Monday, August 25, 2008

Sometimes I Just Feel So Lucky....

Sometimes I just feel so lucky to be who I am, living where I am, and today is one of those days. (At least, it is now that I've gotten over my early morning funk...and the guy is here fixing the blinds!)
We live in Kansas on just 10 acres, which seems "ordinary" enough, but here are a couple views from our little homestead....

The path, through a nice stand of big bluestem and other prairie grasses, from the house to the draw and the Beyond.

The path through the draw and into the Beyond.

The bottomlands in the draw. The brown area in the foreground is the remnant of one of the poison ivy stands that Prairiewolf has been trying to fight back.

The Back of Beyond, otherwise known as the Back Five. This photo was taken in early July, looking back towards the draw, and it shows the silver bluestem catching the light.

Yes, our land is fairly flat. Yes, our land has more grass than trees...and maybe more "weeds" than grass. And, yes, at least half of our land is overgrazed pasture. But it fascinates me and anchors me and challenges me and grounds me.

Sometimes I just feel so lucky....

The Painful Price of Not Paying Attention

I've let myself be lulled by cooler than normal temperatures. How can something so pleasant have led to potential disaster?

See, because of the cooler temperatures and days of overcast skies, I haven't been paying enough attention to how little rain we've actually been getting. My front bed, composed primarily of more established prairie wildflowers, has been looking great (at least as far as water stress goes!). That's what I pass by closely on my way in and out of the house several times a day...and I haven't been looking nearly as closely at my new backyard bed.

After all, it looked fine from the kitchen window. When I actually walked out to it yesterday, however, I was appalled to see that several plants had dried up and disappeared and several others looked like limp caricatures of themselves. Whoops.

I hate it when I fail to follow my own advice! "You can generally plant containerized plants at any time in the growing season, but be sure you keep them well watered for the first year or two, especially if you're trying to get them established during the summer."

At this point, it will probably be next spring before I know the true extent of the damage I've done. I'll try to think of it as an opportunity to try something new. But, blast it! I didn't really even give these plants an even chance at deciding whether they wanted to grow and thrive here. That's what makes me the most frustrated with myself.

Monday Morning Grump

I'm feeling grinchy this morning.

It was a wonderfully cool morning when I went out to get the paper, but it's starting to heat up a bit. I'd love to have taken a walk-about, but someone is coming any moment now to take in one of our blinds for repair. Since the blinds are still under warranty for 5 1/2 more years, I didn't want to risk screwing them up by prying them out myself, so now I wait on someone else's convenience.

I'm getting positively unpleasant about having my mornings interrupted by outside commitments. My mornings have come to be very precious to me - whether I waste them away by sleeping in... or fritter them away reading the paper and playing on the computer... or delight in them by doing a walk-about... or use them constructively to water the garden or get housework or errands done. I "want what I want when I want it!", by golly - at least on weekday mornings.


Okay. Having whined and yelled a bit, I'll try to let my grump dissipate. Even if tomorrow is not as cool, we're heading into fall, and it's a sure bet that one of these upcoming mornings will be nice again. So I'll play around on the computer until Mr. Blind gets out of my way, then move on with the day.

Friday, August 22, 2008

More Milkweed Stuff

I thought that I was pretty much done for the summer with new milkweed finds in our yard...but I find that I was wrong.

Last week I briefly looked into the bottomland area, not expecting to see much except giant ragweed, massive quantities of poison ivy and maybe some smartweed. However, I noticed some 4-6' tall plants with pretty pink puffs of flowers on the top. Way too tall for smartweed. Closer inspection surprised me - they were obviously milkweed blossoms. I had discovered a dozen or so swamp milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata)!

How did I miss that many pretty, fragrant, tall flowering plants last summer?! I'm blaming it on the poison ivy thickets that were viciously guarding the lowlands. Prairiewolf has been working hard to fight them back for the last 2 summers. Obviously he's making some serious progress, and this is one of the benefits of his work.

The next discovery came a few days ago. I was doing a walkabout, not finding much new, when I decided to check out some uninteresting looking white blooms about 20' away from the path. They just looked like nondescript "weeds", but...more milkweeds! At first I thought this was whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), but upon further study, it looks more like plains milkweed (Asclepias pumila). There's not a lot of information on plains milkweed, so I want to look a little farther, but I'm going to tentatively identify it this way for now.

