Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Visiting 'natural' gardens

Wonderful areas rich in biodiversity are natural gardens, and great places to visit. We like to travel to interesting natural areas around the world, focusing on areas that are rich in natural history and culture. We're off for semester break in South India this year; look for travelblog posts (if I have the opportunity)!

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Sunrise and crescent moon

I looked out the breakfast room window this morning and caught a glimpse of the crescent moon framed by clouds tinted a rich purple by the sunrise. By the time I took this picture, the color had faded somewhat, as the light brightened.

It reminded me of sunrises in the tropics, as we seldom have such vivid early morning color.

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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Rooted cuttings and winter flowers

I hadn't rooted cuttings much before, and I thought I'd try some Spanish lavender (lovely flowers most of the summer) and an amazingly hardy red climbing rose in front of the house.

(The lavender image is from a fellow blogger from Alabama: somethingthatwontcompute.blogspot.com.)

The rose has flowered season after season with no help from us; it scrambles up an old dogwood tree, and then flowers and flowers. Drought didn't stop it; light frosts are shrugged off. It's amazing. We don't water, fertilize, spray -- it's definitely a rose to grow! But since it pre-dates us, and is of no recognizable variety (without doing any research), I thought cuttings would be easy enough to try.

So in late summer, I took tip cuttings of the lavender and of the rose (this was in the depths of our dreadful August heat), dipped them in some Rootone that I'd had for awhile, and stuck them in some pots filled with half and half vermiculite and potting mix. I checked them a bit periodically, and by late October, both had started to produce decent roots, the lavender most vigorously.

I left the lavender cuttings in the pots, but transplanted the rose cuttings (totally leafless) to a nice rich bed next to the radicchio. I figured they'd be buffered from cold weather better.

I checked all of them today, and hooray! They all seem well-rooted, and hopefully I'll have both Spanish lavender and rose cuttings to transplant in the spring.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Drought, woodpeckers, bats, and rocks

It hasn't been a week for gardening -- we finally got some rain (half an inch last Friday) and almost 7/10 of an inch yesterday. In the drought we're in, counting every drop is important. We're worrying about the long-term forecast; my colleague sent an e-mail about hearing that the National Weather Service has projected drought through next summer. It's cool now, but any soil recharge we get is great. Here in SC, we're (at least as a public garden) thinking about whether we can water next summer -- I'm expecting that we'll have mandatory restrictions like our neighboring states of Georgia and North Carolina.

What's been fun, however, is the parade of birds through our home garden. They're definitely enjoying the water I put in the birdbath and large dishes on the ground.

In recent school programs at the botanical garden where I work, I've enjoyed pointing out woodpeckers, bat boxes (we have bats that roost in the trees, and use the boxes a bit), and all the acorns, hickory nuts, and leaves that are falling now. Today's programs focused on changes in the landscape, erosion, and geology -- my knowledge of geology is not vast (minimal, actually), but fortunately, my descriptions of erosion, soil formation, and stream banks captivate third graders, and my colleagues at the Geology Museum provide the important information about rocks and minerals that 3rd graders are supposed to learn about. I get to be about exploring the geological landscape of the Garden.

These kids, however, seemed to love being in the forested area along the Garden's creek the best. Seeing squirrels is a highlight. One of them asked me (I had told them that one of the best things about what I do was that I get to explore the Garden with kids like them), did I like to go on adventures? Well, of course, there are adventures open to us everyday, and many more to go on. But I do hope that I encourage these kids to further explore the world around them, both in their backyards and farther afield.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

White-crowned sparrows?

Leaving for work this morning, rustling sounds in the frost-bitten swamp sunflowers caught my attention. I'd seen some goldfinches foraging for seeds there last weekend. They're dull in color now, nothing like their spring and summer colors. But these birds were foraging on the ground, poking around in the leaf litter. There were probably 5 or 6 of them in a small area, joined by a Eastern Towhee kicking the leaf litter.

They scuffled around a bit like the towhee, kicking the litter, bringing up seeds to eat. Their distinctive striped heads seemed to fit white-crowned sparrows, but I didn't have my binoculars with me as I left the house!

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Monday, November 19, 2007

A warm fall day

It was absolutely lovely in the garden this morning; the fall color is still bright, as the leaves come down and sprinkle the landscape with color. But it's unusually warm, the kind of "Indian summer" day we used to have in September and October, not in mid-November. On the front steps, there was a sudden emergence of hundreds of winged insects -- they looked like ants and I'll have to figure out what they were. In any case, it's not the time of the year to be hatching!

I did my favorite program this morning for a garden club in a nearby city (this permutation was Gardening for Nature). Actually the location was in a semirural area west of town. In what used to be rolling farm fields, subdivisions and shopping areas have popped up and lakeside houses now dot the nearby shore of Lake Hartwell. They were a great group, amazingly energetic with their outreach and volunteer activities. It was not only gardening and planting activities that they were involved with, but also community action projects. They mentioned a local hospital that's created a garden area that patients receiving chemo could look at through the expansive windows. What a lovely thing -- when my mom was in extensive rehab, the ability to go outdoors, and visit in the courtyard garden at the hospital was so significant to both of us, but probably to me most.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Red-bellied woodpeckers

We have an old Paulownia (Princess tree) in the back that's not in great shape. We haven't bothered much with it, since we figure it's eventually going to die, so not worth it to take out before then. Paulownias are tremendously weedy in many areas, but this one, probably since it's on its own, is not producing viable seeds, at least there's no sign of seedlings.

