Helping Wildlife in the Hot Summer

On KLRU’S Central Texas Gardener this week, I get to talk about one of my very favorite subjects, wildlife. Tom Spencer and I discuss ways to help wildlife during the blazing hot summer. Despite our brief bit of rain this week, the South continues to suffer from heat records and drought, and wildlife can be hit pretty hard by the severe conditions.


Low saucers of water are great for toads.

Water sources, of course, are priority one, and they don’t have to be big, fancy, or expensive. A saucer (or several) of clean water will do. We’re in the process of building another one of our budget-wise small ponds, so hopefully I’ll be able to report on it soon (and by typing this, I hope to ensure that it WILL be soon).


Caterpillars have specific host plant needs, like this Two-Tailed Swallowtail caterpillar munching on Wafer Ash.

Native plants are another priority, ones that serve as caterpillar hosts and/or offer seeds, fruits, pollen, nectar, nuts, or berries for the wildlife. I also supplement with birdfeeders, some with mixed seed and others with thistle, and I have several hummingbird feeders, as well. This gives birds all sorts of options to choose from.


Songbirds love black oil sunflower and safflower seeds, peanuts, thistle, and other nutrient-rich foods. Just leave out milo and millet.

To invite songbirds, I like to use a mixture of black oil sunflower, striped sunflower, safflower, thistle, and peanuts. Sometimes I add cracked corn, but if pesty English House Sparrows start to show up, I leave out the cracked corn to discourage them. I generally create my own mix, and I don’t buy milo or millet because of the birds they attract.


Milo and millet attract pest birds like English House Sparrows and Starlings.

Milo and millet are favorites of English House Sparrows and European Starlings, two non-native, invasive, and aggressive bird species. By aggressive, I mean that they will kill native birds such as Purple Martins or Bluebirds, drive birds out of their nesting areas, and destroy their eggs or young. Not only that, but they’ll eat all your birdseed before other birds can get to it! I’ve seen them get territorial at feeders, too. It’s very important to discourage these pest birds (and don’t let them use your nesting boxes or gourds).

White-winged Doves also love millet and milo. They are native birds, but they will quickly share the news that you are providing those seeds, and the next thing you know they and 30 other dove friends will be at your feeder all day long, taking turns with the English House Sparrows and Starlings and never letting any other birds have any.


Just the feeder should be red, not the sugar-water mixture inside.

With hummingbird feeders, I recommend easy-to-open, easy-to-clean plastic hummingbird feeders that are all red in color. Glass is okay, too, but the feeder can break easily if it falls.


This saucer-style Hummzinger feeder has a moat for water to keep ants away.

You should be able to see every spot you are trying to clean — no nooks or crannies, and for your own ease, the fewer steps necessary, the better. Often, little bee guards (which are considered ineffective) or decorative flower attachments are a pain to clean, and that makes it more likely mold will grow.


This feeder is seen at many stores, but it is difficult to keep clean, and those yellow flowers attract bees and wasps that might sting or chase off hummingbirds.

Why are all-red feeders the best choice? Those feeders with yellow and/or white flowers or other decorations sometimes bring in bees and wasps that are attracted to yellow and white colors. But bees and wasps can’t see the color red! Hummingbirds, on the other hand, love red. Bees and wasps also sometimes act aggressively toward hummingbirds and will even chase them off. My dad once witnessed a bee sting a hummingbird, and the hummingbird could not fly for several minutes. My dad watched over the bird until it was recovered enough to fly away.


Iron from rusty feeders can build up in a hummingbird’s body and lead to its death.

I know that there are a number of pretty metal feeders out there, but stay away from them, please. Metal rusts, and the iron from the rust gets into the liquid and is consumed by the hummingbirds. However, they can’t get rid of the iron in their tiny little systems, and it can build up to the point of causing death. The hummingbird feeder in the above picture not only has rusty metal, but it also has yellow flowers and breakable glass. A triple threat!

The recommended mixture for hummingbird feeders is 4 parts water to 1 part ordinary white table sugar. Please don’t add red food coloring or buy red “nectar” mixes or use any other kind of sweetener.

hummerh09-02-10.jpgTo keep feeders clean, I use water and vinegar, cleaning the feeder holes with a tiny brush and the inside of the feeder with a baby-bottle brush. I also make sure to replace the sugar mixture about every 3 days. Even with my five hummingbird feeders, the clean-and-refill task is quite fast.

