Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Garden in the Third Part: Fitting In to the Greater World Around Us

Spring starts slowly on the prairie.  With the mid-continental weather tending towards extremes, plants are suitably cautious about putting forth too much green, too early.

As a gardener, I'm itching for green by mid February.  For ANY color, actually, other than brown and tan and and gray and cedar green.  I'm itching for gentle breezes and softness.  The prairie doesn't provide much of any of that in February.  In March, either, to be honest.

Feeding the birds helps.  Cardinals flash such vivid red that I can't help but feel cheered up as I watch them.  Songs start noticeably increasing by early March - and the return of the male red-winged blackbirds triumphantly declaring, "O-Ga-LEEEEE!" from every conceivable perch lets me know that spring truly is on its way.

Of course, giving in to the pull of non-native spring bulbs helps, too!

But I find a particular excitement stirring when I start seeing signs of spring in the native plant life.  On March 12th, this was my first real sign of spring in the native plants....

Do you see it?  Those fuzzy shoots pushing upwards?  Those are the shoots of pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens).   The hairs help protect the leaves and stems and even the petals against cold temperatures, as does the plant's short stature, hugging the warm earth.  We're actually a bit far south to be in pasqueflower's native range, but I enjoy the fuzzy purple fluffiness of this diminutive charmer anyway.

By March 29th, the blooms were up and fully open.

Now, in late April, the seed heads have already formed and I'm enjoying their soft texture too.  How quickly the season of the pasqueflower passes.

But back to March 12th....  I leave my perennials uncut over the winter to provide seeds and shelter for the birds, overwintering sites for the insects, and protection for the soil from winter's harsh winds.  With spring definitely starting to arrive, I undertook one of the biggest projects of my native garden calendar year - cutting back last year's growth.

On March 12th, here's what the front flower bed looked like after the vagaries of winter this year.

After taking a quick series of photos, I put the camera down, picked the clippers up, and got to work.  After a relatively quiet winter spent sitting more than I probably should, I try not to become a "weekend warrior" with the attendant injuries of doing too much, too fast.  So I work at this first big task of the gardening year a bit at a time, hauling all of the debris off to the brush pile where overwintering insects can emerge at their leisure.  If I remember correctly, this bed alone produced about 15 compacted wheelbarrow loads of detritus.

A bit less than 2 weeks later, on March 29th, the front flower bed looked like this, my "mechanical burn" having cleared off the remnants of last year's exuberance, opening up the soil for the sun's warmth and for the emergence of this year's fresh, new growth....

There's not a lot more green yet, but there's a whole lot less brown!  It always amazes me to see how easy it is to brush away the layers of life that make up the prairie landscape.  In some ways, it is such a fragile world.

Meanwhile, in the back courtyard where shade simulates more of a prairie woodland environment, the woodland flowers were just beginning to emerge.  Well, actually, the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) had already emerged and was almost done blooming.  Woodland plants are often small, easily overlooked among large, showy clumps of daffodils and bright, shining clusters of purple crocus.  I almost missed the bloodroot blossoms!

Just two days later, all of the petals were gone and the leaves had emerged more fully.  I really enjoy the bloodroot leaves, with their odd lobes, their gray green color, and their softly rounded shapes.

Bloodroot gets its name from its red sap, most easily seen in its roots.  The sap was used as a dye by some of the Native American tribes.  It is poisonous if ingested in sufficient quantities.  Like many woodland forbs, bloodroot leaves will go dormant in mid-summer, reducing the plant's need for water in traditionally dry times.

In another area of the back courtyard beds, two little rue anemones (Thalictrum thalictroides) were emerging.

Nearby, a clump of liverleaf (Hepatica americana) was pushing up out of the ground, flowers first.  The leaves come later - around 2 weeks later, in fact!

It always amazes me that so many of these woodland flowers essentially emerge with their flower buds opening at the same time - or even before - their leaves unfurl.  "Time's a-wasting, folks!  Got to get this seed production started NOW!"

I am going to have to stop here for now - it's late and I need to get to bed.  The upcoming week is going to be full and I'm not likely to be able to blog again for a while - but don't forget the native wildflowers!  I've only managed to bring you up to the end of March so far.  In the chronology of the spring garden, the daffodils and hyacinths have just started blooming, the purple crocuses are in their full glory, and the spinach is just starting to germinate in the glass light shade "cold frames".

