Archive for July 2009

Crispy Report – Part 1

July 29, 2009

The mercury topped out at ninety-five today, at least three weeks earlier than Seattle summer is supposed to begin. We even had sun on the Fourth of July this year. Not only is the grass a crispy brown but some of the other plants are looking thirsty. Last year I didn’t have to start supplemental watering until August. I decided to inventory the plants that are weathering the heat wave without help beginning with the natives.

With a few exceptions the native plants are doing well but there are definitely stand-outs. I have to say that the Vine maple is the super star. In the wild this small tree is usually found in the shady areas beneath the tall conifers and larger deciduous trees. Mine are mostly in the sun. In the wild the Vine maple is an understory plant, crowding in beneath the canopy of conifers and larger deciduous trees. I was a little worried about how the excessive heat and sun might affect mine. While the leaves on the newest vine maple have reddened a bit, there is no sign of fatigue evidenced on other plants as curled or browning leaves.

Another shrub that is happy in the full southern sun is the Ceanothus. This isn’t really a surprise since this is more likely to be found on the eastern side of the mountains in the desert-like regions. It’s glossy green leaves shine in the sun and there are even some late blue blooms on this spring flowering shrub.

The late flowering seems to be a theme. At the center of the back fence is a Red-twig dogwood. As expected it has white berries where the clusters of white flowers appeared in the spring. To my surprise, mixed in with the fruit, are new blooms. I noticed them when I followed a particularly pretty yellow butterfly back to that corner.

The flowers on the Oceanspray have given way to seed heads though they are not yet dry enough to attract the birds. As with the mock orange opposite it to the east, the plant shot up almost two feet this spring before the early summer flowering. Both seem hearty. Next to the Mock Orange is the Snowberry. Rather than reacting poorly to the heat, that shrub has continued a long bloom that began back in early June and has continued for almost seven weeks now. One afternoon this weekend a hummingbird, a butterfly and several bees were all sharing the tiny pink flowers.

Rounding out the list of native shrubs that seem impervious to the early drought is the tall Oregon grape in the shade in the front. The clump, fully twelve feet tall now, is laden with fruit despite receiving no water since the last rainfall in June. I don’t expect the fruit to last long now as it is almost ripe. In previous years the birds feasted for a day and then there were none.


Invasive Plant Eradication

July 25, 2009

Some of my early successes in the garden created a giddy sense of accomplishment. My plans got bigger and I have a folder full of graph paper sheets with sketches of rather grandiose ideas for various parts of the yard. As with anything, the bucket of cold water was bound to get dumped on me at some point. For me and gardening it came with the rather cavalier decision to get rid of the morning glory.

The fence in the southwest corner was entirely covered in the persistent vine. It was so dense that if you couldn’t see the fence continuing on to other parts of the yard you might think that the vines were simply pressing one against the other and climbing towards the sky on their own. Pulling on it led to the discovery that the source of the stuff was inside the fence. That was a problem.

The southwest corner of the back yard was fully taken up with a country lot sized shed that leaned precariously downhill on a variety of cinder blocks that were subsiding into the sandy soil beneath. On two sides the thing was no more than a foot and a half from the chain link fence surrounded the yard. The pitched roof, ending at my neck level in the back, came within inches of the fence. Getting back there wasn’t pleasant. Morning glory covered most of the walls and part of the roof of the shed itself. Tendrils had worked their way between the walls and flooring and were crawling up the walls inside.

That was the worst of it but it was everywhere. It coated the ground on the hill separating my house from the neighbor to the west. It was twining up through everything I had planted along the east fence. The only place it hadn’t taken hold was in the hard clay and deep shade of the front yard.

The first time I went out I hacked and bagged three large paper bags of the stuff. That took hours and I had only partially cleared the back fence along  the alley. That whole summer I worked at it. I was almost ready to declare victory as winter set in and everything, including the noxious vine, went dormant.

Ha! Within days of the first warm sunny spring day the wall of packed green covered in limp white flowers was back. This time I filled a dozen huge paper bags, crushing the stuff down until the bags were almost too heavy to move. For weeks I ruthlessly yanked out every bit of the stuff that dared poke out of the dirt.

Then, after months of planning, the shed was removed [to be recycled as an artist’s Tiki-style studio]. Finally I had unrestricted access to that corner of the yard. I took out a spade and began digging. Six inches down was a mat of the familiar white root. Nine inches down there was still more. Finally, at about fifteen inches I found the inch-round brown mother root. I dug it out in all directions until I found soil and rock free of the root.

