Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Kitchen Garden Remodel

Earlier this spring we remodeled our kitchen garden. The upper tier of the garden sat unproductive for almost two years (!) as we contemplated what we were going to do with the space. We finally decided to add more raised beds, drawing up several designs with various layouts. At the same time, we were in the midst of designing a new edible garden for another part of the property, which came to a screaming halt when the county government wouldn't issue permitting (more on this in a later post). Having already ordered fruit trees and 100 strawberry plugs in early winter for that new garden, we needed to come up with a Plan B.

Sometimes the best laid plans often go awry. 

So it was back to the design board for our kitchen garden. Here is what we did. 

East view of kitchen garden, looking from lower tier to upper tier

The lower tier is still home to the original raised beds, built 6 years ago, and a blueberry hedgerow that hides a retention overflow area. Half of the strawberry plugs were planted out in two of these raised beds (Bed #4 & #5). The other half planted in containers until we find a home for them.  Bed #3 was planted with four varieties tomatoes, dill and marigolds and Bed #2 with seven varieties of hot peppers including Jalapeno, Ghost Golden Cayenne, Sweet Banana, Hot Banana, Habanero, Fresno Chili and Serrano. Bed #1 is waiting for some love. I need to pull out the bronze fennel that has taken over that bed and rehome them so I can plant more fun edibles there.  

Raised beds in lower tier

We abandoned our original plan of adding more raised beds to the upper tier garden and created a mini orchard to house the six apple trees (Gala, Granny Smith and Fuji) we ordered. As this area is deceptively sloped, we first had a contractor in to level the space. The original fence was moved back 6 feet, giving us 1,200 sq. ft., and some of the posts that were showing signs of rot were replaced. What a difference this made! It is now a much happier space. The garden feels roomier, the water management greatly improved and it's visually more appealing. 

Mini orchard with 6 apple trees

At the same time, we added a stack stone wall and pathway on the east side of the orchard that runs along the back side of the fence. This continues the path from the other side of the driveway, providing continuity. It also better defines the flower bed at the top of the hill, anchored by a seven year old brown turkey fig and wildflowers that bring in many native pollinators.

new stackstone retaining wall and path

closer view of short wall and driveway through fence

As we added this new wall, it seemed the right time to update the retaining wall that divides the lower (raised beds) and upper (orchard) gardens. This wall, previously constructed of bricks, now complements the new wall along the pathway so when looking up the garden from the East it is harmonious. 


new retaining wall dividing orchard and lower garden
My idea had always been to grow edibles along the top of the old wall, but I never executed that plan. Once the new wall was installed, I was determined to make it happen. We simply placed rock pavers to outline the growing bed and added some composted soil to amend the existing clay creating a better growing medium. This space is now the new herb garden. 

New herb bed

I transplanted some of the herbs that remained in raised Bed #1 to the new garden; planting out the rest of the space with several varieties of thyme, oregano, sage, basil and lavender.  


Along the north facing fence we transplanted our lone surviving pomegranate tree. It looks like the other two pomegranate trees that we ordered this winter as bare root plants didn't survive. 

Bella taking a break near the kitchen garden
We moved this small table and chairs from another part of the garden, so that we have a shaded area to sit and enjoy the remodeled kitchen garden or take a break while harvesting our edibles. Even our dog Bella approves, taking a uncharacteristic break from her patrolling duties. She is excellent at keeping the squirrels hiding in the trees and the chipmunks in their burrows. 


I'll be adding more containers with edibles as well as incorporating more flowers and companion plants, but for now the framework is complete.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Wildflower Wednesday: Quill Fameflower

May blooms are plentiful in our garden so trying to choose which plant to feature for Wildflower Wednesday, hosted by Clay and Limestone, wasn't easy. I contemplated several noteworthy candidates but ultimately picked this sweet succulent, the quill fameflower (Phemeranthus teretifolium/Talinum teretifolium).


It grows naturally around granite outcrops in a few southeastern states. Although it is found in restricted habitats, this member of the Portulacaceae family is widespread in the areas where it is found. 
Southern Meadows Blog

The fuchsia hued flowers bloom from early summer into late fall. The ephemeral blooms, which only open for a few hours on sunny afternoons, provide a significant nectar source for a variety of native bees and other small pollinators. But you'll have to get close at plant level to observe the tiniest of pollinators. As the flower is only open for a brief time, it can self pollinate if it isn't serviced. 

