Monday, September 27, 2010

Our Visiting Vulture... Harriet the Spy

Sunday was delightful, arriving with the sweater-worthy morning and warming to sweet Autumn perfection complete with gentle breezes. It was a wonderful day for a woodland walk to see the changes in foliage. As we reached the top of the hill the Turkey Vultures could be seen gathering for their annual migration to Mexico for the winter. At first there were five, then twenty but soon others joined until their numbers reached fifty or more. They were engaged in the interesting phenomenon bird watchers refer to as ‘kettling‘.

‘Kettle’ is the term used to describe the amazing wheeling and circling performed by birds who gather in a warm thermal updraft, drifting higher and higher as more birds arrive. It is said that ‘kettling’ is a form of avian communication, and the sight of the first few birds engaging in this activity signals the others to gather for migration. The light was beautiful, catching the white underside of their wings, and the show was quite impressive. And then they were gone… off into the distant sky; they will not return until spring.

One fine fall day in the mid-1990’s a Turkey Vulture landed on the roof of our barn. All of the Vultures had migrated so this singular bird curiously staring at us from her perch, was quite a surprise. Slightly spooked, we called our Native American friends and asked the meaning of a Vulture refusing to leave the barn. Was it a ‘sign’ foretelling death or some dreadful event? None of them had ever heard of such a phenomenon and said it had no spiritual meaning what-so-ever so we relaxed. Day after day passed and the Vulture stayed; our farm had become her permanent home. Soon after her arrival she came to be known as Harriet the Spy for her voyeuristic perchance for peeking in windows to watch human antics... she was infinitely curious.

As she settled into her new life, she began visiting the neighbors on the section. She looked through the window and watched Harmon Slaton make his Christmas pralines. Often she sat on a nearby fence post ‘visiting’ as Pat and Charlotte Smith did their farming. She tortured poor Cecil Erickson by constantly peeking in his front window but our ornithologist neighbor, Allie Milligan, was always delighted by a visit.


Harriet came when her name was called, hung out with the barn cats, and even ‘helped’ in the garden. Except for her aversion to lawn cushions, which she compulsively tore to ribbons as though it was job, she was an exceptional guest for over five years. Once when she became ill we called the famous Jack Hanna who assessed it was ‘probably something she ate‘. (*Fortunately, months before our daughter had discovered his unpublished number while playing with the phone.) When Harriet passed, the entire neighborhood mourned and I‘ve no doubt her friendship was a once in a lifetime event.

Helping dig potatoes~

The marvel of nature’s internal clock which tells the birds it is ‘time to go’ is awe inspiring. Some day soon we will hear the familiar honking of the Canadian geese who follow the Vultures to Mexico. Far, far up, following the noise and often straining to see them, the familiar V pattern will suddenly appear… and with their departure, winter will be upon us.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Cleaning the garden and assessing your soil

It is time to begin putting the garden to bed for the winter while the crisp fall mornings make the task an enjoyable pursuit. The beds must be weeded, the perennials trimmed, and all of the debris removed. There are countless insects and their offspring planning to remain cozy all winter in untidy garden residue and so by cleaning the garden, they and their habitat are removed as well. Take the garden rubbish to the most unpleasant place possible or accumulate it in a clearing and have an October bonfire some fine evening… the fire may symbolically signal the end of the season.

At the seasons end it is wise to assess which plants did well and which did not for there are always casualties each season. For those that had opportune conditions and yet still refused to thrive, smell the soil at their feet. Gardeners know that dirt is alive and the well being of plants depends upon the nutrients in it. Perhaps the plant failed to thrive from a lack of proper nutrition. And I am of the opinion that Miracle Grow and the like may be considered a multivitamin but not a proper diet.

The texture of soil depends upon the mineral content in it. Sand has the largest particles that may be seen, silts are very small and clays are microscopic. When the children were little I took them to the river, the creek, the fields, and the woods to feel and smell the differences, which are obvious once one begins to notice.

