Sunday, July 30, 2017

Lessons from Plant Camp

Whew, I just got back from “plant camp” and boy, am I inspired! I’m talking about the annual native plant conference in Cullowhee, NC. This year was their 34th year of the conference, and it was the 7th one that I’ve been to. As I explained in an earlier post, this is a multi-day conference with a mixture of talks, fields trips, and workshops plus a whole bunch of fellowship among native plant lovers.

There are student presentations, plant vendors, and tables of informational materials for sharing. I picked up several free posters and pamphlets. If you’re in the southeast, this conference really is the perfect place to learn and network.

After six straight years of attendance, I skipped last year because the topics didn’t seem interesting to me. I missed not being there so I was happy to see lots of interesting things lined up for this year. In addition, this year included the opportunity to register at no extra charge to attend a ½ day workshop or field trip on day 2. It was a good opportunity to change things up from 2 ½ days of talks.

I took some notes on some of the major talks and will share some of those here. On the evening before the official start of the conference, David Mizejewski of the National Wildlife Federation spoke about their Garden for Wildlife program. Their habitat certification program (which is transitioned from being a “backyard” program to a broader approach) helps raise awareness of the need for local efforts and allows people to become ambassadors for using native plants in the landscape. Their website includes a way to search for regionally appropriate native plants; this tool is based on the research of Douglas Tallamy and in partnership with the United States Forest Service.  I am inspired to certify!

They've got a job to do, even it is just to be
someone else's lunch.
Day 1 of the conference started with the “rock star” of the current ‘use native plants’ movement – Dr. Doug Tallamy.  He used his entomological cred to present a talk entitled “Making Insects: A Guide to Restoring the Little Things that Run the World.” The talk was heavy on understanding how insects use parts of plants to get what they need: pollen/nectar, wood, detritus, and leaves/roots.

It was interesting to learn how many rely on tree wood and detritus (dead leaves, branches, etc.); of course, without their services, we’d be swimming in uneaten stuff. After spending some time on native bees and their nesting needs (solitary ground dwellers and stem nesters), we learned about how insects are themselves an import source of food for birds (and a source of carotenoids for them). There was much more, so do plan to hear him speak if you get a chance. I am inspired by this quote (which might be attributed to E. O. Wilson) that he shared: “You don’t have to save biodiversity for a living but do save it where you live.

Larry Weaner was one of the main speakers on Day 2. I had heard of his book, “Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change,” which was published in 2016. The conference topic was titled “Living in the Liberated Landscape.” In this talk, he encouraged us to plan the garden in a way that works with the plants’ natural ways: how they grow, how they seed, how they spread. In doing so, you won’t be surprised when plants that spread by roots pop up in a new opening, for example. You knew that would happen.

A successful garden is one that works with the plants. I like his statement: “Plants grow better when they self-recruit.” He showed pictures of plants that have shown up in new places, tiny cracks, the other side of the sidewalk. Below is a picture of my self-recruits: Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) that have sowed themselves into the front lawn. They've been doing it for years (drives my neighbors nuts, I'm sure). I wait until they are a good size and then I transplant them to the woodland edge beyond the lawn.

Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) self-sow in my lawn

The last day of the conference is always a good one for a super-inspiring speaker and Andrew Fox of NC State did not disappoint. His topic was “Cultivating Care: Building Ecological Communities through Engagement and Education.” Using examples from the Design Build program at NC State, he showed how engaged the students became in the process of solving a problem from beginning to end. Students end up with a real appreciation for why what you plant makes a difference.

Photo from NC State Design Build website 
They’ve had some impressive projects using native plants and more are in the works. Much like the University of Toledo's Service Learning projects featured in the film Hometown Habitat, this program at NC State cultivates care with direct involvement and interaction so that students become environmental champions. I loved his end quote: “Expect evolution, strive for revolution.” He included a video the students had made of one project and how they felt about it (positive, inspired, and with a real appreciation for native plants and what they can do).

I'd encourage you to attend native plant conferences when you can or chances to hear even a single speaker locally. The inspiration is great pick-me-up, and we all could use that every now and then.