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The fleshy foliage is designed to store water and taller stems hold the dainty blooms that reach for the sun. 

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I found this Quill fameflower last year at Georgia Perimeter College Botanical Garden and was able to incorporate it into our landscape plan. Their plant sale space has fabulous demonstration gardens that educate visitors about the native plants they sell. In addition to selling plants, they offer talks and walks through the grounds by knowledgeable speakers. If you are in the area, I highly recommend you stop and shop.

Southern Meadows Blog

Taking a cue from where this tiny succulent grows naturally, it is wonderfully suited for a rock garden, gravel barren, stony ledges or a living roof. We incorporated this drought tolerant plant into our hillside along the front steps (read more here), where it is exposed to full day sun and well drained soil. If you live in its native range and have the right growing conditions, it is an excellent perennial succulent to incorporate into a home landscape.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Planting an Early Spring Garden to Attract Ruby Throated Hummingbirds

Like clockwork, the first ruby throated hummingbird scout shows up in our garden the last week of March. This has held true since I first started recording their return date eight years ago. You can watch their migration to estimate the arrival time in your area and document your first sighting here
I always put a few feeders up by middle of March in case we get an early bird, but the best way to attract these tiny, high energy hummingbirds and encourage them to stay in your garden, is to include early spring blooming plants they love into your landscape plan.  

These are the most frequently visited early flowering plants in our garden: 
Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) climbs up a 16 foot post and starts flowering in early March, inviting hummers to drink the sweet nectar with its flashy red blooms. It is a high climbing vine and an excellent option for a trellis, arbor or fence and can even work as a ground cover.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) are dangling their dainty flowers in anticipation of their favorite pollinator’s arrival. The blooms, with their backwards pointed nectar tubes, are the perfect shape for long tongued pollinators. The extended stamens make for easy pollination when the hummers' body brushes against them. These classic woodland plants look fabulous in a semi shade situation and are great pollinator plant for hummers as well as butterflies.


Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) will soon be in bloom in the woodland garden to the delight of these feisty birds.  The bright red flowers are a magnet for these aerial acrobats as well as other butterflies and several native bee species. 

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), which grows gingerly up several trees that stand regally along our creek garnish large, orange, tubular shaped flowers encouraging these little nectar drinkers to stop by.



Native azalea buds will begin to open in the next few weeks. Florida Flame Azaleas (R. austrinum) attract hummingbirds with their orange or yellow trumpet shaped flowers in April. Following in May, the Flame Azalea (R. calendulaceum), adorning gorgeous orange blooms, will liven the woodland gardens with their bright blooms.


Our stately tulip poplar trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) are not actually a poplar tree, but a member of the magnolia family, and begin to bloom in April attracting many insects, pollinators and birds, including ruby throated hummingbirds and cedar waxwings. The tulip shaped flowers often capture water from spring showers, serving double duty as a water source for wildlife in the safety of the tree canopy. 


Are you noticing a pattern here? Hummers love brightly colored tubular flowers. Try adding a few of these plants that bloom in symphony with the  spring arrival of the ruby throated hummingbirds. These native flowers, that require a long tongue to extract the nectar, have a symbiotic harmony with hummers who have high caloric needs and stay airborne when feeding. 

Hummingbirds also need...

Insects. Hummingbirds are big bug eaters. In fact, they need the protein and will eat many soft bodied insects such as gnats, aphids, spiders and mosquitoes. To ensure that these protein sources are a part of your garden do not use insecticides or pesticides.
Sap. Perhaps you have yellow-bellied sapsuckers [woodpeckers] in your trees. Ruby throated hummingbirds and these sapsuckers have a special relationship. Hummingbirds often feed on the tree sap (similar to plant nectar) and insects from the holes that these woodpeckers created, giving them a protein and nectar source from one spot. (additional reading see yellow-bellied sapsuckers post and yellow-bellied sapsuckers and their feeding holes post)

Take it one step further...

You may even encourage ruby throated hummingbirds to breed in your garden by supplying them with nesting material. Female hummers build nests from a variety of materials including moss, lichen, and soft plant materials, like the hairs from lambs ear leaves, that the she will bond together with spider webs. Nests are the size of half a walnut shell, and are typically constructed high up in the tree canopy, in a forked branch of a tree, sheltered from wind, sun, rain and predators.  Don't be surprised if you don't find a nest; they are discreet. But you'll know they have nested when the juveniles are spotted visiting blooms in your garden mid-summer.
Providing natural feeding stations for these solitary hummingbirds by including early blooming plants will lure them to your garden and entice them to make your garden their seasonal home. You'll be entertained by their aerobatic displays and constant energy for months to come. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Blueberries in Spring

My guilty pleasure is a cup of coffee every afternoon.  It gets me through that 3 pm slump and almost human until bedtime. Today as I sit with my coffee mug in hand, exhausted from a full day of garden clean up, I am being serenaded by the frogs in our pond. In the distance I hear a pileated woodpecker fervently banging its head against a tree, either in search of food or constructing a nesting cavity, while a Carolina wren is singing his lungs out from a nearby redbud that recently burst into bloom. The layers of sound in our spring garden are intoxicating and although my legs and feet are aching from a strenuous day, I sit soaking it all in.  

Southern Meadows Blog

I savor early spring, as each day brings a new discovery. This past week the blueberry buds burst into bloom and, according to my garden calendar, this means it’s officially spring in my part of the world.


Southern Meadows Blog

Our native pollinators agree. The Southeastern blueberry bees, the most efficient pollinator of our highbush and rabbiteye blueberries, are busily buzzing around the newly opened blooms, feeding on their rich nectar buffet. Specialists, they forage primarily on blueberries and are only active for a short period of time during mid-March to April when the blueberries are blooming. 
We have 15 blueberry shrubs on our property, each plant producing thousands of flowers. Each flower, a potential berry. Such demanding pollination services requires the work of a female blueberry bee who can be responsible for the production of 6,000 blueberries!  
Southern Meadows Blog
But these bees are not the only visitors. Other native pollinators, including clearwing moths, butterflies, bumblebees, and carpenter bees, take advantage of these early flowers.
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The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is one of the first butterflies to appear in March, just when two of its host plants, the tulip (Liriodendron) and wild cherry (prunus) trees start to leaf out. I frequently find these swallowtails camped out on the creeping phlox or blueberry shrubs this early in the season.

Southern Meadows Blog

They maneuver around the dangling blooms positioning themselves at various angles to best reach their proboscis into the back of the flowers. This often means fighting wind gusts that launch them airborne, but these beauties are determined and gracefully dance their way to another flower. 

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Early bloomers are a delight to behold, providing promise for a bountiful harvest. Come mid-summer we will be stuffing our mouths with fat, juicy berries and thanking these hard working pollinators. 

Happy vernal equinox from our garden to yours! 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Wildflower Wednesday: Mimosa strigillosa

What better way to start off the new year than a conversation on native plants. Why natives? Plants indigenous to your region are more resilient to local conditions and provide a wide range of forage and habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects who are the heroes of our ecosystem.

Since 90% of insects require a native plant to complete their life cycle (host plant), it is critical now more than ever that gardeners include natives in their landscape design if for no other reason than to improve the function of the local ecosystem. Gail over at Clay and Limestone is a pioneer of planting for pollinators and encouraging others through her once a month meme, Wildflower Wednesday.  One of my goals this year is to participate each month, profiling plants that perform well in my Ecoregion (see sidebar to find your Ecoregion details).

While the garden is resting, it's a good time to look back at last year and evaluate which plants performed well, which did not and decide what areas of the garden need revitalizing.

A ground cover added to our landscape two years ago (and more last year) is Mimosa strigillosa, commonly known as powderpuff, sunshine mimosa, or sensitive plant. It has performed exceptionally well in well drained areas our garden.

Southern Meadows

This mat forming perennial grows well in sunny spots and can withstand foot traffic and mowing, growing about 3 to 4 inches tall. It spreads by fast growing criss-crossing rhizomes, which we had to trim periodically when it got a little carried away growing over our stone steps. We added this mimosa in several hillside areas, for texture and color, while aiding in erosion control.

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Mimosa strigillosa is in the legume family and like other members in this family, the roots have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria found in soils. The plant's roots produce small nodules that aide in adding the nitrogen back into the soil. It grows very well in poor soil and is drought tolerant.

Southern Meadows

This native trailing plant puts out new blooms each day to the delight of the pollinators. Bees are especially attracted to the showy flowers but butterflies and flies also visited the blooms frequently. Mimosa strigillosa does double duty as a host plant for the little sulphur butterfly.

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So if you are in need of a ground cover for a sunny situation, which will improve your soil and assist in erosion control all while supporting pollinators, this plant is for you. For more details and native range see USDA Plant Fact Sheet.

Click here to see more Wildflower Wednesday celebrations across the globe.

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I hope you will consider supporting your local ecosystem by
  • growing more native plants to support pollinators,
  • using more organic gardening practices that make use of beneficial insects,
  • get to know your soil and all the ground dwelling microorganisms that create magic in your garden,
  • appreciate the role of wildlife in your ecosystem. It's not just the cute and beautiful critters that work hard to keep a healthy and diverse environment, and
  • stop planting invasive species and/or remove invasive plants from your garden.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Spotting the Zebra Longwing Butterfly IN OUR NORTH GEORGIA GARDEN

The Zebra Longwing butterfly (Heliconius charitonia) is not a butterfly I associate with north Georgia; however, I do know it from the many butterfly houses I have visited, so I was surprised to spot one in our garden one afternoon in late September. It was fluttering back and forth between the Maryland goldenaster and 'hot lips' salvia. Its constant movement made photographing it with my phone unsuccessful so I ran indoors to retrieve another camera. Unfortunately, by the time I reappeared the zebra longwing had disappeared, and so did my chance of getting a documented photo.

I considered it a one-off sighting that would just have to be saved in the memory bank. Then on a sunny day in mid-October, my husband came rushing indoors exclaiming that he had seen a black and yellow stripped butterfly in the kitchen garden and inquired if I knew what it was, because he'd never seen this one before. This time I rushed outside with camera in hand, and sure enough, there were two zebra longwing butterflies visiting some late blooming zinnias.


These unmistakable butterflies with their long narrow wings and black and yellow stripes definitely catch one's eye. Common to Central America and Mexico, found throughout Florida and parts of Texas, and occasionally pushed into southern Georgia and Alabama, this butterfly rarely wanders this far north, simply because it can't survive the cold. My theory is that these butterflies were displaced by Tropical Storm Irma that blew through our area in mid-September traveling up from Florida. Hurricanes can dislocate butterflies outside their normal range and there is lots of documentation on how such storms have hindered butterfly migrations; the impact on monarchs being the most widely recorded.

Of course, now that this butterfly was in our own backyard, my curious mind wanted to know more about our new [temporary] visitor. So I delved into research mode, and what a fascinating butterfly this is.


Unlike most other butterfly species, that live for only a few weeks in their adult stage, the zebra longwing butterfly can live and lay eggs for up to eight months. Why? Well, it turns out that these butterflies have a special skill that allows them to eat pollen!

Whereas, most butterflies drink nectar through their long proboscis, longwings secrete an enzyme in their saliva which enables them to break down pollen that sticks to their proboscis, and then suck it up with the nectar. While nectar is mostly sugar, pollen is rich in proteins and amino acids that provide extra nutrients and energy to these butterflies. This special diet allows them to live longer, but also very dependent on flowers, making them especially good pollinators. Eating pollen has other benefits too. It serves as a defense mechanism as butterflies that eat pollen are thought to be more distasteful to predators and more brightly colored (warning sign). Pollen feeding is also correlated to better overall fitness and longevity.

If you live in the home range of this butterfly and want them to reside in your garden it is vital to provide an abundance of nectar rich flowers. Unlike most Lepidoptera species that determine a suitable site based on the host plants provided, the zebra longwing is attracted to the flowers offered. Some of their favorite flowers include milkweed, lantana, shepherd's needle, tall verbena, salvia, pentas and firebush. They share the same host plant with the variegated and gulf fritillary butterflies, passion vine (passiflora incarnata, p. lutea, p. suberosa).


Another unique behavior this butterfly practices is pupal-mating. This is when males search the host plant for female pupae and then camp out patiently waiting for the female to emerge so that mating can occur before the female is completely eclosed. She will immediately begin laying eggs and can lay up to 1,000 eggs at a time.

Most butterfly species usually derive all their eggs from the efforts of the caterpillar during the larval stage when the caterpillar collects amino acids from the host plant; for longwings this is only counts for 20%. The other 80% of egg production comes from the amino acids collected from pollen during the adult stage. This is why flowers are so critical to this butterfly. Longwings are clever and learn the locations of pollen plans and establish foraging routes accordingly. Studies show that if a plant which they frequent is removed, the zebra longwing will continue to return to that location in search of those flowers.

Yet another interesting characteristic of this species is the social order they establish when roosting. They are known for returning to the same place each night. The oldest butterflies choose the best places and are known to gently nudge the younger butterflies to get them going in the morning.


Our two visiting zebra longwing butterflies flew gracefully through our garden for a few weeks and I savored every moment. It's unlikely we'll see more in the near future or that these two neotropical butterflies will survive our cold temperature that is making its debut this weekend. This happenstance gave us a rare glimpse into the life of these fascinating butterflies.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Wildflower Wednesday: Boltonia asteroides

If you're looking for a robust, fall bloomer that is a pollinator magnet, then plant this showy perennial. Boltonia asteroides unveiled its first tiny blooms in mid-September and by early October it was a mass of blooms.


Common names include white doll's daisy, false aster, and false chamomile. This plant is where you can find the biggest variety of pollinators in our garden come early fall. From a pollinator's perspective, pollen and nectar are easy to access on the flower heads, making for an easy meal. I love that I can walk out my front door and see a sea of tiny daisy like flowers alive with bees, butterflies and various other insects.

Let's take a closer look at whose visiting.


Painted Lady butterflies, whose numbers seem to be at a record high this fall, feast on the nectar. These are particularly shy butterflies for every time I walk by or get in close to photograph them they flutter up and away, only to land further out of my eye's (camera's) reach.


Skipper butterflies are about the same size as the flower heads and adore the blooms. If it weren't for their bright coloring they'd blend into the crowd.

fiery skipper

Another small butterfly, the red-banded hairstreak can also be found frequently visiting during the warmer times of day.

Red-banded hairstreak butterfly

Several diurnal moths call on the blooms. Scape moths, a diurnal moth, that based on my observation in our garden, are particularly attracted to small white blooms, rattlesnake master being one of their summer favorites.

Scape Moth
Ailanthus webworm moth


Various flies who seek nectar, prefer the open packed flowers Boltonia asteroides provides. They are especially attracted to white and yellow blooms.




European honey bees frantically move from bloom to bloom. It sounds like a very lively hive when I walk by this native beauty as they busily collect pollen on their hind legs. One of my neighbor's must have a bee hive nearby and I am happy to provide a fall nectar source for them.


Various native bees are also busy at work. The easily accessible nectar is especially good for the smaller bees. Bumble bees are the largest bees frequenting the flowers.




Several wasps species can also bee found hanging around. Not especially efficient pollinators because they lack hairy bodies but they have high-energy needs and must refuel frequently.

Red paper wasp


Potter's wasp

With all the pollinators parading around the flowers, it's not surprising to see several spiders set up to catch a meal. They always seem to know just were to hang their web, don't they?


I caught this garden [writing] spider taking a break from her web one early morning.Usually I see her hanging in the center of her web patiently waiting.


It wasn't long after I took this photo that she captured her first bee of the day and quickly wrapped it in a silk cocoon.


This plant is clearly one for the pollinators. It grows about 3 to 5 feet tall, so be sure you have proper space when planting. Honestly, I didn't realize it would get as big and bushy as it has, and from a landscape perspective I probably planted it in the wrong spot. This vigorous grower does make a great border plant and also naturalizes well, so it would look right at home in a cottage or native plant garden or meadow situation.


The daisy-like flowers are less than an inch wide but are in such mass it makes a very showy statement, even from a far. According to books, it prefers full sun (or partial shade) and wet to moist conditions. However, in our garden it currently grows in full sun on the south facing side of our home. I wouldn't describe the soil as moist and I haven't provided any supplemental water during our dry, hot fall and it has performed outstandingly.


It's critical to continue to support pollinators well into the fall and this is a great all around plant for just that. I have really enjoyed finding all the insects that are using this native perennial.

I'm joining Gail over at Clay and Limestone for her monthly Wildflower Wednesday meme. Be sure to check out all the other great wildflowers from around the globe.