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.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Puffs of Winter

Winter is a time of rest for many things. In Georgia, especially in the northern half of the state, many plants go dormant and rest quietly - especially above ground. Left alone, seed heads and dead leaves cling to limbs and stems to remind us of what was there before.

Solidago erecta

Now is a good time for us to rest as well - relax and leave the garden be. Seed heads left standing provide food for overwintering birds, both the year-round residents and the those that stop to winter here.

Stems and leaves left in the garden are fine hiding places for small bugs. Bugs that become bird food when they are discovered by clever birds. Recently I saw several different birds searching through leaf litter on the ground for bugs: a brown thrasher, a male cardinal, a Carolina wren, and some type of warbler. I remember very well seeing a flock of cedar waxwings last winter land in a maple that still had old leaves clinging to the twigs. They quickly searched every leaf for bugs and then took off again.

So take a break from garden chores and let nature have her way with your leavings. Spend your time appreciating what the winter garden has to offer: silhouettes of deciduous trees against the sky, puffy seed heads, a tumbled jumble of crisp leaves on the ground. Another blogger captured it perfectly in her post about the garden as muse. Such artistic shapes that nature creates for us to enjoy!

Now that your eyes are not distracted by pretty flowers, hear the birds call to one another. Here is a good video of cardinal bird songs; cardinals have such a variety of sounds.

Without the leaves on the shrubs, you have a better opportunity to watch them flit in and out looking for bugs and the last few berries. The duller colors in the landscape make their colors seem all the brighter.

Spring will be here soon enough. Enjoy the unique look of winter before the puffs blow away.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Deciduous Conifers

The mention of “conifer” invokes a picture of evergreen trees like pines, firs and spruces. Those trees are conifers, their “fruits” are cones, and they do hold onto their “leaves” (that is, needles) all winter. There are other conifers, however, that don’t fit that profile. Junipers, for example, have fruits that appear to be blue berries but in fact are cones with fused scales. Other conifers have leaves that change color and fall off every winter. Those trees are known as deciduous conifers. Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is one of two that are native to Georgia.

Fall foliage of Taxodium distichum
Other native deciduous conifers in North America are the larches (Larix spp.) which grow more north of Georgia, the pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) which is also native to Georgia, and several non-native trees such as the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and the Chinese swamp cypress (Glyptostrobus pensilis).

I recently came upon a group of bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum) that were turning brown and shedding their needles. They also happened to have some fruit still attached so I stopped to gather some and take some pictures.
Taxodium distichum

As the cones ripen, the scales separate, revealing wrinkled brown seeds inside. 

As we reached up to pick some of the ripe cones, they shattered in our hands. We found one unripe cone; you can see the scales are still tight compared to the broken one.

For comparison's sake, I stopped by a church that I knew had a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) planted there. I knew the two trees looked similar so I wanted to find the differences. The two differences that I noticed immediately: the cones and seeds were very different, and the foliage on the dawn redwood disintegrated in our hands.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides

Look at those tiny, papery seeds next to the cones! Once the seeds are released, the cones do retain their shape and would make nice decorations.

Dawn redwood upper; bald cypress lower

Here is a picture of the foliage of both trees side by side. You can see that the individual needles are falling off the frond of the dawn redwood (upper in the picture). The foliage of the bald cypress (lower) is also softer to the touch.

Ripe cones of bald cypress

Bald cypress is a wonderful tree for the landscape. It is very tolerant of wet areas and so is one to consider if you are dealing with poor drainage. And the next time someone tells you that conifers are evergreen, you can tell them "Not always!"

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Ideas for Winter Reading: Beginner's List

At any moment in time someone is discovering the beauty and importance of native plants. Books that are old favorites to some become new treasures for those just learning. 

Here are some of my favorite books for plant identification, inspiration and reference material. What are some of your favorites?

Plant identification:

A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-Central North America (A Peterson Field Guide) by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny; Houghton Mifflin, Revise, 1998; ISBN 0395911729

Field Guide to the Ferns and Other Pteridophytes of Georgia
by Lloyd H. Snyder Jr. and James G. Bruce; University of Georgia Press, 1986; ISBN 0-8203-0847-1

Grasses: An Identification Guide
by Lauren Brown; Houghton Mifflin Co., Reprin, 1979; ISBN 0395628814

Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide
by L. Katherine Kirkman, Donald J. Leopold and Claude L. Brown; Timber Press, 2007; ISBN 0881928283

Newcombs Wildflower Guide
by Lawrence Newcomb; Little, Brown, and Company, 1977; ISBN 0-316-60442-9

Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary
by James G. Harris, Melinda Woolf Harris, 2001; ISBN 978-0964022164

Woody Plants of the Southastern United States: A Winter Guide
by Ron Lance; The University of Georgia Press, 2004; ISBN:0820325244


Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens
by Douglas W. Tallamy; Timber Press, 2007; ISBN: 978-0-88192-854-9

Landscaping with Nature
by Jeff Cox; Rodale Press, 1991; ISBN 0-87857-911-7

The Landscaping Revolution: Garden with Mother Nature Not Against Her
by Andy Wasowski with Sally Wasowski; Contemporary Books, 2003; ISBN 007141312X


American Azaleas
by L. Clarence Towe; Timber Press, 2004; ISBN 0-88192-645-0

Armitage's Native Plants for North American Gardens
by Allan M. Armitage; Timber Press, 2006; ISBN 0-88192-760-0

Native Ferns, Moss, & Grasses
by William Cullina; Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008; ISBN: 978-0-618-53118-9

Native Trees for North American Landscapes
by Guy Sternberg with Jim Wilson; Timber Press, 2004; ISBN 0-88192-607-8

Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants by William Cullina; Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002; ISBN 0618098585

Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web
by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis; Timber Press, 2006; ISBN 0-88192-777-5

The Southern Gardener's Book of Lists: The Best Plants for All Your Needs, Wants, and Whims
by Lois Trigg Chaplin; Taylor Publishing, 1994; ISBN 0878338446

Viburnums: Flowering Shrubs for Every Season
by Michael Dirr; Timber Press, 2007; ISBN: 978-0881928532

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ideas for Winter Reading

Last of the season's color
With colder weather coming along, we pause even in milder climates, set our tools aside, and look forward to some time with our feet up and a seed catalog or two. Shorter days mean longer nights so now is also a good time to look into some books to read.

Books about specific plants are nice, but there's a good crop of books out lately about ecosystems that you might enjoy. These books paint a bigger picture that we need to appreciate.

I’ve put together a list of the ones I've discovered recently and a few older ones. These might also be good gift ideas for your gardening friends or make a list and leave it lying around as a hint ….

Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See: A New Vision of North America's Richest Forest was published in October 2012. I am familiar with one of the authors, Bill Finch; he has always been a passionate advocate of the longleaf pine ecosystem as well as an entertaining writer.

The publisher's description: Longleaf forests once covered 92 million acres from Texas to Maryland to Florida. These grand old-growth pines were the "alpha tree" of the largest forest ecosystem in North America and have come to define the southern forest. But logging, suppression of fire, destruction by landowners, and a complex web of other factors reduced those forests so that longleaf is now found only on 3 million acres. Fortunately, the stately tree is enjoying a resurgence of interest, and longleaf forests are once again spreading across the South. 

Blending a compelling narrative by writers Bill Finch, Rhett Johnson, and John C. Hall with Beth Maynor Young's breathtaking photography, Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See invites readers to experience the astounding beauty and significance of the majestic longleaf ecosystem. The authors explore the interactions of longleaf with other species, the development of longleaf forests prior to human contact, and the influence of the longleaf on southern culture, as well as ongoing efforts to restore these forests. Part natural history, part conservation advocacy, and part cultural exploration, this book highlights the special nature of longleaf forests and proposes ways to conserve and expand them."

Altamaha: A River and Its Keeper  (June 2012) is a celebration of the Altamaha River and features phtographs by James Holland with text by Dorinda Dallmeyer and Georgia author Janisse Ray.

More than 230 color photographs capture the area’s majestic landscapes and stunning natural diversity, including a generous selection of some the 234 species of rare plants and animals in the region.

The World of the Salt Marsh: Appreciating and Protecting the Tidal Marshes of the Southeastern Atlantic Coast  (May 2012) is by well-known native plant and native bird enthusiast Charles Seabrook.

The publisher describes the book as "a wide-ranging exploration of the southeastern coast--its natural history, its people and their way of life, and the historic and ongoing threats to its ecological survival. Focusing on areas from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Cape Canaveral, Florida, Charles Seabrook examines the ecological importance of the salt marsh, calling it "a biological factory without equal." Twice-daily tides carry in a supply of nutrients that nourish vast meadows of spartina (Spartina alterniflora)--a crucial habitat for creatures ranging from tiny marine invertebrates to wading birds. The meadows provide vital nurseries for 80 percent of the seafood species, including oysters, crabs, shrimp, and a variety of finfish, and they are invaluable for storm protection, erosion prevention, and pollution filtration.

