Monday, April 29, 2013

Crazy-Making Weather

As I sit at the kitchen table on a beautiful, sunny, April 29th afternoon, the thermometer nearby reads 87 degrees.  The record high for this date is 96; the normal high 72.  So we're a little over halfway between normal and record heat, on the high side.

This wouldn't be anything to think twice about except for the fact that 4 days ago we were at the end of a record-setting cold streak, having set record cold temperatures for April 23, 24, and 25th at 32, 25, and 33 respectively.

And in 3 1/2 more days, we are supposed to be right around freezing again, probably another record cold temperature. 

Our poor plants don't know whether to go ahead and leaf out and bloom, or continue to hunker down.  Gardeners are having troubles too:  do we go ahead and put the tomatoes out yet, or wait another week?  Surely NEXT week will bring stabilized temperatures! 

Last Monday night through Wednesday morning were particularly challenging:  Monday had been a pretty spring day with warm temperatures.  Thunderstorms moved through on Monday night, bringing lots of wind, lots of rain, and a fair amount of hail.

By Tuesday morning, the temperatures had dropped precipitously and the plants were showing the effects of the previous night's storms.  Despite the fact that it had been several hours since the last hail fell, there were drifts of small hail storms that ended up lasting most of the day.  Here is one such drift beside the front walkway....

Another drift of hail was near some heirloom red tulips.  Can you tell which way the wind was blowing?

In case those tulips didn't let you know, maybe these Willem de Oranje tulips will give a clue....

Or these pretty pink heirlooms....

All things considered, the garden weathered the hail, winds and large amounts of driving rain amazingly well.  When we woke up on Wednesday morning, though, the weather had another surprise waiting for us:  temperatures in the mid-20s and about 1/2" of snow.  Many plants, like the summer phlox and asters shown here, still showed the wind direction of the storms on Monday night, now overlaid with a coat of frozen white stuff.

Others hadn't kept a coat of snow on, but were definitely looking a little worse the wear because of the freezing temperatures.  The foliage of the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), just beginning to fill out after emerging, looked particularly vulnerable.

My two little mayapple shoots (Podophyllum peltatum) didn't look too glamorous either.

I wondered about the heirloom pink tulips, now frozen over in their windblown position, but hoped for the best.

Other plants, like the clove currant (Ribes odoratum), didn't seem affected much at all, despite the fact that it had already leafed out and was in full bloom.

The pasqueflower (Pulsatilla sp.)

and the Tharp's spiderwort (Tradescantia tharpii) actually seemed to be wearing their coats of snow with panache and style!

A week later, I can happily report that none of these plants suffered much damage at all.  A few leaves on the buckeye were frozen solid and now are hanging down blackly, but most recovered with no sign of injury.  The ever-fragile Bradford pears lost a lot of leaves and may not bear much fruit this year.  Otherwise things look good.

Prairie plants have to be tough.  Most true natives are still underground and only beginning to think of sending their fragile new growth skyward.  A late spring, like this one has proven to be, illustrates the encoded wisdom of the prairie's late green-up timing, even though the human spirit is aching for earlier signs of spring.

As I swelter in today's heat, I can't help thinking ahead to Friday morning's cold - hopefully it will not get as low as they are predicting.  Even prairie plants and tough non-natives will get hurt by late freezes eventually.  Not to mention that this prairie inhabitant is ready for tomatoes!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Learn From My Mistakes: Crown Vetch

I probably ought to make this a series - heaven only knows that I've made plenty of mistakes over my time gardening.  Others might as well learn from my hard-headedness!

So, moving on to this particular example....  Last year I was cleaning out an area where a large Austrian pine had succumbed to pine wilt.  We had had the pine removed earlier last spring, leaving a large area that was bare of almost all vegetation and coated with pine needles.  This area was right next to the northeast corner of the house, so it seemed like a logical expansion for the front flower bed.

Of course, as is typical under a large evergreen, there were a few seedlings that had grown up from seeds dropped by birds, thoughtfully provided with a little bolus of fertilizer to help them establish.  We didn't want any large trees growing that close to the house, so removing the tree seedlings seemed straightforward.  However, as I started clearing out the stray clumps of grass and other plants that had managed to claim a spot, I found a small start of a beautiful, almost ferny, low growing plant that seemed to be acting as a groundcover.

