Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

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.