Monthly Archives: April 2011

New Garden Denizens

By | Animals, Insects | 8 Comments

Who's a handsome boy, then?

So I was bending over to pull some miner’s lettuce that had come up in the raspberry bed, and saw a strip of mulch that was brighter and more regular than I was used to, whereupon several neurons fired and I took a step back and told Kevin to put the beagle inside Right Now, as it was this very handsome fellow you see above—Agkistrodon contortrix, the copperhead.

Given the choice of having any poisonous snake in the yard, it would absolutely be the copperhead, a mild-mannered retiring snake who would very much prefer to issue warning bites or venomless “dry bites”  when stepped on or pestered than anything else. My biggest fear was that the beagle would harass the snake into biting, and I suppose it’s possible I’ll step on one someday, but I’m honestly more worried about accidentally putting my hand on an assassin bug. Kevin’s kids don’t go outside unless the indoors is actively on fire, so that’s not an issue either.

This is the first time I’ve seen one in the yard (and if the black snake catches sight of him, it’ll be the last time) so I don’t know if he’s just passing through, or far more likely, has been living here for years and I just happened to catch sight of him today and won’t see him again for another couple of years.

I realize that my attitude may strike some as ridiculously casual, but Dad A) kept snakes when I was a kid and B) lived in one of the most rattlesnake-heavy areas in North America, with the end result that I spent a fair amount of my childhood living in the vicinity of snakes and have no particular fear of them. Trying to kill snakes is generally how people get bit, the snake has probably been there all along and we’ve never come into contact, ergo if I leave the snake alone, odds are very good that everything will just keep on keepin’ on.

Besides, look at that face!

I'm too sexy for my scales...

(Photo taken with a very long zoom lens.)

The other newcomer in the garden is rather less exciting, but still nice to have in a hey-the-system-works! kind of fashion—Acilius mediatus, a predacious diving beetle, has found my pond! Its offpsring are called “water tigers” and eat insect larvae, and hopefully will keep the future mosquitoes under control.

So that was exciting!

Flowers That Count

By | plants | No Comments

Carolina Jessamine. Took three years before it wanted to flower again.

Weird quirk, I admit—but I am secretly convinced that flowers don’t count if they were on the plant when I bought it.  So I can plant a plant with flowers currently on it, but those are not MY flowers—they belong to some greenhouse keeper somewhere else—until next year, when if the flowers return, I get to claim them.

On the other hand, if the plant doesn’t have flowers when I buy it, and I plant it, and then it flowers, they do belong to me, assuming that a suitable time has elapsed (i.e. at least a couple of weeks.)

I don’t claim to be logical about this.

So none of the annuals count, except the zinnias that I grow from seed, and the black-eyed susans didn’t count the first year but they count now, but the sundrops did count the first year because it was like a month before they flowered.

None of this particularly matters except in vague personal satisfaction that I have made a plant happy enough to flower, but there y’are. (Bugs and birds, for whom I grow most of these things, are completely uninterested in these concerns, of course.)

My Japanese roof iris just flowered, although I don’t have photos. Japanese roof iris is an interesting little plant, and supposedly tough as nails—I stuck it in a trouble-spot that’s deep shade most of the day, gets two hours of murderous afternoon sun, and is also under a downspout and thus perpetually soggy. It’s surrounded by native Carex sedges, which I know will do fine there, but I’m hopefully on the iris, since I’m a sucker for Japanese iris, and this one is interesting in that it was traditionally grown on thatched roofs, owing to a command by some shogun or other that because the country was at war, all available arable land would be used for food crops.  The iris weren’t even grown because they’re beautiful, but because the root was used for cosmetics.

The following flowers are currently flowering, and make me stupidly happy.


Baptisia, "Carolina Moonlight" --- Seems to flower a week or so before the purple ones.

Pond Survives Rain, Citizens Jubilant

By | My Garden | 2 Comments

Lake Learning Experience

Sure, it’s a small pond, but I’ve got three frogs living in a water-filled azalea pot in the front yard, so this ought to be a jumbo housing unit for SOMEBODY.

Also, when you have to dig it by hand, it’s amazing how much less grandiose your plans get.

For anyone who’s been worried—we had no problems with the storms here at all, there was heavy rain (and I was delighted to see that my pond edges did not immediately dissolve when it overran. Apparently all that drainage rock actually worked!) and some rattling wind, but that was about it. On the Doppler, the tornadoes were on three sides of us, so we got very lucky, but nothing actually hit.

Somewhat ironically, I’d been down in Sanford that morning at Big Bloomers Nursery, and while I was standing in one of the greenhouses, the plastic roof peeled off and flew away. That was a little unsettling. I drove home in high winds and thought, “Man, this is gonna be a bad one,” at the time, but I had no idea that Sanford was getting smashed by tornadoes pretty much an hour after I left. Again, I got really lucky.

Anyway, the pond edges are planted in with Green-and-Gold to provide a measure of erosion control—Green-and-Gold is totally my favorite groundcover ever—and with iris and river oats on the far side. At the moment it looks very unimpressive, but next year it should be kickin’ it…and if it’s not, then I will try again until it IS.

Lessons Learned…

By | My Garden, plants | One Comment

So today I put plants in the new pond.

This proved more complicated than I expected.

Turns out that potting soil floats. Who knew? Even weighed down with rocks…well…let’s just say that my shiny new pond now appears to have been used as a toilet by something with a colon the size of a jet engine and a diet sorely lacking in fiber.

I believe I will call the pond “Lake Learning Experience.”

So apparently I need to go buy a net or something to skim grunge out of it.  The plants have been placed…more or less…and consist of native horsetail (contained in pots–under “Spread” the nursery had simply written “Watch out!”) an adorable variant called “Tiny Horsetail” which is less invasive and very wee, some sweet flag and Louisiana iris. The sweet flag and the iris are largely experimental–we’ll see if they actually thrive in those conditions, or if in a few weeks I’ll be hauling them out and planting them pond-side instead.  The horsetail, which would apparently thrive in the bowels of hell, is what I had really planned to have growing in the pond anyway, but I’m not gonna complain if I can get the Louisiana iris to grow.

They’re all in, anyway. I got covered in mud and stress-tested the drainage around the edges of the pond (So far, so good! We’ll see how it does when it rains!) and one of the horsetails is heeled over at about a thirty degree angle, but no one died or fell in, and that’s the important thing…


By | My Garden | 6 Comments

After several months that alternated between staring grimly at a hole in the ground and going after said hole with a pickaxe—a process interrupted by my need to scale the summit of Mt. Mulch–I have finally finished the pond. It is dug, it is lined, it is filled, and there are rocks.

Lord, so many rocks…

Kevin came in yesterday for the final few hours of laying down liner and whatnot, and helped me lug some stone, but for the most part, this has been my project, and I’ve got the blisters to prove it. (I also now own my own pickaxe. ‘Cos every woman needs her own pickaxe.) Today I threw everything else that needed doing to the winds and spent about six hours finishing up the job, punctuated by phone calls from my editor to make sure I really did want to do more Dragonbreath books and my agent wasn’t keeping me chained in the basement and making me say that.

The current fashion in ponds is a hole with big flagstones around it overhanging the lip. I realized sometime yesterday that the reason for this is because that’s definitely the easiest method of coping with the question of how to disguise the big plastic pond liner. Unfortunately, this method also leaves no easy method for things that fall in to get out again, and no way for butterflies to puddle, and while frogs seem able to leap from the water like tiny torpedoes, if a turtle happened by, it would be screwed.

I cannot face the guilt involved in having accidentally slain a hypothetical turtle. Two hundred pounds of drainage rock later, I have constructed a crude beach-head for beasties to escape, and which also provides some nice soggy gravel that may prove interesting for butterflies looking for a sip.

