Monday, August 18, 2014

Bush Cicada: A 2+" Sign That I'm On the Right Track

According to the reading I've done, restoring prairie is very much an art.  In fact, it's as much or more of an art than it is a science.  For example, the steps you should take depend, first of all, on whether you are starting with a plowed field or an overgrazed pasture.  Even with that determined, the process is highly experimental.  After all, for over a century we've been far more concerned with breaking up prairie lands, to plant crops, than we've been concerned with restoring agricultural lands to prairie.

It's almost always easier to destroy something than it is to create it...or to re-create it.

Therefore, even the very first step of restoration was in doubt when I decided I wanted to try to return tallgrass prairie to our 10 acre "homestead", with its 5 acres of overgrazed pasture.  Should I plow up the existing vegetation and/or use Roundup to kill it all off before planting prairie seeds?  The seed I used would supposedly establish more readily that way.  Or should I try to overseed into the existing vegetation? 

I didn't see a lot of vegetation that was worth saving during that first summer we lived here.  The Back Five was filled with redcedars, western ragweed, Baldwin's ironweed, poverty grass, brome, green antelopehorn, and a little bit of yarrow - hardly an inspiring mix.  My instincts, however, told me that plowing it all up or applying Roundup would set the return of the prairie back a lot.

"Following my gut" (to quote Gibbs on NCIS), I started the next year with a spring burn.  I reasoned that it wouldn't hurt and it might help me see if there were other, more desirable, plants being hidden by their assertive neighbors.  It took us two tries, but we did get the Back Five burned that second spring.  Over the summer I watched it carefully to see what showed up.  Fresh growth took several weeks to begin emerging, as that spring turned out to be cold and dry, but eventually the temperatures started to rise and the rains to fall.

What a difference a burn makes!  Oh, there was still a lot of "garbage" vegetation, but I also found white prairie clover, a couple lead plants, wild alfalfa, dotted gayfeather, and (best of all) FIVE spring ladies' tresses.  There was no way that I was going to plow up or Roundup that 5 acres!

So I decided to overseed.  Over the last 5 years, I've scattered seed, usually in the mowed trails, and I've watched for more hidden gems to emerge from the seed bank in the soil.  As with most natural systems, progress has seemed slow.  Prairie plants put down roots first, significant leaves next, and flowers - the most visible sign that a plant has established - last of all.  It can takes years before a newly establishing perennial or grass plant blooms, which means that it can take years before you know that your seeding has been successful.  Overseeding is especially slow, since far fewer of the seeds will be able to outcompete the already established plants on the site.  Severe heat and drought over the last several years have further impeded any progress.  Finally, though, I feel like the prairie is beginning to peek out through the overgrazed pasture it's been hiding under....

The poverty grass has become a much smaller component of the flora in the last 7 years.  Whereas it used to be impossible to walk through the Back Five without getting many of its painful seeds in my socks, these days I have to search the area for a while to find any obvious stands of it.

There are swaths of tall dropseed now and well established patches of side-oats grama.   The dotted gayfeather has spread from a scant dozen plants in one, well confined area to dozens of plants, scattered in several large, beautiful patches throughout the Back Five.  Whorled milkweed has started to form graceful colonies from single plants that were easy to overlook at first.

Meadowlarks nest each summer.  I've seen a jackrabbit several times, and coyotes regularly leave signs that they, too, are enjoying the area.

Compass plants have shown up, as well.  While I scattered some seed four or five years ago, several of the first plants that I noticed, a year or two later, were already large enough that I suspect they were actually holdovers which had survived the many years of pasturage.   Now there are a couple dozen compass plants;  6 of them put up flower spikes this year.

Which leads me to my latest promising sign of the return of the tallgrass prairie.  Last Thursday, on my latest walkabout, I photographed, among many other plants and animals, a large cicada making itself at home on the compass plant flower stalk above.  Large cicadas aren't unusual around here, so I almost didn't take this individual's photo, but having one so nicely posed on the compass plant stalk was a little different, so I spent the few extra electrons and minutes to record the image.

Over the weekend, I edited my photos and decided, somewhat on a whim, to send this image in to Bug Guide to see which cicada species this individual actually represented.  Some insects I seem to be able to identify without too much trouble.  Others, like cicadas, I have yet to learn enough about to reliably name.  Every other large cicada image I've sent in to Bug Guide has turned out to be Tibicen auriferus, the Plains Dog-Day Cicada, in one color variant or another.  This one didn't look like that, but I'd been fooled before.

