Start your own seeds indoors


Start your own seeds indoors?At one time, I thought that plant propagation meant simply sticking a seed in the ground and watching it grow. That might be okay for vegetables like beans, cucumbers, melons and squash, or some ornamentals. However, some vegetable and flower seeds need some tenderness to urge them to germinate.

Tomatoes seeds, for instance, need to be planted about six weeks before the last frost. Those tomato plants we buy in early spring were started in a nursery greenhouse many weeks before. That’s not to say you can’t just plant tomato seeds directly in the garden. However, to germinate, tomato seeds need a soil temperature between 70 and 80F. The cooler the soil, the longer it takes for them to germinate. The chances of all the tiny seedlings planted directly in the garden surviving being pummeled by wind and rain, insects and infections are very high. Tomatoes and many other plants need to be between six and 10 inches tall before they are placed in the garden. This insures that they are healthy, and strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of nature.

It’s not difficult to start plants from seed inside. You need a warm, sunny spot (like a kitchen window) small pots (see the photo above, a good growing medium and some patience.

However, if you want to grow a lot of plants from seed, you may need some additional help. And you might want to keep a record of your progress.

The photo above includes most of the items I use to propagate plants from seed and for plants from cuttings.

I keep a garden journal, which includes observations, musings, insights and just about whatever seeps out of my brain when I’m propagating, as well as planting in my yard and garden. I scrounged some small sturdy boxes to store stuff in as well.

I am experimenting with different types of seed starting pots. I like the idea of coir (pronounced coy-er) pots, because they are made from coconut fiber, which is a renewable resource. However, I have also found that they dry out quicker than peat moss pots. Peat moss is not a renewable resource, though. The cow waste pots seem to be working well, but they’re expensive, and, because of that, I won’t be using them in the future.

In the upper left of the photo, you see a binder. In it I keep records of plantings, germination, transplanting, and harvesting, as well as expenses, specific information about plants, and chores I need to do. Since I am a very messy OCD individual (an accomplishment, don’t you think?), there are generally notes everywhere, so I need some structure to remember what I’m doing.

The gloves in the photo, I wear in the winter, mostly outside, when I am taking cuttings. I use my bare hands when I’m sowing indoors, though.

I learned very early that when I’m starting 50 or so plants from seed, that I will not remember which is which and since many seedlings look just alike, I use plant labels. Any type of label will do. Popsicle sticks, wooden coffee stirrers, just about anything you can write on can make a good plant label.

I also use a seed sower…that green thing in the foreground that resembles a magnifying glass. Most seeds are tiny, and I certainly don’t have surgeon’s hands, so I use this seed sower. It’s got many different sized distribution holes to accommodate different sizes of seeds.

The pencil and the chopstick in the photo I use as dibbles, for making holes in the growing medium. The scissors are for snipping out weaker seedlings.

You may also notice my laptop resting under my journal in the left. I use this to research care and propagation of different plants. Also, in the background are seed catalogues. Seed catalogues contain a plethora of information about plant propagation. Many of them also carry some of the materials in the photo.

If you feel you want to try your luck at plant propagation, Virginia Tech has a great site with propagation information.  This is part of a series of articles I will be writing on plant propagation.

 

Photo: Clockwise from far left: 1. Garden journal; 2. Salvaged boxes for storing seed supplies; 3. Seed starting pots mad of coir; 4. Seed starting pots made from biodegradable farm waste; 5. Peat pots; 6. Garden record book; 7. Gloves; 8. Plant labels (both wooden and plastic); 8. Seed sower; 9. Pencil used as a dibble to make small holes to plant seeds; 10. Scissors; 11. Chopstick dibble.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Winter is a haven for birds


(Photo: Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Courtesy of Cornell Ornithology Lab.)

It’s literally freezing outside, but I took some moments to do a little bird watching. Since my office borders the waterway, I see a great many waterfowl around.

Last year, I saw an eagle catch a fish, land about 100 yards away and proceed to feed. Awesome sight. Today, despite the freezing temperature  – or perhaps because of it – water birds are congregating.

Herons, both great blues and whites, mallards, black-bellied whistling ducks, cormorants, a few terns and a gull all depending on the water for a meal.

