Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Touch of the Tropics

     My husband and I took to our local botanical garden this weekend.  Norfolk Botanical Garden is one of our favorite places to go for an outing in any season.  It was chilly but probably not as cold as we deserve at this time of year.  I suggested we go because I knew the Wintersweet would be in fragrant bloom.  
Chimonanthus praecox (Wintersweet)
     I didn't know about the Japanese apricots ahead of time and their fragrance wafting down on us was a delicious surprise.
Japanese apricot
     We ended up spending most of our time in the indoor conservatory they call the Tropical Pavilion.  It's steamy and warm inside ...

     ... and there are lots of interesting and fragrant blooms ...

A begonia I think (no label)

     ... foliage ...

     ... and exotic botanical features I am so thoroughly unfamiliar with that I won't attempt to put a name to.
Painted Feather Bromeliad

Bromeliad 'Del Mar'
     If you are stuck in a cold-weather place without much sun, I hope you can find a conservatory or botanical garden to visit.  I always enjoy the warmth, color and intrigue I find here.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Macro Monday - Make a Wish!

     Today I'm joining Lisa's Chaos for Macro Monday.  I found this backlit dandelion seedhead so I had to shoot it.  Only problem is, I'm not sure which version I like best.  Maybe this one ...
     But in this one, you can see right into the inside, and I think that's cool too.
     This is another dandelion that has lost a lot of its fuzz, but that makes it easier to see individual filaments.
     Yes, I leave dandelions in my garden.  There's not much else blooming in January.  It was an unseasonably delightful 57 degrees on Saturday with bright warm sun (and how lucky to get it on a weekend!)  On days like those, there might be some active bees or butterflies who are going to need a snack.  I like the jolt of color myself, too.  And finally, you never know when you might need to make a wish.  Here's wishing you light and warmth wherever you are.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Discovery!

A new nest
     I apologize for the somewhat lousy photos in this post, but I'm very excited to have found a bird's nest under construction!  My husband and I spotted this nest about 7 feet up in a young pine tree.  There are grasses in it that we believe are pampas grass fronds that have been drifting around our yard since we paid a friend to remove the clumps this fall, so we're pretty sure this really is new construction.  (Actually the friend left them pretty neatly stacked in the compost bin, but I made a mess -- I'm very good at messes -- trying to chop them up smaller so they will compost faster.)
     The nest is probably a robin's, which is not particularly unusual in our yard, but it's interesting and exciting for two reasons.  First, while I knew that winter residents like robins get a jump-start on nest building, I had no idea they would start to build this early in the year.  Second, this is the first definite nest we've had in our "habitat restoration" area.  I'm putting quotes around that because this is nothing official and really a quite small area on the grand scheme of things.  But this is an area where we are encouraging native loblolly pine trees and other native vegetation to provide a natural buffer between the cultivated and utilitarian parts of our yard and a swath of tidal marsh at the back of our property.  We lost a few very large trees to storms in the first few years after we moved in and decided to plant more trees.  
Roots of a 70 foot oak felled in a Nor'Easter in 2006
We planted a lot of bare root trees from the National Arbor Day Foundation but had a lot more success when we realized that seedling pines were appearing everywhere in the new sunny gaps.  We just stopped mowing and ended up with a mini pine nursery. 
A place to sit at the end of the path
     The trees are about 10 feet tall now and the only maintenance we do is mow the main path, occasionally trim or cut some of the pines and shrubs closest to both paths (there's a wide grassy one and a narrower leaf-litter covered one), and work on keeping the invasive plants out, including sweet autumn clematis which blankets our neighbor's backyard, and Phragmites australis.  
Sunlight shining through the autumn leaves and Phragmites seedheads
     The phrag is a scourge of almost every wetland and the strip at the edge of "our" marsh has probably been there for hundreds of years (my city of Hampton, VA, bills itself as the oldest continually inhabited English-speaking community in the U.S.).  It's almost certainly not going to be eradicated anytime soon, but encouraging trees in the adjacent area has the happy consequence of limiting its spread in that direction, since Phragmites does not do as well in shade.  The pampas grass was probably not terribly invasive, but it didn't sit well in this natural habitat and I never liked it.  I don't have the lower back strength to dig out such a behemoth, though, so it was great that our friend agreed to it (thanks, Mike!) 

