Archive for December, 2011
I thought I’d take a moment to join my hawk friend in looking back at my first year of blogging. I wrote my first entry on January 15, 2011, and today’s entry is number 178. The sound you hear is me patting myself on my back for sticking with this project. I find that I enjoy writing entries today as much — or even more — as I did when I began.
As I suspected when I started, I seem to have no trouble finding topics to write about. My Piedmont yard of five acres provides much potential writing material, especially when you add the time factor. Wonder Spouse and I will have been working this prime piece of Piedmont for 22 years come next April.
My blogging software — WordPress — provides me with all sorts of nifty statistics, and it seems appropriate to share a few of those with you on this last day of 2011.
As of this writing, my blog has been viewed 11,700 times. That’s hardly epic, but I consider it respectable for a regional gardening blog that has never been advertised beyond word of mouth.
Twelve blog pages have accrued over 100 views. In order, they are:
- Home page
- An evergreen blooming shrub for shade: Florida Anise-tree
- Green and Gold for Woodland Sunshine
- Perfumed Light: Magnolia ‘Butterflies‘
- Magnificent Magnolia
- Sweet Alyssum and Other Companions
- Greenbrier, Catbrier — a Smilax by any name
- Fuchsia Punch for Early Spring Piedmont Landscapes
- Early Summer Brings Chinese Dogwood Blooms
- Elegant Elizabeth: Another Magnolia to Love
- Fringe Tree: Another Piedmont Spring Show-off
Honorable mentions (almost 100 views) go to:
And a surprising hit that has accumulated 77 views is How many four-leaf clovers do you see?
On this final day of 2011, I’d like to thank all who have visited my blog and shared some of my gardening obsessions. And a special thanks to those who have taken the time to leave comments. They reassure me that I am, in fact, not simply babbling to myself.
The new year, of course, brings new gardening opportunities, and I’ll be writing about those soon. After complaining about the mild December my region has experienced, I think the weather gods finally heard me. In a day or so, subnormal temperatures are predicted to arrive and linger for at least a week. I’m hoping for icy hard ground to chill bulbs and kill bugs.
Prolonged cold will also give me an excuse to pamper my aging joints with a break from yard clean-up duties. Instead, I’ll be perusing seed catalogs and drafting planting diagrams. Any seasoned gardener will tell you that such tasks are just as important as the manual labor. Gardening is, after all, very much about dreams.
To all I wish you a dream-filled, productive Piedmont Gardening New Year!
A small stand of Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) has been growing at the edge of my creek since we’ve lived here. This small, tardily deciduous shrub remains invisible in the landscape most of the year, but finally gets noticed during the winter months. Its pinkish-red berries become impossible to ignore among the drearier browns and grays of surrounding winter vegetation.
Among the sources I consulted, opinions vary regarding the tastiness of the fruit. Some sources insist that a number of native bird species eat it. Others point to the persistence of the berries in the winter landscape as proof that they are not favored food. Certainly in my landscape, every little 2-3-foot shrub I see usually sports clusters of bright pink berries well into the new year.
My sources also note that deer browse this shrub lightly. One source notes that the leaves and berries are toxic to humans, which may explain the reluctance of deer to do more than nibble it. Given the 20+ year persistence of the cluster along my creek, where deer tracks denote a major highway for the hoofed ones, I’m guessing these shrubs are not very tasty.
Coralberry is stoloniferous, which means it spreads via underground roots that pop up new plants near the mother plant. Consequently, it’s not unusual to find little thickets of Coralberry in the native landscape, where they create excellent cover and nesting sites for wildlife.
Over the absurdly mild holiday weekend, Wonder Spouse and I were raking yet more leaves and clearing out overgrown areas in our backyard when we stumbled on a thicket of Coralberry growing beneath the shade of a large Black Oak. We also stumbled across two cranky garter snakes, a disoriented worm snake, and a sluggish Carolina Anole — all reptiles that we normally expect to be in deep winter sleep by late December.
Because I first found Coralberry growing adjacent to our creek, I had assumed that a moist floodplain was its preferred habitat. However, a quick search corrected my assumption. This shrub — a member of the honeysuckle family and a cousin to Snowberry (a northern cousin) — occurs naturally in about two-thirds of the continental United States, and adapts to a wide range of growing conditions, including dry oak-dominated hilltops.
