Spider Season

Marbled Orb Weaver

I know it is truly autumn when I can’t walk more than a few steps in my yard without getting a face full of spider web. The eight-legged ones are everywhere. Females grow fatter daily, full of growing eggs. As the hunger of the females grows, so does the size of their webs. I managed to see this beauty before I walked into the web she was rebuilding. A shaft of early morning sunlight had caught her, accentuating her lovely colors. Marbled Orb Weavers are shy; they spend most of their time hiding in leaves at the edge of their webs, appearing only when a victim is ensnared. But every morning, they dismantle the web from the previous day and spin a fresh one. She was so intent on her weaving that I was able to photograph her.

Wolf spider with egg sac

This mother wolf spider was also on the move that morning. She was not interested in posing for photos, but I managed this shot. I listened to a great presentation on North Carolina spiders this week by Dr. Matt Bertone, an entomologist from North Carolina State University. Dr. Bertone’s enthusiasm for his subject was apparent, and I was touched by his gentle pleas — several times — to appreciate spiders, respect their work, and view them as the allies they are. “Spiders are very good mothers, ” he said. They defend their egg sacs and their new-born spiderlings with their lives. 

Green lynx spider with egg sac

I named this green lynx spider Lana, because she lives on a massive blooming lantana that grows beside my front door. I’ve been watching her and two other of her kind for two months. Rudi lived in the Rudbeckia lacianata, guarding her egg sac as Lana is doing above, until one day she and her eggs disappeared. Verna is still alive and well and guarding her egg sac in a Vernonia. Both Verna and Lana grow smaller daily. Dr. Bertone mentioned that they don’t eat after they produce their eggs, because they will not leave them unguarded for even a moment. It is a little hard for me to watch these once vibrantly green, plump spiders visibly shrinking in size, paler in color. Every day, I exhort Lana’s egg sac to open, hoping that if the spiderlings emerge, Lana might take time to eat. 

Writing spider

This writing spider also lives in the lantana by the door. It is a very large lantana, and there is plenty of room for these predators to share numerous pollinators attracted to its brightly colored abundant blooms. I have named this spider Agatha. I occasionally feed her a milkweed bug, if I find one sucking the life out of a ripening swamp milkweed pod. She allows me to sit beside her in the sun while I rattle on about writing (she is a writing spider after all), and life, and death. 

I find myself struggling these days to find words that adequately describe the roller coaster ride of emotions pulling at me. But when I start to flail, I step out my front door, take a seat beside the lantana where Agatha and Lana dwell, and practice breathing deeply. Agatha and Lana remind me to live in the moment, not the what-ifs, to live to ensure future lives by being a good mother to all my green children, to appreciate the beauty that surrounds me.

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Autumnal Observations

Autumn color of Katsura Tree.

Autumn is making itself undeniably known in my part of central North Carolina. Every day, I see more leaf color along with more discarded leaves on the ground, scattered among acorns, walnuts, and many other fruits. Humidity has dropped (barring occasional tropical storm remnants), skies are deep blue, and in my yard, the air is perfumed by the unmistakeable fragrance of golden leaves of a non-native tree I planted 25 years ago. The Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) became a must-have for me when I saw it in the display garden of a local plantsman. He waxed rhapsodically over the autumn leaf scent, comparing it to ripe strawberries in sunlight and cotton candy. He was not exaggerating. Wonder Spouse thinks the fragrance that wafts from the autumn leaves of this tree on north breezes resembles cotton candy. My nose finds the scent to be more fruity — a cross between strawberries and ripe apricots, perhaps with a hint of sweet apple. The golden orange leaves and their distinctive perfume have become our signal that autumn has arrived. But it is most certainly not the only sign.

Cornus kousa on the left and Cornus florida on the right, both heavy with autumn fruits.

Bird activity has picked up again. They were always around, of course, but now they are making more noise again. Red-bellied woodpeckers and blue jays make a constant ruckus as they gather characteristically small acorns of the massive southern red oak (Quercus falcata) that dominates the top of our hill. It appears to be a big year for acorn production; dropped acorns cover the ground beneath this giant.

Bright fruits of American beautyberry adorn its branches.

Fruit eaters from squirrels to Eastern bluebirds, mockingbirds, catbirds, and many other species are chowing down on dogwood and American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) fruits. Our non-native Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) produced so much fruit this year that branches touched the ground until the fruits fell or were devoured.

