Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Moment in Nature for January

Winter is not always the most cheerful of seasons, but there are moments to appreciate. A friend of mine, Ginny Stibolt in Florida (visit her webpage here), always takes time to appreciate #amomentinnature and I’d like to adopt that as a monthly feature here.

When she shares these moments, I like the feeling it gives me. It is a call to slow down our busy day and appreciate these moments of nature. It is also a reminder that these things are fleeting and should be cherished. Her most recent one was about mushrooms growing from a sweetgum ball, tiny fungi that will be gone in a day or so.

So here is my moment in nature for January: morning sun lighting up a patch of Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) on the back of my property with a glimpse of an old lake in the background and fading American beech leaves (Fagus grandifolia). It is a simple vignette that lasts only as long as the sun is rising.

I hope posts like these (and Ginny’s) will help you notice your moment in nature from time to time. I captured this one with my phone, so easy to do these days and save the moment.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Green is Good?


The gray days of winter bring a lot of bare branches to the landscape, so the appearance of something green can be a welcome sight. Green signals visible life while those bare branches—pretty as they are against a blue winter sky—are unknown in terms of what comes next for them.

Native evergreen plants are more abundant in the Coastal Plain ecoregion of Georgia, and many of the shrubs and trees we now use in the Piedmont have come from there: yaupon holly, wax myrtle, Florida anise, Southern magnolia, and Carolina cherry laurel to name a few of those. We have Piedmont evergreens but they aren’t propagated as much and many prefer shade: rhododendrons, mountain laurel, hemlock, American holly, and the native Eastern redcedar (technically a juniper). An earlier blog of mine featured some of these choices.

American holly (Ilex opaca) in winter

Unfortunately, the evergreens that we see the most of now are an assortment of non-native plants: privets (Ligustrum sp.) that come from Asia as well as these plants: Nandina; hollies (this year appears to be a very productive year for fruit on Ilex cornuta); English ivy; Mahonia; two species of autumn olive (Elaeagnus sp.); winter creeper (Euonymus fortunei); Japanese honeysuckle; and two species of Vinca. Not only are these plants willingly placed in our landscapes, but many of them have then escaped (via wildlife) to our natural areas and neighbors’ yards.

English ivy doesn't stay in one place

Winter is a perfect time to spot, remove, or mark these giant weeds. People always ask why should we bother to do so. Foremost, the best reason is that removing them gives back space to our native plants. Some of these invasive plants make large thickets where only they grow. Native insects and birds don’t thrive in these monocultures because there is less for them to eat. Second, removing these plants and their clusters of seeds/fruit means that we can reduce their spread into potential new areas, meaning less clean-up in the future.

So, is green a good sign in the winter landscape? Only when it is native and appropriate for your ecoregion! Non-native green should be identified and—if it is one of the known invasive plants—removed from our landscapes and natural areas.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

New Year, New Yard


Christmas fern

What a great time to take on a new project, with weekends more free than ever, and an old suburban landscape that needs a native makeover. It’s not my new yard, rather it belongs to my son and his wife (and their love-to-be-outdoors child). I hope over the next year to replace invasive plants with native ones as well as add more pollinator-friendly perennials.

While the yard is not overrun with invasive plants, there is clearly the beginning of what I think of as neglectful encroachment. These are plants that were brought in by nature (wildlife such as birds deposit seeds on their way through, for example). The homeowner doesn’t realize what has arrived and allows the plant to grow (essentially a type of neglect). Examples in this yard are mahonia (Mahonia bealei), heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica), English ivy (Hedera helix), and thorny olive (Elaeagnus pungens).

This yard is typical of most good-sized suburban yards (this is about half an acre in North Fulton county) in that it has a well-managed front with lawn and tightly manicured shrubs but a more natural backyard. It is in the back where these bird droppings have been allowed to grow and where I’ll focus my early efforts to remove and replace. There is a bit of a slope and some deer in the neighborhood so I’ll need to consider those factors in my plant choices.

This little bird kept me company
The section I worked (before view)

This week I started small by removing the fruit on the nandina to prevent spread, removing limbs on the single large thorny olive (but leaving the roots for now to prevent erosion), and pulling waxleaf privet seedlings (Ligustrum japonicum). I also removed the patch of English ivy near the driveway (the mother of ivy is clearly visible in the backyard of a home within walking distance, a thick mass high in a tree that towers over that home) and replaced it with Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) that I had rescued several days before, a few rocks, and hardwood mulch. 

