March 2003 Gardener's Journal
This month's Journal is dedicated to mosquitos and pollen for without the torment of itchy bites and sneezy allergies I would not have stayed indoors long enough to write this thing. The weather here in March was much too fine not to be outside (except when the two aforementioned pests were about). This is the time of year when I would much rather be in the garden than writing about it. Instead of spring fever I get spring frenzy - a happy mania of planning and planting, cruising garden centers, making stupid impulse purchases and doing battle with enemy plant and insect species. The abundant rains since last Thanksgiving have things growing and green like I've never seen. It is especially lush and beautiful here this year which inspires me to be even more frenetic dashing about the yard trying to take advantage of all the season has to offer!
In February the rains came and stayed until the middle of March. This was the longest period of "wet" that I've experienced since coming to Florida 19 years ago. Majestic storms paraded across the region leaving in their wake a sogginess that recharged the water table and left surface waters at flood stage in some parts. Luckily in my area the excess water is sucked into sinkholes that become ponds in rainy weather and lakes in very rainy weather. It's very scenic in a southern swampy kind of way and I wish it would stay like this.
The Catfish Pond filled and spilled over onto the lawn while the swamp in the back swelled to merge with the pond. Out front, the Big Bald Cypress Pond maxxed out, tripling its surface area to create a fun park for frogs intent on creating tadpoles. By the end of the month the waters receded somewhat. But the place has now become a delicious dining destination for a big blue heron and other hungry wading birds with an appetite for tender tadpole.
All of my plants are overjoyed with the ample rains of of the last two months and they're growing like weeds. The weeds are even happier and would strangle the place were it not for my trusty hoe, machete and bad temper. Happiest of all, though, are the mosquitos. The first generation since January's big freeze emerged from the swamps in huge hungry masses. They bite repeatedly until either engorged or whacked into a bloody splat. Predator species like bats, the county mosquito spray truck, and tadpoles (if there are any left) will eventually reduce the population to more manageable numbers but until then it's more fun to stay indoors and write...
Last month I wrote about the Spanish oak (Quercus falcata) tree out front that was struck once again by lightning. Dozens of large limbs were blown out of its crown and thick pieces of bark and wood were blasted from both sides of the trunk. It looked like a gonner. In early March I went to check on the oak and I'm happy to report that the unfortunate old guy is half dead but still alive! The Thunder Oak is forked about 15 ft (4.6 m) above the ground. The entire right fork is dead but the other is lush with fresh young foliage and totally unscathed! I spent the past month arguing to myself about whether the Thunder Oak is the luckiest or unluckiest tree in the yard - I still haven't decided...
When I first moved here 14 years ago, what is now the Dog Cemetery was the former owner's vegetable garden. I planted vegetables there too including some elephant garlic. My predecessor was a big proponent of non-sustainable agriculture using mega-chemo and hyper-toxico growing methods. The result was spent "soil" that had the texture of talcum powder. It dried out very quickly after which it was difficult to water because droplets beaded up on it like on a freshly waxed car! Since it also burned my skin, I decided to give up the and plant the area with rugged and adaptable trees and shrubs instead. In early March I was raking leaves there and noticed a bright blue leaf growing out of the winter-brown turf. It was the elephant garlic from the aborted vegetable garden of years past! Suffering more than a decade of lawn mower mutilations and drought, the enduring garlic survived! I'm always impressed with the tenacity of life and especially so with this little garlic - it survived even longer than the veggiesgerber daisy survivor that I wrote about last year.
It seems that every month I write about pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) and this month is no exception. It is a big and beautiful plant that will cut you up if you mess with it. Last month I began digging up a huge clump and I still haven't completed the project. As the weather warmed I switch my attention to planting and propagation - both of which are way more fun than wrestling pampas grass out of the ground. It's now the end of the month and the thing is still there and now the weather is getting hot so it's likely the clump will spend another summer right where it is.
Divide And Prosper
Early spring is the best time to divide many clump forming perennials. Being both poor and cheap, I tend to buy only one of any kind of plant and then tend it carefully for maximum growth so I can divide it into three plants the following season - and then again the season after that until I have enough for a grove, group or garden. Early in the month I divided several clumps of 'Heavy Metal' grass (Panicum virgatum) and now have enough to plant a 10 ft (3 m) border of it which will look really great up on the sunny dry "Hill" garden. Likewise I dug a clump of wood oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) and chopped it into three plants for a shady bed near the dog runs. I also sprinkled some of last years seeds around and now have hundreds of seedlings of this handsome grass. I intend to make a huge bed of this stuff under one of the oaks next year. I also dug and divided a bunch of butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium) and crinum lilies (Crinum X powellii). These two showy tropicals are root hardy here and very easy to propagate and grow.
