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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Vermillion spires of Cardinal Flowers set fire to shady spots on my floodplain and random, self-sowed corners of perennial beds.
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 frogs float on my green pond, their bulging eyes watching summer’s waning as they seek unwary winged meals.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As soon as they are fully ripe, the reddened berries on native Mapleleaf Viburnum are devoured by wildlife.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our two months of unusually dry weather reduced seed cone production among my deciduous magnolias, but they still sport some reddening cones.
Late-summer wildflowers are starting to show off in earnest. Early goldenrods brighten the edges of woodlands, and Monkey Flowers adorn the floodplain.
Some flowers are fruiting and flowering together, like my native coral honeysuckle variety, ‘Major Wheeler.’ The berries are actually brighter red than the flowers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Compare this to the close-up view from my previous post:
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.
The new variety he tried this year, Marris Piper, yielded 7.3 pounds of smaller potatoes.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Week seven here with only 0.43 of an inch of rain during that time, and that was almost three weeks ago. It is heart-wrenching to watch five acres of once-healthy Piedmont plant life wither, yellow, and die. Those are wildflowers I grew from seed a few years back. By now, they should be full of yellow composite flowers topped by dancing butterflies. Not this year.
The most depressing part about the above pictures? I took them before nine in the morning yesterday, long before a ray of sunlight touched them. They are in a chronic, perpetual state of wilt. I doubt a deluge would bring them back now.
The great canopy trees only show signs of water stress when the sun beats on them in the afternoons. They are conserving water by dropping their fruits prematurely. Tiny acorns and pecans litter the dusty ground. And the massive black cherry that was loaded with fruits was unable to carry them to juicy ripeness for the Pileated Woodpeckers who love them. Instead, shriveled fruits litter the dry ground beneath it.
I’ve shown you the tiny pond on our floodplain before; its water level reflects the state of the perched water table in that part of our yard. Two months ago, it was full to the top and overflowing out the other side of its overflow pipe. This is what it looked like yesterday morning.
Here’s another view, so you can see how much the water line has dropped.
The creek is equally low, because it’s fed by springs from the same perched water table. A stagnant thin string of water wends its way into the drying swamp. This would be quite bad enough, but the worse news is that the ten-foot-deep well we use to water our vegetable garden pulls from this same rapidly dropping perched water table.
With high-ninety-degree temperatures forecast for the next few days, I doubt I’ll have water for my veggies much longer. Hurricane Arthur passed by a mere 150 or so miles to our east a few days ago without dropping a single raindrop on my thirsty yard. I’m starting to wonder if our sky has forgotten how to rain.
For the moment, we harvest and rejoice in the bounty. Blackberry patches on the floodplain feed the wildlife.
The abundant blackberries have bought me time to harvest blueberries from our bushes without having to argue too much with the feathered folk. The berries are not as big and juicy as they are some years. But their flavor is bright, concentrated, and quite tasty mixed with plain yogurt or sugared in a fresh-baked crumble.
I’m doling out water to the veggies twice a week, timing how much each plant receives. It’s not as much as they’d like, but it’s enough to keep them going. I watered yesterday morning for about an hour, dutifully counting the seconds of precious liquid each vegetable received.
Wonder Spouse harvested his first bag of potatoes yesterday. From his one-pound investment of Viking Purple seed potatoes, his yield was six pounds of perfect tubers, unmolested by the voles which plagued the crop before he switched to this methodology.
Today’s garden harvest demonstrates the power of water vividly. For now, our table is full.
Today we cherish the harvest, freezing what we can’t eat immediately, because we know that it won’t take too many more rainless tomorrows to end these gifts from the garden.
Pray for rain, ya’ll.
Sometimes I hate being right. When the company I usually order my tomato seeds from sent me a substitute without asking my permission, I had a feeling I was going to be disappointed. I explained my misgivings in this earlier post.
I had ordered Early Goliath. Due to a crop failure, they sent me Early Choice. I suspect that some order-filler at the company figured since both varieties had the word “early” in their names, they were equivalent. Not even close.
When I first visited the company’s site after I got my order, Early Choice wasn’t even described in their listings. It’s there now. I voiced my suspicions about this unwanted substitute’s disease resistance in an earlier post. Now, in their description of this variety, they claim it is “highly disease resistant.” However, the imprecision of their language is highly suspect.
If you look at a good tomato seed catalog, the first item listed after the name is usually a list of letters indicating the various diseases to which the variety is resistant. For example, Early Goliath — the variety I wanted and had grown successfully previously — has these letters after its name: VFFNTAS, meaning this variety is resistant to Verticillium Wilt, Fusarium Wilt (Races 1 and 2), Nematodes, Tobacco Mosaic Virus, Alternaria Stem Canker, and Stemphylium Gray Leaf Spot. That’s a heck of a lot more specific than “highly disease resistant.”
My Early Choice seedlings started off looking as healthy as the other varieties I’m growing this year, and they’ve received identical treatment. I don’t know which wilt disease is actively destroying them, but it’s moving fast. And the fruits were nearly tasteless anyway. We decided to remove the plants before their plague could spread to neighboring tomatoes on the trellis.
I’m happy to report that the rest of the vegetable garden is flourishing despite over 6 weeks with less than a half inch of rain. I am watering all veggies twice a week, but the shallow well designated for that purpose will go dry soon. Our best hope is the developing tropical storm currently south of us. Rains from a nice juicy tropical system could easily reverse my drought in a day. Fingers crossed.
In happier news, a pair of Carolina Wrens has built a nest in one of the flower pots on my back deck. The flowers survived in this pot over winter in my greenhouse and were just starting to look nice. Apparently, the wrens agreed. A pair raised a brood in this same pot last year. I don’t know if these are the same parents, or perhaps an offspring that recognized its birthplace.
The female has laid one egg per day so far. Last year, they stopped at four. I’ll let you know what they do this time. The birds don’t seem to mind me coming out on the deck to water the plants. And it’s great fun to watch the parents hustling back and forth with tasty morsels when the hungry nestlings emerge. I do continue to water the plants in this pot, but I fill the bottom saucer and let the roots pull up the liquid from below.
So this past weekend I lost two tomatoes and gained (so far) three Carolina Wren eggs. I calculate this to be a net win for the yard and garden. Now if I can just persuade the rains to return…