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Growing Native Perennials from Seed

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Unlike many native perennials, Purple Coneflower is quick and easy to grow from seed.

Must be easy to spread yourself around when you’re a plant that produces lots of seeds, right? After all, look at what happens when kids blow the seeds off dandelions! Dandelions pop up everywhere next year!

Unfortunately, it’s an ironic fact of gardening life that whatever you are trying to grow takes some effort, whereas the plants that you don’t want (aka “weeds”) just seem to appear without any help from you.

Now, even though regionally native plants (if sited correctly) tend to be easier than exotic plants to grow in temperate climates such as New England, that doesn’t mean that they will necessarily establish and spread without some help from us. You can buy established container plants from native plant nurseries, but this gets expensive, plus many commercially available natives are cultivars – genetically identical clones that contribute little genetic diversity and resilience to the species as a whole.

Here’s where we hands-on, DIY gardeners come in, by helping nature along a little bit!

The beautiful Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is very rare in the wild, but is easy to grow from seed from existing plants.

The beautiful Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is very rare in the wild, but is easy to grow from seed from existing plants.

In an ideal world, our plants would bloom at the right time, be pollinated by the right kind of insect or bird, form seeds and fruits that ripen and are carried (again, by bird, insect or wind) to an appropriate location to germinate when the weather is just right. Some of them do, and if they survive the first year or two, may become established plants that flower, go to seed and continue the cycle.

In the real world, though, seedlings don’t have a high survival rate. Seeds that are not picked right off the stem by hungry birds might, if they have the misfortune to blow into a lawn or roadside ditch, be mown down repeatedly or doused with weedkillers. Some seedlings are crowded right out by vigorous exotic (non-native) plants that make up about 40% of the natural vegetation in New England. Other seeds will just never germinate, no matter what. Such are the laws of life, genetics, and human-controlled landscapes.

Native plants such as Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) are often expensive to buy because they are slow to propagate from seed. Photo used by permission of Vincent Normand.

Native plants such as Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) are often expensive to buy because they are slow to propagate from seed. Photo used by permission of Vincent Normand.

So what’s a native plant gardener to do, if they want large quantities of native plants? Why, collect seeds and grow your own, of course! You can help support local plant and wildlife communities and have a beautiful, natural native plant garden by collecting seeds from existing natives and growing and distributing the seedlings around the landscape via friends, family and fellow citizens.

Collect seeds from plants that are as locally native as you can find — in Massachusetts this usually means buying mature flowering plants from nurseries at New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods (Framingham and Whately) or our small nursery at Turkey Hill Brook Farm (Spencer). Try to find local plant suppliers that propagate from local seed banks. Avoid buying seeds from foreign suppliers or even other areas of the country–-seeds may not be adapted to grow in your particular climate. You can also collect seeds from native plants that you’ve seen growing and blooming locally – but never take more than about 10% of a plant’s seeds for your own use.

If you don’t have a cold frame, sow native seeds in recycled clear plastic containers with lids and place outdoors for the winter to protect them from critters or floods.

If you don’t have a cold frame, sow native seeds in recycled clear plastic containers with lids and place outdoors for the winter to protect them from critters or floods.

Best Way to Sow Natives?

The easiest way to grow from seed is by simply allowing plants to go to seed and letting nature do the seeding, but you may have little success with this if your gardens are heavily mulched or lots of critters are present to dine on the seeds. Because most native plant seeds need an extended period of time (sometimes several years) before they will germinate,  you’re usually better off sprouting native seeds in a protected area outdoors, such as a cold frame or greenhouse, and letting them take the time they need.

Learn Your Seed’s Needs

Do some homework to find out whether your seeds have any special requirements for germination. For example, our native milkweed and bee balm seeds require at least one winter outdoors in a moist environment before they will sprout. Wild cranesbill seeds are hydrophilic and should not be allowed to dry out in storage. Seeds from wild senna and goat’s rue require scarification/scraping of the seeds to loosen their hard seed coats to allow for germination. I use William Cullina’s book Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada from New England Wild Flower Society, which lists germination requirements for each plant native to North America. Miriam Goldberger’s new book Taming Wildflowers also lists germination requirements for plants along with other tips for growing wild plants from seed. Prairie Moon Nursery has online germination requirements for the various native seeds that they sell.

