Archive for category Favorite Plants

Contextualizing Our Native Environment

What is it? Will it grow in your yard?

What is it? Will it grow in your yard?

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.

Evergreen leaves, not a favorite of deer, beautiful, long-lasting flowers. Do you know this one?

Evergreen leaves, not a favorite of deer, beautiful, long-lasting flowers. Do you know this one?

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.

This native pollinator magnet is new to my garden this year.

This native pollinator magnet is new to my garden this year.

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.

Another native new addition to my garden this year.

Another native new addition to my garden this year.

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.

This native pollinator magnet can handle sun and shade, as long as it doesn't go too long between rains.

This native pollinator magnet can handle sun and shade, as long as it doesn’t go too long between rains.

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.

A new feature for this year's NCBG plant sale

A new feature for this year’s NCBG plant sale

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!

Feed a caterpillar; feed our native world.

Feed a caterpillar; feed our native world.

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.

The future of our pollinators will depend on the choices you make about your landscape.

The future of our pollinators depends on the choices you make about your landscape.

 

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Planting Family Trees

Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata)

Top of Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata)

I love trees. All sizes, colors, species — as long as they’re natives or well-behaved non-natives. No invasive exotic species, please!

Loblolly pine

Loblolly pine

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.

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

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.

Mature Sweet Gum -- top two-thirds

Mature Sweet Gum — top two-thirds

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.

A "young" White Oak

A “young” White Oak

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.

Woodpecker hole in a blooming mature Red Maple.

Woodpecker hole in a blooming mature Red Maple.

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.

This tree is part of a group of River Birches, all 80 feet or taller.

This tree is part of a group of River Birches, all 80 feet or taller.

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.

 

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Worth the Wait: Milkweed Magic

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

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.

A freshly emerged Monarch Butterfly

A freshly emerged Monarch Butterfly

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.)

Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata)

Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata)

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.

A honeybee enjoying Swamp Milkweed blooms.

A honeybee enjoying Swamp Milkweed blooms.

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.
Honeybees on Butterfly Weed

Honeybees on Butterfly Weed

  • 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)

Common Milkweed (A. syriaca)

  • 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.

Milkweed Pests

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.

Oleander aphids on Common Milkweed

Oleander aphids on Common Milkweed

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.

A Milkweed bug

A Milkweed bug

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

Snowberry Clearwing moth visiting flowers of Whorled Milkweed.

Snowberry Clearwing moth visiting flowers of Whorled Milkweed.

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.

Without the flowers, I'd never guess the identity of Whorled Milkweed.

Without the flowers, I’d never guess the identity of Whorled Milkweed.

Red Milkweed (A. rubra)

Red Milkweed (A. rubra)

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 (A. lanceolata)

Fewflower Milkweed (A. lanceolata)

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.

Swamp Milkweed pods releasing their seeds.

Swamp Milkweed pods releasing their seeds.

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.

Chrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly in development

Chrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly in development

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!

 

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Spicebush for Birds and Butterflies

Before forest leaves unfold in early spring, Spicebush flowers (Lindera benzoin) add their subtle sunshine to the landscape.

Before forest leaves appear in early spring, Spicebush flowers (Lindera benzoin) add their subtle sunshine to the landscape.

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.

The berries are a favorite of native fruit-eating birds.

The berries are a favorite of native fruit-eating birds.

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.

Fall color of a spicebush.

Fall color of a spicebush.

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.

Spicebush Swallowtail

Spicebush Swallowtail

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.

Its fall color is a reliable clear yellow that glows in the shade of canopy trees in the forest.

Its fall color is a reliable clear yellow that glows in the shade of canopy trees in the forest.

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.

A spicebush caught between summer and fall.

A spicebush caught between summer and fall.

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.

 

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Ode to Joe

Everybody loves Joe Pye Weed.

Everybody loves Joe Pye Weed.

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.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

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.

Ailanthus Webworm Moths delighting in Joe's flowers.

Ailanthus Webworm Moths delighting in Joe’s flowers.

