Wednesday, April 30, 2008

More rhododendrons

Our deciduous native azaleas in the Southeastern U.S. are wonderfully garden-worthy, and happily are appearing more in local gardens, and perhaps other parts of the temperate gardening world! They've all been flowering in the last few weeks - some of the nicest are Pinxter flower (a common name used for Rhododendron periclymenoides and R. canescens), both of which are lovely, and Florida azalea (Rhododendron austrinum). Florida azalea flowers vary in color from yellow to orange, sometimes quite vivid. This one was flowering behind my office building awhile ago.

They like filtered shade, and reasonably moist soil, similar to their natural habitat in the understory of mixed hardwood forests. They're definitely not in the category of adaptable natives, being fairly specific in their requirements!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rhododendrons are starting to flower

The Japanese azaleas and our native azaleas have been in flower (and some are past) for awhile, but the evergreen Rhododendrons are later. Ours are just starting to flower. In my part of the world, in the SE US, we have lovely native evergreen rhododendrons in the mountains, but the ones that do best here in the foothills and Piedmont have a bit of hybrid vigor, thanks to some Asian genes and happy crosses. But still, they're fussy about site; the ones that have flourished have light morning sun and are protected from harsh summer afternoons. Perfect drainage helps protect against Phytophora spp. (which cause root rot).

Monday, April 28, 2008

Brown thrashers, robins, and evening

Spring evenings are lovely in the garden -- the songs and calls of birds as they settle in for the night accompany my puttering around checking plants, mulching, pulling the odd weed. It's often a magical time, when suddenly it's almost dark, or it's time to cook dinner. Yesterday, several hours vanished as I planted, dug, and tended.

The brown thrashers were busy protecting their nest; a fledgling, fully feathered, was on the ground, but the parents were protective and attentive. I had seen them yesterday up in the old redbud.

The nest must be in one of the Viburnums or maybe in the butterfly bush. They were watchful again this evening, so hopefully the fledgling on the ground is under cover.

Early this morning, on a rain-drenched (and shortened) birding excursion, we watched a pair of robins doing their courtship ritual, a remarkable display. We also heard song sparrows and saw them foraging for seeds in the lawn.

A nice way to spend the beginning and end of the day.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A good day for planting

Trombocino squash last year

It was overcast all day, with some showery periods, and a forecast for more rain tonight. Perfect weather for transplanting and sowing seeds. I spent most of the day puttering in the garden, planting, digging, transplanting, with some weeding thrown in.

The soil temperature here is now about 70°F, so warm enough to sow seeds of cucumbers, squash, and beans. I put in heirloom Armenian yard-long cucumbers, trombocino squash, lagenaria squash (Lagenaria longissima- a new species to try), Ronde de Nice zucchini, Eight Ball zucchini (similar to Ronde de Nice, I think, but from a different seed company), patty pan squash (Johnny's 'Flying Saucer F1'), and scarlet runner beans.

For good measure, I also sowed some 'leftover' seeds in small pots to put on the germination mat: Toma Verde tomatillo, Corno di Toro peppers, "pizza" peppers (from two sources), a hybrid 'Italian Gourmet' pepper from Park Seed, and eggplant 'Listada de Gandia.' I also sowed more cucumbers, squash, and zucchini in pots, to rotate in, as space becomes available.

Seeds are such fun! I hadn't sown any warm season things earlier this year, as I've been busy with work-related things, and when I realized it was late to get any interesting plants via online ordering, thought I'd try some late seed starting. Our growing season is long enough that even warm-season veggies can produce by mid-summer, even if not started until now.

I transplanted some pretty lettuce seedlings that were part of a 'wild salad mix' -- I love the look of the 'speckled trout' or 'Freckles' lettuce and the soft textures of the butterhead lettuce.

I also managed to get in most of my purchased tomato and pepper plants - most from a horticultural student sale on campus, including some interesting heirlooms, but also some old standbys from the local nursery yesterday -- Better Boy and Beefsteak tomatoes.

