What’s Eating Your Petunias?

 Originally posted July 2012
 golden mantel ground squirrel eating petuniasGolden-Mantled Ground Squirrel at Seven Falls in Manitou Springs, Colorado   Photo by Cindy Pierce June 2012

The above photo is by far one of my favorites of all time. I took it a few weeks ago while vacationing in Colorado. My boyfriend and I broke away from the rest of the extended family and took my mom on a special day of local excursions in the southern area of Colorado. Along with the famous Pike’s Peak Cog Railway, we also visited Seven Falls – a beautiful canyon area in Manitou Springs that boasts a tall, seven level waterfall. There are several ways you can view the seven-level waterfall – from the ground, from a viewing platform a few stories high, and from the top of the canyon via a steep and lengthy, zig-zag staircase. You can also view the falls at night when they are lighted with many colors. While my boyfriend and I took the quick elevator ride up to the mid-level viewing platform, my mom decided to hang out at the base. Along the creek and pathways of the park, hung large double hanging baskets of beautiful, healthy red, white and purple petunias. My mom appeared to be intently admiring these flower baskets as my boyfriend and I tried to get her attention from the viewing platform for a photo op. No luck. When we arrived back down at base, my mom began laughing and telling us how a ground squirrel was sprawled in the middle of one of the Petunia baskets, eating away at the flowers. I thought it must’ve been a funny sight and wondered just how the Petunias stayed so abundant with the number of ground squirrels around. As my boyfriend decided to take the trek up to the top of the falls, my mom and I sat on a park bench, watched the Native American dancers and simply took in the scenery. We watched the rainbow trout swim in the nearby pond and the chipmunks and ground squirrels dart around and scoop up crumbs of dropped tourist food. Suddenly, I saw a rather large ground squirrel appear in the center of one of the Petunia baskets right next to us. Camera in hand, I snapped several photos as the critter rapidly tore off Petunia blooms one at a time and stuffed them in its mouth. She was absolutely adorable (if you look closely at the photo, “she” appears to have nursing babies). I’m sure the maintenance crews at Seven Falls probably don’t find the squirrels quite as adorable as we did. I’m sure they are tasked with replacing the flowers in the baskets quite often. But, then again, perhaps the squirrels provide a natural deadheading and trimming service, enabling the plant to regenerate? *More on this later . . .

squirrel #2

Witnessing how rapid this one little squirrel devoured multiple blooms, it reminded me of how quickly a newly planted bed of Petunias can disappear from our yards at home. From my research, it appears that white tail deer, rabbits, and all types of rodents (including squirrels) enjoy the taste of Petunias. The vibrantly colored blooms are like neon signs beckoning these mammals to come over and partake of them.

In addition to animals, insects seem to very much enjoy Petunias as well, especially worms and most especially, the tobacco hornworm. Petunias are of the Solanaceae family, commonly known as the nightshade family. The nightshade family is a large family of flowering plants; their flowers being tubular or semi-tubular, with some flower varieties having fused petals. If you look closely at a Petunia’s bloom, you will see the margins of its fused petals.

The nightshade family consists of both very popular edible plants and in contrast, very toxic plants – some fatally toxic, such as belladonna. Among the important agricultural plants of the nightshade family are tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes. I find it quite ironic that some of the most common vegetables we eat, perhaps on a daily basis (think tomatoes on hamburgers, in salsa, spaghetti sauce, ketchup, etc.) are found in the same classification as deadly belladonna!

However, speaking of the toxicity of nightshades, some of the plants in this family are toxic in high doses but are helpful and/or useful in smaller doses. For example, extracts of some of the plants of this family are used to curb the nausea of motion sickness and in chemotherapy patients. Also, the capsaicin extract of peppers is used in pepper spray – a personal safety device that sprays and temporarily stuns people and other mammals. Another interesting plant of the nightshade family is nicotiana or tobacco. I suppose the effect nicotine has on the body can certainly be described as drug-like or addictive when we consider the many different effects the varied nightshade plants have on the body. It has been determined it is the alkaloid compounds of nightshades that give the plant its helpful and/or harmful attributes.

Although there is no consensus among researchers, it is thought best for people suffering from nerve, muscle and/or joint conditions to limit or avoid food of the nightshade family due to the inflammatory effects alkaloids may have on these body functions. It is good to note here also, that if you have heard the old wives’ tale to avoid eating green potatoes, you may wish to take heed. While it is the chlorophyll in the potato that actually makes it green, the color also corresponds with a higher presence of alkaloids. Same with green tomatoes. If you have a form of arthritis, as do I, but absolutely love one or more of the nightshade veggies, it is good to note that cooking them reduces the amount of alkaloids by about 40 – 50%. So, cooked tomatoes are less “toxic” than those just out of the garden. I admit I still eat tomatoes in both manners, but I just don’t overdo it either way. As you know, there are very good compounds found in tomatoes too – such as Vitamin C and the antioxidant lycopene.

Well, back to Petunias and what eats them. You may be able to guess that Petunias fall into a benign branch of the nightshade family that is safe for mammals to eat versus one of the highly poisonous or deadly branches. While Petunias do possess alkaloids like the rest of the nightshades, it does not possess the highly toxic form. And because the vibrant, sweet-tasting blooms of Petunias are borne without thorns or thistles, critters find them irresistible and easy to eat. In addition to mammals devouring your Petunias, as I mentioned earlier, some worms are especially attracted to nightshades as well. The tobacco hornworm (a very large, bright green worm) that you can guess – loves the nightshade plant, tobacco – really isn’t all that discerning when tobacco isn’t around. This worm will attack any nightshade plant, including your tomato, pepper and potato plants. Of course, it likes Petunias as well!

tobacco hornworm

Tobacco Hornworm courtesy of http://coopext.colostate.edu/4dmg/Pests/tomato.htm

An interesting side note is Morning Glory and Moonflower Vine were once considered a part of the nightshade family in the past, but their family has been changed, of late, to Convolvulaceae. If you go one classification step up, however, they remain in the same Order as nightshades and have some of the same flower and alkaloid characteristics. The reason I bring this up is because their flowers are very similar to Petunias in shape and size and you’ll see the tobacco hornworm likes feasting on the leaves of these vines as well. In addition, if you have both Moonflowers and Petunias in your landscape, the large, hummingbird-sized parent moths of these worms (Sphinx Moths) will visit both flowers equally!

