Sep 3: end of summer in the garden means lots of caterpillars and chrysalises

Monarch butterflies are emerging left and right in the garden. A couple of weeks ago on a rainy day, I started a new compost pile for my garden clippings. As I cleared out a space to put up wire fencing to contain the pile, I noticed what looked like an injured monarch on the ground. It was moving slowly and it’s wings didn’t look quite right.

A few minutes later I saw another slow-moving monarch on the ground. It’s wings were kind of shriveled and it looked like it was trying to dry them out. In the rain.

And then I realized: these two butterflies had just emerged from their chrysalises and were getting used to their new bodies before taking off for flight.

Since then, the monarch butterfly population has been on a steady increase. I see them soaring through the garden every day, sometimes only one butterfly at a time, sometimes multiple. I’ve been seeing tiger swallowtails as well, and eastern swallowtails, though not as many as monarchs.

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My office (and coworker) today. #butterfly #garden

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When I was out in the garden on Labor Day, I went to get the wheelbarrow to collect weeds in, and right before I flipped it over to roll it up the hill, I saw a chrysalis on it. Then I started looking around for chrysalises and I found several more.

monarch empty chrysalis
Empty monarch chrysalis

The milkweed is looking pretty gnarly. This is the time of year I start getting antsy to tidy the garden, so I wanted to chop it down. Before cutting anything, I inspected for caterpillars, and the milkweed is crawling with them. So for now it stays. I need to think about where to move the plants next year so that when they get unsightly like this, I don’t have to look at them but the caterpillars can still enjoy them.

 

August 11: so many flowers in the garden, especially sunflowers

A goldfinch perched this morning on a purple coneflower head. This is one of my favorite things to see in the garden: these tiny bright golden birds swaying on the long stems of summer’s Echinacea.

The only problem with this scene is that, combined with the kids starting school next week, it reminds me that fall is coming soon. Which means winter will follow.

I don’t feel like I’ve recovered yet from last winter. I’m not ready for the garden to go to seed. I’m not ready for endless months of desiccated plants, without green and flowers. The Shasta daisies and Rudbeckia flowers are already starting to brown on the edges.

The good news is that the garden is full of butterflies and hummingbirds. I worked from my dogwood chair yesterday, with monarchs and swallowtails drifting all around me. When I approached the flowers where they drank, I was close enough to the many small moths and butterflies that I could hear their wings whir.

Other good news is that the garden is pretty much filled in as much as it’s going to this year, so I can get a good look at how to move things around and fill in next year.

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This is the first year I’ve planted sunflowers. I love them so much.
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Butterflies love the cleome, zinnias, and butterfly bush; bees love the salvia

I’m pretty happy with how the front beds turned out. They still need some help, but the area with the cleome, zinnias, and butterfly bush are a hot spot for all the fluttering insects I like to watch. I haven’t seen as many hummingbirds in the bed as I did last year, when I had bee balm out there, but they do sometimes visit the cleome and the zinnias.

Out back is a different story. I rarely look out back in the afternoon or evening without seeing a hummingbird. They particularly love the Mexican sunflower, but I’ve seen them at the cleome, zinnias, and even the nasturtiums as well.

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Back left beds: hummingbirds love the tall orange flowers (Mexican Sunflower)

It’s hard to believe that last year that was all grass. I still have a lot I want to do with these beds — I want the far left bed to be mostly pinks and greens, with a little bit of soft purple. I’ll ditch the yellows and oranges. The Joe Pye weed, cleome, milkweed, rue, sedums, and ornamental grasses will stay, and I want to add some of the Northern Lights zinnias I have out front. I love their pink and purples, and zinnias are unanimously the favorite flower of our household. Everyone loves them.

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Lots going on here — needs some work

The middle beds out back definitely need some help. The lower bed on the left is currently a mix of silvery blue foliage and yellow-green pepper plants. We’re thinking about doing a raised bed for peppers next year, and then I can fill in that lower area with a small moon garden of silvery plants. Higher up the hill are the Mexican sunflowers, which I adore, but I don’t like where they are. I have other ideas for that bed to put some neater looking plants there, but I’m not sure where I’ll put the Mexican sunflowers next year if I do that.

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Far right beds

I’m meh about the bed with the Shasta daisies. I need to move some stuff around in there. The far right beds are pretty okay. Next year I’ll probably put in another Mexican sunflower on the far right, and I’m thinking about replacing the nasturtiums with a Persian Carpet blend of zinnia seeds, since we all love zinnias (as do the hummingbirds and butterflies), and when I asked our daughter which new type of zinnias she liked, she picked this one.

I’m going to keep soaking up the garden as much as I can before winter comes. August is the worst month for gardening, but it’s the best month for enjoying the butterflies and birds who come to harvest the abundant nectar and seeds.

 

July 18: sunflower, swallowtails, and monarch caterpillar

I love July in the garden. The flowers still have fresh blooms, and the butterflies start showing up.

tiger swallowtail on butterfly bush
Eastern tiger swallowtail on Miss Ruby butterfly bush
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Eastern Tiger swallowtail

 

The caterpillars start showing up, too.

