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John   Gardener's Journal title graphic

February/March 2005

Jack's Fence Garden
By mid-March the azaleas and dogwoods were in full bloom along the front drive.
Jack's Fence Garden
The Fence Garden greened up in mid-March after a few storms where planted a bunch of flower and vegetable seeds along the left side of the path (the right side is the ex-pampas grass bed).
The Catfish Pond is nearly full at the end of March. The baldcypress trees that grow at the edge of the pond in front of those pines are still bald and can't be seen but are soon to bud out in soft bright green foliage

Hey! February wasn't too awful and March was even less so! We made it through Winter and now that it's Spring I think things will become not awful at all! It's great to be making progress again.

Back in February, computer problems struck again and sucked up all of my time and good humor so I skipped writing February's Journal. But it's not like I wasn't busy - I just kept plodding along working but again rewarded myself with time to work in the garden. If it took 2 hours to format a hard drive or an hour to do a virus scan - no problem - I went outside to dig, rake, plant, transplant, etc. while waiting for the task to complete. It seemed like a very therapeutic way to deal with all of the stupidness and reality that beset me.

There was in fact so much reality and stupidness that I got to enjoy a nice chunk of time outside and the yard is looking great from all of the attention.

Another nice thing that balanced out the hassles was the excitement of watching Floridata's traffic grow. On March 28, for the first time, we served 1 million web pages in a single month! By the end of the month we had topped 1.1 million pages and it was are real treat to reach this long awaited goal

Another happy even in March was when, with the help of friends and family, I finally got a new computer. At this very moment I'm joyfully typing this Journal on a nice new springy keyboard and making pictures on a crisp and color accurate monitor. As soon as I post this Journal I'll be able to get my programming stuff running and will get back to work on Floridata's new Discussions Boards and maybe some other new things too.

In mid-February the The Hill is freshly weeded, edged and the beds mostly mulched. It's the "neat" time of year before the weeds begin taking over.
BubbaCam: The Hill front
By mid-March the grass has greened up considerably and the crapemyrtles here on The Hill are beginning to leaf out.

The weather wasn't too bad for the last couple of months either. North Florida enjoyed mild temperatures throughout most of February with the exception of a couple of cold snaps. A typical freeze for us here in Florida's panhandle (Zone 8) has temperatures falling into the high twenties (°F) for a few hours over night and it's no big deal. One night though, it got colder than predicted and burned the leaves of the Puerto Rico hat palm (Sabal causiarum) indicating that temps fell to around 20°F. Nearby the upper half of my bunya-bunya (Araucaria bidwillii) tree looks like it is dunya-dunya. Both are brown and raggedy but I expect them to bounce back and be looking pretty by mid-summer.

February's mid-month cold snaps were each preceded by rainstorms. Since then, there has been a storm or two every week. By the end of March the Big Cypress Pond out front was filled to the brim which has put an end to my "mining"the thick layer of mulch that covers the bottom. I didn't have a chance to rake enough before it filled but luckily my neighbor JM said I could rake pine needles from a stand of trees nearby on his property. I may get everything mulched despite high water in the Cypress Pond if I can accomplish it before the heat and mosquitoes move in.

A butterfly dines on Mrs. G.G. Gerbing' azalea which is one of my favorites. I propagated about 20 of them last fall and at the end of March planted about half of them around the Little Cypress Sink - there's nothing better than free azaleas! Click to download a large version (800x600) of this image.

Wildlife
By the end of February the hummingbirds were back and busy working the azalea just outside my office window - which must be one of the most active signs of spring there is and a guarantee that winter is over. A couple of days later the butterflies showed up and joined the hummers at the azalea.

