Thoughts on how to create a well-designed garden retreat.

Posts tagged “birds

Spring flowers


Spring flowers are highly anticipated and treasured for their brief display.  Today I walked through Jaliya’s Memorial Garden and took some pictures of currently flowering shrubs.  Tomorrow I will try to show you pictures of the flowering perennials from the garden.

Rhododendron 'Roseum Elegans'

Rhododendrons are large evergreen shrubs native to the mountains and piedmont in the southeast.  They require shade and good drainage.  They can have some morning sun but no more.  There are many cultivars out there.  Roseum Elegans is my favorite.

Eastern Ninebark 'Diablo'

This is an Eastern Ninebark variety called ‘Diablo’.  It is noted for it’s dark leaves.  There are other cultivars available with yellow and copper leaves.  I like Diablo for the contrast in color especially while in flower.  Ninebarks would often get lost in the shrub border if you used the standard green leaf variety.

Blue Muffin Viburnum

This is a Viburnum dentatum called blue muffin.  It is claimed to have nicer shinier leaves than the species.  Later these flowers will be dark blue berries for the birds to eat.

Fringe Tree

This is a native shrub/small tree called Fringetree.  It’s easy to see how it gets the name.  There are male and females of this tree and supposedly the male flowers are showier.  I don’t notice the difference.  Probably because usually you see them as a stand alone specimen rather than in groups so you could compare.  There is a Chinese Fringetree that may have a nicer habit but our native one has fragrant flowers that the Chinese species does not.

Many of the native azaleas have already bloomed but there are still more to bloom later in the season.  Hopefully one day I can devote a post to all of them.  The Virginia Sweetspire is in bud and will be blooming any day now.

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Rain Gardens


Many yards have some place that water seems to drain slowly or even have standing water for a few days after a rain.  You can curse these spots, regrade your yard to move the water out, or you can take advantage of your luck and plant a rain garden.

Low areas in the lawn are always a problem as it makes mowing difficult.  The lawn mower will leave wheel tracks through the mud and the situation seems to get worse and worse.  It is best to give up the grass completely in a low spot.  In this post, I will give you some idea of the native plants that work well in Durham NC.  You can find similar plants native to your area online.

If your low spot is large, you might want to plant water loving trees such as River Birch, Sweetbay Magnolia, Serviceberry, and Bald Cypress.

For shrubs that like damp areas, you can plant Inkberry Holly, Sweetshrub, Clethera, Illicium, Leucothoe, and Wax Myrtle.  Winterberry Holly is a great shrub for these locations and they have berries that help to attract birds.

Hibiscus is a plant with large flowers that loves wet areas.  There are the “dinner plate” hibiscus as well as the star hibiscus.  Some plants that usually like shade such as Cardinal Flower and Cinnamon Fern will grow in full sun if kept consistently wet.  Monarda is a great hummingbird attractor as is the Cardinal Flower.  Joe Pye Weed and Swamp Milkweed are great butterfly attractors.  Swamp Sunflower and the Native Ageratum are late fall bloomers for wet areas.  Turtle head is an unusual looking flower that also likes damp soil.  For grasses you can add the rushes, Carex, and Acorus.  Louisiana Iris and the Virginia Iris also add vertical elements to the rain garden.

So as you can see, there are a lot of possibilities for a poorly drained area of your yard that are way more attractive than a lawn.  In fact, you may even decide to run the downspouts from the gutter for your house and intentionally create a rain garden.  Any time you can keep water on your property rather than running into the storm sewer it’s a good thing.  I run the downspout water into my garden ponds and the overflow for them is a rain garden.  Sometimes dipping a bucket of water out of the pond for a thirsty plant in the summer is easier than dragging a hose out to the garden from the house.

This customer had a wet drainage area that we turned into a garden pond and rain garden.


If hindsight is 20/20 why do we keep making the same mistakes?


As I have written about the past couple of blogs, fire is a real danger around this area lately.  The local news last night confirmed what I suspected.  The golf course fire in north Raleigh over the weekend was mostly Bermuda grass burning and spreading the fire.  The report even mentioned that fescue stays green for most of the year and isn’t likely to burn.  But still, someone will ask me if I will plant bermuda for them and I will have to tell them no.

Which brings up a point that I often make.  Man has brought in a lot of invasive plants into areas they don’t belong in and then has to deal with the consequences.  Kudzu is a vine in our area brought over from Asia years ago.  It climbs up and over everything looking like cloth covering over unused furniture in the attic.  You can’t even see what is underneath it.  It was brought over with the intent to be used as cattle feed.  It grows so fast that some people swear that after a summer thunderstorm, you can watch it grow.  Life is a little slower in the South and when it’s hot, you may want to do nothing more than watching paint dry but I have yet to watch kudzu grow.  It needs to be eradicated but there is always a vacant property or unused country land that still has some.

