Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Poshing up the garden

Every well dressed garden needs a chandelier, don't you think?

I found this one -- the real deal -- at a yard sale, going for a whopping $10! It was very dusty and the new homeowner couldn't be bothered to clean it.

Our little house is not the right place for such a splendid piece, but I wasn't thinking about using it inside, anyway.

I've removed most of the electrical wiring and for a post-Christmas gathering, hung it from a branch of the big mahogany. I used fake flickering LED candles, and I think it looked fabulous. It looks just as goodby daylight, too.

A Christmas beetle

With its iridescent red and green back, it seems appropriate to write a blog entry at this time of the year about Phanaeus igneus, our local dung beetle. The first time I came across one I was enchanted, turning it upside down and wondering at its brilliant colors. I hope I washed my hands well, but I don't remember.

I only realized how it made its living when I noticed a pile of dog dung gently rocking, seemingly of its own accord. It was both fascinating and, since I didn't know what to expect, distinctly alarming. Gingerly poking the pile with a stick yielded the reason: a dung beetle had tunneled underneath and was dragging the contents down the hole. A few days later all that was left was dirt from the hole, and the area looked like an old ants nest.

Dung beetles fall into three categories: "Tunnelers," like P. igneus; "rollers," which roll balls of dung; and "dwellers" that simply live inside a dung pile. Dung is either used as food or as a place to lay eggs. The scarab revered by the Ancient Egyptians was a roller, a piece of information I'm sure you needed to know.

So next time you're down on your luck, you know to be grateful you're not a dung beetle. Even so, we'd all be climbing over piles of poop if it weren't for these beetles, so I guess we should all be grateful to them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


We've had two consecutive years of a bumper avocado crop. Unfortunately, they're not my favorite fruit, but these are a good variety and they'll spread like butter across a sandwich. I've been giving them away to anyone who wants some, but they're still way too many and the squirrels are having a fine old feast.

Last year, I gave some to Sparky. He wolfed them down and got diarrhea in the house, so he's not having any more. Some people I used to know moved, with their skinny black lab, to a house with several avocado trees. The next time I saw the dog, he was easily double the size. I think the owners finally resorted to putting a muzzle on him during avo season.

But why do trees make so much fruit when it only takes one successful germination to replace the parent? I found an answer in a 1990 movie called Mindwalk, starring Sam Waterston, John Heard and Liv Ullmann. It's kind of a forerunner to What the #*!$ Do We Know, with just as flimsy a "plot."

Waterston plays a failed presidential candidate who meets up with his poet pal, Heard, at Mont St Michel, off the Brittany coast. The film is all about the conversation they start with Ullmann's character, a Norwegian quantum physicist. It's she who puts forward the hypothesis that the tree -- my avocado -- is part of a much greater system and as such, the abundance of fruit nourishes the system, which in turn protects a new seedling, later to become the replacement tree.

James Lovelock wrapped this up in his Gaia Hypothesis, which has always appealed to me.

The Ramble

Fairchild held its annual Ramble, the weekend before last. I went twice since this year it started on Friday, running through Sunday. The first thing that caught my eye was the Rolls Royce I parked next to.

One improvement over the years is the inclusion of "green" groups, such as Urban Paradise and Urban Oasis, so everyone can learn more about sustainable living. 

Even if you're not into growing things or the environment, there's always great art and food and activities for the kids, not to mention the antiques in the main auditorium.

I spent way too much of my unemployment benefits on a couple of "must-have" unusual plants, including Flame of Jamaica (Euphorbia punicea), a shrub that will put out striking scarlet bracts.

Vultures (with feathers)

A couple of turkey vultures were arguing over a possum carcass in the road a few houses along. There was a lot of commotion and clashing of wings before they sorted it out, and then a car drove one off, leaving the feast to the other. I walked over to what was left of the possum (be glad you didn't smell it), which caused me to wonder whether vultures, like raptors, have exceptional eyesight, or whether they have exceptional smell -- or both. Questions, questions.

