Saturday, September 30, 2017

Fall butterflies, host blooms, and the odd sighting


There are two seasons during which it does not pay to travel anywhere because it's just so gosh-awfully wonderful here: spring and fall. Feel free to depart in the hot and crowded summer or cold and solitary winter, but come spring or fall, you're going to want to stick around Cape Fear. I say this with one huge caveat: the hurricane or spring storm that can turn an idyllic week into a nightmare.

Last week, the waves were perfect, peeling exquisitely at the Cove and down at Kure, the water clean and smooth, pretty as you please. Hard to believe that the weather system that gave us such gorgeous surf caused all that devastation in the islands. It's impossible to be too happy about dodging the bad stuff this busy season when keeping in mind all the destruction that has happened to the south and west of us. My heart goes out to all those who suffered loss because of Harvey, Maria, and every storm in between.

Today in Cape Fear, the sun shines and the sea breeze blows as if there weren't a care in the world or any bane worse than the biting flies and mosquitoes. Just before sunset, the bluefish coming through made a blue blitz, the water roiling with their feeding frenzy. I'm guessing they were feeding on menhaden or some other bait fish. The pelicans and gulls followed the crowd, diving and plunging beaks below the surface...quite a sight. The deer have been out grazing at dusk, fattening up for the winter. I didn't get a photo of the little, panic-stricken clapper rail that was dodging among the cars by Kure Pier earlier this week. She was clearly lost. You very rarely see them but can hear them often in the marsh. This one wasn't in her preferred habitat at all. Perhaps she'd been blown off-course by all the wind. 

The butterflies are dancing about every flower on the roadsides and in the garden.

Thoughout September, the sulphur butterflies hit the Mexican petunias en-mass.

Now, the Gulf Fritillaries are reveling in the ageratum.

In addition, last night I saw a massive hummingbird moth on the last of the white gingers.

Fascinating how different flowers will attract different pollinators.

Along the roadsides, all sorts of fall-blooming wildflowers are showing their stuff. One of my favorites is the dotted horsemint.

It won't look like much from the car as you're driving down the road, but once you get up close, you won't be disappointed. Its structure is so interesting, and the color is such an intriguing and subtle mauve. 

Cut some and stick it in a vase of water changed regularly, and it will reward you with its unusual beauty and lovely herbal scent, like bergamot. Just be aware, it will snow tiny seeds like that of the poppy, so you may want to keep paper under the vase in order to catch the mess and perhaps save those seeds to cast into an out-of-the-way place in your garden. Dotted horsemint attracts several pollinators, including bees. Indeed, it is one of the beebalms, its scientific name: Monarda punctata.


Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Better Side to a Clematis

After cursing the sweet autumn clematis in the last post, it seems only fitting to extol the virtues of its cultivated cousin. Hardly difficult to do, as the cultivars tend to be easy to grow and to reward with some stellar performance not once but twice a year.
Jackmanii in the crape myrtle
This Jackmanii climbs a dwarf purple crape myrtle, blooming before and after the tree's season, thus extending the show of color from spring all the way into fall. The vines of the clematis cultivars are twiggy and so while they use the crape myrtle branches to climb on, they do not strangle it, and this way they keep far enough away from the house as well.

This Jackmanii has been blooming strong for quite a few years now, coming back after floods and drought, frosts and broiling dog days. If you want profuse blooms with ease, it's hard to do better than a Jackmannii, and the intense purple color adds to its charm. If, however, I had a dark brick house, I would wish to plant a Henryii clematis, snowy white and big as saucers, to climb either a trellis or nearby tree. The contrast would work well, I think.

While the Jackmanii is tried and true, clematis are worth a little exploration. This is certainly the case with this blue clematis.

I don't even remember where I picked this up or what the official name of it is, and when I put it in I didn't dare hope it would do all it's done, but wow. This plant has all my reverence. I think at first I did baby it a bit just until it took root, and that's been quite a few years since. Now, spring and fall this blue clematis makes a bang of blooms.

Above, the blue clematis blooms with the primroses in spring---quintessential cottage gardening. This variety begins a deep blue, and as it fully opens, the blue softens and pales, the most welcome color to add to the pink primroses and oxalis and the white Queen Anne's lace.

 



I suppose some folks might look at this corner and think, "Crikey, what a mess." But I love the cottage garden with its willy-nilly sprays of flowers, almost meadowish, where you turn the corner and might encounter anything climbing up a wall.  I blame my untamed eye on being fed too much of the Romantics in school. After nearly every college I attended crammed Wordsworth into me, I had to do something with him, and I wasn't about to put him into my own prose, so voila, he came out in my own bloody little Tintern Abbey.

