What’s round on the ends and hi in the middle?

Farm CountryO-HI-O, the Buckeye state!  From the plane, the land below was a patchwork of vivid green squares. It looked cool and inviting after the scorching temperatures we were enduring in New Hampshire. Children and grandchildren soon arrived, some driving, some flying, for our Annual Hiking Vacation.  We totaled thirteen this year with the oldest grandchild at 19 and the youngest at 11 months, all hosted this year by my son’s Ohio family in his brand new… but unfinished home. We were accommodated beautifully with fabulous meals and all slept well with sleeping bags, inflatable beds in basement and bedrooms.

For two days we had downpours of rain, huge thunderstorms, gale force winds, a tornado siting, power outages, and trees down, but thankfully the weather broke for a full agenda of activities including a glorious walk through the Ohio State University’s (OARDC) horticulture display gardens, a visit to the stables, and, of course, the big hike at Mohican State Park. What a week it was!

OARDC Display Gardens

The stables

Mohican State Park Hiking

A Look at Exeter’s Fish Ladder

Several weeks ago on a soggy gray day, mister gardener attended a presentation by New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Department at Exeter’s fish ladder. The public was invited to see what fish were making the annual spring trip around the Great Dam taking them from salt water to fresh water.

Fish LadderThis is the location where fresh water of the Exeter River flow into the salty Squamscott River. The dam was constructed hundreds of years ago when the town was settled by Europeans to power sawmills, grist mills and more. Naturally, it was an obstacle to the fish that needed to migrate from salt water to fresh water to spawn. With the mills gone and a fish ladder in place, they have restored the natural habitat for such fish as smelt, alewife, blueback herring, American shad, American Eel and sea lamprey.

A small crowd gathered at the street and made the short walk downhill to the river.

Fish and Game Presentationand watched as a sampling of fish were netted and brought ashore.

netBiologist Becky Heuss shows a lamprey to the gathering, with a bit of wariness on the faces of these youngsters. What better way to introduce and educate the youth to be the natural caretakers of the future.

LampreyThe mouth identifies it as a lamprey rather than an eel.

Lamprey and more fish.

fishBecky Heuss and her assistant, Edward Motyka, a biological aide, explained the challenges fish face on route and explained the efforts to improve the ecological quality of the Squamscott and Exeter Rivers.

Fish and Game

The Challenge

This post challenge comes from Les at A Tidewater Garden Winter Walk-Off: On your own two feet, leave the house and share what can be seen within walking (or biking) distance of your home.  Your post does not have to be about gardening or a travelogue, unless you want it to be.  Maybe instead you will find some unusual patterns, interesting shadows, signs of spring, a favorite restaurant or shop, questionable landscaping or local eyesores.  Whatever, just keep your eyes and mind open, be creative and have fun, but don’t show anything from your own garden.

It sounds simple. Les can find beauty and interest in shadows and shapes, textures and tales, as well as in his garden. But his challenge is a tricky one for me. Last year I passed up this assignment because all I saw on my walks was a mile and a half of sand and loblollies. Ho-hum. This year I live in the burbs, too far from anything of great photographic interest. But, I tried. Two days ago, I walked around the neighborhood, armed with camera, shooting photographs of boulders, Christmas wreaths that still hang on doors and mailboxes, trees, road signs…. Yawn, Ho-hum.

After our big snow yesterday, I saw a another opportunity to give the assignment a go. I was drawn to the large fields and tidal salt marsh covered in deep snow. With help from my daughter, I strapped on gaiters and snowshoes for the very first time and stepped out into the ‘Wilds’ behind the house… accompanied by my daughter, her Rhodesian ridgeback and our old gal, Mattie.

After only one face-plant, I got the hang of snowshoeing and I was on my journey through the fields, past trees with branches that were beautifully adored with glistening snow, the air shrouded in a winter-blue mist. I felt as if I had stepped through a wardrobe into a mystical land called Narnia.

Although we didn’t encounter Peter, Susan, Edmund or Lucy, we saw signs of creatures that make this land their home. Deer tracks, squirrel tracks, birds calling beyond the treeline, a red-tailed hawk circling, seagulls, a turkey vulture, and the noisy Canada geese overhead.

Together the 4 of us made our way down to the river breaking a trail in the fresh snow, then we turned and followed our trail back across the fields and marsh.

My one amazing but true story to tell about this stretch of land involves the late Aristotle Onassis.

In 1973, shipping and oil magnate Aristotle Onassis had an option to purchase thousands of acres of land and planned to build the world’s largest oil refinery just a stone’s throw from this very spot. Stretching all the way from Lake Winnipesaukee for needed fresh water supply, the pipeline would snake through several towns, ending at an oil dock for super tankers 10 miles offshore on the Isles of Shoals. Outraged local residents were organized under the leadership of 3 strong women and exercised “home rule” where local citizens have the right to determine what happens in their community. They were able to thwart this dastardly plan by legislative vote in 1974 and, thankfully, the land and waterways remain pristine to this day.

