Friday, November 7, 2008


The mums are covered with bees and cloudless sulphur butterflies. The abundance of insects still about this time of year always amazes me Living in the south has taught me you share your garden with many animals invited or not. In my yard nothing is rare! There is never just one, everyone brings friends.

My popcorn tree(tallow to you non-low country folks) attracts huge flocks of black birds this time of year and the yard is covered with its seedhulls. This is strictly a winter phenomenon as the neighborhood has always been a winter roost.

The lubber grasshoppers munch on my Cycas species, not just the soft new growth but also on the hard mature leaves. They however never seem interested in the coonties or Dioon from Mexico. Lady palms are candy as are windmill palms for these big grasshoppers and I spend my summers killing them to no avail.

When the broad-head skinks are courting they are the cutest things otherwise their sole purpose is to startle with their size and fast movements. For speed the glass lizards hold the record for reptiles in my yard. After years of gardening in the South I am still scared silly when one of them comes at me. They are completely benign creatures with only one fault: they lunge at you when they are disturbed and boy do you jump!

Yes, mammals do live in my garden. A gash from a lightening strike in my red oak houses a large bromeliad and a possum feels obligated to fill the cups of the brom with debris. The bromeliad has grown gigantic so it`s a relationship I do not disturb.

There is a mystery animal that empties my pond of half its water at least once a year and destroys the water lily growing there. It happens only on weekdays so I notice it after I get home from work. It could have happened at night or during the day, I`ll never know.

Garden Jewels

We always want what we cannot have and mine is a succulent garden. By my front door I have built a small raised bed out of gravel and rocks and planted it with assorted desert plants. The site is in full sun all day and open to the breeze, just the spot where you think every succulent would do well. Well, some of them do.

The first casualty was the much talked about Aloe polyphylla, it went into a slow decline its second year and was eventually moved. It was from this I learned that succulents can hang a long time but fungicides and a good environment can`t always save a plant.

From left to right; Graptopetalum paraguayense, Sedum palmeri and an unknown Sedaveria

There have been successes, a sedaveria of unknown name has grown so well it has wandered out of the raised bed and has become a ground cover for a native viburnum. It has stopped spreading(it drops leaves which then root) when it hit the point where a puddle forms from roof run off. Another is Aloe humilis, a little clustering plant that grows as well in the raisd bed as it does in the regular soil.

The background plant is the Othona, the foreground is Sedum bithyncum and a Manfreda sp.

Another happy plant is Othona cherifolia from north Africa. A winter bloommer with small yellow daisies flowering over a long period, the plant is so fast that after each bloom eriod I cut it back and throw the clippings around the yard and see what survives. About half the time the clippings rot and grow.

Monday, November 3, 2008


These two birds are a perfect match for my wildlife photography skill level- posing patiently in their bronze glory while I take thirty different images right up in their faces. I'm not sure who they are supposed to be, great blue herons, maybe? The pair, in their sweetgrass nest, mark the entrance way to a new development next to my neighborhood. The developers put in all the infrastructure, including retention ponds and landscaping, before being stalled by the housing slump. What can I say? There loss is our gain as we now have a combination stroll park and dog park and are all loving it.

Isn't the sweetgrass surrounding the birds almost unbelievably frothy? Sweetgrass (muhlenbergia capillaris or muhly grass) is a workhorse most of the year, surviving with little water, providing a bit of vertical accent but not much wow factor. In the fall, however, when the sun is lower in the sky and shines through its delicate blooms the workhorse becomes a showhorse.

Our town has mass planted sweetgrass in the median of the main drag, maybe in part a tribute to 'the basket ladies' who have for decades made sweetgrass baskets at roadside stands on the same road, practicing a craft handed down from enslaved ancestors who worked the rice plantations along the coast. There is a bit more history and some pictures of baskets here:

I found this little sweetgrass basket (hold on a minute while I get the glass cleaner for that mirror) in a neighbor's trash! Any locals, or tourists, who have ever priced the baskets know what a true find that was. A day in the trashpile left it a little lopsided but otherwise none the worse.

Just this fall I put 15 clumps of sweetgrass in a ridiculously sandy, dry, and sunny strip outside my fence where nothing else will grow. Hopefully in years to come it will thrive and put an end to my multi-year quest of what to do with that space. So far, so good.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Beautiful MIstake

I`ve always wanted a garden full of fruit trees, so when I bought this house I immediately started to collect all the fruits I could possibly grow in this inland suburban Charleston,SC garden. My first acquisitions were of as many kinds of citrus as I thought would survive here. I now have an orchard on the west side of yard that is threatening to push the house off its foundation.

Some of the plants were purchased from fruit nurseries while others are seed collected from local gardens. The grafted material from the nurseries such as my satsuma, kumquat or orangequat are now loaded with fruit while the seed grown plants have grown huge and beautiful but who knows when the plants will produce fruit. Now the USDA has put a ban on the movement of citrus along the South Carolina coast, so for a while I had better learn to love what I have because nothing new will be coming along.

This Honan Red persimmon grows near the street in my frontyard planted so its beauty can be seen by all. And eaten by every one! After seeing old persimmon trees decorated in the fall with fruit as bright as lanterns and leaves lacquered Chinese red I thought what a wonderful way to brighten my yard. What I did not know is that everyone's grandmother has a tree back in the country and that they are beloved by all. You would think the grocery stores would be over flowing with them but it was not till after I picked my first one did I learn what a gooey mess the fresh fruit is.

This will probably be my future mistake but I am going to plant an avocado next year. Her name is Joey and she resides in Texas at the moment. She is the product of an extensive on-line search by Anne and myself this past February. We could find all sorts of named varieties that should be hardy enough to grow here but we could not find an on-line source. All this was mentioned to a friend in Texas who immediately went on-line and found a source for Texas shipping only.

Finally this past August he located and purchased a 3- gallon plant that will be delivered next spring when he visits Charleston. Sounds great right? Well about the same time I read about Persea Wilt that is spreading up the coast and has killed 99% of Persea (red bays) trees. Avocado is also a Persea and appears to be susceptible to this Chinese introduction. I plan to plant it even if it becomes another beautiful mistake.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Swamped Swamp Sunflower

The yellow at the bottom of this pic is the native Swamp Sunflower, or helianthus angustifolius, relaxing at home in a swampy area at Caw Caw Interpretive Center which is a Charleston County Park occupying the site of several old rice plantations. Now for those of you who didn't grow up in Charleston where blue-haired schoolteachers have bored generations of children with the history of rice cultivation: rice growing was a soppy wet business. It involved all these levees and dikes and flooded fields and water flowing hither and yon. When local rice growers finally threw in the scythe in the early 1900's, the abandoned low-lying fields reverted to marshes and swamps. And with a rainfall last weekend of several inches, there was water everywhere.

This stand of Swamp Sunflower was probably on dry-ground ten days ago but being waterlogged seems to have kept it happy.

Sunshine on a Tree

They are orange and shining like Christmas ornaments: the satsumas are ripe! Satsuma mandarins are my favorite citrus to eat. The trees are scraggly and grow in unpredictable directions but they makeup for these landscaping deficiencies by bearing the tastiest fruit.

My 5 year-old grafted tree has hundreds of fruits hanging on it- the second year with an abundant harvest. The Kimbrough scion is grafted on a Poncirus trifoliata root stock which dwarfs and adds cold hardiness to an already cold-tolerant variety.

Two months after being planted the tree endured a 15 degree temperature in my zone 8 yard without damage, nor did a 103 temperature bother it. The tree took three years to produce its first fruits, a harvest of a mere two. But by year four the bounty was so generous that I had to support the branches to keep the fruit off the ground.

My mother in Ohio will be waiting for a box as will my carnivorous sister who was shocked by how good fresh fruit can taste.