Fall Planting? Consider a smaller native tree.

A mature native dogwood approaching peak autumn color.

A mature native dogwood approaching peak autumn color.

Cooler weather is trying to creep in. Soon the persistent clouds will dissipate, replaced by crisp, cooler air and sunshine that warms but doesn’t sear weeders as we attempt to prepare our flowerbeds for their winter’s sleep.

Every experienced Piedmont gardener’s fingers get itchy this time of year. We know that this is the optimal season for planting new trees, shrubs, and many perennials to give them the best chance of flourishing in our yards. With that itch in mind, I thought I’d mention five small native trees that I believe deserve a spot in many Piedmont home landscapes.

I’ve offered tips for planting trees before, but here are a few key points.

  • Our smaller native trees are small because they evolved to be understory trees. They flourish beneath the taller canopy trees such as Tulip Poplars, Oaks, and Hickories, occurring along forest edges, where they are sheltered from searing afternoon sun by the taller canopy trees, but receive some light by being on the edges of clearings. Thus, when you plant your smaller native tree, locate it where it will be shaded from searing afternoon summer sun.
  • Our smaller native trees are forest natives. They will never flourish plunked down in the middle of a suburban lawn all by themselves. If your landscape is too small to plant them beneath canopy trees, consider grouping them with native trees and shrubs that are the same size or smaller. As the group of natives matures, you can add native wildflowers beneath them to create a more diverse and beautiful landscape that will also appeal to native wildlife.
  • Don’t dig a hole barely big enough for the root ball of your new addition, add the tree, and go your merry way. Tree roots need room to travel. A small hole carved into compacted clay soil works just like a flower pot. The roots will go round and round, never escaping the confines of their prison. Such a tree never flourishes. Ideally, your new addition should be sited in a prepared bed that you’ve tilled deeply and improved with compost or other organic materials.
  • Be sure the root ball isn’t below the surface of the surrounding soil. Tree roots need to breathe. If you bury them too deeply, the tree will never flourish. Mulch your new tree with an inch or two of an organic material such as wood chips or leaves. Pine needles are not a good choice.
  • Water your new tree during dry spells throughout the following year, even in winter, if precipitation doesn’t fall. Aim for an inch per week for that first year. Once your native is well-established, it will need less attention.
  • Don’t fertilize your new tree. Even organic fertilizers are too much for the traumatized root systems of new arrivals. Well-prepared soil, mulch, and adequate water are all they need.
  • Don’t spray herbicides near your tree. If the spray drifts onto even the bark of your new addition, your tree can be damaged.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

A Piedmont spring staple

A Piedmont spring staple

Flowering dogwood is native to all of the southeastern US, from the coast to the mountains, including the Piedmont region where I live. It is a magnificent four-season beauty. Spring, of course, covers the trees in a white cloud of long-lasting blooms. Summer brings bright green leaves, a spot of shade, and developing clusters of berries. Fall ripens those berries to red and colors the leaves in shades of maroon and crimson. Winter shows off the blocky fissured bark and the lateral arrangement of its branches, which snow accentuates in winter landscapes.

Many beautiful cultivars of this tree have been developed by horticulturalists. All local nurseries will be well-stocked with myriad choices this time of year. For the best selection, consider buying from a speciality nursery rather than a Big Box Store’s abused-plant holding area. Any difference in price will be well worth your investment, I promise.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Flowers of Redbud signal spring's arrival.

Flowers of Redbud signal spring’s arrival.

Yes, I know the blooms are not red. This confuses all non-Southeasterners when they hear natives talking about our spring Eastern Redbud flowers. I do not know how they got this name. I do know the light purple-pink flowers cover most branches in early spring, a few weeks before the Flowering Dogwoods reach peak bloom. During a rare cool spring, we often get lucky enough to see prolonged Eastern Redbud bloom — long enough to overlap with snowy Flowering Dogwood flowers. So lovely!

Eastern Redbud is another four-season beauty. After its pea-like flowers (a member of the legume plant family) fade, bean-like seed pods develop, maturing from green to dark brown as summer morphs into fall. Distinctive heart-shaped leaves make this an easy tree to identify. They turn a soft gold before dropping with the first cold winds of autumn. Twigs grow in a unique zigzag pattern that is especially noticeable when coated in snow. Horticulturalists have been busy with this species too. I’m especially fond of C. canadensis ‘Forest Pansy.’

Sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum)

Sourwood flowers are beloved by bees.

Sourwood flowers are beloved by bees.

In the Appalachian mountains, Sourwoods are often 50 feet tall. They seem to prosper there, and that is where beekeepers put their hives when they want to create sourwood honey. Here in the Piedmont, Sourwoods are typically smaller, usually not more than 30 feet tall. In our native forests, they often take on contorted shapes as their trunks bend toward holes in the canopy where they can receive sunlight. But they will grow straight, tall, and lovely if you simply site yours where it is sheltered from hot summer sun, but receives good morning sunlight.

Clusters of bell-like pure white flowers adorn the tips of branches in June and July, making this native a great way to extend the blooming period of trees in your landscape. Fall leaf color, which begins earlier for this native than most, is drop-dead gorgeous deep scarlet. Its distinctive deeply furrowed bark, plus its tendency to hold on to the dried seed head clusters until spring, make this native another potential winter interest focal point in your landscape. Taste a green leaf in early summer. They have a wonderful sour tang to them, which I imagine is the source of their common name.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

One of the first red-flowering natives to bloom in spring.

One of the first red-flowering natives to bloom in spring.

The three trees previously described are all happier growing on upland slopes, but this native occurs naturally in moist forests, often near floodplains. If you’ve got a low area in your yard that tends to remain moist, Red Buckeye is worth considering. By early April, this beauty begins opening its clusters of scarlet flowers, just in time for the arrival of native Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. The flowers occur on the ends of branches, so even as the decorative compound leaves unfurl, the flowers remain visible. Most years in my yard, blooming lasts about a month.  Its distinctive fruits — most of us think of them as nuts, although botanically they are considered to be capsules — hang in clusters as fall approaches. Eventually, they crack open to reveal distinctive buckeye fruits. The “nuts” are considered to be good luck charms by some, but they are poisonous. If you have little ones inclined to pick up and taste what they find, this tree is probably not your best option.

The outer husks crack open and drop the buckeyes to the ground.

The outer husks crack open and drop the buckeyes to the ground.

Ashe Magnolia (Magnolia ashei)

Ashe Magnolia flower bud and leaves

Ashe Magnolia flower bud and leaves

For gardeners who crave a bit of drama in their native landscapes, I recommend Ashe Magnolia. Sited correctly, this native beauty will flourish, and it is guaranteed to draw admiration from all visitors. This plant is native to cool, moist shady slopes of the western Piedmont and eastern mountains. Some botanists consider it to be a subspecies of Bigleaf Magnolia (M. macrophylla), because the leaf size and shape and the flowers are quite similar. But Bigleaf Magnolia is a vastly taller tree. Ashe Magnolia remains much smaller. Its growth habit is almost shrub-like, with a tendency for low-branching limbs, often a bit lop-sided.

So lovely

So lovely

But what it lacks in graceful branching structure, it more than makes up for with its fragrant, enormous flowers and equally large leaves. Those leaves give an almost tropical appearance to this tree’s corner of the landscape, and they turn a beautiful golden yellow before dropping to carpet the ground. This species also blooms when its young. Mine produced its first flowers only two years after I planted a tiny twig of a bare-rooted specimen that I purchased.

If you want to try this native, you’ll need a shady, moist spot with rich organic soil. Pick a low spot in your yard and improve the soil by creating a tilled bed full of compost. Be sure the spot receives little to no afternoon summer sun, but does receive good morning light. If you can do this, your rewards will be spectacular flowers and leaves unlike any other native in your landscape. I unabashedly adore Ashe Magnolia.

Get planting!

Soon I’ll offer some suggestions for native shrubs you should consider adding to your landscape this fall. Until then, take a walk around your yard with an eye to where you can tuck in some well-adapted natives to enhance your landscape. Then visit the local fall plant sales that abound at the many public gardens and nurseries in our region. I am confident that you’ll never regret going native.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

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A Bird in the Hand

Ripe fruits of Solomon's Plume

Ripe fruits of Solomon’s Plume

Last week was too hot here, the heat made worse by the fact that most of the summer was unusually mild. Dust clouds rose with the slightest disturbance, lingering long in humid, stagnant air. It was not a week conducive to gardening.

