By Liz Vogel
Of all the disciplines and practices that I like to claim—artist, designer, gardener—I think most of all I am an observer within the small parcels that I tend. On a late fall day, when the temps have settled in the lower portion of the thermometer and mornings bring a stunning display of frost lined leaves and stems, I think about all of the usual garden suspects and wonder where they are now. Gone are some birds, butterflies, and dragonflies who follow the Lake Michigan flight path south and mingle over-head come late fall. Those still in the garden though, in some form or stage, are the caterpillars of the endangered pearl crescent butterfly who overwinter under the basal leaves of some asters such as the big-leaved and sky-blue.
The black swallowtail butterfly overwinters as a chrysalis, delicately tethered to the side of a dried branch or stem. The Queen bumblebee is tucked away in the soil or under dried leaves, having produced an anti-freeze-like substance to withstand the coming cold. She will emerge early in spring to search for a new nesting location. Who else is still in the garden? The Carolina mantis, in its smallest form wrapped up in a flat sandy brown case among hundreds of other fertilized eggs. You may see these structures in the garden, attached to a vertical surface, and witness as the nymphs hatch mid-spring. They look like a band of tiny aliens patrolling the area.
Among those that find shelter within craggy bark or small holes in a tree? The mourning cloak and comma butterflies, along with a variety of beetles and small native bees.
My point in all of this is: though it is cold and quiet, and possibly covered in snow, many of our summer favorites are still in the garden—as egg, caterpillar, chrysalis or adult—waiting for warmer temperatures to return before they once again buzz and weave among our flowers. We can all help them out by being a bit less tidy and allowing fallen branches, dried leaves and old plant stems to remain. If cutting back (no matter what time of year) clip dried stems into smaller pieces and tuck them between upright branches to help hold them during windy days.
A more vibrant garden (if we begin to better understand it) can not only come from the brightly colored flowers that we adore, but from the complexity that grows with each new season—if we evolve the way we garden to allow for the queen bumblebee, swallowtail, mantis and more.
Liz is a professional horticulturist, observer, artist and writer, and co-owner of North Branch Natives, an education-focused native plant nursery.