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.

A Common Buckeye visiting Joe's flowers.

A Common Buckeye visiting Joe’s flowers.

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.

This Chinese Praying Mantis remained stationed on this clump of Joe Pye Weed for most of a week, harvesting unwary pollinators.

This Chinese Praying Mantis remained stationed on this clump of Joe Pye Weed for most of a week, harvesting unwary pollinators.

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.

A Green Anole perched on a Joe Pye Weed leaf, waiting to grab whatever drifts by.

A Green Anole perched on a Joe Pye Weed leaf, waiting to grab whatever drifts by.

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.

An American Lady delicately sips a Joe Pye Weed flower.

An American Lady delicately sips a Joe Pye Weed flower.

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.

Joe Pye Weeds -- and friends -- in my new pollinator bed

Joe Pye Weeds — and friends — in my new pollinator bed.

 

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Daily Daylilies — and Friends

Pink Betty

Pink Betty

We got another nine-tenths of an inch of rain just after midnight, complete with crashing thunder, vivid lightning, and torrential downpours. The frequent clouds and rain have slowed the progress of all the blooms in my yard this year, including the daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), which have usually begun their parade of blooms by the middle of May.

Finally, their annual show is underway, and thanks to a little attention in the form of weeding and mulching (thanks, Ray!), combined with copious rain, the blooms are abundant and brilliant. I love Pink Betty because she’s a little more simple than some of my daylilies, but she’s a beauty, and for reasons no doubt having to do with a childhood full of Saturday morning cartoons, I cannot think of her name without thinking of Betty Rubble.

May-May

May-May

When the sun began flirting with the clouds this morning, I stepped out into my soggy yard and took a few pictures, which is why all of the plants in this post are adorned with rain droplets. Daylilies, as most of you know, are so called because they open one flower per day. The open flower only lasts one day, but because a happy clump of daylilies produces many scapes (flower stems), the plants still provide a daily display of multiple blooms. May-May is another relatively demure bloomer. She offers clear yellow flowers with just a hint of ruffle around the edges.

Red Toy

Red Toy

You can’t tell it from its close view above, but Red Toy’s flowers are a bit smaller than some of the showier daylilies. It produces many scapes, and I like the way its smaller cherry-red flowers float among the greenery and blooms of the plants it grows beside.

Brocaded Gown

Brocaded Gown

Brocaded Gown is one of our fancier daylily varieties. She flaunts wide, deeply ruffled recurved creamy yellow petals. I think of her as one of the great ladies of my front garden.

Siloam Jim Cooper

Siloam Jim Cooper

Siloam Jim Cooper is another of my fancier daylilies. I believe the Siloam series always features what the daylily hybridizers call an eye — that darker ring toward the center of the bloom. I have a couple of varieties in the Siloam series. Jim here is a fire engine red bloomer. The flowers are not as large as those of Brocaded Gown, but like Red Toy, they are numerous, which makes for a great display, as you can see below.

Siloam Jim Cooper blooms

Siloam Jim Cooper blooms

Many other flowers are finally opening for business too. I’m hoping they will coax the butterflies to return. After an initial population explosion of mostly Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, the butterflies mostly vanished during the recent prolonged period of clouds and rain. In fact I only caught one species — I’m not sure of its identity — enjoying the blooms of the pickerel weed today.

I'm hoping more butterflies will return soon.

I’m hoping more butterflies will return soon.

I always grow a few zinnias among the vegetables. This year, I’m trying two varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The first bloom to open was Zinnia ‘Zowie! Yellow Flame.’ I think it’s well-named.

Zinnia 'Zowie! Yellow Flame'

Zinnia ‘Zowie! Yellow Flame’

My coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are finally starting to open. They are usually big pollinator magnets, so I’m delighted to see them. The first to open is the one nestled between two large boulders. I think perhaps their warmth gave these blooms an earlier start.

Purple coneflower blooms last a long time, and their centers provide a favorite landing pad for pollinators.

