garden : going native

I have vowed that this will be the year we make progress on converting the yard and garden to native plants. This means saying goodbye to the orange daylilies, forsythia, dwarf almond, lilac, and crape myrtle sprout (the large one can stay for now). Wait wait, you might be saying: most of these are popular, non-invasive, flowering garden shrubs. Yes, most of them are. However: I am allergic to forsythia and my partner is allergic to lilacs, and both of these are scrubby plants in less than ideal locations, which is also true of the dwarf almond. I do plan to dig up and give away the lilac and crape myrtle, and I suppose I could do the same for the other two (if anyone wants them). Certainly there will still be plenty of opportunities to see forsythia, lilacs, and myrtles just on our block, let alone in the neighborhood as a whole. Also true of the daylilies, which are best categorized as an invasive weed despite their cheery profusion. We are keeping the ornamental quince, as it produces fruit that the local wildlife like (yay, possums!).

So, yes, going native means replacing some perfectly decent shrubs. Replacing being the key word, and where the fun starts. I have been longing for more bird-friendly shrubs ever since we moved in. We are doing well with the trees, as the yard includes: native black cherries, American hollies, dogwoods, red maples, mulberries (which are destined to disappear in a later phase that involves actually hiring people), and a sweet gum tree (technically in the neighbor’s yard, but along our property line). With the addition of some wildlife-friendly shrubs, I hope to see more nesting species or migrating songbirds and fewer insects. I’ve been using the American Beauties website and the notes of a dedicated wildlife gardener to sketch out a plan for the yard that I hope will also add some winter structure (which the front in particular is sorely lacking).

The first thing I did to further this plan was replace the dead rhododendron in the shady foundation bed. I had already decided that I wanted an Oakleaf hydrangea; I went to my local nursery planning to just look at the options and (of course) came home with one. In a rare instance of planning and action, I planted it out before the maple tree leafed out and the day before the spring rains started in earnest. It’s happily leafing out and I’ve left it plenty of room to grow.

My plans for the rest of the yard are not firm, but they involve a couple of major changes. We really need to grade the side yard the property line to address the downhill flow of water to (and through) our foundation wall, and I want to use that project as an opportunity to replant that entire space as a mix of new shrubs and the perennials I already have in other spots in the yard. I’d also like to add a shrub or two into the sunny foundation bed; as much as I like the perennials, the winter landscape looks too lopsided with the shrubs and tree on the right and nothing but scruffy seed heads on the left. I’d also like to add some woody herbs (rosemary, sage, another lavender) to the sidewalk bed, along the top of the bed that’s currently a row of (clumping) daylilies; I plan to move those to replace the row of invasive orange ones.

So, what will all these shrubs be? At least two will be varieties of Winterberry, as a male is needed for good fruiting. I’m thinking that one (or maybe two, depending on size) will go at the end of the sunny bed next to the porch to provide some screening once they reach full height (I’m planning to put the male in the backyard, beside the stairs to the basement and underneath the sassafras and dogwood; hopefully that will be proximate enough for fertilization). I’ll add at least one more Oakleaf hydrangea, and possibly two; probably another large specimen to replace the forsythia and a shorter variety in the side yard or at the end of the sidewalk bed. At least one Clethra will go in the sidewalk bed and possibly also in the sunny foundation bed as a complement to the other butterfly-attracting plants there. Native viburnums are the other category of shrub to be worked in. I need to do some more research, but I’m thinking a small variety like Arrowwood for the side yard and a taller variety like Blackhaw for the other corner of the back wall to replace the dwarf almond. (The stretch in the middle of the wall is going to become a raised bed, planted with herbs or for use by the kid in future years or both.)

Again this year, I’m not planning anything for the rear yard where the fence needs to be replaced, so the focus is on the front. The goal is to increase the aesthetics, add some winter structure, and last but most important, increase the cover and food for birds and small wildlife. I would love to see more migrating birds stopping in our yard, particularly songbirds. I’ve spotted several varieties of vireo and warbler over the years we’ve been here, and I imagine many more went unnoticed. Attracting them to shrubs closer to the windows would be great!

garden : going native

garden : first spring flowers

Purple crocuses.

White and purple crocuses.

After several years of hoping, my crocus bed is now full of crocuses! It’s nice to be greeted at the sidewalk steps by perky little flowers when returning from our walks. The daffodils are budding, and we have the first flower along the side of the house. I’m going to do my best to map the types we have this year in order to better group and arrange them in future seasons. That requires brain power, though, so don’t hold your breath.

First Ice Folly daffodil with a very cold, possibly dead, bee on it.

In making the inspection of the front beds, the biggest casualty was the lavender. I suspect that most of the stress actually happened last year during our two blizzards when it was buried under feet of snow and ice. Nonetheless, the die-off this year was bad and I had to prune nearly half the plant. (It probably didn’t help that I failed to appropriately prune it in the fall.) That was sad, but what’s left is healthy and I’m hoping it will bush out again this year. The front sidewalk bed is in decent shape, with everything coming up green. I’ve decided that this is the year I am going to really move ahead with converting the yard to natives and a select few non-invasives. More about this in a later post, but what this means for the sidewalk bed is bye-bye orange daylilies. You’re cheery and hardy and send up green shoots nice and early, but you are one of the devils of the Southeast and you need to go!

Healthy lavender sprig, post- massive pruning of dead bits.

Sedum growing into phlox.

garden : first spring flowers

birds : new life birds at Greenbelt Park

After being woken up early this morning, we decided to make the most of it and go for a birding walk (something we haven’t done in months). We first headed to Lake Artemesia, and kept on driving when we saw a park ranger directing people into the lot and a big sign announcing a fishing event. Bazillions of people fishing with their kids does not for good songbird sighting make. Since it was cool, windy, and early in the season, we opted to give Greenbelt Park another try. We’d heard that it was nice, but were too scared to get out of the car when we were greeted with a huge BEWARE OF LARGE NUMBERS OF TICKS AND CHIGGERS sign at the entrance. The sign was off when we arrived at 8am this morning, which is probably a good thing; when we left around 10am it was again advising people to be alert for ticks (which is a warning we expect in this part of the country). After making a loop of the park, we located the open picnic and parking area and headed off on the Azalea Trail, a 1.1 mile loop (whereon we did not actually see any azaleas, although some of the understory shrubs might have been ones that had already bloomed, it was hard to tell at a distance).

The first bird we spotted was a Yellow-rumped Warbler, quickly followed by a pair of Eastern Towhees. I’ve only seen them a few times before, and it was a new bird for my partner. Further down the trail we then broke our necks craning up into the very tall trees to eventually locate and identify a Red-eyed Vireo, worth the trouble as a new life bird. It was also a bird we were able to confirm via its song, which allowed us to not feel the need to break our necks a second time when we heard (and eventually did spot) another one a few minutes later. The other exciting find was an Ovenbird in the scrub, a songbird that forages on the ground and looks like a very small thrush. After some time of tracking it through the brambly undergrowth, it obligingly hopped up onto a higher branch so that we could get a nice long look at it. Once back at the parking lot, we saw Barn Swallows and a couple of butterflies: an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and a Red-Spotted Purple (which reminds me that I saw a Mourning Cloak in our town park about a month ago now).

Overall, it was a pleasant trip and the ring road meant that joggers were generally keeping off the hiking trail. As a note for next time, in the interest of keeping ourselves as tick-free as possible, we’ll probably bail from the trail at the end and walk back to the car from the road to avoid having to hike across the playing field (where the Azalea Trail terminates).

birds : new life birds at Greenbelt Park

vacation : we arrive in Maine

On the Tuesday after Labor Day we drove up to Maine from Rhode Island. It was a beautiful day for a drive, and we weren’t expected at the house until the evening, so we stopped at several places along the way. At the Kittery Visitors’ Center, we picked up a number of leaflets about regional artists and a map of the state. We also staged a cute photo of me at the ‘Relax, you’re in Maine!’ sign, which was lost along with all the other vacation photos when I inadvertently reformatted the drives on the last day of the trip. (Which is to say: no illustrations, sorry.)

Our first off-highway detour was to the Maine Potters Market shop in Portland. I was hoping to find a piece or two to take back with us, however we didn’t find anything that fit into what I was looking for. We both really enjoyed Barbara Walch’s work, it was just more delicate that the general style of our house and art pieces. Of all of the pieces we saw, her set of three nesting bowls was the closest to something we’d use, for nibbly bits and the like.

The next jaunt was to Lisbon, for a visit to the Stained Glass (and Insect) Museum. The gallery is housed in a converted church, so there’s lots of space and light to be able to get a good look at the works on display. The basement is an active studio, and we saw several artists working on various pieces. The insect museum was a bit disappointing—I was expecting more of a Smithsonian-style live insect zoo or Harvard-style entomological collection—but probably more interesting if you visit the live tarantulas in the annex (which we did not). After the museum, we had lunch at Dr. Mike’s Madness Café just down the road. The sandwiches (I had egg salad) and pie (I had mixed berry) were great, and just what we needed to keep on keeping on. The purple vinyl seats and the guy who had two creme brulées and a glass of milk for lunch alone made it worth the trip.

Just before joining the Maine turnpike at Augusta, we stopped in to a Visitors’ Center advertised as having a selection of Maine arts and crafts. We were planning to continue from there on to Brahms Mount Textiles; after seeing a selection of their absolutely beautiful blankets at the Visitors’ Center, we decided to save it for another trip since we were unlikely to buy one as a souvenir on this trip. However, one of their hand-loomed cotton basketweave throws would nicely complement the hand-loomed wool herringbone throw we brought back from Ireland (after getting to see Eddie at work at his loom, which is a story for a different time, about a different vacation). We saw several more examples of local pottery in the shop, and I found a bag made from recycled sails to covet. What can I say, I like bags!

From here we just carried on through to the house, which we settled into relatively well despite arriving after dark. We took a few moments to check for wayward spiders and then headed over to Bar Harbor for some dinner. After considering several options, we settled on the relatively new Finback Alehouse, which had both beer (the regionally local Voodoo Porter) and chicken sandwiches. It doesn’t appear that the pub has a website, but in searching for it I did learn that the manager who got us through the door from the street ran into trouble a week later (along with a whole slew of other folks, mostly drunkards; the Mount Desert Island police report gives our local one a run for its money for humor value).

After dinner we walked down to the Main Street, nipped into the Acadia Shop for a look at their blueberry-themed merchandise, and then headed back to the house, where we laid out our clothes and set the alarm for 5am.

vacation : we arrive in Maine

weekend visit to Patuxent NWR

It’s been a long time since I’ve hiked around Patuxent NWR, and I took advantage of yesterday’s beautiful clear afternoon to suggest a trip up there. The full Cash Lake trail was open, not yet closed for the season to protect the waterfowl that winter at the park. In addition to getting some fresh air after days of being stuck inside avoiding first humidity and then thunderstorms, we were also testing out my partner’s new hiking boots in advance of our trip up to Acadia National Park next month.

The hike itself was really more of a nature stroll than a hike that anyone who owns those pants that zip off into shorts would recognize as such. Patuxent is usually good for birds, but we saw hardly any: some goldfinches in by the Redington Lake bridge, a red-tailed hawk being chased by some crows above the beaver dam, some chickadees and nuthatches in the woods, a noisy red-bellied woodpecker, and a lone male kingfisher flying up the shore of Cash Lake. The highlight of the walk was definitely the amphibians: the previous two days of rain had created the ideal summer environment for frogs. We saw green frogs in the learning garden pond by the visitors’ center, a veritable mob of leopard frogs in a puddle at the base of the trail, and a lone cricket frog doing exactly what the guidebook said it would, which was attempting to evade us by a series of erratic hops. (I still caught it, but only to examine the teeniest frog I’d ever seen for identification purposes and then move it to the grass from the path of the trolley.) We also saw a skink, climbing a tree near where we’d stopped to locate the woodpecker; it was only the second time I’d seen one, so that was exciting.

In addition to frogs, the meadows were alive with butterflies. We saw Monarchs, Eastern and Black Swallowtails, Red-spotted Purples, a Great Spangled Fritillary, and a Common Buckeye. It’s possible that I also saw Spicebush and/or Pipevine Swallowtails, a Common Wood Nymph, and Least or Delaware Skippers (I didn’t have the book with me, so all identifications were from made at home from memory). We also saw a couple of something that looked like a cross between a cicada and a hummingbird, that we named Mini Mothra. There were dozens of dragonflies, including several distinct types I’d never seen before, but I didn’t have that book with me, either. All the dragonflies and frogs, in combination with a nice breeze off the lakes, meant that we weren’t bothered by mosquitoes at all.

weekend visit to Patuxent NWR