Archive for category piedmont gardening

Summer Solstice: A Time for Celebration and Dedication

Front pollinator garden two days ago.

Perhaps you are one of the fortunate souls like me who remember childhood summers as times of great joy, when daylight lasted past bedtime, lightning bugs provided nightly fireworks, thunderstorms were welcomed respites from summer sun, and ripe blackberries filled every thicket – ideal snacks to fuel childhood explorations. As much as I missed school (yes, I was one of those children), summer’s seemingly infinite daylight, bird song, humming lawn mowers, thrumming cicadas, and smoky backyard barbecue smells provided ample compensation.

Red-shouldered Hawk extracting its earthworm breakfast.

These days, my feelings about the summer season are mixed. Climate change brings excessive heat by mid-spring, and dangerous heat by early summer. Weather patterns are more extreme, alternating earth-parching droughts with flooding downpours punctuated by large hail and terrifying winds that throw trees to the ground. As a child, I never feared thunderstorms. Now I find myself praying for the many giant trees that surround me, asking that they withstand winds that bend them nearly in half during violent storms.

As a lifelong gardener, I do still pray for those storms to come, because my thirsty green charges need the water now more than ever. I’ve learned to start my gardens earlier than I did twenty years ago. Spring crops must be in the ground by mid-February, then protected from late cold snaps by garden fabric tunnels. Otherwise, there is no spring lettuce or spinach, peas, or broccoli. I start the summer veggies in the greenhouse in early March, then nurse the plants within that enclosure until the last wild temperature dive to freezing temperatures is past. This year, that was not until mid-May in my garden.

Imminent beans

As soon as any vegetable or flower goes in the ground, it is heavily mulched with the aged compost we buy by the truckload for that purpose. The compost holds in precious soil moisture, slows down weed encroachment, and slowly feeds the plants over the growing season. I cannot imagine trying to grow a vegetable garden in traditional rows with today’s climate. Raised beds full of rich soil, well-mulched plants, and regular, deep watering are gardening essentials.

Green lynx spider waiting for its next meal

When I describe my current process – how I rise at dawn and only work until 9:00 a.m., when the heat and humidity force me indoors, how I mulch and weed and water attentively – I am frequently asked why I bother. My answer: my body, my heart, and my soul are tuned to and intertwined with the dance of the seasons. I cannot imagine myself not dancing along with them. Yes, the dance has grown wilder, more chaotic, and more challenging, thanks to human-made climate change. But the dance continues.

Despite destruction and disruption by bulldozers, invasive species, and the profligate application of pesticides and herbicides by humans, Mother Earth’s native species are still doing their best to dance with the seasons. Today, in the wetland that adjoins our property, goslings of Canada geese have transformed from yellow fuzz balls to slightly smaller versions of their parents. Tadpoles crowd every puddle – and my front water feature. Frogs chorus at deafening volumes on hot, humid nights. Mother turtles climb out of the wetland to lay eggs on our hill every few days. I finally heard the cowp-cowp call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo yesterday, and the first summer cicadas were tuning up to greet the solstice a few days ago. The wildlife cameras have documented small spotted fawns closely following their mothers. Wild turkeys mutter to each other as they forage for blackberries and ash tree seeds along the creek.

River Cooter laying eggs beside the meadow a few days ago

Decades ago, I turned away from the sort of gardening one reads about in horticulture magazines. Except for my vegetable beds, our five acres are jam-packed with native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses planted to encourage and nurture the native animals still valiantly dancing as Mother Earth turns. Pollinator gardens and meadows buzz with winged visitors, but they also frequently host an array of hungry native birds, bunnies, and other wildlife. If they focus too hard on a particular plant, I encourage the plant-nibblers to move along with an application of non-toxic repellant spray. The secret, I’ve discovered, is to offer as much good native food and shelter as possible, so there is enough for all native animals to use without negatively impacting the plantings. It’s a delicate dance, and missteps still happen. For me, it is enough that we are all still dancing.

It is challenging to create such plantings on a scale that can support native wildlife on a small suburban lot – but only if you are the sole gardener in your neighborhood trying to do this. So don’t be the only one. More and more, I hear of HOAs in my area that are adopting policies of only planting native plants in common areas, of encouraging native plantings in home landscapes, educating homeowners about invasive species and how to remove them. More and more groups are joining the dance, and not a moment too soon.

