27 February 2013

Queen's Tears Bromeliad

May 2009
My Queen's Tears Bromeliad (Billbergia nutans) surprised me back in January when it started growing a flower stalk.  These plants have always surprised me - ever since I got my first one at a plant swap at least five years ago.  I see them at almost every plant swap now, so I'll bet that everyone that attends them regularly has one.

First, a little about bromeliads:  They are native to South America.  They are epiphytes, or "air plants", which means they have very few roots - they get most of their nutrients and water from the air.  Some have suggested that they are slightly carnivorous, obtaining nutrients from insects that fall into their water-filled cups.

August 2010
More traditional varieties of bromeliads are sold in garden centers, usually a single rosette already in bloom in a decorative pot.  Their blooms tend to be long-lasting and people will get rid of them when the blooms die.  Bromeliads will bloom only once per rosette, so it is important to encourage the growth of additional rosettes.  

They seem like very tropical plants, but many do well here in coastal SC given the right conditions.  The first few years I had them, they went completely neglected, even to the point of letting them stay outside during our coldest nights.  Despite this they survived and bloomed most years.  I have since planted them in our shade garden, which gets a little morning and afternoon sun, and shade the rest of the day.  Some people recommend anywhere from almost full sun to almost full shade.  My experience is that mine could use a little more sun - he flower stalk seemed a little too elongated, like it was stretching for the light.

March 2011
Being epiphytic, they can live almost anywhere - growing on the side of a tree or planted in the ground.  They have few roots, just enough to anchor them, and they get their moisture and nutrients from the air like the name suggests.  They like humidity and, when it rains, their cups fill with water.  If yours is in a pot, you will need to fertilize - everywhere I looked recommended a diluted, balanced, liquid fertilizer, but few mentioned foliar feeding.  This may be preferable since bromeliads are epiphytes.

January 2013
My Queen's Tears bromeliad has bloomed at such random times of the year, that I had to look up their bloom time - any time of the year - that's what one site said, but I suspect it's usually spring through fall.  I find this interesting - there are ways to force your bromeliad to bloom.  One way is to add a little Epsom salt (Magnesium sulfate) to their water.  The other way is probably better known, especially with other plants - place an apple next to the plant and cover both of them with a plastic bag.  Leave them together for a week or more - the bromeliad should bloom within the next 1-2 months.

January 2013
As you can see from the photos, my bromeliad has bloomed almost every season throughout the years.  I think it didn't bloom in 2012, because that's when I transplanted it into its current home, our shade garden under a giant live oak.  But obviously it must like being there if it resumed blooming the next year.  I hope this has given you some information about this plant, and I hope everyone will look for it at the next plant swap - I have no doubt that someone will bring one.  For more information about the swap, click here.  Thanks for reading!

24 February 2013

Drought or Flood?

Our immediate area doesn't have storm drains, but a series of ditches and swales that divert stormwater to nearby drains.  I'm sure they worked well in 1951 when our house was built, but I can see how, over the years, the landscape changed and they became less effective.  When we bought this house in 2006, the yard had some drainage issues.  The biggest problem was in the back yard - back then, I noticed that when it rained, it came down in buckets.  That is a problem when your yard doesn't drain well.

So, these series of ditches I mentioned?  The ones in the front yard run along the street and eventually meet up with a storm drain.  The one in the back yard along our property line is supposed to meet up with another that runs to the street behind us, down our neighbors' property line.  The problem?  At some point this ditch was filled in and planted in our neighbor's back yard.  The standing water in our yard can't drain, but our other neighbor's whole back yard becomes a lake.

We've been in a drought for a number of years, and flooding hasn't been a problem recently.  January  was thought to be the driest month here since records have been kept, but yesterday was the rainiest February 23rd ever.  Our normal rainfall for February is about 3 inches - we had over 2 inches yesterday with a monthly total of almost 9 inches.  Did I mentioned the thunderstorms forecast for tomorrow?  All of this flooding has made me think of preventative measures I took, or how I changed the way I garden, to take all of this into account.  I built raised beds.