If the Abbey can crumble, then so can my walls.
Persnickety points: The most widely known quirk of the clematis is that it likes its feet in the shade and its head in the sun. So support its climb somehow. Furthermore, you'll want to nurse this little guy on the transplant with plenty of rich soil, space, and water (keep in mind how sandy our soil is and how quickly it can drain through or evaporate). You may lose the first few you try, and unfortunately, the clematis is an investment of somewhere between $12 to $25, so you really want to give it a fair chance.

I once had a clematis crispa, which is in fact native to this area. It's an adorable wetland plant that you might see on a float trip on various local creeks, along with cardinal flower, pickerel weed, duck potato, water lilies and other native lovelies. I lost my crispa some years back, probably to the stranglehold of white ginger roots. If you have a wetland area, however, I suggest you hunt up this treasure. It gives delicate, sweet-smelling, lavender, bell-shaped flowers that are simply delightful.
I'm not about to tell anyone exactly where I saw this little fellow in the wild except to say this much. You have to paddle to it in May-June, and I sure hope one day I get to see it again.

Also, if you came here without first seeing my post on the Sweet Autumn Clematis, then before you even think "clematis," beware: that is not a nice plant

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Dad-gummed Sweet Autumn Clematis

If you cherish nothing but a cloyingly sweet scent (not as horrific as night-blooming jasmine or eleagnus), and I mean you don't care about your house, car, slow-moving children...then go ahead and plant this stuff, or let it come to you, because IT WILL. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

I'm at a loss for publishable words on this stuff. It bears down on the azaleas, hydrangea, and crape myrtles, it stifles the white ginger, it gives me nightmares that a tendril will get into the house and I'll wake up with the vines over my face.

In the photo below, SAC (as in ranSACk) is cheerily throttling a crape myrtle.
BEAST.
That it has no thorns and is easy to pull barely saves it from the ninth circle of Dante's Inferno. But the eighth circle has to be crawling with Sweet Autumn Clematis--Carolina kudzu, our very own diabolical strangler fig.

What can I say? We've devised various demises for it, injecting it with salt water, clipping it to its very roots, but the bloody stuff is quick and sneaky...and, if truth be known, in some places, I let it take off. Because, and this is the part that makes me cry: just when I thoroughly despise it, it'll suddenly explode into this profusion of sweetly scented white flowers, and I almost, ALMOST forgive it.

Notice the attitudes of the crape myrtle and Mexican petunias toward the Sweet Autumn Clematis, bottom right (left; sorry, dyslexic). They're like "Yeah no, I'm outta here."

I racked my brain to find these three redeeming qualities: pollinators love it, it's a great scapegoat, and in some nefarious circumstances it can come in handy.

  1. Butterflies and bees dance happily in the snowy, shaggy, crippling behemoth.
  2. If you're getting skunked and folks with strings of fish are about to pick on you, just say, "Well, my casting arm's not up to speed because I've been pulling SWEET AUTUMN CLEMATIS." Mere mention will make them run.
  3. You can plant it along a fence you share with a neighbor you don't like, and this will annoy the crap out of them. We actually like our neighbors just fine, but having SAC is like having Turret's or something...if you got it, you just can't help sharing.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Rainy Day Book List

When a rainy day (or oncoming Tropical Storm!) gives you a break from the hard work of digging your feet in the sand and soaking in sun and salt air, it's a great time to catch up on filling in all the gaps I leave here about how to cultivate the ultimate coastal garden...with books!!!
"Can't, my brain is fried."
Henry Rehder (pronounced Reader unless my mother devised another malapropism on par with her Gazebo Beans and Mighty Python) is the Virgil of Carolina coastal gardening. You'll find him mentioning azaleas on the Star News website, and he has a book that serves as a bible to the southern gardener--Growing a Beautiful Garden: A Landscape Guide for the Coastal Carolinas


Rehder is an old family name in plants and the family has owned the Rehder flower shop downtown for generations. Just remember when you crack this book, you are consulting the sensei of coastal southern horticulture.

If you come across the section where he's telling you, on such and such a date, right down to the day, you have got to prune back your crape myrtle, your inner beach bum might react like mine:

Still, if you wanna go hardcore, follow Rehder.

If Rehder is the beach bum gardener's Virgil, then surely Elizabeth Lawrence is their Homer. Granted, she was in the Piedmont and Mountains and was a gift to earlier generations, but you have to read at least ONE of her books if ever you've thought of using the phrase, "Why I do declare." Would you believe I had to enter a PhD program in American Studies out at the U of New Mexico in order to hear of this woman?

Elizabeth Lawrence did more for southern gardens than a whole lot of people know, and I'm not just talking about your hothouse gloxinia. She traipsed mountain paths to find some rarities, she cultivated bona fide winners, and she wrote lovingly about the off-the-beaten-path treasure trove of ditch lilies and thrift and slender gladioli and "yarbs" (herbs) found in the tarheel garden.

Those of us whose ancestors settled in this area (mine were said to be neighbors, for better or worse, with Daniel Boone) most likely have the odd uncle, aunt, or grandmother who passed down heirloom flowers with their quirks. LOTS of quirks.
My grandmother's white iris have bloomed beautifully for my aunt and cousin just down the street, but do you think we can get OURS to bloom? Hmpf! So we gave some to our cousin in Virginia and HERS are blooming! Any channelers out there, you're welcome to ask my grandmother what gives.

Next comes Wild Flowers of North Carolina: William S. Justice, C. Ritchie Bell, Anne H. Lindsey.
I've got the first edition, which is worn as the Appalachians, but I've found it darn useful just to identify plants, because it was one of the first to give full color photos. That still doesn't do much good on the DYCs (damn yellow composites) but helpful with pretty much all else.

One more flower book, this one exclusive about Outer Banks wildflowers but very useful for here around Cape Fear because it has interesting notes on the flowers, like who used them why in the old days. Just go elsewhere for breath-taking photos of the flowers. 

On my mother's recliner, I've left this book open to the page on chicory, a sky blue wildflower that my mother swears is a weed and refuses to have anything to do with, but the book says the Romans used it as medicine and colonials used it to flavor their coffee. Plus, it's blue and you don't have to care for it, it'll do very well with no help whatsoever...maybe a little too well. She's more the Rehder-follower, a fusser of gardenias, so I doubt I'll convince her to have it in the yard, but hey, I tried.

You can help write the book on pest control in your garden if you leave this beastie to work her magic. This is a writing spider, or Argiope. She's beautiful, and on your porch, deck, or among your flowers and veggies, she's a welcome sight. She'll suck dry flies, mosquitoes, and stink bugs, anything that lands in her pretty, literary web. If her web unwittingly blocks a thruway, just pluck a few spinnerets free and she'll get the idea to build it farther back. And at night outside, chop the air in front of your face like a crazy person or screams from your intimacy with this large arachnid will earn Cape Fear its cleping all over again.
You and the writing spider are NOT
at cross purposes.
When the sun comes back out, grab a read like a Lyla Dune book for some romping, bikini-ripper fun, kick back, and relax. She's a local author (not to mention a great friend).

Remember, your crape myrtle cannot read Rehder's mandate to prune it on a certain date. Somehow, my guy survived the oversight. Maybe yours will too!
X-P

Dog Day Survivors


Thank Heaven for the afternoon thermal thunderstorm that usually crosses the river from the west to give us some relief from the dog days of August.

Dog Day Flowers

Some plants that manage to put on a show in the midst of the summer heat are these guys:
Lantana
Few plants are tougher than Lantana. You'll see them planted right by the beach at Kure, in little more than sand. You'll see them naturalized, especially the yellow variety, up and down the Carolina coast. Lantana doesn't have a fragrance, but it's a surefire bloomer throughout summer, and many of the varieties come in deep, rich combinations of colors, like red, orange, and yellow or pink and yellow. They seem to never mind a drink, but they'll readily share a container without completely dominating.
 
Red Hot Poker

The Red Hot Poker or Kniphofia or torch lily blooms in July, along with the daylilies. A native of Africa very closely related to the aloe, it's a tall plant with lots of gangling foliage, so make your life easy and don't plant it too near other plants. It's great to accent a corner or island, and the spike of orange and yellow flowers can add a lot to a large floral arrangement. No scent to speak of but called a tough-as-nails sun-lover, so it's perfect for this area. 

It's a perennial, so all you really have to do is stick it in the ground, water it until its roots get comfortable, then throw some food on it in the spring and watch the show in summer. Since it blooms over the 4th of July, it's like having a fireworks display in your yard.  

I told a white lie: actually my cousin Julie, who really likes this plant, has been known to come over and fuss with the red hot poker, so it's not entirely without TLC...just not often from me. So, yeah, cousin-power.


Everybody who has made a trip to the beach knows this little guy, Gaillardia, or blanket flower.
Gaillardia
For most of my life, I knew this flower as the Carolina Beach Daisy because that's what my grandmother always called it. As you can see, it has a fuzzy button in the center, and the petals radiate from maroon to yellow fringes. When the flower is spent, the petals drop, leaving the buttons, which are in themselves a sort of curiosity. You will find these flowers, which are part of the sunflower family, growing right up and almost over the berm beside almost every beach access ramp, along with the silvery croton and the husk tomato, which I'll talk about in a later post.

