Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, December 26, 2016

Hawk Watching

Hawks are year-round residents in our region. Red-shouldered, red-tailed, sharp-shinned and cooper's hawks are the four most commonly spotted in our garden. These magnificent birds are welcome in our wildlife habitat, not only because they are so majestic, but also as the primary natural control for rodents, other birds, snakes and reptiles. Being higher up on the forest food chain, they keep these populations in check. They could be making more headway with the vole population, in my opinion, which was unbridled this year, but they do make an immense difference.

During the winter months, when the hardwood trees stand uncovered, the forest dwelling, red shouldered hawks are much easier to observe. These birds of prey sit quietly perched on the bare limbs watching the ground for the slightest movement with their keen eyes. 

Perhaps shorter daylight hours for hunting and less available prey during the winter months, make these birds more noticeable in our garden at this time of year. More often than not, it is their movement or call that alerts me to their presence. Their rufous patches, which echo the reddish brown of the leaf litter and their black and white barring, which melds with the tree bark, often makes them tricky to spot immediately.   

Photographing them proves to be even more challenging. It is usually by chance that I'm outside with my camera, suited with the right lens, when I spot a hawk perched in a tree. Sometimes, I am able to run inside, grab the camera, find the zoom lens and return to find the hawk still sitting static. However, even with the zoom lens (70-300mm), I rarely get close enough for that ultimate shot.

This Christmas Day was a magnificent 75 degrees, summoning a walk in the garden, while chatting with family and exchanging Christmas blessings. A red shouldered hawk glided in and perched itself on a low lying limb, within view from the kitchen garden, where I was stationed. It sat motionless for the remainder of the phone call, so as soon as it concluded I hastily made my way to the house to retrieve my camera.

Moving closer without being spotted or heard would require a bit of stealth on my part. The leaf litter that blankets the forest floor did little to help silence my footsteps as I edged ever closer to the bird's location. I tiptoed gingerly along, ducking behind trees to inch along unnoticed, grabbing a few shots each time I halted [in the event that the hawk would fly off].  But signs were in my favor yesterday, as this hawk was more focused on getting its Christmas meal than me skulking through the woods.

When I was half the distance from the house to the hawk, it suddenly swooped down to pounce upon a critter crawling through the leaves. I stood silent watching. [I didn't take any photos in fear of disturbing its activity.] Unfortunately for the hawk, the meal got away, but the determined hawk didn't give up on this sight and flew up onto the song bird feeding station nearby.

There it sat, sharp talons exposed, powerful beak at the ready, and eyes focused. Its receptors allowing it to not only see a range about 8 times greater than mine, but also the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. It searched the forest floor turning its head dexterously from one direction to another. As it sat contentedly balanced on the decorative post cap, I moved in without alerting the bird to my company. Leaning into a tall oak tree to stabilize the camera, I focused and took a few shots. Being in close proximity to wildlife, while trying not to give myself away, makes getting shots a bit of an adventure.

It wasn't long before the hawk either tired of this location or determined I was in its midst, and took off for a tree deeper in our woods. Still not the ultimate shot, but it was a Christmas miracle of sorts for this habitat gardener. I hope this red shouldered hawk was able to partake in a meal as scrumptious as we did on Christmas day.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Regal Georgia Aster

Georgia Asters are the grand finale in our fall garden. They are the last blooms to burst open and put on a spectacular display to conclude the fall flowering season.

Southern Meadows

Aster, the Latin name for star, aptly describes this stellar flower. Georgia asters (Symphyotrichum georgianum) bloom October through November, but you'll be lucky to see one, save you grow them in your garden.

Legal Status: THREATENED

Once common across the Southeast (Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina), Georgia asters have been in decline for decades. According to the Georgia DNR, there are only 15 small populations, 8 of which occur in state parks or national forest lands, landing this plant on the threatened species list.  A conservation partnership of state agencies, together with public and private organizations has been created to boost this wildflower's population and keep it from becoming endangered.

Southern Meadows
spectacular show of deep violet blooms

I purchased our first plant at the Georgia State Botanical Garden back in 2012. This was the first photograph I took of the regal native exhibiting its deep violet colored petals. Since then. I've been able to acquire two additional plants making a generous stand of these astounding asters.

