Thursday, December 31, 2009

What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

In My Florida Backyard, New Year's Eve is all about the fireworks. We don't set off any ourselves, but we don't need to. Folks all around the lake start setting them off in the afternoon, and by evening there are brilliant bursts of light in every direction every few minutes.

And of course, at midnight, the show is pretty spectacular. Fireworks are terribly hard to take amateur pictures of, but once in a blue moon you can get a few decent shots!

Happy New Year 2010

from My Florida Backyard
(and its residents)!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Not to complain, but it's awfully cold here for Florida, even in late December. (Well, OK, I am complaining. But so is everyone else I talk to.) Since November, it seems we've just had one cold front after another here in Tampa. Temps will make it into the 70s for a few days, and then a cold front comes through and plunges us back to daytime highs in the 50s with nights in the 40s (or less!). This weather pattern is much more typical of January and February, so I'm finding myself a little worried about what the winter ahead might bring. Today we topped out around 55 in the midafternoon, and the cool wind made it feel much colder.

(An amusing side note for anyone raised in the North - we had a wind chill warning last night. Down here, a wind chill warning is issued when the wind chill will be below 35 for at least 3 hours. Be sure to notice that's "below 35", not "35 below" like it is up North!)

However, I will say that if you can get out of the wind and stand in the sun for a few moments, the sunshine is reassuringly warm. That must be why these monarch caterpillars are still surviving, and even thriving, in My Florida Backyard.
We haven't seen any butterflies in a few days - it's just too chilly for them to fly. However, these caterpillars have been doing their best to decimate what's left of my milkweed and are progressing well, if slowly. There are three of them eagerly defoliating the plant above, and I've seen at least two others of similar size scattered on other plants around the garden.

If you've read anything about monarchs, you might be thinking, "I thought Monarchs migrated to Mexico for the winter?" That's true, but in Central and South Florida, some of our monarchs stick it out through the winter, because our temperatures generally remain warm enough during the day for them to survive. When the temps are too low, the caterpillars enter diapause, a state of suspended animation (the same biological occurrence that causes iguanas to fall out of the trees during cold snaps in Miami).

When living up north, I used to think that hibernation would have been the best way to make it through a northern winter. I'm starting to think that diapause would be great for these chilly days in a Florida winter, when our thin skins and thinner blood keep us shivering in 50 degree weather. We could just choose to stay in bed for a day or two, warm and cozy, until the temperature returns to a more reasonable 75, when we could resume our daily lives. Sound good to anyone else?

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Holly Jolly Christmas

I sometimes think we expect too much of Christmas Day. We try to crowd into it the long arrears of kindliness and humanity of the whole year. As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year. And thus I drift along into the holidays - let them overtake me unexpectedly - waking up some find morning and suddenly saying to myself: "Why, this is Christmas Day!"
~David Grayson

Merry Christmas from My Florida Backyard to your backyard, wherever it may be!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

Do you know the story of this very old, very beautiful Provencal carol? It tells of two little milkmaids, Jeanette and Isabella, who go to milk their cows and instead find the baby Jesus lying in a manger. They run to tell the townfolk, who all come to see the newborn and softly praise him, so as not to wake the child.

This carol has been sung for hundreds of years, and even today, young girls in Provence dress as milkmaids and carry torches to church on Christmas Eve.

Whether tonight is a holy night for you, or a joyous night, or just another night in December, My Florida Backyard wishes you all the best this Christmas Eve!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Wonderland

Today is the Winter Solstice, and we ushered in the first official day of winter with below-average temperatures. In My Florida Backyard, it topped out around 62 this afternoon, but the sun was wonderfully warm and made the day pretty comfortable. The shortest day of the year ended with a wonderful watercolor sunset, followed by the first moon of winter, a frosted crescent in a silver sky.

Florida's Winter Wonderland may not have snowmen dressed as circus clowns or snow glistening in the lane, but our winter nights still bring beautiful sights... and sometimes it's even cool enough to give your nose a bit of a chillin'!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Carol of the Bells

One of my favorite Florida native plants is Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). This easy-to-grow trailing vine flowers nearly year-round here in Florida, with bright red trumpet-shaped flowers that hang like bells and offer nectar and pollen for butterflies and bees. The insides of the flowers are a cheery yellow, and the shiny green leaves make a beautiful contrast to the blooms, especially this time of year when they provide some seasonal color.

