Tuesday, June 28, 2011


            Got a grab-bag of miscellany for you today, ranging through phenology observations, companion planting, small miracles, plant-buying opportunities, eating local, the latest slimy doings at Monsanto, astronomical happenings, and the first-ever GFTGU poll—Got Lightning Bugs? Let’s get started!
            Tim’s been busy exploring Google Gadgets again. He interrupted me during a tense level-4 Sudoku session the other day to announce he’d learned how to run polls on the blog. He’s so cute when he enthuses about cyber-gimmicks. I listened politely, then filed the information in my brain’s recycle bin, sure I’d never need it.

            Spoke too soon. The very next morning, my cousin Mike emailed me that the lightning bugs had returned to Boonsboro, Maryland, reinforcing our family’s genetically based tendency to be entertained by trifles. The news got me thinking, though: here on Oak Island, I can count the lightning bugs flirting their bioluminescent rears in my back yard on the fingers of one hand. In fact, I don’t need any hands: don’t recall ever seeing a single one.
Where art thou, lightning bug?

            Communicated same to Mike, reinforcing our family’s genetically based tendency to depress ourselves, bemoaning lost summer nights of yesteryear  spent careening barefoot around back yard and park chasing six-legged sparks, clutching peanut-butter jars with holes punched in the lids for air and three blades of grass for our captives to perch on and eat. (Eat?)

            Further research into the subject (reinforcing the family’s genetically based tendency to become distracted at the drop of a hat) revealed that lightning bugs, a.k.a. fireflies, are indeed disappearing. Loss of meadow habitats to development and suburbia’s fixation on decking the dark with strings of fairy lights and torches and up-lighting make it difficult for the tiny brilliants to find each other to mate.

So tell me: does your neighborhood still receive lightning bug visitations? Tim gleefully set up the idiot-proof mechanism at top right (I know it’s idiot-proof because I could do it) for you to weigh in on this vexing issue. It’s not as trivial a thing as I may have made it sound, so c’mon and give us a click. You’d do it for “American Idol.”

This totally unscientific "Got Lightning Bugs?" poll will be open through July 5. The gadget automatically updates every time somebody votes, so we can all watch the results roll in together. Is that cool or what?

Will my sunflower seedlings bloom
before July 16?
Will pollinators care?
            In case you missed it, last week—June 20–26—was federally designated National Pollinator Week. (Isn’t it grand that Congress occasionally demonstrates its ability to suck it up and make a decision on an issue?) You can check out what you missed at Pollinator Partnership’s website, download colorful pollinator posters and learn about the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.

            Sponsored by the Great Sunflower Project, the Great Bee Count will be held on July 16th. I’m hoping my ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflowers will be blooming by then. As you can see, it’s going to be touch-and-go right up to the deadline, thanks to the sluggishness my fingers impart to seeds. Still, we’re doing better than last year, when all my starts died.
My prize Nature's Notebook

            In other phenological news, I’m making and recording passionflower observations every three days for Nature’s Notebook, the citizen-scientist part of the USA National Phenology Network. Here’s a shot of my prize specimen.

            If you haven’t already signed on, it’s not too late to get involved this year. I didn’t start until August of 2010, and—because our first frost didn’t occur until December 3—still managed to make a contribution.

            Meanwhile, out in the vegetable garden, the raccoons are having a field day with the tomatoes. Don’t know if it’s because the drought's made them thirsty, or if they think we grow the maters for them, or if it’s pique, but Tim and I are fighting back. We barricaded the beds with bird-netting stretched between fence posts and slid concrete reinforcing wire leftovers between the green fruit-laden plants and the yaupon hedge. So far, so good.

            On the pickleworm front, I’m trying to flummox the little troublemaking moths with companion planting. The cukes in baskets hanging on my front porch share their space with nasturtiums and French marigolds. The melons out back on the slanted support grow over and around creosote-evoking Lemmon marigolds (Tagetes lemmonii). And the cucumber seeds I planted Sunday afternoon will sprout through trailing branches of scented geraniums (Pelargonium ‘Sweet Miriam’). If proximity to pungent foliage puts pests off, I will be very pleased with myself. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.

Melon vines clamber over and through
the aromatic foliage of Lemmon's marigolds
Will 'Sweet Miriam'
protect the melons?


The ultra-cool-looking
           Finally, just because I like the plants, I sowed seeds for tall-growing castor bean (Ricinus communis), red Malabar spinach (Basella ruba) and lion’s-tail (Leonotis leonurus) in among the pole beans. The Malabar spinach is edible (it’s not a true spinach but a tropical Asian vine); the dried petals of lion’s-tail can be smoked or brewed as tea for a mild high (it’s also known as wild dagga, which sounds vaguely Rastafarian to me); and the castor bean, poisonous in all its parts, is the source of ricin, a potent toxin. Hope it doesn’t poison my beans.

Clematis pitcheri's first bloom
at NE 13th Street
            Little miracles happen all around us all the time. One occurred in my back yard last week. After starting out life with a cudweed nanny, and sulking flowerless for six years, my Clematis pitcheri bloomed. And only a couple of weeks after I whined about it not blooming right here.

            Speaking of miracles, check this out: my Christmas poinsettia is flourishing out on the back porch. It’s still got a few bracts left, and the new leaves are a rich, deep green. Frankly, I’m surprised, and humbled, by this little plant’s ferocious will to live. And just a tiny bit scared.

            The better-late-than-never-blooming Clematis pitcheri originally came from Plant Delights Nursery, near Raleigh, NC, which is holding its sultry summer Open House the weekends of July 8-9-10 and 15-16-17. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The brochure notes that about 230 different crinums are at peak bloom in the on-site Juniper Level Botanic Garden, along with an impressive Echinacea display. If you’re impervious to heat-related ailments, pay ’em a visit.

           Farmers markets are in full swing everywhere by now, so get out there and partake of local bounties. If you live in North Carolina, consider signing up for the 10%NC program. You pledge to spend the equivalent of 10% of your weekly grocery budget on locally produced foods—“local” includes fruits and vegetables you grow and harvest yourself—and agree to respond to a two-question weekly email to track your progress. The website lists sources of local foods by zip-code, and catalogs in-season produce.

           Anything you buy from small farmers in your area is bound to be better for you than the dicey stuff churned out by agri-business. For two hair-raising articles warning of the slippery slope of Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready frankencrops, click on the following links: “Roundup: Birth Defects Caused by Top-Selling Weedkiller, Scientists Say”; and “Bill Gates, Monsanto and Blackwater: A Marriage Made in Hell.” Even if the stories (and/or the science) border on sensationalist, there’s the old truism about smoke and fire. Certainly, big-business profits trumping health and safety—and everything else—is nothing new.

The Chinese TaiJi hexagram elegantly
depicts the relationships between
solstices and equinoxes
            Moving right along from the down-and-dirty to the celestial… The Naval Observatory’s Sky-Guy reports that the week-long period of longest days of the year ends today (June 28th) in the D.C. area. What do you mean, “week-long period of longest days”? you ask. Everyone knows the solstice marks the longest day. Well, everyone’s wrong. The summer solstice occurs when the sun is directly above the Tropic of Cancer at 23 degrees north latitude. It usually coincides with one of the longest days. But the number of minutes between sunrise and sunset stays the same for a week or so. Southeastern North Carolina’s first longest day was June 18th; daylight period began shrinking on the 26th.

            We do have two new moons this July, a kind of consolation prize, I guess.
Well, that’s it. June’s done, 2011’s half over. Thanks for dropping by. See you in July.



  1. Hi Kathy,
    Gadgets: cool! I voted....

    Lightning bugs. Once upon a time, my husband and I lived on the NE Cape Fear River. One late June evening, sitting with friends on the pier, we were entertained by zillions and zillions of lights. We foolishly hopped in the little boat, and floated down river to enjoy more of the show. The woods looked as if they had been strung with those tiny white christmas tree lights! It is a story we still tell, to friends who don't believe us. The evening light show continued for about 3 weeks that summer, but never again in the numbers we saw that night. We no longer live on the river. I've seen exactly 4 little lights this week in northern NH County...no more.

    I'm sending "bloom energy" to the sunflowers!

  2. Karen--
    What a magical memory! Thanks for sharing it. And remember, you're four lightning bugs ahead of us (Tim's is the other vote). :-)
    Please send lots and lots of bloom energy: saw some buds this morning!

  3. Funny that you mentioned lightning bugs. Last night, I was in my backyard. Behind my property are woods. I was in awe at the number of lightning bugs in the woods. They were everywhere, both high and low. It was beautiful!

  4. Oh, Mr. Gritty--
    I am so jealous! May I ask where your back yard is? North Carolina? Farther afield?
    Thanks so much for voting. Tim will be so pleased. :-)