Friday, March 19, 2010

Monarch Watch - And a 1-2-3 Recipe to Aid Recovery

Buried in a small article in the paper this morning was a very sad news article: monarch butterfly populations have declined to their lowest levels in decades due, in part, to winter storms that took out an estimated 50-60% of the wintering populations in Mexico. ("Monarch Butterfly Population Plummets" The Wichita Eagle, Friday, March 19, 2010, p.2A)

The breeding population that is flying northward will therefore be the smallest known since 1975, when the overwintering grounds in Mexico were discovered.

There IS something we can all do about this, though. First, we can plant milkweed plants in our gardens this year - common milkweed, butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, and any other milkweed we can come across. The photo below shows a monarch nectaring on common milkweed blooms; the photo at the start of this blog shows a monarch nectaring on green antelopehorn, another milkweed that is common here in Kansas.

Second, every monarch caterpillar we come across should be a cause for great celebration.

Third, to aid in the growth and health of both the adults and the caterpillars, we can avoid spraying insecticides in our gardens...and even avoid releasing Bt in their immediate vicinity. Butterflies are insects and can be killed by insecticides; monarch caterpillars are caterpillars and will be stricken by Bt just as surely as loopers or cutworms.

This is one sad environmental story that we can all help turn around in our own yards and gardens. Our parts can be as simple as 1 - 2 - 3. Won't you join me this year?

Heirloom Crocuses

I'm starting to reap the benefits of last fall's frenzied rush to get my heirloom bulbs in the ground.

The first of the heirloom bulbs to bloom this spring were Snow Bunting crocus. Unfortunately, I don't have any good photos of those, as the rabbits ate the two biggest clumps just as they were getting showy and the dog (or an armadillo?) partially dug out the third clump. I think they'll all survive, but they sure aren't pretty subjects for photographing right now, due to no fault of their own.

The other two heirloom crocuses that are blooming are Cloth of Gold crocus (introduced to "the trade" around 1589) and the unfortunately named Negro Boy crocus (introduced in 1910). I bought all of these bulbs and many more from Old House Gardens Heirloom Flower Bulbs, if you get inspired to get some for yourself.

This dark purple beauty is the Negro Boy crocus. Note that the rabbits got to these guys too, but, fortunately for me, the flower buds were still buried deep in the crown when the leaves got so thoroughly trimmed. These beauties are quite large for crocus blooms, larger even than my modern mixed crocuses.

The golden "stars" to the left and below are Cloth of Gold crocuses; this variety dates from before 1600, so it was introduced to the European horticultural trade very early. The blooms are not quite as large as modern crocus blooms, but the crisp shape of their petals and bright gold coloring helps them shine out in the early spring landscape.

Being caught up in the romance of historical plant varieties that are in danger of being lost from modern gardens, I often give little notice to modern ones that are easily available. However, these purple crocuses that were in our yard when we bought our home 3+ years ago are absolutely stunning this I want to share them too. Who knows? Someday they'll probably be the historical variety that's in danger of being lost.
I have one more heirloom crocus variety that hasn't opened its blooms yet, so I'll have to save it for another post. So far, though, I have to say that I'm very pleased with my foray into the world of heirloom bulbs.

Spring Cleanup

With snow on the way tomorrow, I gambled and decided to clean off the remnants of last year's growth from the front garden bed. It's amazing how much the appearance of the bed changes just by that simple process. And doubly amazing to think of what it will look like this September!
It's times like this, though, that I'm especially glad to be primarily working with native and hardy plants. The snow and mid-20's cold shouldn't bother them much at all.
While I was working, I came across several centipedes, a couple earthworms, 2 cicada shells from last summer, and a spider or two. Good to know that I've got a start on this season's bug control and fertilization schedule.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Waste Not, Want Not

I was reading through this spring's issue of OnEarth from the Natural Resource Defense Council over the weekend and came across an environmental topic that rather floored me: food waste.

I know that we (as in Prairiewolf and myself) waste a ridiculous amount of food and I have felt bad about that for years, but I've felt bad in a budgetary sort of way, not in a "what am I doing to the Earth?" sort of way. This article caused an internal shift, though, in how I see this supposedly personal problem of ours.

Some statistics:

The USDA estimates that 30% of all edible food in this country is wasted. Two other recent studies (one from the National Institute of Health and one from the University of Arizona) estimate at least 40% of all edible food is wasted. That's the equivalent of 1400 calories/day/person, or about 2 full meals.

That means that 25% of all freshwater and 4% of all oil consumed in this country is being used to produce food that we simply throw away!

Each year the municipal waste stream in the U.S. contains enough food thrown out by restaurants and homes to feed all of Canada. (And we have starving people in this country?!)

When foood rots, it produces methane, which has 20 times the global warming potency of carbon dioxide. Rotting food, according to the EPA, may be responsible for about 10% of the human-caused methane.

