Metamorphosis – My Own

Twelve years ago I was living in St. Petersburg and working nights at the post office, a job so boring watching hair grow would be riveting in comparison. Sleeping days wasn’t much fun either. As if that wasn’t miserable enough, I often spent the morning hours, after I got off work, poisoning my own small patch of the planet. I probably should have known better, but nobody I knew back then ever talked about organic methods. It didn’t help either that the owner of the plant nursery in the neighborhood never met a chemical he didn’t love and love to sell. I would bring him a sample of sick grass or chewed foliage, and he would grab a box or bottle off the shelf. ‘Spray (pour, spread, dust) this on it.’ But for all that (and now I realize because of that) my yard was a mess. I found myself making more and more trips to the nursery; but no matter what product I bought and blasted at the problem, it only got worse.

After a few years of this my yard looked as barren as a moonscape and so did my life. Working nights and sleeping days kept me so mind-numb I felt like a spectator watching life go by. Then I’d wake up to my dead yard and my boring job and I’d waste another day. I knew I had to make some changes or someday I’d look back at a wasted life, and since I tend to be one of those all or nothing kind of people . . .

I quit my job, moved to Tallahassee and enrolled in a course in horticulture (of all things!). It was fascinating. Among other things, we learned a lot about the correct and legal use of pesticides; and as we did so, it became clear to me just how irresponsible (and illegal) my previous actions had been.

And then I came to work at Native Nurseries.

Native Nurseries is not your average nursery—they have a different view of what the world (and your yard) should look like; and frankly, it took some time for me to adjust to ‘a different way’. One morning shortly after I was hired, we were having a problem—we were overrun with caterpillars. Well that’s no problem for a recently graduated certified professional . . . I got an ‘A’ on this test . . . Dipel! It’s a safe way to kill caterpillars without poisoning your yard, your family, your pets or the planet . . . right?

‘No, no, no Mary! Go to New Leaf Market and buy some organic parsley for all these Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars! Hurry they’ll starve. No, no . . . not that stuff at Publix . . . it can kill them!’

On my way to New Leaf, I laughed when I thought about how the nursery owner in St. Pete would react to the notion of paying for organic food (and the employee salary and gas to get it) for caterpillars. I stopped laughing when I considered the notion of the parsley most of us eat as ‘quasi-pesticide’.

That was ten years ago, and I’ve come to realize that change is one of the few constants in life. Change . . . metamorphosis . . . it’s not just a process we watch in the <a href=”butterflyrearingcage.html”>butterfly cages</a> we build and sell here at the nursery. It’s a process we are all going through. We all change over time and so do businesses. Thirty years ago, Donna and Jody saw a small ad in the newspaper. It was placed by Mr. Salter, a grower of native plants. Who could have guessed when they took that trip to Madison, Florida, to check it out that the result would be Native Nurseries (some called it Naïve Nurseries back then).

Back then there was only Donna and Jody and their dog, Sam, until they hired a neighborhood teenager to help out. But then life happens and things change. Donna and Jody had two babies; Vanessa and Joseph have both graduated from college and are working at the nursery. Sam’s gone, but Pansy is the perfect shop dog; and there are now fifteen employees.

A lot of you already know all this, because there’s one thing that has not changed. From the beginning, this nursery has been very good at attracting loyal customers and hanging on to them. Whether you’ve been with us since 1980 or two months ago, our customers and friends tend to stay loyal. And so we’ve been able to watch you change and live and grow and have children, some of whom bring their own children in now.

We’ve also watched as some of our friends have passed on to whatever comes next. Change is usually good, but sometimes it’s also sad.

For myself, I’ve come a long way from the Pesticide Queen of St. Pete. I’m very thankful for the changes that have led me to work in this industry, in this nursery, with and for these people . . . Donna and Jody, my fellow employees, our customers . . . friends. For me, the change has been a good one.

Metamorphosis – from Angry Man to Butterfly Enthusiast

I once saw a customer go through a change almost as amazing as a caterpillar’s metamorphosis. It happened the first time he saw a caterpillar turn into a chrysalis.

This man did not want to be a customer, and he did not want to be here at the nursery. This was back when they were working on Centerville Road and just making the effort to get here was a declaration of loyalty from our customers. He was a very angry business man in a very expensive suit, barking about ‘THE WIFE!’ who wanted him to get a butterfly kit for ‘THE KID!’ He did not have time for ‘THIS NONSENSE!’ “JUST SELL ME THE KIT AND LET ME GET OUT OF HERE!”

I should explain something here. I like our customers and I have never (with this one exception) gone out of my way to annoy one. But a funny thing happened to my attitude as I listened to this man rant and rage. I so lost control of my good sense I decided it might be fun to push him the rest of the way around the bend.

“What kind of butterfly?” I smiled, beginning my attack.


“You’ll need to know which butterfly so you’ll know which larval food to buy.”


“That’s what the caterpillar eats.”


“Butterflies come from pupae, which come from caterpillars, which come from eggs laid on larval food.”

“OKAY ALREADY! YOU CHOOSE!” I swear I could see steam coming from his ears, and I just know he wanted to yell, “QUIT SMILING!”

“Okay—Monarchs.” I led him out the front door, stopped and pointed left. “Native milkweed?”— pointed right, “or non-native milkweed?”

He just stared at me, his face turning a deeper shade of red by the moment; and I considered asking him if it didn’t hurt – grinding his teeth like that. Instead I decided to be an adult and quit teasing the grouch. So I grabbed some milkweed and said, “Okay then. Come back inside, I’ll explain the process and get you out of here.”

“Where can I buy some caterpillars?” he asked on the way inside. “Do you sell them?”

