Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bring the Funk

I have been in a bit of a funk lately...writers block and the photo blahs. Does this ever happen to you? I started writing three different posts and haven't finished any of them. I'm not happy with the quality of the photos I've taken the last few times I've been in my garden. So what's up? Is it a lack of inspiration? Frustration in my skill level? Are my expectations too high? Feeling overwhelmed? Or all of the above?

As I was staring at a blank screen this morning trying to work out these questions the power went out and it was almost as if time stood still. No Internet, no coffee, no photos and so in an attempt to snap myself out of this mood and find some inspiration I grabbed my camera, called the dogs and took a walk around the garden.

The swamp sunflowers are beginning to bloom. They are a good 12 feet tall and just look stunning against the blue skies. The bees love them and I spent some time watching them from down below.

I stood on the fence post to get this shot of one of the lower blooms still covered with a little morning dew.

Vernonia gigantea

Ironweed just glows in the fall sunlight, especially as the sun creeps over the slope. It is another pollinator favorite, especially for bees and skipper butterflies.

The hummingbird migration is in full swing and The Southern Meadows speedway is in full operation. Races are held from dawn to dusk. There are several circuits going on simultaneously. Race track officials are perched in branches around the track monitoring the feeders and making sure that everyone flies fair.

I found this little guy hanging out in the grasses. He was trying to be very inconspicuous.

The upland sea oats are one of my favorite grasses and really shine in the fall.

I wish I knew the name of this grass. It is gorgeous. We picked it up last year at our Master Gardener Plant Expo. It was the last one and didn't have a tag. I would love to get more. The blooms are iridescent but I find their dazzle very difficult to capture on camera (back to that frustration factor).

In the woodland garden the native beautyberry shrub is glowing. I love the big, round white berries. I am sure the birds love them even more.

Well, the dogs had a great run around the garden. Can you tell? Muddy paws and a big grin!

And, the power is back on and maybe I'll go put on some Parliament Funkadelic "Bring The Funk". How can George Clinton not put one in a better mood?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hibiscus are under attack!

Yikes, My beautiful hardy hibiscus are under attack!

The beautiful dinner plate size blooms are no more and the leaves are being eaten down to the veins.
This looks like damage from an insect with chewing mouth parts, but which one?

Upon closer inspection, there are loads of caterpillars happily eating away at the Blue River and Swamp Hibiscus. Hmmm...I wasn't aware that the hibiscus was a host plant for any butterfly or moth larva. Since this is my first time growing hibiscus I'd better figure this out. So off to my resource books I go to research...

Well, it turns out that these caterpillars won't turn into butterflies or moths. These caterpillar-like larvae are from the hibiscus sawfly, a plant feeding wasp. And I am hosting a party for hundreds! They feed on hibiscus, rose of sharon, hollyhock and mallow. My book Garden Insects of North America (The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs) by Whitney Cranshaw (by the way, this is a very comprehensive book with lots of photos) says that these larvae can defoliate a plant in a very short period of time. No kidding! Look at my poor hibiscus, it certainly isn't the life of the party anymore!

Hand picking all these caterpillars off the leaves is a daunting task but if I am to save the plant the tedious work must begin quickly otherwise this plant will be at even more risk. After hand picking I sprayed the leaves with a soapy mixture to kill any larvae that I missed. The book tell me that sawflies can produce up to six generations in one season (May-October) so the infected plant will need to be sprayed multiple times.

Are these their egg sacks? This must be removed immediately!

There is a little new growth so I am hopefully that this plant will survive.

Has anyone else experienced an infestation of sawflies? What did you do and what where your results?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Student Lessons in the Pollinator Garden

School is back in full swing and the students are back in the gardens. 
Exploring. Observing. Planting. Learning. 

My first lesson with my new group of Junior Master Gardeners was a scavenger hunt in the pollinator garden. This was their first visit and introduction to their school gardens. The goal was to teach them to be observant gardeners, get them excited about gardening and to start a conversation about what they saw and found. Since this is a volunteer job I have more flexibility in my lesson plans and I use their comments as a guide to what we will focus on in subsequent lessons.