More plants to plant

On an excursion to one of our remaining independent nurseries yesterday looking for a pot of Bolivian begonia, which had been wonderful last summer on the porch, I didn't find any, and will just have to wait until the one I ordered as a 'summer bulb' arrives. I did find a number of other things (of course!) that I thought it would be fun to try.

A large flat of Bidens in one of the greenhouses (species not given) was unusual among the normal collection of warm season annuals. Bidens is a genus in the Aster family full of tough, sometimes weedy wildflowers (common names include Tickseed, Beggar's Ticks, and Bur-Marigold), so seeing flats of something tame-looking labeled as an annual got my attention.

I had run across a reference to selections of Bidens ferulifolia a couple of weeks ago, working on a drought-tolerant plant list for our zone (7b). They supposedly flowered all summer, were attractive to bees and butterflies, and were happily drought-tolerant in containers (my kind of plant). So even though I wasn't sure what sort of Bidens were being offered up, two pots made it into my cart (I managed not to buy more, as I already had added a couple of portulaca plants, two licorice plants, and several small tomato plants), in spite of having a number of plants at home needing planting already....

Some time poking about on the web suggested that my purchases WERE a cultivar of Bidens ferulifolia, a native of the U.S. Desert Southwest and Mexico, a evergreen perennial in Zones 8-11. Which cultivar, I don't know, but I think I'll use one in the large corner hanging basket, and the other along the driveway and see how they do.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A perfect spring morning

The morning was lovely: cool, not humid- perfect to notice things in the garden. The blue flax (Linum perenne) was a striking clear blue, against our weathered gray fence.

The deep purple of May night sage, Salvia nemorosa, made a nice combination with it.

The main vegetable garden is waiting for tomatoes and peppers, while the satellite garden's onions, garlic, and potatoes are flourishing.

I'll be planting squash seeds there this weekend, to rotate in as I start harvesting the garlic and onions.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A warm spring day

It was close to 80°F (~27° C), pretty warm for late April. We've had, what seems to me, more windy days than usual for spring, but maybe I'm mis-remembering. What it does mean, with low humidity, warmth, and windy conditions, is that it's seeming pretty dry again. The first graders in our garden program rotations this morning were wilting by the second program; they were hot, thirsty, hungry, and tired. We're not used to warmth quite this early, even in the Southeastern US.

I was hopeful in February and March (and the official drought projections had improved), that maybe we'd spring back into something more like "normal" rainfall, and maybe we still will.

But I needed to water the vegetable garden this evening, even the sturdy garlic, shallot, onion, and potato beds, since it hasn't rained much for a couple of weeks (but for about a 1/4 inch last weekend).

My deep-rooted 'Italian dandelion' is perfectly happy, however, as is the equally deep-rooted butterfly weed that I heeled in (not very smartly) in the vegetable garden a few years back. I've tried to dig it up (and have successfully transplanted root cuttings), but the original plant keeps re-emerging.

My gardening companion took some lovely photos of the dandelion being visited by bees, and a striking photo of the fruits ready to be dispersed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Cedar waxwings and bluebird

Late this afternoon in the Garden, I saw a large group of cedar waxwings swoop around and settle in a flowering hickory. Taking a few shots (without a good zoom lens), here's a view of a couple of cedar waxwings and a bluebird.

There was also a mockingbird in the group, but they were largely cedar waxwings.

Walking iris

I normally don't pay a lot of attention to indoor plants, but a dancing iris (or walking iris, Neomarica gracilis) given to me by a friend has bloomed away this winter and spring.

It's a lovely member of the Iris family native to Brazil, and hardy only to about zone 8 outside, but is a very adaptable houseplant.

Each flower lasts less than a day, but has intricate markings, and is delicately borne at the end of stems. It's easy to propagate from the young offshoots that appear at the end of stems after flowering, so there are always plants to share.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Bee flies and syrphid flies

I was fortunate enough to be on a birding excursion this afternoon in a class that I've been taking. We saw all sorts of interesting things, thanks to our instructor, a great birder, but also an experienced entomologist.

