Archive for category Favorite Plants

Summer Solstice Anticipation*

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One of the great imponderables of gardening life: Why does it take so long for the first tomato of the season to ripen? And then when it does, why does it take forever for the rest of the tomatoes to transform from hard green to juicy red?

Amidst the heavy harvest of Fortex pole beans, one Sweet Treats cherry tomato was ready yesterday. It was consumed with great ceremony at last night’s dinner — one half going to Wonder Spouse, the other to me. It was so good!

Yesterday's harvest.

Yesterday’s harvest.

But now the waiting begins in earnest. So many green tomatoes, so few signs of color change — except for yesterday’s delicious outlier. Somehow the memory of its perfect tomato flavor must satisfy us for — who knows how long?

All the tomato plants are still very actively growing. I tie new growth to the trellises daily. The undersides of my thumbnails are stained dark green from using my nails to snip off unwanted suckers as I tie my enthusiastic charges. When I wash up, the soap suds turn yellow-green from the tomato pigments that coat my hands as I groom the plants.

I’ve been doing this — growing tomatoes — for over four decades now. The routine is the same every summer. About fifteen or so summers ago, I wrote a poem about growing tomatoes. I hope you’ll indulge me as I share it with you here.

Embracing Tomatoes

There they go again.
This year I swore I’d keep them under control —
every sucker pruned,
every new shoot tied to a support.

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Just yesterday,
I thought I had them tamed.
Obediently, they clasped their cages —
yellow flowers nodding
from the weight of visiting bees.

Today, the riot is well underway.
An antigravity avalanche of green
shoots skyward, sideways, all ways —
like a group of guilty children scattering
in all directions at the approach of an adult.
I can almost hear them giggling.

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So here I am once again —
embracing tomatoes.
This is not a task for timid souls.
You must wade right into the plants,
disregarding spiders and sticky aphids.
You must show no fear as you use a firm hand
to tie them to their supports.

Emerging from the struggle,
sweaty and coated in green tomato tang,
I bow to my partners.

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Soon they will offer me heavy red globes
to transform into refreshing summer salads,
and fragrant rich sauces to freeze for winter feasts,
certain to fuel warm dreams
of summer sambas with tomatoes.

Coming soon, we hope!

Coming soon, we hope!

Happy Summer, everyone. May the fruits of your labors bring you as much delight as mine bring to me.

* I hope you enjoyed this repeat of a post from 2013.

 

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Early June in the Garden

 

Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) always looks like it’s wearing a party hat when in bloom.

I always carry my camera with me when I step outside this time of year, even if I’m just walking the 100 yards to the mailbox. If I don’t bring it, some butterfly, bee, bunny, or bird does something photo-worthy that I don’t catch if I’m unprepared. These shots are what I caught today.

I spent the morning working in the vegetable garden. I needed to work longer, but the sun is ferocious, the humidity unforgiving. Yesterday, I finally harvested our first squash and first two eggplants. We ate them last night and I can report that they were delicious. Today, I picked another eggplant, decided to give a couple of squash one more day to fill out, exhorted the tomato plants bent low with the weight of green orbs to hurry up and ripen, and rejoiced in sighting the first bean flowers on all three varieties I’m growing. A little photographic documentation follows. To enlarge a photo and see its caption more easily, click on it.

To get to the vegetable garden, I travel through the front yard and pollinator gardens. Here’s a sample of what I saw today.

In the center of my front yard, the Chinese Pearl-bloom tree commands full attention as it nears peak bloom.

Chinese Pearl-bloom tree (Poliothyrsis sinensis)

We especially enjoy this time of year because of the near-daily emergence of tiny new amphibians from the front water feature. A few days ago in the early morning after a night-time shower, Wonder Spouse and I counted 25 hiding on various plants growing nearby. I suspect that most are Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, but I’ve heard other amphibians singing lustily beside the pond at night too, especially Narrow-mouthed Toads. When they are this tiny, though, I have no idea how to tell them apart.