So, just what can you do to keep your Petunias full and healthy, or at least alive, this season? With regard to mammals like the cute little critter in the photo at the top of my blog post, ironically, the use of another nightshade plant may be the best solution!

Spraying diluted hot pepper juice or sprinkling hot pepper flakes around your ornamentals and vegetables may help dissuade these critters’ palates. I would administer the pepper spray in the late evening hours so the sun does not intensify the solution, however. About the tobacco hornworm? The pepper juice spray might help, but then again sometimes the hornworm actually eats green peppers so simply removing the gargantuan worms by hand (ugh) may be the best way to control them. While I don’t like to handle insects by hand, I still find them fascinating and would never purposely kill them (yellow jackets are an exception, btw!).

Personally, I love the mature moths that the hornworms develop into and simply find the larvae don’t do that much damage to my ornamentals and therefore I do not do anything to specifically deter them from my yard. I often see their droppings but resign myself to knowing I’ll have more moths to admire in late summer/early fall. (Yes, these worms are big enough to have droppings to see and in fact, this is one way to locate them on your plants. For as big as they are – they are incredibly hard to see as they excellently blend with the greenery.) If you have kiddos or are a curious adult, click http://www.birds-n-garden.com/white-lined_sphinx_hummingbird_moths.html to see how to raise the tobacco hornworms you pick off your plants and transform them into gorgeous, iridescent, hummingbird-sized Sphinx Moths.

*Keep in mind, if your efforts to reduce damage to your Petunias by animals or insects are less than successful, do not fret if you still have roots and stems intact. Oftentimes, with a little pampering, you may be able to bring forth a stronger plant as Petunias are known to bounce back more fully when trimmed and deadheaded.

Taking into consideration:

– overindulging in edible nightshades may aggravate illness, but eliminating them entirely will cause you to miss out on vitmains and antioxidants;

– overindulgence of some compounds of nightshades may kill you, while small quantities may indeed heal you; and,

– aggressively ridding every pest from your nightshades may burn them (pepper juice) or cause leggy overgrowth, allowing a few pests to “trim” the plants may actually promote regeneration;

I’d like to end this post today by saying I believe we can view the contrasting properties of the fascinating plants of the nightshade family as a perfect justification of the age-old adage,  Moderation in All Things . . .

Until next time,

Cindy

 

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Embracing a Kinder and Gentler New Year

Spilled Wine
Originally posted December 2011

This post may not qualify as a typical “Nature is Nurture” excerpt, but I’ve toyed with writing the story for several years and I believe it is fitting for the New Year – especially for those of us that may have experienced loss and are looking forward to a brighter future.

As with every year in our lives, there are good and bad experiences. There are gains and there are losses.

I’ve lost two close family members to unexpected deaths within the past 24 months. Mourning must run its course as I learn to embrace and honor my loved ones’ memories. Their lives meant, and still mean, more to me than I can articulate. If your past year included such a loss or losses, strive to be ever so gentle with yourself in the coming year as you, too, will learn to live life fully again, but with a new “normal.”

Well, there are other losses some of us may have experienced this past year, such as jobs, homes, friendships, and/or marriages. In no way do I wish to minimize the validity of feeling sad and depressed when experiencing the loss of one or more of these tangible items. However, I truly believe some of these losses may indeed be cause for pause and reflection. This is where I’d like to begin my brief, but poignant, New Year’s Eve story:

Six years ago I divorced during Christmas week. I did not initiate the proceedings yet I ended up being the sole partner reporting in front of the judge that deciding day. The judge hit his gavel and said, “Divorce granted.  Merry Christmas.” The divorce was devastating to me in more ways than one. However, at the time, I did not realize it was the marriage itself that was the true devastating force upon my life.

Having endured Christmas week as a self-labeled newly divorced, middle-aged woman with tons of loose ends to tie up, I was not looking forward to the New Year, let alone celebrating New Year’s Eve. In fact, I had planned to have a quiet night alone contemplating how I would eventually furnish and repair my empty, damaged home (another story for another time, perhaps.) Instead, at the last minute, I accepted an invitation from a very kind woman I had met indirectly at work. This woman exuded positivity and enthusiasm and had an awesome zest for life, although her family had also experienced divorce that particular year. She had invited a varied group of people in age, marital status and ethnicity to celebrate the New Year together in her home. We honored traditions, danced to a variety of music and partook of delicious food and drink from several cultures that evening. It was by far the best New Year’s Eve I had ever experienced in spite of my depression over my divorce.

During one especially festive dance that night, in which we were all hand in hand, a child accidentally struck and spilled a glass of red wine onto the light carpet. My mind instantly went into auto-pilot as I sucked in my breath and ran to the kitchen to find a cloth, all the while spontaneously coming to tears. I feared yelling, belittlement and very harsh admonishment for the child. I also expected the host would become irate and the festivities would surely end. I was prepared to leave.

Not so! The attendees broke into applause, yelled “Opa! Opa!”, and danced even more feverishly – they didn’t miss a beat! They congratulated the child for the spill of wine as it meant “Good Luck” to all present for the coming New Year. They celebrated an occurrence that would have without a doubt been cause for an evening of hostility and tears in my former life.

