The Winter Wildlife Garden

The Winter Wildlife Garden
by Ann McKean

Here in Montana most of us withdraw from the garden for the winter and dream impatiently about the return of summer, but there is a whole season of beauty and benefit that you can tap into by adding some wildlife friendly plants to provide late season food and cover. 014However, before you even plant a thing, think about changing your gardening habits.

First, switch your garden cleanup season to spring instead of autumn. Nature doesn’t do fall cleanup so why do we?! Besides returning some lost nutrients back to the soil and adding winter interest with structure and texture, the plants you don’t cut down and the leaves you don’t rake up provide critical winter shelter for birds, small mammals and even hibernating insects. They also help protect the crowns and roots of your plants. If you have a specific concern about disease and need to rake under or cut 015down certain plants in the fall, try creating a winter brush pile in another area to preserve hollow stems and create a place to hibernate and hide. Remember to wait to compost or toss what’s left until critters have had a chance to wake up.

Second, try not to use pesticides. Reducing or eliminating pesticide use not only spares the caterpillars birds need to raise their young, but also preserves the beneficial predatory insects which help keep things in balance. If you practice good cultural maintenance with proper plant selection, spacing, pruning, watering and judicious feeding,016 nature will usually be able to keep pest populations below the threshold of chemical intervention. As Master Gardeners, we must lead the way to a paradigm shift about how we view our gardens and the wildlife they support.

There are many plants we can include in a winter garden to benefit wildlife and add beauty. Native plants are always a good choice because they have evolved with the insects, animals and conditions in our region. Some of these plants offer vital late season nectar and pollen, including rabbitbrush, asters, coneflowers, goldenrod and perennial sunflowers. Many also provide nutrient and calorie packed seeds through the winter. There are also a host of native and non-native shrubs and trees which offer a bounty of 017nuts, berries and sometimes even twigs to nibble. Chokeberries and chokecherries, snowberries, sumacs, viburnum, red-twig dogwood, roses, mountain ash, crabapples, oaks and cone bearing evergreens are a few examples. I’ve even watched in amazement as wild turkeys deftly strip grass seeds from their stalks. All of these plants also add rich texture, structure and subtle color to our winter landscapes.

As you plan next season’s garden additions and head out to the nurseries this spring, think about how fortunate we are to enjoy such a wide variety of wildlife so close to home, and remember to include some plants for your winter garden to support those treasures. 018You, your garden and your community will be enriched.

Source: https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National- Wildlife/2012/DecJan/Gardening/Winter- Table-for-Wildlife

 

Aronia melanocarpa

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Aronia melanocarpa
by Ann McKean

Aronia melanocarpa, common name black chokeberry (not chokecherry), can be a great addition to your Montana landscape. Typically growing 3’ to 6’ tall and wide and hardy to zone 3, this attractive deciduous shrub is native to sunny or partly sunny moist locations in the eastern and midwestern United States, but is extremely adaptable and tolerates clay, dry and alkaline soil, salt, and shade. This makes it an excellent choice for rain gardens as well as shrub borders. While its tendency to sucker makes it a good candidate for more natural plantings, our challenging growing conditions keep it in check with very little maintenance required.

Plants begin the growing season in spring with clusters 010of white star-shaped blossoms which are appreciated by pollinators. Leaves are glossy green in summer and vivid orange, red and burgundy in autumn. The self-fruitful chokeberry earns its name with plump, dark astringent pea sized fruits which are actually a pome and similar to apples. Primarily relied on by birds for late winter calories, the fruit makes a tasty jam or jelly, and is extremely high in anti-oxidants. When fully ripe, the fruit has as much sugar as grapes, and freezing reduces the astringency, which may explain why birds save it for later in the winter.

Besides jam and jelly, this superfood is commercially grown for baked goods, juice, tea, wine, barbecue sauce, sorbet, and even food coloring. While its high level of tannins makes it astringent, it has more antioxidants than any other temperate fruit, and it is a great addition to an orchard or forest garden. ‘Viking’ is one of the cultivars grown in commercial fruit production in the United States, Europe and Russia, and in ideal conditions can grow as large and live as long as a lilac. A member of the Rosaceae family, Aronia could potentially suffer from any of the ailments to which that family is subject, but is usually trouble free. While older cultivars such as ‘Autumn Magic’, ‘Iroquois Beauty’ (both 3’-4’ tall) and ‘Viking’ (3’-8’ tall), have been used in ornamental landscapes, there are several excellent newer cultivars which expand the planting possibilities for this easy shrub beyond the rain garden, wildlife garden or back of the border. ‘Low Scape Mound’ is a tidy 2’x2’ and fits neatly into any landscape planting plan singly or in a group. The newest cultivar, ‘Hedge Hog’, reaches only 8” to 14” tall but spreads up to 36”, making it a dense erosion resistant ground cover with strong three season interest and wildlife benefit.

The various cultivars of Aronia melanocarpa are attractive, beneficial easygoing additions that will fit into almost any garden or landscape. Why not add one to your garden this year!

