What’s In Your Yard?

From the Asheville Botanical Garden bulletin board

Asheville Botanical Garden

Some days, you really need to be outside, looking at real plants instead of pixelated ones on your computer screen. Some days, nature (and whatever’s out there) beckons. Just get out there. Don’t resist, or you might be sorry!



Bottlebrush Buckeye – Aesculus parviflora (U.S. native)

These are the days a gardener waits for. Every day — every hour — there are new offerings from the earth. It’s like a time-lapse photo in real time.

Everywhere I look, things are unfurling, emerging, bursting with color and chlorophyll. In the backdrop, birds are gathering leaves, twigs, and bits of ornamental grasses in preparation for the next cycle of life.

Christas Fern

Christmas Fern – Polystichum acrostichoides (U.S. native)


Variegated Solomon’s Seal – Polygonatum odoratum ”Variegatum’ (Asia native)

Soon, the dizzying display of flowers will begin, in other gardens and other places, mostly.  For me, in my woodsy part of the world, flowers are more subdued and ephemeral.

Sometimes, I dream of herb gardens and colorful perennial borders. Then, the hot days of summer come and I remember why I appreciate this shady setting and the palette of plants that grow here.

Buffet for Chipmunks

Mama and Baby Chipmunk

Mama and Baby Chipmunk

There’s no need for a weather report around here. Just look out the window for chipmunks on the stone wall. Chipmunks: warm. No chipmunks: cold.

Chipmunks don’t actually hibernate. They sleep much of the winter and, supposedly, wake up every few weeks to eat. They mate in early spring and usually have one litter a year. Their burrows can be thirty feet long. I believe this, since the crevices of our wall seem to get deeper and more pronounced every winter.

Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are found throughout most of North America. Most gardeners tolerate them and are amused by their antics. I was not amused a few years ago when I suspected them of raiding the nest of some newly-hatched birds. I kept seeing chipmunks sitting on the fence  under the nest;  I had never seen them in that area before  the birds disappeared.

Last week, a mama chipmunk crept out of the stone wall with her baby in tow. They could see me through the kitchen window so I had to sneak around to get their photo. All day long they took turns popping in and out of four or five crevices, like little jacks-in-the-box.

It’s hard to resist a baby chipmunk, so I decided to take it a snack. I had a container of pre-chopped vegetables and put out a few pieces each of purple cabbage, broccoli, celery, carrots, and what appeared to be parsnip, or maybe jicama.


A few minutes later, I saw one of the chipmunks standing on its hindlegs, chewing on a piece of celery held in its paws. I didn’t see them eat anything the rest of the day, but by the next morning, everything had disappeared. I found that chipmunks prefer celery, broccoli, and red cabbage to carrots and jicama. I did not throw seeds, nuts, or fruit in the mix, which might have changed the outcome of my experiment. (Obviously, I am easily entertained, and my little garden inhabitants are easily sated).

Outside Lea’s Window

A perfect, unnamed camellia flower catches the light.

A perfect, unnamed camellia blossom catches the light.



Veterans Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee

Old Trees

Old trees, old trees! in your mystic gloom

There’s many a warrior laid,

And many a nameless and lonely tomb

Is sheltered beneath your shade  . . .

Old trees, old trees! we shall pass away

Like the leaves you yearly shed,

But ye, lone sentinels, still must stay,

Old trees, to guard our dead.


Selected verses, Old Tree, by Abram Joseph Ryan, 1838 – 1886



Little Sweet Betsy

Trillium cuneatum - Little Sweet Betsy

Trillium cuneatum – Little Sweet Betsy

Spring begins….. at last. A few leaves of sweet Betsy trillium, Trillium cuneatum, emerged from the rich, black soil near the stone wall a few days ago. Seemingly overnight, those few leaves turned into a clump of several plants, one with a fat bud which will soon become blackish-purple bracts. These native trilliums are all over our three-fourths acre lot, but this particular location is a first for them.

There used to be a lot of mayapples nearby. They’re disappeared, except for a few spindly plants I hope re-appear in a few weeks. Supposedly the deer eat the fruit when it’s fully ripe, so maybe that’s why the mayapples have all but disappeared. Or maybe it’s because of the gardener, who has allowed Vinca minor to get too thick there. (Can’t blame everything on deer).

So much to see right now, but the first signs of life are always the sweetest. Welcome to you, little Betsy, with the splotchly green markings.

Most likely a cross of Trillium cuneatum and Trillium

This clump is likely a cross between Trillium cuneatum and Trillium luteum, a yellow species.


Walnut in Limbo

Walnut Cracker

Nature’s Nutcracker

Things are still pretty dormant here, garden-wise. I spend a lot of time looking up when I’m outside.

Odd sight near the creek this weekend: a walnut resting inside the sections of a fractured, bent-over tree. Wonder how long it’ll take the squirrels to figure this one out.

Trails, Trains, and Crawdads


After a mentally-draining session with blogs and websites, my son and I found reprieve in a late-winter walk along Third Creek greenway in Knoxville. We parked at the Sutherland Avenue entrance and walked down a straight stretch of paving with grass clearings on either side. Groups of fat robins converged at the edge of a thicket of trees and undergrowth. There is good habitat for birds here: cover, water, and (presumably) plenty of food.


More evidence of birds, in this case woodpeckers. This tree has been foraged repeatedly for grubs and insects.


We saw bird silhouettes in distant trees, and a grouping of what appeared to be young, native beech trees with their buttery-brown winter foliage.



The creek meanders alongside the path. The view was pretty from the first vantage point when the sun was out. Unfortunately, the creek had just flooded and there was a good bit of trash and debris on the banks in some areas. The grasses and other plants (too early in the season to know what they were) had been flattened by the rising water.


The course of the stream was changed to a curving one by a process called stream re-meandering. According to this sign, the stream was dredged and straightened several decades ago because of erosion, sediment, and other problems associated with nearby development.  Some people who grew up in this area say the stream was always straight. I don’t know. Unfortunately, there are still issues with the creek, as this sign will attest:



We saw a lot of bamboo, privet, and other invasive plants along this section of the greenway. It’s hard to keep invasives under control in areas such as utility right-of-ways, greenways, shoulders of highways, and other disturbed areas. At my own house, the creeks have eroded, and privet has seeded itself — with the help of birds — along the steep banks.



A happy surprise — which brought back many childhood memories – was the discovery of crawfish holes in the moist areas near the beginning of the trail. According to the sign we saw later, the holes were made by Appalachian brook crayfish (also called crawfish and crawdads). I think these were the very ones that kept making tunnels in the dam of my dad’s pond in North Carolina. He spent many an hour plugging up crawfish holes.


The trail leads to an area of thick vegetation near a railroad viaduct. The trestle is supported by thick columns, and the creek flows under some of them near the point where the greenway trail splits.


On the tracks above the greenway, a train was carrying a load of fresh lumber. The late afternoon light was reflected on the concrete below the tracks. I was so absorbed in the sound of the sparkling creek, cascading over the rocks near the viaduct, that I forgot to get pictures of people running, riding bikes, and walking.

This might have been my favorite part of the trail. I love trains — the mystery and romance of them and the evocative sound of their horns from a distance. With the train, added to the winter sunshine and rushing creek, it was one of the best-ever escapes from a computer.

Cooper’s Hawk

Late-winter Visitor

Late-winter Visitor

There was a persistent kik-kik-kik sound in the backyard Sunday. I ignored it for a while, but it got increasingly loud. Turns out, it was a cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), sitting within the bare, criss-crossed branches of a large Japanese maple.

Cooper hawks have a fierce, intent look in their eyes — all the better to watch the small birds and mammals they prey on. This young hawk was probably eyeing chipmunks: they’re always scurrying around, looking out for seeds that fall from the feeder attached to the eaves of the house. Since I had just tossed out several cupfuls of safflower seeds, they were probably intercepting those too.  Squirrels don’t usually like safflower; chipmunks don’t care if it’s that or the most prime selection of black oil sunflower. If it’s edible, they go for it.

This is the first cooper’s hawk I’ve seen on our property — at least upclose. They’re  probably regular visitors, but either blend into the background or stay too high in the treetops for us to see or identify.

Immature cooper hawks (like this one) have yellow eyes and white chests with thin, brown streaks. Their backs are usually dark with white markings. They nest near the edge of deciduous or mixed woods like ours. Coopers are fairly common in Tennessee, more so during the months of September and October.

I hope this hawk comes back. I want to learn its call so, next time,  I’ll recognize it right away.

Note: Wish I could have gotten a better shot of the Cooper’s Hawk, but it was taken from a window and without appropriate camera lens.

Tree Planting 101: The Reckless Approach

Nurtured Trees

Nurtured For a Long Time

Many professions have licensing requirements and uniform standards for quality and compliance. In Tennessee, there is no state certification or licensing process for someone in the landscape profession, as there is for a builder, electrician, auctioneer, or cosmetologist. A landscape company can submit a low bid, get a contract for a project, then execute it with the poorest of professional and ethical standards — all without penalty, it seems.

Everything from planting to pruning to pest control requires knowledge and judgement, yet both are often sacrificed for the quick-fix and a signature on a contract. This sub-quality work comes at a price — to consumers, the environment, and the quality of neighborhoods. I just shake my head when I see large, beautiful trees dying, simply because someone didn’t know (or care) if the most basic planting standards were met.

A few weeks ago, I was driving down a side street and saw these glaring (and jarring) examples of how NOT to plant a tree:

Plant 'Em High

Plant ‘Em High

Plant 'Em Low

Plant ‘Em Low


Plant ‘Em Crooked

And finally, we have the ultimate example of Oh. My. Goodness. How could you possibly do that many things to one tree?

A Good Tree Sacrificed

A Good Tree, Sacrificed

A lot of resources go into growing a tree from seed or a cutting: water, labor, fertilizer, and plain old worry, especially if you’re a nursery owner in charge of seeing your plants through the challenges of drought, freezing temperatures, wind, and insects. For a young, thriving tree to meet its demise through human carelessness is just plain wrong.