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.

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