Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Buffalo Grass Update

We finished plugging the 27 flats (70 plugs apiece) of buffalo grass last weekend. I can't believe we did the WHOLE thing!

Anyway, here is the back courtyard area that we finished about a month ago. (If you check out the link, you'll see what it looked like then.) For the most part, the plugs have taken well and are beginning to expand outward a bit.

And here is the front yard, freshly plugged.

It's probably going to look a little odd for at least a year or two until we switch it entirely to buffalo grass. Right now we've left the fescue that's surviving and just plugged in around it. Since fescue and buffalo grass are worse than apples and oranges in terms of similarity, I don't imagine that it's going to be the most glamorous lawn in Sedgwick County, but hopefully it will hold the soil and be moderately green.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


There's no way to pretty it up out here. It's hot. And it's Dry. (Yes, that's with a capital D.)

Last Friday I decided to take a closeup of one of the many cracks in the soil out in the Back 5. The phone is just for scale.

Yesterday I grabbed one of the orange flags that I mark plants with, using it to measure the depth of a few of the cracks that I found during my walk. When I got back to the house, I measured the wire "stem" - it was 20" long. Results: Out of 6 large cracks that I measured, 3 of them swallowed my wire stem and I couldn't feel any bottom, 1 crack was about 16" deep, and the final 2 were about 12" deep.

So 50% of my (admittedly small sample size of) soil cracks were over 20" deep.

At least the water will be able to get to the subsoil rapidly, if and when we ever get some rain.

My tallgrass (Indian grass and big bluestem) is about knee height. Here's a photo of Blue sitting by one of the solitary clumps a couple weeks ago. The clump looks much worse than that now. (The orange flag is like the one I used to measure the depth of the soil cracks.)

The giant ragweed, normally well above my head, is currently waist high, on average, even in the draw. It has started to bloom, so it probably won't be getting any taller this year.

On the plus side, the false boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides) has started to bloom. I have more of it than I've ever seen out back before. I can't tell whether false boneset is a wind pollinated or an insect pollinated species - I've never seen any insects on it, but the bloom is certainly showier than, say, ragweed, which is a typical wind-pollinated flower.

Reading up a bit on false boneset, I noted that its taproot is known to grow to 16' deep. Putting down deep roots makes all the difference in the world when dealing with the vicissitudes of life, especially on the prairie.

We did get our first rain in almost 2 weeks last night: less than 0.05" in the rain gauge. (That's less than 1/20th of an inch, for those who may need the decimal translated.) My shoes were barely damp as I walked around this morning. We're due to be back up to 100 and above for the next 4 days too.

Forgive me while I say, once again, that I'm SOO glad I'm not a settler or subsistence farmer these days. I also have to express my gratitude for air conditioners. Life would be miserable here without them. Even with them, this year has become an endurance contest for gardeners.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Remembering - Journal entries from 2005

I happened to look back to 2005 when I wrote in my journal last night and realized that 6 years ago, while we were living in Mobile, AL, we were preparing for Katrina during these last days of August. Here's the sequence....

Wednesday, August 24: After several quiet weeks, another tropical storm has blown up - Katrina, SE of Miami. Let the fun begin.

Thursday, August 25: Katrina strengthened to a hurricane & hit Miami this evening. It's due along the Fla. panhandle by Monday. Hopefully it will miss us. .... I can't sleep.

Friday, August 26: Katrina up to Cat. 2, but still moving WSW; we're east of the central line of the cone.

Saturday, August 27: The entire day revolved around waiting to see what Katrina would do. I planted a few plants, brought in some unneeded items from the yard, got Annie's [our faithful, old German Shepherd, who was failing badly at this time] med refills, bought dog food...and watched TV. It looks like she's turning NW at last - New Orleans is the current target.

Sunday, August 28: Up by 6 a.m. to get ready for Katrina. She's strengthened to a Cat. 4 with 175 mph winds headed straight for New Orleans. Emptied the yard, put up plywood, emptied the frig. Left about 2:20 p.m. and took Hwy. 45 up into Tennessee, then 412 & on into Sean's. Got in about 2:30 a.m. with all animals. [Sean lived just east of St. Louis at this point, but was in DC for TDY with work. We caravanned, Greg driving the truck with the 2 (outside) hunting dogs in the back, me driving the Camry with Annie, Shiner (our old English setter house dog) and the 2 cats in the back. Greg had to leave as soon as Katrina was out of the Mobile area to get back to his duty station with the Coast Guard. The temperatures were in the upper 90's, with high humidity, during the day.]

Monday, August 29: Shiner woke me early & the day was filled with worry about the dogs and worry about the house. Early reports (8:30 a.m.) said the storm had dumped 36" of rain in Mobile already, so I was sure the house had flooded. Mobile was majorly hit (the eye went in about Biloxi/Gulfport) - 10' surge flooding downtown, multiple tornadoes, the rain & major wind. This evening we talked to [a friend who lived a street over] & he kindly checked out the house - said we'd lost major parts of the live oak out front & one of the big red oaks out back, as well as some shingles, but overall came out okay. ... I'm exhausted. And it's time to have Annie put to sleep; her hind legs are almost totally gone now.

Tuesday, August 30: After some frantic discussion, we decided that Greg should head back alone with Lefty & Misty [the outside dogs]. I spent the day trying to figure out the safest routes for him, reading papers, and talking to [family] on the phone. The water has continued to rise in New Orleans & now the entire city is basically flooded. Biloxi & Gulfport suffered devastating losses & rearrangements. The Coast Guards' been doing nonstop rescues. Greg's truck broke down 25 miles south of Birmingham about 5:30 p.m. AAA came abt. 2 hours later & towed him to Montgomery. He's in a hotel tonight.

Wednesday, August 31: ... Greg got the truck fixed and was on the road by 11 a.m. He got into Mobile abt. 2 p.m. & home by 2:45 or so. A section of fence was down; otherwise yard was as described. ... Increased looting in New Orleans. Greg was relieved to finally get to work.