Greg loves groundcovers and is constantly on the lookout for a particularly special one.  You know the type of plant he wants, the "perfect plant":  it will grow luxuriously enough that it outcompetes any weeds, never needs to be weeded, and forms a thick, lush cover, but it won't outgrow its space or choke out any wanted plants growing in or near it.  (Yeah, I know, an impossibility, oxymoronic in fact, but a gardener can dream, can't he?!)  I showed the plant to Greg and, indeed, he did like it, so I let it grow.

I hadn't identified the plant yet, but it had come in naturally and it was quite pretty - providing a ferny effect - but obviously very hardy and definitely providing good cover.  Neither of us were too concerned about leaving it for a while.  Eventually our mystery plant started blooming, and the blooms were attractive too.

In fact, the blooms allowed me to identify the plant as crown vetch (Coronilla varia).  I knew that this species was planted along highways and other roads for erosion control, and something was tickling my mind about it maybe being a problem in some way, but the Kansas Wildflower and Grasses page didn't raise any red flags for me.  The blooms only made it more attractive.  The plant seemed to be staying closely confined, so I let it be.  After all, the prairie environment is harsh enough that many "overly aggressive" plants elsewhere behave more reasonably for us.

Boy, was letting it alone a mistake.  By last fall, I'd decided that I really didn't want such a rapidly spreading groundcover in that spot, so I tried to dig it out.  Shortly after I thought I'd got it all out, I found new sprouts coming up all over the place.  By now, the plant was definitely spreading out widely and it was beginning to impinge on several small wildflowers I'd planted during the summer.  I dug out it all out again just before frost...and kept my fingers crossed over the winter.

I guess that finger-crossing isn't a particularly effective eradication technique. Wishing and hoping evidently don't work either.

I spent today doing my spring-time clean-up on that bed.  The crown vetch has now spread to an area about 6-8' in diameter.  Greg and I have decided it's time to pull out the Roundup, much as I dislike resorting to that option.  I trust that, by carefully using it, we'll be able to eradicate this infestation, but I sure wish I'd gotten rid of the crown vetch when I first realized it was developing as a "groundcover".  Live and learn.

My "live and let live" attitude towards unknown plants has served me well many times, but sometimes it reaches up and bites me.   This was one of those times.  I'd suggest getting rid of crown vetch immediately, if you ever find even a sprig of it in your garden.  A classic example of "Do as I say, not as I did!"

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Facing Into the Sun

This morning's exercise in photography - trying to capture the beauty of a world encased in ice - provided a philosophical lesson as well as an artistic one:  sometimes the only way to see the real truth of a situation is to look directly into the light.

Looking directly at the light can be painful.  In fact, it can be blinding. Done correctly, though, it can show us exactly what's going on.

Looking away from the light can be misleading, making us miss the reality of a situation.  The above two photos were taken less than a minute apart, simply by changing the direction that I was aiming the camera.  The first picture shows the reality of the ice coating everything.  The second photo looks basically normal - you have to look hard to see any evidence that anything is different from a regular spring day.

Moving from ice storms to a broader view of life, this metaphor works well for a "controversial" issue facing our society today:  climate change.  Truly, there is no scientific controversy concerning this issue.  The scientific community is shining the light of their research and knowledge, showing us the reality of climate change.  However, too many people are turning away from the information the scientists are providing because it hurts - and, truthfully, it's pretty scary too.

Looking away from the sun this morning, I could hardly tell this wasn't a perfect spring morning but, looking towards the light of the day, I could see that there was a hard layer that was affecting everything.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has been addressing the issue of climate change for some time.  Here is an article they shared on Facebook this morning, giving a specific example of how the truth about climate change is being hidden for political reasons:  What South Carolinians Deserve to Know About Climate Change.

The National Center for Science Education is another group that has picked up the job of getting scientific information about climate change into the public arena.  They, too, had a good article that they shared this morning addressing the issue of climate change, A Denver TV His Own Words.  This article was actually originally posted by The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media.

There are many other groups and individuals trying to share scientific facts, as well as the predictions based upon those facts and upon the best scientific knowledge we currently have about how our Earth's atmosphere works. 

