Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sounds from Home

Some of the visitors to My Florida Backyard are quiet and peaceful. Butterflies glide in and out without making a sound; birds like ibis and egrets wander through with nary a peep. Others make soft sounds, like the coo of mourning doves. Still others are noisier, like squabbling ducks or the ubiquitous limpkin.

Some animals make noises all out of proportion to their size. Squirrels are a terrific example of this. Here in Florida, squirrels seem small to those from up north. To deal with the summer heat, most mammals are smaller here than in cooler climates. The size of our squirrels makes no difference when it comes to noise, however. Whether they're racing across the back porch screen, screeching away at neighborhood cats, or chattering to each other over sunflower seeds, it's amazing how much noise these little creatures can make.
Frogs and toads are also surprisingly noisy. On a quiet afternoon recently, I heard the constant croaking call of a frog as I sat in the living room. I was pretty sure it wasn't in the house, so I went searching for it outside. Down along the lake shore, I found it, dozing in a patch of sun and croaking lazily, as if from habit rather than necessity.

On a spring or summer night after a rain, the frogs really ramp it up. We've had times when their calls are so noisy as to prompt us to close the windows so we can hear the TV. Those very loud calls after rainstorms are often mating calls - hard to imagine any female in the area ignoring them!

Whether we can see it or not, nature is always with us. Even with your eyes closed, you can enjoy plenty of what nature has to offer - the warmth of the sun, the lingering fragrance of jasmine in the air, the chirp of cardinals feeding nearby. My Florida backyard offers them all, and plenty of sights to see as well.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Buried Treasure

While replanting some pots out front, we discovered some buried treasure:

What the heck is it, you might ask? Why, it's a sphinx moth cocoon, I reply. It's quite big, several inches long and thicker than my thumb, and the segmented end tends to wiggle when you touch it. The "handle" on the right side is actually a sheath protecting the developing proboscis - that certainly gives you an idea of the size of the moth that will emerge.

(Quick Fact: In general, moths bury themselves and pupate as a cocoon, while butterflies suspend themselves from a silk pad and pupate as a chrysalis. Interestingly, most 5-year-olds know this, but most adults do not!)

Since we didn't see the caterpillar, we can't be certain which type of sphinx moth will eventually emerge from this cocoon. Moths pupate much longer than most butterflies, and it could be weeks or months until he shows his colors. We're keeping him safe in a jar on the back porch and will post pictures when the time comes!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Color My World

The last week or so has given us plenty of warm sunshine and soaking rain, and the world around My Florida Backyard is starting to come back to life. The grass is showing a haze of green and wildflowers like Spanish Needle are already back in force. It's inspired us to continue the "rehabilitation" of the yard by planting plenty of colorful nectar plants in the butterfly garden.

First up: some cheerful pink verbena.
I've never seen white lantana before, but I think I like it.
A photo just can't do justice to the delicate purple of this trailing bacopa.The wide variety of petunia colors and patterns never fails to amaze me.
I bought two calibrachoas last week, one in deep purple, the other in this dusky rose:
This yellow viola isn't really a nectar flower, but it seems just like sunshine in flower form,
and I couldn't pass it up.
Added to the yellow snapdragons I planted last week, these plants have perked up My Florida Backyard and our hearts as well. Lady Bird Johnson said, "Where flowers bloom, so does hope." Couldn't have said it better myself.

Friday, January 22, 2010

See You Later, Alligator

After living here for over two years, we've finally seen an alligator in our pond! Neighbors have mentioned seeing them occasionally, but they're not very numerous in our urban area, so we've never managed to spot one. Today, though, this fella was just floating there in the afternoon sun.

I couldn't help noticing all the ducks and wading birds were keeping their distance - in fact, most of the ducks spent the afternoon on the banks instead of in the water. Considering the water temperature is still pretty cool, I can't imagine this cold-blooded creature having a lot of energy for chasing ducks today, though.

