Monthly Archives: December 2012

Starting the year with the Old Farmer

By | Day-to-Day | 45 Comments

I got the farmer’s almanac calendar this year, to replace 365 days of Songbirds, and having put it up today (a day early, fine) I have already learned several exciting things. And the writing is positively lyrical. There is a note informing me that

At New Year’s tide

The days lengthen a cock’s stride.

and on the 26th, the cryptic phrase:

Full Wolf Moon

The full moon eats clouds.

Then it segues into how Ben Franklin introduced kohlrabi to America. I have never actually read the Old Farmer’s Almanac, but I am starting to think that I have been missing out all these years, if this is the sort of thing you get!

(I am also irresistibly reminded of the Flathead Calendar from the Zork Zero packaging, which included such delights as “Pac Moon.” The number of people who get that reference are vanishingly small, but a surprising percentage, I would wager, read this blog.)

Twelfth Day of Christmas

By | Uncategorized | One Comment

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

twelve seed catalogs!

 

eleven no great big hawks!

…ten tufted titmice!

…nine frogs a-croaking!

…eight vultures circling!

…seven spiky yuccas!

…six types of milkweed!

…fiiiive! naaaative! plaaaaants!

…four hummingbirds!

…three moorhens!

…two mourning doves!

…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

 

Seed catalogs are the great glory and bane of my existence. I can sit in a hot bath with a cold bottle of cider and a seed catalog and not get out until the water is tepid and planting eight packets of forget-me-nots seems like a good idea. I highly recommend Prairie Nursery, Plant Delights, Niche Gardens and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalogs, but frankly, there are no BAD seed catalogs, just catalogs from bad companies.  (Spring Nursery, seriously, give it up.)

Our poor hero is getting pretty battered at this point, isn’t he? I promise it’ll come out all right in the end. But you probably should check back for the day AFTER Christmas, just to make sure…

Eleventh Day of Christmas

By | Birds | 3 Comments

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

eleven

ten

six

four

one

no great big hawks!

 

…ten tufted titmice!

…nine frogs a-croaking!

…eight vultures circling!

…seven spiky yuccas!

…six types of milkweed!

…fiiiive! naaaative! plaaaaants!

…four hummingbirds!

…three moorhens!

…two mourning doves!

…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

 

There are a couple of kinds of raptors locally—if you cross our local lake, you’ll see lots of osprey and the occasional bald eagle—but the only ones that come into our yard are red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks.

Of the two, red-shoulders are by far the more common, as they hunt inside forests. They’re a very maneuverable bird. (Mostly I see them because they’re being mobbed by crows, as they also blend into these dappled brown woods like you wouldn’t believe.) They come for prey—primarily frogs from the frog pond—but also for water when it’s very dry. So every now and again, I’ll be wandering past the windows downstairs and suddenly a massive shape will launch off the deck rail and I will realize that there was a hawk drinking from the birdbath.

This wakes you up very quickly.

Tenth Day of Christmas

By | Birds | 3 Comments

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

…ten tufted titmice!

…nine frogs a-croaking!

…eight vultures circling!

…seven spiky yuccas!

…six types of milkweed!

…fiiiive! naaaative! plaaaaants!

…four hummingbirds!

…three moorhens!

…two mourning doves!

…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

 

The tufted titmouse is one of my very favorite feeder birds, and not just because I’m twelve and still like saying “titmouse!” (Bwhaahah!) They’re one of the really common feeder birds in the eastern US and look like…well, like titmice. (Small gray and white cardinals is how I’d describe them to a non-birder, I guess.) They have little crests and big black eyes and they hoard food. In fall and winter, there is a constant stream of tufted titmice coming and going from the feeder with safflower seed to stash somewhere.

They don’t flock, per se, but hang about in pairs and trios, usually with Carolina chickadees. They’re also one of those birds who like to nest in cavities in trees, but can’t excavate their own. They use old woodpecker holes instead. I have on at least one occasion seen tufted titmice move into a tree-trunk cavity immediately after a red-bellied woodpecker has fledged.

Tufted titmice have raised multiple broods in my garden, generally averaging a fledgling or two a year. They’re very common and in no way endangered, but I’m still delighted to see them having babies locally. Makes me feel like we’re doing something right.

Ninth Day of Christmas

By | Animals | 3 Comments

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

…nine frogs a-croaking!

…eight vultures circling!

…seven spiky yuccas!

…six types of milkweed!

…fiiiive! naaaative! plaaaaants!

…four hummingbirds!

…three moorhens!

…two mourning doves!

…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

 

We have frogs here.

Most of the year we merely have a LOT of frogs. There is a stretch in spring, however, when the cricket frogs are hatching, where we have frogs in Biblical proportion, and I stop going out in the garden for a day or two because I will step on too many tiny amphibians.