So when the powerline trimmers came through, I wasn't too concerned about it, as long as it looked halfway decent. I was out planting some last winter color things (Violas and kale) & started hearing a rhythmic call coming from the Paulownia. It turned out to be a male red-bellied woodpecker foraging, punctuating his activity with calls.

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First hard freeze

There was ice on the birdbath this morning, reflecting the first good freeze after several hard frosts. The strong winds yesterday brought down many leaves, but many trees are still lovely. The fothergilla in the back has turned bright orangey-red, quite spectacular.

The ginkgo behind the garden shed lost all of its leaves this morning in one graceful pool - ginkgos make a habit of that.

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Friday, November 9, 2007

Fall color is at its peak

We've had lovely fall color despite the extreme drought-- the yellows and reds have been great; drought stress sometimes stimulates the anthocynanin production that provides the orange, red, and maroon colors. Some of the oaks will probably drop their leaves without much color change. And other species are late to change color; probably the temperatures haven't been cold enough yet.

Trying to figure out the maple species whose image I took along the square in historic Pendleton, SC was interesting; one tidbit I learned was that our maples, especially red maple, are planted widely in Great Britain for their fall color. Acer rubrum (red maple), Acer leucoderme (chalk maple), Acer barbatum (Southern sugar maple) and Acer saccharum (Sugar maple) all have nice fall color here, ranging from yellows, to orange, red, and scarlet.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Let's get planting...

Anything we plant - anything green - helps take up CO2 -- plants convert CO2 to sugars and produce oxygen -- that conversion is why there's life on Earth. Perhaps our local planting efforts are minor, but all of us that garden DO collectively have a positive effect. Green spaces instead of asphalt, adding trees, shrubs, and perennials -- this adds up as an antidote to urban/suburban heat islands.

But it seems like it's time to actively promote greening our communities, new residential areas, commercial developments, etc. Certainly this has been important for awhile, but why not step up our efforts?

The largest city near us -- Greenville, SC -- is having a difficult time passing a tree ordinance. Our traditional 'don't tell us what to do with our property' stance in SC has emerged. But, really, trees vs. asphalt? Which is better for us?

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

First freeze of the season

We're expecting temperatures to dip below freezing tonight here. We've already had a few light frosts, primarily evident in low-lying or exposed areas. A lovely white-flowered Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost' that I'd planted in one of my containers was already showing the effects of cooler weather; coming from warmer regions of the world, it went into decline when night temperatures went below 40°F. An exposed Portulaca was similar, looking quite stressed after one of the frosts.

I harvested all of the last peppers this afternoon -- the poblanos and thick-walled 'pizza' peppers, along with a few last pimento peppers. I'd already picked the final few tomatoes, and will need to figure out what to do with the green tomatoes. Relish? Chutney? Some sort of green salsa?

I can roast and freeze all the peppers, but maybe I should also try to roast the green tomatoes, and freeze them, too. After my enthusiasm for making jams & jellies when I was younger, I'm not so interested in spending time canning and sterilizing jars. I actually 'recycled' in the brush pile about 12 pints of 15+ yr old Concord Grape jam recently. Obviously we didn't manage to consume the jam in a timely fashion.

Actually making green tomato relish sounds quite nice; an old post on an interesting blog http://www.foodiefarmgirl.blogspot.com/ had a lovely recipe -- perhaps I'll try that!

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Laying a flagstone path (2)

I needed a third pallet of flagstone to finish the front path, and it was delivered late Saturday morning. In the meantime, my gardening companion dug up the rest of the base, taking a break from his regular mulch moving so I was ready (notice the HUGE piles dropped off 'free' by the powerline tree trimming contractors).

There were a number of roots to work around and the path goes downhill slightly towards the drive, so it was a bit more challenging to do the final segment.

But, I finished laying all the stone this afternoon, and cleaned up the area, although I still need to put in the rest of the granite paver base around the stone and make sure each stone is firmly set.

It looks good, and Mocha was enjoying the view late this afternoon. It took roughly 2 1/2 pallets of flagstone and a couple of 'scoops' of paver base to do the pathway. My labor was about 2 days, spread out over 3 weekends. I worked in 2-3 hours stints, at most half a day, with plenty of 'lighter' activities in between.

For the first part of the story, see Putting in a flagstone path (1).

The complete photo sequence of creating this path is posted in a Picasa Web gallery. Just click through whatever ads pop up to get to the gallery!

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Friday, November 2, 2007

Bumblebee sleeping

Late this afternoon I noticed a bumblebee settling down for the night on a rosemary flower. Not a very sheltered place, but perhaps the cooling temperature caught her (or him) there.

There aren't many large flowers around now to provide a better place.

Only the queen bumblebees will overwinter, in underground nests, so these worker bumblebees are just hanging out until frost.

