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John   Gardener's Journal title graphic

December 2003

wax myrtle berries
The southern wax myrtle's (Myrica cerifera) beautiful blue berries are ripening and beginning to attract hungry birds in search of snacks. Download a large version (800x600) of this image.
Woohoo! 2003 is over and done. I didn't want to say anything while it was going on but what a crappy year! There was way too much work and not enough fun. Too many bills and not enough money. Too much war and not enough peace. Too many friends and family members getting sick and not all of them got better.

In 2003 we lost our friend Wayne who handled our Great Danes in the show ring and said "goodbye" to Ida my sister-in-law MaryJo's Mom. My Dad's sister, my beautiful Aunt "Bimmy" passed away suddenly before I had a chance to visit one last time. Likewise I missed the opportunity to thank Father Ray Holtz for his help and guidance long ago when I was a student at Thomas More College back home in Kentucky. I will miss them all.

Dingo caught a squirrel
Dingo is getting up in years but despite stiff old joints she still has what it takes to get the best of a squirrel (Steve and Dingo only like white albino squirrels at their place).
It wasn't all bad though and 2003 brought blessings too. My Mom became very ill during a visit to see my sister in Connecticut last March. Thankfully she had what doctors described as a "miraculous recovery" and she's bouncing around now like her old self (but being more careful to rest and take care of herself - right Mom?). Brothers and sisters and loved ones all recovered from surgeries and sicknesses and for that I feel grateful. 2003 was also when I welcomed my first grandnephew, Quinn, into the world (my congratulations to niece Sarah and Pete the new dad!) Happily too, my dog family is doing well and Sam, my good-ole-boy beagle, is still with us and although lame in his two right legs he can still run around like crazy and is still loving life. Steve's old girl dog, Dingo is still with us too and as you can see from the photo, spry enough to nail a squirrel. (Good Dingo!)

dead Thunder Oak
On the last day of the year the tree trimmers appeared to cut down the dead Thunder Oak - for free! - as it posed a risk of falling on power lines during a storm.
Goodbye Thunder Oak
I first noticed that the Thunder Oak, as I came to call this tree, was first struck by lightning early in the summer of 2002. Strips of bark were blasted away from the trunk in the shape of a "peace symbol" which seemed at the time like some sort of omen. In February 2003 Thunder Oak was struck again (maybe several more times by the looks of it). By the time I wrote the March 2003 Journal the tree was half dead (left side was dead but the right side was leafed out and apparently healthy).

I guess life is rough when you're always getting hit by lightning (or worrying about getting hit) so I wasn't too surprised when I discovered last September that the Thunder Oak had completely died. I didn't mention it in my Journal then because it seemed pretty depressing after having earlier writing about how inspired I was by the tree's "survivor spirit". I was disappointed when the thing dropped dead and since last fall was kind of a bummer, I decided to ignore its passing until now.

I planned on letting it gently decompose to the ground on its own. That way it could provide wildlife habitat on its way down and save me the work of removing it or having to spend money to hire someone else to do it.

Wonderfully enough, on the last day of the year some tree cutting guys appeared at the door, asking permission to cut and remove the dead Thunder Oak (for free!) on behalf of the electric cooperative who feared it would fall on the power lines. It was like a late Christmas present!

Within a few hours the tree was gone and ground into a pile of wood chips for me to use as path mulch. Even better, their truck was full of chopped pine needles and bark that they dumped up on The Hill for me (and they're going to bring more!) Now the story of Thunder Oak has a happy ending (more so for me than the tree). Thunder Oak lives on as mulch as useful in death as it was inspirational in life.

Jack's pretty pile o'chips
The silver lining of the untimely demise of the Thunder Oak was this lovely pile of wood chips, leaves and pine needles - in other words FREE MULCH! Woohoo! What a great 2004 for me and my plants (and my chiropractor...)!
Projects
This month's main project was rebuilding my computer environment after getting clobbered by worms in early December. I had a firewall and anti-virus software in place which minimized the damage but it's always wise to do a complete "disinfection" of your system when assaulted by these digital beasts. This involves completely reformatting all of the hard drives and doing a "clean installation" of the operating system which means that everything else (applications, data, etc.) must also be re-installed. I spent seven tedious days downloading and installing patches and hotfixes and configuring and reconfiguring databases, web servers, application servers, firewalls, virus monitors, etc. Even though it was frustrating and boring I didn't get too mad and I didn't even cuss as much as usual. One reason is that it gave me an opportunity to get my computer environment in shape which I have wanted to do for a while. I haven't done much technology lately but now I'm inspired to resume work on the next version of Floridata that will be more fun and useful for visitors and better able to generate an income for me so I can stop being poor.

Despite the early December cold snap and the computer mess I managed to get some yard work accomplished. I spent most of my garden time raking pine straw and leaves for mulch (before the Thunder Oak mulch arrived). I raked the drive and the yard and now I'm harvesting the rich deposits of pine and bald cypress needles that cover the bottom of the Cypress Pond. During the winter dry season water levels in the pond fall so I can swoop in to rake up nature's fallen bounty. The really satisfying part of this activity is not the physical exercise (which is substantial) but the satisfaction of knowing that each pile o'pinestraw that I rake onto the old sheet and pull to its final mulching place is $3.00 saved (which is the street price of a bale of pine straw around here)!

So I've raked and raked and now have most of the "old" beds up on The Hill mulched as well as around the palms and other trees in that area. Best of all is I've completed defining and mulching the final shape of the main bed. This is where the briar patch of blackberry brambles and prickly pear cactus was hiding a varmint's burrow that I wrote about last month.(I'm pretty sure it was a fox now - everyone in the neighborhood is seeing them all over the place recently). I was so pumped at my progress on The Hill that I finally finished pulling out the blackberry sticker vines and have the cactus trimmed back into a less lethal arrangement.

Jack's juniper
I use long handled loppers and a ladder to top off my new Double Helix topiary - notice the lack of brambles and the trimmed back prickly pear cactus peeking in from the left side (that's a pile of cactus carcasses behind The Helix.
With the cactus and stickers under control I now had access to the blue Pfitzer juniper that grows there. I'm committing topiary against several of the shrubs here and this would be my next victim. First I removed all but 7 of the vertical stems and stripped them of branches on the lower 5 feet. The natural shape of this shrub suggested that it might look good carved into the shape of a double helix (like a DNA molecule) held aloft on slender spidery-legged stems. This first pruning was radical but was done over a six week period to avoid stressing the plant too badly. The basic framework for the double helix is roughly sculpted in and now I'll just need to occasionally trim back fast growing shoots to fill in the shape. Eventually we'll be amazed and enchanted to see this pair of gracefully entwined juniper ribbons reaching towards the sky (if it doesn't die)

deer ate my agave
Instead of walking a few hundred yards to eat in the million plus acres of the St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge the deer decided instead to eat the tips off my baby agave!
In Bloom
Last month, frustrated by the total devastation wreaked on my garden by the local deer, I went on a gardening strike. No winter garden for me - I planted nothing because the deer would immediately eat it. Consequently there's not much in bloom here right now. The sasanqua camellias (Camellia sasanqua) finished up in early December and a mid-month cold spell has kept the japonicas (Camellia japonica) tightly clutching their flowers within fat buds. By the end of the month a few have popped out but the real show begins in January (assuming the weather remains mild).

strawberry tree
Strawberry tree presents both ripe fruit and fragrant flowers in my Zone 8 garden and even more excellent, the deer don't eat it! Download a large version (800x600) of this image.
One of my favorite wintertime bloomers is the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). It's a small evergreen tree that hails from the Mediterranean region that covers itself with fragrant, small white urn shaped flowers at this time of year. Red fruits that vaguely resemble strawberries dangle in bunches beside the flowers like Christmas ornaments creating a colorful and fragrant display. It's also a well behaved small tree with no invasive tendencies (at least here where I grow it in North Florida). Strawberry tree is very drought tolerant and free of pests and in Portugal the fruits are used to make a strong wine called medronho!

Cypress Pond
After a short rest in the lawnchair I'll get back to raking the remainder of the leaves and pine needles from the dried bottom of the (Bald) Cypress Pond - in 2004 my beds shall luxuriate under deep decomposing layers of lovely mulch - it'll be a good year!

Lawnchair
That's it for December and for 2003 as well! Since it looks like I'll be very busy with technical chores and financial survival in 2004 this might be my last Gardener's Journal column for a while. There's still hundreds of Plant Profiles waiting to be updated and dozens of new plants to be added but I hope I'll get a chance to do at least a little writing in the coming year.

Floridata hosted over 2 million visits in 2003 and served more than 7 million pages! That's a lot but we will need many more visitors if we are to succeed as a business. Floridata has plant info for wherever you happen to garden in the world so I hope that you'll spread the word by posting our link on discussion boards and sharing us with your friends, family, garden club members, classmates and local garden writers. If we don't grow we die and we're counting on all you to help us survive. So visit often, tell a friend and keep us alive!

I wish you all a prosperous and Happy New Year and invite everyone everywhere to be good and grow with Floridata in 2004! - Jack

1/5/04



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