We are still alive! How to protect pollinators in the slow season

Even when they look dry and “dead,” our green spaces are full of life. When we think about plants, for example, we can see that herbaceous perennials seem dry but they are actually just retreating underground, while annuals continue their life cycle by spending the winter as seeds in the ground. The same is true for other organisms that live in our green spaces: squirrels become less active, snakes retreat to sheltered spaces, and insects may overwinter as adults underground or in crevasses or as juveniles in their nests or chrysalises. Among these insects, there is a particular group that we seem to take a lot of effort to protect in season, but that we may then forget about in the fall and winter: our pollinators. In today’s post, I would like to talk about some specific ways that allow us to take care of our green spaces in the fall, all while continuing to support these organisms we worked so hard to support throughout the growing season.

Where are our pollinators in the winter?

As we mentioned in a previous post, pollinators don’t disappear in the winter. Instead, they either migrate to warmer conditions (like monarchs do; check out this website to know where they are now!) or stick around and overwinter right here in protected spaces such as crevasses, underground nests, and within plant stems. If we have been enjoying supporting them throughout the season, it may be a good idea to continue to do so also throughout the winter. Let’s see some ways to do this.

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Fall Colors: The Garden Thyme Podcast

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Fall is almost here, and we are ready. Nothing signals the start of fall like the changing of the leaves. In this episode, we discuss what causes the leaves to change color. It was also really hard to choose, but we picked our top 5 trees with the best fall color.  We also have some suggestions for shrubs, grasses, and flowers that make great additions to the garden in the fall. 

We also have our: 

  • Native Plant of the Month – New England Aster ( ~37:22 )
  • Bug of the Month – Paper wasps (~41:30)
  • Garden Tips of the Month  (~49:15)

The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County).

Theme Song: By Jason Inc

Brighten your garden with fall-blooming perennials

Mum’s the word. Or is it?

Chrysanthemums are ubiquitous, popping up in gardens, on doorsteps, by mailboxes and storefronts, a sure sign of fall.  

I have a soft spot for the tumble of peach-toned blooms that are Sheffield mums. Naughty kids that bumble over other blooms in rowdy heaps, they are gorgeous and reliably hardy, unlike many other mums. But why limit yourself – and your garden – to mums? Many other perennials jazz up the fall garden, adding delicious colors, textures, and scents.

Aptly named by Carl Linnaeus after the Latin word for “star,” asters boast abundant daisy-like flowers in pink, purple, blue, or white. Ranging from one to six feet tall, they fit every garden. Two-foot ‘Purple Dome’ needs no staking, but taller varieties such as the striking native New England aster need support to avoid the dreaded flop. 

I have a thing for anemones. Their delicate flowers dance in the slightest breeze. Single or double blooms in white, pink, or lavender float on tall stems like leggy chorus girls. Also attractive are anemone’s seed heads: fluffy cotton balls sprinkled with seeds. Kids love to play with them. Me, too. 

Goldenrods stretch their arms through gardens in late summer and fall, adding a flash of gold. Tall airy types abound as do compact cultivars such as ‘Golden Fleece.’ Ten native goldenrods thrive here.

Scoliid wasp on chives

The garlic chives in our demonstration garden are going bonkers, their white pom-poms bustling with pollinators. A clump-forming perennial herb, its flowers and leaves are edible.

Garlic chives produce abundant seeds, so be ruthless in cutting off their flower heads before they go to seed. And yes, you can get your jollies by shouting, “Off with their heads!” My apologies to Lewis Carroll. 

Call them commoners, but native black-eyed Susans are tough broads that look good in fall. Their golden blooms surround a dark “eye” that fills with seeds to feed birds and other wildlife. 

Maryland’s state flowers, they are often marked “vigorous” on plant tags, meaning they tend to spread. So place them carefully with other robust plants or let them go unbridled in a wilder area.  

Leave black-eyed Susans’ stems standing to add winter interest. In fact, leave all of your perennials standing except those that had serious disease or insect issues or are spreading beyond reason.  

Why? Beneficial insects overwinter in their stems and under fallen leaves. Their seeds provide food for wildlife and their structure offers cover. So wait to cut perennials back until spring.  

Fall is here. I hope I’ve inspired you to look beyond mums to rev up the color, impact, and wildlife value of your fall garden.    

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Cover crops for climate-resilient soil: Try it, you might like it

Cover crops are so important for improving soil and protecting the environment that it’s public policy in Maryland to use federal funding to subsidize farmers to plant them. Nearly ½ a million acres across the state are enrolled in Maryland’s Cover Crop Program. Cover crops protect Maryland’s farm fields from soil loss over the winter and scavenge the soil for the fertilizer nutrients that weren’t used by corn and soybean crops and might have moved into groundwater and surface water. 

Cover crops are typically planted from late August through October and include grasses like winter rye, winter wheat, barley, and oats and legumes like crimson clover and hairy vetch. Plants in the legume family, together with special soil bacteria, transform nitrogen from air into a plant-available form. Tillage radish (a type of daikon radish) and other plants are also grown as cover crops. 

Cover crops improve soil health and help make soils more resilient to the climate crisis. They

  • increase soil organic matter and carbon sequestration by feeding soil microbes with sugars and other root exudates 
  • improve soil structure and the strength of soil aggregates which lowers erosion risks
  • increase water holding capacity which allows crops to withstand drought better   

Cover crops use the sun’s energy (when food crops aren’t growing) to produce biomass- roots, shoots, and leaves. The cover crops are killed in the spring. Nutrients in the decomposing plants are eventually available for uptake by the roots of the vegetables and flowers we plant. This reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers, whose production requires fossil fuels.

