Birds & Wildlife

Denny Schrock

The winter garden at Mobile Botanical Gardens

On a recent press tour of the Mobile Bay area as a guest of the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, I had the opportunity to visit Mobile Botanical Gardens, a 100-acre site with collections of hollies, rhododendrons, magnolias, and perennials. One of the highlights at this time of year is the camellia winter garden honoring horticulturist and plant breeder, Kosaku Sawada. He developed numerous varieties of camellias adapted to the Alabama Gulf Coast. Here are images of some of the color I spotted on my tour.

Top row (l. to r.) - Camellia japonica 'Kiku Toji', Camellia japonica 'Alba Plena', Camellia sasanqua 'Sarrel's Favorite'; middle row: Camellia hiemalis 'Chansonette', loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), fried egg plant (Gordonia axillaris); bottom row: Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis), white ginger (Hedychium coronarium), calamondin orange (XCitrofortunella)

The open canopy of longleaf pine encourages the growth of dozens of species of wildflowers.

The garden is also known for its work in longleaf pine forest restoration. Much of the site is devoted to this important Lower South habitat, home to dozens of species of wildlife and wildflowers.

Other sites nearby to experience nature include the 5 Rivers Delta Center, an educational center and starting point for nature tours in the delta, The Estuarium at Dauphin Island Sea Lab, with its boardwalk, aquariums and exhibits, and the Audubon Bird Sanctuary part of the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. The latter two are located on Dauphin Island, a barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay.

For a more formal garden experience in the Mobile Bay area, be sure to visit Bellingrath Gardens and Home. I wrote about it several weeks ago. Here’s a link to that post.


Justin W. Hancock

Plant of the Day: Switchgrass

SwitchgrassIf you’re looking for an easy-care ornamental grass for summer, autumn, and winter interest, look no further than switchgrass.

It’s a versatile grass that thrives in full sun or part shade, and doesn’t seem to care too much about the soil it’s in. Switchgrass thrives in clay, doesn’t mind being wet from time to time, and looks great during drought.

There’s a lovely selection of switchgrasses to choose from. Some have lovely silvery-blue foliage in spring and summer; others turn burgundy or gold in autumn. Some stay short (around 3-4 feet) while others grow quite tall (‘Thundercloud’ can reach 8 feet in height!).

Switchgrasses attract birds and their fluffly, cloud-like seedheads are great for using in fresh or dried flower arrangements.

Switchgrass is hardy in Zones 5-9, though I’ve also seen it thrive in Zone 4 when given some winter mulch.


Justin W. Hancock

Who Needs Flowers

blogroseA few weeks ago I posted a picture of one of my favorite roses, Rosa glauca, which features fantastic purple foliage. The flowers are cute enough — they’re pink and have five petals, like a wild rose, but they take a backseat to the foliage.

Then in late summer, the hips put on a show by turning glowing shades of orange and red. They attract birds, too. Plus, it’s very hardy — all the way to USDA Zone 2 (40 degrees below zero)!

So with a rose like this, who really needs flowers?


Jane McKeon

summer’s humming right along

Summer ends in a whir of wings in my yard. While some gardens are winding down for the season, mine is revving up with late-season flowers that cater to the sweet appetites of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds. Perennials such as hyssop (Agastache), butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii), and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), join the 24/7 dessert buffet provided by long-blooming annuals, including begonia, lantana, cardinal climber, Pentas, petunia, salvia, and zinnia.

Where have these thumb-size iridescent cuties been all summer? No doubt they’ve been noshing on native blooms and bugs in fields near my home. Just this week, though, I spotted a female hummer hovering in front of my kitchen window as if to say, “Hey, you! Didn’t you have a feeder hanging in this very spot last year?” It’s true: Hummingbirds have amazing memories. They return to the same nectar-rich gardens each year.

August and September bloomers are especially important to the Ruby-Throated (the only hummingbird species that resides east of the Rockies) because they fuel a marathon migration to Mexico and Central America that begins a few weeks from now. The males leave first, followed by the females and offspring. Hummers double their weight for the 2,000-mile trip, taking time to top their tanks in gardens that also serve sugar water, the avian equivalent of an energy drink.

After spotting my first dazzling diner, I wasted no time filling my collection of hummingbird feeders and hanging them within view of every room of my house. One of my favorites is a window-mounted model available at Wild Birds Unlimited. It adheres to glass with suction cups, awarding closeup views. You can purchase packaged instant nectar, but I prefer mixing up small homemade batches made from 4 parts water (boiled, then cooled) to 1 part sugar. Contrary to popular belief, the solution need not be tinted with red food coloring. I clean feeders every few days and refill with fresh sugar water.

By Labor Day, most Rubies will be gone. In the meantime, I’m going to relish these final days of summer, the sweetest season of all.


Denny Schrock

signs of spring

I heard them yesterday on my lunch-hour run near the Raccoon River. The spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) were chirping in full chorus. These tiny little frogs are one of the sure signs of spring. The males create a cacaphony of music in their attempt to attract mates who will lay their eggs in small ponds that often dry up later in the year.

Yellow crocus (Crocus flavus)

Yellow crocus (Crocus flavus)

Those spring peepers made me think of other signs of spring that I noted in my yard this week, and wondered whether they could be consistently connected. These cheery yellow crocus came into full bloom in my backyard, where they fill two quadrants of a boxwood parterre. Other crocuses also have come into full glory this past week. Pale blue ‘Blue Pearl’, deep purple ‘Grand Maitre’, and creamy ‘Romance’ snow crocus brighten the garden beds.

I also noticed some of the early irises blooming. This bright yellow danford iris (Iris danfordiae) greets me as I walk to the mailbox. Deep blue ‘Harmony’ reticulate iris (Iris reticulata) and purple ‘George’ Spanish iris (Iris histrioides) popped through the winter mulch this week, too.

Danford iris (Iris danfodiae)

Danford iris (Iris danfordiae)

Could these early-season crocuses and irises be indicators of the awakening of spring peepers? I’ve not necessarily made the connection before. Phenology, the correlation of biological phenomena with climatic conditions, can be used by gardeners to watch for or treat certain pests. For example, recommendations to apply crabgrass preventer when forsythias are in bloom stem from the need to get the weed preventer in place before the ground warms to 55 degrees F, the temperature at which crabgrass seeds begin to germinate.

Have you made connections between bloom dates in your yard with other natural phenomena? If so, we’d love to hear about them.


Denny Schrock

those wascally wabbits!

Now that the snow is finally melting here in Central Iowa, the extent of damage to shrubs from rabbits is woefully apparent. Snow cover was deep for so long that bunnies fed on almost any plant that protruded from the white stuff.

Two forms of rabbit damage show up on this viburnum. Smaller shoots have been nipped with an angular cut. The larger branch has been stripped of its bark.

Two forms of rabbit damage show up on this viburnum. Smaller shoots have been nipped with an angular cut. The larger branch has been stripped of its bark.

It’s discouraging to look at receding snowbanks and see glaring white stems of shrubs stripped of their bark. Often, the shoots near the ground are fine because they were protected under the snow.

It’s too late to protect these shrubs now. But they can be salvaged with a little pruning. If stem tips are gnawed, cut the remaining stem just above a bud. A new shoot will emerge from that bud. If the bark of larger stems is damaged, the amount of pruning needed depends on the extent of the damage. The rule of thumb that I use is, if the bark is stripped more than half way around the stem, remove that shoot. If damage extends only 1/4 (or less) of the way around the stem, it will probably continue to grow fine without any care.

I usually opt for removing damaged stems. Shrubs with multiple shoots resprout readily from the base and grow back fuller and lusher than ever. It’s a great opportunity to rejuvenate old, overgrown shrubs. Make cuts 6 to 12 inches above the ground. If you make the cuts higher, the shrub will develop tufts of new growth at stem tips and be relatively bare at the base.

Wire caging protected this barberry from rabbits.

Wire caging protected this barberry from rabbits.

One technique that I’ve used to protect shrubs from rabbits is to place homemade tomato cages around smaller shrubs. They’re cylinders made of rabbit fencing. The lower wires are close together, preventing rabbits from getting in. Wider wire spacing at the top allows easy access for tomato harvest in summer. Normally this trick not only solves the problem of where to store cages over winter, bit it also prevents rabbit damage to the shrub it encircles. However, deep snow this year let the rabbits wiggle through the wider wires. Next year I’ll be more vigilant and spray rabbit repellent in addition to fencing off favorite plants.