Nurture, Respect, Learn, Educate, Always Grow!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On Creating a Brush Pile

When Christmas is over there is often the question of what to do with your expired natural tree. Well, that is if you do real trees. The debate of real vs. artificial is all together another discussion for another day. But if you do have a live tree how do you dispose of it?

There are several ways that they can be reused to benefit your garden or local environment. Most of you readers probably do one of these already but here they are for a quick reminder.
  • Many municipalities offer recycling programs where they chip and shred trees turning them into mulch which can then be used in your garden, in public parks or walking trails.
  • My in-laws sink their tree into their pond for the fish to use as a refuge and breeding area.
  • You can give it a second life as a Christmas tree for your feathered friends by placing it in your garden and adorning it with fruit and nuts for the birds to feast on. 
  • If you have bird feeders you can lay the tree nearby and song birds will use it as a place to perch and take refuge.
  • Perhaps you might consider using it as a trellis in your spring vegetable garden for peas or beans to climb up.
Our local zoo feed their animals the pre-cut Christmas tree which didn't sell at the tree farms. It's a really cool concept! If you've never seen this before check out the post I wrote a few years ago here.

This year we've decided just to add our tree to a brush pile that we started earlier this year. Initially the brush pile was actually a burn pile. You see, my husband had removed several cherry trees from our front garden and we could only drag the really heavy tree trunks so far so we left them in an open area just in front of the woods with the intention of burning them in the fall. (Think fall bonfire, smores, and apple cider) Then in early fall my husband began removing some shrubs which had been a thorn in my side since we moved into our house. The shrubs are those builder grade shrubs which need lots of maintenance and don't provide any purpose to wildlife. You know the type. I can't tell you how happy I am that they have now all been removed. (Here's me doing a happy dance)  We threw all these shrubs on top of the logs because it seemed the most convenient place at the time. Then we added some limbs from a little bit of pruning that we did around the garden.

The pile sat and the shrubs died and the pile sat some more. And you know what happened? The birds found the pile. They used it as a spot to perch before flying to the bird feeders. It became a safe haven from predators. When the weather turned cold (as in last week when it dropped down into the teens) the brush pile was filled with song birds using it as shelter from the severe weather and I think they even gave me their version of a big group hug. So it was time to rethink this burn pile because now it had become a haphazard brush pile that was providing value to the wildlife in our garden.

The non-native shrubs that weren't any use to the wildlife or the gardener when they were upright [alive] are now getting a new life creating a habitat for our wildlife. It was one of those light bulb moments where I thought to myself, why didn't we do this before?

I wanted to show you some photos of the birds in the brush pile but my zoom lens is being cleaned/repaired and I am just not able to get close enough with my other lenses without the birds either flying away or going deeper into the pile. This little wren is the best I could do. So better bird shots will have to wait for another day, another post. I can tell you that we see lots of white-throated sparrows, wrens, mourning doves, Eastern towhees, cardinals, thrashers, titmice, warblers, mocking birds that are hopping, perching, side stepping, jumping, or hunkering down in the pile.

Brush piles can also provide cover for ground nesting birds. I would love to see some quail find a home in our garden! It is also a place for the chipmunks, rabbits and squirrels to hide when chased by hawks, owls or our very spirited dogs (who are sometimes more determined than the natural predators).

Going after a vole. (Maybe we'll plant a tree here in the spring)
Our brush pile being located at the edge of our woods makes for a nice transition spot for wildlife to emerge from the protection of the woods out into the open. At this time of year the pile blends nicely into the landscape and is rather inconspicuous but what about in the summer when all is green and bright. Well I think it will look wild and wonderful but some of our neighbors could find it to be a bit of an eyesore since it can be seen from the road. My solution is this. We collected seed pods from our very productive passion vine plants this fall so we have laid them around the brush pile. Hopefully there will be enough sunshine in this spot for them to grow this spring and the vine will make an attractive cover over the pile which will then support bees and butterflies during the summer and fall months. Stay tuned if my plan works I will definitely be sharing the results.

And, as the brush pile begins to rot and decay more insects will arrive helping in the recycling process as well as provide additional food for the birds. I've already see some insects buzzing around on some of our warmer winter days. It just seems to be a win-win solution for the wildlife and the gardener.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The New Year is All About Growing Stronger

Welcome 2015!

Wow, the years just seem to be zooming by faster and faster don't they? It felt like 2014 was over in a blink of an eye. This may be in part that we were so busy and at times it felt there wasn't even time to breathe. But I am all about looking forward and a new year means renewal and awakening, goal setting and getting organized and I'm ready for a fresh start.

