Battered Moth

Earlier this week when I was heading out to a volunteer shift at Brookside Gardens’ Wings of Fancy exhibit, I noticed something moving at the base of the red oak tree near our mailbox. I got out of my car to see what it was. There was a large moth flapping around on the ground among the remnants of day lily plants. I took several pictures with my phone and continued to Brookside.

When I got there, the staff helped me identify what I’d seen: a Polyphemus moth (read about the species at Maryland Biodiversity Project and Wikipedia). It’s a female because it doesn’t have the feather-looking antennae. It looked very battered and it died sometime after I left. I collected it when I got home and have it in my freezer…trying to decide what to do with it.

The caterpillars require about 60 days to grow enough to make a cocoon to go through the winter…so this is going to be cutting it close for the eggs this female probably laid in our oak tree. Some of the leaves on our oak (a food plant of the caterpillars) are already beginning to turn reddish brown. None of the branches are low enough for me to see any of the caterpillars in action unfortunately. I’ll still be watching the tree hoping to see one as they grow larger.

Twigs and Witch Hazel

I have been looking more closely at twigs of trees recently and trying out simple dichotomous keys. As an example: here is one I looked at during a class on winter tree identification. Looking at the full branch – it was obvious that the leaf scars were opposite. Next, we needed to look at the leaf scars in more detail. There were hand lenses for everyone but I used my 15x lens clipped to my phone so I could share what I was seeing. The leaf scar was D shaped and had three bundles. And the new growth was red. We had to break the twig to smell it…its didn’t smell rank, so it was a RED MAPLE.

It turns out that multiples buds at the twig tip is indicative of maples and oaks…and that maples are opposite, and oaks are alternate. So – it’s possible to take a picture looking up into a tree and make a tentative identification. For example – this was a picture I took in my neighborhood with alternate branching and multiple buds at the end of the twigs – an OAK.  I had been using the relative height of the trees in my neighborhood (oaks are taller) but this identification is better and maybe easier too for the street trees planted by the builder 25-30 years ago – oaks and maples.

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I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the crumpled bark on the red maple twig. I wonder if they smooth out as the twig grows when the weather warms?


On a more colorful note: be on the look out for witch hazels. Some bloom in the fall but others bloom now. There is one at Howard Country Conservancy’s Mt. Pleasant location that I am watching. Hopefully bitterly cold weather will not damage the flowers that are beginning to unfurl.

Winter Walk in the Neighborhood - 1

I took a walk in our neighborhood on the warmest day last week. It was a blustery day – felt more like March than January. I walked down to the storm water retention pond first. It still looks relatively barren but there is vegetation on all the slopes.

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The cattails are beginning to repopulate the shallows. I wondered if there were enough for the red winged blackbirds to come back to the pond. Maybe more cattails will come up next spring from the roots already in the mud…if they aren’t drowned from all the rain we’ve gotten.

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The wind was blowing oak leaves onto the water.

Younger oak trees often keep their leaves well into winter. Or course – every breeze takes a few more leaves away but there were enough left on some of the trees in our neighborhood to still use the leaf shape to say definitively – it’s an oak. The tree in front of our house retained it leaves did years ago but is now old enough that its leaves drop in the fall.

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As I looked back along our street, I realized that the general way to tell the maples from the oaks planted along the street by the builder is to look at the height. The taller ones are oaks.

Composting at Home – October 2018


After 3+ months of use my compost bin no longer looks pristine.

I have started piling small sticks around it to cut down on the rain drop splatter from the bare soil under the red maple. The maple roots are very dense and close to the surface…the shade very deep…nothing grows very well there and the soil is eroding down to the maple roots. It has been a good place to put the bin and I’ll leave some of the compost in place with sticks to hold it ---- and hopefully encourage more vegetation to grow. The brush pile is having that effect further down the slope.


We are just beginning to have leaves on the ground – oak and sycamore mostly.

I’ve been using the leaf blower in reverse with a bag attached to catch the lightly shredded leaves. The process works best when the leaves are dry (a challenge recently with all the rain we’ve been getting) and on hard services like the driveway, street gutters, and deck. I’ve discovered that a little shredding goes a long way speeding decomposition.


I typically add the veggie scraps from the kitchen on top then turn some leaves over it. Recently I’ve had more because fall veggies tend to have seeds and skins compost. I’ve also admitted to myself that I don’t eat nearly as many potatoes as I used to.

Even though we’ve been getting rain, the compost probably needs to be watered to ‘cook’ as quickly as possible. The shredded leaves can absorb a lot of moisture, so my plan is to add water with every bag of leaves. The hose barely reaches from the faucet to the compost’s bin location. I’ll have to think about where else I might put it that would be easier to reach and not too close to the house.

Cooler Days – Little Fall Color

Here it is the end of September and most of the leaves are still on the trees and green. The ones that have fallen are brown.

Our oak is a good example of that. Looking at the ground it looks like half the leaves have fall but the tree still looks like it has plenty more. (The ruler in the picture is me learning to take better documentary pictures for trees.)

In the back of our house, the red maple has no red leaves. Usually it starts out with a few that show up surrounded by green. But right now it’s still a wall of green although there are leaves on the ground that are brown.

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The tulip poplar usually has some yellow leaves surrounded by green. Some of the leaves look like they might be turning but even the zoomed image looks like a wall of green.

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There are some green tulip poplar leaves that have fallen in recent heavy rains…but overall the tree still has a lot of green leaves attached.

The sycamore has been dropping brown leaves but still has a lot of green ones on the tree. It’s usual the first to drop leaves. This year some are staying on the tree but there are still more green than brown ones.

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We’ve gotten a lot more rain than usual in September (almost 11 inches rather than the historical average of 4.6 inches) and the trees may be impacted by that. There is a lot of mud even in the grassy areas of our yard.

The end of October is generally the time the leaves fly from the trees, so I am still anticipating fall color. It just seems that there are too many brown leaves on the ground already.

Fall Yard Work – Part II

The rain held off last week, so I got 2 rounds of yard work. I’ve already posted about the first one. The second round started with me taking the kitchen scraps and a torn-up pizza box back to the compost bin. I noticed an Eastern American Toad on the way back to the front of the house. I managed to get close enough to get a picture of it with my cell phone before it hoped away.


I finished getting the day lily leaves cut from the front flower bed along with some weeds; that totaled about half a trash can full.

I decided to try the leaf blower to collect and slightly shred leaves. It worked great on the drive way and the gutter at the street but just OK on the front yard. Some of the oak leaves on the yard were too damp to be picked up easily. The leaves from the bag the filled up the rest of the trash can to go back to the compost bin. At the compost bin, I mixed everything up and made holes to connect the layers with the pitchfork…then watered the pile since I wasn’t sure how soon it would rain again. Cardboard and paper shreds soak up the water and help the compost ‘cook.’


The next activity was picking up sticks from around the oak tree; it self-prunes so there are always sticks around it. I collected an armload of sticks and took them back to the brush pile. I don’t put them in the compost because it takes so long for them to decompose without somehow reducing them to small pieces. One stick had a flower like fungus growing on it.


I took a closer look at the oak tree trunk again and discovered a largish ant. I think it is a False Honey Ant.

The highlight of the morning in terms of wildlife started out as a mystery. I was looking at the lichen on the oak tree and noticed a piece that moved! It wobbled a bit but stayed on the trunk. When I put a leaf in front of it, the movement stopped completely.

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I’ve marked the first picture. Can you see it in the others? It is a lacewing larva! I’ll be looking for these little critters from now on. They have great camouflage.

Our Oak Tree

We have an oak tree in our front yard beside the mail box. It was a very young tree when we bought the house in October 1994.

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It’s grown a lot in 24 years.

We appreciate it’s shade on the front of the house in the morning. This year it has some Virginia creeper growing on the trunk. Maybe it’s just the wet year. I’m leaving the vine – since it’s a native plant – but may cut it next year. The tree looks very healthy but had no acorns this year; maybe the a cold snap last spring caught the tree at the wrong time.

The tree has more lichen and moss on it now. The extra moisture may contribute to the density but it’s typical of mature tree trunks in our area to have these companions. I like the contrasting greens of the moss (very bright) and the lichen (soft green).

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The county trimmed the lower branches from the street trees in our neighborhood and our oak was no exception. I took a picture of the scars where larger branches were cut. They show how the tree responds.

One that was particularly interesting had some curly fungus growing in it. The surface was not as vertical as most of the other cuts; perhaps more water is retained…and the fungus found a niche.

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Overall – the oak is one of my favorite trees. I wish they had planted it further back from the street and the drive way…and not elevated the mulch around it; it’s a lesson learned for future houses and trees. At this point, I just enjoy that this particular oak where and how it is.

Fall Yard Work – Part I

Yesterday I got a head start on fall yard work. My first target was the front flowerbed with common milkweed (no caterpillars left) and lots of day lily leaves. I took a before and after picture. It’s not entirely cleared yet but the bird bath near the porch is more visible. I tried to leave the black eyed susans to finish seed production for next year. I pulled tulip poplar sprouts and a largish poke weed that has grown low enough that it wasn’t obvious how big it was until I started looking for its main stalk.

I took some rocks and shells out of the flower bed and put them on the corners of the porch to get cleaned by rains.


My second target was the day lily foliage around the oak tree. I took a before and after picture again. That filled up the trash can with greens for the compost bin.

I stripped the larger stems of leaves since I’ve learned that the stems don’t decompose very rapidly…better for them to go in a brush pile than in the compost bin where the leaves were going.

I carried the arm load of stems (some of them milky with milkweed sap) to put just outside the the compost bin with the pitch fork in the other hand. The compost bin has been decomposing. I turned it – stirred it. Decided a lot had decomposed but I could still just add more on top since there is still plenty of room in the bin.


I put the kitchen scraps on top and carried it around to the compost bin located the back of the back yard. It was a little heavier than I expected…but I managed.

I put the ‘greens’ in to the bin followed by some brown sycamore leaves cleaned from the stairs up to the deck (reducing the hazard on the stairs) and the paper shreds from house.

I didn’t water the compost pile yet since everything was so wet from recent big rains. The paper and leaves were dry, but I used the pitch fork to some holes through the layers and reduce the height of the additions to the pile. If it doesn’t rain again in the next few days I might check to make sure it is moist enough to ‘cook.’ There is still a lot of fall yard work to do…but I felt good about the progress I made in two hours.

Frederick County MD Gardens Open Day – Part 3

The last garden we visited on The Garden Conservancy’s Open Day last Saturday was the Rausche Woodland Gardens…and it was my favorite. It was a wooded, sloped lot with a house roughly in the center….understory plantings everywhere. The most formal part of the garden was a small grassy area that had been a badminton court when the family was younger….and now held benches and beds of plants that needed a bit more sun that the heavy shade in the rest of the yard. Under the trees is lush and green broken by bits of color of things in bloom.

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The Rausches propagate many of the plants themselves…including jack-in-the-pulpits. I saw the biggest jack-in-pulpit I’ve ever seen in this garden! I didn’t take many pictures in this garden because I was simply enjoying the ambiance of the place. If I ever own a property that has lots of woods like this…I might just become a woodland gardener too.

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Stone pathways wandered through the plantings of hellebore (deer don’t like) surrounding hostas and other plants that deer eat enthusiastically. The rhododendron and azaleas were past blooms. The recent floods had done some damage (there was a new path that water flowed….where it had never flowed in the nearly 4 decades of garden development) but the garden was recovering.

When two of the big trees died, they had them cut into 6-foot-tall stumps and the carved! The results frame their woodpile! I liked the squirrels spiraling the stump. On the opposite side of the stump is a hollowed place – a secret place for something to hide.

A Stump at Staunton River State Park

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In a grassy area near the visitor center – I noticed a stump. Someone had left a pumpkin on top, probably while they were decorating for the Star Party. I walked over to get a closer look. It looked like it had been cut down recently.

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The rings stood out a lot more than the rings of the Silver Maple at Mt. Pleasant. This stump had not been sanded either. I counted 74 rings but there were some very narrow ones from recent years that were harder to count….so I estimated it was about 80 years old when it was cut down.

The people in the Visitor Center told me that it had been cut down recently and that they thought it had been planted near the time the park was created in 1936. But they didn’t know what kind of tree it was. The next morning, I talked with the park manager that was manning the outdoor grill at the Cantina for breakfast and found out that it was a Post Oak and he had counted 84 rings when it was first cut down. The CCC did most of the work when the park was created so it is likely, because of its location, that it was planted by them. The tree had leafed out last spring but then dropped all its leaves during the summer. It had been struggling for the past few years and looking at the stump shows the evidence of that struggle in the outermost rings.

Walking in the Neighborhood

Our neighborhood is not great for a long distance walk…still – there are photographic opportunities at every turn. Before I even left my house, I saw a sycamore tussock moth caterpillar (dense white hairs with butterscotch tuffs at the head end).

I also realized I needed to do another round of raking; the sycamore is beginning to shed is very large leaves – some more than a foot across.

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Along the walk I saw a few other leaves on the ground and photographed ones caught my attention. The oaks (not that there are two different kinds of oak leaves in our neighborhood) are shedding their leaves more than the other trees. Most of the maples – which provide the most colorful or our fall leaves – are still green.

The storm water retention pond is not appealing – still full of scum that is very visible without the vegetation that used to grow around the pond. On the plus side, the slopes have not been mowed so the erosion that happened right after the pond was cleaned out last spring has been stabilized.

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I sat on the bench and took some zoomed pictures of some of the plants in the unmowed area.

I walked up to the entry of the neighborhood and took a picture of the cornfield across the street. It will be harvested soon. The only green left in the field itself area the weedy vines using the corn for support. There is some chicory growing in the area between the road and the field. Chicory seems to be resilient to just about everything – unlike milkweed which no longer grows in the margins around cornfield.

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Finally - Some Rain

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The last 4 weeks have been very dry in our area with the only moisture being dew coating everything in the mornings. It’s unusual to go this long without rain although it has made the fall field trips easier for the students (into the streams/rivers or BioBlitz). It finally rained yesterday and I’m sure all the vegetation is soaking up the moisture.

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It might be too late for the fall foliage to recover enough to show vivid colors. Some trees have already lost their leaves…a very brief and muted color change then leaves swirling. I’m still hopeful that the trees behind our house will show their typical colors since the leaves are still on the trees and green. The color in our backyard usually peaks just before Halloween.

The status of our trees before the rain: cherry (leaves already on the ground), plum and oak (about half the leaves already on the ground), tulip poplar (about 1/3 leaves yellow and the rest are still green), maple (leaves green), sycamore (some curling brown leaves on the tree and ground, still about half the leaves are green and still on the tree).

After a few days of rain – we’ll see what happens.

Raking Oak Leaves

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I’ve raked the leaves falling from our oak tree twice already this year. My typical tools are the rake for the leaves and then a broom for the crushed acorns in the driveway and street gutter.  Today I remembered to take before and after pictures.

I had cleared 4 trash cans full of leaves from the gutter and grass closest to the street just a few days ago and was surprised that were so many leaves to be raked.

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5 trash cans full of leaves and a half trash can of acorn debris later – the yard looks better but I realized that the tree still looks like it has a lot of leaves! This is not the last raking of the fall for this tree.

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I also noticed that the acorn debris seemed to be more ‘hats’ that the nut itself. Maybe the neighborhood squirrels have been retrieving more of the acorns that fall on the driveway!

An August Sunrise

With the days getting shorter, I’m downstairs before sunrise on some mornings. I looked out the narrow window beside my front door last weekend about 10 minutes before sunrise and decided to take a minute for some pictures…stepping out to the front porch. I experimented with composition and orientation. My favorite is the last one because it shows the top of our oak tree and there are faint pink streamer clouds up into sky. It was a very worthwhile minute on the front porch! The cat watched me from the narrow window; he might have been enjoying the morning scene as well. Noticing the sunrise is a great way to start the day.

Yard Work – August 2017

I am not a gardener. My husband keeps the yard mowed but leaves the trimming of bushes and weeding (and planting) to me…but I am always a little behind. The bushes seem to grow faster every year. There was a time when the invasive vines almost took over!

Recently, I’ve set a goal to work outdoors for an hour every morning I am at home and it’s not raining. It’s surprising how much can get done in an hour. One hour I cut the day lily leaves that has started to look ragged (the deer ate the flowers earlier in the season).

There was a pile of the leaves cut from around the oak to carry back to the brush pile at the edge of the forest.

I found a small plant that looks like a little evergreen at the base of the oak tree. It had been protected by the day lily leaves. Maybe it will survive the browsing deer.

The milkweed in our front flowerbed has new sprouts. The plants come up from roots left behind when we cut or pull the large plants. I will let the young plants stay to accommodate any egg laying Monarch butterflies.

In a second hour this week, I pulled weeds in another bed since it was too wet to use the electric hedge trimmer. I carried two loads to the brush pile. I uncovered some very wet and colorful shelf fungus growing on a weed covered log.

There was a fallen sycamore leaf that had grass poking up through the lacey holes probably made by an insect while the leaf was still on the tree.

I noticed that the spicebush growing at the back of our yard (in the forest) is a different color green than the trees around it.