Monday, June 23, 2008

Virtual Yellowstone, again

Back in the winter, when I was lamenting our lack of snow, I paid a vicarious visit to Yellowstone National Park via the e-reporting of a group of North Carolina educators. A similar group, again led by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, just returned from a spring trip to Yellowstone. As in January, the teachers and leaders kept an online journal and posted photographs, including this one of an elk and calf.* You can read the group's stories and view more photographs here.

*Photo by Melissa Dowland, Teacher Education Specialist, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lovely lavender lacecap

I got this variegated hydrangea, unlabeled, at a plant swap a few years ago. Finally put it in the ground this spring, and it is in bloom now for the first time. Since I had no idea of the cultivar, I didn't know whether this would be a white snowball type or something else. So glad it's a lacecap, as I adore them.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

More from the Farmer's Market

June 18, 2008 / State Farmer's Market / Raleigh, NC

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The corn is in!

I decided to stop by the State Farmer's Market today to see if anyone was selling corn yet. It usually doesn't start coming in until around the Fourth of July. But lo and behold, there were four vendors with their pickup trucks laden with ears. Can't wait for supper!

Monday, June 16, 2008

A pox on all your houses!

You know that saying, "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy?" I think the first person to utter those words was a gardener suffering from an infestation of nutsedge, a.k.a. nutgrass. This organism is as relentless as The Borg, pronouncing to all around it: "We will assimilate you. Resistance is futile."

I was housesitting for a friend last week when I noticed several shocks of nutgrass emerging in a pot of crocosmia I'd given her recently. Whew! I'd caught it before she planted it in her garden. Rather than weeding out the noxious hitchhikers, I dumped the pot—crocosmia, nutgrass, soil and all—into a garbage bag. I burned the garbage bag and put the ashes into a steel box and welded all the cracks shut. I mixed up a tub of concrete and sunk the box into it. Then I drove the slab of cement to a hazardous waste facility and dropped it off with a warning that they should store it with the nuclear waste. After all, my friend is my friend, not my worst enemy. And friends don't let friends plant nutgrass.

I surmise that my garden became infested with nutsedge (I have both yellow nutsedge and purple nutsedge, but mostly purple) via some inadequately composted manure I trucked in a few years ago. I find it to be harder to manage than even bermudagrass, whose rhizomes are at least ropy enough to hold onto when hand-digging. Also, when the whitish rhizomes of bermudagrass break, it's fairly easy to pick up the trail again. Purple nutsedge, on the other hand, is connected from one sprout to another via a chain of fragile, threadlike rhizomes that are the same color as the soil. Break them, and you're lost forever. Nutgrass "nutlets" are said to remain viable in the soil for years, and if you break roots or lose nuts as you hand-pull, what's left behind will re-sprout someday. Digging this stuff is as nervewracking and difficult as removing the "Bread Basket" from the patient in a game of Operation.

I am making a commitment to continue gradually whittling away at the nutgrass via hand-digging, as the infestation is small enough at the moment. (You gardeners in similar situations are laughing at me right now: "Oh, what a naive gal. Isn't she just adorable.") I succeeded at removing bermudagrass from my beds this way over the course of several years. As far as I can tell through research, even the heavy-duty chemical solutions offer "management" and "control", not eradication. The claimed-to-be-benign Roundup is also unsuccessful at eradication, which I've learned firsthand through spot treatment. The top-growth turns yellow, but new growth quickly rears its ugly green head.

I read in an online garden forum a woman's account of her attempt to defeat nutgrass in her garden. Her ultimate solution: Move. I won't call the realtor just yet. But I'll keep the number on file.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Canna 'Cleopatra' in bloom today.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Code red

I was watering some plants about 7 o'clock last night when I got the first whiff of the wildfire sparked by lightning at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, about 150 miles east of here. This morning I could smell smoke inside the house, even with the windows closed and the AC on. I stepped outdoors to find a haze settled over our city.