This has the effect of making the flagstones look kinda funny on the beach-side. They’re high and dry and sitting atop gravel, while the waterline is several inches lower. To which I say “Look, there are so many weird-ass aesthetic choices in this garden, if you’re sweating over that, don’t turn around.” (Yes, there will be photos, but not until the water clears a bit and I’ve put in the water plants—definitely some scouring rush in pots, to give the dragonflies something to hold onto, and I’ll see what else is native and sturdy.)

One of my great goals for gardening is to successfully have some amphibian or other breed in my yard. If I can do that, I will feel like I’m really getting somewhere. And also I may die of squee.*

Surely tadpoles are possible!

It was a good day for hauling rocks around. It was pleasant and sunny and not hot enough to be miserable, everything is alive and singing, the tiger swallowtails are out in force and a woodpecker drummed on the tree above me while I worked.  The first hummingbird of the year buzzed me—male rubythroat, gorget absolutely gorgeous saturated red, attitude absolutely vile, just as it should be.

I saw the first monarch butterfly a few days ago, and was immediately seized with guilt, as my garden, while gearing up for a really fine show this year, is still sadly lacking in the early spring nectar offerings. I felt like a bad host. Here was one of my gardening goals, on the wing, and I had nothing to offer it!** It was as if the queen had come to tea, and all I had was stale crackers and some leftover tonic water.

I did what gardeners always do in this situation—I went out and bought some annuals and vowed that next year would not catch me so flat footed. (Bulbs. I need bulbs, clearly…) Some day I will have enough early spring plants to tempt a monarch without having to grab a flat of cheap annuals!

Just not, perhaps, today…

Anyway, the pond is dug, and I am very very tired and may go to bed before nine tonight. This weekend, I get the BEST part of such a big project—putting in the plants to complete the project! (My big potted oakleaf hydrangea is going into the ground, but there’s a lot of space to fill in. Woot!)

*I’m sure the little cricket frogs are breeding SOMEWHERE on the property, but I’ve never caught them in the act. I want to actually SEE a tadpole. This would make me very happy.

**I’d like to hatch out caterpillars here somewhere, too—if a monarch could live on the milkweed, I would be beyond thrilled, but I’d be happy with black swallowtails at this point. And I keep planting pipevine for the pipevine swallowtails, but it may be awhile before there’s enough to tempt a butterfly to lay eggs.


By | My Garden, plants | 2 Comments

Ladies and gentlemen, I have done the improbable.

I have conquered Mt. Mulch!

I mulched things I had not intended to mulch, I mulched things that man was probably not MEANT to mulch, my forearms are almost as toned as when I was doing serious ceramics, and there’s a future bed in the back currently under about eighteen inches worth that will hopefully turn into compost by the time I get around to actually making a bed out of it…but the pile is gone.

Next year, five cubic yards! I’ll probably need that much to mulch all the new beds I had to put in because I ordered too much in the first place, ashes to ashes, mulch to mulch, world without end.

I celebrated by planting seeds. Some of them were carefully and deliberately chosen, like the Dragon Tongue bush beans and the Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumbers, but the majority were a few random seed packets to fill in holes in the landscape until the perennials fill in. So there’s a couple of packs of zinnias broadcast randomly through the beds out front—zinnias are awesome as hole fillers in this climate, and while they reseed vigorously all year, I don’t know if the seeds survive our winters very well, since I haven’t seen a single volunteer this spring. I also planted some nasturtiums along a couple of the beds, and figured “What the hell, worth a try,” with a pack of false indigo. (False indigo does fantastic down here, but I’ve never tried it from seed–it doesn’t set seed very well in the wild, owing to parasites.) And in the Death Bed run by weeds and (hopefully) slowly being conquered by judicious application of mountain mint and sporadic shrubs, which I mulched in a fit of desperation, I threw down a pack of showy evening primrose, which is a crazy spreader but hey, if you’re gonna have weeds, at least they can be attractive native weeds.

(I also transplanted in some sundrops, on the principle that the Oenothera genus can fight it out there with my blessing.)

