Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hardscape Garden Projects Preview

Last week the garden was in a bit of a disarray with three hardscape projects under construction. For the past few years, we've hired out one major garden project each year, getting us closer to creating our dream garden. This spring we decided to get three items checked off our list.

Project 1: Front Hill Stairs
As part of our front yard makeover we wanted to add stairs down the steep hill, to the left of the front entrance. This hill was always a problem area, not only difficult to walk down (I slipped more times than I can count) but also a pain to mow. When you have to wear cleats to keep from sliding down the hill it's time for a remodel.

We've been talking about putting stairs in for a while, not only for ease of use, but also to make the overall flow of the garden more harmonious. The stairs now tie the front of the house to the side garden making it much more usable. Of course, I was also thrilled to take out more turf in the process.

We expanded the flower bed to the other side of the stairs and added border rock to define the space. Now the fun part, dressing up the place with plants! Suggestions welcome, but they must be pollinator friendly and preferably native. I'm especially looking for suggestions for ground covers. Our house is south facing and this space gets lots of sun.

Project 2: Woodland Seating Wall
Looking down into the woodland area from the side of the house was a big blank space where we added a seating wall and 380 sq. feet of space for chairs/benches so that we could enjoy watching the activity on Pollinator Hill, which runs the full length of the house and out toward the street. Unfortunately, I couldn't readily get my hands on a before photo of this space.

woodland seating area

Project 3: Walk Through Path to Back Drive
Last year we added stairs to transition from the lower garden outside the back deck to the upper garden. This area has a gradual grade and we found that we really weren't using the stairs as much as we expected since walking along the grass at an angle wasn't comfortable. We decided to take out a section of grass (yay!) and incorporate a level walk. This is my midway photo, as I am really bad at remembering to take before shots.

Removal of grass and area leveled

This required adding a low rock wall to hold in the soil after they cut out and leveled the space. It is amazing how this cut through path has transformed this area. I find myself walking it every day. It ties the lower garden to the back driveway nicely.

As you can see, we live on a corner lot and from this vantage point have a view of our neighbor across the cul-de-sac as well as across the street. We will be expanding the flowerbed to the left to extend down to the retaining wall, which means adding more pollinator plants! An additional benefit to all the stone we've added is that the irregularities of the natural rock makes for a great place to catch rain water for insects to drink and butterflies to puddle and bask.

Now that the projects are finished it's time to go plant shopping. Fortunately, spring plant sales are coming up and our local nurseries are on their expanded spring hours.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Discreet Blooms of Early Spring

Part of my morning routine is walking the dogs, which takes me on a tour of our property, through the woods and down to the creek and meadow. We always stop at the creek because the dogs love to romp through the water. Keeping an eye on 3 dogs usually takes all my attention, but the other morning I couldn't help notice the red maple that stands between the creek and the meadow was in full bloom. These blooms are not that noticeable from a distance, unless several trees stand together creating a red haze against the bright blue sky. The first native tree to bring color to our winter landscape, it bursts into bloom before leaf-out.

The blush of the red maple bloom is a sure sign that spring is almost here. Spring in the garden doesn't always coincide with the date on the calendar. This year we've had a particularly mild winter and I've been eager to get started in the garden so I look to nature for indicators. Native trees growing in their natural site have a synchronicity with annual temperature cycles and know when to break bud. Of course there is always the possibility of a late cold snap, but usually these trees get it right. 

red maple blooms

Slightly fragrant, the red maple blooms entice early pollinators to visit their nectar rich flowers. Important for our early native bees and flies and essential for bee keepers, as they provide an early source of nectar for honeybees on warm winter days. Red maples are polygamo-dioecious, thus some trees are only male, some only female and others are both. The photos above and below are male flowers with their exerted stamens and dusty yellow pollen.

red maple flowers

Whereas the blooms supports pollinators, the tree isn't dependent on them for reproduction as they also get assistance from wind pollination. We have two red maple trees near the creek, standing fairly removed from one another, one at the north end and the other at the south end. As far as I can tell both are male. Closer to the house, about 3 acres away, grows a tree, which bears fruit (samaras) in April. I can't conclusively conclude if this tree has both male and female flowers. Even with my zoom lens, the flowers are too tiny and too high up to discern the two.

