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.

 

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.

It’s primrose time

I’m a sucker for the colorful displays of primroses that pop up in grocery stores this time of year. Who can resist those charming flowers in the middle of winter? I usually buy several and cluster them in a basket or decorative pot for some indoor cheer. It’s a lot of joy for less than ten bucks.

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If you fall prey to their spell too, be sure to water them regularly since they like to be moist. If the soil dries out so much that the plant wilts and water runs right through the pot don’t despair. Fill a container that is taller than the pot with water and set the pot in it. If the pot bobs on top, gently push it below the surface of the water for a minute. You may see air bubbles coming out of the pot, which is ok. Let the pot sit in the container of water for a 30-60 minutes to completely moisten the soil again, then remove it and let it drain in the sink.

Place your primroses out of direct sunlight. As the flowers fade, carefully clip them off with scissors. You may notice new flower buds forming under the old flowers. Feeding occasionally with a general-purpose flowering houseplant food will keep your primroses blooming for weeks. Just be sure to follow all label directions carefully.

Amazingly, grocery store primroses can assume a second life as a garden plant if you live in USDA hardiness zones 3-8 (winter temperatures to -35 degrees F). Keep them moist indoors until the weather warms up, then plant them in the garden once frosts are passed. They like a partly shady spot and moist but well-drained, humus-rich soil.

Like fall mums, getting grocery store primroses to come back year after year is a bit of a crap shoot. I’ve had some success planting them in a partly shady patch under some shrubs. The soil here is loose and rich from years of applying bark mulch. These outdoor primroses bloom a bit later than the ones in the grocery store, since those are forced in greenhouses.

Next time you shop for groceries, look for these little cuties in the floral department. At the very least they will bring some cheer to these gray winter days.

Here’s one for the pollinators

Butterfly weed, a North American prairie plant, was named Perennial Plant of the Year for 2017 by the Perennial Plant Association. Great news for pollinators!

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a veritable nectar bar for many different kinds of bees, beneficial wasps, butterflies, and even hummingbirds. And if you want to help monarch butterflies, this plant is tops because it’s a favorite food source for their caterpillars.

monarch_caterpillar_danaus_plexippus_on_asclepias_tuberosa_butterfly_milkweed_2284495213The overall habit is upright, with lance-like leaves spiraling up the stem. It tops out at 2-3 feet, and is crowned with orange flower umbels from early summer to mid-fall. The flowers are pretty cool if you look at them closely. After flowering, long skinny seedpods form—a dead giveaway that butterfly weed is in the milkweed family. As fall progresses, the pods dry out, split open, and release seeds that have silky hairs to help them float on the wind.

Butterfly weed grows best in full sun and average, well-draining soil. It can handle brutal summer heat and winters as low as -25 degrees F (USDA Zones 4-9).  True to its prairie origins, butterfly weed is pretty drought tolerant once established in the garden. It seeds around a little in my garden, but I welcome it wherever it pops up. It’s never invasive and is such a great wildlife plant. As an added bonus, deer don’t seem to like it.

If you love hot colors, butterfly weed’s blazing orange flowers will be just your thing. Grow it with other eye-popping perennials like daylilies and red bee balm (Monarda) for a fiesta of color. If orange flowers scare you, tone down butterfly weed’s volume with blue, purple, or white companion flowers for a softer look.

You can grow butterfly weed from seed fairly easily. Plants aren’t often available in garden centers, but hopefully that will change now that it has some street cred. Patronize your local garden center and ask for it if they don’t offer it. Plant some and you’ll be doing something great for pollinators and hummingbirds.

Photo credit: Marshal Hedin from San Diego [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s What’s New

I attended the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS) in Baltimore this week. This giant trade show draws thousands from the horticulture industry each year—plant growers and breeders, and suppliers of a dizzying array of machinery, tools and products. It’s a great place to see what’s new, what we’ll see in garden centers soon, and connect with people.

One of the most exciting line of plants are the Bushel and Berry blueberry and bramble fruits. These plants are bred to stay small, so they can be grown in containers, yet produce large volumes of delicious fruits. The raspberries and blackberimg_5972ries are thornless for painless picking. Many of the plants in this line were introduced several years ago under the brand, Brazelberry. Since then, the plants have been tested and improved and more added to the lineup. What this means is that when you buy plants in the blue Bushel and Berry pots, you can be sure you are getting a terrific plant that will provide a bounty of delicious berries. To top it off, the plants are beautiful too!

Here are a few other photos from the show: