Monday, December 29, 2008

Simply Living: Turtle encounter raises questions

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 29, 2008)

We saw her at the same time. My son Toby was downstairs, looking out. I was upstairs, looking down. A turtle was laying eggs about 20 feet away from the house. We rushed outside together into the waning daylight.

"That's amazing," I said, inching closer to snap a picture. "I don't think I've ever seen a turtle laying eggs before."

Before we arrived on the scene, the hard-shelled reptile had crawled out of the lake and made her way up the rough ground toward a grove of bamboo. Before she got to the thicket of tall canes, she must have found a piece of ground she liked and began the process of reproduction. By the time Toby and I arrived, 14 eggs about the size and shape of slightly elongated pingpong balls lay on the ground around the turtle.

I wondered aloud, "I thought turtles lay their eggs in holes. Why isn't she digging a hole?"

The turtle, oblivious to the presence of two curious observers, had made a meager attempt at nest building. A small patch of grass was scratched away to reveal bare soil, but the scratch marks were just that: claw marks in the dirt. The indentation was hardly what one would consider a hole of egg-holding proportions. The turtle, apparently unperturbed by this obvious glitch in the evolutionary process, had proceeded to lay her eggs.

"Do you think we should do anything?" I asked Toby. "Maybe we should at least cover the eggs with dirt when she's done."

My 16-year-old son was adamant that we remain observers.

"We should let nature take its course," he insisted.

And so we did. After watching the turtle for a few more minutes and snapping about a dozen shots on my digital camera, it was getting dark. We left the turtle alone with her clutch of exposed eggs and returned to the house.

First thing next morning, I went back out.

As I expected, the eggs were all gone. Although a few remnants of shattered shells were scattered on the ground, one or more animals had obviously treated themselves to an easy meal.

"I should have at least covered them with a box," I lamented over breakfast.

My son again responded with analytic neutrality.

"No, you shouldn't have. The turtle laid her eggs and other animals ate them. That's what happens. It's the cycle of life."

Quite the mature statement from my almost-adult child.

Although I accepted Toby's pronouncement and went about my day, something about the turtle episode continued to nag at me. Why didn't the turtle make a better attempt to cover up the eggs she laid, and more importantly, why did she choose this time of year to lay eggs in the first place? The end of December seems like an inauspicious time of year to produce offspring. To find answers, I pulled some reference books from my library and went online. The books and online information helped me identify the turtle as a Florida red-belly, Pseudemys nelson, but they left my other questions unresolved. Still eager for answers, I called Peter Pritchard, preeminent turtle researcher and former Time magazine "Hero of the Planet."

After describing the reptile Toby and I observed, I asked the Oviedo resident and founder of the private Chelonian Research Institute if it was normal for a red-belly to lay eggs in the winter.

"I'm not sure why it was trying to nest now," the zoologist said. "The Peninsula cooter and the chicken turtle are only two winter nesters. Red-bellies usually lay their eggs in the warm months."

"What about the eggs?" I asked. "Is it normal for a turtle to leave eggs on the ground instead of digging a hole and burying them?"

Again, he answered no.

"Something must have messed up," he said.

Florida red-bellies normally lay their eggs in a hole about 6 inches deep. Sometimes they use old alligator nests or decaying vegetation. What they don't normally do is leave their eggs unprotected on open ground.

I then asked Pritchard the question that had been bothering me most.

"Do you think I should have tried to bury the eggs instead of just letting nature take its course?"

His reply took me by surprise.

"If it were an intact world, we could let nature take its course, but there are so many interruptions to offset the balance. If you had dug a hole and buried the eggs, they would most likely have hatched."

I felt terrible. A bit of effort on my part might have saved the lives of 14 turtles. It also may have prevented predators from discovering the eggs.

"If you had picked up the eggs to put them in the hole, your human scent would have replaced the turtle scent and deterred raccoons and other predators," the scientist explained.

So much for the notion of letting nature take its course.

If I ever come across another turtle laying eggs without first digging a hole, I'll take Pritchard's advice and lend a hand. But, as Toby reminds me, by doing that, I'll prevent another animal from having a meal.

Finding our place in nature is no easy task. Sometimes you just have to follow your heart.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Transitions and Trees

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 22, 2008)

If you had told me in 1992 that one day I would be aggressively selecting trees on our property to prune or cut down, I'd have thought you were crazy.

When we moved here nearly 17 years ago, trees were a rare and precious commodity. On the entire 50 acres, we had only a small thicket of scraggly willows, a handful of mature pines, two large oaks and a scattered assortment of oak seedlings.