Honeybees, however, will come out and forage on warm days especially in late winter, when the early ornamentals (winter honeysuckle, Japanese apricots, etc.) provide nectar and pollen, since they're on a different schedule than our natives.

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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Robin flocks are enjoying the dogwood berries

Leaving the house this morning, the dogwoods were rustling with robins loudly eating the ripe berries, calling melodiously in the process. What caught my attention is the large group of robins, startled by the door opening, that flew up to the big oak from the bird bath, and then joined their fellows in actively foraging in the dogwoods.

We have three old trees that we thought were 'goners' when we moved into the house almost 14 years ago, but years of leaf mulch have revived them considerably. An additional two younger dogwoods are showing lovely fall color right now, but aren't so loaded with berries as the older trees.

Dogwood berries have lots of lipids in them, so they're high-energy fruits (highly desirable for migrating birds).

The robin flock probably is a northerly group coming south for the winter, although we also have resident robins throughout the year. Robins are an adaptable species, so have flourished in our backyard gardens, lawns, and parks.

This range map shows how widespread American Robins are in their distribution.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Why we garden

I've been reading about gardening in a time of climate change recently, not a particularly uplifting topic. So I've been thinking about what it will mean for our native plants, the plants we can grow in our gardens, wherever we are, and how weather unpredictability will affect the plants (native or not) that we love.

But gardening as restoration (of place and spirit) is an excellent antidote to environmental worries. What I do understand is the essential ability of gardens to restore patches of earth to support wildlife, and everything associated with a diverse array of plants. I know that we can transform barren spaces to areas that are both lovely and life-sustaining, and that communities, towns, and cities can 'green' themselves by planting a diversity of trees, shrubs, and perennials and encourage gardening for food and wildlife, and become living spaces in the process.

This is a perspective that has grown on me, as a plant ecologist interested in the natural world, and the wild plants and the wonderful diversity of plant communities that still exist on our planet.

I think gardening, and planting, is a way to actively restore our bit of habitat, and maybe more, as we seek to make a difference in how we approach living on the Earth. Nature restores habitat even more effectively if seed sources are available. Everything we plant is helpful in terms of taking up CO2, although I'm hardly worrying about that when I plant something. But by being good stewards of the little patches of earth in which we garden, we CAN make a difference by providing habitat, growing plants that don't need a lot of extra 'stuff' and vegetables (which are waterhogs), but nevertheless are the epitome of local food.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Gardening is good for you

Maybe I'm more outdoors-oriented than many Americans, but I'm beginning to think that we're really getting out of touch with physical activity that's fun and beneficial. I read a post by an exceptional garden blogger (Susan Harris at Beyond Sustainable Gardening and Garden Rant) where she mentioned that some of her clients marvel at the idea of moving plants. You mean you dig them up? Yourself? Well, why not? Let's get to it.

Bending, digging, and planting is certainly good exercise, and equivalent to boring activities that we pay for at the gym. Lifting pots, dragging hoses around, spreading mulch, raking leaves; all of these gardening activities can be considered not really chores, but an opportunity to get some exercise outdoors, in hopefully lovely surroundings.

Our Canadian colleagues are way ahead of us -- they've got websites that promote the beneficial effects of gardening, and how to take advantage of them.

I'm ridiculously proud of myself when I do something that is beyond what I think I'm physically capable of (check out the previous post about laying a flagstone path. But why shouldn't I try to move stones, or dig my vegetable garden by hand, or drag around bags of mushroom compost? Would I rather do that or lift weights at our campus gym?

I know what's more fun and rewarding!

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Laying a flagstone path (1)

We've been wanting a decent path to the front door for a long time. We bought our house from the second owner; he seemed to use the side door into the master bedroom primarily. Odd, but effective. The path to the front door was grass, with a few half-buried concrete stepping stones evident, and the whole surface quite uneven because of roots and chipmunk tunnels. After we finally had lights installed in the garage, and the front porch lights repaired, it seemed like a good idea to finally put in a front path.

It's been on my project list for awhile, along with a small wildlife pond. Last summer, with a bit more free time, I'd had a couple of landscapers come over to give me estimates. The first, working with a very reputable company, took a long time to provide an estimate, one that had my helpful gardening assistant (not Mocha, our Golden Retriever) gasping, and saying that he could easily dig the path base for me. The second estimate was a bald dollars per square foot estimate, and could he use his Bobcat to scrap down the area (no, because of the roots of the big water oak and pine).

I asked a younger colleague to give me an estimate as well. This was in the hottest part of August when the soil was incredibly hard. He and a couple of friends do work on the weekends, but clearly they weren't enthusiastic about excavating our hard Piedmont clay in the summer by hand.

So, after things had cooled down in the fall, and we'd had a bit of rain, at least enough to moisten the top inch of soil, I said that I'd get a couple of pallets of stone that Saturday morning. My gardening companion, more focused on the home game that he was heading off to, said 'great' and went off to work on writing his book and then on to the game.

I went and selected a couple of pallets of stone, taken aback a bit at the size of the flagstones. The pallets I'd got in the past were nice small stones, which I was quite proud of myself for stacking up in attractive low walls. But I was heartened by the fellows at the stone shop -- they didn't laugh at me about how I couldn't move these stones, but said that I wouldn't need to go to the gym to lift weights after moving the stones (they're between 15 and 45 lbs.

