Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, December 16, 2013

Seasonal Celebrations~Winter 2013

By the time December rolls around most of the garden has been put bed and colder temperatures have rolled in. With the garden resting, my energies turn to the seasonal festivities. Our holiday traditions are an eclectic mix of our family's German/English roots, my husband's Southern background with our experiences living in various European countries thrown in for good measure.

view of woodland garden @ Southern Meadows

At Southern Meadows we begin the Christmas season with Advent. We make an advent wreath which is different each year but always uses fresh, natural material. Beginning on the fourth Sunday before December 24th, we light a new candle each Sunday and sing this little German song:

Advent, Advent,
ein Lichtlein brennt.
Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier,
dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür!

Advent Wreath

One of my favorite Advent traditions is Saint Nicholas Day which is celebrated on the 6th of December. The true story of Santa Claus begins with St. Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. St. Nicholas' wealthy parents, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering. He became Bishop of Myra while still a young man and was known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children and his concern for sailors and ships. The custom of giving presents during the Christmas season comes from St. Nicholas. Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas' life and deeds. You can read some of them here.  

St. Nicholas day is widely celebrated in Europe. It is the main day for gift giving and merrymaking. My children set out their shoes/stockings on the night of December 5th and in the morning they find them filled with goodies from St. Nick.

Saint Nicholas Day goodies

Tree decorating is a major event in our home. Fresh trees bring such joy and cheer especially when the landscape is so brown and gray and the evergreen fragrance through our home spreads tranquility and peace. The concept of a Christmas tree originated in Germany in the 16th century. Legend has it that Martin Luther (founder of the Protestant faith) brought home an evergreen tree after seeing its beauty in the woods with thousands of stars shining through the evergreen branches. He placed candles on the tree to mimic the stars' glow.

We display three trees in our home at Christmas. One tree is adorned with ornaments from our childhood and those we collected in our travels and all the places we've lived. It is a celebration of our family history and memories. I love that there is a story behind each ornament that is hung. Then we have a tree which we adorn with all the handmade ornaments from our children. This tree makes me especially happy since it is filled with such love and care.

Christmas tree at Southern Meadows

As the Christ child was born in a manger, in the early years, people would bring their animals indoors to be part of the Christmas celebrations. German legend has it that the spiders were not allowed in the home. The Christ child was sad that they were excluded from the celebrations and helped them get into homes on Christmas eve. Spiders worked all night long and covered the trees with webs. In the morning the webs sparkled on the trees and the people were amazed. And so, the tradition of adding tinsel to Christmas trees was born.

Outside on our front porch we put up a tree which celebrates nature. The tree is adorn with nesting houses, mini watering cans as a tribute to the gardeners who support wildlife and then the kids and I made some edible birdhouses. We purchased wooden houses from the craft store and then covered them with an edible glue and seeds. I got the recipe from blogger friend Indie over at Red House Garden. Here is her post on how-to make an edible bird house.

Christmas tree for the birds

And speaking of birds...we will be participating again in the Great Backyard Bird Count which takes place from February 14-17, 2014. Mark your calendars! For more information see here.

I am joining Gardens Eye View's meme for Seasonal Celebrations. A round-up of participating blogs will be posted on the solstice so do pop over and have a read. 

 A very merry Christmas from our garden to yours;
and, all the happiest of days in 2014!

Don't forget to eat some healthy soul food on New Year's day to bring you a year of luck. See my post from last year for the Hoppin' John recipe.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Lessons Learned from Fall Garden 2013

Fall is often the busiest time at Southern Meadows. This fall was spent digging lots of holes for all the plants that we purchased at the local plant sales and nurseries. We ordered a flatbed of rocks to finish some hardscape projects (for detail on this project see my post here) and started landscaping the flower beds in front of our new patio.