“Oh we don’t sell caterpillars. We give them away. I’ll send you home with a couple Monarchs.”

He did not say it out loud but his thoughts could not have been more clear in three-foot neon. What kind of idiot would give something away when she could sell it? He literally took a couple steps away from me—worried about catching ‘nice’ I suppose.

So I took him over to the butterfly cage and was explaining the process when I noticed his eyes bugging out. “What’s happening?!” he gasped.

Looked a bit like a heart attack, but then I glanced into the cage. “Oh look, one of the caterpillars is becoming a chrysalis.”

“Oh my Gosh!” (not his exact words . . . those I can’t use here) “I can’t believe it! That looks like something Stephen Spielberg would come up with! That’s unbelievable! OH MY GOSH!!”

It really is amazing to watch a caterpillar become a chrysalis, but the more drastic change occurred outside the cage that day. Within a matter of minutes, a very angry man became a very nice man who was fascinated by butterflies. He could not wait to get home and share the experience with his wife and daughter, but first he took the time to buy everything they would need for their new hobby. He asked lots of questions, signed up for our newsletter and noted the date of our next butterfly workshop on his calendar. He smiled and talked nonstop as I helped him carry his purchases to the car. And before he left, he shook my hand and grinning from ear to ear said, “This is the best day I’ve had in a long time. Thank you.” I was grinning too as I watched him drive away, and I wondered if his wife and daughter would recognize him. When I met them (they all came to the workshop), his daughter complained (with a grin) that no one but dad ever saw the caterpillars change because “mom and I can’t get near the cage because dad’s always in the way!”


Metamorphosis is a subject that fascinates us here at Native Nurseries. We and our customers love to watch the process occur up close in the caterpillar rearing cages we build and sell here at the nursery, and we’ve had some fun and interesting caterpillar events over the years.

There were the Luna Moths we raised from eggs a customer brought us. What a gorgeous creature! The majority of its days are spent as egg, caterpillar and cocoon. When it emerges as an adult moth it has only three more days to live. It does not even have a mouth since it does not eat! Imagine being allotted only three days to live as an adult. They are spent finding a mate and producing eggs . . . and flying . . . at least it gets to fly.

Then there was the Monarch caterpillar that chose the underside of our front counter as a good location to become a chrysalis. It later chose the morning of our Fall Butterfly Festival to emerge. You should have seen the look on the customer’s face as she pointed to the Monarch butterfly climbing Jody’s jeans as he rang up her butterfly purchases! We could not have planned that in a million years!

We had another metamorphosis moment a couple years ago on a Saturday morning. Donna noticed that an Imperial Moth had finally emerged from its cocoon. Unfortunately, by the time she noticed the moth had disappeared. We needed to find it so it could be released that night to look for a mate, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to locate because the Imperial Moth is yellow and purple and has a wing span of up to 5½ inches. Donna and Lilly searched high and low and finally even pulled everything out from under the table the pupa sat on for so long, but to no avail. The moth was gone.

The empty cocoon was pretty interesting in itself and we showed it to many customers who came in that day. Some of them helped us look again for the moth, but it was not to be found.

Later that afternoon Jody was again showing the empty cocoon to some customers and telling them about the missing moth. A young girl in the group took a short look around the room, went back to the bird room and within seconds pointed at the ceiling. “Well there it is,” were her words; but her tone clearly said, “Grownups . . . how helpless!” Yep, there it was—a beautiful, female imperial moth—on the back wall where it meets the ceiling behind the branches Brian used to decorate the bird room. Man, to have the eyes of a child again!

Caterpillars, butterflies and moths are such interesting creatures—some fly incredible distances, such as the Monarch in its migration to Mexico each winter. Even more amazing is the fact that they find their way to the same trees in the same small region every year, especially when you consider they’ve never made the trip before. They are several generations from the group who made the trip the previous year.

Some species can detect a potential mate from a long distance. The male Polyphemus Moth can sense a female from several miles away even though she releases only one billionth of a gram of pheromone (scent) per hour. It’s a pretty necessary talent I suppose, as short lived as some moths are!

Some are beautiful, some look like bird poop (Giant Swallowtail caterpillar) and some look very scary (Hickory Horned Devil). Some are more interesting than others—but they all have one incredibly interesting process in common—metamorphosis. And one of the most interesting stages of metamorphosis to witness is the beginning of pupation. This creature changes from a caterpillar into what looks like a sack of fluid or a dried up old leaf or a beautiful ornament complete with shiny, gold trim in a very short time, right before your eyes. The process actually starts hours (or days) earlier, but once the caterpillar’s skin splits, it sheds that skin in a very short time and then this shapeless, legless, blind blob has to step out of that skin (while hanging upside down no less), let that skin drop and then reattach itself to the small pad of silk it has attached to the substrate. Imagine a blind Olympic gymnast with no arms winning the gold! Is it any wonder we find the subject so fascinating?

Start Your Salad From Seed

Start Your Salad From Seed

Tallahassee Democrat 09/10

It’s finally that time again. The sweltering Tallahassee heat is slowly giving up and it’s time to plant a salad buffet that wil lproduce plentiful fresh greens through the winter. As visions of kale, collards, and chard dance through my head, I am reminded of the lessons I have learned through trial and error in my past fall gardens. The most significant improvement has been growing my vegetables from seed sown directly in the garden in blocks or wide rows. Not only is growing from seed the most economical way to start a garden, it also allows you to grow more diverse varieties of vegetables than are available as transplants. Most importantly, it is much more productive per square foot than standard rows of transplanted seedlings.

