Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What's in Bloom: VA Sweetspire aka Sideshow Bob

“It’s a shrub that looks like Sideshow Bob, you know, from the Simpsons.” That was me speaking recently, trying to describe the appearance of the Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) in my front yard.

My description did not do it justice, but honestly that was the first thing that popped into my mind. The way the tendrils of creamy white flowers hang down makes me think of Sideshow Bob’s haircut. Only pretty.
My photo, shown left, does not do the sweetspire justice, either.

But trust me, this one is a winner.

Those flowers, which are the exact color of classic butter pecan ice cream, are magnets to early season butterflies and native bees. They are also a wonderful foil for my Jackmanii clematis, which blooms on the fence in dark purple abundance right behind the sweetspire in late May. There's a reason they call it sweet; the fragrance before a rainstorm is especially unbelievable.

Sweetspire is becoming more popular. Its resilience has prompted even the big box hardware stores like Home Depot to sell it. But I am sad when I see it used in parched, dry parking lot locations outside of shopping centers. This plant is definitely happiest when it gets a bit of extra water, which makes it great along the edges of rain gardens. Or, in wet places like the foot of the slope in my yard. At this spot, all of the rain water gathers and used to make messy puddles. It seems to suck all that excess water away quickly, and seems to enjoy a certain lush growth in this spot that the parking lot plants do not seem to share.

(Although this bush will not thrive in super dry parking lots, sweetspire will do quite well in dry lawns with average soil. In one spot in our yard it helps to mask an ugly power line. So although it will tolerate the extra water, it doesn’t *need* it. It does need adequate moisture, however, so hellishly hot parking lot just doesn’t seem like the best application.)

Sweetspire has three nice seasons of color, and is truly a four season shrub. In May, we have the already mentioned blossoms. In summer, the leaves fill in empty parts of the garden with lush green growth. In fall, those leaves turn an outrageously lovely red color before falling to the ground. When the winter’s chill comes on, the bare branches of the sweetspire turn a shiny, dark red which really stands out in the snow.

The downside of sweetspire is its tendency to sucker. The new shoots are easy to dig out and give to friends, but this shrub will easily over take your fertile urban meadow or perennial border. Again, a lawn with average to rich soil makes the ideal location; to keep the suckering in check simply mow the new shoots back and let it meet up with the grass edge.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Odwalla Plant-A-Tree Program Begins on Tuesday

The following message went happily viral on several MD listservs this week. I hope all you Marylanders out there get out the vote on Tuesday!

WHAT: On MAY 25th, Odwalla will be giving away $200,000 to plant trees in State Parks across the nation.

WHO: The Odwalla Plant a Tree Program is in its 3rd year, and in 2010 will be available to all 50 States. The program allows a person to “vote” for which state they want trees to be planted in, and each “vote” = $1 for your state parks to be used to plant trees.

HOW: You can the Odwalla Plant-A-Tree website and choose which state you want to vote for. No purchase necessary.

Just copy the above web address to your internet browser and vote.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What's in Bloom: False Indigo

I realized the other day that a lot blue and purple things were blooming all at once in my garden, including lavender, catmint, sage, meadow sage, Jacob’s ladder, spiderwort and irises. I would like to say this was planned carefully by me, this show of complementary colors. But actually, the whole thing was really a serendipitous accident. I think mostly I just like cool colors, and a lot of them happen to bloom at the same time of year.

This has been an especially spectacular year for my False Indigo (Baptisia australis). It has been blooming for weeks now, and its brilliant blue blossoms have attracted the attention of a trio of red admiral butterflies that have been hanging around the last few days or so.

False indigo is a great plant for the urban DC garden. I have seen it hold up through terrible droughts, and flourish in wet rainy seasons. It is not picky about soil and will adapt to many poor, gravelly locations. Butterflies and bees both seem to like its nectar, and it needs no staking. It does not seem to have any significant pest problems in the city, nor does it fall ill from any common diseases.

