Monday, October 03, 2016

Learning My Garden Through Weeding

Anybody else out there enjoy weeding?

While I don't like to be outside for any length of time if the weather is abysmal - which is how I define most of the hot, humid summer down here in the panhandle of Florida - once the weather starts cooling off, I actually find that I like to weed.  It's meditative...and I learn A LOT about the nuts and bolts of daily life going on at ground level in my garden.

My latest weeding project is/was a large, new bed that I halfheartedly started last spring, before I got chased inside by heat and humidity.  The photo above shows about half of the area, which continues on to the right another 10 feet or so.  Taken fairly early in the weeding process, this shows the approximate height and thickness of the weeds I was removing. 

I chose to hand weed this new bed for two basic reasons, one of them related to poor planning.  First of all, I knew there were several small seedling plants located in the area that I wanted to save and, probably, relocate.  Secondly, when I started to make the bed last spring, I put in a few plants that I didn't want to lose.  There were 3 clumps of pink rain lilies (Zephyranthes grandiflora) and, more problematically, several wild strawberry plants (Fragaria virginiana) that had spent the summer putting out runners and baby plants.  If I smothered the area with newspaper and mulch, it would be relatively easy, but I'd lose ALL of the plants in the area, including the ones I wanted to keep.

So I sat down on my rear and I weeded.  The weeds were primarily a mix of an 18" tall, rather airy plant with wiry stems that I haven't identified, doveweed (Murdannia nudiflora), chamberbitters (Phyllanthus urinaria, a.k.a. gripeweed, for my Mobile friends), Asiatic hawksbeard (Youngia japonica), mock strawberry (Duchesnea  indica), Florida pusley (Richardia scabra), and Virginia buttonweed (Diodia virginiana).  For seasoning, there was a little bit of dollarweed (Hydrocotyle umbellata), the dainty Carolina ponysfoot (Dichondra carolinensis), and a variety of sedges (Carex spp.) thrown in.

The photo above is a single stem of Virginia buttonweed, surrounded by lots of doveweed.  Lovely, isn't it?  (Yes, that's sarcasm.)  At least it was mostly green.  Anyway, of all the weeds, only about half the species were native:  Virginia buttonweed, Florida pusley, dollarweed, Carolina ponysfoot, and probably most of the sedges.  I don't know about the unidentified, 18" "wiry" weed.  Most of the biomass was doveweed, the wiry unknown, and Virginia buttonweed.

Anyway, as I sat there on the ground, hour after hour, I not only got to know the plants quite well, but I also got to see some of the "denizens of the dirt", those little creatures who live their entire lives in our gardens but that we rarely see or notice.  A few of these little creatures sat still long enough for me to photograph, so I thought I'd share them with you....

First off, I am going to cheat just a little.  I saw one skink in this area as I was working, but I didn't get a photograph of that particular individual.  I did get a photo of another one of the same species a few days earlier, so I'll share the photo that I have.

This is a ground skink (Scincella lateralis) and it was probably about 5" long, which is about as large as ground skinks get.  Apparently they are the commonest skink in Florida gardens, but they are rather hard to see, as they move very rapidly through the undergrowth and leaf litter.  When I am working in an established bed, I often catch a glimpse of a little brown lizard skittering away.  I assume those are other ground skinks, exhibiting their getaway skills.

A toad was the only other vertebrate that I flushed out as I weeded, although certainly birds and other vertebrates must have foraged in the area from time to time.  This little guy...

...seemed to be missing his right rear leg.  An injury?  Some sort of genetic defect?  Hard to tell.  Surprisingly to me, there are only 4 species of toads in Florida.  I think this is a southern toad (Bufo terrestris), the most common species, but I am not completely certain.

Rather unexpectedly, there were two large caterpillars amidst this unprepossessing mass of vegetation.  The first one was an odd looking "woolly bear" type, with coal black hair and bright red segments that showed when it curled up in its defensive position.  I've seen lots of woolly bears before, but never one colored like this.

According to BugGuide, this is the caterpillar for the giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia).  I've never seen an adult, but the BugGuide photos look stunning and I will certainly be looking for one now that I know it obviously occurs in our yard.

The second large caterpillar fell out of a handful of weeds that I had pulled, but by observing it for a couple minutes as it got back to eating, I believe it was munching determinedly on Virginia buttonwood.

Despite this guy's 3-4 inch long size and distinctive markings, he was a little hard to identify.  Nothing seemed to fit when I scanned the hornworm photos at BugGuide, so I eventually turned to Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David L. Wagner, where I was able to figure out what I was seeing.  This is the caterpillar of the Tersa Sphinx (Xylophanes tersa), another striking moth species that I've never seen before.  The link is to the node at BugGuide, where you can see photos of both the caterpillars and the adults.

I photographed two other caterpillars, both much smaller.  One was a hairy individual that I haven't tried to identify yet....

while the other was an early instar of yet another sphinx moth, about an inch long, also currently unidentified.

There were lots of little, round snails, maybe 1/4" in diameter...

...and one large, conical snail whose shell was at least an inch in length.

While I saw many green stinkbug nymphs, I only saw this one adult stinkbug.

While I'm not completely sure, I think this is Euschistus crenator, a species that feeds on sedges.  Probably the green nymphs were of a different species.

There were several small, longhorned grasshoppers, ....

but no shorthorned grasshoppers of any size, which is a major change from gardening in Kansas.

There were also a lot of small spiders.  I only took the time to photograph this one, which was slightly larger than most.  I think it is a wolf spider, but I don't know the species yet.

Last, but hardly least, there were a lot of roaches running around.  I didn't try to photograph any of them, assuming they were wood roaches which help to decompose organic matter.  I saw this one, though, that was different and obviously an adult.  It was trying to get away through the grass and "posing", so I did take a couple minutes to get a few photos.  Imagine my dismay just now as I worked to identify it and realized it is probably a non-native, Surinam Cockroach (Pycnoscelus surinamensis) .  If so, according to BugGuide, it has the interesting characteristic of reproducing entirely by parthenogenesis in the U.S. - no males have ever been found.

As I worked and noted all of the small creatures living among the weeds I was pulling out, I found myself feeling guilty for destroying the habitat that was obviously providing food and shelter for such a large variety of little animals.  I'm trying to placate myself by remembering that I will be planting a variety of native perennials and shrubs in the area this fall, all tucked in with a nice layer of leaf and wood chip mulch...but the dismay is still there, simmering in the background.  Forgive me, little ones.  I really AM trying to create a healthy habitat for all in our yard and gardens.

1 comment:

Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

You certainly found a lot of creatures. Weeding is a great meditative gardening chore. It is so nice to have autumn and get outside for projects again.