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At Garden in the Woods, Trilliums and Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) are sown in raised nursery beds where seeds can sit through several winters and grow until plants reach their flowering stage. At that time, the best selections are transplanted to the garden or potted up for sale in the nursery.

Rudbeckia and Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) are easy to grow from seed sown when they ripen on the plant.

Rudbeckia and Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) are easy to grow from seed sown when they ripen on the plant.

Easy Native Perennials from Seed

For your first attempt, try growing the following eastern natives from seed — fresh or dried seeds usually germinate easily without any special treatment (cold exposure or scarification) in New England:

  • Aster
  • Lobelia
  • Helianthus
  • Rudbeckia

Native Seeds that Require At Least 1 Full Winter Before Germination:

Most of our northeast natives will only germinate after being exposed to several months of cold, snowy weather….in other words WINTER. As moisture-filled seeds freeze and thaw through winter and into spring, their outer seed coats break up, signaling seeds to germinate when temperatures get warm again. Locally-evolved plants are smart — their seeds know better than to germinate too early and have their babies get zapped by the cold.

  • Liatris seeds readily germinate in spring after a winter outdoors in moist soil.

    Liatris seeds readily germinate in spring after a winter outdoors in moist soil.

    Asclepias (also needs light to germinate, sow seeds on soil surface)Aquilegia

  • Echinacea
  • Eupatorium
  • Eutrochium
  • Geranium (hydrophilic seeds, do not let dry out)
  • Goldenrod
  • Liatris
  • Monarda
  • Phlox
  • Pycnanthemum
  • Tiarella
  • Verbena
  • Vernonia
  • Viola
  • Zizia

Some native plants only germinate after multiple winter/spring cycles of freezing/thawing:

  • Trillium
  • Actaea
  • Senna*
  • Polygonatum* (hydrophilic seeds, do not let dry out)

If you start early by sowing seeds in fall or early winter after collection, you might be able to coax seedlings from these the first spring after sowing.

img_1422-300x265Winter Sowing in Containers

On our farm, my free-range chickens love to pick at seeds and scratch up seedlings in my plant beds, so I collect seeds from my best plants in fall and germinate them in recycled plastic containers with lids, to protect them until they can germinate and grow a little bit.

Here is the native plant nursery that lives on our patio from early winter and spring each year — by late spring, I transplant seedlings into individual containers or directly into the garden:

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To sow seeds in plastic produce containers, poke holes in the bottom and top of the container, sow seeds on a few inches of moistened seedling mix, water well, and place the containers outdoors for the winter. When warm temperatures arrive in spring and seeds begin to germinate, open the lids on warm days. When seedling roots reach the bottom of the containers, you can transplant them, either right into the ground, or into containers to grow on until they are larger.

Winter sown seedlings grown in containers will be tiny in their first spring, but very hardy! Unlike seedlings grown indoors, they need no hardening off after lids have stayed open for several days and nights.

More Info on Native Plants and Winter Sowing:

WinterSown.org

Winter Sowing FAQs at GardenWeb 

How to Germinate Native Seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery

This article is reprinted from its original posting in May 2014 at the now-defunct Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens.

Drought? No Problem. We’re Native.

Late-season-blooming New England Aster, central MA, September 25th

It’s been a challenging summer for gardeners in central MA, where we’ve barely had a drop of rain in months. In my own garden, (with the exception of vegetables and annuals), I only water plants during their first season in the ground — after that, they’re on their own to live on rainfall alone. So it’s been interesting to observe how my garden plants have done in this year’s severe drought. We’ve had dry years in our 11 years here at THB Farm, but this spring and summer’s drought has been unprecedented, with the underground well at our barn dry since July now.

Not surprisingly, most of the eastern native plants did just fine. They’re well-adapted to the vagaries of the New England climate, with some summers a washout and others dry as a bone. The late-blooming New England Aster (pictured above) grows wild in the moist meadows of the eastern US, but apparently it does not require moist soil to bloom and thrive!