 Mallards are migratory, but some live here all year long. Along the waterway, there are four drakes, one of which is an albino, who have masterfully kept all other drakes out of the area. I have seen fewer hens, although twice mallard hens have built nests in our parking lot and hatched eggs…waddling to the water with the ducklings in tow. Once, a duckling was left in the nest. One of the caring souls here took it home and added it to their small flock of domestic ducks. The little fellow grew to adulthood, only to be eaten by a hungry fox.

While cormorants and black-bellied whistling ducks tend to be around all year, there are more of them flying around in the winter. Both species are migratory.

Cormorants tend to spend their winters along the southern coastal states, but also winter in Oklahoma, Arkansas add eastern Tennessee. They spend summers in their breeding grounds of the northern states (Idaho, Montana, The Dakotas, and Canada – although they might extend east into Minnesota and Michigan.) However, some cormorants live along the Gulf Coast all year as well. People often see them on the edges of waterways with their wings outstretched. Because they are diving birds, their feathers tend to become waterlogged. They stretch their wings to dry the feathers. Cormorants can dive up to 25 feet.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to the valley and to Mexico, but they do like to overwinter here. As with all the migratory birds however, some live here all year long. These birds nest in mesquite, hackberry, willow, live oak and other trees. They especially like cavity nests in dead trees. They actually do whistle, and look more like geese than ducks. Ornithologists are recording that they are expanding the northern part of their range.

Great blue herons. These large birds feed on just about anything they can catch and swallow. While their favorite food is fish, they will eat ducklings, rats, mice, and other small mammals, frogs, and other birds. Although some are migratory, many of them do not migrate. Last year, a great blue with a broken wing wandered into as parking lot near here. The animal was almost as tall as me. A park ranger and myself finally cornered him, and with the help of a cast net, finally capture it. I took it to animal rehab where they repaired its wing and released it back into the wild. Great blues are a federally protected bird.

Great white heron. Also federally protected, the great white, unlike its more sedately colored cousin, tend to not migrate, although even if they do, their range is limited. Those along the Gulf Coast are generally permanent residents.

There are several elegant common terns in the lake as well. They spend their summers mostly in Central Canada, but their winter migratory regions encompass most of the coastal United States and Mexico. Terns will fly over water, hover there, and them plunge to catch prey. Sometimes they will also pursue insects on the fly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn Leaves and Other Musings


I’ve always loved fall. Smokey dusks turning tree lines a subtle purple.  The leaves of ash, elm, maple, pecan, and gum turning their fall colors, backdropped by green aromatic pines, their brushy limbs cleaning the air and the tens of varieties of oaks (Hundreds? Thousands?) squatting down restraining the earth with their roots – trigger my emotions and memories – both sweet and bittersweet.

The fall is when I most often turn my eyes to the sky, looking for birds of prey, those magnificent hawks falcons and shrikes, who tarry here for a while before they begin their journey along the Gulf Coast to Mexico and parts south. They spiral along thermals, or perch on their own lookout station, waiting for an errant mouse or foolhardy rabbit to stray from their warren.

The hawks like to take the long road…as opposed to the millions of hummingbirds, who, like so many of us, head due south across the Gulf and reaching the Yucatan exhausted, to rest on the edges of the quiet jungles before heading southward again.

In the spring, the hawks will again follow the coast from their southern wintering grounds and then turn north when they reach the central flyway, seeking the bounty of the Midwest. Their trip is rather leisurely, as they take time to hunt along the way. The hummingbirds however, will come ashore at High Island and Bolivar Peninsula, exhausted perhaps from a headwind slowing them down or a storm barring their way. No food and a longer than expected trip will leave them winded and hungry.

But this year feels different. I haven’t seen many hawks. Usually they are hulking around promising hunting places, hungry and ready to swoop down for a kill. I have been seeing an aggressive hummingbird recently (she must not have read the notice that they were to fly south months ago).

A very aggressive one has been hovering around what’s left of the flowers on my Turk’s Cap throughout the fall. It’s getting late. As far as I can tell, she has no plans for a winter vacation in Puerto Vallarta.

The native trees aren’t the only ones flashing color. The ubiquitous Chinese tallow, also called Florida aspen (sarcastically, I’m sure), sports brilliant fall hues. This insidious tree is everywhere. In people’s yards (they planted it for the fall color), in tree buffers around commercial buildings, along fence lines, anywhere they can grow.

