Thursday, August 16, 2018

Lesser-Known Rudbeckia

I've done a 180 degree flip when it comes to Rudbeckia. At one time, it was a main feature in my late-summer garden. Then, cheerful though it was, I got tired of it and decided I wanted to favour flowers with cool shades of pink, purple and blue. So I ripped out most of the Rudbeckia and planted things like Veronica and Catmint.

I don't regret giving Catmint or Veronica more play in my garden, but I did found myself missing the Rudbeckia. Like Phlox, Sunflowers and Echinacea, it is a quintessential late-summer flower. The bright yellow flowers look great mixed with purple Phlox and pink Echinacea.

With this change of heart, I find myself reconsidering the many different types of Rudbeckia.

Before we take a look at some of the more unusual types of Rudbeckia, I think it's worth a quick look at the tried and true. One of the most popular is Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldstrum'.

Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldstrum' has golden-yellow flowers with a black centre. It will easily grow in average garden soil. It likes sun, but appreciates a little light afternoon shade. Removing spent flowers will prolong the display of blooms into the autumn. This perennial has a slow spreading habit, but is easy to remove where unwanted. Height: 60-75 cm ( 23-29 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

There is also a more compact version available:

Rudebckia fulgida 'Little Goldstar' was bred to be an improvement on 'Goldstrum'. It blooms profusely on a smaller plant that stands just 14-16 inches tall. It's an easy-to-grow perennial that will prosper in average garden soil with normal moisture conditions. Height: 35-40 cm (14-16 inches), Spread: 35-40 cm (14-16 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

While this is a cute little Rudbeckia, in my opinion, it does not have quite the same bright punch as 'Goldstrum'. The yellow petals of 'Little Goldstar' are smaller and the dark centre is more dominant.

And finally there is Rudbeckia hirta. These are short-lived perennials that bloom in the first year from seed that was sown in the early spring. Often you'll see them sold as annuals to brighten up fall container plantings. Rudbeckia hirta are easily grown in average garden soil. They like full sun and moist, free-draining soil. 

Now let's look at a few of the more unusual Rubdeckia starting with a couple of tall perennials:

Rudbeckia pinnata growing in the Lucy Maud Montgomery Memorial Garden.

Drooping Coneflower or Grey-headed Coneflower, Rudbeckia pinnata has yellow petals that hang down and an erect brown cone. This plant has long flower stems and hairy, divided basal leaves. It likes rich, moist, but well-drained soil. Full sun. Height: 2-5 ft (50-150 cm), Spread: 2ft (45 cm). USDA zones: 3-10.

Rudbeckia Maxima

Rudbeckia Maxima is a native of the Southern U.S.. It has really interesting grey-blue foliage and tall brown-eyed daisies that don't require staking. This perennial grows in average garden soil in full sun. It too prefers soil conditions to be on the moist side. Height is a whopping 150-240 cm (59-94 inches), Spread: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.

Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Little Henry'

The next two Rudbeckia I want to show you are shorter, but are still quite tall and upright.

Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldstrum'

So often you see closeups of flowers when a plant is profiled, but I really think it is important to consider the size and shape of a plant when you're doing your planning. 

Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldstrum' is a round, busy plant. In contrast Rudbeckia subomentosa 'Henry Eilers'  and Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Little Henry' are upright and narrow.

Rudbeckia subomentosa 'Henry Eilers'. Lucy Maud Montgomery Memorial Garden

Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Henry Eilers' has flowers with narrow yellow petals with dark brown centres. The foliage apparently has a light vanilla scent. Full sun with a bit of light afternoon shade. Height: 120-180 cm (47-70 inches) Spread: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches) USDA Zones: 4-9.

Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Little Henry' is very similar to 'Henry Eilers', but is shorter.

Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Little Henry'

Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Little Henry' is a tall, upright plant with quilled yellow flowers with brown centres. 'Little Henry' blooms from midsummer into fall and is attractive to butterflies. It will grow in a range of soils types and tolerates moist to fairly dry growing conditions. Full sun or light shade. Height: 80-90 cm (30-35 inches) Spread: 55-60 cm (20-23 inches) USDA Zones: 4-9.

This next Rudbeckia has become my new favourite. Not everyone shares my good opinion–many would describe Rudbeckia triloba as weedy native plant. It's a short-lived perennial (annual in my garden) that you might see growing wild along roadsides, in damp woods and along streams. 