With permission I went into the properties on each side of mine and pulled the vine out there as well. For the entire summer and into the fall my garden time was given over to morning glory eradication. This spring a few stray bits were coming up along the east bed. I pulled those. After that I did daily inspections. Sometime around June I cut back to once a week and was actually able to get back to garden tasks such as planting and mulching.

Today I realized that I haven’t actually spent any time looking for morning glory in over a month. I went out and took a turn around the yard. I peeked behind vines and crawled under shrubs. I lifted the lower branches of perennials and even moved pots to make sure nothing was hiding beneath. I found not one of those elongated heart-shaped leaves.

After a year and a half I am declaring the war on morning glory won. I confess to feeling a little smug when I walk the neighborhood and see garages or shrubs covered with the stuff. But I won’t ever again assume that any garden project is sure to be simple or quick.

New book and Author event

July 24, 2009

Since I posted my own crow story I thought I would put a quick note in about a new book by a Seattle author that sounds really interesting. It is called “Crow Planet” and is by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Here is a Seattle Times story about the book:

Ms. Haupt will be doing events at Elliott Bay books and Third Place Books.

Berries for You and Berries for Me

July 21, 2009

One place online equates folk wisdom with “orally transmitted knowledge”*. Hearing the phrase usually makes me think of a wizened elder imparting lessons to a young person, usually in a pastoral setting.

A few years ago I picked up some folk wisdom from a woman working in her yard on Capital Hill. She wasn’t the least wizened and no one will ever mistake Capital Hill, as lovely as parts of it can be, with the country. She was weeding and clipping near the sidewalk. I was walking by with Midnight who stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and did her patented Labrador stare.  It took less than a minute for the woman to notice. She threw off her gloves and exclaimed, “I have to pet your dog!”

The woman’s enthusiasm short circuited all my training concerning the polite way for dogs to greet people. The woman was met with an enthusiastic head butt to the thigh. She responded by squatting, digging her fingers into the thick coat at the dogs neck and running those fingers backwards and forwards. Midnight went into an ecstatic wiggle. When she was done the woman had handfuls of fur. I started to apologize and was ready to explain that I really did brush the dog on a regular basis.

She smiled and held up the balls of black fur like trophies and said, “to protect the berries.” She went on to explain that dog fur mixed in around her strawberry plants kept the birds and squirrels out of the fruit. I was just glad that some of that fur wasn’t going to end up in my vacuum.

Now I have my own yard and most of the berries in it are for the wildlife. There is,  however,  one pyramid of pots on the patio containing strawberries. Those I would like to eat. This weekend the fruit wasalmost ripe so I scraped Midnight vigorously and then twined the fur I pulled off of her into the plants.

I admit I was skeptical. I have wild strawberry, ribes, serviceberry and oregon grape in the yard. As far as I can tell the mean time between optimal fruit ripening and total harvest is about forty-five seconds. That is to say I have never actually gotten a ripe berry off of any of those plants.

This morning after our walk Midnight want to the strawberry pot [she knows the location of every blackberry and raspberry plant in the neighborhood that can be plundered from the sidewalk and has an uncanny instinct for when those will be ripe.] Next thing I know she’s pulling at one of the plants. I stopped her and went over to investigate. There were several dozen perfectly ripe strawberries hanging from the plants. The fur deterrent had worked. Score one for folk wisdom.

Midnight and I sat on the patio and shared the fruit as a breakfast hors d’oeuvres. It seemed only fair to share with her.


Plant Popping

July 18, 2009

Checking out the wildlife who my yard is fun. But the truth is that most of the visitors come when I’m not looking. If I look carefully I can find signs, some more obvious than others. I break through webs in places including right outside my back door every morning. Spiders work all night in the dark and by the time I come out the little eight legged weavers are hiding somewhere watching. [Though sometimes I worry about carrying a little passenger as I go about my morning errands!]

The dog finds evidence of critters passing through. I think her level of excitement is proportional to the rarity of the visitors. Squirrels get a passing sniff, cats a little more attention and raccoons have her ready to track them down. Other signs include bits of potting soil spread about on the steps and patio, broken branches or bowed limbs when there was nary a breeze, and of course disappeared peanuts and feeders needing to be refilled.

Some signs are obvious, some confounding and some exasperating. This week there’s been one that is the last of those.

I wanted a ground cover to fill in the spaces between the stepping stones in the front yard. I had decided that the only thing that would last the summer there is thyme. I had already tried a sample of Blue Star creeper and that browned out without daily water as soon as the July heat arrived. So I bought a flat of thyme and scraped holes eighteen inches apart into the heavy clay soil planting a little three inch bit of thyme in each.