Note: the 'plant camp' picture was a sticker given out at the end of the conference.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Make Room for Joe Pye

Butterfly on Eutrochium maculatum 'Gateway'
Some plants shout their season to me when I see them. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is very much spring, and goldenrod (Solidago) is a quintessential fall. Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium spp.) is a definite summer plant. Just when it gets unbearably hot, Joe Pye weed opens up a dome-like inflorescence of tiny flowers, delighting dozens of pollinators and giving them sustenance through the hot days.

There are three different species of Eutrochium (all formerly considered part of Eupatorium) in Georgia. The common name “Joe Pye weed” comes from a story that a Native American named Joe Pye used the leaves of it to brew a tonic that helped people with fevers in the late 1700’s or early 1800’s. Four species are found in New England, where the story originates, so it’s not clear which species might have been used.

Eutrochium purpureum (purple at the node)
Of the 3 species in Georgia, it is often confusing which ones are which so let me go over each one. Sweet-scented Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) is found naturally in north Georgia with a few scattered southern locations reported. The Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Georgia describes it topping out at 6 feet but I’ve never seen one over 4 feet myself. It is normally found in “moist, upland, hardwood forests” where the reduced light often keeps it short and provides only for a modest flower cluster containing sweetly-scented flower heads of 4-7 tiny florets. The mostly green stem is purple at the leaf nodes and hollow only at the base.

Spotted Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) is limited in its natural range in Georgia with reports of it being found only in Murray and Union counties (in the Blue Ridge ecoregion). The reddish, sometimes spotted stem is characteristic of this species; it also generally reaches up to 6 feet tall. Other differences include the number of florets per head being more numerous (9-22 per head) and the overall inflorescence shape being more flat than dome-shaped (good pictures here). I think the flower color is generally a deeper pink as well. This is the species from which the shorter cultivar ‘Gateway’ was developed; that cultivar is said to be 4-5 feet tall. I have found that it does well in pots if kept moist. 

Etrochium maculatum in the wild (fairly flat top)
E. maculatum stem (not hollow)

Eutrochium fistulosum with hollow stem
Hollow Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), also called trumpetweed, is probably the one that most of us see reaching up to 11 feet on wet roadsides in north Georgia and scattered southern locations. If you were to cut the stems, you’d see that they are hollow throughout, unlike the other two species. There is also a whitish cast to the stem.

Florets are fewer than maculatum, usually 5-7 per flower head, but the inflorescence itself is large and dome shaped. Flower color varies from pale to medium pink.

Eutrochium fistulosum
before florets open
Eutrochium fistulosum
with florets open

Eutrochium maculatum with about 11 florets per flower head.

Other E. maculatum cultivars besides ‘Gateway’ include ‘Atropurpureum’ and ‘Phantom’ as well as a few others.  E. dubium ‘Little Joe’ and ‘Baby Joe’ are both from a species native to the coastal areas of the East Coast. E. fistulosum cultivars include ‘Carin’ plus others, including some white selections such as ‘Bartered Bride’ and ‘Ivory Tower.’

You can read about Eupatorium “family” plant trials in Chicago in a report published here in 2014. It includes names of cultivars and detailed descriptions but the recommendations may not be as appropriate for Georgia.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Native Cottage Garden

Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii
What do you think of when someone uses the term cottage garden? A collection of colorful flowers, informally arranged, with some structure like a fence? I like Wikipedia’s description: “English in origin, it depends on grace and charm rather than grandeur and formal structure.” My friend Julie recently moved to a new house and declared that she wanted to create a cottage garden with a picket fence, using native plants. That sounded like a wonderful challenge!

Echinacea purpurea

While Julie got the existing landscape removed and the hardscape installed, we put our heads together to come up with a list of plants to include in what would be long space beside the driveway.  The fence replaced a privet hedge – how awesome to install native flowers instead of privet!

We wanted to include plants that were native to Georgia, would have a seasonal assortment of blooms from spring to fall, and that would be reasonably available from her existing plants, or be available to purchase locally, or were donated by friends. 

