Sunday, August 25, 2013

My Leaves Got Chewed and I Love It!

A small wave of destruction washed over my yard this week, and I could not be happier! The plants under destruction include Lobelia and Solidago but most of the damage is on cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) since I have a large group of it this year. The agent of destruction?  It is a small Chrysodeixis caterpillar known as a “looper.” 

How could I possibly be happy about this? I’m happy because the birds are happy. In fact, I didn’t even realize what was happening until I heard the wrens calling out as they hopped from plant to plant looking for the caterpillars. The same thing happened last year so I actually was anticipating this and hoping for it!

A wren fishes out the caterpillar hiding in the leaf
Lobelia missing some leaves

What about the plants? Well they have lost a lot of leaves, but the flowers are still there. With the flowers in place, the garden is still beautiful, and the hummingbirds are still visiting them. I am glad the leaves are useful to something! Think about it – these leaves would have just died at the end of the year, why not eat them now? At this point the plants were pretty done with them.

Anole on the prowl for critters like caterpillars

Another hungry fellow was at work as well: a green anole lizard (Anolis carolinensis) was climbing around the stems looking for a bite. Luckily there were caterpillars of all sizes to be found. I found several caterpillars on the blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) getting way too close to the flowers. I plucked them off and moved them to the cardinal flowers that still had plenty of leaves.

Soon the wrens were joined by other birds: a pair of goldfinches and a pair of cardinals stopped by to see what they could find. I could see the flower heads shake as their stems below were vigorously inspected for bug life.

When I walked out the door later, a red-shouldered hawk took off. Apparently it was attracted by the chatter of the smaller birds. Native plants can bring such life to the garden!

This young oak will be fine!

Over by the driveway a few small oaks have had their leaves skeletonized by oak caterpillars. These trees will be fine and the small pellets of poop raining down are just nuggets of fertilizer.

On some of the garden forums I frequently I see people complaining about caterpillars and I see recommendations to spray the plants with chemicals or Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to "get rid of them." Most of the time (and I mean VERY most of the time) these caterpillars are just part of the local native process. We're not dealing with very many non-native caterpillars in Georgia in the average landscape. If you're planning to treat something, please identify it first! Here is a link to a good publication about invasive pests in Georgia.

Have the caterpillars been perfect guests? Of course they haven't, but who is a perfect guest? I noticed that one small lobelia had been chewed completely, including the tiny flower bud. As I walked past the green caterpillar still munching on the bare stalk, I whispered “I hope some bird eats you.”


Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Summer of Rain

It has rained a lot in my area this year.  According to a monitoring site I found, my area has had 108 days with rain and the total number of inches is 54 inches from January to early August. While the number of rainy days in previous years is not so far off (95 in 2012), the number of inches is about double.

Rain drops on Monarda punctata
Such a high amount of rain has kept the ground pretty saturated and naturally has had some effect on plant behavior, particularly in regard to blooms.

In addition, the weather patterns have moderated the temperatures more, resulting in a cooler average temperature. That affects plant growth too. Here are some of my observations.

Late blooms – Some plants bloomed later than usual: plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium) bloomed 2-3 weeks later than some of the previous years. It is still blooming now. I usually try to take several pictures of blooms each year, but so many wet days has made it hard to get some pictures.

Rhododendron prunifolium

No blooms – My moisture loving spider lily (Hymenocallis caroliniana) didn’t bloom at all this year. I was sure it would be a banner year for her. Perhaps the plants near her are finally crowding her too much and extra moisture was not enough to overcome the lack of sufficient sun. Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) also struggled and only the plants located in the drier areas finally put out a few blooms. Given that it has been very aggressive in previous years, it was nice to have it take the year off.

Repeat blooms – When you have a hot dry spell followed by cool/wet some plants are enticed into blooming again. Several of the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) plants are blooming on one stem and making seed pods on another. However, the second flush of blooms is smaller. Stokes’s aster (Stokesia laevis) has had blooms for a long time with periods of no blooms in between.

Stokesia laevis - Picture from June,
biggest flush was July, and still blooming in August

Prolonged blooming – Several plants have been blooming for weeks longer than usual. The bushy St. Johns wort (Hypericum densiflorum) has bloomed so long that I swear the bees aren’t interested in it anymore. As I said earlier, the azalea is still going strong. 

Lush growth – No surprise here that some things are just loving the moisture. This year I have been inundated with seedlings of camphorweed (Pluchea camphorata). I've never had a single seedling before, and I’ve had the mother plant for 3 years. Lobelia foliage is lush and the red flowers of Lobelia cardinalis are delightful.  

In general it has been a year of little supplemental watering for me and that has been nice. It was a good year to buy a flat of oakleaf hydrangea seedlings and pot them into gallon containers – they are huge now. It was a good year to plant some new things – my newly planted alternate leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) has put on 36 inches of growth! 

Was it good, was it bad to have this much rain? I suppose that depends on the plant. Personally, I would like to see a bit more sunshine next year ….

One more time ... repeat bloom on Asclepias tuberosa