My first back yard vegetable garden wasn't in the sunniest part of the yard, so I relocated it the next year.  Then I found out how much that part of the yard flooded.  The first year I grew potatoes it flooded like this just before I was going to harvest them.  Then came the raised beds.  I was thinking recently about moving away from that in the future, but all of this rain makes me wonder if I should.  I think I will stick with raised bed, in a way.  I expect the beds in the front yard to become nice mounds of fertile soil over time as I add compost and avoid tilling for the most part.  There are a couple of low areas out there right now that need a little help.  When I pulled radishes this morning I noticed some peas that were underwater.

I can't do too much about the water in the first photo, but there are areas around our garage and near the house that I can do something about.  I have set up rain barrels in the hopes of diverting some of the water that has nowhere to go after it leaves the downspout, but I have plans for more.  One of those is digging a dry well - or many of them.  There are a lot of different plans for these on the internet, but basically they use the same idea.  Dig a deep, cylindrical hole.  Line it with landscape fabric.  Fill it with drainage rock.  Cover it with landscape fabric, soil and sod.  When there is more rain than your soil can hold, these wells will hold some or all of the excess until it can be reabsorbed.

For photos of the flood of 2010, click here; for the flood of 2013, click here.

17 February 2013

More about chicken fencing and hawk attacks

Since the chickens have been mostly kept behind their new fence, we haven't seemed to have as much problem with hawks.  About half the area has a decent web of monofilament overhead, but the other half is a little more open.  I haven't taken the time to put up the fishing line, and there isn't as much to attach it to - that's going to take a little more thought...and work.

I was working in yard the other day when a shadow caught my eye - a hawk had just flown over my head, just a foot or two above, headed straight for the chicken area.  When it reached the new fence and monofilament, it banked hard and flew up over the garage.  I took this as anecdotal evidence that what I had done was protecting the chickens.  So much for that theory.

Last night was probably as cold as it's been all winter - 29 degrees here. After a cold night hawks are hungry.  About 8:30 this morning we hear the sounds of a hawk attack.  We see chickens hiding in one area, but no signs of a disturbance.  I go inside the fence to look around and it's quiet, until I hear a squawk.  There are a number of small volunteer nandina bushes in the area - I can't decide whether to cut them down, or leave them as cover for the chickens.  I move toward one these bushes and a hawk flies out of it, trying to carry one of the chickens with it.  Before it gets out of the yard it drops the hen.  I was able to catch her and take a look at her and she seems ok for the most part.  Meanwhile the chickens have mostly left the area through the gate that I left open.  The area where this attack happened was the less-well-protected area that I mentioned before.

So now that the chickens are out there's nothing I can do - it's like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.  They've congregated in an area against the house, near the back steps and the HVAC and the hot water heater.  It seems fairly safe to me, so I go back the the house.  An hour or so later we hear noises again, and a hawk has tried to get them there as well.  After a while I become curious where the chickens might be hiding this time.  I look all over the yard and I can only find two - one in a nesting box and one in the nandina.  Just after eleven - another hawk attack!  It appears the hen in the bush left to join the other chickens and was attacked the same place as before, near the house.  Ella came out and we were able to grab her and put her with the rest of the chickens.  They were apparently hiding in our covered garden storage area, among the pots and wire fencing.  No wonder I couldn't find them.

I hope they are going to be ok the rest of the day.  We have plans later and won't be around to protect them.  Everything that has happened today has made it that much more important that I work on putting up more monofilament and protecting the chickens better.

Farming Anecdotes

I've had a few busy weeks lately and it doesn't look like it's going to let up any time soon.  I hope to have time to work on this blog soon, but we'll have to see.  One of the things I was busy with this week was visiting with a college friend who was in town.  We went out to dinner one night with several people, including his parents.  I knew his dad did some farming, so I was excited to talk to him about that.  Being a master gardener is something completely different than being a farmer - each may have a lot of expertise, but in my case, it's the farmer that has the life experience and wisdom.

I started the conversation by asking him what he was growing.  He's got peas and onions going right now, with potatoes next week - I said I had peas and just planted potatoes, and planned to put onions in the ground next week.  We talked about growing watermelons in Varnville - if it's not, it ought to be the watermelon capital of the world: I asked him about powdery mildew - he said you had to get them in the ground early, about March 15th.  Very little automation has come to the world of watermelon farming.  The seeds go in by hand and they are harvested by hand.  He told me how many acres he used to farm, but I forgot.  I asked him about late spring frosts and he said they used to set tires out in the field and burn them.  The cover of smoke would keep the frost off of the plants.  He said he reckons that they probably couldn't do that nowadays.  I'm sure he's right about that.

11 February 2013

Chicken Fence

So, the fence...as of Saturday afternoon it was finished.  I still have a few details to take care of, but it is functional.  Like I mentioned before, I still have a small area to close off on the other side of the garage.  The fence got its test run last Sunday morning and the chickens weren't happy.  One of the smaller bantams flew over it, which made the larger birds even more anxious about getting out.  I couldn't watch that, so I opened the gate.  I felt like I had failed, but it reminded me that there was more to this than just the fence.

I remembered that I thought this might happen, and that I needed to clip some wings.  I didn't have much time left in the weekend, so after the chickens went to bed and it got dark, I went out there and was able to grab each of the smaller hens and clip one wing, and put them back without causing too much of a ruckus.  It will make me feel better if none of them are able to get out - that way everyone will get used to the idea of a smaller space.  When I say "smaller space", I'm still talking more than a thousand square feet as opposed to a quarter acre.  We went through this when we first got our flock, so it's just a matter of time before everyone is adjusted.

Another part of fencing them off was to protect them better than I could when they had the run of the yard - that includes stringing fishing line above as much the area as possible.  I had heard that the fishing line kept the hawks away from the chickens.  I wasn't sure if they saw and stayed away, or they would hit it and become disoriented.  Although they have attacked our flock numerous times, I was wary of doing anything that might hurt the hawks.  I just did some reading around the web and the consensus is that the hawk sees it and stays away.  I hope that is the case.  I still have a few more areas to string it up, but I'm more than half way done.

It's been a week since I wrote this post and the chickens have adjusted fine.  It is different having them fenced off.  We're not able to interact with them in the same way, and they've become more skittish around us, almost immediately.  When they see me, sometimes they act like they want to get out - I still feel like I've done something bad to them!  We'll get used to it, and hopefully they're more protected.  Anyway, I have been letting them out in the evenings.  I just planed my backyard garden for the first time in almost a year.  In the last week the chickens hadn't made it as far as the garden in their evening wanderings, but today they immediately found it.  That's ok - they can't do much damage right now.

03 February 2013

My Week Off

I took the week off - one would think that I took a vacation from this blog, but that's not true.  I've been hard at work volunteering at the Master Gardener's office, planting fruit trees at Cypress Gardens, and building a chicken fence at home - and, if I have time, building a few rain barrels.

I'm always afraid that I will procrastinate when I take time off from work - I never seem to get everything done that I had planned.  This has not been one of those times.  My main project was building a chicken fence.  We've had some hawk attacks, and we are also tired of the chickens having the run of the yard, so a fence was in order.  It's been planned for a long time, but it finally got built this week - as of this writing, everything but the gate is finished.  I started out the week very motivated, and the fence was probably three-quarters finished by Monday night.  I had hopes that I could finish by then, because the next two or three days would be busy.

When I had my week off planned, the first thing I scheduled was a double shift at the Master Gardener's office.  I wasn't sure how I would feel about working the whole day, but, while the morning crept by slowly, the afternoon was very busy which made time fly.  Also I managed to work on the fence for a short time before and after volunteering.

On Wednesday I was scheduled to volunteer planting trees at Cypress Gardens in the morning.  I don't usually prefer these kind of volunteer activities, mainly because I feel like I have similar things I can do in my own yard, but I saw an opportunity - I was getting into Cypress Gardens for free, I was getting lunch, and I was planning to spend the afternoon exploring the swamp.  There was a lot of walking to sites where we were going to plant these trees - they were starting a fruit orchard and we were planting these, mostly bare root, trees in a couple of different locations.  The dozen or more volunteers made short work of the plantings and we were fed lunch.  Afterward I spend a couple of hours walking the four plus miles of trails through the cypress swamps.  All of the signs telling you to watch out for alligators became a little unnerving, but I only heard one the whole time I was there.

I thought I would be completely free to do other things by Thursday, but I spent a little more time on the fence, reaching the point of almost finishing the gate.  By the evening, I felt like the week was almost over, but in reality I have three whole days left - plenty of time to do a few more things around the house...

Two of those three days are gone now without much to show for it - at least around the house.  I never really took a whole day off the entire week, so that's what happened on Friday.  It was a good idea too - the cold and flu that I had missed when it happened at my house earlier this year landed at my feet Thursday night.  Luckily I'm only talking about a cold.  It hasn't been bad, but I wish I didn't have it - and I go back to work on Monday.  So, Saturday, after it warmed up, I was able to finish the gate, so the chickens will have a smaller area to call their own now.  I do have a few more details to finish - cut and attach boards so the gate looks like the rest of the fence, and block off a small area between the garage and the fence.  I also have to remove our clothesline that now crosses the fence and put up an umbrella-style one.  I'm in the process of running fishing line over the entire area to deter any hawk attacks as well.  I've heard this a number of places - I hope it works.  Another possible long-term goal is to put up additional rows of fence boards to make it look more like a fence.

More on the outcome of the fence later.

01 February 2013

Mixson Triangle Survey

I originally posted this last year, but recently construction projects have started again and this area will soon be multi-family housing units.

Chinese Wisteria
A saw a very different episode of "Naturscene" on SCETV a while ago.  Instead of hiking through a state park or nature preserve, naturalist Rudy Mancke took viewers to a vacant lot in the middle of Columbia, SC.  It was interesting what he was able to find there despite it being in a large city.  I've been eying a vacant area in our neighborhood with the idea of exploring it for a few years now.  It was the site of a WWII housing project until about 2006, when the houses were razed and part of the area was prepared for a large, new-urbanist development.  They built less than ten units with a vision of creating an Italian-style village, but it stalled with the economy, and the design was probably not the best fit for the area.  Every time I drive by this area I'm calling the Mixson Triangle, I look to see what's blooming, or I notice something that I hadn't seen before.  I've gotten a couple of day lilies and maybe a few other flowers from the triangle, but I wanted to go and traipse around and really see what was growing there.

Large Amaryllis
Despite being a very hot, sunny day, I decided to go exploring.  I parked at the north corner of the triangle and work my way south, coming back up near Mixson Avenue.  I knew some of the plants I would find - since it used to be a residential area I expected to see azaleas and other landscape plants, but I was surprised I didn't see as many cultivated plants that I knew were there.
I knew I should find at least one Gladiolus near where I started.  Ours have started to come up, but I couldn't find this one.  Knowing a lot of flowers weren't blooming now - too early for day lilies and possibly too late for narcissus - I was looking hard at all of the foliage, trying to identify anything I could.  The two things I couldn't miss were azaleas and Chinese wisteria.  The whole area was peppered with wisteria and azaleas were one of the last vestiges of this once-residential area.  One of the few cultivated plants I found was a single large Amaryllis, with multiple flowers.
I know I shouldn't be surprised by this, but there was a lot of what we call (Virginia) Spiderwort, or Tradescantia virginiana.  It's native to our area, growing wild all over the neighborhood, but I've never seen any that looked as good as these.  They looked very healthy and robust, unlike the ones on our street.
Virginia Spiderwort
Just off of Holmes Avenue near Durant Avenue, I came across a large patch of ferns, but not much of anything else.  As I worked my way through the brush over to Mixson Avenue, I found several large areas full of blackberries.  I imagine nearby residents probably get there fill once they start producing fruit.  Unfortunately, these people are probably the reason for the large amount of trash strewn along the fence line between Holmes and Durant.  Except for a few pine trees and lots of little oaks, there was not much of interest among the dead annual weeds and grasses in most of the lot.  I know there were lots of Narcissus bulbs scattered throughout the area, but I found few signs of them.  I thought there were more Yuccas, but I only saw a couple.
One of my last discoveries was a line of Narcissus foliage near a blooming azalea and a nice river birch tree.  I could imagine a house once being there, the flowers line the front with the bushes and trees.  I know one day it will be redeveloped, but, with a little imagination, it's a small window into the past.

For more photos, click here