We'll resume our springtime travels through time in the native plant garden when next we meet!  In the meantime, happy gardening!

The Garden in the Second Part: Broccoli, and Garlic, and Greens, Oh, My!

What is a garden to you?

Having just walked through my vigorously blooming front flower bed on the way to the front door, a visitor last summer asked me sincerely, "Are you still gardening?"

I have to admit that I was taken aback.  Ah, yes, what else would you call that array of flowers and plumed grasses that you just traversed between the car and the house?  It took me a minute to realize that she meant, "Are you still growing vegetables?"

Yes, I was still growing vegetables, although I was having significantly more luck and fun with the flowers!

Gardening is different things to different people.  Indeed, the entire point of this series of posts is that sometimes gardening is even different things to the same person!  Almost everybody, though, considers growing foodstuffs to be gardening.

Over the last 7 years, our vegetable garden success has swung, year to year, from wildly successful to wildly unsuccessful.  Too much rain, not enough rain, not enough heat, too much heat, grasshoppers (oh, lord, the grasshoppers), blister beetles, late freezes, time constraints, voles, Bermuda grass, bindweed and vacations - the list of challenges varies from year to year, but I can guarantee there will be a multiplicity of challenges to getting a good crop of anything every single year.

Most of our vegetables are grown in a series of raised beds that Greg has constructed out of wide cedar boards.  We are up to 9 raised beds now, all 8' long, varying in width from 3' to 4' and varying in depth from 6" to 10".  This photo, taken on March 12th after we'd done our spring clean-out, shows our basic bed layout in all its winter starkness.  There is a large cedar to the south, casting the deep shade you see in this picture, but during the summer that's not really an issue. 

One thing we didn't do when we built the beds was to put hardware screen in the bottom of each one to keep out the voles.  THAT was a mistake and it is an issue that is going to have to be remedied, slowly, bed by bed.   Two beds in particular need to be reworked:  sweet potatoes and strawberries.  Voles are a real problem when we try to grow sweet potatoes - we've lost entire crops to the voles.  They like the strawberries, too.  Voles take some of the berries, which is bearable (berry-able?!), but their tunnels introduce a lot of air around the roots, drying them out faster, which is not good in our climate.  Interestingly, the voles don't seem to bother regular potatoes, of any variety that we've grown.

Late last fall, Greg decided to add a couple cold frames to see if he could grow greens over the winter.  We went to the Habitat ReStore to see what we could find, bringing home several discarded double-paned windows for $5 each and a couple large glass light shades.

Surrounding one of our raised beds with straw bales, Greg dug out one end and left the other end at its normal soil level.  In the deeper end, he placed kale and broccoli plants; in the shallower end, he added spinach and lettuce.  Then he laid the double pane windows across the bales. (If you look at the photo above, you can see this arrangement on the far left bed.)  Under the various sized glass light shades, he put in individual broccoli plants.  He also used some plastic caps that we had to try to shelter four chard plants that we already had growing, putting one cap over each plant.  It didn't look pretty (that's an understatement - it looked really trashy), but it was an experiment.  In this view, taken shortly after we put everything up on November 11th, you can see the glass globes with broccoli under them and the individual plastic caps over the chard in the far bed.

Being "blessed" by several bouts with polar vortexes (vortices?) this winter, the individual forms of protection simply didn't provide enough warmth to keep the plants from freezing and dying.  BUT, the plants that Greg managed to establish in the straw-encircled raised bed struggled through the cold spells and started growing luxuriantly in late winter.   He's been harvesting enough kale, spinach, and lettuce for green smoothies every day now for weeks, and we've had some broccoli to liven up salads, too.

Good friends Flip & Shelley heard about our experiments with cold frames and gave us a real, honest-to-goodness, official, cold frame as a gift at Christmas.  Greg got it put up and, as soon as broccoli and cauliflower starts became available this spring, he planted them.  THAT coldframe is a real winner - the broccoli has nice heads forming already and the cauliflower is starting to form baby heads too.  The photo below is of the broccoli and cauliflower that grew under the official cold frame (which we took off last weekend).  I suspect more of these cold frames are in our future, even if they do cost more than discarded double-paned windows....