If you live in suburban South Florida (and assuming you even notice them), you probably like seeing vultures wheeling around the sky. Vultures, turkey vultures specifically, are harbingers of the fall; they arrive from somewhere in the Midwest or Northeast in the first week of October, bringing with them the blessed promise of cooler weather. Except in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, I don't think it's ever cooled down before the "buzzards" show up.

The occasion used to be celebrated annually on the steps of the courthouse in downtown Miami, which is where dozens choose to roost at night. As tall buildings went up around the courthouse, the vultures roosted there, too. The Herald wrote a story about very expensive lawyers in very expensive penthouse offices not appreciating vultures resting outside and spoiling their otherwise very expensive view. Oh, the irony!

If you do look up, watch these masters of flight as they ride thermals and glide across the sky with the rarest flap of a wing. On the ground, though, it's another matter. These huge birds, ungainly as they are ugly, are positively comical as they lumber along the ground preparing for takeoff. Sadly, this is when the vultures themselves become road kill.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A tiny owl

Fairchild had its first Bird Day on Sunday, which I deemed to be a success apart from the bird walk that started at the ludicrously early 7 a.m. (I can't do anything at that hour other than sleep.) The wildlife rehab center at Miami's science museum was in attendance with a couple of of permanent residents, a red shouldered hawk and an Eastern screech owl.

I'm sure that like me, many of the day's visitors walked right past the tiny owl assuming it was a stuffed bird. You can see what I mean from the first photo. And what a treat to see the hawk up close and personal.

Our first raised veggie bed

Here's the first of two. It's 4' x 8' and the other will be 4' x 10', and both will be plumbed for drip irrigation. They're made out of pressure-treated lumber, so the insides are lined with black plastic bags (a quick stapling job). Next, I have to line the bottom with something to keep nematodes at bay, probably newspaper, brown paper and old cotton blankets.

The designer and general contractor is Dan the spouse who insists on getting things nigh-on perfect, which is way more than I would do (and I'm a Virgo!). He thought of finishing the bed off with a 2" x 6" board to make it easier to sit or kneel, and it's a brilliant idea, not to mention it looks nice.

Anyway, I'm extremely grateful that he took it on because gardening is not his thing, except that he likes to cook so he does have a vested interest.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Going bananas

We take bananas for granted; they are, after all, only an everyday fruit. But there's a whole bunch (pardon the pun) more to them than that.

I grow a "Brazilian dwarf," which I thought meant that the plants would be dwarf, but it turns out the name refers to the fruit, so they are unexpectedly tall. I also have a true dwarf which produces apple-flavored bananas, and I'm encouraging a struggling plant that supposedly produces bananas with red flesh. I also have ornamentals, meaning the fruit is inedible, with variegated leaves of a stunning red and green.

This photo, which I took at Fairchild earlier in the week, is of another ornamental. The fruit and flowers are simply spectacular. Click on the picture to see the flower's occupant.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Breezy bamboo; sorry Northerners

Those who have grown bamboo in a temperate climate are likely to wish they never did. Once a temperate bamboo gets going it's almost impossible to keep under control, shooting up in all sorts of inconvenient places and doing more damage to lawns than pesky moles.

But for us lucky folks living in a tropical climate, we grow clumping bamboos, which are sooo much easier to maintain.

This is Bambusa malingensis, a particularly thickly-clumping, vigorous species that I really must get round to thinning out. It's about 25' now and can get to around 35'. It's a graceful plant that will bend nearly horizontal in our frequent, strong winds.

It started off as a weedy thing about seven years ago, and now it blocks out the view of (and from) the bridge, which is what is was intended to do.

I got it from Daniel and Martha Holmes of Holmes Bamboo in the Redland. If you're in the market, check out their website.

Halloween fishermen at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

These guys look suspiciously like the fruit of the sausage tree (Kigelia africana). I hope the gators give them a pass...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Devloper makes quick buck with cruelty to trees

This really annoys me: Planting young trees right under utility lines. It's a cheap developer's trick to make a property look nicer. These live oaks will soon reach the overhead lines where they will cause power outages to homes further along and then FPL will hack them back. We all pay for that service.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Little Brown Jobs (and keep your mind out of the toilet, please)

The LBJs, small brown birds -- mostly warblers, are back. The fall migration has been under way for a while, but I've only just started paying attention. The LBJs flit from branch to branch too quickly to figure out the species, but I have seen American redstarts and a male prairie warbler. I may have seen a black-and-white warbler, too, but ...

It's a colorful time of year, birdwise, in the garden. Blue jays and cardinals come to the feeders and the bright yellow spot-breasted orioles are all over the place.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Snail sex

Just came across this wild sex scene as I took food out to the cat. The motion lights came on and caught them in the act. (I'm assuming this is how snails have sex, but maybe they were just having a nice chat.) I suppose this means baby snails and all that entails ...

Ring neck snake video clip

After posting that I hadn't seen a ring neck for a long time, I found one when I was weeding and sorting out the bromeliads at the base of the avocado tree. It didn't want to be caught. It was difficult keeping the camera in the right place and keep the snake from escaping too soon.

It's a harmless snake, in case the gardening gloves alarm you.

Rainy night

I forgot to put the wheelbarrow away yesterday evening. We must have had at least 4 inches of rain over night. No wonder mushrooms are erupting everywhere.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


One of the stinkiest stinks (take my word for it) is a rotten coconut. Of course to Sparky the mutt, it's the canine equivalent of a moth to a flame.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Urban wildlife

The nearby Tropical Park has opened a doggy park, which my two love. It's located next to one of the lakes where I snapped this shot of a great egret.

And for the first time in several years I came across a little ring-neck snake in the garden. It was crossing a pathway and disappeared under the shed. I was in the middle of dealing with a dog who had sliced open a paw, resulting in copious bleeding, so I didn't have time to admire it. But it's nice to know it's there.

My backyard, minus one coconut palm

The coconut palm has gone. (See Aug. 1 post.) This is the new view from the kitchen window. We decided the situation was simply too dangerous, not least because one of the dogs decided to make a place to snooze near the trunk. (Even so, "death by coconut" remains anecdotal.)

Out of habit, I still automatically steer a course around the danger zone.

Its removal presents a whole new set of problems, though, because the plants, including orchids, that grew in its shade are getting too much sun and must be relocated. We have a vera wood (Bulnesia arborea) and a bridal veil (Caesalpinia granadillo) -- such a beautiful tree -- that will eventually fill in and create a nicer shaded area.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Raccoons: Cute and dangerous

Leaving Bill Baggs Park on Key Biscayne, we came across this scene at one of the many barbecue/picnic sites. The lid was off the garbage can and this raccoon had hit pay dirt. It was only a few feet from us and not in the slightest bit inclined to leave its feast behind, despite our proximity. After a couple of minutes, it ambled back into the undergrowth.

Cute as it was, it's a sad state of affairs for several reasons: The ugly impact humans have on the environment, the loss of fear by wild animals, the danger raccoons pose to the human population. Raccoons are significant carriers of rabies, but unlike dogs and cats, they don't exhibit symptoms to alert us.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Mackerel sky

If you've read previous entries, you'll know how much I like clouds. These pics were taken last weekend at sunset. We don't get a mackerel sky very often.

These are altocumulus clouds, defined by the National Weather Service as:

A cloud of a class characterized by globular masses or rolls in layers or patches, the individual elements being larger and darker than those of cirrocumulus and smaller than those of stratocumulus. These clouds are of medium altitude, about 8000-20,000 ft (2400-6100 m).

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Prayer flags for the laundry gods

The NY Times' Green Inc. blog reports that residents in Greenwich, Conn., are being told they can't hang out laundry because it mars the look of the place.

I believe Coral Gables has the same daft rule.

The blog, Project Laundry List, says that dryers cause more house fires than any other household appliance, so hanging out laundry is safer, greener, and cheaper.

Here, in South Miami, is my current offering to the gods of clean laundry. (Note the fab mid-century fabric!) I give my laundry about 10 minutes in the dryer at the end to make towels and the like softer, but I never use liquid or sheet softeners; they're a waste of resources and money.

A train trip I once took in Switzerland took me through a ritzy part of Geneva, where many UN agencies are located, and I noted that washing lines were standard in embassy backyards. If it's good enough for the Swiss, it's good enough for the U.S.

