Sunday, August 5, 2012

Everyday Nature

Getting outside and exploring natural areas is a wonderful activity. I am thankful for all the city, county, state and national parks that taxpayers have funded so that we can support “nature”. I also enjoy everyday encounters with nature in my own yard, and I’d encourage you to explore how you can do so too.

Agastache foeniculum
I went out to get the mail recently and startled a group of goldfinches eating seeds from the blue hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) that I had planted next to the driveway in a hot, sunny spot. Several weeks ago, that same plant was host to dozens of bees hungry for the nectar and pollen that its flowers provide. I like these plants that do "double duty" when it comes to supporting critters around us.

Goldfinch checking out the Salvia coccinea
If you like to support songbirds that eat seeds, other plants that produce tasty seeds in my garden include annual red sage (Salvia coccinea) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). The red sage does double duty by providing nectar for hummingbirds.

Be mindful of the plants that you choose to use and how they might support nature through nectar, pollen, fruit/seeds, and even the foliage itself. Choosing carefully – especially in a small yard – requires a bit of research to find the plants that will benefit your wildlife, but research can be fun.

I mentioned above that foliage can support nature – there are two ways to do this. The most well-known way is to choose some evergreen plants that provide cover for birds as they flee from predators or when they build nests. At my house I have evergreen shrubs like Florida anise (Illicium floridanum) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) in the shady areas and trees like wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) and pines (Pinus spp.) in the sunny areas.

American lady caterpillar
But foliage is also key as a source of food for insects. Why do you want to provide food for insects? Who wants bite marks in their leaves? If you love birds, YOU do. 96% of birds include insects in their diets and 100% of them feed insects to their babies. Probably the most well known example of foliage for insects is Monarch butterfly caterpillars and the milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) they eat exclusively. Just like Monarchs, some insects only eat certain plants. When we use non-native plants instead, the food available to insects is reduced and so is the bird population.

Box turtle
Box turtles frequently walk through the property. I saw one on the driveway last week and gave him a piece of leftover tomato (which he loved). Years ago I saw one eating a tomato in my garden and that's how I knew he'd like it. Birds like the eastern towhee and brown thrasher forage for insects in the leaf litter under the shrubs. 

We also have toads, frogs, lizards, chipmunks, rabbits, snakes, turkeys, bats, and those darn deer. I found a fawn sleeping in the Monarda patch a month ago when I was watering. He jumped up (surprising ME) and scampered off to escape the hose and me. He appeared to be only 1-2 days old.

Why do these critters like my yard? Is it because I don’t use any pesticides – that would certainly help the toads, frogs, lizards, turkeys and other birds find insects. Did you know that toads love to eat snails and that birds eat snails to grow stronger eggshells? Is it because I leave all my leaf litter and add mulch? That might help snakes and birds find small tasty things in the leaf litter. Chipmunks and squirrels would like the acorns that fall from my oak trees. Certainly the rabbits and deer find plenty to munch on – I see evidence of that (groan).


I also put out several concrete bird baths and keep them filled with water. I made sure that one of them is near the house under some shady bushes so I can watch the birds frolic there. Make sure that you get a chance to enjoy nature when making choices of where to place things like feeders, baths or ponds.

Of course I can't take full credit for having turkeys and some of the more unusual critters. My neighbors have connecting natural areas that the developer left in place and trees which they have not cut down. I make it a point to share my knowledge of native plants with neighbors so they can appreciate what they have and learn why having those plants is important. We can't support nature alone so it is key to connect with others in more ways than one.

All these are things that can be implemented one at a time, but their impact adds up:

  • Pick the right plants (do your research)
  • Don’t use chemicals
  • Leave the leaf litter
  • Provide water and cover
  • If you're looking for a house, consider those where the developer left wooded areas in the back of the lot and preserved large natural areas as part of the development (that is, reward developers that have this behavior!)
  • Convince your neighbors to leave natural areas, plant native plants, etc.
  • Keep your eyes open so that you notice when nature takes up residence in your place.

Here are some Georgia resources on supporting insects:

Baby tree frog


  1. Well said! Leaf mulch is indeed awesome, doing double duty by feeding the soil and the birds. Next year, however, I won't be using it along the sidewalk. I have to sweep it all back up almost every day, the Brown Thrashers, Robins, and Towhees keep tossing it all onto the pavers looking for bugs. I just have to laugh!

  2. You may have just given me a reason to plant tomatoes! ;)

    I like ketchup, tomato sauce, and V-8 juice, but not tomatoes...but I also like box turtles. :)