Birds and Blooms Blog

Get the latest birding and gardening tips from our expert bloggers.

Friday Funny Photography: Oriole


Friday Funny Photography: Oriole

Birds & Blooms’ Friday Fun Photography snapshot for October 24, 2014: Oriole by Helen Beer-Lickley of Jerome, Idaho.

Do you have a clever caption for this fun photo? We’d love to hear it!

Beautiful & Drought Tolerant: Flowering Shrubs

Flowering 'Valentine' shrubs add beauty to the drought tolerant landscape.

Flowering ‘Valentine’ shrubs add beauty to the drought tolerant landscape.

What does the term ‘drought tolerant’ bring to mind?  Perhaps a barren landscape covered in rock with a spiky cactus or two?  Well it’s hard to call today’s drought tolerant garden barren – not with all of the beautiful, drought tolerant plants available.

As a California native and now a resident of Arizona, drought tolerant gardening is something that has been a part of my life for a very long time and has become second nature.  However, that doesn’t mean that my garden is filled with cacti.  Rather, my garden is filled with a lot of colorful plants that just happen to be drought tolerant.

Today, I’d like to share with you some of my favorite shrubs, which are native to Australia.  Many drought tolerant plants grown in the United States, come from Australia where most of the country is covered by large, arid areas that receive little rainfall.   While all of the following shrubs can be grown outdoors in zones 8 – 11, those that live in cooler climates can grow them outdoors in containers and bring them inside where they can overwinter by a sunny window.

Valentine Bush (Eremophila maculata 'Valentine')

Valentine Bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’)

If you ask me what my favorite shrub is, I would unhesitatingly say ‘Valentine bush’.  Fourteen years ago, I was approached by a wholesale nursery who was growing these red beauties.  They gave me three shrubs and asked me to grow them in the landscape areas where I worked as a horticulturist.  The rest as they say, is history.  This shrub grew beautifully, had evergreen foliage that turned maroon in winter and starting in January, started producing vibrant red blooms that lasted until April.

A shrub that flowers in winter, looks great all year and is drought tolerant, is definitely worth considering.  In cooler climates, the flowering can be delayed until late winter/early spring.  When not in flower, Valentine bush continues to look great and requires pruning only once a year in late spring, after flowering had ceased.  It grows approximately 3 ft. tall and 3 – 4 ft. wide.  Hardy to 15 degrees (zone 8), its requirements are minimal – plant in well-drained soil in an area that receives full sun.  *I have several Valentine shrubs growing in my garden and often include it in landscapes that I design.

Blue Bells (Eremophila hygrophana 'Blue Bells')

Blue Bells (Eremophila hygrophana ‘Blue Bells’)

If you look closely at the leaves and flowers of ‘Blue Bells’, you’ll notice that they are covered with tiny hairs, which help them to handle hot, dry conditions by reflecting the sun’s rays.  The gray foliage also offers another benefit to the landscape – its color contrasts beautifully with the darker green foliage of other plants in the landscape.  Blue Bells is a lower growing shrub that reaches 2 – 3 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide and seldom needs pruning.  It’s rather small size makes it the perfect plant for planting in front of taller shrubs.

Blue Bells is a newer plant introduction that resembles Texas sage (Leucophyllum species), but is native to Australia.  Hardy to 17 degrees (zone 8 and up), it will flower off and on throughout the year with the heaviest flush of flowering occurring in spring.  The only problem with Blue Bells is that it struggles to survive in heavy, clay soils or those that do not drain well.  However, when planted in well-drained soil and in full sun – this purple beauty will thrive.  *I confess, that I do not have any Blue Bells growing in my garden…yet.  I do use it often in landscape designs – especially in areas that receive hot, reflected sun.

Pink Beauty (Eremophila laanii 'Pink Beauty')

Pink Beauty (Eremophila laanii ‘Pink Beauty’)

If you want birds to visit your garden, you may want to consider adding Pink Beauty, whose large size and pink flowers, will add beauty to your outdoor space while providing food and shelter for your feathered visitors.  This pink flowering shrub has a rather untamed look and is best used against a fence or corner where it can grow to its approximate size of 5 – 8 ft. tall and wide.  Tubular pink flowers appear in spring and summer, although I have also seen them appear in winter in zone 9.

Small birds are frequent visitors who seek shelter within its interior and feed upon the tiny insects that visit the flowers.  Hummingbirds also find the flowers irresistible.  This species of Eremophila can handle heavier, clay soils better than Valentine or Blue Bells.  So, whether you plant it in clay or sandy soils, as long as it gets full to filtered sun – it should thrive.  Hardy to zones 8 and above, these shrubs, like the others, can be grown in a large container and brought inside to overwinter by a sunny window in colder zones.  *I have a single Pink Beauty shrub in my garden where it grows up against my fence.  I can see it from my kitchen window and I enjoy seeing all of the birds who like to visit.

Summertime Blue (Eremophila 'Summertime Blue')

Summertime Blue (Eremophila ‘Summertime Blue’)

Narrow, bright green leaves set this species of Eremophila apart from the others.  Names for its lilac-colored flowers that appear in summer and fall, Summertime Blue can grow to become a very large shrub – 6 ft. tall and 8 ft. wide.  Its bright green foliage adds a visually cooling element to the drought tolerant landscape while its long bloom season ensures the presence of colorful flowers.  The interior of the flowers are spotted, which add to the beauty of this plant.  The foliage of this shrub has a cascading growth habit, which needs little to no pruning, if allowed enough room to grow.

This evergreen shrub can be grown outdoors in zones 8 and above and in containers in colder climates where they can be brought indoors in winter.  Summertime Blue is not picky about soil, but does best in areas where they get full sun.  *I have two Summertime Blue shrubs in my garden that are 5 years old and I have not had to prune them once.  They have plenty of room to grow and are truly a ‘fuss-free’ plant that adds a lot of beauty to my drought tolerant garden.

While these drought tolerant shrubs can handle varying periods without supplemental water, they do need some water in order to survive – especially when during the first year after planting.  They can usually survive when watered deeply to a depth of 1 1/2 feet twice a month, during the summer months when rainfall is absent.  Water slightly less in spring and fall and once a month in winter.  Providing more supplemental water will increase the rate of growth.  **It’s important to point out that when grown in containers, they will need to be watered more frequently, once the top inch of soil is dry.

Many local nurseries are beginning to stock drought tolerant, Australian native plants –  particularly if you live in the southern half of the United States.  However, if you cannot find these shrubs at your local nursery, you can find them offerred through mail order.  For those of you who live in more temperate areas (zone 7 and below), here are some drought tolerant shrubs that you can grow outdoors all year long.

How about you?  Do you have any drought tolerant shrubs growing in your garden?

Birding Basics: Recognizing Variation within Species

Rob Ripma

One of the birding basics that I have seen people struggle many times is identifying a bird that looks slightly different than a species they are familiar with from their backyard due to the species’ varying appearance in another part of the United States. There are many species that this can happen with, including Red-tailed Hawks and Savannah and Song Sparrows, but one of the most common species that causes this challenge is the Dark-eyed Junco. Birds that used to be considered separate species have been lumped together into the single species known as Dark-eyed Junco.  There are multiple subspecies, some of which look quite different from each other.

If you are in the Eastern United States, you are likely familiar with the subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco known as the Slate-colored Junco. Many people refer to this subspecies as the snowbird, as it is seen in most of the Eastern US only during the winter months.

The Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco is the most common subspecies in the Eastern United States.

The Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco is the most common subspecies in the Eastern United States.

As you head west, Dark-eyed Juncos get much more interesting! Although it only breeds along the West Coast and up into southern Canada, during the winter months, Oregon Junco is quite common throughout the Western United States. In addition to being regularly seen in the West, it’s also the most likely subspecies other than Slate-colored to show up at bird feeders in the East and cause confusion for birders.

As you head west, especially during the winter months, Oregon Junco becomes quite common.

As you head west, especially during the winter months, Oregon Junco becomes quite common. This individual was photographed at a feeder in Central Indiana. (Thanks to Eric Ripma for the photo)

Depending on where you are out west, other subspecies that can be seen include White-winged, Pink-sided, Gray-headed, and Red-backed. Also, if you are in Southeast Arizona or Southwest New Mexico, keep an eye out for a junco with yellow eyes. This is not a subspecies but instead a whole different species, Yellow-eyed Junco.

I photographed this Pink-sided Junco in Colorado.

I photographed this Pink-sided Junco in Colorado.

You can immediately separate this from all of the Dark-eyed Juncos by its bright yellow eye.

You can immediately separate this from all of the Dark-eyed Juncos by its bright yellow eye.

Cookie Cutter Butterfly Pumpkins

Jill Staake

We love to decorate the butterfly garden and free-flight exhibit where I work for fall. Pumpkins are popular with both human guests and butterfly residents – some butterfly species love to drink the juice from the carved pumpkins. We usually include some surface-carved pumpkins, but this year I also tried creating some butterfly pumpkins using a set of cookie cutters in realistic butterfly shapes, and I love how they turned out!

Cookie Cutter Butterfly Pumpkins

Want to create these butterfly pumpkins too? It’s no harder than carving a traditional pumpkin, but you’ll need a set of metal butterfly cookie cutters (I used this set of 7 by R&M) and a rubber mallet. I used smaller “pie pumpkins” to create this small collection. Hollow out each pumpkin as you would for traditional carving. Then, center a cookie cutter on one side and gently tap with the rubber mallet until the cookie cutter goes all the way through the flesh. Start in the center and work side-to-side to avoid bending the metal. Remove the cut pumpkin along with the cutter, and clean up the edges with a sharp paring knife. Display and light any way you like.

Cookie Cutter Butterfly Pumpkins

It would be fun to line your path to welcome trick-or-treaters this Halloween, or display these butterfly pumpkins on your porch railing or front-facing windows. Looking for more nature-inspired carving ideas? Try our easy stencils by clicking here!

Drought Tolerant Agave Make Great Container Plants

Queen Victoria Agave 'Compacta' (Agave victoria-reginae 'Compacta') growing in a container.

Queen Victoria Agave ‘Compacta’ (Agave victoria-reginae ‘Compacta’) growing in a container.

Have you ever seen agave growing in the landscape?  Often referred to as ‘century plants’, these iconic succulents flower once in their lifetime before they die, which can take 7 – 50 years depending on the species.  Agave are known equally for their beauty in the landscape as well as for the tequila and agave nectar that are made from certain species.  Today, we will leave the subject of alcoholic beverages and sweetener aside and concentrate on how to use these drought tolerant succulents in containers.

Chances are that if you live in the northern half of the US, seeing agave planted in landscapes may be a rare sight, where cold winter temperatures would kill them.  However, gardeners who live throughout the Southwest and even southern areas such as Florida are fortunate enough to be able to grow one or more of the over 200 species of agave in their landscapes.

The gray/blue leaves of Agave parryi 'truncata' contrast with the maroon spines in the author's garden.

The gray/blue leaves of Agave parryi ‘truncata’ contrast with the maroon spines in the author’s garden.

If you are one of those northern residents who would love to grow agave in your garden, then I have good news for you – you can.  In fact, agave can be grown in all climates – even ones with cold winters, as long as they are brought indoors during winter.  Now does that mean that you have to plant and dig up your agave every year when freezing temperatures are on their way?  No.  By growing them in pots, you can move them indoors when cold winter temperatures arrive.

agave in container

No matter what climate you live in, agave make great container plants – particularly small to medium species such as black-spined agave (Agave macroacantha), Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae), Agave colorata, Agave schidigera and my favorite – Agave parryi ‘truncata.

Agave are truly ‘fuss-free’ container plants that thrive with sporadic watering and can handle a variety of exposures including full sun to filtered shade, depending on the species.  In zones 8 and above, most agave can be grown outdoors in the ground or in containers all year long (there are some exceptions, so research the cold hardiness of your species ahead of time).  However, for those who live in colder climates, most agave species will not survive cold winter temperatures, so growing them in containers where they can be brought inside is essential.

Agave medio-picta growing in a container in Madison, Wisconsin.

Agave medio-picta growing in a container in Madison, Wisconsin.

While agave are easy to grow, they do have some specific requirements when grown in containers:

1. Use a fast draining planting mix specially formulated for succulents.  Agave do not like wet feet and soggy soil can kill them.

2. Water when the top inch of soil is completely dry.  In hot, arid climates – water once a week in summer and in other climates, water once every 2 – 3 weeks in the absence or rainfall is usually sufficient.  In spring and fall, watering every 3 – 4 weeks is usually enough.  Agave seldom need water in winter, but you can lightly water them once a month.

3. Like most container plants, agave need to be fertilized.  In late spring and summer, add an all-purpose (20-20-20), liquid fertilizer at half strength, once a month.  In desert climates – add fertilizer in spring and fall and skip fertilizing in the summer.  Agave need no fertilizer in winter.

4. Agave need plenty of sun, especially when grown indoors, so place your agave container next to a west or south-facing window where they will get plenty of sunlight.

The curly white filaments of Agave schidigera adds to its beauty.

The curly white filaments of Agave schidigera adds to its beauty.

The variety of agave species is truly astounding with differences in color, size and shape.  Some are thorny, while others have little to no thorns.  Others have white margins on the leaves or leaf imprints.  Agave with blue/gray coloring can be used to contrast with darker green plants in the landscape.  Small agave can also make nice outdoor centerpieces on your patio table.

How about you?  Have you ever grown agave?  Perhaps you have admired these drought tolerant succulents and thought that you could never grow one.  Well, now you can – all you need is a container and sun!

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