Gardening with Native Plants: New Tools and Inspiration

Wisconsin Native Plant Garden blooming in August

Wisconsin Native Plant Garden blooming in August

August marks a turning point in the growing season. Summer warmth and ample rains usually continue this month, along with a few days of refreshing cool and dry air that remind us of the approaching fall season. Garden tasks include weeding, edging, trimming tall plants overhanging the paths, and monitoring plants and bumble bees. We harvest ripe seed from species that bloomed in early summer. While there is no summer camp or tour activity in the Native Plant Garden this summer, Arboretum grounds are open and visitors are enjoying the garden. Wildlife is active. Three young woodchucks often play near the visitor center. At least one coyote visits at night, and cranes, turkeys, songbirds, ground squirrels, and chipmunks are active during the day. Pollinators and other insects are common on plants and in the air over the garden beds.

While monitoring bumble bees and monarchs in the garden, we notice many other smaller and less familiar flower visitors. A new resource, “Creating a pollinator garden for native specialist bees,” addresses increasing pollinator diversity by focusing on specialist bees. This could enhance a pollinator garden planted to appeal to generalist pollinators by adding plants that specialist pollinators will use. Although this piece was developed at Cornell University and Cornell Botanical Gardens for New York and the Northeast, the species lists include plants native to Wisconsin. Use the UW Herbarium WisFlora site to determine if the plants are appropriate for your native plant garden. This resource also has helpful descriptions of specialist bee life cycles and tips for garden planning and management. What garden doesn’t have room for a few more plants?

A new online pollinator habitat assessment tool has been developed by the Dane County Environmental Council and the Gratton Lab at UW–Madison. This easy-to-use questionnaire allows you to assess any landscape for its value or potential as pollinator habitat. As a result, you can take steps to improve habitat, using the resources provided along with many other pollinator gardening books and websites. Using the assessment tool over time will help you keep track of changes and document your results. It could be used by community groups to assess medians or boulevards that are being planted with native plants, or to evaluate neighborhood rain gardens.

It is a great time of year to visit other native plant gardens in the community for inspiration. In July, I toured the butterfly garden and rain garden in the Crawford-Marlborough-Nakoma Neighborhood. This neighborhood garden project, led by Carol Buelow, has established successfully in its first few years. Located at the south end of Whenona Drive, it is an attractive, well-maintained example of what committed volunteers can accomplish. In a short time observing the pollinator garden, I found four species of bumble bees, three butterfly species, and other flower visitors. In the rain garden, which is still in its first year, the plants are filling in. Despite some open space and original disturbed soil, this garden was weed-free. The gardeners use a narrow band of wood chip mulch at the garden edge to set it off from the lawn. Carol’s June post on the neighborhood association website describes the garden in late spring, but I encourage you to see it in person as summer continues.

—Susan Carpenter, native plant gardener