The Clampetts Move to Maryland

So long, Virginny.

We moved into our new home near Solomons Island, Maryland on June 3.

It is a beautiful beige colonial with a forested backyard, the smell of freshwater in the air,  box turtles aplenty roaming around the undergrowth and songbirds in the trees.

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The house the day before the moving truck arrived. Lovely, of course. But I’m done with grass – it’s a monoculture of almost no value to wildlife that requires enormous inputs of chemicals and energy. It has to go. (Insert villainous, maniacal laughter here.)

I cannot wait to explore the nature of the Patuxent River, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Potomac River!  I start my new job as a naturalist for Point Lookout State Park  – getting paid to love and share nature! – on Wednesday.

But first things first:  setting up house.

It’s an unholy mess.

A godawful, ridiculous disaster of boxes and deliveries and donations and pee-soaked carpets and unhung art pieces.

It’s overflowing into the front yard.  Between the empty boxes and the old, broken washing machines, we look like the Beverly Hillbillies, the Clampetts.

And now I’m making it worse.  I’m flattening the cardboard boxes and laying them on top of the lawn in order to kill the grass.

Lawn mostly covered with cardboard. Poor neighbors.

This is a great way to kill grass without using chemicals.  Mulch will be delivered soon to cover the cardboard for prettiness’ sake.  Beneath that mulch, the cardboard eventually biodegrades, mixing with the dead grass to make a nice organic layer in which to plant native perennials, shrubs, and trees.

Eventually.  But I just met a kind neighbor who lives catty-corner (I’ve never written out that idiom before – have I spelled it correctly?) to us, who is trying to sell his home and is having his open house tomorrow.  Catty-corner from the yard that looks like the Clampetts’.

As soon as I hit publish, I’m going downstairs to make a couple of nice, hand-lettered signs that will read:

“Beautiful, botanical-garden style front yard coming soon!”

and

“We promise, we are not the Clampetts.”

 

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Sprinting Spring

Time moves far too fast when you’re getting ready to relocate.  Between spring cleaning and house staging, I feel as if I’m missing spring!

It seems as if just a moment ago the red maple (Acer rubrum) trees were still in burgundy bud, and now their growing green “helicopter” seeds have mellowed the crimson blooms so that the trees look decked with flakes of copper.

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I allow my forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia) to grow rather large and wild; it’s tallest branches reach up to my second story window. The arching stems and myriad bright yellow blossoms make it look a little like a firework.

The forsythia bushes (Forsythia x intermedia), tulip magnolia (Magnolia lilliflora), and spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are in full bloom, not to mention actual tulips and daffodils.

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The tiny, chartreuse blossoms of the spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are a true sign of spring. The spicebush is a native shrub/small tree in this area of Virginia and, having evolved here for millennia, really “knows” when it’s spring for sure.

I have already seen mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), and cabbage white (Pieris rapae) butterflies!

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The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterfly is one of the first to emerge in spring because its caterpillars feed on willow trees, which are among the first to leaf out.

It’s wonderful to watch the Earth wake up, all blossoms and bird song – if only time would slow just a little so that I could enjoy it longer.

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It makes me unreasonably happy when the willows finally turn green. My inner child skips around singing “It’s here, it’s heeeere, spring is really heeeere!”

To capture the few seasonal moments I had between cleaning and donation runs to the local YMCA, I thought I’d write a couple of haiku poems.

I wanted to do it “right”, of course, so I quickly Googled the how-to.  Big mistake.  The rules I learned in grade school apparently no longer apply.  By the time I was done being confused by the many voices and opinions on what English haiku should comprise, I decided it would be easier just to call the following “triplet” poems.

So, here are the four quick triplets that describe the spring moments of my March:

 

cold hands

tucking in tiny roots and

courageous leaves

breaking ice,

wild yellow explodes

forsythia

warm earth

soft pink petals

hope

trilling, proud

and persistent, he calls

to his future

Signs of Spring

As a naturalist, I feel that I should love all parts of nature.

Mostly, I do.

