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!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Blueberry Bees!

Looky, looky, looky!!!

I was too quick to get discouraged!  Ten days after I posted about not seeing bees on my blueberries and after several nice days of rain, I went outside on Tuesday to do my 10 minute sit, observing the blueberry blossoms.  Look at what I saw:  southeastern blueberry bees!!!

There were only 2 bees at any one time on Tuesday.  Both of them seemed to be males, based both on the lack of pollen being carried on their legs and on the white face that I saw on one.  But males hatch out first in many solitary bee species, so I had high hopes that I'd soon see more.

And today (Thursday), I did.  While doing another 10 minute sit today, I saw at least 6 blueberry bees!!!  Best of all, today there was at least one female, based on the pileup she caused!  These pictures are all from Tuesday as I haven't downloaded today's photos yet, but if I caught anything especially interesting, you can rest assured I'll add another post!

It looks like we're on track to have blueberries this summer after all!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Kingfisher News

One of the best things about gardening organically and sharing your yard with wild creatures is that you never stop learning.  Your home landscape becomes a constant source of interest, rather than just a pretty setting to show off your house.

Last week I had a perfect example of that when I discovered an obvious pellet on our deck near the water.  While it was definitely a pellet, it was an odd pellet, being smaller than I'm used to seeing and very crystalline looking.

I knew "our" pair of belted kingfishers liked to perch on the railing nearby.  Do kingfishers cough up pellets like owls do?  I've never heard of that, but I'm hardly a bird expert.  So I did some internet research....

Lo and behold, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" website, as adults, belted kingfishers DO cough up pellets composed of fish bones and scales, which are usually found near their fishing and roosting sites.  Kingfisher stomach chemistry actually seems to change between their time as nestlings, when an acidic stomach chemistry allows them to digest fish bones, fish scales, and arthropod shells,  and adulthood, when producing pellets that are expelled seems to be the way these hard-to-digest substances are handled.

Another fun fact I learned on this website is that the oldest kingfisher fossil ever found, dated at 2 million years ago, was discovered nearby in Alachua County, Florida.

So the history of kingfishers runs deep here in the northern part of Florida.  Our resident pair doesn't care about that, of course, but they do enjoy the habitat they've found. 

Based on the fact that they've started dive bombing the hooded mergansers when those birds forage between the southern magnolia overhanging the water and the dock across the lake, I'm presuming that the kingfishers have a nest burrow established there. 

I'm looking forward to watching more real life drama play out in our yard as the kingfishers raise their brood during the next few months.  It's great to have front row seats!

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Blueberry Blooms...But No Bees

My blueberry bushes have started to bloom and I am anxiously watching to see if any southeastern blueberry bees show up to pollinate them.

I literally sat about 10 feet away from the bushes yesterday, from 11:40 a.m. to noon and watched.  It was 55 degrees F. outside and sunny.  There were no bees visiting the flowers.

Today I went out at about 3:25 p.m. and watched again for 10 minutes.  Again, it was sunny.  The temperature was 72 degrees F.  Again, I saw no bees.

Why am I so concerned?  I had bees (and blueberries) last year.

Well, last spring I shared with you my excitement over finding a small cluster of southeastern blueberry bee nests in what I thought was a public area down the street from us.  Across the road from this little cluster of nests was a 15 year old hedge of blueberry bushes in the backyard of another neighbor.  Such unassuming little creatures, such delicious fruits, and it was so much fun to connect the two.

Several months after my enthusiastic post, though, the neighbor whose yard abutted that "small public area" where I found those blueberry bee nests chose to rototill up this small triangular area and cover it with sod, effectively annexing it to his yard.  It all looks very "upscale" now, so nobody else seems to be upset, but I doubt any of the bees were able to survive the dual assault - and, like most solitary bees, southeastern blueberry bees only have one generation per year.  Effectively that little population of southeastern blueberry bees has been destroyed.

Even if a few of the bees managed to survive the rototilling and heavy sod overlayment, the sod carpet was almost assuredly grown with neonicotinoid insecticides.  Given the immaculate and well groomed appearance of the property overall, I'm guessing that neonics have been and will continue to be used to maintain the lawn's manicured appearance.

Neonicotinoids affect bees.  They are insect-icides, and very potent ones at that, even at small concentrations.