We saw birds, of course, and we're in the midst of peak spring migration, but I think my favorite new thing was learning about bee flies. They look like small, very cute bees, but are actually bee mimics. This one was visiting small pale tangerine-colored flowers out in the meadow (a weedy plant that I should know the name of, but which is really quite lovely). They're pollinators, just like bumblebees, honeybees, and other bees, but as flies, mimic bees to avoid predators. Here's a great array of bee fly images from giffbeaton.com.

Similarly, watching a syrphid fly that mimics yellow jackets was fascinating. These flies are also flower visitors, and are sometimes called flower flies. Here are some good images from a NC Extension Sustainable Agriculture site.

I was able to get a good look at a number of birds that were less familiar to me. A Eastern Kingbird and a number of blue-gray gnatcatchers were highlights, as well as a tufted titmouse carrying a HUGE wad of moss in her beak for nest building. We also saw the nesting female red-shouldered hawk apparently feeding bits of an anole or lizard that her mate had just brought to her. She's probably staying at the nest with her nestlings while they grow feathers -- they're altricial (born with little or no down), so need plenty of help to stay warm, and need to be fed. Hopefully, they'll be independent enough in the next few days (it takes about a week) that both parents will be feeding them, so we'll have lots more activity. We were able to see the male come in, deposit the critter, and quickly depart, and then the backside of the female as she fed her young.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Weeds are DEFINITELY adaptable

I've always had a sneaking admiration for the adaptability of weedy species; they're amazingly flexible in their reproductive strategies -- annual (winter or summer), biennial, perennial -- either terrific seed producers or excellent vegetative spreaders. Lots of strategies!

Weedy winter annuals love our mild winters, so I always get lots of exercise pulling them up in open mulched areas. Fortunately, they're easy to pull, creating mounds of compostable material (composted 'hot' if plants have gone to seed.) Weedy species vary in their success year to year, but since winter annuals are adapted to quick growth at low temperatures, relatively speaking, and producing flowers and fruits quickly in spring, it's hard to keep ahead of their seed production.

And usually, I'm behind; even here in the Carolinas, it's often too inhospitable to get out and weed (uh, sometimes the weekends are cold and rainy, even if we do have perfectly nice days periodically in the winter).

So, I'm out there pulling up all the 'suspects' right now, chief among them ivy-leaved speedwell, Veronica hederifolia, which of course has already gone to seed. It wins the prize this year for peskiest winter annual. Whether it was the summer drought, followed by a decently damp winter, who knows?

I'll put on my plant ecologist cap for a moment and mention that for a winter annual, ivy-leaved speedwell has exceptionally large seeds. And, produces a LOT of them. It's pretty unusual for a weedy annual to produce seeds that large.

This is a species native to Europe that's well adapted to disturbed soil and open areas, so is at home in our mild winter areas.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A drumming red-bellied woodpecker

A tapping outside my study window caught my attention this morning. I looked up and saw a male red-bellied woodpecker tapping on the gutter at the edge of the porch. Our gutters are made of coated heavy metal, so the sound was loud. After a look at some references, I confirmed my thought that the drumming behavior is about territory marking and attracting a mate. Woodpeckers often use created structures (utility poles, shutters, wooden buildings, etc.) to drum on, so our gutter was standing in for a tree.

Red-bellied woodpeckers are widespread in the Eastern U.S., and relatively common because they're adaptable to suburban habitats and cities which have plenty of trees. They drill into wood to excavate the wood-boring insects that make up part of their diet.

My camera was sitting on the desk, so I was able to get a couple of quick images before he departed.

Visiting natural gardens

My gardening companion was out on a day-long photo excursion in the Blue Ridge Mountains yesterday, getting images for his book project. It was a perfect spring day at our elevation, but at the highest elevations, it was still winter. His 'bear dog' and my gardening assistant went with him. Here, he's waiting patiently in a natural garden of trilliums and mayapple.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Just about time to start planting warm season veggies

It looks like our nighttime temperatures will be in the upper 40°s F to the lower 50°s (8 - 11 °C) for the next week or so, so I up-potted the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant that had been living in the mudroom into larger pots, getting them ready to transfer into the garden. I didn't grow anything from seeds this year for transplant, so I'm relying on growing what I can find. I've had good success with mail-order seedlings for more interesting things; excellent nurseries pack them up nicely and plants are resilient. Poblano peppers and tomatillos are plants that you'd think would be interesting to gardeners in a warm summer climate like ours, but are rarely available locally.

