Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Spirit of the Garden

When I got back from my adventure with our son Sean in Boston, Greg had a surprise for me.  He had installed my garden sprite while I was gone.

My sprite has graced 3 gardens now:  first in Mobile, Alabama, where we purchased her;  then in Clearwater, Kansas; and now in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida.

By the time we brought her home in Mobile, I had been gardening there for several years and I knew exactly where I wanted to place her.  However, in my subsequent two gardens, it has taken me a while to figure out where she should stand.  Greg and I had talked about where she should be in this yard, but I never dreamed he'd be able to set her up by himself!

Each time she gets placed, the garden suddenly feels graced by her presence.

Given the name of this blog, I've come to think of this statue as representing Gaia, the spirit of Earth.  She becomes my touchstone as I make decisions about caring for the land over which she stands guard.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Pollinators and Other Creatures in the Garden

For the first time in quite a while, I was able to slip outside and take a few photos in the yard and gardens yesterday.  I didn't get great shots and I haven't had time to identify the animals, mainly insects, that I found, but I thought you might enjoy seeing them anyway.

I thought I was off to a great start when I found this black-winged damselfly as soon as I stepped off the back patio.  He was resting on a leaf of blue-eyed grass.

While I was taking the damselfly's photo, I noticed movement on the ground, in the verbena, about 2' away.  Doing some minor poking around, I was able to get a quick shot of this good-sized wolf spider lurking in the vegetation.

Next I walked around to the mailbox area, with its gay skirt of blooming gaillardia and butterfly milkweed.  Over the last month, I've seen more pollinators in this little 6 square foot area than in the rest of the yard combined, I think.  This little bee was busily gathering pollen from the gaillardia.

After the bee flew off, at first I didn't see any other action, then I noticed a colorful wasp hanging around.  This photo is rather blurry, but I wanted to show the overall markings of this gal...

...before I shared my favorite shot, which shows how her big, compound eye curves around the base of the antenna on her face.

Isn't that an amazing detail?!

Last of all, I found several insects on the aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis), despite its diminutive size and somewhat anemic appearance so far in my garden.  Truthfully, I only really noticed ONE insect at first - this small, dark bee....

...but note the ants that were also on the flowers.  I didn't see them until I downloaded the photo and magnified it. There was also a tiny fly hanging around, but I didn't get a clear enough photo of that one to share.

So that, fellow gardeners, completes the portfolio of "Pollinators & Others" that I found during my 25 minute walkabout yesterday afternoon.  I was a little disappointed not to find more insect life, but it's early days/months/years in my gardens here, so I guess it's not too surprising that the diversity is minimal.  I'm hearing, too, that insect life is on a major decline throughout the country, so maybe my quiet yard is just indicative of a larger problem.

Time will tell.  Meanwhile, I'm doing what I can, where I can - and enjoying the rewards that I am given.  I'll just hope to see more on another day.

Update on the Florida Scrub Skullcap

I should have waited a couple weeks before highlighting the Florida scrub skullcap (Scutellaria arenicola) in a post.  When I got back from my trip to Boston, where I helped to create a pollinator garden for Sean, the skullcaps were in full bloom.  How full of blossoms the plants are and what a beautiful blue those blooms are!

You can see from the number of flowers dropped on the ground that they've been blooming for a while and were probably even a bit showier than they are in this photo.

Just for kicks and giggles, here are a couple closeups.  The first is of the blooms...

...and the second is of a bloom spike about to break into full bloom.

This is their first year!  I am so glad that I picked these up from Dara and I hope they continue to do well and even increase in future years.

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Satellite Garden for Boston

Several years ago our son purchased a condo in Somerville, Massachusetts.  As is typical in a large metropolitan area, there isn't much land around the building, but Sean's been talking with me about creating a pollinator garden on the small plot that he has.  Over the 4th of July weekend, we were finally able to make that happen.

Here is the space that we started with.....

Of course, since we're talking an area that has been built on for over a century, there was plant material already in place.  Most of it was exotic, if not exotic AND invasive:  black swallow-wort (a vine related to milkweed), Vinca minor, white sweet clover, crabgrass, fescue, and a cranesbill of some sort.  We removed all of these except the cranesbill, which didn't seem to be invasive and which was creating a nice small carpet with a few purple flowers.

Then there were the native plants:  an oak seedling, 2 maple seedlings, lots of hay fern, and and a couple violets.  Pretty as the hay fern was, it was obviously too aggressive for this small an area, so we reluctantly removed it.  There was still plenty of it on the north side of the house. Of course, the tree seedlings had to go, too.  This is definitely not a big enough space for an oak or maple tree.  We did try to keep the violets...although they got pretty mangled during the whole process.

The large shrub at the north end of the garden space is an old privet which technically belongs to the next door neighbor, so we didn't try to do anything with it.  There is black swallow-wort and Boston ivy growing up in it, as well as a maple seedling or two, so Sean will have to keep a close eye on it to keep those plants from infringing on his new pollinator garden.

My biggest concern for this project was finding appropriate, non-pesticide treated, native plants to form the biological base of the new garden.  Searching online, I located Garden in the Woods, a nature area run by the New England Wildflower Society.  It's in Framingham, which isn't too far out of the city, and they sell native plants.  We fired up the cell phone navigation system and made our way out there on Saturday morning.  Woohoo!  Paydirt!  Even in early July, long after sensible people have put in their new gardens or renovated their old ones, Garden in the Woods still had a nice selection of Massachusetts' native plants.  My only regret in going there was that we didn't have time to hike their trails.

On the way back, with Sean's car mostly full of native perennials, we stopped at Russell's Garden Center and bought a few tools, compost and mulch (plus a small butterfly milkweed).  Now the car was really loaded down.

I should have taken a photo of the car, but I didn't think about it. I was too psyched about getting busy, digging in the dirt.

Luckily for me, I got to be the "consultant".  Sean did the vast majority of the actual physical labor, but I got to get my hands dirty enough to feel like an integral part of the project.  The steps were pretty basic: we pulled out and discarded all the plants that we didn't want, making sure that we got as many of their roots as possible, then we spread a layer of compost over the open soil to be worked in as we planted the new perennials.  Fortuitously, the soil turned out to be better than I expected.  Next we placed the plants and Sean dug the holes - same depth as the pot, but twice as wide - before he planted each new garden member carefully, being careful to loosen the root balls as appropriate and to water each one in thoroughly.  The final step was to mulch.

By Sunday afternoon, here is what Sean's new pollinator garden looked like....

The plant list includes red moss phlox (Phlox subulata 'Scarlet Flame'), red bearberry (Arctostaphylas uva-ursi), cranesbill (Geranium sp.), violets (Viola sp.), lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), foxglove penstemon (Penstemon digitalis), Nicky summer phlox (Phlox paniculata 'Nicky'), showy coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), spike blazing star (Liatris spicata), Magnus eastern purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus'), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus), and New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

The poke and common milkweed will move around;  Sean will just pull out any that come up in a place that he finds displeasing.  Hopefully the monarchs will eventually come to visit - and maybe even to lay eggs.

The garden is planted fairly densely;  the look will hopefully be "cottage garden" in style.   I'm really excited to see how it grows and matures over the next few years.  Most of all, I'm looking forward to seeing the pollinators that it will be supporting.  Every little bit helps!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Watching the Gardens Evolve: Florida Scrub Skullcap

Sometimes I really irritate myself.  When I went to look for a picture of how an area of the garden looked when we first planted it earlier this spring, I realized that I had taken exactly zero closeup photos.  I remember thinking that the garden looked much too bare to be worth photographing.  Good grief - SURELY by now I would know how much fun it is to watch the evolution of growing things throughout the seasons!

Anyway, here is the best I can do:  a greatly enlarged (and therefore fuzzy) "closeup" of one corner of my newly planted front flower beds, taken on April 17th of this spring....

I want you to notice the 3 plants that are right at the corner, in the center of the photo.  The tall, rather leggy plant is Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis).   The 2 shorties in front of it are Florida scrub skullcaps (Scutellaria arenicola) that I purchased, on a whim, from Dara at 7 Pines Native Plant Nursery.

