Monday, April 17, 2017 8 comments

My ugly mound gets a Southern Living makeover

When we bought our North Carolina mountain home in 2009, we inherited an eyesore between our driveway and the road.

We were not the original owners but we deduced a bulldozer had pushed a combination of soil from the woodland floor and builder’s sand away from the house, creating what we dubbed “the mound.”

Interestingly, the side of the mound facing the road is quite nice. It is home to a variety of native trees and wildflowers, even a flame azalea. The side facing the house is a different matter altogether, mostly junky sand and mica bits. For seven years we’ve worked with some success to give it a facelift. 

The plants arrive!

Now, the mound is about to go from blah to beautiful.

When the folks at Southern Living approached me for ideas on using Lorapetalums in my garden, I discovered two of the varieties were perfect for my landscaping challenge.

Purple Pixie® Dwarf Weeping Loropetalum grows 1-2 feet high and spreads 4-5 feet, and it loves slopes! Plus it isn’t terribly fussy about soil condition as long as it is well-drained and acidic.
Purple Pixie

In the spring, Purple Pixie sports pretty bright pink tassel-like blooms which contrast nicely with the handsome dark purple foliage. Because of the weeping habit, it is also an excellent choice for hanging baskets and containers.

To back up the weeping Purple Pixies, I chose Purple Daydream™ Dwarf Lorapetalum. In the past, gardeners may have shied away from lorapetalums because they didn’t have space for a 15-foot shrub. The new dwarfs have changed all that. Purple Daydream grows into a tidy 3’ by 4’ evergreen that is drought and deer resistant. It loves slopes, too.  (If you don’t have a slope to cover, these plants also make an attractive hedge.)

Purple Daydream also flowers in spring

Lemon Lime Nandina

For visual contrast I selected Lemon Lime Nandinas, Evercolor Everest® Carex and  ‘Real Glory’ Leucanthemums. I can testify the color of the nandinas is a dazzling lime green that will fade to light green during the summer months. The lime/purple color combination is going to be a traffic stopper.

‘Everest’ Carex has striped foliage with distinctive silvery edges – another striking contrast with the purple lorapetalums. When mature, the plants will form tidy, graceful 12-18 inch mounds. Once established, Everest will tolerate the dry conditions I sometimes experience with the mound.

Shasta daisies are always a garden favorite so I decided to have a bit of fun and add a few colorful exclamation points to my mix. ‘Real Glory’ features wide white outer petals and a frilly creamy yellow center. I can’t wait to see them bloom! They also make outstanding cut flowers and can last up to two weeks in a vase.

As of the first week of April all the plants are in place and looking right at home on the mound. 

It won't be long now until these lovely plants mature and my annoying eyesore becomes eye candy!

Sunday, April 2, 2017 4 comments

What's next for the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee?

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis)

The Rusty Patched Bumble Bee received some good news on March 21st. It became the first bee in the contiguous 48 states  named endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

It’s good news because now we can get on with combating the bad news: the fact that this bee, without protection and help, is heading for extinction.

The designation had been put on hold in January by the Trump administration as a result of complaints from a coalition of oil, real estate, farm and energy lobbies.

According to The Washington Post, The American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Home Builders, National Cotton Council of America and two other groups described the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination under the Obama administration as a rush to judgment executed shortly before President Trump took over.

“The implications of this hasty listing decision are difficult to overstate,” their petition says. They called it one of the most significant in decades in terms of its scope because of the bee’s enormous range — 13 states, including Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. [Article quoted was published March 21, 2017.]

Facts tell us the bee populations in nearly 90 percent of its range have disappeared over the past 20 years. Not exactly a “rush to judgment” in my humble opinion.  Scientists say this decline is the result of issues that range from pesticides and household herbicides to habitat loss and climate change.

Courtesy Xerces Society
So what are the next steps?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is developing a long-term recovery plan to “spur proactive conservation and focus resources on locating, protecting and restoring habitat which once stretched from South Dakota to Connecticut and two provinces in Canada.”

