Sunday, April 29, 2012

Earth Day Reading

Juniper hairstreak
     Well, I've been a slacker and haven't posted to this blog in a while, but I don't want to miss participating in Sage Butterfly's Earth Day Reading project.  I'm also linking in with Macro Monday on Lisa's Chaos (scroll down to see the life-sized cicada...)  Earth Day (and spring in general) is a great time to think about how to give nature a helping hand.  The Sage Butterfly invites us to write about a book that inspires us to live or garden more sustainably or encourages a love of nature.  
     I highly recommend Douglas Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home.  If you don't already consider wildlife in your garden plans, this book will definitely give you something to think about.  If you do already garden for wildlife or garden sustainably, this book will also give you something to think about.  In fact, as I discovered while I was rereading the book so I could post about it, even if you've already read the book and took its lessons to heart, this book will still give you something new to think about. 
Eyed click beetle
     I can't articulate Tallamy's message nearly as well as he can, but the core set of ideas that the book is centered around are these.  First, that natural places and the wildlife that needs them are taking a terrible hit.  Second, that gardeners in particular have an opportunity to support wildlife by the choices we make of what to plant in our gardens.  Specifically, native plants in gardens or suburban yards can make a huge difference in supporting wildlife, specifically birds.  And here's the real key idea: the reason that native plants and not other plants are so vitally important is insects.  Tallamy makes the great point - obvious in retrospect, but certainly nothing I had ever thought of before reading the book - that nearly every creature on earth gets all the energy it needs from the sun but only indirectly.  Only plants can photosynthesize and use that energy directly.  Plant-eating insects are then  mostly responsible for transferring that energy up the food chain.  A fact that I did not know before reading this book is that even most birds that eat seeds and berries need insect protein to feed their young.  So without insects, birds can't survive.  But insects for the most part can only eat plants that they co-evolved with.  Non-native plants do not feed many insects and therefore are not of much help to feed birds.  Non-native plants are shouldering out native plants, not just in our gardens but in wild places as well.  This creates sterile landscapes with fewer insects and therefore less bird food and puts added pressure on birds and other species to survive.  But gardeners can put more native plants in their gardens and feed native insects and therefore produce more "bird food."
White-margined burrower bug (nymph)
     No matter how you feel about gardening with native plants, this book is a good read.  Whether you are already in favor or a little cool to the idea, I think your perspective might change at least a little bit.  If you aren't crazy about the idea of insects eating your plants, read the book.  It's probably not like you think.  Native insects do not generally do noticeably huge amounts of damage on native plants, in contrast to, say, Japanese beetles on roses.  Reading this book might give you a new appreciation for the vast diversity of native insects that do not cause any inconvenience to humans - but which do provide food for baby birds and other wildlife.  On the other hand, I was already a big insect fan.  (The pictures on this post are some of my photos of native plant-eating insects I've photographed in my garden.)  I enjoyed the chapter describing many families of insects in detail, including many interesting facts I didn't know.  For instance, the milkweed bug migrates (as does the more familiar milkweed eater, the monarch).  The milkweed bug eats the seeds of milkweed plants.  It migrates to follow the timing of milkweed plants setting seed.  Another chapter on specific tree families and the insects they support was also very interesting and useful.
Annual cicada
     Sometimes Tallamy's message is a little strident or depressing, but stick with it, because the overall take-home message of the book is very hopeful.  We each can make a positive difference in our own corner of the world, no matter how big or small that might be. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

I guess I won't be weeding that bed for a while

I enjoy gardening for wildlife and particularly like birds.  Many years ago I read Julie Zickefoose's book Natural Gardening for Birds.  One chapter that particularly struck me was a discussion of how good vines are, as shelter for birds.  Not long afterwards, I planted a Carolina Jasmine, a native flowering vine, to grow up the side of my front porch, and I now see that description was right on.  Numerous birds have sheltered in it, especially for winter roosting.  They are not always happy that we continue to use the front door and more than once we've been had to duck as a disoriented bird flies out of its roost and attempts to figure out how to get off the porch without apparently having thought about it ahead of time.  Twice birds have actually built nests in the vine but then did not stick around to use the nest. That may or may not be due to the disturbance of us coming and going; some birds seem to build more nests than they actually need.  That made it easier for the mourning doves who showed up this spring, since they started with a nest that had already been built for them by a mockingbird.  The dove was mostly completely unperturbed by our constant comings and goings (it helps to talk out loud as we approach and not linger).  Last week, I noticed she was sitting up very high on the nest and guessed that the babies were getting big.  Not long afterwards, I saw the adult picking at weed seeds on the sidewalk below so I took the chance to spy on the nest and saw two fuzzy heads.  On Saturday, I spotted the babies out of the nest for the first time.  

