Thursday, June 07, 2018

The Icon Tree

Have you ever read Stanley Kunitz's The Wild Braid?  If you haven't, you should.  It's a marvelous meditation on the intersection between gardening and poetry, one of those books I like to pull out and dip into every so often.  Each time I reread it, I find something new that stands out.

Several months ago, looking (I think) for references to winter solstice, I pulled The Wild Braid back off my shelf and revisited it.  While I didn't find anything that spoke to me about winter solstice, I did find a passage about an old tree in his Provincetown garden that resonated, so I marked the passage to blog about.  As I've thought back to that passage over the intervening time, I've remembered his old tree as an aging eyesore that became an "icon tree" in his garden.

Speaking of aging eyesores, smack dab in the center of our view of the lake, there's a dying laurel oak down by our dock. 

As I went about daily life this winter and spring, occasionally I'd think about the blog post waiting to be written.  Somehow our gaunt and decrepit laurel oak merged in my mind with that dying cherry, tended by Kunitz in his long ago Provincetown garden.  I came to think of this laurel oak as our garden's "icon tree".

Well, 6 months later I'm finally getting around to writing that blog post.  I pulled The Wild Braid out of the stack of books by the recliner to refresh my memory by rereading the passage before beginning.  Scanning the passages I'd marked, I could find no reference to an "icon tree".

Puzzled, I went back and looked harder.  I'd marked a section about a tree that Kunitz called the lamentation tree (p. 58-61).  Could that be the tree I was remembering as the "icon tree"?  As I reread the section closely, I decided that it was.  Funny how our minds play tricks on us!

"When we first moved in, there was a wild cherry tree, rather nondescript, growing there in a bed of ivy by the cellar door in front of the house.  It was the only tree in the garden areas, and, like most wild cherry trees, it was infested with gypsy moths and all sorts of destructive creatures.   ...[T]he tree showed no signs of recovering....  ...[T]he roots were being devoured by root borers...and meanwhile the wild ivy kept growing.  ...[S]oon the ivy covered the whole tree and began dangling from it.  In time the tree assumed the character of a woman locked in mourning."

Kunitz goes on to recall Martha Graham and a famous dance she performed called "Lamentation," where the postures of the body contracted and bent to visually personify grief.  "Gradually my ivy-burdened cherry tree seemed to take on the exact same posture.  It was so bent over with the weight of its grief that it no longer reached toward the sky but toward the earth, and so I named it "The Lamentation Tree."

After several years, the tree eventually succumbed to the weight of the ivy combined with the force of storm winds.  Kunitz wrote, "The lamentation tree was the most conspicuous eccentricity in the garden during those early years.  I've always regarded it as an allegory of the capacity for change in nature.  That tree changed its character and took on a life of its own, transforming from a wild diseased cherry tree into something else, no longer a tree really, but something emblematic, mythological.

"Part of the fascination of gardening is that it is, on the one hand, a practical exercise of the human body and, on the other, a direct participation in the ritual of birth and life and death."

The ritual of birth and life and death.....  Something emblematic, mythological....  An eccentricity.

While I'm not trying to be sacrilegious, there's something in the shape of my gaunt laurel oak that reminds me of a cross...or a scarecrow...or the burning man.

In April of 2015, before we even bought our house, this was the icon tree.

About a year later, the top 4-5' or so broke off.

I kept the broken wood and have it nestled in a bed just a few feet  away from the base of the tree.

There are holes in the remaining snag at the top, one of which I think woodpeckers used to nest in last summer.

There's no ivy climbing up my icon tree, only a little bit of Spanish moss draping from the few remaining branches.  The shape is not bent, but starkly upright, courageously tall despite the continual erosion of its body parts.
We moved here to celebrate new life - the birth of our first grandchild - and have since also welcomed his brother into our lives.  Birth and new life, while this stark tree reminds us of death.

While our icon tree can't actually talk, we've (coincidentally) mounted a sonorous wind chime on it which only sounds in relatively strong breezes, accompanied by clanks of its clapper chain that call to mind Ebenezer Scrooge's chains.  Describing it makes it sound lugubrious, but listening to it is peaceful and reassuring.

Obviously, I've never known this tree as anything but half dead.  Truthfully I find it amazing that the tree has survived at all:  about 10 years ago, when the seawall and deck were put in along the back of our property, almost half of this poor plant's root system was stripped away when the hill it grew on was sheared off.  Then, adding insult to injury, bringing the water line from the house to the deck required trenching through another quarter of its roots down to at least 2'.  So our icon tree has lost at least 60-75% of its root system.  Any wonder that it's not looking too healthy these days?

