One of the great pleasures of a garden is that you never know what you will find in it. You design, plant and tend your garden, but it has a mind of its own. It issues its own invitations to the wider world. Every day can bring delightful surprises along with disappointments and a few horrifying discoveries. Thankfully, the pleasant ones usually outnumber the unpleasant.
If you let your garden do what it wants to do, at least some of the time, you might find it has good ideas. Let your woodland wildflowers make seeds and ants will plant them around your garden for you. What if your violets or hepatica decide they don’t like your garden, but prefer the path or a wood-chipped area instead? Let them grow there and you may be rewarded with a stunning colony.
Allow those volunteer blackberry lilies or chrysanthemums to grow and your garden might become home to its own unique hybrids. Don’t deadhead some of your spent flowers and enjoy a second bloom of interesting seed heads and a free buffet for the birds in the fall.
If you are observant, you will come across a wide variety of life in your garden—all sorts of insects, spiders, amphibians, birds, mammals, mushrooms and more.
Many kinds of birds will be attracted to your garden: the usual robins, chickadees, blue jays, cardinals and goldfinches, and less common birds as well. Early spring brings melting snow, and while the ground is still frozen temporary ponds can form in low areas. These ponds can draw in a Cooper’s hawk for a bath-and-preening session. Tiny ruby-crowned kinglets may search for insects in shrubs and trees. Eastern towhees, wood thrushes or white-throated sparrows may scritch and scrabble about in the undergrowth. Ruby-throated hummingbirds may sip nectar from columbine in spring and impatiens in fall. Winter wrens may hide in tangles of vines, or maybe a turkey will just happen to wander through.
A garden can be exciting in a dangerous sort of way. You never know when you might witness a robin barely escape a chase by a hungry pair of Cooper’s hawks. Or it can be a place full of sorrow when you find a not-so-lucky ovenbird, victim of an unfortunate collision with your window.
A particular delight of spring and summer is encountering baby rabbits. Yes, they do grow up to do terrible things to your garden, but if they’ve survived the onslaught of predators (and avoided becoming a horrifying discovery), these little innocents will softly and quietly appear before you, and you will not be able to do anything but hold your breath and smile.
Watching the mammals that share your garden can help you forget the distressing things they sometimes do—like the chipmunks that dig up your potted plants, the squirrels that lop off your tulips and adult rabbits that mow down your pansies,crocuses and whatever else you really wanted to bloom. If you are especially unlucky, your garden will become a buffet for a rotund woodchuck or a deer, though urban gardeners seem to be safe from them.
Spring brings out one of the enchanting sounds of a garden. On warm dry evenings, you can hear earthworms rustling the leaves you left on your gardens for mulch. That’s when you know your garden is alive. Another sound of life in your garden is the buzzing of bees around the blooms of your prairie willow in spring, foxglove beardtongues in summer and coralberry in fall.
Speaking of bees, if you have patches of bare ground, you might find ground bees have moved in. Their homes look like anthills with extra wide entrance holes.
Fascinating mushrooms appear in all seasons. In the spring, you might find the large black cups of devil’s urns on a thick old lilac branch you left in the garden to decompose. In late summer, tiny bird’s nest mushrooms might grow on woodchips and look first like little bicolored buttons and then, appropriately, like nests with eggs inside. Or a mass of tiny red-orange eyelash cups will crop up in the cracks of your old sidewalk next to green feathery moss. Or stinkhorns, smelly mushrooms known for their phallic shape, will shoot up overnight and attract flies who will distribute the mushroom’s spores.
In spring while removing leaves from your garden, you might be astonished to uncover a toad still ensconced in the cold soil, just waking up from hibernation. Tree frogs seem to make themselves known in late summer by appearing suddenly as frog-shaped silhouettes on your window screen. Another creature that appears in late summer is the orb-weaver spider, whose intricate webs are amazing works of engineering and art.