There are also those groups and individuals who are afraid they will lose a great deal of economic and political power if climate change is acknowledged and if, as a country, we start to work to keep the worst of those scientific predictions from occurring.  Because these latter folks currently DO have a great deal of economic and political power - and money - their views are getting much more attention than they should.

Too many people are looking away from the light of knowledge, into the "pretty picture" that distorts the reality of the situation.

On this issue, as on so many other issues, be very careful where you get your "knowledge".  All information is not created equal.  Even if it hurts and is frightening, we all need to look at the world through the best light we have available to us, instead of turning our backs to the truth.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mason Bee Bonanza

Three days ago I got to witness something I hadn't seen before:  the mason bees awoke from their winter's inactivity and emerged to enjoy the spring weather.  The air around the house we had put up was filled with gentle little bees, checking out the fresh air and freedom.

If you look closely, you'll see a black dot to the right of the wire the house is hanging from - that's a mason bee flying.  There's a second one down in the center, near the bottom, checking out one of the tubes....

A few seconds after I took this shot, I took another.  The bee by the wire had landed and I got a photo of it, albeit a rather blurry one!

Our mason bee house is from Gardener's Supply.  A dear friend gave it to us and we've had it up for 2 years now.  In fact, this house attracted mason bees the very first year we put it up.  I've rarely seen the bees, though - just the mud they use to seal their nest cells when the tube is full.

When we first put up the house, Greg thought we should order mason bees to be sure there were some to start up a population.  I was hoping that our landscape had enough healthy, natural habitat for us to attract mason bees that were already here.  With saying that there were 150 species "in our area" (presumably the continental U.S.), I was hoping we could attract native species, rather than introduce a species that might not belong here.

In this case, it turns out that I was right.  While we've never been even close to 100% occupancy, our bee house has definitely become a home.

Not wanting to bother the bees too much, I didn't push to try to get a great shot.  I stayed back quite a ways and let my lens take me in closer.  Now, as I'm attempting to share this on my blog, I'm wishing I'd tried harder to get at least one good closeup.

The reading I've done on mason bees says that the outer sections of the tubes have males that develop in them, while the females develop in the deeper cells - the female mason bee can apparently determine the sex of the offspring that will emerge from her eggs.  This makes sense in several ways, biologically.  First, any predation by woodpeckers will take out males, rather than females.  Since the mason bees aren't monogamous, the males that remain can fertilize more than one female, ensuring another generation. 

Secondly, this causes the males to hatch/break out first.  They stay around the nest, waiting for newly emerging females and mating with them as soon as they emerge.  Another biological strategy for ensuring the continuation of the species.

If you look closely at the photo below, there are 2 mason bees, one in the lower left-hand corner, exploring the openings to several tubes, and one in the upper right-hand corner, coming out of a tube.

Once the males have mated, they apparently die.  Each female lays her own eggs and provisions them so they can develop properly.  First, the female makes a mud plug in the back of a tube and begins collecting pollen and nectar, depositing it inside the tube she's plugged.  When there is enough food to fully support a developing larva, the female lays an egg on the pollen mass, then seals that cell with a thin wall of mud.  There are generally 5 to 10 cells in each tube, depending on the length of the tube.  The final, outermost cell gets a thick layer of mud capping it, for protection from predators.  A female is able to lay, and appropriately provision, only 1 to 2 eggs each day.  She lives about 4 weeks.

Away from human-provided bee houses, mason bees use tunnels made by wood-eating beetles or they use hollow plant stems.

As with all solitary bees and wasps, the females will not sting unless actually handled roughly or trapped, for example between clothing and skin.  Once the female stings, she dies and is unable to lay more eggs, so there is no biological incentive for her to be aggressive.

Mason bees and other solitary bees are excellent pollinators.  If you haven't added a bee house to your yard, why don't you give it a try?

Springtime Ice Storm

Yup.  It's spring on the prairie.

We woke up, this 10th day of April, to a covering of ice on everything above ground level.  Oh, I've seen worse, but this is enough to make the branches clatter in the slightest breeze and to make the foolhardy plants with new leaves look miserable.

The evergreens aren't looking too happy either.  Yet another reason why there's really only one evergreen native to the prairie, the eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana).

At this time of year, it's especially obvious which plants aren't prairie natives:  the Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), with its heavy load of full blooms....

the lilac (Syringa vulgaris), with its newly opened and expanding leaves...

the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), also with newly open and expanding leaves.

Unlike the lilac or the Callery pear, the red buckeye is actually native to North America, but to parts east and south of here, rather than to here specifically.  Sometimes that can really make a difference.

I'm not too worried about most of the natives we have, and the ice doesn't seem heavy enough to cause much branch damage, even to the non-natives, but I doubt we'll have much of a Callery pear crop this fall.  The cedar waxwings will miss the berries.

On the plus side, as I hurriedly walked about, trying to keep my camera dry, one item I saw made me extremely happy.  Do you notice anything special in the photo below?

If you look a little closer, you'll see what I mean!

The draw has water in it!  Enough water that I couldn't walk across it without getting wet up to my shins!  Too much water to jump across!

I haven't seen that much water in the draw for probably 2 years.  This is certainly a major silver lining to this cloud of an ice storm.

Monday, April 08, 2013

The Worms Crawl In, The Worms Crawl Out....

It seems like I'm seeing worm castings everywhere I go these days, like these I photographed this morning on the trail in the Back Five.

The castings started appearing earlier in the year than I expected - I started seeing them weeks ago - and they are more granular than I thought they should be.  In fact, at first I wondered if these little piles of dirt were actually worm castings at all.

I've recently been reading Life in the Soil:  A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners, by James B. Nardi, and I found the section on worms fascinating.  Did you realize that the earthworms we see in our gardens are not native to North America but were brought here from "The Old World"?  There are native earthworms, but these are smaller and exist mainly where there is undisturbed native vegetation.    The native earthworms work at a more "measured pace" than introduced earthworms, a pace that better matches the actual accumulation of detritus in North American forests.  Because of this difference in the activity levels of native compared to introduced species, introduced earthworms have been found to be actually depleting the leaf litter (and thus the animals and plants associated with it) in many of the North America's forests.

According to Life in the Soil, identifying different earthworm species involves characteristics such as the number of segments between the clitellum and the head of the earthworm, the number of segments the clitellum takes up, and the shape of the first head segment.  No, I haven't attempted this yet!  (But I probably will, if I can find a decent guide....)

Earthworms will dig as deep as 10 feet, and they literally eat the soil as they push their way through it.  The resulting manure - the earthworm's castings - is both less acidic and richer than the soil the earthworm took in.  Calcium carbonate has been secreted into the material by glands along the earthworm's gut, and the resultant castings therefore have about 50% more available nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and calcium than the surrounding soil.

Earthworms move a surprising amount of soil.  Nardi reports that Darwin's last book was about earthworms, and that Darwin estimated that earthworms produced about 40 tons of castings/acre/year on the soil surface in Britain.  He also estimated that this activity would cause objects to be buried at a rate of 0.1"/year simply by the actions of earthworms!

I guess the earth really is moving under our feet when there are plenty of earthworms in it!

The First Flower of Spring in the Prairie

Prairies are botanically smart, given the weather they regularly endure.  In the center of the continent, late spring freezes are the norm, rather than the exception, so the prairie greens up and blooms much later than plant communities or ecosystems geared towards gentler climes.

This morning I found a definitive sign of spring, the first flower on our restoring prairie:  a small bluet, Houstonia pusilla.

Although the exposure here is a touch dark, the blue of the bloom seems truer to me than more "appropriately exposed" photos.  The foliage of the bluet itself is hard to see - it's not the dark green, rather linear leaves just below to the right and left of the bloom, but rather the smaller, lighter green leaves just "above" the bloom.

I don't know much about these sweet, tiny little flowers except that they are native, annual and among the first to bloom on the prairie in the spring.  They grow in full sun (hardly a surprise in a plant at home on the prairie) and they prefer dry conditions with good drainage.  Certainly we've been able to give them plenty of those conditions over the last two years!

As I was doing some research on this species, I saw several beautiful photos of clusters of small bluets, looking almost like mats of tiny blue flowers.  Maybe one day, the ones in our Back Five will multiply to the point where they shine forth like that!