piedmontgardener

I'm a gardener who also writes. Writing about gardening combines the best of both activities.

Homepage: https://piedmontgardener.wordpress.com

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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Earth Day 2020: It’s Not Easy Being Green

Kermit the Frog’s well-known song about the travails of being green was about the sense of isolation that comes from being different from other folks. I think it applies equally well to the challenges facing the Green World. These challenges are delineated in detail in Douglas Tallamy’s latest book: Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.

In his book, Tallamy’s frustration with humanity is frequently evident. The introduction and first four chapters provide a vast amount of research-based data on how and why Planet Earth’s ecosystems are in imminent peril. His conclusion is inescapable and direct: the actions of humanity are responsible for the destruction of the natural world upon which all life relies.

In the introduction, he categorizes people into three groups: animal-lovers, plant-lovers, and the utterly indifferent. The categories reflect his strategy for reaching each of the groups. For animal-lovers, he explains their critical dependence on plants. He shows plant-lovers why animals, especially insects, are essential to the survival of most flora. And for the indifferent, “the hardest group of all to engage,” he did his best, he says, “to explain why we will lose humans if we don’t preserve the plants and animals that keep our ecosystems healthy and sustaining.”

Dr. Tallamy’s solution to the ongoing demise of life on Planet Earth is a concept he calls Homegrown National Park:

“What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her lawn to productive native plant communities? Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than twenty million acres of what is now ecological wasteland.”

By restoring functioning native ecosystems to our landscapes, he says, we will be creating a far larger national park system than currently exists, where native animals and plants can flourish. And it is a park we will be able to visit whenever we like by simply stepping outside our homes and offices. It is a wonderful vision, reminding me a great deal of a notion I helped develop and continue to pitch for my region called Piedmont Patch.

Tallamy does not introduce his Homegrown National Park concept until chapter five. His opening chapters provide a brief history of earlier conservation efforts and begin to offer reams of data interspersed with explanations of underlying scientific ecological concepts as he proceeds to build his case according to the standard scientific writing approach. After chapter five, he offers four more chapters full of data-based factoids and solidly reasoned arguments on ways to rebuild carrying capacity and the impact of invasive, non-native species.

Here’s a factoid from chapter six: A massive scientific study called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was published in 2005 and concluded then that by the turn of the century (20 years ago), “we had destroyed 60 percent of the earth’s ability to support us.” That factoid should make anyone who loves their children and grandchildren swallow hard. Alas, it is buried in the middle of a chapter, as are many other staggering bits of information, where only a careful reader will ever see it.

Chapter seven is on invasive non-native plants; he calls them alien plants. As someone who has been sermonizing to anyone willing to listen about the negative impacts of these invaders for 25 or so years, I found this chapter helpful, because Tallamy succinctly dissects every point made by those who would have us believe that these invaders are no big deal, just Nature being Nature. Be assured, I will have his well-constructed arguments at the ready the next time someone tries to persuade me about the “benefits” of invasive non-native plants. Here’s just one of his very helpful explanations on this subject:

“Every time a native plant is removed from an ecosystem, or even diminished in abundance, populations of all of the animals that depend exclusively on that plant are also removed or diminished, as are the natural enemies of those species. In sum, then, at the local scale – the scale that counts ecologically – invasive plants typically decimate local species diversity, and claims to the contrary have not been supported by rigorous field studies” (emphasis mine).

It is not until chapter eight, Tallamy’s chapter on the critical need to restore insect species, that he finally offers a key piece of practical information on helping landowners restore native plants to their properties. He explains the concept of “keystone plants,” the species in a given ecosystem on which the greatest percentage of other ecosystem members rely. For example, when looking at which plants support the most caterpillars, the larval forms of moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), he and his research assistant discovered that “wherever we looked, about 5 percent of the local plant genera hosted 70 to 75 percent of the local Lepidoptera species!”

Oak (Quercus spp.) is a Tallamy top keystone genus.

Tallamy therefore advises that it is essential to plant keystone species appropriate to your area when you decide to restore native plants to your property. His research assistant, Kimberley Shropshire, spent a year compiling a massive database that identifies which insect species rely on which plants. This database has been used by two different conservation organizations to develop free applications for the public to use when planning native restorations of their properties. Tallamy buries this important (to my mind, anyway) bit of information in the middle of chapter eight.

Willow (Salix spp.) like this blooming black willow, is another Tallamy keystone genus.

After you enter your zip code, these applications generate lists of native plants suitable for your area, and the lists are ordered, so that keystone species – the plants critical for supporting the most insect species – are listed first, encouraging you to include them in your design. A few pages later, Tallamy explains why this is critical to the successful creation of a functioning ecosystem on your property: “A landscape without keystone genera will support 70 to 75 percent fewer caterpillar species than a landscape with keystone genera, even though the keystone-less landscape may contain 95 percent of the native genera in the area.” In other words, you’ll be planting a pretty native landscape of no use to native birds and other wildlife if you omit keystone species from your design.

The two applications based on Shropshire’s research are:

In chapter ten, Tallamy explains why he thinks his concept, Homegrown National Park, will work. He suggests that reasoned arguments and education will turn the tide with HOAs, which is what I would expect a man of science like Dr. Tallamy to believe. He’s not entirely wrong. I know of a couple of local HOAs that have been slowly persuaded on the merits of native plant landscapes. Scientific arguments were part of the process, but much emotion-based persuasion was also involved. I believe financial arguments are also critical to persuading HOAs and landowners, and Tallamy ignores this aspect entirely. He also doesn’t mention the need to persuade the real estate and horticultural industries that native landscapes can still be money-makers for them.

In his final chapter, Tallamy gets around to explicitly listing ten steps landowners can take to make Homegrown National Park a reality. It is a short chapter, because, I imagine, he expects that readers have already digested the carefully laid out research and arguments in the previous 204 pages. They are solid, easy-to-implement steps. I hope and pray his notions take hold and sweep the nation.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is an herbaceous keystone genus.

However, unless many of us who already have a decent grasp of ecology and native plants and animals make Tallamy’s book a jumping-off point for persuasion-based presentations of our own, I fear that the vast majority of Americans in his third category – the utterly indifferent – will not be moved to even read the book.

Aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) is another keystone genus.

Let me be clear. In my estimation, there is nothing wrong with the content of Tallamy’s book. His research and conclusions are rock-solid. But as a professional writer and editor of many decades, it is my opinion that this book would have benefitted greatly from a developmental edit that could have shaped its contents into a more persuasive and accessible form specifically targeted to his most challenging audience – the utterly indifferent plant-blind humans who don’t see or appreciate the natural world the way he does, the way I do, the way most of my blog followers do.

Yes, this book gives us Greenies more ammunition for our arguments with HOAs and neighbors; the Frequently Asked Questions section at the back of the book will be especially helpful with that. But will this book persuade the indifferent? I fear it is unlikely.

On this Earth Day and every day, it’s not easy being green, as any plant, hungry caterpillar, or ecologically aware human will tell you. Tallamy’s new book provides us with important information to share with those indifferent to Nature’s wonders. But in my estimation, on its own, it is not a book that will persuade those still blind to the natural world to join the green side. I very much hope I’m wrong.

Happy Earth Day to all!

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Staying Connected

Raindrops adorn an opening bud of Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars.’

I am a self-described crazy old plant lady. I am not ashamed of it. I’m not proud of it. It is simply who I am.

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ has been blooming for several weeks.

My connection to the Green World began when I was very small. That world has been my through-line, the ever-present song in my heart and story in my head that prevented me from tumbling down the dark well of despair more times than I can count or remember.

Male catkins of native hazelnut (Corylus Americana). The female flowers are not quite open yet.

I am grateful beyond words for the privilege of being able to live on the same piece of land for over 30 years. This is my forever happy place. Years ago when I worked a desk job in an airless office building, I stayed sane by mentally walking around my yard, admiring a current bloomer, or reminding myself that the tomatoes would need picking when I got home. Every bit of effort I have expended on my land has been returned in beauty and story a million-fold.

Leaves of Abelia chinensis are emerging six weeks ahead of their “normal” schedule.

I start most week days standing outside after Wonder Spouse drives off to his airless office. I listen and smell and watch for the current stories unfolding around me as an ever-increasing parade of vehicles zooms down our once-quiet country road. That traffic noise today was not enough to prevent me from hearing frogs chorusing in the adjacent wetland. Spring peeper songs have grown loud of late, thanks to absurdly warm nighttime and daytime temperatures. A small flock of cedar waxwings, their distinctive whistling calls revealing their presence in a large southern magnolia, flew off when I greeted them; their tight flock formations always remind me of schooling fish.

As I stood watching the waxwings, thousands upon thousands of seagulls that winter on a nearby reservoir flew overhead in ragged vee formations for over five minutes. They scavenge county dumps for food by day and shelter on the lake at night until their internal clocks tell them it is time to return to their coastal summer homes. Today, low clouds that will bring rain by noon – I can smell it in the air – caused the seagulls to fly low enough that I could actually hear them calling to each other, conjuring a memory of the smell and taste of the sea.

Nest holes of pileated woodpeckers.

The pair of pileated woodpeckers nesting in a sycamore just on the other side of my creek called to each other loudly. They are mostly quiet these days, but when it is time to trade places on the nest, the returning parent calls to the other; the nesting parent replies immediately, sounding to my story-prone mind impatient to go off duty. Woodpecker species are early nesters. They, like the pair of barred owls calling to each other every late afternoon, are supposed to be in reproductive mode in late winter.

Red-shouldered Hawk with chicks from a previous year.

Red-shouldered hawks are also early-season nesters. I’ve lately spotted the pair that shares our land with us often sitting in a tall walnut beside my house, and today I was showed why. I stayed out so long watching seagulls and listening to frogs that they grew impatient with me. One flew right over my head calling, I think perhaps as a diversion, because shortly thereafter its mate flew soundlessly overhead beyond the walnut to a small group of towering loblolly pines, a long thin branch dangling from its sharp beak – nesting material! Not long after, the hawk that spoke to me also flew overhead. It stopped briefly in the walnut, I think to see if I was watching. When I pretended to be interested in something else, it joined its mate.

This location will be a tough one to observe – lots of camouflage to obscure their activities. But once over a decade ago, a pair nested just across the creek in a winter-bare sweet gum. Our elevated back deck gave us a perfect vantage point until the trees leafed out, and Wonder Spouse got some lovely photos of still-fuzzy nestlings as they began to move about and stretch their wings.

Strong, possibly dangerous storms are predicted for tomorrow, along with multiple inches of heavy rain. I thus decided to take advantage of this last bit of quiet before the storms to walk around the yard this morning with my camera. As is true for all of my region, many flowers are blooming weeks ahead of schedule. This early in February, a killing freeze is almost inevitable.

So today I walk, inhaling moisture-laden air perfumed by the fragrance of precocious flowers, grateful for my connection to this land and the time I have to appreciate it.

The rains begin…

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