Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, May 29, 2017

Counting Butterflies

This weekend was the North American Butterfly Association's (NABA) Memorial Day Count. This count is a super easy citizen science project to participate in because it simply requires recording the number and type of butterflies you see in an area, such as your own garden. We counted three days, Saturday, Sunday and Monday in our rural garden we call Southern Meadows. We had mixed weather with periods of warm sunshine (perfect butterfly weather), overcast and then periods of rain showers and storms (not so perfect butterfly weather).

It's still pretty early in the butterfly season in North Georgia. The butterfly populations are just beginning to build. So we're seeing singles and occasionally two of the same species. The good news is that we counted a variety of butterflies this weekend.

Let's take a look...

Zabulon skipper (count: 2) on Gaura

Zabulon skippers like to hang out around streams and moist woodlands and brushy areas. They lay their eggs on a variety of grasses including purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis), which we grow in our garden.

Spring Azure (count: 2) on Oak
Spring Azures are commonly seen this time of year in our garden, often puddling in moist soil. Host plants include flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americana), viburnum and blueberry, all of which grow here at Southern Meadows.
Silver-spotted skipper (count: 1) on salvia
The silver-spotted skipper is easy to identify with its gold spots and silver band and is seen here from spring to late fall. These skippers prefer to visit flowers that are red, blue, pink and purple, while avoiding yellow blooms. The females lay their eggs near the host plant leaving the caterpillars to find their own way to the woody legumes, like black locust (Robinia pseudacacia), which grow abundantly here. Another option is false indigo (Baptisia australis) which is a lovely spring flowering perennial in our garden.

Gray Hairstreak on verbena
The gray hairstreak is a dainty butterfly that can easily be missed if one doesn't look closely. Like other hairstreak, blues and azure butterflies, they are some of the smallest butterflies found in our garden. Their flight period ranges from early spring to late fall. They lay eggs on a variety of different plants but prefer those in the pea and mallow families. Their larvae are often found eating the flowers and fruit of legumes and mallows. Be sure to identify caterpillars in your vegetable gardens before considering removing those found on these crops.

Cabbage White Butterfly (count: 1) on Viola
The cabbage white is another butterfly often found feeding in vegetable gardens so it is not a favorite butterfly of many gardeners. Its host is all plants in the Brassicaceae family, which means all cruciferous vegetables. The adults prefer to nectar on dandelions, red clover, asters and mints.

Appalachian Brown (count: 1)

This Appalachian Brown was perched on the side of the house early in the morning. As adults these butterflies don't visit flowers but find nourishment in tree sap and rotting fruit. The host plant for larvae are plants in the sedge family (Carex lacustris) where the caterpillars hide at the base of the grasses during the day and feed on leaves at night.

Pearl Crescent (count: 3) on butterfly milkweed
Another petite butterfly, the pearl crescent, was found in several spots in our garden this weekend but especially on the milkweed.  Butterfly milkweed has become abundantly available in garden nurseries and each year we grow more. Collecting seed in the fall is a great way to save money and spread milkweed with love around your garden. These crescents lay their eggs on asters. Plant asters for great fall color and also to attract these beauties to your garden.

Painted Lady(count: 2)
Painted Ladies are the most widespread butterflies on earth, living on 5 continents. But they can't take freezing weather so they are migratory and repopulate North American each spring. This lady was basking in the early morning sunshine before taking flight. Their host plant is mostly non-woody plants in the thistle, mallow and legume families, in our garden we offer black locust and redbud trees, patridge pea, powderpuff, wild indigo, rose mallow, hibiscus, and vetch.

Great Spangled Fritillary (count: 3)
We saw three gorgeous great spangled fritillary butterflies on the milkweed this weekend giving us a stunning compilation of oranges. This is one of three fritillaries that frequent our garden, along with the variegated and gulf fritillary. Great spangled fritillaries lay their eggs in the fall and the females rarely bother to place the eggs on the violet leaves. When the caterpillars hatch they will drink water but not eat for several months and often don't survive the winter. Fortunately fritillaries are fecund butterflies and lay over 2,000 eggs. The caterpillars are ground dwelling and can be found by inspecting brush near patches of violets.