Finally this past Sunday, cooler weather began to creep in, accompanied by clouds that dimmed what had been searing sun. Wonder Spouse immediately charged outdoors to catch up on tasks delayed by the heat, leaving our garage door open as he moved back and forth fetching tools, wheelbarrows, and assorted other necessities. His tasks did not require a second pair of hands, so I grabbed my camera and began acquainting myself with the latest developments on our five-acre jungle.

Fruits of Halesia diptera will turn light brown when they're fully ripe.

Fruits of Halesia diptera will turn light brown when they’re fully ripe.

Fruit — that was the takeaway message from this walk. Most plants are well into fruit/seed production, clearly aware of dwindling daylight and down-trending temperatures. The Solomon’s Plumes I added to a wildflower bed on the north side of my yard all made numerous berries this year, as you can see in the photo above. The empty stems you see likely tell the tale of a hungry bird or other critter sampling these bright red berries. I think they look especially festive mingling with the evergreen Christmas fern — another native to our region.

Pokeberry fruits

Pokeweed fruits

Giant magenta stalks of Pokeweed — easily 8 feet tall — bend from the weight of purple-black clusters of ripe berries. These are favorites with many of the avian inhabitants of my yard, as evidenced by purple-tinged splats of bird excrement deposited on my walks and decks.

Red Buckeye fruits

Red Buckeye fruits

Branches of the large Red Buckeye on our floodplain are touching the ground, bent from the weight of nearly ripe fruits. Soon the husks will split and the shiny nut-like fruits will tumble to the ground. These nuts are poisonous to people, but some wild inhabitant makes them disappear every year.

Hammocksweet Azalea

Hammocksweet Azalea

The greatest surprise during my walkabout was my Hammocksweet Azalea — in full, overpoweringly fragrant bloom at the base of my north-facing garden, close to the creek. I sited it there, because this deciduous azalea — the last to bloom for me every year — is native to wetland environments. The flowers are pure white, without a hint of ivory, and their fragrance is knock-your-socks-off sweet. If it were any closer to my house, I think the fragrance might be overpowering, especially as this shrub continues to grow.

Greenhead Coneflower

Green-Head Coneflower

September is the month that many large native yellow composite wildflowers adorn every corner of my yard, and many roadsides. I added Green-Head Coneflower to the mix, because I love the prominent seed heads it forms, as do the seed-eating birds that dwell nearby.

Mixed nasturtiums mingle and multiply

Mixed nasturtiums mingle and multiply

My vegetable garden is mostly done for the year. A few peppers linger, and some broccoli plants are struggling to grow beneath the shelter of their Reemay tent. Many of the beds are packed with fresh green sprouts of crimson clover, my winter cover crop of choice. But one bed is dominated by the lovely mix of nasturtiums above. Unimpressed by heat, drought, deluges, or anything else as far as I can tell, they bloom continuously, spreading wandering shoots in all directions, even mingling a bit with adjacent beds full of crimson clover. Their gentle rose-like scent is nothing short of heavenly.

I encountered a bit of wildlife as I made my way around my yard. I think perhaps they’d been hunkering down during the heat wave too. Like me, they were out and about in force during my morning walk. Bird song filled the air. Many toads greeted me in all parts of the yard. I’m always happy to see these insect-eaters. A Green Anole rushed out of a potted plant when I began watering it. It was bright green to blend with the vegetation, and if it hadn’t objected to being watered, I likely would have never noticed it. Five-lined skinks skittered across open ground and up and down trees. A Black Racer darted beneath an aster blooming by my front deck when I got too close; it had been trying to warm itself in the cloud-dimmed sun.

But the highlight of the day came after I had put up my camera and gone back outside to gather some tools in the garage. A frantic bird fluttered at the back windows, too confused to realize that its way out was the other way, through the open garage door.  It was an Eastern Phoebe, a small flycatcher common to my yard, thanks to the woodland creek — its preferred habitat — that borders our land.

I have spent many happy hours watching this beauty hunt from my back deck. Its keen eyes watch for flying insects. When it spots one, it leaps into the air, grabbing the bug on the wing, then returning to its perch to watch for more tidbits. Its aerial acrobatics are impressive, and its squeaky call, sounding more like a child’s squeeze doll than a bird, let’s me know it’s on bug patrol.

So when I discovered this distraught Eastern Phoebe desperately trying to escape our garage, I leapt into action. First, I opened all the other doors. Often this is enough to help a trapped bird find its way out. But this little one was unwilling to venture from the high window at the back of the garage. I next tried using a light-weight rake to reach up toward the bird, in the hopes that it would hop on and let me carry it out. This works surprisingly well with the occasional discombobulated hummingbird.

But not so for this Eastern Phoebe. Instead, it fluttered down the back wall, settling on a piece of plywood leaning against the wall, and mostly hidden by another, taller piece of plywood. I did the only thing I could think of. I quietly asked the little bird if it would allow me to pick it up with my hand and carry it to safety. It didn’t move, probably exhausted from its fruitless escape efforts. I chose to interpret its stillness as permission, gently reaching behind the plywood.

The poor, exhausted creature didn’t even struggle in my gentle grasp. I quietly thanked it for its cooperation as I carried it toward the front of the garage. I could feel its heartbeat thrumming through my fingers, otherwise feeling no movement. But as soon as we were clear of the garage, the soft brown bug hunter in my hand began to push against my grasp. I opened my palm and it immediately flew high into a nearby tree, apparently none the worse for its misadventure.

I closed all the garage doors to prevent further accidents, still feeling the heartbeat of that beautiful wild creature in my hand. Not for the first time, it occurred to me how blessed I am to live among the wild ones on our five acres of green chaos. So many people live their entire lives without ever feeling what it’s like to hold a bird in the hand.

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Enriching your Native Landscape

Pots of pipevines awaiting adoption

Pots of Pipevines awaiting adoption at the NC Botanical Garden

When we southeastern US homeowners release ourselves from the notion of a rigidly controlled landscape, magic happens. Instead of spending time shearing defenseless evergreen azaleas and boxwoods into cubes and spheres, or pouring chemicals onto a non-native lawn that you must then mow and fuss over, you can devote your energy to enriching your home landscape with native plants adapted to our region.

Not only will your blood pressure drop as diverse native shrubs, trees, wildflowers, ferns, and vines adorn areas once reserved for sterile sod carpets, our native wildlife — birds, insects, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles — will gratefully seek shelter and food in the havens you create. Suddenly, your home landscape not only contains beautiful and relaxing plants, it is also animated by native wildlife — a win-win for all.

A Northern Cardinal surveys my active floodplain this past March.

A Northern Cardinal surveys my active floodplain this past March.

After you’ve adjusted your thinking about your home landscape to embrace native species, myriad options unfold before you. The purists can plant unhybridized specimens of a plant. These species will be identical to the native vegetation that naturally occurs (where it hasn’t been obliterated) in our region.

For a little more wow factor in your home landscape, many, many wonderful varieties of our native species — called cultivars — have been developed by horticulturalists and are sold at most nurseries. For example, my spectacular specimens of Magnolia — ‘Elizabeth‘ and ‘Butterflies‘ — are both cultivars of our native Magnolia acuminata.

Magnolia 'Elizabeth' flowers

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ flowers

As all gardeners know, creating a landscape is a long-term endeavor. Unlike redecorating the interior of your house, when you implement a landscape design of any kind, you must factor time into the equation. Plants are alive; they start small and grow larger. Weather, disease, and animal predation affect how they grow and whether they flourish. But in my 45+ years of gardening experience in this region, I have learned that if I plant a landscape dominated by a diverse array of well-sited natives, year-round, breath-taking beauty is my reward.

Spring wildflowers like this Trillium start the prolonged display of beautiful natives in my landscape.

Spring wildflowers like this Trillium start the procession of beautiful natives in my landscape.

Autumn is almost upon us, which means now is the time to review your landscape plans, so that you will be ready for the fall plant sales that abound in our region this time of year. Perennials, shrubs, and trees are all best planted during the fall and early winter in our region, because the cooler temperatures encourage root growth, thereby better preparing your new additions for summer heat waves next year.

In central North Carolina where I live, the plant sale I get excited about is the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. The sale is an annual tradition at this Chapel Hill, NC public garden, and the array of healthy native plants available increases every year.

