Recent Arrivals

Asclepias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa

Although summer heat and drought continue unabated, the quality of sunlight at dawn and dusk has changed. First, dawn is coming later, dusk earlier. But also the angle of the light is changing. Now the sun’s rays spend more time slanting through the trees, golden arrows that spotlight lichen-covered bark, a bit of mossy ground, or a bright cardinal posing on a branch.

Fortex bean trellis

Fortex bean trellis

Both pole and bush beans are losing leaves to time and fungus, but still their growing tips actively push out new shoots and flowers. I’m doling out water to them from the shallow well about every third day, and picking tasty beans about as often. It’s been a good year for the beans.

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

The tomatoes are also still producing, albeit much less enthusiastically. As usual, Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes win the prize for prolonged productivity. If I could give them more water, I’m sure they would produce even more heavily, but a handful of fruits every other day is more than enough to quell our tomato hankerings.

Broccoli tent

Broccoli tent

Last weekend at the local farmers’ market, a gentleman was selling vigorous seedlings of a number of broccoli, chard, and collard varieties. I never get around to starting fall crops in time, because my little greenhouse is too hot this time of year. I couldn’t resist the healthy broccoli babies. I got 6 Packman — a southern standard in these parts — and 6 Arcadia — a variety I’ve never tried that is supposed to be very cold-resistant, thereby extending the broccoli season into late fall — theoretically, anyway. We love fall broccoli at my house, because the frosts seem to sweeten them, but there’s a fine line between frost and freeze, and you can’t always predict when that line will be crossed.

Enter my little tent above. Yesterday, I planted my broccoli babies, mulched them with compost, and watered them very, very thoroughly. I draped spun garden fabric over metal hoops to enclose the plants completely. Right now, that’s mainly to keep out the cabbage moths that love to lay their eggs on broccoli, resulting in green loopers chomping the plants to stubs. As cooler temperatures arrive, the tent will protect the plants from frost damage; sometimes it even deflects the first few freezes. I leave one side loosely tacked down so that I can lift it easily for watering, because even though the fabric does let water through, much does bounce off. And the rains continue to avoid my house anyway. We are so very dry here that it hurts me to walk around the yard and see all my suffering, wilting green friends.

Writing spider breakfasting on her latest victim

Writing spider breakfasting on her latest victim

The Writing Spider whose web was draped parallel to the tomato trellis relocated herself. Now she has anchored her home to the trellis on one side and a tall basil plant on the other, stretching across a garden path to optimize her chances of catching unwary fliers. I think it’s working for her, as you can see.

Sunflower multiplicity

Sunflower multiplicity

Of the five sunflowers (Sunflower ‘Birds and Bees’ from Renee’s Garden) that managed to grow for me this dry summer season, four produced single large flowers on top of their stalks, while this one, which bloomed last, produced multiple, smaller heads. The pollinators seem to feel that size doesn’t matter.

Black swallowtail caterpillars

Black swallowtail caterpillars

A few insect species that I normally see by June have only just recently appeared in my garden this year. Case in point: Black Swallowtails and their caterpillars. Finally, the bronze fennel I plant especially for their caterpillars to dine on is covered in these colorful, voracious critters.

Carolina mantis

Carolina mantis

After only seeing the Chinese mantises all summer, I was quite relieved to spot this native Carolina Mantis staked out on my Autumn Daffodil daylily in the front garden. They are much smaller and differently colored. This one did not like being photographed and kept jumping about, hence the slightly blurred photos.

Waiting for unwary pollinators

Waiting for unwary pollinators

That’s the tip of a daylily petal, so you can see how relatively small this one was. I don’t think it was full-grown, but this species never attains the size of the Chinese mantises that often displace them from their preferred habitats.

Pipevine Swallowtail

Pipevine Swallowtail

The most abundant dark swallowtail butterfly in my yard is the Spicebush Swallowtail, probably because the shrub for which it is named grows all over my yard. Finally yesterday I spotted my first Pipevine Swallowtail. The shimmery blue of their hind wings is unmistakeable, but it is very hard to get a decent photo of them, because they drink nectar while hovering — just like hummingbirds. In photo after photo, I end up with motion-blurred wings.

The blue hind wings shimmer like water dancing in sunlight.

The blue hind wings shimmer like water dancing in sunlight.

I planted some native pipevines two years ago in the hopes of attracting more of these beauties. I suspect the drought may have damaged them; I’ve been afraid to look, because I just don’t have any water for them.

Golden wings of this dragonfly shimmered in the sunlight too.

Golden wings of this dragonfly shimmered in the sunlight too.

This dragonfly showed up a few days ago and posed on one of my ornamental grasses. I’ve never seen dragonfly wings edged in gold before.

Formosa lily blooms signal summer's waning.

Formosa lily blooms signal summer’s waning.

Tall Formosa Lilies lean from the weight of their enormous white trumpets. Their sugary fragrance perfumes the humid morning air.

Finally!

Finally!

I’ll close with this somewhat fuzzy shot. The point here is that I managed to get two Eastern Tiger Swallowtails in one photo. For most of the summer, even this common species has been sparse. Finally, in the last week, they are everywhere, drifting from blooming abelia to bright lantana to Joe Pye Weed and Cardinal Flower. Finally, I am having to walk carefully to avoid colliding with these floating lovelies.

It’s been a long, dry summer, and we’ve more to go before autumn arrives. It lifts my spirits to see these recent arrivals. Better late than never, as the saying goes.

Now if we can just persuade that tropical system out in the Atlantic Ocean to send its moisture — but not its winds — our way, that would be a fine ending for this season, and a great opener for the next.

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Ashes, ashes, all fall down

Top of a canopy Green Ash on my floodplain

Top of a canopy Green Ash on my floodplain

This past weekend, I walked the floodplain portion of my yard to count the number of Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) trees growing on it. Thirty-seven trees – 17 females, 20 males – most between 50 to 70 feet tall are the dominant canopy species in this part of our property, about an acre and a half. My adjacent neighbors’ properties also include floodplain areas that are dominated by Green Ash trees.