People from other places sometimes ask if we aren't scared to live in a place where alligators hang around. The answer is - of course not. In general, if you leave alligators alone, they'll leave you alone. Of course, you still shouldn't walk your tiny dog along the shore of lake at dusk... that's just asking for trouble. As long as you keep your distance, alligators generally will too. We're just happy to have them around, yet another indicator of the thriving ecosystem of which My Florida Backyard is a part.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Brand New Day

With the temperature forecast to reach nearly 70 today, I knew it was time to begin the clean-up and renewal of My Florida Backyard. I decided to focus on the back gardens, since these are the ones we see the most. I had dreaded the job, feeling it would be a lot like going to a funeral - it just seemed like everything was dead.

But, I had some pleasant surprises. As I cleared away dead brush in the butterfly garden, I discovered that nearly every milkweed plant had a stalk or two with new growth on it, growth that had been protected from the cold somehow. And on one particularly lucky plant, I discovered not one but two little Monarch caterpillars!

The purple lantana survived as well, and the blanket flower seedlings made it through just fine. They were scattered pretty haphazardly through the garden, so I transplanted them into a slightly more orderly pattern. Within a few weeks I should have a lot of bright blooms from this wonderfully hardy wildflower.

The true surprise of this whole ordeal has been that the flowers on the south side of the house haven't been affected at all. The pentas and angelonias, both of which would have been wiped out anywhere else, were protected (I assume) by the radiant heat from the side of the house. Looking at that area, you'd never know we just suffered the most severe cold snap the state has seen in 50 years.

Still, there can be no doubt the rest of the garden needs some help. I've never planted many annuals in My Florida Backyard, because native perennials can generally be used to provide year-round blooms. This year, obviously, is the exception, so I headed out yesterday to several nurseries, determined to find something to add a little color back to the gardens. The nurseries, as you might expect, had pretty slim pickings - after all, the cold snap affected them too.

I did manage to find two trays of very healthy and cheerful yellow snapdragons - a great choice because they will tolerate frost, which is still very possible over the next month or two. I also found a Tampa Verbain (a great endangered Florida native that butterflies just love) and a plant I'd never encountered before called Calibrachoa (see below). This South American native is very similar to petunia, with the great advantage of being willing to tolerate light frost. I bought two of these beauties, one in purple and one in dusky pink, and before I even had them in the ground, a bright yellow sulphur butterfly stopped by for some lunch (but left before I could grab the camera).

The newly planted Tampa Verbain was popular too - this Gulf Fritillary barely moved as I planted snapdragons all around it. As butterflies "wake up" after this cold snap, they may have trouble finding food - many of the nectar plants were killed. I'm glad I can provide some for them in My Florida Backyard.

This time of year, the east-facing butterfly garden doesn't get as much sun, so I decided to focus the planting in the sunny south-facing garden nearby. With all the plants fairly close together, I can cover them if another severe cold snap threatens, and for the next few months we should have bright blossoms right where we can enjoy them.

So, the rejuvenation of My Florida Backyard is underway. We hope now for warm sun and gentle rains to continue the work our hands have begun.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Aftermath

With the worst of this unbelievable cold spell behind us (although another freeze is possible tonight), I took a walk in My Florida Backyard today to assess the damage. Despite my optimism last week that my mostly native plants would be able to survive reasonably well, the destruction in the gardens is pretty complete, at least above ground.

This porterweed is pretty indicative of the damage in the butterfly garden.
The milkweed, butterflyweed, and most of the lantana took similar blows.

New shoots on the tropical sage didn't fare well, and even the Golden Dewdrop is showing some frostbite.

The salvia is pretty much a total loss:

I expected the hibiscus to take a pretty hard hit, and it did:

What I didn't expect was for the firebushes to sustain so much damage.
I've never seen them affected by winter weather before.

All this devastation, combined with the brown dead grass everywhere, makes My Florida Backyard suddenly seem very bleak and uninviting. It's a harsh reminder that no matter how well you prepare and plan, you can never control nature. My Florida-Friendly gardens just didn't stand a chance against weather that hasn't been seen in 50 years.

Still, the damage can be removed, and many of the plants will survive and regrow. What My Florida Backyard needs now is sunshine and warm rain, some TLC, and lots of patience. We'll give it what we can, and wait for the healing to begin.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

In the Bleak Midwinter

At 3:30 this afternoon, the high temperature in My Florida Backyard was 36 degrees. Here's documentation from the Weather Channel, corroborated by the thermometer on our back porch.

According to some news reports, there were some scattered snow showers throughout the area early this morning, but we were nestled all snug in our bed and didn't experience that, which is fine with us.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cabin Fever

One of the worst things about this extended cold snap is that I've got a serious case of Cabin Fever setting in. I had planned to spend the first week of the new year cleaning up the gardens and getting ready to plant some winter annuals. Instead, I've spent it huddled around the space heater wrapped in blankets and multiple pairs of socks.

We've had at least one hard freeze in the last week here in My Florida Backyard. Geographically speaking, we're only about 6 miles from the bay, so that helps to keep our nighttime temps up just a little bit. Still, it only takes one night with a record-breaking low of 27 (27!) to do some nasty damage. Most of the grass in the area is now brown, and weeds like Spanish Needle are especially burned. (Gee, what a shame.)

Most of our plants are native and cold-hardy, so the only real damage I've noticed is to the Blue Daze in the front gardens. It was due to be cut back anyway, so there's no real loss there. The hibiscus, which lives on the southwest corner of the house, is showing damage only on the tips of branches, also easily trimmed. Surprisingly, even the pentas and angelonia on the south side of the house have survived without being covered, most likely because they are close to our house and sheltered by the fence of the house next door.

Still, I'm eager to get out and do some work. My winter Indian Blanket Flower seedlings are starting to thrive, and I need to thin them out and transplant them a little more evenly. This native (and Florida State Wildflower) is one of the most economic purchases I've ever made. I started them from a packet of seed that cost about $2, and they flourish each winter in the butterfly garden, adding some much needed color in a difficult time of year. In the late spring, I cut them back, but not before the heads have gone to seed. By early winter, I seem to have twice as many plants as I had the year before, all from one little seed packet.

Anyway, if we can just make it through the weekend ahead, next week promises to get a little warmer each day until we reach our normal 65 - 70 degree highs. Can't come soon enough for us!

P.S. Did you know butterflies shiver to get warm just like we do? Check out this video I shot at the MOSI Bioworks Butterfly Garden this week.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Cold Weather Blues

Was I complaining about the cold last week? Because I take it back, really. Apparently, the weather gods heard me and have decided to punish me with an endless forecast of chilly days and cold cold nights.
Our temperatures are running 15 - 20 degrees below normal. Every day. I mean, that night where it's only going to drop to 46 is looking like a heat wave. Quite frankly, I don't have enough warm clothes to make it through this week. We're used to a chilly day or two in January, but not day after endless day of them. Sheesh.

Luckily, My Florida Backyard is more or less equipped to handle chilly weather, even weather like this. Because so many of our plants are native, they can withstand colder temperatures - even a hard freeze or two. We've covered just a few plants that are new this year and are still becoming established, like the Christmas Cassia and Candlestick Cassia. Everything else can pretty much fend for itself.

So, we're better off than the strawberry farmers, and we don't live in an area where wildfires could threaten us (this is great wildfire weather). We have a roof over our head and our heat works - which is more than some can say. So for the next week, I guess we'll just huddle for warmth and be thankful we don't live in Barrow, Alaska.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Let's Start the New Year Right

Last night's balmy weather was driven out by thunderstorms and a cold north wind early this morning - not exactly the way I would have welcomed the new year, but we did get another one of those watercolor sunsets out of it.
Regardless of the weather, a new year has begun, and optimistic people everywhere are making resolutions. We're making a few as well, ones that we hope will help us keep My Florida Backyard a Florida-friendly wildlife habitat throughout 2010.
  1. Pull at least one weed every day.
  2. Fill the bird feeder at least once a week.
  3. Keep the palm tree free of dead fronds and fruit (which draws wasps).
We also have a few goals for the year, ones that can't really be called resolutions because it won't be entirely our fault if the wildlife refuses to comply.
  1. Draw sulphur butterflies and caterpillars to our yard by establishing cassia plants, native when possible
  2. Lure in some hummingbirds, both with plants and a feeder
  3. Provide habitat for tree frogs by installing a few treefrog houses
Mark Twain said, "New Year's Day… now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual." Still, we'll do our best, because our resolutions are for the good of everyone who lives in or visits My Florida Backyard.

"The old year has gone...
All hail the duties and possibilities of the coming twelve months!"

Edward Payson Powell