Another Turn of the Wheel: Welcome Summer

red cactus zinnia

Flowers and fruits abound as we celebrate the arrival of the Summer Solstice, which in my area, will arrive at 6:34 this evening. This year — the first time since 1948 around here — the solstice’s arrival will be enhanced by a full moon. The myriad fireflies that dance in my landscape after sunset may have trouble being seen as they compete for visibility with that bright orb in our night sky. But she will dim in a few days, and the fireflies will dance for another month or so.

Unfurling inflorescence of bronze fennel

Unfurling inflorescence of bronze fennel

Late spring was kind to us this year, and most plants are only just now beginning to notice that the frequent rains have diminished, that the temperatures are trending suddenly much higher, and our famous southeastern humidity has arrived to make humans sweat even during early morning tasks outside.

Cucumber 'Diva'

Cucumber ‘Diva’

Yesterday shortly after sunrise, I was in the vegetable garden tying enthusiastic tomato shoots to their trellises, watering thirsty beans and squashes, and hunting drowsy insect pests before the sun energized them when I heard cicadas thrumming for the first time this year. One day ahead of the arrival of the solstice, I thought perhaps they were testing their instruments to ensure they could greet Summer with fully tuned accompaniment.

Honeybees pollinating a squash blossom

Honeybees pollinating a squash blossom

Busy insects abound. Dragonflies patrol the skies for tasty morsels, honeybees and myriad other bee species diligently visit flowers from dawn to dusk, mosquitoes buzz, flies swarm, ladybugs devour sluggish aphids — it’s a jungle out there.

dragonfly

I spend too much time these days taking photographs, as I vainly try to capture early summer’s energy and diversity. But it’s all so wonderful, I can’t help myself. Do you remember that feeling of release and energy that overwhelmed you every June when your elementary school let out for the summer? Our futures glowed with possibilities filled with sunshine, warm water, fireflies in bottles, and long, warm evenings playing with friends, or sitting with elders on wide porches listening to their stories of summers past.

First signs of ripening for my Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

First signs of ripening for my Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

Summer’s arrival is a moment of infinite possibilities for gardeners too.  Sweat equity starts to pay off handsomely in fresh green beans, tender squash, refreshing cucumbers, and the ultimate reward — fresh tomato-basil sandwiches — truly the taste of summer at my house.

Zucchini 'Dunja'

Zucchini ‘Dunja’

Savor Summer’s soft side today, my friends, for soon we begin the hard slog through heat and humidity, rampant bugs and insidious fungal diseases. But today — today we embrace the new season with hopes for bountiful harvests, the welcoming symphony of thunderstorm rains, and nights full of fireflies, cicada songs, and family gatherings.

Daylily 'Ron Rouseau' -- and friend

Daylily ‘Ron Rouseau’ — and friend

Happy Summer Solstice to all!

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Daily Daylilies — and Friends

Pink Betty

Pink Betty

We got another nine-tenths of an inch of rain just after midnight, complete with crashing thunder, vivid lightning, and torrential downpours. The frequent clouds and rain have slowed the progress of all the blooms in my yard this year, including the daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), which have usually begun their parade of blooms by the middle of May.

Finally, their annual show is underway, and thanks to a little attention in the form of weeding and mulching (thanks, Ray!), combined with copious rain, the blooms are abundant and brilliant. I love Pink Betty because she’s a little more simple than some of my daylilies, but she’s a beauty, and for reasons no doubt having to do with a childhood full of Saturday morning cartoons, I cannot think of her name without thinking of Betty Rubble.

May-May

May-May

When the sun began flirting with the clouds this morning, I stepped out into my soggy yard and took a few pictures, which is why all of the plants in this post are adorned with rain droplets. Daylilies, as most of you know, are so called because they open one flower per day. The open flower only lasts one day, but because a happy clump of daylilies produces many scapes (flower stems), the plants still provide a daily display of multiple blooms. May-May is another relatively demure bloomer. She offers clear yellow flowers with just a hint of ruffle around the edges.

