Friday, May 27, 2011

Swappin' and Sweatin' in Seminole Heights

Last weekend my neighbor Virginia and I hosted our first Plant Swap. What a fun morning!

Virginia invited a few of her fellow Hillsborough County Master Gardeners and I invited a few friends and colleagues I have come to know through both Seminole Heights neighborhood activities and my work for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Each person was asked to bring 10 plants to the swap -- pots, divisions, cuttings, seeds, whatever they chose. All told we had a nice, manageable group of 11 swappers. 

Surveying the treasures
At least, we thought it was manageable. But get a group of women together on any sort of  "shopping spree" and you can only imagine what could happen! (At this point, I must say that there were two men at the swap too, and they held their own).

To keep utter chaos at bay, we decided to assign each person a number and then go one by one in choosing plants. We started with the number 1 for the first round, and then the number 11 for the second round, so everybody had a fair shot at grabbing the plants they most coveted.

Virginia describing her plant swap contributions
Before we got to the swapping, though, each of us took a couple of minutes to describe the plants we brought and their preferred growing conditions. This was a good thing, because we had so many plants, and this gave us a chance to plan our "shopping" strategy to prioritize what we wanted most.

To speed things up -- and keep us from passing out in the heat - we encouraged people to take two plants at a time. Even with this, it took a while to get all the plants parcelled out, but nearly everything found a new home.

The diversity of the plants on display was impressive -- from uncommon natives like Elliot's lovegrass and Elephant's Foot, a lovely wildflower -- to purple firespike, red salvia, African iris and blackberry lilies. Amazingly, there were few duplicates -- everybody brought a different assortment, thought we certainly didn't coordinate plant selections ahead of time.

Lots of lovely plants
I really tried hard not to let my impulsive nature take over, with only partial success. I focused primarily on small shade plants, since I have so much shade, and container plants, since my landscape is pretty much fully planted at this point. But I did somehow end up with an entire bin of native canna lilies -- which I think will work out fine if I plant them near my Ocala anise bushes, since both require more water than anything else in my garden. Because I live close to the Hillsborough River, I am blessed with the rich, fertile soil that cannas prefer.

My new cannas waiting to be planted
Plant Swaps are a wonderful way to add diversity to your landscape at no cost, and what gardener doesn't love a bargain? They also are a fun way to connect with other gardening fanatics and share ideas and knowledge. Virginia and I agreed we would definitely host another Swap, in the Fall when it is cooler. Some of the Swappers also suggested having themed Swaps -- all seeds, for example, or edibles, or Florida natives. The possibilities are endless. After all, there's always room for one more plant, isn't there?

Several beautiful little peacock gingers found a home under my oak tree

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Invasion of the Arachnid Army

In the past three weeks, my garden has been invaded by an entire battalion of itsy bitsy spiders! I am not exaggerating when I say that almost ALL my shrubs and trees, and even many of my container plants, are now decorated with elaborate spider webs inhabited by anywhere from one to several of these pint-sized arachnids.

A Web search (pun intended) reveals that these are basilica spiders, so named because their webs purportedly resemble arching cathedral domes, although I fail to see a strong resemblance. I've had these spiders in my garden before, but this Spring they have taken over!

The spiders are only about an inch long, including legs, with a lovely green, white and yellow filigree design on their abdomens. Apparently the females have the green stripe, while the males have more yellow on their abdomens. I read that this design is intended to mimic an open mouth with tongue and fangs, presumably to ward off predators.

Unlike other spiders, the webs of basilicas are three-dimensional in shape, and they form an absolute maze of threads and anchor lines all going in different directions. The references say they often are found in groups in contiguous webs, and I can attest to that. My larger plants, such as a gorgeous bird's nest anthurium, are draped in a multi-level basilica condominium complex. I counted 15 basilicas in the anthurium alone!

Maze of webs in anthurium
My husband and friends know that I have severe arachnophobia. I once jumped out of a moving car to get away from a spider (Very Large! Very Scary!) on the inside window frame. Fortunately the car was not moving all that fast.

But I have found that when I have a camera in front of my face, I lose my fear of spiders. With my little macro lens, I will even get right in THEIR face. Which is a good thing, because spiders really are cool creatures.

Basilica spider duet
They are also very beneficial, eating all sorts of bad insects like gnats, flies and mosquitoes. So, I have left my basilicas in peace, hoping that eventually the population will find some sort of equilibrium before the military takeover of my yard is complete.

Has anyone else experienced the Invasion of the Arachnid Army in their garden?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Is Your Yard An Award Winner?

Last year Rick and I were thrilled to be named the Community Water-Wise Award winners for Tampa for our grass-free Bay-Friendly Landscape. The lovely stepping stone we received in recognition is proudly displayed right by our front door.

The program, sponsored by Tampa Bay Water, is now accepting nominations for the 2011 awards. I know many readers of this blog have landscapes that are worthy of consideration for this award, and I urge you to nominate your yard at  Entries are coordinated and judged by local water conservation coordinators as well as experts in eco-friendly landscaping with the county extension offices. Residents of Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, and the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey receive awards. Judges actually conduct a site visit to your home to view your landscaping and water-saving features.

There were few entries last year. I told my husband we may have won the award because we were the only people who bothered to enter!

I know there is a huge and growing (pun intended) interest in Florida-Friendly gardening, so it doesn't make sense that so few enter this competition. The application itself is simple, and there is no embrassment if you don't win. In fact, you'll receive a helpful letter detailing how you could improve your landscape to make it a stronger contender next time around. And, like us, you may even win! We actually were invited to accept our award at a Tampa City Council meeting -- what fun!

We're still riding the coattails of our brief flirtation with gardening fame. The city's water conservation staff recently visited our yard again to film a promotion for this year's Water-Wise Awards. It gave me another chance to talk about our water-saving landscape and the difference it has made in our quality of life. That segment is now airing throughout May on the City's TV channel (Verizon Channel 15 or Bright House Channel 615) during a program called "Spotlight Tampa." The city folks were kind enough to send me the video clip, and I have posted it here.

Don't be shy! If you've created an attractive, water-conserving urban oasis, please enter the awards program. More entries lend credibility to the sustainable, low-impact gardening principles we follow, and show others that we're not just a bunch of weirdo bug- and bunny-huggers, but thoughtful, informed and dedicated gardeners who prefer an alternative to the cookie-cutter view of suburban landscapes that clever marketing by the lawn care industry tells us we should have -- a sterile vista dominated by heavily manicured, chemically treated and excessively irrigated grass.