Gulf coast cloud

Last night's view from the back garden: An anvil cloud formed over Marco Island (easily located on Weather.com's animated radar; it was the only cloud west of Miami.)

A good 10 years ago, an especially spectacular anvil, lit up by internal lightning, formed over Naples. It made the evening news on all the local channels, but The Herald didn't have it, mostly because that time of the day is so busy and the newsroom faces east, over the Bay. I asked then photo director, Dennis Copeland, about it. He had just been chewed out by the executive editor (Doug Clifton) for missing it and Dennis chewed me out for not alerting him!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Why I shouldn't have grown coconut palms

The first photo is of my backyard; the second is looking straight up from the same spot.

I grew eight coconut palms from seed. Two succumbed to lethal yellowing and one to Hurricane Katrina. Wilma caused one of the remaining ones to go from vertical to a 45 degree angle, but at least it's not likely to drop coconuts on anyone.

However, I still have three, like this one, that could do serious damage to someone -- or the dogs -- but I can neither afford to have them trimmed nor cut down.

Perhaps a passing hurricane will take them out...

Why woodpeckers don't need helmets but footballers do

If a human hammered away with his head the way this male red-bellied woodpecker does, his brain would soon turn to mush.

According to Random Animal Facts, woodpeckers have a:
[R]elatively thick skull with relatively spongy bone to cushion the brain; there is very little cerebrospinal fluid in its small subarachnoid space; the bird contracts mandibular muscles just before impact, thus transmitting the impact past the brain and allowing its whole body to help absorb the shock; and its relatively small brain is less prone to concussion than other animals.
Incidentally, there are occasional glimpses of the red feathers on the belly, which is why it gets its name. That's not quite as much as a "duh" as you might think because it's rare to see the belly feathers.


It's amazing, given what you have to pay for a small staghorn (Platycerium) fern at Home Depot, that anyone would throw one out, but somebody thought it wasn't worth keeping so I rescued it. I mean, break it into smaller pieces, which I did once the ants had vacated the property, and give it to friends.

Monday, July 27, 2009

View of the Everglades

I just like this photo. I took it along the Tamiami Trail, half way to Naples.
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Recently, my son and I went to Crandon Park on Key Biscayne for a short outing. He went swimming and I watched the birds. (That's a white ibis.)

I got totally absorbed in a crow v. human drama taking place at a picnic table behind me. A family had brought what looked like shrimps to barbecue for lunch but they wanted to go swimming first. It didn't take long for a couple of crows to start poking (beaking) around and getting into the food. It took the dad several trips out of the water and up the beach before he finally secured the food. I think the crows eventually would have figured out how to access even the coolers, but Nick and I left before it all played out.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Swimming au naturel

No, this isn't somewhere in the Everglades; it's a natural swimming pool in suburban South Miami.

Four years ago, the owners, two FIU professors, brought in the backhoe and dug an enormous hole that became this extraordinary retreat. The water is supplied from the water table and recycled.

It took a while to get the flora/fauna balance right, including mosquito fish -- native gambusia that feed on mosquito larvae -- and other natives.

The surrounding plants are all native to the Everglades, including cypress and pickerel weed. Raptors visit the place looking for food, too.

I just loved this pool; it was so much more inviting than the regular South Florida offering.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bromeliads and mosquitoes

If you have bromeliads, you have mosquitoes breeding in the cups. Unless, of course, you manage them well. I'm using mosquito bits containing modified Bt, available online, to kill the larvae.

I asked Adrian Hunsberger, the horticulturalist/entomologist with Dade's extension service, whether it only need be applied to the central cup, but she said bits should go in each cup and reapplied if it rains.

According to Mosquitoes.org, the larvae live in water for seven to 14 days, depending on the temperature, so I reckon that applying the bits need only be done once a week.

Despite that, I have a major skeeter problem, and I suspect that they are coming from the neighbors. I've called 311 to request spraying, but so far, I've not noticed any less. I should buy shares in Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer of Off.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Another flowering tree mystery

What is this tree?
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Night blooming cactus

In the neighbors' yard. I don't know much about cacti, so would love to know what this is. Anyone?
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