This year, among their many offerings, are two species of Pipevines — Wooly Dutchman’s-pipe (Aristolochia tomentosa) and Pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla).  These shade-loving vines with heart-shaped leaves add vertical interest to a naturalistic landscape, and they produce interesting little flowers that really do resemble tiny pipes. My fanciful brain imagines elves smoking them beneath the abundant fairy rings of toadstools populating my yard.

But I plant this vine mostly because it is the only larval food source for Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies. This is one of our more spectacular large native butterflies, but we don’t see it much in the Piedmont region, because its larval food sources (what the caterpillars eat) are not widely available.

Yes, this means that if you succeed in persuading Pipevine Swallowtails to lay eggs on your Pipevines, the caterpillars will eat holes in the leaves. But these vines are vigorous and perennial. New vines will sprout from the roots the next spring. For my money, a few ragged Pipevine leaves are a small price to pay for seeing Pipevine Swallowtails visiting the nectar-rich flowers I grow nearby.

Creating a rich, diverse native landscape is like choreographing a ballet. Shapes, colors, and forms interweave in a complex dance that differs daily, promising always to entertain and engage observers while feeding and sheltering the dancers.

Consider buying some Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), the only food their  caterpillars eat.

Consider buying some Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), the only food Monarch caterpillars eat.

So, my fellow green-thumbed choreographers, now is the time to patronize your favorite plant sales, preferably first at your local public gardens that use sales proceeds to keep their garden gates open to the public. And if you live within driving distance of Chapel Hill, NC, pencil in a visit to the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale on September 26 (members-only night) or September 27. Options will be numerous; truly there will be plants to suit any growing condition your home landscape may possess. I’ll hope to see some of you there!

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STOP — and Savor Summer’s Waning

Spicebush Swallowtail stops for a drink.

Spicebush Swallowtail stops for a drink.

I’m seeing a variety of reds in my landscape these days, most of it not attributable to leaf color — that will come later. Red flowers and fruits — and related colors in that family — are visible in nearly every corner of my yard. I think of them as stop signals; they alert me to slow down and  linger with the lovelies in my landscape before all that beauty fades.

Ripening seeds are also sporting red colors, signaling wildlife that fruits are ready for consumption.

Cardinal flower

Cardinal flower

Vermillion spires of Cardinal Flowers set fire to shady spots on my floodplain and random, self-sowed corners of perennial beds.

Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Weed

Magenta heads of a cluster of late-blooming Joe Pye Weed glow in a spotlight beam of sun that managed to pierce the dense canopy.

Green frog

Green frog

Green frogs float on my green pond, their bulging eyes watching summer’s waning as they seek unwary winged meals.

Spicebush Swallowtail on a Beauty Basket Zinnia

Spicebush Swallowtail on a Beauty Berry Zinnia

In this year of few butterflies, Spicebush Swallowtails are the most common large butterfly in my landscape, possibly due to the abundance of native spicebushes tucked under the towering canopy trees.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Chinese Abelia bloom

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Chinese Abelia bloom

An occasional Eastern Tiger Swallowtail floats through the humid late-summer heat, unable to resist the potent perfume of the Chinese Abelia bushes dotting the sunnier parts of my landscape.

Umbrella Magnolia seed cones

Umbrella Magnolia seed cones

The native Umbrella Magnolia that thrives beside the creek produced quite a few seed cones this year. Even tucked into deep shade, the ripe cones stop my forward progress, demanding admiration.

Scarlet Wild Basil

Scarlet Wild Basil

 

Native to the Sandhills region of NC, my Scarlet Wild Basil continues to produce abundant orange-red blossoms, drawing daily visits from hummingbirds, and admiring questions from visitors.

Spicebush Swallowtail on Milkweed flower

Spicebush Swallowtail on Milkweed flower

Like hummingbirds, Spicebush Swallowtails often hover as they feed, blurring my photographs as they rush to drink all they can before summer’s flowers disappear.

Maple-leaf viburnum berries

Mapleleaf Viburnum berries

As soon as they are fully ripe, the reddened berries on native Mapleleaf Viburnum are devoured by wildlife.

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis

Slowly and methodically, the Praying Mantises in my landscape grow fat on the insect bounty attracted to summer’s blooms. This one hunted from a large lantana beside my front door for three days, then moved on to new territory.