The rays are more of a bluish hue on young blooms transitioning to purple as they age. Its narrow-petaled flowers are about 2" across with a white center. The disk flowers transition from white to purple as they mature. Georgia asters usually spread slowly via underground rhizomes, but have also reseeded in our garden. They do require cross-pollination from another colony to produce viable seeds.

The color is especially magnificent among other late blooming perennials such as Maryland Goldenaster (Chrysopsis mariana), Goldenrod (Solidago) and/or Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). This vibrant combination, pictured below, was a delightful surprise when one of the swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) stalks bowed over to say hello.

a bold autumn combo

Asters provide a necessary source of rich nectar for pollinators late in the season. This year we've had unseasonably warm temperatures and bees, butterflies, moths and flies are still around in abundance. Unfortunately many plants are suffering severely because of our drought conditions, causing many blooms to be very short lived.

a dainty flower fly visiting Georgia aster

Native bees are particularly attracted to these intensely colored asters. I often find the bees sleeping soundly in the early morning hours when temperatures are cool. Bees need 50 degrees Fahrenheit or higher to fly efficiently, so they don't use up their nectar stores.

As is typical on plants in our garden, there are other insects lurking about the blooms. When I was out photographing for this post, a crab spider was making its way from the back side of the flower while the bee was focused on feeding. Crab spiders are amazingly patient, often remaining in the same place for weeks before moving in on prey.

Can you find the crab spider? It blends in with the plant stalk

I couldn't tell if the spider was intimidated by the size of the bee or not, but this bee wasn't messing around. It chased the spider out of its hiding spot rather quickly once it became aware it was lurking in the shadows.

A reversal of prey and predator

Asters are incredibly versatile in the landscape and this Georgia aster is no exception. It's bold, providing a profusion of late-season color, while supporting pollinators. If you can get your hands on a plant, I highly recommend adding this specimen to your garden. It prefers a dry, sunny location but will tolerate filtered shade, although may not bloom as liberally.

It is Wildflower Wednesday and I encourage you to take a look at the remarkable contributing blogs. For a list, hop over to our wonderful host, Gail at Clay and Limestone.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Fall in Love with Berry Worthy Plants

October is in full swing with fall color just beginning to show itself. We've had some early leaf drop due to drought stress and it remains to be seen how dramatic our foliage display will be this year. Peak foliage in North Georgia falls between late October to early November. Nevertheless, ample color abounds around the garden.

Southern Meadows

Pollinators do the ground work here and all their buzzing and fluttering from bloom to bloom has paid off. Plants now adorn the seeds and fruits of their labor. Gardeners and landscape designers often choose perennial plants for their foliage, bloom color, fragrance or shape. Another consideration is the value perennials present to wildlife.  Berries add pops of color and seed pods provide textural interest throughout the landscape, while providing food that will be consumed by birds and other mammals during the fall and winter months.

Southern Meadows
Mockingbird eating fruit from American Beautyberry shrub

The clusters of bright purple fruit on American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a stunning accent in sunny areas. This shrub supports at least 10 species of birds, including cardinals, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, bluebirds, sparrows, wood thrushes and wild turkeys, who gobble up the fruit.

A closer look at the bodacious berries

The pear shaped seed pods of the bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) shrub are popping open to reveal the pumpkin orange nuts (buckeyes), which are revered by chipmunks and squirrels. As soon as the protein rich buckeyes hit the ground they magically disappear as squirrels hastily carry them off. (Note: they are poisonous to humans and livestock).

Seasonally appropriate orange buckeye nuts

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is not your average holly. It is deciduous, which shows off their berries (on female plants) when the leaves fall from the branches. We have two female 'Winter Gold' shrubs  that are supported by the male 'Southern Gentleman'. Birds, such as Cedar Waxwings and American Robins, are eager to consume these bright berries. And if the birds don't get them first, rabbits, squirrels, foxes and deer will vacuum them up. It's possible for the berries to persist through the winter, if wildlife doesn't get them.