English Ivy is another invasive quite common in our area.  It too grows everywhere in the shade. (Kudzu likes sun)  It carpets the ground and climbs tree trunks.  When you walk through it, you stir up the mosquitoes who seem to love the protection it gives.  Nothing but the trees and hardiest plants can survive it’s onslaught.  Japanese privet is found everywhere in the woods.  So is Japanese honeysuckle.  One estimate is that 20% of the plants you find in natural areas are actually exotic invasive plants.  If you add in the ones not yet considered invasive, the number goes up to 30%.

Now I will admit to planting many non-native plants.  However, once I realize that a plant may be invasive, I plant it only with extreme care.  Birds and insects native to a region, depend on the native flora for food and young.  The more we upset the native balance of plants, the less the native fauna has to survive on.  We need to look at the planting mistakes of the past and learn from them so that today’s cool new plant isn’t tomorrow’s kudzu.  Every week I have to educate a customer on why a certain plant should not be used based on it’s invasive tendencies.  We all need to educate ourselves.  Look up online to find plant lists of exotic invasive plants for your area and refrain from using them.  In many cases, it may actually be against the law to use them any way.


Is spring around the corner?


It’s Groundhog Day in the US.  Supposedly if the groundhog sees his shadow, spring is right around the corner.  With the winter we’ve had, most everyone is looking forward to spring.  Here in Durham NC, it was 63 degrees when I got up at 6 am and is supposed to get up to around 70.  Feels like spring.  However, tomorrow is forecast to be in the 40’s.  Back to winter.

I’m, writing about this because probably no one looks forward more to spring than gardeners.  Usually around here, if we have a warm day, I’m out tinkering in the garden.  I may cut back perennials stalks that I left all winter.  I leave any that just don’t look all that bad for cover for the birds.  Leaving them also helps to trap blowing leaves that act as a mulch for the crown of the plant.  Leaving leaves over the crown of the plant help to prevent the soil warming up too quickly on a warm day and therefore keeping the plant from sending up tender shoots too early just to be killed back by freezing temperatures.  It’s better to be a patient gardener.

Warm days during the winter are great times to take a look at your smaller trees and see where they need pruned.  If you have young trees that one day will be shade trees, it is best to prune to create a central leader.  This is done by removing side branches that may compete for leadership position.  It is also good to remove any lower branches.  My rule of thumb is that the lowest branch should be above head height.  Even if that means you are leaving a single stick, go ahead and do it.  The root system is used to having more top than it does after you prune.  So once the plant starts growing in the spring, the root system focuses all of it’s energy into what you have left, actually giving you a bigger plant quicker.  So don’t be afraid to prune.

Also look for branches that are growing in the same general area.  Leave one branch in that space, removing the others.  Those limbs that are maybe even as small around as your pinkie finger will one day be as thick as your thigh.   Imagine that as you decide what branches to leave.  Also remove branches that are rubbing together.

If you are looking for other yard chores on a nice warm day in winter, look for your summer flowering shrubs that benefit from a hard pruning.  Some of these are your hydrangeas, butterflybush, and caryopteris that are common in our area.  You may have others.  These plants set there flower buds during the spring.

Do not hard prune your spring flowering shrubs yet.  However, if you have spring flowering shrubs that have gotten too large, you can rejuvenate them with good pruning now.  It is easier to see the stems before they leaf out.  The best method of doing this is to remove the thickest stems only, and remove a third of the plant doing so.  If you do this each year, you will end up with a plant that has no stems older that 3 years old.  This will help to keep the plant down to a more manageable size while retaining the natural growth habit of the plant.  A shrub that grows in a fountain shape should never be pruned into a ball in my opinion.  I prefer plants grown in a natural shape.  Once you begin pruning into an unnatural shape for the plant, you are consigning yourself to more maintenance from then on.  I prefer to enjoy my garden with less work, not more.

Winter is a great time to see the branch structure of deciduous trees for pruning.


More about the alien invaders.


One thing that I have found is that so few people know what is native and what is not.  I recently had a job in a new development that claimed to be “green”.  The information brochure said that the landscaping was done with native plants.  This customer called me to do the side/back yard as the front yard was already done by the builder.  I was excited because I wanted to do all natives and wanted to start getting jobs in this development.  Imagine my surprise when I pulled up to the house and not one plant in the front yard was native. Not one!

Many people think that just because a plant is commonly planted in their area that it is a native plant.  Not true.  I like a lot of plants from around the world.  European explorers collected plants and took them back to Europe and the U.S.  People were intrigues by the new plants.  Money was to be made by growing these plants and selling them.  If people wanted native plants in their garden, they could just go out and dig them up from their natural habitat.  Not much money to be made there. To make it worse, as the native plants were being destroyed by farming and development and nurseries weren’t growing them, when people did want natives they would go out and dig them up to bring home.  This further helped to wipe out native plant populations.  It is only a good idea to go dig up plants from the wild if they are about to be destroyed by development.  Any gardener knows that when you transplant plants, you have the risk of killing the plant if it doesn’t survive the shock of the move.  Protect the native plants in their natural environment.

For a plant lover, it is hard to refrain from planting exotics.  I don’t plant 100% native myself.  Generally, the further away from urban settings and closer to the woods, the less I plant exotics.  I do not want the exotics escaping into the natural landscape.  Not all non-natives are invasive.  I have given up on planting some plants once I found they were invasive.  To determine what plants are invasive in your area, go online and type in “Invasive exotic plant” and your State and you should be able to find a list.  In NC there is a list of the invasive and the potentially invasive.  Never plant the invasive.  Only with extreme care plant the potentially invasive.  Better to not plant either.

Because I have divided my yard into a native plant section and an exotic plant section, I can compare the two easily.  One thing that I have noticed is how much more life is in the native section.  The native garden is humming with life.  Sit still for a bit in the native garden and you will notice loads of honeybees, bumble bees, butterflies and birds.  The contrast between the numbers in the native garden and the exotic garden is astounding.  Nothing is still in the native garden.  By contrast the exotic plant area is a funeral home.  Ok, maybe an exaggeration but if you saw it, you would notice the difference. It’s like night and day.

Notice the bees and the hummingbird moth.


Winging it.


One of the joys of a garden is the life it brings.  Of course, plants are living things but a well-designed garden brings in life on wings.

I have discussed 3 of the 5 functions or types of plants in the well-designed garden.  These different types of plants is also what makes the garden attractive to birds.  Birds like open areas near protective cover.  This is best achieved by planting layers of plants.  Shade trees tower over understory trees with shrubs planted under those.  These are all planted together alongside of a small open place make an ideal garden for birds.

Evergreen shrubs help to block the winds which also make for an inviting garden for birds.  Trees such as hawthorn and service berry provide berries for food.  Hollies not only provide berries for food but also provide great shelter for nesting.  One native plant in this area that almost never seems to be found without a bird nest in it is the Yaupon Holly.  The yaupon holly can get 15′ tall and wide.  It has small evergreen leaves and the females have berries.  But the twiggy stiff branch structure seems to be ideal for bird nests.

It also helps to plant flowering perennials that produce seeds that birds like.  One of my favorite plants is a type of sunflower commonly called “Dumbo Ears”.  It produces large leaves fairly low to the ground but shoots up flower stalks rising around 6′ tall.  When it blooms, it is a yellow cone-flower shaped flower.  But when it goes to seed, the gold finches flock to it.  There are other plant/bird combinations but I will be honest and say I don’t know of many of them.  I have learned that birds prefer our native plants over many exotics.  This is because the natives are what they have eaten for millenia.

Another favorite sight is when hummingbirds visit the garden.  Hummingbirds are attracted to bright tubular flowers.  Cardinal flower, bee balm, and trumpet vine are some examples.  There are many more that may be native in your area.

The biggest thing you can do if you want birds is to provide a water source.  Many people keep bird baths for that purpose and they work.  However, you must remember to keep them with water as the shallow bowls evaporate quickly.  Water gardens work best for attracting birds.  If the garden pond has a shallow area, the birds will love it.

Other winged creatures highly desired are butterflies.  Butterflies add color and motion to the garden.  They often hang around a little more than birds as they are so much slower and seem more care-free.  The key to attracting butterflies is to plant the flowers or shrubs that are food for the larva of the butterflies you want.  Many species of butterfly larva only feed on one or two species of plants.  If you want that specie of butterfly, you need to plant that particular food source.  You can find lists online to help you here.  Again, native plants are preferable because that is what they have fed on for millenia as well.  Be sure to limit pesticide use as well if you want butterflies.

Just before dark, the bats show up in my garden.  Bats are very welcome as they eat loads of mosquitoes.  I often see them dipping down to the pond to get a drink.  The more bats and birds you attract to the garden, the less mosquitoes you will have.