Monday, September 7, 2015

Tales of Bees, Plants, and Sorrow

Colchicum cilicicum
It bloomed! One of the most satisfying times of the year for me is the discovery of this single bloom of Colchicum cilicicum, one of three Colchicum types that I currently possess (I must acquire more!). A few days before this photo, there were no signs of growth, that's how fast they are! By the time this post was published, there was already a second flower open; not present at the time the photos were taken.

Colchicum cilicicum
Colchicums are perfect for me and my garden. First, they are toxic which means I don't have to worry about above/below ground attacks by hungry or otherwise destructive animals (sometimes I feel certain they just want to destroy stuff for the thrill of it). Second, they flower late in the season which adds a lot of interest while other plants fizzle out for the year, and they provide a late resource of pollen and nectar to the various bees that are still active at this time.

Colchicum cilicicum
Last year, despite having only a few Colchicums in relatively disjunct locations relative to each other, honeybees and a few solitary bees foraged on the flowers. This plant was apparently well fertilized and produced three or four seed pods with seemingly viable seeds inside. I had collected the seeds (around ten in total) and stored them in a bag of dry sand. Just a few days ago, I sowed them, sand and all, into a small pot. My previous attempt with Colchicum from seed yielded no results; either the seeds rotted away or I was too impatient. Hopefully this year will be different!

Colchicum cilicicum
The idea that different species or hybrid Colchicums will have varying degrees of success in different gardens in different locales is a viable idea for me. This drives my desire to try many different forms, species, and hybrids of many plants to discover which ones are the happiest where I live. This could vary just a few miles down the road, where depending on the garden's microclimate a plant may behave very differently than here. I believe I have found success with this species, Colchicum cilicicum. I also grow Colchicum speciosum and Colchicum 'Lilac Wonder' (thought to be a hybrid of Colchicum giganteum and C. bornmuelleri, though both taxa are often considered synonyms of C. speciosum) with varying degrees of success, though further observation is necessary to determine the vigor of those in my garden.

Honeybee imbibing off of Stachys byzantina leaf
Early this year, as well as previous years, but before there was a single Crocus in bloom, I observed bees landing and apparently drinking on hairy leaved plants like Salvia sclarea, Stachys byzantina, and young Borago leaves. Recent rain has replenished this leafy reservoir, now being utilized by bees and butterflies. I made a video of the drinking bee:

A honeybee imbibes water from hairy leaves

Pieris rapae female on Salvia sclarea leaf
The onset of cooler weather (temporary or not) has brought back a variety of butterflies that had been scarce in my garden during the hot smokey conditions of the past month or two. They too utilize the water source found on the hairy leaves. Bees and butterflies will alternatively attain water from soggy soil; wet enough to drink from but dry enough to land on. Bees and wasps turn to pools and other man made water sources when they don't have any other sources nearby.

Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica bulbs
We have now officially entered "Bulb Season" (though considering the amazing array of bulbous or similarly geophytic species in the world, "Bulb Season" could be considered a year-round event). For many, particularly in the Northern latitudes, this is the time of year bulbs start showing up in stores and are delivered from mail order catalogs. Every year I spend way too much time and effort planting way too many bulbs. It is always worth the trouble. Besides the challenge of what to plant and where to plant it, there is the added headache of constant attack from deer, tree squirrels, ground squirrels, gophers, moles, rabbits, skunks, wild turkeys, crows, herbivorous insects, and freak accidents that can only be attributed to malicious divine intervention. Every day I must reassess my assumptions, fine tune my [gardening] technique, and adjust my plant selections carefully. Puschkinia, probably due to the close affinity to the genus Scilla (contains toxic cardiac glycosides), animal pests seem to leave them alone. Just a few days ago, I discovered some Puschkinia bulbs that were dug up, but not eaten, something worth celebration!

From left: Arisaema heterophyllum, Crocus goulimyi, Arctostaphylos viscida
Along with bulbs, it is also the time of year to sow seeds of many kinds of perennials. This year I'm sowing these: several Alliums (seed from the Pacific Bulb Society seed exchange and from my own plants), Arctostaphylos viscida, Arisaema heterophyllum (PBS SX), Barnardia japonica (PBS SX), Brodiaea elegans, various CrocusesDichelostemma capitatum, various Erythroniums, Iris chrysophyllaProspero autumnale ssp. latifolia (PBS SX), Triteleia (yellow, not sure about the species), and a few more that I'm forgetting. This is in addition to pots of seedling AgapanthusAllium, "Brodiaea-complex" (a mystery mix), ChlorogallumKniphofia, Narcissus, and Prospero "bulblings" from last years sowing. Good fun!