Last of all, yesterday I finally found a monarch caterpillar while I had my camera in hand. He was busy chowing down on smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii). From his size, I would guess that he was close to pupating, and I like to think that he will be one of the monarchs making the long migration down to Mexico this fall.

Many of the milkweeds around the yard are suddenly full of aphids, but they're beginning to look bedraggled in other ways too. Some of their leaves are turning yellow and falling off. A few plants, especially the green antelopehorn, are even dying back. They've bloomed and released their seeds; their work is done for this year. One more sign that summer is coming to a close.
The seasons are whirling by. Next year I'll know that I can chart their course by following the sequential development of the 8 milkweed species (and their associated insect pals) currently calling our 10 acres home. For me, it's a deeply satisfying way of measuring time's passage.

The RangeMan Cometh

We've got a new family member!
His name is Ranger (based on the character from Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series), he's about 4 months old and, like most young things, he vacillates wildly between being a little sweetheart and a holy terror.

We got Ranger from the animal shelter on the last Sunday of July. They had been having Cat Liberation Weekends, trying desperately to find new homes for the large influx of cats and kittens they'd received over the summer. Prairiewolf and I decided that it was finally time to give T.J., our 4 1/2 year old feline, a companion. The only kittens left Saturday afternoon weren't available to see until Sunday, since they'd just been spayed or neutered, so we went back that next day. Before we left on Saturday, though, I'd noted one friendly, young, black male still under surgical quarantine...and, sure enough, he was the one who chose us the next day.

I've been nervous about adding another cat, since cats can be unpleasantly territorial towards others of their own species, but Ranger has fit right in. There are even times when I think he's a little TOO bold and when he, the 4 pound kitten, starts attacking Becker's, the 115 pound German shepherd's, ear! The dogs, however, have been quite indulgent, and T.J. seems to be bemusedly alternating between watching this new little squirt's activity and wrestling wholeheartedly with him.

Last week Ranger learned that he could jump straight up into the air, and he spent several days practicing this skill. That morphed into jumping up onto our legs while we're standing up, using all 20 claws to hold on. Or jumping as high as he can onto the window screens and holding on there for dear life. A battle with the blinds led to $75 worth of damage...but we're giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming the blinds were deficient.
Next he realized that he could reach the kitchen counter, and we are currently battling over whether that's my territory or his. I've had to deploy that dreaded weapon, the squirt bottle. Sad to say, though that makes him scram now when he sees it, he's quite happy to check out the countertop again in just a minute or two.

Life's certainly not dull around here right now!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Numeric Coincidences in the Garden

An interesting day in the vegetable garden.....

For various reasons, I hadn't really been paying much attention to the garden for the last 5 or 6 days, so I thought I'd better get out there this morning to put out any "fires" that had taken hold.

It was immediately obvious that I needed to pick tomatoes. Last week there were no ripe ones and only a few showing a blush of color. This morning I picked 64. From only 7 vines, 5 of them heirloom varieties. I'm actually rather amazed. All of this is totally organic too. (Confession time, though - I had to chuck 13 of the 64 tomatoes into the compost pile immediately, because I'd let them get too ripe...or the insects had claimed them as their own.)

On the down side, a couple weeks of upper 90's and low 100's, followed by cooler temps with rain had caused a lot of cracking. It was interesting to see how the different heirloom varieties responded....

Almost every single ripe German Queen tomato (and there were close to 20 of them, all quite large) was seriously cracked. Also, we've only harvested a couple of these before now and I was amazed to see how many were ripe at one time. If the plant wasn't flowering again, I'd seriously wonder if it was a determinate variety.

The Black Krim plant had produced quite a few tomatoes, but almost all of the ones that were ripe had been cracked and then immediately seriously infested with insects, followed by fungus - much more so than any of the other varieties. I haven't had a chance to taste any yet, but have 2 that survived with little enough damage that I'll try them tomorrow. I went ahead and picked several that were only half ripe, too, to try ripening them off the vine, inside. If they keep their flavor (whatever that is) maybe I can keep a higher percentage of the fruits safe from cracking and insects this way.