Southern Meadows
Winter Gold produces orange berries, a change of pace from the typical red

Another showy berry comes from the Hearts-a-Bustin (Euonumus americanus) shrub. We grow these at the woodland edge where they enjoy the light shade of the understory habitat of the hardwood forest. These shrubs go unnoticed most of the year, but when the seed capsules burst open to reveal the bright red berries, they are show stoppers. Eastern bluebirds, wood thrushes, yellow-rumped warblers, northern mockingbirds and wild turkeys devour these berries and disseminate the seeds.

Bursting with love for these berries

To see how the blooms of Hearts-a-Bustin' are pollinated, see my post Ants, Unlikely Pollinators.

seed capsule opening to reveal orange/red berries
Five species of viburnum grow at Southern Meadows, including viburnum dentatum, viburnum nudum 'winterhur' and 'brandywine', and viburnum obovatum. Viburnums light up the fall garden with their gorgeous foliage and lively berries. 

Blue berries brighten autumn
More recently we have added both red (Aronia arbutifolia) and black (Aronia melanocarpa) chokeberry shrubs to our flower beds. Our yet young shrubs, bloom in spring and once pollinated grow into lovely red or black berries that hang in pendulous clusters. Red berries are dazzling and persist through winter. Black berries are less apparent, unless observed close up. Few birds (robins and bluejays) enjoy the berries as they have a bitter taste, hence the common name.

young shrubs producing a few clusters of berries
Sumac is not a tree intentionally found in most gardens, but it is most certainly a tree that should be included in more landscape plans. Fall is the time of year for this tree to standout with its dramatic foliage and bright berries. Several species, including winged, smooth and staghorn sumac, are found along woodland edges and roadsides in Georgia with berries that persist through the winter months, providing food for many songbirds.

Brilliant red sumac berries against bright blue sky
Bluebirds, warblers, thrashers, chickadees, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, robins, cedar waxwings and thrushes will swallow the brilliant red berries whole, which they then inadvertently spread across the land.

red sumac berries are edible to humans and wildlife (white berries are toxic)

You can't beat berries for bursts of color that persists through fall and winter. They last much longer than most blooms and the fruits and berries are a critical source of food for many birds, especially those that are migrating. Adding berry worthy plants will add visual interest and variety to your garden well into the winter months, but most importantly will support wildlife through the seasons.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Southern Meadows Blogversary

It is the anniversary of Southern Meadows. I've been writing and photographing my garden for 7 years, today. Three hundred seventy eight posts have been published, which averages to just over 1 post a week since its inception in 2009. The post on A Masked Faced Fox Squirrel remains the most visited post to date.

This amazing journey of growth, not only of our garden but for me as a gardener, writer, photographer, speaker and educator has been a rousing ride. One thing has remained constant over the years, my passion for supporting nature and being a good steward of this land. Blogging has opened doors, fostered friendships and cultivated personal growth that was unimaginable when I wrote my inaugural post.

Blogging is forever with its ups and downs. Writers block is very real. Trying to keep a healthy balance between family, gardening, homeschooling, photography, community, exercise, rest and blogging is a constant challenge. There is never lack of inspiration to be found in our garden, finding the time to put the experience into comprehensive words is the struggle.

There are moments, putting myself out there, that are frightening. I feel extremely vulnerable sharing my creative side and admit, I was not as prepared as I should have been for some of the scrutiny over the years. Humbly learning from criticism has been a life changing lesson and knowing when to disregard negative comments has also been vital. Blogging has made me more of a risk taker in that regard and a stronger person overall.

Blogging is a built in source of accountability. I write and share knowledge about how I feel in my heart. Being answerable to those loves keeps things real and honest.

Blogging has opened up a community of amazing people from fellow gardeners, nature lovers and native plant advocates to artists, writers and photographers, who have all been such a rock on this marvelous ride.

Probably my weakest skill, technology, has been slowest evolving. It is the area I find most frustrating. Steering through the ins and outs of my blog platform has been perplexing and keeping up with all the social media trends has been beyond exasperating. But finding the time to figure it all out has been most taxing (time seems to be a recurring theme).

Blogging has been transformative, allowing me to explore and develop skills, friendships and passions I may not have otherwise uncovered. It has been the most wonderful journey and yet I still have much to learn and discover. Growth is my mantra and there is always room for more. I raise my trowel to you, my treasured friends and followers, to another year of discoveries digging in the dirt!