Good weatherproof labels and grit
My current method is shown here. A good label is so valuable! I use these metal tags and engrave the name and date of sowing, also the source (these seeds from the PBS seed exchande: SX 3). If I were less lazy I would also scribe the date of germ/emergence, potentially valuable information down the road. Most seeds are merely scattered onto the surface of soil that is not tamped down (crevices for the seeds to fall into), then covered with a very fine layer of [salt-free] grit. Too much grit is a problem for weak seedlings, I have observed. Other seeds, like Arisaema, Crocus, Narcissus, and Scilla will appreciate deeper sowing, between a half-inch to halfway down the pot. This information is largely anecdotal and probably depends on the species and the soil mix, I suspect. I will keep some pots under lights all Winter, others will be plunged in a garden bed "in the elements." Some seeds seed the freeze/thaw cycle to break the seed coat (or other germ-inhibiting mechanisms), but care must be taken when they do germinate in the open as the tiny seedlings are vulnerable to damage from weather and pests.

Well house bed
It seems that for a long time I have shown closeups, but rarely any perspective or context (my garden from a standing viewpoint). So this post will share a few of the not-too-close-up but also not-too-far-away photos of some of the many small garden plantings I have created around our yard. Many of them are small and easily managed (and watered), but you may know already that space isn't necessarily a limiting factor when it comes to growing plants that grow in succession or are small and do not out-compete each other. Nature frequently creates dense diverse plantings, that's what I'm going for.

This flower bed was originally planted with a random mix of annuals and perennials that my wife and I selected long long ago, having no clue about what plants needed. The sole survivor of that planting is the yellow snapdragon (Antirrhinum), the rest were either transplanted elsewhere or died immediately without hesitation. Since then, and wanting to learn about the needs of happy plants, I have planted the bed with small bulbs (mostly AlliumScilla and Muscari) and seeded the bare patches with a large variety of plants.

The Colchicum pictured above is planted here, nearly halfway up the right hand front side, see the green plant tag? Lamium maculatum has settled in nicely in the corner, as well as Geranium macrorrhizum and Sedum album. There is a strong tree root presence that has infiltrated the beds (another bed wraps around the corner right of the pump house door). Originally I had attempted to rip the tree roots out, but that required removing every plant first. I've now resorted to letting nature figure it out. I provide seeds and water, nature does the rest.

Shady driveway bed, under a mature Pseudotsuga menziesii
This planting has gone through several reincarnations, both as a result of poor plant selection in the past (the first place I ever planted flowers here, an utter failure) and an onslaught of hungry or otherwise destructive animal-related incidents that caused plants to either die or require triage. Currently it is planted up with Lavendula (at the edge of its shade tolerance), Geranium macrorrhizum, Campanula, Viola, Agastache foeniculum, and a variety of other native/nonnative seedlings and plantings. As with nearly all of my garden beds, a soaker hose is submerged around the tree to provide water.

Thyme garden
One of the most durable plantings here is my "Thyme garden," located just outside of my vegetable garden. While being planted with almost every species and cultivar of thyme available to me via local nurseries, companions include oregano, Sedum album (such a versatile and durable plant!), Symphoricarpos, chives, and a few others. They all do well with very infrequent waterings and are not bothered by deer or rodents, although rodents like moles have extensive tunnels under the bed. Thymes like alkaline soil, so in late fall I sprinkle some lime onto each plant. They have responded very well to this, growth has noticeably improved after lime applications.

The rest of the yard
Meanwhile, the rest of the yard pretty much looks like this. Weeds abound, it would be a full time job to keep these invaders in check, so instead I manage weeds in the areas most important to me.

Halictus bee on Hypochaeris radicata
The one good thing about the weeds, particularly the obscurely named rough cat's ear (Hypochaeris radicata, named for its hairy bumpy dandelion-like leaves), is that they are worked constantly by many pollinators in the late morning during the brief window that the flowers are open. They open when it reaches a particular temperature, maybe around 65-70°F, then close by noon which I assume is due to either heat alone or strong contact with the sun (closing to prevent desiccation of flower petals and pollen or dehydration of the nectar).

The tiny rock garden
In the midst of the weeds, on the hottest side of the house outside out bedroom window, my small rock garden is found. The bed, probably constructed at the time the house was built, is roughly ten feet long by four feet wide (estimating the outside width and length). When we moved here, it was planted with Calluna, Erica, and a mass of Calendula filling the gaps. Though it had a soaker hose wrapped inside,  I never used it and somehow the plants didn't die. I had decided at some point to turn it into a rock garden, a new exciting thing to me, so I weeded out the Calendula (saving the seed to plant elsewhere) and amended the clay soil with sand, grit, and compost.

The soaker, still in good shape, is now buried and so has created a pseudo-moraine in part of the bed. The benefit of a soaker hose in this kind of planting is that it doesn't uniformly soak the bed, but instead facilitates areas of wet and dry. Varying the depth of the hose (or rather the height of the substrate piled on top of it, the bed has "mini-hills") also affects how moisture is applied. I have had good results with this.

Heath (foreground) and heather (background)
A few of the original plants, heath and heather (Erica and Calluna, respectively) compliment each other and often are in flower when nothing else is. The heather flowers from late Spring to Autumn, while the heath flowers all Winter (now in bud), hence the common name "Winter heath." Bees like both plants, bumblebees utilizing the heath in late Winter/early Spring while a variety of pollinators visit the heather (see the August 1st post: Floral Visitors).

Alyssum montanum with Calluna
Many of the plants in this bed are commonly available, but perhaps they are not used in this way. I am not a fan of gardens or plantings where each plant has a margin of empty space between filled with either dirt or mulch. Even in nature where plants are sparse, they are often grouped together in rock crevices or parts of the ground with more fertile soil or a minute source of moisture. The Alyssum here flowers profusely in Spring and early Summer, but looks very attractive the rest of the year with the powdery leaves. I like how it has integrated with the heather, a nice contrast in leaf forms (a nice feature in Winter).

Calluna vulgaris
Heather is identified easily from heath by the leaves. Flowering time is generally the "warm" part of the year while heath flowers in the "cold" time of year, but leaf identification is easier and more reliable. The leaves of heath (Erica) are short needles perpendicular to the stem. Heather (Calluna) has overlapping scales clasping the stem or slightly lifted; definitely not at a right angle to the stem.

Dianthus gratianopolitanus
One of the plants that makes this bed feel like a real rock garden (whatever that means) is my tiny Dianthus gratianopolitanus. In Spring the plant is covered with many small semi-double highly scented flowers that appear to be favored by moths that visit at dusk. The plant is underplanted with a variety of small bulbs (as is the entire bed) which grow through the dense cushion easily.

Armeria maritima 'Rubrifolia'
Another cushion is the common thrift (Armeria maritima). I really like this form with the dark leaves. The flowers, sort of a shocking pink, contrast well with the dark plant. It is a slow grower for me, but I hope it will someday fill in the entire patch seen here, leaving no dirt.

Armeria pseudarmeria 'Ballerina red'
Another thrift is Armeria pseudarmeria, offered in a few colors in the "Ballerina" series. The leaves are larger and a bit coarser than A. maritima, also having taller flowering stems which reach a foot in height at their tallest. I have two in the bed, both given some protection from the sun by large stones. This one is planted on the North side of this large native rock.

The thing that is strange to me about this plant is that natural populations in its native Portugal are small and shrinking, according to the IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species. See the IUCN Redlist page on Armeria pseudarmeria.

Allium 'Sugar Melt'
I have a sad story. The day after capturing this image, the happy Allium you see here was destroyed. Rodents, probably a gopher, ate the rhizome leaving me with a disappointing scape. I was once naive enough to think Alliums would be safe here, avoided by deer so obviously rodents wont like them. Very wrong, was I. My first discovery that rodents LOVE Alliums was when one of the garden beds lining our driveway was completely cleared of all the many Alliums planted in it (a mass planting of amplectens and sphaerocephalon, with the exception of the few individuals of ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum which were left intact). I had acquired a single plant of Allium 'Sugar Melt' last year, and being a thrifty gardener I divided it upon arrival. The other division remains intact, planted towards the center of the rock garden, thankfully! It will be, uh, interesting to see how the dormant bulbs have fared when they appear in late Winter or Spring. I have planted different species of Scilla and Chionodoxa (considered a synonym of Scilla sensu lato) as well as the related Puschkinia. My hope is they are unfavorable to the rodents. We'll see.

Sedum hispanicum var. minus
A diminutive sedum, this plant showcases what I love about rock plants: small compact form, tight water-conserving leaves. I'd say I love the flowers, but I haven't seen them yet. This species naturally grows in rock crevices in Italy, probably elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Looks like it needs more moisture. It is planted at the foot of the Armeria pseudarmeria shown above, on the northern side of a large native rock.