My gardening companion, returning home after the game, took a look at me ineffectually trying to dig up the turf, and grumped about how he was planning to move mulch that afternoon, but then went to work. He's much more able than me (I didn't get the hefty shoulder and arm genes) to scrap up the turf and get it ready for the paver base, made up of the granite dust that packs so nicely.

Now, I'm figuring that our clayey soils don't need the recommended 6" of paver base (hello, what about the roots of our trees?) and these stones don't look like they're going anywhere, so I'm trying to settle them in as best I can, in an attractive pattern, and sift the granite dust around them.

After last weekend, I felt like I'd been beaten with sticks, but had recovered enough by this weekend to lay another good bit of stone, after my gardening companion dug out the base.

So, if I can do this, with decent fitness, and weight-training with wimpy weights twice a week, I figure that it's certainly within reach of fit gardeners, especially if they are stronger than I am.

For the rest of the path story, see Laying a flagstone path (2).

There's lots of help online - just google creating a stone path, or building a stone path, but my favorite reference is a book by Barbara Pleasant, Garden Stone.

The complete photo sequence of creating this path is posted in a Picasa Web gallery.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Drought and Waterwise Gardening

We had an inch of rain this week, thank goodness, since we hadn't had anything since mid-September, but I'm continuing to notice what plants are doing well in this droughty fall, following a brutally hot and dry August.

I attended a waterwise gardening symposium in Athens at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia recently, and the depths and extent of the drought we're in here in the Southeast became ever more evident. I'm certainly rethinking my approach to the challenge; I don't think my fellow participant is on the right track, when she pointed to an aloe plant on the lunch table, and said, "this is what we need to grow," nor that Mediterranean-style gardening or High Desert gardening is the answer either, but we do have a whole range of exceptional native plants with deep roots that are able to withstand long periods of drought in summer. Mix in a few of those Mediterranean plants and high desert plants that can tolerate our heat and humidity in summer, and you've got a great group of plants to work with.

Personally, I think we'll need to phase out the temperate Asian plants (Hostas and Hydrangeas) that need regular summer water beyond what we ever normally get -- this is life support, not gardening. And watering lawns and turf is just not necessary. Our Zoysia lawn areas went dormant, developed brown patches in the shallowest soil areas, but after the one drenching rain we received in mid-September, recovered quite nicely.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rain and No Child Left Inside

The rain is pelting down right now, welcome because of the drought in the Southeast. We're in a severe drought in South Carolina, but are in better shape than our neighbors to the south in Georgia, thanks to greater reservoir capacity, partially due to the cooling water demands of nuclear power and the associated lakes. Any bit of rain helps rehydrate dry soil and I'm grateful for that.

I heard a remarkable lecture today by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. His insights have resonated with outdoor educators of all sorts, from park naturalists to botanical garden educators like me, and connected with 'important' folks of all ages. He told the story of how he'd spoken to a group of ranchers, and a grizzled fellow of 65+ was moved to tears as he 'remembered the place that we hold in our heart' -- the natural, semi-wild places that many of us grew up exploring and cherishing. He also talked about how he'd testified recently in front of a Congressional committee, and the Congressmen (all men in this case) asked perfunctory questions, but then wanted to share memories about their 'special places.'

I was certainly of the group who grew up exploring nature and rambling the then open territory near our house (now covered with houses all the way to where my sister and her husband now live) and elsewhere, but my best friend in graduate school grew up in Detroit, and was a mall rat, along with her sisters, until she went to Douglas Lake Biological Station as an undergraduate, and fell in love with the natural world. She's a biology professor today teaching her students about plants and conservation in South Florida. My husband grew up in LA, and went surfing with his brothers, with little interest in biology or nature, although they did spend summer weeks at Lake Tahoe and rambled the hills near their house in Studio City. When he went to college in Northern California, the experiences of learning about plants in their natural habitats encouraged his future career (he's a biology professor, too).

I may have loved nature as a child, but my dad was an engineering professor, and my mom a philosophy major and eventually a psychotherapist in private practice. But both grew up in Northern California, and we went on many long camping trips as a family, with hiking and exploring part of what we did in summers. A family friend in those early years was a high school teacher who was a summer naturalist in Yosemite National Park. I was totally inspired by his programs, and perhaps, in wanting to be a park naturalist, and the round-about academic journey that I took, I'm doing what's most important to me now, trying to inspire folks to connect to nature, whether they're young or old, or something in between.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Blue mistflower

An unexpected treat is flowering in the corner of one of our garden beds. Perennial ageratum (Conoclinum coelestinum), a native relative of the annual bedding plant, volunteered behind the old metal wheelbarrow, and is flourishing even in the drought. The clear blue flowers are lovely against the evergreen backdrop of Viburnums and Winter honeysuckle.

A common plant in ditches and field edges, it's really a wonderfully garden-worthy plant, providing a late season spot of color, and to me, remarkable hardiness without any water.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day

Bloggers all over the world are posting environmental messages today as part of Blog Action Day. It's fundamental for the earth's stability and the long-term survival of humans as a species that we, as part of the world community, commit our hearts, minds, and actions to living as lightly as we can on Earth. When there were many fewer of us (humans), resource exploitation and extraction was sustainable. Now that there are 6 billion plus of us, and we all want stuff, electricity, water on demand, and bigger houses, we've got a big problem.