Everywhere I look, Nature’s signals are clear. Animals fatten, seeds ripen, blooms explode in late-summer splendor. All feel the changing angle of the sun as it makes its daily trek across the sky. Soon, too soon, cold air will descend from the North, browning flora, scattering fauna.

But every gardener knows that winter sleeps are essential rhythms in Nature’s dance. The pauses make the crescendos that much more powerful.

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Interlude

About now most late summers I am moaning about the dog days. Anyone who has lived in my region for long knows exactly what I’m talking about. High temperatures, higher humidities, stagnant air so thick you need scuba gear to get from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car. But not this year. At least not in my part of North Carolina.

Currently in full bloom in my yard, the Plumleaf Azalea is a hummingbird magnet.

Currently in full bloom in my yard, the Plumleaf Azalea is a hummingbird magnet.

We’ve had a few hot spells — afternoons when only the jewel-colored dragonflies move with alacrity. But as soon as we are well hunkered down to endure the swelters, a Canadian air mass comes swooshing down, bringing us unusually low high temperatures and several days in a row of steady, off-and-on rain. As I squish around my yard during non-rainy moments, I wonder if this is what it’s like to live in the Pacific Northwest.

Eager mushrooms are popping up everywhere.

Eager mushrooms are popping up everywhere.

Of course, this interlude from our typical late summer weather has a price — fungus. I don’t begrudge the toadstools sprouting everywhere. They usually wait until late September/October to appear, but this is their kind of weather.

The fungus I’m not so fond of afflicts my vegetable garden. The zucchinis have all surrendered to a combination of fungus and squash vine borer attacks. The tomatoes are losing their lower branches to fungus. Fruits are growing ugly black spots. Unless we get a dry heat wave, they won’t hang on much longer. The biggest surprise are the beans. Both Fortex (pole) and Jade (bush) are still astonishingly productive. The cosmos flowers are on the verge of surrender. But the Berry Basket zinnias party on.

Berry Basket Zinnias

Berry Basket Zinnias

Plants and animals proceed with their life cycles as best they can, obeying the calendar more than the weather. Seed production is in full evidence.

Milkweed pods opening to disperse their contents.

Milkweed pods opening to disperse their contents.

Our two months of unusually dry weather reduced seed cone production among my deciduous magnolias, but they still sport some reddening cones.

Umbrella Magnolia cone with friend

Umbrella Magnolia cone with friend

Late-summer wildflowers are starting to show off in earnest. Early goldenrods brighten the edges of woodlands, and Monkey Flowers adorn the floodplain.

Goldenrods are just beginning to glow.

Goldenrods are just beginning to glow.

Some flowers are fruiting and flowering together, like my native coral honeysuckle variety, ‘Major Wheeler.’ The berries are actually brighter red than the flowers.

Lonicera sempervirens 'Major Wheeler'

Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’

The tadpoles metamorphosing in our little front water feature decided last weekend’s prolonged damp, cool weather was ideal for emergence to full-time air-breathing status. Monday morning, we spotted about a dozen froglets nestled on plants adjacent to the water, most sporting bits of tadpole tail not yet fully resorbed.

Probably a Copes Gray Tree froglet

Probably a Copes Gray Tree froglet

The Copes Gray Tree Frogs laid their eggs in late spring. But the ensuing dry spell deprived us of their nightly serenades — a lullaby I enjoy most summers. But with the return of rain, they are back, at least on warmer nights. Perhaps the crop of newly hatched tadpoles helped to encourage the large ones to leave their birth pond.

Some of the froglets were green, some bronze, but my camera couldn't do them justice.

Some of the froglets were green, some bronze, but my camera couldn’t do them justice.

Plants and animals seem to be using these interludes to gather themselves toward the push to autumn. The froglets meditated on their leafy perches for about two days before disappearing deeper into the vegetation when the sun returned.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds used the rainy interludes to chug down as much sugar water from my feeder as they could.

Only males have ruby throats. Juveniles and females have white throats.

Only males have ruby throats. Juveniles and females have white throats.

The flowers they prefer to dine on were mostly closed for business during the cool rains. All the newly fledged birds from this year and their parents crowd the feeder from dawn to full darkness. I count six to eight birds jockeying for feeding slots all day long.

