Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Spring peepers are singing

The retention pond near the local grocery store where I normally shop was alive with the sounds of spring peepers tonight.  It's warm, so not surprising really. 

It's perfect weather for holding forth and attracting mates.

I noted activity of spring peepers on March 13 (in this 2008 post) - yikes, I've been posting a long time.

I went by another local grocery store's retention pond, too, on the way home, and it was full of sound as well.

Spring peeper (from Nature Sound)
Check out Lang Elliot's Nature Sound site to listen

My post about Spring Peepers in 2010 (a cold winter) was on March 29.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

(More) spring wildflowers

Even though it's just the end of February, more spring wildflowers are appearing.

There are more Chrysogonum virginianum (Green and Gold) flowers along the Heusel Trail (at the SC Botanical Garden) along with the first (small) flowers of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  It's surprising to see bloodroot now, but with Trillium cuneatum and Erythronium popping up, too, I've been on the lookout for them and it's been warm the last few days. 

This post, from March 26, 2010, showed a huge clump of bloodroot in our front wildflower border (it hasn't reappeared, probably due to drought and heat over the last two summers without supplemental water) as the gardeners were away.  But its offspring are flowering now, as there were quite a few seedlings that appeared in two years following.
Sanguinaria canadensis in the front border, March
Last year, I made mention of bloodroot on March 23 and its fruits on March 28 in posts (so I'm a full month ahead this year!)

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Northern Flicker groups

I've been seeing quite a few Northern Flickers foraging in grassy areas near woodlands over the last six months or so.  They're distinctive in flight (and easy to recognize) because of the white rump patch. I see them frequently driving into work, as two or three will fly off as I pull into my regular spot near the Geology Museum (and nearby Cherokee Garden). 

They forage in the nearby meadows, too, and I'll often see the white rump flashes there as well, as the flickers fly towards the riparian forest that bisects the Garden.

My education colleague noted this in a January post in What's Happening in the Garden, seeing them in roughly the same area.

Northern Flicker foraging in an old stump (June, 2010) in NC
Northern Flickers are year-round residents throughout most of the U.S., foraging for ants and beetles, as well as other insects.

Since I've been parking in the same spot for many years, I've been puzzling a bit about seeing them this year quite frequently, but not in previous years. I've been paying attention to birds for some time now; and even though I'm not an expert, I'm reasonably observant when it comes to sightings and changes in the natural world.

So in thinking about this, I've been wondering a bit about what might be different.

First, birds move around a lot, and perhaps we have several family groups that have stayed in the meadow/woodland edges of the Garden.  That would be nice, as they're cavity nesters, and perhaps took advantage of some of the snags in the nearby woodland areas.

Secondly, I thought, maybe since we've stopped the fire ant treatment of the meadows with the long-lasting residual broad-spectrum pesticide that has been used for awhile, perhaps the native ant and beetle population has recovered?  Total speculation, of course.  Fire ants are not a good thing, and I appreciated why a long-lasting treatment might be chosen, but I also worried about the impact on native insects in the process (butterflies and bees, primarily), but clearly ants and beetles would also be affected by a broad-spectrum insecticide (eg. food for Northern Flickers!)  Personally, I wouldn't recommend a long-lasting pesticide of any sort.  Not a good idea.

I haven't kept up with the bluebird box monitoring in the meadows after the initial two years, but have seen bluebirds quite frequently over the last 5 years, so maybe insect abundance isn't really a factor.

Regardless, it's been fun to see the Northern Flickers in the meadows and woodland edges and learn more about them over the last few years.

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Four Season Farm

I'm a big fan of both Elliott Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, who grow vegetables throughout the year in coastal Maine at Four Season Farm.  Coleman's books about winter vegetable gardening (Four Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook) are remarkable for their inspiration.  (Hmm, why aren't we all doing more of this?  I've mentioned this before in posts.)

Damrosch's A Garden Primer is one of my favorite go-to guides for vegetables and perennials, and has excellent (and beautifully-written) information on all sorts of gardening-related topics.

So I was glad to see this excellent piece by Anne Raver in the New York Times.  It's well worth reading.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Spring wildflowers

Hepatica nobilis (from Wikipedia)
I like to tell the story of accompanying my lab group on a traditional foray to look for Hepatica nobilis (a European species) during a year spent in Germany post-graduate school.  It had snowed, and we went out anyway, searching for the flowers that they knew were there.  Remarkable.

