Archive for category Native Wildlife
Early May has brought out the reptiles in abundance at my house. Almost every time I walk anywhere on our five acres these days, I see/almost step on a snake or lizard. Amphibians of numerous species are also ubiquitous. I encountered two very large toads in different parts of the vegetable garden yesterday as I planted my summer squash seedlings.
A week or so ago, early afternoon brought out two lizard species on our front deck. We couldn’t miss them, because they were basking/interacting just outside our front door. Those are Green Anoles on the railing, of course. I’ve written about them several times, including here. They like that railing, and we see them there often.
The new additions were the skinks loitering on the deck below. They are either Five-lined Skinks or Southeastern Five-lined Skinks. The two species are very similar; apparently the experts distinguish between them by examining scales on the undersides of their tails. I wasn’t about to traumatize them or myself by trying to catch them for closer examination.
At first, I thought the Green Anoles were engaging in courtship behavior, but the longer I watched, the more I thought that perhaps it was a slow-motion reptilian territorial dispute. The most action occurred when one of them caught a small butterfly that was visiting one of the white salvia flowers growing beside the railing. Just as one anole caught its prey, the other rushed it, jostling it, so that it released the fluttering victim, which flew away as the two anoles settled in for more slow motion space wars.
The skinks were much less active than their green friends. They seemed content to stay nearly immobile, soaking up sun and ignoring me as I moved around trying to get better camera angles on them without startling them.
Skinks and Green Anoles are all welcome in my yard and garden, of course. Any critter that eats some of the ten gazillion bugs that occupy my garden is welcome. For every butterfly they devour, they almost certainly eat more unwelcome insect pests. I’ve read they eat spiders, too, and I’ve noticed fewer of the eight-legged creatures lingering around my front deck. Perhaps the lizards have reduced their numbers somewhat?
At least one large snake also occupies the area around our front deck, although it is not audacious enough to sun itself on the deck with the lizards (thank goodness!) I suspect it is the same Black Rat Snake I wrote about here, because of its size, but I can’t be certain. I almost stepped on it the other day as I was weeding around a daylily, and last week, it left me a present coiled around the large Spanish Lavender bush that thrives against the front of my house:
It’s a little hard to see in the above shot, but the shed skin is quite long. I got out a yard stick, gently eased the skin away from the lavender, and laid them side-by-side on a garden bench for comparison:
Here’s a slightly different angle:
I’m happy to report that it’s not just the cold-blooded clan that love the habitat-rich environments we’ve created for them. Bird song by many species begins before the sun has done more than hint at the arrival of a new day. All the summer visitors are here now: Summer Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and too many warblers to ever distinguish. The Red-breasted Nuthatches finally left for their northern breeding grounds. I’ll miss their bold visits to the suet feeders as I tried to re-fill them.
And don’t get me started on the summer weeds. My knees may never forgive me for the relentless torture I’ve subjected them to as I’ve tried to plant vegetables amid predictions of wildly varying temperatures.
Reptiles have it far easier in that regard. I suspect that knee pain is rarely, if ever, an issue for them.
Note: For those looking for information on the class I’m teaching in July, see my About page. Thanks!
As always happens this time of year, Spring is blasting through my yard so fast that I cannot keep up — at least, not in my blog postings. Since early April, every day new bloomers have started while others have stopped. Because I’ve been focused on the vegetable garden, I have not had time to share all the beauty that surrounds me. But fear not, faithful readers, I have been taking hundreds upon hundreds of photographs. Today’s post is the first installment designed to catch you up on all the glorious blossoms.
Let me take you back in time to the middle of April, when my 35-foot tall Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera) was in full bloom. I told you about this spectacular understory native here, but I’ve mentioned it in several other posts over the years. If you search on the name, you’ll find all the relevant posts for this tree. The close-up of the flowers above demonstrates their loveliness — and their popularity with native pollinators.
Here’s what the entire tree looked like this year:
I had to stand pretty far away to get all of it in the photo. That little bit of white at the top right is a bit of the large dogwood trying to show off some of its flowers in the shot.
In the interest of fairness, that aforementioned native dogwood deserves a photo of its own:
To the left in the above photo, you can just see a few blooms of the native redbud variety, ‘Forest Pansy,’ and, of course that’s a bit of Loropetalum ‘Zhuzhou Fuchsia’ filling up the right side of the photo.
Because the showy part of a dogwood flower is actually its bracts, they aren’t quite as pure a white as the petals of the Two-winged Silverbell. But they persist much longer in the landscape.
And, since I mentioned Redbuds, I feel obliged to show you one of the standard natives in my yard in full bloom. Its lavender blossoms are emphasized by the green backdrop of the native Red Cedars behind it.
Now I want to turn your attention to the deciduous azaleas in my yard. I mention them in passing regularly, and you can find all the links by searching on the species or the category. The links that follow point back to the first posts from 2011 in which I described these wonderful understory natives.
Since 2011, all the azaleas have grown considerably. Some attain mature sizes in the 20′ x 15′ range, and I can tell that several of my specimens are well on their way to achieving their full potential. Some species and/or their cultivars bloom magnificently every year, while others seem to alternate years.
