Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Late Summer Garden Wind-down

Tomatoes and Carrots almost done,
peppers and okra still going strong
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I would be lying if I said that I'm disinterested with the garden. But tonight, as I picked okra, squash, and peppers in the 97 degree heat (at 7pm), I realized that I haven't done a substantial planting since around May 1. Add to that the new night teaching gig, and the fact that this continuing heat has destroyed all attempts thus far at a fall lettuce planting, and what you see is my acute case of ambivalence.
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Many other plot-holders in our City Farm appear to have abandoned their gardens around July 15, not because of the relentless heat and drought, but because they were sick of eating beans, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Wiregrass, yellow foxtail, nutsedge, and other weeds have been quick to pounce on the opportunity. The large pests (our rabbits, rats, and raccoons) seem to have moved on, but some smaller ones have filled in admirably, namely whiteflies and the tobacco hornworm, which is a big fan of tomato plants when tobacco's not available.
You kiss your mama with that mouth?
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I hope the weather breaks soon (supposedly Hurricane Earl is on the way) and we can get some cool season crops in the ground. My daydreaming about bird hunting has already started too, so I know that's on the horizon. If I had the time off and some cash in my pocket, I'd run over to the beach and surf for a few days. Not gonna happen :( I am looking forward to future fall vacations on the beach with my little buddy though!
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It's 100 degrees still in central Maryland but the fall is around the corner. At least, that's my theory.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Hank Goes to the Maryland State Fair!

Hank pets a duckling!
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Maryland state flags (a remnant from its settlement in 1634) blow in the summer breeze
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I have never been to a state fair. There. I said it. The combination of Jersey Shore type characters, western Maryland rednecks, livestock and unsafe carnival rides just never appealed to me. And clearly not to my parents. But for some reason we thought that Hank would be amused to go see the Maryland State Fair for himself, at the ripe old age of 11 months. Why we came to that conclusion, I'm not sure. But we were right!

Hank and I watch some sort of youth competition at the Maryland Cow Palace
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The Cow Palace
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The University of Maryland's Holsteins
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Hank was pretty ambivalent about the rows upon rows of cattle, but there were other things he really liked at the state fair. Like peach sundae, lemonade, and funnelcakes. All things that an 11 month old's diet should contain. I was marinating a bunch of pheasant meat for a cookout that night, so I kept my diet fairly in check!

As my wife said, "No matter what meat product you need,
Little Richard apparently has got you covered."
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Dude! It's Paul Blart (More like Steamboat Willie), State Fair Security Guard! This dude was
literally snoring and nodding off while on duty! I was ecstatic to see this guy and
realize that if al Qaeda or white supremacists or black supremacists firebomb
the state fair while I'm there, THIS GUY is our first line of defense!

The rides are the same as they were in 1965 - vomit inducing and yet,
loadable on a 40 foot flatbed trailer. Alas, kids have to be 36" tall
to ride with a parent, and Hank is clocking in at about 31".
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Hank is learning to walk. For the last week or so, I've spent a lot of time with him, "walking" him by holding his hands and letting him go wherever he wants (within reason). One of the places he decide to go at the state fair was to the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Educational Trailer. It seemed very random but he loved it! From the "Where Does My Egg Come From" display to "The World of Corn Products," Hank was hooked! So many things to touch - and all of them only 24-36" off the ground! That's when we found the interactive milking display!

Father of the Year (that's me - the same guy who feeds his baby lemonade and funnel cake)
shows Hank how to "Squeeze, Don't Pull"

He did it! He stood there "milking" for about 5 minutes, laughing the whole time
and squirting himself a few times too. Apparently the boy loves the state fair,
and we'll be returning next year.
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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Spiders Attack! on the Upper Bay