I was devastated when I realized how completely Green Ashes dominate the canopy layer of the healthy wetland that I live beside, because in less than ten years – more likely less than five, it is a near certainty that they will all be dead – felled by a tiny green insect from Asia that no one has been able to stop: the Emerald Ash Borer.

Trunk of a canopy Green Ash

Trunk of a canopy Green Ash

The insect has already killed “tens of millions of ash trees in southeastern Michigan alone, with tens of millions more lost in Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina. Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Quebec, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin”. Here’s a link to a current map of infected states that is maintained by the Emerald Ash Borer Clearinghouse (Click on the down arrow to move through time to 2015 and watch how many states become infected). The insect is expected to continue spreading until it has killed every ash tree species in North America.

Southeastern US Ash Species

In the southeastern piedmont region of the US where I live, four species of ash are native. Three are wetland species: Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), Carolina Ash (F. caroliniana), and Pumpkin Ash (F. profunda). As is evident on my floodplain, these three are important species in wetlands, and when they are felled by the Emerald Ash Borer, the transformation such areas undergo will be profound. White Ash (F. americana) prefers deep, well-drained soils. Its wood has been used for centuries to make fine furniture, baseball bats, and any other wooden item that needs to be strong and lasting. It has been used extensively as a landscape tree.

Ashes have compound, opposite leaves, which help create shady moist woodlands beneath their canopies.

Ashes have compound, opposite leaves, which help create shady moist woodlands beneath their canopies.

Animals that rely on ash trees

Humans aren’t the only living creatures who have relied on ash trees for centuries. According to Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy in his book Bringing Nature Home, ash trees support at least 150 species of moths and butterflies – more than hazelnut, walnut, beech, or chestnut. Moths whose caterpillars rely on ash trees include the Promethea Moth, Apple Sphinx Moth, Fawn Sphinx Moth, Great Ash Sphinx, and Banded Tussock Moth. Butterflies whose caterpillars rely on it include Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Hickory Hairstreak, Mourning Cloak, Red-spotted Purple, Giant Sulphur, and Orange Sulphur.

Caterpillars of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails rely on ash trees for food.

Caterpillars of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails rely on ash trees for food.

White ash is an important source of browse and cover for deer. Its seeds are consumed by wood ducks, northern bobwhites, purple finches, pine grosbeaks, fox squirrels, mice, and many other birds and small mammals. The bark of young trees is occasionally eaten by beavers, porcupines, and rabbits. Because of its tendency to form trunk cavities if its top is broken, mature white ashes are highly valued as nesting sites by cavity nesters such as red-headed and pileated woodpeckers, and then secondary nesters such as wood ducks, owls, nuthatches, and gray squirrels.

The same species also utilize green ashes, and game birds such as wood ducks, grouse, northern bobwhites, and wild turkeys use green ash habitats heavily. Green ash woodlands often shelter the highest numbers of bark-foraging and ground-nesting bird species.

Eastern Cottontails enjoy the seeds of ash trees.

Eastern Cottontails enjoy the seeds of ash trees.

What will all these creatures do for food and shelter when every ash tree in North America is dead? No one can predict the future with certainty, but we can look at what has happened in southeastern Michigan, where this has already happened. Massive gaps in forest cover have favored the invasion of non-native invasive plant species. Japanese honeysuckle, for example, is starting to look like kudzu looks in the Southeast. Soil chemistries are changing, as are water cycling patterns, making it more difficult for remaining native species to maintain themselves. All the dead trees initially favored cavity-nesting birds. So the first few years after the ashes died, woodpeckers and other cavity nesters were more abundant. But the profound disruption in the ash-dominant ecosystems soon led to drastic reductions in the insect species the cavity nesters feed on. No insects means no birds. It’s Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring all over again – only this time the culprit is not DDT, but a non-native invasive insect that cannot be stopped.

What is being done?

Ash species in China – the home of the Emerald Ash Borer – appear to be resistant to this insect. Scientists are trying to figure out how to incorporate that genetic resistance into North American ash species. To that end, they are frantically saving as much ash seed as they can, in the hopes that, someday, they can re-introduce the species with genetic modifications that incorporate Asian resistance to Emerald Ash Borer.

Like charms on a bracelet, female ash trees (the species is dioecious) dangle seed clusters from slender branches.

Like charms on a bracelet, female ash trees (the species is dioecious) dangle seed clusters from slender branches.

That’s the dream. They aren’t there yet. And no one knows how long all the animals that need ash trees can survive without them. No one knows how ecosystems in which ash trees have been essential components for thousands upon thousands of years will handle such a massive disruption – the extinction of a key ecosystem component.

What can we do?

In the face of the inevitable destruction of all our ash trees, what should we do? Information is always our ally, so stay current on developments regarding the Emerald Ash Borer and any potentially resistant North American ash species. At the end of this post, you’ll find a list of links to get you started.

Typical branching structure of a canopy Green Ash

Typical branching structure of a canopy Green Ash

What am I doing?

As for my Green ash-dominated 1.5-acre floodplain, I’m going to start planting other tree species that I know are adapted to similar growing conditions, starting with the species that are already there, and adding more of some additional species that I have already added that appear to be doing well.

But note, this is a total Hail Mary on my part. The trees I’ll be adding will be young. I’ll be long gone before they can attain canopy height. Thirty-seven canopy-sized (50-70-feet tall) ash trees are way too many trees for me to remove as they die. This means dead ash trees will be dropping pieces of themselves all over the place, most likely including on top of other species growing beneath them.

Right now, wildflowers like this Monkeyflower thrive beneath the canopy of Green Ashes on my floodplain. Will they remain when the ashes are gone?

Right now, wildflowers like this Monkeyflower thrive beneath the canopy of Green Ashes on my floodplain. Will they remain when the ashes are gone?

Additionally, I can’t predict what changes in soil chemistry and water and nutrient cycling will occur. My new additions may not be able to handle these changes.

And the pressure from invasive exotic plant species is already enormous on my property. I spend more time and money on their removal than any other landscaping aspect by far. I may not have the resources to prevent invasive plant species from outcompeting remaining species and my new additions.

Will Japanese honeysuckle take over when the ashes are gone?