Flocks of migrating robins clean off whole trees and bushes in a day or two. Migrating warblers are still passing through on their way to their winter hangouts, and finally this week, we’ve begun spotting rose-breasted grosbeaks at the feeders, refueling for their southward journeys.

The photo is blurry, but trust me, that’s a river otter peeking at me.

The plaintive calls of green-winged teals once again echo across the floodplain from the beaver-built pond where they spend their winters. Great blue herons are more visible as they stalk creek waters among browning vegetation. Besides the grosbeaks, the highlight of this week occurred this past Tuesday morning, when my garden helper, Beth, spotted two, perhaps three, river otters frolicking in the deeper part of the creek. She hollered for me to get my camera, but I only managed one blurry shot of one peeking at us from behind the safety of an ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana). Wonder Spouse has now aimed one of our wildlife cameras on that part of the creek in the hopes that it will photograph them more effectively than I could.

The green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) forest that dominates our floodplain and which has become infested with deadly invasive non-native Emerald Ash Borers glows in the dim light of dawn and dusk as leaves turn a soft yellow before falling. Ash fruits still dangle in large clusters on the branches of female trees. Knock-on-wood — evidence of the imminent demise of these  ashes is not yet apparent. I am praying that the one experimental release of predatory wasps by experts from my state was successful beyond our wildest expectations.

With the departure of summer’s heat and humidity, I find myself tackling the infinite garden chore list as often as my joints permit. I’m collecting some of the abundant seed produced by native plants growing on our five acres so that I can share it with a friend who is attempting to re-establish native plants on a public greenway beside a local creek. The fall vegetable garden needs regular tending. I am happy to report that the broccoli crop is coming along nicely, along with myriad greens we will enjoy in winter salads. With Wonder Spouse’s help, the front water feature is drained, and plants in pots that live there all growing season have been cleaned up and relocated to their winter quarters inside the greenhouse.

Much remains to be done; the cooler air that continues to be delivered by frequent cold fronts reminds me constantly that many of the tasks remaining are time-sensitive. Fortunately for me, cooler air and the perfume from the Katsura tree’s leaves invigorate me body and soul as I race to complete as many tasks as possible before winter grips the landscape.

Follow me on iNaturalist

After being recently exiled from Facebook for the sin of using Piedmont Gardener as my name there (for many years), I have turned to an application I’ve been meaning to get to for some time — iNaturalist. If you aren’t using it and you love the natural world as I do, please check out this free application. You’ll find me there as piedmontgardener.

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A Green Marriage

Wedding kiss, 1985

Wonder Spouse and I celebrated 35 years of marriage this week. As you can see in the photo taken by my brother that day, we have never been fancy folks. I wore a dress I considered to be too nice for work, and he didn’t even put on a tie. It was the marriage that mattered to us, not the outer trappings.

The ceremony was on the front lawn of the first house we bought together — a little starter home in a new neighborhood. The attraction was the lot size — almost an acre. As is typical of new home construction here, all topsoil was removed. Red clay subsoil was compressed into near impermeability. But that did not deter our young selves as we eagerly began transforming the yard. 

We both always grew vegetable gardens, so Wonder Spouse set to work digging out the clay in the area we set aside for food-growing. I don’t know how many different kinds and quantities of soil amendments we added, but it was enough for me to be able to grow food by the next year. We only stayed in this house until early 1989. Here is what the vegetable garden looked like in 1988.

 

That’s me in the background, down in the dirt doing something — a frequent situation for me, I confess.

We both wanted more land. In 1989, we found a house, then out in the country, on five acres. The house was fine — it wasn’t our focus. Even in January when we first set eyes on it, the land looked like heaven to me. I knew enough about the ecology of my region to see that the property possessed a diverse area of microenvironments just waiting to be exploited. I recognized the active floodplain and mature ash forest growing on it. The creek that bordered one side of the property was another big draw for us, and the soil — which I sampled on our first visit — was sandy loam. All I had to do to sell Wonder Spouse on this site was utter one sentence: “On this land, we can grow potatoes.” And so we have.

