Category Archives: My Garden

Species #2 Eastern Comma & #3 Saw Greenbriar

By | My Garden, Stuff In My Yard | No Comments

Yay! Two new species for my Fifty Species Goal!

Things have been a bit slow since it’s been freezing here, but fortunately I added two species this week, so I’m feeling a little more on track. (More imporantly, moths are beginning to congregate around the porch light, and that’s usually a bonanza!)

Species #2: Eastern Comma


This butterfly showed up very early this year, before any of the others. I was afraid we’d lose them to the ice storms, but fortunately, they seem to have stuck around. The Eastern Comma is nearly identical to the Question Mark and I can tell the difference only by relative size (Commas are smaller) and our local Question Marks tend to have much darker hindwings. Question Marks are common visitors to the garden, being fond of damp earth/gravel/mulch and (sigh) dog poop. The Comma, however, is new.

Species #2: Saw Greenbriar


This pointy, stabby climbing vine is one of the vast Smilax clan–Smilax bona-nox, to be precise. It is currently infiltrating my tea camellia. I don’t know how I feel about that. (Apparently they are super-duper edible with the new shoots and the tubers and all, but foraging is a little outside of my comfort zone.)

Smilax glauca was a known quantity in my garden, but S. bona-nox only showed up last fall, and I only got around to digging in and figuring out what it was today. So that’s kinda neat!


See also: Species #1: Blue-Headed Vireo

The Apocalypse Is Nigh. Ish.

By | My Garden | One Comment

So, yeah. 77 degrees out today.

It’s December 22nd.

I saw what looked a helluva lot like a Least Tern over Jordan Lake yesterday. They’re rare inland and always gone by the end of October. I’m getting moths at the porchlight in December, most of which should probably have finished their flights in November. The bluebirds are house-hunting very early.

Nothing impossible, nothing completely out of range, but every improbability starts to pile up.

Seriously, gang…this is kinda scaring me. When they say “a few degrees warmer by the end of the century” I said “That’s terrible!” and I meant it—really, I meant it!—but realistically I expected to be pretty dead. (That doesn’t stop me feeling bad and trying to help, let me add–“I’ll be dead, so I don’t care!” is a shitty excuse for bad behavior. Still.)

I didn’t really expect that I would be spreading manure on my garden three days before Christmas. In short sleeves. With the AC on in the house. Or that temperatures would then plunge (as they are predicted to do) and be in the forties by Tuesday.

Or that this would be the second or third time this has happened in the last couple months.

Weather is always weird, there are never normal years, all that’s true. But we’re shattering heat records locally. This is not just weird, it’s record weird and it keeps on happening.

I’ve said before that I kinda feel like us gardeners in this weird new world are trying to hold the line and passing word back and forth between us—“Still here. Still got frogs. Still got bees. Still alive.”

So, um. Still here. Still alive. Have to assume the frogs and the bees are overwintering. But a little freaked out anyway.

Hedges Against Despair

By | My Garden | One Comment

The world depresses me easily, O internet. The government spends so much time squabbling over idiotic things and I kind of want to yell “You guys do realize that if we don’t fix the bee problem, we’ll starve to death, right? Okay, just so we’re clear. No, no, go on, make your fifty-millionth symbolic attempt to defund Obamacare. I’m sure that’s much more important.”

So I go and wander around the garden, which is tired because it’s fall and things are dying or dried or weedy or spindly. (Well, in the backyard. The front yard is extravagant. Amazing what six inches of topsoil and five years can do.) And I have to go traveling soon, which is increasingly not my favorite thing to do. I need some downtime when I am not living toward the next time I have to get on a plane.

At times like this, I pull out my yard list.

It is a weird coping mechanism, I grant you, but there it is. It is a list of every species of bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, butterfly, and dragonfly that has entered the yard that I have managed to identify. It is a list of all the stuff that got a home or an overnight rest stop or at least one good meal because once upon a time, I looked over the lawn and said “Yeah, we can do better.”