Purple coneflower blooms last a long time, and their centers provide favorite landing pads for pollinators.

Also in the boulder garden, I was delighted to see that one of my butterfly weeds had finally opened some flowers. It, too, is a huge pollinator magnet. I’m hoping the sunny week we are promised (after the passage of today’s strong and potentially scary cold front) will encourage all the insects to re-emerge from wherever they’ve been hiding.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a milkweed family member.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a milkweed family member.

Here’s hoping today’s weather shift is not accompanied by dangerous weather phenomena, and that we can all enjoy our gardens during these last weeks before the summer solstice.

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A Perfect Opportunity to Fill a Landscape Gap – or Two: The NC Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Festival on May 21

Native Rhododendron flammeum in full bloom.

Native Rhododendron flammeum in full bloom.

If you’ve lived in the southeastern piedmont region of the United States for long, you’ve probably heard the oft-repeated phrase, “fall is for planting.” And it is a guideline worth taking seriously. But every spring, many gardeners get itchy planting fingers. I know that after my vegetables and ornamental annuals are planted, my eye begins to spot those places in my landscape that would benefit from a new plant or two. Or three – self-control is a challenge for me, I confess, when it comes to new plant acquisitions.

Sensitive Fern is so named for its sensitivity to frost.

Sensitive Fern is so named for its sensitivity to frost.

The reason we mostly plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in the fall around here is because the heat and often drought of our summer season can be very hard on newly added plants. So if you see a spot in your landscape that is crying out for a few choice additions this spring, follow two simple rules:

  1. Give the new plants extra attention throughout the summer and fall. Of course, mulch them well, and if we go into a drought, these new plants will need extra water, because their root systems will not have had a chance to grow deeply before the heat hits. If we get an exceptionally prolonged heat wave, consider shading the new additions if they appear to be adversely impacted by the searing sun.
  2. Add plants that are native to the southeastern United States. The reasons for planting natives are myriad. I’ve enumerated some in a previous post here. But from a purely practical perspective, native plants are best adapted to our growing conditions, so you can expect them to weather our summers better than non-native choices – as long as you site them correctly, of course.
Swamp Milkweed is a food plant for Monarch caterpillars and a nectar source for many butterfly species, including this Spicebush Swallowtail.

Swamp Milkweed is a food plant for Monarch caterpillars and a nectar source for many butterfly species, including this Spicebush Swallowtail.

It’s not too late to even build a whole new bed or two. Do you have a sunny spot you could turn into a pollinator garden? How about a spot where all the water drains in your yard? Such areas are ideal for rain gardens that can contain flowers, shrubs, and trees that benefit from extra water and can tolerate occasionally flooded root systems. Is your yard one big shade garden? There’s always room for a new fern or two, a new shade-loving wildflower, or one of the many great native shrubs that will provide four-season interest for you, and food and cover for native wildlife.

The Perfect Place to Score Some Choice Native Plants

Next Saturday, May 21, the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) is making it easy for us to find all the special natives we might need in one convenient location. The Garden is hosting their first ever Native Plant Festival from 4:00-8:00 p.m. Of course, the Garden will have many of its wonderful native plants for sale. But to make the event irresistible, they have invited several local nurseries that specialize in growing choice native plants to also sell their wares at this event. Several of these growers are not open to the public, so this is a unique chance to see and purchase native lovelies that you’ll never see at your local big box store’s “garden center.” Specifically, these nurseries (in alphabetical order) will be selling at this event:

My planting fingers are getting itchy just from typing that! These are all wonderful local growers, and I believe I am growing plants from all of them, except S&J, and that’s only because I just don’t grow that many carnivorous plants. These growers will be offering locally grown natives, and much of their stock comes from local sources. Yup, they often gather seeds and cuttings from natives growing in our region to ensure the plants will be best adapted to our local conditions. That is never the case at the big box stores.

The Purple Milkweeds I recently acquired from Growing Wild Nursery are just starting to open for business.

The Purple Milkweeds I recently acquired from Growing Wild Nursery are just starting to open for business.

But wait, there’s more!

This event isn’t just for gardeners. Bring your spouses, your kids, and your grandkids. There will be live music, food trucks, tree-climbing and giant bubble making, a sale of gently used gardening books, a raffle, and eleven local conservation organizations will have tables staffed with volunteers who can answer your questions about their groups. So while we gardeners are fondling our native options, our families can be enjoying all these other activities.

For the best selection of popular natives like this milkweed, come early.

For the best selection of popular natives like this milkweed, come early.

The event lasts until 8:00 p.m., but if you want the best selection of plants, I suggest you get there when the doors open at 4:00 p.m. You can grab what you want, then enjoy the music and food, and mingle with your fellow native plant lovers.

Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manager extraordinaire at the NCBG, was kind enough to share with me the list of goodies he’ll be offering for sale from his greenhouse at this event. Here are a few highlights.

  • If you want to begin or add to your milkweed collection for your Monarch butterfly habitat garden, he’ll have five different species for sale: Clasping Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, Longleaf Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Butterfly Milkweed. Growing conditions vary for these species, so you should be able to find at least one that will do well in your landscape.
Monarch caterpillars dining on Common Milkweed.

Monarch caterpillars dining on Common Milkweed.

  • He’ll be offering several interesting native vines, including Climbing Carolina Aster (Ampleaster carolinanus), Potato Bean (Apios americana), Leather flower (Clematis viorna), Large-leaved Dutchman’s Pipevine (Isotrema macrophylla), and Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).
  • He’ll have a really nice selection of native ferns, grasses, and sedges, gazillions of great native wildflower options, and some choice native shrubs and small trees ideally suited for tucking into empty spots around your yard.
The main food source of Spicebush Swallowtails, native Spicebushes provide gorgeous fall color for shady spots in your landscape.

The main food source of Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars, native Spicebushes provide gorgeous fall color for shady spots in your landscape.

Ya’ll come!

So, my fellow native plant gardening enthusiasts, spend some time this week pondering your home landscape. Now that everything has leafed out, it will be easier to spot any gaps where a native azalea might dazzle the eye, or a bed of ferns might soften a shady spot. Then tell your families about the great event you’ll all be going to on May 21. Food, music, and plants – it doesn’t get much better than that.

I’ll see you there!

 

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Recovering from a Late-spring Hard Freeze

Freeze-killed new growth on American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Freeze-killed new growth on American Holly (Ilex opaca). Note that — so far — the flower buds appear unscathed.

The damage to one of my hollies (They all looked like this.) in the above photo occurred this past Wednesday, April 6, when the temperature at my house fell to 26.8 degrees. Unfortunately, late tonight and into the early hours of tomorrow before the sun returns, my area’s temperatures are predicted to be lower than this previous event. I am expecting my yard to see temperatures between 23-25 degrees for at least 8 hours. This one is going to hurt. A lot.

I am worse off than many, because I live in an area not yet completely encircled by concrete and asphalt. The heat-island effect that urban/suburban areas generate by absorbing the sun’s heat in man-made materials usually prevents temperatures from falling as low as they do at my house. Plus I live on a hill that slopes to a floodplain. Cold air is heavy and sinks, and as it slides down my hill, it pauses long enough to caress newly sprouted green shoots until they become brown, shriveled sludge.

Magnolia sprengeri 'Diva' after the recent freeze.

Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’ after the recent freeze.

If a miracle occurs and the roaring winds now driving in arctic air don’t diminish to stillness, the damage won’t be as bad. But odds are most of the fresh new green growth on canopy and understory trees, shrubs, and perennials will look the way my poor Magnolia ‘Diva’ in the above photo already looks.

This has happened once before in my years here. I called it the Black Spring, because literally every leaf on every canopy tree died. Finally about mid-June, the trees mustered a new flush of leaf growth, but it was a much-reduced push of foliage. That summer was hot and dry with no tree shade to hide in. Such a trauma leaves plants in a weakened state that makes them more vulnerable to disease and insect attacks. So how should you plan to recover from any freeze damage to plants at your house?

