Remembering Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868)

Global Johnny Appleseed?

(One of an occasional series about unsung players in the world of plants)

If Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward had been able to grow ferns in his garden, we might not enjoy bananas in our cereal today.

Dr. Ward was a 19th century physician who lived in East London. He spent his teen years in tropical Jamaica, where flambuoyant foliage there may have inspired his passion for plants.

Unfortunately Dr. Ward’s London garden was, instead, a study in shriveled blacks and grays, where even ferns were casualties to soot from volumes of smoke issuing from surrounding manufactories (his words).

The smoke from “manufactories” in London cannot be understated, even into the 20th century. 1926 newspaper photo. Credit: Creative Commons Wellcome Collection

We can readily imagine pea-soup fog enveloping Dr. Ward’s neighborhood when we read these lines in Tyler Whittle’s book, ‘The Plant Hunters’:

What is known is that Wellclose Square, that part of dockland where he lived, was a Sherlock Holmes sort of place; not exactly producing lepers, abominable lascars (foreign sailors), and wicked Chinamen, but giving that impression all the same.  And had Holmes and Watson been acquainted with their contemporary, Dr. Nathaniel Ward, undoubtedly they would have admired his scientific method of observing and deducing.

Dr. Ward was not a world traveler, but his discovery would ultimately fuel the mighty British Empire.

Lithograph, 1859, by Richard James Lane, National Portrait Gallery, London. Dr Ward would have been 68.

Intrepid botanists and gardeners had been navigating the globe since Columbus and coming home with exotic plants and animals. But there were big problems.

Listen now to what Carl Linnaeus, that great Swedish scientist who showed us how to classify plants and animals had to say:

Good God. When I consider the melancholy fate of so many of botany’s votaries, I am tempted to ask whether men are in their right mind who so desperately risk life and everything else through the love of collecting plants.

The HMS Endeavor, commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, made a voyage to Australia and New Zealand from 1768 to 1771, more than half a century before Dr. Ward began his experiment.  Captain Cook, as he is commonly called, was the first to reach Australia. Naturalist Joseph Banks was on board.

If hunting plants was perilous for collectors, it was even more so for plants.

95 percent died en route. Only 5 percent survived in any condition to grow.

The year is 1829 and Dr. Ward is about to have a Eureka! moment. He has placed the chrysalis of a hawk moth in a tightly sealed glass jar with some soil. He notices that moisture condenses on the glass during the day, then returns to the soil in the cool of the evening, thus keeping the earth always in the same degree of humidity, he writes.

After a week he finds the beginnings of a fern and a blade of grass growing in the bottle. (Presumably, the moth is also doing well and will eventually fly off into the smog.)

How long, he wonders, can plants survive in a tightly sealed environment?

He intends to find out. He hires a carpenter to build two large glass cases with hardwood frames to resist decay and close glazing to create an airtight seal.

An example of what came to be known as the Wardian Case

By July 1833 they are ready for shipping. They are filled with native ferns and will spend six months at sea before they reach Australia.

The plants arrive in Sydney alive and thriving. They are ditched and the cases are refilled with plants from Australia. The return trip is storm-wracked and will take eight months.

In 1835 the plants arrive in England alive and thriving.

Percentages are reversed from 95 per cent loss to 95 percent survival.

Dr. Ward is ecstatic. Glass cases aboard ships are already common, but the tightly sealed environment, independent of surrounding conditions, is the breakthrough that changes plant exploration forever.

In 1842 Dr. Ward publishes the results of his experiments

The Wardian Case, as it comes to be known, can be as much as 4 feet long. It becomes a fixture on sailing ships.

Smaller versions become fixtures in middle-class Victorian homes. Now amateur gardeners can grow healthy ferns in their parlors in a controlled, humid environment, protected from rancid city air.

The Wardian Case, or terrarium, adapted to Victorian parlors

The Wardian Case becomes a household word – and incidentally precipitates massive excavation of native ferns from the countryside.

Dr. Ward, who will never profit from his invention, envisions the impoverished of London growing green, uncontaminated lettuce in window-box Wardian Cases.

Books arrive with directions for managing window gardens in the Wardian Case

But the Wardian Case, or terrarium, as it is called today, is destined for far greater arenas than tenement windows.

Covetous entrepreneurs, long on desire but short on morals, dream about profits in plants. British colonialism gallops into a new and prosperous era. If some shady deals are necessary — well, it’s all for the good of the empire.

For instance, take your everyday cup of tea. The British East India Company sent botanist Robert Fortune into China to learn as much as he could about Chinese tea that was produced deep  inland. Europeans were forbidden to explore much beyond port cities, but this did not stop Robert Fortune.

He disguised himself as a mandarin and trespassed on to forbidden land. He smuggled plants and seeds out  (in a Wardian Case). He stole ancient secrets closely held by the Chinese, complex techniques for  turning freshly picked camellia leaves into tea.  Soon English tea from plantations in India was eliminating the profitable tea trade in China.

Repeat that scenario, with variations,  for rubber plants stolen from Brazil and brought to India, where vast rubber plantations eventually broke Brazil’s monopoly and her economy.

Orchids, flowers, mangos, bananas, coffee, citrus, cocoa and vanilla bean plants are shipped to and survive in British colonies courtesy of the Wardian Case.

Tea Plantation in Ceylon, 1930’s. Shutterstock.

But malaria plagues life in the tropics and cuts deeply into profits. The Wardian Case brings relief.

The bark of the cinchona tree has an alkaloid that kills malaria parasites. In 1860 cinchona plants are smuggled out of South America into India. The bark is processed into quinine that is dissolved in tonic water. The last obstacle to expansion of the British empire falls.

Bark, flowers and seed from the cinchona tree. From a poster by M. VanHyll

Or — maybe the next-to-last obstacle. Doses of tonic to keep malaria at bay are bitter. The British soon discover that gin makes bitter tonic water pleasantly palatable, and gin and tonic presides over happy hour in the colonies. The last obstacle has fallen.

Exotic spices, flowers, and fruit find homes in kitchens and gardens worldwide. Rubber helps build the auto industry and provisions two World Wars.

Vast fortunes are made.  Great monopolies are created on the backs of slave labor. A mighty empire dominates the world. Global ecosystems are forever rearranged.

How would this epoch of plant-based power have played out without the introduction of the Wardian Case?

Next time you see a terrarium, or an aquarium (which is an upside-down terrarium), consider the shadowy 19th century figure who lived near the London docks and who never made a cent off an invention that changed the world in so many unpredictable ways: Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, Global Johnny Appleseed.

Orchids in a glass case, New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Kristine Paulus

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Climate Change and the Gardener

Garden Got You Bonkers? You’re in Good Company

Rising seas, melting ice, monster storms, raging fires. Climate events on planetary scale.

Do our gardens reflect a changing climate in quieter, less dramatic ways?

From its shaky beginnings, our garden has been a perennial game of chess. Soil, Drainage, Exposure, and Storms are the King, Queen, Bishops and Rooks. Plants are Pawns.

If I play the game with finesse and win, plants flourish. If I falter, I am checkmated by too much sun, too much shade, too much drainage, too many storms, too too too. . . or the flip side, not enough not enough not enough…

But maybe, these days, there are other reasons for being checkmated in a garden. Our Cooperative Extension agent, Katy, told me she’s been talking almost daily with distressed gardeners who are losing plants. Long established plants just seem to be giving up.

