Friday, December 30, 2011

My Birthday Prize List

   I've decided to post a list of the plants I picked up at Nature By Design, since this blog is partly a garden memoir. When I was there trying to decide what to to get, I put an emphasis on shrubs because trees were too big to fit in our vehicle, and perennials are somewhat easy to obtain through my usual method of procurement, mail-order. Native shrubs, on the other hand, are expensive to mail-order, and the specimen size is typically very small. Since I'm an impatient gardener, here was my chance to get some decent sized individuals. I went heavy on Viburnums since they feed both pollinators and birds. The numbers of each were based on whether or not I already had any, and trying to get pollination partners for berry production. I also chose tall species for the perennials and vines because I'm working on a green/living fence project. I've only managed to get a few things planted so far, because planting our Christmas tree took priority, which was so difficult (heavy), we may not do that again...

Hereby known as The Beast

Here's the list, drumroll please...

1 Viburnum dentatum (Arrowwood Viburnum)
2 Viburnum lentago (Nannyberry)
3 Viburnum trilobum (American Cranberry Bush)
3 Lindera benzoin (Spicebush)

5 Andropogon gerardii (Big Blue Stem)
3 Panicum Virgatum (Switchgrass)

6 Pycanthemum muticum (Short Toothed Mountain Mint)
6 Eupatorium perfoliatum (Common Boneset)
3 Eupatorium purpureum (Sweet Joe-Pye)
3 Rudbeckia laciniata (Cutleaf Coneflower)
1 Agastache foeniculatum ('cus that's all he could find) (Anise Hyssop)

4 Clematis virginiana (Virgin's Bower)
2 Parthenocissus quenquefolia (Virginia Creeper)

Not bad, eh?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How I Spent My Birthday...

About a week and a half ago, Jeff and I headed up the interstate to the D.C. area for a multipurpose trip, part Christmas shopping, part birthday getaway for me, and part exploration/investigation. I had recently discovered that Virginia has only one dedicated native plant nursery open to the public, and it ironically just happens to be in one of the largest metropolitan areas of the country (D.C.), Alexandria to be precise. Travelling up there can be dangerous for your well-being, especially at Christmas time, but we're veterans and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit my first native plant nursery, especially on my birthday, before winter set in too deep. Luckily for me, our winter has been quite mild and I got there just as the owner was getting ready to put things away for the season. I managed to fill up the back of our vehicle with and assortment of shrubs, flowers, vines and grasses. We seriously contemplated renting a Uhaul to fill up, but this being winter, I didn't want to commit to having to plant that many things before the ground freezes. I admit, it felt pretty strange buying pots of dirt with crunchy brown tops, but I easily could have bought twice as much if it had been spring, I felt like a kid in a candy store!

The name of the nursery is Nature By Design and it's conveniently located just off of route 1 in Alexandria, Virginia. Situated at the end of a cul-de-sac, the nursery is cozily laid out in the back yard of a house, complete with mature trees, a pond, a carriage house/office, and greenhouse/giant coldframe. I couldn't believe the selection that was available, I wanted everything! The owner, Randee Wilson greated us as we walked through the gate and couldn't have been a nicer fellow. Jeff and I probably spent about an hour and a half walking around, trying to narrow down our choices, and picking things out while Randee helped us find what we were looking for. I can easily justify the 8 hour round trip drive next spring to come back, and if you're in the vicinity you won't be disappointed. March is only a few months away!

Do you want to know something really bizarre? Well, on our way home, I called my mom and told her what we did, which was visit this nursery in Alexandria. She says, "Oh yeah, where in Alexandria?" (She grew up there, and I was born there). I say "Just off route 1, near Glebe, on Calvert Avenue". She says, "No way! I lived on Calvert Avenue!". You see, Calvert is just a short street, maybe 1/4 mile. The only house left is the one with the nursery. She described the area from memory perfectly so there's no chance it could be a different Calvert. The odds of that are extremely tiny. Alexandria is huge. Small world! 

Thank you Nature By Design, for being there and for still being open in December!

Sweet little pond and beautiful crabapple tree, most of the forbs were stored under the tables!

Randee in the background adding up our bill

Trees and shrubs area

Very cool mantis sculpture

My birthday gifts to myself (notice Christmas shopping bags in background!)

Squeezed in wherever they would fit

Friday, December 23, 2011

Mystery Plant ID Help?