There are two things I struggle with:

  1. Fear of animals that can kill me, and
  2. February.

I’m trying, I really am, but February is just the coldest, grayest, darkest, most desolate of months.  I think somebody put Valentine’s Day in February in an effort to cheer people up with fat little cupids and chocolate (epic fail).

But, joy to the world, this February hasn’t been so bad!  I even started seeing early signs of spring a week ago.  Here are a few to get your hopes up before the NRV gets pounded by it’s standard end-of-season, first weekend of March snow storm:

  • Robins!  A robin in a tree is a winter sighting, my mom says, but a robin on the lawn is a spring sighting.  I saw one in a tree yesterday, but one on my lawn several days ago.  Go figure.  I’m counting it as one in the early spring column.
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An American robin (Turdus migratorius) that I photographed last year in Heritage Park.

  • Grackles!  The 40-foot yellow birch tree across the street was filled with a flock of at least 50 common grackles three days ago.  They’re one of the first songbirds to return in the springtime.  This flock may still be on its way further north, but I’m counting it!
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A common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) photographed by Jacopo Werther and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  • Crocuses blooming!  Okay, I know these aren’t wildflowers, but they are one of spring’s earliest bloomers, and they’re just so pretty!
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Hello, crocuses! These brave little blossoms are peaking up out of my messy-for-the-wildlife winter garden. Ain’t they grand???

Gardner vs. Naturalist

Well, the sun is back out in Blacksburg and we are almost thoroughly dried from the floods.

The town will begin collecting autumn yard waste tomorrow morning, so I spent a good portion of the afternoon trimming branches and cutting stems of overgrown plants in my yard.

I keep a very beautiful, but very messy garden. I like to plant my perennials so close together that it’s difficult to see the weeds growing up between them.  The only downside to this is that by the end of the season, my busy garden is full of brown seed heads, spent daylily stems, and weeds that I thought were pretty enough to let grow.

Meanwhile, only the asters, mums, and goldenrods are still blooming. The garden is more messy than pretty by a longshot.

And this is when the gardener in my brain wrestles with the naturalist.

Messy gardens are good for wildlife.
I have to repeat that mantra to myself a lot throughout the fall.

These past few weeks, though, the wild world has been helping me out by actually showing up to take advantage of my messy garden.
Here are some pictures of the things that have helped the naturalist and the gardener get along:


This picture shows the pokeweed that has grown huge in my corner garden. I find the fuchsia stems and inky purple berries quite attractive. But, there’s no doubt that most of my neighbors consider this poisonous plant a weed.  And, as the season goes on, the large leaves turn yellow and droop and entirely unattractive manner.  I was on the verge of cutting the whole thing down when I arrived home from a walk and spotted my very first cedar waxwing gorging itself on the berries.  The pokeweed stays.


These are the spiky brown seed heads of my purple coneflowers. The stems and leaves are equally brown and crispy. The gardener in me itches to grab the pruners and remove the unsightly, unverdant lot of them.  But then every morning when I first open our front door, I am treated to the startled flight of a small flock of bright yellow American goldfinches. They wake well before I do and feast on coneflower seeds.  So, if I have to put up with brown in order to get a scattering of gold every morning, the coneflower seed heads stay.


My zinnias didn’t come in well this year.  I think I stored last year’s seeds incorrectly.  Where usually they are a gorgeous green mass of leaves topped by impossibly large flowers that look like fireworks, this year they are leggy and not blooming so well, as you can see in the picture. But, when I am stuck folding laundry, I often look out the window because something has zipped through my peripheral vision and I spot  the ruby-throated hummingbirds that are sipping sweet zinnia nectar to fuel their little bodies over the long migration south.  And, just this last week, Monarch butterflies are using the zinnias has pitstops on their southward migration as well.  The zinnias stay.

The naturalist wins.

No doubt the gardener will get some more trimming done after the first killing frost, but the seed heads will stay until every seed has gone into a goldfinch tummy.
And, in the spring, all the branches and stems that I didn’t get collected by the town’s second fall brush collection and, therefore, are piled in an out of the way corner will make a wonderful hiding spot for a mama Eastern cottontail and her soft, sweet, baby bunnies.

Monarch Mystery: The Case of the Disappearing Chrysalids

This is a close up of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) blooming in my garden in June.

This is a close up of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) blooming in my garden in June.

I have many, many milkweed plants.

(I’m not bragging, just stating facts.  And, the fact is, I’d be happy to send you ripe seeds in a few weeks.)

Here is the classic butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) blooming in its bright-as-the-summer-sun orange.  This also bloomed in June in my garden, but is still blooming today.  Butterfly weed is now carried in a variety of gorgeous colors by most native plant nurseries.

Here is the classic butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) blooming in its bright-as-the-summer-sun orange. This also bloomed in June in my garden, but is still blooming today.

I let them grow all over my garden, often as volunteer plants in truly odd spots, because I love monarch butterflies.  I’ve planted milkweed of one type or another (both common milkweed and its cousin butterfly weed) in every garden I’ve had for the last 14 years, so that every year I can cross my fingers and hope to spot those cute, clown-colored caterpillars munching happily in my very own yard.

A few weeks ago we saw our first monarchs of the season fly through the yard, sipping on the zinnias I grow to attract butterflies of all kinds.  Occasionally we’d see one flitting around the leaves of a common milkweed plant; skittish and picky about where to land and easily disturbed.

Brightly colored zinnias are butterfly magnets!  Here we see a monarch sipping nectar from a bright pink "Monster" zinnia.

Brightly colored zinnias are butterfly magnets!  Here we see a monarch sipping nectar from a bright pink “Monster” zinnia.  Adult monarchs will drink nectar from many species of flowers, but when it comes to laying eggs, only milkweed will do!

Then, about a week ago – Eureka! – my daughter called me out to the front yard; she had found five monarch caterpillars one one of the milkweed plants.  Our joy was palpable.  We both went out several times that day and over the next six days to “check on the kids”.

Hello, little fellow!  Monarch caterpillars don't mind the toxins in the milkweed leaves they eat; that's what makes them poisonous to would-be predators!

Hello, little fellow! Monarch caterpillars don’t mind the toxins in the milkweed leaves they eat; that’s what makes them poisonous to would-be predators!

We watched them paring down leaves in neat little arcs, growing fatter by the day.  Then, just as I began to wonder how much bigger those hungry caterpillars could get, they all disappeared.

“Yay!”  I thought.  They’ve all gone to pupate.  We’ll look for the chrysalids (my preferred plural for chrysalis because “chrysalises” just sounds silly) and keep an eye on those and maybe, just maybe, we’ll catch a brand new monarch emerging.

Delight and anticipation immediately poured from my heart into every corner of my body and began fizzing like champagne.

Evidence of caterpillars well fed.  This is monarch caterpillar poop.  It's scientific name is "frass", which is one of my new favorite words.

Evidence of caterpillars well fed. This is monarch caterpillar poop. Its scientific name is “frass”, which is one of my new favorite words.

Until yesterday.  I went out to look for those chrysalids and found:  none.  Seriously!  I couldn’t find them anywhere!  I looked closely enough to see two new caterpillars, each less than a centimeter in length, recently hatched on the underside of a milkweed leaf, but no pupae!

So cute when they're young, but soon it will grow up and abandon me, just like its sneaky older siblings did.

So cute when they’re young, but soon it will grow up and abandon me, just like its sneaky older siblings did.

I looked on the milkweed, on the plants surrounding it, underneath all of the leaves.  I sat and sprawled and bent and, no doubt, entertained the passing neighbors with my comical yogic poses – but I found nothing.

Where are they???  How far away from their host plant can these chubby little caterpillars crawl?

Moving my search area to the internet, I found an article titled “Where to Look for a Monarch Chrysalis in the Garden“, but didn’t care for the bleak numbers about depredation it gave at the beginning.  My caterpillars did not bite the dust!  (It’s my garden, I can be in denial if I want to.)

Can anyone out there help me solve my monarch mystery?