Thursday, September 1: [The "check engine" light had come on in my car on the drive up from Mobile, so I spent the morning having the repair shop figure out what was wrong. The catalytic converter was shot. I wasn't sure whether to stay at Sean's - who was in D.C. - or go on to Wichita to my folks', or go back to Mobile.] ... No electricity yet at home. Some stations are running out of gas. This feels like a nightmarish alternative universe.

Friday, September 2: Well, I'm finally down to quiet days. ... Have decided to stay here to save gas. .... [Greg was basically working & living at the CG base from this point on for many days, just going home to check on the dogs.]

Saturday, September 3: [Quiet day alone for me.] Electricity on at home.

Sunday, September 4: [Quiet day alone for me.] Annie's hips are getting worse again.

Monday, September 5: Sean got home a little after 10 p.m. - tired but it's great to see him. [I had finally been able to talk with one of my good friends from Mobile that day, to see how others had fared with the storm.]

I stayed for a couple more days at Sean's. He was gone at work from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the day, but we got to visit in the evenings. On Thursday of that week, I drove to Topeka/Holton, dropped the animals off at a kennel, and attended the wedding of Sean's best friend, Nathan and his wife Laura, that weekend in Lawrence. Greg flew in to Kansas City on Friday night. Sean and Jess came in for the wedding, too. Greg and I stayed around the Holton area on Sunday to socialize, then we drove back to Sean's on Monday and on to Mobile on Tuesday, getting home around 6 p.m. My only comment upon getting home was, "House & yard as described." We spent the next several days cleaning up the yard, taking down the plywood, cleaning out the frig, having the air conditioners repaired (and then replaced because they couldn't be properly repaired). Five days later we had to have Annie, our sweet German Shepherd, put to sleep.

Ironically, the day we got back to Mobile after Katrina was the same day that, the year before (2004), it was obvious that Ivan was headed our way. We stayed in Mobile for Ivan - which we decided, in retrospect, was really stupid, after spending a LONG night sheltering in a small bathroom and under the dining room table as the winds seemed to be trying to blow our home apart. Even if it seemed cowardly, we decided that, in the future, we would evacuate for hurricanes.

My heart goes out to any who find themselves in for a much worse storm than they expected with Irene. I hope that, whatever property may be damaged, the people are able to keep themselves safe.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Bits and Pieces, Including a Wing and a Prayer

I can't say there's any theme to today's post, just a series of photos showing things that captured my interest this morning....

While we don't have many cattle egrets stopping in our yard, we do have a lot flying overhead on their way to the horse pasture next door. This summer I've particularly noticed a fair number of single feathers, one or two or three each day, that seem to have drifted down from their passage. When I see one, it reminds me of a "prayer bush" that I saw in a National Geographic article once - individual feathers tied to a shrub, each one symbolic of a wish or a prayer.

The Letterman's ironweed (Vernonia lettermannii) is starting to bloom in my front garden. I've really come to like this plant: its finely textured leaves add a nice filler throughout the summer and fall, it's absolutely no care, and the deep purple blooms completely cover the top of the plant when it's in full bloom. Technically it is native south of here, in Oklahoma and Arkansas, but it's doing fantastically, so maybe I'm just helping it accommodate to the changing rainfall patterns of global warming.

While most of our native Baldwin's ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii) has gone to seed already, I found this one bloom still brightening a rather shady glade down near the draw.

Not too far away was this little understory plant whose identity I have no clue about. What caught my eye, though, were the patterns made on its leaves by leaf miners. These are known as "serpentine" leaf miner patterns, but I don't know much beyond that. Leaf miners can be larvae of moths, flies, sawflies, beetles or wasps. In the case of serpentine leaf miners, you can see how the larva developed, from the narrow little beginning of the pattern to the big broad end, where the larva pupated and emerged as an adult. Leaf miners do not hurt the plant. (On the close-up, look at how the little larva paralleled the edge of leaf, really adding to the lace-like effect of its pattern.)

Below is a closeup of one of the few species of butterflies I'm seeing around the property right now. It's a common buckeye, here shown resting in a red cedar tree. Males can apparently be quite territorial; I commonly see these butterflies near the draw with its trees and relatively lush vegetation. The larvae eat plantain, Ruellia, and members of the snapdragon family. Apparently the spring and summer forms of this butterfly look a bit different from the fall form. I'm going to have to see if I can compare them next year.

My last intriguing find for the day is this little wasp that I noticed feeding diligently on the seedhead of white prairie-clover (Dalea candida). I think it may be a potter wasp, but I'm not at all sure. I may post this to BugGuide to get a firmer identification. I also have no idea what it was looking for/eating on this seedhead, but I assume it was finding something that it liked.

Nothing earth-shattering today, but I can almost always find something that sparks my interest and curiosity. And, as my husband likes to say, any day in which I learn something new is a good day!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Serendipity and Clouded Crimsons

Other than the fact that the temperature was already up to 80 and the wind was blowing quite a bit (making it hard to take closeups of insects on waving plant stems), this morning's walk was full of interesting sights.

This has been such a hard summer that a lot of plants are blooming "out of season". I noticed a series of Bradford pears, for example, blooming in a road median just a couple days ago. Here at home, the green antelopehorn (Asclepias viridis) have been putting out blossoms. Normally they bloom in May. The grass seed heads that you see airily clustering around the blooms are sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes).

The Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis) is beginning to bloom - the first of my "wild" species of goldenrod each year. I rather like this juxtaposition of goldenrod intermingled with white sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) leaves.

The most interesting find of the morning was this velvetleaf gaura (Gaura mollis), loaded with caterpillars. I didn't recognize the caterpillars but, looking them up once I got back to the house, I learned they are clouded crimsons. Isn't that a wonderful name? The adults are actually moths, colored pink, deep magenta, tan and cream. I actually think the caterpillars look rather similar to monarchs, but they are smaller, skinnier, and don't have the black "horns". Clouded crimson larvae are specific to gaura species and gaura is even in their scientific name, Schinia gaurae. (Note to self: See there ARE annuals that are very worth having around!)

