Sunday, September 19, 2021

Leaf Pounding – Keep Those Leaves Forever!


Several weeks ago I heard about “leaf pounding” which is a way to use the juices in a leaf to make an imprint on paper or fabric. It seemed like a fun idea to immortalize a favorite leaf and create a unique shirt (and involve kids). I searched around for instructions and decided that I liked these instructions the best.

I found that their tip to tape the leaf down with masking tape was a good one. Once you start pounding with a hammer, the leaf can slip around so don’t skimp. The best color comes from taping the leaf to the front of the fabric (like a shirt) and then turning it inside out to pound. Be careful, the color can go through to the other side of the shirt so put some paper between fabric layers.

Netted chain fern, initial taping

My husband had a thin board and that worked well for doing it on the counter; I could not imagine trying to do this in my lap as they suggested. The hammering does make a lot of noise so others might want to leave the house for a while.

It is late in the season so it is possible this would work better earlier in the year when leaves have maximum moisture. I used 4 different types of leaves (all native, of course!): netted chain fern, oakleaf hydrangea, redbud, and oak. The stems and mid-rib of the leaf are the juiciest so I thought the fern did the best because it has a lot of mid-ribs. I do agree with their recommendation that you pound all the edges first.

He loved to pound the stems, they were juicy

Of course, I got the grandkid involved to make a shirt of his own and then we made one for his mom. He especially wanted to use the ‘heart’ leaves (redbud). I have the cultivar Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ and while the burgundy was mostly faded, it came through well on the stem. Once the sassafras and maple leaves start to turn orange, I plan to try one of those to get some color.

If you’d like to preserve some leaves in a unique way or create a very nature-themed shirt, consider giving this a try.

Upper left: oakleaf hydranga; Right: redbud and netted chain ferns

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Grandma Lisa's Humming, Buzzing, Chirping Garden (book)


It is only when you want something that you realize there isn’t enough of it. Children’s books that thoughtfully and accurately talk about appreciating nature is one such item. Now that I have a grandchild of my own, I appreciate finding books that can inspire the youngest of us to recognize the value of what we do in our garden. Grandma Lisa's Humming, Buzzing, Chirping Garden is an excellent new one.

There are a number of things to like about this book, starting with the rhyming cadence that children love so much as well as the accurate depictions of native flowers (asters, beebalm, goldenrod, oh my!). I also particularly like how it tells the very real world story of taking an existing landscape and working through the steps to transform it into an actual habitat garden, including the step of removing the English ivy and other non-productive plants.

The book introduces children to a number of concepts (my grandson shouts “We need bugs!” every time that we read the line “But Grandma, why do we need bugs? Don’t they sting and bite?”). Just including ‘native plants’ into their growing vocabulary is incredibly worthwhile but you’ll also read to them about the ‘food web’ and why plants like violets are not weeds to the insects. For the curious older child, a glossary of terms is included at the end.

Three years ago, just after my grandson was born, I wrote about The Puddle Garden. Both books, as well as others for children, are available at The Pollination Press website which also has great books on bees, wasps, and supporting pollinators. I’ve ordered several copies for holiday gifts and door prizes for when we have meetings again.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Imperfect Leaves

Leaves support the trees during the growing season, absorbing the sun, turning sunlight into energy and helping to nourish the tree. Deciduous trees, those who drop their leaves each fall and the vast majority of the plants we have in the Piedmont, only need their leaves during the growing season.

Leaves then fall to the ground and decompose, nourishing the tree further and surrounding plants as they do, with the help of insects and critters in the soil. Tiny soil organisms, including fungi, consume dead plant material and create materials and processes that enrich the soil.

Sometimes we get frustrated when insects chew on the leaves while they are still on the plant. Earlier this year, the leaves on white oak (Quercus alba) were especially affected by leafminers, tiny insects (1/4 of an inch at maturity!) that feed from inside the leaf. I saw lots of posts on Facebook from concerned homeowners and some of my own plants showed evidence of them. According to this source, “Heavy infestations cause browning and premature leaf drop. This injury is largely cosmetic. If severe, infested leaves may die, but the overall health of the tree is rarely in danger.”

White oak leaves with leafminer damage

Late summer also brings many of the most visible caterpillars, those like fall webworm moths that make big webby enclosures as well as the ones that eat in large groups like the oakworm moths. These are all good sources of food for migrating birds, many of which are insectivores.

Webworms on Persimmon

I’m here today to remind you that these are all part of the natural process in our ecosystem: native plants feed insects who then feed birds and others. The number of leaves damaged or the timing of the damage (in the case of fall caterpillars) is something our native trees can handle. Welcome to habitat gardening.

A hungry bunch on Sourwood
Caterpillar damage on fern

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Sneaky Invasives: Porcelainberry

You’d think that invasive plants would be super noticeable, much like how kudzu smothers everything it encounters. It doesn’t always work that way, and the time between the plant arriving in your landscape and your realizing that it is not a good one can really give the plant a good head start.

Fruit and unlobed leaves of Ampelopsis brevipedunculata

Porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is one such plant and I am seeing it more and more in the metro Atlanta area. The vine is often mistaken for a type of grape vine – it is related to grapes. As very well-described in this post by the Virginia Native Plant Society, this plant has several different leaf shapes, making quick identification a bit challenging.

Lobed leaves, flowers forming
Lobed leaves and flowers blooming

The photos in this post are from an Atlanta location, a public garden that didn’t even realize what had moved in. It was actively choking out desirable native plants at this point. I have also seen large infestations in Cobb County. Of course the birds spread the seeds.

