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John   Gardener's Journal title graphic

December 2004

driveway and West Meadow at Floridune
Here's a late afternoon view of The Hill from near the entrance to the driveway. Winter here in Florida's Big Bend (Zone 8B) is typically pleasant and spectacularly beautiful. An extended Autumn morphs into Spring sometime in early February as indicated by the budding out of the swamp maples (Acer rubrum). Unfortunately it can also get cold and ugly which it did over Christmas.
Little Cypress Sink
I call this sinkhole (at left) Little Cypress Sink just down from The Hill. It's been looking especially pretty because they've been doing controlled burns in the forests around here. It causes a smoky blue haze that hangs in the air giving everything a soft fuzzy effect - like sfumato (I've been reading about Leonardo again... Da Vinci not Dicaprio...) Click to download a large version (800x600) of this image.
Happy New Year! At last, there's no more of 2004! A rotten year best forgotten - so I probably will but not before I close it out in my last Journal of the year.

I stayed home for the holidays again this year to work on the new Floridata 2.0. As consolation for not having holiday fun I allotted time for catching up on garden projects. As it happens, this proved to be a lucky decision because my family lives near the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport where you might recall from the news that they had huge snowfall around Christmas that clogged the roads. At the same time a computer crash at Com air Airlines aggravated the situation and closed down the region completely. By car or by plane I would have been stuck all the same. I wouldn't have got there anyway - at least not in a happy festive mood.

Here in Florida's Big Bend, early December was cool but pleasant but right before Christmas we had some freezes and by Christmas Eve a gray, drizzly, dreary cold set in - we even had a few snowflakes. It was just the kind of weather that I moved to Florida to avoid. But since it was Christmas and there was chocolate and cookies and I was inspired to once again bedeck the old Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) with strings of those little white lights. It didn't take much effort to decorate since all of my big tropical container plants were already huddled in the living room taking refuge from the freezes. So the the Christmas spirit shone brightly and I even listened to Christmas carols on the radio as I hacked code for the new site. It was actually the most festive I've been in years.

Wildlife

baby gray rat snake
This is the snake that slipped inside. I sent this picture to Steve because he's a herpetologist and he says it's a baby gray rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta spiloides. Can you believe all of the dirt that thing tracked onto my windowsill?
There was lots of wildlife happening around here this December to tell about. First off, I discovered another reason that the tree frogs that dine on my window at night have been disappearing. This snake showed up on the inside windowsill just inches from my computer monitor and a couple feet from myself! It freaked me because I don't like snakes. In addition to some of them being poisonous, they're sneaky, creepy and Judeo-Christian religious tradition compels us to scorn them since they are physical incarnations of evil. Just kidding. I actually dislike them because they're ugly and footless.

Goats share the same Satanic stigma but I like goats. I even had a pair named Laverne and Shirley and I can report that there was nothing devilish about them - although it was a little disconcerting when we sold them to young couple and their daughter. L & S both hopped into the back seat of a little Honda Accord without hesitation and sat calmly and politely as they drove off - and never looked back... Anyway, however much I don't like snakes coming in my house I didn't even try to kill it but instead pushed it out the window with a stick. If these things would eat the squirrels instead of my frogs I might have a better opinion of them. No I don't like snakes.

But I really like birds. A huge horde of robins have been hanging around here so it was disappointing when the cold snap struck at Christmas and chased them farther south. But as consolation about a dozen new wood ducks appeared in the neighborhood. My neighbor JM makes duck houses for them and sets out snacks of corn so I suspect that last years ducks are spreading the word of our neighborhood's gracious Southern Hospitality.

girl pig
See those big brown eyes on her? It makes me nervous when they stare - looks too much like human's. See that white stuff she's rooting in? That's what passes for soil around here, folks call it "sugar sand" (powdered, not granulated) because when it's dry it's very soft and fluffy and white (cars get stuck in it). Now you see why I obsess over composting Great Dane poop and other animal waste - except for that of pigs. No offense to them, but it's just too rank - even for someone as motivated as I to acquire compostable nitrogenic substances.
Several of my pig neighbors met tragic ends on New Year Eve, and will begin 2005 as ham, chops and tenderloins. I avoided making friends with them because the owner had told me that this was soon to be the fate of many of them. Years ago I had a place near Gainesville, Florida. There was a huge hog that lived in a pen just beside the dirt road that lead from my house to the main drag which sounds nasty but was actually pretty cool (at least to me). Whenever I walked by I always said "hi" and brought him treats. I even saved all my leftover car snacks to toss to him when I drove by.