First to bloom, as usual, was Pinxterbloom Azalea (Rhodendron periclymenoides). It had its lushest bloom season so far, and thanks to the mostly cool weather, the blooms persisted longer than usual.
Soon after, it’s cultivar, ‘Purple,’ also bloomed, but its blooms were sparse this year.
Overlapping the bloom time of Pinxterbloom was my R. austrinum hybrid, Pastel #19. This shrub is always ridiculously floriferous, and its potent perfume carries halfway across my five-acre yard on spring breezes. When it is at peak bloom, it stops visitors in their tracks every time.
While Pastel #19 continued to bloom, another hybrid, Pastel #20 started its bloom cycle. Perhaps hybrid vigor explains why both these hybrids bloom with spectacular consistency every year.
I love the golden throats on these flowers.
Next to bloom was my R. alabamense, a native that is also reliably floriferous even without the benefits of hybrid vigor.
Its flowers emit a faint perfume that I enjoy for its subtlety.
The mostly cool spring has definitely prolonged bloom time for the azaleas this year.
My Oconee Azalea (R. flammeum) is over 8 feet tall now. Its form is more open than some of the other deciduous azalea species. My specimen bloomed heavily last year. This year, it’s not quite as floriferous, but still a knockout in the landscape.
Last of the azalea natives to bloom so far this year is Coastal Azalea (R. atlanticum). This native of southeastern US coastal plains keeps a much lower profile than my other deciduous azaleas. So far, it’s only about three feet tall in its high spots. The native species is a colonial spreader, but my cultivar, ‘Winterthur,’ is supposed to be more polite. It has gotten wider, but not aggressively so.
The flowers of Coastal Azalea are pure white, with no throat blotches as you see in R. alabamense. They are very potently fragrant — a cloying sweetness that is not my favorite. Because of its smaller size, I often smell the open flowers on this specimen before I see them the first time.
Flowers of a couple of my other deciduous azalea varieties are almost open for business. I’ll show you those soon. Meanwhile, let me close today’s post with a photo or two of my trellis full of blooming Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’).
Unlike invasive Japanese Honeysuckle, the Major (as I like to call him) does not spread aggressively. However, it is enthusiastic, so I do cut it back severely every other year. The Major doesn’t object to this treatment, continuing to bloom so magnificently that every visitor to my house stops, gapes, and begs to know his name.
Note: For those looking for information on the class I’m teaching in July, see my About page. Thanks!
OK, it’s not a vegetable, but it is gorgeous, yes? That’s a Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule). Thirty years or so ago, it was easy to stroll through local forests (now covered by concrete) and find hundreds of these native orchids blooming beneath the canopy trees. Stumbling onto such a spring display never failed to lift my spirits.
Over 20 years ago, a friend of mine invited me to rescue any natives I desired off her family’s land before it was sold. The property included a rich woodland full of treasures, including the increasingly rare Pink Lady’s Slippers. They are reputed to be very difficult to move, so Wonder Spouse dug a wide circle around the plants, and we moved them, soil and all, to a spot beneath our tall pines, much like the spot where they had been growing. They bloomed reliably for many years, but that area is no longer as open as it was 20 years ago. Understory shrubs and trees were robbing the orchids of the light they needed to flourish. So last year, I moved them to my deer-fence-enclosed north slope, tucking them in with my new trilliums, transplanted bloodroots, Solomon’s Seals, and other spring ephemeral treasures. To have the little plant bloom well the very next spring was very satisfying to this gardener’s heart, and it confirmed my instinct that this orchid needed a better growing site.
That orchid is just one of the ZILLIONS of flowers blooming in my yard. Some have already come and gone. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures, but because I’m outside tending veggies and choking on pollen, I am behind on sharing the beauty with my kind readers. Another post, soon, I promise, will show you more of what has been going on.
Today, I want to report on the progress of my spring vegetable garden. I am hoping that showing my methods and results may help some newbie gardeners out there. Spring vegetable gardening in the southeastern US piedmont region can be tricky business because of our wild weather swings. After a week of 80+-degree days, for example, the weather seers are now forecasting thunderstorms followed by below-normal temperatures, with lows dipping back into the low 40s. At my house, that likely means the upper 30s. Translation: Don’t plant your tomatoes outside just yet, folks.
First, on behalf of my spud-obsessed Wonder Spouse, we are happy to report that the Great Potato Experiment appears to be working according to plan. After loitering beneath the surface of their planting bags for several weeks, all three varieties are now pushing out leaves. Here’s a shot of the bed with all three bags:
Here’s a closer view of the bag containing the fingerling potatoes. They were first to emerge:
The greens growing beneath Wonder Spouse’s improvised canopy are thriving, although this week’s heat wave seems to have slowed their growth a bit. I’m hoping the spell of rain and chilly weather will revive them. We’ve already devoured several fabulous salads created from this colorful mix of spring goodness.
I always worry about the veggies I must direct-sow. Carrot and beet seeds are small, and I can’t control their germination environment the way I can inside my little greenhouse. Despite my worries, all varieties are now up and beginning to grow visibly. First up were both beet varieties. Beet “seeds” are actually clusters of seeds. It’s the way they grow. So I always end up with little grouplets of seedlings that need to be thinned. I’ve saved some space in one bed, so that I can move at least some of the thinned plants there, rather than compost them all. Waste not, as the saying goes.
The first carrots to germinate were the unpelleted varieties I got as free trials from Renee’s Garden Seeds. I hypothesize that the clay pellets surrounding the varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds require time to dissolve into the soil, thereby slowing germination.
Even though I carefully spaced my pelleted carrot seeds, they ended up coming up a bit clustered. Not as much as the unpelleted varieties, but enough to require some thinning. I suspect that hard rain moved some of the seeds. And I also suspect that the pelleting process doesn’t always coat single carrot seeds. They are tiny; I can imagine whatever machine is used to coat the seeds might easily group and coat several together.
Meanwhile in the greenhouse, I have transplanted all the tomato and pepper seedlings to the pots they will occupy until the weather settles enough to move them to their outdoor summer beds. As usual, germination rates for the varieties I tried were nearly 100% in all cases. When I transplant the seedlings, I add just a bit of an organic fertilizer specially formulated for tomatoes and peppers. This will be enough to keep them happy until the weather settles.
When will that be, you ask? When the string of 80+-degree days started, I was thinking I might plant out the summer garden by next week. Now I’m thinking it will be the following week, or maybe even early May, before I can trust that nighttime temperatures will remain above 50 degrees at my house.
Fifty degrees is the critical temperature for tomatoes and peppers. Studies have shown that total fruit production for plants drops when temperatures go below this number. Now that I’m growing fewer plants, maximizing productivity is more of a concern for me than it was during my days of growing three dozen or so tomato plants per summer.
I’m hoping to direct-sow my bean seeds this weekend. The cool air temperatures won’t be an issue during the week or so it will take for the beans to germinate. The key to that is soil temperature, and I’m certain the beds are warm enough to stimulate rapid bean germination.
I’ll also be sowing squash seeds in my greenhouse this weekend. Although you can direct-sow squash seeds, I’ve found I start with healthier, more vigorous plants if I pamper them in my greenhouse for a couple of weeks before transplanting them to their summer homes.
Finally, sometimes when you hear hoofbeats, it is a zebra. A medical truism favored by physicians states that symptoms usually point to the most common malady associated with them: If you hear hoofbeats, it’s probably horses, not zebras.
But this week in my yard, among the gazillion Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies swarming over my blooming blueberries, one yellow butterfly was not like the others. Zebra Swallowtails are much pickier about larval food choices. Their caterpillars only dine on our native Pawpaws. Fortunately for me, a stand of about two dozen trees grows on the same steep slope overlooking my creek where my Bloodroots grow. This week, a single Zebra Swallowtail taunted me by nectaring on the abundant Henbit growing in my lawn. This common weed with purple flowers is hated by some, but pollinators love it, it’s not invasive, so I don’t argue with it unless it is in my way.
Unlike Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails do not tarry long at any individual flower. Just about the time I almost had my camera focussed on my visitor, it would dash off to another flower. Apologies for the somewhat blurred photo, but it is clear enough to see the diagnostic red markings that distinguish the Zebra from the Tigers.
As predicted, the warm temperatures arrived. Then they went directly to summer-hot temperatures. This week, we are in the 80s, which is too hot, considering that the canopy trees were mostly not even blooming yet. Forget about leaves. No shade. At all. Hot, hot, hot!
Now, of course, everything is exploding simultaneously. Pollen clouds haze the air, tree buds swell visibly, and the critters have all moved into full-out courtship mode. Toads trill from twilight to dawn. Bird song sweetens the air, along with the perfume of deciduous magnolias. Grass needs mowing. Ticks and mosquitoes lurk everywhere, hungry for blood. Ah, springtime in the southeastern piedmont.
I have managed to take a few pictures, but the plants and critters are moving so fast now that I’m having trouble keeping up. The vegetable garden, of course, has taken priority. My beautiful bed of greens that had been huddled under a garden cloth tent for warmth were suddenly too warm in there. But the sun is now too strong for them. Wonder Spouse devised a clever fix. He cut the fabric tent and shaped it into a canopy that protects the lettuces, spinaches, and Asian greens from direct noon-day sun, but allows them access to more gentle angled light and better access to passing rains.
Here’s what the bed looked like last Friday:
Here’s a closer view, so you can more easily see the plants:
Now the greens are large enough for single-leaf harvesting. Instead of waiting for greens to fill out as heads, I harvest individual leaves as they attain salad size. I’ll be picking greens for our first home-grown salad tomorrow morning as the sun comes up. Veggies and herbs are at their harvestable best first thing in the morning before the sun has begun to melt them. I can just about taste those tender sweet greens now…
Meanwhile in the greenhouse, the summer veggies, flowers, and herbs are well germinated and growing strongly. The tomatoes and peppers will need to graduate to larger pots in the next few days. The basils and flowers will take a little longer.