Meanwhile, sometime in mid March, Greg seeded spinach into the biggest two of the individual glass light globes.  The spinach germinated well and is now producing excellently.  We took all the cold frames off last weekend and I don't expect to have to put them back on again until fall.

In the photo below, the back bed has garlic on the left end, the two patches of spinach from the glass globes in the middle, and masses of (leftover) garlic on the right side.  The front bed is the remnant of the strawberry bed, with new plants added in to fill it back up.  We'll be mulching that soon, just right after we get a decent rain.  (We WILL be getting a decent rain soon, won't we?!  Please?)  The big plants in the path in front of the strawberries are Brown-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba) that I just enjoy leaving and walking around, benefiting from the pollinators they draw in once they start blooming.  Greg and I don't always agree on the appropriateness of my leaving them in the path to grow up, but so far he's been indulgent in letting them be.

Next to the big plants of cauliflower and broccoli that grew in the cold frame, we've recently added a few plants of specialty cauliflower varieties from Johnson's:  Graffiti (1), Cheddar (2) and Veronica (2).  Those went in earlier this week.  Greg is out planting small onion plants, more broccoli, and more cauliflower this morning.  We have a small patch of multiplier onions in the end of one bed, which I received as a start from Sid Wise several years ago, just as the big drought was beginning.  Despite less than stellar care on my part (as in, during the worst of the drought and heat, I just gave up even walking out to the vegetable garden), the patch has survived and seems to be thriving.  The onions have a delicious bite to them!

In the same raised bed as the multiplier onions, we've planted just a few potatoes - Yukon Gold and Red Viking.  We put them in late and they are just now putting up leaves, but that's okay.  We usually don't eat many potatoes.  It's nice to have a few, though, now and then.

One thing we have PLENTY of this year is garlic.  Last fall, we bought a couple cloves from Hillside Feed & Seed to plant, but the majority of our garlic is from leftover bulbs that were missed when I harvested last summer.  I've taken the time to space out a couple of those clumps, which resprouted and grew over the winter, but there were too many for me to replant all of them.  So the rest remain growing in huge, vibrant jumbles of garlicky chaos.  I doubt we'll get any useable garlic out of the leftover clumps, but it will be interesting to see what we do get.  Surely some of it can be used for sauteing or in salads.

We put in 9 tomato plants last weekend, knowing that we were gambling a bit as we did so.  And we put in one jalapeno pepper, too.  Greg added another 6 jalapenos this morning, but we'll wait to plant the majority of the summer stuff for another week or two...or three...or four.

With the exception of the multiplier onions, everything I've mentioned so far is an annual, but we have 4 different perennial patches going on now in our vegetable garden, too.

First is the asparagus.  There are officially 3 patches of asparagus around the yard.   Patch #1 is a single, large., wild asparagus plant by the front driveway gate that seeded in on its own as far as I know.  Probably a bird plant.  It never gets watered, gets weeded only sporadically, competes against both big bluestem and a pretty little creamy yellow iris patch...and comes up faithfully (and strongly) year after year.  We usually take at least one harvest of spears from it each year - and they taste great. 

Asparagus Patch #2 is the bed I put in a year or two after we moved in, next to the lagoon fence.  Its location was a fatal error, as the Bermuda grass that runs rampant through the lawn is also rampant around the lagoon and has moved thuggishly into this asparagus patch.   Combined with bindweed, which also grows in the lagoon area and which has joined the Bermuda in the bed, it has made dealing with this small bed a nightmare. The weeds have officially won.  I abandoned the patch this spring.  I'm tired of messing with it.

Which brings me to Asparagus Patch #3....  This spring I decided to start a new asparagus bed in one of our raised garden beds.  I dug the bed out to below the bottom of the cedar boards, carefully searching out every stray root I could find.  This is one of our original 4 raised beds, which were placed directly on the old "lawn" when we built them, right after we moved in.  We've fought a bit of Bermuda and bindweed in these beds, too, but after many years of religiously weeding it out, we're finally winning the battle.  I did my best to make sure that I stacked the odds in our favor for the new asparagus patch.   Then I got new asparagus crowns from Johnson's and planted them as directed.  I'm in the process of backfilling the bed as the new spears start shooting up.

