Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Native Container Plants

Last spring, for the first time ever, I intentionally tried to find native plants that would work well in containers to sit on our back patio.  While I found a few, I would love to have a wider variety in my "stable".  I thought I'd share what worked and what didn't work for me - and I hope you'll share your favorites in the comment section to guide me this spring.

First of all, a disclaimer:  All of the photos in this post were taken on October 3rd, when I actually decided to post about this topic.  Most of the plants were well past their prime at that point, for which I apologize.  I find that I didn't take pictures of the full plants earlier in the summer;  I just took photos of the bees and butterflies and assorted other insects that were using them, especially their blossoms, for food and shelter!

Since we have no plant nurseries closer than about 45 minutes away, in trying to develop a native plant container garden, I started out at our local Home Depot.  There, I looked for plants that weren't labeled with the "sweet" little tags that essentially say, "I've been treated with death-causing chemicals so that you can have pretty flowers."  As I looked, I found that I had to be very careful:  some plants that were obviously from the same grower and batch weren't labeled, while others were.  Most disturbing were the numerous "butterfly" plants that I saw touted...while they bore that telltale, nasty little tag.

At Home Depot, then, I bought 3 "butterfly milkweeds" and a Coreopsis?/Rudbeckia?  As they grew, the butterfly milkweeds turned out to be Tropical Milkweeds (Asclepias curassavica) rather than Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), but at least they weren't treated with neonic pesticides. 

Know how I knew for sure the milkweeds hadn't been treated with neonics?  They had aphids on them, including one individual with a pretty bad case of them.   Yes, I intentionally bought a plant that was seriously infested with aphids - and I was glad to get it.  Once I got them home, I didn't do anything but pot the milkweeds up.  As I've discussed before, the aphid populations cycle up and down, based on natural predators, so I wasn't too worried about them.  The 3 milkweeds are doing fine, even if they aren't actually native here.  In fact, these three tropical milkweeds from Home Depot are the plants on which I've observed (and photographed) most of the aphid/predator cycles that I've shared with you on this blog.

Note:  The tropical milkweeds are the leggy background plants in the photo above.

The Coreopsis/Rudbeckia (I can't remember which it was) was the only other "near native" I could find at our local Home Depot that hadn't been treated with neonics, so I bought it to show that some of us would rather have butterflies than poison-filled plants.  Sadly, the plant hasn't done well for me and essentially never bloomed again.  Half of it died;  the other half looks healthy, but remains bloom-less - and insect-less.

I've got a couple pots with Violets (Viola sp.) and Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea) that have seeded in naturally, taking over other plants like lettuce that had finished their life cycle.  Both of these naturally occurring container plants are doing well and seem worth keeping as containers, due to their attractive foliage and/or attractiveness to pollinators.

Here is the scarlet sage, which seeded itself into a container where Greg had been growing kale.  It's not gorgeous, but the butterflies visit frequently.  Next summer I'll fertilize it a bit and give it some attention;  hopefully it will be fuller and fluffier.

I've also got some natives that I picked up from native plant nurseries especially to put into containers this summer:  Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum), Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), Blue Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum sp.) and Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri 'Siskiyou Pink').

While the Gaillardia hasn't been the "neatest" looking container, it has bloomed prolifically all summer long and has attracted many pollinators; I will continue to include it in future native plant container gardens.  By October 3rd, most of it had started to die back, so I didn't photograph it individually.  It's the pot at the far right of the photo at the beginning of this post.

The Blue Hyssop, above, which is not actually native to the southeast, was overgrown and floppy when I got it.  I did repot it, but I didn't cut it back like I should have.  It has done well, although it has looked a bit ragged because of my hesitancy with the pruning clippers.  I will continue to include it in future native container gardens, as it has been a reliable bee attractant.  I do not know if it will overwinter, or if I will have to treat it like an annual.

I bought and planted 2 different species of Mountain Mint this spring, but I don't remember which ones they are, let alone which is in the pot and which is in the ground.  I have the plant tags buried some where in the garage, but I am too lazy to look for them right now.  Anyway, both mountain mints are doing very well - and I love the fluffy white fullness of both of them.  Both have been good pollinator attractants;  I'll use Mountain Mint in containers again.  Hopefully the one in the pot behind my little girl, above, will be back next summer.

