Saturday, March 31, 2012

Spring in the mountains

Throughout the Eastern U.S, we've had a mild winter and very early spring.  The mountains of Western North Carolina weren't an exception, with native woodland wildflowers flowering several weeks ahead of 'normal.'

On the last day of March, dogwoods are in full flower, redbuds are mostly passed, and native azaleas and Japanese azaleas are starting to be in full flower.  Tulips, Spanish bluebells, and other early spring stalwarts are well-along.

In front of our small house in the mountains, variegated tulips alternate with emerging Heuchera, flowering Aquilegia (Eastern Columbine) and Stylophorum (Wood Poppy).

Tulips and friends, end of March 2012
The sedum bed looks great, emerging from a winter 'rest.'

Sedum bed and front edges (end of March 2012)
An excursion to Biltmore this afternoon (aside from the fabulous tulip display, already in full swing -- Festival of Flowers is scheduled to begin on April 6), yielded wonderful views from the South Terrace. It's amazing that the view (this is just a small window) is remarkably free of development -- thanks to George Vanderbilt and his descendents, who have carefully 'preserved the view' that is the legacy of Biltmore Estate.

view from Biltmore's South Terrace

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tomato pollination and saving tomato seeds

A call on our Clemson University Your Day radio program today had me thinking about tomato pollination again.  Do they self-pollinate, the caller asked?  "Can I save seeds from heirloom tomatoes" was a follow-up question.

Tomatoes are variable -- my later Google searches reminded me.  Yes, breeders have tried to develop varieties that self-pollinate rather than requiring pollination.  But, what I remembered about greenhouse varieties needing sonic vibration or bumblebees for pollination (and good fruit production) was right, too.

Bees definitely visit tomato flowers in the garden, so if you're wanting to save seeds of a particular open-pollinated variety, certainly, many seeds will result from self-pollination (there are lots of seed in a single tomato, derived from fertilization from multiple pollen arrivals), but there may be cross-pollinated seeds, too, in the mix.

To ensure a single variety, you can always bag a cluster of flowers, shaking them (gently) during flowering to make sure that pollination occurs, and collect seeds from those fruit.

It was interesting that we had a number of calls from folks wanting to save seeds from their vegetable gardens, and at least one caller wanting to avoid GMO seeds (they're not at this point available for purchase by home gardeners, so aren't really a current concern), although many excellent seed companies make it seem like it's a possibility in their catalogs and websites.

I posted on the topic of seeds (GMO, open-pollinated, and hybrids) in mid-February. 

It's interesting that I'm getting pieces from seed companies (via being a member of Garden Writers Association), clarifying seed origins this spring, and we're getting calls asking about GMO's and seed saving.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012


It's definitely here.  Achoo!  Oak catkins are overlapping with yellow buckeye flowers, and the explosion in growth of winter annuals has me lamenting the weed-whacking skills and mowing skills of my gardening companion here in the Piedmont.

He's on a mission documenting wildflowers along routes to waterfalls for his next book (largely in the mountains of Western North Carolina).  So he's absent in the gardening-care department. Lovely for him, as an early spring is meaning field work NOW is essential.

But I'm thinking I need to learn how to mow grass with our (darn) riding lawn mower.  Ugh. 

I've used a gasoline push lawn mower a couple of times (back in Georgia) when we were going back and forth for awhile. Hmm.  So, I'm quite spoiled in the lawn care department, I guess.  Our dogs (over the years) have loved the small patches of lawn that we have --  excellent ball-throwing territories.

Weed-whacking is another issue.  I need a small-sized weed whacker that I can actually use (not the tall gas-guzzling ones that I can barely carry, much less use: Tim is fine with the one we have, but it's not something that's easy for me to use).  Hey, I'm 5 ft., 2 in., ~ 110 lbs more or less -- uh, hello, gardening-tool folks, we're out here!

OK, I'm trying to clean up the landscape in front and behind the fence right now, and wishing that I had some help (absent my gardening companion).  Perhaps I'll be calling my neighbor who's in the landscaping business!

