After writing this blog for over 5.5 years, my obsession should be apparent to everyone: I am endlessly fascinated by the natural world, especially the inhabitants of my five acres of green chaos in the piedmont region of North Carolina. Case in point? I’ve been unfolding folded leaves like the one above for years and years. Until a week or so ago, every time I unfolded the leaf, it was empty inside. But I persevered, stopping at every spicebush growing in my yard (a dozen or so), searching for curled leaves, and uncoiling them in the hopes of finding treasure within. Finally, last week, I scored.
Isn’t it amazing? I think it’s so clever of Mother Nature to have had this caterpillar evolve large spots on its hind end. Most entomologists believe the coloration is supposed to make hungry birds think “Snake!” when they find it, and fly away. The caterpillars hide within coiled leaves by day and emerge to feed at night. I knew the caterpillars were there, because I’ve seen many Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies in my yard this year — and many eaten spicebush leaves. But the caterpillars eluded me until now.
When I wasn’t hunting elusive caterpillars or admiring and photographing the numerous pollinators in my garden this summer, I’ve been writing a couple of articles for publication. The editor of the NC Native Plant Society Newsletter asked me to write a piece on native deciduous azaleas for the fall edition. I was happy to oblige.
And the editor of the NC Botanical Garden’s magazine, Conservation Gardener, invited me to write an article for its second edition. The magazine is a benefit of membership, and I think the second edition is even better than the first one.
This time, I was asked to write about winterizing our yards and gardens sustainably. I really enjoyed putting this one together, especially because I was able to interview several staff members at the NC Botanical Garden so I could share their ideas.
If you click on the photos in this entry, you’ll get a larger version that will show a few more details. But I hope this may encourage gardeners in the southeastern US who are not yet members of the NC Botanical Garden to join. The new magazine is relevant to gardeners in the Southeast, even if you aren’t close enough to visit often. And membership rates include discounts for seniors, students, and volunteers.
If you are close enough to visit, I hope I’ll see you this Friday, September 23, for Members’ Night of the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. If you click on this link, you’ll see a link to a printable list of all the plants that will be for sale that evening. I’ll be stationed at a table handing out lists of suggested natives for various situations/growing conditions. All the plants on these lists will be for sale that evening. And don’t forget that as a member, you get a 10% discount on all your purchases.
If you come to the sale, please stop by and say hello.
I know that many of my readers are, like me, dedicated long-time gardeners. We speak fair botanical Latin. We know what we mean when we say “part sun,” or “drought-resistant.”
But we also see plenty of neighborhoods full of houses landscaped with lots of fescue lawns, perhaps a sad little tree or two stuck in the middle of the green expanse, and some evergreen shrubs planted along house foundations, often pruned into geometric shapes not found in nature. Many of you old-pro gardeners may not realize it, but living in many of those regimented-looking, nearly biologically sterile neighborhoods are folks who would like to do more with their yards. They want butterflies and birds, but they haven’t got any idea how to attract them. And they don’t know where to start.
That’s actually why I started writing this blog back in January 2011. And it’s why I volunteer at the plant help desk at the NC Botanical Garden. I enjoy sharing what I know, trying to make that information accessible to folks new to the southeast (They are legion.), or just new to gardening.
I’ve been telling my readers about the NC Botanical Garden’s upcoming Fall Plant Sale for several weeks now. It’s the weekend after this coming one, by the way. That sale can be a bit overwhelming to some folks, because an enormous array of native species is offered for sale — table after table of pots of various sizes, all organized alphabetically by their Latin names. There are signs for every species with photos of mature plants and their flowers, information on how big they will grow, what growing conditions they need. But, still, it can be hard to know where to begin.
Thus, I am delighted to share with you that, this year, the folks at the NC Botanical Garden will be making it a bit easier for less experienced gardeners to pick out plants suitable for their yards with two new features. First, I am working with the staff to develop lists of suggested plants for certain situations. For example, at a table on Members’ Night, you’ll be able to pick up a list of suggested natives — all for sale that evening — suited for a sunny pollinator garden to provide blooms throughout the growing season. This list won’t contain all the possible options; we intend these lists to be starting points. With the pollinator garden list in hand, you can find a plant on the list, read more about it on the sign on the table, and decide if it is something you want to add to your garden. There will be lists of plants that like moisture (as for rain gardens or pond or stream banks) and ones for dry areas too. Again, these lists won’t be exhaustive, but they will give you a place to start.