The same goes with birdbaths — keep them clean (a kitchen scrub brush with some vinegar works great) and replace the water every 3 days. This not only helps keep the birds safe, but it keeps mosquito larvae from completing the cycle to adulthood, at which point the little flying vampires would look to you for their next meal or meals.

My thanks to Linda, Tom, and the friendly CTG crew at KLRU for making me feel at home on the show. And thanks to everyone watching out for wildlife this hot summer! 

Flower Power — Welcome, Pollinators!

It’s National Pollinator Week! Pollinators work so hard — they deserve a week of honor! So let’s celebrate our hard-working garden buddies that visit our flowers and help them reproduce. Below you’ll find some tips for supporting pollinators, and over at Beautiful Wildlife Garden you’ll see some pollinator fun facts I collected. Hurray for bees, bats, birds, moths, flies, butterflies, and beetles!


Megachilid (Leaf-Cutter Bee) on sunflower

About 90 percent of our flowering plants, in addition to so many of our food crops, need animal pollinators to help them produce fruits and seeds. Because of habitat loss and chemicals being used in the environment, many of our pollinators are in serious trouble.

Here’s how you can help:

  • Plant a diversity of plants native to your region.
  • Avoid pesticides and herbicides.
  • Limit lawn areas and instead provided a connected habitat of trees, shrubs, and perennials.
  • Have a water source that allows small pollinators to drink safely.
  •  If you plant non-natives, make sure they are not invasive in your area. Remember that cultivars are not always used by pollinators. For example, flowers that have many more petals than normal might not be accessible by the pollinators that would have visited the original native species. Likewise, nectar and pollen in cultivars might be altered enough to be no longer attractive to pollinators.
  •  Plan for blooms throughout the seasons. Redbuds are early bloomers, while Goldenrod, Gayfeather, Gaura, Sages, Frostweed, and others bloom right up into November. Of course many wildflowers and perennials bloom right through spring and summer!
  • Plant caterpillar host plants, leave some bare patches of earth for digger bees, and set out bee boxes — help keep the cycle of pollinators going!
  • If you can, provide moist dirt areas to invite butterfly puddling.
  •  Keep a little untidiness — this provides shelter for pollinators!


Snowberry Clearwing Visiting Peach Blossoms

giantswallowf05-30-11.jpgGiant Swallowtail on Purple Coneflower

Pollinators are all different — some have long tongues and visit tubular flowers, while others have short tongues and visit flat or small flowers. But that’s not all….

Bees love white, yellow, or blue flowers. That’s why sunflowers and many crop flowers are so popular with bees.

Hummingbirds are frequent visitors of red, orange, and white flowers. Did you know that white-winged doves are also pollinators? They pollinate saguaro plants in the Sonoran Desert.

Butterflies are attracted to bright flowers, often red or purple, and they will visit flat flowers and flowers with narrow tubes.

Moths love white, pink, and pale flowers with sweet scents, particularly those that emit scent at night. Some moths, like Snowberry Clearwings, are diurnal.

Beetles visit white or green bowl-shaped flowers. They aren’t the most efficient pollinators, but they still count!

Bats like white, green, and purple flowers that have strong odors at night. Our bats in Central Texas eat insects, but in other areas, different bat species are key pollinators for agave, cactus, and other plants.

Flies are generalist pollinators — they visit lots of different plants. Consider them friends!


Hummingbird visiting Flame Acanthus

A diversity of native plants is absolutely the key to helping pollinators. There are fantastic planting guides available to help you choose great plants to attract specific types of pollinators, and you can also see suggestions for ongoing blooms throughout the seasons.


Honeybee visiting a sunflower


Join us in celebrating our pollinating friends, and do what you can in your own garden to help protect and support them!

Austin Pond Tour 2011

Last weekend was Austin Pond Society‘s 2011 Austin Pond Tour, an event I always look forward to for the variety, creative design, and masterful engineering of many truly unique water features, large and small. Despite the ongoing Texas heat wave, already well in progess with several 100-plus days and counting (and it’s not officially summer yet), each site was busy with visitors. Ice-cold water in hand, A/C en route, and getting friendly Texas-style with other shade-huggers was the way we got through the blazing weekend.

Actually, I’ll start the tour with a cactus, because it’s about as non-pond as one can get.

cactus06-11-11.jpgJust before the pond tour, my son and I visited a lovely wildlife garden and then took a tour of Brodie Wild, a habitat restoration and water quality protection project in South Austin. We walked around noting different native plant species, and then our group visited what was dubbed “the cactus patch,” definitely an area to watch your step and be careful what you brush up against. I don’t know my cacti very well — is that a Lace Cactus?

lacecactusb06-11-11.jpgHere’s what they look like as they get a little older.

It was blazing hot, yet the cactus didn’t really care, of course. We did care, though, so after a refreshing lunch, my son and I switched gears to the Austin Pond Tour, where we got to bake again, but this time at least got to look at water. Yes, I considered jumping right into the cool water of some of the ponds. No, I didn’t actually do it.

Several of the ponds on this year’s tour have been seen before, including a few highlighted on my 2009 tour post. So last weekend, in the interest of time, we visited ponds being shown for the first time on a tour. 


The first we visited was an owner-built pond in Northwest Hills. Dropping from tiered waterfalls, the water flowed down a gurgling stream to the large pond below. The 5-foot depth of the water kept the resident koi safe and cool.


2011pondtourh06-11-11.jpgThe owners made the four-chamber gravity-flow filter available for tour-goers to view.


Undeniably a lot of planning for easy maintenance and pond clarity went into creating this lovely pond.

For many of the ponds on the 2011 tour, mountain streams and waterfalls were the theme. Oh, how I wish my yard weren’t as flat as a pancake! The residence below, while not exhibiting the substantial slopes of other yards, still had enough of a slope to support the longest stream on the tour.

Water from the falls at one end of the backyard flowed into a central pond, then under a bridge to a pond at the other end of the yard.


At another house, a mountain stream came complete with a grizzly bear.

2011pondtourf06-11-11.jpgI don’t think the bear wants to share its catch.


The water feature in full just whisks my imagination off to the Northwest.

Up above on the deck, a hot tub converted to a pond is home for several goldfish. A drain hole in the bottom allows for the world’s easiest pond cleaning.


It seemed to me that the majority of ponds on the tour had the benefit of shade. This double pond in South Austin, however, certainly got plenty of sun.


The pond holds about 8,000 gallons of water. In addition, the homeowner has a smaller pond near the house, as well as a front-yard stream that flows alongside the street.

While all the ponds on the tour were impressive in their own right, I had two personal favorites. A long drive north of Austin to Bertram, Texas, proved to be well worth the trip. There we visited the pond and gardens at an old stone house originally built in the 1920s.

2011pondtoure06-11-11.jpg A walk into the courtyard led us to a large, beautiful pond. Take note of the planter shelves on the back wall — what a nice touch.


Now, take a step a back and look again.


Given my love of all things rock, I couldn’t keep my eyes off another feature I now covet — a greenhouse made of stone.

Here’s a view from the other side:


Not many greenhouses get classified as attractive, but this one absolutely does.

The owner let us tour his backyard gardens and small vineyard, and he let my son and me sample some delicious grapes. Sometimes it’s good to have a kid with you. I’m just saying.


Another feature at the Bertram house that I especially liked was the walkway that followed a drainage path. Bridges made easy crossing spots.


2011pondtourm06-11-11.jpgHere’s where the water would flow from if we ever had any rain — a drainspout up at the house. Oh look, just beyond is my car baking in the hot, hot sun.

Of all the water features on the tour, the ones that still keep me saying “wow” are at a home in the Lost Creek area. The home sits on the edge of a natural amphitheater, the back wall of which creates an ideal spot for the ultimate series of waterfalls and streams that eventually lead into ponds below.


I wish pictures didn’t flatten the view so much — being there in full 3-D was magical.

Large boulders created steps on which visitors could climb to the tiered paths above. Ever the dainty understory trees, beautiful Anacacho Orchids lined the walkways.

To one side was a surprising find…


Who needs a tree house when you can have a boat on a mountain?

While we didn’t get to attend all the ponds, here are glimpses of a few others:

One pond owner included his love of trains in his pond design — tracks guided trains around ponds, over streams, and through tunnels hidden under waterfalls.

Another pond owner created a metal version of a bamboo fountain for a front-yard pond — I really liked the look.

We did re-visit one home that had been on the 2009 tour — it’s just as lush and lovely and full of inspiration as ever! You can see it in more detail in the link above.

I wish I could show pictures of all the ponds we visited, and I wish we could have made it to the ones we didn’t have time to see. But perhaps they’ll be on another pond tour in the future.

Thank you to all the homeowners who let Austinites visit this past weekend, and thank you to the volunteers who greeted visitors with a big smile despite the heat bearing down all day. Beautiful ponds, all!

And Suddenly I Want More Standing Cypress

Yesterday morning I joined a group of fellow Native Plant Society members to tour another member’s wildlife garden. Jackie has lived at her house since 1997, gardening from the start to make her yard a nature’s delight for humans and wildlife alike.

GSjda06-11-11.jpgGoodbye Arizona Ash and a Chinese exotic tree, the name of which escapes me. Goodbye excessive lawn. Hello native plants. Hello blooms, birds, butterflies, and bees.

The sideyard grass path lead us to quite a surprise — a backyard rich in color, variety, and wildlife visitors. Pipevine swallowtails were constantly fluttering around, hummingbirds obsessed over the Standing Cypress blooms, and native bees ignored all the human visitors and went about gathering pollen like nobody’s bzzzzzness.


To achieve such a gathering of wildlife, Jackie plants native plants that serve as host plants for caterpillars and nectar-, pollen-, and seed-providing plants for other animals.


Of course, she also makes sure to include the very necessary habitat element of water. The above birdbath provides a drip to create water movement that birds appreciate.

GSjdn06-11-11.jpgBut just beyond, Jackie also makes use of a simpler system, a jug of water with a pinhole at the bottom, allowing a very slow drip to add movement to the birdbath water below.

An avid birder, Jackie not only provides native plants that birds enjoy, but she also supplements with multiple birdfeeders strung along long cables.

GSjdd06-11-11.jpgJackie commented that others might find the string of birdfeeders odd, but I found it quite clever. During our visit, it was clear that the birds utilized the line as a perch as much as they used the feeders themselves. Jackie hung the feeder line in such a way that sunflower seeds would fall onto the path rather than into her garden, so that she could easily control any seedlings that might crop up, so to speak.


The diversity of natives is the key to a successful wildlife garden. Jackie doesn’t aim for perfect patches of neatly-arranged plant species, but lets the plants gather in natural masses in the dense cover-providing style that is found in nature and that native animals prefer. This controlled but somewhat untamed appearance is sometimes a look that other gardeners have firm opinions about, but the success of such of garden in attracting wildlife speaks for itself.


Jackie’s garden exhibits a little of all lighting types — sun, shade, and in between — so she’s able to increase the native plant and subsequent wildlife diversity just by knowing the habits of the plants she selected. Though I didn’t get images of the more wooded areas in the back of the yard, the combination of trees and understory provided a peaceful habitat for those creatures more content in the shade.

GSjdi06-11-11.jpgI was jealous of all the Purple Coneflowers — clearly I need to increase the quantity in my own garden by a lot. But I went truly gaga for the Standing Cypress. Rather than being kept together in a single mass, these tall, Dr. Seuss plants were scattered among the rest of the garden.

beeonstcypress06-11-11.jpgFrankly, I loved the effect, and visiting hummingbirds and bees said the same thing. Two-dimensional images just can’t do it justice.

Back in the side yard, Jackie’s Trumpet Vine (also called Trumpet Creeper) was covered in seedpods, blooms, and nectar-loving ants.

GSjdh06-11-11.jpgThough Jackie’s Trumpet Vine appeared quite under her control, this aggressive spreader can sometimes become a gardener’s nightmare (it’s called a creeper for a reason), but its plentiful nectar makes it a wildlife favorite.  Ants come with the package — I found it fascinating how they laid claim to the entire vine.

Across the path from the Trumpet Vine was a Devil’s Shoestring in bloom.


GSjdg06-11-11.jpgI fell in love with the creamy blooms. Why don’t I have this in my garden yet?

While Jackie has greatly reduced her lawn size, she does maintain some grass for pathway purposes. In the wildlife garden, however, she uses cedar mulch. The colorful garden, alive with happy creatures, certainly was a treat. Jackie, thank you for letting us visit.

After the garden tour, Nolan and I joined others for a walk through Brodie Wild, a habitat restoration and water quality protection project in South Austin, and then it was off to the Pond Tour. At this point, my ailing camera took a turn for the worst. We’ll see if I get to post photos or not.

What the Geck? O.

In moving dirt and leaves around the garden, we periodically discover a hiding animal. This little creature is a Mediterranean Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus).

mgeckoa06-11.jpgBy the name, I am sure you can tell that it’s not native to Texas, nor to anywhere else in the United States. Its ancestors most likely came from Southern Europe, or perhaps Northern Africa or Southwest Asia. But this gecko’s cousins and siblings have become a common sight in the urban environment in other regions these days, particularly in the southern states and other tropical-subtropical areas. Lots of southern gardeners, so used to seeing Mediterranean Geckos around or even in their house, probably don’t even realize that these wall-climbing lizards with their cute toe pads haven’t always been here. In fact, the first published report of these geckos in Texas was made in 1955.

mgeckob06-11.jpgAs far as invasive animal species go, this one is currently listed as having “minimal impact” on the native wildlife populations. But there are plenty of invasive species muy malos out there — European Starlings, Zebra Mussels, Japanese Beetles, Wild Boars (a.k.a. feral hogs), and a long list of other insect, aquatic, and vertebrate species. Starlings and English House Sparrows, for example, kill or push out Purple Martins and take over their nesting cavities. Feral hogs spread destruction and disease across the countryside and in many urban areas. Introduced earthworms are affecting northern forest ranges. Red-Eared Sliders, turtles native to Texas and considered friendly sights here, are problems in many other states and countries because they adapt easily to the local environmental conditions and affect native turtle populations. I’m not even listing some of the worst offenders.

Does the Mediterranean Gecko displace native lizards? It certainly has a tendency to be territorial, so there probably is a little of that going on. But considering that it likes to co-exist with humans, often hanging around exterior lighting on houses and other buildings — it’s possible that there is minimal overlap between it and other species, but I’m no expert. If it has found its own niche in the habitat, then it seems reasonable that the native lizards won’t be threatened, though studies are certainly incomplete. Far more dangerous to native wildlife, in my opinion, is the use of pesticides to kill off insects, which are food sources to countless animal species.


Mediterranean Geckos (actually one of four introduced gecko species in Texas) are easily distinguished from our native Texas geckos, the Texas Banded Gecko and the Reticulated Banded Gecko (both are found in the Big Bend area). The Mediterranean Gecko has bumpy, spotted skin, sticky toe pads, and tiny claws. Its eyes have vertical pupils but no eyelids — please skip the staring contest with this one. You’ll lose. 

mgeckod06-11.jpgOne of its more fascinating aspects is that it can lose its tail to escape a predator and then regenerate it– such regeneration takes about three weeks. I wonder whether this gecko went through that process — its tail looks distinctly different from the rest of it.

The dark spots help the gecko hide in the leaves, but the gecko can lighten its coloration as necessary to blend into other areas. At night it can be quite pale.

mgeckoe06-11.jpgI will say this about Mediterranean Geckos — they love to eat cockroaches, of which the South surely has more than enough to go around. The geckos love moths, too — you can see why hanging around a house at night is a pretty great place for a gecko to be. Just stay away from my native lizards, gecko, and we’ll get along fine.

New Garden Bed Does Well Despite Drought

The drought is hitting Texas hard — fires in West Texas, shriveled-up lakes, suffering wildlife, and many a plant succumbing to the lack of water. But my drought-hardy natives are doing relatively fine, all things considered. The garden has toughened up for the hot summer — it has had to, because I’m just not a person to water much. Sure, the plants would look more lush if we had rain, but lush doesn’t matter in a drought. Surviving does.



The butterflies have been relatively few this year so far, thanks to the drought, but the bees have been plentiful. We’ve seen more native bees than ever, and even our bee boxes are getting used — yippee. In particular, the wood ones in the shade are popular. The bamboo box is in the sun and to my knowledge has not been visited by any creature, bee or otherwise.

pondbermf06-09-11.jpgWe’ve been adding plants around the raised hot-tub pond, bringing the dirt up in a sort of berm. I know it doesn’t look like much at the moment, but it will transform over time. As the plants grow, the pond will have a backdrop of taller evergreens, and the berm itself will be covered in wildlife-friendly plants of all shapes, colors, and sizes. The leaves you see are used as mulch — they are doing an excellent job of keeping any weeds under control and keeping the soil moist, and they are freeeeeeeee.

pondberme06-09-11.jpgTo build the berm, we used the dirt that had been dug out to form our still fantastic sun garden pathway. Amazingly, we still have at least half of the dirt left even after creating the berm — this will become additional contour somewhere else in the yard, most likely. Actually, I should back up in this story — first we dug out ugly Bermuda grass from around the pond, covered the area with cardboard and newspaper, and THEN built the berm. We also mixed in some well-needed compost.


Leftover flagstone from the patio project became a pathway across the berm.


Leftover flagstone was also used to create steps to the built-in pond bench. I plan to refine the steps, but they’re a start. You can see that we don’t water grass. Bit by bit the Bermuda grass is dying out, and the Buffalo Grass is naturally taking over, particularly in the back half of the yard. This patch is still mostly Bermuda, though — die, die, die.

<Momentary pause as I observe all the mockingbirds visiting the birdbath in the front. Usually I see all the other songbirds visiting but not mockingbirds. Today they seem to be staking claim, those naughty birds. I wonder if the backyard birdbaths are dry. Or perhaps (and more likely) the shaded birdbath has cooler water. Hmmmm, I’ll revisit the water source locations, I guess.>

I’ve been transplanting plants to the berm from around the garden, and amazingly they’ve done well despite the transplant (organic seaweed during planting helps). The Texas Lantana is happier than ever before, not doing well in its first location near the pond pre-berm. We’ve got Lindheimer’s Senna, Mealy Blue Sage, Gregg’s MIstflower, Chocolate Daisy, Blackfoot Daisy, Milkweed, Missouri Primrose, Basket Grass, Engelmann’s Crag Lily, Flame Acanthus, Rock Rose, the world’s tiniest Evergreen Sumac, and non-native Almond Verbena and Dutchman’s Pipevine, with lots more to come once fall rolls around.


pondbermd06-09-11.jpgAbove is a young Soapbush, Guaiacum angustifolium. It was a treasured find at the last fall Wildflower Center sale, but I didn’t get it in the ground right away and I’d almost given it up for dead by the time we made it to spring. However, just look at it now. It seems quite happy in the berm. Someday it will have the most adorable purple flowers.

The wildlife moved in immediately — always a sign that we are doing something right. The sparrows flew in to see what seeds they could find in the freshly placed soil. Doves walked up the berm, and then they walked down the berm, almost like ducklings in a row. Skippers and hairstreaks and swallowtails and bees arrived to visit new blooms.The dogs love it, too. They’ve got a new obstacle to run laps around, and they’re actually using the flagstone path to cross the berm… most of the time.

miningbee06-09-11.jpgAnd look, a little mining bee began to work on a nest in a patch of bare earth.

The drought is terrible, but there is hope for the garden. Given that the birdbaths and ponds have constant avian traffic, I know the drought is really rough on the wildlife right now. We even had a doe visit the front yard birdbath for the first time yesterday — I’ve never seen one venture this close to the house before, so she must have been really desperate.

deer06-08-11.jpgYou can see her ribs, poor little skinny thing. I don’t mind the deer, but I make sure to not directly feed them (I plant unpalatable plants in the front). Without natural predators, there also isn’t a natural balance to the ecosystem as would be found in the wild — no population check. But that doesn’t mean my heart doesn’t go out to them during times like these. She can drink water from the birdbath if she likes.

I do have to post a picture of my friend and neighbor Jan’s screech owl babies. I imagine they’ve fledged by now, but as soon as I heard about them, I zipped down for a picture. A-dor-a-ble!

That makes two successful nests in the neighborhood this year! My husband made the boxes for Jan and for our own backyard owls following the Audubon building plans. We’ll tweak the design a little next time for easier access for cleaning, but otherwise, they are obviously good nest box designs.

I leave you with a parting image of a House Finch watching a sunflower seed fall.

housefinch06-11.jpgOh, well, little finch, rest assured it won’t go to waste. There will be plenty of birds happy to collect it from below.