Purple Muhly grass plumes

But what I learned from my garden this fall is that despite all the things on the to-do list, I still need to take time for reflection and quiet in the garden. This is when I notice the little things that are the most important aspects of gardening when it comes to wildlife. What I observed this fall is that our efforts to support wildlife are finally paying off. The bird feeders were filled but remained untouched by the birds and squirrels because they were busy foraging in the landscape.

goldfinch feeding on swamp sunflower seeds

I saw wildlife in my garden that I never notice before like this yellow-shafted flicker;

yellow-shafted flicker

and, this brightly colored, marbled orb weaver.

marbled orb weaver spider, N.E. Georgia

I decided that its okay if I don't get around to harvesting all our fruits and vegetables because if I don't others will benefit too.

wasp feeding on fig

I also learned that butterflies can survive some pretty cold temperatures if they hunker down in the leaf litter or find refuge in bark, rocks or sheltered crevices.  A cold front moved in unseasonably early this year and took out most of the nectar sources for these butterflies. Putting out supplemental food is essential for them to survive such conditions on their southward migration. Think about putting out some nectar using a natural sponge and sugar water (1 part sugar to 4 parts water) in a shallow dish if this occurs in your area. Butterflies will also pull food from rotting fruit. Cutting up your Jack-O-Lantern is a great way to provide food for some butterflies.

Bringing in plants that are not hardy is one of the last things we do to put the garden to bed for the winter months. The pots with the lemon, lime and calamondin plants are large and heavy. It is always challenging to find a good spot for these plants so they can get their required 5 hours of sun a day, preferably 10 hrs. We've learned that they tend to suffer if they don't get the right light requirements so last year we provided supplemental lighting; but, this year my husband had the brilliant idea of putting them on rolling furniture movers. We've placed them in a sunny window in the garage and we can now move the plants outdoors on those sunny, warmer winter days.

use furniture movers to bring in tropical plants for winter

What lessons have you taken away from your garden this Fall? Think about joining in this seasonal meme. All the details are available at Plant Postings (Lessons Learned) and Gardens Eye View (Seasonal Celebrations). Please come back for my next post where I will highlight some of the ways we enjoy celebrating the winter season.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sometimes you take what you can get

Late fall the weather can be a bit tumultuous. It can be sunny and warm or downright frigid. We've had both in the last week. Arctic like temperatures blew in and several nights of below freezing temperatures put an end to all the fall blooming flowers. It seems early in the season for it to be this cold but nothing surprises me anymore. All this chill was followed by a several days of gloom and rain. Blah!

But why am I going into all this dreary detail about the weather? Because, after all the freeze and rain, we had butterflies. Yes indeed, BUTTERFLIES fluttering around the garden searching for nectar sources and warming their bodies in the leaf litter and on rocks. At first I had to blink twice, thinking I mistook a falling leaf for a butterfly (does anyone else do this?) but you can't mistake the bright yellow of a cloudless sulphur or the intense orange of a gulf fritillary.

These are truly amazing creatures! During rainy weather butterflies will perch on the underside of a leaf or crawl deep between blades of grass and wait. When temperatures drop below freezing they will find crevices in structures such as holes in trees, or hunker down deep in leaf litter. When the weather warms again and they bask in the sunshine they will flutter.

But after the freeze there are very few nectar sources. Poor butterflies take what they can get from the spent blooms. Just look at the skipper above searching for nectar in an azalea bloom after the freeze.

Violas are one of the few plants still blooming in my garden right now.

I decided to put out some supplemental food for these butterflies by placing an all natural sponge in some sugar water (4 parts water to 1 part sugar). It is a good idea when setting out a nectar sponge for the butterflies to be sure to place it high enough so the garden helpers (a.k.a. the dogs) don't think it is a delicious treat for them! Yes, Sasha made off with the sponge and Biscuit thought the sugar water was a delicious change of pace from his usual water.

While many butterfly species migrate to warmer climates for the winter some butterflies can live in cold climates where they spend the winter as caterpillars or a chrysalis. This past January we found an American Snout butterfly out and about on a sunny day. You can see my posts here.