Since my last update, I have also direct-sowed into the garden beds several varieties of carrots and two of beets. I haven’t seen any signs of them yet, but it’s only just now been about a week. I’m hoping that this current bout of summer-like heat will not prevent these cool-weather veggies from germinating well. After this Friday, our temperatures are predicted to return to normal, so I’m hoping the spring garden can hang on until the cooler spring temperatures return. Spring vegetable gardening is always a gamble here. The summer garden is easier. You can almost always count on the weather turning hot enough for tomatoes and peppers to thrive.
Of course, much more is going on all over the yard and gardens. Last weekend, Wonder Spouse helped me re-activate our front water feature:
The pitcher plants in two of the pots are not as robust this year. I allowed far too many cardinal flowers to seed into the pots with the pitcher plants, where they proceeded to outcompete the pitchers. I spent several days digging out several dozen cardinal flowers in the hopes of re-invigorating the pitchers. Now it’s a waiting game to see if they can recover.
The trees are blooming about three weeks later than they did last year. Native redbuds are just opening in my yard:
And my Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is only now pushing out flower buds. Ditto for my Eastern Columbines. Both of these natives are usually open by the beginning of April, just in time for the arrival of Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrating up from their southern winter homes. I hadn’t seen any hummers, but judging by the arrival of my summer warblers, I decided to put out a feeder last Friday. Several hummingbirds were enjoying the feeder by the next morning, and I’ve seen them on it often since. Without their native flowers, they really need the sugar water I offer to help them recuperate from their long migration.
My native coral honeysuckle is usually blooming by now, too. This year, the one on my trellis is only just beginning to produce flower buds. The one draped over a tree stump near the creek is slightly further along. It’s buds at least show color.
The ferns are finally showing signs of life. Here’s a group of naturally occurring Cinnamon Ferns that thrive in my wetland:
Inside my deer fence, my Christmas Ferns are also showing new growth:
I can’t close today’s post without mentioning the currently blooming deciduous magnolias. Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ had a record extended blooming period of six weeks for me. The cool weather kept the flowers fresh, and the cold snaps only browned a few buds. Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’ did not fare as well. When the heat hit it, all the buds opened at once, looked gorgeous for about two days, and now most of the petals have already fallen to the ground, surrendering to summer-like early April heat. But when they were fresh they were lovely.
Here’s the tree last Friday:
Here’s a close-up of the canary-yellow blossoms just as they were opening a few days ago:
As is always the case, my Magnolia acuminata ‘Elizabeth’ is blooming about a week behind Butterflies. Actually, a bit less than a week this year, likely due to our 85-degree day today. Elizabeth is taller than Butterflies. My 17-18-year-old specimen is about 50 feet now, and when the flowers open, the effect is jaw-dropping. Here she is from a distance this morning. I had to stand fairly far back to get all of her in one shot:
Then I took a few steps closer and tried for a shot with as much of the tree in it as possible:
And, finally, here are a few branches closer up, so that you can see the gorgeous flowers.
Elizabeth’s flowers are a much paler yellow than those of Butterflies, and under harsh sunlight, they fade to parchment white. The effect is lovely and more subtle than Butterflies. The flowers of both trees emit a perfume so strong that deep inhalation just about knocks me over. On a spring breeze, I can smell their fragrance across half of my five-acre yard.
There’s more, of course, what with everything exploding simultaneously in the heat. I’ll try to do a better job of keeping you posted here, but there’s just so gosh darn much to do out there. Weeds, for example. They have exploded along with all the invited plants.
But I’m not complaining. Hard work is part of the therapy of gardening. I’ll feel downright righteous when I sit down tomorrow evening to dine on our first garden salad of the year. It really is true, you know. The food does taste better when you grow it yourself.
Just before dawn this morning, thick frost glimmered in the fading light of a full moon. As the sun topped the nearby ridge, surfaces sparkled — walks, benches, lawn, even the trees. The thermometer on my cold hill bottomed out at 26 degrees Fahrenheit before the strengthening Spring sun began its work — Winter cold. Too cold.
The Spring Peepers, which have lustily chorused off and on since late December, have been utterly silent for four days. The American Toads, which had added their exquisite soprano trilling descant to the thrumming of the Peepers two weeks ago, have also gone quiet. The Green Anoles, which sunned themselves on our gutters on warm days all winter, have not ventured from their sleeping chambers in a week. To be sure, our weather has not been fit for cold-blooded amphibians and reptiles.
The plants in my yard agree. Half-open flower buds have opened no further. Some have browned from freeze damage. Others seem suspended in time, waiting for temperatures that match the astronomical calendar, knowing the equinox was last week, wondering like me, I imagine, why March turned so cruel in its waning days.
But while the plants and cold-blooded animals sleep, the warm-blooded ones are scrounging for food. A herd of five pregnant does devours every blade of green from our floodplain at dusk, when they emerge from their hiding places on the other side of the creek. Dark shadows in darkening light, they drift around the trees, more ghosts than flesh in the dimness.
