Nurture, Respect, Learn, Educate, Always Grow!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Join the Birds for a Snow Day

Our first snow fall of this winter season arrived on the heals of our recent ice storm. When snow falls and temperatures hover around freezing the birds know it is time to get busy at the feeders to keep their energy levels up. And boy are they busy. Filling the feeders up twice a day.

Carolina chickadee
Carolina Chickadee

The birds are always cautious. It's in their nature after all. Cardinals, Titmice and Finches perch in the neighboring trees. Hopping from branch to branch, making their way closer and closer to the feeder. Birds like the Carolina Chickadee and Nuthatch shimmy down the trunk of the trees gaining more courage the closer they get to the feeder.

White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

When the coast is clear they make lift off and in one fell swoop land safely on the feeder. Hastily grab their one seed and off they go to the shelter of the tree branches to devour their take.

We rarely see pine warblers visiting the feeders. Days like today bring them down from the pines searching for additional seeds. They are a burst of color on a dreary snow day.

Pine Warbler
Pine Warbler

One of our most popular feeders frequented by the tufted titmouse is the one with raw peanuts. They are also big fans of sunflower seeds and suet cakes.

Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse

This morning I happen to spill some peanuts on the edge of one of the raised beds in the kitchen garden and it wasn't long before the seeds were discovered.

These smallish birds are full of personality. They communicate frequently with their friends, bringing in more and more titmice. The adjacent tree was filled with 5 to 10 birds at a time eagerly waiting their turn to swoosh down and grab a nut. It was a little like Atlanta's airport with take off and landings happening every 30 seconds.

The ground feeding birds like the mourning dove walked about the snow pecking at the seeds that were accidentally dropped on the ground. They marked their path as they wobbled along leaving interesting patterns in the snow.

Mourning dove footprints in snow

Snow days are fun days and have to be embraced because tomorrow all that white will be gone and it'll be back to the tired brown landscape until spring arrives. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Beauty in the Storm

It began as a typical winter rain day, but then the temperatures began to spiral downward and the rain began to freeze on the trees. As day turned to darkness and I lay in bed trying to sleep I could hear the snap, crackle, pop of branches breaking and tumbling down to the ground. Then bigger booms as trees came crashing down. Weak hardwoods and tall, skinny pine trees just couldn't handle the weight of the ice. Lights flickered on and off several times and eventually the power went out for good. We were without power all night and woke to a chill in the air. No heat, no internet, no cell service. We felt very disconnected from the world.

ice laden trees at early morning sunrise
ice laden trees as sunrise peaks over the horizon

As morning graced the garden we could see all the damage from the ice storm. The linemen had been out working tirelessly all night trying to restore power. More than 200,000 people were impacted. The crews risk their lives in such treacherous conditions. They are such brave souls replacing poles, fixing lines and removing trees to restore power as quickly as possible.

The ice storm caused a lot of disaster but there is also beauty to be found in it. The trees heavy under a coat of ice shimmered and shone as the sunlight hit the icicles and sparkled liked diamonds.

Our cherry trees and plum trees were just about to burst into bloom when the storm hit and encased them in a bubble of ice.

cherry trees about to bloom under ice
cherry trees ready to burst into bloom under coat of ice

The buds were frozen in time and gave a pink hue to the ice capades.

Walking through the garden I found more blooms being brave little souls under the spell of the ice.

Some that couldn't hang on and tumbled to the ground with their glass house in tact.

And others that are holding out for warmer days (may we be blessed with those soon!)

The naturally made ice sculptures added some fabulous winter interest to the garden.

I watched the birds trying to sit on icy limbs or eat at the feeders that were frozen in ice. Even these skilled species had a difficult time maneuvering the elements. My heated birdbath wasn't even working for them since it is electrically powered. The downfalls of modern technology.

The freezing rain hanging in the form of icicles from branches, bird houses, fences and blooms became a science lesson for my children.

And, also made for some interesting shapes in the grasses, leaves and branches

We were all waiting for the sun to warm us up with the exception of our Shepherd who reveled in the arctic conditions. It was mid-day when the sun appeared and began to melt some of the frozen water creating an ere atmosphere with fog kicking up.

As you can see in these photos the roads were clear of ice, the ground too warm for it to hold. But there was enough damage done. Our power came back on 15 hours later. We were fortunate compared to some who were out of power for several days. The wind that swept in the following day felt like Boreas chilling the air with his icy breath. Thirty-five m.p.h. wind gusts hurled ice around the garden making it hazardous to walk and drive around. Shattered ice looked like broken glass carpeting the forest floor.

Overnight our temperatures plummeted to a winter low of 15 degrees (feeling like 0 with the windchill). My thoughts were with those still without heat as the wind had caused more outages despite all the efforts of the Jackson EMC crews.

These forces are out of our control but finding beauty in these worst of times makes for some good times. As Charles Dickens wrote in his Tale of Two Cities,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,...
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, 
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, 
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us...
~Charles Dickens (Tale of Two Cities) we're not experiencing anything as dramatic as the French Revolution but some of the words felt applicable (artistic interpretation).

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Little Bit of Henbit

It's edible, supports wildlife, and is good for erosion control. So, why is henbit considered by most Americans a nasty weed? I'll admit that I thought of it as a nuisance winter weed for a long time because that is what I was taught. Sometimes it takes a little time to be educated in the right way. Let's just say my eyes have been opened.

Most American homeowners don't want "weeds" in their lawn because they are going for the perfectly manicured, weed-free, golf course look, but the truth of the matter is that henbit is a plant that you want in your garden, especially if you are trying to support wildlife. (and if you don't want weeds in your lawn the best way to avoid them is to grow thick, healthy grass au naturel.)

henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

Although henbit is native to Eurasia and North Africa it has naturalized in most of the United States. It is a member of the mint family and like many members it too likes to spread, especially in disturbed areas. I find it around our garden in sunny spots where there is lack of ground cover.

To homesteaders and wildcrafters henbit is a good weed. It gets its name from the fact that chickens like to eat the seeds. Beyond that, the stems, leaves and flowers are all edible. It can be eaten raw or cooked. Add it to salads, soups, wraps, spring rolls, green smoothies or make a tea. Have you ever eaten it? Be brave and try it. You might just like it. It doesn't have a minty flavor as one would assume being in the mint family. It actually tastes a bit like kale. Best of all it is extremely nutritious. It is high in iron, full of vitamins and lots of fiber. (But, be smart when foraging and only harvest henbit from locations you know are not sprayed with chemicals!)

Now if you are a wildlife gardener, like me, henbit is important because it is a winter bloomer and supports early pollinators that come out on our warm winter days. Bees are foraging for pollen and nectar to stay alive and henbit supplies them with much needed substance. It continues to bloom into spring and will support bumble bees, honey bees, long-tongued bees, butterflies as well as those early hummingbirds that show up in our garden mid-March. The foliage is also eaten by voles and box turtles. Now, that's quite a variety of wildlife supported by this purple "weed"!

So, next time you see this humble, little purple plant in your lawn and garden remember its benefits. The early pollinators will thank you!

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.