Of course, if these don't do well, that is part of gardening lessons in general (not specific to native plants) and I will adjust.

The Christmas ferns for the cleared space; large shrub is Illicium

Future plantings will be a mixture of extras from my yard, purchased plants, as well as more rescued ferns. I am excited to work on this change. A friend gave us a board book about bugs and it has helped to inspire my grandson to ‘find some bugs in your backyard.’ The changes I have in mind should increase both the diversity and quantity of bugs that we can find there.

This first set of changes took about 4 hours; the area was nicely moist from rain the day before. I look forward to sharing pictures and stories of the progress and change over the next year in the hopes of inspiring others to transform older yards into more productive, wildlife-supporting landscapes.

Ferns in place; existing Daphne shrub left for now

Sunday, December 27, 2020

2020 in Pictures


I take a lot of pictures throughout the year and not all of them make it into a blog post. At the end of the calendar year, it’s a good time to reflect on the beauty of nature as well as share some of the extra pictures.

I believe that each day is an opportunity to find and appreciate something beautiful in the native plants and creatures of Georgia. The photo of 2020 was on the beach at Jekyll Island in early March for a conference. It seems appropriate for a year that we wish we could just wash away.

The first two months were normal, of course; we were just suspecting by the end of February that something was about to change; a few activities continued until mid-March … we’ve been home ever since, with limited forays into natural areas. At least half of my weekly blog topics normally depend on outings and learning new plants, so this year has been a bit of challenge. Several times the topic was simply about what was blooming in my yard.

Prunus  caroliniana: two types of leaves

In late January I got to solve a mystery that had bothered me. In the metro Atlanta area, we often find seedlings with toothed leaves of what appear to be Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana). Photos of blooming plants (or those with fruit) show leaves with entire edges (no teeth). Apparently both types of leaves are normal for the age and maturity of the plant, and I found examples of both at Dunwoody Nature Center (although this is a Coastal Plain native species).

The green tree frog (Hyla cinerea)

I was thrilled to find our state amphibian in my yard in 2019 and equally thrilled to spot it again in February, warming itself on the dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor). I have repeatedly seen it and another one in the same area during 2020 so the palm must be a happy spot for them. Happy frogs are surely a sign of a healthy environment, right? We also raised some gray treefrog tadpoles this year.

Houstonia pusilla

I love finding the tiny annual bluets (Houstonia pusilla) every spring. This year I found a big population in a lawn within walking distance of my house in March. It’s hard to get the camera to capture the sweep of them. Keep an eye out for yourself come spring.

Early April proved that looking carefully can find fleeting discoveries: a trio of tiny morel mushrooms popped up near the front steps. They were only there a few days before withering. If I had been more active (and therefore not home), I would have missed them.

The first morel I've seen
Female dobsonfly

I spotted a most unusual insect on the side of the house in May just as dusk was falling. This photo taken with my phone was the best I could do given the light and the short duration of her visit. It is a female dobsonfly, another good indicator of a healthy ecosystem. The larvae grow up in rocky streams (and we have one on the property).

Plantago aristata

In June, I ventured out for a site evaluation for a plant rescue location. A new plant found was the large-bracted plantain (Plantago aristata). This species is fairly widespread in Georgia and is considered mostly an annual and a bit of weed in some areas. I think it’s kind of pretty. Click on the picture to enlarge it and see the tiny flowers.

The ‘tiny hands’ photos that I talked about in May continued through the growing season. He was eager to pose and the blooms on this scarlet hibiscus were fabulous this year, many of them low enough for him to reach like these in July.

Hibiscus coccineus
Monarch gets ready to fly

Although I never had any monarch eggs laid in my yard this year, a nearby friend was kind enough to share hers with us so that we could feed them and watch the life cycle. The last of them were released in August (it was a strangely prolific year in Georgia for monarch egg-laying activity well into the summer), and I finally convinced him to hold one. He later helped release Gulf fritillary butterflies too.

