Nurture, Respect, Learn, Educate, Always Grow!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Exploding Echinacea & Other Pillars of our Summer Garden

The sultry days of summer are upon us and while I'm melting just strolling around the garden the echinacea are exploding. They are in their element in our sunny perennial garden blooming vigorously throughout the summer, tolerating heat and drought like a champion.

Echinacea purpurea with Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Standing in front of my Piet Oudolf inspired perennial bed with its mass planting of Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower), Liatris (blazing star) and Peroovskia atriplicifolia (Russian sage), I observe hundreds of pollinators at work.

mass planting of echinacea purpurea

This bed is excellent at attracting a variety of bees, beetles and butterflies large and small.

Pipevine Swallowtail on purple coneflower

Our summer garden is all about the pollinators. Every plant that excels here in the heat, humidity and often lack of rain, was chosen for the purpose of providing for butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, bees and wasps (yes, they are friendly pollinators too), beetles, flies and ants. They are what gets me motivated to go out and brave the red-hot heat and keep the garden going when it is so tempting to stay indoors in the comfort of air conditioning.

Gulf Fritillary butterfly on passiflora incarnata

On the hill garden where we have introduced a variety of perennials that can handle drought and heat,  we have several species of hybrid echinacea.

Echinacea x 'Evan Saul'

The large reddish-orange petals of the Echinacea x 'Evan Saul' is part of the Sundown Big Sky series. The fragrant blooms are a real standout and prolific bloomers.

Echinacea x 'Evan Saul'

Another beauty is the appropriately named Pow Wow Wild Berry Echinacea. It's vibrant color livens up the butterfly garden with its intense hot pink color. It was breed for its darker flowers and more compact growth habit which helps it stand up to our summer pop up thunder showers.

Pow Wow Wild Berry Echinacea

Yarrow has intermingled with this clump which complements it nicely. Allowing plants to mix makes it easier for pollinators to feed because they don't expend so much energy flying around looking for nectar sources.

Our white echinacea has become a host plant this year for the silvery checkerspot butterfly. The caterpillars have been rather ruthless munching away at all the leaves and petals, leaving the stalks bare. But, how can one complain when they

silvery checkerspot caterpillar on white echinacea

morph into this exquisite butterfly!

Silvery Checkerspot on Stokes Aster

Another June bombshell is the button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). The pollinators go crazy for these bodacious blossoms.

gulf fritillary butterfly on Cephalanthus occidentalis

If you have a moist area that gets sun to partial sun consider this native shrub.  The pollinators will be slurping out of your blooms.

yellowjacket hover fly (aka good news bee) on buttonbush

They'll also let you know when the blooms are not quiet ready for drinking.

honey bee on unopened cephalanthus occidentalis bloom

Coreopsis are little rays of sunshine around our garden. The wispy stems provide movement in the garden when sweltering summer breezes sway them to and fro. It makes it a little more challenging for pollinators to visit the blooms as they flutter to stay on the landing pad but they still are excellent at attracting a wide variety of visitors.

Silvery Checkerspot butterfly on Coreopsis 'Cosmic Eye'

Variegated Frilitllary butterfly on Coreopsis 'Cosmic Eye'
Coreopsis grandiflora
bee visiting coreopsis 'Cosmic Eye' (hybrid variety)

The flamboyant florets of gaillardia are cheerleaders in our summer garden. They are free flowering and very dependable. You just can't go wrong with this wonderfully colorful native prairie plant.

And, the pollinators just dig right in. The bees especially, plunge head first, disappearing into the bloom. Often times multiple bees do a dance around the disc jockeying for just the right spot.

So, how is your summer garden thriving? Do you have some standouts that work well in your garden? I would love for you to share your favorites in the comments and be sure to include what part of the country/world you garden.

(Friendly reminder: Be sure to stay hydrated while working in the garden! We had a frightening experience at camp last week where one of the kids got dehydrated and suffered heat stroke. It was a serious reminder that we all need to drink lots of water while outdoors working in the summer heat)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Great Crested Flycatcher, A Bird of the Treetops

One day in late May, I stepped out onto our back deck and noticed a Robin-sized, olive colored bird flying in and out of a nesting box that the Carolina Chickadees had vacated a few weeks earlier. Upon closer observation I saw splashes of bright yellow. Who was this striking bird?  I desperately tried to take photos but it was shy and not ready for a photo op.  So I just sat and quietly observed through binoculars.

