Thursday, February 15, 2018

Blueberry Bees!

Looky, looky, looky!!!

I was too quick to get discouraged!  Ten days after I posted about not seeing bees on my blueberries and after several nice days of rain, I went outside on Tuesday to do my 10 minute sit, observing the blueberry blossoms.  Look at what I saw:  southeastern blueberry bees!!!

There were only 2 bees at any one time on Tuesday.  Both of them seemed to be males, based both on the lack of pollen being carried on their legs and on the white face that I saw on one.  But males hatch out first in many solitary bee species, so I had high hopes that I'd soon see more.

And today (Thursday), I did.  While doing another 10 minute sit today, I saw at least 6 blueberry bees!!!  Best of all, today there was at least one female, based on the pileup she caused!  These pictures are all from Tuesday as I haven't downloaded today's photos yet, but if I caught anything especially interesting, you can rest assured I'll add another post!

It looks like we're on track to have blueberries this summer after all!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Kingfisher News

One of the best things about gardening organically and sharing your yard with wild creatures is that you never stop learning.  Your home landscape becomes a constant source of interest, rather than just a pretty setting to show off your house.

Last week I had a perfect example of that when I discovered an obvious pellet on our deck near the water.  While it was definitely a pellet, it was an odd pellet, being smaller than I'm used to seeing and very crystalline looking.

I knew "our" pair of belted kingfishers liked to perch on the railing nearby.  Do kingfishers cough up pellets like owls do?  I've never heard of that, but I'm hardly a bird expert.  So I did some internet research....

Lo and behold, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" website, as adults, belted kingfishers DO cough up pellets composed of fish bones and scales, which are usually found near their fishing and roosting sites.  Kingfisher stomach chemistry actually seems to change between their time as nestlings, when an acidic stomach chemistry allows them to digest fish bones, fish scales, and arthropod shells,  and adulthood, when producing pellets that are expelled seems to be the way these hard-to-digest substances are handled.

Another fun fact I learned on this website is that the oldest kingfisher fossil ever found, dated at 2 million years ago, was discovered nearby in Alachua County, Florida.

So the history of kingfishers runs deep here in the northern part of Florida.  Our resident pair doesn't care about that, of course, but they do enjoy the habitat they've found. 

Based on the fact that they've started dive bombing the hooded mergansers when those birds forage between the southern magnolia overhanging the water and the dock across the lake, I'm presuming that the kingfishers have a nest burrow established there. 

I'm looking forward to watching more real life drama play out in our yard as the kingfishers raise their brood during the next few months.  It's great to have front row seats!

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Blueberry Blooms...But No Bees

My blueberry bushes have started to bloom and I am anxiously watching to see if any southeastern blueberry bees show up to pollinate them.

I literally sat about 10 feet away from the bushes yesterday, from 11:40 a.m. to noon and watched.  It was 55 degrees F. outside and sunny.  There were no bees visiting the flowers.

Today I went out at about 3:25 p.m. and watched again for 10 minutes.  Again, it was sunny.  The temperature was 72 degrees F.  Again, I saw no bees.

Why am I so concerned?  I had bees (and blueberries) last year.

Well, last spring I shared with you my excitement over finding a small cluster of southeastern blueberry bee nests in what I thought was a public area down the street from us.  Across the road from this little cluster of nests was a 15 year old hedge of blueberry bushes in the backyard of another neighbor.  Such unassuming little creatures, such delicious fruits, and it was so much fun to connect the two.

Several months after my enthusiastic post, though, the neighbor whose yard abutted that "small public area" where I found those blueberry bee nests chose to rototill up this small triangular area and cover it with sod, effectively annexing it to his yard.  It all looks very "upscale" now, so nobody else seems to be upset, but I doubt any of the bees were able to survive the dual assault - and, like most solitary bees, southeastern blueberry bees only have one generation per year.  Effectively that little population of southeastern blueberry bees has been destroyed.

