Atlanta Botanical Garden

The strings you see hanging down are roots.

This post concludes my series of day trips that we took this summer, which also concludes our 2017-2018 school year. Day trips are some of our most educational and fun activities we can do as homeschoolers. I will try to write about some of the places we go this year too.

The photo does not do it justice, but I loved this statue of a toddler holding onto some frogs, and he’s extremely proud of his capture.
I had to take this photo of a nepenthes pitcher plant for my son who grows carnivorous plants.

My son picked the Atlanta Botanical Garden as his “birthday day trip.” I won’t lie — I wasn’t disappointed about this at all. I have been wanting to go there for a long time. My twelve-year-old has always been into plants, and lately, there’s been a kind of resurgence in this interest. Since I love plants and gardening too, it’s such a pleasure for me to witness this, and what a surprise that he’d pick the botanical garden on his birthday. I thought he might pick a science museum or aquarium like his brother.

We had never been to the Atlanta Botanical Garden before, and we were not disappointed. It was more beautiful than we were expecting. We have been to our state botanical garden, and we’ve been to the Chicago Botanical Garden, and both those places are lovely. (How can gardens not be?) But the Atlanta Botanical Garden was truly special. The boys loved all the plant sculptures in the garden, which was whimsical and made it fun for kids.

The greenhouses, which you see in the background of his photo, were fabulous.
A bloom among the plants of the desert.

It was so big, we didn’t even get to see it all, so we’re planning to go back. I will highlight our favorite spots in the photos. I hope you enjoy them. (And by the way, I was dismayed that I forgot to bring my Nikon with me. If there’s anything I love to photograph, it’s flowers. So there’s another reason to go back. These photos were taken on my phone camera.)

The orchid house was perhaps our favorite place.

Something I’ve never seen before — flowers growing on the bottom of the roots!


Raising Giant Swallowtail Butterflies

After finding some black swallowtail caterpillars in our garden earlier this summer, we were very surprised to find giant swallowtail caterpillars too. We were even more surprised because these caterpillars looked like bird poop!

That is how my son identified them. He typed “caterpillars that look like bird poop” into a Google search engine, and giant swallowtails were the first result!

We were thrilled to find them because we don’t see giant swallowtails very often. We have seen them in our yard, but I can count on one hand the times I’ve spotted one. They are the largest butterfly in the U.S. and Canada, and they can have a wingspan of six inches. Ours weren’t quite that big, but they were almost five inches.

It turns out that one of the host plants for giant swallowtails is citrus, and if you remember, my son had planted a lemon seed a few years ago, and it grew into a small tree. We don’t live in the right climate for citrus, however, so it died during the winter. I cut off all the limbs, and I was going to throw it out, but in the spring, I started to see little green shoots come up again. So I left it. By the time the giant swallowtail came to lay her eggs, it was the size of a small bush. Since it’s unlikely we’ll ever have lemons, we don’t mind sharing our tree with caterpillars.

Eventually, we put some of the caterpillars into our butterfly cage, and we had the pleasure of observing these incredibly beautiful and well-camouflaged chrysalises.

They stayed in their chrysalis form for a good 15 days — that’s the longest we’ve ever observed a butterfly in a chrysalis. When they eclosed, they revealed their gorgeous adult attire, which was a far cry from the caterpillar-poop attire. 😉

We’re looking forward to other wonders we may find in our yard!

Raising Black Swallowtail Butterflies

Earlier this summer, we saw a monarch butterfly laying eggs on our milkweed plant, but when the caterpillars were very tiny, they disappeared. We believe a wasp preyed upon them. That was disappointing, but soon after, we found some other interesting caterpillars in our yard. We identified these as black swallowtails. There were seven. We didn’t take any chances with these guys. As soon as we could, we put them into a butterfly cage.

I can’t tell you how exciting this is for us. We love helping caterpillars get to their adult stage safely. 😉 Here are some of the photos I took.

We found these small caterpillars on my potted dill plant, and we had no idea what they were. With the help of iNaturalist, we found out they were black swallowtail caterpillars.

As they grew, they got very pretty.

In the last instar, they are gorgeous caterpillars.

Their chrysalis is quite striking as well.

We bought a large butterfly cage and put the entire potted dill inside. They were kept quite safe there.

A male. We had two males and five females total.

They all made it safely out into the wild.

We are also helping some giant swallowtail butterflies. I will post photos of them after they eclose too.

The Family Project: Our Yard

purple coneflower

I have been gardening with my boys since they were very young, and though I’m sure that my love of gardening has influenced them, it hasn’t taken much effort on my part to get them to enjoy it. I think all children are drawn toward nature and plants when they have the opportunity to explore a yard. (You can find links to my earlier posts about gardening at the bottom of this page.)

I have enjoyed watching how my eldest son’s love of nature and plants has evolved. There have been years when I thought he was losing the interest, but now as I look back, I realize he has always been interested in plants, and perhaps now more than ever.

My eldest son’s white-topped pitcher plants and Venus flytrap (but you can only see the flowers of the flytrap in this photo)

My younger son, too, enjoys plants and gardening. He has his own Venus flytrap which he dutifully waters (when I remind him). He likes to plant new seedlings or store-bought plants, and in general, he’s leaning down looking at whatever his older brother is inspecting in the garden. He doesn’t complain at all when we go to the plant sale at the botanical garden, and he told me that our big project this year was “more fun than I thought it would be.”

What was that project? Well, it was reconstructing the path that I had created in our backyard woods before the boys were born. Back then, my husband helped me. We had collected many rocks from our new, uncultivated yard (and a few empty lots), and with his help, I created a path through the woods. However, over these past several years of having babies, child-rearing, and homeschooling, the path became neglected and overgrown with weeds. Erosion caused some of the rocks to get buried in the dirt or even moved around.

I had been talking about cleaning up the path with my boys for a long time, and back in April (when it was cool and there weren’t any bugs out yet) my eldest son suggested we do it. So we took a full week off from our regular lessons, and we went out back every morning and worked on our path. You can see the transformation in my photos.

BEFORE and AFTER we cleared the path in our backyard. A fun, spring project.

It looks great now, and we’re going to try to keep it maintained. Nature wants to take over so quickly, and this in itself is a great lesson for the boys. We will work on it mostly in the cooler months because it’s a mosquito heaven in the summer. We’re hoping to help cultivate the woodland plants that grow there naturally and get rid of the weeds and a few plants that tend to “take over.”

This wasn’t our only yard project this year, however. After watching Big Dreams Small Spaces with Monty Don, my husband got inspired! He suggested we try putting some flower beds in our front yard where we gave up growing grass. (It’s mostly a play area for the boys.) So with my husband’s help, we got the frames set up, and then the boys and I filled them with dirt, and we selected some partial shade loving plants, and they are looking very good! (In the future, we hope to add some more flower beds and fill the spaces in between with either pebbles or wood chips.)

These flowers have given us such joy this year. They are attracting all kinds of pollinators and birds, and we enjoy taking care of them. It was a relatively inexpensive project that renewed the boys’ interest in gardening!

Since we have the yard, I have many ideas for homeschooling projects, and the boys are pretty excited about them. It’s just a matter of finding the time to do them! If we do find the time, I’ll be sure to write about it.

Tell me about your garden. 🙂

UGA Bug Camp

My eleven-year-old’s insect collection after a week in camp.

Last week my boys went to bug camp, and they had a blast. This camp is facilitated by faculty and grad students at the UGA Entomology department, and it’s offered twice during the summer. They also do a spring break camp, and last week I heard that they may do a fall break camp, if there’s enough interest.

They spent most of the week collecting bugs at various sites around the UGA campus and Athens, identifying them and starting a collection of their own. (I think it was an extra bonus for my homeschooled boys to get to ride in buses and vans.) They always came back to the classroom for lunch and to cool off. Lunch included a movie on Netflix for fun.

A list of all the bugs that the campers caught during their week in camp.

My boys have been taking 1 or 2 day camps each summer since they were five years old (sometimes together and sometimes alone), and I wrote about that in detail in this post. It’s been a great way for them to gather with other school kids their ages as well as learn new things. They usually participated in the camps at the state botanical garden, but this year we decided to do something different. The bug camp was a big hit.

If you live in the area, and your child is into insects or nature, I highly recommend this camp.

Best of all, they got the coolest camp T-shirts ever this year!

Speaking of insects, we are raising black swallowtail caterpillars right now! I’ll be posting updates on my Facebook page, and I’ll eventually write a blog post about it too. Wish us luck!

Pascagoula River Audubon Center

Mississippi gave us a great opportunity to give some time and attention to our eight-year-old’s biggest interest, so we made a point to do some serious birding on our trip.

One unexpected perk of having a hotel room on the 5th floor was that we had a great “bird hide.” The boys sat at that window with the binoculars watching any birds that happened to fly by, especially the pelicans, laughing gulls, and an osprey that hunted in the ocean near our hotel everyday.

We also went to the nearby Pascagoula River Audubon Center. I wish we had this center near us! It reminded me a little of our local nature center, but our local nature center didn’t have the incredible views that this place had. Plus, the building was beautiful.

At the center we saw lots of barn swallows, red-winged blackbirds, herons, and for the first time ever — a common nightjar! That was thanks to a young girl who was also visiting the center, and she had found it in a tree. We could only see its silhouette.

barn swallows

I don’t have the proper camera lens to get photos of birds (unless they happen to be very close to me like these two barn swallows), but I do have a good lens for flowers, which I love too. I enjoyed the small garden they had at the center. The seeds of these plants help feed the birds, of course. And they are good for pollinators too.

We also went to the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge! I’ll tell you about our adventure there next! 🙂

Book: My Family and Other Animals

Thanks to Laura H., who left a comment on my blog about a year ago recommending Gerald Durrell’s books, I have a new favorite book…or books. (I am planning to read all of Durrell’s books as soon as I can get my hands on them.)

My Family and Other Animals combines my two favorite things: nature and good storytelling. In this book (and its sequels), Durrell writes about an idyllic time he spent with his family on the island of Corfu, off the coast of Greece, during the late 1930s when he was about ten years old. He was a budding naturalist, and on this island, he had the freedom to roam on his own and spend hours watching and studying the insects, birds and other animals he found. He collected dozens of specimens, much to the bewilderment and sometimes horror of his family, but somehow they put up with his little zoo. Actually, I think it was his mother who was the champion and allowed him the freedom and space to keep his animals.

Reading his long passages about the wildlife on Corfu was enough to make me fall in love with this book, but that is just icing on the cake. He also writes about each of his family members, who were quirky and moody, and it all adds up to one hilarious book. Whether or not you enjoy reading nature books, you’ll probably enjoy this memoir of a boy’s candid memories of his family, who make every other family appear normal. Durrell’s memories are those of a clear-headed, thoughtful, and innocent ten-year-old child, yet he writes in a beautiful prose that only an adult could master.

I have read the second book in his trilogy, Birds, Beasts and Relatives, and it’s more of the same — delightful and funny. I haven’t yet been able to get my hands on the third book, Garden of the Gods, or as it’s been renamed, Fauna and FamilyIf you haven’t read any of the books yet, however, you may just want to buy the Corfu Trilogy, which combines all three books.

In the first two books, and probably others, you may be a little shocked to read how Durrell trapped and kept his animals, and though he didn’t mean to hurt them, sometimes they would die. This was actually a common practice among naturalists and researchers in the past, but it’s not common practice anymore. However, it’s because of Durrell’s love of nature and his great efforts to study animals up close as a child that he became a beloved naturalist, conservationist, zookeeper, and spokesperon as an adult. He created the Durrell Wildlife Park and Durrell Wildlife Conversation Trust, which tirelessly works to help animals who are at risk for going extinct.

The other book that Laura recommended to me is Durrell’s The Amateur NaturalistIt’s more of a field guide for naturalists, or in some ways, it’s a naturalist’s memoir of different habitats. (Minus the funny parts about his family.) It’s a beautiful book, and I keep it by my bed when I need a little nature in my nighttime reading. I’ll write about it someday too.

All of these books I plan to give to my son to read when he’s a little older. Right now, I think some of the British humor would go over his head, and he probably would not have the patience to read The Amateur Naturalist. But these books will always be on my bookshelf, and they will always be on my “highly recommended” book list.

Have you read any of Durrell’s books? What is your favorite?

Raising Monarch Butterflies

In August and September, we had a pretty amazing experience. It started because last spring, I tried planting some milkweed seeds. My plan was to grow a lot of milkweed, and then I would order some monarch larvae and try to raise them just like we did for painted ladies four years ago.

My ideas didn’t quite work out the way I planned. First of all, out of 150 seeds, less than ten milkweed plants grew. (I’m sure this has more to do with my yard’s growing conditions and my lack of a green thumb. I have a green pinky.) They also grew very slowly. Only a few of them got big, but they never blossomed.

My milkweed plants. All of them.

One day while I was watering the milkweed, I noticed some holes in the leaves. When I turned over a leaf, there it was — a tiny monarch caterpillar!

Baby monarch caterpillar. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this little fella.

When I searched, I found them all over the milkweed. We were so excited. There were almost 20 caterpillars. (Every time we tried to count, we got a different number. There were a lot of hiding places in the milkweed.)

They grew and grew. I wondered from the very beginning, if this little patch of milkweed would be enough for them, especially after they got big.

We had another worry too. Tropical Storm Irma was going to come through here. I noticed that a mere sprinkle of the hose to water the milkweed could knock down the caterpillars.

There was no way they were going to survive Tropical Storm Irma. We made the effort to put the big pots into our garage, and as the storm was passing, I was glad I did that. It was fierce. (But I am saddened to think about how much wildlife must have drowned in that storm.)

They continued to eat and eat, grow and grow, and poop and poop. Just like caterpillars are supposed to do. It was quite amazing to watch.

We were clearly going to run out of milkweed, so I asked around for help. Someone on Twitter sent me an article saying that if the caterpillars are in their 5th instar, they will eat pumpkin and cucumber. So we bought some pumpkin and cucumber and put it in the pots, giving them a way to climb up, just like on the milkweed. At first they didn’t eat the alternate food, but by the next day, the milkweed was gone, and they were eating it! We were so relieved.

Not long after this, we noticed some of the caterpillars began leaving the pots. We knew they were probably going out to try to find a place to pupate. We decided to keep a few in our butterfly cage. I wanted the boys to be able to watch the metamorphosis, especially my eight-year-old, who doesn’t remember raising the painted ladies. I also wanted to give a few of the caterpillars some extra protection. I put seven caterpillars in the cage, and let the other ones go on their own.

When caterpillars are ready to pupate, they find a good place to attach themselves to with a silky thread and hang upside down in this J shape. They were like this for about one day at least.

Notice the gold flecks on the chrysalis. So beautiful.

Pretty soon we had four chrysalises in our cage. A day or two later, we had three more. So far, so good. We were so excited to be able to watch one become a chrysalis! I hastily grabbed my phone and got these not-the-greatest videos, but still, it’s pretty incredible.

(Something you should know about these videos: You might want to turn your volume down because my neighbor was cutting up a tree that fell during Irma with an electric saw, and it’s quite loud. Also, my son says the caterpillar is not shedding its skin. Actually, it is! It sheds all of it, and it will finally fall off in the second video.)

We also found a caterpillar hanging from one of the pots with the milkweed growing in it, and it made its chrysalis there. We were so happy to know where one of our “free” caterpillars went to. We looked around our yard for more chrysalises, but we couldn’t find any more at this point.

After about nine days, we began to notice that the chrysalises were turning a black color. This is actually because the chrysalis is transparent, and we could now see the monarch butterfly’s wings inside this beautiful pupa.

Exactly ten days after pupating, the first butterflies emerged from their chrysalis. I can’t tell you how excited we were.

We ran over to check the chrysalis on our pot. It had emerged too! It stayed there for about an hour, opening and closing its wings slightly, letting them dry. My boys were there when it finally flew away.

To our delight, we found three other butterflies emerging from their chrysalis in the yard! It’s easier to find the butterfly than the tiny, green chrysalis, but finding one butterfly led us to finding another chrysalis, which was nearby.We stayed by this one all morning, and we were able to watch it emerge. It’s not the best video, but here you go:

The wings will slowly spread out and dry.
Another one we found on our garden fence.

Throughout the day, four of the seven butterflies in our cage emerged, and we let them go as soon as they seemed strong enough to fly.

The next morning, the last three butterflies emerged, so we said good-bye to them too.

Now all the butterflies are hopefully on their way to Mexico where they will spend the winter. If you’ve never heard about the Monarch migration, or how they congregate together in one place in Mexico, you should read about it.

I don’t think we’ll ever forget this experience, and it’s times like these that I’m especially glad we’re homeschooling. Most kids don’t get to stop what they’re doing and spend a whole weekday morning watching butterflies emerge from their chrysalises. But what better education is there than having an intimate experience with nature?

The boys are hoping we’ll get to do this again, and I’m hoping it doesn’t happen until we have plenty of milkweed. But our little milkweed plants are recovering and growing faster this time, so I’m hopeful. 🙂

What exciting experiences are you having this autumn?

My Garden Efforts

My yard doesn’t look like the garden of my dreams, but I have fun trying. We don’t have the time or resources to create a beautiful outdoor space, but most of our yard is wooded and shady, so it’s pretty without trying. But it’s hard to grow new things in. Take a look at this….>

This is what our soil looks like! Hard, packed clay. Yeah. Not that clay doesn’t have any benefits, but the plants I want to grow need something else. And do you know how much it costs to buy good dirt and lots of fertilizer? Or create raised beds? Whoa. But like I said, I have fun trying.

I have embraced pots. I find it much easier to grow things in pots because the little soil we do buy doesn’t get washed away so quickly, and I can also put them in the sunniest place we have — our driveway. This year, I even managed to grow a sunflower. Just one. Though it was tall, it wasn’t big. I was thrilled. And you can see my son’s carnivorous plants are still going strong after all these years.

I do have a small garden area that’s fenced in, but it looks pitiful, so I didn’t take any photos of it. You can kind of see it in this photo behind the no-longer blooming hibiscus. (I think there is something pretty about flowers at each stage of their life.)

I’m attempting to keep a small area in there reserved for herbs. I have rosemary, thyme, parsley, basil, and this year I tried adding dill, which I started in a pot, of course. It’s a biennial, but I hope it will self seed and grow back year after year.

Every year I plant a couple of tomato plants, but this year they didn’t do well. This is unusual. I also planted cucumber, and we got a few of those. My eight-year-old also planted pinto beans just for fun. He used the bean seeds that we harvested last year, which his older brother planted. We don’t get enough to make it worth cooking them, so I think we’ll just replant them every year and see if we can slowly get a bigger harvest. This year we planted them along the fence, and they loved that because it was sunny and gave the vines something to cling to.

the bean harvest

It’s also worth noting that we have a pretty cool lemon tree. Believe it or not, a few years ago my eldest son wanted to try planting seeds from a lemon that we bought at the grocery store. This was when he was still obsessed with planting every seed he came across. We planted a few of the lemons seeds, and they sprouted! One of them grew strong and sturdy, so I kept it. It took a very long time for it to grow into something, but look at it now! ….>

We have to keep it in a pot because it would not survive the winters here. I have to pull it into the garage when we get frost. (I really appreciate my husband for helping with this effort.) I also have to trim it a lot. It wants to get big! I’m not sure how long we’ll be able to keep it happy, but we’ll keep trying. It hasn’t given us a lemon yet, but we’re hoping one day it will!

Did you know that lemon trees have spiky needles on them?! We have to be very careful with it!

My main goal this year was to propagate and grow more flowers, and I was super pleased that I managed to grow these for the first time (one I already told you about.):

Purple coneflower or echinacea. I’ve tried growing these flowers before, and I finally succeeded this year using a pot.

The coneflower and sunflower seeds came from my in-laws garden, and in the photo above, I think this flower came from some seeds I took from a plant at my friend’s house. It’s some kind of hibiscus.

I was also happy that this red hibiscus came back. I don’t remember what kind of hibiscus it is. I bought it at the botanical garden a year or two ago.

There were other flowers in my yard that didn’t come back, or either they had a weaker showing. Sigh. It’s so hard to keep everything going, but as the boys get older and more independent, I think I’ll have more time to devote to my gardening efforts.

We had a great showing of butterflies this year. They loved the purple coneflower, and everyday I could see two or more butterflies on it!

Tiger Swallowtail (male)
Fritillary and a male and female Tiger Swallowtail
Fritillary and Tiger Swallowtail (female)
A new-to-us butterfly! The Giant Swallowtail. We saw this one for only 2 or 3 days.

Snakes are also welcome additions to our garden!

We found this red-bellied snake under our tomato plants. These are tiny snakes with a bright red belly, and we usually find them dead in the road, so it was nice to find a live one in the yard.
Black rat snakes are the most common snake found around here. They are harmless and keep the rodent population down. We didn’t notice this one until he was leaving our yard, but we hope he will come back!

Last but not least, this was the year I attempted to grow milkweed. My plan was to grow a good amount of milkweed, and then we’d order monarch larvae and raise monarchs just like we did with Painted Ladies.

First, I was disappointed that after planting 150 seeds, I got less than 10 plants, but it’s a start!

You can imagine my surprise when I found baby monarch caterpillars on them!

And they grew!

And grew!

And grew!

And it became pretty clear that we probably wouldn’t have enough milkweed for them. Plus, we had Tropical Storm Irma swing through here. But I’ll tell you what we did in future post that’s all about the caterpillars and butterflies.

As you can probably tell, I’m happy with my gardening efforts this year. Any effort to garden is good for children too. The boys don’t want to help me quite as much as they used to, but they’re still interested in the plants, will help with the planting, and the eight-year-old likes to water. My eleven-year-old is pretty good about taking care of his carnivorous plants too. (At least when I remind him.) I never make gardening a requirement for them because I want them to have fond memories of our garden. Hopefully they’ll have gardens of their own someday.

Did your gardening efforts pay off this year?

Nature Watch: Ft. Yargo State Park

Today is Friday, and we all needed a break, so we decided to take a little hike at our nearby state park, Ft. Yargo. It’s only about 15 minutes from our house, and every time we go, we say, “We should come here more often.” But we don’t go nearly enough.

Ft. Yargo State Park is about 1,800 acres, and it has a 260 acre lake. It’s quite a treasure. In the past we’ve explored different areas of the park, but today we took our favorite trail. My photos aren’t the best because I just had my phone camera with me, but I still wanted to share what we found with you.

We expected there might be a lot of debris on the trail left over from Tropical Storm Irma, which just passed through here on Monday. We were right. Above you can see some trees that fell, but someone already cleared them from the trail. Everywhere there were small branches and green leaves. It was a little hard to walk in some places. 

But we considered it an adventure, and we made a lot of nature discoveries along the trail, including these beautiful flower/berry things. I need to figure out what they are!

Our best encounter was with this handsome Eastern Kingsnake, which we rarely see. Its head was hidden under the fallen debris. They are not as common, but they are great snakes to have around. They eat rats, mice and venomous snakes! I think they are quite pretty with the yellow rings around their body too.

Spiders were everywhere! My husband walked in front swinging a stick because numerous spider webs crossed the trail. It’s not a great photo, but this yellow and orange spider was the prettiest we found. I need to identify it too.

Many flowers are blooming right now. It’s a great time to watch for butterflies, and we saw a few fritillaries.

This hornet’s nest was a cool find, but we didn’t want to stick around long to watch it. (And I wasn’t standing this close. I used my zoom.)

We are always happy to encounter frogs, so this little fowler’s toad was a welcome sight too.

We all had a great time, except for the eight-year-old who complained about being tired and bored, except when we saw the snake. (You can’t have it all, can you?) He’s not the nature boy that his older brother is, but we’re not giving up on him yet. He did enjoy it a little bit, and he liked going out to eat afterward and not doing his lessons today. Although, I consider time spent in nature one of the best lessons of all. 😉

What has your Friday been like?