In total we counted 18 butterflies this weekend. Included in our count but not photographed were an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (count: 1) and Common Buckeye (count: 1). It was a great weekend for butterfly spotting.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Planting The New Front Steps

This week we received loads of much needed rain. More than 5 inches in fact. So I am taking a break from the garden and making time for some long over due writing. Much has happened in the garden this spring and life has been insanely busy finishing out the school year with the boys that the blog has sadly been neglected. Earlier this spring we had several areas professionally hardscaped with a walkway, seating area and stairs (to see those projects click here). We needed to plant out the expanded bed around the new front steps as soon as the project was complete so the plants would establish themselves before the dry, hot summer. As this area is highly visible my aim is to demonstrate how to create an interesting landscape in tough conditions with low-maintenance, native, pollinator friendly plants.

Come with me and I'll show you how we planted this hillside.

When designing this slope I had to take into consideration that much of this space gets full-sun and is well-drained clay soil. This hill has several different grades ranging from steep to gently sloping, which requires a selection of different plants suitable for the varying conditions. The area at the top of the stairs is flat and connects to the walkway leading to the front terrace.

It begins with three large flagstones where I selected groundcover plants that wouldn't distract the view. Since I am keen on incorporating herbs in the landscape and not just confining them to the kitchen garden, I included creeping thyme (Thymus praecox 'Cocineus'), which has a spicy fragrance and bright magenta blooms and woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) with lovely soft gray foliage. I was inspired by a garden in Toronto, Canada that used thyme as a lawn substitute. I'm not going for anything that big (at least not yet) but it works well planted around the flagstone, is very drought tolerant and will brighten the path with its aromatic foliage and delicate flowers servicing bees and butterflies.

I nestled a few hen and chicks between the flagstones to fill the gaps without covering up the stones. These succulents mix up the space with their rosette shape plus they have an amazing tolerance for unwelcoming conditions. So they should thrive here.

As we make our way down the first few steps, to the right you'll find rosy coreopsis (Coreopsis rosea), white doll daisy (Boltonia asteroides), and dwarf blazing star (Liatris microcephala) in front of my husband's prized Japanese Maple. These natives are showy and will attract a variety of pollinators as they bloom and will standout against the purple foliage of the weeping maple.

rosy coreopsis & white doll daisy

On the other side of the steps at the peak of the slope is Quail Fame Flower (Talinum teretifolium). This is a threatened species in its native range. I first saw this plant at the granite outcrop at Thompson Mill Forest Arboretum, which is just a few miles from us and loved its dainty blooms. I've already observed hoverflies visiting the flowers in the heat of the day when the blossoms open.

Quill Fame Flower

Several excellent native creepers were added to hold in the slope. Blue moneywort (Lindernia grandiflora) with its heart shaped foliage hugs the ground and its cute blue flowers will bloom through spring and summer. The stems of the powderpuff plant (Mimosa strigilosa) will trail nicely around the steps while the purple flowers will be used by bees. It is also a host plant for the little sulphur butterfly.  Creeping phlox (phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue') was incorporated on the steepest parts of the slope for erosion control and will eventually create a carpet of flowers that will attract early spring butterflies.

view from base of stairs: stokes aster, finestem needlegrass, creeping phlox

Mingled between these pollinator plants is Finestem needlegrass (Nassella tenuissima), which was included to provide movement and soften the harder edges in the space. Stokes aster (Stokes laevis) 'Klaus Jelitto and rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), still allow a view of the stairs from the road yet have showy blooms to add color and attract a variety of pollinators.

looking down stairs toward pollinator hill with view into the woods

As the bed widens at the base of the steps, we were able to add several larger plants. Fothergilla major 'Mt. Airy' was incorporated for seasonal interest. The inflorescence of summersweet (clethera alnifolia) to bring in bees and butterflies, which will result in seed capsules in fall to attract birds. Spring blooming Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera) for a showy springtime element at the foot of the stairs. This area is part sun as it is protected from the towering tulip poplars and hickories. Like the established buttonbush, which is just in the background, it will benefit from the water run-off yet still remain well-drained. We enriched the soil here with lots of organic matter.

To fill the gap between the end of the retaining wall and the stairs, help with erosion, and provide further interest we added a tall container. Using the design concept filler, thriller and spiller, perennial verbena 'homestead purple' and beard tongue 'purple'  were planted in the container. Still looking for a native perennial as a filler for foliage contrast against these two pollinator friendly plants. Would love to hear your suggestions.

In Autumn, when fall blooming perennials are more readily available at nurseries, we will add a few more plants to support pollinators, birds and beneficial insects for a full three seasons.And then wait for it all to fill in.

I like being different and living in a neighborhood where everyone has your standard builder landscape, it is my hope that our front garden will be an inspiration to those who are looking for ways to support pollinators and birds and simply create a more eye catching design.