Another flower that needs to be appreciated up close, the narrow bell shaped blooms of Dirca palustris (Eastern Leatherwood). Almost inconspicuous, the dainty dangling blooms hang in clusters and are long-lived.

Eastern Leatherwood

The lemon yellow blossoms liven up a shady area near our pond. This shrub will grow well in a deep shade garden because of its early leaf out, but note that it prefers moister soils and makes itself at home along a shady stream bank or near a pond. This is an extremely slow growing plant. We've had this one almost 5 years and it is only a few feet tall.

Dirca palustris

The petite fragrant blossoms of the spicebush shrub attract small native bees and flies. The blooms are dioecious, meaning you'll either have a male or female shrub. In our case, we have a female and now need to find a male for pollination so that it'll bear fruit for the birds. Unfortunately, nurseries never label the plants male or female so one has to wait for their bloom time to find a pair.

spicebush flowers

This shrub is the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly and promethea moth. Grubs of the long-horned beetle bore into the branches and roots. This is an ordinary shrub after bloom time that may fade into the background of the garden, but as it supports several levels of the ecosystem, it is a must have.

It takes a little more focus to welcome these discreet, early blooms, but they make me stop and linger in the garden. I think it is natures way of saying slow down and appreciate the small things. Not every plant has to be big and bold. What's the first flower in your garden that makes you say winter is on its way out?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Goldfinches and Sweetgum Balls

When the winter landscape stands bare and hides nothing, I find myself doing a lot more looking up into the tree canopy.  The denuded trees against a bright blue winter sky are living sculptures providing winter interest to the garden.  There is also plenty of activity up there with birds feasting on seeds and tree sap, or fluffing up to stay warm, hawks perched canvasing the land below and squirrels racing around the aerial obstacle course. So, look up, you may be surprised to find a lot more going on in your garden than you thought!
One of the trees, which populates our property is the Sweetgum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua). It is a pioneer species, establishing itself in areas that have been clear cut [farming and development]. It loves our acidic clay soil. While many homeowners don't find this tree so sweet because of the spiky balls that fall and litter the ground, it is a fabulous tree for supporting wildlife. Sweetgum balls, the tree's seed pods, are a goldfinch magnet. Just look up at any mature sweet gum tree in winter and more than likely you'll observe that all the balls dangling from the branches are covered in goldfinches. This is the case in our garden.

Can you find the goldfinches?

They may be difficult to spot initially as they adorn their softer, quieter plumage this time of year (see Sibley Guides to annual plumage cycle of a goldfinch), but look closely and your eye will catch their movement as they hop from one seed pod to another. The prickly balls have lots of compartment on the sphere, each containing two seeds.

Goldfinches often sit on the balls and swing back and forth as they stick their beaks into the seed pod to pull out their prize. They are industrious little birds and pretty entertaining as they swing effortlessly from one ball to another.

Sometimes they perch on a branch, grabbing a ball and pulling it towards them to safely secure it in place and then search for the seeds.

The American sweetgum tree is every inch a treasure, starting in spring when the the star shaped leaves serve as larval host for several moths including the Luna, Promethea, Imperial, and Regal moths. In late fall when the bright green seed pods have dried, birds including purple finches, chickadees, Carolina wrens, towhees, titmice, dove and juncos consume the seeds; as do, squirrels and chipmunks.

The sap, from where it's name derives, is sweet and attracts yellow-bellied sapsuckers who mark the tree trunks with uniform rows of holes. (For more on these woodpeckers read Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and their feeding holes )

Lastly, if you are not a fan of the Sweetgum balls that litter the ground, consider using them as mulch. They work well to deter dogs laying in the flower beds. And, if you're crafty they make a gorgeous wreath with a nice textural element.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Perfect Conditions for Needle Ice

We may not have gotten the snow fall that was predicted, but we did get freezing temperatures this weekend. I think we can officially say winter has arrived! Sunday morning was bitterly cold. Regardless, I dressed in 3 layers, a big winter coat, hat, gloves and scarf and waddled outside to photograph birds. On the path from the upper kitchen garden to the lower garden, where the ground is often exposed because of high foot traffic, I noticed needle ice had formed overnight.

This happens when there is a high moisture content in the ground (our rain on Friday night) and the soil temperature is above freezing (last week it was 70+ degrees), while the air temperature is below freezing (Hello 18 degrees!). 

The subterranean moisture is brought to the surface through capillary action. Often the ice columns push away soil particles as they grow. The soil here is a silty clay which provides enough pore space to conduce water to the surface.

This has occurred in our garden in past years, but these perfect conditions don't always present themselves every year, so it is special when they materialize.

I really wanted to get down on the ground to look closely, not so easy when you're dressed for the polar regions. These ice crystals are really cool! My boys had an impromptu mini-science lesson as I seize these opportunities to teach.

Carefully examining this unique marvel, reveals how the single needles meld together. If the air temperature stays cold enough they will continue to grow taller. These were only a few inches high at the surface and with temperatures climbing slightly above freeing today some of them began to collapse as the afternoon sun warmed us a little.

Similar phenomenons occur on plant stems called frost flowers, on dead wood referred to as hair ice and on small surface rocks then named pebble ice. You've probably experienced one or more of these ice crystal formations in your garden. No matter what the weather conditions are, it is worth getting out in the garden to explore. You never know what you will find! 

Friday, January 6, 2017

How the Birds Prepare for Snowmageddon

The snow is coming, the snow is coming! Meteorologists are predicting that we will be getting somewhere between 3 to 5 inches of snow over the weekend. This of course means that everyone in town compulsively races out and stocks up on the essentials, making the grocery stores a complete madhouse. The hardware stores are equally busy as panic sets in and people rush out to buy generators, portable heaters and batteries. It is pure hysteria. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for being prepared, but honestly, in Georgia we are a hot mess when a winter storm warning is issued.

And while we are busy preparing for our weekend lock down, so are the birds. Where we have apps on our phones that give us weather updates, birds depend on their ears. The pressure sensitive organs in the birds' ears sense changes in barometric pressure. This tells birds that it is time to eat up, hence we see a flurry of activity at feeders when a snow storm is looming. Just like at our grocery stores.

After my morning walk with the dogs, I sat on one of our garden benches and watched the birds. My first observation was that most of the song birds were visiting our native plants, devouring seeds and fruit, and not at the feeders that I stocked last night. It fills my heart with joy, seeing the native plants, I have mindfully chosen for our garden, benefiting the wildlife we are working hard to attract.

I saw bluebirds gobbling up the orange berries that adorn the winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata 'Winter Gold'). I can't remember ever seeing so many bluebirds at one time on our property before. Not captured on camera so you'll have to take my word, I saw 10 bluebirds on one shrub. Rather sensational!

After some time had passed, I was itching to go inside and grab my camera. Of course as soon as I stood up the birds flew off. Bluebirds are shy and seem to sense when the camera is around. I had to take these photos through the window of the potting shed, hence the quality and crispness is not there, nonetheless I am excited to share these with you. Oh, and I did see some fighting going on. One female in particular kept chasing off the males. (Don't mess with a woman on a mission!)

Some bluebirds also visited the suet feeders, pulling out the dried berries. Goldfinches and house finches were plucking at the ironweed seeds, while cardinals were working on the tulip poplar seeds high up in the tree canopy.

If you want to support songbirds in your garden during the winter, consider including these natives that bear prodigious fruit:
* Sumac~the perfect emergency food source for birds.
    Seed heads are persistent throughout the winter.
* Holly~winterberry, inkberry (Ilex glabra), American (Ilex opaca),
    or yaupon (Ilex vomitoria)
* Viburnum~possumhaw (V. nudum)
* American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
* Bayberry~Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera)
* Hackberry (Celtis laevigata)

The Titmice, chickadees and nuthatches mostly flocked to the feeders, grabbing black sunflower seeds and peanuts. I adore watching these little birds shimmy their way up and down tree trunks. The entertainment factor is high on these guys.

Downy and red bellied woodpeckers mostly hung onto the suet feeders consuming high energy nourishment.

As I close out this post, we are hovering above freezing and it is beginning to rain. This shall turn to snow as the afternoon progresses into the night, when we are purportedly to drop into the teens. We are all giddy to awake to a blanket of white snow. The kids to sled, the dogs to frolic and I'll be out there with my camera.

For more bird photos of 2017 snowmageddon, visit the Southern Meadows Facebook page.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Reflecting on the 2016 Garden

Welcome 2017! ~ I am super excited to embark on another year of garden goodness with so many ideas and thoughts dancing in my head. But before that journey begins looking back on the progress made last year is in order. It was a year of many highs and lows, which means it was a year of growth, learning, exploring and taking chances. As several of my fellow garden bloggers have done, I am reflecting on the year with one snapshot that sums up each month.

ruby crowned kinglet

January is usually a quiet month for most gardeners, but here it was a perfect time to remove invasive plants from our newly purchased 4 acres. We spent our free weekends cutting down privet and tearing out Japanese honeysuckle making substantial headway in this effort. Observing the birds that are year-round residence or over wintering in our region was calling. I spotted a ruby crowned kinglet for the first time in our woods. Perhaps a sign that our habitat garden is attracting more diverse residence.
I spoke at Deaton Creek to a charming group of gardeners on habitat gardening. On the blog I wrote about the importance of wildlife trees in the ecosystem, poison ivy and it's role in a wildlife habitat and took a look at the beauty of the beach tree in the winter. I attended the Native Plant Symposium sponsored by the Garden Club of Georgia at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia.

Lonicera sempervirens

The garden quietly began to awaken in February. Some winter wonders burst into bloom such as witch hazel, golden ragwort, and Carolina jessamine. Blueberry buds swelled and other non-native friendlies such as Edgeworthia chrysantha, hellebore, crocuses and a few early daffodils began to appear.
I presented to the Brenau University Garden Society (BUGS) on gardening for pollinators. On the blog I focused on backyard birding and yellow-bellied sapsucker feeding holes. I attended the Greater Greenville Master Gardener Symposium in South Carolina with fellow garden bloggers Janet Ledebuhr (Queen of Seaford), and Julie Adolf (Garden Delights).

Sanguinaria canadensis

The appearance of spring ephemerals in March transitioned us from winter into spring. Bloodroot was the first to brighten the blanket of leaf litter on the forest floor with its snowy white petals. With the blooms emerged the pollinators and we regularly saw butterflies and bees on bright sunny days. Leatherwood, redbuds, creeping phlox and quince put on a brilliant show. Devil's walking stick, hydrangeas, and hickory trees were photographed for a series on spring leaf emergence. On the blog, I took a close look at the pollinators that frequent the blueberry blooms and the value of our native blueberry bee.

Carolina Wren fledglings
April was azalea time and the woodland garden was alive with color. The leaf out of the canopy trees provided a fresh layer of green to the landscape. The ruby-throated hummingbirds arrived and established their territories. Song birds nested all over the garden. My boys and I had fun identifying nests from Carolina Chickadees, Eastern Phoebes, Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Mockingbirds, Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, and Barn Swallows. An unforgettable moment was when we witnessed a brood of Carolina Wren fledglings learning how to fly. The kitchen garden produced strawberries and other cool season crops were ready for harvest before prepping the beds for summer planting.

Check out page 265 in Gardening for Butterflies
The book Gardening for Butterflies published by The Xerces Society was available and gifted to me by my friend Penny, who took several photos that appear in the book, some taken in my garden. 
I took a 4-H trip to Tybee Island with my homeschooled boys where we learned about marsh ecology, sea turtles, marine invertebrates, and beach ecology. It was an incredible hands on educational experience.

cool season veg in kitchen garden

May was simply splendid. Every part of the garden was dancing with colorful blooms. This month was abundant with perfect temperatures and good rainfall. We welcomed the friendly snakes as they emerged from hibernation.
I spoke to enthusiastic 4th and 5th graders at Sugar Hill Elementary School's Career Day on opportunities in the field of horticulture. A girls trip to Puerto Rico to celebrate my sister's 40th birthday was the highlight of the month. Despite the hype about zika virus we didn't see any mosquitoes on our adventures through the rain forest, the city, or on the beaches. 
It was a busy month outside of gardening and the blog didn't get a lot of attention. I only wrote one post on the dark side of butterfly releases.

Appalachian Brown butterfly

By the time June arrived we were rocking and rolling around here preparing for a garden tour in September. My boys were away at summer camp for a week giving me a full 7 days of nothing but gardening.
The much anticipated wildlife pond was installed. This was a project that we had contemplated for three years and finally got it done.

On the blog, we celebrated pollinators and their vital role in our ecosystems.

Lobelia cardinalis

I was away much of July with a trip to Michigan to visit my sister, attending the Garden Blogger Fling in Minneapolis, MN and then rushing to North Carolina to attend to my mum, who surprised us all with a trip to the E.R. with a blocked artery. Thankfully she is in amazing health otherwise and was in and out and back to active life in no time.

Swallowtails on joe-pye weed

August was hot, hot, hot but we persevered, sweating in the garden preparing for the fall garden tour. Plants saw record numbers of pollinators, caterpillars, and beneficial insects. I took loads of photos. On the blog I wrote about some of the  insects favorite blooms and how hummingbird feeders service other insects on more than a hummingbird feeder.

I presented to a great crowd at the Georgia Native Plant Society, Redbud Chapter on pollinators and beneficial insects  and their relationship with native plants.

fiery skipper on helianthus angustifolius

September began the transition from the vibrant colors of summer to the beautiful golds, purples and oranges of fall. Seed pods began to form on buckeyes and milkweed and fruit developed on sumac, beauty berry, hearts-a-bustin and viburnum. In the kitchen garden we harvested figs, peppers, and herbs. A giant swallowtail butterfly visited the garden; the first we've had in a few years. Frogs discovered the pond and perched on the lily pads; counted up to 16 frogs.
I was an instructor for the Plants & Pollinators course for the Native Plant Certificate Program at the Georgia State Botanical Garden. What a fun group!
About 40 people from the Georgia Native Plant Society and the Native Plant Certificate Program attended the tour of Southern Meadows.

On one of my frequent trips to North Carolina, I attended the first annual Bee Better Garden Tour, and visited the garden of friend and author Helen Yoest from Gardening with Confidence. What a special treat that was!

A peak into the woodland garden

October celebrated the 7th year of blogging! Reflecting on this profound journey with its humble beginnings as a way to document our garden for family, to an educational forum and connection to the global gardening world has been truly amazing. It has created meaningful friendships and allowed me to grow and flourish in extraordinary ways. 

I spoke at the Spout Springs Library on the Hows and Whys of Creating a Pollinator Garden. On the blog, I focused on the berry worthy plants that support wildlife in our garden and the regal Georgia aster. I worked the inaugural Tree Day celebration at our local nature center to help promote native trees and their role in the backyard environment.
The effects of more than 90 days without any rain really began to show and the garden was looking very parched and even the most drought tolerant, established plants were stressed.

a look at rain drops and fall leaves on pond

Wildfires broke out in several north Georgia locations as well as the Carolinas and Tennessee. These giant fires sent smoke and haze our direction. Much of the month of November was void of work in the garden because of code red alerts. Toward month's end we finally received some much needed rain!