What I think is charming about this Brown-eyed Susan are the flowers. The yellow petals are shorter and less pointy than those of Rudbeckia 'Goldstrum'. This makes for a smaller, rounder flower and more dainty bloom.

This is just one single plant!

Rudbeckia triloba is a short-lived perennial that is native to much of Eastern North America. It tolerates light shade and is easily grown in average, moist, well-drained soil. Deadhead the flowers to encourage new flowers and to prevent unwanted seedlings. Attractive to butterflies. Full morning sun with some light afternoon shade is ideal. Height: 75-100 cm (29-39 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 4-8.

My front garden.

Looking along the front of the garden you can see hints of the yellow Rudbeckia flowers. 
Monarda in the foreground.

Rudbeckia triloba is a tall plant with an umbrella shape. One of the unexpected things I like about this Rudbeckia is the contrast of its green foliage with the dark, reddish-brown stems. 

Originally I had it planted in the back garden, but last fall I spread some seeds in the front yard as well. It now adds a little sparkle of yellow in among the pink and purple Phlox. 

Grange Hollow Nursery 

One of the best ways to grow tall Rudbeckia triloba is amongst other plants it can lean on. In this example, it was grown alongside Mountain Fleeceflower, Persicaria.

My backyard garden.

This next Rudbeckia becomes a bit of a tangled mess, but the mix of colors is very striking. It's another type of Rudbeckia triloba and has a similar umbrella of flowers.

Rudbeckia triloba 'Prairie Glow' has bi-color blooms. It is a short-lived perennial with a tendency to liberally reseed itself. It is easy to grow in average or moist, well-drained soil. It's tall, and a bit floppy, so it is good to give it some support (or grow it next to a plant it can lean on). Full sun. Height: 90-120 cm ( 36-48 inches), Spread: 60-90 cm (24-36 inches) . USDA Zones 3-10.

Rudbeckia triloba 'Prairie Glow' offers a nice contrast between its bright green leaves and its deep purple stems. This too is a short-lived perennial that reseeds itself. To contain the spread of seedlings, I chop off the flowers as soon as they have sets seed. Then I sprinkle the seeds over the surface of the ground in the fall. 

If you like order and hate unwanted seedlings, this might not be the plant for you.

Companion Plants

Rudbeckia with Echinacea and Russian Sage in the Lucy Maud Montgomery Memorial Garden.

Rudbeckia looks great with a whole range of late-summer perennials including Phlox, Echinacea, Russian Sage, Helenium and ornamental grasses. 

 Rudbeckia with ornamental grasses in the Lucy Maud Montgomery Memorial Garden. 

 Rudbeckia with Helenium (foreground orange), Russian Sage and Pink Phlox.
Public park in Brampton.

Rudbeckia with Phlox and Daylilies

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Sunday, August 5, 2018

Milkweed & Butterfly Weed–if you plant it, they will come

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on just one type of plant–milkweed. This exacting choice of a host plant gives their offspring an unlikely advantage when it comes to predators. The leaves and stems of a Milkweed plant have a milky-white sap that contains cardiac glycoside. This toxin makes the foliage taste bad and protects the milkweed plant from the ravages of most insects and foraging animals like deer.

Monarch caterpillars emerge from the tiny white eggs laid of the undersides of milkweed leaves and start eating their host.  The caterpillars not only consume the milkweed's poisonous toxin, they adopt the presence of that same compound in their own bodies as a natural means of defence against predators like birds. The residue of the cardiac glycoside even goes on to protect the mature butterflies from predators. It's really a rather clever adaptation.

A adult Monarch sips nectar from Swamp Milkweed growing near the pond in the 
backyard of garden writer David Hobson's home.

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Most gardeners are aware that Monarch butterfly populations have plummeted in recent years. As with bees, there does not seem to be a simple explanation for this decline. There are actually a number of factors that can be blamed for the decreasing numbers of butterflies.

One of the biggest treats to Monarchs is the loss of their winter habitat. In the late summer, adult butterflies fly an amazing 22 miles a day to their winter refuge in the mountaintop forests of central Mexico. This unique ecosystem offers them a cool, moist environment that helps to slow their metabolism and conserve energy through the winter months. Unfortunately these forests of Oyamel firs have declined in recent years due to deforestation and climate change.