If you don’t want invasive plants to take over your landscape, pay close attention to what moves in so that you can eradicate it early. If you’ve got this one now, remove and bag the fruits before it spreads further. Native plants all around you will breathe a sigh of relief.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Year 3: Counting Pollinators


The Great Georgia Pollinator Census count is in the books for its third year. At my counting locations we managed to miss the predicted rain and therefore enjoyed good counting weather; I love clouds on a hot day! On Friday I counted at my house, using a single thistle flower, cutleaf coneflower, and – my favorite – Joe pye weed.

The thistle (Cirsium altissimum) had just opened its first flower and while its counts were low, just 3 skippers in 15 minutes, it was a flower much loved by these skippers. They stayed on that flower for hours, only briefly leaving when another insect jostled them.

The cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) and Joe pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) are summer favorites and their counts absolutely reflected their popularity with insects (plus they also had more flowers per plant than the thistle). I like to count the Joe pye weed in the afternoon when the Eastern Tiger swallowtails are at their most abundant. The big inflorescences can hold 3-4 butterflies at once!

On Saturday I took my grandson to a friend’s house; her garden had tons of things in bloom, including a thistle with many more flowers that attracted several large American bumblebees as well as tiny sweat bees and Tiger swallowtails. The ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) was buzzing with smaller bees, including several nice metallic green sweat bees. The mountain mint (Pycnanthemum pycnanthemoides) was blooming nicely and just covered in bees and wasps.

American bumblebee
Metallic green sweat bee

I always enjoy this activity and the interest in pollinators that it generates in Georgia. In particular, many K-12 students participate in schools around the state. According to news published about the 2020 count: “In the end, 3,755 people representing 124 counties participated in the 2020 census, collecting close to 82,600 insect visit observations. Additionally, 525 new pollinator gardens have been created as part of the project.” Here is my previous post about the 2020 count. If you're in Georgia, do join us next year!

This guy graduated to a mini clipboard this year for the count

Sunday, August 15, 2021

A Moment in Nature for August

Moments in nature are rarely planned and my #momentinnature for August was a chance encounter with a small bright green-blue bug that I mistook for a type of sweat bee. I must have seen this insect before because I always hoped to find such a bright small bee again. I rushed inside for my camera when I spotted this one on the back deck.

Cuckoo wasp checking extra-floral nectary on Chamaecrista

It turns out that this is not a bee but rather a type of cuckoo wasp - one that does not provision a nest but instead lays its eggs in the larval chamber of other wasps. Where did I find it? Around the bee box that was being used by other small wasps to create their larval chambers!

There are several genera of green-blue cuckoo wasps in the family Chrysididae, but this one appears to be in either the genus Chrysis or Caenochrysis. As I was reading about them in my Wasps book, I realized that species of these two genera have specific hosts in the genus Trypoxylon which is a type of wasp that specializes on spiders. It is always amazing to learn about these so-very-specific relationships! Last year I happened to watch wasps build their nests in this box and bring small spiders for them. 

Cuckoo wasp, photo enlarged

How very serendipitous to find this wasp exactly where it is supposed to be - truly a wonderful moment in nature. Keep looking, nature is out there!

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Easing Into Using More Native Plants


Several weeks ago I talked about how non native plants in our gardens don’t do enough things for our insects (and, by extension, also not enough for birds and things that eat insects). Since they don’t contribute sufficiently to the insect life cycle, excessive use of them actually contributes to the decline of insect and bird populations. Extensive use of lawn (which is not native), large mulched areas (they have zero plant life), and non native trees, shrubs, and perennials offer much less food for insects and their young.

The camouflaged looper caterpillar says your yard is feeding the ecosystem

It might sound intimidating to change your landscape so this blog is going to offer some simple suggestions to transition into using more native plants. Select some of these ideas as you have time, effort, and money so that within a year or two you’ll have made good progress.

The front of my house in 2008, sod was laid in 2004

1.      Reduce your lawn: take a good look at how you use your lawn and identify areas to remove or shrink it. Yes, I said look at how you “use your lawn.” If you’re not using it to walk on (to reach other areas of the yard) or to play on then it really is just dead space, often in some of the sunniest places of your landscape (sunny places are perfect for flowers, why let the lawn have it?).

This page has good ideas and great pictures of people shrinking their lawn to make room for more perennials, shrubs, and trees. Shrinking can be as easy as widening the beds adjacent to the lawn, allowing you to plant “real plants” that pollinators can use. That’s been my approach.

2.      Replace a non native tree or a group of shrubs with native choices. Perhaps you have some older landscaping that you’ve wanted to update; swapping them out for native choices is a win for the ecosystem. Swap out something invasive like an ornamental pear (like ‘Bradford’) or privet (Ligustrum) shrubs and your impact is even greater. Swap out Nandina, which has toxic berries for cedar waxwings, and again your change is significant when you replace with native shrub like our viburnums. Plan now to do the work in Oct/Nov when it is the best time to plant trees and shrubs in Georgia.

3.      Add a pollinator garden and fill it with milkweed (Asclepias), Golden Alexander (Zizia) and other host plants, as well as flowers that bloom in spring, summer, and fall. Add some colorful yard art, rocks, and a birdbath to welcome the critters. This is a good replacement for lawn if you needed some inspiration for removing lawn.

4.      Remove an invasive groundcover like Vinca or English ivy and add a more diverse mix of perennials as replacement (a monoculture is the opposite of diversity) and you’ll get the benefit of fewer mosquitoes since they breed in thick, waxy vegetation like those groundcovers. If you have a lot, plan to do 10 feet a week or month until you’ve reached your goal.

Hopefully some of these ideas will help you move forward towards your goal of using more native plants in your landscape. Pick one or more and start your journey to helping make a difference in your area.

Front in 2016, sod corner replaced with a 3-season mix of perennials