Archive for February, 2011
The heat is stimulating plants and animals — at least that’s the way it seems in my yard this morning. First, I’m happy to announce that I spotted a half dozen sugar snap peas emerging this morning from the bed where I planted them. I always worry that something has gone wrong until I see their deep green growing tips pushing through to sunlight. No signs of the lettuces, spinach, carrots, or beets yet, but I am hopeful.
The heat has also caused my Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ to begin opening its fuzzy buds at the top of the tree. It’s about 12 feet tall after 15 years of growing, and when it’s fully open, it is stunning. I planted mine beneath the shelter of some mature pines. This protects the delicate petals from frost damage and shades the little tree from the worst of our summer sun.
During my early morning walk along the floodplain, I unintentionally disturbed the Wood Duck couple I told you about a few days ago. However, I got a further surprise as I continued on my creek inspection. Four more wood ducks took to the air, the female shrieking as usual. If my ears didn’t deceive me, I think I only heard one female, which means the other three birds pursuing her were males. I was too far away to visually identify their genders.
On the one hand, I am excited that more Wood Ducks are nearby. However, I fear that their presence indicates competition for limited local resources among their species. Much deforestation has happened around me in the last few years. Without forest cover, the creeks and ponds that dot my area have dried up considerably under our unrelenting high summer temperatures and persistent drought conditions. I worry that the ducks showed up at my creek, because their old nesting sites have been destroyed.
I haven’t researched how much territory a pair of nesting Wood Ducks prefers. I hope it isn’t much. My stretch of creek is only a few hundred yards long. However, if they can find a way to manage among themselves, these beautiful native birds will always be welcome in my yard.
The meteorologists claim that spring begins on March 1. Others suggest that the vernal equinox (this year’s will be on March 20) denotes spring’s onset. But in my yard, spring was officially declared today by the daffodils.
The first bud opened partially yesterday. Today, these two are already open, and I predict that today’s heat will encourage many more blossoms to open before sunset.
These daffodils are a variety called Ice Folly, because they usually bloom when it’s still cold outside, sometimes even with snow on the ground. But they also usually open several weeks earlier than this. This winter’s profound cold, combined with the continuing severe drought, delayed their emergence. This year they are not defying winter; they are declaring spring.
After tomorrow’s predicted 80-degree F heat wave, I predict that dozens of these sunny blooms will be lighting up my landscape. Here’s hoping their sunshine can summon serious rains soon!
The piedmont floodplain forests of my youth were full of blooming Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata) in early spring. I never see them anymore. I think the evil invasive exotic Japanese Stiltgrass has crowded it out of its native domain. Deer predation probably isn’t helping it either.
I planted these little ones in my front garden right beside the walkway, so that I can’t miss their petite blooms when they open. This is a named cultivar, but I confess I don’t remember which one, nor do I have any records that would tell me. I do try to write down such information, but when you’ve been gardening as long as I have, these sorts of details tend to become lower priorities.
In our native woodlands, these wildflowers are spring ephemerals, blooming quickly, then fading back into the leaf mulch of the forest floor. My little flowers usually don’t last long either. Too much heat or wind or heavy rain will crumple their petals beyond recognition.
Alas, my area is predicted to be scorched by more unseasonably warm temperatures, strong winds, and unrelentingly dry skies, so I’m glad I have this photograph. The real flowers will likely be gone by tomorrow.
Technically, the rain gauge registered four hundreths of an inch from this morning’s ten-second shower, but it might as well be nothing. Especially with the way the wind is roaring. Any moisture added to the top of the soil or onto plants has long since been dried off by the 30+ mph winds currently scouring the landscape.
I checked on my spring vegetable garden briefly. The soil is too dry, but I won’t water until tomorrow, after the winds die down. To water now is to feed moisture to the hungry winds, doing nothing for the thirsty soil.
I am really starting to worry about the severe drought we’re in. Every predicted rain event evaporates before reaching my yard. Right now, the water levels in the creek are OK, but as soon as the trees leaf out and start pulling moisture from the ground, the water table will plunge — barring many, prolonged, significant rain events.
I’m not sure non-gardeners understand just how serious our drought is becoming. Food prices are already predicted to rise this year. One way to compensate is to grow your own food. But you can’t grow food without water.
For now, I’m hunkered indoors. Too many branches are being pruned by the winds for safe outdoor work.
I wonder how one goes about hiring professional rain dancers…
I was wandering around my yard this morning trying to decide what to write about when the Wood Ducks decided for me. I have been wondering where they were for a few weeks now. For all of the 21 years that we’ve lived here, a pair of Wood Ducks has nested beside our creek every late winter/early spring.
These beautiful birds (the males are the gorgeous members of their species) are quite shy. I rarely know they are around until I unintentionally get too close, startling them into flight.
Today, they were sitting in one of the massive river birches that overlooks a deep spot in the creek when I stepped onto my front deck and startled them. As is almost always the case, the female took to the air first, her squat little duck body struggling to get airborne as she shrieked her characteristic shriek.
The females scream like the Hounds of Hell are after them when they are alarmed. If their purpose is to startle their perceived enemy, I can attest that it works on me. They always get my heart pounding a little faster until my brain figures out what I’m hearing.
About thirty seconds after the female flew off, the male, who had been sitting on the branch beside her, flew off in the same direction. In years past, I’ve noticed that the male follows the female quite closely for a week or two before they go into stealth nesting mode.
When the ducklings hatch, I often see the whole family paddling on the creek in the early morning. All signs of the Wood Ducks vanish as soon as the ducklings mature. I don’t know if they leave the area, or if they simply are very good at hiding in the dense summer vegetation along the creek.
Wherever they go, I am glad they are back — another sure sign that spring’s reign is nearly upon us.
In previous postings, I’ve mentioned my greenhouse with its germination chamber and heat mat. This is not as complicated as it sounds, and you don’t actually need a greenhouse to germinate seedlings.
First, please note that my greenhouse is 16 years old and shows it. Most greenhouse operators will cringe at the state of my little hothouse. It is dirty; it is certainly not as sterile as my horticulture teacher from years ago warned me it must be. But for starting vegetable and flower seeds and rooting easy-to-root cuttings, my greenhouse serves me well.
Now on to germination tips. You need to meet two key conditions to ensure rapid seed germination: bottom heat and constant, fairly high humidity. If you provide these conditions, the seeds will sprout.
I use the germination chamber that came with my greenhouse. It’s a big plastic box with a clear plastic top that fits snugly on top of it. Here’s what mine looked like this morning before I removed the top:
Note the moisture beading inside the clear plastic top. The pink layer beneath is a piece of insulating foam that Wonder Spouse suggested we use to direct all the heat from the heat mat (the black layer between the insulation and the plastic box) into the germination chamber.
You can buy smaller similar propagation chambers at most garden supply stores or through catalogs. They usually consist of a plastic flat with a clear plastic top that fits over it. However, I’ve often managed simply by stretching clear plastic wrap over pots after I sow seeds in them. I use a pin to prick small holes in the plastic to allow a bit of ventilation.
Here are the Sweet Alyssum seeds I told you about inside the germination chamber after I lifted the top:
This is another propagation hack that purists will probably cringe at. I took an old plastic flat with a break in the bottom and cut it cleanly across at the break. I overlapped the two pieces to make a smaller flat that would fit inside my germination chamber.
After filling my smaller flat with potting soil, I created four shallow rows and sprinkled in the Sweet Alyssum seeds. These seeds require light to germinate, so I didn’t cover them with soil. Instead, I used my fingers to lightly press the seeds into the pre-moistened potting mix to ensure that the seeds were in contact with the moist soil.
How did I know the seeds needed light to germinate? The instructions on the seed packet told me so. Always read your seed packets, folks.
The green layer beneath the flat is capillary cloth. I buy mine from a greenhouse supply catalog. It holds water within the cloth and releases it — via capillary action — into pots as the soil dries. It allows me to maintain more even soil moisture levels.
Finally, here’s a closer look at the heat mat beneath the germination chamber:
A regular heating pad is NOT acceptable. You need a water-proof heat mat designed for seed germination purposes. You can see the electric cord running from the mat. It’s plugged into a handy outlet in the wall of my greenhouse.
This is a relatively large mat, because I needed one big enough to provide heat to my germination chamber. You can buy smaller ones. Some have thermostats for finer temperature control. For the seeds I germinate, I’ve never needed more than what I have.
You’ll also see soil heating cables. You place these cables in the soil beneath your seeds. Although I’m sure these cables have their uses, they seem unnecessarily complicated for my purposes.
If you have a way to control humidity, a sunny window or excellent grow light, and a heat mat, you can start seeds inside your house. No greenhouse required.
Garden supply catalogs often sell these tools, but for more options, try a greenhouse supply company. Here’s one that I often order from.
It’s not a whammy of a comeback. No frozen precipitation. We did get a five-minute sprinkle of rain this morning. Not enough to do the earth any good, but enough, at least, to moisten the air a bit. Heavy clouds and a steady north wind are keeping the temperatures in the low 40s F — chilly, but not frigid. Still, after yesterday’s upper 70s, the change back to late winter weather is a shock to the system.
Birds and flowers continue to act as if spring has arrived. The Lenten Roses are open, the bluebirds are burbling their courting songs as couples flit from one birdhouse to another, discussing the merits of each potential abode. The woodpeckers followed me around the yard complaining until I refilled their suet feeders. They are actively nesting, so they want to minimize the energy they spend on food-gathering.
A quick visit to the greenhouse revealed that the Sweet Alyssum seeds I sowed last Sunday afternoon are enthusiastically germinating! Seedlings crowd the rows I sowed (too heavily — those seeds are tiny). I’ve lifted the top off the germination chamber to reduce humidity, but I’ll leave them on the germination mat one more night to ensure that most of the seeds sprout. Tomorrow, I’ll take them off the mat, which will make room for more pots of newly sowed seeds.
I’m moving into garden production mode now. In between sowing seeds and tending seedlings in the greenhouse, I’ll be tending the spring garden, and trying to weed and mulch the front flower beds. Those front beds are a mess, but I’m just one person.
For now, food plant production will remain my priority. The rest I’ll get to as weather and aging joints permit.
The absurdly warm weather has encouraged flora and fauna to go into springtime mode. In my yard at the moment, the following plants are blooming:
- Crocuses — lavender, deep purple, and bright yellow ones
- Snowdrops — these were the first flowers of the year to open
- January Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) — a lovely shrub with yellow flowers that is often mistaken for forsythia. The Jasmine blooms much earlier, and despite its name, the flowers are not fragrant.
- Flowering apricots (Prunus mume) — In addition to my two Peggy Clarkes, I have a pale pink-blooming one with a sweet fragrance that lacks the cinnamon undernote of the Peggys.
- Lenten Rose (Hellebore spp.) — It’s not native, but it mostly isn’t eaten by deer (beyond a few spiteful bites), and the purple-green flowers are lovely.
- Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
- Hazelnut (Corylus americana)
- Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
After another weekend of hard work, the spring vegetable garden is planted. This is the earliest I’ve managed to pull this off in years, thanks to the enthusiastic help of Wonder Spouse, the crazy warm spell, and our disturbingly dry soils. As of today, the following veggie seeds are in the ground meditating on germination:
- Sugar Ann Snap Peas
- Red Ace Beets
- Sugarsnax Carrot
- Early Nelson Carrot
- Red Summer Crisp Lettuce
- Red Oakleaf Lettuce
- Smoothleaf Emu Spinach
Three other greens will be sown in the greenhouse as soon as the Sweet Alyssums I sowed yesterday germinate, so that I can move them off the germination mat. I’ll be adding some sweet yellow onion plants to the spring beds as soon as they arrive in the mail.
The Red-Shouldered Hawks have been keeping a low profile over the last week, but now it is evident that they are sitting on eggs. Last year, they raised four chicks, but we have no way of knowing how many eggs are currently being nurtured. Mrs. Hawk stays on the nest almost all the time. Mr. Hawk spells her for brief periods, when she soars across the floodplain to stretch her wings. I’ve seen Mr. Hawk bring his partner a meal on the nest, so that she can stay on the eggs.
Now the waiting begins — to see what flowers open next, to see which seeds germinate first, and to learn how long before the hawks begin feeding hatchlings.
While we’re all waiting, please commence your most effective rain dances. It is scary-dry out there.
Most piedmont gardeners recognize Sweet Alyssum – an annual often used to edge flower beds. This low-growing, ever-blooming flower exudes a delicate sweet fragrance, but that’s not why I grow it. I grow this reliable friend because it is a pollinator magnet, attracting many species of nectar-loving insects.
Although I have planted this annual in my formal flowerbed in the past, that’s not where it will be going this year. As with many past growing seasons, I’ll interplant it with my spring vegetables, because of its propensity to attract lacewing insects — voracious eaters of aphids. Aphids are generally the only insects that bother my spring vegetables. They are especially fond of pea plants, multiplying and covering stems rapidly.
Green Lacewings — very pretty delicate green insects — eat even more aphids than Lady Bugs devour. The Lady Bugs will show up in my spring garden too, but they take longer to generate a population large enough to counter the aphid invaders.
Lacewings, on the other hand, seem to show up as soon as my Sweet Alyssums begin to bloom. These beneficial insects dine on the nectar of the flowers and then disperse among the aphid-plagued veggies. The lacewings are well-fed, my peas flourish, and I have a productive, healthy garden.
Companion planting is a practice followed by many, usually organic, gardeners. Over many years, gardeners have compiled lists of which plants seem to help each other when planted together, and which plants actually hamper each other when interplanted.
For example, planting alliums (members of the onion family) near fruit trees is supposed to enhance the health of the trees. Tomatoes do better when interplanted with basil, and, according to the charts I perused, basil near rosemary will kill the rosemary. I’ve never intentionally planted those herbs close together, so I can’t attest to the accuracy of that last claim.
If you search on “companion planting” on the internet, you’ll find an abundance of information on this topic. I think companion planting makes a lot of sense, and I can explain much of it from what I know of botany and ecology.
The most obvious reason for the success of companion planting is that gardens planted according to this notion are much more diverse than traditional vegetable gardens. Instead of whole beds of tomatoes or beans or whatever, beds are interplanted. Species diversity almost always makes for healthier ecosystems, whether they are naturally occurring forests or human-made gardens.
In the vegetable garden, pole beans and squash do well together. Basil attracts pollinators to tomato plants, and the chemicals responsible for their delicious scents may well deter some tomato varmints. Marigold roots have been shown to exude chemicals that repel damaging soil nematodes.
Today, I’ll be planting Sweet Alyssum seeds in my greenhouse. From past experience, I know they will germinate quickly, and I’ll urge them along with dilute doses of a fish emulsion/seaweed extract mix that encourages strong, rapid growth of roots and leaves. They should be ready to transplant among the peas, lettuces, and spinach just about the time the aphids mount serious attacks.
My money’s on the siren scent of Sweet Alyssums and the beneficial insects they attract.
I’ll admit the flowers of American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) are not superstars in the southern piedmont landscape. In fact, it’s easy to walk past these shrubs without realizing what they are. They are probably most easily identified right now in late winter as their leafless branches produce separate male and female flowers. That little red flower is the female; the long catkins are the males. Gravity and wind ensure that the male pollen lands on the females situated mostly below the catkins.
I was excited when, in our first year on this property, I realized we had a healthy stand of American Hazelnuts growing right beside the creek. This is exactly where Hazelnuts like to grow, and the colony seemed to be thriving.
Because this is a wild native stand of Hazelnuts, the fruits (often called filberts) are tiny, compared to those grown for human consumption. However, one year, we did manage to beat the squirrels to a couple of nuts and they were quite tasty little bites.
Since those early years, we have learned that American Hazelnut is a favorite snack of beavers. When a family moved in some years ago, they ate every single stem to the ground, eradicating a colony eight feet tall and ten feet wide in one night of feasting. Fortunately for us, after the beavers moved on, the Hazelnut colony resprouted. Passing beavers still dine on it from time to time, but it persists resolutely despite this predation.
While wandering our yard yesterday, we made a happy discovery. At the base of the hill that marks the beginning of the floodplain about 500 yards from the creek, a new plant is growing and blooming just like its creekside kin. We assume a squirrel must have buried a nut and forgotten it. Now we have a colony far enough removed from the creek that the beavers will never find it.
I deem this a win for everyone — more food and cover for wildlife, and increased species diversity to make my landscape healthier and more resilient. And I didn’t even need to do any planting.