January 2002 Gardener's Journal
The year is beginning on a hopeful note here. After a few hard freezes during the holidays our weather turned warm and wet. January brought us near record temperatures as high as eighty degrees with nighttime lows seldom dropping below fifty. So far this is one of the mildest winters since I came to North Florida. My cold hardy palms and evergreen woodies are especially enjoying the weather and are doing some serious growing. The only concern now is that we'll get clobbered with a sudden cold front. One of these could cause some real damage now as many of the plants are in active growth. But I'm not going to worry too much - if they freeze, they freeze! Most of the stuff grows back anyway. In fact in the past few months I've witnessed some amazing plant survival stories. The tenacity with which these little guys cling to life is inspirational!
My favorite amazing plant survival story is that of an orange gerber daisy (Gerbera Jamesonii). When I moved from Gainesville to Tallahassee twelve years ago the truck was filled mostly with plants that I had dug for the move. Among these were a dozen each of yellow gerber daisies and blue Stokes aster (Stokesia laevis). The plan was to make a big bed of blue and yellow springtime color. All went according to plan and the following season I had beautiful bed of yellow and blue. But right in the center was a solitary orange gerber messing up the whole color scheme. So he was banished to a lonely bed on the far side of the house. During the course of that summer my attentions turned elsewhere and the orange gerber fell on hard times as I failed to water and attend to its needs. That winter its top froze back and that was the last I saw of orange gerber.
Years passed, years of low rainfall and long periods of drought. Last summer finally brought us some decent rainfall, however, and soil moisture levels increased thanks to close encounters with a couple of hurricanes. Then last August while I was yanking weeds, I saw a tiny clump of familiar foliage peeking out of the sandy soil. After more than ten years of comatose dormancy the little orange gerber had resurrected! I was strangely overjoyed and quickly dug him up, plopped him into a pot of primo potting soil and pampered him with liquid fertilizer. By September orange gerber had grown into a large, lush green clump. By October he produced his first orange flower confirming that this was indeed the plant from years earlier and not a volunteer seedling.
I'm not sure why, but following last September's terrible events I somehow found comfort in this little plant's endurance and resilience. As reward for his determination I decided that he deserved the good life. So when I drove to Kentucky to visit my mom for Thanksgiving the little survivor came with me. Orange gerber is now mom's house guest where he enjoys an optimal location on a windowsill. Mom promised to water him regularly (but not too much) and to treat him to a fertilizer stick each month to maintain his handsomeness (don't forget ma, I still haven't gotten over the goldfish accident...)
Just last week I was surprised to discover yet another survivor, a little palm that I thought was gone forever. I bought this baby Windamere palm Trachycarpus latisectus in the fall of 2000. The species is similar to the Chinese fan palm (T. fortunei) but has larger leaves and a smooth trunk (not covered with fiber). Hoping for the best I planted my little treasure up on the hill. That winter (2000-2001) was especially nasty with many freezes and damp cold nights that resulted in a plague of fungus - even the most cold hardy palms, like the pindo (Butia capitata), were attacked. My baby Windamere palm quickly turned brown, withered and died despite treatment with anti-fungal spray. It was soon forgotten until last week when I raked aside some dead leaves to discover that not only was he alive, but he had produced several leaves and now seemed to be in good health - another lucky break for me and my little palm is now enjoying some pampering.
After enduring all of those long gray dismal winters up north, when I first came to North Florida I had little tolerance for winter regardless of how mild or brief. This year, for the first time, I'm beginning to appreciate the advantages of the season. I can appreciate the low humidity, cooler temps and low mosquito population (we have West Nile Virus here). Winter is now my "heavy lifting season" because this is when I do the really strenuous outdoor grunt work. For some reason, despite the er, "casualness" of my living quarters, I seem to be somewhat of a neat freak in the garden. I love crisply defined curvy edges and will exert surprising amounts of effort to obtain them. I spent January's weekends drinking espresso, getting pumped and digging out hundreds (maybe thousands) of feet of edges. I dig for a while, then my back spasms, then I work on Floridata stuff for a while until the spasm stops - and then I drink some more espresso and repeat the cycle. This is how I spend my weekends and I'll continue in this pattern until my back goes out completely, hot weather and mosquitoes return or I die. This is one of those infinite jobs that can never be completed because stuff never stops growing and because I keep adding new beds that require edging. I am not sure why but this is how I have fun...
Wintertime is also a great time for transplanting. This year I have a number of items that I'd like to relocate for one reason or another. A 6' 'Professor Sargent' Camellia japonica that was growing up against the house was being crowded by a nearby sago and shaded by a live oak and bottle brush. The Professor hasn't been looking well this year producing only a fraction of the flowers that would be expected. So I dug him up and planted him back near the Catfish Pond where he's at center stage in a mixed shrub planting where he should put on a memorable flower show next season.