These vampires of the tree world produce so many seed, grows so fast and spread their roots so quickly that it can outcompete any other tree in the forest. In south Louisiana it has become the dominant tree species, replacing pine and oak forests. The fact that the seeds and leaves are poisonous and the roots put out an allelopathic chemical that discourages other plants from growing around them goes a long way in their invasion. These destructive trees are the gift of beloved Ben Franklin, who imported them from the Far East in 1776, thinking the berries could be used in to manufacture soap. And they can. However, Ben’s idea never took off, but the trees did. Then, during the Great Depression, the trees were planted in the South in hopes of spurring the  idea of creating…you guessed it…a soap manufacturing operation. I haven’t seen many soap factories in my wanderings around the South.

There are other signs of fall and the coming winter. More rain. Cooler weather. Lots of leaves on the ground for the compost bin. Cabbages, carrots, beets, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, Swiss chard are filling up fall gardens. Warm clothes are coming out of storage. The sweet smell of wood burning in fireplaces. Gray skies and chilly northwest winds chugging down from the Artic. It’s a magical time for me and for many of my friends.

 

Plants for hot, hot-hot and hot-hot-hot Gulf Coast summers


That’s right. It’s hot-hot right now. That’s the comparative form of “more than just hot” along the Gulf Coast. And “hot-hot-hot” – is how we describe the superlative. That excessive warmth is going to be here in a few weeks.  I’ve even heard some say “hot-hot-hot-hot” which is pretty darn hot. For those of you who have just moved here, that heat usually arrives here in late August and early September.

Spend 10 minutes out in the sun at the warmest part of the day and whatever you’re wearing is going to be soaked. This is good, not bad, because sweating is our way of cooling off. As your body is depleted of water, you need to drink more fluids you lose through perspiration.

Plants do this too, in a way. They release oxygen and water through their stoma – small pores on the undersides of leaves. But plants don’t open their stomas at night- mainly because this process goes on during the photosynthesis process, and since there’s no sunlight at night, their pores remains closed.

Many plants tend to wilt in the heat. The wilting means they are losing more fluids through their stomata than they can take in through their roots. The deficit of water causes the plants to wilt. At this point, the plant suspends much if not all of photosynthesis action.

Savvy gardeners know that much of this wilting is temporary and not harmful to the plant, which may wilt in the hot afternoon, but perk up again at night, as the roots replenish the water supply. Chances are, though, when heavy wilting occurs, it could mean that the plant is either not native or not adapted to our harsh summer conditions.

Fortunately, there are many beautiful and hardy flowering plants that do exceptionally well along the Gulf Coast. Many of them are natives.

Here are some examples:

Coneflower (Dracopsis amplexicaulis) – Annual. 2-3 feet tall. Blooms April through July, sometimes August. Although it’s an annual, it will reseed readily.

Texas lantana (Lantana urticoides) – Perennial – Part of the verbena family, Texas lantana is a spreading shrub that blooms from April through October. Also called “ham and eggs,” it thrives in poor soil, but the soil must be well-drained. It may get a little unruly but kept pruned, it will do nicely in the yard. Plant it in a hot dry place where nothing else will grow. Cut it back in early spring.

Drummond phlox (Phlox drummondii) – Perennial and reseeding. Flowers are white, pink, rose red, or purple. The plant can grow between 6 and 20 inches tall. It blooms from April through August.

Bee balm (Monarda clonopardia L) – Perennial. This monarda blooms July through September.  White or pink to purple flowers which bumble bees love.

Gaillardia (Gaillardia pulchelle) – Annual, although may reseed. 1-2 ft. In warm winters, it may not die back at all. Blooms May through August. If it rains much, it may. bloom through September and October. Attractive to birds and bees.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – Perennial. 1-2 ft. Readily reseeds. Blooms June through October. Birds love the seeds of this plant and many people leave them in the garden all winter. The dry seed heads are quite attractive.

Giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) – Perennial. 3-6 ft. Has similar characteristics of its smaller cousin, the black-eyed Susan, except the seed heads are much larger.

Hinckley’s columbine (Aquillegia chrysantha) – Perennial. 1-3 ft. Blooms April, May, June. Originally found in Presidio County, Texas. It does well in the shade.

Lance-leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) – Perennial . 1-4 ft. Forms large colonies. April – through August.  Birds love the seeds in winter.

These plants are only a tiny portion of the native and heat-tolerant plants that do well here. They provide colorful blooms and interesting foliage from native plants who have evolved throughout the millennia to live on available rainfall alone and plants that have adapted to our climate. For more information on native plants, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin has an exhaustive interactive list. The site also provides names and locations of native plant nurseries and seed companies.