Starting from seed is easy and fun. Success starts with the right seed selection. You can find fresh, healthy seed varieties that are tried and true for Tallahassee at your local nursery. If replanting an existing bed, I just add a few fresh inches of compost before I plant. You can start a new bed by following these easy steps:

  1. Select a mostly sunny spot and break up the soil with a garden fork or spade, removing sod and any existing plants and roots.
  2. Prepare the soil. Add a few inches of homemade compost, mushroom compost or composted cow manure and mix with existing soil. You can also mix in some organic granular fertilizer such as Plant-tone that builds the soil and feeds the plants.
  3. Plan out wide rows to plant, 2 to 3 feet for the best yields, but not much wider for ease in weeding and harvesting. Rake the bed out smooth before planting.

Now the fun begins! The easiest way to sow seeds in wide rows is by sprinkling or broadcasting them over the bed. This is an easy and carefree way to plant seed. A large bed can be effortlessly planted in a few minutes. For the most even distribution over the entire bed pass your hand over the area and scatter the seeds. It takes a little practice to get the hang of it. Ideally the seeds will be about an inch apart, but don’t worry if you get some unevenness, just come back afterwards and redistribute by hand or just thin them out later as they grow. Once the seeds are sprinkled over the soil, tamp them down gently with the back of a hoe, spade or board. To germinate well, a seed needs close contact with moist soil.

The next step is covering the seeds with the right amount of soil. Small seeds like lettuce and carrots usually need about one half inch of covering. Larger seeds like peas and beans need about an inch of soil. The basic rule for most seeds is to cover them with enough soil to equal three times their own diameter. Distribute loose compost over the tamped downbed, rake it evenly out to the proper thickness and water well with asprinkler. Keeping the seed bed moist will be especially important for the first few weeks or so. As the seedlings emerge you will need to thin them out to allow room for them to grow and mature. Don’t feel bad, those thinnings can go straight to your salad bowl! Lettuce, chard, kale, collards and other leafy green crops can be grown close together and thinned out periodically as you eat them, allowing the remaining plants to grow and mature. For heading crops like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, make sure to thin out any weak looking plants early, giving the healthy ones about ten inches of space to grow and mature. Once established, begin a fertilization regime. I use a diluted Fish and Seaweed emulsion early on, and then I switch to Plant-tone. Keep on top of your gardens’ watering needs and you will be rewarded with fresh greens to feast upon well into the spring. Enjoy!

Where Do All These Frogs Come From?

Tallahassee Democrat 09/10

I like my theory. On rainy spring nights, ‘Rana-man’ rides around on his Harley, pitching bullfrogs over the garden fences of all the folks in Tallahassee who’ve created a backyard garden pond (and have been good). I know he rides a Harley, because that’s the sound his frogs make, a deep rolling grumble, albeit a bit softer than the bike. How else do you explain these bullfrogs showing up in isolated garden ponds, behind fences, miles from water? Oh yes, the frog eggs sticking to the heron’s feet theory. Really? Is that all you have?

We have a long time customer who for a while brought us squirming buckets of tadpoles from her pond, but I’m sure Linda is not responsible. However it happens, frogs make water gardening fun and unpredictable. Fun because…frogs are fun! Unpredictable because you never know who will show up to eat them: hawks, owls, herons, water-snakes, raccoons—all good reasons why they shouldn’t be there–not alive.

They’re not easy to catch though—at least not for me. I chased one across open grass once—I dived, I grabbed—came up with clumps of grass again and again. And if you do manage to catch one, there’s that trick they play. You’ve never felt anything go so relaxed as a bullfrog in your hand. It practically melts—until it decides you’re not paying attention—then boing!

I think the secret to their survival is nocturnal activity. They hop about in the grass at night ambushing anything they can fit in their mouth. Then by day, they play it cool in the confines of your pond.

If you’d like to encourage frogs to move into your garden pond, here are some tips. Bog areas along the pond edge are ideal for frogs. Their eyes emerging from mats of algae or lemon bacopa give their owners away. Pickerel weed provides good cover, as does Lizard tail, another native plant with pretty white flowers in the spring. Irises make great frog habitat. Plant them in the ground just outside the liner to visually extend the size of your pond.

If your pond is in a shady part of the yard, wet rocks near the waterfall spray will grow a lovely mat of green moss; irresistible to leopard frogs. We often see them congregate together, ready to jump en masse when you get too close. They have to be careful. In addition to the predators listed above, they’re also on the bullfrog’s menu. A friend once told me a story of finding a leopard frog in his house. He slid open the French doors and innocently tossed it into his small patio pond, only to see it disappear down the gullet of a bullfrog he didn’t know he had. I guess the newcomer was hungry, after a long night on the back of that motorcycle.

Luna Moths

Luna Moths

The Natural Garden, Eastside Chronicle, Tallahassee Democrat 4/27/09

On March 13th Linda Mills and her granddaughter, Brayden, brought a female luna moth to show us. They had observed luna moths mating, but the next morning found the female on the ground with a damaged wing. Linda lifted the moth and placed her carefully in a shoe box where she began laying a hundred or more eggs. When employee Lilly Anderson-Messec held the luna moth in her palm, she called out with excitement, “Look, she is laying eggs on my hand!” Linda and Brayden graciously shared the eggs with us.

The luna moth, had she been able to fly, would have laid her eggs on sweetgum, hickory, walnut or birch leaves and the life cycle of this gorgeous moth would have taken place high in a tree, unnoticed by people. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to watch the proceedings up close.

The eggs began to hatch on March 23rd. I placed a dry paper towel over a damp one in the bottom of a plastic shoe box. Then I gathered a tip branch of young sweetgum leaves and brushed the tiny green caterpillars onto the leaves with a small paintbrush and then closed the lid.

I provided fresh leaves daily, after first installing clean paper towels. Caterpillars generally cling to the old leaves, so I positioned the old leaves over the new ones and let the caterpillars move on their own to the fresh leaves. Every so often I had to move a wayward caterpillar back onto the green leaves.

The caterpillars grew quickly, eating lots of sweetgum and produced more and more caterpillar frass (a nice word for caterpillar poop). I gave several caterpillars to teachers and other curious individuals to raise, keeping five for myself. By April 24th, each caterpillar had spun a cocoon pulling a leaf around it, where it will transform into a graceful, pale green luna moth, sometimes called the “Empress of the Night.”

I have learned from past experience to release the moths at night. Once I released a newly emerged luna moth during the morning. It flew into the air and was immediately captured and eaten by a red-bellied woodpecker!

Woodland Wildflowers

Tallahassee Democrat

When all is barren in our deciduous woods in the winter months, small surprises emerge in the way of herbaceous wildflowers. Being at the southern-most range for these woodland plants makes our region unique. The remnants of a beech magnolia forest, if left undisturbed for a short period of time will reveal many of these surprises.

Under a thick carpet of leaf litter and organic matter in shade, the following native perennials can be easily grown:

  1. Trout Lily (Erythronium umbilicatum) can form vast colonies if left undisturbed. The yellow nodding bloom emerges from fleshy foliage spotted with maroon splotches. This plant is rare in Florida but can be seen at the nature park in Chattahoochee and also at the recent acquisition of Wolfe Creek Preserve in Grady County, Georgia.
  2. Bloodroot (Sanguinar Canadensis) was given the name of bloodroot because of the red-orange rhizomes which have been used medicinally in traditional mountain medicines. Small white flowers push up thorough the first emerging leaves. Bloodroot is slow growing but will re-seed.
  3. Ginger Root or Little Brown Jug (Hexastylis arifolia) has heart shaped leaves and is evergreen. Growing low to the ground this native has a tiny brown bloom in the shape of an oul earthen jug.
  4. Senecio aureus, another evergreen, can cover a shady area fairly rapidly and becomes a carpet of bright green with tall yellow blooms in spring.
  5. Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyluum) and its relative Dragon’s Tongue (A. dracontium) seem to pop up instantaneously, sometimes over 2 feet tall. Jack hides slyly under his hood while the Dragon waves his long tongue at the world. Both produce bright red seeds which fall to the forest floor to become new plants.
  6. Blue Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) does best in dappled light or on the edge of the woods with a little morning sun. This true blue flower is very showy as a border or in small groupings. It will reseed if not mulched heavily. Blooming in early spring it can be quite stunning en mass.
  7. Trillium underwoodii – Although not out of the ground for a long period of time, Trillum’s vibrant burgundy flowers and mottled green foliage can become a thick carpet in the late winter months. This threatened species in our area is becoming increasingly rare.
  8. Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) emerges in late spring and presents its bright yellow stars upon scarlet red tubes for the ruby throated hummingbirds. Forming clumps of 18” foliage, this is a hardy perennial bringing attention to a shady woodland bed.
  9. Columbine (Aquilegia Canadensis) prefers a limey soil and can tolerate less organic matter. Also red and yellow, the nodding blooms tower over delicate lacey foliage. It too welcomes back the hummingbirds in March.

All of these woodland plants combine well with our native ferns and can enliven a shaded area. Many can be seen in our nearby state parks or right here on the grounds of Native Nurseries

Pollinator Insects are Beautiful as They Buzz in the Garden

The Natural Garden, Eastside Chronicle, Tallahassee Democrat 8/13/09

In the heat of the day, I ambled around our front yard. It is alive with bees and butterflies. On a summer day, observing these beautiful insects is just a pleasant interlude between thunderstorms, but in reality, the survival of the human race depends on these little insects and their brethren for their pollination services.

The insects’ favorite plants in our yard that are blooming now are African blue basil, pentas, Mexican sunflower, dwarf ironweed and Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’. The flowers of purple coneflower are beginning to fade, but on the few new flowers, bees visit regularly. There are even bees and occasional butterflies nectaring on the white flowers of the garlic chives.

It is fun to position myself right in the thick of things and take notes on who is visiting what. During my ten minute walk about, I watched a hummingbird work the deeper flowers of the dark blue Salvia guaranitica, red shrimp plant, orange firebush and red cigarette plant, but also visit popular butterfly plants like pentas and Mexican sunflower.

The tall, bright orange Mexican sunflower attracted zebra longwings, lots of Gulf fritillaries and a couple of giant swallowtails. Big lumbering bumblebees were abundant on the African blue basil, the Agastache and the tall growing pink pentas grown by O’Toole’s Herb Farm.

The hot spot during this particular ten minutes was the dwarf ironweed, a North Florida native wildflower. Its pretty purple flowers were absolutely loaded with pollinators – metallic green sweat bees, yellow and black sweat bees, large bees with yellow and black striped abdomens, honeybees, skippers and some other small butterflies that I could not identify.

If you want to create a haven for pollinators, be selective when you choose perennials and other plants for your yard. Most need a fairly sunny spot to thrive with good organic soil that drains nicely. I learned recently at a seminar by Julie Neel, an experienced butterfly gardener and naturalist from Thomasville, that more nectar is produced while sunlight is shining upon the flowers so the pollinators seem to follow the sunlight through the garden.

When Jody and I walk about our yard on a hot, sunny day admiring the beauty of the flowers and insects, we feel greatly rewarded for our efforts in transforming this yard from an unproductive average lawn to a refuge teaming with pollinators and other wildlife. It didn’t happen over night; it has been a seventeen year transformation and happened one plant at a time. You can do it, too!