Yesterday, winds finally started pushing thick smoke our way from the fire, which began 11 days ago and has since burned about 40,000 acres over an area of 63 square miles in three relatively sparsely populated counties, according to local news sources. The fire is described as the largest in North Carolina in the past 20 years, and it is currently the largest active wildfire in the United States.

Our city is now under a "Code Red" air quality advisory due to a shroud of fine particulate matter "that can penetrate deeply into the lungs and be absorbed into the bloodstream, causing or aggravating heart and lung diseases." Hmm. That doesn't sound good. Today produced the highest concentration of airborne fine particles ever measured in Raleigh for such an extended period of time, according to the N.C. Division of Air Quality. We are being urged to stay indoors when possible.

The thick substrate of highly combustible peat is fueling the blaze at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, which lies just west of the northern part of the Outer Banks. It is 110,106 acres of extraordinary wilderness that is home to more than 250 black bears, representing the densest population of black bears reported anywhere (an estimated 1.67 bears per square kilometer). I once had the thrilling, though fleeting, experience of seeing a mother and her two cubs on one of the refuge's many dirt roads. The refuge is also the only place in the world where endangered red wolves* live in the wild.

FYI, Pocosin Lakes refuge get its name from the pocosin (pu-KOH-sin) habitat that dominates the acreage of the refuge. Pocosins, which are highly endangered (and fire-dependent) habitats, are defined by dense tracts of evergreen shrubs and scattered pond pine, underlain by deep layers of boggy, peat soils. Lots of food and hiding places for bears!

I tend to fawn and coo disproportionately over mammals, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Pocosin Lakes NWR is a spectacular wintering ground for migratory waterfowl. In December 2006, refuge biologist Wendy Stanton counted more than 78,000 snow geese and about 26,000 tundra swans in a single morning on Lake Pungo, a record number for that time of year.

Of course, I thought immediately of the animals, and a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot did too. An excerpt from the June 6th article eased my mind a bit:

Animals in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge should be fine, said Chris Lucash, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in charge of the red wolf restoration project that has been going on at the refuge since the late 1980s.

If the fire threatens animals - deer, bear, raccoons, squirrels, birds and the red wolves that live there - they will move away, Lucash said.

If the fire had come a few weeks earlier, there would have been concern for the baby red wolves that might have been in dens. But the fire, later in the year, shouldn't be a threat to the area's animal population, Lucash said.

"They will simply move to an area where the wind is pushing the smoke away," he said. "In some areas, the fire has been raging, but wildlife has evolved where fire is a part of their existence. There's something in wild animals that tells them to avoid these situations."

* For a cool account of a wolf/bobcat sighting at the refuge by Mike Dunn, a naturalist, educator, photographer and all-around-great-guy, check out this page from Field Trip Earth.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Our h2o footprint: 112 gallons per day

With 76 of North Carolina's 100 counties still under drought conditions, water use is on everyone's mind. In my city of 276,000 people, significant watering restrictions have been in place since last summer.

According to our recent water bill, our household uses an average of 112 gallons of water each day, or 56 gallons per person. I was a little surprised, until I made a quick mental note of the daily activities for which my husband and I use water. I had a pretty good idea of what we use showering, flushing and washing dishes. But I wasn't sure about the washing machine. I figured maybe 10-15 gallons for a large load. I did a little googling and found these figures: the average washer uses 40 gallons per full load or 55 gallons per full load (click here for additional source). I was floored. I tried to find out some information about our own. I looked on the washer lid and in the owner's manual, but the capacity wasn't listed. Based on info I found online, it appears that our Kenmore extra-capacity model uses 23.1 gallons for a large load. Whew. Not quite as alarming, but still more than I'd guessed.

