Archive for category piedmont gardening

A Hero’s Tale: Tufted Titmouse vs. Window

Mr. Titmouse glaring at his enemy

We all know what an extraordinary February it’s been. The April-like temperatures have caused countless trees, shrubs, and perennials to begin blooming at least a month ahead of their normal schedules. The weather has also affected the birds, including this feisty Tufted Titmouse, who has been battling his reflection in our garage window for a week now. He was at it still this morning before the rain began.

We’ve had this problem before, but not with this species. The last time was 2011, when an Eastern Bluebird spent several weeks battling his image in this very same window. This window is quite high up; there is no easy way to cover it to reduce its reflectivity. The birds don’t seem to injure themselves, but I worry at the enormous waste of energy they expend doing battle with themselves to win the admiration of the attentive females that sit in the flowering apricot and watch the show. For hours. And days. And weeks.

I can hear Mr. Titmouse uttering his challenges as soon as I step out my door. It’s a very melodic whistling — not the least bit ferocious to my ear. I wonder if at that point he is calling to his prospective mate — a “Check me out, baby” come-on to draw her closer for the show.

I was unable to manage a photo of Mrs. Titmouse; she is quite shy, and as soon as her hero flies away from the window, so does she. So if I wanted a shot of him, I missed her. But trust me, she is always nearby taking in the machismo displays of the Toughest Titmouse in Town.

The battle is always the same. First, Mr. Titmouse sounds the challenge to his magnificent reflection as he sits on a branch. When he is sure his prospective mate is watching, he takes to the air and throws himself against the window, wings beating in a blurred frenzy.

After each round, he rests briefly on the window sill and assesses the interest of his lady love.

He tilts his head and sings to his lady.

Then it’s time for a brief rest between rounds, so he flies back to the nearby branch to collect himself before his next heroic display.

A motion-blurred flight back to recuperate for the next battle. And yes, the white blotch in the corner is exactly what you think it is.

In 2011, Mr. Bluebird did this for over a month. I think Mr. Titmouse will likely continue his battles until the angle of the light changes about the time of the vernal equinox. Every time I walk behind the garage — which is often — I implore Mr. Titmouse to behave more sensibly. He flies away briefly, but as soon as I’ve moved a few steps away, he returns to the battle. Whether it’s birds or humans, I’m afraid it is true that hormones and sense do not mix. The battle rages on…

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An excellent day for learning about pollinators

A full parking lot on a gray day.

Truthfully, the weather was absolutely dismal today in central North Carolina. The chilly drizzle probably felt worse than it was because yesterday it was 80 degrees here. But this morning inside the cozy Episcopal Church of the Advocate, the gathered crowd was warmly attentive as the kick-off speaker for the lecture series sponsored by the Piedmont Patch Collaborative — the deeply knowledgable Debbie Roos — shared innumerable stories and facts about the wonders that abound in pollinator gardens.

Debbie’s opening slide.

We saw beauty in the plants that varied in color, form, and texture, and in the astonishing diversity of insects and other creatures drawn to the flowers for food. We learned how critical caterpillars are to native birds that rely exclusively on them to feed their young. We asked many questions, and Debbie answered all of them.

Many questions were asked and answered.

I want to once again thank Debbie Roos for coming out on this gray, ugly day while still recovering from a nasty cold. Her enthusiasm and her spectacular photos brought sunshine to all of us despite the gloom outside.

I also want to thank Barbara Driscoll, who represented the New Hope Audubon Society, the Piedmont Patch Collaborative’s newest partner organization. The literature she brought was snapped up enthusiastically, and she even sold several of the bird boxes she brought.

Our sign-in table was busy before Debbie’s talk began.

Finally, thanks to all the folks who came out this morning to hear Debbie’s presentation. I hope you were inspired to start your own pollinator garden on your property. Every new Piedmont patch of native — or mostly native — plants is a lifeline for native pollinators and other wildlife being devastated by the rapid urbanization of our region.

Please keep checking the Web site of the Piedmont Patch Collaborative. We’ll be adding resources to help you with your own Piedmont patch projects, and we’ll be offering additional lectures and other educational opportunities at least every quarter.

We’re dreaming big and acting locally. Please join us!

