October brings the end of flowering in the Native Plant Garden. A few autumn sights include late-blooming asters and goldenrods setting seed, tall grasses in full fall color swaying and attracting seed-eating birds and mammals, bluebirds flocking and feeding on fruits such as gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) and sumac (Rhus typhina). Cooler temperatures, possible first frost, and shorter day length signal the transition ahead. Garden tasks include trimming plants along paths, mowing, edging, pruning, and seed harvesting when conditions are dry enough. We do not trim plant material in the beds, rather we leave it standing throughout the winter.
Our new short grass prairie garden in the Native Plant Garden has been an interesting place to learn about the site, the newly established native plants, garden wildlife, and weeds. After the ash tree was removed and the stump ground out, we prepared the garden bed using a sod cutter. This removed most of the shallow Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) root systems but left behind the deeper sections of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) roots and some rhizomes of quackgrass (Elymus repens).
After site prep, planting began in July. Darrel Morrison’s garden design includes five native short grasses as a matrix and forbs (non-grasses) placed by Darrel in smaller drifts throughout. Plant spacing is about 12 inches and we planted hundreds of plants and some seeds. (We will plant the westernmost section next season). Because of the often hot and dry conditions throughout July and August, I watered the garden occasionally as the plants were establishing. After a few weeks, some of the forbs produced new growth from the base of the plant and bloomed out of season — such as spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and blazing-star (Liatris aspera) — as they reached full size. They will bloom at the “usual” time next year. The warm season short grasses bloomed as well. I found several native plant seedlings from seed in the soil bank: white sage (Artemisia ludoviciana), spiderwort, white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), common violets (Viola sororia), and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).
The most common lawn plants to appear in the young garden were dandelions from root fragments, and plantain (Plantago major)from roots and seeds. Because the site was prepared in June, another common weed was annual crabgrass (Digitaria spp.), which germinates in mid-summer and grows rapidly. It has a shallow yet tenacious root system. Surprisingly common, especially in the few weeks after we removed the sod, were the many pokeweed (Phytolacca sp.) seeds that germinated throughout the site. Much of the area was previously under the ash tree where birds perched and dispersed seed over the years. Once the tree and sod were gone, the seeds’ light requirement was met. We had never seen this plant emerge in the lawn, but even now they continue to germinate on bare soil. Sumac and buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) seedlings were also present. Other plants present in the lawn but now growing from seed include creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), white clover (Trifolium repens), purslane (Portulaca oleracea), and several other non-native annuals. While the native grasses and forbs have established and weeds were removed, I suspect that we will have plenty of weeding to do next year as well.
While planting and weeding the new garden this summer, I encountered quite a few toads, a garter snake slithering over a kneeling pad, bluebirds feeding and fledging young from bluebird box #2, a family of four sandhill cranes, many thirteen-lined ground squirrels, a mink, and a woodchuck. Deer visited the garden at night, based on hoof prints and nibbled spiderwort plants. Rabbits bit off (but did not eat) the flowering stems of several blazing-stars. Red-tailed hawks perched in the bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) trees now that the ash tree is gone. Yellow jacket wasps searched areas of moist soil exposed during my weeding—they fed on pupae and grubs that were revealed. Large numbers of acorns dropped from the trees onto roofs, metal benches, and gutters—an acorn symphony in a mast year.
During most years, October marks the season’s end of gardening with our dedicated NPG volunteers. While we did not garden together this year due to pandemic restrictions, I appreciate their continuing interest and support, emails and garden visits, questions about their own gardens, and their generosity in working in (and leading) other community gardens. Also, I am grateful that so many prospective garden volunteers are looking forward to joining all of us next year. I am already planning for our spring 2022 projects.
Enjoy reflecting on your gardening season as it wraps up this autumn and anticipate the next.
—Susan Carpenter, native plant gardener