Monthly Archives: April 2010

Two vignettes with plants

By | Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Today I  uploaded a vast array of art for Batbreath, which ties up the computer pretty thoroughly, so I went out to the Botanical Garden for an hour or two.

They were selling jewelweed. One pack left. I picked it up, pleased–I’ve been wanting to plant jewelweed, it’s supposed to be easy, the wildlife likes it, it’ll take full shade, and since it’s a weedy native wildflower, you never see it in stores. I read the label, which informed me that jewelweed seeds easily, has a very high germination rate, and should only be planted if I wanted a full stand of jewelweed.

This was fine. There is an entire twenty or thirty foot stretch of wooded area around the side of the house that is full of dead honeysuckle, a little wild grape and Virginia creeper, and one lone Northern Horsebalm. It can go all jewelweed, all the time, except for the horsebalm, which is a relative of bee balm and should be able to hold its own. I picked up the last pack.

A man came out from the greenhouse area, said “Great! You got the last one!” I said “Yup, I’ve been wanting to plant this for awhile…”

He inspected the plant. One of the six pack had been snapped off. He said “Wait just a minute…” and went into the back again.

He came out a minute later with three more (larger) pots of jewelweed and said “Here! One of those is missing–take these. On the house.”

So I found myself with my arms full of jewelweed, eight plants for $3. (I’m guessing it’s VERY easy to germinate. Possibly the nice man went back to the greenhouse and did the dance of having finally gotten rid of all that goddamn jewelweed, but nevertheless, I was pleased.) I hope it likes that woody area, but just in case, I’ll pop a few down in the drainage ditch, where it stays damp for most of the year. That will be a tick-infected journey. Joy.

And then there was the other thing…

So last night, I was reading the Plant Delights nursery catalog on-line, which was hysterical and occasionally off-color and generally left me very amused, as well as determined to visit the nursery at their next open house. (I mean, seriously, a nursery that has a section for “Hate Mail” and “Twilight Zone” is not to be missed.)

At one point, around the lobelias, they mention a plant owed to master lobelia breeder Thurman Maness of Pittsboro, NC.

“Hey!” sez I. “I live in Pittsboro, NC! I wonder if he’s still here?”

And then, for absolutely no reason I could think of, I thought “I wonder if he’s that one guy selling plants at the farmer’s market?”

There is absolutely no reason I should have thought that. There are at least three or four people who sell plants at our little farmer’s market.  Most of them are boring, standard, run-of-the-mill hostas and tomato starts and potted begonias.  But there’s one guy…the guy I bought my oakleaf hydrangea from…who occasionally has odd stuff. Hearts a bursting, solomon’s seal, lots of ferns…

Pittsboro is a small town, but the last listing for the guy was in 1997, when his plant business closed, and he could have died or moved or anything. And there’s plenty of gardeners around here. Niche Gardens is like twenty minutes away. One of the people at Kevin’s church is having prairie restorers in to put in a prairie planting (I’ve begged her to keep me apprised of the progress.) I had no earthly reason to think that it might be him.

But I was going to the farmer’s market anyway to pick up some local ground beef for Saturday’s cookout, and some goat cheese from Celebrity Dairy (oh my god, this goat cheese is like…I mean, I was opening the wax paper and sniffing it.) And there he was, with his van, and his odd little ferns, and a newspaper clipping in front of him–“LOCAL MAN PATENTS FERN.”

I leaned over and read the first sentence, which began “Local gardener, Thurman Maness…” and said “You’re the master lobelia breeder!”

He grinned. I had not previously seen any expression on his face that was not either vague annoyance or plant-related concentration. “That’s me, but that was a hundred years ago.”

I explained about the plant catalog.

“Really? Which plant are they selling? Tall…pink?”

I thought so. I hadn’t actually noticed the name of the plant, but tall and pink rang a bell. “That would be mine, yup.” He considered. “You got any?”

“What, lobelias? I’ve killed a few.”

He grinned again. “That doesn’t make you a bad gardener.”

I gotta tell you, that was rather gratifying, because I am in no way a good gardener–I can water, I can apply cow manure, and there my talents end. Any success with my garden mostly arises from buying tough-ass plants that can take anything (believe me, native gardening really is EASIER, or else I couldn’t do it!) so it was kinda nice to hear.