I first saw one of them when I was filling a watering can in the garden.  It flushed up onto the picket fence and sat there watching me curiously for several minutes, while its parent watched from under an oak tree a bit further away.  I walked away and went inside in case it was spooked, but my husband and I watched it from the window for a long time.  I went out a little bit later to refill the birdbath and saw both the fledglings in the garden bed.  I took some snapshots as quick as I could so as not to disturb them, but they really don't seem very disturbed by us.  Maybe they are used to us since they have seen us coming and going and heard our voices since before they hatched.  Both fledglings have spent all of their time in the garden beds within the picket fence surrounding our small patio for three days.  We've been able to find them almost every time we look out the window and have seen them being fed, napping, and just sitting around staring out into space.  I have avoided spending too much time in the area but when I came home from work they were sitting out in the open and giving me a blandly curious look like an infant watching a ceiling fan.  They are much fuzzier looking than the parents and just all around cute.   I've heard that mourning doves can hatch up to four broods in a season, so I have a funny feeling the garden beds around my patio are going to be pretty neglected this summer. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

April Bloom Day

Happy Bloom Day!  Happy Spring!  It's Garden Blogger's Bloom Day, which means we get to see what's blooming in each other's gardens.  Many thanks to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting.

It's amazing how fast things come and go and in the spring.  There are flowers that bloomed after March Bloom Day that didn't last until April Bloom Day.  I didn't anticipate that there would be blooms that would be so uncooperative!  Wisteria and Spanish Bluebells were great, but no longer, alas.  But now the Golden Showers Rose is ramping up to its biggest show of the year.  I've posted photos of its open blooms before, so this time I will show one its beautiful buds.  Sometimes when I "deadhead" this (it's in quotes because I'm not very thorough about deadheading) I put the spent petals in my jacket pocket and enjoy the surprise of its lovely scent throughout the day.

Speaking of uncooperative, it was much too sunny and windy to get the best photos for Bloom Day.  Oh well, here's the best of what's blooming now anyway.  Some of the late bulbs are putting on a good show, hardy gladiolus and Dutch iris.
Unfortunately, I don't remember what this little blooming onion is called.  I believe it is an eastern native, but I bought it from a Dutch bulb company.
The Atamasco Lily, below, is certainly a native Eastern U.S. plant.  There is a lovely description of these and other rain lilies in the first chapter of Scott Ogden's Garden Bulbs for the South that convinces me that I need more.
In the dappled shade, another native plant is blooming, Golden Alexander.  I read this is a host plant for Black Swallowtails but so far my Black Swallowtails have been concentrating on parsley and dill in the herb garden on the other side of the house.
Also blooming in the shade is this non-native variegated Solomon's Seal.
It's hard for me to get good photos of the shrubs that are blooming now because of the sunny windy conditions, but here's a closeup of a Viburnum flower.  I think this is Viburnum plicatum, Doublefile Viburnum.  Also in bloom but not shown is my Red Buckeye, Aesculus pavia.  Mine is very small and this is only the second year it has blooms.  I wish I could take it down the street in a little red wagon to see a huge red buckeye, hanging over a brick wall, that wows me every time I drive by on my way to work.  It's good to give your plants an inspiring mentor if you can.
Next is a plant that I like but that always seems out of place.  The red hot poker really seems like it would be more at home in the summer garden than in the spring.  What on earth can I put with it to make it look more settled?
On the flip side, some blooms that also seem quite out of place, but because they seem to belong to early spring.  The Baby Moon daffodils always bloom very late for me if they bloom at all.  I would be happier with them if they were more consistent bloomers but there is something they are not happy about in all four of the places I've tried them.  I think I will try to get a tiny daffodil like this that blooms earlier, Narcissus willkommii for instance. 
Finally, a shrub that I posted about on both January's and February's Bloom Days.  I would have posted it in December also, if I'd had a blog then.  I didn't post a photo in March because I didn't want to be too repetitive. But when it's still blooming in April, that's just too amazing not to make note of.  Here for another encore is the flowering quince.  I have to admit that I would prefer all its blooms at once rather than in small handfuls, but its hard to complain about a plant that blooms for five consecutive months.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Open Sesame

