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.