Strawberries are the second perennial patch in our food gardens.  They have a raised bed of their own, too.  We had a great strawberry harvest last spring, but between the voles and the drought over the summer, we lost over half of the strawberry plants.  The bed had only been in for about 2 years, so I decided to backfill it with new plants this spring...and pledged to myself to be better about watering this summer.  Next time I start an entirely new strawberry bed, I plan to have hardware cloth underneath it to keep the voles out.

The third perennial patch is a crossover between vegetables and natives:  a patch of Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) that I planted last spring.  Actually I planted 2 patches last spring - one behind the back garage and one by the compost pile.  Both were doing really well until Greg decided that the ones behind the back garage were weeds and sprayed them with Roundup.  As soon as I said something about how strange it was that they were all yellow and dying, he looked guilty and confessed that he'd forgotten I'd planted them there.   I may try them there again - it still seems like an excellent spot for them to get a little wild!  This time I'll put a sign up....

The patch of Jerusalem artichokes by the compost pile did well last summer, but about the time I thought I'd dig up a few to eat, I noticed several vole holes.  Deciding that the voles were quite capable of eating all of the tubers on their own, I refrained from harvesting any for us and waited to see what was left for us this spring.  By the time I took this picture of the holes less than 2 weeks ago, new plants were germinating and I knew that I hadn't lost them all.

I'm happy to say that the Jerusalem artichokes were much hardier than the sweet potatoes, when faced with the same enemy!  Despite an obviously thriving vole colony that still seems to be happily  ensconced among the roots, the Jerusalem artichokes are coming up strongly this spring.  Next winter I'll harvest them without fear.  Meanwhile, if anyone finds a garter snake they want to rehome, I have the perfect location!

Note:  the wires across the Jerusalem artichoke patch are simply to keep the dogs from running through the young plants as they grow.  Huge German shepherd feet are not kind to tender plants.  The wire also helps to keep the lawn mower at bay....

Our last perennial patch is brand new this spring:  raspberries.  Greg built a trellis, based on a design he found on the internet, and we purchased/planted 5 'Royalty' raspberries at the Outdoor Landscape & Living Show last month.  Royalty is the variety that was most highly recommended for this area during the talk on small fruits that I attended 2 years ago during the Annual Master Gardener Conference in Manhattan.  All 5 plants were bare root;  3 have leafed out and are looking good.  Two have no signs of life yet (but the roots looked fine when I planted them).

So, enough again.  Next on the spring tour will be the native plants and flower beds.  It's a good thing I'm getting these garden over-views done now, because enough insects are coming in to the native flowers already that I can see I'm going to be quite busy this summer, photographing and identifying everything I find in the yard!

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Garden in the First Part: Heirlooms and Memories

Early spring in Kansas is spring bulb time.  Little else can take the roller coaster weather and still be willing to "put it all out there" in the way of blooms and leaves.  This year seemed like a particularly beautiful spring for bulbs.

To me, spring started in mid February this year.  The first yellow crocus blooms shine out among my other photos on February 21st.....

Generally speaking, I prefer heirloom plant varieties for non-native plant species.  There's just something that nourishes my romantic spirit in thinking that I might be saving an old variety of plant, almost lost to horticulture, for future generations.

I have a few heirloom crocus varieties, but I can't say that I can tell a lot of difference between them and more modern varieties.   Greg has been very interested in scattering crocuses throughout the grass in the yard, which makes labeling an heirloom variety impossible, so crocuses are one species in which I have tended to just go with "cheap and cheerful" modern bulbs.

Heirloom or modern, crocuses seem to bloom in the same basic order:  yellow first, then white and finally purple. This cluster of 5 clumps illustrates that fairly well:  the yellow clumps (helped along by munching rabbits) are essentially done, the white clump is in full bloom, and the purple clumps (also rabbit-pruned) are just beginning to open fully. 

The entire process is slow but steady - the second photo was taken on March 20th, fully a month after the first photo.  Crocuses certainly brighten the late winter landscape for a long what seems like a time period that lasts forever.

As the crocuses pass their peak, the daffodils begin.  Tete-a-Tete, a cute, perky, little, bright yellow daffodil is one of the first varieties to open.  I have my first daffodil photos on March 20th, the same day as the crocuses above.  By 9 days later, multiple daffodils have opened, as have the hellebores and the first of the hyacinths.  Looking across the landscape, though, things still seem pretty sere, even 2 days later on March 31st.

