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Fall Clean Up in Your Wildlife Garden-Don’t!

There’s a discussion going on in our garden.  How tidy do we want to be?Should we dead head and prune all our perennials and rake our leaves ? Maybe not, our fine feathered friends are looking for food all winter.

“If you’re not careful, you can yank the welcome mat right outfrom under all the birds, insects and small mammals your garden has been home to throughout the rest of the year.”

Debbie Roberts, Fall Clean Up in the Wildlife Garden.

Above: A view into our Wildlife Garden looking through PInk Muhly Grass. Grasses provide cover for wildlife and their seed heads provide food.

Above: A view into our Wildlife Garden looking through Pink Muhly Grass.
Grasses provide cover for wildlife and their seed heads provide food.

Less work? I am all for it. Look at some of the blog titles written on this subject:  Drop Your Rake and Look to the Skies and Fall Wildlife Garden Chores.

Above: Seedheads will be left unpruned to provide  winter food in our garden for wildlife.

Above:  Rudbeckia Seedheads

Looking for other ways to accomodate wildlife in your garden? Birds feast on Berries like Beauty Berry and Yaupon Holly in winter months.

A View of our Wildlife Habitat at The Demonstration Garden, looking North.

Yaupon Holly berries on the right, maize on the left under a bird feeder

So less work equals a more friendly wildlife garden; we can handle that!


Pictures by Starla and Ann

Another Sign of Fall

Many people associate the arrival of fall by the appearance of red, gold, and yellow leaves on trees or seeing groups of pumpkins suddenly pop up on people’s front porches.  However for those of us who have native trees/shrubs, fall also means seeing the clusters of purple berries on our American Beautyberry.

Callicarpa americana

Callicarpa americana

American Beautyberry grows best in partial sun and often used as an understory tree.  Found growing wild in East Texas thickets, this deciduous, 4-6 foot shrub or small tree has small, unspectacular greenish-white flowers in the spring, but is known for its showy clusters of purple berries in the fall.

It prefers moist soils but can be grown in the sun with supplemental watering; and it is tolerant of various soil types.  Aggie-Horticulture suggests pruning its long, arching branches back by 1/2 in the winter if a more compact shrub is desired.  Most Beautyberries have purple berry clusters; however there is a white-berried variety, C. americana var. lactea.  The Demonstration Garden grows a Mexican variety called Callicarpa acuminate ‘Texas Maroon”  which has maroon berries.

Callicarpa acuminate ‘Texas Maroon”

Callicarpa acuminate ‘Texas Maroon”

There is some controversy about whether the berries are toxic to humans.  Several sites say that unripe berries should never be eaten.  Native Americans used the roots of Beautyberry as a diuretic, the leaves for dropsy, and a tea made from the roots and berries for colic.  The leaves and roots were used in sweat baths for the treatment of malaria, rheumatism and fevers.  The leaves themselves can be rubbed on the skin as an external mosquito repellent.  Some sites however, including Aggie-Horticulture  say that jelly made from ripe Beautyberries is excellent.  However, as with many plants that are foraged from the wild, “diner beware.”

There is no controversy however that ripe Beautyberries are one of wildlife’s favorite foods.  In my own yard, I only able to enjoy seeing the ripe purple berries for about a week before the mockingbirds have eaten every berry off of my large tree.  Green Dean, who writes about foraging for wild edibles, reports that the Beautyberry is a squirrel’s version of take out.  Other birds that enjoy eating the berries are robins, catbirds, cardinals, mockingbirds, brown thrashers, and finches.

So, if you want a shrub/small tree that will provide fall color and feed the wildlife (and perhaps you too), think about planting an American Beautyberry.  You won’t be disappointed.


What Would We Do Without Turk’s Cap?

All gardeners have those tough spots where nothing seems to want to grow.  Dry shade? Morning shade followed by hot west sun? Neglected, hard to water spots? It’s enough to bring on a tension headache.

The bright apple green leaves and red furled blooms of Turk’s cap Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii are often just the right solution.  I love easy to grow plants, but this Texas native is almost beyond belief.  Shade, sun, or a little of both? Moist or just on rainfall alone?  Clay, loam, sand, or limestone soils (with good drainage)?  Insect damage? Very minimal. All North Texas gardeners have to do is cut the stems back to the ground after a hard freeze in the fall.

