Monday, February 28, 2011

Contain It

March has come in with absolutely no sign of a lion in My Florida Backyard - the last few weeks have been day after day of sunshine and warm temperatures, and today is no exception. Spring is here in Central Florida, no matter what the calendar says, and the two newly-planted containers flanking our garden bench are bursting with spring colors and blooms.

How amazing is this white and peach trailing verbena? We can't wait for it to grow a bit more and begin spilling over the sides. This kind of verbena is a little hit-or-miss in Florida's hot summer heat, but these pots get morning sun and dappled shade in the afternoon, so maybe we'll be able to keep these around for awhile.

The purple angelonia (Angelonia angustifolia), on the other hand, will do just fine in the summer heat. It should flower all summer long, if we keep the dead stalks cut back to encourage new blooms.

Our backyard bench is the perfect spot for sitting in the afternoon sun and watching ducks on the water or wading birds on the shore, and having a few cheerful blooms on either side makes it an even more pleasant place for welcoming spring to My Florida Backyard.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


We're "transplants" from up north here in My Florida Backyard, and very happy ones at that. Anytime anyone from up north asks us if we don't "miss how beautiful the snow is", we just laugh and laugh and laugh. The only thing we miss about snow is snow days, and since adults rarely get to enjoy those, we'd be just fine without experiencing snow ever again.

Snow peas, on the other hand, are very welcome in My Florida Backyard's little raised vegetable garden. This is the first year we've tried growing any food for humans - we've always focused on food for wildlife in the past - and we picked some fairly easy vegetables to get started. Peas are a cool-season vegetable, so we started ours about five weeks ago in mid-January. We choose a dwarf variety from Burpee called Snowbird, since there's not much room for unruly plants in the raised bed. They're just starting to flower now, and we have a feeling we may enjoy these beautiful blooms even more than the pea pods that will follow!

It almost seems a shame that these delicate little blooms will have to fall off so the peas can start to form. We'll enjoy them while they're here though, as the only kind of snow we ever really need in My Florida Backyard.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Seeds Grow to Plants

Last fall, we bought a few packets of inexpensive seeds and, rather than starting them carefully in little containers and babying them along, we decided to sort of "Hail Mary" it - fling the seeds into the garden and let the sun and rain do their jobs.

We're starting to see a few results now, starting with this first brave little cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) bloom that's so cheery in the butterfly garden right now. We're hoping to see lots of of little guys popping up to join it soon.

Nearby, we planted a row of Linaria Enchantment, which we bought from Park Seed. They sort of remind us of snapdragons, though they're smaller, and the color and detail of the blooms is amazing.

These have been blooming continuously for the last month or so, after being sown late last fall. Linaria is also known as Toadflax, which is generally a cool season flower. These withstood frost very well last month, although they're in a pretty sheltered location near the house so that may have helped. We fully expect these to die back in the hotter summer months, but hope that they'll re-seed and return next fall and winter.

Successes like these give us the encouragement we need to keep trying new seeds. Right now, we have a couple of seedling trays of zinnia, marigold, and several others getting ready for the summer season, and a few packets of coreopsis to broad-sow when the summer rains begin.

"Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders." - Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Duck and Dive

Winter months bring a variety of seasonal residents to My Florida Backyard, including several varieties of diving ducks. In the fall, we had large numbers of Ring-Necked Ducks, but more recently, large flocks of Lesser Scaup have congregated in the lake out back.

The Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) is one of the most numerous diving ducks in North America. It is closely related to and difficult to tell apart from the Greater Scaup (A. marila), but the Greater Scaup is much less likely to be seen in this area, and is generally found on salt water. So our visitors are certainly Lesser Scaup (the plural of scaup is scaup, by the way).

Males (shown above, left) have more striking plumage, as is often is in the bird world, but both male and females have the bright blue bills that give this species the common name Bluebill. When the ducks first arrived in early winter, males had much duller plumage, and females had smaller sections of white near their bills. As mating season draws closer, the male's black and white feathers have become clearer and more defined, while the female's white bill patches have grown.

Lesser Scaup are noted for their interesting head shape, which almost seems to be squared off at times. At other times, though, their heads are more rounded. What explains this change in shape? It turns out that when a duck is relaxed, just paddling around and enjoying the sun, its head naturally takes on the squarer shape. When they tense up and prepare to dive, the head becomes more rounded, possibly making them more streamlined for the trip to the bottom of the pond. In the series of pictures below, compare the duck in the middle with the duck on the right to see this in action.

