Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I Will Survive

Welcome to part three of our continuing stooo-ry*:

Quacks in the Backyard:
Drama Amongst the Ducks

Today's episode begins when I head out into the backyard to pull a few weeds, snip some blanket flowers to bring inside, and perform other menial tasks. As usual, when I open the screen door, ducks assault me from all sides, begging for corn. I throw them a cupful so I can get on with my work.

When I turn back around a few minutes later, I find that the mallard ducklings have added a new trick to their repertoire - they're now able to climb up the bank from the drought-depleted lake and make it into my backyard to enjoy the treat with the grown-ups!

As I watch them feed, I hear that familiar sharp cry from above - the hawk is back yet again. But now I learn why these three are still around after their brothers and sisters are gone - they got mad survival skillz!

All the ducks immediately fly down to the lake. The little ones don't have much in the way of wings yet, but they move just as fast as their elders, skittering as fast as they can go. Once in the water, the three ducklings immediately duck under the surface as the hawk swoops in for the kill. Half a second later, the hawk flies off, pursued by adult ducks and several mockingbirds (presumably also protecting a nest nearby) and it doesn't seem to have anything in its talons. Still, I can't be sure.

I watch the surface of the water. Up pops one baby duck, followed by a second. I hold my breath... and the third duckling surfaces. I'm sure their little duck hearts are beating like crazy, but they had survived another attack. They live to swim another day.

I can't be sure these guys will continue to outsmart the hawk. But I'm getting awfully close to deciding to give them names and a special place in my heart. I hope they survive to beg me for corn and eventually bring their own babies to My Florida Backyard, where they will always be welcome.

Check out part 1 and part 2.

UPDATE, April 29, 6:20 p.m. - A red-tailed hawk just captured one more of these little guys, again right in front of my eyes. Honestly, folks, this is starting to break my heart.

*You have to say that in your best Muppet Show "Veterinarian's Hospital" voice.

Monday, April 27, 2009

You Oughta Be in Pictures

We're ready for our close-up, Mr. DeMille!

But wait, there's more!

P.S. In case you were wondering, these are indeed the same ducklings I wrote about the other day. If you're doing the math, we've gone from 11 down to 3. Sad, perhaps, but that's the way it works in nature.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

I'm On Fire

Beginning today, I'll be writing a weekly Garden for Florida feature on one of Tampa's most popular blogs, Sticks of Fire. Articles will generally be published on Saturdays, and will cover gardening in Central Florida in a slightly broader manner than I do here on My Florida Backyard, where I focus only on the things I'm able to implement in my tiny suburban lot.

My first article is called Who Needs a Lawn? I've added a section to the left column to provide links to these articles as they're published.

I hope readers of My Florida Backyard will check out Sticks of Fire, and I welcome Sticks of Fire readers to My Florida Backyard!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Circle of Life

I was out on the porch this morning hanging some clothes out to dry when I realized there was a mallard mommy and a whole mess o' baby ducklings swimming in the lake.

For a non-maternal person, I'm pretty darn fond of baby anythings*, so I took a few moments to snap some pics and count the babies - eleven fuzzballs swimming by their duck mommy. I could see they were starting to lose their yellow down, so they are probably a week or so old by now. They still tended to swim in a group hunched close to their mother, and rarely ventured away to look for their own food.

I marveled for a while at their adorableness, and wondered whether perhaps I had seen these little ducklings being conceived. For some reason, our backyard seems to be a real hotspot for duck mating. I won't include a picture here, but suffice it to say that's it's rather like a fistfight in a bar - disgusting and violent, yet you can't seem to look away. Anyway, last month, there always seemed to be a pair (or more!) of ducks "knowing" each other in our backyard (as they say in the bible), and I wondered if I was seeing some of the results today.

Well, I had chores to do, so I threw some cracked corn to some other ducks nearby and headed back inside. One of our favorite resident ducks, Blanco, along with a few of his gang, stopped by for a late morning snack.

Not long after this, I heard the most horrific quacking and, for lack of a better term, duck shrieking drifting in the windows. We hear a lot of crazy duck noises in the backyard, but this was really fierce, so away to the window I flew like a flash to see what was the matter.

A red-shouldered hawk had come a-hunting.

Each time the hawk swooped over the ducklings, the mother flew into the air, flapping her wings and making a terrible racket. Soon, Blanco and his cronies were joining in the fight. They joined the mother in swimming around the babies, shooting into the air and defending these little puffballs with all their might. When the hawk pulled back to reassess, the mother herded her little ones to the shore while her guards swam sentry nearby.