Earlier this summer, the Monarda cousins (Wild Bergamot and the red-flowering Bee Balm) both appeared oblivious to the drought conditions:

Pink blooms of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) in a summer with almost no rain

Pink blooms of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) in a summer with almost no rain

We are so grateful for our farm pond, which we use to irrigate our vegetable plants (which are NOT native and NOT happy to live on rainfall alone!). But the native bee balm and Helen’s flower (Helenium autumnale) growing on the pond banks don’t receive a drop of irrigation other than rain, and they bloomed just fine:

Red Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is native to moist, open areas in the northeast, but will thrive in ordinary dry soil, and attracts hordes of hummingbirds to its bright red summer flowers!

Red Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is native to moist, open areas in the northeast, but will thrive in ordinary dry soil. Bee Balm attracts hordes of hummingbirds to its bright red summer flowers!

The Canada Goldenrod covered itself in its bright yellow flowers for almost a month, keeping a variety of small butterflies, bees and beneficial insects very busy foraging for pollen and nectar!

Canada Goldenrod is too aggressive for planting in gardens, but if you have a space where it can grow on its own, it's one of the best plants for pollinators, beneficial predator insects, and birds! Goldenrod does NOT cause hay fever, it is falsely accused for the wind-blown, allergenic pollen of RAGWORT, which is the real culprit in fall allergies!

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is too aggressive for planting in gardens, but if you have a space where it can grow on its own, it’s one of the best plants for pollinators, beneficial predator insects and birds! Goldenrod does NOT cause hay fever, it is falsely accused for the wind-blown, allergenic pollen of RAGWORT, which is the real culprit in fall allergies!

Rudbeckia and Great Blue Lobelia (in the background behind the vegetable bed) are asking Drought? What drought?

Vegetables are still going strong well into September (even tomatoes and cucumbers) BUT they do receive irrigation from our farm pond.

Vegetables are still going strong well into September (even tomatoes and cucumbers) BUT they do receive irrigation from our farm pond.

Fall is here and I’m hoping all my garden friends have had a bountiful and successful season!  It’s not over yet though…fall bloomers are still providing late-season color and nectar for pollinators! Here’s our mist flower/hardy ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum, formerly classified as Eupatorium coelestinum) blooming cheerfully in late September without a drop of rain since late July:

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Conoclinium coelestinum is native to moist meadows from New Jersey southwards, but grows well in New England too. It forms stands from a spreading root system, so plant it where it can have a bit of room.

Fall is a great time to plant perennials and shrubs in southern New England — plant roots will have a few months to establish before the ground freezes. Consider including some drought-tolerant native beauties into your garden now for next year’s blooms, wildlife value and reduced watering needs!

 

 

 

Beneficial Garden Insects: Tachinid Fly, Enemy of Japanese Beetles

The white dot on the beetle's thorax (behind its head) is the egg of the machined fly.

The white dot on the beetle’s thorax (behind its head) is the egg of a tachinid fly. Some beetles may contain multiple eggs. DO NOT KILL any beetles with the white dots!

New England gardeners have waged war on plant-devouring Japanese beetles for generations now — especially those who grow roses and grapes! But the extensive damage these beetles cause could become a thing of the past, thanks to a tiny specialized fly called a Tachinid fly (Istocheta aldrichi). A parasite of adult Japanese beetles, the female fly glues her eggs onto young adult Japanese beetles (see the white dot on the beetle at the right?). Over the course of about a week, the eggs hatch into fly larvae, which then burrow into the beetle’s body to eventually consume and kill it.