By April 4th there is a little more color, as the lilac leaves start to burst their buds and a few more flowers bloom.....

...and by April 10-11th there is much, much more color.  This was one small area of the courtyard bed on April 10th, showing 2 varieties of daffodils, my wine purple hellebore, blue hyacinths, deep pink hyacinths and grape hyacinths.

Taking a photo down the length of the bed shows a different angle to the same plants, just one day later.  It's rather amazing how different the bed looks from these 2 different angles.

Snow before dawn on April 14th literally dumped ice water on the party and dampened the colors, at least briefly.

Luckily the temperatures were just above freezing when the snow came down, so it actually did little damage.  We had a harder freeze the next night, after the insulating snow had all melted off, but even that didn't seem to harm too many plants.

By the 18th, the back courtyard bed was looking pretty spring-ish again.

I've been fighting a debilitating chest cold all this week, and the back courtyard bed has quieted down for now, so I haven't taken any photos of it in the last week.  If the weather cooperates, I'll try to get a shot in the morning.

Meanwhile, here are a few highlights from the spring bulbs and other non-native garden plants so far this spring....

Having specifically mentioned the Tete-a-Tete daffodils, it seems like I ought to include a photo of them!  This was taken on March 31st, but these cuties had started opening by March 20th and continued blooming for at least another week after this photo was taken.

I took this picture of my wine purple hellebore plant on March 29th, but I have a shot of its new leaves and flower buds just beginning to emerge on March 12th.  This plant put on a lot of growth in just over 2 weeks!

One of my favorite spring bulbs has always been grape hyacinth - the deep blue is SO satisfying!  When we first started planting bulbs the fall after we moved in, 7 1/2 years ago, I got the only grape hyacinths I could find and planted them, even though the photo didn't look quite right for the blooms that I remembered so vividly.  I was rather disappointed when they came up in the spring.  They looked like their photo.

Well, I've since learned that "modern" grape hyacinths are Armenian Grape Hyacinths, Muscari armeniacum.  They don't seem to multiply like the old fashioned grape hyacinths do, which may be why modern growers and gardeners prefer them.  This is one "clump" of those modern grape hyacinths, 7 springs later, with spotted geranium (Geranium maculatum) coming up behind it.

Now, granted, I haven't given these grape hyacinths any special care, above and beyond what I've given to the rest of the bed.  No extra fertilizer.  No extra watering.  Still, I suspect I planted 7 bulbs originally in this group...and there are still 7 individual plants.

Thanks to Old House Gardens, I was able to find both heirloom Southern Grape Hyacinths and heirloom Northern Grape Hyacinths a year or two later.  I figured that one of those two species must be the plant I remembered.

I like both of the heirlooms better than the modern species.  Added to the official plant roster in 1629, this pictures the Southern Grape Hyacinth, Muscari neglectum.  It has the deep blue blooms that I love, but the foliage is rather limp and formless.  It also tends to reseed a fair amount, which I actually like, but others might not be so excited about.

My favorite of the three, though, is the Original or Northern Grape Hyacinth, Muscari botryoides.  It was first introduced to horticulture in 1576 (!), which just amazes me.  It creates full clusters of neat foliage with soul-satisfying blue blooms.  I truly don't understand why this plant isn't widely available any more - I'd love to have all my beds edged with it!

Moving on, my daffodils range from bright yellow to almost pure white, tall to short, early to late, single to incredibly double, fragrant to odorless - but I find it hard to remember which varieties I've planted and where they are in the beds.  I labeled them all when they were planted, but their labels have suffered the same fate as most, and I can't read or can't find most of them.  I have, though, kept all my old receipts, so I know I could figure it out...but it seems like too much trouble tonight.  If anyone is interested in more about the daffodils I'm growing, let me know and I can do a post about them, specifically - or at least about my favorites.

Last but not least in this lineup of highlights, I've got 2 different hyacinth varieties that I particularly love:  Dreadnought (1899) and Double Hollyhock (1936).
With a double bloom of an intense, luscious, deep blue, I've had Dreadnought in the ground for several years now, in an area where I do absolutely NO extra watering.  It has returned stronger each year.  This is Dreadnought Hyacinth on April 11th....
A newbie to our garden (planted last fall), Double Hollyhock Hyacinth has double blooms of intense, magenta pink which were just beginning to open up on April 11th....
This, then, is Double Hollyhock Hyacinth covered with snow on April 14th!

Luckily all of the plants recovered, suffering no lasting ill effects, as evidenced by this rather over-exposed photo from April 18th.

Enough now.  Bulbs are great fun, but it's time to wrap up this section and move on to the next part of our great garden experiment, the vegetable garden.  I'll meet you over there in a bit.

Three in One: Gardening for Different Purposes in One Landscape

I've been wanting to share posts of how great the garden is looking this spring, but I haven't been able to decide what to emphasize or what other gardeners might be interested in.  After starting several posts that fizzled from a severe lack of focus, I realized that I actually have 3 separate gardens, all combined into one overarching landscape.  It's easiest and most rational, then, to post about each garden separately.

However, I even get myself into trouble when I try to list the three separate types of gardens I have!  Which is the most important or the biggest - and therefore entitled to be showcased first and talked about the most?  Which is nearest and dearest to my heart?  Yikes!  I sure manage to create problematic mountains out of non-problematic molehills!

Okay, so here goes....

I'm going to start with my decorative/heirloom/memory gardens - these are plants that I inherited when we purchased our house, that I've rescued from gardens about to be lost, that I've chosen because they are heirloom varieties that appeal to me, that have been given to me, and so forth.  These are not native plants - they hail from Japan, Turkey, China, and many other parts of the world.  They are "traditional" garden plants.  (Yes, I DO grow non-natives!)

Right now the heirloom garden plants are the showiest, probably because native prairie plants tend to green up late, knowing that the weather is likely to be fickle well through April.

Here, for example, is a portion of my back courtyard bed from about two weeks ago.....

The flowers that are making a splash in this photo are a beautiful hellebore, as well as heirloom daffodils and hyacinths.  More on the specifics in the next post.

Next on my list is the vegetable garden.  This is pretty straight-forward, although I do mix it up a bit by utilizing raised beds to raise some perennials and natives in until I know where I want to put them in the flower beds.  Doing this not only helps me place things more rationally in the garden, but also brings in pollinators for the vegetables when the flowers bloom.  Greg experimented with different kinds of cold frames over the winter this year, which makes the vegetable garden look significantly messier.  The messy look has been well worth it, though because we've been reaping rewards as far as early greens and a head start on broccoli and cauliflower this spring.

Finally I end up at my beloved native plants.  Yes, these are the plants I hold closest to my heart.  Not only do they bring a lot of botanical beauty into the landscape, but they provide food and shelter for a myriad of animals that enliven the landscape with their presence and their activities.

I speak of the native plants as separate from the heirloom gardens and vegetable gardens, but in reality, I have all 3 combined throughout most of the garden.  It just seems easier to talk about them separately, since I grow them for such different reasons.

So now I've set the framework - in my own mind at least - for a quick look at 3 different "gardens" around our yard this spring.  Rather than make one exhaustively long post, I'm going to summarize what's been happening in 3 separate posts.   It will be interesting to see which different "gardens" appeal to more people and why!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Lousy Photos Still Have Their Value

Having set myself the task, last year, of documenting all of the plants and animals that I can identify on our 10 acres, I have found myself overwhelmed with photos in short order now that spring has arrived. 

It's MUCH easier to take photos of insects than it is to identify them.  Just in case you wondered.

It's also much easier to take photos of insects than it is to take GOOD photos of insects - good photos being defined as photos where you have a snowball's chance of actually identifying the insect in question based on what you are seeing on the screen in front of you.  I learned my basic insect identification skills the "good" old fashioned way, a.k.a. by capturing the insects and killing them, then identifying them at my leisure through the use of various magnifying devices and dichotomous keys.

I prefer trying to identify living insects in blurry photos, even if it means I won't get many of them actually identified.  I'm just not into killing living beings of any sort, if I can avoid it.  So here are a few of my so-so photos, some of which I've managed to identify and some of which are still mysteries to me....

