Thank You, Native Plant Society of Texas!

This October I was very honored to be the 2014 recipient of the Native Plant Society of Texas‘ new Digital Media Award for my Great Stems blog. I’m so pleased that my blog has had an impact on those seeking to learn more about native Texas plants, gardening, conservation, and supporting wildlife, as well as connecting youth with nature.NPSOTaward11-2-14

When I first started on my gardening journey several years ago, I also started Great Stems, partly to document my progress and partly to keep me committed to my gardening endeavors. Early on in my experiences, I began to focus on developing my yard into a wildlife habitat, and that’s when I immersed myself into the world of native Texas plants, the foundation of our state’s biodiversity. At the same time, Great Stems underwent a journey of its own. The more I learned, the more I shared, and in time I realized that many readers were using my blog as a resource to learn more about native Texas plants. Since then, my entries are written to hopefully inspire, educate, and encourage other gardeners to plant native plants for conservation and to support wildlife, while still keeping its original sense of journey and adventure. While my posts have slowed somewhat due to my job, my wildlife garden is still going strong, as is my commitment to educating adults and kids about the role of native plants in the ecosystem.

Thank you again, NPSOT. I truly am honored, and I am equally grateful to this wonderful organization and its members for all the support and educational resources that they offer, as well as all the countless hours of hard work they do for conservation and protection of our state’s precious native plants and habitats.


Making Ceramic Plant Markers

This spring the Travis Audubon Urban Habitat Committee has been leading the way to design and install a wildlife garden at Elderhaven. This beautiful and historic building houses the headquarters of Travis Audubon, but the primary occupants are member organizations of Austin Groups for the Elderly, which serve older clientele in a variety of ways. For use by the on-site daytime clientele, there is a lovely garden, now made even more so by the addition of wildlife-friendly native plants that have already attracted many birds, butterflies, and other critters for everyone to enjoy.

The habitat committee did, and continues to do, an amazing job with the habitat. While I helped out where I could on the butterfly habitat installation, my schedule didn’t allow me to be fully involved in the design and preparation, but one thing I could do was plan the plant ID markers. At the same time, Elderhaven was looking for an activity that their older clientele could participate in to help beautify the garden. The plant marker project was a perfect fit.

Rather than use traditional metal plant markers, I thought ceramic markers would be both lovely and fun to create. I contacted Firepit Ceramics about the idea, and they were incredibly helpful and supportive. We rolled out slabs of clay that I cut and shaped into small holed squares, and after the squares dried, Firepit staff fired them in the bisque kiln.

The unglazed pottery was then ready to be painted, and a few days later, members of the TAS Urban Habitat Committee, AGE staff, and AGE clientele gathered at Elderhaven for a painting party. 

Materials included special paint glazes for ceramics, small-tipped paintbrushes, pencils for sketching, little bowls/cups of water, paper towels, and color images of the plants to be highlighted.

The painting stage of ceramics appears duller in color than the final products will be. The paint doesn’t get its full bold color until it has been clear-glazed and fired in the kiln.

The painting party was a delight, as were each of the participating AGE clientele, and the results are better than we ever imagined. Each marker is hand-painted and unique, making them all very special, but the best part is how heart-warming every part of this project has been.

Making ceramic plant markers would be a fun family project as well as a great way for schools or clubs to help bring art and education to their habitats and gardens. In fact, many schools already have their own kilns for their art classes, and what a way to get all students involved! Not just markers, but handcrafting tiles, saucers for birdbaths, or other works of art would be great, too — the possibilities are endless!

But what about the stakes? you might ask. These are relatively simple to make. I visited my friend Bob of Draco Metalworks and we made them together. It was an easy matter of snipping firm galvanized wire and bending it into shape around something curved. I can’t tell you much about the metal we used, as Bob utilized scrap roofing materials he had on hand. But I imagine you’d be able to find a variety of choices at a building or fencing supply company.

The markers are now all out on display at Elderhaven, and next opportunity I have, I’ll visit to show how the garden has grown. To learn more about the habitat project, please take a moment to read the story of the Elderhaven wildlife garden.

Back at Firepit, my youngest son and I decided to create a few garden markers of our own. As our family seems to have a bit of a zombie focus from time to time, here is our current favorite (players of Plants vs. Zombies might get this one). While the marker might not identify a specific plant, it sure gets an important message out!

