Sunday, September 30, 2018

Native Landscape Pyramid

Last week I suggested some good basic ideas for native plants to incorporate into your landscape. You still might be wondering: how many should I get? Well, 100% seems like more than most people would be willing to do – and even I still have a gardenia and a tea olive for sentimental reasons – but several years ago I thought about using this graphic to put some structure into the thought process.

I’m not the first one to have this idea, but I have tried to put some regional consideration into what the components might be. You see, regional does matter. In the southeastern part of the US, native trees are generally an important part of the plant communities and that’s why they should make up a significant portion of our landscape (the lowest layer).  Canopy trees include oaks (Quercus), hickory (Carya), maples (Acer), conifers (Pinus and Tsuga), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), ash (Fraxinus), elm (Ulmus), and tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera); their large size might mean that a small yard could have only 1-2 mature ones yet the plants would still represent a large part of the vegetation.

Amelanchier laevis
Shrubs and small-medium trees fill up the next layer of the pyramid. These include viburnum (Viburnum), hydrangea (Hydrangea), blueberry (Vaccinium), cherry/plum (Prunus), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), dogwood (Cornus), serviceberry (Amelanchier), redbud (Cercis canadensis), hawthorn (Crataegus), azalea (Rhododendron), buckeye (Aesculus) and many others.

Between these two woody layers (canopy trees and shrubs/small trees), your landscape would provide massive amounts of eco-system services in terms of the flowers (pollen/nectar), fruits (both fleshy and seeds), foliage for herbivores and butterflies/moths, as well as shelter for a wide range of animals and insects.

Liatris pilosa with Solidago nemoralis 

With those two layers alone, you could be a real winner with some careful choices (see this link for details on how some plants support more herbivorous insects than others). Let's not stop there. The perennial layer provides some things that woody plants can’t – like milkweed for monarch butterflies! Or perhaps you want some seasonal color after most of the shrubs and trees finish blooming in the spring?

There are many good reasons to have native perennial plants so save some room, but don’t fill up that whole layer. Native grasses and ferns have benefits, both in terms of ecological services and design aesthetics, and deserve some space of their own.

With that third layer filled, we are at the top. If you’re still craving a little something exotic - perhaps those daylilies you love so much or a crape myrtle for that corner by the neighbor’s yard - go right ahead. You can enjoy it all the more knowing that you planned for it.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Native Plant You Want

In our busy world, sometimes we just want the basics of something. You want me to plant native plants? Just tell me which ones give me the most bang for the time and money spent (or I have a small yard so I can only fit so much). There is no perfect answer to that, and certainly one must consider regionally appropriate answers. Ok, twist my arm, here are a few suggestions that are my personal go-to, must-have plants.

Quercus alba
Oaks (Quercus spp.) – research by Doug Tallamy and his students/colleagues have found data to indicate that well over 500 different species of butterflies and moths use oaks as a host plant so they are very beneficial to wildlife (not to mention the acorn aspect). They are also beautiful and long-lived; many of them have excellent fall color and some species are drought tolerant while others can handle periodic wet conditions.

Viburnums (Viburnum spp.) are versatile shrubs that offer a little something for everyone: beautiful flowers in the spring that are used by early pollinators, fruit for birds and other critters, and awesome fall color.  Twelve different species are found in Georgia and they like a variety of conditions from wet/sun to dry/shade. You should not be surprised to know that I've written about these before.

Native azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) are widely available these days and make beautiful miniature trees in smaller yards. I like to recommend one of the fragrant species (in my area that would be R. canescens or R. austrinum) so that you get more benefit. My earlier blog on native azaleas is here.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) rounds out my woody recommendations as a small tree that deserves more usage. More sun tolerant than the overused flowering dogwoods and redbuds, it has beautiful flowers, tasty fruit, and good fall color. Yep, you guessed it - I've profiled this before.

Trilliums (Trillium spp.) are special spring plants throughout the state (read my earlier blog here), never failing to invoke a sense of wonder as they return each spring. Along with native azaleas, this is one genus that can lure people into a love of native plants. Create a grouping of these and fall in love again every year when they emerge.

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) are a hot plant choice these days and for good reason: they are the host plant for the monarch butterfly, a migrating species whose declining populations has been linked to a decline in available milkweed. Read more about the Georgia choices from my spring blog on them.

Mountain mints (Pycnanthemum spp.) are fantastic perennials for tough, part-sun conditions. Pollinators adore them, but they will spread to fill up the available space. Plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) can be a boon to a lazy gardener but bedevil the neatnik. Look also into beebalm (Monarda spp.).

