Archive for category Native Wildlife
All gardeners know that fall is for planting. It also marks a rise in wonderful presentations on gardening-related subjects. Case in point: the amazing Debbie Roos, one of the agricultural extension agents for Chatham County, NC, will give what promises to be a great webinar from 6:00-8:00 p.m. on November 10.
To read more about Creating Wildlife Habitat with Native Plants and to register to virtually attend, visit the link. You will learn much, I promise!
For those of you deeply interested in invasive plants, the expert members of the NC Invasive Plants Council will be virtually gathering for two half-days of presentations on November 9-10. Presentations can get a tad technical for the layperson, but you will learn about control methods, which species the experts are most worried about, and other useful information.
You can attend for free, but please consider joining the group to help fund their efforts. To see the agenda and register, go here.
If you haven’t read Douglas Tallamy’s book, The Nature of Oaks, I highly recommend that you put it on your to-read list. This book is shorter than his others, because he focuses on one tree species – oaks – instead of entire forest and field ecosystems. By so doing, he is more successful at vividly painting a picture of the complex web of life supported by these long-lived forest giants.
A White Oak’s Tale
To tell the story of oaks, Tallamy centers his tale around one oak tree, likely planted by a blue jay as an acorn several decades earlier. Every chapter chronicles one month in the life of the tree. The entire book is worth reading, but with autumn’s recent arrival, I want to focus today on leaves – the ones discarded by deciduous trees about this time every year, including most oak species. When left alone as Nature designed them to be, these fallen leaves form what Tallamy rightly describes as “priceless litter.”
Magic Beneath the Trees
March is the chapter in which Tallamy tells readers about the magic of fallen oak leaves (He spent his October and November chapters on acorns). As an entomologist, Tallamy is better acquainted than most with the millions of insects and other creatures – most quite tiny – that spend their lives in leaf litter. Soil ecologists call these creatures detritivores. They consume dead plant parts or the bacteria and fungi that help break down plant cellulose in fallen leaves. Dozens of species of moth caterpillars are part of this mix; they eat dead leaves instead of green ones. Of course, these creatures are also eaten by detritivore predators, which number in the hundreds of species. These leaf-litter dwellers provide a critical function by recycling nutrients in dead leaves back into forms plants can absorb via their roots.
All fallen leaves contribute to this mostly unseen web of decomposers critical to nutrient recycling that fuels all life. But oaks, Tallamy tells us, create leaf litter that sustains decomposer populations better than all other tree species. The 700,000 leaves that fall from a mature oak tree decay more slowly than those of most other species, providing ideal litter for up to three years. Decomposers need consistent conditions to survive. Bare soil cannot sustain them; it lacks the nutrients and even moisture levels they need. Slowly decaying oak leaves piled beneath their mother trees provide ideal conditions for the occupants of this intricate food web to perform their magic.
Water for Tomorrow
Tallamy notes that a thick carpet of leaf litter also acts like a sponge during rains. Instead of running off bare ground into storm drains, raindrops soak into leaf litter, which is especially beneficial during heavy rains. Tallamy notes that almost all of a 2-inch downpour – more than 54,000 gallons/acre – is absorbed by leaf litter in an oak forest. Slowly, that water seeps down into the water table, where we and the plants can use it in the future.
While that captured downpour is seeping through the litter, it is purified. Excessive nutrients (for example, runoff from overfertilized lawns) and pollutants are captured by the litter, allowing clean water to filter down to the water table. Instead of flooded streams full of pollutants and eroded soil, clean water slowly seeps downward, replenishing streams downhill gradually, ensuring that flora and fauna relying on those aquatic environments are not disrupted.
More Oaks for More Magic
Tallamy’s message in this book is straightforward. He asks that we all plant oaks appropriate to our region now. It is true that oaks planted now will not mature in our lifetimes, but that is not a reason not to plant them. Gardeners know. We plant for our grandchildren. We plant to enrich habitats for native wildlife. We plant to heal our deeply wounded planet. We plant for the magic created by our vision and effort – not just oaks, of course, but yes, definitely oaks too.
This fall – the ideal season for planting trees and shrubs in the Southeastern Piedmont – please do plant some oaks and other native trees and shrubs. But there is something else you can do that will help. Stop destroying the leaves your plants return to Mother Earth this season. Leave those leaves in place wherever possible. If you must move them, move them gently, to minimize damage to the tiny creatures using those leaves.
