Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

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.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Where have all the birds gone?

Activity at our bird feeders has been very slow. Sure there is the occasional chickadee or cardinal visiting but for the most part it has been very quiet. September and October are peak months for fall migrating birds such as Grosbeaks, Orioles and  Flycatchers who are headed to warmer climates for the winter. So why are our feeders absent of birds?

Because our wildlife garden is working! 

This time of year there is so much natural food available like seeds, acorns, insects, berries and fruit that the birds don't need to bother with supplements.
It is important not to tidy up your garden in the fall. Your spent flowers provide seeds for many birds. Flowers such as asters, sunflowers, coneflowers, black-eyed susans, coreopsis, cosmos, daisies, and goldenrod, joe-pye weed and ironweed are a few seed producers that attract birds. Leave the dead plant stalks too. You may be surprised what insects will live there over the winter.

This is a gall found on the goldenrod which is made by the goldenrod gall fly. Downy woodpeckers and Carolina chickadees are two birds who will seek out these galls, break them open and make a meal of the larvae inside. There is also a beetle (Mordellistena unicolor) that will burrow into the gall to get to the larvae. And two types of parasitic wasp (Eurytomo gigantea & Eurystoma obtusiventris) which also prey on the goldenrod gall fly larvae. These wasps inject their eggs into the gall and when the eggs hatch the parasitic wasp larvae eats the gall fly larvae. These two species rely entirely on goldenrod for their survival. 

At this time of year we must be careful while walking through our woodland garden. The white oak trees have begun their annual assault hurling acorns down at breakneck speed. And if there is a bit of wind, watch out! A bop on the head can leave quite the welt. We have lots of white and red oaks and their acorns support a wide variety of wildlife including blue jays, squirrels, chipmunks, flying squirrels, rabbits, raccoons and wild turkeys. Red oaks take two years to mature acorns which are high in fats and carbs. White oaks produce acorns on an annual cycle but are sporadic in their production...they can have light and bumper crops. White oak acorns contain fewer tannins, taste better and are the highest in carb content. These two trees compliment each other well in terms of supporting wildlife.

Sumac berries are packed with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). I'm sure they boost the birds' immune system for the winter just like it does ours. These berries are long lasting and especially popular when other berry sources are long gone. We have several colonies of sumac growing around our garden. Recently, we had to take down a few sumac which were growing rather perilously but I didn't want to waste the berries so I added them to a grapevine wreath which I hung up for the birds to feast on.

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is one of my favorite shrubs for interesting berries. They support at least 10 different birds, including cardinals, mockingbirds, sparrows, bluebirds and woodpeckers. The berries have a high water content so they are particularly popular during dry periods.

Hearts-a-Burstin (Euonymus americanus) is an inconspicuous shrub most of the year but moves into the spotlight in fall with its crazy seed capsules that burst open to reveal the seeds. The white tailed deer certainly like these but birds will visit them too.

The dogwood trees are typically packed with fruit at this time of year, but because spring was wet and the sun was scarce the blooms were lackluster and the polinators were scarce. As we go into fall we are still feeling the effects of the unusual weather. Yet, a few berries have emerged which provide food for an array of birds including cardinals, tufted titmouse, eastern bluebirds, and american robins. Racoons, foxes, deer, chipmunks, squirrels and skunks will also feed on these berries.

It won't be long before the temperatures plummet and the seeds and berries have been foraged and we will start to see more bird activity at feeders. But for now, we are enjoying watching bird behaviors in their natural habitat and making notes about which shrubs, perennials and trees we want to add to support more birds and wildlife.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Fall Color, Georgia Style

Some of my favorite flowers bloom in fall. Not only do they provide a much needed source of food for those migrating butterflies and hummingbirds but they also add some gorgeous splashes of color to the landscape. Here are a few of my favorites...

Georgia Aster (Aster georgianus) is a fabulous plant with its deep velvet purple flowers that bloom during October and November. It attracts all varieties of bees in our garden! This year we added three more plants because it is so spectacular. Sadly, the Georgia aster is diminishing rapidly in its native habitat and is only known in four states (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama). It is a state protected plant and a candidate for the federally threatened list. It is not often you see it blooming in the wild anymore. You can buy them at native plants sales (local sources: Georgia Native Plant Society, Nearly Native Nursery and Georgia State Botanical Garden) and if you live in its growing area they like dry-red clay banks with well drained soil so they make an outstanding addition to those challenging spots in the garden.

Another really fun plant, if you have the space, is the narrow-leaf sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) also known as the swamp sunflower. It gets really, REALLY tall. Reaching up to 12 or more feet to the sky. I have been told that if you cut it back in early July it will still bloom but not as tall. I might try that next year with one of my plants, but I love seeing its blooms against the sky. Plus it is great for those larger butterflies that fly higher. In October last year the 7 monarch butterflies that stopped over in our garden on their southward migration to Mexico spent a lot of time on them. You can see my post on the visiting Monarchs at Seven is the Magic Number. This summer the silvery checkerspot butterfly hosted on this sunflower and I had lots of caterpillars munching the leaves.