Once we composed the list of potential plants, we grouped them in a plan on paper, with careful arrangement of taller plants in the back and part-shade plants in an area that gets afternoon shade. Some plants would overlap seasons, of course. After an informal consultation with a landscape designer, we sprinkled the seasonal plants throughout the span but created groups of some plants (for example, sections of cardinal flower plants together) for more impact.

Coreopsis with Penstemon in late spring
Coreopsis major, late spring

Here are the lists we developed to get started. She was in time to shop the spring sales for items that she didn't have or for new inspirations. Not all the plants in the plan made it into the cottage garden (some went elsewhere in her new spaces because she ripped out pretty much everything but the trees!). Some plant sale finds worked their way in.

Spring (March to May)

Mouse-eared coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata), beardtongue (Penstemon smallii and P. digitalis), red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), baptisia (Baptisia sp.), fleabane (Erigeron pulchellus), copper iris (Iris fulva), dwarf iris (Iris verna), sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.), rain lily (Zephyranthes atamasca), goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), green n gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), geranium (Geranium maculatum), coral bells (Heuchera americana), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), bowman’s root (Gillenia trifoliata), lyre leaf sage (Salvia lyrata), celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum).

Summer (June to August)

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea), stokes aster (Stokesia laevis), summer coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata, C. grandiflora, C. major, C. verticillata), hyssop (Agastache foeniculum, not native to GA), milkweed (Asclepias sp.), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), sneezeweed (Helenium sp.), Iris, blazingstar (Liatris sp.), beebalm (Monarda sp.), summer phlox (Phlox carolina, P. paniculatum), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.), Scutellaria, rosinweed (Silphium sp.), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), partridge pea (Chamaecrista sp.), blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella), narrowleaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium).

The garden is long and narrow
Silphium asteriscus feeds bees and birds

Fall (September to November)

Goldenrods (Solidago sp.), asters (Symphyotrichum sp.), Boltonia asteroides, turtlehead (Chelone glabra), Joe pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), boneset (Eupatorium sp.), perennial sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius, H. atrorubens), white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), Georgia savory (Clinopodium georgianum), blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata), ironweed (Vernonia sp.), downy lobelia (Lobelia puberula).

The area was planted in the spring. The spring plants bloomed well, but there were many spaces in between them. These pictures are from early-June and mid-July. The plants have grown, filling in many of the spaces. The plants have been blooming right on time. The butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is on its second flush of blooms even as seed pods are forming on the very same plants. Now is the time to take notes about which have done well, which have done TOO well, and other considerations such as which would benefit from staking or relocation.

This corner echoes the other side of the driveway
Aside from the cottage garden, the rest of the landscape is just as native and just as interesting. A sunny area across the driveway echoes many of the plants from the cottage garden. Shade areas are full of ferns and shade-loving perennials. An assortment of native azaleas and other shrubs anchor the foundation under tall oaks. New young trees stretch their roots throughout the landscape.

Asclepias tuberosa (second flush in July)
and bumble bee
The local insects seem happy: bumble bees were visiting many flowers and a passionvine (Passiflora incarnata) on the fence had been stripped of leaves by Gulf Fritillary caterpillars (and that’s a good thing!).

Julie’s garden is a welcoming oasis for critters, full of native plants and absent of pesticides. I look forward to watching the garden throughout the seasons and throughout the years.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

It’s a Numbers Game

Spring and summer is a busy time in nature. Flowers are blooming, birds are having babies, and insects and reptiles are laying eggs too. In some cases, the amount of potential offspring seems huge. Seeds drop from flowers and create carpets of seedlings, for example. Why so many? If you watch closely, you’ll see that not all of them make it, so the drive to survive must hedge its bets with sufficient quantity.

Several birds have raised families in our yard this year. I was thrilled to have the bluebirds in our old box and enjoyed watching them bring food back for the babies. About a month after they fledged, I noticed another pair eyeing the box. I had forgotten to clean out the nest, but I spied a single egg in there. Thinking that they had laid it, I left the old nest alone.

After about two weeks, with no more birds in sight, I checked again and saw the single egg. Well, shoot. Obviously, it was left over from before or is one that was abandoned. There’s one that won’t make it.