A neighbor of mine
frequently sees ruby-throated hummingbirds in her yard during summer, and claims this is one of the plants they will visit. We haven't had any luck spotting these delightful birds in My Florida Backyard yet, but we haven't given up hope!

In the meantime, Coral Honeysuckle offers red berries for songbirds, so that should keep our feathered friends happy.

Coral Honeysuckle, like many Florida natives, can be surprisingly hard to find outside of native plant nurseries. Most nurseries seem to stock Cape Honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis), which is native to Africa and can become overgrown very quickly. Coral Honeysuckle can be left to trail over existing shrubs without choking them out, but Cape Honeysuckle generally takes over wherever it is planted. A Florida-Friendly gardener should chose native Coral Honeysuckle when possible.
In My Florida Backyard, the Coral Honeysuckle has been trained to grow up the downspouts flanking the butterfly garden, and we are working a new piece up around the bird feeder pole. Unlike passionvine, which happily pulls itself up anything it can find with those springy little tendrils, honeysuckle may need a little help to send it where you want it to go. This is good, because you can decide where you want it - a choice passionvine doesn't always give you.

Although the bell-shaped flowers of Coral Honeysuckle may not "peal loud and deep", their seasonal color helps spread a message that My Florida Backyard believes in heartily: "Peace on earth, good will to men!"

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Away in a Manger

There are some ways in which a caterpillar's life is very convenient. After all, from the very moment it hatches from the egg, the caterpillar is sitting directly on the food source it will need for the next 7 - 10 days. All the caterpillar has to do is eat and grow, eat and grow, as this fellow has clearly been doing.

Caterpillars face plenty of other challenges, so it's nice that at least their food source is always provided. All caterpillars are specialists, and butterflies lay eggs appropriately. Monarchs will only lay eggs on milkweed, as this is the only food their caterpillars will eat. And My Florida Backyard is happy to provide as much milkweed as these wonderful little creatures can use!

Friday, December 11, 2009

We Need a Little Christmas

As I mentioned a few months ago, meteorologists have determined this is an El Nino year. This means higher than normal rainfall for Florida, which would explain the numerous gloomy days we've been experiencing - not good for those of us who are "solar-powered". While our temperatures may not be plummeting to the hideous lows the northern states are experiencing (no temperature should ever be a single syllable), they're downright chilly for Florida, and we've all been missing the sun.

Fortunately, Christmas is fast approaching, and the world is hauling out the holly to keep our spirits from falling again. My Florida Backyard still has plenty of color, even on chilly days, and one good example is the holiday colors of my wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa).

I added this native plant to my garden in June, as a draw for songbirds and even butterflies. It has little white flowers, followed by these berries. The berries on my holly bush have been slow to turn red this year, so it's nice that the wild coffee can provide a similar color scheme in time for the holidays.

Even on gloomy days, when the world seems a little sadder and colder than normal, My Florida Backyard continues to provide comfort and joy!

Monday, December 7, 2009

O Tannenbaum

We've had an artificial Christmas tree for a number of years. We lived in a third floor apartment for a long time, and carrying a live tree up the stairs, and then carrying an almost dead tree dripping needles back down the stairs a month later, and then having to go vacuum up all the needles from the stairs so the neighbors didn't complain... well, it all just got to be a bit too much. So, we made the investment in a pre-lit fake tree, and it serves our purposes just fine.

I do miss the smell of a real tree though, and today I gave in and bought a cute little one from Lowe's. It came with its own little temporary tree stand, and smells just like Christmas. I didn't want to spend a whole lot to decorate it, since it's going on the back porch, so I went simple - just lights, bows, and some gold stars. I have to say that I'm extremely pleased with how it turned out.

Rather than a star on top, I used a couple of wooden ornaments from Pier One (also where I got the gold stars) that indicate exactly the emotions the Great Outdoors generally evokes for me. It looks nice at night, but I think I actually like it even better during the day. It's really nice when something you envision turns out exactly like you planned!

How often has the Christmas tree
Afforded me the greatest glee?
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Much pleasure thou can'st give me.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Home for the Holidays

Florida is full of snowbirds this time of year. Some of these have gray hair and drive 35 in the passing lane, but others are actual birds, like these ring-necked ducks.

Each year, around November, various water birds start showing up on the pond in My Florida Backyard. Previous years have brought us lesser scaups and American coots, but so far this year the main visitors have been these very cool ducks.

The name seems misleading, as the ring around the beak is much more prominent, but according to WhatBird, the duck has a chestnut neck ring that gives it its name. The picture above most likely shows a breeding male and female in the back, with two nearly-grown juveniles in the front.

When you migrate, I don't know if there's any place in particular you consider "home", but I like to think these waterfowl have come home for the holidays. We certainly welcome them here in My Florida Backyard!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Babes in Toyland

It's really not the right season, but this mama duck apparently got some babies for Christmas!

A few more pictures for your Christmastime entertainment:

Somehow, I can just hear this little guy saying, "God bless us, every one!"

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Deck the Halls

Well, we finally found the extension cords, so here are some pictures of the front of the house all decorated for the holidays. Sorry for the picture quality - you need a much better camera than ours to take good night pics.

(Note the incredibly straight placement of the lights along the gutter.
I have an unnatural abhorrence of "droopy lights".)

A close-up (those red blobby things are actually very cute cardinals):

A note about our lights: My Florida Backyard believes strongly in conservation and the responsible use of resources. In keeping with those ideals, we know we probably shouldn't be "wasting" electricity by putting up several hundred Christmas lights.

We looked into replacing our current lights with energy-saving LEDs, but quite frankly, the cost was prohibitive. I'm really not quite sure why LEDs are so expensive - a string of 100 regular mini-lights costs less than $2, while a string of 100 LEDs costs between $15 and $20. What's the deal?

We often choose the better environmental option in My Florida Backyard, regardless of cost, but we haven't been able to make that commitment yet with our holiday decorations. It's certainly something we'll consider as finances make it possible in the future, and we urge others to research their options and make educated and responsible choices.

P.S. I'm not sure why we bother with lights when Mother Nature puts on such an amazing show in the sky!

Monday, November 30, 2009

What Child is This?

Although the milkweed in My Florida Backyard is a bit past its prime, it's still pretty easy to find caterpillars out there. In fact, today, for only the second time this year, I turned over a leaf to find one of my favorites - a Queen:

There's something so wonderful to me as a native of the cold north to be out tending a butterfly garden surrounded by Christmas lights - I never get tired of it. On the same day I put up the Christmas tree, I planted some new milkweed plants and transplanted a passionvine - it really is the most wonderful time of the year!

P.S. Our Cuban Treefrog made another appearance tonight... check out that camouflage!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

After a couple of chilly days, today was a glorious sunny one in My Florida Backyard. We spent the last few days more or less lying around in a Thanksgiving food coma, so it was good to get outside, do some yard work, and start rigging up those Christmas lights.

People up north ask if we don't miss the snow around the holidays. The answer is always a resounding "No"! We like hanging Christmas lights while long-tailed skippers and dainty sulphurs visit the plumbago bushes nearby*. We'd much rather sweat than fight frostbite as we figure out where the extension cords need to go. ("Is this how we did it last year?" "How should I know!?") We'll take sunburn over windburn any day - including the holidays.

At any rate, here's a shot of some of today's progress:

We'll post some more once we find the rest of the $@&#% extension cords!

*OK, one of us was hanging lights, while one of us was running around with the camera trying to snap pictures of those butterflies. Needless to say, the one hanging lights was more successful, or there'd be pictures of those butterflies in this post.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Plenty To Be Thankful For

As the country pauses today to count its blessings, we here in My Florida Backyard are doing the same. It's a lovely day, with warm sun and cool breezes, and soon we'll be eating turkey and mashed potatoes out on our back porch - the part of our home we're most thankful for.

While we eat, no doubt birds will wander by, feasting themselves on the bounty of nature that can be found in My Florida Backyard and the areas nearby - something else to be thankful for.

The sun is drying up the last puddles left by the rain of the last few days - and the rain is yet another thing to be thankful for. November is generally the driest month of the year here, but this month we've had several inches of rain. Both the aquifers and our rain barrel are thankful for that!

It's a little breezy for butterflies today, but caterpillars are still feeding on the passionvine and milkweed, and I'm sure they're thankful we've taken the time to provide them yummy pesticide-free meals!

Perhaps what we're most thankful for, though, is that we live in a land of November flowers. In other places, leaves have fallen off the trees and most flowers are brown and frost-bitten. But in My Florida Backyard, flowers bloom like summer is still here, and we definitely give thanks for that!
Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Froggy Bottom

We experienced a little problem when trying to use the watering can the other night - it appears someone had taken up residence in the spout.
This froggy little fellow is most likely a Cuban Treefrog. Two identifying features are the large "toepads" and the bumpy skin. As the name might indicate, it comes from Cuba as well as the Bahamas and Cayman Islands. Like so many introduced species, the Cuban Treefrog is considered invasive in Florda. It feeds on a variety of creatures, including native treefrogs and other Cuban treefrogs (cannibal frogs!).

In a true Florida-Friendly Yard, it's best to eradicate invasive species when you find them. If we'd realized this was a Cuban Treefrog when we first found it, we could have eliminated it from the environment permanently. In other words, we should have killed the little bugger. The University of Florida IFAS Extension provides instructions for doing this humanely (it involves your freezer). It's hard for a wildlife lover to extinquish any kind of life (here we go with the euphemisms again), but it takes hard choices to help protect the environment and ecosystem.

Fortunately, the IFAS Extension also provides some easy instructions on how to make Treefrog Houses to lure native treefrogs to your yard. It's as simple as driving a piece of PVC pipe into the ground in a nice place among some plants or trees. The treefrog house, like a toad house, provides a shady place for treefrogs to hide out during the day, where they can be protected from predators such as stray cats. We plan to install some of these in My Florida Backyard very soon - we'll post pictures when we do.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

High Hopes

Even an afternoon shuttle launch is a pretty cool sight from My Florida Backyard. On Monday afternoon, Space Shuttle Atlantis took off on mission STS-129, headed for the International Space Station (ISS) with a load of spare parts.

As I stood in the warm grass watching the shuttle lift off, two Monarchs fluttered among the milkweed nearby. They, of course, had no idea that high above, some of their relatives were going where none had gone before. You see, Atlantis had some pretty unusual passengers on board as well - Monarch and Painted Lady caterpillars! The ISS crew will be overseeing an experiment to see how zero-gravity affects these caterpillars as they attempt to pupate and then emerge as butterflies.

There's a lot of great information on the web about this experiment - click here for an overview and links to photos, videos, and updates.

Here's hoping that our caterpillar buddies thrive 220 miles above the earth - we'll be thinking of them with our feet firmly on the ground in My Florida Backyard!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Do You Believe in Magic?

Okay, it wasn't magic exactly. These duck potato plants were actually planted by our Adopt-A-Pond group back in August. Despite possible herbicide applications and our own inexpert planting skills, many of the plants are thriving. Click here to see more pictures from our second planting event on November 14.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Blowin' In The Wind

My Florida Backyard has two palm trees. One is a date palm, and is within our property lines, so we're responsible for the maintenance. The other, a royal palm, is technically on land owned by the HOA, so they take care of trimming it a few times a year.

It's been awhile since the royal palm has been pruned, and the dead fronds have started to accumulate. Dead fronds are a normal part of the growth of a palm tree - as the tree grows taller, the lower fronds die and fall off in their own time. Of course, in hurricane country, it's a good idea to prune these dead fronds yourself, before the wind can do it for you, because the wind is not very particular about where it deposits the trimmings.

Case in point: it's been very windy today, with gusts up to 35 miles an hour. Hurricane Ida is kicking around out in the Gulf of Mexico, and the atmosphere in the region is pretty unstable. So while it was a beautiful sunny afternoon with a high of 86, the winds made everything feel just a little - unsettled. By mid-afternoon, when the wind gusts were particularly strong, the dead palm fronds were falling off at a pretty regular rate. In a short amount of time, we had 5 fronds on the ground and 1 on the roof.

When we first became the proud owners of a palm tree, we were surprised to find just how tough the palm fronds really are. You can't just break or fold them down into smaller pieces - they don't bend very easily. You can see why early settlers used them in building shelters; they're very hardy. In fact, we're quite lucky none of them hit the screens at the wrong angle - they would easily tear large jagged holes given the opportunity.

The lesson here is that if you do own a palm tree, it's best to keep the dead parts pruned pretty regularly. If you're not familiar with palm trees, you may want to pay someone to do the job properly - it's pretty easy to do damage to them. The number one rule: don't trim any fronds that are still green. Living fronds are helping to build up the strong flexible trunk of the tree, and shouldn't be removed until they're ready to come off. Click here for more information on properly pruning your palms.

Overall, though, palms are a pretty low-maintenance tree, and they fit perfectly in My Florida Backyard!

P.S. We're keeping an eye on Hurricane Ida, of course, although we're not terribly worried. She's about to move over the colder water of the Gulf, and will encounter some high wind shear. She'll most likely hit the coast between Mississippi and Pensacola, but could turn back toward us depending on the frontal system she merges with. Late season storms are particularly tricky to predict, so the only safe thing to do is stay alert and be prepared... done and done!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Far Away Places

Each fall, we leave My Florida Backyard to fend for itself for a few days and set out to explore a new part of the state. This year, our travels took us "long ago and far away" to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the nation. Along the way, we stopped at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, about 20 miles south of the city.

Here, we explored the expansive gardens that were once the Florida Backyard of Louise Powis Clark and her husband, Owen D. Young. Amongst huge old live oaks that have towered over Native American settlements and a Minorcan-owned plantation, Louise established formal gardens.

The grounds include a lovely rose garden, which undoubtedly takes hours of work each week to grow and maintain.

The many ponds throughout the garden are fed by an artesian well, originally bored to aid in irrigation of the citrus plantation that once stood here.
The land is bordered on the west by the Matanzas River, with wonderful views up and down the shoreline.

Nature trails throughout the park lead you among lots of native vegetation of the sort we have in My Florida Backyard, like beautyberry and muhly grass, but the eye is definitely drawn to the unusual, like these powder puff bushes.

The park is bordered by the Atlantic shore on the east, where the beach has an extensive stand of coquina rock. This sedimentary rock was one of the most important building materials in the early days of this part of Florida. Rocky beach is one thing we definitely don't have in My Florida Backyard!

Although the formal and exotic gardens at Washington Oaks are lovely, we must admit to preferring our more natural and native vegetation here at home. After all, the park has a staff to maintain the grounds, but we don't have a single paid gardener to help us out. Also, the plants and animals we have here represent what we love best about Florida. So, trite as it may be, we can honestly say:
"'Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble there's no place like home."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Grim Grinning Ghosts

I suppose there are those who would find many of the creatures in My Florida Backyard creepy or spooky. After all, we've created an environment that welcomes spiders, bugs of all kinds, lizards, frogs and toads, and even bats. Throw in a witch and a mummy and My Florida Backyard is ready for Halloween year-round.

We even have ghosts - of a sort. At least, that's what Zebra Longwing butterfly caterpillars remind me of. Their bodies are stark white, cluttered with little black spots and studded with black spikes. They even have delightfully spooky little faces, with eyes and what seems to be a grinning little mouth.

And when they transform into chrysalides - well, then they're just downright freaky looking, even with their beautiful gold accents. I mean, they look like they have ears - how weird is that?

And they move! They're not the only chrysalides that move, but no one seems to get quite as feisty in sleep mode as these guys do. They flip around like crazy if you disturb them, undoubtedly in an attempt to scare off predators. Truly, they seem to be the superfreaks of the caterpillar world.

Their butterflies are beautiful, but even they have some kind of scary behavior. Males are so eager to mate with females that they won't even wait for them to emerge from the chrysalis. According to Kristen Gilpin, curator of the MOSI BioWorks Butterfly Garden, "Male Zebras will even break into the pupal case to mate with a female... before she even emerges. If you set several zebra longwing chrysalis into the flight cage you can always tell which ones contain females... the males swarm around them pushing each other out of the way. Kinda creepy actually."

We concur, Kristen, but we love our state butterfly anyway. There's room for all sorts of ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night in My Florida Backyard - Halloween or not!