These Grayswood hydrangeas flourished for a decade in sun with modest shade but had to be removed when loss of a tree increased sunlight marginally. Could they have managedif weather had been less erratic? I miss them in mid-summer, when weeds crowd in where once there was elegance

Could erratic weather, an errant Knight, be the final piece in this garden game of chess, sometimes confounding our best intentions? Is erratic weather a partner in Climate Change? Let’s look back at the past couple of years here in northeast North Carolina.

Single digit temperatures in winter 2018, records for Zone 8.

Spring freezes in 2018 and 2019 as fresh new growth is emerging.

Unseasonally hot dry weather in May 2019 that shrivels tender growth that is replacing tender growth damaged by early spring freezes.

An unusually hot dry spell in August 2019.

Cascades of rain from Hurricane Dorian in early September 2019.

Followed by days of unseasonal heat and “flash” drought.

Oh it wasn’t all bad. (See September Renaissance.) Sometimes weather was an ally and some plants grew fast and lush – greedy for what the elements could give – but some were not able to adapt to erratic jolts when weather became the foe.

Many native plants, like this amelanchier, or serviceberry, held sturdy against erratic weather

Katy’s thoughts: “Things are giving up. Whereas they might have tolerated one or two of those stresses, they can’t continue to take hit after hit. I’ve even had landscape architects tell me that gone are the days of a once-and-done landscape. No more 30-year landscape plans. The landscape is now ‘temporary!’”

We took our pittosporum hedge for granted. Note the contrast in size between the big, old one finally showing signs of recovery, and the small new one that is taking much too long to settle in.

Farmers, too, are distressed. Nick Maravell, owner of an organic farm in Buckeystown, Maryland, has this to say in an Organic Consumers recent e-newsletter:

“It used to be farmers would get together and talk about having a good year. Now we’re getting together and hoping for a normal year, and we haven’t had one in a long time. We’re getting what I call the broken record syndrome. Every few years we break another record . . .

“We go from the driest year on record to the wettest year on record back to back. We go from the coldest spring to the warmest spring back to back. We have these stretches of erratic, from a farmer’s perspective, unusual long hot spell, long cold spell. That never used to happen to us. I’ve been doing this 40 years and believe me, the climate has changed.”

There was strangeness in our garden, too. Our fringe trees bloomed well but defoliated later in the season

NPR, in a piece on winemaking in France, reports that “French vintners say heat, drought and erratic weather are altering the landscape and their centuries-old way of working.” High sugar content caused by dry summers spikes alcohol level in grapes, which threatens consistency. More troubling, unshaded grapes shrivel on the vine.

Rainy spells are longer and more severe, as are cold spells, especially in spring. Hail is more frequent. And three-hundred-year-old vines have died in successive heat waves. (To maintain consistency, the French wine governing body prohibits irrigation.) Now the hunt is on for heat-tolerant replacements.

And the weeds! Lately arrived weeds, emigres from warm climates, can spoil batches of wine if not policed vigilantly.

Do upstart weeds in vineyards echo exuberant weeds in gardens here?These days our weeds live the high life. They grow fast. They multiply fast.

Nandina ‘Flirt’ is a new addition to our garden. We are hoping that it will become a low hedge, 18 inches, that will be a reliable shield against weeds

Even mulching gives only temporary relief. Now the hunt is on for reliable groundcovers to shade them out: low varieties of nandina, like ‘Harbor Dwarf’ and ‘Flirt’ for sunny spots;  epimedium ( but it can be slow), umbrella-like giant hosta, and fast-growing autumn fern for shady spots.

Autumn fern is a reliable evergreen groundcover in our garden

Losses of favorite plants, slow rebound of damaged plants, and poor performance often can’t be explained. At first we blamed our losses on old age, poor siting, and pruning violations. But the plants in question have performed well for decades. Why are they suddenly stressed?

Our Yuletide camellia, a heavy bloomer,  mostly died back during Winter 2018, now showing signs of recovery. Our other camellias were not damaged

Here’s a summary of what has happened in our garden over the past two years.

  • Decades-old pittosporum died after the extreme-cold winter. Normally fast menders, damaged survivors were slow to recover
  • Cold-battered and broken, our now gnarled and twisted ‘Yuletide’ camellia has taken two seasons to give us hope that it is recovering – or maybe not, depending on next winter.
  • Fringe trees began to look parched and thin this growing season, practically shorn of leaves, even after a reasonably fine bloom. Ditto for our long established variegated and holly-leaved osmanthus and other small trees, now balding. Will they come back next year?
  • After magnificent bloom, our watermelon crepe myrtles suddenly and prematurely defoliated, cluttering paths with shriveled leaves.
  • Native hophornbeam trees died, seemingly rotted out, though growing in higher drier parts of our property.
  • An old wax myrtle we loved for its convoluted trunks died suddenly, leaving Wizard-of-Oz branches that we could not bear to cut down until recently.
  • Large, old Grayswood lace cap hydrangeas, centerpiece shrubs, frazzled after a change of exposure when we took down a dying crabapple and were unable to recover.
  • Camellias near the crabapple drowned in soil made sodden by the loss of its thirsty roots and rainfall that exceeded the soil’s capacity to drain.
  • And finally, a young ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese red maple we raised and shipped to Zone 7 New York City in spring, lovingly potted and nursed, crisped its leaves after unseasonal 18 degree temperatures in early November. Will the young tree  survive the hit that it took before it was able to harden off?

Shaggy bark on one of our few remaining hophornbeam trees

We can’t control the weather, but we are hoping to stay even. We still believe that the soil holds secrets of life that give the best protection to our plants. We ’ll keep nurturing it faithfully, so it can give back to plants.

For us it is a never-ending task of raking-shredding-mulching. But what a lovely product from all those leaves! Partly composted, they are a fast-acting tonic that helps regulate soil temperature and moisture and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. This mulch does not, however, vanquish weeds as well as hardwood mulch.

Sometimes we don’t want to do all that work. Then we simply rake leaves directly onto beds in mounds that will settle into layers after a rainfall or two. No shredding, weeds are smothered, and deep down, but more slowly, crumbly soil is being created the same way it happens in a forest. Kinda nice to know we are a working partner with Mother Nature.

Camellias in beds benefit from layers of leaves put down in the fall (C. sasanqua ‘Hana Jiman’ pictured). We’ve had no losses of these camellias, despite heavy infestation of tea scale this spring that took us by surprise. It is pretty much eradicated now after Bob’s diligent spraying with horticultural oil

Pruning at the right time, during winter dormancy or before spring growth, when plants are not working at top speed to put out leaves and flowers, will minimize shock. And we try to follow this schedule.  Sometimes we can’t.  When plants like azaleas and loropetalum, for eample, have exploded, apparentlyttaking advantage of the erratic weather, we have to take action.

Keeping them (and others) in bounds has been a challenge – a truckload of trimmings to the landfill once a week during the growing season. Will these plants eventually resent repeated chopping during growing seasons? Or will they rejoice?

Camelias, too, needed pruning this year, drastic thinning and trimming in some cases, but they’ve managed well, with healthy leaf and flower bud growth (C. japonica ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’ )

It’s all one grand experiment that warns us, now more than ever, that nothing in the garden is for keeps. We shouldn’t go bonkers trying to win the game of chess.

