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Spring Update, Part I

Halesia diptera flowers2

I’ve been having trouble keeping up with the pace of spring this year. Maybe it’s the birthdays that keep piling up, maybe it’s climate change. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Every day I walk these five acres we’ve worked with for 32 years something — usually more than one thing — merits my attention — and my camera. Native deciduous azaleas seem to transform from swelling buds tinged with color to full-blown explosions of flowers and fragrance. As I type this, blooming azalea colors range from yellow to orange-red to pale pink, deep pink, lavender, and white. I am so glad we’re entering a bit of a cool spell tonight. I am hopeful that the blooms will last a bit longer in cooler weather.

Believe it or not, I’m less focused on flowers these days than usual. Animal antics have grabbed most of my attention. I’ve got a pair of bluebirds feeding five nestlings in one of the new boxes we added a few weeks ago, and that is exciting. However, the wood ducks win the prize for captivating us. 

I’ve read up on wood ducks lately to try to understand what we’ve been seeing. Did you know wood ducks will nest in tree hollows as high as 50 feet off the ground? The day after the ducklings hatch (up to about 14 usually), mama duck gives them a signal and one by one they leap from the hole and tumble to the ground. Seriously! My reading tells me that the ducklings sort of bounce when they hit the ground. As soon as all are out, mama duck leads her babies to feeding grounds, which can be as far as a mile from the nest. As you might imagine, a lot of ducklings are picked off by predators before they get there. Even if the ducklings make it to the water, predators including large fish and snapping turtles may grab them from beneath the water. 

We always see and hear the wood ducks this time of year. Male-female pairs swim up and down our creek. We suspect they feed in the beaver-built wetland on the other side. When the females are startled, they shriek loudly. It’s quite a disconcerting sound when they see you before you see them.

We thought it might be nice to offer a pair a nice new wood duck house, which we mounted about 8 feet off the ground right next to the creek. We figured the ducklings could jump out and land either in or right next to the water, minimizing risk from at least some predators. The box, however, has been ignored. Instead, a mama duck appears to have laid her eggs in a dying old oak in our back yard. Thirty feet up there’s a sizable hole where a branch once grew. One day a few weeks ago just at dusk, I watched a pair of wood ducks fly toward the tree. The male flew right past, but the female dove straight into the hole, barely slowing to soften her landing. It seemed clear that the male’s role was to divert attention while the female dove into the hole as fast as possible. Binoculars in hand, I watched for some time, but she did not emerge before the sun set. 

I read that females sitting on eggs fly out at dawn and dusk to feed before returning to the nest. Males don’t incubate the eggs at all. I’ve never managed to see her leave the nest in the morning, but I’ve seen her dive into the hole at dusk several times. Lately, the male hasn’t been with her. I’ve read that after the females begin incubation, the males go off and hang out together elsewhere. 

Wonder Spouse and I are trying not to worry too much about the ducklings. The distance from the tree to the creek is about 100 feet. The terrain is overgrown with massive boulders on the far side of the tree. Wonder Spouse removed a section of the fence between the tree and the creek (there to deter beavers), so that the ducklings won’t pile up at the fence trying to get to the water. A pair of red-shouldered hawks is nesting in the area; they sit in trees near the oak often, looking for their next meal. Theoretically, I am supposed to be dispassionate about the fate of the ducklings, but they are in our backyard. Somehow we feel responsible for them. You can bet that if we are around when the ducklings take their big plunge, we will be out there trying to run interference for them.

Today, however, the wood duck drama took yet another turn. A few days ago, we saw a male-female pair loitering in an ash tree about 50 feet from the oak tree. Using our binoculars, it appeared that the couple was conversing back and forth while looking intently at the nest hole. This afternoon, they returned to the ash tree, again conversing. Suddenly, the female flew to the nest hole in the oak. I am fairly certain this was not the female I had seen diving into the hole on several occasions. This one clung to the edge of the hole and stuck her neck inside, peering in. Liking what she saw, she disappeared inside, briefly stuck her head back out to say something to her mate still sitting in the ash tree, then disappeared again. About ten minutes later, she appeared again at the entrance to the hole, paused a moment, then flew to join her mate in the ash. They soon flew off together. I believe we had just witnessed wood duck egg-dumping behavior. I’ve read that instead of making their own nest, some wood duck females find another wood duck nest and simply add a few eggs of her own to those already on the nest. Apparently the owner of the nest incubates them as her own. The experts aren’t sure of the adaptive value of this behavior, beyond the obvious notion of literally not wanting to put all of one’s eggs in one metaphorical basket.

Wonder Spouse was able to grab his long lens and grab a few photos. The male was sitting quite still in the afternoon sun, providing a nice photo opportunity. The female never stopped moving at the entrance hole, so her shots are more blurry. Still, I think you’ll get the idea.

I confess I am emotionally invested in what happens next. If I’m lucky enough to witness how this story ends, I’ll be sure to let you know.

For my North Carolina Readers:

Audubon North Carolina is encouraging all native plant and animal lovers to register their support for a bill currently before the NC Senate that would ensure that native trees, shrubs, and flowers are used to landscape all state properties and state-funded projects. If you’ve read my blog much, you can imagine how much positive impact this could have for our native flora and fauna. You can read more details and sign their petition supporting this effort here.

 

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Mostly Moonlit Wildlife Wanderings

This eight-point buck was kind enough to pose close to a camera.

I recently took a great many photos of final fall highlights of my yard, and I hope to get them posted here soon. I’ve been distracted by the recent addition of two new wildlife cameras, which Wonder Spouse has strategically installed along the creek that borders our property. The quality of the videos captured by the new cameras is impressive, and the recent full moon seemed to stimulate nocturnal activity. I am hoping to create a PiedmontGardener YouTube channel soon, so that I can post some of the more interesting videos we are capturing. For now, here are a few stills I extracted from some of the videos captured just last week. I’ve left the time/temperature information in the photos, because I think they give each shot a bit more context.

Moonlit creek wading.

In the video from which I extracted the photo above, this buck slowly wades upstream. I love the way the water captures his reflection. I didn’t realize just how many deer are now wandering my area until I saw them in these videos. One night last week, eight does ran one after the other in a line away from the camera, their white tails flashing as they disappear deeper into the forest. 

Not one, but two eight-point bucks.

We have seen one eight-point buck in the cameras many times, but we had no idea we have at least two bucks that size. And they wander the night together at least part of the time. These two hung out here for quite a while, sniffing the air, probably because this shallow piece of water is a favorite creek-crossing area for the does.

A black vulture surveys a favorite bathing spot.

A growing number of black vultures are spending a great deal of time along the creek, where they bathe in the shallows, then dry their great wings in the sun on the bare branches of still-standing trees killed by beaver-induced flooding. We now are capturing many daytime videos of these great birds bathing and arguing. It is fascinating to watch them wade into the shallow water, then dip their heads down into the water to push it up over their wings. 

A vulture just dipping its head beneath the water as it ruffles its feathers to moisten them. Note its many friends loitering around the “pool.”

We have had a couple of rare early morning sitings of river otters that we suspected are now living somewhere along the growing beaver-built wetland adjacent to our property. Our new cameras have now captured them several times. We know there are at least three of them that hang around together, and we’ve seen the area they head into at dawn, where we assume they have a den. But this past week, a camera caught the three of them emerging from the creek to forage on our property. I couldn’t get a clear still shot of all three, but I did get these two as they returned to the creek. One is just entering the water and the other is looking over its shoulder for their companion still lingering on the floodplain out of sight here. You should be able to click on these photos to see larger versions.

River otters enjoying a moonlit foraging expedition.

This final extracted still shot surprised us. We had no idea that Great Blue Herons hunted in the moonlight, even when the temperatures are quite chilly. What an extraordinary delight!

A Great Blue Heron hunting by moonlight.

I love the magical moonlight reflections of these creatures with whom we share our land, and for whom we continue to try to stabilize and enrich their habitat — an increasing necessity as more and more nearby forest is replaced by monotonous suburbs devoid of native biological diversity.

 

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Autumn Sunrise

This past week, mornings have been misty, some days even downright foggy. Canopy giants on the floodplain loom indistinctly, shadows of their normal selves. Much like falling snow, swirling mists quiet the landscape. Birds remain silent as a growing moon sets in the west while Venus shines brightly in the eastern sky. Lingering leaves on branches hang limp as fingers on a relaxed hand.

Golden light tinges the eastern horizon, coloring the mists that begin to rise as the sun’s rays touch them. A tall sourwood growing beside my window is set ablaze. Its vivid scarlet and gold leaves always make me gasp. 

As autumn colors are awakened by the rising light, I breathe more deeply, pulling the light and dancing mists into my heart, my lungs, until my toes tingle with energy.

Birds begin to talk among themselves. A murder of fish crows currently residing on the adjacent wetland takes to the air, first in ones and twos, then dozens. Their familiar “uh-oh” calls echo through the rising mists. On the beaver-built pond, I hear the high whistles of the green-winged teals that claim it as their winter water. A belted kingfisher makes its first pass above the creek seeking breakfast; its raucous rattle call is better than any alarm clock.

This place, these mornings tether me to earth, sky, and water. Despite human-made turmoil, despite ongoing climate-change catastrophes that hurt my heart, golden morning mists and the final colors of autumn give me hope, remind me to breathe, and to trust that life will go on.

Peace to one and all.

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A Green Marriage

Wedding kiss, 1985

Wonder Spouse and I celebrated 35 years of marriage this week. As you can see in the photo taken by my brother that day, we have never been fancy folks. I wore a dress I considered to be too nice for work, and he didn’t even put on a tie. It was the marriage that mattered to us, not the outer trappings.

The ceremony was on the front lawn of the first house we bought together — a little starter home in a new neighborhood. The attraction was the lot size — almost an acre. As is typical of new home construction here, all topsoil was removed. Red clay subsoil was compressed into near impermeability. But that did not deter our young selves as we eagerly began transforming the yard. 

We both always grew vegetable gardens, so Wonder Spouse set to work digging out the clay in the area we set aside for food-growing. I don’t know how many different kinds and quantities of soil amendments we added, but it was enough for me to be able to grow food by the next year. We only stayed in this house until early 1989. Here is what the vegetable garden looked like in 1988.

 

That’s me in the background, down in the dirt doing something — a frequent situation for me, I confess.

We both wanted more land. In 1989, we found a house, then out in the country, on five acres. The house was fine — it wasn’t our focus. Even in January when we first set eyes on it, the land looked like heaven to me. I knew enough about the ecology of my region to see that the property possessed a diverse area of microenvironments just waiting to be exploited. I recognized the active floodplain and mature ash forest growing on it. The creek that bordered one side of the property was another big draw for us, and the soil — which I sampled on our first visit — was sandy loam. All I had to do to sell Wonder Spouse on this site was utter one sentence: “On this land, we can grow potatoes.” And so we have.

The previous owner of the property maintained it as if it were a public park. He eradicated all understory trees except a few mature native dogwoods but retained the magnificent canopy trees, including enormous river birches, tulip poplars, sweet gums, red maples, red cedars, several oak species, and loblolly pines. Beneath the trees grew only grass. His use of herbicides must have been extensive, judging by how quickly native plants returned after we moved in on April 1, 1989. Yes, we were fools in love with this property. Here’s what the floodplain looked like from the back deck during one of our winter visits before we moved in.

The creek bordering the property is on the left. Only canopy trees inhabited the floodplain in winter 1989.

And here is a similar view taken in December of 2018. Frequent floods have cut channels across what was a nearly always dry floodplain in the early years.

That’s the same large black oak in the left foreground. You can see how the creek has changed, and even in winter, you can see the increase in vegetation.

By the summer of 1990, we were hard at work creating a vegetable garden, and I was adding as many native understory trees and shrubs as our budget could afford. My mother-in-law visited that summer and took this photo of us.

I have always grown flowers in the vegetable garden, which is what you see behind us.

In those early years, we only needed a single-wire electric fence powered by a solar battery to protect the garden. As suburbs overran our once-rural area, displacing wildlife, we surrounded the vegetable garden with a sturdy deer fence.

The front of the house was obscured by a hodgepodge of mostly non-native trees and shrubs when we first moved in.

Massive red cedars prevented all sunlight from reaching the front door. Mixed in with the magnolias and other trees is a 15-foot tall thicket of forsythia.

I don’t have an exact shot of this perspective that is more recent, but this one of the front pollinator garden is close. In the intervening years, Wonder Spouse changed the driveway, and we removed all the vegetation you see up front except for the magnolia on the far left, and had a Wonder Spouse-designed system of decks and walkways erected at the front entrance. A few years ago, we installed a pollinator garden that continues to flourish.

Front garden, July, 2018

There are probably a few keys to the success of our partnership. We were always two like-minded souls, who were fast friends long before our relationship deepened. But it is our Green World collaboration, I suspect, that keeps us flourishing, as we continue to grow and laugh together.

Taken last month by a dear friend at her home. Yes, that’s COVID hair; we haven’t had hair cuts since late March.

Happy Anniversary, Wonder Spouse.

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Welcome New Subscribers

Hi, folks. I am beginning to see a number of new subscribers signing up, and I’m delighted to have you here. Welcome!

I promise to add a new post here very soon. WordPress changed the underlying editor tool I use here, and I need some study time to figure out how it works.

Meanwhile, I’ve been adding posts here since 2011. I’ve made a point of adding keywords to most every post, so if there’s a gardening topic or a plant you’re curious about, trying typing that into the search box and see what I might have written on it in past posts. I also occasionally mount what I call my green soapbox; search on Earth Day to see some of those.

Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be adding new material here just as soon as I figure out the nuances of the new WordPress editor imposed on me.

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Rhythms of Light

My friend, Leila, died four weeks ago after battling stage four cancer for over seven years. It still seems impossible that she finally succumbed to the disease, so valiantly did she fight, her spirit rarely flagging. She was an extraordinary person, and I will not soon forget her, especially since she entrusted me and Wonder Spouse with her most beloved companion – her 8.5-year-old Japanese Bobtail cat, Rose. Rose has brought big changes to our household, which had been without pets for about a decade, when the last of our very senior cats and dogs finally died.

Rose has embraced our gardening life.

Change has been the theme of the spring season that ends today. In addition to losing Leila and gaining Rose, the non-native invasive Emerald Ash Borer has found the stand of canopy-sized ash trees currently shading our floodplain. I have been mentally steeling myself for this moment for several years, and we’re implementing a number of strategies to ameliorate the inevitable transformation wrought by the demise of these forest giants. The imminent loss still stings.

Emerald Ash Borers caught on a sticky trap hung among my ashes this spring.

On the other side of our house, the nearly 50-year old septic field that has served us for 30 years was pronounced by experts to be failing. A new system will be installed next week, necessitating the disruption of our deer-fence-enclosed north acre that shelters many cherished native magnolias, rhododendrons, viburnums, etc. That work required the preemptive removal of a massive water oak that presided over part of that acre. It was showing early signs of heart rot, and if it fell, the root ball would have destroyed a good portion of the new septic field. Thus, yet another great friend was lost to us.

All that’s left of the great water oak that dominated the north side of our yard.

Despite spring flowers and a growing influx of vegetables from the garden, this spring has brought much darkness as the losses continued to mount. I find myself unable to stomach what passes for news these days – darkness and more darkness.

Even the once-reliable turning of the astronomical seasonal clock feels broken as human-induced climate change roils weather patterns and rampant pollution blackens the blue-green jewel upon which all life on Earth relies. Temperature and rainfall patterns grow increasingly unpredictable. Plants and animals that evolved with those patterns are disappearing, unable to adapt to human-made planetary chaos.

Hurricane Florence-wrought flooding from last autumn.

As I thought about all this yesterday while pulling what felt like an endless number of invasive plants from a neglected bed, I remembered the light. That’s what our solstices and equinoxes are really about after all. Yes, those changes in the balance between dark and light once correlated neatly with seasonal changes that are no longer reliable, but the dance between dark and light has not changed, because that underlying rhythm is something humanity cannot easily damage. That heartbeat of light is the truth I choose to hold on to amidst the threat of darkening chaos.

Embracing light.

No matter what humanity does to itself and the other inhabitants of Earth, it cannot alter that fundamental dance of dark and light. Both are required to keep Life moving, and just as Winter’s darkness cedes inevitably to Summer’s light, it is my hope that this personal moment of darkness will eventually brighten. I remind myself of that as I stand in Summer sun watching busy pollinators dash from coneflower to blanket flower to Stoke’s aster to Joe Pye Weed and on and on. I remind myself of that as I enjoy lightly steamed pole beans fresh-picked from the garden.

Gather ye vegetables while ye may.

I remind myself that Leila knew about the light from the rigorous training she underwent to become a Buddhist nun, depriving herself of sleep and food until perpetual meditation brought her to a place most of us don’t see until we’ve left this mortal coil. The knowledge of that light never left her, and I know beyond doubt that she revels in it now.

Leila’s lilies the first spring after planting, June 2014.

May the light embrace us all. Happy Summer Solstice!

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Please go vote for a great horticultural therapy cause

Attention my garden peeps: I need a favor. The National Garden Bureau is offering a grant to horticultural therapy programs that submitted videos. They have narrowed it down to three options and want folks to vote for the video they like best. The folks running the horticultural therapy program at the NC Botanical Garden submitted one for the work they do with The Farm at Penny Lane. It is a great program that is chronically under-funded.

I just went to the NGB site and voted for them, and when the results page came up, they are way behind compared to the other two programs. This is the only finalist from the southeast region, and I would appreciate it if you folks would go visit the link and vote for The Farm at Penny Lane.

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2016: Our Best Onion Yield Ever

We ate one of our last home-grown onions of the season last night. It was a Candy onion — a softball-sized, sweet mild white onion known for its good storage quality. After curing our harvested onions in our garage for a few weeks, we stored them in our cool basement. The handful of remaining bulbs down there have mostly now gone soft and will be composted. But all in all, it was without a doubt our best onion season ever. How did we do it? I think it was a combination of nearly perfect onion-growing weather and the application of a new strategy to combat a lesson learned the hard way.

In the 2015 growing season, voles ate about two-thirds of our Yellow Granex onion crop.

In the 2015 growing season, voles ate about two-thirds of our Yellow Granex onion crop.

Voles are everywhere in my vegetable garden. The sturdy deer fence that repels those hoofed beasts along with raccoons and even all but the most persistent squirrels merely protects the voles. Dense plantings of vegetables provide ample cover for these voracious rodents when they venture above ground, so hawks and owls aren’t’ any better able to catch them than the wandering cats or coyotes thwarted by the fence. We’ve tried vole traps. I’ve reached the conclusion that the voles are amused by the contraptions. They build tunnels around them, and yes sometimes I’m certain I hear snickering down the ubiquitous holes I find in every vegetable bed. But this past spring, I tried a new strategy that I think is likely responsible for the abundance of beautiful bulbs we harvested, all with no evidence of rodent nibbling.

The latest weapon in my vole-fighting arsenal.

The latest weapon in my vole-fighting arsenal.

Swedish growers developed the above product; the name translates as “plant-protection.” It is essentially super-concentrated blood meal combined with a vegetable oil that ensures the product sticks to the plants upon which it is applied. The Swedes developed it to protect tender trees from gnawing critters during their long, snowy winters. It is USDA approved for organic gardening operations. But I suspected that if I merely sprinkled the product above ground around the onions, the voles would tunnel in and devour the bulbs again. So I went underground, where they operate.

Onion plants freshly planted in their bed on Feb. 22, 2016.

Onion plants freshly planted in their bed on Feb. 22, 2016.

I took the above photo just after I finished planting the onion starts in their bed full of compost and supplemented with an organic root crop fertilizer. Onions like two things: plenty of nutrients, and a steady supply of water. Mine got both this year.

I always order onion plants, because in my part of North Carolina, the plants need to be in the ground as early in the spring growing season as you can manage. Companies that sell onion starts, as these skinny baby plants are called, contract with growers in the deep south, where their climate allows them to get seedlings going in late winter. The starts are shipped to customers when the growing season for onions is about to begin for a given area. My starts showed up on Feb. 20, and I was able to plant them on Feb. 22.

They don't look like much when you first plant them.

They don’t look like much when you first plant them.

February in my area was mild and relatively dry this year. I was thus able to clear and prepare my spring vegetable beds much earlier than usual. I cleared the onion bed first, because I knew I would need it first, so it was ready to go when my starts arrived, except for the implementation of my new anti-vole strategy. I decided to dig a trench outside the entire perimeter of the bed — about 6-8 inches deep — the level where I usually encounter the vole subway system. Inside the trench, I liberally sprinkled Plantskydd. The strong odor of dried (bovine) blood is supposed to repel rodents — and even deer. My results indicate that this is true.

It would be interesting to conduct an experiment that compared this product to the less expensive blood meal product you can buy from organic suppliers. I didn’t, because I didn’t want to take a chance on losing some of my crop. My suspicion is that Plantskydd is superior because it is super-concentrated, and because the vegetable oil mixed with it allows the dried blood to persist longer in the soil than regular blood meal. All I know for certain is that when we harvested our onions, we did not find a single vole tunnel in that bed. I am sold on the efficacy of Plantskydd.

The onion bed on April 30, 2016.

The onion bed on April 30, 2016.

We grew two varieties of onions this year:

  • Yellow Granex Hybrid — These are short-day-length Vidalia-type onions; this is the go-to onion variety for my region. They are sweet, large and slightly flattened, with light yellow skin and flesh. They do not store well.
  • Candy Hybrid — This intermediate-day-length onion was a bit of a gamble. Theoretically, it is less sensitive to the day-length issues that limit folks in my region to a few onion varieties. When I read they stored well, produced softball-sized bulbs, and were extra sweet with mild, white flesh, I decided they were worth the risk.

The onion bed on April 30 with an adjacent bed of young salad greens.

The onion bed on April 30 with an adjacent bed of young salad greens behind it. Candy onions are on the left end; Yellow Granex plants are on the right end.

Spring rains came fairly regularly this year, which hasn’t happened in quite a few seasons. It had also rained enough during the winter to fill the shallow well that I use to water the vegetables; this has not often been the case in recent springs. My onion bed received about an inch of water every week from late February through the end of May. I’m fairly certain this was the other reason our harvest was so successful.

Onion bed just before first harvest on May 25.

Onion bed just before first harvest on May 25.

Onions are ready to harvest when the green stem at the base of the leaves where it attaches to the bulb flops over. The Yellow Granex plants (left end in the above photo) flopped over before the Candy plants surrendered to Summer’s impending arrival.

We hung the harvested Yellow Granex bulbs -- leaves still attached -- to anything handy in the garage. In this case, our push mower was drafted into onion-curing duty.

We hung the harvested Yellow Granex bulbs — leaves still attached — to anything handy in the garage. In this case, our push mower was drafted into onion-curing duty.

The heat of early summer, perhaps combined with the disturbance created by harvesting the Yellow Granex end of the bed, seemed to push the Candy bulbs into accelerating their production cycle.

By May 31, some of the Candy plants were flopping over, ready to be harvested.

By May 31, some of the Candy plants were flopping over, ready to be harvested.

I kept watering as needed, trying to encourage the last of the Candy plants to push just a few more bits of goodness into the maturing bulbs. But by June 19, we had pulled up the last of this variety.

The last of the Candy onion harvest on June 19.

The last of the Candy onion harvest on June 19.

I pulled the onions in the early morning, then left them on their beds for an hour or so, allowing the skins to toughen up a bit before I moved them to the garage. We found that the Candy onions actually tasted sweeter after we let them rest in our cool basement for a month or so. In the meantime, we devoured the Yellow Granex bulbs, since we knew they wouldn’t store as well.

One of Wonder Spouse’s favorite ways to cook our onions is to marinate them briefly with other summer veggies — such as squash, tomatoes, and fat portobello mushrooms — and then grill them just long enough to heat them up and give them a bit of yummy charred goodness.  Whatever meat he added to the mix played a distant second fiddle to those sweetly zingy grilled onions. My mouth is watering from that tasty memory as I type this.

I will definitely be employing my Plantskydd methodology for next spring’s onion crop. It will be interesting to see if I can repeat — or even better — my results. I used this product in a couple of other ways in my vegetable garden this year. I’ll tell you about those techniques soon, as I continue to review this year’s growing season.

Young pepper transplants in front of maturing onions on May 25. These peppers are still producing, thanks to   an unusually prolonged, frost-free fall.

Young pepper transplants in front of maturing onions on May 25. These peppers are still producing, thanks to an unusually prolonged, frost-free fall.

 

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A Perfect Opportunity to Fill a Landscape Gap – or Two: The NC Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Festival on May 21

Native Rhododendron flammeum in full bloom.

Native Rhododendron flammeum in full bloom.

If you’ve lived in the southeastern piedmont region of the United States for long, you’ve probably heard the oft-repeated phrase, “fall is for planting.” And it is a guideline worth taking seriously. But every spring, many gardeners get itchy planting fingers. I know that after my vegetables and ornamental annuals are planted, my eye begins to spot those places in my landscape that would benefit from a new plant or two. Or three – self-control is a challenge for me, I confess, when it comes to new plant acquisitions.

Sensitive Fern is so named for its sensitivity to frost.

Sensitive Fern is so named for its sensitivity to frost.

The reason we mostly plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in the fall around here is because the heat and often drought of our summer season can be very hard on newly added plants. So if you see a spot in your landscape that is crying out for a few choice additions this spring, follow two simple rules:

  1. Give the new plants extra attention throughout the summer and fall. Of course, mulch them well, and if we go into a drought, these new plants will need extra water, because their root systems will not have had a chance to grow deeply before the heat hits. If we get an exceptionally prolonged heat wave, consider shading the new additions if they appear to be adversely impacted by the searing sun.
  2. Add plants that are native to the southeastern United States. The reasons for planting natives are myriad. I’ve enumerated some in a previous post here. But from a purely practical perspective, native plants are best adapted to our growing conditions, so you can expect them to weather our summers better than non-native choices – as long as you site them correctly, of course.

Swamp Milkweed is a food plant for Monarch caterpillars and a nectar source for many butterfly species, including this Spicebush Swallowtail.

Swamp Milkweed is a food plant for Monarch caterpillars and a nectar source for many butterfly species, including this Spicebush Swallowtail.

It’s not too late to even build a whole new bed or two. Do you have a sunny spot you could turn into a pollinator garden? How about a spot where all the water drains in your yard? Such areas are ideal for rain gardens that can contain flowers, shrubs, and trees that benefit from extra water and can tolerate occasionally flooded root systems. Is your yard one big shade garden? There’s always room for a new fern or two, a new shade-loving wildflower, or one of the many great native shrubs that will provide four-season interest for you, and food and cover for native wildlife.

