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Welcome to my zone 9a habitat garden near Houston, Texas.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Update

A brief note to those of my readers who have been kind enough to notice my absence: My husband had what the doctors have termed a "mild" heart attack - a wake-up call. Friday night, actually early Saturday morning, we ended up at the emergency room. Bob was admitted to the hospital. Tests were run and the problem was located. Early Monday morning the cardiologist set about doing repairs and fixes. Bob is healing quickly. In fact, today he is quite chipper. We hope he will be released no later than tomorrow or next day. Once I get him back home, I'll be back in the garden and out with the backyard wildlife and reporting on all that to you here. Thanks for your concern and please continue to send Bob your positive thoughts as he recovers.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Please pardon the interruption

No post today because of a family emergency. I hope to be back at the keyboard in a few days. Keep watching this space!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

One year ago...





One year ago, 'Apple Blossom' amaryllis was in bloom. It's been a bit slow to wake up this year, but I expect April will be 'Apple Blossom' time.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The week the butterflies returned

On Monday, March 22, I had the first Monarch butterfly of the year in my yard. I was working in the vegetable garden when I noticed it. The butterfly was nectaring on some collard blooms.

Collards and most members of the brassica family make beautiful yellow blooms at the end of their life cycle and that's where mine are now. These blooms are very attractive to bees and to butterflies, and I let them go for as long as possible for that reason. After all, blooms are still in a bit of short supply in my yard, so I don't want to prematurely remove some perfectly good ones.

Anyway, the Monarch was enjoying the collard blooms and I stood by, enjoying the Monarch. Then it occurred to me that I needed to document the moment. I ran inside as fast as my chubby legs could carry me to grab the camera, but, of course, by the time I got back outside the butterfly was gone. I hung around with the camera for a while, hoping it might return, but it didn't.

The very next day, I made a run to Arbor Gate to pick up some more butterfly weed. My asclepias are coming back, but rather slowly. They are not well-leafed-out yet, and, just in case my visitor felt a need to lay some eggs, I certainly wanted her to have plenty of leaves on which to lay them. I haven't seen another Monarch since I planted the new butterfly weed, but at least now I know I am prepared.

I've had at least one Question Mark butterfly around the yard during the winter, and, for a few weeks now, a few Sulphurs have flitted their way through my garden. Last week I saw one of the black swallowtails, possibly a Pipevine although I couldn't be sure. But it is not really butterfly season until the first Monarch shows up, so this week will go into my book as the week the butterflies returned.

And then today, I had a visit from a Red Admiral! This time, I actually did have a camera at hand.


The brightly-colored insect did not particularly want his picture taken and was not terribly cooperative.


Here, the butterfly partially opened his (her?) wings for me, but was half hidden by a dead leaf. By the way, that plant next to the butterfly is a stinging nettle, one of the ones that I missed in my sweep of the yard. It turns out that this is one of the host plants of this butterfly! Who knew? I guess I'll have to give it more respect in the future.


I took lots of pictures of this butterfly, just because I was so happy to have a butterfly, and also to compensate for missing the pictures of the Monarch and the Pipevine earlier.

It's been a tough winter for our butterflies. We know about the sad situation with the Monarchs which I had written about here a couple of weeks ago. (Eric Berger also had a story about the catastrophe in today's Chronicle.) But other butterflies have faced colder and wetter winters than usual, as well, and that has no doubt thinned their ranks. They need our help.

I urge all gardeners in the area to make a special effort to plant extra larval food plants this spring, in addition to all the bright blooming plants which the butterflies utilize for nectar. It's the larval food plants that will really help the butterflies make their comeback.

I pledge that I will even leave a few of those stinging nettles in inconspicuous places around my yard. Much as I hate that plant, I do love Red Admirals.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Weeds

Spring is weed season in my garden. Well, if I'm really truthful I would have to admit that every season is weed season in my garden. I do have a lot of weeds.

But during spring, all those weeds that have been at least a little bit discouraged by winter cold are suddenly back with a vengeance. I spend a day pulling weeds and feel really good about what I've accomplished. Then, looking around two days later, it's hard to tell I did anything.

There are several really pernicious weeds that I have to deal with and although I occasionally win a battle against them, the war continues.


I've been taking major hostile actions against this weed for more than a month now. This is henbit. It infests many of the beds in my veggie/herb garden. I pull it out by the roots wherever I find it. Fortunately, it is pretty easy to pull, but to completely eradicate it, I need to pull every single sprig of the stuff before it reseeds itself to carry on another generation, and I always fail in that effort. Some will escape my notice and so the plant perpetuates itself and the war goes on.


I don't know the name of this plant. (A reader tells me it is Carolina geranium - which seems right to me.) It's just as pernicious and hard to get rid of as the henbit and it grows in some of the same places, as well as in many of my perennial beds. It, too, is fairly easy to pull, and that's the way I deal with it, but I have every reason to believe that this army of invasion will still be marching around my yard long after I'm gone from it.



This is "sticky weed," sometimes called "sticky Willy" as well as many other names, some of them very, very bad indeed. It grows rapidly and can overrun a bed in just a few days if it is overlooked. Its most annoying characteristic is its stickiness. It sticks to everything - Muck boots, garden gloves, skin, clothes, tools. Basically, it will stick to anything that it touches and attempt to hitch a ride. Many times, I've finished my garden chores and gone inside to sit on a chair of sofa, only to find when I stand up that the sticky weed that was hitching a ride on my butt is now attached to my chair. This weed, too, is easily pulled. Just be sure to wear gloves and then good luck on extracting weed from gloves.


This is the worst of the lot, a truly dangerous weed, and, again, I don't know its name. I just call it "stingeroo." (A helpful reader says it is called stinging nettle.) If you see it, DON'T TOUCH IT! Don't let it graze your skin anywhere. It stings like fire, much worse (for me) than fire ants. It may be that I am just excessively sensitive to it, but it has caused me not a few sleepless nights because it touched my feet or ankles and set them on fire. For this weed, I deploy the "nuclear option." I use an herbicide, either Round-up or a homemade mixture with vinegar. It can be easily pulled (wearing leather gauntlets), but with my sensitivity to it, I just prefer not to get close for any reason.



The little yellow flowers and beginnings of tiny red berries belong to mock strawberry. It's actually a pretty little weed and grows in several patches of my so-called lawn. In many places, like in this picture, it is thicker than the grass. When it is in the lawn, I just leave it. When it gets into my perennial planting beds, I pull it when it's obtrusive, but, on the whole, I find this weed to be benign and I practice my live and let live philosophy with it.



This is a weed that is famous in song and Southern folklore. It is 'poke sallet'. Remember "Poke Salad Annie"? You're probably too young, but that was actually the name of a popular song many years ago about a girl named Annie who ate poke sallet. It is not exactly a gourmet dish, but in many poverty-stricken areas of the South, especially during the Great Depression, people used the leaves of this plant as greens. Eating them was an adventure because if they were not prepared properly, they could be toxic. From the tender shoots that you see in the picture, this plant grows rapidly into a rangy shrubby plant that has masses of white blooms and, in the fall, it produces blue-black berries that the birds - especially mockingbirds - go absolutely wild for. I have this clump of the stuff near my back fence. It's in nobody's way there and I leave it alone for love of the birds. The more formal name of the plant is pokeweed.

These are only a few of the weeds that are doing their best to overrun my garden in this new season, and the war is on. As some famous gardener once said (or should have), "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty from weeds!"

Friday, March 19, 2010

Shhh! Can you keep a secret?

Now that the season is fading fast, I have a guilty secret to share with you. I can trust you, right? I mean, we are friends and you would never use knowledge of my loathsome secret against me, would you? Okay, come a little closer and I will whisper it in your ear.

I LOVED THIS WINTER!!!

I hear your gasps and I feel your pain at my betrayal, but I have to come clean. Confession is good for the soul, and my soul needs all the help it can get.

Yes, it's true, for years now I have groused to everyone who would listen about the fact that we hadn't had a REAL winter in ten or fifteen years. A stray night or two under 32 degrees and that was it - nothing that anyone in Buffalo or Chicago would recognize as actual winter. To be honest, those folks probably still wouldn't recognize what we had this season as winter, but the people in Memphis and Nashville would and that's closer to home for me.