Now officially endangered
The Department of the Interior is sensitive to the fact that many organizations from transmission utilities to farmers to real estate developers over a broad geographic area will be affected by the endangered designation.  For example, use of certain pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals may not be allowed in some areas. They vow to “work with stakeholders to ensure collaborative conservation among landowners, farmers, industry and developers.”

In reality, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee is likely to be found in locations that cover only 0.1% of the previous range. Special permits and other regulatory measures may be required in these limited locales. The FWS will post information on their website to help determine which areas considered for development may be affected.

I will be monitoring the progress of the plan and will post updates when more information is available.

In the meantime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has some suggestions we can all follow no matter where we live:

First, those of us in affected states need to check out this fact sheet from the Service for more information about the bee.

Then, grow flowers, including flowering trees and shrubs. Have a mix with something in bloom from early spring through fall. Include native milkweeds for monarch butterflies.

Bumble bees and many other pollinators (bees, moths and butterflies) need a safe place to build their nests and overwinter. Leave some areas of your yard unmowed in summer and unraked in fall, in your garden and flower beds leave some standing plant stems in winter. Provide a pesticide free environment.

It’s a start.  

Let’s all roll up our sleeves and do what we can to make sure the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee makes a beeline for recovery.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017 9 comments

A tragic bee-ginning to 2017

Rusty patched bumble bee (courtesy

Tuesday the 10th of January was a notable day in American history. But not for a reason worth cheering about.

The rusty patched bumble bee (Bombis affinis) was placed on the Endangered Species List by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a first for the continental U.S. Other native bees may soon follow.

According to Tamara Smith, a biologist with the service, the bee was once so prevalent in Midwest cities, people used to shoo them away. 20 years later, even sharp-eyed scientists are having difficulty spotting one.

In fact, since the late 1990’s the rusty-patched bumble bee population has declined by 90 %. Once found in 28 states, the bee is now reported in only 13 states and 1 Canadian province: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin – and Ontario, Canada.

There is no one culprit when comes to the demise of bees:  habitat loss, climate change, exposure to pesticides, and disease all contribute.

For example, not long ago the grasslands and tallgrass prairies of the Upper Midwest and Northeast  were alive with bees. Sadly most of these habitats are now gone for a variety of reasons.

As for pesticides, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says bees can absorb toxins directly through their exoskeleton and through contaminated nectar and pollen. Rusty patched bumble bees nest in the ground and may be susceptible to pesticides that persist in agricultural soils, lawns and turf.

 After the endangered bee was announced, the White House launched its strategy to improve the health of honeybees and other pollinators. This plan aims to reduce losses for commercial honeybees over the next decade. The White House will also ask federal agencies to help restore 7 million acres of pollinator-friendly habitat, so as to improve bee diets and make them more resilient.

This is something we should all applaud no matter which side of the aisle you prefer. Why? The USFWS sums it succinctly:

“As pollinators, rusty patched bumble bees contribute to our food security and the healthy functioning of our ecosystems. Bumble bees are keystone species in most ecosystems, necessary not only for native wildflower reproduction, but also for creating seeds and fruits that feed wildlife as diverse as songbirds and grizzly bears.

 Bumble bees are among the most important pollinators of crops such as blueberries, cranberries, and clover and almost the only insect pollinators of tomatoes. Bumble bees are more effective pollinators than honey bees for some crops because of their ability to “buzz pollinate.” The economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States.”

How you can lend a hand

Various species of bees, along with moths, butterflies, birds, bats and other animals are pollinators. The pollen (powderlike material from the male parts of flowers) they move between flowers of the same species results in fertilization, enabling plants to produce blooms, seeds or fruits. 

No room for a garden? Add flowering pots or a window box
Gardeners can play an important role in helping pollinators like bees increase their numbers by offering essential food, water and shelter. Even those who don’t have a garden can participate by planting window boxes and containers with bee favorites.

The first step is to choose plants for your garden that supply a diversity of nectar and pollen throughout the growing season.  Bees are partial to plants living in their own habitats, so choose wildflowers and natives whenever possible. Not sure which natives flourish near you? Visit the Pollinator Partnership and type in your zip code on the Planting Guide page, and you’ll be able to download a PDF with specific recommendations for your area. 

