Archive for February, 2012
When I wrote about Sweet Bay here, I mentioned that it is one of three so-called bay species native to southeastern coastal plains. Redbay (Persea borbonia) is another of those bay species. Like Sweet Bay, Redbay’s leaves are evergreen and it is a usually a smaller tree (20-30 feet), although it can grow taller. Also like Sweet Bay, the leaves of this member of the laurel family are pleasantly fragrant — actually more than those of Sweet Bay. It was consequently used as a bay leaf herb substitute by European settlers of the region.
Unlike Sweet Bay, the flowers of Redbay are relatively inconspicuous. Its fruits are purple berry-like drupes that many native birds find tasty. The birds, of course, eat many kinds of berries, but there’s a lovely butterfly whose larvae rely nearly exclusively on this tree: the Palamedes Swallowtail. Its caterpillars may also dine a bit on sassafras (Sassafras albidum), another member of the laurel family, but this small tree is much less abundant on the coastal plain than Redbay. The Palamedes Swallowtail is occasionally seen further inland, but Redbays are vastly more common on the coastal plain, so that’s where it tends to stay.
These two laurel-family-dependent butterflies are some of our larger, more dramatic summer garden visitors, and I fear their days may be numbered, because their larval food source is imperiled. An alien insect is marching up the southeastern coast of the United States, leaving dead stands of Redbay in its wake: the Redbay Ambrosia Beetle. This alien insect carries a deadly fungus that kills infected Redbays usually within a month of infection. The fungus invades the trees when female Redbay Ambrosia Beetles bore into stems to lay their eggs. As they chew, their infected mouth parts introduce the fungus. One month later, the tree dies. One month!
Last week, the NC Forest Service released a news bulletin warning that this beetle has now reached the southeastern-most counties of North Carolina. Scientists have not found any weapons against this invader. They expect the beetle to continue its northward march until it runs out of Redbays.
After that, they can only guess what may happen. One possible scenario is that the beetle may move to other laurel family species — sassafras and spicebush. This might well spell doom for the Spicebush Swallowtail if its larval food source is killed by the invading beetle and its fungus.
And, more important to Florida orchard growers, they fear it may jump to another member of the Persea genus — avocado. The USDA Forest Service has a big section on their Web site that describes all the issues relating to this invading insect and its killer fungus hitchhiker. Read all about it here.
One strategy suggested to preserve mature Redbays is to plant them outside their native range. The southeastern Piedmont has proven to be an excellent home for this species. In his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Michael Dirr notes that this native of coastal swamps is actually quite adaptable to drier upland soils, and in his opinion, the trees often look healthier than wild ones growing on the coastal plain.
My tree is about 25 feet tall, and it leans a bit, never having fully straightened after an intense, prolonged ice storm — but that can happen to any evergreen species. Mine has remained reliably evergreen even during cold winters, and our severe droughts have not hurt it. It provides a nice bit of green in my winter landscape, as well as shelter and food for birds.
After reading about the impending obliteration of coastal Redbays, I’ve decided to plant two more trees near the one I’ve already got. I am hoping that perhaps by growing three, they might have a better chance of perpetuating themselves in the landscape over the long haul. And I’m hoping that their isolation in the middle of a Piedmont forest with no other Redbays around will prevent the Redbay Ambrosia Beetle from finding them.
Perhaps if more Piedmont gardeners added this lovely, durable evergreen to their home landscapes, Redbays would have a better chance of surviving this invader and its killer fungus. I’ve decided it’s worth a try. Perhaps you might consider joining me?
You won’t find Redbays for sale in your average nursery. I’ve ordered mine from my favorite mail-order supplier of native species.
Last Sunday night, a cold rain morphed into brief snow, just as the weather seers predicted. It began melting as soon as it stopped, so Wonder Spouse ran out with a ruler to document it: right at an inch — for about 15 minutes.
The next morning after the sun rose, I grabbed a few photos of the yard before the white stuff from our twenty-four-hour bout of winter vanished. In the above photo, those are chives that I grew from seed last year. They had already begun putting out vigorous new growth, and they are laughing at this bit of snow — probably enjoying the added moisture.
