Please go vote for a great horticultural therapy cause

Attention my garden peeps: I need a favor. The National Garden Bureau is offering a grant to horticultural therapy programs that submitted videos. They have narrowed it down to three options and want folks to vote for the video they like best. The folks running the horticultural therapy program at the NC Botanical Garden submitted one for the work they do with The Farm at Penny Lane. It is a great program that is chronically under-funded.

I just went to the NGB site and voted for them, and when the results page came up, they are way behind compared to the other two programs. This is the only finalist from the southeast region, and I would appreciate it if you folks would go visit the link and vote for The Farm at Penny Lane.

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Why I Grow Food

I grew my first tomatoes when I was fifteen. I dug up a long, skinny bed beside the family carport, the only spot that got enough sun to give fruit development half a chance. I don’t remember where I got the plants. I do remember being amazed by how tall they grew. I was not prepared for that, improvising stakes from fallen sticks that littered our wooded lot. I didn’t get many tomatoes out of that effort. I’m not sure the pollinators knew where to find my pitiful plants among the massive oaks and hickories that towered around the house. But even with all those challenges, I was hooked on growing my own food.

Herb and vegetable seedlings in greenhouse on March 29.

I didn’t have a chance to try it again until I was in graduate school. Some friends were renting an old farmhouse. They had turned part of an adjacent fallow field into a vegetable garden and invited me to start my own garden beside theirs. So I did. Graduate students are not often known for their healthy diets, but I ate fresh carrots, zingy peppers, and orb after orb of juicy red tomato. I even bought a pressure cooker and taught myself how to can. This was in the ancient days before youtube — no how-to videos for me. I actually read books to figure out how to grow and preserve my garden bounty.

Transplanted vegetable seedlings in greenhouse on March 29.

The biggest lessons I recall from that summer were about canning. First, canning in humid North Carolina in the tiny kitchen of an apartment without air conditioning is a great way to lose weight from perspiring excessively. Second, it is possible to can squash, but you really don’t want to eat canned squash; the texture is way too slimy. Canning blackberry preserves, on the other hand – totally worth the sweat equity.

Onions, chives, and covered zucchini on May 1.

I’ve grown a garden every year since then. First, in the yards of rental houses, then on the properties I’ve owned with the amazingly energetic Wonder Spouse. This year marks our 27th anniversary of growing vegetables in the same garden space. Every year, we have added compost and organic mulches to the raised beds we built. What had been pretty good soil to start with is now Vegetable Nirvana – chocolate cake soil, my sister used to call it – dark, aromatic, moist, and unlike cake – full of earthworms.

Young beans and other vegetables on May 8.

Once you are smitten with a love of growing your own food, soon you are not satisfied with buying plants grown by others. You spend your winters studying seed catalogs, drawing diagrams of where you will plant various crops, choosing old favorite varieties you know to be reliable, but always trying something new, something too intriguing to pass up.

Recently transplanted tomatoes on May 1.

Wonder Spouse built me a small greenhouse from a kit 22 years ago, and it is a testimony to his meticulousness that it functions as well today as it did when it was shiny and new. Before the greenhouse, we started seeds indoors, but trying to ensure that plants received adequate light was a perpetual struggle. My beautiful greenhouse solved that issue and the issue of adequately watering without overwatering – or ending up with water and soil on the living room floor.

Japanese eggplant on June 22.

I wish every child had the chance to grow her own food, preferably with coaching from a parent or grandparent eager to welcome a new member into the Green Thumb Clan. Too many children today don’t know where vegetables come from, and I believe the reason so many children think they hate vegetables is because they’ve never had the opportunity to taste a carrot just pulled from loamy soil, or a ripe pepper right off the bush. They don’t know what dill is, or that you can munch it like a stalk of celery.

Beans, zucchinis, herbs and flowers on June 11

I find it heartening to see a growing number of community gardens. Some are on city lots, some on school or church properties. Folks who have had limited access to fresh vegetables and fruits are getting chances to improve their diets and get a bit of exercise in the sunshine.

