Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, October 1, 2017

New Find: Joro Spider

Late this summer we discovered a spider that we had never seen before. As is always the case when we find a 'new to us' creature in our garden we dive into research mode and try to figure out what we have. This time we came up empty.

I reached out to one of my favorite ID sites, Bug Guide, to assist in identifying this spider. They did not disappoint. In a few hours we had our answer. We have a Nephila clavata, also known as the Joro spider.  According to Japanese Mythology, this spider is a deceptive shape-shifter (you can read the story at but I prefer the Korean translation, which means Asian 'Fortune-Teller'.

This is a golden orb weaver that is similar in size to our common black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia); however, the Joro spider is native to East Asia (Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan). How did this lady find her way to our garden? More research was required to unearth her story.

Left: Argiope aurantia (female),    Right: Nephila clavata (female)

According to a 2014 study (*) by Georgia Museum of Natural History at UGA, several Joro specimens were collected in three Northeast Georgia counties (Barrow, Madison and Jackson). These were the first confirmed Nephila clavata in North America and scientists think they arrived as stowaways on cargo ships. Obviously, we are not close to a port but we are located along I-85, a major commercial transportation corridor. It is believed that shipments traveling through our area contained egg sacs, which hatched spiderlings upon arrival. The study sited Braselton Park (in Braselton, GA) as one of the collection locations, where they found a female spider with two male spiders attending her web. This park is about 10 miles away from us and located near a thriving warehouse and distribution district, which deals with overseas freight.

The Joro spider is pretty spectacular looking. The top of the female's abdomen has a wavy black and yellow pattern while the underside is an amazing black and yellow maze with distinct red blotches. The black and yellow striped legs are also prominent. Our spider has gotten rather large over the past two months, approximately 4" wide [including its leg span]. 

top view of abdomen with grayish-black and yellow stripes.

The web of this spider is impressive too. She's set up at our woodland edge between two understory trees and large shrubs spanning a space of at least 5 feet. The web is built in three layers, uncharacteristic of orb spiders. The multilayered structure includes a large orb in the center with an additional front and back layer with irregular threads. The photo below doesn't do it justice, but the golden silk glistens when the morning sun hits the web.

Our spider's web is filled with insects, leaves, and other debris so fortunately it is hard to miss. We definitely wouldn't want to mistakenly walk into this sticky web. When prey is caught in the web the Joro spider immediately bites her victim inserting a potent venom. [Note: The venom is not strong enough to harm a human unless one has an allergic reaction. If bit by a Joro spider, humans typically experience pain, redness and blistering that disappears within 24 hours.]

Male spiders lurk in the outskirts of the web and are significantly smaller and and light brown in color. I have searched assiduously but have been unable to locate a male. Mating season occurs in October, which produces a single egg sac containing 400-500 eggs. The silk cocoon is attached to the bark of trees, on leaves or other human structures. Adults die in the winter leaving the next generation to hatch in spring.

This Asian spider has a North American relative, Nephila clavipes or golden silk spider, which is common in the southeast. The impact this exotic spider will have on our local ecosystem is unknown at this point. Interestingly, there are about 60 species of non-native spiders, mostly originating from Europe and Asia, thriving in North America thanks to international trade. According to Hoebek "there is no indication that the Joro spider will be invasive to the extent that it would be disruptive or economically costly". I wonder how this spider will interact with our native spiders. Will it displace any of our garden spiders or other native spiders? 

It is probable that the Joro spider has established itself in other areas of Georgia and across the country. Apparently this spider can withstand pretty cold temperatures (so be on the lookout northern friends). If you suspect you've discovered a Joro spider contact Hoebeke at rhoebeke@uga.ed. The initial discovery of this spider in our area was because of local residence, which demonstrates just how important citizen scientists are.

(*) study cited Hoebeke ER, Huffmaster W, Freeman BJ. (2015) Nephila clavata L Koch, the Joro Spider of East Asia, newly recorded from North America (Araneae: Nephilidae) PeerJ 3:e763

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Wildflower Wednesday: Helianthus porteri

September is our transition from summer into fall here in Northeast Georgia, and with the cooler morning temperatures and cheery afternoons, gardening is most pleasant, making it my favorite garden season. Some summer flowers are still hanging on but as they fade fall flowers step in with gorgeous color.