So I will revel in the splendid color and the surprises that fall gave us this year.

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The True Strange Tale of an Unlucky Rabbit

In Which We Meet Rabbit

One fine summer morning we opened the door to find a wild rabbit sitting on our front porch. Might I come in? he seemed to ask, nosing the interior the way rabbits nose, but very politely. We chatted in a friendly sort of rabbit-jabber. We assumed he was looking for something to eat, though we would later learn this was not the case. He listened with the patience of a rabbit.

Rabbit would become a regular on our front steps

Where had he come from? Had somebody raised him? Had he stepped out of a rabbit hole? We did not want to be rude, but we are not in the habit of drinking tea with rabbits, nor have we ever invited any into the house.

Now this is something to think about

So, rather inhospitably, I’m afraid – although he was still most polite and did not try to venture inside – we took turns standing guard while one or the other of us hunted up some carrots. Since they were small, we brought out a few and laid them on bricks.

Rabbit did not eat like he was hungry

He nibbled on one, and nibbled and nibbled and nibbled but barely took a bite. What was he doing? No, Rabbit, there is no strange potion in the carrot. After what seemed like a very long time, he finished it.

Where had this rabbit been all his life? He attacked a second with more proficiency, having decided, perhaps, that it was tasty and potionless. A third carrot he carried off. He had had enough of us.

Or he might simply ignore the carrots

He was handsome, that Rabbit, larger than the wild rabbits that grow up (or don’t get to grow up) in our garden. His fur was luxurious and smooth, and it covered thick folds of skin that begged to be petted.

We did not, out of respect for his semi-wildness, but mostly because he wouldn’t let us. Considering his size, we assumed he would need to eat a lot, but then again, he looked more like a sitter than a bounder.

Definitely a sitter, he would watch patiently while I potted plants

During the next few weeks, we would see him lounging on the front lawn. If we were working outside, Rabbit would silently appear and sit next to us. Once I felt something brush the back of my leg, and there he was, trusting that I would not step on him. Wheelbarrows and rakes did not bother him.

As weeks passed, Rabbit would bound over to us when we came out of the house, as though he had been waiting for us, and there was joy in his bounding. He did not come to beg. He seemed to want to be near us.

But we are softies, so we made a beggar out of him. We liked him as much as he liked us. So we brought out the carrots when he came round.

Action Shot!

He seemed to especially savor apples because he would race away with the prize if you gave him one. Well, more like hopping than racing, but we could see determination in his step.

Maybe, under certain circumstances, even Rabbit could win a race with Tortoise. When Rabbit got tired of us, he slipped under the shed, his midriff and hindquarters stretching and thinning, until he looked almost as skinny as Brer Rabbit.

Watermelon rinds look interesting

Now, here’s the riddle. Rabbit always appeared gentrified: well fed, well groomed, unruffled. Didn’t much care about eating.  In fact, he didn’t seem to know how or what to eat in our garden. He might browse a dead twig or a dead leaf before he dropped the dry stuff in distaste.

This old garden shoe might have some possibilities

Once he tried a fern. Unpalatable. He’d nibble a weed here and there, or lackadaisically chew a crispy stalk hanging over a walk.

What’s so interesting among the weeds?

Or he’d dig in rocks. Rocks? He ignored the usual deer and rabbit fare: azaleas, hydrangeas and droopy but still juicy hostas. Which was fine with us.

Ferns? Stones?

In Which Glimpse Little Rabbit

From early fall on, we watched another, quite different rabbit. He must have been the only one left from a late litter. He was always alone. Scrawny, small, and alone.

We didn’t see how he could make it, but each time we saw him, he looked bigger and stronger. He was another with a strange diet. The only damage I found was heavily nibbled chrysanthemum leaves. The usual rabbit fare seemed untouched. Which was fine with us.

Little Rabbit never stayed long enough to have his picture taken, but here are some places where he would not spend time (the lawn) and where he might like to hide

Little Rabbit was growing up lean and smart. He was, as they say, a survivor. We never saw him on the lawn, though that has always been a favorite browsing spot for rabbits.

He had retreats throughout the garden, thickets of shrubs where he could hide safely. When he ventured out in the open, he didn’t linger. He dashed. Little Rabbit would definitely win a race with Tortoise, except you wouldn’t know it because he’d always be under cover.

Front Yard Hideout for Little Rabbit

I would talk to Rabbit about Little Rabbit. I would tell him he should not hang about on paths and lawns out in the open in full view of predators. He should hide in thickets more often. And he should not be so friendly with people. He was simply too trusting. He should act more like Little Rabbit, who skedaddled as soon as he saw us.

Rabbit did not appear to care about my rabbit-jabber. He was, however, intrigued by Little Rabbit, who had never taken much notice of Rabbit.

One day Rabbit got up enough steam to lope after him, but Little Rabbit was having none of that and dashed, with dignity, I might add, into one of those thickets he frequented. He was a rabbit who knew how to take care of himself. Rabbit seemed to accept the rejection and came back to listen to more rabbit-jabber.

Side Yard Hideout for Little Rabbit

When I use the word “thicket,” I mean “thicket.” Leaf to leaf, branch to branch, thorn by thorn, our groupings of shrubs are packed: large hydrangeas, roses, azaleas, camellias, viburnum, forsythia, wax myrtle, and loropetalum, for instance. Perfect havens for rabbits when they tire of sunshine and lawn and seek a cozy nook away from predators. Even Rabbit used them once in a while. But not as often as I thought he should.

Little Rabbit’s Emergency Hideout after spending time in open space

So, while Little Rabbit would stay in hiding, Rabbit would willingly wait on a sunny path for me to come back with my camera. He would willingly sit for pictures, though he was not inclined to action shots.

Back Yard Hideout for Little Rabbit

Visitor to our home that Thanksgiving spent several minutes filming Rabbit while he ate carrots. We stood in a circle around him, gawking, as though carrot-eating were the equivalent of hang-gliding off a cliff. Another day, he participated in Facetime with our grandson, though his reticence was hardly conducive to animated conversation.

In Which there is a Commotion

It was not quite winter when it happened. We heard thrashing in a thicket. No other noises, just thrashing. We waited. A hawk half-limped, half-crawled out from under the brush. Ruffled and roughed up he was, and his wings were crimped and dragging. We thought he’d been in some sort of battle and had broken a wing.

Once out in the open, Hawk, probably a juvenile red-shouldered, managed to straighten up to his full size and stretch his wings and smooth his feathers. His magnificent wing span blocked full view of his head, but everything looked to be in good working order.

Yet when Hawk tried to take off, he seemed rooted to the ground. Hawk tried a second time. Still landlocked. Again, he tried but stalled. Had something gone wrong with balance, or navigation? Was there some internal damage we couldn’t fathom?

At last, Hawk took off and flew. We discovered the reason for the commotion in the thicket and his aborted attempts to fly. In his beak he had been clutching prey he could not manage. Once he gave up his quarry, shed those extra pounds, he could lift off with that majesty so characteristic of hawks.

We ran to the dropped prey. Maybe there was yet some life left, but it was too late. We recognized that lifeless body, oh, we recognized it.