Wax myrtles, favorite of Yellow-rumped warblers and kinglets
    The wooded space is very green.  The dominant plants are loblolly pine and wax myrtle.  There really are not very many flowers here so many people would probably not consider it a garden.  The only blooms are some high tide bush and goldenrod in the fall and a pretty native pink mallow right around my birthday.  Even if I were not determined to keep only native plants in this area, it would be a real challenge to garden here in the traditional way since we have salt flooding seemingly every couple years now.  But this space holds its own charms for me.  It's green and pleasant all year round.  In winter, the taller oaks and sweet gums have lost their leaves so the sun shines in on the green world.  It's so sheltered that it's often pleasant enough in the middle of the day to sit back there and eat lunch even in winter.  In summer, in contrast, it is much shadier and cooler than the adjacent areas.
White-throated sparrow
    Best of all, it really does attract wildlife, including some that is quite unusual for a suburban backyard.  The first time I saw a wood nymph butterfly I considered that we had achieved a real woodland.  Better still, we have even seen a woodcock and an ovenbird (both only briefly during migration).  I even had a brief glimpse of a fox trotting across the path once.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Butterfly garden

     It was actually nice today, both sunny and unseasonably warm, a little preview of spring.  And I was stuck at my desk or in meetings all day.  Bummer.
Red admiral, Mexican bush sage
     But the winter gray and innumerable meetings can't stop me from daydreaming about butterflies.  I'm thinking I need to renovate my butterfly garden, so I'm daydreaming about what new plants to buy.  The "butterfly garden" is a bit of a misnomer, at least right now.  It was the first garden I put in.  Less than a year after we moved into this house, hurricane Isabelle took out several fruit trees (and many other trees) and left a big hole in the landscape.  I had almost zero previous gardening experience and my husband didn't have any more than me.  If we were going to learn by doing, we were not going to waste our efforts on figuring out how to install boring lawn.  So we decided on a butterfly garden, and all through that winter I made ridiculously intricate and overwrought plans for every square inch of it.  Since I knew nothing at all, none of it was practical.  For a few years it was the only big bed of our own making and so ended up being the place to put all the experiments, butterfly related or not. What's there now is the result of natural selection.  I'll keep everything that's doing well, but there are some times when not much is in bloom, so it's time to start scheming.
Gray hairstreak on Abelia grandiflora
     Meanwhile, we've put in another garden in full sun that has lots of flowers that do attract butterflies.  I chose a Glossy Abelia for this spot specifically because I read that it's a host plant for Tiger Swallowtails.  I don't recall seeing too many Tigers, but its blossoms attract plenty of butterflies.  This year, that included Gray Hairstreaks like this one and our yard's first Pipevine Swallowtail.  I don't grow any pipevines, so I guess it was just a passing visitor.  Hmm, maybe I should grow a pipevine in the renovated butterfly garden....
     Lots of butterflies don't really come for nectar but have other less pretty tastes.  We did get great looks of a Tiger Swallowtail lingering for a long time on a pile of raccoon droppings.  I will spare you the pictures.  Isabel spared a pear tree which produces more than enough pears for us every year, so I leave some on the tree.  A stroll under the pear tree in August or September can produce an explosion of Red-spotted purples, Question Marks, Tawny Emperors and Hackberry Emperors that are imbibing on fermenting fruit.
Hackberry Emperor

     We have hackberry trees in our yard and I would not want to be without them.  Perhaps they are not the most attractive tree to a gardener's eye, but for the butterflies and birds there's almost nothing better.  
     The next photo is a butterfly that was not only a first for my garden, but the first I've ever seen, a Juniper hairstreak.  The host plant is the Eastern Redcedar, which I do have, but I've read they are usually found around "stands" of redcedar.  I don't think there's anything on my property I would characterize as a stand, but there are lots of redcedars in the area.
Juniper hairstreak

Checkered skipper on Verbena bonariensis
     Here's a before-and-after if I've identified the caterpillar correctly.  I think this is the caterpillar of the Checkered Skipper. As you can see, they like to eat mallows, including Seashore Mallow (Kosteletskya virginica).  
Kosteletskya virginica
I think these fuzzy skippers are pretty cute and I always look for them once the wild mistflower blooms (Eupatorium coelestinum is what I think it is) in late August or early September.  Right up until I was composing this post I was thinking there was some link between the Checkered Skipper and the Mistflower, but I think I'm a little dim.  The host plant is enough to explain the timing.  The Checkered Skipper caterpillar eats the blossoms -- not the leaves -- of the mallow, as you can see in the photo.  I first see a large number of adults in my yard about a month after the Seashore Mallow is in peak bloom.  I'm not sure if these eat other mallows in my yard as well, but the other mallows I have also are late-blooming perennials. 

     This last butterfly even knows garden design.  See the color echo?  If only I could ask her for help in redesigning my garden.

Common Buckeye on "Sheffield Pink" mums

Monday, January 23, 2012

Virtual Garden Tour - Sissinghurst

     Today is a virtual tour of Sissinghurst Castle Garden.  Sissinghurst was the home of the writer (garden writer, novelist, poet) Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson.  According to Gardens of the National Trust by Stephen Lacey, Vita Sackville-West fell in love with the castle in April 1930.  She says "It was Sleeping Beauty's Castle; but a castle running away into sordidness and squalor; a garden crying out for rescue."  Sordidness and squalor have been thoroughly routed, but there is certainly a fairy-tale charm about it.  Let's take a brief tour.  Step this way...

     One of the most famous bits of this famous garden is its tower.  Vita Sackville-West used it as her sanctuary where she could write in peace.  From the top of the tower you can look down on the garden and get a real birds' eye view.
     In the center of the picture is one of the "rooms" in the garden at Sissinghurst Castle. I think it's called "The Cottage Garden" which appellation appeals greatly to me, but I would call it the "hot garden".  It was stuffed full of trumpeting oranges and reds which I probably would have appreciated more on a cool day, but this particular day was quite hot and muggy enough, more like Virginia than like I expected England to be in June.  I did love these kniphophias, though.
      We were too late for most of the roses unfortunately, but some were blooming romantically around a dovecote found in a blowsy orchard.
      The orchard is bordered on two sides by a moat, deeply shaded by trees.  This was a pretty good protected spot to be when the inevitable rain broke out.  It didn't last too long.  I was standing in deep shade looking across the moat into the well-lit orchard when this little sprite ran by in the sunshine with hat askew.
     Bryan suggested this trip to England to see gardens, both famous and private ones, for our 10th anniversary.  This is almost impossibly sweet, since I'm the one that it entirely addicted to gardens.  After the idea first came up, I kept reading or hearing the opinion that visiting gardens in England is a learning experience.  I don't dispute that at all.  But actually, I was getting to be a bit intimidated by the thought.  My garden is in that "crying out for rescue" stage and it has been since we moved in shortly after getting married.  (Well, actually the evidence suggests significantly longer than that.)  We have been oh so gradually rescuing it, but there are still huge swaths of ground that I would love to fill up with charming paths and flowery borders, except that they're bulging with hard-to-remove invasive plants like wisteria, nandina, and ivy.  I'm gradually learning some tricks for getting rid of these things and I'm sure some future posts will discuss them, but the point of this is that I wasn't entirely sure I deserved to go to England and try to learn things from the gardens there.   
     I learned stuff anyway.  Here's a nice unexpected example of color echos.
     The gardens at Sissinghurst Castle (and a lot of other ones we saw in England) have color themes.  Sissinghurst's are quite lovely, but in other places I started to get a little sick of the color coordinated flower borders.  Me!  It was weird but educational in an unexpected way to find that I could actually get fed up with row upon row of perfect flowers.  There were certainly more sophisticated than a bed filled with bedding annuals, but it was kind of the same effect, an aristocratic and high-maintenance sort of gaudiness.  I'm not thinking of Sissinghurst specifically with this criticism; I'm not sure exactly what the difference was.  Something about moving through the garden on a path (at Sissinghurst Castle) rather than viewing long borders from a lawn.  Something about letting the plants do their own thing a little bit.  Something about the garden being a symphony with loud parts interspersed with quiet parts, rather than a medley where the catchiest phrase of each song is patched together.
     The most famous of the color gardens at Sissinghurst castle is the white garden. 

     I believe this was the white garden from which all white gardens spring.  I expected to find one of those scenes that has lost some of its luster from being too famous and too often copied, but I was totally charmed.  It was very crowded with tourists, but I shuffled through it with the hordes back and forth and back and forth in different directions to try and really drink it in.  I hate crowds but the garden was worth putting up with this unideal viewing condition.  I expected it to be perhaps a little washed out, because we saw this room before the rain clouds and it was brilliantly sunny and hot.  I expect a white garden to not be at its best in the middle of the day.  But it was as bright and fresh and crisp as sheets on a laundry line.  I'm not sure I can explain this.  I attribute it partly due to an exquisitely precise choice of white-flowering cultivars.  (Lots of gray foliage and a little bit of dappled shade from some arbors helps too.)
     I also learned that I want more clematis.
     Another thing I learned from seeing gardens in England is that it's OK not to have one.  I do love the jam-packed flowery look.  I already knew enough to know that I can't grow, say, delphiniums in Southeastern Virginia, but I have read what sounds like good advice, which is that you can have a cottage garden feel with what does grow in your climate.  But what I can never get is the timing.  I would love to have more combinations like the lilies and alliums shown above in my garden but the plants I want to combine never seem to be blooming at the same time.  I have plants blooming most of the year, but not usually a lot of different kinds at once.  I'm going to keep plugging along and grow more plants and try to keep making notes about what does well and when it's in bloom (I love looking at people's Garden Blogger's Bloom Day entries to help with this too).  But I noticed something odd in England.  I was there in June.  There were poppies and chamomile blooming.  The poppies and chamomile were already pretty much done in my garden.  And there were sunflowers and goldenrod blooming!  I have no expectation of sunflowers and goldenrod until August.  I have some half-crocked theories to explain this English unseasonal magic but none of them hold water.  If anyone reading this has an explanation, please enlighten me with a comment!  But I'm chalking it up as one of the unknowable mysteries of nature.  Like all the unknowable mysteries, it is both humbling and comforting.  Here's how I see it.  I cannot have both chamomile and sunflowers in my garden at the same time so a true English garden may be fundamentally unachievable.  On the other hand, I don't want to have chamomile and sunflowers in my garden at the same time.  I love the seasonality of gardening here too much for that.  Being in England among all these beautiful and sophisticated gardens taught me something absolutely priceless.  Squalid and sordid though it may be, I love my own garden best of all.

Oxalis - Macro Monday

     Another dreary January day, so I look to my neglected houseplants for a little color.  Hey, that's interesting, this is a green oxalis, not a purple one...  This plant shows up in the garden store every year around St. Patrick's day and I always fall in love with it's adorable green shamrocks and delicate white flowers, and its charming habit of closing up its leaves every night at bedtime.  There's a burgundy-leaved version but it's the fresh green that appeals to me.  They can live outside here (I think) but I don't really have anyplace suitable to put it in the ground and I usually don't bother keeping it.  However,  this one stayed in its impossibly tiny pot all summer in a tray with cuttings so it got more watering and attention than most of my plants usually do.  In such a tiny pot, I thought it had a slim chance of also getting through the winter, so I brought it inside.  After a very brief winter's nap (too brief?), it's now putting on new growth.
     The purple on the new leaves' undersides caught me by surprise more than once, not just because the tops of the leaves are green, but because the purple is more or less intense as the viewing angle and light angle change.  It's like an outlandish hat worn by the outlandish wife of Mr. Elton in the movie Emma (in the scene where she tells Emma that she plans to throw a party for Jane Fairfax).  Mrs. Elton is wearing a green dress and a green hat, but as she swirls around Emma to conspiratorially take her arm as they walk, the hat changes color remarkably from green to red and back again as the satiny sheen catches the light from different angles.  Or, it's like the colors on some bird's feathers, grackles and starlings most accessibly -- take a good look next time they settle in your yard and gobble up all the seed in your feeders.  Or the spot on a mourning dove's neck as libido awakes in the early spring.  (Really! Make a note to look if you haven't seen it.)
     I just watched Emma again for the upteenth time.  The dialog in this movie always makes me laugh (like Miss Bates's line "it left us speechless!  Speechless, I tell you, and we have not stopped talking about it since.")  More than that, it's a great garden movie.  Once you have watched it as many times as I have, you won't need to pay so much attention to the plot anymore, and you may find yourself absorbed by the gorgeous flowery places, indoors and out, images from a gardener's fantasy.  I just wish I could stop the movie and jump in.  Click here for a trailer, including glimpses of some of the beautiful garden scenes (the colors in the movie are lush and vibrant, despite the trailer looking washed out) and even the outlandish hat very briefly at about 0:34.
     For today's post, I'm joining Lisa's Chaos for Macro Monday for the first time.  To see what other people are looking closely at, visit Lisa's blog.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Herb Garden in January

     Today has been dreary and gray and I've hardly gone outside.  Only twice for about a minute and a half each time, to harvest herbs from the herb garden, once at lunch time and once for dinner.  Right now my sweet husband is cooking up something that smells delicious that will have two tablespoons of chopped cilantro in it.  Yum! 
Herb garden in January
     That's cilantro in the lower right, parsley in the upper center of the picture, and dill in the lower left, with some chamomile sprouting next to it.  The brown stick is my sadly departed Spanish Lavender.  I'll have to replace it in the spring.  There's nothing but green here now.  I should have planted some pansies in October to overwinter and bloom in the warm spells, but I often don't think of buying annuals.  I like plants that take care of themselves.  Everything in this photo seeded itself -- hence the haphazard arrangement.  But the green certainly cheers me up in the winter.
     Harvesting cooking herbs from just outside the door in all weathers including rain and occasionally  snow is something we have really enjoyed for the past few years.  There's nothing like fresh basil for the pasta in the summer, parsley for just about anything in the winter and spring, and marjoram on the pizza all year round, just exactly how much I want.  

Marjoram and 'Sweetness' daffodil
     The pictures are from a few days ago when it was sunnier.  Even though it was bright and fairly warm for part of the day, and I was even home instead of at work, I was trying to sleep off a virus and didn't get to enjoy it much.  But for a little while I sat on the brick wall and weeded a little corner of the herb garden.  It's the warmest spot in my garden, and relaxing there on chilly days has been one of my exquisite garden pleasures since we built the low brick wall several years ago.  So, it's about the only spot in my yard that's thoroughly weeded (and only in the cool seasons!)
     As mentioned before, this has been an unusually mild winter.  I'm not sure if the cilantro will make it all the way through to spring, especially the two that are stretching to bolt already (what's with that?).  The daffodils seen here are "Sweetness" which I have in several places but which bloom earlier here than anywhere else, last year even before the ubiquitous early Ice Follies have ended.  This year I notice that the Sweetness foliage is up much taller than Ice Follies, but I don't know if that's unique to this strange season or if I just haven't noticed it before.
     Gotta go!  Dinnertime!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Garden Book Review: 'The Nonstop Garden'

