By Arlene Marturano
The little cedar house in the big pinewoods was love at first sight. The Laura Ingall’s Wilder Little House books had left an indelible impression on my Midwestern mind. When it came to finding a homestead in the south to live as ‘part of nature’ and to increase the plant and animal diversity on my property, my forest island emerged.
Forest islands are one form of manmade landscape created originally by indigenous tribes in the Amazon. Using their knowledge of plant species, soil fertility, microclimates, and species niches, Indians created circular concentrations of useful plants for both humans and wildlife.
I set out to do the same, but with a western worldview tempered by indigenous inclinations. One’s home property is an ecosystem and the ways homeowners manipulate and manage the landscape to sustainably utilize and conserve biodiversity is a central issue for community conservation.
Creating layers in the Wildlife Garden
Knowing the members of one’s ecological forest family in each vertical layer of the landscape is the first step in creating a refuge for wildlife. An inventory of plant and animal species on site was initiated in 1990 and continues today. Pine – loblolly, shortleaf, and longleaf – are the predominant canopy trees. (My plot was already a forest island, in one sense, because developers and neighbors had removed conifers and hardwoods on surrounding property and replaced them with lawn.)
Interspersed among my pines are hardwoods: water oak, chokecherry, persimmon, black walnut, river birch, red maple, and tulip poplar. The latter is one host plant for the South Carolina state butterfly, the eastern tiger swallowtail.
Many of the most majestic trees were planted as twigs from the Arbor Day Foundation and the South Carolina Forestry Commission seedling nursery. A dozen eastern red cedar seedlings, Juniperus virginiana, have become a 25-foot tall fence lining one side of the property, as a tribute to this ‘tree of life’ sacred to Native Americans. My arboretum provides shelter, food, nesting sites and materials for more than fifty species of birds visiting, migrating, and residing with me from the ruby-throated hummingbird to the pileated woodpecker. Birds inhabit every layer.
The layer of understory trees includes Japanese maple, flowering crabapple, chaste tree, flowering dogwood, and eastern redbud.
A shrub layer has multi-purpose rooms for dining, raising young, and shelter. During spring migration, flocks of cedar waxwings and robins devour wax myrtle and photinia berries. In spring birds pick blackberries, and in summer harvest wine raspberries, cherries, and blueberries. By fall, persimmons, muscadine grapes, magnolia seeds and chaste and beauty berries are on the menu. Dogwood, Burford holly and crape myrtle serve winter berries and seed. Squirrels consume the buds and blossoms of camellia.
Providing support in the Wildlife Garden
In addition to wild fruit, bird feeders are stocked with sunflower seed and suet. The forest island is my research lab to present Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Sleuth and Project Feeder Watch workshops to pre- and in-service teachers. An educational permit from the SCDNR authorizes me to collect natural history objects like bird nests in winter, and feathers for teaching.
Two pole-mounted bluebird nest boxes have been occupied by broods of bluebirds, tufted titmice, and Carolina chickadee. Additionally, cardinal, brown-headed nuthatch, mockingbird, brown thrasher, towhee, blue jay, Carolina wren, catbird, house finch, and flycatcher, build nests in the trees and shrubs. Chimney swifts twitter inside the fireplace.
Raccoon, opossum, and flying squirrel appear at night along with bats. Flying squirrels have nested in the bluebird boxes and eat at the sunflower feeders. Grey squirrels nest year-round in the treetops. Eastern cottontail rabbits nest among native grasses and under the brush pile.
The herbaceous layer contains a seasonal succession of butterfly nectar plants that includes abelia (honeysuckle), azaleas, buddleia, gaillardia, goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, lantana, passion flower vine, Stoke’s aster, and verbena bonariensis. Native Passiflora incarnata brings the life cycle of the gulf fritillary from spring to fall.
Each fall I tag migrating monarchs for Monarch Watch and my Monarch, Milkweed, and Migration Project with campus waystation. Since milkweed is the sole host plant for monarchs I grow as many SC native species as findable, including Asclepius syriaca, A. tuberosa, A. incarnata, A. verticellata, and A. viridi, A. humistrata and A. amplexicaulis. Black and yellow garden spiders, Argiope aurantia, weave enchantment among herbaceous plants throughout the growing season.
My ecological family includes both native and introduced plants. One European native plant thriving in the sandy soil is Bouncing Bet, Saponaria officinalis. While I use the leaves for garden soap, butterflies and hummingbirds sip nectar from the long-blooming flowers. The hardy perennial Asian balloon flower, Platycodon grandiflorus, named for its inflated balloon-flower buds that inflate like an origami balloon and eventually unfold into a five-star bellflower in colors of blue, purple, pink or white. Two native leguminous perennial vines with butterfly-shaped flowers, butterfly pea, Clitoria mariana, and spurred butterfly pea, Centosema virginianum, contain bacteria on root nodules, which convert atmospheric nitrogen into a usable fertilizer for plants.
Nothing could be finer than the fragrant flowering native evergreen vine, Carolina Jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens, trumpeting the arrival of spring.
Amphibians and reptiles are as welcome as birds, arthropods, and mammals. To encourage toads, I place toad abodes - cracked terra cotta flowerpots turned upside down with a doorway on the side, in a spot among plants frequented by insects. Since toads like cool dark places during the day, piles of flat rocks are near the downspout and outdoor spigots.
Green tree frogs overwinter within potting equipment on the deck. A hognose snake lives under the house and a black rat snake deposits eggs in flowerpots. Green Carolina anole lizards are on the run catching insects and spiders.
Wildlife is welcome for the ecological services provided. The web of life in the forest island ecosystem is a biocide-free zone. Pest control is underpinned by biodiversity, which brings a bouncer patrol of spiders, frogs, toads, bats, birds, lizards and snakes. My forest island is the ecological address for me and my wildlife kin.
Arlene Marturano peddles plants to people of all ages by developing and managing teaching gardens, garden writing and photography, via teacher education, professional development, conference presentations, keynote addresses, and consulting.