I told you about the onions I planted here. This is what they looked like yesterday morning:
You can barely see them poking through the snow, but they’re there, and they are just fine. Ditto for the skinny ones I planted on either side of the sugar snap pea trellis:
I am hoping the peas will emerge later this week during the bout of predicted 70-degree weather.
The rain that preceded the snow coated many of the trees and shrubs, and that water briefly froze as the snow fell, creating thin ice encasements for some branches and buds. But, again, it didn’t last long enough to hurt anything. Instead, the ice added to their aesthetic appeal, as you can see here:
Alas, the weather forecasters were correct when they backed off on their precipitation quantity predictions. All told, our rain gauge reported a mere 0.75 of an inch. Not enough to begin to quench the rising thirst of wakening vegetation. If the rains don’t come soon, it will be a very depressing growing season indeed.
Tomorrow, the weather seers are forecasting cold rain for my region, a rain that may end tomorrow night as a light dusting of snow. If it occurs, that will be the first, and I suspect, last frozen precipitation of the season.
I’m much more interested in the rain forecast. Earlier in the week, the weather gurus were promising me 1.5 to 2.0 inches of rain. Today they have backed off to a measly half inch. We’re in moderate drought here, and as buds swell and early flowers bloom, the tiny bit of soil moisture we have will be rapidly consumed by thirsty just-wakening plants.
This morning just after dawn when Wonder Spouse went out to fetch the morning paper, he called me outside so that I could hear voices we haven’t heard in our yard in fifteen years. The haunting pipe-organ-deep calls of two Great-Horned Owls echoed across the floodplain as they called back and forth to each other. My bird books tell me they probably nested a month ago. Perhaps they were searching for one last tasty rodent to feed nestlings before they all settled in for their daily snooze.
We are delighted these nighttime hunters are back. Don’t get me wrong, we love the Barred Owls that have shared our landscape with us from our first year here. Their calls are lovely as they echo through naked trees, but to my ear, the calls of Barred Owls are much livelier — friendlier, if you will — than those of their Great-Horned cousins. Both sets of dawn-calling voices are welcome in my landscape as the sun begins to color the eastern horizon. The more rodent-eaters in my landscape, the better, I say.
All the birds have been lively during our continuing Winter That Isn’t. We suspect the eggs in the Red-Shouldered Hawks’ nest must have hatched, because all we have to do is step into that side of the yard to provoke both hawks into warning calls: “No trespassing here; babies on board!”
Finally, salamander egg masses are clearly visible in the little shallow pond on our floodplain. You can see the swelling eggs embedded in the gelatinous mass that Wonder Spouse photographed yesterday:
I’m a little worried about the impending salamander larvae. Today I noticed at least one enormous bullfrog tadpole loitering in the shallows of the pond. They are notorious gobblers of anything that moves. Wonder Spouse and I are considering investing in a net so that we can remove these unwelcome additions to our salamander haven.
When I’m not watching the animals, I’ve been working on spring vegetables. On Valentine’s Day, I spent the afternoon transplanting the lettuces, spinaches, and swiss chard that I started a few weeks ago. This is what they look like now:
Also on that day, I loaded up the germination chamber with newly sowed seeds of three pepper varieties and one tomato variety — Super Marzano. Peppers are notoriously slow to germinate, usually taking at least a full week even with bottom heat in my cozy germination chamber. I had room for one tomato variety. I picked Super Marzano because the package says they require 90 days from planting to picking. That’s about 20 or so days longer than most of the other varieties I’m planning to grow, so I figured they could use a head start. Today, 8 of the 12 seeds I sowed have germinated. Some are taller than others, but you can see at least parts of 8 seedlings as they push their way toward the light.
Also on Valentine’s Day, my onion plants arrived in the mail — one bunch of Yellow Granax Onions. They are kin to the sweet Vidalia onions of Georgia fame. They did very well for us last year, so we figured we’d try them again. Of course, they arrived after I’d finished gardening for the day, and their bed wasn’t ready yet anyway. Fortunately, these dormant little plants can wait up to a week to be planted, so I tucked them into a dark, cool spot in the garage and promised them I’d get to them soon.
Last Thursday, I sowed Sugar Sprint Snap Peas into the bed I’d prepared for them the weekend before. This is two full weeks earlier than I’ve ever planted peas before, but I’ve also never seen a “winter” like this one before. The soil was barely moist and merely cool, not cold. It took four gallons of water from the watering can to moisten the soil sufficiently after the peas were tucked in. I am hopeful they’ll be eagerly sprouting next week when our absurdly mild February weather returns.
This afternoon, I planted the onions. It always amazes me how many tiny plants are in one bundle. I devoted one entire bed to them — 127 of them to be exact. Here they are after I watered them in:
They don’t look like much now, but in a week or two, they’ll be greening up and thickening. Right now the roots are rehydrating; tomorrow’s chilly rain shouldn’t hurt them at all. Even a little ice shouldn’t bother them at this stage. The challenge with onions is water; they need an inch a week. I’m definitely gambling on the weather with these veggies.
Of course, I had more onion plants than bed, so I tucked in the remaining plants (47 of them) on the outer edges of the pea bed. I’ve done this before with good results. Here’s how they looked after getting watered in:
As soon as the peppers and Super Marzano tomatoes finish germinating, I’ll be moving them onto a greenhouse bench so that I can sow more tomato varieties. Meanwhile, I’ve got to prepare the other beds in the spring garden quadrant of my garden, so that I can sow carrots, beets, and many more lettuces and spinaches. Plus I’ll be transplanting the starts growing in the greenhouse. I’m aiming for the end of the month to have the spring garden completely planted. That will be two to three weeks earlier than I’ve ever done this in all my 40+ years of gardening in the Piedmont.
Will I regret my rush to take advantage of what seems to be a record early spring? Maybe, maybe not. But for good or ill, the game is on!
On this day that has come to serve as an acknowledgement of love, I thought I’d share a few pictures that illustrate how the amorous intentions of flora and fauna in my Piedmont, NC yard are faring this year. You may recall the precocious flowers of my Royal Star Magnolia that I documented here.
As you can see from the photo at the top of this entry, the groundhogs got their revenge yesterday just before sunrise, when the temperature on my hill registered 15.7 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s plenty cold enough to zap delicate white petals floating twenty feet in the air. I count that as a love labor lost; those flowers won’t be getting pollinated. However, fat fuzz-covered buds still abound on this tree, so perhaps love — in the form of new blooms — will win, as warm air returns to my area today.
The blooms of plants close to the ground, such as daffodils and crocuses, were unimpressed by Nature’s latest little cold joke. My Lenten Roses, though completely neglected by me so far this year, are cranking out flowers in profusion:
The Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aurora’ that I planted last November is showing off just a few lovely orange-and-yellow strappy petals. I can testify that they are as deliciously fragrant as advertised, and quite impervious to cold snaps.
Many of the birds that live in and around my yard are talking about love these days. The Barred Owls proclaimed their territory and ardor a month ago. I suspect they are nesting now, because I don’t hear them much these days; birds tend to be much quieter when they are nesting.
Likewise, two weeks ago, a female Wood Duck paddling on the creek adjacent to my yard was shrieking in annoyance every time I accidentally got too close. Now she has gone silent. Did our absurd winter warmth coax her into early nesting?
Also two weeks ago, I watched a pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks build a nest in a tall pine near the end of my floodplain. Two years ago, a pair successfully raised four chicks to adulthood, nesting in a Sweet Gum that we could see from our window. Wonder Spouse took some excellent photos of this family, including this shot of Mother Hawk with her brood:
Last year, a pair of hawks refurbished the same nest, but we are fairly certain they did not succeed in bringing new life into adulthood. We watched the pair take turns sitting on eggs for about three weeks, then all activity stopped — love’s labors lost.
This year, we are hoping that the pair nesting in the pine will have better luck. I’ve read that Red-Shouldered Hawks mate for life, but they don’t live long, averaging only a little over two years most of the time. I don’t know if we’ve been watching the same hawks every year, or if perhaps the hawks on the pine nest are new to our yard. They may be offspring of the successful nest of 2010, because I watched the female borrow sticks from the old Sweet Gum nest, relocating them to the Loblolly Pine nest. Would offspring be more likely to notice and use their birth nest than an unrelated hawk? I don’t know.