Even if a few of the bees managed to survive the rototilling and heavy sod overlayment, the sod carpet was almost assuredly grown with neonicotinoid insecticides.  Given the immaculate and well groomed appearance of the property overall, I'm guessing that neonics have been and will continue to be used to maintain the lawn's manicured appearance.

Neonicotinoids affect bees.  They are insect-icides, and very potent ones at that, even at small concentrations.

Sadly, the destruction wasn't done yet.  The house across the street, the one with the blueberry hedge, had sold the previous fall.  Last summer, the new owners yanked out all the blueberry bushes, presumably because they interfered with their unobstructed view of our little lake.

I'm trusting that there are other southeastern blueberry bee nests around that haven't been destroyed and that the little bees will find my blooms before too long.  It IS early in the season, after all.  Meanwhile, when I can, I'm going to keep going out and keeping watch over my blossoms, hoping to see the little "mini-bumble bees" busily poking their way up into the blooms.

There has been a lot of habitat destruction around our neighborhood in the last 12 months or so, all in the name of "sprucing up".  It's been disheartening to watch, since one of the big factors that attracted us to this area was the mature landscaping.  In fact, I'm planning to do an entire post on the topic, so for now I'll stop here.

Please join me in hoping that there are other pockets of southeastern blueberry bees around, ready to find our blooms, producing delicious berries and food for next year's bees in the process.

Slut Shamed, Homeowner Style

Pardon my French, but "slut shamed" rather perfectly describes what I feel like about this....

I came home last Wednesday night to this unsolicited message, gathered up with the mail and lying on our dining room table:

Presumably Greg found this tag, a "lawn report card", if you will, hanging on the handle of our front door.

Apparently, a total stranger happened to come by our house and felt compelled to stop and leave a written note for us, telling us that our lawn needs weed control, fertilization, pre-emergent treatment and pest control.  Our lawn is also apparently suffering from freeze burn.  This stranger repeated that our lawn needed pre-emergent and weed control.  Evidently the situation is dire because he exclaimed about how badly it needed these things.  He also told us that grass plugs would be available soon.

Call, he said.  It was underlined to underscore the urgency.

I am rather amused by the depth of my angst about this.  Of course I understand that this is purely a marketing ploy, done to drum up business, but it still really bothered me when I read it.

Because I consciously and conscientiously garden to provide habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wild creatures, I don't use commercial pest control or pre-emergents or weed control.  Insecticides, herbicides, and even standard fertilizers work against my goal.  After all, "-cide" means "-killer" and there is no pesticide, herbicide or insecticide that can differentiate between "good" and "bad".  They just kill what they are designed to kill:  "pests", broad-leaved plants, grasses, insects, etc., depending on the chemical formulation of the -cide being used.

Taken yesterday, this is a photo of our front lawn, 4 days after our failing report card was hand delivered to us.  We have done nothing to the lawn or to the gardens in those intervening days.  To be honest, we really haven't done anything in our yard or gardens in several months now, and there IS obviously work that needs to be done as spring begins to sneak up on us.  There is also lots more gardening, planting, and growing that I want to accomplish.  However, given all that, I am comfortable with the general appearance of our lawn.  It seems to balance reasonably well between looking rationally maintained and providing healthy habitat.

Here is our front lawn in early October, while it is still green.  Far from perfect, but it still seems acceptable to me.

Truthfully, I am rather astounded by how unsettled having this "report card" left on my door actually made me feel.   If receiving this little "reminder" upset ME this much, when I am knowingly making the choices I am making for reasons that are very important to me, what does an unsolicited report like this do to the average homeowner, who is just worried about property values and neighbors' approval? 

I KNOW our lawn is full of non-grass plants, also known as weeds.  Some of these plants are native, most are not.  I remove the really problematic ones by hand, but if the non-grass plants will handle being mowed, I generally don't worry too much about their inclusion in our lawn.

What I DO manage for - and worry about providing - is a healthy mix of plants and animals in our yard overall, a mix that includes pollinators, predators, and a good selection of native plants to feed leaf and seed eaters, as well as pollinators, birds, toads, anoles, and all the other wonderful life forms that I've observed just in our little 0.4 acre lot over the last 2 2/3 years.

Is our yard "pristine"?  No.  I don't want our yard pristine, I want it ALIVE. 

Is our yard alive?  Yes, it is.  Our yard is alive with chattering chickadees and flitting yellow-rumped warblers, with brilliant gulf fritillary butterflies and little solitary bees, with stalking preying mantids and shimmering long-tailed skippers, with watchful green anoles and fat saucy toads. 

That's worth a bit of lawn shaming any day.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Native Container Plants

Last spring, for the first time ever, I intentionally tried to find native plants that would work well in containers to sit on our back patio.  While I found a few, I would love to have a wider variety in my "stable".  I thought I'd share what worked and what didn't work for me - and I hope you'll share your favorites in the comment section to guide me this spring.

First of all, a disclaimer:  All of the photos in this post were taken on October 3rd, when I actually decided to post about this topic.  Most of the plants were well past their prime at that point, for which I apologize.  I find that I didn't take pictures of the full plants earlier in the summer;  I just took photos of the bees and butterflies and assorted other insects that were using them, especially their blossoms, for food and shelter!

Since we have no plant nurseries closer than about 45 minutes away, in trying to develop a native plant container garden, I started out at our local Home Depot.  There, I looked for plants that weren't labeled with the "sweet" little tags that essentially say, "I've been treated with death-causing chemicals so that you can have pretty flowers."  As I looked, I found that I had to be very careful:  some plants that were obviously from the same grower and batch weren't labeled, while others were.  Most disturbing were the numerous "butterfly" plants that I saw touted...while they bore that telltale, nasty little tag.

At Home Depot, then, I bought 3 "butterfly milkweeds" and a Coreopsis?/Rudbeckia?  As they grew, the butterfly milkweeds turned out to be Tropical Milkweeds (Asclepias curassavica) rather than Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), but at least they weren't treated with neonic pesticides. 

Know how I knew for sure the milkweeds hadn't been treated with neonics?  They had aphids on them, including one individual with a pretty bad case of them.   Yes, I intentionally bought a plant that was seriously infested with aphids - and I was glad to get it.  Once I got them home, I didn't do anything but pot the milkweeds up.  As I've discussed before, the aphid populations cycle up and down, based on natural predators, so I wasn't too worried about them.  The 3 milkweeds are doing fine, even if they aren't actually native here.  In fact, these three tropical milkweeds from Home Depot are the plants on which I've observed (and photographed) most of the aphid/predator cycles that I've shared with you on this blog.

Note:  The tropical milkweeds are the leggy background plants in the photo above.

The Coreopsis/Rudbeckia (I can't remember which it was) was the only other "near native" I could find at our local Home Depot that hadn't been treated with neonics, so I bought it to show that some of us would rather have butterflies than poison-filled plants.  Sadly, the plant hasn't done well for me and essentially never bloomed again.  Half of it died;  the other half looks healthy, but remains bloom-less - and insect-less.

I've got a couple pots with Violets (Viola sp.) and Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea) that have seeded in naturally, taking over other plants like lettuce that had finished their life cycle.  Both of these naturally occurring container plants are doing well and seem worth keeping as containers, due to their attractive foliage and/or attractiveness to pollinators.

Here is the scarlet sage, which seeded itself into a container where Greg had been growing kale.  It's not gorgeous, but the butterflies visit frequently.  Next summer I'll fertilize it a bit and give it some attention;  hopefully it will be fuller and fluffier.

I've also got some natives that I picked up from native plant nurseries especially to put into containers this summer:  Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum), Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), Blue Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum sp.) and Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri 'Siskiyou Pink').

While the Gaillardia hasn't been the "neatest" looking container, it has bloomed prolifically all summer long and has attracted many pollinators; I will continue to include it in future native plant container gardens.  By October 3rd, most of it had started to die back, so I didn't photograph it individually.  It's the pot at the far right of the photo at the beginning of this post.

The Blue Hyssop, above, which is not actually native to the southeast, was overgrown and floppy when I got it.  I did repot it, but I didn't cut it back like I should have.  It has done well, although it has looked a bit ragged because of my hesitancy with the pruning clippers.  I will continue to include it in future native container gardens, as it has been a reliable bee attractant.  I do not know if it will overwinter, or if I will have to treat it like an annual.

I bought and planted 2 different species of Mountain Mint this spring, but I don't remember which ones they are, let alone which is in the pot and which is in the ground.  I have the plant tags buried some where in the garage, but I am too lazy to look for them right now.  Anyway, both mountain mints are doing very well - and I love the fluffy white fullness of both of them.  Both have been good pollinator attractants;  I'll use Mountain Mint in containers again.  Hopefully the one in the pot behind my little girl, above, will be back next summer.

So far I've talked about the "good guys";  now let's discuss the more problematic patio occupants.

I'm iffy about using Blue Curls as container plants.  They bloomed well but, in the pots, the plants look quite leggy and scraggly while the flowers aren't large enough to overcome that deficit.  I think that part of this has been my fault:  I am not the most consistent waterer, and these were in smaller pots that tended to dry out fairly quickly.  In fact, I used the Blue Curls as my "indicator plants" to tell me when my containers needed watering.

This is, in fact, the first year I've grown Blue Curls at all.  Besides the 2 in containers on the patio, I also had 2 plants in the ground, and they looked much healthier and happier than the potted ones.  I may try Blue Curls in larger containers next year, but probably only if I can't find enough other natives to experiment with.  So far, none of the Blue Curls really seem all that attractive to pollinators, despite their reputation.

Frankly, the Gaura has been disappointing.  I think I either need to find a different variety - or just not try it again.  I don't know if it's a watering issue or if it was in too much shade, but it just wimped out.

Although I didn't think to buy any to put in containers, looking at all the wonderful photos of asters, covered in pollinators, this spring I'm wondering about trying pots with a couple different species of those in them.  I'm not sure which species would be best, though, both for good bloom and for nice looking foliage earlier in the summer.

So that's my "Native or Near Native Container Plant" roundup.  Are there any species that you would recommend?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Slow Gardening

With all of the angst over politics these days, I haven't been hearing much about the "Slow" movement - Slow Food, Slow Money, Slow Living...Slow Gardening.

But Slow Gardening is what I've come to consider my own method of gardening.

It's slow gardening because I don't use inorganic fertilizers to speed up plant growth or to boost the size of fruits or flowers.

It's slow gardening because I prefer to hand weed and then mulch to keep the soil free of weeds, rather than sprinkle my beds and lawn with some pre-emergent or other herbicide. As I've written about before, hand weeding helps me hear bird songs, see unusual insects, and generally experience my yard and garden in ways I wouldn't be able to without being quietly bent over and relatively still.

It's slow gardening because I prefer hand tools to power tools, whenever possible.  Greg, who keeps the lawn mowed and trimmed, has switched now to a battery powered electric mower and a battery powered edger which are wonderfully quiet and efficient.

It's slow gardening because I plant a variety of plants, including plants that are known as slow growers.  This is, truth to tell, rather problematic for me, since we move every few years and I rarely get to see said slow-growing plants reach anything approaching maturity.  However, gardeners are nothing if  not hopeful and forward-looking people.

Felder Rushing wrote a book, Slow Gardening, which was released in 2011, and he maintains a page where he outlines his version of the Slow Gardening concept.  I generally agree with his outline of principles, although I am, perhaps, even more of a slow gardener than he is.

Sometimes most gardening seems like it's slow.  After all, you can plant and mow and fertilize and weed, but it just takes time for plants to grow.

Friday, September 29, 2017

One Thing Leads to Another.....

(This post is an expansion on a Facebook post I made yesterday morning.  I wanted to share the photos I took - and add a few more comments.)

I love how one thing leads to another.....

I saw an Eastern Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) out back nectaring on the Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), so I got my camera and ran outside.

It flew over to a camellia where it sat for a while to bask, allowing me to get fairly close and to take multiple photos.

Then it flew back to the sage and continued nectaring, allowing me to take more photos.

After the swallowtail flew off, I noticed a battered Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) basking, so I took photos of it, following as it,, 

SHE lifted off and laid an egg or two on the Corky-Stemmed Passionvine (Passiflora suberosa) nearby.  It amazes me that this ragged female could still fly - and that she still had the energy to locate passionvine and lay eggs!  It makes me think that, perhaps, occasionally handling butterflies won't overly handicap their success after all.

Movement by the milkweed caught my eye and I was able to get a few shots (although I don't know if they turned out) of a syrphid fly laying eggs near aphids on the milkweed.  Note:  This was the best of the shots I took. It isn't great, but I thought you might enjoy it anyway, and it does serve to keep the narrative going!

More movement made me notice a little tufted titmouse hunting about 20 feet away, so I snagged a couple photos, one of which wasn't too bad....

Still more movement, this time nearby, helped me notice some sort of odd little wasp hunting on the swamp milkweed...  When I downloaded the photos, I realized that this isn't a wasp at all, but rather some sort of fly.  BugGuide has helped me determine that this is a female syrphid fly in the genus Xylota.  These syrphid flies eat pollen from the surface of leaves as adults, which I think you can actually see her doing in the above photo!  The larvae feed on sap runs.  So, my bare eyes said a small wasp, hunting, but increased magnification and more research revealed a fly, eating pollen!

Close to this unusual little syrphid fly was a Milkweed Assassin Bug nymph (Zelus longipes) that may have actually been hunting - attempting to catch the little syrphid fly unawares.

As an added pleasure, I found all of this activity while I was enjoying the sweet fragrance of the blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) that are scraggly but blooming, in pots on the back patio!

A fun few minutes. Fifteen minutes, to be exact.  And all from the relative privacy of my back patio, while in bare feet and still in pajamas!

As I wrote the original post when I got back inside, I  looked out back onto the patio again and saw a male towhee perched proudly on the top of the statue there! Sadly, I  wasn't able to get a picture of him, but I did get to enjoy watching him from my spot in the recliner!

Gardening for wildlife is like having a nature preserve right outside my back door!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Turtle Rescue

Sometimes you just get lucky.

I don't go out by the compost piles very often during the course of any average week, but I needed to take something out there yesterday morning.  I had started to walk away when something caught my eye - a bit of movement.

There was this poor female box turtle, firmly caught in the open hole of a cinder block.  Her shell was pretty scuffed, so it looked like she'd been there for a fairly long period of time, scrabbling uselessly, trying to get out.

How unfair that she could not make a noise to attract my attention!  (I've never consciously thought about turtles' silence before, but somehow it seems tragic in this situation.)

The poor thing was stressed enough that she didn't withdraw into her shell when I picked her up.   In fact, she didn't withdraw into her shell until I picked her back up, after I'd put her down, to take a photo of her underside.

She's a big box turtle - and I honestly wonder how in the world she got herself in that predicament.  I think she was lucky to be tail down, not head down, in the hole.

I hope she's none the worse for her adventure and that she was able to get food and water without issue.

Now I've got to fill in those holes so this doesn't happen again.  I checked the area today and will continue to do so every day until we get the holes filled.  The compost piles, rimmed by these cinder blocks, have been in place since shortly after we moved here over 2 years ago, with no prior problems.  Funny - I never would have thought of them as being dangerous to much of anybody or anything....