Every day brings new discoveries, fresh food, and hard work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Camphorweed: An interesting addition to my native landscape

Camphorweed

I only learned about Camphorweed (Pluchea odorata) a couple of years ago when one of the horticulturalists at the North Carolina Botanical Garden offered me a plant she had “edited out” of a walkway. The medicinal smell of the leaves intrigued me, and the just-expanding inflorescence looked interesting, so I took it home and planted it on the active floodplain beside the perennial creek that borders our property. It is not a knock-your-socks-off plant; it doesn’t have the wow-power of a blooming ironweed covered in butterflies or the landscape-dominating form of Joe-Pye Weed. But I like that about this plant. A landscape full of nothing but “glam-plants” is overwhelming to my eye, and the discovery of the understated beauty of a plant like Camphorweed delivers its own special magic.

This annual has other common names. Stinkweed, like the name Camphorweed, refers to the smell of the leaves. When bruised, they emit a distinctly medicinal odor, to my nose, not unlike the ointment my mother spread on my chest before bedtime when I was sick with a childhood cold. As you probably guessed, that pungency protects the plant from deer predation.

The other common name for this plant is Saltmarsh Fleabane, which refers to this annual’s tolerance of soil in or near brackish water, and the “fleabane” portion likely refers to the plant’s use as a deterrent for fleas and other pest insects. Although the plant prefers moist habitats, I have found it to be resilient in much drier soils than I expected, and it tolerates light conditions from shade to full sun.

I know all this because that one plant given to me bloomed prolifically and then set seed.  Individual flowers in the pink-lavender inflorescence morphed into fluffy light-brown-to-tan seeds that wafted all over my yard on autumn breezes. The following spring, I discovered Camphorweed plants popping up in a number of spots. On the floodplain, plants intermingled with a growing population of Cardinal Flowers, and in the wetter spots, Lizard-tails and Jewelweeds. But some seeds managed to float up the hill to my pollinator garden beds, where they bloomed as happily as they did on the floodplain.

In my yard, mature plants averaged heights between one and two feet. As you might expect, a plant with leaves that smell like medicine has been used that way by a number of cultures. Solutions using the leaves have been used as antiseptics; a tea of leaves and stems has been used to treat menstrual cramps, stomachaches, headaches, inflamed gums, and even to dispel “bad air” brought on via witchcraft. Recent studies show that compounds in the plant appear to disrupt cancer cell growth and may also speed up wound healing. As is true of all plant-based home remedies, you should always proceed with great caution when trying them out, because you can never know the concentration of curative compounds in a given plant. I can tell you from personal experience that simply crushing a leaf and inhaling the scent deeply is a great way to clear a stuffy nose.

Seeds of Pluchea odorata

I am delighted that this annual native has made itself at home in my landscape. It is not aggressive, and because it is an annual, simply removing/relocating it is all the control you need to exert to prevent overenthusiastic spreading. Most of the pollinators I saw on its flowers were tiny flies and a number of ants, but given the amount of fluffy seeds the plants produced this fall, the flowers were definitely being pollinated.

 

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Garden choices that serve Mother Earth

Female Monarch on swamp milkweed

Last year, with help from some young folks with strong backs and arms, Wonder Spouse and I removed the overgrown loropetalums that had overwhelmed our front garden, and replaced them with a pollinator garden consisting almost entirely of native perennials. For a first-year garden, I think it turned out rather well aesthetically, but that is not why I felt compelled to transform an area that many folks would probably have considered to be perfectly fine.

A recently emerged Cope’s Gray Treefrog resting on an Ironweed stem

My part of the southeastern US piedmont region is growing exponentially. Like so much of the southeastern US, this is resulting in suburban sprawl. Beautiful, healthy forests and fields are erased nearly daily, replaced by another strip mall with a gas station and fast food joint or another housing development filled with nearly identical new houses with stretches of non-native lawn and a couple of landscaper-standard foundation plantings.