Full super moonrise on June 14

I think of my five acres as a green anchor connected to a network of similar spots all around Mother Earth. Together, we are doing our best to keep the dance going by nurturing the music-makers. I invite you to add your home landscape, your neighborhood, to this critical network by planting and nurturing the native plants and animals that were there before you, and without which none of us will survive for long.

On this Summer Solstice, celebrate the season of fruits, flowers, and flip-flops by dedicating yourself to the dance. Keep the music going by making your yard another green anchor in Earth’s network. For without music, there is no life.

Make like a Monarda and put on your party hat to celebrate Summer Solstice!

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“Life Happens in the Present Moment”

This is a quote from a recent article published in Scientific American as an opinion piece written by psychology researchers. It seemed to me to be a rather obvious point, but as I pondered the article, I realized — not for the first time — that the way I live my life is probably quite different from the way many Americans go about their days.

The authors of the article posit that, in addition to three agreed-upon factors that make existence subjectively meaningful to us (the feeling that our lives make sense, having clear and satisfying long-term goals, and believing that our lives matter), a fourth factor should be noted: they call it “experiential appreciation.”

Recently hatched Monarch caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed

The authors argue that those of us who routinely take moments to notice and appreciate the wonders around us have more meaning-filled lives. They have conducted studies to quantify this factor and demonstrate its validity. I suppose I commend their efforts, but, frankly, it makes me a bit sad to think experts were needed to identify a factor that most any gardener or lover of the natural world has always known.

Why else do we all snap photo after photo of the daily wonders we encounter? Why else do we become happily silly at the sight of newborn babies — human or otherwise?

Emerging leaves and flowers of American Beech

Personally, that deep sense of wonder, the excitement and awe I feel when I encounter beauty is the fuel that keeps me going. In fact, it is so important to me that I made this notion the subject of my post for Earth Day this year, in which I wrote about being perpetually gobsmacked by the natural world.

If these scientists succeed in helping others realize they need to slow down and literally “smell the roses,” then bully for them, I say. In fact, their article led me to one of their moments of “experiential appreciation” as I realized just how deeply fortunate I am to live every day immersed in my green world, and why I am moved to share my experiences via this blog, Twitter posts, and even my LinkedIn page. It is why I’ve taken on an apprentice to share my knowledge and teach her how to see the natural world the way I do.

If these researchers succeed in making even two people put down their smartphones and actually see the world around them, to immerse themselves in the beauty of the now, then I applaud them. You demonstrate it your way, gentlemen, and I’ll keep attempting to show them my way. Helping to deepen an individual’s appreciation of the beauty in life is always a worthy goal, and maybe, just maybe, it will motivate humanity to take better care of Mother Earth.

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Online Class Opportunity: Introduction to Therapeutic Horticulture

This was my friend’s garden the first year after I encouraged her to add gardens around her new home. Leila had been diagnosed with stage four liver cancer and was recovering from major surgery. Leila’s work had taken her all over the world, but she returned to the county she considered to be home after her diagnosis. She had never gardened in her life, always too busy heading off to her next adventure. She liked the idea of sitting on her deck and enjoying flowers and butterflies, and so my amateur attempt at horticultural therapy began. I thought bulbs might provide a quick return on effort expended, and the lilies that came up that first spring were proof of concept.

Leila was thoroughly hooked. She continued to expand her garden area, adding mostly native wildflowers and small shrubs. Her home sitting atop a wooded ridge became an enchanted garden full of life and color that turned Leila into a strong proponent of the benefits of horticultural therapy. I like to think her gardens were a secret weapon as she battled her disease for over six years before finally succumbing to it.

Nearing the end of her battle, her gardens became neglected. But Leila had chosen her neighborhood wisely. One Saturday morning, many of her neighbors showed up to restore her gardens to their past glory. I like to think that day was therapeutic for all who participated.

