Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Last of the Fiery Fall Color

As we turn the calendar page to December, unseasonably cold weather is upon us. Our highs were 20 degrees below our average for January. Night time temperatures dropped below freezing several times already. This put most of the garden into an early winter slumber.

Typically we are still gardening into December, planting trees and shrubs that get their roots established over the wet winter and cooler spring. The kitchen beds are usually filled with cold season veg and we often see native bees and butterflies on sunny days. Not so much this December as we are unseasonably cold with our standard wet. 

There are a few resilient plants that loose their chlorophyll later in the season and are just now showing us their autumn color before they drop their foliage.

The leaves on our Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy' shrubs have lingered for an extended time. This native shrub puts on some big fall color with a multicolor display of yellows, oranges and reds with the presence of the carotenoids and xanthophylls as the chlorophyll breaks down.

Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy'

On sunny days the blueberry shrubs appear to be on fire with intense oranges to deep reds. Blueberries are spectacular and not only provide delicious fruit during the summer months but deliver late season color to the garden. Try planting them in your landscape amongst your ornamentals. Highbush blueberries make a better landscape choice than the invasive Euonymus alatus (Burning Bush) or Nandina domestica (Nandina or Heavenly Bamboo), which is responsible for the deaths of flocks of Cedar Waxwing birds here in Georgia.

native blueberries

native blueberries

Dogwood cornus 'Celestial Shadow', a disease resistant hybrid, which carries green and yellow variegated leaves spring to summer now has deep red foliage that really stands out in the woodland garden.

Dogwood 'Celestial Shadow'

Dogwood 'Celestial Shadow'

The Franklinia alatamaha tree has adorned beautiful orange to red foliage, which has now transitioned to a deep purple with the appearance of the anthocyanins that are manufactured from the sugars trapped in the leaves.

Franklinia alatamaha

We are relishing the last vibrant colors the garden is offering before the winter solstice is upon us and we inevitably spend less time in the garden and more time growing indoors.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Discovering a Secret of the Franklinia alatamaha Tree

The Franklinia alatamaha tree was first discovered growing along a three mile tract on the banks of the Altamaha River in McIntosh County, Georgia, in 1765 by John and William Bartram. It has never been found growing anywhere else. William Bartram collected seed from this tree and brought it back to Bartram's garden in Philadelphia where it was successfully grown.

The Bartrams named the tree in honor of their friend Benjamin Franklin and the river beside which they found it. The species name 'alatamaha' reflects their variant spelling of Altamaha.

Extinct in nature since 1803, we are lucky that William Bartram had the foresight to grow this plant. All trees cultivated today come from the seed collected by Bartram. We purchased our tree from a local native plant nursery this spring. Already several years old, it bore beautiful camellia-like blooms during the summer much to the delight of several native bees.

Southern Meadows

It was later in the summer that I observed the leaves on the Franklin tree looking rather odd and it begged taking a closer look. I was astonished to find several fat caterpillars that I recognized as promethea moth larva.

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They camouflage themselves well, their vibrant green bodies blending with the lighter hue of the underside of the leaves. The mature caterpillars have four bright red knobs called scoli behind their head and one yellow knob on their rear end.

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I was not aware that Franklinia alatamaha was a host plant to this spectacular moth. Reference books list host plants as spicebush, sassafras, Chickasaw plum, ash, cherry, magnolia and tulip trees.

The caterpillars are pretty big eaters. They need to consume enough energy to sustain themselves in the pupal stage and into adulthood. As adults these moths do not eat so without proper nutrition at the larval stage they may not be able to complete their metamorphosis or produce eggs.

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Already mature caterpillars when I discovered the seven on our tree, they were ready to begin forming cocoons. They do this by rolling up in one of the leaves and spinning brown silk around themselves. Anchored to the tree branch the pupa will remain in its cocoon over the winter months, emerging in spring.

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The adults are gorgeous silk moths with eye spots and lightning bolt patterns. When they emerge they are ready to find a mate and continue the next generation.

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The Franklin tree has a reputation of being difficult to grown. In the Piedmont region it is often susceptible to cotton root rot disease which contaminates much of the ground where this iconic crop was grown. If you are fortunate to grow one of these rare trees keep a watchful eye on its leaves. It just may reveal a special visitor to your habitat garden. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Wildflower Wednesday: Aromatic Aster

Fall has finally arrived in Northeast Georgia. Persistently cooler temperatures set the tone this week for autumn, while the threat of frost on Sunday had us in a tizzy; hauling in the house plants that had enjoyed a summer hiatus in the garden, back indoors. Despite the recent lack of rain, the October garden has come alive with prolific autumn blooms. Our native asters are stealing the show.

In his book Bringing Nature Home Doug Tallamy describes asters as one of the top wildflowers that supports the most species of butterflies and moths. Not only do asters give color to our bright autumn days, but they are essential in supporting a variety of native bees, flies and butterflies that are active later in the year.

When we designed the wildlife hedgerow that sits above the retaining wall, which runs alongside the front driveway, we included several native asters as forage habitat for pollinators and songbirds. Several varieties of asters have been very productive over the past two growing seasons and filled in nicely.

The aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolious) has been a standout. Thriving in the drier soil on this sloped terrain, it puts on quite a show for all those who drive by. This year it spilled over the retaining wall, creating a dramatic effect, but probably could have benefited from some mid-summer pruning.

Enjoying full sun, this aster is outfitted in blue blooms that dazzle the pollinators. The sound of buzzing bees is thunderous almost as if one where inside a hive. A closer look reveals a variety of bees from the more bodacious carpenter bees to the tiniest of sweat bees.

A wealth of butterflies flutter from one bloom to the next, dipping their long proboscis into the disk florets. Skippers are especially frequent visitors, but the aromatic aster also lures medium size butterflies with its sweet nectar. 

Syrphid flies that mimic bees also seek nectar and pollen. One could sit for hours being entertained by the diversity of pollinators this aster supports.

While all of these insects are foraging, they are providing important pollination services to the plant. Later in the season, game birds and song birds will feast on the seeds.

The Aromatic aster is an excellent landscape plant, prairie plant and habitat restoration species. It is extremely adaptable, growing happily in sandy, rocky and clay soils. It is drought tolerant, which is always a bonus in my book. Makes a great ground cover and is a host plant to several butterfly and moth species.

*Symphyotrichum oblongifolious is native to most Southeastern States (excluding Georgia and South Carolina). 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Wildflower Wednesday: Eupatorium purpureum

By late August our Georgia garden tends to be rather weary from the heat, humidity and lack of rain.  Most of our summer blooming perennials are past their peak and looking a bit worn, making Eupatorium purpureum a super star this time of year.

Commonly called Joe-Pye Weed, this herbaceous perennial is not a weed at all but a wonderful wildflower that is a favorite among many gardeners. Big and bold, growing up to 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide, it is a showstopper in moist meadows, native plant gardens and along roadsides. Eupatorium purpureum enhances our late summer, Zone 8 garden and transitions us seamlessly into fall. 

Joe-Pye is a must have plant for a butterfly garden rich in native wildflower diversity. It fills the gap when many summer species are done flowering thus providing a rich food source for the many pollinators that thrive in our habitat garden. The mauve, vanilla scented flowers entice the insects to visit, luring them in to their sweet nectar. It is especially loved by swallowtail and monarch butterflies. 

From the earliest morning light until the sun sets, Joe-Pye is blanketed in butterflies. It is an amazing sight to behold! Finding a monarch amongst the swallowtails is pure happiness. Monarchs are a rare sighting for us, particularly this time of year and we delight in their presence.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are abundant in our garden and as two of their host plants, tulip poplar and wild cherry tree, are plentiful in our woods it is only a short journey for the adult butterflies to the woodland edge ,where they can find a stand of Joe-Pye. 

The same holds true for the spicebush butterflies (host: sassafrass and spicebush) and black swallowtails (host: Carrot family-Apiaceae) who join the party, albeit not in such large numbers as the tiger swallowtails.

Diurnal moths, like this clearwing moth (aka hummingbird moth) dive right in to drink the sweet nectar.

Native bees such as leaf-cutters, diggers and bumblebees tumble industriously around the umbles. 

Other pollinators such as bee flies and skipper butterflies also frequently feed on the flowers.

If you don't already grow Eupatorium purpureum, I highly recommend this buffet for pollinators. I have found that it prefers part shade situation when in semi-moist soils, but does equally well in our full sun rain garden, where it benefits from more moisture. If you are concerned about the size of this native wildflower then try the dwarf variety 'Little Joe' (E. dubium). 

I'm joining Wildflower Wednesday host, Gail at Clay and Limestone. Be sure to blog hop to see other fabulous wildflower growers. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Wildflower Wednesday: Bottlebrush Buckeye

The Aesculus parviflora shrub adorns long wands that resemble a bottle brush and are one of my favorite flowers of summer. Our oldest shrub grows in a semi shaded area near the path that runs along the side of the house, where it gets a hint of midday sunshine.

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Bottlebrush buckeye shrub near walking path 
Typically an understory shrub, the long flower clusters are unforgettable and create a showstopper in a woodland setting. It works as a specimen plant or as a shrub border.