Over the coming days I identified this unmistakable bird as a Great Crested Flycatcher. Like several of our native birds, the Great Crested Flycatcher often builds its nest in an abandoned woodpecker hole; however, they are also the only Eastern flycatcher known to make use of nesting boxes. So here is where our story begins.

I watched this assertive flycatcher hunt high in the tree canopy. Sitting tight on a perch, waiting for insects to fly by within easy reach. A few beats of its wing, a graceful loop in the air, a snap of the beak and it would return to its post to wait for the next bite to come along. Although common(*) in Eastern woodlands it is rather inconspicuous, usually identified by its distinctive call rather than by sight. Fortunately for us it was nesting right out our back door so we delightfully watched this bird raise its young.

Both parents worked indefatigably bringing the babies insects. As the babies got bigger they got bolder. Sticking their heads out of the opening to investigate the world around them.This is when we really got our first good look at these young birds since our nesting box doesn't have a roof that opens.

There were four babies who survived and they would often fight for first rights to peer out the entrance.

Soon they were prepared to fledge the nest. Although we were not ready to say goodbye, in an instant they were gone. They will spend the rest of the summer high in the treetops so we may not seen them often but we've learned their loud wheeeep and I'm sure we will hear them frequently before they depart in the dead of night for the tropics where they will spend the winter. 

If you would like to attract the Great Crested Flycatcher to your garden mount a nesting box early in spring roughly 12 to 20 feet above the ground in an open woodland with clear flight paths to the box opening. Use organic methods in your garden so there are plenty of insects available to them. Create an edible landscape, for you and the birds, by planting fruit bearing trees and bushes such as mulberries, serviceberries, blueberries, grapes, and strawberries.

(*) according to the Audubon Society these birds could become vulnerable due to loss of forest habitat, but current populations are stable.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Taking Toronto by Storm

Toronto skyline from Music Garden
Toronto skyline from Music Garden

Toronto. Described as a world within a city. It is vibrant, diverse, friendly and interconnected with its various neighborhoods and culture. It has been more than thirty years since I've been to Toronto and it is a very different place from my memories. Last time I visited I was a college student coming over from Michigan to explore the restaurant and music scene. It was a hop, skip and a jump away and you could pass through the border simply with a photo id and a few answered questions. No passport required. It hardly felt like traveling to another country. Fast forward thirty years and it is a much different world. Passport, homeland security and customs are mandatory.

street scene along Toronto waterfront
street scene along Toronto waterfront

Walking through the streets of Toronto you can feel, smell and taste the diversity of this cosmopolitan city. Multiple languages being spoken at every turn. Bakeries and flower shops on street corners reminiscent of a European town. Lots of bicyclists commuting on the city streets and riding for pleasure along the shoreline. Neighborhoods with their Victorian and Edwardian style homes add loads of character to the city where ravines and parks are a very distinctive feature of the cityscape.

Dog waiting area at Brick Works, Toronto
The variety of dogs reflects the variety of Toronto dwellers

Tall glass buildings shape the skyline with 44 structures measuring over 150 meters high and the CN Tower, known as the largest free standing structure on land until 2007, towering over them all. Cranes are intermingled amongst the buildings, an indication that North America's fourth largest city continues to expand.

Toronto skyline from Wards Island
view of Toronto skyline from Wards Island

I had the privilege of touring this incredible city with fellow garden bloggers last week. And, let me tell you there is nothing better than discovering the life of a city than with like minded gardeners who are as passionate about plants as you are.

official Garden Blogger fling photo 2015
Garden Bloggers descend upon Toronto

Thanks to an outstanding team of local Toronto bloggers who arranged for us to explore the city from high on the rooftops to the bustling streets below. The four days were packed with garden tours from quaint, private gardens to large estates, botanical gardens, rooftop gardens, educational gardens, nature preserves, wildlife gardens and parks. You get the picture, we saw lots of gardens. But there is more. We also had buzztinis at the Farimont Royal York, an evening blog discussion with Gayla Trail from You Grow Girl, a container garden demonstration with the energetic Paul Zammit at the Toronto Botanical Garden followed by hors d'oeuvres, live music and dinner. It was fabulous. And did I tell you I tasted poutine? It is delicious and went right to my hips.

