Saturday, March 04, 2017

Blooms in the Beginning of March

Sometimes a gardener just wants to share some pretties from their garden...and I guess that's where I am tonight.  So here goes....

In early spring, it's always fun to see the bare branches of red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) transform from sticks to feathery fans, highlighted with big, blowsy, red bloom spikes.  Hummingbirds apparently love red buckeye blooms, which are rumored to open just as hummingbird migration begins, but I rarely seem to plant mine where I have an opportunity to watch that interaction.  I've got my hopes up this year, though, as I just found out today that hummers have been spotted along the Gulf Coast in the last few days.

I have no idea which violet (Viola sp.) this next little guy is, but I really enjoy its plucky blooms.  A small group of these came in as "stowaways" in a pot with the white baptisia that is towering over it.  They've done very well.  The diminutive size and long, narrow, arrow-shaped leaves are quite different from most violets I am familiar with.

Not far from the plucky violet is an Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), whose richly serene, blue blooms are being regularly visited by the little southeastern blueberry bees (Habropoda laboriosa) these days.

How about a perennial that blooms for 2 1/2 months and counting?  The downy phlox (Phlox pilosa) have been blooming since before Christmas and they show no signs of slowing down.  In fact, I'd say they are prettier now than ever. 

I have 4 of these beauties right now - and I'd really like at least another 3 or 4.  In Kansas this plant ran through the beds quite a bit for me and it didn't last very long.  It seems to be acting quite differently here, staying in place and getting stronger, not weaker, as time goes on.  The foliage is nice, too, even when the plant isn't blooming.

Under the large southern magnolia tree out front, next to the sidewalk, was a bare spot that makes the term "dry shade" seem optimistic.  The magnolia roots are so thick in the area that finding pockets of actual soil was a challenge.  I knew the root competition would be fierce, but still I was hoping to find a plant that would give this garden bed a little more "sidewalk appeal".   The golden ragwort (Packera aurea) has really performed like an ace here. 

The flowers aren't, to be truthful, my favorite, but I love the rounded, shiny, dark green leaves that look good throughout the year.  I'm guessing that within 2-3 years, the 6 individual plants will start growing together, giving a more cohesive feel to this patch.

Azaleas are in full blush and the camellias are just finishing up, but the ones in my yard are rather ordinary, to tell the truth, so I'm not going to share them.  Typical foundation plants, the majority of them are placed - literally - about 18" from the foundation and have, in the not too distant past, been pruned into ungraceful, flat-topped boxes.  I haven't decided what to do about them yet, but will probably begin by giving them a "rejuvenating prune" as soon as they're done blooming this spring.  The azaleas, that is.  I don't think camellias can be chopped back like that and survive.

We put in daffodils last fall;  the early ones bloomed nicely, but they're still at the individual bloom stage, so I think I'll pass on sharing those as well.

There is a blue-eyed grass that has been springing up unbidden in the lawn area and I've been leaving the individual clumps to see what they look like.  They've suddenly spread out and started to bloom, allowing me to identify them as annual blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium rosulatum), a distinctly not-blue flower. 

Although the dainty little blooms are rather attractive, the plants have started developing yellowing, spotted leaves, so I've decided to root them all up and just dispose of them.  This is not a native species, so it's only causing me a little bit of angst to be so ruthless.

Many gardeners get upset about wildflowers springing up in their lawns, but I'm not one of them.  I actually enjoy seeing what gifts nature provides.  For example, I've been enjoying this little pink blooming oxalis that appeared, as if by magic, under the magnolia in the back yard. 

I'm not sure whether this is the native violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea) or the non-native pink woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis);  I haven't figured out how to tell the difference between the two yet - but I'd always prefer to have the native, of course.

With perennials, it's always nice to have some great foliage for visual interest so that you don't have to rely on just blooms throughout the year.  While I was initially attracted to the light blue flower spikes that lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata) has, now that I've grown this plant in my yard, it's the red-veined, hairy leaves with their purplish undersides that I'm finding appeal to me most. 

I'm beginning to think of this plant as a hosta replacement, with the twist that it's native and it grows well down here.  In my mind, the occasional seedlings that spring up in the grass are a perk as they transplant readily and allow me to establish new plants elsewhere in the garden beds, giving some cohesion to my newly evolving plantings.  If I ever get tired of them, they uproot easily and will be no problem to simply weed out.

For now I'll leave you with some blueberry blooms (Vaccinium sp.).

I love the rotund, lacy, little pearls that are blueberry blossoms.  Although it doesn't seem like I have very many on my 7 blueberry bushes, I am seeing a pleasing number of blueberries beginning to swell, so I must have more blooms than I realize.  The blueberry bees are keeping busy, for sure!

Azaleas, Unbound

I don't often blog about exotic plants, except perhaps to whine about exotic invasives, but this seems like a good time to share my love of big, fluffy, flashy, southern indica azaleas.

You don't see very many of these beauties around any more.  Oh, the plants are here, all right, but they've been pruned into a more "controlled", "acceptable" size and shape - they're now green meatballs...or meatloafs, to phrase it another way.

I don't like green meatballs, even if the meatballs have a smattering of color in them during the springtime.

Give me the big, old-fashioned puffballs, vibrant with color, rich with romance, shaded by statuesque live oaks, dripping with Spanish moss.....

Now that's a southern landscape!

Damn the Torpedo Grass, Full Speed Ahead!

We made an unpleasant discovery a couple days ago:  our lower terraces, next to the water, are infested with a particularly nasty invasive grass called torpedo grass, Panicum repens.  This stuff is like huge Bermuda grass, on steroids.

From 10 feet above the surface, that doesn't look all that bad, I guess.  But, up close and personal, this stuff is wiry, open, 2+ feet tall...and ugly.  You can see that it's almost completely covered the east terrace in the above photo, taken on October 4th last year.  Frighteningly, when I looked a bit further back, here is a photo I took from the deck stairs only 3 1/2 months before the photo above.

In late June, the torpedo grass was only claiming about half of the eastern lower terrace.  Where DID this horrible weed come from?

It's not that I didn't know the terraces were full of "weeds", it's just that I didn't realize how invasive one of those weedy plants actually was.  I am particularly in debt to National Invasive Species Week this week, because it was a post made about torpedo grass by our local Extension Office during this educational event that made me look a little more closely.

Believe it or not, I believe this was one of those serendipitous events in life.  I've been working down on the western terrace, weeding out the dewberry, Vasey grass, countless oak and hickory seedlings, a popcorn tree sapling, and remnants of ragweed and Bidens alba so that I can actually start making some garden beds in the area.  Here's the area I've been working in, taken last June....

...and here it is 5 days ago, after I put down my garden gloves for the day.

I had just found a rhizome of what I now know is torpedo grass, growing under a big clump of Vasey grass near the water's edge, and I was too tired to tackle the big clump without a break.  So there is some torpedo grass on the west side terrace, too.  I won't know how much until I get back in there, tackling the rest of the early successional vegetation that has established, but at least it's not a pure stand, like it is in the east side.

I am so glad that the article on torpedo grass came when my awareness of what was growing on the lower terraces was fresh!

Now I want to echo David Farragut's famous cry, "Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!" and start planting in this area!  Common sense, however, tells me that then I'd have nice plantings that would still be infested with torpedo grass.  Soon they would look like very nasty plantings, indeed.  The first line of business is now to get rid of this invader as soon as possible.

Research on this unprepossessing plant is not reassuring.

Like so many other really unpleasant invasives, this one was purposefully brought to our country by the agricultural community to provide "better forage" for livestock, probably in the late 1800's.  It certainly grows without pause.  Unfortunately, however, it turns out that grazing animals don't actually like it much, unless it's really young and tender.  Meanwhile it, apparently, really likes life here in the Gulf Coast region, where it has no known enemies or constraints on its growth habits.

One suggested common name for this grass is "creeping panic".  The Loyola Center for Environmental Communication says that it's "akin to Attila the Hun" once it's established.  Dan Gill, a gardening columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune put it this way, "Torpedograss is not difficult to eradicate: It is nearly impossible to eradicate."

Have I mentioned how unhappy I am to have found this plant on our property?

There are photos of this monster growing in deep water on the web - up to 6' deep, according to the sources.  So far I haven't seen signs that it's in the lake behind us...yet, but it's right next to the sea wall.   If we don't get it stopped now, it will be in the lake in the very near future.

According to various experts, manual removal is almost impossible because it (like so many others) will resprout from any tiny bit of rhizome left behind.  The rhizomes can grow as much as 2' below the soil surface.

Chemical treatment is therefore suggested, with the standard array of herbicides listed, but multiple treatments are apparently almost guaranteed to be needed.  I hate using chemicals, but we're breaking down and trying them, in a very targeted way.  Greg mowed a few days ago (before we realized what was there, actually), then burned the center.  This afternoon, he treated the edges that hadn't been burned with concentrated Roundup.  We'll watch for green-up in the burned area and/or in the edges and then we'll re-treat, probably in about 3 weeks. 

One idea I'd love to be able to try, if this didn't feel like such a dire emergency already, would be controlling the torpedo grass with a different plant, an aggressive native that might be able to outcompete it.   I was reminded of that option when I saw this post, by Nancy Lawson, The Humane Gardener:  "How to Fight Plants with Plants".  Her experiences made me remember that Greg and I noticed ragweed outcompeting field bindweed, many years ago, in an abandoned soybean field after we seeded it to native grasses and forbs.  Right now, the biggest problem with using plants to fight plants for handling our torpedo grass problem is that I have NO idea what might outcompete it.  Unfortunately, I just don't have time to experiment, either, if I'm going to keep the torpedo grass out of the lake.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Southeastern Blueberry Bees

When you see something like this small mound of sand, with a single, perfectly round hole in the middle of it, in the center of your lawn, what do you think?

How about if you see a group of such structures, scattered throughout your lawn, as in this public area near our house?

I used to puzzle over this type of hole, wondering what made it and what lived in it.  Big ants?  Spiders?  Tiny snakes?  Mole crickets?

Nope.  Not even close.  It was many years before I realized what I was actually seeing.  Mounds like this are the work of solitary bees, those wonderful little pollinators that most of us barely even know about.  As I walk around my neighborhood, I see quite a few of these tiny sand piles right now - but only in the yards where the grass is just so-so.  Thick, lush lawns - which can only be maintained through chemicals down here - have absolutely no little bee mounds.

So, wouldn't ground-nesting bees be a bad thing?  What about the possibility of bee stings?

You don't have to worry at all.  There's really no problem.  The key word is SOLITARY.  Each hole is the work of one little female bee, who visits hundreds of flowers to collect pollen with which she makes little balls of food, one ball per egg.  She will only produce a couple dozen eggs in her lifetime - and she'll work VERY hard to do that and to provision each one with enough food to ensure survival.  This little bee doesn't have time to worry about keeping anything away from her nest.  In fact, you'll rarely catch her there.  If she were to sting you, she'd die - and then there would be no more eggs laid.  She's not going to waste her life that way.

So why do people like these little solitary bees so much?  What makes them special?

Native solitary bees are the pollinator workhorses of this continent.  They evolved with the plants on North America to efficiently pollinate their flowers, producing fruit, nuts, and seeds.  (Honeybees were brought over by European settlers.  The native plants here would survive just fine without honeybees.)

Right now, in very early March, I'm only seeing one species of solitary bee at flowers.  As I look around, I'm also only seeing one type of solitary bee nest, consisting of this dainty mound of fresh sand with a perfectly round hole, about 1/4" in diameter, in the approximate center of it.  I have not yet seen a bee come out of one of these holes, but I am guessing that the two belong together, that these are the nests of the bees that I'm seeing.

It's been a little tough to photograph and identify these small, solitary bees as they zip from flower to flower, though.  They don't stay in one place for very long.  To my "naked" eye, they look like little bumble bees, but they are much faster and warier than bumble bees.  Most of these solitary bees seem to be a bit less than half the size of a typical bumblebee - or carpenter bee.

After several days of stalking these little guys, though, I've been able to come up with enough photographic evidence to identify them, at least to my satisfaction.  I believe they are southeastern blueberry bees, Habropoda laboriosa

If you raise blueberries, these guys are superheroes.  They buzz pollinate, which involves buzzing in a special way and at a particular frequency to get the pollen to drop.  Blueberry flowers are rather hard to pollinate, actually, and these guys are specialists at it. 

Apparently a single female southeastern blueberry bee will visit up to 600 blueberry flowers to collect the pollen to make a single ball of food for one of her eggs.  Through her pollination activity, over the course of her lifetime, she is estimated to be responsible for producing an average of 6000 blueberries. That's a lot of blueberries for a little bee like this!

Although these bees are primarily known for "working" blueberry flowers, I am also seeing them at both azalea blooms and at spiderwort blossoms.  Here's a female with legs full of (white) pollen at a spiderwort bloom.

Of course, only the females carry pollen, so if you see a little bee laden with full pollen baskets, it's definitely female.  The males of this species have a large white patch on their face, like the individual in the (blurry) picture below, so it's actually easy to tell the sexes apart, even if there's no pollen to see.

So if you have blueberry bushes in your yard, keep your eyes open for small "bumble bees" working your blueberry flowers.  They are about the best insurance you can have for getting a good crop of berries later in the year.  Best of all, they're free!  Be sure to leave some areas of open soil or scraggly lawn for them to nest in, though, because you can't have southeastern blueberry bees without places for female southeastern blueberry bees to provision and raise their young.