March 27, 2011

Creepy creatures in the Oak canopy

As the hubby and I sat down to dinner last night at dusk, a big bird of prey swooped over the backyard. My first thought was, “Cool, it’s a hawk.” I’m terrible at differentiating between hawks, eagles, and turkey vultures from a distance, but the hubby is an expert. He confirmed the big bird was a turkey vulture. “Ick,” I said. I’ve never been a fan.

That would have been interesting enough since the wingspan was huge. But then dozens of the birds of doom started flying over the yard and landing in our Oak trees. Talk about creepy. We watched them for several minutes circling above and flying in and out of the trees and over the house.

The Oak trees in the small forest plot at the back of our lot are like characters in a good novel. I think of them as the foundation for the property’s personality. In recent years, housing and commercial developments nearby have lured wildlife to the undisturbed Oak forests that remain in the area. When we moved here more than a decade ago, there were plenty of small game animals—chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and so on.

But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I saw a deer, and later a family of raccoons. I think we have occasional foxes, too. And now it appears our Oak trees are a roosting site—temporarily, at least—for turkey vultures.

I must be honest—I’m repelled by vultures. They aren’t particularly attractive, especially when you see them close-up. And they only eat dead animals, so seeing dozens of them in the backyard made me think, “What died out there?” I figured they were finding small dead mammals in the woods that had died during the winter and were now exposed with the receding snow.

That may be part of it, but further research revealed that early spring is the normal time for turkey vultures to return to the northern states. They’ll probably move to a different site when the Oak trees leaf out, since they prefer to roost in leafless or dead trees near open areas. They didn’t even spend much time here; this was the same scene about 30 minutes later.

Part of me wants to chase the vultures as far away from here as possible. They signify death and carnage. But as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources describes on its educational site, “Turkey vultures act as nature's ultimate garbage collector, recycler, and scavenger.” Their removal of decaying animals ultimately protects plants and living animals from the spread of diseases and harmful bacteria.

Sometimes nature isn’t pretty or pleasant. Sometimes our first reaction is to try to get rid of or destroy critters and plants that we perceive as disgusting (check out Southern Meadows’ recent post about the Eastern Tent Caterpillar). But when we research more about these creatures we often find they serve a vital purpose in the circle of life. Borrowing a phrase from medical ethics, sometimes it’s best to “first, do no harm.” In other words, sometimes it’s best to do nothing and to simply appreciate the niche of nature that a species fills.

To learn more about turkey vultures, check out these links:

To learn more about sustainable practices, visit Jan’s blog, Thanks for Today. She’s hosting the Gardeners’ Sustainable Living Project through April 15, in honor of Earth Day.

Photos by Ernie Stetenfeld

March 22, 2011

Two steps forward, one step back

Spring definitely hit early here. It’s rare for us to have a week-long stretch of mild weather in mid-March. A day or two maybe, but seven days of 45- to 60-degree temps had me fooled. The problem is, this week’s forecast calls for highs in the 30s, with rain, snow, and a wintry mix—not unusual March Wisconsin weather.

I won’t be in the garden much this week. But before the disgusting weather hit, I did manage to snap a few shots of perennials that will surely make great progress with the next warm spell.

I knew the Hellebores had started to emerge because I had uncovered them a few days earlier. I decided to pull away the leaves and get a better look. In my haste, I broke off one of the buds which made me very sad and very mad at myself. The good news is, it looks like I might have some babies starting.

The Daylilies are making an appearance. I have several varieties planted in my garden, so I admit I’m not sure which one is pictured here.

I was thrilled to see that the Hollyhocks (biennials) re-seeded. Last year, the rabbits did a number on the double pink beauties, so I reinforced their caging and I’m hoping for better luck this year.

The Salvia looks pretty wimpy, but it’s definitely starting new growth. I remembered its unique herbal scent as I rummaged around hunting for it.

In one section of the garden, several Eurasian bulbs were planted by the previous owners. I never know which ones will reappear from year to year, but it looks like the Crocuses and Daffodils are back. Also these strange yellow shoots, which I’m thinking might be Hyacinths that simply needed some sunlight.

I was so bummed about the broken Hellebore buds! So I decided to try to revive them in a small vase. They probably won’t bloom, but they sit by my kitchen sink reminding me of all the bounty now just around the corner.

March 17, 2011

Plant of the month:
Hylotelephium telephium

I’m thrilled to announce that this plant of the month is actually growing in my garden. After a long winter of reporting on evergreens and plants that “will soon make an appearance,” it’s wonderful to announce that Hylotelephium telephium—common name, Sedum “Autumn Joy”—is emerging!

I realize this perennial is extremely common in most Midwestern gardens. But that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable or less appreciated. Sedum Autumn Joy is one of the easiest perennials to plant, propagate, transplant, and maintain. It has unique succulent foliage and flat-topped clusters of fluffy flower heads.

In early spring (now, in my garden) it looks like this:

In summer, the plants form a dramatic bright green backdrop to more colorful annuals and perennials. And in late summer and early fall, the flower heads are tinged with a rosy hue—my favorite stage in the plant’s life cycle:

In autumn, this beauty takes center stage, with a brilliant fuchsia tint almost as dramatic as the leaves of the Burning Bush. Even in winter, Autumn Joy flower heads can be dried or left on the plants to collect snow in interesting patterns.

