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While they sleep …

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia 'Elizabeth'

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’

Just before dawn this morning, thick frost glimmered in the fading light of a full moon. As the sun topped the nearby ridge, surfaces sparkled — walks, benches, lawn, even the trees. The thermometer on my cold hill bottomed out at 26 degrees Fahrenheit before the strengthening Spring sun began its work — Winter cold. Too cold.

The Spring Peepers, which have lustily chorused off and on since late December, have been utterly silent for four days. The American Toads, which had added their exquisite soprano trilling descant to the thrumming of the Peepers two weeks ago, have also gone quiet. The Green Anoles, which sunned themselves on our gutters on warm days all winter, have not ventured from their sleeping chambers in a week. To be sure, our weather has not been fit for cold-blooded amphibians and reptiles.

The plants in my yard agree. Half-open flower buds have opened no further. Some have browned from freeze damage. Others seem suspended in time, waiting for temperatures that match the astronomical calendar, knowing the equinox was last week, wondering like me, I imagine, why March turned so cruel in its waning days.

But while the plants and cold-blooded animals sleep, the warm-blooded ones are scrounging for food. A herd of five pregnant does devours every blade of green from our floodplain at dusk, when they emerge from their hiding places on the other side of the creek. Dark shadows in darkening light, they drift around the trees, more ghosts than flesh in the dimness.

The birds, on the other hand, have refused to concede to Spring’s reluctant arrival. Growing flocks of American Robins patrol the landscape, plucking fat earthworms from rain-moistened soil, muttering in delight at each new-found morsel.

The Red-shouldered Hawks circle the floodplain, then dive at crowded bird feeders in the hopes of pinning a slow-moving Mourning Dove or a greedy Red-winged Blackbird that lingers too long for one more bite. When the birds elude their grasp, they settle for patrolling the ground, pulling back fallen leaves with sharp yellow talons to reveal earthworms, which they greedily devour. When they’ve had their fill, they fly off with more; hungry nestlings must be fed, even while their favorite cold-blooded prey sleep securely in their winter hide-outs.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Flocks of Purple Finches grow daily. I think groups migrating from further south have heard about the snows in their summer homes up north. They linger at my feeders — free food — all you can eat! A pair of Carolina Wrens busily inspect flower pots, deck underpinnings, and an open garage for potential nesting sites. Wood Ducks paddle up and down the creek, preferring water warmer than the air.

A Great Blue Heron stalks from sand bar to sand bar. Rising into the air on massive wings, its majestic flight starkly contrasts with its harsh squawk of frustration at finding nothing tasty.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Suet feeders are perpetually busy from dawn to full darkness. Woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding nestlings, and insects are difficult to find in the frigid air. They are joined by increasing numbers of warblers, which must be arriving for spring nesting season. Like the woodpeckers, suet is their fall-back food until the insects finally emerge.

This morning as I filled the feeders, I heard the characteristic melodic gurgling call of Brown-headed Cowbirds. They usually arrive a few days after the warblers, lingering at my feeders until they pair off, and egg-heavy females deposit their eggs in the nests of unwary warblers.

Warm-blooded life does not seem to have the luxury of waiting for Spring to assert itself. Somehow it must carry on despite the dearth of natural food and warming nights. I keep my feeders filled and birdhouses clean, in the hopes that this eases their struggle a bit — for my local population anyway.

The weather forecasters predict that our perseverance will be rewarded. Warmer days are promised soon. I think perhaps they might be right. I spotted a bright yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail this afternoon struggling to make headway against a gusty northwest wind.

Any minute now, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will be arriving for their spring nesting season. I’d best dust off their feeders ASAP, because their usual early food sources — blooms of Red Buckeye and Eastern Columbine — remain tightly closed against the unseasonable chill.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Like the warm-blooded life surrounding me, my garden and I must persevere. Lettuce transplants huddle beneath garden fabric in the vegetable garden. I’ve been afraid to check on them, fearing that lifting the fabric might chill them more. And the tomato and pepper seeds I sowed a week ago have mostly germinated in the greenhouse. I’ve raised the thermostat to reduce the chances of cold air being fanned onto new-born seedlings.

Gardening is always an act of faith. This season, however, is requiring a bit more of it than usual. Believe, my friends. Soon we’ll be up to our knees in tall grass, mosquitoes, and summer squash.

But don’t blink. I have a feeling we’re mostly skipping Spring this year.

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Trilliums, Toads, and Veggies

New wildflower additions

I’ve mentioned before that the five acres I’ve shared with Wonder Spouse (and myriad critters and plants) for the last 22 years started out pretty bare. The previous owner kept the huge canopy trees (thank goodness!), but eradicated every understory tree except dogwood. There was no shrub layer, and no herbaceous layer characteristic of Piedmont woodlands, except in the swampy parts of the floodplain and on a rocky north slope that he couldn’t mow.

For two decades, we’ve been adding understory tree and shrub species, slowly building the vegetation layers needed to create a rich woodland floor. Finally, in the last few years, I’m starting to see my dream realized. Inside the acre or so enclosed by deer fencing on the north side of our property, I’ve been planting choice wildflower specimens, nestling them beneath flourishing deciduous azaleas, viburnums, and vacciniums. This spring, I decided the time was right to add some of my favorite spring ephemeral wildflowers: trilliums.

Of course, I turned to my favorite local nursery that specializes in natives and choice non-natives. They are just a fifteen-minute drive from my house, and thus pose a constant temptation, which I have learned to — mostly — resist. I almost never impulsively buy a plant now. My yard is starting to fill out. Room for choice additions is becoming limited, so I plan my new acquisitions carefully.

I have always thought trilliums were especially lovely spring wildflowers. The three-leaved and three-petaledl beauties can be breathtaking when massed on a cool, moist hill. I bought one of each of the four species my local nursery sells: Trillium erectum (Purple Trillium), T. flexipes (White Nodding Trillium), T. grandiflorum (Great White Trillium), and T. luteum (Yellow Trillium). When I transplanted them two days ago, all four plants had impressively healthy root systems and multiple growing shoots. I am psyched.

According to the North Carolina Native Plant Society‘s handy dandy Web site, only the Great White Trillium occurs naturally in the Piedmont of my state. The other three are natives of the NC mountains. But as with any plant, if I can sufficiently emulate the conditions under which my mountain trillium acquisitions occur, I should be able to help them flourish in my yard.

The north side of my yard stays cooler — more like the mountains, I’m hoping. And the deciduous shade layers under which my just-planted trilliums are planted should encourage them to settle in and adapt to their new homes. They are buried in rich, loamy soil and surrounded by leaf mulch. My big challenge will be keeping them adequately watered. I am determined that they will not just survive, but flourish. These four treasures will get water no matter how much the drought deepens.

While I planted my new babies, I realized that the constant droning of the Spring Peepers was now enhanced by the soprano descant trilling of American Toads. They are singing three weeks earlier than last year. I know because I wrote about the arrival of their songs here. Perhaps early egg-laying will improve the chances that their birth puddles remain full long enough for tadpoles to become new toads — if a late freeze doesn’t zap them. Fingers crossed for my amphibian serenaders.

Meanwhile, my little greenhouse is fast becoming Veggie Central. I had hoped to have the spring veggie starts transplanted into the garden by now, but weather and an uninvited virus that invaded our household have thrown off my timetable. Note the size of the lettuces that I photographed two days ago:

I mentioned that I also started the Super Marzano tomatoes a few weeks ago. They all germinated and are growing with enthusiasm on the greenhouse shelf beside the peppers which also recently exited the germination chamber. Here they are two days ago:

The tomatoes are top left; the peppers to the right. The germination chamber is now full of seeds I sowed two days ago. They include all the remaining tomato varieties, three basil varieties, and two flower varieties. As of this morning, nothing had germinated, but it’s early. I’m betting I’ll have newly emerged seedlings by next week.

It’s an exciting time in the garden. As evidenced by the toad trilling, plants and animals all seem to be two to three weeks ahead of where they were last year. Will their gamble on early spring pay off? Or will late-breaking winter weather destroy their chances of reproductive success? I have no idea, but I can tell you that after the frightening weather currently heading my way passes by tomorrow, the forecast calls for below-normal temperatures for next week.

In truth, the success or failure of my plantings seems completely unimportant right now. My thoughts and prayers are with the folks living on the other side of the NC mountains, where killer tornadoes continue to ravage their landscape.

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Why we don’t garden along our roadfront

Drunk drivers abuse road front — again

Twenty-one years ago when Wonder Spouse and I moved out here, we lived on a country road. Local traffic consisted of commuters, tractors, and the occasional dump truck. About ten years ago, the county put a water line down the road; suburban sprawl followed fast. Several new schools nearby attracted many little ticky-tacky new subdivisions, most of which are less than half-occupied, thanks to the real estate crash. Still, traffic is constant now, every hour of every day.

We expected this to happen, which is why we were attracted to our house. It sits back about 100 yards from the road; a line of mature pines with an overgrown understory mix of trees and shrubs creates a protective vegetative wall that is almost impenetrable during the growing season, and pretty serviceable as a winter privacy screen too.

Early on, we thought briefly about landscaping the front of the tree line where it faces the road, but the trash soon led us to change our minds. We routinely pick up fast food debris, random papers, trash that falls off trucks on the way to the dump, and on weekends, alcohol containers abound.  The road is straight in front of our house — a favorite spot for teenage drag racing, but we’ve seen some serious car-tree collisions on the curvier portions of our road.

This morning when Wonder Spouse went to retrieve the paper, he found the paper box separated from its supportive stake, the two pieces deposited 25 or so feet from where they had been standing the day before. From the tracks, we figure a speeding car charged into the paper box, bounced into the air as it hit a ditch, then landed hard and kept going another twenty or so feet until a pine tree finally halted its forward momentum. You can see some of the gouging tire tracks in the above photo.

The car, which Wonder Spouse surmises was likely an older model Oldsmobile, left parts of itself on top of the gouges of earth and around the wounded tree trunks. Three hubcaps, in various states of wholeness, were strewn all over, along with broken bits of grill, headlights, and what Wonder Spouse identified as a piece of fan belt. Frankly, we’re amazed that the car was able to drive away under its own power — and that we weren’t awakened by what must have been quite a crash. The remains included:

Mangled paper box stake

Damaged pine with Oldsmobile debris

Partial hubcap in the ditch

Whole hubcap deeper in the brush

Same hubcap with fresh beer label in foreground

Close-up of the beer label

Third hubcap with missing center logo. The beer bottle in the foreground had beer still inside.

We found the center logo piece a few feet from the hubcap. We also found a couple of personal items that the driver/car occupants must have dropped as they staggered around the car in their drunken stupors:

They’ll need a new cell phone car charger.

And a new headset.

And, finally, here’s the small pile of damaged trees/shrubs that Wonder Spouse pulled out because the plants were too damaged to recover:

Vegetative casualties

Knowing how little the drivers speeding past my home care about my property, I remain disinclined to enhance their view of it. Having seen the litter tossed on the yards of my neighbors who have beautified their road fronts, I just don’t see the return on labor investment. And it would break my heart to see innocent plant specimens cut down in the night by beer-guzzling idiots.

As Wonder Spouse so elegantly put it while we were cleaning up the mess, “At least we didn’t find any bodies.”

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Early Summer Brings Chinese Dogwood Blooms

Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) are very lovely trees. Like our native dogwoods, the showy parts of the flower are actually four white bracts; the actual flower is the unimpressive-looking middle.  Chinese dogwoods in my yard seem to be maturing to about the same height as my native dogwoods — maybe a tad shorter. They share the same lateral branching pattern that makes a blooming dogwood appear to float beneath the taller canopy trees.

Unlike our native dogwoods, which finished blooming in my yard back in April, the Chinese dogwoods begin blooming for me in mid-May. And one special variety I grow — Cornus kousa var. angustata — is just now reaching peak bloom. Here’s a close-up of one blooming branch to give you a sense of the spectacular flower-power of this tree:

Cornus kousa var. angustata

You can see that the flowers differ subtly from those of our native dogwood. I think of them as pointier. Here’s a close-up of the flowers:

Cornus kousa var. angustata flower close-up

See the roundish bump in the middle? That’s the early stage of one of the fruits forming. Chinese dogwoods don’t produce the berry-like drupes that our native dogwoods produce. Instead, the fruits are pinkish-red and look a bit like raspberries. It always amazes me how completely different the fruits of these two species are, because they look so much alike in other ways. Birds don’t seem to like these fruits as much as they do those of our native dogwoods, but the squirrels delight in them every early fall when the tree becomes loaded with these reddish globes.

One more astonishing thing about this particular variety — it’s evergreen. In Zone 7 and above, the tree remains reliably evergreen all winter long. That’s not to say it remains pristinely perfect. A deep cold snap or an ice storm will leave my tree looking ragged around the edges until the new growth of spring. But many winters, it’s quite eye-catching as it sits near my front door in January — clearly a dogwood — but with green leaves!

Actually, the leaves in winter become tinged with a deep maroon, which gives the tree a richness it lacks in summer. Now imagine this evergreen dogwood loaded down with raspberry-like fruits in early fall. Talk about four-season interest! Chinese dogwoods have one more asset — they are resistant to most of the diseases that plague our native dogwoods.

I will never forsake our glorious native dogwoods. I’ve already described how much I love them here. But Chinese dogwoods in my landscape extend the blooming period of this genus well into early summer, and the novelty of my evergreen dogwood — which is now after 18 years about 18 feet tall and 15 feet wide — is something I don’t ever think I’ll grow tired of enjoying. Here’s a parting shot of most of the tree, which graces one edge of our front deck:

Evergreen Chinese Dogwood in bloom

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Hummingbird Heaven

Yesterday, I showed you the caterpillar that ate my native coral honeysuckle, but you didn’t get a chance to appreciate why I love this vine so much. So today, I offer you a photo of this beauty in its full flush of spring bloom:

Native Coral Honeysuckle

The flowers are not fragrant, but the bright red tubular flowers have no difficulty attracting visitors. Hummingbirds defend it the same way they defend favorite feeders. Numerous butterflies also stop by for drinks. Some years, the Carolina Wrens nest deep inside the tangle of vines.

The foliage is nice too — a deep blue-green that will endure through milder winters.

As I said yesterday, my variety is Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler.’ Several re-blooming varieties are now available.

The deer only take an occasional passing bite of the vine growing on my trellis. But when I tried to encourage another plant to ramble over a large stump in an unprotected area, the deer ate it to the ground.

It looks lovely on a trellis, creating a vertical wall of color animated by visiting pollinators. If you’ve got a semi-sunny spot for a trellis, consider the coral honeysuckle option. I guarantee you’ll be pleased.

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