I made a sowing of summer mix lettuce in a flat yesterday evening, and admired the 'wild garden mix' growing in part of a block of the main vegetable garden -- the speckled lettuce is always lovely.

The tulips were lovely, too, just before the warmer weather hit. They don't 'work for a living' -but they get special dispensation for delighting the gardener.

The grocery store Liatris corms have sprouted nicely (I felt like I was rescuing them when I bought them).

And the Ajuga, Veronica, and sage (along with the annual Violas) make a nice container planting.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A gray fox in the morning

Early this morning, I was walking up to my office and saw an unusual thing -- a very furry animal rolling around vigorously and looking like a dog in the grass scratching his back. Initially, I thought that's one BIG squirrel, but it looked to be the size of a large cat, certainly not a squirrel. Nor are woodchucks so furry.

As I got closer, as the animal saw me, sat up, and looked at me, I recognized it as a fox. It watched me for a few moments before disappearing into the shrub border. One of my paleontologist colleagues saw it a bit later, and identified it as a gray fox - he wrote "saw a Urocyon cinereoargenteus (gray fox) in front of the museum around 9 this morning. Thought it was a big, lean cat at first, but we stared down each other for a minute and I got a good look at it. It tried to run into the museum but hit the glass door – didn’t seem to be phased and took off over to the head frame and hopped the 3ft. wall…"

I always wish I had my camera at such moments, but here's a nice photo from a Maryland DNR Habichat newsletter.

Gray foxes live mostly in deciduous woodland areas (such as our forested areas), and eat quite a varied diet -- small rodents, rabbits, and insects, in addition to a variety of fruits and seeds.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Tomatoes and frost

I'm glad I didn't put any tomato plants out early this year. We wait anxiously for April 15 -- our average last frost date, but since that's an average, frost CAN occur, as it did last night. It wasn't a heavy frost, barely a sprinkling, but tomatoes, liking warmth above 55 ° F for their night-time temperatures, and soil temperatures in the same range, are not happy with frost, being of tropical origin.

My tomato, pepper, and basil plants are still in the mud room, waiting transplanting to either larger containers (with continued protection), or into the garden. They definitely need 'up-potting,' since they're in small pots, but we'll see. I need to look at the next week's weather forecast!

Our Clemson University Extension folks suggest May 1 as the first date to plant tomatoes here in Upstate South Carolina. Lots of people like to 'push' this planting date, but it's always fraught with potential hazards...

Basking turtles

Another fun thing to observe in the Garden's pond are the turtles. (I have my own wildlife garden, but the botanical garden where I work is almost 300 acres, so it's a really big wildlife garden!)

We have several species of turtles that live in the pond, with one of the most common being pond sliders. I've counted up to twenty basking on the pine logs adjacent to the Duck Pond. They take advantage of sunny spots to warm up on cool days.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Onions and garlic

I've been growing garlic for awhile -- incredibly easy and remarkably delicious fresh. Green garlic is a farmer's market staple in trendy markets in Southern California (I know this because I listen to an interesting podcast from KCRW, a public radio station in Santa Monica, CA, called 'Good Food.' I discovered green garlic by accident, as I have had to harvest it early in the past (before the satellite garden) to make room for the summer tomatoes, peppers, and squash in my garden rotations in the main vegetable garden.

I planted lots of garlic, onions, and potatoes in the satellite garden, as I knew any emerging woodchucks wouldn't be interested. Sure enough, before s/he was relocated, all that disappeared were the lonely broccoli relatives that I thought I'd try, hidden among the onion plants. Hrrmph. But now that s/he is on to hopefully greener pastures, I'm thinking about harvesting more of the garlic early, and planting some other things.

Two onion relatives that I'm growing for the first time are quite interesting. A pot of 'Welsh onions' - Allium fistulosum -acquired at a local nursery last summer, divided and put in containers and adjacent to the garlic beds have flourished, becoming huge. I've been pulling them up along the edges and using them like green onions in stir-frys. A favorite podcast, The Alternative Kitchen Garden, mentions that there are both white and red varieties. A fellow sustainable gardening blogger in England grows the red variety as a perennial bunching onion, a plant that his grandfather grew.