Birds — 66

Mammals — 6

Reptiles/Amphibians — 21


Butterflies & Moths — 33

Dragonflies & Damselflies — 7

Random Bugs & Spiders — 20*

I don’t even try to do plants, although I will note that two species of native orchid persist on the property—one in the foundation planting where there used to be a rather enthusiastic boxwood, no less. (Crippled cranefly and rattlesnake plantain orchid.)

It’s a weird OCD sort of coping mechanism, I grant you. It has no weighting, and counts a single ebony jewelwing sighting the same as an active breeding population of bronze frogs. Still, the numbers are oddly soothing, and reading down the lists of names is hypnotic. Carolina wren, blue gray gnatcatcher, mourning dove, pine warbler, American goldfinch, summer tanager, yellow-billed cuckoo, great crested flycatcher… ringnecked snake, brown snake, broadhead skink, Carolina anole, eastern pickerel frog… spring azure, pearl crescent, American painted lady, falcate orangetip, cloudless sulphur, luna moth, imperial moth, snowberry clearwing hawkmoth…click beetle, American ladybug, yellowjacket hoverfly, red velvet mite, huntsman spider, predacious diving beetle…

It’s not a huge nature preserve, or even a terribly large garden by many standards. It’s what one woman who isn’t too particular about weeds can manage. In some ways, it even makes less impact, out here in the woods, then it would in the city where it would be an oasis.

Nevertheless, when everything in the world feels horrible or stupid, it makes me feel like in some small way, I’m holding the line.


*There are undoubtedly way way more than twenty species, but I limit myself to ones I can ID by at least genus or common name, and critters like “jumping spiders” all get lumped together, even though there’s probably a gazillion individual species. I am almost embarassed by the scope and relative paucity of this list, which lumps wasps with dung beetles with millipedes with nursery web spiders.

Winding Down…Or Up…

By | My Garden | 3 Comments

Five years gardening here now and I still am never entirely clear about fall in North Carolina. In a normal climate, we’d be revving up for harvest, bringing in the sheaves, all that good stuff. (It is, in fact, the Harvest Moon next week.) The heat is oppressive, though, and under normal circumstances, we’d have another few weeks of summer before fall came along.

We are not under normal circumstances. This is the weirdest damn year most of the locals can remember.

I do feel better for having gone to the farmer’s market and talked to my local farmers. What’s happened in my garden is dead normal. Everybody’s tomatoes were meh, everybody’s cherry tomatoes went nuts and then petered out fast, everybody’s squash got the blight and fell over and died. Most people don’t even have as good a tomatillo crop as I do, and tomatillos are so rugged that they would probably grow on the surface of Mars.

It’s still kind of depressing to be under the harvest moon and have maybe a handful of grape tomatoes, a load of basil, and a bunch of beans.

The leaves are starting to turn, but that could be drought. From tropical rains, we’ve got to “normal” summer weather—humid without rain. That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that it was too wet early on and all the plants got shallow rooted and huge and now they can’t really cope.

There are little green acorns pattering down everywhere.

It was, despite the vegetable garden, a fabulously productive year in the garden. There are woolly-bear caterpillars on the weeds (there are still a lot of weeds, despite intense efforts in recent hours) and Fledgling Count 2013 hit a whopping 14 birds. At least one spicebush swallowtail survived to adulthood, and our tiger swallowtail count was off the charts. My new groundcover of choice, Hypericum buckleyii “Appalachian Sun” is kicking butt and taking names in the backyard. So I shouldn’t complain too much.

Theoretically we’re moving into fall planting season…probably…but I’ll be honest, I don’t have the faintest idea what’s going on with the weather, so I’m a bit leery of plunking down more perennials. Perhaps I will simply let the season wind down with little gardener supervision, and hope that next year is a little less peculiar.

