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John  Gardener's Journal title graphic

March 25, 2008
Jack and Bubba
I just finished clearing a space for a little vegetable garden just behind the bare fig tree on the right up in The Fence Garden. Check out the dogwood trees (Cornus florida) blooming - click to download a large version (800x600) of this image.
Jack and Bubba
Sadly we had a rain storm just as the dogwoods were opening. The force of the rain drops on the bracts allows fungus disease to attack causing discoloration and disfigurement (you can see a small brown spot on the lower bract if you download a large version of this image)
Catfish Pond
At this time of year masses of 'Purple Formosa' azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) come into bloom across The Deep South. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

Just as the temperatures were beginning to climb into the 80's another cold front swept through Florida's Big Bend. Cool nighttime temperatures in the low 50's are giving the area an extended stretch of early spring weather and it is a delight. It would be perfect but for one thing - pollen. The pines and oaks and no telling what else are dropping pollen bombs right and left. These explode into little puffs of yellow dust that settles on any and all surfaces but especially cars, eyeballs and bronchial tubes.

The only good thing about it is that it discourages me from having too good of a time outside so I stay indoors working.

The butterflies finally appeared last week and many are enjoying nectar dinners courtesy of the azaleas which are just now coming into full bloom - about 2 weeks later than usual due to the unusually cool weather this year. I haven't seen any hummingbirds yet - I guess for the same reason, it's been too chilly at night and they're probably waiting for more flowers to bloom. Each year they swarm around the pink azalea by my office window which is just beginning to bloom. Hopefully they'll be back soon. To make sure that the hummingbirds return, I have planted a few more trumpet creepers (Campsis radicans) and cross vines (Bignonia capreolata) - both are favorite food plants. Growing both of them is a good idea because the cross vine blooms early to provide nectar early in the season (they'll begin blooming here in Zone 8 any moment now). Just as the cross vine is finishing up the trumpet creeper begins, blooming in late spring here where I live and continuing through the summer providing a dependable source of food for the hummingbirds throughout the season.

Catfish Pond
Skyrockets in flight! Banded water snakes enjoy a delightful afternoon of passion on Steve's front lawn. Click to download a large (800x600) version.

I saw my first snake of the season last week when I was over visiting Steve. It was a banded water snake sunbathing on a limb hanging over the water. If you have ever read my other Journals (archive here) you'll know that I don't much care for snakes. In fact in the past I actively hated them but it seems like almost everyone I know likes these things so I am trying to have a better attitude about them.

Steve really likes snakes - he is a herpetologists and thinks they are fascinating. That is why when he discovered these two making sweet love in the green grass he grabbed his camera and documented the event while I would have grabbed a bucket of cold water to throw on them. To me these disturbing images raise questions - like why aren't they discretely rendezvousing under a log or some leaves instead of rolling in the hay right out in the open where hawks can see and eat them or a nosy naturalists catch them in flagrante delicto on film.

That aside, more bothersome questions arose in my mind regarding snake anatomy and physiology and the mechanics of their reproductive process. Steve is a herpetologist so I asked him the obvious question - do snakes have wieners? Steve's response was shocking: "no, they have a pair of hemipenises". OK, that was something new to me and I was intrigued. The concept of having two half penises (hemi means "half") rather than one whole penis was novel and innovative - but what could be the advantage of that I wondered?

A further inquiry to Ask Steve brought additional insight: "The paired hemipenes come out, one on each side. Male snakes are capable of mating with 2 females at the same time, and sometimes they do get that lucky.  No, they are not used for excreting metabolic waste." OK! So there's my answer!

Armed with this knowledge I have discovered that I enjoy ridiculing creatures that lack appendages and sport hemipenises a little less than before. Wisdom brings tolerance.

Jack's backyard and shed
How could you not like something this beautiful. The answer is when its needles rip your flesh and it becomes overgrown with equally prickly wild blackberry vines. This is the prickly pear that I removed (genus Opuntia but I'm unsure of the species). It's so pretty that I allowed one little plant to remain but this time I won't allow it to become smothered in stickers and brambles and I'll keep it neatly trimmed!
Jack's Fence Garden
By the end of the summer this end of The Hill garden was overgrown. The big patch of prickly pear cactus is barely visible behind a tangle of sticker vines and weeds. At the end of October I began clearing the area of brush.

During the Christmas holidays I hacked and burned the cactus patch. In this shot just a few cactus pads remain on the far side of the fire pile.

It's not that I hate cactus - I don't, I love them. And it's not because I hated this particular cactus because I didn't - it was beautiful and even it's fruits (tunas) were tartly tasty the one time I braved the stickers to harvest a few (I had read that they're very healthy to eat). No, the prickly pear patch had to go because it was infested with a tangled mess of sticker vines, harbored varmints and looked terrible. It was also getting huge, 15 ft by 6 ft and about waist high - and getting bigger and meaner every day!

Initially I was just going to give it a trim so I could safely position the step ladder and trim the nearby "screwy" juniper (Juniperus chinensis) topiaries. In October I began digging out the weeds and stuff around the cactus clump. As cleared ground emerged I noticed that with a little more effort I could clear out a nice open space where I could put a little flower garden and some drought tolerant plants to attract butterflies.

Over Thanksgiving I began gathering up all of the fallen branches that had been broken from the trees over the past three years's storms to use as fuel. I piled up the wood in the center of the cactus patch and lit the fire.

I quickly discovered that it takes a lot of wood to burn more than a thousand pounds of prickly pear pads. Imagine burning a thousand pounds of wet bath sponges - it's slow and difficult. I developed a special technique that involved piling up a bunch of dry wood, getting a hot fire going and then placing cactus atop it, piece by piece, where it could be dried by the heat of the fire and then burned.

Anyone who has ever tried to kill prickly pear cactus by running over it with a lawnmower soon discovers that this has the opposite effect of spreading the thing all over the place. Each little piece of cactus can take root to become a new plant so each must be destroyed! It quickly became apparent that I would run out of wood and time and patience before I could incinerate the cactus to ash so I developed an alternate plan.

To hasten the process I decided to roast each piece of cactus over the flame to kill it (they actually smell pretty tasty while they're burning and are used in some Central American cuisines). When the pads turned glossy and translucent I considered them dead and cast them into a deep hole that served as a cactus pit of death and destruction. I then peed on them (which of course inspired Bubba to do the same) - not as a symbol of conquest and domination (which is was) but to introduce nitrogen that will fertilize the microorganisms that (I hope) will soon consume the (hopefully) lifeless cactus carcass. As I shoveled dirt into the hole I remembered back to all of the times this prickly pear pricked me. This reminded me that additional fertilizer might be a good idea so, pooper scooper in hand, I policed the dog kennel. Then in a spirit of celebratory revenge I dumped several metric pounds of dog poop on top of the cooked cactus and topped that off with a few shovelfuls of dirt. Rest in pieces.

By January the prickly pear patch was gone, its residue safely moldering below ground and lots of dog poop. I continue to patrol the area for bits and pieces of the cactus to make sure it doesn't come back. I even postponed mulching the area for a few weeks so I can see when new cactus or blackberry stickers sprout. Then I promptly annihilate spritzing with weed killer to gently kill the roots over time thereby eliminating them for good.

Now that I had a nice space cleared, I trimmed the surrounding chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) and feijoa (Feijoa sellowiana) trees to open it up even more. I moved a couple of 'Indigo Spires' salvia to one side beneath a young Puerto Rican hat palm (Sabal causiarum) and to create a nice background I added a giant yellow salvia (Salvia madrensis) because I like its large coarse leaves and the giant spikes of fall flowers are a treat (and also because my other plantings of this stuff are in decline in the back yard so I needed to reestablish it or risk having it die out).


Sue and Bubba pose in front of the cleaned up and cactus-free garden. By January I had finally eliminated the cactus and disposed of its remains.

purple toadshade
Where the cactus and sticker vine patch once sprawled there are now sun-bathing dogs and an assortment of drought tolerant plants that will turn this hot sunny area into a low-maintenance resort for birds and butterflies.

The "soil" on The Hill is a fine sand mixed with a fine gray substance that resembles talcum powder - it's the weirdest stuff I've ever gardened in. The plants that grow best here are tolerant of drought and bright sun and heat. I don't plan to irrigate this part of the yard except for a little flower garden that I'm putting around the salvias. I also want to provide food plants to attract birds and butterflies. To save money, I propagated plants that were already successfully growing there of which my favorite is pink muhlygrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). It's a fine-textured perennial clump grass that is native to this area (southeastern USA). When it blooms in fall the flowers create a pink cloud that glows dramatically when backlit by sunlight. There were two old clumps of it already there that I dug and divided into (ta-da!) 20 new sections that I placed out in three separate plantings.

Against the mass of muhlygrass I planted five clumps of bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) which will provide food for caterpillars as well as a soft purplish cloud of color that combines nicely with the grass and nearby carpet of 'Blue Pacific' juniper (Juniperus conferta) that spills down the hill in front.

I planted a cluster of seven African iris (Dietes iridioides) at one side of the new space beneath an Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) recovering from a decade of sticker vine strangulation. In between are several young agave (Agave americana) plants that eventually will take over - in about a decade. Until then, I filled the space with garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) whose grasslike foliage creates rugged, deep green ground covers and borders that can be used as a source for baked potato toppings and stir-fry ingredients. Best of all in late summer the plant produces beautiful blossoms beloved by butterflies that have a lovely fragrance that smells nothing like garlic or chives. On the outer edge of the space I installed a number of weeping lantanas (Lantana montevidensis), another easy-growing plant that makes a nice ground cover. It produces showy purple flowers (there's a white flowered version too) over a long season and are also a favorite nectar source for several kinds of butterflies.

Suesie the Great Dane relaxes
Eradicating a cactus patch is a big job. Watching me eradicate a cactus patch is also a big job so Bubba and Sue take it easy and rest up for next time when they'll watch me work on the vegetable garden.

My new cactus replacement garden might not look too great at the moment but at least the cactus is gone and it's transformation into a drought tolerant butterfly garden is under way. A month from now I'll show you what it looks like and we'll see how well the muhlygrass has taken hold and whether or not I really did conquer the cactus and sticker vines.

It's Monday night as I'm finishing this up and they're predicting a freeze tonight. I'm heading outside to heap pine needles over seedlings and make bed sheet tents for the angel trumpets and tomato plants that I rashly put in the ground last week. I really hate late frosts especially when I thought that all danger of them had passed. It's seriously time for Spring to begin in earnest.

Thanks for reading my Journal - I hope you'll visit the next time when we'll take a field trip to Tallahassee, Florida's capital and I'll demonstrate some of the new features that we're testing on Floridata. - Jack

Click here for last week's Journal entry.

Click here for the archive of links to Jack's old Journals from 2001 - 2005

March 25, 2008

© LC
Tallahassee, Florida USA