My work with Leila was not professional horticultural therapy. Although I had volunteered a bit with the Horticulture Therapy staff at the NC Botanical Garden (NCBG), and I do have a B.A. in psychology, I was improvising without a plan. Having worked with the HT staff at the NCBG, I knew that the practice of professional therapeutic horticulture is a discipline backed by decades of research that demonstrate its benefits for a wide range of clients, including those dealing with memory issues, mental illness, eating disorders, mobility limitations, and other challenges. Plants heal — of course, I knew that much.

Vegetables and herbs on Leila’s deck, where the deer could not reach them.

Many Occupational Therapists and other related practitioners are adding a certificate in Therapeutic Horticulture to their personal toolkits, because it expands the ways they can help their clients. I believe the time put in to earn that credential is well worth the investment. And now there’s a way to begin this learning process online at your own pace on your own schedule.

The NCBG has partnered with the NC State Extension Gardener Program to develop a series of online courses that teach Therapeutic Horticulture. The first in the series, Introduction to Therapeutic Horticulture, will begin next week, May 23. All the details you need to learn more are provided in the link in this paragraph. I know and have worked with one of the instructors, Sally Haskett, for many years. Her breadth of experience and friendly approach to the subject made interactions with her a consistent pleasure. I feel certain that this online course will reflect that.

Teachers of all kinds may well find the techniques used in Therapeutic Horticulture to be of great use. Volunteers who work with the elderly, children, or clients with mobility and/or psychological challenges would also likely find that adding this knowledge to their toolkit would aid their work.

If you are such a person, please ponder the detailed description in the link above, and if you are moved to do so, consider taking this first step in your journey to learning how to heal hearts, minds, and bodies with the help of the green world.

A visitor to Leila’s June 2014 garden.

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For Earth Day: Gobsmacked by Nature

I’m finding it a challenge to remain positive these days. Humans seem so full of anger, hatred, and fear. I think I would have trouble crawling out of bed if not for the green world. Living on five acres beside a flourishing wetland guarantees a good gobsmack at least once a day, often more.

I love this British slang term for the feeling of mouth-agape awe (gob is British slang for mouth) that I get when a shaft of early morning sun spotlights the vibrant flowers of native deciduous azaleas – a blooming rainbow for the eyes and a festival of sweet fragrance for the nose.

A visitor from a previous growing season

Two days ago, I found myself standing, mouth agape, at the sight of a Monarch butterfly laying eggs on just-emerging milkweeds in my pollinator gardens. I’ve never seen this species this early before. It is deeply satisfying to have visual verification that my hard work establishing milkweed species on the property is paying off – a gobsmacking moment to be sure.

Sometimes the gobsmacks elicit giggles of delight from this aging gardener, as when while clearing out an overgrown area of wildflowers, my helper, Beth, and I discovered, not one, but three different green tree frogs – all different sizes – living among the chaos. I gently relocated each one to nearby undisturbed areas.

When Wonder Spouse and I set up our front water feature for the season a few weeks ago, the weather had been dry for several weeks, and the temperatures were, I thought, a bit cool for toads and Cope’s Gray tree frogs that sing and lay eggs there every year. But as soon as I began to fill the water feature, a Cope’s Gray loitering somewhere nearby began croaking, greeting the arrival of the water feature with clear enthusiasm. Can it smell the water, maybe hear the hose filling the shallow pool? my gobsmacked self asked.

About two weeks ago, Wonder Spouse’s sharp eyes spotted a rough-looking nest of sticks high atop a dead snag in the adjacent beaver-built wetland. With the bird scope, we were able to confirm that a pair of great blue herons had begun a nest! That was quite a gobsmack, because herons usually nest in large groups, called heronries. My research, however, did confirm that they are occasionally known to nest without being surrounded by others of their species. We got a bigger gobsmacking surprise this week when we realized a second pair of herons have now built a nest on another tall snag near the nest of the first pair. It appears we have a heronry in the making – a wonderful gobsmacking surprise indeed.

Yesterday, I was sitting on my couch enjoying an early-morning second cup of tea when I noticed movement on the floodplain/wetland. A look through the binoculars revealed a pair of Canada geese strolling around with three small yellow goslings stumbling behind them. The parent geese took their triplets to the narrow streamlet that now dissects our once-dry floodplain, where they practiced swimming in the shallow water. It was a gobsmackingly adorable moment.

The family was back out there today for another early morning walkabout. When the goslings grow a bit larger, I expect to find the family in the thriving wildflower meadow near the garage. Since I planted that area, I’ve encountered geese families there every year – always a gobsmacking moment. We surprise each other as I emerge suddenly from the house and parents herd the goslings quickly back down the hill to the safety of the wetland.

Being gobsmacked by the natural world does not require five acres adjacent to a healthy wetland. When your heart is open, gobsmackery abounds — in suburban yards where tall sunflowers turn their colorful heads to follow the sun, and in patio pots full of fragrant rosemary and mint that provide zing to meals. Gobsmackery is all about being open to wonder. And joy.

On this Earth Day, I ask my readers to open their hearts to Nature’s gobsmacking wonders. Any bit of green can surprise you, when you are paying attention. Perhaps a praying mantis will land on your deck plantings, or a bluebird couple will rear babies in the nest box you erect in your back yard. Every native plant you add to your landscape invites more gobsmackery.

Nature is fighting hard to remain on our planet despite humanity’s continuing efforts to eradicate it. Just this week, I read of a cloud forest in Ecuador that was thought to have been obliterated by tree plantations. Ecologists mourned this area known for its gobsmacking biodiversity, full of rare plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. But recently, ecologists returned to the area and discovered small pockets of intact rainforest where rare plants thought to have gone extinct were thriving. What a gobsmacking moment that must have been!

Rhododendron periclymenoides ‘Purple’ currently in full bloom

Imagine how fast our planet’s recovery could be if we all chose to help native flora and fauna instead of bulldozing it into oblivion. Every landowner, large or small, can make a gobsmacking impact. Trust me, if you plant a dozen milkweeds in a pollinator garden, the Monarchs will find them. And the butterflies will return year after year.

On this Earth Day, declare yourself open to Nature’s wonders and walk that talk by finding ways to support native ecosystems every day. Open your children’s eyes to Nature’s gobsmackery. Gently educate your neighbors and HOAs.

Mother Earth is trying, but she cannot do it without human allies. It’s time we all open our hearts, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. I guarantee that abundant spirit-lifting gobsmackery will be your reward.

Happy Earth Day!

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The Solace of Spring

Deciduous azalea flower bud

I don’t know if it is just me, but spring’s arrival carries a bittersweet note this year. Human suffering seems more widespread than ever. Mother Earth, too, struggles from the burdens of climate change, pollution, and massive biodiversity loss. This beautiful season of hopeful new beginnings feels heavier than past springs.

Then I step outside into my crazy, mostly wild five-acre yard and my heart begins to sing – softly, as the calls of cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, bluebirds, and woodpeckers reach my ears; louder, as the deafening chorus of spring peepers and cricket frogs (with toad descant accompaniment) kicks into full volume.

The sweet, clean fragrance of witch hazel floats on a northern breeze. Sunny daffodils nod in greeting. Thousands of native bloodroots dance together on a rocky slope overlooking the creek, where quacking mallards and shrieking wood ducks paddle up and down for hours.

Over two inches of rain last week allowed these geese to wade and swim on what is usually dry land.

Five Canada geese have arrived. A small group visits annually at this time, seeking the quiet of the beaver pond to raise a new brood of goslings.

Native blueberry bushes full of blooms are alive with humming pollinators of varying sizes. Buds on native magnolias and azaleas are swelling visibly. The pinxterbloom azaleas will likely be open in another week, if not sooner.

My greenhouse is full of vegetable, herb, and flower seedlings. These will be the summer vegetable garden inhabitants. Already, an array of lettuces, beets, onions, chives, garlic, dill, and parsley are flourishing (and delicious!) in their spring vegetable beds.

Witch hazel ‘Aurora’

A few minutes outside reboots my perspective. All around me, plants and animals are busy living their lives, starting a new cycle of growth and fecundity. Their message seems clear. It is time to get to work, find a purpose, and fulfill it.

I’ve been pondering how to apply this message to my own life. I’ve decided that sharing more of my green world is a good place to start. With that in mind, I’ve decided on these approaches.

