Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Berry-licious!

My beautyberry is by no means a beauty right now, but the birds don't give a hoot.

Scraggly and almost naked after our relatively cold winter, it is little more than a "Charlie Brown Christmas tree" of bare branches drooping with round clusters of dark purple berries. And that's fine with the mockingbirds, blue jays, warblers and, most recently, robins, that have been feasting on them.  I have read that many migrating birds that normally eat insects -- such as robins -- will switch to fruits and berries prior to migration to pile on the fat they will need to fuel their epic journeys.
Sssshhh. Don't let the birds hear us call this beautyberry an ugly duckling!

I still have mockingbirds going to great lengths to keep other birds away from the beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). Don't know if it's the same bully bird I first noticed last December!


A walk around my yard reveals a surprising number of plants with ripe berries right now. Mother Nature must know that the end of winter is a time of slim pickings for birds and other critters, and she makes sure to stock the larders!

My East Palatka hollies still have a few bright red berries. This is another treat much loved by the mockingbirds, as well as blue jays.


East Palatka Holly 

Berries are still hanging on to the wild coffee too, and I have seen cardinals plucking those recently.

Button, or wild, sage
A newcomer to my yard is the button sage, a native shrubby lantana. This is NOT the lantana you see in the Big Box stores -- some varieties of that (including the popular multi-color Lantana camara) have become quite invasive and are spreading through our wildlands. The native button sage (Lantana involucrata) is widely available in native plant nurseries and easy-peasy to grow in residential landscapes.
I haven't seen any birds consuming these berries yet -- what about any of you that have this hardy shrub?

Finally, there is the firebush (Hamelia patens), the most super-charged butterfly nectar plant I have! The irresistible tubular blooms have now become prolific clusters of juicy ebony berries. I understand people can eat these berries, as syrup or wine, though I haven't tasted them yet. But the mockingbirds and cardinals have, quite enthusiastically!
Firebush, one of my all-time favorites!

Spring is coming, no doubt about it. Any day now I expect to see my deciduous Florida elm come alive with tiny little green leaf buds, and the monarch butterflies reappear, looking for milkweed. But the last remnants of winter are providing a colorful, berry-licious reminder that, even in the season of scarcity, nature gives us what we need to get by.

What berries are your backyard birds devouring?



Monday, October 28, 2013

The King of the Beautyberry

Every morning and evening for the past few weeks, my beautyberry has been guarded by a very possessive mockingbird who does not want to share the luscious purple berries with any other bird.  When a blue jay comes near, this cheeky fellow chases him away. When another mockingbird approaches the beautyberry, the two engage in an elaborate mock duel on the ground, hopping to and fro and all around each other. If they had tiny swords, they would look like exactly like they were fencing. En garde, monsieur! The "King" always emerges from these non-contact scuffles victorious, and immediately returns to his tree to plunder the berries. 

No matter that there are plenty of berries to go around. Mockingbirds are very territorial, not to mention fearless -- who hasn't been strafed by an angry mocker during nesting season? Apparently they don't play well with others when it comes to berries.

I have always said watching my yard is better than watching any nature documentary. This mockingbird is an endless source of entertainment. I look for him every day and will miss him when the berry bonanza comes to an end, or he has had his fill. 

For those unfamiliar with beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), it's a large shrub native to Florida with soft, velvety leaves. Beautyberry produces dainty clusters of white flowers in the spring that give way to berries that turn a lush vibrant purple by early fall. It flourishes in shady spots and is very drought-tolerant. Left to its own devices, it can get very sprawly and leggy, but doesn't mind pruning. I prune mine pretty heavily in the early Spring, giving it plenty of time to recover before berry-setting time in the late summer.

Some years my beautyberry doesn't get much attention from the birds until after Christmas. One year it seemed to be ignored completely. But this year there is early and intense interest in the berries (the 2013 crop must be exceptional) and this one determined mockingbird has decided the bush is his, all his!
 