We weren't accustomed to a treeless landscape. Before living in Florida, our home was on 5 wooded acres in Cape Cod, Mass. Before we could build a house on that property, we had to carve a homestead out of a dense forest of locust and oak trees covered by a snarly web of bull briar, poison ivy and wild grape vines.

Hand by vine-scratched hand, we cleared a home site. Living in the woods made us feel sheltered and secure. Our new property in Florida, although filled with promise and raw beauty, left us feeling vulnerable and oddly exposed.

To remedy the situation, one of our first priorities was to do massive plantings. Looking back on our efforts, I find it amazing how much work we did. All I can say is that we were young, a bit foolish and full of gusto.

We began by mounding earth around the property perimeter to create an immediate buffer zone. On top of those berms, we installed dozens of transplanted hedge bamboo divisions.

Unfortunately -- here's where the young and a bit foolish part comes in -- we neglected to irrigate the transplants or enrich the soil. One by one, we watched the divisions succumb to the heat and poor soil.

As we quickly learned, even hardy plants such as bamboo need at least a little TLC to survive. Only a couple dozen of the original plants made it through that rough beginning.

Our next major undertaking was the planting of pines -- we hand-planted 4,000 seedlings. Although slash and sand pines can tolerate unirrigated, poor soil, they can't overcome improper planting techniques. Unfortunately, that's what Ralph and I provided. I don't know how many of those tiny trees survived, but it wasn't many.

Once we realized all our hard work had resulted in yet another failure, we hired a professional to come in with the proper equipment to do a follow-up planting. At last, a wise decision. Almost all of the 11,000 trees in the second planting survived. Today they blanket the ground with a dense carpet of pine needles.

Through the years, we never stopped planting. I can't begin to tally the number of bamboos we added to the landscape -- they have to be in the thousands. Open groves of running bamboos and thick clusters of clumping varieties have provided us with privacy and beauty.

The pine trees we planted have sown generations of babies, while the once waist-high oaks grew into towering monsters. If I hadn't seen it happen, I would never believe the thick-trunked trees that cover the property are less than 20 years old. They look like 100-year-old behemoths.

Those oaks have been the main target of our recent culling activity. Branches were infringing on the driveway, getting too close to the house and shading out other plants that we wanted to grow. The most sensible solution was a chain saw. Let the games begin.

On the first day of cutting, my husband asked, "Which trees should we trim?"

With the merits of pre-emptive culling in mind, my reply was decisive, "Take that one out entirely and trim the side limbs on this other oak before they grow any bigger."

He looked at me with surprise, wondering what had become of his tree-coddling wife.

I'm not a ruthless person, but I've come to appreciate the virtues of careful pruning and selective culling. It's amazing how much a physical landscape can change in a relatively short time. Mental landscapes too.

Although I still value their assets, I no longer see trees as permanent fixtures. I try to view them instead as renewable resources. For certain plants to grow, others must go. It is immensely reassuring to know nothing goes to waste. Culled trees become brush piles that shelter small animals, eventually decomposing into rich dirt that supports new growth.

I never thought I would see the day when we'd be thinning out a forest. It took us 17 years to make it full circle, but eventually that is what happened. From Cape Cod woods to Florida fields, barren sand turned into a leafy landscape in the blink of an eye. With the exception of children, there are few things better than trees to measure the passage of time.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Good old spider plants -- they just can't help but thrive

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 15, 2008)

If you're an indoor gardener you probably have a spider plant, and if you have one spider plant, you probably have others - many others.

Not only is Chlorophytum comosum one of the easiest houseplants to grow, this South African native also is a prolific producer. As the potted plant matures and root space decreases, spider plants compensate by producing babies.

The offspring - known as plantlets - develop at the end of slender long stalks. All it takes is a pair of scissors and flowerpots filled with potting soil to create an explosion of young, verdant plants to give away to friends or disperse around your house.

But why restrict this grass-like perennial to ceramic containers and hanging baskets? Spider plants adapt to exterior landscapes with effortless ease. Shady spot, sunny spot, dry soil or damp - Chlorophytum comosum can handle them all.

An amazing ground cover - it even flowers. At the end of the long arching stems, small white blooms present a pleasant contrast with the green or variegated white/ green foliage.

If you're looking for an "ignoreme- and-I'll-still-thrive" plant to surround a tree or fill a flower bed, spider plants are one way to go.

I saw my first outdoor display of this common houseplant 22 years ago when I lived in Kissimmee. One day while biking by a neighbor's house I realized the plants forming a tidy mass alongside the house's main entry were the same type of greenery that once graced my college dorm room.

