Sunday, January 30, 2011

Birdland

When we opened the back door this morning, the sounds of this very vocal American Crow perched in the tree nearby called us out for a closer look. Rather than the usual obnoxious "caw caw", these calls were a bit more melodic, mixing rattles and coos in an intriguing and unexpected manner.


We quickly realized it was a very bird-filled morning in My Florida Backyard. Within a matter of minutes, both a Red-Bellied Woodpecker and a Downy Woodpecker had dropped in for Sunday brunch as well.




Little Yellow-Rumped Warblers searched the grass nearby for seeds and small insects, their excellent camouflage rendering them nearly invisible except when they hopped to a new location.

Not to be outdone, wading birds made an appearance as well, including these Great Egrets.


Nearby, a limpkin sat on the bank, soaking up the winter sunshine.

All in all, it was a very bird-filled day in My Florida Backyard, as it often is in the winter months. We sat in the warm sun, enjoying the show and loving life in Florida in January!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Life is for Learning

We've noticed that we've been pretty lean on posts during the month of January here in My Florida Backyard. More rainfall and lower temperatures than usual has made it a little challenging to find new and exciting things to tell you about recently. While we scour the yard for some interesting topics, I thought you might be interested in a guest post I recently did for the MOSI BioWorks blog, Tales From the Butterfly Garden. It's a little more detailed than our posts here on My Florida Backyard sometimes are, but hopefully you'll find some of the information useful or interesting.

Preparing for Caterpillar Season: Milkweed
Originally published on Tales From the Butterfly Garden

During the chilly winter months in Florida, days can go by without a butterfly sighting, but it only takes a few warm days to bring them out again. In a few weeks, they'll be back in full force, making now the perfect time to prepare your garden to support butterfly and caterpillar populations for the year ahead.

Butterfly enthusiasts know that milkweed is the larval host plant for butterflies in the subfamily Danainae, which includes Monarchs and Queens. In Florida, the most common milkweed available for sale is Asclepias curassavica, known commonly as Tropical Milkweed or Scarlet Milkweed. This species of milkweed is not actually native to Florida, but has naturalized here due to its ability to thrive in our hot and sticky summers. Being a tropical plant, it is not cold-hardy, though it will frequently come back from the roots if you're patient. It also reseeds readily, and also grows easily from stem cuttings allowed to root in water.

Florida also has several dozen native species of milkweed, most found only in the wild and some in very localized populations. Of these native species, the only one commonly found for sale is Asclepias tuberosa, commonly called Butterflyweed. By scouring the internet, I've gathered information on twelve other native species, and found seed sources for three of them. The list below shows botanical name, common name(s), and some general information. Craig Huegel has done a great job documenting many of these species in detail on his Native Florida Wildflowers blog, so for further information and pictures, click the botanical name to be redirected to his blog (or, in a few cases, www.wildflower.org).

Asclepias connivens - Large Flower Milkweed   
  • Occurs throughout Florida in open wet flatwoods and savannahs, in widely scattered and localized populations
  • Requires open and seasonally wet conditions to thrive
Asclepias curtisii - Curtiss' Milkweed   
  • Extremely rare endemic and endangered species, with localized populations
  • Confined to sunny and very well-drained sandy habitats in the peninsula 
Asclepias feayi - Florida Milkweed
  • Endemic to Florida and found only within the southern half of the state
  • Native to well-drained upland habitats, especially xeric flatwoods and sandhills with high levels of sunlight
Asclepias humistra - Purple Milkweed
  • Native to the northern two-thirds of Florida
  • Prefers well-drained sands and full sun; will rot quickly if planted in moist soils
Asclepias incarnata - Swamp Rose Milkweed
  • Native throughout peninsular Florida
  • Prefers moist to wet soil habitats in sunny locations, but can tolerate occasional drought once established
  • Huegel notes this species is difficult to cultivate from seed, although seeds are readily available in many seed catalogs. In addition to seed, Prairie Moon Nursery offers both bare root and potted plants for sale via mail order.
Asclepias lanceolata - Fewflower Milkweed
  • Tall thin species with very thin leaves and small heads of bright orange blooms
  • Occurs throughout Florida in open marshes, wet prairies, and savannahs
Asclepias longifolia - Longleaf Milkweed
  • Found throughout Florida in pinelands and savannahs with sunny, moist soils
  • Easy to grow from seed, though no commercial seed source appears to be available
Asclepias pedicellata - Savannah Milkweed
  • Occurs statewide in open upland habitats, such as pine flatwoods and prairie
  • Prefers average conditions during much of the year and moist soils during the summer rainy season
Asclepias perennis - Swamp Milkweed, Aquatic Milkweed, White Milkweed
  • Occurs in a variety of wetland habitats, including semi-shaded forests
  • Requires good soil moisture to prosper; has some drought tolerance but must be provided plenty of water during the summer months
Ascplepias tomentosa - Velvetleaf Milkweed
  • Occurs in a variety of well-drained upland sites throughout most of Florida
  • A good candidate for gardeners looking to use native milkweeds in a butterfly garden
Asclepias verticillata - Whorled Milkweed
  • A drought-tolerant species that thrives in sun or part shade
  • Seeds available from Prairie Moon Nursery via mail order
Asclepias viridis - Green Antelopehorn, Spider Milkweed 
  • This species prefers moist soils and full sun
  • Seeds available from Prairie Moon Nursery via mail order

For butterfly lovers in Florida and other states, MonarchWatch.org is a great source of information on milkweed around the country. Here you'll find an in-progress guide to milkweed species, along with detailed growing information. Many milkweeds are surprisingly hard to start from seed, requiring scarification and/or stratification to germinate, and this site provides instructions for both. They also offer a Milkweed Seed Kit for sale that provides four kinds of milkweed seeds, three of which should grow well in Florida.

In a butterfly garden, you can never have too much milkweed. A hungry caterpillar can strip a plant of leaves in just a few days, so plant all the milkweed you can handle to support a healthy butterfly population in your area. You can start now from seeds, or watch your local nurseries for milkweed plants in the months ahead. A patch of milkweed is almost guaranteed to be a butterfly magnet - if you plant it, and they will come!

If you know of a source for seeds or plants of any of Florida's native milkweed species, we'd love to hear about it. Please tell us in the comments.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Hometown Pride

This last week was was a great one for Florida gardeners. We had several days of rain, with lots of warm sunshine in between, making it the perfect time for planting new flowers to brighten up the winter landscape. As we scoured nearby nurseries for the best and brightest bargains, we made a wonderful discovery - the Tampa Mock Vervain (Glandularia tampensis) is in at Home Depot!


It’s certainly not every city that can boast a wildflower named for it, but Tampa has one. The Tampa Mock Vervain is an endangered native wildflower, endemic to just a few coastal counties in central Florida. Like so many native species in Florida, Tampa Mock Vervain is threatened by development. It prefers open woodlands near the coast – just like developers do. Once development began to destroy its limited natural habitat, it didn’t have much of a chance, and there are now only 24 known populations in the wild.


Butterfly gardeners treasure Tampa Mock Vervain as a fantastic nectar source. Plant it now to enjoy it throughout winter and spring, but expect it to die back once the harsh heat of summer hits. Some gardeners have luck with this plant re-seeding itself, but we never have. Fortunately for us, Riverview Flower Farm supplies our local Home Depot with this plant each winter, and we stock up when we find them. Many Florida native plant nurseries carry this plant as well, so keep your eyes open. One caveat - don't collect this plant if you happen across it in the wild; that's illegal due to its endangered status.

Florida’s ecosystem has been changed forever by development, but you can restore some of the native health and beauty by taking simple steps. Add Tampa Mock Vervain to your gardens to help bring “Old Florida” back to life - and bring in butterflies by the barrelful!

Monday, January 17, 2011

To Everything, There is a Season

Any butterfly gardener knows that milkweed is one of the most important plants in any butterfly garden. We often refer to it as the "all-in-one butterfly plant", because it provides food for monarch butterflies (and several others) throughout their entire life cycle. This subfamily of butterflies (Danainae) lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves so the caterpillars are in the perfect place to start feeding when they hatch. After metamorphosis, the adult butterflies sip the nectar from the flowers.