Red Toy

Red Toy

You can’t tell it from its close view above, but Red Toy’s flowers are a bit smaller than some of the showier daylilies. It produces many scapes, and I like the way its smaller cherry-red flowers float among the greenery and blooms of the plants it grows beside.

Brocaded Gown

Brocaded Gown

Brocaded Gown is one of our fancier daylily varieties. She flaunts wide, deeply ruffled recurved creamy yellow petals. I think of her as one of the great ladies of my front garden.

Siloam Jim Cooper

Siloam Jim Cooper

Siloam Jim Cooper is another of my fancier daylilies. I believe the Siloam series always features what the daylily hybridizers call an eye — that darker ring toward the center of the bloom. I have a couple of varieties in the Siloam series. Jim here is a fire engine red bloomer. The flowers are not as large as those of Brocaded Gown, but like Red Toy, they are numerous, which makes for a great display, as you can see below.

Siloam Jim Cooper blooms

Siloam Jim Cooper blooms

Many other flowers are finally opening for business too. I’m hoping they will coax the butterflies to return. After an initial population explosion of mostly Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, the butterflies mostly vanished during the recent prolonged period of clouds and rain. In fact I only caught one species — I’m not sure of its identity — enjoying the blooms of the pickerel weed today.

I'm hoping more butterflies will return soon.

I’m hoping more butterflies will return soon.

I always grow a few zinnias among the vegetables. This year, I’m trying two varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The first bloom to open was Zinnia ‘Zowie! Yellow Flame.’ I think it’s well-named.

Zinnia 'Zowie! Yellow Flame'

Zinnia ‘Zowie! Yellow Flame’

My coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are finally starting to open. They are usually big pollinator magnets, so I’m delighted to see them. The first to open is the one nestled between two large boulders. I think perhaps their warmth gave these blooms an earlier start.

Purple coneflower blooms last a long time, and their centers provide a favorite landing pad for pollinators.

Purple coneflower blooms last a long time, and their centers provide favorite landing pads for pollinators.

Also in the boulder garden, I was delighted to see that one of my butterfly weeds had finally opened some flowers. It, too, is a huge pollinator magnet. I’m hoping the sunny week we are promised (after the passage of today’s strong and potentially scary cold front) will encourage all the insects to re-emerge from wherever they’ve been hiding.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a milkweed family member.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a milkweed family member.

Here’s hoping today’s weather shift is not accompanied by dangerous weather phenomena, and that we can all enjoy our gardens during these last weeks before the summer solstice.

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A Royal Visitor

Eastern Kingsnake

Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula)

Just yesterday, I was talking to a woman who had been bitten by a copperhead the previous day. She was incredibly lucky. She was weeding a densely packed flowerbed — bare-handed — when she felt a sudden hard sting on two knuckles. She said it felt as if someone had rapped her knuckles sharply with a ruler. Each stinging knuckle had a bloody bite mark. That’s when she saw the two-foot-long copperhead disguised among the weeds she had been pulling.

Of course, her friends rushed her to the hospital, which was close by, and she was immediately whisked into an examination room, where the doctor on duty told her she’d be there at least five hours, because her hand and fingers could swell enormously at any time during that period. If swelling occurred, they warned her, that would mean the venom was beginning to digest her hand from the inside out, and they would need to administer a shot of very expensive anti-venom to stop the reaction.

A close view of the body of the Eastern Kingsnake

A close view of the body of the Eastern Kingsnake

But this woman was phenomenally lucky. Probably because the snake struck her knuckle bones, the fangs did not penetrate deeply. She received only a tiny bit of venom. Her hand grew stiff and cold for a few hours while the doctors watched her, but then warmed back up on its own; she was able to move her fingers, and eventually go home.

As we talked about copperheads, I mentioned that I was always happy when I encountered Eastern Kingsnakes on my property, because they eat copperheads. Eastern Kingsnakes are resistant to the venom of pit vipers like copperheads, rattlesnakes, and cottonmouths, and happily eat them whenever they can. If you’ve got Eastern Kingsnakes, odds are good that you will have fewer copperheads.