The blooms on Turk’s cap are so unusual.  The vermillion red flowers are twisted into a loose tube of overlapping petals, with a red stamen protruding from the center.  The flowers are said to resemble a Turkish turban, thus the name, Turk’s cap.  Butterflies and hummingbirds are drawn to the blooms.  The marble-sized fruit is edible and is enjoyed by a number of birds and animals.

Red Turk's Cap, Dallas Garden Buzz

At the Demonstration Garden, we have enjoyed a Turk’s cap with pink blooms for many years.  I hope it is the Greg Grant introduction, named after the first woman horticulture student at Texas A&M, Pam Puryear.  Her namesake has been designated a Texas Superstar by the AgriLife Extension Service.

Pink Turk's Cap

Pink Turk’s Cap

The variety name for Turk’s cap, Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii,  honors another groundbreaking botanist in Texas.  Thomas Drummond was a Scottish naturalist, born in Scotland about 1790.  In 1830, he came to America to collect plant specimens from the western and southern United States.  He arrived in Velasco, Texas, in March 1833, and collected 750 species of plants and 150 specimens of birds in the almost two years he worked in central Texas.

Although Turk’s cap will adapt to full sun (and I do have several blooming like crazy in west sun), I really think it should be ideally planted in morning sun, afternoon shade.  I have found that if Turk’s cap is in deep shade, the blooms are limited.  Although Turk’s cap is drought tolerant, the plant will wilt noticeably in full sun.  It loves heat, and is a dependable August bloomer.  The bloom season runs from May to November.

For a low maintenance light to medium-shade garden, mix Turk’s cap with southern wood fern and caladiums.


Pictures by Starla and Ann

For more perennial information see our post on Gardening With Perennials.

Noah’s Ark WaterGardens

Themed gardens are very popular now.  Gardening magazines feature articles on “Growing Your Own Salsa Garden” (tomatoes, cilantro, peppers, onions), a Marian or Biblical Garden concentrating on those plants found in the bible, and moonlight gardens featuring white/light colored plants that glow in a full moon and flowers that bloom at night.

Even a pond could have a veritable Noah’s Ark of water plants– and with Noah saving the animals during the 40 days and 40 nights of rain and flooding, what theme could be more appropriate for a water garden.   The DemonstrationGarden’s small pond contains at least two of these “Noah’s Ark” plants that are readily available in area nurseries.

Parrot Feather in Demonstration Garden Pond

So come on board the Ark and try a few of these animal themed water plants in your pond:

Horsetail Rush: This 2-3 foot spiked plant was used by Native Americans as a scouring agent as its stiff stems contain silica.  There is also a pretty variegated variety called Zebra Bulrush that has white stripes along the green spikes.  It grows to about 2-5 feet.  Both of these plants are very easy to grow and will tolerate some shade as well as full sun.

Lizard’s Tail:  The bright green foliage of this plant has fragrant, 4-6 inch spikes of fragrant white flowers that look like a lizard’s tail.  It grows well in shade and flowers in the spring.

Cardinal Flower:  A favorite of hummingbirds, its bright red flowers appear in the summer on 2-3 foot tall plants.  It prefers full sun.

Parrot's FeatherParrot’s Feather:  This beautiful feathered plant is a must for water gardens, especially those in part shade or even full sun.  Its appearance softens a pond and it provides oxygen for fish that also use its long trailing stems to hide or lay their eggs.  It can be grown in submerged pots or left to trail on top of the water.  The Demonstration Garden has a nice stand of parrot’s feather growing in its pond.    In the evening, the plant closes up and a drop of water sparkles on the end of the feathered fronds.

Chameleon Plant: Heart shaped leaves of crimson, green, yellow and cream decorate this showy plant that can be grown barely submerged in a pond.

Lousiana Iris “Black Game Cock”: Its velvety black-violet flowers with a gold crest in the center are a beautiful addition to a full sun pond.

Canna “Bengal Tiger”:  With showy large yellow and green striped leaves and large bright orange flowers, this tropical canna thrives in full sun.    

        Frog's Bit, Dallas Garden BuzzFrogbit:  This small floating plant looks similar to a miniature water lily, though it gets its name from how it resembles the chin of a frog in water.  Tiny cup shaped white flowers appear in July and August.  Be careful though, this plant can be aggressive and easily cover a pond.  Keep it thinned!!

Cattail, Dallas Garden Buzz

Cattail:  There are many species of cattails growing wild throughout the US.  Some may grow up to 6-8 feet tall.  Often the Dwarf Cattail, with a maximum height of 3 feet, is used in ponds as a background plant.  Cattails require full sun to grow well and since they spread by rapidly by creeping root stalks and seeds, it is best to grow them in containers.

Finally, during those forty days and forty nights of rain, what plant would Noah have found very useful (and which is found at our DemonstrationGarden)?   An Umbrella Palm, of course.

Umbrella Plant, Dallas Garden BuzzThis readily available plant grows 3-4 feet tall in full or partial sun.  With its long strap-like leaves that form an umbrella shape, it would probably be most appreciated by Noah and his family.

Do you have a favorite water garden “Noah’s Ark” plant to add to this list?  Let us know.


Pictures from our garden by Ann and thanks to Tamu Aquatic Plant ID  for Parrot’s Feather, Frogbit, and Cattail.

Texas Discovery Garden Visitors and Others

We had several visitors to our garden on Tuesday.  Erin and Roger from  Texas Discovery Garden  came and were welcomed by  a host of creatures and people.  We usually are greeted by the buzzing of bees but seldom notice some of the other guests that make our garden their home.   An orange wasp flitted  among the squash leaves while the ladybugs had lunch among the fennel.

visitors-ladybug and wasp

We had surprises amongst the mulch; a little toad  managed to ride in the wheel barrow and was relocated near the pond  and  a snake slithered out from the wood chips.

visitors-toad and snake

Fortunately  Roger Sanderson, Director of Horticulture at Texas Discovery Gardens, is also a herpetologist.   He was very excited to learn we found a snake while cleaning out a bed and he quickly identified it as a Yellow- Bellied Racer.  To help you identify snakes you may come across, see this  Texas Snake ID site.

Snake and Roger from Texas Discovery Gardens

The Yellow-Bellied Racer is a harmless and very fast snake.  The one we found Tuesday is very young, covered with spots and blotches.   When mature he’ll be solid blue-gray on the upper side and solid yellow on the belly.  They eat bugs and small lizards at this age, but as adults they eat anything that moves, including lizards, mice and venomous snakes.

The most common snake found in our gardens are the Rough Earth Snakes which are small (6-8” full grown) and feed on tiny insects, worms, and other invertebrates. They are essentially unmarked gray to brown snakes that are paler on the belly.  Another common snake in this area, and about the same size, is the little Texas Brown snake.  Unlike the Earth Snake, it does have faint marking down the body and a distinct black mark just behind the head on both sides.

We love all creatures great and small at our garden, but were happy to add this little snake to Roger’s collection at  Texas Discovery Gardens.

You can see our snake  and everything butterfly at this Dallas premiere organic garden!  Texas Discovery Garden is a valuable asset to Dallas. For more information about it so you can plan a visit, click here.

Written by Sue, Starla, and Ann

Pictures by Starla

Plant Your WildLife Habitat

The flowers that are blooming in our WildLife Habitat right now were selected with a purpose.  We wanted to provide food for all kinds of creatures and yes, they are flying in to feast on our plants and eat our berries.   Monarch, Gulf Fritillary, and Giant Swallowtail butterflies have been identified. Skippers, bees, dragonflies, and birds are in residence.

Consider these Suggestions from landscapers around the USA of  The National Wildlife Federation for Your Backyard Habitat:

In every landscape I design and with the volunteer consultations that I do there is one plant that I always suggest: Asclepias (milkweed). I try to use native varieties, and A. incarnata (swamp), A. speciosa (showy) and A. verticillata (whorled) milkweeds are my gold medal winners—the wildlife garden equivalents to Shaun White. I like them not just for their importance in habitats—they are host plants for the monarch butterfly—but because of their educational value for children. My kids love to go out into our flower garden and check to see if there are any new monarch eggs, larvae or chrysalides, and they love watching the butterflies fly in to feed on the nectar.”—Mat Paulson of Moorhead, Minnesota.