The clove currant (Ribes odoratum) is in sweet, full and glorious bloom right now.  On Saturday, when I stopped by it, I noticed a dark hawk moth feeding.   The wings blurred rusty brown as the moth moved from bloom to bloom, while the heavy abdomen had a tuft at its end and was encircled by 2 bright yellow bands. I'd never seen this particular hawk moth before, so I tried to take its picture, thinking I could identify it more accurately if I had a good photo.  The blasted little beast was definitely camera shy and not very trusting of giant beings standing nearby with big black boxes stuck up near their face.  It tended to keep to the far side of the plants, rather than venturing out into the open near to me.

Thank heavens for digital.  Fifteen photos later, the moth flew away and I've not seen it since.  When I checked out those 15 shots to see what I'd managed to capture, sadly this was the BEST image of the lot.

As lousy as this photo is, I was still able to use it to identify my "dark" hawk moth as a Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis).  This species is supposedly one of the more commonly encountered day-flying moths, but I've never seen one before.  The larvae/ caterpillars, which are a type of hornworm, feed on grape, Ampelopsis, and Capsicum (bell and hot pepper) plants, all of which are frequent in our yard.

Looking around under one of our green ash trees (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), I noticed some small, gnat-like creatures flying.  When one came to rest within my sightline, I decided to snap its picture.  Then I noticed a second one nearby.  Snap.  Snap.  Snap.  These little creatures were about 1/4" or 3/8" long, colored gray and sitting on gray bark.  I have no idea why I thought I could get a good photo.  Here's what I managed to capture, 26 photos later, ....

I didn't think this silhouette would show me much at first, but when I zoomed in, I noticed that the "big" fly had a small fly caught underneath it, held in a classic "I'm eating you" sort of position.  When I showed it to Greg, he immediately thought the "big fly" was a robber fly of some sort.  I can go with that.

Another shot of the same individual accidentally captured a second "big fly" just above it on the bark. 

Do you see the 2 of them?  The one in the bottom right of the photo is the one shown in silhouette above; the second one is in the top left of the photo.  When I zoomed in on the second individual, it also seemed to have some sort of fly prey - with a yellow tipped abdomen - caught.
From the top, there's little evidence of "big fly #1" having prey captured beneath it, but the silhouette shot accidentally revealed the secret.

I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to try to submit these photos to Bug Guide or not - my feel is that they are not good enough for any sort of identification, but maybe I'll chance it anyway.  I do think these are tiny robber flies and I'd love to see if anyone can tell me any more about them.

Another lousy picture that nonetheless taught me something new about the creatures in our yard was this one, taken Saturday of some sort of critter on the underside of a small honeylocust branch....

When I took the photo, I thought the mess of moving legs was perhaps an emerging wheel bug.  As I took several more shots, I changed my mind to thinking I was looking at a brightly colored ant.  As I took the very last picture, something clicked and made me think, "Beetle?"  When I looked it up, sure enough, beetle was correct!  This is an Antlike Longhorned Beetle (Euderces pini).  The larvae of this beetle feed on dead wood in a variety of types of trees; the adults are typically seen nectaring at flowers.  The adults mimic ants and are notoriously hard to photograph because they never quit moving.  This is another insect that tops out around 3/8" long.  As lousy as my photos of this creature are (and this is the best of the lot), I feel lucky that I got a couple shots that allowed me to identify it at all.

As you can tell, I've got a LO-O-O-ONG way to go before I get very decent at taking good insect photos, but I do have fun and I learn a lot, even at the level of (in)competence that I have attained.  The natural world seems more wondrous every day.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Garden Drama 2014: Jumping Spider vs. Blue Orchard Mason Bee

Yesterday I noticed that my blue orchard mason bees were active already - a few were flying around the bee nest that I have in my garden.  This morning, I decided to try to get some pictures...and I was lucky enough to witness my first "garden drama" of 2014!

Shortly after I started looking at the nest box closely, I noticed a little jumping spider hanging around the top of the box.  I tried to get a couple photos, but I had the wrong lens, so I went inside and changed lenses, coming back to see what I could find to photograph.

I returned to my spot, about 3 feet in front of the bee nest, and almost immediately noticed an orchard bee checking out a couple tubes near the top.  The spider noticed the bee, too, coming to the front of the tube it was currently hiding in.

The bee seemed oblivious to the spider.  It came out of one tube and flew to the tube immediately adjacent to the spider's tube, going deep into the tube as soon as it landed.  The spider and I both waited until the bee came backing out.