Your Garden Needs Whiteflies!

Our gardens and landscapes need whiteflies—and aphids, scale, grasshoppers, mealybugs and the rest. They really do.

I know what you’re thinking—’okay . . . I’ll send you mine’. But you see, whiteflies are not pests—neither are aphids, scale, grasshoppers, mealybugs, etc., unless they occur in overwhelming numbers in your landscape (or more likely on certain plants in your landscape). Whiteflies and the rest are not pests—they are food for beneficial insects in a healthy, well-balanced landscape.

Ninety-eight percent of the world’s insects are beneficial, and many of them are in your landscape munching away on pests (oops—I mean food). That is, they are until you get out the pesticide and start blasting away. Even if you do not hit a single beneficial, guess what happens when you kill off all their food. That’s right—if you want to invite ladybugs to brunch in your garden, you need to have a few whiteflies or aphids on hand. So when you see a little black sooty mold on the foliage of your favorite plant, just say, ‘Oh good, there’s some food over there for my beneficials.’

Yes, there are times when a plant will become so overwhelmed with pests that you have to take some action. Usually my first choice is to replace it with a more trouble-free plant; but if it’s one you especially love, there are treatment options that will not harm your beneficial population or the environment. Bring a sample of the problem (more than just one leaf if possible, please) to your local nursery and ask, ‘What is the safest product I can use?’ There’s no need to go straight for the hard stuff if insecticidal soap will do the trick.

We all benefit when homeowners opt for environmentally responsible solutions; and fortunately, more people are doing so every day. But if going organic doesn’t float your boat . . . if making the environmentally sound choice doesn’t give you a warm, fuzzy feeling, then do it just because it’s cheaper and easier. Consider these two homeowners:

Joe sees a hole in the foliage of his favorite plant. He cuts off a piece; jumps in his car; drives to the local nursery; finds a horticulturist; asks, ‘How can I kill these bugs?!’; buys a product; drives back home and sprays, sprays, sprays. He spent time, money and gas and his yard probably doesn’t smell very good after all that spraying.

Across the street his neighbor, Gus, sees a hole in the foliage of his favorite plant. ‘Oh good, there’s some food over there for my beneficials.’ He settles into a lawn chair with a glass of his favorite beverage and a good book. He closes his eyes, inhales deeply and smiles. ‘Mmmmm, the flowers sure smell great this evening!’

Pests are being dealt with in both landscapes. So sit down and relax, and let your beneficials do the job for you. Cheers.


Tallahassee Democrat

Basil must be everyone’s favorite herb. It is definitely a heat lover, perfect for our steamy hot summers in North Florida. A native of India, Southeastern Asia and tropical Africa, basil is a member of the mint family. A succession of plantings starting in spring and continuing till fall will ensure fresh basil all season. Plant this sun loving annual in a well-drained, organically enriched soil. Pinch off the flower buds to prevent it from going to seed, and harvest the leaves often to maintain a bushy form. Keep it mulched, water often (depending on the summer rains) and fertilize monthly with fish emulsion or a slow release organic fertilizer.

The many types of basil include:

  • Sweet Basil is the most widely used and can become a small bush, three feet by two feet. Genovese basil is also considered sweet basil with a more robust flavor. These are the traditional types used in making pesto, a thick sauce consisting of basil, garlic, nuts, olive oil and parmesan cheese. Pesto is very easy to make in a food processor.
  • Spicy Globe basil is a petite variety maintaining a rounded global form, great for containers. Easy to cut and use fresh in salads.
  • Lemon basil, with its delectable lemon flavor, is a favorite for use on fish and seafood. This one wants to bolt quickly so be vigilant about pinching off the blooms.
  • Thai basil is essential in any Thai recipe and makes a good substitute for cilantro in tabouli salads.
  • Cinnamon basil has a unique spicy cinnamon aroma. It is used in baking and Middle Eastern style cooking.

The purple basils are beautiful in the garden especially when paired with plants of silver and grey shades. They include Opal, Purple Ruffles, Red Rubin and African Blue which may be a perennial here in Tallahassee for some gardeners. It attracts many pollinating insects and is a gorgeous plant in the garden. This one you can let bloom, and it will be hardy up till frost. It makes a great cut flower, too.

When harvesting basil I like to do it early in the day. Spray it with the hose first to wash it, let it sun dry and then cut. It can be kept in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for up to a week. If at the end of the season you have too much to use fresh, simply make pesto and freeze.

The splendid fragrance of freshly cut basil in a vase on the kitchen table delights the senses and inspires me to keep on planting!

Making Preserves Can be a Fun Family Project

Tallahassee Democrat, Thanksgiving Day 2009

My earliest memory of picking berries, at about the age of 6, is of a blueberry patch on a hot summer day near Woodville. I enjoyed the experience immensely. But for some reason, I wasn’t allowed to go on the next weekend trip to pick berries. Maybe it was because I had complained about the yellow flies, horse flies or redbugs. Or maybe it was because of the tick that had to be removed from a location I would rather not discuss. It was removed using the hot cigarette method, designed to make the tick think there was a forest fire and that he should back out of his own accord. Anyway, desperately wanting to go on the return berry-picking trip, I ran down Alachua Avenue after my parent’s DeSoto bawling. I guess I loved to pick berries, blue and black.

As a senior in college, I sometimes found picking blackberries at UF’s experimental forest to be more fun than studying. That same year was the first time I made jelly, from elderberries picked along US-19 near Perry.

Two years ago the mulberry trees at McCord Park in Betton Hills had an abundance of fruit. My college-age daughter and I went daily to pick as the fruit ripened, carrying a step ladder to reach the high fruit. I think the tall weeds under the trees kept neighbors fearful of snakes and away from “my” tree, and that was a good thing. We ended up with three batches of mulberry preserves, about 21 half-pint jars. Delicious! This year, however, these trees offered nothing. I’ll be watching next summer.

