Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Gift Back to Nature

During this season of giving I can’t help but think of those that need the best gift we can give them – our support.  I’m talking about the things that we co-habit the Earth with: the plants, the insects, the birds, the mammals.  We can do things - even small things - to give them a bit of support:

Food – remember the food chain and start with the building blocks: PLANTS.  Native plants feed native insects which then feed other native insects and birds.  Plants also feed mammals – deer browse on foliage while seeds and nuts feed chipmunks, squirrels and birds.  Smaller mammals and birds become food for larger predators.  Non-native plants feed very few native insects and therefore do very little to support the populations of all that rely on them.  Leaf litter feeds the insects that birds like the brown thrasher hunt.

Water – create a fresh water source in your yard.  It can be as small as a single birdbath or a shallow container on the ground.  Change it out every few days to keep it fresh and healthy.

Brown thrasher enjoying a bath

Shelter – providing shelter is so much more than having birdhouses.  Birds need year-round protection and evergreen shrubs and trees can provide that.  Loose brush piles provide shelter for small mammals as well as daytime cover for birds as they hunt for food.  Tall trees provide places for squirrels to nest and dead trees (known as “snags”) provide both food and shelter for certain birds like woodpeckers.

Woodpecker on dead tree

A place to raise their young – birds like robins, mockingbirds and cardinals and many others nest in shrubs that have dense growth in the summer time.  Again with the brush piles ....  Flat rocks provide the habitat that creatures like salamanders need.  Dense leaf litter is the home to many insects and their young.

Habitat – now think BIGGER than your backyard.  Every small piece of space that we can preserve for them in a natural state is a gift that keeps on giving.  Here are ideas that get bigger and bigger:
-          Convince your friends and neighbors to leave natural places; if each one of us left part of our backyard as natural (still removing any invasives!), imagine the corridor that we could link between us.  Birds and mammals need contiguous spaces not isolated pockets.  Spread the word.
-          Support efforts in your local communities to create city parks and county parks.  Volunteer at these parks to teach other people about using native plants and about the importance of removing invasive plants.  Your gifts of time and effort are worth more than you know.
-          Support your state parks by visiting them, volunteering through their “Friends of” organization, and supporting legislative efforts to fund them and create new ones.  Helping to remove invasives is so helpful - cutbacks in funding have left this job mostly undone, allowing invasive plants to disturb even more natural habitat.
-          Support groups like The Nature Conservancy, The Georgia Conservancy, and others that come together to purchase sensitive areas for conservation.

Thank you for all you do on behalf of our natural environments! Best wishes to you and yours for safe and peaceful holidays and a Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Underused Native Trees

I’d like to spotlight some trees that don’t get used enough in the Georgia Piedmont area.  I was helping someone recently put together a list of native trees that developers could use when choosing trees for a project that would require new trees - either for restoration or for landscaping a new area.  I wanted to include trees that were generally available because it does no good to recommend something that is hard to obtain, yet I know that in practice many of the same plants get used over and over again.  How about some trees that are still sold in nurseries but are not used over and over again?

Lily of the Valley tree or Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

Large trees are an important component of the landscape – they provide shade and structure in the landscape as well as support for a large amount of wildlife.  Here are five large trees that I think could be used more in residential plantings:

  • Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) is a fast growing tree with great fall color; it supports wildlife as a host for many species of Lepidoptera as well as by providing acorns for turkeys, deer and small mammals.  Height is up to 80 feet.
  • American beech (Fagus grandifolia) grows throughout Georgia except the southeastern area.   While not a very fast growing tree, if you’d like to leave a legacy, grow a beech - they can live up to 300 years.  Mature height is up to 80 feet tall.  The leaves transition through the year from a deep green to yellow to brown to light tan that can persist all winter long.
  • Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is an adaptable tree that grows well in average soil or in wet conditions; it has good fall color (especially some of the cultivars) and produces berries that birds enjoy.  Height is up to 60 feet.
  • Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is a semi-evergreen to evergreen (especially M. virginiana var. australis) tree that is native to the Coastal Plain and southern areas of the Piedmont.  Flowers are especially fragrant and the leaves are very attractive, showing silvery backsides when the wind is blowing.  It naturally grows in moist areas. Height is up to 60 feet in the more southern areas of its range.
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is also widely distributed throughout Georgia.  The vibrant fall color is familiar to many people as is the distinctive “mitten” shape of some of the leaves.  It is a dioecious plant so only the flowers on the female trees produce blue drupes that the birds enjoy. In optimal conditions, it grows up to 60 feet but is usually smaller.
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)