One of the baby Phoebes
I also watched a group of 5 fledgling Eastern Phoebes flit around the yard under the watchful eye of their parents. For a whole week, I could see those parents continue to feed and guide those youngsters. On my way to the mailbox, I saw one baby try to land on a branch. After 3 attempts, he settled for the ground. Those fledglings were extremely vulnerable during that period, it’s no wonder that they had 5 babies!

My experience raising monarch caterpillars this year was a lesson in numbers as well. Two monarch females laid about 50 eggs in April. I collected some of them for my rearing cage. Some of the ones that I left on the plants in the yard were eaten by deer (they ate the tips of the orange butterflyweed while the tiny cats were gathered there). Some of the eggs never hatched. About 3 of the caged ones died suddenly of no apparent injury. Two of them died in their chrysalis (never emerged). In the end, about 26 caterpillars made it to adulthood and were released, just over 50%.

Caterpillars on oak leaf (probably oakworm moth)

And then there’s the food chain. Big bugs eat smaller bugs. Spiders eat bugs that get too close. Lizards eat bugs that aren't paying attention. Fish eat tadpoles. Birds eat fish. Snakes eat frogs. Birds eat caterpillars, and wasps feed caterpillars to their young.

All of this eating means that there need to be enough babies to get past the hazards to reach adulthood. It really is a numbers game.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Summer Blues

I often say that we don’t have many native blue flowers but it suddenly hit me last week that my garden was overflowing with blue color in these early days of summer.  And then I remembered that I’d fooled myself once on this already when I published a blog about blue flowers in spring. Well, I’ll continue that theme, this time focusing on some of our summer blues.

Wild petunia (Ruellia caroliniensis)
With so many yellow summer flowers, it’s great to mix in some blues for contrast. I know some people like gardens with all one color, but I think that having different colors allows them all to pop in their own way (so please mix up your blues with other things!).

This month’s standout has been Carolina wild petunia (Ruellia caroliniensis). This is not a plant that I have ever planted on purpose, but it has come in with other things and then seeded around. The number of blooms has been fantastic and it is a host plant for the buckeye butterfly.

Prunella vulgaris ssp. lanceolata

A similar hitchhiker has been self-heal (Prunella vulgaris ssp. lanceolata). This member of the mint family is just as aggressive as its relatives, but the pollinators do love it. I used to think that it was not native, but this one with the lanceolate leaves does seem to be considered native. So I’ll just pull out the extras and leave some around. The bees do love it.

Another bee favorite is anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). This is a perennial that acts more like an annual – it blooms for weeks and weeks. The goldfinches love the seeds on it, and the deer don’t care for it at all. Winner!

Stokesia laevis
Agastache foeniculum

Stokes’s aster (Stokesia laevis) is one of the prettiest shades of blue. It is native to south Georgia but is a wonderful garden plant throughout the state. It does like a little bit of moisture but mostly it just prefers not to dry out. My original plant died, but I’ve got a nice group now at the bottom of the driveway; the slope helps keep the area moist.

I’ve had downy skullcap (Scutellaria incana) for years but it’s always been a pale shade of purple. Last year, I got a few plants from a friend with deep purple blooms. I also have Scutellaria integrifolia, a more petite species that likes to seed around. I’ve had to relocate several of them out of the lawn so that they could grow up and bloom. Helmet flower is another common name.

Scutellaria incana
Lobelia spicata

A very soft blue can be found in palespike lobelia (Lobelia spicata). A deeper blue that we can still look forward to is great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). The bees really love this one while the butterflies like its red cousin, cardinal flower (L. cardinalis). Downy blue lobelia  (L. puberula) is also pretty late. You can see pictures of all of them in my blog on lobelias.

Blue flowers that were not featured in the spring blog and which are past bloom now include the butterfly peas (Centrosema virginianum and Clitoria mariana). Sometimes those will bloom again but their first flush is over. The spring iris species such as Virginia iris (Iris virginica) and zigzag iris (Iris brevicaulis) were gorgeous this year, but I'll probably need to divide them before they take over certain areas.

If you don’t have enough blue in your garden, think about adding some of these. I think I’m going to have to stop saying we don’t have many blues. Obviously, we are doing fine!