To tell the truth, I really like velvetleaf gaura. It's too gangly for a cultivated garden bed, but in a "wild" area it's great. The flowers are small and rather uninteresting, but I love the texture of its leaves. The plant is very well named and it looks quite pretty early in the season, when the leaves are still forming a basal rosette.

Sometimes when I take a photo, I discover things in it later that I didn't notice while I was taking it. This picture is one of those. I took it to record one of the 5 caterpillars I noticed on the gaura. When I uploaded it and looked more closely, I found the largest of the clouded crimson caterpillars in the screen and in focus too, as well as a tiny caterpillar right beside the "main" subject, 2 more caterpillars up to the far left upper corner, and a true bug (Hemipteran) of some sort in the top center of the photo. Unfortunately, that last guy is too out of focus to identify it more than that. Serendipitous!

The last find of the morning is the blooms on the side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula). They may be small, but they sure pack a punch of color!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

It Never Gets Old

Yesterday it was dripping just a bit of rain when I decided to walk the dogs, so I left my camera inside. Of course, that was when I saw the newly emerged monarch in the Cedar Grove! So I rushed back to the house, got the camera and was able to snap this photo to share with you....

I'm so glad that he (she?) waited patiently so that I could take the picture. I'm quite sure that this is the caterpillar I saw about 2 weeks ago. My only regret is that I didn't look harder for the chrysalis, as it was hanging from the milkweed leaf in plain sight.

Somehow the drop of rain hanging on the bottom of the empty chrysalis brings a poignant pang to my heart every time I look at it! The miracle of new life never gets old.

On this same patch of milkweed, I've seen 3 more milkweed caterpillars since that first one disappeared to pupate. They've all disappeared now (presumably doing their own metamorphoses) and I've lost track of which plant the first one was on, so I don't know if he moved to a different individual plant to pupate, or if he's on the same plant that he fed on as a caterpillar. Obviously somebody's been eating this plant!

I'm pretty sure this guy will be heading south on the monarch migration. My thoughts and hopes will be flying south with him. I hope he makes it safely!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Timex" Plants in My Yard

It seems like a good time to take stock of what's actually "taking a licking and keeping on ticking," to paraphrase the old Timex commercial.

Most of my prairie natives will be surviving this summer, even without my having watered much, if at all. The natives may not be looking great right now and most certainly aren't putting forth much effort at blooming, but they are living. With our only water source being a single well, I've been very cautious about overtaxing it with a lot of extraneous watering.

Accidentally choosing this summer to try to establish new lawns of buffalo grass has meant that almost the only landscape watering I've done has been geared towards keeping the buffalo grass alive and healthy.

So with my 2 primary water goals being to keep our well producing and to get the buffalo grass established, I'd have to say it's been a successful droughty summer, all things considered.

Two days ago, I walked around the yard and snapped a few photos of the few plants that are looking halfway decent and/or blooming, despite the summer's challenges.

In the wild areas (which got no extra water at all, of course), the Baldwin's ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii ) put on a reasonable show a couple weeks ago but has finished now, while the snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata) is in full bloom right now.

It looks like we'll have a great year for dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata), based on the number of bloom spikes I see growing up, but none have opened yet.

In the managed flower beds, rose verbena (Verbena canadensis) has a small cluster of blooms and the (new to me this year) heart-leaf skullcap (Scutellaria ovata) is still sporadically blooming but isn't looking particularly showy right now. The aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) looks lush and gorgeous (although it's also too early for it to be blooming), but the New England aster varieties (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) look as bad or worse than normal, with brown "legs" almost all the way up to their developing flower buds. I think it's time to pull them out and replace them with other plants whose foliage won't be such a huge detraction.

Gaillardia has a few sporadic blooms. The plants might bloom better if I'd deadhead them, but I prefer to leave the developing seed heads on for the it's simply been way too hot to bother with a slow-gardening task like deadheading.

A pleasant surprise for me this summer has been the mealy cup sage (Salvia farinacea). This is a perennial further south, but acts as an annual here. After its carefree performance this year, I'm going to be planting it much more widely throughout the beds. I'm generally not much for annuals, but this one has won a piece of my heart!

The fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus) is another superb performer this summer. While the mealy cup sage has probably been watered a bit here and there as I tried to keep the nearby lawn from totally dying, the fameflower has gotten absolutely no supplemental water; still it has a cloud of pinky-purple blooms swaying a foot above its succulent foliage every afternoon.

Surprisingly, this brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) that survived my purge of its brethren this spring looks pretty darn good. Like the mealy cup sage, it has received a little incidental watering since it's next to the lawn, but it looks lots better than I would have ever anticipated.

Tucked back in next to Wichita Mountains goldenrod (Solidago sphacelata 'Wichita Mountains'), which actually looks like it'll be gorgeous in bloom, is a small clump of prairie onion (Allium stellatum). It's far from a showy plant, being much too small and too sparsely planted in my beds to stand out, but it's valiantly blooming despite the weather.

The final plant that is currently blooming with a reasonable number of blossoms is that old classic, summer phlox (Phlox paniculata). I have deep watered these clumps with a slow trickle a couple times this summer, so it hasn't been as carefree as the rest of the current bloomers, but I just couldn't bear to lose it. As it is, I didn't water enough to keep it in full bloom, so it hasn't been attracting as many pollinators as usual. (Sorry for the less than optimal photo.)

Speaking of which, there aren't many pollinators anywhere in my yard these days. I'm starting to see a few monarchs and I saw one dainty sulfur the other day, but that's been about it for butterflies. Solitary bees and honeybees haven't been any more plentiful. On the other hand, grasshoppers, cicadas and solitary wasps have been amazingly plentiful, and dragonflies are busily patrolling the skies as well.

It's a year to document the survivors and the non-survivors, so I need to get my garden journal back out and get busy. The summer has been such a bummer as far as gardening goes that I haven't added to it since June sometime, but that's not really the way a garden journal should be working...or so I've been told!

I'll add more flower photos as the goldenrod, dotted gayfeather and asters start sharing their beauty this fall. Not surprisingly, I'm looking forward to seeing their cheerful, abundant faces even more than usual.

20/20 Retroscope

In hindsight, we probably shouldn't have burned this year. Of course, it's always easy to look backwards after events and, knowing what came later, pontificate on what you should have done. But that niggling feeling in my gut is saying that the Back 5 would be healthier this year if we hadn't.


Simply because much of the ground has been left bare in the burned area this summer and that feels unhealthy to me. There is NO duff, because nothing's growing very luxuriantly. The cracks in the ground are wider and, presumably, deeper than on the unburned side. The vegetation that is growing doesn't seem quite as tall or full.

To give you a sense of what I'm talking about, here is a bird's eye view of an average area on the path through the unburned area:

Compare that with a bird's eye view of an average area on the path through the burned area:

I'm trying to wrack my brains and figure out if there are any positives to having burned in what has turned out to be a major drought year.

#1: With this much open ground, it may be easier for seeds to get established. The problem is that few plants are blooming and seeding at all, though. Not to mention the fact that the seeds that come in are as likely (or likelier?) to be invasive weeds as to be desirable forbs or grasses.

#2: Perhaps the undesirables are being set back even more than the prairie natives that are, theoretically at least, hardy in such situations. At this point, this theory is a hope, probably bordering on complete wishful thinking.

#3: Which leads me to the one unmitigated positive that I can see about having burned this year, such as it is: I've got my own little unintentional experiment set up.

One way or the other, only time will tell the lasting effects that this heat and drought will have. I would sure like to get over the dry stage of this weather and be able to start evaluating it's effects, though!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Using My Time Wisely

Whenever I've been blogging a lot, I start to feel guilty. You see, most of my blog posts are built upon taking my camera out and walking around the yard slowly to see what catches my eye, photographing whatever something(s) that may be, bringing the pictures back inside and uploading them, then sorting through them, categorizing them, editing them as necessary...and THEN beginning to write.

I'm not a speedy writer. Sometimes I spend as much or more time researching a topic as I do writing about it. Or I'll remember a "perfect" example to illustrate my topic, but have to search back through years of photos to find the one I'm thinking about. I almost always revise each post a couple times, trying to get the words to flow smoothly and to truly get across what I'm intending them to say.

Once I add the photos and publish the blog post, I try to take the time to view it as others will be seeing it, then edit, as necessary.

This all takes time. Time that I'm not using to garden, to do housework, get groceries, plan meals, pay bills, or to do any of the other myriad of tasks that need to be done to keep our home running smoothly. Naturally, if I've been blogging quite a bit, the house and yard start getting a big ragged. And I start feeling a big ragged...and guilty.

Which leads me to my perennial internal question: What is the best way to use my time? The older I get, the more I realize that our time on Earth is limited. Should I be blogging about the wondrous, and the mundane, world of nature? Or should I be keeping my house spotless and the chores done? Should I be taking the time to walk around the yard with the camera? Or should I be making sure that I get the birthday cards out on time, the social obligations are met, the volunteer hours put in? Should I be in a career, hopefully earning lots of money and respect? Or should I be blogging, volunteering, making dinner and doing laundry - none of which put a red cent into our pocketbooks? I wish I was organized enough and efficient enough to do it all...but the sad fact is that I'm not. Something always seems to get dropped, and it always feels like it's an incredibly important something that I shouldn't have lost sight of.

I wish I was as secure in my understanding of this issue as Robert Michael Pyle when he wrote:

"I have never suffered a crisis about what time well spent means for me. I've never regretted a minute spent out-of-doors with my eyes open. Reading a heartfelt novel, story, poem, essay, or letter has never caused me to feel I was injuring eternity, though many Christmas letters, e-mails, newspapers, and magazines are another matter. Dancing is always time well used; so is birdwatching, and listening to the blues in all their various manifestations, from Bach to Brahms to Bartok, Bobby Burns to Bobby Zimmerman to B. B. King. Love, family, friends, and good cats. The night. Walking by day with my butterfly net. Hiking any trail, exploring small roads that may go nowhere. Conversation and meditation make for moments no more squandered than taking a memorable beer in a satisfying setting, whether it be the Free Press Pub in Cambridge or my old chair surrounded by books and warmed by the woodstove at home."
(p. 105-106, Walking the High Ridge: Life As Field Trip)

Everything that Pyle mentions in that list resonates with me (although I'd change the list of favorite music!). But, but, but.....

This quote, attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson (but actually written by Bessie Anderson Stanley), has often soothed my unease when I start thinking too hard about the roads not taken....

"To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."

I'll probably be pondering choices until the day I die! Meanwhile, the laundry is calling and the paper stacks have been reproducing themselves on the kitchen counter, so I'd better get back to "the real world." Who knows? Maybe inspiration will strike as I fold the socks!

Sometimes "Goodliness" is Messy

How many of us were raised on the phrase, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness"? It seems almost like a Rule of Life sometimes, a quick and easy way to judge people and their places: "I was SO impressed at their office! It was so new and clean, and they were dressed so professionally! He's obviously a good _______." or "She's such a good mother - her house is always spotless!" or (conversely) "Their yard is never mowed regularly and they have dandelions in it! I am SO glad they are not my neighbors!"

However, as anyone who has ever raised kids will tell you, sometimes real life is Messy, with a capital M. And sometimes "cleanliness" isn't good, it's sterile and lifeless. Like the insane urge to keep our homes so overclean that increasing numbers of children are getting asthma and related disorders - their bodies' immune systems don't have any external factors to fight, so they start attacking themselves.

Too many people have come to expect that nature should always be clean and beautiful too. We groom our gardens within an inch of their lives, spraying pesticides and herbicides to keep off the bugs and keep out the "weeds". Seriously, "-cide" is the Latin root for "kill" - how healthy is it, really, to slather all these killers around our homes and yards? This quest for perfection is a poster child for deadly beauty, as far as I'm concerned.

I've been thinking about all this lately as I've happily noted a couple monarch caterpillars on some of the milkweed plants in the Cedar Grove. To begin with, many forms of milkweed are rather gangly and, if they're not in bloom, they are frankly not the most attractive plant in the area. But they are ALL excellent nurseries for monarchs.

The first time I noted this baby monarch, he was busily reshaping the milkweed leaf he was on...but overall he hadn't affected the plant's appearance.

The next time I saw him, the poor milkweed plant he was living on looked terrible. There was frass (read "caterpillar poop") piled up in the axils of the leaves, while the leaves themselves looked torn and ragged. In a manicured garden, the tendency would be to cut this eyesore back so that it would regrow, looking all nice and pretty...and sterile again.

The next time I walked by, the caterpillar wasn't to be found anywhere. Presumably he'd wandered off to pupate...and a new monarch was forming to join the southward migration this fall.

How many caterpillars (read "baby butterflies and moths") get killed just so that we can keep the foliage in our gardens foliage looking "perfect"? We might be aware enough to notice monarch caterpillars on our butterfly milkweed and let it be, but do we purposely add other, less showy, milkweeds to our planting beds? How about leaving the checkerspot butterfly caterpillars on this young Echinacea? or the variegated fritillary caterpillar on this pansy? Since I almost succumbed to the temptation to spray and/or pick off and drown both, I have to assume that many gardeners would have felt obliged to pull out the big guns for the "health" of their gardens. Without any intervention on my part, though, both plants went on to put out new leaves and look marvelous, their ugly time resulting in"flying flowers" that helped in pollination and that provided food for other species.

I have to believe that, if there is a Supreme Being who created the world and all that's in it (including humans), this Supreme Being is much more pleased with us when we learn to live in harmony with the other inhabitants of this splendid world. I certainly know that I'm happier and more at peace, even if my garden wouldn't always win the "Prettiest Garden on the Block" award.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Prairie as Home Ground

Greg was born here in prairie country. I adopted it later in my life, after our marriage and after learning about some of the prairie's complexity and subtleties. When Greg retired from Public Health, it seemed natural to come back to this countryside that had been our longest lasting home.

Every once in a while, I read a book that reaffirms our home connection to the prairie lands. I just finished one such book today: Grass Roots: The Universe of Home by Paul Gruchow.

Grass Roots is a series of essays about the prairie, about Gruchow's history growing up within its boundaries, and about the reciprocal relationship between the prairie and the people who inhabit it. Ranging from personal stories of his childhood to descriptions of plants and animals to pointed (sometimes grouchy) commentary, he speaks of the education of our children, the pros and cons of the government's agricultural policies, and what it means to be home somewhere, especially home on the prairie.

Many years ago, I started underlining, starring and commenting in books I owned. To some extent, I judge the value of the book by the amount of personal ink marking its pages. Flipping through Grass Roots, it's obvious that I found a lot to think about as I read it. I'll close this brief review with a few quotes that may help give the flavor of this interesting and thought-provoking book.

"A home, like a garden, exists as much in time as in space. A home is the place in the present where one's past and one's future come together, the crossroads between history and heaven." p.4

"To inhabit a place means literally to have made it a habit, to have made it the custom and ordinary practice of our lives, to have learned how to wear a place like a familiar garment, like the garments of sanctity that nuns once wore. The word habit, in its now-dim original form, meant to own. We own places not because we possess the deeds to them, but because they have entered the continuum of our lives." p. 6 [My highlighting.]

"[The prairie] teaches us that grandeur can be wide as well as tall." p.77

"Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn't always show." p. 77

"After our move we were not lonely because we were poor or because we lived in a house without books. We were lonely because we no longer lived in a community." p. 86

"Can you, I asked those students, imagine a satisfactory love relationship with someone whose name you do not know? I can't. It is perhaps the quintessentially human characteristic that we cannot know or love what we have not named. Names are the passwords to our hearts, and it is there, in the end, that we will find the room for a whole world." p. 130

"Ironically, even the weeds that plague our imported crops have been imported. When we came here, we packed up even our troubles and brought them along." p. 136

Friday, August 12, 2011

Your Own, Safe, Natural Playground, or Creating Tomorrow's Nature Nostalgia

So, my last post was a nostalgic look at some of the ways I enjoyed the natural world as a child. Which was a fun romp for me, but maybe not so much fun for others. I think that "Guess you had to be there!" may be appropriate.

My point in thinking about those days, though, was to mentally move myself into thinking about how we can adapt the current reality to help today's kids have their own natural adventures.

So, let me start with today's current reality, as I understand it.

1. There is little free access to natural areas for most kids. If there are natural areas nearby, most parents are not comfortable with the kids being there unless there is a trustworthy adult along.

The photo below, actually of a local 5 year old high school "landscape," shows the current "classic" type of landscape available for kids to play in, complete with lots of well manicured lawn and a few young trees, carefully spaced far apart. There's absolutely no place for imaginary adventures nor are there even interesting things to observe.

2. Most families have both parents working to make ends meet. This cuts down significantly on the time that either parent can spend with their kids simply exploring outside, including going to those natural areas. This also means that no one has the time to fiddle extravagantly with a garden. Each weekend the yard care agenda is: mow, blow, and get back inside to the sports on TV as soon as possible.

3. Most yards are relatively barren...and boring: a lawn (see the photo above, because everyone has to have a lawn) which is kept mowed and treated with weed-control chemicals, so the neighbors won't get upset. If the kids are lucky, there's some sort of swing set or play equipment in the backyard. A tree or two is generally planted in the middle of the lawn, but it is pruned quite high up to allow easy mowing of the lawn underneath it. Any shrubs are usually foundation plantings, growing 3 feet or so from the foundation of the house. To add insult to injury, these foundation shrubs are often (prickly) evergreens so that the yard won't look "bare" in winter. Any insect seen, with a few exceptions such as ladybugs or monarch butterflies, is assumed to be a problem and becomes a reason to treat the lawn with insect-control chemicals.

So, given this trio of constraints, what can a parent do to encourage their child to interact with nature on his or her own? (Note: I am aware here that I am talking to/about people who own their own home, complete with a yard...or those who are lucky enough to rent a home where the landlord doesn't mind the tenants working in the yard, as long as they take care of it.)

Our society is what it is, so we need to accept that there are few natural areas where the kids can safely roam without our supervision. Nothing much an individual family can do about #1.

Economic realities are what they are as well, which means time constraints are what they are. BUT, there is a block of time already built in on a weekly basis for lawn mowing.... Could we do something a little different with part of that time? #2 has a small bit of possibility within it.

How we design and plant our yards, #3, has some distinct possibilities for individual change though. It doesn't take much to trigger a child's imagination. Here are a few basic ideas to transform your yard from boring to your own safe, natural playground.

How about converting one back corner of the yard to a shrub bed? The idea is to put in a couple big shrubs or small trees in a pattern that will create a central space, somewhat hidden, to become a secret fort or hideaway. Circles, if big enough, work well, but even 3 shrubs planted about 6-8' apart can be sufficient. I've seen this done very successfully here in Wichita with 'Little King' river birch, and I remember using cubbyholes in the landscape like this throughout my childhood. The trick is to trigger the child's sense of enclosure without completely screening them from Mom & Dad's watchful eyes. The photo above begins to capture the concept if you imagine finding a "secret space" between the big spireas and the side of the garage, although this bed was not designed with children in mind. (My dogs love that secret space, though!) Be careful not to choose prickly shrubs.

Plant a small tree or two (or even a big tree or two) on which you leave low branches, so that it becomes a climbing tree. Or plant a clump of trees to form a magic room. The redbud, pictured above, would be a great climbing tree if it were situated in a more child-friendly setting. Amur maples, too, can be encouraged to have open, child-friendly branching patterns. Black willows are good clambering trees, with fast growth and trunks that often become relatively horizontal with age. A standard apple tree is a classic climbing tree that also has flowers and fruit in season. (Just be sure, if there are junipers or redcedars around, to pick one resistant to cedar-apple rust.) Bradford pear, however, would not work well, as the branching pattern doesn't lend itself to climbing.

This clump of cottonwoods, if it were in a more private backyard setting, could provide hours of imagination-fueled play for kids.... And it's no more problem to mow around this group of trees than to mow around a single tree.

Make a small garden bed where you and your kids can plant a few vegetables and a few flowers. For starters, in this area you can....

...make a teepee of bamboo or straight dead branches, then grow pole beans on each leg of the teepee. If you leave one or two branches out on one side, this becomes a playhouse for the kids to use.

...plant sunflowers - big ones - that the kids can keep track of over the summer. Leave the flower heads on after they finish blooming. The seeds will develop (in cool geometric spacing) and goldfinch will come pick them clean over the winter.

...plant 4 o-clocks. These hardy, colorful flowers produce the coolest little seeds that look like small, black grenades.

Even more classic flower gardens can provide excitement for kids and adults alike. Here is a white lined sphinx moth nectaring at summer phlox blooms just 2 feet from our front porch. Watching a moth like this guy, it's hard to tell him apart from a hummingbird!

Hang birdfeeders and keep them filled with black oil sunflower seed during the winter. Be sure to put them somewhere they can be easily seen from the house, preferably from the kitchen table. Keep binoculars and a guidebook nearby so the kids can learn to look up birds for themselves as they get older, as well as learn to handle binoculars. There are basic 'Birder' binoculars available for about $30 from online sources, so you don't have to be too paranoid about the kids occasionally dropping them.

Throughout your yard, use as few insecticides and herbicides as possible. Let the white clover and henbit and dandelions grow in the (back) lawn. Then, with your kids, watch for butterflies and bees nectaring at the flowers. Examine a dandelion seed head up close for its beautiful design, then huff and puff and blow the seeds away on their little white umbrellas. Show your child how to make a necklace or a crown out of white clover blossoms.

Save a few plastic peanut butter jars that you've washed out and show your kids how to use them to hunt for caterpillars and grasshoppers and fireflies. (Just be sure to teach them "catch & release" habits.) Watching a grasshopper in the jar, they can see its jaws move side to side; with the firefly, they can see what the insect really looks like, then watch its abdomen glow right in front of them. If the kids catch a moth or a butterfly, they can see the long "tongue" rolled up like a New Year's Eve noisemaker...or, as in the photo of the great spangled fritillary below, looking like a straw stuck into a source of nectar or water.

The ideas are endless and, since it's your (safe) backyard, you can let the kids play with no more supervision than normal. While they play, they'll be learning without even realizing it. If you keep your eyes open, you'll be learning too!

Think globally, act locally. By creating little nature sanctuaries in our yards, we can help keep our neighborhoods and towns be healthier and happier...and our world a lot greener.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Young Explorers: Just Memories or Still a Reality?

Over the last several days, I've encountered a series of articles and quotes about children and nature. They've gotten me thinking about how I interacted with the natural world when I was a child....

My first conscious memory of enjoying the outdoors was when I was about 5. We lived in Alaska, where I distinctly remember picking blueberries by myself at the edge of the forest near the base housing complex. I also remember seeing bison and moose along the roads, and learning to shoot a bow and arrow...but the blueberry picking was an adventure, all by myself!

As I got a little older, my horizons broadened a bit and we also moved just outside of DC. In our typical Maryland suburban yard, I smile as I think of the young me making my own special place under the hanging branches of a sapling weeping birch that my parents had just planted. (There weren't enough branches to hide a bird, let alone a 9 year old, but it still felt special and secluded!)

During those same years, I actually spent most of my time playing down in the woods at the bottom of the hill we lived on. There was a creek running there, and on some days I looked for crayfish and tadpoles and minnows in the water, while on other days my imagination helped me become a pioneer explorer or a princess locked away in the (magic) holly grove. There were even a couple small islands in the creek that became enchanted hideaways. Holly, sassafras, huckleberries, tadpoles, toads and frogs, crayfish.... My play helped me learn a lot about the natural world too.

For several years during the middle of the summer, we drove to Flint, Michigan, where my father took over the practice of a friend of his for a month, while their family went on vacation. Their house backed up onto a large weedy field, and I would catch grasshoppers and fireflies and crickets and anything else I could get my hands on and/or jar around.

When I was 10, we moved again, this time to Massachusetts. Outdoor exploration continued, but we (my brother, our friends and I) added a new twist: there were a lot of toads in the area, so my friends and I would catch toads, keep them in the window wells, give them names, and "train" them to race in different track and field events in the sand box: long jump, high jump, distance race, sprint, etc. I kept elaborate records of which of my toads did the best in each event so that I could win more often, and we'd occasionally go on hunting expeditions to catch more toads.

I particularly remember overseeing my younger brother and his friend in overturning a big stump at the end of our driveway one day. Unbeknownst to us, there was a yellow jacket nest underneath it. I, being the overseer (and the oldest), ran away without getting stung. The others each got one or two stings apiece, which I consider an amazingly low number now, and toad hunting became spiced with a sense of danger after that.

Sometimes I went fishing off the dock in the little lake at the end of our street. Other times my best friend and I would sneak over to the nearby bait store and buy some candy, then walk down to the lake, sitting on a log along the path overlooking it while we ate our spoils and discussed what had happened at school that day.

It was about this time in my life that my Uncle Ted introduced me to My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell. I loved that book (and still do); here was somebody else who loved animals as much as I did! I dreamed of being able to capture animals and keep them in my room.

Right as I turned 12, we moved again. This time it was a real adventure: we moved to the Panama Canal Zone, driving through Mexico and Central America to get there, and my fantasies of a personal zoo got quite a workout. Shell collecting became my passion, along with beachcombing and exploring tidal pools. I never did catch any monkeys or owls, but I'd bring living creatures home from the beach and try to keep them alive in milk cartons cut out along one side, appropriately outfitted with salt water, sand and rocks. Somehow the animals always died, despite my best efforts. Still, I became deeply fascinated with crabs and hermit crabs, gastropods, cephalopods, and bivalves.

I still have my shell collection, safely packed away in 3 large moving boxes, with the shells themselves carefully organized by type and packed away in cigar boxes, stuffed with cotton to keep them from getting broken.

The outdoors was my playground throughout childhood and even into adolescence. I learned about the world around me, exercising my body, my mind, and my imagination. It was almost impossible to be bored...although I'm sure that I was gloriously dirty when I finally made it home many days.

Do any children still get this kind of freedom to learn about and explore the natural world any more? In our world of picture perfect lawns and neatly trimmed shrubs, is there anything for them to explore and learn from on their own? Was this sort of thing important to you, as a child?
I'd be curious to hear your thoughts...and your memories.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Signs are Everywhere

Here is a link to a site put up by the Union of Concerned Scientists called the Climate Hot Map. It's an interactive map that allows you to click on locations throughout the world where scientific evidence shows that climate change is already occurring.

The site also provides information about solutions to minimize the impact of climate change, so it's not all gloom and doom.

While you're at it, you might check out the home site for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Check out who they are, what their mission is, how and when they formed, and so forth. It's long past time for all of us to start paying attention to who've we set to guard the henhouse and why they want to guard to speak.

The Great Experiment

I want to blame the heat and drought this summer on global warming. But, in all good conscience, I can't. It's been this hot and dry here before. It will be again.

That said, it doesn't mean that global warming isn't occurring and that humans' release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere isn't a primary cause. But you can't look at the weather in any one location and conclude anything, one way or another. The concept is GLOBAL warming or CLIMATE change, not Kansas warming or weather change.

Naysayers point to local cold snaps and triumphantly screech, "See! There can't be any WARMING going on!" But that's no more valid than someone pointing to this summer's local heat and drought to prove that global warming is, indeed, occurring.

Can scientists predict exactly what's going to happen and when? No. The Earth is a very complex system that we, as humans, will probably never completely understand. Even powerful computers come up with different results, based on their programming and on the data fed into them.

As I understand it, though, there are some commonalities to all the models. The weather is going to become increasingly unpredictable compared to the recent historical record, swinging more wildly from highs to lows, tending towards drought or deluge, with little stable or moderate weather. Storms are predicted to be bigger. Droughts deeper. Floods more frequent. Some historically wet places will become dry. Some historically dry places may become wet. Ocean currents that have been stable for centuries may change course. Glaciers and ice caps will melt. Ocean levels will rise.

If the Gulf Stream ceases to flow (as some models have predicted), Europe will enter a deep freeze. Global warming will seem like The Big Freeze to folks there, if that occurs. This is GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE we're talking about, not local weather change.

Ice core samples from Greenland and other deep ice masses show that climate change, when it comes, is usually rapid. It's called "punctuated equilibrium": long periods of stability, interspersed with shot periods of rapid change.

Glaciers worldwide, as well as the polar ice caps, are melting. Now. Ice in the Arctic is at historic lows for this time of year...once again. The articles I've seen about this particular change tend to focus on the positive: better shipping channels to move goods around the world. The fabled "Northwest Passage" becoming reality. The polar bears, though, aren't having such a good time of it.

Do I have a crystal ball to predict the future? No. I just have probability based on trends from the past...and the current best understanding of about 95% of the scientific community. Those trends and that understanding tell me that we're performing a great big experiment on the only home we have...because it's too hard to voluntarily change our way of life.

So we'll wait until the Earth forces us to change it. And hope that we like what happens next.

Friday, August 05, 2011

A Mystery That's Likely to Remain Unsolved

For about a week, we had a distinctive mini-volcano in the garden by our front steps. It was roughly 1" tall, with a hole the diameter of a pencil in the middle of it, and somewhat sheltered by a seedling aster. Every time I walked by, I glanced at it, checking inside the hole for any sign of activity.

And one morning, on my way back from getting the paper, I was rewarded by seeing the tunnel blocked by the large head of an insect. As soon as it saw me, it backed down the tunnel, so I grabbed my camera and waited a few feet away.

Pretty soon I was rewarded by the insect emerging from its tunnel. I managed to capture its head, but by the time I tried to get a second shot of the entire insect as it emerged, it had flown rapidly away. I did not get enough of a look at it to know whether it was a bee or a wasp, or even what the body color was.

I went out several times during the day and waited, trying to see my mystery volcano builder again, but she eluded me completely.

While I was waiting, though, the Carolina wrens who've been nesting on the breezeway decided that I was intruding intolerably on their territory. You haven't truly been read a riot act until you've had a Carolina wren upset with you!

One of the parent wrens became particularly bold, moving from the Bradford pear in the garden to behind the pots on the breezeway to the top of wicker chair just 10' away from me. I couldn't resist capturing the scolding that I was getting on camera.

(As a side note: In capturing this bird on camera, I have to ask if anyone else thinks its beak is somewhat malformed? It seems too long to me, especially the lower mandible.)

Two days later, the breezeway and the garden were both quieter. The wrens appeared to have fledged their young, and the volcano hole had been carefully plugged, reducing the size of the exterior cone significantly. After the rain 2 nights ago, you can't even tell there was ever a mini-volcano there.

One of these days, I'm going to take down the clay wren nest to see if the babies actually made it. One evening about a week before this incident, I had found 2 half-feathered baby wrens, obviously still too young to be out of the nest, on the breezeway floor. It was one of those desperately hot days and I figured the babies had tried to get some cooler air at the entrance to the nest and they'd fallen out. I got a ladder, put them back into the nest, and hoped for the best. Since the parents continued to defend the breezeway for over a week and I did not find any baby wren bodies, I have great hopes that at least one of them survived to fledge at the proper time.

So I will probably get an answer to the wren question, but the identity of the volcano-building bee/wasp is likely to remain a mystery. I plan to post the photo on BugGuide, but with just the somewhat blurry photo of the insect's face, I have little hope that anyone will be able to help me. If I do get an answer, I'll be sure to share it!

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer Redux

A week or so ago, a female twelve-spotted skimmer (dragonfly) posed for a picture one morning while I was doing a walkabout. It took me a while to identify her because most of the photos I found were of male twelve-spotted skimmers and, in this species, there's a pretty significance difference between the two.

Yeah, yeah, I know.... There's a pretty big difference between males and females in general. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" "It takes a woman, all powdered and pink, to joyously clean out the drain in the sink." But dragonflies don't seem to have the trouble connecting that we humans do...

...even when their males and females look rather dissimilar. To refresh your memory, here is a female, again posing nicely for me.

Note her classy yellow racing stripe along the abdomen, the diagonal yellow beauty stripes along the sides of her thorax, the 12 crisp, dark brown spots evenly spaced out along her wings.

So who's this guy, "all powdered and blue"? It's the male twelve-spotted skimmer. Same diagonal yellow thorax stripes, same 12 crisp, dark brown wing spots, but now the abdomen is powdery blue and there are 8 matching bluish-white, rather cloudy spots added to the wings.

These were 2 of the 5 or more twelve-spotted skimmers I saw Wednesday morning (again, before the rain) at the back edge of the back 5, hunting around the mulberry tree. I can only hope that they eat grasshoppers!

Where these guys are finding water to emerge from is beyond me, but I'm glad that they are. I'm trying out different rain dances to encourage enough rain so that they have places to lay their eggs this year, too. A summer like this makes me keenly aware of the fragility of life: a month, maybe two, to find your partner, mate, and lay your eggs (in water) before you die. And if there's no water? You die anyway...and the next generation dies with you. It does us good to remember that farmers and ranchers aren't the only ones that this drought is spectacularly hard on.

In the Eye of the Beholder....

On Wednesday morning, I took this quick snapshot of an ornate box turtle I saw in the cedar grove. The storms didn't come until that night, so it was still desperately dry. When conditions are that difficult, I do my best not to disturb my local land-mates any more than I have to, so I didn't pick this guy up or move in too close...and, at the time I took the photo, I couldn't tell whether this was a male or female, except that the red flush on the front leg made me strongly suspect that it was a male.

Imagine my delight when I downloaded the photos and saw this gorgeous red eye staring up at me! Definitely a male. He looks pretty fearsome, doesn't he?!

On Monday morning, I'd snapped a quick pair of photos of a different ornate box turtle out under the mulberry tree in the Back 5. They are not the best shots, but I was following my "don't disturb more than necessary" philosophy that day, too. I think this is a female, although I can't tell for sure since her head is pretty well hidden. What really struck me, though, was how differently the camera saw her shell patterns in the light of the sun and in the light of a passing shadow. I hadn't realized before how truly concealing the ornate box turtles' shell patterns are in sunlit grass. (The turtle didn't move at all between the two photos; only the lighting changed.)

The other fun realization these photographs have given me is that I can simply take pictures of each ornate box turtle I see on my perambulations and have a pretty good idea, eventually, of how many different individuals are living on our property. The shell patterns are distinctly and uniquely individual - so I won't even need to number them by crudely carving or painting in fingernail polish on their shells, as I've seen done in the past. Photography is great...and digital photography is even better!