Friday, February 21, 2014

Signs of Spring

The boys and I took a walk this morning, our first in several weeks.  We saw 2 major signs that spring is almost here, but I'm not sure which surprised me most on this sunny February 21st....

Which surprises you the most?

The crocuses in full bloom in the courtyard...

...or the garter snake that I found stretched out, sunning, on the path through the draw?

The garter snake definitely votes for him- (or her-?) self!

Basically most of the rest of the discoveries the boys and I made today were more typical of mid-February.  There were wheel bug egg clusters along the undersides of almost every honeylocust branch I examined, and a few clusters on the green ash, redbud, and Amur maple branches.  There was even a lone cluster of wheel bug eggs on the Bradford pear.

Judging from the number of clusters I saw, it should be a jackpot year for wheel bugs!

The eggs look like little urns, all clustered together in their geometric pattern, awaiting the uncapping that will come with warmer weather.  They make me smile every time I notice a new cluster.

Late last summer, I found a little mantis egg cluster in one of the honeylocusts.

I looked for it again today...and found it, looking much more desolate but somehow impregnable.

Near the compost piles, where I had 5 different black and yellow garden spiders feeding off the plentiful insects last summer, I found 6 egg sacs stalwartly holding steady against the winter weather.  This sac was easy to see, hanging from the pallet that forms one side of the cluster of compost piles.

These two egg sacs were a little more camouflaged, nestled in the chainlink fence among remains of last summer's grass and weeds.

Speaking of remains, I heard the coyotes singing to our west last night and wondered if they were in the Back 5.  As the boys and I walked around that area this morning, I saw something that looked a little odd....

Getting closer, I realized it was the carcass of a possum that had obviously been providing a meal for somebody.

The coyotes were eating last night, I presume.

Coming back to the house, I stopped to see if I could get a reasonable shot of one of the rabbit trails that cross the path periodically.  I first noticed this particular trail shortly after we moved in, over 7 years ago now.  It still looks much the same and travels almost exactly the same route as it did when I first saw it.

I've tried to photograph this trail before, but today's photo (which I took from a much lower angle) is probably my favorite so far.  For the first time, I was able to capture the true sense of the trail through the grass.  I wonder how many years the rabbits have been traveling along this same path?

The days go by and the seasons cycle onward.  It's winter now, but obviously spring will be here before we realize.

The seasons go by and the years cycle onward.  Individual rabbits are born, travel that trail, and die.  This land has seen many people come and go; in recent decades, it has been owned by different people.  They come, they watch over the land, and then they move on or die.  We are the owners who have come most recently and we are now traveling the trails here and watching over the plants and animals who share the land with us.

The seasons cycle on....

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pieces and Parts of Our Gardens...and Our World

"The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, 'What good is it?' " 
                                                                    ...Aldo Leopold

This quote, which I noted in my Facebook feed the other day, caught my eye.  It made me remember old jokes in the 1970's about "useless" research being funded by the government - things like the mating habits of crayfish.  Why would anyone care about that, let alone plunk down good money to support that sort of foolish, nonsensical research?!

Well, I care.  I cared then, simply because I loved animals, and now I care even more, because I realize how little I know about the plants and animals around me and about how they interact with each other.

Most importantly, all of us should care.  As a society, WE KNOW SO blasted LITTLE ABOUT THE NATURAL WORLD OF WHICH WE ARE BUT ONE PART.  What conditions DO crayfish/crawdads require to reproduce?  How about pollinating insects?  How about natural predatory insects?  What harm will we do if we do away with this species?  or that one?

You're a gardener.  Here's a quick test for you:  How many natural predators of insects can you identify?

It's okay.  Take your time.  I'm patiently waiting  - and humming the Jeopardy tune - while you make your tally.....

I'm guessing you thought of ladybugs,...

praying mantises,...

and, if you're really thinking, maybe flycatchers.

Well, did you think of all the various different types of spiders - garden spiders, crab spiders, grass spiders, funnel spiders, hunting spiders and so forth?  They eat oodles of insects every day.

How about all the different kinds of birds?  Almost all birds feed their young exclusively insects as they grow, even if the species eats seeds when it reaches adulthood.

Did you list wasps?  Most young wasps grow up on a diet of insects or spiders, too.

Are toads on your list?  They're completely carnivorous, eating primarily insects.

Frogs are completely carnivorous, too.

Garter snakes manage to chow down on quite a few insects as they prowl along the ground.

If you've listened to one of my talks, you know that one of my favorite insect predators is the wheel bug.  In my gardens, wheel bugs probably eat more insects than praying mantises and ladybugs combined.

Flower flies.  In this species of syrphid fly, for example, every adult you see nectaring at a flower ate an average of 250 aphids to reach adulthood.

The list goes on and on and on and on.  Blister beetle grubs feed on grasshopper eggs.  Coyotes eat insects as part of their varied diet; their pups often practice hunting on grasshoppers.  Even my German shepherds can't get enough cicadas every summer - talk about a buzzy, tasty, crunchy dog treat!

The quote with which I began this post is taken from a much longer paragraph in Aldo Leopold's Round River essay:
The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.
We treat many parts of our world as if they were totally unimportant, killing plants and animals indiscriminately, feeling a flush of power as we prove that WE are dominant.

Sooner rather than later, to use another classic metaphor, we are going to loosen and throw away the last remaining bolt that was holding our aircraft together. 

But we're gardeners, you and I.  We know that we are not dominant over nature - nature manages to humble us time and time again, year after year.  Still, each spring, we feel the thrill of nurturing life.  That's part of the challenge of gardening.  So, as gardeners, let's take a pledge to learn about the natural world around us, so that we can share our knowledge with others.  In doing so, we'll help to repair the web of life to which we belong, hopefully saving the last few bolts from loosening and even tightening many more in their proper places so that they keep our world together, functional, and flying.

There's another quote, this one by John Muir, that seems appropriate to close with:  "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."  It's OUR world.  Let's take care of it.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Texture in the Prairie Garden: Ferny

I love ferns.  They delight me deeply.  However, ferns and south central Kansas don't really go together, at least not without a major input of water and/or very, very special and protected conditions.  I'm not willing to provide the first and I don't have the second, but I can still have some ferny components to my gardens by utilizing a few other plants that are hardy (and native) here.


One of my favorite ferny plants is red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).  To tell the truth, I've never actually heard this species called red columbine, but that's what the USDA site says the official common name is.  I just usually call it native columbine...which, of course, creates problems because there are many other native columbine species out there!  So, I'll see if I can't start getting used to the official common name.

Red columbine is native to the east half of the United States and Canada and it grows well in shade.  It is a short lived perennial, but reseeds pleasantly, so there are usually young plants coming on as the older individuals fade away.   Red columbine is a touch unusual in that it blooms a soft red with yellow highlights at a time of year when it seems like most other flowers are blooming blue and white and pink, but somehow red columbine just seems to work almost anywhere you plant it.

Some years the leaves of columbine sport even lacier patterns after the columbine leaf miners get to work.  Leaf miners are larval insects that grow by eating out the plant cells living between the upper and lower surfaces of leaves.  The leaf surfaces protect the growing larvae, but you can see the pattern of tunnels they form as they grow and eat.  I've always actually rather liked the patterns leaf miners form, but some people get all upset and consider the leaves "disfigured."  I've seen a few remnants of columbine leaf miners on a few leaves over the past 6 years, but there have never been enough for me to consider them a real problem.

I don't have any personal photos of leaf miners on columbine (did I mention that this hasn't really been a problem for me?), but here is a photo of leaf miners on an unknown plant in the draw, several years ago....

If you feel bound and determined to have perfect leaves - or if the population of leaf miners is just too overwhelming - you can always pick off the affected leaves and dispose of them in the trash or burn them.  On the other hand, remember that predator species take some time to catch up with prey species.  Enjoy the lacy patterns of the leaf miners' tunnels and trust that their numbers will come down in a year or two.

Oh, by the way, leaf mining is a characteristic strategy of several different types of generally tiny insects, ranging from wasps to flies to beetles to moths to sawflies.  Columbine leaf miners are tiny flies.  I have no idea what insect was causing the leaf miner tunnels on the leaves in the photo above....

Spanish needles:

This is a recommendation that is not for the faint of heart...or the heat intolerant, probably.  Spanish needles (Bidens bipinnata) is usually considered a weed, and I totally understand why.  It's an annual native plant with absolutely gorgeous young foliage.  It is native across much of the United States.  The flowers are  bright yellow, but insignificant, and they rapidly turn to seeds that are...vicious in their desire to hitch a ride to a new location.

This is one of those plants that turned up on its own in one of my flower beds.  I noticed several small plants growing and let them be, so that I could see what they would turn into.  I loved them!  That is, I loved them until they got to the end of their life cycle and rapidly went from ferny and green and dried out and airy porcupines that I could swear shoot their quills.  Spanish needles has definitely mastered, "How do I conquer new worlds?"   In fact, it gets an A+ on that test question.

So, why do I recommend Spanish needles?  Because it's so pretty, of course.  BUT, I highly recommend pulling almost all of the plants out the second you see the first little bright yellow flower.  Yes, that little spot of yellow is the fully open, blooming flower.  You'll actually have to keep a rather close eye on the plants to be sure you don't miss them.

The seeds won't be far behind the first flowers, and the ugly phase has absolutely no redeeming value.  Based on my photographs, you will need to plan on pulling Spanish needles out around the end of July, when it is generally quite hot, so be prepared.  On the plus side, they generally pull out quite easily, so it shouldn't take too long.

If you decide that you, too, enjoy these little guys, you'll want to leave a couple in unobtrusive places so they can go ahead and go to seed.  Just don't leave them to go to seed anywhere that you or your dogs walk past, or you'll be picking the seeds out of fur and jeans and socks for several weeks.

Common Yarrow:

There is absolutely nothing common about common yarrow, in my opinion.  The leaves of the basal rosette, which overwinters, are the closest thing to ferns that I have in my yard.  In fact, they almost outfern real ferns.  And they are tough as nails.

Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is "...cosmopolitan throughout the Northern Hemisphere", according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's Native Plant Database.   They state that the A. millefolium that is considered native in North America is actually "...a complex of both native and introduced plants and their hybrids."

There are cultivars of common yarrow, too.  (In fact, you could consider the "native" species a cultivar, at this point in time.)  Terracotta, to give an example of one of the commercially available cultivars, is extremely attractive, and there are many, many more cultivars in a wide range of colors.  Even knowing about the colorful cultivars, though, I like the regular, common white, which grows wild all around our property.  It combines beautifully with many other flowers in the spring, and its dried seed heads bring a pleasant texture all their own to the summer and winter grasslands.  (The dried seedheads are popular in dried flower arrangements, as well.)

Here is common yarrow intermixed with spiderwort....

Catclaw Sensitive Briar:

As a child, do you remember touching mimosa leaves and watching in amazement as they folded close in response?  I do.  I thought that was just amazing.  Well, we have a prairie mimosa that does the same thing and, to boot, it has the most gorgeous little miniature, bright pink pom-pom flowers that you could ever want.  Catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa nuttallii, a.k.a. Mimosa quadrivalvis var. nuttallii) is native to the central portion of our country.  It's a vine with small prickles on its stems - hence the name "briar" in the name - that can trail 2-4', but the plants never gets more than about 12" high.

Despite the prickles on the stems, cattle love this plant for its high protein content and they preferentially graze it.  Because of this preference, you are more likely to see catclaw sensitive briar along roadsides than in pastures.

I don't currently have catclaw sensitive briar in my gardens, but I do have a couple plants on the property.  I think it would make an interesting addition to an informal bed as a "stitcher", winding throughout the other plants and providing some unity throughout the bed(s).  If you have grandchildren, now or in your future, I think this is a plant that would really catch their attention, based on my childhood memories.  Has anyone ever used catclaw sensitive briar in their garden?  If so, I'd love to hear how it worked out for you.

For the moment, this wraps up my suggestions for bold, fine, and ferny textures in the prairie garden.  I'm sure that I will find more species to share with you over the years.  Gardening sure keeps us learning and changing, doesn't it?!