Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Planting Problems

[Note:  I wrote this piece last week, after a particularly frustrating day.  Since then, I've planted some of these plants, purchased others, and been given even more. Thank goodness it's been a slow spring so far!]

Okay.  It's confession time.  I find that planting - actually putting plants in a specific place in the ground - is getting harder and harder to accomplish.  In fact, it's getting downright painful.

It's not that I'm getting older and stiffer and fatter - although all 3 of those are, unfortunately, true.  No, it's different from physical difficulty.

I'm experiencing a mental disability about planting....

Let me backtrack just a little so that I can try to fully explain what I'm fighting against.

I am a plant collector and I have a plant collector's garden.  To those of you who don't know what that means, just imagine "One here...one there...3 over here...one way back there..." on a garden-wide scale.

My plant passion is basically "native" plants - here in south central Kansas, that means prairie plants.  While the idea of gardening with native plants has caught on fairly well in many other areas of the country, it's still in its infancy here in the heartland.  For that reason, there aren't many places to find native plants around here, especially native plants that have any local provenance, which is ideally what I'd like to have in my gardens.

Oh, the garden centers carry a few - mainly just the perennials with horticultural varieties that create a splash.  Even the box stores have a few plants that are native to the prairies, but they are even more likely to be horticultural varieties.  My two best sources are 1) a man who lives a county or two to the east of us, who drives in each Saturday morning during the spring and early summer to sell the plants he's grown at the Farmers' Market, and 2) a biannual weekend sale held at Dyck Arboretum, about an hour north of us.

With such transitory sources for my plant material, I tend to buy... 1) what I intended to buy - if they have it with them or in stock, 2) anything that looks particularly healthy or good that I think I can use, 3) anything that might work in place of what I wanted to buy that's out of stock, and 4) anything that's particularly interesting or unusual that they may never have again.

Thus, I always end up with more than I intended.  And all of it is COOL, COOL stuff.  Stuff I can't just waltz down the street and buy at 123 Nursery.

Now, here comes the hard part.  I'm home.  I've got a couple boxes crammed full of plant material, most of it unplanned purchases.  Much of it is actually something I've only seen in books or, if I'm lucky, out in the field.  Sometimes the only reason I come home with it is because Kevan says, "Oh, you'll love this!  You've got to try it!"

Now I actually have to find places for all my new plants.  Places that give each of my new little sprouts a chance to grow and mature and strut their stuff.  Places where they can be seen, where they won't get lost or hidden by their neighbors.  Places where they look "right", where they look like part of the garden and, better yet, like part of a plant community.

Most of the time, the plants I planned on purchasing were sought to fill specific holes in my flower beds.  Okay, those go in quickly.  That 20% was easy.

Now to find spots for the rest of them....  "This one will be perfect here, at the back of the bed.  And this one will slip right in there, near the front.  But I've got 12 Liatris of 3 different species!  Damn!  What were their differing requirements?  I know that mucronata is basically like punctata...but I don't really have any open spots that are dry and sunny.  I used some of those for the common milkweed...and there's that area of the corner bed, but there's still some crown vetch lurking there and I don't want to accidentally Round-up the wrong plant.  Hmmm.  I'll have plenty of room when I get the Bermuda weeded out of that new bed I've outlined, but can I get that done before the plants die on me?  I've been wanting to put a couple perennials out in the tallgrass under the fence!  Would these work there?"  And on it goes...and goes...and goes.

With luck - and good weather - I might get them all in this spring.

Each planting day, though, is filled with decisions and counter-decisions, with research and tentative placements, followed by more research and rearrangements.  Then, to make matters worse, as I start the tentative placements, I start finding the tombstones.  You know what I mean - the little tags left over from the last plant you tried there, the one that didn't make it.  "Oh, blast.  If Jack-in-the-Pulpit didn't make it here, will rue anemone fare any better?  And will THIS spring's Jack-in-the-Pulpit's - which look better than any I've seen for sale look before - do okay over there?  Or will that site be too dry for them?"