I have bird feeders in my yard, as so many of us do, and I provide suet to help my feathered friends through the hardest part of the winter. But I always get more satisfactionfrom being able to provide natural food for the wild critters that share my urban yard, whether they are pollinators, possums, frogs or my new favorite, The King of the Beautyberry.

What plants have you provided for wildlife to eat in your garden?



Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Passion For Purple

Yep, I admit it. I'm passionate about purple.

So are pollinators, especially when Fall begins to softly, subtly tickle our senses in Florida. That would be right about now in my neck of the peninsula.

Just like males of many bird species -- and females of our own -- bright colors like reds, pinks, blues and purples are used to attract suitors. But plants aren't courting mates; they are enticing bees, wasps, butterflies and moths to come calling. The insects get food in the form of nectar and in return help the plants pollinate.

Purple and blue are especially popular with bees and wasps. But the butterflies and moths don't turn up their proboscis at them either!

Here are some of the purple bloomers my yard is "wearing" now. Please leave a comment and share your own fall favorites!

Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

Luscious clusters of purple berries grace this lovely but leggy native shrub from fall through the winter. Pruning keeps beautyberry looking spiffy rather sprawly. A shade lover, it is deciduous but in my Zone 9B landscape it never completely loses its leaves. Mockingbirds are among the birds that pluck the berries. Speaking of "pluck," I have a greedy mockingbird that has been guarding my beautyberry lately, and driving away others that want to share the bounty. 



Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha)

Salvias are great pollinator plants, and this one is no exception. Growing to 4 feet high and equally wide, it needs space to look its best. The violet blooms are borne on long erect stems, and they feel like velvet! Mexican sage thrives in blazing sun and heat, and will return in the spring after a frosty winter. This sage makes a great cutting flower for vase arrangements, especially when paired with a yellow companion like sunflowers or rosinweed.

                                                                                                                   
                                                                                                      

Purple porterweed (Stachytarpheta urticifolia

A long-tailed skipper on porterweed
Porterweed needs room to grow
The porterweed pictured here is not the native species, S. jamaicensis. The native is a low-growing groundcover; the upright version is a woody shrub that can reach 5 feet in height. I have both in my yard, but the upright porterweed is more heavily visited (perhaps because it's tall and easier to see). Bees, zebra longwings and especially skippers sip nectar from the tiny purple blooms all day long. I can look out my window at virtually any time and see pollinators on this plant!

Purple Majesty Salvia (Salvia guarantica x gesneraeflora)

This hybrid salvia has rich purple blooms on long spikes, like all salvias. I've read that hummingbirds like this plant, but in my yard the bees and butterflies use it extensively. It can grow to be 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide, so give it some space and you'll be rewarded. This another plant that the little skipper butterflies adore.

Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum)

Late sleepers are out of luck with this native wildflower. The flowers open only in the morning and then wither by late day, with new blooms appearing the next morning. This plant dies back in colder areas of Florida during the winter, and frankly isn't much of a looker except when it blooms in the early fall. I find its delicate, curly blossoms irresistible. It will reseed prolifically -- no exaggeration -- but I just pull up most of the babies and share the curly-cuteness with others.
Curly cuteness at work!


Happy Fall Floridays everyone!


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Butterfly Blizzard of 2013

This is our Summer of Butterflies. Never before have we had so many winged wonders flitting around our garden. It's a Butterfly Blizzard.

From sunup to sunset, zebra longwings, Gulf fritillaries, skippers, monarchs, black swallowtails, sulphurs and even giant swallowtails are busy fluttering about. I don't know why we have such a bounty this year.

Black swallowtail 
Maybe it's because our landscape is more mature now, three years after our Extreme Yard Makeover. The flowering plants are bigger and more robust, which means they pack more sweet stuff (as in nectar) than when they were smaller. More food on the buffet = more visitors to the buffet.