Lesser Scaup do not breed in Florida - they'll head north for the summer to breed there. Since we can see they are taking on the brighter plumage in preparation for mating, we can also expect them to begin their northern journey pretty soon. As spring approaches, they'll be off up the Mississippi Flyway to Northwest Canada, gone for another year. We'll look forward to seeing them again the in fall, when they bring their new offspring to enjoy the warmth of winter in My Florida Backyard.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Pretty Little Pink

With forecast temperatures in the 70s for the foreseeable future, winter seems to be about over in My Florida Backyard, and we're starting to make plans for spring in the garden. As we walked the yard this weekend looking for plants that need to be replaced, we couldn't help but admire those that not only survived the winter, but actually thrived, like these dianthus.

Many of today's popular dianthus species trace their heritage back to the mountains of southern Europe, so it's no surprise that they're a cold-hardy genus. Here in Florida, they generally survive frosts and even a hard freeze or two, and just keep blooming. Although some gardening sites say they are not suitable for warmer climates, our dianthus continue to flower well right through the summer, so perhaps newer hybrids and varieties are better suited to heat as well as cooler temperatures.

Dianthus has a variety of common names, including Sweet William and Pinks. While most dianthus are in fact pink in color, the common name "pinks" actually comes from the distinctive fringed edge of the flower petals. As far back as the 1300s, to "pink" something meant to decorate it with a frilled or fringed edge (think pinking shears). Its been speculated that the color pink actually takes its name from the flower.

Pinks are a biennial, so if you start them from seed you'll have to wait two years for them to bloom. However, they're readily available at all nurseries in a variety of patterns and hues, and once planted, they continue to bloom and thrive for years. Though not a native, this low-maintenance plant is an easy pop of color any Florida gardener can appreciate, as we do in My Florida Backyard.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love is a Rose

Happy Valentine's Day from My Florida Backyard!

The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love;
O, the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.
-John Boyle O'Reilly

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dixie Blossom

Plants are slowly springing back into life in My Florida Backyard, and we recently noticed the airy blooms of white gaura hovering above the butterfly garden. White Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri) actually comes in several colors - we had a great hot pink cultivar last year that we're hoping will come back this year - and is native to Texas and Louisiana, but does well throughout the Southeast.

Gaura, sometimes called beeblossom, is a genus of plants native to North America. Florida has its own native gaura, Gaura angustifolia, commonly known as Southern Beeblossom. It's fairly common in the wild, though somewhat easy to overlook. It spreads by underground rhizome, so you'll often find a pretty large patch of these growing together in dappled shade in the woodlands. The plant is similar to White Gaura, but the flowers are smaller and even less showier. The various Gaura species also hybridize easily, so even experts have difficulty telling them apart from time to time.

Gaura lindheimeri is readily available at nurseries throughout Florida at certain times of the year, in shades ranging from white through brilliant pink. Some have been bred to be shorter and more compact - in its natural state, it's tall and somewhat sparse. Choose the cultivar that works best for you and add some to your yard to draw pollinators and butterflies.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Brighten the Corner Where You Are

The house next to My Florida Backyard is vacant and no one is taking care of the yard, so it's a little haven for wildflowers and even interesting weeds these days. In a corner on the north side of the house, these cheery little yellow flowers have taken over in recent weeks.

We consulted the always-handy Wildflowers of Florida Field Guide and found our answer on pages 302-303: Oriental False Hawksbeard (Youngia japonica). As the species name would indicate, this is a non-native from Asia which has naturalized around the globe in the tropics and semi-tropics.

Gardeners often say that a weed is just a flower growing where it isn't wanted, but it seems no one has any love for hawksbeard. It's one of the most common pests encountered by those attempting to cultivate a nice green lawn in Florida (good luck with that, folks), and can be hard to get rid of; there's evidence of this plant beginning to show herbicide resistance in its native Japan. It doesn't seem to be bothered by frosts in our area, and the dandelion-like seeds spread quickly by wind from the multiple flower heads.

This plant is an annual with a shallow taproot, so if you find it growing where you don't want it, it's best to simply remove it by hand. If the heads have gone to seed, you can avoid spreading the seeds by snipping off the seed heads first and carefully placing them in your yard waste. Check the area in a week or two to see if new plants have sprouted from seed heads you missed, and remove them the same way.

On the plus side, this plant is seldom found in the wild and it doesn't appear to have a disrupting effect on native plants, so it's not considered a harmful invasive. It's mostly just a nuisance for those concerned with the perfect lawn (something My Florida Backyard will certainly never be). The rest of us will just live with it, maybe even enjoying the glimpse of happy yellow it adds to the landscape around us.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Solitary Man

On a routine trip around the yard to see what's been going on, we stumbled across this monarch butterfly clinging to some passionvine. His fairly sluggish movements and nearly perfect wings led us to believe he was probably newly emerged from chrysalis, hanging out for awhile before going off to find a first meal.

Butterflies are not nearly as common in My Florida Backyard during the winter months, but when we do come across them, they're always a welcome sight. In fact, photographing butterflies can be a lot easier in the winter, because the cooler temperatures mean you can often find them just basking in the sunlight, building up the energy to fly. This offers great opportunities to get up close; all of these shots were taken without a zoom lens. On a cloudy, cooler day, butterflies just don't have the get-up-and-go to get up and go.

When this monarch dropped to the ground and opened his wings, we could see he was a male by the black scent gland spots on his lower hindwings. In their fairly short life span (usually just weeks), butterflies have just two purposes: to eat and to mate. Unlike in summertime, when the gardens are full of prospective mates, this monarch may have to work a little harder to find some lady friends. They're out there though - we saw a female feeding from the milkweed just a few days ago.

Photographing butterflies can be a challenge, but winter days offer a chance to polish your skills. You don't need a super fancy camera to get decent shots, if you're patient. (Ours is only a high-end point and shoot model.) If your camera has a macro setting, be sure to use it. A setting that allows you to take multiple shots with one button click is good too. Get as close as possible before using your zoom lens for the best quality. And don't be afraid to use a photo editing program like Picasa to crop your pictures and do some minor editing to show the butterflies to best advantage.

Have you had any butterfly sightings in your own yards? With the arrival of spring, watch for buckeyes, red admirals, and whites to appear - we've already seen a few. Soon, this solitary monarch will have more company in the butterfly garden. In the meantime, he's a welcome bright splash of color on an otherwise quiet gray day in My Florida Backyard.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Ring Out, Wild Bells

"Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light..."

Tennyson began his famous poem this way, and perhaps it seems odd that these lines turn my thoughts to Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). But bear with me a moment - this Florida native wildflower is one that thrives in the cooler winter weather, and from the living room window, we often see the vibrant bells outlined against a grey sky on a cool evening, or whipping in the wind on wild afternoon. Though it does well all year in Florida, Coral Honeysuckle seems to love the unpredictable ups and downs of winter.

Honeysuckles are well-known and well-loved the world over. Most people associate them with fragrant summer nights or lazy afternoons, their sweet smell accompanied by the buzzing of bees and flutter of hummingbird wings. These dreamy visions are generally inspired by the honeysuckles of Europe (Lonicera periclymenum) or Asia (Lonicera japonica), though, as L. sempervirens doesn't have much of a fragrance. This hardy evergreen bloomer seems wilder and simpler than its foreign cousins, more suited to life in the New World.

Unlike the invasive Japanese Honeysuckle, Coral Honeysuckle is friendly to Florida gardeners. It's happy to climb up a fence or clamber over a trellis, but it doesn't wander and it's easy to control. It doesn't climb using tendrils or suckers, so it won't drown out other plants and shrubs nearby. We grow ours to hide some downspouts in the butterfly garden. It does well in full or partial sun, and handles droughts, heat waves, frosts, and pretty much all other weather without blinking an eye.

Don't let its lack of obvious fragrance fool you - Coral Honeysuckle is a natural in the butterfly garden. The few hummingbirds we've spotted in My Florida Backyard have been seen feeding from this plant or a nearby firebush (Hamelia patens). The foliage is said to be a host plant for Leopard Moth caterpillars, among others. The blooms themselves are simple but lovely... brilliant red outside with a surprising splash of yellow on the inside.

Coral Honeysuckle is readily available at native plant nurseries. Avoid the non-native honeysuckles you see for sale at big-box stores and instead seek out this wonderful native, which seems to have the "sweeter manners" of which Tennyson wrote. As the poet himself said, "Ring out the false, ring in the true."