Thursday, August 30, 2012

Maryland flora I pine for

A view of the Naval Academy from across the Severn River with a fringe of cordgrass in the foreground. 
I spent much of my adult life just north of Annapolis, a delightful place for so many reasons. Last week my husband and I made the trip north to familiar territory for a send-off party for grandson Weber Stibolt, who's heading off to the University of Delaware this fall. He'd just come back from an orientation, which included two days on campus and four days hiking the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail with a group of ten other freshmen.

Maryland native plants

While we were in the area, I couldn't help but notice some of my favorite Maryland native plants. Even though some of them are also native to northern Florida, I don't ever see them in the wild.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is wonderful in late summer with its bright red ovoid berries. They grow in very damp to moderately damp shady to semi shady areas. When you crush the leaves, they emit a spicy aroma.

Near this shrub, a male butterfly sipped salts and nutrients from a crushed rock driveway.

Spicebush has been collected in a few counties in northern Florida including one south of mine (Clay County). They are important larval food for several species of butterfly including the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) and the promethea silkmoth
(Callosamia promethea).

I bought a spicebush a couple of years ago and planted it near our pond, but it was a really wet year and the pond stayed high inundating the bush for several months--it didn't survive. Now I'm incented to try again.

Devil's walking stick
Here's another common Maryland plant that is also native to northern Florida that I'd like to see more of. The devil's walking stick (Aralia spinosa). When I took the Woody Plants course at the University of Maryland back in the 70s, the professor described it as coarse in texture and to use it only at the back of an otherwise civilized garden space.

A healthy specimen can grow to twelve feet tall and often nearly as wide. The huge, triply-compound leaves attach directly to the central stalk and can be four or five feet long. At the end of the season the leaves fall off leaving only a thorny central stem. Hence the common name devil's walking stick--only the devil could use it. And the species name "spinosa" also alludes to its prickliness.

A buckeye butterfly is only one of many pollinators swarming
around the flowers.
So why would I like to see more of this coarse and prickly plant? While in flower it attracts a wide array of pollinators and the purple berries are devoured by the birds. Besides, I just like the stories of the huge leaves and the thorny walking stick.

Unseen influences

So even though some of the habitats may look similar in many ways between Maryland and north Florida, there is something that makes these plants much rarer here.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Ginny and Weber Stibolt

We had a wonderful visit with family and loved the send off party for my grandson, Weber Stibolt.  He had so many college credits before he started college (32), that he has already been declared a sophomore!  Now that's one way to save a lot of money for his parents. Way to go Weber!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

I don't love crape myrtles, but...

A crape myrtle in Ginny's back yard.
I don't love crape myrtles (Lagerstoemia indica & spp.) because they are sooo over planted in Florida. Most species are native to India and other parts of Asia, but they certainly do well here and new varieties are released each year. The Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants shows that it has escaped in a number of counties in central and northern Florida.

As a native plant enthusiast, I would not plant crape myrtles in our landscape. I would choose something native and not so commonly planted.  This way I would add to the diversity of the canopy in our yard and in our neighborhood, which is what we strive for when creating habitat and balanced ecosystems.

That being said, as a sustainable gardener, I let established plants stay as long as they are not invasive. When we bought our house in 2004, there were a few crape myrtles already in the landscape. As is the custom around here, they had been hat-racked at about seven feet high. We did a little judicious pruning to reduce the number of sprouts at the seven-foot level, and now eight years later, this crape myrtle has become a lovely, 25-foot-tall tree.

The insect-eating birds use it as a perch as they wait to pounce on bugs in the lawn, plus the hummingbirds drink the nectar. So while I would not have planted it, I think the crape myrtle enhances our backyard and its ecosytem.

Why do people think this is attractive?

These two crape myrtles at the end of a neighbor's driveway are trimmed every year. The trunks are about as large around as our trees. I don't understand why people think that this is attractive, when they could have a graceful, small tree that would not need much in the way of pruning--maybe just cutting back extra suckers.