Weeds, Weed Dragons, Weedpocalypse Now

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Spent an hour in the garden this morning before it got hot—the first serious gardening I’ve done in a month or so. Made a pretty good dent in some of the weeds, need (naturally) more mulch so I can just smother a chunk of the rest. The stiltgrass is still thugging.

The Weed Dragon flamethrower was amazingly effective on stiltgrass, though—the strip down the middle of the gravel drive, which was solid green, is now dead as a doornail. Only the plaintains resprouted from their roots. It’s been a week and some change and while there’s some regrowth, it’s barely a fraction of what it was, and more importantly, it’s not stiltgrass. Very pleased with it.

In the back, over the fence, where I cannot use a flamethrower for fear of setting the woods on fire, I have more or less screamed “THIS. IS. GAAAAAARDENNNNN!” and started throwing all the smartweed I pull up over the fence, on top of the stiltgrass. It roots instantly—you can’t keep a smartweed down—and is smothering out the stiltgrass. And it’s native, so I will endure it.

As much as I grumble about the weeds, I have to step back and say “Yeah, but it could be so much worse.” I have had spectacular luck with groundcovers in the back—the native St. John’s wort is an imperfect mat, but the green-and-gold “Eco-Lacquered Spider” has formed a wall-to-wall mat over the shadier area that keeps down the sheep sorrel (which is running rampant where there is no green-and-gold.) Eco-Lacquered Spider (and what a cultivar name, eh?) makes me nervous every spring with its rampaging stems, but it settles down in summer and becomes a well-behaved dark green carpet and I remember why I loved it in the first place. There is a whole stretch of garden where I don’t weed except occasionally and around the edges, and it looks fine. (Well, fine for my garden. Unruly and a bit ragged with weird-as-hell plant placements. I am still not sure how that Joe Pye Weed got under the oakleaf hydrangeas…)

And there has never been such a year for Tiger Swallowtails. I count over a dozen in the yard every day—most of them probably resident, but presumably there’s a few being changed out here and there. They are particularly fond of the starry rosinweed, a somewhat obscure member of the Silphium genus that produces masses of yellow daisy-like flowers…six feet off the ground. Not that you can see them, since they’re always covered in swallowtails.

I also finally got a Spicebush Swallowtail in the garden that I am reasonably certain grew up here, on one of the spicebushes. He is much too clean and perfect and new-looking to have been a long-distance wanderer. I am absurdly proud.

Our fledgling count is up to ten, with the addition of a young tufted titmouse. And one of the most spectacular developments—and one that apparently I can take some partial credit for—is a massive explosion of dragonflies. I have never seen so many blue dashers, and there are sundry other species as well. I assumed that they are here because the weeks of rain led to standing water led to more mosquitoes than anyone can deal with, led to a predator population explosion. And while that may be part of it—there are several dragonfly nymphs patrolling my rain barrels as we speak—according to some of my bug guide peeps, some of these species can take up to three years to mature.

And I think back three years ago, to a woman with a shovel grimly determined to dig that pond or die in the attempt, and the dragonfly mating flights around the pond that summer, and I think “Huh. I wonder…”

At the moment, the pond is home to many perching dragonflies, to a stand of Louisiana irises and dwarf horsetail, to many bronze frogs and hopefully still a single newt.

And someday I will finish the patio…though the swallowtails are puddling on the sand, and I will feel guilty about displacing them.

And for now, more mulch.

Hill ‘o Beans

By | My Garden | 4 Comments

While the garden is an untamed weed-infested wreckage at the moment—and will remain so until the combination of torrential rain and brutal heat moves off, and I can get a little mulch in to tame some of the worst excesses—this crazy wet weather has produced an incredible crop of beans.