I love skullcaps, but I knew nothing about this particular species except what Dara told me.  Since I really didn't know what I was getting, my hopes were high, but my expectations were pretty low.  Frankly, I'd be happy if these 2 plants liked where I planted them enough to survive without looking too bedraggled.

Here's what those 3 plants look like right now.  I've been enjoying the Ohio spiderwort, which has been blooming every day for weeks and weeks.  That shade of blue just lifts my spirits.  I had literally forgotten about the scrub skullcap, so I was shocked to realize, yesterday morning, that some of the blue in that corner of the garden was actually coming from a bloom spike on the Florida scrub skullcaps.  How exciting!

Looking at this closer photo, the skullcap bloom spike is going diagonally from the lower right hand corner to about 2/3 of the way to the upper left hand corner.  The blue in the background at the top comes from the spiderwort blossoms.

I do need to get a closer photo of the blossoms for you..... 

Comparing my plants to those I see in pictures online, I think these 2 individuals may be getting a little too much water.  The plants seem taller than expected and rather floppy, which I didn't anticipate, and the bloom spike a little too elongated.  Greg's wanting to get our grass up to a reasonable standard, since we're living in a neighborhood, so we're using the sprinkler system that was here when we purchased our home.  I don't think these plants need or particularly want the extra water, but hopefully it won't hurt them too much either.  Certainly you don't get much better drainage than our highly sandy soil.

I'll be watching these guys a lot more carefully in the upcoming days.  What a great surprise on a hot and humid mid-June morning!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Rain Lily Rescue

About a week before the house down the street from us was due to be torn down, due to terminal decrepitude, I noticed several pink trumpets peeking out from under the base of a large popcorn tree seedling in the badly overgrown yard.  On the day that demolition began, and despite a neighbor assuring me that "they won't care", I finally called the company name on the sign out front and asked for permission to dig these plants.  I was pretty sure they were pink rain lilies.

The male voice on the other end of the phone authoritatively told me that I was welcome to have any plants that I wanted to dig, anywhere in the yard.  I gave him my name, to be sure that he knew who I was, and decided to come back that evening after the demolition had stopped for the day.

That evening Greg and I drove down and parked in front of the now-cordoned-off yard.  A middle-aged man and his 10 year old son were on the sidewalk, examining the now partially demolished house.  When Greg and I ducked under the tape and started to dig, they decided it was okay if they ducked under the tape, too, and they proceeded to walk all around the partially wrecked house, looking at it closely.

As I started digging, I noticed there were more rain lilies than I had estimated, but I saw no reason to leave any of them to be scraped away and hauled to the landfill.  While I dug and Greg held the popcorn tree sapling back for me, the man and his son started asking questions and continued to poke around.  I warned them that I had called to get permission to rescue the plants, but there was no change in the man's behavior.  It was dusk, so I couldn't afford to wait any longer and I kept digging.

It wasn't long before another car drove up and a man rather heatedly got out and came towards us, asking what we were doing.  I explained that I was rescuing the rain lilies, with permission and with my husband's help.  The other man just started asking questions about why the house was being demolished.

It turned out that the house had been purchased by a pair of brothers, one of whom had given me verbal permission over the phone and the other of whom was confronting us.  My only mistake was in not asking for the name of the man I was talking with on the phone that morning.

Before long, 2 other neighbors had joined us, including one who knew both me and the owner of the house.  We all just stood and talked for a while before I left the group and went over to finish my rescue operation before it got dark.  When I was done, I had 7 plastic grocery bags with healthy clumps of rain lilies in them.  I had also seen a few rattlesnake weed tubers fall out of the sandy soil as I dug, so I knew I was "rescuing" rattlesnake weed*, too.

Once I had the bags of rain lilies in the car and had put away my shovel, all without walking through the remains of the house or hurting myself, the owner visibly seemed to relax.  He told me that he'd been afraid someone was trying to salvage copper pipe from the house and that we'd get hurt in the wreckage.  When I asked if I could check out the back yard, too, to see if there were any plants worth salvaging, he readily gave his permission, with the caveat that I wait until demolition was complete.

Despite my good intentions, I haven't explored that back yard yet.  Frankly, it took quite a while just to get all of the pink rain lilies that I rescued safely tucked in.

Because of the rattlesnake weed issue, I decided that I needed to remove all of the "native soil" and plant just the bare bulbs, even though this isn't a good time of year to transplant rain lilies.  I put 4 groups of 7-10 bulbs of varying sizes around the yard - and I still had 6 plastic bags of rain lilies left.

At that point, I decided that I needed to approach this differently, so I set up a potting assembly area and started taking the bulbs out of the "contaminated" soil and planting them into nursery pots.  When I finally got to the last plastic bag, I opened it to find blooms trying desperately to reach the open air.

That clump of bulbs went directly into a big pot, rattlesnake weed be damned (for now).

For most of the time, as I pulled the rain lily bulbs out, I hand-sifted the soil, looking for small bulblets and rattlesnake weed tubers, which I carefully sorted out.  The rattlesnake weed tubers are in the upper left corner of the cookie sheet;  you can see how the plant gets its name.  The other piles are every other lump I came across, most of them small rain lily bulbs.  Sometimes it was hard to distinguish which was which, so I separated them all. then lumped like bulbets together and planted the questionable little bulbs in a separate pot, allowing me to monitor them more carefully. 

I lost count of all the rain lily bulbs I ended up with.

I now have the 4 clumps of rain lilies in the ground, plus 2 pots of bulbs that I simply filled with unsifted clumps that were sending up bloom spikes again, including the clump above.  That pair of pots probably has some rattlesnake weed in them, so I'm planning on emptying them during the winter and replanting just the rain lily bulbs.  I don't currently have rattlesnake weed in the yard, and I'd prefer to keep it that way if I can.

Besides those 6 groups, I ended up with one large clay dish and 14 one-gallon nursery pots filled with 5+ rain lily bulbs each, plus 2 pots chock full of bulbets and 1 pot of probable bulbets.

I also found several centipedes, a couple slugs, a piece of old brick, and half a dozen old "mummified" acorns while I was sifting.  The living animals were released into the garden.

Some of the rain lilies put on a flush of blooms while I was planting them.  Now there are quite a few new bloom spikes coming up again, a week later.

As the blooms have come and gone, I've been able to give my plants a more definitive identification:  Rosepink Zephyrlily, Zephyranthes grandiflora, according to the USDA Plant Database.  Most of the time, this species is simply called pink rain lilies.  I was correct in my original, tentative identification.  The USDA Plants Profile shows them as spottily native to the Southeast, although not listed as native to Okaloosa County, FL.  Some sources believe this species is more truly native to Mexico, Central America, and Colombia.

These little beauties are not hardy where the soil freezes, but I have seen them treated as a potted plant and either kept indoors year round or put outside in the summer and brought into a basement or semi-heated garage for the winter.

When all's said and done, I'm super happy with the results of my plant rescue - despite the few dicey moments when we were actually out digging.  My take home from that is, in the future, to be sure to get the name of anyone I receive permission from!

*Rattlesnake weed is also known as Florida betony.  Although it is a native plant, it is considered an extremely obnoxious lawn weed and is very difficult to eradicate.

Tall Grass Clumps By Lake - Weed or Not?

Over the course of the last year, Greg and I have been watching clumps of grass growing down by the lake on the lowest terrace.  He's been after me to get rid of them, arguing that they are weeds;  I've been resisting, feeling that they may be good plants with structural and wildlife value.  They do seem to form discrete clumps and the clumps are quite graceful and attractive.

I haven't been able to find a good grass site to identify them, however, and I don't have a good grass book for reference either.  The above photos were taken in early May.

This photo, of the ligule and sheath, was taken in early April.

For some reason, today has been the day that this identification problem has suddenly felt critical.  I e-mailed the local horticulture agent with the photos of the grass from April and May, but I haven't heard back from him.  So I started to write this blog post, asking for help from the blogging community.  Before I did that, however, I decided that I needed current  photos.

So I went down by the lake and took them.

Here's a different clump of the same species, showing the overall structure, ....

here are the ligules and sheaths,...

and here are the seed heads.

Upon looking at the pictures of the seed heads closely, my mind suddenly told me, "Paspalum."   It didn't tell me which Paspalum, though, so I went to the USDA Plant Profile Database and looked up the genus, checking the ranges given and photographs, if any.

I am sad to report that Greg was probably correct.

I am now pretty certain that this grass is Vasey Grass, Paspalum urvillei.  It is a native of South America and is considered invasive in Hawaii.  It is fairly widespread across the southern U.S. (not including Arizona and New Mexico) and is becoming a problem pasture weed in the Florida panhandle.

A weed is a plant that's out of place - and Vasey Grass is out of place in my yard.

So I've got some hot, sweaty work that needs to be done:  cutting off and bagging all the seedheads before the seeds drop, then rooting out the plants and freeing the soil for other, more desireable species.

On the plus side, though, I really like how the tall clump grass looks along the water's edge.  Now, what more desireable species can I plant there?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Smiling at Wasps

Just outside our kitchen window are the lower branches of a pignut hickory tree.  The leaves are typical for hickory in June - bright green, compound, and in pretty good condition, but nothing showy or unusual.  Often, when I look out the window, I see a wasp or two flying in and out of the leaves, seeming to inspect them top and bottom.

A few years ago I would have freaked out a bit.  Where was the wasp nest?  Would I get stung as I was changing out the hummingbird feeder water or emptying and refilling the small birdbath just below these branches?  What is that wasp DOING out there?!

Now I relax...and quietly thank each wasp I see.  Why this change in my attitude?

After living on this Earth for almost 60 years, I finally realized that wasps weren't my enemies, they were my friends.  The wasps I see inspecting the hickory leaves are looking for caterpillars to paralyze and take to their nest as food for their progeny.  Those very wasps are probably almost completely responsible for the fact that the hickory leaves still look good, even this early in the growing season.  To my knowledge, all wasp young are raised on meat, a.k.a. caterpillars and other insects/arthropods.  Some wasp species hunt cicadas, some wasp species hunt grasshoppers, some wasp species hunt spiders...and many wasp species hunt caterpillars.

Meanwhile, most adult wasps feed on nectar and/or pollen.  You can often see them feeding on flowers, as in my photo from Kansas, taken in October, 2014.

It's only in defense of their nest - their eggs and young and queen - that wasps generally get nasty-tempered, and many wasps are solitary nesters, so they don't get nasty-tempered even then.

Meanwhile, the female wasps patrol our yards and gardens all day long, hunting for the caterpillars or even grasshoppers munching on our plants.

Will I happily allow a paper wasp nest to be built right outside a commonly used doorway?  No.  However, I do allow mud daubers to build there, since they are solitary wasps and not aggressive.  Now, too, I allow paper wasp nests to be built in out-of-the-way places, although I do note carefully where they are, so I can steer clear of them.

It never ceases to amaze me how well "nature" works when we get out of its way.  It's never as scary as it seems before we take the time to realize what's actually going on.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Spanish Moss, Gray Beards on the Trees

Softening the branches on many of the trees in our neighborhood, Spanish moss drapes lazily down, creating a mood redolent of heat, humidity and southern tranquility.  I love it.  The streamers of Spanish moss were one of the features I fell in love with when I first drove down this street.

So I was rather shocked when one of our neighbors started talking about how he needed to find someone to take the moss out of his trees, because it was killing them.  I knew from my time in Mobile, Alabama, that Spanish moss is an epiphyte, a plant without roots that does NOT take nutrients from the plant that it is living on.  Epiphytes get all their water and nutrients directly from the air, rain and dust.  They are NOT parasitic, as mistletoe is, despite their similar location in the canopies of trees.

How could anyone not like this beautiful, graceful, gray-green plant that waves so softly in the slightest breeze?

It turns out that there are several serious, fairly widespread misconceptions about Spanish moss.  One of the saddest and most damaging of these misconceptions is that it will harm your trees.  The truth is that Spanish moss will often colonize trees that are already beginning to decline, growing more rapidly than on nearby, healthier trees due to the increased light that occurs in the thinning canopies of the trees that are already dying.  This has made it all too easy to blame the trees' decline on the Spanish moss.

The only "damage" that Spanish moss will actually do to a healthy tree is to partially shade the leaves of the lower branches and, if it's heavily festooning a tree, increase the wind resistance should the tree be in an area unlucky enough to be hit by a hurricane.  The photo above is the canopy of the same tree in the previous photo. The tree is healthy and actively growing, despite having a large amount of Spanish moss growing on it.