Bright yellow blooms are definitely a trend in our autumn garden and this beauty, Stone Mountain Daisy (Helianthus porteri) is a stunner.

Also known as Confederate Daisy, this wildflower grows in granite outcrops within a 60 mile radius of our most infamous granite outcrop, Stone Mountain. This glorious flower is in bloom this month and is celebrated at the Yellow Daisy Festival, held every September at Stone Mountain, an arts & crafts event that just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

typical granite outcrop habitat (Thompson Mill Arboretum) where Helianthus porteri grows

Discovered in 1846, this reseeding annual will grow anywhere on Piedmont granite outcrops, where there is sufficient soil (not much!) and water. Peaking out from rock crevices and small cracks, providing an explosion of color, this daisy dances in delight. 

Bees and small butterflies are often found visiting, drinking nectar from the blooms. The flower heads are 1-2" wide and have 7-8 yellow ray flowers and a central disk of tiny, yellow flowers. After pollination, seeds will set later in the fall and germinate as early as February.

In our garden we planted it at the edge of our driveway, welcoming all those who drive by. Surrounded by a few boulders and in direct sunlight, it feels right at home.

street view toward our driveway
This annual even stood up spectacularly when Tropical Storm Irma hit our area. This photo was taken a few days after the storm, during our garden clean-up.

Helianthus porteri, is only found growing in four southeastern states (Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina) but this spectacular Georgia wildflower is worth sharing. I'm joining Clay and Limestone, for Wildflower Wednesday, a once a month celebration of our native flora.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Orb Weaver Spiders

Spiders. You either love them or hate them. I happen to be in the 'love' camp and it's a good thing because we have LOTS of spiders in our garden.

In late summer and early fall the orb weaver spiders have reached maturity and are on show with their masterfully designed webs hanging from all forms of plant life and structures. In fact its hard not to run into a spider web when trekking around our garden. Mating season is in full gear and these females need nourishment.

Black & Yellow Argiope (female)

Orb weaver spiders build the classic web of concentric circles and spokes, which radiate outward from the center with anchor points. This genius design allows them to capture anything as small as a mosquito to as large as a butterfly. Other common meals include flies, thrips, mites, moths, beetles, wasps and bees. Evident by their diverse diet, they are not picky eaters and can have ferocious appetites. Their work helps keep insect populations in check and are a friend to this organic gardener.

Orb weaver spiders have poor vision and use vibration to know when they have captured prey. Watching a spider at work is incredibly fascinating. I happened to witness a butterfly mistakenly fly into a web and observed the spider quickly restrain its prey by wrapping it in silk. This is done so that the web will not be destroyed by the movement of prey trying to escape the sticky webbing.

Here is the series of shots I took over a period of a few minutes.

Spotted orb weaver (female)

Once the prey is crushed the spider will consume the liquids in the insect's body. Below is another spotted orb weaver, found hanging across our back driveway, this time with a gulf fritillary butterfly.

Spotted orb weaver (female)
I accidentally disturbed her web as I walked by and she instinctively began to pull up her meal to a secure location in the oak tree branches she was using as her anchor. This species usually takes down its web each day by eating it, recycling the proteins contained in the web, and creates a fresh web in the evening.

Unlike most orb weavers that have a bulbous abdomen, the Arrowhead is distinctive with its big yellow arrowhead shaped body and marking. This smaller spider, at half an inch long, is also unusual because it hangs with its head facing up, where most spiders hang head down.

Arrowhead orb weaver

The arrowhead spider prefers to build its web in forests and shadier areas of the garden and is notorious for building webs across paths at eye level.