Sorry Aristotle. This land is Our Land.

Click on any photo for a more detailed look at a little slice of Durham NH

Nature calls…

For the past several New Year’s Days in Virginia, I have been up before dawn, swaddling myself in layers of warmth and waterproofing, and heading out to meet fellow birders for the Christmas Bird Count. Our small legion of citizen scientists joined thousands of like-minded volunteers across America and Canada that count every bird they see or they hear in one day. This century old survey has helped scientists study the long term health of bird populations.

I had to break with this beloved tradition this year. We now live in New Hampshire where I am not yet associated with the local groups. I heard from birder friends in Ware Neck VA that the weather was balmy at 65˚ today for the count. I hope the day was enjoyable and the counts were high.

Chilly could describe the 45˚ temperatures in New Hampshire today. No birding this year but it was a good day for the great out of doors and getting in touch with nature. The milder weather attracted a large number of kayakers and spectators to the annual New Year’s Day Merrimack Valley Paddlers River Run, paddling the icy rapids of the Winnipesaukee River. Among those running the rapids was my son-in-law. Filmed by my daughter navigating Zippy’s Final Plunge, this might be called the wet, wild and wonderful way to bond with the natural world. I’m learning a lot about these New Englanders.


A Walk in the Park

We’re lucky enough to have fabulous hiking trails at Beaverdam Park in Gloucester. Damming in 1990 created this 635-acre freshwater reservoir surrounded by hardwood trees and a multitude of flora and fauna. Well-maintained trails that circle and loop around the lake are multi-purposed. Hikers, nature walkers, joggers, bikers can be seen on any given day as well as riders atop their horses on certain trails.

mister gardener took the lead on this trip and we stuck to the 3-mile hiking nature trail that takes us across bridges, up inclines, down to the waterfront under the cool canopy of native trees.

Foot bridge over marsh

Along the way we saw many blooming natives such as the tick-trefoil or beggar’s lice, a woodland plant that most folks have had contact with at some time in their lives. The Velcro-like pods of the beggar’s lice is split into triangular legumes. When an animal, human or otherwise, brushes against the plant, the hairs on the seed pods grab onto its fur… or the clothing of a child or adult. I’ve learned from experience to make sure the seeds are peeled off socks before they are washed and dried since they survive both cycles and afterwards become almost impossible to remove.

Beggar's Lice with triangular seeds

The obedient plant or false dragonhead (Physostegia virginianais) we found growing along the banks of the lake.  These tight clusters of lavender/pink flowers grow on long spikes and are seen in moist ground along the edge of streams and marshes. The name ‘obedient’ is given because each flower of the plant can be pushed to and fro, up and down and from side to side and it will remain in that position.

Obedient Plant

Common inhabitants of the park are snakes, especially the rat snake, a constrictor of rodents and birds that is widespread in the northern hemisphere. Like the majority of snakes, it tends to be shy and will avoid being confronted. One identifying trait of the rat snake is the unusual kinks in its body when startled or confronted with danger.

Rat Snake: look for the white chin and throat for a positive ID

This is what mister gardener stepped over without seeing.  Sensing danger, it froze in place developing kinks along its body about every 2 inches. mister gardener allowed me to take the lead after the snake sighting.

Zigzag kinks in the body of a startled 5' rat snake

If you like fungus, it’s plentiful along the hiker’s trails at Beaverdam Park.

Paths are kept in good condition, the 3-mile hike is not difficult to traverse, inclines are slight, and there are plenty of benches to rest and enjoy the view across the water.  Many communities have similar parks and paths to enjoy the great outdoors. It’s a rewarding way to appreciate all that nature provides for us.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Click Beetle

I received the following email today from a friend:

From:     Felicity
Subject:  Bug
Date:      July 12, 2011 1:55:46 PM EDT
To:          Ann

Yesterday, I saw a large black and white beetle with bull’s-eye eyes. It clicked and fell over dead. What are they called?  It was black spotted with white. I thought it was dead and kicked it off the deck. Are they friend or foe?

Well, Felicity, I’m fairly certain you saw a click beetle. There are hundreds of different species in North America. All of the species have a common behavior which gives them their name. When on their backs or when threatened by a predator, they all snap their heads with an audible “click” with such force that they are launched into the air, either landing upright, at a distance from trouble or they fly away during the launch.

The click beetles that I commonly see are smaller, solid black or grey, nocturnal and attracted to light. When I turn on an outdoor light, among the moths and a variety of beetles is the click beetle, flying around the light or resting  on the wall in the glow of the bulb. The click beetle is one I cannot resist picking up between my thumb and index finger with its head exposed. It bends its head back, hesitates a split second, then forcefully snaps it forward. With each snap, it inches slowly from my grip finally catapulting into the darkness of the night. What a neat insect!

