Archive for category piedmont gardening

Daddy’s Roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Savor Summer, Cultivate Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Just Add Water…

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

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

 

Red flower colors intensified.

 

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

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

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

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Birds and Blooms

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

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

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

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

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

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

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

Tangerine Beauty Crossvine blooms

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

Birds Visiting Our Feeders

A Few Blooms

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Our Garden Grows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Spring Vegetable Garden

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

Sugar Sprint peas

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

Our Summer Vegetable Garden

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

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

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

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

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

A recently emerged Fortex bean seedling

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

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

Borage flower buds

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Earth Day 2020: It’s Not Easy Being Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two applications based on Shropshire’s research are:

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

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

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

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

Aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) is another keystone genus.

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

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

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

Happy Earth Day to all!

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Staying Connected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nest holes of pileated woodpeckers.

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

Red-shouldered Hawk with chicks from a previous year.

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

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

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

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

The rains begin…

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Before Winter Finally Arrived

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’

Winter cold finally arrived in my area about three days ago — highs in the upper 30s-low 40s, lows in the low 20s, and a wind chill that hurt skin accustomed to the weather of the previous four weeks, when nighttime temperatures rarely dropped into the upper 30s, and daytime temperatures stayed in the upper 60s and low 70s. During the 60+ years I’ve lived in North Carolina, an occasional winter warm weather interlude has not been unusual, but I can’t recall an entire month of such weather from mid-December to mid-January.

Such a prolonged warm spell caused many plants in my yard to break dormancy far earlier than normal — by at least six weeks. Many birds began displaying signs of territorial behavior as mating instincts awakened. Bluebirds burbled to each other as they discussed the merits of nesting box options. Insects were everywhere, as were the frogs, snakes, and lizards that eat them. It all felt very wrong.

A honeybee enjoys another Prunus mume cultivar (name forgotten)

The day before winter cold finally arrived here, I walked around the yard and took a few photos. Now that ice covers the abundant shallow water in channels on the floodplain, I suspect my late winter bloomers that opened four weeks early are probably now brown. I haven’t looked yet; that wind chill is mean. To remind myself of their loveliness, I include a few shots here, along with photos more typical of winter vegetation.

In “normal” winters, the Prunus mume trees dole out their flowers sparingly, a few dozen each time the weather warms a bit. This year’s prolonged warm winter weather caused almost all buds to open simultaneously.

January jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) usually starts blooming in February, a few blooms at a time until March approaches. Many folks confuse them with forsythia, but a close examination makes the differences abundantly clear.

A native late winter bloomer, Hamamelis vernalis, is usually only showing a few petals by now. But the warmth caused the cultivar I grow to open more fully, scenting the air with a light, clean perfume that I always associate with spring cleaning.

Hamamelis vernalis ‘Amethyst’

An array of winter buds, remnant leaves, and bright moss lush from winter rains also caught my eye.

Late on the afternoon I took these shots, I was on my back deck when I noticed an insect on a window. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realized it was a Green Lacewing adult, much smaller than the ones I routinely see in my garden during the growing season. It saddened me to know that this delicate-looking beneficial insect would certainly perish soon. If the freeze didn’t kill it, the absence of food certainly would.

What a short, strange winter it has been.

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Resolution

I’ve been thinking about that word, resolution. This time of year, it gets used a lot as many make lists of what they will do better, or perhaps leave behind. The word has strong connotations: The heroine resolved that she would not let Darkness prevail. That usage implies determination, strength of character, guts.

But the word has other connotations. For example, a blurry image can resolve into clarity. A medical condition can resolve into health. This usage almost implies metamorphosis: A caterpillar resolves into a butterfly.

I’m wondering on this New Year’s Day if we can combine these two connotations into one. Can we determine to bring clarity and healing to our world – resolve to work for resolution? That’s my ambitious prayer for the new decade.

I think we all need to pick our spots, planting our flags, as it were, on the condition/situation/conflict that stirs us most deeply. No more hand-wringing angst. It’s time to walk our talk. This is the year to declare out loud what we are fighting for, and then do all we can to fight for it.

Like most folks, I care about and support an array of causes, but as any of you who read this blog know, my deepest commitment is to the Green World. As I pray daily for the resolution of the precipitous decline in the health of our mother planet, I will be acting locally to try to resolve the vitality of my home ecosystems, and to provide relevant information to my readers.

With the help of Wonder Spouse and an indispensable garden helper, I will continue to work to heal the five acres of land I’ve lived on for over 30 years. As I plant, weed, and mulch, ever watching for non-native invasive species trying to disrupt the harmony of our intentions, I pray that others are doing likewise on their home ecosystems.

I recognize that ecological imbalances are driven by geopolitical/societal imbalances. Every facet of the health of our planet entirely depends on the actions taken by humanity in this new decade. I hope all my readers will resolve to work for resolution of the ills plaguing our blue-green orb. Raise your voices, use your votes, envision Earth’s resolution.

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Dancing with the Dark

Light has been hard to come by lately.

Perhaps the message of the longest night of the year is to stop trying to flee the darkness, instead, following the example of the great canopy trees, casting off artifice – the leaves of summer – and spending this season stretching roots into life-giving earth, taking time to deepen my connection to that which sustains me.

I need this quiet season. It brings me back to center after the frenzy of planting, weeding, harvesting, and reveling in the vibrant life that surrounds me during warmer times. Winter precipitation – frozen or liquid – pulls me into contemplation, forcing me to a slower tempo as I watch snowflakes or raindrops fall on brown leaves piled beneath bared branches.

In cold darkness, melodies emerge: the sonorous tones of a barred owl calling its mate, a staccato crash and splash as deer test ice covering the creek, distant howls of hungry coyotes. Winter rhythms slow heartbeats, deepen breathing, center souls.

On this longest night, I will pull warm blankets over my head and dream of swimming in deep oceans, flying soundlessly over frozen moonlit ground, dancing around ancient bonfires, remembering that I need darkness to see the light.

May this winter season bring us all comfort and joy.

Happy Winter Solstice.

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