Leave Your Leaves
In my yard, wherever practical, I simply rake fallen leaves around their donor trees. In the few areas where I’m still maintaining a “lawn,” I gently rake the leaves around nearby trees. I’ve created a wonderful, increasingly spongy leaf litter bed in my front yard over the last two years by raking about half of the fallen leaves from a massive southern red oak around two ornamental trees. Their leaves also contribute to the litter, but it is definitely those slowly decomposing oak leaves that have created a magically moist, fertile bed into which I’m now adding native ferns and spring ephemeral wildflowers.
Store-bought mulches cannot substitute for leaf litter mulch. They don’t contain the nutrients the millions of detritivores need to survive. It is past time for us to discard old landscaping practices that promote military neatness. Leaves are not the enemy. They are our salvation.
My local Audubon chapter (New Hope Audubon) is currently conducting a wonderful program in collaboration with Triangle Community Foundation and Keep Durham Beautiful, Inc. to promote preserving our leaf litter in place. It’s called Leave Your Leaves. The campaign provides brochures, posters, and yard signs promoting this program. You can read all about it here.
Even if your aren’t a Durham, NC resident, please consider visiting the Pledge To Leave Your Leaves link and signing the pledge. The grant that provided funding for this effort is tracking the number of folks who sign the pledge as a measure of the campaign’s success. If this campaign is successful, it will be easier to win future grants for additional environmental education programs.
Learn More About Healthy Yard Alternatives
Next Thursday, October 21, one of my area’s local conservation organizations (Chatham Conservation Partnership) is holding its quarterly meeting. It will feature several speakers presenting information on healthy yard alternatives. The good news for all my readers is that this meeting will be virtual. If you have the time and a decent internet connection, you are welcome to register and attend the meeting at no cost to you. For details on the meeting and how to register, go here.
A big step toward bringing the magic of a healthy ecosystem to your landscape is leaving fallen leaves in place to shelter the millions of tiny creatures who need them. They, in turn, feed plants with the nutrients they recycle. And the plants feed us all.
Bring back the magic. Leave your leaves.
Critters along the creek were busy this past week, likely due to a combination of a full moon and — finally! — some much-needed significant rainfall. Most of these photos are pulled from video captures off our wildlife cameras, so my apologies in advance for their quality. I’ve left the temperature/date/time data visible, so that you can get a better sense of who was where when. Above is a male turkey out for an afternoon stroll on September 19 during the last of the heat wave and before the rains fell. The turkey hen and a growing chick were also out and about that day.
During the wee hours of the morning on the 19th, two other species were out and about. An opossum passed through several times, inspecting the ground closely for tasty morsels. A trio of does that are almost always together were also scrounging around during the warm night before rains broke the drought.
Our deaf cat, Rose, was out in her catio often during last week’s full moon nights. We know, because we can hear her bouncing around from level to level. We’ve always assumed she was excited by nocturnal movements of wildlife. We were right. Here’s Rose in a typical position at the end of her catio, watching for visitors.
The next night, Rose had several visitors. Left to right, there’s a doe, a skunk, and an opossum. I never leave food in the catio for Rose, but there are bird feeders nearby. I am guessing the critters are attracted to seeds dropped by birds, then wander around just in case something else tasty might be nearby.
A large group of black vultures, along with an increasing number of turkey vultures, have been living and bathing along the creek all summer. They often pose right in front of one of the cameras, as you can see here. The turkey vulture is the one with the lovely red bald head.
There’s at least one beaver actively moving about along the creek. One video this past week caught it swimming at night until a doe approached. The beaver slapped its tail on the water and charged out after the doe, which wisely ran away. Here, the camera caught it from behind, so you can see its wide tail.
We’ve seen at least two eight-point bucks strutting around. They are always together. The does have their own group. They cross the creek to climb the hill to my gardens every few hours, day and night.
Finally, the early hours of September 25 caught three more species. For the first time since late spring, a camera caught three river otters frolicking in the creek after it rose a bit from the rains. They’re hard to see here, but, trust me, there are three of them.
