Saturday, March 21, 2015

First Day of Spring

Just for kicks and giggles, I went around the yard yesterday and took a few photos which I thought I'd share.  Nothing particularly exciting, but just a few quick peaks at how the garden was looking on the first official day of spring....

Most interestingly, the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is blooming gorgeously this year.  It's really taken off in the last year or two, after a rather slow start. Bloodroot, a native that is one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring, gets its name from the blood red sap in its rhizomes.  Native Americans used this latexy sap as a face paint and to dye or color various different articles.  Bloodroot was also used medicinally.

Next to the bloodroot, I have a small group of heirloom purple crocuses being protected by an old egg basket.  This has become my favorite rabbit protection method for small plants.  Plus it lets me recycle and reuse old egg baskets (and thus justify my love of antiquing).

Not too far away was another group of purple crocuses showing WHY I use the egg basket over the heirloom crocuses.....

The cottontail(s) in my yard really love purple crocuses.  They'll eat other colors, but purple seems to be their favorite.  The "nibbling" almost destroyed those heirloom purple crocuses that I now protect so picturesquely.

Further down this same flower bed is a nice clump of daffodils in full bloom...facing AWAY from the house and the front of the bed.  It seems like this happens almost every year with this clump, but I'm darned if I know why.  I can't think of any reason why daffodil blooms would face one way or another on a regular basis.  It's not like the bloom faces the same direction the bulb points or something.....

Anyway, this year I decided to sneak around behind the bed to get a shot from the back.  They look much nicer from that angle.

In the "stump bed" (I've GOT to get a better name for that bed!) the Cloth of Gold heirloom crocuses were finished and the pasque flowers not blooming yet, but I got a good photo of the one of the "prairie pinecones", a local name for the seed pods of the Stemless Evening Primrose (Oenothera triloba).  They are really cool little features that add a fun textural touch to the winter garden.

Up front, the burn still looked pretty stark, although a few small sprigs of green are beginning to poke through.

From the front steps, however, the burn looks less overwhelming.  It forms an interesting contrast with the (uncut) front garden and the buffalo grass lawn, currently looking totally tan.

Looking at the front garden more specifically, by yesterday morning I had only cut back the very front little area in the bottom left of the photo below, where the bright yellow, Tete A Tete daffodils poke up in this photo.  I started seriously working on the garden cut back today, focusing on freeing other clumps of daffodils first, so we could enjoy their bloom if I got distracted from finishing my task. When I get done with the cut back, I'll post another photo for comparison.

I'll leave you with this pair of daffodil clumps....  First this small group of daffodils buried in last year's aster stems.  (I actually liberated this little clump this afternoon.)

And, finally, this nice group of Tete A Tete daffodils - one of my longtime favorite daffodil varieties.  They are so cute and tiny and early.  Perfect bellweathers signalling that spring has actually sprung!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Another Bird Deformity

It has amazed me how many bird deformities I've seen in our yard over the last 8 years.  Some I've shared on this blog.  Mainly beak deformities, but also color changes like the piebald cardinal I've seen this winter and the "yellow breasted" red-winged blackbird I saw several years ago.

At the end of February, another beak deformity showed up.  This time it was a starling that I noticed drinking during a snowstorm.

I am presuming that this is a case of a beak malocclusion - which results in the upper mandible (in this case) not being automatically trimmed as it closes against the lower mandible.

As with so many genetic abnormalities, this one is not a good change from normal.  Note how wet the feathers down the front of this individual are?

That's because it has to drink by almost immersing itself in water and skewing its body sideways, as in this picture.  I presume it has to eat this way, too.

Compared to the "normal way" a starling would eat and drink, shown by the bird on the left, this deformed starling has to work much harder for both calories and water.  As the top mandible grows longer, it will get harder and harder for this individual to get what it needs.  It also can't be good for this bird to get this wet during cold weather.  Presumably, eventually, it will weaken and die, perhaps becoming food for a predator of some sort.

Seeing individuals like this always makes me sad...but, at the same time, I have to admire them for their bravery and persistence in the face of difficulty.  As beautiful as life is overall, sometimes it seems starkly hard and cruel.  I just try to remember how often things go right, rather than how awful it is when they go wrong....