They rarely sit still together.

They rarely sit still together.

Male birds are especially intent on fattening up. They’ll be the first to head south to their tropical winter nesting sites, so they can claim the best territories before the females return. I usually notice they are gone by mid-September. The last stragglers generally stop visiting my feeder in early October.

Peaceful interludes rarely last long.

Peaceful interludes rarely last long.

All the natives — hummingbirds, froglets, praying mantises, writing spiders, magnolias, milkweeds, dogwoods — feel the summer slipping ever more quickly past. Whether we see more rainy interludes or swelter through late summer, they know time grows short.

Now is the time to hunker down and finish summer projects, plan fall gardens, and anticipate winter seed catalog dreaming sessions nestled by a crackling fire with a hot cup of cocoa.

Like the natural world surrounding me, I am using these unusual rainy, cool interludes to rest and recharge, knowing that every time the sun returns, weed explosions will add to my nearly infinite gardening to-do list.

A carpenter bee dozes on a Queen Sophia marigold as it waits for the sun to return.

A carpenter bee dozes on a Queen Sophia marigold as it waits for the sun to return.

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River Oats: A Native Grass Worth Adding to your Landscape

Chasmanthium latifolium

Chasmanthium latifolium

I apologize for the less-than-stellar photo. It was windy, and all those dangly seed heads were dancing merrily with every gust. River Oats are a lovely native grass suitable for moist, shady spots in your piedmont garden. Native to the Carolinas and Georgia, it occurs naturally on the banks of rivers and streams, bottomland forests, and other wet spots, especially in fertile soils. It has a number of other common names, including Inland Sea Oats, Indian Wood Oats, Wild Oats, Flathead Oats, and Upland Oats.

It looks a lot like a coastal grass famous for stabilizing our sand dunes: Sea Oats (Uniola paniculata). If you’ve visited our southeastern US sand dunes, you’ve likely been told not to pick the Sea Oats, because their roots help prevent sand dunes from moving. When you pick the pretty seed heads for arrangements, you reduce the species’ chances for propagating and thereby stabilizing more dunes.

River Oats have no such restrictions. And they are lovely long-lasting additions to dried flower arrangements. They are one of the few native shade-tolerant grasses that grow well in the southeastern piedmont, and they’re also very easy to establish — as long as you give them decent soil and a bit of moisture.

River Oats forms clumps. Flower stalks range between 2-4 feet. Mine stay about 2.5 feet tall. I grow mine at the bottom of my north slope garden that is now enclosed by a deer fence. But even before that fence was in place, the deer never even nibbled on this grass. As is true of just about all our native grasses, the deer ignore them.

These grasses would be ideal in a rain garden — a low spot in your yard where water collects after rains. That extra bit of moisture is all they need — as long as they’re also in the shade. Because they’re clumpers, they mix well with other moisture-loving native flowers, such as Swamp Milkweed. River Oats also work as part of potted plant arrangements — as long as they are sited on a shady porch and adequately watered.

If you don’t cut the mature seed stalks for flower arrangements, they will morph from summer ivory to an autumnal soft brown, eventually weathering to a silvery gray by late winter. By then, most of the seeds will have been devoured by small mammals and grain-loving birds. The leaves are a food source for several species of native skipper butterflies.

I planted three pots of River Oats around a large boulder at the bottom of my hill over 20 years ago. Very gradually, the clumps have grown, and just a few seeds missed by animals have created new plants. The boulder now has a soft and lovely green skirt of River Oats, topped much of the year by dancing dangling seed heads. I highly recommend this native grass to all piedmont gardeners, especially to those with shady damp spots in their yards.

And while I’m writing of wet spots, I must share this recent photo of one of the many dragonflies that patrol the numerous wet areas in my yard. This one was lingering around the front water feature. We think we’ve even identified it, but if I’ve got it wrong, I hope an Odonata expert will set me right.

Spangled Skimmer

Spangled Skimmer

 

 

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Finally, Rain!

A suddenly abundant Silver-spotted Skipper enjoys a refreshed zinnia.

One of the suddenly abundant Silver-spotted Skippers enjoys a refreshed zinnia.

Two months to the day after the last drenching, inch+ rain event on my yard, the rains finally returned. My rain gauge registered almost exactly a two-inch total for the event. Of course, the airport a mere 30 miles away measured over twice that, but I’m willing to overlook that this time.

The only puddle that remained by this morning was in the driveway, and its size was modest compared to previous puddles. When I walked the floodplain this morning, the ground was not muddy anywhere, but it was at least not dusty anymore. And the grass grew half a foot overnight, of course.

Even though the rains came down hard for much of the event, little managed to run off into our creek. I know this, because the creek water level is still quite low. The water is muddy, but barely flowing — still an improvement over the thin thread that occupied that space a few days ago.

The little pond I showed you in my previous post is not full to the top, but the level did rise. Compare the following two photos to those in the previous post.

The pond level rose, but not to the top.

The pond level rose, but not to the top.

Compare this to the close-up view from my previous post:

Better, but not ideal.

Better, but not ideal.

Last weekend, Wonder Spouse decided to harvest his remaining two potato bags. The heat and drought were making the plants look pretty sad, and he was worried the tubers below might be adversely impacted if he waited any longer.

I showed you the harvest of Viking Purple potatoes in the previous post. All three varieties Wonder Spouse grew this year began as a pound apiece of seed potatoes. From that, his yield was 6.3 pounds of Viking Reds.

Viking Red potato harvest

Viking Red potato harvest

The new variety he tried this year, Marris Piper, yielded 7.3 pounds of smaller potatoes.

Marris Piper yield with a pine cone for scale.

Marris Piper yield with a pine cone for scale.

Potatoes are never tastier than when they are freshly harvested, and we have been enjoying frequent potato feasts. Any way you prepare them, the flavor is astonishing if you’ve never eaten anything but old tubers from the grocery store bins.

The other vegetables remain productive despite the drought. In fact, I suspect that the drought is the reason they are still doing so well. During last year’s highly unusual rainy, cool summer, the beans, tomatoes, and squashes all succumbed to fungal diseases quite early in the summer. This year, I’m still picking lovely zucchinis. Two of the six plants have surrendered to the evil squash vine borers, but the other four are still valiantly producing, aided, I suspect, by numerous enthusiastic honeybees from my neighbor’s hive. Thanks, neighbor!

A soggy carpenter bee dries out beneath a cosmos flower, where it likely sought shelter from yesterday's rains.

A soggy carpenter bee dries out beneath a cosmos flower, where it likely sought shelter from yesterday’s rains.

Speaking of pollinators, the almost completely absent butterfly population is finally showing signs of returning, no doubt aided by recent rains. The local experts on the lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) chatlist are theorizing that the previous unusually cold and sometimes wet winter killed most of the overwintering larval stage of these insects. We’re finally beginning to see some, probably migrants from areas that weren’t so adversely impacted.

So far in my yard, I’m still seeing almost no swallowtails, but the little skippers and other small butterflies are now showing up in the numbers I expect, especially now that the flowers have been fortified by adequate (for now) rain.

A battered Pearl Crescent rests on a milkweed leaf. I've seen no Monarchs this year, alas.

A battered Pearl Crescent rests on a milkweed leaf. I’ve seen no Monarchs this year, alas.

I did spot the first bright green Praying Mantis of the summer a few days ago. It was loitering in a marigold growing next to my beans. I usually don’t notice these predators until about this time of year, as they grow larger in preparation for egg laying.

Speaking of egg-laying, just before the rains hit yesterday afternoon, I noticed the Carolina Wrens nesting in a pot on my back deck were covertly flying back and forth — a sign that at least one of the four speckled eggs they’d been tending had hatched. I tried to get a peek this morning, but only managed to annoy a damp Mrs. Wren snuggled inside the nest.

 

That's her unblinking eye staring at me.

That’s her unblinking eye staring at me.

A bonus with the rain is an influx of below-normal cooler and drier air, which is predicted to linger for several days. For me, that means I’m out of excuses regarding weeding and other plant-maintenance tasks. But with moistened ground and a refreshing air mass, digging in the dirt will be a pleasure, not a hardship.

The rains are predicted to return in a few days. Perhaps now that my yard has been re-moistened, some of the future juicy clouds will choose to visit soon.

Here’s hoping all our gardens receive the rain they need to flourish.

Welcome back!

Welcome back!

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