Beans and friends on June 22.

I am also heartened by the interest of millennials in growing their own food, even adding chicken coops and honeybee hives in record numbers to urban and suburban lots. They are growing food instead of ecologically inert lawns – in their front yards! This movement is nation-wide. I am encouraged every time I peruse the Front Yardener Facebook page, where these energetic folks are figuring out how to maximize food production in their yards while making their gardens aesthetically appealing.

Early Blue Ribbon tomatoes on June 22.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, these kids (sorry, you all look like children to me) are progressing far more rapidly than I did. If they see a bug they don’t recognize, they go online and quickly determine whether it is a friend or enemy to their garden. They proudly post many photos of their gardens, their harvests, and their preserved bounty.

Zucchinis and friends on June 18.

I know of one local neighborhood that engages in a sunflower-growing contest every summer. The household that grows the tallest flower wins accolades and admiration from all. And there’s a party, of course, to celebrate the occasion. I hope all the Front Yardeners have harvest parties where they share produce, growing tricks, and the companionship that derives from shared passions.

Unripe Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes on June 22.

I’m guessing they grow food for the same reasons I’ve been doing it for almost 40 years. Yes, it saves money and gives me access to foods I might not get otherwise. But as important, it keeps me outside, my hands in rich earth, my ears tuned to bird song and cicada thrumming, my eyes alert for new pollinators or potential pests. It gives me an excuse to stand at the fence to chat with my neighbor and share garden bounty. It keeps me connected to Mother Earth, the source of everything upon which we all rely.

The Solanaceae quadrant: tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants interplanted with basils on June 22.

For me, that will always be the bottom line – that connection to the Green World, the anchor that prevents me from being sucked into the vortex of electronic media full of talking and shouting heads and images of such cruelty that I can’t get through most newscasts these days without shedding a few tears.

Italian peppers and basils on June 25.

I grow food to remind myself of what is important, to prevent my heart from breaking, to hold on to hope. Growing food is my daily prayer for Earth and humanity. May we all find ways to nurture our hearts, our souls, and our connectedness.

Queen Sophia reigns over the vegetable garden.

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A Piedmonter Re-visits the NC Coast

Two weeks ago, Wonder Spouse and I vacationed on Oak Island, NC — a very southern NC beach that is still relatively undeveloped. As a child, I enjoyed family vacations here, so the area holds a special place in my heart.

Wonder Spouse took this photo. These orange sky dragons dominated the sky around the pond.

Thirty-eight summers ago, I spent two wonderful months studying coastal ecology at Duke’s Marine Lab facility in Beaufort, NC, which is a good bit further north of Oak Island. During that summer, I learned the names of numerous coastal ecological communities, and I could identify the plants comprising those varied communities.

I think this is a yaupon.

Until this recent vacation, beach trips have not given me reason to recall what I learned long ago at the Duke Marine Lab. But this year, we rented an extraordinary cottage that, while technically ocean-front, had a freshwater wetland pond between the house and the dunes. Native vegetation and wildlife abounded beyond my wildest dreams of what a beach cottage could offer. In short, Wonder Spouse and I were beyond delighted to spend numerous hours on the wooden walkway that crossed over the pond to the dunes watching and photographing some of the wildlife living there.

A Monet-worthy morning on the pond.

I learned long ago at the Duke Marine Lab that coastal ecology is fire-dependent. The various plant communities are healthiest when relatively frequent fires — originally caused by lightning, mostly — burned through the various communities, encouraging seeds of fire-adapted plants to germinate and re-exposing overgrown areas to more sunlight.

Turtles abounded in and around the pond, especially the first few days we were there.

The dense mix of low-growing trees and shrubs entangled by myriad vines that grew between the beach house and the pond wetland contained a number of coastal plant species that I recognized, but the composition didn’t quite match the community descriptions I remembered. This may be, in part, due to the fact that I doubt these plants have experienced a fire in many years. Regardless, the low-growing trees and shrubs seemed healthy, and included familiar species such as Redbay (Persea borbonia), Sweet Bay (Magnolia virginiana), Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), Pond pine (Pinus serotina), and Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera) among others.

