Sunday, October 1, 2023

It’s the Insects That Make It Interesting


People often tell me that my garden must be amazing and beautiful because I am so passionate about growing native plants. I do have flowers throughout the 3 growing seasons, but deer pressure can make them short-lived or stunted. And some of the plants that I love often grow exuberantly in their season, especially the white asters and annuals, and that makes the garden a bit wild in the fall season especially.

Newly emerged oakworm moth adult

So I guess pretty is in the eye of the beholder … and in the eyes of the many insects that visit my garden. While I love the flowers, it’s the insects that make it interesting. I love to go outside, my phone in my pocket, to see what insects or critters I can find, almost like a treasure hunt.

Gulf fritillary fueling up before laying eggs on passionvine

For the last month or more, I have enjoyed watching the annual jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) grow tall, swaying gently as a hummingbird makes her rounds to each of the flowers. No matter how early I go outside, the bumble bees are already visiting another annual: the partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasiculata). Their soft buzzing is the perfect morning song before humans start their engines.

Bee on partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasiculata)

Late summer is a great time to spot caterpillars, the larval form of butterflies and moths. Several weeks ago, I noticed that my false indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa) had been stripped of leaves thanks to the larvae of the silver-spotted skipper (you can see photos of both in this earlier blog post). The last two caterpillars were resting on a nearby plant, perhaps hoping that leaves would grow back (and they have now).

The caterpillars ate the leaves but left the seeds; new growth starting

Other interesting finds are the many beetles, flies, wasps, and bees that come and go over the seasons, often demonstrating how specialized they are in what they want (and need). Insects like the elephant mosquito, the handsome trig bush cricket, and the many and varied caterpillars demonstrate that my garden is contributing to the ecosystem and that makes it beautiful to me.

Plants come and go, but the insects are living their best life.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

I See You, Ragweed

So many of our roadsides are infested with non-native plants, but I’m always scanning them to see if I can spot something “good” (my definition of good being a native plant!). This time of year, there will always be a sly little smile on my lips when I spot the native annual ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) growing.

Ambrosia artemisiifolia

Don’t be too alarmed that I’m spotting these plants in residential yards. Mostly I see them in areas of road construction (where the soil disturbance brought these plants to life) or along unmanaged rural roads. Only the weekend bicyclists are likely to be disturbed by windborne gusts of ragweed pollen in search of a place to land.

I do feel sorry for those of you who are allergic, but I am so glad to see a native plant that is productive to our environment. Ragweed seeds are high in fat and very beneficial to the small birds and critters that consume them. You can find ragweed seed for sale online to help establish this high quality native annual on your land (although you may already have it, especially if you have a large amount of land with wild areas).
Ambrosia artemisiifolia

For those of you who don't know, native goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is often considered to be a source of fall allergies but the pretty goldenrod is colorful for a reason: the bright flowers attract bees and other insects to carry the heavy pollen from plant to plant. Goldenrod pollen is not carried on the wind.

Goldenrod (Solidago altissima) is not the problem;
enjoy seeing it this year for the insects it supports!

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Get a Tree That Does More


This is a photo of a non-native ornamental cherry; it is a photo that was taken yesterday. It has looked like this for well over a month; it’s not dead but it sure looks like it. These cherries lose their leaves like this a lot in our area – why would anyone want something that looks like this in their front yard? People get them for the spring blooms and that’s pretty much all they get out of them.

Non-native cherry tree in summer

When I saw this house with them lined up on both sides, I could not imagine driving between those every day and not eventually calling a tree service to cut them down.

Non-native cherry trees in summer in Georgia

If you’re in the market for a tree (and the next few months are a good time to plant them in Georgia), consider not only how the tree looks year-round but also what the tree might give back to its environment. Get a tree that does more!

Here are some tree ideas that I’ve written about before; of course, they are all native because regionally native trees naturally give back to their ecosystem:

Trees that bloom in the spring

Trees with great fall color (includes some shrubs too)

Native trees that are underused

Double-duty native trees

Small trees with great fall color

I hope some of these posts will give you ideas on how to get more out of your landscape trees. What would I plant instead of these? Serviceberry is one of my favorite full sun trees; it provides spring flowers, fruit to eat, and great fall color.

A preview of fall: serviceberry leaves

Sunday, September 10, 2023

September 2023 Moment in Nature

My eye is always caught in the garden by things that are different, and a dusting of white material on a leaf made me look a little closer recently. I was surprised to realize it was stem shavings and that a small bee had at least attempted to make a solitary nest in a cut off stem on American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). I hope she was successful but it might have been too short for her.

I am thrilled to discover insect/plant interactions, each one a very special #momentinnature. 

By the way, thanks to another blogger, I found a new service for email delivery of the blog. On the upper right side of the blog home page, you can now enter your email and subscribe.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Hike Local: Dunwoody Nature Center

Dunwoody Nature Center is a 22-acre local park that I’ve visited over the years; I’ve watched it grow from a small private park to a city-owned nature destination. 

It was once infested with English ivy and non-native wisteria. Volunteers, Master Gardeners, and Eagle Scouts have made a dent in those problems and city funding has helped expand amenities (bathrooms!) and activities (like their upcoming Butterfly Experience next weekend). This week I decided to revisit the park and explore the trails.

Black-eyed Susan near the main building

Dunwoody Nature Center trails are heavily shaded which makes for cool walks but few blooms to observe this time of year. The dirt trails are well-maintained and offer lots of interesting bits of nature, including rocky streams, lush ferns, wetland boardwalks, and even this young deer. If the kids get restless, there are several play areas with fun things to ride or climb.