  • I will grow enough summer vegetables to yield extras to donate to my local food bank.
  • I am beginning to write a book about my interactions with and lessons learned from working the same piece of Piedmont land for 33 years and counting.
  • If there is interest, I plan to offer classes to small groups using my yard as my classroom. I hope to offer detailed descriptions of the classes soon, but if you are local to the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, NC area and you are interested, please send an email to the address on my About page, and I’ll be sure to put you on my email distribution list.
  • I am hoping to find an apprentice or two, who might be interested in working with me here. In exchange for helping me with garden tasks for a couple of four-hour shifts a week, I will offer modest payment, abundant free plants, and as much information download as you can handle about native plants and animals, native ecology, invasive non-native species, and gardening methods from basic to advanced levels as warranted by the experience of the apprentice. I’m hoping to begin this by early May. If you know someone who might be interested, send an email to the address on my About page. I am willing to work with the right candidate(s) on weekdays or weekends, as long as we can agree on a consistent schedule.

Happy Vernal Equinox to all!

Spring’s message for me this year is focused on nurturing – plants and people. Every seedling planted, weed pulled, and vegetable harvested is a prayer for a brighter future free of suffering, a petition for peace.

May this turning of the seasonal wheel bring lighter hearts and happier days to all of Earth’s inhabitants.

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Flip-Flop Weather

The title is not about rubber sandals, although we’ve already had a few days when that attire would not have been inappropriate. I’m referring to the up-and-down weather swings that increasingly characterize the winter-to-spring transition here in central North Carolina.

Our last snow was on January 29, when we got a light dusting that melted a few hours after this sunrise photo was taken. The week before, we got three inches of snow that stuck around for a few days. January was an unusually relentlessly cold month.

A meteorological switch flipped at the beginning of February. Temperatures soared, ground thawed, daffodils and crocus bloomed with abandon, and the local bird population began territorial displays and nesting site inspections.

I started getting nervous, because I’ve been gardening in these parts plenty long enough to know a hard freeze was nearly inevitable. I walked around the yard exhorting swelling buds to slow down, reminding them that the average last freeze date is mid-April. Alas, I was ignored as sap rose, bird song filled the air, and the sweet fragrance of blooming witch hazels — plants adapted for late-winter blooming — perfumed the air.

Of course, part of the problem is that I long ago planted some lovely early bloomers that are not native to my area. Royal Stars magnolia (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’) is a gorgeous Asian species with precocious blooms that get at least partially freeze-fried nearly every year. Overnight, gorgeous white petals emitting soft perfume become brown papery blobs. Here are before and after shots of the entire tree.

Another magnolia that gets fried is a cultivar called Butterflies. Its bright yellow blooms are frequently browned by late freezes. This year, the flowers didn’t even get a chance to fully open. But they were open just enough to be vulnerable to one 19-degree night a week or so ago. Here are their sad before and after photos.

This transitional moment is not without visual rewards. Now, just before the canopy trees leaf out and obscure the eastern horizon, I savor every sunrise that paints the morning sky.

Those dawn pastels have been obscured lately, though, as we flip-flop from cold to warm to cold to now wet. Very wet. In the last two weeks, our rain gauge has recorded about 4.5 inches of rain. The last two inches fell last night. The adjacent creek poured over its banks and onto floodplains on either side. As darkness fell this evening, the water had not receded.

This morning’s view of the creek.

Even the floods have their up side. At noon today, we watched five Canada geese take turns riding down a rapidly flowing overflow channel on our floodplain. They would jump in beside the channel’s intersection with the creek, then float happily down the channel until it grew too shallow to float them further. Spring peepers and cricket frogs sing at deafening levels night and day, insisting that it is time to procreate.

I may find these wild weather swings distressing, but the native flora and fauna  are undeterred. I’m thinking there’s a lesson for me in all this. I can’t let a bit of flip-flopping get me down.

 

 

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A Gardener’s Prayer for Ukraine

 

My apologies for the prolonged silence. In my head, I’ve written five or six blog posts, but it has been challenging to put myself in front of my computer to write them down. However, as news of the devastation and suffering ongoing in Ukraine continues to worsen, I had a tiny notion. Yes, we can send money and supplies via the charities organized to aid those suffering, but as a gardener, I wanted to add my own special prayer.

