Monday, June 24, 2013

An Exciting Variation on a Theme?

Last week I was up in Iowa, getting together with family to celebrate the life (and mourn the passing) of an uncle of mine - a musician and teacher of music who shared his gift widely and passed along his knowledge to many.  He was one of those individuals who truly brought more beauty into this world through his living.

But on to the reason for my post.  While there, we visited the home of a relative renowned for her gardens, her cooking, and her hospitality...who just happened to have a rather unusual tree in her yard.  Looking around, we noticed a similar tree in a neighbor's yard as well.

These two maples had sections of leaves that were beautifully variegated.  Apparently Henrietta's tree, at least, had not been purchased as a variegated specimen.  In fact, according to her, it did not have any variegation in its foliage until she and her husband decided to move it from the front yard to the back, disappointed that it hadn't grown very well in the front yard.  After they moved it, the variegation appeared.

Apparently, this is how the leaves emerge.  As the summer goes on, the variegation disappears and the leaves turn to full green.  They color normally in the fall.  And repeat each year.

Is this a response to something in the soil?  A virus?  A genetic mutation?  I have no idea and would welcome any thoughts.  Meanwhile, I thought it was cool enough - and pretty enough - to share it.

I must admit to wondering if it could be propagated.....

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Robber Fly Chowing Down

I just wanted to share this photo I caught of a robber fly chowing down on another insect.  (Perhaps a syrphid fly?)  When I first saw the robber fly and started taking its picture, I didn't realize it had prey in its grasp, but by the time I got close enough for this last shot, I knew it had something.

Robber flies are great predators!  Another insect to welcome into your garden.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Bloom Day June 2013

Here in south central Kansas, it's not been the best of days to get good bloom photos:  windy and mostly overcast.  However, I did what I could...and I am cheating just a bit by adding in a few photos from yesterday.  I figure that the flowers are still in bloom today, so it's not too out of line!

I'm new to this meme, so perhaps a quick introduction is in order.  On the prairie, where we live, conditions can get tough and stressful for plants.  While around here we all yearn to be able to grow ferns and woodland plants, blue hydrangeas and a wide variety of evergreens, the truth is that only the sturdiest of plants will survive our climate.  Since I'm out in the country, that is especially true in my gardens.  If it needs to be pampered, it doesn't make it here!

Both because of the difficult prairie growing conditions and because I'm naturally interested in the animals around me, as well as the plants, I focus primarily on native plants.  We are lucky enough to have 10 acres, which we moved onto about 6 years ago, and we are working to restore tall grass prairie on about 7 of those acres.  Up near the house, though, I just garden for fun and beauty.

Weatherwise, we've just recently gone from a pleasantly cool spring to full summer conditions.  Out here, that means that the pastel flowers are finishing up and the bright hues of summertime are taking over.  In my front flower bed, those bright hues are coming from the butterfly milkweed, gaillardia and yellow coneflower, all in full bloom.

Here's another view of the same area, taken yesterday.  There's a little bit of lanceleaf coreopsis and some pink evening primrose hanging around, but they are both winding up for the year and turning the palette over to the next crew.

Not all my flowers are rooted.  Here is a native bee trying to chase off a painted lady butterfly.  All she's trying to do is get a quiet meal.  For some reason, the bee seemed much more upset by the painted lady than by the pearl crescent nearby.  The yellow coneflowers have been hopping with insect activity every time I go outside.

I noticed today that this particular butterfly milkweed variety has a deep red streak down the center of each petal.  I think that makes an already attractive flower even more interesting!

Just around the corner from all  this orange and red and yellow is a spot of cool - an oakleaf hydrangea in full bloom.

What I've particularly enjoyed seeing in the last few days are perfectly round circles cut out of a few of the petals.  These are the work of leafcutter bees, one of our little native pollinators.  They line their nest cells with these bits of petal and leaf to help protect their developing larvae.

Narrowleaf coneflower is our main native Echinacea around here.  It's not readily available in "the trade" as its roots are too deep and it doesn't, apparently, germinate easily.  I was able to get hold of a few small plants last year, however.  This one is blooming particularly nicely for me.  It's not the showiest of Echinaceas, but it's ours.

The checkered skipper seems to be enjoying it, too.

