Temperatures are warming with fresh air combined with lots of pollen. Yards and gardens are getting plenty of spring showers. A good portion of the world is off work or working from home. It makes for a good time to get out and do some gardening and yard work.
It’s good to get out of the house. It’s been proven that staying indoors throughout the winter can cause depression or SAD (seasonal affective disorder), so wandering outside as colors bloom, birds and butterflies migrate, and the grass turns from brown to green can be beneficial to one’s health.
Not to mention, with kids being out of school at this unusual time of year, it’s a good way to get outdoors with the children and teach them how to plant, grow and care for nature.
The million dollar question is what to plant.
There are many types of gardens that can be planted, ranging from produce gardens with fruits and vegetables to herb gardens. There are even butterfly and bee gardens to help feed some of the pollinators that are so important to humans.
Discover the species of bees, songbirds and butterflies either native to the area or, in the case of some butterflies and birds, the species that migrate through the area. That makes it easier to discover the types of plants, herbs, trees and flowers that not only attract them, but provide them nourishment on their long journey.
Some plants that may not be as pretty, such as certain species of milkweed, are very beneficial to a declining population of butterflies, and even moths.
The University of Arkansas Division of Research and Extension (UAEX) has a website to quickly find most of the information for The Natural State under their “Yard and Garden” link found on their homepage at www.uaex.edu.
Many people also like to plant trees and shrubs in their yards to improve the aesthetic. The thing to remember, if someone wants to birdwatch or enjoy the antics of squirrels and other native animals, is to plant flora that are native to Arkansas (or wherever an individual may reside) to provide the proper type of shelter and food.
If someone’s yard only has ornamental trees, plants and shrubs, native and migrating wildlife will either ignore the yard or, at the most, only stop momentarily to search for food and rest before moving on to better foraging grounds.
Not only that, but some non-native plants are what is known as invasive species. These plants and trees take over other plants and trees as well as buildings
According to UAEX, some invasive plants have even been brought to Arkansas accidentally. An estimated 1/10th of 1% of imported plants become invasive pests and cause a myriad of problems. That may not sound like much, but invasive plants cost $35 billion in damages and treatment each year in Arkansas.
Some invasive plants reduce the productivity of crop fields, some harm livestock, and others degrade the wildlands that make Arkansas an enjoyable place for residents and visitors.
Kudzu is a good example of a plant that was introduced to prevent erosion and help out during the Great Depression to feed livestock even though it’s not very pretty. Turns out that despite its alfalfa-like properties, cows don’t really care for it. Folks soon learned kudzu quickly overruns any property where it is introduced, spreading across the ground and climbing anything it touches.
Also, the kudzu bug likes to eat soybean crops, which is one of Arkansas’ main crops. Some herbicides actually make kudzu grow better. It takes 3-10 years to kill a kudzu patch.
Other examples of invasive plants in Arkansas include the following:
Running monkey grass
Large leaf vinca
Despite the fact that some of these plants are pretty and possibly even smell nice, some can quickly take over and destroy a yard or house.
Bradford pear tree is on the above list. These trees grow quickly to provide shade. Unfortunately, this quick growth makes for a weak tree that is easily destroyed during storms and high winds, leaving a yard with unsightly, partial trees.
Not to mention, many people may enjoy the early March blooms of white flowers that come floating down and cover the ground like snowflakes, but suffer from the release of a lot of pollen that causes allergies.
The blooms of the Bradford pear are off most of the trees, but a few items on the list above are currently in bloom. They might be pretty, but they do little for wildlife or can take over a yard.
Wisteria is a purple-flowered vine that comes in 10 species, most of which are non-native to North America and were first introduced to the U.S. as an ornamental plant in the 1800’s. There is a species commonly referred to as American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) that is native to the southeastern U.S. and extends to Arkansas and surrounding states.
The plant is beneficial to butterflies such as the long-tailed skipper, silver-spotted skipper, marine blue, zarucco duskywing and the moth Cuphodes wisteriae uses it as a larval host.
Called Ziteng (Purple Vine) in Chinese, wisteria has been grown since at least the fifth century in Chinese gardens. It’s a fast growing, woody vine belonging to the legume family. The flowers (not the seeds or pods) are sometimes steamed and either fried or used to make wisteria cakes.
The seeds are produced in pods similar to those of Laburnum (aka Golden chain), and, like the seeds of that genus, are poisonous. All parts of the plant contain the chemical compound saponin called wisterin. This chemical is toxic if ingested, and may cause dizziness, confusion, speech problems, nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, diarrhea and collapse.
Wisteria was introduced into England from China in 1816. The problem is that all wisteria species grow rampant unless kept in check. The vines are capable of engulfing trees and depriving them of water and nutrients. The vines also twine around power poles, up the beams of houses and structures, or anything else that gets in its path and can quickly “strangle” other trees and plants.
Each spring, generally late March and early April for Arkansas, drooping, foot-long trusses of purple pea-flowers bloom. It is generally seen growing wild along roadsides and waterways.
