Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Part 1: Haste in the Garden

Japanese maple "Shadow's Select"
It all started in mid-April with the craving for a Japanese maple. Never mind the old vow that I would not plant trees and shrubs in the spring. In our hot summers, new transplants need life support, and even with regular watering, they often die. It was almost Easter – what better to celebrate resurrection (and the grace of my husband’s survival of nearly a year since a major heart attack) than a new tree?

In my mind, I could see the heat coming. We were about to leave for a vacation in Florida. This tree must be found and planted. Now. So I visited a local nursery that specializes in Japanese maples and picked out a specimen. In talking with the nursery employee about growing conditions for Japanese maples, I admitted that the site I had in mind wasn’t ideal– hard clay under the canopy of a huge pine tree. If lucky, I would be able to dig four to six inches into the clay without hitting tree roots.  

No problem. I would build a “volcano” of rich, loose soil on top of the clay hardpan. Never mind my typical scorn of the proliferation of city trees planted on such volcanoes as installations, not gardening. The craving for the Japanese maple was overwhelming.

The nursery employee recommended the compost at the city landfill. He said it was made by a reputable contractor whom I had heard composted food scraps from restaurants and cafeterias. It was raining hard when I arrived at the landfill, so I didn’t bother to get out of the truck and inspect the compost.

The next day, filled with anticipation of a ceremonial tree-planting, I began shoveling the compost out of the truck. I picked up a handful of compost and inhaled. It smelled like an ashtray. Sharp, bitter, and not at all earthy. I inspected the compost more closely. It was black and loose, but drier and lighter than usual. Then I saw shreds of the kind of orange mulch popular with gas stations. As my plan was to put most of the compost on the vegetable garden after planting the Japanese maple, I was disturbed.  Just what had I bought?

What to do with a truck full of bad compost?
Now I had a pickup truck full of sour-smelling compost that I was not too eager to add to my garden. As a dedicated organic gardener, I am convinced that a healthy garden starts with healthy soil.  In an agony of indecision, I delayed the tree planting. 

I love soil. I love touching the earth with my hands. I often garden without gloves, just because I like the feel of the soil. I like to see worms squirming in the soil when I pick up a clump. This compost was lifeless. Every day I smelled it, hoping that the cigarette butt odor would have dissipated and been replaced, magically, with the smell of sweet earth.  Meanwhile, I drove around town for a week with a pickup truck full of compost, mentally kicking myself to giving in to the desire for instant gratification. 

It’s not a bad thing to want a Japanese maple. But why was I in such a rush? I’ve been trying hard to live a simpler life and get away from the consumer mentality that is so destructive to the earth. I try to slow down, to evaluate whether I really need something before I purchase it. I seek to live by nature’s rhythms and not be ruled by desire. If I had waited to plant the tree in the fall, our composted kitchen scraps would have been ready to amend the soil. As punishment, I ended up stuck with a truck full of suspect compost.  

P.S. The tree is doing beautifully. 

Tomorrow: Part 2 - I learn some disturbing things about commercial compost. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Cicada Wrestling Match

For days, I looked for the 13-year cicadas (magicicada). I heard them singing in the distance. The cicadas appeared on the news after viewers reported a persistent buzzing noise that sounded like aliens landing. Supposedly these cicadas were everywhere, en masse, emerging from the ground to attract a mate, lay eggs and disappear underground for another 13 years. A phenomenon both fascinating and creepy.

So why weren't they emerging in my garden? I didn't particularly want to see large numbers of them crawling on my plants, like in this Missouri garden. Yet I have deliberately formed my garden to be attractive to insects because insects are vital parts of a healthy ecosystem and the staple of most birds' diets. So where were they?

My first sighting was a little disappointing - a dead cicada in the road. The round black body, huge red eyes and translucent wings are key identifiers.

