Sunday, August 21, 2011

Natives Gone Wild!

When we first embarked on our landscape makeover in January 2010, we wanted to create a yard that would inspire others to step outside the traditional Florida landscape box -- a large expanse of lawn with a border of shrubs around the house, and a palm tree plunked here and there.

Beach sunflower is a colorful summer favorite
Working with landscape designer Lisa Strange we decided on a mix of native and non-native, but Florida-compatible plants. And, of course, as you all know, no grass. I asked Lisa to include plants that anyone could readily find at their local nursery or home improvement store.Thus our landscape features familiar friends like liriope, shell ginger, flax lily and African iris -- all of which I love and recommend highly.

But as time goes on I am drawn more and more to our resilient, adaptable natives. One that was slow to grow on me (pun intended) was the Ocala anise, a shrub we use as a foundational plant along our back fence.  Last year when we planted them, I had to water them literally every day for months. I think I would have ripped them out if not for the the fact that I invested so much sweat equity in getting them in our root-infested back yard to begin with! 

The anise have been amazingly carefree and drought-tolerant this year.I  haven't given them any supplemental water since May and they look very happy. 

Likewise with the coontie. I now realize that there is some point during every year when the coontie looks like it is at death's door, then it just bounces right back.

This summer I have added a few native wildflowers, with the emphasis on "wild." Some have grown so large and so abundantly they appear to be on steroids. The two narrow-leaved sunflowers planted last year have become multiple plants this year -- and they are nearly 9 feet tall! I had to stake most of them up to keep them from toppling over from sheer bulk, and they haven't even bloomed yet.
The distinctive Scorpion Tail

Another champion wildflower this year is the delicate, leafy scorpion tail, with its distinctive curly white "tail." Again, I started with two plants. Those two spread so rapidly and became so large I've had to prune them 3 times already to keep them from literally taking over my butterfly bed.

Mistflower can become invasive, and requires reining in occasionally
Not far behind is the dainty mistflower, with its fuzzy, pale blue blossoms and leaves that look much like a salvia. I purchased one plant last year, it didn't impress me much and then disappeared completely over the winter. To my surprise, it returned this year, with a vengeance. I now have a large beautiful clump of these pastel beauties and will have to keep it under control through pruning and pulling. 

A close look at dotted horsemint
reveals its exquisite beauty
Tropical sage with GIANT
narrow-leaved sunflowers in back
Tropical sage has reached near-invasive status in my yard. It grows to more than 4 feet high and spreads so readily that I am constantly yanking "strays" up and trying to pawn them off to friends, neighbors, total strangers -- anyone, please take them!

I have been noticing lovely dotted horsemint blooming along roadsides and in wild areas, and am hoping the lone horsemint planted this year in my garden will morph into a whole family next summer. I've left it some room to roam in anticipation.

Other natives I have just planted this year include spiderwort, blue-eyed grass, iron weed, greeneyes and elephant's foot.  Most were given to me by friends who are just as enthusiastic about these True Floridian as I am becoming. With many natives so hard to find except at specialty nurseries, sharing extras from your garden is a great way to promote their increased use in residential landscapes.

I'd love to know what native wildflowers have caught your fancy this summer! 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Confessions of a Spider Sissy

Female black and yellow argiope,
 a common garden spider
Since we have decided not to use any toxic chemicals in our yard, I have had to resign myself to living with creepy-crawly things like spiders. I've even grown to like some of the spiders, like the beautiful female black and yellow argiope that crafted a stunning wheel-shaped web under one of our gutters last fall.

I also admire the pretty little basilica spiders that have built their elaborate three-dimensional webs in so many of our shrubs (see May 2011 posting). 

I have even become positively fearless about taking very close-up photos of these spiders with my macro lens.This amazes my husband, who learned early on in our dating days that a normal conversation interrupted by a sudden "shriek and bolt" means only that I have spotted a spider, not that I disapprove of his choice of outfits. 

Once, on a remote island in the Bahamas, I actually jumped out of a moving car in a complete, brain-freeze of a panic when I saw a HUGE spider crawling on the inside window rim. Fortunately Rick was driving slowly on a dirt road and I was not hurt. Even though he got the spider out of the car, I spend the entire rest of the trip constantly inspecting every inch of that car. 

The spiders in my compost bin illicit the same response. They are big, brown, hairy, hideous things. Wolf spiders? I don't know, because I don't stick around to examine them. I Shriek and Bolt immediately. I admit it -- I am a total and complete Spider Sissy. I am not generally a fast mover, but let me tell you I practically teleport when I see one of those monsters.

I do not recall the instructor in my composting workshop saying anything about GINORMOUS, GARGANTUAN hairy spiders in the compost bin. She showed us pictures and collection jars of worms, sowbugs, beetles, and little spiders. Little, non nightmare-producing spiders.

This photo is by Peter Hollinger, not me. 
I am NEVER going to get close 
enough to a spider like this 
to get a photo of it.
Rick also recently found a black widow in the compost bin. I may never open the lid again.

My rational side knows that spiders are useful, beneficial creatures. They are attracted to the compost bin because it contains a wealth of easily available insect prey for them. They like dark, moist places. That is their nature. 

I'm not getting rid of the compost bin. I love the rich, earthy soil it produces for my herb garden, my butterfly plants and my vegetable Earth boxes. I love knowing that we are not throwing good organic matter into the trash but instead are recycling it.

And I know if I wear good gloves when working with the compost I should not have a problem with spider bites. But I can't help it. If I see one of the monsters, I will SHRIEK AND BOLT. That is my nature.

We do have a secret weapon that we discovered while turning the compost a few weeks ago. A sleek, beautiful glass lizard, about 20 inches long. At first we thought it was a snake, but a close look (snakes don't trigger my shriek-and-bolt mechanism) showed us the little ear holes and head of a legless lizard. These fascinating creatures are called "glass lizards" because they can actually break off their tail if a predator grabs it to escape.

My Hero -- our spider-eating glass lizard.
We see our lizard in the compost bin nearly every time we turn the compost. We are now careful with our little pitchforks not to harm it because this little guy eats -- you guessed it -- spiders! Other insects too, but spiders are apparently a mainstay. Hallelujah!!

The glass lizard comes and goes from the compost through one of the air holes in the compost bin. We watched him slide through the hole when we disturbed him, but the next time we turned the compost he was there again.

Since it's actually the bacteria and fungi that do most of the work in breaking down the compost, I am quite happy to have this glass lizard feasting on any insects he finds in the bin. In fact, I'd like to roll out a welcome mat for him in the bin, or give him a little sign that says "Guard Lizard On Duty," if I weren't afraid to open the lid by myself now.

I think I'll ask my husband to do it for me.