My ongoing project of composting Great Dane byproduct is proceeding more efficiently. The warmer temperatures have accelerated the rate of decomposition which is good news since the stuff is really piling up. I reckon that in the month of March I have processed more than 27 lb/day x 31 days = 837 lb (380 kg) of Dane poop. This seem like a lot so I decided to do a "mass balance" to measure the output (poop) produced by the input (dog food).
3 adult Danes x 1.5 lb food/day x 31 days + 3 Dane puppies x 2.5 lb/day x 31 days = 372 lb (169 kg) of dog food per month (which reminds me to ask you to donate $15.00 for a voluntary subscription to Floridata to help pay our expenses and keep the dogs fed). I'm relieved that the money spent on dog food is doing double duty to feed not only the Danes but my plants as well! I guess it's possible that there are too many dogs here (6 Great Danes and 1 Pretty Good Beagle) but I think that I just need more plants on which to place my enriching Great Dane compost.
In years past I didn't grow much from seed the reason being that I often traveled and was unable to consistently provide the water and care required at germination. In our dry sandy soil sudden death by drought comes easily to vulnerable seedlings. This year I'm home more and have time to care for the garden properly so I'm taking the opportunity to plant seeds of all kinds. Since I cleared and prepared most of the seedbeds in February there was only the fun task of actually planting left for this month.
"The Hill" at my place is a sunny well drained area where I'm planting species that tolerate dryish conditions. Although I've never had much luck with them, I put in some African daisies (Arctotis spp.) and will try to keep the fungus from getting them so I can photograph and profile them later in the year. I'm doing two others that I've never grown, one is love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), a huge annual with brilliant foliage that I've long wanted to try (because of the cool name if for no other reason). The other is four o'clock (Mirabilis jalapa), a plant I remember from a neighbor's house when I was a kid back in Kentucky. I always thought it to be an annual (mostly because it sez "annual" on the seed packet) but it is actually a tropical perennial that is grown as an annual in temperate zones. Either way it is a colorful and lusciously fragrant plant that does well on poor dry soils like mine. Also on The Hill I planted stands of cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus ), several varieties of sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) and yellow ('Goldfinch') and orange ('Torch') versions of Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundiflora). These have all proven rugged enough to endure The Hill so I'm looking forward to a colorful summer (deer permitting).
Last autumn I dug up some tender vines that had been lingering on death's door for a couple of years. I like to grow several tropical vines that are root hardy here in Zone 8. Year after year of freezes, though, tends to weaken and kill the plants so I decided to overwinter them indoors this year. They are thriving now so I planted them along a sturdy chain link fence on the north side of the property. Freshly rejuvenated and ready to cover the fence in color are: a Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac), purple trumpet vine (Clytostoma callistegioides), Brazilian nightshade (Solanum seaforthiana) and sky flower (Thunbergia grandiflora). There was already some scrambling sky vine (T. battiscombei), autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) and downy jasmine (J. multiflorum) so it should be spectacular by mid summer. Until then, the Star of Yelta morning glories (Ipomoea tricolor) have reseeded themselves so they'll fill in with brilliant purple flowers early in the season until its more glamorous neighbors are ready to take over at midsummer.
In Bloom at Floridune
Mid-month here saw an explosion of color as first one, then another species burst into bloom. The first of the deciduous azaleas, the pinxter (also called "wild" or "bush" honeysuckle) began to bloom. The pinxter's flowers resemble those of honeysuckle and have a similar sweet scent. This beautiful deciduous shrub is native to the southeastern United States and I'm lucky that there are many native populations of pinxter growing in this area.
Following the pinxters, the Southern Indica azaleas blast into bloom. From Pepto-pink to moody magenta, from purest white to scarlet, the azaleas command your attention yet never seem to clash with each other or their surroundings (OK, well maybe sometimes, a little, with redbuds...). I have about a dozen varieties here that include early, middle and late bloomers so the azalea show here lasts 4 to 6 weeks depending on the weather. Warm temperatures shorten the life of the blossoms and strong thunderstorms can beat the flowers into colorful pulp. This year we saw our first azaleas in early February and it appears that the latest blooming azalea I have here, called "Solomon Salmon", will extend the show into April.