Don't want something so big?  Well, here are five medium trees that should be considered more often:

  • American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) is not nearly as well-known as its European cousin which comes in shades of purple.  Although the natural range in Georgia is limited, this tree does well in gardens as a specimen plant; the feathery flowers are the reason for the common name.  The foliage is handsome and fall color is good.  It grows up to 25 feet. 
    • Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a summer blooming tree with excellent fall color and is adaptable to sun or shade.  The flower sprays resemble lily of the valley blooms.  It is naturally found in the Piedmont and upper Coastal Plain.  Although it can grow up to 50 feet, it is normally up to 30.
    • Southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) has a leaf that resembles Northern sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and also Chalk maple (see below).  Fall color is clear yellow with usually little hint of orange. A smaller tree than Northern sugar maple, it grows to about 25 feet or more. Unlike the more common red maple (Acer rubrum), the fruits mature in the fall.  
      • Chalk maple (Acer leucoderme) is a smaller tree than A. barbatum (above) with more fall color variation in my experience – you’ll see some red/orange hues.  Chalk maple may be multi-stemmed in form and usually is less than 25 feet.  The common name is derived from the pale color of the bark. Fruits mature in the fall.  
        • Musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) is also called Ironwood because the wood is so hard, but most people recognize it by its sinewy trunk.  Hornbeam is another common name.  The flowers are not showy, but the tree has an attractive shape and the fall color can be nice.  Height can be up to 35 feet.
        Chalk maple (Acer leucoderme)

        When you’re looking for a small tree, often you can find what you need in a large shrub.  Therefore, the last five “trees” might also be considered shrubs.  But does it matter what you call them?  They fit the bill when you need something small and tree-like:

        • Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is a beautiful small tree with outstanding form.  The leaves are good-looking, the flowers are nice, and the blue fruit is popular with birds.  For those of you used to seeing Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), this is a lot different, but the birds will love you for it. Height is up to 25 feet.
        • Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) is more upright than most viburnums, allowing it to have a tree-like form.  Rusty blackhaw viburnum (V. rudfidulum) is very similar. The fall color is superb and the birds relish the fruit. Height is up to 15-20 feet.
        • Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) is getting more use these days, but be careful you don’t accidentally buy the Chinese species.  The spring bloom on this small tree warrants usage as a specimen tree where people can appreciate the unique flower show.  This dioecious plant only produces fruit if female, but supposedly the male has showier flowers. Another common name is Grancy greybeard.  Height is up to 20 feet. 
        • Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a great plant for hummingbirds in the spring and squirrels in the fall.  This shrubby buckeye is a surprise to those familiar with the Ohio and yellow buckeyes that grow so large.  Painted buckeye (A. sylvatica) is similar to red buckeye and the two can hybridize in the wild. Growing in part-shade, these shrubby buckeyes can grow to 20 feet. 
        • Parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii) is one of the prettiest hawthorns, especially the foliage.  Hawthorns in general are good host plants for many Lepidoptera, and their fruit is popular with birds and small mammals.  Height is up to 20 feet and this species is tolerant of occasional wet conditions.
        Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)
        Parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii)

        So if you have occasion to need a new tree, think about these.  You'll have something out of the ordinary, you’ll increase market demand in the nursery trade, and you just might inspire one of your neighbors to think differently as well.

        Where can you find these plants?  First ASK your local nursery.  Nurseries need to hear from their customers about plants that they want.  Even if they don’t have them, your question will alert them to consider ordering them in the future.  Or they may be able to order them for you right then.

        Mail order sources may be an alternative for you if you don't live near any sources.  Always search using the scientific name to make sure you are searching for the right plant.  For mail order companies, do check ratings and customer reviews on Garden Watchdog. If the company is not listed on Garden Watchdog - beware!  At least one disreputable company in Georgia sued to have Garden Watchdog remove their poor rating and bad customer reviews.

        Sunday, December 11, 2011

        Marvelous Moss

        Fall is winding down and winter is creeping closer by the day.  The last few leaves dangle from deciduous trees' branches and a few perennials squeeze out one more bloom.  When all is done, what color will there be to greet us during grey days?  Green will be there - lush and vibrant green in the form of moss.

        Moss is often unappreciated - especially by those trying to cultivate a lawn. I think moss should be appreciated as a beautiful, useful, and beneficial group of plants.  Mosses are quite different from most of the plants that we are familiar with.  Mosses are non-vascular plants; unlike vascular plants, they don't have tissues that transport water and nutrients throughout the plant. Trees, shrubs, perennials, and even ferns are vascular plants.  As a result of not having this "nutrient transportation" system, non-vascular plants don't get very big. Mosses are also different because they use spores to reproduce - they don't have flowers. In this way, they are like ferns.

        Capsules on sporophyte - spores are inside
        This might be Atrichum angustatum
        Likely a species of Bryum

        As I thought about this topic, I looked around for examples of moss in my own yard and other places that I went.  I was amazed at the many different ones that I found. At right is one that I find commonly growing in the cracks of asphalt on the shady side of the streets.

        I took pictures of them and tried to identify them from the pictures; that was a tough job and I was not always successful just using pictures.  One thing I learned is that they can look quite different if they are not "hydrated".  They do hydrate very quickly, so just pour some water on them if you want them hydrated.  Those two pictures were taken about 5 minutes apart.

        This might be Bryoandersonia illecebra

        Just as with any plant, there are a number of common names associated with moss and the names seem to pair up nicely with the appearance of the moss: Broom moss reflects it's windswept look, Fern moss looks like tiny ferns, British soldiers looks like red-capped fellows, Pin cushion looks, well, like a pin cushion!  Here are some of the ones I found (and the names if I was able to identify them).  Thanks to my friend Faye for helping me with some of the identifications.

        Fern moss, Thuidium delicatulum

        Tree apron moss, Anomodon attenuatus (I think!)

        Broom moss, Dicranum scoparium

        British soldiers, Cladonia cristatella

        Pincushion moss with snow
        in 2010, Leucobryum glaucum

        Polytrichum commune,  hair cap moss

        When color and form is all you have to offer, combinations of different shades of green and textures becomes almost a work of art. I found that frequently a patch of moss can be a group of different ones:

        One reason I like to have moss around is that it creates a superb environment for seeds to germinate.  In some areas it can be an early colonizer, establishing a rich environment for a new group of plants to take hold.

        The area in front of my house is a mini nursery for Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) seedlings.  I have about 5 new seedlings each year in the moss.  I carefully dig them out when they are big enough and pot them up.

        A new Sourwood seedling

        Sedum ternatum in moss

        So I encourage you to appreciate moss for it's many qualities - color in winter, texture among other plants, and an ability to nourish seedlings.  Think about encouraging any moss that you find growing in your garden and introducing moss if you don't have any already.  Look for it in shady areas in your yard - even in the grass.  When I find moss in my grass, I make plans to phase out the grass, not the moss!

        For another post about the marvelous attributes of moss, including a great picture of a moss "lawn", click on over to The Grumpy Gardener.

        Sunday, December 4, 2011

        Refresher Course

        It is far easier to leave things alone than to change them and the garden is no exception.  In 2004 I planted out the front of the house after ripping out the non-native foundation shrubs that the previous owner had installed.  The design of the arrangement that I implemented looked very nice upon completion, but the plants were still small.  The last seven years have produced a lot of growth, and the area to the left of the doorway has grown into an area where shrubs have embraced each other with abandon.

        A beautiful clump of Shuttleworth ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii) as
        originally planted; it is now obscured by one of the shrubs.

        Nature often produces tangled thickets of growth in the wild, but let’s be honest – this is a garden.  I appreciate being able to recognize individual plants for what they are and would like to be able to do so here.  So I decided it is time to exert a bit of control over this area.  In particular, the shrubs in the back – a white flowered form of Illicium (I’m not sure that they were properly labeled as to species or cultivar in the nursery!) – have become a bit of a pruning challenge to keep them from overtaking the area.

        Initial planting, spring 2005 view

        Here is what it looked like in early 2005, less than a year after being planted. This represents one half of the front left side.  The two Illicium shrubs are in the back - they were chosen to be larger so that they could screen some part of the window (mostly because we wanted to obscure the view from inside the window).  Between the shrubs is a group of non-native variegated Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum) - a group that is no longer visible, by the way. 

        In front of those is a grouping of Leucothoe axillaris plants that have grown leggy because of the crowding of the other shrubs. In front of those are three native azaleas.  At some point I added a fourth azalea and one of the Leucothoe died..  I have since moved the 4th azaleas in recognition of the overcrowding so at this point I am still dealing with 3.  At the very left of the front you can see a healthy clump of Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) and that small bit of green in front of the rock next to it is the Shuttleworth ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii).

        Now that I have explained what plants are there, here is a picture of what it looks like now.  It's a bit of a jungle! I've added a few perennials in front, so that is a contributing factor, but it clear that the area was over-planted to begin with and the shrubs in the back are too big for the space.  Where are the windows?

        Fall 2011, seven years after planting

        Gardening is change – things grow, things die, people make mistakes!  I don’t think that is a surprise to any of you.  What I’m faced with here are two of those factors: things grew a LOT and I made some mistakes.  Here are some of the steps I plan to take during the next few months to restore some sanity to this area.  These are things that anyone can consider when it comes time to refresh an area:

        1.       Recognize that changes are needed.  I’ve done that.  Reasons for my change include: plants have grown too big, excessive pruning is now required, other plants are being crowded which is affecting their appearance.  You could have other issues like poor plant performance or drainage problems that need to be dealt with.

        2.       Evaluate what the space needs.  This is the time to do a site analysis: How much space do you have, what is the sun exposure, what is the moisture level, do you have any restrictions for size and height of plants?  I have measured the area and it is 15 feet long by 11.5 feet deep.  The sun exposure is full morning sun until about 12 pm, so it should be able to handle sun/part shade plants.  The moisture level is a bit on the dry side especially the area that is closest to the house.  I have two windows so the plant height needs to be considered for them.

        3.   Research what to put there (use the details from your evaluation!), including what to keep of the existing vegetation. To satisfy the aesthetics of the general population (including future buyers of the house), I will get something evergreen for the area closest to the house.  I already know that I want to keep the Leucothoe and at least two of the azaleas, but I will not keep the non-native Solomon’s seal.  I want to incorporate a native perennial in that area instead and it needs to be something tall.  This step is actually the most fun, I think.  It should also be time well spent so that my choices are good for at least another seven years!

        4.   Consider your implementation details  – what is the best time to plant and where can you get the plants?  Luckily I can plant almost year round in this area.  My only concerns are obtaining the plants and waiting to prune the Leucothoe close enough to spring to protect the open plant stems from freezing weather. I think I can work on the layer closest to the house first since all of that will be removed and replanted.

        5.   Take pictures to remember what it looked like when you finished so you can compare later.  Who knows, I may have a whole new set of issues to deal with next time.  But I hope that if I did my planning correctly, I’ll have very few.

        I would encourage you to finish up with mulch to protect the area and to consider labeling your plants.  If nothing else, when the label gets swallowed up by the plant, it will be a sign that your plants are growing!

        All this will take some time for me to complete (need to do some research!) so I can't show you the finished project now.  So far I have removed one of the large shrubs in the back and the non-native perennial in the back.  Here is the progress so far - and look, the window is rediscovered!

        Fall 2011 - on the way to a new look