I have been tossing around several concepts for how I want to approach the new year and finally settled on two words that I want to encompass in all areas of my life.

G.R.O.W     S.T.R.O.N.G

Last year our calendar was chock-a-block full of activities, commitments, daily happenings and there was very little down time. I was in survival mode most of the time and some core values got pushed aside or overlooked. It left me physically and mentally exhausted and frankly being on overload didn't leave time for reflection, inspiration or peace of mind. Last year I only wrote 16 blog posts. And, worst of all I found very little time to visit my blogger friends and read about their gardens and life experiences. I have missed you all more than words can say! So, this year I am going to refocus on some of my principal ideals and grow stronger in these four areas...

Working on strengthening my mental endurance so that I effectively handle all the challenges that I am faced with on a daily basis. Building my inner strength through physical and mental exercises so that I remain focused on the beautiful people in my life while reducing stress levels. Standing tall like these flowers and stretching toward the heavens with purpose and strength.

We are aiming to eat clean. When schedules are busy and we are running the kids here, there and everywhere we end up eating dinner late, skipping meals or not making the healthiest choices. Now I am planning ahead so that we have homemade, healthy meals and snacks. We are eliminating processed sugars and artificial dyes from our repertoire and eating more vegetables, especially greens.

We are exploring the world of essential oils to incorporate into our wellness scheme. I am really excited about learning how to make homemade products such as cleaning supplies, soaps, and natural alternatives to pharmaceutical medicines to keep us healthy and strong.

There are times when we need to be still. This is critical for me to lead a healthy life and was very lacking last year. I am going to make sure that I give myself this time for reflection and spiritual growth. Outer changes begin inside so looking inward to be authentic to my core beliefs and letting the light shine in to rejuvenate and grow stronger will be vital.

Saving the best for last. Without a strong mind, body, soul the garden won't happen. Likewise the garden is the fourth element that ties it all together.

I am still committed to building a healthy ecosystem which supports the wildlife in our garden. My goal is to continue to add more native plants which serve an important purpose in this mission. I hope to see more species of bees, butterflies, birds and insects this year because of our efforts.

Growing our kitchen garden with a new herb garden that will be used for culinary and medicinal purposes. Exploring new heirloom seeds to grow in the garden so that we can add them into our clean eating menu be it harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables for canning, dehydrating, or eating raw.

As our garden is going on six years young, I would like to add some areas in our garden where I can spend time relaxing, reflecting and observing. I'm thinking benches, chairs, rocks, water, vignettes.

Lots of ambitious goals here but I am determined to grow stronger this year and get back to these areas of my life that are so vital to me. I will be incorporating my progress into my blog posts throughout the year.  I am looking forward to reconnecting with my gardening friends and growing and supporting you in the gardening journey. 

Reflect * Think * Solve * Create * Grow

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Giant Leopard Moth

One of my goals this past year has been to learn more about my local moth population. It's been challenging since I'm much more likely to find them in their larval stage than their adult stage as most are nocturnal as adults. The giant leopard moth is one of the few that I have been able to photograph both as a caterpillar and adult.

In the Fall we typically see a lot of the woolly and bristly looking caterpillars. This weekend while clearing up a bit of leaf litter around the HVAC unit I came across this almost 3" long black caterpillar. It has thick, sharply pointed bristles that glimmered when the sun hit them.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar

At first glance it might resemble the familiar woolly bear caterpillar, who is often credited for predicting our winter weather, but upon closer inspection you can see there is a hint of color underneath the bristles which differentiates it from other caterpillars in this family. The stiff bristles are the caterpillar's physical protection and as a rule it is best not to handle hairy caterpillars since the specialized hairs can break off and release a strong toxin which may result in a rash in some people. Some woolly caterpillars can be touched without incident but it is better safe than sorry. The giant leopard moth looks dangerous but it is O.K. to touch.

These caterpillars are reclusive by day and are usually encountered when cleaning up the garden. If you disturb this caterpillar as I accidentally did, it will roll up and in doing so expose its red intersegmental rings. These bold markings are another way this caterpillars warns its predators that it is chemically protected. But even with all this protection these caterpillars are frequently attacked by a tachinid flies.

Giant Leopard moth showing red intersegmental rings
These caterpillars emerge at night to feed on an array of forbs and woody plants including cherry, dandelion, oak, plantain, banana, cabbage, sunflower, violet and willow. They are also known to eat Japanese honeysuckle which is a good thing in controlling this invasive species. But ultimately there are not enough caterpillars foraging on the plant to kill it and we are working our hardest to remove this invasive species from our garden.

