Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Celebration of Trees

We just rolled through another Arbor Day in Georgia, and I hope you all had a chance to plant a tree, or thank a tree, or simply appreciate the many services that trees provide to humans, insects, and critters. I’ve written about the importance of trees in previous Arbor Day posts. If you need a refresher on what they do for us, click on one of these links and immerse yourself:

Or perhaps you know all about how wonderful they are and want to dive into learning about some specific wonderful trees. Well, I’ve got plenty of those posts too!

Black cherry (Prunus serotina): A Perfect Plant for Birds in Georgia
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia): Great Georgia Trees: American Beech
Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea): Good Growth, Gorgeous Giant
Serviceberry (Amelanchier): A Tree for You and the Birds
The Cedar that Isn't (Juniper virginiana)
Native magnolias: Magnolias Southern Style
Hawthorns: Number 12
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba): Wild Fruit
Redbud (Cercis canadensis): Peas on a Tree

Or perhaps you’d like to consider some trees by a general category or characteristic. Check these out:

Spring tree alternatives (to non-native trees)
Double duty trees: trees that have more than one season interest
Evergreen trees (for that ugly spot)
Parking lot maple trees (they can handle tough conditions)
Parking lot oaks are tough too: Part 1 and Part 2
Some of the oaks I've seen in Georgia: visitors and residents

Find a tree that works for you and for the goals you have for your landscape and PLANT IT!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Gardening for Wildlife: Simplified

Four things to consider makes it simple. What if someone created a book in the popular book trend: Gardening for Wildlife for Dummies. None of us are dummies, of course, but the principles of gardening for wildlife can be outlined so that the concept is less intimidating. Wildlife is waiting for us to give it a little support, to take a bit of the negative pressure off so that it can thrive.

First of all, let’s define wildlife for the purposes of this post. Wildlife includes birds, butterflies, bees, plus other native insects, mammals, and critters that live in the soil and water like worms, beetles, frogs, toads, salamanders, lizards, newts, snakes. Basically all native critters besides us!

Here are the main principles that you would find in my dummies book if such a thing existed (thanks to my husband James for the cover mock-up, using one of my pictures from last year):

  1. Plant more native plants.
  2. Stop using pesticides.
  3. Leave natural materials on your property.
  4. Provide sources of water and shelter.
That’s it! Just four things to consider: 3 things to do and 1 thing to stop doing. I'll cover them in a bit more detail.

Plant more native plants than most of your neighbors. Have your landscape be above average when it comes to native plant usage. Shrink your lawn, get rid of your crape myrtles and Asian elms, and plant native flowers that bloom throughout the year. Do your research and be mindful of what you plant: regionally appropriate plants, host plants for local butterflies and moths, good nectar source plants, and plants that make seeds or berries for birds (remember that not all birds eat berries).

There are 2 purposes for providing native plants for wildlife as a food source:
  1. Flowers provide food for pollinators in the form of nectar and pollen, later they turn into seeds or berries for birds and small critters. Plant flowers that bloom throughout the year.
  2. Plant foliage is food for herbivores such as the larvae of butterflies and moths. Some of these larvae/caterpillars become food for birds.
Seasonal blooms - Spring: Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis); Summer: Phlox paniculata 'Jeana'; Fall: goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Stop using pesticides. The natural world has a food chain where one critter usually eats another one. The tiniest of aphids are food for ladybug larvae and other insects; small songbirds, tiny hummingbirds, and lizard/anoles eat them to some extent. If you spray them with insecticide then anything that eats them will ingest the poison.  Explore other ways to reduce high populations of unwanted bugs until wildlife can catch up: spray them with a hose or squish them with your fingers. Hold a bucket of soapy water under Japanese beetles and tap them; they usually react by dropping to the ground (or into your bucket!).

Birds eat bugs! Photo copyright Romin Dawson

Leave natural materials on your property as much as possible: the leaves that fell from your trees, dead limbs, tree snags if they are in a safe area. Dead plant material provides several ways to support native insects and birds.