Reduce your expectations for the growing season

Perhaps your fruit and/or nut trees produced an abundance of flowers, followed by tender new leaves, as my pecan trees did. If tonight’s freeze kills that new growth, it is likely you won’t see much fruit this year.

My pecan trees are about 40 feet tall, and planted in one of the coldest spots in my yard (before I understood that area’s temperature issues). The growth of one tree was completely killed, as you can see in the second photo above. The other tree was heavily damaged, but still shows some green. It is closer to a tall stand of Eastern Red Cedars, which protected it somewhat.

But no matter. Pecans need two trees for good cross-pollination and nut production. The squirrels will see no pecans this season. And I will need to figure out a way to provide water to the completely killed tree if we go into drought, so that it can summon enough energy for a new flush of leaf growth. And to the other tree, too, if it suffers the same fate tonight.

Range of Wednesday freeze damage to my blueberry flowers

Range of Wednesday freeze damage to my blueberry flowers

Depending on what happens tonight, I may still have a few blueberries to harvest in a month or so. The early-bloomers had already set fruit, and I’m hoping — because they are still tiny — the cold won’t kill them. But as the photo above illustrates, still-blooming flowers were mostly damaged at least a bit. Odds are high that the later-blooming bushes will yield few if any berries this year.

Appreciate the wondrous early spring we enjoyed

Those of us who work with plants know that myriad circumstances can overrule our expectations at any moment. To be sure, we are always at the mercy of the weather. That’s one of the reasons I like to take pictures of my charges frequently during this time of year. I need the glamor shots to lift my spirits after the weather does its worst.

Know your yard’s cold spots before you plant, and know which plants are most cold-sensitive

As I noted above, I planted our pecan trees before I fully understood the microclimate variations on our property. I also didn’t realize the cold sensitivity of deciduous magnolias, native or otherwise.

My Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’ was unscathed by the first freeze. It blooms much earlier, so its flowers were done. And its leaves had been out much longer, so they had toughened up, unlike poor Elizabeth and Butterflies. The buds on my tall native Magnolia fraseri were still tightly closed during the first freeze, but they were swelling. My camera’s zoom lens revealed at least some freeze damage to those buds. Magnolia macrophylla had not even begun to enlarge its buds. The first freeze did not damage it. The reality in my yard is that my beloved early-blooming deciduous magnolias will always be damaged by freezing temperatures. The only variable is the duration of the freeze and the consequent extent of the damage.

Remember local wildlife

Normally by now, I’m tapering down the frequency with which I’m filling seed feeders to encourage disbursement of winter flocks of Northern Cardinals and other feeder-loving species. I always leave out one suet cake until the temperatures remain reliably warm, because woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding fledglings, and the harried-looking parents seem to really appreciate being able to stuff a bit of suet down a young one’s throat when they can’t find a tasty bug to quell the youngster’s clamoring.

A gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker sampling my suet feeder.

A gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker sampling my suet feeder.

My summer bird species are all mostly here now, and their bug supply has been adversely impacted by the freeze. Consequently, I’ve re-stocked the seed feeders and put out more suet. The warblers seem quite grateful for the suet, but I hadn’t seen them visit the feeders before Wednesday’s freeze. As I do throughout the year, I’m making sure all my bird baths are full of clean, unfrozen water.

Poisonous to humans, Pokeweed is a favorite food of Robins and many other native animals.

Poisonous to humans, Pokeweed is a favorite food of Robins and many other native animals.

In the woods adjacent to my house, tonight’s freeze may kill blackberry flower buds, damage new tender shoots of pokeweed, and turn fresh elderberry growth into mush. If that happens, the native fruits my birds rely on will be severely limited. I can’t really offer them anything equivalent, so it is likely they will relocate to areas where their wild foods were not damaged — if they can find such areas.