The previous owner of the property maintained it as if it were a public park. He eradicated all understory trees except a few mature native dogwoods but retained the magnificent canopy trees, including enormous river birches, tulip poplars, sweet gums, red maples, red cedars, several oak species, and loblolly pines. Beneath the trees grew only grass. His use of herbicides must have been extensive, judging by how quickly native plants returned after we moved in on April 1, 1989. Yes, we were fools in love with this property. Here’s what the floodplain looked like from the back deck during one of our winter visits before we moved in.

The creek bordering the property is on the left. Only canopy trees inhabited the floodplain in winter 1989.

And here is a similar view taken in December of 2018. Frequent floods have cut channels across what was a nearly always dry floodplain in the early years.

That’s the same large black oak in the left foreground. You can see how the creek has changed, and even in winter, you can see the increase in vegetation.

By the summer of 1990, we were hard at work creating a vegetable garden, and I was adding as many native understory trees and shrubs as our budget could afford. My mother-in-law visited that summer and took this photo of us.

I have always grown flowers in the vegetable garden, which is what you see behind us.

In those early years, we only needed a single-wire electric fence powered by a solar battery to protect the garden. As suburbs overran our once-rural area, displacing wildlife, we surrounded the vegetable garden with a sturdy deer fence.

The front of the house was obscured by a hodgepodge of mostly non-native trees and shrubs when we first moved in.

Massive red cedars prevented all sunlight from reaching the front door. Mixed in with the magnolias and other trees is a 15-foot tall thicket of forsythia.

I don’t have an exact shot of this perspective that is more recent, but this one of the front pollinator garden is close. In the intervening years, Wonder Spouse changed the driveway, and we removed all the vegetation you see up front except for the magnolia on the far left, and had a Wonder Spouse-designed system of decks and walkways erected at the front entrance. A few years ago, we installed a pollinator garden that continues to flourish.

Front garden, July, 2018

There are probably a few keys to the success of our partnership. We were always two like-minded souls, who were fast friends long before our relationship deepened. But it is our Green World collaboration, I suspect, that keeps us flourishing, as we continue to grow and laugh together.

Taken last month by a dear friend at her home. Yes, that’s COVID hair; we haven’t had hair cuts since late March.

Happy Anniversary, Wonder Spouse.

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Welcome New Subscribers

Hi, folks. I am beginning to see a number of new subscribers signing up, and I’m delighted to have you here. Welcome!

I promise to add a new post here very soon. WordPress changed the underlying editor tool I use here, and I need some study time to figure out how it works.

Meanwhile, I’ve been adding posts here since 2011. I’ve made a point of adding keywords to most every post, so if there’s a gardening topic or a plant you’re curious about, trying typing that into the search box and see what I might have written on it in past posts. I also occasionally mount what I call my green soapbox; search on Earth Day to see some of those.

Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be adding new material here just as soon as I figure out the nuances of the new WordPress editor imposed on me.

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Daddy’s Roses

My father’s high school photo, autographed for his cousin Bill, who shared the photo with me.

I was 28 years old when my workaholic father died a few months before his 51st birthday. He was a deeply mysterious figure to my child self, and I never got the chance to ask him all the questions I had for him, which is probably why I cling fiercely to the few memories I have of him interacting directly with me and only me, his eldest child.

One of the most vivid of those memories is from the spring of my tenth year when my father decided to plant a fancy rose garden on one side of our house. This was extraordinary for a couple of reasons. First, he grew up poor and spent much of his childhood on his grandfather’s farm, which I don’t think was a happy memory. Proud of his college degrees and brilliant mind, my father rarely did any outside work, turning over lawn-mowing and other duties to his children as soon as we were deemed old enough to manage them.

It was thus nothing short of amazing to me when he announced he would be installing rose beds on the side of the house. This moment was also extraordinary for me because it was the only time I can remember my father ever being interested in my greatest fascinations – gardening and the natural world. Of course, I volunteered to help him.

My father knew absolutely nothing about gardening, but he was an avid reader. That reading would occasionally inspire him to take up something he had never tried before, just to prove he could do it. He once built a model railroad track on a massive piece of plywood that took up most of our playroom. He built an entire landscape around the track – mountains, trees, houses, little people – it was a masterpiece on a miniature scale. As was always the case with these inspired episodes, as soon as he had mastered a subject, he grew bored and moved on. It was much the same with the rose garden.

My father was an Episcopal priest, and somewhere in his reading, he must have stumbled across an image that appealed to him of a church vicar tending his roses. Looking back on the rose garden episode now, I realize my father had done his homework. Exerting more physical effort than I had ever seen, he dug out two crescent-shaped beds that faced each other. I remember jumping down into the trenches to help him. I was about 5’2” by the time I was ten, and the trench was deep; ground level reached about mid-way across my chest. It wasn’t easy work digging out the Piedmont clay of the hillside, but he kept at it several Saturdays in a row, actually staying home to complete the project instead of working at the office as he usually did.

He filled the trenches with a mix of materials from bags. I’m guessing they contained a mix of topsoil and fertilizers, no doubt whatever the experts in his reading had recommended. One Saturday he came home with twelve good-sized rose bushes, six for each crescent-shaped bed. The bushes were still dormant, all stems and thorns, but they were several feet tall. Daddy had paid for larger plants, no doubt impatient for a payoff in fragrant blooms.

It worked. By early summer, Daddy’s rose bushes were putting out lovely blossoms in an array of colors. He seemed to like the deep red and pure white ones best, often cutting them for vases he filled at his office at the church. I don’t remember ever seeing any of the roses in our house.

By the end of the summer, the roses weren’t looking so great. The heat and humidity of a Piedmont summer had done what they often do to roses. Diseased leaves and Japanese beetle attacks had reduced the vigor of the bushes considerably. Either my father hadn’t read up on how to deal with these issues, or more likely, he had lost interest entirely in the project after producing enough roses to show off at the church.

The roses limped along for a year or two, completely neglected. Then they were gone. I guess my father hired someone to pull them out and restore the lawn. But for a few months one year of my childhood, my father and I briefly bonded over roses. I wish I could tell you it opened his eyes to the Green World I already loved passionately by then. But I’d be lying.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad, wherever you are.

My father in his Episcopal priest “uniform,” probably about age 37 here.

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Savor Summer, Cultivate Compassion

Astrological summer begins today with the solstice, marking the longest day of the growing season in the northern hemisphere. It would be easy for me to pretend that this summer is like those that came before. Abundant, fertile life surrounds me. Flowers bloom, bees buzz, tomatoes ripen, peaches become ice cream by the magic of hand-churning, and fireflies provide their nightly light show, blinking first low among the bushes, then rising ever higher as darkness deepens until they twinkle in the tree canopy like low-flung stars.

Summer air in North Carolina where I grew up and still live is thick with humidity and the scent of Southern Magnolias and gardenias. Evening thunderstorms rattle windows with thunder and pounding rain, then move on to leave fresh puddles for morning splashing expeditions. Especially at dawn and dusk, bird song lifts the heart. Soon, as summer heat takes firm hold, perpetual cicada thrumming will dominate the airwaves – the white noise of summer – ideal for lulling weary bodies to sleep.

As I harvest the first tomatoes and beans of the season, it would be easy to imagine this summer is like those that came before, but it is not. While plants and animals attempt to carry on their lives as usual, humanity on Planet Earth is in turmoil. It is easy to feel overwhelmed, and for those of us living comfortably safe lives, it is tempting to pretend that nothing has changed. But, of course, everything has changed.

This is not really new information. As I’ve described in this blog before, experts have been exhorting humanity for numerous decades to start caring for the planet while there is still time to reverse the damage wrought by deforestation, pollution, and the myriad other wounds inflicted on the blue-green orb we all share. Overpopulation – another humanity-inflicted wound – inevitably results in diseases that round the globe breathtakingly quickly. Our world is very ill.

I am a life-long gardener and lover of the natural world. I’m also a professional writer. Confronted by this ailing world, I continue to garden, to walk beneath the great trees, to watch for newly fledged birds and tiny froglets still sporting tadpole tail nubs. New life, a ripe tomato, a perfect sunrise, they lift my heart. I try to share these sights and feelings via words and photos here and on social media as one way I can work to heal our ailing world. I pray it lifts up a few other souls at least a bit.