I am forever grateful I accepted the invitation that night to celebrate the coming of the New Year as part of a caring and wonderful, multi-generational and multi-cultural group. This remarkable gathering of people taught me there is a positive side to most everything in life if you choose to look for it – and – there is no sense in crying over anything spilled! The significance of their celebratory reaction to the spilled red wine brought to light I was indeed mourning the end of a very unhealthy relationship – a relationship that should’ve ended long before and one which I should be oh so grateful wasn’t entering the New Year. Needless to say, I cultivated a refreshingly new perspective on life that New Year’s Eve of 2006.

No matter the losses you have experienced this past year, I hope you realize you have the power to place yourself in kinder and gentler environments and surround yourself with kinder and gentler people.

In the coming year and beyond, my wish is that you stay ever so close to the people, places and things that truly nurture you.

Happy New Year!

Cindy

In my research for this post, I learned in most European cultures (especially in Italy) it is considered Good Luck to spill wine as it is symbolic of the ancients giving thanks by “sharing” a bit of the fermented bounty with the soil of the vineyard that produced it.  http://www.schonwalder.org/Menu_Wine_TheBestofaMistake.htm

 

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After Christmas Amaryllis

Amaryllis

Originally posted January 2012

Although we are in the midst of winter and some of us have landscapes covered in snow, we gardeners can enjoy getting our hands dirty and satisfy our urge to sow by planting a few Amaryllis bulbs indoors. The bonus with planting an Amaryllis indoors is, unlike most “house” plants, it will result in large, beautiful, lily-like blooms within a few weeks – some with double or multiple blooms. (See the pic below of the one I am growing now – it appears it will have two separate stems.)

Amaryllis Coleus CrownofThorns
Amaryllis Bulb at southern-facing window with blooming Crown of Thorns and Coleus in the background.

 As I began researching this topic, I found a couple of Web sites to refer you to that pretty much say it all, along with complimentary picture diagrams, thus, I will spare you the details of planting and care here except to say that it is VERY easy. If you haven’t tried Amaryllis bulbs before, I urge you to do so now while the timing and price is right. The only prerequisite before purchasing a bulb kit is that you have a nice, sunny window with a lot of space. Amaryllis requires bright light to sprout and plenty of room to grow as it can reach 18 -24 inches tall. Yes, they are big plants! In the U.S. and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere, the best place for Amaryllis to grow would be near a spacious southern facing window in either your home or office.

However, once your plant begins to bloom, usually in about 5 – 8 weeks, you should move it away from direct sunlight so that the blooms will stay fresh for a longer period of time.

Amaryllis care web sites:
http://www.amaryllis.com/pac.htm
http://www.rochestergardening.com/bulbs/amrylcar.html

Now, to the main point of this relatively short blog post for me – as I hinted above, you can purchase these gorgeous plants at this time of year on clearance for about $3 each or less. Some Amaryllis are offered in a kit which includes everything you need: the bulb, a dehydrated potting soil disk, brief instructions, and a plastic, but useful, pot. I feel especially fortunate because I found my Amaryllis kit at Target this past weekend (January 7) for $2.98 and it included a nice, roomy ceramic red pot. The pot alone is worth $2.98 in my opinion! At Target, they had a choice in colors of both pots and blooms. I chose a deep red blooming plant to match my deep red ceramic pot, but they offered white, pink and striped blooming varieties in either a red or white ceramic pot. In addition to Target, I have seen Amaryllis bulb kits on clearance at ridiculously low prices at Wal-Mart, Lowes and Home Depot as well. Before you buy, though, peek into the pot to see if the bulb has sprouted and bloomed on its own over the holidays. Some of those on the higher shelves at Target (where they were exposed to bright fluorescent light) had prematurely bloomed inside the pot. Once I delved into the ones stacked toward the back on the lower shelves, I was able to find plenty of bulbs that were at their prime for potting (a little green popping through the bulb is OK).

So, next time you are out doing your grocery shopping or scanning the after-Christmas clearance aisles at your local home improvement store, spring for a couple of Amaryllis bulb kits! In a few weeks, as winter continues its barren path, you’ll be happy to have a little taste of springtime to admire indoors.

Until next time,

Cindy

For you green-thumbed guys out there, here’s a hint:  If you hurry, you may be able to present your sweetheart with a very nice blooming Valentine – just look for a bulb that has already begun to sprout, which shouldn’t be hard to find at this time of year. While I don’t want to get anyone into trouble that is expected to annually present roses, Amaryllis also blooms in the colors of love . . . red, white, and pink.  Plus, an Amaryllis will last longer than cut roses and bloom time and again with proper care. I know I’d appreciate one from my sweetheart, but then again, I love ALL PLANTS equally so please give at your own risk!

 

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Winter Solstice – A Time of Hope

stonehenge winter soltice
**Originally posted in December, 2011.

December 21st is the shortest day of the year. You probably are asking, “What do you mean the shortest day of the year? Aren’t there 24 hours in every day?” Absolutely, but allow me to be more specific. December 21st is the date in which there was less daylight hours than any other day in 2011. It is the time of the winter solstice – which in Central Standard Time will occur around 11:30 p.m. this year. The winter solstice usually occurs sometime between December 21 and December 23 every year in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the time of the year when the North Pole is tilted at its greatest distance, 23.5 degrees, away from the sun. The winter solstice also signifies the first day of winter. At the time of the autumnal equinox, September 23rd, daylight and dark were equal in length at 12 hours each. Since then, in the Northern Hemisphere, daylight has progressively decreased with each day. In fact, territories north of the Arctic Circle will experience 24 hours of darkness upon the winter solstice. It is important to mention this seasonal phenomenon is reverse for the Southern Hemisphere. For example, the territory south of the Antarctic Circle will experience 24 hours of daylight on December 21st. And, in the areas between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, the balance of daylight and dark hours remains stable and the weather warm and humid. (Thus the reason we must mimic the 12 hours of darkness for native tropical photoperiodic plants such as the Christmas Cactus and Poinsettia to force their blooms/bracts in our part of the world!)