Maybe it's because we have deliberately planted a variety of menu choices, to attract a variety of butterflies. And we've planted foods that attract not only the adult butterflies, but their caterpillars as well. Most butterflies will sip nectar from a variety of flowers, but will only lay eggs on a few species,  sometimes only one species. The only larval plant for the monarch plant is the milkweed. The only host for zebra longwing babies is passionvine. Black swallowtails need fennel, parsley, dill or carrot tops. 
Zebra longwing caterpillar
Gulf fritillary caterpillar

Maybe back-to-back warm winters have played a role. After the Great Freeze of January 2010, we saw only a handful of zebra longwings the following two summers. Last year we saw a few more. This summer they are the most abundant species we see. There are 8-12 in our backyard at literally any time of day. They enjoy sipping on the porterweed, pentas and the wild coffee, but it is firebush they absolutely, unabashedly, passionately adore.  They hover like lovely, living Christmas ornaments around our two firebush shrubs. Their presence has been so constant we have come to think of them as part of the landscape, like our bird bath or our "sit-a-spell" bench.

Zebra longwing on porterweed
And maybe my increasing interest in plants native to Florida has something to do with our summer of success. We estimate our overall landscape is at least 60% native now (more than 70% in the backyard) and most of what we have planted attracts pollinators. Among those are Walter's viburnum, marlberry, wild coffee, anise hyssop (the bees love that as fervently as the longwings love the firebush), mistflower, wild coffee, privet cassia, goldenrod, buttonsage, cutleaf coneflower, rosinweed and Tampa vervain.  Oh, and firebush. 

Gulf fritillary on Tampa vervain
These are plants that Florida butterflies have come to recognize and depend on over the eons; they have evolved together. Of course, butterflies use many non-native plants too, such as the pentas and parsley in my garden, but the natives seem to provide a critical support system. Plus, these plants are part of our heritage as Floridians, no matter where we were born or what sort of accent we have.

It's easy to attract butterflies to your yard and there are a wealth of online resources to help you get started. Here are a  few of my favorites:

Attracting Pollinators To Your Garden Using Native Plants (U.S. Forest Service publication with beautiful illustrations)

Pollinator-Friendly Plant Guides For Your EcoRegion (online guides produced by the Pollinator Partnership)

Essentials of Building a Successful Butterfly Garden (www.floridagardener.com) 

Lepcurious (Butterfly Blog from Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry)

What plants are your favorite butterfly magnets? 

Black swallowtail chrysalis


Monday, July 22, 2013

Five Natives You Don't See Everyday, But Should

Several native Florida plants have become so commonplace that you can now find them at Big Box stores. Coontie, dune sunflower, blanketflower and muhly grass are among these "cross-over" plants that have made the leap from relative obscurity to mainstream popularity. They are the horticultural equivalents of the low-budget Indie film that wins an Oscar.

I have these plants and love them. They are the trailblazers, hopefully to be followed soon by many more representatives of "real Florida."

But I also like to be different. Part of the fun of gardening is discovering new plants, and sharing them with others. Here are five lesser-known Florida natives that have performed well in my Tampa yard, and that I'd personally like to see more widely used:

  • Tampa Vervain (Glandularia tampenis)

A beautiful little groundcover that can be used along borders and pathways, in front of larger plants, or as an alternative to turfgrass. It produces lovely clusters of pink blooms that attract bees and butterflies, and sails through West Central Florida winters without a care. Tampa vervain is endangered in the wild, but is legally cultivated and sold by native plant nurseries.  I have a low border of these along an edged landscape bed, where they spill out along a shell walkway. It's gratifying to know I am helping to sustain this imperiled wildflower in my own urban garden.

  • Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

Who doesn't love blue in their garden? This plant, with leaves resembling a salvia, produces clusters of dainty, sky blue or violet blossoms on stalks up to 3 feet high. Mistflower is a prolific reseeder: Once planted, you'll have it year after year (fair warning: it spreads!). Bees and small butterflies like skippers are fond of this wildflower in my yard. It grows in moist soils in the wild, but has flourished in my water-thrifty butterfly garden. Perfect as a border plant or tall groundcover. Dies back in winter, but never fear: It reappears, in increasing numbers, each Spring.






  • Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia lanciniata)

This is my first year with this hefty perennial wildflower, and I'm smitten! Unlike the purple coneflower (echinacea), this is actually a black-eyed susan with green, not black "eyes." Although native only to North Florida, it has been quite happy in my Zone 9 garden. Like mistflower, it prefers moist soils but is doing just fine in my yard on summer rainfall alone. I purchased two of these plants in April and they are robust and gorgeous now, with constant blooms of bright yellow flowers rising up from the intricate, deep green foliage. I only have two of these beauties, but plan to add more because they should be stunning when planted in mass. They can be 4 feet wide and just as high, so give them some room to grow.


  •  Ocala (Yellow) Anise (Illicium parviflorum)

Ocala, or "star anise" flower bud  
Everytime I walk past my "hedge" of Ocala anise and brush up against the leaves, I am reminded of why I love this shrub. True to its name, it smells just like anise! It doesn't have showy flowers (indeed its yellow flowers are positively puny) but, oh that fragrance! Crush the leaves and inhale, and I  bet you fall in love too. Ocala anise gets extra credit for being a serious water miser, pest-resistant, and not at all fussy about haircuts. And, it grows in good soil or poor, sun and shade. All in all, a plant that is simply screaming "Abuse and Neglect: Bring It On!" Left unchecked, it will be a large shrub of 10-12 feet, or even a small tree. I prune mine to about 6 feet to provide a nice privacy hedge.
 
My Ocala anise hedge

  • Marlberry (Ardisia escallonioides)

Another newcomer in my yard, planted a little over a year ago. Now about 5 feet tall, it should reach 10-15 feet high at maturity and can be kept lower with pruning. A terrific little understory tree for shade. Marlberry has lustrous,
Marlberries
dark green leaves, and lovely little white flower clusters in the spring, followed by berries that ripen to a rich purple hue. Marlberry is a wildlife-attracting powerhouse, offering nectar for butterflies and bees, berries for birds and small mammals, and hiding places to provide cover. Add bonus points for wind resistance and drought tolerance.
What's not to love?

*****

Have I tempted you? To find native plant nurseries that sell these plants, go to www.plantrealflorida.org. At this website, you also can plug in your zip code or county to find more native plants that grow in your area.

These are some of my favorite "Not Your Everyday Natives." What are yours?
 

Monday, June 10, 2013

After The Deluge: A Photo Diary

Thanks to Tropical Storm Andrea, the summer rainy season got off to a rousing start in my garden, with more than 10.5 inches of rain in the past seven days!

In between soakings -- and partly to relieve the forced "cabin fever" of being cooped up -- I strolled through my yard. Taking the time to look at my plants in detail reminded me of  how rainfall amplifies their beauty. Fresh and clean, even the most mundane of plants assumes an aura of newness, a sheen of self-satisfaction. 

Is there anything more lovely than a garden after a rain? 


Magenta passion flower is dripping with happiness...




A simple echevarria shimmers with pearly drops...



























 Perfect oval beads dangle from the tubular flowers of firecracker fern...

 The huge flat fronds of Monstera deliciosa, also known  
  as swiss cheese plant, are dappled with raindrops...


 While this cluster of buds on  
 the agapanthus (Lily of the    
 Nile) looks as though it can't 
 wait to pop open and
 welcome the sun.















 Dainty cutleaf coneflower, a Florida native that fares much better in my landscape than the more common purple variety, stands proudly like a golden sentinel among the orange cuphea (cigarflower) and purple porterweed in my butterfly garden.


 It's summer in Florida, and my plants couldn't be happier. 
 How about yours?

Monday, May 13, 2013

A "Micro" Miracle

Three years ago, Rick and I took a micro-irrigation workshop at the Hillsborough Extension office. We received a free starter micro-irrigation kit at the end of the class.

We brought the kit home and put it in our shed, intending to install it in a few weeks.

There it sat, collecting dust and nibbling around the edges of my guilty conscience, until last month. 

The thought of enduring another spring dry season of hauling buckets and hoses around the yard to water my beloved plants was just too much. Added motivation came when my yard was selected for a neighborhood garden tour -- a can't miss opportunity to showcase the eco-friendly elements of our low-maintenance landscape. Installing micro-irrigation moved right to the top of the Honey-Do list!

Yes, we have a drought-tolerant landscape. And yes, it mostly survives on the rainfall Mother Nature provides. But there are always times, especially in the spring, when Mother Nature is stingy, I am refreshing my landscape with new plants, and we may not get a drop of rain for weeks.  I have a lot of money, sweat and love invested in my  landscape, and I don't want to see my plants keel over and die.

For the last three years I have hauled watering cans from my rain barrels until they ran dry, and then hand-water plants to keep them going during the usual March-May drought period. But standing in my yard with a hose in my hand does not meet my definition of "low-maintenance." And, even with a shut-off nozzle, it's still wasteful.


Enter micro-irrigation. Short of Mother Nature herself, it's the most efficient watering system around. Traditional  in-ground irrigation systems typically apply 3 gallons of water per minute. Our micro-irrigation system uses 10 gallons of water per hour! Plus, micro is so easily customized that you can virtually ensure the water goes only to your plants -- no more watering sidewalks or streets!

Other benefits:

  • Micro, especially drip irrigation, applies water directly to the root zone of a plant, reducing evaporation, runoff and pest problems. It's ideal for watering plants on steep slopes.
  • Tremendous flexibility in tailoring irrigation to the differing needs of new versus mature plants.
  • The system connects directly to your outdoor water spigot.
  • Ease of adjustment: As you modify your landscape over time, moving the tubing and/or spray heads to accommodate the changes is a snap. We've already moved our components a few times to get the spray heads away from fast-growing plants that caused interference with the water stream.
  • Micro-irrigation is so efficient that it is usually exempt from watering restrictions, except for the time-of-day limitations. Of course, that doesn't mean we run ours every day; after all, we are committed to conserving water. But it does mean we don't have to remember which day is our "watering day."

Alas, micro-irrigation is not recommended for use on lawns, but that is just another great reason to ditch your lawn in favor of landscape plants!

Micro does take a while to install -- pretty much an entire weekend. But it truly is easy to do.  

And our free starter kit wasn't nearly enough to cover even our small urban lot, so we had to make multiple trips to the store for additional tubing, extensions and spray heads. We used a combination of Mister Landscaper products available at Lowe's, and DIG products available at Home Depot.


All told, we spent about $250 on the system - including the required backflow preventer and pressure regulator for our outdoor faucet, and a good-quality digital timer so our system comes on automatically early in the morning, two days a week.

Currently only our backyard has microirrigation. But we are so pleased with it, we already have decided to install it in our front yard too.

Our only regret? That we didn't do this a while lot sooner. Like three years ago! 

Do you have micro-irrigation in your landscape? Please share your experience installing and using it. If you don't have it, I'd also like to know if I've inspired you to give it a try.

For those of you who haven't yet "waded in" to the world of micro, here are some online resources to nudge you off the fence:

A Guide to Micro-Irrigation for West Central Florida Landscapes

Tampa Bay Community Water-Wise Awards: Efficient Irrigation (Video)  

Micro-Irrigation How-To Videos (Mister Landscaper products)

Hillsborough Extension Garden Blog


Free micro-irrigation workshops are offered by many Extension offices. Sign up early as the classes fill quickly!