Friday, February 29, 2008

Winter gardens

One of our first native woodland wildflowers to bloom is Hepatica. Hepatica acutiloba has slightly pointed liver-shaped leaves (the genus name reflects this), while H. americana has more rounded lobes. Spring is definitely on the way when we see the first Hepatica flowers, tucked among the leaves on moist banks, often along stream. Hepatica nobilis is a European species that also flowers early. I remember the excitement that my fellow lab members expressed in a long ago excursion; apparently, it was a German tradition, at least among botanical types, to troop off to see the first Hepatica flowers, even if they were just emerging above the snow!

We have a small patch in our Woodland Wildflower Garden at the botanical garden -- flowering through the cold and warm spells of late February.

Camellias are stalwarts of southern winter gardens. We're lucky to be able to grow them; our northern neighbors are anxiously hoping for hardier cultivars that are reliable. Ours are drought-tolerant when established, live for a long time, are relatively pest-free, and brighten winter days with their diversity of colors and shapes. I haven't ever planted a camellia, but have been the grateful beneficiary of previously planted ones at the two houses that we've lived in here in the South.

There are 4 large camellias around our house in Clemson, two lovely pink ones, a white one that always gets zapped by frost, and a beautiful tree-sized 'Professor Sargent' that illuminates the front entrance with its deep red flowers. The red flowers are a welcome contrast to the grays and browns of the winter landscape, even as crocuses, daffodils, and snowdrops brighten the garden beds.

An excursion to Charlotte, NC in the company of fellow gardening friends today revealed more winter-flowering treasures, including a Frittilaria, Erica, and Ranunculus in Elizabeth Lawence's garden, a lovely black and white Iris (Widow's Iris), a diversity of hellebores, including a striking purple cultivar, a 'weedy' Ranuculus that was lovely, and also in flower, an unusual Clematis in flower, and another striking Ranunculus (I think) with the cultivar name of 'Brazen Hussy.' I'm out of my area of expertise when it comes to cultivars of horticultural gems, being a native plant sort of person by background and 'training', but it's great fun to see them in lovingly tended gardens.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

A late winter walk

The calendar is late February, but there are many signs of spring on a morning walk at the Garden. All the winter and early flowering Asian species are in full swing; camellias, Japanese apricots, and magnolias, joined by the Mediterranean daffodils and rosemary. But some of our natives are also early; the tiny flowers of winged elm pose a nice contrast to the corky stems, and the male cones of red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) released great puffs of pollen when touched.

Walking in the woodland wildflower area, part of the Garden's forest & woodland areas, we spotted first a single red-shouldered hawk in flight, stopping briefly so I noticed s/he was carrying a stick. The females are bigger than the males, but otherwise they look similar. Flying on to a large twiggy nest high in a tulip poplar tree, a second hawk joined the first, and then they stood on a nearby branch together. It's not too far from where a pair nested 2 years ago, and were quite easy to observe feeding their nestlings for a month or so before fledging. Here's a great photo taken at that time by one of our visitors, Louis Bregger. Hopefully the pair we saw this morning will continue at this nest location -- it takes awhile to build a nest, and both parents incubate the eggs; this one is in a good place to watch and keep an eye on, but high enough that I don't think visitors will be bothersome. I've got groups of kids this week coming for programs about 'Discovering Wildlife Habitats' that it will be fun to have them observe a new nest in progress, albeit from a distance!

Huge flocks of small blackbirds were swooping around the willow oaks, their soft twittering calls collectively loud. When they flew towards the meadows, foraging in the winter grass, it was easy to see that they were a mixed flock of foragers; I need to look up what they were, as they were much smaller than crows and some of our other common 'blackbirds.'