Thus, the stand we discovered beneath our Black Oak was right where it likes to be. According to one of my sources, this shrub is increasing its spread in nearby Virginia, behaving aggressively in dry woods, especially those underlain by diabase. Our property is underlain by several diabase dikes — igneous intrusions from activity in my region’s geologic past. In fact, the area where we found our Christmas Coralberry patch is dominated by giant diabase boulders that protrude above the ground.
As we continue to tidy up this area, we’ll be keeping an eye on our new patch of Coralberry to ensure that it doesn’t overtake too much real estate in what is apparently its ideal habitat. We’ll also keep an eye out for reptiles until this crazy weather cools down enough to induce them to snooze for a few months.
It’s a good thing to find a native plant in a new spot; it’s not such a good thing to encounter reptiles in unexpected places. Here’s hoping winter’s cold arrives soon and settles in to stay for at least a month!
Tomorrow morning at 12:30 a.m., Winter Solstice occurs. From that point until Summer Solstice in June, our daylight hours will lengthen.
But for the first month or so after Winter Solstice, it’s hard to believe the sun is winning against the darkness. Hanging low as it treks across the sky, its rays are feeble. Take, for example, the above photo that Wonder Spouse shot last week.
Those are the eastern woods just behind the creek that bounds our property. One of our all-too-brief cold spells had chilled the ground. Warm, moist air returning on a south wind met cold earth; mists were born. Sunrise was a battle between cold ground, warm air, and a weak sun.
A half hour later, the sun surrendered, disappearing behind yet another bank of thick clouds. Today, the sun made no appearance at all. A warm (60+ degrees Fahrenheit) rain softly patters on the roof. These false spring rains are predicted to continue for several days. I expect the Spring Peepers will be fooled into a tentative chorus or two before the cold returns late this week.
Before today’s rain, I took advantage of this latest bit of un-December weather to rake and relocate yet more leaves. And I transplanted some wildflowers. I found a Hearts-A-Burstin’ plant struggling against severe deer predation beneath a large red maple on my floodplain. It is now safely relocated within the part of my yard enclosed by deer fencing. Likewise, some Cranefly Orchids huddling unappreciated along an old fence line are now tucked into better spots.
The soft, warm rains will settle in the transplants, allowing roots to regroup, stretch out, and wait for the sun to win its battle with the darkness. I will try to follow their example, cultivating patience, dreaming of spring’s return.
Winter Solstice, which occurs next Wednesday, marks the longest night and the promise of lengthening days thereafter. But as we Piedmonters know, even though days may begin to lengthen, the sun’s power is weak this time of year. Winter cold usually settles in for a few months right about now.
I brighten the gloom of winter in my home by bringing bits of the outdoors indoors. A flower-bud-laden branch of the pink flowering apricot that I wrote about last entry sits in a small vase by my sink. Soon the warmer air of the house will coax the flowers into opening and sharing their fragrance. That, for me, was strictly a bonus — a consequence of the absurdly mild weather my area has been experiencing.
Just in case the cold has imminent plans for me, I decided to follow my usual early winter survival protocol by bringing indoors some greenery from my yard. Exhibit A: the tray of greens in the above photo. Plant materials include freshly cut branches of rosemary, lavender, wax myrtle, and small springs of lemon thyme. Nestled among the greens are pine cones, berries from my deciduous hollies, and pieces of lichen tossed to the ground by the winds. As the arrangement dries, the resins in the rosemary, lavender, thyme, and wax myrtle will perfume that part of my home.
I also cut a few evergreen branches to create a more traditional seasonal arrangement for my front entryway:
This arrangement includes a few loblolly pine branches, some red cedar, a small branch from my Southern Magnolia, a bit of wax myrtle, and some holly branches from an evergreen variety developed by the JC Raulston Arboretum. Accents are provided by branches from my deciduous hollies, and the dried flowers are from a Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ that thrives in a flowerbed in my vegetable garden. The extra-rich soil in that area ensures that this Sedum’s flower heads are quite large; they dry naturally on the stems without any help from me.
The resins from the pines and cedars should ensure that visitors will be greeted by scents many of us associate with this season. I made sure that the cedar branches I cut were adorned by their waxy blue cones that resemble berries. I’ve found that such branches are usually extra fragrant.
After my arrangements were in place, I decided to search the Internet for clues about when winter cold might actually visit my area. So far, we’ve only managed two chilly days in a row before early autumn mild temperatures returned. The news was not encouraging for cold weather-loving Piedmonters.
All the weather sites I visited agreed that winter will be cold and snowy in the Pacific Northwest and the Central US, especially Chicago. And the Northeast will get occasional blasts. However, the southeastern US seems likely to see a relatively mild winter.
For Piedmont gardeners, this is a mixed blessing. We can continue to move plants and add new ones as long as the ground doesn’t freeze. But that also means that winter weeds will flourish enthusiastically. So will the bugs. To kill the mosquitoes still buzzing in my yard, I need a prolonged stretch of time with rock-solid frozen ground at night and days that never get warmer than 45 degrees Fahrenheit, preferably colder. If that doesn’t happen, all the bugs — and diseases — that make Piedmont gardening challenging will be present in abundance next spring.
Of course, long-range weather forecasts are not known for their precision. Here’s hoping the cold lingers long enough to help our gardens, but not so long that it hinders our spring plans.
I am an early riser. As day length shortens with the approach of Winter Solstice, my early bird nature is often rewarded with breathtaking sunrises, like the one I wrote about here. However, today did not bring fire to my eastern horizon.
Today as diamond stars faded into a pre-dawn pearly sky, a pale lavender herd of fluffy cloud sheep galloped toward me from the south. A solid wall of steely clouds loomed close behind them. As the sheep fled northeast before the approaching cloud bank, the eastern horizon showed hints of promising pink and pale gold. The race was on: clouds vs. sunrise.
The cloud sheep multiplied, their color deepening to lilac as the sky behind them darkened. Where the sun usually first appears, hints of tangerine promised warmth. Just as I expected to see the first golden rays, the sheep fled, replaced by a sobering wall of gray nothingness. No sunrise for me today.
A flat gray sky rules the morning; steel trees silhouetted against it reinforce the monochrome landscape. But Nature has not surrendered to the gloom. Sharp-leaved hollies glow greenly, their crimson berries brightening the dull air.
And then there are the flowers.
The weather here has been so inconsistently cold that many of my plants have been fooled into precocious blooming. Some summertime flowers have still refused to retire for the season: Sweet Alyssum and Verbena ‘Homestead.’ My loropetalums are blooming sporadically, as you can see here:
And, as the flower opening this entry shows, one of my flowering apricots has been in full bloom for a week now. I confess, I don’t remember the name of the variety. Its perfume does not share Peggy Clark’s signature cinnamon scent. But it is still lovely – sweet, but not cloyingly so. I have never, ever, seen it bloom in December. Sometimes by late January, but never early December.
Peggy Clark has always bloomed first. Her location next to the garage gives her a flowering advantage. And her buds are close to opening. I’m guessing Peggy will be perfuming my yard by midweek. However, this season, this pale pink Prunus mume wins the race. I’m going to cut a few branches to bring indoors before the next cold snap threatens. She has earned a place of honor for her sweet blossoms.
But today I’ll enjoy all my December flowers where they grow, and appreciate their colorful punctuation of a monochrome near-winter landscape.
Of the many special tree species I’ve added to our five acres over the last 21 years, I think I may be most proud of my success with the Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha). It was discovered growing on the banks of the Alatamaha River in Georgia in 1765 by the botanizing father-son team of John (father) and William Bartram. John was a Pennsylvania Quaker, uneducated but fascinated by the flora and fauna of the New World. The Franklin Tree — named for John’s good buddy, Benjamin Franklin — is considered by many plant lovers to be this team’s greatest botanical find.
The Franklin Tree is special for many reasons: the delicious rose-like scent of its pure white, Camellia-like blooms, its shiny, long, deep green leaves, and its vivid garnet fall leaf color, which in good years, frames a few late-blooming flowers, for this tree is a late summer bloomer. It’s a member of the tea family, kin to Stewartias and Gordonias. But what makes this tree treasured by plantaholics is its backstory.
You see, Franklinias disappeared in the wild after 1803; that was the last year anyone saw one growing in its native habitat. Luckily for botanizers, before then, William made a trip back to this tree’s territory and collected seeds, which were propagated in the Bartrams’ Philadelphia garden. All Franklinias growing today are descended from the Bartrams’ seed-grown stock.
The link in the first paragraph above tells you everything you need to know about where and how this tree is grown. It is quite particular about its growing requirements, which may be why it disappeared in the wild. However, if you can provide the right conditions for this tree, I encourage you to give it a try.
