Planting in Pots for Easy Butterfly Viewing

Photo and article by Plant NOVA Natives

Some of us are deeply into gardening, but the rest of us are content with plopping a few flowers into a pot and calling it a day. This explains a lot of the popularity of annuals, most of which end up in containers and are switched out when they fade. Their colors brighten up our decks and balconies all summer, but their value in most cases is only visual. Native perennial flowers, by contrast, not only look beautiful but actually support butterflies and other life.

Most plants that are native to our area will overwinter in a pot, thus saving us the trouble of replanting year after year. Although none of them will bloom for the entire growing season, they provide interest as they develop. It is easy to get continuous color by planting several species that bloom at different times.

Once blooming begins, the parade of associated pollinators is fascinating. Being able to view the flowers up close on a deck or balcony reveals the variety of critters that you might not notice from afar, from tiny metallic-blue bees to the whole range of butterflies. There are four hundred species of native bees in Virginia, none of which will sting you as they forage for food. Butterflies range in size from the tiny Least Skipper to the classic Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. With luck, you may even see a Monarch Butterfly, especially if you plant any of a number of the several local milkweed species. The milkweed Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is particularly ornamental and just the right size for container gardening. Just as Monarch caterpillars require milkweed to survive, every other butterfly has its preferred host plant with which it evolved. This is why adopting locally native plants is so important. The annuals sold in garden centers are not native and thus do not help butterflies complete their life cycles.

Birds also enjoy native plants in containers, as much as they would if planted in a garden. The seeds of Black-eyed Susan and other Rudbeckias are particularly popular with goldfinches. Of course, you will only see them if you allow the seed heads to remain. The shapes and colors of the dead stalks of native plants add a lot of interest to an otherwise barren deck in winter. You can also draw in hummingbirds when you use the red-flowered plants such as Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) that they prefer.

Shade is no obstacle to container gardening with native plants. Particularly pleasing is the native Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia). The lacy, slightly bluish foliage is beautiful by itself, and blooms keep coming from April to the first frost.

You can learn all about container gardening with native plants on the Plant NOVA Natives website. The soil used in containers is designed to have good drainage, which means you can start planting earlier in the spring than in the rest of the garden, where working the wet soil would lead to harmful compaction.

Review of Crow Planet, Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Reviewed by FMN Stacey Remick-Simkins

(2009, 229 pages) This is a masterpiece that I recommend to all, but particularly those grappling with the most difficult questions of how to live meaningfully in this challenged environmental milieu. Crows are the purveyor of the wisdom and carry us to the places of wonder that Haupt seeks to take us.  Specifically, she portrays her relationship with the injured crow Charlotte. 

Crow science and lore engage us to consider our humility and courage as we live out our life of responsibility and care for the wild world.  Haupt uses references to some of the great known writers and scientists, including Leopold, Thomas Eisner (Cornell professor and biologist), and Rachel Carson, that offer us ways and tools to challenge many of our naturalist assumptions and potentially revising our thinking. She suggests tools for further exploration such as nature journaling, Buddhist practices of Mindfulness, the Benedictine Rule of Life and Lectio Divina, as they can be transformed for our observations of nature.  She recognizes science as critically important to understanding where we are now, but demands that we do not lose our ability to see the wonder that exists quite apart from data gathering and naming only. She provides us the tools, the questions and the insights that challenge us all to be reverent co-inhabitants and all the profound responsibility that entails.

I have made it part of my life library which contains books that have had an extraordinary impact on my thinking or influenced me in ways that are life-changing. 

(Included is a reading group guide which includes an interview with the author, study questions and her list of must-read texts)

Native Grasses for our Yards

Photo and article courtesy of Plant NOVA Natives

When we think of grass in our yards, the image that arises is likely to be that of turf grass. But there are many other places for grasses in our landscapes, and many other species available besides the European turf grass that is used for lawn. Grasses that are native to our region not only add beauty and texture in our gardens but also provide multiple environmental benefits.
 
This class of plants not only refers to true grasses (which tend to be sun-loving) but also to sedges (which are more often shade-loving) and rushes. Their size can range from tiny to gigantic. Clumps of taller grasses provide structural interest as well as motion and sound as the wind rustles through them. Shorter ones work as groundcovers. Some are evergreen, and all provide winter interest and seeds for the birds.
 
In shady areas with minimal foot traffic, some native grasses can be used as a substitute for conventional lawns, though this would require planting a lot of little plants at 8-10 inch intervals and a good deal of attention during establishment, not just throwing down seed. Deep soil amendment is critical on a typical compacted former lawn area which lacks good nutrition and may have alkaline soil, and it can take a few years for such lawns to get established.
 
Native grasses play a critical role in the ecosystem, providing
• Roots that are deeper than European turf grass and which do a better job at erosion control, breaking up hard soil and capturing stormwater
• Carbon sequestration
• Dense root structures that create a barrier to the spread of aggressive plants, creating pockets where more delicate plants can live
• Host plants for numerous species of butterflies, skippers, moths and others
• Food sources for birds and other wildlife
• Nesting material and cover.
Most of the plant material in a meadow consists of grasses, with colorful flowers tucked in between.
 
Several of the native grasses that are used as ornamentals are widely available in conventional nurseries, including the spectacular Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergii capillaris), pictured above. (Be careful where you plant it, though – it needs good drainage!) Others can be purchased at one of the nurseries that specialize in native plants. For details, check out the Plant NOVA Natives website.
 

Review of How Birds Migrate, by Paul Kerlinger

Reviewed by FMN Kristine Lansing

In just a few weeks, nothing short of a miracle will be well underway.

Birds of all sizes and shapes — from the tiniest of hummingbirds to the largest of hawks — will embark upon an incredible geographic relocation, traveling thousands and, in some cases, tens of thousands of miles to reach their summer breeding grounds . . . where they will stay for only a few months to raise their young.

How do such fragile creatures survive a journey that would do most of us in — despite all of our modern conveniences — on the very first day? It’s not too late to learn more about the odyssey that is spring migration before it gets into full swing.

In this succinct book (only 216 pages) from 2008, ornithologist Paul Kerlinger demystifies migration by discussing: why birds migrate; factors that trigger migration; how birds prepare for the journey; their navigation across water and vast terrain; why some birds fly at night while others fly during the day; migratory rest stops; and in-flight communications. Dr. Kerlinger’s explanations, accompanied by short case studies and artist Pat Archer’s illustrations, make this book exceedingly accessible to non-birders and birders alike.

So if you’re new to birding (or simply curious), and if you read this book right now, you will never see spring and fall through the same eyes again. If you’re an experienced birder, though, don’t pass the book by; you’ll find yourself referring to it time after time.

Dr. Kerlinger is a former director of the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Cape May Bird Observatory.

How Climate Change Affects Your Health

There’s more to climate change than meets the eye. When most people hear the term “climate action” they think of planting trees, turning off the lights, driving clean cars, and buying less plastic. There’s good reason for these associations, all of these activities help to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, or address greenhouse gas emissions, and this is the heart of climate action. People think about these activities in terms of environmental and economic benefits – we can preserve natural resources and build a more sustainable economy for future generations. Health doesn’t always enter the conversation, but it should.

Spread of Infectious Disease

As weather patterns and temperature norms shift over time, so will the spread of infectious disease. Many infectious diseases are carried by vectors, like mosquitoes and ticks, and these organisms will see a change in their home ranges over time as the climate changes. We could see diseases that were once considered tropical or subtropical become commonplace here in Fairfax County.

Heat Waves For Days

In the DC-metro region, we’re used to some hot summer days. But what if those stretches of extremely hot weather worsened and lasted for longer periods of time? What if a trend toward hotter weather overall started to impact our health? It’s possible. We already know that climate change is expected to cause a steady increase in the number of days with high minimum temperatures (nighttime temperatures that remain above 75 degrees) in our region. Sustained heat events can be dangerous to those who work outdoors, children who spend time outdoors, the elderly, pregnant women, low-income individuals without access to relief, and those with weakened immune systems.

Pollution and Respiratory Illness

Finally, it’s important to know that many of the same chemical compounds that change our climate over time are also common air pollutants, which make it harder to breathe and can exacerbate respiratory illnesses, like asthma. By working to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, personally and as a community, we can have a direct impact on air quality in our region.

This is why Fairfax County is developing the first-ever Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan, or CECAP. The CECAP is unique in that it is being developed by the community, for the community, with input from dozens of organizational, business, and civic leaders, as well as individual residents. The CECAP will outline greenhouse gas reduction goals for the community and will include recommended strategies and actions community members can take on a voluntary basis to help achieve the goals. County residents interested in helping to implement the plan can email cecapoutrach@fairfaxcounty.gov for more information.

Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System

The National Academies of Science and Medicine just published their report, Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System, and have made available a public overview and interactive summaries to make the 200+ document easier to digest. See the links below.

Report Resources

Upcoming Events

Join the National Academy of Sciences study chair Stephen Pacala for a Climate Conversation at the National Academies on Feb 18, 2021 at 3pm ET.  Learn more and register to attend at https://climate-convo-decarb.eventbrite.com

Here’s a clear, 101-level overview of what the social cost of carbon means, courtesy of Resources for the Future.

New Web Tool Helps NoVa Wildlife Gardeners

Article by FMN Juan Gonzalez and Megan Agosti, originally published in Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s Habitat Herald, republished with permission

Starting a native plant garden always begins with the same set of questions — “What plants work for my space? Which plants are most beneficial and likely to attract wildlife?” For the past few years, Northern Virginia gardeners would start their journey by referencing resources like Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s Planting for Wildlife in Northern Virginia, a thorough book providing information on various native trees, shrubs, flowers, and more. This past year, two volunteers endeavored to make this information even more accessible by creating an interactive web tool for Northern Virginia’s residents. In collaboration with Loudoun Wildlife staff and volunteers, we are pleased to announce the Northern Virginia Wildlife Gardening Database located at www.novawildlifegarden.net.

This web tool provides users with Planting for Wildlife’s full catalogue in a digital format for easy filtering to answer even the most specific questions. Users can use a search function or filter results with seven different plant characteristics, including popular questions like preferred light, soil moisture, bloom month, and wildlife benefits. Favorite plants can be saved in the Saved Plant List which can generate a report summarizing your selections. You can plan for year-round interest, find deer-resistant plants, and start your dream butterfly garden with the Northern Virginia Wildlife Gardening Database.

Filtered table example

To explore Northern Virginia Wildlife Gardening Database’s full catalogue of native plants, go to www.novawildlifegarden.net and select the Plant Library tab. Select the plant type you are interested in from the drop-down menu to begin your search. Here you can filter your selection by specifying preferred light source, moisture level, bloom months/color, plant height/spread, and wildlife benefits. Further refine your selection by utilizing the search bar to make further queries (for example, “fragrant,” “deer resistant,” “hummingbird”).
Once filtered, the table provides additional context for each plant. Users can see the plant’s description and learn more about the wildlife benefits of each. Get detailed information by clicking on scientific names to view the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center entry for each plant. Explore the Glossary tab to define common terms used throughout the database.

Saved plant table example

Users can save their favorite plants using the Saved Plant List feature. To save a plant, click its respective row and then the green Save Selected button on the bottom left. This feature allows for multiple selections, so pick as many as you would like. See your list by navigating to the Saved Plants tab. When ready, generate your report by clicking the blue Generate Report button in the Saved Plants tab. This report summarizes your plant selection and generates tables for the various filters found in the web tool. Use these tables to review your selection or ensure year-round interest in your garden.

Loudoun Wildlife hopes you find this new web tool useful. It has been developed and is maintained by volunteers Juan Gonzalez and Megan Agosti. For any comments or questions please contact them at novawildlifegarden@gmail.com.

Review of The Secret Life of Flies, by Erica McAlister

Reviewed by Kristine Lansing

“Flies. A nuisance at best, a harbinger of death at worst. Regarded by many as a disease-carrier that vomits on our food, it earns nothing more from us humans than feelings of disgust. The little we know about the fly we don’t like.”*

Now, really, doesn’t that introduction just grab you? As master naturalists each of us probably spends more time around flies than we do around any other plant or animal. And yet, what do we really know about these incredible little creatures?

In a mere 240 pages, entomologist Erica McAlister introduces us to the life cycle of flies and to the many varieties we’re likely to encounter in the field, from the pollinators (some closely resemble bees), to the detritivores, the coprophages (yes, there’s dung!), necrophages (and death!), vegetarians, fungivores, predators, parasites, and sanguivores (and even blood!).

“The Secret Life of Flies” is not only packed with information, but it is brimming with humor. Ms. McAlister’s enthusiasm for her tiny subjects is infectious, and leaves the reader wanting to observe them “flirting with one another in front of a good dung pat,”* or dancing and gifting one another during courtship, or locking horns in competition. And if all of this isn’t enticing enough, just wait until you read about flies’ dining habits.

For all of you bibliophiles out there, this BBC Wildlife Book of the Month is beautifully illustrated and lovingly printed on high-quality paper.

Ms. McAlister is a curator of diptera at the Natural History Museum in London.

*All quotes from The Secret Life of Flies, Erica McAlister, 2019, Natural History Museum.

Review of Tales from the Ant World, by Edward O. Wilson

Reviewed by Don Coram

Edward O. Wilson is perhaps the most famous living naturalist.  He has written more than 30 books on nature, two of which have won Pulitzer Prizes.  He is one of the naturalists mentioned in the FMN Basic Course.  

In this book, Wilson describes the fascinating diversity among the 15,000 (known) species of ants (probably twice that number overall).  The study of ants is called myrmecology.  Ants have been around for 150 million years.  Adaptive radiation, in which a few successful ant species multiply dramatically into many species filling specialized niches, started in the Mesozoic era and led to the diversity that we can observe now.   

Wilson describes the characteristics of a variety ant species, including their physiology, behavior, personalities, and social organization.  His list includes common kitchen ants, carpenter ants, fire ants, army ants, leaf cutter ants, and bull ants.  Ants are the most warlike of all animals and the book describes some of the fiercest ones.  But there are also timid ants who disappear when threatened, only to reform the colony quickly when safe. And the society of leaf cutter ants is surprisingly complex.  You must read the book to learn about other astounding adaptations in ant species.

For us amateur naturalists, the book describes Wilson’s life-long interest in ants and nature in general.  As an 8-year-old boy, he began collecting and identifying insects in his backyard.  Between the ages of 10 and 12, he lived in Washington DC, near the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park, which were inspiring to him.  By 13, his family had moved to Mobile, Alabama, where he continued observing nature and soon found a colony of invasive fire ants.  His was the first record of these ants in the Northern Hemisphere, and they came to be a serious pest in the South.  The book continues describing Wilson’s field trips over the next 8 decades seeking ants throughout the world.  He finds them atop mountains, in deserts, on isolated islands, and in caves.  The book also describes how Wilson learned to communicate with ants.  He was able to extract and purify a fire ant pheromone and use it to communicate with ants to direct them to follow a particular human-selected trail.   Wilson is a now professor-emeritus at Harvard University.  

Want to review a resource? We’d love to hear from you. Instructions for submission await your click and commitment.

Spruce Up your Foundation Plantings

Photo and article by Plant NOVA Natives

When developers build a neighborhood, they almost always add some shrubs against the foundations of the houses to soften the lines of the buildings. Just as they paint all the interior walls white, they use just a few conventional plant species for a uniform look until all the houses are sold.  The new owners get used to the look and never bother to change it. But the foundation planting area offers a big opportunity to beautify the landscaping, eliminate the need for pruning and help support our local birds and butterflies at the same time.
 
Native shrubs constitute an essential middle layer of the ecosystem, providing food and shelter for songbirds. Providing this layer in our yards is even more important in areas where the deer have eradicated native shrubs in the woods. Unfortunately, at the time when most of our houses were built, the importance of using native plants was not known to the builders, and so most of the commonly used plants are species that were introduced from other continents. Not only do they not provide food for wildlife, many of them have escaped into nearby natural areas, where they proceed to destroy the ecosystem there. Examples of that include Nandina (also problematic because its red berries are poisonous to Cedar Waxwings), Japanese Barberry (also problematic because it harbors ticks), Privet, Burning Bush, Leatherleaf Mahonia, Double-file and Linden Viburnum, and several species of Bush Honeysuckle.
 
Luckily, there are many non-invasive alternatives. Best of all, many of these are native plants and therefore support the birds and butterflies with which they evolved. These plants have become increasingly available at our local garden centers. For the area under a window, it makes sense to choose one whose ultimate height when full grown will not block the view, thus making pruning unnecessary and allowing the plant to assume its own graceful shape. Many have beautiful spring flowers; others have striking red berries that provide interest well into winter.
 
Of course, most people don’t know the names of the shrubs in their yards. This can be figured out by using a plant ID app such as Seek or iNaturalist. Residents can also get a free visit from an Audubon-at-Home volunteer to help identify invasive plants and strategize about alternatives.
 
Shrubs are not the only plants that are suitable for foundations. Small trees where there is room, native ornamental grasses in the sun and native ferns in the shade are all natural choices. For those who like the conventional look that came with the house, there are plenty of native shrubs that can achieve the same aesthetic. Other people might want to add character to their yard by choosing something a little different.  And rather than planting annuals every spring, why not plant a few native perennials just once to get that pop of color year after year? For more details, see the shrubs page and the foundation planting page on the Plant NOVA Natives website.