Raccoons are frequently caught by the cameras. This one was out about an hour and a half after the otters. And finally as is often the case when the moon is bright, a camera caught a night-hunting great blue heron stalking the same waters the otters had patrolled a few hours earlier.
That was last week along the creek. Noticeably absent were coyotes. Foxes and bobcats usually appear in winter and early spring.
I remain amazed by the diversity and quantity of native animals that share our five acres with us. We would never know they were here, if not for the wildlife cameras. They probably wouldn’t be here in such numbers if we hadn’t spent the last 32 years enhancing their habitats with well-adapted native plants. Build it. They will come!
Changing light has been signaling its coming for the last month. Even as oppressive tropical air made deep breaths a challenge, the slant of light through the trees, the later-rising sun and its earlier sunsets promised it was coming.
The trees couldn’t wait for it. Without rain for over two months, many surrendered without coloring. Brown, dried leaves covered brown plants below as dust devils whirled in heat even the cicadas couldn’t handle any more.
Unmoving, shallow water in the creek was stagnant and bathwater warm. Every day, black and turkey vultures gathered on dead sycamores for baths, taking turns to splash, then dry off in searing sun on a branch, wide wings spread to expose every feather.
I had never seen a great blue heron pant, but wildlife cameras by the creek caught one several times, beak open, throat convulsing, tongue slightly extended. A lone female coyote prowled during nights of heavy air, constantly sniffing. Only one doe managed to rear a fawn successfully this year, judging by the cameras. All of them had been heavily pregnant. Madame Coyote’s clan likely ate well this summer.
In the last two weeks, two tall bucks have been photographed pacing both sides of the creek, sniffing the heavy air for does, their eight-point antlers evident on moonlit nights as their reflections in the creek kept pace. One night, a lone beaver swimming by slapped the water hard when it saw the bucks, sending them crashing through the forest.
Yesterday and today, plentiful rain has arrived. Song birds are livelier than they’ve been in weeks. I can feel all the plants exhaling a long sigh of relief. My hands grow itchy with the urge to plant a few new wildflower and grass species in the growing meadow on the hill that has become a favorite hangout of seed-eaters, from finches to wild turkeys.
Rain on the roof lulls me into sleepiness. Tonight I will dream of Autumn’s arrival. I will revel beneath a blanket for the first time in months as chilly air following the rain arrives and settles over the landscape. The still-nearly-full moon will gleam through departing clouds. Barred owls will celebrate, their calls echoing across the floodplain.
Never have I been more grateful for the turning of the seasonal wheel. May rains wash us clean, may crisp air reawaken our hearts, may longer nights bring us dreams of better days for all of Earth’s inhabitants.
My apologies for my prolonged absence. It’s been a long, strange summer — for most of us, I imagine. I’m planning on being here more reliably henceforth.
As you likely know, today is the last full day of astronomical summer. Finally in my yard today, we are getting measurable rain — a weather phenomenon that has been absent for over two months. Folks 30 miles to my east have experienced flash floods more than once during that time. My yard however, has been a dust bowl. You know it’s bad when tree leaves hang limp even in the early morning. It hurt me to walk around and see them suffering.
Today, however, perhaps to usher in tomorrow’s autumnal equinox, our skies are finally dark. Occasional showers have reawakened the long-dormant rain gauge. I imagine plants and animals alike are reveling in the water as much as I am.
This summer was tough on native butterflies. Posters on the local email butterfly group I follow have been lamenting all summer on the low numbers of lepidopterans observed. They’ve also commented on the low numbers of spiders. I’ve noticed both of these phenomena in my yard too. There was a spell of about six weeks when the only butterflies I saw were a couple of Pearl Crescent butterflies like the one above.
Native solitary bee numbers were variable. For the first time in forever, I had both American bumblebees and brown-belted bumblebees abundantly present on my flowers. Solitary wasps were also present in great numbers, and I think this may have been bad news for my caterpillars. Every time I’d spot a Monarch caterpillar or a black swallowtail caterpillar on my plants, the next day, it would be gone. Wasps were everywhere, searching every leaf, so I suspect they were catching the caterpillars to bury in their nest tunnels to feed their hatchlings. It could have been birds too. They were here in relatively normal numbers this summer, I’m happy to report.
Besides the drought, the worst news of the summer for my local Green World was the appearance of a new invasive exotic species. Giant Resin Bee, also called Sculptured Resin Bee (Megachile sculpturalis) is native to Eastern Asia. It was apparently introduced to the US in the 1990s, and showed up in significant numbers at my house this summer. It’s a kind of carpenter bee, but unlike our native carpenter bees, it doesn’t create its own nesting tunnels. Instead, it appropriates tunnels belonging to other insects, especially our native carpenter bees. The link above provides all the information you need to know about this recent invader.
I noticed these bees about mid-June when they were all over my blooming Common Milkweed and Narrow-leaved Mountain Mints. These are big bully bees. They would land on flowers hard, shoving all native pollinators aside as they claimed nectar and pollen for themselves.
I took a photo and posted it to my iNaturalist account in hopes of learning the identity of what was at that point a mystery bee. I got an answer very quickly. The entomologists on iNaturalist must have been watching for reports. In fact, just a few days after my Giant Resin Bee photo was identified, I got an email via iNaturalist from an entomologist in Vienna, Austria working on her Ph.D. on this species. She is doing DNA analysis on this species collected from all the parts of the world to which it has spread. Her goal is to determine migration patterns of the bees, based on DNA analyses of populations. She asked me if I would be willing to collect bees, freeze them to preserve their DNA, then give them to a colleague in the US who would collect them and ship them to her for analysis. Of course, I said yes — citizen science for the win!
I spent a number of hours patrolling my flowers to collect as many bees as I could for the study. I became adept at spotting the males; they have a characteristic yellow “mustache.” There’s a good photo of this feature in the link above. The females are bigger, less numerous (thank goodness), and showed up about a week after the males appeared, which, the entomologist from Vienna told me, is normal.
All told, I collected 40 Giant Resin Bees, mostly males, which completely flabbergasted Julia (the entomologist). She had never heard of anyone seeing, much less collecting, that many bees. And I think, alas, I know why. There’s one last detail I haven’t told you yet.
Giant Resin Bees evolved in the same part of the world as kudzu, and it is what is called an “effective pollinator” of that plant, which means that when Giant Resin Bees visit kudzu flowers, the flowers get pollinated and set seed. This is a nightmare scenario for those of us living in the Southeastern United States. Up to now, kudzu — although a notorious invasive species — has not been as big a threat to native ecosystems as many other non-native invaders, because it only spread vegetatively. Our native pollinators were not effectively able to pollinate kudzu flowers because they didn’t evolve with them, so kudzu was only rarely setting seed. Thus, all we have had to worry about — as if that wasn’t enough — is the terrifying vegetative growth rate of kudzu, which grows several feet per day during our growing season. But if it starts setting seed reliably, and those seeds spread out via animals and/or natural weather processes and germinate, the potential for kudzu world domination explodes!
When I learned of the Giant Resin Bee-kudzu link, I wrote my favorite local expert, Johnny Randall, Director of Conservation Programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, to ask him how worried I should be about kudzu world domination. He told me that if the Giant Resin Bee continues to spread and pollinate kudzu, the only thing standing between us and a Kudzu Apocalypse is a native weevil with a fondness for eating kudzu seeds. I never thought I’d be praying on behalf of a native weevil, but this kudzu-seed-eater has my full support!
Why did I collect so many Giant Resin Bees on my kudzu-free <knock wood> five acres? Because my “neighbor” across the road from me permits kudzu to roam freely over most of his multi-acre property. If not for the busy road that separates us, kudzu vines would have certainly crossed over to our yard years ago. My guess is that kudzu flowers drew the Giant Resin Bees to my neighbor’s yard, then some flew across the road and discovered the abundant native flowers blooming in my gardens.
You’ll see in the link further up that local extension agents are asking folks to report sitings of this bee. They don’t really have a handle on how many are here in the Southeast. I’m betting that if you live near kudzu like I do, these bees will be on a flower near you next June. Be sure to report them if you see them. Meanwhile, I’ve still got 40 frozen Giant Resin Bees in our freezer awaiting pickup by a local entomologist.
A possum has been living beneath our front walk/deck for quite some time, possibly years. It strives to avoid us, and we pretend we don’t know it’s there. Until May 21. My area currently suffers from abnormally dry conditions, and the plants and animals are beginning to be obviously affected by the prolonged absence of rain. True drought is imminent, unless the skies bring us copious rains soon.