In the same area as the Professor I transplanted a dozen castiron plants (Aspidistra elatior). These add substance to shady areas and their foliage blends well with that of the camellia and provides a rich green background for their blossoms. At this time of year you can dig clumps, divide and plant the division right in the ground. Keep moist and they will quickly establish. You can also plant the divisions in pots and maintain them there until you're ready to plant them later in the season.
Plants For Free
Every year at this time I scan fencerows and under trees looking for desirable native plants to use for creating wildlife habitat. This is beginning to pay off, you wouldn't believe all of the birds around here this year! At Floridune I find seedling junipers, American hollies, dogwoods, wax myrtles and others that I plant up in containers. The following year I plant them out on the property. On New Years day I set out dozens of the aforementioned species in a hundred foot strip along the property line. Mixed among them are several dozen Texas sabal palm seedlings (Sabal mexicana) that I had germinated two years earlier. One month and several rains later the planting is thriving and I envision it as a major hangout for local birds in the near future!
Divide and Prosper
I've also divided clumps of two native grasses, gamma grass (Tripsicum dactyloides) and sand cordgrass (Spartina bakeri) and planted sections of the Catfish Pond's shoreline. The goal is for these plantings to conceal the wild swings in water level and to provide a safe nesting spot for the ducks and habitat for pondlife.
The least pleasant project of the month is spraying the palms to control fungus. The cool damp weather allows several fungus diseases to attack freeze damaged tissue of tender and marginally hardy palms. The most cold resistant palms like the pindo can usually fight off an attack once warm weather arrives but some more tender species like the Phoenix palms may succumb. So I spray after a freeze and periodically thereafter until warm weather returns and the fungus is controlled. Other funguses, rather than attacking living plants, live on dead plant material. These are found on dead branches, stumps, wood chips and the like and often assume interesting forms decked out in spectacular colors!
Fungus at Floridune
It is during these cool moist winter days that Florida's extensive population of molds, fungus and other low lives are most noticeable. The air remains very humid night and day with fog often forming in the evening and persisting until midmorning the next day.
Alien Space Spawn
For years I assumed this goofy looking organism that appeared suddenly each winter was some sort of pod creature from outer space or a parallel dimension. They appear every winter without warning, first as ping-pong ball size white spheres that is known as the "white egg stage". These quickly morph into a four-legged table shapes. They are small, about 5" in height, but you will probably note their presence long before you see them. It's reputation precedes it by way of a reeking cloud of decomposing meat odor. This foul scent is attractive to a number of nasty little critters that the fungus employs to assist in unsavory reproductive activities (yech). Consequently this fetidly fragrant fungus is commonly known as columned stinkhorn (Clathrus columnatus). Despite all this nastiness I think the stinkhorn is a fascinating plant and I've decided it is good luck to have them appear. To encourage them, I place lots of wood chip mulch under my deodar cedars and other evergreens. The stinkhorns love it as one of their jobs is to decompose woody debris. So even though I make serious effort to remain up wind from them, I'm always glad to host these odd odoriferous aliens each winter (I just counted nine of the rascals growing up on the hill).
I discovered the another fungus growing atop a water oak log. This spectacularly colored organism appeared after several days of rain and was beautifully set off by the aged, water-darkened wood. By the next day it had already faded to off-white (I'm glad I didn't wait to take the picture!)
Versatile Fungus Garden Logs
I place short lengths (2 to 3 feet) of untreated oak logs at strategic points around the property. These are inserted on end about 1 foot deep into the ground to serve several purposes. Their main duty is to keep people and dogs on the paths and out of the beds. They also serve as "targets" for the boy dogs that roam onto the property and want to mark the place as special. It is much better for them to mark a log than one of precious plants. Properly saturated with dog generated nutrients, the logs then seem to become fertile ground for fungus of many forms and functions. As a special bonus the logs also serve as home to beetles and other creatures. These find use as delicious snacks for the neighborhood woodpeckers. I figure that the more logs full of bugs one has, the more woodpeckers there will be - and as far as I'm concerned you can never have too many woodpeckers!