I can see and feel the difference on my five acres of green chaos, where Wonder Spouse and I have lived and gardened since 1989. We are losing the battle with invasive exotic species, because our land is rapidly becoming an island of green in a sea of asphalt and concrete. We are under assault from all sides. Native wildlife is affected most dramatically. Habitats used for generations are obliterated overnight by bulldozers. It is especially brutal to watch the suffering during the spring and summer, when nests, dens, and families are destroyed in the name of human progress on what seems to be a daily basis.

Juniper Hairstreak on Green-head Coneflower

In light of daily devastation of the wild lands that once surrounded me, I look at my landscape choices with new eyes now. Every choice I make is an answer to one question: How will this serve the native environment?

A recently molted Black Swallowtail caterpillar on Bronze Fennel — a non-native, non-invasive food source for this species.

Many of what I think of as my “plant pals” — ecologists, botanists, avid gardeners, birders, lepidopterists, and others deeply attached to the value and beauty of all members of native ecosystems — are increasingly discouraged. Some have confided that they are going through the motions at this point, continuing to try to demonstrate and educate the millions of humans who are unaware of the consequences of their choices on the continuing viability of our planet, while in their hearts believing that the battle is already lost. I confess I have moments where I feel similarly, but then I see another miracle unfold on a flower or tree in my yard, and my spine straightens. I feel obliged to carry on the crusade. It feels to me to be the very least I can do.

Caterpillars of Viceroy Butterfly enjoying leaves of a willow in the adjacent wetland

The folks who read my little blog and/or follow me on Facebook are I am certain already aware of how close to the tipping point of ecological disaster humanity is teetering. We can’t control the choices of others, but we can control ours. That’s why those biologically inert loropetalums in my front yard are gone, replaced by an increasingly vibrant patch of wildflowers that has already attracted more species of butterflies, native and honey bees, parasitic wasps, praying mantises and other beneficial insects, not to mention insect-loving warblers and other birds than I have ever observed before so close to my front door.

Honey bee enjoying a native Purple Coneflower

I built it (with lots of help), and they have come, more with every passing year. My five acres is a sanctuary now, a haven for as many displaced native species as it can handle.

Southern Leopard frog enjoying our front water feature

Even a tiny yard can be a sanctuary. During winter’s quiet, ask yourself what kind of beautiful, vibrant native sanctuary can you create by eradicating your biologically sterile, poison-filled, water-wasting non-native lawn with native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers? Before every new landscaping decision, ask yourself, “How will this serve the native environment?

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails enjoy many native flowers, like this Joe Pye Weed, but their caterpillars eat leaves of a number of our native canopy trees, especially Tulip Poplar and Black Cherry.

 

 

 

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Reliable Autumn Native Showstoppers

Enthusiastic berry display of volunteer deciduous holly

Decades ago, Wonder Spouse and I planted two species of native deciduous holly on our floodplain — a location where all have flourished. These wonderful natives consistently produce abundant quantities of berries that are usually eaten by local birds and passing flocks of Cedar Waxwings by some time in January — sooner if winter weather is more severe. I think the berries probably don’t taste as good as, say, those of native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin), which vanish in late summer as soon as they ripen into scarlet beads that contrast with vibrantly green leaves.

Ripe Spicebush berries always make me think of ornaments on a Christmas tree as they contrast against the native’s green leaves.

Both spicebushes and hollies are dioecious, which is a fancy term used by botanists that means the flowers of each sex occur on different plants. Thus, if you want your female plants to produce lots of showy berries, you must ensure that a male of the same species is nearby, so that pollen from flowers on male shrubs is deposited by visiting pollinators onto the flowers of female shrubs. I am fortunate to have a neighbor who keeps honeybees, so in addition to the many native pollinators that visit my blooming plants, in spring when the hollies bloom, they are also covered by busy swarms of honeybees from dawn to dusk, thereby ensuring abundant fruit set.