When it is healthy, it has a rich and distinctive aroma…. that delicious ‘dirt smell‘. However soil devoid of nutrients has very little aroma at all. Go to a spot in your garden under a tree and gather a handful of dirt… it will smell alive! It has gathered nutrients from the leaves which have fallen and grass clippings that have been accidentally thrown its way. The decomposition which has ensued has created a dark, rich, mellow and nurturing soil that is the substance that sustains the garden. No amount of processed fertilizer can add what decomposing vegetation can so the last time you mow, toss the grass clippings in the flower bed. They will meld into the garden over winter and replenish the soil while you are not even noticing... the spring garden will thank you.

Monday, September 20, 2010


This year it seems we will not have much of a foliage show as the stressed trees have prematurely cast their dried and wilted leaves before they changed. This is a survival tactic and even the mighty Oak and Walnuts have cast off their fledgling youngsters before they reached fruition. Many of us lost the watering battle and said goodbye to cherished trees and shrubs, many of which were old friends. As the hours of sunlight decrease many are breathing a sight of relief… very glad it is almost over.

However to the utter delight of the gardener, the flower show is not over yet… the dazzling Dahlia is finally producing a fabulous show. Among the most stunning flowers available, her ability to tolerate summer heat is a testament to her Mexican origin since hot and dry is her favorite climate condition. To honor her tenacity and beauty, the Dahlia has been the National Flower of Mexico since 1963.

The first dahlia tubers were discovered by invading Conquistadors in the 1500’s, who erroneously thought the tubers to be potatoes…. until of course they sprouted and bloomed on the voyage home. Following their first introduction to Court, many unsuccessful attempts were undertaken to obtain and cultivate the Dahlia and from 1660 though 1751 all efforts were unsuccessful. However viable seeds sent from a botanical garden in Mexico reached Madrid in 1791 and the first flowering dahlias began to appear in Spain. The following year seeds were sent to England but were lost, as were those sent to the Netherlands in 1804. After much effort, cultivation was finally assured in 1813 and the results are the ancestors of the astounding flowers we see today.

The color spectrum is as variable as the size of the blooms, assuring there is a dahlia for every garden, large or small. From the tiny pastel Humpty Dumpty to the huge Dinner Plate varieties, the diversity of the Dahlia is endless. They make lasting flower arrangements which appear professional regardless of the growers talents. The flowers must be cut in early morning at the leaf junction. Place the stems in a glass of warm water for a few minutes then recut the stems at a right angle. Arrange the flowers after removing all below water foliage to prevent water contamination. The resulting arrangement will last a week or more if the water is refreshed and stems recut after three or four days.

The bulbs, all of which will have reproduced nicely over the season, must be dug before a freeze. Dry and store them and over the winter, then plant once the ground has thawed. The Dahlia is well worth the effort!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fall Containers and Pansies

*Our pond~

This year promises the most welcome Autumn in ages particularly, after the stressful conditions presented during the past summer. The crisp mornings are delightful, perfect for outdoor coffee and a leisurely walk to see the last of the garden. The sunny days are a comfortable temperature and exude calm after the frenzied rush of summer. As darkness falls and the cool patters in, night blooming flowers open filling the evening with their sweet scent. The trees have begun to thin and their leaves are drifting, whispering with an almost inaudible rustle as they gently fall. A walk through their ever-accumulating masses is a joy of crunching, swishing sound and motion. Autumn awakens every sense for even the names of the colors are an exciting artists palette...scarlet, bronze, ruby, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre.

This is the season most favored by many gardeners because of the quietude; it is the time to enjoy the fruits of their labors without hurry. For a brief moment in time there is nothing particularly pressing and now is the time to enjoy all that the garden offered… before it is time to say goodbye.

Fall is a marvelous time to leisurely plant a container arrangement and there are many plants that not only survive the cold temperatures, but thrive on it. Among the most colorful is flowering or ornamental Kale and unless one has chickens or Peafowl, it will do well all winter. (*It is a favorite fowl snack.)
*Rajah Ruins kale!!

Kale is among the oldest of the cultivated edible greens and has been a staple in the garden for centuries. A form of cabbage native to the wilderness of North America as well as all of northern Europe, it added a much welcome green and leafy vegetable to dinner tables and soup pots all winter. The ornamental Kale is edible but does not form the tight center ball common in cabbage. The flavor of the leaves becomes sweeter when exposed to frost.

