Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Daisy Bell

March went out like a lamb today, providing a great morning for adding plants to the outside edge of our newly-expanded front garden. It's hard to see the new additions in this photo, so see below for close-ups and details.
These cheerful little guys are Dahlberg Daisies (Thymophylla tenuiloba). We found these at our local Lowe's and decided to give them a try, since they love full sun and dry conditions. They are actually a native of South Texas, and grow to about 12 by 12 inches. They may not flower quite as well during the wet heat of our summer, but we're hopeful the well-drained sandy soil in the front yard will provide them with the conditions they need to flourish. The feathery foliage and happy yellow flowers make a nice contrast to plants we alternated them with...

... Purple Queen (Tradescantia pallida), also sometimes called Purple Heart. This native of Mexico caught my eye in the MOSI BioWorks gardens when it began to recover immediately after the hard freeze in January. It tolerates wet or dry conditions and loves full sun, making it a plant that should last for years in the garden.

Our little plants are very small right now, but will grow and spread into a low groundcover around the front edge of the garden. The sunny daisies make a nice contrast to the deep color of the purple queen, and we can't wait to see what they'll both look like after a few months of lots of sunshine!

P.S. Check out the weather forecast for the next week - it's beginning to look a lot like Florida!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

I've Been Working on the Railroad

My Florida Backyard received this lovely little trellis as a present a few years ago, and we've been trying ever since to find a vine worthy of it. We tried bougainvillea (too poky for the work involved of twining it through the trellis), blue passionvine (too skimpy to cover it nicely), and a couple of others. The latest attempt is a cool Florida native called Railroad Vine.

I picked up this little guy at a St. Pete native plant nursery called Twigs & Leaves. I first learned about it at the Pinellas County Botanical Gardens, where it was mentioned in a display of great native plants. I realized I'd seen it on the beach many times, a long trailing vine with pink blooms, and always loved it without actually knowing its name. I determined to give it a try if I ever came across it... The time is here!

According to the folks over at Floridata, this vine is a member of the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae). Its scientific name is Ipomoea pes-caprae, which means "goat's foot", a reference to the shape of the leaves. It grows in tropical regions all over the world, and loves sandy soil - it's an important plant on the beach where it helps to stabilize the dunes. It's highly drought and salt tolerant, and thrives in full sun.

The runners extend over 100 feet, so it will obviously require some pruning in My Florida Backyard to keep it in check. The lovely pink blooms happen year round, but peak from May to November, so we look forward to seeing the show - we'll certainly keep you posted when the first flowers appear.

It's always exciting to try a new plant, especially a Florida native that stands a good chance of doing well. As the warm days of spring finally arrive, gardening once again is heartening instead of heart-breaking!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring

"The flowers that bloom in the spring
Breathe promise of merry sunshine."

"We welcome the hope that they bring
Of a summer of roses and wine."

"And that's what we mean when we say that a thing
Is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring!"

Today's post brought to you by Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado, and viewers like you.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Looking for Space

My Florida Backyard took another step this week toward the goal of eliminating as much boring, fairly useless grass from our front lawn as possible. This gives us more room for interesting plants that can attract wildlife and, quite frankly, look much better than patchy grass.

To that end, we decided to expand the front garden from two arcs:

Into one big arc:

Now the tantalizing question remains... what to plant in all the new space? We already have a lot of fountain grass and muhly grass lining the walkways, with plumbago bushes on the right side and beach sunflower under the tree. We'd like to continue with more yellows, purples, and blues - we do have some Blazing Star (liatris) bulbs to scatter throughout the new and old beds, so their purple should mix nicely with the purples of the muhly grass in the fall.

Any suggestions? Bear in mind that we have some pretty firm rules about not using supplemental irrigation once a plant is established... it needs to survive on the rain Mother Nature provides (or doesn't). This area faces southwest and gets lots of sun in the hottest part of summer. We'd like some low plants along the edge in front, and higher plants or even a shrub in the middle. We prefer native plants, though we're flexible as long as they're Florida-Friendly, and we really don't like to have to do a lot of maintenance in the front yard. Now, with all these thoughts in mind, what should we put in our newly-expanded garden?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Eye in the Sky

Yesterday was a long day of sitting around waiting for the termite guy to finish his work here in My Florida Backyard. (Yup, we've got termites. Who doesn't in Florida?) Around mid-afternoon, I wandered out to the mailbox and was distracted along the way by a fluttering shadow on the pavement in front of me. I looked up in delight - could it be a butterfly?

It's been a long time since I've spotted a butterfly in My Florida Backyard - more than six weeks. I've started using a site called Butterflies I've Seen to track butterflies in our gardens, and the last sighting I had was a Monarch on Feb. 4. Yesterday, even though the breeze was a bit cool, the sun was plenty warm enough for this Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) to catch some rays in the front yard.

Buckeyes seem to be a spring butterfly to me - I tend to spot them early in the year along with Red Admirals, and then not see them again for months. In the air, they're nearly impossible to identify, as they're small and quick, but once you see them holding still for a few seconds, the markings are impossible to mistake.

Those wonderful spots on their wings are intended to mimic the eyes of a much larger creature, to scare off any possible predators. If you stare at a Buckeye too long, you may start to feel like it's staring back at you!

The Buckeye uses several different plants as hosts for its caterpillars, including Plantain, members of the Snapdragon family, and various types of Ruellia, including Mexican and Wild Petunia. We have plenty of the last two in My Florida Backyard, so I'll be keeping my eye out for caterpillars in the next few weeks.

Having butterflies in My Florida Backyard again is a real treat. As much as I love the birds of winter, I guess my heart really lies with lepidoptera in all their wonderful forms.

Monday, March 15, 2010

La Vie en Rose

My Florida Backyard has a very special visitor right now, a snowbird from up north who finds her way to Florida for two weeks every winter - my mom! She always makes wonderful contributions to the gardens when she's in town, and this year is no exception... My Florida Backyard now has its first roses.

My mother has an amazing rose garden up north in the summer. She babies her roses and they reward her delightfully. She's been urging us to grow roses here for a long time, but I've always resisted, for several reasons. First, roses can find it very hard to deal with Florida's hot and humid summers. Second, roses take a lot of care and specialized knowledge, and I wasn't sure they were a good fit in our mostly native gardens.

So what changed my mind? First of all, a prime piece of sunny real estate became available in my gardens - the croton bush by the front door went kaput in the freeze, and since I've never been that fond of it anyway, we decided to pull it out entirely.

Second, I've become acquainted with the amazing plant called the Knock Out Rose. Fellow gardeners have informed me that this is the rose for people who don't think they can grow roses. It's disease-resistant, heat-tolerant, and almost impossible to kill, even in Florida summers. Perfect!

After removing the old croton bush, we prepped the hole with some bone meal and blood meal, and popped the rose in. We added fresh mulch around the base, but left room for the plant to breathe. We watered it in thoroughly, and voila, our Double Knock Out Rose is in place to welcome visitors!

My mom also bought a couple hybrid tea rose plants for us to try as well. We planted these in the backyard where they can get some dappled shade in the hot summer afternoons. I'll be curious to see how these little fellows fare as the season progresses.

All of gardening is a bit of an experiment... even native plants can sometimes be a challenge. I'm not sure how successful My Florida Backyard will be with its roses, but we look forward to the effort and the possible rewards!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hail! Hail! The Gang's All Here! (Reprise)

This morning, My Florida Backyard experienced another bout of Bird Frenzy, and I managed to capture a few more pictures to share...

We also had a visit from some more migratory ducks, this time some lesser scaups:

Since the butterflies still haven't really returned to My Florida Backyard yet, it's nice to have so many other creatures with wings hanging around on a sunny Saturday morning!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rain Drops

After two steady days of rain, My Florida Backyard is looking a little soggy. The ducks are loving it though... and proving the old saying about water off a duck's back.

Extreme close-up!
To be honest, we're loving the rain as much as the ducks. The dry season is on the way, and we need to store up as much water as we can before it gets here. Plus, it's been a warm rain, and promises to be followed by several days of warm sunshine - what more could the plants ask for?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Out to Lunch

Ah, good, a big tray full of seed. It's been at least 15 minutes since my last snack.

I wonder what's on the menu?

Ah, safflower seed. I do enjoy some nice safflower. This one looks nice.

Now, if I can only crack open this tricky shell. First, I'll hold it between my feet...

Now, a little beak action.

Hey, did you hear something? Because this is my seed. Stay away, interlopers!

Now then, back to work. This sucker is tricky!

A little more...

Almost got it...

Ta da!

Oh, yeah, that's some great safflower!

Now, what's for dessert?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Little Bird, Little Bird

We've lately noticed a new visitor to the feeder here in My Florida Backyard. We generally fill our feeder with safflower seed to discourage squirrels, and this can sometimes limit the variety of birds that visit. We mainly see cardinals, tufted titmice, and woodpeckers, but this winter we've had warblers stopping by, and today we finally managed to get some pictures.

After a lot of page-flipping in the Sibley Guide, we identified our latest visitor
as a very adorable yellow-rumped warbler.
This species is a winter visitor in the southeast U.S. It flies far north to breed in the summer.
The yellow-rumped warbler loves to eat insects, but often feeds on berries
from shrubs in the winter, and is sometimes known to visit feeders.

With spring coming soon (at least according to the calendar), it's likely this little guy will be leaving soon to head north for summer. In the meantime, we'll enjoy the flash of cheery yellow and the sweet trill of music from the trees nearby!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hail! Hail! The Gang's All Here!

Every so often, especially in the late winter, our little suburban lake becomes an amazing bird sanctuary. Sometimes the event lasts a few hours, sometimes only a few minutes, but it's always an incredible sight, and one that I've never satisfactorily captured with a camera.

Here's what you see in this picture: A great egret, two great blue herons (one flying, one wading) and a pelican.

Here's what you don't see, but were all hanging around nearby:
  • 5 more great egrets
  • 3 wood storks
  • 2 snowy egrets
  • 1 little blue heron
  • 2 limpkins
  • 30 - 40 cormorants
  • and the usual complement of muscovy ducks and mallards
Today was a day where they were moving through pretty quickly, and by the time I made it outside with a camera, most of them were headed toward the north end of the lake and too far away for pictures. This kind of gathering is a reasonably common event this time of year, though, so hopefully we'll be able to get some better pictures in the next couple of weeks.

I don't know exactly what causes this diverse group of birds to gather in this way. It's chilly today - perhaps the fish are closer to the surface trying to catch some sunlight? What brings the pelican this far inland (we're about 6 miles from the bay)? What brings together so many great egrets and great blue herons, who generally seem to be loners? Why do we sometimes see 40 cormorants and sometimes only 1 or 2?

Even without answers to our questions, these "Great Bird Events" are one of the highlights of life in My Florida Backyard. After all, some people travel hundreds of miles to see birds gather in these numbers. I can see it all out of my own back window!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Against the Wind

March came in soft as a lamb yesterday, with sunny skies and balmy breezes. Unfortunately, the proverbial lion followed with a vengeance today, as yet another cold front pushed through the region, this one with wind gusts topping 30 miles an hour long after the storms of the morning had passed.

So, we settle in for a few more days of highs in the 50s, and hope the 70s forecasted for early next week are a sign of much better things to come.

"Springtime is the land awakening. The March winds are the morning yawn." 
- Lewis Grizzard