Gardening with Native Plants: Hidden from View


In its many guises, November offers fall, winter, and everything in between. Fall color remains here and there while daylength shortens, and wind, cold rain, frosts, and first snow become more likely. Gardening tasks include pruning trees and shrubs, trimming along paths, harvesting seeds, noting areas where plants must be replaced or added next spring, planning for plant orders, and entering data.

We do not remove leaves or plant materials from the garden beds in the fall. Instead, we leave them throughout the winter as these materials protect the soil, hold dormant stages of plant and animal life, and provide food and shelter for garden denizens. Dormancy has begun – life on pause as the winter season approaches.

Plant dormancy takes many forms: buds on woody stems, underground buds on rhizomes or on perennial plant crowns, buds and storage roots of biennial plants, and seeds. Forb seeds that dispersed in early summer – such as prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) and golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) – have the same requirements for germination as the latest-blooming forbs New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa): 60 days of cold moist conditions, which winter will provide for all of them. Other seeds may have different cold or other requirements. Some, like bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and other grasses can germinate immediately after dispersal when conditions are suitable for sprouting.

The Native Plant Garden and Friends of the Arboretum circle in November

Although they have different life histories, ground-nesting solitary bees and cavity-nesting solitary bees spend the winter as larvae dormant in underground chambers or in hollow stems and crevices in logs, respectively. Adult bumble bee gynes (mated future queens) are underground in shallow chambers that they each dug in loose soil.

Non-migratory butterfly species overwinter at different stages of the life cycle. Mourning cloaks and Milbert’s tortoiseshells overwinter as adults, and hairstreaks overwinter on their host plants as eggs. The great spangled fritillary overwinters as newly hatched larvae, and many species overwinter as mid-stage larvae in leaf rolls, seed pods, or in leaf litter or plant material. Examples from the native plant garden include: eastern tailed-blue, viceroy, red-spotted purple and silver-spotted skipper. Mature larvae and pupae overwinter in some species, like swallowtails, azures, and sulphurs. These forms may be attached to stems or found in leaf litter.

Woolly bears are a stage of the Isabella tiger moth life cycle; they overwinter as larvae.

Jumping worms overwinter as “cocoons,” from which young worms hatch as soils warm in spring and summer. (Please participate in our survey about the impacts of jumping worms in your garden or landscape.)

Toads dig deep, backing into the soil below the frost line to prevent freezing. They are often found in leaf piles or composted mulch. Small mammals like chipmunks and thirteen-lined ground squirrels hibernate in their burrows after feeding to build up their fat stores. Voles are active in the winter under the snow, eating seeds and using dried plant material for nesting.

Short-distance migrant or winter resident birds feed on fruits, seeds, and insects in the late autumn garden. On a blustery November day, look for flocking bluebirds or cedar waxwings, or seeds backlit in low sun angle, and know that much more is there, hidden from view.

—Susan Carpenter, native plant gardener