The air has uncharacteristically – for this time of year – lacked humidity, so our little front water feature requires regular topping off to keep the growing population of tadpoles happy. I was doing that on May 21 just before noon, also watering the plants that surround the little pool, when the possum ambled from beneath the walkway almost beside me. I think it heard and smelled the hose water. I pointed out that it was violating our agreement and that it should scurry back out of sight, but it just stood there blinking at me.
So I sprayed it with the hose. Not hard, but enough to get it wet. I figured that would send it back to its hiding place. But I was wrong. Instead, it turned its other side toward me as if to say, “Please dampen my other side too.” So I did. When it was thoroughly wet, it returned to its spot beneath the deck and did not re-emerge. It was that kind of week around here. The local wildlife seems to be more comfortable showing itself every day.
Earlier that week for several evenings, a wild turkey hen wandered into our backyard to pick at seeds fallen from the bird feeders. She then wandered up the hill to what I’m calling my Hail Mary Prairie – a tale for another time. Sounding a bit like a chicken, she muttered to herself as she strolled around the yard. We haven’t seen her the last few days, and one of our wildlife cameras showed us why. It captured her escorting six tiny chicks. No more time for solo-muttering for her.
And then there are the turtles. On May 18 after lunch, I headed back to my vegetable garden to complete weeding the onion bed. To my delight, I encountered a River Cooter just a few steps from the garden gate. She was in the middle of laying eggs. This swamp-dwelling species has occupied the adjacent wetland for decades, and every few years we encounter a female laying eggs. They always climb the hill and dig well above the flood zone, no doubt instinctively knowing that the eggs would otherwise drown. I’ve read that often the young turtles hatch in late summer or fall, but remain underground with the eggs until spring, when they emerge. I took a ridiculous number of videos of her while she worked. Also some still shots, which I share here. She was quite tolerant, basically ignoring me as she laid eggs, then compacted the ground. If I hadn’t immediately flagged the spot, I doubt I’d be able to find it after the next rain.
But wait, there’s more! On the afternoon of May 21, Wonder Spouse encountered another species of turtle laying eggs inside our backyard. Interestingly, this one also chose a nesting spot not far from a gate. Significant? Beats me. This was an Eastern Painted Turtle, another species quite common to the slow-moving waters of local wetlands, but one we had never encountered laying eggs before. Like the much larger River Cooter, she tolerated my excited babblings as I photographed and videoed her egg-laying efforts. When she was done and finished compacting the soil above her eggs, she pushed some nearby dried leaves over the spot. If I had not watched her lay her eggs, I would never have known the nest was there. It made me wonder how often I’ve missed egg-laying visits from this species. And, yes, I flagged the spot as soon as she headed back down the hill toward the wetland.
That evening, I casually said to Wonder Spouse, “Well now all we need is an egg-laying snapping turtle to complete the trifecta.” You guessed it, on the morning of May 22 when we checked on a new flower bed I planted two days ago with milkweed seedlings, we encountered a very healthy Common Snapping Turtle finishing up what must have been a night of egg-laying. She found the freshly cleared and moistened milkweed bed an ideal spot for her digging.
By the time we spotted her, she had compacted the soil over a rectangular area, where we assume she had laid her eggs. She appeared to be quite tired and had sort of buried her back end in nearby soft soil. At first we thought she was going to lay more eggs, but as we watched, we decided she was just trying to camouflage herself a bit. Ms. Snapper was far less tolerant of human observation. If she could see me, she stopped moving. If I tried to walk behind her, she’d crane her very long neck around her back to keep an eye on me. Thus, I took mostly still shots of her doing nothing in particular. I had to go into the house before she decided it was safe to head back to the wetland. Of course, I was watching her from a window with binoculars, and when she headed downhill, I ran out and managed to shoot a few videos of her return to the wetland. She remained annoyed with me, refusing to move if I got too close. Finally, she was close enough to tall vegetation and muddy soil that she felt comfortable lumbering along with me trailing her from a respectful distance. Not wearing mud-proof shoes, I watched her bend the tall stalks of marsh grasses as she headed toward the water until I lost sight of her altogether.
Now, of course, I find myself wandering the property a couple of times a day with a sharp eye out for fertile turtles making deposits. I wonder if they somehow knew that high temperatures were in the forecast – perfect for incubating eggs. Or perhaps it was the full super moon that glowed orange in the sky earlier this week. For me, it will be always be an egg moon, named for all the native creatures currently reproducing themselves around me.
Wonder Spouse and I have been enhancing the native microenvironments on our five acres for 32 years now. It is deeply satisfying to know that our efforts have been noticed by many other species, and that they feel welcome to live and procreate beside us, even if a few innocent milkweed seedlings are sacrificed in the process.
[Note: Photos in this piece were taken in my yard recently but besides serving as evidence of (mostly) native biodiversity, serve no purpose here other than to help you stay awake.]
Most of us probably have memories of favorite teachers. I know I do. During the acquisition of my last master’s degree some 20+ years ago, I was lucky enough to be exposed to four truly gifted, memorable professors. One in particular blew my mind wide open.
I am at heart a practical soul, grounded in earth and flowers. Never have I had an inclination to study philosophy or religion. Frankly, the books – oh yes, I had tried reading a few – always put me to sleep. That changed when I took the late Kalman Bland’s class, Other Worlds and Human Transformations. We read and discussed Plato’s Republic, learned about Thomas Kuhn and the scientific revolution. We read art criticism and the Book of Job, and much more. Dr. Bland never lectured us. Instead, using the Socratic method, he would ask a question and then expect the class to find an answer as he gently nudged us in the right direction. I loved this approach! With each new reading, he subtly steered us to weave seemingly disparate bits into a whole cloth of wondrous colors and insights. The papers he assigned us to write required some of the deepest thinking I’ve ever done for a class.
I am eternally grateful for Dr. Bland’s challenging class, because without it, I would not have figured out what I have been seeking most of my life: The Green Door.
Thomas Kuhn is an American philosopher known for his study of the so-called scientific revolution. He coined a term we all know – paradigm shift. Kuhn invented the term to describe what happens when there is a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. As I understand it, paradigm shifts occur when someone re-imagines the fundamentals of their world view, and in so doing, permanently changes how the world is perceived by everyone. For example, when Nicolaus Copernicus created a model of the universe that postulated the Earth moved around the sun, that was a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in how the universe was perceived. No longer was Earth the center of the universe.
The Green Door I imagine is the paradigm shift I believe humanity needs in order to avoid destroying itself by abusing our planet so badly that it can no longer sustain us. Try as I might, I have not stumbled across a fundamental re-visioning of humanity’s relationship to Earth that has the power to electrify human thinking so completely that all are inspired to act to preserve rather than destroy our planet. Yes, many wonderful organizations and people all over the world are fighting to preserve biodiversity in their homelands, protect water and air quality, grow food organically, etc., but they are doing so within an old framework that puts such efforts at a great disadvantage.
In most parts of the world, I believe that humanity views the natural world merely as a commodity to which they assign a monetary value. Consider a phrase beloved by the real estate industry: undeveloped land. Beautiful stands of contiguous native forest, grassland, and even small farms are perceived by the real estate industry only as potential sources of income via “development projects.” Ecological value, much less spiritual value of land — these are not concepts that compute for the real estate industry. I have spent decades wracking my brain, trying to imagine a way to re-wire humanity to view Earth as a partner rather than a mere resource. I have not succeeded. In his book about scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts, Kuhn says such big world-changing notions only come to younger minds, under age 40 or so. That’s my excuse, anyway, for not being able to find a Green Door, a paradigm shift in humanity’s relationship with Earth.
I haven’t lost hope. I know a lot of smart young people are working on pieces of this critical puzzle. I just read last week about a new iron-based catalyst that converts carbon dioxide into jet fuel – no petroleum required! I will continue to pray that these smart younger folks are close to a paradigm-shifting breakthrough that will manifest a human partnership with Earth that will allow all the world’s inhabitants to flourish for many future generations.
While I keep watch for a paradigm-shifting Green Door, I will continue to do what I can for my corner of the planet. I continue to add new well-adapted native species to my five acres of green chaos. I continue to support conservation-focused nonprofits working hard to preserve rapidly diminishing biodiversity and water and air quality, and I continue to write about my experiences in the hope that sharing what I’ve learned can lead at least a few souls closer to the Green Door of my dreams.
