May Garden Notes

Photo of leaf gall on birch

I think this tree is a gray birch, that got itself next to the garage foundation. Then I neglected getting rid of it, so it shot branches up above the roof-line. When I cut it back one branch took off a piece of flashing. But I feel sorry for the tree, so I trim it back as a shrub and let it live. This year it has all these galls on the leaves, that seem to grow into this strange plant/insect object. You can see some in the background that are stretching.

 

Photo of lilies of the valley

The lilies of the valley are pretty this year, since I raked their bed out for them, and added some fortified potting soil. Its a difficult spot to design, because in the winter the oaks shed masses of leaves, and the bed gets heavily piled; then in the spring the daffodils have to run their course, before there’s room for the next thing. This year I added the dwarf spruce, and a climbing trellis.

 

Photo of squirrel on feeder pole

In the local squirrel gene pool, is this tendency towards red tails. So far this year, only a Cooper’s hawk, seen in pursuit of an unknown bird, so the squirrels are fat and frollicking. I have a whole flock of morning doves, which seem to be the bird-hunting hawk’s favorite prey.

 

Photo of catkins

In the springtime, the oaks drop so many catkins I can sweep them up and use them for mulch. Catkins are high-protein (it seems, as I learned from looking it up, you can eat them if you like…something to remember if you’re ever lost in the wilderness at the right season), and so it takes little time for them to decompose in the garden.

 

Photo of hens and chicks

Here’s a good way to hatch out your hens and chickens, when you want to spread them around.

 

 

Waiting for the Cold Spell to End

Photo of garden cart and plants

These are the seeds I started March 15. The biggest growers are the annuals, the centaurea, nicotiana, and tithonia. They toughen up well enough with temperatures in the fifties, but need an eye kept on them in case the wind blows too cold. Of perennials, I have rudbeckia, columbine, shasta daisy, lupine, achillea, foxglove, hollyhock, catmint, coreopsis, hibiscus. The slower-growing annuals are coleus, impatiens (the big ones flowering above were started from cuttings), larkspur, calendula, ageratum…and I just started the end of spring annuals, that could sprout sown directly; but, in the case of sunflower, are vulnerable to birds eating them, or need a good start to root well and bloom sooner: morning glory, marigold, and nasturtium.

 

Photo of Milkweed border

Along the side of the garage I have a stand of swamp milkweed (white-flowered) that grows every summer into a seasonal hedge. These plants get a lot of love from bees and wasps; so far, I haven’t seen monarchs. But, as every year, I want to tout the tithonia flower, which is very attractive to monarchs. That may be because the kind that migrate to Mexico are looking for a familiar haven along the way (tithonia is also called Mexican sunflower). When they go to seed in the late summer, goldfinches will feed on them too.

 

Photo of old yew bush

On my old property, I planted an acorn and grew a Chestnut oak about twenty or thirty feet tall at the time I left. I’d like to think it’s still there…maybe it isn’t. But owners can do what they need to with their own place. My garage was first hedged with yew, bushes grown a couple feet taller than me. If they were left alone, there’d be no moving up the side between my property and the neighbors’. I don’t myself like trimmed foundation bushes, so I cut them down, rather than try keeping them up—I couldn’t get the stumps, because my chainsaw is only a little battery-operated one. One yew, and I’m happy it did, if I can keep it small, came back and has a sort of Bristlecone pine vibe.

 

Photo of my grandfather and his brother

My grandfather (left), his brother (right). I don’t know who the skinny man in the center is.

 

Photo of my grandfather, his brother and mother

Same group, but with my great-grandmother in the middle.

 

Photo of my great grandmother

My great-grandmother Barker, 1960s, probably Mt. Vernon, Illinois

 

 

April Garden News

Here’s a sassy orange tulip I saved from the deer. I have two blooming, and one that will probably get away with making a flower. The others have had their heads bitten off.

 

I’ve been getting into the gardening magazines, getting inspired by projects. I don’t subscribe anymore, but still have a stack never read. So, I’ve gone through my garage, finding every pot or article (large pieces of pipe, an old dryer vent), that could be spruced up with craft paint. At the left is nothing but a shrub-sized plastic pot, such as garden centers use. Here’s one kind of recycling to keep plastic out of circulation altogether! The paints are Martha Stewart metallic and pearlized, and the decoration is done by dipping crumpled plastic wrap in contrasting colors after a base coat dries, then tamping on the freeform design. When they’re ready to go out, add a coat of car wax, to make them more rain resistant.

 

Here are my garden seeds, sprouted and on their way, after two weeks. It’s something of a balancing act to get them early enough they have a healthy amount of growth, comparable to plants you’d buy at the garden store. But growth is especially important with perennials. Last year, for example, I put out probably a dozen hollyhocks, which like most perennials won’t bloom the first year. This year, I count less than half that number surviving, from voles and deer, and crowding by the roots of other plants. Last year’s achillea (deer resistant) has pretty much all come back, but this is the first season they’ll bloom. I had good monarda (also deer resistant) last year, a plant that will flower like an annual, but this year a couple stands don’t seem to have returned. But since even tender annuals can go outdoors in April during the daytime (unless the temperatures are below the upper fifties), it’s better to start early, and have big plants that will bloom as soon as possible.