Never underestimate the power of plants!

P.S. See those glorious raindrops? How lovely it is to walk upon moistened earth. Thank you, rain.

Garden Firsts

It’s a funny thing how nature works. Last year we had one of the worst droughts in recorded Texas history, and this year we have some of the best wildlife viewing. In fact, 2011 was so empty of caterpillars, butterflies, and other insects that I had great concern for many of our birds, spiders, reptiles, and other wildlife that are dependent on such invertebrates. But this year, after having a reasonable amount of fall and winter rain, we’ve seen an amazing number of caterpillars of all species and with them a tremendous explosion of butterflies and moths. What that means is that we’ll also have lots of baby birds this season, all things considered, and hopefully lots of other creatures. Needless to say, I’m having fun in the wildlife garden – so much to watch!

yellowwaterlilyb05-06-12.jpgYellow Water Lily

This spring has marked a number of firsts for our relatively young garden (I’m going to call it young until it has reached its fifth birthday). Our native Yellow Water Lily is blooming at last. I have waited such a long time for it to do so, though to be fair, it’s certainly possible that it has bloomed without me knowing it. My White Water Lily still hasn’t bloomed yet, as far as I know, but I shall remain hopeful!

opuntiabloomb05-07-12.jpgSpineless Prickly Pear

We were getting worried that our Spineless Prickly Pear would never bloom, but lo and behold, it’s in bloom right now. Sure enough, bees and flies and other insects are getting drunk on that delicious Opuntia nectar!



Horsemint, Coreopsis, Black-eyed Susan, and Pincushion  Daisy are all in bloom in the garden for the first time. Were those in seed mixes I’d spread around? Or did the birds deliver them? I’d think the first, except that Horsemint and Coreopsis also happen to be growing at the entrance to our subdivision. Hmmmm. The other two are probably just all me.


Sleepy Orange caterpillar — I love how it blends with the fuzzy Lindheimer’s Senna leaves

Caterpillars I’ve longed for but hadn’t yet seen munching on the plants we’d planted for them are at last here. With luck, they’ll return as adults to lay more eggs. Pipevine caterpillars, previously present only from eggs brought home on nursery plants, have officially appeared as the result of a visiting female Pipevine Swallowtail. Sleepy Orange caterpillars have been munching on our Lindheimer’s Senna, but with all the other Sulphur butterflies fluttering about, I expect there will be more.


Snowberry Clearwing caterpillar on White Honeysuckle

Butterfly caterpillars aren’t the only ones in great numbers. Snowberry Clearwing caterpillars, complete with the “horns” consistent with their family, have been happily grazing on the White Honeysuckle Shrub. Lots of unnamed but equally welcome moth caterpillars have been seen in trees, on shrubs, on grasses, on veggies, and perennials. That means it should be a good food year for bats and owls and swallows and the like!

The Monarchs and Queens have returned, as have the Black Swallowtails, I report with relief. I’ll feel much better once I see Giant Swallowtails and Tigers again, along with other Swallowtail species of which I am quite fond. And I think we’ve all been impressed by the showing of Red Admirals this year! Painted Ladies, Buckeyes, Question Marks, Checkerspots, Gulf Fritillaries – oh the list goes on.


Downy Woodpecker collecting insects

Our Mama Eastern Screech Owl returned to our backyard, and last night I saw an owlet shyly peering down at me from its nesting box. Baby birds are starting to fledge right and left, and we’re watching parent birds teaching  their young how to find food. The toads are singing their nightly mating calls. And today for the first time, I watched a Downy Woodpecker feed insects from an old limb to another Downy Woodpecker on a nearby branch. Cute as can be! It’s a good spring. Thank goodness!

Oh How My Garden Grows — Befores and Afters

garden04-04-12.jpgNow that I’ve finally finished my Florida wildlife posts, I get to have fun getting back to my roots, as it were — my garden here in Austin! The rains over the winter helped revitalize my garden tremendously, and while we are nowhere near out of the drought yet, I’m just happy as can be that I have what feels like a garden again. My garden did NOT look like this last year, as I am what is best described as a minimal waterer. I teach my plants to be survivors.

Normally I’d do a before/after later in the year as an anniversary post, but every time I walk outside I am just amazed at the transformation of my yard in a mere 3.5 years. So I’m going to show it off!





What a difference! That’s a garden given only compost and occasionally liquid seaweed upon planting. It’s more than 90 percent native Texas plants, and even though the poppies blooming aren’t native, they give the garden such a nice touch of color.

Here’s the hot-tub pond, BEFORE:



gardenb04-04-12.jpgLast year we built the soil up around the pond to make a berm, and this year we’ve been creating a border around it and filling it in with plants. At some point I’ll show you a different view of the pond area, as it’s looking really nice (I just forgot to take the picture, and I’m impatient to show the changes).



Speaking of the pond, the bullfrog is back. Or maybe it’s a new bullfrog. I heard it for the first time ever just tonight — the sound so confused me that I thought my pond pump was broken, until I realized that it was a frog’s call. I think we’ve decided to name the bullfrog Jeremiah. Maybe the name is not so original, but it’s a fun song to sing to the bullfrog while we are out there! I’m sad to say that Jeremiah hates me ever since I cleaned out the pond a couple of weeks ago. I think he thinks he’s Alpha frog and I messed with his territory and his ego, or at least his sense of safety. I’d show you a picture of him except that now Jeremiah darts underwater anytime I’m within even 10 feet of the pond. Doesn’t he realize that I cleaned the pond just for him? We seem to have plenty of fish, by the way. I blame Bob Pool (Draco Gardens) and his darn procreating goldfish.

fragrantmimosa04-02-12.jpgFragrant Mimosa in bloom

The Wonderful Pomegranate is blooming at last, not that I remembered to take a picture. It’s blooming one whopping bloom at a time, leaving the rest as buds that just tease me until it’s the next one’s turn to open. Now how is pollination going to happen like that? I want Pomegranates!


This year I have 37 milkweed plants (Tropical, as I still can’t get Antelope Horns to establish). They have been eaten down to sticks by all the giant Monarch caterpillars. Now what? I don’t want to have to buy even more milkweed! I guess it’s a decent problem to have — I’m ecstatic to be supporting so many Monarchs.

It’s getting hot, and I’m wishing it would rain again, but I’m just grateful as can be for what I’ve got. The butterflies are returning en masse, as are the caterpillars, and birds are singing glorious songs of happy, happy. My gardening goal for the year is simply to fill in the empty spaces in the beds we have and maintain only — other than that, we’ve got to focus on building a new shed. Forward progress!

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.

The Improved Improved Feeders

Our seed feeder fell a few days ago due to a faulty temporary hook, and it suffered an unfortunate crack in the tube. I have to give out kudos to Wild Birds Unlimited‘s lifetime guarantee. Eddie at the north Austin store repaired my feeder on the spot for no cost, and the only trouble I had was trying to get myself to leave the store without wanting to buy every feeder they had in the store.

I came home determined to go back to the original hook we’d used for years, and I intended to improve the cattle-panel cage we’d created to keep the doves out. Smaller, removable — and it now fits nicely under the protection of the dome. FYI, WBU sells a very nice cage that works with their feeders — I just had excess cattle panel available at no extra cost to me.

feedera08-17-10.jpgAnd sure enough, the doves have officially been fully thwarted. The new and improved cage keeps the doves out — and the squirrels in, haha (one squirrel panicked when my family was heading out to the car and it couldn’t figure out how to go back through the cage openings the way it came in — I had to rescue it by lifting up the dome with a broomstick).

With the smaller cage, we’ve seen an expected slight reduction in the sheer numbers of little songbirds that hang out on the cage at a time, but they don’t have any problem getting seeds. Cardinals and their companions just go right in, and blue jays can now hang from the outside of the cage and grab peanuts from any of the holes they want. They also can fit in the feeder, but it’s a tighter fit than before. The only ones unable to use the feeder are the doves.


I’m just happy because the cage is nice and compact now, and there are no longer excess wires about. And it’s back on its nice sturdy hook. Though I didn’t take a picture of it, I used 16-gauge wire to create a pseudo cage on the top of the cattle-panel cage, so that the cage can rest on top of the tube and still be easily removable when I’m filling the feeder.

The finches now enjoy their thistle feeder in front of our kitchen window — it hangs from a shepherd’s hook, along with a hummingbird feeder (so now we get to enjoy hummingbirds from the kitchen, too).


FYI, I took down the pretty hummingbird feeder my aunt gave me (she knows). See the rust on the top of the feeder? That same rust formed on the inside of the feeder, and that is very dangerous for hummingbirds. Iron contamination kills hummingbirds, and it doesn’t take much. As soon as I saw rust, that feeder came down. 

badfeeder08-17-10.jpgThis is a case where it’s ok to buy plastic (glass feeders are more expensive and they can break, but they are an option, too). Pick a feeder that has zero metal, including copper, and make sure that it is easy to fully clean inside and out. Stick to white cane sugar to make your nectar — for the same reason as above — other sugars can contain iron and hurt the hummingbirds.

With the sun being so hot these days, I’m glad I have so many water sources available to the wildlife, and I’ve seen birds visiting every single one of them lately. I try to be really good about replacing the water every couple of days. Not only is that important for the birds’ health, but you want to prevent mosquito larvae.

birdbatha08-17-10.jpgI’m very happy with all the changes. And the doves are back to foraging on the ground.

According to Eddie at Wild Birds Unlimited, doves need seeds without the shells, so when they consume the traditional sunflower seeds, they don’t get the nutrients they need, and that’s why they always seem hungry — they eat and eat and eat and come back for more. They do like millet, but millet is not a recommended seed for home feeders. Not only does it attract the pest birds that never leave — doves, house sparrows, and blackbirds — but because it’s wasted by other birds, it can harbor bacteria when it sits around too long. If you must use millet, only sprinkle it on the ground, and make sure to only use enough that can be consumed in a day. I don’t buy millet at all — the doves will have to make do with the peanuts and corn. The cage has really helped — we are down to a very manageable number of doves.


Taking It To the Next Level

Woot, we officially received our certificates in the mail for Best of Texas Backyard Habitat and Texas Wildscapes Backyard Wildlife Habitat. Both of these certifications take wildlife habitats to a higher level beyond the simpler NWF certification, requiring a large percentage of native plants, year-round food and water sources, and dedication to sustainable gardening and control of invasives.


 It had been on my list to complete the applications for some time. Feels so good to make it official!

Content Again

My initial shock and dismay over the vast destruction laid to my Cinnamon Sun sunflowers and Zexmenia by millions and gazillions of caterpillars all at one time were fortunately temporary emotions, and I’ve adjusted to this new level of habitat. I’m back to feeling happy, content, and utterly pleased. The butterflies fluttering about the garden today are more numerous than I’d ever dreamed of (I’m still astounded by this, I admit), and they swept me up in waves of joy and peace. Soon, all those hundreds of ravenous Bordered Patch caterpillars that caused me momentary freak-out will create an even more amazing butterfly scene — who can argue with that?

So I won’t dwell on the skeleton leaves and plant carcasses they are leaving behind and I will instead rejoice in the fact that most of the plants so far are surviving and putting on a beautiful bloom display — 30 blooms almost entirely on one Cinnamon Sun plant alone. I get to report on new butterflies in the garden, as well, and also bees and spiders, and this habitat mama is happy as a clam.

If ever there was a question about sunflowers being so aptly named, I present this photo as a clear argument for the appropriateness. It shows the fiery side of the sun in flower form. In fact, I almost named this post Sunrise or Sunset after this shot, because that’s what it makes me think of, but I actually took this in the middle of the day, so it would be cheating.


As I hovered around my sunflowers, alternating between pictures of blooms and caterpillar damage, I was joined by hummingbirds just a few feet away at the Standing Cypress, flying closer to me than ever and completely ignoring me. I missed the snapshot, though, because the two hummingbirds suddenly had one of their feisty spats and flew off. I’m not sure they even realized how close to me they were.

And then I saw the bees at the sunflowers, and my attention turned back to the fiery blazes before me. These weren’t honeybees — they were “Yellow Butt Bees” as I called them when I first saw them (Please don’t think that’s their real name! I was just distinguishing them from the similarly-sized honeybees we all know. Besides, perhaps “Yellow Belly” would be more appropriate; I can hear Yosemite Sam now calling them Yellow-bellied Varmints… except they are no varmints!). The best I could do was try to get some pictures in the poor light so that I could ID them later. I believe they are the species Megachile perihirta. Western Leafcutter Bees. Texas natives, woot.

Why are they called Leafcutter Bees? Well, they cut small little circles out of leaves and use the pieces to fashion little nest cells, adding to them some nectar and pollen for the eggs they’ll lay. These solitary bees are some of the bees that benefit from Bee Boxes.

cinnsunbeec07-05-10.jpgAt one point, one of the bees looked straight at me. The little bee looks so cute that it seems unreal — my son actually thought I stuck the bee image onto the photo. I like to think that it was posing for the camera and not considering me a momentary threat. In any case, it was cute enough to become a header shot for the blog page (scroll up and click refresh if you’d like to see it).


At the same time as their larger cousins, tinier native bees were also busy at work. They are harder to see, crawling in and out of the little flower parts.

cinnsunbeee07-05-10.jpgThese native bees are the best pollinators a garden could ask for. Hugs to them all.

Back at the Gregg’s Mistflower in the Spider’s Favorite Locale, a spider reigns queen predator. I believe she is a Banded Garden Spider, Argiope trifasciata. And I think she might be the very same spider I found in the same spot a couple of weeks ago, perhaps then a juvenile and now mature (I’ve edited that post). She’s a beauty, and highly successful in her predator talents. She had four wrapped-up carcasses that she was very focused on, and within hours she had consumed them, removed them, and repaired the web, ready for more.

She’s as beautiful on her upper exterior…

bandedgardenspidera07-04-10.jpgas she is underneath. In fact, I shot the picture below first before I even realized she was facing away from me.

bandedgardenspiderb07-04-10.jpgI spy what might be pollen seeping through the silk encasing — might that be another bee? Gah. The nature of nature, once again.

To follow up on the Bordered Patch butterflies, I’m happy to report that they do eat Straggler Daisy, or Horseherb. In fact, there are already other groups of them out there munching away. The ones in the picture below are a little too small for me to identify for sure as Bordered Patch, but they are surely related, at the very least.

caterpillarsonhorseherb07-04-10.jpgI took a few of the more severely devasted sunflower leaves still covered with tons of caterpillars and relocated the little crawlies to the Horseherb for a dietary change, and so far so good. There are still many dozens on the sunflowers, but I feel better about all the plants’ chances at this point. And as I mentioned last time, I’ve got plenty of Horseherb to go around. I also discovered even more groups of young caterpillars on the Zexmenia, but those plants are fairly well established and are thus on their own. I read that one Bordered Patch female can lay 500 eggs — now I understand why I have such an invasion of munching munchers.

The older caterpillars are looking quite interesting, now that they are getting large.

borderedpatchcat07-05-10.jpgHmmm. Another caterpillar discovery. I have Genista moth caterpillars munching on one of my Texas Mountain Laurels, and eggs on another. But from what I read, the laurels should be okay. There are so many mountain laurels here in Austin, Texas, and they all do okay, right? The damage is ugly, though, but not devastating. I think. Hmmm, I feel the inkling of worry again…

genistacaterpillarb07-04-10.jpgI’m not sure whether these are Genista eggs, but I suspect they could be.

eggsonmountainlaurel07-04-10.jpgWhile I was walking around outside, something large moving by caught my eye. At first I thought it was a bird, but then I realized it was a butterfly. From a distance I couldn’t tell whether it was a Giant Swallowtail or an Eastern Tiger, but it was definitely huge. And then it came down right by me for a nectar feast on the butterfly bush. An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Yay!


It’s the first time one has stayed still long enough for me to get a non-blurry picture. The sun was too harsh, but I’ll take what I can get. I continue to have a wary eye on the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii, a non-native with a questionable reputation), but it earned big points when that Eastern Tiger landed upon it.

easterntigerb07-05-10.jpgI’m still waiting on my Giants to emerge from their chrysalises. I’m getting nervous, as I always do. 

Buckeyes are here now! New visitors to the garden. So beautiful.

buckeye07-04-10.jpgAnd I still can’t resist the charm of the Cinnamon Sun sunflowers. More pictures must be posted.


cinnsund07-5-10.jpgSee what I mean?