Spiders are peaceful dwellers in the garden. It's unfortunate that so many have an irrational fear of these beneficial creatures.

disclaimer: as an avid butterfly gardener it does make my heart sad when I see them captured; however, we have created a habitat garden and I have made peace with the fact that all insects have to eat. It's all part of a functioning, balanced ecosystem.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Here's What's Blooming in June

It's Bloom Day in the garden blogger world. On the 15th of each month you can see what's blooming in gardens across the globe by visiting our host May Dreams Gardens for links to participating blogs.
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Here at Southern Meadows, we kicked off June with periodic rain showers and cooler than normal temperatures. Seriously, you can't beat morning temps of 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) growing into 80 degrees by afternoon. That's perfect gardening weather and you better believe I was out getting dirt under my nails! Of course we knew it wouldn't last long, after all it's June and we live in Georgia. But the garden responded with glorious blooms. Many of the sun loving perennials are putting on a show of colorful flowers, which the butterflies, bees and hummingbirds are owning.

We grow Geranium maculatum 'Rozanne' in several areas in the garden, some in full shade and other in morning sun. Both situations do well. Our newest planting is above the rock wall along a path that leads to our back driveway. Here I can enjoy the blooms as I take the dogs out for their morning stroll but small bees and butterflies probably appreciate it even more.

Stokes Aster is a finicky plant in our garden and historically I haven't had a lot of luck getting them established. Our drought took all the blue blooming Stokes Asters last year but the white and yellow, which grew side by side endured. Since I didn't dead them, some seedlings are growing, expanding the little aster spread. Our native bees and butterflies enjoy the frilly petals that invite them in to forage on the bloom's nectar.

leafcutter bee covered in pollen
Painted Lady Butterfly on Stokes Aster

The sundrops (Oenothera) are a yellow evening primrose, which I received as a pass-a-long plant a few years ago. The bees visit them constantly using the petal's nectar guide pattern, which is evident under ultraviolet light and visible to its pollinators, bees, butterflies and moths.

A new perennial shrub in our garden this year, Spirea tomentosa or Steeplebush, is popular with the bumblebees. They dance frantically around, circling the pink plumes.


We use Achillea millefolium or yarrow on our hillside gardens because it is very drought tolerant and thrives in challenging soils. The blooms support native bees and butterflies as well as attract parasitoid and predatory insects. We've pared the yellow yarrow with orange butterfly milkweed in one garden bed,

while creating a mass of pink in another, planting it with Echinacea purpurea. This is part of our garden we've named Pollinator Hill because of the concentration of pollinator friendly plants. You can visit this area of the garden and always find it filled with butterflies, bees, bettles and hummingbirds.

A favorite summer bloom is Gaillardia or blanket flower. It has reseeded in various areas in our garden and is covered in bees and butterflies during its long bloom season from spring to late fall.

butterfly resting on stem of Golden Alexander amid the Gaillardia blooms
Gaillardia hybrid at edge of driveway garden bed

A show stopper on Pollinator Hill is Rudbeckia Maxima with its tall stems and yellow brown-eyed blooms not to mention the unique bluish green foliage.

Rudbeckia maxima with rudbeckia laciniata
Coreopsis verticillata is a favorite bloom of mine. The threaded leaves and welcoming blooms just make such a dainty yet bold statement. This is one of our newly planted areas where I am trying to get the coreopsis established around some small boulders.

Hydrangea arborescens or Smooth Hydrangea is the star of our June garden. Covered in a variety of pollinators, this shade loving shrub is an essential plant to have in a wildlife garden and demonstrates that you can support pollinators in a shade garden.  Just look at the selection of visitors on the inflorescence.

Flower Beetle

Long horned beetles

Our aquatic garden is also in full bloom with photogenic water lily flowers each day. This pond is home to lots of frogs and fish. Our nine goldfish have produced 10 baby fry this spring so our pond is growing!

Next week I will be touring gardens in the Washington, D.C. area with fellow garden bloggers. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram to see lots of garden goodness.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Finding A Mydas Fly

While we were working in the garden the other day, my son stumbled across an insect emerging from the ground that we had never seen before. It is always thrilling to find a new creature and a fun challenge to work out what it is. My initial reaction is always to grab my camera so that we have  a photo to study later, especially if the creature flies or crawls off or we missed (or forgot) something in our live observation. So here is the mystery insect.