I found this interesting little blob -- a moth's cocoon if I am correct -- the other day when I was cutting down last year's dried aster stalks.  Let me pause a moment to beg of you, if you are the kind of gardener who flinches at the thought that I was cutting back dried stalks well after the daffodils have come and gone in the spring, that you try not to imagine what it looked like when I cut back only three-quarters of the stalks and left a lopsided clump of them remaining standing for the convenience and safety of this small creature.  Furthermore, don't even think about the fact that this particular clump of aster, the only perennial I had not already cut down in fact, is right at the corner of the front walk leading to my front door.  Anyway, when I first spotted it, it didn't look quite like this.  It didn't have the hole.  The emergence of my newest garden visitor happened yesterday, while I was at work.  Go figure.  This looks similar to photos I've found on the web of Promethea moth cocoons, but I don't know for sure that there aren't other moths that might make similar ones.  I hope it is a Promethea.  I hope I get to see the adult moth.  But even if not, I'm happy to host creatures like this in my garden.  Even if it means some incomplete spring cleanup.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


I sowed arugula in a pot on my deck in the fall and it survived through the winter, as I had read that it would.  Unfortunately, I didn't end up harvesting most of it because I kept expecting it to get bigger.  It never really got past the "baby arugula" stage before blooming.  I'm letting it bloom, hoping I can collect seed and try again next fall.  I'm not sure what I did wrong.  Possibly I just sowed too late in the fall, but I was waiting for it to cool down a bit; I don't think it can take the heat of our late summers.  I also realized (duh!) that the spot on the deck does not get as much sun during the winter as it gets during the summer, because the lower winter sun doesn't clear the house as long during the day.  Maybe next winter I need to put the pots out front on the south side of the house.  Always a learning experience....  At least the flowers are cute.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Dutch Iris

Spring is flying by.  My garden has arrived at a kind of awkward stage where there doesn't seem to be a lot blooming.  Driving around I see lots of azaleas and dogwoods, but I don't have very many azaleas since I know deer like them and I get a lot of deer browsing.  When I take a careful look, I realize that I do have several things in bloom.  Maybe if I group them better it will look more like I have a real garden, but it might just be that for this brief window in spring, my garden will never look as flowery as the rest of the world.  Oh well, in a few days their azaleas will be gone and I'll still have ... what?  Well, a little of this and that, anyway.  I'm looking forward to the swath of larkspur that is just about to explode.  I have chamomile that charms me every spring around the same time, too, and the first stem is already blooming (along with cilantro). 

For now, what I'm most enjoying are the Dutch Iris.  These bulbs do well for me and multiply each year.  I originally bought a mix and ended up hating some of the colors so much I dug some up and threw them in the compost.  That might be the first plant I ever bought that I intentionally killed.  On the other hand, I adore these ones, that combine my favorite garden colors, blue and yellow.  These are really blue, not purple or lilac or indigo.  Yum.

This particular individual flower is a bit weird.  Do you see it?  On most of the flowers, there are three yellow falls and three blue standards.  This one has two yellow falls, two blue standards, and a mutant blue-and-yellow freak petal.  Here's a close-up of the mutant petal.  It's kind of beautiful in its own right... which is not going to prevent me from pulling it up and putting it in the compost of the rest of the flower buds on the stalk open like this too.  I'm pretty curious to know if this kind of "sport" is common.  I haven't noticed it before.
There were also a lot of white iris in the mix.   Initially I wasn't crazy about them, but I gave them another chance and now that they have multiplied into a decent size clump I like them a lot more.  They blend very nicely with the deep purple ones. 

The only problem with the Dutch iris is that, unlike most (or all?) other iris varieties, the foliage is nothing to write home about.  It doesn't even necessarily wait until the flowers are done blooming before it starts looking hideous.  I need to come up with something to plant with it that will be green and full at this time, leaving just enough head room for the iris to stick out the top.  The larkspur actually is about the right height in some spots, but is a bit too short near the iris.  I have marjoram that might be tall enough right now to hide some unsightly foliage... something to think about.  Any other ideas?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is a huge patch of forested swamp lying on the border between Southeastern Virginia and Northeastern North Carolina.  It's less than an hour away from my suburban home but seems like another world.  I've heard stories about entire runaway slave colonies being hidden in this vast wilderness.  Obviously that was long ago, but it's not hard to imagine a small clandestine city thriving there undetected by anyone.  Last year lightening started a forest fire that burned 6000 acres.  People in this area grumbled about the smoke.  But no one needed to worry about their homes, because it was a tiny portion of the refuge's acreage deep in the center.  It amazes me that this exists smack in the middle of the Eastern Seaboard with urban and suburban spaces all around.

My husband and I visited this weekend ostensibly with the idea of birdwatching.  There are amazing birds in the swamp.  We hear incredible, unfamiliar birdsong every time we go.  And every time we go, even this time when we specifically went with the idea of getting there before the trees fully leafed out, we have trouble spotting very many of them.  The huge density of trees and shrubs, fully in leaf or not, means that a bird can be belting out its spring song at high volume very close by and still be utterly and completely hidden.  We did get to see some very cool birds, a white-eyed vireo, prairie warbler and others, but it didn't take long for other spring features of the swamp to convince us to promote cameras over binoculars and make it a photo expedition.

There were a surprising number of wildflowers.  I often think of spring wildflowers as primarily the herbaceous ephemeral wildflowers you find on the forest floor, but the stars of this visit were incredible blooming shrubs.  This deliciously fragrant native deciduous azalea (Swamp Coast Azalea, perhaps?  Rhododendron atlanticum) was beautiful both in flower (above) and in bud (below).  The clear black water in the canals (some of them dug by George Washington) has more tannin in it than a cup of Earl Gray.  It made a beautiful inky black background to show off the white blooms.

This native flowering vine is familiar to me from my own front porch, Carolina jasmine (Gelsemium sepervirens).

I was just reading about native plants in the heath family in the March/April 2012 issue of The American Gardener magazine, so I recognize that this shrub is probably in the Leucothoe genus, but beyond that I'm just guessing that it's Leucothoe fontanesiana, or Doghobble.

The Red Maples (Acer rubrum) bloom very early in the spring and are now already putting out seed capsules.  A few trees were festooned with beautiful peachy orange keys like these.

The Great Dismal Swamp also seems to be heaven for butterflies.  It warmed my heart to see so many so early in the season.  There were small butterflies like Carolina Satyrs, Horace's Duskywings, Spring Azures, and dozens of one of my favorites, the tiny Pearl Crescent....

Swallowtails were also out in force.  Palamedes Swallowtails are very common in the swamp, as is their host plant, the Redbay, Persea borbonia.  This is a rare (for me) view of the underside of the wing. 

This Palamedes was "mud puddling" with a group of Tiger Swallowtails.  We also saw a cluster of up to eight Zebra Swallowtails obtaining nutrient from a pile of manure.  Butterflies and gardeners share the same tastes, equally happy with a field of beautiful flowers or a big pile of manure.

Finally just before we turned back for a late lunch, we spotted this Luna moth.  It was sleeping, perhaps, or whatever moths do during the day, and didn't react to us at all.  Once again, the tea-black water makes the perfect background for the photo.  

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Macro Monday: Great Dismal Swamp

I took a trip this weekend with my husband to the Great Dismal Swamp, an amazing, eerily wild place that is less than an hour away from home.  The swamp is bursting into spring with new growth, birdsong, butterflies, and wildflowers.  This exquisitely colored Red Maple samara (Acer rubrum) is just to give a taste of what we saw.  Check back in later this week for more photos and descriptions of the swamp.  Meanwhile, go to Lisa's Chaos and check out other Macro Monday posts.