Archives for May 2013

Eastern Box Turtle by the House

Terrapene carolina

Terrapene carolina

I stepped out on the deck last evening and was startled to see this female box turtle sitting on a board beside the big oak tree. When I went back in the house she climbed up the vertical stones by the deck and stayed in the groundcover on the bank for a long time. I took her some grapes, shredded carrots, and lettuce; this morning it was all gone. She still hasn’t moved very far, so I hope everything is okay.  There are no signs of trauma from lawn equipment or cars and no obvious signs of illness or disease.

I’m not sure why a box turtle was on the deck, but it’s becoming much more rare to see a box turtle in the wild. Loss of habitat, pesticides and other trauma are causing them not to mate or live as long. I learned from a herpetology website by Davidson College that box turtles have a strong homing instinct. If they’re taken into captivity and later released, they try to get back to the place of their birth. On their journey home, they often encounter perils such as car traffic or predators.

Tonight, I took out some tomato (which box turtles are supposed to like) and a few other things in case she was hungry. We’ll see what happens next. Maybe an egg? Fingers crossed it’s something good like that.

Stuck in the Falsecypress. Will Mama Bird Come?

Safe in the nest

Safe in the nest

When I walk the little path above the stone wall in front of the house, I’m at eye level with the top of a lovely hinoki falsecypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa.*  Birds gravitate to this dense, gracefully-branching evergreen. They fly in and out of it all year, presumably for cover, but also for a landing place near the birdbath a few feet away. Every spring, the tree shelters a nest of fledglings. The species varies from year to year.

One day on the path, I felt a pair of eyes focusing on me from the top branches of the hinoki. It appeared to be an American robin, Turdus migratorius, sitting on a nest made of sturdily-woven leaves and small twigs. The nest was nearly obscured by soft, delicate sprays of evergreen foliage.

Over the next few days, I watched a female robin fly in and out of the evergreen. One afternoon I looked out  the window and saw a good-sized bird in the lower branches of the twelve-foot tall tree. It had the beautifully-speckled chest of a juvenile robin, so I figured it had gotten too big for the nest and hadn’t quite reached the stage of being able to fly. The young bird just looked stuck, bobbing up and down on the soft branches that barely held its weight. When it saw me looking out the window, it averted its eyes and looked up, as if to say Come help, mama! She’s looking at me! 

Not quite ready to fly

Not quite ready to fly

I know you’re not supposed to intervene when birds fall out of the nest — that the parent will find them and feed or coax them out of a bad situation. But it’s really hard to just stand by and wonder if a snake or cat will come by or the fledgling will die from lack of food or water. On the other hand, a lot of birds die because well-meaning humans take them away from the vicinity of the mother or nest and try to care for them. It’s always best to research the alternative before interfering. There are several good online resources for information about rescuing or rehabilitating baby birds. I particularly like this one: .

With my robin, I decided to hold off and see what happened. Sure enough, the next morning, the baby had ascended much of the tree and was sitting within a foot or two of the nest. I watched as the mama swooped down with a worm and deposited it directly in the young bird’s mouth, despite the bobbing branches. Very impressive!

Today, it’s quiet out in the falsecypress. Another day. Another nest.  I ‘m just hoping one of the young robins flying about or scratching in the leaf mold is my little robin — healthy and active, thanks to its watchful, industrious mother.


*According to the original plant label, this is supposed to be a cultivar of falsecypress called ‘Nana Gracilis’. While my tree has most of that plant’s features, it has already doubled the 6′ height expectancy listed in plant books. Maybe the label was wrong, but the birds don’t care.

Hen and Chicks: Protecting Memories

Protection from critters

Protection from critters

I have a yardful of squirrels and chipmunks. They love digging anything remotely herbaceous or planted in a container. Aware of the problem, my son sent this photo of a potful of hen and chicks (Sempervivum sp.) on display at Quail Botanical Gardens in San Diego. Someone had covered the plants with snugly-attached chicken wire — presumably to thwart determined, destructive creatures like my chipmunks.

The chicken wire strategy would have helped when I brought some hen and chicks from the NC home place several years ago. They were originally planted in my grandmother’s garden and were at least thirty years old back then. They weren’t exciting — just the old-fashioned, green variety — but I associated them with my grandparents, and with happy memories of a garden full of iris and roses and phlox. I put my chicks in the ground and, before long, saw evidence of squirrels uprooting them.

Since sempervivum are alpine plants and dislike wet, cold conditions, I  might have lost part of mine because of the characteristics of our soil. It retains moisture and is full of leaf litter and nutrients — usually a good problem to have, but not if you like to grow succulents.

Sempervivum 'Black'

Sempervivum ‘Black’

If anyone in the family still has part of my grandmother’s hen and chicks, maybe they’ll share a piece or two with me.  I’ll plant them in a pot with wire on top and add some purple and silver succulents to make a nice, simple design like the one from Quail Gardens. I’ve already got a head start: this  cultivar called ‘Black’ that I bought a few weeks ago. I sure do wish I could share it with my grandmother.

Birds and Fun and Flora: Ijams Nature Center

With all its wildlife and plant abundance, my own yard feels like a nature sanctuary. It’s always changing, and I just walk outside to get there. But on lush, cool days in May, I’m ready to meet friends and family to experience the outdoors in a different setting. Last week, it was Hatcher Garden in Spartanburg that enticed me; this week,  Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville.

Ijams has changed considerably since  1910, when Harry and Alice Ijams purchased the Center’s original twenty acres for their home place. The couple set out to create a haven for birds and plants, and they just kept on creating and expanding. In the 1960s, the land became a public nature park. Now owned by the City of Knoxville, Ijams is a non-profit park overseen by staff and a board of directors for the purpose of conservation and public education. Over the years, the Center has expanded to 300 acres, including ten miles of walking trails.

Every creature plays a role

Every creature plays a role

One of the first teaching opportunities at Ijams appears on a sign leading to the visitors’ center. The display is about turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and shows that nature is not just about pretty butterflies and songbirds. The cycle of life and death is complex, with each plant and animal playing a part of the process.

Skink sunning outside Ijams Education Center

Skink in the sun

A five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus, sits on top of a carved duck close to the roofline of the visitors’ center.

Nature vignette

Nature vignette

You’ll see a bit of this and that at the nature exhibits inside Ijams. Glad I didn’t see a snake this big outside, although I appreciate its purpose in the scheme of things. The turtle and fish, all slow-motion in the water, were definitely alive.

Ijams gift shop

Ijams gift shop

The gift shop has nature-themed gifts and regional crafts for sale. The shop is a source of revenue for Ijams, plus a dispenser of snacks and souvenirs for little visitors. Okay … for big ones too.

Mourning dove on the nest

Mourning dove on the nest

A mourning dove, Zenaida macroura, kept a sharp eye on visitors below. I wish I’d gotten a sharper photo of this appealing little bird.

We had a private visit with a red screech owl just below the dove’s nest. I’m saving that (longer) story for another day.


Behind the education building, we saw this very fine specimen of native fringetree, also called old man’s beard. I love this tree, Chionanthus virginicus.

Native honeysuckle

Trumpet honeysuckle

Oh, and how could you not swoon when you see the native Lonicera sempervirens, or trumpet honeysuckle? All kinds of pollinators are attracted to this vine. It’s a little hard to find at nurseries, but don’t give up. There is a yellow version of it — nothing like the invasive Japanese honeysuckle vine that grows throughout the southeast and beyond.

Mead's quarry

Mead’s quarry

This lake (ducks or geese in the distant background) used to be a quarry where marble was extracted for buildings and monuments. We climbed to the top of the steep, stone cliffs, passing a small country graveyard along the way.

Old graveyard

Old graveyard

I’m always moved by graveyards, especially small, remote ones like this that are on the verge of reverting to wild.

Lichen just off the trail

Lichen just off the trail

One of my goals for this year is to learn more about lichens. We saw these just after a pair of indigo buntings landed in a nearby tree. Such beautiful birds. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted both the photos I took of the buntings before they flew away.

Invasive wisteria

Invasive wisteria

Since there are so many positive examples of nature conservation at Ijams, I’m a bit reluctant to mention how disturbing it was to see so many invasive plants growing rampantly  on the property, especially near the quarry. At first I thought this was kudzu, but it was the Japanese import Wisteria floribundans (abundant flora, for sure).

On my own 3/4ths acre lot, we struggle with English ivy and Japanese stilt grass (Microstegia) so I understand the challenge of invasives. Recent rains have only added to the problem. But the level of wisteria, multiflora rose, poison ivy and other invasives at Ijams seems a call for remediation.  Otherwise, the entire property and surrounding countryside will be compromised.

A child who cares

A child who cares

To end on an upbeat note, I’m including a drawing and poem that was displayed near the administrative offices at Ijams. It’s by a third-grader named Ethan.

My brother’s name is Nick

Pollution makes him sick

He doesn’t like pollution

So I came up with a solution.


Pollution is everywhere

It scares the bunnies and hares

Trucks and cars pollute the air

Ride your bicycle because you care.


Don’t throw trash in the street

Pick it up and be real neat

Don’t dump chemicals in the river

Some day it might harm your liver.


So, go, Ethan, third-grade budding naturalist. And go Ijams, until my return another day.


Hatcher Garden: A Place for Community


Hatcher Garden – Open 365 days a year

Chilling out was high on my agenda Wednesday as I drove to meet blogging friends Janet (Queen of Seaford) and Julie (Growing Days) in Spartanburg, South Carolina. We arrived from points north and south to walk through Hatcher Garden and Woodland Preserve, a small community garden not far from downtown.

Hatcher Garden was originally part of the private estate of Josephine and Harold Hatcher, who bought the property in 1969. Over the years, they acquired adjacent lots, gradually expanding the garden haven they created for family, and friends. In 1987 the Hatchers donated the gardens to the Spartanburg County  Foundation, ensuring an ongoing resource for nature lovers and the community. When Mr. Hatcher died in 2003, he left an endowment to provide ongoing funds for the care of the garden.


The garden varies in topography — just enough to make the landscape interesting and the transitions from light to shade areas appealing.  Usually, rock-lined streams flow through the garden, but the pumps had been turned off following a four-inch rainfall the previous week-end. I do love the sound of water in a garden, but the birds probably missed it as much as I did.

Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum' - Golden Full Moon Maple

Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’ – Golden Full Moon Maple

Hatcher has a nice conifer collection and a varied selection of ornamental trees, ground covers, vines and perennials. We saw lots of yellow and gold-leaved plants. A bit jarring to me, although I did like the yellow full-moon maple, Acer shirasawanum ‘ Aureum’, that we lingered over on our way to  a nearby pond.


Julie, Growing Days and Janet, Queen of Seaford

We posed in front of old trees and enjoyed the sights of children, turtles, even a small bridal party. Seeing a dawn redwood reminded me that I always forget which tree has opposite leaves or needles — dawn redwood or bald cypress. Janet passed along a tip someone had shared with her: remember Meta/Meet. Meta for Metasequoia and Meet for join together.

I was pleased (Janet too) about a feature article about Julie that appears in this month’s issue of Carolina Gardener. The article, A Garden Full of Heirlooms, is about Julie’s business — growing heirloom and organic plants. It’s a great article, written by Jennifer Horton. Check it out if you can.


For me, the day at Hatcher was as much about the overall experience as it was about plants. I’ll remember the green, the sound of birds, the subtle changes of light, and the companionship of two new friends. I’ll also remember the sense of history and pride that fairly emanated from the garden’s grounds. It was if The Hatchers were saying” We loved this place and we hope you do too.”

Wordless Wednesday: A Chilly Day at the Botanical Garden

Asheville Botanical Garden

Last hours: native plant sale at the Asheville Botanical Garden

Surrounded by green. Asheville Botanical Garden

Blue tents in a lush, verdant setting

Headed for a different wooded garden


Ornamentals Arrive at the Farm Stand

Craving fresh strawberries this week, I stopped by a favorite local farm stand to stock up. As you’d expect this time of year, shoppers were everywhere. Some were there for produce, but most were on a different mission: looking for garden ornamentals.  The parking lot was full of people grabbing annuals and hanging plants,  perennials and herbs, and non-hardy vines.


It’s hard to resist all the little pots of goodies — maybe just one of this, or two of that to take home? I’m trying not to succumb. Besides, I already have this gold sedum,’Angelina’.


The Knockout roses on the right really stood out, but I confess that I’m tired of seeing them planted everywhere. There are so many exceptional flowering shrubs that do well in zone 7, yet the Knockouts prevail.  Availability, long-blooming time, and resistance to diseases that a lot of roses get are all factors in their popularity. But still…. my mind gets a little numb when I see large expanses of these all over town.


The color of  ‘Blue Moon’ phlox (Phlox divaricata) makes it stand out from other plants. The rabbits eat mine to the ground, unfortunately.


I guess there’s a demand for pansies in the spring, but it’s pretty much a waste of money if you’re looking for a long-lasting summer annual. Here, pansies just don’t hold up in the heat and humidity. In a few months, they will start declining.


This ‘Husker’s Red’ penstomen (on the left) is a nice, native plant. It doesn’t get very robust in my garden, but isn’t the color contrast nice with the blue-leaved dianthus?


I wasn’t familiar with this sedum. It’ called ‘Chocolate Ball’.


I consider Mazus repans a weed, but it does have sweet little flowers. (There’s a blue-flowered version too).  At $3.79 a pop, I figure I have about $500.00 worth of mazus in my own back yard, taking over what’s left of my so-called lawn.

So what did I come home with? One basil, one parsley, and a ‘Pink Chintz’ thyme. (Oh, and lots of fresh strawberries).

Next: Native plant sale at the Asheville Botanical Gardens!