P.S.  You wouldn't want to see images for this post!

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A wonderful night sky

I'd heard about the juxtaposition of Venus, Jupiter, and the moon a couple of weeks ago, I think. I've been noticing the crescent moon and the various orientation of the two bright planets in the clear (low humidity) night skies over the last few days. 

Tonight, it's quite evident, but the planets aren't above the horizon (enough) even now to get a decent shot.

Earth and Sky posted this explanation of what we're seeing today,  along with this diagram.  Check it out!

From Earth and (3/27/2012)

My dad (in Texas) took this shot a couple of days ago and sent it around -- it's a different orientation, but shows the crescent moon and the two planets quite nicely. (Click to get the full-size image).

Crescent moon and night sky, Austin, 3/25/2012

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Monday, March 26, 2012

A first hummingbird

Looking out the study window late this afternoon, I saw the first ruby-throated hummingbird for this spring.  It was visiting open Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) flowers to the right of the window.

March 30, 2009 view (click on the photo for some recent thoughts about Carolina jessamine).
I couldn't tell if it was a male or not because of the backlit view (probably it was a male.

But exciting to see.  I've been waiting since March 17, when I saw that the maps indicated sightings north of here.

Looking back, I've posted about first hummingbird sightings on April 26, 2010, April 13, 2008, and April 12, 2009, along with lots of other posts about ruby-throated hummingbirds.

The coral honeysuckle (all four plants) in our garden are in full flower,

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Red-bellied woodpeckers and black oil sunflower seeds

We've frequently seen a male red-bellied woodpecker visiting our platform feeder in the mountains, along with lots of other regular feeder birds. 

This afternoon, it was continuous multiple visits.  Swoop, snag a seed, back to the cherry, peck, peck, consume?   Swoop back and repeat....

Red-bellied woodpeckers like black oil sunflower seeds, and the behavior we saw certainly was consistent with thinking that he was using the tree crevices to 'hold' the sunflower seed while he pecked through the shell and consumed the seed.  But red-bellied woodpeckers also cache seeds in crevices in tree bark, too, for later consumption.

My photos aren't particularly sharp (taken from quite a distance with a Nikkor 18-200 lens on my old workhorse D100 camera), but check out this video on YouTube ( for a nice look at a red-bellied woodpecker in action eating sunflower seeds.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Front door view

Spring has exploded.  The oaks are in full flower (achoo! and a stuffy nose).

But the sedums in front of the house and the first stirrings in the pocket garden (a Senecio spp.) are glorious.

Sedum and Senecio

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Expanded buds

A visit to Biltmore's spring garden found me enjoying early tulips, forysthia in full flower, and expanded buds of a variety of native azaleas and rhododendrons.

The light wasn't great for good photos as Woody and I were there in late morning.

An evergreen Rhododendron

A deciduous Rhododendron
I love the intricate, overlapping bud scales on these flower buds!

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A pileated woodpecker

At the base of the wooded ravine behind our house in the mountains, a large cherry tree fell last summer.

This afternoon, a bright flash of red alerted me to a woodpecker working near the old cherry's trunk, even though it was horizontal, not vertical.  The bird turned out to be foraging on a older downed tree, not the cherry.

Initially, I thought it would be a red-bellied woodpecker, as we've been seeing them frequently this winter. 

But, it turned out to be (through my camera lens and old-fashioned view finder) a male pileated woodpecker -- identifiable by his red 'moustache' stripe. (Click on the photo for a larger view).

Pileated woodpecker (male) foraging on downed log

Pileated woodpeckers mainly eat insects, especially wood-boring beetle larvae and carpenter ants. Click on the highlighted link to read more about pileated woodpeckers in All About Birds, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Eastern columbine

The first early flowers of Aquilegia canadensis (Eastern Columbine) have appeared in our Piedmont garden.  It's not in full flower, by any means, but this plant is well along.

Eastern Columbine, Piedmont SC, March 16
Aquilegia canadensis is another species that seems to be early this year, in a odd year full of juxtapositions of early and late flowers scrambled together.   I commented on Eastern Columbine being in full flower on April 11 last year.