A beautiful red-headed woodpecker flew up into one of the nearby trees, giving me a glimpse of his (or her) bright red head. I first thought it was a red-bellied, since I haven't seen many red-headed woodpeckers in our area, more commonly red-bellied or pileated. A smaller downy woodpecker was working nearby; I didn't catch a glimpse of a red patch, so she was probably a female. I've always been interested in birds, but only in the last 5 or 10 years have focused on learning calls, field marks, and sizes of common birds.

Plants, animals, insects, and a variety of habitats made for a perfect winter morning excursion.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

More rain

I talked to a fellow this week who grew up in West Texas, where he said the topic of discussion has always been rain. Ranchers there (of which his father was one) talked about needing rain, is rain coming, how much did we get, etc. -- it was critical to the dryland forage that the cattle depended on, and meant big expenses to bring in extra hay for feed. So the continuing drought in the Southeast (where he had lived for 15 years, compared with the deluges that came last summer in Texas and mid-west, where he lives now) posed an odd puzzle for him to contemplate.

Thinking about the drought here, and the weather extremes that seem to be becoming greater, with the contrast of floods in the Central U.S. last summer, and record snowpacks in the Rockies and Sierra, with concerns of spring flooding this year are something to consider.

But it's raining here now, and perhaps we'll get a couple of inches. Our rain gauge split over winter break, an unfortunate casualty of being not put away before traveling, and freezing and thawing. Time to get another one, and start watching the totals again.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008


We need all the rain we can get in the Southeast. It's been raining tonight, and this winter, more in some places than others. The Greenville paper reports that we're still behind by a third of normal for this year for the area that they monitor. The local ponds have filled up but the larger lakes (which serve as local water reservoirs, in addition to their recreational uses, and power plant support) have tremendously large blank areas along their edges.

The long-term forecast from NOAA suggests that the drought will ease here this spring. I hope so. But I'm also hoping that the winter respite from the evaporative stress of summer and fall won't lull us into thinking the drought is over.

I heard a public service message last week (on a Charlotte, NC station) with the Governor of North Carolina reminding listeners to conserve water, as the drought was still severe.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Mockingbird's song

I woke up this morning to a mockingbird's song. He was singing his song cycle - echoing the songs of the other backyard birds. Mockingbirds are tremendous songsters; their repertoire repeats (I think) Carolina wrens, robins, thrashers, cardinals, titmice, doves, etc.

The frost was lovely on the winter annuals and border edges; we're in for a spell of winter after some lovely warm afternoon days that promised spring to come. But for us, here in South Carolina, spring really IS just around the corner. Already, I'm sure, the hepatica are in flower at Station Cove, and along Lake Issaqueena.

The sassafras and blueberry flower buds are swelling, as are the dogwood's, and the foliage of the spring bulbs is already up. The Iphieon has been in flower for some time.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Three-season vegetables and Rhizobium

Before planting late this afternoon, I swirled around a batch of soaked peas (sugar snap and sugar sprint) in the recently-arrived packet; it created a rather evil-looking dark inoculant 'slurry' boasting 200 million live Rhizobium spp. good for peas, beans and other legumes.

I've had lots of fun sharing my enthusiasm for growing vegetables, edible flowers, and herbs in two recent programs. One was about Creative Uses of Herbs and Edibles, the other about Three-season Vegetable Gardening. I was inspired to extend my vegetable gardening seasons by Eliot Coleman, Four-Season Harvest, and Barbara Pleasant's Warm-Climate Gardening. If Eliot Coleman, in Maine, can be harvesting vegetables through the winter, surely here in South Carolina, even in the the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I can grow things for three seasons, working on four.

I had a great group of participants for both programs. I love my vegetable garden; gardening for nature may be a primary interest, but growing interesting and tasty vegetables is right behind. There's no better way to eat local than to grow your own. And many of us here in the South are fortunate enough to have sunny space to grow all sorts of things, thanks to affordable land. I found myself checking out lawns this afternoon, thinking about why wouldn't someone rather have an attractive vegetable garden instead of a lawn. Often that's the sunniest spot in the yard. Worth thinking about!