To help these butterflies survive the cold, wet of winter in their various life cycle stages be sure not to clean up your garden too much. Leaves, wood, and rocks are places for many insects to find shelter during the winter months. Take care not to remove these sanctuaries especially after all the work of providing host and nectar plants for them during the warmer months. You will certainly see an increase in butterfly populations next year. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Beauty of Dead and Decaying Wood

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it still make a sound? 

That is a question that has been given much philosophical debate over the ages. Even doing a search on the subject makes for some very interesting reading. The idea that plants can hear and even feel when humans are nearby came up but that is a topic for another post.

This summer two trees fell in our garden. One tree died a year ago. We knew it was going to happen eventually since there was a large cavity at the base of the tree and last summer the leaves turned brown and fell to the ground. But we weren't in a hurry to take it down because the wildlife was enjoying it. The sapsucker woodpeckers had made holes in the trunk, while red-headed and downy woodpeckers picked insects from behind the bark. It was a good source of food for these birds. This tree was also a favorite perching spot for the hawks and vultures and the squirrels climbed it relentlessly. But the time had come where it could no longer stand upright and down it came.

Did the tree make a big noise when it came down? Only the plants, trees and birds know the answer to that question and for now they aren't talking. Amazingly, the tree fell cleanly. It didn't take down any other trees or branches along the way and landed just inches away from a Florida Anise. I am sure if the Florida Anise could talk (and maybe she can) it would have let out a huge sigh of relief.

Whew! That was a close call!

It left a great stump which I will incorporate into our landscape design. I love to place plants inside of them and have them flow out of the stump. I can envision some spring blooming native phlox and ferns spilling out of here or perhaps a native vine to serve the pollinators.

Dead and decaying wood is often an overlooked element in the garden. While it may not be included in traditional landscape design it is an important piece when designing a garden for wildlife. At the edge of our woodland garden I used two empty stumps as planters for several native ferns. They benefit from the nutrients of the decaying wood and I like the natural look of these "containers".

There is a cavity at the base of the stump on the left and just the other day I caught a black rat snake poking his head out. They are shy snakes and as soon as he saw me he slithered back inside.

I also use old stumps to hold bird baths, shallow saucers with sand for puddling sites for butterflies or decorative containers. And of course stumps can be a piece of art just by themselves.

The decaying wood of standing or fallen plants is part of Mother Nature's bountiful provisions and is important for wildlife and a healthy ecosystem. It is of great value to fungi, mosses and lichens that already started growing on this tree before it fell.


Skinks will lay their eggs in rotting wood and it is home to beetles and many other insects. Birds feed on these insects and they attract other mammals as well. 

Hollow logs provide shelter for a variety of animals including chipmunks, foxes, coyotes and snakes. Doesn't this cavity look inviting? I am sure someone will make use of it this winter.

In the meantime the squirrels and chipmunks are using it as a bridge and my kids like to balance on it to get to their favorite climbing tree.

The death of this tree means the beginning of life for other plants. With the absence of the canopy of this large tree other plants will find their way to this space and fill in the area. Wildlife will use the remains of the tree for shelter and food before the tree returns to the earth from which it came putting nitrogen back into the soil. And soil is one of the most important natural resource on earth. Most life depends on soil for food. It should be treasured and treated with great care!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Beginnings of Autumn Color, Flutterbys and Critters in Camouflage

I am struck by the beauty of Autumn. I have been patiently waiting for the changing of the colors and finally the leaves have begun to sport their bright fall colors in our woods. Each day there is more and more bold color defining the landscape.

 On days when the sun shines the colors are much more striking and vibrant.

You can clearly see the chlorophyll breaking down in the leaves.

Many leaves have already fallen to the ground making a beautiful carpet in the garden. The Virginia creeper which is coming into its own as a wonderful ground cover is beginning to show its fall colors too.

The tropical fruit trees will need to be brought indoors soon but for now I am leaving them outside so the fruit can ripen. They survived the one frosty night when temperatures plummeted to 34 degrees (Fahrenheit) a week ago.

