Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Swarm of Skunks!

   What do you call a group of skunks? I think swarm fits the description, considering how they moved across the back yard a few nights ago. For the past couple of weeks we've been seeing an adult skunk every night like clockwork at around 8:00pm, when it's still quite light out. This particular night it came out a little early, after a thunderstorm, and brought the family along for the first time. Momma led the way, and the four little ones held close but always in constant motion, almost swirling. From a distance it just looked like one huge skunk. They're so cute, as long as they keep their scent to themselves. We've had resident skunks in the area ever since we moved here almost nine years ago, some years it's miserable with them spraying all the time, other years they hardly ever spray at all. They like to dig, which can be annoying, especially around newly planted things where the soil is soft as they search for tasty insect morsels. I never cease to be amazed at what shows up in our yard.....

(I know, the photos aren't great, but how close do I really want to get to FIVE skunks? I had to act quick and I didn't have the zoom lens on)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Goldfinches Relieve Guilt!

   Don't feel guilty about not getting out there in the garden to dead-head your Coreopsis, they will become seed heads and goldfinches will appreciate it! I knew not to dead-head the Echinachea, but I didn't know about Coreopsis too. I've been dead-heading the plants to keep them producing flowers for all the small pollinators, but I decided to stop as flower production slowed down, as an experiment to see if any birds would be interested in the seed heads. I wasn't even sure if it was going to make seed since it's just a cultivar (Coreopsis grandiflora Rising Sun). I think it's pretty amazing how the birds know that those plants are a food source, even if they've never seen that plant before. I have a full feeder of thistle seed in the backyard, easy pickings, but this bird would rather hang on a milkweed stem and pull seed out of the coreopsis. Because it's natural!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Baby Broadwings!

   I know it's not the best picture, but right in the middle is a Broadwing Hawk nest with at least two chicks in it. My husband and I have been keeping our eye on it for the past few weeks, this is the first time I've seen the babies. Jeff spotted the nest after repeatedly hearing, then seeing the parents where we park our cars to use the trails on Mill Mountain. It appears they built their nest on top of an old squirrel nest in an oak tree. It's seems unusually low compared to other Broadwing nests we've seen, maybe 30-40 feet off the ground. It's so exciting, I wish them luck! I'll keep the blog updated with their progress, and hopefully better photos.......

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Black Cohosh is blooming!

   One of my all-time favorite wildflowers is blooming right now, Cimicifuga Racemosa. I've seen it called black cohosh, bugbane, and snakeroot in different books and online, I don't know if one name is more correct than the others. Black cohosh was one of the first wildflowers I noticed when I was younger and was actually able to identify. It's impossible to overlook or misidentify this dramatic plant, it usually grows around 4-7 feet tall and is covered with insects when blooming. It's one of the few plants that grows well under the deep shade of a hardwood forest. In addition to being an incredible pollen provider, it's also a host plant for numerous butterflies, like the Appalachian Azure.

   Never before have I seen so many bumblebees so deep in a forest! Unfortunately these pictures were not taken in my yard, I came across these plants on a nature trail, deep in shady ravine. However I do desperately want to add some to my collection. There are a few garden hybrids available, and I have two of them. One is called cimicifuga atropurpurpea, it looks very similar but the flowers smell sweet. The flowers on the wild version smell somewhat stinky. The other is called Kamchatka Bugbane. They both are extremely sun sensitive and prefer to have little to no direct sun at all. I love these plants, and so do the insects!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Gardening with Deer

   I'm sure everyone who's reading this has had at least one prized plant (probably more) ravaged by deer. You may have even thought to yourself "how can I create a habitat, especially one with host plants for butterflies and fruiting trees and shrubs for birds, if the deer eat it all?". Forget the deer resistant plant lists, they'll eat anything if they want to. From the thorniest of roses to poison ivy, to even monarda, which they're supposed to not like!
   But this is a wildlife habitat, right? I think deer are unfairly blamed and maligned, it's the humans who have screwed up their environment. I try to accept and work around whatever challenge they may bring. One thing we have done, after they started nibbling on the dogwoods we planted this spring, is to put cages around newly planted trees. We bought some supplies at Lowes, 4 and 6 foot stakes and a roll of wire fencing, and caged our dogwoods until they could get established. This also helped prevent our resident diggers (raccoons and skunks) from digging them up looking for tasty morsels (yes, that happens a lot).
   Over the past 3 months I have been trying out a new deer deterrent spray, Deer Out. I never had any success with Liquid Fence, so I tried not to get my hopes up too high, but Deer Out is different. It's mint based, whereas others on the market are garlic or urine based. It's working so well that I think for the first time I may actually see my daylilys bloom! Many years ago I planted some daylilies, before realizing we had deer, and I've never seen them bloom because it turns out daylilies are deer candy. We have deer pass through are yard virtually every night and so far, since I've sprayed the daylilies, not even a nibble! This is not a paid endorsement, I just want to let you guys and gals know about this product, there may be hope after all. We can garden with deer, not against them. I purchased mine direct from them here. I've even been able to get rid of the cages around my viburnums and they're ignoring my blueberry bushes. It really works for me (so far, I hope I'm not jinxing myself) and I hope you find it successful too.
   Here's an interesting fact about deer.....One of the many reasons deer are overabundant on the east coast is due to a lack of a top of the food chain predator, namely the wolf. Our ancestors killed off the wolves in the 1700's when they settled here - they were a ''pest" to the sheep and cattle herds. Wolves, buffalo, and elk were abundant here in the Roanoke Valley 250 years ago.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

One non-native I'm keeping, and a truckload that I'm not

    Here's a story of another non-native on our property. It's name is Ligustrum vicaryi, or Golden Privet. Privet is a well known invasive shrub across much of the country, and there are many different varities which can make identification a problem. In fact, it took me years to finally identify mine. The problem with privet is it usually spreads by both suckering and seed dispersal by songbirds eating the fruits. Luckily Ligustrum vicaryi neither suckers or makes fruit, and I have not been able to locate it on any invasive lists. (If anyone knows otherwise please let me know.) In the 8 years we've lived here I've never observed any naughty behavior from it.
   What makes this privet so special? Why would I want such an ordinary bush in my yard? Because the butterflies and bees love it. Eight feet tall and eight feet wide, they are literally covered in pollinators when blooming and we have two of them. The only downsides are it's kind of scraggley looking and the flowers smell a bit stinky.

   Just in case you're starting to think we're not commited to the removal of non-native invasives from our properties, here's what we're not keeping: Asian Honeysuckle Bush, Autumn Olive, Tree of Paradise (Ailanthus), Multiflora Rose, Wisteria and several others. This is an ongoing, neverending project, as many of you know. We (mostly Jeff) fill up this truck about once a week with invasives as we try to reclaim a 13 acre property from the evil grips of these plants. If it wasn't for the poison ivy, we could do even more. I'm extremely fortunate that my husband shares my enthusiasm for habitat restoration and creation, critters, birds, and bugs. In case I don't say it enough, thank you Jeff!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The decision was made for me

   I have a confession to make. I have had a Butterfly Bush (Buddleia). I wasn't going to tell any of you out of fear I might be shamed. I'm trying to be a responsible habitat gardener with an emphasis on native plants, I had no idea when I planted it last year that it might be considered a bad thing.
   Buddleias are probably the first thing the average gardener plants when they decide to start gardening for butterflies. There it was, right in the middle of my butterfly bed, it was going to be my tall visual anchor along the front sidewalk. As I started to learn more about habitat gardening, I discovered what "non-native invasives" are, and Buddleia is on the list for Virginia. All these years I mistakenly thought Buddleia was native to the Pacific Northwest. I'd seen them growing "wild" there when visiting the Seattle and Snoqualmie area many years ago, they were in full bloom everywhere along the roadsides. Now I know what I really saw was an invasive non-native plant colonizing natural areas. So I had a dilemma, dig up my butterfly bush because it's on the invasive list for Virginia, or leave it because it doesn't seem to be a problem here in my part of the state? I've dug up Nandina, Autumn Olive, and Burning Bush with no remorse or regret, but Buddleia is such a great nectar plant, I couldn't decide and I felt guilty every time I looked at it.
   That brings us to Thursday. Boy, the butterfly bush looks awful. The leaves are yellowing, falling off, and the swamp milkweed next to it looks even worse. Oh no! Spider Mites! Crap! I've never had spider mites on outdoor plants before. Well, it looks like the decision on whether or not to keep this naughty non-native invasive was made for me. Since I don't and won't use pesticides, extraction seemed like the best remedy. Unfortunately, since it was also infected, I had to get rid of some milkweed, but I can buy more, and I can't have monarchs laying eggs on infected plants. Friday morning I went out and began carefully clipping the stems, trying not to shake them too much. I placed them in a trash bag, then scooped up all the surrounding mulch and any leaves that had fallen from the plants. Then I dug up the roots and carefully placed them in the bag also. After refilling the holes in the ground with soil and a light covering of mulch, I checked the other surrounding plants for mites. There were a few on the monarda fistulosa and agastache aurantaica, so very gently I rubbed each and every leaf on the plants, trying to smoosh any remaining mites. My fingers smelled great afterwards! The final step was something I read on the internet to do as a control, a hard blast of water to the plants, especially the undersides of the leaves. I'll repeat this until I don't see anymore for a while. It may take some time to truly eradicate the mites. I've always tried to avoid getting the leaves of plants wet for fear of powdery mildew, especially in that spot because I have two types of monarda there, but I'll trade spider mites for powdery mildew I guess. I sealed up the bag and into the trash can went my butterfly bush. Maybe the garden gods were trying to tell me something.....
   I still need a tall anchor for the space, so I grabbed an unused obelisk put it where the butterfly bush was, and I plan on planting a clematis virginiana on it, then maybe some more milkweed, maybe some joe-pye, I get to go plant shopping!

                                                       Spider Mites on the Milkweed

The naughty butterfly bush pre-extraction

Post-extraction, cut up, and in the trash

Lots of room for new plants!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Who's eating my Columbine?

   I've had my eye on the columbine lately, I'm waiting for the seed heads to mature so I can collect them before they pop and spill out. Apparently I wasn't watching closely enough! Last night I discovered these caterpillars chewing through the seed heads and possibly even eating the seeds.

Aahhhh! What's happening here?!

   They appear to be Tobacco Budworms, and will eventually become moths. I also noticed on the same plant when it was flowering that somebody was chewing on the petals, but I didn't think much of it. Tobacco Budworms feed on many different types of flowers and vary greatly in color. They are widely considered to be a pest. I, however, try to be open minded and let creatures do their own thing (even if they are eating my seed that I was planning to share and distribute). They are only a "pest" because we humans think they destroy the pretty things we like to look at. They're not actually posing a threat to our or our pets' health. Ticks and Black Widows, now that's another story. They get squished. I even left a Bald-faced Hornets nest up last year- it was far enough away from the house and eventually they abandoned it. I guess I'll leave them alone unless someone can make a valid argument otherwise.

   A few feet away from the columbine I found this Harvestman on my Agastache "Blue Fortune" (Anise Hyssop). I've never seen a black and white one before, only brown, and I couldn't identify it specifically. Did you know Harvestman, aka Daddy Long Legs, are not spiders? Although it looks like it has huge fangs, they are actually pedipalps, which act like hands. Also, its eyes are on its stomach. Pretty cool huh?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Prime Real Estate Oppurtunity!

   Attention all young home buyers! Especially you bluebirds, you know you want to raise a second brood. Available for immediate occupancy! Priced below appraisal, in fact it's free! Penthouse living at it's finest, 360 degree mountain views, move-in ready, hardwood floors, deluxe raccoon baffle installed in the basement, plentiful resources within walking gliding distance from your new home!

                                                A male bluebird is previewing the property!

   You never know how much you appreciate someones company until they're gone. Our tree swallow babies have fledged and the family has moved out. In the morning they were there, by the afternoon they were gone. The yard is just so quiet now, I really miss them. Every year when they fledge they leave for good. They don't seem to hang around and hunt here either. It's only been two days but I'm excited to see a pair of bluebirds checking out the box. We already have had one successful brood of bluebird babies fledge from our other box on the far end of the lot, maybe they want a change of scenery for family #2.

We saw this commercial on TV last night, it has to be the embodiment of Jeff and I! (in spirit, not appearance)