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Beautiful, hardy, adaptable and local: Ten native plants that feel like home

Passionflower vines can provide stunning blooms and a sense of place to our home landscapes. The purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), commonly known as the maypop, suggested by Kaul Wildflower Garden curator John Manion, is native to Alabama. It is among a number of passionflower species readily available in a variety of colors, such as this red one, at garden centers in the state. Passionflowers are magnets for butterflies and can be grown on trellises or other structures, but also look fabulous climbing up a tree or scrambling across rocks and stones.

Native plants, those denizens of Alabama’s natural terrain, are increasingly popular choices for Alabama’s cultivated landscapes. And well they should be, because they are as necessary to our wellbeing as they are beautiful to our eyes.

Alabama is home to some 4,000 different species of native plants, 28 of which grow only in our state, and we are ranked fifth in the nation for plant biodiversity. While some of these plants are endangered and protected, many are readily available for use in our gardens. So many, in fact, that it may be hard to choose which ones to plant.

To get some advice on making those selections, I turned to John Manion, curator of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Kaul Wildflower Garden. As curator, Manion tends the largest collection of native plants in the state — about 900 at last count — but he also tends to the education of others by sharing his knowledge as often as possible, and sharing it with delightful and compelling enthusiasm.

Manion’s enthusiasm stems from several factors, chief among them the roles native plants play in our ecosystem. “Until a few decades ago, the image of native plants was sort of kumbaya and peasant shirts,” Manion says. “But they have really come to the fore now as people have begun to understand that native plants are essential to our survival.”

According to Manion, the book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Doug Tallamy, which eloquently explains humankind’s interconnectedness with native plants and the other animals they support, was a major catalyst for this growing appreciation of native plants.

It doesn’t hurt their popularity, though, that native plants can also make the hard work of gardening easier. Manion noted that this doesn’t mean natives are easier to establish than other plants, but once they are established, natives requires less attention because they tend to be drought and pest tolerant and longer lived, among many other fine attributes.

“They have evolved here over thousands of years, so they are well adapted to Alabama’s growing conditions,” Manion explained. “Natives just know what to do.”

But natives have another huge plus for Manion — they feel like home. “These plants are part of where we are,” he says. “I have nothing against other plants, but I personally want plants that feel and look like I am in Alabama.”

So how can you begin to surround yourself with plants that feel like home? Start with a few native plants that are as adaptable as they are beautiful, for which Manion offered suggestions. He actually offered lots of suggestions, and sang the praises of each, but in this limited space here are simply the names (common and scientific) of 10 plants he adores, all of which tolerate a variety of growing conditions, are easy to find in retail outlets and, best of all, are gorgeous.

In the groundcover category, Manion recommended green-and-gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) and yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima). If you’re interested in flowering perennials, try an herbaceous native such as lance-leafed coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolate), Stokes aster (Stokesia laevis) and ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata).

Looking for a native vine? Manion suggested coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirus), passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) and climbing hydrangea (Decumaria barbara). Ferns, such as the Christmas (Polystichum acrostichoides) and southern shield (Thelypteris kunthii) ferns, and grasses, such as woodoats (Chasmanthium sessiliflorum), are also great choices for a variety of uses and environments.

The Kaul Wildflower Garden, which has more than six acres of native plants to wander among. Or if you’re interested in growing your knowledge of native plants, consider signing up for Manion’s Certificate in Native Plant Studies program. You can learn more at bbgardens.org.

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.

Understanding appliance energy use

By Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen

Q: Several of my appliances are getting old and will need to be replaced soon. Will the appliance choices I make have much impact on my energy bill?

A: Your energy use varies month to month, so it can be difficult to see how much difference an appliance purchase makes. It’s best to view the purchase over the lifetime of the equipment. Think about the up-front cost and the lifetime energy cost. In a Consumer Reports test, the most efficient refrigerator used $68/year less electricity than the least efficient model. Multiply that difference over a decade or two, and the lifetime energy savings could be greater than the up-front cost. All it takes to get the best appliance for your needs is some initial research.

Appliance energy use is usually less, on average, than home heating and cooling bills, but can be several hundred dollars each year. Your appliance use depends on factors like the model, how often you use it, the settings you use for its particular function and even the time of day it is most used.

Over the last few decades, new appliances became more energy efficient, driven partly by minimum government standards. These standards, created by the U.S. Department of Energy, save consumers over $60 billion each year. Appliances are required to include an Energy Guide label that shows estimated energy use and operating cost per year. These labels help you compare different models and calculate the initial cost against the long-term savings.

Some appliances will also have an ENERGY STAR label. This indicates the appliance is substantially more efficient than the minimum standard. Your greatest energy savings opportunities can come from replacing an old appliance with an ENERGY STAR-rated appliance. Removing a refrigerator that’s 20 years old and replacing it with a new ENERGY STAR model can lower the monthly electricity cost by 75 percent, from $16.50 to less than $4.

In some cases, the configuration of the appliance can also make a substantial difference. For example, a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer uses about 70 percent more energy than other configurations, with all the most efficient models having the refrigerator stacked on top of the freezer. All 36 of the most efficient clothes washers of 2018 were frontloading models.

Consider how much you use the appliance. The more you use the appliance the greater your savings will be from choosing a more efficient model. If you use the appliance less or have a small household, you may get by with a smaller refrigerator or freezer, which will save you money.

How you operate appliances can also make a difference. Here are some easy ways to save:

Refrigerator/Freezer:

• Set your refrigerator at 35 to 38 degrees and your freezer at 0 degrees.

• Make sure there is adequate air flow between the wall and the back of the unit.

• Keep the refrigerator relatively full when possible.

• Replace the seals around the doors if they appear to be leaking air.

• Defrost the refrigerator and freezer regularly.

A new ENERGY STAR fridge/freezer can use 70 percent less energy than a model that’s 10+ years old. Models with the fridge stacked over the freezer are also 2/3 more efficient than side-by-side models. PHOTOS Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

Stove/Oven

• Use the correct size of burner to fit the pan.

• Use smaller appliances like a microwave or slow cooker instead of the oven when possible.

To maximize energy savings when using your stovetop, be sure to match the size of the pot to the burner.

Dishwasher

• Use the most energy-efficient and shortest setting that gets your dishes clean.

• Air dry rather than using the heated dry function.

• Wait to run a load until the dishwasher is full.

All the most efficient 2018 models of washers and dryers were front-loading.

Make the most out of your appliance energy use with a little research before buying a new model and a few easy adjustments to the way you use them.

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on saving energy on your appliances, please visit: www.collaborativeefficiency.com/energytips.

Patrick Keegan writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives. Write to energytips@collaborativeefficiency.com for more information.

Fishing for bass in the grass? Throw a frog!

Rigged with the hook inserted into the plastic, a buzzing frog like this Stanley Ribbit works well for tempting largemouth bass in extremely weedy areas. Photos by John N. Felsher

By John N. Felsher

Even on the hottest summer days, many giant largemouth bass stay in extremely shallow water if they can find cooling, well-oxygenated cover.

In many Alabama lakes, grass grows extremely thick and matted by late summer. Lunker largemouths often burrow into the thickest vegetation they can find. Thick weeds block the broiling sun and provide shade, which drops water temperatures. Also, aquatic grasses give bass a much needed oxygen boost. In addition, the grass attracts not only bass, but sunfish, minnows, frogs and many other creatures that largemouths love to eat.

When faced with impenetrable vegetation mats, some anglers fish around the edges with various lures. They catch fish, but many of the biggest bass lurk under the thickest growth where most lures cannot reach. But buzzing a frog across the grass tops can provoke adrenaline-pumping strikes. Sometimes, giant bass erupt through the vegetation, engulfing the bait, weeds and everything else with explosive strikes on top.

“Nothing is more exciting than a big fish blowing up on a topwater bait – except two big bass blowing up on a topwater bait,” says Jake Davis with Mid-South Bass Guide Service who fishes Lake Guntersville.

“When grass gets too thick, I go to a frog. In many places on Lake Guntersville, weeds get so thick that it’s impossible to get any other bait through it. Bass will eat about anything that moves over the grass tops.”

Rich in protein, frogs create prime forage for largemouth bass in most Alabama waters. The bucket-mouthed predators routinely hunt in the thickest weeds or lily pads they can find. Usually rigged without a weight, soft-plastic frogs look like natural prey as they skitter across dense salads. Bass see these lures silhouetted against the sky and slobber to attack them.

“Frogs are one of the primary forage species for bass,” says Lonnie Stanley, a five-time Bassmaster Classic veteran and legendary lure designer. “If a bass could order its food off a menu, it would probably pick crawfish first, frogs second and shad or bream third. Frogs give bass plenty of protein.”

Some frogs float and some sink. Some come with upturned hooks that glide over the grass tops. With others, anglers insert the hook points into the plastic bodies to make them weedless. Anglers can fish either type with a steady buzzing retrieve over the grass mats. The kicking legs and feet create a sputtering commotion on the surface where most other lures would quickly snag.

Toss a sinking frog to thick cover. Hold the rod tip high and crank the reel just fast enough to make the legs kick. When the frog hits a patch of open water, let it sink a few seconds like a stunned or injured amphibian before pulling it back to the surface and resuming the retrieve. Bass frequently slurp frogs as they sink.

Work floating frogs more like traditional topwater baits. Anglers can make a steady retrieve, pausing occasionally, or use the “hop and pop” method. Toss a floating frog to a good spot and let it sit on the surface until the concentric rings dissipate. Then, pop it vigorously. The commotion simulates a live frog jumping across the surface. Let the frog sit idle again for a few seconds before popping it again.

“Throwing a frog is a tremendous way to fish grass throughout the year,” says Shaw Grigsby, a professional bass fisherman. “A buzzing frog is like a buzzbait that you can throw anywhere in the middle of the thickest vegetation. It comes through cover like a four-wheel drive truck. It’s a very simple bait to use, but it’s a bait that can produce really big fish. Bass come out from under the lily pads or grass beds to eat it. When a big bass explodes on a frog, there’s nothing more exciting.”

Anglers can entice bass in any Alabama lakes, ponds or with thick vegetation and big fish. Some better lakes for buzzing a frog include Guntersville, Pickwick, Wheeler, Jordan, Logan Martin, Lay and Eufaula. Frogs can also entice bass in the weedy backwaters of many Alabama rivers and the marshy flats of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. In the brackish parts of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, anglers might tangle with a few tackle-busting redfish who also want to gulp down a succulent frog.

This month, when even the air seems to sweat, catch the buzz. Work a frog across the thickest cover around and hold on!

John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. Contact him through Facebook.

A bass fights for freedom after hitting a frog worked through lily pads.

Hardy Jackson’s Alabama: My cousin Benny and the snake: Or, yes, we can all get along

If you pay any attention to the news today, you are getting a belly full of stories of how divided we are.  It is as if everyone is bound and determine to take the “united” out of United States.

Well, friends, I am here to offer you a ray of hope.

My cousin Benny.

Now Benny doesn’t talk politics much. He once observed, “I’m not what you call a liberal,” but that was as far as he went.

Benny spent his life in law enforcement, and he tends to see issues in that context. Break the law and you go down. Not much gray area there.

If you have an urge to go someplace you shouldn’t, and want to come out alive, take Benny. Well over six feet tall and carrying 250-plus pounds, he is much a man. Curly blond hair going gray, matching mustache and goatee, he has an affinity for black t-shirts embossed with slogans like “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” and “careful, contents under pressure.”

Like me, he is getting up in years, but in his younger days, when he got home from work, he’d go out riding on his bicycle.  Helped him unwind.

Now Benny likes snakes. Well, actually, he likes to kill snakes, skin them, and cure the hides. Don’t ask why, just keep up with me.

One day, late summer, Benny was pedaling along when he saw a rattlesnake in the road. Naturally Benny took out his derringer (if Benny has on clothes he has a gun) and shoots at the snake. He misses. So, he tries to run over it. The snake takes this none too kindly and bites the tire, hangs a fang, and is caught fast.

Picture the scene (visuals are important here). A massive man who looks like a fugitive from rednecks-R-us rolling a bike back and forth over a snake with its fangs hung on the tire.

Up drives this black couple. They see the situation and the man, like any good Southerner would, asks Benny, “You need any help?”

“Got a gun?” Benny asked. (Not a dumb question, down in Dixie. ‘Course he does.)

The black man pulls out a .40-caliber automatic, hands it to good ‘ol boy personified, who takes it and shoots the snake — a head shot. Impressed, the black man asks the white man if he’d like a drink.

‘Course he would.

Snake killing is hot work.

So, the black man reaches in his cooler, and pulls out a “Big Orange” for each of them.  Then the black man, the black woman, and the white man kick back, cool off, and talk about snakes and guns and stuff.

Now that, dear hearts, is how to get along.

Find a common ground, celebrate, enjoy.

We need more of that.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University and a regular contributor to Alabama Living. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

Building a community with solar energy How power from the sun is bringing consumers and co-ops closer

By Paul Wesslund

Electric cooperatives and their consumer-members are joining together to invest in community solar installations, which generate clean, renewable electricity for their local communities.

Growth in electric cooperative interest in community solar skyrocketed in the past four years, says Tracy Warren, senior program manager with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).

“It’s clean, local and homegrown power,” she says. “The benefits stay within the community. There is just a lot to like.”

What makes community solar unique is not any special technology, but rather how it’s organized and financed. Basically, the electric co-op builds and operates an array of solar panels, then sells or leases the long-term energy output of the panels. In return, the home or business that participates typically receives credit on their electric bill for the portion of their power generated by those solar cells.

“It’s fun to see the community solar credit on your electric bill,” says Warren.

That fun helps drive the popularity of community solar for both electric co-ops and their consumer-members, says Warren. She coordinates online conferences about how to set up community solar programs that typically attract more than 250 people from co-ops around the country. A survey conducted four years ago found 38 electric co-ops had started a community solar project or were planning to. That number grew to 198 this year.

Community solar is not for everyone.

That number is still just a fraction of the more than 900 electric co-ops in the United States. Part of the reason for that small portion is that community solar is still developing. Another reason is that community solar might not make sense for some local electric co-ops, says Paul Carroll, a senior project manager for grant projects at NRECA.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all anything,” says Carroll. He says some state laws restrict community solar-style setups. The co-op also needs to consider factors like solar power not being available when the sun doesn’t shine, the most practical fuels to generate electricity in that co-op’s area and what those fuels cost.

“A lot of co-ops already have plenty of wind and plenty of hydro,” says Carroll. “They’re always having to watch out for the best interests of their members. Expensive power is not what they’re about. They’re about the safest, most reliable, cheapest power possible. Solar has traditionally been a more expensive energy source.”

But that expense is changing fast. Costs for some of the major solar panel parts have fallen 85 percent in a seven-year period, says a report by NRECA, as technology improves and more mass production lowers prices.

“As you start making things at larger and larger scale, they just get cheaper,” says Carroll. “It’s the same as what happened with large-screen televisions. They used to be terribly expensive, $25,000, and now you can get a large-screen TV for 500 bucks.”

Co-ops are also smoothing the road to community solar with innovative financing and by sharing their practical experience with each other.

The National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation, an organization that provides financing for electric co-ops, has developed a program that lets electric co-ops take advantage of tax incentives to build community solar systems. The organization also provides loans to support renewables and energy efficiency.

Community solar’s popularity has also been helped by a program that puts together information on solar energy, and shares that with other co-ops. That information can cover technical details from the most productive size of a solar power installation, to the best siting procedures in order to make sure the co-op complies with zoning and land use rules. That collaboration between the electric co-ops and the Department of Energy is called the SUNDA project, which stands for the descriptive but intimidating full name, Solar Utility Network Deployment Acceleration.

A new relationship with the co-op

NRECA’s Tracy Warren credits the SUNDA project with boosting community solar by finding, refining and promoting ideas from pioneering co-ops to others just thinking about trying it out.

Among the ideas catching on, she says, are financial arrangements that make a basic change to the structure of buying a share of the solar panels and then receiving credits. Instead, co-op members can lease part of the solar array, or even just pay for it month-to-month.

Community solar offers energy uniquely suited to local, member-owned electric co-ops, says Warren. A co-op can work with its members to decide how to tailor community solar to suit local conditions, or whether to offer it at all.

Among the advantages of community solar, says Warren, is that if an individual member doesn’t want to participate, they don’t have to. For members who do sign up, she says, “They feel like this is something they can do for future generations. They like the environmental benefits.” Some co-ops find a community solar program can help with economic development, as businesses look to locate in areas where they can meet the organization’s renewable energy goals.

“The community solar model is well-suited for co-ops because it is flexible, and it can be a way of matching supply with the demand from the co-op membership,” says Warren. “The co-op can gauge how interested its members are in participating and then size the program accordingly.”

Warren even sees community solar as building a stronger bond between the local co-op and its members.

“They’re literally helping to provide the power for the co-op,” she says. “That’s changing the relationship between the consumer-member and the co-op.”

Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.

Snapshots: First Day of School

The Holmes Family. Dad is a full-time firefighter going to law school and mom homeschools all 5 children. SUBMITTED BY David W. Philpott, Jackson’s Gap.

Bailey and her Daddy dropping off for her first day of 4th grade. SUBMITTED BY Tara Woods, Montgomery.

Honee’s first day of doggy daycare. She is a liver dalmation and the first deaf dog accepted to Whitesburg’s daycare program. SUBMITTED BY Patricia Davis, Lacey’s Spring.

Our sweet grandson Kyle’s first day of pre-school. His parents are PJ and Jamie Alexander. SUBMITTED BY Kathy Walker, Arab.

Kensley Robinson with her JoJo on her first day of Pre-K SUBMITTED BY Joey Robinson, Prattville.

Piercen’s 1st Day of Kindergarten. SUBMITTED BY Holly Saint, Section.

6 year old twins, Savannah and Shyann Daszczuk, on their first day of 1st grade. SUBMITTED BY Danielle Daszczuk, Deer Park.

Submit Your Images! October Theme: “Pumpkin Patch” Deadline for October: August 31. Submit photos online:www.alabamaliving.coop/submit-photo/ or send color photos with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Photos, Alabama Living, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124. Rules: Alabama Living will pay $10 for photos that best match our theme of the month. Photos may also be published on our website at www.alabamaliving.coop and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.