This morning I received my answer from the Entomology Gods:  my large cicada is a Bush Cicada, Tibicen dorsatus

Why am I doing a happy dance?  Why does it matter to me which species of cicada this is?

Well, I'm probably over-reacting here, but on the Bug Guide information page about the Bush Cicada, it states, "A beautiful species that now exists in scattered isolates across much of its former range. Although listed as "secure" (i.e. "not threatened/endangered"), many populations, particularly those isolated in more developed areas, should be monitored and conserved."  I take that to mean that the species is on the decline, overall, and my little 5 acres of restoring prairie may be helping it to maintain a slightly healthier population.

Helping a potentially declining species to retain a healthier population is one of the big reasons why I garden, and definitely why I garden the way I do.   In a nutshell.  Or in a cicada cast, as the case may be.

Oh, my Bush Cicada?  Another common name for it is Splendid Prairie Cicada...and I think that's a perfectly splendid name.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

An Uncommon Little Beauty: Olive Juniper Hairstreak Butterfly

These small winged beauties won't catch your eye from across the garden, but close up they are one of the prettiest butterflies I've ever seen.  The first year we lived here, I saw one but I haven't found another in the seven years since...until two days ago when I caught a brief glimpse of one in the vegetable garden, on the other side of a large clump of brown-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia triloba.  What butterfly am I talking about?  The olive juniper hairstreak butterfly, Callophrys gryneus.

This one didn't stay around for very long, but luckily I had my camera with me and I was able to grab a couple quick photos before it disappeared.

After I did a little research, I realized why it's so hard to find these cuties:  they don't nectar at flowers very often and their larval food plant is juniper.  Around here that means Eastern Redcedar, Juniperus virginiana.  Juniper hairstreaks are rarely found far from one.  In fact, one of the more reliable ways to see this butterfly is apparently to shake cedar trees and look for the males to fly.

Hmmm.  I haven't shaken any redcedars lately.  No wonder I haven't seen many juniper hairstreaks.  Have you ever seen this little beauty in your yard?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Death Comes For the Grasshopper(s)

Not surprisingly after 3 hot, dry years, there have been a lot of grasshoppers around this summer.  Grasshoppers and hot, dry weather go together like bread goes with peanut butter and jelly.  I've been noticing a few things that bode a little better for next year, though, and I'd like to share them with you.

The beginning of the summer started with literal hordes of grasshoppers, especially newly hatched nymphs.  The photo above shows a phalanx of said nymphs on a soon-devoured broccoli leaf.  It wasn't uncommon to have hundreds of tiny grasshoppers flying up with every step through grassy areas. 

Now, towards the end of July, there are still a lot of grasshoppers, but the numbers seem to have declined a bit - dozens fly up at every step instead of hundreds.  Sometimes only a few fly up.  I haven't sprayed or made any effort to curb their numbers, so what has happened?

First of all, the weather has been cooler and wetter than during the last 3 or 4 summers.  Cooler, wetter weather is good for plants, but bad for grasshoppers.  Newly hatched grasshoppers can be killed by cool, wet weather.  Truthfully, I'm not sure we were cool enough or wet enough for this to happen this year, but I'm mentioning it anyway.  However, warm, wet weather can also have a negative effect on grasshopper populations....

During warm, wet weather, there is a naturally occurring fungus, Entomophthora grylli, which infects grasshoppers and causes them to climb to the top of vegetation and grasp the stem with their legs, then die.  I've been seeing quite a few grasshoppers seemingly mummified like this.  The best news is that, as these grasshoppers dry out, the fungal spores spread on the wind to other grasshoppers, infecting them as well.

So not only is there one less grasshopper reproducing for next year, but each one that dies like this has also potentially caused other grasshoppers in the area to die as well!  Rather nightmarish...but effective.

Predators have been playing a role in decreasing grasshopper numbers, too.  Just in my ramblings with camera in hand, I've caught shots of several wheel bugs eating grasshoppers. 

I've got a large population of wheel bugs this year;  after such an abundance of prey, I suspect I'll have an even larger population next year!