As a white child growing up in North Carolina during the time when schools underwent desegregation, I was angry and confused more than once when I saw and heard acts of discrimination. My parents explained what I saw as acts of ignorant people, and they told me often that black lives matter – not with those exact words, but they always made it clear that humans were all the same and all deserved equal treatment. I am not pretending to believe I understand how those discriminated against feel. As a child, I was only intermittently aware of the black-white dynamic around me. I am currently in the process of trying to better understand my childhood years by writing a memoir. It’s how we writers work through things – we write about them. I have no idea if the result will ever see the light of day. I write to better understand what I experienced – cheaper than psychotherapy. I write because it is who I am and one of the ways I reflexively respond to pain and suffering.

As a gardener whose vegetable garden inevitably produces more than my family can eat and/or preserve, I take excess garden bounty to my local food bank. Almost all the food banks in my area now have storage capacity for fresh fruits and vegetables. Anyone with a garden can do this – feed a few hungry souls. Do call first; procedures have changed in this pandemic era.

This summer solstice marks a season like no other I’ve seen in my lifetime. As I’ve described, I am choosing to savor the season and cultivate compassion by sharing food with the hungry and by sharing my Green World with readers who follow my scribblings. Some of you are cultivating compassion by sewing masks, donating blood, marching for justice.

I pray that those of us who survive this turbulent time hold on to these compassionate urges and teach them to our children and grandchildren. This is a summer like no other. May we all savor the sweet and the bitter and continue to re-imagine a planet free of hatred.

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Just Add Water…

Today begins a forecasted week of rain for this final week of astronomical spring. About mid-morning, the skies brightened slightly as the rain focused on areas just east of my five acres. I took advantage of that briefly drier interlude to attempt to capture some of the magical effects water has on vegetation. Walk with me and see for yourself, remembering that you can click on any photo here to see a larger version.

Rank amateur that I am, I often struggle photographing white flowers on sunny days. But today’s light — and raindrop adornments — gave them an almost ethereal quality.

 

Red flower colors intensified.

 

Raindrop-adorned bronze fennel leaves created a jeweled veil for Black-eyed Susans in the pollinator garden.

And, last but not least, diamond-studded non-native daylilies stole the show.

I highly recommend garden walks on rainy days. I promise you’ll see your plants through new eyes.

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A Week Beside Our Wetland

When Wonder Spouse and I moved to these five acres just over 31 years ago, about 1.5 acres were a floodplain. The area was dominated by a mature canopy of green ash trees; grasses and wildflowers grew beneath the trees. The creek that bordered our property was healthy, deeply incised, clear-flowing, full of crayfish, freshwater mussels, and fish. Intervals of years would pass without the creek overflowing onto the floodplain, which we mowed a few times during the growing season to minimize our chances of stepping on a snake. We planted native understory shrubs that should have been there: Spicebush, deciduous hollies, Virginia Sweetspire, Bladdernut, Beautyberry, Viburnum, and more. Growing in their ideal habitats, all flourished beneath the 70-foot ash forest.

A yearling saunters by at sunset.

Then the bulldozers came. Lots of bulldozers. The healthy second-growth forests that had surrounded us disappeared tract by tract as long-time landowners sold their family heritage to men eager to strip the land bare, replacing trees with subdivisions indistinguishable from each other. Silt deposits filled the creek — the consequences of sloppy construction techniques. Forests disappeared. Native wildlife that once had hundreds of acres to roam were squeezed into smaller and smaller patches of forest. One of the largest of those patches — probably the largest — is our land and the forest on the other side of the creek that, we hope, is too much of a wetland to attract the interest of the bulldozer clan.

Beavers that had lived a few miles from us along quieter streams were displaced by houses surrounded by fescue lawn deserts. They found refuge downstream from our land. A dam system longer than a football field has captured enough water to make a sizable, mostly shallow pond where Black Willows, sedges, and cattails dominate. The wetland raised the water level beneath our floodplain; its transformation to wetland is well underway. The ash trees doomed to death by the arrival of non-native, invasive Emerald Ash Borers will be replaced by rapidly expanding stands of Black Willow. Some of the shrubs we planted are hanging on; some couldn’t handle the rising water. Significant floods now happen somewhere between six and twelve times a year, depending on the hurricane season and cut-off low pressure systems like the one about to dump four or more inches of rain on us over the next two days.

A relatively minor winter flood event.

The floodplain is no longer flat. Multiple channels of flowing creek water now cover it. You must wear boots to wade across them if you want to walk to the end of the property. Massive silt deposits line the edges of the channels, sediment dropped by flood waters that lose speed as they leave the original creek channel. Topography and vegetation are nearly unrecognizable when compared to where we started three decades ago.