 

 

Living on the edge (of the woods)


 

Population is growing – not just here in The Woodlands, or in Montgomery County, or in Texas, for that matter.

As that population grows, as new residential and commercial construction increases, the condition and size of natural habitat, where all varieties of species thrive, decreases. That may just be one of the facts of life of the 21st century.

Let’s talk about here in Montgomery County, and specifically in The Woodlands. Once, this area was a vast, contiguous tract of mostly pine forest. As development began, not only did the natural habitat area shrink, but it became fragmented.

While it may still resemble one, it no longer is a forest. It becomes, in effect, the edge of a forest, and is known to biologists, unsurprisingly, as the edge effect. Light, wind, temperature, moisture all change the dynamics of this ecosystem.

As we develop more “islands,” we change the requirements for native species of all types – birds, insects, mammals, plants, fungi and other flora and fauna.

Species which thrive deep in a forest are forced to abandon their habitat. The only species left are those which  thrive on the edges of a forest (or any native habitat). One might take a look at what’s left of the once magnificent Katy prairie to get an idea of what can happen to any habitat.

The species that are most affected by the loss of deep forest habitat are song birds. Decreasing the size of the forested area, and further fragmenting it with roads, reduces the living area of these species. A road cut through a forested area takes up a lot more room than just the thoroughfare. Increasing the edge of a forest also affects the reproductive abilities of many species.

Creating “islands” or forest edges without forests allows predators, of which there are many, easy access to many desirable species, including  the nests of song birds. These predators, which include racoons, cats (domestic and feral), rodents (not only rats – squirrels frequently raid nests for eggs or nestlings), skunks, snakes, oppossums, and predatory birds like the cowbird, who lays her eggs in the nest of a host species.

Is there a solution? Weighing the realistic needs of a human population against the retention of desirable species is a conundrum. Even in planned communities like The Woodlands, reduction of natural habitat for many species which once thrived here has been rampant.

End of rant.

Ragged gardens beginning to flourish after January Freeze


I think spring is finally here. At least with these much warmer temperatures, the outside chance of a very late frost has dwindled significantly.

The warmer temperatures are coaxing the many wildflowers into growth spurts. My numerous amaryllis and St. Joseph lilies are blooming non-stop and my Dutch iris blooms are already a memory. My 10-foot tall angel trumpet growth succumbed to the January freeze, but only the part above ground was affected. All of them have again sprouted from the roots, looking healthy and strong. I gave them a little slow release organic fertilizer to help them on their way.

The lion’s ear in my front yard had reached over six feet last summer, but it too froze back to the ground. It is now sending out sprouts, as are the four or five varieties of lantana, plumbago, night blooming jasmine, and Texas star hibiscus.

I did lose my ginger root plants (Zingiber officianale) …at least they’re not up yet. But my ginger lily (Hedychium sp.) is looking so well that I have already divided it.

Based on all that circumstantial evidence (also using the time-tested lore of budding pecan trees), I would venture to say that spring has arrived.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) publishes a “Day of the Last Spring Freeze” map, which roughly corresponds to the U.S.D.A. Cold Hardiness Zone Map. The USDA map is the standard which gardeners and growers can use to find out which plants are most likely to thrive in a location.

Both maps draw a ragged line across Montgomery County. The jagged line, which runs southwest from Cleveland in the east to Magnolia in the west, currently divide Montgomery County almost in half. The northern part, which includes about three-fourths of Conroe, all of Willis, Cut and Shoot, Montgomery, and about half of Magnolia, is in Zone 8B. The southern part is in Zone 9A. The difference is that the area designated as 9A has become, on average, about 10 degrees warmer than the northern part of the line.

The southern part includes The Woodlands, Kingwood, New Caney, about a fourth of Conroe, Oak Ridge North, Shenandoah, Porter, about half of Magnolia and Spring. The line has two long prongs, one which stretches north almost to Lake Conroe, and another that almost reaches Dobbin Lake.

My plants can’t read maps, but they generally do know when the ground and ambient air is warm enough to stick their little green arms out of the ground. Sometimes, they might be surprised, but chances are, they’re not going to be this year.

So, you can start trimming back the dead parts of your plants. If you’re doing compost, the pruned parts make a great addition. Just make sure you cut all the hardwood stems into very small pieces or shred them.

Texas Earthkind  offers a great list of which ornamentals do well here, Hundreds of beautiful plants are featured.

In the vegetable garden, it’s almost too late to plant tomatoes, although if you’re brave enough, you can try. Early Girl tomatoes produce in about 55 days from the day you put them in the ground. That means, if you set them in today, they’ll be producing around the middle of May. Longer producing varieties may not produce until June. Then nighttime temperatures may have risen so high that the tomatoes will stop setting fruit.

Many people planted beans the first week of March and cucumbers the second or third week. Mine are about 8 inches high already, although my cucumbers just sprouted last week. The Montgomery Master Gardener website (http://www.mcmga.com) has a printable calendar on what vegetables to plant when.

 

 

Anyone can propagate plants…squirrels, birds and other animals do it regularly


 

Every spring as I go through my gardens, I find tiny oak seedlings sprouting from the ground…not just a few, but enough to create a forest if I were to let them grow. Some of these are surely caused by acorns falling to the ground and germinating.

Most, especially those growing far enough away from oaks to assure that they weren’t there by chance (unless acorns can walk), were brought there and buried intentionally…by squirrels, of course. The squirrels, having eaten their fill in the fall, begin burying acorns for winter supplies (literally squirreling them away). These bushy-tailed creatures, having short memories, forget where they buried the acorns. The acorns then germinate and sprout.

Houston holly, otherwise known as yaupon, or its Latin moniker Ilex vomitoria, is spread ubiquitously throughout the area by cedar waxwings, who eat the berries of the female plants. The pulp of the berries is digested, and the seeds pass through the bird and then onto the ground, where some sprout.

In interesting and complex symbiosis, plants and animals help each other. Plants provide food, and many animals help spread the plants’ seeds. We humans do too. How many times have we pruned a plant (or removed one completely) and the next spring, many new seedlings appear around the spot? Seeds have shaken loose and dropped to the ground as we were removing parts of the plant. Of course, I’m belaboring the obvious.

I often reseed my natives by stripping some of the ripe seed heads in the fall. Some I spread on soil in the yard, and some I save in old medicine pill bottles for future use. I also start some collected seeds in starter pots for transplanting into the garden after they sprout.

I have many gardener friends who save vegetable seeds from the previous crop. For some plants  (like tomatoes) it’s a little tedious. I have other friends, though, who buy seeds for all their vegetables and start them in their little garage growing areas. And one can start just about any plant from seed.

In a series of articles, I’m going to provide some guidelines for growing your own plants from seed, cuttings, and various other methods to propagate plants.

 

 

Cold weather heeby-jeebies


The temptation to get out my Felco pruners and my lopper and going to work on all my plants that have been damaged from the freeze. The soggy mushy crinums. The drooping brugmansia, the unattractive plumbago, even the perennial butterfly weed, its dry stems and brown rustling leaves that I think are very attractive, but  at the same time, I’m longing for the green to sprout.

Only a couple of things hold me back. One, if I cut off the damaged limbs and various appendages of my plants, it will be difficult for me to tell where the damaged part ends and the live part begins. If I cut into the green that might cause the plant to sprout during some warm days. That would be okay if there are no more cold snaps, but with our recent weather (it’s snowed twice this year) that would be hard to predict. If I do prune, the plants do sprout again and another cold period arrives, the sprouts will also be frozen and the entire plant may not recover.  I don’t know if we’re going to have another cold storm. We’re in mid-January. Spring generally starts here on the upper Gulf Coast in very late February or early March. But with this kind of weather, who knows what might happen. Additionally, the dead material will help insulate the plant until spring actually arrives.

In my vegetable garden, I covered my Brassicae (cabbages, brocolli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts) with frost cloth and a tarp, but I could just as well have covered them with ice cubes. When I checked on them Tuesday afternoon, they were stiff as a board and as brittle as thin glass.

What a surprise when on Thursday afternoon, after the worst had passed, they were not only thawed, but what I thought would be mush instead were tall and sturdy leaved, green and thriving plants. And they are all close to harvest.

The reason that Brassicas and other cold -tolerant plants can withstand lower temperatures is because of their sugar content. Cold-weather crops have more sugar in their cells. Sugar water has a lower freezing temperature than plain water. Plants that are not cold-hardy have much less sugar in their cells, so have a higher freezing temperature. When the water freezes and then thaws, it causes the cell walls to burst. Plants with higher than average sugar content have a much greater advantage surviving freezing temperatures. If you notice, many cold-weather plants taste sweeter after a freeze or frost.