Will Japanese honeysuckle take over when the ashes are gone?

But the alternative is to do nothing, to throw up my hands and walk away, and I can’t do that. The green world is what keeps me going – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I will fight for its survival until I can fight no longer.

You suburban and urban gardeners with no ash trees on your properties may think you’ve dodged a bullet this time, but in fact, you only perhaps have a bit more time to prepare for other battles before us. Already in areas where ash trees are gone, another tree in the same plant family is being attacked: White Fringtree (Chionanthus virginicus).

Will our spring-blooming native White Fringetrees be victims of the Emerald Ash Borer too?

Will our spring-blooming native White Fringetrees be victims of the Emerald Ash Borer too?

A new gardening paradigm may be our best hope

Your best weapon will be vibrantly healthy home ecosystems. That is why my proposal for 21st-century gardens across the United States is so critical. Every patch of green will be essential to the survival of native animals and plants. Sterile, chemically controlled fescue lawns won’t help them. Healthy, vibrant, beautiful native landscapes might just save them.

The Emerald Ash Borer is now in the county adjacent to mine. It won’t be long before it finds my beautiful ash-shaded wetland. If you live in the southeastern piedmont in areas with ash trees, I encourage you to take your children, your grandchildren – or any child for that matter – to visit healthy ash trees now. Go appreciate the beauty of their dangling seeds, their compound opposite leaves, their gray furrowed trunks. Lock these images into your memories now, for soon they will be all you have left.

Appreciate the furrowed bark of ash trees while you can.

Appreciate the furrowed bark of ash trees while you can.

Resources:

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Pollinator Palooza

Feather-legged fly

Feather-legged fly

I have been spending way too much time outside with the camera lately. I’m not sure whether the diversity of pollinators in my garden has expanded this year, or I just wasn’t paying attention until now — mostly because I never had a camera that could come close to capturing these tiny, very active insects.

Well, mostly tiny. That very cool-looking creature above is actually relatively large, maybe the size of one of our common carpenter bees. Those “feathered” back legs are its diagnostic feature. It was bouncing around on my bronze fennel flowers.

It always held out its wings like this.

It always held out its wings like this.

As I mentioned on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page earlier, this fly is a garden ally, not just for its pollination prowess. Its larvae parasitize the larvae of squash bugs and green stink bugs. Bring on the feather-legs!

A scoliid wasp maybe?

A scoliid wasp maybe?

This one was much smaller and also on the fennel flowers. Its red body-black head and wings conjures in my admittedly strange mind a mini-superhero pollinator.

Ready to leap into action?

Ready to leap into action?

All of these little wasps, bees, and flies are covered in tiny hairs that catch pollen.

A scoliid wasp, I think, enjoying the tiny flowers of my Greek oregano.

A scoliid wasp, I think, enjoying the tiny flowers of my Greek oregano.

I’ve learned that scoliid wasps come in a dazzling array of colors and stripes. All have larval forms that parasitize scarab beetle larvae, many of which are also garden pests. Until I had a camera that could capture these tiny beauties, I never realized how diversely wonderful they are.

Another scold maybe?

Another scoliid wasp maybe?

I ponder the shape of this one and wonder how such tiny “waists” are adaptive.

Perhaps another scoliid wasp -- this one with reddish-yellow stripes.

Perhaps another scoliid wasp — this one with reddish-yellow stripes.

The oregano and fennel flowers — both tiny and numerous — seem to attract the most diverse array of pollinators. This fall, I’m going to add some new perennials that will produce similar flower clusters. I want to attract all the squash bug and beetle eaters that I can!

The honeybees like the oregano flowers too.

The honeybees like the oregano flowers too.

Many different bumblebees, carpenter bees, and honeybees were all over the fennel and oregano too, but not dominantly so. The bees seemed to prefer anise hyssop flowers, zinnia blooms, and the abelias currently perfuming the humid air.

A buckeye enjoying oregano flowers.

A Common Buckeye enjoying oregano flowers.

The butterflies are still around too, but still not as numerous as I’d like. I still haven’t seen a Monarch, although sitings not far from me have been reported.

A battered Red Admiral enjoying abelia flowers.

A battered Red Admiral enjoying abelia flowers.

Far more numerous than the butterflies are the dragonflies. I think they are largely responsible for the ragged look of many of the butterflies.

They patrol the skies from dawn to dusk.

They patrol the skies from dawn to dusk.

Writing spider finishing her breakfast

Writing spider finishing her breakfast

Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed the pollinator palooza going on in my garden. The predators become more numerous daily. In addition to the sky dragons, spiders are setting up shop between tomato plants, on the bean trellis, among the tall zinnias — anywhere that’s likely to intercept the flight path of an unwary pollinator.

An Asian Praying Mantis doing its best to imitate a bronze fennel bloom stalk

An Asian Praying Mantis doing its best to imitate a bronze fennel bloom stalk

This mantis set up shop in the bronze fennel several days ago. It’s still there, so I’m thinking it is enjoying picking off the busy pollinators visiting the flowers just above this predator’s head.

Pollinators beware!

Pollinators beware!

When the mantis is extra hungry, it eschews its disguise, preferring to perch boldly right on top of the flowers.

Wheelbug on a fennel stem

Wheelbug on a fennel stem

This wheel bug moved in on the mantis’s fennel turf yesterday. They are ignoring each other, so I guess there are enough delicious pollinators to go around.

Small skink in the boulder garden

Small skink in the boulder garden

Of course, pollinators also need to be wary of non-insect predators like this young skink, which was chasing Pearl Crescent butterflies in the boulder garden.

Green frog on rim of water feature

Green frog on rim of water feature

As always happens in summer, mature green frogs have moved into my little water feature. Here they are safe from predators, such as water snakes, and can focus on being predators themselves.

Ailanthus Web Worm moth on Joe Pye Weed flowers

Ailanthus Web Worm moth on Joe Pye Weed flowers

I’m picking beans and tomatoes every day, thanks in large part, I’m sure, to all these busy pollinators. But that productivity won’t last much longer, unless summer rains decide to visit my yard. In the last few weeks, all the storms have missed me. My creek has stopped flowing; it’s just a series of puddles between sand bars at the moment. Here’s hoping some juicy clouds have pity on my yard soon.

