Monarchs Nectaring on Pineapple Sage

Two monarchs landed in my garden today, attracted to the nectar of the pineapple sage.

I was pleasantly surprised to look out the window during my lunch break today and see two monarch butterflies nectaring on my pineapple sage.

Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) is one of those plants I like to include in my herb garden for both aesthetic and culinary reasons; the leaves make a yummy addition to iced tea and the late-blooming red flowers add a real punch of color to the landscape just before most of the local trees really start to show their foliage colors, in late September and early October.

Although a non-native plant, pineapple sage is also a good nectar provider for many migratory species moving through my garden late in the season. In addition to monarchs, I have sometimes seen hummingbirds out there, too, grabbing a snack before heading south for the winter. Both hummingbirds and monarchs have a long way to go, flying thousands of miles to each find their own spot to winter-over each year. They need all the sugar water they can get from those flowers to fly so many miles.

Unlike butterflies, bees cannot see red, so if you are also hoping to feed a few of these important pollinators in autumn you’ll want to plant something different in your habitat garden. Bees are most attracted to violet, blue and purple flowers; although they can’t see red they can see ultraviolet light and some reddish wavelengths. New England asters in my garden are in full bloom and covered with both bees and butterflies in early October, making them the perfect complement to the sage.

For more information on bee eyesight and feeding pollinators, check out this color article from Bee Culture magazine.

And if you want to know more about monarch’s or report sightings in your own yard, be sure to visit the Journey North website. 


Help to Document Nature in the DC Region

From April 14th to 18th—just in time for National Citizen Science Day (April 15) and Earth Day (April 22)—16 US cities are asking residents to explore nature all around them and document the species they find. Help Washington DC win this friendly competition with the most sightings!

To participate, download the iNaturalist app for your phone, snap photos of all local flora and fauna you see, and identify them in the app.  Last year 1,000 citizen scientists from LA and SF together logged 20,000 observations; now it’s our turn!
Steps to Participate:

  1. Download the iNaturalist App for Android or iPhone.
  2. Create a new user account in the app using your email, gmail, or facebook account.
  3. In an internet browser, follow this link to join the DC City Nature Challenge.  Your iNaturalist account and observations will be added to the DC region.
  4. Take a walk through your neighborhood or park and begin taking photos!

Your contributions on the app, and collectively growing in our understanding of the special nature of our region.

If you want to know more about nature in DC, follow BiophilicDC on Facebook:


Native Plants to Save Our Pollen Nation!

Rob of Hill House Native Plant Nursery


Spotted last week at the U.S. Arboretum during the Lahr Native Plants Sale…

If you’d like to buy some great native plants to feed those pollinators, mark your calendars.

There’s another great sale coming up on April 15, this time in Baltimore, MD at the intersection of University Parkway and Charles Street, opposite the Johns Hopkins main campus.  Lots of vendors will be there between 9am and 2pm, including Hill House.

Want more info? Visit the MD Native Plant Society events page.

Dark-Eyed Juncos Have Arrived; Get Ready for Winter

Dark-Eyed Junco. Photo by Ken Thomas. See

Dark-Eyed Junco. Photo by Ken Thomas. See


The dark-eyed juncos arrived yesterday.

I was eating breakfast when I first saw them, flapping around in the waterfall out by my pond.  I wondered if they had been flying through the night to get here. About 30 of these little black and white birds seemed anxious to get a drink, take a bath, make noise.

Juncos are one of many species headed south at this time of year. If you are up and outside at the right time in the morning, just after the sun starts to rise, you can sometimes get a glimpse of some really unusual species. It can make taking the dog out at dawn in the cold a lot more enticing, for sure.

For bird watchers in the Mid-Atlantic, juncos are the prelude to winter, arriving at the peak of migration in October and staying here until the following spring.  Because they look so much like penguins they are easy to remember as “winter birds” or “snowbirds.” When you see the juncos in fall, you know cold weather is coming.

Juncos stay the winter with us, but there are many other species moving through on their way to the tropics. Some fly overnight in large flocks. Some fly during the day. They might make a brief pit stop here to rest before continuing southward.