Note: Aronia melanocarpa should not be confused with Prunus virginiana which is chokecherry. ‘Canada Red’ is the ubiquitous chokecherry tree cultivar found in ornamental plantings, and Prunus virginiana melanocarpa is the native black chokecherry traditionally used for yummy chokecherry syrup. Both of these plants grow much taller than chokeberries and have a toxic pit.

Source:
https://www.extension.iastate.edu/news/2009/mar/110401. htm
https://extension.umaine.edu/agriculture/aronia/plant-description-and-habitat/

Dried Arrangements

Take a walk in the fall and you will discover the interesting dried forms of familiar plants along the trails and water’s edge. These can be combined in vases or baskets to make long-lasting arrangements. Walk into an uncultivated field and you will likely have long enough stems for an arrangement in a bushel or large decorator basket. Use a laundry basket to keep plants upright and sharp scissors or pruner to cut stalks. Do ask permission before cutting on private property, though it is rare that a landowner will object. Be wary of roadside cutting if there is a chance of a weed control spraying program in the area.

04 Dried Arrangments

What a weed gives a floral arrangement is a sense of authenticity: “This really had a life somewhere that wasn’t on purpose and hasn’t had a human intervention.” Emily Thompson, floral designer.

Without traveling, you can also use the spent flower stems from your backyard garden if you allow them to age gracefully instead of continuing to deadhead after late August. Especially attractive are coneflowers (yes, they keep their petals but turn a semi-sweet chocolate brown), bee balm (round ball shape), and sunflower varieties (no petals and seeds may drop, but the residual texture in the seed head with a triangular fringe is spectacular). Often you can find pampas grass or hops at fall farmers’ markets.

Consider using dried grasses as filler much the way a florist uses ferns at the back of the arrangement to add height. Pick one or two significant stems to anchor your arrangement and repeat in another size elsewhere in the bouquet. Use vegetation of another size or density to fill in around the special stems. Do strip leaves that will be below the height of the container. A pleasing arrangement doesn’t just happen: It’s an artful blend of harmony, balance, and scale … a mixture of foliage tints, tones, and shades plus — perhaps — an added selection of pods, cones, and grasses. We have an abundance of cattails and milkweed pods in our immediate area and they can add texture and height.

You can also add a single bloom or twig of colored leaves for emphasis. If you use foliage that is still alive, you will need to use a container that holds water and change it often. Always remember that the best arrangements are approximately twice the height and width of their containers. Experiment! Have fun!

~ Submitted by Elizabeth Waddington

Asclepias syriaca (Common milkweed)

Common milkweed is a member of the Asclepiadaceae (milkweed) family.

It easily adapts to growing in a variety of soils from rocky to clay to sandy to chalky and is often found near the banks or flood plains of lakes, ponds, and waterways, in prairies, forest margins, roadsides, and waste places. In Montana it is often found at the edges of fields near ditches. In other words, it is prolific once it gets established. A single pod normally releases 50 – 100 seeds attached to a white, fluffy coma (“parachute”) that allows wind dispersal.

Common milkweed is nature’s mega food market for insects. Over 450 insects are known to feed on some portion of the plant. Numerous insects are attracted to the nectar-laden flowers and it is not uncommon to see flies, beetles, ants, bees, wasps, and butterflies on the flowers at the same time. Milkweeds contain various levels of cardiac glycoside compounds which render the plants toxic to most insects and animals. (Humans should not ingest!) For some insects, the cardiac glycosides become a defense. They can store them in their tissue which renders them inedible or toxic to other animals. Monarch butterflies use this defense and birds leave them and the caterpillars alone. What the birds do not know is that northern monarchs feeding on common milkweed accumulate relatively little of the toxic compounds and probably would be edible.

Monarch butterflies can be helped by encouraging existing patches and planting new ones. It is the only plant the monarch caterpillar eats, and eggs are laid on the underside of its leaves. The plant grows readily from seed and spreads quickly by deep rhizomes. Because common milkweed can be weedy and difficult to remove, care should be used to establish the plant only in places where spread can be tolerated. If you want to add milkweed to your yard, propagation by cuttings of the tuberous rhizome is easy and reliable.

Less well-known human uses include historical Native American medicinal concoctions for everything from ringworm to temporary sterility and as a source for making strong fiber string. Milkweed is collected in the autumn after the leaves have begun to fall off, the stalks turn gray or tan, and the plant dries up. If the milkweed stems will break off at the ground, it’s time to harvest. The dried stalks are then split open and the fibers are twisted into string. Breaking off as many stalks as possible (or burning) encourages re-sprouting in the spring.

03 Milkweed 2Dried milkweed pods can add interesting lines and texture to a fall flower arrangement so take a walk and look for this prolific plant as Montana’s vegetation dries and turns golden.