In the mountains, the low is supposed to be 50°F tonight (the normal 'high' this time of year is about 59°F). 

Pleasant, of course, as the cherry trees are in full flower, along with all of the usual spring flowers -- just ahead of schedule, regardless of calendar spring being here this week.

But sobering, too, as the oddities of weather patterns that are driving this unusual warmth are grounded in ocean temperatures thousands of miles away.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Waiting for hummingbirds

The coral honeysuckle is well along; I noted the first open flowers on March 2 this year. This plant is looking pretty much in full flower, well ahead of schedule.  Last year, I posted a photo of this same plant in full flower at the end of April the previous year.  We have four -- the one in full dry sun is lagging behind the ones with a bit of shade, and the one outside the mud room door (in the shadiest spot) is just starting to flower.  But it's been one that has been outstanding in recent years (last year in particular).

Lonicera sempervirens next to the front gate
But the (very early male) hummingbirds are already being spotted, too -- check out the current map from Journey North to see what's happening today.  My coral honeysuckle flowers (Lonicera sempervirens) are ready for them.

This map was current on March 17, and notes a sighting in Raleigh, NC!  Wow!

Ruby-throated hummingbird sightings on Journey North, 3/17/2012

Another hummingbird tracking site at has similar data.

Click on both of these maps to get larger versions.

P.S. I'm really happy to be able to force my links to be green, instead of that generic blue.  Thanks, Blogger (aka Google).

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Carolina Jessamine

Gelsemium sempervirens (Carolina Jessamine) is the state flower of South Carolina.

It's an early flowering vine, producing nectar favored by early-emerging carpenter bees and Tiger Swallowtail butterflies (both have been visiting over the last couple of days. 

Carolina jessamine
I have one on a trellis outside my study window and it's amazing now.  The lower bit doesn't look like much (the dormant pipevine, Aristolochia macrophylla, is showing bare stems, at the moment).

This was the view then.  (My photo today blew out the view beyond!)  It's become much more prolific since, I realize.  It's big.

March 30, 2009 view

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

WARM weather

I took a look at my posts from last year in March today (before a live call-in gardening program) and saw that I'd remarked on unusually warm temperature at 75° F.

It was 80°F today in Clemson, SC.  Yikes.

And I heard on a public radio report that high temperature records had been broken all over the Eastern U.S yesterday, too.  I think it was 535 records+ that were broken.

OK, I'm enjoying all the normal spring flowering trees (the redbuds are glorious now), but it's definitely weird to have overlap between natives and ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials with scrambled flowering times.

My go-to source for predictions is the U.S. Climate Monitoring website -- lots of great (scientifically-based) information there.

There was a report on the radio this evening (SC-ETV public radio) about the high temperature records.  They also mentioned in this piece that a warmer and drier spring was predicted. Hmmm.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Woody's enjoying company

Woody has been trooping around Asheville, happy to be the center of attention.  And he's enjoying our visitors (my dad and his wife).

Woody and my gardening companion

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Drought and water use

There was an article in the paper this morning about continuing dry conditions in Upstate South Carolina. It reminded me - again - that water use for landscapes  may be problematic in the future.  The arrow on this map shows where I garden in the Piedmont. 

We're between abnormally dry and moderate drought.

Normally, we get around 50 inches of rain a year, spread evenly throughout the year, with a bit less in the late summer and fall.  But it's highly variable, and we came out of a decade-long extreme drought not that long ago, so the prospects are always worrisome.

I drafted a "Gardening Green" piece for the newsletter (from the botanical garden where I work) this morning about saving water in the landscape.

Aside from vegetables, which are water and nutrient hogs, it's hard to justify supplemental water for landscape plants, when there are so many great options that don't need extra water. Even if one can afford the cost of water, it doesn't seem right if you're trying to be a sustainable gardener.