One morning this summer I found one of these caterpillars feeding on the squash leaves in our kitchen garden. Looks like it got caught out in the rain.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar foraging on squash

The caterpillars you see in the Fall will probably be overwintering under logs and beneath bark and dense leaf litter and studies have shown that the caterpillars can survive freezing temperatures. The moths will then emerge in the Spring.

Now if you think the caterpillar is impressive take a look at the adult. It is even more stunning!

Giant Leopard Moth adult stage

The giant leopard moth is distinctively marked with black circles on pure white wings. The  pattern which resembles a snow leopard covers the moth's wings and head so at rest it is difficult to see where the wings end and the body begins. Look closer and you will see some gorgeous blue-green, metallic accents which are spectacular! The abdomen which is hidden by the wings when at rest also has some bright orange markings.

Giant Leopard Moth showing metallic accents

Like many moths, the female giant leopard moth produces pheromones from a glad at the tip of her abdomen. These potent chemicals carry on the wind and are detected by the male's antennae. The male then follows the scent to his prospective mate. The female lays her eggs on host plants which hatch within a few days. Mating and egg laying occurs at night and the adult moth spends its short life repoducing and does not eat.

As you would expect from moths they are mostly nocturnal using the moon to navigate but are often seen at lights during evening hours because they are not adapted to artificial lights and get confused. In the case of the giant leopard moth it is usually the males who are found at lights. (Maybe that is because the females are busily laying eggs.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dreamy Monarchs and the Workhorse Ageratum

In a recent post I commented that we haven't seen monarch butterflies in our garden for two years and with the drastic decline in their population I just wasn't very hopeful that we would be seeing them anytime soon.

Monarch butterfly on ageratum

Well, it seems that I've been proven wrong. Last week as my friend Penny and I were pulling into my driveway I spotted a large orange butterfly on the ageratum. I remember shouting out "Look I think there is a monarch on the ageratum!" From that distance I thought perhaps my eyes were playing tricks on me and it was just one of the many gulf fritillaries that have been prancing around our garden all summer and fall. Could it really be a monarch? Much to my surprise as we got closer we confirmed that it was a healthy, male monarch.

Monarch butterfly on ageratum bloom

I was elated! I spent some time watching it flutter from bloom to bloom while Penny, who had her camera handy, busily took photos. I was afraid that if I ran inside to get my camera the monarch would be gone when I returned. (Does that happen to you too?) I tried taking a photo with my phone but it takes really lousy photos and I finally broke down and got my camera.

Monarch butterfly on ageratum bloom

And am I glad I did! The deep orange of the monarch against the true blue of the blooms makes a dreamy combination.

The following day I spotted a second monarch (another male) on the ageratum. They hung around the ageratum the entire day. With all the blooms in the garden this was their plant of choice.

Monarch butterflly and Fiery skipper on ageratum
Fiery skipper & Monarch butterflies on ageratum
Ageratum or blue mist flower is such a workhorse in the garden this time of year and a must have if you want to attract butterflies to your garden. The tiny, wispy blue flowers are a feast for both butterflies and bees. Our blooms are covered in butterflies of all sizes, from the small skippers to the large monarchs. It is especially attractive to the smaller species which in our garden includes butterflies in the skipper family such as the long-tailed skippers, fiery skippers, silver spotted skippers.

Long-tailed skipper on ageratum
Long-tailed skipper on ageratum

Long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus)
Long-tailed skipper butterfly (Urbanus proteus)
Ageratum is a member of the aster family and if you look closely you may see a resemblance to Joe-Pye weed which is in the same family.

Fiery skipper on ageratum
Fiery skipper feasting on blue mist flower

Fiery skipper butterfly (Hylephila phyleus)
Fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus)
In addition to butterflies, late summer and fall blooming plants in the asteraceae family provide food for many insects which in turn provide food to insect-eating birds such as bluebirds, orioles, and warblers.

American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)
American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia)
Common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia)
The storms which have swept across the eastern part of the country over the past few days have helped the monarchs flutter along in the direction of our garden. Today I counted 7 monarchs all camped out on the ageratum.

There was a steady wind with some fairly strong wind gusts and the monarchs really had to cling tightly not to get blown off. The conditions made it challenging not only for the butterflies but also the photographer trying to get some decent shots.