So far I've talked about the "good guys";  now let's discuss the more problematic patio occupants.

I'm iffy about using Blue Curls as container plants.  They bloomed well but, in the pots, the plants look quite leggy and scraggly while the flowers aren't large enough to overcome that deficit.  I think that part of this has been my fault:  I am not the most consistent waterer, and these were in smaller pots that tended to dry out fairly quickly.  In fact, I used the Blue Curls as my "indicator plants" to tell me when my containers needed watering.

This is, in fact, the first year I've grown Blue Curls at all.  Besides the 2 in containers on the patio, I also had 2 plants in the ground, and they looked much healthier and happier than the potted ones.  I may try Blue Curls in larger containers next year, but probably only if I can't find enough other natives to experiment with.  So far, none of the Blue Curls really seem all that attractive to pollinators, despite their reputation.

Frankly, the Gaura has been disappointing.  I think I either need to find a different variety - or just not try it again.  I don't know if it's a watering issue or if it was in too much shade, but it just wimped out.

Although I didn't think to buy any to put in containers, looking at all the wonderful photos of asters, covered in pollinators, this spring I'm wondering about trying pots with a couple different species of those in them.  I'm not sure which species would be best, though, both for good bloom and for nice looking foliage earlier in the summer.

So that's my "Native or Near Native Container Plant" roundup.  Are there any species that you would recommend?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Slow Gardening

With all of the angst over politics these days, I haven't been hearing much about the "Slow" movement - Slow Food, Slow Money, Slow Living...Slow Gardening.

But Slow Gardening is what I've come to consider my own method of gardening.

It's slow gardening because I don't use inorganic fertilizers to speed up plant growth or to boost the size of fruits or flowers.

It's slow gardening because I prefer to hand weed and then mulch to keep the soil free of weeds, rather than sprinkle my beds and lawn with some pre-emergent or other herbicide. As I've written about before, hand weeding helps me hear bird songs, see unusual insects, and generally experience my yard and garden in ways I wouldn't be able to without being quietly bent over and relatively still.

It's slow gardening because I prefer hand tools to power tools, whenever possible.  Greg, who keeps the lawn mowed and trimmed, has switched now to a battery powered electric mower and a battery powered edger which are wonderfully quiet and efficient.

It's slow gardening because I plant a variety of plants, including plants that are known as slow growers.  This is, truth to tell, rather problematic for me, since we move every few years and I rarely get to see said slow-growing plants reach anything approaching maturity.  However, gardeners are nothing if  not hopeful and forward-looking people.

Felder Rushing wrote a book, Slow Gardening, which was released in 2011, and he maintains a page where he outlines his version of the Slow Gardening concept.  I generally agree with his outline of principles, although I am, perhaps, even more of a slow gardener than he is.

Sometimes most gardening seems like it's slow.  After all, you can plant and mow and fertilize and weed, but it just takes time for plants to grow.

Friday, September 29, 2017

One Thing Leads to Another.....

(This post is an expansion on a Facebook post I made yesterday morning.  I wanted to share the photos I took - and add a few more comments.)

I love how one thing leads to another.....

I saw an Eastern Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) out back nectaring on the Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), so I got my camera and ran outside.

It flew over to a camellia where it sat for a while to bask, allowing me to get fairly close and to take multiple photos.

Then it flew back to the sage and continued nectaring, allowing me to take more photos.

After the swallowtail flew off, I noticed a battered Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) basking, so I took photos of it, following as it, ...er, 

SHE lifted off and laid an egg or two on the Corky-Stemmed Passionvine (Passiflora suberosa) nearby.  It amazes me that this ragged female could still fly - and that she still had the energy to locate passionvine and lay eggs!  It makes me think that, perhaps, occasionally handling butterflies won't overly handicap their success after all.

Movement by the milkweed caught my eye and I was able to get a few shots (although I don't know if they turned out) of a syrphid fly laying eggs near aphids on the milkweed.  Note:  This was the best of the shots I took. It isn't great, but I thought you might enjoy it anyway, and it does serve to keep the narrative going!

