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.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mary Jo

Already February first and I haven't really acknowledged my little blog (I don't like that word) in the new year. I had high hopes about a daily entry. It just wasn't meant to be.

I'm in a hotel room at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education tonight in the great Athens, Georgia. It's strange to be here as a professional, within eyeshot of my old dorm (Rutherford Hall for you Georgia grads). During my time at Georgia, I may have entered the Continuing Ed Center three or four times, with the first time being my most memorable.

I was seventeen or eighteen and my grandmother, the epic Mary Jo Whitley, drove me to "the university" as she called it to allow me to register. The parking deck was full. After a couple of rounds through the parking deck, my able-bodied grandmother pulled into a handicapped spot and proceeded to limp across the garage, gently holding onto my elbow. I was mortified. Here I was, at the University of Georgia, with all of these cool college kids walking around. And my otherwise dignified grandmother was faking an injury to avoid searching for a spot. (She couldn't remember which leg she had been limping on when we returned to the car. Hilarious.)

And here I am 15 years later, preparing to give a talk that the program says is titled "Going from Good to Great: How to Design, Install and Maintain Color Displays." And unbeknownst to the people attending the conference tomorrow, I retitled it "Lessons from a Walled City: Using the Gardens of Charleston as Inspiration for Color Displays". It's a very Mary Jo move.

It's been a week of Mary Jo.
Me and my grandmother

On Thursday, Chris and I drove to Callaway Gardens so that I could give a workshop and talk at the Southern Gardening Symposium. At the banquet and live auction Friday night, we chose a table at the back of the room where four people were sitting. One couple was from Tucker, Georgia (where I grew up), one lady-who was a real firecracker and insisted I introduce myself the next morning as "The Plant Whisperer"- was from St. Petersberg, and the other lady was from Columbus, Georgia. Their average age was probably around 80.

I mentioned that my grandparents lived in Columbus and wondered if she knew of Dr. Whitley and Mary Jo. She gasped, put her hand to her heart and said, "Your grandmother was one of my very best friends." I couldn't believe it.

She came over, held my hands and told me that seeing me brought her back to when she was young and friends with my grandma. They lived around the corner from each other and had children the same age. And during one of the summers in the 1950's, they decided to entertain their children by taking day trips to each of the state parks in Georgia.
Mary Jo Whitley, 1940's

I remember my grandmother telling me about those trips. They'd pack food for the day, load the kids in the car and take off. When she told me about these adventures she'd laugh her devilish laugh and talk about all of the trouble they'd get in (trouble in a very 1950's kind of way).

There were so many great things that happened on this trip. My mentor, Dr. Michal Dirr was there when I gave my talk, as were my parents. When I told my jokes in the talk, I could always pick out Chris' laugh in the crowd. The people at the conference were wonderful. The weather was perfect. But I still can't get over meeting Mrs. Betty Turner.
My sister Kelley, Grandma and me at Middleton Place

Sunday, January 9, 2011


The new year. I'm anxious to create some sort of calm. Closets have been cleaned out, the computer was taken to the computer doctor to fix (it's hopeless), I've made list after list of things-to-do. And yet, here I am feeling very December.

I want to refocus and get Scout's compass calibrated.

My business resolutions:
1. Give my nursery clients high-quality work and continue to be relevant to their teams.
2. Get through the five lectures that I am doing between now and March. While this is my favorite component of Scout, it is the most stressful and time-consuming.
3. Visit local farmers in preparation of the Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture class that I am teaching in April.
4. Write more. I'd like to update this site with plant problems I'm seeing, excellent cultivars and other information I'm learning more often. I want to keep passing it all on.

That's all I've got for now....although it's a short list, it's a long list.

So happy new year! Say a little prayer for me that I'm becoming more January and less December.

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year.

finish each day and be done
with it. you have done what you
could. some blunders and
absurdities have crept in;
forget them as soon as you can.
tomorrow is a new day. you shall
begin it serenely and with too
high a spirit to be encumbered
with your old nonsense.


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