You see, I grew up in a place where there were four distinct seasons in the year. We had a real spring, summer, autumn, and winter and you could tell when one ended and the next one began. And that's the way my internal calendar was set from childhood. That's what I expected the seasons to be like. These last several years, I've been totally confused and cranky, because winter was completely left off our seasonal calendar. In reality, we had only two seasons: Seven months of Summer from April through October and five months of Not Summer from November through March.

It was downright depressing. Insect and weed pests flourished and the gardener and her plants flagged by about June 15. It was all downhill from there. And then, like a cool breeze on a hot August day, came the El Nino winter of 2009-2010 with its extended periods of below-freezing weather and occasional spurts of white, fluffy stuff falling from the sky. It was very refreshing.

Well, okay, I know it caused hardship and some heartache for some gardeners in the area and I am sorry about that. I lost a few plants, too, and I'm still waiting to see about some others, some of which I would be particularly sorry to lose. But you want to know the truth? Those plants that I lost probably shouldn't have been planted here in the first place. I pushed the envelope and the envelope pushed right back. A valuable lesson has been (re)learned.

It's not that I will be sorry to see winter go at 12:32 P.M. tomorrow, but I just wanted to say a kind word about the old season before it leaves. After all, we've griped and complained about it since that first freeze caught us by surprise early last December, but I, for one, wish to go on the record by stating that this is exactly the winter I had been wishing for these past several wimpy winter years and I want to thank Mother Nature for finally granting that wish. I feel sure that I will be a better and wiser gardener and that my garden will be a better balanced and more natural environment because of it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bugs

There are good bugs and bad bugs. These last few days I have been knocked for a loop by a very, very bad, vicious, nasty bug. It was the kind of bug that makes it impossible for you to raise your head off the pillow or to care much about anything. Finally, the "good bugs" of my body's defenses seem to have routed the bad bugs of the virus and I am on my feet and at my computer again.

I'm still not up to any heavy gardening, but at least I can get outside and feel the sun and breeze on my face and maybe even pull a weed or three. In the process, I can also visit with some of the "good bugs" that are an integral part of my garden.

Of the population of good bugs, none are more welcome and better allies of the gardener than the ladybug, and my vegetable/herb garden is full of them these days.

It may not be an entirely scientific observation, but anyone who has gardened for any length of time will have noticed that a plant in trouble will attract insect pests. It's as if the plant sends out a beacon call when it is sick or at the end of its natural life that tells all those hungry aphids and other munchers, "Come on down!" And they do. Hordes of them do.

And where aphids go, ladybugs quickly follow. That is what has happened in my garden. Many of the fall and winter vegetables have come to the end of their run and are ready to shuffle off the mortal coil and make room for new spring plantings, but not before feeding another generation of the insect life that depends on them. Predictably and right on schedule, the ladybugs have arrived to make sure that the bad bugs don't have it all their own way.


This ladybug, which is covered with spots (I counted 16), enjoys its lunch on a leaf of cilantro.


There were tens if not hundreds of the little critters around and the really interesting thing to me was that not all of them were the same species. You can see, for example, that this one preying on the pests that are preying on radish leaves has many fewer spots than the one in the previous picture. There were, in fact, ladybugs with many different patterns and combinations of spots. There were even some that I saw that were entirely orange with no spots. Unfortunately, I didn't get pictures of all of them, but you get the idea.


There was also a considerable amount of ladybug hanky-panky going on. More than one pair had found a sheltered spot to get on with the essentials of life.

Rock on, little ladybugs! Like the good bugs of my body's defenses, I need more of you to help me overcome all the bad bugs in my life. Come on down!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day: March 2010

Bloomers rule in the plant world, but it wasn't always like that. Long ago, other methods of reproduction from spores to cones to asexual methods were the norm with plants. But 100 million years ago, give or take a year or two, flowering plants staged a revolt. They overwhelmed all other forms of plant reproduction, and, as Olivia Judson put it in her excellent column on the subject last week, "the Earth came into bloom."

There were many different kinds of blooms. Some plants set their caps to attract flies. Most of their blooms have an odor of rotting meat. Not something you would want to include in a bouquet for your dining room table.

The majority of plants, however, chose to attract some of the prettiest creatures in Nature - bees, butterflies, and small birds - as their partners in pollination. Their blooms were typically brightly colored and contained sweet smelling nectar, as well as the pollen that actually gets the job done for the plant.

In addition to attracting their tiny helpers, the gorgeous blooms of these plants attract big, lumbering, two-legged admirers, and it is these types of blossoms, rather than the fly-attracting ones, that most participants in Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day choose to share each month.

Here, then, without further ado, is what is blooming in my garden this March Bloom Day.


The planter by the front door now holds geraniums and Veronica peduncularis 'Georgia Blue' rather than the spent violas that lived there all winter.


Viburnum tinus, just added to the front bed, is beginning its bloom.


This anonymous camellia that lives in the front yard shade garden is a late winter bloomer and is still full of unopened buds.


Nearby, an equally anonymous miniature azalea has been in bloom off and on since November. It stopped and rested for a while after our big freeze in January, but now every twig on it has a bud at the end and this one is just ready to unfurl.


This little cyclamen, blooming next to a heuchera, is now on its third winter of bloom. Whoever said these plants were winter "annuals"?


Moving into the sunshine, the Osteospermum 'Sunny Henry' shows a happy face to the world.


These snapdragons are still snappy!


This daffodil is 'Ice Follies.' Recently, I misidentified for a reader, in response to a question, another little narcissus as 'Ice Follies.' I realized my mistake too late to correct it, so I'm correcting it now.


This is the narcissus I misidentified as 'Ice Follies.' It isn't, but I'm not entirely sure just what it is. Like many other plants in my garden, it will just have to be anonymous.


These leucojums live in the same bed with 'Ice Follies' and the anonymous narcissus and they have performed beautifully for me this winter. I do love these delicate looking little blossoms.


These little violas are still showering my world with their purple beauty.



This recently added variegated potato vine has opened many of these pretty little blossoms already.


The loropetalum weathered our winter freezes well and is now opening its fringy flowers in celebration that those freezes are past.


This little dianthus is just beginning its bloom. That's an agapanthus emerging behind it.


Fuchsia geraniums helped to brighten my winter days when practically nothing else was blooming in the garden.


The blueberries are in full bloom now.


The gerberas were another winter day brightener. They bloom for me in orange...


...and in sunny yellow.








'Blue Elf' aloe is beginning to open its flower spike in the xeric bed.






I've fallen in love with this sweet little trailing veronica and have added it to several spots around the garden.



March is apple blossom time in my garden.


This clump of Spanish lavender is where I saw my very first Ruby-thoated Hummingbird of the season today! The male was sipping from these blossoms when I saw him.


The 'Bleeding Heart' shows you why it was so named.

The pace of blooming is picking up and so is the number of pollinators in the yard. Bees, butterflies, and now at least one hummingbird are all here to do those jobs that they've been doing for 100 million years. Let spring begin!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A disaster for the monarchy

El Nino has struck hard in many places this winter and the area of Mexico where Monarch butterflies overwinter has been devastated by the effects of winter storms. This is tragic news for the people who live in these regions, but it has been a real disaster for the Monarch.

Unprecedented rainfall from late January through the first week of February led to flooding and landslides that resulted in the loss of many lives and in the near destruction of the towns of Angangueo and Ocampo, the two municipalities that serve as base for tourists who visit the Monarch colonies at Sierra Chincua and El Rosario. The community of El Rosario was also hit with a major landslide that buried more than a dozen residents and destroyed much infrastructure in the region. The consequences of this disaster will be felt by the residents of this area for years to come. But it wasn't only people who were affected.

The Monarch colonies were strongly impacted by the unprecedented rainfall. The final estimate on the mortality suffered by the butterflies is not yet complete, but it is already clear that more than 50% of the overwintering population died as a result of the harsh winter conditions. It is expected that the number of Monarchs returning north this spring will be fewer than at any time since the wintering colonies became known to science in 1975. These numbers are so low that they are sure to have a long term effect on the butterfly population and the number of Monarchs that will be available to make the flight back to Mexico next winter is likely to be substantially less than in recent years.

So what's to be done about all this? Do we just wring our hands and gnash our teeth over the vagaries of weather? Actually, there are things that can be done, and, as gardeners, we are perfectly positioned to do some of them.

Monarch Watch, an organization that tracks and monitors the butterfly, is launching a "Bring Back the Monarch" campaign in response to the tragedy. The center point of the campaign is the expansion of the Monarch Waystation Program and the planting of more milkweed on both private and public lands.

I know that many Southeast Texas gardeners and gardeners around the country already include milkweed in their gardens to attract the Monarchs and to feed their caterpillars. If you don't have any milkweed in your garden, this is the year to plant it! If you do already have the plants, consider planting even more.

We, of course, have no way of knowing how many of these marvelous insects will make their way back to us this spring, but when they get here, we want them to find the larder full and plenty of places to lay their eggs. We want, in short, to do everything possible to encourage and support the recovery of the beautiful fliers that represent both the fragility and the tenacity of life. Let's do all that we can to make our gardens a place of respite and refuge for these creatures that bring us so much joy.


Do it for the butterflies...


...and for their offspring.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Signs of life

As I work around my garden this week, I continue to encounter more signs of life in both expected and unexpected places. Today it was a hibiscus that I had given up for dead.



This hibiscus had bloomed beautifully for me last summer and into the fall. I had given it some protection during the winter freezes, but recently it has looked like nothing so much as a bouquet of dead sticks. Today I was mulching the bed where I had planted it after the last freeze and, thinking that the plant was dead, I reached to pull it out of the ground.

But, wait! There was something green there! Looking closer, I realized that there were tiny green shoots coming from the roots. So I pulled a layer of mulch around it instead and gave the plant a figurative pat on the head and my blessing. It may live to provide me with some of those lovely blooms once again.

On the other end of that bed, another hibiscus never lost all of its leaves during winter and it is now putting on new growth.


Perhaps the summer will bring me more of these yellow beauties as well.

In other nearby beds where I was also spreading mulch today, I found that the two brugmansias seem to be in a race to see which can first reach the ten foot height they had last summer. This wasn't a surprise. My brugs always die back in the winter and then go crazy with growth at the first touch of warmth in late winter.

The nearby esperanzas, though, not so much. They still look dead, but again they always die back to the roots in winter and then are very slow to get going again in the spring, so I'm still hopeful that they will green up within the next several weeks.

Further on, as I pulled the mulch around them, I noticed that five of the six milkweed plants have green growth now. I hope they will get busy growing so they will be ready when the first Monarchs turn up.

I haven't seen a Monarch butterfly in my garden since the December freeze. This is radically different from last winter when I had a population of Monarchs with me all season and they were producing babies all winter on my milkweed plants that stayed green and lush. What a difference a year makes.

In another part of the garden, two of the five split leaf philodendrons are growing now. These are the two that were on the south side of the house in the most protected spots. The other plants have not shown any life yet, but I know their roots are deep and wide, so I'm still looking for them to come back.

I'm not so sure any longer about my old lemon tree, though. The tree has died back all the way to the ground. Now, it has done this before and then come back from the roots, but I don't think it has ever had quite as cold temperatures to deal with as it had this winter. Once again, all I can do is wait and see. Otherwise, on the citrus front, my Satsuma is doing well and putting on new leaves.

It's not only the plants that are showing signs of life. Everywhere I turned today, I kept encountering green anoles. Well, actually they were more gray or brown than green, like this guy who was sunning himself on the brick wall under the hose hangar.
This is a popular spot for anoles. Whenever the weather is not too cold, I can almost always find one near this spot. But today they were all over the place.







And last night, as I went to the front porch to retrieve my cat Nicholas who was taking care of important cat business outside, a movement on the brick wall caught my eye. I turned to see a tiny Mediterranean gecko scurrying up the wall to find a hiding place under the siding.

If these guys are back on night patrol on my porches, then I think warmer weather must truly be here to stay.

Yes, I believe we've definitely turned the corner on winter. Time to get the rest of my veggie seeds into the ground. Time to get ready for more new life.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ch-ch-ch-changes!

As I made my way around the garden this morning, deciding what I would work on today, I kept feeling that there was something different about the yard today. What was it?

No, it wasn't him. He was still there, sitting a few feet away from the nest box, standing guard. I didn't see his mate. Maybe she was in the box.



Now this is different! The only butterfly I had seen in the garden recently was the Question Mark, that strange butterfly that always looks as though something has taken a bite out of its wings. But today there were a couple of yellow Sulphurs flitting around the yard. Can you tell where the yellow gerbera ends and the yellow butterfly begins?

This is different, too. Suddenly there are honeybees in the yard once again, particularly on this Spanish lavender. Its blossoms were heavy with bees all day.



Could this be what I was sensing as a "difference"? The 'Russian Banana' potatoes that I planted back in late January are finally coming up. I had just about given up on them. But, no, there was still something else different...


The apple tree blossoms! Overnight, the tree opened its first blooms. But, no, that wasn't it either. What was it that was so different about the yard today?


That's it! No, not the presence of the cardinal at the feeder. It's the absence of something that is different. There are no goldfinches! This is the first time this cardinal has had a feeder to himself since the goldfinches arrived in December.

And now they are gone, just like that. They were still in the yard and at the feeders yesterday, even during the rain. I think they were just stuffing themselves for what they knew would be the long flight ahead, because sometime during the night, they packed their bags and left.

And that's what was different about the yard today. The silence. No large flocks of golden birds flitting about the trees and trilling their spring songs. No squabbles at the bird feeders as the birds jostled for position. True, there were still plenty of birds around, but the most dominant bird presence in the yard for these last three months was gone.

Safe flight, golden beauties. I'll have the thistle seed ready for you next December.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Square foot gardening revisited

Many, many years ago, when there were still actual gardening shows on television, (long before your time, my children) there was this quirky show called "Square Foot Gardening." Bob and I watched it religiously.

The whole thing was the brainchild of a lanky, hyperactive gardener with a bad combover named Mel Bartholomew - the gardener, not the combover. Mel's idea, which he presented enthusiastically in each 30 minute segment, was that instead of planting vegetable gardens in long, narrow beds seperated by walking paths, one should plant the veggies in raised beds of 4 ft. x 4 ft. blocks. Each of the blocks was then further divided into a grid of 1 ft. square planting blocks. Then each block was planted and managed as a separate garden entity. Thus, in one square foot you might have radishes planted, in the next square spinach or lettuce, and in the next a cucumber plant on a trellis.

In the 1980s, thanks to the television show and Mel's book, also called Square Foot Gardening, the concept enjoyed quite a burst of popularity, and certainly many, including myself, have continued to use some, if not all, of the principles that he espoused, but the whole idea has sort of faded into the background over the years. Now, however, with the sudden increase in popularity that vegetable gardening is enjoying, Mel is back preaching the gospel of the square foot garden once again. Actually, he never stopped, but now he is garnering some notice once again.

He has revised and updated his old book, a copy of which still graces our bookshelves. It is creatively titled All New Square Foot Gardening, and it is finding a new audience eager for information about how to successfully grow vegetables.

Square foot gardening does, in fact, make a lot of sense for the vegetable gardener, especially the vegetable gardener with a limited amount of space. It is quite amazing the amount of food that one can grow in just one 4 ft. x 4 ft. square raised bed with good soil, diversity in planting, and good cultural habits. The diversity in planting is especially important because it helps to control pests and many plants do better with companion planting rather than in a monoculture.

And now, Bob is contemplating putting Mel's principles to the test in his own garden bed. He has decided that he wants to take over one of the beds in the veggie garden to plant and care for himself. This is a man who doesn't garden and doesn't exhibit much interest in gardening except to consume the products of the gardener's labor. I am ecstatic that he is taking an interest and is actually going to get his hands dirty this gardening season!

I've designated the very sorriest bed in my vegetable garden as "Bob's Bed." Now it's up to him to do what he will with it. I can hardly wait to see the results.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A day in the life of a gardener

With one interruption after another, I haven't been able to spend as much time as I would have liked this week in the garden, even though the weather has been cooperative. But, finally, today I was able to put in several hours getting some much needed chores completed.

The day started propitiously with blueberry muffins, one of our favorite breakfasts. The blueberries were not from our own yard - we'll have to wait a few more weeks for that - but the ones from the grocery store were perfectly acceptable and I made the muffins from my favorite recipe. I've shared it with you before, but just in case you missed it, here it is again:


BLUEBERRY YOGURT MUFFINS

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

□ 2 c. all purpose flour
□ 1/3 c. sugar
□ 1 tsp. baking powder
□ 1 tsp. baking soda
□ 1/4 tsp. salt
□ 1/4 c. unsweetened orange juice
□ 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
□ 1 tsp. vanilla extract
□ 1 (8 oz.) carton vanilla low fat yogurt
□ 1 egg
□ 1 c. fresh or frozen blueberries
□ Vegetable cooking spray
□ 1 tbsp. sugar
Combine first 5 ingredients in a large bowl; make a well in center of mixture. Combine orange juice and next 4 ingredients. Add to dry ingredients, stirring just until moistened. Gently fold in blueberries.
Coat muffin pan with cooking spray and divide batter among 12 muffin cups. Sprinkle with sugar.

Bake at 400 degrees for 18 minutes or until golden brown.


Thus fortified with delicious muffins and coffee, I headed outside to get my garden under control.

As I walked into the backyard, the trees were full of goldfinches and they were all pointing out to me that the birdfeeders were empty! I knew I couldn't get anything done with all those hungry birds hanging over my shoulder and screeching at me, so I headed to the big metal trash can that keeps our supply of birdseeds safe from the raccoons. I took some of the fruit and nut mix, as well as the thistle seeds and the black oil sunflower seeds and went to replenish the feeders. I filled the backyard feeders and then moved to the front yard to fill that feeder. By the time I returned to the backyard, the feeders there and the ground underneath the feeders were covered by hungry goldfinches.

Time for my first break. I sat and watched the birds for a while and thought about what I needed to do today.

Yesterday, I had made a run to The Arbor Gate and purchased a few new plants for the yard. I got some viburnums, columbines, African daisies, and a couple of 'Blue Elf' aloes. I wanted to get those plants into the ground as well as getting a few more shrubs and perennials moved.

My first project was to plant the aloes in the xeric bed around the bottle tree, but as I walked through the sitting area under the sycamore tree, I noticed that several of my potted plants looked a bit droopy. I checked their soil and found they were pretty dry. I always forget just how fast pots can dry out, so I got my trusty watering can and gave them all a drink.

On to the bottle tree bed with my new aloes. The plants in this bed have come through winter in pretty good shape, although the cenizo is looking a bit sad just now. It has lost a lot of leaves, but I'm hoping it will rebound. The Mexican feather grass, the agaves, and the sedum all seem to be thriving. I dug my planting holes and added the aloes, and felt pleased with the result.

Time for another break and more bird watching. I hadn't seen the bluebirds around for several days so I was very happy to note that they were back visiting the bluebird box today. Even better, the male bluebird perched in several prominent locations around the yard and sang his spring song to let all the other male bluebirds know that this is his patch. Perhaps we will have baby bluebirds in my yard this year after all.

After this entertaining interlude, I moved to the front yard with my Hinckley's columbines. These I planted in the bed under the red oak tree. I hope they will be happy there.

While I was in this area of the yard, there were a couple of plants that I needed to "tweak" just a bit. A mahonia and my anonymous camellia both needed to be moved to another part of the bed for better placement, so I did that and watered them in well.

After another break, (Yes, I do take lots of breaks. My back demands them.) I planted my "Proven Winner" Osteospermum 'Sunny Henry' plants in the bed with my 'Radazz' Knockout roses. I think they'll look good together.

There was an autumn sage plant that I wanted to move to a new location, so I did that next. Then I dug up the pink coral vine roots. They appeared to be alive, so I plunked them into a new bed next to the wooden fence, firmed and watered them in and wished them well.

By this time, it was late afternoon and we hadn't stopped for lunch. All the time that I was busy moving plants around and watching birds, Hubby had been working on laying rocks on a bed of sand under the red oak tree. When he's finished, this favorite sitting area of mine is going to be a lot more attractive.

But now it was time to feed the hungry man, as well as my hungry self. I cut a head of cabbage from the veggie garden, opened a couple of cans of vegetables to go with it, made some cornbread and we had our vegetarian lunch.

By that time, it was a bit late to work on planting my Viburnum tinus 'Spring Bouquet' plants and my dwarf Walter's viburnum. I would need to move a couple of plants in order to put them where I wanted them and that would take some time.

Anyway, I'll need something to entertain me tomorrow. A bored gardener is a scary and dangerous animal!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Go native

(In looking back at blog archives today, I came across this post, first published on March 6, 2008 and decided to share it with you again.)

One of the more hopeful trends in gardening in recent years has been the greater usage of native plants in our gardens. Native plants are a key element in maintaining biodiversity in the great web of life on our planet.

These plants are the ones that native animals and insects have evolved with over thousands of years. They are the plants that these creatures have learned to utilize for food or shelter.

When non-native plants invade an area, usually escaping from our gardens, the native creatures are often unable to feed upon them. In extreme situations, this can even lead to starvation of individuals and could potentially contribute to the extinction of a species. Thus, the importance of native plants in a healthy ecosystem can scarcely be overemphasized.

The interest in using native plants has created a reading audience eager for books and articles on the subject. One such book that came to my attention today through an article in The New York Times is Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy. It was published November 2007.

Mr. Tallamy is chairman of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. Seven years ago, he and his wife bought 10 acres of land that was formerly part of a hay farm in Oxford, Pennsylvania, and set about recreating a native ecosystem. In order to do that, they first had to remove the invasive species of plants that were established on their land. They are still working on that.

Mr. Tallamy points out that almost all native songbirds feed their young on insects, and insects, for the most part, feed on plants. Native plants. Many insects are specialists and must have one particular kind of plant in order to survive.

So, to feed the birds, we must first feed the insects. And to feed the insects, we must give them plants that they like and know how to use. Native plants.

As the Times article about the Tallamy's project stated:
"So the message is loud and clear: gardeners could slow the rate of extinction by planting natives in their yards. In the northeast, a patch of violets will feed fritillary caterpillars. A patch of phlox could support eight species of butterflies. The buttonbush shrub, which has little white flowers, feeds 18 species of butterflies and moths; and blueberry bushes, which support 288 species of moths and butterflies, thrive in big pots on a terrace. (Appropriate species for other regions are listed by local native plant societies.)"

As you think about adding plants to your garden this spring, give some consideration to the beautiful vegetation that evolved here and learned to survive our quirky climate. It will require less coddling from you in order to survive and thrive and, best of all, you will be supporting your local wildlife. The chickadees and butterflies will thank you!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Will froggie go a' courtin'?

Biologists have been aware for several years that amphibians are in trouble. They have been closely studying frogs, in laboratory situations as well as in the wild, trying to figure out what is causing gross abnormalities in many of them and why these wonderful creatures may be slowly slipping away. There are fears that this ancient species could be on its way to extinction.

Scientists are in agreement - at least to the extent that scientists ever agree about anything - that pollution of their environment is one of the main culprits causing frogs' problems. Amphibians are also known to be extremely sensitive to changes in climate, so they are being attacked on that front as well.

Now comes a report from the National Academy of Sciences, as reported in Discover magazine, that details how a herbicide that has found its way into our waterways can alter amphibians' hormones and actually cause them to change sexes. Scientists say that the potential exists that the herbicide would have similar effects on other animals, including humans.

The herbicide in question is atrazine and, apparently, it is widely used in the Mid-West among corn crops and other row crops. It has been found in many of the waterways there. In sufficient quantities, it can have the effect of chemically castrating male frogs and turning them into egg-producing females. This does not bode well for the sex ratio among amphibians, nor for the health of the environment, as a whole.

As a gardener, it certainly gives me pause when considering using any kinds of chemicals in my garden. The only herbicide I have ever used is Roundup which has glyphosate as its active ingredient. While it has the reputation of being relatively benign and I am not aware of any problems that it has caused, I don't think I'll be using it again. My yard has a thriving population of amphibians and reptiles of many kinds and I would not want to add anything to their environment that might cause problems for them.

I have always tried to be as organic as possible in my gardening practices, but I admit I have used chemicals of various kinds from time to time. This story of the atrazine and the frogs, though, makes me want to stop - cold turkey. I think the frogs and toads and other critters in my yard might be happier and healthier if I did. Maybe I would be, too.

Wordless Wednesday: The seed thief