Seedlings, though, then young mature plants, do get to be a lot to handle indoors.

And by the way, the impatiens flowering pink, above, are from cuttings. They’ll grow easily that way—just snip a top with buds, making your cut between two sets of leaf nodes, and stick it in potting soil. It will root and start blooming within a week or two. The downside is that cuttings are clones. Impatiens are also very easy to start from seeds, and that genetic diversity will improve their chances of not picking up disease.

 

 

 

A Damp Climate

The air, when I lived for a few years in Columbus, Ohio, was always notably drier than down in Athens. My town is part of the greater Ohio Valley, built alongside the Hocking River, that feeds into the Ohio. It’s a moist part of the world, but has been especially rainy for several weeks. Last week we got two days of heavy rains in a row.

 

Photo of fungi in brush heap

Here in my brush heap are a nice collection of fungi and lichens.

 

Photo of purple mold on limb

And an interesting one from a couple of years ago, that looks like a purple mold growing on a lichen.

 

Photo of streaming water in yard

The rainwater in this patch of my yard just streams, and builds itself miniature sandy shoals.

 

Photo of burrow filled with water

And the reason the water streams is because this animal burrow fills up, and appears to run underground from the pear tree to the brush heap.

 

Photo of pickerel weed in tub

But, good news. My water tubs are shaped like big shallow bowls, so I never do anything for them in the winter, because when the water freezes it just expands outwards and doesn’t harm the tub. So I usually don’t keep my water plants and have to buy new ones. This year, either for mildness on the part of the weather, or hardiness on the part of the pickerel weed, I have one plant that’s pulled through and is starting to grow again.

 

 

Spring Fever

It’s that time of year, when the weather warms up, the garden starts to grow, and  it gets hard to sit at your desk and work. 

 

Photo of sky during hailstorm

 

We had a late winter thunderstorm with hail on the third of March, during which I saw a weather phenomenon I never had: the sky turned a shade of pink. By the time I got my camera it was almost gone, but there’s a hint of it in this picture. Otherwise, it’s a nice moody shot, showing how at this time of the year greys can look bright and the landscape eager to get started. And today (the 8th) I had a pair of courting turkey vultures flying over my yard.

 

Photo of backyard drainage project

 

Here’s a shot of my drainage project. My yard has a steep little slope going from the house to the garage-level. In southeastern Ohio for the past several years, we’ve hardly had any snow, nothing like the six inch or more longterm storms we used to get. Now, in a winter, we get one or two events that drop a couple of inches at the most, then melt off within days. Meanwhile, we’ve been having huge downpours of rain; this year, it seems, every week. All that is a reflection of the changing climate, but when you have rain instead of snow, you get a lot of washing. The wash carries away the topsoil, and keeps anything green from growing back. So backyard drainage should be purposed not to channel, but to slow down and spread the runoff, make it trickle down into the soil, rather than stream to the ditch. Pea gravel is a great choice, and if the cinder blocks are set this way, they can function as a step and a place for rainwater to burble away slowly.

 

Now, in about a week, it’ll be time to start seeds and root cuttings from the impatiens and coleus I saved from the garden last fall!

 

 

Bulbs and Burls: Late Winter Interest

One or Two Things to See This Time of Year

 

 

The daffodils are pushing up; daffodils, being the easiest bulbs to grow when you have a lot of deer, I plant more of these than any other, although I’m trying to build a good effect with grape hyacinths. The birds are making their spring plans. The redtailed hawk couple have been circling to locate a nesting site for the year. The other day one was being chased by a flock of crows, and when she or he sped off, the other arrived. That suggests the hawks take advantage of the crows’ behavior. I don’t know how you’d prove it, but I suspect the hawk watches, flying over, to see what shelters the squirrels run to, and keeps its eye on the brush heap, knowing prey will emerge from that spot after awhile. A pair of cardinals have been at the feeders, the male very bright…the local cardinal population has seemed a little down the last couple of years. Today, I saw a mockingbird fly up into the oak, calling in imitation of a hawk and some other bird I didn’t recognize. So he also is staking a territory to make use of in the next few weeks.

 

 

The hellebore languished for some years after I planted it. But then, I think in 2017, we had a huge cicada generation born, and the emergence from deep in the ground must have freed up the roots from struggling against those of the giant oaks. That summer the hellbore took off, and it’s been a big, healthy plant ever since, spreading out and making new hellebores. This lenten rose always blooms early and prolifically.

 

Below are some ornamental burls in a young phase. At center, you can see how small these two are, by comparing them to the acorn caps. They make interesting little ornaments for the flower bed they push themselves up into.

