Friday, April 18, 2014

Come Together

Cinnamon Fern Fiddlehead (Osmunda cinnamomea)
I get my blog topics from lots of sources. Surprising encounters, sudden inspirations, beautiful moments, special occasions, just to name a few. I'm always on the lookout for a new idea and usually have a few vague thoughts bubbling on the back burner. Sometimes it's really clear where I should go with the idea. Sometimes I can't quite figure how to lay it all out. Today is like that. I've been thinking a lot about several unrelated experiences, wondering how to or if I should share them. I think I will, anyway.

So it all started about 2 weeks ago when I was working in my garden and found the dead, dried body of a Pine Woods Snake, smashed on the path. I was really sad to see it because I find only one or two in the yard each year and thought, "there goes my shot this year". Selfish, I know, but I really look forward to seeing them. They are uncommon little snakes, harmless, dainty and shy, and surprisingly, our urban yard is a good habitat for them. What makes this especially tragic for me is that the mailman and I are just about the only people who walk on the path in our front yard, so chances are about even that I was the one who squashed it. So even in a lovingly created and nurtured nature sanctuary, the nature is not always safe.
Dead Pine Woods Snake
Then a week or so later, I was working in the yard again, finally trimming those bushes that I'd been waiting for warm weather to prune. I have 3 clumps of Plumbago in the front yard that have gotten big and rangy since we haven't had a hard freeze for a while. I had cut back one and was cleaning up for the day when I saw some movement on the vine on the ground close to the next clump of bushes. Big, fat Pipeline Swallowtail caterpillars were munching away on the Pipevine that is growing all around the area. I didn't even know the butterflies had been in the yard yet this season, let alone laying eggs!  A couple of days later I went back to see how the caterpillars were doing and found no sign of them, which could mean a couple of things. Either they had been eaten, or, more likely, they had climbed into some safe place to pupate. The obvious safe place was the clump of Plumbago right next to the vines, the one that I had hoped to tackle next in my big yard spruce up. So now I have a dilemma. Do I continue trimming so that the front yard looks symmetrical, or do I wait for the new butterflies to emerge from their chrysalids? It seems pretty obvious to me, now that I know what might be in there. I will wait for the butterflies and the yard will look a little lopsided for a while. In addition, the summer's first wave of baby birds recently hatched in the azalea bushes, so I'll need to wait to trim there, too. Anxious Carolina Wren and Cardinal parents flutter around me, making alarm calls when I walk too close. I'll make them sick with worry if I get in there with my clippers.

Wooly Pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa)

Concerned Cardinal
Then yesterday I was driving through town, taking my mother-in-law to some errands and appointments, when we saw flashing police lights in the road ahead. I moved over, figuring that there had been an accident. Since it was close to campus, I was fearful that a bicycle had been involved. But I was totally unprepared for what I saw--a bald eagle sitting in the road, with police cars on the side directing traffic away from it. It was so unsettling to see this beautiful bird, injured and on the ground. It was alert, although it was on the road and holding its wings in a strange position. I hoped that it could be successfully rescued and rehabilitated, but I couldn't tell from the drive by. Still, I was shaken. My mother-in-law can attest to this, as I was so preoccupied with the injured eagle that I almost missed our turn a couple of miles later. I later learned that the eagle was able to fly off. Apparently it was chasing or was chased by crows through traffic and had been clipped by a car. What a shock that must have been to the driver, and to the eagle! It was a relief to know that it had survived. But it might not have turned out so well. Eagles get hit all the time.

Before I knew the eagle was ok, I needed to go somewhere to process my shock. I went to a wooded area behind a nearby strip mall/medical park/apartment complex and stewed over the plight of the eagle. It didn't take long in the woods before I felt better. I saw a turtle and a number of lovely birds, including a Pileated Woodpecker that I watched from just inside the bushes. The woods were a refuge for those animals and for me. But they were also strewn with trash, and I could hear the roar of lawn mowers and smell engine exhaust from the parking lot yards away.  
Pileated Woodpecker

Trash in the Sanctuary
Last week I found and photographed a beautiful Grass Pink orchid in a conservation land area. I shared photos of the plant in my various online sharing groups, but I have learned that I have to be careful not to say exactly where I find rare flowers because collectors might use the information to go dig up the plant. Weeks before this, a friend shared photos and the location of a beautiful bird nest with eggs. But other people cautioned against giving locations of wildlife nests and dens for fear that all the attention of interested gawkers and photographers could scare off the parents.
Grasspink Orchid (Calopogon multiflorus)
My friend stopped traffic on a busy intersection last week while she rescued a turtle crossing the road. She used her car door to block the lane and made sure the turtle was out of harms way. When people realized why they couldn't pass, they waited patiently. It's Florida, after all, and this happens all the time.