The battle lasted, off and on, for nearly 20 minutes, with the hawk taking breaks in a nearby tree to wait for the best advantage. I watched the life being threatened in My Florida Backyard in fascination, as horrified and mesmerized as I was by when that very life was being created.

The hawk won, of course. One duckling was caught and eaten in a pine tree nearby. Then the attacks resumed, until a second unwary baby was snatched in the sharp talons. The hawk flew off, perhaps taking the prey to its own nest nearby to feed its own babies.

And that's the circle of life, folks, and not in the cute Disney way. If you're going to love nature, you have to respect it all, even when it seems hard to watch. British author P.D. James probably said it best:

“A man who lives with nature is used to violence and is companionable with death.
There is more violence in an English hedgerow than in the meanest streets of a great city.”

The mother mallard eventually swam away with her nine remaining babies, no doubt to the face the same challenges over and over again until those who survive are old enough to begin their own families. The circle continues unbroken, and that's a good thing, for when it's broken, nature ceases to exist.

*I was once heard to exclaim, upon reading a National Geographic article on the birth of planets, "Awww, baby planets!"

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mexican Hat Dance

While filling my watering can from the rain barrel this afternoon, I stopped to admire the Mexican Petunias thriving along the fence (well, my neighbor's fence, but my petunias). Their happy purple blooms were drawing bees in the late afternoon sun, and they danced in the breeze blowing from the lake. What a great flower for Florida - hardy, drought-tolerant, easy to care for - everyone should have these in their (screech! "Hey, what's going on? Give back my microphone! This is my blog! What are you doing?" screech!)


Geez, guys, you didn't give me a chance to finish! You're absolutely right. Mexican Petunia (Ruellia brittoniana) is absolutely an invasive species in Florida. Even though you find it at nearly every nursery, especially the big box stores, Mexican Petunia is actually a terrible plant for a Florida-Friendly yard.

What is an invasive species, anyway? Simply put, an invasive species is one that is not native to the area, but thrives here to the detriment of local species. Some non-native plants are fine, because they're easy to control or don't complete with local species. But an invasive plant is a real problem, because it takes over the environment, with little or no help from humans, and spreads like crazy. If you want to learn more, click on over to the Florida Invasive Plant Education site.

So why the heck would I have terribly invasive non-native Mexican Petunias in My Florida Backyard? Here's why: I use a sterile cultivar of this plant. This means that the plant has been cultivated so that it can't propagate on its own. The MPs I plant in my yard will stay only in my yard, and will not spread out of control. The only place I've been able to find this sterile cultivar Mexian Petunia (believe it or not!) is at my local Home Depot nursery. They sell plants from Riverview Flower Farm (the ones that come in the green pots).

Here's the deal: If you have Mexican Petunia in your yard, and you don't know whether it's sterile or not, then it's probably not. I highly recommend you pull it out, all of it, and replace it with something more Florida-Friendly. You could try the Wild Petunia, which is similar, but I have to admit I didn't have much luck with it. Or look for something completely different - remember to try the Florida Friendly Plant Database.

Or, if you want, try the sterile cultivar. I've had luck with it, and after a year, it has not spread beyond where I've planted it. It does get a little...broad - in order to keep it from drooping out onto the path, I tie it up to bamboo stakes. I think it makes a responsible addition to My Florida Backyard, and I'm glad we have it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

It's Not That Easy Being Green (Reprise)

With yesterday's post, I've finished looking at the difficulty of implementing the National Wildlife Federation's six tips for a green garden. For those who like to see everything all at one time, all in one place, here's a summary* of my oh-so-expert analysis. Remember that all ratings are on a scale of 1 - 5, 5 being the most difficult. For more details on my analysis of each tip, click the tip to read the original post.

Tip #1:
Reduce the size of your lawn. Better yet, consider eliminating it entirely.

Our Rating:
Initial: 4 – 5
Overall: 1


There's definitely an initial investment of time in changing your water-hungry lawn to a greener garden. However, down the line, your payoff is very rewarding indeed! Our lawn maintenance is almost zero during the winter months, and during the summer months, it takes only 10 - 15 minutes a week. Take the time to do some up-front work, and reap the benefits in the long run.

Tip #2:
Use hand tools instead of power equipment.

Our Rating:
Overall: 2


Although tools like a classic reel mower may take a little more exercise and cause some Beaver Cleaver remarks from neighbors, today’s models are easy to maintain and operate. If you’ve reduced the size of your lawn as suggested in tip #1, then this tip becomes pretty easy to implement. Plus, hand tools like rakes are a heckuva lot cheaper than leaf blowers.

Tip #3:

Choose materials with low-embodied energy.

Our Rating:
Overall: 2


The most difficult part of this tip is probably the research involved. Just remember to consider the total amount of energy involved in manufacturing the materials and transporting them to your yard. Choose materials like wood or crushed shell over concrete bricks or solid cement. Ask questions to find out where and how materials are made, and choose locally when possible.

Tips #4 and 5:
Emphasize woody plants that capture more carbon than fleshy herbaceous species. Plant trees and shrubs where they will block winter winds and provide shade in summer.

Our Rating:
Overall: 1

The key here is to remember that “woody plants” doesn’t have to mean trees. In a small lot, you may not want to plant many more tall trees than you already have. However, you can choose shrubs or woody plants that provide the same benefits. Plan your plantings to help your house conserve energy, sit back, and enjoy! (Don't forget - you can get 10 free trees with an Arbor Day Foundation membership!)

Tip #6:
Minimize, or better yet eliminate, the use of fertilizers and pesticides on your property.

Our Rating:
Overall: 2 - 3


Most Florida-Friendly plants will need minimal fertilization to thrive in our sandy soil, but when fertilizers are necessary, choose natural over synthetic. Depending on where you live, these may not be available locally, involving a little more work combing the internet. As for pesticides – many of the bugs in your garden are beneficial. Fire Ants? Don’t get me started on Fire Ants. Try a natural killer and spot treat only when you find them rather than putting down a broadcast killer on a regular basis.

So where does that leave us? Well, I have to go back to my friend Kermit, who really says it best:

"When green is all there is to be,
It could make you wonder why. But, why wonder, why wonder?
I am green and it'll do fine.
It's beautiful and I think it's what I want to be."

*To quote Inigo Montoya, "Let me 'splain... No, there is too much. Let me sum up."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Make Our Garden Grow

It's time to wrap up our exploration of the difficulty of implementing NWF's six tips for a green garden.

Tip #6: Minimize, or better yet eliminate, the use of fertilizers and pesticides on your property.

Let's talk fertilizers first. Most people assume that when you put plants in the ground, you have to fertilize them for good results. Actually, if you're picking appropriate native or Florida-Friendly plants, there's a good chance this just isn't the case. Florida-Friendly plants grow very happily in Florida soil with little or no help. If you want to be thorough about it, there are tools available that allow you to test your soil and determine the nutrients it contains and lacks. But really, if you just mix some organic compost into the soil when you plant, your plants will dig in and establish themselves just fine.

If you do find the need to fertilize, and I do it myself occasionally, use natural or organic fertilizers that give the soil and plants only what they need. There are more and more alternatives to the traditional "Miracle-Gro" fertilizers, and they are even starting to be available at local big box stores. My local Lowe's now has a section for natural and organic fertilizers. If you can't find them locally, you can find a great selection online at places like Clean Air Gardening. I'll spend more time in a future post describing some of the organic and natural fertilizer solutions I've tried (and describing traumatic fish fertilizer flashbacks from my childhood).

Now, let's talk pesticides. Honestly, I find this one a lot harder, because we have major ant issues in My Florida Backyard, and I have yet to find a really effective solution. We've finally decided that they if they don't bite, and don't seem to be a problem for the plants, we'll leave them alone. If they get into the house, I use something like Orange Guard to spot-treat. Outside, I just leave them alone.

However, then there are fire ants. Fire ants are a serious invasive pest in Florida, and if you're like me and happen to be especially sensitive to their bites (one bite on my toe can cause my whole foot to swell), your first instinct when you see a new mound is DESTROY!!! Poison, bleach, flame throwers, whatever it takes! Be gone, you horrible non-native demons from hell!

I'm sorry. Did I get carried away? I really hate fire ants. The good news is, I have found an organic Fire Ant Control solution. The bad news is, it's definitely more expensive and I have to yet to find it locally, so I have to order it online.

Level of Difficulty: So, where does that leave us with tip #6? Well, if you're choosing the right plants for your area, you really shouldn't need to fertilize much, and natural fertilizers are becoming more readily available locally. That makes this one pretty easy. However, when you bring pesticides into the mix, it can get trickier, especially here in fire ant country. Remember, though, there are lots of beneficial bugs that you want in your garden, especially spiders, so it's best to follow a "if they're not bothering you, don't bother them" rule of thumb. And that's pretty darn easy.