Good Mother Stallard

The two top performers are Rattlesnake Pole and Good Mother Stallard. I have no idea how they’d do in a NORMAL year (i.e. punishing heat, no rain after June) but they’ve gone crazy this year, which is good because nothing else is growing for shit. My tomato crop is staggering along, except for some relentlessly cheerful grape tomatoes, and while the tomatillos are producing (it is a sad, sad state of affairs when a tomatillo does not fruit) they aren’t very happy about it. Pretty much everything else just died outright.

But the beans…the beans are happy. These are all going to be soup beans, so a few times a day, I wander out into the garden, pick and handful or two, come inside and shell them. Takes about the same amount of time as making a good cup of tea. I have several plates padded with paper towels spread over various kitchen surfaces, and every now and again I turn the beans so they dry evenly. (Probably there’s a better method that involves equipment or something—I have no real idea what I’m doing—but this seems to work.) When they’re completely dry, I toss them in a bag or a jar and store them in the cupboard.

I am embarrassingly proud of these beans. It’s the same warm glow I feel when we make basil oil—“Look at that! We did that! That was us! We made a useful thing!” This is even less justified than the basil oil, because the bean plants seriously did all the work, I just popped them out of their respective pods. Still, I am dreadfully proud of these. More so than most paintings I’ve done—Look! I made food, guys! Look at it! It’s pretty! And we don’t have to eat them all right now until we’re sick to death of the sight of it, we can store them and have soup and chili and beans with garlic whenever we want! Isn’t that awesome?

This is a lot of thrill to derive from approximately half a pound of dried legumes. Believe me, I didn’t become a gardener because I have a good sense of proportion.

They talk a lot about the woes of being estranged from one’s food supply—and frankly, I’m just as glad not to live with mine, because it’s a high maintenance beast—but the occasional flings are pretty awesome nonetheless.

A Garden Getting Better

By | Birds, My Garden | 3 Comments

Every time I start to get depressed about the weeds coming in on all sides, I must remember that the garden really does get better every year.

It’s not just the plants (although they, too, get better every year—my fire pinks went from a single spindly stalk to a respectable clump and my American spikenard is going from a respectable clump to a terrifying parasol of doooooom that may need thinning.) It’s also the wildlife, or rather, our carrying capacity for wildlife.

My back-of-the-envelope math indicates that for the last few years, we got four to six fledglings per year in the immediate vicinity of my garden. What they ARE varies–last year was a banner year, we had two apiece of chickadees and gnatcatchers and ruby-throated hummingbirds, a few years ago it was red-bellied woodpeckers and titmice, but generally those seem to be the numbers.

This year we’ve got six ALREADY, by early June. A juvenile chipping sparrow, a rather wobbly great crested flycatcher (nowhere near as vivid as the parents, and spending a lot of time floundering amid the flowerpots) three baby Carolina wrens who are all gone from the nest today (hoping they fledged and weren’t devoured, but honestly, I’d rather have “part of the food chain” than “not enough food to exist in the first place.”) and a juvenile brown-headed cowbird.

Not sure how I feel about the cowbird, honestly, but there he is.

There was also a rather delightful first-year summer tanager, who was molting red over yellow, like a goldfinch with psoriasis. He perched on a tomato cage and sang his heart out. I would be perfectly happy to have tanagers settle in here—we’ve had them pass through but not stay—but this little guy may be out of luck for the year. I don’t know how first year males do in the great songbird wars.

On top of that, more and more birds stop by to grab a drink or a snack on the way to something else. The butterflies are thicker on the ground every year. (I have enough pipevine for a couple of swallowtails this year, instead of just one!) My neighbor’s honeybees coexist peacefully with respectable quantities of native bees.The frogs…well, the frogs tend toward a boom-and-bust cycle, near as I can tell, and the pond is SWARMING with predacious diving beetles, which are very cool even as they are keeping the tadpole numbers in check this year. (I have faith it will all reach equilibrium eventually.)

There are fireflies in the field, and occasionally wandering through the garden or sitting on the screen and pulsing with light.