When I was a graduate student, I read Limits to Growth, a visionary book about how we'd run out of essential resources if the world population kept growing, and everyone kept consuming (like Americans). Unfortunately, their predications were delayed by technological innovation, and folks who don't understand the limits of the ecological capacities of our planet started to talk about how we'd be able to invent our way out of the negative impacts of population growth, energy consumption, etc.

Today we're at a critical point. I was teaching a course called People and the Environment in 1990, when PBS aired an excellent series about 'Race to Save the Planet.' We were hopeful then, but I'm less hopeful now (but I'm a bit gloomy by nature anyway). Each one of us in the developed world needs to reduce our consumption of stuff, from electricity to water to goods and services. We need to help folks in the developing world to raise their standard of living without making the same mistakes we made in the U.S.

A recent NY Times piece focused on an environmental crisis in a lake in China, where pollution had created a toxic blue-green algal bloom (I might be wrong about the algae since I read the story quickly). I was in the 5th grade when I reported to my class that a young boy had died from typhoid because he ate a watermelon floating in the Hudson River. Uh, hello?

We had Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and countless other wake-up calls about the impact of human-created pollutants on humans and the rest of the natural world.

My husband and I heard Al Gore years ago at a Georgia Conservancy meeting talking about how many signs did we did to have until the (environmental) message was clear. He was powerful in his message then, and thank goodness he's continued along that road. His book, Earth in the Balance, was one that more of us should have paid attention to.

I'm always trying, not always successfully, to reduce my impact and use of resources -- recycling everything that we use, choosing products that are recyclable or biodegradable, and produced from renewal sources, conserving energy, composting, etc, and gardening naturally and restoring habitat in our garden -- it's a positive step that provides me with hope that we can turn things around, starting with our homes, actions, yards, and communities.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fall color is coming

Leaves are finally beginning to show signs of fall color (My picture is a few years ago, however). The early reds of the sourwoods seem to have been muted by drought, although the drought seems to have encouraged early leaf color in maples, probably as leaves have shut down production of chlorophyll early this year. My sister in Texas sent me an e-mail asking about what really triggered the change in color in leaves - temperature, daylength, moisture, or a combination. Her dog park group wanted to know!

Well, what are sisters for, after all, especially if she's a botanist and garden educator? I had some fun reviewing the details and look forward to seeing how it will play out here, with the severe and continuing drought, and until today, unreasonably hot (for October) weather.

Basically, our fall colors in the Eastern U.S. are revealed as chlorophyll production slows down, cued by the shortening days and lengthening nights. The interplay of pigments in leaves determines the fall colors of different species, with the temperature and moisture determining color intensities. As the chlorophyll (which provides the overriding green color of leaves) breaks down, the other pigments in the leaves become evident. The carotenoids produce the yellow and oranges and anthocynanins produce the purple and reds. Anthocynanins are actively produced as a reaction between sugars and proteins - in the watery vacuoles of leaf cells, and their colors are influenced by acidity. They start showing up as the chlorophyll breaks down, and corky deposits start blocking the downward flow of sugars between leaves and stems.

Different trees have different combinations of the basic pigments, and here in Eastern North America, we have the largest diversity of species of trees that exhibit fall color, so many of our natives are prized in Europe for fall color -- our sweetgums and tulip poplars for example.

Some of the trees that are shades of oranges, reds, and purples include the red, white, and scarlet oaks, persimmon, sassafras, dogwood, sweetgum, as well as the maples. Hickories, River Birch, Redbud, Tulip Poplar, and Sycamore turn yellow and gold.

Beech leaves also accumulate tannin, adding a bronze color to the underlying yellows. The fall weather plays a key factor in whether it's a particularly good year for color, especially in the reds and purples. Day and night temperature and general moisture levels are important. Warm sunny days (with lots of sugar production) with cool crisp nights produce the best reddish and purple colors – the anthocynanin pigments. at the time chlorophyll production is declining, generally affects how bright the colors are.

Yellows are fairly consistent from year to year, since the carotenoids Overly dry weather will produce more brownish leaves and early leaf drop, with washed-out colors in general.

So no two falls are alike!

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Monday, October 8, 2007

Garlic, woodchucks, and fall flowers

I planted garlic yesterday in the satellite garden. I'm quite confident our trap-lining woodchuck (I think that s/he roams around the neighborhood looking for tasty tidbits) isn't interested in onions or garlic, at least the Welsh onions haven't been bothered. I can't say the same for newly planted collards, chard, or red cabbage, clearly favorites. Amazingly, s/he/they nibbled the perennial Italian dandelion in the main garden down to nubbins (actually a chicory) recently. Those leaves are so bitter that they require par-boiling prior to cooking to be edible. Worrisome, however, that s/he is now becoming brave enough to visit the main vegetable garden next to the house. I put Mocha out today on 'woodchuck' patrol. He'd much rather lounge around inside where it's cool, but I told him "Woodchucks, No." Ha! He slept on the shaded side porch all morning, so hardly was any deterrent.