Our roses didn’t seem to be very affected at all. Most of them are natives from the Great Plains, and are, I’m sure, used to cold weather. Even the Duchess de Brabant bloomed throughout the weather and looks totally unscathed. But the crinums, angel trumpets, Turk’s cap, and a host of other plants are going to have a struggle – if they survive at all.

I do plan to take my own advice (if I have the stamina, patience and intestinal fortitude) and wait until early spring to prune everything. But when I look at my once-beautiful plants, I feel like Dr. Strangelove, my hand uncontrollably drawn to my left-handed pruners instead of the “button.” I have been spending cold evenings in my garage, polishing, cleaning, oiling and sharpening them. Maybe it’s just the cold weather and a slight case of cabin fever – not me becoming a serial planticidal maniac.

 

On plant propagation


This article is the first in a series of articles on plant propagation.

When the first shoot of a plant breaks the ground, waving its tiny embryonic leaves, I am always overcome with satisfaction and elation.

A tiny seed I planted and in days or weeks, has germinated, sprouted and is on its way to becoming an entity that has a vascular system, creates its own food and, will one day bloom, grow its own fruit and seeds, and perhaps provide food for myself, my family, birds and other wildlife, enrich the soil and, eventually be turned into compost, making the nutrients in its leaves, stems and flowers available for the next generation of plants.

Despite their dramatic entrances, embryonic seeds are not the only way of creating new plants. Division, vegetative, layering, cuttings, grafting and budding are also tried and true methods.

My dad knew about grafting and budding long ago. He loved citrus and was rather obsessed on the processes. He and a volunteer from Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service (that’s before master gardeners appeared on the horizon) would assiduously graft and bud different citrus species onto trifoliata stock. Poncirus trifoliata – a close relative of the Citrus genus – is one of the root stocks that growers use to create stronger and more productive plants.

Seeds are the result of sexual reproduction of flowering plants and conifers. As I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar in one way or another with sexual reproduction, I’m not going to bore you with the obvious.

Seeds from different plants have different characteristics. Some need to be sown deeply into soil or growing medium. Some need to be sown shallowly, and some need to be exposed to light before they can germinate.

Some seeds have pulp around them which needs to be removed before planting. Other seeds have extremely hard shells and require scarification (nicking the seed with a knife or rubbing it with sandpaper) to assist the embryo in emerging. Other seeds need to be stratified – soaked or placed in a cold place for a period before they can be planted.

If you’re looking for a gardening hobby to keep you occupied on cold winter weekends, or scorchingly hot ones, this might be something you would want to try.

I will be discussing various methods of plant propagation in future articles.

Photo: Preparing to plant Texas bluebonnet seeds in coconut coir pots. The reddish tint on the photo is a result of using red LED lights to germinate the seeds and help the seedlings flourish. More on that in a subsequent article.

Winter is a haven for birds here


(Photo: Black-bellied whistling duck. Photo courtesy of Cornell Ornithology Lab.)

It’s literally freezing outside, but I took some moments to do a little bird watching. Since my office borders the waterway, I see a great many waterfowl around.

Last year, I saw an eagle catch a fish, land about 100 yards away and proceed to feed. Awesome sight. Today, despite the freezing temperature  – or perhaps because of it – water birds are congregating.

Herons, both great blues and whites, mallards, black-bellied whistling ducks, cormorants, a few terns and a gull all depending on the water for a meal.

Mallards are migratory, but some live here all year long. Along the waterway, there are four drakes, one of which is an albino, who have masterfully kept all other drakes out of the area. I have seen fewer hens, although twice mallard hens have built nests in our parking lot and hatched eggs…waddling to the water with the ducklings in tow. Once, a duckling was left in the nest. One of the caring souls here took it home and added it to their small flock of domestic ducks. The little fellow grew to adulthood, only to be eaten by a hungry fox.

While cormorants and black-bellied whistling ducks tend to be around all year, there are more of them flying around in the winter. Both species are migratory.

Cormorants tend to spend their winters along the southern coastal states, but also winter in Oklahoma, Arkansas add eastern Tennessee. They spend summers in their breeding grounds of the northern states (Idaho, Montana, The Dakotas, and Canada – although they might extend east into Minnesota and Michigan.) However, some cormorants live along the Gulf Coast all year as well. People often see them on the edges of waterways with their wings outstretched. Because they are diving birds, their feathers tend to become waterlogged. They stretch their wings to dry the feathers. Cormorants can dive up to 25 feet.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to the valley and to Mexico, but they do like to overwinter here. As with all the migratory birds however, some live here all year long. These birds nest in mesquite, hackberry, willow, live oak and other trees. They especially like cavity nests in dead trees. They actually do whistle, and look more like geese than ducks. Ornithologists are recording that they are expanding the northern part of their range.

Great blue herons. These large birds feed on just about anything they can catch and swallow. While their favorite food is fish, they will eat ducklings, rats, mice, and other small mammals, frogs, and other birds. Although some are migratory, many of them do not migrate. Last year, a great blue with a broken wing wandered into as parking lot near here. The animal was almost as tall as me. A park ranger and myself finally cornered him, and with the help of a cast net, finally capture it. I took it to animal rehab where they repaired its wing and released it back into the wild. Great blues are a federally protected bird.

Great white heron. Also federally protected, the great white, unlike its more sedately colored cousin, tend to not migrate, although, even if they do, their range is limited. Those along the Gulf Coast are generally permanent residents.

There are several elegant common  terns in the lake as well. They spend their summers mostly in Central Canada, but their winter migratory regions encompass most of the coastal United States and Mexico. Terns will fly over water, hover there, and them plunge to catch prey. Sometimes they will also pursue insects on the fly.

 

Genetically speaking…


I want to introduce you to my friend and fellow gardener Bernard, a tall Dutchman who lives here and who loves gardening as much or more than I do. His real love is vegetable gardening.

Bernard starts all his vegetables from seed. When he built his house, he added a small space in his garage for his seed propagation area. He has a seed-starting light set up with tray warmers. He’s also got a steady hand. Prying tiny lettuce seedling roots apart for transplant requires the steadiness of a surgeon.

When he was a child in Indonesia, he and his mother were interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.   It was there that he learned gardening. Vegetable gardening was allowed, so the prisoners made the most of it to supplement their meager daily rations of a handful of rice. I suppose this experience further strengthened the Dutch proclivity for frugality.

Bernard spent most of his adult life setting up farms in Third World countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the World Bank… and honing his gardening skills.

Things couldn’t be much different between Bernard and me. He’s obsessively orderly. I’m obsessive as well, but I’m on the disorderly side of the coin. Also, as I mentioned, he’s a tall guy and I’m significantly shorter.

Most Dutch people I have met were tall, and I’ve wondered about this. Interestingly, I discovered that scientists also wondered about it. A century and a half ago, the Dutch were some of the shortest people in Europe. Something significant changed during that period. The Dutch are now, on average, the tallest of Europeans. And an interesting side note…we Americans are becoming, on average, shorter.

There are several theories about this phenomenon. Enhanced farming practices which the Dutch are now known for meant better nutrition. Better nutrition meant healthier people. Healthier people began to grow taller. It only took a few generations to happen.

And, it seemed that taller Dutch men and women began producing more children and most of those children tended to be taller. Some scientists believe that what’s happening in Holland could be evolution in progress.

It’s probably a combination of better nutrition, healthier habits and selective procreation. Regardless, the possibilities are interesting.

Now my friend also has a beautiful yard. Plants and flowers (all raised in his little garage greenhouse) are “just so”. He’s organized for sure. He keeps impeccable records of his plantings and their progress, what species and varieties he has purchased, when he bought the seed, where he bought it, how much he paid for it, when he planted  and transplanted, notes he has made about problems with specific species and more items than I can name here.

Myself, on the other hand, find that keeping records with too much detail removes some of the fun and mystery about seed germination.

His back and front yard are immaculately groomed, with lovely, well-mannered plants gracing well-kept beds.

My yard, on the other hand, is what Bernard refers to as a “jungle.” I think what he actually said was “Damn Jungle”. I used to blame the difference between his orderly Teutonic background and my wild “Gallic” background. Looking at me and my slightly olive complexion, it’s easy to assume that my origins are southern European. However, my DNA report came back to let me know that most of my ancestry was Irish, English, and, get this, Nordic.

Genetically, we’re probably similar. Culturally, we couldn’t be more different. But I’m still short and all my children are short. Two different varieties of the same genus and species. Which rather shows how diverse our world has become…and how similar at the same time.

Photo: Genetically, there is little difference between the many varieties of irises. Louisiana, Dutch, Japanese, Bearded, Siberian et. al. are all genetic cousins.

