Saturday, July 26, 2008

Summertime Blues

It's been so busy lately that I haven't been blogging much. For that matter, lately it seems that I'm just not going outside much either.

Of course, temperatures that are consistently in the upper 90's have quite a bit to do with that. I'd have to say that this is one of my least favorite times of year. Heat and I just don't get along well these days.

When I do get outside, I usually spend my time watering, picking blossoms and buds off basil plants, or handpicking pests off my tomato, potato, and squash plants. I'd rather do the latter than spray chemicals - or lose my plants to these voracious eaters - but it's definitely not my favorite garden activity.

Last year my biggest insect issue was squash bugs. This year I read a hint somewhere recommending that you plant potatoes around your squash hills as a way to control these pests. Well, it was too late for that, but I reasoned that tomatoes were in the same family as potatoes, so I planted tomato plants at each corner of that bed, then interplanted basil for good measure.

Results? Not too bad. I've had a few squash bugs, but only a few so far. The squash vines are long, luscious and beginning to set fruit. It's early days to say for sure, but right now I'm definitely going to repeat this planting combination next year.

So this year my chief bugaboo is black blister beetles. Yuck. These guys are relishing the remnants of my potato plants and starting in on the tomatoes. So far I haven't found any natural predators preying on them, but I can always hope. Meanwhile I've started my morning p.b. (jar) and soapy water assault run. If I could remember to wear gloves, I'd probably dread this task less, but I always seem to find myself ready to start with bare hands. Then I'm too lazy to walk back to the house and find the gloves to put them on. (I'm also afraid that if I got back into the air conditioning, I'd find lots of reasons not to brave the heat and humidity again that morning!)

So I steel myself and start handpicking. The little brats are very good at dropping to the ground and quickly diving into the mulch there, so I've developed a routine of holding the jar with its soapy waters of death underneath the bug I'm targetting, then trying to knock it off the plant into the "target zone". My last resort is to actually grab the black beastie between my fingers and carry it to its doom. I manage to zap about 75% of the ones I see by this rather inefficient combination of techniques.

The reason these guys give me such a case of the willies eludes me. They can't bite. Their bodies are soft. Theoretically they emit a liquid that stinks and can cause blisters, but I've never had any problems with either issue. Logic, however, doesn't operate well when it comes to this sort of visceral reaction, so I just grit my teeth and get to the task at hand.

Speaking of which, I've neglected my bug guard duty this morning, and writing about it has given me a good case of guilty conscience. So I guess I'll go grab my trusty peanut butter jar, fill it with fresh soapy water, gird my loins (so to speak), and get it done.

Then, maybe, my halo will dully glow for at least a little while!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Current Favorite Quote

I saw this quote on a stepping stone and it captured my fancy. Unfortunately, the stepping stone was resin, which I dislike, so I didn't get it. Hopefully someday I'll find something more natural with this saying on it....

"We come from the Earth. We return to the Earth. In between, we garden."

Prairie Remnant or Overgrazed Pasture?

I wish I could make up my mind. Some mornings I come back from my walk-about fully energized and excited, sure that I've seen yet another sign that our back 5 acres is a prairie remnant, albeit an overgrazed one.

Then there are mornings (like this morning) when I come back discouraged, sure that all we have is an overgrazed pasture with a few prairie plants in it.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure why it makes a difference to me. It's actually just a matter of semantics...and perhaps an indicator of my day's mindset.

On the "overgrazed pasture" side: the predominant grasses are silver bluestem and smooth brome. There are lots of green antelopehorn milkweed, as well as quite a bit of yarrow, wavy-leafed thistle and ironweed. Foreign "invaders" and weedy species include (besides the brome) yellow sweetclover, foxtail, and windmill grass.

On the "overgrazed prairie remnant" side: 5 leadplants, 3 small patches of sideoats grama, quite a bit of buffalograss, 2 showy milkweeds, lots of wild alfalfa, multiple large patches of white prairie clover, a large area with quite a bit of prairie coneflower and black-eyed Susan, and a couple dozen dotted gayfeather plants. I'm not seeing any sign of big or little bluestem, Indian grass, or switchgrass, although it's certainly possible that I'm just missing them because they haven't headed out yet.

In the long run what matters is how the species composition changes. And on the positive side, I'm pretty sure we've had eastern meadowlarks and dickcissels nesting. I know we had a killdeer that nested, and I hear quail calling fairly frequently.

We'll just keep managing it to the best of our ability and see what happens. Meanwhile, maybe I'll start looking at it as my daily "mood-o-meter"!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hints for Happiness

Reading the paper, believe it or not, makes me happy. Not necessarily the news that I get from reading it, but the simple fact that I have the time to sit down and scan through the articles, the columns, the ads, the comics and the puzzles. On really good days, I have time to do the puzzles, and on excellent days I find something good or funny or useful that I can incorporate into my life to make it richer in some way.

Yesterday was an excellent newspaper day. My find was in a column by Suzanne Perez Tobias, "Happiness: Plan it, do it, remember it." She talked about happiness in her own (and her children's) life, and gave a link to an excellent blog titled "The Happiness Project".

The Happiness Project is the work of Gretchen Rubin, a lawyer turned writer who is taking a year (possibly more?) to personally test every theory she can on what makes people happy. She is blogging about the experience and, concurrently, writing a book to be published in late 2009.

A quote from her blog that I think is particularly interesting, "My research has shown me that a key to happiness is squeezing out as much happiness as possible from a happy event. Unhappy people don’t have fewer happy experiences as happy people, they just think about them less. [Italics added.]"

She goes on to outline 4 stages to increase the happiness you experience from life:
1. Anticipate upcoming events with pleasure,
2. Savor happy moments as you experience them,
3. Express happiness to yourself and others, and
4. Reflect on happy memories of the event or moment.

I really like this idea! It's so simple, but potentially life-changing. Personally, I'm terrible at the first step - when I have an upcoming potentially happy event, I tend to focus on problems that may arise (like focusing on the hassle of getting ready to leave on vacation, rather than on the vacation itself; or focusing on my fears over being inappropriately dressed, rather than on a fun event that we've scheduled). I'm a little better on the other 3 steps, but could certainly do more with each one.

Check into her blog, if you get a chance. It's now happily ensconced on my list of favorites, and I know I'll be checking it with great regularily!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Echinacea vs. Checkerspot Caterpillars Redux

Chock one up gardening?

...lazy gardening?

...letting nature take the lead?

...all of the above?

About a month ago I noticed a bunch of skeletonized leaves on my 2 young Echinacea plants, which I blogged about here and here. It turned out that the leaves were being eaten by checkerspot caterpillars and, by the time I figured out what they were, their numbers had decreased fairly significantly.

Based on what I observed and learned during this brief incident, the caterpillars were eaten by cardinals, eaten by wheel bug nymphs, and probably dispersed to other plants through their natural life cycle. (Note: I haven't noticed damage on any nearby plants, so if they dispersed, they didn't do any damage that I've noted.)

I thought you might be interested in what the little Echinacea ('Sundown'), shown in my first blog on the subject, looks like now. It has 2 blooms, easy to see in the photo, and another 3 healthy flower buds. You can see the shredded leaves still, but there have been many more healthy leaves added. All in all, the plant looks healthy and happy and is a real asset in our entry garden. It's growing bigger by the day. Predator populations are thriving. I have no idea how many, if any, caterpillars survived and whether they've turned into checkerspot butterflies, but a few certainly could have.

Cost of insecticide: $0

Hours of shopping, driving, and spraying: 0

End result: Priceless.