Tachinid flies look like house flies but are more bristly (Robert Sousa photo)

Tachinid flies look a little like house flies but have bristly hairs (Robert Sousa photo)

Thanks to this beneficial insect, I’ve observed a noticeable reduction in Japanese beetle populations over the past ten years here in central MA. This host-specific tachinid fly species was initially introduced in the US as a control method in the 20th century, but it has taken many decades to become widely established. You can help speed up the process locally, though. Here’s how:

Attract tachinid flies to your property by planting plenty of flowering nectar plants (flower nectar and aphid honeydew are food for adult tachinid flies), and avoiding any pest control method that involves killing all the adult beetles present (including pheromone traps!). You don’t want to kill any beetles that are infected with the fly eggs — this will terminate the fly’s life cycle. You want the baby flies to live through to maturity and expand their local populations in your yard.

Japanese beetles can skeletonize plant foliage

Japanese beetles in large numbers cab skeletonize plant foliage. This beetle has no white spot (tachinid fly eggs), so flick it right into a bowl of water to drown.

To really speed up the process of building up tachinid fly populations, work on selective culling of beetles NOT infected with the fly eggs. Do this when you see adult Japanese beetles present (usually the month of July in northern climates). This involves an occasional walk through your gardens with a bowl of water, using your hands to sweep adult beetles into the water, where they will float on the surface but cannot fly away. Look carefully for any beetles that are infected with fly cocoons (the white dots), and flick those beetles out so they can live a bit longer (wear gloves if you find it icky to touch them). The infected beetles’ death from the fly larvae will happen very soon, and they won’t damage your plants for much longer.

If you have chickens, they LOVE to eat Japanese beetles, so feed them your unparasitized beetles. Otherwise, just leave the uninfected beetles to drown in the bowl.

My hens follow me around during my beetle hunts clucking for their bowl of beetle treats!

chicken eating japanese beetles IMG_0713Use the bowl method as often as possible during the month or so that the beetles are active. Over time, you will notice that more and more beetles are infected with the parasitic fly, and overall beetle numbers will begin to go down within a few years. Yes, this is a long-term approach, but one that does not require toxic insecticides that also kill beneficial species

The first year I started this method of Japanese beetle control (when they defoliated my pink and white Virginia roses, it was out and out WAR), I found perhaps 1 in 15 or 20 beetles infected with the fly larvae. Every year since, I’ve found and released higher numbers of infected beetles, and this year three-quarters (75%) of Japanese beetles were sporting the white dots. For the first time ever, my roses and my New England Asters (some of their favorite plants!) show very little damage from the dreaded beetles.

It just goes to show…with a little help from determined gardeners and the avoidance of pesticide use, some of our worst imported garden pests may just go away on their own, thanks to the natural balances provided by Mother Nature.

I DO feel badly for my hens, though. They’re wondering what happened to their daily beetle treats!

Where are our beetle treats?

Where are our beetle treats?

Controlling Japanese beetle grubs: Japanese beetles also cause plant damage at other times in their life cycle — their underground grubs (beetle larvae) love to eat grass roots, and large populations of these white grubs can destroy lawns especially in areas with zero habitat for tachinid flies (neighborhoods with mostly lawns, few flowering plants, and pesticide usage). Avoid using any insecticides containing Imidicloprid, a neo-nicotinoid insecticide that is highly toxic to bees and other insects. (Imidicloprid is sold in stores under such trade names as Bayer Merit). Instead, reduce Japanese beetle grub populations using a natural insecticide called Milky Spore, which contains bacteria that specifically kill Japanese beetle grubs and not other insects. Sprinkle Milky Spore granules (spores) into your lawn when grubs are actively feeding (fall and spring) — the grubs need to ingest the spores to become infected and die. In northern climates, spread of the spores in our cold soils can be slow, so expect to see results after about 3-5 years.

Saving Birds with Cat Scrunchie Collars

cat king cole

Meet Cat King Cole, our farm cat. He is gentle and amiable with people — but he does have a dark side. He is a highly skilled and ruthless assassin — of mice and plant-destroying voles (good), but also of our beloved wild birds, including hummingbirds and young song sparrows that nest in our shrubs and trees.

As a rescue cat who was originally a stray, we have a hard time keeping him indoors–it seems the more we try to keep him from leaving the house, the more stealthy he becomes trying to find a way to escape to go hunting for baby birds! As a wildlife gardener who tries to attract birds, this is not a good thing! I’m pretty sure if the National Wildlife Federation knew about the birds he has killed, we’d be immediately stripped of our certification as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat!

The good news is that I have finally found the magic wand I’ve been looking for — something that keeps Cat King Cole from killing birds! Introducing the BirdsBeSafe collar:

OK, he does look a bit ridiculous in his ruffled collar, but it really seems to work!

OK, he does look a bit ridiculous in his ruffled collar, but it really seems to work!

The idea of the collar is that it is bright, colorful and very conspicuous, making him much more visible to songbirds who can fly away to safety before he can pounce. Cole has been wearing his BirdsBeSafe collars for a few years now, and he never catches birds any more. He certainly still hunts them, but this collar seems to have finally ended the terror regime he inflicted on our wild bird population. I’m not sure if we’re ready to put our bird nesting boxes back up, but we can certainly breathe easier knowing that he is unlikely to take out more of our vulnerable nesting birds.

The collar is made of patterned fabric that covers an elastic breakaway cat collar that will break apart if caught in something. Only once has he lost his collar, and within just one day he caught a small songbird — proof that the collar is really effective in controlling his bird predation.

Eastern Phoebe nest every year just outside our front door. This year's clutch is 5 eggs which the female is incubating now!

Eastern Phoebes nest every year just outside our front door. The female is incubating 5 eggs this year!

Ideally, domestic cats should not live outdoors at all, to protect them from being killed by wildlife or cars, but nurseries and farms such as ours need cats on site for their non-toxic pest control. Cats are especially useful for controlling the voles that can chew on plant trunks and roots and kill plants. But, they are never selective, and still kill birds. It’s estimated that cats kill hundreds of millions of birds in the US each year, a serious problem for many species who are already in decline due to habitat loss and other factors.

So if you have a cat that cannot be kept indoors, dress him up in a patterned ‘scrunchie’ cat collar. He might look a little comical, and your friends and family will laugh, but that’s a small price to pay for keeping visiting birds safe.

cole hay wagon

Cat King Cole doesn’t seem to mind wearing his collar at all — he can still groom and do all his other favorite cat activities while wearing it.

The newly patented BirdsBeSafe collar is available mail order for $9.99 from BirdsBeSafe.com, a small home-based business based in Vermont. If you are handy with a sewing machine, you could probably whip up a cat collar yourself using brightly patterned fabric, and fit it around a breakaway collar available at pet stores.

Native New England Shrubs for Pollinators: New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)

Thriving in lean soil and attracting the good bugs, New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a low flowering native shrub for full-sun areas of the garden.

Click below to read my profile of New Jersey Tea on Houzz:

Rain Chains – A Classy Alternative to Gutter Downspouts

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Our rain chain has ornamental tulip-shaped cups that spill water down through holes in the bottom of each cup.

One of the cool perks of being a garden writer is that companies often send me “freebies” in hopes that I’ll rave about their products and give them some free publicity. I don’t accept many of these offers, because unlike so many of our politicians, I can’t be “bought”, but occasionally I receive a product I really wanted to try anyway, so I’m happy to review it here.

A company called Rain Chains Direct sent me this copper rain chain to install as an alternative to our traditional metal downspouts. Instead of a long metal or plastic tube to direct rainwater out of roof gutters, a rain chain is made up of connected links that trap and drain water down from the gutter outflow. Its flexibility means you can direct the outflow into a nearby garden bed, an underground pipe, or a rain barrel to collect for future use.

A few days after installing our rain chain, we had a monsoon-type storm which dropped 3″ of rain overnight — an excellent test of the water distribution capabilities of our new rain chain. I’m pleased to report that the rain chain worked like a charm. The water splashed down through the chain like a beautiful fountain, and there was little to no splashing onto nearby wood siding:

rain chain

Robert Sousa photo

Who wants an ugly metal downspout when there are attractive alternatives that perform the same job? Thank you to http://www.rainchainsdirect.com for our floral-themed rain chain —  in the central MA rain forest where we live, it should get LOTS of use over the years.

