Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cardinal songs

A male cardinal was singing loudly in the crepe myrtle near the garden shed this afternoon. 'Whuut, cheer, cheer, cheer...' he sang. Here's an excellent link from Bird Jam and Lang Elliot to listen to a cardinal's song.

'This is MY territory' he said, translated from cardinal language. It was the first cardinal song I'd heard this season. My gardening companion probably heard him this morning- he commented on how many birds were singing now.

We're in a time of winter turning into spring, with wildly variable weather, coming out of a very cold winter for our region. But definitely spring is in the air, with apologies to those of you that are still cold and icy.

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Friday, February 26, 2010

Signs of spring

There are unmistakable signs of spring now, in spite of the cold weather predicted to come. The star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) near the Nature Center at the Garden is showing a hint of white petals; the Edgeworthia crysantha (paperbush) in front of the building is finally starting to be fragrant, with a few expanded flowers. And, the crocus, snowdrops, and Japanese apricots are in full flower.

At home, blueberry flower buds have noticeably expanded beyond their earlier size, and the winter honeysuckle continues to bloom.

Red maple fruits fuzz the branches with red and the early alder, cedar, and birch pollen is bothering pollen-sensitive folks - snuffle, snuffle, or achoo-achoo!

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I tucked a number of snowdrop bulbs (Galanthus nivalis) in the bed in front of the house a couple of years ago. They were in flower this afternoon, much to my delight. They've survived excessive leaf mulch (my gardening companion LOVES leaves and mulch, and forgets about bulbs and perennials...) and are delightful to see today.

I took a (very bad) photo last year on February 3, three weeks earlier than these are flowering.

This is a much better photo image of Galanthus, from Red Butte Botanical Garden.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Overnight Sunday rain

It was a perfect winter gardening week: a week of sunny days, including a weekend, followed by an overnight rain. My pea, spinach, arugula, and lettuce seeds should have nicely settled in, along with the onion and leek transplants.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

February afternoon light

The afternoon light streams into the living room, when the sun's angle is low. It creates a perfect 'basking' spot in late afternoon, when the view out the windows brings the garden in.

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A good gardening weekend

A couple of wonderfully sunny warm winter days were perfect for gardening.

I tidied up a forlorn bunch of winter pots and flats (removing frost-nipped plant remnants) and turned over blocks in the main vegetable garden (primarily to help decrease root-knot nematode numbers).

I sowed some arugula (a mustard relative that apparently produces compounds that inhibit nematodes) in one of the blocks. It won't germinate for awhile, since the soil is still very cold (~38°F). My plan is to harvest the arugula as the weather gets warmer (and the arugula spicier!) and replace it with French marigolds, which have a similar depressive effect on root-knot nematode numbers.

So basically the main vegetable garden will be fallow (vegetable-wise) over the summer and can be brought back into production next season. In its place, I'll be growing tomatoes, peppers, beans, and squash in new raised beds (yet to be constructed).

Flats of mesclun, rougette de Montpellier lettuce (a red butterhead variety from Burpee), and spinach were freshly sown, along with another round of seeds for transplants.

In the satellite garden, which is in full sun in winter, the soil is much warmer, approaching 50°F, so it's perfect for putting in a round of sugar snap peas and garden peas.

The beds, which I had covered in compost and turned in the fall, are in good condition, so they were also perfect for planting the onions and leeks that came last week. I dusted the surface of the soil with some corn gluten that I had (after reading a hint about this for onion planting), to depress germination of additional winter annuals, and mulched the beds with old straw. Corn gluten is a mild fertilizer, too.

So, all of the beds in the satellite garden are occupied: five beds of garlic, three beds of onions, 1 bed of leeks, 1/2 bed of scallions, and 4 tomato cage trellises of peas. My beds vary in size, but they're roughly 2 1/2 to 3 ft X 4-6 ft long).

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Friday, February 19, 2010

More sunny days

What a blessing to have a sunny week finally appear in our cold, dark, and soggy (and frosty) winter! We're definitely in the home stretch (I think hopefully), as normally we would have had a number of days like today already -- sunny and highs in the 50's. The weekend will be even more pleasant, with sunny skies and temperatures into the lower 60's. Today was quite 'normal' according to weather records.

Normal is getting more variable than ever, it seems to me.

There was an excellent piece by Thomas Friedman of the NY Times about 'Global Weirding' earlier this week. I'm not an expert on global climate change (far from it), but my survey of review literature, and talking with knowledgeable folks about their thoughts, in the process of working on a piece not long ago about how gardeners are perceiving climate change was revealing to me.

Highly variable weather events are predicted by many global climate change models; they don't predict a lock-step increase in temperatures by any means. But certainly, there's an overall increasing trend in average temperatures, especially in the winter, and it's predicted to continue. So the blips of record snows are only data points in global weirding, not a refutation of the process of global climate change.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Local and sustainable food

I'm itching to get back out into the garden. It's time. I've been at meetings two days in a row where local food has been a subject. One was a city environmental committee and the other was an information meeting about our Clemson University Student Organic Farm.

Local food (and sustainability, however defined) are growing interests, even here in a relatively small, reasonably conservative, college town in the Southern U.S. This is a good thing. Our town is quite progressive, actually, and we're often a model for other small communities in our region.

Growing food isn't easy. It takes time and effort. And growing sustainably and organic means taking care of the soil, balancing energy inputs and outputs, and replenishing nutrients that are harvested (and consumed). My friends who are permaculture fans are on the right track, to be sure. We have LOTS of land in our cities and suburban areas that's 'wasted' on grass or on ornamental trees and shrubs that don't support wildlife.

I'm a great advocate of greening our community landscapes, adding plants (trees, shrubs, and perennials) that add both ecological (wildlife) value as well as providing food resources. Why shouldn't we plant persimmons or pecans, for example, in public parks and open spaces? Or use vacant land for community gardens?

At home, we've transformed much of our former lawn into wildlife habitat (with mostly native plants) and grow lots of vegetables in our organic vegetable garden. But this wouldn't sustain us without chickens, perhaps pigs, and a concerted effort to convert a LOT more lawn to vegetable gardens devoted to calorie crops (potatoes and corn are the most sensible crops for us, if we really had to be serious about it).

I don't really think that our big ag food system will collapse anytime soon, but it's definitely worth focusing on local food and supporting local producers.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Finally some sunny days

I guess I need to be grateful for sunshine, if not warmth. Last year by mid-February, I'd already planted my onion sets, and sown some early winter greens, lettuce, and peas. But every year is different, and climate change, in my view (and predicted by climate change models), is definitely bringing more changeable weather, especially in the spring.

My fall-planted garlic is just waiting for some warmth to start storing the carbohydrates that will fuel clove production in late spring. And, I'm anxious to get my onions and leeks in the ground.

And I'm anxious to get the raised beds set up in the mountains for our summer garden.

My gardening companion is not sympathetic when I think about my container plants that have succumbed to the extreme winter weather. He says that I need fewer containers to worry about over the summer! Hmmph. I suppose he's right, but I am sorry to lose the thymes, Spanish lavender, sedums, and santolina. I'll see what emerges as warmer weather returns.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them

I have a very old sweatshirt with these words (Ralph Waldo Emerson's) accompanied by an embroidered leaf on the front.

I was poking around today on previous blog posts to see if I'd written about this quote before.

It turned out that I had referenced it in this post, which reminded me of a magical morning seeing spider webs in the Garden. And that experience was 2 1/2 years ago.

This quote is on my mind again, as I'm percolating thoughts about a newsletter piece about using cool apps, software, and digital technology to enhance nature observation and appreciation.

I'm totally convinced that direct experience and observation of nature is what's most important and compelling; what I like about current technology is the ability to learn more easily and immediately, complete with visuals and/or audio, whether it's at my study desktop (most often), or through some other sort of digital technology.

My guess is that our ability to learn about nature and natural history will be increasingly expanded by the ability to connect to information on a iPod Touch or similar device.

Apps from the National Audubon Society make their guides on plants, birds, mammals and other organisms available, as well as applications such as Thayer's Birding software eBird, which brings Cornell Ornithology Lab's information to your desktop or laptop. I've had excellent success with Lang Elliot's CD guides to night sounds, bird calls, etc. downloaded to my iPod and played via portable speakers during programs.

How cool is it to be able to listen to various cricket and katydid songs, not to mention tree frogs and other night sounds, when you're actually out there trying to distinguish between them?