With that in mind, those of you who are members of the North Carolina Botanical Garden should see the spring edition of their magazine, Conservation Gardener, showing up in your mailbox early next month. The issue’s theme: preserving biodiversity. You’ll see a few articles in there that I wrote, including one on enhancing native biodiversity in your home landscape. You’ll also see articles about people and organizations in my area that are finding creative ways to enhance biodiversity on farms and suburban greenways.
And while we all wait for the weather to warm up and dry out, you may want to sign up for some upcoming webinars from the NC Wildlife Federation, including these:
I ordered my seeds — well, most of them anyway — before Christmas. I sowed the first of them in the germination container in my greenhouse on January 21, because some plants require a longish period of growth before they are ready to bloom, or in the case of herbs, to reach a transplantable size. I blame pandemic isolation for the relatively large number of seeds I ordered this year. Also, Seeds ‘n Such, from which I ordered most of my seeds, charges a lower price per packet when you order more packets — a deal too tempting to ignore for this plant-lover. This company also provides fewer seeds per packet for most of their seeds, which allows them to reduce their per-packet cost, and limits the number of seeds that don’t get planted for lack of space.
Most years, I try a few new annual flower varieties. These non-native, showy summer blooms line a front walkway to my house, fill a hanging basket by the front door, and mingle with the vegetables to attract pollinators and provide fresh flowers for bouquets. For the hanging basket, I decided to try a petunia from the Hybrid Wave Series. You’ve probably seen these prolific bloomers in nursery centers. I could not resist trying a variety called Carmine Velour, which is described as being “stunning, non-fading, intense and bright, even when cloudy.” I’m hoping that the Ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit a feeder just across from the flower basket will approve of these deep red beauties. My packet only contained five pelleted petunia seeds, because this fancy hybrid is quite particular about its germination requirements. The instructions told me to allow a lot of time for germination and for the plants to grow to transplantable size. Finally today, 8 days after planting, one tiny seedling has emerged. Eight days isn’t really that long for a number of species to germinate, but because I’ve never tried this variety before, I confess I was getting a tad nervous. I’m hopeful that the other four seedlings will pop up any minute, especially because the next few days are supposed to be sunny, and these seeds require bright light to germinate well. I’ve got my fingers crossed that these prima donnas fulfill my expectations.
First to germinate for me was another new flower — a Gazania hybrid mix called New Day. These bright annuals should add some nice color to my front walk. They are purported to bloom well through summer heat and drought. Time will tell. Fourteen of the fifteen seeds in the packet germinated in 3-4 days. I approve of their enthusiasm!
I also decided to try growing some perennial herbs from seed. North Carolina summer humidity and heat are very hard on thymes and other Mediterranean herbs. I don’t usually manage to keep most of them alive for more than a couple of years. I rationalized that seeds are cheaper than plants, so I could try again. Plus, I’ve got a nice, hot, well-drained spot where the thyme, oregano, and marjoram can dangle over the rock border of the Furlough Wall of the bed Wonder Spouse built a few years ago. Tiny Sweet Marjoram and German Winter Thyme seedlings began popping up 5 days after planting. The flat-leaf parsley — a notoriously slow germinator — is still meditating on germination. The Cleopatra oregano is also still a no-show. Both could easily take another week or more before germinating, especially with the rounds of cold, wintry weather visiting my area every few days.
Maybe it is tonight’s full moon. Perhaps it is the fact that the sun has begun to set later in the afternoon again, or that I heard the familiar shriek of a female Wood Duck earlier this week for the first time this year. Maybe it’s because my witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ is beginning to push out magenta petals and the Prunus mume trees are opening their first fragrant flowers, providing aroma therapy of the highest quality, but I have the distinct feeling that spring will arrive early this year. Just this week, the Northern Cardinals have begun singing. And for about a half hour on the one day this week that afternoon temperatures reached the upper 50s, a few Southern Chorus Frogs celebrated the break in the cold weather.
OK, technically speaking, it snowed overnight last night, but it was such a pitiful effort that all evidence of it had disappeared by noon. And yes, the weather seers are threatening my area with freezing rain in a few days, but they are promising it will turn over to mere rain before the ice can create problems. It’s as if Winter’s heart just isn’t in the game anymore — at least not in central North Carolina where I live. I’ve lived in this state for all but the first year and a half of my life, and I’m old enough to remember March snows and springs that didn’t really begin until April. But climate change has erased those days for the foreseeable future. I have mixed feelings about Winter’s shortened duration, but I know the native wildlife that share our five acres would appreciate an early spring.