Spiders, too, eat grasshoppers.  This photo of a black and yellow garden spider eating a grasshopper was actually taken last October, but I'm sure that the spiders I'm seeing this summer are taking out quite a few grasshoppers as well.  (My garden spiders aren't this big yet, but they will be!)

Birds, not surprisingly, eat grasshoppers as well, although I haven't been lucky enough to get any photos of that happening.  Bluebirds, quail, pheasant, meadowlarks, lark sparrows, and lots of other birds are known to eat grasshoppers.

I occasionally see great golden digger wasps around the yard, as in this rather out-of-focus photo from about a week ago, hunting (in this case) on Bradbury beebalm.  If these beautiful, big wasps aren't feeding themselves with nectar and pollen on flowers, they are actively prowling for grasshoppers to sting and paralyze.  Once the grasshopper is paralyzed, the female wasp takes it back to her nests as baby food to lay her eggs on.

The long and the short of it is that grasshoppers are grazers on plants, and a lot of animals eat them.  With bison no longer freely roaming the prairie, I understand that grasshoppers are actually the primary herbivore for this important ecosystem!  Because grasshoppers are so mobile, it's hard to kill them with insecticides.  Ironically, it's much easier to kill the insects that prey on grasshoppers - so any time you spray an insecticide, even an organic one, you are probably helping to increase grasshopper populations, in the long run, by decreasing their predators.

Speaking of spraying insecticides and accidentally killing off insect predators, the last grasshopper predator I'm going to show you today fell victim to some actions Greg and I took several years ago before we knew any better.  While we didn't actually spray, we did kill enough of these predators that their population declined around our yard and gardens for a few years, so we've actually had more grasshoppers than we would have had if we hadn't tried to solve a "problem" we were sure we had.

The first summer or two that we lived and gardened here, we started our vegetable garden.  Despite the tall grass that we encouraged to grow on much of the property, we didn't see a large number of grasshoppers.  Some, yes, but not enough to cause noticeable damage.  Generally, our garden plants did superbly, although the tomatoes, in particular, attracted large numbers of black blister beetles.  A few grey blister beetles came too.  Not only were these insects a little creepy looking, but they ate the tomato leaves and made the tomato plants look really ugly.  I still harvested more tomatoes than I could possibly use and there weren't enough blister beetles to defoliate the plants, but definitely there were enough to make the plants look ratty. So I started to handpick the blister beetles, dropping them in soapy water to kill them.  Each morning I would do this, and it wasn't unusual for me to dispatch 50 or 100 each day.  It definitely lessened their populations over the course of the summer.

Even after I learned that blister beetle larvae ate grasshopper eggs, I continued to handpick the blister beetles, reasoning that I was seeing plenty of blister beetles, so it shouldn't be a problem.

In June, 2011, we came back from a trip to San Antonio to find several masses of hundreds of striped blister beetles writhing on our front lawn, presumably in an ecstasy of mating.  Our only thought was how to dispatch them as quickly as possible before they, too, started to eat the leaves of our tomatoes and other plants!  So we put soapy water in our shop vac and vacuumed most of them up.  Problem solved.

By later that same summer, I was seeing very few blister beetles...but hordes of grasshoppers.  As you may remember, the summer of 2011 was horribly hot and dry.  We had 53 days over 100 degrees F. and almost no rain.  By late July of that year, our althea had been defoliated by the grasshopper hordes.

For every adult blister beetle you see, an average of 27 grasshoppers don't get born.  What had we done?

For several years now, we've had so many grasshoppers that by early summer most of our vegetable garden is gone.  Once the grasshoppers hatch out, they devour the spinach, kale, broccoli and cauliflower within days.  Then the onion and garlic go.  The asparagus stalks become dried brown sticks with all the green gnawed off.  Over the course of the summer, all the iris leaves get whittled down to nubs.  Thankfully, 2011 was the only year our althea were entirely defoliated, but their leaves have been severely chewed each summer since then.
 
This year I'm finally seeing black blister beetles on the tomatoes and a few other plants again.  Mind you, I'm not seeing them in huge numbers, but they are there and they are reasonably common.  This year I'm NOT picking them off and killing them.   I'll share my tomato leaves so that, hopefully, the black blister beetle larvae will be feasting on grasshopper eggs over the winter!

The more I learn, the more I realize that I don't know very much.  A blog post I read over the weekend was talking about tangleveined flies as a grasshopper predator.  That's a new species I don't recognize, so now I want to learn more about them and see if I have any of those grasshopper predators in the yard.

