Sunday, June 26, 2016

Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Georgia (the book)

Officially titled “Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Georgia and Surrounding States,” this new book by Linda Chafin with photographers Hugh and Carol Nourse puts Georgia on the map with its own official field guide. At over 500 pages, covering 750+ plants in detail and another 530 by comparison, this hefty but handy book is no lightweight either.

What makes this field guide different than others, you say? With an emphasis on the state of Georgia, this book is more useful than a book that might cover the whole country or even the eastern US. Included is good background information on the natural communities in which these plants are found. Thorough descriptions of plant characteristics such as leaves, flowers (heads and clusters and even the bracts) are included. This book is meant to be a field guide, after all. Of course, the photographs are outstanding.

I particularly like the occasional information sections like the one on page 119 entitled “Where Have All the Asters Gone?” This one describes the name changes affecting what plants are in the genus Aster. The North American asters are now spread among 7 different genera. Check out how to tell blueberries (Vaccinium) from huckleberries (Gaylussacia) on page 173. Good stuff!

Another really useful feature is the “Similar to” section in the plant characteristics text.  For example, one azalea might be compared to another similar one but the “Similar to” description will help you understand how it’s different.

Scutellaria incana
I’ve already used this to identify annual blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium rosulatum), compare Scutellaria blooms and read more about a new plant blooming in my garden, downy wood mint (Blephilia ciliata).

The book is organized into two sections: dicots and monocots.  For those more inclined to look for things by flower color, a thumbnail picture guide is included. 

Rounded corners and a semi-glossy covering ensures that this book is perfect for use in the field.  If you’re serious about identifying more Georgia native plants, this is a book you’ll want to check out.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

My Healthy Bug Obsession

I love taking pictures of native flowers. Appreciating their beauty by capturing them at peak flowering time is one of my favorite hobbies. I like to capture them in bud, in flower, with raindrops and sometimes in fruit. But I have a new angle these last few years. I like to document bug-flower interaction.

Bee on Styrax americanus
Even before I became interested in butterflies, I realized how satisfying it was to see a native insect enjoying and taking nourishment from native flowers. I might have noticed bees first, especially the medium-sized bumblebees. Smaller than the chunky carpenter bee but larger than the small metallic bees, those fuzzy bumbles are a delight to watch as they efficiently visit each flower for pollen and nectar.

Small bee on Eupatorium

I do really like the small bees too, of course. The different species have interesting colors and range in size from very tiny to just small. I can recognize they are bees (instead of flying ants) because they have pollen packed onto their little legs. They specialize on small flowers and I’ve learned which bees to expect on which flowers.

Coral hairstreak on Asclepias tuberosa

Skippers, butterflies and moths are beautiful floral visitors but you have to be quick. They are shy of the camera (and the large person behind it) so I have to move up slowly, taking pictures as I approach. Each year I try to improve on the previous year’s pictures of these beautiful creatures.

After a while, I began to appreciate the beetles too. There are so many patterns and sizes once you start noticing them. Here too I have learned which flowers are most attractive to beetles. For example, flat flower clusters like viburnums and smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) are reliable flowers for soldier beetle photography.

Longhorn beetles having a really good time

Carnivorous bugs hang out around flowers too – it’s a great place to capture prey. I’ve found assassin bugs, ambush bugs, robber flies, praying mantis and spiders hiding out in the plants.

Sulphur caterpillar on Chamaecrista fasciculata
Another type of bug that is not necessarily interested in flowers is the larvae of the butterflies and moths – caterpillars! Thanks to attracting those adults with flowers, I can also find caterpillars of all kinds eating the leaves of plants (and sometimes the flowers too).

Seeing bugs of all kinds tells me that the garden is not just a garden for me, it’s a healthy habitat.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Visit the Farm for Native Plants

I had heard from several friends that a great small nursery could be found in Gainesville, GA. The Kinsey Family Farm on Jot-Em-Down Road seemed like an odd name for a place on an oddly named road.

In April, I finally had a chance to visit the Farm for myself and was delighted with what I found.

The Kinsey Family Farm has been around since 1981 and has been evolving ever since. Originally a Christmas tree farm, they branched out (literally) after a while to include other trees, shrubs and even perennials and a few annuals now. More than just a place to buy plants, this bucolic location hosts special family-friendly fall activities with a pumpkin patch and year-round farm animals. The Belted Galloway cows and their calves were romping around in an adjacent field the day I was there.

I asked Andy Kinsey how the nursery came to be and he told the story about how they just kept adding categories of plants to what they sell. Native plants are a part of what they sell, but it seems to be an increasing part of the mix. I well understand the challenges of providing the plants that customers want as well as identifying what they might want to buy if only they knew about it.

Trees are grown on the farm
Good signage!

The nursery is well organized for customers to stroll through rows of beautiful, healthy plants. Clear and informative signs provide information on the plants and what conditions they like. Native status is well presented. The prices are great – much cheaper than what I had seen just the day before at another nursery near me.

I was fortunate enough to be able to walk through some of the growing areas with Andy. The care behind the selections for what to grow and the enthusiasm for the success of their plants was evident. New blueberry selections were in their first pots while budding oakleaf hydrangea cultivars were well on their way to being ready for sale. 

Andy shows off a favorite
Hydrangeas growing

It was wonderful to see such passion for growing healthy plants that customers would want. As we strolled the grounds, he pointed out red buckeyes (Aesculus pavia) that came from seeds in his own yard and bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) with flexible branches. An avid birder, he also pointed out several birds nesting in the living plants and we were able to see their eggs.

A sparrow's nest
A robin's nest

And the plants are absolutely healthy! Well-rooted plants in full pots were the norm. Foliage was clean and the plants were well groomed for attractive shape and fullness. It’s a place where you can feel confident in what you buy. Why, I almost felt I had gone back in time … to a family farm!

So if you’re looking for some good plants, visit their website, give them a call or stop by. I think you’ll be happy with the experience all around. It’s well worth the trip.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Gardening for Butterflies (the book)

The Xerces Society recently released a new book entitled “Gardening for Butterflies.” I was excited to see them cover the topic because their earlier book “Attracting Native Pollinators” is a wonderful resource and I expected this new book to be similarly helpful for the very current topic of how average folks can garden for butterflies. I was not disappointed!

The book is organized into the following sections to help gardeners have the deepest understanding of the subject:

-          Knowing butterflies and what they need is a section that gives you an excellent understanding of butterflies as insects, what makes them different from moths (there is a separate section later on gardening for moths), the different groups of butterflies, the butterfly life cycle, the concept of host plants vs. nectar plants and non-food considerations for supporting butterflies.

-          Design considerations for a butterfly garden section includes basic design principles, regional plant suggestions, and beautiful sample design layouts for a variety of conditions (including a rain garden, for example).

-          The section on butterfly garden plants of North America includes over 200 suggestions across all regions with information such as bloom times, color, height, nectar value, larval host information and native range as well as a color picture.

-          Tips about finding native plants for your butterfly garden, evaluating your choices, installation of the garden and maintenance are covered in the fourth section. I particularly appreciated the information about finding insecticide-free plants but I knew that The Xerces Society would be the first to include that type of information.

In addition to the main practical sections, the Preface included inspirational words about how gardeners can make a difference and Chapter 1 was a thorough treatment on why butterflies matter and why they are in trouble. While monarch butterflies might have sounded the alarm for the average gardener, experts know that they are not the only ones in need of our help.

Giant swallowtail laying an egg
Beyond butterflies and gardening, two of the remaining chapters covers gardening for moths and points about helping butterflies beyond gardens such as in parks, business and road landscaping as well as on farms. Anywhere that a plant grows, it can help butterflies if properly chosen.

Finally, the last chapter covers tips for observing and enjoying butterflies. You can get even more involved by participating in citizen science projects and they list some of the ones in place at the time the book was published.

So if you’re interested in gardening for butterflies and would like some expert information, pick up a copy of this book and you’ll be all set to learn what you need to do it right.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Secret to a Successful Garden

Everyone wants to know the secret to having a beautiful garden. Is it a special fertilizer or a good sprinkler system? Perhaps it has to do with how the plants were raised or a special planting technique. Or maybe it is just for people that truly have a “green thumb.” Some of those things might contribute, but they are not the secret. I’ll tell you the secret if you’re willing to listen.

The secret is: “Right plant, right place.” Now you might think that’s intuitive, but you’d be surprised at how many people try to override that concept. I’ve done it myself and watched healthy plants fail. Sometimes you can catch your mistake soon enough to move the plant to a more suitable place. This year my rain lilies (Zephyranthes atamasca) finally bloomed because I found the right spot.

Zephyranthes atamasca was finally happy
when I found a wet spot for it
Light and moisture are the two big concerns in choosing the right place. Sun-loving plants need sun. Your first clue on lack of sun is usually failure to bloom (or bloom well). Did you have one that was blooming when you got it and now doesn’t bloom at all? Evaluate how much light it’s getting and compare that to what is recommended for it. If your research says that it needs “full sun,” then it needs to get 5-6 hours of direct sun.

How’s the moisture level? Some plants can die from being too wet because their roots aren’t adapted to deal with it. On the other hand, some plants are quite happy even in occasional standing water! Know the moisture level requirements and the tolerance of the plants you’re using.

Mix the two concepts (light and moisture) together and you might get a magic combo: part-shade plants that can take more sun as long as they get plenty of water. Or you can find plants that can take a drier environment when protected from the hot afternoon sun. You have to know what they can take.