 

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Dreaming big and acting locally

Joe Pye Weeds and friends in a new Piedmont patch in my yard, a pollinator garden

The cold, icy winter has been remarkably busy for this Piedmont gardener. In past years, I’ve used such winters to catch up on my reading, plan the new growing season’s vegetable garden, and perhaps do a bit of garden clean-up during “warm” spells. But this winter, the big dream I wrote about here a few months ago continues to occupy much of my time — along with a few other plant-related projects I’ll share with you in another post soon.

The group I’m working with has changed its name slightly. We are no longer the Piedmont Patch Project; instead, we are the Piedmont Patch Collaborative (PPC). This change was needed, because we wanted to convey the essential collaborative nature of this endeavor. We continue to welcome new partner organizations and individuals, who are helping us to dream even bigger as they bring additional resources and expertise to our effort.

Five key developments stand out:

  • A new partner: New Hope Audubon Society — I am delighted to report that the chapter of the National Audubon Society local to my region has joined the Piedmont Patch Collaborative as an enthusiastic partner. This very active group brings enormous expertise to the PPC, especially with regard to the relationships between native birds and native plants. They actively promote ways to create bird-friendly habitat, even offering a certification program during which they will assess your property and offer suggestions to improve its bird habitat potential.
    These are hands-on folks who have already committed to attending our quarterly talks and staffing a table where they can explain their organization and offer information on native birds and plants. They are planning to volunteer on our work days as we begin to add native plants to the landscape around The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, the PPC’s first demonstration project. Most exciting of all, they offered to apply for a grant from the National Audubon Society to fund the acquisition of additional native plants for the site — plants we would be able to acquire and add this year! We’ll know by the end of February if we win the grant; watch this space for updates.
  • Continuing help from a partner: North Carolina Botanical Garden — Thanks to the support of the Director, Damon Waitt, and the generosity of the Greenhouse and Nursery Manager, Matt Gocke, the PPC will be able to use an entire bench in the Garden’s greenhouse to grow out plants for our big planting event scheduled for April. I was wondering how and where we were going to grow plants, so this kind offer is truly a boon from heaven.
  • Our first free and open-to-the-public quarterly talk on Feb. 17: Debbie Roos on Creating wildlife habitat with pollinator gardens — Debbie is a regionally recognized expert on native pollinators. The demonstration pollinator garden she designed and maintains at Chatham Mills in Chatham county, NC is visited by tour groups from throughout the region. The PPC is very excited that Debbie will be the first speaker in its quarterly series of talks on native plants and animals, because pollinator gardens are one of the fastest ways to improve the native habitat potential of any Piedmont landscape. I hope many people will spend an hour or so with us to hear Debbie’s talk and enjoy her spectacular photographs. The talk will be on Saturday, Feb. 17 at 11:00 a.m. at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, 8410 Merin Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. Please come, and bring a friend!
  • Coming soon: a controlled burn of the earthen dam — The earthen dam that contains a one-acre pond on The Advocate grounds is the focus of the majority of the early efforts of the PPC to enrich the landscape with native plants. Our goal is to replace the current mix of invading woody trees (bad for earthen dams), brambles, Japanese honeysuckle, and wildflowers with a mix of native grasses and wildflowers similar to those that naturally occur in Piedmont prairie environments. Ecologically, such environments were maintained by the application of fire, and conservation organizations today often use controlled burns to maintain the ecological integrity of such environments. Experts tell me that the earthen dam is an ideal site for a controlled burn, which should eradicate undesirable plants while not impacting native grasses and wildflowers adapted for those conditions. Our first controlled burn is being planned. Watch this space for updates on the burn and its results.
  • Coming soon: The PPC Web site — The group is making steady progress toward the implementation of a Web site that will describe its activities, and offer how-to articles and videos on how to create a Piedmont patch of native plants on landscapes of any size. I’ll post an announcement everywhere when the new site is up and running.

Perhaps you can sense my enthusiasm for this project — a big dream becoming reality before my eyes, thanks to the collaboration of a growing number of groups and individuals who are embracing this vision of teaching southeastern Piedmont dwellers how to create wildlife sanctuaries with native plants, one patch of Piedmont at a time. I think the dream resonates widely, because it empowers us with a way to make a bona fide difference. By acting locally to deliberately create patches of native habitat on urban and suburban properties, we can significantly reduce the dramatic adverse effects on native pollinators and larger wildlife caused by the obliteration of fields and forests by urbanization.

Every new Piedmont patch will help bluebirds, warblers, woodpeckers, hawks, butterflies, solitary bees, honeybees, bumblebees, predatory wasps, praying mantises, salamanders, spiders, lizards, toads, snakes, rabbits, mice, foxes, deer — all the native components of the web of life that comprise a healthy Piedmont ecosystem. Does your home landscape feature a Piedmont patch? If not, please consider joining the PPC in making a direct, local impact on the future of the southeastern Piedmont region’s native ecosystems.

anole on Joe Pye4

You can have your own native Green Anoles like this one hunting for bugs on a Joe Pye Weed leaf in your very own Piedmont patch.

 

 

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Snow Days

About 3:00 p.m. on January 17, 2018, when the snow was still falling heavily. It didn’t completely stop until after midnight.

Perhaps you’ve heard by now that central North Carolina got quite a bit of snow the other day? Maybe not, because the Weather Channel puts its on-the-spot reporter in Raleigh, which received much less snow and vastly more attention from NCDOT. I live about 30 miles west of Raleigh, where as of yesterday afternoon, NCDOT had only plowed the two interstate highways that cross through my 710-square mile county. Not that I expect any better. I’ve lived here for almost three decades, and despite the exponential population growth of my county, NC government and even local TV stations still treat my home county like the proverbial red-headed stepchild; we are largely invisible, forgotten.

Because this has so long been the case, folks where I live prepare for big weather events. We know we will be on our own for at least a week, longer if the Raleigh folks also get hit — they are always top priority. Wonder Spouse and I endured a relatively brief power outage (only 8.5 hours), during which we followed our long-established protocols for coping without water (no electricity, no well), light, and heat. As the snow fell, and before the power outage, I found myself glued to the windows watching the white stuff pile up far higher than predicted by any of the weather seers. [Memo to self: If the forecast calls for light to moderate snow, assume a blizzard — and vice versa.]

Sunrise Jan. 18, the view from my living room window.

After the snow stopped, Wonder Spouse and I began trying to clear paths from doors to essential areas like the garage and the basement. We love our house, and in the summer we love the nearly 2000 square feet of wooden decks and walkways. But now that our hair is as white as the snow blanketing our landscape, we’re finding clearing those walks after big-snow events to be a tad more challenging than it once was. No gym required around here to be sure.

Sunrise this morning.

The snow is still falling in dramatic showers from the trees even this morning, so we haven’t walked around much. It’s no fun getting dumped on by a mini-avalanche. I’m hoping to walk around and get some more photos — views of something other than what I can see from my living room window. For now, these will give you some idea of what things look like.

This morning’s view of our lower deck bench. Some melting has occurred, but we have quite a way to go to get to wood.

The good news, beyond the fact that we are safe and warm, is that the slow melting of a foot of snow will definitely help a very thirsty landscape. We’ve been in moderate drought for several months. The creek was a trickle, the ground dry and dusty. A slow snow melt will put water down into the root zone, and maybe some will make it to the creek — enough to get it flowing properly again.

At dusk yesterday, four does appeared to scour seed from beneath the bird feeders. The birds had been quite thorough before them, and they didn’t linger long.

Unlike most years by now, my ornamental flowering apricots haven’t cracked open a flower bud yet. Neither has the January jasmine, or the Royal Star magnolia, all of which often are blooming by now. A warm spell is promised for the rest of the month, so I’m hoping for a dramatic grand opening of the winter bloomers — a signal that the Earth does still turn, spring really is nearly here, and my itchy gardener’s fingers will soon be able to revel in rich loam as I plant the spring vegetable garden.

Yesterday’s winds created new mini-blizzards all day as burdened trees unleashed avalanches. That continues this morning.

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Welcome, Winter

How many times do we hear it? “I hate winter,” they all say. It starts on the morning TV newscast when the meteorologist warns of an impending cold front that will drop temperatures below freezing – or worse yet – bring frozen precipitation. Immediately, everyone but the meteorologist begins whining about ice-related inconveniences, sudden imposed constrictions on their normal routines. The morning meteorologist tries to laugh off the comments, speaking softly about the wonders of snow, but she is inevitably shouted down.

To my mind, the complainers have all lost their natural rhythm; they are no longer tied to the earth that nurtures us all. The only person in sync with the cycles of sun and moon, the turning of the earth, the waxing and waning of seasons is the meteorologist. The nature of her job is to remain aligned with the rhythmic dance of air masses and atmospheric currents of moisture and temperature. She appreciates this complex interweaving of forces responsible for what she calls weather – what I call the pulsating rhythms of Mother Earth.

Chive bed in winter

Ecologists and psychologists have a name for this disconnect between humans and the blue-green orb on which we all rely: Nature Deficit Disorder. Myriad studies confirm that stress levels are measurably reduced when people step deliberately back onto green spaces, soft earth, places where traffic noise is replaced by bird songs and the sounds of moving water.

Like meteorologists, gardeners still connect with earth’s rhythms. We celebrate and honor every season by embracing it, performing the tasks designed to maximize the benefits of spring, summer, fall, and yes, winter. We know that without winter, growing seasons would be much less productive, pests and diseases would overwhelm our gardens, bulbs and many seeds would not bloom or even germinate. Seasonal transformation is the music we all dance to, whether we feel those rhythms as we pull long carrots from rich earth or ignore them as we push relentlessly through daily routines in concrete and glass edifices that prevent sunlight from touching asphalt or the weary souls scurrying on shadowy sidewalks.

I welcome the Winter Solstice. For me, it is the true onset of the new year, not January 1. That’s an artificial construct disconnected from earth’s rhythms. Today is a day to stop what you are doing, step out into chilly air, and acknowledge the essential and sacred rhythms of our planet, the music every bird and bug, spider and snake, and human being dances to, whether or not they choose to acknowledge it.

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Camphorweed: An interesting addition to my native landscape

Camphorweed

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

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

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

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

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

Seeds of Pluchea odorata

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

 

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Grateful for Plant-loving and Faith-filled Friends

 

I will admit to having an active imagination. When you combine that with a life-long obsession with the natural world and gardening, I occasionally am struck by big ideas – some might even say wild ideas – pun intended. I am currently deeply immersed in my biggest dream yet. My co-dreamers and I are calling it the Piedmont Patch Project.

If you’ve read my blog much – especially posts I do for Earth Day, you know that I worry about the future of native flora and fauna – world-wide and most definitely where I live in the Piedmont region of the southeastern US. Ecologists note increasing world-wide threats to biodiversity – the broad array of plant and animal species that comprise diverse ecosystems that feed our planet and impact our climate among other critical functions. To read more about my concerns, search my blog using the term “Earth Day.” However, today I don’t want to focus on my concerns; today I wish to thank my friends, both old and new.

Plant people are the driving forces behind most community gardens.

If you read my blog, you are likely a fellow plant-lover, and if you’ve been a member of that community for much time at all, I suspect you have already discovered the generosity of what I think of as Plant People – my people. We are easily identified. Our hands are rough and often dirty, our clothes are stained and perhaps punctured with holes made by brambles. We are known for stopping abruptly when we encounter a plant or animal we don’t immediately recognize. Many of us speak to each other in botanical Latin, because common names are too imprecise. Our hearts lighten and beat faster when we walk through a healthy ecosystem filled with bird song and blooms. Our cars are often dirty from hauling plants and tools. But above all these, one trait is universal among Plant People – their unfailing willingness to share their knowledge, their plants, and often, their help. Today as I dive into the Piedmont Patch Project, I am deeply grateful for these friends.

I have always considered Plant People to be people of deep faith. Whether they are members of an organized religion or not, they all possess an abiding faith in and love for the natural world. You don’t plant seeds in bare soil without faith. You don’t plant an oak sapling that won’t mature for 200 years without faith that that tree will serve diverse communities for future generations. Plant people are visionaries. I believe that this quality is responsible for the unanimous support I have received from everyone in this community who has heard about the Piedmont Patch Project. Like me, they can see the potential of this vision, this wild idea.