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Monarch caterpillar

 

This is the first year I’ve planted sunflower seeds. Most of the seedlings were decapitated by critters, probably bunnies. But I’ve got one that made it to bloom.

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My first sunflower 😍

July 15: summer blooms

The garden is in full bloom, and a monarch came to visit the back garden beds today. My work killing lawn is paying off!

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Monarch on milkweed
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Cleome
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Lamb’s ears
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Shasta daisy
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The back beds are filling in

The front is starting to fill in as well.

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Autumn joy sedum and liatris
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Cleome, Miss Ruby butterfly bush, and bird bath
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Front bed from behind
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Bumblebee on lavender

June 3: front bed do-over. Thanks deer. Also, ornamental grasses 😍.

Deer munched all my New England asters and the blue wheat I was growing in the bed in front of our house. It’s the most important bed, being the one that leads up to our front door.

This weekend I bought a bunch of stuff to re-do it. I moved the asters into the middle of the bed, behind a barrier of lavender and nepeta (catmint), which I hear deer don’t like the smell of. I’m sure they’ll just step all over everything and eat the asters anyway, so I took some photos in case this is the one day it looks okay. Although, if it survives our neighborhood herd of deer, it will look much better when everything fills in.

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New plants in front, including Switchgrass, sunflower,white coneflower, Russian sage, lavender, catmint

I’ve also gone crazy for ornamental grasses this year. Look how pretty!

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Mexican feather grass in late afternoon sun
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Flowers of blue grama grass

On Saturday, while our daughter was at swim practice, I went to Lowe’s to find the Eragrostis elliotti ‘Wind Dancer Lovegrass’ that I had seen last weekend, before my June garden budget was funded. At the time it was still May, and I saw these gorgeous, graceful grasses shoved on the bottom shelf of a rolling rack. They looked like they were waiting to be put out on the ornamental grasses display. I had never seen them or heard of them before, and a quick search told me not only are they not invasive, they’re native. I took pictures of the tags so I could come back for them on June 1.

When I went to Lowe’s on Saturday, the rack was gone, and the grasses were not on display. My heart fell because these grasses were exactly what I wanted. They’d go in a windy spot, and they’d dance in the breeze that is constantly blowing. I walked every aisle three times before I gave up.

Since I had nothing to purchase, I checked the discount rack — all the plants they forgot to water or that look too imperfect to get full price for. And on the $5 rack, there were my grasses! At full price I would have only been able to buy two.

I bought four.

lollipop vervain and grass
Wind Dancer grass behind lollipop vervain

I sit on the back deck now and watch them wave in the wind. Hopefully I can save them from the near death they were experiencing at Lowes in their too-small pots.

I’m really happy with how the back hill is coming along.

Spring is springing!

It’s two weeks until our average final frost date (April 29), and I spent this weekend sowing seeds: Cleome, Bachelor’s Buttons, Coreopsis, and Brazilian vervain, along with lettuce, tendersweet peas, and some more chamomile and feverfew.

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Two weeks til average final frost. Time to sow these seeds.

I repotted my little bluestem and Scabiosa seedlings — their roots extended for inches beyond the hole in the bottoms of their beginner pots — and put all the seedlings outside for a little while yesterday and today to start hardening them off. I may be doing that too soon.

I also, for the first time ever, planted some ornamental grasses. I’m really excited about these, especially since we get a lot of wind. They are graceful in the breeze, with their blades waving. I bought two natives (Muhly and switch grass) and two others that I just like the looks of and that were the right size for the space I wanted to put them in.

All of these are planted in the new bed on the back hill:

Apparently it is still early for grasses. I have two more I want: a pink muhly for the mailbox, and three prairie dropseeds for the front bed. I’ll keep going back to the nursery every week until they come in.

I’ve got a couple more rounds of seeds to sow. The main batch is the week after the final frost date. That’s when I can put in the sunflowers, zinnias, dill, basil, Dianthus, and nasturtiums. And then, I wait. Wait to see if my transplanted perennials emerge and survive on the hill. Wait to see which seeds sprout. Wait to see comes up that I’m not expecting.

Every day, I walk the garden looking for new leaves, new buds, new sprouts. Birds hop around in the beds, nabbing insects and worms. The flower beds are much more interesting and lively than a grass lawn.

I love this time of year. I know things are happening underground that I can’t see, and that every day there will be something new to delight me. The anticipation is delicious.

For now, I took advantage of this grey morning to get out my real camera and document what’s happening in the garden right now. This time last year, the redbud and dogwood were in bloom, and a lot of the herbs were already out and green. Not so this year. Not yet.

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The dogwood is not quite flowering yet
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The redbud is almost flowering
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First tulips. The deer got the leaves but not the buds.
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Blue Salvia buds
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I needed some flowers, so we added annuals.
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The blue wheat is emerging! I figured the birds would eat all the seeds.
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The liatris is coming back up, and the lemon balm (behind the bird bath) survived division and transplanting

We’re expecting to get a ton of rain tonight and tomorrow. I hope it doesn’t wash all my seeds away. Monday night’s low is 32℉ (0℃), so I hope everything survives.