Fall flowers are lovely -- the swamp sunflower is in its full glory in one of the perennial beds, and I've enjoyed this volunteer Blue Ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum, now Conoclinum coelestinum) near the old metal wheelbarrow.

I also sowed more flats of fall and winter lettuce and some extremely hardy lettuce varieties called 'North Pole' and 'Arctic King' that have sailed through our last winters here without damage. Check out the Cook's Garden catalog for seed!

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Brown thrashers and garden toads

Yesterday, I surprised a rather large garden toad next to the hose faucet in the back. I was surprised myself. We had a toad living in the basement a few years back (the basement is bare floored and unfinished), but I hadn't seen one outside for sometime.

This evening, I saw a brown thrasher getting dinner through the kitchen window. She/he was very vigorously poking through the straw mulch into the recently clipped radicchio bed. Interestingly, when I did a web search about the diet of brown thrashers, I found out that they're prodigious insect-eaters and eaters of all sorts of garden critters bad and good -- insects of all sorts, from beetles to grubs and earthworms, etc. They also eat fruits, but insects are over half their diet. One source, I'm not sure how reliable, suggested that a single thrasher ate over 6000 insects a day (this sounds like a lot to me, even for birds with a high metabolism). Brown thrashers build big twiggy nests, and sing beautifully in spring. We've had a nesting pair in the large Ternstromia hedge along the vegetable garden for the last two years. They're also fun when they visit the ground-level saucer and have a bath, vigorously cleaning all their feathers and fluffing up.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Wait until the moon is full

Last night was the full moon. It was the Harvest Moon -- the full moon closest to the Fall equinox.

It was beautiful here - bright, rising about 8:15 pm, and creating plenty of moonshadows.

The nocturnal symphony here in the Southeast is somewhat muted because of drought, but there are still plenty of field crickets singing and tree frog choruses.

I had a group out with me, and one of the sharp-eared participants could hear the squeaking of bats as they left for their night hunting. I think my hearing is still good, but I couldn't hear what she did. A young boy was enamoured of my calling for barred owls -- who cooks for you, who cooks for you -- and kept calling himself -- he and his mom thought they heard a reply, although I think it was a bit of wishful thinking.

I told the story of how my mother liked to read to my sister and me one of our favorite nighttime stories -- Wait until the Moon is Full. This is a lovely children's story about a mama raccoon, who wants her children to 'wait until the moon is full' to go out and play.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

A new focal point with Lobelia x speciosa

The Lobelia x speciosa and the Monarda 'Raspberry Wine' have new homes next to the bird bath. Searching for an appropriate site (of course, there's no place that's really damp enough normally), my gardening partner suggested that the area under the big oak might be good.

It is currently getting full sun for several hours in midday, which may be ideal for these species, although I'm not sure what the sun's angle is in spring. We have our bird bath and bird feeders there, my containers have done quite nicely with the light levels, so I thought, why not? After all, I clean and empty the bird bath at least 4 times a week; it might as well help something grow (in addition to the oak, that is).

I set about digging up an area for the two Lobelias, the Monarda, and a Heuchera, all of which I thought would be perfect for that level of partial shade. I nixed an attractive Euphorbia that I had bought recently, since our friendly squirrels had chewed one in one of the porch boxes to bits. The soil was quite nice, and looked rich with with organic matter, and didn't have many roots, as it's been mulched for some years.

Then, I added a good measure of 'top soil' -- really a half peat, half sand 'product' and mixed that in to hold moisture. Plenty of water, and then I was ready to plant.

It was a pleasure walking out the door this morning on my way to work, and seeing the results. This is why we garden.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Perennials to add

Since we finally had some rain and it's cooled down, I'm feeling hopeful that fall really is a good time for planting. A quick run up to two local nurseries (actual nurseries, not just the garden centers at the big box stores) found me nabbing some good additions for my fall garden. A lobelia, set aside for a butterfly-gardening client who never showed up, caught my eye. These plants had beautiful large blue spikes, were being visited by carpenter bees and butterflies, were flowering in small pots and were labeled Lobelia x speciosa 'Fan Blue.' In spite of not really having appropriately moist soil anywhere, I thought I'd try them. They were half-price, anyway. I also picked up some selections of one of our native asters, Aster novae-belgiae (New York Aster), a pot of society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea), some Viola, and a couple of pots of Spanish lavender, which flowered profusely in one of my containers this summer, and was heavily visited by bees.

A web search revealed that Lobelia x speciosa is a hybrid of two of our North American natives, L. cardinalis (Cardinal flower) and L. siphilitica (Great Blue Lobelia), which results in a range of flower colors that have subsequently been named as cultivars. Wray Bowden, a Canadian horticulturist, apparently did the original crosses, although the hybrid is also credited as being of German origin, and one of his early successes ('Queen Victoria') was a Royal Horticultural Society Award winner in 1993. Since the hybrids proved to be great in gardens, they're now being grown in temperate climates around the world. I found references in New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. The nice picture is one taken by a Swedish botanist, foto: Hans-Otto Tengrud, from his website: http://www.arborea.se. Unfortunately, I couldn't make out the Swedish (just enough to identify the country, I think), but he seemed to be a photographer who took pictures of plants.

