Sunday, March 30, 2008

A cold blast of air and garden observations

There hasn't been any rain today so far, but the cold front continued to push through. The high was in the upper 40's (° F) - chilly for us at the end of March. Not only our native woodland wildflowers are in flower, but leaves are expanding on most of our native hardwood tree species as well as native shrubs. A favorite native vine, coral honeysuckle, is 'waiting' for the first hummingbirds in our yard.

The hummingbird website posts indicate that sightings have been all around us, but in spite of our feeders being up, we haven't seen any yet. Hopefully, sometime soon!

The potato sprouts are finally making an appearance in the satellite garden. The squirrels have been disturbing the beds by digging holes, but the potatoes are fine.

The radicchio, much appreciated by squirrels and woodchucks last fall, has produced lovely new spring leaves. I've harvested a number of them already.

But I'm on the trail of nabbing my primary vegetable garden herbivore, an errant woodchuck, who unfortunately thinks our natural garden isn't a bad home, even though it really isn't normal woodchuck habitat, or maybe s/he has just been pushed out of good habitat, without natural predators to keep population numbers in check. I'm not sure how to consider the wildlife habitat issues in this regard -- I AM a wildlife gardener, but if a hungry woodchuck (due to overpopulation) eats all of the veggies I'm growing, in sequence of preference (uh, I'm trying to grow my own local vegetables), well, I'm thinking I need to relocate the culprits to more fertile (!) pastures.

I've now got a large Havahart trap, baited with spinach dabbed with 'Chuckster' paste, with drops of some kind of woodchuck lure leading to the trap. The smaller trap, baited similarly, simply had the spinach disappear. We'll see!

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rain and thunderstorms

I still haven't replaced the rain gauge by the main vegetable garden, but the birdbaths serve as crude measures of how much rain we've had. They're full right now, hooray! It's been dry the last couple of weeks, and the afternoon warmth has pulled additional moisture out of plants and soil.

But this morning, a big front is pushing through with lots of thunderstorm activity, and is periodically pelting down raindrops, alternating with light drizzle. I just looked at the U.S. drought monitor yesterday -- it's predicting continuing drought with improvement (compared to last year, anything is improvement). But I don't think non-outdoors-oriented people are paying attention to how the prolonged drought is affecting plants, not only in our gardens, but in natural plant communities.

My gardening companion, on a botanizing trip yesterday to get photos, reported that Steven's Creek and Savannah River Bluffs (two SC Heritage Reserve sites) were wonderful, with lots of spring wildflowers in bloom. He said, however, that Heggie's Rock, an interesting granite outcrop area protected by The Nature Conservancy, had been dramatically affected by the ongoing drought, and that the unusual plants there, adapted for the unique circumstances of the empheral pools that are characteristic of these plant communities, were barely evident, and there were many indications of drought-induced die-back in the vegetation. This is troubling for a plant community adapted to seasonal drought. Hopefully, today's rain will pass through that area as well.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bluebird nestboxes

I had a lot of fun monitoring our bluebird boxes at the Garden last season, something I hadn't done before. A series of replacement boxes and several new ones gave us about 12 total boxes. Most of them are in the meadow area, but others are in other open and edge areas. I snagged a mechanic's mirror at a local autoparts store to help me see into the top of the nests, and started my weekly rounds, checking on the sequence of bluebird broods, and the nests of other birds such as chickadees and tufted titmice.

I checked all of the boxes last month to make sure they were empty and clean, and ready for this year's season. We always see lots of bluebirds in the meadows, so we know we have a flourishing population. And, I'm always glad to see the male or female perched on top of the box, checking out the scene, perhaps.

Coming back from lunch today, I was delighted to see a pair of bluebirds investigating a box that hadn't been used last year, except for a paper wasp building her nest. It would be an excellent box to keep a close eye on, since I walk by it frequently!

The photo is one of a bluebird parent and fledgling that I took in the Garden a couple of seasons ago.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Learning more about birds

An birding class in the botanical garden this afternoon reminded me of how useful it is to go out with an experienced birder as a leader. His ability to hear and identify calls, and then point out where to look, helped us spot an excellent variety of birds and added lots more to my 'seen in the Garden' notes. This is a good time of the year for birding, as the spring migrants start coming through.

A highlight was getting a good look at one of our red-shouldered hawks (probably the male), and seeing the female on the nest. I first saw the nest about a month ago; the pair was building their nest then. They finished the nest about a week later, and started incubating the eggs.

Some of our winter residents are still here -- we all got a great look at a yellow-bellied sapsucker vigorously drilling fresh holes in a young tulip poplar. They'll be heading north quite soon. This photo by Lang Elliot is from the Bird Guide at Cornell Lab of Ornithology -- one of my favorite sites to learn more about birds. A useful feature is being able to listen to song and call recordings for each bird, as well as learn about their basic biology. This is another link to an interesting piece at Hilton Pond. org about yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

We had another good look at a bird that I hadn't ever seen, a Northern Water Thrush, vigorously 'working' the stream near the Woodland Wildflower Garden. There was a pair, apparently, but even though shy, their characteristic bobbing foraging behavior in the stream was easily seen this afternoon. They're also on their way north to their breeding areas.

Other interesting sightings were yellow-rumped warblers, red-eyed vireos, a pileated woodpecker, a red-bellied woodpecker, a yellow-shafted flicker, dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, an Eastern phoebe, and a white-breasted nuthatch. We also heard and saw more common 'backyard birds': tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, a male bluebird, and a male cardinal. We ended up seeing over 22 different species of birds in one afternoon -- a good number, with plenty of time to see many of them. An excellent outing, to be sure.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Container sprucing

I DO enjoy my containers and hanging baskets; they provide green cheer throughout the year, add spots of color in the warm season, and give me a chance to experiment with plants. I'm not one to be out there watering twice a day (I definitely don't enjoy the water running down my arm as I lift the watering can up to water the garage baskets and I'm much too occupied with other things to be watering that much) , but I don't mind hauling the can around -- it's good for me (weight-bearing exercise, you know).

So having the first days of spring find me changing out some of the tired ornamental kales which I never much liked (the purple and white variegated ones that were about all that I could find late last fall) and replanting other plants to a 'nursery' area. In their place, until it's really warm enough to add some of the more tender things, I put in lemon and silver thymes, some wooly thyme, and a couple of Veronica 'Georgia Blue' whose flowers are so spectacular right now.

My goal is drought-tolerant baskets, using heat-tolerant and water-sparing herbs, succulents, perennials, and tough annuals. A secondary screen is ability to bounce back after wilting. It's much too discouraging to have plants wilt slightly, and not pop back after a quick drink of water.

Later in the spring, I'll add some Callibrochoa (definitely a tough plant). This was a basket from last year which I especially liked.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Appreciating nature

I was 'tagged' a couple of days ago by a fellow blogger who lives in rural Colorado, and appreciates nature in the same way that I do.

The tagging involves writing a six word haiku or memoir, and posting it, and sending it to five others. Strange for most of us, since we generally aren't that type. But this is an interesting way to connect across the 'blogosphere' to others that are interested in the natural world, and gardening for nature.

Here's mine: Live, learn, and enjoy nature. Ok, it's only five words, but it about sums it up for me. Emerson wrote something much more profound: 'Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them.'

This is one of my favorite images from an extraordinary morning where the spider webs were everywhere.

If I hadn't been out, I wouldn't have seen them.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

The mockingbird outside my window

The first day of spring is here, complete with expanding buds, accelerating growth, and a perfect blue sky. I opened an office window this morning, to let some fresh air in, and am now listening to one of our resident mockingbirds holding forth. He often likes to perch in the tall dawn redwood, but this morning, he's a bit farther away. I love to listen to his song cycles -- there's the wren, then the jay, and then the chickadee, mixed in with other songs he mimics.

What fun and a wonderful accompaniment to computer work!

As I left the house this morning, I caught a glimpse of a bird with a bright-yellow tail hopping around near the big oak - the yellow patch on the rump is a giveaway. It probably was a male yellow-rumped warbler on his way north from winter breeding grounds. I hadn't seen one in our garden before.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hummingbirds are almost here!

The annual migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds is remarkable, among many remarkable natural history events. The males come first in spring, flying from their wintering grounds in central America. They're scouting out good nesting sites, and establishing territorities, often returning to the same area in North America that they've been before.

One of the ways that I like to follow hummingbird migration is through Journey North's weekly e-mails. Journey North is an excellent 'real-time' website that has K-12 students, teachers, and other interested folks post sightings of hummingbirds, monarchs, and whooping cranes, monitoring their journeys 'north' and 'south,' in addition to lots of other 'cool' stuff.

Their postings this week have hummingbirds spotted in Leesville, SC -- near Aiken, and in Greensboro, GA -- south of Athens. I'm preparing 'nectar' for my feeders right now. 1/4 cup of white sugar per 1 cup of water, boiled and cooled is a perfect fuel for hungry hummingbirds.

I've been meaning to get out the feeders all this week, but now that I know they're cl0se -- it's time to make our garden seem like a really good site for breeding and nesting. It's still early for any of the native nectar plants -- we have some coral honeysuckle in bloom, but that's about it. The males are also using sap from yellow-bellied sapsucker holes; they follow them north in their migration.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Giant coneflower

I loved the impact of Rudbeckia maxima, giant coneflower, when I first saw it growing. It has large, broad grayish-green leaves (giving it another common name of Cabbage-leaved coneflower), with tall flowering stems topped by lovely large 'flowers' -- actually a head of flowers, but no need to get too technical about it.

It's native to the Southeast and Central U.S., but is hardy farther north. A garden friend of mine wrote this nice piece for the BBG newsletter about it some time ago. He now has the attractive photo shown above accompanying the online catalog for his Loomis Creek Nursery website. Apparently, it's yet another one of our natives that was prized in Europe, and then came 'back' for us to use in our perennial gardens.

I had a couple of plants that were succumbing to shady conditions in a border that needs revamping, and having noticed that they both had new growth, and after we had heavy rains on Saturday, thought on Sunday, it was an ideal time to move them and see what might happen. I was surprised with a large number of smaller plants per spadeful.

Apparently, each mother plant had senesced (a nice botanical word for 'died'), leaving behind lots of new small offsets, which I proceeded to transplant around in various places. Hopefully, one or two of them will find their new home suitable.

Bluestone Perennials has another nice image of Rudbeckia maxima, which they also offer, shown on the left.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Courting phoebes

I saw a phoebe pair, courting perhaps, near the Nature Center this morning. We've had a nest in the porch eaves the last few years -- she's successfully reared 3 or 4 fledgings each year. She diligently brought insects to feed the nestlings (this photo is from last year).

The old nest fell down over the winter, finally, but I do hope that she'll rebuild.

It was such a great spot to watch - both directly and through the webcam that my colleague set up. Check out these expectant nestlings!

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Learning more about native plants

Adding native plants to your garden sometimes feels a bit serendipitous. Commonly used natives may be widely available in nurseries, but many are little known as garden plants, and so much harder to find. It's also important (just as it is with all plants) to choose the right plant for the right place. So, selecting natives of your region, or that those that are adapted to it, are the ones to try.

Some natives are fussy, and not easy to grow, but many, when planted in appropriate sites, are relatively pest-and problem-free, being adapted to the regional environment.

One of the first steps to adding natives is to learn more about what’s available and what’s recommended for landscape use. Some species that are hard to propagate or that are slow-growing, or don’t take well to containers may be impossible to find; similarly, herbaceous species with a limited market are the venue of specialty mail-order nurseries.

Here are some of my favorite references about using native plants in the landscape (for the Southeast, where I live.) This post is for SE gardeners, but other parts of the country have equally good references.

Wasowski, Sally and Andy Wasowski. 1994. Gardening with Native Plants of the South. Taylor Publishing Co.: Dallas. 196 pp.

This book is an outstanding guide to native plant choices, combining plants, where to plant, complete with planting suggestions. It’s been tremendously successful, and is probably the book I reach for first.

Jones, S.B. and L.E. Foote. 1990. Gardening with Native Wild Flowers. Timber Press: Portland, Oregon. 195 pp.

This is a classic, much reprinted, and just as useful today. It includes much more information than a standard wildflower guide.

Cullina. William. 2000. The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Cullina. William. 2002. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Bill Cullina’s thorough descriptions of landscape-worthy natives are accompanied by excellent photographs, making these books an easy way to learn more about native plants to consider in your own landscape.

Bir, Richard E. 1992. Growing and Propagating Showy Native Woody Plants. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, NC.

An expert horticulturist, Dick Bir provides hands-on advice for propagating our showy woodies, based on his experiences in the Fletcher Mt. Research Station in Western North Carolina.

To help learn and identify native trees, shrubs, and herbs in natural plant communities, here are a few reference suggestions. There are also many good field guides that include native plants.

Brown, Claud L. and L. Katherine Kirkman. 1990. Trees of Georgia and Adjacent States. Timber Press.

Duncan, Wilbur H. and Marion B. Duncan. 2000. Trees of the Southeastern United States. University of Georgia Press,

Porcher, Richard D. and Douglas A. Rayner. 2002. A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina. University of South Carolina Press.

Foote, Leonard E. and Samuel B. Jones, Jr. 1989. Native Shrubs and Woody Vines of the Southeast: Landscaping Uses and Identification. Timber Press.

Finally, there are a number of excellent organizations that promote interest in native plants and have both comprehensive programs and informative websites, which include plant suggestions, and numerous other resources.

Visit the websites of these regional organizations to find out more about the organizations and the resources that they offer.

South Carolina Native Plant Society

North Carolina Native Plant Society

North Carolina Botanical Garden (focused on native plants)

South Carolina Botanical Garden (many native plants in the landscape and offered in our spring and fall plant sales)

Georgia Wildlife Federation

And, here are a couple of national organizations, among many good ones, to learn about native plants and how to use them in the landscape.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (focused on native plants of the U.S.)

National Wildlife Federation (their backyard wildlife habitat program focuses on native plants)

Learning about native plants of our region and where they grow will help give you insights into how you might include them in your landscape.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spring peepers

Earlier this week, I heard spring peepers and American toads singing in the marshy areas adjacent to a lake nearby. This evening (very warm), the peepers were singing away in the retention pond next to the grocery where I frequently shop. Spring is coming on the calendar and is already here in the biological world around us.

The female carpenter bees are looking for sites to drill their larval holes, the chorus of garden birds now includes towhees, cardinals, brown thrashers, wrens, chickadees, and robins, AND the woodchuck(s), I think, have just emerged to have a very nice fresh salad meal on my young spinach plants. Hhrmph.

The squirrels have been digging everywhere, but Mocha (our now low-key, pampered Golden who shares our garden with us, as well as the wildlife) also is stepping on freshly dug beds, as well, much to my dismay). At least, he's not eating my normal spring crop of Tuscan and redbor kale, primarily because the woodchuck(s) ate them in the fall.

These are trying times for a committed wildlife gardener, but diversity is important, and we've pushed out so many species as our cities, suburbs, and rural areas have impinged on natural habitats, it's hard to be too cranky about those species that have been adaptable enough to living with humans that they've been thriving, in the absence of any natural predators.

What would 'consume' a woodchuck, after all, in a suburban food web? A fierce Jack Russell terrier is all that I can think of, followed by cars. The hopeful kids in my programs who think that there are still foxes, bear, wolves, and coyotes in our garden and neighborhoods are echoing the past, instead of current reality, with the possible exception of coyotes.