But without other people of faith, this vision might never have found a home. I am profoundly grateful for my friendship with the vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC. Without her enthusiasm and faith in this notion, the Piedmont Patch Project – which she named – would likely never have been conceptualized. Her faith and the faith of her congregation is even more impressive because I am not a member of this church, and, frankly, most of the members of this congregation are not Plant People – at least, not yet.

Episcopal Church of the Advocate’s historic chapel

I’m foggy on the details, but somehow The Episcopal Church of the Advocate ended up acquiring 15 acres in the northern edge of the rapidly urbanizing town of Chapel Hill. The land was a piece of an old farm. An older brick home where the farmer lived serves as their parish house. A 19th century historic chapel relocated from a piedmont town west of Chapel Hill serves as their church building. A small farm pond sits behind the buildings, and an even-aged pine forest towers behind the pond; furrowed ground between the pines confirms the land is former farmland.

When the vicar of this tiny parish realized my obsession and experience with the botanical world, she asked me to walk the land with her and help her identify and understand the plants growing on the grounds and around the pond, which is contained by an earthen dam about 100 yards long. I immediately began to see possibilities. As I described a growing vision for the front five acres beside the road, the vicar caught my enthusiasm. We began to devise a plan for restoring this land to native ecosystems typical of the area.

lake and dam looking north

A view of the pond and the earthen dam

I believe I was inspired by the church congregation’s vision for this land. They are working with Habitat for Humanity to build three tiny houses (called Pee Wee Homes) beside the pond that will provide homes for three older homeless men or women. Thus, they will soon provide sanctuary for homeless humans. It was a short leap from that notion to the idea that this church’s land could also serve as a sanctuary for native wildlife – a population being rapidly displaced and/or killed by the rapid urbanization occurring around the church.

The eradication of healthy native plant communities is making it difficult for wildlife to thrive.

In the North Carolina piedmont region, few large expanses of healthy native ecosystems (forests, fields, etc.) exist outside of conservation preserves due to the immense pressure of rampant urbanization. Even relatively small woodlots, which once bordered stretches of highways, are disappearing, replaced by strip malls, office complexes, and mile after mile of new suburbs. Most of these urbanized and suburbanized landscapes are denuded of their native ecosystems before the buildings go up. New “landscaping” is usually sparse, often non-native, and does not begin to support native wildlife (including especially insects).

In talking with the vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, I began to wonder: What if we could create patches of high-quality native vegetation in close enough proximity to each other to support native wildlife currently being threatened with displacement by urbanization? And what if we tried implementing this idea on the grounds of this church to serve as a demonstration of its viability?

Much to my delight, the vicar embraced this notion with enthusiasm, and Fortune smiled on us when we discovered that the National Episcopal Church was currently offering Stewardship of Creation grant funds to congregations with projects with positive environmental impacts and strong educational components. We wrote up our proposal and were overjoyed when we recently learned that this idea – the Piedmont Patch Project – was awarded funds!

The amount of planning and work to be done is, frankly, pretty overwhelming. That’s why I am so very grateful for all my Plant People friends who have stepped up already with advice, growing spaces, and plant materials. As word about this project continues to filter through this community, I continue to hear from more people. And I need the help of every one of them, especially with the acquisition of the many, many native plants we need to realize this vision. Most of the small grant award funds are designated for educational efforts. We hope to have the Web page up before the end of the year, and we are planning quarterly talks on relevant topics, work days, and the development of how-to videos and documents. The Web page will include a list of ways to help with the project, so if any of you blog readers out there are interested, check back here in a few weeks, when I should have a new post that includes the URL for the Piedmont Patch Project site.

Donated grasses that were planted on part of the earthen dam in July.

I am also profoundly grateful for the faith of the congregation of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate. They are small in number but mighty in impact. They are already showing up for work days and presentations eager to learn more about the native environment of the piedmont region. I think more than a few of these people of faith may well also become Plant People, and I think the world can always use more of those.

The ultimate goal of this project is for the Church of the Advocate to be Project #1. With faith and much help and the continuing smiling face of Fortune, we hope the Piedmont Patch Project will evolve into a small nonprofit organization devoted to educating folks on how to turn their urban and suburban landscapes into piedmont patches, sanctuaries for wildlife, cures for plant blindness and nature-deficit disorder, refuges for battered souls.

Episcopal Church of the Advocate volunteers planting donated grasses on a hot morning in late July.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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