I’ve got two in my yard at the moment. One is about twelve feet tall; the other is smaller and younger. They’ve struggled these last few summers, due to our unrelenting drought. Wonder Spouse saved them by lugging water from the creek in buckets, pouring just enough on their roots to keep them going.
I love my Franklinias because they are exquisite trees, because I like playing a small part in perpetuating the species, and because they remind me of my favorite New World botanical hero: William Bartram.
Unlike his father, William was a well-educated man. His childhood fascination with the flora and fauna of his homeland led him to acquire formal training in botany. I suspect he loved his botanizing explorations of the New World more than just about anything else in his life. I base my suspicions on his well-known book: Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. First published in 1791, it was all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic.
William’s book is not a dry listing of species by a scientist. It’s more of an enthusiastic and poetic love story. He seems to have appreciated every aspect of the world he explored, right down to the summer downpours that slowed his progress, and the alligators that lurked nearby as he canoed Florida swamps. And oh how he loved the plants.
I’ll give you a small sample. In late April/early May of 1776, he was traveling out of Georgia into the mountains of North Carolina. Anyone who has hiked the river valleys of that area knows the lushness and beauty of the region. William noticed too:
How harmonious and sweetly murmur the purling rills and fleeting brooks, roving along the shadowy vales, passing through dark, subterranean caverns, or dashing over steep rock precipices, their cold, humid banks condensing the volatile vapours, which fall and coalesce in chrystaline drops, on the leaves and elastic twigs of the aromatic shrubs and incarnate flowers.
Can’t you just see the misty waterfalls? I’ll leave you with his description of Flame Azaleas (Rhododendron flammeum), which he stumbled upon as he hiked this area. You may recall that I wrote my own little testimonial about this deciduous azalea here. This is what William had to say:
The epithet fiery, I annex to this most celebrated species of Azalea, as being expressive of the appearance of it in flower, which are in general of the colour of the finest red lead, orange and bright gold, as well as yellow and cream colour; these various splendid colours are not only in separate plants, but frequently all the varieties and shades are seen in separate branches on the same plant, and the clusters of the blossoms cover the shrubs in such incredible profusion on the hill sides, that suddenly opening to view from dark shades, we are alarmed with the apprehension of the hills being set on fire. This is certainly the most gay and brilliant flowering shrub yet known…
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
With the onset of December, it’s time for the second installment of Gifts for Gardeners that I promised. For those who missed it, you’ll find gift suggestions for experienced gardeners in my earlier post here.
As a well-seasoned gardener who has answered many, many gardening questions from newbie and intermediate-level gardeners, it is my opinion that these folks usually start digging without a plan or any real understanding of their gardening environment. Sometimes the problem is that folks relocate to the southeastern Piedmont from other parts of the United States — or the world. But they continue to try to use the same techniques — and even plants — that worked for them elsewhere. Sometimes the problem is plain lack of knowledge. Perhaps someone moves into their first home with a yard and suddenly must maintain a landscape. Or perhaps someone resolves to grow her own vegetables without any knowledge of the steps required for a successful food garden in the Piedmont.
What all these folks need most is information, especially region-specific information. I offer here a number of ways gift givers can provide the inexperienced gardeners on their list with the information they need to succeed.
- Hire a garden coach — Yes, they exist, and they are the fastest, probably most expensive way to get your newbie gardener on the right track. Garden coaches come to your house and help you understand what is growing on your property. If you have ideas about plants you’d like to add, they can help you figure out what varieties are likely to succeed and where they should be planted. They will also help you plant your additions. They don’t do all the work; a garden coach is there to teach you the skills you need to do it yourself. They can show you how to divide and replant perennials. And for more skilled gardeners, they can offer you a hands-on session on pruning the shrubs and trees in your yard that need help. To find a garden coach in your area, try your favorite search engine, or ask the staff at your favorite local nursery. They probably know someone they can recommend.
- Buy a gardening class — I live within 35 miles of three significant public gardens: the NC Botanical Garden, Duke Gardens, and the JC Raulston Arboretum. All three offer classes to the public on a wide range of subjects. Public gardens throughout the southeastern Piedmont offer such classes. Visit their Web sites, peruse their offerings, and sign up and pay for your newbie gardener to attend a class.
- In North Carolina, the Agriculture Extension Service in every county offers much free information on gardening. The agents in my county offer free classes that are very popular and helpful, especially for beginners. In this case, your gift could be ensuring your new gardener can attend the class by offering to babysit, run errands, or otherwise free up her time so she can attend. I suspect similar groups in other states offer similar educational opportunities.
If all that sounds too difficult, I recommend a subscription to one of the many excellent gardening resources available. These publications vary in price and level of sophistication. For new gardeners, I recommend magazines that contain as much region-specific information as possible.
- Carolina Gardener Magazine – As the name implies, this magazine specifically covers both of the Carolinas, and it breaks down seasonal to-do lists by geographic region, including the Piedmont. For beginning gardeners, or newly arrived gardeners from other regions, this magazine will get you pointed in the right direction. This publisher offers magazines for other US states, too, so you should be able to find an appropriate one for your gardener’s region. This is a magazine best suited for beginners.
- Horticulture Magazine — This magazine offers articles for beginners and more advanced gardeners, and a section on region-specific gardening (in our case, the southeast) is offered. This would be a good choice for gardeners with at least a little experience. I stopped subscribing to this magazine some years ago, because I felt I wasn’t getting enough new information to justify the cost of a subscription. But for less seasoned gardeners, this is not a bad publication.
- Fine Gardening Magazine — This is a beautifully photographed magazine. It does offer at least one step-by-step how-to article in most issues, and it also offers region-specific information. I think it’s a tad more sophisticated than the first two magazines I listed. I only recently stopped subscribing to it, again, because I just wasn’t getting enough new information to justify subscription cost.
- Organic Gardening Magazine — This was my go-to magazine for my first couple of decades as a gardener. The publication has changed a lot since those days. To be candid, I’m not a fan of this magazine in its current form; the articles lack depth, and there’s just not enough information in an issue to justify its cost. But to a very new gardener interested in organic gardening, this might be a good introduction.
Perhaps you have some intermediate-level gardeners on your gift list. These folks know how to divide a perennial and what most common diseases and pests look like. They are likely to be interested in more cutting-edge information — the inside scoop on new varieties, pest issues on the horizon, etc. Give one of these gifts to such a gardener, and they will kiss you on the spot:
- Buy them a membership in the American Horticultural Society. Headquartered just outside of Washington, DC, this group is a national treasure. Among many other important activities, it sponsors the annual Children & Youth Garden Symposium, which is held in different parts of the country every year, and offers a vehicle for everyone interested in getting children into gardens to exchange ideas and techniques. A benefit of membership is their publication, The American Gardener Magazine. This one is always worth reading cover to cover.
- The Avant Gardener — this is an inexpensively published (no pictures) 8-10 page newsletter produced by a gentleman in New York. He reads all the horticultural literature and summarizes the best bits in his monthly newsletters. He occasionally does theme-based issues that can be very interesting. For $24/year for 12 issues, this is a publication most gift givers can afford. As an editor and writer, I cringe at the typos in every issue, but the information is worth the typographical pain for me. He doesn’t have a Web site. Send your check to The Avant Gardener, P.O. Box 489, New York, NY 10028.
- HortIdeas Gardening Newsletter – This is another no-pictures newsletter, published bi-monthly. The writing is more technical than what you’ll find in The Avant Gardener, and they now only offer an electronic format — they e-mail you a PDF file twice a month. These folks read all the scholarly research as well as the more commercially oriented research. If your gardener wants unvarnished cutting-edge information, she will love this publication.
- Buy them a publications-only membership to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I have never visited this famous public garden, and I may never get around to it. But I have been a member for many years because of their Brooklyn Botanic Garden Handbook series. These beautifully photographed and written books come out several times a year and cover every gardening topic you can imagine. I’ve got handbooks on ferns, herbs, native plants, xeriscaping — you name it, they’ve produced a book about it. These are resources I still consult regularly.
I have far exceeded my usual word count for a post, but I think I’ve offered ideas that should suit just about everyone. Let me close by offering one more notion. Seasoned gardeners like me are usually older folks. We love the work, but our bodies are often not as willing as they once were. We also love to talk about our passion. If you are a less experienced gardener with a seasoned gardener on your gift list, consider offering the gift of labor. In exchange for help moving mulch or dividing perennials, you’ll learn much, and I can just about guarantee you’ll walk away with armfuls of free, choice plants. Just be sure you’re willing to do the work involved to earn those plants.
Happy holidays to all, and to all gardeners — sweet dreams of spring gardens to come.