Overall, on the scale from 1 - 5 (5 being most difficult), I'm going to rate this a 2 or 3, depending on your local access to natural fertilizers and pesticides and whether you have planned a garden that will thrive without a lot of extra help.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Twilight Time

I came outside in the twilight a few moments ago to water some newly planted lantana and pull a few weeds. For a few brief moments, there were no sounds save those of the quietly murmuring ducks feeding nearby and the tree frogs and cicadas awakening for the night in the trees. On the soft April breeze, the smell of the blooming Confederate Jasmine wafted by, and I simply stood for a moment to drink in my favorite time of day.

And then some kids whizzed past on a motorbike, a plane flew overhead, the dog next door started yipping and the neighbor kids raised their voices to join in. So much for solitude.

Still, I snapped a few pictures of the Confederate Jasmine blooming on the latticework on the north side of the house, and was reminded of what a great idea it was to install that to give us a bit more privacy when we sit out on the porch. Our neighbors to the south have a fence, but we are literally 10 feet away from the neighbors to the north, with nothing but a thin screen to separate us. And the kids next door, bless their irritating little hearts, are very nosy. They liked to peek into the porch, and announce, "Mommy, these people are eating dinner!" Clearly, we needed to do something, but we didn't want to lose the view or the breezes.

So, we installed dark green latticework and planted Confederate Jasmine. After a year's worth of growth, it has climbed its way to the top, although it's not as thick as I hope it will be some day. And now, in early April, it's in bloom, and the sweet but not overpowering scent adds the perfect cherry on the top of my evening.

And now the purple dusk of twilight time/Steals across the meadows of my heart...* It's nighttime here in My Florida Backyard now. Near silence returns, although a pair of cardinals still chirp in a nearby tree, stopping by our feeder for an evening snack. A curious wood stork lands amongst the ducks, peering into the gloom of the back porch to see the crazy humans who peer back out at him. There are many wonderful times in My Florida Backyard, but I know I'll always love evenings best.

*From Stardust by Hoagy Carmichael

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

Continuing our exploration of the difficulty of implementing NWF's six tips for a green garden...

Tip #4: Emphasize woody plants that capture more carbon than fleshy herbaceous species.
Tip #5:
Plant trees and shrubs where they will block winter winds and provide shade in summer.

I'm going to combine these two tips and explore them together, as they seem to go hand in hand. What this comes down to is choosing "woody plants" and planting them in the right places.

An important takeaway here is that "woody plants" doesn't have to mean trees. Much of what we've planted in My Florida Backyard falls into the category of bushes and perennial plants that develop those "woody" characteristics. Here are some examples that have worked well for us (all are native Florida plants):
Wait - lantana? That's a flower, right? Well, when you buy the nice small plants at the nursery, they are indeed tender and green. However, as they grow, they develop woody stems and become more like small shrubs, while continuing to put out flowers that attract butterflies in droves. After a growing season, you can cut these all the way back to the ground, and they will put out new tender green shoots that will eventually grow into woody shrubs again.

As for planting things in smart locations - we've planted Silver Buttonwood shrubs to help block the strong sun in a west-facing window, and a Firebush where it will grow and shelter the AC unit from southern exposure. We have several full-grown trees already, one of which provides some decent shade for the west side of the house. We've hestitated to plant any more trees, because we don't want to block our view of the lake.

Level of Difficulty: On the scale of 1 - 5 (5 being most difficult), I have to rate this as a 1. Choosing woody shrubs or trees and planting them appropriately is not that difficult.

To make things even easier, consider joining the Arbor Day Foundation. $10 gets you a 6-month membership and up to 10 free trees!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Walk This Way

NOTE: I'm continuing to explore the difficulty of implementing NWF's six tips for a green garden.

Tip #3: Choose materials with low-embodied energy.

Well, I have to admit that before I could evaluate the difficulty involved in this tip, I had to do a little research to learn what the heck they meant by "low-embodied energy". After a lot of wandering around on the web, I learned that what it means, basically, is this:
  • When you're choosing building materials, you need to consider the total amount of energy required to manufacture a product. This could include the gathering of the materials (i.e. mining), the work needed to compile the product (i.e. firing bricks), and the energy costs of transporting the building materials from the place of manufacture to the building site.
After learning this, I realized that there's a good chance that some of the building materials I've used in My Florida Backyard actually might not fit this criteria very well. For instance, we built a concrete paver walkway around the house from front to back, as shown in this picture from last July:

We chose our building materials with several criteria in mind, but low-embodied energy wasn't one of them, I have to admit, simply because I wasn't aware that it should be.

There are many ways in which our pathway is still a good choice for a green garden. It is set in sand with gaps between the pavers, allowing rain water to filter through instead of running off. It's light-colored and reflects heat and sunshine rather than absorbing it. The concrete pavers are simple and unglazed, reducing some of the chemicals that might have been used to make them.