Beautiful morning on the 'yak in Rogues Harbor, upper Chesapeake Bay
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Well, it wouldn't be summer without at least one debacle. I had a small window of time to squeeze outdoors and do my own thing last weekend. I have decided to go back into (night) teaching for some extra income and public speaking trainng, which means a more constrained schedule for the fall. In addition, Hank is 11 months old, walking, and very curious about the world, but also a gigantic danger to himself, so I spend a lot of "outdoors" time just making sure he doesn't hurt himself / eat a velvet ant / try to pet a raccoon. But back to the debacle.....
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We got to the boat ramp right around sunrise and put out into the tidal grass beds to see if we could hunt down any schools of striped bass. The wind was totally calm, air about 80, water about 72. The fish were not doing anything. With thick water celery and pondweed in 6-8' of water, there was no use to try to run deep lures in the beds. A few perch or menhaden were jumping, and we tried to run them down with beetle-spins and other small lures, getting a few bites but no fish on the hook.
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This is when Plan B, and the spiders, came into the picture. I predicted that our tidal fishing wouldn't be extremely successful, and I had identified (on the internet - key) a coastal embayment / abandoned mill pond just beyond the beach, that we could portage across and paddle into, and likely enjoy some amazing largemouth bass fishing. The last 20 yards of water toward the beach was thick with wrack and woody debris - an impossible paddle. We hopped out of the kayaks in about a foot of water and walked up on the gentle beach. Through what I thought was going to be a thin strip of vegetation, I could see nothing but Phragmites, Greenbriar, and spiders. Look at the picture above, to the far right. Yup. That's it. Know what else was there? About 10,000 of these guys, who I have yet to identify:

Looks like a fishing spider? But blue?
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Well, we piled through the brush as well as we could, and the 40-50 acre "pond" that was shown on a mid-winter satellite image was covered in standing vegetation. No open water at all. Disappointed, covered in spiders, and bleeding, we crawled back through the brush, over the beach, slogged down through the shallow water and floating debris, and paddled back out to deeper water. We were fishing (in the kayaks) off of a rock revetment for perch when I noticed that the dust and dirt on my kneecaps was.....moving. From my last nearly identical debacle in nearly identical clothing and nearly identical vegetation, I knew that I had stepped into a nest of seed (larval) ticks. I pulled as many off as I could and hoped it wouldn't be as bad as the last time. Long story short: it wasn't as bad, but not by much. I netted about 150 individual bites, most of them behind my knees, on my knees, around my ankles, and inbetween my toes. The ones inbetween my toes made for a miserable 72 hours. It was like having poison ivy between your toes.
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At any rate, we caught nothing, paddled back to the ramp, and put the kayaks in our trucks. I couldn't give up that easy, so we cruised around the "Neck," and parked up at my new favorite semi-secret, semi-public fishing hole. From my previous outtings there (none of them in 85 degree, full sun days in August) (see here and here), I've gauged that I can catch about 6 bass + 8 sunfish per hour there. It's a good spot! This time, given some summer fishing pressure and the weather, I really had to empty the tackle box to find some stuff that worked. The two winners - a term I use lightly since all I caught was a few sunfish - were the 1" Berkley Power Nymph (chartreuse) and a Joe's Flies Super Striker (chartreuse).
Another hefty bluegill from this old mill pond - I will definitely eat some this fall!
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For the first time, I ran into another angler, who was (RV) camping for the summer nearby. He was set up in a big camping chair, a big red bobber, and a tub of worms, and told me, "Fishing's great today - I've caught 14 bass in 4 hours!" I didn't have the heart to tell the old guy that on other days I've been there, I could double or triple his production....with artificial lures.
The Fishing Hole.....probably DOA for the rest of the summer


Another spider. Ugh!