Strange but true: radar is now so sensitive it can record this migration when it takes place across our continent. As described in this article from, a “keen observer” can even tell the difference between migratory butterflies and migratory birds on the screen. The radar maps themselves make for beautiful imagery, too.

To hear a  junco call, check out the dark-eyed junco page on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, All about Birds. 






Native Plants Provide Fall Color & Feed Wildlife

Want to add some color to a small urban garden while helping out our native wildlife?  Try planting some native perennials.

Below are a few of my favorites.

Bumble bee on a shade-loving species of goldenrod.

Bumble bee on a shade-loving species of goldenrod.


Bees need food throughout the growing season, and there are many native plants that can provide a late-season meal for pollinators.

In this photo a bumblebee is visiting my blue stem goldenrod (Solidago caesia).

Blue stem goldenrod is especially prized by shade gardeners because it will bloom even when planted under a tree. But you must be patient; this plant does not even start to flower until the middle of autumn.

(Interested in finding other shade-tolerant native plants?  Here’s a great list from the NY City Parks Department. )


Swamp sunflower does fine in dry spots, too.

Swamp sunflower   is a show stopper in October.

Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) likes a lot of sunshine, and despite the common name does NOT need a constantly wet place or a swamp. These plants do like an occasional flood of water, though, so they are especially prolific in rain gardens or roadside ditches. My own swamp sunflowers do well in their spot near the downspout next to my rain barrel.

Swamp sunflowers attract bees as soon as the buds open. We often see late-season monarch butterflies on these blooms, too. I leave them standing all winter and their seeds seem to be especially prized by birds during snow storms.

Winterberry looks great in autumn.

Winterberry looks great in autumn.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is an amazing shrub that also feeds a lot of birds in the winter. Even before the coldest weather arrives, though, these berries provide a lot of beauty.

In order to get berries you’ll need a male and female that Ilex that bloom at the same time. (Confused? Just take your smart phone to the nursery when you go shopping. There are many websites which will help you match the right male winterberry to the right female. You might also find this advice from Mr. Smarty Plants at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center very helpful. )

In spring, when the blossoms of these shrubs smell sweet and wonderful, you will find many bee species on the tiny white flowers.


Virginia Creeper isn't creepy at all.

Virginia Creeper isn’t creepy at all.

I think that Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a plant that deserves a bit more love and attention.

The leaves turn many hues of brown, bronze and red in the fall, making a great backdrop for the blue-purple berries. Those berries are prized by birds.

I think the main problem with this plant is that many people mistake it for poison ivy.  But unlike that itch-inducing plant, VA Creeper has five leaves — not three.  (Every one seems to learn this famous cautionary rhyme at some point in their childhood, usually after an unfortunate encounter with poison ivy: leaves of three, let it be.)

As the Missouri Botanical Garden notes on their website, Virginia creeper is great for covering eyesores, like stumps. In our yard, we’ve chosen to let Virginia Creeper cover a shed and drape itself over a wooden fence. This amused one of our local arborists, who volunteered to remove it for a fee. He’d never met anyone who loved that plant, he said.

“Well, first time for everything,” I told him with a laugh.

Virginia creeper can cover a blah fence.

Virginia creeper can cover a blah fence.

New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are the flower that everyone forgets to include in their landscape plan.  But honestly, once you see them in bloom in someone else’s garden in the fall you really really want them.  The trick is finding a place where they won’t look weedy or forlorn the rest of the year.  Because although they look great in full bloom, the stems of asters don’t always look so great in spring and early summer.

New England AstersIn our garden, we’ve found a spot just to the left of the front yard where the asters can get big and tall between some Amsonia and some black-eyed susans without upstaging any other flower in the summer.

I find that if I cut my asters in half around July 4th, I am rewarded with shorter asters that bloom very prolifically in October. Those blooms, in turn, attract a lot of bees and late season butterflies.








Monarch Caterpillar, Here’s Hoping You Make it to Mexico

monarch caterpillar sept 2016_cleanedI was delighted to find this monarch caterpillar in our garden today, munching away on some Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

We used to see monarchs on a regular basis, but in the last few years these visitors have become very rare in my wildlife garden. My own anecdotal observations match what scientists who study these beautiful orange, black and white insects are seeing across the continent: monarch numbers are alarmingly low.