view of Toronto from Hugh Garner Co-op rooftop garden
view of Toronto from Hugh Garner Coop rooftop garden

This was the groups first international fling. Seventy Bloggers from the United States, Canada and England descended upon the city to learn what the Toronto area has to offer when it comes to gardening. But, the fling is as much about the people as it is about the gardens. I meet fellow bloggers in person, who I have known virtually for years. Others I got to know for the first time. This is an eclectic group of passionate gardeners, from professional landscapers and designers to garden hobbyists, horticultural experts, authors and tree connoisseurs. It was such a treat to look at the gardens through the eyes of other enthusiasts.

Garden photographers go to great lengths to get the perfect shot

While Toronto may have a much shorter growing season than I do in Georgia, it is very apparent that Toronto gardeners are enthusiastic about plants, landscape design, color, garden art, container gardening and supporting their local ecosystems. They have some of the most lush gardens I've seen in a long while packed with a fantastical selection of plants with bloom combinations I would never see here in the South.

Allium flowers were the signature plant of the fling

The non-stop touring of more than thirty gardens in four days as well as the fellowship of these bloggers/gardeners left me feeling inspired, rejuvenated, tired (but in a good way), schooled, and enthusiastic. Thanks to the remarkable team for putting on such a fabulous event. A shout out to the bus drivers and entertaining bus captains and very generous sponsors. A big hug to my fellow garden bloggers for such a welcoming experience. And  a very special thanks to all those who shared their stunning gardens with us.

One of our special garden tour guides
Over the coming weeks and months I will be sharing the gardens we explored and my first fling experience. I will intermingle posting about our garden here in Georgia as we move into the peak summer growing season. Our garden is teaming with wildlife, summer blooms lots of fruit and veg and there is much to share.

To read more about the fling you can visit the official fling blog here

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Life On A Passion Vine

Have you ever sat down in front of a plant and just observed all the activity that goes on there? My children and I recently did this as part of a homeschool assignment and it was fascinating to see all the life on our passion vine (passiflora incarnata).

A female Variegated Fritillary butterfly visits to lay eggs. First landing, then touching with her feet to "taste" that this is indeed the right plant to support her offspring. Then with gentle intent she deposits eggs on the underside of the leaves.

Other butterflies have been here already, before her. There is the obvious caterpillar munching away at the leaves. It is a host plant for several butterflies including the Gulf Fritillary and Variegated Fritillary and if you are further south than we are, you may find Zebra Longwing or Julia Heliconian caterpillars.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar

Variegated Fritillary caterpillar

In fact, upon close observation, we find lots and lots of caterpillars in various instars. Sometimes alone on a single leaf and other times munching away in unison on a shared spot.

But there are other less familiar visitors to this vine. Several ants busily run up and down the stalks. They stop at the base of a leaf and start madly crawling around in circles. They are visiting the extrafloral nectaries (EFN), nectar producing glands that are separate from the flower.

ants collecting sweet liquid from extrafloral nectaries

Reading up on EFNs, studies indicate that they are used by plants to attract beneficials such as ants and beetles by secreting glucose, fructose, sucrose, protein and amino and organic acids. This is one way the plant protects itself and improves its survival and reproduction success. Sometimes referred to as host-plant resistance.

lady beetle larvae finding nectar at extrafloral nectaries

Stripped cucumber beetles run around the tops and underside of the leaves. They prefer vining plants such as cucumber, pumpkin, and squash but they will eat just about anything they can find. They are thought of as a garden pest primarily because they chew on the leaves and are largely responsible for bacterial wilt. If they were in my vegetable garden I might spray an organic soap on them but the cucumber beetles will get a pass this time because the passion vine is populated with far too many caterpillars and I wouldn't risk their survival. More importantly the cucumber beetles may be lunch for a wolf spider, ground beetle or even a bat.

stripped cucumber beetle
Other flying insects, such as flies and wasps make brief pit stops to check things out before departing in search of a meal elsewhere.

banded robber fly

Life on a passiflora is in no way dull. There is constant activity. Every insect interacting with the plant with their own resolve. Take a moment to observe the plants in your garden. How are they supporting your ecosystem?  You may be surprised what you find there.

Friday, May 15, 2015

A Stroll through the Garden {May Garden Blogger's Bloom Day}

I typically start my day strolling through the garden, coffee in hand. I enjoy waking up to the sounds of the birds singing as the sunrise peers over the hilltop. The bright spring blooms also say good morning in a friendly way. And wildlife encounters are certain. This is my quiet time each morning, before the hustle and bustle begins, when I often take photos of the garden.

At the front of the house summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) has erupted into bloom. This silver spotted skipper butterfly made a quick stop for a bit of nectar before flying over to the nearby dwarf black locust 'twisty baby' (Robinia pseudoacacia 'Lace Lady'), a host plant from the legume family.

One morning I was lucky to catch sight of a green lacewing cleverly camouflaged on the leaves of the same black locust tree. These are beneficial insects that are general predators and the hungry larvae will eat a wide variety of slow moving insects such as aphids, scale, mealybugs, spider mites, thrips and white flies.

Nestled amongst the summersweet and black locust is St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum), a wonderful woody shrub that is a bee magnet.

The blanket flowers (Gaillardia) are a long season bloomer growing among a grouping of pots by the driveway where they get full sun all day long. The butterflies love their open face blooms but they are often frequented by bee flies.

The purple passionvine (Passiflora incarnata L.) began to emerge throughout our front beds in early May. They took over the front bed and sidewalk last year and I promised myself I would keep them more contained this year so we could walk to the front door. However, as quickly as they poked their heads out of the ground the variegated fritilliary butterfly found them and rapidly laid eggs.

The leaves are now dotted with various instars of tiny caterpillars. Both variegated and gulf fritillary butterflies host on this vine. Now what to do? Do I move the caterpillars to a few vines that will grow up the trellis? Do I relocate the vines and hope they survive along with the caterpillars? I wanted to dig some of them up to pot as pass-a-long plants for our Garden Walk, maybe attendees will get a bonus caterpillar.

In a timely way, numerous nectar sources are beginning to bloom which will support the adult butterflies. Southern ragwort (Senecio anonymus) grows in sun and part shade conditions around our garden and has been blooming prolifically for the past several weeks. The daisy-like flowers are a favorite of small bees and syrphid and tachinid flies.

We have several varieties of yarrow (Achillea millefolium). A tough perennial that we have grown in several sunny locations throughout the garden but it does best on our hill garden and is spreading happily. Just coming into bloom it is often frequented by butterflies who like the flat top for an easy landing. It is one of several host plants the American Painted Lady butterfly uses for laying eggs.  

Amsonia 'Blue Ice' has been prolific all month and is a star in one of our front beds where it receives full sun. Deer resistant it has been a good choice for this part of our garden plus the mounding habit gives it a shrub like appearance.

The periwinkle blue, star shaped flowers grow in lovely clusters making it very showy.

At the edge of the woodland garden grow a variety of native columbine including this new addition (Aqulegia vulgaris 'William Guineness'). I am very fond of the deep purple and cream blooms and they attract lots of pollinators, including hummingbirds.

Soft pink fuchsia blossoms (Stand Up Peggy) are paired with mouse ear hostas in pots in the woodland garden and are often visited by the hummers.

The red hot poker plants (Kniphofia uvaria) are just now coming into bloom and the hummingbirds immediately find them. It is such a thrill to watch these birds hover in motion as they reach to the back of tubular blooms and then in a dash they are off to another part of the garden.

Indian Pink (spigelia marilandica) is an absolute show stopper. Its unique tubular flowers are a hummingbird favorite (notice a pattern here). It is paired with blackberry lily 'hello yellow' (not yet blooming).

Abbeville Iris (Iris nelsonii) a native to Louisiana grows in our pond garden alongside spiderwort (Tradescantia) and has been putting on a good show this month.

Several other blooms are just beginning their bloom time but I will save those for June.I am joining our hostess Carol at May Dreams Gardens for bloom day. Do stop over to see what is blooming in other gardens.