However, you just can't define concrete pavers as using "low-embodied energy" to manufacture. Concrete ranks high on the scale, as the cement and stone must be mined, then manufactured into bricks, and then shipped - and these pavers are certainly not lightweight.

So now I know, and that's half the battle. Going forward, I can choose materials that do use low-embodied energy, especially those made from sustainably-harvested wood materials. Here's what I could have done differently:
  • Chosen different materials for the path, such as locally-collected gravel, sustainably-harvested woodchips, or crushed shells (certainly easy to come by locally!).
  • Looked for a different source for the pavers, rather than buying them new. If someone else had pavers they wanted to get rid of, I could have purchased them used rather than buying new pavers that needed to be manufactured and shipped.
  • Created a different type of path, perhaps one using flagstone stepping stones, so fewer materials would be needed.
Level of Difficulty: I know I'll have to make smarter choices about building materials going forward. This might mean going a few steps further than just investigating the options at my local DIY big box store, so I can see that it's possible more effort might be involved, but really it's just a matter of asking questions and knowing more about your materials. On the scale of 1 - 5 (5 being the most difficult), I'm going to rank this one a 2. Do your research, and buy materials appropriately. That's all there is to it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Power to the People

NOTE: I'm continuing to explore the difficulty of implementing NWF's six tips for a green garden.

Tip #2: Use hand tools instead of power equipment.

  • As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the carbon footprint of gas-powered lawn mowers is surprisingly large. In fact, according to an article in the March 2009 National Geographic magazine, "The average gasoline-powered push mower ... puts out as much pollution per hour as eleven cars—a riding mower as much as 34 cars."
  • Using electric tools instead? Well, don't forget that the electricity still has to come from somewhere, and that "somewhere" is often dirty coal power plants. Those electric tools aren't always all that convenient either - last week, I watched the guy across the lake mowing his lawn with an electric push mower attached to a lo-o-o-ng extension cord. I can just imagine the conversation with his wife that led to that moment. "I don't care if the lawn mower isn't charged up, Bob. You said you'd mow the lawn this afternoon, and I want it mowed!"
How? Well, with the Leave it to Beaver theme song running through our heads, we here in My Florida Backyard turned to the old-fashioned Classic Push Reel Lawn Mower, made by Scotts.
The mower itself is really pretty easy to push. As easy as a self-propelled gas or electric mower? Well, of course not. But it rolls along pretty smoothly. After a few test runs, we determined that the mower does a great job cutting regular old grass. It does not do so well with the tougher weeds that seem to spring up to six inches tall overnight.

In the end, after doing some research, we also decided to invest in the Black & Decker Automatic Feed String Trimmer and Edger, even though it required electricity. If you have to choose power tools, electric tools in general will provide a lower carbon footprint (although I can never really get those dirty coal plants out of my mind...). Still, in fairness, we did try a hand-edger tool first, and it just didn't seem to get the job done.

Level of Difficulty: Well, there's no doubt you get a little more exercise when using a classic push reel lawn mower. But, if you drastically reduce the size of your lawn, it's definitely do-able. In fact, it takes only about 15 minutes to mow, trim, and edge the little bit of grass we have left. Would it be faster with a power mower? I doubt it, though it might take a little less man power. But, we definitely saved money with this option. The reel mower cost only about $100, and we don't have to buy gas for it - the only maintenance is having the blades sharpened every few years.

So, on that difficulty scale of 1 - 5 (5 being the hardest), I'm going to rank this one about a 2, assuming you've reduced the size of your lawn. Although it's a little more difficult to push the mower, it's really not that hard at all, and you save the hassle of getting gas to fill the thing. Plus, it's nearly silent to operate, so you can mow the lawn at any time without worrying about disturbing the neighbors.

I should mention, though, that you may take a little ribbing from your neighbors. "Hey, Cleaver!" one neighbor down the street calls out every single time we mow the lawn. But we're willing to take a little guff to make My Florida Backyard just a little bit greener.

P.S. I didn't mention other power tools for maintaining your yard, such as leaf blowers. Suffice it to say that doing the work by hand will always be a little more difficult, but it can (and really should) be done that way. When I was a kid growing up in Ohio, we raked the leaves from an acre of trees by hand every fall, and we did it as a family activity. Did I love doing it? Probably not. But rakes are cheap, and we didn't have much money. Now, here in Florida, a leaf blower is pretty much inexcusable, given the lack of "fall foliage". Come on, people. Get out the rake, if you must. Or better yet, plant gardens under your trees and let the leaves fall where they may, providing free and excellent self-mulching.