Archive for January, 2011
Good news, hawk fans! This morning, I was sitting on my couch staring at the floodplain (our home sits on the hill overlooking that floodplain) when I saw a Red-Shouldered Hawk fly to last year’s nest. The bird fussed around in the nest for about 60 seconds, arranging and rearranging sticks. I’m hoping this means that last year’s nest has been chosen for this year’s nesting season. As you may recall, I described last year’s nest in yesterday’s post. I’ll add additional hawk updates as events unfold.
But I wasn’t staring out the window in hopes of seeing the hawk specifically. I confess I spend most early mornings staring out that window as I watch wildlife, and admire how winter morning light kisses treetops, then gradually descends trunks to ground level. Sycamores are especially breathtaking as their white trunks glow in the sun’s spotlight.
However, today there is no sunlight. This overcast, chilly winter day is quite a shock to the system after our first weekend of above-normal temperatures since — well, it was so long ago that I can’t remember. But this sudden shift caused me to muse about just how dramatically weather can transform a familiar landscape — especially a winter landscape, which tends to be rather austere (bare branches, brown grass) even on sunny days.
So I went through my files and found two photos of our floodplain showing similar views. Wonder Spouse took the first one in early September of 2008. Although I don’t remember the cause of the flood, that time of year it was probably the result of a passing hurricane or tropical depression. The second photo was taken last February after a moderate snowfall. The power of water, be it liquid or frozen, is undeniable in both photos.
A wise piedmont gardener plans on these inevitable transformations by choosing new plant additions with them in mind. For example, we’ve added a number of understory plants to the floodplain, but few of them are evergreens. That’s because I love the way this vista opens up in winter, especially after a snowfall. What you see in that picture isn’t all our property, but it looks as if it could be because of the way the eye travels.
Those new plants we’ve added are also adapted to withstanding floods, which you can see is a necessary requirement in that locale. Native deciduous hollies, Virginia sweetspires, and spicebushes all happily tolerate occasional swims.
Winter is a great time to think about how your piedmont landscape transforms with the seasons. Bare spots and overgrown areas are easier to identify. It’s also helpful to take pictures of the same view during all four seasons — and after particularly striking weather transformations.
Gardening is an endurance sport. It takes years to transform a landscape. And if you plant as many trees as I have planted, it takes more than one lifetime. But that’s okay. In my mind’s eye, I can see those saplings presiding over the landscape as tall mature specimens. And I trust that whoever lives here after me will appreciate the continuing transformation of this patch of piedmont.
Valentine’s Day may still be a few weeks away, but don’t tell that to the birds in my yard. Already, the early nesters are wooing mates and preparing nesting sites. Woodpecker drumming is punctuated by the raucous calls of Pileated Woodpeckers. These crow-sized beauties prefer larger stretches of fairly mature contiguous forest, so I worried when the adjacent woods were logged. But in that strip of alluvial forest left by the loggers, these big woodpeckers have hollowed out a new rectangular nesting cavity in the top of an old maple that lost its top branches to a storm some time ago.
Practically adjacent to the woodpecker’s new abode is the mass of sticks that comprised the nest of a pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks last year. We watched them build that nest lodged in the crook of a tall sweet gum just across the creek; they raised four chicks to maturity. The hawks built the nest so that we had a largely unobstructed view from our window.
We focused our spotting scope on the nest and watched the family’s progress — although that became increasingly difficult as the trees leafed out. Ace photographer Wonder Spouse documented the family’s progress with his camera; a photo of the mother with two of her brood appears at the end of this entry.
I’ve read that hawks often re-use the same nesting site, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that the pair we now hear calling to each other will allow us to watch them raise another brood. Before last year, they re-used a nest in an old pine several seasons, so our hope isn’t unrealistic.
The territorial urge is definitely rising in many of our avian neighbors. When we walk on the floodplain, the hawks vocalize their objections to our presence, and the cardinals (I conservatively estimate at least a dozen pairs live nearby) are chasing others of their gender away from bird baths, and sitting in tree tops bragging about how pretty they are.