Recently I noticed that there seem to be streaks on the lower bark that look discolored.  A fungal disease attacking?  How much longer can this survivor hang on?

Tragically, no matter how much care it receives one way or another, this tree will never again be totally healthy...which makes me think about humans whose support systems are removed from them.  How can they be expected to fulfill their potential - ever - if they've been dealt devastating blows or been denied significant support, removing their very roots and the (human psychological) nutrients those roots provide in their lives?

However compromised this tree is, though, it still hangs tenaciously on to its spot on the side of our hill - and it still provides shelter for other forms of life, like the woodpeckers who have used its dead wood to bring new life of their own into the world.  I've known quite a few humans like that, too, and my hat is off to them as they take circumstances that would cripple others and continue to make the world a better place through their presence and their lives.  I hope I, too, can take heart and learn life lessons from this gaunt old individual, enduring through adversity. 

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Color Clash: Where Do I Go From Here?

I'm not normally the sort of gardener who obsesses over clashing colors in my flower beds.  In fact, I'm rather an "anything goes if I like it" sort of person.  However, I find myself being challenged by color clashes in my front yard this spring.

Specifically, I have a couple plants that I absolutely adore:  downy phlox (Phlox pilosa), a beautiful soft purplish pink bloomer that goes from December through June, and Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica), a graphically spectacular bloom of bright red with yellow highlights.  For better or worse, because I love both of them, I planted both of them in my front flower bed...pretty close to each other.

And they clash.  Even to my eye, they clash.  (The phlox is on the left, the Indian pinks are on the right, and a Darrow's blueberry is in the middle.)

I guess I figured that one of them wouldn't do so well, leaving just one for me to enjoy, but they fooled me!

Now I have a dilemma.  Which should I transplant, if either?

The downy phlox provides great color for months AND it stays low.  It blends well with foliage of the Darrow's blueberry subshrubs (Vaccinium darrowii) that are also doing well in that bed and with the spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) and the blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) that bloom spectacularly in the front gardens during the spring.

The Indian pinks bloom for a much shorter period of time than the downy phlox, but I have a special place in my heart for them.  I've tried them unsuccessfully in both my Mobile and in my Clearwater, Kansas, gardens, so having them do well here is exciting.  Truthfully, I'm a little scared to transplant them and risk watching them wither in a different spot.

The first time I saw Indian pinks was on a garden tour in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they provided a thick, blooming carpet on a shady hillside.  I've never forgotten that spectacular sight.

While the Indian pinks clash with the downy phlox (and truthfully with the Darrow's blueberry too), they look great with the native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) that seems to have found a happy home in my garden where it has started to seed itself about a bit.

So far the columbine hasn't seeded itself close to the downy phlox, but it would clash, too, if they grew in close proximity.

So, fellow gardeners, any thoughts?  I won't promise to follow your advice, but I value it nonetheless!  Maybe your thoughts will help me clarify my own.....

Monday, April 30, 2018

Living With Southern Magnolias

A dear friend of ours loves southern magnolias and has tried to grow them in her suburban Chicago yard.  She fell in love with the species many years ago when her father grew one in their yard in Wichita, Kansas.  Plus, it's a challenge to grow them in Chicago - right?!

Despite covering the small tree with burlap to protect it from the harsh winters of northern Illinois, there is no young southern magnolia permanently gracing their yard yet.  As its name suggests, southern magnolia prefers the south lands.

Indeed, southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) aren't a challenge to grow here in the Florida panhandle at all.  Truthfully, it's more of a challenge NOT to grow them here, given how easily they sprout from the numerous seeds produced each year.

We inherited 2 large southern magnolias when we purchased our home 3 years ago - one in the front by the driveway and one in the back by the bedrooms.  Both are within 25 feet of the house.  There are 2 more southern magnolias, much smaller, along the side of the yard, and a 5th next to our neighbor's house, just over the property line.  Each of our neighbors' yards also boasts a large one at the far back, hanging over the shore of the lake.  We've rapidly gained a fair amount of experience gardening with - and under - this species.

This is the first time I've had large southern magnolias in my yard and I'm developing a distinctly bipolar, love/hate relationship with them.  Sorry, Shelley, but sometimes these guys do TOO well to fit in a yard or garden comfortably.