We were buds. He was always muddy but didn't really smell bad or anything. This wasn't true for the manure as it was way too rank for even me to gather for compost. The interesting thing about this hog was that he'd come to the fence just inches away and we'd look each other in the eye and grunt (mostly him doing that). I'm sure we were communicating. While no information (or anything else) passed between us I think there was a connection, a sort of empathy and shared perspective on life. It's possible that he liked me only for the snacks that I brought him - especially that memorable Christmas when I brought him a big bag of fermented tangerines. They had been frozen and were now alcoholic. Just smelling the fumes coming off them gave me a buzz. He of course pigged them down and got totally wasted (I could tell by his eyes). That pig really liked me after that.

Then one Saturday, on one of North Florida'a brilliant bright winter afternoons, I drove past and he was gone, all 600 pounds of him so I knew he wasn't out jogging or anything. That's when I saw his owner (a surly, drunken rednecky guy whom no one liked) across the yard with Big Pig (my name for him). I was shocked to see half of Big Pig hanging from a tree and the other half hanging from a different tree. Sure, I know all along this would be his fate but but I wish I didn't have to witness his entry into the food chain.

Pig Dude
My neighbor pig is not near as big as Big Pig he is mature and has a job to do which is why he is still anatomically correct. He gets to date the remaining females that survived the recent round of sausage making so I'm looking forward to piglets later in the year. Click to download a large version (800x600) of this pig.
Ever since seeing how pork is processed first hand, I have resolved to be more appreciative of creatures that give their lives so that I can have ham sandwiches. I've also reduced my intake of meat since then and have decided to restrict or greatly limit social interactions with any creature destined to become food. Besides being healthier, it's another good reason why I wish I could be a vegetarian - more friends. Indeed, were it not for bacon I would probably be totally porkfree by now.

Reinforcing this decision was that shortly after Big Pig was "processed", I sat down to a delicious Sunday dinner of roast chicken. At that time we had a big flock of chickens (ducks, turkeys and geese too) and I went out to throw them their evening scratch feed. Conspicuous by his absence was Melvin (aka "Melman") a young, semi-tame trick rooster. He had a handsome profile, nice disposition (for a rooster) and killer crow and literally ruled the roost. Long story short: a certain family member had tired of the company of our socially outgoing rooster.

red maple leaf
The swamp maple (Acer rubrum) had one last leaf hanging from it. I admired its artful persistence so I took its picture. Click to download a large version (800x600).
I was appalled. "How could you whack Melvin, roast him to a succulent golden brown, accompany him with rich gravy and light as a feather fluffy mashed potatoes and not tell me who I was eating???" I cried. "Because then you wouldn't have enjoyed him." came the calm reply. I shrieked (my voice gets high when I'm upset) "I know, because I wouldn't have eaten him!!!" "Melvin the rooster was your friend too!" I exclaimed in exasperation. "His favorite thing was to sit on your shoulder and coo and cuddle - how could you!?!" "Because it's bizarre for a rooster to behave like that, it pissed me off and besides chickens are for eating." What could I say? (It's interesting to note that European Christians in the Middle Ages would have considered this sort of rooster behavior to be satanic and Melvin would have burned at the stake rather than roasted in the oven to a succulent golden brown.)

He was right. I walked back to the house, the harshness of it all weighing on my spirit, where I finished Melman's last drumstick - after all he was succulent and delicious - but I tried not to enjoy it that much. But lessons are learned from unfortunate events and to this very day, I'm careful to specifically ask if the main course is anyone I know before accepting dinner invitations.

no more pampas grass
Here's the former location of a huge clump of pampas grass. The deal I made with myself last month was that if I dug this thing thing up during the holidays that I wouldn't have to make any other New Year resolutions which means that now I DON'T have to spend more than $32 dollars on haircuts in 2005.
Projects
I intended to plant some cool season annuals but the weather turned too cool and I caught a cold early in December that wouldn't go away for a week. When at last it did, I enjoyed a whole Saturday outside raking and mulching. On Sunday I was sick again from overdoing it, so no annuals here yet. It's just as well, because it is best to take advantage of this time of year, when it's cool and the mosquitoes are rare, to do the heavy work like trimming, clearing and edging - in general cleaning up the overgrown masses that have appeared since last year's winter cleanup.

Winter is a great time to transplant woody trees and shrubs. Fifteen years ago I optimistically planted a a trio of Hollywood junipers (Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa') back by the Catfish Pond in some nasty hardpan fill dirt. They somehow managed to survive but they're no bigger now than when I planted them (others planted elsewhere are 12 ft high).

Hollywood Junipers at poolside
These are some old granddaddy Hollywood junipers (Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa') growing poolside at a circa 1960 Howard Johnson Motel in Central Florida. I really like their gnarliness and drought tolerance - I hope my transplants live! Click to download a large version (800x600).
I love these things because they have an interesting twisted shape that gives them a lot of character especially when they get old and gnarly. I decided to reward (or possibly kill) them by transplanting them in a sunny field out front among sabal palms, wax myrtle, crapemyrtle, yucca and agaves and other rugged drought tolerant species. If I treat them kindly with water and mulch for the next few months they're more likely to survive summer's heat. If they do, they'll have it made and should enjoy their new home very much.

