On the wild side

 When my husband and I bought our one-acre property 21 years ago, it was a sunbaked hilltop devoid of vegetation except for an ill-placed dogwood, an ancient smokebush, a couple boring big-box-store shrubs and a sea of scrubby lawn. Inside, we were amazed at the amount of dust and cat hair on our furniture now apparent in the bright house.

I approached the blank-slate property with its rich soil and abundant light as my canvas and it has become my laboratory where I test plants and watch what they do each season. Sometimes I move plants around or split them to share with gardening friends. Some, I dig out and throw away. I have a manila folder titled, ‘Plants That Croaked’ that is bulging with the tags of dead plants. The winners remain in the garden and are included in my plant lists for clients.

As a by-product of all this planting, our property is now an oasis for us as well as wildlife we never encountered when the landscape was barren. We love nothing better than spending an evening on the shady patio watching birds flit among the trees and shrubs, scrappy hummingbirds fighting over the feeder and rabbits nibbling and leaping.

The increase in birds is the most noticeable change. Their songs fill the air and they raise families in the dense foliage. I find their abandoned nests each autumn after the leaves fall. There is an astonishing array of bird species too. Not only the usual suburban wrens, sparrows, chickadees, jays, crows and cardinals, but bluebirds too, and cedar waxwings who descend en masse like bandits in their dark masks to gobble ripe fruits from the serviceberry, holly and dogwood trees. Red-tailed hawks cruise low and fast past the bird feeder, and often ride the thermals high above the open land of the lower yard. Sometimes a puff of rabbit fur tells the tale of a meal found. And climate change has pushed the range of the annoying mockingbird our way.

An eastern box turtle makes an appearance in the vegetable garden every June. I can tell it’s the same one because it has aErnie distinctive ‘E’ marking on its shell so I’ve named it Ernie. This year Ernie brought a friend, a smaller box turtle I saw just once nestled between the rows of garlic. I’m not sure if the scent of ripe strawberries draws Ernie from the woods several hundred feet away, but he always samples the bounty and I don’t mind sharing. Ernie hung around longer this year. From the vegetable garden, he relocated to the shelter of the fig and was last seen burrowed under the towering lovage in the herb garden. After all these years, I have never seen Ernie on the move (although my husband nearly ran him over with the lawn tractor once) and he seems to resent human contact. He slowly withdraws into his shell if I approach, and just our appearance is enough to make him disappear for days. Nonetheless, I feel I have been bestowed with a great blessing when he makes an appearance.

We have seen fox trotting along the woods line and one chilly Thanksgiving morning, I watched a beady-eyed mangy one catch a chipmunk outside the kitchen door and chomp it down in three bites. After its meal, the wretched thing ambled out to the back garden and curled up in the leaves to nap in the sunshine.

The other day I upended in my hand a small plastic pot containing a pepper plant and laughed when I spied a tiny toad butt. I turned the unpotted plant in my hand, and one sleepy eye of the toad stared back at me, looking somewhat annoyed at the disturbance. I gently set the plant and soil into the hole that I had dug and carefully patted soil around it. I hope the toad went back to sleep in its more spacious home.

There has been, to my dismay, the occasional snake. Many years ago on a hot afternoon, a long dark snake slithered my way across the lawn as I watered plants on the patio. I resisted the urge to drop the watering wand and run; instead, I trained the stream of water onto its back, which it seemed to appreciate. After a few minutes, I turned off the water, carefully set down the wand, scooped up the cat, who was staring goggle-eyed, and headed indoors. From the door, I watched the snake curl up in one of the pots I had just watered. A few minutes later it was gone and thankfully I never saw it after that. My husband dispatched a small garter snake who slithered into the garage on a hot day, seeking shade and the cool cement. Recently, my neighbor’s nine-year-old grandson saw a rat snake crawl up her chimney and into her house, no doubt to eat the starling chicks that were nesting in her siding. An hour later we saw the awful thing retreating under the hollies outside our kitchen door. I checked on a robin nest nearby and the lone turquois egg was gone that had been there the day before. I then realized there were far fewer chipmunks making holes in the garden this year and virtually no baby bunnies. Clearly, the snake was enjoying the smorgasbord around here. I know snakes are good and eat a lot of varmints, but I don’t want one nearby, especially one that climbs so well. So I spray a cinnamon oil concoction, which is reported to repel snakes, and keep a long bamboo pole handy to rustle and poke the shrubbery as I mutter “Go away, Mr. Snake.”