For starters, let me be positive.  Wildlife loves southern magnolias and I constantly see birds foraging among the branches. 

Well....   To actually be accurate, I have to say that I frequently see birds fly into the tree(s) and I occasionally get a glimpse of them as they move through the heavy canopy of large, dark leaves, presumably foraging.  I know my southern magnolias get a LOT of use, but most of the time I'm darned if I can really see what's going on up there.

Those large leaves are where the love/hate part of the southern magnolia equation comes in for me.  The shade cast by southern magnolias is dense.  Here in our yard, even the shade of the individual tree that has been limbed up halfway to heaven casts a deep shadow on the house.  Some days our home feels positively gloomy with the sun blocked so thoroughly by these dark guardians.

While southern magnolias are evergreen, that doesn't mean that the individual leaves remain on the tree longer than leaves on other trees.  It just means that the leaves don't all fall at once.  Indeed, the leaves fall constantly throughout the year in a never-ending rain of big, waxy, plant smothering, brown layers.  Some gardeners think that southern magnolia leaves decompose slowly, but they rot almost as fast as the much smaller oak leaves that also fall in our yard.  The difference is that the individual oak leaves don't cover entire plant crowns when they land, giving the plants below them a chance of finding daylight sometime within the next year.

In the photo above, a 2 year old golden alexander (Zizia aurea) struggles to keep above the gathering magnolia leaves.

I've decided that one of the anti-competition strategies developed by southern magnolias is the ability of those fallen leaves to smother all plants that attempt to grow within their drip line.

Even lawn under trimmed-up magnolia trees can be a challenge.  The leaves in the photo above have accumulated just since the last lawn mowing, maybe 10 days ago.  You can see how the heavy leaves can quickly smother even healthy grass if they are not removed, let alone what they are able to do to more delicate plants like ferns or small perennials.

To add to the joy brought by the continuous shower of large leaves in the garden, those same leaves often curl as they die and drop, cupping in a way that holds water if it happens to rain.  Since we get a LOT of rain here along the Gulf Coast, that's not an infrequent occurrence.  With humidity levels that prefer to linger between 75% and 95%, the tiny water pools in the magnolia leaves don't evaporate very fast and certain mosquito species have adapted to lay their eggs in these tiny personal incubation ponds.  Southern magnolias might well be nicknamed mosquito trees down here.  (Note:  See the P.S.S. at the end of this rambling commentary.)

Recently I've noted that it's not only the large leaves that hold water once they fall from this giant tree - the huge white petals of the grand flowers (M. grandiflora) do as well, after they've finished their job of attracting insects and they have gracefully drifted down to the ground. 

I don't mean to be completely negative.  The giant blossoms look and smell wonderful, after all.

Then there are the snazzy looking seedpods that develop from the large, sumptuous white flowers.
These seedpods are seriously cool:  fuzzy, brown or brownish green, stemmed grenades with an intricate arrangement of little holes that each hold a bright red seed or two if that ovary was fertilized.  I LOVE the seedpods...most of the time.  Unfortunately, these spectacular structures are also quite heavy and surprisingly spiky, given their soft appearance.  We park our cars under the front magnolia and have had the roof dented by a particularly weighty magnolia seedpod that fell on it.  I have nightmares about what it would feel like to have one fall on my head.

Not only are these fist-sized seedpods weighty and prickly, they are also impressively abundant, landing in the flowerbeds, as well as on the lawn, sidewalks, and driveways.  Once on the ground, they defy the most powerful of leaf blowers to move them and they dull any mower blades that dare to bite into them.  Unlike the leaves, magnolia seedpods do take a long time to decompose, so there gets to be quite a buildup of them over time, providing a cobblestone like texture to the soil beneath the parent tree.  Oh, to have grandkids old enough to want to earn a bit of money by gathering them all up to send to the landfill.....

Thinking about the seedpods that bear the magnolia seeds brings me back, full circle, to how well southern magnolias grow around here.  Each of those gorgeous red seeds has the potential to put down roots and become a NEW (giant) southern magnolia - and a surprising number of the seeds make the attempt.  I am constantly pulling up seedlings - or saplings, if I've missed a hidden sprout.  It doesn't take long for a dainty, little seedling to develop into a sturdy, small tree that gives obvious promise of its eventual ability to heave up concrete and dominate the space around it. 

Despite its challenges for the home gardener, southern magnolia is an awesome tree perfectly made for the Gulf Coast.  Even though those huge leaves seem like they'd catch the wind enough to uproot the tree, it is one of the top 3 trees for hurricane resistance.  Southern magnolias grow superbly in a variety of soils, including the deep sand that makes up our local landscape. 

All that said, given my druthers, I'd plant this tree in the back of the yard, along the lake shore, where its leaves could accumulate to their hearts' content or could float away to decompose in downstream waters.

Since I didn't get a choice about siting these trees in my yard, I manage in the best way I can.  For me, that means going out periodically and (literally) picking up, by hand, the leaves that have fallen into the flower beds. 

Here is a trug with the leaves that I picked off the lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrata) just to the right of it....

Combined with the magnolia leaves we rake off the lawn and blow off the driveway and walkways, these waxy packets of organic matter can be chopped up with a combination of lawnmower and leaf blower into pieces that no longer hold water, then dumped back into the beds to decompose and enrich the soil. 

The small pile of chopped leaves above, with 3 whole leaves for contrast, gives a sense of the great leaf mulch that magnolia leaves can provide, with a little effort on the part of the gardener.  And, oh, the resulting soil is so wonderfully rich!

Sometimes, while I'm picking up the leaves, I'm graced with the sight of an anole sunning in a shrub, a brown skink skittering through the litter, a dark-winged damselfly waiting to give chase, or a wolf snail hunting its prey.  I've slowed down, sat down, and started moving at the patient pace of nature.  In the end, that deliberateness is a gift of incalculable value, opening windows into the world around me.

P.S.  I was out front picking up magnolia leaves from in between fern fronds and other plants this afternoon, wondering how silly I looked to the neighbors as I spent my time in this manner.  Then I stopped and asked myself what other people were likely to be doing at that very moment.  Watching TV?  Checking out Facebook?  Recreational shopping?  This close to the Gulf, many folks were likely to be at the beach, lying on the sand.  Nobody would think twice about whether any of those activities were "worthwhile", so why was I worrying about looking silly as I picked up magnolia leaves in the garden?  I was outside (in the shade), enjoying a beautiful day, listening to birds singing, watching for little critters among the plants as I removed and gathered the smothering leaves.  No matter what anyone else thinks, I certainly could have spent my afternoon in a much less enjoyable and productive manner! 

P.S.S.  While I was picking up leaves, I noticed that quite a few of them were "pre-drilled" with drainage holes.....  Thank you, fungi, caterpillars or whatever other natural phenomenon might have created those holes!  Another benefit of letting nature balance itself.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Acceptable and Unacceptable Changes to the Neighborhood Landscape

At the beginning of June, we will have lived in this house for 3 years, although I didn't start gardening in the yard until the fall of that first year.

This is what the front yard looked like in mid April, 6 weeks before we moved in....

While the yard was neatly trimmed and mowed back then, I found it sterile and boring.  Naturally, when I began gardening, I started adding native plants and removing non-natives.  As usual, I had more of a general idea of what I wanted the garden and yard to be, rather than any firm plan.  Most of all I just wanted my yard to be a small wildlife refuge in the midst of suburbia.  And I wanted it to be pretty, too, if at all possible.

I kept the huge canopy trees, a southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and a laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia).  They are both native and, while I probably wouldn't have chosen either species to put in their spots, they add gravitas and presence to the yard.  Besides 3 dwarf yaupons (Ilex vomitoria) and a few of the lawn weeds, they were also the only native plants growing in the front.

Since those first days, I've added a laundry list of natives to the front gardens, including shrubs (oakleaf hydrangeas, Virginia sweetspire, sweet pepperbush, dwarf Florida dogwood, wax myrtle, Darrow's blueberry, and a deciduous holly), ferns (southern shield fern, leatherleaf fern, and southern woodfern), perennials (columbine, blue eyed grass, golden ragwort, little brown jug, lyreleaf sage, Indian pinks, Walter's violets, woodland phlox, downy phlox, garden phlox, green and gold, Louisiana iris, mouse-ear coreopsis one, mouse ear coreopsis two, spiderwort, Gaillardia, Florida scrub skullcap, golden zizia, bluestem goldenrod, showy goldenrod, regal catchfly, powderpuff mimosa, dense blazingstar, native lantana, white Baptisia, butterfly milkweed, and fogfruit), and even a grass (Elliott's lovegrass).  I'll spare you all the scientific names - this time!

Here's a recent photo of the front yard....

