Hedges Against Despair

September 19, 2013

The world depresses me easily, O internet. The government spends so much time squabbling over idiotic things and I kind of want to yell “You guys do realize that if we don’t fix the bee problem, we’ll starve to death, right? Okay, just so we’re clear. No, no, go on, make your fifty-millionth symbolic attempt to defund Obamacare. I’m sure that’s much more important.”

So I go and wander around the garden, which is tired because it’s fall and things are dying or dried or weedy or spindly. (Well, in the backyard. The front yard is extravagant. Amazing what six inches of topsoil and five years can do.) And I have to go traveling soon, which is increasingly not my favorite thing to do. I need some downtime when I am not living toward the next time I have to get on a plane.

At times like this, I pull out my yard list.

It is a weird coping mechanism, I grant you, but there it is. It is a list of every species of bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, butterfly, and dragonfly that has entered the yard that I have managed to identify. It is a list of all the stuff that got a home or an overnight rest stop or at least one good meal because once upon a time, I looked over the lawn and said “Yeah, we can do better.”

Birds — 66

Mammals — 6

Reptiles/Amphibians — 21

Crustacean — 1 (AND HOPEFULLY WILL STAY THAT WAY)

Butterflies & Moths — 33

Dragonflies & Damselflies — 7

Random Bugs & Spiders — 20*

I don’t even try to do plants, although I will note that two species of native orchid persist on the property—one in the foundation planting where there used to be a rather enthusiastic boxwood, no less. (Crippled cranefly and rattlesnake plantain orchid.)

It’s a weird OCD sort of coping mechanism, I grant you. It has no weighting, and counts a single ebony jewelwing sighting the same as an active breeding population of bronze frogs. Still, the numbers are oddly soothing, and reading down the lists of names is hypnotic. Carolina wren, blue gray gnatcatcher, mourning dove, pine warbler, American goldfinch, summer tanager, yellow-billed cuckoo, great crested flycatcher… ringnecked snake, brown snake, broadhead skink, Carolina anole, eastern pickerel frog… spring azure, pearl crescent, American painted lady, falcate orangetip, cloudless sulphur, luna moth, imperial moth, snowberry clearwing hawkmoth…click beetle, American ladybug, yellowjacket hoverfly, red velvet mite, huntsman spider, predacious diving beetle…

It’s not a huge nature preserve, or even a terribly large garden by many standards. It’s what one woman who isn’t too particular about weeds can manage. In some ways, it even makes less impact, out here in the woods, then it would in the city where it would be an oasis.

Nevertheless, when everything in the world feels horrible or stupid, it makes me feel like in some small way, I’m holding the line.

 

*There are undoubtedly way way more than twenty species, but I limit myself to ones I can ID by at least genus or common name, and critters like “jumping spiders” all get lumped together, even though there’s probably a gazillion individual species. I am almost embarassed by the scope and relative paucity of this list, which lumps wasps with dung beetles with millipedes with nursery web spiders.

Trip to the Botanical Gardens

September 18, 2013

I love the NC Botanical Garden. When I’m traveling too much, going there makes me feel like I’m home and things are normal and I have a routine.

Also, y’know, critters.

That's Sessile Blazing Star and a bee very very covered in pollen.

That’s Sessile Blazing Star and a bee very very covered in pollen.

paintedlady

American Painted Lady on some kind of swamp sunflower.

flowerbeetle

Some type of flower longhorn beetle, I think.

Winding Down…Or Up…

September 10, 2013

Five years gardening here now and I still am never entirely clear about fall in North Carolina. In a normal climate, we’d be revving up for harvest, bringing in the sheaves, all that good stuff. (It is, in fact, the Harvest Moon next week.) The heat is oppressive, though, and under normal circumstances, we’d have another few weeks of summer before fall came along.

We are not under normal circumstances. This is the weirdest damn year most of the locals can remember.

I do feel better for having gone to the farmer’s market and talked to my local farmers. What’s happened in my garden is dead normal. Everybody’s tomatoes were meh, everybody’s cherry tomatoes went nuts and then petered out fast, everybody’s squash got the blight and fell over and died. Most people don’t even have as good a tomatillo crop as I do, and tomatillos are so rugged that they would probably grow on the surface of Mars.

It’s still kind of depressing to be under the harvest moon and have maybe a handful of grape tomatoes, a load of basil, and a bunch of beans.

The leaves are starting to turn, but that could be drought. From tropical rains, we’ve got to “normal” summer weather—humid without rain. That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that it was too wet early on and all the plants got shallow rooted and huge and now they can’t really cope.

There are little green acorns pattering down everywhere.

