Monday, August 29, 2011

Weeds ready to plant

A truck full of weeds means lines of weed-free pots ready to be planted with new vegetables and flowers.

Simply Living
August 28, 2011

It feels good to have the garden weeded. Ralph and I returned from our New England trip to find more than 100 15-gallon potted plants in desperate need of attention. A tangle of unwanted growth had besieged our container garden.

The weeds didn't suddenly emerge during our absence. Their campaign to subdue our intended crops had been weeks — in some cases, months — in the making. Our mistake had been to ignore obvious signs, allowing tenacious roots to become well established. It took time away to make us realize the mess that our forestalling had created.

"What do you think about doing some weeding this evening?" my husband asked the day after we got home. With daytime temperatures hovering in the mid-90s, evening seemed a sensible time to tackle this project.

I told him it sounded good, and when late afternoon rolled around, I donned gardening gear — old jeans, ratty shirt, gloves, hat, socks and shoes — to join my husband for a robust, down-to-earth workout.

"I'm going to begin over here," I said from one end of the row as my husband started pulling weeds at the other. "I'll call if I need help with any big ones."

I called a lot. There were plenty of huge weeds — invaders so large and well-rooted that no amount of yanking would dislodge them.

"I'm going to dump the whole pot out," Ralph said after one frustrating attempt to de-weed a container overtaken by a particularly vigorous and stubborn specimen. Into the truck's bed it went. We worked for about two hours, and in that time managed to clear weeds out of about half the pots. The following day, we conquered the remainder.

"It feels good, doesn't it?" I said as we dipped into the lake to soak off sweat and smudges of dirt.

Ralph nodded, adding: "I didn't think we'd get so much done."

I had to agree. Despite years of working together on countless home and garden projects, I'm still surprised how much can be accomplished in relatively short periods. Focus is the key.

Looking around, I noticed more flower beds begging for attention in addition to all the non-garden-related projects in want of completion.

"If we could just work like this every day for a couple of hours," I mused, "imagine how much we'd get done."

It was a familiar fantasy.

"Yeah," he agreed wistfully, "if we only could."

Ralph and I both knew that chances of that happening were zero to slim. Although we've spent our entire adulthoods independently employed, we have yet to master the art of consistent self-discipline. Some lessons are apparently more challenging than others, and, for us, the ability to keep on top of our ever-burgeoning to-do list remains an indomitable objective.

"Now that we've got the container garden weeded," Ralph said as we were drying off from our dip, "we really should mulch the pots and get some more seeds planted."

He's right, of course. Add those projects to the list. More chances to hone our self-discipline are close at hand.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Twin grandbabies doubles the pleasure

Twins Ella Lily (left) and Maya Lilac with grandparents Ralph and Sherry Boas.

Simply Living
August 22, 2011

No pleasure is quite as pure as the sight of a newborn baby and that pleasure doubled when my husband and I attended the birth of our twin granddaughters.

Jenny and Brett live in Central Massachusetts. Last year, they rode a tandem recumbent bicycle across the country. This year, they gave birth to two babies. Doing things by twos seems to be this couple's norm. When they asked us to be there for the twins' birth, Ralph and I had no hesitation. We eagerly said "Yes!"

Two years ago, I was in the delivery room for the birth of my first grandchild, Atom, but Jenny's birth was going to be different since the babies were to be delivered by a scheduled Caesarean section. Hospital rules allowed only two people to accompany the mother. Daddy-to-be Brett had the place of honor, leaving one slot available for Ralph or me. Since Jenny was happy to have either of us in the operating room, we decided it was Ralph's turn to experience a grandchild's birth.

Brett's mother and I waited together after they wheeled Jenny away. About 20 minutes into the surgery, Ralph came back to update us on the progress.

"It's amazing! Incredible!" he gushed. "The babies are born and Jenny's doing great. Everything went well. It's almost unbelievable what they do."

His joy was so pure, his excitement so real — I was glad we decided Ralph would be the one to witness the birth.

In less than an hour, the surgery was over. Nurses wheeled Jenny and the girls back into their hospital room accompanied by new daddy and one awestruck grandpa. Kathy and I finally had a good look at our new grandchildren. Blond haired 7 pounds, 2 ounces Maya Lilac and her dark haired 7 pounds, 8 ounce sister, Ella Lily, were love personified.

"They're so big but so small," I thought as I held the swaddled bundles of bliss in my arms.

Little fingers, tiny toes…bright eyes take in a world suddenly so large. The magic of birth is one of life's everyday miracles.

Ralph and I spent a week in Northampton enjoying the wonder of newborn babies. We changed diapers, soothed the twins when they fussed and cuddled against their newborn sweetness. Being around babies is a transforming experience. It makes you see the world through different lenses and changes your perspective.

Each of us began life as tiny babies, dependent upon others for comfort, care, nurturing and sustenance. We enter this world innocent. Our needs are basic. Feed us, clean us, keep us dry and, most importantly, cradle us with love.