If a Black Spring darkens my door…

If tomorrow reveals another Black Spring for my yard, I will expect to see many fewer bird species while my trees struggle to re-leaf themselves. If drought appears, I’ll need to add water to challenged plants where I can. I can’t water canopy trees. For them, I can watch closely for signs of dying limbs, and disease and insect encroachment.

My beautiful ash trees are just pushing out tender leaves and flowers. I am worried about their chances tonight.

My beautiful ash trees are just pushing out tender leaves and flowers. I am worried about their chances tonight.

Summer annuals and summer-blooming perennials and woody plants will not be affected by the freeze directly, but the absence of shade provided by canopy trees will stress them, especially if the rains stop coming. My summer vegetable garden should not be too adversely impacted — barring drought or plagues of locusts/disease, etc. I will tend my tomatoes, savor the tang of basil, and do what I can for my damaged charges.

This year's tomato seedlings are safe and warm in the greenhouse.

This year’s tomato seedlings are safe and warm in the greenhouse.

Such is the lot of those of us who work the earth. And the truth, of course, is that we know embracing the bad along with the wondrous good is all part of our journey.

Stay warm, friends.

Stay warm, friends.

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Glory in the Morning

A native Redbud flower

A native Redbud flower

My rain gauge recorded 1.77 inches of rain from yesterday afternoon until early this morning. The clouds parted by about 10:00 a.m., leaving clean air (no pollen!), moist ground, and almost visibly growing plants. A walk with the camera seemed essential.

Vegetables

The spring garden is growing well. We’ve been dry, so I’ve been watering lettuces, broccoli, onions, and potatoes to try to keep them growing, but I could see they weren’t as happy as they could be. Of course, some of that may have been because their coating of yellow-green pine pollen made them all look a bit sickly. But this morning, freshly washed, vibrant veggies greeted me.

In the greenhouse, the tomatoes I sowed last week have all germinated. Most of the peppers have too. The Scotch Bonnet pepper seeds I’m growing for a friend are still ungerminated, but they are notoriously slow, so I’m not worried yet.

I watered the seedlings with a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed extract yesterday to help them grow enthusiastically.

I watered the seedlings with a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed extract yesterday to help them grow enthusiastically.

Wildflowers

The spring ephemerals have been coming and going fast, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather. Last night’s rain denuded all the still-blooming bloodroots, revealing erect seed capsules, standing like soldiers beneath the great canopy trees. The mayapples are full of flower buds, and the Atamasco lilies were putting up flower buds.

Blooming Shrubs and Trees — with Butterflies!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are literally everywhere, floating at all levels, from treetops to lawn. It is especially wonderful to see after last year’s near-absence of all butterflies. Today I saw my first Spicebush Swallowtail, but it refused to pose for me. There were several other new, uncooperative species, and a gossamer-winged dragonfly that I suspect was newly emerged. The flowers were more cooperative photographic subjects, although a gusty wind (that re-awakened the pollen) did create some challenges.

Despite the rain, Wonder Spouse and I did manage to get our front water feature going for the new season. We anticipate that the local frogs and toads that lay eggs in it every year should arrive as soon as this latest cool spell has passed. The plants in the pots look a bit bare at the moment, but the pitcher plants and the new Venus Flytrap in them have flower buds, and the moisture-loving milkweeds are growing quickly. I think all will come together for the plants in a month or so.

Now it's springtime!

Now it’s springtime!

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been reported in my area, but I haven’t seen or heard one yet. Just in case, the feeder full of sugar water is in its usual spot. Soon these flying jewels will join the increasingly evident wildlife to enjoy the bounty of blooms that signal Spring’s arrival on our five acres.

Happy Spring, everyone!

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Late Winter Pluses and Minuses

Witchhazel 'Amethyst'

Witchhazel ‘Amethyst’

It’s been too long since I posted here. My apologies. Late winter in my corner of North Carolina has been a mostly soggy mess. And as I type this, yet more rain is pouring down upon my mushy landscape. I have been posting small items regularly on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page; if you use that social media tool, you may want to check out the photos and announcements of relevant events that I post there.

