Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Stumpery Garden, Going Back to the Roots

A stumpery is an intentional arrangement of woody material like tree trunks and root wads that serve as structural elements for plants in a shade garden.

The first known stumpery was created by marine artist, botanical illustrator and gardener, Edward William Cooke in 1856 at Biddulph Grange, a very forward thinking garden in the day; in fact, the earliest example of a garden being divided into a series of smaller rooms. Land clearing had left debris and chaotic piles of wood, which visionary Cooke created into 10' walls on either side of a path and planted them out with ferns. These stumperies where the vehicle that launched the obsession with ferns in Victorian England. That, and people realized how ferns reproduced themselves and it was considered more appropriate for ladies to collect and grow ferns because of the lack of obvious reproductive parts. The fern-crazed Victorians repeated the concept of a stumpery across Britain in the 19th century.

Last summer, several gardening friends came together for the illustrious Festival of Flowers in Greenwood, South Carolina. We made a detour to visit the garden of Billie and John Elsley, who have a show stopping woodland garden. In this post, I'm sharing images of their amazing stumpery garden. We've left stumps in our woodland garden for years, but I was not familiar with the term 'stumpery' until I met the Elsleys. I love the term and feel very connected with its English roots.

Perhaps you have tree stumps that you don't know what to do with, or branches and logs from a felled tree. Here is some inspiration to get your creative juices flowing.

In this woodland setting, stumps are intentionally arranged to create a habitat for ferns and other shade loving plants. The proper placement of logs and stumps can create a unique topography providing a variety of different conditions, not usually found together. Deep shade, a little sun, wet soil, fast draining soil or areas for epiphytic plants can be made suitable with various pockets within the stumpery.

Limbs are placed deliberately throughout the Elsley's garden providing an additional dimension to the natural setting that is packed with an exciting mix of woodland plants. It really turns the shade garden into something magical.

Not only do these carefully excavated stumps provide an exciting artistic element, reminiscent of driftwood,  they also become a haven for wildlife. Tree stumps are usually dense and take a long time to rot. As they decompose they provide habitat for a succession of creatures such as beneficial insects, wood-boring beetles, decomposers, and invertebrates and amphibians to live on and around the wood. Lichen and moss and fungi may begin to grow on stumps and you could even plant a climber or rambling plant to intertwine throughout the structure.

Stumperies may be a throwback to a bygone age, but these inverted tree stumps and roots create a cornucopia of planting opportunities while providing a beneficial environment for wildlife. I think it's time for this concept to be reintroduced into the American landscape.

Huge thanks to Billie and John Elsley for opening their garden to us for an impromptu, private tour. And it's always fun to tour gardens with friends Julie from Garden Delights, Julie at Southern Wild Design , Daricia with A Charlotte Garden and our gracious host Janet, Queen of Seaford.

For more inspiration and examples of stumpery gardens see my Pinterest Board

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Poison Ivy: A Winter Study

Mention poison ivy and most people cringe in disgust. Believe me I understand. Two summers ago I unknowingly touched poison ivy and got my first ever case of intense itchiness, which lasted a good month. An agonizing experience I don't care to repeat.

Most people fear this itch master, but this plant offers a lot of value to wildlife. Berry loving birds thrive on it. Bees are attracted to the blooms. Several mammals browse the foliage and 15 species of moths either host or use it to protect their larvae while they pupate.

This productive plant produced dense clusters of fruit in summer months that are eaten by over 60 species of birds, including bluebirds, woodpeckers, warblers, robins, chickadees, tufted titmouse, cedar waxwings, flickers and eastern phoebe. Not only does poison ivy service birds but deer, squirrels, rabbits, turkeys, and if you live in an agricultural area, goats, browse the foliage, twigs and berries.

While hand clearing invasive species from our woods, I came across some very well-establish poison ivy climbing up a towering tree. Just look at the breadth of those vines.

The vines cling so securely they almost seem to be part of the tree. Climbing poison ivy uses trees (or any upright structure) as a means to reach the sun. And these vines are champion climbers, growing until they run out of vertical surface to hold on to. Limbs can extend out as far as 8 feet, often appearing to be part of the tree.

Examine the photo above and below and take a close look at all those limbs. None belong to the tree. They are all lateral limbs from the vine!

Poison ivy is probably most recognized by its leaf pattern but can be easily identified in winter when all the aerial roots are exposed (not covered with foliage). The adventitious roots give the appearance of a fuzzy rope twining up the tree trunk when in fact they are holding the vine steadily in place.

While I admit this is a tough plant to love, its value to wildlife is unquestionable, the diversity of birds it attracts is huge, and the stunning fall color is supreme. This is reason enough for me to keep this mammoth vine. Now, I just need to remember to enjoy all it has to offer from a safe distance.

For an introduction to Poison Ivy and tips on identifying this plant be sure to visit The Infinite Spider.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Beech: A Winter Standout

As I glance into the woods most of the trees are bare and stand stark against the crisp blue sky, save one. The golden bronze leaves of the American Beech tree are sprinkled throughout the understory layer of our property. These elegant trees are the glory of the midwinter wood, as flowering dogwoods and redbuds are to its spring.

The gracefully spreading form of the branches show off the movement of their handsome foliage, which at times appears a pale beige and others a rich taupe.

The furling leaves are inviting, like a tenderly wrapped shawl. The light plays off the trembling leaves as the arctic wind rustles these palomino colored leaves on a blustery day.

These trees hold fast to their dried leaves almost all winter long. Marcescent leaves are more common on smaller trees and sometimes on the lower branches of mature trees. Some speculate that retained leaves conceal buds and make it difficult for browsing animals, like deer, to nip twigs. Perhaps the leaves provide a bit of shelter for birds who perch puffed up, enduring the winter elements in a hardwood forest that stands undressed.

This winter I'm enjoy these brown leaves waving to me from the forest. They add much texture, color and movement to an otherwise sleepy wood.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Wildlife Trees

Snags. They may just be the most alive tree in the forest.

Have you ever noticed how dead and decaying trees are actually teaming with life? There are several dead trees standing on our property. The forestry term for this is snag but a more deserving term is wildlife tree. This dead wood brings a lot of life to our garden, attracting wildlife that use them as nesting places, storage areas, for foraging, roosting and perching.

It usually starts with cavities excavated by woodpeckers, as they rarely use nesting boxes. Woodpeckers are made to dig. They have thick-walled skulls, powerful neck muscles, chisel like beaks and sharp feet with curved nails, which they use to skillfully construct holes for nesting.

Red headed woodpecker on a snag

Downy woodpecker investigating an empty cavity

They typically create several holes each season and rarely nest in the same one twice. We have 7 different species of woodpeckers in our garden, some are year-round residence and others seasonal.

As woodpeckers create new homes, the empty cavities become available for secondary cavity nesters such as bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, house wrens, squirrels, bats, raccoons, opossums, flying squirrels and owls, who can not excavate their own cavities.  

fallen snag showing two nesting cavities
Have you ever notice leaf nests high up in trees or bird houses stuffed with nesting materials in winter? Those are squirrel homes when cavities are not available. The survival of young squirrels in leaf nests is less than half that of cavity housed squirrels.  Even snakes that shed their skin would rather slither into a safe cavity than be out in the open where they are vulnerable during the molting process.

dead bark nurtures insects which attract insect-loving birds
The dead bark on decaying trees nurtures insects, which attracts insect-loving birds. Nuthatches, and woodpeckers eat bark beetles, spiders and ants that are found on the surface of the bark. Woodpeckers also find larvae and pupae of insects in the inner bark of snags and pileated woodpeckers dig down to the heartwood to prey on carpenter ants and termites. Snags are an open buffet for these birds.

The space between partially detached bark is where butterflies find shelter, often overwintering there. It also provides roosting slits for some songbirds and bats. The birds of prey that frequent our property (hawks and owls) are particularly fond of perching on top of one of the tall snag in our woods, allowing a clear view for hunting the land below.

The top of one of our snags came tumbling down in the wind the other day. The moss and fungi blanketing the trunk was already a clear sign that this snag was severely weakened and ripe for its next purpose. Think about it, these decaying trees and fallen logs may just actually be creating and influencing more organisms than the living trees.

soft snag covered in fungi and lacks limbs

Skinks, fence lizards and tree frogs will take up residence in the soft wood, enjoying the cool wet temperatures found in these logs.  Carpenter ants, wood-boring beetles and termites assist in breaking down the wood.