The two species of native holly that I grow are Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and Possumhaw (Ilex decidua). The latter species is not to be confused with another native shrub often called Possumhaw — Viburnum prunifolium — which is why I always try to insert a plant’s Latin botanical name in my posts. Both holly species can grow to heights of 15-20 feet at maturity, maybe even a bit taller. They both tolerate flooding, routinely moist soils, and even dry soils; they are tough native shrubs. I think Winterberry usually grows taller than Possumhaw, but on my rich alluvial soils, both species have achieved significant sizes. When I planted them, I had imagined shrubs wide at the base continuing to the top, but deer consistently ate the lower branches after we removed the wire cages that protected them during their first few years of growth. Thus, my floodplain hollies look like trees, with trunk bases devoid of branches. Either form is aesthetically pleasing to my eyes.

Every year as the canopy trees on my floodplain discard their autumn foliage, the deciduous hollies growing beneath them take center stage. During early autumn, their red berries mingle with the still-green leaves of the shrubs. But by late November, those leaves have fallen, revealing branches adorned by bright red clusters of berries. I think the visual effect is wonderful. Naked branches permit longer views of my floodplain, creek, and adjacent wetland, while the red berries provide bright pops of continuing color — and, eventually, food for winter-hungry birds.

I am delighted by the diverse number of native birds that visit our five acres of green chaos, and their presence has yielded continuing surprises. One of those is bird-deposited volunteer plants. Seeds are designed to survive travel through birds’ digestive systems; some even require it for germination. In my yard, I discover all sorts of “bird-planted” species growing beneath large trees — often evergreens — where the birds shelter at night and during rough weather. Such areas are prime locations for the appearance of non-native invasive exotic species, such as Asian Bittersweet, Mahonia, and several species of Ligustrum and Elaeagnus.

But those locations also yield volunteers of native plants, likely from fruits eaten off of plants in my yard. Thus, I now have an abundance of spicebush growing on my property; there were none until I planted three over twenty years ago. I’m also starting to see quite a few native Beautyberries now. The biggest volunteer surprise, however, was the appearance of two bird-planted deciduous hollies at the top of our hill just outside the fence that protects our vegetable garden from marauding deer. The two shrubs are growing quite close to each other, their branches intertwining. And most wonderful of all, one is male, and the other is female. I was so stunned when I realized the identity of these plants that I decided to leave them where they appeared. Now, a few years later, they are about 12 feet tall, and the female is so laden with ripe red berries right now that everyone who encounters her gasps in surprised delight.

I suspect her fruit set is especially impressive for two reasons. First, her branches are intertwined with those of the adjacent male plant, so proximity to pollen is maximized. On top of that, my neighbor’s bee hives are less than 100 feet from these plants. These shrubs literally buzz with honeybee activity when they are blooming.

I suspect these volunteers are Winterberries, but I have not tried to verify this. Frankly, I don’t care. I know they are native, beautiful, and beloved by birds — especially a Mockingbird that defends the female shrub against all comers as soon as the berries begin to show color. Every morning, he perches on one of the top branches of the berry-adorned female shrub and demonstrates the versatility of his vocal repertoire for all to hear. He tolerates my proximity as I work in the vegetable garden — as long as I am careful to greet him with respect and avoid lingering too long in front of his winter pantry. It’s a mutually agreeable arrangement.

Soon her leaves will drop, and this volunteer Ilex’s display will be even more spectacular.

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Celebrate the Unfolding

Ashe Magnolia bud

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

Caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly eating a wetland willow tree.

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

Chrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly

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

Fire Pink bud just opening

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

Fire Pink almost fully open

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

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

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

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

 

Ashe Magnolia blossom

 

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Wetland Wonderland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada geese noisily enjoy the beaver pond.

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

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

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

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

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

Caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly appreciate our wetland habitat.

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

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

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

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

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

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