Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, January 14, 2019

Pops of Color in Winter Wildlife Garden

It's been a dreary, wet winter and I feel the chill in my bones. As I look out into our back garden I'm hit with uninspiring, muted tones. The trees are mostly bare, the ground a blanket of brown leaf litter and I find myself weary of winter. More of a warm weather gal, I am longing for the pastel tones of the spring landscape that will kick start the growing season. I often find solace in the quiet season, but this year I am yearning for color. 

We often think of adding texture and color to our winter gardens through plants, from berries and flowers, and colorful branches or vibrant foliage, but there's another way to make your garden come alive.  Birds that are year-round or over wintering in your area provide wonderful pops of bold color that travel throughout the landscape like moveable art. 

Here are a few of my favorites from our winter garden.

Male pine warblers provide a cheerful burst of yellow against the subdued background. Their normal diet of insects is harder to come by during winter months , so we often see them creeping along branches before they fly down to feeders that contain suet and sunflower seeds. 

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

They will forage in leaf litter searching for dormant insects, but even then, their tiny, yellow bodies are sunshine against the brown foliage.

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

During the winter months the pine warblers often forage alongside another insectivore, the eastern bluebirds. Our bluebird population has exploded over the past few years, partly due to nesting boxes that we've added over the years, as well as the increasing number of insects available to them as a result of sustainable gardening practices. Bluebirds sport my favorite color blue, and their cobalt plumage is incredibly brilliant. Even their brick red brown throat and chest is vivid.

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Another 'blue' bird, the Blue Jay, can't be missed with its loud call and bright coloring. Not always a favorite, I think they have gorgeous feathers. Visiting feeders in search of suet, sunflowers, or peanuts these assertive birds will certainly liven up the winter doldrums. 

copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Male Northern cardinals provide big bursts of color as they glide from one tree to another. It's hard not to be happy when you see this striking red bird. 

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Even though the male cardinals are spicier, the orange on the female's beak and wing feathers still contribute a nice bit of color.

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Woodpeckers are energetic foragers, scurrying up and down the tree trunks in search of food. The male red-bellied woodpeckers are easy to spot with their bright nape that pops against the gray-brown textured tree trunks.

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

The smaller downy woodpecker is usually first heard before seen, as it drums vigorously on the side of trees. The male's red nape is easy to spot against it's black and white feathers.

A little more subtle, but still providing some rays of sunshine on an overcast day, are the phoebes. These flycatchers will come to the feeders for mealworms during winter months.

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

Their pale yellow belly, albeit understated, does add warmth to the somber background while they actively whip their tails around. 

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin Hicks

The tufted titmouse is another bird that, from the distance, would fade into the background if it weren't for its constant movement and cheery disposition. These small birds don't stay still for long, but when they do, their brownish orange accent stands out against their gray feathers and picks up the tones of the marcescent red oak tree leaves. During winter months titmice join other families of their clan, including chickadees, nuthatches, and small woodpeckers roaming the woods in search of food.

Copyright: Southern Meadows-Karin HIcks

You can invite an abundance of winter birds into your landscape that will deliver those fun bursts of color in your winter landscape by providing food sources for them.
  • Keeping a organic, sustainable garden provides food for insectivores. 
  • Including trees and shrubs that bear fruit during the winter months supports frugivores. 
  • Incorporating native grasses into your landscape, while not cutting back flowering perennials such as sunflowers, coneflowers, and other wildflowers until spring feeds granivores. 
  • Hang a few bird feeders that include suet, mealworms, peanuts and seeds.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Last of the Fiery Fall Color

As we turn the calendar page to December, unseasonably cold weather is upon us. Our highs were 20 degrees below our average for January. Night time temperatures dropped below freezing several times already. This put most of the garden into an early winter slumber.

Typically we are still gardening into December, planting trees and shrubs that get their roots established over the wet winter and cooler spring. The kitchen beds are usually filled with cold season veg and we often see native bees and butterflies on sunny days. Not so much this December as we are unseasonably cold with our standard wet. 

There are a few resilient plants that loose their chlorophyll later in the season and are just now showing us their autumn color before they drop their foliage.

The leaves on our Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy' shrubs have lingered for an extended time. This native shrub puts on some big fall color with a multicolor display of yellows, oranges and reds with the presence of the carotenoids and xanthophylls as the chlorophyll breaks down.

Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy'

On sunny days the blueberry shrubs appear to be on fire with intense oranges to deep reds. Blueberries are spectacular and not only provide delicious fruit during the summer months but deliver late season color to the garden. Try planting them in your landscape amongst your ornamentals. Highbush blueberries make a better landscape choice than the invasive Euonymus alatus (Burning Bush) or Nandina domestica (Nandina or Heavenly Bamboo), which is responsible for the deaths of flocks of Cedar Waxwing birds here in Georgia.

native blueberries

native blueberries

Dogwood cornus 'Celestial Shadow', a disease resistant hybrid, which carries green and yellow variegated leaves spring to summer now has deep red foliage that really stands out in the woodland garden.

Dogwood 'Celestial Shadow'

Dogwood 'Celestial Shadow'

The Franklinia alatamaha tree has adorned beautiful orange to red foliage, which has now transitioned to a deep purple with the appearance of the anthocyanins that are manufactured from the sugars trapped in the leaves.

Franklinia alatamaha

We are relishing the last vibrant colors the garden is offering before the winter solstice is upon us and we inevitably spend less time in the garden and more time growing indoors.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Discovering a Secret of the Franklinia alatamaha Tree

The Franklinia alatamaha tree was first discovered growing along a three mile tract on the banks of the Altamaha River in McIntosh County, Georgia, in 1765 by John and William Bartram. It has never been found growing anywhere else. William Bartram collected seed from this tree and brought it back to Bartram's garden in Philadelphia where it was successfully grown.

The Bartrams named the tree in honor of their friend Benjamin Franklin and the river beside which they found it. The species name 'alatamaha' reflects their variant spelling of Altamaha.

Extinct in nature since 1803, we are lucky that William Bartram had the foresight to grow this plant. All trees cultivated today come from the seed collected by Bartram. We purchased our tree from a local native plant nursery this spring. Already several years old, it bore beautiful camellia-like blooms during the summer much to the delight of several native bees.

Southern Meadows

It was later in the summer that I observed the leaves on the Franklin tree looking rather odd and it begged taking a closer look. I was astonished to find several fat caterpillars that I recognized as promethea moth larva.

Southern Meadows

They camouflage themselves well, their vibrant green bodies blending with the lighter hue of the underside of the leaves. The mature caterpillars have four bright red knobs called scoli behind their head and one yellow knob on their rear end.

Southern Meadows

I was not aware that Franklinia alatamaha was a host plant to this spectacular moth. Reference books list host plants as spicebush, sassafras, Chickasaw plum, ash, cherry, magnolia and tulip trees.

The caterpillars are pretty big eaters. They need to consume enough energy to sustain themselves in the pupal stage and into adulthood. As adults these moths do not eat so without proper nutrition at the larval stage they may not be able to complete their metamorphosis or produce eggs.

Southern Meadows

Already mature caterpillars when I discovered the seven on our tree, they were ready to begin forming cocoons. They do this by rolling up in one of the leaves and spinning brown silk around themselves. Anchored to the tree branch the pupa will remain in its cocoon over the winter months, emerging in spring.

Southern Meadows

The adults are gorgeous silk moths with eye spots and lightning bolt patterns. When they emerge they are ready to find a mate and continue the next generation.

Southern Meadows

The Franklin tree has a reputation of being difficult to grown. In the Piedmont region it is often susceptible to cotton root rot disease which contaminates much of the ground where this iconic crop was grown. If you are fortunate to grow one of these rare trees keep a watchful eye on its leaves. It just may reveal a special visitor to your habitat garden. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Wildflower Wednesday: Aromatic Aster

Fall has finally arrived in Northeast Georgia. Persistently cooler temperatures set the tone this week for autumn, while the threat of frost on Sunday had us in a tizzy; hauling in the house plants that had enjoyed a summer hiatus in the garden, back indoors. Despite the recent lack of rain, the October garden has come alive with prolific autumn blooms. Our native asters are stealing the show.