Mulberry, blackberry and blueberry are great for making preserves because there is no preparation of the fruit. Just cook add sugar and stir. I follow the recipe on the Sure-jell package. This summer my son and I spent a nice afternoon together washing jars and lids, smelling blueberries cooking, sealing them tightly and then boxing some up to send to his lonely sister in northern Minnesota.

Chickasaw plum also makes delicious preserves, though it is a tedious process to get the pit out of the small ½- to ¾-inch fruit. There is a row of Chickasaw plum trees on Centerville Road between Capital Circle and Potts Road that were loaded with fruit this summer. I saw a family picking them, but I didn’t pick there because of a concern about pollution in the fruit from car fumes. I guess that worries me more than snakes. We planted a Chickasaw plum in our yard; some years are banner years and others we get very little fruit.

The other fruits I like to use are muscadine grapes picked at Monticello Vineyards and kumquats from my own tree. Like the Chickasaw plums, these involve an hour or so of time to pick out seeds. If you make grape jelly you won’t have to pick out seeds since you merely strain all solids, but I prefer preserves with chunks of fruit. You probably can’t convince your teenage kids to pick seeds for you, but if you do the prep work, I bet they would like to see and smell the simple process of making homemade preserves. It is a basic lesson in where our food really comes from.

Anyone of any age would like to pull a jar of blueberry preserves out of the pantry in January to savor the sweet tastes of the summer past. For me there is no better Christmas gift than homemade preserves, except maybe my son’s chocolate truffles!

The First Step is a Doozy

When I quit my job at the St. Petersburg post office, my friends and co-workers said I was crazy. They said I would regret giving up a job with such great benefits. When I told them I was going to move to Tallahassee, take a one year course in horticulture and look for a job in the nursery industry, they knew I was certifiable.

During that year at school, while I was living on a combination of savings and credit, there were many times when I was sure they were right. What was I thinking . . . a forty-something-year-old woman with too many years and too many pounds on her and way too many years out of school? Wingless, I had jumped off a cliff, and I wasn’t confident of my ability to bounce.

Lucky for me, a parachute appeared just as I was graduating in the form of an opening at Native Nurseries. There were holes in it (I thought), because Native Nurseries is a retail nursery, and I am not a people person. I get along with plants way better than I get along with the average person.

Lucky for me again, most Native Nurseries customers are not people . . . they are gardeners, nature lovers and bird watchers. It is fun and sometimes even a joy to help them choose just the right plant, find an organic solution to a landscape problem or identify the bird they saw that morning. So as it turns out, the one aspect of this business I was sure I wanted nothing to do with has turned out to be my favorite . . . almost. My very favorite are the National Geographic moments.

Those are the times when the nursery comes to a stop for a few minutes to watch some wonderful happening of nature. Employees and customers suspend their busy running, buying, tasking to watch a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis in one of our butterfly cages, two male pileated woodpeckers performing their odd territory-claiming dance round and round a large pine trunk, snakes mating(!) or dozens of zebra longwings flying in from all directions to roost together, like Christmas ornaments hanging from the Spanish moss in a dogwood out by the parking lot.

But the best nature sighting of all occurred on a Friday in the spring of 2008. A wood duck had chosen a cavity at the top of one of the topped water oaks in our bird garden for her nest; and late that morning, the nursery came to a complete stop when Jody ran through shouting ‘the ducklings are fledging, NOW!’

Customers and employees poured from all parts of the nursery; my customer and I rushed away from the counter leaving the credit card machine waiting in vain for the transaction amount. We crowded around the office window, lined the west side of the building and packed the back porch—anywhere with a view of the bird garden. What an amazing sight. Wood ducks hatch fully feathered and fledge within hours, jumping from their nest to the ground whether the drop is six feet or sixty! In the office we passed the binoculars around; and there they were—at least four ducklings peering from the opening at the twenty-five foot drop to where their mother and the rest of the brood were waiting behind the moss covered rocks.

Did they look nervous? You bet! Through the binoculars I could see them jostling each other and working those beaks. And you didn’t have to speak duck to get the gist: ‘your turn’, ‘no, no, after you’ and maybe even ‘go ahead—jump—the career change will do you good’.

Finally one of them took the leap, and dropped like a rock (those are some pretty useless wings on Day One). It bounced once and joined the rest of the family to watch as the rest of its siblings followed. The luckier ones landed on the spider lily, one bounced off the suet feeder; but they all finally joined mom in the march to the creek behind the nursery. That is, all but one joined mom.

For those of us who grew up in large families, we get this. There’s always one sibling who just has to go her own way. So once the west side of the nursery was taped off so the new family would have a clear shot to the creek without human interference, Donna and Jody chased ‘Following my Own Drummer, Thank You’ through the secret garden, the native azaleas and the mountain laurel under the close scrutiny of one of the resident hawks. Donna had the butterfly net, but Jody finally caught the little truant with his bare hands. I heard he dived head-first into the brush to do so.

You’d think after all that the little AWOL duckling would be home free, but by the time Jody reached the creek, the others were so far downstream Drummer Duck didn’t stand a chance of catching up. So once again Jody helped her out. He threw that duckling as far as he could in the direction of her family. She was the only one of the brood to drop from the sky twice that day, but at least her second landing was on water. Mom swam back to collect her and that’s the last any of us saw of our wood ducks.

We spent the rest of that day grinning and telling the story to everyone who came into the nursery. For myself, I couldn’t wait to get home and call my St. Pete buddies to tell them just who had the job with the great benefits after all.