For all of the biodiversity and cultural history of the salt marshes, many still view them as vast wastelands to be drained, diked, or "improved" for development into highways and subdivisions. If people can better understand and appreciate these ecosystems, Seabrook contends, they are more likely to join the growing chorus of scientists, conservationists, fishermen, and coastal visitors and residents calling for protection of these truly amazing places." 

Southern Appalachian Celebration: In Praise of Ancient Mountains, Old-Growth Forests, and Wilderness  (September 2011) offers us all a chance to see some of the last remnants of original old-growth forests.

From the publisher: "With this stunning collection of images of the Southern Appalachians, James Valentine presents an enduring portrait of the region's unique natural character. His compelling photographs of ancient mountains, old-growth forests, rare plants, and powerful waterways reveal the Appalachians' rich scenic beauty, while Chris Bolgiano's interpretive text and captions tell the story of its natural history.

These scarce and scattered old-growth stands are the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world. By sharing these remaining pristine wild places with us, Valentine and Bolgiano show that understanding these mountains and their extraordinary biodiversity is vital to maintaining the healthy environment that sustains all life.

Featuring an introduction by the late, longtime conservationist Robert Zahner and a foreword by William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, this visually entrancing and verbally engaging book celebrates the vibrant life of Southern Appalachian forests."

The Natural Communities of Georgia is a new book that is now available for pre-order (delivery is February 25, 2013). This book presents a fresh perspective on Charles Wharton’s original “The Natural Environments of Georgia” which was published in 1978 and includes lush photographs from Hugh and Carol Nourse.  Authors Leslie Edwards, Jonathan Ambrose, and L. Katherine Kirkman are quite qualified to guide us through the diverse communities of Georgia.

The publisher’s description: “The Natural Communities of Georgia presents a comprehensive overview of the state’s natural landscapes, providing an ecological context to enhance understanding of this region’s natural history.

Georgia boasts an impressive range of natural communities, assemblages of interacting species that have either been minimally impacted by modern human activities or have successfully recovered from them. This guide makes the case that identifying these distinctive communities and the factors that determine their distribution are central to understanding Georgia’s ecological diversity and the steps necessary for its conservation.

Within Georgia’s five major ecoregions the editors identify and describe a total of sixty-six natural communities, such as the expansive salt marshes of the barrier islands in the Maritime ecoregion, the fire-driven longleaf pine woodlands of the Coastal Plain, the beautiful granite outcrops of the Piedmont, the rare prairies of the Ridge and Valley, and the diverse coves of the Blue Ridge.”

A Native Plants Reader (BBG Guides for a Greener Planet)  (March 2012) - various authors, including Doug Tallamy.

From the publisher: "In its celebrated series of handbooks, stretching back more than 60 years, Brooklyn Botanic Garden has long championed the use of native plants in the home garden. 

A Native Plants Reader is a departure from the typical BBG handbook. Rather than offering a toolkit of growing tips and practical instructions, this book presents a collection of narratives extolling the virtues of natives, outlining their fundamental contributions to our natural ecosystems, detailing our connections with them, describing the perils they currently face, and advocating for their preservation in the garden and larger landscape. Chock-full of adventures and insights from scientists, gardeners, and writers working in the trenches with native plants, the essays are designed to address and engage both gardeners and nongardening nature lovers alike."

Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs  (October 2011) by Michael Dirr. A well-respected author of several woody plant manuals, Dr. Dirr keeps putting out quality resource materials.

From the publisher: "A combination of Dirr's bestselling books under one cover, adding new plants, new photographs, plus all new commentary in Dirr's signature style, it is the bible of woody plants. 
From majestic evergreens to delicate vines and flowering shrubs, Dirr features thousands of plants and all the essential details for identification, planting, and care, plus full-color photographs showing a tree's habit in winter, distinctive bark patterns, fall color, and more. In a class by itself for its quality of information, the best researched recommendations for hardiness in the industry, beautiful photography, and Dirr's own preeminence as a master plantsman, Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs is a critical addition to any garden library."

And a couple of old ones: 

Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie (1997) by Richard Manning. A book that is sure to give you an appreciation for native grasses and an appreciation for just how harmful man can be, even in recent memory. If you watched Ken Burns's The Dust Bowl, this is a good companion read to that.

Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey (2006) by Joe Hutto. This book helped me appreciate how much native birds depend on wild food - grasshoppers, berries and acorns. It was interesting to follow their progress day by day until they matured. I believe there is a PBS series to go with this.

Next week I'll cover some old favorites for those of you just getting into the subject of native plants.