If you’ve done any reading or research about ancient cultures, you are familiar with the fact they viewed the transitions between the seasons as very important. The solstices and equinoxes determined when crops should be planted and harvested, when berries and nuts became ripe and when certain game could be hunted. The winter solstice, in particular, marked the time ancient peoples were to begin preparing  and storing food and supplies, obtained from their autumn harvests and hunts, in anticipation of the next three months of cold weather. Ancient civilizations, such as the Aztecs, Druids, Egyptians, Greeks, Mayans, Phoenicians and Romans, among others, erected incredibly accurate temples, pyramids, monuments and calendars that assisted their villages in knowing when the seasonal changes were occurring. Stonehenge, in the photo above, is an example of such a structure. The photo below is of the Megalithic Passage Tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. It is a mounded tomb structure that is estimated to have been built in 3200 BC. There is a roof box over the entrance of the tomb which at sunrise during the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight breaks through and illuminates the entire interior of the structure.

newgrange

As with human rites of passage, celebrations and feasts were a major aspect of the ancient seasonal transitions as well, especially during the winter solstice. Fruit and nuts were plenty, beer and wine were fermented and animals thought not to survive through the winter were slaughtered. Food was in abundance at this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere and feasting was done in preparation for potentially 90 days of sparse sustenance. Festivities surrounding mid-winter holidays certainly continue in most cultures of the world today. In fact, Julius Caesar deemed December 25th the date of the winter solstice in early Roman times. And as most of you know, later on, the Christian church adopted this sacred date in honor of the birth of Christ.

In conclusion, you may ask why I have titled this post, Winter Solstice – A Time of Hope, when it apparently marks the time of anticipated harsh, cold weather.  As I pondered all the reasons, the scientific one came to mind first. Every day after December 21st brings more sunlight. The ancients knew if they prepared what food and supplies they could for the coming of winter and feasted on that which remained, each day they survived offered them more sunlight and eventual warmth. Hope simply helped them endure the season of long bitter nights and barren days. In today’s world, the winter solstice falls at the time of year (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa) when most of us, no matter our religious persuasion, strive to mend relationships, are charitable to those in need, and reflect on our personal blessings. It is a time of faith and observance and thanksgiving. It is a time we come together to congratulate and to celebrate. It is a time we come together and mourn those no longer with us – yet we remain determined to continue the traditions that have become all the more meaningful in our loved ones’ absence. It is a time we deeply reflect upon our life and muster the determination to live better physically, emotionally and spiritually in the coming year.

christmas star

As a Christian, I believe the date of the Roman winter solstice was purposefully chosen to represent Christmas Day, as the spirit of Christmas signifies great hope for all mankind. No matter your faith or circumstances, I wish you the amazing experience of hope this winter season.

Until next time,

Cindy
vincent on drums

 

This post is dedicated to my nephew, Vincent, who was born 13 years ago on the shortest day of the year!

 

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Persistent Pansies

Pansies in a Basket
If you are looking for an outdoor blooming plant that can take the cold weather and come back for more, pansies are your best bet. Pansies are quite resilient and will persist even after being buried for a couple of days in ice or snow. In the southern US and warmer coastal areas, mid to late fall (now) is the perfect time to plant pansies. If you live in the north where the winters are harsh and the spring nights remain crisp, pansies are best planted in the spring to early summer. They will continue to do well until the mid-summer heat begins to wilt them. For the purpose of this article and to tie in with the current fall season, I’ll refer to planting pansies in the south and coastal areas.

My first encounter with pansies was actually as a small child through a paint-by-number set. I recall there were many paint colors that came with the pansy set, as opposed to the daisy and rose sets, and of course, the extra containers of paint was the main reason, at 6 years old, I chose the pansies. It was a good experience because I learned early on that pansies can be found in a variety of colors and that they had “faces”, otherwise known as blotches.

Indeed, pansies can be found in multiple shades and colors, from deep purples to light blues, reds to pinks, burnt oranges to pale yellows, among other hues. Most pansies we identify with have blotches, but some do not. Some pansies are considered “penciled”, having lines radiating from their centers, while others are “clear” or blotchless.

Pansy - blotched

Blotched or Faced Pansy

Pansy - penciled

Penciled Pansy

Pansy - blotchless

Blotchless or Clear Pansy

Pansies are of the viola genus. They are believed to have been hybridized from two other blooming plants of that particular genus – the perennial violet, or a variation thereof, and the johnny-jump-up (which looks like a tiny bi-colored penciled pansy and are often referred to as violas or violettas). In fact, some folks believe penciled and clear pansies should be classified as violas – separate from the pansy label.

In researching the history and hybridization of the pansy, I must confess there are several schools of thought regarding what exactly classifies true pansies: blotch and/or blotchless, flower size, and/or number of petals pointing downward vs upward. There is also concern among some that viola can be used interchangeably as both a common name and a genus name. Going back to the previous paragraph, most commercial nurseries, when referring to pansies, are speaking of the larger flowering types that are used predominately as annual bedding plants – whether they are blotched, penciled or clear.

Putting genetics and nomenclature aside, pansies are very well adapted to the southern winters of the US and are a popular, if not the most popular, blooming plant in southern landscapes from October through March. I have found pansies do best if planted in part to full sun, two or three weeks prior to the expected first hard frost – usually in early to mid October in North Texas. Planting them a few weeks prior to the first frost (as best you can guess) allows time for the roots to establish themselves and allows the plants to be better able to withstand the oncoming cold. As mentioned earlier, pansies will withstand brief duration ice and/or snow storms. While they may look droopy and wilted for a day or two after the storm, most pansies will perk up quickly once the sun warms them a tad. Overall, pansies enjoy cooler temps and moist, but not wet, soil. If you are adorning hanging baskets with pansies this fall, be sure to give them an extra helping of mulch to aid with retaining moisture as they do not do well at all in consistently dry conditions. By adding a scoop of blood and/or bone meal to the soil when planting pansies, you will assist in supplementing needed nitrogen and phosphorus to your soil composition respectively. And, speaking of blood and bone meal, these soil amendments are exactly what their names state they are – dried blood and ground bone particles – byproducts of our meat industry. It has been found that pansies and violets respond better to these rich, slow releasing, organic fertilizers. And since rabbits love to munch on pansies, the addition of blood and bone meal to the soil appears to deter them. (The flowers are edible and palatable to humans, too, by the way.) One big caveat, however – while the blood and bone deters little rabbits, it acts like a magnet to big dogs! So . . . if your pansies are planted in common or accessible areas, you have your choice of losing a few nibbles to rabbits or potentially having to replant your beds due to errant dogs digging them up looking for remnants to the blood and bone meal!  Outside of the four-legged pests, the only other pests you may have trouble with regarding your pansies are snails and slugs – however in the cooler seasons they aren’t quite as numerous so you shouldn’t lose too many petals to them. If you find you have an issue with them, there are quite a few organic or otherwise safe solutions on the market that specifically target them.

Pansies - smiling

A plot of smiling faces!

On to a more positive note – a bonus to their beautiful colors is that en masse, pansies produce a sweet, light fragrance. When there isn’t much blooming outdoors, it is nice to come across a field of flowers that not only enhances our view, but our sense of smell as well!

pansies - flag

In conclusion, whether you are wanting to produce a warm, autumn feel by planting pansies in yellows, oranges and maroons around your fall pumpkins or a cool, crisp feel by planting a palate of blues, whites and purples among the fading grass or ornamental cabbages, you are sure to benefit from the persistence of pansies, and the rare beauty of that trait.

Until next time,

Cindy

This post is dedicated to Mike’s recently departed grandmother of 100 years, Ms. Viola Weseman. As her namesake suggests – her strength, beauty, good nature and love of family still persists . . .

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‘Tis the Season to Preserve and Protect your Plants!

Originally posted 12/14/2012 and p.s. I always have Moonflower seed if you have an interest.  See note at end of post.
 Covered Sago Palm
Covered sago palm during first freeze in North Texas – 2012

‘Tis the season to preserve and protect your plants! Even those of us who live in areas of mild winters should take heed and protect our tender perennials and otherwise delicate outdoor plantings when the cold winds blow our way. Living on the cusp of Zones 7b & 8a I have been fortunate to salvage a few of my prized plants during frost and freeze snaps without actually bringing them indoors. Of course, in North Texas we may have freezing temps one day and highs in the 70’s the next. Thus, if I brought plants inside every time there was a chance of a frost or freeze, I’d be carting them back and forth more times than I care to do! However, if you reside in an area that is steadily cold in the winter, I would indeed suggest you bring your tender perennials inside, if you can, or invest in a semi-permanent protective garden row cover to place over your prized possessions. As the days begin to warm in the spring, you may only need to remove the covers from your plants every now and then. Protecting plants from cold is actually very easy and economical. Truly, the hard part is staying ahead of the weather. This shouldn’t be too difficult in consistently cold areas but may be difficult in fluctuating temperate areas such as where I live. On sunny days after a frost if I accidentally leave a plant covered, especially with transparent plastic, it could actually burn.

Below are a few suggestions on how to protect your plants during sporadic hard frosts and freezes:

  • First of all, consider planting or placing your semi-tropicals and tender perennials on the south side of your home where they will receive barrier protection from the north winds, or,
  • Plant them in semi-enclosed areas of your landscape such as in corners or enclaves.
  • Before the first frost, mulch around and over your tender plantings heavily. Add more mulch to the plants prior to the first freeze. If your plants are in large pots that can’t be easily brought indoors, (such as hardy palms, hardy hibiscus, etc.), this practice is especially important. Remember, you can always use fall leaves for mulch!
  • If the weather has been dry, water your plants thoroughly at their base at least a day or two prior to the expected frost/freeze. This is especially important if the plants you wish to salvage are in pots, as moisture evaporates from soil more quickly in limited containers. (See the difference between periwinkles grown in the ground and those grown in a pot in the photo below.) Dry conditions are as tough on plants in the winter as are the drought conditions in the hot summer. Cold, dry winds evaporate moisture above the ground and once the freeze occurs, the plants cannot uptake frozen water crystals from below ground. Consider the act of watering your plants as a moisturizing treatment, if you will. Your plants will plump up and be better able to withstand the frigid temps if they are well hydrated. Again, water at least 24 hours prior to a freeze and try to avoid spraying the foliage.
  • During consecutive freezing nights, cover your plants with garden row covers, individual plastic plant covers or simply old blankets and towels – regardless of plant location or the amount of water and mulch you have dispersed. As I mentioned earlier – be sure to remove plastics and transparent covers when the temps warm up as they will magnify the sun’s rays and inadvertently burn the very plants you are attempting to preserve.
Periwinkle Contrasts
Contrasting conditions of periwinkles in ground and in a pot after first freeze in North Texas – 2012

I’m sure if you follow the above tips, you will be very pleased when your plants “spring” back! In the meantime, now is the time to be jolly . . . and to protect your plants too! Until next time, Cindy

 

I sincerely hope every one of you has a very wonderful holiday season, no matter the holiday you chose to honor. In my tradition of gift-giving at Christmas, I’d love to share a packet of Moonflower seeds with you. Send me a comment or email and according to postage restrictions, I’ll send you a packet to sow and enjoy during your summertime, whenever it is! Your information will remain confidential.

 

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Another Great Pumpkin Story

Originally Posted 10/25/2012

Welcome Great Pumpkin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Pumpkin

Pumpkins on a doorstep, along flowerbeds and in autumn scenes provide an instant fall feel to any yard or landscape come September and October. (Even when it is 87 degrees outside as it is today in North Texas!) I always buy two to three pumpkins around this time of year to place them in a cluster near my flowerbed of golden lantana. The combination is magic! I mentioned to my boyfriend recently that he needed a pumpkin or two in his front yard to provide a little autumn spice to his house. Being an avid gardener and self-proclaimed amateur landscape architect like myself, he didn’t take too well to having someone else offer suggestions for HIS yard!

Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t disrespectful, he just stated he had other plans for his fall decor. I let it drop, but I continued to browse the pumpkin patches and outdoor displays at the local grocery stores – just in case the perfect pumpkin appeared! One day last week, I was making a stop at the grocery store before heading over to my boyfriend’s. I love to use the little mini-rolling grocery carts as they are much easier for my 5 foot 1 inch, 50 year old body to maneuver. I spied one of the small carts out in the parking lot on the way into the store and grabbed it. As I was rolling up to the entrance of the grocery store, I saw three huge cartons filled with pumpkins just to the left of the doorway. My cart went into auto-pilot, veering toward the orange gourds.

I was viewing them from a distance, as I knew the closer I got the more likely I’d buy one or two and I knew my boyfriend wasn’t too keen on having them in his yard – not yet anyway – as he hadn’t laid out his plan. As I looked from a distance, out of the corner of my eye I saw a young man rounding up errant carts and lining them up for new customers. He saw me peering at the pumpkins and noticed I was deep in thought. He loudly spoke in my direction, “Do you want a pumpkin?” I jolted from my thoughts, looked over at him and discovered he was an employee of the store with Down Syndrome. He had the most excited expression on his face. He asked me again, “Do you want a pumpkin?” I told him I didn’t know, that I was really just looking. He came over and said, “Don’t worry, I will find you the biggest pumpkin!” and he proceeded to move dozens of pumpkins out of the huge box. I stood there watching as he sweated and worked to find the biggest pumpkin. I told him several times not to bother looking further, that the one he just had in his hand was fine. Nope, he continued to dig in the box. At last, he came to a gargantuan pumpkin near the bottom of the box. He worked his arms one way, then another, and then climbed into the box to get to the giant pumpkin. Once he had a good grasp on it, he picked it up and heaved it into my basket. He then very proudly and with a brilliant smile on his face proclaimed, “I found THE biggest pumpkin for you!” I thanked him with mutual tears of joy in my eyes and rolled into the store. Thank goodness all I truly needed to pick up was a loaf of bread and a half gallon of milk. There literally was no room for anything more in my basket and I could barely push the cart as it was! In fact, one little boy that encountered me in the store pointed and exclaimed, “Look mom, it’s The Great Pumpkin.”

Indeed it is . . . and it sits magnificently in my boyfriend’s front yard for all to see!

Until next time,

Cindy

The Great Pumpkin of 2012

The Great Pumpkin of 2012!

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Where Have All the Geckos Gone?

 
Gecko
Originally Posted 1/25/2013
 

I love geckos.  I love them for many reasons:

  • I think they are are cute.
  • They have super-hero suction feet.
  • They are kindof transparent, especially on their underside.
  • They have big, beautiful eyes.
  • They are lightning fast when necessary.
  • When they choose to slow down, they swing and sway as they walk.
  • They usually don’t bite humans – and if they ever did, they aren’t poisonous and really, would it hurt?
  • In turn, when something bites them on the tail, they’ll happily detach it.
  • The detached tail will wiggle for a while thereafter, distracting the predator so that the gecko can escape.
  • If it is lost, the tail will soon grow back.
  • Best of all, geckos eat roaches and many other household and garden pests, serving as a natural pesticide, if you will.

Baby Gecko

In the wintertime, I truly miss the geckos that usually greet me, clinging like live decorations to the brick walls of my doorway on warm nights. As most of you know by now, I live in the southern US where the winters are relatively mild. I would expect to see geckos out and about during the week-long warm spells we have now and then in January & February. Not so, and I’ll tell you why –
Geckos brumate.

Brumate?

Brumation is what reptiles do in the colder seasons, very similar to the hibernation activity of mammals. Although reptiles are cold blooded and can withstand fluctuations of temperatures very well, their bodies instinctively seek rest and added protection as the days grow shorter and the temperatures become consistently cooler. Their metabolism also gradually slows during this period – to the point they will not eat, yet they are able to maintain a healthy weight. Interestingly, pet geckos that enjoy warmer household temperatures and artificial lighting may still instinctively brumate. Their bodies may sense even the slightest decrease in indoor temperatures and send them into brumation, however their reactions may not be quite as dramatic as those of the lizards that live outdoors. If you have, or have had, reptiles as pets, you may recognize this period as the time when your lizard becomes slightly lethargic and just doesn’t eat as much as usual. Perhaps this is the month or so that your lizard consistently leaves a few live crickets in the tank whereas he usually gobbles them all up. Geckos that live outdoors will seek shelter in warm crevices, hollow logs, deep leaf mounds and mud as nighttime temperatures begin to dip below 50 degrees. Don’t be surprised if you accidentally disturb a gecko or two brumating in your outdoor planters should you decide to sow a few winter or early spring flowers! My mom innocently dug up a number of brumating bullfrogs one year that were overwintering in the terra cotta planters situated on her sunny porch. Don’t fret, though – disturbing reptiles and amphibians during brumation will not hurt or kill them, it only inconveniences them a bit. Conversely, when weather conditions become extremely hot and dry, cold-blooded animals will often estivate – or seek cool, moist, shaded areas in which to rest to help them better survive the severely arid period. Lizards that live in desert areas are often found in an estivation stage under rocks and deep inside ledges during the hottest of the summer months.