I love learning about plants and their stories and where they came from. Certainly 'Welsh onions' fit that -- they're not Welsh, but Asian, so we really should be calling them Japanese bunching onions. But how did a pot of Welsh onions, labeled somewhere at a herb company, make its way to a small nursery in Pendleton, South Carolina, where I bought it? And my fellow gardeners in England are growing it. What fun!

These are red shallots, growing next to garlic. I'm not sure how to harvest shallots, but I'm sure they'll be tasty.

Cool pond inhabitants

A highlight during one of last year's school programs was seeing a water snake eat a fish. It was a long process, with the fish, a small bream, slowly disappearing down the 'throat' of the snake (a Northern water snake, apparently). I'd seen water snakes before, basking on rocks at pond's edge, or in our created rocky waterfall in the Hosta Garden, but never doing anything so interesting.

The kids were entranced- I think there was something about seeing it eating the fish that somehow made it real, and not something to be feared. Most kids are concerned about snakes, and are determined to tell me about the 'water moccasins' that live in our ponds and streams. I'm not sure they always believe me when I tell them that we don't have water moccasins here in the Upstate, only in the lower parts of South Carolina.

We do have copperheads, but it would take effort to see one in the heavily visited parts of the Garden, since they're quite shy, and readily sense us coming.

Today, we saw two Northern water snakes, a male and a female, basking in the same general place that they hung out last year. We talked about how they eat frogs, fish, juvenile turtles, crustaceans, and even small mammals, although I don't think these snakes are doing so in the Duck Pond. The kids today were also impressed, but a lot more tentative about them.

My retired elementary science teacher friend who was helping me with the program, thought the female, the larger of the two, might be reproductive; Northern water snakes produce a single litter of live young each year after a 3-5 month gestation period, bearing up to 30 young snakes up to 6cm long. These young snakes are independent at birth. This was the smaller one (presumably the male) -- in a close-up view.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A barred owl

On this morning's walk, I saw what I first thought was a hawk glide across the road. It landed on a branch of a nearby tree, and remained still, watching me closely. I realized it was an owl, probably a barred owl. We live in a neighborhood full of old hardwood trees, punctuated by a long watershed/sewer easement, so have good habitat for barred owls, which like forested areas.

A couple of summers ago, we had a nest nearby, and every evening for several weeks, one or two of the young owls would perch on a branch of the black walnut on the edge of the forest, hunting for dinner.

One day, early, I caught a glimpse of one near the house, and managed to catch a blurry image, before it left.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Finally a first hummingbird!

We've been waiting to see our first ruby-throated hummingbird of the season. They start appearing in our area between late March and early April; this map from Hilton Pond's site shows average times of first sightings here in the Eastern U.S. The first male 'scouts' were reported almost a month ago, and my feeders have been up since then.

So, I was delighted to see a hummingbird visiting Carolina jessamine flowers outside my study window yesterday afternoon.

He didn't stay long at them, visiting just a couple; we have coral honeysuckle and red buckeyes currently in flower that are a lot more to their taste, and later I saw him visiting the large coral honeysuckle near the kitchen door. We saw him again this morning and afternoon, visiting flowers and snapping up insects in the red oak.

No sign of any visiting the feeders yet, but I've got three ready and waiting.

I'm hoping one of 'our' males might return to our garden, to stay and set up his territory. There definitely was a family here last year. We have seemingly great habitat for hummingbirds; lots of hummingbird nectar flowers throughout the season, native trees full of small insects to glean, and plenty of cover for nesting.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Foraging squirrels

Eastern gray squirrels are an adaptable species, so are quite at home in our wooded gardens and urban neighborhoods. We've had lots of fun watching them in our garden, especially after they were banished from the attic by a new gutter and roof, so now live in leafy dreys up in the old red oak trees. Their preferred foods are acorns and hickory nuts, but they'll also eat mushrooms, fruits, and young leaves and buds.

They do dig holes everywhere this time of the year, sniffing out buried acorns and hickory nuts & checking out whether there might be a tasty bulb planting. I don't find this tremendously bothersome, although they do dig holes in my flats of young lettuce and container plantings. But I just smooth the potting mix or soil back and figure I've got plenty of seedlings anyway.

They have a habit of chewing young buds and leaves this time of year, and folks that have young trees that are particularly desirable (think Japanese maples), which must have sweet, nutrient-rich buds, can see a good bit of herbivory. But we were surprised the other evening, sitting out on the porch, by two of our furry residents yumming up the young leaves and buds of the water oak in front of the house. We couldn't tell if they were eating the young catkins -- but definitely they were nibbling on shoot tips and young leaves. My gardening companion took some nice shots of these herbivores in action.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Eastern cottontails

Maybe since Beatrix Potter stories were favorites of mine as a child, I've got a soft spot for Eastern cottontails. As we converted our lawn to include more shrubs, trees, herbaceous plants, and mulched areas, we were delighted to see cottontails appear. They never seemed to bother my vegetable plants, even lettuce and carrots, apparently much preferring the white clover that punctuated the remaining lawn. They like broad-leaved plants best, so succulent stems and leaves of clover, plantain, and dandelion make a perfect meal. We even had a small family one season.

But then they disappeared, we thought because our neighbors and their young children encouraged stray cats by feeding them, and a couple of them were quite determined hunters. We figured that they were responsible to the chipmunk decline, disappearance of cottontails, not mention worry about birds in our garden.

So I was delighted late yesterday afternoon to see an Eastern cottontail hopping off to cover, as I came around the house and disturbed him or her from her nibbling on some chickweed.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Plants with meaning

A garden friend of mine did a program years ago where she talked about creating a garden with meaning. As best I remember, she was considering being thoughtful about the plants that are included in a display bed, so that those of us that were garden educators would have some foundation to base our interpretation on -- not just having to be creative about it! This means using plants that have interesting stories, or that 'do something' interesting.

I love to think about planting plants that have meaning.

To me, it means selecting plants for a garden that not only have personal meaning, but that also 'work for living.'

In a garden, this might include memory plants (if you can grow them) - plants that were given to you or sentimental favorites - ones that your family might have grown or that you grew in another place.

Or, they might be plants that remind you of favorite plants or places -- my gardening companion loved the Western hemlocks of our California roots, so we have 16 of our own Eastern hemlocks planted around our garden (they're a LOT bigger than this now).

I want to know where a plant that I've put in my garden has come from -- where is (or was) it native? what was its native habitat? If it's a hybrid, who were its parents? If it's a cultivar, what was it selected for? Color, more flowers, low height, etc. These are interesting bits for me to learn about -- it's part of the fun of being a gardener.

As a natural gardener, I want to have plants that do something -- providing seeds and fruits for birds and other herbivores, producing flowers that have nectar and pollen for flower visitors, providing leafy food for caterpillars and other insects, nesting sites for birds, etc. These are often native plants, but not always.

If there's a great tender perennial (I'm thinking of Salvia coccinea, native to the Gulf Coast) that hummingbirds love, sign me up.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

An unusual visitor

At one of the bird feeders outside my study window early yesterday morning, I saw two visitors that weren’t usual at all. The dark black bird with the brown head that caught my eye turned out to be a male cowbird, but I didn’t recognize the other. Doing a bit of investigation (that is, checking out my ID in one of the many bird books that I have), and after noticing that they flew up into the oak tree together, I realized that the other bird was a female cowbird – a drab light brown bird, with streaky feathers. Since cowbirds are brood parasites, laying eggs in other species' nests for them to raise, it's hard to feel too warm or fuzzy about them, but they're interesting birds, nevertheless. Their range greatly expanded east following waves of forest clearing, as they're birds of open areas and edges, originally native to the Great Plains.

They normally forage on the ground, eating seeds and insects, but must have figured the seed mix in the feeder was worth checking out. They often are parts of blackbird foraging 'flocks' in spring, as they move towards their breeding grounds.

These illustrations of a male and female cowbird are from birds.cornell.edu. Here's some more information about cowbirds on All About Birds, on Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website. Hilton Pond had a nice piece, too, last spring describing cowbird behavior in York, SC.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A spring afternoon

With water and warmth, leaves are expanding rapidly and flowers are opening.

All of the potato sprouts are up, the coral honeysuckle at the kitchen door is loaded with flowers (still waiting for hummingbirds), and honeybees, bumblebees, and carpenter bees are avidly visiting the redbuds in full bloom.

The columbines (Aquilegia canadense) that have self-seeded around the house are just coming into flower.

I saw a monarch this afternoon -- I was surprised to see one. They're coming north, but I didn't see any last spring, even though we're on the eastern 'flyway'.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Even more rain

We had an inch and a quarter of rain today, according to the new rain gauge, excellent for catch up and soaking into the soil. I was on an excursion to mid-state South Carolina for a program, and was surprised to learn that they not only weren't still in deficit, but had a surplus of rainfall so far this year. Geez, and I was just cheered up that our drought projection is now strongly in the improved category. But rain is spotty, and regional, and the downpour here is nothing down the road.

Tomorrow is projected as sunny and mild -- perfect gardening weather. There are lots more winter annuals to pull up. They're survivors, for sure. Somehow their seeds can germinate in deep mulch (doesn't matter if it's leaves, hardwood, or pine bark) and their vegetative abundance coats the surface of the soil. In a 'previous life', I studied weed ecology as a researcher -- the take home message is that weedy plants have reproductive strategies that can take advantage of ANY disturbance, and are quick to do so.

I still have some low-growing thymes to plant in the crevices of the front pathway, as well as some knocking back of lawn weeds. My gardening companion is away visiting family, so Mocha and I are on our own this weekend.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

More rain

It's seeming pretty wet now, but I feel like any amount of rain now is drops in the bank, hedging against the heat and dry spells to come. The long-term projections have eased for the Southeast -- we're in the 'improving' category in the U.S. Drought Monitor charts, much better than the 'continuing drought' category, but we're certainly not out of the woods yet -- we're running a 3 inch deficit this year already, after a 20 inch deficit last year.

The impact on natural communities is hard to detect, but is evident none the less. We'll see weakened mature trees senesce, and less tolerant understory trees die too, after the stress of last summer's heat and drought.

Interestingly, some plants are remarkably abundant this spring. Both color forms of Viola sororia are everywhere -- in lawns, along roadsides, in ditches, etc. - providing a lovely blue haze from a distance. I don't mind them; they're attractive and a nice reminder of spring.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A woodchuck relocated

I'd been keeping the Havahart trap closed at night, not to nab unsuspecting racoons, opposums, or skunks. But after lunch today, and after a rainy morning, I put the door up, and thought I'd refresh the spinach later on.

But when I got home, my gardening companion was heading to the backyard with his camera to take a picture of what turned out to be an attractive young woodchuck, enticed by wilting spinach and Chuckster bait. Not the giant herbivore of my dreams (bad), but a cute herbivore that just needs something to eat. But not in my vegetable garden.

Between last year's drought (awful) and the woodchuck(s) eating everything green and watered, last year was not my most productive vegetable gardening season. So I'm not anxious to repeat the experience.

My gardening companion had happily volunteered to be the relocation expert; we determined that the grassy edge near a nearby lake, and adjoining golf course, would be an excellent habitat for this young woodchuck. S/he scampered out of the trap towards the building, but hopefully turned around for greener pastures.

Downy woodpeckers

Downy woodpeckers are our smallest woodpecker, and common throughout North America, I'm just learning right now reading the account in Cornell's All About Birds. I put up a new cake of suet a couple of days ago, and this male has been avidly visiting.

He's not too skittish, so even on a grey morning with minimal light, I was able to get this shot, before he finally decided to retreat to the nearby dogwood, and fuss mildly. He did the 'whinny' call that you can hear on All About Birds.

The photo's blurry because the light levels were low and my lens isn't that long, but it's recognizable, thanks to the digital darkroom!

His bright red patch on the back of his head is an attractive contrast to his black and white feathers.
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