Gardening with Georgia

Archive - May 2011

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Baby Giant

Sun, May 22, 2011 at 01:30:04 PM

Early instar of the Giant Swallow-
tail butterfly.

There are a Myer lemon and two Key lime trees in the back yard, potential larval host plants for the Giant Swallowtail butterfly. But a far-away small bowl of parsley did the trick.

The reddish-orange and dark brown caterpillar with a saddle of white (more white will appear with age) found the parsley patch just right for nibbling. Hooray!


Helping the pollinators

Sun, May 22, 2011 at 10:24:11 AM

Native leaf cutter bees sleeping on southern
beeblossom in the Garden's pine rockland section.

Most of our native bees are not social, as is the exotic honeybee. Instead, said bee expert Steve Buchmann, “think of them as single moms with families to feed.’’

Of the 4,000 bees native to the United States, 90 percent make nests in the ground, while the rest dwell in wood or plant cavities. A native bee mom digs a chamber, furnishes it with food for the young, then lays an egg on the packet of nutritious pollen/nectar, seals off the brood cell and flies away. The baby bees don’t have any eyes or legs. They have tiny heads and round, white bodies that take in food and excrete it. They, like butterflies and moths, go through complete metamorphosis before emerging from the ground (or dead trees) as adults.

Buchmann, who is a pollination biologist from Arizona and is a research associate at three institutions (the American Museum of Natural History, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the University of Arizona), is international coordinator for the Pollinator Partnership – an effort to rescue native bees from oblivion.

At the 31st Annual Conference of the Florida Native Plant Society, bees were the topics of two great talks and a film. Why? Because there has been a 40 percent to 60 percent decline in bees and flower flies here and around the world.

Eleven species of pollinators are extinct in the U.S., Buchmann said, and four common bumblebees have become “very rare.” Habitat loss, invasive plants and animals, pollution, pesticides and climate change all are bearing down on them.

A bee at work on varnish leaf.

Bees pollinate some 35% of our food crops and all of our native flowering plants. In an effort to utilize the pollinating talents of some of the 316 bees native to Florida, Akers Pence, at the University of Florida, has set up trials with a handful of watermelon and squash farmers in the state. He has planted both annual and perennial wildflowers in strips next to the farmers’ fields, kept tract of what native bees show up and how many in an effort to select the best wildflowers to help in pollination. Phase one has been completed, Pence said, and he found that 50 species of native bees appeared on such flowers as tickseed, Indian blanket, black-eyed susans and partridge pea. The next phase of his work will look at their effectiveness in pollination the crops, and convince farmers to plant wildflowers on the edges of their fields.

The earliest bees found in the fossil record appeared 130 to 140 million years ago, “around the same time the true dicots began to diversify,’’ Buchmann said. To keep them around, plant native plants, not hybrids; allow dead twigs and branches to remain on your trees an shrubs; keep some ground bare in your landscape (don’t mulch every single inch), and build bee condos, drilling holes in small wooden planks for bees that nest in cavities. The holes should be about 5/16th of an inch around and 3 to 5 inches deep. Use any good wood that is not green or pressure treated.

There’s more information on



Connecting the ecosystem dots

Fri, May 20, 2011 at 07:27:32 PM


With a temperate zone right out of Appalachia jutting into the Panhandle and a tropical zone from the West Indies wrapping around the southern tip of the peninsula, and everything from scrub to marshes in between, Florida is among the most biologically diverse states in the country.

Because these ecosystems and their inhabitants have been so reduced in size as farms and cities have sprawled across the state, the Florida Native Plant Society’s 31st annual conference is exploring how these species-rich landscapes can be preserved in back yards and public spaces, how yards and gardens can become stepping stones for wildlife and wild plants, connecting one fragment of habitat to the next.

Mark Johnson, landscape
architect from Kissimmee.

Mark Johnson, landscape architect, and Craig Huegel, a wildlife biologist, gave compelling talks about using natives in ways that will bring nature back to the sterile expanses of grass and exotic plants that have become so prevalent.

“Wildlife exists because their habitat needs are met,’’ said Huegel. Those needs are food, water and shelter. But it's not as easy as putting out a birdbath and a bird feeder.

Throughout the year, food needs may change. Birds, for example, may eat berries in the fall, but rely on insects to feed their young in the spring. Butterflies seek nectar on flowers, but lay eggs on other specific plants. Attracting critters to your yard means being aware of many of these differences.

Cover is equally important. Birds need protection for nesting and to escape predators. Such plants as wax myrtle, full of many fine twigs and leaves for hiding, are well suited for this.

Sales of native plants are a big
part of the conference.

Think about multiple layers of the woods that accommodate different species. Include a canopy, sub-canopy and understory, three levels of a plant community that are utilized by various species of birds, butterflies, and insects. Amphibians and reptiles need hidey holes and water and weedy little edges.

Yet weedy may be one reason people don’t use more natives, said Mark Johnson. “To many people, natives are experienced as a chaotic mess.’’

He walked us through the design principles of color, texture, scale and mass. Get a color wheel, he said, and learn how to use it. Then understand not just the primary colors but the tapestry-like  hues, tints and shades of nature found in different greens and subtle browns.

Mix coarse, medium and fine textures so plants read as individuals in a coherent whole instead of a jumble of indistinct plants. Remember that what works to enhance a one-story house won’t work with two stories because the scale is different. Instead of using just one type of plant for a long hedge, mix plants, including some that might flower at a particular season.

Make a plan to scale, and calculate plant placement according to the mature size of plants. Don’t forget to include yourself in the scene: how will you as well as the wildlife use the space?

Wonderful talks about pollinators, wildflowers and biodiversity hot spots rounded out the program.

Tomorrow, we delve more deeply into these issues. It promises to be an exciting day.


Natives shrubs for shade...and insects

Tue, May 17, 2011 at 09:04:59 AM

A Ruddy Daggerwing butterfly sips nectar from
flowers of wild coffee.

Wild coffee, Psychotria nervosa, has been blooming profusely in recent weeks, attracting bees by the gazillion and nectar-hungry butterflies. The shrub that is native to South Florida is an excellent plant for shaded or lightly shaded areas, and can attain a good 10 feet in height if so allowed. It takes pruning wonderfully, however, and you can maintain it as a well-mannered hedge or allow it to billow. A leafy mulch contributes the organic matter that will benefit this shrub. It will wilt in times of drought, and so a good soaking may be required.

Bahama wild coffee is more
compact with smaller leaves.

Becoming more popular is the related Bahama wild coffee, Psychotria ligustrifolia, which has smaller leaves and stays more compact. This ranges from Miami-Dade County into the Keys throughout the Caribbean. I added three of these small shrubs to a new native/butterfly garden in my yard last year, and they are flowering with gusto at only about 2 feet tall. As we become more aware of the need to provide for bees and other pollinators, these attractive shrubs perform grandly. Plus, they do double duty: red fruit in the fall provide food for birds.


If you're going to be red, be red

Mon, May 09, 2011 at 01:08:36 PM


With blood red bracts and red-throated white flowers, a Mussaenda eythrophylla planted along the allee leading to the overlook is in glorious form. It was so startlingly bright that as I was hurrying along the allee on my way to an appointment I came to a screeching halt and went over to find out what was bleating at me with such vital color. 

Not a shy bloomer.

In the coffee family, Mussaenda is particularly cold tender and several in my neighborhood have been killed over the last two winters. But this one, planted among taller trees, is in the correct location so that wind and cold are deflected. And its strong color, I think, is more appealing than the pink cultivars that have found their way into many gardens. Aside from being vulnerable to cold, the plants take average water and fertilizer, and can be cut back at the end of winter to have a rounded shape.