In Bloom at Floridune
The New Year brought us a r but temperatures warmed up soon after. We've had so many gray rainy days here lately that it feels more like Seattle, Washington than swelteringly sunny Tallahassee, Florida. We don't really have winter here - it's more of an indiscernible transition from late fall to early spring with as occasional wintry night occurring when temps drop to the low 20's (sometimes lower) as it did on New Years. The freezes knocked out the tender species and suppressed blooming on the more hardy. After a few warm days and nights, however, the flower show resumed. Fat camellia buds began to open and the tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) put forth another flush of its tiny, fruity scented flowers. Many of the viburnums bloom in winter. Here at Floridune the very attractive and drought resistant hybrid, the Pragense viburnum (Viburnum x pragense) began producing its blushing pink flower clusters in late January. It joins a Sandanqua viburnum (Viburnum suspensum) already in bloom and both are providing handsome evergreen backdrops for the star and saucer magnolias. The European fan palms (Chamaerops humilis) whose compact yellow inflorescences were seen last month are continuing to bloom although as soon as the flowers open they are attacked by a fuzzy blue mold (mold and fungus everywhere among us...). Another spectacular winter bloomer is the leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) whose bright blue leathery leaves set off its canary yellow flowers to maximum impressiveness and make a very cheerful statement in the winter garden.
What would winter be without the Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)? This little vine's bright yellow flowers are one of my favorite first signs that spring is not far behind! I have one that climbs a small Jerusalem thorn (Parkinsonia aculeata) tree, where it is trained to produce it bright yellow flowers at head level where they can be admired with eye and nose. Mine are just beginning to bloom but one pretty little Carolina jasmine growing on a split rail fence near my office has been blooming since Thanksgiving (I guess because it's warmer in town than out here in the woods where I live).
- camellia (Camellia japonica)
- Carolina jessamine (/Plants/Loganiaceae/Gelsemium%20sempervirens/45)
- Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica)
- Oregon holly (Mahonia bealei)
- pansy (Viola x Wittrockiana)
- Prague viburnum (Viburnum x pragense)
- rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis)
- sandanqua viburnum (Viburnum suspensum)
- saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana)
- star magnolia (Magnolia stellata)
- tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans)
In Fruit (and Seed) at Floridune
At the moment there may not be many species in bloom here in North Florida but many plants add interest with their colorful seed and fruit displays. This female Japanese sago palm (Cycas revoluta) busily releasing her seeds is a good example. I took this picture on my way to work one day just after the New Year. The bright orange seeds grabbed my attention as I sped by - I braked, pulled over and took a few shots. It was an overcast day with soft light and the seeds glowed against the dark metallic sago leaves and the nearby blue-green of English ivy (Hedera helix) - truly a memorable sight.
This year the Japanese pittosporum formed seed, something I had never seen before in 16 years of growing this plant. It was cool, the round seed capsules split into three sections which then roll back toward the stem to reveal clusters of shiny brown seeds attached to the inside lining of the pod. These are slippery with a greasy substance that stains paper just like a French fry! Another southern favorite, the confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis) has also popped its seed pods releasing dozens of furry seeds that bear a crew-cut resemblance to the bolls of their close cousin, cotton (of tee-shirt and underwear fame).
The Lawn Chair
There are two more survivors here that I'm grateful to still have with me. Sam has been feeling pretty ragged for the past few years. He's a retired beagle almost twelve years old. He has put on quite a bit of poundage since giving up his nighttime hunting trips in favor of less strenuous treat mooching expeditions to the neighbors. Poor Sam is so chubby now that he no longer has height, width and length - just a spherical radius! In his younger days I enjoyed hearing him do his beagle yodel as he chased critters through the night. These days his nighttime hunts are confined to his dreams. His hunting howl often erupts at 3:00 AM jolting me from my bed like a fire alarm. He seems tripped out when this happens and I have to talk him down (or maybe I'm waking him up?) before he'll stop howling. If I don't get him to stop promptly all of the Great Danes join in too which of course is unpleasant at any hour but especially so at 3:00 AM! I worry that we could loose Sammy soon but apparently this easy going life style seems to suit him. I hope he hangs around a long time, even though he smells bad I'm going to miss having his fat little self sleeping on my lap while I relax in the lawn chair.
Dixie is the oldest Dane in the household at six years of age. Since Thanksgiving she has been noticeably weakening, getting wobbly in the rear and losing weight at an alarming rate. I was pessimistic that she would see 2002. But she doesn't seem to be in pain, is in good spirits and is eating well - but she just keeps losing weight. So instead of being bummed that she's fading I'm making the best of the time I have left with her (she's taking a nap under my desk as I write this). I believe that our pets pick us - and for a reason. Besides being the mother of my handsome boy dog, Petey, Dixie is teaching me how to let go and adapt to the inevitable. I hate these "life lessons" but I sure do love my Dixie girl.
So far 2002 has been a good year because Dixie and Sam are still with me, Floridata is doing pretty good, the winter has been mild and my stuff is growing like crazy! I hope things are going well for all of you too and I wish you a prosperous and secure New Year.
Thanks to all who helped us out financially last month with "voluntary subscriptions", your thoughtfulness and encouragement are much appreciated. Please visit us often when planning your spring projects and don't forget to share Floridata with your friends. Be good and grow in the new year!
John S. "Jack" Scheper 1/31/02