Sunday, December 30, 2012

Life Up Close in the Garden

The winter garden looks so quiet, even dead, to the casual observer. Gardeners know that it is a time of rest for many plants – their roots are quietly growing under the soil and dormant buds wait for the warmth and longer days of spring before unfolding. 

Scalloped edge of a catnip leaf dotted with moisture

Here in north Georgia, there is still plenty of life in the garden despite appearances. Winter birds flit from bush to tree and down to the ground in search of seeds and bugs. I wrote last week about leaving seed heads and leaves in place for birds to find what hides there.

And what does hide there? Now I can see! I got a Dino-Lite Digital Microscope for Christmas and it lets me see AND take pictures of things close up. The first living plant that I grabbed for inspection was a piece of catnip that was growing on a pot on the porch. I was amazed to find that a group of ultra-tiny bugs was making that leaf their home. Under the close lens of the microscope, they bustled to and fro among the tiny hairs on the leaf. I never would have known they were there … yet there they were living out a life all their own.
Aphid - antennae flat but he was waving them around

Next I grabbed a piece of evergreen sedum (Sedum ternatum) to examine and found another colony of bugs – different from the first ones even; luckily for my picture-taking abilities, these bugs hardly moved at all. This one seemed distinctive enough to identify and a friend suggested it was an aphid. I looked up pictures on the web and indeed it perfectly matched to pictures of aphids.

Beetle on goldenrod seedhead
After examining two green plants, I decided to look at a plant with seeds so that I could see what the seeds looked like. I cut a piece of goldenrod (Solidago erecta) and was surprised to find a tiny beetle rapidly crawling around each of the fluffy seedheads. After several attempts, I finally snagged a decent picture of it.

Of course it is also nice to see the beautiful structure of the seeds. In this picture with the bug you can only see the fluffy part that carries the seed to the ground and then detaches.

The back of the oak leaf is very fuzzy; now you can see WHY
Next I decided to look at leaves that were dead but still attached to the twig on the tree. I looked at a chalk maple (Acer leucoderme) and southern red oak (Quercus falcata). Neither had any active bugs on them, but the texture of the leaves was fascinating close up. I even found a tiny little spider web draped across part of the oak leaf.

The maple leaf, up close
Can you see the tiny spider's threads? Is she there to catch a tiny bug?

If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, here’s one:  Resolve to learn more about the many bugs (most of them beneficial) that inhabit our gardens and how you can live peacefully with them and appreciate the many services that they perform in our shared ecosystem. See life up close in the garden … and realize how important every bit of it is.

A farewell note to my friend Murrel Creekmore who passed away on December 22, 2012. At 79 years old, he was a superb plantsman. In our 12 year friendship, he taught me much and there were days I could hardly keep up with him in the woods.  You will be missed, Murrel.


  1. Ah wonderful! Why we musn't clean up too thoroughly..insects.. One of my favorite parts of the garden! Great post & great new "toy"!

  2. I am continually amazed by the number of organisms living in our environment, both above and within the soil. Thanks for a look at a few we would have otherwise missed seeing.