Only now are the garden beds beginning to show up and look like gardens.  "A year to sleep, a year to creep, a year to leap."  The old maxim holds true yet again.

Having added such a wide variety and large number of plants, it's odd to me what people notice and comment about in my front gardens.  I had a neighbor tell me how much she liked the "yellow flower", golden ragwort (Packera aurea), shortly after I planted it next to the sidewalk, under the magnolia. 

Ironically, I love the foliage of this plant, which is low, dark green, shiny, and rich looking to my eye...but I don't particularly care for the flowers.  I do love their cheerful presence early in the growing season, though.  Golden ragwort are the first native flowers to bloom in my garden. 

Recently, a woman who came by to pick up wild strawberry plants I was giving away commented how much she liked my columbine and blue eyed grass.  That made my day!  She even knew the names!

Here's one clump of the blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) she was admiring, by the front porch, ...

...and a closeup of blue-eyed grass blossoms in the shade nearby.

Then here's a picture of the other species she was admiring, eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), taken a couple weeks ago when it was first starting to bloom.

As much as I love blue-eyed grass and columbine, I am surprised that no one has ever mentioned my downy phlox (Phlox pilosa), which I think is beautiful.  A tidy mound of cotton candy pink at the front of the flower bed, this classy little plant blooms nonstop from December through to the end of May and even into June.  Perhaps to most eyes it just looks like a standard annual bedding plant?

The spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), which is spectacular right now, doesn't get much mention either - although another neighbor has started telling me when he sees it popping up in wild areas around the neighborhood, encouraging me to go dig it up and add it to my gardens.  Since he lives 2 doors down from me, I figure he must like it at least a little or he wouldn't be encouraging me to plant more.

In particular, though, one plant has caused unexpected reactions:  powderpuff mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa), a relative of catclaw sensitive briar, for those of my friends who garden in the prairie.  Greg loves groundcovers, so we thought we'd try putting this low growing plant, with its pretty foliage and its blooms that look like sparkling pink pompoms, up front.  We are encouraging it to spread out and fill in the hell strip between the sidewalk and the street.  To our eyes, it's prettier than weedy grass any day! 

Ironically, no one seems to notice the blossoms (which are, in my opinion, very cute and very hard to miss), but the foliage makes people uncomfortable - superficially it looks too similar to chamberbitter (Phyllanthus urinaria), a.k.a. gripeweed, a common lawn weed down here.

Unfortunately, I inadvertently played into this concern by planting the first two powderpuffs at the base of a newly planted wax myrtle.  I didn't take the time to clear a large, carefully delineated "bed" for the powderpuff to spread into.  I've done my best to keep the grass weeded out of the spreading groundcover, and the powderpuffs have filled in marvelously well...but there isn't a defined edge to help people "read" this part of the landscape easily.  That was a mistake on my part.

I'm going to keep working on the powderpuff, but another element I added to our front landscape is slated for removal:  the small brush pile under the big laurel oak - at the base of its trunk in the photo below. 

Living in such a high humidity environment, many woody branches are covered with fascinating, feathery mini-gardens of lichen.  When several small branches ornamented in lichen "lace" fell in the front yard, I couldn't bear to put them out for the city to pick up.  Instead I used them to construct a small brush pile towards the back of the bed.  Here is a photo of a branch covered in lichen that fell in our yard...

...and here is a closeup of that lichen.

Several people have asked why I'm leaving "that pile" there and I've taken the time to tell them about the benefits of brush piles, but I've decided to move the pile around to the backyard where it's nobody's business but ours.  The pile's been growing a little faster than I was planning, anyway, as more branches have fallen out of the oak.  I still can't bring myself to send those gorgeous lichens off with the city dump trucks!

Despite my occasional misstep, the plants I've put in the front gardens are taking hold and growing well, getting taller and broader, blooming more fully.  I'm far from the world's best landscape or garden designer, so my color and form combinations are rather haphazard, but I get a buzz of pleasure now when I drive up to our house or walk outside.  For example, when I left the house this morning, I noticed a towhee foraging among the skullcaps by the sidewalk, and there are almost always at least a few butterflies, native bees, or honeybees diligently working the flowers.  Little brown skinks commonly rustle through the leaf mulch and green anoles prowl the shrubs and perennials, males puffing out their salmon-colored throats in displays of pride and power during these lengthening spring days.

I hope my human neighbors come to enjoy my wilding landscape.  I love that the wildlife is making itself at home outside my house...and it makes this yard home for me now, too. 

