I am a self-taught naturalist and native plant enthusiast. I serve as the education committee chair on the board of directors at Ruffner Mountain Nature Center in Birmingham, Alabama.

I have spent the last two years spearheading the native plant restoration and rain garden projects at the newly constructed LEED built Center. These projects are part of the larger Integrated Environmental Education Garden plan to enhance Ruffner Mountain Nature Center's campus and its programming. I lead garden programs at the Center, Audubon Mountain Workshop, Birmingham area botanical gardens, and local garden clubs.

When I am not talking, working or thinking about gardening, I am designing and making slipcovers in a studio behind my house. Lately, my business (Coverings) has been taking a back seat to my more naturalist leanings. Writing a blog is a new adventure for me.



accidental botanist
by Arnie Rutkis - posted 01/10/11

This is the story of how I became an accidental botanist. I like to run.  My body is getting older and I have had some hard knocks in my life so street running is not something that I respond well to.  In the woods everything is different. The air is fresher and full of scents.  The trees shades you on hot days and allows sun on the path on a cold winter afternoon.  Tree roots become like little puzzles you have to solve and quickly as you are moving at such a rate that they will trip you up if you don't.  So the activity is more like a game than a drudgery.  When I was smaller I remember the woods near my house being full of laurel thickets and granite slopes being clothed in mosses and ferns though I did not know the names of any of the plants I looked upon, except the Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis.  I felt at home among these plants, even the pungent skunk cabbage was part of this play ground where I built twig and earthen dams only to watch them dissolve in the current of the slow but steady streams I waded through.  Fast forward through art school and some soul searching and I find myself back on the trails though now in Alabama and I notice the plants again, in winter the durable christmas ferns, Polystichum acrosticoides, poke out from under the leaves and strange hearts are burst open on the slender green stems Euonymous americanus or Heart a Burstin.  

The buds of native azaleas, Rhododendron Canescens, hold hard against the freezing winds of late february and come spring unfold in beautiful tresses of pink.  Occasionally in a low area with buckeyes or hydrangeas there is the Mountain Laurel of my youth, Kalmia latifolia though a bit more reserved in its southern woods, maybe due to the heat.  Clothing its feet, partidge berries and woodland phloxes, Phlox pilosa.  This time I am paying more attention slowing my pace to notice the plants, where they grow, whats next to what, is it on a ridge or a north facing slope?  I begin to search for names to these plants and meet, along the way others who are curious, passionate and entranced by these slow growing witnesses to our machinations and urban sprawls and strip mall lifestyle.  I notice the strength and simplicity of native plants, how, even on a well trodden trail at Ruffner Mountain Nature Center, smooth asters, Symphyotrichum laevis, crowd forward constantly reclaiming their place atop the limestone edges of the old quarry.  As if to test me I see a curious plant with smooth stems and catkin like buds give way to pale yellow blooms in mid spring though I cannot identify for a year until Michelle tells me what it is.  Now it is one of my staples in the gardens I design, Rhus aromatica or Fragrant Sumac.  I found it next to the weather shaped and twisted trunks of Parsely Hawthorns  that balance on the verge of the precipice, content with their harsh existence.  All the while I am looking for more new shapes of leaves and unusual  bark occasionally collecting this or that specimen.  Things I blindly stumbled by one season I now look at in the dead of winter and know by their subtleties of stem and trunk shape, berry or texture.  I now know instantly the Parsley Hawthorne, Crataegus marshallii with its fluted trunk covered in exfoliating gray and rust colorerd bark or the open branched habit and dark leaf buds of the Buckeye, Aesculus pavia.                                                                        Just a couple of years ago I stood on the side of a mountain highway in North Carolina.  We were walking across a fairly busy road to look at a rock outcrop where stone had been shorn away to lay the asphalt and as we get closer, it is teaming with a variety of species.  Several rivlets of water drip consistently down and in the fissures and crevices are plants exotic to me.   Grass of parnassas, Parnassia palustris, Sundews or Drosera, Saxifrage virginiensis in such clusters they are literally falling off the wall.  Small Hypericum buckleyi and Vaseii Azaleas cling to the rock in jumbles and cascades too numerous to count, all of this right off the side of the road.  Now I feel like more than an enthusiast, though through education I became an artist, it is through my continued exploration of the world outside my door I became the Accidental Botanist.

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Q’s & A’s
by Michelle Reynolds - posted 01/01/11

This is a co-blog written by Michelle Reynolds and Arnie Rutkis.  This simple Q and A will hopefully introduce you to them and what drives them to garden.  They will alternate posting so check back often to see what they are both up to!


Arnie asks Michelle


What is your first garden memory?

My Uncle Fred picked a tomato with his hand that only had three fingers on it and then gave me the tomato. He was dressed the same as the scarecrow. I know, scary, but cool at the same time. I think this is why I always loved adding funky, folksy, vernacular garden art to my gardens.


What is your focus now with gardening?

I want to do what I can to help the struggles of nature (loss of habitat, displacement of native plants by alien plants in the urban landscape, etc.). I want to start with my yard by adding in more native plants (to support a bug’s life -- the bottom of the food chain). I want to observe the successes (build it and they will come works so well in nature), and tell others how they can achieve the same. Mother Nature needs all of the help we can give her right now and our own yards are the perfect places to start.


Recommend a garden book for folks to read.

Douglas Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home has been my favorite book since it came out. It is a down to earth read and chock full of information on ecological cause and effect (harm and ruin of habitat by development and urban sprawl). Tallamy challenges the reader to take personal responsibility, to help right the wrongs done to nature, improve habitat by putting nature back into the landscape by starting with our own lawns, and then encourage others to do the same. If everybody read this book and applied just a few of the concepts, the impact would have a huge rippling effect.


Do you have a garden guru or hero?

Oh sure, there are so many garden gurus that come to mind but currently I am inspired by three. 1) I think somebody needs to build a Jan Midgley Wildflower Center. Texas has Lady Bird Johnson. Alabama has Jan Midgley. She knows everything there is to know about native plants of Alabama, she shares her knowledge so generously, and her garden is as beautiful as she is. 2) Arnie Rutkis is a sort of “renaissance man” in that his landscaping expertise is a combination of sculptural, practical, functional, artistic, intellectual, etc., etc. He uses all of his powers for the greater good (preservation and conservation) in his landscape design. 3) Mary Burks was a pioneer land preservationist and a founder of the Alabama Conservancy (now the Alabama Environmental Council). She did great things for the state and for the nation. I read somewhere that she liked to ask people who complained about an issue, “now, what are you going to do about it?” I like to ask myself that question when I see something that needs to be fixed and boy, nature is broken in urban and suburban areas.


What kind of garden writing do you like?

I like a good “tell it like it is” kind of approach in any “how to” writing. I hope I will write in the same way I like to read.


What is the reason or reasons you choose native plants to work with?

That is easy. They are easy to grow. Native plants are already acclimated to the growing conditions and don’t need very much care if you plant them in the same conditions as you would find them out in nature. I am basically a lazy gardener. If you mimic the woods in your garden, you can just sit back in the hammock and enjoy.


Name four native plants you think people should know about.

Quercus – Oak trees shade the house or yard, and according to Douglas Tallamy, support 534 species of Lepidoptera! Butterflies and moths would be greatful to you for planting just one tree.

Rhus aromatica – Fragrant Sumac is beautiful in the spring, summer, fall and winter. It smells good, is great planted on a slope, and you can make pink lemonade with the berries.

Morella cerifica – Wax Myrtle is prettier than Crape Myrtle and they are evergreen, which makes them a great choice to use as a screen.

Passiflora incarnata – Passion Vine has beautiful flowers, edible fruit (maypop) and is the host plant for Gulf Fritillary butterflies. It is fun to watch the butterflies lay their eggs, the caterpillars grow and pupate, and the butterflies emerge from the chrysalis -- all while spitting maypop seeds.


Favorite local wildflower places everyone can visit?

Birmingham Botanical Garden’s Kaul Wildflower Garden, Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, Ruffner Mountain Nature Center, Birmingham Southern Environtmental Center’s EcoScapes, Moss Rock Preserve


What is something you have not done in your garden you still want to do?

I want to build a greenhouse and of course, plant more native plants.


Do you think writing a blog will change how you garden?

Sure, I think any time you write something down or say it out loud, you hold yourself more accountable to do the right thing or to practice what you preach. I think the message may stay the same.



Michelle asks Arnie



What is your first garden memory?

I was very young and would wander into my grandmother’s back yard, which was probably very small but seemed limitless to me.  There was a grape arbor I would sit underneath and eat the unripe grapes while she worked on her roses piling manure around them.


What is your focus now with gardening?

I am not sure I have just one, there are many fronts to work on.  Re- greening urban areas to help alleviate pollution, degraded habitat, stormwater and visual poverty.  Using native plants as much as possible to preserve the native biota and maintain the relationships of plants insects and animals even in urban areas.  Finally, growing native plants to work into my gardens as well as help others to develop an interest in natives or find that plant they cant find at the local nursery.

Recommend a garden book for folks to read.

‘Undaunted courage’ by Stephen Ambrose is more of an adventure book that chronicles the journey of Lewis and Clarke to find an all water route to the pacific.  Along the way their encounters with the richness and diversity of plant and animal life and Native cultures weaves a great story


Do you have a garden guru or hero?

I am big fan of Jan Midgley who grows and promotes native plants in the southeast.  Her knowledge and willingness to share that knowledge make her someone to admire and emulate.  My Grandmother seemed be able to get a dry twig to grow into a tree so I have an appreciation of her influence on my gardening skills.  Elliot Coleman is an organic farming guru whose insights, garnered from years of hard work and observations are invaluable to the organic famer and homeowner.


What kind of garden writing do u like?

I like writing that is practical, humorous, tells a story or gives insight into the history of a garden or plant.  Voyage of The HMS beagle by Charles Darwin is one such book.


What is the reason or reasons u choose native plants to work with?

The main reason I work with native plants is that they are easy once you know where they want to live.  By that I mean each plant is intricately linked to the conditions that it arose from so the more I can tune into that,  the better my success rate with each plant.  I came by this while working with sedums & herbs and found they enjoyed a sandy or gritty soil and also proximity to stone in the form of a wall or accent stone.   Out in the woods or meadow the same symbiosis between plant and habitat exists.  When you bring it into your yard you can look to re create a micro zone or habitat for your favorite native plants.


Name four native plants u think people should know about?

Serviceberry-Amelanchier Canadensis, also called Shadbush is a deciduous shrub 20 tall by 10 feet wide, native to wet areas this plant does well once established in drier garden sites.  The edible berries are prized by many birds, bears, squirrels and raccoon, so you’ll have some competition.  The berries are sweet and can be eaten fresh or cooked into preserves. 


Heterotheca Graminifolia or narrowleaf slikgrass is a nat ive perrenial that grows along ridges, in pine barrens and roadsides.  It has narrow grasslike leaves that have a silvery sheen and in the winter light they almost glow.  Their aster like yellow flowers are showy in late summer and they make an excellent groundcover in hot dry locations or on slopes to help with stabilization.


Nyssa Sylvatica or black gum tree is a medium sized tree growing to around 50-60 feet that occurs in 35 different forest types from Florida to southern Ontario.  The fruit is eaten by a variety of migratory birds including:  American Robin, Swainson's Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Wood Thrush, Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Blue Jay, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird, European Starling, Scarlet Tanager, Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, and American Crow.  One of my favorite fall foliage trees of all time!

Sanguinaria Candensis or simply Bloodroot is a small woodland perennial growing in moist to dry woods and the rhizome can grow into small colonies over time.  The white flowers are produced march to may and have yellow stamens.  It is a great plant for small gardens or to naturalize in a native rock garden.  Its root was used to produce a red die by Native Americans.


Favorite local wildflower places everyone can visit?

Ruffner Mountain Nature Center - great hiking and a variety of wildlife, Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, Oak Mountain State Park, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Moss Rock Preserve.


What is something u have not done in ur garden u want to do?

Have a greenhouse and propagation area.  Grow more veggies, natives and herbs.


Do u think writing a blog will change how u garden?

I hope it makes me more mindful of what I do and I can learn how to help others achieve their desired garden goals better through trying to communicate.











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