This weekend when I was driving home from the grocery store I looked through the windshield and saw this:
Anole on the Wipers
A brown Anole had taken refuge under the hood of the car and was riding on my windshield wipers. I pulled over and tried to catch it, but the lizard ran away and hid under the hood again. There wasn't really anything I could do at that point but continue on my journey. There is a chance that the lizard flew off the car and into the street somewhere, or maybe it is still safe in the engine compartment.

5 Florida Panthers have been hit and killed by cars so far this year, and a beloved Red-Tailed Hawk in Massachusetts was found dead last week, an unintentional victim of rat poison. A Florida woman was injured when she went outside and found 5 bears rummaging through her trash. Several of the bears were killed by FWC to prevent other incidents.

To top it all off, I had an odd dream the night before last. Before I saw the eagle in the road, but after the snake and turtle. I dreamt that there was a hawk sitting on the floor of my house. It was lying in a strange position, all tangled up. I wasn't sure if it was hurt or not. I picked it up, knowing that I had to be careful with the sharp talons. I held it in my arms, grasping its legs like I would a baby. It seemed comforted as I held it close. I remember noting that it felt soft, like a cat or a rabbit.

I don't know where that dream came from. I don't believe that it was a message forewarning me about the eagle. But I do think that the dream represented somehow my view of the relationship that humans have with nature in our daily lives. I think I am concerned about caring for the world around me. I worry a lot about the fate of animals like the whooping crane, the polar bear, elephants and rhinos. Panthers and bears and hawks. I fear that our last wild places will be exploited and torn apart in the interest of money, power and greed and that our exploding populations will use up all the resources that all the creatures on the earth have to share. But I also believe that most humans care about protecting the natural world. I believe people acting intentionally can live alongside of the natural world in relative harmony, if we want to. We just have to be careful and thoughtful. Accidents will happen, no matter what we do, but if we try even a little it makes the chances of doing harm all that much smaller.

It makes me happy to know that I live in a place where traffic will stop to protect an injured eagle, and that the story will make the front page of the paper. I like to know that a turtle in the road has a chance if the right person finds it. It fills me with hope to know that people are so eager to see a bird nest and its contents. I love that I live around urban park refuges, tiny snakes, wild orchids, hungry caterpillars and car surfing lizards. I am thankful for groups that clean up trash, pull exotic plants and study wildlife. I applaud scientists and engineers that are finding ways for us to live together on this planet, leaving a smaller footprint. I am encouraged by environmental educators who want to teach a new generation to care about nature.

We just have to be mindful that we are sharing this planet and know that what we humans do might have bigger consequences. We have great responsibilities. With Earth Day just around the corner, this seems relevant and I think that is how it all comes together.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Ditch is Back!

Roadside Rainlilies--The Ditch is Back
Well, actually, the ditch never left, but I can't resist a good pun or title. But it feels like it's back again after a long winter. Yesterday, my photo buddy Maralee and I decided that it was high time that we checked out the ditch and we took a drive over to the other end of the county. And wow, was it worth it! The weather is warming up now and there's been a lot of rain so the ditch was literally hopping. Driving toward the ditch we could see Rain Lilies and Purple Thistle dotting the roadside and we knew this was going to be a great day. When we got out to look around, there were Worts everywhere-- Orange Milkwort and Spiderwort, tiny yellow Zigzag Bladderworts and Blue Butterworts.
Rain Lily (Zephyranthes atamasca)

Purple Thistle and all its Horrible Thorns! (Cirsium horridulum)

Zigzag Bladderwort (Utricularia subulata)

Blue Butterwort (Pinguicula caerulea)

Long Leaf Violet and Spider (Viola lanceolata)