  • Dead logs are shelter places for lizards and salamanders, homes for beetles and wood-boring bees.
  • Dead leaves shelter over-wintering butterflies and moths, as well as being a source of food for many decomposers like worms. 
  • Dead branches support lichens and fungi which in turn are sources of food for others. Pile them up in brush piles in inconspicuous places and let small birds and chipmunks take shelter there.

Adult Question Mark butterflies hibernate
in natural areas
Question Mark that I found in March was
an adult that stayed over the winter

Brown-headed nuthatches nest in dead pines
Provide sources of water and shelter. A source of water might be as simple as a birdbath that you keep clean. It could be a stream or pond on your property. Shelter sources could be bird boxes, evergreen trees and shrubs, tree snags for woodpeckers and other cavity dwelling birds like the brown-headed nuthatch. When the leaves fell off your plants, did you find bird nests hidden in the branches? Birds love a thicket so consider some shrubs that grow densely even if they are not evergreen.

So now you have some basic principles about gardening for wildlife – just four things to consider. Here’s one more thing that gardening for wildlife doesn’t have to be: it doesn’t have to be messy or untidy. Incorporate these principles however you wish, in the front yard as well as the backyard (although you may want to save the brush pile for the back). Even the National Wildlife Federation no longer calls your certified garden a ‘backyard wildlife habitat’ – it is now more broadly called ‘wildlife habitat.’

Disclaimer: This is not a real book; this is a mocked up cover with one of my photos. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Look at February

Roundleaf Hepatica is the first to bloom
February is a mixed month for those of us in North Georgia, akin to having a foot in winter and a foot in spring. Chilly nights often give way to warm days with bright blue skies. The chance of a snow event is lower than in January but don’t count it out. Non-native daffodils poke out of the leaf litter but so do native perennials like liverwort (Hepatica), trout lily (Erythronium), and bloodroot (Sanguinaria).

Looking through the years, my February topics usually include 3 things: celebrating Georgia’s Arbor Day, appreciating my local birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count, and gushing over early spring flowers. Here are some posts that are just as timely in 2018 as they were then.

White oak (Quercus alba)
Arbor Day is celebrated in Georgia on the third Friday in February. That is a very good time for planting a tree in Georgia. Trees are one of my very favorite categories of plants so I’m always happy to talk about why we should plant trees for the future.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a wonderful citizen science project that helps contribute local data about bird populations while also helping us recognize what is sharing this little piece of land with us. I’ve got a post from 2012 and another from 2014 to explore. I hope you’ll be inspired to count this year from Friday, February 16, through Monday, February 19, 2018. This is their 21st year of the count.

In between the trees and birds, take some time in February to look for emerging plants and flowers. If you'd like to get your spring on early, read some of these previous February posts:

In addition to looking for flowers, you can appreciate the buds of woody plants as they swell in preparation for opening their leaves and flowers. Some of them are beautiful in their own way, allowing us to be amazed at all that nature does in order to deliver the year's new growth.

While you're looking for swollen buds, keep an eye out for other signs of spring. This is a late January post on things to notice that remind us of the promise of spring.

Caulophyllum thalictroides
Erigenia bulbosa at The Pocket

Perhaps you'd like to find places to see early flowers, even in February. Last year I wrote about my visit to the Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail in Walker County. The Trail had plenty of beautiful flowers by the last week of February. I might have to repeat that trip.

Finally, if you're ready to start making lists of plants to get at the spring plant sales, this blog is about some of my favorite spring perennials to use in the garden and has some good ideas for your list of things to add to your landscape.

Claytonia virginica
Trillium cuneatum

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Cedar That Isn't

Juniper 'berries' (Juniperus virginiana)
A beautiful and useful evergreen tree grows well around the state. It is appreciated by some humans for its evergreen foliage (it has been used as Christmas trees) and is much loved by birds and wildlife for the fruits and shelter it provides. However, it is called by a name that is misleading: Eastern redcedar. Although it is a conifer like true cedars (Cedrus spp.), it is actually a juniper, and the fruits that the birds love are modified cones.