"Are those spider plants?" I asked incredulously. Her affirmative reply got me thinking. A couple decades later, I find my own home edged by the same plants I once admired.

Of the 200-some species in the genus Chlorophytum, only a few are commonly cultivated by home gardeners. In my yard, a wild variety with solid green leaves competes for space with the more familiar green and white spider known as "variegatum."

In the landscape, spider plants require even less attention than their houseplant counterparts. I believe all plants deserve the best start possible, so mine began their outdoor life in soil enriched by compost and peat applications. Although an irrigation system is in place, not all the spider plants are covered by the sprinklers. But lack of water is not enough to deter the life force in these hardy evergreens. Those not getting regular soakings still reproduce, sending multiple plantlets out into the world to set down their own roots and continue the cycle. The most frequent maintenance my outside spider plants require is a periodic pruning with a sharp pair of snippers.

That used to be a task I didn't enjoy. Not because it was difficult, but because it made me feel bad. Each time I pruned, dozens of young plants were whacked to pieces. I felt like a killer with a carbon steel blade. I wanted to save them all; to root up the plantlets and find each a new home. But how many spider plants can one use? Inside or outside, eventually you reach a point where enough is enough.

I reached that point a few months back. Despite being severed from their botanical umbilical cords, the plants, I realized, still fulfilled a useful purpose. They wouldn't grow up to become more ground covers, but they would decompose in the compost pile and turn into rich soil. Last week it was time once again to take out the hedge clippers. My walkway had all but disappeared beneath a web of spidery plants. With aggressive strokes, I hacked back the prolific growth infringing on the pathways. I'm pleased to report that the end result was surprisingly satisfying.

If you're looking for a low-work houseplant that doubles as a ground cover, Chlorophytum comosum is the way to go. In a world already crowded with people and buildings, adding a bit more greenery to house or yard - even greenery that has to be hacked back occasionally - is a worthwhile thing to do.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Some treats take drudgery out of endless errands

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 8, 2008)

I'm not a big fan of shopping, but that doesn't mean I don't shop.

Several times a week, I drive into town to do errands. Sometimes, it's as if I'm constantly running in and out of stores, buying this, returning that and, in the process, checking items off a seemingly endless to-do list.

Chores aren't fun, but someone has to do them.

All partnerships have their divisions of labor. In our marriage, my husband handles the finances and is the official "fixer." No matter what breaks -- and, as any homeowner knows, there is always something needing repair -- he can make it better. He's a regular MacGyver that way.

My part of the deal is to be in charge of most household chores, do the shopping and prepare the majority of meals. I'm also the delegated "go-fer." Ralph has about as much desire to leave home as a turtle has to abandon its shell, but that doesn't prevent him from needing things in town. Often, he requires hardware for one of the many construction projects that are a constant in our marriage.

"Would you pick up a couple 1-inch slip-by-slip CPVC couplings when you're in town?" he might ask. Or he may say, "Get me a box of 3/4-inch galvanized screws and, while you're there, pick up another pressure switch in case the pump goes out again."

My competence in construction hasn't improved much in three-plus decades, but those errands to Home Depot, Lowe's and Ace Hardware have vastly improved my knowledge of the plumbing, electrical and carpentry lexicon.

Other stops usually include the bank, a postal store, the grocery and produce market, a gas station, library, thrift shops and a run into one or another of the big-box stores for assorted sundries. I leave home with a checklist and, determined to make the best use of my limited time, dutifully map out the most efficient route.

While most errands fill needs, two of my regular stops are purely for pleasure. Going to the library and popping into one of several thrift shops are rewards I give myself for performing the more perfunctory tasks. I believe jobs well done should warrant compensation -- but not necessarily the monetary kind.

I'm not one to want new shoes, expensive jewelry or fancy gadgets. The mere suggestion of going to a mall is enough to make me want to crawl away and hide. I find fun browsing the library stacks for this week's perfect read or trolling through the musty aisles at secondhand stores for that special bargain. Thrift shops stock an eclectic mix offering endless possibilities.

Part of the fun comes from not knowing what treasure may be sitting on a shelf when you happen to drop by. Yesterday I found a stained-glass light fixture for only $5. Of course, installing it will generate another project that will undoubtedly require another trip to the hardware store. The circle continues, but I can't complain.

I have one other way of rewarding myself for completing the chore of running errands. I take the slow road back home. It takes a few minutes longer but the scenic route allows me to relax and reflect -- something that's harder to do when driving on multilane highways.

Recently, I discovered a new incentive to make my "go-fer" outings even more enjoyable. While driving I listen to audio recordings of my favorite books. At 13 CDs per novel, it can take weeks to complete an unabridged book, but the anticipation only adds to the allure.

Life is full of pleasant and unpleasant duties. The trick is to find ways to make the best of those undesirable tasks. Thrift shops, libraries and slow rides home while listening to stories have helped turn my less-than-fun chores upside down. Who knew going to town with a long list of errands could actually be fun?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mexican sunflowers prove beauty can emerge from blah origins

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 1, 2008)

The area above my kitchen sink smells wonderful. It's not from a new air freshener or dish soap. The delicious fragrance is due entirely to a large bouquet of Mexican sunflowers that my daughter, Amber, picked the other day.

What a cheery gift that was. The gold-hued daisylike flowers give off a sweet aroma that smells mildly of honey. It's an outdoorsy odor evoking images of garden benches, long walks in the woods and strolls along country roads.

I took from Amber her handful of happiness and placed it in a large green vase on the counter where, whenever I clean up the kitchen and wash dishes, I can inhale a bit of nature. Sweet smells to ease the drudgery of housework.

Mexican sunflower, also known as Tithonia diversifolia, is a gangly plant that grows as broad as it grows tall. The three near my son's garden are approximately 10 feet tall and equally as wide with dozens of yellow blooms in various stages of maturity.

It's an undeniable space hog. Native to Mexico and Central America, this perennial bloomer looks and grows like a giant weed. To some people -- my husband included -- that's all it is.

"Do you really want to keep that plant?" he asked a few months ago when we were redesigning the area where Tithonia was growing. "What do you like about it?"

What's not to like? It's a "neglect-me-and-I'll-still-thrive" plant that blooms profusely. The flowers, which appear anytime from late summer through early December, are huge, measuring up to 5 inches across. Although it seems to take forever for the first buds to open, once they do the plant produces a steady display of eye-catching blooms that flower continually for at least a month.

Although they are supposedly bothered by snails and slugs, I've found these drought-tolerant plants to be undaunted by insect pests. With their giant blooms and pollen-filled stamens, Tithonia attracts far more beneficial bugs than pest problems. Bees and butterflies are constantly flitting from one bloom to another. The only care we give it is an annual addition of rich soil and heavy mulch.

"But it's ugly," my husband insists. "It's scrawny and sprawls all over the place."

He's not completely wrong. A non-blooming Tithonia won't win any beauty contests. But take the same plant in season -- when its marble-size buds are beginning to burst open -- and my, what a showstopper!

A Mexican sunflower in full bloom will knock you off your feet. Ralph's right that it takes up space, and the branches on this multistemmed perennial do have a propensity to bend down, take root and expand the plant's already broad profile. But that's a good thing, isn't it? Ease of propagation is an acknowledged horticultural asset.

I took advantage of that asset a few months ago when we were about to dig up the large Tithonia growing near our bananas. I had given in to my husband's request to replace the flowering bush with Angel Mist, one of our favorite clumping bamboos, but before we moved the sunflower, I decided to hedge my bets.

I clipped off about a dozen stems and stuck them in pots in case the transplanted Tithonia didn't make it. Wouldn't you know, the transplant took and the starts all survived.

Now, in addition to the relocated Tithonia -- which was literally dumped into a ditch and still managed to produce blooms -- our collection includes three large specimens my son planted last year and the 12 cuttings growing (overflowing) in the nursery.

The other day, Ralph pointed to the cuttings and asked, "Where do you want to plant them?"

"Well," I said as I pondered his question, "I want them to be someplace where I'll see them when they're blooming. Somewhere big enough to let them sprawl and far enough away that I won't mind how they look when they're not in bloom. Across the lake. That would be good."

And that's where they're going. Next week, the plan is to dig up a big area across from our house, fill the hole with organic matter and plant all 12 plants in one spot.

If successful, not only will I be able to enjoy the delightful sight and smell of a Mexican sunflower bouquet on the kitchen counter, I'll soon be soaking in the spectacle of hundreds of golden blooms reflected in the calm water of the lake.

Beauty is not an all-or-nothing deal. Sometimes, the prettiest flowers appear on the most gangly, rough-textured, common-looking stalks. The contrast between what you see and what you get is what makes the result so exciting -- a burst of beauty out of something so blah presents a plethora of breathtaking possibilities.

If Tithonia isn't a plant worth saving, I don't know what is.