I can think of no better argument for planting trees in a piedmont garden than to provide cover and nesting sites for the feathered beauties that fill the air with song — and eat thousands upon thousands of insects that would otherwise plague our gardens and backyards.
Today was another yard clean-up day. We focused on the area where the new deer fence will soon go around the vegetable garden. After yanking up all the old fencing and fence posts, we concentrated on clearing tree and shrub growth further back from the area, so that the new fence, which will be about 8 feet tall, can be erected without banging into anything. We’ll store the old posts and fencing material for reuse later. Large piles of limbs now surround the garden area.
Tomorrow, we will carry them all down to Brush Pile Mountain. That’s what I call the giant pile of organic debris — mostly tree limbs, but also pulled weeds — that sits in the middle of the floodplain. One advantage of not living in a suburb with HOA rules is that we can do things like this — build humungous piles of brush without offending the neighbors. I’m pretty sure our neighbors can’t even see the pile — the advantage of living on five acres.
Lovers of wildlife know that brush piles are excellent habitat for all kinds of critters. Raccoons, groundhogs, and possums have all called the pile home at various times. I’ve accidentally disturbed sleeping salamanders under logs as I’ve added new material.
But the creatures I notice most often are birds, especially in winter. White-throated sparrows and slate-colored juncos seem especially fond of the shelter. When we know snow is coming, we usually manage to place a few evergreen boughs over the top of the pile to create air pockets beneath for creatures to huddle in.
Brush Pile Mountain usually peaks in height and width during winter clean-up season. Right now, I’m guessing it tops out at about 15 feet high and maybe 25 or 30 feet in diameter, maybe more. Summer heat and humidity will shrink the pile as the wood decays. And we’ll build it back up next winter.
Building up Brush Pile Mountain is satisfying labor. You feel like you’ve accomplished something tangible when all that organic material looms high overhead. Knowing that wildlife can use it, and that natural processes will break it all down eventually to enrich the soil adds to that satisfaction.
Forty-five or so years ago when I roamed the young forests of Alamance County, North Carolina near my home, I never saw Japanese honeysuckle strangling trees. Floodplains and creek banks were covered in moss and wildflowers. Japanese stiltgrass and privet shrubs were nowhere to be found in such places.
The piedmont hills I explored had probably been agricultural fields thirty or forty years earlier. After they were abandoned, healthy piedmont forest began returning as it always had — as it still tries to do today when cleared land is left empty.
But thanks to intentional and accidental human assistance and the efficiency of modern transportation systems, alien species — plants, animals, fungi, and viruses — are moving into areas far from where they evolved. Beyond the reach of the checks and balances of their natal ecosystems, many of these non-native species are rapidly disrupting the native ecosystems they invade. The problem is world-wide and growing exponentially, and it is an issue I believe every piedmont gardener should be aware of.
When I speak to garden clubs about this issue, I am always asked why it’s a problem So what if new species move in — hasn’t that always happened? Isn’t that evolution in action? No, this is not the same for many reasons.
For one, the time scales aren’t the same. Evolution is usually a very slow process, which provides all the components of an ecosystem with time to adapt to changes. But modern transportation and human actions have accelerated the time scale at rates never before encountered by species attempting to adapt to changes in their environment.
And for those of us who love native forests, grasslands, and all our other native ecosystems, invasive non-native species are actively transforming some native environments into biological deserts, where the invading species dominate at the expense of most of the previous inhabitants. We are losing the rich diversity of our native fields and forests that support our wildlife — and us.
At the forefront of this battle to repel alien invaders are the people who manage and protect our national and state parks and other lands designated as worth preserving for their historic importance and/or extraordinary beauty and, often, rare species. Every time gardeners add known alien invasive plants to their landscapes, they are increasing the likelihood that these plants will escape into adjacent natural areas, and eventually, to our special places — our parks and preserves — national treasuries of our nation’s biological assets.
What can piedmont gardeners do? You can identify and eradicate known invasive species from your landscape. And when you go to nurseries and garden centers to buy new plants, always ask if the plant is known to be invasive. If the store clerks don’t know the answer, don’t buy the plant until you’ve researched its invasive potential yourself. And if it is potentially invasive, don’t buy it.
Many non-invasive options exist for your garden. Many on-line resources are available to help you learn more about this subject. And I guarantee you that, wherever you live, nearby conservation organizations are actively dealing with this issue and could use your help. Here are a few links to get you started.
My most recent birthday gift from spouse – a gift I requested — was a pruning saw with an extension pole that allows you to reach branches high overhead. I suppose this is another measure of just how obsessive a gardener I am, and that’s okay with me. I love this new tool.
Of course, it turns out that when it’s fully extended, I’m not strong enough to quite manage it. So spouse and I have been doing the pruning together. Mostly I point out what needs cutting, he cuts, and I haul the branches into piles for later collection. He had to break out the chainsaw for some larger branches, and the hand-held pruning saw has also seen plenty of action lately.
I’ve heard some gardeners insist that if you site plants correctly, you should never need to prune, except to repair occasional damage to trees or shrubs. And I do strive to locate every plant in its ideal location, but sometimes I guess wrong.
Often, the plant grows larger than the catalog says it will; our soils seem to be inherently fertile and well-drained, and some newcomers I’ve added respond with great enthusiasm to those conditions. We’ve also discovered the benefits of limbing up some trees and shrubs to create shaded but open ground beneath the growing woody specimens.
Limbing up increases air flow, which reduces the fungus problems that can plague our humid summers. And it makes room for the addition of shade-loving perennial flowers and ferns. These not only add visual appeal, but they complete the layers of an ideal piedmont forest: canopy, sub-canopy, shrub, and herb.
By mimicking the vegetation layers of the native piedmont forest, I create habitats for more wildlife species, and those new habitats generate opportunities for additional well-suited native plants to move in.
Whether they are planted by birds, wind, or water, these new native immigrants finding homes in my yard are welcome surprises. Their arrival tells me we’re doing something right — creating places for more piedmont natives to call home.
Meet Peggy Clarke. She is not native to the southeastern piedmont region, but she and her Asian kin — the ornamental flowering apricots (Prunus mume) — don’t appear to invade natural areas, so she is welcome in my yard. In fact, she is more than welcome.
I am hopelessly captivated by the cinnamon-sweet fragrance of her blossoms. The double rose-colored flowers are quite striking as they adorn bare branches in late winter/early spring. But it’s the fragrance that I would bottle if I could figure out how to do it.
You can find many cultivars of P. mume readily available locally and in nursery catalogs, and they all are lovely. But the only one I’ve found with the intoxicating fragrance of cinnamon sugar is Peggy Clarke.
We planted this small tree about fifteen years ago, and it has bloomed as early as December for us, depending on weather patterns. This year, her buds are only now beginning to swell, and I’m hoping that the warmer temperatures promised for the weekend will coax her into showing herself, so that winter breezes can waft her perfume across the landscape.
I’m not the only one eagerly waiting Peggy’s return. The local honeybees can’t get enough of her flowers. If it’s warm enough for Peggy to be open for business, it is warm enough for winter-starved honeybees to zero in on this early food source. The little tree hums with activity on warm winter days.
All that bee activity does produce fruit set, but the small fruits are not supposed to taste good to people (I’ve never tried one). The local squirrels, on the other hand, find them tasty.
The horticulturalists at North Carolina State University have a great Web site full of Fact Sheets about many horticultural plants, including Prunus mume. Read about it here.
This tree isn’t the only fragrant winter-blooming plant that will perfume your piedmont garden. But P. mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ will likely always be my favorite.
We recently needed to prune our mature tree (we have a younger one too) , even though this isn’t an optimal time for it, because the flower buds are already set. We brought the branches inside and put them in water. Our warm house quickly persuaded Peggy to perfume our home — a preview of outdoor treats to come.
Twice the aroma therapy for the price of one plant — that’s what I call a sure cure for the winter blahs.