What’s good for ag soils is also good for garden soils! 2022 is the Year of Soil Health for Grow It Eat It, the food gardening program of the UME Master Gardener program. This infographic by Jean Burchfield introduces the idea of planting cover crops, a key practice in building healthy soils: 

Infographic about cover crops

Photo of seed packets
UME Master Gardeners distributed 5,000 crimson clover seed packets for residents to plant in flower and vegetable beds this fall.
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Goldenrods & asters: Important fall flowers for pollinators

With the fall very clearly upon us, we tend to think more about falling leaves than flowers. Indeed, the big flower boom is ending, with all early-season flowers well past flowering. However, fall is a very important season for many pollinators, which still require food and shelter in preparation for the winter. In this blog, I would like to take a little bit of time to go over the importance of fall resources for pollinators, and what you can do to make sure they are available in your green spaces.

Why is fall special in nature?

The end of summer/fall is a special time for many organisms in our temperate regions. This is usually the last chance these organisms have to gather energy and resources to get ready for the winter. In the case of pollinators that are active during this period, the fall is key for collecting sufficient pollen (=food) for their nests, and for finding appropriate overwintering spaces for the adults and/or the offspring (take a look at this post to learn more about this), all of which will impact survival until the following year/season. If we want to help these pollinators, making sure that these resources are available is the best we can do!

Providing food for pollinators in the fall

Several native plants in our area flower in the fall and act as wonderful resources of pollen and nectar (and more!) for our late-summer/fall pollinators. These plants are easy to grow and once established provide abundant (nutritional) resources for our local insects.

Goldenrods

This group (Solidago spp.) consists of many species which flower in the late summer/fall. These plants are perennials that will create patches once established in an area. For this reason, they are easy to grow, although for this very same reason may usually require a bit of containment, since otherwise, they will easily spread everywhere. If the latter is a problem, plants can be grown in pots, where the containment issue is more easily resolved.

These plants support a large community of many different types of bees (many of which are specialists that can use only specific types of pollen and can be rare), as well as butterflies, flies, and wasps. In fact, more than any other herbaceous plant studied by Fowler/Droege, goldenrod (species in the genus Solidago) supported the most specialist bees (39 species). Importantly, because these plants create tall hollow stems, they can also act as nesting resources for stem-nesting bees. This way, these plants are great fall resources for many of our pollinators.

flowering goldenrod mixed with other asteraceae flowers
Goldenrods develop numerous flowers that provide support to a very large number and diversity of pollinators. In this picture, goldenrods stand out of a background of other yellow Asteraceae in a home garden. Photo: A. Espíndola

Two easy-to-grow species that one can find in several native nurseries are the tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Both species have long stems that end with many yellow inflorescences. Both of them flower in the late summer and fall and can be easily grown in green spaces, especially drier sites that are exposed to the sun. As said before, although these plants are great pollinator magnets and resources, they tend to spread readily, so, unless that is wanted, they require some control once they start spreading in an area.

Asters

Asters are another group of plants native to our region that acts as a great pollinator resource in the fall. These plants are also perennials and can be small or become shrub-like, depending on the species. Unlike the goldenrods we were talking about just above, these plants tend to display a larger variety of floral coloration, with flowers going from white, to pink, and purple, depending on the species. Like goldenrods, these plants provide both food and nesting sites to many pollinators. Their flowers attract a very large variety of pollinators (bees, butterflies, flies, beetles, wasps) during a time when there is little else to feed on. The flowers of these plants are also known to support specialist and often rare bees, which depend strongly on its pollen for survival, as well as many butterflies, including Monarchs. Their stems are also great sites for stem-nesting bees. Finally, their leaves support the larvae of many local butterflies.

purple flowers of new england aster and a monarch butterfly
New England asters can be obtained from native plant nurseries and are able to support a very large diversity of pollinators, including rare and specialist bees, as well as adults and larvae of many butterflies. In this picture, we can see a Monarch adult feeding on the characteristic purple/blue flowers. Photo: Glenn Marsh

A lovely species that can be grown in our green spaces and provides hundreds of blue/purple flowers is the New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). This perennial herbaceous plant can be obtained from nurseries and will grow three to six feet tall in the summer (but it can be cut back in mid-summer if you want to keep it shorter). The plant requires at least some sun and does well in a variety of soils we find in Maryland. I love watching the lovely cute flowers, and all the activity they attract. This is really one of my personal fall garden highlights!

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, 
extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

November Harvests: Aconcagua, Senposai, and Watermelon Radish

Earlier this week, I finally took all the pepper plants out of my community garden plot, in anticipation of a predicted frost. It’s ridiculous that I was still harvesting peppers in November, but this is the world we live in.

The final plant to go was a variety called Aconcagua, which I bought seed for and planted for the first time this year. It’s a sweet fryer-type from Argentina that’s described as growing up to three feet tall and producing fruit up to a foot long. I didn’t get quite those results, though I will admit that I didn’t plant it in the best location in my plot (lots of thistle competition). It was, for sure, a big pepper plant, with fruit frequently at least six inches long, with a fresh fruity taste that was great in salads or fried.

Here’s my last harvest (in November, again! From one plant!).

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Plants not behaving as expected: vegetable garden edition

Two of the vegetable crops I grew this year are known for loving the heat: okra and eggplant. I grow eggplant in pots on my deck, to avoid flea beetle infestation, and okra directly in the ground in my community garden plot. Both of them produced adequately over the summer. Now it’s fall; we’re having days in the 70s and nights in the 50s, and there are fewer hours of sunlight in the day. Time to pull the summer crops, right?

Except – boom! Both the okra and the eggplant are going gangbusters. More flowers, more fruits than in the hot summer months, by far.

‘Bride’ eggplant on a cool autumn morning

So why aren’t these plants following the rulebook? Do they not know how to read? Or have the rules changed?

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