The staff at the NC Botanical Garden has come up with one other new feature that any gardener trying to add native food sources for our pollinator and other insects will appreciate. As Douglas Tallamy wrote in his now-classic Bringing Nature Home, without the native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses that insects eat during their larval stages, their adult stages will not be available to pollinate our crops, and birds and other animals will die if they don’t have these immature and/or adult insects to eat. An entomologist by profession, Dr. Tallamy compiled lists of which native insects rely on which native plant species. Many insects only eat one species of plant. If it disappears, so do they.
That’s why I think it’s wonderful that the staff of the NC Botanical Garden has created the sign above to inform customers about how many insect species rely on particular plant species. These numbers come from Dr. Tallamy’s research, so you won’t see these signs for every plant at the sale. But when you do see one, you’ll know that the plant in question plays a key role in our local native food chain. When you buy a native blueberry plant, you’ll get a beautiful addition to your landscape that will produce berries and lovely fall color; but you’ll also be increasing available food sources for native insects, birds, and other wildlife — a win-win all around!
I hope I’ll see many of you at the plant sale on Sept. 23-24. The staff at the NC Botanical Garden has worked hard to contextualize their offerings to make it easy for you to figure out what will work best for your landscape. Please come out and pick up some plants to feed your local natives — and to support the only public garden in piedmont North Carolina with the central mission of educating folks about the beauty and importance of native plants.
I love trees. All sizes, colors, species — as long as they’re natives or well-behaved non-natives. No invasive exotic species, please!
We’ve all appreciated the welcome shade of a wide-reaching oak, or the Christmasy scent of pines in a cozy grove. Trees symbolize stability; their roots anchor deeply into earth; their branches reach forever skyward.
In the southeastern US, the best time to plant trees is mid-to-late fall through late winter. I usually try to get all my planting done before the end of February, but if March holds on to winter’s chill, I’ll pop in a few more new trees and shrubs during that month too. As long as the ground isn’t frozen, the roots of new dormant trees can grow, allowing them to develop strong anchor and feeding roots before summer’s heat stresses them.
Planting trees — especially our native canopy species — requires vision — time-traveling vision, actually. You must visualize the magnificent specimen your tree will become long after you are gone. You plant these trees for your children, and their children. These are family trees.
Not only human families will appreciate your visionary plantings. Myriad species of native wildlife rely on mature/maturing canopy trees for shelter and food. In Douglas Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, he provides a table that lists these tree species and the number of lepidopteran (moths and butterflies) species that rely on these trees to feed their caterpillar stages.
Given the time-scale required for an oak or hickory, a tulip poplar or a sweet gum to reach maturity, we all need to find room in our home landscapes for at least one of these essential family trees. Here are a few examples of native canopy trees with the time it takes them to reach maturity, and the number of moth and butterfly species that Tallamy says rely on them for larval food:
- White Oak (Quercus alba) — 300-600 years to maturity — 534 species of moths and butterflies
- Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) — 100-300 years to maturity — 203 species of moths and butterflies
- Red Maple (Acer rubrum) — 130-300 years to maturity — 285 species of moths and butterflies
- Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) — 200-300 years to maturity — 200 species of moths and butterflies
- American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) — 300-400 years to maturity — 126 species of moths and butterflies
Now think about all the insect-eating birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians that eat the insects that rely on these great trees. Of course, many of these creatures also live in these trees. Truly, these are family trees, and we are all members of this family.
I hope you’ll consider planting some new native family trees this fall. If you can, plant them with a child to remind both of you that family trees link us through generations, reaffirming our ties to all species, reminding us that we are all lost without trees.
In the southeastern US piedmont region where I live, I am happy to report that more and more homeowners are adding native pollinator gardens to their landscapes. By providing sources of pollen, nectar, and leaves of plants that native bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, etc. rely on, we are all helping to replace at least some of the native ecosystems obliterated by urbanization that once fed these insects. As Douglas Tallamy explains in his book, Bringing Nature Home, if we lose our native pollinators and other insects, we also lose the native wildlife that eats these insects — birds, bats, frogs, etc.