Dawn Chorus

The Natural Garden, Eastside Chronicle, Tallahassee Democrat 3/26/07

Early one March morning our daughter woke us saying that a bird outside her window had woken her calling, “Feodore, feodore, wick, wick, wick feodore”. Feodore, as she took to calling this bird, was a cardinal calling from the bushes outside her window announcing his breeding territory or trying to attract a mate. He and other cardinals begin an early morning chorus while it is still dark, with other species joining in towards the approaching light of dawn. In my yard the brown thrasher joins in shortly after the cardinal.

This early morning singing by birds is hardly unique to our area. It even has an official name – the dawn chorus, which occurs when songbirds sing at the start of a new day leading up to breeding. In checking the internet, I found that there is an International Dawn Chorus Day, especially active in England, this year to be held on May 6. This is a little late for us, spring having arrived in mid March.

It is amazing to imagine this chorus of song that, in North America, begins at the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and sweeps across the continent as a wave of bird songs as dawn progresses. One of the best ways to enjoy the dawn chorus is to go for a walk half an hour before dawn. If you go by yourself, you will be more observant of the sounds around you. I walk regularly at this time of day. Last week (week of March 19th) I jotted down the times of the chorus:

6:40 am – voice of the first cardinal in our yard
7:00 am – chorus beginning to build (still dark out)
7:15 am – pale light of dawn, dawn chorus peaking to a crescendo
8:00 am – down to individual voices here and there

Each day dawn gets earlier and earlier so you will need to adjust the time you walk to correspond with dawn.

On my walks I try to identify the voices of individual birds. I usually can distinguish Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, tufted titmouse, perhaps a mockingbird, along with the cardinals and brown thrashers already mentioned as the leading singers. This morning I heard a rufous-sided towhee. Blue jays usually chime in late (I guess they like to sleep in). I am sure there are many other species singing – I just can’t distinguish their calls in the chorus. The cardinal can confuse you; besides his “feodore” call, he has several other interesting calls.

The quality of the dawn song is related to the quality of habitat that we create in our yards and parks in a neighborhood. Birds, like all wildlife, must have trees and shrubs that provide food and cover, places to make nests and raise their young, thickets for protection from predators and sources of water. What you plant in your yard will ultimately affect the dawn chorus of Tallahassee. I encourage all of you to experience this early spring dawn chorus by going out for an early morning walk by yourself or with a friend and listen as you walk!

In Love with Acorns

Tallahassee Democrat, Thanksgiving Day 2007

I love acorns – their simple beauty, their value as wildlife food and the promise they hold for the future.

The caps are cute and some have very interesting textures and patterns. A swamp chestnut oak’s cap consists of many woody scales in an intricate overlapping pattern. It is large enough (up to 1¼ inches wide) to serve as a squirrel’s helmet if it only came with a chin strap. The over-cup oak’s cap is unique because it encloses ninety percent of the acorn.

The live oak acorn, when freshly fallen, is white on top, grading into pale yellow and on to dark green. I love this acorn after it has had time to ripen and change colors. The top becomes tan and transitions into a beautiful black. I like to buff them to get a striking sheen and have a handful sitting on my dining room table with a fresh green sweetgum ball and a branch of pokeweed.

I suspect deer, turkey, bear, woodpeckers, wood duck and 75 other species of wildlife see beauty in calories and full stomachs. Acorns can be a staple in their autumn diet. For a deer, a large swamp chestnut oak acorn at 1.6 inches long and over one inch wide would be a tasty morsel indeed.

I enjoy watching a busy squirrel dig a hole, place an acorn in it and pack the soil with a jack hammer action, then sneakily hide the spot by raking leaves over it. I wonder if it will find the acorn during winter. If not, this acorn holds a promise for the future. With warming soil in spring, the acorn is split in half by the root and tender shoot and a new oak tree is on its way. The root grows quickly and deep, beginning to form an incredible anchor, sometimes extending three times the spread of the branches above. The shoot depends on luck that open space waits above providing maximum sunlight and room to grow to its full magnificent size and shape.

Size and shape vary in the noble oaks—from the diminutive running oak, usually less than three feet tall and forming extensive ground cover by underground runners, to the stately southern red oak, up to 125 feet tall. The Florida champion live oak in Gainesville has a spread of 160 feet and a height of 85 feet. I’m lucky to have a patriarch live oak in front of my house on Ellicott Drive in Tallahassee. It has three huge vertical trunks and one big horizontal limb 36 inches in diameter that sprawls 81 feet across my yard. It is a massive weight to hold horizontally, requiring strong wood. The limb seems to be tiring with age; it rests wearily on our yard. Fifteen years ago it was six feet off the ground.

I like to think of this tree as mine, but it really belongs to the people of Tallahassee. This tree produces many acorns. The few that survive the blue jays, squirrels and acorn grubs may grow into other majestic specimens for future generations to enjoy. So the acorn holds a wonderful promise for the future. Maybe that is why I love acorns so much.

The Value of Native Plants for Wildlife

(Tallahassee Democrat 8/19/10)

In Tallahassee, we have many fine non-native plants to use in our landscapes – camellia, azalea, crape myrtle all come to mind. The claims that native plants are easier to grow and require less water sometimes do not hold up.

For me, the main reason to choose native plants in the landscape is to promote the unique relationships between our native plants and animals, from the smallest microorganisms, insects and other invertebrates to birds and mammals. Simply put – what you plant in your yard makes a difference to wildlife. There are unique evolutionary relationships between native plants and wildlife that have developed over a very long time. Here are a few examples.