That’s when I remembered that the sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine. Those bright, happy blooms that bring smiles and pollinators — and always turn to face the sun — seem ideal symbols for the beleaguered but undaunted people of Ukraine.

I always add these flowers to my vegetable garden. This year, I’ll be planting extras. Every seed I sow, every flower that blooms will be another prayer for Ukraine from this gardener. Perhaps my gardening readers would also like to add sunflower prayers to their gardens this year.

Imagine how wonderful it would be if entire neighborhoods planted them — every bloom another prayer for Ukraine. Now is the time, while you are planning your gardens for the new growing season, to acquire seeds of one or more of these bright symbols of hope for Ukraine.

As your prayer sunflowers bloom this upcoming growing season, I suggest you post photos of them on your favorite social media apps. Use a hashtag like #IStandWithUkraine so that Ukrainians will know they are not forgotten. Even after the bloodshed ends (and I pray that’s very soon), the Ukrainian people are going to need our physical and emotional support.

 

Grow some sunflowers this season. Plant them with your children, your grandchildren. Talk about them with the kids next door. Tell them why, this year especially, sunflowers are symbols of hope.

#IStandWithUkraine

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Winter Means It This Year

Winter does not appear to be kidding around this year. As soon as 2021 exited with one of the mildest Decembers ever, January ushered in 2022 with some serious arctic air that shows no signs of leaving for the duration of the month.

Our yard is generally 5-10 degrees cooler than locally reported temperatures, because of the slope down to the floodplain and creek that allows cold air to linger. So far this month, we’ve seen one and only one nighttime low above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Most nighttime temperatures were well below freezing.

This January reminds me of the Januarys of my childhood and adolescence in the Piedmont of North Carolina. It was always miserably cold. We often saw bouts of snow (if we were lucky) and freezing rain (when we weren’t lucky). Native plants and animals remained in deep slumber. Pines and red cedars provided the only green relief in the landscape.

Since Wonder Spouse and I moved to our five acres of green chaos almost 33 years ago, we’ve had a few winters with deep snows, and a few very nasty ice storms, but they were usually followed by a spell of warmth that thawed any hint of frozen ground very quickly. Not this year. The ground in my yard is rock-solid. I feel as if I’m walking across uneven concrete — very cold concrete.

The shiny water in this image is the frozen shallow beaver-built pond where ducks usually frolic.

The beaver-built pond and wetland is very icy these days. Over two dozen mallards have been dabbling about in the shallow water all fall and early winter, but now that shallow water is frozen. The creek that supplies the wetland with water is deeper, and the water moves, so it has not frozen over. The mallards noticed, and now spend much of the day swimming up and down the deep part of the creek behind our house. Our wildlife cameras captured many videos of mallard interactions on the creek this past week.

Because this temperature trend is forecast to last until the end of the month, including several more predicted bouts of winter precipitation, I am wondering which plants won’t survive another winter. I grow several non-native so-called tender perennials, two of which are salvias — pineapple sage, and blue Brazilian sage. They have been reliably re-emerging in spring for over a dozen years now. Before that, they were killed by winter’s cold, so to keep them around, I always took cuttings in the fall and rooted/overwintered them in my little greenhouse. However, I stopped doing that some years ago, because it was unnecessary. Now I’m wondering if I’m going to regret that decision.

I usually start spring vegetable seeds in my greenhouse in early February, but the unrelenting cold is making me wonder if I should delay a bit. I’m glad I ordered seeds early. Some of my favorite varieties were hard and/or impossible to find. I’m guessing as the weather warms, vegetable seed options will diminish quickly. Seed catalogs are all online now, folks, and given the weather, electronic catalog browsing might be an excellent way to pass the time.

It has been too cold to risk lifting the row covers over my winter broccoli and lettuces, but I’m pretty sure that when I do I will find green mush. Row covers can protect crops down to about 25 degrees, especially if that temperature only lasts a few hours. Our nighttime temperatures have been in the teens every night all night. Gardeners are gamblers. This winter season, I harvested some wonderful veggies in December, which makes the January losses easier to tolerate.