The abundant berries on the Dune Greenbrier intertwined with the scrub forest will eventually ripen to a blue-purple color.

Growing over, around, and between these woody plants were numerous vines, including Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinqefolia) covered in flower buds, a grape I didn’t identify, Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), and Dune Greenbrier (Smilax auriculata) ornamented with myriad clusters of green berries.

Abundant Virginia Creeper vines were filled with flower buds.

Between the scrub forest and the pond, the ground was variably marshy. The dominant vegetation was a reed that I think was probably the invasive form of Phragmites australis. Closer to the scrub forest, the Phragmites was interspersed with ferns, especially Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), and a few patches of cattails (Typha latifolia), and mats of low-growing plants that I couldn’t get close enough to photograph.

Why didn’t I go charging into the underbrush and into the edge of the marsh, you ask?

Not a joke.

We weren’t the only species that appreciated the diverse array of frogs, turtles, insects, and birds that abounded in this small wetland. We didn’t see the alligators the first few days we were there, but we did later. More on that shortly.

Before the alligators showed up late in the week, turtles of all sizes floated and basked in and around the pond. Great Blue Herons, White Ibis, and Great Egrets stalked the shallows and flew in groups overhead. An Osprey routinely hunted in the pond in front of a nearby beach house. Gulls, sandpipers, and long lines of Brown Pelicans flew overhead during daylight hours. Familiar songbirds from home foraged and nested in the scrub forest, including Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, and Brown Thrashers. Red-winged Blackbirds dominated the reeds in the marsh. Feisty males flashed their scarlet shoulder pads at us as they tried to hurry us along the walk and away from their harems of females nesting in the thick reeds. At night, numerous species of frogs croaked and trilled, drowning out the wave sounds of a calm ocean.

In the middle of the week, the turtles seemed to disappear, as did the wading birds. We spotted a large — at least seven-feet-long alligator cruising around the pond. As we stood on the walkway talking excitedly about it, it silently coasted into a position just beneath us. Only its massive head was visible above the water line. It seemed to dare us to dip a leg over the walkway. I got the heebie jeebies and went back to the house while Wonder Spouse took photos. He hasn’t processed them yet, so I can’t show them to you. Trust me, that creature was creepy. The young ones we spotted the next day were a tad less intimidating.

A young alligator, about 2.5 feet long.

This younger alligator seemed content to float in the shallow end of the pond among the reeds. It allowed us to photograph it for quite a while.

It seemed almost docile.

We thought it was barely awake, until suddenly a large, long black snake leapt into the air, reaching for the top of the reeds. We hadn’t seen it, but this young alligator did. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this snake put three feet of air between its tail and the alligator’s mouth in a matter of seconds. We had no idea a black snake could make a vertical leap of that magnitude. It is a lesson I will not soon forget. And yes, the snake escaped; alligators are evidently not great leapers.

This smaller alligator was only about 1.5 feet long.

This smaller alligator was more colorful, which I read is characteristic of this reptile species when it is young. We could almost imagine how someone might think such a creature would be an interesting pet. Almost. The memory of its fully grown relative we had seen the previous day was still much too fresh in my mind to give such a thought even semi-serious consideration.

Wonder Spouse teasing gulls on the beach.

No, we didn’t spend our entire vacation watching the pond creatures. We made it onto the beach for long walks at sunrise and sunset, when the light was most interesting for photographs. The beach was littered with the bodies of jellyfish, which I was told was normal at this time of year. Intact shells were hard to find, except for tiny perfect ones, mostly overlooked by other beachcombers. I tried to photograph the Brown Pelicans as they arrowed into the ocean after fish.

We found a few young hermit crabs inhabiting tiny shells, like this one inhabiting an auger shell held by Wonder Spouse.