Sempervivum hybrids
Sempervivims are one of the easiest plants, requiring a minimum of care and unfairly rewarding the gardener with a lot of small surprises throughout the year with their relatively strange growth habits. They are related to well known plants like the saxifrages and jade plant, as well as many popular rock and desert species (RhodiolaEcheveria, Sedum, etc). Sempervivums are monocarpic, meaning they die after flowering. Fortunately, they don't flower too often, and dead "mothers" are often succeeded by many "daughter" offsets which then become "mothers" themselves, and so on.

Sedums Sempervivums
The rock garden is host to many different forms and species (most are probably hybrids) of Sedum and Sempervivum. They are useful for adding interest throughout the year, as well as unobtrusively filling in that unwanted space between plantings. The one I must caution you about is Sedum album, it does not play nicely with other small plants and would have quickly taken over the entire bed had I not weeded it out and planted it with larger more robust plants that could tolerate its tenacity. Sedum reflexum is generally good, but there are large robust selections which are more aggressive than the norm, and so it is good to be somewhat familiar and informed when planting small and often slow-growing plants such as those in a rock/alpine garden.

Sedums Sempervivums
The many textures and shapes of hardy succulents is an obvious advantage, as is the minute scale. Small scale detail has always drawn my eye, and my imagination. As a child I would imagine myself (or my toys at the time) as living in these tiny landscapes. If it weren't for the amazing variety of predatory insects, I would still imagine such a curiosity.

Sempervivum 'Kalinda'
A new resident to the rock garden, Sempervivum 'Kalinda' was a must-have and would not exit my mind since i first saw it in the nursery. The compact form and acute leaf tips reminded me of the amazing Saxifraga longifolia, a plant that I would dream of growing but would probably not be able to keep alive in our climate (and in the hot location of the rock bed).

Sempervivum 'Kalinda'
One who has seen Saxifraga longifolia will recognize the superficial similarity. The leaves are now faded, earlier in the year they had red in the centers and tips (I imagine this will develop again in Winter?) Another series of new plants seen to the left is Thymus serpyllum 'Elfin.' My previous experience with creeping thyme in the rock garden resulted in everything nearly being taken over by the creep. This time I have chosen the shortest selection I am aware of, usually topping out at around one inch tall. I hope I don't regret it...

Sempervivum 'Kalinda'
The bed was once filled with Calendula, now Calendula resides around the outside edges where it reseeds itself in the gravel along with remnants of Sedum album. My daughter happily picks all the Calendula flowers, a good compromise!

This is the highest point in the rock garden, excluding or including the large rock. The mound is mostly made up of sand, but deeper down is a thick layer of perlite and compost. This is also the driest part of the bed, hosting a wide array of plants that tolerate these conditions. All the rocks are native, some are acutely angled metamorphic like the big dark stone, while most are the rounded "river rock" deposited in the ground here by an ancient river basin (dubbed an "alluvial plain").

A lizard perches on the big rock in the rock garden
The beautiful rock is hard but breaks easily where there are fault lines; also utilized by mosses. The rock alone is fascinating and interesting year round, as well as being appreciated by the many fence lizards that occupy our garden (and hopefully eat some pests in the process!)

Mini Rock Garden
A view of the rock garden. Note the Calendula on the left. I have also tucked a few Sedums and Sempervivums into the spaces between the bricks, some more successful then others. The opposite side also features a prostrate rosemary plant, yet it has not yet flowered (not old enough?)

Dasiphora fruticosa 'Abbotswood' with a honeybee
Bush cinquefoil (syn. Potentilla fruticosa) grows in one of the other garden beds closer to the driveway. It was one of the first plants I bought to plant here, amazing it is still alive. It was originally planted in the shady driveway bed that wraps around a mature Douglas-fir. It has since been growing in a sunnier position, and this year it has finally flowered well enough to attract honeybees! The species typically has orange to yellow flowers, and grows at high latitudes and altitudes, occasionally growing as a prostrate subshrub.

Honeybee on Echinacea
Echinacea continues to be interesting, both to me and to honeybees. I grew many of my Echinaceas from seed, and had to wait a few years before they flowered well. The bed was prepared in Autumn one year, raked relatively smooth, and seed was tossed evenly over the surface, then raked in lightly. Winter rains did their thing and many of the seeds germinated. I'll have to divide them this year or next year because the planting is a bit dense, but they seem well able to cope for now.

Geranium endressii
Geranium endressii (or Geranium nodosum?) was grown from a cutting I acquired a few years ago from the garden of my wife's parents. It had flowered well in Spring, was visited by many bees, and then I chopped it to the ground (on purpose)! Doing so let it flower again, as suggested by Daniel J. Hinckley (see Suggested Reading). Geraniums are very forgiving and durable plants, usually responding well to being cut to the ground once a year after flowering to encourage a second round of flowers.