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Two New Great Peppers

Allow me to introduce Yellow Mini Bell and Chichen Itza
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Among the assorted "garden fails" of 2010 - there have been several of those - I have also enjoyed a lot of success and a lot of food. One of the best things about this year's garden is that its high productivity (for some crops, at least) has forced me to expand my culinary boundaries - both on the preparation and the consumption side. I've had to change how I define "the food I like." It's been great, actually.
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Two neat successes were trial runs I did for peppers I had never grown or eaten before, the yellow mini-bell and the Chichen Itza Habanero. The yellow mini-bell has been a most spectacular find. Information on it is sketchy, except that it's a recent heirloom discovery by the Ohio Seed Savers Exchange. I bought my plant from Home Despot, so I have no idea where their grower got the seed. Supposedly, the little yellow peppers have been used for stuffing and canning for several generations. The yellow mini-bell is absolutely perfect. 2" long with relatively thin walls (for a bell pepper) and very few seeds. The taste is very aromatic and just sweet enough. We've been using them in recipes, nachos, and salads since they started ripening. Unfortunately, I planted it in a poor spot (was quickly shadowed by tomatoes) and it's not been super productive.
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The Chichen Itza Habanero has a much different tale. A new hybrid habanero from Seminis Seeds (a division of the dreaded Monsanto), it's less potent than many other habaneros (but still blistering hot), and requires a shorter growing season (85 days instead of the 115 typical of habaneros). I know Monsanto will probably sue me for not using the proper name of their seed variety so here it is: the variety was coined "Chichen Itza Burning Bush"tm by Seminis. Back to the useful information!
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Slicing open Chichen Itza produces an amazing smoky aroma that I don't think I've ever experienced before. The pepper is a beautiful peach color and it just begs you to take a solid bite, which I did, because it's almost pink for crying out loud.....how hot could it be? Funny - turns out that it's really hot! Easily 4-5x hotter than a jalapeno. My lips instantly burned and my mouth instantly watered, and then it was like swallowing fire, which is now burning a hole in my stomach. I jokingly say "so much for a mild habanero!" but in reality, Seminis has done a good job recognizing an actual need - instead of constantly striving for a hotter pepper (anybody try Bhut Jolokia yet - the pepper with the heat of 200 Jalapenos?!), they created a pepper variety that people can actually use for preparing food (and I don't mean putting half of one pepper in a 6-serving dish). Ladies and gentlemen, I think I've found the hottest pepper that I can use on a regular basis for regular meals!
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So those are two experiments that went well this year in the garden. I had one plant of each and do not regret growing them. Next year, I will plant several more yellow mini-bells, and will probably plant one Chichen Itza, or something very similar. Hope your garden experiments are going well too!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cyberscouters - Beware! (of believing Google Earth)

Google Earth tells me that the state has purchased this property and crowned it Globecom WMA. I'm ecstatic. Or, I was.
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I travel the area between Annapolis (MD), Baltimore, and Washington DC with far too much regularity - mainly for work. As some of you may know, I occasionally attempt to parlay my work travel into an opportunity for a slightly longer day away from home, and some outdoor activities. In this particular area of Maryland, that means fishing, kayaking, bow hunting, and rarely, a duck or goose hunt.
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I also live in a state (Maryland) that has relatively high taxes and uses those taxes to buy land and protect it from development. Those properties become state parks (good access, lots of people), state natural areas (poor access, few people), and wildlife management areas (regulated access, some people). They buy property every year and it's really hard to keep up with all of their purchases - especially since it commonly takes 3-5 years to get a management plan in place for the property - that management plan dictates who (of the public) can use the property, how, and when, among many other things.
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Last summer, as I began a period of regularly driving the DC-Annapolis-Baltimore triangle for a wetland restoration project, I decided to check out Google Earth to see what opportunities might be available in the upper Patuxent River, which bisects the triangle. Lo and behold- I saw a property called "Globecom WMA" and noted that it has several ponds and great access to the Patuxent River. The property wasn't featured in the state hunting guide, or the DNR's website, so it must have just been purchased! And since the ponds are not right on the access road, they might be great fishing spots. So, I set on down the road one afternoon.......


This pretty country road outside of Washington DC seemed like it must obviously lead to a big chunk of land, especially with the "Dead End" sign up by the highway. Hit the gas!

Oh wow, that's weird, maybe I just misread that sign. (I actually thought - oh, that must be a leftover sign from when the last owner - apparently USAF - turned the property over to the state of Maryland last year.......Lazy DNR maintenance guys!)......let's keep driving!


