Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Friday, July 26, 2013

Forestry 101: Tree Identification Using Leaves

This is my first guest writer and who better to do the first one than my 11 year old son James!
He recently attended his first away camp at Rock Eagle, Georgia near Oconee National Forest. This is the world's largest 4-H camp with nearly 1,500 acres of forested land and 110 acre lake.

Welcome James...

My favorite class at camp was Forestry. Our leader took us on a hike in the woods and pointed out leaves of different native trees. She told us about some unique ways to remember these trees by looking at their leaves.

White Oak

The leaves of the white oak are long rounded lobes. Our leader said a good way to remember this is that the American Indians called the settlers "white men" (white oak) and the leaves are rounded like the "white man's gun bullet" (rounded lobes).

Red Oak

Photo courtesy of Greater Michigan Timber Management

Red Oak leaves grow red in the spring and in summer change to dark green so they are not as easy to identify. The red oak's leaves come to a point like a red man's spear or arrow (Settlers called American Indians "red men").

Sugar Maple

The sugar maple leaf has five points. Each point spells out the word S-U-G-A-R.

Red Maple

photo courtesy of kcfehring

The red maple has three points as if to spell R-E-D.

Tulip Popular

Me behind a tulip popular leaf

The tulip popular has a unique leaf and is hard to confuse with any other tree. The leaves look like a cat's head. The top two petals are the ears and the bottom two are the cat's grin and whiskers. Can you see it?


This is the easiest native tree to identify because it is the only tree to have three different shaped leaves. One leaf is shaped like a mitten, one leaf looks like a three toed dinosaur footprint and one is a single oval.

Having stories or clever clues makes it easy to remember the tree and easier to identify them. When I got home I went into our back yard and found out that we have all these trees.

Thank you James for sharing your learning experience with us!

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A few more words on trees...

The record rainfalls this year in the Southeast, after years of drought, has made for some interesting challenges for trees. In our area many large trees are falling down due to ground saturation. This is an important reminder to have trees in your garden properly maintained by a certified arborist.

Recently I read about a new study by scientists with the U.S. Forest Service and Harvard University which suggests that trees are responding to higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by becoming more efficient at using water.

Terrestrial plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, a process that is accompanied by the loss of water vapor from leaves. The ratio of water loss to carbon gain, or water-use efficiency, is a key characteristic of ecosystem function that is central to global cycles of water, energy and carbon.

According to the study findings, how efficient trees are at using water has big implications for ecosystem function. Improved water availability could partially offset the effects of future droughts. On the other hand, reduced evapotranspiration, as a result of higher water-use efficiency, could lead to higher air temperatures, lower humidity levels and decreased recycling of continental precipitation.

Photo credit: Chris Vogel
This devise (a sonic aenomometer and air inlet tube) allows for the continuous monitoring of gas exchange between the forest and the atmosphere. It is located at University of Michigan Biological Station.

The study was published in the on-line journal Nature. For more information you can view it here.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

At last...butterflies

I have been asking myself for weeks now, where are all the butterflies? Typically by early summer, small, medium and large sized butterflies are fluttering all over the garden. This year, our cool spring followed by one of the wettest summers on record has not been a kind habitat for butterflies. In fact, the adverse weather is damaging to butterfly populations. Studies are concluding that the life cycle of the butterfly may be sensitive to small changes in the weather.

Eastern tailed-blue

Our gardens and adjacent woodlands are filled with host plants and nectar plants for most species of butterfly found in Northeast Georgia. We provide puddling sites, overwintering refuge and are a pesticide free garden. So the habitat is here and, in a normal year we usually have lots of butterflies.

Silvery checkerspot sipping minerals & salts at puddling site
Although we are in the midst of summer we are only now beginning to see the butterflies. All the photos I am posting have been taken this month (July) and most of them in the last week. Earlier in the month there were only single sightings of these species of butterflies and without a mate in sight the prospects of a next generation looked bleak.

Silver-spotted skipper on Buttonbush

Many of the butterflies were looking pretty ragged. They were beat up by the heavy rains and/or predator attacks. Notice their tattered wings. The good news is that butterflies are tougher than they look. Wings break and scales come off. If they didn't they wouldn't be able to escape their predators and would be eaten for lunch more often than not.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on beebalm
Butterflies have been seen flying with 75% of their wings missing. But this does make it more pertinent for them to find a mate. They may not be as dainty as they look but broken wings can make their fleeting life even shorter.