 

 

Backyard Natives: Wild Cranesbill

Cranesbill has long been a staple plant of New England gardens for its pretty spring flowers and low ground-covering habit, but despite common names such as New Hampshire Purple, most of our garden cranesbills hail from Europe and Western Asia.wild cranesbill geranium maculatum

If you’re looking for easy and non-aggressive native plants to fill your garden with color and seasonal interest, our eastern native species Spotted Cranesbill/Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is worth growing if you have an area with moist soil and a bit of late-summer shade.

Wild Cranesbill blooms with cheery pink flowers in late spring, and its distinctive toothed lobed foliage add texture to a cottage or rock garden, a woodland edge, or nestled into gaps between shrubs in a border. With a long history of medicinal usages, this plant belongs in every modern herb garden.

Wild Cranesbill was once abundant along country roads in central Massachusetts, but the steady invasion of aggressive non-native plant species means its cheerful spring presence may become a thing of the past. By growing it in your own gardens, you can help maintain local populations of this hardy and (hopefully) resilient plant that (like many other native plants) is under threat in the wild.

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Wild cranesbill still grows on the edges of a nearby roadside — surrounded by exotic weeds including Multiflora Rose, Garlic Mustard and European agricultural grasses.

Several years ago, I collected seeds from these roadside plants and grew them in my own gardens, where they thrive tucked between larger shrubs in the leaf-enriched soils along the stream’s edge. Now that the dreaded invasive plant Garlic-Mustard has reached our neighborhood, I’m not sure if the wild roadside geraniums will survive the onslaught.

Garlic-Mustard: Another Threat to Woodland Biodiversity

DCF 1.0

If you see this plant with small white flowers and scalloped leaf edges, yank it immediately! If it’s flowering, cut off and throw away the flower heads before the plant goes to seed!

Garlic-Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) was rarely seen in this part of Massachusetts even 10 years ago. Introduced into the USA from Europe and Asia as an edible plant and kitchen herb, this plant has spread across the North American continent, seeding itself quickly into disturbed areas to form dense colonies. Garlic-Mustard is especially dangerous to eastern forests, because of its shade tolerance, and because its roots produce chemicals that kill the microbial soil life essential to the growth of native trees and understory plants.

I first noticed Garlic-Mustard growing on a roadside in our neighborhood in 2007, and since then have watched in dismay as it has quickly spread (by seeds distributed by wind and wildlife) through our river valley. If you see this plant on your property, act quickly before it can spread further. It is a biennial plant, so it blooms in its second year from seed, which is when most people tend to notice it. The best approach is to pull up any plants by the roots if they are first-year plants. If the plants are flowering or have already bloomed, cut off their flower heads before their seeds can disperse. Each plant can contain up to 6000 seeds which remain viable for at least 5 years, so throw these away in the trash and do not compost them! Click here for more pictures and information on Garlic Mustard.

Guest Posting at ConservationGardening.com

As some of you know, the past few months have been a challenge for me, slowly recovering from a badly broken leg, but the silver lining of my recovery is that I’ve had lots of time to read, write and spend time in cyberspace. Along the way, I’ve ‘met’ some great people who share my passion for earth-friendly gardening. Carole Brown, who has a website and blog called Ecosystem Gardening, invited me to showcase our habitat garden in a guest posting this week.

Click here to read my guest posting about our habitat landscaping on ConservationGardening.com!

Thank you Carole – I am honored!

Backyard Habitat in Autumn…part two

Nature continues to take center stage in central Massachusetts this week, with American Beech foliage stealing the show:

Our habitat pond is a relaxing place to drink in the view and look for frogs, before they dig themselves into the pond’s muddy bottom for the winter:

Ornamental shrubs against a backdrop of mature trees creates a layered look on a steep north-facing slope:

I’ve blogged about summer’s “profusion vases” before, but the fall has its own flower bounty…my husband’s creation of New England Aster, Goldenrod and grass stems lights up the breezeway:

Asters, Goldenrod and ‘Chocolate’ Eupatorium are still blooming, despite being hit by several frosts now. Their flowers continue to provide late-season nectar for whatever pollinators are still active…