What’s in a Garden…

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

(5/2) A Master Gardener asked me the other day what I did in my spare time. She is retired now, and was telling me about some of the things she’s been doing, like the organizations she belongs to, the traveling she and her husband have been doing, and so on. I hesitated momentarily. Ten years ago I would have said I kept myself busy with my kids’ activities and gardening. But now the girls are grown, one in college, the other finished college and working – both making their own decisions, choices, schedules and lives.

So the question remained. My answer? Still gardening. Although I’ve always had a love for gardening - it’s always been a part of my life - I think I look at gardening differently than I did 15 years ago. I used to concentrate on the chores of gardening – getting stuff done, like weeding, watering, planting, harvesting. My garden was tidier than it is now, certainly not because I had more time, but because my focus was different. My time today is still just as limited as before. It seems work keeps getting in the way of my gardening hobby, but my focus, my concentration, is more for the enjoyment of nature then the chores.

As I was drinking my coffee before work, I was looking over our pollinator garden. All the stems from last year’s perennials are still there, and new growth has begun to sprout. Ten years ago, I would have looked at this garden and been driven to get into that garden and clean it up, mulch it and move on. However, my feeling on this garden now is appreciation for the diversity of the plant material, the colors of the old and the new, and the bird activity that flutters around the sticks that remain from last year’s plant material.

As a gardener, there are many plants that I enjoy in the gardens. However, in this particular garden, I have focused on native plants, mostly herbaceous, that have been a great refuge, food source and nesting site for many birds, insects, butterflies and bees. Some of these plants include Heliopsis helianthoides (perennial sunflower), Liatris spicata (spiked gayfeather), Pycnanthemum muticum (mountain mint), Phlox subulata (creeping phlox), Baptisia australis and Amsonia hubrichii (blue star). My garden is in full sun, therefore all the plants discussed are full sun lovers.

Heliopsis helianthoides is a great tall yellow perennial. It does tend to reseed, so in a more managed garden it can be a problem and will need a little more maintenance. It blooms in the summer and looks great with the liatris. Heliopsis is a daisy like flower that is about 2" – 3" across and the plant reaches almost three feet! Bees cover the flowers when in bloom and often butterflies are fluttering around and resting on the daisy-like flower.

Liatris spicata has a purple spike with fuzzy flowers. The cool thing about this flower is that unlike most spikes that bloom from the bottom up, the liatris blooms from the top down. Many bees visit these plants. Blooming in the summer, they have color for about a month. The plant gets a least 24" tall and likes well drained soils.

Pyncnathemum muticum has proven to be the best perennial to attract pollinators. This plant is in the mint family, so the tiny flowers are tubular, like other mints and blooms in the summer. The flowers are pale lavender to white. Although not a showy flower, the action that takes place around this plant due to the butterflies, moths, bees and other insects is well worth a spot in the garden. The foliage is a medium green, giving some contrast to some of the dark green foliage of many perennials.

Phlox subulata is a spring bloomer, peaking in April – May. This is a low grower, one to plant in the foreground of the bed. White, pink, purple are the colors this plant can be found. It’s often used in rock gardens because it drapes over hard surfaces, softening edges. It gives that early spring color in the full sun when not many other plants are blooming.

Another spring bloomer is Amsonia hubrichii. The pale blue flowers are star shapes and bloom after the creeping phlox, typically in mid-May. It will reach about 18" and has a fine foliage, great for contrast with some of the broader leafed perennials of the summer. A really cool attribute of this perennial is its yellow – bronze fall color. This particular plant has as much of a fall show as it does when in bloom in spring.

Probably one of my favorite perennials is the Baptisias. Baptisia has pea shaped leaves, get up to 4’ tall, depending on the cultivar, and bloom in the spring. The straight species – Baptisia australis – is a blue flower that blooms as a very long spike, as much as 18". The pea -like flowers apparently are welcoming to bees as I’ve seen many on this plant. It has a long taproot, so not the easiest plant to move; be sure to plant it in its forever home. There are many cultivars of this plant, ranging in colors of yellow, blue and bi-color.

If you are looking for a perennial with contrasting color, you may want to try Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker’s Red’. This nifty plant has deep red foliage, something typically not found in many full sun perennials. The white flowers are loosely attached to a stem, in a spike-like form. They are tubular and attract many bees. The foliage reaches about 8 inches and the flowers reach about 18 inches. This particular plant should be placed in the foreground since it flowers in the spring and just the deep red foliage is left for the rest of the season.

When choosing plants keep in mind not just if you like them, but will the bees, birds and butterflies enjoy them too? As we view our gardens, we need to be aware of all the things that are affected by what we do and how we do it. Enjoy all parts of your garden, from the weeds to the flowers, from the bees to the birds!

Read other articles on birds, wildlife & beneficial insects

Read more Articles by Mary Ann Ryan