The Monarch's problems are not limited to their winter home. In Canada and the U.S. the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides in agricultural practices has had a negative impact on food sources. Drought and wildfires have also contributed to a decline in the numbers of milkweed plants along a Monarch's migratory route north.

What can gardeners do to help?

In spring, Monarch butterflies leave their winter habitat and fly north in search of host plants on which to lay their eggs. Only one type of host plant will due– and that's milkweed. The eggs hatch into larvae and the larvae mature into a second generation of butterflies that carry on to complete the next leg of the journey north.

Finding milkweed along their migratory route is essential to Monarch butterflies both as a source of food for caterpillars and nectar for the mature adults.

By planting milkweed, gardeners can help ensure there's a ready source of food along their route as the Monarchs make their journey as far north as Canada.

A Bee visiting a Common milkweed flower.

A Monarch sipping nectar from a Common milkweed flower.

Milkweed Basics

There are just over one hundred of species of milkweed in the U.S. and the Canadian Wildlife Federation website lists 14 types of milkweed can be found here in Canada.

Habitats in Canada and the U.S. vary. Milkweed can be found in fields, pastures, forests, on roadsides and even along wet shorelines.The foliage varies from thick, oval leaves to narrow, needle-like leaves. Depending on the species, the foliage can be arranged on opposite sides down the stem or can be whorled around the stem. One thing the various species do have in common is the a milky sap that gives the plant its common name.

Milkweed has round or flat clusters of flowers that range in color from greenish-white to pale pink and deep magenta.

Plant type: Perennial

Native habitat: Forms big colonies in fields, open woods, along roadsides and in meadows.

Height: 2-3 ft

Spread: .75-1 ft

Flower: Rose

Bloom period: Summer

Leaf: Thick, oval olive-green foliage

Light: Full sun

Moisture: Dry to average moisture. Drought tolerant once established.

Issues to consider: Spreads rapidly by rhizomes. Liberal self-seeder.

Problems: Aphids

Growing Milkweed

Ideally you should grow whatever type of milkweed is native to your area. But before you plant anything, there are a couple of issues that you should be aware of with growing Milkweed. 

Milkweed is not the most polite garden plant! Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca is in fact a thug that spreads aggressively via rhizomes. As well as spreading underground, it also produces seeds in great abundance. 

Fortunately there are types of milkweed that spread less aggressively

Should you worry about the toxic nature of milkweed sap?

Milkweed sap contains cardiac glycoside to varying degrees (dependent on the species). Some plants are more toxic than others, but caution should be employed when handling them. It's a good idea to wear gardening gloves when pruning your milkweed plants. If you do get sap on your hands, wash them right away.

Milkweed is also toxic for dogs, cats, horses, cattle as well as childrenI don't want to overemphasize this issue. Truth be told, the average gardens is full of plants that are more or less harmful if eaten. It's always wise to educate young children never to eat mushrooms, berries or put any part of a plant in their mouth. 

I consider myself lucky when it comes to my dogs. They don't like to dig and aren't interested in eating bulbs or plants. The only thing they have snacked on is the odd cherry tomato! If your cat or dog does love to nibble on plants in the yard, milkweed may not be the best choice of plants for your garden. 

Finally, milkweed is bitter, so grazing animals are unlikely to eat it unless their is absolutely no other food for them to forage.

Swamp Milkweed growing near the pond in the garden writer David Hobson's backyard.

A photo I took last weekend in David Hobson's garden.

Asclepias incarnata- A Clump Forming Milkweed

Though I take a keen interest in helping Monarch populations increase, I would never grow Common milkweed in my garden. It's just far too aggressive and I have enough problems with goutweed and lily-of-the-valley! The milkweed I grow is Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. It too is a food and nectar source for Monarchs, but it is a clump-forming perennial.

Swamp milkweed is native to most of the U.S. and Eastern Canada. Though it is found in swamps and wet meadows, is adaptable to average, well-drained garden soil. This plant has a tall, slender, vase-like shape and pinkish-magenta flowers that have a faint vanilla fragrance. It likes full sun, but I have also grown it in light shade. The one thing this plant does not like is over-fertilization which can inhibit flowering.

Swamp milkweed is easily grown from seed. Once mature, it has a deep taproot that makes it difficult to move.