 At the Earth-Kind® Water Wise Demonstration Garden we have planted Asclepias currassavica, tropical milkweed. (Love the super star reference made to Shaun White-Olympic snowboarding Gold medalist.)

Tropical ButterFly Weed In The Wildlife Habitat

 “The purple flowers of aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius) provide color in the late summer and fall and attract swarms of pollinators. The plant’s short, shrublike appearance makes it a good candidate for more formal landscaping applications. The silvery checkerspot butterfly, pearl crescent butterfly, and asteroid moth utilize this plant as a host. Tolerance to poor soil conditions has allowed me to add it to my own suburban residential lot. This aster is naturally found in the eastern and north-central United States.”—Perry Eckhardt of St. Charles, Missouri

Aster Growing At The Demonstration Garden Wildlife Habitat

“Purple coneflower (Echinachea purpurea) is a great nectar plant in any butterfly garden and is used by many other insects as well. I think it’s like candy to them. Purple coneflower is also a favorite of American goldfinches and sparrows, who love the seeds. Plant big clumps for the best effect.”—

Purple Coneflower In A Dallas Garden

“One of my favorite native beauties, which is also a hit with the birds, is the American beautyberry. This large shrub makes a wonderful understory plant, perfect for shady areas in your yard or along riparian areas in need of restoration. This beautyberry takes care of itself in the maintenance department, requiring little effort on the part of the caretaker. The open branching structure, brilliant green leaves, and fuchsia-colored berries of this plant make it a lovely addition to any habitat garden. The birds will thank you by devouring the tasty berries, and the butterflies will come calling to taste the sweet nectar of the dainty whitish pink flowers.”—Alice Nance of Austin, Texas

Butterfly Weed, Aster, Coneflower, and Beauty Berry are a benefit to our Demonstration Garden and we thought you might like to include them in yours!


Yaupon Holly, Full Of Fruit In The Fall

 We have three female Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) trees in the Wildlife Habitat of the Raincatcher’s Garden.  The fruit ripens in the fall and will attract Northern Mockingbirds, Cedar Waxwings, and other fruit-eating birds.  The evergreen foliage provides good cover and sometimes nesting sites, for songbirds.  Although the the foliage will be more dense in full sun than in part-shade, this species is well adapted to both.  Pruning practices also affect the density of the cover it provides.

When buying yaupon trees, the easiest way to be sure you will get fruiting trees is to select them in the late summer or fall, when you should be able to see fruits on a female tree.  Because yaupons are dioecious, pollination by a male tree is required for the female tree to produce fruit, so you may want to plant a male (non-fruiting) tree among your females.  However, Dallas has many yaupons, and female trees often seem to be pollinated by males from other gardens.   Fortunately, fall is our best season for planting trees. 

'Pride of Houston' Yaupon Holly At The Demonstration Garden

The beautiful fruits are properly called drupes rather than berries, because there is a single seed in the center of the fruit, surrounded by an outer skin and a fleshy middle layer.


A September Garden Field Trip

Our Garden is certified as a Wildlife Habitat. When  children are interested in  nature; they  learn about protecting habitats and become engaged with their environment.  Being outside in an area that provides food, water, and cover for wildlife, gives them the chance to observe frogs, fish, rabbits, birds, butterflies,  dragonflies, and the occasional visit from our Mr.Cottontail. 

Teaching In The Wildlife Habitat At The Demonstration Garden

We teach the virtues of vermicomposting.  Red wriggler worms easily hold the attention of these students. 

Vermicomposting Taught By Dallas County Master Gardeners For Kids

Kids that visit our gardens like to take home something they can grow.  The Grace Academy kids learned about seeds and planted them in  “Root Viewers”, made out of  recycled rinsed out milk cartons with a plastic window made of tape.