Exceedingly popular today, it arrives at the nursery sporting a multitude of interesting ruffled leaf combinations, from spires to tight rosettes. Kale is round, dense and slow growing, making it a easy to contain. One of it’s most impressive attributes is the fact that the colors deepen as the temperature dips. Meaning the bright white, vivid greens, purple, burgundy, blues and variegated colors become more lovely as the winter deepens.

It should be noted that the most intense color is located at the center of the plant where the outer leaves obstruct them unless they are viewed from directly overhead. With this fact in mind, they may be planted at an angle in the container or on a slight slope in the landscape so they may be appreciated from a distance.

If one adds some Parsley, with it’s clear vibrant green and curled leafy texture, the contrast is striking. Parsley is mentioned often throughout history, and not only for its culinary and medicinal properties. The early Greeks made crowns of parsley to bestow upon the winners their athletic games and it is used in the Hebrew celebration of Passover as a symbol of spring and rebirth. It is mentioned as one of the plants in the gardens of Charlemagne and Catherine de Medici. In medieval times parsley was surrounded by much superstition due to the germination of the seeds. One belief claimed that the extremely long germination period existed because they traveled to hell and back seven times before sprouting. Naturally superstitious farmers were afraid to grow it.

For the energetic gardener, the precious pansies have begun arriving in the nurseries and it is a wonderful time to plant them. Originally a common viola growing in fields and hedgerows in England they were cultivated by William Richardson, gardener to Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennett in the early 1800’s. Despite his efforts, their first noted appearance was on the estate of James, Lord Gambier. His gardener, William Thompson, began to cross various viola species with a viola tricolor in an effort to achieve a round flower of overlapping petals. In the late 1830s he found by chance a flower that no longer had narrow nectar guides of dark color on the petals but a broad dark blotch instead. From this pansy came the future ‘flowers with a face'; his hybrid was released to the public in 1839 with the name "Medora". This pansy and its progeny, including "Victoria" became wildly popular with gardeners and breeders throughout all of Europe.

If planted now, they will survive nicely over the winter and will have a head start in the spring. Such a cheerful, adorable little flower is always a welcome guest at the garden party and the color options are positively stunning, their faces delightful!!

Thursday, September 9, 2010


September is the time to enjoy the visual pleasure provided by the spectacular Cannas blooming. The Canna has been the subject of hot botanical debate for years with each continent hoping to take credit for its origin. However it belongs to us alone as it has never been unearthed during archaeological excavations anywhere but on our North American continent. Mentioned in exploration documents in 1576, it was formally introduced to Europe in 1856 where it was named for the Celtic word for cane or reed.

Rather ominously, on our continent the Canna was once called 'Indian Shot' as their small, hard, round seeds resembled the home-made lead shot used in shotguns prior to the twentieth century. The unusual seeds were also used in making jewelry and many attractive antique necklaces contain them, either dyed or natural. Because of this impenetrable seed, the Canna is the only plant in which hibernation of seed is known to occur.

Typically in hot red, orange, yellow, or combinations of the three, hybrids have produced a dazzling array of colors and heights for this exotic and exquisite species. They are natural pollinators and attract both hummingbirds and butterflies making them a welcome addition to every garden. An additional plus is the fact they will bloom faithfully left undisturbed for many, many carefree years.

Of note is the underground rhizome which contains the largest starch particles of any plant, allowing its agricultural use. Its leaves may be made into paper, its stem fiber is equivalent to jute, its seed provides a lovely natural purple dye, and its flowers have also been fermented to produce alcohol. Smoke from its burning leaves is said to be an insecticidal.

Horn Canna Farm, located on 120 acres in Caddo County, Oklahoma boasts the largest collection of Cannas in the world. Founded by Neil and Louise Horn in 1928, it is truly remarkable and will be hosting its 24th Annual Canna Festival on September 25, 2010. The event begins with a parade at 10:00 in downtown Carnegie, Oklahoma and following the Parade, the gardens will be open to welcome visitors. With over a million breathtaking Cannas in full bloom, I highly recommend a tour of the gardens…it is indeed fabulous.
The above link will take you to their catalogue and I am never disappointed with my orders.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Orb Weaver

With the advent of fall, one notices the influx of spiders lurking about the garden, the rafters of the house and every available nook. They are a most interesting invertebrate in both appearance and habit. All are predators which make them valuable to the gardener as they will eat flies, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, locusts, cockroaches, and aphids. The habits differ among species with some making intricate webs to trap their prey while some lie in wait on flowers and some simply travel about on the ground. Now is the time to see the intricate web of the amazing Orb Weaver whose wonderful web will catch almost any flying insect. Particularly interesting is the way in which she will repair the web, giving it an almost stitch-like appearance.

Part Two... Loss and Gain... My Green Lynx

I spent the month of September watching my lovely Lynx spider live on the Zinnias. She occasionally moved from one flower to another making it impossible to pick a bouquet lest I disturb her in her chosen 'territory'. As a true fan of Charlotte's Web, I was curious about what would ensue if she was left to her own devices. Would she have babies?

Yes, indeed, she did. A little over two weeks ago she began looking a little less plump and upon careful examination, I noted she had an egg sac on the underside of the Zinnia. It was translucent white and had a shimmering look to it. My 'Charlotte' stood guard vigilantly and never again made any efforts to catch a butterfly for dinner. She began to weave a straggled web around the top of the flower extending over eight inches to include a portion of the stem. Last Thursday, the babies began to hatch.

They are orange, the size of a pin head with tiny brown legs. Over the course of three days they slowly emerged and by Sunday the sac was empty. As the Mother stood guard, and the web became a play-pen, the little spiders all gathered on the top of the fading Zinnia. As the temperature climbed, they scattered about and began to explore only to rush together in a cluster if I jiggled the flower.

The Mother Lynx is clearly fading. She is such a shell of her former self that it is apparent her days are numbered and she will not survive. As I began research on my spider, concerned about the babies, it said it takes another two weeks until fully functional spiderlings are able to care for themselves. It also said they will need to eat eight grub-like worms to reach maturity. It is obvious that many of them will not be able to grow up considering the fact it is the end of the season. For those who doubt Motherhood 'takes something out of you', please look at my poor Mother Lynx... May she RIP.

Sweet Autumn Clematis

By the time I post this Hurricane Hermine will have arrived from the gulf bringing blessed rains to quell the field dust from the unrelenting weekend winds. Summer will have unofficially ended and Autumn will be ushered in with cool evenings and an aura of quietude. Heralding this event is the Queen of the Clematis family, the lovely Sweet Autumn, who is magnificent by all accounts. Requiring nothing more than a surface upon which to climb, this extraordinary and vigorous vine will grow to thirty feet in one season. There is no deferred gratification for this beauty to perform, for it will flower the first season with a glorious display of cascading blooms. Since it blooms in late summer through early fall, it allows for an exquisite exhibit when much in the garden has finished their show.

The Sweet Autumn Clematis hails from Japan originally but her popularity is universal and this lovely vine may be found from coast to coast. The mild vanilla fragrance of the flowers is not over-powering, yet is a gentle reminder of the sweet aroma of early spring. The lovely star shaped flowers are formed on numerous panicles creating an abundance of cascading flowers. Often there is such a profusion of flowers that it appears to have snowed!

The flowers will fade and yet the Sweet Autumn Clematis is not yet finished. She will provide an additional show of silvery plume-like seed heads which themselves become a perfect outdoor fall decoration for a moment in time. These interesting seeds are often dried and used in floral decoration.

Since the flowers form on the wood of this year's growth, the vine may be pruned drastically in the late spring. It may be pruned until it has only to six twelve inches of growth left and yet by mid-season it will have covered the trellis, fence or structure once again. Once established, it is practically indestructible.

The only important requirement is that it enjoys its roots shaded yet its head must be in full sunshine. Plant near a rock or other source of shade or even use a good mulch to provide enough darkness for the roots of this beauty because she can not stand to have her feet hot! Incredibly hardy, Sweet Autumn will provide many years of extraordinary beauty.

*Photo credit: Catherine Dougherty

Friday, September 3, 2010

Our Storm and the Hurricanes

The storm last evening was magnificent, lasting about thirty minutes and pouring one and a half inches of rain on our parched gardens. Our last serious rain was July 17th and we have had triple digit temperatures and a hot, dry thirty mile an hour wind for weeks now; it takes your breath away to walk outside. I have watched with concern as the native grasses of the surrounding countryside became more brittle each day until suddenly I realized it was tinder.

The dry weather leaves had fallen from the trees and were accumulating in crisp piles with the earth beneath them blow-sand and dust. The Black Walnut had begun to cast off her babies prematurely to save her strength, my Pyricantha slowly died and I was worried about my Viburnum when no amount of watering made her perk up. The garden wilted no matter the water applications so the situation had become dire.

Last evening I decided to take action as the radar showed the possibility of rain coming to us; I called all my children and told them to give shots of booze to the Four Winds, honoring their power and asking them to send rain. This time I purposefully did not remind them to ask the Winds for mercy… I wanted a storm. I told Michael to get busy doing whatever he felt was necessary to get us some rain! Out came the Maker’s Mark, a favorite by any standards and much more appeasing than Jack Daniels. (We all know the effects of Jack and who wants the Winds to act accordingly?) A shot to the West, the South, the East and the North Winds.

Within minutes the radar showed a line of storms… they were coming. Our son Peter called to say the radar in his tractor had suddenly shown a huge storm; he was rushing out of the fields to home. We took the car to the shop, then I gathered all lawn furniture cushions that I usually race about trying to keep dry and arranged them in a circular pattern… I sacrificed them, not caring if they were ruined. More booze to the Winds and they began whispering to the trees that rain was coming; they began dancing in a tandem waltz. Their waltz became a madcap of twirling as in a whipping frenzy the Winds made their grande entrance.

The storm arrived with lightning flashes that lit the sky, claps of thunder explosions and driving horizontal downpours. The winds quickly escalated to over 70 miles per hour and the power died. Through the darkness and the blazing lightning, various lawn items could be seen flying past the window and we were ecstatic!

The blackness of the night, the silence of the house without electricity, the phones dead making communication impossible, the velocity of the storm visible only through the flashes of lightning… it was amazing. My forest floor is finally saturated, my world is saved.

As we watch the weather events unfold along the East and Gulf coasts, after our storm, we were reminded that mankind has maintained a continuous struggle against assaults by nature. Catastrophic events have occurred since the beginning of time and have been the subject of vigorous religious and scientific study and discussion.

For thousands of years, countless theories have come to light only to be rebuked by new information. The belief that mankind is responsible for natural disasters is not a new premise. Our responsibility was believed for hundreds of years and was the reason for sacrifices to volcanoes, oceans, farmland, and forests. The argument is compelling and it would be convenient to blame us so perhaps we have an option for change and some measure of control.

Not so! When we study the deserts, which were once lush forests, it is obvious that many natural disasters are exactly that… natural. Although science has made vast advances in the prediction of weather related events, where a catastrophe will occur is still the whim of nature.

All week, I have been reading 'Nature on the Rampage' by Ann and Myron Sutton to better understand the forces of nature. Hurricanes were named after Huracan, an evil storm god of the Caribbean. One of the most devastating hurricanes on record occurred in 1780. It began off Barbados and came ashore where it flattened trees and dwellings killing countless numbers of people. It destroyed an English fleet anchored off St. Lucia, then ravaged the island completely leaving 6,000 dead in its wake. It swirled on to Martinique, enveloped a French convoy and sank more than 40 ships carrying 4,000 soldiers before leveling towns and villages killing another 9,000 people. It finally wound down after destroying Puerto Rico and an untold number of ships and fishing vessels caught unaware in open sea.

Weston Martyr is quoted in the book with his description of a hurricane. He said, "You cannot breathe with a hurricane blowing full in your face. You cannot see either; the impact on your eyeball of spray and rain traveling over a hundred miles an hour makes seeing quite impossible. The blowing sand cuts your flesh and you hear nothing but the scream and booming of the wind, which drowns even the thunder and the breaking seas. You cannot move except by extreme exertion. To stand is to be blown away like a dead leaf. You cannot even crawl; you have to climb about twisting your arms and legs around anything solid within reach". Hang onto your hats!!

*Pic is by the fabulous N.C. Wyeth, photo by me!