Katy Ross of Night Song Native Plant Nursery introduced me to one of her favorite perennials: Brickellia cordifolia or Flyr's brickellbush, blooming here in September. I already grow the more common Brickellia eupatorioides which is cream-colored. This pink-flowered species looks a lot like blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), especially when not blooming.

Brickellia cordifolia
Annual sunflowers

In October we ventured up to look for North Georgia apples to pick. We were too late for that but stumbled upon a gorgeous field of late annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). A few migrating monarch butterflies were there too.

Fall color was surprising good in spots even after the Zeta storm in late October roared through and stripped off a bunch of leaves. One of the November highlights in my yard was the parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii) which turned completely red. Some years I only get a few red leaves on it.

Parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii)

As awful as this year has been, there were occasional bright spots: spending more time in my own garden as well as the time we’ve been spending with our grandson. He loves to be outside and, as long as the weather is nice, we roam out into the yard and woods to see what’s going on. This photo was from a mild day in December.

I hope that this year has inspired you all to add more native plants to your landscape and spend more time out in nature.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Made in the Shade

A sweep of foamflower and creeping phlox

I am encouraged by the number of folks deciding to choose more native plants for their yard. They speak about helping the insects, the birds, and ‘doing the right thing’ for the environment. It is a bright spot in an otherwise discouraging year that more people have had the time to explore the outdoors and make changes in their landscape. This week I realized that I haven’t done a post specifically about more shade-tolerant native plants for the garden and some folks need ideas for shade.

Any topic about shade needs to start with some parameters around what “shade” is in the garden. I’ll start by saying what it is not. Full sun is a term that is used in the garden and it is defined by the number of hours of sun that the landscape receives (most specifically during the time that leaves are on the plant, of course). Full sun is defined as 6 or more hours of direct sun; it could be in the morning (the gentlest type of full sun) or the afternoon or a mix of both. In this post I talk about measuring amount of sun.

Shade is therefore something less than 6 hours and that is what gives us the variety of terms such as “part sun,” “part shade,” and “full shade.” The first two terms are similar in number of hours (4-6 hours of direct sun) but are distinguished by the amount of morning vs. afternoon sun (part sun having more of its hours in the afternoon—which is harsher—while part shade has more in the morning). Full shade is defined as less than 4 hours.

Red columbine with scorpionweed

With that in mind and with one more caveat at the end of this post (so read all the way), let’s talk about some Georgia native plants that can handle various shade conditions (and I’ve probably forgotten a few so please add your favorite in the comments if I did).

Ferns: Of course ferns are great for shade; while Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is one of the best throughout the state, read about other native ferns at my earlier blog: Ferns That Work For You.

Ferns in a large group can be a strong design element

Perennials: foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia); coral bells (Heuchera americana and H. villosa); galax (Galax urceolata); black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) and the related doll’s eyes (Actaea pachypoda); evergreen native gingers (Hexastylis spp.) and the deciduous Canadian ginger (Asarum canadense); native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens); Trillium species; toothwort (Cardamine spp.); Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and Solomon’s plume (Maianthemum racemosum); mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum); Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus); green & gold (Chrysogonum virginianum); red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis); scorpionweed (Phacelia bipinnatifida); woodland stonecrop (Sedum ternatum); partridgeberry (Mitchella repens); fly poison (Amianthium muscitoxicum); bellwort (Uvularia spp.); rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) and other Thalictrum species; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis); spring beauty (Claytonia spp.); trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum); Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica); woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata and P. stolonifera); geranium (Geranium maculatum); golden ragwort (Packera aurea); dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata); woodland violets (like Viola hirsutula and many others); star chickweed (Stellaria pubera); wild bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia and other relatives); and Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

Note that many of these shade-tolerant perennials are spring bloomers because they take advantage of the extra sun they can get before deciduous trees leaf out.

Trillium maculatum with trout lilies in South Georgia

Shrubs: hearts a bustin’ (Euonymus americanus); mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium); red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and bottlebrush buckeye (A. parviflora); doghobble (Leucothoe spp. and Eubotrys racemosus) and the related pipestem (Agarista populifolia); Florida anise (Illicium floridanum and I. parviflorum); yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima); spicebush (Lindera benzoin); Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica); mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia); rhododendron (such as Rhododendron catawbiense or R. maximum); devilwood (Cartrema americana, formerly Osmanthus americanus); witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana); leatherwood (Dirca palustris); Alabama snowwreath (Neviusia alabamensis); lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum); and our native hydrangeas like oakleaf (H. quercifolia) and smooth hydrangea (H. arborescens).