There is an incredibly complex web of plants and animals that will generally keep each other in balance and keep the Earth healthy, if we leave enough of them alone to "do their thing."  We humans, though, get pretty cocksure of ourselves and start killing plants and animals off, thinking we know a lot and can surely manage better than Mother Nature does. 

We're not as smart as we think we are.

Hopefully my yard is getting back into balance a bit better again.  Ah, the gardening spirit never fails, does it?  Next year will be better.....

Thursday, July 24, 2014

What's the Point of Gardening? A Gardening Ethic for Our Times

Why do you garden?

If you're like me at all (and I suspect that many gardeners are), you probably have several reasons you garden - several passions that gardening feeds - several functions that gardening performs in your life....

I garden because it makes me feel good to see flowers blooming around my home.

I garden because it's a form of exercise that I enjoy and it gets me outside, in the fresh air.

I garden to increase our property value (I hope).

I garden to provide some good, chemical free food for us to enjoy.

I garden because plants and animals fascinate me in their infinite variety.

Most of all, though, I garden because it's my way of doing something very concrete, very local, and very specific to make the world healthier and more ALIVE.  I garden, and I garden the way I do, because it's my way of helping to heal the life force on our planet, which seems to be in serious danger from the increasing human assaults on it over the last 100 years or so.

"Okay, Cynth, " I can almost hear you sigh.  "What brought this up?  Can't we just look at pretty pictures and move on?"

Well, of course you can.  But I read something the other day that really got me thinking about my role as a gardener.  Ben Vogt of Nebraska, who blogs at The Deep Middle, posted a commentary that struck a deep chord with me:  "Is There Any Difference Between a Land Ethic and a Garden Ethic?"
Hmmm.  Is there?  Why DO I garden?  Why do most people garden?

Ben started his thought-provoking post by quoting bits and pieces from Aldo Leopold's wonderful statement about developing a land ethic, as written in A Sand County Almanac.  Leopold finished writing this small, but important, three part book in 1948, just before he died.  The book was published a year later.  I think the most concise statement of Leopold's land ethic is actually written in Leopold's own forward to this book, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."  (My italics)

Filling the last 25 pages of A Sand County Almanac, the entirety of Leopold's "The Land Ethic" is certainly too long for me to quote here, but it's well worth reading...and rereading.  In it, he moves from showing how we humans have developed our ethical codes, first working on the relationships between individual humans and later developing codes such as the Golden Rule and democracy for how the individual relates to society as a whole and how society relates back to the individual.  Now, Leopold believed, it had become necessary to develop another layer to our ethical codes to govern how humans related to the land and to the plants and animals that shared it with them.  Otherwise, in Leopold's words, "There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man...."

Aldo Leopold wrote in 1948 and presumably developed his ideas even earlier.  What would he say about the way we treat the land, and the plants and animals on it, now?  I'm rather glad he's not around to see what we've done and, even worse, what we're in the process of doing.

Because I am around to see what we've done and what we're currently doing, I try to treat our little 10 acres according to Leopold's Land Ethic, adopting this ethical code, to the best of my ability, as my gardening ethic.  I try to treat our land, with its associated plants and animals, with love and respect, thinking of it as a community that I belong to rather than as a resource to maximize.  Realizing that communities - like most complex things - are healthier when they have all of the parts that they should have, I am trying to reintroduce plants that have disappeared over the last 150 years while this parcel of land was being extensively and intensively farmed.  I'm hoping that, as the plants reestablish, many of the smaller animals will find their way back too.

My goal is to have as stable, as healthily functioning, a prairie community on our 10 acres as I possibly can.  Someday, perhaps, the plants and animals that remain on this tiny piece of land will serve as a source to move back out into the wider landscape as a whole, helping to heal it as well.

Towards the end of "The Land Ethic," Leopold talked about a schism among folks who work with and on the land - he called it a cleavage - that divided people into 2 camps which deeply affected their relationship to the land they worked with:

In all of these cleavages, we see repeated the same basic paradoxes:  man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen;  science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.  Robinson's injunction to Tristram may well be applied, at this juncture, to Homo sapiens as a species in gelogical time:
Whether you will or not
You are a King, Tristram, for you are one
Of the time-tested few that leave the world,
When they are gone, not the same place it was.
Mark what you leave.