The Perfect Place to Score Some Choice Native Plants

Next Saturday, May 21, the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) is making it easy for us to find all the special natives we might need in one convenient location. The Garden is hosting their first ever Native Plant Festival from 4:00-8:00 p.m. Of course, the Garden will have many of its wonderful native plants for sale. But to make the event irresistible, they have invited several local nurseries that specialize in growing choice native plants to also sell their wares at this event. Several of these growers are not open to the public, so this is a unique chance to see and purchase native lovelies that you’ll never see at your local big box store’s “garden center.” Specifically, these nurseries (in alphabetical order) will be selling at this event:

My planting fingers are getting itchy just from typing that! These are all wonderful local growers, and I believe I am growing plants from all of them, except S&J, and that’s only because I just don’t grow that many carnivorous plants. These growers will be offering locally grown natives, and much of their stock comes from local sources. Yup, they often gather seeds and cuttings from natives growing in our region to ensure the plants will be best adapted to our local conditions. That is never the case at the big box stores.

The Purple Milkweeds I recently acquired from Growing Wild Nursery are just starting to open for business.

The Purple Milkweeds I recently acquired from Growing Wild Nursery are just starting to open for business.

But wait, there’s more!

This event isn’t just for gardeners. Bring your spouses, your kids, and your grandkids. There will be live music, food trucks, tree-climbing and giant bubble making, a sale of gently used gardening books, a raffle, and eleven local conservation organizations will have tables staffed with volunteers who can answer your questions about their groups. So while we gardeners are fondling our native options, our families can be enjoying all these other activities.

For the best selection of popular natives like this milkweed, come early.

For the best selection of popular natives like this milkweed, come early.

The event lasts until 8:00 p.m., but if you want the best selection of plants, I suggest you get there when the doors open at 4:00 p.m. You can grab what you want, then enjoy the music and food, and mingle with your fellow native plant lovers.

Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manager extraordinaire at the NCBG, was kind enough to share with me the list of goodies he’ll be offering for sale from his greenhouse at this event. Here are a few highlights.

  • If you want to begin or add to your milkweed collection for your Monarch butterfly habitat garden, he’ll have five different species for sale: Clasping Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, Longleaf Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Butterfly Milkweed. Growing conditions vary for these species, so you should be able to find at least one that will do well in your landscape.

Monarch caterpillars dining on Common Milkweed.

Monarch caterpillars dining on Common Milkweed.

  • He’ll be offering several interesting native vines, including Climbing Carolina Aster (Ampleaster carolinanus), Potato Bean (Apios americana), Leather flower (Clematis viorna), Large-leaved Dutchman’s Pipevine (Isotrema macrophylla), and Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).
  • He’ll have a really nice selection of native ferns, grasses, and sedges, gazillions of great native wildflower options, and some choice native shrubs and small trees ideally suited for tucking into empty spots around your yard.

The main food source of Spicebush Swallowtails, native Spicebushes provide gorgeous fall color for shady spots in your landscape.

The main food source of Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars, native Spicebushes provide gorgeous fall color for shady spots in your landscape.

Ya’ll come!

So, my fellow native plant gardening enthusiasts, spend some time this week pondering your home landscape. Now that everything has leafed out, it will be easier to spot any gaps where a native azalea might dazzle the eye, or a bed of ferns might soften a shady spot. Then tell your families about the great event you’ll all be going to on May 21. Food, music, and plants – it doesn’t get much better than that.

I’ll see you there!

 

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A Bird in the Hand

Ripe fruits of Solomon's Plume

Ripe fruits of Solomon’s Plume

Last week was too hot here, the heat made worse by the fact that most of the summer was unusually mild. Dust clouds rose with the slightest disturbance, lingering long in humid, stagnant air. It was not a week conducive to gardening.

Finally this past Sunday, cooler weather began to creep in, accompanied by clouds that dimmed what had been searing sun. Wonder Spouse immediately charged outdoors to catch up on tasks delayed by the heat, leaving our garage door open as he moved back and forth fetching tools, wheelbarrows, and assorted other necessities. His tasks did not require a second pair of hands, so I grabbed my camera and began acquainting myself with the latest developments on our five-acre jungle.

Fruits of Halesia diptera will turn light brown when they're fully ripe.

Fruits of Halesia diptera will turn light brown when they’re fully ripe.

Fruit — that was the takeaway message from this walk. Most plants are well into fruit/seed production, clearly aware of dwindling daylight and down-trending temperatures. The Solomon’s Plumes I added to a wildflower bed on the north side of my yard all made numerous berries this year, as you can see in the photo above. The empty stems you see likely tell the tale of a hungry bird or other critter sampling these bright red berries. I think they look especially festive mingling with the evergreen Christmas fern — another native to our region.

Pokeberry fruits

Pokeweed fruits

Giant magenta stalks of Pokeweed — easily 8 feet tall — bend from the weight of purple-black clusters of ripe berries. These are favorites with many of the avian inhabitants of my yard, as evidenced by purple-tinged splats of bird excrement deposited on my walks and decks.

Red Buckeye fruits

Red Buckeye fruits

Branches of the large Red Buckeye on our floodplain are touching the ground, bent from the weight of nearly ripe fruits. Soon the husks will split and the shiny nut-like fruits will tumble to the ground. These nuts are poisonous to people, but some wild inhabitant makes them disappear every year.

Hammocksweet Azalea

Hammocksweet Azalea

The greatest surprise during my walkabout was my Hammocksweet Azalea — in full, overpoweringly fragrant bloom at the base of my north-facing garden, close to the creek. I sited it there, because this deciduous azalea — the last to bloom for me every year — is native to wetland environments. The flowers are pure white, without a hint of ivory, and their fragrance is knock-your-socks-off sweet. If it were any closer to my house, I think the fragrance might be overpowering, especially as this shrub continues to grow.

Greenhead Coneflower

Green-Head Coneflower

September is the month that many large native yellow composite wildflowers adorn every corner of my yard, and many roadsides. I added Green-Head Coneflower to the mix, because I love the prominent seed heads it forms, as do the seed-eating birds that dwell nearby.

Mixed nasturtiums mingle and multiply

Mixed nasturtiums mingle and multiply

My vegetable garden is mostly done for the year. A few peppers linger, and some broccoli plants are struggling to grow beneath the shelter of their Reemay tent. Many of the beds are packed with fresh green sprouts of crimson clover, my winter cover crop of choice. But one bed is dominated by the lovely mix of nasturtiums above. Unimpressed by heat, drought, deluges, or anything else as far as I can tell, they bloom continuously, spreading wandering shoots in all directions, even mingling a bit with adjacent beds full of crimson clover. Their gentle rose-like scent is nothing short of heavenly.

I encountered a bit of wildlife as I made my way around my yard. I think perhaps they’d been hunkering down during the heat wave too. Like me, they were out and about in force during my morning walk. Bird song filled the air. Many toads greeted me in all parts of the yard. I’m always happy to see these insect-eaters. A Green Anole rushed out of a potted plant when I began watering it. It was bright green to blend with the vegetation, and if it hadn’t objected to being watered, I likely would have never noticed it. Five-lined skinks skittered across open ground and up and down trees. A Black Racer darted beneath an aster blooming by my front deck when I got too close; it had been trying to warm itself in the cloud-dimmed sun.

But the highlight of the day came after I had put up my camera and gone back outside to gather some tools in the garage. A frantic bird fluttered at the back windows, too confused to realize that its way out was the other way, through the open garage door.  It was an Eastern Phoebe, a small flycatcher common to my yard, thanks to the woodland creek — its preferred habitat — that borders our land.

I have spent many happy hours watching this beauty hunt from my back deck. Its keen eyes watch for flying insects. When it spots one, it leaps into the air, grabbing the bug on the wing, then returning to its perch to watch for more tidbits. Its aerial acrobatics are impressive, and its squeaky call, sounding more like a child’s squeeze doll than a bird, let’s me know it’s on bug patrol.

So when I discovered this distraught Eastern Phoebe desperately trying to escape our garage, I leapt into action. First, I opened all the other doors. Often this is enough to help a trapped bird find its way out. But this little one was unwilling to venture from the high window at the back of the garage. I next tried using a light-weight rake to reach up toward the bird, in the hopes that it would hop on and let me carry it out. This works surprisingly well with the occasional discombobulated hummingbird.

But not so for this Eastern Phoebe. Instead, it fluttered down the back wall, settling on a piece of plywood leaning against the wall, and mostly hidden by another, taller piece of plywood. I did the only thing I could think of. I quietly asked the little bird if it would allow me to pick it up with my hand and carry it to safety. It didn’t move, probably exhausted from its fruitless escape efforts. I chose to interpret its stillness as permission, gently reaching behind the plywood.

The poor, exhausted creature didn’t even struggle in my gentle grasp. I quietly thanked it for its cooperation as I carried it toward the front of the garage. I could feel its heartbeat thrumming through my fingers, otherwise feeling no movement. But as soon as we were clear of the garage, the soft brown bug hunter in my hand began to push against my grasp. I opened my palm and it immediately flew high into a nearby tree, apparently none the worse for its misadventure.

I closed all the garage doors to prevent further accidents, still feeling the heartbeat of that beautiful wild creature in my hand. Not for the first time, it occurred to me how blessed I am to live among the wild ones on our five acres of green chaos. So many people live their entire lives without ever feeling what it’s like to hold a bird in the hand.

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