Here in the Southeastern U.S., Hepatica americana is one of our earliest flowering spring wildflowers, and its appearance is always welcome.  This year was quite early. 

We saw the first flowers at the Garden in early February (here's a link to my colleague's post about it - I'd made note of it previously in this post.  That wasn't so surprising given our warm winter, but oddly, a small patch of Shortia galacifolia (Oconee Bell) also was in flower, a good month ahead of normal.

But now in late February, native "spring" wildflowers are evident and spring is definitely on the way;  I've seen the first flower buds of Trillium cuneatum (Little Sweet Betsy), Chrysogonum virginicum (Green and Gold), leaves of trout lilies (no flowers yet in the Garden), as well as flowers of Gelsemium sempervirens (also seen in early February) and Lonicera sempervirens (Coral honeysuckle).

Frogs are jumping into our small retention ponds at the Garden (where I work) when I pass by and I imagine last evening (which was WARM), there might have been spring peepers calling. 

It was interesting to see what popped up as a search from (my) posts about Hepatica: it documents how variable emergence and flowering of native wildflowers can be!  My posts were from late February to mid March, with a side note of early April (April 1) commenting on last year's odd spring overlaps.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Invasives (?) and hybrid hollies

We've got the usual suspects in our woods and in 'natural' areas --that is, moderately disturbed areas- both in the botanical garden where I work, and in any area that's 'open' nearby.

There are lots of invasives:  Chinese privet, Japanese honeysuckle, Autumn (and Russian) olive (Eleagnus spp.), and Vinca spp. (major and minor). There are others, too (kudzu is a non-horticultural addition to the list).

Natural plant communities in the Southeastern U.S. (like my gardening companion describes in his recent book) represent distinctive combinations of native plants.

But these get jumbled up with species from elsewhere (that's where the invasives and even less problematic species, come in).

Our holly hedges below the Nature Center (at the botanical garden where I work) are an excellent example.  They're 'Nellie R. Stevens' according to  our former Garden manager, and since he's an excellent horticulturist, I imagine he was right.

Nellie R. Stevens is a hybrid between Ilex aquifolia and Ilex cornuta ), that is, a hybrid between English holly and a Chinese holly.  Its offspring are apparently fertile, as we're seeing all sorts of holly seedlings (mixed parentage) in the disturbed forest habitat beyond the Children's Garden.  Some of the seedlings undoubtedly are from the Nellie R. Stevens recombinations, but some are probably from the Foster holly cultivars above the Hayden Conference Center/Hanson Nature Center, too.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012


A question about hawthorns gave me pause today.  Indian Hawthorn, I asked, thinking about a commonly planted landscape plant.  No, hawthorn that you use for tea, was the answer.  I'd like to plant one, she said.

After a bit of conversation, while I'm dredging up what I know about our native hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) -- I'm realizing that it's not at all commonly planted.  A Southern hawthorn (C. viridis cultivar) had inspired this recent post, and I wasn't particularly familiar with the species before.

But a quick search for hawthorn tea revealed that it's a European species (Crataegus monogyna) that has touted medicinal properties and is sold as a popular herbal tea. But it's escaped cultivation and is fairly widely 'naturalized' in the Eastern U.S and Pacific Northwest, apparently.

Crataegus mongyna
My research wasn't particularly extensive, so I don't know if other species are used medicinally, as well, but it was a good reason to know the scientific names of what you're looking for!  Indian Hawthorn, for example, is Raphiolepis indica, not even in the same genus as other 'hawthorns,' although also in the Rose family.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Finally, pea shoots emerge!

In a flurry of overly-optimistic planting, I planted pre-germinated peas several weeks ago.  They're finally emerging above the soil surface.

Yes, I know that later planted seeds often catch up to their early planted siblings. (Soil temperature and the pace of temperature-dependent respiration --learned back in a college plant biology class-- explains how it works).

But the warm spell, with warmer than normal soil temperatures, couldn't be resisted for experimental purposes.  (See the blog post linked above).
kale and mustards under plastic cover
My spinach seedlings (started about the same time) are doing fine, too, and the mustards and kale under a bit of protective cover are looking great (and a small harvest was included as a soup ingredient in tonight's dinner.  Yum.)