The Merced, another variety I haven't gotten to taste yet, had smaller cracks around the top of many of the fruits. Otherwise they looked very good.

The 2 hybrids were their normal, unexciting selves. The Rutgers acts like the hybrids. And the Green Zebra offered 5 fruits, all somewhat scarred and a few cracked (for the first time). The Green Zebras and one of the hybrids are the smallest fruits, on average. I love the look of the Green Zebras; their taste, on the other hand, is okay but not as good as German Queen's.

Meanwhile, the black blister beetles were having quite a field day. Just for curiosity's sake, I decided to keep track of how many I picked off. Including the 3 or 4 gray blister beetles I found too, I found 64 blister beetles and sent them to a watery, if sudsy clean, death.

I found that rather interesting - I harvested 64 tomatoes and 64 blister beetles. And I really tried hard to find more blister beetles!

Other insect counts on the tomatoes included 3 stink bugs (which went the way of the blister beetles) and 2 hornworms. I saw a wood nymph butterfly feeding on the overripe Black Krim tomatoes too.

Last comment: When I see (or rather, don't see) eaten tomato leaves, I can tell what the insect culprit is by the general location of the damage. If the leaves have been chewed near the base of the plant (and have little black frass packets that look like tiny mouse droppings), I know I'm looking for black blister beetles. If the leaves and stems are missing at the tips of branches, especially near the top of the plant, I'm looking for tomato hornworms. Their frass is dark green and almost 1/4" square.

For now, I've decided to let the hornworms live to turn into hummingbird moths. There aren't enough to be a problem fact, I'm enjoying the fact that the caterillars are basically "pinching out" the tips of the vines for me!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Typical Natural Paradox

After picking another 2 dozen or so black blister beetles off my tomatoes again this morning (the photo to the left has both black blister beetles and gray blister beetles on a "hot spot" on one of my tomato plants), I decided to do a little web research and find out more about their life cycle. What could I look for as far as their larval or pupal stage went? Was there something I could do to interrupt their life cycle at an earlier stage?

Well, I came away with yet more respect for the web of life.

It turns out that the larvae of black blister beetles feed on grasshopper eggs, specifically the eggs of short-horned grasshoppers (family Acrididae). Thus black blister beetles are more common during or after grasshopper outbreaks.

Just this afternoon, while I was at the Master Gardener office, we were discussing grasshoppers. Several people in the area are having major trouble with grasshopper outbreaks in their gardens. I was (rather smugly, I'm afraid) noting that I was seeing some, but not any more than usual. It would appear that I may very well owe my "normal" grasshopper population to those same black blister beetles that I've been cussing under my breath as I painstakingly examine my tomato plants to hunt for them.

Other rather interesting facts I learned about black blister beetles (Epicauta pennsylvanica):

* The eggs are laid in the ground or under stones, in clusters of 50-300. The females lay several clusters of eggs throughout their adult life.

* Blister beetles undergo "hypermetamorphosis" - a type of metamorphosis with several different larval forms, rather than the normal single larval form with several "instars" or growth stages. The first larval stage in blister beetles is quite mobile, while the later stages are much less mobile.

* Some of the other blister beetle genuses feed on bee larvae or stored food in bee nests during their larval stage. All blister beetle larvae appear to be predatory.

* Adult blister beetles live about 3 months.

* Blister beetles produce a toxic chemical, cantharidin, in their hemolymph ("blood"). This chemical causes blistering on human don't crush blister beetles if/when you handle them!

* Cantharidin is very stable and remains toxic even after the beetles die. Horses are particularly susceptible to cantharidin. One of the biggest problems that blister beetles cause is illness or death in horses who eat dead blister beetles in their alfalfa hay.

* The good news is that black blister beetles are one of the least toxic of the blister beetle family.
So now I'm left with the conundrum of "Do I want to minimize the black blister beetle adults that are eating my tomato plant leaves, or do I want to let their populations follow normal fluctuations as their larvae feed on grasshopper eggs in the soil?"

The more I learn, the harder this sort of decision becomes.