The fig tree is dropping its leaves but still bears some fruit that needs to mature. And then there is some fruit where the hornets beat me to the harvest. This is what happens when life gets too busy.

The persimmon tree didn't bear much fruit this year but a few are almost ready for picking.

With the shorter days and cooler weather there are fewer and fewer butterflies in our garden. Most of the migrating butterflies have already started on the journey south.

But there are certain butterflies that I am more apt to see in October and November. They are certainly around in spring and summer but like hiding out in the woods. Maybe because they wear the autumn colors my eye is more keen to spot them in late fall. They certainly don't sit still for long, that is why I refer to them flutterbys.

The Question Mark (can you see the mark on the center of the hindwing?) is one of the anglewing butterflies I typically see in the fall. They don't rely on blooms for food since they prefer tree sap, rotting fruit and other decaying organic matter as well as moisture from damp sand and soil. This beauty was pulling moisture from the sand in the seam of our driveway.

A closely related butterfly to the angelwings are the tortoiseshells, like this Mourning Clock, which briefly left the woodland garden for more open ground. Its velvety brown wings studded with royal blue and ochre trim are stunning if you can catch a glimpse of this butterfly with its wings open. Typically I see them perched on the side of a tree blending in well with the bark.

Other critters are camouflaging well with their fall surroundings too. This toad was hunkered down blending in with the browns of fallen leaves in the woodland garden.

And this eastern fence lizard has been enjoying the warm bricks of the house since we removed all the shrubbery.

A fallen leaf is nothing more than a Summer's wave goodbye.

I hope you too find the magic in the dawn of the cool, crisp mornings, the
the changing of the color guard, and the quietness of the landscape as it falls into its winter slumber.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Planting Rocks

Have you ever planted rocks in your garden? I am sure you have because this is the kind of crazy thing we gardeners do! Having a flatbed of rocks delivered is normal, right?

Building a dry creek bed, finishing a few pathways and adding some decorative rock to our garden were several of the projects on our fall to do list this year. So a few weeks ago, we visited our local rock yard to pick out rocks. This was really tough because I love rocks. Is that weird? I would buy them all but alas that isn't in the budget. We narrowed our choices down, first by style, then size, then color and then it was just a matter of preference. Sounds easy enough, right. But it took a lot of thought and serious decision making with all the irresistible choices. 

Seven pallets of rocks and 2 pallets of flag stone were delivered last week and my husband got started on the dry creek bed right away. He was as excited about this project as I was.

We choose medium to large size smooth rocks to give the dry creek bed a natural look and visual appeal. Smaller river rock was used to fill in between the larger rocks.

This is the top (beginning) of the bed where we started with larger rocks mixed with the smooth medium and small river rock. I love that some of the large rocks already have lichen growing on them!

I had already planted some irises and pink muhly grass near the edge of the dry creek bed. We found that this worked really well. Adding plants after the rock was spread would be much more cumbersome.

Rocks, just like plants, support many forms of life. Turn over a rock and you might find a worm, ant, centipede, beetle, spider, toad or a number of other soil organisms. They may be way down there on the food chain but they are a very essential part of any garden.

Almost immediately upon laying rocks the insects arrived. Several butterflies, bees, and flies checked out the new garden addition. And guess what...they approved!

The butterflies used the rocks to bask in the sun and perch on while they reached between the rocks to find the essential minerals they need.

Birds, snakes, lizards, spiders and other mammals will hunt for food in these rocks. We used two man boulders to make a smoother transition from the rock bed to the moss garden area. I think the wildlife will appreciate it.

Not only will the rocks provide a beneficial micro-climate for garden insects and plants, but from a design perspective they offer a nice transition between the architecture of our home and garden. Remember this area before? I mentioned this area in my Seasonal Celebrations: Autumn post.

This is how it looks now. We still have some plantings to add around the perimeter and mulch but I couldn't be happier with the result.

The leaves are falling onto the rocks, the critters are moving in and the rocks look like they've always been planted here.