Archive for May, 2012
Yesterday morning as Wonder Spouse and I headed out the front door for a day of gardening chores, we were greeted by the lovely creature in the photo above. Both of us grabbed our cameras, but since Wonder Spouse’s camera and photography skills are vastly superior to mine, these photos are his.
What a gorgeous creature a Luna Moth is, don’t you agree? According to my research, their caterpillars eat birches, persimmons, sweetgums, hickories, walnuts, and sumacs, which means they must be very happy in my yard, where all these species thrive.
Normally, we only see them at night beating against windows. To see and photograph an intact Luna Moth literally at our doorstep was well worth postponing garden chores for a few minutes. This one was wounded; its body had been bitten. It was still alive, but just barely — too weak to argue with us when we relocated it for its photo shoot.
If you’re never had a chance to look at one of these moths closely, here’s a close-up view:
Those eye spots, the subtle veining in the wings, the feathery edges — so exquisite.
Yesterday, we practiced a bit of lunacy by working out in the heat and humidity most of the day. Twenty years ago, we built the raised beds in our vegetable garden by digging out paths between the beds and heaping that soil onto the beds. We filled the lowered paths with aged wood chips left behind by our arborist. The wood chips raised the level of the paths by about six inches, providing weed suppression and, more important, a moisture reservoir for the beds. During heavy rains, the chips soaked up any excess water, then slowly released it into adjacent beds as the soil dried. These paths also made excellent earthworm habitat.
But every three or four years, the wood chips break down into soil, leaving low paths prone to vigorous weed populations, so we add new chips. We had intended to do this last year, but never got to it. We were out of wood chips, so about a month ago we purchased a dump truck load of mulch from a nearby supplier. The wood chips — run through the chopping machine three times — were reasonably well broken down; we think they’ll last several years before the worms transform them.
The lunacy? Over the past few weekends, the Amazing Wonder Spouse has moved many, many wheelbarrow loads of mulch from the giant pile left by the truck to the garden paths. I’ve been spending nearly every morning weeding the paths, so that they’d be ready for the chips. We put down paper or cardboard first to help slow weed encroachment, then piled on the wood chips. After Wonder Spouse dumped a load, I’d rake out the chips evenly across the paths.
It was hard work, but all the vegetable beds are now surrounded by mulched paths. No weeds — just happy vegetables and mulched paths. I am delighted, and I imagine the vegetables can feel the difference as their beds remain more evenly moist, and weed competition is nearly nonexistent.
I’ve no doubt that our neighbors thought we were nuts yesterday as we worked straight through the afternoon heat, but we were determined to finish before the rainstorms promised for this week arrived. If all goes as we planned, rains will saturate the newly filled paths, leaving our vegetable garden well-prepared for summer’s heat and likely dry spells.
The mulch pile is almost gone. Wonder Spouse thinks there might be enough left for one more wheelbarrow load. We’ll be ordering more soon. I’ve still got to reclaim the front flower garden from the hooligan weeds that have been ruling unchallenged while I’ve labored on the edibles.
These eternally cyclic chores of weeding, mulching, and agonizing over the weather probably do seem like the acts of a lunatic to some. The reverse is actually true for me. These tasks keep me sane, centered on the rhythms of the seasons, attentive to the dances of butterflies, and the sweet scents of a succession of flowers.
Lunacy was once thought to be exacerbated by a full moon, and we’ve got one coming up next week. However, instead of lunacy, if you live near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, consider celebrating early June moonlight in the beautiful gardens of the North Carolina Botanical Garden. On Saturday evening, June 2, they’ll be hosting their first ever Carolina Moonlight Gala. This fundraiser for the Garden will include good food, live music for dancing, and an auction with items ranging from gorgeous artwork to fabulous vacation getaways. Even if you can’t make it the Gala, you can still bid on auction items online via the link above, and all proceeds benefit the programs at the Garden.
I think summer’s exuberance lends itself to minor acts of lunacy. Why not use the upcoming full moon as an excuse to go a little crazy in your garden — or better yet, support one of the finest public gardens in the southeastern United States? As you dance in the moonlight, perhaps you’ll be joined by one or more of these breath-taking beauties:
Yes, it’s that time, folks, when squash shows up nightly on the dinner menu, and the aroma of baking zucchini bread fills the house with cinnamon-squash goodness. With today’s harvest, summer produce is officially in the house.