Coreopsis auriculata thrives again
Once you’re got the perfect garden, here’s another curveball: Places change over time. Failing to notice and react to changes in conditions can make it seem like you’re not a successful gardener. A change in water flow might cause an area to retain more water, killing established plants.

Or an area now has more shade than before because the trees got big and plants are no longer blooming. My side patch of coreopsis is thriving again after I thinned out a few trees that had grown up. A successful gardener is alert and reactive to such changes.

So now you know the secret. How to implement it? Be willing to do your research, say no to plants that have no place in your garden (unless you want to treat them as annuals!), and be alert to changes that require corresponding changes on your part. And pass the secret on ~

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Be A Good Neighbor

Most people like to be good neighbors. They keep noise to a minimum, wave hello to their neighbors, take them cookies when they move in, and keep an eye out for people with moving vans emptying their house while they’re on vacation.

Those are all examples of good neighbor behavior. What you do in your landscape can be good neighbor behavior too (and I’m not just talking about keeping your grass mowed).

I was walking through my 1-acre woods last week and I noticed an alarming amount of stilt grass coming up. I’ve worked hard over the years to pull up all previous infestations before they could set seed and by last year there were only a few sprigs. A creek wraps around the edges of my property and this new infestation looked suspiciously like it could have come from seeds that washed onto the land during high rain flooding.

Stilt grass, ready to discharge seeds into drain

Several days later, I walked along the street and realized that the neighbor above us has let stilt grass grow with abandon under his trees, right next to the drain that flows into the creek. I no longer need to wonder where those seeds came from. Letting weeds flourish in your yard has consequences for the people around you. I imagine that was the gist of noxious weed laws, but we don’t need laws to tell us how to be good neighbors.

Just like weeds flow off your property, so does water. A friend was recently describing how residential construction uphill from her was causing permanent water flow changes affecting her property and others.  What kind of neighbors would do that?

What gloom! Those are some of the things that bad neighbors do. What can good neighbors do for each other and for their less noticeable neighbors: the birds, bugs and butterflies? How about these items:

  • Grow butterfly/moth host plants to benefit butterflies and moths and to provide caterpillars for birds.
  • Grow fruit-bearing native trees for birds.
  • Remove fruit-bearing invasive plants so that they don’t spread around.
  • Grow nectar plants, grouping them in groups for larger impact and beauty too.
  • Avoid using pesticides; they harm bugs while over-spray and run-off contaminate other areas like neighbors’ property.
  • Keep your native plants tidy so that people can see that they make beautiful landscape contributions.
  • Tell your neighbors about your plant choices and why they’re important to you and to wildlife.
  • Stop using that gas-guzzling blower and get some exercise with a quiet broom. You’ll be kinder to the environment, to your neighbors, and the time you spend sweeping will give you a chance to listen to the birds.

Invasive Callery pear fruit two doors down

If you were your neighbor, how would you feel? Would you be glad to have you for a neighbor? If you were a bug or a bird, could you get what you need? Here’s to being a good neighbor, for all the neighbors, large and small.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Plant What You Love

This week the bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) bloomed, just as it has for the last 6 years. Every year, when it blooms, I am just as happy as that first year.  The happy feeling reminds me to encourage others to plant what you love and to re-evaluate every few years whether your garden represents what you love.

Magnolia macrophylla

This year, I realized that the hardy ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum) had taken over the side bed so aggressively that there was no room for other plants. As much as I like the ageratum, I decided that it was time to make a choice. If I wanted room to plant more of what I loved, I would have to get rid of something that had overstepped its bounds.

Hope to see Helianthus porteri like this in the fall

After I removed a lot of the ageratum (as well as potted up some excess spreading orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida) for friends), I planted new seedlings of Coreopsis tinctoria (which I have wanted to include for years), Stone Mountain daisy (Helianthus porteri). I also spread some seeds of annuals like cosmos, zinnia, and sunflowers. With the smothering cover of the ageratum removed, several other existing perennials will also get a chance to grow and shine.

Also removed were a couple of shrubs that were too big for the space and were constantly being tortured by deer. I always winced when I saw them. The area is now available for sunny perennials and I’ve begun moving plants into it. Now I feel good about how that space is performing.

Earlier in the year I removed a small oak that was shading out an area that used to be sunny. I have plenty of oaks and few sunny areas so I reclaimed this area in the name of light. The perennials there have recovered nicely with the extra light and are blooming again!

Geranium maculatum is something I'll always make room for

Of course, I’m always trimming the grass edges, stealing more from the lawn every year. Native flowers make me happier than grass does because I know they are supporting the local ecosystem. Kind of like the Marie Kondo approach to organizing – “discard things that do not spark joy” - but apply it to the garden instead.

So step back, take a look at what you’ve got and decide if you need to make room for what you love. I went through a similar exercise back in 2011 with one of the front beds.

Gardening is all about change and sometimes you need to be the one to initiate it. Have fun!