It was smart, fleet  Little Rabbit who did all things as they should be done and had been deeply hidden in the thicket. In a twist of fate, he had the misfortune to be felled by a young hawk of the year, still learning how to target his quarry and not understanding the limitations of the hunt.

Diving into tangled bramble to catch prey that he could not hang onto was not a path to success. Hawk no doubt learned from this encounter, but smart, fleet Little Rabbit paid dearly for that lesson, and we will miss him.

We laid Little Rabbit in a depression in the woods and lightly covered him. Next day he was gone. Wild ways are unseen but efficient.

In Which We Learn More About Rabbit

A few months later, a neighbor stopped by and asked us how we liked his rabbit. He had seen him on our lawn, he said. He and his wife, a teacher, had raised three youngsters in the spring, two males and one female, who had the run of their fenced property. They would feed them apples left from school lunches. Aha! So many questions answered in a simple conversation.

But three’s a crowd. The male and female mated and Rabbit was chased out. Maybe he came visiting because he felt first-rate with us, We were usually around. We always welcomed him, never chased him, and that is why he greeted us so happily.

In case you are wondering, Hawk isn’t the only one who learned a lesson. Soon after the incident, Rabbit changed. Or maybe he simply grew old and wise. He took to being skittish, even with us. He avoided the front lawn and wide paths. He stayed mostly hidden. He came and went quickly. He no longer cared for rabbit-jabber.

Hard or a hawk to get to him here

Occasionally he would climb the porch steps to chew winter-purple leaves off clematis tendrilled around a post. But he took care to stay hunkered down.

Nothing like a snack of old clematis leaves

Sometimes he’d nose around, especially if it was cold. Hoping to be invited in? But we don’t drink tea with rabbits.

We don’t see him any more.

But we have our memories and our pictures

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September Renaissance

Unbidden Garden Pleasures

It never fails to surprise. Come September I fall in love with my garden again.

Spring is always first love, probably is for most gardeners, new and tender, impatient, welcome after a raw winter. Then sun-dried summers stress plants and bring their share of lovers’ quarrels.

It is September, after the garden and the gardener have mellowed, that brings reconciliation and joy.

We know autumn if here when mushrooms begin to pop up in the garden

The sun still looks like molten steel at midday, but it has slipped some, and crisp deep shadows shift among plants. A hint of tang comes through on damp, cool mornings, and plants respond casually, with tufts of growth here and there, though proud grasses beam in the sun and bumptious sprays of goldenrod give charm to roadsides.

But change is coming, change that spurs a-hurrying of life.

One sunny day, blue mist ageratum leaps into bloom. Yes, literally, leaps. It’s been a bother all season, weedy seedlings in spring and rangy lay-abouts all summer. Most gardeners wouldn’t put up with such shenanigans and every year I vow to take drastic action — tomorrow. Is their barely-month-long bloom really worth five months of tangle?

Blue mist ageratum with its fuzzy flowers is aptly named

By the time that hazy sky-blue wave cascades through flower beds in September I have my answer. I’ve completely forgotten that once I vowed to exorcise them from the garden.

It’s not just the blooms, though. It’s the visitors that come. Hundreds of them, insects — the kinds I like: wasps that fertilize flowers, and skippers, butterflies, bees– all having a marvelous time in the sun, testing and flitting, tasting and sipping, testing and flitting, and, incidentally, mating.

Fiery skipper pauses for a drink during a quiet time

I instinctively dodge as they weave around me when I jostle plants. They don’t waste a minute settling back down. Do they sense that it’s only her going by, the one with empty threats?

There’s more to September than bloom. The other day a scattered flock of warblers drifted in (if warblers can ever drift), hushed, except for subdued location chips, to case the garden for a few days.

They seemed to use a tattery swamp dogwood as their anchor. It’s a spreading, gnarly, multi-trunked tree, a one-of-a-kind, since its sisters in swamps are usually stunted from crowding and competition. It should be a standout now with ripening berries, but bugs like the leaves in fall, and, since warblers like bugs, they are scouting for bargains here.

It’s hard to pin warblers down. Warblers must be in some avian ADHD category, but I managed to spot. . .

Male redstart warbler. Wikipedia photo

. . .a redstart (how could I miss this warbler with its true Halloween colors, or its black-cat- yellow-eyes variation?)

Yellow-rumped warbler. Photo by Brian Sullivan

. . .a fleeting myrtle warbler (called yellow-rumped now by everyone but me. Who in the world came up with such a prosaic, unflattering replacement?)

Prothonotary warbler, plumage colors muted in fall. Photo by Rob and Ann Simpson

. . .and maybe a prothonotary warbler (resident nesters one summer, but conned into raising a cowbird instead, from an egg deposited by a burly mother.)

The sulfurs have been chasing each other for over a month now. They love red flowers, as do the Monarchs in fall. They all used to devour pineapple-sage nectar, but the plants are gone now, casualties of a couple of overly wet winters. These September days they skip from Turk’s Cap mallow to salvia guaranitica ‘Black-and-Blue.’

Salvia guaranitica blooms from late spring through fall

Right on schedule, rarely missing a mid-September visit, comes the Red-Spotted Purple  butterfly. Satiny blue, shimmery wing scales blend to drabber wing tones with a painter’s masterly touch.

Red-spotted purple, one of the Admiral butterflies. Photo by John Morgan

It’s easy to miss those tiny nail-polish red spots as I follow the butterfly’s low-flying trail to a starry goldenrod. Its host plant is wild cherry, which manages to find a toehold here, but I’ve never noticed the lumpy-looking caterpillars in spring.

For all the hurrying, there is peace in a September garden. If we’re not looking, we may trip over a wandering box turtle. There are four or five of them, but they don’t congregate at the informal feeding station near the porch any more. Long ago (August) we devoured the last of the large, luscious canteloupes from Rocky Hock, and the turtles have no more rinds to nibble.

One way to get around. Mating done, he’s gone. (Summer photo)

Our resident birds take full advantage of this lull between seasons to sample seeds or berries or insects off-guard. I leave seedheads of toppled green-eyed coneflower and phlox for their dining pleasure, but I pull perilla, in spite of, or maybe because of, its abundant seeds that beget unruly truants that edge out innocent plants wherever they find a toe-hold.

Aster tataricus with moudry grass, a native, both seed freely

The bright red male cardinal and his mate poke among shrubs, occasionally testing out a tune, but usually we see him before we hear him. The wren can fling out a rouser, and the thrasher may peal off some fancy mimicry, or, abruptly, the yellow shafted flicker may rend the air with raucous laughter.

Later in the season, we may spot the cardinal in among sparkleberry, shown here, or native American holly

Otherwise, September is quiet in a hurrying sort of way.

Yes, I love September. Even when September dips back into August, as it has this year, and rain refuses to give the garden a bath, and I have to drag the hose around while shriveled brown crepe myrtle leaves litter paths and the tulip tree I planted as a seedling thirty-three years ago defoliates on our lawn, and ferns brown and hydrangeas wilt.

When tea scale blights camellia leaves and lace bug stipples azalea leaves, and deer come out of the woods to devour mounds of hosta ‘Honeybells,’ and the hawk swings low in the sky, hunting, I still love September.

Here are some of my photos from Septembers present and past. I hope you enjoy them.

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Posted in Birds, butterflies, fall bloom, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Top Ten Secrets for Tidying Tree Trash after a Big Storm*

Caution: This is Not a How-To Manual
(You have to figure that out for yourself)

We don’t want to brag or anything, but with all the tropical storms, straight-line winds, tornadoes, lightning strikes and hurricanes that have passed over us in thirty-odd years, we have become pretty good at Tidying Tree Trash. Here are some of our secrets.

First Secret. We assess the mess. Where do we start? What tools do we need? What kinds of piles should we make? Where do we put the trash after we collect it? In short, we make a Specially Tailored Uberaction Plan In Detail.

This probably sounds pretty nerdy to you, but trust me, if you do this carefully, with the forethought and insight that are required, it will now be time for lunch and maybe a little nap before you have to get out and do any actual work.

Second Secret. Rakes are surprisingly efficient at tidying. If you want to be even more efficient, you can do the ambidextrous thing, that is switching sides as you rake to extend shoulder power. This will greatly amplify your raking prowess. Commendable! But do you really want to be the Super Man of Tree Trash?

No no no no! You should instead aim to be the Elmer Fudd of Tree Trash. This will keep shoulders, neck, arms and back happy. You do this by promising the kids in your family some big bucks for the raking job. If you don’t have kids of your own, bribe the neighbors’ kids. (Good luck getting any of them to work.) If you can’t get anyone to substitute-rake, at least send them to the drug store for a vat of linament and a case of aspirin.

Third Secret. We particularly focus on Tree Trash that people might trip on, especially litter on driveways and paths. We don’t want to deal with legal action from maimed mailmen. Tree Trash that is visibly poking out of shrubs in garden beds is also removed promptly, for purely aesthetic purposes, unless Hallowe’en is approaching.

We also avoid bushwacking in chigger-tick territory for obvious reasons. A year or so later, when we finally get around to gardening there, we’ll have some happy diversions. “Well, will you look at this. I wonder when this came down?”

Fourth Secret. As seniors we take our time. Not like those  young people who are speedy speedy speedy at getting things done. Curious, since they have so much time ahead of them, while we in our sunset years ramble about like we have all the time in the world.

Fifth Secret. We hydrate. In case you have been asleep lately, that means taking a drink of something or other now and then. This can be tricky these days. If you are alert to recent health reports, you probably know that caffeine, sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar substitutes, artificial flavors, assorted artificial colors with assorted numbers, micro-plastics, and other unpronouncable ingredients should be avoided, which eliminates pretty much any palatable drink.

Of course, water is always a possibility, but if it isn’t coming from some Shangri-la thousands of miles away — or worse yet — you don’t know where your water comes from, well .  .  .

So, the best bet is probably a good IPA or a vodka sour as the alcohol will sterilize your system and fuzz your tidy-tree-trash brain for the rest of the day.

Sixth Secret. A word about picking up sticks, and pine cones which can be major components of Tree Trash. Some people use a grabber and a pail, but that involves dexterity and equipment with moving parts. Others prefer the Pine-Cone Stagger, a series of lunges, squats and knee bends that mimic medieval back torture.

Whatever you do, if you need to bend over, be sure your posterior does not face the road. People like to cruise the neighborhood after a hurricane and gawk. You do not want perfect strangers to be discussing the size of your derriere over a beer.

Seventh Secret. We maintain strict denial at all times. We deny that we may be doing the same thing two or three weeks from now. We deny that we will most assuredly have to repeat the operation in late fall. We deny that there will be winter storms. Any wavering of denial requires immediate and extreme psycho-therapy. We will have to quit for the day.

Eighth Secret. We maintain strict focus at all times. No distractions. If we have forgotten to weed the garden during the past month, now is not the time to concern ourselves with the minor diversion of a weed-free garden. Unless, of course, the weeds are so robust we can’t separate them from Tree Trash. In which case, we ignore the entire mess.

Ninth Secret. We refer to our Specially Tailored Uberaction Plan In Detail at all times. It may be that we can make Tree Trash invisible by simply throwing it behind shrubs. (Care should be taken to choose shrubs that are not destined for the plant cemetery but are robust and full enough to hide a mound of trash.)

This is reminiscent of sweeping dirt under rugs, but it is far more eco-friendly. In ten years the whole mess will be part of the soil.

Tenth Secret. Finally, a word about costuming. It is important to wear proper attire while Tidying Tree Trash, which, as we mentioned above, can  involve lunges, knee bends, stretches and bend-overs. Here I am not referring to sturdy gloves, sturdy shoes, a sun hat, and safety glasses.

Far more important is the general appearance you present to the busy community of neighbors, gawkers, workmen, and real estate agents who may be enjoying a stroll or idling through. Women—and men—should do their utmost to look chic when working in a front yard.

Color-coordinated outfits,  smart work-out clothes and dazzling new running shoes, bought for the occasion, should impart a sense of glamour, like those old movies where housewives wore high heels to do the dishes. Onlookers will be left with the impression that you are in total control of your garden at all times and are just doing this for fun.

It appears that this pile of Tree Trash violates our Top Ten. It  does not. The spot happens to be home to a lively mix of mosquitos, chiggers, ticks and spiders. When told about the exceptional fauna here, visitors do a quick-steppin’ jig  to get away with nary a look around.

*Top Ten was inspired by Hurricane Dorian’s run through northeast North Carolina as a weak Category 1 that, fortunately, did no major damage to our communities.

Posted in Garden Humor, Storm recovery, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Hot August Daze

Spawns a Limerick Craze

It’s five o’clock on a Friday in August
At last, the mowers have quit for the day
Silence invites
Though we love noisy nights
When crickets tune fiddles and play.

It’s just past high noon on a bright day in August
Midges are resting (thank god) from a grand night of jumps
But skeeters are biting
And chiggers are fighting
To see who wins the race to our rumps.

It’s four o’clock on a Sunday in August
We sit on the porch sipping sweet lemonade
Till steam-bath humidity
Melts our stupidity
We flee to chilled chambers like a frantic brigade.

It’s three o’clock of a heat wave in August
That’s bringing white skies and a long summer drought*
Our grand plants look ragtag
While vines play bully-tag
And we beg, no we pray, for some heavenly clout.

It’s ten o’clock on a black night in August
A rip-snortin’ storm wakes up us and the frogs
Lops trees at their knees
Shreds sheds like split peas
Oh, the clean-ups next day become sad epilogues.

It’s nine o’clock on a bright day in August
I step out and I’m trapped in a tangle of webs
They spin silk by the yard
They’re invading our yard
Sigh! Spiders will rule till summertime ebbs.

It’s one o’clock on the best day in August
Dazzling crepe myrtles gild rail track and road
Dragonflies munch
Hummers sip brunch
But my, how the weeds just seem to explode.

It’s two o’clock on a fine day in August
Cool juice from late peaches tickles our chin
But the temperature soars
We’ll just skip garden chores
It won’t make a difference, the weeds always win.

The stars wink on, it’s the last night of August
We cheer! We’ve survived summer’s dog days
We beat bugs and sweat
Ah, let’s just forget . . .
Surely September will bring fresh bouquets.

Then, as shadows grow long and evenings grow dark
And we’re missing sweet melons while corn stalks turn stark
And days grow cold and winds blow in December
We may look back on August and fondly remember. . .

*This verse refers to August 2018 which was so dry I had to cut plants back to relieve stress.

I hope you enjoy our August 2019 pictures.

Reliable ‘Canyon Creek’ abelia begins to bloom mid-August and goes on and on and on.

Argiope auranta, one of Charlotte’s relatives, takes over a low, mounding crepe myrtle.

Our neighbor Carole calls this her Charlie Brown crepe myrtle, a pretty plant from a seedling we found in our garden and planted by Bob ten years ago. It never grew, never bloomed until this year — with more buds ready to pop. So August has some nice surprises.

Yes, that spider seems mighty content perching on our midge-poop stained car. Probably had a feast during the night.

Sweet Autumn clematis lounges on a witch hazel next to a ‘Limelight’ hydrangea

The crepe myrtle outside our den windows was in prime bloom this year – it’s a dwarf.

Seeds from green-headed coneflower (rudbeckia laciniata) are treats for goldfinches. Looking parched here, these native plants would prefer a moister spot in the garden, or at least a little more shade.

A gloomy day on the water brightened by canna tropicana.

Our happy redbud, sprouted from a seed three years ago.

Red blooms never seem to get around to opening on Turk’s Cap mallow, a relative of hibiscus and cotton, but they make a statement,  and hummingbirds love them. Marginally hardy here a decade ago, today the plant is a happy, and maybe even a little pushy sub-shrub.

August is the month for these clumps of zephyranthes candida from bulbs that multiply rapidly and bloom profusely into September and maybe even October. Shown here with lavender Mexican heather (cuphea), another reliable summer bloomer, and nandina.

A second image of our neighbor’ Charley Brown crepe myrtle showing even more blooms!

Posted in August, Garden Humor, Summer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Right Plant Right Place

Or, The Great Garden Ponzi Scheme

Hey, the Sad Sack Rack in the Big Box Garden Store had bunches of plants on sale today.

Is that good news or bad news?

Good, of course. But I only found one plant I really wanted. It’s in good shape, though. Not like those waifs I’m always rescuing.

Only one plant? Now that is good news. I’ll get the shovel and we’ll get this done right away.

Hmmm, just let me wander around for a while. I want to find just the right spot for it

So I should put the shovel away.

Not yet. I actually have one place in mind that could work very well.

But there’s already a plant there.

I know, but I can’t remember why I put that plant there in the first place. It’s obviously not right.

Looks okay to me.

Not really. It didn’t grow much. Not getting enough sun. Or maybe it’s getting too much sun…Or maybe it’s not getting enough water. Or maybe it’s getting too much water.

Sounds finicky to me.

Well, let’s try it over here.

But won’t you have to take a plant out to fit this one in?

Well, actually, three plants.

Three plants?

Yes. They’re small, so you can’t just move one of them out. The three of them need to move as a group.

Why, are they friends?

Wait. I think I’ve got it all worked out. If we take these two, the bushy ones out from over there, then there will be just enough space for the three small ones. Then we can find a good spot for the bushy ones.

The bushy ones? What bushy ones? I thought we were only planting one plant.

While we’re at it, we should move that plant over there, too.

Haven’t I moved that one before?

Yes, a couple of times, I think. That’s probably why it looks familiar to you. It just doesn’t seem to like this garden. It droops in sun. It sulks in shade. It wilts. Its leaves get spotty.

Do you think it might be happier if you just, maybe, left it alone? Or, here’s a thought, how about throwing it out?

Oh I couldn’t do that.

So how many plants, exactly, are we moving?

I’ve kind of lost track. But it’ll go fast because some plants will go right into holes left from other plants we’ve dug out.

That makes me so happy. What plant comes first?

Maybe before we plant we should get out the loppers. If we limb this bush up and take the plant out that’s under it, then we can fit those other two underneath it.

What other two? Hey, didn’t you just put this plant under there – you said something about great color combinations when they bloomed.

I know but it didn’t work. They only bloom together if the sun, moon and stars are aligned.

Okay, is this plant standing straight in the hole?

Yes, it’s fine, but it has to be moved over by 6 inches.

Six inches? Around here it’ll grow six inches in a week.

But it’s not centered in the bed.

So how many more do we have to go?

Seven or eight? Maybe?

But you only started with one.

I know. How does that happen?

(Let’s pause for clarification of sorts. I hope that some gardeners will see a small bit of themselves in this narrative, though I imagine the more organized and knowledgeable among us will be appalled by the lunacy. Most gardeners will, however, immediately recognize this as dialog between the gardener of the queenly “we” and the digger-in-chief. Let us continue.)

How nice, you’re kneeling to give the plant your blessing?

No, I’m kneeling to chop a root so this plant can go into the hole. But I may as well tell it now – Do NOT get too comfortable, because you’ll probably get moved to another spot.

Well, actually, that particular plant was doing too well where it was.

If it was doing well, why did we dig it?

Because it was always sprawling on the path and flopping all over its neighbors.

But don’t we want to celebrate plants that actually grow?

Yes, but we can’t have plants flopping all over each other.

You have a pretty wide open spot over there. Why don’t we just dig a trench for all these plants, fill it in and call it a day? They could have a jolly time flopping and comparing war stories.

Don’t be silly. Anyway, it’s too sunny for most of them. Oh but I have an idea. We could dig this other plant that behaves itself and put it near the path.
That plant looks familiar. Didn’t we just put it in?

Yes, but it’s not quite the right spot for it.

Looks pretty happy to me.

But it’ll look so much better here.

Didn’t you once have a plan for the garden?

Next year will be better, I promise. If we just make these few changes now, each plant will finally have a real home.

(In the interest of accurate reporting, these conversations actually occurred over a period of days, weeks, months, or even years, but for narrative purposes time has been condensed into an afternoon.)

Well, you didn’t think all this could happen in one afternoon. Even in our garden.

Or did you.

(The idea for this narrative came from a conversation with our son, who, as digger-in-chief in his own garden, has lately become adept at transplanting. And our daughter, somewhat hard-hearted, who now limits a plant to three moves before she stops rationalizing and starts tossing.)

It’s all a part of a gardener’s genes.

The slide show below represents plants that have participated (for better or worse) in these round-robin games. Azaleas and hydrangeas were refugees from Isabel, the rest were either flopping, drowning, drying up, burning up, sulking, or were targets of our sudden aha! garden moments.

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Our Southern Crepe Myrtle

Glory of Summer

We bought her in Spring 1987 from the hardware store, a landmark in town with dark old floors that should have creaked but didn’t and dark walls with wooden cubbies that held all kinds of delicious hardware and wide counters that held crazy-quilts of boxes with seeds and tubers for spring planting.

She was a hopeful little tiger in a two-gallon pot with pretty, com-hither watermelon blooms, and she cost five dollars. Probably she and her sisters had seeded in from a big ol’ tree in somebody’s yard and a green-thumb had dug and tended them and thought maybe there were a few dollars to be had by putting them up for sale.

Here she is about fifteen years ago, nodding to rudbeckia, now gone, victims of an increasingly wetter environment

They’re so cheap, why not get five, Bob said. But I only wanted three, to give some importance to the long path leading to our front door.

I bought five, why not? They were so cheap. The other two became grace notes in the garden.

We never paid much attention to them. After all, they lived and bloomed those first years, when everything else we planted in clay soup bowls whimpered or died.

A doe feels at home in her shade

As they grew, we got out the loppers and pruned low branches that nudged us as we passed by. We never got around to “crepe murdering” our crepe myrtles, that indiscriminate lopping of limbs, trading healthy limbs for the prospect of more blooms that was almost a mantra in those days.

Rain and wind that bow heavy blossoms do tempt one to take action. Patience pays off after a few dry days

We weren’t interested in doing all that work, and we certainly weren’t going to pay to have our trees topped, lopped or chopped, or whatever else chain-saw happy crews were a-hankering.

Occasionally sooty mold blackened leaves. It was probably caused by honeydew, poop raining down from aphids that were sucking tender new growth high up in the tree. Mold spores landed on the sticky stuff until the leaves looked like they’d been used to clean a Mary Poppins chimney.

When we happened to notice it, we said That looks awful. Probably we should do something about it. Then we made a point not to look at it. The old leaves fell in the fall. One year a rainy summer kept the new leaves washed clean. We never found any aphids.

We kept our eyes on the shaggy raspberry carpet that surrounded us instead

So we enjoyed our crepe myrtles because they bloomed reliably and they asked very little from us.

The happiest crepe myrtles grow along sunny roadsides or sunny railroad tracks or in sunny fields or sunny gardens. They stand proud with fulsome crowns and crowded blooms. They seek no protection from the elements. They need no emergency water. Their roots are deep and careless. They have no floppy limbs that need pruning. What would stress any other plant simply spurs crepe myrtles on to brighter bloom.

We rather like the chumminess of our crepe myrtle and carpet roses that today rejoice in the moisture that did the rudbeckia in

(Though we should add that the majesty of sun-swept roadside crepe myrtles is often diminished by unruly ruffs of sprouts at the base that should be cut away but are usually not because no one seems to be around to do it.)

Our crepe myrtles aren’t in blazing sun. They grow in a woodland garden in soil that is much too rich and moist, so their growth is open and casual and sometimes spindly.

(Imagine what joy they would give the chain-saw boys.)

But they don’t have unruly ruffs. Instead, they prefer to put their energy into root shoots that pop up in unlikely places.

One of our crepe myrtles, the middle one along the path was destined to become a sprawling centerpiece on our front lawn that captured our imaginations when she bloomed. Year by year she stretched out and up, shaped modestly with a nip here or there.

Smooth bark, raspberry blooms, and graceful limbs

Her stature reminded us of a commanding old oak in a forest, but she was so much more lissome. After she “molted” her outer shell, her bark would run smooth as silk along curvaceous trunks and her crown flounced summer-bold painted cheeks.

Some years storms and wind brought Spanish moss in from crusty old bald cypress that patrolled the Sound.

Spanish moss, suspended, grasping a limb by an unseen thread

Ironically, these fragile pewter threads that barely clung to her limbs give her a patina of age, even permanence. Maybe she echoes our memories of draped old trees we’d seen on rambles through southern states.

Some years the Spanish moss would blow away and we would hunt for cast-off remnants and try to repair the image, but our human touch had little magic.

No matter. This summer in particular, our crepe myrtle, along with her neighbors in town and country, reached truly giddy heights of Southern Glory.

As she stands today, solo

And as part of the garden

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Madcap May

A Funky Mix of Heat, Drought, Fuzzy Bills, and Pollen

In April, Rain turned our garden into a water park. In May, Rain elected to play hooky. Old Man Sun happily covered for his playmate, and temperatures ran up the ladder quicker than a raccoon scales a bird feeder. Plants that once lolled in spas – fully expecting the pampering to continue — reeled in shock.

Tender leaves born in April crisped and crumbled. Hydrangeas looked like stir-fry rejects. Tired old azalea blooms refused to drop, apparently holding out for a nudge from rain that wasn’t coming. And tiered halos of rosy berries on my pride-and-joy viburnum ‘mariesii’ (pictured in bloom last post) simply blackened prematurely, shriveled and disappeared.

Last June’s berries on viburnum plicatum tomentosum ‘Mariesii’. Some berries are already blackening naturally, a treat for birds. This shrub wandered around our garden for years until it finally found its niche. It’s now eight feel tall. Limbing up punches up its naturally layered horizontal growth habit

Joyous, hopeful sprouts on plants potted from cuttings now hung leafy heads that would later brown and fall to the shears.

Azaleas purchased in autumn should have been merrily on their way in May. Instead, without April’s hydroponics, they looked abject, their few good roots imprisoned in potbound masses, unable to function in the rigors of dry soil.

Yes, we’d roughed up the rootballs on these Big Box azaleas before planting, but we weren’t rough enough. Now we had to super-slash them until we found a few meager working roots and pot them up for rehab. And hope.

Fall planted azaleas looked pretty good on a nice day in April

High humidity and heavy dews can be silent supporters of thirsty plants. A neighbor once joked that he had to wait until four in the afternoon to mow his lawn because it took that long for the dew to dry. Not this year. Humidity remained stubbornly low many days (pleasurable for the gardener), and stubbornly high nighttime temperatures never approached the dewpoint.

Steady sultry breezes, aside from enhancing April’s pine-pollen fling, dried the soil, not just the surface, but deep down. Shredded-bark mulch seemed to disappear, composted cotton dirt felt like grit, and once mucky garden soil turned to concrete unless it had been heavily amended over the years.

Would this be the playbook for the next three months?

Somehow, Japanese iris maintained their bloom during unseasonably dry days

Water. Water. A drop of Water. Please. Their droopy hopey leaves were harder to bear than the droopy hopey eyes of a patient dog watching a steak dinner disappear. But what could we do? Pray to a laughing Sun God? Nope. We played at being Rain Gods.

During dry years from 2004 to 2010 we had designed a simple three-part irrigation system.

  • Buried tubing with individual heads linked to hydrangeas and camellias massed in separate beds.
  • Oscillators set for narrow, mixed beds.
  • Pulsators tethered to tuteurs or fence posts for trees and shrubs.

Alpenglow (Glowing Embers), a tidy mophead, thrived under our DIY watering system

When wet years followed, the system seemed superfluous, and over time, the traumas of transplanting, heavy mulching, and temporary modifications to avoid hurricane damage left it in some disarray.

Now we had to catch up fast. We said we’d only need a few hours to find the leaks, repair and reset. Did you ever notice how plain and simple, easy-on-the-knees garden tasks somehow become multi-day odysseys? Testing sprinklers, however, is not a bad job in 96-degree heat.

And the Japanese iris continued to thrive. . .

Mister heads were buried or missing, tubing cut by errant spades, or even purposely for what are now irrational reasons, sprinklers were broken, and sometimes we just plain couldn’t figure out what we were thinking ten years ago.

The engineer half of our horticulture staff rose to the challenge, spurred, no doubt, by the other half-staff’s nattering over hauling heavy hoses around the garden. This urgent venture required multiple trips to the hardware store for quick disconnects and cut-off valves and timers and oscillating sprinklers. How did he know about all this stuff?

The engineer did not forget the hoses, lightweight hoses in fact, the “future of advanced hose design” according to the label, with a promise to be indestructible. And a five-year warranty! Not that we would ever remember there was a warranty or even be able to find receipts in five years.

True survivors, these Japanese iris were planted in 2006, found in a Connecticut nursery, and have performed reliably regardless of weather, with only occasional thinning

The new system is spiffy. Alas, the half-staff gardener, still marooned in 19th century technology, remains baffled by paraphernalia. Which is why watering ranks below weeding in garden tasks, an attitude the engineer cannot fathom. Which is why I usually look like a wash-up  from a shipwreck when I water plants.

Then along came the fuzzy-bills, swarms of them rising up at night, filling the air so you daren’t open a window, or your mouth, swirling around lights, splattering houses, frying in spotlights. During the day they slept under leaves, so woe to she who rustled a plant.

Their visitations lasted about three weeks. What a movie Hitchcock could have made about fuzzy-bill invasions.

And what a bonanza for spiders who eagerly spun sheet webs in crevices and corners to catch an easy meal. Now bug-splattered, shrouded houses took on an Addams Family aura.

Not our lamp post! Photo from Washington (NC) Daily News. But it could have been!

On the bright side, bird song in our garden spiked, as fat-bellied mamas and papas captured fuzzy-bills for their fat-bellied offspring. And countless dragonflies arrived on patrol, no doubt nourished by fuzzy bill larvae when they lived as neighbors in the mud.

In case you’ve never heard of fuzzy-bills, they are non-biting midges. The males have feathery antennae, which account for the picturesque common name. They have a definite affinity for waterfront property, though they are never mentioned as a possible liability when such property is for sale.

Male Fuzzy Bill. Photo from Coastal Review Online

Midges spend their early lives in water, but when they grow up, they rise like a thousand myriad spirits to fly and mate at night. They only live for a few days, so courtship is a frenzied affair: Hey Babe, here I am, and I can give you everything you could ever want for the rest of your life (an empty promise if ever there was one).

Then a few hundred, or maybe a few thousand eggs encased in gelatin hit the water. They will sink, hatch into larvae, and if they are not eaten by neighboring dragonfly nymphs, will pupate and finally rise to the surface for their short-lived but exotic amorous adventures.

Midges are probably why our annual visitors didn’t catch any fish this year. They arrived in our slip with munchies, poles and bait tucked into their small fishing boat on Memorial Day, father, son and daughter, quietly probing the waters with shrimp-baited hooks.

Dad manages baiting the hooks, and untangling lines

Two years ago, when this photo was taken, the young boy caught 36 small perch in about as many minutes and they called our place Fish City and cruised home to an especially tasty holiday barbecue. This year there were no nibbles. Perch, fat-bellied from fuzzy-bills weren’t interested in shrimp, so burgers and franks headed up barbecue menus instead.

A new (for us) bright red monarda came through in late May, still blooming like a champ in June

The lingering Bermuda high that spiked mercury and stole pop-up showers from us in May has gone on its way. June is spangled with flashy daylilies and hot red hydrangeas – along with some nice rain and reasonable, well, reasonable for June, temperatures.

Will this be the playbook for the summer? July is yet to come.

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The Great Azalea Blowout of 2019

A Big Welcome to a Banner Spring!

This sounds like a car dealer’s come-on. But I can’t help it. We’ve gone from soaky  sloshy  soggy to splashy spectacular in just a couple of months.

George Lindley Tabor southern indica azalea, a favorite of ours, grown from cuttings, heavily planted in our garden. This type of azalea does well here but is too tender for northern climates. Deer usually leave it alone

How wet was it? It was so wet even the earthworms hugged the surface, apparently preferring the odds of becoming a robin’s dinner to certain drowning in subterranean ooze. How do we know all this? We spotted worms immediately when we dug holes that flooded immediately.

Big preparations for digging in and moving plants. Photo by Susan

(Reflections on digging. Yes, we know there are rules about not digging when soil is wet because its structure can be destroyed, though, frankly, it’s difficult to imagine any structure in muck. Trouble is, by May the muck has dried to concrete, which leaves little time for our traditional spring transplanting ritual.)

That’s when we move plants around the garden in a botanical rendition of those grand Monopoly and Sorry games, sans dice. Kind of like playing Musical Plants with us as maestros.

Susan visited during the middle of April to help with musical planting. She was a good sport about digging in clay soil that clogs cultivators, sucks in shovels, and mucks up trowels.

Strategies for improving drainage: creating raised beds within a raised bed by boxing up lengths of  pressure-treated timber; adding sand and compost to wet soil. Photo by Susan

(Further reflections on digging. After thirty years of adding tons of chipper-shredded yard waste, store-bought mulch, sand, piles of dead leaves, ground-up tree trimmings, sheep manure, chicken manure, scientifically composted horse manure, composted cotton dirt, peanut hulls, Ranger truckloads from a local soil processing plant (moved out of town, alas), and, finally, “black dirt” (with weeds) delivered in a truck that “don’t dump too good,” the basic character of our soil has not changed.

Despite amendments, the clay keeps asserting itself. During heavy rains clay lenses float to the surface and the slabs must be re-integrated. With patience and time, it all blends to become rich, lumpy, heavy soil that gives countless gifts and can be forgiven for its persistence in mucking up shovels.)

Reliable Rutherford pink once rebelled against our poor drainage, finally adapted after we added heavy doses of amendments

These are the plants we move during spring musical plants rituals:

Impulse buys off sad-sack racks that I will surely rehabilitate.
Volunteers that are just too good to toss, not sure how many Stoke’s asters I really need.
Plants in pots that lost their places during previous spring games.
Plants that were labeled 4×4 but somehow became 8×8.
Plants I can donate to local plant sales (See Volunteers above).
Plants that have struggled for years but surely would thrive if I could only find the right spot.

Axiom: There are always more plants than empty spaces.

A variety I coveted twenty years ago when I spotted it in Bellingrath Gardens, Mobile, Alabama. Serendipitously I found them for sale for $3 a piece  in our local supermarket. They were never part of the Musical Plants games

So, there we were slogging with shovels during light drizzles while the miracles of spring were calling us to play hooky.

How do plants do it? Afloat in winter, parched in summer, year after year. We’ve finally figured out that the truism is true: dreary winter showers are Mother Nature’s prescription for lavish spring flowers.

George Tabor paired with variegated Solomon Seal the length of our side garden. Purple blossoms emerge whimsically from one branch

Occasionally Susan took breaks from muck-wrestling to record these budding miracles. During the second week in April she caught the garden as it was beginning to re-awaken after daffodils retired in glory. Quince, redbud and viburnum and the first azaleas are in bloom. The sky was bright cloudy and the garden green and glowing from drizzles.

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My pictures were taken a week or two later, at the height of azalea bloom. By then, clematis and weigela, dogwood and deutzia gracilis, deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’, and double reeves spirea had joined the celebration.

Also in bloom, but stubbornly non-photogenic at times, was a beautiful North Carolina hybrid with a big name:  sinocalycalycanthus raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine.’ It’s a relative of passalong plant Sweet Betsy (or Carolina allspice) hybridized by the first director of the J.C. Raulston arboretum in Raleigh.

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It was a spring to remember, but it didn’t last long. Old man sun lasered the azaleas with 90 degree rays, and that signaled the end of the show.

Summer is here.

Posted in azaleas, spring bloom, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments