Sunday, September 20, 2009

Solely Solidago Again (or Glowing Goldenrods, Part III)

At last we're getting to the goldenrods that are currently in bloom.

The classic one is Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis. It's big. It's bold. It's beautiful. It's...vigorous. In fact, lots of people don't like goldenrods because they assume that all goldenrods are going to act like Canada goldenrod, which likes to expand its territory by sending out horizontal rhizomes. Lots of horizontal rhizomes, from which come tall, vertical stems. One plant rapidly becomes a large clump of many plants. (There are some hybrid cultivars of this species available now, selected often for both smaller size and less invasive tendencies. They are gorgeous, well mannered, and they make excellent garden flowers.) Canada goldenrod can be wonderful in the wild, though, where large swathes of it create golden pockets along the roadsides and in the fields. Its glorious yellow blossoms seem to support an entire community of insects...but that's a good subject for another post.

Another goldenrod that is currently in bloom is stiff goldenrod, Solidago rigida. When both the common name and the scientific name agree on a characteristic (in this case, stiff or rigid), it's a sure bet that something about the plant will be obviously described by the characteristic mentioned. With stiff goldenrod, the stems are very upright, the flowers are fairly flat-topped, and the leaves are particularly stiff when you feel them. The whole plant screams rigid, in fact, especially when compared to a looser textured goldenrod like the elm-leaved goldenrod. Whether this seems like a Type A plant or not, it's showy, well-mannered, and fun to include in the flower garden. I have a few in the front flower bed, and one lone plant in the back five acres.

The last species I'd like to talk about in this post is Fireworks goldenrod, Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks'. Fireworks goldenrod is one of those plants that you can't forget if you've ever seen it in bloom. It works best in masses, I think, but it takes special placement to make it seem graceful, rather than overwhelming. This photo isn't from my yard, but I think the homeowner (a landscape architect) has used this plant particularly well, wrapping it around the base of a redbud on a slope where it seems to spiral upwards, leading you along the path and providing movement to the planting bed. Solidago rugosa, wrinkled leaf goldenrod, is actually not native to Kansas, but is native in Missouri and further east. Fireworks, however, seems quite at home in this area, both culturally and aesthetically.

Don't all of these gorgeous, sunshiny yellow blooms just lift your spirits? Goldenrod is a great plant!

Solely Solidago (or Glowing Goldenrod, Part II)

I warned you that I love goldenrod and would be posting more about it. Well, this is that dreaded post...because now is goldenrod season. In fact, had I waited much longer, goldenrod season would be officially over.

Actually, I've cheated you somewhat. One of the species I want to talk about is done blooming. It was the second goldenrod species to bloom in our yard this year, elm-leaved goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia).

I'd guesstimate that this species stayed in bloom for about a month, beginning in mid August and finishing about a week ago. One nice thing about elm-leaved goldenrod is that it prefers at least part shade, making it a nice pop of color in sometimes dark areas of the garden. It's also very hardy and, so far at least, has had very good manners. I've not noticed any unwanted "children" springing up, nor have I seen evidence of the vigorous suckering that can make some goldenrods seem rather thuggish. I'd highly recommend planting this goldenrod, too.

The next goldenrod coming into bloom was in the natural areas. Missouri goldenrod, Solidago missouriensis, is a rather short goldenrod. It's one of the first to bloom in the prairie. While it will form colonies, they are quite open and not intrusive at all. My only beef with this guy is that its bloom season is too short for me, lasting just a couple weeks.

Due to Blogspot's dislike of my photo file sizes, I'll continue this subject in another post....

They HAD To Exist....And We Proved That They Do!

Prairiewolf and I actually found a mythical creature the other day...and I have a photo to prove it.

All our lives, we have found adult box turtles, but we've never found a baby. We knew they had to exist, but after over 100 years between us, we'd never seen one and they were taking on mythical status.

No more. Driving down Tyler Road last week, we both saw this tiny little silhouette at about the same time. Prairiewolf screeched to a halt and backed up. Sure enough, it was a tiny little box turtle determinedly crossing the road from a plowed field to a large mowed yard. Since neither habitat was optimum, we picked the little guy up and brought him home, photograhing him quite a bit, before releasing him out back.
I thought this photo of Ranger checking him out was fun because it shows the baby's size so clearly. Ranger, by the way, is quite small for a full grown male cat. (Sorry my exposure is so lousy. I seriously need to learn to use PhotoShop Elements more efficiently.)

I felt a little worried as I walked off, after releasing him. He was so small and there were so many big things that could hurt or kill him. At least we tried to increase his chances by bringing him to a location that isn't plowed and where habitat is plentiful.

Hopefully we'll see him again, well on his way to adulthood, one of these days!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Words Worth a Thousand Pictures

I'm reading William Least Heat-Moon's latest book, Roads to Quoz. Normally I wait until I finish a book before I do a "book review" here on the blog, but I'm enjoying his use of language so much that I have to share at least a few snippets here and now, when I'm barely one fourth of the way through the book. (I have a little bit of an excuse: it IS a long book, having 562 pages, not including the "Valedictories.")

Describing his English lit profs as he worked towards his "Phud," many years ago, at the ripe old age of about 30: "If any youthful moisture of soul remained in them, it had turned to mildew. The range of their dry-hearted, withered passions ran only from annoyance to worry, with every petty stage between and nothing beyond." (p. 163)

Descriptions from the Gulf Coast of Florida....

"The old cafe, its floors showing more relief than the surrounding land, had commensurately undulating wooden walls and ceiling,..." (p. 173)

"Sagging down like a line of wet laundry, old U.S. 98 followed the curve of the Gulf about as closely as a road could, the sound of the waves sometimes overcoming the hum and thrum of auto tires." (p. 176)

"The difference between the water on the roof and the humid air under it was distinguishable largely by the noise [of the hard rain coming down]." (p. 179)

A philosophical comment about memories from prior trips while traveling, "As dyspepsia is to a diner, so personal nostalgia is to the traveler." (p. 177)

And Heat-Moon's vocabulary! I rarely run across books where I have to look up words with any frequency at all - but I'm finding the need to keep a dictionary close by with this book. Not in a bad way, mind you, but rather in a "richness of the English language" sort of way. Without giving away the secret of which words I didn't know, here are a few that caught my attention in the same 3 short chapters from which I took my several quotes:

nimble conspectuses
piscatorial prophylaxis (describing mullet fish dip)
"third places"

Let me leave you with two more quotes. The first is describing the geography of Florida, and the second was the response of an oysterbar owner when asked if the humidity bothered him....

"While not hollow, Florida a few inches down is as porous as a weathered thighbone you might find in a High Plains pasture.... [Florida's] a piece of loosely stuck geology not so much affixed to the continent as merely anchored for the night." (p. 168)

" ' You know why little old ladies come here?' To find little old men? 'They come here to rehydrate their skins. Get one of them good and damp, and she can shuffle off ten years. Who wants to feel a dry sponge when he can have a damp one?' ...'Ever been to Arizona? Have you seen those old gals out there? The short ones turn into raisins and the big ones look like prunes. No Georgia Peaches in that desert.' " (p. 179-180)

On that colorful, if misogynistic, quote, I will end for now. I'm ready to get back to reading!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Battle for Life and Death in a Blue Haze

When we left off our last post, we had introduced a dead monarch butterfly at the base of a Black Adder Agastache and at least one wheel bug hiding in the leaves every time I looked closely at the plant....

That first morning, I noticed a wheel bug moving. Relocating, so to speak, to better hunting grounds. It delicately walked from one stem to another, going across a bridge of leaves. Then, while I continued to watch, it settled into a spot on the underside of a leaf, in the shade. (Menacing music commences.)

I got distracted by other photo opportunities and soon left the area.
That evening as I walked by the plant, I noticed a hapless Delaware skipper caught in the wheel bug's embrace, kicking feebly as its life was literally sucked out of it.

When I checked tonight, the wheel bug (or another just like it) was still there, walking majestically around its plant kingdom. There were now 4 carcasses below the plant: the monarch, 2 Delaware skippers, and an orange sulfur. Who knows how many other remains are there, camoflaged against the brown of the mulch.

Who knew organic gardening could be so vicariously violent? It's a sobering reminder that life isn't always pretty, even the life of beautiful, "harmless" animals like the monarch butterfly.

Bending My "Rules" a Bit for Blue

In my front flower garden, I've been evolving a policy of "natives only." I'm not completely sure why I picked that bed to be so rigorous about, but it has to do with the bed having a relatively sunny location and with my not wanting to have to water it a lot. There's also the challenge of using primarily natives, grown organically, to make a strong cottage garden effect that looks good. I'm especially aiming for a cottage garden look that doesn't scream "Natives here, folks! Grown organically! Only scaggy plants need apply!"

I'm not as hardcore about using just natives as my instinct tells me to be. As Prairiewolf is apt to note, I can be a little unbending when it comes to that and to gardening organically. In point of fact, though, I have MANY horticultural varieties and cultivars that aren't of local source in this bed and I have even planted a few species that are found in nearby states but not in Kansas. (My backyard "courtyard garden" is where I tend to site my non-native species. I'm not enough of a native snob that I don't love my peonies, iris, and Knockout roses.)

All that said and put aside, I've bent my newly developing front garden rules to include a hybrid that is basically a bicontinental freak of (non)nature: Black Adder hyssop (Agastache 'Black Adder'), a plant that is half northern North American and half Korean in parentage. It's proving to be as attractive to the insect life in the yard as it is to me visually.

I'm a sucker for blue flowers, especially gorgeous spikes of rich blue flowers, and since delphiniums turn up their noses (and toes) at our surroundings here, I have to look beyond the obvious to satisfy my cravings. So when I saw this tiny little seedling in a 2" pot, offered at Dyck Arboretum's spring plant sale, and noticed the blue flower spikes shown on the plastic label, I gave in to temptation. Just one wouldn't be too obvious....

Of course, then I went and planted it front and center in the garden, a spot it seems to enjoy inhabiting. It has done extremely well and has been blooming for quite a while now. (Luckily it is supposed to be sterile, being a hybrid, so I shouldn't have to be plucking out seedlings by the gazillions.) For kicks and giggles, a few days ago I photographed a few of the insects I saw around it.

It was morning and the weather was relatively cool for August - in the upper 70's to low 80's. Skippers, especially, were enjoying the nectar feast. I don't know my skippers well at all, but I think that the orange one is Delaware skipper (Anatrytone logan) and the brown one with a big white spot on its hind wings is the silverspotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus). Both make sense as inhabitants of this yard, as the Delaware skipper's larval food is bluestem grasses and switchgrass, and the silverspotted skipper's larval food is black locust, honey locust and false indigo (Baptisia sp.). We certainly have lots of larval food for both species around here!

There was a dead monarch below the plant (more on that in the next post) and an orange sulfur butterfly (Colias eurytheme) flitting around. I was able to capture the sulfur feeding....

Since then, I've started watching this plant particularly. There are always insects on it. Fritillaries, painted ladies, monarchs, bumble bees, wasps, and skippers, skippers and more skippers. It's definitely not a sterile place holder in the yard.
Every time I look, I see at least one wheel bug on it too.
But, again, I'll leave that for the next post....

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tallgrass Time

It's the month of tallgrass lengthening. The big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) has shot up and its flowers are open on the tall spikes.

The Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) is beginning to open its flower spikes too.

As I walk through the prairie pastures on the paths that Prairiewolf mows for me, the bluestem is at least head high, sometimes higher. Suddenly the paths feel enclosed, and I can't help but think back to the settlers traveling across the prairies. It's only been about 150 years, but what a different landscape experience they would have had compared to our modern experience of open, plowed fields, mile-gridded roads, and soldierly hedgerows marking the horizon.
What will be here in 150 more years?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Harvest is Pouring In, Part 3

So that leaves us with the squash, the potatoes and onions.

The squash is actually a summer squash called Costata Romanesca. I planted all of my squash late (the July 4th weekend); this is the first one to produce fruits that I can pick. The vines and leaves of this squash are HUGE. The leaves are about 2' across, the vines are short and tightly packed with leaf stems, blossoms and fruit. We've eaten one of these squash, which I prepared by slicing, then sauteeing with onion in butter. It was excellent.
Knock on wood, so far planting the squash late has worked very well this year. I've had much less trouble with squash bugs than usual. We'll see if I get any winter squash, however. They take longer to mature, so they may or may not produce well before frost.

I've left the center plate for last. The onions on it are not unusual - just yellow and red onion sets from the local grocery store. I don't know what I'm doing yet with onions, so the bulbs are very small. I'll figure it out one of these days.
The potatoes are different, however. Like the tomatoes, squash and Italian sweet peppers, they are all heirloom varieties from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The big, yellow potatoes in the back are Yukon Golds. I planted them in late May but, despite their late start, they did quite well. I started with 2 1/2 pounds of seed potatoes, which I cut into 11 pieces/plants. I harvested about 14 pounds of potatoes, and they are wonderful - blemish free and so tasty!
The rosy red potatoes are Red Cloud and I planted them (and the last variety, Rose Gold) VERY late - sometime in early-mid June. They didn't do very well as far as potato production went before the black blister beetles basically brought their life cycle to an end. The Rose Golds seemed like the most attractive to the blister beetles of all 3 varieties and they were stopped in their tracks very early, leaving me with a fair number of very small little "fingerling" size potatoes that don't amount to much. I've been debating replanting both of these last 2 varieties as a fall crop, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

So that's my mid-summer harvesting so far. As far as producing the most poundage, the winners right now are the Yukon Gold potatoes, the Garden Peach and the Arkansas Traveler tomatoes, the Costata Romanesca summer squash, and the jalapeno peppers. Now I have to get very busy canning and storing all these wonderful gifts from the garden!

The Harvest is Pouring In, Part 2

Continuing around the tabletop display, the next tomato to the right is Old Virginia. This is another new variety for us. We have 2 vines planted - one is looking great, the other is browning out badly. The flavor of the fruits is excellent. I don't know if the little bumps on them are typical of the variety, or if this type is attracting some bug (that I'm not noticing) that's feeding a bit on the fruit. I suspect the former, although the description in the catalog said nothing about them.

The last of the heirloom varieties I tried this year is the one fruit perched on top of the jalapeno peppers in the next bowl. This is Granny Cantrell's German. I've got 2 vines planted - one has never done well and has no fruit set on it at all. The other vine is growing reasonably well, but hasn't set many fruit and is browning out badly. I haven't tasted the fruit yet - this is the first one that has been produced. Unless the taste is truly incredible, I have to assume that I won't grow this variety again. It may be fine for Kentucky (where it originates), but it doesn't seem to like south-central Kansas.