     HolleyGarden of Roses and Other Gardening Joys has proposed Garden Book Reviews as a subject for blogging on the 20th of each month.  I'm totally game, since I'm a sucker for gardening books.  I don't think I have 109 of them yet, as she does, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time.  My newest was a Christmas gift.  It's The Nonstop Garden by Stephanie Cohen and Jennifer Benner. 
     The Nonstop Garden is a large-format book with lots of appealing glossy photos of beautiful gardens, geared toward helping beginning gardeners achieve four season interest.  The premise seems solid, that having mixed gardens with trees and shrubs, perennials, bulbs and annuals is the way to achieve a garden that is appealing at all times of year, and less maintenance to boot.  Lots of gardening books for beginners are all primer without the comfortable conversational prose that makes a garden book fun to read over and over, but this book is written in an appealing personal style while still being informative. 
     The organization of the book is good, with an introductory, motivational section followed by six chapters of plants according to type (trees and shrubs, bulbs, etc.), which is the highlight and strength of the book, and then by a section called "Finishing touches" which includes less interesting (to me) chapters on garden art and structures and a final summarizing chapter highlighting tips for designing for each of the four seasons in turn.  The end of the book includes several pages of charts of various types.  
     The excellent chapters on specific plants form the lion's share of the book.  Here, the reader is treated to a series of portraits of a well-designed collection of plants.  Each chapter covers only a relatively few plant species or families, but this manageable selection is a well-chosen mix, not only of plants of different sizes and different lifecycles, but also a mix of old standbys and relatively less well-known plants.  I believe that a garden built out of just this selection of plants really would be a very satisfying four-season garden.
     The book also has some nice details, most notably the picture captions.  Most of the photos captions include a note about where the photo was taken, and this information can be compared to a list of the gardens in the back of the book.  How frequently I've been drawn by gorgeous eye-candy in a garden book only to perceive a hint of a disappointment when I begin to suspect that every single photo is taken in a garden designed by a professional designer, maintained by a large staff, and existing in England or some other impossibly mild climate.  In this book, you can check those assumptions.  OK, most of the gardens are still designed by a professional, and some are indeed botanical gardens, but not all.  Some are private gardens, and they range throughout various climate zones in the U. S.  So if you like, you can search out the pictures in a climate like your own.
     I have to admit that I don't like everything about this book.  The book features "garden designs" which are two-page spreads showing a plan view and a drawing of an imaginary garden.  Fortunately, these are sparsely spread throughout the book, rather than taking up the entire second half as in some other garden books. I guess I have a pet peeve against these things, but I would much rather see a real garden (preferably one that has made it successfully through a few years) than a drawing.  It's not the drawings I object to -- actually, I find them pretty charming -- but the unrealistic gardens they show.  Unfortunately, The Nonstop Garden's designs seem perhaps worse reflections of reality than most, especially in respect to the size of the plants.  Many of the designs in the book have some oddly sized plants, but the "Wet Feet" design almost outlandishly so.  This shows an island bed anchored by a young but sizeable sweetbay magnolia surrounded by a lush bed of other plants that appear in the drawing to all be about knee-high.  These shorties include a Virginia sweetspire (a shrub that was at least that size out of the pot when my husband planted it in our garden in November), a swamp hibiscus (about 5 feet tall in my garden) and a swamp sunflower (generally about 8 feet tall in my garden despite vigorous "pruning" by deer).  The tallest thing in the drawing besides the Magnolia looks to be maybe 3 feet at most... and it's a dawn redwood! Maybe these are the heights of the plants the day they are planted, but in that case, they should not be packed in cheek-to-jowel.  The hardest thing about garden design for beginners, I think, is not a lack of artistic vision or ignorance of so-called rules, but basic unfamiliarity with plants and what they will do in a given spot.  I think a beginner or intermediate gardener pretty much just has to grow a whole bunch of plants for years before they can really hope to implement a design that might appear in a book like this.  These color-by-number hand-drawn designs in books like these can't possibly help much, certainly not in this case.  A gardener who plants this design exactly as in the book is in for some surprises!  I suspect nobody really does that anyway, though....
Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) in my garden
     The charts in the back are also slightly disappointing.  Some of them give the impression that the authors were given a homework assignment they would rather not spend time on.  A page with three conversion charts is weirdly designed: conversions from inches to centimeters and from feet to meters are given as charts with a range of values given in both measurement systems.  But the temperature conversion, which is perennially difficult to remember and use, is given only as a mathematical equation, necessitating -- for most mortals -- the use of a calculator.  A chart with benchmark values would have been useful in this case, probably much more so than the length conversions.  The chart of "Peak Performance at a Glance" is a nice idea, but if this book is really for beginners, the entries really should include common names and not just Latin.  Most mystifying of all is the Hardiness Zone chart, which does not include a map!  But the list of resources and especially the Garden Credits, mentioned earlier, are much appreciated and should prove useful.
     All in all, I thought this was an enjoyable book, but I would not rank it in the top tier of gardening books.  Instead I would recommend Fallscaping, by Nancy J. Ondra and Stephanie Cohen (the latter author is also one of the authors of The Nonstop Garden).  Although nominally more limited in scope (just one season instead of four), Fallscaping provides a much richer and more satisfying armchair gardening experience. Maybe I'll review it on a future Garden Blogger's Garden Book Review Day.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Attracting another kind of wildlife

     Recently, some good friends came to my house for dinner with their children.  Everybody had a good time, including the kids, but as the evening progressed, my little three-year-old friend seemed a bit stressed out.  It was close to bedtime and the excitement was taking its toll.  On their way out, they passed the "Golden Showers" yellow rose that blooms by my front porch.  The spot is in a very warm microclimate in a sunny sheltered spot and, between that and the unusually warm winter we've been having, the rose had bloomed as late as December.  The first hard frost in mid-December freeze-dried the blooms, some of them just as the buds were starting to unfurl, so although they were not as beautiful as before the freeze, there were some that were still pretty.  (Needless to say, I was too lazy to deadhead them.)  My little buddy pointed and asked, "What's that?"  Her mom told her it was a rose and I asked, "Do you want one?" I clipped off the best of the dried blooms and gave it to her.  The big smile on her face was a joy to see.  It reminded me how important it is to involve kids in gardening and nature.  Do you have ideas how to get kids interested in plants and wildlife?  I would love to hear about them.
"Golden Showers" Rose (before the frost!)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bloom Day - January 2012

     Happy Bloom Day!

     I found more options than I expected in my garden this Bloom Day.  I didn't expect to find any fresh paperwhites.  They were blooming nicely in December, but we finally had the first hard frost and now there only a few nice blooms.  Can't be too greedy in January, though. 
     I still consider myself a beginner gardener (I won't say how long I've been in that stage, because it's too embarrassing).  I learn a lot by trial and error (mostly error).  I had assumed that paperwhites were not hardy outdoors.  Several years ago, I found daffodil bulbs sprouting in the compost.  At first I assumed squirrels or even garden fairies had hidden them there for their own mischievous ends, but it gradually dawned on me that they were my discarded paperwhite bulbs that I had forced indoors for a mid-winter flower fix.  I'm fairly sure I didn't need to see them in bloom before I figured it out ....  I moved them and they've been healthy and multiplying ever since.  The blooms are a little bit hit-or-miss, and last year they didn't bloom because all the buds were destroyed by frost.  Other years they have just waited until January to start.  This year we had a very late first hard frost and the paperwhites were gorgeous in December.  In the first week of December, I had ginger lilies (Hedychium coronarium) and paperwhites blooming in my garden at the same time.  The weather here in Southeastern Virginia always throws some exceptional surprises, and this winter is no exception.
Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)
     After the frost, I'm not so lucky.  I'm hunting around but finding mostly single blooms.  There are a few early blooms on the Carolina jessamine and the Quince.
     I thought Mahonia might be all I would have in bloom right now.  It's not at it's peak yet, but there are enough open florets to attract honeybees, and last week the honeybees attracted an unexpected avian visitor.  The fragrance of the Mahonia flowers is strong and perfumy, even in the cold.  I love fragrant flowers and try to stop and take a stiff whenever I go past, but the Carolina jessamine flowers that are open right now are too high up for me to reach.  They don't seem to be quite as fragrant when it's cold as the paperwhites or Mahonia.  But when the whole vine is covered in blooms, the fragrance wafts down and can be smelled by anyone coming and going through the front door.  I can hardly wait!  
Mahonia bealei (I think)

     I love Bloom Day!  If you don't know about Garden Blogger's Bloom Day, definitely check out May Dreams GardensI found it because I was searching for plants that would bloom at a certain time.  When I found the Bloom Day posts, I felt like I hit the jackpot!  Now I check it out various garden bloggers Bloom Day posts all the time, or even just do Google searches on "Bloom Day August" (or whatever month I'm stuck on) to try to get ideas what to add to my garden.  Or just to dream about a more floriferous time.  Getting out and taking timely photos of my own garden has also been good for me.  This month it was so cold that I needed the motivation to get outside. A few months ago it was perfect gardening weather, but then I needed extra motivation to take a break and actually look around!  It's because of Bloom Day that I decided to start this baby blog.  I just wish I had been brave enough in October and November when I still had lots of flowers!  
Rosemary (:Tuscan Blue")
     Another nice thing about going out to take a look is that I sometimes find something unexpected. I have a few more January blooms left to show.  I didn't think about the periwinkle or rosemary until I went out to look. 

Periwinkle (Vinca major)
     The berries on the nandina and holly are very bright and cheerful, too, and there are lots of darling little daffodil greens starting up, like Mary Lennox's "green points".  I have a large swath of larkspur sprouts that I keep daydreaming about, and a surprising amount of winter foliage on other plants as well: groundcovers, hellebores, hurricane lilies, and even sundrops.  The last photo is of a plant that I put in specifically for its winter foliage.  I'm keeping an eye on it because after I planted it I learned that it can be invasive, but so far it has not gone anywhere in my garden.
Arum italicum

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An unlikely visitor

     My husband and I are avid birders, and enjoy seeing lots of different kinds of birds in our yard.  Our yard has its own life list in fact, with 124 species.  Just in case anyone else's yards are jealous, I should point out to be fair that our yard has a lot of advantages in this respect, including being partially within and adjacent to a tidal saltmarsh in close proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and a migratory flyway (that and admittedly liberal rules for adding birds to the list, including flyovers.)
     So when we see a bird from the window that looks unusual, we tend to drop what we're doing and run for binoculars and, if necessary, field guides.  The window over the kitchen sink looks out over the backyard... we don't have as many dishes as we once did.  This weekend I looked out to see a small yellowish bird poking around a half-barrel "pond" we have on the deck.  I thought it might be a Common Yellowthroat, which would be a nice bird, but I needed my binoculars to get a good look.  Better than a yellowthroat, it was a Summer Tanager!  
     This is not at all a normal bird for this area in January.  It is called a "summer" tanager, after all.  It's a bird of the treetops, where it eats mainly insects.  It flew up into a tree but my husband was able to get some photos of it before it left.
     I love to garden (although I don't really have a naturally green thumb) and one of the things I love about it is seeing little creatures in my garden, birds and butterflies, etc.  A lot of my gardening effort and daydreaming is focused on gardening for wildlife, including planting and encouraging native plants and removing invasives (this last involves much more effort in my case than I would really like).  Doug Tallamy, in his book called "Bringing Nature Home," makes the point that native plants are of key importance for wildlife, especially birds, because those are for the most part the only plants that sustain large numbers of insects of various species.  Even birds that we think of as seed-eaters feed their young on protein-rich insects.  So I choose native plants wherever possible.
     But I am a gardener, and I have other interests too.  Like many others, I'm greedy for flowers and I want to have blooms all year round if possible.   In January, about all I have in bloom is the Mahonia that was planted by a previous owner of my house.
     I think this is Mahonia bealei, and it is not native to my area.  In the winter and early spring, it consistently attracts honeybees, which aren't native either (but are also very welcome).   I suppose the bees have somewhere else to go in the summer because I don't see them nearly as often then.  Honeybees can survive cold temperatures by huddling together in the hive, but when it's warm enough for me to be brave enough to be out sniffing the perfume of the Mahonia, it often seems to be warm enough for them too.
     It wasn't a good day to be a honeybee collecting nectar from the Mahonia this Saturday though.  But it wasn't such a bad day to be a Summer Tanager far from her usual winter home.
     Bryan also got this photo, exhibit A.  I'm not sure if this wrong-way visitor will make it through the winter if she can't get oriented and go south.  But with the help of the non-native Mahonia and honeybees, she might have a better chance.   Gardening for the birds seems to be like that -- full of surprises.