What's That On My Mulch??!

Don’t be alarmed if patches of yellow or tan spongy growth appear  overnight on your mulch. These are not an indication that your dog is suffering from digestive upset.  Fuligo septica is a type of slime mold that commonly appears during warm, humid weather. It thrives in a damp environment, whether from rainfall or irrigation. It is commonly called the “Dog Vomit Fungus” which gives a pretty accurate description of the appearance. It is not really a fungus, but a different group of organisms known as Protistas. Only a science geek would belabor the distinction, so I’ll keep referring to mine as slime molds.

These eyesores can appear on your lawn or shrubs, but they show up most often on mulch. While slime molds look disgusting, they live only on dead plant material so they are not damaging to living things unless they are so large they block sunlight from the host plant and prevent photosynthesis.

Don’t waste time, money or chemicals by spraying with fungicides. The molds will disappear on their own in just a few days. If you want to speed their demise, you can rake through the growths to speed drying of the host material. If you choose, you can remove them and bag them for disposal.  Molds are usually yellow for a day or two, then turn tan as they mature and prepare to release reproductive spores into the air.

 This slime mold is about six inches across. The tan color indicates that it is nearing the end of its lifecycle. It was lemon yellow yesterday.

This slime mold is about six inches across. The tan color indicates that it is nearing the end of its lifecycle. It was lemon yellow yesterday.

Invasion of Violets

In Victorian times, flowers were given certain meanings, a symbolism known as floriography. Some of these associations are still familiar. Roses signify love and romance. Daisies mean innocence or purity. Carnations mean “I wanted to send you flowers but roses are too expensive and these last longer.”  What about violets?  According to the website TheLanguageOfFlowers.com, blue violets symbolize watchfulness or faithfulness while white violets supposedly convey the message, “Let’s take a chance on happiness.” 

According to one of my gardening books from the early 1950’s, the violet was Napoleon’s favorite flower. His followers wore knots of these to show loyalty. Ancient Greeks believed that eating the blossoms could overcome hangovers.

Any gardener can tell you that the true meaning of violets is World Domination. They are a James Bond-type villain of the plant world. Several years ago, a few of these wild flowers appeared in the spaces between my tall bearded Iris. I thought they made a charming groundcover, choking out other weeds while producing pretty violet blue (in my mind, purple) flowers. I went indoors for a glass of lemonade and when I returned to the garden, the handful had magically turned into fifty plants. In one growing season, these multiplied into hundreds. In my ignorance, I thought them benign. Sadly, it is extremely difficult to eliminate a violet invasion.

The pretty blooms produce seeds, but so do tiny, greenish blooms that are held at ground level and concealed by the foliage. The plant develops a thick root, known as a crown. If you are attempting to dig them out of your flower beds, the entire crown must be lifted. Any portion left behind happily grows a new plant. I have had limited success with herbicides like glyphosate and 2, 4-D. My flame-thrower killed off the top leaves but left the roots intact. To remove them, I lift the crowns using a tool designed for digging out tap-rooted weeds like dandelions. It is sometimes called an asparagus knife and looks like a screwdriver with a wide, forked tip. (Just this week, I purchased a new tool from my local big box store. It is a high-quality item made by Fiskars, looks like a forked knife, and is becoming indispensable in my arsenal of Weapons of Weed Destruction.)
 
Wild violets thrive in shady areas and heavy clay where few other plants grow well. They are impervious to the toxic effects of juglone, so they grow well under black walnut trees. Deer rarely eat them. Mostly by default, I have decided to treat them like an intentional groundcover in the Mary Snoddy garden. At some point the violets will meet the ever-encroaching common Bermuda grass. Can’t wait to see which one is the victor in the coming plant Armageddon. 
 

Lightning Hits Tulip Poplars

The Liriodendron tulipifera tree is not related to tulips, but the lovely blooms bear a slight resemblance, leading to the common name “tulip poplar.” The yellow, orange and green blossoms are carried in the upper reaches of the trees, so you are most likely to see them when wind blows them off.

Tulip poplars are the second-most commonly lightning-struck tree, behind sycamores. Oaks are number three. There are various theories as to the reason for their lightning attraction. First is their height. Mature trees can reach 120 feet, although they are typically 75-85 feet in my area. The second theory pertains to their sap’s high water content. It is probably a combination of the two.

Plant a solitary tulip poplar at the top of a hill and you are inviting a lightning hit. Lightning causes the interior water to expand into steam. It can cause your tree’s bark to split vertically or even explode, sending splinters in all directions. Either of these cause eventual tree death.

Flower of a Tulip Poplar

Amaryllis Outdoors

Almost everyone knows the Hippeastrum bulb by its common name, Amaryllis. These plants have large trumpet blooms on hollow stems above coarse, strap-like foliage.

               I’m not sure why Amaryllis bulbs have become a popular Christmas gift. Maybe it’s because they come in wonderful shades of red (and white, rose and pink), because they are easy to force into winter bloom, or maybe because they have the word Mary in the name. If you receive one as a holiday gift, just follow the directions provided. Try to place it in your sunniest window. Unless they receive plenty of light, the stems elongate and need to be staked to hold up the heavy flowers.

               I like to start forcing a new bulb every two weeks so that I have blooms through the long, dreary days of winter. Rather than throw them away after the show is over, I keep them alive indoors with a very little TLC. Once warm weather arrives and nights remain above 50 degrees, I plant them outside, directly in the ground in a protected area. The first year outdoors, they throw foliage but no blooms. Thereafter, they bloom about the same time as bearded Iris. (That is mid-may in the Mary Snoddy garden.) I’ve lost a few bulbs over the years, but most survive for many years.

               Many bulbs like deep holes. Traditional wisdom says to dig a hole three times the height of the bulb. Amaryllis is one of the exceptions. They prefer to be planted so that the top of the bulb is actually above ground level. This is known as “planting up to the shoulders.” When the blooms are spent, cut off the hollow stems at ground level, but allow the leaves to remain. Foliage may remain green year-round in mild-weather areas, or it may die down and then return. Don’t be alarmed by the erratic emergence of foliage. It has no impact on the success of the plant.

               We have outdoor pets, so I choose to fertilize with an extended-release pelletized product rather than bone meal. Give the bulbs a little water during the hottest, driest part of the year but don’t overdo the irrigation or they may rot. Once or twice during the summer, I slosh a little liquid fertilizer (the blue variety one dissolves in water) over the foliage.

               New Hope Farm is located in the Piedmont section of the Carolinas. If your garden is in a much colder area, you may not share my success with outdoor planting. But if you have any protected microclimate areas near your house foundation or on the sunny side of an outbuilding, it’s worth a try!

              

Orange Jelly Balls in Cedar Trees

Have you noticed an odd element in your cedar trees recently? If you see something about the size of a tennis ball that appears to be covered in strings of orange jelly, you are witnessing evidence of Cedar-Apple Rust. Before they “bloom” into alien-looking maturity, they appear as small, warty knobs a little larger than a nickel.  With their dimples, these galls look a little bit like brown golf balls.

Cedar-Apple Rust is a common fungus in the southeast, especially in warm, rainy weather. To survive, the fungus must spend part of its life on apple trees and part on something in the Juniperus family. In the south, that is typically Eastern Red Cedar. The fungus cannot survive without both hosts (apple/crabapple and something in the juniper family).

While unsightly, the fungus balls don’t have a major impact on cedar trees.  Apples, on the other hand, develop round rust-colored spots on the leaves. The younger the leaves, the more susceptible the tree is to airborne spores.  A tree can lose a majority of its leaves in serious infestation.  Fruit is dotted with dark spots that damage appearance and quality.

If you want to include an apple tree in your home landscape, be sure to select a cultivar that says it is resistant to Cedar-Apple Rust. You can reduce the impact on cedars by removing the jelly balls, but many of them are held in the upper branches of trees, outside of safe reach. It takes two years for the fungus to mature, so you can reduce future problems by removing galls when they are in the hard, warty stage.

Cedar-apple rust in Mary Snoddy tree.JPG

Kinetic Energy in Canine Form

This week’s blog post is early. I will be out of commission for a couple of days, courtesy of Upstate Cardiology.

No gardening info today. Instead I want to introduce you to my Australian Cattle Dog. Her official AKC name is “Snoddy’s Blue of New Hope” but here at the farm, she answers to “Blue.”

The ACD breed was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1980. It is a member of the Herding Group. The roots of the breed are a complex mixture of Dingo, Bull Terrier, Dalmatian, Kelpie and Collie. This combination yielded a speckled coat. The black and white combination is called Blue Heeler; the brown and white combo is called Red Heeler. ACD puppies are born white, with whatever solid patches they will have as adults. Their color comes in quickly after birth. You can usually tell their ultimate color by the time they are six weeks old. Paw pads and noses can give an early hint. The “heeler” part of the name comes from their habit of nipping the heels of livestock when herding. They follow the same action when “herding” visitors to our gardens, whether that is garden club members or children who stray away from the group.

The ACD is energetic, strong, and barks very little. They require frequent exercise to avoid destructive habits arising from boredom. They have low grooming requirements, only blowing their coats once or twice yearly. They are intelligent and trainable but headstrong (read: stubborn). They can be reserved with strangers. We made an intentional effort to socialize our Blue from her first weeks in our home. She is friendly with strangers and children, but may nip at a squealing youngster. We always err on the side of safety, keeping her on a leash when in a crowd of strangers and intervening when she starts to appear overexcited playing with the little ones. She gets along well with our other dog and our cats.

Having a Blue Heeler has forced me to be an active individual. My husband runs her around our pond once or twice daily (about half a mile), and I train her several days each week using the AKC Rally and Obedience signs. We train with a club once a week, which keeps her comfortable around strangers and other dogs.

We have earned the Beginner Novice Obedience title and the Rally Intermediate title. Our next step will be to compete in the Rally Advanced class, in which all exercises are done off leash. Wish us luck!

Thanks for your comments on my past posts. You make blogging fun! If you have a particular interest that you would like for me to explore, please use the comment form under the “About Mary” tab to let me know.

The photo gallery below shows our Blue from 18 days old to 2018.

The Magic of Lightning Bugs

Here at New Hope Farm, we define the first day of summer as whenever we see the first lightning bug blink. I apologize to my friends who prefer the term “firefly.” I was born and raised in the south; they’ll always be lightnin’ bugs to me. They are beetles, not flies.

Like most of my friends, cousins and neighbors, I spent hours of my childhood capturing lightning bugs into a clean mayo jar that had holes punched into its lid for ventilation. Occasionally someone would squash the insect on their finger and pretend it was a diamond. Kids are weird. Now the mayo jar is plastic instead of glass and the lid is plastic instead of metal, but capturing glow bugs is still fun.

My mother warned me otherwise, but the glow produces no heat and no electricity. Instead it is a chemical reaction inside their bodies. This reaction is efficient. Almost 100% of the energy produced is released as light. Compare that to your incandescent light bulb, where 10% of energy  is converted to light and the other 90% is lost as heat.

Why do they blink? It’s a mating game. The males have a blink pattern to proclaim their suitability as a partner. Sort of like an insect version of Axe, I guess. Females evaluate their suitors' blinks to decide on mating partners, and respond with their own come-hither blinks. Baby lightning bug larvae and even eggs glow underground.

Yellow is the only color I’ve ever seen, but my research says that some varieties produce green, orange or pale red light. They protect themselves from predators by producing a steroid in their blood that is foul-tasting. When threatened, they squeeze out a drop of blood. Predators soon learn to avoid anything that blinks. Sensitive noses can pick up the smell of their internal toxins.

The Mary Snoddy garden, located in the deep South, is home to plenty of lightning bugs. I understand that they are rare in some parts of the country, and non-existent in California. What a shame. Our numbers are declining due to widespread use of insecticides and the encroachment of development onto formerly wild areas. A report from the Smithsonian says when fireflies’ home field is paved over, they do not relocate. They just disappear.

Lightning bugs like damp areas, plenty of shrubs and grass for hiding, and they love pollen and nectar from flowers. They also enjoy snacking on worms, snails and slugs.

If you gather a collection of blinkers in that old mayo jar, be sure to release them into their native habitat later that same evening. Bon appetite, guys. You are welcome to my slugs. 

 

Cartoon firefly.png

Judas Tree or Redbud?

Throughout my neighboring woodlands, native Cercis candensis trees are lighting up the landscape with their bright reddish-purple blooms. As a gardener, I have always known this tree as a “redbud” but my husband grew up knowing it as “Judas tree.” I researched the origin of the Judas common name, and ran across several versions. You can pick your favorite.