We're lucky that this year a pair of those humongous gray herons are nesting in the swamp behind here. They regularly visit the Catfish Pond for dinner and if I very quietly approach the pond I get to watch them fish (I saw one take a 12 in catfish out of there). The pond itself remains alligator-free but two giant snapping turtles make their home there and are dominant predators. They present a real hazard to any baby ducks I might release as they will eat every one of them if given the opportunity. I really hope I get some ducks this year that aren't eaten...

hardy prickly pear cactus
Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides ) seeds have silky fibers that catch the wind to transport the seeds to a new tree branch home. Click to download a large (800x600) version.
The yaupon holly's (Ilex vomitoria) brilliantly colored fruits begin to ripen in late winter and on into spring providing sustenance to wildlife and birds migrating back north. Click to download a large (800x600) version.
Carolina cherry laurel fruit and flowers
In late February both fruits and flowers are present on the Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana) cones with last year's seed crop. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

For weeks now I've enjoyed watching the mockingbird who lives up on the hill trying to defend his huge stash of berries. This mockingbird is King of The Hill and he rules it like a tyrant. In his kingdom grow several large yaupon hollies, three Carolina cherry laurels (Prunus caroliniana), and the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). By mid-February all are loaded with ripe fruit which is also when great flocks of migrating birds travel through on their return North for the season. These are some really hungry birds by the time they get here which is why I make an effort to plant things that will provide food for my famished feathered friends.

The problem is that the mockingbird doesn't like to share - especially food but also space. He regularly chases birds away from The Hill even when there isn't ripe fruit. He's a real "me bird" with a terrible temper. When other birds fly into his territory he squawks and chases them sometimes ripping out feathers.

It seemed like poetic justice when all of the small birds join together to outnumber and outsmart him out of his fruity treasure. One afternoon I watched as a couple hundred small birds (wrens or something) raided his kingdom to dine on the just ripened Carolina cherries. The flock would send in decoys to raid the trees drawing the mockingbird away in pursuit. The main part of the flock would then swoop in, each bird grabbing a berry and then flying off just as the mockingbird returned in time to see he'd been robbed. Over and over this happened until the flock had its fill and flew off leaving the mockingbird exhausted but not so much that he didn't fly to the top of a tree and sing his head off like he just had a great victory (he didn't - the little birds ate all the cherries but he still has a good supply of yaupon berries.)

Mockingbirds are the coolest birds and I love having this guy share his place with me even though he occasionally dive bombs my head and last spring tried to poop on me - intentionally (I'm not kidding) when I tried to look in the Leland cypress where I thought he had a nest and family. I probably won't try to do that again.

Now at the end of March it appears all of the critters are back for the season. In the evening toads are hopping all about and crunching underfoot while the whip-o-will's call to each other across the fields making me wonder why they don't just meet up and talk instead of yelling back and forth all night. Green tree frogs stick to the window screen at night as they lay in wait for tasty moths attracted to the light from my desk lamp.

During the day the window screen is patrolled by color-changing anoles that everyone here likes to call "chameleons" even though that's a different species altogether. I haven't seen any snakes yet though, which is perfect as far as I'm concerned because I don't much like them. I'm sure they'll show up sooner or later - except for maybe that one I stepped on and crippled last summer - I'd move if I were he... That incident reminded me of a holy card I had when I was in grade school that at had a picture of Saint Patrick standing on top of a snake. The snake's tongue was sticking out and its eyes were bugging and it afterward there were no more snakes in Ireland because St. Patrick drove them out. That's just what I did only I wasn't barefoot and I'm not a saint but I hope that the other snakes take heed and leave Leon County or at least my yard. No, I don't much like snakes.

Projects

ex-pampas grass bed
This is the ex-pampas grass bed that I finished cleaning out in February and then mulched and planted in March - next month I hope to show you a bunch of angel trumpets (Brugmansia suaveolens) and other stuff growing here.
The Hill side path
At the end of March, you can see the leaves just beginning to appear on the crapemyrtles and other deciduous trees that line the exquisitely edged path through magnificently mulched beds on the side of The Hill.
In January I ripped out the last of the huge pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) clumps to clear one of the beds up on The Hill so I'd have more room for garden plants. In early February when the weather was still cool and the water level still low in the Big Cypress Pond, I raked about 18 loads of leaf mulch for this bed. After digging up the roots and remaining weeds I edged the bed and covered the whole thing with a deep layer of pond mulch.