Many kinds of caterpillars eat the leaves of your plants. Look closely at your pussytoes and you might find a spiky black caterpillar with spots of yellow, red and iridescent blue. It will become a painted lady butterfly. Or you might find black-, white- and yellow-striped monarch caterpillars on milkweed, or white-and-black-striped, orange-spotted black swallowtail caterpillars on parsley or dill. While you’re on the lookout for caterpillars, you may come across an enormous common green-darner dragonfly at rest on a stalk.
These are just a few of the intriguing things you can happen upon in a garden, and you are certain to discover many more.
Those pesky rabbits
It doesn’t take long for new gardeners to discover that rabbits also love their gardens. Those new little asters so full of potential are nothing but stalks the next morning, the tender leaves devoured by a hungry rabbit. What can you do?
Eastern cottontail rabbits are ubiquitous in Minnesota. They are prolific breeders, giving birth to litters of four to six rabbits several times each spring and summer. Females dig shallow nests in the ground and line them with grass and their own fur. Mothers visit their nests only twice a day at dawn and dusk to nurse their young. After about three weeks, young rabbits are ready to go out into the garden and fend for themselves.
If every young rabbit survived, they would inundate our gardens. But the truth is, the world is a dangerous place for rabbits. Nearly 80 percent of the rabbit population dies from weather, predators or disease each year, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Few live beyond their first year, and only the rare rabbit makes it to age three. Predators include hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, dogs, cats and people—who hunt them and run them over with their cars and lawn mowers.
Gardens provide the perfect habitat for rabbits, offering both food and shelter. Rabbits eat a variety of plants during the growing season and in winter switch to twigs, bark and buds. There are effective ways gardeners can cope with rabbits.
One option is to grow some of the wonderful plants rabbits don’t like to eat (see sidebar for some ideas). But keep in mind that if rabbits are hungry enough, they will eat almost anything, and they will also taste new and unfamiliar plants.
If you share the same taste in plants as your rabbits, or you’re a vegetable gardener, you will experience less heartache if you protect your plants. An effective but not necessarily attractive way to protect plants is to use enclosures that exclude rabbits. A fence can protect large areas. Fences should be 18 to 24 inches high and made of 1-inch galvanized steel mesh (chicken wire) or hardware cloth, according to an article by Jennifer Menken University of Minnesota Extension website. If your rabbits are particularly determined, it might be best to bury several inches of the fence to prevent access from digging. Cylinders of fencing can protect individual plants during summer, and small trees and shrubs in winter.
If you can’t bring yourself to use enclosures, you can try taste-deterrent sprays, but you will need to be vigilant and reapply them frequently.
Another way to thwart rabbits is to use raised planters (18 to 24 inches off the ground), hanging baskets and window boxes for annuals or vegetables. Rabbits don’t seem to come onto steps or decks, so smaller pots in these places may not be bothered.
It is legal to trap rabbits to relocate or humanely destroy, but you must follow certain rules. You must use a live trap that poses no risk for children or other animals and check it frequently —no less than once every 24 hours. Also, be aware that new rabbits will quickly and continually move into open territory.
Poisoning is illegal. Rabbits should be relocated at least 5 miles away, and only with the prior permission of the public or private landowner. Within 24 hours of removing a nuisance rabbit, you must notify the Minnesota DNR Conservation Officer for your area. Full details are available at www.dnr.state.mn.us/livingwith_wildlife/taking.html.
Gardeners can learn to live with rabbits by using a variety of strategies, and even come to embrace them as a gentle, integral part of their living garden. One benefit of rabbits you may not have considered: Their droppings are an excellent fertilizer.
What about those little asters? Protect them until they’re well-established, let them go to seed and spread themselves abundantly around the garden, and soon enough, you’ll have so many asters you’ll actually be pleased when rabbits prune them back—and the rabbits will be so full of asters they might not try those other plants.
Rabbits couldn’t eat this prairie willow. Enclosures can be removed from shrubs and small trees in later spring when plenty of other edibles are available.
Some rabbit-safe plants
Here’s a list of plants that rabbits won’t eat:
Lilies of the valley
Sharon Shinomiya has gardened for 22 years in the Como Park neighborhood.