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 BugGuide.net, 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, Mushroomexpert.com, 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!