PHOTOS: All photos in this post taken by Penny Stowe (my biggest cheerleader and crusader) on a recent educational tour of Southern Meadows with members of the Georgia Native Plant Society-Redbud Chapter and participants of the Native Plant Certificate program with the State Botanical Garden of Georgia.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Our Gardens Can All Bee Better

No matter what your garden style, we can all be better providing habitat to attract wildlife to our gardens. Too many bees, beneficial insects, birds, mammals and amphibians are at risk due to habitat loss and overuse of pesticides and insecticides. Home gardens are needed now, more than ever, to provide food, host plants, shelter, nesting sites and water sources to ensure their survival. Using organic methods and smart IPM practices will create a productive environment for these fundamental creatures. Being water wise and mindfully choosing plants that are suited for your eco region will build a stronger, healthier environment and promote a wider variety of insects to thrive in your garden. If this sounds like a tall order, just take a look at what these homeowners have created in their suburban gardens.

Helen's Haven supporting pollinators and bees with habitat friendly practices

On a recent family visit to the Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina area, I attended the 1st annual Bee Better garden tour. Bee Better is an educational foundation created by my friend extraordinaire, Helen Yoest, author, blogger, gardener, speaker, and promoter of habitat and sustainable garden practices. 

Helen (isn't she adorable!) feeding her chickens
The goal of Bee Better is to help homeowners build better gardens that support pollinators, birds and other beneficial insects. One of the ways they are sharing their knowledge and ideas is by opening private gardens to locals to demonstrate how this can be done.

Wasp taking a break on one of the many pollinator friendly plants in Helen's Haven

Gardens on this inaugural tour all shared a common theme, making a difference in their community with gardens that support life.

A street view of Helen's Haven

Growing an organic garden bids native pollinators such as squash bees and bumble bees to visit blooms that will produce delicious vegetables and fruit. Did you know that tomatoes are more productive when pollinated by bumblebees? Or that orchard bees are more effective pollinators of fruit trees than the European honeybees? Most native pollinators are attracted specifically to native plants; however, planting native plants with your fruits and vegetables will help native pollinators work throughout your entire garden.

Edible garden in front yard (notice the solar panels too!)
Foodscape gardens by their very nature support pollinators because the plants, bees, beetles, flies and butterflies are co-dependent. Herbs, vegetables and fruits are grown in raised beds in this organic garden using companion plants, mulch and water-wise practices (they have 10 rain barrels~!). This garden is a community effort. Neighbors often come over and harvest herbs while pulling a few weeds. The neighborhood doesn't have an HOA so they are not restricted in their design requirements and growing their food in the front garden made sense because it provided the necessary light requirements. The beauty of this, is that neighbors have been inspired to build vegetable gardens in their own yards.

eye-catching design with conifers

If you love conifers, then this landscape is pure inspiration. Packed with a wide variety of evergreens and maples, this garden is a haven for birds. Both migrating and year-round residence find shelter, food and water in this habitat. Two amazing water features meander through the back yard attracting wildlife with its shallow, running water. The stone work and deliberate placement of trees and shrubs really made this garden exceptional.

The texture of the diverse selection of conifers and range of greens provide depth and lushness to the grounds. Seating areas are scattered throughout, allowing visitors to enjoy this birding paradise.The six different maple species, 11 species of pine and 6 species of dogwood support hundreds of different caterpillars. These caterpillars are food for birds, especially during nesting season.

mimicking nature in an artistic design

When we visited this next garden, I couldn't help but think the owners had read Lawn Gone written by my friend Pam over at Digging. This garden had no lawn in the front or back yard. Instead, the space is packed full of trees, shrubs, perennials and ground covers that supports local wildlife. It is an excellent example of how we need to move away from the mindset that lawns make a garden.  Lots of transitional areas create interest to the space. Massing plants together provide places for the eyes to rest in this design concept.

swath of ostrich ferns allowed to colonize
Not all the plants in this garden are native, demonstrating that friendly ornamentals can be used prudently.  Native plants support local wildlife best so consider your plant choices wisely. How will you use your garden real estate to its fullest potential? If you consider non-natives for your garden please do research before you purchase an exotic plant. Ask yourself, is it invasive? (check your local invasive plant council list), Is it harmful to local habitat? (here is an example: Nandina berries kill Cedar Waxwings) Are your local conditions suitable for the plant? (see water wise tips below)

some of the fabulous garden art by local artisans

This garden also has artistic pieces incorporated in the landscape. Adding creative elements to a garden can really enhance a space. If done right, plant material can provide a backdrop to showcase the art, or the art can help exhibit foliage and blooms. It is also a nice way to provide seasonal interest.