They're baaack!

They’re back!

As I’ve noted on the PG Facebook page, beavers have once again moved into the wetland adjacent to my creek. They have built a dam downstream and off my property, which has raised the water level in the creek so that every rain event involving more than a half-inch is causing the creek to overflow in numerous places along my property, even cutting channels into what has been a stable, flat floodplain for over 25 years. It’s a real mess, and we’re not sure what, if anything, we can do about it.

Trunk of a Leyland Cypress

Trunk of a Leyland Cypress

The beavers are actively foraging all up and down the creek. In addition to harvesting a few saplings, they even “tasted” two of the Leyland Cypresses still standing beside the creek. To discourage them from returning, I sprayed the entire lower trunks of all the Leylands with a deer repellant spray in the hopes that it would make them taste bad enough for the beavers to ignore. So far <knock wood>, it’s working, but all this rain probably means I need to reapply the repellant.

pileated holes

The work of Pileated Woodpeckers.

But not all my landscape surprises are less than wonderful. Case in point: a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers appear to have chosen a sycamore just across the creek to raise this year’s brood. Until the forest leafs out, I can see this spot from my living room window and back deck. That’s a good thing, because when I try to walk near this tree, the woodpeckers make it clear that I am not the least bit welcome.

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Another pair of late-winter nesters has settled in, as usual, in the wetland forest — Red-shouldered Hawks. They often lurk in the trees near our backyard bird feeders, but I haven’t seen them catch any songbirds. Frogs,  salamanders, and earthworms, on the other hand, seem to be dietary staples. Wonder Spouse took that spectacular hawk photo two days ago when it decided to hunt from a tree in our backyard. He actually took the shot from inside our house. He is a wizard with his camera — and his post-processing software.

Salad season can't come soon enough!

Salad season can’t come soon enough!

When we’ve gotten a few back-to-back days of sunshine, we’ve been hard at work preparing the vegetable garden for another season. All my seeds have arrived, and last Wednesday (2-16), I sowed my first batch of greens in my germination chamber. The ones in the above photo germinated in two days! I’ll enumerate the spring garden veggie varieties I’m trying in a new post soon. All the lettuces germinated instantly, along with baby kale and radicchio. The spinaches and parsley are only just now showing signs of germinating, which is entirely normal. When they are all well up and moved out of the germination chamber, I’ll sow another batch of spring veggies.

Onion starts -- planted!

Onion starts — planted!

The two varieties of onion plants I ordered arrived mid-week, and I managed to get them all planted in their garden bed yesterday. I know they don’t look like much now, but if the voles will leave them alone, we have big hopes for these.

onions close

It’s always amazing how these stubby little onion starts that arrive with shriveled roots plump up in just a few weeks. I was delighted to get them planted the same week they arrived. Usually I’m not this organized and they wait a week or more. I’m hoping my efficiency will pay off in bigger bulbs. Stay tuned.

Cold-singed Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star'

Cold-singed Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’

We’ve had a few bouts of deep cold and some ice — mostly freezing rain — which damaged my Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ flowers. They opened too early, thanks to the absurdly warm December we had here. Fortunately, not all the buds opened before the cold, so I’m able to enjoy a round of new blooms during our current milder spell of weather.

In addition to the witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ blooming well in the first photo of this post, my Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’ trees are bursting with bright golden flowers. I’m hoping they will cross-pollinate each other this year and produce some of the red berries that give them their common name: Cornelian Cherry. I was thus heartened to see a pollinator on these flowers yesterday.

Of course, spring bulbs are well up. My crocuses were eaten by deer before I remembered to spray them with repellent. Snow drops and myriad daffodils are all loaded with buds and will soon be glowing in the landscape as it wakens from its winter slumber. Meanwhile, the lushest, greenest parts of my yard are the lichens, soft and fluffy from abundant rains.

Soon spring leaves will match the greens of the lichens.

Soon spring leaves will match the greens of the lichens.

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