In thinking about all of this, my mind keeps going to a scene in Anne's House of Dreams from the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery. In the scene, Marilla (Anne's stepmother) is looking into Anne's scrap jar to make sure that there's nothing in there that shouldn't be. She's basically grading the new housewife on how well she's doing, because a lack of unnecessarily wasted food was one of the most important signs that a woman knew how to run the house well. When I read this passage, all those years ago, I remember thinking how old-fashioned an idea that was. These statistics, however, make me think that the old fashioned housewives were right. At this point, I'd have to give myself a D for my ability to avoid wasting food (and we simply won't go into my other housekeeping skills at all!).

So I've got a new goal for myself: waste not, want not...and save money and the planet while doing it. Maybe making proper food preparation, use and storage a more "noble" goal will help me put a higher priority on it and thus help me get better about doing it well. As my self-inflicted grade shows, I don't think I could get a lot worse!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Confessions of a Plant-a-Holic

Sometimes I feel like a huge imposter when I call myself a Master Gardener. This afternoon is definitely one of those times....

You see, late last summer I got swept away by heirloom bulb frenzy. The catalog was full of gorgeous pictures and even more seductive descriptions. To make it even more irresistable, all of the varieties offered were antiques - varieties that had been brought into the trade as early as the late 1500's. I made myself a list of all the ones that sounded too good to pass up, gulped when the tentative total was well over $800, and proceeded to rigorously scratch off the ones that seemed just great rather than totally and utterly awesome.

I still ended up with an order that was embarrassingly large. I'm not going to cop to the total dollar amount (although it WAS less than $800!), but when I was done, I'd ordered 45 crocus bulbs (of 4 different varieties), 31 daffodil bulbs (of 6 different varieties), 50 grape hyacinth bulbs (of 2 different varieties), 23 hyacinth bulbs (of 7 different varieties), and 26 tulip bulbs (of 6 different varieties). A grand total of 175 bulbs. I knew I was pushing it a bit, but my fall wasn't looking all that busy.

I placed the order. Before. Before we had made definite plans to visit our son in Germany for a week at the end of September. Before I had agreed to help with the spring garden tour write-ups that had to be done by January or, preferably, earlier. Before I found out that a friend really needed help wrapping up her mother's estate because the house had sold. Before I realized my folks were going away for 3 weeks and I needed to drive up daily to care for their ancient cat. Before we signed the contract to have a front walkway and steps put in. Before...before...before....

You get the idea. Of course, the bulbs arrived the day before we left for Germany, complete with admonitions to get them in the ground RIGHT AWAY. Yeah, like THAT was going to happen!

When we got back from Germany, I religiously put "Plant spring bulbs" at the top of my To-Do List every day. I got the grape hyacinths in. I got the crocuses in. I got the tulips in. I got about half of the daffodils in...and then I stalled. It didn't matter how much I promised myself I'd get those bulbs in the ground, something more pressing always seemed to come up.

Finally, about Christmas time, I gave up and moved the box of unplanted bulbs from the "I-can't-overlook-them-here" position on the kitchen counter to the "at-least-they'll-get-some-chill-hours" spot in the garage, where they've remained for the last 2+ months.

Truthfully, I did kind of forget about them. Until Friday. As I was pulling together my "show & tell" items for a talk at the Lawn & Garden Show, I stumbled across the half empty box of bulbs, sitting patiently in the cool dark. With the talk that afternoon and a virus threatening to make my life miserable, I still couldn't do anything about them that day.

On Saturday, the threatening virus hit with a vengeance and I spent the entire day dozing in the recliner, despite temperatures in the 60's. ("Bulbs? What bulbs? By the time this virus kills me off and anyone realizes the bulbs are there, they won't have a clue how long they've been sitting there. Meanwhile, I'm doing well just to reach over to the end table and grab another tissue to cough into....")

Needless to say, I survived the virus despite myself and my personal pity-party. I'm still feeling ragged, but this afternoon I suddenly realized that it's due to rain tomorrow. And it's spring, which means the rain may come at inconveniently frequent intervals that make planting bulbs impossible. So I hauled myself outside and started looking for places to drop the remaining bulbs in.

Rereading the instructions, I realized one reason why it had taken so long to plant them last fall - all of the remaining bulbs were supposed to be planted at a depth of 6-8", which meant they each needed a fairly significant hole. Plus they needed spots where I could "guarantee" they wouldn't sit in water for too long...or dry out too thoroughly, either. I planted the first group of 3 hyacinths in a flower bed and then I just said, "Screw it."

Rather than scouring my flower beds for other perfect spots, I went into the vegetable garden, pulled up a couple of last year's tomato plants, and stuck the rest of the bulbs in the ground. I should have done that last fall - the beds are raised, so the bulbs won't be sitting in soil that's too wet, and I can transplant them later this spring when I see where I need some extra color.

Now I'm keeping my (sadly greedy) fingers crossed. I'll be surprised if a couple of the hyacinth varieties come up at all, as the bulbs weren't looking or feeling too healthy, but the rest didn't look as bad as I expected them to look.

As I planted, I recited a mantra to myself, "This is the LAST time I'm going to buy more than I can plant. This is the LAST time I'm going to buy more than I can plant. This is the LAST time I'm going to buy more than I can plant."

And if you believe THAT, I have a bridge.....

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Season of Red-Wing Song

There are certain times of the year that beg to be recognized for the natural energy pulsing through them, and this feels like one of those times. It's the time of the red-wing song. As the flocks head north and the males start feeling the spring tides move through their bodies, I start hearing their song, "Oga-leeee!!!! Oga-leeee!!!!!" sounding from every direction when I step outside.

"Oga-leeee!!! Oga-leeee!!!!" says one in the remnants of last year's cattails.

"Chuck! Chuck! Chuck!" grumbles another one from a little farther down the draw, before he too breaks out into a celebratory, "Oga-leeee!!!! Oga-leeee!!!!"

From a nearby tree-top, I hear a third male throw his verbal hat into the ring, "Oga-leeeee!!!! Oga-leeee!!!!" Really, there are too many joining the verbal joust to figure out where each call is coming from.

I'm starting to hear a few other birds chorus too, like the killdeer I heard overhead early this morning when I went to pick up the paper, or the eastern meadowlark that was half-heartedly whistling his "Spring of the year!" melody when I walked in the back prairie about an hour ago, but the main soundtrack from dawn until dusk these days is provided by the red-winged blackbirds.

"Oga-leeee!!! Oga-leeee!!!!"...."Wake up!!!!! Wake up!!!! It's still gray, but Spring's here!!!! Spring's here!!!!"

A Scary Thought

In an Organic Gardening magazine I was thumbing through recently, I came across the following statistic:

If a single aphid lived her full lifespan, including 21 birth-giving days, and all of her offspring lived and reproduced at full capacity too, when the original aphid died at the end of those 21 reproductive days, she would leave behind 1,099,511,627,775 descendants. That's over 1 trillion aphids!

Sure makes me glad that I don't kill off my aphid-eating armies of predator insects by using bug spray!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Life, Death, Love and Pets; or The Hawk and the Turtle

I've been a bad blogger. A very bad blogger. It's been almost 6 months since I last posted. For better or for worse, though, I'm back. The outside world is waking up, and so am I.

Yesterday was a curious combination of chained-to-my-chair frustration (putting together a presentation on a computer that wasn't quite working right) and yes-it's-really-spring excitement. I was working on my laptop at the kitchen table where I can watch the birdfeeders, since I was also doing a FeederWatch count for Cornell....

At one point when I looked up, all of the birds were gone. Not too unusual, actually, but this time when I scanned the yard, I noticed a big blob under the lilac bushes. It was a Cooper's hawk, and it was standing atop some poor, unfortunate sparrow-sort which it was holding in its talons!
The hawk looked around a bit, then proceeded to start ripping feathers off the head of the sparrow. I watched for a bit, then gave myself a dope slap and got my camera. Even with a 10X zoom, the hawk was a bit far away for a great photo, but I did the best I could, taking a large series of photos, almost all of which are about equally blurred. While I stood in the kitchen window and snapped away, the hawk would look around for a bit, then bend down to his task for a while, then stop to watch again. After 10 or 15 minutes, he flew away, taking his meal with him.

What hapless bird did he catch and consume? While I was first watching and trying to identify the hawk's prey through my binoculars, it looked perhaps like the head of an adult Harris sparrow - black with a pink beak. Later, after the hawk had flown, I went out to look at the feathers. The hawk had taken the body; the remaining feathers appeared to be slate gray and white. Just looking at the feathers, I would guess that it was a junco that got eaten. Even with photographic and physical evidence, I don't think I'll ever know.

An hour or so after the hawk incident, I idly noticed our hyperactive cat Ranger batting at something under the lilacs. It didn't appear to be a bird, so I didn't pay much attention at first, but then something clicked and I decided to go out and actually investigate. Lo and behold, it was a box turtle emerging from below ground!

The temperatures are still falling to around freezing every night and only getting up into the 40's during the day; I was amazed to see a turtle emerging already, but there he was. And if a turtle is emerging already, spring can't be too far away.

I'm not the most observant person in the world, but I'm learning to pay attention to my pets when they are nosing at something. They've made some great discoveries for me: an emerging cluster of garter snakes, a pair of box turtles mating, a below-ground egg nest that had been dug up and eaten. Now that the weather's warming up, it's time to be extra vigilant (at least about watching them!) again.