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Flower wands attract native pollinators
Native to the southeastern states of Alabama, Georgia and northern Florida, it prefers rich loamy soil often found in woodland areas. The shrub will sucker and spread twice as wide as tall when happy. No pruning is required.

I'm not the only one who loves this plant. Pollinators dance through the long wands known as panicles.

Southern Meadows

Southern Meadows

Butterflies cover the spires that bloom in late June to July.

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The white tubular trumpets that house the red anthers and pink filaments are also visited by diurnal moths,

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Clear wing hummingbird moth
and numerous native bees and wasps.

As a result of their pollination services, the plant grows pear shaped nuts in early autumn. The orange nuts are encased in a husk that splits open to reveal gorgeous 'buckeyes'. Squirrels and chipmunks feast on these protein rich nuts. They don't last long in our garden.

Buckeyes: orange nuts
Also in fall the bottlebrush buckeye wear golden foliage that compliment the oak and maple leaves of the tree canopy.

golden foliage in fall
Although bottlebrush buckeye technically isn't a wildflower, it is an outstanding native wildlife shrub and pollinator flower. I'm joining our host Gail at Clay and Limestone for Wildflower Wednesday.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Kitchen Garden Remodel

Earlier this spring we remodeled our kitchen garden. The upper tier of the garden sat unproductive for almost two years (!) as we contemplated what we were going to do with the space. We finally decided to add more raised beds, drawing up several designs with various layouts. At the same time, we were in the midst of designing a new edible garden for another part of the property, which came to a screaming halt when the county government wouldn't issue permitting (more on this in a later post). Having already ordered fruit trees and 100 strawberry plugs in early winter for that new garden, we needed to come up with a Plan B.

Sometimes the best laid plans often go awry. 

So it was back to the design board for our kitchen garden. Here is what we did. 

East view of kitchen garden, looking from lower tier to upper tier

The lower tier is still home to the original raised beds, built 6 years ago, and a blueberry hedgerow that hides a retention overflow area. Half of the strawberry plugs were planted out in two of these raised beds (Bed #4 & #5). The other half planted in containers until we find a home for them.  Bed #3 was planted with four varieties tomatoes, dill and marigolds and Bed #2 with seven varieties of hot peppers including Jalapeno, Ghost Golden Cayenne, Sweet Banana, Hot Banana, Habanero, Fresno Chili and Serrano. Bed #1 is waiting for some love. I need to pull out the bronze fennel that has taken over that bed and rehome them so I can plant more fun edibles there.  

Raised beds in lower tier

We abandoned our original plan of adding more raised beds to the upper tier garden and created a mini orchard to house the six apple trees (Gala, Granny Smith and Fuji) we ordered. As this area is deceptively sloped, we first had a contractor in to level the space. The original fence was moved back 6 feet, giving us 1,200 sq. ft., and some of the posts that were showing signs of rot were replaced. What a difference this made! It is now a much happier space. The garden feels roomier, the water management greatly improved and it's visually more appealing. 

Mini orchard with 6 apple trees

At the same time, we added a stack stone wall and pathway on the east side of the orchard that runs along the back side of the fence. This continues the path from the other side of the driveway, providing continuity. It also better defines the flower bed at the top of the hill, anchored by a seven year old brown turkey fig and wildflowers that bring in many native pollinators.

new stackstone retaining wall and path

closer view of short wall and driveway through fence

As we added this new wall, it seemed the right time to update the retaining wall that divides the lower (raised beds) and upper (orchard) gardens. This wall, previously constructed of bricks, now complements the new wall along the pathway so when looking up the garden from the East it is harmonious. 

new retaining wall dividing orchard and lower garden
My idea had always been to grow edibles along the top of the old wall, but I never executed that plan. Once the new wall was installed, I was determined to make it happen. We simply placed rock pavers to outline the growing bed and added some composted soil to amend the existing clay creating a better growing medium. This space is now the new herb garden. 

New herb bed

I transplanted some of the herbs that remained in raised Bed #1 to the new garden; planting out the rest of the space with several varieties of thyme, oregano, sage, basil and lavender.  

Along the north facing fence we transplanted our lone surviving pomegranate tree. It looks like the other two pomegranate trees that we ordered this winter as bare root plants didn't survive. 

Bella taking a break near the kitchen garden
We moved this small table and chairs from another part of the garden, so that we have a shaded area to sit and enjoy the remodeled kitchen garden or take a break while harvesting our edibles. Even our dog Bella approves, taking a uncharacteristic break from her patrolling duties. She is excellent at keeping the squirrels hiding in the trees and the chipmunks in their burrows. 

I'll be adding more containers with edibles as well as incorporating more flowers and companion plants, but for now the framework is complete.