Blind Click Beetle - Photo courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pcoin/4832741348/

The click beetle that Felicity saw sounds like either the Eyed Elater or Eyed Click Beetle, one that can grow to 2″ long or she saw the Blind Click Beetle, a smaller insect with smaller eyes.  The eyes of both are false. They have evolved to frighten off predators. The real eyes are small and are located closer to the insect’s antenna.

The larvae of the Eyed Click Beetle, Alanus oculatus and Blind Click Beetle, Alaus myops, live in damp decaying matter such as rotting logs or under a blanket of decaying leaves. They can spend years in this stage as predators of insect larvae, including noxious insect larvae like wood-borers. In the adult form, they feed sparingly on nectar and juices from plants. In our part of the country we see more of the Alanus myops, the smaller Blind Click Beetle.

So Felicity…. this is a friend, not a foe. It does not bite. It does not sting. You can pick it up without harm. You can watch it entertain you with acrobatic tricks. You may also see it playing possum fooling you into thinking it is dead… and kicking it off your deck to freedom.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Predator vs Prey

Here is a little quiz for you. Is this a good bug or bad bug?

It’s quite possible that you’ve never spotted this well-camouflaged bug called a Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus) in your garden, one of the largest of the assassin bugs. It is fairly common in the eastern part of the country, a slow-moving member of the Hemiptera (half wings) order of True Bugs that includes stink bugs for one.  The adult pictured is resting on the outside of our screened porch. A semicircular structure appearing much like a cogwheel on the thorax gives the Wheel Bug its nickname. No one knows the function of this armor-like wheel but it is thought to add protection from predators.

The answer is:  this is a GOOD BUG for the garden but it comes with a caution.

All True Bugs have long straw-like mouthpieces that fold up beneath their body that most insect pests use to suck up juices in plants. Not so with the Wheel Bug or other assassin bugs in this order.  Their mouthparts are used to suck the body juices of other insects. In the photo  above, the Wheel Bug’s mouth is visible as a red tube beneath its long head. It waits in ambush to prey upon caterpillars, aphids, Japanese beetles, sawflies, stink bugs and other pests of the garden. It plunges the tube into an insect, injecting an enzyme and within seconds, the prey’s organs have been dissolved. It then sucks out all fluids much like a spider does. A little gruesome sounding, yes?

juvenile Wheel Bug- Wikipedia photo

It is an especially beneficial bug in the garden and should be ignored when seen around the yard. Don’t run and fetch a pesticide.  Maybe you’ll see one this fall as numbers of Wheel Bugs have increased, perhaps due to the proliferation of its pest cousin, the stink bug. Where there is an abundance of a pest, we are lucky that Mother Nature supplies us with an effective predator.

A word of caution: do not handle the Wheel Bug. It is a benign insect and seeks out quiet, hidden spots, however it is not particular where it will stick its sharp tube when it feels threatened. And due to the enzyme, it is a painful poke.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Midas Touch

Whether the day begins overcast or not, golden sunbeams have flooded our bedroom each morning for the past week. Two male ginkgo trees (Ginkgo biloba) dominate the small pond garden just feet from our window and their fan-shaped leaves take on an luminous golden glow, a fall color second to none. We have watched for weeks as the bright green leaves began their fall journey turning faintly yellow at the tips, green slowly fading, and being replaced by more and more yellow. Many leaf-peepers and shutterbugs are awed by lemony ginkgo tree in fall landscapes, remarking that the color is too short-lived, the leaves all dropping within 24 hours. But we have developed a relationship with our ginkgos, watching the fall arrive slowly, reaching a crescendo of color lasting almost a week before it paints the ground, deck and pond in melted butter within a couple of days. Click photos to enlarge.

Another name for the ginkgo, this living fossil unchanged for 150 million years, is the Maidenhair tree,  some believe a name given to describe the parallel veins that fan outward like a maiden’s hair, but the resemblance to the pinnae of the Adiantum capillus-veneris or Maidenhair fern in fact gives the tree this nickname.  The species name, biloba, describes the split in the middle of the leaf, hence two-lobed.

Our two males command this area of the landscape, giving us essential shade in the summer and glorious color in the fall… but we cannot forget our smaller female ginkgo that continues to produce her pungent fleshy seeds each fall in another area of the yard. We allow these abundant seeds to germinate and the small trees we dig and share with anyone who expresses a desire to grow a living fossil, sex undetermined for 20 – 30 years. Today, cultivars like ‘Autumn Gold’  are created through grafting, splicing the cuttings from males on rootstock grown from seed.  And sadly, the tree is red-listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of Threatened Species due to the preference for the male ginkgo trees in the landscape.

If you live near me in Gloucester VA, I’d love to save a baby for your garden. Plant it away from public areas, especially sidewalks, just in case in 30 years, ‘he’ turns out to be a ‘she.’

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Snake is Gone… I think.

Maggie knows it's in there!

Maggie knows it’s in there!

I heard it rattling through dry leaves before I glanced over and saw the Northern Water Snake slowly disappearing into the pachysandra garden on the edge of the property. (See Where Have All My Frogs Gone?) He had been warming himself on the fieldstone path as I passed by this garden. Could he really be leaving us? It’s been two weeks now and he has not returned to our little frog pond garden.  And, magically, two new frogs have found the pond.  My fish numbers are lower but they will recover. All is well in our small aquatic paradise.

With the snake gone, I knew this was my window of opportunity. Today I waded knee-deep into the garden that borders the pond, armed with loppers and pitchfork and a stick to drive away anything scary. Chop, chop, dig, dig. I slowly cut back the cotoneaster, dug up large sections of the spreading Black-eyed Susan and all of the variegated Japanese sedges, leaving the fieldstone visible.  I left alone the poor sun starved Blue Sedge (Carex flacca) that once gracefully flopped over the rocks along the border. It will rebound.
img_2198If the snake makes it through the winter, he will probably return to the pond next summer, however the shelter he found beneath the overhanging branches and flowers is gone.  Let’s hope he keeps on truckin’.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

If It’s Fall, It’s the Fall Webworm

We have over a month till Halloween but we if look up into the branches of black walnut trees near me, you’d think we were decorating for Trick or Treaters. The fall webworms (Hyphantria cunea) are in the business of defoliating our walnut trees.

The caterpillar also affects pecan, American elm, hickory, fruit trees, some maples, persimmon and sweet gum in the eastern U.S. but it’s the black walnut trees in our area that are taking a beating.

As with all insects, fall webworm populations fluctuate greatly over the years. The normal population is spread out in most years and webs do not draw much attention. Occasionally, populations explode when conditions are favorable and webs become numerous. Then the webbing and defoliated trees certainly attract our attention.

Although the webbing is unsightly, it rarely is cause for alarm. Since it’s so late in the season, the trees have already stored enough energy to sustain themselves for the winter.

Caterpillars will crawl down the trunk looking for a hiding place to pupate. This homeowner has applied a sticky tape around the base of their mature walnut tree to trap the caterpillar.

As a child, I watched a neighbor take a long bamboo pole with an nail in the top, pierce the web and wrap up the entire web like cotton candy. It was then burned in a barrel, caterpillars inside. I have pruned the affected branches I could reach and disposed of the web. My mother would simply rip open the nest and watch birds have a free for all.  There are insecticides that can be sprayed into the trees to kill the caterpillars but keep in mind that the poisons kill other insects as it falls to the ground. I recommend letting the insect run its course since there is no real damage done to the trees. A preventive measure would be raking and disposing of leaves beneath the trees since a good percentage of the insects overwinter in the pupal stage in leaf litter.

Fall Webworm, Hyphantria cunea

Image by GregTheBusker via Flickr

Interesting enough, it our native fall webworm that has spread to other countries as an invasive. In China it has no natural enemies as it does in the U.S. where birds and wasps feed upon the caterpillars.  We can think of foreign insects or plants that become invasive in our own country but this native U.S. insect has a negative impact in other countries.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Funky Gasteracantha cancriformis…

Flickering glints of light in the ginkgo branches caught my attention early this morning. It was a gorgeous orb web covered in droplets of morning dew that sparkled like miniature crystals in the sunlight. In the center of this large web was a funky little spider known by several names: the crab-like spiny orbweaver, smiley face spider, jewel spider, spiny-bellied orbweaver, skull spider. It is easily identified by the 6 spiny projections that protrude from the shell-like body.

Spiny orb-weaver spider (Gasteracantha cancrif...

Spiny orb-weaver spider (Gasteracantha cancriformis). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bodies are white and the spines are black on the ones I see around Tidewater Virginia but the color of the body and spines can vary from orange or yellow to red, especially in Florida.  No one has fully determined the purpose of the spines but it is thought to serve as a defense. The Gasteracantha cancriformis is found in southern United States through South America.  Most commonly seen in the fall when reproduction takes place, the female builds a new nest nightly around shrubs and lower branches of trees, often destroyed by humans when it stretches across walkways. She faces downward in the center of the orb while she waits for her prey.

This miniature spider is not dangerous and serves as a beneficial predator in the garden. Her diet consists of mostly flying insects: moths, flies, mosquitoes, white flies, fruit flies and other small insects.  Matter of fact, these unique little spiders are appreciated in the citrus groves of Florida where they help to control the fruit fly population.

The life span of this spider is short. The male dies shortly after mating. After laying her eggs, the female soon dies. Eggs take 11 -13 days to hatch yet young will stay in their egg case for several weeks. If you’d like to see one of these funky little gals, arise early while the dew is still on the grass and the light from the morning sun illuminates the droplets. Look dead center in the web for a tiny button of a spider and marvel at her uniqueness.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Wild and Wonderful Dragon

Wild and wonderful could describe both the Dragon Run and the enthusiastic woman who led several folks on a Saturday morning outing through trails owned by the Friends of Dragon Run, the non-profit group that supports the woodlands, swamp and stream.

Vivacious and enthusiastic, Teta Kain is energized by the pristine watershed that feeds the 40 miles of the Dragon Run stream, emptying into the Piankatank River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. She’s a naturalist, a wildlife photographer, a bird enthusiast, a butterfly expert, a writer, and a self-professed lover of ‘critters’ that inhabit our world.  I have been fortunate enough to hear several of her talks, kayak the Dragon with her and now I have experienced the passion she has for the flora along the trails in this unspoiled wilderness, a rare ecosystem that the Smithsonian Institution ranked second in ecological significance in a study of 232 significant areas of 12,600 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay region.

Teta with her friend, Kohl, show us how to ID a mushroom using a mirror.

The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and Friends of Dragon Run have partnered to protect the watershed but the Friends of Dragon Run provides the only access to the area for kayaking and hiking. It also provides guided tours on both to view and study the flora and fauna. Although there are posts along the trails that identify American hornbeam, mockernut hickory, bald cypress, devils walkingstick, possumhaw, fetterbush, partridgeberry, spotted wintergreen, and flowers with names like Elephant’s foot, we would not have learned all we did without Teta who would easily drop to the ground with a mirror to teach us to identify mushrooms by reflecting the differences in the gills to us, who pointed out the small differences in species of ferns, who could identify spiders and butterflies, fungus and Lycopodiums and even our feathered friends that inhabit the wilderness.

It is refreshing to know such a dedicated volunteer like Teta who is committed to teaching and protecting the unique ecosystem of Dragon Run, hoping to light a fire under others.  The future of the Dragon as a wild and wonderful watershed is not guaranteed. Development always threatens.  Let’s hope the Dragon can remain pristine and vital.  Pssst…. You could help! The Friends of Dragon Run does accept tax deductible donations to further conservation, education and protection of the watershed. Want to know more? Check it out: www.dragonrun.org.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Singing in the Rain…

The aftermath of a drenching rain that ends a long period of extreme heat and dry weather is dramatic. One day we can be surrounded by crunchy brown grass and wilted leaves and little movement by animals, then wake the morning following a storm to exuberant changes in nature.  Plants perk up and animals perk up.  It is a healthy reminder how much all life on earth depends on H2O for its very existance.

Our rains came heavy, fast and furious with much thunder and lightning and wind. Umbrellas flew like rockets, inflatable rafts became a part of  the borders, watering cans were blown across the landscape, but we were oblivious to all as we sat at a window and watched in absolute joy.

click to see my freckles...

A stroll through the revived property revealed how quickly living creatures bounce back when water returns. At the pond, fish that have lived at the bottom of the low pond became our little friends again and they introduced us to their babies.  Frogs that we have not seen in weeks made appearances again. Toads lingered in the wet mulch and filled their tummies with insects that are emerging from hiding. And the ground is alive with amphibian youngsters. Watch your step!

Click all photos to enlarge

We sat at the end of the pier in the calm of the early morning today and watched the osprey young who finally learned to fly.  We observed the parents diving for fish, hitting the water, then reappearing with large croaker in talons. Babies who waited in the pines shouted with excitement and hunger. From the end of the pier we enjoyed a pod of porpoise chasing schools of fish up one shoreline, then another, coming within feet from where we watched. Yes, they also brought their babes for us to meet.

Finally, a happy birthday to Les Parks over at Smithfield Nursery. He turned a young 50 yesterday and he wished for this rain for his big day, which he generously shared with us all. What a difference it made.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Garden Stitch In Time

Caterpillars of all shapes and sizes, both moths and butterflies, are invading areas of the garden at this time of year.  Some, like the black swallowtail caterpillar, I welcome; others are pests, like the Eastern tent caterpillar, and then there are a few that interest me, like the Redbud Leaffolder.

A tiny moth caterpillar, the Redbud Leaffolder (Fascista cercerisella), has turned some of the tree’s lovely heart shaped leaves into a patchwork quilt by folding or rolling the leaves. These black/white striped caterpillars pull a corner of the leaf over and ‘stitch’ the edges together with silk thread while they consume the leaf from the inside. I have opened some of the leaves to have a peek inside. I found several caterpillars in each fold and I was met with a flurry of movement.  The caterpillars twist and jump, eventually falling to the ground as an escape.

A tiny leaffolder moth visits lamps at night

The adult is a teeny black moth with white spots. I have read that that these common moths breed twice a summer. I would not describe our tree as infested and I’m not ready to use pesticides.  I’m watching and waiting. If I sense a problem, I’ll first try picking the leaf and stepping on it to squish the inhabitants.  Pesticides will be the last option and it would have to be ruinous for the redbud before I take that final step.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Brown-Headed Nuthatches have moved in….

Click to enlarge photo of nuthatch

I am overjoyed about the current residents of mister gardener’s newly constructed bluebird house. A few days before their arrival, I received a forwarded article from the Northern Neck Virginia Audubon Society on a study by Dr. Mark Stanback of Davidson College in Charlotte, NC.  The United States Golf Association Wildlife Links sponsored a two-year study of the importance of pine forests density and nesting competition between bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches.

The study focused on golf courses where bluebird boxes were distributed. Dr. Stanback found that the density of pines had little to do with nest competition between both species yet his studies found that the small nuthatches are attracted to the bluebird boxes. Bluebirds would routinely evict resident nuthatches from boxes with the standard 1.5” bluebird openings. When the openings were reduced to 1.25”, too small for bluebirds, the nuthatches in North Carolina were regular bluebird box occupants.

I’ve had year-round brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) for the past three years and they nested somewhere in the pine forests. But just as I read about Dr. Stanback’s study, here they are going in and out of the new bluebird chapel in the azalea border.  But what’s this?  In and out were the neighborhood bluebirds, too. We needed to take immediate action. Mister gardener quickly overlaid a 1.25” opening atop the 1.5” opening. Like magic, it worked.  Mr. and Mrs. brown-headed nuthatch are nesting. The bluebirds still sit on the steeple and leave their messy calling cards but they can no longer enter the nests. UPDATE: Dr. Stanback has notified me that he is now advising 1″ openings, rather than 1.25″, to discourage sparrows. We will make a new 1″ opening as the 1.25″ can also allow titmice, the only birds we see the nuthatches chase from the area.

Dr. Stanback’s study concluded with an encouragement to golf courses in the nuthatch distribution range to make a subset of course boxes with smaller entrance holes and that 1/3 of the current bluebird boxes be provided with small holes. The brown-headed nuthatch is in decline in the Southeast.  Always thought to be caused by the loss of old grown pine, this study offers a different hypothesis: competition with the burgeoning Eastern Bluebird population is causing the decline of the brown-headed nuthatch.  Well, well, well….

USGS Patuxuent Wildlife Research Center -Brown-Headed Nuthatch Range

The Virginia Bluebird Society offered the following supportive statement on their website:  “Considering the availability of inch hole spacers, the current health of the bluebird population and the plight of the nuthatch, it seems reasonable to ask bluebirders in appropriate habitat in eastern Virginia to dedicate a subset of their nest boxes to this dull colored but charismatic cooperative breeder.”

Our bluebirds in Ware Neck are plentiful and bluebird boxes dot the landscape on our property and across the county. I am thrilled to learn of this latest study. The proof that it works is right in our own backyard and I encourage others who have an empty bluebird house and the brown-headed nuthatch in their yard to give this a try.  It worked for us. Thank you, Dr. Stanback!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Cedar Waxwings in the Garden

cedar waxwing in foster hollyThere is a quiet lull in the garden right now.  Fall maintenance chores are complete, tools have been cleaned and put away, hoses have been drained, and the first frost has arrived in Tidewater.  For me, this time of year signals a new excitement as I view the landscape from my windows, binoculars in hand, camera ready, and Sibley’s bird guide at my side for it’s all about birds and migration now.  Much of what I have chosen for garden flora has been for the birds, their nesting, their food, and their winter protection.

One bird that I am eagerly awaiting is the cedar waxwing. My daughter in Maine delights in the arrival of cedar waxwings each spring that remain and breed in Maine, dining voraciously on her blueberries and honeysuckle berries and insects all summer.  Before migration, she watches as they begin to flock in August over a fast running stream near her community, diving and swooping over the rapids chasing insects.  It is such a spectacle that she makes the pilgrimage back to the rapids to watch the incredible show each August.

Now she has alerted me that she no longer sees her resident waxwings. Have they left Maine? For me that can mean only one thing; they’re migrating my way.  And I am ready, checking the trees, listening for their high pitched calls, looking for movement around the cleaned and filled birdbaths.  They could be here any day from now till March but I know they will come for the waxwings and I both favor one variety of our trees: the foster holly.  I love it for its beauty and the food it brings my feathered friends. The waxwings love a variety of berries but this holly is their ‘caviar’ of berries on our property.

The slender, 20 – 30′ tall foster holly is a hybrid, the The arrival of cedar waxwingsoffpring of the female Dahoon Holly and the male American Holly.  I planted 3 of them massed together off the corner of the house as a vertical accent.  They produce tons of berries that are bright red against the glossy, dark leaves that are less spiny and softer than other holly leaves. These hollies are beautiful during the summer but they seem to save themselves for their brilliant berry display in the fall and winter.  I check the trees each day, looking for movement or the high pitched call of the cedar waxwings.  They could come today or they could come in January for they wander widely as they move south.

When the flock of birds do arrive, the scene is reminiscent of a piranha feed on the Amazon River.  The hollies are under attack for 24 hours until nary a berry is left. The gluttonous feeding habits of the bird are a far One waxwing with a red tail from consuming honeysuckle berries.cry from the image of the proper looking bird with its elegant silky feathers in shades of browns and yellow. The adults sport a distinctive black mask outlined in white that extends broadly over the face.  The adult wings end in secondary feathers with red waxy tips and the tails of most end in yellow tips.  However, since the 1960’s, there have been sightings of orange tipped tails due to eating the pigments of berry from a newly introduced variety of honeysuckle while the feathers are still growing.

After two days of feasting on foster hollies, cedars, cotoneasters, and wild cherries, my fascinating friends are off for a feeding frenzy at another location.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Oh Daddy!

You see daddy longlegs just about everywhere in the garden. Usually nocturnal, they are noticed daddy longlegsmore in the fall than any other time of year, thus the reason for their old name, Harvestmen, as they are more common at harvest time.

First of all, let’s straighten out one common misconception. The daddy longlegs is not a spider. How many times have you heard someone say that the daddy longlegs the most poisonous spider in the world but it simply cannot pierce the skin?  Talk about urban myths! You really don’t need to be afraid of this little animal because it has no venom at all. Yes, you read that right. It is non-venomous.

It may look like a spider with its eight legs but if you look closely you will see that the daddy longlegs body does not have the segment separation like spiders have. Longlegs’ head, thorax and abdomen are fused into an oval body.  Another difference, instead of spiders’ usual eight eyes, daddy longlegs have just two tiny weak eyes at the top of a small black stump atop the body.  In addition, they cannot produce silk like spiders and they have chewing mouth parts unlike a spider that ingests only liquids.

Having set all that straight, the daddy longlegs is a member of the Class Arachnida along with ticks, spiders, scorpions, mites, centipedes and other kin.  Spiders are a member of the Order Araneae and daddy longlegs are a member of the Order Opiliones, which is a closer relative to mites.

These harmless invertebrates do not damage plants. They are scavengers of dead insects, decayed matter and hunters of small insects like aphids. I often see them nibbling on spilled cat food on our deck in the evening.

up close

Notice the tiny black eyes in the center of the daddy longlegs (L.). The red dot on the Eastern Daddy Longlegs (R.) is a mite that is common to the animals.

The eyes of the longlegs are weak and cannot form images. Two of its legs contain thousands of sense organs and act as secondary eyes, ears, and nose for the longlegs. Hold your finger close to a resting animal and it will reach out and touch and explore your skin gathering information.  However, if threatened, one of more legs will fall off. These legs continue to spasm allowing the longlegs a bit of time to escape.  Another defensive mechanism for the daddy longlegs is the presence of two stink glands which release a pungent odor I experienced many times as a child!

An ancient creature, fossils have been found of the daddy longlegs that show the animal has remained unchanged for millions of years. It’s just another harmless, yet successful invertebrate in our gardens that we should take note of and learn about.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Yellows Have It!

After days of warm, dry weather, a cold front moved into Virginia over the weekend, dropping temperatures to the 50’s and bringing us a trace of rain.  We woke this morning to a landscape filled with attention grabbing golds and yellows. Here’s what I saw on my walk today:

It won't be long before the ginkgos leaves drop

It won’t be long before the ginkgo leaves turn lemon yellow, then all fall in a day’s time to cover the ground like melted butter.

Crepe Myrtles frame mr. gardener's fence in yellows and golds

Crape myrtles frame mr. gardener’s winter vegetable garden in yellows and golds.

Yellows from maples, poplars, and hickories greet you on the lane.

Yellows from maples, poplars, and hickories greet us on the lane.

Old maples carpet the lawn.

Old maples carpet the lawn.

Young maples vie for space

Young maples vie for space

A young sassafras gets in on the act.

A young sassafras gets in on the act.


Netted chain fern (woodwardia areolata) yellows beneath evergreen holly.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

There’s a Leopard in my Garden!

Leopard LilySometimes I look around my garden and think I must be running an animal preserve.  I see hens and chicks, elephant ears, turtleheads, oxeye daisies, chickweed, lamb’s ear, and the most fearsome animal but loveliest flower of all, the leopard lily, an aggressive animal in the jungle but gentle flower in the garden.  It’s not a lily at all but a member of the iris family.  I have read that it is invasive, that it has established itself in pastures and ditches, that self seeding causes it to sprout everywhere, but in my garden it is a leopard that purrs and behaves itself.  Though not a color I sought for the garden, each deep orange bloom with red spots is heavenly in the heat of the summer and the 6-petaled flowers in clusters of orchid-like blooms are irresistible.  No one can pass by without admiring them.

Flowers appear in mid-summer in sprays that grow on delicate stems that rise above the dried bloomiris-like foliage to a height of three feet.  Each bloom lasts barely one day but is soon followed by new blooms that shine during the heat of the summer months.  After a day, each bloom dries into a tight spiral that is as delectable as the full blooms themselves.  We are rewarded again several weeks later blackberry lily seedsduring fall when the seed pods split open to reveal a cluster of lustrous black seeds looking like giant blackberries, hence the other name for this plant, the blackberry lily.  I have found these can be cut and dried and used successfully in flower arranging.

Interestingly, in the book, Jefferson’s Garden, I read that Thomas Jefferson planted the seeds of this tropical-looking plant in his oval garden in 1807 and today it still self-sows on the property.  Somehow I feel a little bit of fulfillment sowing the same seeds and growing the same perennials enjoyed by fellow Virginia gardener, Thomas Jefferson. All three stages of flower development are simply fabulous and I recommend this plant for Virginia gardens and gardeners.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Argiope, The Beautiful Garden Spider

Like many youngsters, I had a huge fear of spiders as a child, but through the years I’ve gotten braver and learned to appreciate spiders and the benefits of having them in the garden.  I still scream if I run into a web but the neighbors no longer dash to my aid. They all know I simply had another close encounter with a spider.

September and October are the perfect months to discover more about the intriguing world of spiders and webs in our gardens.  Step outside in the early morning while dew still covers the Argiope waiting for her mealgrass and be introduced to a silken wonderland of glistening webs festooning the grass, bushes, and trees in a variety of designs from tunnels to chaotic masses, to long threads connecting shrubs and trees, and to the ones that amaze me the most–the giant orb webs.

The spider that spins these magnificent orbs, Argiope aurantia, is said to spin the strongest web in the spider world.  The highly visible female is the largest and most colorful spider in our Tidewater gardens. Her web spirals out from the center and can be 2 feet across with a telltale zigzag line in the center called a stabilimenta, the purpose of which is not completely understood.

The large yellow and black Argiope, aka Writing Spider, hangs head down in the center of her web.  Although fierce looking, she is benign.  If disturbed, she will either drop from her web to escape or she may vibrate her nest vigorously to intimidate, but she poses no threat.   A bite is rare, but should it happen, the reaction will be mild. The best thing for us to do is to leave her alone since she is fast approaching the end of her life cycle.

We fed one argiope moths a few summers ago and she was able to produce 3 egg sacs.

Egg Sacs

At this time of year she will  produce her eggs.  Her abdomen will swell before producing usually one, but up to three, egg sacs containing from 300 to over a thousand young in each, and her life  will end with the first frost. Her babies hatch inside the sac, where they also overwinter  before emerging in the spring looking like miniatures of their parents.

I have witnessed the emergence of the miniature spiders in the spring and it is reminiscent of Charlotte’s Web.  Off they scurry in every direction to begin their own summer journey of life.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

My Garden BFF

I consider every plant in my garden a good friend.  A  select few have become my pets, but I must admit that a particular plant species will always remain my BFF.

Among the most popular plants in my spring garden are the numerous viburnums.  All summer, I hang out with my good friends, the colorful hydrangea; in the fall, I keep company with my ornamental grasses with their showy seed heads; and in colder months, both the birds and I love the Foster Hollies.  These are among my preferred seasonal plants in the garden and each year they vie hard with worthy competitors for my attention.

However, my Best Friend Forever in the garden is an all-season evergreen found bordering my promenade to the garden Poet's Laurelshed. It is the Poet’s Laurel, Danae Racemosa, graceful, arching, elegant and equally as beautiful in the winter as it is in summer. The original plant, started from my mother’s mature hedge that lined her driveway, is now one of ten that line our grassy pathway in the dappled shade of loblollies.

This plant may resemble a shrub but it is an evergreen perennial related to asparagus. Soft bright green shoots develop underground and emerge in spring looking remarkably like asparagus, then gracefully arch to the ground as they mature by summertime.  The shoots are not woody and live only two to three years and are then cut back to the ground.  Marble size orange-red berries in the fall are quite attractive and especially loved by our resident mockingbirds.

What looks like leaves are actually green, glossy modified stems or cladodes that store water during dry weather and capture light as a leaf would.  At the base of the cladodes are the tiny, inconspicuous leaves. Prized by flower arrangers for the long lasting tough green stems, it can be cut brought inside in any season.  Propagation by division with a shovel in the fall or early spring is the best method, and one that my mother used for all of her incredible 4 1/2′ x 4 1/2′ plants.  Poet’s Laurel also spreads very slowly by rhizomes and very slowly by seed.

This wonderful plant is the mainstay of the winter garden and is equally as interesting in the summertime, a must for a Virginia shade garden. And although I have quite enough, if I see one at a nursery, it cries out to me.  I have purchased two at Smithfield Gardens, a very well stocked garden center in Suffolk. To see what’s in stock this fall, click here.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester