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.



A Lazy Winter
by Michelle Reynolds - posted 01/19/12


I am a lazy gardener, especially in the winter. I haven't clipped or cleaned up any of the dead foliage or stems. I don't mind the look either. For me, it comes pretty natural to take the easy way out and do nothing. Come to think of it, it is easy for me to take the "do nothing" approach indoors as well. During this time of year, I feel like hibernating. I have work to do, clients to meet, bills to pay, but I don't want to do any of it. I just want to curl up on the sofa (or on the floor chasing the sun around like my dog), read, watch movies, look at magazines, draw and write in my idea journal. I want to live in my imagination and become a hermit. What is wrong with being reclusive? Well, a lot is wrong with it, unless I was Emily Dickinson. If I had the writing talent to go along with the tendency for nature loving and imagination dwelling, my reclusiveness would be acceptable. 




The positive and the negative aspect of working from home is the lack of structure a conventional job provides. Sometimes I work for many bosses and for more hours than I care too. Other times work is slow, allowing me to pursue my own projects. When the laziness sets in, I rationalize and say to myself that I need the rest because of how hard I worked in the previous month. I get sidelined with this thought. The garden gets neglected as well as other household chores. I am so easily distracted when I decide to get back to work. 


There are three times during a workday when I am most distracted: 


1) I get up in the morning to get my coffee and I look up through the skylight. 


Birds! Cedar waxwings are here! Bob, come quick and bring your camera! I love how those birds look like ancient Egyptians with their kohl eyeliner.


 2) Then there is my commute to the studio behind the house. 


Oh, it is so warm out here on this January day. I love the look of dead plants almost as much as live ones. And look how cute that bird is landing on the grass. And funny how the grass topples over from the weight of the bird and then springs back up when the bird flies away. Aw, the Sedums are so cute in their dormant form. Do I hear a hawk?


3) I come back in the house to pay some bills and do other paperwork in my husband's home office with its wall of windows overlooking the hill we live on. 


Oh, look at that woodpecker. Isn't that a cute little brown-headed nuthatch? The bluebird is eating the hackberries! I think I need to go refill the bird feeder and make some more suet.




With few flying insects around in January, birds turn to berries and seeds for their food source. The hackberry tree's limbs are alive with fruit eating cedar waxwings, Eastern bluebirds, tufted titmice, and robins, while the trunk keeps the woodpeckers and the nuthatches busy hunting insects in retreat. The ground is crawling with dark-eyed juncos, rufous-sided towhees, and brown thrashers. In the grasses and dead or dormant winter bones of the garden are seed eating sparrows, finches, and warblers. Up in the sky circling and ascending thermals are red-tailed, Cooper's, and sharp-shinned hawks. I like to imagine what it must feel like to soar high above the open winter landscape. 


So, go ahead, be lazy this winter. The birds will love you for it. Well, they might not love you, but they will love your garden or what is still standing in your garden... if you are lazy.










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Unpaving the parking lot - part 2
by Arnie Rutkis - posted 12/07/11

The story continues.  The next steps were to put those materials on the site to use.  The granite curbing inspired me to create a series of benches,

some 9 feet in length around the site. Each base was a new problem to solve.


Gravel is important to this site as we wanted a permeable layer of material that would be workable yet yet pack down when we needed it to.  A base layer of  crushed limestone then a topcoat of crush and run will pack down firmly and still crunch under foot as its walked upon.  The paths all drain into the bio-swale as well so the gravel can help to filter storm water runoff.  The gravel drains well but also herbs and many other plants like the fast drainage and mineral content of the stone.  Vulcan materials up the street kindly donated our gravel.

The pond is near complete and a surround of recycled brick has been installed by Martha Parson and her crew.    In the background an artistic fence created by Fonde Tyalor will act as a partial screen and backdrop for the rose garden, a border of antique and heirloom roses purchased from Petals from the past.  A floral mosaic was installed within the water feature and the sounds of water help soften the urban character of the location.


I had held off planting as long as i could as the weather was particularly hot.  Care was taken to mix soils with a rich organic compost to help sustain plantings.  This garden functions as a garden with beautiful flowering perennials herb shrubs and trees but the main purpose is to help increase awareness for visitors of a variety of topics. With that in mind distinct garden areas were created.  I already mentioned the rose garden which has many more rose companions throughout the scape.  Roses have a long history with the majority being from Asia though we have some native to the U.S.  Rosa palustris or swamp rose is planted in the bioswale.  It is tolerant of wet conditions grows to approximately 8 feet tall in a well formed vase shape and produces fragrant pink blooms in late spring through early summer.  Mayor Tuck is very fond of roses and wanted to share her interest with garden visitors.  A native medicinal herb garden greets visitors at the back entrance.  Plants like wild quinine, Parthenium integrifolium which have a history of use as a medicinal druing World war I when supplies of quinine were low also have an attractive white bloom which brings a variety of insect visitors to the garden as well.  Echinacea purperea is widely used as a general tonic and immune builder.  Purple coneflower is one of the longest lasting bloomers in the perennial border.  As you may be noticing the native medicinals also have other benefits as habitat plants for nectar loving bees, wasps and beetles not to mention the flying artworks of butterflies and moths.  

The butterfly garden is across the path and i tried to focus on some differnet plants here.  Hyssop leaved boneset, eupatorium hyssopifilium is a clump forming perennial that is a great meadow plant or specimen for the back of a border.  Large flower heads made up of many smaller florets grows from 1-3 feet tall and is drought tolerant once estsablished.  Have been growing this at my nursery and was amzed at the long lasting blooms.  Asters, liatris and Asclepias tuberosa or butterfly weed fill out this area.  Nearby oak trees lead you into the woodland garden where mounds of earth are populated by the plants of Alabama forests, plants such as american beautyberry, Heuchera americans, native azaleas phloxes, scarlet buckeyes and one of my favorite native grasses, Chasmanthium sessiliflorum or simply, wood oats.

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Unpaving the Parking Lot to Plant Some Paradise
by Arnie Rutkis - posted 11/09/11


Unpaving the urban landscape is becoming more popular but also more practical helping to create calming and beautiful spaces re oxygenating the atmosphere, helping recharge stormwater these are only a few of the more important benefits urban green spaces can perform.  Below is a story of just such a project.

Every story has a beginning though sometimes it is an ending from another story or history.  From post war to the modern day our counrty has been changing rapidly and with great effect on us and the plants and animals we share the planet with.  The city grows and land is used and re used many times over.  More time spent in doors has led to problems like obesity and a sloth of the imagination.  The green space within a city defines how the city thinks.  Not only of its greenspace but of the living beings that occupy it.  It may be impossible to heal all ills with a garden but the sound of running water and scent of herbs has documented calming effects.  Why create gardens in the middle of a city you might ask?  If we leave the built environment of the past for ‘greener pastures’ we are creating dead spaces in our urban environment and within the greater context of the world.  The suburbs create even more waste in terms of commuting, over extending our power grids and sewer systems. This has many ill effects and not being a sociologist or any other ologist I will stick to what I know and that is working with the earth.  Above is a picture of an old commercial space that once occupied by two businesses and now is only remnant.  It is within a historical district of a town called Tarrant.  The City of Tarrant along with Mayor Tuck and Fire Cheif Hewitt have a vision of re creating their town center.  A collection of false front buildings made of brick, stucco and even stone adorn the area.  Not far away is Five mile creek which winds through the area and is part fo Tarrants watershed.  So the bones of the idea were there.  These green corridors exist all around the Birmingham metro area and are reminders of the natures path in the mdist of our developments.   Born of the steel industry heyday in Birmingham, Tarrant still has connections to its industrial past but is also a victim of urban sprawl. Infusing some new life into the old town is what we all had in mind.  Removing the old concrete has many benefits it removes an eyesore and makes way for a new landscape, it also changes the way water will behave in this area as we will install a garden that functions and is aesthetic.  Heat is also trapped in concrete and asphalt contributing to heat island effects.  Planting what was once a parking lot with trees shrubs and perennials will help mitigate this somewhat.

An excavator making quick work of the job.




Once cleared planning and installation can move forward, a water feature is marked out and materials begin arriving.  One of the main goals is to create a quiet space within the city center for relaxation and passive recreation.  Herbs and native plants will be used extensively in the planting scheme. 

Below granite curbstone from a streetscaping project was delivered by City trucks.  All in all about 20 tons of material was utilized.


This repurposing of materials retains some of the efforts of the past while utilizing it in new and creative ways.

A semi circular seating wall is constructed from the slabs  in the hot august sun.


Chert soil makes a good base for our landscaping as it packs well  and once coated with topsoil we can add plant materials and other layers of soil or landscaping.  The red clay soil holds moisture so as a base it does double duty conserving moisture.  Also of note are the historical buildings in the background.  Several artists live in the area.

The pond and seating wall  here a bubbling fountain will be visible from the road and sidewalks inviting visitors to stop and stay a while.


This image is a contrast of materials and also time space continuums.  In art it is common practice to take one thing and another and create something entirely unique from those disparate elements, the mixing of materials and choices, accidents but also being open to the possibilities within a situation, are all part of the equation but sometimes the solution turns out to be more than was expected.   End part1

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