Category Archives: Garden

Little blooms

Gray, gray day: you will not win.

As an antidote to the unrelenting rain and murk, here are a couple of tiny beauties that I photographed earlier this week. Both were growing between lettuce plants as “weeds” in my cold frames.

Bird's-eye Speedwell, Veronica persica. So small that ten of these flowers would fit onto my thumb-nail.

Wikipedia says that this species has "no known horticultural uses." Unbidden beauty is utility enough for me.

Small-flowered bittercress, Cardamine parviflora.

Each flower is about as big as a grain of rice.

This is the first year that either of these species has shown up in the cold frames. Their seeds may have come with compost from other parts of the garden or as “extras” in packets of lettuce seeds.

Cabbage beauty

Cabbage is not high on the list of plants that get mentioned in botanical love poems or odes to nature’s beauty. “Beloved, thou hast brought me many cabbages” — not likely. Stand aside and make room for hosts of daffodils (so angelic) or bunches of roses (so red, red).

But Brassica oleracea capitata has its own beauty, in a leafy, humble way.

The plant pictured above is particularly pleasing to my eye because the secret to growing cabbage in Sewanee’s climate has eluded me for many years. The springs are very cold, then suddenly switch to blazing heat; the cabbage looper caterpillars are abundant and bring with them an “all you can eat” attitude; and the late summer droughts are unfriendly to cabbage roots. Cabbage came from the wet, temperate climate of Northern Europe. It is out of place here.

But this year, I found a variety that seems to do well: Johnny’s “Storage No. 4” — evidently named by a modern Wordsworth. I helped the plants along with a little Bt to control to loopers, gave them some extra compost, and kept them moist during the summer heat. For a modest plant, they certainly like being pampered. If you’re looking for a cheap pastoral metaphor, there it is.

So far, they hold well in the chill, even in snow.

’tis the season to ponder descent with modification

Here in Sewanee, we take our dead, bearded patriarchs seriously. Socrates, Shakespeare, Darwin, Muir, God, God Jr., and Santa Claus all have their devotees and proselytes. Never mind that some are more convincingly bearded than others (biologists note with satisfaction that Shakespeare’s ratty bristles are unimpressive next to Darwin’s substantial cloud), the important thing is that these men are dressed right. With the Advent part of the Advent semester upon us, it was time to give Darwin some bling. So, today, on the final Biodiversity Friday of the semester, my Biodiversity class visited Darwin’s Garden one last time and arrayed our Victorian gentleman in seasonal finery.

Darwin’s Garden is located in the atrium at the center of Spencer Hall. It is a celebration of life’s history, with a walkway divided into the various periods in Earth’s history, starting with the Cambrian. Darwin was sculpted by Sewanee Biology graduate Jeanie Stephenson who did a fabulous job of including many of Darwin’s favorite creatures in her sculpture: finches, orchids, Galapagos tortoises, fossils, and even an earthworm on his shoe. Darwin’s bulldog stands close by.

We’ve used the garden throughout the semester to get a sense of how events in life’s history relate to each other and to understand the passage of time. It was fun to cap off the semester with, well, a cap for our guide through this journey, Mr. Darwin, the evolutionary biologists’ Virgil.


The four or five inches of rain that have fallen in the last day have me thinking that the garden is ready for conversion to rice paddies.

You would think that with all this rain, wild animals would have their fill of water. But goldfinches perched in the rain and carefully caught water drops from the underside of twigs. The birds would reach their heads down, below their feet, then twist to the side and scoop pendulous drops of water from under tree buds. The contrast between the elegance of the birds’ water-gathering and the disorganized squalling of the rain was striking.

Last night the rain turned to snow. Barely enough to dust a goldfinch’s knee, but wet enough to weigh down tree limbs.

Clean-up in the vegetable garden

Last year I piled all the old squash vines together in a stack the size of a sofa in an attempt to compost them. They decomposed a bit, but by early summer were still mushy. I think they may have been the source of the powdery mildew that affected my early squash plantings. This year, I’m burning the old vines on a bonfire, hopefully incinerating the mildew spores. And, the burn gives a nice sense of finality and closure to the summer garden. Moving on…

I’ve also pulled the tomato plants. The roots on this one show how large and vigorous individual plants will get if given enough room. I plant them about five feet apart, a distance that seems ridiculous in May, but by August, the tree-like plants are enjoying growth unfettered by competition. In this case, less is more: these vines are more productive than those from my previous practice of crowding plants in staked rows.

Autumn, part 2, begins

A vigorous killing frost laid waste to the last of the tender summer plants in the vegetable garden.

RIP squash vines

I harvested the last of the peppers before they could get zapped,

then planted garlic bulbs in the empty pepper beds.

New birds in the garden today, all refugees from the north that will stay with us for the winter: dark-eyed junco, yellow-bellied sapsucker, and white-throated sparrow.

Yucca drill

Downy woodpeckers love the dried flower stems of yucca plants. The stems stand for months after the flowers have died and woodpeckers visit them every few days. Presumably, woodpeckers are after the overwintering larvae of insects.

Head-banging. Seedpods rattle as the woodpecker works.

Migrant thrush

Despite the best efforts of our resident mockingbird, the beautyberry shrubs are still loaded with fruit. Today, two Swainson’s thrushes (Catharus ustulatus) found the bounty and have been feasting ever since. They can swallow a dozen fruits per minute.

Swainson's thrush -- note the smudged spots on the chest and the buffy eyering

Swainson’s thrushes nest in the spruce-fir boreal forests of Canada and the coniferous woods of the western U.S. The ones in our garden are on their way to South America, where they will spend the winter. Interestingly, many birds in western North America fly due east for thousands of miles before heading south. This seemingly wasteful route (why not fly directly south?) appears to be a consequence of their history: the western birds are descended from easterners and they retrace the migratory route of their ancestors.

White heath aster

White heath aster, Aster pilosus, is now in full bloom. Each plant stands about four feet tall and has hundreds of small blooms. The plant grows from a perennial root.

Honeybees adore this species. Most other flowers have gone to seed or died back completely, so the abundant nectar and pollen draws dozens of bees to each cluster of flowers.

Pollen basket, the "corbicula", of a honeybee, packed full of aster pollen. The basket consists of a flattened area on the hind leg surrounded by long stiff hairs. The pollen will be used to feed young bees in the hive.

First frost

Sweet potato vines: time to dig

And, the steady north wind has brought a pulse of migrant birds: veery, Swainson’s thrush, common yellowthroat, Tennessee warbler, summer tanager, yellow-throated warbler, magnolia warbler, rose-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird, and chimney swift. Every other tree has a couple of warblers flitting through its branches. Even our okra patch has a Tennessee warbler and a common yellowthroat rummaging through its old stems.