It was, despite the vegetable garden, a fabulously productive year in the garden. There are woolly-bear caterpillars on the weeds (there are still a lot of weeds, despite intense efforts in recent hours) and Fledgling Count 2013 hit a whopping 14 birds. At least one spicebush swallowtail survived to adulthood, and our tiger swallowtail count was off the charts. My new groundcover of choice, Hypericum buckleyii “Appalachian Sun” is kicking butt and taking names in the backyard. So I shouldn’t complain too much.

Theoretically we’re moving into fall planting season…probably…but I’ll be honest, I don’t have the faintest idea what’s going on with the weather, so I’m a bit leery of plunking down more perennials. Perhaps I will simply let the season wind down with little gardener supervision, and hope that next year is a little less peculiar.

Best. Thing. Ever.

August 6, 2013

There is a baby hummingbird in the garden.

I can tell it’s a baby because it has the remains of a fluffy gray cap and I don’t think hummingbirds have taken to wearing wigs. It’s a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, that being the only species that breeds out here. (Incidentally, this brings our fledgling count of the year up to a dozen, which is leaps and bounds past anything we’ve ever achieved in the garden—just an incredible year. I am still not sure if this is because the garden is getting older and has a better carrying capacity or if the rains led to a mosquito explosion that fed zillions of fledglings, but just—amazing year.)

As I watched, the fledgling hummingbird fed off the scarlet runner-bean flowers adorning the deck, and shoved its beak deep into one particular carmine flower.

Which came off.

On its beak.

Suddenly the hummingbird is zipping around in a panic with GIANT HEAD-SIZED RED FLOWER STUCK TO MY FACE AAAAAAHHHH GET IT OFF GET IT OFF GET IT OFF while I laughed like a hyena on nitrous. Fortunately the flower fell off within a second or two, much to the bird’s relief (and mine, since once I stopped laughing, I’d have had to figure out how to help the bird, and that would be a mess.)

There is pretty much nothing that can top that ever today, so I’m gonna go get coffee.

Random Things In The Garden

August 5, 2013

So my hickory tree—the big one outside my window—is being systematically defoliated by a pack of walnut caterpillars. They are large and look stingy, with their long white hairs, they congregate in groups, and they are quite large. Even a relentless friend of wildlife such as myself will admit to bein’ a little squicked out. Given their size and how actively they move, it’s kind of like having a group of boneless, elongated mice crawling along the tree.

They are also going to be eaten by more or less everything, so that’s okay.

In happier news, new species keep on appearing in the garden—I’ve added the Rosy Maple Moth, Hoary Skipper (very similar to the far more common Silver-Spotted Skipper) and check out what volunteered in the pasture area up front! (Some day I will hire somebody to mow an edge around it so it looks more intentional and less like Two People Who Don’t Give A Shit Live Here,* but honestly, the neighbor on that side is a beekeeper AND has rusted trucks in his yard, so frankly, he doesn’t care. And the soggy area down at the bottom is getting increasingly interesting. I put in the Joe Pye Weed and the Swamp Sunflower, but this stuff showed up all on its own.)

rosepink

Common Rose Pink, aka Sabatia angularis aka Rose Gentian aka Bitterbloom

It’s a biennial and will hopefully seed enough to return in a year or two, as I am perfectly delighted to have it in residence.

The starry rosinweed continues to host All The Butterflies All The Time.

tigeronrosinweed

Om nom nom nom nectar nom nom imsopretty nom

And I found this little guy on the dwarf ironweed. He looked…pointy. If anybody knows what he is, give a yell!

smallwhitestingy

I steeeng you!

*Not that this isn’t true.

Grapevine Beetle

July 30, 2013
grapevinebeetle

Pelidnota punctuata — Grapevine Beetle

A handsome member of the scarab family, this rather large beetle showed up on the side of my garage. They eat wild and domestic grapes and Virginia creeper, although the damage they cause is so minor that most authorities suggest it’s not worth bothering controlling them. As we have no domestic grapes here, I’ve got no reason to worry about them.

The larvae eat rotting hardwood underground, and are considered somewhat beneficial as a result, since they’re breaking down diseased stumps and dead tree roots and whatnot. All in all, this bug is neither particularly good nor particularly bad, but they are certainly quite pretty as beetles go. (They also, for unknown reasons, sometimes fill Japanese beetles with unspeakable lust. Japanese beetles are much smaller but will attempt to mate with what must appear to them to be a GIGANTIC FEMALE SEX-GODDESS. There is no word on how the grapevine beetle feels about this, but this leads to some people thinking these are, in fact, giant Japanese beetles and killing them as a result, which is about as sad a case of victim blaming as one can imagine in the insect world.)