It is amazing how many children are afraid of bees.  One vital subject we will cover is the importance of bees. How much they depend on bees for most things they eat everyday. And how best to act if a bee is flying around them. (Stay calm!)

Butterflies excite children! 
There is something so magical about watching butterflies flutter around the garden.
Students will learn how to be good stewards of the environment and Mother Nature will reward with wonderful creatures, including butterflies, to enjoy!

Look! Two butterflies on one bloom!
Fall offers a very diverse number of butterflies so one of the first lessons we cover is the Life Cycle of Butterflies. We do a craft showing the 4 stages but the best teacher is the garden where the students get to witness the stages in real time.

Black swallowtail caterpillars in various instar stages on parsley
chrysalis on goldenrod
See how well the chrysalis camouflages in the goldenrod. 

empty chrysalis

Students observed the behaviors of the butterflies.
They learned how the butterflies keep their wing muscles warm even when resting

Buckeye resting on stepping stone
 Students learned how the colors on the butterflies wings help camouflage them and act as a warning to predators. And how they use wing shape and color to identify and impress a mate.

Buckeye on Guara (aka whirling butterflies)
Students learned how warmth and wind are factors for butterflies. The butterflies use wind to soar and drift and migrate (we are keeping our eyes open for monarchs). Our day in the garden was a little windy and the butterflies looked like they were struggling to keep their balance on the blooms.

Searching for insects is a favorite activity, especially with the boys. This is a perfect way to lead into a lesson about beneficial and pests in the garden.

Lady beetle going after aphids
And there are opportunities to discuss reproduction of the animal world.

It often happens to children
and sometimes to gardeners
that they are given gifts of value
of which they do not perceive
until much later.
~ Wayne Winterrowd

I meet with two groups of 3rd graders (40 students) on Fridays for a one hour lesson as part of their school day. In addition to gardening I incorporate math, science, art, environmental studies, literature and nutrition into the lessons. Next up is fall planting in the vegetable garden. And there is nothing that excites children more than harvesting food that they grew from seed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Should it stay or should it go?

Do you have a butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) in your garden? I have several and they certainly live up to their reputation for being a butterfly magnet. On any given summer day I can find at least several species of butterflies on my bushes from larger swallowtails and monarchs to the smaller skippers.

We planted these shrubs in our garden to attract the butterflies, bees, moths and hummingbirds. Recently, I learned that several states have banned the planting of this shrub on public land; some states even prohibit the sale and commercial cultivation of Buddleja, and it has also been placed on a number university invasive species lists. I have to admit I found this rather surprising because in Georgia it is a staple plant in most butterfly/pollinator garden designs.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

In researching this claim I found that Buddleja, a native to Asia, is highly invasive producing thousands of seeds during the growing season. I have never had Buddleja reseed in my garden, have you? During the summer when the mood strikes me (which is hardly ever!) I may deadhead the shrub but frankly it is a very time consuming and not a very fulfilling activity (especially in the heat). Since they bloom on new growth I severely cut back my plants each winter/early spring to ensure more blooms during the season . However, I can honestly say I have never seen them naturalize in Georgia.

Red Admiral

But according to the USDA Forest Service they are invasive in my region. You can view the map here to see all the states where Buddleja is listed as invasive.

According to Doug Tallamy, PhD, chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark "nature never meant for these bushes to be here, so the plants aren't equipped to feed the beneficial bugs and birds in our region of the world. This disrupts the entire food web."

Easter Tiger Swallowtail

Exotic, invasive plants harm the environment by competing with native plants and eventually crowding them out. Native plants are important because they provide food for native bugs, birds and other animals which have evolved together. Tallamy says the "30 percent of plants in most natural areas are invasive" which in turn reduces the food supply for birds and insects.

I am very passionate about native plants and am adding more and more to my garden each season; however, I do have many non-native plants too. The Native Plant groups and Master Gardener organization that I belong to define natives as plants that were here before the European settlers arrived. Kevin Songer wrote a thought provoking piece More Spirits In Plants Than In The Heavens, Native or Not at Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens. He proposes a lot of questions about what makes a plant native. Check it out and see what you think.