Another new plant that shot out a bloom for me is this Penstemon.  I don't remember what kind it is, and I couldn't get the bloom and the base of the plant in the same photo without getting WAAAAY back, but I think the flower spike is quite attractive.  Hopefully next year it will get a little fuller and not quite so tall!

Two summers ago, at the start of what turned out to be 53 days over 100 degrees with no rain, my husband and I started plugging in a buffalo grass lawn.  It's done amazingly well.  In the middle of the front yard, though, a purple poppy mallow came up.  Well, I just haven't been able to bring myself to pull it out - and we are in the country, after all, so Greg mows around it and we enjoy its magenta blooms and interesting foliage.

Up close, as the blooms open, they form an interesting spiral pattern...

...and as they close, they seem to make a purple star, with a clear white echo in the center.

In the back yard, I have masses of larkspur blooming.  I love the deep purplish blue of the larkspur blooms...

and the occasional pink accent that shows up, too.  The foliage is about as close as we get to ferns around here.

Well, that's it for now.  It's fun to see what's blooming in everyone's garden - some so much ahead of us, into full summer, and some still enjoying the pastel, cool beauty of spring.  Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bits and Pieces from Around the Garden

I went out this morning to take a single photo - and ended up taking about 150!  Good lighting, some interesting bees, and nice blooms.  Here is just a smattering of the photos I garnered....

I've been thinking that I want to try to gussy up my photographic technique a bit - maybe try some different angles, "tell a story" about the garden, capture in pictures how I feel as I work around the yard.  I was quite pleased with how this shot of my front garden came out, which I took from a different vantage point than usual....

The bright orange butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the foreground has come into full and glorious bloom, there are a few, sunny yellow, lanceleaf coreopsis blossoms (Coreopsis lanceolata) hanging on, the deep reddish-orange blanket flower is putting on a spectacular show (Gaillardia sp.) and the tall, yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa) is in great beauty this year.

Speaking of the yellow coneflower, its blooms were obviously chock full of pollen and nectar, judging from the number of little native bees that were busily packing their pollen baskets.

Leaving the Echinacea after a plethora of native bee photos, I glanced at this clump of coreopsis and noticed a small white insect of some sort.  I couldn't really tell what it was, but I took its photo and figured that I'd be able to tell a little better when I enlarged it on the computer screen.

Sure enough, once I magnified the white bug it turned out to be a small white moth being eaten by a spider.  There were also native bees, beetles, and even a caterpillar feeding at (and on) the coreopsis blooms.

Out in the middle of the front yard's buffalo grass lawn, I've left a purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata).  It's just too darn pretty to pull out!  A couple of the spent blooms from yesterday were forming this attractive star pattern...

...while a newly opening bloom was coyly getting ready to share its largesse.

I've noticed recently that the insects seem to prefer pushing their way into newly opening blossoms, rather than working the fully open blooms.  Looking at the fresh pollen anthers awaiting their arrival, I can see why!

Butterflies weren't abundant on anything, but the butterfly milkweed did attract this thread-waisted wasp (Ammophila sp.), whose abdominal stripe seems to be designed to match the color of the blossoms.

Thread-waisted wasps feed on nectar as adults, as this individual was doing.  However, the female digs a tunnel in sandy soil, as a nest, which she stocks with paralyzed caterpillars, upon which she lays an egg.  So thread-waisted wasps are great predators to have in your garden!

I'll leave you with a photo of the larkspur in the back courtyard.  I'm always a sucker for blue and bluish purple flowers!

Life in the Soil

I've been nibbling away at Life in the Soil:  A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners, by James B. Nardi, for about 2 months now.  It was easy to read, but a lot to digest, I guess.  Much of it was essentially a list of the types of organisms that live in the soil, discussing each group's place in the life cycle/food web of the community there.  I've underlined copiously, so that I can flip through for quick tidbits when I return for information or for refreshment.
Probably the overarching lesson that I took away from this book is how alive the soil really is.  The complexity and diversity of life there is phenomenal, although we (as humans) see and understand relatively little of it.

If we can't see it, it isn't important, right?  Wrong. In fact, that's the kind of thinking that leads to dead soil and, ultimately, desertification and a dying world.  Many of the discussions on soil organisms had a summary list for each group, with a category labeled, "Impact on Garden".  The options for that category appeared to be "allies", "absent", or "adversaries", or a combination of those responses.  Allies vastly outweighed either the organisms with no impact or the ones considered adversaries.  Occasionally a group (e.g. nematodes) would earn the title, "allies/adversaries" when their impact could swing different directions, or when the different members of the group had very different places in the soil community.  Nematodes, for example again, consist of approximately 15,000 species.  It's amazingly simplistic to think that "nematodes", as a group, would ONLY function as allies or adversaries in the garden.

(An aside:  why do we always classify everything as "good" or "bad" based on how it relates, specifically, to us?  Maybe we ought to grow up a little and start realizing that we aren't, actually, the center of the universe.)

I learned a myriad of things from this book.  For starters, fungi and roots literally are intertwined, each feeding the other, each in the other's space, but both "...always respecting each other's integrity." (p. 15)  Fungi finds and transports minerals and water into the roots, roots feed the fungi with sugars from photosynthesis.  It's been shown that pine seedlings with mycorrhizae absorb more than twice as much phosphorus (as well as more nitrogen and potassium) than pine seedlings without mycorhhizea.

On a prairie, typically more than 3 times as many roots are produced as shoots.  There is literally more than 3 times as much life BELOW the soil surface as above it.

"Roots mine the mineral resources of the soil, and roots make these 18 essential nutrients available to animals of the land.  In going from soil to plant, calcium, for example, is first concentrated eightfold; and in going from plant to animal, this elements is then concentrated five-fold more, for a total of 40 times the concentration found in soil  Animals are not only entirely dependent on energy that is ultimately derived from sugars produced by plants during photosynthesis, but also almost entirely dependent on plant roots for concentrating from the soil the many mineral nutrients that sustain their lives."  p.20.

I'll leave you with one other interesting interaction of soil animals....

Dung beetles recycle animal droppings, especially droppings from herbivores like elephants or bison or cattle.  Both the adult and larval stages of dung beetles rely on dung for food:  the adults eat the dung juices and then move dung underground where they lay their eggs upon it.  The dung beetle larvae then utilize it as their food source while growing.  Fly maggots also like animal droppings as both adult and larval food, and there is a frequent tussle going on over which type of insect will get most of the energy from this important food source.  Dung beetles (and rove beetles and hister beetles, two other types of beetles that commonly feed on animal dung and its inhabitants) carry tiny mites on them - up to 30 mites/beetle.  When the beetle alights on a dung pile, the mites jump off and eat fly eggs and newly hatched fly maggots, then jump back onto the beetle(s) to move on to the next food source.  Without the hitchhiking mites eating the fly eggs and small maggots, the beetles can't effectively compete with the flies to get the amount of dung that they need to survive and reproduce.

Gross?  Yes, to us.  But fascinating, too.  And a perfect example of nothing going to waste.

I would highly recommend reading this book to anyone who is interested in what's going on around them, especially gardeners.  It'll help you understand the importance and complexity of a garden's soil in ways you never even thought about before!  What connections will it make for you?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Hungry Hordes

Summer has finally arrived, seemingly for good.  It's 94 degrees outside, the sun is shining brightly, the wind is up and there is no rain in the forecast.  It's hard to say goodbye to the pleasant, protracted spring that we've had, but at least the real heat didn't show up until mid June.

I was able to get out and get a good solid 2 hours of work done in the gardens before the heat and biting flies drove me in this morning.  For the most part all was good:  I saw my first monarch of the year, I got one bed weeded, finished mulching another bed, and started weeding a third bed. 

But in weeding that third bed, I noticed something that sent shivers up and down my spine....

See this western ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya)?

I had left it in the newly made bed last summer, figuring that at least it provided some green during a summer where it seemed that brown was the predominant color.  It's also good wildlife food.  This spring I am in the process of weeding it and its progeny out of the (now) precious bed space.

You can't really see them from even this close.  You have to get a little closer....

There!  Grasshopper nymphs.  Hundreds and hundreds of grasshopper nymphs.

I've seen them jumping up as I walk through the wild areas, but I hadn't seen many in the more domestic part of the yard...until this morning. 