One word of caution—this beetle is very docile but has very sharp feet. If you pick one up and handle it, you may get stabbed, a circumstance probably as upsetting to the poor beetle as to you.

Flower Fly

July 27, 2013

Snapped a photo of this tiny insect out in the garden. I’m kind of amazed the phone even got it.

Syrphid Flower Fly

Probably Ocyptamus spp. Thanks to Beatriz Moisset for the ID!

Those flowers are the orange trumpets of an Agastache cultivar. The flower fly himself was only the size of my thumbnail and resembled the tiniest dragonfly you’ve ever seen.

As an adult, he feeds on nectar. His larvae (I am told this is a “he”) eat aphids, which means he’s more than welcome in any garden I ever grow. The Ocyptamus genus is huge, endemic to the New World, mostly neotropical, and now you know as much about them as I do.

Also saw my first Eastern Fence Lizard in the garden today, which is a new lizard for the yard list. He was very, very, very fast and I did not get any photos.

Weeds, Weed Dragons, Weedpocalypse Now

July 24, 2013

Spent an hour in the garden this morning before it got hot—the first serious gardening I’ve done in a month or so. Made a pretty good dent in some of the weeds, need (naturally) more mulch so I can just smother a chunk of the rest. The stiltgrass is still thugging.

The Weed Dragon flamethrower was amazingly effective on stiltgrass, though—the strip down the middle of the gravel drive, which was solid green, is now dead as a doornail. Only the plaintains resprouted from their roots. It’s been a week and some change and while there’s some regrowth, it’s barely a fraction of what it was, and more importantly, it’s not stiltgrass. Very pleased with it.

In the back, over the fence, where I cannot use a flamethrower for fear of setting the woods on fire, I have more or less screamed “THIS. IS. GAAAAAARDENNNNN!” and started throwing all the smartweed I pull up over the fence, on top of the stiltgrass. It roots instantly—you can’t keep a smartweed down—and is smothering out the stiltgrass. And it’s native, so I will endure it.

As much as I grumble about the weeds, I have to step back and say “Yeah, but it could be so much worse.” I have had spectacular luck with groundcovers in the back—the native St. John’s wort is an imperfect mat, but the green-and-gold “Eco-Lacquered Spider” has formed a wall-to-wall mat over the shadier area that keeps down the sheep sorrel (which is running rampant where there is no green-and-gold.) Eco-Lacquered Spider (and what a cultivar name, eh?) makes me nervous every spring with its rampaging stems, but it settles down in summer and becomes a well-behaved dark green carpet and I remember why I loved it in the first place. There is a whole stretch of garden where I don’t weed except occasionally and around the edges, and it looks fine. (Well, fine for my garden. Unruly and a bit ragged with weird-as-hell plant placements. I am still not sure how that Joe Pye Weed got under the oakleaf hydrangeas…)

And there has never been such a year for Tiger Swallowtails. I count over a dozen in the yard every day—most of them probably resident, but presumably there’s a few being changed out here and there. They are particularly fond of the starry rosinweed, a somewhat obscure member of the Silphium genus that produces masses of yellow daisy-like flowers…six feet off the ground. Not that you can see them, since they’re always covered in swallowtails.

I also finally got a Spicebush Swallowtail in the garden that I am reasonably certain grew up here, on one of the spicebushes. He is much too clean and perfect and new-looking to have been a long-distance wanderer. I am absurdly proud.

Our fledgling count is up to ten, with the addition of a young tufted titmouse. And one of the most spectacular developments—and one that apparently I can take some partial credit for—is a massive explosion of dragonflies. I have never seen so many blue dashers, and there are sundry other species as well. I assumed that they are here because the weeks of rain led to standing water led to more mosquitoes than anyone can deal with, led to a predator population explosion. And while that may be part of it—there are several dragonfly nymphs patrolling my rain barrels as we speak—according to some of my bug guide peeps, some of these species can take up to three years to mature.

And I think back three years ago, to a woman with a shovel grimly determined to dig that pond or die in the attempt, and the dragonfly mating flights around the pond that summer, and I think “Huh. I wonder…”

At the moment, the pond is home to many perching dragonflies, to a stand of Louisiana irises and dwarf horsetail, to many bronze frogs and hopefully still a single newt.

And someday I will finish the patio…though the swallowtails are puddling on the sand, and I will feel guilty about displacing them.

And for now, more mulch.

Hill ‘o Beans

July 19, 2013

While the garden is an untamed weed-infested wreckage at the moment—and will remain so until the combination of torrential rain and brutal heat moves off, and I can get a little mulch in to tame some of the worst excesses—this crazy wet weather has produced an incredible crop of beans.

stallardbeans

Good Mother Stallard

The two top performers are Rattlesnake Pole and Good Mother Stallard. I have no idea how they’d do in a NORMAL year (i.e. punishing heat, no rain after June) but they’ve gone crazy this year, which is good because nothing else is growing for shit. My tomato crop is staggering along, except for some relentlessly cheerful grape tomatoes, and while the tomatillos are producing (it is a sad, sad state of affairs when a tomatillo does not fruit) they aren’t very happy about it. Pretty much everything else just died outright.

But the beans…the beans are happy. These are all going to be soup beans, so a few times a day, I wander out into the garden, pick and handful or two, come inside and shell them. Takes about the same amount of time as making a good cup of tea. I have several plates padded with paper towels spread over various kitchen surfaces, and every now and again I turn the beans so they dry evenly. (Probably there’s a better method that involves equipment or something—I have no real idea what I’m doing—but this seems to work.) When they’re completely dry, I toss them in a bag or a jar and store them in the cupboard.

I am embarrassingly proud of these beans. It’s the same warm glow I feel when we make basil oil—”Look at that! We did that! That was us! We made a useful thing!” This is even less justified than the basil oil, because the bean plants seriously did all the work, I just popped them out of their respective pods. Still, I am dreadfully proud of these. More so than most paintings I’ve done—Look! I made food, guys! Look at it! It’s pretty! And we don’t have to eat them all right now until we’re sick to death of the sight of it, we can store them and have soup and chili and beans with garlic whenever we want! Isn’t that awesome?

This is a lot of thrill to derive from approximately half a pound of dried legumes. Believe me, I didn’t become a gardener because I have a good sense of proportion.

They talk a lot about the woes of being estranged from one’s food supply—and frankly, I’m just as glad not to live with mine, because it’s a high maintenance beast—but the occasional flings are pretty awesome nonetheless.

A Garden Getting Better

June 5, 2013

Every time I start to get depressed about the weeds coming in on all sides, I must remember that the garden really does get better every year.

It’s not just the plants (although they, too, get better every year—my fire pinks went from a single spindly stalk to a respectable clump and my American spikenard is going from a respectable clump to a terrifying parasol of doooooom that may need thinning.) It’s also the wildlife, or rather, our carrying capacity for wildlife.

My back-of-the-envelope math indicates that for the last few years, we got four to six fledglings per year in the immediate vicinity of my garden. What they ARE varies–last year was a banner year, we had two apiece of chickadees and gnatcatchers and ruby-throated hummingbirds, a few years ago it was red-bellied woodpeckers and titmice, but generally those seem to be the numbers.

This year we’ve got six ALREADY, by early June. A juvenile chipping sparrow, a rather wobbly great crested flycatcher (nowhere near as vivid as the parents, and spending a lot of time floundering amid the flowerpots) three baby Carolina wrens who are all gone from the nest today (hoping they fledged and weren’t devoured, but honestly, I’d rather have “part of the food chain” than “not enough food to exist in the first place.”) and a juvenile brown-headed cowbird.

Not sure how I feel about the cowbird, honestly, but there he is.

There was also a rather delightful first-year summer tanager, who was molting red over yellow, like a goldfinch with psoriasis. He perched on a tomato cage and sang his heart out. I would be perfectly happy to have tanagers settle in here—we’ve had them pass through but not stay—but this little guy may be out of luck for the year. I don’t know how first year males do in the great songbird wars.

On top of that, more and more birds stop by to grab a drink or a snack on the way to something else. The butterflies are thicker on the ground every year. (I have enough pipevine for a couple of swallowtails this year, instead of just one!) My neighbor’s honeybees coexist peacefully with respectable quantities of native bees.The frogs…well, the frogs tend toward a boom-and-bust cycle, near as I can tell, and the pond is SWARMING with predacious diving beetles, which are very cool even as they are keeping the tadpole numbers in check this year. (I have faith it will all reach equilibrium eventually.)

There are fireflies in the field, and occasionally wandering through the garden or sitting on the screen and pulsing with light.

This spring I found a wild native honeysuckle growing on the fence, where I hadn’t planted it. (And yes, I pulled about half of it before I realized my mistake and felt like history’s greatest monster.)

And this is all with big bare mulched patches left between plants still. When it all grows in, if I ever manage the lush cottage-esque garden of my dreams…well, who knows what might show up?

ETA: As of 6/10, there’s a juvenile (probably) female cardinal, mourning dove still with baby fluff, and a juvenile red-bellied woodpecker spotted as well. Also a herd of grackles on the feeder. That’s one new yard bird (never had grackles before, oddly enough) and three more fledglings, for a grand total of NINE.

Also grackles are bad at sharing. And if we get much more water, the yard will just be underwater.