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Peas and greens

It was mild enough on Sunday to have fun preparing the main vegetable garden for seeding of cool weather vegetables and flowers. The soil is lovely, fluffy and dark. The fall amendments and mushroom compost from the fall change outs has been nicely incorporated, and since I try not to ever step on the blocks, all it takes is a quick turnover to provide an excellent seed bed.

Now, I do have a soil thermometer that tells me that the soil temperature is still closer to 40° than 50°, so I do need to be patient a bit longer. But, I had some older seeds of spigarello broccoli, broccoli rabe, mache, and something called Zamboni broccoli (another sprouting sort) that I went ahead and sowed in my potting bench flats, which were warm on a sunny afternoon. I should have put them in the cold frame, or on the germination pad in the garden shed, but the light was waning. We'll see how they do.

I put some more peas to soak (sugar snap and sugar sprint), waiting for the legume inoculant that came today. The directions say I'm supposed to swirl the seeds in a mixture of the inoculant and chorine -free water (uh, I already am soaking them in regular tap water), but I'll rinse them off, swish them, and see what happens. I'd think that I'd have plenty of Rhizobium bacteria in the soil already, but it can't hurt, and might boost productivity.

The hardest lesson I've had to learn (and am still learning) as a native plant expert turned vegetable gardener is how pampered and selected our vegetable plants are. They need lots of nutrients, period. They're water hogs too, compared to more thrifty native cousins. But that's why they're tasty and edible, compared to their wild relatives.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Seeds and seed catalogs

I'm afraid that I'm probably a vegetable and seed addict; I love looking at seed catalogs and thinking about growing new (or heirloom) varieties of vegetables, trying new things (geez, it only takes 60 days for kohlrabi to mature?), or trying to figure out what odd things in foreign markets might be.

Anyone know what this is? We saw it in a South Indian market this winter break. It doesn't appear to be celeriac, nor jicama, but seems to be something that grows underground.

I ordered another flurry of seeds today, to have enough to get the early spring garden set (uh, actually I just couldn't help ordering them). We have really 5 seasons of growing here in Zone 7b (working on Zone 8), a concept that I'm embracing thanks to Barbara Pleasant, a great gardener and garden writer.

Gardening is a wonderful hobby; where else could I spend $25 that would provide such a wonderful promise of future delicious experiences (eating homegrown vegetables) to come.

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Winter greens

A recent comment had me thinking about winter greens and their response to the lengthening and warmer days to come in spring. Hardy kales, cabbages, and collards are able to withstand the frosts and freezes of winter because of their leaf chemistry and built-in ability to produce natural 'antifreeze.' But they don't have the ability (nor does much else) to grow very vigorously at low temperatures. So our winter vegetable gardens are basically in suspension, until warmer temperatures support the physiological functions that convert sunlight to sugars and drive cell division and expansion.

So collards or hardy lettuces in an unheated greenhouse can be harvested all winter, but won't start new growth until it's warm enough again.

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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Listening to gardeners

Hearing gardeners talk about gardening and gardening is always inspiring, especially on a cold winter morning. We regularly have a series of Saturday morning lectures in February, and I always try to have a mix of programs about garden design, plants, garden ideas, etc., but my favorites are always hearing about personal plant choices and reflections on gardening style.

We become better gardeners, with more satisfying gardens, if we've noticed what we enjoy in other people's gardens and our own. And part of that noticing requires careful observation; is it the texture mix, or the color contrast, or the backdrop, or the meandering path? Why does one color combination work and another doesn't? What suits you best?

Our speakers this morning were both accomplished garden writers, and are used to describing plants and gardens in clear and visually oriented prose. Writers who write to encourage people about gardening also make excellent speakers, I've found, as well as being fun to share ideas with! I'm now ready to think about shrubs in a different way and better reflect on a number of design and color ideas in my own garden. What a nice way to spend a winter morning...

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