I think the mallards have the right idea. When winter gives you a frozen pond, go dabble in a creek until the weather thaws. When winter gives me frozen ground, I stay cozy in my house, dabbling through catalogs and a pile of books that need reading, dreaming of the new season of flowers and fruits that will likely arrive before my winter napping is done.

Dabble on, my friends.

 

 

 

 

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Year’s End Walkabout

I spent an hour or so yesterday morning walking around our five acres with my camera to record the state of things as this year draws to a close. The weather here in central North Carolina has been alarmingly warm and we are struggling with moderate drought. However, a bit of rain fell the previous day, and gloom persisted yesterday as rain fell to our south. Winter, the forecasters say, will return on the second day of the new year, shocking plants, animals, and humans alike, I imagine.

Winter vegetable garden beds with row covers tucked beside them.

The warm spell has been a gift to our winter vegetable garden. In past years, I have kept them tented all winter beneath row covers to protect them from freezing temperatures. Severe cold will turn the greens and broccoli to mush, but beneath row covers, lows into the mid-20s for a few hours do the veggies no lasting harm. This latest warm spell has been so prolonged that I’ve been able to remove the row covers to give the veggies access to full sun. I even gave them all a dose of fish emulsion/seaweed mix this week. Winter fertilizing is not something I am usually able to manage, because I don’t want to expose them to prolonged cold.

Beauteous Emerald Crown broccoli

We harvested several heads of broccoli — I’m trying Emerald Crown this year — which we will be enjoying with tonight’s dinner. Broccoli doesn’t do well here as a spring crop anymore. The days warm up too quickly. But winter’s chill sweetens them as they grow beneath their row covers.  The row covers also protect them from cabbage moth caterpillar damage without the need for any pest control substances.

The greens are all doing great. I’m averaging one salad a week by picking individual leaves. Beet greens provide a bit of zip to the mix of lettuces and spinach. The warm spell accelerated the growth in this bed visibly. I may get two salads out of it next week.

Winter-blooming flowers — all but one non-native — are opening. Pink blooms of one flowering apricot were scenting the air yesterday. Today, the other one also began blooming. I look forward to the perfume from these flowers every year.

A stink bug — alive and well at the end of December!

January jasmine, which has no fragrance, is also beginning to open its bright yellow flowers that are often mistaken for forsythia. When I leaned in to photograph this flower, I was surprised to find it occupied.

Today, I noticed that my non-native Persian ironwood is beginning to bloom. This tree is in the witch hazel family, and the flowers are not showy, but I have observed honey bees visiting them.

My native witch hazel ‘Amethyst‘ has already begun to bloom. Typically, it waits until middle-to-late January. This shrub insists on holding on to its leaves, but it’s still quite lovely in bloom — and its fresh scent never fails to lift my spirits.

Most of the berry-producing shrubs in our yard have long been picked clean, but the red berries of native deciduous holly and the deep purple berries of native greenbriar vines were still visible when I walked around yesterday.

A few shrubs are still holding on to their autumn-colored leaves, including my  native oakleaf hydrangeas. I grow the smaller form, ‘Pee Wee,’ and I recently added a full-sized one, cultivar ‘Alice.’

Dried seed heads of cardinal flower and goldenrod also caught my eye, as did an ever-increasing abundance of bald cypress knees emerging from the muck where three trees I planted three decades ago have now attained heights between 40-50 feet.

Bared tree branches reveal their complex beauty during this leafless season. I was especially enthralled yesterday by a young winged elm. Its corky extrusions along its trunk and every branch made its silhouette quite striking.

Even during this time of moderate drought, the new channel that cuts through what was for 25 years dry, flat floodplain merrily chuckles its way toward a growing wetland pond, home to at least two dozen ducks. I have accepted the fact that this part of the floodplain is now a wetland. And, I must admit, the permanent streamlet that now traverses that area adds an air of tranquility to the landscape.