I need chickens and guineas and any other kind of bird I can think of to come hang out and eat their fill.  I dread to think how many adults there are going to be later this summer.  We were hoping that the long, cool spring had decreased their numbers, but this morning's horde squashed that dream.

Chocolate covered grasshoppers, anyone?

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Community Rules: Prairie Larkspur and Friends

Neighborly generosity ruled on Friday evening - Sid, one of my fellow Master Gardeners and also a fellow Clearwater-ian (?!), had called that morning to tell me he had prairie larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) blooming in his pasture.  Did I want to take a look?

Did I want to take a look?  Heck, yes, I wanted to take a look! I wanted to take a couple pictures, too, if he didn't mind.  He didn't, so we set a time in the evening, when the light would be good, for me to drop by.  At the appointed time, my camera and I made the journey over to Sid's house and off we went on a tour of exploration. 

Sid is a descendant of one of the original homesteaders in the area.  Even more amazing to me is that he and his wife live on land that was actually claimed and homesteaded by his pioneer ancestors.  In a culture often characterized by rootlessness, Sid's roots run deep, right where he, himself, is planted. 

The first thing Sid pointed out to me were three trees, 2 of which he planted as seedlings about 25 years ago.

On the left is a bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), in the center is a catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), and on the right is an osage orange (Maclura pomifera).  The differing growth patterns of these tree species are so beautifully highlighted here:  the lighter green, large-leaved, upright catalpa in the middle; the young, but soon to be rugged, dark green presence of the bur oak; the gently arching, bright green dignity of the old osage orange, allowed to grow into its natural form, rather than having been hacked back into tortured crippledness.  I'm hoping to get invited back in the winter to take a photo comparing their bare branch structures.

Sid led me up to the catalpa so that I could take a couple photos of its flowers.  They were high enough up in the tree that I couldn't get too close, but Sid snagged a couple individual blooms to let me take in their sweet, rich fragrance.

As we walked on, I saw purple poppymallow, yarrow, spiderwort (with its flowers done for the day), cats claw sensitive brier, and many other prairie natives.  There were several blue Baptisia plants and one large cream Baptisia whose blooms were done for the year.

Then we came upon the prairie larkspur...

and I realized that I had seen it before, from a car window whizzing by as we traveled 60 mph down the road.  However, I'd mistaken the dainty, white spires for a small species of Penstemon.

Up close, the spurs of "larkspur" were obvious in the blossoms

and the dainty, fern-like leaves also reminded me of my domestic larkspur. 

How in the world do those fragile leaves collect enough energy to send up such a large and glorious bloom spike?

In the same general area as the larkspur were many seed heads of another prairie plant it had taken me a long time to find and recognize: Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha).

To be sure that I was identifying this grass properly, several years ago I'd finally purchased a couple plants at the Dyck Arboretum plant sale and placed them in my flower beds.  They've done well there and it's become one of my favorite native grasses to garden with - not too tall, nicely clumping, with attractive seedheads that hang on throughout the year.  It's one of the few cool season grasses in the prairie, too, so it greens up, flowers and seeds earlier than most other grasses here.

There were many other interesting plants in the prairie, but the last one I'll share with you was a glorious blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis).

Walking back up to the house, I happened to see an older blue baptisia bloom spike that was developing seed pods, highlighted against the sun.  In the larger pods were what looked like drops of water - seeds just beginning to develop?  I don't know, but the richness of the colors and the image made me happy, so I'm sharing it here with you.

There is so much beauty around us: in nature, in friends, and in communities.  Here's a mental toast to that beauty in all its many forms!

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

"I Have A Little List": Connecting A Caterpillar

There are some species that I love to see, no matter how often I see them.  Monarch and swallowtail butterflies and caterpillars are on this list.  Toads and frogs and turtles of all sorts make it too.  In recent years I've added digger bees, digger wasps, and other native pollinators to my roll of favorites as well.  And I love sphinx moths, all sphinx moths, even the much maligned tomato hornworm.

Seriously, how can you not love moths that are easy to confuse with hummingbirds when they hover in front of a flower, feeding?

I've blogged about sphinx moths like this white-lined sphinx moth before.  This is no big surprise, as I do really enjoy seeing them and, occasionally, am even able to catch them on "film".  For example, in July 2009, I wrote about watching the white-lined sphinx moth feeding at my summer phlox; and last summer I wrote again about the white-lined sphinx moth, this time feeding on the larkspur, above, as well as about the snowberry clearwing feeding at the catmint blossoms.

Well, on Sunday night I made a new acquaintance:  a large hornworm feeding on my pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa) in the front garden.  Not being one to worry about caterpillars making a mess of my plants, instead of grabbing the caterpillar and squashing it, or (even worse) grabbing some insecticide and spraying it, I grabbed my camera and photographed it.

It was obviously a hornworm and, just as obviously, not a tomato or tobacco hornworm.  Because it was a hornworm, identification was not going to be too difficult:  I just went to my handy-dandy caterpillar guide (Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David L. Wagner, Princeton University Press, 2005) and went to the Sphinx Moth family section, looking for a photograph to match the individual I was seeing outside.

And there wasn't one.  Damn.

So I started looking at the "Common Food Plants" section for evening primrose, which narrowed my choices down to 4 species of sphinx moths, one of which was white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata), on page 275.  Hmmm.  Well, obviously I have the adults around here - and I'd never seen the caterpillar before.  Why hadn't I recognized the photo?

The first sentence in the Recognition section read, "Yellow and black or bright lime green with exceptionally variable patterning;...."  The italics was theirs.  The photograph was of the yellow and black morph - which is why I hadn't recognized it.  The other characteristics matched, as did the places of occurrence:  the head, thoracic shield and anal plate were all the same green color and speckled with minute dots, the thoracic legs were orange, and the horn was orange, plus the hornworm is commonly found in gardens and fields. 

When I checked with the images on Butterflies and Moths of North America,, I found images of the green morph which looked almost identical to my mystery hornworm.

Mystery solved.

The first photograph was taken in the evening, 2 days ago, with a flash to supplement the lighting.  This more up-close-and-personal photo was taken this morning in natural light.  Don't you think it looks almost sated and ready to pupate?!

So now I'm waiting anxiously for my fat little hornworm to disappear and undergo its mysterious metamorphosis.  Then, for any white-lined sphinx moths I see feeding at my flowers this summer, I can imagine their "childhood" chowing down on my pink evening primroses and wonder if I've made his/her acquaintance before!

Monday, June 03, 2013

A Few Scenes From Early June....

It's the time of year that all gardeners love - when many plants are in bloom at once, the air is balmy, and the skies are bright blue.  Even in south central Kansas.

Here, then, are a few photos from around the homestead....

The lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) is doing beautifully for me.  It seems to last longer than other Coreopsis species, and occasionally even gives me a few seedlings that I can transplant into new homes in other beds.

The spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.) is in bloom all over the yard.  Here is a small plant near one of my favorite little watering holes....

...and another, larger individual growing wild along the edge of the vegetable garden.

I can't seem to decide which spiderwort I have growing naturally on my property.  Anyone able to help me out with this?  It tends to grow about 24-30" high....

When we first moved out here, I started calling this time of year the "Blue, White and Yellow" season for its coordinated blooms:  blue spiderwort, yellow western salsify (Tragopogon dubius), and white yarrow (Achillea millefolium).  The drought has kept the display to a scant minimum in recent years, but this year it is, once again, outstanding.

The photo below of spiderwort and yarrow was taken on May 23rd, so the plants have been blooming for 2 weeks now and show no sign of slowing down.

Along the back garage, the roses have been putting on quite a spectacle.  We cut out 2 large, very overgrown old spireas from behind the pink rose and now I need to actually design the bed, which may very well involve moving at least one of the roses - a prospect I don't look forward to.  Most importantly, though, take a look at the little bee shelter on the side of the garage trim....

Here is a closeup of it, showing the many filled tubes.  The orchard bees have been hard at work this spring.

I was finally able to get an okay photo of my prairie rose (Rosa arkansana) patch, just beyond the draw. 

The roses scattered among the grasses simply make my heart happy.

And I'll finish this post with 2 different kinds of milkweed, just waiting for the first monarch to find them and lay eggs.  First is the showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), whose buds are almost ready to burst open....

...and then the green antelopehorn (Asclepias viridis) - not as showy, but incredibly abundant and floriferous this year.

Monarchs, we're ready and waiting for you!