After I try the Chuckster bait, I may need to resort to attractive fencing, as so many other gardeners have done before me.

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Observing hawks

We first spotted the nest two weeks ago, and the red-shouldered hawk pair finished it about a week later. Now, the female is sitting on the nest, keeping a careful eye on passersby, and calling with her distinctive kerr-kerr sound.

On the days I've been by, I've usually been able to catch a glimpse of her -- unfortunately, the nest is quite high up! I took a few pictures this morning with a long lens, but managed only to get a somewhat blurry shot in my minimal efforts.

In poking around the web looking for information about their nesting and foraging behavior, I came across a great digiscope sequence of a nesting red-shouldered mom and offspring in California.

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Growing Challenge

I was reminded about A Growing Challenge recently -- what a great incentive to add new edibles to your garden. I just 'stuck' onion plants in the satellite garden - Stockton Red, Walla Walla Sweet, and another sweet onion. These were new to me - I grew onions last year for the first time, and surprised kids by pulling up lovely large red onions from the raised beds at the garden. What fun! Unfortunately, the woodchuck population is growing there, too, and the den below the former camellia greenhouse has been more than active. Hhrmph. At least they don't like onions!

And my potatoes hopefully will produce well in their nicely amended beds in the satellite garden. King Harry, supposedly pest-resistant, Canola Red, a favorite of home growers, All-Blue, just for fun, Red Dale, and Caribe were my selections this year.

I've sown a flat of Red Deer Tongue lettuce from Nichols Garden Nursery, and have lots more seeds to sow outside. My 'Spigarello' broccoli seedlings are doing well, although I'm sure they won't produce too much by the time hot weather arrives. But, they'll be tasty, nevertheless.

The corn salad (mache) in my old cold frame (I haven't had time to assemble my new one yet), has finally germinated, and hopefully will produce some excellent leaves before the heat does them in, too.

This morning was a perfect whisper of spring, warm, humid, with rain in the forecast. Hooray. The leaves are starting to emerge on Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire), creating a glow of green above the reddish stems. The first Oconee bell flower was spotted in the Garden. Definitely, spring is on the way.

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Planting potatoes and onions

The weather was perfect this weekend, spring-like even though it's technically still winter. The potatoes had sprouted nicely and the onion plants were ready to plant, so I went to work in the satellite garden, where the onions and potatoes have space to grow, and won't tempt emerging local woodchucks.My inadvertent foraging preference experiments last year revealed that potatoes are not appealing to woodchucks, thank goodness, nor were garlic or onions, in preference to all of the kales, beans, melons, cucumbers, okra, etc. which s/he/they ate with relish, I presume, judging by the pitiful stems that were left.

(I do have a new supply of something called 'Chuckster' and a woodchuck lure to hopefully catch and relocate whomever is unwise enough to emerge to forage in MY vegetable garden; in spite of my love for wildlife gardening, I figure woodchucks need to be out eating grass shoots, not my vegetables.)
The garlic, shallot, and Welsh onion beds needed to be weeded in the tidying up process, and the potato and onion beds prepared. Some spading and turning over existing beds, adding mushroom compost and composted manure, and they were ready to plant.
In a couple of the potato beds, I'm trying a traditional trench method modified and described by Barbara Pleasant; create a 12 inch wide trench about 5 inches deep, put down about an inch of compost, then the sprouted potatoes, then mulch with a thick layer of straw. This helps keep the developing potatoes 'clean' -- similar to growing potatoes in hay bales. I don't mind, actually, poking around in my fluffy raised bed soil for potatoes, so I planted a couple of beds with amended soil covering the potatoes. I ordered a variety of seed potatoes from Wood Prairie Farm. There's something about about purple and yellow potatoes that's just plain appealing, reflecting their ancient Andean heritage, perhaps.

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