 

 

 

 

What Is a Habitat?

Some observations on householder-sized efforts against the climate crisis.

 

Photo of yard with various plants sprouting

Above, a natural patch of lawn, lightly raked, at the base of one of my ninety-or-so-year-old oak trees. Everything not lawn grass that grows here is by definition a habitat plant, as they were all delivered by birds and other animals. Under the deer droppings near the center can be seen a small juniper bush; the bright red leaves are callery pear and barberry. My yard also gets mulberry, privet, American Holly, English Ivy, Amur Honeysuckle, Japanese Honeysuckle, millet grass, and quite a bit more. Some of these are listed as invasive plants, but obviously wherever they came from they were playing a role to support wildlife.

This is a current question in the natural sciences, whether the decline of species, birds notably, will allow us to fuss like we once did, over the strict “nativeness” of a plant, when clearly the plant is an important food source for birds.

 

  Landscape disturbance and transformation, extinction, globalization, and climate change are proceeding at unprecedented rates and scales and have yet to climax. We argue that the Anthropocene will call for a conceptual overhaul of what it means for a species to “belong” to a given environment.

Frontiers in Earth Science “Rethinking ‘Native’ in the Anthropocene”, Avery P. Hill, Elizabeth A. Hadly

 

The article quoted above makes the point that wildlife and plantlife stresses are so accelerated these days, the questions of preservation may be basic. To identify a plant as non-native, and remove it from a wild site, in the assumption this makes room for “good” plants to take over, is to assume that food sources remain abundant and time itself remains abundant. It may be a more practical standard to say, if birds can survive eating the fruits of barberry and autumn olive, let them have barberry and autumn olive.

Fires have become severe, in the U.S. this year, in Australia, Russia, Greece, Brazil, France, Spain, and other nations; and while plants can recultivate burned lands quickly, animals can’t. We may have no choice but to appreciate nature’s strong competitors, even if humans consider these species the lowly and commonplace.

 

Troubled Azalea

This is the azalea bush in front of my house. It suffered a leaf-killing attack of thrips last summer, and as you can see, all its “evergreen” is brown and tissue-papery. At the base of each leaf cluster, new green ones are starting. The azalea will probably survive, but if it doesn’t, I’ll either let the weeping arborvitae take over the spot, or buy a new shrub that isn’t bothered by thrips. What I won’t do is put anything in the environment, even allegedly safe sprays, to kill the infestation. We can’t worry about perfect appearance in our gardens; we have so many plants to choose from, we can find the pretty thing that will thrive without chemical treatments at all.

(Marigolds, incidentally, will draw thrips…and look terrible themselves…but possibly save other of your garden specimens, if you’d like a wholly organic answer.)

 

 

 

Homes for Creatures

Photo of woodpecker hole in dead ash tree

This is a dead ash tree, that gets a lot of woodpecker traffic. My yard has nesting sites used by Hairy, Downy, and Red-bellied woodpeckers; also Northern Flickers. Just this past summer, I’ve been seeing Pileateds visit the tree, so with luck they’ll be the ones excavating this out next spring.

 

Photo of animal burrow

This is a burrow in the ground under my Callery pear tree. I’ve never seen what lives there, but I see a long passage of sunken ground coming off this hole, so the complex must be spacious. It may be only rabbits, but it would be nice to have a badger or a weasel. 

 

 

 

Radioactive Rocks

Pink granite rock in garden
Pink Granite

I’ve been reading archived newspapers from 1979, a time in my life when I didn’t pay too much attention to world events. Now that I’m doing my bit for recorded history, I enjoy reminding myself, or educating myself, on vaguely remembered moments from the years I actually lived through. I came across a piece in the New York Times, that had Senator John Glenn being shown the facade of a Washington building, and told by his guide that there was more radiation emanated by the granite than was detectable in the air around Three Mile Island (the accident occurred March 28, 1979). 

That made me curious about my favorite garden rock, above. I learned, doing a little research, that pink and red granites give off more than greys and blacks—a combination of radon gas and gamma rays, chiefly. Unfortunately, a Geiger counter won’t detect levels in granite reliably, if at all, due to ordinary background radiation in the environment. And the other machines, for non-professionals, are too expensive to buy. So I guess I’ll never know how powerful my pink rock is.

(If you have granite countertops, don’t worry. Here is a PDF from the Health Physics Society explaining more.)

Photo of a hawk print
Hawk’s Print

Above, a thing you don’t see often, since birds of prey don’t walk on the ground. But they do rocket down from the treetops onto passing squirrels and rabbits. At night, I seem to have a lot of owl activity around my ground feeder as well, to judge by the number of pellets I find. I don’t know what comes out, whether it’s mice or flying squirrels…but whatever they are, they aren’t very wary. The owls seem to be picking them off constantly. 

Brilliant Sunset
Brilliant Sunset

And finally, a super sunset from November 13.