Shortly after nest-building in the pine stopped, I tiptoed down there and tried to photograph the nest. It’s about 35 feet up, securely lodged between sturdy branches, with plenty of needle-covered branches above it to shelter the nest from weather and sun. It’s not a great shot, but this is the best I could do:
Woodpecker drumming started up a few weeks ago too, and I’ve spotted several newly excavated holes near the tops of dead trees on the other side of my creek. At least one hole is the rectangular shape characteristic of Pileated Woodpeckers, which we hear and see regularly. The woodpeckers and nuthatches have been devouring huge quantities of suet from our feeders lately. If they aren’t yet actively nesting, I’m thinking they are just about to.
The male goldfinches have not yet started to brighten their plumage to summer sunshine standards, and mixed winter flocks of chickadees, titmice, and warblers still actively forage in our yard. We’re in moderate drought here, so the bird baths that I keep stocked with clean, fresh water are very popular.
At least once a day, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds that has been noisily inspecting nest box options for several weeks stop by to bathe, splashing out two-thirds of the water in the process. The pair that nests in the Purple Martin house every year always raises two broods — love’s labors won twiceover!
If a love lesson can be drawn from observing the plants and animals in my Piedmont yard, I’d say it is that persistence pays. Love is hard work, but successful labors of love yield lasting beauty in the comfort of family. That’s a Valentine’s Day sentiment I think we can all endorse. Happy Valentine’s Day, Wonder Spouse — and to everyone else out there laboring for love.
If you live in the Southeastern United States, you know this shrub even if you don’t think you do. When I was a child in the 1960s, it was the go-to landscaping choice for quick, easy hedges — evergreen, amenable to severe trimming, and impervious to predators and diseases.
Some people claim to enjoy the fragrance of the white clusters of flowers. Frankly, I’ve always thought they stink — and they make me sneeze like I’ve inhaled a snootful of pepper. I hated them even before I knew what they do to our native forests.
Those white clusters of flowers produce big clusters of purple fruits that birds find irresistible. The berries are this invader’s secret weapon. The birds unwittingly spread Ligustrum seeds everywhere, and this shade-tolerant non-native species quickly grows to enormous size, multiplying its numbers as it outcompetes our native forest understory species.
How bad is the problem? Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense) is especially aggressive in our wetlands. A wooded creek near a shopping mall I pass often is completely overgrown with Chinese Privet. In winter, the evergreen invaders are especially visible. They outcompete native wildflowers, ferns, and smaller shrubs and trees for light and nutrients, because their evergreen leaves are working year-round. The natives never see the light of day after these bullies move in.
In North Carolina’s Coastal Plain region, many thousands of acres of swamp forest are now dominated by an understory of privet. Biologists note the quantum drop in species diversity — plant and animal — in areas where Ligustrum rules — a biological desert compared to the days before this invader took over. Nothing eats the leaves, and few natives plants can survive where it dominates.
Because my yard is adjacent to a creek and wetlands, I am constantly on the lookout for this invader. I am determined that my wetland will not look like the one near the shopping mall a few miles from my house. Winter is the best time to spot them in the landscape. When a glint of shiny green catches my eye in February, I know it’s either a holly or a privet.
I can pull small privets out of the ground roots and all in moist soil. Bigger specimens (yes, they occasionally manage to hide from me on my five acres) require Wonder Spouse and his mighty Weed Wrench. Don’t even think about cutting them off at the ground; they come right back, sprouting into even bushier specimens than the originals.
I hate them because of what they are doing to the health and biodiversity of my native woodlands. I hate them because they smell bad. I hate them because they are ugly. I hate them!
Plant nurseries still sell privets today. A fancy variegated form is often touted as an elegant landscape addition. Don’t be fooled. There is no such thing as a noninvasive privet. None is native to North America. Infinitely better native hedge shrub options are available. So, please, just say no to Ligustrum, and do your best to eradicate any loitering invaders in your yard.
For more information on this malicious invader, try here.
And if you live anywhere near the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, NC, you’ll want to stop by beginning on February 25 to see:
“Plant This, Not That—Alternatives to Invasives,” an educational exhibit at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, opens on Saturday, February 25. The public is invited to attend an opening celebration in the gardens’ Education Center at 1 pm. Associate Director for Natural Areas and Conservation Programs Dr. Johnny Randall opens the event with a short program about invasive plants. The presentation will be followed by a reception, during which six artists who created the exhibit will be on hand to discuss their work. The event is free, though an RSVP is encouraged: call 919-962-0522.
“Plant This, Not That” consists of a series of panels discussing invasive plant issues and showing examples of ornamental native plants that can be used instead of invasives in gardens and landscapes. The artists who created the accompanying illustrations are graduates of the Botanical Garden’s Certificate in Botanical Illustration Program: Irena Brubacker, Betsy Lowry Donovan, Glenda Parker Jones, Joanne Phillips Lott, Julia Shields and M.P. Wilson. Their original paintings will be on display during the reception.
The event launches National Invasive Species Awareness Week, February 26 – March 3, the purpose of which is to bring attention to the impacts, prevention, and management of invasive species and to organizations who are working toward healthy, biodiverse ecosystems.
The North Carolina Botanical Garden is located off Fordham Boulevard at Old Mason Farm Road in Chapel Hill. A unit of The University of North Carolina, it has been a leader in native plant conservation and education in the southeastern United States for more than 40 years. The Botanical Garden is open 7 days a week and admission is free.
Minor News Flash:
On the right side of my blog page, you’ll see a new addition — an image that links to the Nature Blog Network. I’m proud to say my blog is now a member of this group, where you will find fascinating nature-related blogs from writers all over the world. Click on the link and check out this site; I think you’ll like what you find.
Word on the street is that Punxsutawney Phil — most famed rodent prognosticator of them all — saw his shadow today, thereby dooming us to six more weeks of winter. The groundhog seers in my home state of North Carolina — Sir Walter Wally chief among them — also saw their shadows. However, it’s my understanding that groundhogs in New York, West Virginia, and Ohio did not see their shadows. I’m thinking those are the rodents that got it right this year.
Who are those shadow-seers kidding? Winter has been a no-show in most of the United States this year, and the plants in my yard are colorfully testifying to that fact by blooming a month or more before their usual times.
The snowdrops usually show up in mid-February, so, of course, they are at peak bloom loitering under one of my Winterhazels. The birds “fertilize” them year-round, so they are looking impressively vigorous in the afternoon sunshine:
I took my cue from the flowers and early courtship rituals of the cardinals, bluebirds, and hawks and sowed my first vegetable seeds in my greenhouse on January 25. I started a perennial rudbeckia in the germination chamber with the heating pad on to provide the bottom heat such seeds appreciate. I normally direct-sow all my greens — lettuces, spinaches, beets — right into my garden beds, but this year’s ridiculous winter got me thinking I needed to get a jump on spring by starting some in the greenhouse.
Here are seedlings of swiss chard, two lettuce varieties, and a spinach variety (Emu) 8 days after sowing.
It was actually too hot inside the greenhouse to put these in the germination chamber. They like cool soil. So I just plunked them right down on the capillary cloth, where they germinated in three days. Today I watered them with a dilute solution of fish emulsion/sea weed mix to give them a strong start.
In the vegetable garden, I’ve already prepared the bed for the peas, which I’ll be sowing next week. In years past, I waited until the end of February to sow sugar snap peas, but my gardening instincts are telling me that if I want any kind of spring vegetable garden at all, I’ve got to imitate the plants in my yard and get going now. When I weeded the pea bed, the soil was cool, but not cold, and it was not remotely water-logged.
It’s not just the warm winter that has me worried. I’m far more worried about our deepening drought. Last night’s “rain” put 0.04 of an inch in my rain gauge — a joke. My rain gauge hasn’t seen more than a third of an inch of rain at a time for so long I can’t remember. I am deeply, deeply worried.
So I’m planting my spring garden now. Those veggies can take a bit of chill, and I can always cover them if a serious freeze threatens. I’m pretty sure if I wait, I won’t get anything at all.
I’m not at all sure I’ll have enough water for much of a summer garden, but I’ve got the seeds, so I’ll be sowing tomatoes in the greenhouse soon after I plant my peas. If I’m going to have any tomatoes at all this season, I’m thinking they need to get started sooner rather than later.
All the while I’m forging ahead on vegetable planting, I’ll be praying the groundhogs got it right. I’ll be dreaming of deep snow — silently luminous in moonlight, softening bare branches, melting slowly, slowly into thirsty earth eager for every molecule of H2O.