One of the poster-insects for the plight of our native pollinators is the Monarch Butterfly. Reports seem to vary every year recently regarding the status of this beautiful species, but it seems clear that we should all continue to add to our landscapes the native food plants that this butterfly relies on: milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)
Milkweeds are a test of patience for gardeners. New transplants don’t usually bloom prolifically the first year after planting. These plants spend that first year establishing healthy root systems. But by their third year in your garden, you will agree that milkweeds are worth the wait — for the beauty of their prolonged flowering, for their fat, brown pods from which seeds escape on silken parachutes, and for the diversity of pollinators that dine on their flowers, and the Monarch Butterfly caterpillars that devour the plants.
For gardeners wondering which species of milkweed to try in their gardens, I recommend three options. These are the easiest to grow, and also the most readily available in the trade.
- Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) is native to moist areas and can handle some shade. However, it thrives in standard garden beds, as long as you water it during droughts, and perhaps a bit extra during its first year as it is establishing. In return, you will get three-foot-tall plants covered in clusters of pink flowers. There’s also a white-blooming variety of this species, but I think the pink forms are much lovelier. A well-established plant will bloom for at least a month, and will be visited dawn to dusk by happy pollinators. If you’re lucky, these visitors will include some Monarch butterflies.
- Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa) is native to hot, sunny hillsides. It’s not unusual to see it growing on unmowed road banks in my region. The trick to this species that produces bright orange flowers is excellent drainage. If it sits for long in too-moist soil, it will forsake you. The plants I’ve added grow bigger every year, producing more and more flowering branches literally abuzz with happy pollinators.
- Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) thrives in moist, sunny places. It is not as showy as the first two species above, but it seems to be the favorite food plant of Monarch Butterfly caterpillars, perhaps because it is the most commonly occurring milkweed species on patches of undeveloped land. I tucked mine toward the back of a flower bed, where they can grow tall while waiting for Monarchs to find them. I planted mine in my boulder bed, and they haven’t bloomed for me, possibly because they don’t get quite enough sun. But they grow well, producing tall, green plants, and last year Monarch caterpillars ate them literally to the ground. However, the plants returned in greater numbers this year, which is when I realized that this species spreads via running rhizomes. As Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manger at the North Carolina Botanical Garden told me, you plant this species once, and you will never need to plant it again, because of its ability to spread itself via rhizomes.
Milkweeds are slow to emerge in spring, far later than many other native perennials. But once they appear, they grow quickly, and soon the pollinator visits begin. Two pests will also eventually show up.
Bright orange Oleander aphids inevitably appear on every milkweed species I grow, but they seem to favor Common Milkweed. So-called because they also feed on oleanders, these aphids are orange to warn potential predators that they are poisonous, having ingested the toxins in milkweed that cause deer, rabbits, and other plant-eaters to pass them by. These aphid infestations can get pretty ugly. I control mine by donning garden gloves and simultaneously spraying the stems with a strong jet of water while rubbing off the aphids with my fingers. Aphids are poor climbers; once knocked down by the water, they have trouble getting back up the stems.
Milkweed bugs usually show up eventually on some of my milkweeds. These can be destructive to developing seed pods, because they suck out the nutrients in the pods, thereby stunting them. If they get out of hand on my plants, with my gloves on, I pick them off and drop them in a jar of soapy water, where they quickly die. Most years, I never see very many of these insects, which makes me wonder if some bird eats them despite their possible toxicity.
A Few Other Milkweed Species
Being a somewhat obsessive gardener, if I like a genus of native plants, I’ll often try to grow as many different species as I can. Thus, I grow a few additional species of milkweed. This is the second year for my Whorled Milkweed (A. verticillata). Until it blooms, you wouldn’t even believe it’s a milkweed. That’s how un-milkweed-like its leaves look, at least to me. But its small white clusters of flowers are unmistakably milkweed blooms, and this year the plant has formed a lovely small shrubby plant that continues to produce flowers popular with an array of pollinators.
The flowers of Red Milkweed are similar to those of Swamp Milkweed, and they share a preference for the same growing conditions. I grow mine in a pot that sits in my summer water feature. It blooms in early spring, but doesn’t re-bloom.