Wonder Spouse and I have been working hard to get the vegetable garden weeded and mulched for the season, and we’re nearly done, I’m happy to report. That’s good, because as you can see above, the summer vegetables are cranking bigtime.
And well they should be. Our high temperatures are mostly hovering in the mid to upper 80s, with nighttime lows in the middle to upper 60s. Combined with heavy, humid air and occasional thunderstorm rain, these are close to ideal growing conditions for the summer garden. We did get a bit of pea-sized hail the other afternoon, but it wasn’t heavy enough to do any harm that I could see. Compared to areas near me, I’m still low on rainfall, so I am providing extra water to the squashes (big moisture consumers) and the last of the spring veggies still struggling to hang on.
Here’s a shot of the Rainbow Chard, which is all that’s left of my lovely bed of greens. The lettuces and spinaches all bolted for the sky when the 80-degree temperatures settled in.
After I took this picture, I harvested almost all of the big leaves you see here. I’ve never grown this veggie before, and I’m not sure how much longer it can withstand summer weather, so I figured I’d pick as much as I could while it still tastes good.
I haven’t pulled up the Sugar Sprint Snap Peas yet, but their productivity has slowed to a crawl. If I stop seeing any flowers, I’ll compost them. The beets still seem to be growing well. I’m trying to keep them moist, in the hopes that the beet roots will expand a bit more before I must harvest them.
The tomatoes are all taller than me now; their fruits grow larger — and more numerous — daily. I find I must tie new growth to the trellises every other day. My tomato experiment this year is a new variety called Indigo Rose. The amount of purple pigment produced in the fruit depends entirely on how much sun reaches the fruit. Here’s one plant that gets a lot of sun:
Compare that picture with a shot of another plant of the same variety that is sited where it gets more shade:
Whatever degree of purple these fruits attain, I think they’ll look amazing in salads. I sure hope they taste good.
Meanwhile the Fortex Pole Beans have already shot over the top of their 6-foot trellis. Last year, these beans grew up and over the trellis, and then some of the vines started back up again. Given how early we are in the season, I’m thinking this year’s beans may overwrap the trellis multiple times. This makes for very challenging bean-harvesting conditions, because it’s hard to spot the beans hiding deep within the mass of foliage. A taller trellis wouldn’t solve my problem; I can barely reach the top of this one.
The Jade Bush Beans were slow to get going, but are now starting to look fairly respectable. We love the flavor of these beans, which is why I still grow them, despite the complaints my knees make when I’m harvesting them.
And, as you can see from the first shot of this entry, all three squash varieties are producing with almost frightening enthusiasm.
That concludes this vegetable garden update, but I want to close with two more photos I took this morning.
First up is this young cottontail rabbit that was dining on clover growing in my driveway. Apologies for the blurriness, but the bunny was wiggly. Note the dark spots on its ears. Those are ticks, which is not only gross, but also explains why my front flower garden is so full of ticks that I can’t walk through it without picking up several. Yikes!
And I’ll close on a more aesthetic note. I grew this yarrow from seed years ago, and because, like most yarrows, it tends to spread itself around, its pretty pink flowers still adorn the edge of my vegetable garden every year. The nice thing about yarrow is that you can hack it back as much as you need without ever killing it.
As Memorial Day weekend begins, I hope all my readers will be enjoying their yards and gardens as much as I am enjoying mine. Happy Summer, everyone.
I have confessed my fascination with the big-leaved native magnolias several times in this blog. The biggest of all these related species is Magnolia macrophylla, or Bigleaf Magnolia. This tree produces the largest flowers and leaves of all native North American species (except for tropical palms). Flowers are typically eight to fourteen inches across, and leaves can be up to one foot wide and three feet long. You truly have to see one of these trees to fully appreciate its spectacular qualities.
That’s Wonder Spouse in the photo above. I took it this morning as he kindly took some aerial views of the one flower our Bigleaf Magnolia produced this year. I’ve been watching the bud for a little over a week. Today it peaked, and because these flowers don’t last long, we headed out just after sunrise, so that Wonder Spouse could document the Bigleaf bloom.
