Monday, April 20, 2009

Spring Surprises in the Courtyard Garden

Suddenly the temperatures appear to have decided they're tired of dropping below freezing. Not to be outdone, the soaking spring rains have put in a couple appearances in the last week or so. To top it all off, the sun has come out in between the rains and provided enough warmth to jumpstart the plants...and, wow, spring finally appears to have arrived for good.

I had written off quite a few shade plants in my courtyard garden late last summer, when they seemed to dry up and disappear much earlier than normal seasonal deciduousness would warrant. With the final arrival of warmer weather this spring, though, I'm realizing that I was too hasty. Almost all of my hostas are boldly pushing up, the heucheras are magically adding leaves by the dozens, the hellebores are finally putting on enough new growth they don't look terminally freezer-burned, and...(Ta-dah!) a few fern fiddleheads are unrolling through the leaf litter.

I really didn't think there was any way that ANY of the ferns would make it. Having re-whetted my desire for ferns after 6 years in Mobile, I'd consulted books and local fern folks and put in 3 each of 4 different species that I thought had a reasonable chance of making it here in south-central Kansas: autumn fern, log fern, Japanese painted fern, and Japanese holly fern. I'd put them in late, though, then accidentally let the entire garden get too dry during a sudden weather change in late summer from "relatively cool & amazingly wet" to "dry & windy & rather hot." Predictably, the ferns pretty much folded up shop...and I chalked their demise up to my tendency to be just a little too laissez-faire sometimes.

So I could hardly believe my eyes yesterday when I spotted a fiddlehead emerging from the leaf litter, back in the corner where I'd planted the log ferns. Looking more carefully, I spotted a couple more fiddleheads that weren't up quite as high yet. Two of the 3 log ferns have definitely survived the winter!

Then I checked out the other ferns: 2 out of 3 of the Japanese painted ferns AND 2 out of 3 of the autumn ferns are definitely putting up new growth. So far it's only the Japanese holly ferns that appear to have taken the late summer assault personally.

While I'm celebrating the survival of some of my ferns, I also have to share a new favorite plant of mine that lives in the courtyard garden: liverleaf. It's a horrible name for a plant that I think is extremely cute and lovable. I bought the plants, which were labeled as Hepatica americana, at the Dyck Arboretum sale last spring, but after doing some web research, I suspect they are actually Hepatica acutiloba. Either way, the common name liverleaf will do. They're native to the woodlands of Missouri, but I'm not sure they naturally occur this far west.

Each plant is about the size of a violet this year. They looked like gray, hairy fungi as they were coming up, then they unfurled into these classy-looking sweethearts. My only disappointment is that they didn't bloom for me this year. Maybe next year.

I'm having so much fun going around and watching plants emerge that it's hard for me to settle down and concentrate on my spring gardening chores! A few newbies from last year are getting ready to bloom soon, so this proud new Mama will probably be sharing pictures of her new babies' first blooms in the near future. Be forewarned!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Unexpected Guests

Another new species for the property! While I was talking on the phone with my mother this morning, I noticed a "new" bird in the trees around the feeder.

A yellow-headed blackbird!!!

As I continued watching, about half a dozen slowly showed themselves, taking advantage of the easy pickin's at the feeder. There is absolutely no mistaking what species of bird these guys are!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Rose By Any Other Name....

I am wanting to give our acreage a name. Somehow it feels like naming this little area will help solidify its identity as a particular spot on this planet, giving it more substance and gravitas. Ideally the name will carry connotations of our goal of prairie restoration, as well as bringing to mind the peace that living here brings us and the plants and animals that share this spot with us.

I started playing with some form of "Windswept" when we first moved here, but lately I've decided that has a slightly negative feel to it. So I changed it to "Wind Dance" but something still isn't solidying. "Prairie Haven" came to mind, but that seems a little banal. And there I'm stuck.

Something with "meadowlark" in it, since they nest in our back 5 acres? What else could I use to symbolize our little bit of prairie?

If you have any ideas or suggestions, please let me know. Inspiration isn't striking me, so I hope by putting the question out into the blogosphere, it will grace someone else and then sneak in the back door to us. At any rate, I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Burn, Baby, Burn!

Along with (apparently) 107 other folks in Sedgwick County, we took advantage of light winds last Wednesday to burn our grassland.

Not all of it, of course, just the front tallgrass. To continue decreasing sweetclover and prairie three-awn grass, we had wanted to burn the back 5 acres again this spring, but the draw has held water all winter long and we can't get the tractor across it to mow the firebreaks. So we settled for burning off the remnants of 2 years' growth in the big bluestem-Indiangrass-brome mix that constitutes the front prairie on our place, between the house and the street.

The burn went very well overall. There were only a few "Oh, no!" moments when the wind suddenly seemed to switch or, most excitingly, when a big dust devil formed. The dust devil was especially interesting. It formed right behind the fire line, danced across the blackened, smoking area that had just finished burning, shimmied across the firebreak, and melted into a big cedar by the creek. Since it had stirred up a hot spot and picked up a few live embers just before it crossed the firebreak and entered the cedar, we could have had a real big problem on our hands, but luck was with us. Greg immediately went over (with the hose) to check it out, dousing the area in general, but nothing seemed to have ignited.

As we got past the pine trees and cedar trees that formed a potential "ladder" to the house, I felt confident enough to snap a couple pictures of the burn, but with only 3 of us (Prairiewolf, his Dad, and me) tending the fire, I didn't want to take my attention away from my side of the fire in the early stages of the burn.

It was a good, complete burn...and, less than a week later, I'm already seeing new green sprouts coming up through the black ashes. It will be fun to see if we've released any leftover wildflowers that had been overshadowed by the tallgrasses around them. It's amazing how much the prairie can change from year to year, when you know what to look for.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Learning a Bit About Black-Footed Ferrets in Kansas

Last night, Prairiewolf and I attended an interesting lecture at Dyck Arboretum on the reintroduction of the black-footed ferrets (an endangered species) into western Kansas. The speaker was Dan Mulhern, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He's a wildlife biologist in charge of the re-introduction project here in Kansas.

A few interesting facts that Dan shared with us....

Black-footed ferrets require large colonies of prairie dogs to survive. Prairie dogs are the ferrets' only food. Not only do they eat them, the ferrets live in the colonies along with the prairie dogs (actually living in the prairie dog burrows). A single ferret will eat about 200 "dogs" per year. While this seems like a fair number of prairie dogs to eat, the ferrets do not occur at a dense enough population to control the prairie dog populations. (Of course, ferrets are far from the only animal that preys on prairie dogs! Prairie dogs are "lucky" enough to be food for a great many other predators - many of whose populations are also in trouble, due to the declining numbers of prairie dogs.)

An aside here: Prairie dogs are seen by cattle ranchers as extremely threatening competitors for grass. Thus ranchers have traditionally done everything they can, including massive poisoning campaigns, to get rid of prairie dogs. The poisons used, not surprisingly, kill many other, "non-target" animals too, from eagles and badgers to turkeys, burrowing owls, and black-footed ferrets.

Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct for several years in the 1970's. Luckily a small population was discovered in Wyoming. Because of the threat of sylvatic plague killing off this last population, these animals were captured and formed the basis of a captive breeding program.

All known black-footed ferrets alive today are descended from 7 individual animals captured from that Wyoming population.

Ferret re-introduction is far from a "sure thing," especially in Kansas. In this state, local governmental units have the legal right to go on private property and poison prairie dogs, even if the property owner specifically wants the prairie dogs on his or her property and/or doesn't want the poison used. There have been legal battles being fought over the prairie dog colonies that form the home ground for many of the reintroduced black-footed ferrets on a large block of land owned by 3 landowners. The Logan County government is trying to assert its "legal right" to poison these prairie dog colonies, and the land-owners are trying to keep them from being able to do so. For a while, the case was being tried in Shawnee County; recently the venue for the case has been changed to Logan County itself.

In the meantime, almost 50 years to the day since a black-footed ferret was last seen alive in Kansas, 24 ferrets were released in Logan County on December 18, 2007. Thirty-three percent (33%, or 8 animals) were confirmed to survive the first winter and by the fall of 2008, 4 litters of ferrets had been observed with a confirmed observation of 16 individuals. Fifty more ferrets were released last fall. Just 2 weeks ago, the second over-wintering survival survey was done. Dan reported that they located 19 ferrets, for a survival rate of at least 29%. (While these survival rates seem low, they are actually a little high for ferret re-introduction projects.) At least 7 of the ferrets located this month are females, so hopefully more litters will be born this summer.

It's an exciting and hopeful project, an attempt to right a wrong that we humans should never have let happen. Will it be successful? There is no way of knowing. Not only do the ferrets face the normal, biological hurdles of predation, disease, and the vagaries of weather, they also face the immense hurdle of human political pressure against the prairie dogs they depend upon. That's the wildest card of all.

What a Pansy I Was!

I have been a pair of blue pansies and a fragrant, lavendar and yellow viola.

For years I have been staunchly anti-annual. "What a waste of time and money!" "Why plant something that you know is going to die soon...when you can spend a little bit more and have a plant that comes back year after year after year?" "Why would I want to plant something that I know I'm just going to have to plant again next year?"

About a week ago, though, on a rather cold and windy day, I stopped off at one of our local garden centers. There, in the greenhouse, were beautiful big baskets of gorgeous blue and white pansies, some with ruffled edges and others without. I just had to have a few to brighten the gloomy day.

Of course, in my normal way of over-doing it, I didn't buy just one of each. Oh, no. I bought 2 sixpacks of each. The next day I found a single, one gallon pot of Starry Night viola on a table at Lowe's. I could smell the fragrance from several feet away. That pot joined the pansies on the breezeway.

Finally today I started planting them. I'm trying to tuck them here and there, "naturally", among my prairie perennials and assorted hardy garden plants. They actually are making a very pretty combination with what's left of my daffodil blossoms! The Starry Night viola is going to grace the little table by my wicker rockers out front. That way I can have the fragrance "up close and personal" (as long as I can keep the container plant alive!).

To justify my fall from "perennials-only" principle, I've actually decided that, as far as annuals go, violas and pansies aren't bad. Violas/pansies/violets are larval plants for many of the fritillary butterflies. I have the little (native) johnny-jump-ups, Viola bicolor, all over the place anyway. Why not include some of their bigger cousins in my flowerbeds? After all, their rich blue faces make me smile.