I remove the tombstones and put them in a pile.  Some day I'm going to go through and figure out which plants I've tried - and killed - and tried - and killed - and tried again - and killed again.  Maybe I'll remember not to buy them again, then.  Meanwhile, as the pile mounts, I start feeling depressed.  "Why am I even bothering?!  It is so hot and dry and cold and windy and awful around here!  Why do I even TRY to garden?  Why don't I just give up, plant grass, and let Greg mow it while I sit inside and read?"

"No. No. No. No.  What would I read about?  I read about plants!  Besides which, I'd go stir crazy!  Okay, I can do this.  Next time I won't buy so many plants, though.  Let's see...."

And the agony goes on.  Am I the only one who experiences this planting pain?  Please, tell me that others share my neuroses in this regard!  Misery truly would love company.  And maybe, then, Misery would feel less depressed and could even get all her plants in the ground in a particularly timely manner this spring!

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Red-Tails at Home

A couple weeks ago, Greg and I went on our first big outing in the new dogmobile, complete with The Boys in the back.  We decided to head down to Elk City Reservoir to check out the hiking trails there.

The wonderful hike we had that day is fodder for another blog post, but we lucked out on the way there, too.  We were just getting on to the Turnpike when I noticed a big nest in a cottonwood near the road and asked Greg to pull off so I could catch a photo or two.  As we stopped, I thought I saw a head in the nest.  Zooming in confirmed my sighting.

While I was taking a photo or two, the hawk on the nest stood up and started looking around....

At that point, I thought to take a shot with a wider view to document some of the surrounding landscape....

Suddenly, through the lens, I realized that a second hawk had swooped in to the nest.  Hawk 1 flew off, as Hawk 2 flew in.

It didn't take much time at all for Hawk 2 to settle in; obviously this was a well rehearsed changing of the guard.

Hawk 1 flew off to a nearby tree and settled in for a break from nursery duties.

The excitement seemed to be over for the moment, so I got back in the car and we resumed our trip.  Not bad, though, for a brief roadside stop!

Visitors from Other Kingdoms: Red-Eared Slider

As a "natural" gardener, one of the experiences I look forward to most is a serendipitous meeting with one of the many creatures that share the yard with us.  Last weekend, we had one such encounter.

It was Greg that saw her first.  He motioned for me to come quickly.  I asked if I should get the camera and, since he nodded yes, I grabbed it and came running.  There in the grass was a good-sized turtle, almost a foot long and at least 100 feet from the nearest water.  Since we've had rain several times this spring and most ponds and creeks have at least some water in them, I assumed this was a female, presumably away from water to lay eggs.

From her shape and size and color, I knew she was either a red-eared slider or a painted turtle, but since her head was mostly pulled back into her shell, I couldn't tell which.  Greg picked her up and let me take a quick peek at her lower shell (or plastron):  she was a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta).

He only held her aloft for a few seconds, but she was NOT happy about the experience.  When he placed her back down, she pulled deeply back into her shell and did not reappear for about 30 minutes...

...all of which time I spent watching her.  From past experience, I knew that once she emerged and determined that she was safe, she would be gone in an amazingly short time.  At first I simply stood about 20 feet away, watching.  Then I decided that my standing silhouette might be concerning her, so I sat down on the ground.  After about half an hour, I decided to try to become even less conspicuous, so I lay down on my belly and watched and waited for her to make a move.

It wasn't long after I shifted to fully prone that she finally decided to stick her nose out again. 

Slowly it came out.  Then it came a little further.  A little further.  About 20 minutes after she first started to see if I was still out there, she had relaxed enough to have her head almost fully extended.  Almost immediately, she turned and looked directly at me.

I could swear that, at one point, she was looking down her nose at me, sniffing haughtily!  

She stared at me for several minutes, then looked around a bit.  Unfortunately, I made a small motion that startled her and caused her to retreat partway back inside her shell again.

It took just over an hour for my wandering red-eared slider to gain the courage to put her legs out and start moving.  Her first move was to turn away from me, and away from the direction she was originally traveling, to move obliquely away from me.

As she went, she passed a couple bright dandelions, which seemed to be worth a careful look-see, but she didn't stop to investigate further or to sample. 

She straightened back onto her original trajectory and determinedly headed towards the tall grass area.  Beyond it was the creek.

As she went through the bright patch of henbit that was just on the edge of the tallgrass, she stuck her head up high to look around one last time, then she disappeared into the taller standing grass stems.

I got up to take a final parting shot as she headed on her way.  From the time she started moving again until I quit photographing her was 4 minutes.  Perhaps not a speed record, but startlingly fast compared to the 60+ minutes she stayed essentially motionless until she felt safe enough to travel.

For those of you old enough to be a child before the big turtle/salmonella crisis of the early 1970's, this is one of the species whose young used to be sold by the millions to children as cheap, easy pets.  Many a turtle died while providing kids a first hand experience with nature.  My brothers and I had a couple of baby turtles over the years as we grew up:  a cheap, clear plastic dish with the fake island and palm tree in the middle of it, and the doomed little turtle, paddling around, trying to find some way out to its rightful place in the wild.

My heart clenches quite a bit over the fate of all those little turtles over the years, but in a way they were also serving as ambassadors, helping children connect firsthand with nature.  How do our children do that these days?  Or do they ever get a chance to truly connect with the natural world, in a firsthand way, at all?  Touching, holding, watching, feeding, even getting stung or bitten - these are all important ways for children to connect with animals, to connect with nature.  Watching TV isn't a good substitute at all - for all the fancy closeups in a good nature film, there is no sense of reality, no hands-on touching, no seat of the pants adventure or excitement.

I don't want baby turtles to sacrifice their lives to help our human children connect with nature any more...but I sure would like to see more families care for their gardens and their landscapes naturally, so that kids could, once again, have real world adventures in the real world of nature.  


One advantage to owning two large German shepherds when you live out in the country is that they HAVE to have their morning walkabout.  In the last several weeks, we've had several "cold" snaps, accompanied by snow or freezing rain or ice pellets.  These are definitely NOT considered sufficient reason to stay inside by The Boys.  It doesn't matter how ugly the weather is, they need a bit of romp time...and so I "suit up" to suit the weather and out we go.

Although it's hard to convince myself of the positive side of these walks when I'm donning waterproof shoes and wind-and-rain-resistant coat, facing cold winds that will cut through everything I have on, I do get to see some things that I'd probably miss otherwise. 

Sometimes I even have my camera along to capture the experience.  Here, for example, is one such time....

Look closely at this photo.  See anything much besides a bunch of snags and last year's dead plant stems, waiting to decompose?  I took this photo a week ago, on the day we woke up to snow.  This was taken about mid morning, after most of the snow had melted but while the temperatures were still quite chilly.

Look more closely at the center of the photo, right at the top of the broken black willow, where the top part of the trunk heads downwards at 90%.  (Yes, it's ugly.  No, I shouldn't have had someone out to "take care of it."  And this is why!)

See that bundle of gray fur?  I think it's a raccoon, perhaps the one that I photographed a couple weeks ago, climbing up a nearby black willow that was similarly "past its prime."  It could, however, be an opossum.  Anyone who is better than I at identifying fur is welcome to chime in with a positive identification!

Whichever it is, this is evidently a favorite hangout, especially (weirdly) in cold, wet, spring weather.  I saw it again this morning, similarly curled up, with enough rain falling that I'd taken neither my camera nor my binoculars along on our walkabout.  There it lay, seemingly snug as a bug in a rug.

Raccoons denning in hollow trees.  Raccoons napping in snags.  Woodpeckers nesting in holes, drilled into standing dead trees.  Insects overwintering in standing dead plant stems or snuggled deep in leaf litter.  We humans may see dead plants as ugly trash, messing up our landscape, but wild amimals view dead plants as shelter - safe, comfortable places to weather storms and cold and rain.  Secure places to raise the next generation. 

So, before you automatically cut down that dead tree at the back of your property, stop a minute and really analyze the situation.  Is it likely to fall on a building or a person passing by?  By all means, cut it down, and the sooner, the better!  But if that dead tree is not likely to cause any harm, then consider leaving it as a sort of wildlife hotel.  You never know what may decide to take up residence there!