Black Swallowtail on purple coneflower
The monsoon like rains and overcast skies have given us lots of lush foliage but fewer flowers. I am surprised that we actually have as many blooms as we do. And, many of them are very tattered.

silvery checkerspot sharing purple coneflower with friendly bee
The humidity on some days is very high and when the sun does come out there is no need to pay to go to the spa, just take a walk outside. An ideal butterfly climate. The butterflies we saw earlier this month seem to have been successful despite the challenges they faced. We are finally seeing signs of the next generation.

Variegated Fritillary
We found our first caterpillars of the summer this weekend. Three Variegated Fritillaries on some passionvine that seeded itself amongst the roses. 

Variegated Fritillary caterpillar on passiflora
I also saw two Eastern Tiger Swallowtails fluttering around together. Another good sign!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on buttonbush
Sadly, we didn't see any Monarchs this season but some of the other butterflies are enjoying the milkweed.

two silvery checkerspot on butterflyweed
A few Red-spotted purples have also been hanging around in the garden. Despite the fact that we offer the rotten fruit, which they prefer over nectar, they find the dog dung that hasn't been picked up yet irresistible. 

Red-spotted purple
One of the most common butterflies in our garden is the black swallowtail. We usually see lots of caterpillars on the parsley and fennel from this species. Unfortunately, this year we only had one in early spring. Fingers crossed that we see more very soon.

pipevine swallowtail
Have you been keeping track of your butterfly sightings? What are your results....banner year or lacking?

In my next post we'll talk about trees with some fun facts provided by my son.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Celebrating Sunflowers

Sunflowers say summer like no other plant. In French the word for sunflower is "tournesol" which means turn with the sun.

There is something about their bright, cheerful faces that just makes one happy. A field of sunflowers on gently rolling hills are reminiscent of Van Gogh works of art, we adorn our gardens with dozens of sizes and varieties for their vibrant beauty, and we use them to attract birds or grow for our own eating pleasure.

So why not celebrate them with a festival in their honor.

But first, lets get a little history on this popular flower; after all, it has put down roots in most of the world. And if you are not a history buff, just skip down to the next paragraph.

A little history

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are native to North America, domesticated by the American Indians into a single headed plant with a variety of seed colors (black, white, red & striped). They used the seeds for an assortment of food staples as well as dye for textiles, body painting and medicinally for snakebites and body ointments. The Spanish took the plant to Europe in the 1500. It became a popular cultivated plant under Peter the Great, first as an ornamental and then cultivated for its oil. The Russian Orthodox church increased its popularity since it forbid most oil foods from being consumed during Lent. Somehow, the sunflower didn't make it on the forbidden food list and therefore, increased in popularity. By the 19th century Russian farmers were growing over 2 million acres of sunflowers. They implemented a very successful government breeding program under V. S. Pustovoit and today the most prestigious scientific sunflower award is named The Pustovoit Award. By the 1800 the sunflower seed made its way back to the U.S. and seed companies were advertising the "Mammoth Russian" sunflower seeds. Canada began its first official breeding program in the 1930s. The sunflower was hybridized in the mid-seventies providing higher yields and disease resistant varieties. Over 5 million acres were dedicated to growing sunflowers for oil production in the U.S. at this time.

* Source: Albert A. Schneiter, ed. Sunflower Technology and Production

Now on to the fun stuff

Every July a private family farm in Georgia holds a festival to celebrate these happy flowers. This award winning festival is framed around 15 acres of sunflowers.

It attracts lots of families, photographers and sunflower enthusiasts every year. Even the rain showers didn't deter people from coming out. In addition to the fields of sunflowers there is live music all weekend long, BBQ, artist market, petting zoo, pony rides, and enchanted forest and for the first time zip lining over the sunflowers. For more details go here.

Sunflowers are bold and fiery and stand up alone

but also look stunning in a crowd.

For $20 you can pick your own flowers to take home in a commemorative pot. Sunflowers make terrific cut flowers but beware that according to folklore it is bad luck to cut down a sunflower.

Sunflowers are pollinated by bees and are a great flower to use in a garden for attracting birds.

With so many varieties of sunflowers available there is one for everyone's garden. Do you have this quintessential summer flower growing in your garden?

Next, I have my first guest post about easy ways to learn how to identify a few of our native trees.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

What happens to a bee that gets caught in the rain...

We have been getting LOTS of rain this summer. And, too much rain can put a damper on the pollination activities going on in the garden. While, we can just open up our umbrella or find shelter indoors and continue going about our day, it isn't so easy for the pollinators. Bees don't really like to fly in the rain. So what happens if a bee gets caught out in the rain?

Well, if you are a bee that has been working out, maybe carrying a few extra loads of pollen back to the hive, you might decide ride out the storm by hanging out under one of nature's umbrella. Or if you are in dire straits you may just be hanging on for dear life!

A leaf may provides a decent amount of shelter but requires some muscle and expertise to not get knocked off by a falling raindrop. If a raindrop where to hit a bee it would be the equivalent of a bathtub full of water hitting you or I. As you can imagine this would not end well for a bee.

Hopefully this guy isn't afraid of heights! He is pretty high up on this cone flower leaf and moisture on bees wings definitely disturbs the aerodynamics of flight.

Once the rain stops, it requires the drying off of the legs, slowly one at a time and then some herculean strength to pull oneself up dripping wet.

A little rest and drying the wings is required before take off

and then back to the business of pollen collecting with his friends.

Strangely enough, bees seem to know if it is going to just be a brief shower or down pour. One time while I was out photographing the bees it started to sprinkle. The bees went about their business not at all bothered by the rain. However, later that day when darker clouds rolled in and it started to drizzle they all took off. I can't help but wonder if it has something to do with the amount of available light since they use sun to help with their navigation.

Better be safe than sorry. You wouldn't want to end up like this again.

Because here comes another monsoon...

Next up, I will be celebrating the quintessential summer flower...the sunflower

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Walk through the Kitchen Garden

The kitchen garden is having its first peak of the summer season. We have been picking raspberries for several weeks and the blackberries are beginning to mature. The cold snap that we had in spring followed by a much cooler start to summer must have helped the blackberries grow because we've never had them this big before.

One of the kids' morning activities is to pick the blueberries. They have been bringing in at least 5 lbs. every day. The pinkish berries are from the "Pink Lemonade" variety. They turn from light to dark pink when ripe.

We harvested a handful of figs just this week. Figs must fully ripen on the tree. The timing is tricky...getting the ripe fruit before the birds find it!

The tree is good size and is the anchor tree to this slopped garden. It is surrounded by pollinator loving plants including salvia 'hot lips', purple coneflower, several varieties of euphorbia, Russian sage, and clematis. 

The tree is full of fruit ready to ripen. I am looking forward to making some fig preserve but eating it fresh off the tree is just as scrumptious! Even one of our garden helpers thinks it makes a great shady spot to escape the heat. This is Biscuit. He is a great watch dog! Sasha on the other hand is our hunter and spends her time outdoors catching voles and moles. I'll spare you the photos of her presents.
Biscuit hiding under the fig tree

Squash, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers are growing in the raised beds.

It has been challenging controlling the squash bugs this year. Inspecting the leaves daily for eggs and scraping them off helps. Watering at the base of the plants brings the insects out and I can hand pick them off.  Those I miss will hopefully fall prey to spiders, tachinid flies or parasitic wasps.

squash bug nymphs and eggs

Despite the "pest" problem, the pollinators are busy doing what they do best...

bee in zucchini blossom
As we are a "heat" loving family, we have a significant number of pepper plants in one of the 10' x 5' raised beds...habenero, cayenne, chili, sweet banana, jalapeno, scotch bonnet and caballo. I think my eyes are watering already!

cheyenne pepper....balance of sweetness and heat!
In the other 10' x 5' raised bed are tomatoes including Tribute, Bella Rosa, and Beefy Boy.

The good news is that all the rain we've gotten this year means very little supplemental watering.

Rainfall Scorecard: 
 2013: 37.32 inches
2012: 37.03 inches

We've had as much rain in the first 6 months of this year as all of last year!...and there is more to come.

For a look at the raised bed project: Kitchen Garden Raised Beds

I am joining: 
Garden Bloggers Harvest Day hosted by The Gardening Blog

Next up I will show you what a bee does when it gets caught in the rain.