Friday, April 29, 2011

My life in plants

Ahhhhh, Spring. It's the best season of the year. Autumn could be, if it wasn't the season that precedes winter.

Windows open, music up, hair down. Birds singing, wind blowing, flowers growing.

Here's what I've been doing. It's work, but it's so good.

SCOUTING NURSERIES. This is the time of year when I think, "I made a really good decision to go into horticulture". The weather is perfect and plants really put on a show. These rose standards are at Parson's Nursery in Georgetown.
TEACHING CLASS. I'm in the midst of teaching a 10-week class in Sustainable Agriculture for Trident Tech. I've got a class of great students who keep me on my toes. Here's Catherine McGuinn, the coordinator of the program, teaching a propagation lab last night:
Last week, we took a field trip to Joseph Field's Farm on John's Island. He's certified organic and grows everything from collard greens to heirloom tomatoes to pea shoots.

Here he is with his apprentice, Ella (she's also in my class). I have a lot I could say about Mr. Fields if I had more energy to devote to this tonight. He's just so good. In all ways.
CONSULTING. I had the pleasure of going out to a client's house on Wadmalaw last week. They have a beautiful home on the intracoastal waterway. Their view is to die for, but this poppy field that they planted across from their house was the real scene-stealer. Can you imagine?! It was perfection.
So tired. All for now.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I caught a black vulture!!

This journal has well established that I am obsessed with birds. That being said, I never thought that I would ever capture a wild Black Vulture. My adrenaline has only recently subsided.

I saw this young vulture walking down my dirt road, dragging her wing. So I stopped and called The Center for Birds of Prey to let them know so that they could come a get her. The nice lady at the center asked, in a perfectly normal tone, "Do you think that you could catch it and put the bird in a box?". Assuming this was what you were supposed to do, I said okay.

Her response? "Wow! No one ever says yes!". Oh, gawd.

Being a closeted people-pleaser, I told her I'd at least try and I'd get back to her. Only on the inside I was saying, Shut up! Tell her it's a huge bird with a flesh-tearing beak!

Armed with a beach towel and a deep bucket, I chased the lame bird around until I was able to trap her between me and a long fence. Tossing the towel in the direction of the bird, it landed on her and I was able to pick her up. Now fearing the inevitable eye-poking-out that was sure to follow, I quickly draped the towel over her head and placed her in the bucket.
I'm happy to say that although I'm totally shocked, no bird attack occurred. And the Center for Birds of Prey was able to pick her up from Coastal Expeditions and take her for treatment. They're going to call when they have an update on her wing. I'll let you know how she's doing.

Springtime is for Aphids

If you have new growth on a succulent plant, aphids are interested. And I'm seeing aphids (and other insects) everywhere-- roses, oleander, spirea, river birch. It's unending.

So why now? Aphids are fairly delicate insects with thin exoskeletons (compared to say, a beetle) so when we get into brutal summer temperatures, their numbers dwindle. Water is more scarce, plants have hardened off...I call it "summer dormancy" and it seems that all of our temperate plants (and people) slow down and just focus on survival when the Fahrenheit stays in the 90's and above.

Aphids feed on plant sap, the high sugar liquid found in the phloem (and elsewhere) of plants. Phloem (for those that haven't been in botany class recently) transport carbohydrates produced by the leaves down to the roots, flowers and fruit.

How do you keep from having aphids? For one, don't overfertilize with nitrogen. Plants that are pushed with synthetic fertilizers often have higher aphid populations (it's like junk food for aphids and they are addicted). If you promote slower, more sustained growth, you often have less insect pests.

Second, diversity your garden and work to attract birds and beneficial insects into your garden. A garden with habitat for birds, native plant species incorporated into the landscape and high plant diversity will avoid outbreaks and epidemics.

And remember that I said that aphids have thin skins? That means that without a steady diet of sugary liquid, they dry up pretty quickly. If you just have a plant or two with aphids, spray them with a steady stream of water and knock them off your plant. They'll die before they ever have the change to climb back onto the host plant. It's an epic hike back to the tips of an oleander branch if you're a tiny aphid.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Self-Proclaimed Underground Railroad for Birds

I've heard that Cedar Waxwings are back in town. If they don't come back to my weeping yaupon tree this year, I may weep myself.

For the last two years, I've watch the spectacle from my office window as they descend upon this tree and strip every last berry from its branches. And all in a matter of hours.
Waxwing with her cool black mask

I'm starting to stress that either they are going to skip their annual stopover on their way back north or that I'm going to come home from a trip to the market (or worse, work) and see the tree without its berried ornamentation.

Come on, Waxwings! Keep me on your official/unofficial underground railroad. And come when I'm home.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The luxury of doing without

Remember when it was actually a big deal when watermelons arrived in the stores and farmer's markets in the summers? I can remember being really excited about eating ice-cold slices of sweet watermelon right about the fourth of July- and the anticipation of it was as good (or almost as good) as the watermelon itself. That absence of melons in the fall, winter and spring enhanced the olfactory experience when they came into season. Now, because melons apparently ship well from warm climates (the thick rind and relatively long shelf life assist with this), watermelon tastes pretty good year round. And as a result, it lost some of its magic.

Thankfully, we haven't figured out how make winter tomatoes taste like summer tomatoes. And although I'm all for horticultural innovation, I hope that breeders and growers never figure this out. There's nothing I dream of more than a tomato sandwich on white bread made with tomatoes ripened in the southern summer sun. Tomato sandwiches should only be eaten when you're wearing a short-sleeved shirt while in the shade of a porch. I don't think a tomato sandwich (no matter how good the tomatoes) would taste as good while wearing a sweater sitting by the buck stove.
So there's my plea. No good tomatoes in the winter. Keep them mealy and tasteless.

This idea transfers into the landscape as well. I'm tired of azaleas the bloom in the spring and fall. I don't want a garden where every plant blooms all the time. If all plants flowered year round, they'd lose their magic. Just like watermelon did.

I think we've forgotten than doing without can actually be luxurious. The anticipation makes it something to be acknowledged and savored when they come into our worlds, much like a vine-ripened tomato.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Native Replacement for Leyland Cypress

It's time to embrace an evergreen for screening other than Leyland Cypress (x Cupressocyparis leylandii) or Giant Arborvitae (Thuja plicata 'Green Giant'). Both of these trees have longevity issues in the southeast and pest problems (particularly with Leylands) abound. Needle blight, root rot, lodging and cankers plague these plants.

And they get too big for many urban landscapes. And quickly.

My replacement choice is 'Hillspire' Redcedar, Juniperus virginiana 'Hillspire'. You can get these commercially from Green Meadow Nursery in Yonges Island, South Carolina (containers) or Auckland Trees in Walterboro, South Carolina (field-grown).

Native tree with a narrow, upright growth habit, this tree will only get 20-30 feet tall and 8-10 feet wide. Much better for a garden than the imposing 60-80 feet of a Leyland Cypress.

Hillspire is a handsome plant that will work easily within your landscape- It's an underused, underutilized native with great potential.


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