I've always heard that you save water by doing full loads of laundry. But I never understood why a full large load would use proportionately less water than a full small load. I am terrible at math, but was this true? I obviously have a lot to learn about solids and water displacement. The information I found about our Kenmore 5-setting washing machine supports the conventional wisdom, with the breakdown as follows:
  • Large Load: 23.1 gallons
  • Medium Large Load: 20.5 gallons
  • Medium Load: 17.8 gallons
  • Medium Low Load: 15.2 gallons
  • Low Load: 12.7 gallons
After I solved my little math problem, I started wondering how our average water use stacks up to other households. The American Water Works Association estimates that the daily indoor per capita water use in the typical single family home is 69.3 gallons. If that figure is accurate, then my husband and I are each 19.2 percent below the national average. But the AWWA does not include in its estimate the amount of household water people use outdoors. The City Water Department's assessment of our household's daily average water use includes both indoor and outdoor water consumption. Since we don't have a traditional lawn or a pool, don't pressure wash our house or wash our cars, I figured we'd be even lower.

Since I subscribe to Felder Rushing's mow-what-grows philosophy, we do not have a "lawn" or irrigation or sprinkler system. What isn't a hodgepodge of grasses, clover and weeds on our .16-acre lot is either mulched natural area, established perennial beds with mostly drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plants, or small vegetable patches. I have a few pampered specimens, which include my dahlias and plants in pots that are either newly rooted, too small to be planted in the garden, or awaiting the appropriate permanent location. I estimate that my outdoor water use averages about 20 gallons per day (that estimate is mostly based on how many times I usually fill my 2-gallon watering can for daily outdoor rounds). However, I may be kidding myself, as I do water a little bit with a hand-held hose on the days when we are allowed to do so (four 4-hour increments of time, two days per week).

The City of Raleigh, where I live, estimates that outdoor irrigation accounts for an average of 20 percent of the water use in a typical household. I don't know if this statistic applies to summer only, or averages the amount over the course of a year.

I've regularly read estimates that the average household in America uses upwards of 50 percent of its water consumption on outdoor irrigation. It irks me when articles/organizations don't link their assertions directly to a source or study. For example, this Web article states that
30-60 of urban water is used for watering lawns. The EPA quotes no source for its assertion that "Nationwide, landscape irrigation is estimated to account for almost one-third of all residential water use, totaling more than 7 billion gallons per day." The National Wildlife Federation touts the statistic I usually see regarding per capita water use in a typical household: "The average American uses nearly 100 gallons of water daily for preparing food, bathing, washing clothes and dishes, flushing toilets and watering lawns and gardens." If you start with the AWWA estimate of 69.3 gallons per capita per household for indoor use and tack on outdoor use based on the more-inclusive NWF statistic, then 100 gallons per person per day may be in the ballpark.

I don't want to seem too persnickety about the numbers, as I recognize that environmental advocates (including conservation organizations, water utilities, government agencies, etc.) want to supply us with a general rule of thumb for gaging our impact and trying to mitigate it.

Though I've always identified myself as an environmentalist, I began scrutinizing my water-use habits even more when our state was shriveled by a record-breaking drought and when our city started imposing restrictions. It's undoubtedly responsible for making me an even better steward. I still have water indulgences I could curb. And, as I'm sure many of you are already thinking, household water use is only a small part of the consumption pie. Consumer choices come into play too, such as the amount of water, energy and other resources used to produce food and other consumer goods that we use daily.

When I confirmed that our household water consumption is below the national average, I felt pretty good. Until I quickly reminded myself that "average" doesn't equal "good."
I could preface what I'm about to write with "I don't want to point fingers, but ...." But I won't. That's because I'm unapologetically pointing my fingers: The quest for perfect, sprawling lawns makes me froth at the mouth. Not only because it requires an abominable waste of water, but it is also a source of other evils (introduction of pesticides/herbicides into the environment, burning of fossil fuels to mow and maintain, etc., etc.). If lawn lust is checked, and I hope it soon will be (out of necessity if nothing else), I believe our averages will become something to be more proud of.

I'd love to hear feedback on any surprises you've discovered about your own water consumption, plus links to original sources for popularly quoted statistics. And, of course, corrections to any of my math will be graciously received.

A closing note: I found interesting this study by a Duke University student on how economic status affects household water consumption. Though the study parameters were small, it gave a little validation to my assumption that wealthier people use more water. If undue outdoor lawn watering is as excessive as sources report, then it seemed logical to me to assume that big incomes = large houses = large yards = lush lawns = heavy irrigation.