Virginia Nature Journal for August

Cottage gardens were at one time part of the domestic economy, but now they’re mostly recreational. Like horse-riding, boating, fishing, target-shooting, and racing of various kinds, gardening has evolved from an occupation to a passion.

Last stanza of The Garden by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

Besides the advantages of growing-your-own food, gardeners generally enjoy the reputation of being gentlefolk who are famously generous with advice, produce, and quite a few myths—like the Facebook fallacy that bell peppers with three bumps are female and those with four are male.bell pepper

Thomas Jefferson made gardening in Virginia sound like a noble pursuit: “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.” But gardening in Virginia is a struggle with soil (too much clay or sand) and climate (too hot or too wet or too cold by turns). A watering system saved our cornucopia of green, red, and purple vegetables in the raised beds during the baking heat and semi-drought of August, but, as Hurricane Joaquin draws up the Atlantic freeway, the remainder of the crop will likely be drowned or ripped out of the ground by its roots. Gardeners have to be many things, including philosophical!

Veggies-fruit from garden-smallA crowning crop for August includes tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant (“aubergines” if you prefer), and potatoes (if you bother). Staggered planting extends the harvest, with the surplus stored in the freezer or laid out on neighbors’ doorsteps as decorative surprises. Harvesting these vegetables (botanically speaking they are fruits) is not the only reward, because gardeners love watching the annual miracle of seeds and seedlings growing to maturity.

It hardly ever pays for the trouble of growing-you-own, except perhaps for flavor and the knowledge of what the crop has not been exposed to. And perhaps the crop of nightshades is healthier than from the grocery store.

Nightshades! Yikes! Yes, the main crop of vegetables (fruits) belongs to the Solanaceae or nightshade family. Apart from grain crops, it’s the family that provides staples for our diet, and is ubiquitous in meals at home and in restaurants.

“But nightshades are poisonous.” That’s how they were regarded when they were first brought back to Europe from Peru. Native European nightshades were used in witchcraft to create hallucinations, and even mandrakes with an ancient reputation as aphrodisiacs didn’t salve their reputation. Tomatoes were particularly feared as “poison apples.”

Shakespeare was no botanist, but knowing about nightshades he bumped off Hamlet’s father with hebenon, which might have been henbane, a nightshade.


The ghost of Hamlet's father
The ghost of Hamlet’s father

Nightshades contain solanine and other toxic alkaloids, such as nicotine in tobacco. These compounds deter pests from eating the plant and its fruit. Potatoes exposed to light turn green for danger, not that chlorophyll is harmful of course, but the color is a sign that more solanine is present. It’s good advice to avoid green spuds, although legal history has yet to record them in murder or suicide, and the Attack of the Green Tomatoes is just another Terminator movie.

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Virginia Nature Journal for July

The Garden of Eden might be a metaphor for peace and, indeed, for the whole world, but today’s gardens are shrunken images. They are lawns to highlight a property; or a pain to weed and mow; or a chance to grow unsprayed fruit and vegetables; or, for flat-dwellers, something strange they don’t want to own. But a garden can be a place of peace for everyone, including city-livers, to connect with nature and for educating children.

Tennyson There are two wonderful local examples in Williamsburg.

Stonehouse Elementary School

This school in James City County started a native plant garden called Habitat in 2004, winning several awards. It is a place where children from kindergarten age through sixth grade have lessons about nature and get involved in garden care.

The garden was originally a barren plot between two wings of a building where turf struggled to put down roots into the baked clay. With the help of volunteers from the Virginia Native Plant Society, a few teachers and parents, and donations from well-wishers, it has been transformed into a rich and diverse habitat.

The project launched with the arrival of truckloads of well-rotted chicken manure and llama poo, which were dug into the ground and covered with mulch to slow erosion and evaporation in baking Virginia summers. The first seeds and small shrubs were in the ground by spring of 2005. All are native species, and most have thrived with the help of human hands and without spraying.

Native plants are more supportive of animal communities than aliens. According to Douglas Tallamy of the University of Delaware: “alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than do native ornamentals.”

The Habitat at Stonehouse Elementary School
The Habitat at Stonehouse Elementary School

A decade later, it is hard to see any bare ground between May and October. Flowers decorate the top of a multi-story profusion of greenness, and are visited by dancing insects and hovering humming birds. Barn swallows nest in the eaves under a drainpipe, and bluebirds swoop to catch insects. If you separate the foliage you are likely to see scuttling beetles and a praying mantis, and perhaps a frog or even a harmless reptile. None lived there before.

Beebalm burns scarlet, Soldier Mallow towers head-high, and Hoary Mountain Mint hosts nectar-hungry bees. Many other plants are also in full flower, making the Habitat as colorful as any ornamental garden planted with aliens, but it is far richer in life and quite free of poisons. If the leaves of violets, milkweed and Golden Alexander look chewed, we can celebrate the eaters for these are food plants for caterpillars of fritillaries, monarchs, and swallowtails. None of these butterflies were introduced artificially: when their ancestors turned up they made it a home, and for generations to come.

Surely, everyone loves butterflies. Even children growing up nervous of creepy-crawlies will soon offer them a welcoming finger for landing on to become their friend. Children are natural naturalists, and naturally inquisitive about nature. As David Attenborough said to President Obama, the challenge is keeping their interest alive when they grow up.

Williamsburg Botanic Garden

The botanic garden in Freedom Park is mainly populated by native species of the Coastal Plain. There are wetland and meadow habitats for wildflowers and grasses, as well as a green roof pavilion, and a therapy garden. It is a two-acre ellipse open to all ages.

The therapy garden is not like a physic garden of medicinally important species (a good project for the future), but a classroom for children and adults, including people with disabilities. They can get hands-on training for cultivating ornamental and food plants.

It feels good getting hands dirty in dark loam. There is something therapeutic about physically working with nature, and especially a tactile engagement en plein air. Konstantin Levin, a nobleman in one of Tolstoy’s epic stories, became “awfully fond” of hand mowing. He found it was a blissful activity that earned respect from his peasants when he shared in the haymaking.


The botanic garden has a butterfly garden with a monarch waystation where researchers attach a numbered tag to monarch wings for tracking their migration like bird banding. It draws many butterflies, bees, and other pollinators to suck nectar from the abundant flowers at this time of year. The garden also has food plants for caterpillars of some butterflies and moths, and nearby are stands of oak, birch, and sourwood that are favored by other species.

Never too old to make a new friend
Never too old to make a new friend

Last weekend, the garden hosted a butterfly festival. Hundreds of visitors of all ages, a few in wheelchairs, endured temperatures in the low ‘90s in the long tent so they could walk among the fluttering insects. There were hundreds of specimens from a butterfly farm, including two species of swallowtails, monarchs, viceroys, buckeyes, sulfurs, and painted ladies, and perhaps others I missed.

What a spectacle! How many more human generations will be able to enjoy the more threatened species? It was another garden opportunity against the tide of modern life that alienates us from nature.


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Virginia Nature Journal for April

Algernon Swinburne

Smells arouse old memories, good and bad. The coconut bouquet of prickly gorse bushes evokes memories of ranks of jasmine blossom on the chalky downs of the Isle of Wight where I was born and Algy Swinburne grew up. Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there (Robert Browning). But here in Tidewater Virginia, the scent of pine resin at this season conveys no particular emotion for me, nor can it trigger flashbacks.

Crabapple tree blooming in April
Crabapple tree blooming in April

I read that memory is less aroused by sound than by smell which owes its potency to a handshake between our olfactory bulbs and the hippocampus. But when I hear the lazy phrases of a blackbird, my mind is transported to a remembered English garden where one sang every afternoon announcing its territory from a perch in apple blossom. But here, where brown thrashers, wood thrushes and mocking birds are better musicians, the chorus of woodland songsters never evokes the same emotion, perhaps because some neural networks close after childhood.

And yet less emotion does not mean less care for the birds that choose to make a home in our yard. In a landscape where native plants of Virginia are retreating before the advance of so many inedible aliens, they need us when food supplies reach a nadir. The bird feeder was not full for very long and never empty during the winter. Long before our neighborhood birds started looking for nesting sites I made a batch of boxes for them, one for every acre. They are luxury condos made of durable white cedar with green shingle roofs and a critter-guard against snakes, raccoons and squirrels.

WelcomeEggs_smallThe boxes were designed for bluebirds, which are surely in the top ten for popularity. Cavity nesters depend on these artificial homes because cautious park officers and yard owners fell dead trees which might have offered them a home. Apart from untold numbers of nest-boxes in gardens, there are 230 boxes around public trails and golf courses in James City and York counties that are monitored weekly by local naturalists. It is exciting to find a clutch of 4 or 5 bluebird eggs (sky blue, of course), and experts assure us that a brief inspection does not affect breeding success.

The program has reversed the steady decline in their population, and now there are more bluebirds in the area than at any time in living memory. Over 700 of them fledged from these boxes alone last year. The Virginia Bluebird Society collects breeding data from across the state, and at summer’s end we will know what impact the hard winter had on their population.

Chickadee nesting in bluebird box
Chickadee nesting in bluebird box

There were bluebirds in our yard until the deep freeze started in February, but we saw few afterwards. There are reports of birds found dead in nest-boxes where they were roosting. Drinking water was frozen for several weeks, and there were few berries or other natural foods at the end of winter. Perhaps the hard weather explains why a chickadee took up residence in one of our bluebird boxes, a tufted titmouse in another, and Carolina wren is building a nest in a third. One box is vacant where a pair of bluebirds raised two broods last year.

Bluebird laying recordBluebirds are nesting elsewhere, but they started late this year, although no later than in the past two years. Our records for 2012-15 suggest their breeding schedule is flexible, so that hungry fledglings are not hatched before insects are abundant again. In the warm spring of 2012, the first eggs were laid three weeks early.

The great horned owls breeding on Jamestown Island don’t have to be respecters of temperature and weather because their prey is ever present. They were sitting on eggs in January, and their owlets were almost ready to fly when the bluebirds were starting to gather straw and down to line their nests.

Red-shouldered hawk on nest
Red-shouldered hawk on nest

Besides the vagaries of weather, bluebirds face the daily challenge of evading predators. They have little to fear from nocturnal species like owls, but a pair of red-shouldered hawks has taken up residence in our woodlot, and I guess they have chicks sitting on the untidy matt of sticks in the fork of a loblolly pine. Their breeding schedule coincides with the re-appearance of frogs and reptiles and when baby rodents set foot out of the nest and naïve baby birds flutter out of theirs. We hear the hawks screaming kee-rah all day long to scare birds out of cover or before taking a dive at them on the bird feeder. I feel no special sympathy for an English sparrow in yellow talons, but there would be a rush of emotion if I noticed a splash of blue on prey feathers.

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