Sedum Autumn Joy is:

  • Easy to establish and transplant. You can divide it and plant it at just about any point during its growing season. I’ve even pinched off single leaves and transplanted them successfully directly into the soil.
  • Rabbit-resistant (see this previous post).
  • Drought-tolerant, yet it thrives with moderate watering and rainfall.
  • Happy in full sun or partial shade. Mine is planted on the west side of the house, which is shaded in the morning and bakes in the hot afternoon sun.
  • A butterfly and honey bee attractor. Placed near vegetables and fruits, it helps attract beneficial pollinators.
  • Likely to grow well in normal, sandy, or clay soil.
  • A standout from late summer through late fall, when most other plants are fading.

While Autumn Joy was introduced to the U.S., other Sedums including Hylotelephium telephioides are natives. (Thanks to Carolyn at Carolyn's Shade Gardens for the note about this.) This lovely perennial is so reliable and easy to grow, I can’t imagine a garden without it. I was so happy to see the little clusters of new growth in my garden today.

    March 13, 2011

    Fuzzy trees and other signs of spring

    My parents called me delusional the other day when I said I had noticed swollen buds on the deciduous trees. Delusional might not have been the exact word, and it was a good-natured jest, but they didn’t see what I was seeing. They were comparing the view to points south, having just traveled back from an extended stay in Florida.

    I, on the other hand, have been firmly planted in the Midwest since last summer. I’ve seen the slow, but sure, changes in the trees. This time of year, they start to look “fuzzy” just before the buds break. Tell me these trees don’t look fuzzy:

    OK, so if you already have foliage on your deciduous trees, you’re probably agreeing with my parents that I’m delusional. But for those of us stuck in the north all winter, the change is perceptible and it’s exciting!

    Hanni at Sweet Bean Gardening is hosting a meme with the theme "Hope Grows Day." Please visit her blog for the details. The idea of the meme is that we photograph what we're seeing now and what we're looking forward to a month from now. I’m looking forward to deciduous foliage! By this time next month, most trees here will have leaves.

    Another meme, "Winter Walk Off," hosted by A Tidewater Gardener, asks us to take a walk and document our experience. This weekend I took two walks.

    The first was a quick trip to the McFarland School Forest. It’s a wonderful resource in our community used for educational purposes. Students, actually anyone, can hike the trail and study plants and animals in a natural setting. The students also learn about invasive species and actions they can take to preserve the natives and destroy the invasives.

    I visited the school forest in the late afternoon, so the oblique light accentuated the bright colors of Red Twig Dogwood and Black Raspberry canes.

    Students of all ages learn about Native American culture by studying the structure of a wigwam.

    And markers along the trail identify native plants. I was thrilled to see that some native Ferns are emerging.

    My second walk covered approximately two miles—from my house to Lake Waubesa and along a wooded trail. The hubby accompanied me, so it was fun to look for signs of spring together. We headed down the street toward the lake.

    Along the way, we passed this impressive Weeping Willow, which looks just about ready to burst with foliage (apologies for the electrical box and the power lines as this was the best angle I could get without spending too much time on this shot).

    Here's the view of the lake from the entrance to the park.

    Believe it or not, ice fishermen are still out on the lake and catching Bluegills and other fish. It takes quite a while for the ice to fully melt, since the lake freezes to a thickness of about two feet. We're sure the Bluegill in the second picture will provide a nice meal for one of the local Hawks or Owls.

    The ice along the shore is breaking up—it's fun to see the strange formations.

    Next, we were off into the woods. It's a good thing I had my hiking boots on because it was a muddy trek. More fuzzy trees surrounded us, and we came across a running creek. A lovely old maple hung over it at one point, and we couldn't figure out what was making a persistent dripping sound into the water. We figured out it was sap dripping from the tree. It's Maple tapping time!

    The hubby found this amazing Mushroom growing under the snow. This is exactly how we found it, from two angles.

    We reluctantly headed back home after a thoroughly refreshing walk. Some of the sweetest sights awaited us on the return trip—Robins and Cedar Waxwings!


    I think it's going to be an early spring!

    (Note: My heart goes out to friends in Japan, dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. Fortunately, our Blotanical friend, Fer, of My Little Garden in Japan is safe. Thoughts and prayers are with survivors who are trying to recover from this terrible tragedy.)

    March 03, 2011

    Time for spring break!

    Join me, won't you, on a spring break vacation away from the cold, damp March drizzle? Where shall we travel?




    In Mexico, we might see...

    Tradescantia pallida and Rhoeo spathacea 


    Bougainvillea glabra

    March in Italy is incredible...

    Antirrhinum majus


    Wisteria sinensis

    On Maui, Hawaii, we're bound to see...

    Phaeomeria magnifica

    Eucalyptus deglupta

    Heliconia rostrata

    These are simply three ideas for pleasant early spring destinations. Any other suggestions?

    Note: Thanks to The Phytophactor for helping me identify the Bignoniaceae and the Phaeomeria magnifica (Torch Ginger), and thanks to Autumn Belle at My Nice Garden for confirming the Torch Ginger.

    (Disclaimer: These are all photos I took on various trips. This blog is dedicated to plants that grow well in my USDA zone 5 shade garden. But sometimes you just need to get away!)