This spring I found a wild native honeysuckle growing on the fence, where I hadn’t planted it. (And yes, I pulled about half of it before I realized my mistake and felt like history’s greatest monster.)

And this is all with big bare mulched patches left between plants still. When it all grows in, if I ever manage the lush cottage-esque garden of my dreams…well, who knows what might show up?

ETA: As of 6/10, there’s a juvenile (probably) female cardinal, mourning dove still with baby fluff, and a juvenile red-bellied woodpecker spotted as well. Also a herd of grackles on the feeder. That’s one new yard bird (never had grackles before, oddly enough) and three more fledglings, for a grand total of NINE.

Also grackles are bad at sharing. And if we get much more water, the yard will just be underwater.

A few notes from the garden…

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WARNING: Biological Icky Bits Ahead!

Guess what I found!?


I’m a larva!

This peculiar devil is the larval form of the American Carrion Beetle! How cool is that? (They feed on mushrooms and dead bugs as well as rotting meat, so I hasten to assure you that I do not, in fact, have dead bodies rotting in the woods. At least, to the best of my knowledge.)

Spring sprung and was promptly batted aside by summer, so it’s hot and humid in the garden, and I am trying to stay ahead of the stiltgrass with copious amounts of mulch, because the flamethrower is questionable in a dry pine wood and would also take out all my nice jewelweed that has established so marvelously.  Thinking of trying to fight it by transplanting in Virginia knotweed, which is an aggressive loon of a plant, but native, attractive, and host to a couple of butterfly species. (I have the variegated form, “Painter’s Palette,” which comes true from seed and boy, is there a lot of seed!)

Other than that, everything is blooming, the pollinators are out in force, I had a Zebra Swallowtail show up the other day (an uncommon butterfly in this neck of the woods!) and the pond is full of frogs and predacious diving beetles. On the downside, the weird cold/hot/cold/hot weather sent most of the spring veggies straight to bolting, so I got no daikons, some very sad beets, and the tomatoes are already starting to come in. Lost a bunch of peppers, too. Sigh. But the cucumbers and squash are happy, and I am holding out hope that the peas will produce a batch before the heat exhausts them. (A lot of local farmers just gave up and plowed the peas under. Can’t blame ’em. This has been demented weather.)

Craw-Bob is still in residence. Haven’t gotten a good look at him, but we’ve got the night vision cameras and just need to get them working with the house network. Mostly he’s a flash of movement into the hole as I go by.

The Patio That Shall Not Be Named has been graveled, sanded, mortared, and now needs bricks. I’m traveling at the end of the week, but hold out hope of getting it done before June rolls around. (All productivity must be crammed into this month, because June is solid travel and July and August will be miserably hot.)

I had a bit of a wildlife mystery this morning. Was going out to feed the birds and found—there’s no other way to say it—a pile of viscera in the middle of the path. Somebody had left their guts in a neat pile on the ground.

Being me, I of course immediately poked them with a stick. Yup. That’s guts, all right.

Guts and….earthworms?

For whatever weird reason, there were a bunch of dead earthworms in the pile as well.

I wracked my brain—had something vomited and lost guts and earthworms together? Was this some kind of weird version of an owl pellet?—until I realized that the earthworms were from INSIDE the guts. Our deceased gut-owner had been out eating earthworms, and had quite a solid meal, then something jumped him, eviscerated him, and presumably ate the tasty bits. (I would have thought the viscera WERE tasty bits, but apparently somebody was picky.)

My guess is that the victim was a large frog, but I’ve got no idea what the killer was. I tossed the remains out of dog range—hopefully either Craw-Bob or the carrion beetles will find it and start the clean-up process.

So that’s all the excitement around here at the moment. Guts! Bugs! Mulch! THRILLS! CHILLS! ETC!

The New Veggie Bed!