Fewflower Milkweed is native to swampy parts of the coastal plain region up and down the eastern coast of the US. I planted this in one of my summer water feature pots last year, but it didn’t bloom. But this year, beginning about two weeks ago and still going strong, the plant began to produce clusters of peachy-orange flowers. The color is not as in-your-face as that of Butterfly Weed flowers, but as the common name implies, each flower cluster contains a relatively small number of flowers. They are as popular with pollinators as the other milkweed species, but probably not a practical choice for most piedmont gardeners.
I think native milkweeds should be on every gardener’s list of must-have perennials. For an investment of some patience on your part, you will be rewarded with prolonged, colorful blooms visited by swarms of bees and butterflies. And if you’re really lucky, perhaps you’ll get the chance to watch a Monarch caterpillar transform into a chrysalis, and then a butterfly, as I did last year.
Fall is a great time to plant milkweeds in your garden, and you can get the three species I suggested — plus perhaps a few more — at the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale next month. I’ll be there on Member’s Night to get first crack at all the wonderful plants that will be offered. I hope I’ll see you there!
Does your yard include a bit of shade, perhaps at the edge of a stand of taller trees, with soil that remains relatively moist — even wet — for most of the year? Or maybe your yard includes a low spot, where rainwater pools during prolonged downpours — another spot ideally suited for this native woodland shrub, which can be found in every state east of the Mississippi River, naturally occurring near streams, swamps or moist forest slopes.
When the berries on the female plants are ripe, they turn a deep scarlet, which contrasts beautifully with the bush’s deep green leaves. In my yard, the berries rarely last more than a month; the local birds must find them especially tasty.
The shrub gets its name from the sweet-spicy fragrance of its leaves, which also serves to deter browsing by deer. Some people make a tea from the leaves and twigs, and the dried, powdered fruits can be used as a nutmeg substitute.
Our local Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies use the shrub as a primary food source for their caterpillars. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars will also dine on the leaves, as will the big, beautiful Promethea Silkmoth.
I realized immediately that this favorite native understory shrub would do well on our floodplain, so we planted several. The birds took it from there. Now we have spicebushes growing in places that I didn’t think would be good habitat. The birds “planted” them all over my cool, shady north-facing slope, even at the top of the hill, where the soil gets quite dry during most summers. But the shrubs have had no trouble adapting to those growing conditions.
Thus, I conclude that this shrub can handle a wider range of growing conditions than you might expect, based on where they naturally occur. I think the key is shade from hot afternoon sun. If you ensure that this shrub is always sheltered from the worst of our summer heat, you will be rewarded with glossy-leaved shrubs in summer adorned by bright red berries (until the birds find them), followed by warm golden yellow autumn color that lingers until the first hard freeze.
You will find a fine array of healthy spicebush plants at the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. Because you can’t tell the sex of a seedling that hasn’t yet bloomed, I recommend that you buy at least three of these wonderful native shrubs, increasing the likelihood that you get at least one male and one female plant. After they are established in your landscape and the female shrubs begin producing bright red berries, your local birds will “plant” a few more for you.
My corner of southeastern US Piedmont has been blessed with steady — but not excessive — rainfall all summer this year. I cannot remember a growing season like this one. All the plants — weeds included — have responded with enthusiasm. And so have the animals, including most every native pollinator — and pollinator predator — that one expects to see in my region.
This growing season will be remembered by me as the summer of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. Never have more of these beauties adorned every blooming plant in my yard, animating the landscape with their slow, drifting flights from flower to flower, often bumping into me as I stood nearby, camera in hand, trying to capture their wondrous abundance. Many flowers have attracted these butterflies, but of all my plants, my healthy stand of native wildflower, Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), deserves special recognition for its power to attract, not only Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, but also just about every other native pollinator in the neighborhood.
Truly, it has been a perpetual pollinator party on the Joe Pye Weed since it started blooming over a month ago. And it is still blooming! I cannot recommend this native wildflower enough for anyone planting — or adding to — a pollinator garden bed. It’s a can’t-miss pollinator magnet. For those of you interested in planting for native birds, Joe Pye Weed is an excellent choice. Insect-eating birds will delight in harvesting a few pollinators as they work Joe’s flowers. And when the pink flower heads ripen to tan-brown seed heads, seed-eating birds like our native Goldfinches will happily dine on the seeds.