The most wonderful surprise came during a midweek sunrise walk on the beach. We spotted two women in a small vehicle; they were volunteers with the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program, and they had just located and marked a new nest deposited by a female a few hours earlier. The tracks of the mother turtle as she laboriously pulled herself up above the high tide line and then returned to the sea were still visible, unmarred by pedestrian foot traffic. And most fortunate of all, I was carrying my camera.

The jellyfish that littered the beach are a favorite food of sea turtles, I’m told; Mother Nature’s timing was once again impeccable. All in all, it was a perfect week filled with natural wonders that this Piedmonter has either not seen often or never seen at all.

I missed my Piedmont gardens while I was away. But there is something deeply restorative about breathing salt air and meditating upon a tranquil sea at sunrise. The re-centering has come in handy now that I’m back in the Piedmont. My return week has been full of weeds, groundhog damage, and amorous black rat snakes. I’ll fill you in on all of that next time.

Peace

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Celebrate the Unfolding

Ashe Magnolia bud

I have been watching the natural world closely since I was around three years old. My earliest memories involve skinks and chipmunks (at different times) that I watched for hours as they conducted their lives in my yard. I planted my first wildflower garden when I was ten, grew my first tomatoes around age fourteen, and gloried in my first full-fledged vegetable garden at age twenty-three. I’ve grown a vegetable garden every year since then, and as soon as Wonder Spouse and I bought our first house, we’ve also been adding as many native plants as we could.

Caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly eating a wetland willow tree.

With more than five decades of gardening experience behind me, you would think I would have cultivated more patience. But every year, I find myself wondering if the shiny green globes on the tomato plants will ever morph into red juicy delights, if the bean vines scaling the top of their trellis will ever produce the long green flavorful pods we adore, and if the expanding buds of my native perennials will ever open so the pollinator party can get fully underway.

Chrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly

I found myself doing it again earlier this week. I was standing in front of the purple milkweeds in the pollinator garden exhorting them to hurry up and open. They still haven’t, by the way, but at least I can now see hints of color in some of the buds. I added Fire Pinks (Silene virginica) to that garden last fall. In the last few weeks, they’ve been sending up many flower stalks laden with promising buds. But the recent cool, cloudy spell of weather put them into suspended animation. Finally, just yesterday, a single flower on one of the plants managed to open. It took it all day, but late-afternoon sun finally coaxed this single crimson flower into fully opening.

Fire Pink bud just opening

I confess I visited this flower several times during the day, photographing it at every stage of its unfolding. That’s when a little epiphany went off in my brain – Nature unfolds at its own pace. Impatience is a human weakness, not a failing of the flower. The point, I belatedly realized, is to celebrate the unfolding, observe and appreciate every moment of the lives around me – and my own!

Fire Pink almost fully open

I know – duh, right? Like most folks, I juggle a fair number of projects, interact with a number of different people, and it is very easy for me to get lost in the machinery of my brain as it attempts to find a way to finish everything on my infinite to-do list. Duh, again – infinite to-do list? Who am I kidding?

The “pink” in Fire Pink refers to the “pinked” (serrated) edges of its petals, not the color.

From this point forward, I am going to do my best to stay in the moment as often as I can. Instead of tapping my toes impatiently at tightly closed flower buds, I will breathe deeply beside them and try to tune into the tempo of their lives. I will try to relish every stage of Nature’s unfolding, chill out my runaway-freight-train brain, and seek peace in every beautiful moment of every day.

An Ashe Magnolia’s floral beginning (bud) and ending (cone/fruit)

 

Ashe Magnolia blossom

 

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Wetland Wonderland

Wonder Spouse and I have lived on our five acres of green chaos since 1989. We’re not in a subdivision. Our road was a country road to nowhere back then, with mostly small houses set back from the street a bit, adjacent to fields and forest. Subdivisions seem to multiply daily around us now; schools were built, water lines were laid, but our five acres remain — for now, at least — fairly secluded, thanks to the large creek that forms our eastern border. The land on the other side has been logged in the past, but likely because of its swampy nature, no one has tried to put houses on it.

Atamasco lily with an admirer (click on the photo to see a larger version).