Submitted by Elizabeth Waddington

Dandelions

by Elizabeth Waddington

Do you love sunflowers? Then you should embrace the pesky dandelions in your lawn since they are in the same family. Both are cheery yellow, can be used as accents in floral arrangements, especially if you have grandchildren picking the dandelions, and are

JAS 13

artwork by Elizabeth Waddington

attractive to pollinators for your garden and fruit trees. The family is Asteraceae (Asters/Sunflowers) and the Species is Taraxacum officinale (Common dandelion). The name (recorded from late Middle English) comes from French dent-de-lion, translation of medieval Latin dens lionis ‘lion’s tooth’, because of the jagged shape of the leaves.

What is your tolerance level for these non-native plants, aka “weeds” in your yard? If you don’t mind them, leave your dandelions to attract the pollinators who help with our neighborhood fruit and vegetable crops. You may have a good reason to not have them blooming for special events; I will be nipping off the yellow blooms when my toddler grandchildren come to visit, but otherwise leaving them until they go to seed (no, I don’t want THAT many, thank you!)JAS 14

But what can you do if your tolerance level is zero dandelions in your prized putting green turf? You can use a commercial weed and feed granular mixture in a drop or broadcast spreader when they are actively growing which will cover your entire lawn. You can spot treat with a weed killer that only targets broadleaf plants and will not harm the lawn (usually in a spray container with a nozzle). Or you can manually extract them with devices designed to pry them up by the root. Note that you need the whole root in order to eradicate the plant and that is easiest after a heavy rain. The small blue and white JAS 15digger is simple to use but takes skill to get deep enough to remove all of the root. The large red and silver “jumper” is like using a pogo stick on the dandelion. Or, as my husband asked, “What ARE you doing?” It does take a hunk of sod out with the weed so consider it to also be an aerating tool. You can always hire a commercial yard care company to maintain your lawn, but does that give you satisfaction?

Ostrich Ferns

Matteuccia struthiopteris has the apt common name of Ostrich Fern because its fronds resemble the elegantly graceful plumes of the ostrich. Native to North America, once established, this Zone 3 fern performs well under conditions that few garden plants prefer, while offering a culinary spring treat to boot. Ostrich ferns in the wild thrive in rich moist soil in part to full shade, yet they are one of the best performing ferns in our area. They tolerate our drier alkaline clay soil and with a little love will colonize an area with a northern exposure that few plants, much less ferns, will enjoy. Better still, they survive with benign neglect: no pruning and the deer and rabbits seem to leave them alone. If you have a difficult shaded area on the north side of your house, this plant will take that spot from barren to lush in a few years’ time.

When planting ostrich ferns, choose a site that will shelter the delicate fronds from burning sun and the strongest winds. It’s also a good idea to prepare the bed with an addition of sphagnum peat and compost. This will lighten the texture, provide nutrients and improve water holding capacity. In future years, a nice topdressing of compost and an occasional feeding will keep them happy. Plant them 18 to 24’’ apart, making sure to keep the crown just above the soil level, mulch lightly to hold moisture and prevent weeds and water in well. They will need regular water, especially in the first season, during which they should never be allowed to dry out. After they are established, they will survive with consistent but less generous amounts of water, while still appreciating a little extra during periods of drought. The first year or two they will work hardest on establishing a strong root system, spreading underground by rhizome. The fronds may appear shorter than the expected 36 to 48 inches and a little sparse. Don’t worry, in a few years’ time, your patience will be rewarded with a lovely soft colony of lush, almost tropical looking ferns. (Ostrich ferns can be feisty in wetter climates, but our dry conditions limit their ability to spread more than we want them to.)

They provide a graceful backdrop for other shade loving plants such as Dicentra and Hosta. It’s also fun to mix in early spring woodland plants that go dormant for the summer such as Dodecatheon, known commonly as Shooting Star. Although the leaf fronds die to the ground in autumn, once the ferns reach maturity, they will produce shorter, fertile spore-producing fronds which remain standing attractively through the winter.

Historically used by Native Americans, fiddleheads are a treasured wild forage food which appears fleetingly in restaurants and farmers’ markets in the spring. Once your002 ferns have established a healthy colony, you too can harvest the early unfurled leaves. Remembering to never take more than half of the shoots from a crown and only the early sterile leaf shoots, the fiddleheads must be tightly coiled at harvest, and must be washed and husked of their brown papery covering, then fully cooked before being consumed. When steamed for 10-12 minutes, they are reminiscent of asparagus. I have also boiled and pickled them successfully, which is an easy way to preserve them for later. They are especially tasty when boiled for 15 minutes then drained and quickly sautéed in bacon drippings with a little garlic. They can also be served cold on a salad by boiling them and chilling in an ice bath. A quick Google search will return lots of recipe ideas but, however you choose to eat them, make sure that you are eating Matteuccia struthiopteris and not a similar looking fiddlehead.

Even if they never make it into your kitchen, ostrich ferns are a beautiful plant for a difficult location in your garden.

http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?
kempercode=e180

Bulletin #4198, Facts on Fiddleheads


https://food52.com/blog/6583-fiddlehead-fern-a-controversial-coil

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Submitted by Ann McKean