The Nice Thing About Blue Jays

By | Birds, My Garden | 4 Comments

Blue jay and American Honeysuckle

Now, I’m pleased to have blue jays period–they’re a gorgeous bird, and I’m delighted they chose to nest in a tree in our yard.

Despite their rep as bullies, they also haven’t so much as touched my feeder–whatever they’re stuffing into little fledgling throats, it’s not anything I’m providing, except perhaps the bugs of a heavily planted and un-insecticided garden.

But I’ve noticed lately that they have a great advantage as tenants, and that is that they’re paranoid as hell.

Now, my studio window overlooks the garden, and I spend a lot of time staring out into the yard. (When Kevin’s kids get to the point where they need separate bedrooms, the backyard will get landscaped and turned into a birdfeeding area in a great hurry, because the window from the room we’ll be moving our offices into will be overlooking the back instead of the front.) But despite the amount of time I spend staring out the window when I ought to be working, I still only see a tiny fraction of the birds that come through. Hawks and crows undoubtedly pass through the wooded areas all the time, and I have only caught them once or twice, by a chance glance at the right moment or a big shadow caught from the corner of my eye.

The bluejays, however, see them every single time.

And scream. And flail. And harass and mob and chase the unfortunate predator out of the area,  a winged Doberman being mauled by furious blue Pomeranians.

Thanks to our outraged nesters, I just saw a red-shouldered hawk, a first for the yard. (I started keeping a casual yard list–it’s closing in on forty species, and those are just the ones I remember.)  The hawk was blundering through the treetops, and then hunkered down on a branch, looking persecuted, while a bluejay perched a few feet away, screaming avian obscenities, then took off and divebombed his head.

The hawk went elsewhere, the jay in hot pursuit. A few minutes later, the jay returned, presumably muttering “Showed him. Hmmpff!” and went back to bug hunting. All in a day’s work for Super Jay.

I don’t touch their tree. I don’t even look at their tree when I’m outside. No sense borrowing trouble…

Return of the Birds

By | Birds, My Garden | 6 Comments

So the birds appear to be back.

For whatever reason, my feeder’s been dead as a doornail the last couple of weeks. The woodpeckers are still flying back and forth to the tree, presumably shoving bugs into yelling throats, and the blue jays have driven off a crow (either predatory or unlucky) and divebombed a squirrel that made the mistake of touching Their Tree. The flock of mourning doves now numbers eight individuals, who spend their time roaming the grounds, sitting sulkily in the bird baths, and panicking if approached by any hostile butterflies. But the usual cavalcade of feeder birds was oddly absent.

I assumed they were off eating bugs or something. I missed them, but…probably bugs. Apparently bugs in someone else’s yard. Sigh.

Today, apparently the bug bonanza ran out, or the squirrel baffle that I put on Monday–despite baffling no squirrels whatsoever–proved suddenly irresistable, because we’ve had two different male goldfinches, their girlfriends, multiple Carolina wrens, a male cardinal, Carolina chickadees, and a catbird, who wasn’t interested in the feeder but thought the newest birdbath (which has been there for nearly two months) was the best thing since sliced mealworms and rolled around in it the way the beagle wallows on my pillow given the chance.

The doves are disgruntled that their private seed reserve is suddenly common ground again, but I’m pleased that everybody found their way back, at least for the moment.

Spring Ephemerals

By | Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Okay gang, today we’re going to talk about spring ephemerals.

I do this, in a roundabout fashion, because while you’re probably all sick of hearing me talk about invasive species, it occurs to me that many people don’t know why it’s a bad thing to have an invasive species around, other than something like kudzu. Kudzu’s easy. Convincing people that kudzu is bad is like convincing them that nuclear war might be a trifle unpleasant. You just show them photos of kudzu eating somebody’s truck and then multiply that by the twelve thousand square miles of the south it’s eaten.* The stuff grows up to a foot a day, which means, for the more diabolically minded among us, that if you left somebody hog-tied in a kudzu thicket, the odds are good the plant’d get ’em before they managed to die of thirst. Particularly if it was a wet enough spring that the plant was really goin’ strong and they could suck some moisture off the leaves.

Boy, that’s a thought, isn’t it?

Okay. Hadn’t planned to spend that long with kudzu. Kinda got away from me with the grisly murder and all. However, when you’re dealing with something that isn’t quite as…dramatic…as kudzu, it makes more sense to start at the beginning.

Cast your mind back, O best beloved, to early spring. It’s been a long winter. Months of gray days. The trees are bare. And up through the snow comes a crocus.

And there was much rejoicing. Spring is coming! We aren’t all going to be crushed under the weight of the Fimbul Winter! Hooray little crocus!

(Actually crocuses aren’t American natives, but they’re the best illustration of this particular point, and the one we’re probably most familiar with. They’re pretty unobjectionable plants, though, unless you have a rock garden, in which case they’ve been known to sneak into areas where you’d rather not have them. You can plant all the crocuses you want, I won’t yell. I’m not a purist, I just want everybody to get along.)

Crocuses, and a whole lot of other plants, are spring ephemerals, which means they pop up earlier than everything else, before the leaves are on the trees. There’s a great advantage to this–sunlight’s hitting the ground, which it won’t be when the trees leaf out. Some of these plants, like bloodroot and Virginia bluebell, throw out leaves, flower, and then vanish in a few weeks, going dormant during the hot season. Others, like Celandine poppy, which I talked about a few weeks back, does all its vegetative growing in this sunny stretch, and then hangs out in the shade for the rest of the year dropping seeds and going “La la, I’m a plant, happy plant, la la la…”

It’s an efficient system. You grow like crazy in the early sunlight, when the sun is cool and soft on your tender little leaves, then the trees grow in and shade you before you roast in late spring and summer.  You go dormant and settle down to wait until next spring. The ephemerals would be pretty and inherently neat even if that was all they did. But they’re actually important for one major reason–the bees.

In early spring, the bees have overwintered, eaten everything in the hive, and they are ravenous. And most of the good hearty meals of nectar aren’t out yet. Around here, the salvias don’t open for business until April, blueberries aren’t flowering until late March, the indigos aren’t really in the mood until late spring. What’s a bee to do?

The answer, of course, is spring ephemerals. The bees are out there on the bloodroot and the bluebells and the wood poppies, getting their first meal of the year.

If you figure that most plants are solid 9-to-5 workers, the spring ephemerals are the guys getting up at 4 AM to make coffee and donuts. Imagine a whole hive full of grumpy newly-awakened females who can’t get their antennae pointing in the same direction without coffee, and you get an idea of the vital role our spring ephemerals are playing.

This is a great system. This is a finely evolved system, and it works well.

The problem is when you get a plant that evolved in another part of the world and may be on a different time frame, and the system starts to go haywire.

Japanese honeysuckle, aka screaming buttweed, is the first green thing out there.  Many other invasives are similar–this is why they’re so successful. They leaf out sooner. They steal a march on everybody. They cast shade underneath them much earlier. So up come the bloodroot and his other ephemeral buddies, ready to make the donuts and put the coffee pot on for the bees…and they’re in shade. Unexpected shade. Lethal shade. The baker arrives at his shop and finds that a gang has taken over and is slapping lead pipes into their palms in a meaningful fashion and informing him that he will not be getting his shipments of supplies any longer because this is their turf now, and they don’t want his coffee.

It’s a function of many fairy tales that shadows, once detached, can kill you. This is just like those fairy tales–the unseasonable shadows of these leaves can kill the things under them. (Norway maple, an invasive tree, casts such dense shade compared to native maples that it throttles the understory plants under them, even the ones who would normally come up later in the year. Plus it’s poisonous. Norway maple is hardcore unpleasant.)

So the bees wake up and go looking for breakfast, and they find green, but no flowers. Could’ve sworn there was a bakery here last year, but now it’s all pawnshops and bail bonds. Ugh. The neighborhood has really gone to hell, hasn’t it?

Wherever our shade-casting thugs are from originally, it’s likely that there are spring ephemerals that wake up on the same schedule…but they’re not here, and even if they were, there’s no telling if our bees would like them. Dedicated coffee drinkers will not be pleased if you tell them that a shot of Red Bull is now the only option. And it’s possible that over time, our spring ephemerals may evolve to leaf out before their new shady overlords–but that sort of thing happens on evolutionary time, not human time, and bees need to eat now.

If the pollinators ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

So! Having said all that, how can we fix it?

Well, fortunately there’s a very easy way…you can plant spring ephemerals! Virginia bluebells, bloodroot, wood poppy, spicebush–all of them are commerically available through nurseries. You might have to go mail-order, ( but you can definitely get them. Many of them are quite easy to grow, put on a spectacular early show, and then vanish completely. Some of them, like bloodroot, are just plain cool. You can overplant them with other things that will leaf out later in the year (which is practically everything.) Get a show, feed the bees–it’s really win-win.

And the other, rather more long term way, is to get rid of those invasives that are overshadowing these guys or chewing up their habitat completely–Norway maple, Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy, multiflora rose, check your local listings.

I definitely need to plant some more spring flowers for the bees myself.

Tune in next week for more gardening theatre, assuming I have not been hog-tied and left in a kudzu patch.


*People occasionally point out that you can make soap and whatnot out of it. I am not sure how fast we would have to make soap for it to have a significant effect. And how many square miles of soap can you make from twelve thousand square miles of kudzu, anyway? Where would we PUT it?

Stuff In My Yard: Leaf-Folding Caterpillars

By | Insects, Stuff In My Yard | 8 Comments

I haven’t got a clue what species these little guys are, and since at the moment, they look like a crumpled up leaf, visual aids aren’t very useful either.

However, it’s clearly some kind of caterpillar that, rather than spin its own chrysalis, has climbed into a leaf and cemented the sides together, making a little leaf sleeping bag. Thinking that a leaf had just gotten stuck together for some odd reason, I tugged at the edges of one on my downy skullcap and stopped immediately, seeing the pale, translucent white skin of something grub-like with black spots. (I hope I didn’t kill it by exposing a bit of it. It’s still there a week later, anyway, so either it’s alive or decaying very very slowly.)

I’ve since found another one on my black-eyed susan–entirely possible that it’s a different species, hosting on a different plant, or perhaps merely a bug of catholic tastes. This time I didn’t open the leaf.

Reading up would indicate that it could be any of dozens and dozens of species of moth or butterfly. Skippers, particularly, make little folded leaf homes, so I’m leaning towards that, since I know there are lots of those in the yard come summer.  Or it could be something else entirely. Kinda hard to tell when all you’ve got is a sealed leaf.

Odds are good I’ll go out one day and find the leaves empty, and never know what fluttery beast in the yard made them, but I’m pleased that they found my plants useful anyway.

Botanical Gardens!

By | Uncategorized | One Comment

Today was an excellent day. Went out to the Raleigh Arboretum for a plant sale. There was some good stuff…and some bad stuff…(I’m doing well. I did not attack one of the well-meaning young people screaming “IS THIS A JAPANESE HONEYSUCKLE I SEE BEFORE ME?!” so, y’know. Clearly the therapy is working.) Picked up an arrowwood viburnum, which I’ve wanted for ages–I had one at the house in Raleigh, and it was a lovely shrub for two days and then the deer ate it down to the bark. So now, with a fenced in backyard at my disposal, we’re tryin’ again!

Met up with my buddy Cassie, who provided some helpful advice on my prairie planting.  I am armed with grasses–the plant sale included some samples of prairie dropseed, little bluestem, and switchgrass, saving me from having to buy a stupidly large flat of the things. (Thank god!) She proposed that we go over to the botanical gardens in Chapel Hill, where she volunteers, and which I had somehow never seen.

They were awesome! They had pitcher plants in flower, which I’ve never seen before–such weird flowers! (One wonders how a plant manages when it tends to eat its own pollinators.)  And some just amazing natives–I got to see what a couple of shrubs I had bought on faith look like after…well, quite a number of years, I imagine. (The native azaleas are particularly astonishing. They turn into small trees! Amazing small trees!) And some gorgeous forest trails full of wild ginger and phlox and trillium–just incredible stuff.  And of course, to my delight, they sell native plants every day, so I wound up with a few more plants.  (I am weak. And planting season comes but once a year. And they had things I’ve been wanting to get, like American hazelnut, and things I’d never even HEARD of, like American horsebalm, which is apparently a bit like bee balm, only in the shade. This is a wonderful, wonderful thing. If it spreads even remotely like bee balm, I will be happy. I have a whole shade side-yard that is currently nothing but death and honeysuckle, and while the honeysuckle is on its way out, I need something to replace it, what with nature abhorring a vacuum and all.)

So I came home to the Deathbed, which I had cleared of honeysuckle a day or so ago, and put a southern wax myrtle and a sweet bay magnolia and an American hazelnut. (And digging the hole for that wax myrtle was death. But it was half the price of similar sized plants at a garden shop, so well worth it. I’ve got two others that still need to go into the ground, but I can only dig one massive hole a day.) The rest of the bed is daffodils and weeds, and honestly, it can stay that way–none of them are so dire as honeysuckle, and the mountain mint will eat them eventually.

I was also fortunate enough to run into a gentleman at the gardens who Cassie said was the guy to ask about my plant list problems, and who kindly e-mailed me both a plant list of things found in the Piedmont savannah and a suggested list for a garden plan based on said savannah.  They recommended at least 3 grass species (done!) and 15 wildflowers, and that the grass be 30% or less of the garden to start.  Not sure if I’ve achieved that yet, but my native plant tendencies mean that I actually do have more than 15 of the recommended flowers, although many of them are over in the garden bed. No worries–as I get the prairie planting laid out, I can transplant or divide some of them that will take clay, and the rest are close enough that the pollinators will probably find their way across the driveway okay.

So it was a very good day. And now I am very tired. And must get a Batbreath done before I go fall down.

To Make A Prairie

By | My Garden | 99 Comments

Prints available!

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

— Emily Dickensen

There is undoubtedly a lot of poetical truth to this poem, which my local indy bookstore had printed on T-shirts back when I was in college, but in terms of actual factual truth, it’s sorely lacking. Making a prairie takes a lot more than a clover and a bee.  My latest madly overambitious project is a pocket prairie planting on a dry hillside about forty by eight, and most of what I’ve learned is that trying to make a prairie is an act of hubris somewhere between challenging Athena to a weaving contest and stealing fire from the gods.

I did some basic research, bought a few plants, read more, despaired, and then did a painting about it, which is my coping mechanism for most things.

Prairie In A Teacup

(Prints are available, can be ordered in a set with the Cattail Teacup)

Seriously, I don’t know how the restorationists do it. Presumably they have much larger budgets and spaces and so forth. If I had 240 square acres instead of 240 square feet, I’d probably have a better shot. Get a grant. Or maybe I could hire some earnest young grad students. Something. Still, I’ve got what I’ve got–my good intentions, a crappy dry clay hillside, a limited budget and a labor force of one.*

How bad is this hillside? Well, it’s the only place on the property that DOESN’T have a honeysuckle problem. It’s got some practically flat little grasses that have root systems approximately a centimeter deep. Get through that centimeter, and you discover the raw clay, because the developer cut this hillside in order to level the lot and didn’t lay any turf on it.

There is an oak tree at the very top of the hillside, where there is still dirt and all. There are no other trees. The die-hard maples and hickories can’t get a foothold. The only reason you would plant a tree on this hillside is if it had humiliated you in some fashion and you wanted to teach it a lesson.

I planted lantana on this hillside–lantana, my go-to plant for hot dry spaces, my weapon of last resort, my plant that will grow ANYWHERE. It did not grow an inch in any direction, and expired gratefully in winter. (Meanwhile, its brother ate six square feet of yard.)

I could terrace the hillside and bring in dirt, but that won’t fix the problem–it’d still be clay underneath. What this hillside needs aresod-busters, plants that break up clay and turn it into dirt, the next stage of ecological succession. Tough grasses, with roots that don’t take no for an answer.

What it needs, in short, is a prairie.

It turns out, there WAS a prairie in the Piedmont, long ’bout the time the Europeans arrived. Go figure. It was an ecological creation of the indigenous people, who used fire to create pocket prairies, and hence better hunting and whatnot (edges tend to be much more fertile than deep forests.) Today it survives in miniscule segments, most of them on power-line cut-throughs and old railroads, and we have a pine forest in its place.

So there’s precedent for what I’m doing. And people have done it before. But it’s still kinda crazy.

For one thing, there’s diversity. There were 277 species in the Piedmont prairie. I’ve managed to find ten, and I’m fudging a bit counting annual sunflowers among that number. Four grasses, a native goldenrod, and a couple of flowers. Those ten are currently dotted across a small section the hillside, looking less like a miniature prairie and more like a science project the day after the fair. (The switchgrass forms a clump up to ten feet tall. There is currently one blade that is more than three inches high. I know–I know–that its root is likely a foot or more long, punched through the heaviest of red clay, because that is what switchgrass does. That is why I planted it. It can get a root seven feet long before it bothers to grow an inch. This is not particularly gratifying when the zinnia starts, purchased as seeds for $1.43 a packet, are almost as tall.)

I can’t even find a decent plant list for the Piedmont prairie. The easily available stuff on the internet listed a couple of common plants (one of which I even located!) and then went off into the endangered stuff, which I don’t think I’m going to run into any time soon, and wouldn’t plant if I could, what with the terror and all.I’ve tried contacting a conservation group locally that’s supposed to work on restoring these, but haven’t heard back yet.)

Possibly what I need is more revery, but no matter how much I rev, it doesn’t seem to accomplish anything. The bee is on the blueberry bush and not at all interested in what’s going on on the other side of the yard.

I’ve made over a dozen deer ticks briefly happy and then very very sad, though. So, um, I guess that’s something.

I have located a mail-order place that sells some of the grasses in flats at prices that choke me to contemplate. And the labor involved (4 flat minimum order, 18 cels to a flat, translates to HOW MUCH time with the trowel and, when the clay gets egregious, the little hand-pickaxe?) chokes me even farther. Nevertheless, I suspect I may wind up putting in an order in the next month or so, because by god…go big or go home. Money where mouth is. I want to plant for wildlife, I will plant…if not a prairie, exactly, then a native grass planting that can pass for one in poor light.

And Emily Dickensen can kiss my revery, or perhaps my bee.

*Plus occasionally Kevin, for things like “Can you mow this?” and “Can you show me how to use the bow saw without killing myself?” and “I believe we will require fire for this bit.”

Stuff In My Yard: Ringneck Snake

By | Animals, Stuff In My Yard | 5 Comments

Ringneck Snake

Diadophis punctatus

Photo from Wikimedia by Brian Gratwicke

This handsome fellow is the Ringneck Snake. Kevin tripped over one in the middle of the backyard, where it was hanging out, la la la, just bein’ a snake, nothin’ to see here… (This is actually rather unusual–they’re mostly nocturnal and rather shy.) It was eight or ten inches long, very thin, like a small shiny shoelace. He herded it–for a value of “herded” that mostly involved it slithering between his boots–into a brushy area less likely to be troubled by beagles and it vanished into the leaf litter.

They’re not big snakes–this one was probably an adult, or close to it–and in my yard, he’s probably feeding primarily on insects, earthworms and cricket frogs. I am delighted that he finds enough prey here to sustain him, even as I hope that his diet is heavier on the earthworms and the insects than the cricket frogs.  (I am a vertebrate chauvinist, I admit, and very fond of the little cricket frogs.) However, he is also eating leopard slugs and garden centipedes, which means that he can help himself to the occasional frog as far as I’m concerned. (Hell, if he eats THOSE, he can come inside and raid the liquor cabinet and I won’t begrudge him…) They kill their prey through constriction and envenomation, but have a very hard time breaking the skin on humans, so even if you happen to put your hand down on one, it’s unlikely to be anything but startling.

He’s a great little guy to have in the garden, and I hope he finds love with some other lovely little black shoelace and they have a zillion babies.

A rose by any other name would not sell as well.