Really, being a native of this area, the gaillardia is as tough as you can get in a plant. Vacant lots that have seen no TLC in forever can fill up with gallairdia. They are described as tough, easy to grow, heat tolerant, deer and drought resistant perennials. You just have to be a fan of red and yellow together, which some folks aren't. Some places sell mildly interesting cultivars, what they've dubbed "peach" or "apricot," but again, you've got to have a use for the red/orange/yellow spectrum.

Verbena
Last we have the verbena, which comes in a whole slew of colors and varieties, although you can hardly do wrong with the classic purple Homestead verbena. In the ground, it'll make a lovely ground cover, sprawling with its deep purple flowers, but I especially like when it cascades down a pot. The example to the left wintered over in a sheltered place that got plenty of sun. 

Verbenas don't always survive the winter. We just got lucky. This one likes regular watering and a minimum of TLC. They are a lovely plant and very versatile, although I wouldn't say they're as indestructible as gaillardia or lantana, but then, what is?



That Wild Wind


As we head into September, a seabreeze from the northeast really whips the umbrellas, sand, and garden whirligigs and flags, but it can also dry out leaves until they are crisp around the edges, so a morning soak is usually a good idea for most plants.

After these blustery days, look for a few things to happen on the beach: sargasso seaweedmen-of-war, and biting flies. Now, before you balk at a beach-combing trip, consider this:
in and among the sargasso seaweed or sargassum, blown all the way in from the Sargasso Sea and pitched upon the shore by some gnarly surf, are some very interesting creatures like tiny crabs and bryozoans, that crust that's not quite a coral. The ghost crabs get to feast on what's pitched ashore as well. As for the biting flies and men-of-war, just watch your step and your calves and ankles. Of course, the sand can blow in your eyes at this time, too, but the sea and sky, well, they're gloriously worth all that stings. BTW, if you do happen to go up to the beach at night, swish your feet in the water, and look at the sand. You may see flashes of blue phosphorescence, most notably in the egg-filled undersides of the mole crabs from ingesting phosphorescent plankton.

Now is a great time to invest in two things: a kite, of course, and an aeolian harp or window harp. Put this puppy in the window, tune it to a happy chord, and listen to it sing!
Aeolian Harp
Oh, and when you go outside, hang onto your hat!
Bruno, the cheek-flapping dog from Triplets of Belleville

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Friday, August 25, 2017

Clown Flowers or Torenia

This is an annual that is very easy to maintain and gives splashes of purple, violet, and pink starting in late summer and usually ending in fall.
We grow it in pots on the deck, usually collecting the seeds in fall when they've dried and sowing them in the pots in spring. The seed heads are super-easy to gather. They look like little flounders at the base of each flower. 

It's a little difficult to control what color comes up, but the guessing is kinda fun.



Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Flowers against a white house

I heard a long time ago that if you've got a white house, it's best to plant flowers with a deep, rich color in front of it because pastels will get washed out against the brightness of the white.

I think this bears out in this example, where a vibrant pink purslane and Mexican petunias plus a deep blue pot really pop in front of the white of this wall.
Taken a few weeks after planting,
with purslane beginning a lovely cascade
Sulfur butterfly on a Mexican petunia in September

The Mexican petunia is a really useful plant for a beach bum gardener, because they take very little care, have lush dark green shiny foliage, and don't seem to mind a sweltering summer at all. And they bloom profusely!

Just don't plant anything that's cherished and delicate near them because they can be invasive. This is good from the standpoint of cutting down on any weeding; they'll choke stuff out for the most part. One drawback is they have no scent, and if you like a neat lawn, they'll be dropping their flowers daily. But hey, for the non-persnickety, these plants are a godsend, as is purslane, which also thrives in the heat of a Southern summer and blooms profusely.
Another vibrant deep purple flowering plant that does well in the Southern heat is spiderwort. Kind of an ugly name for a pretty plant. It likes to bloom earlier than the Mexican petunia, along with primrose and oxalis, May through June. Spiderwort is also very low-maintenance, has the height of Mexican petunia, and both work well underneath a crepe myrtle. One thing that works well is to plant both Mexican petunia and spiderwort in the same garden and let them take turns blooming.

This is the same garden in Spring when the spiderwort is blooming.

Persnickety points on spiderwort: forget bringing in cuttings; the flowers will shrivel in a heartbeat. In addition, when you mess with them or near them, they'll stain your clothes and skin purple. I've never tried to use them as a die, but I just wonder if it would yield a rich, deep purple. I imagine so. Finally, spiderwort doesn't have the lush foliage of the Mexican petunia, so it can get to looking pretty scraggly, and it's a little more stingy about its blooms, often giving a show in late afternoon or when it rains but pouting in bright noon sunshine.

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