In his book Bringing Nature Home Doug Tallamy describes asters as one of the top wildflowers that supports the most species of butterflies and moths. Not only do asters give color to our bright autumn days, but they are essential in supporting a variety of native bees, flies and butterflies that are active later in the year.

When we designed the wildlife hedgerow that sits above the retaining wall, which runs alongside the front driveway, we included several native asters as forage habitat for pollinators and songbirds. Several varieties of asters have been very productive over the past two growing seasons and filled in nicely.

The aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolious) has been a standout. Thriving in the drier soil on this sloped terrain, it puts on quite a show for all those who drive by. This year it spilled over the retaining wall, creating a dramatic effect, but probably could have benefited from some mid-summer pruning.

Enjoying full sun, this aster is outfitted in blue blooms that dazzle the pollinators. The sound of buzzing bees is thunderous almost as if one where inside a hive. A closer look reveals a variety of bees from the more bodacious carpenter bees to the tiniest of sweat bees.

A wealth of butterflies flutter from one bloom to the next, dipping their long proboscis into the disk florets. Skippers are especially frequent visitors, but the aromatic aster also lures medium size butterflies with its sweet nectar. 

Syrphid flies that mimic bees also seek nectar and pollen. One could sit for hours being entertained by the diversity of pollinators this aster supports.

While all of these insects are foraging, they are providing important pollination services to the plant. Later in the season, game birds and song birds will feast on the seeds.

The Aromatic aster is an excellent landscape plant, prairie plant and habitat restoration species. It is extremely adaptable, growing happily in sandy, rocky and clay soils. It is drought tolerant, which is always a bonus in my book. Makes a great ground cover and is a host plant to several butterfly and moth species.

*Symphyotrichum oblongifolious is native to most Southeastern States (excluding Georgia and South Carolina). 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Wildflower Wednesday: Eupatorium purpureum

By late August our Georgia garden tends to be rather weary from the heat, humidity and lack of rain.  Most of our summer blooming perennials are past their peak and looking a bit worn, making Eupatorium purpureum a super star this time of year.

Commonly called Joe-Pye Weed, this herbaceous perennial is not a weed at all but a wonderful wildflower that is a favorite among many gardeners. Big and bold, growing up to 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide, it is a showstopper in moist meadows, native plant gardens and along roadsides. Eupatorium purpureum enhances our late summer, Zone 8 garden and transitions us seamlessly into fall. 

Joe-Pye is a must have plant for a butterfly garden rich in native wildflower diversity. It fills the gap when many summer species are done flowering thus providing a rich food source for the many pollinators that thrive in our habitat garden. The mauve, vanilla scented flowers entice the insects to visit, luring them in to their sweet nectar. It is especially loved by swallowtail and monarch butterflies. 

From the earliest morning light until the sun sets, Joe-Pye is blanketed in butterflies. It is an amazing sight to behold! Finding a monarch amongst the swallowtails is pure happiness. Monarchs are a rare sighting for us, particularly this time of year and we delight in their presence.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are abundant in our garden and as two of their host plants, tulip poplar and wild cherry tree, are plentiful in our woods it is only a short journey for the adult butterflies to the woodland edge ,where they can find a stand of Joe-Pye. 

The same holds true for the spicebush butterflies (host: sassafrass and spicebush) and black swallowtails (host: Carrot family-Apiaceae) who join the party, albeit not in such large numbers as the tiger swallowtails.

Diurnal moths, like this clearwing moth (aka hummingbird moth) dive right in to drink the sweet nectar.

Native bees such as leaf-cutters, diggers and bumblebees tumble industriously around the umbles. 

Other pollinators such as bee flies and skipper butterflies also frequently feed on the flowers.

If you don't already grow Eupatorium purpureum, I highly recommend this buffet for pollinators. I have found that it prefers part shade situation when in semi-moist soils, but does equally well in our full sun rain garden, where it benefits from more moisture. If you are concerned about the size of this native wildflower then try the dwarf variety 'Little Joe' (E. dubium). 

I'm joining Wildflower Wednesday host, Gail at Clay and Limestone. Be sure to blog hop to see other fabulous wildflower growers.