When given an opportunity, I hope you are increasing the diversity in your landscape with some native plants that are appropriate for your region and your site, but ones that are not too common. However, if you do have a crape myrtle, give it a chance to be beautiful.

For more information see:

The Florida Extension EDIS page for crape myrtles

The plant profile of crape myrtles

The fact that the Arbor Day Foundation hands out crape myrtle trees as one of their membership options is irritating to me. But providing more crape myrtles is not nearly as bad as their offering golden raintrees, which is invasive in parts of Florida. But the Arbor Day Foundation's offerings is a rant for another day.
Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Not more queen palms!

A restaurant wins a landscape award with its queen palms, but why?
The St. Augustine Beach Tree Board and Beautification Advisory Board for landscaping awarded this restaurant with their Best Commercial category. See the article in the St Augustine Times, The Groove landscape wins honor.

The restaurant opened in May 2011 and planted their landscape with queen palms, "other varieties of palms, Buddha bamboo, oleander, alamanda and hibiscus. Liriope is used as a ground cover in some areas." Not one native plant was mentioned. If we'd had a cold winter in north Florida, those queen palms would look terrible even this late into the season.

No doubt the common name for the queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) arises from the regal appearance of a healthy specimen with its long feathery fronds that droop in a graceful arch. They are readily available from big box stores and nurseries all over Florida, but why? There are definite problems with this palm in Florida's landscapes.

Here are the four big reasons why you should find another palm for your landscape:
1) Queen palms are tropical plants and are NOT cold tolerant. If the temperatures dip below 25ยบ F, most of its fronds will die. After a cold winter, if the palm's growing stem survives, it'll look like hell for six months or longer.
2) Unlike most palms, queens are not wind resistant. In a tabulation of trees lost in the hurricanes in 2004 and 2006, queens blew over twice as much as any other palm. You know hurricanes are coming to coastal areas like St. Augustine Beach, why not plant something more likely to survive?
3) Queen palms are not drought tolerant and will require irrigation to survive our seven-moth dry season, especially during a prolonged drought period.
4) Queen palms produce a huge amount of seed, which quickly becomes a smelly mess. Plus in central and south Florida, queens palms have invaded our natural habitats and are listed on the II Florida invasives list put toether by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (FLEPPC):

Why would you spend money to put this plant in your landscape?
And why would the St. Augustine Beach Tree Board award a landscape that is not sustainable?
See more details on queen palms in my article Queen Palms don't Rule in Florida.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Do You Know Snow Squarestem?

Great purple hairstreak on a snow squarestem.
Snow squarestem or salt and pepper (Melanthera nivea), a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae), attracts a high volume of butterflies, skippers, bees, wasps and even hummingbirds. It has only white disk florets in its flower head. Unlike a sunflower, it has no ray florets that look like petals. Its common name comes from the white flowers and its square stems with a mostly opposite leaf arrangement. Many members of the mint family (Lamiaceae) also have square stems and opposite leaves, so when I first heard the common name I assumed that this was in the mint family, but the plants are classified mostly by their flowers’ characteristics, not by their stems or leaves. (See A Plant by Any Common Name…)

The squarestem is a perennial that dies to the ground each winter and over winters with a ring of basal leaves. It can tolerate poor soil, drought, and some salt spray, which are all important traits for much of its range, particularly here in Florida. Its range includes most of the SE US, according to the USDA.

Read more on my post over on the Native Plants & Wildlfie Gardens blog.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cats in the Landscape Controversy

USA Today posted an article House cats kill more critters than thought by Elizabeth Weise, which reported on a study where 60 cats near Athens Geogia were outfitted with tiny crittercams to record what they did while they roamed around their neighborhoods. The results were startling and showed that not only did the cats kill more than previous estimates, but they also endangered themselves.

Screen shot from USA Today
Being a good reporter, I posted a link to the article on Facebook on a couple of different pages. On my own Sustainable Gardening Page there were no comments, but on The Florida Native Plant Society page there was quite a discussion. A number of good points were made so I thought I'd share some of them with you in the order of appearance.

1) They also transmit far more diseases than most people realize, often by their killing spree activities.
2) 'Like, Like, Like, Like, Like, Like, Like'!!!!!
3) Healthier for the cats, healthier for the critters. We keep our cats inside--all eleven.
4) I love my cat so for both her sake as well as the wildlife, she stays inside.
5) tell that to my cats. one is happy to live indoors, the other won't have it.
6) [to poster #5] in addition, I guess ya'll better start rounding up that ferral cat population and euthanizing them.
7) I had one like that, [poster #5]; he was a rescue and was used to being outside...drove me nuts! He would have been outside without my help all the time if only he had opposable thumbs...he used to stand on his hind legs, reach up with one paw and touch the front door knob! Scared me to death the first time he did it...I thought someone was trying to get in the house!
8) I know it's not easy dealing with the strong will of a cat, but YOU are the boss. I have a rescue that used to be an outdoor cat as well. As soon as I got her I had her spayed and vaccinated and she has been an indoor cat ever since. The scientific name for these animals used to be Felis domesticus, which literally translates as "housecat" (it is now F. silvestris). Yes, their ancestors were wild and used to roam around eating rats and other critters, but that was another time... a time before vehicles and dumpsters full of items that can potentially be toxic to cats. If you love your cats and want to protect them from the multitude of diseases they may encounter while walking the streets (Feline AIDS, feline Leukemia, etc), in addition to preserving a dwindling songbird population and maintaining the lizards that eat bugs, and on down the food chain, then PLEASE keep your cat inside. No one wants to euthanize cats. Feral cats would not exist, though, if everyone would keep their cats indoors and have them spayed or neutered.
9) Does this surprise anybody? really? My cats are indoor cats
10) My cat is 19 and has lived inside since we rescued her from starving and freezing as a kitten living outside. She snatched a bird out of the air that flew into the garage. I saved it but any critter that dared come into our house, be it bird, snake, or lizard, she tried to kill it. I'm glad she never really had any interest in living outside.I would not have wished that on the small animals outside. I don't believe domestic animals owned by humans for companionship should be left outside.

Cats don't belong in the landscape.
11) If cats are pets why would anyone just let them go outside like that. Pets are suppose to be indoors,not outside killing all the wildlife!!!! I don't let my dog roam around the neighborhood. Why should I have to put up with someones pet killing the birds that I feed in my own backyard?! A very sore subject with me as well I'm sure with many other people. And not to mention, all the feral cats that get born then colonize and wreak havoc on our wildlife!!!
12) Well, I for one would never have a cat that could not roam our property at will. We have chickens and therefore a healthy rodent population, which would be much worse without our cats. A bird, squirrel, or lizard here or there is an acceptable loss for having "natural" rodent control. And, yes, our cats get along with chickens - not a single attack.
13) [from me] Some of our songbird populations have been reduced by 80% or more since the 1960s. This loss is not acceptable. If your property is fenced so the cats cannot roam into the adjacent properties that would reduce the damage they are inflicting on the birds, but otherwise you are part of the problem. Cats are subsidized predators and do not belong in a working ecosystem.
14) For those who say they'd like to keep their cats indoors, but the cats wail to go outside...Over the past 30 years I've taken in 6 cats, all of whom were used to roaming the great outdoors (and killing songbirds and other critters). With some time and patience, all became happy and safe indoor cats. Indoor-only cats live at least twice as long as cats allowed outdoors, and the songbirds are safe from them. The birds have enough other pressures on their survival without adding housecats to the mix!
15) [from poster #12 to #14], : most of my outdoor cats have lived for 15-20 years, with vet care of course. The proposition that indoor cats live longer probably fits for urban environments, but is total bunk for areas such as my neighborhood (roughly 20 homes, large heavily wooded lots, all on cul-de-sacs with minimal traffic). I am not trying to be an ass about this, but there are exceptions. As soon as people take serious actions with respect to the other "pressures" on bird populations then I will make a concerted effort to reduce my cats' outdoor presence.
16) [from me to #12] Your neighborhood sounds lovely and it could provide a lot of great habitat for birds, but thanks to you (and your cats), birds are not safe there. Your position that other pressures on the birds must be removed before you'll take steps to control your cats is ridiculous. What, exactly would have to happen before you keep your cats inside? My bet is that no matter what happened you'd find another excuse. You are part of the problem.
17) [from #12] Okay, how many of you critics out there are leaving areas of their property "undeveloped" to encourage wildlife to cohabit with their human neighbors? How many dead trees have you left standing so that cavity nesters can have a home? Avoided using any pesticides, herbicides, or other poisons on your land so that there is no collateral damage to the wildlife? Planted native plants over horticultural marvels from other countries? Get off your soapboxes and do something constructive and proactive instead of casting stones at my "working cats."
18) [to #12] I will not attempt to argue with you about whether it is ecologically kosher to let your cats kill songbirds - shouting (or typing) matches have rarely convinced anyone into a change of heart.
Do you often endorse breaking the law, or is this the one exception? As far as I know, it is illegal in every county in this state to allow a pet to roam free. Talk to any animal control officer and they'll concur. Here's the Florida Animal Control Association's website if you need more information:
If I assume that you have diplomatic immunity, and laws are for us lesser folks to obey, then I can only wonder if you value the health of the cats you have put to "work" as rodent controllers? How about your own health? I ask these questions because, given the ridiculous number of diseases that rodents carry, and the potential for your cats to become infected "at work" and infect you by proxy, the trade-off for making use of their hunting skills is hardly equitable. Here's what the CDC has to say about rodents and diseases: Please know that no one is casting stones at your cats - it is YOU they are targeting.
19) [from me posting for FNPS] I believe that the vast majority of the FNPS members avoid pesticides, leave portions of their landscapes natural, plant more native plants, remove invasive plants, leave snags and other actions to benefit wildlife on their own properties. In addition many FNPS members volunteer to accomplish ecosystem improvements on public lands and waterways as well. We post these somewhat controversial links for educational purposes. Many people may not be aware of the damage that cats inflict on their neighborhood ecosystems. We're happy to have discussions to clarify issues because education is one of our goals. You can call it our soapbox, but it's not our only action: FNPS, as an organization, is an active group accomplishing much for the state of Florida.
20) hmmmm, lesssee...I let 1/2 of my 1 acre restore to native and only plant real Florida native plants now. There are 3 snags and one downed tree that are providing habitat...brown headed nuthatches, great crested flycatchers and others have nested, no pesticides....oh....and I let the snakes that live in the brush piles provide the rodent high horses or outside cats here~~

Poster #12 came back again with arguments why the law did not apply to him and more people argued, but I think these posts are enough to demonstrate the strong feelings around this controversial topic.

I thought this was a good discussion on several levels. First, I thought the article itself added new information to this old discussion. The kitty cams proved that cats are killing more wildlife than previously thought and that the cats are endangering themselves with their risky behaviors. So hopefully this information will convince more cat owners to change their routines. Then I thought the comments about how people were able to keep formerly outside cats inside were helpful to cat owners (or people owned by cats) that behavior can be changed. I thought poster #18 had some useful information and links to more. Lastly, the more discussion means that more people on Facebook saw it on their newsfeed.

Cats are subsidized predators

If you care about the health of your cat and the health of your neighborhood ecosystem, you'll keep your cats inside and urge your neighbors to do likewise.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Monday, August 6, 2012

Two Geezers and a Shed!

The garden shed in its original place was too far from the house to be useful.
When we purchased our house back in 2004, it came with an 8 x 10 foot garden shed about 180 feet behind the house, which is about half way down to the lake. In this position, it was too far from the house and garage to store garden tools and it was too far from the lake to be used as storage for boating equipment. We’ve used it to store tomato cages and some little-used tools like a posthole digger. We had not removed the stuff left over from the previous owner—gallons of partially used paint, a pickup truck toolbox, PVC pipe leftover from various projects, a non-working pump, and other junk.