It's easy to let everyday worries, problems and cares predominate. It's easy to let family take a backseat to the needs of others. But being there for the birth of your child's child (or in our case, children) is a none-too-subtle reminder that family comes first.

We're back home in Florida now, 1,500 miles away from our two newest grandchildren. I have a strong feeling Ralph and I will be racking up those frequent-flier miles in days to come.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Simple orange flowers ask little, give much

The gulf fritillary is one of the many butterflies attracted to orange cosmos

Simply Living
August 14, 2011

Its proper name is "Cosmos sulphureus," but I've always called it "orange flower." This unpretentious, hardy wildflower is one of my favorite blooms.

When I lived in Kissimmee, my yard overflowed with orange flowers. My first plants were a gift from a generous stranger, a gardener whose flower beds I had stopped to admire. She gave me seeds that I brought home and sowed. Most of the seeds sprouted, growing into tall, broad butterfly-attracting blooms.

Orange flowers do best when planted in a light, rich soil in sunny locations. Although tolerant of poorer soil and dry conditions, the plants grow larger and bloom more profusely when grown in enriched, irrigated soil.

Although the soil around my Kissimmee home was initially poor, I lived in a community of well-maintained lawns where neighbors were constantly mowing, raking and bagging clippings of St. Augustine grass. Since I knew how fast grass clippings break down, I made it a point to collect those bags as soon as my neighbors could place them by the curbside so I could dump them in my garden beds. With so many applications of free, biodegradable grass-blade mulch, the soil was soon rich enough to support a profusion of plants, including orange flowers galore.

Fast-forward two decades, and orange flowers no longer had a place in my garden. At some point, perhaps during a move, I had lost my saved seeds. Although I grew other flowers, I missed the orange ones that had always bloomed so consistently and profusely. Determined to correct the situation, I went on a wildflower hunt, searching neighborhoods in the Clermont area where they might grow. I found one such yard in Greater Hills, just down the street from one of my rental homes.

Once again, I knocked on a stranger's door. The lady who answered listened to my story and, like her counterpart in Kissimmee, was happy to provide me with seeds. It took only a few minutes to gather a small container of the black, quarter-inch-long spikes. I took them home to sprinkle on the flower beds, but I didn't plant them right away. Remembering how well they responded in Kissimmee to grass-clipping-enriched soil, I did some prep work. I mowed our yard, raked the clippings and deposited them in the garden bed before sprinkling the seeds on the soft, nitrogen-rich blades. As the seedlings grew, I kept adding grass clippings as mulch.

The young plants responded to my attentive care by growing quickly. They got taller, their stems grew broader, and soon bright, friendly orange flower faces appeared.Bees and butterflies arrived, landing on the blooms to gather nectar and pollen. When the flowers faded, seeds developed, and when the seeds matured, they fell down and sprouted soft mulch. Just as the orange flowers did in Kissimmee, the plants thrived in the enriched soil.

I love many things about this simple bloom native to Mexico. It is unassuming, pretty and cheerful. It attracts wildlife, reseeds readily and resists pests. It also makes great cut flowers and is one of the best blooms to use in pressed flower arrangements.

With so much going for it, it's hard to believe I went without this lovely plant for so many years. Fortunately, we've reconnected and have what I consider a reciprocal relationship. I provide the plants with good soil, water and mulch. They return the favor by being butterfly magnets for my yard and by filling my vases with saffron-colored blooms.

After a long hiatus, orange flowers are back in my life as a botanic expression of beauty, simplicity and the splendor of nature. Some relationships are too special to end.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Hello ibis...goodbye garden bugs

The plumage on immature ibises is brown with white undersides.

Simply Living
August 7, 2011

An immature white ibis (Eudocimus albus) is using our container garden as its personal foraging grounds. This is the first ibis — juvenile or full-grown — to visit any of our gardens. We frequently see ibises by the lake feeding in the shallow water. But in the 20 years we've lived here, none has ever before ventured into our backyard where the container garden is located.

This bird must think he stumbled upon a bonanza!

In mid-summer when there is so much to do outside, the maintenance of the container plants tends to fall by the wayside. We continue to irrigate and are still harvesting various heat-loving vegetables, fruit and herbs. But other than brief forays to gather figs, basil, tomatoes or parsley, the area is mainly ignored.

This lack of attention has enabled a mean tangle of out-of-control weeds to flourish. The weeds have produced so much tall, bushy growth the already narrow aisles between rows have essentially disappeared. The garden has become a moist, lush, largely left-alone area — an ideal foraging spot for an immature white ibis.

Unlike adult ibises, which have white plumage with black wingtips, immature members of the species are mainly brown with white markings on their rumps, underwings and bellies. Both young and old have long pinkish-red legs and curved pinkish-red bills. Males and females look very similar, although the males are slightly larger weighing in at around two pounds.

The white ibis is a common wading bird in Florida and throughout the Southeast. Perhaps one reason the population of this bird has thrived when other wading bird species have declined is its ability to adapt to different habitats and foods.