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Beautiful Day for a Burn!

We interrupt the "Tolerating the Uglies" series to bring you this news flash:  Today was an absolutely perfect day for a prairie burn!

It is VERY dry here, so I was a little hesitant, but the conditions were so perfect that we held our breaths and went ahead with our plans.  The winds stayed under 10 mph and were fairly steady from the SW (as predicted), Greg had recruited a couple techs from his clinic, and (most crucial of all) it was a weekend day.  During Kansas springtimes, it's a rare occurrence to have good winds and weather, the free time to burn, AND help with burning all come together!

Greg had mowed the firebreak last weekend, so the only necessary prep this morning was to gather the rakes, shovels, water buckets, burlap sacks, and water packs, then to stretch out the hoses.  We called in the burn permit...and we were off!

We started the burn very slowly and relied on backfiring the entire time to keep things under control.  This kept the flames about 3' high and moving slowly, instead of the lightning fast and 10-15' tall they probably would have been if they had been moving with the wind.

Greg and Pat went along the north and west sides; Justin and I took the east and south sides.  Our job was to patrol the edge of the fire at the firebreak, making sure that the flames didn't move out into the mowed area very far, which would have risked the fire jumping over the firebreak and getting out of control.  The fire basically burned from northeast to southwest, directly into the wind.

When we were done, our privacy from the road was totally gone, but the black ashes will absorb the springtime rays of the sun and heat up the soil.  The nutrients in the ashes will fertilize the soil, too.  With some rain (hopefully coming on Wednesday), we should be seeing green sprouts and then lush growth before long!

Many, many thanks to Chris, Justin, and Pat for their help!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Tolerating the Uglies, Take 2

Probably the hardest lesson I've learned in gardening here is to tolerate the uglies caused by blister beetles.

Our vegetable garden was one of the first gardens we began after moving in during the spring of 2007.  Having just spent 6 years in southern Alabama, where tomatoes didn't grow very well, we were aching for some sweet-tart, juicy, home-grown tomatoes - and therefore tomato seedlings were some of the first plants that went in.

The tomatoes did beautifully...except that they got pretty ragged looking in late summer, in large part because of all the blister beetles - both black and gray - that were munching on their leaves.  Mind you, the plants were still producing huge numbers of tomatoes.  There were more tomatoes than we could possibly eat or even give away.  But, doggone it, the plants looked positively decrepit, with ratty leaves, covered in blister beetle, frass.  How could I call myself a gardener with my tomato plants looking this bad?

So in I rushed, intrepid organic gardener to the rescue!  Every morning I would fill an old peanut butter jar half full of water with dish soap in it and sally forth to fight the blister beetles.  Carefully I inspected the leaves of the tomato plants and gently picked off the blister beetles, dropping them to their soapy deaths in my peanut butter jar.  At first I wore gloves, worried about the defensive chemical, cantharidin, that blister beetles are known to secrete.  It's cantharidin which will cause the blisters that earn this group of beetles their family name.  Eventually, though, I shed the gloves and still had no problems.  It wasn't uncommon for me to pick 50 or 100 blister beetles off my tomatoes each day.   Best of all, I could simply flush the dead beetles down the toilet or even put them in the compost when I was done, since my "killing agent" was simply dish soap and water.

Faithfully I protected my tomato plants for several summers this way, culminating in 2011, when we came home from a trip in early June to find several huge masses of Three-Striped Blister Beetles engaged in orgies on our front lawn. 

I'd not seen ONE of this blister beetle species in our yard before, let alone thousands of them.  What should we do?!  What if ALL of these guys started eating the plants around the yard?

Getting creative, I put my soapy water solution in a small shop vac and we vacuumed most of the striped blister beetles up.  Whew.  Disaster averted.

But, wait.  No.  Disaster NOT averted.  It just wasn't the disaster I thought I was getting.  Up until this point, we hadn't had any real issue with grasshopper populations, despite living in the country and being surrounded by tall grass and crop fields.  Beginning in 2011 and continuing into the present, we've learned the benefit of blister beetles.