Okay, at this point I had to stop, turn around, and leave quickly. There was another set of blockades up the road, across the entire road. I was very surprised and had no idea what this place was. So I limped on back to Google and found out that it is the Davidsonville Defense Transmitter Site , which provides "high frequency transmitter support" to various defense systems, including, you know, the CIA, State Department, 17 Latin American Countries, and the Executive Branch of the United States Government. No biggie. Here's a picture of a guy working on one of the towers. And another. The USAF alumni of the installation, called the "Davidsonville Dragons," even have their own Facebook page!
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That's right - the implication here is that USAF intelligence folks must predict that the general public (non-hunters) might see this place on Google Earth or Google Maps, and thought to themselves, "A great way to keep out 93% of the public automatically is to call it a Wildlife Management Area." How sad that is, and how right they are. So, if you're just tuning in, there is no "Globecom WMA." It's made up.
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Among Cold War buffs, this site seems to be lost in the shadow of the nearby nuclear missile site W-25 (Ajax-Nike batteries), literally just down the road. However, isn't it comforting that I was able to find some neat information on the place from a site called "WMD Around the World?" According to their page about the area, "Globecom" was one of the first high frequency systems designed for the site and its sister sites - Andrews AFB and Brandywine (MD) Transmitter Site. Hence, "Globecom WMA." I bet some State Department cyberspook thought that s/he was hilarious when they thought it up!
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But a bigger issue (cyberscouting) exists - had I been planning a deer hunt or other activity without scouting, or I had accessed the property via the River, I would have found myself in a really bad situation, as in, arrested for trespassing on a sensitive Federal property, which I imagine is a felony (as are many other violations that are considered minor when not on Federal property). Please don't make that mistake when you're planning your hunts this fall.
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But you don't have time to scout? Think of it this way. Your average NFL superstar spends his season (if not the entire year) working out and practicing 6 to 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, just to get "up to" 30 or 40 minutes of play on the field during the real game. Why is hunting different? How have we become these folks who expect to magically drop our boats in the water or ATV's at the woodline, traipse into some area we've never seen, and magically come out with some harvested game, great memories and pictures, and our lives and gear intact?
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Please make an effort to get out there, learn the paths, the creek channels, the tides, and don't depend on the computer to tell you what to do and where to go. Eventually, you'll get some really bad advice. I sure did!
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See you at Globecom WMA! Not!


Thursday, August 12, 2010

That Old Familiar August Post About How It's Too Hot and Too Dry and I Hope Fall Comes Soon

August on the lower eastern shore, 2008
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Not to be confused with "that old familiar February post" where I complain and moan about the lack of outdoor opportunities available in the Mid-Atlantic between February 1 and April 15, this post is the one where, as I recall, we look forward with great anticipation to what opportunities cooler temperatures will bring. In 2009, this spanned several posts from August to October, but for reference, See 2008's "Down and Out" or 2007's "Drought Still Here."
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This summer has been a supreme challenge. A baby in the house, the resultant financial pinch, and....drumroll....45 straight days of temperatures over 93 degrees. The total heat wave, minus one week when temperatures were in the "comfortable" 88-92 range (with 100% humidity of course), has spanned over 80 days now. I've not bothered with much fishing or scouting because it's just so freaking hot.
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Well finally, it looks like my schedule and the weather may give me an opportunity to get out next week, in one form or another, on one day or another, if only for a few hours. I'm thankful for that - not frustrated that it's "not enough."
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This fall I'd like to get back on the farm for some goose hunts, maybe just 2, and perhaps a September dove hunt, because I haven't been in 2 years. I feel like I need to go surfing at least once (I haven't caught a wave since Hank was born 10 months ago), and get a few more days (more likely, hours) of fishing in. That should carry me right up to our early December trip to South Florida. I don't think it's too terribly much to ask - so let's see if schedule, family, and weather are ready to cooperate!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gardening at Night

Sun sets on the ol' urban garden.
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These days, I don't have a lot of time to be reflective. With 3 "hey it's better than zero" jobs, an 11 month old boy, a wife, house, dog, and truck, there are plenty of things that deserve my attention. But something caught me off guard tonight. I stopped by the garden to pick some small okra - my last batch was picked wwaaaaaaay too late thanks to our trip to Virginia - and a wave of something came over me. And only part of it was "God, I haven't spent enough time outside lately."
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It was nearly 8pm (yup...on the way home from Job #1), and yet it was still 97 degrees outside - with ample humidity. The air was filled with the sound of cicadas, and the garden was abuzz with bees, whiteflies, a few biting flies, and the goldfinches who are terrorizing my mammoth sunflowers. Yup, it's August.
Misleading picture - the squash is only 6" long