Some wonder if the species is close to disappearing entirely from our landscapes.

For years I’ve been participating in the Journey North citizen science project by diligently reporting my sightings. As the Journey North website explains, early fall is the peak season for monarchs here in the East. Their numbers are at their highest. (To learn more you can also check out the excellent Monarch Watch website.)

It seems very likely that the caterpillar I found this weekend will attempt the arduous journey down to Mexico, where it will hopefully winter over with millions of other butterflies in a forest high in the mountains. The incredible details of this amazing trip, taken each fall by a new group of butterflies, always amaze me.

For years scientists have been warning that many of the same practices and pesticides used in our American farm fields are threatening this species, in addition to illegal logging in Mexico.

This year I fear that the inspiring and lovely monarchs will face a whole new round of hurdles in the form of mosquito spraying to prevent the spread of the Zika virus. Like the bees described in this sad article from the Washington Post earlier this week, butterflies are very vulnerable to pesticides, particularly the broad-spectrum types being used by both municipalities and homeowners in increasing numbers.


Planting for Pollinators in DC on Earth Day

DC resident Joanna Kendig talks to DDOE Director Tommy Wells about pollinators outside of the Metro on Earth Day.

DC resident Joanna Kendig talks to Tommy Wells about pollinators outside of the Metro on Earth Day.

This morning commuters across the District were reminded it was Earth Day when representatives from the city’s Department of Energy & the Environment (DDOE) arrived at 13 different Metro stations to hand out seed packets.

“Want some seeds to help us plant pollinators?” DDOE Director Tommy Wells repeatedly asked people on their way to work and school at the Potomac Avenue Station near Capitol Hill.

While some skeptically waved him off and kept their eyes glued to their smart phones, others enthusiastically accepted.

One mom, dressed in a green denim jacket and sporting green heart-shaped sunglasses asked her tiny daughter, also decked out in metallic green hair bows, to hold the seeds as they quickly made their way to the escalator.

“We’re wearing green because it is Earth Day!” she shouted.  “But we’re late for the party at her school!”



Another resident, a shy girl with colorful beads strung through her hair, told DDOE workers that the teacher was taking them outside later to “look at the Earth today.”

Joanna Kendig made a beeline for Wells (pun intended), happily took the seeds, and began asking how she could get better water access for the neighborhood’s planting projects.

“These will go right next to the milkweed in our beds,” said Kendig, who works at the Green Seed Community Garden.

“Do you know we planted some milkweed outside of the DDOE offices in NoMa,” Wells said. “The amazing thing was we got butterflies – monarchs – the first year.”

The seed giveaway is one of many efforts being made to enhance the city’s wildlife habitat potential, said Public Information Officer Julia Robey Christian, who arrived at the Metro wearing green butterfly wings lit up with blinking LEDs.  The city has committed to a larger Wildlife Action Plan as a part of the Sustainable DC project and will be working to install meadows and fortify some wetlands. They’ve also been working on some citizen science projects in order to better catalog what is already growing there.


Another giveaway earlier in the year had been extremely popular; more than 350 seed packets were distributed in a short number of days.

“People were riding the Metro to our building just to come get them,” Robey Christian said with a laugh.

Packets were comprised of seeds native to the DC Metro area, and each species was selected by a biologist on staff with DDOE.



Make Your Lawn Bay Friendly!

The Takoma Horticultural Club presents

Bay-friendly Lawn Care and Alternatives to Turf

Presented by Geoffrey Rinehart, U.S. National Arboretum
Wednesday, March 16, 7:30 – 9:00 pm

District of Columbia Library, Takoma Park Branch*
416 Cedar Street NW, D.C. 20012
Update: this meeting location will be changed due to the shut down of the DC Metro for the day.  Please stay tuned for more info.

Our March speaker, Geoffrey Rinehart, is the Grass Roots Initiative Coordinator at the U.S. National Arboretum. The Grass Roots Initiative is a four-year project demonstrating best practices for turf grass management.

Geoff will be speaking about Bay-friendly lawn care as well as alternatives to grass.

For more information about our speaker,

This event is FREE and open to public. No need to RSVP. Please bring a snack to share and wear a home-made nametag or one recycled from another event.

Hey Maryland Residents: Want Free Trees?

Iphone download 349


This week I’m posting a note/guest post from Aubin Maynard, an environmental planner at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.  

How would you like 5 to 25 tree seedlings at no cost to you through the Maryland Forest Service’s Backyard Buffer program? This program was created to help landowners that own less than 6 acres and live near or adjacent to waterways create forested buffers. These buffers help reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution that enters into our watersheds. Buffers improve water quality and create habitat for fish and wildlife.
What’s the catch? Your property must be less than 6 acres and within 300 feet from a stream, storm drain or other waterway. COG is partnering with the Maryland Forest Service, and will deliver 5 to 25 whip seedlings in early spring. You simply plant them, and care and maintain them to establish a forested buffer. That’s it!

If you are interested please complete a short survey by COB March 18, 2016:


Note that you must be a Maryland resident to be eligible.

Questions and answers below that may guide your decision for participation:
“Q1. What are the plant species available?”

A. This season 4 out of 5 species will be pin oak, yellow poplar, southern crabapple, and southern arrowwood. MDNR staff will let participants know the fifth native species in March.
“Q2. When do we need to submit the request?”

A. Orders must be submitted by March 10th, but the order wouldn’t dropped off until sometime in late March or April. Participates will be notified when MDNR provides a plant availability date.
“Q3. Not many people in the Anacostia watershed have property in the riparian areas. Can the trees be planted elsewhere on their property?”

A. We would prefer to see the trees planted close to waterbodies, otherwise, rain gardens, drainage areas, wetlands, or anywhere that water infiltrates are likely candidates.
“Q4. Are there any reporting requirements? ”

A. A Maryland DNR staff will contact you regarding your application, a follow up survival survey and to see if you want more plants in the following year.
“Q5. My property is not in the Anacostia watershed or I’m unsure if I’m in the watershed? ”

A. Contact us anyways and we’ll be happy to direct you to the appropriate DNR staff for other areas of Maryland.
“Q6. Is it possible to choose from the list of available species? ”

A. We will do our best to accommodate your wishes, but cannot guarantee specific species. For example, orders of 25 trees will most likely contain 5 of each of the available species.

Still have questions?  Contact Aubin Maynard directly for more info:

How to Take Good Flower Photos with Your Smartphone

I love taking flower photos in my garden, but I am not always pleased with the results! Strangely, my android smartphone seems to yield the best results, perhaps because my expectations are always low and I’m always pleasantly surprised how my relaxed attitude makes for a better pic.

Either way, I wanted to pass on info about this interesting class, being offered in Takoma Park, MD in two weeks.



Asclepias tuberosa is easy to grow.

The orange form of milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, is easy to grow.  And easy to photograph, too!

The Takoma Horticultural Club presents

How to Take Great Flower Photos With your Smart Phone

Presented by Patti Hankins, Photographer
Wednesday, February 17, 7:30 – 9:00 pm

Historic Takoma, 7328 Carroll Ave, Takoma Park MD 20912

What’s the perfect camera to photograph your garden and flowers with? The camera you have with you. These days almost everyone has camera on them in the form of their phone. Join professional flower photographer Patty Hankins to learn how you can take better photos with your phone (or digital camera) so you can confidently share the beauty of your garden with others.

Patty Hankins is a flower and landscape photographer in the Washington DC area. She is the author of Wildflower Meditations: A Gift for the Spirit. She teaches several photography workshops each year including flower photography, landscape photography and photo editing. Patty was recently described as “one of the most professional fine art floral photographers” when she was ranked #1 on TopTenly’s list of the Top 10 Best Macro Photographers in the World. You can see more of her work and learn about her workshops at

This event is FREE and open to public. No need to RSVP.

Please bring a snack to share and wear a home-made nametag or one recycled from another event.

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