Even the concern that large collections of Spanish moss can "weigh down" a branch and cause it to fall appear to be mistaken - Spanish moss is very lightweight and branches that have fallen are almost always found to have other structural weaknesses that brought them down.

So what is this odd plant?  Is it, indeed, even a plant?

Yes, indeed, Spanish moss IS a plant.  Going by the scientific name of Tillandsia usneoides, Spanish moss is actually a flowering plant in the pineapple family!  It is NOT a moss and it is NOT Spanish.  Apparently, if you look really closely during the summer months, you can see small blooms that are variously reported to be green, bluish, or yellow.  Not having looked for said blossoms, I hadn't noticed them before...but I looked for them today and I found them.   Do you see the bloom in the photo above?  Here is a closeup of it....

They are apparently even mildly fragrant.  Here is another flower, more of a true yellow in color.

Although one of the primary structures of Spanish moss is its long stem, which can reach 20 feet or more in length, there is no functional xylem or phloem in the plant.  Each cell either gathers its nutrients and moisture directly from the air and photosynthesizes energy itself or it gets its resources from a neighboring cell.  There are small, very narrow leaves.  Both the stems and leaves are covered with overlapping gray scales that are important in capturing the airborne water and nutrients that sustain this plant.

Not surprisingly since it's native to this area, Spanish moss is actually an important plant for wildlife.  Several birds use it extensively for nesting material, including the Baltimore Oriole.  The Northern Parula (warbler) is said to nest where Spanish moss and other similar lichens occur, building its nest inside the hanging festoons.  There is even a spider that lives only in Spanish moss; many other animals use it for shelter or as foraging grounds.

Looking straight up into the middle of hanging Spanish moss, you can see how nests could be hidden in the larger clumps.

Humans have traditionally used Spanish moss, too.  Native Americans made a tea from it to help cure fever and chills, and they used Spanish moss fibers in clothing, bedding, and to make rope.  They added Spanish moss to clay to make bricks and pottery stronger, and they used it to help start fires and to fire pottery.  The European settlers came to use Spanish moss, too.  Surprisingly, I learned that the seats of Model T Fords were actually stuffed with Spanish moss, as were other types of cushions and mattresses.  It was sometimes used as insulation in homes.

Even today, Spanish moss is used frequently in floral arrangements and for craft projects.  It is said to make an excellent mulch for plant beds, which I intend to try out.  It is common here to see piles of Spanish moss put out for the city waste trucks to pick up;  why not scavenge some of it, keeping it from the landfill in the process?  It's free, it's a beautiful gray-green color, and it's organic.  What's not to like?

As I did research for this post, I saw one final use mentioned for Spanish moss:  apparently in some locales it is draped from fences or wires as a privacy screen between neighbors!  I haven't seen that on Pinterest yet, but I'll bet some artful soul could really make an interesting backyard feature using the general concept.

Speaking of Spanish moss and landscape features, Mobile, Alabama, apparently used to be known for the gracious live oaks, heavily festooned with Spanish moss, that lined many of its streets.  When we lived there, we were told that the Spanish moss was declining, though, due to air pollution.  Certainly there is not much Spanish moss left in Mobile.  What little I've seen there tends to be on the back streets, which fits well with the idea that air pollution decreases its viability.

Of course, when I think about it, Spanish moss IS an epiphyte - a plant that gets all its nutrients and water from the air, rain and dust.  Is it so surprising, then, that poor air quality would decrease its health and therefore its ability to survive and reproduce?

How does Spanish moss actually reproduce?  It seems atmospheric, not reproductively vibrant.  However, as mentioned above, it's a flowering plant.  Thus, it produces (tiny) seeds that can and do produce new plants.  More frequently, though, Spanish moss probably spreads by wind or by animals such as birds, which carry small pieces of the plant from tree to tree as they move around.

Spreading across the landscape as if by magic, creating a mystical feeling by its very presence, Spanish moss is a special plant that creates a unique sense of place as it grows.  I'm excited to be able to encourage it here in our own personal landscape.