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Witch hazel

Hamamelis virginiana
Hamamelis (witch hazel) is a genus with three species in Eastern North America and two in Asia.

Our native fall-flowering species, H. virginiana, is a wonderful shrub to small tree with lovely fall color. We planted one in front of the garage in the Piedmont, reflected in this post several years ago.

We've had a mystery hamamelis in front of our mountain house that's been attractive enough, but is starting to make a statement in terms of shape and size.

This winter, it's been covered with lovely yellowish-red flowers.

Hamamelis flowers

Hamamelis in front
I'd assumed it was Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis), because of the dark-orangish flowers, as the landscaper that was brought in by the previous owner wasn't quite as good (or accurate) as he'd hoped.

But he had wanted native plants, and looking at these flowers more closely this afternoon, it actually looks more like H. vernalis (a midwestern and southern species that flowers in late winter) than H. mollis.  But, Hamamelis is a genus that's been a successful landscape plant, so is full of hybrids (between American and Asian species) and cultivars selected from both.

So, without trying to look into all of the detailed characteristics of this plant to confirm an ID, we've decided that we'll just enjoy it -- and think that it looks more like H. vernalis than H. mollis. (Check out this description from the Missouri Botanical Garden.)

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Thursday, February 16, 2012


American beech trees are a ghostly presence in winter.  Their leaves persist until expansion of new buds pushes them off in early spring. 

Shade-tolerant, young beeches became established and persist as saplings in the understory of mixed hardwood forests in the Piedmont of the Southeastern U.S., and maybe elsewhere, too.

beeches near the old sawmill in the Schoenike Arboretum, SC Botanical Garden
In a mild winter, other hardwood species retain their leaves, too.  Ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana), also known as musclewood or American hornbeam, is a beech look-alike in winter guise this year along the stream in the botanical garden where I work, apart from the distinctive long buds signifying beech.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Native woodland gardens

I took advantage of a mild late afternoon to clear leaves from the small woodland garden planting in front of the house.

This is what it looked like in April 2011.

Yes, we're fans of mulch, leaves, chips, etc. but herbaceous perennials, wherever they're from in the world, don't like to be smothered unduly. Some perennials are better than others when it comes to emerging through leaves or mulch, but heavy chipped mulch and sturdy water oak leaves -- I was worrying about that.

The Christmas ferns and wild gingers can breathe easier now!  Not to mention the bloodroot and crested iris which will be emerging soon, I hope - spring is just around the corner.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Musings about GMO crops, open-pollinated seeds, and heirlooms

I've been spending a lot of time doing programs about vegetable gardening lately, as well as thinking about vegetables and selecting seeds both to plant and grow as transplants. I grow and select open-pollinated seed, organic seed, and hybrid seed from a variety of companies and have been comfortable doing that.

But, a couple of programs this weekend, a volunteer workshop last week, and a new seed catalog had me thinking more closely about GMO seed, big ag, and the 'seed business' -- which is a varied group of enterprises, to be sure  -- and how we, as home gardeners, first, and as consumers, second, are affected by this.  (And how we think about it, too, and sometimes how poorly informed we are.)

Since my academic background has been science (plant ecology and botany, with a focus on plant population biology, reproductive ecology and germination success), I've not really been prone to undue concern about genetically-modified organisms, particularly plants, although I'm worried about the potential for gene escape to wild populations (quite a real possibility), both in plants and animals.

I'm also aware that humans have been genetically modifying crop plants for millenia, through traditional plant breeding, including hybridization. So I'm not willing to think "genetic modification" is necessarily bad.

The current reality is that there are few, if any, GMO seeds available to home gardeners in the U.S.  

In the US, if you're eating any sort of processed food that includes corn, soy, or beet sugar, you're probably eating food made from plants grown from GMO seed, unless you're eating all organic food.

No, I'm not happy about genetically-engineering plants to be herbicide-resistant or include Bt, both which seem to have become quite popular among industrial-scale farmers (presumably for production and yield reasons, not just because they're available, as they're certainly not cheaper than alternative seeds). I'm a life-long environmentalist and grew up concerned about the impacts of industrial chemicals, not to mention pesticides and herbicides.

These (big-ag) farmers, growing commodity crops like corn, sugar beet, and soybeans, are producing crops with plenty of inputs, and I'm willing to entertain the suggestion that they're reducing herbicide use and minimizing tilling and its related energy costs (and saving money) by using GMO seeds.

Yes, I wish those farms were more like the diversified family farms that my friends grew up on, than the ones that they describe today.

And yes, I'm all in favor of encouraging small farmers to re-energize our local food networks, and for home gardeners (and small-scale urban and suburban farmers) to incorporate more vegetables and livestock into their gardens and farms.

But what's surprising me as I look at seed catalog copy is how saying you're not selling GMO seeds has popped up as a marketing line, and how 'GMO', 'transgenic', and 'hybrid' are terms that are used without much precision.  And folks in programs are suspicious of GMO and hybrid seeds without really knowing much about them, and what we're actually eating, from a home garden or in a more processed-diet world.

This weekend, I received a new catalog (courtesy of my membership in Garden Writers Association, apparently) that included a Seed Watch card, a riff based on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch card.

It was clever, but I'm thinking really?

Best choices were your own saved seeds, and locally grown open-pollinated, non-hybrid and heirloom seeds.  Good alternatives included regionally-grown open-pollinated, non-hybrid seeds.  Finally, they say, "avoid" F1 hybrids, treated seeds (I agree with that), GMO seeds, 'Big Box' seed rack seeds, and industrially-produced "One Size-Fits-All" seed from large corporate seed companies.  Hmmm.

This seems to be a bit overwritten.

None of the seed companies that are represented in my catalog selections or on the seed racks of the big box stores that I visit can really be described as "large corporate seed companies" in any sort of pergorative sense.  Burpee?  They've been around a long time as a reputable seed company and their president, George Ball, seems like a reasonably devoted fellow to what is essentially his family business, and I've had excellent success growing their seeds.  Ferry-Morse?  Their seeds seem fine, too.  OK, I don't really know where the hybrid seeds (for many resistant varieties) are actually produced (I hope most are in the US, but undoubtedly, some are elsewhere in the world).

I'm aware of the consolidation of the agricultural seed market into fewer large companies that would seem comfortable (wholesale seed producer Seminis, which was acquired by Monsanto a couple of years ago, has (as a source of seeds) been controversial among home gardeners because of that.  Johnny's, for example, has dropped Seminis seed as a source for their catalog.

Hmm, natural gardening is the focus of what I do in my garden, and I practice this every day.  Am I worried about using some hybrid seed in my vegetable garden?  No.  Do I like to grow open-pollinated varieties of seed?  Yes.

But I do like the viewpoint of Rob Johnston, founder of Johnny's seeds, in a recent piece in the NY Times.  He asked (more or less) whether you'd like to be driving a Studebaker today instead of a more modern car (that's safer, etc. etc.)  and think about the seed equivalents.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A warm winter

January 2012 was among the top ten warmest winters we've had in the contiguous United States, since weather data has been kept.  Not a surprise around here.

A blueberry in our kitchen garden next to the Discovery Center was in full flower this afternoon, and the ornamental cherries planted in the Highway 76 median going into Clemson, SC are (almost) in full flower. I don't know which species/cultivar they are, but they're probably more closely related to the Prunus mume (Japanese apricot) cultivars that have been flowering for over a month in the botanical garden (where I work).

Cooler temperatures are predicted for this weekend (geez, this is our winter story this year).

Light freezes tonight and tomorrow, a bit higher, then BLAST, down into the low 20°s, then back up to much higher temperatures.

Of course, warm spells in the South are nothing new, and we're experiencing the vagaries of the La Niña weather cycle, which suggests that we'll continue to have above average temperatures here in the Southeastern U.S., according to NOAA/National Weather Service predictions.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Full moon and frog calls

The full moon crept up on me this month. Normally I'm paying a bit more attention, but tonight it's glorious, and I had the thought that it would have been a nice evening for a full moon hike. Normally it would have been too chilly to be much fun!

It's been warm enough to start thinking about frog calls, too, and recent offerings of Frogwatch training at the Greenville Zoo reminded me to start boning up.  One of our Master Naturalist volunteers attended last weekend and said it was excellent.

Full moon (November, 2010) (click to read the post)
Just for fun, I searched for previous posts with the label "night sounds" and came up with this result.  It turned out to be an excellent reminder about what to start think about in the coming season.  And I noticed that I did a Feb. 9 night hike a couple of years ago, too, and noted the mild evening.  Hmm.

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Monday, February 6, 2012

Changing climate and phenology

My colleague Sue Watts made a thoughtful post on our What's Happening at the Gardening blog this weekend.

She saw native Hepatica and Viola flowers (quite early, but not unexpected). But what was surprising was that  Oconee Bells (Shortia galacifolia: a rare native) was also starting to flower, well over a month before we normally see it.

Undoubtedly it's connected to the warm soil temperatures that I noted before, combined with warmer than normal air temperatures, too.  We live in a changing world.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sowing early greens

In the satellite garden, soil temperatures were around 50°F. Encouraged (and it was another beautiful spring-like day),  I went ahead and tucked my early sprouting potato experiments into previously amended soil and covered them with a thick layer of straw. It'll be interesting to see what the results are.

Further emboldened by the sunshine and warm temperatures (what, worry that it's only Feb. 5, hmm), I proceeded to do a bit of final prep in the main vegetable garden beds, and made a first sowing of spinach, lettuce, mâché, turnips and beets. Hey, that's what succession planting is about, and I have PLENTY of seeds....

I'd amended all of the blocks in the fall with plenty of compost, so all they needed was a bit of loosening up.

Main vegetable garden blocks after final prep

what the soil actually looks like (the camera saw redder beds in the photo above)
The soil temperature in these blocks is probably closer to 45°F, as they're shadier in winter, but it should be OK for germination of these cool-season vegetables. This post reminded me of the range of germination temperatures for different veggies.

Whether we get some final blasts of winter before spring is actually here  -- well, I'd better order some floating row cover fabric.

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Early spring flowers

Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is flowering outside my study window.  It's early, but it's normally one of the first native 'wildflowers' to bloom in late winter.  I actually saw a few flowers in early December this season.

March 2009
Looking back, I see that I noted seeing a few flowers in late January, 2010 and abundant flowers in late March, 2009.

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Spring-like temperatures

It was supposed to hit 69°F today (my car showed 71°F this afternoon). 

This is a temperature for March, not early February, but nonetheless it was welcome. 

It's hard not to enjoy mild winters, even if they're exhibiting the extremes that we expect from global climate change.  (I'm thankful we're not experiencing the current extremely low temperatures in Moscow, for example!)

SE native plants aren't yet responding unusually early yet, in my observations, but Mt. Cuba Center, in Delaware, in their e-newsletter, reports a few early blooming bluets and early blooming shrubs.  They've had an unusually mild winter, too.

I'll be keeping track of the peas, spinach, and lettuce that I've sown already.  Hmm... Way too early, or maybe I'll be lucky.  We'll see.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Gardening with natives

In the roughly 18 years that my gardening companion (aka my spouse Tim Spira),  and I have lived in the Piedmont, our home landscape has undergone a significant transformation, largely through planting SE native trees, shrubs, and perennials arranged in informally-arranged "habitats"  -- woodland, meadow, edges, and shrub borders, loosely modeled after regional plant communities.

This hasn't been a restoration project, but it has certainly gone a long way towards restoring the ecology of our landscape (initially inspired by Sara Stein's book, Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards), described in this post) and our own inclinations as plant ecologists.

I frequently use our experiences to illustrate points in gardening programs and classes; by simply converting lawn to woodland, adding shrub layers and borders, and increasing habitat diversity with meadow planting, we've created a wildlife-friendly garden that's reasonably ecologically-balanced, and definitely full of resident birds, butterflies, dragonflies, etc.

Seeing the before images (some appear on the sidebar) always reminds me of what we started with, and how different it is today.  It wasn't welcoming at all, when we moved in, either for us or for wildlife.  A link to one of my gardening for nature presentations is on the sidebar, too.

So it was fun to have Tim (author of Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachians and Piedmont) join me on Clemson University Radio Productions Your Day gardening call-in program. The link will take you to this week's program page.

We talked about gardening with natives, regional plant communities, wildflowers, and the process of gardening for nature from an ecological point of view.  It was an interesting conversation.  Listen in for a bit (via the archived link).  I was glad that we were able to encourage some folks to add native plants to their landscapes.

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