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

My Big, Fat Ugly Weed

It began slowly.  I saw a bit here and there in the lawn after Hurricane Isabel but had no idea what it was. It looked fairly benign, just small plants growing beneath the grass. I’d easily pull one out, ignore 4 more, paint a tiny amount of weed killer on a small patch, but for the most part, I simply ignored it. Big mistake. After our wet winter this year, we know we have a problem with this difficult to control broadleaf lawn plague named Virginia buttonweed (Diodia virginiana L.).

This spring I armed myself with information about buttonweed and I realize how monstrous my troubles could be. This is a very aggressive weed that forms dense mats in the lawn. Deep-rooted, this perennial can return each spring from its root system and it can spread by seeds and from any living portion of the plant. One remarkable characteristic of this weed is that it has self-pollinating flowers both above and below the soil. The tiny, star-shaped, 4-petaled white flowers can help identify the plant in the grass.  Interestingly, another identifying feature is a mottled mosaic yellow-green leaf in some buttonweed due to a virus.

Virginia Tech calls this weed “a very troublesome weed of lawns and turfgrass throughout the southeastern United States.” All I know is it likes moisture (we had plenty this winter) and it successfully adapts to mowing. Pulling it up is a temporary solution since root fragments will regenerate. I read that proper management of turf is a good preventative. Too late for that. Recommended is repeated applications of a postemergence herbicide every 4 – 6 weeks but I hesitate.

It is a native.   It is a survivor.   On some level I can’t help but admire it and wonder how it would look, dark green and mottled mosaic yellow-green, instead of grass.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Incredible Edible Fig

Read & Eleanor's Fig PreservesTalk about Time Travel.  Yesterday I bit into my first fig of the season.  One taste and and I was whisked back to my childhood, lying on the warm grass beneath the boughs of a neighbor’s fig tree eating an endless supply of sweet succulent figs. The amazing taste and texture of a fig with all those tiny seeds is an experience like no other.  It’s positively addictive.  With the moist spring we’ve had, 2009 should be a bountiful harvest year.

The cultivation of the fig dates back 4-5 thousand years and before Biblical times, believed first in Egypt, then Crete, and on to ancient Greece, where they are still a traditional part of the daily diet.  Thought to have been brought by Spaniards to the Western Hemisphere in the 16th century and to Jamestown during the founding years, Virginians like to credit Thomas Jefferson for helping to popularize the fig.

Members of the ficus family, fig trees are easy to grow in zone 7 and higher.  They are bug and disease resistant but you must share the harvest with an occasional flock of birds or your dog (they love figs!).  Fig trees reach heights of 30 – 50 feet and can bear two or three crops a season.  In our area, we see two different kinds of figs: Brown Turkey, copper-colored with no neck, and Celeste, purplish and more fleshy.  Locate the plant against or near a south-facing wall so it can benefit from reflected heat during the winter.  If temperatures fall below 15 degrees F, insulate the roots with mulch.

Figs fall into the false-fruit category like strawberries as each fig harbors thousands of tiny fruits. When you pick, make sure the figs are ripe as they do not ripen off the tree.  The taste is fabulous on its own but marries well with a variety of foods and recipes abound.  Preserves is one of my favorite ways to enjoy figs all year and I’m lucky that friends share gifts from their trees.

figs

Read and Eleanor McGehee of Ware Neck often make preserves from their harvest for Christmas gifts but they’re not divulging their recipe and I’m not pressing them.  (Shhhhh….  I know lemon is one of their secret ingredients.)  Some recipes call for ginger, lemon or the rind of a lemon, while others list cinnamon, cloves, or allspice as ingredients.   Eleanor is a member of The Garden Club of Gloucester.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

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The Cow Killer, also known as Red Velvet Ant

Cow KillerI’m not walking in the garden without shoes again.  Today I saw a Cow Killer as I weeded in my bare feet.  I called for mister gardener to quickly bring me my camera because the insect moves fast.  Named Red Velvet Ant for the fine layer of hairs on the body, it is also called Cow Killer for the venomous punch it packs when it stings.  Actually, it is not an ant at all but one of the 475 species of Velvet Ant parasitic wasps in North America.  The winged male does not sting but the wingless female, usually nocturnal, wanders the flower garden dining on nectar while searching for the tunnels of ground-nesting wasps, especially the cicada wasp.  The female Velvet Ant will sneak into the tunnel and lay eggs on the host larva which the Velvet Ant young will consume after hatching. She has a nearly indestructible exoskeleton which protects her from the sting of the cicada wasp should they meet in the ground nest.

cow killer

The Cow Killer is a solitary wasp and does not live in a colony or have a nest of her own.  She is not aggressive and will try to escape if disturbed.  Interestingly, she does make a sound.  As a child, I would touch one with a twig just to hear the tiny squeak it made.  These beautiful wasps are not numerous and cause no damage to plants. No chemical control is needed.  Teach others about them, appreciate them, and leave them alone as they have a purpose in keeping the bee and wasp population in check.  My advice: Simply defend yourself against a painful sting and wear shoes in the garden.

Red Velvet Ant

See September 12:  “A Red Velvet Ant Stops in for Lunch”

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Fireworks Every Day in the Garden

Every two and a half weeks I stand in line at Costco along with other bulk shoppers, their carts full of king-size supplies of food and my cart containing only two items….two king-size bags of sugar, 50 lbs. of sugar to be exact, just enough to fill 7 hummingbird feeders with nectar for about 18 days.  There is a formula to estimate how many hummers reside in an area by the amount of nectar they consume but we aren’t interested in knowing.  We only know we have oodles of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds that are drawn here year after year by an abundance of food, water, and nesting sites. Suburban and rural gardens are ideal hummingbird habitats with trees, shrubs, open areas of grass or meadows, water and flowers.  With the addition of the right flowers, most gardens will attract these miniature thespians to entertain you in the garden.

leucistic Ruby-Throated Hummingbird in Ware Neck VAThese “glittering garments of the rainbow,” as John James Audubon called them, are the most colorful and prolific bloomers in our gardens from early spring until late fall. We recognize the same individuals as they arrive each spring, not only by their familiarity with us, but by unusual markings on some of them.  Several of our hummers are leucistic, a condition of reduced pigmentation in the feathers.  As new generations are born each spring to these birds, it is interesting to see the white leucistic variations on the heads of the offspring.

We are entertained by the raging territorial battles to protect their nectar source. They battle each other, bees, birds, the dogs and people.  As the ‘king’ of one feeder chases an intruder, several others slip in to have a sip from his nectar cache. These jewel-colored birds with their explosive and ferocious territorial dances at speeds of up to 60 mph provide us with 4th of July fireworks every day of the summer.

Did you know?

  • The Ruby-Throated is the only hummer to breed east of the Mississippi yet during migration you can see other varieties passing through.
  • Hummingbirds are great pollinators, often better than bees because they feed continuously from dawn to dusk.
  • Hummingbirds do eat insects: gnats, mosquitoes, spiders, aphids, etc.  In the early spring they will look for insects trapped in sap from woodpecker holes.
  • Females do all the nest building, often attaching it with spider silk and pine resin, and camouflaging it with lichens and fungus.  The nest is walnut-sized and the 2 eggs are pea-sized.  The male continues to court other females after mating.
  • Predators include spiders, preying mantis, dragonflies and other birds. I have witnessed a bullfrog in our pond jump a foot straight up to within 1/4-inch of a hummer at a pickerel weed bloom. We have rescued them from spider webs and nursed them from collisions with each other.
  • At night, due to their small size and lack of insulation, hummers enter a state of torpor, a hibernation-like condition where the breathing and heart rate slow dramatically.

Nectar recipe:  1 part white granulated sugar to 4 parts water.  According to Bill Williams of William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, it is not necessary to boil the solution, just dissolve the sugar. Male Ruby-Throated HummingbirdThe nectar solution can be stored in the refrigerator for two weeks. Do not use the commercial red dye solution.  Keep the feeder very clean to avoid black mold that can be harmful to the birds.

Bill Williams also states that the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird has recently been documented wintering over in two Tidewater locations.  Is this a new trend? It very well could be he says.

Plants to attract:  hibiscus, flowering quince, currants, weigela, azalea, mimosa, and buddleia.   Flowers to attract: morning glory, columbine, trumpet vine, fuschia, bee balm, bleeding heart, honeysuckle, virginia creeper, and salvia.  Remember, they are attracted to the color red.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester