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Sunday, November 1, 2015

An insect's autumn buffet

This spring I set a goal to have something blooming all season to attract and feed native insects.
            Despite my efforts over the years to plant for flowers throughout the growing season, my garden still has the most flowers in spring and early summer. Flowering trees and shrubs put on their show from late April through June. 

Mid May--a great time in the garden
            The majority of my perennials also bloom in spring. In July I’m down to lilies and daylilies. By August there’s a decided lull
Mid-August doldrums
            This spring I planted a small bed specifically for the benefit of insects (see Bugs welcome), aiming to have flowers available until the end of the garden season, which is coming up soon now. The black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) I planted bloomed steadily through the summer. 
Black-eyed Susan flowers are fading, 
leaving seeds for birds.
Sweet alyssum is still going strong

In September, as the summer bloomers went to seed, New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) picked up the baton.

A New England aster blooming happily in October

            It’s easy to forget what a great time fall is for flowers. On September 26, 2013 I counted twenty-seven different kinds of plants in bloom in beds and containers. Even now on November 1 there are a few flowers on the last of the fall and summer bloomers, 

Stonecrop (Sedum 'Rosy Glow')
and some spring bloomers are back with a last round of blossoms before the snow sets in. 
Roses that quit in the summer often bloom again
 until surprisingly late fall

            Cold and drought—we’ve had both in the past month—can signal plants to put energy into making flowers and seeds before they die or go dormant for the winter. They sacrifice some of their stored energy toward the goal of passing on their genes. Summer heat puts some plants into a state of dormancy (that would certainly apply to my pathetic lawn grass) in which non-essential functions like making flowers and new leaves are put on hold to save energy. In fall these plants come back to active growth and some resume flowering.
            Other plants take their cue from the length of the nights. Their pattern of flowering in spring and fall is mediated by the balance between two forms of the pigment phytochrome (If you want to know more about this and other nuggets of plant physiology useful to gardeners, I highly recommend How Plants Work, a new book by Linda Chalker-Scott, who blogs at
            The reason the black-eyed Susans start flowering in June is that they are “long day” (short night) plants, triggered to bloom by shorter summer nights. Dahlias wait until later to make flowers because their signal is the longer nights of late summer and fall.
            Next year I hope to expand my offerings of nectar and pollen at the end of the summer to make sure that insects can find what they need in my yard. It’s all part of a new understanding—we need the insects at the base of the food web so that all the animals, including humans,can eat.

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