The nine species so far found in the garden are Southern toads, Fowler’s toads, chorus frogs, the aforementioned cricket frogs (and don’t ask me if they’re Southern or Northern, because I am not a herpetologist.*) eastern pickerel frogs, bronze frogs, Gray’s tree frog, leopard frogs and spring peepers. (I have never actually seen a peeper, but boy, do we hear ’em. The real songsters, however, are the chorus frogs.)

Our pond is full primarily of bronze frogs, which are like small bullfrogs. Every now and then a leopard frog will come to the pond, but it’s primarily owned by bronze frogs, and they’re the ones who breed in it most enthusiastically.

The cricket frogs (who are teeny weeny little things) breed everywhere, but primarily in the drainage ditches and any standing puddles you may have lying around. Improving some of the garden’s standing water issues had to wait until the narrow window when they weren’t full of tadpoles—and we’ll see next year how successful I may have been there.

There are enough interesting frog facts to keep us here until the new year, so I won’t start in, except to say that having a frog pond is possibly the most fun I’ve had as a gardener.

 

*I’ve never even had a cold sore.

 

Eighth Day of Christmas

By | Birds | 2 Comments

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

…eight vultures circling!

…seven spiky yuccas!

…six types of milkweed!

…fiiiive! naaaative! plaaaaants!

…four hummingbirds!

…three moorhens!

…two mourning doves!

…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

 

Black vultures, Coragyps atratus, are native to my neck of the woods, with a range extending over most South America. We have tons of turkey vultures as well, but I had never encountered black vultures until I moved to North Carolina.

You can ID a black vulture quite easily in flight, as they have a different shape than turkey vultures and a large pale crescent at the end of each wing. They are—for vultures—quite charming. Most of the rehabbers I’ve talked to say that vultures rapidly become their favorite birds to work with, as they’re intensely social and capable of great affection. Black vultures usually live in family groups and you’ll often see the whole clan going after a roadkilled deer.

We had one—Vulture-Bob—perch on our house for a few days. Because we are terrible suckers, we worried that he might be hungry, but drew the line at setting out carrion. (We were also rather worried he’d vomit on the dog, this being their primary method of self-defense.) He left a few days later, but every few months, he—or someone like him—appears in the woods around the yard again, checking to make sure we have not died. So far we have not obliged.

Both Kevin and I now cannot pass a flock on the roadside without calling out “Hi, fellas!”  When I was driving across the southern US this last time, I didn’t start to feel like I was getting near home until I saw a black vulture (which wasn’t until somewhere around Mississippi.)

Yes, this is a weird thing to fixate on. I’m a birder. We do that.

 

Seventh Day of Christmas

By | plants | One Comment

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

…seven spiky yuccas!

…six types of milkweed!

…fiiiive! naaaative! plaaaaants!

…four hummingbirds!

…three moorhens!

…two mourning doves!

…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

 

Because it’s the internet, someone somewhere is already typing a comment informing me that the thing in the back is an agave.

Well, yes. I ran out of yuccas. So we’re going with “yuccas and plants sufficiently yucca-like as to make no difference to the layman.” Also, they’re all members of the Agavaceae family.

Yuccas are extraordinarily versatile plants. You’d think they grow only in deserts, but in fact, an extraordinary number grow here in the Southeast, which is about as far from a desert as you can get.

Some unknown yucca, for example, is growing right now on the edge of my pond…in moss. There is moss around the pond. There are yuccas sticking out of the moss. It is very weird and looks wrong, but the yucca seems happy so I am not interfering. (I got them as part of a six pack in the cactus & succulent section of Big Bloomers. It’s definitely some member of Clan Yucca, but I am unclear on the exact variety, since I lost the tag. I think it’s the straight species of Y. filamentosa, but I could be wrong.)

Most of my yuccas are in fact variants on Yucca filamentosa, also known as Adam’s Needle. It is pointy, and also found all up and down the eastern seaboard.  You have to give them pretty good drainage, but they’re not finicky. I also have “Golden Sword” a cultivar of Y. flaccida, which is very pretty, if unfortunately named.

Agaves are a little more touch and go here. I have Agave americana, which is quietly rotting, and A. parryi, which is not entirely sure about all this. I’ve seen enormous ones here, but they need absurdly good drainage and possibly some shelter from pounding rain.

Much happier in this neck of the woods is Manfreda virginica, or “Virginia false-aloe” which has the lovely yucca shape while also being from Virginia and the Carolinas, as well as farther south and west. There’s a marvelous cultivar called “Spot,” which is doing very well in my garden and producing numerous pups.

I am also quite fond of Eryngium yuccifolium, which has the marvelous name “Rattlesnake Master.” It’s not a true yucca but just kinda looks like them. The flower heads are masterpieces.

Finally—rounding out number seven—somewhere on the property is Y. aloifolia, “Spanish bayonet.” It’s native to here. I was happy to find it at the nursery. I planted it and then promptly lost it. It is somewhere on the property. (Is that it, by the frog pond? Or over by the rosemary?) The problem is that all these damn yuccas are pointy and angry and spiky and you tuck the tag under the plant so it’s not an eyesore and if you try to find the tag again, it involves groping around underneath the yucca, who is screaming “I WILL CUT YOU!” and going for your eyes.

Marvelous plants. But very spiky.

Sixth Day of Christmas

By | plants | One Comment

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

…six types of milkweed!

…fiiiive! naaaative! plaaaaants!

…four hummingbirds!

…three moorhens!

…two mourning doves!

…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

 

Milkweed, as most of us probably know by now, is the only thing that monarch butterfly caterpillars will eat. So if you want to help monarchs in their long, perilous migration (and given how badly their numbers are declining, many of us do) you’ve got to plant milkweed.

In my garden, I have tried six different species of Aesclepias. Most of them have failed miserably. Some of them live long enough to get devoured by milkweed beetles. I keep trying, because if you’re not up for Sisyphean tasks, you’re probably not a gardener.

A. tuberosa — “butterfly weed.” Wretched finicky plant. Monarchs actually prefer other milkweeds and aren’t that fond of it, it likes sandy soil and hates having its roots poked, and me trying to grow it is plant abuse. I think I still have one clawing its way out of a hillside.

A. curassivica — “tropical milkweed.” I grow this one as an annual. It does great! Someday a monarch will find it before the milkweed beetles do.

A. exaltata — “poke milkweed.” This one will take part shade, and is absolutely the perfect milkweed for my area. I planted a seed packet. None of them came up. It’s been two years. No one sells transplants. I am sad.

A. purpurascens — “purple milkweed.” I was somewhat daunted by the bit where it died instantly.

A. incarnata — “swamp milkweed.” This plant is my great failure, even more so than the others. Most people will agree that many milkweeds are finicky. Swamp milkweed, however, grows madly. It spreads. People complain about its enthusiasm. I have planted three different plants in three different spots. One still produces one dogged stem, once a year. The others have vanished to wherever sad milkweeds go. To hear people talk, the only way I am accomplishing this is by sowing the fields with salt and watering it with bleach.

A. verticillata — “whorled milkweed.” My one great success! It grows! It flowers! It takes miserable clay! It’s not fast, but boy, it’s hardy! I want to hug this one when it comes back each year. Someday, we may even get a monarch caterpillar!

Until that day, I console myself with the fact that we get many caterpillars every year of other varieties, and that monarchs frequents stop to refuel on nectar, if not to raise a family. Still, I hold out hope.

Fifth Day of Christmas

By | plants | 3 Comments

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

fiiiiive! naaaaative! plaaaaaants!

…four hummingbirds!

..three moorhens!

…two mourning doves!

…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

You all know by now that I’m a native plant junkie, both because I want to support wildlife (and not just the eat-anything-generalists—I am still deeply honored to have had a Stinging Rose Caterpillar in the yard) and because I thinking it really contributes to the sense of place. A garden should be deeply rooted (ha) wherever it is, not as interchangeable as a McDonald’s.

My garden runs about sixty percent native—a much higher percentage in the shrub and tree department, where my non-natives consist of things like hardy pomegranate and a potted Daphne odora. This has worked out as the best proportion for me, since it means I can still fall madly in love with random perennials and keep old favorites like Walker’s Low catmint, while still being majority native for all the little critters.

Five native plants that have done really well for me this year:

Hypericium buckleyii — “Appalachian Sun”  A cultivar of our rare native prostrate St. John’s Wort, this made a very satisfying ground cover over the summer. Not entirely evergreen, so the chickweed is starting to overrun it now, but I am quite optimistic for its return.

Asplenium platyneuron — “Ebony Spleenwort” Picked up recently on a whim, and has established very vigorously for a wee little fern in a less than hospitable spot.

Iris virginica — “Contraband Girl” A cultivar of our native Louisiana iris, this sucker gets to be six feet tall. If the thought of a six foot iris does not excite you, you may already be dead. One of the few plants plugged into my proto-wetland that could hold its own against the late season Japanese stiltgrass assault.

Lycopus virginicus — “Virginia Water Horehound”  This one is related to the mint family and thus should probably not be set loose in just any garden bed, although it’s not as weedy as some of its relatives. It takes just about any soil and part shade. I am growing it with trepidation and pull out a substantial portion. Next year I may transplant some to the proto-wetland. Nevertheless, it’s largely idiot-proof and hosts the hermit sphinx moth, a gorgeous hummingbird-mimic moth with big, liquid eyes, like a small insectile muppet.

Agarista populifolia — “Florida hobblebush”  A shrub native from Florida to the Carolinas, also known as Pipestem and Florida Leucothoe. Tough, will take the shade and root competition under pines, and so far one of the few shrubs I’ve planted in multiples where I haven’t lost a single one.  Supposed to be a good screening shrub, but we’ll see how it goes.