Its in the pea family, which means it’s also a nitrogen fixer. Its flowers are wonderful, but later in the summer the dark black seed pods produce another season of interest. My kids always love those seeds; they have been used hundreds of times as fake money during sessions of “store” in my back yard because they seem to remind children of coins somehow. The seeds come loose once the fall arrives, and “jingle” around inside the pods, which is part of their appeal, I guess.

The spot it occupies at the silt-y edge of our aging patio would probably not host much else, and few other plants would do such a great job of deflecting and shielding the rest of the garden from my son’s soccer and baseballs, which seem destined to careen into the plants about three times an hour. With the False Indigo in place, none of the fragile plants further back in the garden get harmed. I could easily picture this plant doing really well at the edge of a busy sidewalk on a hot, sunny corner, where busy pedestrians would probably stop to admire its fantastic vivid color all through the month of May.

False indigo’s one and only fault seems to be its enormous size. My one little quart-sized plant has grown in just a few short years to resemble a good sized shrub. If I was to measure from above from the tip of one side to the tip of the other the diameter would probably be about four feet across. When planting this one, think as if you are planting an enormous blue azalea and you’ll be okay for size.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Caterpillar Hunt Scheduled for this Weekend

From the Friends of Sligo Creek:

Caterpillar Hunt
Saturday, May 22, 10am-noon
Hillwood Manor Park
(lower Sligo)
Takoma Park, MD

Bring the family for this popular outing led by insect ecologist John Lill as we look for caterpillars and other signs of insect life in lower Sligo. We'll first get introduced to caterpillar life and where to find them. Then John will distribute containers and we'll fan out into the woods to look for inchworms, cankerworms, leaf rollers, tent caterpillars, owlet moth caterpillars, and more, as well as insect egg cases, leaf galls, and cocoons. We'll return to the picnic tables to have our finds identified by John and to learn more about their lives.

(Takes place in case of light rain, but canceled in a downpour.)

In addition to moth and butterfly caterpillars, we'll also look for adult insects, cocoons, insect galls, egg masses, and egg cases.

For more information e-mail naturalhistory@fosc.org.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Vespas and a Different Kind of Ivy League

I love reading through web updates from local stream stewardship groups. While the websites of big environmental organizations will tell you all kinds of important information, they rarely give you that funny, slice-of-life feeling that sometimes really motivates you to care about taking care of the earth.

Last week I got a really great, really funny update from the Friends of Rock Creek (FORCE) that made me want to get on over to their park for a bike ride or a clean up. It was full of great tidbits and links to their website and really made volunteering for their organization sound like fun.

Executive Director Beth Mullin, for example, wrote that their recent trash clean-up yielded some interesting items, including an entire car and a Vespa scooter. Which of course begs the question, who the heck rides their Vespa scooter into Rock Creek and forgets about it? (The romantic novelist trapped inside my head began drafting plotlines immediately. Picture, if you will, a scorned lover who steals his ex's scooter in a drunken rage in the middle of the night.... da da da dum...)

Other updates proved equally lively, such as the note that the staff of the British embassy had recently worked with their family members to clear a section of the park of, you guessed it, English Ivy. I loved imagining them all out there, clearing away the very thing that reminded them all of home.... then taking a break for a quick cuppa. Knowing how hard it is to get rid of the ivy, I know they deserved one!

Anyway, if you haven't ever checked out FORCE, take a look at their website. They are up to loads of good work and their updates are very fun to read as well.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Sligo Naturalist: Carpenter Bees

Standing in the park near the big wooden pirate ship, I watched as a little girl and her father were both running away from two large, noisy bees. As the girl screamed, the father tried to retain as much of his dignity as possible. “Let’s just play over here where the big old bees won’t bother us,” he said, brushing mulch off his shirt and hurriedly running away.

The dad seemed a tad embarrassed and so I pretended not to notice, although a part of me wanted to say something friendly. When it happened a second time with another parent and child, I couldn’t help myself.

“They’re just carpenter bees,” I called out from the bench with a smile. “They like the wood, they won’t sting you.”

The mom in question this time stopped and looked at me blankly.

“Really,” I continued on. “When my dad was a kid he even used to catch them and tie a piece of thread to one of their legs and walk them like a dog, or a kite,” I offered to ease her anxiety. “He liked to show off to the other kids that way. He never got stung, though.”

I was all caught up in my own story, imagining my dad as a young kid growing up many decades ago in North Carolina… when I realized suddenly that I had shared too much. Now this woman thought I was weird, and she still didn’t like the bees.

(This happens sometimes when you like insects. Facts you find fascinating really make you seem quite eccentric by many bug-hater standards. I’d like to say I’ve gotten used to it, but I still find myself in these situations quite a bit. The more I learn about insects, the more often this happens.)

A lot of people are afraid of all bees, and because carpenter bees are so big people assume they will form a terrifying swarm then sting the hell out of anyone who comes close.

But there really is not much need to fear a dundering carpenter bee. The females will sting, but only if they are actually picked up. The males can’t sting at all, and they are the ones that mostly fly at people’s faces in an aggressive manner on spring days. It is all a bluff, though, and what they really want is for you to stay away from the tunnels they have dug in the wood where the females can lay their eggs.

The big conflict arises when the bees take up residence in wooden playground sets, porches or decks. The females are simply going in and out of the tunnels, and the males try to protect them. The bees are so big and so noisy, it really alarms the kids who come to play.

The tunnels they excavate can turn solid wood flimsy if they bees aren’t removed or controlled. Unlike termites, they aren’t really eating the wood, simply digging it out. You can often tell you have an infestation because you’ll find a little puddle of saw dust below their chosen nest spot. Painting wood is the best way to deter their interest in your wooden walls and beams, but often treated wood cannot be effectively coated and will attract them anyway.

Carpenter bees are native to the US, but there seems to be some disagreement over their benefits to US gardeners. While many can be seen at my flowers all summer long, I’ve always been told that their pollination services were not so great. Because they are such a large size, they can’t access the nectar in many tubular flowers. Instead, they slit a hole in the side of the corolla and “rob” the flower without pollinating it. On the other hand, they have very strong thoracic muscles which they sometimes use near a flower, which “buzzes” the pollen out.

It might be the case that these particular bees have not been researched very much. It has only been in the last decade or so that so called “alternative” pollinators have merited much agricultural study and so it seems kind of unclear exactly how valuable these bees are to home growers. As honeybees suffer from mysterious deaths and economically devastating diseases and mites, all other bees have become more appreciated in general.

That said, a lot of the cooperative extension literature on the carpenter bees categorizes them as not particularly important for pollination. The US Forest Service website, on the other hand, classifies them as “excellent pollinators of eggplant, tomato and other vegetables and flowers.” Seems that in some ways the jury is still out on their overall pollination value, but that for some of the flatter flowers they can be beneficial.

I always try to avoid spraying pesticides in my yard, and do what I can to help the native pollinators. But I didn’t hesitate to control carpenter bees when they moved into our porch ceiling a few years ago. As with termites, I don’t mind the presence of the carpenter bees in nature or my garden and I understand the role they play in the ecosystem. I just don’t want to share my house with them. Too potentially expensive to repair the damage.

Even so, there’s something funny about carpenter bees to me, and I wouldn’t want them to entirely disappear from my garden. They aren’t exactly gentle giants, but their appearance is kind of humorous for some reason.

I understand why my dad would “walk” them when he was a kid. They are so large and odd that you can’t help but think of them as something other than insect-like, even when they are doing very typical insect things like buzzing around in the garden. I don’t think I’d ever try to walk one myself, but I wish I could’ve been there all those decades ago to watch when he did it. I would have had a good laugh.

This posting originally appeared in the May 2010 edition of the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Kensington.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Gaging Your Trees' Need for Water

There's a gentle rain falling outside my window right now. My rainbarrels are filling up fast, and I'm hoping the sunflower seeds that we planted over the weekend are getting really well soaked out there. The birds seem ecstatic, and are flying from branch to branch while chattering to one another.

Like the birds, I love a spring rain storm, especially after a dry week like the one we've just had. Everything looks so refreshed, and I always sleep best on the nights when there's a steady rain hitting the roof.

It is also nice for the garden and trees. Its been really dry, and I know any tree or shrub planted in the last three years or so really needs water. Remembering to water can be a problem, though, for both me and my garden clients.

Enter Casey Trees, a great organization here in DC dedicated to returning our metro area to the Tree City it used to be long ago. Over the weekend they posted a really great Facebook notice: It is dry, they warned, time to water your trees.

"Young and mature trees require 25 gallons of water - approximately 1.5 inches of rainfall - per week to grow healthy and strong. In times of little or no rainfall, and especially during the hot summer months, trees need your help in getting the recommended 25 gallons of water per week," says their notice.

Rather than just scold or warn, though, the Casey Tree people promise that if you pledge to water your trees they will send you automatic reminders when the conditions get dry in DC. Pretty cool, and you can even get a free rain gauge in the process. All you have to do is sign up on their website.

The people at Casey Trees also have a reason to be very proud this season, by the way. According to their latest press release, also posted on Facebook, the organization has planted 406 new trees at 23 tree planting events this spring through its Community Tree Planting Program. Those trees were added in all 8 Wards of DC and planted with the help of almost 700 adult and 400 children volunteers.

The organization estimates the value of the donated labor exceeds $63,000. What they don't say, but I know to be a fact, is that the value of those trees over time will far exceed that dollar amount. The amount of evapotranspiration which will cool the air of the city, the pollution reduction, the carbon sequestration and the stormwater filtration --- all the things provided by those living resources would be almost impossible to measure.

But to function and provide those services, trees need to be growing strong. Thus the importance of reminding everyone to water.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Birdwatchers poised to help with Oil Spill in the Gulf

The stories coming out of the Gulf of Florida about the BP Oil Spill are so bad that I can't bear to watch the news anymore. I find myself scanning the headlines and paragraphs about the issue in the newspaper to see if there's any improvement, before shaking my head and moving on.

I was just lucky enough to visit a fantastic and beautiful place in Florida called Sanibel Island earlier this year. I stood on the beach, staring at the turquoise waters and felt this sense of grateful, humble smallness. I searched for shells of purple, blue, pink and brown with kids.

I think a lot about that special place now. We were so over joyed to see Roseate Spoonbills, the White Pelicans, the herons. Will the magic of such spaces be ruined by the oil spill? How many birds will be lost?

I was horrified by the notion, put forth by some prominent polticians earlier this year, that drilling in the Gulf was not a risky operation at all times. I really feel that we should be investing in more sustainable energy options, instead.

In light of such hopelessness, I was heartened by an online press release from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which landed in my box late last week entitled "As Oil Spreads, Citizen-Science Network Keeps Tabs on Birds." Birders, it seems, are poised to help all along the shore.
I wish them all the best.

I also wish the damned oil would stop pouring forth.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fledgling at the Window

There’s a fledgling bird outside the window right now.
I’ve been watching it, tenuously, for about an hour. At first the poor wizened, goblin-like thing was perched in the topmost branches of my winterberry bushes. Then, somehow, it managed to fling itself a few feet forward to the empty nest box. Its face still only has little pin feathers in a fuzzy pattern around its eyes, and its legs are not yet developed enough to really hold it. It peaks around, and around, and then seems to sigh.

I’m trying very hard not to take sides in this. I am trying very hard not to become attached. Survival of the fittest and all that. Food web and all that. Nature is doing its thing out there. The mother bird, a large, loud grackle, flew at my head when I went out to quietly try to snap a picture with my camera.

Don’t worry, I thought. I’m not the one you should be looking out for, Mama Grackle. It’s that hungry hawk that’s always darting around out here. And oh, Lordy, tonight keep a look out for those greedy raccoons. They’ve nabbed two full nests of eggs in the last two weeks. First, the mourning dove was attacked and all the eggs she’d been sitting on in the bridal veil spirea were gone. Then, just last night the thief took the eggs which the tiny song sparrow had been warming on her nest outside our dining room.

But I’m not taking sides. I swear. Hawks need to eat. Raccoons need to eat. I get it.

Still, I stand at the kitchen doing dishes, wondering how the bird is and dreading that I might see the hawk descend at any minute.