Tuesday, March 30, 2010


You read that right.  It's yet another non-gardening post.  So the blog is set up to be about Gardening but it's my blog and I'll post off topic if I want to.  So there.

Actually I couldn't help but share the news.  Two of my angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare), Avogadro and Pirate, have spawned.  I'm not sure which is which gender (although when I looked closely Lady Gaga also looks Gravid (full of eggs) so I think she's female, too).  It's very hard to tell gender in Angelfish unless you watch them spawn or notice that one is gravid.

Here's Pirate with the eggs - they are the white dots on the Dwarf Sword leaf (Echinodorus don'tknowthespeciesous).

And here's Avogadro.  Sorry for the picture quality.

Angelfish are good parents when it comes to tending their eggs.  They will tend the eggs, keeping them aerated and removing any that get fungus.  The first few spawns they might not be very successful and the mortality rate among Angelfish fry (baby fish) is very high so I don't expect any offspring from this breeding.  But it will be fun to watch.  You might have to read a few posts about it.  And I need to figure out where to get food for the fry, they do best on freshly hatched brine shrimp.  I guess I need to set up a brine shrimp hatchery.  I've got about a week.

The Season of Bad Advice, Ants

Even if I were shut in a cave with no access to the outside world except via television commercials I would know it was Spring.  The Lawn Care commercials are popping up everywhere and the Gardening commercials are starting to bud out and lets not forget the Weedy Pest Control Commercials that crowd out the Lawn of Rational Thought About Insects all summer long (Whew, I had to work to keep that metaphor going).

Lately I've noticed one particularly egregious commercial advertising what good advice could be found at a Big Box Store (you know the one, the Blue one).  A couple comes in with a jar of ants and asks for advice.  The clerk (who probably has a high school diploma and does this job between modeling stints while waiting for her big break) identifies the ants by color (really?) as "Wood Ants" and suggests a pesticide (the bag reads Grub Control so I'm not even sure it would work on ants).

There are ants, Carpenter Ants, that will nest in the wooden walls of houses and I have no problem with homeowners wanting to get rid of them but ants in the garden are NOT HARMFUL (ok, unless they are Fire Ants in which case you need to avoid the nests because they are so aggressive but I live in New England so no Fire Ants here!  One of the few gardening perks of this region).

Most garden ants are Beneficial Insects.  They build elaborate underground nests and tunnel systems.  This aerates and loosens the soil.  As gardeners we know that a loose soil allows better water penetration, makes it easier for roots to expand and allows air into the root zone of plants.  We all know not to step on garden soil.  Turns out that there is an inverse relationship between concentration of ants and soil compaction - less ants means more compacted soil.  Starting to be convinced?

Benefit number 2:  some ant species are carnivorous.  That means natural pest control.  Ants will eat other insects including caterpillars and the eggs of some insect species.  Ok.  So this is not true of all species.  Yes, some species are associated with aphids.  I guess whether ants are a plus or a minus when it comes to pest control depends on the species.  Call it a wash.

Benefit number 3:  Interactions with plants.  Native plants sometimes work with ants to get their seeds planted.  (This is cool)  The seeds have a added layer of ant food so the ants will carry it into their nests.  The ants get the food and leave the rest of the seed where it is, protected from seed eaters, "planted" in a nice stable environment just right for germination. 

So really the best benefit from ants is to the soil but the soil is the foundation of the good garden.  Good soil equals healthy plants equals a nice place to garden.  Bad soil and you are not going to have much success without more work on the Gardeners part.

Whew.  A whole rant about ants.  And that's only part of the commercial.  With that much bad advice in the first 15 seconds why should I take ANY advice from them?  [Silence]

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Spring Break Part II

Yesterday I posted about the first half of our trip to South Florida.  Today I'm posting about the Everglades.  Pam at Digging also spent some time in South Florida recently.  Check out here post from March 23 and March 22 (here and here).  She's prolific and a good photographer.  Her March 22 post deal with the Naples Botanical Garden.  We went there on a windy afternoon (so no photos, although Pam has some good ones) and were impressed with the variety of bromeliads but this is still a young garden and had little to inspire me in my small yard (large drifts of similar plants look great but are hard for me to plan in my limited space.  I'm much more of a plant collector than a garden designer).

We went to the Shark Valley entrance to the Everglades.  They have a tram that takes you out to a large gator hole and a tower you can climb to get a good look over the region.  The tram is narrated so if you don't know a lot about the local wildlife it's good.  I caught several errors in our guides spiel, though.  Nothing that the average person would catch or even care about.  Just me, A Rabid Biologist.  The tram trail is also accessible to bikes or pedestrians (it's about 15 miles round trip).  Again, if we had taken my different camera bag (my backpack bag) we might have been able to bike it but with all of my equipment (20 pounds worth) we were lazy and took the tram.  The big gator hole provided some great looks at big alligators (Alligator mississippiensis).

It also provided some close looks at Purple Gallinule (Porphyrula martinica).

That's amazing color, isn't it?  We've usually seen this bird disappearing into the vegetation but there were several Gallinule that allowed us good looks (and good photos!).  Those huge feet allow the Gallinule to walk on floating plants.

We also got looks at an Anhinga nest.  Here's an adult (Anhinga anhinga, a bird so unique they named it twice).

And here is a large and ungainly juvenile.  I'm not sure what to call this stage.  A brancher?  It isn't a fledgling yet but it has left the nest and is climbing around (clumsily) in the shrubs.

The canal in this area is artificial (like most South Florida channels) but lined with wildlife.  Like this turtle (possibly the common cooter Pseudemys floridana).

And, of course, more waders.  This is a Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) that walked right past my tripod while hunting between the trail and the canal.  Lots of very close up shots.

We did make another stop at Big Cypress Bend but the photo opportunities were not as good and it was (again) the middle of the afternoon when photography and birding are at their worst.  Best part of this stop was spotting this wild bees nest.  It really was huge.

Yellow Crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea)

So those are the highlights of my Spring Break.  I came back to temperatures in the 30s and 40s and a prediction of rain for most of this week.  But there is stuff happening in the garden and the bad advice commercials are coming hot and heavy so soon I'll be back to posting about gardening again.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Spring Break Part I

I'm back from my week off.  This was Spring Break at the College where I teach so I, of course, went to Florida.  I wanted to get away from the cooler temperatures of New England so I went South for a week of Drunken Debauchery.  Don't believe me?  Darn.  You know me too well.  I went South for a week of bird watching and nature observing.  Sound more likely?

We've been to South Florida before so we had an idea of where we wanted to go.  Some of the best locations for wildlife viewing in the United States are located here.  Of course the US has very little in the way of Charismatic Megafauna (the big, easily viewed animals you think of when you think of Africa) so we go for the birds and South Florida does not disappoint.

This is a Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaia ajaia).  They are relatively elusive bright pink birds.  Notice the shape of the bill?  Turns out that the native pink bird of Florida is the Roseate Spoonbill and not the Flamingo.  It's unclear if any Flamingos are or have even occurred "naturally."  It's more likely they were all escapees fand their descendants) from captive populations.  So one large pink bird with an odd shaped bill that was brought in as captive birds is the iconic bird of Florida while another large pink bird with an odd shaped bill actually is native. 

We saw these at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.  It's great for even the casual bird watcher.  There is a four mile scenic drive through a Mangrove Swamp that is filled with long legged wading birds and plenty of opportunity to stop and get out (or to walk or bike, something we don't do with all of my  heavy camera gear).

This Tricolor Heron (Egretta tricolor) posed very close to shore, catching small fish that came out of a culvert under the road where the water moved with the tides.

Here's a Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens).  This one was holding still.  These birds hunt by dancing.  They move rapidly through the water with wings spread.  It's a sight to behold but not easy to photograph.

Waders weren't the only things we spotted in the area.  This Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina) was hunting insects along the shoreline.  How often do you see warblers on the beach?  Warblers are one of the later spring migrants since they are insect eaters.  Warblers are very colorful, sing beautifully, and are hard to spot in the treetops.

OK.  So not all Warblers are colorful and hang out in treetops.  This warbler is an Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus).  Ovenbirds spend a lot of time on the ground.  We saw this one under the feeders at Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Sanctuary.  This is another good birding location that is easy for the casual birder to enjoy.  

Corkscrew Swamp is a mixed habitat are with cypress swamp, pine forest and grassy fields.  

They feed the birds so many birds come right up to the visitors center area (including a painted bunting that I did not get good photos of).  This guy was under one of the feeders.  Raccoons (Procyon lotor) can become major pests when they get used to getting easy food from people.  The people at Corkscrew know this and are trying to figure out how to discourage the raccoon while still attracting ground feeding birds.  It's quite a challenge. 

Raccoon can carry several diseases that are transmissible to humans and pets.  If you have raccoons in your area don't leave pet food out overnight, secure your compost and try to get a raccoon resistant bird feeder or hang your feeder so it's hard for the raccoons to get to.

Corkscrew Swamp was also home to numerous Brown Anoles (Anolis sagrei), an invasive exotic species from Cuba and the Bahamas that is competing with our native Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis).  I was tempted to catch some up and bring them home but I didn't think I could catch enough to have a dent in their exploding population.

This big draw for us at Corkscrew were the Swallow-tail Kites (Elanoides forficatus).  There was a great view of a nest from the boardwalk.  You can see the flying kite carrying a stick.

The nest is in this photo behind the bird.  He was launching off the nest.  The sanctuary folks had a spotting scope set up so even if you didn't have your own binoculars you could get a good look at the nest.

One of the interesting things about the South Florida habitats is the prevalence of epiphytic plants.  There are lots of plants that grow on trees and even the power lines.  Here is a nice Tillandsia.  There were also ferns, bromeliads, and Spanish moss.  

Tillandsia Bloom

Epiphytes get the moisture and nutrients they need out of the air.  In cooler climates lichens and mosses can grow ephiphytically.

Whew.  There's a lot of stuff still to go.  Let's call this posting Part I and I'll post Part II tomorrow.  I still have laundry to catch up on, groceries, next week's lecture, checking out what happened in my garden this past week....

Friday, March 19, 2010

On the Edge of Spring

This has been a wonderful week here on The Edge.  The weather was great.  We were lucky that we didn't get as much rain as some parts of Massachusetts and our house only got minor water intrusion.    And the weather was great.  I got to spend a lot of time this week out in the yard and garden, watching everything wake up from the long winter sleep.

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra previoushomeownerii)

I found flats of pansies at the local Big Box retailer and bought a few to put in.  This is my Annual Corner.  I only plant annuals there because this is where the snow from out driveway gets piled and there's always a chance the plow will disturb the soil.  I had to be careful because I also have a buttload of Darwin type tulips.  My soil is amazingly loose so I was able to use the Right Hand Tool to carefully create holes around the tulips.  It helps to use the Right Hand Tool because I can feel the tulip bulbs when I dig my fingers in.  Yes, my soil really is that loose.  Aren't you jealous?

I'm sorry the pictures are bad.  I went out in the afternoon so that I could photograph some of the other residents and visitors here at The Edge.  But despite having seen a bee land on the pansies within 10 minutes of planting them and the cluster of crocus below covered with bees yesterday afternoon I couldn't find a single insect this afternoon.

This week I have seen my First of the Year (FOY) bees, wasp, grasshopper, earthworm and Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa).  Just not while I've been outside with the camera.  You'll have to settle for a picture of this cute little Iris reticulata that popped up among the crocus.  I only have a couple and I didn't see any last spring but I like them so much that they're going on my Brent and Becky's Wish List (did you know that they are already accepting orders for fall shipments of bulbs?  If you see something you like or a gap in your landscape you don't have to remember till it's time to order you can order now.  THAT is clever marketing!).

I'm pretty good about labeling plants and it's this time of year that really makes me glad.  That way I know that these are chives and not some sort of grass showing up in my flower bed.  Oh, yeah, there's some sort of grass near my chives.  I'll have to figure out how to remove that without hurting the chives.

I've had lots of birds singing in the 'hood and even seen some carrying nesting materials.  The early breeders are already at it.  So watch for bird nests when you're out doing your early gardening.  I checked my old Christmas Tree carefully before tossing it in the back of the lot.  I want to pull all the needles off for the compost pile and cut it up for the brush pile but today I just wanted to make sure the sparrows didn't build a nest in it where it was leaning.  I'd left it up to provide winter protection for birds coming to the feeder and heated water bath but in a month I'm planning on planting something there.  You'll have to wait and see what.  Meanwhile the clover is starting to come up.  Why is that relevant to this paragraph on old Christmas trees and nesting birds?  Because there are some tree needles in this photo and I didn't take a photo of birds with nesting material or the old tree.

I like to push Zones here on The Edge.  With a garden name like The Edge you have to try to be on the cutting edge of gardening.  It's in the rule book.  Last year I planted some Mexican Feather Grass (Stipa tenuissima).  It's good to zone 7 and I'm in zone 6.  I planted it by the garage in an area that gets afternoon sun and waited to see if it survived.  It looked so good all summer, fall and winter that I decided I would replant it if it didn't come back.  If you push the Zone you better be willing to take the Loss.  Well look here.  Looks like it might be coming back (see the green?).  Woo-hoo! 

OK.  So I'm so excited about spring that this is just a disjointed rambling about what I noticed going on outside this week.  I promise I'll get over this rush of spring excitement and get more on track, with a cohesive topic and something important to say.  Really I will.  No, really.  In the meantime I did want to warn ya'll that I will not be posting for a week.  I have some other things going on that will be taking up my time.  It's only a week.  You can handle it.  I know you can.  I'll leave you with this one last image to get your through this coming week.  It's almost time for the Forsythia I got on sale last spring to bloom.  I bought them at a Big Box after they were done blooming and I wasn't sure they'd survive but here they are!  Ok.  They will be.  Soon.  Just like the rest of Spring.  I can hardly wait!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

First Bloom of 2010

Here it is, fashionably late for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, the first outdoor bloom of 2010.  I give you...


Foliage Follow Up

The day after we appreciate our blooms we take time to appreciate our foliage.  This time of the year I can really appreciate the signs that my garden is waking up from winter.  All of my columbines (Aquilegia sp.) are starting to show new growth.

This is a collection of winter interest.  The Thread Leaf Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) is a bit yellower than this picture shows.  I like the contrasting textures between it, the dwarf Pieris and the (hopefully dwarf) Rhododendron.

 This Buddleia managed to hold on to some leaves all winter.  This is one of the Nanho series.

My mountain mint (Pycnanthemum) has clearly started to spread already.  It can be a bit aggressive but I planted it in the Hell Strip so it is welcome to spread.

The Sempervivum also survived heavy snow cover.  We'll see if the sandy, dry soil of the Hell Strip is enough to let it survive the very wet spring.

This Penstemon (Mystica) seems to have turned it's leaves upside down in frustration over the winter's snow cover.

This Sedum Autumn Fire) managed to hold onto last years flower stalks despite being buried by the snow plows.  I like this photo that shows the old flower stalks and the hint of new growth.  Well I liked it better before Blogger turned it sideways!

After all the recent rainfall I won't be able to do much in the garden as the weather warms this week.  Fortunately a lot of my perennials are reachable from outside the beds so I can start pulling back last year's dead foliage.  I like to leave it until the new foliage shows up in the spring since some plants do better holding on to the old stuff over the winter.

When I say recent rainfall I mean the State of Emergency in Massachusetts due to several heavy storms.  Our ground is saturated.  There is a new pond in the woods behind our house and several of my neighbors have hoses running from their basement sump pumps.  We have been lucky.  Not much water in the basement (just dampness), no trees down (knock wood!  The ground is still saturated so if we get any wind they could start coming down).  We do have a roof leak around our chimney that required all of our old towels to spend the night in the attic but it was towels, not buckets.  Still I won't be planting pea seeds today!

Thanks to Pam at Digging for this meme.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day

It's a good thing I took pictures on Friday.  All weekend it has rained and rained and rained (2.72 inches so far).  For those of you suffering from the same problems here is some GBBD cheer!

I know many gardeners are posting spring blooms this month but outside for me it's Garden Bloggers Bud Day.  Here is a nice pansy that survived under the snow all winter.  If we'd had sunshine and warm weather on the weekend she's probably be blooming today.

The previous homeowner planted lots of crocus in purples and whites.  I need to add some yellows.  After a long gray New England winter I need bright colors in the garden.

The Pieris japonica hold their buds all winter long.  Nice winter interest.  Not blooming yet.

Sadly that's it for outdoors.  But inside is a different story!  Here's my new Streptocarpus.

A nice close up of a reblooming Phalenopsis.

My windowsill full of perpetually blooming Begonias.  Love the long bloom time on these.

Finally, some yellow.  A nice yellow primrose, followed by a nice orange primrose.  These guys sit on my desk to cheer me up while I'm grading.  If you notice that the centers of the flowers look different they are.  The yellow plant is a "female" and the orange one is a "male."  Most plants seem to be both but primrose fit into the Dioecious category.  I have been corrected.  (Doesn't happen often.  Don't get used to it.)  Primrose flowers are even weirder than that.  They apparently come in two varieties:  Pin and Thrum.  They do seem to require cross pollination between a pin type and a thrum type but both types produce both "male" and "female" gametes.  Thanks to Joseph from Greensparrow Gardens (see the comment below).

That's it for me today.  Hopefully next month....  Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for this meme.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Zone Envy

It's that time of year again when those of us living in colder climates are subject to Zone Envy (as opposed to winter when we're subject to Zone Envy and late fall when we're subject to Zone Envy).  I've been watching bloggers in other parts of the country celebrating Spring and the new flowers and growth.  Me?  I had to get my daffodils at the grocery store.

After a long and dreary weekend with lots of rain and wind (and a head cold for me, actually good timing for a change, if any time is a good time for a cold and my excuse for not posting for a while) we're expecting warmer weather so I'll finally get a chance to go out into the garden  and cut back the dead top growth on last years perennials.  I already set out my pots of Rosemary that I overwintered - one in the garage and one in the house.  I have NOT set out my Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) that I forced into dormancy in the basement; it is coming back nicely.  Maybe I'll be able to pick up some Pansies this week, too.  The ones that survived the winter have buds on them!  Soon, soon, soon!

I had hoped to get outdoor blooms for tomorrow's Garden Blogger Bloom Day but I think this weekend's storm canceled that, everything stayed in bud.  Maybe later this week  And my new Spring Cactus (Rhipsalidopsis should'veboughttheonealreadyinbloomis) is also holding out, not going to bloom for me until after GBBD. 

March.  Such a cruel month.  I'm so ready for spring.  Maybe I don't have a head cold.  Maybe Spring Envy causes head congestion...