When ripe milkweed seed pods split open revealing tightly packed brown seeds 
with a tail of silky, white fluff.

Swamp milkweed does have one drawback. It can be a rather prolific self-seeder. To combat the problem of nuisance seedlings, I make a point of going around the garden and deadheading the flowers.

One last thing to mention- Swamp milkweed is quite slow to emerge in spring. It's a good idea to mark its location when you first plant it.

Plant type: Clump-forming perennial

Native habitat: Swamps and wet meadows

Height: 4-6 ft

Spread: 2-3

Flower: Pinkish-magenta

Bloom period: Summer

Leaf: Narrow, lance-shaped green leaves

Light: Full sun to light shade

Moisture: Dry to average moisture.

Issues to consider: Liberal self-seeder.

Problems: Aphids

USDA zones: 3-9
Asclepias incarnata 'Ice Ballet' is a white cultivar. It is slightly shorter than the 
native species and is also clump-forming. 

Asclepias incarnata 'Ice Ballet' has white flowers with a light vanilla scent. It is both a food and nectar source for Monarch butterflies. Full sun or light shade. Moist to average growing conditions. Height: 3-4 ft, Spread: 1.5-2 ft. USDA zones 3-9.

I know this post is getting long, but I wanted to make a quick mention of a milkweed cousin.
Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa can also be a food and nectar source for Monarchs. It is easy to grow in poor to average, well-drained soil. Butterfly weed can be grown from seed, but plants are somewhat slow to get established.

Unlike milkweed, this plant does not have a milky sap. It is still harmful if eaten however.

Bright orange flowers mature into long seedpods. Be warned–like milkweed, Butterfly weed can be a prolific self-seeder. To ward off issues, remove the seed heads before they open.

Asclepias tuberosa 'Gay Butterflies' has clusters of yellow, gold, orange and scarlet flowers. Asclepias tuberosa 'Hello Yellow' has showy golden-yellow flowers.

Plant type: Perennial

Native habitat: Swamps and wet meadows

Height: 1-2 ft

Spread: 1-1.5 ft

Flower: Orange

Bloom period: Summer

Leaf: Narrow, lance-shaped green leaves

Light: Full sun

Moisture: Dry

Issues to consider: Liberal self-seeder.

Problems: Aphids

USDA zones: 4-9
Monarchs at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

At one time Monarchs numbering in the thousands could be seen along the north shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

Monarch visiting my favourite Bee Balm, Monarda that is just beginning to flower.

These days large numbers of butterflies are not a common sight, but I do feel encouraged by larger numbers of Monarchs in my garden this summer.

References, Links and Further Reading:

Canadian Wildlife Federation's information on milkweed

National Wildlife Federation (U.S.)- 12 native milkweeds for Monarchs

Mission Monarch- An important part of Mission Monarch is to identify and map milkweed in Canada. There are about a dozen species of milkweed in Canada, in nine of the ten provinces.

Milkweed Watch- is a program asks members of the public to assist researchers and citizen groups concerned with the health of monarch butterfly populations by identifying the location of milkweed plants, which are crucial for monarch reproduction in Canada. - The objective of this group is to educate the public of their fragile life cycle and to raise healthy, beautiful butterflies. As a proud member of the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), we are professional monarch butterfly breeders that commit to ethical and honest practices. IBBA members must commit to raising butterflies according to legal regulations and shipping with proper permits. Whether you are purchasing these butterflies for an event or educational purposes; the release of every butterfly helps bring back the population. Our promise is to provide you with the highest quality, hand raised and disease free butterflies.

Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration.

Monarch Education, conservation and research.

Journey North- Journey North provides an easy entry point to citizen science, with simple protocols, strong online support, and immediate results. Reported sightings are mapped in real-time as waves of migrations move across the continent. People report sightings from the field, view maps, take pictures, and leave comments.

USA Today-The effect of drought and wildfires in Texas

Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies- Read about the plant to save the sacred Oyamel Firs.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

And then there were two...

He was the little guy responsible for dandelion control. The bright yellow flowers were his favourite snack food and I didn't mind one bit!

Piper and our rabbit, Honey, were my constant companions in the garden (the two older dogs always preferring the cool comfort of the air conditioned kitchen). I have never felt right about keeping the rabbit caged, so when I could, I allowed him the freedom to hop around and explore the backyard.

Last May

You might suppose that at this small hint of freedom, the rabbit might make good his escape into the wild. Quite the contrary is true! He preferred the safety of familiar ground and always had a few favourite spots. The yard is fully fenced, so it was never likely that he'd stray far at any rate. 

My only worry was hawks. That's is where Piper's animosity for large birds came in handy. 

This hostility started with seagulls that frequent the Walmart parking lot. Piper loves the car (weather permitting). He’s one of those dogs that likes to ride in the back with his head out the open window. The slightest jingle of car keys and Piper’s at the front door manoeuvring to ensure he gets to come along.

On the occasion that I am off doing errands or in the store, Piper takes the self-appointed task of protecting the car very seriously. It was on one of these shopping trips that Piper got introduced to seagulls.

Gulls are brash and brazenly opportunistic. They often hang around in the parking lot of our neighbourhood Walmart looking to take advantage of the smallest scrap of edible garbage. When a few of them flew near our parked car, Piper decided the gulls were the enemy. I came out from the store to find him jumping around the car barking at the seagulls through the half open windows (I should mention this happened in the fall. I don't leave him in a hot car in the summer).

Piper on patrol.

It occurred to me that his dislike of seagulls might have an application in the garden.

I began to encourage him to bark whenever something large flew overhead. Before I knew it, he was barking at any large bird who flew over the garden (mostly harmless black vultures, but expecting him to appreciate the subtle distinctions between a hawk and a vulture seemed to be overly optimistic).

I began to feel comfortable with the rabbit being in the garden as long as his buddy Piper was on patrol.

I have never known a dog who is as fascinated with other creatures as Piper is.  I'll be digging around in the flowerbed when I notice Piper poking his nose at ants that make the mistake of crossing his path. Or I'll look over and see him watching bumblebees with rapt attention. 

When my husband discovered a Swallowtail newly emerged from its chrysalis earlier this spring, he gave the butterfly a free ride over to the flowers in my garden. Of course Piper was fascinated with the tentative flutter of butterfly's new wings.

Piper loved the rabbit. He was forever licking his face and ears. I am not so sure the feeling was entirely mutual, but the rabbit put up with all the attention.

In early June, I began to notice a problem with the rabbit's ears. A bit of online research suggested it might be mites, but I couldn't find any indication of mites when I examined him. His balance seemed a bit off, and then sadly, Honey took a sudden turn for the worse. He had a little seizure and passed away in my husband's arms.

I was devastated–especially by the unexpected nature of his loss. To make me feel better my husband took away the empty cage and hid it in the basement. Still, I found myself looking over to the spot by my desk where the cage had been. My morning routine of cleaning out his cage was gone and I missed the way his eyes lit up when I fed him a sliver of apple for breakfast. And of course I felt his absence in the garden...

Unfortunately, Honey has not been our only loss this summer. On Monday, we had to make that horrible decision that I knew was coming. 

Buddy was well on his way to twenty years old. He was a handsome boy and the best of dogs.

This is one of the ways I want to remember him.

In the last six months, Buddy had really slowed down. Stairs were impossible with his limited vision, so my husband carried him to bed each night and down to breakfast each morning. 

The two younger dogs would devour their dry toast and be standing at the door ready to go out for their morning exercise. More often than I'd like, Buddy would eat his breakfast and head for his bed. Still there were lots of times he'd rally and his quality of life was still good.

On Saturday, Buddy seemed to have a bad stomach bug–not untypical for an older dog. By Sunday we knew it was something more serious. We were up quite literally all night mopping up mess after mess. I took him down to the bathroom at 4 am to give him a complete bath. He lay exhausted and spent as I dried and brushed his fur. There didn't seem to be any fight left in him.

On Monday we made the terrible decision that no pet lover ever wants to make and booked an appointment with the vet. Buddy lay still while the vet confirmed the merit of our decision. A few minutes later I stroked Buddy's head, tears rolling down my face as my husband and I said our goodbyes. Buddy stirred and then drifted quietly away.

There are now just two dogs in a garden, but in my heart there will always be three.

P.S. Though the bunny is gone, Piper still charges up and down the yard alerting me to the presence of any large birds. Perhaps it is just as well, because yesterday I noticed there is a wild baby bunny in the garden.