Little spiders scurried around at our feet and tiny baby grasshoppers flew out when we stirred up the grass. There were Hatpins and Sundew and White Violets galore, and a couple of new flowers that we hadn't seen--we have some research to do to identify them. Maybe you can help! Continuing along, we found tiny white Duck Potatoes, a cluster of St. John's Wort and a huge bed of pretty Blue Butterworts. I was hunched over concentrating on getting a good closeup of one when Maralee called out "Snake"! I hurried over and was in time to catch sight of a gorgeous Coral Snake sliding through the grass. It was too fast for us to get a clear photo, but we were both pretty pleased about seeing the Coral Snake. Great day!
Funnel Web Spider

Duck Potato and Crab Spider (Sagittaria latifolia)

Big Bed of Butterworts

Can you See the Coral Snake in the Grass? Red on Yellow...
We found a cluster of old dried Hooded Pitcher Plants and another cluster with new flower buds about to open. Just about that time we realized that the tiny flitting butterflies that we were seeing all over were Little Metalmarks! I have so many photos of Little Metalmarks, but they are so pretty that I always have to take more. They were a bit darker than the ones we had seen in the fall and they looked fresh and gorgeous. They seemed to be particularly fond of the Fleabane and the Orange Milkwort.
Hooded Pitcher Plant Flower Buds (Sarracenia minor)

Little Metalmark Butterfly on Fleabane

We heard lots of White Eyed Vireos calling from the woods, saw Vultures circling over and watched bees and wasps and flies furiously feeding on the flowers. Little frogs croaked from the grass and tree frogs clacked from the trees because storm clouds were moving in. Swallowtail, Crescent and Skipper butterflies made brief cameos. There were a few annoying mosquitoes and gnats. This wet weather portends of a buggy summer, unfortunately. But the Sundews will have plenty to feed on!
Phaon Crescent on Fleabane

Dwarf Sundews and their Nutrients (Drosera brevifolia)

Closer to the ground were the Dewberries and Blue Eyed Grass, while the False Garlic and Coreopsis danced over their heads. We both agreed that this was just the beginning of a long season of regular visits to our favorite ditch. We'll be back.

False Garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve)

Mystery Flower--Let me know if you can ID it!

ps--I have learned that this is a Pineland Daisy (Chaptalia tomentosa).

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Focus on Nature

Spring is Calling! Bees buzzing in the Hog Plums
I've been waiting for March to come and for the cold weather to leave before getting serious in the garden. It's been hard, but I kept telling myself that it was best for the plants, and that after writing for all the world to see that one should wait to trim, I couldn't exactly go out and chop everything down in February. But I have also been preparing to give a talk at a conference, and I've found, for myself at least, that an important deadline is the surest motivator to start a totally unrelated project. It helps me to procrastinate getting to the work at hand. I think I deal with stress by not dealing with it. When I was an English major at UW Madison, I still remember starting and completing a simple quilt for my daughter's bed before I started my paper on the Gulliver's Travels. But I managed to pull off both big jobs, and as I recall, got an A on my paper, too. Not the best strategy, I know, but it's the way my twisted mind works sometimes.

Spring Signs! Carolina Willow (Salix caroliniana)
I was invited, for my first time ever, to present at a conference--the annual conference for LEEF (the League of Environmental Educators in Florida). My topic was "Bringing the Natural World to your  Classroom with Photography"and my talk was going to be about the ways that I've been able to turn my love for photography into tools that I use as a Nature Educator. So it's a good thing that I wrote the blog about spring trimming, because that kept me honest (garden-wise) and made me focus on preparing for the conference.

Nature Tools! (Shameless plug--available on my Website)

It worked and I got almost everything ready ahead of time, which is good, because I ended up taking an unplanned trip to Utah a week before the conference. Utah was nice. It was a pretty time of year, pre-spring. The buds were just coming out, the mountains were spectacular, and we even had a light snow on our last day.
The Beautiful Wasatch Mountains

And in those few days that we were away, spring arrived big time in Florida. We came home to azalea bushes completely covered with fuchsia, pink and white blossoms, the yellow and blue of coreopsis and spiderwort in the front path, and everything covered in yellow pollen from the Oak Trees. The Fish Crows had joined the Baltimore Orioles that had been coming to our feeders all winter, emptying the jelly feeders about as fast as I could fill them. The flocks of Cedar Waxwings had settled into the Publix parking lots, snarfing holly berries with gusto. I like that you can hear the sound of their squeaky-door calls back and forth to each other a long time before you can see them. I hope every year to finally get the definitive photo, because they are some of the prettiest birds I know of. I usually don't have my camera when I see them, probably because I see them most often at the grocery store. I didn't have my camera in Utah, either, because it was a short trip. I'm like an addict, and when I haven't been out in nature, walking and taking photos, I feel it. My friend Maralee calls this "Forest Bathing", which I just love. Environmental Educator, Richard Louv, calls it "Vitamin N". Either way, my supply gets low and I need to replenish it. I was feeling seriously Nature deficient after working on the computer so much and being out of town for family visit, sans camera. (Well, to be honest, I actually did have a camera. Two, in fact--a point and shoot, and my phone. But I didn't bring the fancy lenses. So there.)

This was waiting when we got home. Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)

The Elusive Cedar Waxwing. I hope someday to catch it eating a berry, while showing it's yellow tail tips and red wing spots. Sounds impossible, but I've got to hope. This was shot in a grocery store parking lot, and I was lucky to finally have the camera with me when I went to pick up a prescription.

When I got back to Florida, I felt this yearning desire to be outside, either hiking and photographing, or working in the yard. But I also felt like they would distract me from preparing for this conference, and I wanted to do a good job there, so I only allowed myself small doses of the fun stuff as reward. It was not completely satisfying, though, because I couldn't really focus well without feeling guilty.
Guilty Pleasure--A trip to Paynes Prairie to see the Baby Pied Billed Grebes
In the end, though, I finished my presentation, printed out all my visual aids and had it all ready to go with plenty of time to spare. I practiced working the presentation on my iPad (pretty nifty!) since I don't have a laptop. I used an application called Prezi that my husband recommended. Prezi is almost the same idea as Powerpoint, but the slides come to you from different points on the screen and can zoom in. It feels a little more dynamic than the old slide by slide method, though I'm very new at using it. I used my own photos for everything and I thought it looked fantastic! So off I went to the conference at 4-H Camp Ocala in the Ocala National Forest, about an hour and a half from home. I wasn't able to attend the entire conference, with camping, workshops and the keynote speech, but I was able to stay for the day's workshops. I attended a session from the people at Hobe Sound Wildlife Refuge and Nature Center, called "Bird Brains" and learned some fun ways to teach children about birds, using costumes and props. And I learned about Gopher Tortoises from Florida expert, Pat Ashton. Great stuff that I know I will use in the future.

Prezi slide on my iPad mini. Amazing!
Environmental educators are a great bunch of people. They are fun and creative, don't mind looking foolish doing a turkey dance, can make convincing owl calls, and are able to make neat things happen from a wish and a prayer (like creating gopher tortoises from disposable paper bowls and calipers from bamboo skewers), because budgets for environmental education are sorry, to say the least. Which is sad, since it is so important, and teaching future generations about nature, ecology, the environment, natural history and conservation are crucial for the health of our people and planet. We've had one of the harshest winters on record and weather is out of kilter due to climate change. It seems like every week now we learn about how much better children perform in school when they are active and spend time outdoors. How much healthier they are. How much more empathetic they are. I think Environmental Education is very important and I am just happy that there are people like those who attended the conference who believe the same.

My session went well, except for a few minor technical flubs caused by my inexperience with Prezi and iPads. But I know it will be even smoother in the future, should the opportunity arise. The small group that attended my session was friendly and understanding. They enthusiastically shot questions and suggestions at me throughout the presentation. I think I shared some new, good things with them. And they did the same with me. At the point of the class where we were all going to go outside and take photos to put in a mock-up of a blog, one of the attendees said, "I think I have something that would be fun to photograph if you're interested". And I thought, "hmmmm--I don't know where this is going…". Then she opened the box in her hands and showed us two 10-day old baby armadillos! Wow! Only at an E.E. conference! The person was Leslie Straub, a wildlife rehabilitator from Gainesville. I was so lucky to have her in my photography session! What luck! I think everyone got great shots. Hopefully, some of them went home and blogged about it, or wrote a story about "Annie the Armadillo's Big Adventure". I know we all had fun.
Twin Armadillo Baby Girls. They were 10-days old and had been rescued. Two of their siblings died.

This was only the 2nd outing for the babies. They were cute and curious and very skittish! They ran around like kittens, jumping and sniffing.

Armadillos always have litters of 4 genetically identical babies. They will be all girls or all boys. These were girls. After they played and explored for a while, they were tired and got fed and went to sleep.
But that's not all. The session ended and as my kind helper and I were cleaning up and loading things into the car, we saw two Sandhill Cranes walking around the building. They were perfectly at ease with us being there. In fact, they wandered into a campsite and looked at the tents and at things on the table. Then they walked right over to where we were standing and I took some of the best crane photos I've ever gotten. No fences in the way, no crowds. No pressure. They even did a little "dancing", although I think they were trying to chase off the man who was near the tents (in his campsite--how dare he!). It was a spiritual experience standing so close to these magnificent birds.
Sandhill Crane probing for goodies

Curious Camp Invaders
I got my reward for staying focused until I was done with the conference. It was a great experience, and I hope it is the start of a new path for me. Next time I'm calling my presentation, "Focus on Nature". Perfect!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Don't Plant These at Home!

In my last post I identified some of the common weeds and plants that I keep my eye on come spring each year. But I didn't mention the vast array of invasive exotic species that I also watch for. I try very hard to keep them out of our yard, but it takes constant vigilance. Because they are so successful and are without natural pests, they pop up all the time. Unchecked, they can quickly take hold in any landscape. National Invasive Species Awareness Week began yesterday, and in the spirit of environmental education, I dug out an article I wrote for our neighborhood newsletter last summer. The seasons may have changed, but the issues remain the same.

This July is shaping up to be one of the wettest on record, and we can all see the results of abundant rain in our green and lush yards. What a relief it is to have plenty of water after all these years! I know the plants in our yard are enjoying the rain, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. The drought we’ve had for the past few years has not been much of a problem for us because we have a Florida Friendly Yard. This means that we are using landscape plants that are mostly native to North Central Florida, and that don’t require a lot of water or fertilizer, and provide habitat for animals. I’d like to take this chance to speak up in favor of using native plants in your landscape.
Florida Friendly Yard
Unlike the generic landscape plants usually found at gardening centers, native plants are adapted to local water, nutrient and temperature requirements. Native plants don’t need extra watering after they are established. They don’t need to be protected in cold weather. And they don’t need extra fertilizing. In addition, native plants are important sources of food for native animals and insects that have evolved along with the plants. Imagine a yard that not only accents your house with beautiful flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs, but also provides habitat for native butterflies, bees, mammals and birds and helps the environment. You can see why I’m sold on native plant gardening.
Great Habitat for Butterflies, Bees and other Wildlife
Of course, there are many gorgeous plants that are not native, and being able to grow them is one of the fun advantages to gardening in Florida. It’s perfectly fine to grow non-native plants in your yard. Azaleas, Camellias and Japanese Magnolias are some good examples of great, non-native plants. I’m also very fond of Red Pentas, Gingers and African Irises in a butterfly garden. The trick is to choose plants that are good players within the local environment, and to put the right plant in the right place! Plants that need a lot of water should be planted around a wet area. If your yard is dry, wetland plants may not be right for you. Many parts of Gainesville have sandy, dry soil. Use drought tolerant plants in those kinds of yards. And pay close attention to sun and shade requirements. As water becomes a bigger issue in Florida, it is important to use garden plants that can survive and thrive in our climate. Irrigation doesn’t make much sense because it’s so wasteful. Water quality is also important for our future, so we must be careful how we use fertilizers so that they do not get into the waterways and pollute our streams, lakes and springs. Here in the Duckpond Neighborhood, for example, the water from the Sweetwater branch eventually drains into Paynes Prairie. We all want to protect the natural environment of the Prairie.
Elephant Ear (Xanthosoma sagittifolium) is an invasive exotic plant that thrives in our Semi-Tropical climate, as you can see from this photo of the Sweetwater Branch Creek in Downtown Gainesville. Follow this creek downstream into Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and you will find canals clogged with Elephant Ear.
Another point to consider with non-native plants is if they are Invasive Exotic species. Exotic plants are just plants that are not native to your particular region. Invasive Exotic plants are the non-native ones that do so well in any particular climate that they outcompete the native species, to the detriment of the local ecosystems. They have no local natural pests or diseases that control them and they crowd out the native plants. Then the animals that depend on those native plants lose important food and shelter resources. Well known examples of Invasive Exotic species are Kudzu, Melaleuca (mainly in South Florida), Water Hyacinth and Air Potatoes.
Air Potato Vines (Diascoria bulbifera). These vines spread by little bulbuls (the "potatoes"). There are no native pests to control this plant, although an Asian insect, the Air Potato Leaf Beetle has been released in Florida as a control with some success. 
Invasive Exotic plants can be very attractive, which is one reason that they are brought to Florida in the first place. But just like the Burmese Python, these species in the wrong place can cause real harm to the environment. Environmental agencies are doing their best to eradicate harmful invasive exotic species, but it is a huge problem and they need help from citizens like you.

Peruvian Water Primrose (Ludwigia peruviana). Pretty, yes. But wrong plant, wrong place. They are now established in streams and creeks all over Florida.

Chinese Tallow Tree Leaves (Triadica sebifera). Also known as "Popcorn Trees", the abundant fluffy seeds from this tree help them spread through the stream systems where they end up in areas such as Paynes Prairie. They grow and crowd out native species. They were planted originally as ornamentals because of the pretty leaves and seeds but are now banned for purchase in Florida nurseries because they are considered to be noxious weeds.
So take a look around your yard and see if you have Invasive Exotic plants that should be removed. You can see examples all around our neighborhood and along the ditches of the Sweetwater Branch, crowding out the beautiful native plantings. Elephant Ear, Air Potato and Mexican Petunia nearly cover the banks in some places. By fall, trees and bushes will be enveloped in the invasive Air Potato vines and covered with the hanging “potatoes”. Colorful Lantana and Coral Ardesia may seem pretty in your home landscape, but they’re insidious. You might think it is ok to grow these plants in your own yard and keep them under control. But here’s the problem--just a tiny piece of Mexican Petunia will grow a whole new plant, and the berries from Lantana and Ardesia are carried off and deposited by birds and squirrels. Plant fragments, seeds and berries wash down into the storm drains where they gather in the ditches (like the one just below the Thelma Bolton Center), just a heavy rain away from being washed down to the Prairie. These plants are spreading along Florida’s waterways and through the woods like wildfire.
Mexican Petunia (Ruellia simplex). You can find these all through the Loblolly Woods.

Coral Ardesia (Ardesia crenata)

Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica). The pretty red berries on Nandina and Coral Ardesia are irresistible to birds and wildlife which helps them spread through natural areas. Both plants are classified as Category 1 invasive exotic plants because of their harmful environmental effects. Plant native berries such as Yaupon Holly or Simpson's Stopper instead.


Consider planting a Florida Friendly landscape in your yard. You’ll appreciate the diversity of wildlife and you’ll be doing your part to help protect our environment. One great source for Florida native plants is the Native Plant Sale at Morningside Nature Center that takes place in the Fall and Spring each year. Many knowledgeable vendors and experts will help you pick the right plants for your yard. So Happy Summer and Happy Gardening!

You can get more information at these web sites:

Florida Friendly Landscapes:

Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants:

Florida Exotic Pest Council:

Florida Native Plant Society:

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Spring Fever

Azaleas blooms switching to high gear
It's been a weird winter here in Florida. Freezing temperatures from the Polar Vortex one week followed by sweltering 80 degrees the next, dry and rain, early bloomers and late arriving visitors--it's been hard to know what to expect next. But it appears that spring is arriving, more or less on schedule. The robins and cedar waxwings showed up in large numbers about two weeks ago and are now leaving berry filled droppings on car windshields from one end of the city to the other. The Sandhill Cranes looked like they may be heading North again, but some have stuck around. A few days ago there was still a small crowd at the Beef Unit at the University of Florida where they have been feeding this winter, and a bigger group arrived at Paynes Prairie last week (with a Whooping Crane tagging along!), possibly biding their time while freezing weather passed through the area. The azaleas are almost ready to begin their big show after some false starts as early as December (they were just kidding before). The dogwoods and redbuds won't be far behind. And I saw my first monarch butterfly of the season in our front yard, drying its wings in the sun.

First Monarch of the season
It's warm and sunny and approaching perfect, and we of the gardener persuasion really want to get out in the yard again! I want to tidy up and cut back old growth and pull out all the dead annuals to get ready for a beautiful garden. But while it may be tempting to try to get a jump on the big growth spurts that will happen as soon as it gets hot and rainy, I have learned that it is much better to wait just a bit longer. This does not apply so much to vegetable gardening, which you can do year round in Florida. I don't do much vegetable gardening. I'm talking about sprucing up butterfly and wildlife gardens and landscape plants that may have died back in the cold weather.

One good reason that I wait to trim is that the weather has been, and is always, unpredictable. Here in North Florida, even though we have pretty mild winters, there is actually a possibility of a freeze throughout the winter and well into Spring. Just last week one of my Facebook friends remarked that it was colder in Gainesville than it was at the Olympics at Sochi. Today it will be in the 80's. Next week, maybe cold again. Plants that have been trimmed back are more susceptible to freeze damage, especially when the temperatures are swinging back and forth. Also, trimming the plants may stimulate new growth, which could be damaged by frost. I've read that here in Gainesville it's better to wait until March to cut back dead vegetation. We rarely have frost after March. And by that time new growth will be coming up from the roots and you will be able to determine which branches are actually dead, vs. dormant (scratch the bark with your fingernail and if you see green underneath, it's still alive). In the meantime, the upper dead vegetation provides some buffer to the rest of the plant from the cold. So I tell myself to just wait. It is hard to hold back on those February days when the weather seems so perfect, but killing my plants is not a preferred outcome.

Chipping Sparrow hanging out on a dried flower branch in the yard
Another reason that I wait to trim is that the dead branches and dried seeds provide important shelter and food for wildlife. When the winter temperatures freeze back plants and insects, it can leave a food source vacuum for wildlife at this time of year. Seeds and berries on dead flowers and grasses (as well as filled bird feeders) give birds and other wildlife enough calories to keep warm and prepare for breeding season. And when trees, shrubs and plants have shed their leaves there is less shelter for them. Cutting back foliage before there are new leaves in the trees gives the animals fewer safe places to hide. Spiders, such as Green Lynx, lay their egg sacks on the tops of tall wildflowers. And there could be overwintering cocoons and chrysalids hanging in the safety of a low hanging limb. Trimming those plants kills all those helpful garden arthropods. And even later in the spring, birds will make their nests in the safety of thick azalea bushes. So I think of the wildlife and wait to cut.

Spider Nest on spent Wood Sage
So if I don't trim in February, what can I do in the garden when it's so nice out? Personally, I use this time of year to pull sprouts of weeds, or thin plants that I have too many of, or move things that I don't want growing where they've popped up. In a native plant garden, there are a lot of seeds to sprout. And, believe it or not, there is actually such a thing as too many Blue Curls, Salvia and Coreopsis. Over the years, I've gotten to know the seedlings of my least and most favorite plants. I find that it's easier to pull them while they're small, although there are a lot that like to grow and spread during the cold weather months and by the time I finally get outside to weed, they have already started to take over. If you drive by my yard in February, you'll probably see me with a bucket and a butter knife, my preferred tool for digging up the dreaded Pink Woodsorrel, Oxalis debilis. As pretty as these flowers may be, I won't let them stay. They are exotic pests and if you give them an inch, they spread and take over everything. So I dig them up. But you have to be very careful to get the root as well as the little bulbettes that are attached to the root. Any one of them left behind will grow a new plant. I've found that by using a butter knife, I can loosen the soil around the root and pull it the whole root unit out intact.

Oxalis debilis cluster with sprigs of Spiderwort popping through

Don't let the pretty pink trick you!
-Note Bidens leaves in upper left and lower right-

Oxalis Root with clusters of little bulbettes just below the stems
Another plant that has to go is Globe Sedge (or any sedge grass, really). If I don't catch them early, they mature and make lots of seeds and then I'm in trouble. They are very prolific. I've learned to recognize in the tiniest sprig the shine of the leaves that sets them apart from other grassy clumps. Also, the leaf has a wedge shape, with the two sides coming to a "V". "Sedges have wedges" is the helpful mnemonic. I also always pull Spanish Needles, or Bidens. It's a pretty white flower that attracts all sorts of wildlife (read my blog about it), but it also produces millions of seeds (the "Needles") and if I let it stay in the yard, it takes over. So out it goes. Bidens lives happily at my neighbors' houses, so there is plenty in the area. I pull Smilax from my flower garden, even though it is a native vine with berries that the birds like (which is probably the reason it grows in my yard), because it grows into a monster with sharp thorns that is hard (and painful) to pull. It's ok with me if it stays in the back yard, in the bushes and bamboo, where I do not believe there is any danger of it being eradicated. I also pull Virginia Creeper when it comes up in the garden, but I'll let it grow along a fence or up a tree in the back yard because the berries have excellent wildlife value. And I'll pull Scarlet Morning Glory, because even though it is pretty, it is impossible. I have never let it grow in my yard, and yet after 9 years of living in this house, I'm still pulling sprouts from the extensive seed bank left by previous owners.

Unmistakable, shiny Sedge plants

Spanish Needles/Bidens alba--No, No, No!

Smilax--When I worked at the nature center we taught kids to remember the name by saying "I SMILE when I AXE it out of the garden". The Timucua (ancient native people of the region) used the roots as a starchy thickener for stews.
-Note Betony leaves with round ridges, growing around the Smilax-

Virginia Creeper. No, it's not poison ivy. But it still can't grow in the front yard

Out, Damned Spurge!
I also pull these plants--Spotted Spurge. They are covered with seeds and they spread like crazy, crowding out things that I want to grow, and they ooze white, milky sap when you break the stem. I can see a tiny sprout from 10 feet away.  However, I had an epiphany last week when I was trying to take photos of a pair of Painted Buntings. I realized as I watched them that they were eating seeds off of a plant that I've always considered an annoying weed--Chickweed. I would definitely let it stay in my yard if it meant I could get Painted Buntings. My neighbors might not like it, but I would be in Bunting Heaven. So it just goes to show that you have to walk a fine line when growing plants to attract wildlife. I'll have to keep watching to see if anything eats spurge seeds (besides ants).

Painted Buntings enjoying a meal of Chickweed seeds
February is a good time to thin a lot of plants I actually want, but need to control, like Spiderwort. I love this plant with it's pretty blue flowers, but a little goes a long way. As the plant matures it makes a big clump, and the flowers all have seeds, and before you know it, you can have a whole yard of Spiderwort. I need a little room for other things! In the winter, the first sprouts are abundant, but they are much easier to pull than the big clump. I thin Coreopsis and Blue Eyed Grass, Lyre Leaf Sage, Blue Curls, Carolina Wild Petunia and  Goldenrod because, like the Spiderwort, although I love them, there can be too many of them.

Spiderwort sprouts--best to catch them when they're small

But Spiderwort is definitely worth having in the garden. The flowers look like fireworks!

One of many Coreopsis sprouts

Coreopsis is our State Wildflower--Absolutely gorgeous!
Some plants, like Skull Cap, Venus's Looking Glass and Toadflax, I will dig up and replant if I don't like where they're starting out. They're a little less abundant than the Coreopsis and friends, and the Venus's Looking Glass and Toadflax are very seasonal. They bloom in the early spring and then they die back. They seem to like to grow in the cracks of the sidewalk, and while it is cute and whimsical, people step on them and they don't thrive. So I move them.

Lyre-leaf Sage sprout on left, Venus's Looking Glass sprouts on right. I Keep Both.

Venus's Looking Glass--One of my favorite flowers

Lyre-leaf Sage

Toadflax sprigs in the center, surrounded by Powderpuff Mimosa vines

Some Spring, I hope to have a Toadflax meadow like this one at Paynes Prairie
I purposely cultivate some plants that might seem more like weeds (although you could probably say that about a lot of things I grow in my garden!) I grow Sida, because it's a host plant for Checkered Skipper butterflies and it's a good nectar flower. Bees love it and it has a pretty yellow flower. I also keep some Pennsylvania Cudweed because, although it is not native, it's not invasive either, and it is a host plant for the American Lady Butterfly Caterpillar. It has a pretty and strange flower. I've also come to embrace Carolina Ponysfoot. It is a ground cover that I used to try to pull, but finally decided that it was kind of pretty. It has an interesting, tiny green flower. I do control this plant, though, when it tries to cover stepping stones or the sidewalk, or if it completely overtakes an area.  I grow some Canadian Horseweed because of its tiny daisy-like composite flowers, but I have to watch it. And I let the Betony grow, because the flowers are so pretty, but only in controlled places. Also, if I'm lucky, when I dig them up, I'll be able to harvest the tasty roots! (See my post about Betony.)

Sida can be very pretty in a garden and it's a good host and nectar plant!

Pennsylvania Cudweed sprouts amidst Ponysfoot and Turkey Tangle Fogfruit
Pretty, tiny green flower of Ponysfoot

Ponysfoot works as an interesting ground cover

Really, there is plenty to do in the yard already without adding pruning to the list. So put down the clippers and start pulling those sprouts! March will be here soon enough. And if you have a seedling shortage, you know who you can turn to.