By | Invasives | 7 Comments

So Kevin cleared out the old playset from the backyard Sunday, and the result is just…incredible. We’d been saying for over a year that we needed to get rid of it, but being busy-and-lazy as we are, it didn’t happen until Kevin ran over one end with the riding lawnmower and couldn’t get it loose and by the time he’d extracted both mower and himself, demolition was already well under way.

The amount to which the playset was blocking our view was incredible. Your eyes just kind of went to it naturally–I mean, it was huge and garish and had swings–and I never realized how many things our eyes weren’t going to. Like the trees, and the wood’s edge, and that fact that we have really quite a large backyard.

Being me, I immediately started trying to ID some of the trees, many of which grow throughout the wooded area, but which I had not come quite so up-close-and-personal with, and some of which I’d been meaning to ID forever.

Some interesting discoveries–that’s juniper cedar back there, and that weird thing with the freaky bark is not diseased but a winged elm (aka wahoo elm) used to make hockey sticks, Carolina red maple (a subspecies of red maple) is the thing that looks sort of like sweetgum and grows just as psychotically, and that stuff all over the back is…pignut hickory.

Pignut. Really?

I have this theory. My theory is that Shakespeare was wrong, and the names of plants really do influence us. Skunk cabbage is a great plant, but just try to find someone (other than my mother and Sara Stein) to sing its praises. You can chop down something named “pignut” without grief. “Wahoo” elm is just weird. Rename it “majestic hickory” or “divine elm” and they’d be a protected species and Thoreau would have had an epiphany at one.

But silktree–silk is lovely! Let’s keep that, while it conquers the world and crowds out natives. Take my scourge, Japanese honeysuckle. A lovely word, honeysuckle. Everybody loves honey! It drips off the tongue…and the fence and the pignut hickory and the wahoo elm and the dirt and the stunted but alive juniper cedar that I cleared by hand yesterday and had no idea was even back there. And Japan is a lovely country and I watch Ninja Warrior religiously in the evenings and eat more sushi than is probably healthy, and also I was born in Yokosuka. I like Japan.

How could anyone hate something called Japanese honeysuckle?

Well, grim experience, mostly. I expressed this to Kevin, who agreed that my theory had merit, but rejected its logical extension–that we immediately rename Japanese honeysuckle to “screaming buttweed”–as unlikely to gain widespread traction.

So I cleared the screaming buttweed from another stand of hearts-a-bursting, and that exhausted me sufficiently to come in and start working on today’s quota of Batbreath.

Also I just picked a caterpillar out of my hair. I am a fan of caterpillars, I am trying hard to make the world better for them, so I only screamed a little and then put it on a scrap of paper and took it back outside.

…and Blue Jays.

By | Birds, My Garden | One Comment

Blue jays are not common in my yard. I don’t know what fluke it may be–whether we’re too rural or something, since I used to see them constantly when I lived in the city, and there’s certainly plenty in Pittsboro proper. But for the longest time, I would see maybe one blue jay a year, who was passing through on his way to someplace else.

This was kind’ve a bummer because I like blue jays. I’ve never had one be rude on a feeder, and their colors are so dramatic that they make me unbearably happy.

For the last week or so, though, a couple of jays have been hanging around, high in the pine trees, being raucous and generally traumatizing the mourning doves. They don’t visit the feeders, I don’t see them on the bird bath, but they’re up there in the trees, making occasional appearances and dropping ragged, brilliant feathers on the grass.

Today I saw one hopping along a branch with a long bit of pine needle in his beak, and went “Ah…hmmm.” Got out the binoculars, and sure enough, there is a very well-hidden nest waaay up in the tallest loblolly pine (right next to the red-bellied woodpecker’s snag, and bordering on the garden.)

Whatever was keeping the jays away–whether it was simply that none had wandered in, or something was missing, or that something was actively dissuading them–it seems to have cleared up. I hope this means we’ll have jays in the yard in the future, but at least it means somebody will.

There were also eight mourning doves under the feeder and on the birdbath today, and a pair of brown thrashers in the blackberry tangle at the end of the drive, the local whippoorwill has been going nuts all night–and Kevin heard something that was probably a barred owl last night, much to his delight–so the birds are definitely out there.