More movement made me notice a little tufted titmouse hunting about 20 feet away, so I snagged a couple photos, one of which wasn't too bad....


Still more movement, this time nearby, helped me notice some sort of odd little wasp hunting on the swamp milkweed...  When I downloaded the photos, I realized that this isn't a wasp at all, but rather some sort of fly.  BugGuide has helped me determine that this is a female syrphid fly in the genus Xylota.  These syrphid flies eat pollen from the surface of leaves as adults, which I think you can actually see her doing in the above photo!  The larvae feed on sap runs.  So, my bare eyes said a small wasp, hunting, but increased magnification and more research revealed a fly, eating pollen!

Close to this unusual little syrphid fly was a Milkweed Assassin Bug nymph (Zelus longipes) that may have actually been hunting - attempting to catch the little syrphid fly unawares.

As an added pleasure, I found all of this activity while I was enjoying the sweet fragrance of the blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) that are scraggly but blooming, in pots on the back patio!

A fun few minutes. Fifteen minutes, to be exact.  And all from the relative privacy of my back patio, while in bare feet and still in pajamas!

As I wrote the original post when I got back inside, I  looked out back onto the patio again and saw a male towhee perched proudly on the top of the statue there! Sadly, I  wasn't able to get a picture of him, but I did get to enjoy watching him from my spot in the recliner!

Gardening for wildlife is like having a nature preserve right outside my back door!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Turtle Rescue

Sometimes you just get lucky.

I don't go out by the compost piles very often during the course of any average week, but I needed to take something out there yesterday morning.  I had started to walk away when something caught my eye - a bit of movement.

There was this poor female box turtle, firmly caught in the open hole of a cinder block.  Her shell was pretty scuffed, so it looked like she'd been there for a fairly long period of time, scrabbling uselessly, trying to get out.

How unfair that she could not make a noise to attract my attention!  (I've never consciously thought about turtles' silence before, but somehow it seems tragic in this situation.)

The poor thing was stressed enough that she didn't withdraw into her shell when I picked her up.   In fact, she didn't withdraw into her shell until I picked her back up, after I'd put her down, to take a photo of her underside.

She's a big box turtle - and I honestly wonder how in the world she got herself in that predicament.  I think she was lucky to be tail down, not head down, in the hole.

I hope she's none the worse for her adventure and that she was able to get food and water without issue.

Now I've got to fill in those holes so this doesn't happen again.  I checked the area today and will continue to do so every day until we get the holes filled.  The compost piles, rimmed by these cinder blocks, have been in place since shortly after we moved here over 2 years ago, with no prior problems.  Funny - I never would have thought of them as being dangerous to much of anybody or anything....

Friday, September 22, 2017

Secrets of An Assassin Bug's Diet, or Beware of First Impressions!

When I went out with the dog, first thing this morning, I noticed a ladybug on one of my milkweeds, so I went inside and grabbed my camera to photograph it.  I just don't see ladybugs very often any more.  The ladybug turned out to be a Multi-Colored Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis), which is very disappointing but not too surprising.  This is the species that is displacing so many of our native ladybugs.

As usually happens when I get my camera out, however, I found a couple other things to photograph while I was outside, and I'd like to share one of them with you tonight.

As I was photographing the ladybug, I noticed another orangish red and black insect nearby, a nymph of a Milkweed Assassin Bug (Zelus longipes).  I'm fairly used to seeing these in my garden nowadays, so I didn't pay too much attention to it at first....

Then I noticed the long, small, white insect it was eating.  "Damn!" I thought to myself, "It's a tiny monarch caterpillar!  No wonder I haven't been seeing any larger monarch caterpillars around."

Since I'm a pretty firm believer in "the circle of life", especially when the life forms involved are native, I did nothing but take a couple pictures.  The assassin bug nymph soon finished its meal and started hunting again, but I didn't notice it capture anything else.

Tonight I went through this morning's photos on the computer - and, lo and behold, that wasn't a tiny monarch caterpillar!  The Milkweed Assassin Bug nymph was actually eating a newly molted (still white) leafhopper!  The leafhopper was just so small that my eyes couldn't make out what it actually was until the magic of photography enlarged it for me.

I have no idea which species of leafhopper this was, but all leafhoppers drink plant sap, so this is a perfect example of a predator keeping a plant-eating insect population under control.  (To be brutally honest, of course, the same could be said if the assassin bug HAD actually been eating a monarch caterpillar.)

Once again I had a dope slap moment and had to remind myself not to jump to conclusions when I'm out in the garden, observing.  I am continually amazed at the intricate functioning of the web of life...when we humans can avoid mucking around with it.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Am I Still On Track?

Reading a magazine about blogging earlier this week, I tried to remember exactly why I began Gaia Garden.  Was it simply to share the photos I was taking as I gardened?  To share the plants and animals I found as my hands dug in the soil surrounding our home?  Amazingly, I realized that I started writing this blog over 11 1/2 years  - and 2 gardens - ago, in March 2006, while we lived in Mobile, Alabama.   I must say that my memory is fuzzy on many of the details.  I do remember clearly, though, that our son Sean had a LOT to do with my starting this blog.  He basically bullied me into picking a name ("It doesn't have to be perfect, Mom!"), picked a platform he felt would work well for me, and in those lovingly irritating ways, actually got me online with my first posts.

To refresh my mind about my deeper motivations, however, I decided to go back to the earliest posts and see what I had to say for myself....

In my very first post, "New Beginnings", I wrote that "...it's not just gardening that interests me.  It's gardening within the genius of the place, gardening that celebrates the local flora and fauna."  That certainly still rings true.  If anything, I think I've become even more fascinated by what is now known as "gardening with native plants".  I like the way I phrased it back then, though.  "The genius of the place..."  It sounds much softer, even somewhat romantic.  That is a concept that I haven't thought about for a long time.

So different from the prairies of southcentral Kansas and our last garden, the "genius of the place" here in our Florida panhandle neighborhood is reflected in Spanish moss literally dripping from evergreen oak trees.

A little further along in that same post, I mentioned hoping to gently encourage a sense of cooperation between gardeners and the natural elements in their gardens, as opposed to the more common combative feel of gardeners battling nature's tendencies.  At least in my own mind, this concept is central to most of my posts to this day.

Towards the end of that original post, I started to wrap up by expressing a broadening mission for my new blog: "Since gardening works so well as a metaphor for living, along the way I expect to be looking for ties to philosophy, politics, literature, and any other subject that "crops up."  I hope to hear from others who are similarly involved...or even just interested in the process."

It's in that final, broader hope for where my blog might lead me that I feel I've perhaps lost my way.  In recent years I have found it quicker and easier to share photos and explore what I'm actually seeing as I garden than it has been for me to delve into other facets of life that I think about or learn while I'm  getting my hands dirty.

So my blog has become more photo driven.  Is that a good thing...or not?  We all seem to respond instinctively to photos, so in that regard it's helpful, but it can also be limiting to rely too heavily on them.  For example, so far in 2017, the only "philosophical" post that I have written was to think a bit about what I think about as I garden.  Hardly deep stuff, but I was able to find photos to illustrate my thoughts!

It's also not deep (literary) stuff, but if a book seems relevant to science or gardening or the environment, I still do book reviews, as in this 2014 post about "A Sting in the Tale" by Dave Goulson.  In the last several years, though, this is about as close to "...ties to philosophy, politics, literature..." beyond gardening as I get.  Sigh.

Another big change I see in my post topics, compared to 2006, is that I am a lot more involved these days in identifying insects and figuring out what they are doing in the garden.  For example, note this little halictid bee, feeding on the nectar and pollen of the Gaillardia bloom - and pollinating the plant in the process. Sometimes I actually feel as if growing plants has now become secondary, for me, to learning about and nurturing bees, butterflies, spiders, and other wildlife in my gardens!  Ironically, photos are a big part of WHY this change has occurred, as I got a DSLR camera several years ago and am now able to take pictures of a small insect, enlarge them, and identify the species.  Knowing the actual identity of the insect I'm seeing allows me to research its biology.  In fact, I'm becoming quite the bug nerd, at least in my own mind.

Well, it's time to wrap this up.  Enough navel gazing.

Upshot?  In general, I think I'm still on track.  I'd like to work in some more "tangential" subjects as blog post topics, if only because I'm finding it fun to go back and read those posts, years later. 

For my own sanity, I'd like to get back into regular posting - blogging feels creative in a way that Facebook posts don't.  I think more carefully about what I'm saying when I write a full blog post, and I rework the wording to get as precise as possible about what I mean.  I can more easily choose my topics, too, which in this current political clime is not all bad.

So, onward into the next 11 1/2 years!  I wonder how many gardens I'll have made in that next interval of time - and where we'll be putting our literal and figurative roots down by then?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fall? Well, maybe.....

While all my friends in more northern climes are talking about goldenrod blooming, ducks and geese flying south, and the massive Painted Lady butterfly migration, I am left looking around for signs of the seasons changing in my Florida panhandle garden.  What do I notice here?

First and foremost, I realize that I am finally back outside!  During the peak heat of the summer, it's hard to motivate to do more than look out through the windows at the flowers blooming.  Now, though, I'm back out in the garden, pulling the summer weeds that have grown up, working to lessen the seed load for next year and to give my perennials a bit of breathing room.  It's still hot.  After a couple hours, I still come in dripping sweat and craving water.  Somehow, though, the worst of the sauna is gone and I leave the garden looking forward to my next time out in it.

With the autumnal equinox approaching rapidly, the days are definitely shorter now and, while I want to work outside more, I have fewer daylight hours to do so.  I awake to dim, early sunlight and find myself with extra evening time on my hands after darkness falls.

Along with shortening days, another fall change is that hummingbird migration is in full swing.  Walking out of the back porch, I can count on being buzzed by at least one hummer, zooming past as close as an inch or two from my face or shoulders: "This is OUR territory, lady!" They never seem to take into account that I am their FRIEND, the one who fills the feeders they so dearly love.

Looking up, there are Fall Webworm webs in our Pignut Hickory trees (Carya glabra)...

and. looking down, the Fall Webworms (Hyphantria cunea) are starting to leave their nests and look for a place to pupate.  Eventually they'll become white moths with black spots.

The hickory nuts are beginning to drop, resounding sharply off the metal roof of the playhouse like a sudden shot or thudding loudly on the resonant boards of the deck. 

The squirrels are busily gnawing away at the fresh largesse, leaving tiny sculptures scattered around the yard in quiet testimony to their appetites.

Butterflies and moths, while sadly still not common this year, are seen more frequently now.

There are the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), busily nectaring at Beggarticks (Bidens alba) and laying eggs on the Passionvine (Passiflora incarnata), ...

Long-tailed Skippers (Urbanus proteus) nectaring at the Flyr's Nemesis (Brickellia cordifolia) and Agastache, ....

Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) dropping eggs on the milkweed (Asclepias sp.), ....

Cloudless Sulfurs (Phoebis sennae) stopping to snack at Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea) on their way to points south, ...

Swallowtails majestically visiting, but generally camera shy, like this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) nectaring at Flyr's Nemesis, ....

and even the occasional "rarity", like this Hummingbird Clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) that dropped in to feed at the Flyr's Nemesis while I was sitting quietly nearby, weeding.

With summer basically done, many plants are starting to look ragged, and that's okay.

There are the annuals and short-lived perennials, like this Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), that have bloomed valiantly all summer long and are suddenly just tired out, ready to call it quits.

There are the milkweeds, whose lower leaves dropped months ago and whose upper leaves are now caterpillar food, busily making new Monarchs.  (Look how tiny this little Monarch caterpillar is!  See how thick the leaf he's eating is in comparison to his size?!)

There are passionvines (Passiflora incarnata), whose holey-ness (or is it holiness?) speaks of many more Gulf Fritillaries to come.

The signs of fall may be more subtle here in the southland...but they are here all around me, nonetheless.