Halictus sweat bee on Coreopsis tinctoria
Coreopsis has been largely ignored by honeybees over the years, with only a few bumblebees and other large bees showing any interest. Small sweat bees and other small solitary bees on the other hand are quite frequent visitors (see the recording below), as are butterflies. Coreopsis tinctoria is an annual species that can grow to five feet in the right conditions, maybe higher. I'm not sure how they made their way into my garden? I once had planted a dwarf Coreopsis tinctoria, and I suspect that the form was not stable (possibly an F1 hybrid?) and succeeding generations took the form of the species rather than the selection.

Sweat bees work Coreopsis tinctoria

Coreopsis tinctoria 
A less frequent form of Coreopsis tinctoria is the all red-flowered form. All of the annual Coreopsis grow in gravel at the base of the driveway bed. They self sow and are reliable in that regard. I also help by spreading the seeds around to areas that are difficult to plant and where little else but weeds will grow. Another note, deer ignore them.

This plant was grown from seed in the pump house bed. The seed was simply scattered around and grew where it was happy. It is apparently a perennial, but has not self seeded too much despite being somewhat attractive to honeybees and bumblebees. I can't pin down what genus it is though. It can't be Scabiosa (it grows to nearly two feet), and though I tried to make it an Astrania, it just lacks the palmate leaves and floral bracts. Not knowing the name doesn't make me like it any less, in fact it makes it a bit of an obsession for me. I await the day I claim victory, having finally learned the identity of the red flowered inflorescence with ovate to elliptical hairy leaves! But do feel free to chip in if you know the name...

Monardella macrantha
Sometimes I'm a sucker for new [to me] plants. This Monardella is very different compared with the native species (Monardella odoratissima) which has much smaller purple inflorescences that vaguely resemble a tiny scale Monarda didyma. Both species, however, have strongly scented foliage, and prostrate habits (sometimes upright in M. odoratissima).

Monardella macrantha
Every part of this plant smells like skunk (or more specifically, a stronger than usual Marijuana) when crushed, so I fear not that deer or any other animal will dare touch it. It is said to be a short lived perennial that requires near dryness, with occasional watering. I have planted it in the southern driveway bed (the previously mentioned driveway bed being the northern bed) in nearly pure sand to give it the free drainage it requires. I hope to someday see a hummingbird visit the flowers, and I hope even more that it survives until that day.

Monarda didyma with a honeybee
Beebalm is in the final stages of flowering. The inflorescences typically start to bloom at the top/center of the ball and bloom their way to the edges. Perhaps as a result of the heat (shorter than usual flower tubes) or the recent rain (increased nectar production) honeybees have been able to reach the nectar by conventional "proper" means rather than accessing the goods from a hole in the side.

Agastache foeniculum with a honeybee
Also at the tail end of flowering is the licorice mint (sometimes called anise hyssop). A few florets continue to pop out of the elongated spikes, but bees in general know that the season is practically over for this plant. One of the easiest plants I grow, it is a figurative bee magnet that should be in every garden. Also, the tea from the dried leaves is excellent! Used as an herb, the effect is carminative, so everyone benefits and will probably thank you for your good deed.

Madia elegans with a male Agapostemon sweat bee
Tarweed, Madia elegans, is nearly out of flowers and is now mostly in seed. Some of the larger plants (some up to three feet tall) still have a few buds with early morning dots of yellow scattered across the field. Bees, like this male Agapostemon sweat bee (the females don't have stripes on the thorax), continue to utilize the resources found in these flowers. 

Nearly all native bees live for just a single growing season. They emerge in Spring, mate, make a nest, lay eggs, provision their nests, then die when their food source dries up or up to the first frosts. Males typically hang around the flowers (sometimes a specific group of flowers, and can be territorial) and wait for females to mate with. This time of year, as resources become more and more scarce, it is probably the end of the line for the solitary bees that are still active at this time. Their nests, however, are probably fully provisioned with eggs ready to endure Winter and prepare for emergence next Spring when the cycle will continue.

Zia (my 2y/o daughter), seed grown Echinaceas, and white-flowered Dasiphora fruticosa 'Abbotswood'


  1. Thanks fro taking me on a walk through your garden(s). I appreciate that you also provided the names of all of your plants ( common & scientific). I am developing some gardens around my property too, and found this very inspiring!

    1. Thanks Helga! Latin names are good to know. There is only one Madia elegans, yet probably over a hundred plants called "fleabane," so it is easy to see how common names can lead to error. Good luck with your gardens! If you have any questions I'd be happy to help.


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