Gardening with Native Plants: Photography as a Garden Tool

Rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) gyne on native thistle. (Photo: Susan Carpenter)

Rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) gyne on native thistle. (Photo: Susan Carpenter)

In November, we may see frosty mornings and a few measurable early snowfalls. Leaves have mostly fallen and landscape colors are muted. Seed heads are emptied by the wind or seed-eating birds. Our gardening tasks include preparing for snow removal by trimming along paths, collecting late-maturing seeds when it is dry enough and winds are calm, planting flats of native seeds to overwinter outdoors, and compiling data. At the end of each growing season, we tally and submit garden volunteer hours, update garden planting records and the current plant lists for each garden area, and sort garden photos. At the end of the insect flight season, we curate photos documenting pollinators and other garden insects. November helps us learn more about the garden year!

While cameras may not be traditional garden tools, we use them often to record growth, change, details, and garden inhabitants. We use simple point and shoot cameras for flower and pollinator photography and telephoto lenses for animals and insects that are more skittish with a nearby photographer. Many phone cameras are useful in the field to capture a scene and post a high-quality image. Note that your photos can be useful, documentary, and beautiful, even if you are not a professional.

Taking photos of your garden from different vantage points over time is a simple way to capture “before” and “after” photos. Sometimes you do not anticipate or take a “before” photo intentionally, but if your photo collection is large enough you are likely to have the right shot. Setting a few “permanent” photo points for seasonal or annual photos will document long-term changes well. You may find that you do not have photos from certain months—I discovered that I have very few garden photos from late fall and early spring, unless there is snow cover.

For identification purposes, photos showing scale and detail are most helpful. For plants, photograph the whole plant to show its form, leaves and branching pattern, and close-ups of flowers, fruits, or seedheads, if available.

Insects should be photographed from several angles if possible. This is easiest when the insect is foraging, perching or resting, although it may be possible to capture clear images in flight. Take photos at high resolution so that you can crop them to show the specimen in more detail.

Cropped photo of rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) gyne on native thistle. (Photo: Susan Carpenter)

The Arboretum is active in two insect monitoring projects that rely on photography. We document and monitor bumble bees to learn about distribution, resource use, phenology, and behavior. We’ve identified 3 rare species—including consistent observations of rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis). To learn more about bumble bees and practice identification, participate in Bumble Bee Brigade, a Wisconsin DNR project that will verify your observations and contribute data to statewide conservation efforts. Contact Susan Carpenter for more information about bumble bee monitoring.

We also document and study dragonflies, especially migratory species like the common green darner (Anax junius) in wetlands, prairies and gardens. For more information about participating in this project, contact Brad Herrick.

Photos can provide answers and new questions about your garden and beyond. They can also remind and inspire as one gardening season ends and before another begins.

—Susan Carpenter, Arboretum native plant gardener