Late March is dogwood season here and I'm sad to say it's been disappointing this year. This species is endemic to North Florida and it is being attacked by fungus disease as it is throughout much of its natural range. Some years it merely distorts and stains the dogwood's white bracts. This year the bracts are not even forming on many of the trees - especially those growing in direct sun. I recently read an article that indicated that the tree is less prone to disease when grown in sun. I believe that filtered shade is best as subjecting the trees to entire days of blazing summer sun seems to really stress the plant. Someday when I'm rich, I intend to replant the drive with a dogwood selection that is resistant to the anthracnose blight. It used to be so beautiful this time of year and now it's not - a sad loss.
Here in Florida's panhandle spring erupts in full glory during March with many of our showiest species blooming at this time of year. This month I divided my "In Bloom" list into categories by plant type which as a way to introduce our new visitors to Floridata's Plant List pages.
Shrubs! This icon identifies a species as a woody, mult-stemmed shrub. Click here to filter the Floridata plant list for shrub species.
The shrub icon identifies shrubs which are woody plants that typically have multiple trunks and branches arising from near the roots. Click this icon wherever you see it to display a list of all shrubs profiled in Floridata. Some of the most impressive shrubs that I grow are the showy 'Southern Indica' azaleas. They are so raucously colorful that they hog our attention away from the more subtle, but just as beautiful, displays of neighboring species such as our native Florida anise. Although it can't be spotted from a mile away like the azaleas, is just as showy when viewed up close so its oddly shaped flowers can be appreciated.
Floridata's Vine List, represented by this icon, includes plants that climb, scramble, sprawl and creep along the ground. I love vines and some of the showiest bloom in March. One of my favorites, the cross vine (Bignonia capreolata), transforms itself into a hummingbird heaven at this time of year. Huge sprays of the orange or scarlet flowers explode over the length of the vines. One vine in particular is especially beautiful and each year I have fun taking pictures of it reflecting down upon the Catfish Pond.
March is also a colorful month for flowering trees when many of our finest favorites are in bloom. Early in the month redbud and the deciduous magnolias light up the drab late winter landscape. Before you know it, a few short weeks later, spring reaches a climax with the appearance of the dogwood blossoms.
Annual and biennial plants are represented by this icon. When clicked, a list is displayed that includes annuals and some tender perennial species that are grown as annuals in temperate climates. Were it not for hungry pests with mean streaks, other popular annuals like pansy, petunia and snapdragon would now be in bloom here:
At this time of year there's not much happening with my perennials yet. Those that like cool weather were either clobbered by the exceptionally cold winter or have been decimated by dining deer and ravenous rabbits. But here's a few toughies that are already in bloom like butterfly blue, gerber daisy, lenten rose and thyme.
In Bloom (but not so pretty)
The above species are not the only plants that are producing flowers at this time of year. Many others are blooming but they have small, plain, homely flowers that are rarely noticed - at least visually. But they get noticed, especially to those with allergies. By producing copious amounts of pollen they create seasonal misery for many of us. Pollen grains are dust-fine particles of genetic information. These give rise to the male gametophytes who's job it is to fertilize a female egg cell so that it can develop into a seed. It's disturbing and weird to think that our runny noses and itchy eyes are the results of the plant kingdom's sexual escapades!
In early March the pine species were producing pounds of pollen that formed yellow mats on the pond, yellow piles on the pavement, yellow films on the car and yellow low viscosity mucus that flowed like a river from my nose. It was distressingly gross. Just as the pines tapered off, the oaks bloomed so I've kept up a steady sneeze all month. But as I pointed out, at least this junk kept me indoors long enough to finish writing my Journal.
Well, that's how I spent my March but it was actually more exciting and stressful than that as the war captured our attention and I found it difficult to function outside of earshot of the CNN. Two days before the war began I got word that my Mom was very ill and was probably not going to make it. That week was very sad and bleak and I reconciled myself to the reality that I would not see my Mom again. But incredibly we were blessed with a real life miracle when she suddenly recovered! Just a week later was released from the hospital and though we're not sure what caused her illness, she now feels great and is back to her old self. It's such a relief and a most amazing feeling to have her back - I can't even tell you...
As I write this, it appears that the war is going well too. Hopefully most of our troops will be home soon. Despite the stress, uncertainty and worry March was a very memorable month! But it sure wore me out so I'm headed to the garden for some relaxing work and recuperation. Have a great spring, visit us often and be good and grow.
John S. "Jack" Scheper 4/5/03