  1. After Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, he was so ashamed of his actions that he hanged himself on a tree with white flowers. The tree was so sad that its white flowers turned to red with shame. The tree was originally tall and strong, so the story goes, but after Iscariot’s suicide, its wood was weak and the tree was short so that it could never again be used as a vehicle for hanging.
  2. Corollary to the above version, the blossoms hang from the branches like a man hanging from a noose. It takes a lot of imagination to follow this imagery.
  3. The French common name is Arbre de Judee, meaning Tree of Judea. Judea is a hilly area where the Cercis thrives in the wild. Tree of Judea may have been misunderstood as Tree of Judas.

The redbud is in the legume family. The flattened seed pods resemble snow peas. The blossoms are edible and can be used to add a little color pop to spring salads. I think they don’t have much taste.

Here are a few of the most common cultivars. ‘Avondale’ is a prolific bloomer; alas, it produces a zillion seed pods too, so can be messy. ‘Don Egolf’ is a good bloomer, and does not produce seeds. ‘Covey’ or ‘Lavender Twist’ are weepers. ‘Oklahoma’ has a much deeper bloom than the others, almost purple. ‘Forest Pansy’ has beautiful burgundy leaves in spring, but it deepens to green when temperatures rise in the summer. There are several white cultivars, but all I can say about them is “meh – not for me.” 

There is a newer cultivar in the Mary Snoddy garden that I really like. ‘The Rising Sun’™ has the same pink/purple blooms as its cousins, but its foliage emerges peachy-color then turns chartreuse before it becomes lime green. New leaves that unfold during the year are the apricot color. The combination of several colors of leaves held at the same time is a real eye-grabber.  I’m itching to try ‘Whitewater,’ a weeping variety with white variegated leaves. Weeping AND variegated -- Wowzer!

Redbuds are best used as understory trees. Their small stature makes them perfect in partial shade cast by taller deciduous trees. Their zigzag trunks are interesting, but they usually lean one way or the other rather than standing up straight. Give them a little extra water during hot dry periods and they will thank you for it. They should be moved when small to reduce transplant shock.

 The Rising Sun redbud, starting to show apricot leaves emerging

The Rising Sun redbud, starting to show apricot leaves emerging

Pollen Woes

The spring equinox occurred this week. For gardeners, that means the arrival of watering eyes, sneezing, and congestion associated with seasonal allergies. “Hay fever” happens when the immune system reacts to the pollen and spores that grasses, trees, weeds and outdoor molds release this time of the year. Impacts range from simple sneezing to full-blown reactions that make the general population treat us as pariahs.

There are several steps that we can take to help reduce the misery.

  1. Consult your medical caregiver, who may recommend prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications, or less traditional treatments such as the consumption of natural products (honey, herbs, probiotics) or rinsing sinuses with a neti pot. 

  2. Keep indoor spaces as pollen-free as possible. Keep windows closed (house AND car).

  3. Vacuum often, using a HEPA filter. Be sure to vacuum upholstered furniture and rugs as well as floors.

  4. Change clothes as soon as you come indoors from gardening. Shower before bedtime, to avoid transferring pollen from your hair to your pillow.

  5. Change air filters in your air conditioning units. Use a high quality filter that says it will trap pollen.

  6. Avoid being outdoors when pollen counts are their highest, typically morning 5am to 10am. If you must be outside for extended periods, consider using a dust/pollen mask.

What your body reacts to can change over time. You may develop an immunity to something that troubled you as a child, or increase sensitivity with long-term exposure. And moving doesn’t help – If you are prone to allergic reactions, your body will find a new enemy in a different locale.

Just keep telling your sneezy self, “this, too, shall pass.”

 This is what magnified pollen particles look like. Is it any wonder that our sinuses protest being invaded?

This is what magnified pollen particles look like. Is it any wonder that our sinuses protest being invaded?

Selfish Plants

Not all plants play nicely with others. Some have their own version of chemical warfare. They release toxins through their bark, roots, leaves and/or fruits that interfere with the growth of surrounding plants. They do this to protect their own resources (water, nutrients) via reduced competition. This plant protectionism is called allelopathy.

Black walnut trees are the prime example of allelopathic behavior. They release the chemical juglone, which is toxic to tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, azalea, hydrangea, lilac, and a host of other plants. The chemical remains in the soil a long time, making the area inhospitable beyond the lifespan of the tree that produced it.

To a lesser degree, these smaller plants also have allelopathic tendencies: English laurel, sumac, elderberry and goldenrod.  Sunflower seed hulls have a toxic affect. This is why nothing much grows under the birdfeeders you keep stocked with black hull sunflower seeds.

There are a few plants that tolerate juglone: forsythia, hawthorne, pachysandra, redbud, most viburnums, heuchera, daffodils, daylilies, zinnias and some hosta.

There is one bright spot in the toxicity of black walnuts. If you spread wood chips or sawdust made from these trees on your walking paths, the number of weeds on the path will be reduced.

 A winter sunset, seen through the barren limbs of a black walnut tree

A winter sunset, seen through the barren limbs of a black walnut tree

Buffet for the Butterflies

As you plan your spring flower garden, please consider planting something that will nourish butterflies.  Here are my favorites: Milkweed (all varieties), Bee Balm, Cosmos, Zinnia, Yarrow, Shasta Daisy, Joe Pye Weed, Coneflower, Verbena, Lantana, Butterfly Bush, Parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace, Mexican Sunflower, Butterfly Bush. 

Keep in mind that ALL butterflies start out as caterpillars. Don’t be quick to squash them or spray them with toxic poisons, or you may be killing off the next generation.

Interesting factoid: Pipevine Swallowtails and Monarch caterpillars and butterflies are toxic. A bird that has gobbled one down likely won’t eat another. Viceroy butterflies are not toxic, but they have evolved to closely resemble the Monarch. It’s a defense mechanism to avoid being eaten.

Quick ways to distinguish a butterfly from a moth: Butterflies rest with their wings together, over their backs. Moths rest with their wings open, flat. Butterfly antenna are club-like, with a swollen tip. Moth antenna are like feathers. Butterflies have thin bodies, while their moth cousins have thick bodies. 

 

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Mexican Sunflower.jpg

Oddities in the Garden

It’s an inescapable fact:  Gardeners feel the call of the weird. The longer one has been a gardener, the  more peculiar our taste becomes. One of my favorite not-your-average-shrub specimens is Harry Lauder's Walking Stick (Corylus avellana 'Contorta'), also called a Contorted Filbert. The plant produces drooping catkins in the winter, but no nuts.

This deciduous shrub reaches eight feet in height and width. Mine is a good bit bigger, as a result of accidentally planting it in our septic system drainage field. It’s not exciting to look at in the summer, but the photo below should convince you that you must have one. The birds love it.

The more sun the shrub receives, the curlier the branches are. Some grafted plants are prone to throwing straight suckers from the root stock. This calls for frequent pruning to retain the plant’s intended appearance. Buy an “own root” plant if possible. Cut branches can easily be spray-painted to accent cut flower arrangements.

Another unusual choice is Edgeworthia chrysantha. Its claim to fame is the fragrant blossoms that appear in late winter, when few other shrubs are in bloom. They show well at the tips of leafless branches. Many of us who have tried and failed to keep Winter Daphne alive have changed our allegiance to this less-temperamental plant.

Stamens persist after the petals have fallen, looking like tufts of yellow thread stuck onto the end of each branch. Edgeworthia spreads by suckering but is not invasive. If you want more plants, you can carefully dig out one of the suckers (retain some roots) and move it to the desired new location. They also propagate fairly easily. Site in shade to partial shade (ideal in a woodland garden) and keep them moist for the best bloom display. They reach four to six feet tall, but final size varies with soil fertility and moisture.

Daffodils - Harbinger of Spring

Spring is on its way when Daffodils start blooming. It doesn’t matter if you call them daffodils, jonquils, buttercups, or something else – they are all members of the genus Narcissus.

They are broken into 13 categories by distinguishing cultivar characteristics. The trumpet or cup portion is known as the “corona” and the petals are called “segments” in these definitions, from The Daffodil Society:

  1. Trumpet: One flower to a stem; corona as long as, or longer than, the perianth segments.

  2. Large-cupped: One flower to a stem; corona more than one-third but less than equal to the length of the perianth segments.

  3. Small-cupped: One flower to a stem; corona not more than one-third the length of the perianth segments.

  4. Doubles: One or more flowers to a stem, with either doubled perianth segments or doubled corona or both.

  5. Triandruss: usually two or more pendent flowers to a stem; perianth segments reflexed (curved down toward the stem).

  6. Cyclamineus: One flower to a stem. Perianth segments significantly reflexed. Flower at an acute angle to the stem, with very short neck (“pedicel”).

  7. Jonquilla and Apodanthus: One to five flowers to a stem. perianth segments spreading or reflexed. Flowers usually fragrant.

  8. Tazetta: Usually three to twenty flowers on a thick stem with broad leaves. Perianth segments spread and are not reflexed. Flowers are fragrant.

  9. Poeticus: Perianth segments pure white. The corona is very short or disc shaped and not more than one fifth the length of the perianth segments. The corona is usually with a green and or/yellow center and red rim, but sometimes partly or entirely other colors. Anthers usually set at two distinctly different levels. Flowers are fragrant.

  10. Bulbocodium: Usually one flower to a stem. Perianth segments are insignificant compared with the corona. Filament and style (reproductive parts) are usually curved.

  11. Split Corona: Corona split-usually for more than half its length. This section is split into two divisions, the Collar & Papillon. Collar daffodils have corona segments opposite the perianth segments and the corona segments are usually in two whorls of three.  Papillon split-corona daffodils have corona segments alternate to the perianth segments. The corona segments are usually arranged in a single whorl of six.

  12. Other Cultivars: Daffodil cultivars which do not fit the definition of any other division.

  13. Daffodils Distinguished Solely by Botanical Name: All species and wild or reputedly wild variants and hybrids. 

Even persnickety gardeners can find a type to love.  The BEST characteristic is that deer, rabbits and voles find them unpalatable.  Disgusting, in fact.  Which is why I plant a solid ring of these bulbs around each of my most precious hostas and close to the crowns of my favorite daylilies.  The daffodil/hosta pairing is especially good under deciduous trees. In early spring the sun reaches the bulbs and allows them to gather energy to recharge themselves. As the leaves emerge on trees and their foliage fades, hostas that will thrive in the summer shade are pushing out leaves that will conceal the dying foliage.

These are incredibly long-lived plants. Several years ago, I returned to an old Snoddy homestead. Daffodils were next to the old rock foundation and in full bloom.  I dug up as many as I could and brought them home.  The homeowner died in 1842 and the house had been gone for a century, so the bulbs were quite old.  Because I moved them in full bloom, they didn’t flower well the first year, but since then they have been outstanding.

Cut daffodils last a long time in the vase, but excrete a thick sap that fouls the water. They are best when not combined with other flowers. Vase water should be changed daily.

The bulbs give you a couple of clues when it is time to dig and divide. First, they throw fewer flowers than in past years, and second, the leaves start becoming just a little narrower.  If you initially plant them in fertile soil with plenty of room for the bulbs to enlarge and replicate, it may take several years before you need to lift and separate. That’s a lot of spring for little effort.

My favorite place to buy:  Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, a fourth-generation retail company out of Gloucester, Virginia. 

Daffodils Feb2018.JPG

Buzzards - Nature's Roadkill Cleanup

There are three large black walnut trees located in one of our fields. When I first moved to the farm in 1994, I wondered why my husband’s grandfather allowed them to remain in the middle of an area otherwise occupied by crops – strawberries and cotton, mostly. After my first full summer of gardening, I understood. On a blistering hot day, it is usually ten degrees cooler under their shade. They make a nice cool oasis.

Black walnuts are the last trees to leaf out in the spring and the first to drop leaves in the fall. So, for half the year they are stalwart skeletons. And they are much beloved by our community of buzzards. We host two varieties of buzzards, correctly called vultures.  The turkey buzzard has a hairless red head, while the smaller black buzzard has a gray head.  The two species are frequently seen together.

Soon after sunrise, a group perches in my walnut trees. They stretch their wings, warming themselves in the sun. When present in large numbers, it gives one an Alfred Hitchcock shiver.

Like other birds of prey, buzzards are protected by law. You cannot harm them. They provide a public service by “processing” carrion that might otherwise provide a breeding ground for bacteria that are harmful to humans. Turkey buzzards have a great sense of smell and can easily locate roadkill. Black buzzards don’t share this acute sense, and tend to follow their red-headed cousins. Interestingly, vultures can help natural gas companies pinpoint gas-line leaks because they are attracted to the smell of the chemical that is added to make leaks more evident to humans.

Buzzards do not pose a danger to full size adults, but they may attack smaller animals. (Gag alert! Swallow your coffee before reading further!) Their only means of defense is to regurgitate. One of our dear, departed dogs was infuriated when buzzards roosted in her trees.  She would circle the trunks, jump, bark, howl, and say nasty things in her canine tongue. Vultures lack a voice box, but would respond to her insults with harsh grunts and spooky-sounding hisses. On occasion she would irritate a bird enough to be treated to a spray of buzzard barf.  (Keep in mind, they eat dead stuff.) This would always result in an immediate deodorizing bath for the poor dog. Their vomit is so acidic, it would cause harm if left untreated.  It is this stomach acid that kills bacteria and leaves them unscathed by salmonella and other such pathogens.

These large birds produce large, odiferous bird droppings, so it is wise to avoid the area under their resting spots.

A crowd of crows is termed a murder and a flock of turkeys are called a rafter but what is the correct term for a group of buzzards? Answer: When they are sitting, they are called a committee. When in flight, they are called a kettle,  and when they are feeding on a carcass as a group, they are called a wake.

 A committee of buzzards

A committee of buzzards

Evolution of the Mailbox

I enjoy watching classic movies. Many of them feature telephone booth conversations.  It’s a quick way for the viewer to learn the characters’ thoughts and what is happening unseen. It’s pretty rare to see a standalone phone booth now. (Where does Clark Kent don his Superman cape?) Another item that has diminished in importance is the mailbox.

To my grandkids: You can sneer at snail mail all you like. Some of us still post items. Mailboxes and adhesive postage stamps came into existence in the late 1840’s. Prior to that, all mail was hand-carried to the post office.  Free home delivery began in 1863. Carriers either knocked on the door, rang the doorbell (twice) or whistled to alert the homeowner that they had received mail. To save wear and tear on the knuckles, some carriers used a handheld wooden device to do the knocking.  The Smithsonian’s National Postal museum depicts all things postal, from stamp designs to collection box designs.  The slideshow begins with this link: https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibits/current/customers-and-communities/serving-the-cities/city-free-delivery/household-mailboxes.html

By 1923 mailboxes were mandatory. The cost of mailing was updated to charge by weight and distance rather than number of paper sheets sent. The familiar road-side blue collection box design has changed very little in more than a century.  Home collection devices have evolved from door letter slots to street-side boxes to on-house boxes and back to street-side boxes. The older Van Dorn metal boxes make me think of ammunition boxes.  Some were painted bright red. After the public confused the red mailbox with red fire alarms and police call boxes, the Post Office decreed that mail receptacles should be painted dark green. Gradually the ugly iron boxes were replaced with lighter metals and prettier designs.

As I sat at my computer this morning, I snapped a photo of a check and magically deposited it to my bank account. I paid my bills on-line, using electronic transfer. I emailed a thank you message for a gift received. Super convenient; no snail mail involved. My Amazon search on mailboxes brought back more than 6,000 returns, so I think the public-servant container is safe from the fate of the phone booth.

Mailbox in snow.JPG

Get Along Groups

There seems to be a lot of divisiveness in today’s world. Polite differences of opinion have morphed into open conflicts. There are two groups, I am pleased to report, where I have seen no evidence of this.

First is the Master Gardener program sponsored by US land grant universities. When I enrolled in the (Clemson University) Master Gardener education program in 2002, I had no idea how it would affect my life. Through the classes, the requisite volunteer work and ongoing membership in the local MG Association, I have met people of all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic levels. I would never have encountered them in the course of my normal activities. Somehow a love of gardening and respect for nature levels the playing field and brings us all together. Differences of opinion still exist, of course, but shared goals enable us to work together without conflict.

The second group, which I have discovered only in the last two years, is the world of dog competition. My mixed breed dog and I will never compete in the crème-de-la-crème events of Westminster and the like. But we are having tons of fun on the local levels. Right now we are focusing on Rally events, with a dip of the paw into the Obedience pool. We are meeting owners and trainers from all walks of life. Yes, the events judge one trainer/dog’s performance against others in the same competition category. But everyone encourages their co-competitors. We cheer others’ successes. It makes a happier world.

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Maybe Shakespeare had it right after all?

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…”  Was Shakespeare’s Hamlet onto something? The answer is yes if you believe a study released by Dr Jemma McCready and Dr Mark Moss from the University of Northumbria, England, in 2013. And the National Institute of Health released a highly technical abstract in 2016 that lends some credence to the theory, but stops short of supporting the idea that Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) will help those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  For every study released that endorses herbs or specific plants for disease treatment, there seems to be a counter study that says otherwise. I’m taking no chances. I plan to breathe in the scent of my potted rosemary every chance I have. Couldn’t hurt, right?

The rosemary pictured below is in a pottery container that is a creation of my sister, Linda, the artist in our family. My plant will remain indoors, but the herb is perennial outdoors in Zone 7-10. It will grow to the size of a shrub and have pale blue blooms that bees love. When sunshine falls on the foliage, it releases a delicious fragrance. Some describe the scent as pine-like, but it really has a distinctive resinous odor all its own. I love the flavor of rosemary leaves in tomato-based sauces or sprinkled on toasted ciabatta. Older leaves tend to be a little prickly, so use the young, tender growth in cooking.

Even though the bees love it, deer and insects leave rosemary alone. Anecdotal evidence says that planting it under roses will help keep aphids away. It likes heat, full sun and limited but regular water. It’s not an easy plant to start from seed, so either buy them at the nursery or start them from cuttings. Both upright and trailing forms are available.

I find that rosemary will be attractive for a few years before it gets woody and the center of the plant opens up. You can delay the demise by frequent, light pruning, but when it becomes ugly, just replace the plant. You can strip the leaves from the reject plant and include them in sachet bags in your closet.

Rosemary in Pottery

Pee-khan or Pee-can?

This has been a good year for pecans on our farm. Pecan trees are infamous for alternate bearing, with a good crop year followed by a bad year.

Here’s the technical explanation of why this happens: Pecan trees are monoecious, which means they have male flowers and female flowers on the same tree. The blooms are wind-pollinated. Some trees are protogynous (female pistils open first) while others are protandrous (male catkins start shedding pollen before the pistils open). Pistils are borne on current season growth. Catkins are located on last season’s growth. (The catkins are those little twiggy things that make such a mess when they fall.) If there is heavy rainfall between the time the males release pollen and the females are ready to be pollinated, you can expect a poor crop of nuts. Some years the tree’s timing is off, with no good explanation. Since each tree has its own schedule, having trees of several different varieties provides a better opportunity for successful pollination. More than you wanted to know, right?

Here is something you DO want to know. It’s the secret for perfectly toasted pecans. 1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 2) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. 3) Spread two cups of nuts on the parchment. 4) Use a kitchen oil sprayer to spray all nuts with a fine mist of butter-flavored popcorn oil. Sprinkle with salt. 4) Bake 4 minutes. Remove from oven, stir and re-spread and lightly salt again. 5) Bake another 4 minutes. 6) Remove from oven and spread out on paper towels to cool. The nuts will continue to cook a bit after they are out of the oven, so wait until they’re completely cool to taste test. You can always add another minute if you like.  Yum.

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Retro Christmas Tree, Part 2

It does not matter what I am searching for, my husband always seems to be able to conjure it up from one of our old barns. So, it came as no surprise when I was pining after the aluminum foil tree of my childhood and he said, “I think we still have the one that belonged to my Mom. It’s in the barn.”

Fast forward two hours, and you will find me sitting on the floor in the open area between our den and kitchen.  Years of extreme heat and cold in the barn attic destroyed the integrity of the box.  Every paper sleeve dissolved into dust in my hands as I unpacked and sorted the foil limbs by length. It was a slow process, as I tried to avoid breaking any of the fragile strands of metal foliage. The sales receipt inside the box was dated 1961. I sneezed and sneezed, then become a mouth-breather as my sinuses protested. My husband sprawled on the sofa, watching football on the den television. The room was growing dark with the approach of evening, but neither of us wanted to move from our spots to turn on a lamp. Suddenly, he sat upright and asked, “What is that awful smell?” We both jumped up to investigate. It didn’t take long to find the source of the stench. The interior crevices of the cardboard tree box were filled with stink bugs, a common menace of the south. The warm indoor temperatures prompted them to take their families out for a stroll – inside our home. 

Fast forward again, and you’ll see me outdoors, setting fire to a smelly vacuum cleaner bag and a dilapidated cardboard box. But the tree itself? The tree is lovely. The original instructions are explicit in forbidding the use of electric lights. But in 1961, holiday lights were the fat bulbs that generated tons of heat. A single burned out bulb made the entire strand go dark. From there, it was hunt and replace until the bad bulb was located. I decorated ours with tiny white LEDs and blue ornaments. Lovely.

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