That was Sunday. Monday night I came home from work and discovered each little thyme plant popped from its hole and lying greenery down nearby. Someone had entertained themselves playing pop the plants? I figured it was the crows. I love those black birds [and I know I’m in the minority in holding that opinion] but they came by the trickster appellation for a reason.

I changed and then I went out before eating. I replaced each of the little plants, digging them in a bit deeper. Then I watered them and hoped they hadn’t been too badly damaged.

Yesterday I got home a little earlier and didn’t dawdle in the house but went right out onto the porch to check my ground cover. I caught the culprits red-beaked. It wasn’t the crows at all. It was the robins. Apparently by loosening the dirt I had made attractive places for the worms. The robins were popping the plants out and nabbing dinner.

I puzzled over the problem for a bit and then came up with a possible solution. I went out and replanted the thyme again. But then I dug up a places in the bare dirt in between. My theory was that the worms would be attracted to those spots as well but without the plants they would be easier pickings for the birds.

Tonight when I came home the robins were in the yard as they are every evening. All my plants were still safely in their holes leaves facing the sky. After dinner, instead of digging around in the dirt I watered the thyme and then I sat on the porch and listened to a robin in the cherry tree sing evensong.


July 14, 2009

Words have definitions. If we know the definition then we can understand what someone means when they use that word. If I say something is fast then another person should be able to imagine what that means. That works if the frame of reference is the same. How often is that true? I might think a fast car is one that goes zero to sixty in 7 seconds and then tops out at eighty MPH. There’s a guy I work with who thinks fast doesn’t even start until around eighty.

Take preparing dinner as another example. I think fifteen minutes is slow. My friend whose husband is a chef thinks anything less that thirty minutes standing around nursing a glass of wine waiting for dinner is unhealthily speedy.

This evening I got a whole new frame of reference. I put the dog on her leash and left her inside the back door while I took some trash out to the can. I walked back to the door, a distance of maybe thirty-five feet. Birds were chirping in the trees and shrubs. I stepped inside, picked up the leash and stepped out to a different world, in maybe thirty seconds.

The noisy chorus had been replaced with dead silence. Midnight bolted out and froze in full alarm mode five feet outside the door. I pulled her back inside and slipped out as quietly as I could to investigate. Of course it wasn’t quiet enough.

The hawk had flown up to the fence. There was no mistaking the curved beak and muscular chest. It sat up there eying alternately me [Note: you can’t sneak better than a hawk can take notice] and a spot near the edge of the rosemary hedge. I hunkered down and went under the deck. I came out on the other side of the stairs and squatted behind the barrel there. Full of purple fountain grass, it shielded me some.

I waited. The bird moved a little on the fence. It wasn’t the dance of a crow trying to decide what to do next or the hop of a little bird. It was the deliberate shift of one assessing the affect its movement had on me. Was I a threat? I didn’t move. Then hunger won out and it flew down to the ground. It stood on something obscured by the grass. It glanced around one more time and then leaned over and pulled up something in its beak. Something feathered.

In ten minutes it was over and the hawk flew off to perch in the cedar across the alley. So for a hawk dinner preparation takes maybe thirty seconds and eating takes no more than ten! Now that is fast. OK, so he was probably hanging around for a while before hand scoping out the place. Still, once he decided what was on the menu he didn’t waste any time.

Soon noise returned to the yard. The crows started in first. No surprise there. I went over expecting some signs of carnage. There was one feather. Not another sign of the raptor’s dinner remained in the grass. It didn’t leave me a little carcass to clean up the way the cats do.

I let Midnight investigate the spot before we went on our walk. She traced out a little area not more than three feet by one. Neater than the cats and more focused that the crows who drag their meals all over the place.

Searching on the internet and one of my bird books I decided that my visitor was a Sharp-shinned hawk. They look a lot like a young Red-tail hawk but are good acrobats who can poach easily at feeders.

Share the Habitat

July 14, 2009

There’s a great new resource for those interested in sharing their habitat with wildlife. It’s a site called Share the Habitat published by the Woodland Park Zoo. I have added the a link to this blog.

Kids can earn points at Nature Exchange for signing the habitat pledge among other things. And you know what that means – cool things like minerals and fossils and shells, oh my!

And remember, wildlife doesn’t know property boundaries. Even if you live in an apartment you can do something. Check out what is around your place on other properties and then add something.  If you read my very first post you know that I don’t have any really tall trees on my property. But my neighbors do. All the birds that want someplace high to perch or nest have a place. Then I added a lower canopy and food sources. Voila, the poshest location for the savvy birds in our city. Crows, jays, flickers and the occasional hawk use those trees and then visit my yard.