The garden is doing pretty well. This is the third year, and supposedly perennials take three years to be established—“First they sleep, then they creep, then they leap.” In a couple of cases, this seems to be true—the wild quinine threw out twice the leaves of last year, the Carolina jessamine finally flowered, the cabbage leaf coneflower put out a shock of leaves as big as my torso, and the chocolate snakeroot practically lunged out of the ground.

In a few others, it’s only the second year and they seem to have gone for a kzin-style scream-and-leap. I hope to god that this is not them “creeping” or else next year’s garden will be nothing but New York aster, hardy ageratum, and swamp sunflower. The swamp sunflower is seriously scaring me. The plant consisted of a few leggy stalks last year, so this year I put one of those plant support grids over top of it, thinking they’d grow through. Instead they’re dense, leafy, and about to yank the grid out of the ground and possibly smash me over the head with it.

Next up, finishing the pond!

Carpenter Bee on Blueberries

By | Day-to-Day, Insects | 4 Comments

Taken with iPhone

This handsome fellow is—I think—a large carpenter bee of the Xylocopa persuasion.* He is on my blueberries, and there is an excellent chance that he is pollinating them. There is also an excellent chance that he is chewing a hole in the side of each flower to get to the nectar. Since I think his family probably pollinated last year’s crop, I’m not going to begrudge him the holes. I am deeply delighted by my native pollinators and really need to rig up a mason bee house this year…

The bugs are out in force in the garden right now, Mt. Mulch has been reduced dramatically (I think I may actually have it down to about 40% of it’s former glory, although I am seriously running out of things to mulch at this point) the bees are lumbering through the flowers, the little spring butterflies are cavorting amidst the weeds, a birdhouse that I had long since given up on appears to be favored by Carolina chickadees, and no trees have tried to kill me for a couple of days now. Almost everything has broken dormancy, including the milkweed and Joe-Pye-Weed, always slow to emerge, (my American spikenard lives! Woohoo! I had nearly lost hope!) and I’ve pretty much given up on the cannas—think we just got too damn cold this winter. Gonna see if I can find the native canna at Niche Gardens and give it a try.

Time to go lug the laptop to the cafe and get a thousand words done on either Dragonbreath 7 (Fairybreath) or Bread Wizard…

*There is a  chance that she is actually a bumblebee queen, but he’s pretty shiny and not real hairy on the backside, which is supposed to be the telling bit.  As you can tell, my bee ID skills are not great yet.

So I just nearly died!

By | Day-to-Day | 3 Comments

And by “nearly” I mean that I was fertilizing my Carolina lupine (a lovely native plant! Recommend it highly!) and heard a splintery creaky noise and looked up and yelled an obscenity and a tree came down about three feet from where I was standing, tore through the trellis I’d put up for the climbing aster (a lovely native plant! Also recommend it highly!) and slammed into the ground.

Approximately thirty seconds earlier, I had been standing directly under it, fertilizing the Celandine poppies (a lovely native plant–oh, never mind…) and had I dawdled a bit or stopped to check for a tick or something, you’d be getting this blog post from the ER (if I moved very quickly) or not at all (if I didn’t.)

It was a dead pine about as thick around as my thigh, and since it’s only slightly windy, I’m thinking the base just plain rotted out and finally gave up the ghost. It was back sufficiently far in the wooded area that we never thought it was a threat to the house. I’d put it at thirty or forty feet tall—probably died in the big ice storm a few years back that took out forty-some trees directly (Kevin said they came down like jackstraws, and you can still see a lot of them downed in the woods) and left others standing but deceased. The main body was still pretty damn solid, though, and if I’d taken it to the head…well, let’s just say there would be reason to be glad that I finished Digger last month. (If I’d had the brains to throw myself sideways, it would be more likely a call to 9-1-1 saying “So there’s this tree on me…” and fortunately Kevin was on his way home, so I wouldn’t have had to gnaw my own leg off or anything. Still, it would have been Very Unpleasant.)

Still, nice to know that apparently it’s not my time!

As I said, we do live in a heavily wooded area, and while the area around the house is cleared–that’s how I garden–there’s just no escaping the fact that dead trees come down occasionally, and if they fall one way, they’ll land in the yard. Every now and then we go out and go “Hey, didn’t there used to be a tree there?” but it’s really never been that big a deal.

So I did what one does in such circumstances, which was to finish fertilizing the rest of the plants while pretending that this was Perfectly Normal and trees nearly fall on me every day, and then I called Kevin and said “So I just nearly died!” and then called my mother and did the same thing. They both took it well. Then Kevin came home and with the help of a hacksaw, cut it down and hauled it to the back of the bed, so now I have a dead tree as the back border in one area (which is actually kinda awesome!) and a moderate addition to the brush pile.

I haven’t gotten the shakes or started crying or anything, so either I really do have ice water in my veins or it’s gonna hit me sometime this evening and it’ll be exciting.

P.S. Missed all the plants, too. Right down the middle of the bed, missed the hardy pomegranate and the paw-paw by inches, cleared the bloodroot by millimeters, and the top broke off directly over a hyssop and didn’t so much as scratch it. Damnedest thing I ever saw. Apparently it really hated that trellis.

P.S.S. Crap, it only just occurred to me—not an April Fool’s joke! I have photos and everything!

It’s a collection, damnit!

By | Invasives, My Garden | 5 Comments

So I have this native plant collection.

Seriously. I did a count t’other day, and there’s over a hundred different natives that I put in the ground, and that’s different species and doesn’t even include all the different variations (I hit a big plant sale late last autumn when they had a LOT of asters half-price, and now there’s a large section that’s solid aster cultivars. Haven’t a clue what it’ll look like next fall, but here’s hoping…)

And those were just the ones that are still alive.

From this you can assume that I’ve got A) a large yard and B) sufficient disposable income to satisfy a rather obscure hobby. It’s actually not that spendy, particularly when nice people at the arboretum learn of your passion and are happy to dump random plants on you, or if you haunt a lot of end-of-season sales, but yes, this is indeed my primary hobby. Not that you could have guessed or anything…

As a result, my garden is exactly the sort of garden we are told by designers absolutely not to have—the plant “collection” where there’s one of everything and nothing is related. If I am feeling self-justification-y, I will plead that this is in the spirit of research as I am still new to gardening in the Southeast and if something does very well, I go out and buy five more, as in my mountain mint planting or all that Husker Red penstemon and swamp-milkweed, and two black-eyed-susans going full-throttle are definitely not a “specimen planting,” and anyway, one bee-balm turns into EIGHTY FREAKIN’ MILLION given thirty seconds and a little rain, so it’s a mass planting NOW and…um…what was I talking about?

Right. Garden design, don’t have a plant collection, whatever. Those people can bite me. The chief function of the garden, as Henry Mitchell once wrote, is to bring delight to the gardener. My collection brings me incessant delight. I can kill an hour in early spring just wandering around checking on plants. If you want to show up and complain that it looks like a patchwork quilt designed by a blind man on LSD, that’s your prerogative, but I will have words, probably starting with “No, really, do I know you and how did you find out where I live, anyway?”

Anyway. Right. Native plants. I collect them. Some people do commemorative spoons or Star Trek plates, I do native plants. They don’t have to be pretty. They honestly don’t even have to be useful–closed bottle gentian’s an awesomely weird little plant, and as far as I know, hosts no specific bug, has no useful properties, and the poor thing’s endangered and threatened in a lot of places to boot, so obviously I HAD to grow it.*

However,  I read yet another garden blog today that reported “push-back against native-plant purists,” and wondered yet again who the heck these purist people are. I have had readers tell me they exist, that they occasionally button-hole nursery owners and lecture them, and I have absolutely no reason to doubt these reports, so clearly there are some weird native-plant trolls out there.

So let me just state the following, for the record, lest anyone assume that I am among their number—and honestly, given the number of times I talk and rhapsodize about native plants, I can sorta see how you got there, and anybody who plants a hundred of ANYTHING is probably suspect.


I have no problem with most non-native plants. I am all for them. What Sara Stein called “well-behaved immigrants” are welcome in my garden any day of the week. I have a fair number of non-natives, including Walker’s Low Catmint, Jerusalem Sage, Autumn Fire Sedum, calamint, pineapple sage, all those wonderful Agastaches and pretty much my entire vegetable garden, and we’ve already talked about my little Salvia problem.  The aforementioned catalog of my garden turned up thirty-odd non-natives I’ve planted, and I’ve got at least that many that are only what I call native-ish—i.e. they’re from somewhere within driving distance. Texas and Florida has some awfully neat stuff in it, and if it’ll grow here, fantastic.

I do not expect everyone to share my deranged passion for natives. As far as I’m concerned most plants are better than no plants whatsoever. If you want to grow nothing but azaleas and boxwood, it is no skin off my teeth. No, I don’t think it’s very exciting, no, it doesn’t do a lot of ecological heavy lifting, but it’s also not hurting anything, and some generalist bugs are still going to benefit, so that’s a net win, as far as I’m concerned.

Yes, it would be nice if we had more native plant options. Some native plants really do a lot more ecological heavy lifting on the bug front than any non-native ever could. And even a couple of native plants in a garden is better than none, and I think if every gardener put in just one or two native plants, it would be awesome, and it might make some bugs very happy. That’s really all I ask there. I don’t expect everybody to take up a plant collection like mine, I don’t expect people to get terribly excited by little plastic pots of American Mandrake or Mountain Dog-hobble or Rattlesnake-Master (although hey, are those great names or what?)  And almost any plant is better than no plant at all, as far as bugs are concerned.

Even azaleas and boxwoods beat the hell out of concrete.

Where I draw the line is when people plant thugs. If I have to spend hours of my gardening time wrenching out the spawn of something you planted, this makes me a trifle grumpy. I would much rather be sipping a mint julep and reading inspirational literature to my closed bottle gentian than spending the day yanking Himalayan blackberry runners and swearing every time a thorn goes through my goat-hide gloves.**

And let’s not even talk about the Screaming Buttweed (aka Japanese honeysuckle.) We hates it, Baggins, we hates it forever.

I do not feel this is an unreasonable point of view. Don’t plant things that make life harder for other people. (Bamboo, I am looking in your direction!) And I realize that people get very upset when they find out that a plant they really like is a thug, and frequently they get defensive about it, because there’s often a very sentimental component to gardening, and thus there is a tendency to start arguing that people are just purists who don’t want ANYBODY to have nice plants. Hey, my Grandma planted Japanese honeysuckle, I know how it goes! But my emotional response doesn’t give me the right to make life harder for all the neighbors around me, or for the poor Forest Service, who is already spending a truly obscene portion of their budget trying to get rid of some of this stuff.

I have heard from readers who would like to garden, but are in a sea of goutweed or ivy or bamboo coming in from the other yards and have thrown up their hands in despair. I think this is very sad. I don’t think it’s kind to do this to your neighbors, but I understand that some people don’t realize that they are being horticulturally unkind by doing so, which is why you have read this same speech from me, in variation, about fifty times now, and will probably continue to do so every time I have to spend a week tearing out buttweed.***

So. To sum up, because as usual that got way long:

Native plants good!

Well-behaved non-native plants also pretty good!

Thugs bad!

Really, that’s all.



*If you understood this justification, you are either a gardener or a collector of something.

**Whenever I read somebody dismissing invasive plants as no big deal or overblown or whatever, I just want to invite them to my garden in early spring, when the Himalayan blackberry and the honeysuckle are both going at once. I can only assume that they do not garden in the sub-tropical Southeast and thus have not actually encountered invasive plants on the scale that some of us live with. Presumably a good multiflora rose thicket would have a similar educational effect.

***Honestly, if I had goutweed, I might just napalm the whole place down to bedrock. It’s the only way to be sure.