The birds, on the other hand, have refused to concede to Spring’s reluctant arrival. Growing flocks of American Robins patrol the landscape, plucking fat earthworms from rain-moistened soil, muttering in delight at each new-found morsel.
The Red-shouldered Hawks circle the floodplain, then dive at crowded bird feeders in the hopes of pinning a slow-moving Mourning Dove or a greedy Red-winged Blackbird that lingers too long for one more bite. When the birds elude their grasp, they settle for patrolling the ground, pulling back fallen leaves with sharp yellow talons to reveal earthworms, which they greedily devour. When they’ve had their fill, they fly off with more; hungry nestlings must be fed, even while their favorite cold-blooded prey sleep securely in their winter hide-outs.
Flocks of Purple Finches grow daily. I think groups migrating from further south have heard about the snows in their summer homes up north. They linger at my feeders — free food — all you can eat! A pair of Carolina Wrens busily inspect flower pots, deck underpinnings, and an open garage for potential nesting sites. Wood Ducks paddle up and down the creek, preferring water warmer than the air.
A Great Blue Heron stalks from sand bar to sand bar. Rising into the air on massive wings, its majestic flight starkly contrasts with its harsh squawk of frustration at finding nothing tasty.
Suet feeders are perpetually busy from dawn to full darkness. Woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding nestlings, and insects are difficult to find in the frigid air. They are joined by increasing numbers of warblers, which must be arriving for spring nesting season. Like the woodpeckers, suet is their fall-back food until the insects finally emerge.
This morning as I filled the feeders, I heard the characteristic melodic gurgling call of Brown-headed Cowbirds. They usually arrive a few days after the warblers, lingering at my feeders until they pair off, and egg-heavy females deposit their eggs in the nests of unwary warblers.
Warm-blooded life does not seem to have the luxury of waiting for Spring to assert itself. Somehow it must carry on despite the dearth of natural food and warming nights. I keep my feeders filled and birdhouses clean, in the hopes that this eases their struggle a bit — for my local population anyway.
The weather forecasters predict that our perseverance will be rewarded. Warmer days are promised soon. I think perhaps they might be right. I spotted a bright yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail this afternoon struggling to make headway against a gusty northwest wind.
Any minute now, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will be arriving for their spring nesting season. I’d best dust off their feeders ASAP, because their usual early food sources — blooms of Red Buckeye and Eastern Columbine — remain tightly closed against the unseasonable chill.
Like the warm-blooded life surrounding me, my garden and I must persevere. Lettuce transplants huddle beneath garden fabric in the vegetable garden. I’ve been afraid to check on them, fearing that lifting the fabric might chill them more. And the tomato and pepper seeds I sowed a week ago have mostly germinated in the greenhouse. I’ve raised the thermostat to reduce the chances of cold air being fanned onto new-born seedlings.
Gardening is always an act of faith. This season, however, is requiring a bit more of it than usual. Believe, my friends. Soon we’ll be up to our knees in tall grass, mosquitoes, and summer squash.
But don’t blink. I have a feeling we’re mostly skipping Spring this year.
Can you feel it? The Spring Peepers can; they sing in my swamp with more vigor every day and night. Even the House Finches are feeling it. One came to the bird bath on my deck this afternoon with his mouth full of nesting material. He dropped the bundle of grasses beside his feet to drink, but the strong March winds blew it away before he’d taken a sip. I don’t think he was really ready to build a serious nest anyway. Perhaps the imminent Vernal Equinox (March 20) has him a bit addled.
I’ve been waiting for below-normal temperatures to abate so that I can start preparing my spring vegetable beds. It looks like this weekend will finally bring proper preparation conditions — and the amazing Wonder Spouse has even agreed to lend a hand. The timing is good. The seven kinds of greens growing in the greenhouse will be transplanting size very soon. And I need the room — it’s nearly time to start sowing tomato and pepper seeds.
I did not originally intend to grow seven kinds of greens this year. I had settled on five from my favorite seed supplier — Johnny’s Selected Seeds. But then I got my complimentary seed order form from Renee’s Garden (courtesy of my membership in the Garden Writers Association), and temptation overcame me.
This season’s spring garden will consist of the seven greens currently growing in the greenhouse:
- Lettuce, New Red Fire
- Lettuce Salanova Home Garden Mix (more about this another time)
- Lettuce, Coastal Star
- Spinach, Emu
- Vitamin Green Greens
- Spinach, Summer Perfection
- Asian Greens Mix
The first five are from Johnny’s, Summer Perfection is from Renee’s, and the final Asian greens mix was a freebie seed package from some other supplier, whose name I’ve managed to lose track of.
Also currently growing are seedlings of Bouquet Dill from Johnny’s and Blue Boy Cornflowers from Renee’s. Ideally, dill is best direct-sowed, but unpredictable weather — mostly in the form of hard rains — usually gives me sparse results when I direct-sow. As long as I transplant these herbs while they’re small, their somewhat temperamental tap roots should adjust without difficulty. One can never have too much dill, in this gardener’s opinion.