For better or worse, the gardens we make enrich our lives and support bugs and birds, mammals and reptiles. And these creatures become part of the story of our garden too.

 

In like a lion

My garden stirs in late winter. I bundle up and venture out to witness the first faint pulses of change, looking for proof that spring is on the horizon. I quickly find the goods.

IMG_2022The air smells different now, no longer tinged with snow but with an earthiness brought forth from the tentative thaw. Hellebore flowers, from under their winter-battered leathery leaves, are dragging their fresh ruffled chartreuse blooms from the cold soil like tousle-headed teenagers trying to wake. Birds dart in and out of the viburnum hedge, noisily staking out their nesting territory. I round the corner and gasp, delighted as spring smacks me full force. Why am I surprised? It happens every year.

In all this hesitant spring business—the freezing and the thawing, the occasional teasingly bright warm day or half day—there it is: the black pussy willow, trumpeting spring and not pussy-footing around about it in the least. I stand marveling at its silhouette against the gray sky, a huge ugly hulking pile of sticks that are now dotted with inky tufts along their lengths. How long has it been in full bloom? It never says. But it might wonder why it took me so long to notice.

I admire these intrepid winter bloomers—the hellebore, the witchhazel, the pussy willow. What they lack in floral glitz they make up for in grit. Their sap stirs long before our sights are on spring and their curious flowers flex from within icy buds. These early risers seem impatient to get the business of flowering and pollination out of the way and, in the process, offer up life-saving nectar and pollen to woozy bees and other insects emerging on those first warm days.

I bought the black pussy willow (Salix melanostachys) as a mere twig in a four-inch pot decades ago from a long-defunct nursery. I remember seizing on it as a great prize, something unique. I planted the tiny stick in what seemed a huge area at the back corner of the garage where it would have room to grow and receive runoff from the downspout, since willows love water. I fretted when my husband ran over it with the lawn mower, twice. It must have enjoyed the abuse because it never looked back from that point, growing wider by the year. Its twiggy bulk now stretches above the roof gutters, trashing them with its slender leaves. My husband complains when he mows under it and the branches knock his hat off. Who’s getting the last laugh now?

For much of the year the black pussy willow is an unremarkable plant, save for its size. But as winter drags on and spring seems distant, I am always astonished when the glistening black catkins emerge amidst the unsettled throes of late winter. I clip a few of the red-tipped stems to bring inside so I can closely watch the black fuzzy flowers open further. Some are capped with shiny maroon bud scales that eventually litter the table, along with yellow pollen that dusts the tips of the shaggy flowers. Soon I will sweep up the mess and drop the spent twigs into the compost pile as the daffodils finally dare to bloom.

Take that, winter!

When this clivia flower cluster opened a couple weeks ago, it was like a sucker punch to winter. The orange-tipped buds emerged from deep within the emerald-green leaves, pointing upward like little round-nosed rockets, then opened as a chorus to expose their soft yIMG_2004ellow throats and delicate pistils.  Each flower stretched its petals wider until they formed one glorious globe of sherbet orange and yellow against thick strappy foliage. The show has gone on now for several weeks, delighting me no end.

My friend gave me the plant as a division several years ago, and it’s become one of my favorite houseplants, doubtless for those winter-blah-chasing flowers, but also because of its undemanding demeanor and dramatic fountain of dark foliage.

These South African natives need light to grow well, but do not tolerate direct sunlight. They actively grow in the spring and summer months, then enter a resting phase for about three months in late fall, then bloom in winter. Here’s how to give your clivia the conditions it needs to thrive and bloom.

Place the plant in a bright north-facing window, or an eastern or western window, provided the light is filtered by trees or curtains. Clivias do well summered outdoors in a shady but bright location. I move mine to the front porch after the weather has warmed and settled, and it stays there until fall night temperatures dip into the 40s.

Clivias don’t need much water. In the spring and summer, when they are growing, water only when the soil dries out, and fertilize regularly. In the fall, when they enter their resting phase, stop watering. Continue withholding water through winter, unless the plant wilts, in which case you can give it a small amount.

Clivias like to be crowded in the pot, and it can take a couple years for a plant to mature enough to flower. Then, to set flower buds, they need a chilling period of about 50 degrees for three months during the resting phase, which begins in late fall. At that point (and before a frost) I move my clivia to a north-facing sunroom that I keep between 40 and 50 degrees for the first half of winter. Come January, I move the clivia to a north-facing window in my warmer dining room and wait for the show to begin. Within a month, a flower stalk emerges from the center of the foliage, and for the next month I’m treated to a long-lasting winter show that makes the remaining days of winter a little more bearable.

 

Doves on the swing

Birds enliven our gardens. They fly, dart, and interact with one another. Their songs add beautiful sounds. They are helpful to us gardeners as they eat huge amounts of insects, especially while raising chicks, which helps keep their numbers in balance. It’s a delight to find nests in trees and shrubs when the leaves fall in autumn. I love to look closely to see how birds wove found bits into the nest structure: twigs, grass blades, and even ribbons of littered paper and plastic. Once I found a string still tied to bamboo skewers I had used to mark seeds I direct-sowed in the spring garden. I had wondered what had happened to that little rig…

If we’re lucky, birds make their nest where we can witness the construction process, along with eggs and raising of chicks.

A few days ago, I hung hummingbird feeders as I usually do in mid-April to welcome the weary little birds on their return north. As I stepped onto the front porch, feeder in hand, I nearly collided with a mourning dove, who flapped madly to get out of my way. I then noticed a puzzling amount of sticks and tangles of dried grapevine on the porch floor, and looked up. In the swing, still hung high for the winter, was a flat, haphazard nest with one white egg poking up. Robins have tried to nest in this same spot before, but I removed the start of those nests and lowered the swing to discourage them. But I was too late to dissuade these birds.

Mother dove is now a constant presence incubating her egg (or maybe eggs by now) just outside our living room window. We carefully peek to see how she’s doing, and she replies with a blink of her big dark eye. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab website (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mourning_Dove/id), it will be another week before the chicks hatch, then another couple weeks until they fledge. Guess we won’t be using our porch swing for a while.

Find of the day: Bloodroot

Take a walk in the woods this time of year and you might spy this tiny beauty, bloodroot. I found one today along a stream bank in a low moist woods. And I mean one—there waIMG_7573sn’t another in sight. I was especially lucky to find it since bloodroot only blooms for a day or two.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a North American ephemeral wildflower that emerges in rich woods in late winter and early spring. Spring ephemerals flower and set seed quickly, before the trees leaf out to take advantage of sunlight, then go dormant once summer heats up. Other spring ephemerals include trillium, trout lily, Virginia bluebells, spring beauties, and Dutchman’s breeches.

As you can see, the leaf on this bloodroot was still wrapped around the stem, which is typical. The fragile flower opens during the day and closes at night, then fades after a day or two. The solitary leaf unfurls, displaying its unique deeply cleft shape, then grows to about 12-14 inches tall.

Bloodroot is in the poppy family and gets its name from the red-orange juice in its stem and roots. Native Americans used the juice to dye clothing and baskets, and for war paint. They also used it to treat aches and fevers, ringworm, ulcers, and skin infections. Alkaloid compounds in the juice are possibly useful for dissolving warts and reducing plaque on teeth, however it believed to be too toxic to be ingested.

If you have a moist woodland spot on your property, consider planting some bloodroot. It can be found at specialty native plant nurseries, such as Prairie Moon Nursery (prariemoon.com). Not only will you be charmed by its delicate, fleeting beauty, the winter-starved bees will welcome the early pollen and nectar it provides.