Seven must be our lucky number because oddly, two years ago when we had monarch butterflies migrate through in the fall, there were also seven. I hope that you are so blessed as to have these gorgeous butterflies make a stop in your garden on their journey south.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Finding Caterpillars of the Moth Variety

I am often asked to talk on butterfly gardening because people love having them flutter around their garden. Moths often take a back seat to butterflies since most of them fly at night and lets be honest they have a  reputation as being a pest. This is unfortunate because they produce some of the most spectacular caterpillars and they are an important factor in a diverse garden habitat not only as pollinators but also as a food source.

The cooler, autumn temperatures mean that we are spending significantly more time in the garden and it is an excellent time to go exploring. In the past two weeks our boys have found several extraordinary species of moths in their larval stage.

white flannel moth caterpillar on redbud
white flannel moth caterpillar on redbud tree

We identified this one as the white flannel moth caterpillar (Norape ovina). It probably doesn't feel much like flannel and we're not about to touch it since it is a stinging caterpillar. It would be quite painful if you brushed against those clumps of short hairs covering its side and back and long hairs extruding from its body.

My son found one caterpillar munching away at the edge of a redbud leaf. Of course we spent several minutes looking for more and found at least seven on the underside of the leaves. These distinctively patterened black, yellow and orange caterpillars are pretty easy to spot once you start looking. Interestingly this colorful caterpillar will become a very ordinary white moth. According to my go to caterpillar book "Caterpillars of Eastern North America" by David L. Wagner, these caterpillars are found on black locust, elm, hackberry, redbud, greenbriar and other woody plants. 

While we were inspecting the redbud we found another fuzzy caterpillar, the American dagger moth (Acronicta americana). This is another one you don't want to touch since it can cause an irritation on your skin. We've found these in our garden before but never on the redbud tree.

American Dagger Moth
American Dagger Moth on Redbud
This is a fairly large sized caterpillar which is covered in fuzzy yellow or white hairs with distinctive black tufts. These caterpillars feed on a variety of host plants which include woodland trees: alders, maples, oaks, redbuds, poplar, elm, chestnut, birch, box elder, and willow. They are usually found on the underside of the leaves in the fall. They overwinter in their cocoons and emerge as brown moths the following summer. An important reason not to clean up all the leaf litter in your garden.!

Pawpaw sphinx caterpillar
Pawpaw Sphinx caterpillar on Holly 'Winter Gold'

A surprising find was this hornworm caterpillar on the holly 'Winter Gold'. I believe this to be the Pawpaw sphinx (Dolba hyloeus). It will host on blueberries, hollies, pawpaw, inkberry and sweetfern. As you can see this caterpillar is covered with cocoons of pupating braconid wasp so it won't be alive for long. It is our garden habitat at work.

Based on posts on Facebook and talking to fellow Master Gardeners the saddleback caterpillars (Acharia stimulea) are having a boom year. We found several on our coral honeysuckle plant. They are generalist so they feed on a variety of garden plants including aster, blueberry, buttonbush, maple, oak apple, cabbage and citrus.

Saddleback caterpillar
Saddleback caterpillar on coral honeysuckle
There is no denying this alien looking caterpillar is a cool find but it is most often associated with its effect on humans if we rub up against one. It will cause painfully stinging and a rash. What I find so fascinating is how such colorful caterpillars turn into such plain looking moths.

Saddleback caterpillar

I often wonder when we find new species of insects in our garden if they were always there but our eyes hadn't been trained to find them yet or if they found our garden due to our habitat restoration efforts. Either way, they are a reassuring sign. I encourage everyone to get out in your garden or local park and check the underside of leaves and see what you find. Happy exploring!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Year of the Fritillaries

I've notice over the past few years that each year one species of butterfly seems to have a banner year in my garden. I'm not sure why because all the elements are here for each stage of a number of butterfly species to thrive. Basically it isn't for lack of food. Perhaps it is the change in weather, perhaps an increase in predators, or perhaps they just naturally have boom years in their populations.

In 2012 we had tons of black swallowtail butterflies. I recorded 20 black swallowtail caterpillars on one bronze fennel plant in the spring of that year and we continued to host them on the fennel and parsley plants from spring to fall (you can see photos here). This year the fennel, parsley and golden alexander have been barren. Last year we saw record numbers of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies. They were everywhere! They host on the tulip popular trees which grow in abundance on our property as well as black cherry.

This year was slow getting started, I suspect due to our cold, wet winter but once it started the fritillaries dominated the garden. We have masses of orange butterflies fluttering all over the garden and it is a beautiful site!

gulf fritillary on passiflora vine

We have two species of fritillaries here in North Georgia, the gulf fritillary and the variegated fritillary. Both host on passiflora vine (aka maypop) and the variegated will also host on violas. We have masses of passionvine growing around the garden. It has happily self seeded in various locations. It makes a great ground cover but is even more stunning as a climbing vine. Check out the fruit, which thanks to the busy carpenter bees, make this happen.

passiflora fruit

There are hundreds of caterpillars munching away at the leaves. Sometimes the caterpillars even find it necessary to crawl over the blooms when they get in the way.

two instars of gulf fritillary caterpillars
two instars of gulf fritillary caterpillars on passion vine

variegated fritillary caterpillar on passiflora bloom
variegated fritillary caterpillar on passion vine bloom

The vines are a bustle of activity all day long. Bees, butterflies and all varieties of pollinators are visiting the blooms, caterpillars crawl from one leaf to the next, sometimes it is a race to see who gets there first;

two gulf fritillary caterpillars
two gulf fritillary caterpillars crawling tandem

three instars of fritillary caterpillars
three instar stages of fritillary caterpillars

Our house seems to be one of their favorite places to go to form their chrysalis. It looks a bit like Christmas with the caterpillars and chrysalises hanging from the brick, the door and window frames and patio.

gulf fritillary caterpillar in "J" begining to form chrysalis
gulf fritillary caterpillar hanging in "J" 
variegated fritilllary chrysalis
variegated fritillary chrysalis
Can you believe with all these chrysalis I have yet to witness on of these butterflies emerging? But based on the number of butterflies fluttering around they are having a banner year.

gulf fritillary butterflies mating
gulf fritillary butterflies mating
Have you experienced a similar fluctuation in your butterfly populations? We all know about the perils of the Monarch butterflies. We haven't seen any in our garden since fall of 2012 despite all the milkweed we've planted. I like to document the butterfly activity in our garden as it helps me analyze the habitat and be a better observer. I ask myself are there certain times of year where we are lacking nectar sources? Are there enough host plants? Are there enough overwintering sites available (leaf litter, bark, wood, etc.)? Are there new or an increase in predators? Fall is the best time of year to address these issues and I know I will be doing some more plant shopping over the next few weeks. I'm sure the butterflies will be even happier next year!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Controlling a Squash Beetle Invasion

This August we were away for more than three weeks leaving the garden to mostly fend for itself. This is only possible because I companion plant, rotate our crops each year, have good soil management and mostly importantly a wonderful husband who diligently kept the garden hydrated during the heat of the summer. But even with the best practices in place it seems that while the gardener is away the insects will play.

Our watermelon vines were invaded by a lady beetle look alike, known as the squash beetle (Epilachna borealis). This beetle is a native to Eastern North America and is larger than your typical beneficial lady beetle.

adult squash beetle on cucurbit with larvae on underside of leaf

Unlike most lady beetles which are a gardener's friend, since they eat loads of aphids and scale insects which feed on our fruits, vegetables and flowers, the squash beetle attacks the leaves of cucurbits which include squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, gourds, watermelons and cantaloupes; sucking on the tasty juices.

Southern Meadows

The squash beetle has an odd behavior of circling the leaf area that it feeds on. A study at the University of Delaware found that this feeding method preserves the leaf tissue's suitability for feeding because it reduces the influx of chemical defenses from the injured plant (source: Purdue University Extension). This typically creates a skeletonized appearance on the upper side of the leaves.

The larvae are yellow, alien looking creatures found mostly on the underside of the leaves. Aren't they creeping looking things?

Southern Meadows

According to the University of Purdue Extension the best time to control these insects is at noon since the beetles are easiest to find. They can be hand picked and placed in a container of soap and water. Be sure to check the underside of the leaves for eggs and larvae. I usually remove the entire leaf if their are eggs present or you can try to scrape them off.

The photo above shows old eggs but it will give you an idea of what to look for. They are very similar to the beneficial lady beetle eggs (yellow, bullet-shaped) but if you find them on cucurbits your probably safe in assuming they are from the squash beetle.

If you are not inclined to remove them by hand you can make a homemade spray of liquefied ingredients: garlic clove, small onion, fresh or powdered hot pepper (habanero, jalapeno or cayenne).  Add this to a quart of water and let steep for an hour. Strain off the solids and then add a drop of dish soap to your liquid solution. Spray this mixture onto the lady beetles (adults and larvae) that are on your cucurbits. If your not one to make your own spray Neem Oil is an option.

At the end of the growing season be sure to dispose of all the plant residue so you won't have any overwintering beetles in your soil. Rotating crops is a good practice to keep diseases and insects in check too but diligently attending a garden to catch the signs early is the best way to go!