Knock on wood, we haven’t encountered a copperhead on our property in several years. But I hadn’t seen an Eastern Kingsnake on our property in over ten years. Until today. It seems as if by talking about the species to this lucky-unlucky woman yesterday, a specimen felt obliged to appear today to assure me that its kind are still on the job.

I was working near the young woman (Thanks, Ray!) who helps me in my garden. We were cleaning up my front garden, which includes a dry drainage area that Wonder Spouse lined with river cobbles. The rocks attract all manner of creatures. Today among the rocks we found a tree frog, an American toad, a small garter snake, several large slugs, and a large, crabby mother garden spider guarding her pearlescent egg sac — probably all potential prey to a hungry Eastern Kingsnake.

Suddenly Ray exclaimed, “There’s a big snake!” It had emerged from beneath the front deck, crossed the river rocks, and was stretched out beneath the weeping cherry on the fresh mulch Ray had recently added. I immediately realized it was an Eastern Kingsnake. I think I may have surprised Ray when I sprinted for the garage, where I had stashed my camera after taking garden photos earlier in the morning. As I ran for the camera, I implored the snake to stay put. It obliged my request. The following shots are smaller than usual, because they are longer than usual to accommodate the length of the reptile (about three feet). But if you click on any photo, you can see a larger version.

The snake started moving toward the river rocks that were still full of weeds at that point, so my shots all suffer from a bit of motion blur. Still, I think the series that follows will give you a sense of this gorgeous reptile.

Finally, it insinuated itself among the rocks and weeds and gave me a final look before it moved beneath a large blooming yellow yarrow. We went about our business and did not see the snake again.

You can just see its head peeking out of the (evil) Microstegium) in the bottom left of this photo.

You can just see its head peeking out of the (evil) Microstegium in the bottom left of this photo.

Please check out the links above to learn more about this species. The sites include some amazing photos, including shots of these snakes killing and devouring copperheads. From these sites, I also learned these snakes are quite secretive, which is probably why I haven’t spotted one on my property in a decade. I’m guessing they’ve always been around. They just like to keep a low profile as they go about their business of eating rodents, lizards, and all manner of snakes. That’s just fine with me.

But I will confess that I was extra alert this morning as I wandered about the yard taking photographs, with the copperhead-bitten woman’s tale echoing in my head. It was a great comfort — a blessing, even — for that big, beautiful Eastern Kingsnake to show itself to me today. I’ll still be careful, of course, as I wander our five acres of green chaos. But knowing the Eastern Kingsnakes are on patrol has most assuredly eased my mind.

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A Perfect Opportunity to Fill a Landscape Gap – or Two: The NC Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Festival on May 21

Native Rhododendron flammeum in full bloom.

Native Rhododendron flammeum in full bloom.

If you’ve lived in the southeastern piedmont region of the United States for long, you’ve probably heard the oft-repeated phrase, “fall is for planting.” And it is a guideline worth taking seriously. But every spring, many gardeners get itchy planting fingers. I know that after my vegetables and ornamental annuals are planted, my eye begins to spot those places in my landscape that would benefit from a new plant or two. Or three – self-control is a challenge for me, I confess, when it comes to new plant acquisitions.

Sensitive Fern is so named for its sensitivity to frost.

Sensitive Fern is so named for its sensitivity to frost.

The reason we mostly plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in the fall around here is because the heat and often drought of our summer season can be very hard on newly added plants. So if you see a spot in your landscape that is crying out for a few choice additions this spring, follow two simple rules:

  1. Give the new plants extra attention throughout the summer and fall. Of course, mulch them well, and if we go into a drought, these new plants will need extra water, because their root systems will not have had a chance to grow deeply before the heat hits. If we get an exceptionally prolonged heat wave, consider shading the new additions if they appear to be adversely impacted by the searing sun.
  2. Add plants that are native to the southeastern United States. The reasons for planting natives are myriad. I’ve enumerated some in a previous post here. But from a purely practical perspective, native plants are best adapted to our growing conditions, so you can expect them to weather our summers better than non-native choices – as long as you site them correctly, of course.
Swamp Milkweed is a food plant for Monarch caterpillars and a nectar source for many butterfly species, including this Spicebush Swallowtail.

