Monday, August 2, 2010

Rhythms of Life

As a natural gardener, I strive for low maintenance. In the last few weeks, I have neglected both my garden and this blog after my husband had a heart attack. I even stopped refilling the bird feeder and bird bath for a couple of weeks. Nothing seemed to matter except caring for him.

Fortunately, the small half-sun vegetable garden was well-enough established by mid-June to survive neglect. Sungold and Sweet Million cherry tomatoes ripen by the dozens. And today I harvested a bowlful of Roma tomatoes, which will turn into sauce tomorrow.

Slowly, my interest in the garden has returned. It’s calming to watch a catbird splash joyfully in the birdbath. The cardinals and finches chase each other off the bird feeder. The ruby-throated hummingbird darts from salvias to annuals in pots, always in a hurry. The swallowtail butterflies flock to the Joe Pye weed. Today I saw six at one time on the small patch along the street. The rhythms of life continue, and when I slow down and watch, I see all’s right in the world.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Of Butterflies and Weeds

The bright orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is one of the most beautiful plants flowering in my garden. As I backed out of the driveway yesterday, I spotted an orange butterfly, perfectly mimicking the orange of the flowers, sipping nectar. It flew off when I got out of the pickup in an attempt to identify it (monarch and viceroy butterflies are the two most likely candidates). Later, I saw a spicebush swallowtail feeding on the butterfly weed.
It pleases me to think that the many types of native perennials and shrubs I've planted (including spicebush) are providing food for caterpillars and nectar for butterflies. Monarch butterflies, for example, breed exclusively on milkweeds, of which butterfly weed is one.

Butterfly weed has another appealing attribute - it likes poor soil with no mulch, fertilizer, or need for supplemental water.  I planted mine three years ago, never watered it after the first year, and it blooms beautifully.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Veto on Wrens

Sigh. I notice today that the umbrella has disappeared from the corner of the back porch, and the Carolina wrens' nest with it. The culprit, my husband, explained, "They were making a mess, those wrens." Neatness prevails over nature.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Carolina Wrens' Umbrella Nest

Today's dilemma: Do I let the Carolina wrens continue building a nest on top of the table umbrella? We hadn't used the umbrella since Friday, and by Sunday, I noticed that wrens carrying twigs and leaves were busy flying into the ficus tree on the back porch, then hopping upwards into the corner of the eaves.

A peek outside the door revealed a nest under construction. I give the wrens high marks for energy (as always) but rather a low grade for nest design. It looks like a small, sloppy leaf pile. Perhaps wrens prefer comfort to style. A quick look in Charlotte Hilton Green's "Birds of the South" confirms the impression - the author notes that "wren families have been raised in the pockets of old coats, in old cups, broken gourds, discarded basins."
As I write this, I realize I already am attached to the idea of the wrens nesting there. I adore Carolina wrens.  Fearless and curious, they investigate everything new in the yard. They seem to have an affinity for anything man-made - shoes, buckets, garden tools, rain barrels. An open shed door is an invitation to enter.

An attractive brown with yellow breast, the Carolina wren usually has an upturned tail as it perches or hops around investigating. I often identify its singing simply by sheer volume - as the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology says, it has "one of the loudest songs per volume of bird." It seems to have dozens of different songs, which it sings like a stage pro, with head thrown back and beak opened wide.

So I'll make the trade - lunches on the back porch in the shade of the umbrella for the pleasure of watching these little birds raise a family. Not too difficult a decision, as rains of the last week produced a side effect - mosquitoes.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Piedmont Spring

Spring has come, with life emerging from the soil beneath dead leaves and branches bare just days ago. Each day brings subtle changes in the swelling buds of trees, coloring the hillsides in red and beige and palest green. One day the understory in the woods is bare. A day later viburnums and buckeyes display the delicate green of tiny new leaves.

Magenta buds cluster along the crooked branches of redbuds. Trout lilies swim in thousands down the slopes near the creeks, showing speckled blue-green leaves and tiny pale yellow flowers facing down. Daffodils shout spring in the suburbs; trout lilies whisper the resurrection of life in the Piedmont woods.

Windflowers sway in the breeze sweeping along the creek, tiny and white, sized for fairies. Spring - fleeting, faithful, miraculous.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Bluebirds and Winter's End

One of the pleasures of winter in the South is the grace of spring days that appear ahead of season. Sunday was one of those days of blue sky, soft air and warm sun, the more exquisite for its rarity in an unusually cold February. The natural world here registers the call of the warming sun before the calendar does. The early daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths began pushing through the soil and broke ground a couple of weeks ago. Birds are singing again, announcing their presence as nesting season approaches.

A pair of bluebirds diligently shops for homes. They perch on the roof, peering at the former hole in the gutter (patched) where they nested two seasons ago. They go in and out of the hole high up in the house’s cedar siding where they raised babies last year. I buy them a bluebird box and mount it 6 feet high on a pine tree outside the dining room window. Within four hours, the bluebirds discover it. The male goes in first, while the female perches on the rim of the hole.

The bluebirds are careful house shoppers. They return again and again for inspections. They perch on nearby branches, assessing the neighborhood. They check out the birdbath and land on the feeder, flying away after discovering nothing but sunflower seeds.

Yesterday the bluebirds began defending the box. The male drove away a white-breasted nuthatch pecking on the tree outside the box. The female darted out of the  box to chase another female bluebird that had landed on the outside of the hole.

I haven’t yet seen the birds gathering materials for a nest. It’s the end of February and the cold has not yet receded. But nature is quietly preparing for the burst of life in spring.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Little Flower

One plant has bloomed quietly for weeks at the darkest time of the year. Its first pure white flower, shyly turned away from the sun and angling downward, appeared just before Christmas. It bloomed patiently through the frigid cold of early January. Even now, it has one bud waiting to open.

This little plant is Helleborus niger, or Christmas rose, a relative of the more common Lenten rose. If it bloomed amid the profusion of spring or early summer, I probably would not much notice the little flower. But in January it is a reminder that the garden is still alive and a testament to the variety of life.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Winter Walks

Winter walks bring subtle joys. Today, my first ever sighting of a pileated woodpecker, crested head bobbing rhythmically as it knocked at a beech tree in the woods near Bolin Creek.

Tree trunks dominate the January woods, with nothing green except for scattered patches of Christmas ferns. I couldn’t resist embracing a giant beech next to the creek. My arms reached just halfway around it.

I am grateful for the patches of woods that remain in the Chapel Hill area for woodpeckers and people to enjoy.