As a gardener, which cleavage do you belong to:  the conqueror or the citizen?  Is your garden your slave and servant or a community that you belong to?  When you are gone from your garden, what will you leave for the future?  What mark will you have made?


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Spiders Galore

Usually I think of late summer and early fall as "The Spider Time of Year", but I'm seeing quite a few spiders around the yard right now, in what I would consider mid summer.  What's even more interesting is that most of these are a little different from the spiders I tend to see later in the season.

For starters, I'm seeing a lot of the black and yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) already, but they are comparatively tiny.  Mind you, I've always known that black and yellow garden spiders were out there all summer long, growing from tiny spiderlings to adult size, but I don't normally notice them until they get huge and hang their webs outside the kitchen door, around the compost pile, or between the beds in our vegetable garden.  I'd say the average one I'm seeing right now has a slender body whose length is right around 1/2", which is a far cry from the inch long (and almost as wide) female "monsters" more common in September.

On July 6th, I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this large spider (I'm guessing a wolf spider) molting in the tall grass.  Because I always worry that I'll disrupt an animal in a detrimental way if I hang around too long during a vulnerable period in their life span, I didn't stay around to watch the molting process, but I did grab a couple of quick photos.  Molting is amazing, when you stop to think about it.  You can see every minute external structure of the animal in its shed exoskeleton.

The last few days have been especially rich in spider sightings.  For example, despite glaringly obvious webs, I've only been able to capture glimpses of funnel spiders before.  Yesterday, however, I was able to get a pretty good look at this Grass Spider (Agelenopsis pennsylvanica) on its rain spotted funnel web, located in a clump of Husker Red penstemon in the back courtyard.

Four days ago, this cute little guy was hiding in the leaves of one of our bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) out behind the back courtyard.  I've never seen a spider marked in quite this way, but my spider book tells me its a male jumping spider (Hentzia palmarum), the Common Hentz Jumper.  The female looks quite different, basically a drab brown with spots.  I could very easily have seen her and not remembered it.

In the flower gardens, I'm frequently seeing little crab spiders on Echinacea blooms...which obviously tax their camouflage abilities beyond capacity.  The yellow or white coloration that works so well for them on goldenrod, sunflowers and other blooms doesn't hack it on Echinaceas, but evidently the little crab spiders are still able to catch what they need.

Last, but most certainly not least, I've been seeing quite a few wolf spiders.  Big wolf spiders with really pretty, textural patterns on their abdomens.  Again utilizing my spider book, I've figured out that they are Rabid Wolf Spiders, Rabidosa rabida.   How's that for a name?  (As if large spiders didn't have enough of a P.R. problem?!)  Were they given their name because their large size made people act mad (rabid) with fear?  Or did their quick movements made them seem rabid?  One site listed the latter hypothesis, but I suspect it's the former.

If you're the sort to worry about such things, you'll be happy to know that, despite their size and although their bite IS painful, rabid wolf spiders are not poisonous to humans and the pain from the bite will rapidly subside.  Personally, I just wouldn't pick one up!  That moves the chance of getting bitten to just about zero.

I love seeing spiders around the yard.  They help maintain ecological balance by capturing and eating a wide variety of insects and, occasionally, other spiders. While I'm not overly excited about accidentally running into spider webs, especially face first, most of the spiders I'm seeing right now either don't make webs or they don't make webs that I'm likely to run into.  Even the black and yellow garden spiders are spinning their webs deep down in the middle of perennials right now, rather than high up across pathways.  Have you seen any interesting spiders in your garden lately?

After-The-Fact Discoveries Through the Camera Lens

I can't decide if I'm blind or just too single focused....

Take this photo, for example.  When I took the photo, I was focusing on the cicada that is positioned vertically on the green ash suckers and on the empty "shells" that are located above and to the right of it, one of which I presume it emerged from.  ... Until I looked through my recent photos after downloading them to my computer (the next day), I literally didn't see the second cicada in this photo, located on the horizontal stem above and to the left of the first cicada.  Of course, by then, both cicadas were long gone, so any chance to focus more tightly or to change my framing had disappeared along with them.

Luckily, in this case I did take this second photo, which gave me a little better look at the second cicada...

...and this third photo, which allowed me to incorporate another, newly emerged cicada I had noticed about a foot away, which you can see at the bottom left in this photo.  The original one...er, two are at the top right.