This tree occurs naturally in bottomland forests and rich wooded slopes. Ours is growing on our north-facing slope under a nearly closed canopy of tall pines, a tulip poplar, water oak, and a massive sweetgum. We planted our tree about fifteen years ago, but it didn’t really start shooting skyward until we removed its protective wire cage after installing deer fencing on that side of the yard.
Last year, this tree also produced one flower, but it was higher up, completely beyond the reach of even Wonder Spouse’s ladder. This year’s bloom on a lower branch seemed ideally suited for photographic documentation. What follows is a series of shots I took as the bud progressed. The series concludes with the photos taken by Wonder Spouse atop his ladder.
May 10: I realize my Bigleaf Magnolia is sporting a fat flower bud, and from a position slightly higher up the hill, I attempt a photo:
The bud takes longer than I expect to progress, but finally on May 16, I decide it looks larger and take another photo:
The next day, I realize blooming action is initiating:
The flower opens more fully the following day:
The weather cooled briefly, and the flower seemed to be content to remain only partially open until today. Here’s a shot taken by Wonder Spouse using an angle similar to my shots — before he climbed the ladder:
Here’s an aerial shot. Note the penny on the lower petal that Wonder Spouse added to provide a sense of scale:
The flowers of this Bigleaf Magnolia display much less purple staining around the base of the petals than does its close cousin, Ashe Magnolia (M. asheii). For comparison, see the photo I took last year in this entry. It’s the last photo in the entry.
Here’s a close-up of the center of the flower, courtesy of Wonder Spouse on his trusty ladder:
All the magnolia flowers I’ve observed drop their numerous stamens onto the petals in piles, as you see in the photo. As is true for the other native magnolias, the fruits on the central “cone” will turn red, and will likely be devoured by birds before ever falling to the ground.
This magnolia is best suited to larger landscapes, where the size of its leaves and flowers won’t be too overpowering. Its enormous leaves can be shredded by strong winds, so it’s best planted in a sheltered spot. And the richer — and moister — the soil, the happier it will be.
I think this tree is worth catering to its prima donna tendencies for the gasps of admiration it always garners from visitors, and for the sheer coolness of being able to say I grow the tree species with the largest deciduous leaves in North America.
I am, after all, a self-confessed obsessive gardener.
Few people probably love the native plants of the southeastern Piedmont more than I do, but as much as I enjoy their nearly infinite diversity and adaptability, I think I would have long grown bored with them without being able to observe their interactions and interdependencies with native wildlife. For example, the native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’) is beautiful on its own, but that corner of my landscape truly lights up when the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds stop by for drinks.
From birds to insects to reptiles, amphibians, and mammals — all the wildlife inhabitants and visitors animate what would otherwise be a basically static landscape — no matter how much the trees and flowers sway in winds and rain. The animals generate many of the most interesting stories in my landscape as they go about their daily lives.
Yesterday morning as the sun rose, I spotted this cranefly on my garage door as it admired its shadow:
On an early morning trip to my compost pile, I discovered that my laziness in failing to cover a recent donation had attracted an unexpected visitor. A Spicebush Swallowtail was dining on a bit of beet leaf. I knew that Eastern Tiger Swallowtails like to collect at mud puddles to drink up trace elements they don’t get from nectar, and I knew that Red-spotted Purple Butterflies were notorious for their appreciation of unsavory items. But I have never seen a Spicebush Swallowtail dine on anything but flowers.
The recent increase in humidity has brought out most of the bugs, including ticks, mosquitoes, and biting flies. But along with these pests come the sky hunters — dragonflies — in every color and design imaginable. I caught these two taking a break from sky patrol:
I think the sky dragons are attracted to our little water feature in the front garden. They aren’t the only ones. I caught this Cope’s Gray Treefrog waiting for an evening chorus session on the side of my house near our little pond:
The treefrogs and the Eastern Narrowmouth Toads have been singing lustily around our little pond for over a month now. At first, it was just the toads chorusing, then the treefrogs joined them for a couple of weeks. Now, the nightly serenade sounds to be all treefrog all the time.