This native wildflower naturally occurs along creeks and wetland areas, but it adapts with no difficulty to garden beds, as long as you water it a bit during dry spells. My clump has grown larger every year without much supplemental water at all. The species can top out at about 6 feet, which might be a bit tall for some landscapes, but it is easy to find shorter cultivars at local nurseries that stop at three or four feet, and I’ve found that if you cut the growing stalks of the tall form by about half in early summer, they will bloom at about four feet instead of six, making them less floppy after summer thunderstorms.
Joe Pye Weed is also not picky about the amount of sunlight it needs. It will bloom a bit more prolifically in full sun, but I’ve got stands of it in shady spots in my yard, and the flowers on those plants are almost as abundant — and also enjoyed by numerous pollinators.
I confess I have spent perhaps too much time this summer sitting in front of the Joe Pye Weed in my new pollinator bed (more about that soon). The constant dance of pollinators drifting in and out, the drama of predators snagging unwary insects, the kaleidoscopic colors — it’s all very hypnotic — and soothing.
We are fast approaching the optimal season for planting perennials, shrubs, and trees in our region. Fall is for planting, as we say in these parts, because the air is cool but not icy, so roots can establish thoroughly before plants go into winter sleep, enhancing their vigor and drought resistance when the spring growing season arrives. If you are planning to plant — or add to — a pollinator- and/or bird-friendly garden this fall, be sure that Joe Pye Weed is part of your plan, whether it be the straight species, or one of the many fine cultivars available.
There’s no better place to purchase all the native plants you need for your upcoming fall-planting projects than at the Fall Plant Sale at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. This year, Members’ Night is Friday, September 23, and the sale is open to the general public on Saturday morning, September 24. Not only do members get first dibs on the vast array of natives offered at this sale, they also get a 10% discount on their purchases. And for you procrastinators out there, you can join at the door on Members’ Night. I encourage all the native plant lovers within driving distance of Chapel Hill to put this don’t-miss plant-buying party on your calendars now. And be sure to pick up some Joe Pye Weed, so your pollinators can party on it next growing season.
Flowers and fruits abound as we celebrate the arrival of the Summer Solstice, which in my area, will arrive at 6:34 this evening. This year — the first time since 1948 around here — the solstice’s arrival will be enhanced by a full moon. The myriad fireflies that dance in my landscape after sunset may have trouble being seen as they compete for visibility with that bright orb in our night sky. But she will dim in a few days, and the fireflies will dance for another month or so.
Late spring was kind to us this year, and most plants are only just now beginning to notice that the frequent rains have diminished, that the temperatures are trending suddenly much higher, and our famous southeastern humidity has arrived to make humans sweat even during early morning tasks outside.
Yesterday shortly after sunrise, I was in the vegetable garden tying enthusiastic tomato shoots to their trellises, watering thirsty beans and squashes, and hunting drowsy insect pests before the sun energized them when I heard cicadas thrumming for the first time this year. One day ahead of the arrival of the solstice, I thought perhaps they were testing their instruments to ensure they could greet Summer with fully tuned accompaniment.
Busy insects abound. Dragonflies patrol the skies for tasty morsels, honeybees and myriad other bee species diligently visit flowers from dawn to dusk, mosquitoes buzz, flies swarm, ladybugs devour sluggish aphids — it’s a jungle out there.
I spend too much time these days taking photographs, as I vainly try to capture early summer’s energy and diversity. But it’s all so wonderful, I can’t help myself. Do you remember that feeling of release and energy that overwhelmed you every June when your elementary school let out for the summer? Our futures glowed with possibilities filled with sunshine, warm water, fireflies in bottles, and long, warm evenings playing with friends, or sitting with elders on wide porches listening to their stories of summers past.
Summer’s arrival is a moment of infinite possibilities for gardeners too. Sweat equity starts to pay off handsomely in fresh green beans, tender squash, refreshing cucumbers, and the ultimate reward — fresh tomato-basil sandwiches — truly the taste of summer at my house.
Savor Summer’s soft side today, my friends, for soon we begin the hard slog through heat and humidity, rampant bugs and insidious fungal diseases. But today — today we embrace the new season with hopes for bountiful harvests, the welcoming symphony of thunderstorm rains, and nights full of fireflies, cicada songs, and family gatherings.
Happy Summer Solstice to all!