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a fun and gorgeous plant to have to support hummingbirds. Sure I have a nectar feeder, but the real thrill is watching hummingbirds sip from a plant that you put there. It’s also a welcome spot of color during the hot days of summer. Mine are still blooming now.

Migrating monarchs need goldenrod
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and boneset (Eupatorium spp.) are happening right now all over roadsides (that haven’t been mowed to oblivion) and the insects are so grateful! These two species are absolute lifesavers during the hot, dry days of late summer, and there are wonderful choices to include in your garden. Read more about the well-behaved species of goldenrod and thoroughwort (aka boneset) that you can be using. And for more year-round pollinator choices, check out this earlier blog of mine.

Hard-working, carefree green stuff: ferns and sedges. Georgia has over 20 native ferns in a variety of shapes and shades of green (read my 2012 blog on ferns for a rundown). There are dozens of sedges (Carex spp.) native to Georgia and some species thrive in dry shade! If you’ve got partial shade and want to do something at least for the moment, check out ferns and sedges. You might just decide you like them for good.

I’ve tried to be general here (e.g., listing “oaks” instead of a specific one); if you’re interested in using some of these plants, find the species most appropriate for you. How to find what species is most appropriate for you? Just follow these steps:

  1. Go to USDA plants database website:
  2. Look for the Name Search box in the upper left section. Enter the Latin name for best results and choose the “Scientific Name” below that; click “Go” [We’ll use Quercus for an example.]
  3. In the search results, find the entry that is just the genus, click on that.
  4. Now you should be on the genus page. This page has tabs, choose the “Subordinate Taxa” tab to see all the species and hybrids. Each has a mini-map of its distribution. Click one of the ones that has a presence in your state. [We’ll use Quercus alba as an example of species in Georgia.]
  5. That should bring you to the species page for what you selected. Now you can expand the map (with your fingers on a mobile device, with the mouse on a desktop) and see the county details. Of course this data is only as good as the people who recorded it; for example, Quercus alba is not shown for my county but it definitely is here and has been for a very long time. Alabama looks like it had more thorough reporting.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Giants in the Garden

Late summer can be a time for bold floral statements, with tall perennials towering over the remains of those that have finished. It’s almost like the garden keeps building on itself, with late summer flowers being the tallest of all. If you’d like to add a little more height to your garden, consider some of these native giants.

Rudbeckia laciniata rises above the fence
In my garden, cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) has had a very good year, reaching heights and flowering stem counts that I’ve haven’t seen before. We must have had good rain right when it needed it. It can reach 8-9 feet tall in ideal conditions, which for this plant is moist and mostly sunny.  Bees and butterflies appreciate the flowerheads which are composed of tiny disk flowers in the center and bright yellow ray flowers at the edges.

A couple of other moisture-lovers are ironweed (Vernonia spp.) and hollow Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum).  Both of these are often found near me in low, wet ditches where they are covered with pollinators. Some of the ditches are so deep that if it wasn’t for their height, I wonder if we'd even notice these two? It is a joy to see them stretching above the other plants, the jewel-like purple of ironweed catching your attention at any speed while the soft, billowy blooms of the Joe Pye weed are almost too airy to notice above 40 mph.

Eutrochium fistulosum
Vernonia gigantea lives up to its name

Some of our perennial sunflowers can be quite big. Blooming now is Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) and I drive every year past a wonderful garden full of it at an old house. People still live there and the patch is well-tended, with the plants easily reaching 8 feet tall. Perhaps they harvest a few tubers for pickling. Next month will bring the tall bright blooms of swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius). By the time that the 10-foot stems are blooming, they usually could use a little help with staking (especially if we get a summer thunderstorm). Count on people asking you about your plant if neighbors can see it.

A large stand of Helianthus angustifolius at a nature center

Similar to the sunflowers are the rosinweeds (Silphium spp.). They’ve already finished blooming now, but species like cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and kidney-leaf rosinweed (S. compositum) can easily reach 8 feet with numerous yellow flowerheads. Kidney-leaf is my favorite because of its handsome foliage.

Cirsium altissimum
Blooming now in my yard is an oft-overlooked group of biennial plants – the native thistles (Cirsium sp.). I have come to love these prickly giants as I watch bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds take delight in their flowerheads. I know the goldfinches are probably equally happy with the seedheads afterwards. Two years ago I had one so tall that I could stand on the deck and take pictures of butterflies on it from above.

Silverplume grass (Saccharum alopecuroides) can be spotted on the side of the road now. The flowering spikes can reach up to 10 feet tall and a small group of them is a very pleasing sight. The wide, strappy blades can be a very attractive and bold statement as well. It likes lean, well-drained soil – you know, like a roadside!