Never have I been more grateful for my lifelong passion for gardening and the natural world. I am certain the dirt perpetually beneath my fingernails is largely responsible for the retention of my sanity during these challenging times. I know that you, my readers, understand this. Here’s to a new year filled with fruits, vegetables, flowers, pollinators, and ever-dirty fingernails.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We Are Not Alone — And We Like It That Way

A Great Blue Heron catching breakfast

Even though I heard them and often saw their tracks, I did not have a good idea about the numbers and diversity of native wildlife that regularly use the creek we live beside as a busy highway until we invested in some wildlife video cameras. In a typical Piedmont suburb, you may not see all of these species — although it is not impossible. But if you live beside or near water, especially a permanent stream, it is likely that you are sharing the area with a diverse array of native animals. [Note: You can click on any photo to view a larger image.]

Today I am sharing a few stills, in chronological order,  taken from videos captured over the last two months. Personally, I never tire of watching my wildlife neighbors as they seek and catch food, argue over territory, or merely pass by on their way to somewhere else. The cameras capture Great Blue Herons fairly often. We’ve even captured some interesting moonlight interactions between them and beavers. I like the recent shot above of this majestic bird with voice croakier than most frogs catching a fish on a chilly morning in early November.

We hadn’t seen foxes since last spring until they began showing up again on the cameras in November. A daylight video of one slurping up creek water during the drought confirms we have gray foxes. Their gait is a subtle prance, and their tails are spectacular.

A Gray Fox prances past the camera

We usually catch bobcats in the spring and fall, but these solitary creatures were always alone — until the camera caught this pair. We hypothesize they may be litter-mates still hanging around together. You can’t see the temperature reading on this one; it was 35 degrees.

A rare sighting of two bobcats together

Recent forest destruction to make way for yet more suburbs has pushed more deer our way than in recent years, including at least five bucks of varying sizes. The young buck in this capture completely ignored the pair of raccoons across the creek.

We often see raccoons on the far side of this part of the creek. They walk along the edge of the water feeling with their front paws for tasty morsels.

Opossums are usually a blur on the video captures, putting to rest the notion that these critters are sluggish. However, this night was so warm that the opossum here was taking its time as it foraged beside the creek.

We are lucky to see and hear Pileated Woodpeckers often, thanks to the dead and dying trees in the beaver-built wetland across from us. However, we had never seen one of these crow-sized birds foraging on the ground until a camera captured this one in action.

This handsome fellow was tearing apart rotting logs beside the creek, searching for tasty insects within.

The cameras capture raccoons year-round. This recent shot shows a damp one that had just swum across the creek. We often catch them swimming, regardless of temperature. They seem to prefer to use the shortest route between points to get where they’re going, even if that means a dip in cold creek water.

Especially in spring and throughout fall and winter, coyotes patrol the creek nightly. We’ve never seen more than two at once on the cameras, but we hear more than that howling nearby, especially when it is cold.

A healthy-looking coyote on the prowl

These last two shots were taken within minutes of each other last week on a very cold night. All the creatures were active, probably because it was so cold and the moon was bright. Despite an array of predators, this camera often captures cottontail rabbits casually foraging out in the open. We don’t know if they are very lucky bunnies, or if there are just so many of them that all can’t be eaten. We were surprised by the brazenness of this bunny that is almost stepped on by a big buck.

Bold bunny

Given this final photo taken just minutes later, we think the bunny somehow knew that this buck was not the least bit interested in cottontails. Instead, he was defending his turf against another big buck, as evidenced by this antler-locked tussle caught on video. We expect to start finding discarded antlers soon, given the constant presence of the bucks this year.

They lock antlers, then try to push their opponent backwards. This encounter did not last long and seemed to end in a draw.

The forest around the creek I live beside is the only remaining high-quality wildlife corridor remaining on my road. All the native animals are being squeezed into this narrow corridor which leads to the Haw River nearby. My prayer for this new year is that somehow a way is found to persuade the long-time owners of the forest around this creek to put the land into a conservation easement. This would protect the land from the bulldozers forever. It would create a refuge for all the creatures in my area, and provide a safe way for them to travel to other bits of remaining forested land. If I were wealthy, I’d try to buy out the landowners myself. Alas, that’s not an option.

Barring a monetary miracle, all I can do is what I’ve been doing. I’ll keep adding native food and shelter plants to my side of this critical wildlife corridor in the hopes that the creatures can manage to survive despite their displacement by now nearly ubiquitous suburbs, all of which are erased of almost all native vegetation before humans move in.

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