Some people purposefully grow wisteria in their yards. Although there’s nothing wrong with that, it takes work and dedication. The problem lies in not taking the time to prune the plant and prevent it from overtaking everything in the yard, including the house if it’s close enough.
Wisteria climbs by twining its vines in a clockwise fashion around all it encounters, even poles 6-inches in diameter. It can enter the smallest openings between the siding of a home or beneath the shingles of a roof.
Because it produces such a tangle of twining vines, the only sensible time to prune it is in the winter when an individual can more or less see what they’re doing.
Another ornamental plant seen in many paintings, films and photographs is English Ivy.
This climbing, evergreen ivy is a member of the araliaceae family and makes for a very nice, attractive groundcover when the leaves are full and green. It was introduced to the U.S. during the colonial era.
The fear of ivy destroying buildings also needs mentioned. Ivy hold fasts and can create a maintenance headache if allowed to form on a wall. English Ivy quickly weaves its way into window sills and, if uncontrolled, eventually makes its way into the house. The budding tips of the vines can crawl up through the thinnest separation between wood siding and can keep the moisture level high and encourage wood rot.
Ivy won’t grow into and destroy sound mortar and brick, but if there are cracks and holes in brick mortar, be it a wall or a chimney, ivy will make its way through and begin loosening the mortar as it grows. It will also climb to the eaves of a house and slide in beneath roof tiles.
Additionally, if allowed to mature, each spring as new leaves burst open and aphids feed, as they will with most plants, the bugs leave a very sticky substance along the new growth. Ants will be attracted to the aphids and the sticky residue, but they could soon be invading an individual’s home seeking more sustenance.
Ivy takes on two distinct leaf types, either a three or five-lobed leaf of the fast growing vine and the less familiar unlobed leaf with a long petiole. This difference in leaf shape is due to the physiological age of the plant, not its chronological age.
If ivy is kept on the ground or kept on an upward quest, it will remain in the juvenile stage and its leaves will maintain their familiar lobed appearance. If the plant is kept confined to a groundcover bed this condition will be maintained indefinitely.
Once a plant has climbed something and reached the point where it can grow no further, it will make the transformation to adulthood. With adulthood, soon there will be round pin-cushion-like balls of white flowers that appear in clusters at the end of the branches. When ripe, the seeds are black, and though somewhat dry, still relished by birds.
Ivy does not climb by twining as wisteria does. Ivy has modified stem roots that form a suction-cup structure known as a "hold fast." These suction cups adhere to about anything from tree bark to bricks and remain in place when the ivy is ripped down. If ivy is allowed to climb on a brick wall and later removed, nothing short of sandblasting will remove these well-cemented hold fasts and it typically leaves markings showing the trail where the ivy was fastened, tattooing the wall for lack of a better term.
Besides the berries that some birds will eat, English Ivy does not supply much other sustenance and no habitat for pollinators, birds, or mammals.
Japanese Red Maple
There are more than a thousand varieties of the Japanese maple tree. The non-native tree is quite popular throughout America and can be found growing wild or in most gardens, growing best in partial shade.
Introduced to England, possibly circa 1820, and the Americas soon after. The numerous tree varieties quickly made Japanese maples some of the most popular ornamental trees with its attractive foliage and shape.
There is no harm in growing these ornamental trees. Although quite beautiful and with dazzling, brilliant colors, the tree does little for native wildlife. Typically, one of the Japanese red maple species with its crimson leaves is probably the most popular.
Like the Japanese cherry tree is related to our native cherry trees, Japanese maple is related to our native maples. It has been found that those species have an average of 40% fewer caterpillars than native versions of that tree, meaning it’s not attracting as many butterflies due to having less variety in nutritional value for the caterpillar. This also means fewer birds perching and seeking caterpillars for food.
The Japanese have been using the leaves for food, or a snack at least, for more than a thousand years. The leaves are packed in barrels of salt for a year then dipped and fried in tempura butter.
The trees generally have very small flowers and fruit that are so inconspicuous that most insects, birds and animals ignore them, although honey bees will occasionally drink the nectar. Once the flowers go, samaras develop. These are small seeds enclosed in a thin paper-like substance. The samaras closely resemble the wing of a dragonfly, like most maple trees. The seed breaks loose from the branch and whirls down to the ground.
The Japanese maple has medicinal properties in Eastern medicine as a cure for various eye and liver issues, but in Arkansas, the tree is generally only a beautiful sight for the eyes to behold.
Since it has several smaller trunks vs. a singular trunk, animals cannot burrow and make a habitat within a Japanese maple. The trees generally grow one or two feet per year (unless it is a dwarf species), meaning it would take a few years before it is large enough to hold a nest, but it would be rare to find a bird or squirrel nest in a Japanese maple tree.
The Arbor Day foundation is another good source besides UAEX for discovering what trees grow well in an individual’s zone, as well as tips on what to expect and how to care for various plants. Their site can be found at www.arborday.org.
Keep in mind how tall or wide a tree will get when planting to make certain it won’t damage property, everything from buildings to sidewalks and water lines; encroach on utility lines, only to be cut back and leave an ugly tree; and how long it will take to mature.