We found our place in January, but I knew enough about piedmont forests and ecosystems to recognize that the snow-dusted landscape was special. Part of our land is an active floodplain; some years, the creek overflows across it up to a dozen times, turning our home into lake-front property for 12, sometimes 24 hours. One edge of our land shelters a remarkably healthy wetland, where Atamaso lilies, Jack-in-the-pulpits, Lizard’s Tails, Cinnamon ferns, Sweetbay magnolias, and other southeastern US wetland natives thrive.

They were here when we moved in, and I’m delighted to report they are still here, and still thriving. The wetland plants are having a spectacular spring this year, likely due in part to a mild winter, and I think the beavers that have claimed the land on the other side of the creek have much to do with the improved vibrancy of the wetland communities.

The beaver pond continues to expand in width and length, engulfing canopy trees.

My area is in a moderate drought, which usually means our creek drops to a trickle. Not this year. This year, the creek is deep, sluggish, and brimming with wildlife. A family of Canada geese raucously argues over the best swimming spots, their calls echoing up the hill where I pull weeds in my vegetable garden.

Canada geese noisily enjoy the beaver pond.

Mallards complain, quacking their disapproval, and until recently, female Wood ducks shrieked when suitors pressed a tad too ardently. I’m not hearing them anymore; I suspect they are sitting on nests. Every time I walk down for a closer look, I disturb at least one Great Blue Heron stalking the shallow edges of the pond. They rise, croaking in raspy voices that don’t match their elegant forms. Kingfishers patrol the creek, which has more — and larger — fish in it than we’ve seen in many years.

These are small fry, but Wonder Spouse is routinely spotting sizable brim and bass loitering in deeper spots in the creek.

Dragonflies zip through the trees; frogs are less boisterous, likely because tadpoles teem in the shallows. Life abounds. And we get to live next door to it.

A freshly excavated woodpecker hole in a maple in the middle of the beaver pond.

Recently, we showed a plant-loving friend our wetland treasure, knowing he would appreciate what some might perceive as a nuisance. His sharp eyes spotted caterpillars devouring willow leaves at the edge of the pond. They turned out to be caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly, a Monarch mimic that needs wetland food trees for its young.

Caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly appreciate our wetland habitat.

This is my dream come true — living immersed in the natural world, where every day brings a new discovery, or the return of an old friend as another species pops up for the season. I feel deeply blessed to live in this place and this time while simultaneously worrying about how outnumbered my wild friends and I are these days.

Just a quarter mile away as the crow flies, a massive subdivision covering a thousand acres is nearly complete. Whole neighborhoods are getting group rates from insecticide companies that spray “safe” poisons throughout their yards to kill ticks, mosquitoes, and spiders on contact. On contact? Safe? Can anyone hope to touch, much less open, the minds of those so profoundly disconnected from the natural world that they think a dead, sterile landscape is an ideal?

All I know to do is to keep talking and writing about my green world, in the hopes that at least some of the plant blind — those who cannot distinguish, or can’t be bothered to distinguish, between a maple and a sweet gum, an ash and a walnut, a beneficial spider and a disease-carrying tick — will learn to see the beauty, wonder, and essential role  of the natural world they so blithely ignore.

I’ll leave you with two final photos of small jewels native to my wetland and currently blooming there. Many of the photos in this post were taken by the amazing Wonder Spouse and his long lens. A number of the close-up shots are mine.  Now that the wetland trees and shrubs are almost fully leafed out, we won’t be able to get many more good shots of the beaver pond, so I hope you enjoy these.

Maybe if every lover of the green world could crack open one plant-oblivious mind per month, maybe, just maybe, we could still salvage what is left.

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Spring is …

Bloodroots pushing through the leafy forest floor.

Salamanders emerging from algae-covered gelatinous egg masses.

Freeze-killed Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ flowers.

Emerging columbine blooms decapitated by hungry deer. I watched five very pregnant does scour the frosty floodplain this morning for anything tasty and green.

Splotchy Mayapple leaves just emerging, with fat, round flower buds centered between their two leaves.

A newly planted onion bed.

