invertibrate Conservation

I spent a lot of time trying to match the new seedlings to online photos of the seeds we planted. Luckily a neighbor helped me identify our most enthusiastic crop, native staghorn sumac:

Healthy crop of Staghorn Sumac

I have spent a substantial amount of time weeding out the sumac, and have managed to weed about 1/2 of the meadow. I’ll keep weeding until the ground freezes.