By | My Garden | One Comment


Made of eighty-five concrete drystone wall blocks (the kind with the little lip so that the top ones can’t slide off the one underneath in response to pressure from behind) and holding a little over a cubic yard of dirt. I did it all myself with my little red wheelbarrow and my little Pontiac Vibe. (Okay, the dirt was delivered, but I still had to truck it from the front yard in the wheelbarrow!) For those keeping track at home, that means I moved well over a ton of materials in the wheelbarrow, over the course of a week.

Stamina. I haz it.

It gets more or less full sun (more toward the front), but is in partial shade in the afternoon, which is actually what you want for veggies down here, since the afternoon heat is merciless. I don’t know if it’ll take tomatoes, but I plan to plant beans, carrots, daikons and beets to start, and maybe some lettuce is in the shadier bits around back. There are a couple of small gaps in the stone, mostly at the corners, owing to the wedge-shaped nature of the beast, and I’ll finally have a spot to tuck a few of those little species that all say “Try planting in the cracks of a drystone wall!” Well, HA! I finally have a drystone wall—sort of—and I WILL so THERE!*

It’s not as big as my main veggie bed that wraps around the deck, but it’s over a foot deep, which is amazing compared to the other beds. (A scant few inches of topsoil and compost over clay subsoil. We do not double dig here. We do not even single-dig. We break our shovels and burst into tears.)  I’m hopeful for the root vegetables this time—I’ve managed small beets in the other beds, and I’m trying Parisenne carrots there this year—but it’s so nice to finally have a space where I’m pretty confident I can do real, finicky, must-have-deep-loose-soil root vegetables.

The rest of the garden in this shot is not very attractive at the moment. Winter is visually much harsher down here. (I never realized how many sins snow hides.) Most of my efforts have been on the front yard, which has nice dried grasses and evergreen Carolina jessamine, but this patch is…rough. Oh, well. I will eventually get some evergreens back here to break up the monotony of dead oak leaves and to disguise the chain link fence, but frankly, there’s only so much you can do in such an aggressively deciduous climate.



*I may be retaining some small bitterness after all these years.

Second Day of Christmas

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

…two mourning doves!

And a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!


Ah, mourning doves, better known to birders as “mo-dos” (generally uttered in a tone of mild disgust–“Is that a—?” “Nope, mo-do.”)

These birds are, to put it in the most flattering possible light, dumber than a wet brick. They have those tiny little heads, and you know there’s not much room for brains in there. Most animals that aren’t very bright, you can say things like “They’re very intelligent about things that matter to ____.” I have heard people say this about owls, who are mostly eyeballs, and sheep who are…sheep.

Nobody tries to say this about mourning doves. They possess a kind of elemental stupidity.

They are also incredibly numerous, despite laying eggs in the worst possible fashion (one nested in my mulch pile, there’s another in the rain gutter where it undoubtedly lost the eggs to cold water) with an estimated 350 million in North America. So they’re doing something right. There are two pairs who live pretty much in my garden—occasionally they wander off somewhere else for a few hours, but they spend the better part of most days here. Unlike other birds, I have never felt a need to name them, as none of them are particularly distinctive. They are the Dove Collective. They coo, they attack each other, they freak out and do a kind of aerial waddle into the trees. I hold them in a sort of good-natured contempt 99% of the time, and the time one turned up dead on the mulch pile, I lost my mind and vowed to hunt the killer to the ends of the earth.  (Hey, I’m complicated. And it hasn’t happened again, now has it?) 

The two pairs that actually live here year round stay all winter but they raise two or three babies a year. (I’m assuming, since they’re like pigeons in that regard—one day there’s just an extra apparently full-grown dove in the yard.)  So we go up to six or seven during the summer. Then they clear out at some point.

Apparently there were plans for awhile to try to clone the passenger pigeon using modo stock, but as it turns out, passengers were more closely related to the band-tailed pigeon. And while looking up stuff, I discovered that the oldest known morning dove was 31 years old. Holy mackerel.