Goldfinches eating seeds of helianthus angustifolius

December brought more rain and relief. Many of the birds returned to feast on the seeds thanks to the abundance of pollinators this summer. Garden chores were mostly moving leaf litter around to appropriate parts of the garden. Observing hawks was a favorite activity as we celebrated the winter solstice.
I attended the USC Upstate's Arbor Day event featuring David Culp with Janet Ledebuhr, Julie Adolf, Daricia McKnight (A Charlotte Garden) and Lisa Wagner (Natural Gardening).
A trip down to Charleston to celebrate our son's commencement from the College of Charleston was the beginning of a month of family gatherings and celebrations.

And that is a seasonal look at our garden for 2016. The new year is sure to bring more improvements and developments to our wildlife habitat. I hope you'll be along for the ride. Cheers to a another year of learning, living, and changing to make a difference in the world!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Hawk Watching

Hawks are year-round residents in our region. Red-shouldered, red-tailed, sharp-shinned and cooper's hawks are the four most commonly spotted in our garden. These magnificent birds are welcome in our wildlife habitat, not only because they are so majestic, but also as the primary natural control for rodents, other birds, snakes and reptiles. Being higher up on the forest food chain, they keep these populations in check. They could be making more headway with the vole population, in my opinion, which was unbridled this year, but they do make an immense difference.

During the winter months, when the hardwood trees stand uncovered, the forest dwelling, red shouldered hawks are much easier to observe. These birds of prey sit quietly perched on the bare limbs watching the ground for the slightest movement with their keen eyes. 

Perhaps shorter daylight hours for hunting and less available prey during the winter months, make these birds more noticeable in our garden at this time of year. More often than not, it is their movement or call that alerts me to their presence. Their rufous patches, which echo the reddish brown of the leaf litter and their black and white barring, which melds with the tree bark, often makes them tricky to spot immediately.   

Photographing them proves to be even more challenging. It is usually by chance that I'm outside with my camera, suited with the right lens, when I spot a hawk perched in a tree. Sometimes, I am able to run inside, grab the camera, find the zoom lens and return to find the hawk still sitting static. However, even with the zoom lens (70-300mm), I rarely get close enough for that ultimate shot.

This Christmas Day was a magnificent 75 degrees, summoning a walk in the garden, while chatting with family and exchanging Christmas blessings. A red shouldered hawk glided in and perched itself on a low lying limb, within view from the kitchen garden, where I was stationed. It sat motionless for the remainder of the phone call, so as soon as it concluded I hastily made my way to the house to retrieve my camera.

Moving closer without being spotted or heard would require a bit of stealth on my part. The leaf litter that blankets the forest floor did little to help silence my footsteps as I edged ever closer to the bird's location. I tiptoed gingerly along, ducking behind trees to inch along unnoticed, grabbing a few shots each time I halted [in the event that the hawk would fly off].  But signs were in my favor yesterday, as this hawk was more focused on getting its Christmas meal than me skulking through the woods.

When I was half the distance from the house to the hawk, it suddenly swooped down to pounce upon a critter crawling through the leaves. I stood silent watching. [I didn't take any photos in fear of disturbing its activity.] Unfortunately for the hawk, the meal got away, but the determined hawk didn't give up on this sight and flew up onto the song bird feeding station nearby.

There it sat, sharp talons exposed, powerful beak at the ready, and eyes focused. Its receptors allowing it to not only see a range about 8 times greater than mine, but also the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. It searched the forest floor turning its head dexterously from one direction to another. As it sat contentedly balanced on the decorative post cap, I moved in without alerting the bird to my company. Leaning into a tall oak tree to stabilize the camera, I focused and took a few shots. Being in close proximity to wildlife, while trying not to give myself away, makes getting shots a bit of an adventure.

It wasn't long before the hawk either tired of this location or determined I was in its midst, and took off for a tree deeper in our woods. Still not the ultimate shot, but it was a Christmas miracle of sorts for this habitat gardener. I hope this red shouldered hawk was able to partake in a meal as scrumptious as we did on Christmas day.