Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, February 9, 2020

A Touch of Winter and Counting Birds

Just five days ago, we were pulling weeds in the garden in short sleeve shirts. During the course of the week we've had torrential rainfall, flooding, tornado warnings, thunder storms and Saturday it started snowing, leaving an accumulation of over 3 inches. 

Song birds become very active in such changing weather and it is a perfect time to survey the garden and see what birds are actually out there. 

Here are a few from my walk around the garden. 


Of course the easiest one to spot is the Eastern bluebird. Both males and females are dressed in bright blue feathers that pop against the subdued greys and browns of the hardwood trees and [currently] the bright white snow.


This bluebird was trying to go unnoticed with its rust colored breast blending in with the red oak leaves that remain on the tree until spring.


In the same red oak tree, a female pine warbler thrashed around amongst the leaves, perhaps searching for insects or seeds dropped from other birds. In winter they often visit suet feeders when other food sources are scarce.


Cardinals are numerous in our woodland and one of the most easily recognized birds. The females are not as brilliantly colored as the males, their brownish orange feathers with just a hint of red trim is understated.


This lady was actively moving from tree to shrubbery in an effort to reach the feeders we put out when temperatures turn fridged. She often rested on limbs, fluffing her feathers to create air pockets for additional insulation to stay warm in the 30 degree morning.


A male house finch, another common backyard bird, steadily perched on a limb, looking a bit nippy. Frankly, I was feeling much the same with frozen fingers trying to manipulate the camera lens.


Song sparrows were low in the vegetation industriously turning up exposed leaf litter as the snow melted. These sweet birds appreciate the grasses and perennial flower heads that we don't cut back until spring so that they serve as a source of food and cover, creating a perfect winter habitat.


Valentine's Day marks the start of the Great Backyard Bird Count of 2020. This is a fun citizen scientist project that anyone young and old can participate in. It's easy. Go to GBBC and set up an account, check out the links with helpful bird identification tips, as well as an online bird guide. You can count multiple times, different locations, and with different groups. Enter your data once you've completed each count.

Why is this project so important? Recent studies have indicated that bird populations are declining significantly. Birds are a critical piece in the natural food web. They are an indicator of the health of our environment. How is your backyard supporting birds? Find out by counting February 14-17. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

What's hiding in the winter landscape?

There is a certain calmness that the winter landscape provides in Georgia with the warm tones and soft neutrals of the leaf palette. It creates a harmonious mood that is easy to embrace.

Looking out the window today to observe the garden, I spotted some movement in the landscape. At first it was difficult to make out, but once my eyes focused on one of the birds it became very clear.

copyright Southern Meadows Blog
How many doves do you see?
The muted tones of the mourning dove blend well with the brown hues of the assorted leaves. Their camouflage grants them protection in open ground, where they often fall prey to hawks. 

copyright Southern Meadows Blog

Snuggled in the leaves under the additional protection of a chokeberry shrub, where shadows created patterns that could confused predators, the doves were still. Feeling confident, they soaked in the sun to warm up on this cold winter day. The occassional flutter of a wing or fluffing of the feathers created just enough movement to catch the eye. 

copyright Southern Meadows Blog

It's these simple observations that make me feel connected to the outdoors; especially on cold days when I don't wander the garden. Do you find connections with your garden in every season? 

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Looking back at our accomplishments this past year and then looking forward toward our goals for the coming year is one of the best year end activities. So today, on the last day of the year and decade, one last post.

To be completely frank, this year has been extraordinarily intense and full of life changes for our family. I felt I was constantly in fast pace mode during most of 2019. Blogging took a back seat as I didn't often find the quiet moments I need to write and photograph the garden. Hence far fewer posts than I would have liked. I am so appreciative of all of you for being so understanding and reassuring. Thankfully, December has been a calmer month and allowed me time to get organized, clean out the clutter and attend to some neglected activities.


Of course the major milestone this year was my husband's retirement. It's almost surreal that we've reached this stage in life. My husband has transitioned from commuting in Atlanta traffic and working 10+ hour days to being a stay at home dad and gardener very well indeed! It won't be long before he becomes a full-fledged gentleman farmer. 

Around this same time an opportunity presented itself for me to return to work outside the home with a position at our county Extension office. This was a huge decision as I've had the flexibility of my own schedule for 15 years. Being beholden to an office job (again) has been an adjustment for sure. And while we are still homeschooling our two youngest (teens), they are becoming very independent and responsible young men. For the most part, the changeover in family responsibilities has gone smoothly and we're handling our new roles rather well.


The biggest gardening event this year was being on the Hall County Master Gardener Garden Walk. We were one of five gardens featured, which brought around 300 people to tour our garden one June day. Getting ready for this big event required an entire year of careful planning and execution of gardening projects and work days (lots and lots of weeding!). Sometimes it was overwhelming and stressful, but all worthwhile as it was a wonderful opportunity to educate others on how to create a habitat garden in a neighborhood setting, as well as show how great native plants are. 


After the Garden Walk in June, we took time off from the garden. It was a long, miserable summer with more than 90 days of over 90 degree heat and minimal rain fall. Surprisingly, the garden performed well on neglect despite the extreme weather conditions. Native plants + mulching = survival.


One of the biggest achievements for our 16 (now 17) year old son was the completion of his Scout Eagle project and earning the Eagle Scout rank with 45 merit badges and 5 Eagle palms in March. His project was creating native bee habitat at our local nature preserve. He lead Scouts in building nesting boxes for mason and leafcutter bees, they sowed a meadow with native plant seeds using seed balls. He also created an educational brochure on these gentle bees and made two presentations; one, to the local chapter of our Georgia Native Plant Society and one to a Ladies Homesteading Group. This was a big leadership project for him and we couldn't be prouder of his accomplishment.


This year I was invited to give presentations on Gardening for Wildlife and Gardening for Pollinators to 7 local garden groups. For the second year, I instructed a class on how to grow your own prairie at our State Botanical Garden and lead 22 weeks of gardening classes at a local elementary school in their after school garden club program. This was in addition to my new job. Whew! 


Our garden was recognized by Monarch Across Georgia with the Pollinator Habitat Award. A donation was made to the Monarch Butterfly Fund on behalf of Southern Meadows. 


I was honored to receive this recognition and hope that many more Georgia gardens will participate in supporting pollinators. 


In June, I attended the Garden Blogger Fling in Denver (in Madison in 2020, registration opening soon). We toured remarkable gardens with unique landscape features and plants. I have much to share with you in forthcoming blog posts. 


A trip to Montreal in October for a mom/sister weekend was outstanding and completed my travel for the year. 


Now the focus is on the new year. I want to thank you faithful readers for sticking with me. Your support and readership means the world to me. I promise to be here more frequently in 2020 and share lots of garden insight and experiences. 

Wishing you a year full of exciting animal encounters and growing gardens!  

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Monarch Layover

I was in Montreal, Canada just a week ago, where I was surprised to still see a monarch butterfly in the gardens at the Botanical Garden of Montreal. Seemed a little late to not have started on the fall migration.

Monarch butterfly sighting in Montreal, Canada October 5
It's been a long while since monarchs have visited our garden. The monarch butterflies that float through Georgia on their southward migration to the oyamel fir forests of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico come from many parts of North American including Canada, the East Coast and Midwest. It's hit or miss if we observe them in our garden. They fly at tree top level and some years I have disappointingly watched them just pass over our garden. We are most likely to have a gathering of monarchs after storms or when we experience wind patterns that blow from the north. 

two monarch butterflies on liatris
This year we're in luck with a weather system bringing not only monarch butterflies, but some much welcomed cooler temperatures and rain. This weekend as I was sitting on the patio enjoying my morning coffee, I saw a monarch fly overhead high in the sky. Out loud I encouraged it to stop and refuel on our native flowers that we plant especially for pollinators. I grabbed my camera and began to follow it through the garden, hoping it would stop at the sunflowers or asters that are blooming spectacularly despite our severe drought conditions.


Monarch butterfly on helianthus angustifolius
I was in luck as Mr. Monarch landed on the helianthus angustifolius. Basking in the morning sunshine and drinking some much needed nectar, I was able to grab a few shots. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a second monarch! 


Monarch butterfly and flower fly on helianthus angustifolius
Another male was fluttering around the stand of swamp sunflowers along with many native bees and pollinating flies. These two butterflies hung around the sunflowers for a time, but then fluttered to the front garden. I followed and as I rounded the corner to climb the stairs of the hill garden I was shocked to see more monarchs all over the liatris. A total of six.


three monarch butterflies on liatris blazing star
Fortunately, a few of their preferred nectar plants are still blooming in our garden including liatris, echinacea purpurea and asters (symphyotrichum georgianum, and aster oblongifolius). Seeing one monarch is exciting; seeing a mass of them is thrilling, especially since it's not an everyday occurrence. It's truly a special experience.

male monarch on echinacea purpurea
We are enjoying a change in the season and welcome fall finally. The monarch layover was icing on the cake. After a prolonged summer, I'm ready to get back to gardening and enjoy the autumn season.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Rudbeckia laciniata

Commonly called cutleaf coneflower, this member of the aster family is a fabulous fall bloomer. I love it for all the pollinators it attracts; bees, wasps, and butterflies. Take a look who is dangling from the flower heads! More on this at the end of the post.


Rudbeckia laciniate is a tall plant, growing to heights of 8' or more. In our garden it usually stays around 5' to 6' probably because it isn't in the moist condition it prefers to grow in. We planted several clumps in various areas of our garden for end of summer color and to provide late season pollinators food. The flower is a globular cone surrounded by drooping yellow rays.

Various wasps gather on the flower heads, sticking their proboscis into the tubes to find nectar.


Here's a closer look.


Blue-winged wasps are another frequent visitor. A non-native wasp, but beneficial in the garden, as it is a natural predator of the Japanese beetle. The female wasp will dig up the beetle grub, sting it to paralyze it and then place it in a hole with a fertilized egg. When the wasp larva hatches, it will eat the grub. 


The blue-winged wasps have fuzzier bodies than most wasps and do grab some pollen as they move from one flower to another. 


As the rudbeckia laciniate are rather lanky, they are also prime real estate for other insects such as spiders, who like to set up their webs in pollinator traffic areas. Or praying mantis who skulk around looking for an easy meal


or this love session.


This is a great native to consider for your garden. Deer don't like it. And it is a good choice for a rain garden, pocket meadow or perennial garden. Plant with Eupatorium perfoliatum or lobelia cardinalis for more impact. 

I'm joining Clay and Limestone for the monthly Wildflower Wednesday celebration. See what others are sharing here

Sunday, September 15, 2019

What's Blooming in September

Eventually it will cool down. Eventually it will rain. This is what I have been telling myself for the past month as we set record breaking temperatures, almost daily. Our temperatures have been in the high 90s for more than a month and not a drop of rain. It is so sad to see the plants turning brown prematurely and shriveling up due to our dry conditions. Then yesterday evening a storm rolled in bringing two inches of rain. What a relief!

I thought I would be hard pressed to find flowers to share for bloom day but the garden is surprisingly resilient and colorful. Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (New England Aster) is the earliest aster to bloom in our garden. This lovely tolerates our clay soil and also does well in moist conditions, which our winter months often bring.


The buzz of our native bumble bees are constant. They seek nectar from the yellow flowers while collecting pollen on their hind legs. Asters are an important source of food for insects late in the season and I'll have more to share in the months to come.

bumble bee on New England aster
Nearby is Salvia Amistead from High Country Gardens. It's a tall growing sage with gorgeous violet-purple flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. We can view this plant from our back deck and enjoy watching the ruby throat hummers frequently visiting.

Ruby Throat Hummingbird visiting Salvia Amistead
It is also loaded with cloudless sulphur butterflies. A cloud of yellow periodically bursts into the sky whenever a hummer arrives and tells them to bugger off. At this time of year there are so many hummers that their visits to blooms are fleeting. Males are patrolling their food sources and racing around the garden. At least this allows the butterflies to hastily settle in again.  

cloudless Sulphur butterfly
Several skipper butterflies frequent the blooms too, reaching their proboscis to the back of the tube to reach the nectar.

skipper butterfly on sage
September is also time for solidago to bloom. From a distance the bright yellow blooms cheer up the otherwise crispy garden conditions. A closer look reveals lots of activity.

pollinating fly on goldenrod flowers

paper wasp visiting goldenrod
Not only are pollinators frequent visitors but there are other insects lurking in the blooms, like this green lynx spider who has a big egg sac to protect. Mama spider will hug the egg sac for two weeks until the baby spiders hatch. This is all the love they'll get because they hatch as fully functioning spiders and have to fend for themselves.

green lynx spider with 
Helianthus porteri (Stone Mountain Daisy), a reseeding annual, is abundant in September. Every year it finds more space in our garden to spread.

native bumble bee on Stone Mountain Daisy

skipper butterfly with Helianthus porteri flower
It think it is lovely paired with little blue stem grass.

Stone Mountain daisy with little blue stem grass
It's amazing what a little rain can do for a parched garden. As long as there are still flowers for the pollinators to take them through the end of the season, we're all good. 

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is hosted by May Dreams Gardens

Monday, August 26, 2019

August in our Front Garden

We are in the midst of our typical summer sauna. The heat and humidity are thick and the sweat flows freely. No garden work is required to be drowning in perspiration. This doesn't stop me from wandering out of the comfortable air conditioning and into the steam bath. Pollinators are everywhere and I so enjoy watching this community of insects work so hard in my garden.

I only have to walk a few steps out our front door to see the liatris microcephala (dwarf blazingstar) covered in a huge number of butterflies. Everyone from skippers to swallowtails. These late summer blooming perennials are great for pollinators and bold color in the landscape. Liatris blooms from the top down on the flower stalk and has a long bloom time.

silver spotted skippers
silvery spotted skipper and black swallowtail 
cloudless sulphur
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Dwarf liatris was planted along the stairs that connect the front path to the side garden, keeping low plants in the front of the bed. Somehow liatris aspera (rough blazingstar) appeared here and is bobbing over the stairs hosting a variety of bees. Big bumble bees to small leafcutter bees are fans of the frilly blooms; crawling around the flowers collecting pollen while they slurp up the sweet nectar.

native bumble bee

leafcutter bees
Another amazing perennial that spreads happily in our garden is the rudbeckia. It makes a strong statement at our front entrance come late summer. These big and bold flowers hang over the walkway making the walk to the front door a bit like traipsing through a jungle.


Looking closer at the rudbeckia, there are more native bees and butterflies.

leafcutter bee

pearl crescent butterfly

common buckeye butterfly
Once the flowers set seed, we often see goldfinches feeding on the rudbeckia, coreopsis and gaillardia flowers. The pollinator garden takes on another life supporting the birds.


Another bombshell is Kosteletzkya virginica (seashore mallow). As the common name indicates, this native plant grows naturally along the coast in tidal waters, making it a great plant for areas that tend to have standing water. We have just an area in our front garden that we have made into a rain garden.


Seashore mallow blooms open in the morning. Come late afternoon the flowers close for business. One of the great things about this plant is that sawflies don't attack it, like they do its hibiscus relative. This native mallow begins blooming in July and will continue well into October, supporting lots of swallowtails and a diversity of native bees.


Check out the pollen on this Tiger Swallowtail! As she hits the stamen she collects pollen on her hairy body and wings and transfers it to the pistil pollenating the flowers. 

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
An exciting discovery this month was finding black swallowtail caterpillars on the Zizia aurea (golden alexander), its native host plant. Most years we find them on the bronze fennel or parsley in the kitchen garden but this is the first year to see them munching on golden alexander. Thrilling!

black swallowtail caterpillar
We counted 12 caterpillars in various instars on just one golden alexander. 


Coreopsis are still going strong. Blooms abound. While participating in the Great Georgia Pollinator Census this weekend I observed this katydid feasting on the flowers alongside loads of tiny, native bees.

katydid
Nearby the coreopsis is the reseeding annual, Monarda punctata (spotted beebalm, dotted horsemint). I love this plant! Wasps often visit the blooms. They pollinate the plant while feeding themselves. Usually wasps aren't the most effective pollinators; however, because they have to stick their heads into the flower to get nectar, the pollen falls on their thorax. Look at all the pollen just below its head.

Sphex pensylvanicus on Monarda punctata
This great black wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus) is a pollen and nectar eater visiting plants in the hottest part of the summer. These beneficial wasps are members of the digger family which burrow in the soil and lay eggs. They feed their larva insects such as katydids, crickets and grasshoppers. 

Another visitor, I believe to be golden-reined wasp (Sphex habenus). 

Sphex habenus
And of course this time of year the spiders are skulking in the flowers stalking prey. This green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) just caught a bumblebee, still covered in pollen. 

Peucetia viridan
August is a hard month in the garden. After a summer of blazing sunshine and very little rain the garden can look worn and crispy. To make conditions even more challenging, temperatures tend to sore into the 90's. Our plants don't receive supplemental water, so why does our garden look happy? We plant perennials that thrive in the soil and light conditions where they are planted and mulch really, really well. We choose perennials that are tough and include plants that provide color and interest while supporting wildlife through the seasons. The garden is continuously evolving through the year. Soon the fall flowers will begin to bloom.