Another great aster that is just starting to bloom is the Downy aster (Symphyotrichum pilosus). This plant likes to grow in disturbed areas and there are several plants that have happily found a home along the transition area along the road in front of our wooded lot. It attracts a variety of pollinators from bees to flies to several sizes of butterflies. White is a good color for night time pollinators such as moths. This aster seems to serve both day and nigh pollinators.

One of my favorite grasses that shines in fall is the Pink Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). It is a great addition to our hill garden and along the dry creek bed. Insects love to hang out on the stems.

And, the light dances through the inflorescence and provides fabulous color and texture to the garden.

Another member of the aster family is Solidago or goldenrod. The Latin word 'solido' means to make whole and this herb was used in the ancient world as a healing remedy. Native American's called this plant "sun medicine".

It grows successfully in many soil conditions and is found blooming naturally and prolifically all along the roadside this time of year. It is a magnet for a variety of beneficial insects. This is the site alongside our property where it grows freely up to 8 feet high. I think it is lovely and the golden yellow makes me so happy when I drive or walk by it.

Can you believe goldenrod is considered a weed by most Americans? It only started being accepted as a garden plant in the 1980s. It almost achieved fame in the early 1900s. During WWI the price of rubber sky rocketed.  At the request of his friend Henry Ford, Thomas Edison was asked to find a domestic source to make rubber. He experimented with goldenrod, honeysuckle and milkweed. He found goldenrod showed the greatest potential as a way to produce rubber which it contains naturally in its leaves. Edison created a fertilization and cultivation process to maximize the rubber content in these plants. This project was never brought into production because the government decided to invest in new German technology that created rubber synthetically from coal and petroleum products. So goldenrod returned to its ordinary existence.

Today, I am joining Garden Blogger's Bloom Day, graciously hosted by May Dreams Gardens.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Is your wildlife friendly garden actually killing the wildlife?

As backyard gardeners we are being encouraged to turn our lawns and ornamental landscape into habitat that supports wildlife. We have all read about the decline of the monarch butterfly populations, colony collapse disorder impacting bees and the plight of many other insects due to habitat loss and insecticide use. And we have answered the call and are pulling up lawns, adding more native and pollinator friendly plants as well as providing food and shelter for local wildlife and ditching the pesticides and insecticides.

??? The Big Question ???

Where are you buying your plants and seeds and do you know who the growers are? A recent study (here) found that plants sold in garden stores and some nurseries have been pre-treated with systemic neonicotinoid insecticides, making them potentially toxic to pollinators. As if the pollinators don't have enough challenges already!

So, what is a Neonicotinoid? 

It is a new class of insecticides introduced in the 1990's that have become the most widely used systemic pesticides in the world. What makes these chemicals popular in insect control products is that they are water soluble and can be applied to the soil. The idea is that they reduce the risk of the insecticide drifting from the target area. They are used against sap-feeding insects such as aphids, certain beetles like white grubs found in lawns, fleas (Advantage & Nitenpyram), wood-boring insects and cockroaches.

 What is all the hype about?

When they first appeared on the market they were lauded for their low toxicity to beneficial insects. However, the more they were used in agriculture it was discovered that the chemicals impacted the bees ability to forage for nectar, learn and remember where flowers are located and impair their ability to find their way back to their nest/hive.

Unlike other pesticides that have been used in the past, neonicotinoids are being applied to seeds before planting crops. Over 140 crop seeds, with almost all corn, soybean, wheat and canola seeds grown in the United States, are pretreated with neonicotinoids. But, neonicotinoids are not only used in agriculture. Seeds and plants sold for home garden use are also being treated. In fact, nursery plants are treated at a much higher application rate than crops and therefore represent a more potent source of exposure to pollinators.

The pesticide is taken up through the plant's vascular system and expressed through the pollen and nectar which pollinators rely on for food. These pesticides can poison pollinators directly and through the water supply which they drink.  Their immune systems can also become compromised which leads to many wildlife diseases. Even more alarming is that the neonicotinoids can persist from one growing season to the next and will continue to exude the pesticide in the pollen and nectar for years after initial treatment. So, while we think we are taking steps in the right direction to support pollinators, are we actually poisoning the very insects we are trying to help? Are we unwittingly buying seeds and plants that have been pretreated with neonicotinoids? And, why are there no warning labels on these plants and seeds?

Could neonicotinoids effect the entire ecosystem?

While this study focused mostly on bees there is potential for these chemicals to effect an entire food chain. The American Bird Conservancy is conducting some research on the impact neonicotinoids has on birds (report). They found that a single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. During egg laying season, digesting 1/10th of a kernel is enough to affect reproduction. In The Netherlands, a study by a leading toxicologist found that neonicotinoids are so widespread in surface water that it is a major factor in the decline of many marsh, meadow and coastal birds in Holland.

What will I do? What will you do?

As a gardener supporting wildlife, I now have one more step in ensuring the health of the birds and pollinators in my garden. I must be ever more vigilant when buying seeds for my vegetable garden or bedding plants. Heck, even birdseed for my feeders. I must know the source of the seeds and plants and whether or not they free of pesticide treatment.

(Note: If you use pesticides in your garden do a sweep of the products you have. Products that contain acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, thiocloprid, thiamethoxam as an active ingredient contain neonicotinoid.)