Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Learning Another Beneficial

I rather like this photo for a couple reasons.

First, it's a great example of mimicry. The insect on the left is a goldenrod soldier beetle. Note the banding on its abdomen? That sort of banding is mimicking the banding on bees and wasps - this species of beetle is essentially trying to puff itself off as bigger and badder than it really is!

Secondly, the insect to the right in this photo is a fivebanded tiphiid wasp. Kind of a funny looking thing, isn't it? I've seen them many times, but hadn't looked them up to hang a name on them until tonight. When I did, I learned that tiphiid wasps are nectar feeders as adults, but they parasitize the small white grubs of scarabaeid beetles (aka June bugs) as larvae.

So, the more tiphiid wasps I see, the fewer white grubs I should have in my lawn! I love learning this stuff! Best of all, I love learning this stuff right in my own backyard!

The End of Summer

Cutleaf Ironplant?

Sunday afternoon was so beautiful that I talked Greg into taking a small drive along some back country roads south of us, looking for wildflowers that I could re-visit later in the fall to collect seed. My favorite find was this mile-long road, absolutely lined with Maximilian sunflower and goldenrod. This is what I wish all of the Kansas roadsides looked like!

We actually found more plants blooming than I expected: annual sunflower (of course), plains sunflower, the Maximilian sunflower listed above, Jerusalem artichoke, downy goldenrod, several other goldenrods, a Eupatorium, and this mystery plant, a small, yellow aster-looking mound.

Here is a closer view of the flowers.

I have scoured my field guides and done some web research, and I think this is cutleaf ironplant, aka lacy tansyaster, aka spiny goldenweed, aka spiny goldenaster. Ironically, it has almost as many scientific names: Happlopappus spinulosus, Machaeranthera pinnatifida, and Xanthisma spinulosum. Also ironically, I cannot figure out which one is the most accepted currently! I don't think I've ever run across a situation like this before.

Since I cannot find any real negatives to this plant and I thought it was quite pretty along the roadside, I think I will try starting some of it from seed and see how it does in my garden. It tops out at about 15", which could make it an ideal garden plant. It's found in dry situations and is quite drought tolerant, too - a real plus these days!

If anyone thinks this is something else, or knows something negative about cutleaf ironplant, please let me know. Otherwise, I hope to be reporting back to you about how it's doing this time next year!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Johnson Grass War, Round 2

One of the "gifts" left to us by the previous owners of the house is a mess of Johnson grass where the old lagoon used to be. I can only suppose that it came in with a load or two of "topsoil" when the lagoon was filled in...about a year before we bought the house.

Greg's been spraying the Johnson grass regularly with Round-up over the last 4 years, but it hasn't seemed to have much effect. This year he didn't get around to spraying it at all...but it's the one area where the drought and the grasshoppers actually helped us a bit: the drought kept the Johnson grass from growing wildly, and the grasshoppers seemed to love the newly developing flower/seed heads.

After 4 years, there's still about the same square footage covered by the Johnson grass as when we moved in, but the overall area it's in has spread outwards. The grass is no longer a solid mass; it's more scattered about. New clumps are developing out in the prairie grasses nearby, and I am bound and determined to halt the spread of this obnoxious invader before it moves any further.

So, with nicer weather, I've decided to try a different tack. A lower tech, lower cost, higher personal investment sort of way, compared to Round-Up. Yesterday I took a large black plastic bag, a pair of gloves and a pair of clippers, and I started to attack the mess using good, old fashioned methods: by deadheading (and throwing away the seedheads) to remove as many seeds as possible, followed by pulling out or cutting off as much of the biomass as possible.

A couple hours sufficed to let me deadhead all but about 2 dozen plants near the center of the old lagoon. (We've made a burn pile there, so some of the seed heads are currently inaccessible without clambering up on top of a tottering pile of branches and dried weeds.) It took almost 2 full bags to hold all of the seed heads. At least those puppies won't be starting new infestations next spring!

Today I started pulling out some of the plants. I've filled a wheelbarrow with stalks and as much of their root system as I could get...but I've only managed to pull out an estimated 5% of the Johnson grass so far. Every little bit I can get rid of gets me a little bit closer to my goal of eradicating this junk from our yard. I know that I'm not getting all of the root system, and therefore I know that the Johnson grass will return. However, I'm hoping that I'm weakening it overall and it will return with less vigor. At which point I'll attack it again. I strongly suspect that I'll be reporting about this battle for several years to come!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Happily Sharing Your Garden With Wildlife

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of giving a talk at the Kansas State Extension Master Gardener conference. The title of my presentation was "Happily Sharing Your Garden With Wildlife." A couple of the attendees requested a copy of the "morals" that I listed as a part of that presentation. Since I hadn't made that list into a handout, I promised to post it here so that they could download it, or refer back to it, whenever they wanted it. Thank you all, for being interested in having the list to refer back to!

So, here is the list of "morals" I put together to help you happily share your garden with wildlife....

Moral #1: Don't be too quick to judge an unknown [such as an insect or an egg mass] as a problem. Take time to observe and learn.

When I found an egg mass like the one to the right one February morning, I was tempted to scrape it off the tree branch right away. I was convinced that any mass of eggs like this would be plant-eaters and therefore probably destructive in my yard or garden. Instead of doing that, though, I went back inside and searched on the web, trying to identify the eggs. I was able to do just that, and I learned that these are eggs from the wheel bug, an excellent insect predator. If I had destroyed the mass (and the others I found throughout the winter) I would have had many fewer predators in the yard...and many more pest insects.

Moral #2: Don't be too quick to reach for the insecticide, even when something does seem problematic.

The wasp to the right is a cutworm wasp. She's one of the solitary, ground nesting wasps that also pollinates flowers as she feeds on their nectar. The males of many solitary wasp species hatch out first and then guard the area where their natal burrow was to be the first to mate with the newly emerging females. Males don't lay eggs and therefore they have no stingers, but they look scary and often buzz human "intruders." The females are capable of stinging, but generally won't unless they are directly handled or otherwise really interfered with. Cicada killer wasps are another of the solitary ground wasps who follow this life cycle pattern.

Moral #3: While planting and designing, plan for some insect damage. Learn to tolerate the occasional "ugly."

To the left is a photo of a New England aster infested with lace bugs. The photo was taken on June 3, but I didn't spray or do take any action at all (except to snap a photo), assuming that nature would take care of the problem. Sure enough, when I looked carefully, I saw ladybug larvae and young wheel bugs, both predators. To the right is the same plant on June 23, 20 days later. It wasn't necessary for me to take any action - the wheel bugs and ladybug larvae handled the lace bugs better than I or any insecticide could have.

Moral #4: Native plants belong. They not only thrive themselves, they allow many animals to thrive along with them. Blooming and fruiting cycles are coordinated with native animal life cycles. This helps keep local ecosystems - and our gardens - healthy and alive.

Above is a group of wheel bug nymphs hatching from their egg cluster on the underside of a honeylocust branch. The hatch of these young predators appears to be timed to coincide with the blooming of the honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and therefore with the corresponding influx of pollinators that will serve as food for them.

Moral #5: Beneficial isn't always (the most) beautiful.

To the left is a smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) with a monarch caterpillar feeding on it. The plant is definitely looking much the worse for wear, but it hasn't really been damaged at all, and as soon as this caterpillar pupates, a new monarch butterfly will have joined the world.

Other milkweeds besides the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) are wonderful monarch plants, even if they aren't as showing as their lovely, orange-flowered relative.

Moral #6: Wildflowers are generally native perennials - although they may be "out of place" where they are growing. Obnoxious weeds, though, are usually exotic invasives that create problems and take up a lot of space while providing few or no benefits.

To the right is a common milkweed in full bloom (Asclepias syriacus) with many different skippers and even a fly feeding on it. Common milkweed is a great example of a wildflower, a native perennial, that is sometimes considered growing "out of place" but is never an obnoxious problem in the landscape. Bindweed is an example of an obnoxious weed. Native to Europe and Asia, it takes over large areas and provides little or no benefit to local communities of animals.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Gift Twice Over - A Dying Wren Leads to Sheltering Monarchs

Ranger, our black cat, came running up to the open kitchen door tonight, carrying something in his mouth. Greg and I scrambled to intercept before he dropped his (potentially alive) probable mouse inside the house. Yes, sadly we have experience in these matters. Unfortunately, we didn't succeed in cornering him until he was under one of the kitchen chairs.

At which point he dropped the (still alive) house wren that he was carrying.

Expecting it to shudder and die at any moment, I gently picked up the little bird and cradled it in my hand. I could feel it breathing, but it didn't struggle.

Without any expectation of the injured bird surviving, I carried it out to the draw, leaving all of the dogs and cats back at the house. I laid it gently in a clump of grass near a tangle of vines where I've seen wrens many times before. If it had to die, at least it would die in its natural surroundings.

As I walked back towards the house in the twilight, I noticed several monarchs fluttering around one of the willow branches, swaying in the wind about 10' above my head. Lazily watching them, I noticed a couple more in the same area of the tree. Looking more closely now, I saw a small cluster of about 10 gathered together, settling in for the night.

After running back to the house for the camera, I followed a few more monarchs to a second, slightly larger cluster. Every time another individual joined them, many would open their wings as if in welcome, then close their wings and almost disappear into the darkening silhouettes of the willow leaves.

Following his natural instincts, Ranger brought us a tragic gift tonight, but in trying to return that gift to its natural place, I received another gift of grace in sharing the evening ritual of the monarchs. Nature, in both its beauty and its harshness.

The Fall Fanfare Begins

"I think it annoys God if you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice." (Alice Walker, in The Color Purple)

How could you walk by a dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) in full bloom and not take notice?

We've had a horrible summer here - temperatures in the 100's for 53 days, little rain, everything is crispy dry, most plants are trying to decide if they're going to try to hang on or just give up the fight...and here is this beautiful dotted gayfeather, blooming lushly, as if in the middle of Plant Heaven.

I can't help it - my spirits rise when I see the dotted gayfeathers blooming now on my morning walkabouts.

It was seeing these beautiful prairie plants at the end of our first summer here that made me think perhaps we had a bit of unplowed prairie hidden within the overgrazed pasture out back. I only saw a few that first year - one reasonable patch and one other small clump. Now, 4 years later, even after this summer, I have 3 large patches, a couple smaller ones, and a few scattered individuals here and there. It's not happening rapidly, but it feels like the prairie is beginning to return.

The bittersweet part of seeing the dotted gayfeathers bloom is that I know it's the beginning of the final fall floral fanfare. Missouri goldenrod and annual sunflowers are also blooming now. The Canadian goldenrod is starting. Soon the other goldenrods and sunflowers will be joining in and the asters along with them. For a couple glorious weeks, the roadsides and gardens will be full of gold and purple and white - a final celebration of color before the muted colors of cold weather take hold.

Feast on the rich color! Fill up on the bright orange of monarchs nectaring on their way south! Delight in the clear blue of the fall skies! The bountiful fall banquet is beginning!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Turtle Project

Since box turtle patterns are said to be as unique as fingerprints, I've decided to see how many different individual box turtles I can identify on our 10 acres.

My memory is that they range over about 5 acres and they are not strongly territorial, so more than one can be ranging over the same territory or overlapping it significantly.

To help me in identifying and remembering them, especially while I'm out walking and away from the computer, I'm breaking my normal rule of thumb and personalizing them with names, where those names make sense. Here are a couple males that I've tagged so far....

Sam Spade is named for the spade-like mark on the back of his shell, an enlargement of the dorsal line there. He's a big, colorful male that I've seen twice - in about the same 50' area - in the last couple weeks.

Don Quixote is named for the wounds on the back of his shell. He's smaller and not very colorful - at first I mistook him for a female, since his legs show little coloring. I'm guessing that the scars are from a run-in with a lawnmower. I found him last Thursday morning, down on the path in the draw.

The third male that I've found hasn't been named yet, as I haven't noticed anything strongly unique about him yet. He's very colorful and good sized, with less marking overall than the other two. I last saw him about a month ago.

Interestingly, all 3 of these males (and several females) have been in the Cedar Grove/Draw area. How far away will they travel from this central location? Will there be a seasonal pattern to their travel? Has the drought changed their patterns this year? Will I see the same individuals from year to year? Lots of fun questions to answer!

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Desperate for Water?

I saw this pair of blue skimmers on our back deck this afternoon. They flew in and the female acted like she was laying eggs in the crack, then moved the tip of her abdomen to each side of the crack for a bit, then put it back down into the crack. (At which point I woke up enough to realize I wanted a photo and grabbed my camera.) She didn't repeat the side to side exploration of the deck boards with her abdomen, but the pair stayed in this position for 5 minutes or so before flying off.

It looked for all the world like she was laying eggs in the crack of the deck. There's not much water around, but is it really this bad?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

These Hands....

(Thanks to dejavaboom at Musement Park for this idea!)

are worn and wrinkled, with age spots on their backs

eagerly and surely help me carry out projects

held newborn babies close to nurse

get dirty digging in the soil

hold the broom to sweep out the debris

gently soothed a fevered brow

wield knives to surgically slice tomatoes and onions

type thoughts quickly on a keyboard

drum nervously on tabletops

clutch the steering wheel tightly in a downpour

carefully press a mango to judge its ripeness

pushed a needle in and out, forming colorful patterns on cloth

scrubbed pots and toilets and children and dogs

danced over piano keys making music

applaud the impressive work of others

learned to shoot a pistol

get cramped writing long and rambling journal entries

carefully plant tiny seeds in rich soil

precisely folded gum wrappers to make zigzagged necklaces and bracelets

turn pages to transport me to different worlds

held another's hands for comfort

strongly pull weeds up by the roots

slice open boxes with a scissor blade

dial the phone to share news

push a shutter button, capturing a moment

threw rocks for hopscotch and skipping

painstakingly packed away a beloved shell collection

picked up wiggly puppies to cuddle and weigh

stir the pot with wooden spoons

neatly stack plates in yet another cupboard

sort through piles to organize and put away

firm the soil around fresh transplants

sifted through the sand on many beaches

stroke a furry face to share love

kneaded bread dough

exchanged greetings with senators and kindergarteners

straightened the feathers of a dead bird

gather flowers to share with others

hold the cards surely and confidently

clasp a pen to write letters and recipes and essays

gathered up small children to sooth their hurts

pointed out the possibilities

held the map to navigate unknown places

wave goodbye.