Instead of sensing danger and flying away, the bee hung around the entrance to the tube for precious seconds, seeming just to look around.

The spider moved in closer...

and closer...

...and suddenly pounced!  The bee had waited too long.

Despite being held firmly in the spider's embrace, the bee struggled for an amazingly long time.  I had thought that spider venom would be injected immediately and that the bee would die relatively rapidly, but the bee kept on moving for minute after minute after long minute.

Meanwhile, the spider was patient and just held on.  After a while, it pulled the bee up to the upper edge of the tube where the bee had been exploring.

Eventually the spider pulled the bee into the crevice between the tubes and the outer edge of the bee nest.

When the only thing still visible was the face of the doomed bee, another orchard bee flew in to the area just on the other side of the spider's tube. 

Shortly after the new bee moved out of sight, the doomed bee seemed to finally quit all struggle.  It quickly disappeared totally from sight, pulled to the back of the nest box.

I pretty sure the bees are blue orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria), but I don't really know for sure.  Some guides suggest ordering the blue orchard mason bees to release when you put up a new nest box, but I trusted that there would be native bees interested in utilizing the new nesting sites I was providing.  I was correct, and the bee nest box began to be occupied during the first spring that I put it up.  I've submitted the photos of my exciting drama to Bug Guide for verification of the species of bee.  Hopefully they'll be able to help me with the identification of the little jumping spider as well.

As fascinating as it was to witness this fatal encounter, I feel guilty.  I meant to replace the old orchard bee nest box with a fresh one last year, but I never got around to ordering a new box.  I've read that parasites build up in the old nest boxes, so they should be replaced every 2 years.  Not only was the spider living in the nest box and able to harvest at least one orchard bee, but as I looked at the photos closely, I noticed small round dots on the bee's thorax that I'm afraid are mites of some sort - parasites.

So this evening I ordered TWO new nest boxes, so I can put one up as soon as it arrives and have a second one in reserve.  I'm hoping I'm not too late.  Blue orchard mason bees have a single generation each year.  They emerge early in the growing season, nectaring at apple, plum, cherry, and other early blossoms.

In nature, female blue orchard mason bees make their nests in hollow stems or twigs.  With mud, a female will build a wall across the hollow space and then she will pack in a mixture of pollen and nectar.  When she judges that she has enough stored to raise one new bee to adulthood, she lays a single egg on the provisions, closes the cell off with another mud wall, and then begins to provision another cell.  The females are able to determine the sex of the egg they lay by whether they fertilize the egg or not - female eggs (fertilized) are laid deep in the stem, with male eggs (unfertilized) closer to the entrances.  That way, if the nests are discovered and a cell or two are broken into, it is males that are sacrificed.  One male can fertilize more than one female.  On the other hand, the females only lay about 2-3 dozen eggs each, so each female is important to the survival of the species.

With such an early start in the growth season each year, it would seem likely that the blue orchard mason bees would raise more than one brood annually, but that's not what happens.  The females keep gathering provisions and laying eggs, cell by cell, until the day they die, which is generally in late spring to early summer.  There is no retirement plan...and no backup plan either.

Meanwhile, deep in the well-provisioned, mud cells, the next generation begins.  Like all bees and wasps, blue orchard mason bees undergo complete metamorphosis: egg to larva to pupa to adult.   The egg hatches fairly soon after it is laid, and the tiny larva begins to eat the stores of pollen and nectar that its mother gathered for it.  By late summer, the larva will have eaten all of its food and grown tremendously, going through multiple growth stages known as instars.  When it reaches the proper stage of growth towards the end of summer, it will pupate.  Then, by late fall, the adult will hatch from its pupal cocoon, still snug within its mud cell.  It is the adult that hibernates over winter, safely hidden away, until the temperatures warm up enough in the spring to signal time for emergence.

It seems like a miracle to me that year after year, generation after generation, the blue orchard mason bees survive and reproduce.  With only one generation each year, it would only take one really bad year, where survival was impossible, to wipe out the population of this gentle and hard-working little bee.  Thank goodness that hasn't happened.  I hope it never does.

Meanwhile, I'm very glad to have these gentle, busy little bees in my garden.  May the (food) source be with them!