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Garden Arrivals and Departures

spider

The Writing Spiders have grown large enough to make their presence known throughout the landscape. The yellow-and-black beauties that scrawl squiggles in their webs are probably about half grown now — big enough to spot, sited strategically among bean vines and trellised tomatoes. They know where the tasty bugs are to be found. I don’t argue with them, as long as they don’t cast their webs across the rows where I must walk. There’s nothing like a face full of spider silk to wake a sleepy gardener from her early morning harvesting tasks.

buckeye open

Butterflies continue to increase in numbers and species diversity — finally! The online butterfly group I follow seems to think they are the result of a second reproductive wave that has been vastly more successful than the first one. Whatever the reason, I am happy to see them animate my landscape as they float from zinnia to anise hyssop to abelia to coneflower.

sick coneflowers

Recently, flowers of one Purple Coneflower and one Black-eyed Susan morphed into blooms that looked as if they belonged in a Dr. Seuss book. A quick search of the Web revealed they were afflicted with a disease called Aster Yellows. This disease is spread by leafhoppers; they inject the responsible organism when they feed on the plants. No cures are available. To avoid spreading the disease, the experts advise removal of the plants — and disposal in the trash, not the compost pile.

sick coneflower

The disease can affect over 300 plant species, and grasses and weeds can act as reservoirs for the disease. Two of the most likely weed reservoirs are plantains and dandelions, both of which abound in my “lawn.” Symptoms of the disease vary with the infected species, but the Dr. Seuss-like flower tops are apparently key clues. The infected coneflower also had green, sickly petals — another sign.

sick Susan

The leaves of the coneflower looked green and healthy, and even the flowers didn’t look too bad, just strange. However, the infected Black-eyed Susan was clearly sick. Like the coneflower, it had the strange growths in the centers of its flowers, but the leaves were also yellowing and dying.

sick Susan2

I photographed the infected flowers and then disposed of them. The link above also notes that the infection can be spread between plants via dead-heading, if you don’t wipe off your clippers with alcohol between plants. The disease was probably isolated to only these two plants in my garden because I don’t dead-head coneflowers or rudbeckias. I prefer to let them set seed, so the goldfinches and other seed eaters can enjoy them.

poke milkweed flowers2

The Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) that I planted last fall is blooming. Compared to the showier butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), it is a demure plant. But I find I like the pendulous pale pink flowers. Alas, so far its flowers have attracted more ants than bees or butterflies. Still, it’s there if the Monarchs manage to find my garden.

Amelia tomatoes

I’m picking tomatoes and beans daily again, now that the temperatures backed down to the low 90s and we’ve had some rain. And the basil is having an excellent year. I cut whole stems of it for a vase in the kitchen, so that Wonder Spouse has leaves handy as inspiration moves him to add them to his culinary masterpieces.

The rains have also inspired the weeds to new heights and numbers. Truly, a gardener’s work is never done. I do the best I can, as I observe and enjoy the comings and goings of flora and fauna through their seasonal dance.

spider close

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Insects own High Summer

green dragon

 

The heat and humidity have begun to wear on plants as well as humans in my patch of Piedmont. I saw a notice from a local extension agent that dreaded basil mildew disease has been spotted. I think it held off longer than usual — as did most of the fungal diseases — because our June was unusually dry and hot.

A Milkweed bug

A Milkweed bug

July has brought heavy, but scattered rains, and lingering humidity and heat. Fungal diseases are certain to soon plague my tomatoes, and perhaps the beans. The vegetables, while still producing well, are looking a bit tired. Many flowers are still blooming well, which the abundant insects are clearly appreciating.

damselfly mystery

The nearly butterfly-free summer continues at my house. Iridescent members of the dragonfly clan dominate the thick air, causing me to worry about the fate of the few butterflies I am seeing. The rains have finally brought around a few butterflies, I’m happy to say.

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was enjoying the Chinese Abelia flowers that finally opened after we got some rain.

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was enjoying the Chinese Abelia flowers that finally opened after we got some rain.

No clouds of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails this year, but a few are passing through from time to time. Pearl Crescents (I think that’s what they are) are easily the most numerous butterflies on my flowers.

A Pearl Crescent enjoying a Rudbeckia flower.

A Pearl Crescent enjoying a Rudbeckia flower.

I spotted a couple of dark swallowtails over the last few days.

Also on the Chinese Abelia flowers

Also on the Chinese Abelia flowers

And this one high up on a dogwood yesterday was drying out after a bit of rain from the previous evening.

A Spicebush Swallowtail maybe?

A Spicebush Swallowtail maybe?

My happiest butterfly moment of the summer so far was this Red Admiral sunning itself on my driveway yesterday. This is the first one of this species I’ve seen all year.

Welcome back, Red Admiral!

Welcome back, Red Admiral!

More numerous — by a bit — than the butterflies are the sphinx moths, also called hummingbird moths, because their mostly clear wings vibrate as quickly as those of hummingbirds as they hover beside flowers to drink nectar. As an amateur photographer, I find them very frustrating to capture. But I’ve gotten a few almost decent shots over the last few days, if you’ll indulge me.

This is typically how I see them, wings nearly invisible as they hover for a drink.

This is typically how I see them, wings nearly invisible as they hover for a drink.

In this hover shot, you can at least see the outline of their wings.

In this hover shot, you can at least see the outline of their wings.

Yesterday, I saw one spread out on a tomato leaf sunning itself in the early dawn light. We had very heavy dew on the ground, and I think it was drying itself.

Finally, you can actually see its beautiful wings in this shot.

Finally, you can actually see its beautiful wings in this shot.

And a final profile shot as it rested on the tomato leaf:

These creatures are so ethereal as they almost perpetually dance among my flowers that I think of them as tiny angels blessing my efforts.

These creatures are so ethereal as they almost perpetually dance among my flowers that I think of them as tiny angels blessing my efforts.

I’ll close this photo post with a few flower shots to show you what the insects are enjoying.

Seed-grown Rudbeckia 'Cappuccino' has turned into a stunning plant seemingly oblivious to the heat and humidity. Score!

Seed-grown Rudbeckia ‘Cappuccino’ has turned into a stunning plant seemingly oblivious to the heat and humidity. Score!

Echinaceas in the boulder garden are covered in pollinators from dawn to dark. That's a rosemary plant in the middle. It loves the heat from the sun-warmed rocks.

Echinaceas in the boulder garden are covered in pollinators from dawn to dark. That’s a rosemary plant in the middle. It loves the heat from the sun-warmed rocks.

The milkweeds I added to the boulder garden last fall continue to bloom -- repeatedly! This butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is on its second round of bright blossoms.

The milkweeds I added to the boulder garden last fall continue to bloom — repeatedly! This butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is on its second round of bright blossoms.

The rain made the weeds explode into productivity, of course. My gardening to-do list grows ever longer, while my enthusiasm for working in the summer weather continues to wane. Still, for fresh-picked blueberries, juicy tomato sandwiches, and a dazzling array of pollinators, I’ll endeavor to keep up as best I can.

Amelia tomatoes -- so good!

Amelia tomatoes — so good!

Stay cool and hydrated, ya’ll. Fall planting season will be here before we can turn around twice.

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The Twenty-First Century American Garden: My View

Anyone not sleep-walking through life is aware that Planet Earth is metamorphosing into a world never seen by humanity before. Rapid urbanization, consequent deforestation and habitat destruction, invading animals and plants, epic levels of environmental pollution – all are driven largely by human population growth that most experts believe is already well beyond sustainable levels. These enormous problems cannot be solved by legions of gardeners, but we can alleviate some of the burden, rather than add to it. To do so requires a radical shift in the thought processes of most gardeners, but I believe that shift is critical to the preservation of what is left of the blue-green orb we call Mother Earth.

Alabama Azalea in full bloom in my native woodland north slope landscape.

Alabama Azalea in full bloom in my native woodland north slope landscape.

Today as we residents of the United States celebrate the birth of our nation and its continued progress into a new century, I’m asking that its gardeners participate in a revolution of their own. I’m asking that we embrace a nation-wide paradigm shift for our yards and gardens that celebrates our American landscape, instead of attempting to force it to look like something it never was and never should be.

This post today was prompted by an article in the latest edition of a gardening magazine local to my region. The article was written by an acquaintance of mine – a woman who lived most of her life in New York, but retired to my area, embracing gardening so enthusiastically that she became a master gardener via North Carolina’s Agricultural Extension Service. She loves her garden, and I am delighted by her enthusiasm, but I am dismayed by the opinions she presents in this article.

About 40 feet tall, this native Dogwood is at least 50 years old, maybe even older.

About 40 feet tall, this native Dogwood is at least 50 years old, maybe even older.

The author argues that native plants aren’t necessarily better than non-native plants. Her point appears to be that some native plants are challenging to deal with, just as some non-natives are, and that we should make our landscaping choices based on what she calls “desirable” plants. In her view, it appears that desirable plants are those that don’t create work for her. In her ideal garden, she would banish Tulip Poplar trees because they produce many seeds. She would eliminate all Sweet Gums because the seed balls sully her landscape; she asserts that dogs eat the balls and get sick. She would also banish our native Dogwoods in favor of more disease-resistant Asian ones, eradicate Redbuds because they produce too many seeds, and she considers Virginia Creeper to be almost as annoying as Poison Ivy. Of course, the author is entitled to her opinion, but her article will be read by many and assumed to be authoritative. With respect, I must disagree with her assertions and conclusions.

The same Dogwood as above displaying its autumn colors.

The same Dogwood as above displaying its autumn colors.

Her article reflects an approach to American gardening that our planet can no longer sustain. If gardeners and homeowners continue to make plant choices based on convenience rather than ecological integrity, by the time their grandchildren are adults, healthy native ecosystems in our country will be relegated to a few carefully defended preserves.

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

To avoid an epic loss of species that may result in a breakdown of ecological processes that could affect everything from water quality to weather patterns to nutrient cycling, gardeners and landscapers in the United States must embrace a new American gardening paradigm, one that makes the ecological context of a property the guiding principal for all design choices.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife. The decomposition of its leaves back into forest soils is critical to cycling calcium through the forest ecosystem.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife. The decomposition of its leaves back into forest soils is critical to cycling calcium through the forest ecosystem.

The great thing about the United States is that our country is enormous. If you want to embrace the stark beauty of a desert landscape, you can live in the American Southwest. If you like open vistas with lots of sky, our central prairies were made for your home prairie grass-and-wildflower landscapes. And if you live on our east coast, your choices should be based on the forest ecosystems that evolved on this land over many hundreds of thousands of years. Forests always have openings, so your landscape can have sun-filled spots, if that is your preference. But fundamentally, for the sake of all the species that evolved together over great expanses of time, you must respect the plants that were here before you were.

The native swamp plants in my landscape provide critical habitat for at least 7 species of frogs and 2 species of salamanders, not to mention crayfish, and a diverse array of native birds that hunt some of these species.

The native swamp plants in my landscape provide critical habitat for at least 7 species of frogs and 2 species of salamanders, not to mention crayfish, and a diverse array of native birds that hunt some of those species.

In the southeastern US Piedmont region where I garden, our forest habitats comprise myriad unique ecosystems adapted to the subtleties of our terrain. North slope-facing forests differ from dry hilltops; floodplain forests differ from swamp forests, which differ from remnant Piedmont prairies. As American gardeners in the 21st century, our goal should be to recognize the native attributes of our landscape, then work to enhance them.

I added a couple of native spicebushes to my landscape early on. Now the birds have spread them all over, enriching their habitats and ensuring spectacular golden fall color throughout the understory in my yard.

I added a couple of native spicebushes to my landscape early on. Now the birds have spread them all over, enriching their habitats and ensuring spectacular golden fall color throughout the understory in my yard.