It is slightly larger than the size of a hornet but has a black abdomen with clearly defined segments and an orange ring. Antennae are clubbed, has large eyes and clear wings. Observing the eyes is a clear giveaway that it is probably in the Diptera (Flies) order. I thought perhaps it was a species of robber fly I'd never seen before but the body shape wasn't quite right. We did some online research but weren't confident in our findings.

I put a photo out to the Insect Identification Facebook page to get some help. Bingo! It was identified as a Mydas Fly. The Mydidae Family are a small group of approximately 470 species of flies. After narrowing down the insect family, I wanted to see if the specific species could be confirmed so I submitted the photo on BugGuide and they validated that is was a Mydas clavatus.

Apparently not much is known about the lifestyle of these flies. What we were able to research is that the females lay fertilized eggs in the ground near rotting or dead wood. Indeed, in our garden this happened close by an old stump. Here is a video on oviposition (credit: cotinis-Flikr) we found online.

The larvae eats other bugs it finds in the ground such as June Bug larvae (oh and maybe even Japanese beetle larvae...if only we could be so lucky!). The larvae pupate in small chambers created in the soil and emerge as flying adults.

Look closely at the photo above and you can see that the Mydas Fly we stumbled upon had just emerged from its chamber in the soil. As the adult was acclimating to its new environment it remained very still, allowing us to study it. We also read later that they are reluctant to flee and slow to move if approached by a predator, which is what we experienced.

This is one of the largest flies found in North America and lives in many environments such as forests, meadows and open spaces. Adult Mydas flies visit flowers to consume nectar. The adults have also been presumed to be predaceous, like robber flies or horse flies, but there is no observational evidence to confirm this.

I think we can safely add this one to the beneficial insect list for our garden. Now, we'll be on the look out to see if we can spot this fly on our blooms around the garden. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Garden Walk: In Our Own Back Yards

It's garden touring season and I'm kicking it off with a local tour right here in our own county. Every other year, our county Master Gardener group holds a garden walk, which is a self-paced, self-driven, day-long, rain or shine event. The residential gardens on tour are those of members of the Hall County Master Gardeners and reflect the passion of each of these gardeners. What makes our group distinctive is that each member usually has a specialty. It could be ornamental, edibles, turf, native plants, plant id, IPM, or youth gardening. This diversity is reflected in the members' private gardens, their labor of love. This is where they experiment, do hands-on learning and get creative. So, let's tour~

Garden of Tammy Dellinger

Tammy's focus is on fruit gardening. A grove of fruit trees makes up the back corner of the property. The trees are beautifully pruned and healthy and best of all, full of fruit.

Behind the orchard are clean rows of blueberry shrubs. Also full of plump berries almost ready to be picked. I love her design and neatly kept beds.

On the other end of the garden are rows of blackberries. This has to be one of the most brilliant trellis designs I've ever seen. Made from metal fence posts and wire, they make for easy picking and maintenance

Yum! Look at all that delicious fruit ripening in the sunshine.

This same design is used in the vegetable beds for growing tomatoes. This photo better illustrates how these trellises were constructed.

In the front garden Tammy has created a butterfly habitat around the utility boxes. This often neglected space in homeowner's gardens is nicely designed with butterfly welcoming plants and an attractive solar powered water feature.

The garden of Terri Andrews

Walk into this certified habitat garden, and you immediately hear the sound of rushing water from the waterfalls that flow into a natural pond. This pond can be enjoyed by the homeowners from many rooms inside the home as well as back patio.

The flower beds that use the fence as a backdrop are filled with pollinator friendly plants, including perennials that support bees and butterflies. A mature coral honeysuckle grows happily up the fence and is frequented by hummingbirds.

Garden walks aren't always held when gardens are at full bloom. One often has to envision what a space would look like when many of the plants are blooming, but Terri has advantageously used contrasting foliage and texture to keep it interesting.

The piece de resistance is the 'potting shed', which was purchased from a box store and modified with a pitched roof, beams and windows. I've gone to heaven!

check out the tiled floor!

I could spend hours in this place enjoying the charming space and looking out onto the garden, but this customized structure, complete with a kitty door, is home for the two 'outdoor' cats that patrol the garden.  Lucky kitties!

pampered kitty
A dry creek bed helps slow down excess water flow from the steep slope, protecting the patio below as as well as prevent erosion. Not only is the feature functional but it also provides habitat for ground dwelling critters and a nice basking spot for butterflies and lizards.

The back pergola provides access to the side of the house, where Terri has skillfully used this often overlooked space for her vegetable and herb garden. These beds take advantage of this sunny area and are conveniently located near a rain barrel for easy watering.

Garden of Liz Dietz

It was just a few years ago that this garden was a blank canvas, just waiting for the hands of the right gardener. Liz has created a space that incorporates all her favorite plants.

This is a lovely example of a 'garden within a garden', which provides more planting space and the illusion that the landscape is actually bigger than it is. 

Rocks of varying sizes have been meaningfully placed throughout the landscape and appear as if they have always been there.  Plants have been specifically selected from Liz's list of favorites and planted around the hardscape features.

An appropriately sized, luscious vegetable garden is a focal point in the back garden.

Garden of Chris Michael

This garden is located on a hilly part of Gainesville, and sits directly on Lake Lanier. When Chris purchased the home in 2009, the front garden was an inhospitable hillside of red clay. What he has created in a short eight years is extraordinary.

a magazine worthy garden stairway

A long stone stairway from the street to the home below invites you to walk through the terraced garden filled with shade loving specimen plants.

A balanced mix of trees, shrubs and perennial plants are the foundation of the steep terrain. Hostas and ferns are intermingled throughout.

Some of my favorite features are the natural elements of surprise, modeled here, by ferns growing out from under lichen covered rocks.

A carpet of moss is cushioned around the natural stone steps. Many of the plants in this garden are one of a kind and it is landscaped to perfection. This garden belongs on the glossy pages of a magazine.

Pollinator plants have purposefully been placed in the sunnier pockets of this mostly shade garden. I think it is brilliant how the St. John's Wort has been pruned up to allow more planting space below the shrub and show off the stone retaining wall.

Behind the house, beyond the trees is the lake. I can only imagine how much fun Chris's dogs have frolicking along the waterfront.

One of the challenges living in this area is deer pressure. Plants are often a welcoming buffet to these sweet creatures, making them a gardeners nightmare. Under normal circumstances, their dogs patrol the garden and keep guard. It just so happened that a few nights before the garden tour a neighbor had a party and the dogs were safely kept indoors. The deer took advantage and helped themselves to the buffet munching on the king-sized hostas. Times like these call for a good sense of humor and roll with it attitude.

Garden of Bobbett Holloway

This is a garden with a heartwarming story. More than fifty years ago Bobbett's father began creating this garden to provide his wife with a flower a day. As Bobbett says "he provided the bones and I added the fluff".  Her father began the design of this unique garden on a lot that has road access on both sides. You'd never know it now standing in the garden with its towering trees, several that have been awarded champion tree status.

It is breath taking to stand beneath such a stand of old-growth trees. I had to pull myself away from looking up all the time. It is a birds paradise with such a grand canopy and Bobbett has outfitted the garden with bird boxes and berry producing shrubs to their delight.

Despite its location, the mature garden feels very private, almost as if one is in a secret garden. Around every turn there is something new to discover. Like this cleverly repurposed lawn mower, which now functions as a rolling plant stand for her calamondin tree.

Or this impressive poinsettia, which Bobbett has been growing for five years. Talk about a green thumb!

Bobbett's hydrangea collection is impressive and rivals her azaleas, which are the best in the county.

The dappled light in this shade garden is magical. It is a refreshing reprieve on a hot Southern summer day. Truly a gardener's delight.

This tour will be back in 2019 and my garden will be one featured on this walk. But next up is the Garden Blogger Fling in Washington D.C. and surrounding area. I can't wait to be thrown into more garden goodness!