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I don't know what made me flash back - but it all came rushing back. The last 20 or more summers. It may as well have been 100. Seeing as how I started this blog to chronicle my adventures - my long term memory is notoriously patchy - let's take a quick trip down memory lane. At some point, I do want to write down what I remember of being a kid - calling my memory of my life before age 10 as "patchy" would be generous - but it's just a bit too much to bite off, given my current pace of life.
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But standing out in the deserted garden tonight, I remembered that old catchy REM song "Gardening at Night," a song that created a vivid mental picture for me when it was released (rather, re-released) on their Eponymous album on IRS Records in 1988. I was 14 and was experiencing all of the exciting things that 14 year olds experience. My life was just turbid - awash in the mess that is being old enough to identify everything that's going wrong, and possessing none of the tools to comprehend, affect, fix, rectify, or even ignore it all. "Gardening at Night" made me think of carefree, moonlit harvesting or just walking around. Silence. Peace. Quiet monotony. When it's your garden, you can walk around in it all night, every night, right? The song never really affected me on a deep level, but I still remember all the lyrics.
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As I picked okra and remembered old times, I shuddered to think of the later, more significant REM song that I've always connected to "Gardening at Night," Country Feedback, a haunting tune from 1991. A video that approaches justice for that tune is right here. That song, along with Social Distortion's Cold Feelings, carried me through a frenetic and amazing senior year in high school. I gained a girlfriend I'd chased for nearly a year, lost her to my (much later) best man, and gained her back (just to let her go two years later). I played in a (terrible) band and we even played at our high school senior day for over 1,000 students, 300 teachers, and about 200 parents. I ruled the roost, raised hell, got into 4 of the 6 colleges I applied to, and raised some more hell. We'd sit around smoke cigarettes and drink gin (sorry mom and dad!), and listen to Sam Cooke (try "Bring It On Home"), followed by Suicidal Tendencies (try "Nobody Hears"), followed by 4 Walls Falling (try "Happy Face"), followed by the original outlaw, Mr. John R. Cash of Dyess, Arkansas (damned if you don't watch "Big River").
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We spent a lot of time in those days talking, running up and down the rural roads and the busy highway to the beach, playing music, and playing outdoors. While a lot of our classmates seemed paralyzed by the awful balance of negative and positive anxiety in the average 18 year old's life, my friends and I (mostly) let that anxiety (and hope) burn white hot and take us through some crazy times and adventures. We made some mistakes - some hurt more than others - but we lived. We really lived!
In the years that followed, it became apparent that the era - and our friendships - were an amazing meeting point in a set of very different lives. Some friends stayed in that place where "nothing is ever put straight," as the song goes, and literally died - some by their own hand, others at the hand of drugs. Most of us have survived two more decades though, and many of us still talk - and of course - our kids have met.
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As my mother's grandpa used to say, those was some big times. And I would never trade them - even the worst of them - for any amount of money.
Funny how a quiet moment outdoors can bring it all back.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The AWARD WINNING community garden plot and the Millet Thief

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The garden plot, July 23. See other posts about the garden plot here
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So, I'm still getting used to all the processes and protocols associated with community gardening and this week I was struck both positively and negatively (while hauling in a huge harvest of okra, carrots, and cherry tomatoes). On the positive side, I was awarded "most beautiful garden" at our "City Farm," which was nice. Other gardeners seemed to think it was a big deal, so I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't proud of myself and of my hard work this year. It's always nice to be recognized for your hard work! And for sure, if there was an award for "most bees," I would have won that as well (something I'm also proud of)!
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On the negative end, someone came into my plot and cut off the heads of my Purple Majesty Millet, which I was growing for the birds at home. In the photo above, you can see the purple seed heads just in front of the sunflowers. I mean, stealing? From a community garden (the site is surrounded by a huge fence with a padlock, so another gardener was the thief)? That was pretty disappointing.
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Some neighboring gardeners have allowed the whiteflies to overtake their broccoli and other crops, so as a result, I now have a whitefly problem as well, primarily on my tomatoes. Don't know what real options I have to deal with it effectively and safely this close to the harvest of so many veggies. Nonetheless, the garden continues to grow and apparently I'm firmly on the radar of the City administrators who run the program, which I suppose is a good thing. I tell you one thing, I won't be planting ornamental millet again. Damn you, millet thief! I hope your dried flower arrangement was full of scorpions!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Not of the Chesapeake: Carolina Spiderlily

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Meet Hymenocallis caroliniana, the Carolina Spiderlily
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In July 2008, a Ducks Unlimited coworker sent me a (blurry) picture of a very curious looking flower. The flower, well, hundreds of them, had apparently washed ashore at an old duck hunting club in Arkansas during a spring flood, and then sprouted all over the property's wetlands. Neither he or I had ever seen a plant quite like it. The only clues we could muster were 1) that the plant's thick stems and basal leaves looked an awful lot like an Amaryllis, and 2) Dave's (coworker's) mother said it reminded her of the "spider plants" that lived in the swamps near her childhood farm in Florida.
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After a few days of sporadically searching the internet for clues about aggressive amaryllis species with this crazy looking bloom, I found out about a lesser known group within the former Amaryllis family (the family has now been included within the extremely large and diverse Lily family) - the three genera of Spiderlilies. These realizations (Amarylis + Lily) made it instantly clear - we had a spider lily. But which one? USDA lists 17 species native to the Southeastern United States and the Carribean!

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From Dave's original pictures, it was impossible to tell which species we might have on our hands. However, he sent me about a dozen bulbs in Spring 2009, which I diligently cared for all year (and kept inside over the winter). Finally, in August 2010, I finally have some blooms! Frankly, I was shocked about this development, since I have largely ignored these plants this year, and the weather has been brutally hot on our native plant garden, resulting in massive dieoffs of much more valuable plants (sorry, spiderlily!). But they lived (somehow), neglected in the shade in large terracotta pots! So what species are they?

First, since the plants washed up in Arkansas, I figured we could reasonably eliminate several Carribean species (3) and those known to live only in Florida (5). That left 9 species. Based on the plant size (of my plants - a dubious assumption) and known occurrence in Arkansas, we were left with two species - the Spring Spiderlily and the Carolina Spiderlily. Figuring out the species came down to a very basic premise - period of bloom (April for the Spring Spiderlily, July for the Carolina Spiderlily).

I tried unsuccessfully in 2009 to grow the Red Spiderlily - which is not native to North America. It's a bit showier than the native species, and perhaps I'll give it another try next year!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Down Home Virginny


So, we're wrapping up Mandatory Vacation #2 (Day Care Closure Week #2) and we decided to spend it with my family in southeastern Virginia, traditionally referred to as "Tidewater." I'm not real big on regrets, but I've always felt that it was unfortunate that for the first several years of my career, I couldn't find professional level work at a livable wage (i.e. enough for rent AND student loans). But we made our move to Maryland in late 1998, and it's so long done at this point...... but.....it sure is great to be back. Hank went to a "real" beach for the first time this week at - ironically - Cape Henry in Virginia Beach.
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We've spent time helping the Tugboatdude move into his first purchased home, spent time with the Nutty Professor and his wonderful wife, my parents, and of course, a variety of old friends and even some new friends! The weather hasn't cooperated and we haven't cared.
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Friends. It's great to be back and see how quickly a few smiles and a few beers make the stories flow - both new and old stories. How quickly we all remember why we were so close starting in 1980, or 1990, or 1995 and how ridiculous it is that our lives don't cross more often. With the Hankster approaching 1 year old (can you believe it?), maybe we're settling into a pattern and can spend more time with some of our favorite people again.
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I'm just not sure whether we should do it with no guitars, or twice as many guitars next time!