In my piece, I mentioned traditionally-used 'Southern' plants such as Camellias and Crape Myrtles. These were introduced long before landscape irrigation was a common practice, so they're survivors, through dry times and wet. And, of course, there are a lot of drought-tolerant native trees and shrubs to choose from, too.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cool-season vegetables and warm winter weather

The warm late winter days this year promote the growth of leafy cool-season vegetables -- leaves of mustard, turnips, kale, and spinach have expanded rapidly with moisture and warmth.  Overwintered broccoli (and other cole crops) are flowering; the broccoli is still producing small, harvestable shoots, although their quality is a bit less that it would be if the weather had been cooler.

Seeds of lettuce, spinach, turnips sown a month ago have emerged now as sturdy seedlings, and hopefully will be making good growth, too, although dry weather is a problem.  It feels too early to bring out the hoses for the season (because we're still quite a long time away from our average 'last frost' date' and hose-damaging freezes, potentially).  But, it's heavy to lug the watering can around, no matter how much I think it's 'good exercise'!  Hmm.

It was 73°F in Clemson today, mild by any standards for March.  Not surprisingly, my gardening companion and Woody spotted a foraging woodchuck late yesterday afternoon below the satellite garden.  Mostly I just have garlic, onions and leeks there, with the kale and mustards barricaded under the plastic on my bamboo hoops.  Here's a view from a post in late January of the deployed deterrents, initially because of squirrels.

my set-up in a photo from early February
Maybe the various wire cages and supports will deter a woodchuck?
I guess I'd better see what I can do to relocate or deter my unwelcome visitor, who will be undoubtedly interested in foraging on fresh cilantro, spinach, and beets in the main vegetable garden.

Or maybe Woody, unlike our previous two Goldens, will chase woodchucks?  He's particularly good at chasing squirrels.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sassafras flowers are opening

I caught my first glimpse of opening sassafras flowers, sitting outside on our white chairs at lunch today (the white chairs are a favorite spot in spring and fall, as a porch alternative).  The flowers aren't yet fully open, but well along.

In full flower, they're wonderful.  It's a totally underused native tree in our Southern US landscapes - there are separate male and female trees, with their flower clusters looking quite similar.

Sassafras in flower
I've commented on sassafras before (a blog search brought up a number of interesting comments), but this post (from April 8, 2010) showed how beautiful they are in flower.  And this one commented on their fruits, valuable for migrating birds.

Sassafras also have attractive fall leaves (they turn a lovely yellow-gold to dark orange color).

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

A robust trout lily

Erythronium americanum (Trout lily)
Most of the trout lilies in the Woodland Wildflower Garden (at the South Carolina Botanical Garden) haven't flowered this year, following two summers of excessive drought and heat.  But this one was an exception, in full flower today.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Coral honeysuckle

The coral honeysuckle plants are loaded with flower buds, and have the first open flowers.  I noticed that I saw the first open flowers at the same time last year (Mar. 2), but used a photo from a post from a previous year (when they were in full flower in late April).  Here it is again.  Lovely, don't you think?

mid-April Lonicera sempervirens
So where's my current photo, you might ask? 

My gardening companion has 'borrowed' 'my' versatile 18-200 lens to test (a very nice anti-vibration lens that I've been using on my old workhorse Nikon D100) and offered up the (very nice, too) Panasonic Lumix that he's been using, which has excellent optics, too, and that we started using while traveling, and he's kept using, instead of his (very nice) Nikon digital (with a macro lens).

Well, no, I'm thinking, not being one to embrace too much digital change at once (I'm currently trying to learn the various options for creating ebooks), but he's needing a lens to take mid-distance photos of waterfalls and plant communities, so I'd better be a good sport, I guess. (He also borrowed my previous lens to test, also a versatile one).  I like the 18-200 for its zoom abilities. 

I'm not a natural camera geek, but I suppose I could play around with the Panasonic!  My gardening companion has taken some fabulous photos with it.  I'm just used to looking through my view finder, not on the LCD 'screen.' 

Digital photography has been a wonderful addition to my observations of nature and gardens, so I'm happy about that!

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