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Onion plants

Woo-hoo, my onion plants arrived today from Dixondale Farms, perhaps a bit early, given the recent weather. I had ordered the short-day sampler along with some Lancelot leeks in late January, for delivery this week, so I've got plenty to put in the ground here and at the kitchen garden at work, shown in this post in summer guise.

Hmmph, I see I was enthusiastically writing about planting early peas at that point. Not much chance of early planting this year -- I haven't checked the soil temps but I'm not hopeful that it's warmed up enough even for cool season vegetables.

At least I can hold the dormant onion plants for several weeks, if necessary.

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Morning snow

It seems as snowy as we've ever seen it here, with thick fluffy snow piled up.

The snow draped over branches, leaves, and stems.

The snow at the Garden was also pretty.


Friday, February 12, 2010


This evening the 'drumbeat' of the forecast materialized, and we've had several inches of fluffy, damp snow and it's still coming. This is most unusual for us -- we normally have nice winter days alternating with cold rainy days in February in the Upstate of South Carolina. But this year, with El Nino and altered wind patterns, has been entirely different.

This evening's snow is wet, heavy, and slushy and will freeze overnight to a harder consistency, making the roads slippery, and keeping us folks unused to snow and ice inside and not venturing forth. The quietness has already descended.

I'll need to go out briefly to post a cancellation notice for a program Saturday morning -- I've called all the registered participants, but there might be some northerly sort of person who might appear. But I guess I've lived in the Southern U.S. for long enough to share the aversion to snowy and icy travel. I'm only a mile away from campus, but I wouldn't want to drive much more than that!

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sub(urban) wildlife

Recent sightings of coyotes in the botanical garden where I work reminds me of the adaptability of many common wildlife species. Species that are generalists and opportunists (in terms of their ecology) thrive in the disturbed landscapes of our suburban, exurban, and rural landscapes (not to mention the truly urban environments of our cities).

These are the animals that inhabit our parks, backyards, and gardens: Eastern gray squirrels, woodchucks, American robins, Carolina wrens, opossums, raccoons, Northern cardinals, tufted titmice, etc., etc. They're interesting and well worth watching.

But, it's also important to protect specialist species whose adaptations, food preferences (or soil requirements) depend on a very specific sort of habitat. And, there are plenty of species that are in between specialist and generalist in their 'strategy' (ecologically-speaking).

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A raccoon and snow flurries

Up in the mountains for a NAI interpretation workshop, the unrealized (so far) threat of snow and ice has seemed like a warning drumbeat.

Four to five inches of snow! freezing rain! howling winds! and blizzard warnings! have been part of the forecast the last few days. The predictions were dire enough to have my gardening companion (insist in his companionly way) that I go up early to get ahead of the weather (which was quite nice enough, as it turned out). And I'm delaying going 'down the hill' -- the Blue Ridge Escarpment - until the morning, when the sun is supposedly to be shining.

Thankfully, only the winds have materialized with a dusting of snow this evening so far, although it's plenty cold with the wind chill down in the teens. The predicted blizzard seems to have gone north to inundate the mid-Atlantic states.

In the South and the mid-Atlantic states of the U.S., we're not used to snow and ice at all, and this year's El Nino weather pattern seems to be bringing us plenty.

Venturing forth briefly this evening, I saw a raccoon bounding briskly (looking like a cat) up the hill into the front of the apartment next to our small house in the mountains. My brain looked at the image and thought 'cat' -- but then sorted out that the stripes on the tail were distinctive and that the ears and nose were not cat-like at all.

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Mistletoe berries

We're getting close to Valentine's Day, so a mistletoe post is timely. Kissing under the mistletoe has a long tradition more at Christmas than at Valentine's Day, though.

Mistletoe is a flowering plant which is parasitic for water and minerals, while its green leaves photosynthesize. The seeds get around by bird dispersal; seeds either adhere to bird's feet after preening, or pass through the gut during digestion.

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Finally some sun

Happily, it was sunny and dry today. Yesterday, too. Cloudy with intermittent sun was a lot better than the rain that was predicted for yesterday, and today was just plain nice late winter weather (for the Southeastern US), with a high around 50°F.

I saw a downy woodpecker foraging for breakfast on my morning walk.

