Nov 6, 2014

The 3 Mimic in the Tree

Hush, little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird.

Not too long ago, I saw a small flock of Starlings land in the top of a tree. They were not foraging, but just seemed to be enjoying the morning sun. The Starlings had entered the territory of a Mockingbird who was none too pleased to see these illegal aliens. The Mockingbird began to scold them and drew the attention of a Brown Thrasher who decided to join in. The Starlings paid no attention to their chatter.  To my surprise, a Catbird flew up into the tree and joined in the verbal assault on the Starlings.  In all my years of bird watching, I do not think I have seen these three members of the Mimidae Family all together in the same tree. Starlings are originally from Europe, so I was surprised to learn that recent genetic testing reveal that they are related to our local Mimidae Family members. Starlings seem so different from Mockingbirds, Thrashers and Catbirds and I wonder if this had caused the family feud I witnessed.
Mockingbirds have thrived in the suburban habitat. They are as common as mailboxes in any neighborhood and not just here in the South. I am often asked “Why is it called the Northern Mockingbird when they live in the South?” The Northern Mockingbird ranges from the southern Canadian border to the southern tip of Mexico. They also can be found throughout the Caribbean. They do not migrate. There are other mockingbirds that live in Central and South America and that’s why ours is the Northern Mockingbird.  
Our gardens are well suited for Mockingbirds. They like to perch in a tree and fly down to the lawn to catch a bug. Their hunting behavior is similar to Bluebirds but Bluebirds like more open spaces. They will often flash their white shoulder patches to scare up insects in the grass. When I dig in the soil and find a grub, I like to toss it to the Mockingbirds. I have had Mockingbirds follow me when I pick up a shovel.  They are famous for their singing and infamous for singing at night.  Males who do not find a mate will sing all night. It is illegal to kill a Mockingbird but temporary insanity from sleep deprivation would be a good defense and the jury will be sympathetic.  They not only mimic other birds, but will repeat a phrase over and over and that can really drive you nuts.  Mockingbirds are very territorial and singing is also a way of declaring a territory. During nesting season don’t even think of going near a nest, especially if you are a cat. These feisty birds know to attack you from behind.  My Mockingbirds like to nest in my overgrown antique rose bushes.  Perhaps they know the thorns will deter predators. 
Mockingbirds often cause trouble around bird feeders by keeping other birds away. They normally are not seedeaters but they will eat mealworms, suet and peanut butter.  I think they do not like a bunch of other birds eating a free buffet in their territory.  If Mockingbirds become a problem at your feeders, move the peanut butter and suet to the other side of the house.
What I really love about Mockingbirds is their scientific name - Mimus polyglottos.  Mimus is Latin for mimic and from the Greek we have Polu or poly meaning many and glotta which is Greek for tongue.  So the Mockingbird name translates to mimic many tongues.  I like it when a scientific name is so well suited.

Aug 28, 2014

Still Summer

Getting ready for cooler days in the garden
I always tell my friends from off, we have 4 seasons in the Lowcountry, Almost Summer, Summer, Still Summer and Christmas. Summer will end soon along with the daily thunder storms followed by the outdoor sauna we all enjoy. The temperatures of Still Summer are hot in the day but will drop a little at night. September and October can be some of our driest months. The only rain will be from hurricanes and tropical storms. The skies will be blue again and the humidity back down to a tolerable range. It’s a good time to start a fall vegetable garden. Go ahead and pull out the old tomato and squash plants. The peppers might last a little longer.  It’s a good time to amend your soil with Charleston County Compost from the Bees Ferry Landfill. At $10 a ton it is a bargain. They also have it in bags if you do not have a truck. Or you can add other types of organics to the soil: worm castings, mushroom compost and cow manure are just a few things you can add. I like to add some calcium to the vegetable garden too. Calcium will prevent blossom end rot and make vegetables crispier and help them last longer in storage.  Pelletized gypsum comes in a 40 pound bag.  It is the mineral calcium sulfate. Gypsum will not change your PH like lime. How much gypsum do you need?  I put about a 1/4 cup per vegetable plant and mix it in the surrounding soil.  Young plants take up calcium better than old plants, so it is important to get it in the ground before you plant.
Still Summer (Fall) is a good time to plant greens, root crops and cole crops.  These vegetables, planted in the fall, will be sweeter than when they are planted in the spring. Plants in the fall will store sugar for the winter making them tastier. Collards are the most popular cole crop in the South, but broccoli, kale and cabbage can also be grown. Carrots and radishes are popular root crops, but turnips are an old favorite. Root crops should be grown from seed but be careful not to plant too deep. Barely cover the seeds with soil and firm the soil down then water gently. There are many types of healthy greens that can be grown during the fall and winter.  Just the different cultivars of kale are mind blowing. Blue scotch kale, redbor, Tuscan and Siberian are just a few. Some cultivars take the cold better and some can stand the heat better. Since our winters are unpredictable, plant some of each.  I think kale is beautiful. I like to plant it in the flower beds in the winter along with pansies and violas. Other great greens you can plant are southern giant mustard, seven top turnips and upland cress.
Buy your seeds now while they are still in the stores.  I sometimes buy seed in the spring when the selection is good and keep them cool and dry until fall planting time.  Don’t plant them all at once save some seeds for early spring. If you are interested in heirloom or gourmet vegetables there are plenty of seeds available on the internet. Do shop around, I have found there is a wide range of prices out there. 
Try Southern Giant Curled Mustard this fall in the garden. Easy to grow from seed this green has a tangy mustard flavor very different from collards. It can be harvested in about 50 days from seed. 

Jul 24, 2014

A New Spin on the Spider Plant


Common house plant makes a good shade garden perennial. 


By Kathy Woolsey

The spider plant, Chlorophytum comosum, is a common house plant found in hanging baskets, on porches and in sunrooms around the island, but did you know it also makes a great perennial groundcover? I have been growing spider plants at the gardens for several years and was happily surprised when they survived last winter despite the record-breaking cold.  

Chlorophytums are native to tropical Africa and grow on the edges of the rainforest in part shade. Around here, it makes a good substitute for Hosta and will live in part sun to deep shade. When the temperature drops below 32, the tops will die, but the plant will come back in the spring.

 Chlorophytums have thick roots which hold water, making the plant very drought tolerant. It’s one of those houseplants you can forget to water without worry. However, spider plants are not tolerant of chlorine or fluoride. These chemicals, found in most municipal water supplies, can turn the leaf tips brown. Use rain or well water to prevent tip burning.

If you have a hanging basket with a spider plant, starting plants for your garden is easy. Simply cut off the larger spiderettes and stick them in the ground where you want them. Keep them watered for a few days until the roots spread out.

There are 4 types of spider plants commonly available: solid green, green with white edges and green with a white center stripe. A new one called ‘Bonnie” has curly variegated leaves. It looks good in a hanging pot, but I am not sure how it will look on the ground.  I grow Chlorophytum comosum 'Vittatum' in my garden. That’s the one with the white center stripe. This summer they started sending out scapes with spiderettes. The first few years the plants spend time growing and filling out before sending out babies. 

I think spider plants are a good companion plant for my daffodils. In the winter, when the daffodil foliage comes up, the spider plant foliage dies down. In May, the daffodil foliage dies down just when the spider plants come back up. My daffodil beds are under deciduous trees so they get winter sun and the spider plants get shade in summer.    

In this and previous articles the word scapes is flagged by spellcheck. I thought maybe I should explain a few horticulture terms not in common use. Scape is from the Latin for stem, and in general describes a stem with a flower with little or no foliage or nodes. The flower of the Daylily is on a scape.  A stolon is a stem with nodes which runs along the ground or just below ground from which new plants and roots emerge. The strawberry plant sends out new plants via stolons. Since the runners on a spider plant also have small white flowers it is considered a scape.  Spiderette is just a word I made up to describe young spider plant dangling from the mother plant.

Jun 30, 2014

 Sand Cast Leaf Workshop at Cypress Gardens
July 26-27  Using real leaves,
collected from Cypress Gardens as molds, learn to make decorative ornaments for your garden. Saturday 1pm to 3 pm  learn to mix a special Portland cement formula and cast 3-4 leaves depending on the size. Sunday 1-3 unmold your leaves and learn to trim and paint them. Large leaves make great bird baths and small leaves make good soap dishes or wall art.  $30 Call 553-0515 to sign up. Limited to 18 students. 5$ off for active volunteers.