Fuzzy elm seeds and two-winged maple samaras floating on sluggish creek waters.

Red buckeye flower buds preparing to open in time to greet returning Ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Freeze-killed blueberry flowers.

A male Wood Duck paddling on the beaver pond, barely within range of my camera.

A freeze-killed cinnamon fern fiddlehead. Fortunately, the others  appear to remain viable, tucked tightly in the center of the plants.

Pawpaw flower buds wisely waiting for more settled temperatures.

Spring salad greens and wildflower seedlings waiting for the final (we hope) big dip in temperatures predicted to arrive after tomorrow’s 80-degree heat ushers in another cold front.

Hot and cold, dry and rainy, vibrant and brown, life and death — Spring is here.

 

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Reflections on winter’s last laugh

I’ve decided that Mother Nature — at least in my part of the world — is afflicted with the bipolar disease that appears to be plaguing much of humanity these days. Moments of wild mania — in Nature’s case, reflected by record heat in February that prompted insane blooming of flowers meant to slumber until mid-March — are followed by roller-coaster crashes of depression — and ice. I’ve found it difficult to maintain my equilibrium in the midst of this wildly cycling chaos.

But early this icy morning as a just-past-full moon began to set while dawn brightened the eastern horizon, I felt compelled to grab my camera and stroll — albeit briefly — in the 17-degree chill. I didn’t want to document the death all around me — frozen, browned flower buds so recently full of spring promise. Instead, I focused on the wetland on our eastern border that grows daily, thanks to industrious beavers.

From the top of our hill looking east.

You can click on any image in this blog to see a larger version, and it might help you interpret the one above more easily if you do so. The water in the left foreground is a tiny pond on our side of the creek that defines our eastern border; the ice in the top photo was on the shallow side of that pond this morning. It is difficult to make out the creek just behind the pond, but you can’t fail to notice the line of water farther back. That’s the beaver pond. I think it gleamed more brightly than usual, because its many shallow portions are frozen over like my tiny pond.

View from the bridge adjacent to the tiny pond, not visible, on the left.

Now you can see the waters of the creek in the foreground, while the beaver pond behind it looms icily closer. When the light is favorable, from my living room that overlooks our back deck, I can use binoculars to watch ducks dabbling happily in this growing expanse of water. Usually they are wood ducks, but the last time I walked down there — about a week ago — in addition to a group of about a half dozen wood ducks, I spotted several pairs of mallards, and about a half dozen Canada geese. They glided silently across the pond until I got too close, prompting them to erupt noisily into the air, their bodies shedding miniature waterfalls.

This view from my back deck shows the creek waters in the foreground, the beaver pond looming close behind.

The beaver pond is about 25-30 feet behind and parallel to the creek. Its length continues to stretch toward my house. In fact, its shallow, northernmost extent now reaches behind my house. When Nature’s mood crashes — as it feels to have done now — I struggle not to interpret the encroaching water as threatening. I struggle these days not to feel as if I’m drowning in terrifying news, as everything I have loved and worked for is being systematically dismantled by rule-makers who believe science is just another belief system they can ignore.

But before panic pulls me under, I head outside at dawn to watch the setting moon, breathe in deep lungfuls of icy air, and smile at the jungle-worthy call of a Pileated Woodpecker. “We are still here,” it reminds me, “and so are you.”

Impatient vegetables in my greenhouse on the day of our brief snow four days ago.

And then I enter my little greenhouse, my glasses instantly fogging up from its warm humidity, and smile at the lettuces and other greens waiting patiently for their move to spring vegetable beds. “We’re still here,” they tell me, “and so are you.”

The northern end of the growing beaver pond with the creek in the foreground.

When I turn back to the expanding wetland beside my home, I see beauty instead of danger, the promise of abundant life instead of its demise. I remember that change is life, that chaos is always present, and I am responsible for my response to it.

It’s my responsibility to find the beauty.

Saracenia flava blooming in my greenhouse.

It’s my responsibility to find the light.

It’s my responsibility to remember that love always wins.

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