It was definitely nice enough to find me tidying the garden shed, poking around the beds, and doing some weeding.

Amazingly, the squirrels had left just enough radicchio to harvest and try roasting with garlic, olive oil, and herbs. Yum. It was totally different than the bitter leaves of warmer weather, and well worth trying to protect from herbivory in future seasons.

I also saw a flock of robins mobbing the fruits of hollies this morning. There are lots of holly fruits this year, and we're seeing robins in exceptionally large numbers.

The newspaper yesterday had an El Nino story as well as a piece about how we've exceeded rain records for December and January. Hmm, that was obvious!

And just as I was about to finish doing a post yesterday evening, the power went out (with a sudden 'snap'), leaving us to find our bed by candlelight.

Power returned sometime after 11 pm; perhaps a tree fell, or a line broke. It reminded me to make sure we have more backup candles and matches...

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Rain, rain, and more rain

After a decade of drought, I guess I really should be grateful for the abundance of moisture that's recharged aquifers, and led to an official 'end of drought' pronouncement. But it's been so wet, cold, icy, and dark (at least for wimpy Southern gardeners like me), I'm looking for all the signs of spring that I can find.

I can't get out and DO anything in my beds; they're way too wet and it's been icy or pouring for every weekend for weeks. We haven't been able to go up to build new beds in the mountains, either, because of snow and ice.

OK, I'll get a grip on reality; much of the temperate world is much colder (and snowier) than here. But I want to plant peas, and lettuces, and spinach, and early greens....

I guess I just need to be patient (and grateful for the normally mild weather that we have), and think about all of you that have much more severe gardening climates to face and who cope quite nicely.

An impatient Southeastern US gardener wanting our 'normal' February weather....

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Early flowers

Leaving from home late this afternoon, I noticed that the old pink quince next to the driveway (moved from our house in Georgia and one of the first shrubs we planted as young homeowners) has open flowers. Definitely spring is on the way, in spite of the sleet and snowflakes on the road.

I always notice its buds in (what passes for) the dead of winter here, and has been particularly so this year.

The shoots on the coral honeysuckles (Lonicera sempervirens) are elongating quickly, the bare vines supporting young green leaves.

Daffodil shoots are well up, and the first flowers of weedy winter annuals are evident, too.

I saw some open speedwell flowers (Veronica arvensis) in the lawns near my office this morning.

This is a photo from Missouri

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Looking forward to fresh vegetables

If I'd put up simple hoop houses last fall, maybe I'd have more to harvest after all the exceptionally cold weather. Or maybe not. My flats of greens (in the open) look fine, and have sailed through quite a bit of pummeling, but they don't look robust or large enough to harvest, as of yet.

Vegetables in a Vietnamese market
Even in the sheltered kitchen garden (near my office, at the botanical garden where I work), to be honest, the cold and damp (sometimes icy) weather doesn't much encourage me to go out and cut bunches of kale, argula, cilantro, or poke around for turnips, even though they look quite decent, when I've ventured forth.

It's another reason to be grateful for farmers and farm workers, who make it possible for folks like me to buy a lovely large head of romaine lettuce (grown in a mild coastal valley in California) this time of year. I like to buy lettuce grown by Tanimura and Antle, a company that represents 3 generations of vegetable growers, because it's packaged in a special shrink-wrap package that preserves freshness, making it better than the other lettuce available in the supermarkets that I frequent.

A regional grocery store chain based in Asheville, North Carolina, is the only store that carries this brand. I like Tanimura and Antle's broccoli and cauliflower, too.

OK, I'm keen on buying local and reducing my carbon footprint (and foodprint), but salads are tasty and good for you, too. We'll have to find a balance there, to be sure.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Sowing seeds

Woo, hoo - I quickly put seeds of ruby chard, regular chard, Siberian kale, red Russian kale, Oriental giant spinach, bulbing fennel, and some various Asian greens in my cowpots late this afternoon. The heating pad felt warm; maybe the pots will warm up too and the seeds will germinate....

This is all very unscientific and hardly precise (hmm, I don't actually sound like I was trained as a scientist), but this is a celebration of February 1, and spring to come.

But it was lovely to actually poke a finger in some nice potting soil and contemplate what's to come.

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