Sadly, we didn't get to all the gardens on the tour. We took our time in each of the gardens we did visit and stopped for lunch along the way. What I loved about this tour is that all the gardens were focused on being wildlife friendly. These gardens aren't highly manicured; they are habitat gardens, created by people who have a passion to bee better stewards of the environment. Of course everyone had pulled weeds and put down fresh mulch (best way to give your plants the wow factor) but these gardens were alive with wildlife visitors.

Some Tips to Bee Better in Your Garden


Bee Pollinator Friendly

Gardens that support pollinators should include:

-plants that are host and nectar sources for a variety of pollinating insects including bees and wasps, butterflies and moths, flies, beetles

-provide at least one water source

-be situated in sunny areas that include some wind breaks

-create large swaths of native and non-invasive plants that provide continuous bloom throughout the growing season

-eliminate the use of pesticides

Bee Waterwise

"A waterwise design is always a good idea, but right now in the absence of rain, it’s embraceable" ~Helen Yoest, author Gardening with Confidence

-Group plants with similar needs together. There are 3 zones in a water wise garden: oasis, transitional, and xeric. The oasis zone is closest to water source, which could be drain spouts, rain barrel, garden hose or natural water source. The transitional zone is half way between your home and end of your garden. This zone should include plants that are drought tolerant, only requiring supplemental water in extreme conditions. Finally, the xeric zone is at the perimeter of your garden and should be planted with drought resistant plants.

-Include a rain gauge in your garden to monitor your local rainfall. Only water plants if absolutely necessary. Established plants only require an inch of water a week. Containers may need to be watered daily during the hottest months using harvested rain water.

-Mulching your garden with organic matter helps retain moisture and is the best defense in drought conditions.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Early Fall is Golden


It's been gradual, but we are slowly moving into the fall season. We are still experiencing dry, hot (as in 90 degree) days, but mornings are comfortably cooler and days are getting shorter.

skipper butterfly on helianthus angustifolius

This has become my favorite season in nature. Summer blooms have mostly faded, bequeathing the garden to the next wave of blooms. Insect activity is at its pinnacle with a profusion of bees, butterflies and beneficial insects.  Late September, early October is a golden time.

Solidago rugosa 'fireworks'

Goldenrods come ablaze on pollinator hill. The tiny flowers provide an abundant supply of nectar for bees, wasps and butterflies.

They even liven up the fluffy dwarf joe pye weed blooms that have gone to seed, giving this old/new combo more star power in the landscape.

Eupatorium dubium with solidago

Maryland Goldenaster is a strong bloomer, from late September through November. The bold yellow blooms are especially loved by bees and butterflies.

Chrysopsis mariana paired with Muhlenbergia capillaris

The garden (writing) spiders even add a touch of gold dangling in their webs amid the foliage.

The black swallowtail caterpillars feasting on the bronze fennel in the kitchen garden add a splash of yellow to the fading golden blooms of the fennel.

But it is the bright, bold yellow of the swamp sunflowers that are most eye catching. Standing tall, these blooms can be seen from the road and wave at the passerby.

The colorful flower flies that frequent the blooms all but blend in with the florets. They are significant pollinators in gardens calling on a wide range of blooms. Look closely, as they mimic bees, but unlike bees, they often hover in front of the flowers.

Once pollination services have been rendered by bees, butterflies, flies and diurnal moths, these blooms will provide seed for the many song birds who reside here.

The fall garden is one of my greatest pleasures. The transition from summer to fall is gentle and glorious. This is an important time to continue to nurture all the pollinators and other insects in the garden by providing nectar sustenance as they prepare for hibernation or migration.