Rather than replacing natives we don’t like, we should supplement what is already present to enrich the landscape for wildlife while simultaneously creating a more beautiful and sustainable home oasis. Instead of attempting to impose your will on your landscape, embrace your environmental context and creatively adapt to it. Your plants will be beautiful and healthy, and your workload will be vastly lighter.

mystery bee on Black-eyed Susan

In my area, pollinators are a topic of growing concern. At the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, for example, many exhibits and presentations on native pollinators and non-native honeybees are available to the public throughout the summer. Pollinator populations are declining alarmingly in many areas. Numerous explanations for their disappearance are being offered. But one thing we know for sure: native pollinators that visit our crops and flowers evolved to exploit native plants. If the native plants are unavailable, the native pollinators have no incentive to stick around.

Native food for hungry natives: Sweet Gum trees are not your enemy.

Native food for hungry natives: Sweet Gum trees are not your enemy.

The Tulip Poplars, native Dogwoods, Redbuds, and yes, Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy that the author of that article advises we eliminate from our landscape all provide food for native pollinators. Tulip Poplar honey from non-native honeybees is considered to be excellent by many. The seeds of those plants – and the Sweet Gum balls – provide essential food for many native bird species and other animals.

Invasive, non-native Japanese Stiltgrass is a vastly greater threat to the health of my landscape than a few stray native tree seedlings.

Invasive, non-native Japanese Stiltgrass is a vastly greater threat to the health of my landscape than a few stray native tree seedlings.

I tend five acres populated by large native canopy trees that include the species the author dismisses as unworthy. Abundant, diverse wildlife devours most of their seeds. Yes, I see some seedlings, but they don’t present a great nuisance. I spend far more time battling Japanese Stiltgrass and other non-native invasive species than I ever spend on pulling seedling trees. Frankly, I rejoice in the abundant seed production. It’s a sign that my land is healthy, fertile, and full of life.

The author of the article concedes that the fall color of Sweet Gums is spectacular, but she doesn't understand   that this is just an aesthetic bonus for humans to enjoy as it carries out its important roles in our native ecosystems.

The author of the article concedes that the fall color of Sweet Gums is spectacular, but she doesn’t understand that this is just an aesthetic bonus for humans to enjoy as the trees carry out their important roles in our native ecosystems.

There isn’t enough money in the world to persuade me to cut down the massive Sweet Gum beside my creek that draws large flocks of Cedar Waxwings and other birds all fall and winter. Their antics as they extract seeds from the dangling balls are entertaining to watch – and encouraging, because I know these birds can use my yard as a food source, and a haven from an increasingly hostile, unfamiliar landscape. And, for the record, I searched online for instances of dogs being harmed by ingesting Sweet Gum balls, and I couldn’t find any. My dogs had free reign over my seed-ball-laden landscape for decades without ever even seeming to notice them, much less eat them.

This intimidating Poison Ivy vine climbs a tree on my floodplain, where I am unlikely to bump into it.

This intimidating Poison Ivy vine climbs a tree on my floodplain, where I am unlikely to bump into it.

Gardening means getting your hands dirty. Yes, seedlings happen. Bird-planted Poison Ivy pops up all over my yard. My policy is to eliminate it from my few formal beds, my vegetable garden, and any areas where people are likely to brush up against it. Otherwise, I leave it alone. There’s no way I’d ever eradicate all Poison Ivy from my five acres, and there’s no reason to even try. As for Virginia Creeper, I think it’s lovely. Like Poison Ivy, if it’s not in my way, I leave it alone.

If you've ever watched a flock of Northern Cardinals tear into the seedpods of our native Redbuds, you would forgive a few "undesirable" seedlings in your landscape each spring.

If you’ve ever watched a flock of Northern Cardinals tear into the seedpods of our native Redbuds, you would forgive a few “undesirable” seedlings in your landscape each spring.

As we move more deeply into this new century, many of our old ways of doing things are no longer adaptive; many are downright destructive. Those of us who love the natural world, who delight in digging good earth, harvesting food we grow with our own hands, and beautifying our landscapes with fragrant and colorful flowers will be essential in leading the way to a new paradigm for American gardens.

There's no way it would be spring in my landscape without this color show from our native Redbuds.

There’s no way it would be spring in my landscape without this color show from our native Redbuds.

I hope you will join me in understanding and partnering with our uniquely American native landscapes. It is time to cast aside the formal lawns and hedges of our European ancestors. This is the United States of America. It should be filled with American gardens that reflect and celebrate the native plants and animals that make our country special. By definition, that makes all our native plants desirable, because they evolved here, and are deeply integrated into the complex dance of living organisms that provide fertile soil and clean air and water.

Happy Birthday, USA. Long may our people – and our native landscapes – prosper.

For more information:

For more information on understanding the environmental context of your home landscape, consider these books:

  • Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy
  • The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden by Rick Darke

Also consider taking advantage of classes and talks given at your local botanical gardens, agricultural extension programs, and museums. In my area, for example, here are just a few upcoming offerings:

The Author of the Article Responds

The author of the article to which I refer above responded with a lengthy comment. I think the easiest way to respond is to add her comments — and my responses — here.

First, to answer a query made by this author, I have my blog set up so that I review all comments before they are published. This is the only way to ensure that spammers don’t get through. WordPress has an excellent spam filter, but it is not perfect. Second, I didn’t respond instantly, because yesterday was a national holiday and I was out enjoying it, rather than checking my computer.

Now let me sincerely apologize to the author for misremembering where she lived before moving to NC. She reminded me — twice — that she lived in Washington, DC, not NYC. She seems to think I was implying that I am prejudiced against folks from New York. I’m not. But many of the transplants who retire to my area are from New York, and I forget sometimes that not all of them are. It was a genuinely honest mistake on my part, and again, I apologize.

On to the author’s comments, which are italicized. My replies are in standard type:

I think you have misinterpreted my article. I am not against tulip poplars, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and sweet gums in the landscape but I will continue to argue that these are undesirable plants and trees in our gardens.

OK, I think you are saying that these plants are fine in so-called natural areas, parks, etc., but that no one should desire them in their yards, because of the issues you mentioned — seediness, allergies, diseases. That’s what I thought you meant, and that’s what I disagree with.