I managed to escape for a quick stroll through Green Hill Park this morning and was shocked by all of the herbaceous plants putting out new growth, on December 23! This has to be the warmest December on record, yesterday was 68 degrees! Anyway, I recognized all but this one and wondered if any of you plant experts know what this might be. It's growing at the base of a young (oak?) along the river, kinda shady, and the leaves are somewhat thick and almost waxy like a succulent. I'm in zone 7a by the way. I realize I'm not giving you much, but it just looks so darn interesting, I love learning new plants, and I can't find anything like it in any of my books.

Does anyone recognize this plant?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Last Minute Christmas Ideas for the Wildlife Gardener

   Hurry, Hurry! Time is running out! Who doesn't need a last minute gift idea, right? Gardeners can be notoriously difficult people to shop for, especially since our passion is pretty much dormant right now. I came up with a few gifts that I would love to receive, except for the fact that I already have them!

Gift #1: The World's Best Leaf Rake Ever

Yes, I'm recommending buying a rake as a gift. I love my rake. I bought mine from Lowe's for about $14, the brand name is True Temper. It actually is clog free. Since we were committed to not using the gas powered leaf blower, we got a workout (in a good way) raking our yard to gather leaves to make mulch and compost with. Instead of being a chore, I really enjoyed the raking because I just kept thinking about the yummy leaf mulch my plants were sure to love.

Gift #2: Benjamin Vogt's book "Sleep, Creep, Leap"

I enjoyed reading this more than anything else in a long, long time. Especially since it's winter now, I enjoyed being transported into his backyard garden, laughing on one page and crying on the next. It's so cheap, only $5.99 at Amazon and they can deliver it in a jiffy. If not for someone else, buy it for yourself!
Sleep, Creep, Leap: The First Three Years of a Nebraska Garden
Image from

Gift Idea #3: For the big spenders out there...Pre-order a tray of plants from Prairie Moon Nursery.

What native plant enthusiast wouldn't appreciate more plants? Again, if not for someone else, at least treat yourself! You can now order a tray of 38 native plants to be delivered between May and July for only $98.00. You can mix or match up to four different kinds per tray of dozens of native wildflowers and grasses. I ordered one to try last spring and was very impressed with the quality, many of the plants bloomed the first year including Aster azureus and Solidago speciosa. I plan on ordering several trays this winter, Merry Christmas to me!

My tray of plants from this past Spring, aren't they awesome!

In case I don't get another post written before Christmas, Happy Holidays to you all and thank you for visiting my blog!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Winter Sowing Project: Part 1

   Saturday morning was absolutely gorgeous, mid 30's, clear blue sky. I just had to be outside. I'd been thinking about the Chasmanthium latifolium (River Oats) that I'd seen along the river (of course) over at Green Hill Park a few months ago. If there were any seeds left on the plants, I really wanted to get some and give them a try. I love River Oats and know of several places in my gardens where they'd fit in nicely. Well, as luck would have it, I didn't just find the chasmanthium, but some goldenrod, frost aster, wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), and Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus), too. I couldn't resist! These are hardy common staples here in the valley, and should do wonderfully in our gardens, in fact some already exist there, just in small quantities. 
   I didn't really need any more seeds, I'd already received my order from Prairie Moon for my must haves for next year, plants that I want alot of. It is, of course, cheaper to grow 50 Sweet Joe Pye plants from seed than to buy them already as mature plants. And there's no such thing as too much Joe Pye. I wanted to try my hand at winter sowing, but what started out as an experiment has quickly gotten out of control. I am a plant addict, after all. I ordered six kinds of seeds from Prairie Moon, then collected five more kinds in the wild. All those black plastic plant pots I saved from over the summer now isn't enough. I've run out and need to buy some, I haven't even planted my Green Hill Park seeds yet.
   I've been dreaming of starting native plants from seed all summer long, planning what I wanted and what I thought would do well here. Before I was really into habitat gardening and I was just a casual gardener, winter was dull and boring, with nothing to do in or for the garden. When I started reading about winter sowing, I just knew I had to try. Worst case scenario = no plants, best case scenario = lots of plants!
   The only problem is, I've never done this before. I have visions of either zero success, or so many plants that I have to start giving them away (to the native flower friends I don't have) just so they can get planted. 
   If any of you out there reading this have any tips for me, please share. I've only read what's available out there on the internet, which all seems to be anecdotal with no "After" shots of pots of plants in the spring to show how successful they were. No one I know has ever done this before. For example, I've read that since I don't have continuous snowpack, I should keep the pots covered, like with clear plastic sheeting. Why? To retain moisture? Won't that create heat build-up, negating the cold part of the cold stratification process? I do notice they tend do dry out a bit and I'm supposed to keep them moist. So I'm going to be watering pots all winter? I've also noticed some folks use empty milk jugs, but I don't have a few hundred lying around. I originally had my pots on the southeast side of my house, but they were drying out in a day. I have since moved them to the colder, north side and they are staying moister longer. Am I foolish, or what? Tell me the truth, I can take it...usually. 

The green hill of Green Hill Park, a popular place to ride a horse, if you have one.
An old farm field full of goldenrod, aster, and birds...
Wingstem seeds, I think they're attractive still on the stem
Virginia Wild Rye
My haul from Green Hill Park
My first batch, likely soon to double...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

And Here It Is...!

The original...

Here it is!

   Don't feel bad if you couldn't find it at first. Like I said earlier, when Jeff showed me the photo, I knew it was there but I couldn't find it either. We've been watching this owl for about a week, it's probably been there a bit longer, we're not sure. This is likely the source of the screech heard at daybreak a few times last month, not a barn owl as was originally suspected. We feel truly fortunate to have this owl here and be able to view it on occasion, I've only seen Screech Owls a few times. We're definitely trying to leave it alone so it doesn't get spooked and leave the area. Here's a couple of other pictures of the same owl from a different day and different angle.

I think it's smiling!

This is not the first time an Eastern Screech Owl has occupied this hole. Several years ago, likely a different owl was spotted here, but it didn't hang around as long.

Ever since, we've made certain that we take a look at the hole any time we're nearby, just to see if someone might be looking back at us.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Do You See What I See?

...Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see, 
A star, a star, dancing in the night...

These pictures were taken at Dean, just a couple of days ago. There's something very interesting "hiding" in this picture, even though I knew what I was looking for, I had a hard time finding it when Jeff showed it to me. Can you find "it"?

A close-up

From further away, for context

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Our Tree Has Arrived!

   We decided to change things up a bit this year, and possibly future years, by getting a plantable Christmas tree. I just can't bear the thought of having a tree's life sacrificed for decoration. I would rather use this time to create a new tradition of adding a tree to the landscape. Just imagine...if we keep it up, in twenty years we'll have a virtual forest! We figure we'll get something different each year, for diversity. This year since it was short notice for the nursery, I could only choose between Blue Spruce or Norway Spruce. I chose the Norway Spruce. We have several 20+ year old specimens at our home and at Dean, they're gorgeous, they do great in our climate, and the birds love the shelter they provide. I wanted a native evergreen, of course, but they need advance notice to get one of those. Now I'm off to Tractor Supply Co. to find a galvanised bucket for the root ball. I'm not looking forward to dragging this puppy inside, but that's what strong husbands and dollies are for. Many thanks to Townside Nursery for fulfilling my crazy wishes, again!

Fresh off the truck

Untied and root ball covered to keep it dry and therefore lighter
(we're only getting about 8 inches of rain today)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why Do Earthworms...

...try to commit suicide?

Surely you've witnessed this too. Almost every time it rains, especially a warm rain, earthworms come streaming out of the ground and onto any paved surface they can find where they promptly dry up and die as soon as the rain stops. Are they leaving the soil because it's too saturated and they think they might drown? Well, that's dumb because they're gonna die anyway on my driveway, either by dehydration or getting snatched by a hungry bird. If any of you readers know why they do this, please enlighten me.

Yesterday I staged an intervention. Overnight we had several inches of rain, after which I woke up to find numerous worms in the garage (safe from birds but still a death sentence) and a driveway absolutely covered with them. Now that we have a compost pile (currently just shredded leaves and coffee grounds) it occurred to me to pick them all up and toss them in, saving their lives and improving the quality of my dark matter. Jeff and I easily picked up over 40 earthworms and carefully distributed them in the bin.

While investigating what to add to the compost pile, I read that earthworms absolutely love coffee grounds and I've been getting big bags from Starbucks of their used grounds (called Grounds For Your Garden) to add to my mix. If you have a compost bin, you may want to check your local Starbucks and see if they participate in this program.

I hope they find their new life in my bin worth living.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Late Season Ladybug Sightings

It's been slim pickins' lately trying to come up with some content to entertain you folks , sorry about that. I've basically just been raking leaves, making mulch, smothering some grass, and helping my parents move. There's just not a lot happening outside right now, but I've got something exciting I'm working on, more details later.

The unseasonably warm weather has continued and we've been seeing a lot of insects that should be asleep by now. These two Ladybugs showed themselves over the weekend. I've also seen a few Leaf Footed Bugs, Wheelbugs, and Earwigs. Stink Bugs too, but they don't count, they're always around.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Somebody Found A Warm Spot

   Now that the cold weather has set in, animals really seem to be looking for warmth anywhere they can find it. While visiting a friend, we just happened to spot this fella' getting cozy outside her dining room. If we hadn't been watching her cat watch the squirrels, we would have missed his antlers waving at us from the other window. Smart guy, he found a spot both sheltered from the wind and warmed by the sun reflecting off the house. I have never been this close to a wild animal before, he was truly magnificent!

Monday, November 14, 2011

What Once Was Hidden...

...Now is found.

Back in the late Spring, I just knew we had a Robin's nest somewhere in this area. They're so sneaky. I really thought it was in a Cedar, just to the left from where this picture was taken. They were constantly flying in and out of the Cedar, but apparently they were using a bit of deception. I looked but I could never find it. I didn't want to get too close because it was their second nest, the first was not hidden well enough and was robbed by Bluejays, and sadly I saw it happen. Now that the leaves have fallen, I'm starting to see a lot of nests that I didn't know about, this one included. The Robins did a much better job hiding it, no wonder I didn't find it, it's built in a very mature Poison Ivy vine! Note the white berries. This nest was successful, I remember distinctly seeing the newly fledged Robins in this area.

Don't forget to take an extra close look around your yard now that the leaves have fallen, you never know what you might find!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

It's Project FeederWatch Time!

   Time to start counting birds y'all! This weekend begins the 25th edition of Project FeederWatch, running from November 12 to April 6. It's cold, it's windy, the flowers have faded and the insects have all gone to sleep. How would you like an excuse to curl up in a comfy chair with a cup or two of your favorite warm beverage and just chill?

"No dear, I can't (fill in honey-do list item here). I'm doing research. Real scientific data collection, don't disturb me."

   All you need is a few bird feeders located within viewing distance of a window. Since you're reading this I'm guessing you're into the nature thing already and I bet you already have that. All you need to do is count the total number of each species you see at one time, for anywhere between 30 minutes to 4 hours a day, for two consecutive days, once per week, then enter your data online. You can miss a week if you have to. I like to do my count roughly between 3:00 and 5:00 pm Saturday and Sunday which is usually when I know I have the time. Also, the birds feed quite heavily around that time to fill their bellies for the night.
   If this sounds like a fun way to feel involved in Habitat and Wildlife Gardening even in the dead of winter, click on the Project FeederWatch icon over to the right in my sidebar, or visit their website to learn more.

   I got addicted to Habitat/Wildlife Gardening because of Project FeederWatch. It was the first Citizen Science project I started participating in, and in the process of trying to provide more and better habitat for the birds I was watching and counting, I discovered that I could do the same thing for other creatures as well. And so began the transformation of us and our yard. Give it a try, you never know where it might take you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Catching Up

   What a week it has been. I last posted here on Halloween morning which now feels like about a month ago. I've been helping my parents pack and move to town, only squeezing in a few hours here and there to be out in the yard for a nature fix. A little leaf raking can be very therapeutic, especially since the weather has been so nice lately. We used to be "those people", the ones that got rid of their leaves in the fall. Now I see them as pure gold, free mulch, and grass smothering-flower bed creating magic. Jeff even managed to crank up an old dusty leaf mulcher that hasn't turned over in the last decade. Now I just need to make a place to store all this leafy mulchy goodness. I never imagined I'd still be out working in the yard in November and I'm not complaining, it's been glorious.
   Next on the agenda is to try to capture an image of a suspected Barn Owl living in a dilapidated playhouse up in the woods at Dean. We have reports of a screechy scream heard very early in the morning coming from the area, but of course we really want to be certain. If we can document it living on the property, well, that would just be freaking awesome! I've got the critter cam set up aimed at a hole in the roof, but there are two holes, and I haven't seen any evidence of owl pellets. Time will tell, we may just have to camp out there ourselves to try and hear the scream.

Boy, you have no idea what goes on 'round here after's wild!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Real Zombies in Nature, and a Movie Suggestion

   Happy Halloween Everyone! How can you not love a holiday that's all about fun, candy, pumpkins, bats, owls, black cats, etc, etc.
   OK, before all you zombies experts get all riled up, I know the use of the term "zombie" is being stretched a little. Zombies are the undead, driven by an external force like witchcraft, who have no soul or mind, therefore they're not "mind controlled". I'm using the adjective form of zombie, not the noun.
   Who even knew flies and Gypsy Moths had a mind that could be controlled? Well apparently they do. Here are two fascinating stories I've heard recently that fall into the category of "Strange but True", and they're quite disgusting, perfect for Halloween.
   The first is about Gypsy Moths, no love lost here. Apparently they can become infected with a virus that turns off their appetite control, makes them eat until they're literally almost ready to pop, then climb to the highest point in their tree where they liquefy and rain down virus infected goo on the leaves below them, which the other caterpillars soon ingest and become infected too. Isn't that brilliant? You can listen to or read the story here about the Gypsy Moth zombie virus.
   The second story I heard just last night. Similar to the Gypsy Moths, but this time involving mind controlling parasites and fungus, it tells of exploding flies spewing infectious spores into the wind and suicidal crickets drowning themselves before a worm exits their *ahem* body. We've actually seen a hair worm "exiting" a grasshopper. I'm still freaked out about it. Very gory, very true, very cool. You can listen to or read the story here about the mind controlling parasites.

   Now, if you need to erase all that from your memory in order to sleep well tonight, or you're like me and like to celebrate Halloween with a good themed movie, here's a couple of my favorites:

1. Young Frankenstein          (gotta love Frau Blucher)   horse whinny
2. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde      (the 1931 version, you're not a film connoisseur if you haven't seen this)
3. The Shining          (not gonna sleep after this either)

Squeak's ready for Halloween, Black Cat Zombie. (caught in the act of meowing)

Friday, October 28, 2011

One Last Look

Well, as most of you know by now, the first winter storm of the season is on it's way to the Mid Atlantic and New England. It was 75 degrees and humid yesterday, now it's 41 and sleeting. Hopefully we won't get any of the snow, it would surely do damage to the still leafy trees. Here's one last look at the colors before they're gone...

A colorful greeting at the entrance to Dean

Colors always look best on an overcast day

Bedding down before the storm

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Parting Shots

Here's a few parting shots from what's sure to be one of our last warm days for a while. I've been quite surprised how many plants are still putting out blooms this late in the year, a month from now and we're likely to have already seen snow. Two of our trusty winter migrant birds, White Throated Sparrows and Dark Eyed Juncos, have already landed on the scene. I want to hold on for as long as possible, but I know winter is necessary...

Honey Bee on Basil
I planted the Basil for myself and didn't realize the bee's would enjoy it just as much, if not more

Cabbage White on Anise Hyssop

Crab Spider hiding inside a Japanese Anemone blossom

Paper Wasp on Tropical Milkweed

Carpenter Bee on Lavender

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Recycling Nature, How We Spent Our Weekend

   It's that time of year, leaves are piling up everywhere, lawns, driveways, sidewalks. What's a gardener to do? They all won't fit in the compost tumbler, and you certainly don't want to bag them and toss them in the landfill. (Shame on you if you do!) Have you ever noticed the best soil is in a forest? Why? Because the leaves fall and that's where they stay until they decompose. I've been studying and thinking all summer long about what I can do with the leaves, and at the same time reading a lot (mostly on all of your blogs) about the benefits of reducing or eliminating lawns. And so it began.
   This weekend Jeff and I took advantage of the idyllic weather and raked up all the leaves and pine needles that had fallen already and began distributing them. We have grandiose visions of planting up the entire back yard but there's way too much turf to dig up and we'd like it to evolve over time. Smothering the grass as we go seems like the best option, and that's where the leaves come in. We're starting under the oak tree along the fence, where the grass is sparse anyway. What better to mulch under an oak with than oak leaves!

We started with the leaves on the ground nearby...
Then added some we raked up from the lower end of the yard...
And this morning I covered the area with netting and added some logs to hold it down and define the area.
   Project Grass-B-Gone has begun. There is/was grass growing right up to the base of the trunk, but I neglected to get a real "before" picture. As more leaves fall we will rake them into the pile and extend the logs out.
   The logs themselves are another recycling item. Every time a limb falls from a tree or if a tree is blown over, we use the wood for something. The bigger pieces I use for edging the boundary between planting beds and lawn. The smaller pieces get tossed onto a brush pile out under our bird feeding area. Brush piles are much appreciated by small critters like birds and chipmunks as a safe scurry spot, and as a great place to hunt for insects.

The beginnings of my brush pile, I've already seen a chipmunk checking it out
An exquisite piece of yard art, it's hollow all the way through, a perfect scurry spot

   One more thing you can recycle is bark, especially if you can get it in big chunks. What can you use it for, you ask? How about using it to hide ugly well heads. There's a dead tree over at dean whose bark is falling off in big strips, so Jeff brought some home and placed it around the well to disguise it. The well is right in the middle of our berry garden and we can't plant anything right up next to it in case it ever needs to be accessed. I think it looks better now, needs some more bark though, we want it to look like an old tree stump.

   Eventually we'd like to fill in this area with Winterberry Hollies, Viburnums, and maybe Virginia Creeper on the fence. All berry producers for our living birdfeeder section. Right now all we have is a Crabapple and a few Blueberry bushes, just enough to keep our resident Mockingbird occupied.