Gray Fox

Gray Fox The Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)

In the 40 acre woods we have lots of wildlife, many are usually more active at night.  One of these is the gray fox.  They have quite a lot of red hair and may be confused with the red fox but I think these little predators are beautiful.

The adult gray fox may weigh from 7 to 13 pounds and measure up to 40 inches including a 12 inch tail. The female is slightly smaller than the male. The hair along the middle of the back and tail is tipped in black and has the appearance of a black mane.  The face, sides, back, and tail are gray, while the under parts are white and the sides of the neck and underside of the tail a rusty-yellow color.

The gray fox is widespread across most of the United States and while found throughout Florida, it is much more abundant in the northern sections.  Normally found in wooded areas, as it prefers to live in more inaccessible cover.  We have plenty of blueberry thickets for fox to hide in at the 40 acre woods.

Gray FoxesThe gray fox is essentially a nocturnal animal, and has a yapping bark. The gray fox is sometimes referred to as the “tree fox” and can scramble-up a tree quickly, it is the only member of the dog family capable of climbing.  I have seen this pair during the early morning hours while I was deer hunting, but as you can see they prefer the night.

Foxes mate in Florida during January or February. An average of three to five young (pups) are born after a gestation period of about 53 days. Pups are brownish-black and fully furred, but blind for the first nine days. They nurse for about two months and stay with their parents until late summer or fall. Both male and female are devoted parents and provide food, care, and training to the youngsters. The den site may be hollow logs, gopher holes or hollow trees.

Mice, rats and rabbits are the mainstays of the gray fox’s diet, although it will consume almost anything edible including the corn I left out for the deer.  All types of small birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, fruits, berries, insects, and some carrion serve to supplement the diet.  The gray fox seldom raids the farmer’s hen house, as it prefers to live in wilder, more dense brushy cover.  While gray fox serve to maintain a balance in the rodent and rabbit populations, they, in turn, are preyed upon by dogs and bobcats, and young fox may fall to the owl, hawk, or coyote.

Avoid contact with a wild fox, they are more fun to watch at the 40 acre woods.

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Polyculture

spring polyculturePolyculture is agriculture using multiple crops in the same space, in imitation of the diversity of natural ecosystems, and avoiding large stands of single crops, or monoculture.  It includes multi-cropping, intercropping, companion planting, beneficial weeds, and alley cropping.  At the 40 acre woods we like to grow many crops together.  A careful look at natural systems reveals the magic of plants working together stay healthy and improve the environment.

Polyculture has several advantages over monoculture:

The diversity of crops avoids the susceptibility of monocultures to disease.  Plants grow healthier in a polyculture.  We are only beginning to understand how bacteria and fungus in the soil work with the plants making them stronger and more nutrient dense.

The greater variety of crops provides habitat for more species, increasing local biodiversity.  It can function as a biological pest control program.  Pest cannot target specific crops if they are spread out many other crops.

Polyculture is one of the principles of permaculture and how things are done at the 40 acre woods.

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Rattlesnake Root

Florida BetonyFlorida Betony (Stachys floridana) aka Rattlesnake root

Florida Betony, is one of the most common plants found in Florida lawns and landscape.  Sun and a moist lawn are magnets for Florida Betony and most information found on this plant is focused on how to kill it and stop it from spreading.  Of course my favorite way to deal with this weed is eat it.

Florida Betony Roots

Florida Betony is square-stemmed, with simple opposite leaves that grows about 18 inches tall.  Flowers occur in clusters of 3-6 and are small and purple.

The best roots are ready to eat in the spring when it starts to flower.

I start pulling carefully on the plant and use a small shovel to pull out the tubers attached to the roots.

Bean Soup with BetonyWash the roots thoroughly to get off all the soil.  The skin is very thin and does not need to be removed.

You can eat the roots raw and are great in a salad, I think they have a crispy taste similar to a mild radish.  I used these in a bean soup, cooked they are more like a potato and will work in any dish you would add potato.

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Small Pond

A small backyard pond is a great way to enhance your landscape.  I built this one with some supplies I gathered from a friend and rocks I picked up on the side of the road.

There is something soothing about the sound of water that nearly everyone enjoys, and I was looking forward to building one.

Ponds have a positive effect on the landscape,  they put moisture in the air through evaporation and mist.  Ponds are also a breeding ground for frogs and small fish to control biting and damaging insects.

Pond HoleI spent a lot of time observing before picking the best location for a pond at the 40 acre woods.  Always consider soil depth, trees that might overhang the area and drop leaves, or whose roots eventually may push through a pond liner, or other potential obstacles, like septic tanks, large rocks or underground utilities.

Determine the general size of the pond you want by laying out a garden hose and trying various free-form shapes on the ground in your chosen area.

Dig the hole to the desired depth – perhaps incorporating a deeper area for fish, or leaving shallower areas for placing pots of aquatic or marginal plants.  My pond is about four feet in the middle with three ledges for plants.

Check the hole for level by placing a straight board across the excavation and putting a carpenter’s level on top of that. Move the board and level around to different points across the hole and remove or build up soil as needed until everything is level.

Pond LinerMeasure the hole at the longest and widest points, measuring down the sides, across and back up to take pool depth into account. Add a couple of feet for good measure and purchase an appropriately-sized sheet of EPDM rubber or plastic.

Pick out sharp rocks and tree roots, and pad the excavation with a purchased pool underlayment or several thickness of cardboard or old newspapers. This helps prevent punctures to the pool liner.

Place the rubber or heavy plastic pool liner into the hole and adjust it as needed to sit flush and level in every direction.

Pond EdgesStart filling the pond and pull on the liner to get in place as it fills.  As it reaches the top you can make last minute adjustments to set a level edge.

Trim the liner with scissors or a utility knife so that the edge lies under where you will be placing rocks  to edge the pond.

Place rocks and boulders, or other materials around the perimeter of the pond, arranging them to cover as much of the liner as possible to hide it and prevent premature breakdown of the material in harsh sunlight.

Finished PondAdd river pebbles or sand to the pool as desired or leave the liner as is. Place potted aquatic plants on ledges or flat stones, or add a recirculating pump and fountain as additional decorations.

After the water has a few weeks to settle and start growing algae, add some small fish to keep the misquotes from breeding.  I added some water from a local river to kick things off.

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Papaya Tree

Some time last year I had a red papaya a friend had grown in his back yard in central Florida. It was a great tropical treat and I saved some of the seeds.

papaya tree 2013I did not remember that I actually planted the seeds, basically I just tossed them in the flower beds and hoped for the best. Then early this spring I noticed a seeding emerge in my raspberry bed.

In a few months this seedling has grown into a magnificent tree filled with papaya. I am looking forward to eating some of this fruit. I will save more seed and maybe do a better job of planting them for next year.

Papaya plants are not tolerant of freezing temperatures and are damaged or killed below 31°F. In central Florida we usually get 1 or 2 frosty nights in the winter. I have this tree on the South side of a large hedge hoping to reduce the damage of a cold night. Fortunately I can plant new seeds in the spring and get fruit before the frost gets them the next winter. I plan to test this in North Florida this spring to see if papaya can be grown as a annual crop at the 40 acre woods.

Papayas originated in the lowlands of Central America and southern Mexico. They are grown all over the tropical world. Papaya plants may be self-pollinating (bisexual plants) or cross pollinated by insects or wind. Pollinators include honey bees, wasps and butterflies. I believe this variety is Red Lady.

 

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Gopher Tortoise

Gopher tortoiseGopher tortoises, or “Gophers” as they are commonly called, live in extensive subterranean burrows in dry upland habitats of the southeastern United States.  Gopher tortoises are found in longleaf pine sandhills, oak hammocks, scrub, pine flatwoods, dry prairies, and coastal dunes. Tortoises can also live in man-made environments, such as pastures, fields, and grassy roadsides.  Habitat must have well-drained sandy soils for digging burrows, herbaceous food plants, and open sunny areas for nesting and basking.

Gopher tortoise life revolves around a tunnel-like burrow that is excavated using its shovel-like front feet. Burrows can be up to 40 feet in length and 10 feet in depth. Each burrow has a single opening and the width of the burrow is approximately equal to the length of the tortoise. Therefore, the Gopher is able to turn around at any point within the burrow.  Gopher burrows are usually easy to spot because of the characteristic mound of loose sand at the burrow entrance.

Gopher tortoise burrows remain at a fairly constant temperature and humidity level year-round, thus providing shelter for the tortoise during periods of extreme temperatures, drought, and fire. Tortoise burrows are also a refuge to other animals like the indigo snake, pine snake, gopher frog, Florida mouse, opossum, armadillo, burrowing owl, gopher cricket, scarab beetles, and many others. Some, such as the Florida mouse, cannot exist without the tortoise burrow.

Natural fires played an important role in maintaining tortoise habitat by opening up the canopy and promoting growth of herbaceous food plants.  As human population has increased the Gophers have lost habitat to homes, agriculture and roads. Most of the fires are now managed leaving Gophers with no home and nothing to eat.  The State of Florida has the Gopher Tortoise listed as a Threatened Species.

At the 40 acre woods we make sure the Gopher tortoises have a wide variety of grasses and herbaceous plants including gopher apple, pawpaw, blackberries, saw palmetto berries, blueberries and other fruits.  We have thinned out the Pines to allow more light to reach the forest floor and provide a better habitat for the Gophers and other animals that share the area.

We love our Gophers at the 40 acre woods.  They are an important part of a healthy ecosystem.

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Eastern Fence Lizard

fence lizard maleOne of my favorite residents of the 40 acre woods is the Fence Lizard.  They are always working to keep the bugs under control and they are very entertaining to watch as they chase each other about fighting for the best logs to sun themselves on.

Fence Lizard sexes are colored differently.  Females are darker than males and their gray-brown backs are marked with about eight dark-colored, irregular, transverse bars.  The transverse bars on males are red brown, and males also have two large, bright blue belly patches.

The picture on the right is a male and the picture below is a female, both were on my wood pile at the 40 acre woods.

fence lizard female

Often seen basking in a sunny spot, adult males are highly territorial, and defend their areas with head bobs and push-up threat displays.  Adults grow to 4 to 7 inches long and breeding season is April to August.

Fence Lizards feed on a diet of Beetles, ants, grasshoppers, stink bugs and spiders.  I wish I had more of these great lizards living in my garden and on my fruit trees.

Everybody has a job at the 40 acre woods.

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