I’m okay with everything holding off for a couple more days until this storm passes through, and it gets cold, and then it warms up again. Then the trees can bloom and my seeds can start sprouting.

The garden is growing

Our grass-killing seems to have worked. After cutting the grass close to the ground, covering it with cardboard, then covering the cardboard with mulch to build up flower beds, we let them sit for a couple of weeks before planting.

On Mother’s Day weekend, we dug more than 150 holes, dropping perennials, annuals, and herbs into our newly formed beds. Now, the garden is growing. Most of the plants are still small, but echincea buds are plumping up, milkweed is blooming, basil is flourishing, and butterflies are finding us.

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Dogwood bed

Flowering Dogwoods

Flowering dogwood, bright

“You know how you can spot a dogwood tree?” I ran my hand down the trunk of one at the Duke Gardens.

“By its bark,” I said. And then giggled. It’s dumb, I know, but it’s one of those things I remember from my ecology classes at the University of Georgia.

Dogwood bark and lichen
Dogwood bark

I can identify dogwood trees now, thanks to that joke, and ours is finally blooming. When the cherries, pears, and redbuds were blossoming, I couldn’t figure out why our dogwood wasn’t full of flowers too. Shouldn’t it come early with the other blooming trees?

In my home state of Georgia, I remember dogwoods being my favorite part of spring. They were the only flowering tree I knew, and when I was in college in Athens, where trees stripped bare in winter, dogwoods flowered before  any green reappeared in the woods. I’d drive the three and a half hours from the foothills of the Appalachians to my home on the Georgia coast, and all through the forest, in the otherwise brown understory, I would see small trees dotted with white blossoms. Dogwoods.

I photographed our dogwood here in Virginia during the time of the cherry, pear, and redbud blooms. The dogwood flowers were small and green.

early April dogwood flower
Dogwood flower, April 2

I thought they’d be peaking the same time as the other flowering trees, so I wondered, Do we have a different kind of dogwood? I had never watched a dogwood flower up close before, so I didn’t know if that was all they’d do, or if the flowers would grow.

Flowering dogwood, bright
White dogwood flower, April 23

The flowers grew. They took their time. Over a period of three weeks, they slowly spread their celadon petals, and they deepened to a rich white.

Maybe I’m remembering wrong about the earliness of dogwoods in Georgia. Maybe they seemed first because they were only. Either way, I love that we have one in our garden. I’m sitting with it now, in fact.

Birds trill, a breeze moves the branches, white clouds drift in a blue sky, and we have a flowering dogwood tree.

 

Early April in the garden

Finally! We can play in the garden! Well, I guess we did some back-breaking labor a couple weekends ago, digging forsythia stumps out back, but that wasn’t playing. That was work.

This weekend, though, I refilled our dead brown flower boxes with fresh new greens, and we put plants into the ground instead of taking them out.

Brown dead flower box
Sad dead flower boxes from September
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April planting: lettuce and purple pansies

It was one of those spring days that looks gorgeous when you look at it through a window: crystal blue sky with tiny puffs of clouds. Outside, it was also gorgeous, but gusty with wind. Our daughter and I were constantly putting sweatshirts on, and taking them back off. Putting them on, taking them off.

Garden gloves and blue sky
Gardening gloves and blue April sky

And I was forever distracted by flowers in the garden. We spent 3 hours digging holes that probably could have taken 30 minutes, but — flowers!

Red tulip in April
Red tulip from previous owner

We didn’t live in this house last spring, so we weren’t sure what kinds of bulbs might be here. Apparently there are tulips. Only one has bloomed so far, but there are fat buds on others. I can’t wait to see what colors they are.

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Dogwood blossom

Dogwoods are one of my favorite trees, and I was giddy to see green buds on ours. I can’t believe I was able to capture a focused image with the wind blowing as hard as it was — the branches wouldn’t stay still.

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Our new redbud

We added more flowers to the garden as well, with our new redbud tree, and our new blueberry bushes. Which we did actually dig holes for and plant.

Holes for blueberry bushes
Digging holes for blueberry bushes

September gardening

cabbages and pansies for boxes
Cabbages and pansies for garden boxes
We thought we were going to wait till spring to start any gardening, but none of us could stand waiting.

I’ve been poring over gardening books, planning the spring beds. Our house looked sad and bare, though, after we ripped out the previous owner’s shrubbery. So we decided, we can at least put in some evergreens for winter, right?

Hick's yew with berry
Hick’s Yew (Taxus x media “Hicksii”)
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Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata “Helleri”)
With our freshly painted porch and door, we thought it might be nice to add some garden boxes too.

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Fresh paint and garden boxes
We’ve never had garden boxes before. They are my new favorite thing about our house. Besides the turquoise front door. And the oak floors. And the kittens.

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Pansies and flowering kale
We wanted something alive at our house when winter comes, and the man at the garden shop said pansies and cabbages would be great for garden boxes. The only real gardening I’ve done was in Florida, and I know nothing about winter plants. I am trusting blindly. Even if they don’t last through winter, though, they look awfully pretty now :-).

porch rail garden box
Garden box on the front porch rail