Squirrels and mice will hide nuts in the loose fibers. As the log continues to decay by fungus, microbes and insects it will eventually become humus providing a nutrient rich environment for seedlings to grow. 

The fallen limbs that lay scattered on the forest floor can also provide a safe haven for quail, turkeys and other ground birds while cavities and nooks in standing trees provide places to animals and birds to sleep and escape from the elements. Snag loving mammals in our woods include bats, flying squirrels, fox, raccoon, opossum and gray squirrels.

tree cavities providing shelter for animals in our woods

Snags are a natural feature that provide a unique environment for wildlife. To some gardeners dead and decaying trees may not be the most attractive of trees, but that all depends on your perspective. A snag can become a striking feature in your landscape with its interesting structure and texture.  If you don't like the look of a dead tree or your HOA won't tolerate one, you can pretty it up by training a native vine to grow around it. For us, they ensure that our garden will remain filled with wildlife.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

On Becoming a Habitat Gardener

It's hard to say when the journey officially began. Maybe the seed was planted in my formative years, when I spent lots of time exploring insects and amphibians in our backyard, hiking the National Parks in the great Northwest with my family or our many adventures along the Oregon coast.  Perhaps it was because I had a mother with a green thumb who, despite all our moves across America and overseas, managed to create amazing gardens that inspired even this self absorbed teenager. Or could it be that I was bedazzled by all the botanical gardens, arboretums and nature parks I've visited in my lifetime. Possibly it was when I took the Georgia Master Gardener class and became a plant geek and started sharing my infatuation with butterflies and moths. Or, was it when I began the Native Plant Certificate program at our State Botanical Garden and learned more about how special the Georgia Piedmont region really is. Maybe it's just in my blood. I have an English father after all. Most likely, it is a culmination of all these experiences that has shaped my passion for gardening and wildlife.

Fortunately for me, my husband shares my passion for plants and the outdoors and is all in when it comes to creating this wildlife sanctuary that is my vision.

The aerial photo below shows our neighborhood as it looked in 2007 when we purchased our home. I remember vividly when we relocated here from Texas thinking we were very secluded in our country abode. To put this in perspective, we had moved here from a 1/4 acre lot in Austin in a development of 2,000 homes. Of course it looked spacious!

Our original homestead outlined in red

We happily gardened here for five years, during which time the housing market blew up and the neighborhood developer went bust. As was the story across the country, empty lots sat undeveloped and ripe for plant invasion. This was fine with me, as this city girl had grown use to living in the 'country'. We had been dreaming for some time of expanding our refuge and in 2013, the 2+ acre lot adjacent to our home became available. We jumped at the opportunity.

This map outlines the plot where our house sits flanked by the acquired lot #2.
Over the past two years my husband has diligently been clearing these 2 acres of all the brambles, Japanese honeysuckle, privet and kudzu which has besieged this land. Under all the invasive cover, we were pleased to discover a grove of elderberry shrubs, devil's walking stick, ferns, trillium, and crane fly orchids. More native plants are revealing themselves as we continue to remove the invaders.

I never thought we would own one of these. And unlike most homeowners we don't use it for mowing turf. It makes clearing open areas much easier.

In 2015 we were presented with the opportunity to procure the 4 acre lot (Lot #1) which borders Lot #2. This was a more complicated sale since there were survey issues and discussions on county jurisdiction. As you can see in the map below the shaded blue area is one county and the white area is another. We sit neatly on both. But just in time to celebrate the year's end the sale was finalized.

Our newest procurement is a mix of approximately two acres of open land fronting the main road that leads you to our subdivision. The remaining 2 acres is forested (as is lot #2) with white oaks (Quercus alba), northern red oaks (Q. rubra), post oaks (Q. stellata), yellow poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera), and several species of hickory (Carya glabra, C. tomentosa). American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), American Sycamore (Platuanus occidentalis), Winged Elm (Ulmus alata) and Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) also inhabit the wooded area.
view from the main road at front of subdivision

A small creek  flows through this lot from the overflow pool on the other side of the road. There is some water running most of the time.

gently flowing creek

Lots of potential for water loving plants. I see button bush growing here

All this previous farm land is ready for a make over. Out with the nasty invasive plants and in with the natives. This is our big winter project.  Hardwoods are being liberated from strangling vines.

Japanese Honeysuckle vine girdling a hardwood tree

Removing the understory layer of privet that has become trees in a short period of time requires a chainsaw to take out. This will make space for an new understory layer of native trees to grow and thrive.

Standing in front of some monstrous privet

Reclaiming this land to its natural glory will take some time. There is so much to clear! Just look at it all.

disturbed land overrun with invasive vines

Come spring it will be dangerous to work in this area because there is a good chance someone venomous will be lurking in all these vines, so we must make quick work of clearing this area. The road ahead is long and will require arduous work but it feels good. All the sore muscles, cuts and bruises, thorn punctures and fire ant bites are worth it. There is so much potential here for ecological preservation.

So how did I get here? It was my wish to create a watchable habitat for wildlife right out our backdoor. Observing and photographing native pollinators, insects, birds, reptiles and other mammals evolve with the native flora. It was the desire to show our children how to be good stewards of the land. Providing food, shelter and support for food webs in the garden to educate our kids in the sciences.

Turning these 10 acres of former agricultural land, which was further disturbed by development, into a habitat of diverse flora and fauna is an ambitious undertaking but we are up for the charge. The rehabilitated space will provide us with a sense of place and an appreciation for the landscape that is unique to our region.

Becoming a habitat gardener has come naturally. It flows easily. It feeds my soul. It is my life's mission. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Feeding Bluebirds in Winter

Bluebirds typically forage for insects and berries in open country surrounded by trees, but when extreme weather conditions make this more challenging, they may be brave and visit backyard feeders, if you have the right food.

Bluebird and Northern Cardinal

While visiting my sister in North Carolina, during a period of prolonged wet weather, we enjoyed watching bluebirds up close through the kitchen window. All these photos were taken through the glass, as it was very rainy and not possible to shoot outdoors.

Bluebirds at suet feeder

At first, the bluebirds frequented the suet feeders. High energy suet that includes hulled sunflower seeds, peanut bits, raisins and cornmeal are good. Their beaks are not designed for cracking open seeds.

Bluebird at suet feeder

Sometimes, they were chased off by the larger red-bellied woodpeckers who would swoop in and command the suet feeder.

Red-bellied woodpecker at suet feeder

The bluebirds were surprisingly brave, venturing into the traffic of other song birds to visit the feeder with hulled sunflower seeds. Bluebirds don't normally eat seeds, so this is a big deal.

bluebird and goldfinch at feeder

Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, Nuthatches, Carolina Chickadees, and House Finches were constant visitors to this feeder, keeping the stations continuously occupied.

song birds at feeder

Eating in the company of other birds was something I've never witnessed bluebirds do. Often, they sat at the top of the feeding station patiently waiting for an opportunity to fly down and grab a bite to eat.


And then rush back up on their perch to devour their fare. Even this behavior was new to me as I usually find them very private, only flocking together with their own and even that is rare in our garden.

perched bluebird

In normal conditions, it is not necessary to feed bluebirds because they can find the necessary forage in their natural environment. They are very helpful to gardeners, consuming large amounts of insects in spring and summer. If you want to attract more to your garden, include native trees and shrubs that produce berries they like. Some recommendations are Flowering Dogwood, Serviceberry, Viburnum, Cedar, Hackberry, Smooth Sumac, Hawthorn, Pokeberry, Elderberry, Holly, Virginia Creeper and Mistletoe.
In extreme wet or cold winter weather situations or late winter/early spring,when wild berries are gone and insects are scarce, you can make some homemade suet to get them through this time (February to April is most critical). Perhaps you will enjoy watching these bright blue birds right out your backdoor.

Bluebird Dough

1 cup melted lard or beef suet
1 cup peanut butter
2 cups quick oats
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour

Melt lard and peanut butter together on a low burner. Take off heat, and add remaining ingredients. Spread on a cookie sheet, and allow to cool in the refrigerator until the mixture is just hard enough to cut into pieces. Store in freezer bags and use as needed.