The dynamic nature of this area has been my great teacher. I have learned humility — no longer do I think I am the decider of what plant grows where. Nor do I know from one day to the next what plant or animal I might meet in this ever-growing wetland. The area definitely keeps me on my toes — safely dry within my muck boots, of course.

My strategy now is to plant as many well-adapted native plants as I can afford into this wetland area to increase species diversity and, I hope, to provide food and shelter for the ever-growing wildlife population sharing our land with us. We think our attempts are proving successful, if what we see captured on our wildlife cameras is any indication.

A hungry cottontail rabbit braves an area frequented by nocturnal-prowling predators.

We have two wildlife cameras strategically placed on our floodplain near the creek along an obvious wildlife path. The less expensive one we got first contains one camera that tries to take both day and night shots. Image quality is sub-optimal, which is why we invested in a more expensive model with two cameras — one for day shots, the other for nighttime photo captures. We download both cameras once a week to see what animals wandered by. Species numbers and diversity vary widely from week to week and month to month. Last week’s download produced a nice array of species, and included an action sequence of a fight between species. Another sequence prompted me to learn a new term — gang brood. Photos and explanations follow.

As you might guess, deer are frequently caught by the cameras, but they are definitely more active during some parts of the year. Bucks, for example, had not been seen much until this past week. My theory is they don’t like to show themselves until their new antlers make an appearance. Several showed up this week sporting velvet-covered antler nubs:

The does are extremely pregnant. We haven’t seen them on the cameras or in our yard much lately. We assume they are laying low while gestating. One of the does caught on the camera is very, very pregnant. I suspect she will — or may have by now — produced twin fawns.

And now for the fight. This is a first for our wildlife cameras — a tangle between a possum and a raccoon. These are nighttime shots and the animals were moving so there is motion-blur. The whole sequence occurred within one minute. We think perhaps the raccoon thought it might try possum for dinner, but the possum declined.

After the raccoon left, the possum lingered long enough to be sure the raccoon wasn’t returning, then disappeared into the tall grass — taking the opposite direction from that chosen by the raccoon:

The raccoon shows up in photos later in the week, but the possum does not. We suspect the possum simply decided to avoid the area.

The cameras caught four different bird species during daylight hours this week. The older camera caught a fuzzy shot of a black vulture. A group of them likes to hang around the creek and bathe in a shallow area. It’s not unusual to see crows caught occasionally by the cameras. They seem to be everywhere, perpetually curious. The camera catches shots of Red-shouldered Hawks fairly often. Wetlands are their habitat. This one was doing what we often see them doing — grabbing juicy earthworms from the fertile, wet floodplain soil.

Another bird species concludes this edition of Wetland Wildlife. Canada geese have been loudly present on the beaver pond since late winter. In past years, the pond was the nesting site of one pair of geese. As their goslings matured, the family would swim up the creek to an area near our backyard, then wander up the hill toward the greenhouse, nibbling vegetation as they strolled. We’ve been waiting for the cameras to capture this behavior, but were very surprised when last week’s footage revealed three adult Canada geese and goslings of two distinct ages, all hanging around together. That’s when I went online and learned about gang broods. Read about this behavior here in the section on behavior. It appears that some Canada geese parents band together with other parents and goslings, likely as a form of mutual protection from predators. This is just another example of what the growing wetland on our property is teaching us about the natural world.

In the Canada geese sequence that follows, you can see watchful parents scoping out the area before goslings appear. The final photo in this sequence was the last one of these birds on the camera. I am guessing that parents lost patience with offspring and rushed them off before the camera had another chance at a shot.

I predict that in the next few weeks the cameras will be capturing many photos of does with fawns frolicking around them. It also should soon be time for the wild turkeys to make an appearance. We’ve spotted the toms in an adjacent field by themselves. We know they separate from nesting hens to draw off predators. Last year after the chicks had grown a bit, a group of about a dozen hens, chicks, and toms were caught by the cameras on numerous occasions. Here’s hoping we get a repeat. Stay tuned…

 

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Birds and Blooms

A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak atop the feeder with a female Red-bellied Woodpecker enjoying the suet.