Swamp Milkweed is a food plant for Monarch caterpillars and a nectar source for many butterfly species, including this Spicebush Swallowtail.

It’s not too late to even build a whole new bed or two. Do you have a sunny spot you could turn into a pollinator garden? How about a spot where all the water drains in your yard? Such areas are ideal for rain gardens that can contain flowers, shrubs, and trees that benefit from extra water and can tolerate occasionally flooded root systems. Is your yard one big shade garden? There’s always room for a new fern or two, a new shade-loving wildflower, or one of the many great native shrubs that will provide four-season interest for you, and food and cover for native wildlife.

The Perfect Place to Score Some Choice Native Plants

Next Saturday, May 21, the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) is making it easy for us to find all the special natives we might need in one convenient location. The Garden is hosting their first ever Native Plant Festival from 4:00-8:00 p.m. Of course, the Garden will have many of its wonderful native plants for sale. But to make the event irresistible, they have invited several local nurseries that specialize in growing choice native plants to also sell their wares at this event. Several of these growers are not open to the public, so this is a unique chance to see and purchase native lovelies that you’ll never see at your local big box store’s “garden center.” Specifically, these nurseries (in alphabetical order) will be selling at this event:

My planting fingers are getting itchy just from typing that! These are all wonderful local growers, and I believe I am growing plants from all of them, except S&J, and that’s only because I just don’t grow that many carnivorous plants. These growers will be offering locally grown natives, and much of their stock comes from local sources. Yup, they often gather seeds and cuttings from natives growing in our region to ensure the plants will be best adapted to our local conditions. That is never the case at the big box stores.

The Purple Milkweeds I recently acquired from Growing Wild Nursery are just starting to open for business.

The Purple Milkweeds I recently acquired from Growing Wild Nursery are just starting to open for business.

But wait, there’s more!

This event isn’t just for gardeners. Bring your spouses, your kids, and your grandkids. There will be live music, food trucks, tree-climbing and giant bubble making, a sale of gently used gardening books, a raffle, and eleven local conservation organizations will have tables staffed with volunteers who can answer your questions about their groups. So while we gardeners are fondling our native options, our families can be enjoying all these other activities.

For the best selection of popular natives like this milkweed, come early.

For the best selection of popular natives like this milkweed, come early.

The event lasts until 8:00 p.m., but if you want the best selection of plants, I suggest you get there when the doors open at 4:00 p.m. You can grab what you want, then enjoy the music and food, and mingle with your fellow native plant lovers.

Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manager extraordinaire at the NCBG, was kind enough to share with me the list of goodies he’ll be offering for sale from his greenhouse at this event. Here are a few highlights.

  • If you want to begin or add to your milkweed collection for your Monarch butterfly habitat garden, he’ll have five different species for sale: Clasping Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, Longleaf Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Butterfly Milkweed. Growing conditions vary for these species, so you should be able to find at least one that will do well in your landscape.
Monarch caterpillars dining on Common Milkweed.

Monarch caterpillars dining on Common Milkweed.

  • He’ll be offering several interesting native vines, including Climbing Carolina Aster (Ampleaster carolinanus), Potato Bean (Apios americana), Leather flower (Clematis viorna), Large-leaved Dutchman’s Pipevine (Isotrema macrophylla), and Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).
  • He’ll have a really nice selection of native ferns, grasses, and sedges, gazillions of great native wildflower options, and some choice native shrubs and small trees ideally suited for tucking into empty spots around your yard.
The main food source of Spicebush Swallowtails, native Spicebushes provide gorgeous fall color for shady spots in your landscape.

The main food source of Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars, native Spicebushes provide gorgeous fall color for shady spots in your landscape.

Ya’ll come!

So, my fellow native plant gardening enthusiasts, spend some time this week pondering your home landscape. Now that everything has leafed out, it will be easier to spot any gaps where a native azalea might dazzle the eye, or a bed of ferns might soften a shady spot. Then tell your families about the great event you’ll all be going to on May 21. Food, music, and plants – it doesn’t get much better than that.

I’ll see you there!

 

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For Earth Day: Who Cares?

Close view of an Eastern Columbine

Close view of an Eastern Columbine

I admit it. I can be a bit of a curmudgeon. As I’ve grown older, I find it more challenging to have faith in humanity.

What keeps me going – what gets me out of bed every day – are the wild ones – the animals and plants that share my five acres of southeastern piedmont green chaos with me.

But as much as I love my green world, I am also deeply worried about its long-term survival. Climate change is undeniable and accelerating rapidly. Massive deforestation due to the invasion of concrete and asphalt throughout the world – and definitely in my region – grows every day, leaving the wild ones nowhere to live.

I am wondering how long my native wonderland will hang on when the world it evolved to inhabit disappears. As dramatic temperature swings become increasingly common, as record snowfalls are followed by record drought followed by record rainfall, how will the tulip poplars that prefer evenly moist ground and relatively cool – but not cold – sites survive? How will tadpoles that rely on ephemeral spring pools to shelter their metamorphoses become the frogs we rely on to devour summer’s abundant insects? What will the berry-loving bird species – that also dine on myriad insects – eat if the native food plants they rely on don’t set fruit because of late killing freezes? Where will the deep-rooted oaks, pines, hickories, and maples find water when prolonged 100-degree summers don’t deliver significant rain for months?

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

I am worried, because most of the people around me don’t seem to care. Most of the folks I meet at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, even at the public garden where I volunteer to answer plant-related questions from visitors are plant-blind. Most cannot distinguish an oak tree from a maple, much less determine if the species is native or non-native. And they see nothing wrong with that. They are oblivious to the environmental context in which they live – the context they share with native animals and plants that struggle to survive in a world made increasingly hostile by the utter indifference of the humans that have intruded upon their habitats.

Native or non-native?

Native or non-native?

Every day, I see examples of this profound indifference/ignorance. Recently, a woman on my neighborhood chatlist posted a recommendation for an exterminator company that she employs to spray insecticide all over her yard once a month, ostensibly, to kill ticks and mosquitoes.

Perhaps she recently relocated to my area from a part of the US where the summertime insects are less prevalent. Folks who grew up in my region understand that summer bugs are the price we pay for mild winters and lush forests. She wants, I imagine, to enjoy her outdoor patio in the summer while wearing her summer outfits, and she doesn’t want to get bitten. She thinks she’s being environmentally sensitive, because the exterminator says the poison used doesn’t kill bees.

Survival of honeybees is considered critical by most agricultural experts.

Survival of honeybees is considered critical by most agricultural experts.

I went to the exterminator’s Web site to learn the name of the pesticide they use, then researched it. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide database, the insecticide in question does not kill bees outright, but the poison does accumulate in their beeswax. I doubt that’s a good thing, but there was worse news. The insecticide in question – at any concentration – is known to be fatal to all aquatic life – that’s anything that lives in our creeks, ponds, rivers, ephemeral streams, etc. That’s a lot of frogs, dragonflies, salamanders, and fish that won’t be around to eat the insects this woman is apparently so worried about. In exchange for being able to sunbathe without being possibly bitten by a bug, this woman is absolutely willing to kill all aquatic life within range of the monthly poison being applied to her yard – which the exterminators spray 30 feet into the treetops, by the way, because, they say, that’s where the bugs hide. I doubt it’s great for the insect-eating nesting birds that are probably in those trees too, however. Or the squirrels, possums, bats – you get the idea.

Woodpecker hole in a blooming mature Red Maple. Why would you risk spraying such nests?

Woodpecker hole in a blooming mature Red Maple. Why would you risk spraying such nests?

Unless we all begin to understand that the battle cannot be Man versus Nature anymore, both sides are going to lose. Some experts I know believe we are already teetering on the edge of an avalanche of cascading impacts that – once begun – will be unstoppable. Some people may believe humanity can outwit Nature with technical innovations. But if the climate becomes unpredictably erratic and most ecosystems die, how will we produce food? What will pollinate crops? Where will the clean water come from? How will healthy soil chemistry be maintained when the life that controls those processes mostly dies?