Clearing out the new space for the shed. we took out the vines,
shrubs and a couple of small trees.
A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I figured out a new location for the shed that would bring it much closer to the garage. The shed is built on wooden skids and my husband looked up the weight of metal sheds this size (between 300 and 400 pounds), so we figured that we should be able to move it.  But first we had to clear out the shrubs and small trees from the new location and some low branches that would be in the way during the transit. That took a couple of days.

We took the paint to the hazardous waste dump. Then we emptied the shed and put the stuff we didn’t have any use for out on the curb on a Saturday. Not an hour later a guy trolling the neighborhood, put all the stuff, including the big truck toolbox, in his truck--all while he was talking on his cell phone.

Jacking up the front of the shed to place PVC pipe
under the skids.
On the day of the move, my husband dug a hole under the front center of the shed so there would be enough space to put one piece of 2x6 under  the automotive floor jack. The lumber provided a solid bed in the sandy soil for the jack.  Once the front of the shed was jacked up, we slipped three lengths of PVC pipe cross-wise under the skids. 
Threading the braided rope through the holes in the skids.
Now front of the shed was up on pipes, which allowed the skids to slide with less friction. We removed the jack and it was time to start towing. We threaded a heavy, braided rope through the holes in the skids. We were underway--albeit very slowly!

Making our way slowly to the shed's final destination.
As the shed moved along on the pipes, I drove the van while my husband carried the pipes to the front of the shed so the front would not dip to the soil level. It was a slow trek until the shed was adjacent to its final destination.

Now we were ready to pull the back of the shed into
place. The van pulled from the other side of the trees.
At this point, we tied the rope to the back of the shed and pulled it back into place. We knew that the new spot was fairly level, but it turned out to be perfectly level. Cool!

Lifting the back of the shed to place the heavy cement
blocks under the skids.
While the the skids were at ground level before, we wanted more clearance to provide better airflow under the shed. We loaded the heavy blocks, which were used as footings, from the original spot into a wheelbarrow, took them to the new location. To put them in place, we got out the jack again to lift the front of the shed and then the back. By the time we finished putting the blocks in place and rechecking the level, it had taken more than three hours for the actual move. And we call it a day!

Perfectly level!
In the next few days we had several follow-up jobs.
1) We smoothed out the old shed location and we’ll let Mother Nature take it over, unless invasives like Chinese tallow trees, taro or wedelia move in.  I’ll remove those.
2) We put a cinderblock step in place and four stepping-stones and then spread arborist’s woodchips in the area.
3) We transferred the tools from the garage and the pots from the garden bench area.
4) We also decided to move the potting bench area away from garage wall. Time will tell if this works out.
5) I had also started to build a compost pile near the new shed site, but I decided that it was a little too close to the shed, so I moved it. Before I remulched the area in front of the shed, I removed much of the old mulch that had turned into soil, which I added this to the new compost pile as well.

We cleaned the shed inside and out.
The pots can now be stored out of the weather AND out of the garage.
The trays and tubs will keep the floor clean and keep the tools in place.
Between the compost pile and the mulched area is a natural growth of a couple of cinnamon ferns.  We avoided walking in their small swale during the clearing and the move, but most of their fronds were broken during this project.  I’ve given them some extra water and some compost and I'm happy to see that new fronds are growing. Having a fern garden there will dress up the area.  Before, they were hidden away behind vines and other vegetation.

The new potting bench area is next to the shed. Between where I took this photo and the potting bench are a couple of naturally growing cinnamon ferns next to the three tree trunks--their fronds were broken off during all the clearing and other activities in this area, but new fronds have already started growing. They'll add a nice touch.
It’s been about two weeks since all this was completed and so far it has been quite functional, as we’ve moved on to other garden projects and it has made a big difference in the garage—both in neatness and space.

Just behind the garage, the shed has now become useful.  Yay!!
I’ve seen some photos of and articles about frilly sheds with lacy daybeds, shelves of books, icy drinks and white mosquito netting tied artfully around the doorway. Not this shed—this is a working gardener’s handy storage place and finally it's useful.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt