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January 2005

Jack's Fence Garden
The Fence Garden is much browner than last month. January freezes killed back the banana and burned the foliage of the Washingtonia palms - hope we've seen the last cold snap of the season.
Below The Hill is Little Cypress Sink which is filled with ferns, baldcypress, saw palmetto and (thanks to me) wax myrtle and needle palm. Those 3 light bumps on the left are new pampas grass transplants.
2005 dawned bright and hopeful here but it wasn't long before things faded to shades of brown - literally. A freeze came through and browned out the tender plants and damaged some of my palm seedlings. It was colder here than predicted and that always puts me in a bad mood.

Then a desperately needed business deal fell through and sent me back to the drawing board. So I didn't take it gracefully when a new worm trashed my computer (insight: there's no protection against new worms, viruses, etc.). I grimly reinstalled my defect ridden Microsoft Windows 2000 operating system, applications, patches, hot fixes and updates. Less than a week later I was hit again. What a rotten way to start a new year.

I cussed, cursed, cried and moaned. I grew gloomy, glum, sullen, moody, fretful, saturnine, surly and peevish and later became melancholic, depressed, wretched, dejected, hopeless and tired of reading the Thesaurus. Ennui is boring so I decided to just ignore reality by escaping into work and ignoring everything else.

hardy prickly pear cactus
When exposed to freezing temperature, the fruit (tunas) of the hardy prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) intensifies in color and the pads take on a purplish tint. Click to download a large (800x600) version.
After all it's a new year, the perfect time for a new start, new plan, new attitude, new software and (inevitably) new computer worms and viruses. So I again reinstalled all the nasty Microsoft software and resolved to work non-stop for the entire month of January and beyond until I got sick of it. I decided not to go anywhere or do anything else but work - either on the computer or in the yard. So that's what I did.and I haven't yet left the property once. A friend brings groceries, coffee and programming snacks so I'm living like a cloistered nerd totally immersed in rethinking, redesigning, reworking and reprogramming Floridata and of course totally jazzed on French Roast.

To save time I didn't bathe much, or cut my fingernails (which are getting pretty long) and by mid month my hair was so shaggy that crapemyrtle seeds and insects were getting trapped in it. I had bought the wrong version of Pantene shampoo ("extra body") and it made my hair too big and fluffy with an electrostatic attraction to bugs and seeds. It tickled the inside of my ear and kept making me think a tick was crawling there but usually it was just the hair. It had to go.

Jack and Bubba
They say dogs resemble their owners. Now that it's grown back it looks like Bubba and I have the same haircut.
Saving both a trip into town and $8, I buzzed my head with the dog trimmers. The blades were dull, it needed oil and yanked hair out by the roots which hurt but it worked. Except for the back of the neck I cut it all off myself. Sure it looked stupid but I felt streamlined and ready to accomplish some stuff.

The next day the weather turned cold and I discovered how useful hair is in keeping your head warm. It was so cold my scalp turned blue and I had to wear a stocking hat for the the next two weeks as gray rainy weather set in. After a couple weeks some fuzz has grown back providing welcome thermal insulation. It's amazing how as little as 10 mm of hair can protect from cold.

So hairless, motivated and extensively finger-nailed, I slipped a clean pair of Kleenex boxes on my feet and got to work. I updated Plant Profiles, took pictures, analyzed, designed, prototyped and programmed. It was fun because I got a lot of things done, had great snacks and drank an incredible amount of coffee.

Bubba marvels at the unlikeliness of the old log afloat on high waters...
and then coming to rest neatly balanced on a bald cypress knee. What luck!

Wildlife
During one of my work breaks, Bubba and I were scouting the Cypress Pond for promising mulch deposits when we happened across an improbable sight. An old cypress log that has sat in the muck since we moved here 15 years ago, now had one end perfectly balanced on the tip of a 3 ft tall cypress knee. Apparently high water from last month's rains floated the log out of the muck. I theorize that when the bottom and center rotted away a void was created that became an air pocket. When the water rose it lifted the log out of the mud. While one end was beached on the shore, the other floated around until it situated itself just above the knee and then waited. As the water receded the lucky log was gently deposited on the tip of the knee. My first impulse was to knock it down because it was weird and unnatural. It's just the sort of thing that makes you want to mess it up - like kicking an ant mound. Bubba was fascinated with it though so I decided to let it be - for good luck and to see what happens to it. Will it: break under its own weight? refloat itself off the knee? gradually decay in place over the next decade? You're probably intrigued with the log now too so I'll let you know what becomes of it in future Journals.

At this time of year, when it's cool and there are few bugs, a good place to take breaks is up on The Hill where each evening the local wood ducks conduct their daily flyover. There's always a pair of them that flies a few fast laps around the place before retiring for the evening. Sometimes they bring the kids and I get to watch five or six of them flying in formation. The best time though, is about once a week, when the entire local wood duck clan gathers and at least two dozen of them are buzzing around. These amazing ducks are lean and agile and fly fast and furious like fighter jets. They perform complicated maneuvers in formation right at treetop level and if they had red, white and blue smoke shooting out of their butts, it would be more fun to watch than an air show. These are not your typical chubby Long Island White Pekin eating ducks - they're winged rockets! My neighbor JM has several nesting boxes set out for them that I believe are responsible for the increase in wood duck population here. I'm trying to help by optimizing access to the trees they use for nesting in the Cypress Pond. It looks like 2005 might be another banner year for wood ducks - and I love ducks!

composting sticker vines
Several days of work breaks produced this pile of blackberry stickers and other weed. These are combined with recent Great Dane poops to aerobically decompose into compost that will be distributed to adjacent plants in The Hill Garden (like the beautifully named bunya-bunya ( Araucaria bidwillii ) tree on the right.

Projects
I needed some motivational carrots to make sure I stayed hard at work so I made some rules. For every hour worked, I required myself to take a mandatory 10 minute break. If busy I can skip a break but the time must be used later. This way I accumulated blocks of time to spend on garden projects. Just pulling weeds or raking mulch outdoors is much more fun than sitting at a computer and now my stupid mind has been tricked into thinking they are cherished entertainments. Working 12 and 13 hour work days guarantees and hour or so of exercise and fun in the garden. In fact, during January I pulled so many weeds that most of the big Hill Garden bed is beautifully bare and a quarter of its area is already luxuriating beneath a warm layer of fresh mulch.

Oddly enough the computer virus crash had an upside for my garden projects. The weekend it happened I was really peeved so I took off a few hours and vented my frustration by hacking out another huge clump of pampas grass. This was the second clump that I've dug up this winter and there's three more there that will eventually be moved (maybe next winter - or sooner if I get another computer worm).

kumquat marmalade
Steve has a few kumquat (Fortunella spp) trees whose fruit ripens by the pound at this time of year. On of his projects in January was to make kumquat marmalade. One of my project in February will be to drive over to his house and mooch some.
I dug and chopped at this second clump, removing it in several dozens of pieces which I replanted. I set out six new clumps in the front and there are still some pieces left. . I hope I get around to planting these in the back by the Catfish Pond before they dry out and die. Those huge silvery pampas plumes will look spectacular reflected in the pond's glassy black water.

Now that the pampas grass is gone and the bed is clear I'm going to transplant a bunch of angel trumpets (Brugmansia suaveolens ) there. All that's left to do here now is fill in the holes, mulch and when it warms up I'll put in the angel trumpets - and a bunch of other cool stuff that I haven't decided on yet.

This is the best time of year to transplant woody species and there's two crapemyrtles ( Lagerstroemia indica ) out back that I've wanted to move for a long time. They were planted along the fence line ten years ago but failed to flourish because it's too dry and shady there. They have deep rosy red flowers and might be the cultivar 'Tuscarora' and I paid $4.95 for each of them and I didn't want to lose them because I'm cheap. I dug them up one drizzly weekend and planted them out in the front field near the new pampas grass starts and flanking a struggling chaste tree ( Vitex agnus-castus ). I've already promised myself that I'm going to regularly irrigate this hot sunny area this summer so that all of the recent transplants there - junipers, crapemyrtle, European fan palms, pampas grass and agaves - will settle in and grow into a sizzling summertime show of stunning shape and color - or at least not die.

star magnolia bud

The sight of a star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) budding out is an encouraging sign that the worst part of winter is (maybe) over. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

star magnolias blooming

A day later the star magnolia is opening wider. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

star magnolia blossom

Within a week the tree is covered with fragrant white blossoms. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

Prague viburnum (Viburnum x pragense ) is a dependable evergreen shrub that is drought tolerant and can be depended upon for fragrant midwinter flowers. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

tea olive
The tea olives (Osmanthus fragrans) begin blooming around Thanksgiving but seem to be at their biggest and best at mid-winter. Click to download a large (800x600) version.
Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) was in full fragrant bloom by the middle of the month. Click to download a large (800x600) version.
coontie cones and seeds
Female coontie (Zamia pumila) cones with last year's seed crop. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

In Bloom
Cold gray drizzle settled in for more than a week here and since I was already grumpy it was a happy sight to see my first sign of spring which once again this year is red budding out of the swamp maple trees ( Acer rubrum ). A couple days later I began to notice many other species were awakening.

One of my favorite winter flowering shrubs is the leatherleaf mahonia ( Mahonia bealei ). It has bright blue leathery hollylike leaves that are arranged at the top of tall spindly stems. Each new year brings the appearance of drooping clusters of bright yellow flowers held at the stem tips. Although there hasn't been much activity this January because of the low temperatures, these semi-fragrant clusters will become busy hangouts for bumblebees as it warms up.

The tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) shrub is one that didn't need to wake up because it never went to sleep. They began blooming back in October and reached a peak in January when they're covered in tiny flowers that scent the garden with a fine fruity fragrance. The strawberry tree ( Arbutus unedo ) is likewise still abloom and the camellias ( Camellia japonica ) start and stop blooming depending on the freezes.

Near the end of the month, right after a nasty nighttime freeze, I was happy to see the star magnolias ( Magnolia stellata ) bursting from their fuzzy buds. Over several days the petals wiggle free and the fragrant flowers burst open to cover the leafless branches of this picturesque little tree. The star magnolia is the earliest blooming magnolia and a real treat to encounter in full bloom on a crisp late winter day. The saucer magnolias ( Magnolia x soulangeana ) looked about to bloom too but a cold snap near the end of the month caused them to reconsider and their buds remain tightly closed. If we remain frostfree they'll begin their show in a week or two.

Two viburnums are blooming here now. One is the Prague viburnum (Viburnum x pragense ), a handsome evergreen hybrid with striking textured foliage that has a metallic sheen. The small, white waxy flowers are held in clusters and have a slight fragrance. The more tender Sandanqua viburnum (Viburnum suspensum) is the other. Its flowers are very similar to the Prague viburnum but with a slight fragrance that isn't very appealing. My sandanqua is sheltered under a sabal palm but even there the cold temperatures from the mid-month freeze burned some of the foliage. Affected leaves turned dark red and will fall off in a few weeks - this often happens to this species here in Zone 8 which is why it doesn't make a great privacy hedge here like it does in warmer climates.

The coolest and most interesting plant blooming here now is the coontie ( Zamia pumila ). It's a cycad that's native to Florida and at this time of year the male and female cones appear (on separate plants). If you download the large version of the picture you can see both this season's new female cones at the bottom and upper right as well as some of last season ripe cones. The cones burst open (see one just beginning at upper middle) to release the shiny light pink seeds that age to dark orange. One project for this year is to see if I can get any of them to germinate (write me if you have any helpful tips) - you can't have too many coonties!

I'm glad to finally have removed the pampas grass from this bed (see the dead "stump" of one to the right). Now for the easy fun part of planting angel trumpets there but not until I spend several hours sitting in this chair here "designing".

Lawnchair
That's it for January which turned out to be not such a terrible month. After all, I did move my quota of pampas grass for the year, raked an awful lot of pine needle mulch, got a long lasting haircut and discovered a miraculous natural phenomenon (the balanced log)!

Thank you for your visits and support. I'm looking forward to 2005 (despite its bad start) and to bringing more plant info, pictures and services to the Web. Visit us often and be good and grow.

Jack
January 2005
2/7/05



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