The last type of tomato I'm growing is Rutgers, a typical hybrid that I was given by a friend. Interestingly, it was the first vine to set a fruit, but that first fruit ripened after the first Green Grapes, Garden Peaches and Arkansas Travelers. The vine has browned out as badly as any of the heirloom vines, so if this variety is supposed to be resistant to anything, I'm not impressed. The few on this plate are the sum total of fruits that I have harvested so far, so I haven't taste tested any.

Sharing the plate with the Rutgers tomatoes are Jimmy Nardello's Italian sweet peppers. While the bushes aren't as prolific as the jalapeno bushes, they are doing very well and producing quite a few fruits. Raw, the peppers taste very much like thin, sweet green peppers. I haven't experimented much with them yet, but they are fun to see in the garden.

One more post should finish up my explanations and descriptions for now....

The Harvest is Pouring In

I'm having a grand time taste-testing all of the different vegetable varieties we've grown this summer. There are several new ones and a couple tried and true. Here's a photo of the variety that we've been getting lately....

All but one variety of the tomatoes are heirlooms from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. In fact, I guess we got all of our heirloom seeds there this year, including the squash, peppers and potatoes in the photo too.

It's an interesting summer as far as tomatoes go. I got them in the ground somewhat late this year (about May 20th, if I remember correctly). They didn't start producing for quite a while, and I only got my first ripe tomatoes about a week ago. Until a couple weeks ago, the vines looked healthier than I've ever seen tomato vines look, but once they started actually producing fruit, about half of them started browning out VERY badly. Instead of losing a few leaves from the bottom up, they've lost most of the main leaves on the vines. The fruit seems fine, however. Anyway, on to the descriptions....

The sunshine yellow tomatoes are called Garden Peach and they have an interestingly soft but thick skin. I only have one vine of this variety planted out and it has produced more, so far, than 2 or more vines of each of the other varieties. However, it is browning out very badly this year, so I don't know how long it will continue producing. The taste is very good, although the soft, thick skin can be a little disconcerting.

Next to them on the right (I'm moving clockwise) are the pinky-red Arkansas Traveler tomatoes. We grew these when we lived north of Topeka and they were one of our favorites there. They still are a favorite, even down here. Arkansas Traveler tomatoes continue to set in higher heat than most tomatoes and they are incredibly flavorful. I have four vines of this variety this summer - 3 look very good, while the 4th (which started producing earliest) is browning out badly.

The yellow-green cherry tomatoes next around the circle are Green Grape tomatoes, another of our favorites from years before. Another that is still a favorite now. In fact, the reason the Green Grape bowl has so many fewer tomatoes than most of the other bowls is not because the vines are producing less, but rather because they are so perfectly sized to pop in my mouth that I can't resist doing it on a regular basis. I have 2 vines of Green Grape this summer - one is looking great; the other is browning out very badly.

I'll continue this in another post, as it's easiest to identify each of the types of tomatoes and so forth by highlighting the photos.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Serendipity in Stone

While shopping at an estate sale last week, I noticed this little stone bench almost hiding in the ivy. It wasn't priced, but I asked and they were willing to sell it. I think it had been waiting for me!

Not wanting to ruin either Prairiewolf's or my back, I hired a moving company to get it home; Tony and his helper very kindly even positioned it for me, out under a black willow by the draw. Prairiewolf has been mowing a wonderful round area for me there, where I can look across the draw underneath the canopy, but I had no where to sit down...until now. (Since the area floods during heavy rains, putting wooden or plastic chairs under there wasn't a viable option.) The stone bench works perfectly.

Here's my view in the late afternoon....

I'll let you know when I see anything exciting down here!

An Enigmatic Beneficial

Yesterday evening I got bored in the house and grabbed the camera to take a walk along the paths. The light wasn't great, but I captured a few interesting shots, including this one of a gorgeous little wasp-like creature feeding on snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata).

Going to, I was able to identify it without too much trouble: an adult poison ivy sawfly. The species name is Arge humeralis. The larvae, which look like caterpillars, feed exclusively on poison ivy, which definitely makes them a beneficial insect in my book. Since we have lots of poison ivy around, I'm fairly confident of this identification.

However, I can't find much other information about the species at all. It's apparently being researched as a potential biological control for poison ivy. One site mentions that the larvae feed gregariously, i.e. in a group, but I could find no real verification of that.

Donald Stokes' book, Observing Insect Lives, talks about sawflies being one of the most primitive types of wasps because they have no stinger and because they are plant feeders. Their ovipositor, or egg-layer, is a small-to-large, saw-like structure - hence the name, sawfly. In sawflies, the ovipositor is used to insert the eggs into plants. In more "advanced" wasps and bees, this structure develops into the stinger that we all love to fear.

I've never seen the larvae, but will definitely be keeping my eyes open for them in the future. Who knows, maybe we'll have insect help in keeping the blasted poison ivy under control in the future!

Friday, August 07, 2009

False Parasols, Another Fungus Among Us

Despite having no confidence at all in my mycological knowledge and/or skills, I've been working to notice and identify various mushrooms around our yard. I think I've nailed another one.

We have one area in our front lawn where a partial fairy ring periodically appears. The mushrooms of this ring are large and generally white, almost "picture perfect" mushrooms, in fact.

It turns out that they are the poster child for why you don't eat the mushrooms you find. If my identification is correct (and I think it is), these are false parasols, aka green spored parasols, aka Chlorophyllum molybdites. Many of the ones in our yard right now are 8" in diameter and they look delicious, as mushrooms go, but the information I could find said that they caused severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, and projectile vomiting about 1-2 hours after eating. They are apparently the mushroom most often causing accidental poisonings. I only found one reported fatality, but they sure don't sound like a fun dining experience.

So if you find these guys in your lawn (and they like lawns a lot), enjoy their ambience but DON'T be tempted to save a few bucks on your grocery bill. If you do, it sounds like you'll be sorry.

Barefoot in the Grass, Part 2

Having been captivated lately by the idea of going barefoot as much as possible, Prairiewolf and I started researching the new "barefoot technology" shoes available. Truly barefoot is fine for lawn grass, dirt, straw and concrete, but less inviting for prairiegrass stubble and rock driveways, both of which are important components of our yard. In the past week, going barefoot, I have "located" a big splinter on our deck, as well as numerous pine cones and sticks hidden in the grass. Nothing disastrous, but not always comfortable.

So, having decided that "barefoot shoes" were a good idea to try out, our first impulse was to find the new Vivo Barefoot technology shoes. We soon learned, however, that these are only available from one store in New York. We could mailorder them, but we couldn't try them on before purchasing them. On top of that, the Vivo Barefoots run $120-160/pair, which seemed a little steep for experimental purposes.

The other brand mentioned was Vibram Five Fingers, which we were able to locate locally, so off we went to try them out. They run about $85/pair, so they were about half the cost of the Vivo Barefoots.

I'm the one home more often, as well as the one who has foot problems periodiocally, so we opted to make me the guinea pig. I wanted the style that came almost to the ankle - even though it is harder to get on, it is reported to be better at keeping dirt and gravel out of the shoes, an important consideration if I'm going to wear them around the yard and garden in them a lot. Our local store didn't have that style in women's shoes, but did have it in the men's line, so I bought a pair of the men's and they fit me fine.

So here are my feet, sturdily encased in their barefoot shoes. I have walked up and down the driveway several times with no problem. I can feel the stones; occasionally one feels somewhat sharp and reminds me to walk lightly, but I've not had bruising or significant issues. The shoes felt strange at first (and still look strange to me - I call them my gorilla shoes), but are very comfortable once I began to get used to them. I'm not sure I'm ready to run in them yet, but then I'm not really ready to run in any shoes! I'm definitely happy to walk in them, though, and I'm curious to see whether I notice a difference in the health of my feet overall.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Open Eyes and Serendipity

It's amazing what you can see when you keep your eyes open...and get outside to look.

Earlier this evening, after posting my comment on the ash tree boletes and woolly ash aphids, I decided to try identifying several other mushrooms I've seen in the yard recently. Since the photos I'd taken a couple days ago weren't detailed enough, that necessitated going back outside to look at the actual mushrooms...which necessitated coming back inside to get my camera to rephotograph the new, young mushrooms I was seeing...which necessitated lying flat on my stomach in the grass to get a good angle...which still didn't lead to a definitive identification.

Anyway, once I was outside with camera in hand, I decided to take a little stroll around the front of the property to see what else I could spy on. I got reasonable shots of ironweed and snow-on-the-mountain blooming, one of my little milkweeds, a couple grasshoppers, and then I came to a cicada on a small Siberian elm sapling....

I took my first shot against the light, then went to the other side to get another angle with better lighting. The cicada stayed put which, in the late evening hours, was nice but not terribly unusual. In the better light, though, I noticed a series of "scars" on the twig just behind the cicada. Then I noticed the abdomen pulsing a bit. Suddenly I put 2 and 2 together and realized I was watching a female laying eggs into a twig! That's her, at the start of this post. Note her ovipositor inserted into the twig. Note, too, the angled holes behind her where she had already laid eggs. I'll go back in the morning and see how many holes she drilled in all. Who knows, maybe she'll still be there!
Had I gone outside looking for a cicada laying eggs, I'd never have found one. I probably wouldn't even have found a cicada that I could photograph. However, just by keeping my eyes open and having my camera ready, I found something I'd never witnessed before and was even able to document it photographically. As Qkslvrwolf would say, "Sweeeet!"

Oh, What a Tangled Web....

The more I learn about the natural relationships just in our yard, the more awestruck I am at the complexity and balance within nature....

This summer I've been seeing these big, ugly mushrooms in the grass of our back (court)yard area. They range up to about 8" in diameter, are yellowish-brown on top, and their caps become wavy as they mature, sometimes revealing their yellow undersides in a rather flirtatious way. These mushrooms have very short stems that are generally hidden and often off center. Evidently they are extroverts - in that they usually occur in small clusters.

Yesterday while I was clearing out a new area for a bed, I ran into a large group of them hidden in the grass and weeds that had grown up. There was no way to do the weeding I wanted to do without touching the mushrooms quite often and I began to wonder if I needed to be cautious about handling them. That led, rather naturally, to feeling the urge to identify them.

The first book I checked left me feeling inadequate, so I moved on to A Guide to Kansas Mushrooms. Success! What I had were ash tree boletes, aka Boletinellus merulioides. Not only were these mushrooms not poisonous, they are actually supposed to be edible (with the small caveat that they taste rather like dirt). They are found under ash trees, as their name suggests. Coincidentally, the two trees shading our courtyard are green ash. It all seemed very straightforward.

Being somewhat compulsive about these things, though, I wanted to find out a little bit more about their biology, so I continued my search on the web. That's when I got a few hints that things might be a touch more complicated than they had looked initially.

The first site I visited,, talked about ash tree boletes not actually being mycorrhizal with ash trees, as I had assumed, but symbiotic with ash tree aphids. Hunh?

Another site said they were "associated with the aphid farming of ants around ash trees."

Finally I found a site by Oregon State University that named the aphid in question, Prociphilus fraxinifolii. Other sites gave me common names for the aphids involved, woolly ash aphid or ash leafcurl aphid. (Multiple common names for the same species of plant or animal is why scientific names are so wonderful.)

While I am not sure that I have the entire life cycle and interrelationship completely figured out, here is what I can piece together so far.... The woolly ash aphid (aka ash leafcurl aphid) seems to feed on the ash tree in two places: in the spring it feeds on newly emerging leaves, creating a deformed, curled effect in them that is especially problematic in young nursery plants; the rest of the year it seems to feed on the roots. The aphids can overwinter either as eggs in the tree bark, or as immatures below ground on the roots. When feeding on the roots, the aphids are surrounded by sclerotial tissue from the ash tree bolete, providing the mushroom with "honeydew" sugars as food in return for shelter and probably protection from predators from the mushroom. Again and again I read that ash tree boletes do not have a mycorrhizal relationship with the ash trees themselves.

So I am left with questions: Have I missed a major wrinkle in this complex relationship? Can the ash tree bolete survive without the aphids? Does the fact that I have numerous ash tree bolete mushrooms this year mean that we will have a bad outbreak of woolly ash aphids next year? (I see no signs of curly leaves on my trees this year, although there could be a few curly leaves hidden within the canopy.) Should I remove and destroy the ash tree boletes to interrupt the life cycle of the aphids? Do I trust my identification skills enough that I'm willing to cook up some ash tree boletes and taste test them?

Time will answer some of these questions. If anyone else has an answer or two for me, I'd be happy to hear them. Meanwhile, I'll just wait and watch...and probably NOT try taste testing. Somehow, the idea of a dirt-flavored mushroom isn't quite appetizing enough to risk much for!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Barefoot in the Grass

It's amazing. Three days ago I hadn't heard a thing about the research showing that shoes are actually crippling our feet in Western society, rather than protecting them. Suddenly I'm running into articles about going barefoot every time I turn around.

First I saw an article in our local paper, the Wichita Eagle, on Tuesday. It was based on an interview with author Christopher McDougall, whose book Born to Run has apparently become a recent bestseller.

Later that day I saw a blog entry about the benefits of going barefoot on a blog by Rebecca Clay Haines that Ienjoy and occasionally check on.

Now today a good friend of Qkslvrwolf has a blog post about running barefoot for the first time, plus she links to a New York magazine article from the NY Times on the same subject. (The article is excellent - I highly recommend reading the entire thing. The trompel'oeil paintings are just awesome, and the copy's pretty good too.)

That seems an awful lot like serendipity to me! Serendipity is becoming my new red flag, signalling something I need to try out or explore a bit more.

When I was a kid, I went barefoot all the time. I prided myself on how well I could walk on REALLY hot pavement or gravel. I only wore shoes when I had to. My feet were often dirty, but I don't remember them being particularly calloused or problematic in any way.

So this morning I decided to try doing a little walking in the yard while barefoot. I don't know why this seemed so adventurous, but somehow it did. The grass was rather chilly and wet from the dew, but it felt soft and good. I decided to stay barefoot while I did a little light gardening work.

Now, I know this sounds rather "woo-woo", but as I spent the next 30 minutes handpicking blister beetles off of the potatoes and tomatoes, I seemed to be much more in sync than usual with the process. At times it even felt like the beetles were offering themselves to me! I hadn't picked blister beetles in almost a week so there were plenty to pick, but I hardly missed any of the ones I saw. (As a predator avoidance technique, blister beetles quickly drop to the ground and get lost in the leaf mulch when they feel threatened.) By the time I finished finding all of the beetles I could in the garden this morning, I could literally count on one hand the number of blister beetles I had "lost". Normally, I'd say I lose about one out of every three beetles that I spot, so this was a much higher success rate than normal.

Of course, it could be that the temperatures were a little cooler than normal (maybe by a few degrees) and that, combined with the damp air, made the beetles a little less agile than normal.

I prefer to attribute my success to my connection with the Earth this morning, though!

In about an hour of roaming the garden and yard with nothing between me and the Earth, I only had one brief "ouch" moment - when I accidentally stepped on a weed with a thorny stem lurking in the straw mulch between our raised vegetable beds. Sorry to say, that is purely my own fault because I noticed that sucker about a week ago and didn't follow my own advice to pull it out as soon as I saw it.

It's going to be interesting to experiment more with this barefoot stuff. I'm not sure I'm ready to walk the prairie paths yet, due to dual fears of accidental poison ivy contact AND accidental snake contact. I find I'm not nearly so brave about those hazards when I don't have shoes and even long pants between me and them! (There is, after all, a fine line between bravery and stupidity.)

On the other hand, I've had low level foot problems off and on for many years now, and I chronically have trouble finding comfortable shoes. Maybe magic shoes aren't really the answer; maybe the answer is going barefoot as often as I can. It's sure worth a try.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Monthly Dose of Ideas and Insights

Last weekend I sat down and did something I don't do very often - read a magazine, cover to cover. The magazine that held my attention this well was Utne Reader, which used to bill itself as "the Reader's Digest of the alternative press". (I still think that's a pretty good description.)

It's not that this was my first time to dip into Utne. In fact, we've been subscribers for years, probably for decades now. It's just that, as with other magazines, usually I pick it up and read an article or two, then get distracted. Eventually the most recent issue joins the piles of other magazines parked around the house and I've only taken the time to "input" a few of the interesting ideas that each issue presents. (Need I say that, once a magazine joins the others in a pile, its chances of getting read go down appreciably?)

Whatever my excuses and my normal, somewhat delinquent, method of approaching magazines, I read the July-August 2009 issue in a timely and complete manner. Here are the fascinating things that I learned a bit about from reading that single issue....

The Living Library - This is an organization that lends "human books" representing different lifestyles and beliefs, such as The Atheist or The Old Man or The Immigrant, out to other people so that people can ask the "human books" questions and learn about the subject that the person represents. For example, The Buddhist could be "checked out" and would show up at your home or get-together. You would be free to ask all sorts of questions about his/her faith that you might feel awkward asking a regular social acquaintance, let alone someone on the street...or, indeed, that you might not know anyone at all you could ask.

Wouldn't it be awesome to attend a function where there were "human books" representing all of the different faiths living within the confines of a specific community? Community members could ask each individual about what is important to them, what makes them different from other faiths, what their "take" is on current world events, what makes them feel uncomfortable, etc. Talk about a way to learn about other groups in our melting pot culture!

A Warning about White Supremacists and the Military - This came out of an excerpt from Southern Poverty Law Center's publication Intelligence Report. Apparently white supremacists have been joining the military to get training in combat and weaponry that, when they leave the service, they can then take on to further their own political agenda. It actually makes a great deal of sense, but this scares the living daylights out of me.

Writing Advice - from an excerpted interview with author and undertaker, Thomas Lynch, in Willow Springs, a literary journal. " 'I'm a writer, so I don't wait for something interesting. I write. Period. And if there's nothing interesting, I'll make it interesting.' "

And... " 'The reason poets aren't read is that we don't hang any of them anymore. We don't take them seriously; we don't think that poetry can move people to do passionate things. ...Before there was so much contest for people's attention, poets were the ones who literally brought the news from one place to another, walking from town to town, which is how we got everything to be iambic and memorable and rhymed and metered, because the tradition was oral before it was literary.' "

Also from that same excerpted interview with Thomas Lynch was this Social Commentary About Death and Modern Funerals - " 'Our culture is the first in a couple generations that attempts to have funerals with no bodies. We just disappear them.... But the way to deal with mortality is by dealing with the mortals. And you deal with death, the big notion, by dealing with the dead thing. ...[C]elebrations [of life] are notable for the fact that everybody's welcome but the dead guy. This, to me, is offensive and I think perilous for our species. There is an intellectual - an artistic and moral - case that can be made for not only fruit and flowers in a bowl on a table, but also a dead body in a box.' "

This last comment reminds me of the way most of us see our food supply too. We think of it as very sanitary and wrapped in plastic in a supermarket. Most Americans don't make the connection between that and the feed lots and the farm equipment mired in mud and the pesticides & herbicides and the overcrowded factory poultry operations and the migrant laborers and the millions of gallons of gas that are used to provide that food and bring it to our supermarkets.

We are getting amazingly good at fooling ourselves; avoiding reality, however, rarely has good results in the long run.

Books I May Want to Read -
Less is More, by Jay Walljasper (New Society), on simplicity issues, supposedly without oversimplifying the issues at stake.
The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, by Lawrence Rothfield (University of Chicago Press). I've never understood why, when our country precipitated the Iraq War, our leaders didn't plan to protect irreplaceable cultural artifacts and institutions when they made their invasion plans. The blurb about this book points out that the 400,000-600,000 artifacts that were looted and lost during the first few years of the war represent humanity's collective past, not just Iraq's past.
The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, by Riane Eisler (Berrett-Koehler). We say that taking care of people and loving them is important, but we don't value it monetarily at all. Consequently, caring for people (or the Earth) is pretty much systematically being removed from our culture. This book is an attempt to think through reworking our economic system to value the things we say we truly value.

Insect Art - a single page highlighting the work of an artist whose medium is insects, real (but dead) insects. I find myself both drawn to and disgusted by this art. It's gorgeous and intricate and interesting...and a pathologically human-centric reason for killing a whole lot of insects. Still, how cool it looks!

New Magazines to Search Out - Utne puts out an annual "Independent Press Awards" in various categories every year. From the list of this year's winners, I was particularly intrigued by...
Lapham's Quarterly: Piloted by Lewis Lapham, longtime editor of Harper's, each issue of this new magazine focuses on a single topic. Writings and artwork for each themed issue are selected from a huge range of sources, beginning with historical figures and classical authors through to the most recent of today's commenters. I found the Summer 2009 issue at one of the local bookstores - it's expensive, $15, but looks intriguing enough that I picked it up anyway. It's 221 pages long and has 89 entries, not including the "Program Notes". The theme is Travel. Included authors range from Apollonius of Rhodes telling about Orpheus and the Argo (c. 1200 BC) through an excerpt from Marco Polo's notes, Don Quixote's start to his adventure, Dorothy Parker, Christopher Columbus, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, and Lewis & Clark to Billy Collins. And I haven't even mentioned the range of quotes and illustrations scattered throughout.
The New Republic: a classic for political coverage.
Psychotherapy Networker: for exploring behavior, my own and other people's.
Miller-McCune: I'm really excited about the potential of this one. It's a new magazine whose purpose is to "bridge the divide between academic researchers and journalists", presenting current, solid research results that have bearing on the problems and issues of our times. (I was also able to get an issue of this locally, but I haven't read through it yet.)

The Necessity of Shifting Our Emphasis from "Save Newspapers (and Magazines)" to "Save Society" - the point of this article was that what's important is actually well researched and timely information about current issues, not the survival of newspapers per se. Good information allows us, as a culture, to make informed decisions about solutions to current problems. This article discussed what's not working (and why) as well as what's working a little bit (and why) and what the stakes are overall in this ongoing cultural change.

How Water Issues Seem to Be Fundamental Enough to Encourage Fighting Humans to Rise Above Politics and Religion in Working to Solve Them - with specific examples from the last 20 years, including some negotiation techniques that have worked.

The Need to Change Psychotherapy to Include a Person's Place in the Human and Physical Community - Humans are social creatures. We need to look beyond "What do I need?" to "What is my place in the world?" I love this quote from the article,

"As human beings we have a need for place - where we can be connected to a community of people, plants, animals, and the land. Without this, we feel lost, alone, and alienated. The world also needs us to belong to it, since it is only when we inhabit a place that we care for it and assume responsibility for it. If we regard the world only as a place we are visiting, we have little interest in protecting it." (p. 71)

The Taboo of Speaking About Our Money Isolates Us and Allows Us to Be More Easily Manipulated - The Depression was made somewhat more bearable because everyone was in the same boat and their money issues weren't private. Sharing our money stories helps us gain perspective by hearing about and learning from others' experiences; being secretive isolates us from each other and makes us more subject to manipulation by moneyed interests such as advertisers and employers.

A Call for "Community Earth Councils (CECs)" - "[groups of people] working together to address global environmental and social issues at the local level. CECs build community, helping young people find meaning and purpose, while providing elders with a way to give back, inspire, and impact the future." I wonder what the Clearwater City Council would think if I were to propose such a thing? Or whether there are any others in the Clearwater area who would be interested in putting together such a council?

So that's what I found interesting enough to highlight, dogear, or otherwise think about in the July-August 2009 issue of Utne Reader. It was a banquet of ideas, and I didn't begin to share tastes of all the dishes it offered. Some of the ideas I read inspire me, some support thoughts I've had for a long time...or clarify those thoughts a bit, and some of the ideas are simply interesting commentaries that may lead me to make different choices in the future.

It would be fascinating to hand copies of this month's Utne to a group of my friends (or any other group of people, for that matter) and see what captures their interest. After all, I left out 3 of the 4 cover stories ("Why Accountability Matters", prosthetic design, and an exploration of yoga), as well as articles on jazz, Louis Armstrong, the role MBAs played in the economic meltdown, media literacy, Polish poster art, "The Tao of War Photography", food for entertaining during the recession, etc., etc., etc.

Utne could serve as an inkblot, recording a person's interests at a certain point of time. For that matter, it could serve as a record of my own thoughts at a particular time! Well, before I get too convoluted, I probably ought to sign off for now. If anyone else has read this issue, though, what caught your attention?

Insects and Cameras - A Fun Combination

On the night before last, as I was wrapping up my gardening and coming in to make dinner, I noticed a hawk moth feeding at the summer phlox (Phlox paniculata). Not being in the mood to cook, I decided to see if I could capture a few photos.

None of these shots would make it into a magazine spread, but I've enjoyed looking at them. I love how the camera freezes enough of the movement (but not all of it) that I can see how the moth, a white lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata), uses its wings and proboscis while hovering and nectaring.

I love, too, how I can literally identify the markings of the moth, even though it was constantly moving, by the photos that I took. When possible, this is a much more pleasant way of identifying insects than catching them, freezing them, pinning them (and spreading their wings), drying them, and then identifying them.

All in all, a satisfying way to put off making dinner.

Mystery Beetle...and Awesome BugGuide

Wow. Two mysteries in one week.

Better yet, two mysteries SOLVED in one week.

The second mystery of the week was a colorful beetle that I saw briefly (and managed a somewhat blurry photo of) a little over a week ago. Being on a roll yesterday, I decided to try to identify it...and got nowhere with the source material I had at home.

Even the internet didn't help least at first.

Enter BugGuide, hosted out of Iowa State University. I've used this site to identify other insects, including larvae and eggs, but this time just searching through it didn't seem to help. I was pretty sure that this beetle belonged in the leaf beetle family, Chrysomelidae, but there are LOTS of leaf beetles and I just couldn't locate one that looked like this. So I registered with the site and uploaded my rather sorry little photo last night before I went to bed.

Lo and behold, this morning I had 2 responses already. Better yet they had identified my beetle! It is a shining flea beetle, Asphaera lustrans. Once I had the species name I could research it a little more fully on the web. It turns out that the host plant of this beetle is the genus Scutellaria, skullcaps - and I have a Smoky Hills skullcap, Scutellaria resinosa 'Smoky Hills', located right next to the woodland phlox where I saw my beetle. That plant is still a wimp, having just been planted a month or so ago, but here is a photo of the Smoky Hills skullcap that I planted last year....

Obviously I need to get at least one more home reference for insects, one which gives me a better handle on beetles, because in going back through my books here at home, only one showed any flea beetle species at all. None of them showed this guy, despite his incredibly good looks. (Yes, I am trying to justify my inability to identify this beetle, at least to myself!)

Hmmm, an excuse to get another book. Isn't solving mysteries fun?!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mystery Plant

I like little mysteries, especially little mysteries that I end up solving without too much hardship. (A little hardship, though, makes it more fun.)

Enter a mystery plant, first noticed (and photographed) a 2 weeks ago in the back 5 acres. Since I walked those acres exhaustively last summer, I was really surprised to see a plant that I'd never seen before back there. Making it even more of a surprise, I saw quite a bit of the plant just on a single walk-through.

I meant to look it up when I got back inside, but got distracted and forgot about it...until the following Tuesday afternoon, when the agricultural extension agent stopped by the Master Gardener HotLine room to show us a sample of Sericea lespedeza, an exotic invasive that is trying hard to take over acres of grassland throughout the Plains. The specimen was dried and pressed, but it looked heartstoppingly like my new mystery plant. Having seen so much of the unidentified forb in the back 5 acres, I dreaded the thought that I might have to try to find some control that wouldn't take out all the rest of the vegetation back there.

Diving onto the web, I exhaustively read everything I could find on Sericea lespedeza. At length I realized that the descriptions talked about seeds that were borne individually, rather than in the dainty little pods that I had seen hanging from the stems of "my" plant. Whew. But what was it?

Tiny white, pink and white, or pinkish flowers, shaped like typical legume blooms....

Those cute little pods hanging down, about 1" long and 1/8" in diameter....

The plant standing about 18" tall, with branching stems and small, compound leaves....

Nothing seemed to fit, so I mentally set it aside for a while. This morning I collected a sample from outback and decided to try again to identify it. After unsuccessfully looking through all my wildflower books, the ones with pretty colored photos and pictures, I finally decided to slog through Bare's Wildflowers and Weeds of Kansas.

There it was - prairie trefoil, now named Lotus unifoliolatus var. unifoliolatus. (It was Lotus purshianus, the old name, in Bare.) Haddock's site on the web (Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses) had it, but his wildflower book did not.

Prairie trefoil is a native annual whose seeds are relished by quail. Being in bean family, I assume it fixes nitrogen, and I'm always glad to welcome native nitrogen fixers to the homestead. It's not the showiest plant on the property, but I'm looking at it as a quiet hard-worker. Tomorrow I'm even going to return the sample stem that I took this morning to the back 5, so that the seeds in the cute little pods can feed quail over the winter or produce new little prairie trefoils next spring. It's another small piece of prairie diversity.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Black Blister Beetle Season

It's black blister beetle season again. When I watered last Friday, I saw 2, then I noticed a couple more this morning. So, I went back inside for my trusty peanut butter jar filled with soapy water and started looking seriously.

Wow. The potatoes are just covered. Using a conservative estimate, I picked off around 50 this morning and saw at least a dozen more that escaped my predatory grasp by dropping to the ground and scurrying into the mulch. (For insects who theoretically don't get eaten much because of their "blister" potential, they sure do have good predator-escape instincts. I have to assume that they taste better to some sort of animal than would otherwise be suspected.)

I blogged about the blister beetles last summer, so I won't repeat that information again today, but suffice it to say that I find them much more interesting now than I did before I learned a little about their biology! In rereading what I wrote last summer, I noticed that I was still quite squeamish about handpicking them without gloves. Well, I can't promise that everyone will be this way, but I've found that I don't have any problem with "blisters" at all, whether I wear gloves or not. In fact, I now prefer gloveless picking because I can feel whether I have them in my fingers so much better. I just keep in mind that I don't want to squash them, so I handle them very gently, and I seem to do fine.

I did find at least one predator chowing down on the blister beetles - a wheel bug female who looked very well fed indeed.

Another interesting note: while I was searching high and low in the potatoes for skulking beetles, I noticed droppings that I recognized as being from a horn worm. It took me 10 minutes of looking, but I finally saw the thing - about 4" long and fat as could be, about 2" from where I'd been looking the longest and hardest. Camoflage is a wonderful thing. (No, I didn't remove him. He was about ready to pupate, there was only one of him...and I love sphinx moths!)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Watering: A Simple Pleasure

It's due to hit 101 today and, since it's 99 in the shade at 2 p.m., I'd say there's a good chance we'll make the predicted high, even out here in the boonies. (With the heat island effect of pavement in the city, I'm pretty sure that Wichita is already 101 this afternoon.) When it's been more than a week since it rained and the temperatures are this hot, it's a sure bet that folks with gardens are going to be needing to water.

Nowadays, of course, the "in" thing is to have a sprinkler system. Then all you have to do is hit the switch and the system handles things for you. Meanwhile you get to stay inside and "be productive" (or veg out in front of the TV, depending upon your mood). I can see the appeal of that approach, but if I gave into it, I would miss some of the best moments I have in the garden.

Take this morning. Even at 9 a.m., it was hot. To be honest, I really didn't want to go outside and get myself all hot and sweaty and muddy, but I've only got one small sprinkler system in one flower bed and my choice was to go outside and water or probably start seeing some plant loss.

So I girded my loins, so to speak, and ventured outside. Once I got out and got the water running, it really wasn't that bad. Watering, for me, is rather meditative - like fishing in reverse. (I'm putting water into something, rather than taking something out of the water, but in both activities I'm standing still for long periods of time while holding something to do with water in my hand.) Watering gives me a chance to note what plants are looking puny, which ones are getting eaten, which ones are beginning to overrun their spots, and so forth.

However, watering does more than help me notice my plants more consistently. It engages all my senses, and immerses me in the life of the yard. Without realizing it consciously, I'm hearing and registering the birds that are living in the garden with me: a pheasant "coughing" near the draw, bobwhite quail calling, cardinals chipping anxiously because I'm too near to the feeder they want to check out, a Carolina wren coming closer and closer. In fact, the only reason I know that we have cuckoos nesting in the yard this year is because I've heard them.

If I'm lucky, the wind creates gentle breezes that cool me off and play against my skin. (If I'm not so lucky, it's dead still and the sweat pours down my back, or the wind is blowing so hard that I get unnecessarily soaked in overspray while my hair ties itself into Gordian knots of painful intensity.) I discover fragrances coming from flowers, like Knockout roses and oakleaf hydrangeas, that I didn't think were fragrant, or I note some blasted neighbor is burning plastic in their trash again. If it's the vegetable garden I'm watering, I even pick the occasional strawberry and pop it in my mouth, or chew on a piece of basil, just because it smells so wonderful.

But the ultimate benefit of hand watering is what I get to see simply because I'm standing out there, usually quietly without much movement, for such long periods of time. (I do practice what I preach in watering: deep and only about once a week.) This morning my best sighting was a dragonfly, perched about 2' away from me, savoring a fly he'd just caught. I didn't want to move and have him fly off, so the Brunnera and Asarum got a big dose of extra water as I simply stood there and watched, fascinated. His pedipalps acted like little extra arms, rotating the hapless fly around while he munched. In fact, his pedipalps were so arm/handlike that I found myself doing a leg count - sure enough, all 6 dragonfly legs were firmly holding onto the branch while the remains of the fly was moved this way and that, rather like he was eating a turkey drumstick or a piece of corn on the cob.

About the only time I see velvet ants is when I'm watering, but I see them frequently then, scurrying along the ground, obviously on a important mission to somewhere.

Two weeks ago, I saw a female tiger swallowtail circle around my single parsley plant, landing briefly to touch her abdomen to a leaf and lay an egg, then rising into the air to circle for a fresh spot, and repeating the process again...and again...and again...and again. I noticed on Friday, again while I was watering, that the caterpillars have not only hatched, they are past the brown and white stage and into the multi-colored striped stage that they'll stay in until they pupate.

I'm most likely to spot caterpillars when I'm watering. My meditative gaze will suddenly notice that the brown & white blob on that leaf is not really a bird dropping because it's moving in a very non-bird-dropping like way, or my eyes will pick out a misshapen leaf and notice the jaws systematically shaving its edge away. When I turn the leaf over, there is a rather large and brightly colored caterpillar staying stock still, hoping that I'm not particularly hungry this morning. Then I'll look the plant over carefully and realize that I can see 3 or 4 more of its siblings, munching away.

The worst part is that I can't photograph what I'm seeing, other than mentally in my own mind. Most of the drama that I witness when watering is something that I see only because I'm standing still, quietly, in one place for a long period of time. Running into the house to get my camera rather negates my "cover". I've thought about always carrying my camera with me when I water but, truthfully, I'm too lazy...and a little bit concerned about getting it muddy and/or wet accidentally. I love my camera, but it's a rather heavy and bulky for carrying for hours at a time while you're trying to manipulate something else, especially when that "something else" has the potential to ruin your camera.

So I can try to share some of these experiences verbally and through the written word. Hopefully, a few people will read this and want to experiment, then will recognize the simple pleasures and unique opportunities afforded by some quiet time in the garden with just you, your hose, and your thoughts.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Evolving Flower Gardens

Because it seems only fair that readers of my blog should be able to visualize the gardens that I'm working on, I thought I should post a photo of my newly "completed" front gardens. I took this shot a few days ago, when the sky was one of those jewel-like hues of blue.

I, obviously, like the cottage garden look - informal, blowsy, crowded, rich, vibrant.... The side of the garden closest to the house has been in for a year or more and the plants are thus significantly larger. The side of the garden nearest the camera is what I've been working on this spring. For the most part, this is the "year to sleep" for most of these plants - they are little and likely to remain that way at least until next spring. (That phrase is from another of the gardening mantras I learned in Mobile, "A year to sleep, a year to creep, a year to leap." For an impatient gardener who wants to see results NOW, this mantra helps remind her to have patience and give new plants a chance to get acclimated to their new spots before expecting them to look gorgeous.)

Don't forget, though, that native plants can be used in many different ways - they don't require a cottage garden setting to look good and perform well. In fact, if the focus is to be on the specific plants, a more formal garden or a more "manicured" garden can really highlight them better.

While I'm deep watering the new side of the garden every 5 days or so during the dry heat until it gets established, I've hardly had to water the older, more established side at all this summer. (I've spot watered the beebalm on that side a time or two, when it started to look wilted.) I've never fertilized, and I hardly have to even pull any weeds since the flowers have grown large enough to keep the soil shaded and covered on their own.
There's lots more to do, and it shows up especially strongly in a photo, but this is a start...and I'm learning tons while having a lot of fun. Besides which, a garden is NEVER truly complete, not even for a moment.

An Underground Life

This is the time of year when I start seeing cicada shells everywhere, as the nymphs come up from below ground and make their last transformation from subterranean root feeders into winged, adults. The discarded skins cling to tree trunks and perennial stems, to the side of the house and to anything else where they can get a grip. Each morning there are more, joining the somewhat bizarre yard ornamentation. Sometimes I wonder, if I camped outside, would I wake up the next morning with a cicada shell clinging to me?

However, despite the perennial evidence of all these cicadas living underground around me, I've never seen a live cicada nymph in its natural habitat. Until yesterday.

I was digging a hole, to put in a Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), out in my new "rain garden" bed. This is a low area that carries rainwater running off our driveway and the higher parts of the yard toward the front prairie, and from there to the creek. Prairiewolf and I want to put in a series of flower beds with small "dams" to help keep some of that rainwater on the land, rather than having it all drain off and head towards the Gulf of Mexico. I'm calling these beds my "rain garden."

Anyway, I was digging a hole in this low area of the yard when I noticed that I'd opened up a miniature tunnel or cave with my shovel, about 6 or 7" down from the surface and about 1" in diameter. I looked at it for a moment, wondering what had caused it, and saw movement in the open space. This freaked me out just a bit. (I always have nightmarish visions of accidentally busting open a bumblebee or yellowjacket nest in such circumstances!) Nothing seemed poised to fly out of the opening, though, so I watched for a bit more. Finally, frustrated at not having a better view, I got a big flashlight and my camera from the house, then contorted myself into strange positions to try to use both to take a couple pictures. As I did so, I realized what I was looking at - the elusive live cicada nymph I'd never seen before! The claws were a dead giveaway.

This face is truly one that "only a mother could love", but I still find it fascinating. Hopefully I didn't cause this little guy any lasting harm. Based on size, he/she must have been close to making the final journey up into the night to assume adult form. One of these days, maybe the cicada song I hear will be sung by this strange creature who let me get a glimpse of his life, underground.

A Stroke Towards Understanding

On a totally different note, but still in book report mode, I'd like to share another book that I've read recently, My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.

Every once in a while, someone experiences something in life that can radically change how we understand something considered generally "unknowable." When that happens, if we're lucky, the someone who has had the experience writes about it cogently or in some other way shares it with the rest of us and, then, through increased understanding, we can change how we treat each other in those particular circumstances. That's what has happened with My Stroke of Insight.

Jill Taylor is a neuroanatomist who specialized in brain function during her training and early academic career, trying to understand (among other things) why a beloved older brother developed schizophrenia. She worked at Harvard Medical School and was active on the national lecture circuit, helping others understand what was happening on an anatomical basis when the brain doesn't work properly.

Then, at age 37, she had a major stroke effecting almost the entire left hemisphere of her brain. She was conscious during the entire time the stroke was occurring and she was able to figure out, from her training, what parts of the brain were being effected and why she was having the problems she was experiencing. Despite that, by the time she reached the hospital, she was totally unable to talk, barely able to understand what others were saying to her, and almost infantlike in her reactions to stimuli.

In this book, she shares with us what she experienced, how she recovered her abilities (which took 8 years), and suggestions for helping others to recover from strokes as fast and fully as possible.

Because her stroke basically incapacitated her entire left hemisphere for an extended period, this account is also a fascinating look at how the 2 sides of the brain interact to produce our normal view of reality as well as our normal personality, and what each side of the brain contributes to that "normality". Last, but hardly least, she gives us a view from a brain that is ONLY functioning with the right hemisphere - what she could understand, what she felt, how she could and could not communicate.

I read My Stroke of Insight while we were on our recent trip to Chicago, and it seemed like I was constantly noticing parallels between conversational topics and what I was learning as I read. I'm sure everyone was sick of the phrase, "In that book I've been reading....."! I've already had to watch my mother-in-law suffer (and eventually die) from a brain tumor many years ago. I've always wondered what and how much she felt and understood as she lay, basically unresponsive but with her eyes open, in the hospital those last few weeks; now I feel like I have a better understanding. Having read this book will certainly change how I care for someone with a stroke, if that ever becomes a task that I am called upon to do. By helping me understand what she experienced, Dr. Taylor also helped prepare me for what to expect, should I ever experience a stroke.

This is not a long book, but it's an important and interesting book. I highly recommend that you read it now...and reread it, if anyone you know is unfortunate enough to suffer the life-transforming effects of a stroke.

Freshly Discovering An Old Gardening Classic

Lately, I sometimes feel like I'm back in grade school, writing book reports - but these books are so good that I really want to share them with anyone else who might enjoy them! So, please, bear with me.

My latest discovery was actually written in 1951, then reprinted (along with its 2 siblings) by Timber Press in 1998. It's called Merry Hall, by Beverley Nichols.

I actually discovered its siblings...eerrrr, I mean its sequels, Laughter on the Stairs (1953) and Sunlight on the Lawn (1956), as used books for sale amongst more normal, new gardening books at Crosby Arboretum in Mississipii, when I visited there with the Mobile County Master Gardeners in May. They looked different, potentially interesting, and their price was quite low, so I picked them up on a whim. Once I got them home, I decided that it was unfair to read the sequels without reading the book that led the way, so I ordered Merry Hall, the first of the trilogy, from Amazon. When it arrived, I dug into it.

I loved it. While this book is about gardens and gardening rather than about animals and animal collecting, it nonetheless reminds me of the books by Gerald Durrell that I was introduced to in my early teens and that I've loved ever since. It's charming, in a very British-dry-sarcastic-wit-with-lots-of-good-plant-knowledge sort of way. Nichols flits from repeatedly skewering a couple nosy, neighborhood women who take rather too much interest in his newly acquired garden (Miss Emily and Our Rose), to opinionated statements about how cut flowers should (and, most emphatically, should not) be arranged, to how he came to design his garden (wishing he were back in the womb plays a not-insignificant part), to flights of fancy about the best height to be (mentally, that is) when exploring a rock garden.

I could include quotes, but small snippets can't possibly capture the richness and humor of the tales that Nichols tells. Apparently lots of others have quoted from this book, though, and the most popular quote is said to be, "It is only to the gardener that Time is a friend, giving each year more than he steals." I certainly found that a great thought to turn over in my mind as I watered this afternoon, one of many gifts that I'm taking with me from having read Merry Hall.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Echinacea vs. Checkerspot Caterpillars, Revisited

If you've read my blog for a while, you know that I had an interesting experience pitting young Echinaceas against baby checkerspot butterflies (also known as checkerspot caterpillars) last summer. The last of 3 entries on the subject is here, linked to the prior 2 entries. I discovered that the plants weren't permanently hurt by the seemingly vicious caterpillar attack, at least not last summer. It was, in fact, a perfect example of the best cure being to do nothing but let nature handle the situation on its own, without my interference.

I thought folks might be interested in seeing those same 2 baby Echinacea plants this year.

As you can see, they don't appear to have suffered at all! They are waist high, "full and fluffy" (to quote Barbie), and covered with dozens of blooms.

Interestingly, I've planted several more young Echinaceas in the new half of the flower bed...and they are currently covered with checkerspot caterpillars as I write. The older, "more experienced" plants that dealt with them last year seem to have escaped becoming larva food this year. It makes me wonder if the adult checkerspot females preferentially seek out young plants to lay eggs on, or if the young (newly transplanted) plants are sending out distress signals until they get established...or if this was simply coincidence.
I'll probably never know, but it's interesting to hypothesize and try to figure out what makes sense.

Suet's Not Just for Birds Any More

I know that squirrels are acrobats, but sometimes it's just fun to look out the kitchen window and spy one doing something like this....