The Cornflowers are gorgeous blue annuals that bloom early, laughing at late frosts. I love the intense blueness of the flowers, so when I saw Renee was offering some, I jumped at the chance.
Because these are early spring plants, I didn’t use my germination chamber with the propagation mat to warm them. They don’t need the help. Even my cool greenhouse (I set the heater to come on at 45 degrees Fahrenheit) didn’t slow them down. All but the dill germinated in under five days. The dill took seven. The cornflowers won the contest, sprouting in less than 24 hours — now that’s enthusiasm!
When the garden beds are ready (i.e., weed-free), I’ll tuck in the greens, mulch with some fibrous compost mix I picked up from a local supplier, and enclose them in garden cloth supported by wire hoops. The cloth will protect the greens from all but the hardest of late freezes, and will also discourage rodents, who have learned to slip through my fence and help themselves — either field rats or meadow voles — or both.
I’ll be direct-sowing several varieties of carrots and two varieties of beets as well. Carrot seeds are as hard as dill seeds to germinate reliably, but Johnny’s offers pelleted seeds. They encase the seeds in little balls of clay, which dissolve when exposed to moisture. It is vastly easier to place these little clay balls where I want them — and to keep them where I put them. This year’s root crops will include:
- Beet, Red Ace
- Carrot, Early Nelson
- Carrot, Sugarsnax
- Carrot Nantes Starica
- Carrot, Snacking Rotild
- Beet, Dutch Red Baron
The last three are more freebies from Renee’s Garden that sounded too good not to try. Those carrots aren’t pelleted, so I’ll have some side-by-side data for comparison.
The only other spring crop this year will be Wonder Spouse’s potatoes. The order is due to arrive next week. I’ll keep you posted on that experiment, which I mentioned previously here.
I’ve given up on peas, either English or Sugar Snap varieties. Weather patterns have grown too unreliable for them, no matter how early I get them in the ground. Early heat waves destroy pod production just as flowering grows enthusiastic.
Early heat is the main enemy in a North Carolina Piedmont spring garden. Most of the greens I picked were chosen specifically because of their purported resistance to early summer heat. Carrots and beets are less affected — unless the heat leaps in the 90s in April — and heaven help us all if that happens!
Even after the spring garden is planted, there will be no time to rest. The summer beds will need to be prepared to receive the tomatoes and peppers that I haven’t even started yet (another week or two). As soon as the ground is warm enough, I’ll direct-sow the beans. I’ll start the squash seeds after the tomatoes and peppers are well germinated. They need less time to reach transplanting size.
So much to do, and an aging body to do it with. But Wonder Spouse and I will persevere, knowing that the rewards are delicious and good for us too.
But first, all those vigorous winter weeds must be removed from the planting beds. Charge!
Is is just me, or has February been a strange month? Folks in the Midwest are still covered in ice and snow. Here in the southeast, it was mostly rain — rain we really needed. But weather always seems to have pros and cons, doesn’t it? The Stewartia above — a lovely little non-native ornamental I adore — grows beneath giant, aging River Birches. River Birches usually only last about 100 years, and my enormous, gorgeous specimen trees are most decidedly declining. They drop small branches routinely. After the last rain, however, the giant nearest my Stewartia decided to blow its top.
Here’s a closer view of the topless branch.
And here’s more of the River Birch to provide a sense of scale.
Fortuitously for those growing beneath this forest giant, its top fragmented as it fell to the ground.
The large piece in back partially crushed part of our deer fence, but Ace Wonder Spouse was able to roll away the large chunk enough to free the fence, which he then tacked back into position — at least well enough to thwart hungry deer, we hope.
The poor Stewartia really got the worst of it. A number of branches were ripped from its trunk. Wonder Spouse will prune the damaged areas as much as possible soon.
All in all, it could have been much worse, and I wouldn’t trade a drop of the rain that fell for the damage done. The rain had an immediate impact on plants and animals. Buds are swelling, birds and frogs sing more loudly every day. Despite below-normal temperatures and snow flurries promised for this weekend, Spring will have its way with us soon enough. I offer abundant proof:
The rain brought down many branches, but the creek never quite flooded. That’s how dry we’ve been. Today’s drought monitor update from the weather seers has FINALLY moved us from the Moderate Drought category to Abnormally Dry. Not great, but better.
Personally, I’m hoping March lives up to its advertised lion-like entrance, keeping us chilly and wet until I have time to clean up the yard, finish the pruning, weed and mulch the front beds, prepare the vegetable garden … The list of chores grows exponentially with every passing hour.
So, February, bon voyage. It’s been — interesting. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, winter is refusing to relinquish its grip. We’re not buried under feet of snow like our more northern neighbors, but the cold air refuses to head back to the Arctic, and frequent precipitation events teeter between rain and ice, often producing both forms in one episode.
Last Saturday, it snowed all day and into the night, but almost none of it lingered, because the previous day we had soared into the upper 60-degree range. It was fun to watch enormous wet snowflakes fall steadily while the Spring Peepers droned enthusiastically in the adjacent swamp. They didn’t quiet until the sky cleared and the temperatures plunged, turning melted snow into treacherous black ice.
Late winter temperature variations don’t seem to bother salamanders any more than they do Spring Peepers, as demonstrated by the top photo. That’s a salamander egg mass. We’ve observed several species of these amphibians on our property, so I’m guessing when I identify these eggs as those from a Spotted Salamander. I’m going by the description of egg-laying behavior at the link provided. Those black dots are the growing embryos encased by the gelatinous material that protects them until the new-born amphibians are ready to emerge.
Sunday morning after the sun melted icy walks, Wonder Spouse and I wandered up to the vegetable garden to discuss our immediate to-do list preparations for the spring garden. I’ve sowed quite a few (seven, I think) varieties of spring greens in the greenhouse. I’m hoping they’ll be ready for transplanting in mid-March, weather permitting. We have much to do to ready planting beds before that time — if winter will stop covering my garden in ice!
While we were there, we realized our abundant chive plants have begun putting out fresh shoots, despite winter’s persistence.
It’s a good thing that members of the onion family are relatively cold-resistant, don’t you think?
On Sunday night, temperatures plunged into the teens. The National Weather Service’s official recording station at our airport recorded a low of 18 degrees Fahrenheit. The thermometer on our hill got down to 13 degrees. Microclimate differences and the absence of nearby concrete and asphalt heat islands account for our consistently lower temperatures.
Fortunately, native plants are well adapted to our up-and-down temperatures, as evidenced by the native rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) that grows beside our back deck. This species is common in our mountains, but it does occur naturally in a few places in the Piedmont region, where so-called relict plant communities from the last glacial period survive to present day. I would never have planted this species where it grows in my yard, but it was here when we moved in 23 years ago, easily tripling in size since then, so I don’t argue with it.
Here is what the rhododendron looked like at 7:20 a.m. Monday morning, when our thermometer read 13 degrees:
See how sad the leaves look? The shrub is fine; this is how evergreens adapt to severe cold. They temporarily shut down their leafy water transport mechanism to protect leaves from damage. But the plant does look pitiful, as evidenced by this closer view:
A mere two hours later, the shrub’s protected southern exposure combined with strong sunlight helped the plant recover its composure.
So adept is this plant at its cold-recovery trick that you’d never know how sad it looked two hours earlier.
Such is the nature of Salamander Season here in the Piedmont. One minute, we’re shivering in frigid air, the next, sunlight and Spring Peepers warm us into spring garden dreams.
Friday’s forecast is calling for morning sleet that should morph into cold rain. Although inconvenient, I am grateful for every drop of precipitation. My county remains in moderate drought, a thirsty peninsula surrounded by well-watered counties to our east, north, and west. I will happily delay spring planting for mud-making rain, knowing we need that water to fight summer’s inevitable drought-worsening heat.
The handsome creature above was kind enough to park itself on a large oak in our backyard on a cloudy New Year’s Day. Wonder Spouse grabbed my camera (it was closer) and managed to catch the Great Blue Heron just as it tensed before gliding down to the creek. As we can imagine the bird’s great wings expanding wide for flight, so can we imagine ways to expand our gardens.
Over the decades, I have become a more selective gardener. In early years, I planted any plant offered me, and rarely looked farther than my local stores for transplant possibilities. I am now much more selective, saving the diminishing choice spots in my yard for specimens like the Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) I’ve told you about before here.
In that post, I mentioned that I’d never seen my specimen bloom. Having read that the flowers are inconspicuous, I thought perhaps I’d overlooked them on my tree. But now I’m fairly certain that my tree had simply not bloomed for me — until now. Now all the upper branches are covered in fat flower buds just beginning to show hints of maroon petals within.
I finally found one bud within reach of my camera that was showing the color of the strappy petals.
The flowers are not showy, unlike the spectacular fall color display of the leaves. But their appearance expands the presence of this specimen tree, making it a magnificent year-round addition.
My garden expands as my transplants mature and prosper, but I have other ways to increase my garden’s presence in the world — by sharing it with others.
Like most gardeners, I’ve been giving away plants for many years. Some special plants just love to multiply, and it gives me great pleasure to share them. My shared wealth expands my garden’s reach to both ends of my home state and many points in between. I hear from the owners of those distant gardens when one of my garden babies blooms. It’s fun, for example, to hear whose daylily bloomed first and for how long.
It delights me to know that sometimes my garden expands itself by transferring the gardening bug to others. A housemate from graduate school — a city girl with no experience with the green world when we first met — told me years later that she plants a vegetable garden every year now. Working the garden with me — and tasting the results — persuaded her of the benefits of this pursuit. I am thrilled every time I manage to bring another soul over to the green side.
In recent years, I’ve expanded my garden in other ways. I grow extra vegetables each year, so that — weather and pests permitting — I can share them with friends and the local food bank. The Garden Writers Association sponsors a formal program to foster this idea. They call it Plant a Row for the Hungry.
You can do likewise in your garden. Or if you don’t have space for a food garden in your yard, consider helping with a community garden. The university in the town adjacent to mine runs a successful community garden program on campus. The bounty is shared with university staff and other community members who want to supplement their diets with fresh-grown produce.
And the land conservancy organization in my region supports what it calls the Local Farms and Food platform of their mission by allowing local food banks to operate community gardens on some of the arable lands being preserved by this organization. Arable land — an increasingly scarce commodity in my rapidly urbanizing area — is not just preserved, but put to its best use.
I’m sure my region isn’t the only place with such garden-expanding opportunities. If you are inclined to try expanding your garden in such ways, check with your local colleges, food banks, and land conservancy groups. If they aren’t already growing food to feed the hungry, maybe you can help get such a program started.
I also expand my garden by sharing it with friends who need a little extra beauty in their lives. Last year, I cleaned up and planted a tiny garden space at the home of a friend battling a major illness. Knowing she would be spending many days recuperating at home, I hoped that this small plot full of color would lift her spirits. Because she likes to cook, I also planted a pot full of culinary herbs that could sit on her patio, a few steps from her kitchen.
This year, another friend recovering from a major health challenge has a lovely empty garden space beside her new house. She is excited about planting this area with native flowers that will bloom enthusiastically and attract pollinators. I’ve begun potting up some of my garden multipliers for later spring transplanting to her new bed. And during yesterday’s absurdly mild weather here, I took cuttings of rosemary and Spanish lavender, placing them in a flat in my greenhouse. By the time spring arrives, they will be well-rooted and ready for new homes.
In my opinion, every southern Piedmont home should have a few rosemary shrubs growing nearby, for enhancing culinary masterpieces and inhaling their aromatically therapeutic properties.
As the years make my joints creakier, expanding my physical garden at home will likely become impractical. But I will always be able to expand my green world in these other ways.
As you readers of this blog plan your own spring and summer gardens this year, I encourage you to expand your thinking beyond your personal garden space. Whose life can you lighten by sharing your garden this year?
It’s invisible during the growing season, lost in the myriad green leaves of its host trees. But when those deciduous leaves color and fall to earth, the evergreen clusters of American Mistletoe reveal themselves to all who cast their eyes skyward. According to Weakley’s Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States, American Mistletoe’s scientific name is Phoradendron serotinum ssp. serotinum, but you’ll see it often listed by an older name, Phoradendron leucarpum. Some folks call it Oak Mistletoe, after one of its favorite host tree species.
Over 100 species of deciduous trees have been noted to be hosts for American Mistletoe, but you most often see it around here on oaks, maples, and sometimes hickories. My American Mistletoe, in the photo above taken this morning before the clouds departed, is not growing on any of those species. Instead, it is happily established on a lichen-covered Honey Locust that I planted years ago in the hopes of providing more food for wildlife through its flowers and seedpods. The tree hasn’t thrived, but it stubbornly persists, each year playing host to more life in the form of various lichens, and the parasitic American Mistletoe.
As I read up on this plant, characterized by botanists as a subshrub, I discovered some disparities among the experts regarding American Mistletoe’s parasitic nature. Many claim that this plant, which lives by sending root-like structures into the tissues of its host tree to extract water and nutrients, is purely parasitic, and if many plants establish themselves on one tree, eventually fatal to their host as they drain it of life. However, other experts note the plant’s evergreen leaves and stems, pointing out that, during winter, Mistletoe is actively photosynthesizing, thereby creating its own food. And it’s not impossible to believe that some of those synthesized nutrients may actually go to the host tree during the winter season. I think perhaps this is more speculation than tested fact, but it doesn’t seem that far-fetched, and may perhaps explain why American Mistletoe can persist in a tree for decades without any obvious damage to its host.
Europe has its own species of Mistletoe, but our American species is fairly similar. Both produce waxy white berries. The European version is more poisonous than our species, but even American Mistletoe can be dangerously toxic. All parts, especially the berries and leaves, are poisonous. As is true for many poisonous native plants, American Mistletoe was used to treat a variety of ailments by Native Americans. However, extracts from the plant derived for experimental cancer drugs have proved too toxic to be useful, so I don’t think anyone should try using this plant for more than ornamentation.
Fruit-loving birds, such as Cedar Waxwings and Eastern Bluebirds, are responsible for spreading these plants from tree to tree. The berry pulp is extraordinarily sticky, readily adhering to beaks and feathers. As birds wipe their beaks on branches to remove the pulp, they may deposit a seed in the crack of a branch, where it can germinate and penetrate its host. Another avenue is bird droppings. Some evidence suggests that the fruits pass very quickly through avian digestive tracts, increasing the chances of seed deposit on an appropriate host tree, since the birds don’t travel far before making that deposit. Caterpillars of the Great Purple Hairstreak are only known to dine on American Mistletoe, which is just another reason to welcome its presence on your deciduous trees.
A quick survey via your favorite search engine will provide you with several proposed mythical origins for the tradition of kissing beneath Mistletoe. I suspect the tradition became associated with the Christmas season because this plant is so much more noticeable in winter’s barren landscape.
However the tradition came about, spotting a green orb of American Mistletoe high on an otherwise leafless tree in winter seems an excellent excuse to steal a kiss from someone you love.