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Barefoot and Dirty

The Birds and the Bees

It’s November on the Gulf Coast. The weather has finally cooled off and windows and doors are open to let in the fresh air. Hurricane cleanup continues. Life has settled down into a routine once again.

Here on the homestead, we’ve hatched out our annual batch of chicks, so the house is filled with peeps. It’s a month late, but that’s okay. We have 15 babies, five of which are roosters. We’ve begun socializing them, so every evening is play time. Hurricane or not, life on the homestead carries on.

One of the things we do every fall is make sure that pollinators are happy for the winter. When you mention pollinators, everyone generally thinks bees, but bees are only one of many. At our house, we have bees, yes, but we also have hummingbirds, butterflies, wasps, moths, and even bats. We try to accommodate for all of them.

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Not necessarily the best pollinator, but she tries.
Photo by Sherry Smith

A fail-proof method of attracting butterflies to your garden is to plant milkweed. Milkweed is a host plant for the beautiful monarch butterfly, but it is an attractive garden flower, as well. Here on the coast, it is a hardy perennial, evergreen when we have particularly mild winters. We have milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) growing in our front yard and in our back yard. As a consequence, we always seem to have monarchs fluttering around, along with a myriad of other butterflies. I have one caution, though, with growing milkweed: it can be very invasive. It produces seedpods full of seeds that are reminiscent of dandelions with their fuzzy little parachutes carrying them far and wide. If you don’t want an entire yard full of milkweed, I would recommend snipping off the seedpods before they open.

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A beautiful monarch visiting the milkweed.
Photo by Sherry Smith

Every fall, we plant flowers for the bees. We also allow the patches of Dutch white clover that spring up all over our lawn to remain for them. The bees love the flowers; plus the plant itself is one that fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere so it can help feed the soil. What many don’t realize is that the flowers are edible. They make a sweet jelly that is a fresh treat during the winter. Along with the white clover, we can also plant unused garden beds with crimson clover as a cover crop. Again, the bees love it and it feeds the soil, and it also crowds out any weeds that may want to spring up. There are many garden flowers and herbs that are good sources of nectar for bees that bloom in our mild winters. Bachelor’s buttons, calendula, borage, yarrow, rosemary, and primrose are just a few.

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One of our honeybees visiting the red powder puff tree.
Photo by Sherry Smith

Hummingbirds are frequent visitors to our yard. We hang feeders around for them, but they do love our flowers. We don’t see quite as many of them in deep winter, i.e. January and February, but here it is November and we still have them flitting about. Many of the same flowers that attract butterflies also appeal to the little hummingbirds. They love our milkweed as much as the butterflies, but they also love our pride of Barbados and morning glories. We often see them flitting about our back yard visiting one flower after another. They also like to sit on the pride of Barbados branches and rest. During the hurricane, we had a couple of hummingbirds take shelter in the dense growth. In fall, we check to make sure all of our feeders are clean and filled. In planting flowers for butterflies, we are also planting flowers suitable for the hummingbirds.

When I mention wasps as pollinators, many people look at me strangely and back away slowly. It’s true, though. We would never have figs if not for the wasps that pollinate them. While we don’t encourage them to hang out on the back porch with us while we enjoy a drink and a sunset, we do encourage them to build nests in the fig tree. Consequently, our tree is loaded with sweet fruit (I’m not-so-patiently waiting for them to ripen so I can make jam!), and my husband has to mow around the fruit trees carefully. Wasps also pollinate the native goldenrod that turns our southern fields to gold in the fall.

Bats are important pollinators down here. Bananas, guavas and mangoes are all pollinated by bats, as are agave. Not only that, but the bats also eat insects that can damage the plants. Little wooden bat houses are a great way to make these helpful creatures feel welcome. We love our bats down here. They happily eat the mosquitoes that try so hard to make our lives miserable here in the south. We try to encourage them to stay every way we can!

Moths are another nocturnal pollinator. They pollinate members of the Dianthus genus, such as sweet William and pinks. They also pollinate honeysuckle and evening primrose. Moths are also responsible for pollinating our night-blooming jasmine. What would the South be without the fragrance of jasmine in the moonlit garden? Dianthus are typically fall and winter flowers here on the coast, so we make sure to plant plenty of them for the moths.