Wonder Spouse and I don’t live in a suburb. Thirty-one years ago, we found five acres on what was then a country road. Now that once-quiet road roars with traffic twenty-four hours a day. Dozens of new subdivisions connect to it; multiple schools were erected nearby; even a fire station is now staffed 24/7, so trucks and ambulances, sirens blaring, pass by at all hours.

Our five acres are a haven of peace amidst the ever-growing chaos, especially because a growing beaver-built wetland adjoins our land on two sides. Wildlife abounds because of the wetland, and because we’ve spent 31 years planting native trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers well-adapted to our land. My brain explodes at the mere thought of trying to count every native species now living nearby or on our land, and that’s a good thing.

One of the ways I know our efforts to build suitable habitats have been successful is by the creatures that visit. Most species that nest in my region nest near or on our land. Waterfowl overwinter in growing numbers in the wetland, and migrating birds stop by in spring and fall to refuel before heading off to complete their journeys.

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

This spring has been exceptional most notably for the prolonged visits of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Today makes the nineteenth day in a row that male and female birds of this species have visited our feeders and foraged in our trees and shrubs. These visitors are much more shy than the year-round birds that routinely scold me if I let their feeders go empty. I had been unable to get any photographs of them, so I asked Wonder Spouse to get out his long lens and tripod to capture these beautiful visitors. Yesterday, he set up his camera indoors in front of the window with the best view of the feeders. He got a number of decent shots, but unsatisfied, he eventually took his apparatus outdoors to try for shots unobstructed by a pane of glass. The grosbeaks did not visit the feeders in the same numbers or with the same frequency, but he did get some very nice photos I’m sharing in this post.

While he was outside, Wonder Spouse couldn’t resist photographing some of the abundant blooms currently open these days. I especially wanted him to shoot the Tangerine Beauty Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata ‘Tangerine Beauty’) growing on a sizable loblolly pine and blooming ten feet above my head where my camera couldn’t do it justice. He also couldn’t resist the abundant and colorful water-loving irises blooming on our increasingly wet floodplain. Most of them are Louisiana iris varieties; a few other water-loving types are also blooming happily in the muddy water. I’ve lost track of the variety names of the irises, but who cares? Their vibrant, colorful presence is all I need.

Tangerine Beauty Crossvine blooms

Without further explanation, here are some of the photos taken by Wonder Spouse yesterday. I think we can all agree that his many talents include strikingly beautiful photography. Remember you can click on any photo to see a larger version of it, and that doing so will reveal captions that identify most photos. Enjoy.

Birds Visiting Our Feeders

A Few Blooms

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Our Garden Grows

Cool weather in my part of central North Carolina has been uncharacteristically prolonged this spring. Blooms on our native deciduous azaleas and magnolias have lasted weeks instead of days, as did the spring ephemeral wildflowers like bloodroot. The spring vegetable garden has also benefitted from the cool weather. I do mean cool. Just last week, our morning low dipped down to 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and low-to-mid 40s have frequently occurred.

Sugar Sprint snap peas. The first few picked yesterday topped our homegrown salad last night.

Consequently, the summer vegetables I started from seeds at the usual time — mid-March — have been impatiently growing taller within my greenhouse for quite some time. I tried to wait until nighttime lows looked like they would remain in the 50-degree range, but this past week I finally had to plant my summer vegetable/herb/flower charges before I could promise them fully settled weather. They are in no danger of being killed by a freeze — I’m 99% certain of that — but I’ve read of studies that show fruit production of tomatoes is reduced for the lifetime of the plant if they are exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees. However, I’m fortunate; fewer tomatoes won’t impact my household one way or the other; keeping towering tomatoes in the greenhouse, on the other hand, could have risked our entire crop.

As I planted out the summer vegetables, herbs, and flowers this past week, I pondered why it is I feel compelled to do this every year. I have decided the drive lurks within my DNA. Almost all my ancestors on both sides arrived in North America before the United States was born; most clear-cut forest and planted crops for food and profit. Their lives revolved around seasonal cycles, plant productivity, and insect and warm-blooded varmints trying to eat their livelihoods.

I grew these chives from seed many years ago. They continue with enthusiasm.

As I dig planting holes in beds I’ve been enriching with compost for three decades, I feel the hands of my grandmothers and grandfathers guiding mine. Food-growing is my connection to my lineage and to the land that shares its bounty with me. The sweat and sore muscles I accrue in the process seem a fair trade for what I am given in return.

I took all these photos yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon, I finally transplanted the last few flowers I’d started in the greenhouse. Except for sweet potato slips, which don’t arrive or get planted until the end of May, the vegetable garden is planted.

Our Spring Vegetable Garden

I don’t grow carrots anymore. I never thin them adequately, and most years temperatures get too hot for them before they make much progress. Fortunately, many local organic farmers sell theirs at local markets, so we are always well-supplied. I hadn’t tried peas for years for the same reason, but something told me this year would be different. I started the peas in the greenhouse, because seed germination in cold, wet soil can be unpredictable. As soon as the pea sprouts had two sets of leaves, I transplanted them beside their trellis in the garden. Thanks to the cool spring, I see an excellent pea crop in our future — maybe even enough to freeze some for winter soups!

Sugar Sprint peas

Wonder Spouse and I love beets. I grow two varieties — Red Ace and Detroit Red. Both make delicious greens that I’ve been popping into our salads for some time. Meanwhile, their delicious bulbs grow fatter in the cool spring weather. I only grew one lettuce variety, because it is so easy to buy organic lettuce from local farmers in my area. The variety I tried this year is New Red Fire; it is wonderfully tasty. Our unfinished basement makes a great root cellar, so we grow onions and potatoes that we store after harvest. Wonder Spouse likes mild, sweet Red Candy onions; I grow them from small bundled plant starts. Mr. Potato Head (aka Wonder Spouse) grows his potatoes in five large grow bags to thwart destructive voles. I know he’s growing two varieties this year, but I don’t remember the names at the moment.

Our Summer Vegetable Garden

I always plant a few basils around the edges of the tomato trellis to encourage pollinator visits.

This season I exhibited great self-control and only grew/planted three tomato varieties. Sweet Treats will always be our cherry tomato of choice. Picus has become our favorite plum/paste tomato. This year’s experiment with a medium slicing tomato is Rugged Boy. Only Sweet Treats is indeterminate, meaning it keeps growing longer all season. In theory, the other two determinate tomatoes should stop growing taller about mid-season and focus entirely on fruit production. I’ve noticed, however, that in my garden sometimes the determinate tomatoes forget themselves and grow nearly as much as the indeterminate forms. I tie them to either side of a 7-foot-tall trellis. By the end of the season, Wonder Spouse uses a stool to reach the fruits growing beyond my reach (even with the stool).

Peppers are a sweet Italian form, a variant of the traditional Bull’s Horn type that produces fruit half the size of their ancestor — a good thing for us — Bull’s Horn peppers are quite large. We grow a red one (Cornito Rosso) and a yellow one (Cornito Giallo). Because of their high vitamin C content, peppers freeze very well. Their colorful zing adds zip to Wonder Spouse’s culinary masterpieces all winter long.

I’ve had multiple years of success with a Japanese eggplant variety called Millionaire. It has shrugged off flea beetle damage and heat waves to remain productive until hard frost. We have become addicted to having a steady-but-not-overwhelming supply of these fruits all summer long.

I always grow a couple of zucchini plants I start from seed in the greenhouse. When I transplant them out, I cover them in a Reemay tent until they begin to bloom, so they can grow vigorous before I must expose them to the bug varmints of summer. I wrote about my method in detail long ago here. We like a variety called Raven. Its rich, dark fruits contain much antioxidant goodness and excellent flavor.

A recently emerged Fortex bean seedling

Because soil temperatures remained cold for so long, I only sowed my summer beans a week ago. After a recent copious rain, seedlings are emerging. Our pole bean of choice is Fortex; no other comes close for flavor and productivity. We love Jade bush beans for the same reason. I’ve taken to growing both on a trellis, allotting half to each variety. I find it is much easier to keep the bush beans upright and productive when I can lean or attach them to a trellis.

I’ve grown borage (Borago officinalis), an annual herb, off and on for years. I love the vivid blue of its flowers, and it is a pollinator magnet. I’ve never used it for its purported medicinal properties, but in researching it today, I learned that “the flowers, candied and made into a conserve, were deemed useful for persons weakened by long sickness.” Perhaps more of us should be growing borage this year to aid those recovering from world-wide sickness.

Borage flower buds

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