You may need to be a gardener to fully appreciate winter rain. To commuters and children waiting for school buses, it is an inconvenience. Cold drops dampen roads and clothes. Bad hair days abound.
But I am practically giddy with anticipation of the most significant rain event promised for my region in months. Yes, months. My area is in moderate drought — right now, in the middle of January. Probably only gardeners appreciate the seriousness of this.
My creek is low, barely flowing. The mud puddles that usually dot my floodplain in winter are absent. Where will the salamanders breed? They need wet spots devoid of fish to deposit and fertilize their eggs.
Where will the water for my vegetable garden come from if our shallow well doesn’t refill before the growing season begins? As it is, most years, the well goes dry in early August. The tomatoes and squash — both water-hungry veggies — suffer and decline in my late summer garden when I can no longer water.
Rain-swollen creeks flush out old debris, and if our creek overflows and deposits some of that debris on our floodplain, I’m okay with that. Such events bring the Great Blue Herons closer, as they patrol the flooded area seeking stranded fish.
Today (and tomorrow, if the weather forecasts are accurate), I will sit snug in a chair and listen happily to the music of rain on my roof. I will step outside and inhale the long-absent moisture in the air and listen to busy bird calls. They appreciate the benefits of winter rain too, I think.
And if I am fortunate enough to hear rain dancing on my roof as I sleep tonight, my dreams will be sweetened by visions of soft spring green leaves, fragrant flowers, and abundant fruits.
Rain equals life. May we all get what we need to flourish.
I confess I have self-control issues when it comes to choosing tomato varieties. Okay, spouse is laughing at me, because, let’s face it — I have self-control issues when it comes to choosing any plant variety. I want them all. But it’s worse with tomatoes.
I blame the seed catalogs. They arrive in late December/early January when the days are dark and cold and the ground is frozen. Full of pictures of plump, ripe fruits and glowing descriptions of their flavor and productivity, how can I resist?
My impulse control issues escalated after spouse built the greenhouse — an entire room designed for growing plants. We enlarged the vegetable garden to what I realize in retrospect were probably ridiculous dimensions. I justified it by providing a summer supply of produce to nearby kinfolk without garden space.
And I went a little nuts when I ordered tomato seeds that first year. I think I ended up with fourteen (it might have been sixteen) different tomato varieties. Because I was accustomed to the less-than-optimal germination rates of my pre-greenhouse days, I planted eight seeds of each kind. Of course, almost every single seed enthusiastically germinated. You do the math. That’s a lot of tomatoes.
I was able to give away some seedlings, but I couldn’t bring myself to compost the excess. I planted all of them. Everyone we knew that year enjoyed our bounty. We carried tomatoes to work, where they vanished from breakrooms in mere minutes. We gave some to food kitchens. We made tomato sauce and froze it. And we ate tomatoes every day, usually twice a day.
Since then, I have gradually exerted more self-control, and this year, I only ordered seven different kinds of tomato seeds. I’ve also learned to rely on near-100% germination rates, so I only sow four seeds of each kind. We plant out two of each variety and give the excess seedlings to friends. I know — that’s still fourteen tomato plants. Baby steps, but still, steps in the right direction.
This year’s varieties are Early Goliath Hybrid, Big Beef Hybrid, Sweet Treats Hybrid, Viva Italia Hybrid, Italian Goliath Hybrid, Ferline, and Purple Russian. The first four are repeats from previous seasons. We’ve decided we can’t live without them.
Purple Russian is also a repeat from last year. This tomato breaks my rule against growing heirloom varieties, and its lack of disease resistance did bring them to a relatively early demise. But before the plants succumbed, they produced the most amazing deep purple plum tomato fruits we had ever devoured.
Spouse wanted to try Italian Goliath, because it produces later than the Early Goliath we’ve enjoyed so much. Goliath is actually a series by a tomato breeder, and we’ve come to trust the brand.
Ferline is a total unknown. I chose it because the catalog description claims it is highly resistant to the late blight fungus that usually plagues my crop as summer begins to wane. I’ll let you know if it lives up to its hype.
And in case you’re wondering where I find all these varieties, you should know that entire seed catalogs devoted to tomato and pepper varieties exist to tempt you. Links to two of my favorite sources are below. But when you find yourself ordering a dozen or more varieties, don’t blame me. You have been warned.
The eastern edge of our yard is adjacent to a perennial creek. The other side of that creek is occupied by a strip of alluvial forest. Mature sycamores, river birches, water oaks, maples, sweet gums, and tulip poplars tower beside us — sentinels of our eastern border.
Until recently, that forest climbed the ridge behind it, creating a wide swath of ideal habitat for wildlife. But my neighbor chose to have that ridge clear-cut two years ago. It was painful to hear and see the destruction of this healthy forest. I count myself fortunate that the giant machines wielding terrifying saws couldn’t cut the trees beside the creek. The ground was too soft and dissected by tributary streams.
Now that time has healed the raw destruction, I have managed to find an up-side to this change in the neighboring forest. The bare ridge allows light to penetrate the remaining forest much more easily. Before the clear-cut, sunrises were almost non-events. Morning color was usually gone by the time the light had topped the trees.
But now — now I am treated every non-cloudy morning to breathtaking winter sunrises. Bare branches and tall trunks of remaining border sentinels stand in dark silhouette against a varying canvas of color. Some mornings paint the sky with Easter egg pastels — pale lavenders and soft peaches. Some mornings set my eastern border on fire with vivid scarlets, neon magentas, and rich golds.
What does this have to do with piedmont gardening? Everything, my friends. The piedmont environment of our homes and gardens was most likely forest before we all showed up. In my opinion, that forest must not be forgotten in the rush to build more strip malls and suburbs. Our native wildlife needs that forest. And we need some version of that forest to be connected to the heart of what this region has been and should remain.
As I admire a succession of winter sunrises, I am daily reminded of the importance, power, and beauty of piedmont forest. The image in the header at the top of this blog is a photograph of one of those sunrises. Wonder Spouse (and ace photographer) was kind enough to capture our eastern border framed in light. He tells me he plans to create headers for each season. I know they will all be as beautiful as this one.
I thought you might like to see the photo from which he extracted the header. Enjoy this winter sunrise. And meditate with me on ways to incorporate the seasonal beauty and power of piedmont forest into our home landscapes.
Damn, it’s cold outside today. No sun. Strong wind. And a temperature that never made it past 32.5 degrees F, according to our outdoor thermometer. My technology-loving spouse long ago set up several thermometers that automagically send their data to a receiver inside the house. There’s one on the cold hill — the place where snow melts last every time. Another is tucked in a warmer spot near the back deck. The third outdoor thermometer resides inside the greenhouse, so that we can monitor the welfare of the tender cuttings, seedlings, and house plants that huddle inside. Spouse also set up an automatic rain gauge that measures and dumps precipitation as it falls, sending updates to a receiver on the mantle of our fireplace. I confess I enjoy the automagical nature of these devices.
Of course, on days like today when the numbers never climb, the devices only serve to reinforce the cold that creeps inside my knees, despite the long underwear covering them. Oh how I long for spring. The longing was made worse by recent mail deliveries. Today I received my tomato seed order. And yesterday, all the other vegetable, herb, and flower seeds I ordered arrived in a fat cardboard box that just fit inside our mailbox.
Now my fingers itch with the desire to fill flats with potting soil, sow tiny seeds that tax my aging eyes, and tuck them into the germination chamber in the greenhouse, with the warmth of the germination cable beneath it to gently coax seeds from slumber to seedling.
But it’s too soon for that ritual. Tomatoes planted now would be three or four feet tall before it would be time to transplant them into the garden. The greenhouse is only a little 8′ x 12′ structure that Wonder Spouse built from a kit some 16 years ago. Not enough room for premature planting, not with the threat of more ice and snow promised for next week.
So I must content myself with dreaming of future flowers, fresh herbs, tangy tomatoes, and warm summer sunshine. Meanwhile, here are some sunflowers from an earlier season to brighten your spirits — and mine.