Monthly Archives: October 2010

Crap, it’s winter.

By | Birds | 2 Comments

Okay, it’s really NOT, it’s in the sixties and sunny, but I just spotted the first junco when I went out back at lunch, and juncos = winter in my head.

The goldfinches have been gone for awhile, the hummingbirds have left, but there are still monarchs coming through and I wasn’t expecting the juncos so SOON.

Now I have to stop thinking dark thoughts about the stores putting out Christmas stuff. And I was really kinda enjoying that, damnit.

Red-bellied Dogfight

By | Birds, My Garden | 6 Comments

Just saw a pair of male red-bellied woodpeckers bickering. It was really pretty impressive–they were chasing each other from tree trunk to tree trunk, and then there was a brief and dramatic sequence where they attacked in mid-air, belly to belly, beaks clashing, wings flapping frantically.

Then they fell out of the air, because they’re woodpeckers, not hummingbirds, and lack the ability to hover. They’d crash into the leaf litter, flop around, flap to a tree trunk, scold each other, scrabble up the tree trunk, and then start all over again. This went on until Kevin decided it was time to make brunch, and for all I know may be going on still.

I assume they’re having some kind of territorial dispute. It’d be REALLY late in the year to fight over mates…maybe they’re establishing winter territories or something. They both had the red heads, but one could have been a newly fledged juvenile, I guess, trying to carve out a chunk of space from the resident. Pretty wacky.

Stuff In My Yard: Pineapple Sage

By | plants, Stuff In My Yard | 44 Comments

Salvia elegans, taken with iPhone

Salvia elegans

It’s fall, definitely and thoroughly fall, and the real show-stopper in the garden at the moment is the pineapple sage.

My mother grew pineapple sage, and I remember it fondly as a small potted annual herb, pleasant-smelling and vigorous, but not particularly large, and I’m not sure if it ever actually flowered.

Now I live in the South.

Pineapple sage is a shrub down here. It may or may not overwinter here in Zone 7b–luck and placement is a factor–but it hardly matters because it grows to massive proportions in a single season. The one in the picture (cultivar “Golden Delicious” which I highly recommend for the foliage color) comes up past my shoulders, is covered in flowers, and I spend most of the summer hacking it back to keep it from eating the rest of the plants.

Originally from the highlands of Mexico and, as I said, VERY vigorous, it’d be an odd plant for me to grow, but it’s actually got some really good points. It flowers very late, when the days have gotten short, and offers a last good meal to late-migrating hummingbirds and a serious nosh for Cloudless Sulphurs and other butterflies.  (I’ve seen a whole flock of the butterflies…flight? swarm? flurry? hovering over it in the last few weeks.) It’s a very low seed producer–I’ve grown multiple plants for multiple years and yanked all of one seedling in that time.  And all that pruning in summer is actually kinda useful, because I can use it as what’s known in permaculture as a “mulch crop” either dropping it on top of the soil or using it as a layer in a sheet mulch bed.  (Half the beds I’ve built are based on a layer of pineapple sage cuttings.)

Plus you can cook with it–apparently it’s a marvelous spice–use it in iced tea and fruit salad, and it’s used extensively in Mexican folk medicine and treats anxiety in mice. (I do not have any anxious mice to treat, and honestly haven’t tried cooking with it, but it’s nice to have the option.) And it’s gorgeous, of course, and a heckuva final show in a garden winding down for autumn.

In fall, I stop hacking it back and just let it go, whereupon it flowers like crazy and then, when winter hits, becomes a tangle of stems under the birdfeeder (I like to grow it under–and around–the birdfeeder) which provides cover for the juncos and sparrows, who treat it like a jungle gym.

Full sun, takes clay soil very well, handles humidity with ease, and is semi-drought tolerant once established, although it gets pretty wilty and is a bit of water-hog in a pot.  It’s propagated vegetatively–it doesn’t run or it’d be entirely too vigorous for me to plant, but you could root a cutting of the stuff on the surface of Venus, and lots of people bring it inside for the winter, where it continues to flower happily for quite a long time.  I yanked some up that was eating its neighbors and shoved it rather carelessly into the ground at the edge of the driveway, which is packed clay and gravel, and then watered it twice and forgot it was there. It survived a solid month of drought in seriously punishing soil and while it’s not nearly as pretty as the stuff under the birdfeeder, it is very much alive and growing. This stuff is like iron.

Schweinitz’s Sunflower

By | plants | 4 Comments

taken with iPhone

This plant here is Schweinitz’s Sunflower, a federally endangered plant. I took the photo at the North Carolina Botanical Garden yesterday, where I went because I was having a bad day and roaming through the Botanical Garden makes me feel a bit better…possibly because their garden is as ragged as mine these days, so I don’t feel so bad about the state of mine.

The botanical garden here is growing Schweinitz’s Sunflower and storing seed from various populations of it. It’s extremely endangered–there are just 35 populations, all in North and South Carolina. It is, in fact, one of the plants from the vanished Piedmont Prairie, a fire-maintained oak savannah that used to cover this area before European settlement. (My extremely unimpressive prairie planting is modeled on said Piedmont prairie. At the moment it looks very dead. I’m giving it another year or two to do ANYTHING, and then I’m terracing the hillside and starting over. There WILL be a prairie planting on that site if it kills me…ahem.) The sunflower has suffered declines because people stopped letting fires burn, and started developing open areas and putting buildings on top of the sunflowers, with the end result that, like many of our prairie plants, it now lives mostly in power line clearings and old pastures.

Honestly, the sunflower’s not that distinctive. It’s tall–about eight feet–and has fairly small flowers of the Standard Yellow Daisy-Like variety, which look pretty like cup plant or rosinweed or coreopsis or swamp sunflower or some rudbeckia or coneflower varieties. The foliage is nothing much.  It’s a plant. So far as I know, it has no medicinal properties and can do nothing much to help humanity. It’s just a plant.

We are saving it for the same reason that you grab people dangling off cliffs–because it’s the right thing to do. You don’t interrogate the person hanging off the cliff as to their ability to better humanity, you don’t look at them and go “Hmm….you’re pretty average lookin’…” and let them fall. You try to haul them up, because it’s just what you do when people–or species–are dangling off cliffs.

If there were enough of them (there aren’t yet) it might be a good candidate for gardeners to try and help bring back. I’ve got a fair number of threatened species in the garden–prairie dropseed is locally endangered, Eupatorium hyssopfolium is endangered in the northern part of its range, and a friend who volunteers at the botanical garden got me a lovely little big-leaf magnolia to try and coax along. And I’m not a good gardener, merely an enthusiastic one.  Gardeners can do a lot, I suspect–not as much as not wrecking the habitat in the first place, god knows, but in a lot of cases, the milk has already been spilled and we might as well see if we can make cheese out it.

And I cannot help but think that a world where we grew a couple of threatened plants instead of another azalea or bucket of mums would be a slightly better one. Even if they just look like plants.

Common Checkered Skipper

By | Insects, My Garden | 5 Comments

Taken with iPhone

A common checkered skipper, perching on Texas Ageratum, one of the great performers of the garden, can’t recommend the native ageratums highly enough.   (He looked much more blue and white out in the wild–I think there’s probably a sheen or something on the wings that doesn’t photograph terribly well.)  A very handsome little butterfly, and either brave or uninterested in the large primate chasing it around the flowers with a cameraphone.

It looked sad!

By | My Garden, plants | 2 Comments

Pity is not a good reason to buy a plant. In fact, it’s a terrible reason. Gardening is hard enough already, and you owe it to yourself to work with hardy, healthy, well-grown specimens. I am no master gardener, and most of the success I have enjoyed derives from arming myself with sturdy plants of species that would probably grow if planted in asphalt.

Which, of course, is why I came home today with the World’s Most Tragic Redbud.

It had apparently come off the worse in a battle with a forklift, and I found it with almost all the dirt knocked off its roots, (the roots themselves a pitiably small tangle) slumped against a table of suspiciously glossy Burford holly.

I didn’t want a tree. I had come in for birdseed. Birdseed is not a tree.

Redbud is native. It’s a beautiful tree that flowers in spring. I love them dearly, and am sad that the only one in the immediate vicinity is off in the woods and hard to see. I had been thinking for awhile that it would be a nice thing to plant, but of course, I wanted a seriously tough specimen, well grown and vigorous, with roots that would dive into the soil like otters on steroids.

I looked at the dying redbud.

It looked sad.

Kevin had adopted more tragic homeless animals than one cares to contemplate, and we cannot see a stray dog or cat cross the road without slowing down and looking at each other and gritting our teeth. I brake for turtles, and I dread the day I find a living-but-injured turtle, and wind up spending huge sums at the vet to try and heal it. There was probably never any hope.

I tracked down the manager, who offered me a steep discount on the poor tree, and I lugged it home, muttering about suckers and P. T. Barnum,  sank it as deep into the ground as it would go, and soaked it down. There’s not much root there. I don’t have all that much hope, and I certainly didn’t plan to put a tree in that spot, but…well…if it lives, it’ll shade the bed that was supposed to be part-shade and has been burning a lot in our killer summer sun. And it’s a redbud. And it was really cheap.

And it looked sad.


Clearly fall…

By | Birds, Day-to-Day | No Comments

Yesterday was a painfully glorious day in the garden–sunny, temperate, enough of a breeze to make it pleasant. I spent hours outside, finishing up construction of the last bed, a small island inset in the sunny part of the lawn, which finishes the job of breaking the front yard into a meandering grassy path rather than an expanse of wasted space.

Today is cool and sporadically cloudy, so the yard is shifting between sun and shade every minute or two. I had to wear a jacket to sit out front and drink my morning coffee, which means, I think, that it is finally and irrevocably fall.

The signs have been there. Some leaves are falling, but leaves are so sporadic and frankly drab here that I usually go more by animal signs than vegetable ones–none of my maples have turned, but I’ve found a couple of woolly bear caterpillars, the goldfinches have molted to their drab winter coats and are now gone entirely, and the trio of hummingbirds that used to squabble over the yard are gone. (All of which were female. I couldn’t figure that out. Never saw a male ruby-throat take up residence. Kevin saw one visit, but apparently I was running a hummingbird sorority out here.)

October is the tail end of the hummingbird migration through North Carolina. I’ve caught one or two stragglers grabbing a quick snack on the red trumpets of the pineapple sage, but they’re generally gone the next day. My garden is a gas station, not a hotel.  It’s the same for the monarchs, who migrate south in September and October. One will come in, hang around for a day or two, filling up on nectar from the hyssop and the zinnias, then head off. A few days later, another one will show up. We’re not high traffic, but I feel good about the handful of individuals that come by–can’t do a damn thing about Mexican habitat loss or global warming or any of the big things that threaten monarchs, but at least I can give them a good meal before they head back out into the world.

I like fall. It has a lot of things that I love–apple cider and pomegranates in the grocery stores, temperatures low enough that I can open up the house and get some air moving to sweep out the funk of four months of air conditioning, half-price perennials that garden shops can’t move because they’re done blooming and look ugly as hell. Weather suitable for fingerless gloves and long-sleeved shirts and awesome socks. And maybe this’ll be the year I finally learn how to wear a scarf in a way that looks sexy and sophisticated and debonair and not like someone anticipating sub-zero weather.

But I do miss the hummingbirds.