The garden centers, to be sure, had some interesting selections, too, thanks to the tendency of the wholesale nursery businesses to keep providing 'something new' even if they're not really new, but just a new form or an old favorite rediscovered. A perennial I picked up at one of the garden centers, not in flower, so easy to overlook, was a robust quart size pot of Raspberry Wine Bee Balm. It had beautiful foliage and looked very healthy, and even though, again, I really don't have a moist soil site, I succumbed.

This turns out to be a White Flower Farm introduction, the source of this photo. It sounds like a great selection, mildew-resistant and long-flowering. and attractive to hummingbirds (which is why I bought it in the first place). Monarda didyma is a great Eastern U.S. native, and its selections certainly are worth trying. Our Monarda 'Jakob Kline' in the pollinator border outside the Nature Center at work attracted lots of hummingbirds, although it suffered in the dry summer this year.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Composting is fun

My mom's house in Texas was nestled on a woody, juniper-filled hillside in a upscale neighborhood in NW Austin, only marginally "landscaped" above and below the house. The deck extended over a scruffy lawn (no sun, of course), so from the deck, it was easy to throw the odd banana peel or lettuce leaf into the scrubby forest.

She wasn't a gardener, so there was no need to create compost, but I think it appealed to her thrifty ways and sense of environmentalism. Her mother was a gardener, though, so maybe she had composted back when the vegetable garden was a source of food for a good bit of the winter, after canning. I still remember being impressed by the jars of canned beans and tomatoes in Grandma's cellar and the vegetable gardens and berry patches that she had when I was a child.

Even before I was a gardener, I enjoyed putting our vegetable and fruit scraps in a compost heap, being environmentally-inclined myself. We had established one within one of our shrub borders in our first house in Georgia, so we didn't have to toss vegetable scraps in the trash. When we moved to Clemson, our neighbor asked if he could have the compost -- "solid gold" of course, for those of us who want to add nutrients and organic matter to their gardens. We said, of course you can have the compost, but it certainly got me thinking more about it.

Here in SC, I set up a simple wire-bin compost system, and we started throwing more things into it-- all of our kitchen vegetable trimmings, but also the results of our weed-pulling efforts, spent vegetables from the garden, etc. It's now grown to a 3-bin system, especially after we moved in against the fence, post garden shed. I've also added a garage-can composter to hopefully 'cook' any weed seeds left in the compost, so have tried to ramp it up to being efficient.

Essentially, what we're doing is cold composting -- turning is somewhat of a chore in these bins, since they're surrounded by hay bales to prevent Mocha (our dog) from foraging for nasty spoiled bits, so it's a bit of a reach to "turn" the compost, as recommended by many 'experts.'

In one of my programs, a participant said that she blended up all of her compostable materials, eggshells included, to speed up composting. A lovely idea, if you have a spare blender and the initiative to do it. Do I need to admit that eggshell bits are part of the compost I spread on the vegetable garden?

But it's great to see that pail of compost go out almost every day, and see how small the trash bag is each week, since we also recycle everything we can! There are all sorts of attractive compost pails that coordinate with kitchen decor. This one is a Turkish copper pail from Gardeners Supply. Quite nice, and certainly a lot better than an open plastic container!

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Monday, September 17, 2007

A new visitor munching sunflower seeds

An unaccustomed visitor dropped by the bird feeders yesterday. His markings caught our eye. Beautiful white eyestripes, a rosy breast and flashy black and white feathers. He avidly zipped through a lot of black sunflower seeds, while watching alertly in all directions. The normal cardinals, titmice, and Carolina chickadees were seemingly a bit perturbed at the large intruder. When I looked him up in our bird field guides, he turned out to be an immature male, so had the rosy breast, but not yet the solid black head of the adult male. Here in Upstate SC, rose-breasted grosbeaks are visitors briefly in the spring and fall, as they pass through from their summer breeding grounds in the mountains to the lowcounty. There was no hope of getting a photo, since he was so skittish.

But this lovely photo of an adult male, taken by Rhonda Weldon, from Hanceville, AL -- the first place winner in an Outdoors Alabama contest shows you what attractive birds these are.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Spiders in the mist

Amazingly the rain last night was over three inches, and it wasn't hard to imagine the garden giving a sigh of relief.

But more remarkable was the early morning mist, and as I went out the front door to walk, a huge web was sparkling with dew.

The walk around the botanical garden was amazing. There were spider webs everywhere -- on the grass, in the trees, in shrubs.... I don't think I've ever seen so many.

Coming back home, I was able to get a couple of good shots of the porch web, and then discovered the two above the vegetable garden.

Another remarkable thing is when I went out later, all of the webs were gone. I had never really given any thought to spider webs as being temporary, but many garden orb-weavers build webs in the evening and take them down in the morning (I found out after a bit of web research).

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Sowing more seeds

It's been a tough summer in the vegetable garden. The late freeze in April, the drought and heat for most of the summer, and now really low soil moisture levels combined with higher soil temperatures, make it hard to coax along even the fall greens.

Seedling in the flats are coming along OK, but the seeds sown directly in the garden are taking their time. I haven't been optimistic enough to plant anything in the satellite garden, as I think the thirsty woodchucks will appear out of nowhere to devour any young kale, chard, or lettuce plants that manage to germinate.

But we've just had a lovely downpour for quite awhile, thanks to some left-over moisture from the hurricane in the Gulf, and hopefully got at least 1 1/2 inches, maybe two. This would be excellent for recharging the soil layers farther down. I'll sow another set of seeds of greens and lettuce tomorrow, I think....

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Waterwise gardening

In this summer of extreme heat, and severe drought here in South Carolina, it's hard NOT to think about drought-tolerant plants. We have tried to establish a low-water use landscape, but that doesn't mean no water, especially with recently planted perennials, shrubs, and trees.

We've both gotten really tired of dragging the hoses around to water these young plants that we don't want to lose, but anything planted this year needs water to survive the high temperatures, hardly any rain, and too much wind conditions that we've had. Our plants would normally thrive, after establishment, on normal rainfall, but rainfall this summer has been anything but normal, and even the toughest drought-tolerant perennials have wilted in the late afternoon sun. Trees, with their much more extensive root systems, and shrubs haven't been much affected, and certainly reflect their higher drought-tolerance.

Conditions this summer have me thinking about waterwise gardening (a 'new' alternative term for xeriscaping), as we basically don't believe that putting in irrigation systems is a sustainable option. I think the term 'xeriscaping' makes people think about desert landscaping or high elevation drought-adapted western plants, but I like the term 'waterwise gardening.' Even though I know we're hardly in the low rainfall zone at an average of 50" annually, our local cities and muncipalities are encouraging voluntary water use restrictions, and some are now mandatory in a severe drought year.

Being a waterwise gardener means choosing plants that can withstand dry spells, and flourish without lots of supplemental water. Here in the SE, we can grow lots of great plants that fit that description. Clues to drought-tolerance come from native habitat (grasslands, prairies, dry woods, etc.), plant habit (deep tap roots or fibrous storage roots), leaf color and texture (gray leaves are reflective, waxy or thick leaves are water-loss resistant).

Some of my favorite 'tough plants' from this summer have been blazing star, purple coneflower, black-eyed susans, oakleaf hydrangea, Salvia species of all sorts (including the purple Salvia leucantha shown above, Vaccinium (blueberries), Rosemary, Nepeta (catmint) hybrids, garlic chives, anise-hyssop, and certainly all the native trees. Only the relatively thin-leaved tulip poplars, maples, and dogwoods have looked really stressed, where, in contrast, the oaks and hickories are looking fine.

Lush leafy landscapes and abundant lawn grasses transpire large amounts of water and often need additional water added beyond the regular rainfall amounts.

I'm looking around and seeing what in our landscape might fall in that category. Fortunately, most of the native plants (perennials, shrubs, and trees) from this part of the U.S. are well-adapted to long periods of summer drought, and have been pretty nonplussed faced with weeks and weeks of no rain and extreme heat. The exceptions are many of our favorite plants that are native to the mountains, but not all of them. There are also some of our native understory trees that have large, thin, leaves and show water deficits quickly, too.

But, I do want to have a garden that I won't worry about if we're away in the summer and am not around to do water triage. Of course, my container plantings will be on their own, too, in that case, too!

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Changing out vegetable beds for fall

After pulling out spent beans & tomatoes a few days ago, I started readying those spots for fall plants. I like to add more compost, a bit of organic fertilizer, and lime, depending on how each block looks (not very scientific or orderly), but some vegetables are more demanding than others, and almost all vegetables are much more fussy than the tough perennials, shrubs, and trees that we like to grow in our garden.

Spinach (along with beets and chard) prefer a much more neutral soil (almost 6.5-7.0) than ours tend to be here in the SE, so adding more lime is helpful, at least over the long run, although it would have been best to have added it some months ago! Pelletized lime is the easiest to use in the garden.

In fact, one of the harder things I've had to learn about vegetable-growing is that vegetables tend to be nutrient and water 'hogs' -- and have generally been selected to grow tasty fruits and leaves for us to consume, and take up plenty of nutrients and water in the process.

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Friday, September 7, 2007

Hoping for rain again

We were lucky at the end of August -- lots of folks around us didn't get the welcome relief of the heavy thunderstorms that added over 2 inches of rain to our garden. The state drought response team has just raised drought levels to severe in SC - here in the Upstate (roughly the expanse in SC between Atlanta and Charlotte, NC), it's particularly bad. Our garden is a low-water use garden (except for the pampered vegetables and the much less pampered container plants), although they do make do with hand-watering and don't have soaker hoses that run for hours on them. A neighboring county is calling for water conservation, and only watering lawns (!) before 5 am. In my opinion, it's a bit much to water lawns at all, but we're not lawn people. We have brown patches that have developed in our Zoysia lawn areas.

But we're still monitoring plants that have been planted in the last few years, and watering them regularly. Anything that's been planted in the last three years needs water, when it's so exceptionally dry. Deciduous azaleas, Itea, Joe-Pye weed, Frasier magnolia --these are all thin-leaved natives used to regular rainfall, ditto for some of the forest understory species such as dogwood and redbud.

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