Sadly, the destruction wasn't done yet.  The house across the street, the one with the blueberry hedge, had sold the previous fall.  Last summer, the new owners yanked out all the blueberry bushes, presumably because they interfered with their unobstructed view of our little lake.

I'm trusting that there are other southeastern blueberry bee nests around that haven't been destroyed and that the little bees will find my blooms before too long.  It IS early in the season, after all.  Meanwhile, when I can, I'm going to keep going out and keeping watch over my blossoms, hoping to see the little "mini-bumble bees" busily poking their way up into the blooms.

There has been a lot of habitat destruction around our neighborhood in the last 12 months or so, all in the name of "sprucing up".  It's been disheartening to watch, since one of the big factors that attracted us to this area was the mature landscaping.  In fact, I'm planning to do an entire post on the topic, so for now I'll stop here.

Please join me in hoping that there are other pockets of southeastern blueberry bees around, ready to find our blooms, producing delicious berries and food for next year's bees in the process.

Slut Shamed, Homeowner Style

Pardon my French, but "slut shamed" rather perfectly describes what I feel like about this....

I came home last Wednesday night to this unsolicited message, gathered up with the mail and lying on our dining room table:

Presumably Greg found this tag, a "lawn report card", if you will, hanging on the handle of our front door.

Apparently, a total stranger happened to come by our house and felt compelled to stop and leave a written note for us, telling us that our lawn needs weed control, fertilization, pre-emergent treatment and pest control.  Our lawn is also apparently suffering from freeze burn.  This stranger repeated that our lawn needed pre-emergent and weed control.  Evidently the situation is dire because he exclaimed about how badly it needed these things.  He also told us that grass plugs would be available soon.

Call, he said.  It was underlined to underscore the urgency.

I am rather amused by the depth of my angst about this.  Of course I understand that this is purely a marketing ploy, done to drum up business, but it still really bothered me when I read it.

Because I consciously and conscientiously garden to provide habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wild creatures, I don't use commercial pest control or pre-emergents or weed control.  Insecticides, herbicides, and even standard fertilizers work against my goal.  After all, "-cide" means "-killer" and there is no pesticide, herbicide or insecticide that can differentiate between "good" and "bad".  They just kill what they are designed to kill:  "pests", broad-leaved plants, grasses, insects, etc., depending on the chemical formulation of the -cide being used.

Taken yesterday, this is a photo of our front lawn, 4 days after our failing report card was hand delivered to us.  We have done nothing to the lawn or to the gardens in those intervening days.  To be honest, we really haven't done anything in our yard or gardens in several months now, and there IS obviously work that needs to be done as spring begins to sneak up on us.  There is also lots more gardening, planting, and growing that I want to accomplish.  However, given all that, I am comfortable with the general appearance of our lawn.  It seems to balance reasonably well between looking rationally maintained and providing healthy habitat.

Here is our front lawn in early October, while it is still green.  Far from perfect, but it still seems acceptable to me.

Truthfully, I am rather astounded by how unsettled having this "report card" left on my door actually made me feel.   If receiving this little "reminder" upset ME this much, when I am knowingly making the choices I am making for reasons that are very important to me, what does an unsolicited report like this do to the average homeowner, who is just worried about property values and neighbors' approval? 

I KNOW our lawn is full of non-grass plants, also known as weeds.  Some of these plants are native, most are not.  I remove the really problematic ones by hand, but if the non-grass plants will handle being mowed, I generally don't worry too much about their inclusion in our lawn.

What I DO manage for - and worry about providing - is a healthy mix of plants and animals in our yard overall, a mix that includes pollinators, predators, and a good selection of native plants to feed leaf and seed eaters, as well as pollinators, birds, toads, anoles, and all the other wonderful life forms that I've observed just in our little 0.4 acre lot over the last 2 2/3 years.

Is our yard "pristine"?  No.  I don't want our yard pristine, I want it ALIVE. 

Is our yard alive?  Yes, it is.  Our yard is alive with chattering chickadees and flitting yellow-rumped warblers, with brilliant gulf fritillary butterflies and little solitary bees, with stalking preying mantids and shimmering long-tailed skippers, with watchful green anoles and fat saucy toads. 

That's worth a bit of lawn shaming any day.