This fawn was hiding behind a trail sign

Christmas ferns near the trail

My grandson loved the rope caterpillar swing

Trail signage is good and you can download a trail map ahead of time or grab one in the parking lot. Educational signs point out some of the features and large trees have blazes to help you know where you are. The park has development on all sides so you can’t go too far off course. I think it’s a great place to get kids into hiking with fun extra play spaces for them and bathrooms.

Flowers can be found at the front or around the main buildings. One structure has a green (and growing) roof and the adjacent wetland was full of blooming pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata). Most of the new plantings are native plants, but invasive plants still plague the park. Wisteria is trying hard to come back, Elaeagnus shrubs are hiding in the woodland, and the autumn fern that was planted years ago as an ornamental is invading the streams just as it has in other parts of the metro area. If you live nearby, volunteer to help identify and remove invasive plants.

Pickerel weed was full of pollinators

Autumn fern invading the creek

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Save the [Wild] Bees


Now that the annual Great Southeastern Pollinator Census is complete for this year, I hope that at least a few people learned more about the presence and diversity of our native bees. Perhaps they noticed that that carpenter bees, bumble bees, and small bees – all categories of native bees – outnumbered non-native honey bees in their count. They should outnumber them because there are so many more species of native bees and because this is their home turf. 

Yet, each of these native bee species have specific roles and we do need all of them. Those of us who census count on a variety of flowers see that different bee species use different flowers (although some are generalists).

Conservation work should be associated with doing all we can to support native bees. However, a recent article discussed how some businesses are trying to boost their conservation credentials by installing honey bee hives on their property and proclaiming they want to ‘save the bees.’ A recent video discussed the same topic and said that proclaiming you want to save the bees but focusing on honey bees is like saying we should save the birds and using a chicken in your messaging.

Beekeepers manage honey bee hives like farmers manage their crops. It’s mostly about agriculture. This is not about conservation. According to the article, there are “more honey bees on the planet than there have ever been in human history,” and “the population is already overwhelming the finite floral resources” in some areas.

Honey bees are important for agriculture and the by-products of their work – honey, wax, pollen – are used and appreciated by humans as well. When it comes to average gardeners like most of us, we don’t need to help honey bees. We need to help our native bees in our conservation efforts. I’ve written about supporting native bees before and you can find those articles here, here, and here.

Some ideas for good native bee plants

The best way to help our native bees is to plant flowering plants and especially to incorporate plants native to our ecoregion in our gardens. We should plan to have flowering plants across all 3 seasons: Spring, Summer, and Fall. We should also avoid pesticides, including NOT having our yards treated for mosquitoes; despite what the companies taking your money say, the chemicals used do not apply only to mosquitoes. Practices like removing or treating standing water are among the best ways to manage mosquitoes.

Metallic bees like tiny flowers

So when it comes to talking about saving the bees, let’s direct the conversation to saving our wild and native bees. Those are the bees that need our help as much as native plants do. Luckily by using native plants in your garden, you have a chance to help both.

Note: This post is not intended to disrespect honey bees or the folks who keep hives for personal use.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Plant Densely and with Purpose


Inspiration is meant to be shared. A recent article by Margaret Roach was inspiring to me and I want to share it with you. The article refreshes a concept originally introduced in a book published in 2015, Planting in a Post-Wild World (I reviewed it in this post). The authors of the book, Claudia West and Thomas Ranier, have since created a landscape architecture firm and this article illustrates some of their projects and reminds us of their original message to plant densely and with purpose.

A dense planting of Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm' keeps out weeds

The average residential yard is planted sparsely (think lots of mulch) and/or with unproductive plants (to the ecosystem) like lawn. Some lawns are so big that they require hiring mow & blow crews to maintain them, introducing cost to the homeowners, damage to the environment (chemicals), and noise to the neighbors. Why not minimize lawn and maximize flowers? 

Mowed lawn recedes from its wall-to-wall-carpeting role to one of strategically positioned area rugs. “You still have a lawn,” Ranier said. “But the lawn’s a beautiful shape, and it’s defined by planting all around it.” 

Gving up lawn means more room for the plants we love (and that are beneficial to the ecosystem), including some space for our favorites (even if they are not native!). How wonderful if someone traded 20 square feet of lawn for one non-native Camellia and a sweep of native perennials around it.  

“It’s not about tossing things out, because most gardens have underused space. “It’s about letting things in,” Mr. Rainer said. Especially flowering plants — a win for people of all ages, and for wildlife.”

After we’ve reconsidered the lawn, it’s time to reconsider similar sweeps of mulch. True to their book, the designers advocate for planting areas so densely that “Plants are the mulch.” The original purpose of mulch is often to suppress weeds (block out light so weed seeds can’t germinate) and to provide organic enrichment. If the ground is covered in plants, both goals can be accomplished in a more productive way.

Choosing the plants to accomplish all this is the fun part but also requires careful thought. According to the article, the designers consider each plant’s ecological functionality, not just looks.  “A plant’s ecological impact ranks much higher in the decision-making criteria as they develop each planting palette, which includes not just natives, but also nonnatives.” Plenty of natives are in the mix with well-behaved non-native plants only there to add value for pollinators due to their floral power or bloom time.  The article has good examples of plants that they’ve mixed together and great photos. I encourage you to read it in full via this gift link.

A densely planted woodland area at Southern Highlands Reserve