Monday, April 02, 2018

Spreading the Wild(life) News

About a week ago I took a deep breath and plunged into a new "platform" for me:  a Nextdoor neighborhood group I've belonged to for a couple years now.  I've posted briefly on it once or twice before, with little response, but this time I decided to be a bit more blunt and opinionated.  The results have been interesting.

Here along the Gulf Coast, early spring is the biggest season for leaf fall as the evergreen oaks push off last year's leaves before they put out a new flush of leaves for this growing season.  First the laurel oaks drop their leaves, then the sand live oaks drop their leaves, and finally the live oaks drop their leaves.  It's about 6 weeks of constantly falling, relatively small, brown leaves.  In our neighborhood, these oaks are almost all BIG trees and the leaves that get dropped in this relatively short period of time rival the leaf drop of autumn in essentially any other forested area of the country.  Except there's no pretty color, I have to note.

So the leaf blowers have been working overtime for the month around here and there have literally been mountains of leaves pushed to the curb for the city to come by and pick up.  It saddens me to see all this beautiful mulch getting thrown away, so I posted:

"As I watch oak leaves being raked and put out by the curb for the city to pick up, I'd like to suggest that everyone consider blowing them into shrub and flower beds instead. They make great mulch and look as nice or nicer than anything you can buy. The birds love to rustle through them looking for food, and the leaves decompose easily to make your soil much richer and healthier."

Within a day, 8 different people had responded to my post.  After 10 days, 14 different people had responded in total.  A total of 14 people had thanked me.

Six of the comments were negative, with most people concerned about all the animals that would live and breed in the mulch.  Mentioned by name were roaches, fleas, termites, and mosquitoes.  I assured everyone that the roaches in leaves were not the same roaches that get into kitchens, that termites need wood rather than leaves (although I didn't recommend deep piles of leaves directly against the side of a house either), and that fleas were more likely in a lawn than in a mulched bed.  Another person got on to say that mosquitoes needed standing water to breed, although they might hang out in leaf mulch, and that they were unlikely to have enough water to breed in oak leaves, as compared to magnolia leaves.

Other concerns mentioned by negative commenters were the "lack of nutrition in oak leaves" (which I responded to by noting the importance of organic matter in our sandy soil), the tannins that would leach and kill plants (which I said weren't a problem according to experts who'd studied the issue), and the leaves blowing out of the flower/shrub beds (at which point I suggested that any leaves that blew out of the beds could be mulched mowed into the grass to provide organic matter there).

A couple comments were neutral.  One person said she thought using leaves as mulch was a great idea, but she was terrified of birds, so she wouldn't be doing it at her house.  I wasn't quite sure HOW to respond to her.  Yet another individual was thankful people don't burn leaves any more because now she could breath.  One woman tried to send me a link to an article which she said proved that mulching leaves into lawns was harmful, but the link to which she sent me said that it was beneficial.

Another man said I seemed knowledgeable about plants and asked me if I designed landscapes.  Laughing to myself, I thanked him for the compliment and said, no, I definitely did not.  After another person recommended her husband's lawn care and landscape service to him, the gentleman said he wanted an area around his pool landscaped with a "nice tropical design".  So much for someone interested in wildlife!

Not surprisingly, my favorite 3 comments were the ones which said they already used their leaves as mulch or they composted them.  Those 3 commenters and the gal who said mosquitoes needed standing water to breed restored my faith in other local gardeners, at least a little!

Which is, perhaps, a bit of a harsh judgement on my part, since a further 11 people thanked me for my original post, but did not comment.

So 25 people responded altogether: 6 actively negative, 4 actively neutral, 4 actively positive, and 11 passively positive.

I've gone on to make three further posts on this neighborhood site in the last 2 weeks:  one post warning people about buying plants that have been treated with neonics for butterfly and pollinator gardens;  another post offering wild strawberry plants if anyone wanted to come by and pick them up; and a third post simply talking about the birds I was seeing in my yard and how they preferred foraging in the wilder, less manicured areas of the landscape.  All 3 posts elicited at least a dozen comments and the same number or more "thanks".

I've been trying to keep Mother Teresa's comment in mind lately, "I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples."  I feel like these neighborhood posts are creating a few quiet ripples in our local waters, and that makes me happy.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

A Hawk, A Sapsucker, and A Squirrel Went Into a Yard.....

A hawk, a sapsucker, and a squirrel went into a yard and ... found it appealing enough to stay for a while. 

There is no punchline to this rather pathetic attempt at imitating the old joke.  I'm actually referring to our yard and I get profound pleasure out of sharing it with other animals.  That's no joke, indeed.  It's great fun to see the variety of creatures that peacefully cohabit with us, if not always with each other.

It's even MORE fun when they pose for a picture for me!

So, just for kicks and giggles, here are some of the critters I've been seeing around lately....

About 10 days before Christmas, I was doing laundry and noticed a movement outside the laundry room door.  Imagine my delight at seeing a young yellow-bellied sapsucker female (Sphyrapicus varius) working earnestly on the side of the pignut hickory tree (Carya glabra) that's located nearby.  I got a huge series of shots, but they are all essentially the same, so here's one that shows her classy yellow belly feathers beginning to grow in, as well as her sadly inadequate ability to line up the holes that she was boring into the side of the tree.

A question for anyone who's a serious birder: is this a common phenomenon in young sapsuckers, or is this particular individual just having unusual difficulties with her grasp of horizontality?  Here is an expanded version of how she "lined up" the holes she was drilling.

Speaking of pignut hickory trees, the Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) love the hickory nuts that the trees produce abundantly each fall and they frequent our yard and gardens throughout the winter.  They don't necessarily like to pose, generally being much too busy to wait around that long, but sometimes one will humor me. 

Once I downloaded the photos this guy "sat" for and looked at him a little more closely, he (I'm just guessing at the sex) looked like the squirrel equivalent of a tomcat.  Seriously - do squirrels fight each other?  How else would this guy's ears have gotten so tattered? 

Most often I see the squirrels using our trees as a sort of squirrel highway along the lakeside, but they obviously stop and refill their bellies, too, based on the number of gnawed open, empty nuts I find.

On the same day that Mr. Squirrel posed for me, February 5th, I was able to get a photo or two of what I believe is a question mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis).  It didn't let me get very close, so I was glad that the photos turned out as well as they did.

The lavender wing borders are particularly stunning when you can see them as clearly as you can in these photos. 

Question marks, commas, and goatweed butterflies, which all look fairly similar to me, are some of the first butterflies I see each spring, presumably because they overwinter as adults.

Four days later, on February 9th, we had a pair of stately visitors on our lake:  Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis).  We don't seem them often on our little body of water, but I sure love it when they grace us with their presence!

I remember when brown pelicans were endangered, thanks to DDT, which made their egg shells so thin that they cracked from the weight of the mother bird incubating.  Because of the Endangered Species Act, the populations of brown pelicans and ospreys and bald eagles and many other animals have come back to healthy levels and it is relatively easy to have a sighting of many of these species now if you look in the right habitat.  It deeply saddens me that the current administration, with the aid of Congress, is doing away with so many important environmental protections that have helped in so many ways during the last 40 years.

But back to more positive thoughts and sightings....

Evidently a timely pattern had developed for me during February, because another 4 days later, on the 13th, I was out photographing again.  This time I captured the first damselfly of spring, a young female Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita).

One of the ways to sex many dragonfly and damselfly species (for humans, at least) is by their color.  The pale blue of the damselfly above indicates both her age and her sex.  A few days later, I saw and photographed a male fragile forktail in the same general area, identified by his bright green color in the same pattern as the young female.

Fragile forktails are common damselflies of the eastern United States.  Unfortunately, I have not found any information explaining their common name;  it's an interesting enough name to have a fun history or explanation behind it.  Fragile forktails are fairly easy to identify by the colorful interrupted line that forms an "exclamation mark" on the each dorsal side of the thorax.

On the same day that I saw the male fragile forktail, I saw this little treefrog resting on the back porch screen.  I had just come outside when I saw it and snapped this photo;  my camera lens fogged up in the early morning humidity and by the time it unfogged, this little guy had taken shelter in some well hidden lair.

With only one, slightly blurry, photo to go by, I'm not sure as to his full identity, but he sure looks hungry from the winter's lack of insects to me.

Finally, last Saturday I was sitting on the ground and waiting beside a couple ground-dwelling native bee nests.

Call me crazy, but I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a bee coming or going, or better yet to snap a photo of one, so that I could identify the bee species responsible for these cute little "volcanoes" in the yard.  While I didn't see a bee, I sat still for long enough that a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)flew in and perched in the hickory tree right above me.  He/she let me take several photos, but when I turned the camera sideways to fill the frame better, I'd moved too much for the hawk's comfort and it flew off.

Red-shouldered hawks, along with Cooper's hawks, seem to be the most common hawks in our neighborhood.  I hear them almost every day and see them most days, not infrequently perched in one of our trees. 

While I did get the photo of the hawk, unfortunately I was NOT able to get a look, let alone a photo, of the bee responsible for any of the ground nests in the yard.  One of these days I will be patient enough AND be in the right place at the right time to do that - I just have to keep trying!

Meanwhile, I'm pretty happy with the wildlife menagerie that I've been privileged to see and photograph this winter.  Best of all, the experiences are free and right outside my door!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Sproing!!! Spring Appears to Be Here.....

Given that Valentine's Day just sailed by, it seems a little early for spring to have arrived, but here in the panhandle of Florida, all signs point in that direction.

For the foreseeable future, the weather guessers have us in the mid-70's each day, with lows in the mid-60's at night.

The humidity has been so high lately that we've been turning on the air conditioner at night just to dry out the air inside.  When we wake up in the morning, the windows are fogged over on the outside from all the humidity, even though the inside of the house is less than 5 degrees cooler than the external air temperature.

Not surprisingly, with the temperatures and humidity this high, plants and wildlife are responding exuberantly.  The early daffodils are in full bloom.

Looking at the blooms, I realized just this spring that all my early daffodils are multi-bloom types.  I find I'm craving some big single blossoms, so that'll be on my list for next fall.

Gail Eichelberger's "practically perfect pink phlox", a.k.a. downy phlox (Phlox pilosa), has been blooming since December, as it seems to do every year here. 

I love this plant, but it's getting a little hard to find even in native plant nurseries these days - I think everyone must be catching on to the joy of having this beauty in their gardens.

Under the front magnolia tree, the golden ragwort (Packera aurea) is blooming.

It has really filled in nicely this year.  By next year, I may even be able to transplant a little to other spots in the yard. 

This summer it should be looking like a particularly attractive dark green groundcover in a garden spot that has been especially hard to cover with anything but leaf mulch until now.  Between the heavy shade and the rampant roots, it can be difficult to garden successfully beneath southern magnolias.

Based on a couple recent blog posts I've made, you know, of course, that some of the blueberries are blooming exuberantly already.  The rabbiteyes (Vaccinium ashei) are still dormant, but the highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum) are in full spate and leafing out rapidly.  In my yard, highbush blueberries definitely seem to outperform their rabbiteye cousins;  if I add more blueberries, they'll probably be the highbushes.

Low, down at ground level, violets are starting to open up, too.  I have 3 species in the yard;  two have started blooming.

One of the blooming violet species is, I believe, the classic common blue violet (Viola sororia), but I'm not sure what the other one is.  This mystery violet has purple blooms and lance-shaped leaves.  It came in with the white baptisia as a pleasant little hitchhiker that I've been enjoying quite a lot.

Speaking of the white baptisia (Baptisia alba), my single specimen of this beauty has leapt out of the ground as if being chased by monsters below the soil.  Baptisia is one of those plants whose shoots spring forth so quickly that I feel like I can see them growing if I stand still and watch for a few minutes.

I didn't notice the baptisia shoots at first, because they were being camouflaged by the spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) seedlings growing up around them.  Some friendly crowding isn't likely to hurt, though.  I haven't seen any fully open spiderwort blossoms yet, but I noticed a little blue peeking forth from one of the buds this morning.  I won't be surprised to see a blossom or two tomorrow.  The blue of spiderwort flowers makes my heart sing....

Have you ever heard spiderwort called bluejacket?  I've never heard the term used at all, except in referring to actual clothing, but according to the USDA Plant Database, that is the official common name of T. ohiensis.  I wonder if it's a regional thing?

Speaking of regions, the Florida panhandle is part of a region that is known more for its non-native blooms than for its native flowers.  Believe it or not, I do have a fair number of non-natives in the yard and gardens, too.  As far as the classic non-native plants go, besides the daffodils, there are still several camellias blooming lustily...

...and the beautiful evergreen azaleas have started opening up their flowers along the west edge of the yard.

With the masses of magenta blossoms mounding throughout the landscape, I have to admit that I love azalea season, .  Those big old southern Indica azaleas are truly spectacular.  They'll be opening up soon and I'm really looking forward to wallowing in their purplish profusion.  Sometimes even this diehard native plant aficionado has to bow down before the overwhelming beauty of certain exotic plants!