Juniperus virginiana is native throughout the eastern and middle US and is found in most areas of Georgia except for the Cumberland Plateau in the NW corner – and it may have spread there by now. Birds help distribute it, much to the dismay of some farmers who find themselves having to remove it from fields. You can see it on the edges of fields where birds sat on the fence and deposited the seeds (and farmers didn’t see any need to remove it from there).

Male pollen cones developing
Female trees have fruits

This time of year highlights the dioecious nature of this genus. Junipers have male and female flowers on separate plants. Trees that are mature enough show the differences: female trees are sporting the fleshy berries and male trees are developing pollen cones on the tips of the branches. The pollen cones are fairly dark brown at first, lightening up as they expand. The male trees take on a brownish or bronze color from a distance as a result of this cone development.

As you can see from the placement of the berries, the female flowers are not on the tips of the branches – they are located a bit more inside. The trees I have examined so far this year are not yet showing the female flowers. For a bit longer, the berries will take center stage on the females.

I have not been lucky enough to see a flock of cedar waxwings descend on a juniper. On the Georgia Wildlife Facebook group, one member had fun a couple weeks ago photographing the birds in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. He agreed to let me share one of his pictures here.

Habit is tall and dense
Cedar waxing (Photo: Kevin Gaston)

So why is this tree called a cedar? One theory is that the aromatic character of the wood, similar to true cedars (Cedrus), led people to think they were more closely related. The heavy wet snow in December caused the top to break out of my largest one. Here you can see the reddish center, and yes, it was very aromatic.

Common name is 'redcedar'
Trees can get big, up to 65 feet

Not everyone wants to keep this tree around. It is one of the host plants for the cedar-apple/cedar-hawthorn rust diseases. Small brown galls form (I picked off several this week) and then develop into an orange ball that releases spores. Plants in the Rosaceae family such as serviceberries (Amelanchier), hawthorns (Crataegus), and apples/crabapples (Malus) can be infected by the rust, developing discolored foliage and fruit but not hurting the tree itself.

Gall - first year, just developing
Mature gall with spores releasing

One good reason to keep it around – besides the benefits to birds – is that it is a host plant for the Juniper hairstreak butterfly. I keep hoping to find the butterfly one day. The caterpillar is pretty small; I might have them and just haven’t noticed yet. I hope you’ll take the time to notice this tree over the next few weeks and appreciate its role in our local ecosystem.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Winter Praise

As the snow melts away on the second event of winter 2017-2018, I still have the warmest regards for the winter season in Georgia. I'm going to list some of the reasons why that is true for me. With each reason, I will include a link to a blog I've written previously about it.

If it were not for the winter season: 

I would not have the beautiful silhouettes of deciduous trees like oaks (Quercus) and hickories (Carya) to admire. Their bare branches and the shape of the trees really are elegant when the leaves fall.

I might not take the time to appreciate the rosettes of evergreen perennials and be grateful for their consistent presence. It's also a good time to notice the weedy bittercress and pull it up before it flowers and sets seed.

Without the bare plant branches, the bounty of the season’s seeds and the birds’ enjoyment of them might not be so noticeable. The puffy groups of seeds are part of the winter beauty.

Frankly, I get more reading done during the winter because I'm not outside as much. So it's a good time to learn more. Peruse this 4th blog of mine about books; links to the previous 3 blogs are inside it. Need something new? I'm currently reading a thick new Georgia mushroom book and I've got the new southeastern moth book on order.

Don't want to stay inside? Winter is a perfect time to tackle many of our evergreen winter weeds like privet, mahonia, nandina, elaeagnus, Japanese honeysuckle, and others. They stand out like a sore thumb in winter.

Or brush up on your winter woody plant identification skills. The clues are all there - you just need to solve the puzzles.

Winter doesn't seem to last forever in Georgia. Yesterday's high of 61 degrees took care of the remaining snow and I'm sure that spring is right around the corner. Enjoy winter while you can.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Underused Native Shrubs

Way back in 2011, I wrote a blog post about underused native trees. It was my intention at the time to follow that up with underused shrubs. Well, six years later, here it is.

Shrubs are an important part of the landscape but they seem to be viewed as filler, something to go between the trees and the flowers.  They also seemed to be viewed as something used to hide a house’s foundation, a function which isn’t needed for today’s homes. As a result, you can often see the same shrubs used over and over again, many of them shaped into evergreen blobs. There are some native shrubs being used, and that’s a good thing.

Common shrubs that I see in the mainstream trade or larger native plant nurseries include: dwarf witchalder (Fothergilla spp.), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), native azaleas and rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), possumhaw (Viburnum nudum), garden blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), winterberry (Ilex verticillata and I. decidua), beautyberry (Callicarpa americana, be careful to get the native species), and St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.). Some popular evergreens include doghobble (Leucothoe spp.), hobblebush (Agarista populifolia), Florida anise (Illicium floridanum), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and evergreen rhododendrons.

Chickasaw plum
I’d like to spotlight some of the native shrubs that aren’t used very much. Some of these might be familiar to you, yet still are not readily available in nurseries. I’m going to group them by landscape size and indicate in the descriptions what special talents they might have (such as sunny, shady, wet or dry).

Sometimes you want to fill up a big space but it’s not a good place for a tree. Some shrubs get quite large, they might even be considered small trees. Some of these have spreading habits – that’s how they get to be big – so research them carefully:

  • Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) - part to full sun shrub that blooms in the summer to the delight of Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies.
  • Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) - part sun shrub that blooms early in April in time for returning hummingbirds to enjoy.
  • Chokeberry (Aronia spp.) - part to full sun shrub with beautiful flowers in May and fruits that last through the winter for birds.
  • Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) - part to full sun shrub that blooms in April and has small plums. Host plant for 456 moths and butterflies.
  • Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis) - full sun shrub that can handle very moist soil, blooms in June and has small fruits that birds love.
  • Shrub dogwoods (Cornus amomum or C. foemina) - part to full sun shrubs that can handle moist conditions and produce fruits that birds love.
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) - part to full sun shrub that is our earliest blooming shrub that can handle most conditions;  host plant for several butterflies and the birds love the fruits.
  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) - full sun shrub that can handle wet conditions and has spectacular flowers in the summer that bees and butterflies love. Hard fruits are eaten by wood ducks.
  • Sumac (Rhus ssp.) - full sun shrubs that bloom in the spring and summer; fruits are enjoyed by birds.
  • Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) - our latest shrub to bloom, often in November.
  • Osmanthus (Cartrema americana) - small scented flowers appear in late spring, leaves are evergreen.
  • Titi (Cyrilla racemiflora) - an evergreen Coastal Plain native that supports bees and can handle wet conditions.
  • Rusty lyonia (Lyonia ferruginea) - an evergreen Coastal Plain native with fragrant flowers that can handle wet or dry conditions.
  • Devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) - tall and prickly, this shrub earns its name, but the flowers are adored by bees and butterflies and the birds relish the small fruits. This shrub has the largest leaves in North America.
Left: Aronia arbutifolia; Center: Aesculus pavia; Right: Lindera benzoin

Don't have room for such a big plant? Here are some smaller recommendations for smaller lots or tight spaces:
  • Huckleberry (Gaylussacia spp.) - part to full sun shrub with bell-flowers and fruit similar to blueberry.
  • Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) - part to full sun shrub that can handle drier conditions and which slowly spreads to form a colony.
  • Inkberry (Ilex glabra) - full sun, evergreen shrub with blue-black fruits from the Coastal Plain; need male and female plants for fruit.
  • Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) - part to full sun, evergreen shrub from the Coastal Plain; need male and female plants for fruit.
  • Dwarf wax myrtle (Morella cerifera, dwarf forms) - part to full sun, evergreen shrub from the Coastal Plain; need male and female plants for fruit.
  • Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) - part sun shrub that can handle moist conditions.
  • Hearts a bustin’ (Euonymus americanus) - part sun shrub that can handle drier conditions; has fruit that birds love in the fall.
  • Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) - part sun shrub that can handle drier conditions; flowers can be fragrant.
  • New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) - part to full sun shrub that can handle drier conditions; blooms in the summer.
  • Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) - part sun shrub that can handle moist conditions.
  • Honeycup (Zenobia pulverulenta) - part to full sun shrub with unusual foliage and fragrant flowers.
  • Amorpha (Amorpha fruticosa) - part to full sun shrub with gorgeous flowers; it is the host plant for several butterflies.
  • Spiraea (Spiraea spp.) - full sun shrubs that bloom in summer and attract a diverse group of insects as pollinators.
  • Staggerbush (Lyonia lucida) - an evergreen suckering Coastal Plain shrub of swamplands; good-looking with pinkish flowers and shiny leaves.
  • Alabama snow wreath (Neviusia alabamensis) - part to full shrub with suckering habit so it grows wide; rare in the wild but happy in gardens.
  • Viburnum obovatum and other Viburnums - viburnums largely do best in full sun but there are some that tolerate shade. I have blog post about them that provides more detail.
  • Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor) - evergreen trunkless palm with fragrant flowers.
Left: Spiraea latifolia; Center: Calycanthus floridus; Right: Amorpha fruticosa

Need something for a difficult place? I have written about shrubs for difficult places before and you can find that here. I’ve also tried to indicate in the descriptions above which plants can be used in places with shade, dry or wet soils. A comprehensive Piedmont shrub post that I did can be found here; it has links to many others inside it.

So if you have occasion to need a new shrub - or maybe you’d just like to be a little different - think about these.  You'll have something out of the ordinary, you’ll increase market demand in the nursery trade, add to biodiversity in your area, and you just might inspire one of your neighbors to think differently as well.

Where can you find these plants?  First ASK your local nursery.  Nurseries need to hear from their customers about plants that they want.  Even if they don’t have them, your question will alert them to consider ordering them in the future.  Or they may be able to order them for you right then.

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Mail order sources may be an alternative for you if you don't live near any sources.  Always search using the scientific name to make sure you are searching for the right plant.  

For mail order companies, do check ratings and customer reviews on Garden Watchdog. If the company is not listed on Garden Watchdog - beware!  At least one disreputable company in Georgia sued to have Garden Watchdog remove their poor rating and bad customer reviews.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Collection of January Blogs

I’ve been writing this blog every week for over 7 years now – the first entry was October 14, 2010. The history is all there and, since plants don’t change much, some of the older January blogs are worth reading again – especially if you weren’t following back then. The pictures may not be as good, but the words are spot on. If you find any broken links, let me know in the comments and I’ll fix them (or remove them if they don’t exist).

From 2011, you might like Learning by Doing, which is about my journey into learning about native plants. It might give you some ideas for increasing your knowledge.

From 2012, the post Birds Love a Thicket can give you ideas on what plants to use to give birds a safe haven in your landscape.

Are you looking for inspiration in the New Year? From 2013, Using More Native Plants in the Landscape is meant to jump-start your efforts with a fistful of ideas.

Some of my posts are about visits to Georgia State Parks. I blogged about a visit to The Little Grand Canyon in Georgia in January 2015. It’s a great place for a winter visit; I loved all the American holly (Ilex opaca) we found there.

Maybe you’ve pledged to add more native plants to your landscape this year. In 2016, I put together a compilation of my shrub posts in Native Shrubs in the Georgia Piedmont.

I’ll still be writing some original blogs in 2018 but probably not every week. When I'm not posting something new, I’ll be reminding you of some my previous posts like I’ve done here. Remember that the blog has a search box in the upper left corner or use the history list on the right side to browse for older posts. Most posts are seasonal so you can browse by month.