A hungry Red-shouldered hawk has taken to parking itself atop my bird feeders, no doubt hoping a songbird will walk into its talons. The white-tailed deer linger under the feeders at dusk vacuuming up any seeds dropped by the birds. The wildlife cameras are routinely capturing videos of a thin coyote patrolling deer trails along the creek. All would welcome Spring’s abundance I am sure.
For now, I must quell my spring fever, content myself with cheerleading new seedlings in my greenhouse, and appreciating winter sunrises on recently rare clear-skied mornings. Soon enough, the deep quiet of Winter will give way to Spring symphonies.
I’ve lately begun to think of January 1 as the onset of Human New Year, because we are the only occupants of this planet who feel this day demarcates a new beginning. Plants and animals don’t count days at all, but they are affected by daylight length. It drives their reproductive cycles and migration times. Moon cycles are also important to the other occupants of our planet. The wildlife cameras posted along our creek consistently capture an uptick in number and species diversity during full moons, regardless of temperature. Gardening folklore has long documented the efficacy of using moon cycles to guide planting times.
During this long pandemic-induced isolation from my fellow humans, I find myself increasingly attuned to moon and sun cycles, rains, and temperature swings. On winter mornings, I rise eagerly in hopes of a memorable sunrise. It’s the only time of year our eastern vista opens up, thanks to a sleeping tree canopy.
On what have so far been rare sunny winter days, I walk our five acres in search of revelations. When I slog through the mud that perpetually covers our floodplain-becoming-wetland, the red-shouldered hawks and pileated woodpeckers nesting in disintegrating trees killed by beaver-built ponds greet me with raucous calls. They remind me that I’m treading on their territory. I promise not to linger too long. This part of our property continues to teach me much about natural processes, the power of water, and humility.
Decades ago in my callous youth after reading countless gardening books and magazines, I was confident of my ability to control landscaping outcomes. My facility at assessing site conditions and my knowledge of the growing requirements of many plant species made me cocky. No longer. Thirty-one years (and counting) on our five acres continue to teach me how much I don’t know. I also continue to learn from an inspirational group of younger folks who approach the landscape as an ally, not an adversary. Elsewhere, I wrote about Nick Harper, who pointed out to me that because humans are responsible for most, if not all, changes to native environments around the globe, it is up to us to integrate ourselves into this human-modified world we now all live in.
For example, non-native invasive plant species cannot be blamed for doing what they are adapted to do. Instead of attempting to eradicate them with ecosystem-damaging poisons, Nick believes we need to devise ways to live with the invaders. As I wrote in the link above, Nick aggressively pollarded non-native invasive trees on the cattle farm he managed and fed the cuttings to the cattle, thereby simultaneously preventing the trees from flowering and providing his cattle with free, high-quality summer fodder. When I asked him if he had any familiarity with the invasive plant currently overwhelming my creek and wetland, Marsh Dayflower (Murdannia keisak), he said no. But when I told him this is a weed of Asian rice paddies brought to North America by South Carolina rice plantation growers, he advised me to search Asian literature sources on ways they manage it there. It’s a good idea. The plant is a weed there, but clearly isn’t destroying rice crops. Some mechanism must be at play that balances the ecological scales. I just need to find it – another item for my infinite to-do list.
As this new human year begins, I am recognizing how my perspective on gardening and ecology continues to evolve. In the long-ago days, I thought these were two different subjects. Now I realize that gardening without regard to native ecological contexts serves no one.
These days, every plant I put in the ground must feed someone. In the vegetable garden, I feed humans and the abundant native insects, arthropods, soil organisms, birds, and other animals that utilize the organically grown mix of veggies, flowers, and herbs nurtured there.
Elsewhere in our yard, my top priority is serving the native wildlife that lives here. Our “garden” does not look like the images in standard gardening magazines, but to my eyes it is beautiful, lush, and vibrantly alive.
My prayer for a new human year is that this moment marks a transition from humanity’s role as conquering destroyer to an ecologically integrated partner. We are the disease. We must become the cure. Earth’s fate lies in our hands.