Silverplume towers above the field (Saccharum alopecuroides)

Another good native grass is Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) which might only reach 7 feet. It would pair nicely with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), no shrimp itself at 8 feet. I love how the Mimsie Lanier Center for Native Plant Studies at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia grows some of these native grass from seed for their Connect to Protect Native Plant Sale in the fall.

So, if you're looking for some plants with late-season oomph, look for some of these.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Georgia Grows Native for Birds

Our Georgia birds definitely need the services that Georgia native plants provide. Some people think that if we provide berry-producing plants (native or not) that birds will be fine. Not all birds eat berries, and, for those that do, not all berries are equal when it comes to nutrition.

Having a landscape full of native plants supports all birds much more effectively, and I was pleased to hear last year that the National Audubon Society is now putting emphasis on educating people about why native plants matter to birds. Locally, Atlanta Audubon’s awareness efforts on the topic have been wonderful, and recently they spearheaded an effort to have September declared as ‘Georgia Grows Native for Birds Month.’

I have written about how much native plants support birds before; here are a few of those blogs (click on the links to read them):

The Insect Diet: Natural Bird Food

If you're interested in supporting birds in your landscape, look into why and how our native plants are really in their best interest.

And if you're near Atlanta, check out the events that Atlanta Audubon has planned for this month, including their upcoming garden tour of homes that use native plants in the landscape.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Caterpillar Tales 2

A couple of years ago I wrote about finding caterpillars this time of year. I decided to make another dedicated effort this year and found some amazing things. When I read the post from 2016, I found it interesting that I didn’t find any one of those caterpillars – this year’s finds were completely new!

The caterpillars above are all stinging caterpillars. On the left is the white flannel moth, found on redbud (Cercis canadensis). In the center is the puss caterpillar (Southern flannel moth), found on boxelder (Acer negundo). On the right is Nason's slug moth, found on persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

The caterpillars above: white furcula on the left on black cherry (Prunus serotina), red-washed prominent on redbud (Cercis canadensis) in the center, and the rose hooktip on viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium). The prominent and the hooktip are wonderful 'deadleaf edge' mimics, often nestled close to the edge they are eating to fool predators.

The caterpillars above: on the left is the red-humped caterpillar on sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), tuliptree moth in the center on tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), and on the right is the question mark butterfly caterpillar on winged elm (Ulmus alata) - the last one being one that I've wanted to find for a long time and it was on a seedling elm that I have in a pot.

Finding caterpillars is a fun and challenging summer activity. Anybody can find plenty of those black and orange-striped oakworms (they seem to be everywhere for a 2 week period, don’t they?) as well those fall webworms mucking up the trees with their protective webs. You might wonder how does one go about finding these other caterpillars? Here are the tips that I’ve picked up from my own experience and what I’ve heard from others.

Look for damage – caterpillars chew leaves, so look for signs of them being eaten. They might be eaten from the edge inward, or straight across the tip or you might just see a bunch of petioles with no leaves.

Look for poop – on the ground, on other leaves, it could be big or small but that’s your clue that someone’s been there (and might still be).

Look underneath – most caterpillars feed from the underside of the leaf; it’s where they feel safe. If it’s a tree, stand under the tree and look up. If the plant is lower, carefully raise up branches or flip individual leaves to look for them. Watch out for stinging caterpillars! I am careful to not directly touch the leaf if I can help it.

Leaf damage
Caterpillar poop

One consideration is timing. Sometimes caterpillars move away from the eaten leaves to take a break or at night, so check the stems and branches while you’re looking. Some caterpillars eat at night so they might be curled up in a leaf or resting elsewhere. If they’re rolled up in a leaf, be considerate about exposing them to predators.

The best plants to check for caterpillars are native plants, of course, and woody plants in particular: oaks, sweetgum, persimmon, elm, maple, boxelder, cherry, hawthorn, sassafras, birch. I highly recommend the book I reviewed in this blog to help you identify them; always take note of the plant on which you found them (take a picture of the leaf if you don't know it). The Caterpillar Identification Facebook group is also very helpful.

One blog is not enough to show you all the ones I've found, but these were the most interesting and they are mostly moths (there are 11,000+ moths in North America compared to 800+ butterflies so you will mostly find moths). However, lest you think that caterpillars are taking over, let me assure you that I usually only find one or two of any species at once.

Two other blogs from this summer include pictures of interesting caterpillars I've found: this one on Virginia Creeper and this one about hiking the trails at Elachee in Gainesville. Now, go forth and search!