Weather garden: focus on wind, rain

milkweed seeds
Milkweed seeds are dispersed by the wind. Photo courtesy Stephen Vermette

by Stephen Vermette,

Department of Geography & Planning, SUNY Buffalo State

In a previous issue, I introduced you to a weather garden, which vividly demonstrates how sunlight, temperature, wind and rain affect plants in different ways. It does this through the choice of plants, as well as through fun and useful ornaments such as thermometers, wind vanes and rain gauges. That first article focused on sunlight.

In the second article, I focused on temperature.

Today we will look at the elements of wind and rain.

What additional plantings and ornaments would you consider for a weather garden? Please leave a comment below.

Wind

Ornaments

A whirligig, chimes or bells in the garden make for a pleasant reveal of the wind.

Wind also disperses insects around the garden. The “billion-bug highway” describes an enormous highway of insects that ride the winds above. It is estimated that insects passing through a column of air measuring one-half square mile would number in the billions.

Plants

Milkweed

strawflower seeds
Strawflower seeds burst forth from a cutting. Photo courtesy Stephen Vermette

Milkweed provides a great example of seed dispersal and is a great addition to the weather garden. Aside from seed dispersal, the milkweed (named for its milky sap) provides beautiful pinkish-purple flower clusters for the garden. And it is crucial to the survival of monarch butterflies. While butterflies, including the monarch, can drink nectar from a variety of flowers, monarchs lay eggs only on milkweed and their caterpillars eat only milkweed. Milkweed seeds are produced in follicles (pods). The seeds have white, silky, filament-like hairs known as pappus, silk or floss. The pods ripen and split open, and the seeds are easily dispersed by the wind on their “parachutes.” The buoyancy character of “milkweed parachutes” were utilized in WWII as the stuffing in life preservers!

Strawflowers and gazanias (mentioned in the first article where I focused on sunlight) also provide examples of wind-borne seed dispersal. In fact, almost every one of my flower pots included a stray strawflower plant whose seed hitched a ride on the wind.

Mechanisms of wind dispersal by other plants include helicopters (maple seeds), cottony seeds (cattails) and pushing (tumbleweeds).

Spanish moss
While Spanish moss can’t be grown here, you could hang dried plants in your weather garden to demonstrate plants that depend on whatever the wind blows their way. You could also display air plants, returning them indoors in the fall. Photo courtesy Stephen Vermette

Epiphytes

Epiphytes or air plants grow upon another plant (such as a tree) and are not themselves rooted in soil. They absorb nutrients and water solely from what the wind blows in and from rainfall. The term “epiphytic” derives from the Greek epi-, meaning “upon,” and phyton, meaning “plant.”

Spanish moss is an example of an epiphyte, which is common in the southeastern United States. It spreads both by seed and vegetative propagation, where fragments blow on the wind and stick to tree limbs or are carried by birds as nesting material. While Spanish moss cannot be grown in Western New York, I purchased dried ones at nurseries to hang in the weather garden. I also used living epiphytes, which were kept indoors during the winter.

Rain

Ornaments

rain gauge
Instead of guessing how much rain fell in your garden, use a rain gauge. Photo courtesy Stephen Vermette

A rain gauge is a must in the weather garden, and a water feature – fountain or pond – could be a delightful addition.

Plants

When they don’t get enough water, many varieties of plants will wilt. My sunflowers, grown in large pots, were literal water pumps transferring water, through transpiration, into the air. They required frequent watering, and there were many close calls.

Drought-tolerant plants

There are a number of plants in the weather garden – cosmos, gazania, vinca, strawflower, zinnia − that are drought tolerant.

Perhaps the most illustrative is the prickly pear cactus (cold-tolerant variety). It requires well drained-soils. The bonus, of course, is jaw-dropping beautiful blooms.

Hens and chicks is another example of a drought tolerant plant found in my weather garden.

Also see Our growing season is longer: What gardeners need to know about climate change in WNY, an article that talks about Stephen Vermette’s work that gives us more detail on how climate change is affecting various parts of Western New York.

prickly pear cactus in bloom
The cold-tolerant variety of prickly pear cactus can be grown in Western New York . Not only does it tolerate droughts, it produces beautiful blooms. Photo courtesy Stephen Vermette

3 Comments on “Weather garden: focus on wind, rain

  1. It was a pleasure putting this series together, and a delight to share it with Buffalo-Niagara Gardening readers. Connie, thank you for allowing me to do so.

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