Yesterday I noticed the juvenile bluebird was back. I hadn't seen it in days and worried it had fallen prey to a cat or crow. The bluebird was hopping on the ground. And what did it have in its beak? A cicada!

At first the bluebird carried the cicada about. 

Then it began moving and twisting its head while banging the cicada on the railroad tie. I couldn't figure out what it was doing - was the big cicada proving too much for the bluebird to swallow?

The juvenile bluebird clearly knew just what to do. Only the torn off wings remain in the photo below.

Watching birds is far far better entertainment than TV ...

Friday, May 27, 2011

Copperhead: Don't Tread on Me

Yesterday, at the start of a walk in the woods, I tripped on a root and fell, twisting my ankle. For the rest of the walk, I was more cautious than usual, keeping my eyes on the path. That was fortunate. 
I saw the copperhead before I stepped on it. 

The copperhead slithered from the path in front of me and lay motionless in the dead leaves under an oak sapling, with its head about an inch from the path. I am not all that afraid of snakes. Although I wasn't eager to test the copperhead by continuing on the path, I didn't want to turn back. 

My first impulse was to photograph it, from what I thought was a safe distance of three feet away. 

I have wondered lately if photography is becoming an obsession. This was confirmed when I caught myself wishing the copperhead had not chosen to conceal itself in such difficult light conditions (it gets an A+ for camouflage, though).  And when I wished that I had the courage to move directly in front of the copperhead so that I could capture its entire body in the frame. 

Later, safe at home, I learned the following:
  • Copperheads are large snakes, tan to brown in color, with distinctive dark brown markings in an hourglass shape and a triangular copper-colored head. They are usually 24 to 40 inches long.
  • Copperheads are found throughout most of the eastern United States. They prefer deciduous open woodlands and locations near water, but also can be found in suburban areas in some cities.
  • The snakes freeze when they sense a threat. They rarely attack people unless provoked. Many bites occur when people inadvertently step on them.  
  • Copperhead bites are almost never fatal, but are extremely painful and have long-lasting effects. Herpetologists advise that the best way to avoid a copperhead bite is to leave them alone.
  • They are pit vipers, which means they detect prey through infrared sensors located in pits on their head. The snakes dine on rodents (including voles!), lizards, amphibians, birds, and insects.
For more information on copperheads, click here.

If you liked this post, you may want to check out Southern Meadows' recent post on snakes.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Gardenias and Mosquitoes

One sure sign mosquitoes are getting bad? They start creeping into your photos. 

It seems that Asian tiger mosquitoes like gardenias, too.
Gardenias and mosquitoes tend to come out at about the same time in our garden, prompted by warm, humid nights. I'm still adapting to the sudden jump to mid-90s summer temperatures. But the fragrant gardenias are a compensation. The gardenia pictured above is Kleim's Hardy, hardy to zone 7 and the earliest to bloom in our garden.

Monday, May 23, 2011


As long as there are bluebirds, there will be miracles and a way to find happiness. ~ Shirl Brunnel

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Veggie Gardening in Part Sun

You can grow many edibles in part sun. It took me years to figure this out -as a new gardener, I devoured the articles in gardening magazines and diligently followed whatever the experts said. I would read about heirloom lettuce or how to grow beans, and in my imagination, I was already cutting “claret-splashed, bright green” lettuce leaves and serving tender steamed heirloom green beans. My fantasies burst with the inevitable words: “needs full sun.” The sunniest part of our yard gets direct sun from noon to 3 p.m., well short of the six hours of sunlight called full sun.

The woodland vegetable garden

Cherry tomatoes, planted last week.
Like many people who live in older neighborhoods with established trees, full sun is a dream. You don’t get much sunlight when your house is surrounded on all sides by 50- to 60-foot-tall trees. But my husband wanted a vegetable garden, and two years ago, we stopped listening to the experts. We dug up an oval-shaped patch of weedy “lawn” in a clearing on the south side of the house, added lots of compost to improve the clay, and began experimenting.

Probably the biggest surprise was that cherry tomatoes do quite well in part sun in our North Carolina garden. We’ve grown “Sun Gold” and “Sweet Million,” both of which produced so prolifically that we had extras to give to neighbors. Last year I tried Roma tomatoes, which ripened into several batches of tomato sauce.

Free bamboo makes nice tepees for pole beans.
The general rule seems to be that plants that flower and grow large “fruit,” such as large tomatoes, squash, cucumber, melons, etc. do require full sun. But we’ve had success with smaller vegetables such as peas and bush beans. This year, we’re trying two different varieties of pole beans.

Greens thrive in part sun in our Zone 7B garden. Swiss chard has become my favorite green. It’s beautiful, with its bright red, yellow or orange stems and survives both summer heat and winter cold. If you cut only the largest leaves, it will produce for months. We plant collards and kale in the fall.  Although they stop growing during the shortest days, they survive brief periods of snow cover and are ready for harvest by March. I almost forgot the lettuce - I think it may prefer part shade in the South.

Last, but not least, many herbs do well in part shade. I don’t know what we’d do without them – they’re especially valuable as flavor because my husband is on a low-sodium diet. We use them in almost every meal except breakfast. Parsley and oregano thrive with almost no care. Even with almost daily use, our two parsley plants grow faster than we can cut them. Our basil plants grew four feet tall last summer. Rosemary also has grown well in part shade. I just planted thyme and tarragon and look forward to seeing how they do.

One thing I know: I’m having a lot more fun as a gardener (and eating better!) since I started experimenting with the vegetable garden.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Walk in the Woods

A path along New Hope Creek.

When we first moved to Chapel Hill eight years ago, we were eager to discover the natural beauty of the North Carolina Piedmont. We consulted guidebooks and were delighted to find hikes along rivers and rocky outcrops within an hour and a half's drive. It took us a couple of years to realize that there were beautiful trails just a few minutes away. Most of them are located in patches of undeveloped woodlands along creeks.

One recent day, distracted by too many tasks, I headed to Duke Forest late in the afternoon. The woods were fragrant with the smell of flowers and damp earth. Birds were flitting about, chirping. All I saw at first was undifferentiated greenness. Then, along the creek, a bright spot of yellow arrested me - a tiger swallowtail butterfly.

Tiger swallowtail butterfly
As I picked my way along the rocky path, I began noticing the bright greens, whites and blues of moss and lichen on rocks. The charming plants below are growing atop the moss on a boulder. Does anyone know what they are?

I have a special affection for plants growing on top of stones. They whisper to me, assuring me of the creativity and resilience of life.

Top left: Evergreen wild ginger  (Asarum shuttleworthii); Top right: Hepatica nobilis
Bottom right: Christmas fern
Small wildflowers shone with dots of color amidst the riot of green vegetation along the banks of the creek and side of the path. The fire pink (Silene virginica) is a beauty, don't you think? It's dainty (about the size it is in the photo) and finely crafted, with notches on each thin petal. Its stunning shade of scarlet attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds, which pollinate it.

Main photo: Silene virginica; Right bottom: Oenothera fruticosa
Around a bend, a tree-sized mountain laurel was in full bloom, with a carpet of snow-like petals covering the earth below.

Kalmia latifolia
I spent much longer than planned on the walk because of all the stops for photography. I had just turned off the camera when something skittered in the leaves. When I paused, it froze. I almost deleted the photo below because the subject was so well camouflaged.  

Where do you find natural beauty in your community? 

Where do you go to restore your soul?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Downy Woodpeckers

When I walked into the garden this morning, two downy woodpeckers were on the trunk of the large tulip poplar. They were so engaged with each other that they let me approach quite close. 

The woodpeckers were pecking at the trunk and hopping around.  I saw them jump toward each other and touch beaks, in what I thought might be a mating display. My bird book, however, tells me that males have a red patch at the back of the head, females have no red, and juveniles sometimes have red markings near the forehead. So it appears the male was feeding the young woodpecker.

Downy woodpeckers have stiff tail feathers to brace them as they cling to the bark of a tree, where they poke looking for insects. I'm amazed at how well the black-and-white markings camouflage the bird in the dappled sunlight on the trunk. They are by far the smallest of the woodpeckers (6 inches long) that visit the garden.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Be Still

"Listen and attend with the ear of the heart." 
                                                                                           - St. Benedict

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Miracle of Seeds

I woke up to a sky of dark clouds and air filled with smoke from fires in a distant wildlife refuge. The atmosphere matched my mood. I drifted from one thing to another, aimlessly. Then my husband said, "Didn't you say you were going to plant seeds?"  

"Blue Lake" bush bean seeds ready to be covered with soil.

As soon as I began poking my finger in the earth, I felt happy. The soil was moist and warm. I dropped the bean seeds in one by one, then tucked them in with earth and patted the soil with bare hands. I planted a second row of Swiss chard, my favorite summer green. It's easy to grow and lasts all summer if you keep cutting the leaves. 

Swiss chard tastes great, takes the heat and is ornamental, too.
When I began gardening, I lacked faith. I couldn't quite believe that these tiny, dry, odd-shaped objects called seeds could transform themselves into plants. In those days, I bought all my plants at the nursery, where I could see them and touch them as proof they were real.

 Now I love seeds, and prefer growing plants from seeds because I still can't get over the miracle. How does a dry little thing that sits in a paper packet for months or years know when its day comes? How do seeds know how to grow?

Monday, May 16, 2011

May: A Walk in the Garden

By mid-May, the leaves on the overstory oaks, hickories, sweetgums and poplars are fully grown. The garden looks green and lush from recent rains. The spring ephemerals have bloomed and gone to seed, and there's a lull before the summer perennials start blooming. Yet there's still a few plants in bloom, many of them native to the Southeast. One of my favorite shrubs stands out amidst all the green: Oakleaf hydrangea. It thrives in the dappled light of the understory.

 Hydrangea quercifolia

I obtained divisions of creeping phlox and penstemon last spring when volunteering doing plant maintenance at the UNC Botanical Gardens. I transplanted them in hot weather and wasn't sure they'd survive. I love it when plants once again prove my worries to be unfounded. 

Phlox stolonifera
I'm not sure what variety of penstemon this is. Do you know?
Evening primrose is a beautiful lemon color, perhaps my favorite yellow of all flowers. This volunteer surprised me during a walk through the garden. It is a growing under an ironwood sapling that I also "weeded" from the botanical garden. 

If you look closely, you can see pollen on the legs of the ant on this Oenothera fruticosa. 
I'm happy to see that Tiarella cordifolia is still blooming one month later. I find it difficult to capture the fairy-like charm of this little woodland perennial in photographs. 

The geraniums after five years have finally spread to make a charming edging to the walkway.

Geranium sanguineum 'Max Frei'
Here is a close-up of a mystery azalea that charms simply because it blooms long after other the flowers of other azaleas are a memory. 

Bumblebees spend the day crawling on the blooms of Magic Carpet spirea.

Spiraea bumalda 'Magic Carpet'
I raved about Confederate star jasmine in my post yesterday. 

Trachelospermum jasminoides

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Confederate Star Jasmine

It has small white flowers like stars or miniature pinwheels and shiny green oval leaves. Its sweet scent becomes more fragrant as evening approaches. Its flowers peak during the long days of May, in perfect time to perfume dinners on the deck before summer's mosquitoes drive us indoors. It's not native to the South, but I love it - confederate star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides).


Friday, May 13, 2011

Bluebirds Are Back!

On April 16, the bluebirds disappeared from the box. The day before their disappearance, the babies had become loud and lively. I heard scuffling sounds inside the box and saw little heads peeking out. Then, nothing. When I mentioned the missing bluebirds, a gardening friend said, "Do you think something got them?" I chose to believe they had fledged. Now, one month later, they're back. The box is once again a hub of bluebird activity.

Male bluebird brings an insect, while juvenile bluebird hangs out. 
The female seems to be spending more time in the box - I think she's sitting on a second set of eggs.

Bird's eye view (Female bluebird)
A young bluebird frequently accompanies one of the parents and sits on the box while they are busy inside. Young bluebirds from the first brood help the parents feed nestlings from the second brood, according to "Birds of the Carolinas." Perhaps mama and papa should cut down on junior's ration of insects. He appears to be larger than either of his parents. 

Junior: "Feed me!"  Mama: "Are you crazy? You're bigger than I am!"
Note to self: Remember to remove the window screen before photographing bluebirds!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Lettuce Surprise

Before we left for 10 days in Florida, I said goodbye to my spring lettuce patch. I cut all the leaves of the biggest leaf lettuces and made large tender-crisp salads. North Carolina is subject to heat waves starting in late April, and I expected the lettuce to dry up or bolt while we were gone.

So it was a pleasant surprise to walk through the garden upon returning and behold a patch filled with beautiful baby lettuces. 

Lettuce patch surrounded by hardware cloth to keep out rabbits.
The 'Lolla Rossa' red lettuces had matured to eating size and glowed wine-red.  Even the 'Red Sails' lettuces that I had cut before leaving grew three or four new leaves. I like it when the garden demonstrates it doesn't need me. 

Salad again tonight.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Brown Pelicans

Tomorrow I return to my natural habitat. Today we walked under warm sun on a soft white sand beach, gentle waves lapping. A brown pelican, intent on scooping small fishes from the ripples along the shore, looked like a messenger from an ancient world. 


Like ospreys and bald eagles, brown pelicans became endangered after the pesticide DDT worked its way into the food chain in the 50s and 60s. The Eastern brown pelican was removed from the federal endangered list in 2009.  The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 killed thousands of brown pelicans, once again placing the pelican in danger. Oil slicks destroyed favorite nesting grounds in Louisiana.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Ospreys and Man

We saw another osprey nest yesterday at Fort DeSoto Park, this time on a relatively deserted beach. The ospreys were nesting on an open manmade platform within a few yards of the Gulf of Mexico. The mother was on the nest with chicks that appeared half grown. She shrieked at me when I got close to take photos, but then ignored me. It was comforting to see these majestic birds raising their young in such an exposed location, seemingly without much fear of humans. 

Ospreys nest with chicks
Ospreys became endangered in the 1950s and 60s after the mosquito-killer DDT worked its way into the food chain. Ospreys, which almost exclusively eat fish, absorbed toxic amounts of the chemical, which resulted in thinning of eggshells. In some countries, such as Scotland, ospreys also were harassed by egg collectors, resulting in diminished populations.

Ospreys nest on a manmade platform adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico
But today the osprey is no longer endangered. Ospreys got a second chance when DDT was banned after Rachel Carson's publication of "Silent Spring," which documented the devastating effect the insecticide was having on birds. We see (and hear) them regularly both on the Gulf Coast of Florida and on the coast of Maine. Several times this vacation we've seen one fly past our building, claws outstretched and carrying a fish, presumably to feed youngsters. I have also seen one perched on a channel marker, leisurely eating a fish.

Ospreys need appropriate nesting sites to reproduce. They favor tall structures near water for their large nests of sticks. Manmade platforms specially built to attract ospreys have helped them make a comeback. But the birds also make creative use of other platforms, as you can see in the photo below, taken in Maine last fall.

Ospreys' nest on an old fishing boat, Chebeague Island, Maine
I am heartened to witness ospreys and humans coexisting peacefully. It's a success story I hope will be reproduced often.

For more information on ospreys:
Osprey World
Birds of North America - Osprey