How did I miss that third, newly emerged cicada?!  I wish I knew, because then I might not miss other "minor details" as I'm out and about....

As I did in this next photo, which I took one night earlier this week....

To explain, I'm seeing at least 4 different toads (I think) around the house this summer, but I've been wanting to verify if they are all the same species.  This toad, which is the same size as one I'd seen earlier in the day, had different markings, so I wanted to catch a photo of it.  I was so focused on the toad, however, that I totally missed the click beetle just in front of it on the ground.  I don't recall seeing a click beetle of that size around here before, so I'm really curious as to what species it might be - but it, too, is long gone...although whether it flew away to live for another day or disappeared down the gullet of the toad, I'm not sure!

Oh,in case you're curious, this toad is a Great Plains Toad (Anaxyrus cognatus), while most of the others I see are Woodhouse's Toads (Anaxyrus woodhousii).  I was right to notice the different pattern of spots.

Do you ever make discoveries of this sort in your photos, after you bring them up on your computer screen, or are you a good enough observer that this never happens to you?  I'd sure love to hone my skills of observation enough that this quit happening!  I wonder what else I'm missing when I'm NOT taking photographs?!

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Weeds: What Are They Good For?

It just doesn't seem fair.  When you clean a surface, it ought to stay clean, unless you put something on it that dirties it.  Right?!  So why is it that, after you've worked hard to weed a flower bed or vegetable garden and you have a beautifully pristine expanse of bare soil in between each plant, the weeds show back up?  Seemingly like magic!  Sometimes they seem to spring up overnight.

These weedy interlopers are unwanted and they crowd out the plants that you want to grow!  Isn't this a design flaw in nature?!

Well, actually, no, there's a very good reason for this to happen in nature.  Weeds are nature's way of "preserving its capital", to use economic terms.  So what do I mean by "capital"?

In an ecosystem, soil is one of the most important resources available and one of the hardest resources to manufacture.  Originally soil formed from bedrock.  It takes thousands of years for soil to form:  soil formation involves the slow action of water and weather (especially the freeze/thaw cycle), acids from lichens, and eventually, organic debris and the action of plant roots.  Soil is NOT a substance that it's wise to waste, because its replacement takes thousands of years.

Enter most "weeds".  What we consider weeds are usually fast growing plants that produce thousands and thousands of seeds which transport readily, in a variety of ways, and which require sunlight and open soil to germinate and grow.  Once established in a good spot, these plants will reproduce rapidly and repeat the cycle of producing thousands and thousands of easily transportable seeds.  What's the point of this process?

Well, these same plants' seeds and seedlings cannot compete in a crowded, shaded location.  In a setting like that - a more established setting - they get outcompeted by other plants that don't have to start from scratch every year.  Plants like perennials, with well established roots that can send up tall stalks in a short period of time and dominate the sunlight, will outcompete them.  Plants like shrubs and trees whose roots are not only established, but that can leaf out and block the sunlight seemingly overnight each spring, will outcompete them.

In fact, if you stop to think about it, if humans do nothing to a piece of land, the vegetation changes through the years in a fairly predictable pattern.  First, the open ground gets covered with "weeds", often a mix of annual grasses and annual, broad-leafed, flowering plants.  Pretty soon, a few perennials start to show up and establish themselves and, before long, there are some seedlings from woody plants beginning to grow.  As the perennials and woody seedlings grow up, the "weeds" that need full sunlight and open soil, so that they can start from scratch every year, start disappearing.  Eventually, the vegetation continues to change until only plants that can germinate and grow in shady, crowded conditions dominate.  This entire process is called ecological succession; the final types of vegetation that will grow in an area are known as the "climax vegetation."

So what happens if the climax vegetation gets removed?  Succession begins again - with the "weeds" whose seeds are easily transportable showing up.  Their job, if you will, is to hold the soil in place until more permanent vegetation can take over and maintain the capital, a.k.a. the soil, that has built up over thousands of years.

The more the soil is disturbed, the more "weeds" will appear.

What we are doing when we garden or farm is to continually remove the perennial vegetation and take the soil back to its most vulnerable state - bare and open.  Nature wants to stabilize that soil as soon as possible, so that the soil doesn't wash or blow away.  In come the weeds.

The gardener - or farmer - cusses the weeds and clears the soil again, so that ONLY the plant he/she wants to grow will be there.  But rarely is the desired plant able to fill the cleared space rapidly enough and completely enough to truly stabilize the soil.  So in come the weeds again.  And the cycle continues.

Along the roadside, this mix of plains coreopsis, cheat, wheat stubble and field weeds is composed of essentially all annual plants.  The wheat was desired; the rest of the mix is considered "weeds", at least to the farmer.  Why is it all growing here?  Because the soil has been exposed recently and nature is trying to stabilize it.

If you widen the view to take in the entire ditch, you see that where the soil hasn't been plowed or opened by herbicide action recently, a mix of perennials is growing:  butterfly milkweed and various prairie grasses in this case.  It's far from perfect, since frequent low mowing often opens up soil, encouraging other, early successional, "weedy", plants to move in.

The moral of my tale?  Understand what nature is trying to accomplish with "weeds" and plan accordingly.  Learn to work WITH nature, rather than fighting against it.  Mulching between plants, for example, helps tremendously because it covers (and helps stabilize) the soil.  Mowing high (or not mowing at all) is likely to leave much less soil exposed and thus make an area less amenable to "weed" growth.

Why do I keep putting the word, "weed," in quotes?  Because a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place.  To nature, bare soil is a form of an emergency and what we humans call "weeds" are nature's emergency response team.  Therefore, to nature, annuals are important...and aren't weeds at all.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Facing the Spider Wasp Gauntlet

For the last 5 summers or so, generally during June and July, I find myself facing a gauntlet of hovering, blue-winged, red wasps every time I pass through the opening between our breezeway and the back yard.

Wasps are my "phobic animal", so it takes a bit of courage every time I venture this way, usually to take the trash or recycling out or to water plants.  I've never been stung or even threatened with stinging, despite going through this gauntlet many times, but the hovering wasps give me an adrenaline jolt nonetheless.

Last summer, I finally figured out what these wasps were and what was going on, which I blogged about in "The Wasp Version of Baby Bottles":  these are (solitary) spider wasps, probably of the genus Tachypompilus.  That means my gauntlet of hovering wasps are a bunch of males, checking me out to see if I'm a female wasp in need of their fertilization services.  Since they have no egg-laying equipment, they have no stingers and couldn't hurt me if they wanted to...a biological pronouncement that I am, nevertheless, NOT going to test!

Interestingly, two weeks ago when I visited fellow Master Gardener Sid's home (which is about 5 miles from mine "as the crow - or wasp - flies"), I saw that he and his wife have a population of the same species of wasp.  Their spider wasps also make their nest cells between the finished concrete surface of their porch and the rougher foundation, just like mine.  Sid and Sandy, too, have watched the female wasps bring back paralyzed spiders to provision those nest cells for their eggs/young.

Occasionally I get a glimpse of a female out in the garden, prowling for her spider prey.  They move very quickly and, like most predators, are well aware of my presence.  They hide as soon as they possibly can, even while continuing to hunt, which makes photographing them a real challenge.  I usually see them on the ground, but that may just be a function of when I'm most likely to be still enough to notice them, which is when I'm weeding.

The more I learn about wasps and bees, especially about our native solitary species, the more interested and enamored I become.  Unless you try to capture a female and hold her, they are extremely unlikely to sting.  These wasps are important predators, helping to maintain balance between plants and plant-eaters and predators in our gardens, as they provision their nest cells with spiders or caterpillars or grasshoppers or cicadas.

And speaking of cicadas, I'm hearing the first few males warming up now in the afternoon.  The summer chorus is about to begin...and the cicada killer wasps won't be far behind.

Cicada killers are huge, frightening looking wasps that nest in bare dirt, often underneath decks.  Just as in "my" spider wasps, the males patrol the nesting area, trying to find females to mate with - but despite their scary looks, they have no equipment they can use for stinging.  The females can sting, but they are inevitably too busy hunting for cicadas and lugging them back to their nests (which they alone dig out) to bother with humans nearby.  Just don't try to pick one up....

In general, I'd say the spider wasps are around for about 2 months, and the cicada killers generally are seen for only about a month.  So if you find yourself sharing your garden with these winged creatures, have patience, keep your eyes open for the hardworking females, and practice conquering your fears!  Your yard will be healthier for it.