I’m having another Wildlife Lover’s Moral Dilemma, but this time it’s of a different sort. Up until now, my love of butterfly caterpillars has known no bounds, and I’ve gone out of my way to plant larval host plants and create a Caterpillar Hotel and so forth. But today caterpillars have rained on my parade, and my beloved caterpillars have come back to bite me, or at least my precious flower favorites.

It’s been raining a lot lately, and so I’ve not been in the garden too much, grudgingly recognizing that the nutsedge and bermuda are taking over again in the meantime. But a glimpse out my bedroom window got me excited — blooms lower down on the tall Cinnamon Sunflowers meant I had a chance to take new photos of my dark red blooms. I rushed outside in a dry pause from the rain… to a horrible sight.

The first thing I saw from a mere glance was a mass congregation of black on the leaves of one of my yellow sunflowers. Caterpillars, and a lot of them.

bordpatchcate07-02-10.jpgThen my eyes opened wider. There were more on the plant next to that one. And on down the short row. 

bordpatchcatb07-02-10.jpgThen I was hit with the realization that they’d completely defoliated many of the leaves of the yellow sunflowers, to the point that I’m not sure whether there’s a future in sight for any of the already-struggling annuals.

In fact, I’m quite certain that two of the smaller plants are dead, or at least zombies. I hadn’t even shown a photograph of a bloom from the poor traditional flowers — I’d been waiting for them to get bigger. I felt such sadness.


And then, like a scene in a horror movie, I turned slowly to look at my Cinnamon Sunflowers, dread gripping my heart.

The first thing I saw was caterpillar poop, and a lot of it.


Ok, something’s eating my Cinnamon Sunflowers. Looks like a few caterpillars. At this point, I’m still thinking it’s ok — I knew the flowers were larval hosts. I accepted that.

But as I opened my eyes beyond the poop to the damage and destruction above, around, and beyond, my heart started breaking.


I have what I can’t seem to call anything else — an infestation — of literally hundreds of caterpillars of all sizes. I knew by the spines that there was a good chance they were butterfly caterpillars, but still… in those numbers?

bordpatchcatf07-02-10.jpgPart of me wanted them to be something that I could consider pest caterpillars, so that my moral dilemma could be simpler to deal with and I could find a soapy bucket of water. But no, as near as I can tell, these are the larvae of the Bordered Patch Butterfly. At some point, I am going to have incredible numbers of chrysalises and several dead, once beautiful sunflowers. Was this gorgeous butterfly from just a few weeks ago one of the culprits?

borderedpatchb06-13-10.jpgDespite the destruction, I can’t bring myself to dispose of the caterpillars, or feed them to the birds, nothing. Must… love… caterpillars.

bordpatchcath07-02-10.jpgI can’t love the butterflies without supporting their eggs and babies. I guess I’m just going to have to watch them devour my plants and hope that the sunflowers, at least the larger ones, will recover.

bordpatchcati07-02-10.jpgI thought about moving the Bordered Patch caterpillars over to the Zexmenia, also a host plant. But that’s when I discovered hundreds of caterpillars were over there, too. My beautiful Zexmenia, already getting eaten up, too. Gah! It’s ok, Meredith, it’s ok… planted as a host plant. All good.

borderedpatchcatsonzexb07-02-10.jpgHere’s what I want to know: when exactly did these Bordered Patch butterflies show up laying eggs? And OH MY GOSH JUST HOW MANY EGGS CAN THEY LAY? Holy cow. And where are my beneficial predators now, now that I need some ecoystem balancing? Hello birds, stop feasting on my seeds and get yourself some live protein. Leave a few so there’s still a good population of butterflies, please. Why didn’t anyone tell me that Bordered Patch butterflies and their cousins are the rabbits of the butterfly world?!!!

According to some sources online, Straggler’s Daisy, or Horseherb, is a larval host plant for the Bordered Patch. I’ve got plenty of horseherb, so I did try moving some of the caterpillars over. They wouldn’t eat while I was watching, and then the rain came again, so I’ll have to monitor them for awhile before moving the rest over. Cross your fingers — there’s a glimpse of hope for the sunflowers if I can pull this off. I’m not holding my breath for too long, though, since so many other sites didn’t list the little groundcover as a favorite host plant.

Between the masses of caterpillars eating my CinnSuns and the masses of nutsedge and weeds abounding in my garden, I just want to cry. And yet, I’m so happy we’ve had rain — just an absolutely wonderful thing in central Texas during the summer. And I can still smile at the Gulf Fritillary caterpillars on the passionvine.

fritcat07-02-10.jpgI saw one starting its chrysalis stage today — it’s a J right now — and I happily discovered a chrysalis hanging from a Mexican Redbud branch. (I also discovered a passionflower bloom in the redbud tree — that pesky vine has done it again!)

fritchrysalis07-02-10.jpgBut overall I feel like I’m being tested, and I’m not sure whether I’m passing or failing. Passing as a wildlife lover with a high level of tolerance for munchers; passing as a butterfly grower. Failing as a gardener who wants beautiful, intact plants around; failing my new sunflowers. This isn’t my veggie garden– with my tomatoes, it was a war I had to engage in, those hornworms and stink bugs. Now the line in front of me is blurry. Should I be thinking of the crazy numbers of caterpillars as pests or be happy that I’m supporting more butterflies?

No worries, it’s still the latter. I just need to get used to this new concept of caterpillar quantity and re-evaluate my planting methods. Clearly I need more sunflowers so that my plants aren’t so easily overtaken. That will work, right? Learn to share, butterflies!

Hang in there, sunflowers. I know this is tough love from mama.


A smile from a damselfly to cheer us up…    🙂


Bittersweet. That’s what it is. Bittersweet.

Growing Up

I love the rain. Everything just looks so green afterwards.


 But even without the heavy rainfall this week, which I was so grateful for (by the way Austinites — you can thank me for the rain on Wednesday because it was my watering day and I got up and watered– Murphy’s Law was in full effect, because the rain showed up that evening… now if you got hail, too, that’s not my fault…), this year we are enjoying massive growth of pretty much everything in the garden. I suppose that sounds reasonable, as in the plant world we are in Year 2, at least for some of our plants — the rest are still young. Following the saying “Sleep, Creep, then Leap” — it is clear that our plants are enjoying a growth spurt!

gardena06-04-10.jpgI am envisioning a garden of giants before long — the thought crossed my mind that I might have to trim some of these back at some point. Whoa, that’s too much for this girl to think about right now.

But take a look at this Rock Rose, one that I don’t even remember planting in that spot. It’s massive. Right now I’m just letting it do its thing, but I’m sure that other gardeners are wisely shaking their head, saying that I’m going to be dealing with lots of little Pavonia babies everywhere and soon. (Here’s where I’ll tell you that one of my other Pavonias already made lots of babies, as I discovered a couple of days ago. And it was a much smaller plant!)

 On the plus side, I hope that the natural shade that the larger plants in the butterfly garden will provide this summer will help the smaller ones get through the heat and sun. Downside is that right now everything appears to be the same height. Somewhere in the middle of all that is a Texas Kidneywood, as well as a Barbados Cherry, which at some point should provide the height variation the garden needs. They need to be in their Leap Year, too! 

All around the garden, I’ve got new plants I’m excitedly watching. Exotic Love Vine, an annual vine from Mexico and Central/South America, still hasn’t produced any flowers, but I find myself admiring its beautiful leaves everyday. I guess the love effect is already, well, in effect, even without the amazing blooms it hopefully will produce. Maybe they bloom in fall.


exoticlovevineb06-04-10.jpgNow check out this great stem — hoho, Great Stem.

cinnsunflowerstem06-04-10.jpgNow at 4-foot tall, this Cinnamon Sunflower is already bigger than some of my trees. Still no evidence of blooms. The leaves themselves are the biggest leaves of any plant I have on the entire property. For comparison, I placed a Pomegranate leaf on one of the Sunflower leaves — I still don’t think it does it justice.

cinnsunflowerleaf06-04-10.jpgFor the record, the Cinnamon Sunflower’s growth is putting the Giant Sunflower’s growth to shame. I haven’t taken pictures of the Giant yet, so it better do some catching up!

The Passionflower is blooming like mad. I’m still waiting for the Fritillaries to show up.


But here’s a little Phaon Crescent come to visit.


The Purple Coneflowers are doing some strange things this year, but at least they are officially blooming. Some big, some small, some tall, some flat, some wide, some droopy…

purpleconeflower06-04-10.jpgThis odd Coneflower has a striped appearance.

purpleconeflowerb06-04-10.jpgSpeaking of Great Stems (giggle), here’s another one. Check out the thorns on this wee tree, a Toothache Tree, or Prickly Ash. The thorns are currently longer than the stem is wide!

toothachetree06-04-10.jpgWe’re fortunate to have two species growing — Zanthoxylum hirsutum (shown) and Zanthoxylum clava-herculis (very much still a sapling). If you haven’t heard of these trees, they’re fun. Chew on a leaf and your mouth goes numb for a few minutes. Back in the old days, they served to help with toothaches, hence the name. Bonus — a larval host for the Giant Swallowtail butterfly! I look forward to our trees getting bigger.

Venturing back to the butterfly garden, I paused to admire a strawberry-like annual, the Gomphrena, that I spur of the moment planted a couple of weeks ago. It’s a dwarf compared to the older perennials, but I appreciate the red color that was needed in the garden.


And ugh, a decision to make. This rogue not-native Lantana has popped up in the yard near the pond. Now I have to decide whether to pull it. This is why I stick to the native Lantana urticoides/horrida (Texas Lantana–has orange/yellow/red blooms) — I don’t want to contribute to the easily-spread other kind. I know where it came from, too — my neighbor had one. Had. I notice she pulled it out this year.


Over in the veggie garden, I discovered an abundance of peppers! Garden Salsa peppers, and they are inspiring the Mexican meal we will have tonight. I didn’t even see them start out as babies, and here they are.


Meanwhile, their leaves are getting munched by these little culprits — tiny (but pretty) grasshoppers. The admiration stops there. They are munching on my peppers, my tomatoes, and my Exotic Love Vine. Stop it, grasshoppers!

grasshopper06-04-10.jpgThe tomatoes are certainly growing up. They’ve outgrown their cages, keep trying to topple over, and so bushy I’m feeling a little concerned. Next time, I’m going for the big collapsible and way over-priced Texas cages.

tomatoes06-04-10.jpgThe runner beans have grown up past the trellis. I’m hoping we’ll actually get some beans before the heat of the summer really hits us. I feel we’re pushing the season a bit.

beans06-04-10.jpgAnd the perennial Bell Pepper is producing fruit again. I look at this plant in wonder — it survived last year’s terribly hot summer, made it through fall and winter without any attention from me, and here it is, still growing. I didn’t know they could do that. Talk about pushing seasons!

bellpepper06-04-10.jpgPlants aren’t the only things growing up around here. I’m about to have a teenager in the house (egads). And at 12, he’s already 6-feet tall. We’re going to do a final “kid” measure tomorrow, the day before he turns 13.

And these fledgling cardinals showed up this morning. Three of them. I love how their feathers are in transition. Mama and papa should be proud! You can tell my blood sugar was dropping at the time — the camera was shaking! I’d eaten breakfast, but only just. Not enough time to hit the bloodstream, I guess.

cardinalfledglingc06-04-10.jpgI’m pleased that birds are finally starting to pay attention to the thistle feeder. I abandoned the thistle socks awhile back due to the damage the eager birds were doing — I kept having to replace the feeders. But wow, they did love those socks. It’s not off the project list — I just needed a regular feeder to keep around constantly.

thistlefeeder06-04-10.jpgYeah, I see you squirrel. I know what you’re up to. Yeah, I know you see me, too. And yes, I saw you on the birdfeeder this morning. I noticed the young squirrel nearby, too, watching you do it. Naughty squirrel.


So the organic garden is growing up. The birds are growing up. The squirrels are growing up. My kids are growing up. And I guess the evidence is there that this gardener is growing up, too. If I haven’t already done it, I guess I have to do away with my newbie status officially, my crutch when I don’t know what in the world is going on in my garden. But the greenery around means I must have done something right, newbie or not. If in doubt, add compost — that’s my motto! I’m loving it and ready for more.

For a look back at the garden beginnings through its first year, visit this page.