The calls of both amphibians are quite distinctive. I had never seen a Narrowmouth Toad until this year when I was digging a vegetable bed about six weeks ago. I accidentally unearthed two of them, and I wasn’t sure what they were until I did a little research. Then I was glad I had been wearing my gloves when I handled them, because their slimy skin secretions are toxic, designed to repel the ants that they eat. Given the enormous number of ant species that live in my yard, I say bring on the Narrowmouth Toads!
These amphibians have been doing more than singing around my pond. It is now teeming with tadpoles. I can’t tell if they are all toad tadpoles, or if the treefrog tads are in there too. In this shot, I think toad tadpoles may be dining on a treefrog egg mass, but I’m not certain.
The water isn’t as green as it looks here, I promise. But it is definitely not as clear as it was during pre-tadpole days.
My final picture today is not of the landscape animators themselves, but of their nest. About a week ago as I walked to the compost pile, a bird flew past me in a blur, seeming to want to distract me. I assumed I had merely startled it — I often unintentionally surprise wildlife — and continued. But as I approached one of our huge mature dogwoods, another bird flew past me. It seemed to come right from the tree, so I turned and looked.
The dogwood is double-boled, with the split beginning not more than two or so feet from the ground. In that low crotch, I discovered a distinctive nest — Ovenbirds! We’ve spotted these ground-nesters often during the growing season, but we had intentionally never looked for a nest. I have never read of these birds building in a tree, but this wasn’t far off the ground, and perhaps it looked a tad more secure to them. My yard is inhabited by many black rat snakes, so I can well imagine that a tree might look like a safer bet to the Ovenbirds.
They’re called Ovenbirds, because their nests resemble Dutch ovens, with little holes where the birds go in and out. I think you can make out the structure in this photo that I took some distance away from the nest, so as to minimize their disturbance.
I think the entry hole is near the bottom, but it’s hard to be sure. Alas, less than a week later, I discovered that the nest had been torn apart. Whether it was the work of a snake, raccoon, possum, or greedy squirrel, I’ll never know, but the nest is gone, and I haven’t seen or heard the Ovenbirds since.
That’s the way of life with my landscape animators. Sometimes Death wins, but Life triumphs more often. And the dances between them are always captivating.
I took this photo this morning. I’m thinking we’ll be eating squash nightly very, very soon, especially because the zucchinis are equally enthusiastic, as you can see here:
I picked about two dozen peas this morning, along with a bowl full of mixed greens for tonight’s salad. Beet and carrot tops grow more vigorous daily, so I’m hopeful that their root growth is equally enthusiastic. All pepper plants sport small fruits, and the tomato growth rate is making me distinctly nervous. I am tying new growth to their trellises every other day.
I guess this is what a little bit of rain does for a vegetable garden. We’ve still received far, far less rainfall than nearby areas, but, clearly, we’ve gotten enough to excite the veggies.
Then there are the 20-year-old blueberry bush/trees to consider. They are laden with ripening green-blue globes of goodness. I’ll soon be battling the birds and mosquitoes as I pick as much ripe fruit as I can reach.
I know my mouth waters at the thought of all this imminent deliciousness. Perhaps yours does too?
Last week, my garden sweltered beneath high temperatures in the nineties. This week, the temperatures plunged 25 degrees. This morning, our hill thermometer registered a low of 41 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, it’s a typical late spring in the Piedmont of North Carolina.
Experience has taught me that the trick to helping veggies survive spring’s wild weather swings is to plant vigorous plants during a settled spell of weather, mulch them heavily immediately, and water as often as necessary to keep the soil evenly moist.
This year, my timing seems to have been pretty good. The spring veggies are still producing, although last week’s nineties caused some of the mesclun mix (Yankee greens, as I think of them) to bolt.
And the Sugar Sprint Snap Peas have been disappointing. It took them much longer to begin to bloom than the Sugar Anns I’ve grown in the past, and the pods started filling very unevenly when the heat hit them last week. The Sugar Anns never faded this fast. That’s not to say the Sugar Sprints aren’t still producing, just not producing up to my expectations. Here’s what they looked like yesterday morning after a piddly rain the day before:
As for that rain I mentioned, as usual, my little corner of the Piedmont is being overlooked. The city 30 miles to our east has had two major, multi-inch rain events in the last two weeks. Our two-week total isn’t even 1.5 inches. Of course, the folks in Raleigh also got hail, some flooding, and a few houses were set on fire by lightning. I’ll take gentle, light rain over dangerous storms every time, of course, but I get grumbly when I hear the TV weather folk talking about the “break in the drought.” Not at my house.
Wonder Spouse and I are still enjoying the bed of spring greens, and we do have enough peas to at least add a few to our salads. Here’s what that bed looked like yesterday morning:
And the beets are finally looking like they might make some actual beets. If the sub-80-degree weather sticks around and we can get some decent rain, I think I still have a good chance at a decent beet crop. Here they are with the bolting mesclun mix in the background:
The 90-degree heat was a huge boost to the summer garden. A number of the tomato plants are already as tall as I am, and fruit production is enthusiastic. The peppers are not far behind, and the beans — especially the pole beans — are reaching for the sky. Here’s what the pole beans looked like yesterday morning:
And check out these tomato fruits:
Check out the way the Indigo Rose tomatoes are already turning purple. I did a bit of research on these and learned that they only make anthocyanins (the purple-colored antioxidant) where the sun touches the skin, and the purple stays only in the top layers of the tomato. So this is one you’ll want to eat skin and all if you’re trying to take advantage of this nutrient. I also learned that the tomato is fully ripe when the bottom of the tomato is deep red. I’ll keep you apprised of their progress.
Last but not least, two of my six squash plants had open flowers yesterday, so I was forced to remove their coverings so that pollinators could access the flowers. The plants look strong, and I’m hoping they’ll be able to resist the squash varmints long enough for us to grow weary of squash-filled dinners.
As you might guess, our yard is still producing many blooming plants. I’ll show you some highlights soon, along with some wildlife updates.
Now it’s time to pull more weeds, mulch, and continuously pray for gentle, abundant rain.
All avid gardeners have their secrets for producing a great garden. Some of us save our own seed and bulbs, nurturing a plant line until it is maximally adapted to flourish in our garden. I know a farmer’s market vendor who has done this with the garlic variety he sells. Garlic can be tricky to grow in the middle of NC, but he has laboriously saved the best bulbs from his crops every year, until now his entire crop laughs at the wild swings in temperature and moisture levels that challenge growers in my region.
Some gardeners add secret ingredients to their soils that they swear improve the vigor of their plants. Others plant only on certain phases of the moon. The list of gardening tricks and secrets is likely as long as the list of experienced gardeners.
I have my own little secrets and tips, many of which I have shared here. Early on, I realized my greatest asset — my secret blogging weapon, if you will — is the magnificent photography of Wonder Spouse. The best photos on this blog are all ones he has taken of the plants and animals who dwell with us on our five-acre patch of North Carolina Piedmont.
In going through my files today, I realized that he had given me a number of gorgeous photos that, for one reason or another, I haven’t shown you. Today, I am rectifying that oversight by sharing some of Wonder Spouse’s recent work, starting with that opening image. To fully appreciate these photos, click on them to see enlarged versions.
He took that close-up of a cluster of Winterhazel flowers in the middle of March. It took his artistry (and his fancier camera) to convey what I tried to describe to you here.
In mid-April, he took this gorgeous shot of a flower bud cluster of Rhododendron flammeum ‘Scarlet Ibis’ before the flowers opened:
At the end of April, Wonder Spouse took several breath-taking photos that I want to share. This first is of an evergreen rhododendron that was growing beside our back deck when we moved in 23 years ago. I think it’s R. maximum, the species common to our mountains, and I doubt it’s a named cultivar. Somehow, it has managed to flourish beneath the enormous Northern Red Oak that towers over our home. This shrub is now twelve or so feet high and eight feet wide, and it blooms reliably despite near complete neglect on my part. Here’s Wonder Spouse’s shot of an open flower cluster during peak bloom last week:
Wonder Spouse is a big fan of Amaryllis cultivars. Many years ago, we bought several choice varieties, and they’ve been multiplying in their pots ever since. I overwinter them in the greenhouse and bring them inside or decorate our back deck with them when their thick bloom stalks appear. Here’s a close-up of the flowers of Amaryllis ‘Picotee’ that are still blooming on our back deck:
To close, I want to share this “glamour shot” of one of the bearded iris varieties that thrive in our yard despite my less-than-optimal care. I’ve long forgotten the cultivar name, but the flowers are a lovely coppery orange color. I cut a stalk full of buds and put it in a vase on our kitchen counter, where we could appreciate its beauty and its gentle, sweet scent. One evening last week, Wonder Spouse was inspired by the effect of the overhead counter light on the iris bloom. Without bothering with a tripod, he photographed this iris in our darkened house. I think you’ll agree he captured the essential exquisiteness of this bloom:
Thus, I have revealed my blogging secret weapon for all to see: the photography of the amazingly versatile Wonder Spouse. He makes our garden and yard look far better than I ever could show you with my pictures or words, and I deem myself the most fortunate of gardeners to be able to call upon his many talents.
I know that summer is nearly here when the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks refuel at my feeders every late April-early May. These males showed up last Saturday. Usually, the males arrive first, then the females join them and linger a few days after the males leave to claim breeding turf. That pattern held this year. The females showed up late Sunday, and I saw one lonely female hanging out at the feeder this morning. Their massive beaks demolish the safflower seeds I offer at astonishing speeds. But I deem it worth the price of seed to see these lovely birds every spring, and again in the fall when they pass through on the way to their winter hangouts. You have to admire the feisty Chickadee in the photo above as it stares down the Grosbeaks, all of which are about three times its size.
By the time the Grosbeaks arrived, I had spotted a male Indigo Bunting hunting bugs in our backyard a week earlier. He’s there most every day now, so we suspect there may be a nesting female somewhere in the nearby shrubby area that is, shall we say, less than manicured.
The warblers, buntings, and many other summer visitors seem to appreciate all of our wilder areas. Our bird populations and species diversity have increased enormously over the 20+ years we’ve lived here. Truly, if you build it (i.e., provide their habitat requirements), they will come.
Seeing these two species caused me to mentally tick off my list of expected summer visitors. I’ve spotted the hyperactive Blue-gray Gnatcatchers zipping through the underbrush several times, and I spied one with nesting material in its mouth as I was watering my vegetable garden yesterday morning. These tiny dynamos are insect-eating machines, and always welcome in my gardens.
Just two days ago, I finally heard the hunting chip-chip call of a Summer Tanager. I rarely see these denizens of our summer treetops, but I hear them often as they move along branches hunting bugs. Occasionally one will visit a bird bath — always a treat.
When I heard the Summer Tanager, I realized I hadn’t yet heard the unmistakable call of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I always associate their calls with thick humidity and searing heat. Sure enough, yesterday, one called from the Northern Red Oak that towers over my home — just in time for our record high heat.
The winter-visiting birds have mostly departed. Although Northern Flickers are reported to be year-round residents of my region, I haven’t heard or seen one for over a month, which is normal for my Piedmont yard. They always vanish in the summer.
Likewise, the White-throated Sparrows no longer call plaintively in the early morning. Most have left, although I spotted one at the feeder this morning — probably what birders call a non-breeder.
All the various warblers are back. I can hear them, but I rarely see them. I’m hoping a Blue Grosbeak will visit a feeder when I’m watching. They usually nest in the wild blackberry thicket on the other side of our creek.
Last but never least, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird males have been back for about a month. The females are probably here too, but I haven’t seen one yet. Although I’m keeping fresh sugar water available in the feeder by my kitchen window, I’ve never seen more than one male stop by for a drink. However, I’m hearing their chatter all over my yard.
One male scolded me yesterday when I unintentionally startled him as I watered a squash plant. He was intent on visiting a patch of still-blooming Eastern Columbines, and he didn’t see me until he almost flew into me. I suspect the abundance of blooming flowers in my yard is the reason my hummingbird feeder is unpopular. That will change as summer heat slows blooming, and fledglings seek easy food sources.
The rhythms and dances of Piedmont summer are building to their usual crescendo, which I associate with the Summer Solstice. The thrumming of cicadas should punctuate the air any day now. The blinking lights of fireflies grow more numerous with every passing warm night. And the Cope’s Gray Treefrogs chorus lustily every time the humidity rises enough to hint at the possibility of a thunderstorm.
All I need now to complete this Piedmont summer scene are a few ripe tomatoes. And the good news is that every tomato plant in my garden is already sporting promising green globes. Oh yes, I do believe I can almost taste that Piedmont summer goodness.