If biological processes are disrupted, home gardens will become difficult to maintain.

If biological processes are disrupted, home gardens will become difficult to maintain.

So often these days, I meet people who distrust science. They seem to think it is a belief system, equivalent to religious ideology. They therefore feel entitled to reject uncomfortable scientific facts, such as what climate change is doing to our world. Or they think the natural world exists to serve as accessories to their outdoor “decor.” Not infrequently, I am asked questions like, “What tree can I grow in my yard that will only be 15-feet high, produce red – not pink – flowers in July, and have evergreen leaves?” They seem to think they can place an order for a plant in the same way they order a new outfit, or a refrigerator.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on a native deciduous azalea hybrid

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on a native deciduous azalea hybrid

I believe that our last hope for a healthy Earth can only come in the form of a transformational paradigm shift – a fundamental change in the thinking of every man, woman, and child on the planet. It requires that we all accept the reality that we inhabit complex ecosystems that are not infinitely resilient. They require constant nurturing.

And there is one thing that any human who owns/controls a piece of land can start doing today. If you’re not growing crops or raising livestock (ideally, sustainably), populate your land with mostly (or all) native plant species. Even if you only own a quarter-acre lot, you can contribute to the health of our ailing planet by providing places for dwindling native insect, bird, reptile, amphibian, and plant species to survive.

Protecting and nurturing native wetlands protects water quality and provides many of our best insect eaters safe habitat in which to reproduce.

Protecting and nurturing native wetlands protects water quality and provides many of our best insect eaters with safe habitat in which to reproduce.

In my region of the southeastern US, eliminate or reduce your ecologically inert fescue lawns. Dig out the boxwoods, English ivy, Asian wisteria – all the non-natives – and replace them with some of the beautiful, well-adapted shrubs, trees, and wildflowers that evolved in our region. When your yard is a balanced system of native plants, insects will not overrun you, because the insect-eating animals will appear to devour them. Restoring balance to your home landscape by welcoming in native species will transform the environmental health of our region, and ultimately result in less work and lower costs for land- and homeowners.

Going native is not about being “politically correct,” or “green,” or “liberal,” or whatever pejorative term the defenders of the status quo use this week to characterize this strategy. Going native is now about ensuring the physical survival of plants and animals upon which we rely directly and indirectly. In my curmudgeonly opinion, it is time to paradigm-shift – or die.

Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed. Nurture the natives; save our Earth.

Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed. Nurture the natives; save our Earth.

I know that the kind folks who read my ramblings here (and I appreciate you all), already understand how imperiled our world is. I know most of you are like me – lifelong gardeners and lovers of the natural world. What I don’t know is how we can persuade the plant-blind, the bug-phobic, and the rigid, traditional landscapers to see the need for this planetary transformation to a world that preserves and restores every sliver of green we have left into vibrant native ecosystems. I do know that if we don’t come up with paradigm-shifting solutions very soon, there won’t be much world left to care about.

Transform or die.

Transform or die.

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Recovering from a Late-spring Hard Freeze

Freeze-killed new growth on American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Freeze-killed new growth on American Holly (Ilex opaca). Note that — so far — the flower buds appear unscathed.

The damage to one of my hollies (They all looked like this.) in the above photo occurred this past Wednesday, April 6, when the temperature at my house fell to 26.8 degrees. Unfortunately, late tonight and into the early hours of tomorrow before the sun returns, my area’s temperatures are predicted to be lower than this previous event. I am expecting my yard to see temperatures between 23-25 degrees for at least 8 hours. This one is going to hurt. A lot.

I am worse off than many, because I live in an area not yet completely encircled by concrete and asphalt. The heat-island effect that urban/suburban areas generate by absorbing the sun’s heat in man-made materials usually prevents temperatures from falling as low as they do at my house. Plus I live on a hill that slopes to a floodplain. Cold air is heavy and sinks, and as it slides down my hill, it pauses long enough to caress newly sprouted green shoots until they become brown, shriveled sludge.

Magnolia sprengeri 'Diva' after the recent freeze.

Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’ after the recent freeze.

If a miracle occurs and the roaring winds now driving in arctic air don’t diminish to stillness, the damage won’t be as bad. But odds are most of the fresh new green growth on canopy and understory trees, shrubs, and perennials will look the way my poor Magnolia ‘Diva’ in the above photo already looks.

This has happened once before in my years here. I called it the Black Spring, because literally every leaf on every canopy tree died. Finally about mid-June, the trees mustered a new flush of leaf growth, but it was a much-reduced push of foliage. That summer was hot and dry with no tree shade to hide in. Such a trauma leaves plants in a weakened state that makes them more vulnerable to disease and insect attacks. So how should you plan to recover from any freeze damage to plants at your house?

Reduce your expectations for the growing season

Perhaps your fruit and/or nut trees produced an abundance of flowers, followed by tender new leaves, as my pecan trees did. If tonight’s freeze kills that new growth, it is likely you won’t see much fruit this year.

My pecan trees are about 40 feet tall, and planted in one of the coldest spots in my yard (before I understood that area’s temperature issues). The growth of one tree was completely killed, as you can see in the second photo above. The other tree was heavily damaged, but still shows some green. It is closer to a tall stand of Eastern Red Cedars, which protected it somewhat.

But no matter. Pecans need two trees for good cross-pollination and nut production. The squirrels will see no pecans this season. And I will need to figure out a way to provide water to the completely killed tree if we go into drought, so that it can summon enough energy for a new flush of leaf growth. And to the other tree, too, if it suffers the same fate tonight.

Range of Wednesday freeze damage to my blueberry flowers

Range of Wednesday freeze damage to my blueberry flowers

Depending on what happens tonight, I may still have a few blueberries to harvest in a month or so. The early-bloomers had already set fruit, and I’m hoping — because they are still tiny — the cold won’t kill them. But as the photo above illustrates, still-blooming flowers were mostly damaged at least a bit. Odds are high that the later-blooming bushes will yield few if any berries this year.

Appreciate the wondrous early spring we enjoyed

Those of us who work with plants know that myriad circumstances can overrule our expectations at any moment. To be sure, we are always at the mercy of the weather. That’s one of the reasons I like to take pictures of my charges frequently during this time of year. I need the glamor shots to lift my spirits after the weather does its worst.

Know your yard’s cold spots before you plant, and know which plants are most cold-sensitive

As I noted above, I planted our pecan trees before I fully understood the microclimate variations on our property. I also didn’t realize the cold sensitivity of deciduous magnolias, native or otherwise.

My Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’ was unscathed by the first freeze. It blooms much earlier, so its flowers were done. And its leaves had been out much longer, so they had toughened up, unlike poor Elizabeth and Butterflies. The buds on my tall native Magnolia fraseri were still tightly closed during the first freeze, but they were swelling. My camera’s zoom lens revealed at least some freeze damage to those buds. Magnolia macrophylla had not even begun to enlarge its buds. The first freeze did not damage it. The reality in my yard is that my beloved early-blooming deciduous magnolias will always be damaged by freezing temperatures. The only variable is the duration of the freeze and the consequent extent of the damage.

Remember local wildlife

Normally by now, I’m tapering down the frequency with which I’m filling seed feeders to encourage disbursement of winter flocks of Northern Cardinals and other feeder-loving species. I always leave out one suet cake until the temperatures remain reliably warm, because woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding fledglings, and the harried-looking parents seem to really appreciate being able to stuff a bit of suet down a young one’s throat when they can’t find a tasty bug to quell the youngster’s clamoring.

A gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker sampling my suet feeder.

A gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker sampling my suet feeder.

My summer bird species are all mostly here now, and their bug supply has been adversely impacted by the freeze. Consequently, I’ve re-stocked the seed feeders and put out more suet. The warblers seem quite grateful for the suet, but I hadn’t seen them visit the feeders before Wednesday’s freeze. As I do throughout the year, I’m making sure all my bird baths are full of clean, unfrozen water.

Poisonous to humans, Pokeweed is a favorite food of Robins and many other native animals.

Poisonous to humans, Pokeweed is a favorite food of Robins and many other native animals.

In the woods adjacent to my house, tonight’s freeze may kill blackberry flower buds, damage new tender shoots of pokeweed, and turn fresh elderberry growth into mush. If that happens, the native fruits my birds rely on will be severely limited. I can’t really offer them anything equivalent, so it is likely they will relocate to areas where their wild foods were not damaged — if they can find such areas.

If a Black Spring darkens my door…

If tomorrow reveals another Black Spring for my yard, I will expect to see many fewer bird species while my trees struggle to re-leaf themselves. If drought appears, I’ll need to add water to challenged plants where I can. I can’t water canopy trees. For them, I can watch closely for signs of dying limbs, and disease and insect encroachment.

My beautiful ash trees are just pushing out tender leaves and flowers. I am worried about their chances tonight.

My beautiful ash trees are just pushing out tender leaves and flowers. I am worried about their chances tonight.

Summer annuals and summer-blooming perennials and woody plants will not be affected by the freeze directly, but the absence of shade provided by canopy trees will stress them, especially if the rains stop coming. My summer vegetable garden should not be too adversely impacted — barring drought or plagues of locusts/disease, etc. I will tend my tomatoes, savor the tang of basil, and do what I can for my damaged charges.

This year's tomato seedlings are safe and warm in the greenhouse.

This year’s tomato seedlings are safe and warm in the greenhouse.

Such is the lot of those of us who work the earth. And the truth, of course, is that we know embracing the bad along with the wondrous good is all part of our journey.

Stay warm, friends.

Stay warm, friends.

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Glory in the Morning

A native Redbud flower

A native Redbud flower

My rain gauge recorded 1.77 inches of rain from yesterday afternoon until early this morning. The clouds parted by about 10:00 a.m., leaving clean air (no pollen!), moist ground, and almost visibly growing plants. A walk with the camera seemed essential.

Vegetables

The spring garden is growing well. We’ve been dry, so I’ve been watering lettuces, broccoli, onions, and potatoes to try to keep them growing, but I could see they weren’t as happy as they could be. Of course, some of that may have been because their coating of yellow-green pine pollen made them all look a bit sickly. But this morning, freshly washed, vibrant veggies greeted me.

In the greenhouse, the tomatoes I sowed last week have all germinated. Most of the peppers have too. The Scotch Bonnet pepper seeds I’m growing for a friend are still ungerminated, but they are notoriously slow, so I’m not worried yet.

I watered the seedlings with a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed extract yesterday to help them grow enthusiastically.

I watered the seedlings with a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed extract yesterday to help them grow enthusiastically.

Wildflowers

The spring ephemerals have been coming and going fast, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather. Last night’s rain denuded all the still-blooming bloodroots, revealing erect seed capsules, standing like soldiers beneath the great canopy trees. The mayapples are full of flower buds, and the Atamasco lilies were putting up flower buds.

Blooming Shrubs and Trees — with Butterflies!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are literally everywhere, floating at all levels, from treetops to lawn. It is especially wonderful to see after last year’s near-absence of all butterflies. Today I saw my first Spicebush Swallowtail, but it refused to pose for me. There were several other new, uncooperative species, and a gossamer-winged dragonfly that I suspect was newly emerged. The flowers were more cooperative photographic subjects, although a gusty wind (that re-awakened the pollen) did create some challenges.

Despite the rain, Wonder Spouse and I did manage to get our front water feature going for the new season. We anticipate that the local frogs and toads that lay eggs in it every year should arrive as soon as this latest cool spell has passed. The plants in the pots look a bit bare at the moment, but the pitcher plants and the new Venus Flytrap in them have flower buds, and the moisture-loving milkweeds are growing quickly. I think all will come together for the plants in a month or so.

Now it's springtime!

Now it’s springtime!

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been reported in my area, but I haven’t seen or heard one yet. Just in case, the feeder full of sugar water is in its usual spot. Soon these flying jewels will join the increasingly evident wildlife to enjoy the bounty of blooms that signal Spring’s arrival on our five acres.

Happy Spring, everyone!

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