Bees love coneflowers

There is also a helpful Bloom Period guide so you can have something flowering from spring to fall.  Native plant societies can offer additional guidance.

Beyond natives
If natives aren’t readily available, you can find bee-approved choices at most local nurseries and garden centers. (Before buying, ask if their plants have been bred with neonicinoids, pesticides that can harm or kill bees.) Pesticide-free verbena, rudbeckia, yarrow, salvias, coneflowers and flowering herbs are all good choices. Catmints are particularly useful because they will continue to bloom deep into fall with regular trimming.

Heirlooms from grandmother’s garden such as daisies, hollyhocks, asters, and old-fashioned roses are especially attractive to bees. (Flat flowers like daisies and single roses make it easier for bees to collect pollen.) Even veggies can be part of the plan: pollinators will make a beeline for cucumber and squash flowers.

Colors and clusters
Yellow is mellow to bees
Entomologists studying bees have learned they can see four colors – yellow, blue, bluish green (which is how they view white) and violet. They perceive red as black. So when considering plant varieties, your palette should include the blue, yellow and purple flowers bees find appealing.

Choose a sunny location and set out your plants in groups. Again, be sure to stagger bloom times so there will be food available throughout the year. And avoid using pesticides that can be toxic to bees.

Water and shelter
Twigs keep bees from drowning
Although we rarely see them taking a drink, bees appreciate gardens that offer a source of water. It can be as simple as filling a shallow dish with small stones and twigs so bees can land and rest while drinking. A birdbath also offers a dependable destination for bees to take a sip when necessary. Be sure to use clean, chemical free water, and replace supplies regularly.

According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, there are over 5,000 different species of native or wild bees living in the US. These bees don’t live in hives like honeybees but in logs, dead tree limbs, even in holes in the ground. 

Home for solitary bees
As part of the garden, leave an area of bare dirt for ground nesters. You can even build your own shelter by drilling holes in an untreated wood block. The holes should be 3” to 5” deep and approximately ¼” in diameter. Allow an inch between each hole. Choose a site for your “nest” that is protected as much as possible from wind and rain, under the eaves of a shed, for example.

These habitats, along with access to water and bee friendly plants, will create an environment that will soon have your local pollinators buzzing.

And will help solve a bee-deviling problem

Saturday, November 12, 2016 2 comments

If you had to evacuate, what "stuff" would you take?

Fires are raging to our east and west (Courtesy Tusquitee Ranger District)

The brilliant George Carlin once did a very funny (and apt) sketch about all the “stuff” we find important in our lives:

“And I don't know how you are... ...but I need a place to put my stuff. You know how important that is, that's the whole meaning of life, isn't it? Trying to find a place for your stuff. That's all your house is... ...your house is a pile of stuff... ...with a cover on it. It's a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. Now, sometimes you gotta move... gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff."

So what happens when an emergency presents itself such as a flood, hurricane or fire? What kind of “stuff” are you going to take with you?

I ask this question because we are experiencing terrible wildfires here in western North Carolina and other southern states. We’ve had no rain since September and nothing is in the forecast.

I'd have to leave my roses behind :(

Yesterday a friend who lives in the Lake Lure area (about 60 miles from us) was surprised by an evacuation order. Earlier in the day she had posted on Facebook they were fine. By 4pm yesterday afternoon she announced they were leaving.

I wondered if being close to the fires, she and her husband made a list of things to take if they were forced to evacuate. They had, and said it was fortunate because they had little time to gather precious belongings and were understandably very stressed when the order came through. 

A rare "rocket" radio from my collection

That’s why we are starting our list today. We are fine as I write this. But there are fires to our east and west and should the worst happen, I don’t want to wonder why I didn’t save the opal ring my beloved aunt left me.

An emergency evaluation checklist can help get your ducks in a row before facing an evacuation order. One site warned the uncertainty of what to take and what to leave behind in an emergency can leave people paralyzed with doubt and fear. It's best to plan ahead just in case.
Our friend Tom made this uke for me

The advice to take insurance policies, prescriptions, passports, birth/marriage certificates and so forth is common sense. I am also planning to engage an online backup company so my all my computer files and photos are protected.

But what about other “stuff”, items of sentimental value or things that can’t be replaced? I will be putting our marriage album and family photos on the list. My recipe file. iMac, iPads and iPhones plus chargers. My London International Advertising Award. Chris’ Mum’s carriage clock. Maybe his sword from the Royal Navy, if I can convince him to take it. 

Rowdy, my Gator hand puppet will be in the car. He is home to all my Gator pinback buttons from the past 44 years. And original artwork, including two irreplaceable paintings of our Maryland home. Plus a turtle painting a dear friend gave me before we moved to the mountains.

Carla Huber's painting of our MD hydrangeas
My favorite ukulele will be on the list. And cameras. A couple of radios from my vintage collection. An everglades painting by original Highwayman Ellis Buckner (my aunt left it to me and I had no clue how much it was worth.) My favorite piece of Portmeirion china. And Lord knows what else. There is too much great stuff and too little room.

I hope we never need the list. But I will rest better tonight knowing we have earmarked some of the things we love to save should disaster strike.

What would you take?


Monday, September 19, 2016 8 comments

Squirrels gone wild

A spill in our creek led to strange events in our garden

On June 30, a water utility company that owns storage tanks up the stream from us had an accident.  One of its tanks overflowed sending 220,000 gallons of water and silt down Hogback Creek.

Our neighbor who lives above us came to our door in tears. After years of making sure the creeks and streams on his property were as pristine as possible, his work was washed away. I will write more about this tragedy in my next posting.

Feeling sad and helpless, we offered to walk up there to take photographs to send environmental authorities. While documenting the devastation, I found something that unleashed several weeks of chaos in my own back yard.

The hapless feather briefly guarded my tomato plant
It seemed innocent enough – the wing feather of a wild turkey. I decided to place it in my little veggie planter on the back deck in hopes it would discourage squirrels from digging up my tomatoes and herbs so they could hide nuts.

The squirrels had other ideas.

Not long after I added the feather to the planter, I noticed it was missing.  Later, we saw it on the ground 20 feet below the deck. Perhaps it blew out of the planter, we reasoned.

The next time it was lying on rocks that slope down to the creek. I had to get a long rake to retrieve it.

The third time, the perpetrator not only threw the feather off the deck, the little devil also ate the left hand side of it.

Donna spied the feather and flew into a fury
Determined to beat the squirrels at their own game, I used a two-foot strand of covered wire to tie it to the railing. On numerous occasions I found it hanging from the wire over the edge of the deck floor. Each time more of the feather was missing.

Now a word about our squirrels. We don’t mind them visiting as long as they don’t get on the feeders. They quite often come to the back door and beg, or stand on the table to attract our attention.  They are well behaved, and we reward them with a few unsalted nuts.

Donna, one of our regulars, is about as mild mannered as a squirrel can be. Yet one afternoon Chris saw her attack the feather with such ferocity, he had to chase her off. She lunged at it, bit it and tried to rip it free from the wire.

Today, this is all that is left of that poor feather. We have no idea what the squirrels had against it.

But  I definitely won’t be dressing as a turkey for Halloween.
Monday, August 22, 2016 6 comments

The Fungus Among Us

With apologies to friends around the country who are begging for rain, we have had enough. 1½ inches yesterday and 2 inches the day before. And that’s just this week.

Grandpappy fungus?
One of the offshoots of so much rain is the number of mushrooms and downright strange fungi that are appearing in the woods as I take my daily walk. I’ve even seen one specimen with hair!

I know some brave folks like to forage for mushrooms in the wild. Others enjoy growing their own mushrooms at home. One of my gardening friends bought a shitake log, then later was afraid to eat the harvest.  Eventually she did work up the courage to use the meaty mushrooms in a recipe, and everyone survived the experience. 

Others have not been quite so lucky.

Mistaken identity almost proves to be fatal

Writer Nicholas Evans is a gourmet cook who has picked and eaten wild mushrooms without incident for many years.

In August 2008, the author of The Horse Whisperer picked a basketful of mushrooms he found while strolling through the woodlands of his brother-in-law’s 13,000 acre Scottish estate.

Pretty but poisonous Fool's webcap

He later sautéed them in butter and parsley and served them to the family without realizing the mushrooms were not chanterelles, but the poisonous Cortinarius speciosissimus, or fool’s webcap. (Fortunately the children in attendance turned their noses up at the dish.)

Friend or foe?
Evans, wife Charlotte, her brother Alastair and his wife, Lady Louisa were all in critical condition within days. Three of the four suffered kidney failure and Evans required five hours of dialysis each day. In time, the dialysis took a toll on his heart. As of this writing, Evans and his wife have had successful kidney transplants.

Be careful out there.

The National Poisons Information Service in the UK recently issued a warning about picking and eating wild mushrooms citing 237 poisoning cases in 2014. Over 100 people in the US became seriously ill last year after mistaking bad mushrooms for good ones.

Of course certified wild mushroom experts and mycologists know their stuff and can provide guidance on which mushrooms are edible.

As for me, I’m a certified scaredycat. But I do love seeing the many varieties of mushrooms I spy while walking (or waiting behind a foresome of old duffers who won’t let a woman play through on the golf course.)

Since edible and dangerous mushies can look similar, I’ll continue to get my supply at the market.

And admire the pretty ones with my camera.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016 5 comments

Another Golden Ticket for David Austin

Chelsea photos courtesy David Austin English Roses

It was another golden Chelsea for David Austin English Roses.

His stand at the legendary show won yet another gold medal.

 He had a “chinwag” with Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen meets the King of English roses
And he introduced three gorgeous new English Roses, including one named in honor of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl.

As for winning a 22nd gold medal, head rosarian Michael Marriott noted "We are absolutely delighted. We were judged on the quality of the stand, the quality of the roses and the overall splendor and we're thrilled to have won a gold.”

'Roald Dahl' roses surround the copper peach

He went on to say the Queen met with founder and owner David Austin late in the afternoon the first day of the show. "David was absolutely delighted to meet the Queen. They are both 90 this year, so I think they had a good chat about that. She has only been once or twice before, so it was a rare honor.”

In addition, Felicity Dahl, the author’s widow, was on hand for the launch of Austin’s Roald Dahl themed display. Several years earlier, “Liccy” Dahl had approached the Austin firm to ask whether they might consider naming one of their new roses after Dahl. 

The author in his garden. Courtesy the Roald Dahl Museum

Dahl was a keen gardener and was quite passionate about his glorious garden at Gipsy House, Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire. He wrote in a hut in the grounds he tended from 1954 until his death in 1990.

The father and son team at David Austin English Roses agreed to Mrs. Dahl’s request. The stunning peach colored rose was unveiled at Chelsea alongside a giant copper peach, the centerpiece of Austin’s 2016 display.  

'Roald Dahl'

Dahl’s longtime collaborator QuentinBlake created a new illustration depicting the rose and characters from James and the Giant Peach

Stephen Myburgh designed and sculpted the copper peach

James was Dahl’s first children’s story, about a four-year-old boy who escapes from his hateful aunts, Spiker and Sponge, on a gigantic floating peach. 

It was published in 1961, the same year that David Austin launched his first English rose.

Two other English roses also made their debuts at Chelsea. 

‘Imogen’ is a very pale lemon yellow that ages to a light cream. I love the delicately frilled petals, so it looks like a must have for my “yellow” garden.


‘Bathsheba’ is a new short climber with a warm myrrh fragrance. According to David Austin Roses, the blooms are a beautiful blend of apricot colors.

We won’t get these new introductions in the US for a few years, but when they are on their way, you’ll read all about it in The Dirt Diaries. 

In the meantime, we’ll admire the beauty from afar.