Where have all the fireflies gone?


Hunting frogs at night along dark waterways, edged by cypress swamps is an interesting pastime, especially if the nearest town with streetlights is 10 miles of dirt road away.

The best time to hunt frogs is on a moonless night, where the headlight I wore would temporarily blind the frogs and make them easier to catch. I know this sounds a little barbaric, but how else is one going to enjoy the delicacy of fried frog legs – called “cuisses de grenouille” in five-star French restaurants. But hunting frogs is a story for another time.

The point is that, in the swamp and along the bayous that meander through them, a moonless night is pitch black. Pitch black except for the millions of tiny lights moving in the sky and the countless millions of unmoving stars behind them. The moving lights were not only in the sky. They extended into the dark cypress swamps on either side. They hovered above the black waters.  They swirled directly above my head.

Fireflies! Some synchronizing their chemical bioluminescence in unison, while others blinked on and off in a cacophony of light. Sometimes I would forget the frogs, turn off the headlight and simply drift with the sluggish current, lying back in my skiff as the light show passed above me.

That was, as human lifetimes go, a good many years ago.  A more recent experience occurred along Panther Creek perhaps eight or nine years ago. It was twilight and I was walking Leon, my now-deceased goofy boxer. I thought I saw a tiny pinpoint of light in the corner of my eye. Then another. I had heard from someone that people on the verge of a stroke (or was it heart attack) sometimes saw flashes of light.

Suddenly, a thousand flashing lights emerged. Immediately across the creek was a small meadow and the lights converged on it, floating around the thigh-high tops of native grass. And then, just before all light faded, a small herd of deer walked into the meadow. Their legs obscured by the tall grass, they appeared to be floating on fairy dust. I was speechless. Leon, who would have ordinarily charged after the deer, dropped his jaw and sat. It was one of the rarest and most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

Several years ago, visiting a friend west of Willis, I saw about a dozen lonely fireflies flitting around his 10-acre property. And then nothing. I haven’t seen a firefly in several years, although I must believe that somewhere in southeast Texas and southern Louisiana, they still exist and perhaps thrive.

Fireflies are in the insect family Lampyridae, in the beetle order of Coleoptera. Their glow comes from the chemical luciferin. The name has the same Latin root as Lucifer, which basically means “light-bearer.”

 

Scientists are now studying the effects of luciferin in diagnosing tumors, cancer and muscular dystrophy, which may one day bring some true medical breakthroughs. They are also studying luciferin in preventing food spoilage and bacterial comtamination.

On the other hand, scientists are also studying why there has been such a dramatic decline in fireflies. They think that growing light pollution from enlarging human populations has a direct effect on them, as well as loss of habitat and increased insecticide use has dramatically reduced the populations.

I plan to go back one dark and moonless night to those three bayous and see if things have changed. If not, I may be treated to another awesome light show.

 

 

 

The world under our feet


Living in our urban and suburban world, we most often think of the ground under our feet as a surface to put buildings and roads on, dig canals, and foundations and ponds, meanwhile plopping a few plants hither and thither to create what we think of as “landscapes.”

The “ground” as many of us call it is part of something much greater…part of our living planet, just as much as our dwindling forests, the air we breathe, and the plants and animals we eat…and interestingly, it plays a large part in all those as well.

For the “ground” is soil. It provides habitat for countless beings (there are more living things in a shovel full of soil than there are humans living on this planet). It is, as the Swiss Confederation reported recently, “the connecting element between the atmosphere and the groundwater.”

Our understanding of soil is just beginning to emerge as perhaps one of the 21st century’s greatest scientific breakthroughs.  Soil is the basis for food production, the habitat for innumerable organisms, a water filter and a natural store for carbon and water.

Here in North America, rock, ground down by glaciers, wind, water and other natural events, flowed down streams and rivers, deposited by floods and changing river beds, spread and deposited across the land.

In some places, large inland seas left huge deposits of organic material, as well as rocks and sand.

Sun, rain, frost and soil organisms worked together symbiotically in weathering the rock material, ultimately breaking it down into smaller and smaller particles. Slowly, soil took form. And in that form, plants and land animals began to thrive.

All the living beings that reside in the soil, all the minerals and elements that lay inside that structure, form not just a self-contained ecosystem which exists under our feet, but a truly ancient and rich ecosystem, tied inexorably to all the other ecosystems on the planet.