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)

Small Trees: American and bigleaf snowbells (Styrax americanus and S. grandifolius); silverbells (Halesia tetraptera and others); musclewood/ironwood/hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) and the similar hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana); pagoda dogwood (Swida alternifolia, formerly Cornus alternifolia) and flowering dogwood (Benthamidia florida, formerly Cornus florida); southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) or chalkbark maple (Acer leucoderme); Carolina buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana) as well as Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana); and Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

Alternate leaf dogwood (Swida alternifolia)

One more item to clarify is how plants do when placed in light conditions that aren’t what they prefer —or if the light conditions change due to trees maturing or trees dying/falling. Plants that get less sun than they require will have fewer blooms and grow at a slower rate. Plants that get more sun than they prefer will look stressed, and if the moisture of the area is too dry they may die. Good moisture may help a plant survive more sun than usual up to a point. If the moisture is too much (e.g., standing water), the roots may not get the oxygen they need and the plant could die.

Enjoy exploring some of these choices to make your shady spot come alive. Plants that were made for the shade are the ones that will do best and natives offer lots of choices.

Shade plants welcome spring exuberantly (bloodroot in this photo)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Winter Feast is Set


Seedheads of Symphyotrichum racemosum await the birds

After a brief cold spell, temps warmed up this week and we ventured outside again to explore the yard (I still have that 2-year old with me and he loves to be OUTside as he says). The moment we step outside, tiny birds fly up and away, startled away from the brown stems and fluffy seed heads.

It took all year to prepare the feast for them: a year of making choices (native plants appropriate to each part of the garden), a year of helping them grow (pulling out weeds, watering during the driest times), and finally, the time when we choose to leave them in place and not “clean up” the dead stems and leaves.

Dog fennel seedheads
New England aster seedheads

Seed heads and dried stems contain nutritious seeds (some very tiny) as well as become a place for overwintering insects and their eggs. Birds like Carolina wrens, goldfinches, and cardinals are some of the more frequent visitors. A tidy yard would not provide nearly as much food for them.

I am reminded each time I’m outside of how much they depend on our winter gardens. If you like to support birds in your garden, here is a link to my earlier blog on how native plants support birds. You can start now by putting down the clippers and watching what happens.

Hypericum densiflorum seeds
Pycnanthemum muticum seedheads

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Ligustrum’s Winter Reveal

Privet (Ligustrum sp.) is one of the worst non-native invasive plants in Georgia. It thrives in all conditions (sun, shade, wet, and dry), allowing its seeds to germinate and grow almost anywhere they land. During the leafy seasons—when other plants are fully leafed out—privet plants might not be as noticeable, but come winter their evergreen leaves stand out, revealing their presence.

Ligustrum has opposite leaves

While the small-leaf Ligustrum sinense (often called ‘hedge’ by old-timers) is the more well-known of the naturalized privets here, the wax-leaf privet (Ligustrum japonicum) is getting more use in landscapes and, as a result, is starting to invade more areas. I had been watching a group of 3-4 plants get larger and larger in one neighbor’s wooded area. It had seeded in some years ago from another neighbor’s wax-leaf shrubs, but I had hoped that the shade would keep it from blooming. This year, after most of the deciduous leaves dropped from the plants around, I noticed that the largest of the plants had such abundant fruit on it that the branches drooped with the weight.

Fruit on multiple branches
Sourwood next to the Ligustrum

As time goes by, it will shade out some of the native plants that might have grown there like sourwood saplings and blueberries. One of the sourwood saplings nearby had bright foliage; you can see in the picture where the privet grows relative to the other plants.

Now is a great time to identify any evergreen invasive plants in your landscape or restoration area and remove them. Most of Georgia enjoys year-round planting conditions so get some native shrubs to replace them. While it might seem that the birds need these fruits, research has shown that bird populations overall do better with a diverse mix of native plants, and there are many that provide fruits.