The month's most major project was digging up a clump of monster pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana). There are altogether six clumps up on The Hill that I want to remove because they're crowding stuff that was planted to eventually replace them. It was a major garden accomplishment removing the largest clump which was about 6 ft in diameter and 4 ft tall after trimming the leaves back. It is a horrible back breaking job that I dread.

The day of the Asia Tsunami I got so depressed that I wanted to do something miserable - somehow if I felt rotten one of the disaster victims would feel better. I know it doesn't work like that but I donned my protective clothing, gloves and cap and attacked - I chopped, dug, hacked and pulled on the monster clump. Before long I pulled away the first pieces (don't be impressed I had already dug a trench around it two years ago but was just now getting around to actually digging it up!). The center was dead and mostly dry and rotted but was surrounded by a 2 ft band of living stems.

I rested and surveyed my subject and puffed satisfyingly on my asthma inhaler. Once sufficiently oxygenated I picked up a maddox and began chopping slices out of the clump like slices out of a coffee cake ring only sweatier.

pansy
This is one of my favorite colors of one of my favorite cool weather annuals, the pansy (Viola x Wittrockiana). Click here for a large version (800x600).
bromeliad flowers
Here's a popular pass along plant here in Florida. It's some kind of bromeliad and it's blooming now despite the freeze - pretty tough little beauty. Click here for a large version (800x600).
red loropetalum
It's so warm that the red loropetalum (Loropetalum chinense) is already blooming. Click here for a large version (800x600).
camellia
This is my white mystery camellia (Camellia spp.) that blooms every year at Christmas. Wish I knew what its name. Click here for a large version (800x600).
Over the course of the weekend I cut the clump into 10 sections. I planted a few out front (near the newly transplanted Hollywood junipers). The remaining pampas grass divisions I planted along the south fence to block the pigs' prying stares. They act like they're not looking but watch me out of the corner of their eyes whenever I'm over on that side of the yard. After my experience with Big Pig in Gainesville I'm sensitive me to the subtleties of pig communication. I suspect these pigs are projecting subtle non-verbal suggestions on me because I always get ab unaccountable urge to hop over the fence and toss them a scoop of corn from the feed barrel that sits tantalizingly close to their pen - just beyond their reach (if they had reach).

In Bloom
Since I didn't plant annuals it's was really drab here in December. All of the tropical plants that survived November were pretty much clobbered by the mid-month freezes. The sasanqua camellias finished up last month and the cold snap kept the japonica camellias cuddled up tight in their buds waiting for a warm up that didn't come until right after Christmas. By the end of the month a few dozen flowers appeared on the early varieties but by mid-January the camellias will be smothered in color. The warm temperatures also tricked the red loropetalum (Loropetalum chinense) to bloom about a month earlier than usual. Although this might sound like great news it probably isn't because everything is breaking dormancy and there's certain to be more freezes later in the season that will do real damage to tender young growth!

The rugged tea olives have no problem with a bit of freeze and continue to perfume the place with their light fruity fragrance. I dug up some tender Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac) last fall and planted it in a pot (they freeze here). I coaxed it to produce a few of its ugly (but fabulously fragrant) little flowers by regularly juicing it with liquid fertilizer. It accomplished this even though it spent a third of the month taking refuge with my other container plants in the utility room.

That's about all that's happening here which is pretty weak. I'm going to plant some annuals in January fersure.

Jack and Bubba wish you a  Happy New Year
Happy New Year to all of you,
from Floridata, Shaggy and Scooby Doo!
Lawnchair
On December 13 the meteor shower called the Geminids reached its peak at around 11:00 PM. It's said to be one of the most satisfying to watch because there's about 80 meteors every hour at its peak. I walk the dogs around that time every night and without even trying I saw three meteors in about 10 minutes!

I was just standing around waiting for Bubba to finishing sniffing pee residue on a flower pot. I turned to look at a point in the eastern sky that I had read was the "radiation point" from where the meteors enter the earth's atmosphere. At precisely that moment, a brilliant light streaked across the sky directly at me! Head on! Right at me! Tilting my head up to track it, I saw it explode in a big beautiful burst directly above me! Startled, my body jerked, Bubba jumped and we both almost took a tumble. He saw it too! It was like the universe had tapped us with a magic wand - or maybe it was more like St. Paul being struck with blindness and insight while on his way to Ephesus. Fortunately I didn't go blind but I also didn't get any wisdom or insight. Neither was I chosen by God Himself for anything and I didn't even acquire any arcane knowledge from visiting aliens. But unless I'm mistaken, I do get a wish.

Since it was a shooting star (i.e. a meteor of unusually long duration) I believe a compound wish is appropriate so here goes:

I wish everyone will visit Floridata and share with everyone they know
I wish everyone Happy New Year and that you all be good and grow.

Jack Scheper

1/10/04; repaired 2/27/08



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