Gardening With Grace Academy Kids

Hummingbird Migration

“Hummingbird don’t fly away, fly away…”  Seals and Crofts’ lyrics always repeat in my mind this time of year.  But as the temperatures drop in North Texas, hummingbirds must migrate south.

If you are like me, the spring arrival of the first hummingbird is always a Red Letter Day.  The song lyrics continue: “I love you, love you, love you.  I don’t even know the reason why…”

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Photo by John Lynn

Hummingbirds have always held a fascination for me.  Finding a hummingbird nest continues to be on my life list. To attract hummingbirds, I have planted many native plants including coral honeysuckle, Turk’s cap, flame acanthus, scarlet buckeye, false indigo bush, red yucca, various salvias, standing cypress, Texas lantana, cenizo, lemon beebalm, penstemons, and Texas betony.

Hummingbird and Esperanza

Photo by Pam DiFazio

My love affair with the little birds found us traveling south recently to Rockport, Texas, to learn more about these amazing creatures. Rockport is a stop on the migration map for many birds.  For more information on Rockport’s 24th Annual Texas HummerBird Celebration, visit

Hummingbird at feeder

Photo by Pam DiFazio

“The sweetness of your nectar has drawn me like a fly…”  The hummingbird event offered four days full of lectures, workshops and field trips.  I only attended one.  Instead, the view of these fascinating birds (uncharacteristically) sharing feeders at the 25 tour stops mesmerized me. At a single landscape more than a hundred birds could have been counted simultaneously fluttering around the feeders and flowers. I was enchanted by the hummingbirds—and the people who hosted them before sending them off for the next leg of their journey.  One yard had 40 feeders!  At another, a gentleman told me he uses about 60 pounds of sugar to prepare his feeders for the weeks the hummingbirds fly through.


The tiny birds look for more than just sweet nectar.  Gardens with food, water, and shelter are the most attractive to hummingbirds.

Hummingbird on Yaupon

Photo by Pam DiFazio


Here in North Texas, we can evaluate our yards now to host next spring’s hummingbirds.  Plant bird-friendly native plants in our milder fall temperatures.  This will give those plants time to establish strong roots during the winter months.  Their blooms will welcome a bounty of life.  Remember the importance of supplying fresh water.  Careful arrangement of shrubs and trees should provide protection for the birds and an easy step-ladder approach.  Then next spring, you might be marking your calendar with the first day you spot a hummingbird in your yard!


Mosquitofish: The Little Fish That Can

This summer, residents of Dallas County have seen a record number of cases of West Nile virus, a serious and sometimes fatal disease spread by mosquitoes. The County has tried to slow the spread of mosquitoes by fogging neighborhoods with insecticide and even spraying from airplanes crisscrossing the affected areas.  Who would have thought that a small, dull-grey fish saddled with a genus name Gambusia (derived from the Cuban Spanish for “useless”) would play an important role in controlling West Nile?

Here at the Demonstration Garden, our small pond is stocked with these one to three inch fish (and one gold fish!) that are enthusiastically contributing to “natural” mosquito control.

Field Trip Participants from Grace Academy Searching Our Pond For Gambusia

Gambusia affinis  is more commonly known as mosquitofish because of its affinity for consuming large amounts of mosquito larvae.  It is estimated that adult females can consume 100 mosquito larvae a day and can eat more than their body weight a day (and they don’t even get fat!!)  Young are born alive and a female can give birth to about 60 babies, several times a year.  Mosquitofish can live in relatively inhospitable environments such as those with low oxygen concentrations and high temperatures.  This means that they can live in small, un-aerated ponds and, importantly in the war on West Nile, stagnant, unused swimming pools.  Many cities, starting in 2008 in California and now in Dallas, are using mosquitofish as mosquito control in stagnant ponds and ditches.

As with anything, one can get too much of a good thing.  Native fish in a stock pond or lake, and even goldfish and koi in an ornamental pond, already eat mosquito larvae.  The introduction of mosquitofish outside their natural range has proved damaging to smaller native fish because of the mosquitofish’s aggressive nature and competition for food   Still, the little fish, that in Russia helped eradicate malaria and has a monument dedicated to it, is one of several weapons for West Nile control in Dallas.  Who knows…. this little fish might save your life.



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