I could never recommend to anyone that they should plant a sweet gum in their garden as the drawbacks are too many: I have had several friends who have had to rush their dogs to the emergency vet because their family pets ate them and they are extremely messy in a one acre garden. As Michelle Wallace, the Durham Extension Agent told me, they simply don’t belong in the urban or suburban landscape.

And again, I disagree. First, I am horrified to learn that family pets are eating Sweet Gum seed balls. However, I’ve lived here for almost six decades now, and I’ve never heard of this until you mentioned it. I’d need a lot more data documenting your assertion before I’d join you in dissuading folks from adding these trees to their home landscapes. With respect to extension agents, they are espousing — as I think you are — a 20th-century view of American yards and gardens. This perspective ignores the environmental context of the landscape, the fact that “natural areas” are disappearing entirely in increasingly urbanized landscapes, and the increasingly evident negative impacts such views are having on native populations of plants and animals.

I would argue that the tulip poplar is another one that doesn’t belong in the urban or suburban landscape because it is extraordinarily seedy, a quality that if exhibited in an exotic would deem that exotic as invasive.

Again, your perspective seems to imply a “man-versus-nature” attitude, wherein anything in nature that annoys humans should be eliminated. My post above was my assertion that this attitude is not appropriate for the realities of the 21st century. I asserted that our yards and gardens must change, must be integrated into the environment, if we have any hope of preserving species diversity, clean water and air, etc.

As for poison ivy, I don’t want to live with it. It’s that simple. Birds love it but I am highly allergic to it and I have a son who has to get a cortisone shot if he even looks at it. It isn’t simply an “inconvenient” plant but can affect our health. As for Virginia creeper, I really see very little difference between it and English ivy, a plant I think is dangerous and invasive.

I’m allergic to poison ivy too. That’s why I eliminate it from areas where I’m likely to bump into it. But it’s never going to disappear from any landscape unless you’re planning to kill every seed-eating bird that lands on your property. And it dismays me that you cannot perceive the difference between English ivy and Virginia Creeper.

I know you know that English ivy is a non-native invasive plant, because I remember when you read the paper I wrote about invasive species when we were both in the master of liberal studies program at Duke. I was delighted when, after you read that paper, you decided to eliminate English ivy from your home landscape. I am thus surprised that you can’t see how Virginia Creeper — a native vine — is different.

First, it’s not evergreen, so even when it climbs into trees, its additional biomass doesn’t add dangerous weight to the trees, as does English ivy. Likewise, because Virginia Creeper is deciduous, winter ice doesn’t accumulate on it — as happens with evergreen English ivy — so trees aren’t likely to topple from the weight of extra ice. I’ve lived here nearly six decades. I’ve never seen Virginia Creeper overwhelm a tree or shrub the way English ivy does. Ecologically speaking, Virginia Creeper is not invasive in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. I am perplexed that you deem it to be equivalent to English ivy.

You have the luxury of having five acres but most of us have much smaller gardens and have to be selective in what we plant. I love roses, am concentrating on growing sustainable roses. I see no reason to limit myself to native American species roses. I don’t spray my roses and do not grow hybrid teas but I see no reason to deprive myself of growing Rosa bhaksiae, a species rose that is native to China. I also love the China tea roses and have them in my garden where they mind their business.

I grow non-invasive non-native plants too. I would never tell anyone to eschew a plant simply because it’s not native. And I don’t think my post above implies otherwise. Again, your use of the word “selective” I believe harkens back to my point about 20th-century thinking. My post advocated a new gardening/landscaping paradigm for this new century — one that acknowledges the increasingly tenuous health of remaining native ecosystems world-wide. One that suggests that home gardens and landscapes can respond to this situation by helping save what is left, rather than actively choosing to eliminate it.

As for “native” plants, I tend to agree with Tony Avent who argues that it can be very hard to determine what is a native plant. Should we stop growing okra because it originated in Africa? Okra has a long cultural history in this country and is part of the Louisiana cuisine. I do think we have to be very careful in selecting the plants that go into our garden but I am not going to limit myself to “native” plants. I love redbuds but I also love my Cornus kousa and as a Master Gardener I would never recommend our Cornus florida because it is so susceptible to anthracnose. I would recommend the Rutgers cultivars but they are stronger because they contain genetic material from C. kousa–so I would argue that perhaps they were not “native.” If you note, much of my argument was that it is extremely difficult to determine what is a “native” plant. Some would argue that growing Magnolia grandiflora in the Piedmont is favoring an exotic because it is native to just one small area in eastern North Carolina.

Yes, Tony Avent pulls out that argument about one’s inability to define natives frequently. When I interviewed him for that paper I mentioned on invasive plants, he argued that in Earth’s past, all land was one supercontinent — Pangea — so all plants were all part of the same land mass, and therefore all native. I feel confident that any ecologist on earth would find this notion absurd. Using the most conservative estimate I can find, Pangea broke apart into the ocean-separated continents we know today about 174 million years ago.

Yes, it is true that you can find members of the same genus that are native to Asia and to North America. But they are different species; they evolved in association with many other species in unique ecosystems that are not the same on the two continents. That’s why many of our most invasive plants are native to Asia. They are adapted to our growing conditions, but because they evolved on another continent, the animals/diseases/plants they evolved with are not present here, so there is nothing to hold them in check. Hence, their invasive status here.

And, of course, plants long cultivated for food, medicine, materials, etc. will continue to be grown wherever they are needed, regardless of their distant original native contexts. The challenge, I believe, in growing agricultural crops in the 21st century, is to find ways to integrate them into the landscape as much as possible, minimizing the use of chemicals and genetically modified materials that have been shown to damage adjacent native ecosystems.

The point I attempted to make in my post is that we can no longer afford to make gardening/landscaping choices without considering the ecological integrity of the land. If you eradicate all Tulip Poplars and Sweet Gums from suburban and urban areas, all the insects, birds, etc. that rely on those species have nowhere to go. If you haven’t read Dr. Tallamy’s book that I reference at the end of my post, I encourage you to do so. He delineates these issues in great detail.

Thus, the argument is not about how one defines a native plant. The argument is about whether a given plant will be recognized  and function as a viable member of the ecological community you create in your home landscape. If nothing eats it, it is occupying space that an ecologically integrated plant — one that serves more than an aesthetic function in your landscape — could take.

Honey bees are not native to the US but I don’t think there are people calling for the US to rid itself of honey bees. Exotic species, like the honey bees, can have a positive effect on our local environment.

Again, I don’t recall advocating for the eradication of honey bees. I did advocate for not eradicating native species because they are deemed “undesirable” by 20th-century gardening standards that I believe are a threat to the future of the health of our planet. In this new century, I think we must revise our thinking, recognize that in a world of rapidly dwindling healthy ecosystems, every back yard — no matter how small — can be part of the problem, or part of the solution. Every back yard, every garden can contribute to the health of our planet by better integrating into its native environmental context. Yes, we will always grow our favorite non-native plants. But I respectfully ask that you please reconsider advocating the elimination of native species because you find them inconvenient.

I’m sorry that you found my article so offensive but I do think there is more than one side to this argument. I stand by what I said: I would like the dialogue to be more about desirable and undesirable plants–and the sweet gum is a highly undesirable tree in the urban and suburban landscape.

Your article did not offend me; it disheartened me, because it reflects an attitude that I believe is a direct threat to the future health of the native ecosystems remaining on our planet. That’s why I felt compelled to suggest a different approach. I know it’s a big leap for many traditional gardeners and landscapers. However, I believe this shift in thinking from defining plant choices by their desirability to choosing plants that are well-integrated into the environmental context of the landscape is our best chance for preserving water and air quality by maintaining the viability of native ecosystems.

And, again everyone, she’s from DC, not New York. My apologies again for misremembering.

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Summer Veggie Update

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

This summer growing season has been a tough one for me. It started out slowly, because colder-than-normal temperatures lingered into early May. Then it stopped raining at my house for six weeks. During that time, my garden never saw more than two-tenths of an inch of rain, and that only every few weeks. We’re talking dust bowl. Add June temperatures that — for 16 days in a row — hit 90 degrees or better, with several well into the low 100s, and you’ve got seriously stressed vegetables.

My zucchinis quickly expired. One day they were lush and productive; the next day they were wilted and dying. When I pulled them, they had almost no roots. I’m fairly certain the voles did them in. They also got one of my Carmen Italian pepper plants in the same bed. I’ve still got three pepper plants surviving, I’m happy to report.

Rain-happy veggies

Rain-happy veggies

Finally, a few days ago in 48 hours, we got 3.5 inches of blessed precipitation. A tiny bit of dime-sized hail also hit us, but not enough to hurt anything severely. Strong thunderstorm winds also knocked things around a bit, but again, nothing that a bit of re-staking couldn’t repair.

My beans and tomatoes had quit growing when the heat wave/drought hit. I was keeping them alive by doling out my limited supply of water every other day, but they were not happy plants. Then the rains finally came, and you could hear the beans shouting, “Yippee!”

Fortex beans are blooming and setting fruit again, now that the heat has backed off.

Fortex beans are blooming and setting fruit again, now that the heat has backed off.

 

In the foreground of the photo above, you see the bean trellis. My Fortex pole beans on the right side have scaled the top of the trellis and are heading back down the other side. I grow Jade bush beans on the left side of the trellis. I long ago learned that so-called bush beans are not really bushy, by which I mean they don’t stand sturdily upright on their own. You must provide some kind of support. The simplest solution for me is to grow them on either side of a trellis and gently tie them to it as they grow tall and floppy.

Jade bush beans

Jade bush beans

I have grown the same two varieties of beans for a number of years. I’ve tried plenty of others, but I haven’t found any that match the consistent quality of Jade and Fortex. The Jades produce a typical-looking green bean — a deep Jade green color. The flavor is rich, but lighter than the meatier flavor of Fortex pole beans. We eat them both lightly steamed, and the Jades are excellent cold in salads. This time of year, we eat beans almost every night — not just because we have so many, but also because they taste so darn good.

La Roma II before ripening started

La Roma II before ripening started

We’re also eating tomatoes every day. This year, I limited myself to only four varieties (in my youthful years, I’d grow 8-10 varieties):

  • Sweet Treats — the only cherry  type I’ve grown for a while now. It is just too perfect to replace.
  • La Roma II — this paste type is the latest version of a Roma. It is more disease-resistant, astonishingly productive, and this determinate tomato stays short, but bushes out in all directions to produce a fabulous abundance of fruits. The foliage grows so dense as the fruits ripen that I can’t take a decent photo of ripe fruits on the vine. The one above was taken before the leaves covered the developing fruits.
  • Early Blue Ribbon — this was a new one for me this year. I always try one early slicer type, always eager for summer tomato sandwiches as soon as possible. This one has been OK, but I won’t grow it again. My quest for an irresistibly tasty early tomato continues.
  • Amelia — this is the larger slicer type I’m trying this year. The fruits are only now beginning to redden. I think the heat wave stopped them in their tracks for a while. They look promising, but our taste buds will be the final arbiters of this tomato variety’s future in our garden.
Amelia tomatoes are just beginning to redden.

Amelia tomatoes are just beginning to redden.

I still have a few sad-looking carrot and beet plants in the ground, but the heat wave really pounded them. I’ll be amazed if they produce anything edible.

Purple Viking potatoes still look vigorous.

Purple Viking potatoes still look vigorous.

Wonder Spouse has not pulled his potatoes yet. The Purple Vikings still look vigorous, despite the heat. The Kipfel fingerlings and the Dazocs are looking kind of ragged. Wonder Spouse is planning to dig into them this weekend to get a sense of their tuber size and condition. Stay tuned for further developments.

The flowers I grew from seed have hung in remarkably well with very little water from me. Some of the perennials are actually going to bloom this year, which doesn’t always happen.

This year's bed of zinnias

This year’s bed of zinnias

Early cold combined with prolonged heat and drought have very negatively impacted my large butterfly population. Finally, in the last two days, I’ve begun to see just a few, very ragged-looking larger butterflies. Here’s hoping their number — and appearance — improve soon.

A ragged American Lady visits a coneflower.

A ragged American Lady visits a coneflower.

Have a great Fourth of July, ya’ll.

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