Native wildflowers are probably the best choice for attracting a variety of pollinators. These are plants that have evolved side-by-side with the local pollinators, and often they contain an abundance of nectar while hybrids can be sterile and contain none. Open-pollinated heirlooms are another good choice for attracting these garden friends. These are plants that still require pollination to propagate, thus the reason they are so popular with gardeners who like to save seeds from season to season.

caterpillar

The monarch caterpillars are just as striking as the butterflies.
Photo by Sherry Smith

Providing shelter is also an easy way to encourage pollinators to stay awhile. As I mentioned, simple wooden bat houses attached to trees or poles will encourage these nocturnal pollinators. Keeping birdbaths or small dishes filled with clean water will encourage bees and butterflies to linger. The mason bee houses available in so many garden centers are easy enough to either buy or build. Obviously, not everyone can raise bees in their back yard, but if it is possible, why not? Our bees have quickly become indispensable since we’ve had them. Our summer harvest was abundant with all of the bees buzzing around the flowers, in spite of the hurricane and flooding. As an added benefit, next year, we’ll be able to harvest our own fresh honey and beeswax. I’m all for producing as much of the food I feed my family as possible.

chrysalis

Our porches are usually covered with these.
Photo by Sherry Smith

One of the things about living in a mild-winter area is that the pollinators who typically migrate south to escape the cold end up here for at least part of the winter. The ones who hide away for the winter in northern regions are still out and about down here. There is seldom a freeze to encourage them to hibernate or move on. We like to do as much as we can to help these creatures survive the winter months when nectar can be scarce, and we like to provide them with shelter when they need it. To this end, we make it a point to plant as many pollinator-friendly plants as possible. They repay us by pollinating our winter garden. We consider it a win-win!


Here is my recipe for jam made with fresh figs. It makes four 1/2-pint jars. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

• Approximately 3 pounds of figs (washed with stems removed)
• 2 cups sugar
• Juice of 1 lemon

Directions:

1. In a large saucepan, combine the figs, sugar, and lemon juice. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Remove the cover and continue simmering, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens. Once the jam has thickened considerably, begin to stir constantly to keep it from scorching.

2. Fill sterilized jars with the hot fig jam, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Put lids and bands on jars and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.

After The Storms

Living on the Gulf Coast can be amazing. We don’t freeze in the winter. Spring and Autumn have fabulous weather. We can wear shorts on Christmas Day. However, then we have these years where a hurricane decides to stop in for a visit. This has been such a year. Hurricane Harvey stopped in to say hi, and definitely overstayed his welcome. Harvey wasn’t our usual hurricane, though. He was much more.

The thing about our hurricanes is that they blow in, topple trees, wreck houses, create huge surges that threaten our seawalls, and then they blow back out leaving us with high temperatures, high humidity levels, and no power. The whole thing is very unpleasant. Harvey, on the other hand, blew in and stayed awhile, dumping so much rain on us that we were under water for days. Damages to homes didn’t consist of simple roof repairs from shingles that had been blown loose. No, we’re having to repair pier and beam foundations because of damage done from underneath the floors and having to gut houses because of drywall damage done by rising flood waters. This year, it was different.

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One of many roads in town

Of course, as with every occurrence today, there are the memes floating around the internet making jokes about Texas and Harvey, and believe me, even in tragedy, we can laugh along with the rest of the country. Unfortunately, reality always intrudes. The reality is heart-wrenching. Many lost everything. In the aftermath, driving through our small rural town, we saw people clearing out their homes, furniture, clothing, carpet, wet drywall. There were huge piles of the debris of peoples’ lives sitting at the curb waiting for the sanitation department to come and haul it away. There were people who literally had nothing but the clothes on their backs, no shoes, no food, nothing. Donation centers sprang up everywhere. Neighbors were helping each other, commiserating with each other. The community pulled together.

Our house sits on property that was formerly a rice field. Yes, we flooded. We have a pier and beam foundation, so our house sits up high enough off the ground that the flood waters never came inside. Our entire property was over a foot underwater, though. Our house literally became an island. Our septic tank filled quickly, so the toilets wouldn’t flush, the tubs and sinks wouldn’t drain. We had to wash dishes in 5-gallon buckets on the back porch. That being said, we were lucky. We waded out to the duck coop and opened the door each morning so the ducks could enjoy their new lake. Enjoy it, they did! The chickens, not so much, but at least their coop is raised off the ground so they could stay dry, if a little more confined than they would prefer. A menagerie of wildlife took refuge on our covered back porch for the duration of the storms and flooding: an armadillo, hummingbirds, tiny field mice, lizards. We fed them all and kept the dogs away from them. Once the waters receded, they went on their way, although I think the armadillo is currently digging burrows throughout our property.

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The ducks swimming through the yard

Many people see the news and think “oh, what a tragedy.” Yes, but the news only covers the big stories. The media can’t begin to describe the aftermath of such a disaster. There is danger in quickly rising water, yes, but there is also danger in whatever may be swimming in that water. We have many bayous down here and they are teeming with life, some of which is not so pleasant. Displaced alligators become a hazard. Water moccasins swim through that flood water. Nasty infection-causing bacteria are present in that water. The sewage overflow from septic systems is in that water. Something else the news media doesn’t report is the danger from swarms of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes thrive in these conditions and they come out in force carrying diseases of their own. Cities begin indiscriminate spraying of insecticides to kill the mosquitoes without taking into consideration of the risks that that adds to the list.

Another consequence of such a disaster is a shortage of many staples. Milk, eggs, bread, none were available in stores. Shelves were empty. Stores open with a skeleton crew to help as many as possible, but they have to ration supplies, imposing limits in order to spread supplies out as much as possible. Before the storm hit, people hoarded gas, so many gas stations had to close until supply trucks could get through. Again, we were lucky. We have our own eggs, I make bread, and we have all of the food that we have harvested and preserved all summer.

All of that taken into consideration, the clean-up has begun at our house. With our yard under water for days, obviously our vegetable garden is no more (except the red ripper cowpeas. I think those could survive a nuclear holocaust!), our flower beds are questionable since all the flowers were affected in some way, but the weeds seem to be bigger and healthier than ever, and we have algae growing on the sidewalk and the side of our house. Our carpets are giving off a musty odor, a sure indication that flood waters soaked through the floor from underneath. Our ceilings have water damage from the hurricane blowing water in through the ridge vents and creating roof leaks. Our lawn became so overgrown that snakes were a very real danger. Again, though, in comparison to many, we were lucky.

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Dead shrubs in the flower bed

The sun came out and temperatures actually dropped into the eighties, definitely not normal for the aftermath of a hurricane, but we weren’t going to complain. The ground dried enough for my husband to mow the lawn and the ditch out front by the road, so we no longer have to worry about any snakes hiding in tall grass. We’ve begun cleaning out garden beds, preparing them for our Fall garden by building back up the soil and clearing out moldy, rotted vegetation that could harbor pests or disease. We take one flower bed each weekend and clean it out, pulling weeds and disposing of dead plants, pruning dead wood off shrubs to stimulate new growth, taking inventory of what made it and what didn’t. We’ve hauled off the new fruit tree saplings that drowned and replanted the pomegranate tree that was uprooted by the hurricane. Perhaps this weekend, we will scour the shelves of garden centers looking for some plants to fill in the gaping holes left behind.

While this process has brought sadness in the loss of plants that we grew from seed, plants that we planted together as a family, it has also reminded us of the resilience of nature. With hurricane force winds that had trees leaning sideways and a foot and a half of standing water, every single one of my antique roses survived. Not only did they survive, but once the waters receded and the sun came out, we could see that they all had new growth already sprouting. A plant that many consider “high-maintenance” or “difficult to grow” or “delicate” not only survived a hurricane and a flood, but managed to thrive. Our Anna apple tree has new blossoms on it. My mallow plants are bursting into bloom along with our hibiscus and jasmine. The aloe and agave are putting out hundreds of babies. The crape myrtles are still covered in flowers. Yes, there was so much destruction, and so many people lost so much in material property, but we are part of nature, too, and we will put forth new growth. We will clean up and rebuild. Life will go on and so will we. One thing that our garden can teach us is that the most delicate flowers can survive the most violent of disasters, thrive, and grow to be bigger and more beautiful than ever.

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'Heirloom' rose

We will finish cleaning out our garden, perhaps expand it while we’re at it, and we will plant our fall crops. The flood waters leached many of the nutrients from our garden soil, but we will add lots of compost and other amendments and it will be ready for our new seeds. The drowned peppers, squashes, pumpkins, sorghum, corn and cucumbers will give way to clean beds planted with turnips, beets, chard, peas, bok choy, carrots, radishes, broccoli and various greens such as mustard, arugula and spinach. Bare spots in flower beds will be filled with new plants. The saplings will be replaced. Through it all, my gorgeous roses will continue to thrive, continue to bloom, and continue to remind us that we will too.