There are a multitude of milkweed species native to Florida, but (not surprisingly) most are difficult to find, even at native plant nurseries. The two most readily available are Scarlet Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), which is actually not native but does very well here during hot and humid summers, and Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), which is perfect for the cool season.

A. tuberosa can take a light frost with minimal damage, and thrives in moderate temperatures. It's available in both yellow and orange flowered varieties, and both are great for monarchs, queens, and other milkweed butterflies.


Monarchs do live year-round in Central Florida. Unlike northern populations, the Florida population does not migrate to Mexico, so butterfly gardeners should strive to provide them with host and nectar plants all throughout the year. At this time of year, you may not see many butterflies, but on warm afternoons they can still be found where the right plants are available, and the right plant right now is A. tuberosa.


If you can't find plants, A. tuberosa is pretty easy to start from seed, which you should be able to find most places seeds are sold. We bought a couple of packets of the orange-flowered variety from Burpee at Home Depot last week for $1 each. This is also a good time to start seeds for other varieties of milkweed - many of the native varieties are available online from native plant catalogs like Prairie Moon. We're thinking of trying Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) and Whorled Milkweed (A. verticillata) this year, just for variety. We'll let you know if we succeed!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How Sweet It Is

Cooler winter weather allows Floridians to welcome a variety of annuals to their yards that just can't take the heat of summer. One of our favorites is Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima), also sometimes called Sweet Allison. It's low-growing with tiny flowers that are attractive to bees and butterflies, not that we've seen too many of the latter lately.


Sweet Alyssum is not native to Florida, but it's pretty easy to find at most nurseries.You'll generally find Sweet Alyssum available in white, but other colors are available. The MOSI Butterfly Garden recently planted a border of purple alyssum along the front walk, and Park Seed offers a variety called Pastel Carpet, which is a mix of pinks and yellows.


In yet another example of why it's best to be familiar with botanical names, Sweet Alyssum is strangely enough not actually a member of the genus Alyssum, although it once was. Neither is another plant commonly known as Alyssum 'Compacta' and even sold on Park Seed's website by this name. This yellow version is actually correctly called Aurinia saxatilis, and is popular for rock gardens. Both Aurinia and Lobularia are closely related to Alyssum and used to be included in it, but that's no longer the case. The lesson? If you're looking for a specific plant, check botanical names to be sure you're actually getting the plant you were hoping for.


At any rate, Sweet Alyssum is great for Florida winters, and should last all the way until the strong heat of summer arrives. When the butterflies return, they'll find these delicate little flowers waiting for them. Until then, we'll enjoy the honey-sweet scent ourselves!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

I'll Buy That Dream

I have fond memories as a kid of getting the Sears Christmas Wish Book every year in late fall - it had page after page of the toys and games that would soon find their way onto our lists for Santa. My brother and I would pore over the catalog, separately and apart, revisiting our favorite choices over and over until the pages were worn. The dream of what we might get was almost better than the delight of Christmas morning.

As an adult gardener, I find the same delight each winter as the spring seed catalogs begin pouring in. Page after page of blooms and vegetables and fruits, new pleasures and old favorites, bright colors and promised fragrances... I keep them by my chair on dark winter evenings and pore through them page by page. I dog-ear the pages, compare options between catalogs, and dream dream dream about bringing all that color and life from the pages of the catalogs into My Florida Backyard. The catalogs are free, but the pleasure they provide is priceless when winter nights seem long.

I don't always have a lot of luck starting plants from seeds, but every year I allow myself a budget and, after much careful research, give some seeds a try. As a Florida gardener, I know that many of the blooms offered in the catalogs might not grow here, so I spend time on sites like Dave's Garden finding out if others in similar areas have raised this plant successfully. I check the FLEPPC's list of Invasive Species to be sure I don't accidentally introduce something into the ecosystem that could do more harm than good. I decide if there's really a place for each plant in My Florida Backyard, and determine the potential wildlife value - when you have a fraction of an acre, every square foot counts.

Then I make my lists. I visit each catalog's website, and fill my shopping cart with every seed that made it through the research phase. Then, I start making the hard decisions; if I bought every seed that caught my eye, I'd spend hundreds of dollars and couldn't possibly accommodate all the plants. So I winnow the lists down, slowly, over days, until my mind is made up. And then... I click "Buy" and wait for my little packets of dreams to arrive in the mail.

Here are just five of the seeds that are catching my eye this year, and the catalog offering them (pictures come from those catalogs websites). We here in My Florida Backyard would love to hear about your own experiences with any of these, especially from those living in zone 9a or 9b.

Gaillardia, Punch Bowl Hybrid (Burpee)

We have tons of luck each spring with perennial Gaillardia pulchella, also known as Indian Blanket or Blanketflower. We threw down a packet of seeds a few years ago, and they come back over and over and over again. This makes us hopeful that this lovely pink variety might also thrive. These seeds are a little pricey at $4.95 for a packet of 100, but if they thrive year after year like the gaillardia we have now, they'd be cheap at twice the price.


Marigold, Snowball Hybrid (Burpee)

We're not really crazy about marigolds in general, but something about this white variety is really striking, and marigolds are pretty easy to start from seed. Marigolds tend to hold up pretty well to even Florida's brutal heat, so we could definitely see these finding a home in our low-maintenance front yard. On the other hand, these are another fairly expensive (for seed) option - $5.50 for 50 seeds, and marigolds are definitely an annual, so this wouldn't be something we'd get benefit from in the future.

Vinca, First Kiss Blueberry (Park Seed)

Vinca (also called periwinkle) grows easily from seed. We love the white and pink shades, and this new purple hue is really wonderful. Vinca withstands heat and while it may die back in a frost, it often comes back from the roots in My Florida Backyard. At $2.25 for a packet of 50, this is a great investment, as we'd expect to find these in the garden for years to come.

Salvia farinacea, Fairy Queen (Park Seed)

Salvia is incredibly popular in our butterfly garden, and perennial S. farinacea is one of our favorites. It survives crushing heat and a frost or two, coming back year after year, and the blooms are a constant draw for butterflies. This variety is a bi-color mix of blue and white, and at $2.25 per packet, seems a good value.


 
Monarda Bergamo (Park Seed)

When we were in Ohio last summer, we saw a patch of monarda (bee balm) absolutely covered with Hummingbird Clearwing Moths, and it made us want some for our own yard. However, most monarda varieties struggle with Florida's steamy summers, being very susceptible to mildew. (The exception is our native Monarda punctata.)  "Bergamo" claims to be mildew-resistant, and a packet of 50 seeds is only $1.95, so it seems worth a try.


There are plenty of other seeds that are on our radar for 2011, so we'll see what happens when we finally place those seed orders. What seed catalogs do you love? Tell us, so we can get them and find out what we're missing!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Diner

One of My Florida's Backyard favorite Christmas gifts is finally up and ready for visitors... our new bird feeder!

We've been on the quest for the perfect feeder for a long time. We've tried a variety of options, and found that a platform feeder filled with safflower seed seemed to draw lots of birds without squirrel interference (squirrels don't like safflower, for some reason). However, there was a problem... the open feeder was an invitation for muscovy ducks to perch and hoover up all the seed in one sitting. We needed a fly-through feeder, which is essentially a platform feeder with a roof, but it needed to be well-designed - the ducks are very persistent.


The male and female cardinals have been our most frequent visitors so far. It takes birds a little time to get used to a new feeder, sort of like when a new restaurant opens. Our feeder is in the same place as the old one, so the birds know its there. They just need to build up a little trust so they know they're safe when they feed there.


This feeder has so many great features - the roof protects both the seed and visiting birds from the weather. The screen bottom is designed to slide out for easy cleaning. The arch supports allow easy access for smaller birds, but keep out larger birds that often feed in flocks, like mourning doves. It's built of cedar, so it will withstand the weather while turning a nice silvery-grey color. And best of all... it's definitely duck-proof!

video

The roof is high enough that perching ducks can't get to the seed, no matter how much they stretch their necks, but it slopes down so it's low enough at the sides that the ducks can't get inside to feed that way. Our seed is safe from duck invasions! (I can't help feeling like the cardinals are laughing...)


So My Florida Backyard is sending out a big "THANK YOU!" to Father Christmas (and we mean that very literally - thanks, Dad!) for designing and building us the perfect feeder. We're looking forward to seeing what kind of winged visitors will drop by the feeder this winter!