These 2-foot tall trawlers tromp through almost any damp area — saltwater, freshwater, mud holes, marshland and short grass — to find edible delicacies such as snails, crayfish, crabs, worms, insects, frogs, snakes and small fish. With its long, curved beak slightly ajar, the ibis is able to probe the ground, plucking food by touch and sight.

In the garden, the ibis doesn't always walk on the ground and it doesn't always use its beak to probe the soil. Sometimes it gets right up into the pots, stepping from one container plant to another. Instead of poking the ground for insects, it plucks at spiders and bugs on the leaves above its head. I was amazed the first time I saw it standing in a 15-gallon pot of broccoli, stretching its curved beak upward to snatch some sort of edible from an overhead leaf.

While most birds are wary of people, the white ibis seems to tolerate a certain amount of human intrusion. On numerous occasions, I have surprised it in the garden. Although obviously startled by my sudden presence, the young bird didn't fly off. Instead, it moved a bit farther away as if to say, "All right, I'll get out of your way so you can pick your cherry tomatoes and gather your basil, but make it quick then get out of my garden!"

Having an immature white ibis frequent our garden has enabled me to learn so much more about this species than I ever knew before. I now know ibises are not nearly as nervous around people as are many other birds. I know they endure downpours by finding a place to stand on the ground and staying there until the rain stops. I know they spend a lot of time searching for food, eating the food they find and (much to my husband's dismay) leaving the discharged results of their diet right there where they've been feeding. I've also learned how difficult those large, sticky droppings are to remove from bare feet and the bottom of sneakers.

At some point, the young ibis will molt, changing color from brown to white. When that happens, there's a good chance it will give up its independent ways to forage with others. White ibises are highly social birds that normally breed, roost and feed in flocks. That means I have a small window of opportunity to observe a bird that I may never be able to follow so closely again. If the price I must pay for this unexpected opportunity is a bit of poo on my shoes, so be it. Sometimes it's a wiser move to scrape shoes than say "shoo!" to one of nature's fascinating creatures.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Even hummingbirds need moments of rest...

It is a common misconception that hummingbirds never rest. They actually spend considerable time perched on thin branches.

Simply Living
August 1, 2011

Last winter, when the temperature dipped into the low 20s, the two bottlebrush trees in my yard suffered mild cold damage. Most branches survived, but on each tree, a single uppermost limb died.

Ever since, I've been intending to cut off those limbs. It looks silly when a healthy green tree has one obviously dead branch, especially right at the top. But as so often happens with minor projects, it took a back burner to more pressing matters. The trees remained untrimmed all winter, spring and summer.

Now that it's midsummer, I'm glad I procrastinated because I've come to realize that dead branches on the top of flowering bottlebrush trees have a purpose. They make ideal resting spots for hummingbirds. When these tiny fliers are not zooming from one nectar-producing cluster to another, they use the brown, leafless branches as perches.

I made this discovery while on the porch. One of the bottlebrush trees is about 15 feet away from the house, directly in front of where I was sitting. I was looking at the tree, berating myself for not doing the pruning, when I noticed the type of quick flying action that only hummingbirds produce.

I focused my attention on a tiny creature that weighs less than three paper clips. I saw it methodically circle the tree, poking its long beak into several flowers before alighting on the dead branch. Once perched, it sat. And sat. And sat.

When I think of hummingbirds, I think of them flying, their little wings beating a furious 60 to 80 times per second as they gather nectar from predominantly red-colored flowers. I know that to survive, they must consume anywhere from half to eight times their body weight each day, and that in addition to the sweet juice from flowers, they build muscle by eating protein-rich insects, spiders and pollen. What I didn't realize was how often they rest.

Hummingbirds spend just five to eight minutes of each waking hour eating. That leaves plenty of time between bursts of food-finding action to sit quietly, conserving energy. Rest is biologically beneficial because, when active, their little hearts beat about 1,260 times a minute, compared with 250 beats a minute when perched on a branch.

Perching suits these most diminutive members of the bird community. Their extremely short feet — which have three long toes in the front and one in the back, all with lengthy, curved nails — are practically useless for anything other than grabbing hold of thin limbs. Unlike other birds, hummingbirds are unable to walk or hop on the ground.

I squatted to get a better view of the bird in the bottlebrush tree. As I watched, the hummingbird scanned the sky from its top-of-the-tree vantage point. Just when I was beginning to wonder what it was looking for, two other hummingbirds zoomed in. In less time than it took me to register what was happening, the hummer buzzed off to chase the intruders away. Both male and female hummingbirds are territorial. Female birds defend their nesting territories and males protect what they consider their home turf.

I'm not sure if the bird I watched was a male or female, but I know it was successful in scaring off the other two hummers each of the multiple times they tried to approach the bottlebrush tree.

I had no idea that my avoidance of the pruning task would yield such positive results. If visits from hummingbirds happen when I leave dead bottlebrush limbs untrimmed, I wonder what would take place if I put off doing some of the other things on my outdoor to-do list? Let's see … the garden needs weeding, there's edging to do, plants to thin out, others to repot.

Hmm …I may have stumbled upon a procrastination justification!