Now that it's neatened up, the stuff that's already growing there can be appreciated without the overwhelming presence of the pampas grass. In one corner is a blue deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara ) whose "rescue" I described in my very first journal 5 years ago. It's recovered and now stands more than 6 ft tall and when mature will take over most of this area. For now though a large 'Natchez' crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) stands at the front of the bed and beneath it are Parson's juniper (Juniperus davurica 'Parsonii'), garlic chives(Allium tuberosum) and a downy jasmine (Jasminum multiflorum). Around the cedar is 'Indigo Spires' salvia, some 'Heavy Metal' panic grass (Panicum virgatum), spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) and one edge is lined with purple queen tradescantia (Tradescantia pallida). In the far corner is a 'Pragense' viburnum (Viburnum x pragense ), a clump of butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium) and a few Stokes asters ( Stokesia laevis). The pampas grass was too big and out of scale compared with the other plants and it's removal has greatly improved the looks of this area now that the other plants can be seen to good advantage.

In early March we began to have some regular rain making it a good time to plant new stuff where the pampas grass had once sprawled. In the very center of the bed I transplanted a big white angel trumpet (Brugmansia suaveolens ) from the backyard where it was getting cramped by a photinia hedge.

After years of procrastination I finally dug up a long suffering Mexican mock orange shrub (Choisya ternata) that had hung on to life for over a decade down at the dry desolate end of the driveway. This is a pretty little shrub whose white flowers have a wonderful citrusy fragrance. I don't know why I was so abusive to this great little plant so to make amends and reward it for its persistence, I moved it to a place of honor in the new bed where it will receive regular water, feedings and a comfy coat of pond mulch.

In April I'm going to fill in some of the spaces with some blue anise sage (Salvia guaranitica) for the hummingbirds and butterflies and some pretty purple skyflower (Thunbergia battiscombei) for me. Since I don't have a dedicated vegetable garden, I'm going to make room for a few pepper plants (Capsicum spp.). Then I just add water and it's done! ...except for defending it from the deer.

composting sticker vines
I like pindo palms (Butia capitata) and every year try to germinate some and every year I fail. This year I found about 3 dozen seedlings growing out of the mulch around the pindo palms. I dug them and put them up in pots where I'll pamper them for 2 or 3 years before planting them out in the yard.

Out in the front I planted the last of the Texas sabal palms (Sabal mexicana) that I grew from seed a couple of years ago. I planted five of them way out front by the road. I hope that within my lifetime (if I live to 100) will grow into a grove of big burly palms to serve as a backdrop for a Chinafir (Cunninghamia lanceolata) and plantings of chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) and red crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) that I have planted in front of them.

In mid-March we had another rainy period that I took advantage of to plant some seeds up in the Fence Garden. It is a little late in the season but I planted some Sugar Snap peas (Pisum sativum) because they're my favorite vegetable. I hope to have a whole fenceful of them alongside a miniature cucumber called 'Sugar Crunch Hybrid'. Along the perimeter of the garden I planted patches of two varieties of sunflower 'Chianti Hybrid' (dark red) and Evening Sun'' (oranges, golds, yellows, bronze). Alongside the sunflowers I put in some okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) which, next to peppers, are my favorite summer vegetable. Yes, I know they are slimy and weird but for some reason I love them and the best ones (as usual) are those fresh from the garden.

My current favorite (healthy) sandwich now is tomato, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil leaf with olive oil - mmmmmm. I planted two kinds of basil (Ocimum basilicum), sweet (regular) and Genovese (the big leafed one) to make certain that I had a good supply (it's too expensive and wilty when bought at the store).

Just for fun I planted some nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) too whose flowers are edible (anything so colorful must surely be nutritious). This is a great plant for kids to grow, they have big round seeds and were a part of my first garden when I was five. I've only grown them a couple times in the fifty years since and decided I'd try the dwarf double flowered 'Jewel Mix'. I know the bunnies and deer are going to enjoy eating this stuff but I think I planted enough that I might get to share a little of the crop with them. But just in case I'm also going to install another set of my deer bafflers in April to discourage their presence.

star magnolia bud

Spring starflower (Ipheion uniflorum) was the new star of the spring flower show here - blooming non-stop for over two months! . Click to download a large (800x600) version.

crocus

Vernal crocus (Crocus vernus) a spring favorite here in Easter purple. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

daffodil

Daffodil 'Tete-a-tete' is a dwarf selection that is great for naturalization in lawns and meadow gardens. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

 

parsley haw blossom

Parsley haw (Crataegus marshallii), is a wetland shrub that I planted beside the Catfish Pond - it bloomed for the first time this year. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

Cherokee rose
The Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata) blooms in late March here, just as most of the azaleas are beginning to fade. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

In Bloom
In February it's the trees and vines that deliver the first beautiful blossoms of the season. I mentioned in January's Journal that the star magnolias (Magnolia stellata) were blooming and they continued to bloom well into March. I have a variety called 'Waterlily' that has white flowers with a pink blush that bloomed almost a month later than the species (this can be a big advantage in avoiding flower damage late season frosts). The saucer magnolias (Magnolia x soulangeana) started blooming in early February and had an exceptionally long flowering season here due to the the consistently cool days and nights. The redbuds (Cercis canadensis) began blooming in mid-February and reached their peak the first week in March which is about when the dogwoods (Cornus florida) began blooming. Unfortunately it wasn't a great year for the poor dogwood as pounding raindrops from the frequent storms damaged the "petals" leaving them susceptible to disfiguring fungus disease. Only those dogwoods protected from the driving rain produced pristine flowers this year. Pity the poor dogwood, some experts predict it is going extinct here in its native range due to this disease. I hope that resistant varieties become commonplace.

The Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), another native of the southeastern United States, is doing fine though. This evergreen vine is one of the first plants to bloom here, producing bright yellow flowers in late January. Even now at the end of March it is still blooming and still beautiful. In mid-March the wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) bloomed and although in this warm climate it can be an aggressive nuisance there is no denying its spectacular beauty or fresh fine fragrance. At the very end of March the native cross vine ( Bignonia capreolata ) exploded with hundreds of trumpet shaped flowers in tight cluster making it easy to understand why the hummingbirds admire this vine so very much.

Last fall I had the foresight to plant some spring flowering bulbs and I was sure glad I did. In late January some of them, like the spring starflower (Ipheion uniflorum) were already blooming. Later in succession came some of my old favorites that I haven't grown since moving to Florida 20 years ago. When the grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.), crocus (Crocus vernus ) and daffodils (Narcissus spp.) bloomed it was like seeing old friends after a long time apart.

When I was a kid it was such a happy sight to come across tiny colorful crocus peeking from the edge of a patch of melting snow - these floral gems meant that winter (and school) would be over soon. Even though they only last a few weeks I really enjoy these little spring bloomers and I intend to plant some more this fall - tulips too!

People sometimes ask me to recommend a shrub that blooms throughout the year. There really aren't many that bloom all of the time but there are some excellent ones that bloom a lot of the time. At my house that includes the tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) which has bloomed nonstop here since the end of September. Another is a red selection of loropetalum (Loropetalum chinense) that is growing out front. It began around the first of the year and is still going at the end of March. The more typical white loropetalum on the other hand did not begin blooming until mid-March (but it's very pretty and worth waiting for).

The star of the spring bloomers in this part of the country has to be the azaleas (Rhododendron spp.). The early varieties begin blooming in late February followed by a progression of colorful cultivars that lasts until mid-April. Incredibly showy flowers, inexpensive, fast growing and easy to propagate it's no wonder that they are so popular. A relative, the native or pinxter azalea (Rhododendron canescens) also begins blooming here in March. It's a native of our wetlands here in Florida 's panhandle where it's often called bush honeysuckle - a reference to its wonderful fragrance which when combined with that of the nearby wisteria might just be the best non-food smell in the universe.

March and April are definitely the most colorful months around here and if it weren't for the huge amounts of pollen produced by the local flora this would easily be the best time of the year. Mild temps, low humidity, cool breezes and few to no mosquito, February and March is a nice time to be in North Florida. Come to think of it, with a little Flonase ® (or other prescription strength anti-histamine) this IS the best time of year!

relaxing in the lawn chair
Whew, what a busy couple of months! I'll just sit here in the lawnchair for a while and watch the grass grow green while I think about working on the new Discussions page...

Lawnchair

That's it for winter and that's all for my latest Journal. Thanks for taking the time to read this thing all of the way to the end and also for your visits over the past couple of months. We still haven't hit the big time but it is an incredible milestone to reach the 1 million pages per month goal! If you all keep visiting and bring your friends with you we may be able to do even better in April!

OK, now that I have this Journal finished I'm going back to work on programming the new Discussions forum - I am - really!

Have a beautiful Spring, be good and grow.

Jack - March 2005
4/4/05



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