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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

They're here!

I have commented before on my tendency to want what I can't have, and a creature on my want list has been the North Parkersburg Black Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis parkersburgensis--okay, I made up the last part). While I know that the black squirrel is just a melanistic variation of an ordinary gray squirrel, I have been quite taken with the little rodents ever since I first learned of their existence a few years ago. What I learned only recently, however, is that historical biologists think that the black squirrel may have been the dominant form in the days of the Great Eastern Forest as the dark color would have given it an evolutionary advantage over its paler relatives. Deforestation and more light led to an advantage for the grays. I've seen no speculation on reasons for what seems to be a recent increase in the population of the darker squirrels.

But--at long last--the melanin-enhanced variant has found its way to our yard. This morning brought not one, but two, black squirrels racing up and down our oak trees and chasing a gray squirrel off the fence. This after the evening that had brought the return of the fireflies.

Life is good.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Earthworms--an environmental problem?

I REALLY did not want to know that earthworms are endangering forest ecosystems in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maine. All my life, when I thought about earthworms at all, I thought of them as helpful little beings, busily aerating the soil, converting organic matter into worm castings, and fertilizing plants so I don't have to. They do those things; it just turns out that that's not all they do.

I did know (vaguely) that most earthworms are not native to North America, having been frozen out by the glaciers fifteen thousand or so years ago, save a few found in the South. Reading Charles C. Mann's 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created, this afternoon, I learned that some ecological historians credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) John Rolfe with introducing earthworms in quantity to our continent. Yes, the same John Rolfe who married Pocahontas and took her to England, where she promptly fell ill and died (as his first wife did when he took her to Virginia--the man did not have good luck with women). It seems that he was the first Englishman to have success with tobacco as a cash crop (yes, we can thank him for that, too) and used soil as ballast in the barrels that transported Virginia tobacco to England. When the ships landed in Virginia, they dumped English soil and English earthworms.

So why is this a problem? Most of eastern North America was forested, as much of it still is, and forests create lots of leaf litter. (Think about all the leaves raked in the fall. Pre-European settlement, those leaves tended to stay on the ground for years.) According to Dennis Burton, Director of Land Restoration at The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, healthy forests need their leaf litter to stay put for a while, cooling root zones, providing a safe haven for overwintering insect eggs and pupae, and decomposing slowly, gradually returning nutrients to the soil. Earthworms disrupt this cycle, churning the soil and breaking the litter down much faster than our native detritivores (and isn't that a great word?) would. Weeds sprout, and plants that need a stable forest floor (like some of our favorite spring ephemerals) decline. Without the protective cover of leaf litter, some insect species decline, leading to a decline in the number of birds. All because of feral EARTHWORMS, for goodness' sake!

Just what I needed--something else to worry about.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Today's delights

I arrived back from a week in Quebec (with students, so the trip was work, honestly) to discover (no surprise) grass that needed cutting and weeds overrunning the planting beds, so the first order of business was to clear some of the mess. This evening, however, as we ate a lovely dinner on the porch (prepared by my wonderful spouse), I was able to notice some of the positives of our messy but always lively and varied yard.  The light was fading when I finally got outside with a camera, so the picture quality isn't all I'd like, but this evening brought delights. 
This combination is one that I actually planned (what a concept), and for once the plants are blooming simultaneously: clematis "Betty Corning," the David Austin rose "Heritage," and rosa "Laguna," the last rose I bought from Wayside Gardens (nothing against Wayside, I'm just not doing a lot of roses these days).


Out in the meadow garden, my favorite early grass, formerly known as stipa tenuissima, is in full bloom. (I do wish the people in charge of plant names would leave them alone. My favorite asters have now migrated into a genus with a totally unpronounceable and unspellable name.)

The real delight of the day, however, was the discovery that the plant I thought was virgin's bower, clematis virginiana, had been mislabeled at the nursery. Normally, this is not a good thing, but my formerly sluggish little clematis has, in only its second year, been revealed as (ta da!) clematis viorna, a native vine that, according to the Brushwood Nursery website, blooms all summer.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Yes, Canada is different

I have no pictures to back up what I'm writing here, but having spent a few days in Quebec City as part of a study abroad program, I can say that many things about our northern neighbor are different. For one thing, the season here is not nearly as far advanced as it is for us in the Mid-Ohio Valley. The Roger-Van den Hende Botanic Garden here is bursting with tulips, with the teeniest of buds on the lilacs (long gone in our neck of the woods) and none at all on the iris. But the primroses! The courtyard in back of our dorm at Laval  University is filled with more varieties than I knew existed, and the botanical gardens contain even more wonders. Some of them look like alliums from a distance, while others are like nothing I'd ever seen. I doubt I'll ever try to grow them as our shade is mostly of the dry variety, but oh my.

We're also in a place where the common trees are not those we see in the Valley. This far north, the oak-hardwood forest gives way to pine, spruce, and birch (though Canada does of course contain its share of maples). One that a companion and I have wondered about is what seems to be a deciduous conifer of some kind. The bark and tiny cones resembles certain pines, but short green needles are just now growing in in tufts. We suspect larch of some kind.

But my favorite dfference is this: the parks here evidently do not weed and feed. Everywhere one looks, there are dandelions--fields, herds, gaggles of them! The Plains of Abraham and the grounds of the Citadel are covered with their sunbursts. Forget "dent du lion"; these babies are pure sunshine--and given how much it's rained since we got here, that's a good thing.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Current blossoms

May is generally a good month in the garden, but this is an odd May. The last daffodils finished just last week, the first having opened in mid-March. The few tulips we have were done in a single April week, and the irises, usually Memorial Day flowers, are closing in on the end of their season. And the early daylilies have flower stalks and buds--WAY too early! But the May flowers have indeed arrived, so herewith, a sampling of yesterday morning's offerings:
Physocarpus "Summer Wine" (detail below)

creeping thyme 

Kenilworth ivy

and clematis "Betty Corning." Some irises are still with us, 
along with a last Oriental poppy. 
And the roses are coming on. While the bush barely survived its transplanting last summer, "Dortmund," though dwarfed, is blooming, as is (drum roll, please)     
Madame Isaac Periere! (Ignore the black spot: it has been a VERY wet spring.)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

An uninvited guest

Last week, grading final exams on the screened porch, I noticed something very odd out on the back forty (aka the back yard).
At first glance, it resembled a mop, or perhaps the remnants of the wig Elizabeth Taylor wore in a 1960's photograph when she decided to match her shih tzu However, the mop moved, revealing itself as. . . .

a skunk!
Given that it was not yet fully dark, and I had always thought of skunks as nocturnal creatures, and this skunk was moving very slowly and in a wobbly fashion, I was concerned and enlisted the expertise of the good folks on the Wildlife Gardeners Forum. The consensus was that the skunk was probably fine.

Certainly, it waddled on its way in a seemingly unconcerned fashion. When I returned from greeting the neighbors who had just returned from a winter in Florida, the skunk had vanished, probably into one of the numerous holes found in the backyard extension of the city wildlife refuge. Later,discussing this sighting with the people across the street, I learned that this particular readily identifiable skunk has been in the neighborhood for at least a couple of years and is evidently healthy and unconcerned about the human and canine activity in the area where she has chosen to forage for grubs.