Gecko stamp

 

Back to the gecko in particular . . . During my research about why I rarely, if ever, see geckos during the wintertime, I learned a few more points I’d like to share with you in conclusion:

  • By far the most common gecko we see in the US has the scientific name, Hemidactylus turcicus. It is commonly known as the Mediterranean House Gecko. (There is another gecko species that has arrived in the US recently that originates from Asia, but it is not nearly as abundant.)
  • As its name suggests, the Mediterranean House Gecko originates from southern Europe and northern Africa. (See map below)
  • It has lid-less eyes with vertical pupils and sticky toe pads, traits unlike the lizards native to the US.
  • The Mediterranean House Gecko was first noted in the US in 1915 in Florida.
  • It was thought to have arrived in the US as a stowaway aboard a ship and since then, has acclimated well to the populated cities of the Gulf coastal states, Caribbean and Mexico.
  • The Mediterranean House Gecko is nocturnal, again, coming out at night to eat household insects and garden pests that are drawn to porch lights.
  • Female geckos typically lay only one or two eggs per clutch, but may have several clutches each summer.
  • It is believed the only predator of geckos in the US is the snake (that is, not counting our overly curious dogs and cats!)
 Gecko map
Distribution of the Mediterranean House Gecko
 

As I close this post, I ponder the differences in how humans, animals, birds, insects and plants adapt to the seasons. Some of us hibernate, some of us brumate, some of us migrate and some of us transform. I think if there is one commonality here, it is that we should respect and listen to the nature of our bodies. If we are tired, we should seek rest. If we have overindulged, we should seek moderation. If we are too hot or too cold, we should seek shelter. Lastly, if we are unhappy, we should certainly seek contentment.

Nature is nurture, after all.

Until next time,

Cindy

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Solar Lighting – Taking Advantage of the Summer Sun

  solar landscape lanterns
 
Originally posted August, 2012

With the incredible heat wave hitting the midwestern and southern US this summer (it is expected to be 104 degrees today in North Central Texas), I was pondering what could I possibly write about regarding gardening or landscaping when our plants are simply struggling to stay alive. I admit, after vacationing, my veggie garden has literally bit the dust for it did not have the luxury of a daily hand watering while I was away. Bell peppers not quite ripe when I left are now scalded and shriveled. I may be able to salvage the pepper plants themselves and hope for a crop in the late fall. I’m also hoping my one surviving pumpkin plant holds on. If you are in the same boat as I, don’t pull up the plants just yet. Instead, give them a trim and pamper them with mulch and hand watering as best you can. You may even consider erecting some shade cloth shelters if you are so determined. I’ve always heard it said there are two growing seasons in Texas – spring and fall. Unfortunately, summer is indeed about as devastating to Texas as winter is in the far northern states. There is, however, something you may consider doing in the garden about now – now that summer is supposedly winding down and garden clearance sales are in effect: establishing solar lighting.

By now, I am sure you have at least seen the very inexpensive solar landscape lights in and around both the discount and home improvement stores. I am as fascinated with solar lighting as I am with my solar bird bath fountain. Since solar lighting has become more popular in recent years, the availability and variety of sizes and styles has greatly increased. You’re sure to find a style, or two, that you like. You are also likely to find a solar option for just about any circumstance you may have for lighting in the landscape.

Most solar lights recommend they (or their solar panels) are placed in an area that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight in order for them to provide adequate lighting. The longer the exposure to sunlight, the brighter and longer the duration of light each lamp will provide. The small path lights found in most any store these days are quite pretty and especially functional at entrances and exits to your home and/or business. My mom, living out in “the country”, benefits from solar reflective lights marking the drainage ditches at the end of her long driveway. They provide a guide, or landing strip, you might say, as we enter or exit her property. They are also very valuable to those of us suffering from night blindness.

solar-landscape-light

Nowadays you can purchase patio umbrellas with built-in solar lighting or, if you already have an umbrella, you can purchase a kit for your existing shade. Solar lighting under an umbrella provides the same lovely ambience as candlelight. -And speaking of candlelight, you can also find a variety of solar lanterns to mimic candles, again, to place around your patio as needed – or hang from a fence, pergola, or in a deciduous tree during the wintertime. If you need lighting but are one that prefers things au naturale in the landscape, consider the solar lights/spotlights that come in the form of realistic-looking rocks and boulders.

solar lantern

 

solar rock

The most recent solar lighting purchase I made was that of a color-changing angel on a stake. After visiting the cemetery where my nephew is laid to rest, I saw a color changing light in the distance on another grave. It provided a soothing, beacon-like ambience and I wanted my nephew’s resting place to feel the same. Since most cemeteries receive quite a bit of sun, these staked items really do well in that environment, and again, there are a number of styles and symbols to choose from.

In addition to being green and saving electricity, solar lights can be used indoors in cases of power outages occurring at night. I have to admit, I borrowed this idea from my city’s emergency operations center – but I thought it was quite brilliant. (No pun intended!) During a thunderstorm, or perhaps a rolling brown-out or black-out, simply pull up one or two of your solar path lights and stake them in an interior potted plant or through an upside down cardboard box. Place in the center of the room and you’ll have bright light for a few hours without the danger of using candles or experiencing the inconvenience of finding that your battery-operated devices have run-down. A co-worker of mine keeps a couple of solar path lights in the potted plants on her sunny doorstep just for this reason.

In conclusion, while there isn’t much you can do in the way of gardening during 100+ degree temps, you can still enhance and transform your outdoors with the strategic placement of solar lighting. After all, most of us simply aren’t able to enjoy our gardens and patios during the dog days of summer until the sun has gone down!

Until next time,

Cindy

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Capulin Volcano

 

2012 Colorado Vacation 013

Originally posted July 2, 2012

I recently returned from a vacation whereby ten members of my extended family traveled in three separate vehicles from the North Texas area to the Colorado Springs area. Fortunately for us, we managed to get in a full four days of sightseeing before the terrible fires encroached upon the town of Manitou Springs. We hope this beautiful town and surrounding area recovers soon. Colorado is a favorite vacation spot for many” flat land” Texans as evidenced by the large amount of Lone Star State license plates you’ll see along the route from Texas through New Mexico and into southern Colorado. Most Texans, among them my nieces and nephews, will tell you there isn’t much to see or do on a road trip between Dallas and Raton, save the spectacular Palo Duro Canyon located just south of Amarillo. I’ll reserve sharing that experience for another post. Today, I’d like to tell you a little about a nice surprise we came upon in northwestern New Mexico – Capulin Volcano National Monument.

Capulin Volcano, a classic cinder cone dormant volcano, is located in the midst of the Raton-Clayton volcanic field. There are several other recognizable volcanoes in the area, as well as some that you don’t realize are small volcanic domes until you take a second or third glance. Capulin Volcano, as you can see by the pic I snapped above, is quite perfect in shape. The volcano is visible for at least 20 miles prior to arriving at its base.

I would describe the terrain along the Raton-Clayton path as a rocky, moderately high desert type. As we drove through mostly flat country dotted with sporadic peaks and domes, we saw an abundance of mule deer and antelope. Various types of blooming cacti decorated the otherwise sparse landscapes in yellows and pinks.

2012 Colorado Vacation 018

Besides the magnificence of viewing it from the base, driving to its peak, and hiking around its rim, I found it fascinating that multitudes of ladybugs live on the mountain. We had stopped at the information center enroute to the top of the volcano and received a pamphlet and a map of the site. While there, a park attendant told us we happened to be visiting during the active ladybug season. (She also told us four types of hummingbirds routinely visit the site as well.) I was a tad intrigued and made a mental note to look for ladybugs at the peak – thinking I might see a few here and there and if I was lucky, one might land on me. Boy, did I ever underestimate what “ladybug season” meant!

As we hiked the paved pathway along the rim of the volcano, my family and I admired the many labeled shrubs and wildflowers. There is actually a sumac-related shrub in the area that has the common name “skunkbush.”  If you brush against it or crush a leaf with your shoe it will emit the faint aroma of a skunk. Another interesting fact about this shrub is it is not completely destroyed in forest fires – above ground it is certainly burned, but below ground it will survive and re-emerge good as new the following season. What caught my eye in particular was the bright orange-red berries among the skunkbush’s leaves (see below).

skunkbush-sumac-berries_medium

Skunkbush (Rhus trilobata)

So, as we walked along the rim of the volcano I seemed to notice quite a few skunkbushes along the way – except they weren’t skunkbushes after all. They were, instead, shrubs that were inundated with orangish-red ladybugs! Thousands and thousands of them! Below is a picture I took on June 16, 2012 of ladybugs at the base of a shrub on the rim of Capulin Volcano. Comparing the photos, I am sure you can see why I did not notice the ones in this second photo were ladybugs at first glance.

ladybugs

Ladybugs at the base of a shrub on Capulin Volcano

Having never seen so many ladybugs in one place, I knew I would want to learn more about the attraction of the bugs to that particular area. Was it the region? The elevation? The lack of predators? The vegetation? The rocks? Perhaps the fact Capulin is a volcano is of significance?

up close ladybugs

Close-up of Ladybugs on Capulin Volcano

This is what I’ve learned: Scientists (Entomologists) simply do not know the specific attraction of Capulin Volcano to the ladybugs. But they do know the particular type of ladybug that resides there is called the Convergent Lady Beetle (Hippodamia convergens) and is one that migrates. The beetles arrive on the volcano via wind currents throughout the summer season and stay to overwinter there. In very early spring (February) the ladybugs catch southernly winds to warmer areas rife with aphid infestations, where they gorge, mate and lay eggs. When the larvae become adults, they hitch a wind current back with their parents to Capulin Volcano to prepare for hibernation and to continue the cycle. Some scientists believe the rocks of Capulin Volcano serve as landmarks or landing beacons for the beetles as they are carried in the wind. Capulin is not the only peak that hosts the Convergent Lady Beetle over winter. Some beetles miss their landing at Capulin and are carried further northwest to settle among a few other isolated, mid-level peaks located in southern Colorado.

One day I hope we uncover the mystery of the ladybug attraction to Capulin Volcano. It truly fascinates me. Until then, it should interest those of us that purchase or attempt to keep beneficial ladybugs in our gardens as natural predators, to know they will eventually leave our summer gardens to gather at their winter mountain resorts. Considering the dedication to their annual roundtrip journeys, I indeed have a much greater appreciation for the precious time ladybugs do chose to visit in my yard in North Texas.

Until next time,

Cindy

References:
http://www.nps.gov/cavo/naturescience/insects.htm
http://www.gazette.com/articles/colorado-60818-heading-hills.html
http://www.cimarronnm.com/PDF/NM_Volcanoes.pdf
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