Red buckeye blooms in mid to late March, just in time for the return of ruby-throated hummingbirds from Central America. The hummingbirds drink nectar from red tubular flowers and, in return, provide pollination services for this native tree whose nuts are food for other wildlife.

Sweetgum trees have close relationships with several animals. When American goldfinch arrive in late fall or winter, they can be seen and heard high in sweetgum trees clinging to the prickly balls feasting on abundant sweetgum seeds. Many of our resident birds, like the Carolina chickadee, also depend on the seeds of sweetgum.

As valuable as seeds and fruit are to wildlife, native plants serve an even more important function. Native plants, from grasses and wildflowers to towering shade trees, form the base of the food chain. Our native insects are uniquely adapted to eat native plants; some are generalists and can eat a variety of plants, but many are specialists that can only digest certain types of leaves based on the chemistry of the plant. For instance, the luna moth would not be with us without the sweetgum tree and a few other native hardwood trees. Each female luna moth may lay 150 eggs, which then become 150 highly nutritious caterpillars, feeding chickadees, vireos, spiders and more. These in turn may be eaten by a snake, hawk or other predator. It is estimated that of the 150, only 2 or 3 survive to mate and lay eggs.

Most of our butterflies and moths depend on native plants, not just for nectar, but for sustenance while in the larval stage as caterpillars. For instance, spicebush swallowtails depend on sassafras, giant swallowtails on hoptrees and Gulf fritillaries on passion vine. Without their native food plants, these butterflies would cease to exist.

To make our yard more hospitable to wildlife, our goal each year is to increase the percentage of native plants. Over the last 18 years, we have transformed our front yard from a mediocre monoculture of lawn to a shady native oasis beneath a huge live oak on one side and a wildflower/butterfly garden on the sunny side. Judicious use of nectar rich non-natives like pentas, perennial salvias, Mexican sunflower and cardinal guard extend the blooming season of our butterfly/hummingbird garden and mix nicely with the native purple coneflower, ironweed, heliopsis, sunflower and other wildflowers.

We’ll always have room for a few azaleas, camellias and hydrangeas among the natives, but native plants provide the staff of life for wildlife. For further reading, I recommend Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas Tallamy.

Tasty Tomatoes from Seed

Want to have the first fresh, home-grown tomatoes in Tallahassee this season?  Do what the local farmers and growers do and start you tomato plants indoors in early January.  In four to six weeks you will have little tomato plants ready to be tucked into your yard.  If you protect them from late frosts, you may have tasty tomatoes to feast upon as early as April!  Starting from seed also allows you to try new and interesting varieties that might not be available at your local nursery yet.

Turns out you don’t need to have a greenhouse as long as you can supply your precious seedlings with warmth, moisture and a sunny window.  A sunny, preferably South-facing window is critical because without it you will end up with spindly, weak seedlings that will decline and eventually die.  Even if you are lacking said window you can still be successful with the addition of a plant grow light, or fluorescent bulbs.

After selecting your seed, look for a seed starting tray at your local nursery.  I like the reusable Styrofoam plug trays that come with a black plastic water-holding tray beneath and clear plastic tray above to hold in moisture and warmth.  You can also use those clear plastic boxes that store-bought lettuce comes in to create the same greenhouse effect, with small black plastic six pack pots placed inside.  It is important to use a sterile, soil-less seed starting mix instead of regular potting soil.  This light, airy medium must be mixed with water before filling into flats or pots.

After each pot is filled with moist starting mix, drop one to two seeds in each cell on top of the soil. Press them gently against the soil and cover them with a thin layer of moist starting mix.  The most common mistake people make when starting from seed is planting their seeds too deep.  The general rule for planting seeds is to plant at a depth that is three times the width of the seed.  So very small seeds like tomatoes should only be planted around one-fourth of an inch below the soil.

Once you’ve planted your flats, you will be watering them from beneath to avoid disrupting the soil, seeds and eventually the delicate seedlings.  Simply pour a shallow amount of water into the non-draining plastic tray beneath so the cells soak up the water.  Cover your tray to trap in moisture and place in a consistently warm place until the seedlings pop up.  Sunlight is not necessary for germination, but consistent warmth and moisture are.  In one to two weeks once your seedlings have emerged, they will need light and must be transferred to that sunny window or beneath a grow light.  Remove the covering and begin paying close attention to their water needs. Seedlings must be kept moist, but not soggy.  If they completely dry out just once, they will die.  However, if they are kept too wet they are susceptible to fungal problems.  Thin them out to one plant per cell and rotate the position of the tray in the window so the plants aren’t leaning too much.  If your seedlings become long and weak-looking, they are not getting enough sunlight and may need an artificial source.

In two to three weeks you plants should be putting on some size and ready to be transplanted into larger, four-inch pots. I pinch off the lower leaves and plant them an inch or two deep into the soil.  Once transplanted, I begin fertilizing with fish and seaweed emulsion every two weeks.  Now your little guys are ready to begin acclimating to the outdoors, in preparation to be planted outside.  This process is called “hardening-off”.  I begin by putting my young plants out on my porch where they get indirect sunlight for the day while I go to work, and bring them in when I get home.  After a few days they move to a partially sunny spot in my yard, where they’ll get a few hours of direct sun, but they still come in at night if the temperatures are below 45 degrees.

One week of hardening-off and your plants are ready for the great outdoors!  I plant my tomatoes deep in the ground, plucking the lower leaves and leaving just three or four sets of leaves exposed above the soil.  If the nighttime temperatures are still in the low 40s or we get a late frost, I will cover the small plants with an upside-down gallon plastic pot overnight.  Continue fertilizing and paying careful attention to their watering needs.  With good weather and care you will be enjoying home-grown tomatoes earlier than you ever thought possible!