Thursday, October 27, 2011

Scary Critters Are Haunting My Garden!

Since it's almost Halloween, when ghouls, ghosts and goblins are about, I thought it would be fun to look at a few of the fierce creatures I've found in my garden over the past year.

Leading off the Fright Parade has to be the gargantuan mama wolf spider I unearthed not long ago while cleaning out a plant bed. I immediately started shrieking, but somehow managed to refrain from bolting -- my typical spider reaction (see Blog Post titled "Confessions of a Spider Sissy"). When I calmed down, I noticed she was standing over a large egg sac, which she refused to leave even when my husband came running out in response to my screams, ready to squash her under his shoe. I could actually see her looking up at me warily, clearly ready to die to protect her precious eggs. You guessed it: I couldn't kill her. She was an expectant mother.

Instead, my husband brought me my camera, and I knelt down close enough to get this cool photo of her guarding her egg sac. For a severe arachno-phobic like me, this alone was a miracle. But when I backed away, she immediately crawled off the egg sac, dug a hole in the plant bed, came back, rolled the egg sac into the hole and then got inside herself, vanishing without a trace as she covered up the hole behind her.  All this happened in less than a minute, and it was one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed. This spider may have changed my entire view of the species!

Last weekend I was reading the Sunday newspaper when what appeared to be a small wolf spider crawled across the page. Aha, I thought. I know your mother.

Then there was the beautiful black and yellow argiope that set up housekeeping last fall underneath our gutters on the back deck. My husband grew quite fond of the big girl and would occasionally toss a gift of a roach or beetle into her web. I read that argiopes are a common garden spider but, sadly, we haven't seen one this year.

Another fearsome insect that is common in my garden is the assassin bug.  Though they reputedly have a very painful bite, I leave them alone and they do the same to me.

Assassin bugs are named for their habit of lying in ambush for their prey, and then striking with startling speed and accuracy. They use their long "beak" to stab and inject a lethal toxin that dissolves their victim's innards so they can then suck up the liquified tissues. Oh the horror!

Fortunately the assassin bug eats many bad bugs, so best to live and let live.

Finally, let's end with my snakelike yard buddy, the glass lizard. Not a snake at all, but a true legless lizard, about 12-18 inches long, with tiny earholes and a remarkable ability to break off its own tail when captured -- thus the name "glass" lizard.  We have several of these fascinating creatures sharing our landscape, and they live underground most of the time. We see them in duff, hiding deep underneath mulch, and even in our compost bin, The compost-dweller became a familiar sight, since he apparently lived in our compost bin for several weeks, making quite a living feasting on spiders, beetles, grubs and other creepy-crawlies there. We saw him every week when we watered and turned the compost, until he finally ran out of food, I guess, and moved on.
 Now that I've given you a glimpse into my haunted garden, it's your turn. What's the scariest creature in yours? 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beating Winter to the Punch

Readers of this blog will recall that it was the record-shattering freeze of January 2010 (remember the 10 straight freezing nights?) that launched us on our Extreme Yard Makeover. Like many folks, we lost darn near every plant in our yard. That's when we decided to "do it over, and do it right." 

And so we did. In addition to following the "right plant, right place" approach, we also embraced "right plant, right region." We wanted cold-hardy plants that would survive a North Tampa winter. Not only does this make sense, it saves cents -- as in not having to continually replace plants each spring. 

Beautyberry is a cold-hardy native that flourishes throughout the Southeast U.S.
It also saves us from having to dash around the yard wrapping and covering everything in our path on a cold night, when we'd rather be drinking hot chocolate in front of our fireplace.

Yet our attitude appears to be unusual, even in our own neighborhood. No doubt about it: residents of Tampa Bay love their tropicals!

We live in USDA Hardiness Zone 9A, though I often select plants from 9B as well. Anything below that is a no-go, unless it can grow in a container that can be moved inside during freezes. In fact, just to show I am not immune to the tropical allure, I recently purchased a stunning heliconia at the USF Fall Plant Sale. But I bought it expressly for a large container, and that is where it will stay. I can imagine, however, that my husband will have a few choice words for it -- and me -- when it comes time for us to tag team this hefty thing of beauty into the shed.

I was heartened to see that many of the vendors at the plant sale -- especially the Native Plant Society -- were actively promoting cold-hardy species. I bought two more rouge plants from them to go with the single lonely specimen I now have.
Ocala (yellow) anise is a cold-weather champion.
When crushed, its leaves smell like -- you guessed it -- anise.
We may not always have winter freezes, but I'm not betting against them. We are in a period of intense climate disruption, and on our way to overall warmer temperatures we are seeing wild extremes in climate. 

A major motivation for our landscape makeover was to save time. In the Spring, we'd rather be fishing or cycling than planting. And we sure don't want to have to keep shelling out our hard-earned money for new plants over and over again. 

Yet the lure of tropicals is so strong for many of us - why is that? All of Florida is certainly not Miami, yet to look at the most common landscaping plants here you'd think it was. Sago and royal palms, ti plants, crotons, and bougainvilleas abound. And none can tolerate freezing temperatures for long. Some can't even take temperatures in the mid-40s -- and you can be sure we will see those every winter.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Cold-sensitive plants grown along a fence, with a southern exposure, may do fine. Ditto for plants grown under the insulating warmth of an oak's canopy. This is where "right plant, right place" comes back into play. We were amazed at the way our large live oak served as a natural blanket for everything in our front yard. This is why our dracaena marginata tricolor, a definite tropical, flourishes there.  Only the threesome on the very perimeter of the oak canopy showed any cold damage at all last winter, and then it was very little. Yet another reason to salute live oaks!

Our tri-color dracaenas are now 4 feet tall and
 quite happy under the shelter of our  large live oak
Some of our choices are marginal for our hardiness zone, but experience has shown they will come back strong even after dying back completely over the winter. Wild coffee is one of those, as is firebush. We can live with them getting whacked every winter because we know they'll "Spring" right back. 

But the vast majority of the landscape is cold-hardy, for a reason. We learned our lesson in 2010. 

The distinctive Weeping Yaupon Holly makes a lovely small specimen tree 
Specimen trees like East Palatka and Weeping Yaupon hollies; foundational shrubs like Ocala anise, beautyberry, coontie and blue-stem saw palmetto; and groundcovers like bulbine, evergreen liriope and asiatic jasmine, take everything Old Man Winter can throw their way. Even flax lily and chenille plant, used extensively as groundcovers in our garden, weather the cold with little damage, indicating that there is some wiggle room with those hardiness zones depending on the specific conditions in which they are grown.

All it takes is a little thought, and planning -- and maybe a bit of luck as well -- to beat winter to the punch! 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Seeing Familiar Friends in a New Light

While bicycling recently on the beautiful Withlacoochee Trail, I was treated to the spectacular sight of masses of native dotted horsemint in full bloom on either side of the trail, which runs 46 miles through the Withlacoochee State Forest. When it blooms in such profusion, horsemint is a showstopper. Ironically, I hardly even notice it the rest of the year, even in my own garden.

Muhly grass in bloom is a thing of beauty
The same is true for many of the fall bloomers in my yard. Take muhly grass, another native readily adaptable to home landscapes. Without its spectacular feathery pink plumes it just looks like a rather unkempt clump of tall grass. Handsome, yes. A head tuner? Not so much.  But when it blooms, as mine is finally doing, it demands your attention! I have been looking forward to its debut for weeks.

Ditto for my cassia shrubs, which are just now setting those bright yellow flower clusters that will keep blooming right though winter. Or the native yellowtop wildflowers shown below, also resplendent with golden crowns.

Even the very drab native poinsettia, which pops up unbidden all over my butterfly garden, looks truly lovely with its delicate red face. This Florida version of Indian paintbrush brings some early holiday cheer to the garden!

But this year's award for impressive fall color has to go to my narrowleaf (swamp) sunflowers.They are at glorious peak bloom right now, helped by last weekend's slow, soaking rains, and they are fully 12 feet tall. Indeed, in the many years I have grown this native wildflower, I have never seen it reach such towering heights. Giant sunflowers, yes, but this native wildflower species, no. Perhaps its astounding growth is a result of the abundance of rainfall at my home this summer. Maybe it's my compost-enriched soil. Who knows? But these yellow flowers are soaring above my 6-foot back fence like giraffes. 
Narrowleaf sunflowers towering over my 6-foot fence

I have even had neighbors walking by my house comment on them. I had to stake and tie them to the fence just to keep them from toppling over!

I like to cut the sunflowers and put them in vases in my house -- although short-lived, they brighten up any space. As you can imagine, I practically need a javelin to reach them this year. 

A nursery grower who raises swamp sunflowers told me I can keep them from getting so out of control next fall by pruning them in mid-July. This will limit their growth to a reasonable 5 or 6 feet, while still allowing plenty of time for the flower buds to form.

Definitely a game plan for next year. In the meantime, I'll continue to marvel at my "sunflowers on steroids" and hope that my back yard isn't cited for interference with commercial air space! 

What familiar friends do you look forward to seeing anew in the fall in your garden?