Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Wildflower Wednesday: Eupatorium purpureum

By late August our Georgia garden tends to be rather weary from the heat, humidity and lack of rain.  Most of our summer blooming perennials are past their peak and looking a bit worn, making Eupatorium purpureum a super star this time of year.

Commonly called Joe-Pye Weed, this herbaceous perennial is not a weed at all but a wonderful wildflower that is a favorite among many gardeners. Big and bold, growing up to 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide, it is a showstopper in moist meadows, native plant gardens and along roadsides. Eupatorium purpureum enhances our late summer, Zone 8 garden and transitions us seamlessly into fall. 

Joe-Pye is a must have plant for a butterfly garden rich in native wildflower diversity. It fills the gap when many summer species are done flowering thus providing a rich food source for the many pollinators that thrive in our habitat garden. The mauve, vanilla scented flowers entice the insects to visit, luring them in to their sweet nectar. It is especially loved by swallowtail and monarch butterflies. 

From the earliest morning light until the sun sets, Joe-Pye is blanketed in butterflies. It is an amazing sight to behold! Finding a monarch amongst the swallowtails is pure happiness. Monarchs are a rare sighting for us, particularly this time of year and we delight in their presence.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are abundant in our garden and as two of their host plants, tulip poplar and wild cherry tree, are plentiful in our woods it is only a short journey for the adult butterflies to the woodland edge ,where they can find a stand of Joe-Pye. 

The same holds true for the spicebush butterflies (host: sassafrass and spicebush) and black swallowtails (host: Carrot family-Apiaceae) who join the party, albeit not in such large numbers as the tiger swallowtails.

Diurnal moths, like this clearwing moth (aka hummingbird moth) dive right in to drink the sweet nectar.

Native bees such as leaf-cutters, diggers and bumblebees tumble industriously around the umbles. 

Other pollinators such as bee flies and skipper butterflies also frequently feed on the flowers.

If you don't already grow Eupatorium purpureum, I highly recommend this buffet for pollinators. I have found that it prefers part shade situation when in semi-moist soils, but does equally well in our full sun rain garden, where it benefits from more moisture. If you are concerned about the size of this native wildflower then try the dwarf variety 'Little Joe' (E. dubium). 

I'm joining Wildflower Wednesday host, Gail at Clay and Limestone. Be sure to blog hop to see other fabulous wildflower growers. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Wildflower Wednesday: Bottlebrush Buckeye

The Aesculus parviflora shrub adorns long wands that resemble a bottle brush and are one of my favorite flowers of summer. Our oldest shrub grows in a semi shaded area near the path that runs along the side of the house, where it gets a hint of midday sunshine.

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Bottlebrush buckeye shrub near walking path 
Typically an understory shrub, the long flower clusters are unforgettable and create a showstopper in a woodland setting. It works as a specimen plant or as a shrub border.

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Flower wands attract native pollinators
Native to the southeastern states of Alabama, Georgia and northern Florida, it prefers rich loamy soil often found in woodland areas. The shrub will sucker and spread twice as wide as tall when happy. No pruning is required.

I'm not the only one who loves this plant. Pollinators dance through the long wands known as panicles.

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Butterflies cover the spires that bloom in late June to July.

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The white tubular trumpets that house the red anthers and pink filaments are also visited by diurnal moths,

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Clear wing hummingbird moth
and numerous native bees and wasps.

As a result of their pollination services, the plant grows pear shaped nuts in early autumn. The orange nuts are encased in a husk that splits open to reveal gorgeous 'buckeyes'. Squirrels and chipmunks feast on these protein rich nuts. They don't last long in our garden.

Buckeyes: orange nuts
Also in fall the bottlebrush buckeye wear golden foliage that compliment the oak and maple leaves of the tree canopy.

golden foliage in fall
Although bottlebrush buckeye technically isn't a wildflower, it is an outstanding native wildlife shrub and pollinator flower. I'm joining our host Gail at Clay and Limestone for Wildflower Wednesday.

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. 
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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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!  
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.