Great Spangled Fritllary & Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Genevieve at North Coast Gardening recently blogged "things in our garden are either making a positive difference in the world (to us or wildlife), or they are taking up space that could have been used for something better." 

In this case, while the butterfly bush is an attractive nectar source for pollinators it is not a host plant for any butterfly or moth species. Butterflies and moths therefore have to use energy and time to find another source to lay their eggs.

Clearwing Moth (aka Hummingbird Moth)

In response to this ban on butterfly bushes several nurseries are developing new butterfly bush varieties with a very low fertility rate.

Fiery Skipper

So what does a responsible wildlife gardener do? Do I deadhead every bloom and never let it go to seed to ensure that it doesn't naturalize (although I have never seen it reseed here)? Or do I dig up all my shrubs and replace them with a native alternative?

So what say you readers? Will you (or would you) pull out your butterfly bush(es) if they are invasive in your area or can you not part them?

Final note: all the photos in this post were taken on the butterfly bushes in my garden to demonstrate the variety of pollinators it attracts. However, this is by no means all the butterflies in my garden nor is it the only nectar source available.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Partridge Pea

Sometimes not weeding your garden has its benefits. This summer we left an area of the garden go "wild". What we discovered is that a native volunteer found its way into our garden.

This is a Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) sometimes known as a sensitive plant or sleeping plant. The leaves close at night and are also sensitive to the touch, hence their moniker. It is a native to the Eastern United States and grows as an annual in sun and poor soil.

I found it flowering in July and August, attracting pollinators from bees to butterflies as well as other insects.

If the blooms don't convince you that this wildflower is a member of the pea family (because frankly they don't resemble those blooms) then thin pea pods that show up in fall will. Game birds and song birds readily eat the seeds, hence the name Partridge Pea.

The Partridge Pea's long taproot makes it drought tolerant and also an excellent plant for erosion control; however, because of the long taproot it does not transplant well. It usually reseeds easily but since I would like to add this plant to other areas of my garden I will need to gather some seeds which is best done in mid-fall.

Four species of butterflies use this plant a a host: Orange Sulphur, Cloudless Sulphur, Gray Hairstreak and Little Yellow. All four of these are living in my region.

This is the Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar which seems to like the pea pods just as well as the leaves.

I found 10 of these caterpillars munching away at the leaves, pods and stalks. Once they are big and fat they will sneak off to make their chrysalis and become the Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly. Despite their bright coloring these caterpillars camouflage amazingly well on this plant, their colors blending with the bright yellow blooms and blue green foliage.

This plant is definitely a winner with two months of blooming flowers providing nectar for the pollinators while also serving as a host plant for sulfur caterpillars plus a source of food for the birds. This beautiful native plant is moving to the front of the flower bed in my garden!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The beauty of decay

Is fall in the air? 

Well, you'd be hard pressed to say it feels like fall if you were outside in my garden mid-day with sunshine and 80 degree temperatures. However, the early mornings are significantly cooler and less humid than summer providing the first hint that fall is on its way. 

It is still a good month away before fall really shows its colors, but the signs are there. Take a look at some of the smaller details. The beautiful purples, browns, orange, red, tan and white found in this Turkey Tail fungi are indicative of fall.

Here are two alternate views. Each giving a very different feel of the same subject matter. 

I think fungi is Nature's art. There is so much color, texture and pattern to be found in this bracket variety. The part we see (aka the tail) is the "flower" of the fungi. Most of the fungus grows on the inside of the bark of the tree usually growing on wounds of oak trees helping it decompose so that the nutrients can return to the soil.

The occasional leaf is falling to the ground. Perhaps more victims of drought than the beginnings of foliage change.

..."their splendid coloring is but their graceful and beautiful surrender of life" 
~ Tryon Edwards

This one looks like a fish, don't you think?

Summer blooms have finished their summer offerings and are turning to seed.

blackberry lily seeds

Beautyberry seeds

milkweed seeds with dew drops

As nature produces for the next generation, the next growing season beauty abounds. Are you seeing signs of fall in your garden?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Seasonal Celebrations & Lessons Learned

 Oh Fall, how I welcome thee!

After the humidity and heat that summer brought I am ready to embrace the change of seasons.
I am looking forward to asters, chrysanthemums, acorns, persimmon, goldenrod, sumac, seed pods, apples, pumpkins, and red berries. College football, soup and chili, wearing a jacket and enjoying the vivid fall colors. But my favorite thing of all is Fall planting!

I joining Gardens Eye View for a look forward to Fall.

~ Seasonal Celebrations: Fall ~ 

Early fall color or victim of drought?

Every fall the Master Gardener organization I am affiliated with holds a Fall Garden Expo. Growers from all over the Southeast come to sell plants, many unusual and hard to find. It is a fabulous one stop shopping event of all things garden related from tools & equipment to art. The fabulous group of volunteers that organize and staff the expo put on an outstanding event. I work the two day event every year but make sure to find time to shop because there are always more plants that I can't live without.

Fall is time to celebrate the arrival of the Monarch butterflies! The milkweed is ready and waiting to host the party. They usually stop in my Georgia garden in mid-October on their trip to Mexico but my husband spotted the first one in our garden this week. A few days later we spotted another Monarch, this time a male. I hope to find caterpillars soon. These will become the next generation of butterflies who will continue the migratory journey south.

First monarch sighting of the Fall

Cooler weather means its hiking time. One of my favorite places to go locally is Elachee Nature Center and Science Center. A great place to explore nature along 13 miles of trails through the 1,500 acre nature preserve.

It is a plant and animal sanctuary and always an excellent hands on classroom to make new discoveries.

How will you be celebrating the Fall season? 

*  *  *  *  *

 ~ Lessons Learned: Summer ~ 

Summer is coming to an end but it didn't pass by without Mother Nature departing more knowledge unto the gardener. I am joining Plant Postings for a look at the lessons learned this season.

I discovered that the bees like the bird bath even more than the birds. It is "their" drinking hole and they get very upset whenever I dump the water to clean it out and replenish it with fresh water. They buzz around me objecting profusely. I noticed that quite a few of the the bees would fall into the water from the edge and drown so I added rocks of varying sizes for them to perch on. This seems to have solved the problem.

This summer was my first attempt growing eggplant. The eggplants which were purchased as seedlings in Spring have not performed at all. I was beginning to feel a bit of a failed gardener because it is touted as one of the easiest vegetables to grow. They like fertile soil and lots of sun and they have both. They bloomed several times but the blooms fell off. So I did some research and found that this is caused by either (1) lack of water or (2) lack of pollination. Well, I know it isn't lack of water since we supplement the garden in the summer so it must be the later. So it had me thinking that I have never seen a pollinator visit them. Odd, since there are pollinators zooming around the garden all day long. Well, that is because eggplant, like corn, is wind pollinated. Pollination problems can occur when it is very wet or humid because the pollen becomes very sticky and can't fall down onto the pistil to pollinate the flower. When the weather is hot the pollen will become inactive because the plant thinks it can't handle the stress of fruit along with the hot weather. So the plant aborts the bloom so it won't be so stressed. I am keeping my fingers crossed that some less humid fall weather may help out and the eggplant won't be so stressed (poor thing!) and maybe decide to produce some fruit before winter arrives. Fingers crossed. If we decide to grow eggplant again next year I may have to help it along with some hand pollination.

I have learned that it takes a long time to become a toad. The toads laid eggs in early spring this year. The tadpoles swam and swam and then swam some more in our small pond. I thought they would never grow up. Then one day I started to see the tiniest little toads maybe 1/2" long hopping around in the weeds near the pond. Happy day...I was so thrilled! They are getting a little bigger everyday and we are now starting to see them venture off to other parts of the garden. They are now about 1" long and just one of the cutest things in the garden.

How did your garden fare this summer? Did Mother Nature depart any wisdom to you?