You see, blister beetle young (larvae) burrow through the soil and eat grasshopper eggs.  For every adult blister beetle you see, 21-27 grasshopper eggs have NOT grown up into grasshoppers.  And those 21-27 grasshoppers that haven't grown up also haven't produced any eggs or young of their own.  While blister beetles eat leaves for a few weeks and make them look pretty ugly while they are munching, they don't generally eat a wide variety of plants and they don't even defoliate the ones they do lunch on.  Grasshoppers, on the other hand, will eat almost anything, including bark, and they will eat it all down to nubs.  The photo below shows what they did to our (shrub) althea one summer.....

Weather certainly played a role in our grasshopper outbreak, but I'm quite certain that our grasshoppers wouldn't have been as numerous if I hadn't been so zealous about controlling the blister beetle populations in our yard.

Blister beetles have now become almost a sacred animal around here.  I welcome them to the yard when I see them, and I mentally encourage them to munch for a while.  Happily, I've been seeing a few more blister beetles each year.  I still don't see three-striped ones, though.

Meanwhile, last summer had wet spells.  It turns out that, during rainy spells, grasshoppers get a fungus which causes them to climb to the top of plants, grasp the stem firmly,... and die.  Our yard was full of these weird grasshopper mummies gruesomely hanging on to the tips of plants. 

Between healthier blister beetle populations and grasshopper reproduction being down due to the zombie fungus last year, I'm hoping there will be fewer grasshoppers overall this summer than there have been in recent years.

I'm hoping, too, that the blister beetle populations will once again be healthy and that our tomato plants will look quite ragged by summer's end.  From now on, the blister beetle "uglies"  will be welcomed with open arms in our landscape!

Tolerating the Uglies

I think one of the most important concepts in healthy gardening is also one of the simplest.  Do YOU always look camera-ready??!  I highly suspect not.  I certainly don't.  And neither should our gardens.  As with any living organism or community, sometimes life is messy but that doesn't mean anything is wrong at all.

When I give garden talks, I talk about this and one of the phrases I use - and it almost always gets a sympathetic laugh - is that we should learn to "Tolerate the Uglies" in our gardens.  What do I mean by that?

Well, any number of things can occasionally be ugly in a garden, but I first came up with the concept in relationship to leaves that have been eaten by caterpillars.  What do YOU do when you see leaves disappearing, slowly or (even worse) rapidly?  Most of us, I suspect, run for the pesticide.  After all, isn't a good gardener supposed to protect her plants?!

Actually, no, that sort of protection is not necessary.  Mother Nature has designed an entire type of animal, predators and parasites, that will take care of leafeaters for you...if you give them a chance.

My first conscious lesson about this idea of learning to tolerate ugliness came about 7 years ago when I was beginning the front garden at this house.  I had planted a couple young Echinacea plants, two of the "Sky" series, earlier in the spring.  They were establishing well, I thought, until one day in mid-June I looked out the window and saw what appeared to be black mildew all over the leaves of one of them.  Damn!

I went outside to look more closely and realized that the leaf damage I was seeing wasn't mildew at all.  The leaves had actually been skeletonized by a large number of little, hairy, black caterpillars.  The poor leaves were also covered in frass, a.k.a. caterpillar poop.   If I'd had any in the house, I probably would have grabbed the Sevin right then and there, but luckily I didn't.

So I went back inside the house, got on the computer and looked in books, and did some research.  Without too much trouble, I learned that the caterpillars I was seeing were the half-grown young of pearl crescents, one of those pretty little orange butterflies you commonly see on flowers in the summer time.  Their young feed "gregariously" (in a group) for the first several stages of their lives, then scatter to finish feeding before they pupate and change into adults.

What to do?  I wanted butterflies.  I like butterflies.  But I also like my plants and I'd spent $4 or $5 each on those 2 Echinaceas.  I didn't want to lose them.  I decided that I'd go out the next morning and move the caterpillars to other plants throughout the garden where their eating habits wouldn't be as easily noticed.

When I went out the next morning to carry out my plan, the caterpillars were gone.  They could have all been eaten by some predator, but I suspect they'd reached the age/stage where they naturally scattered to find more food on their own.

And the Echinacea they'd thoroughly skeletonized?  Three weeks later, it bloomed on schedule - see the photo above - and within a couple months, you had to look hard to see the remains of the damaged leaves.  By the next summer, it was a beautifully healthy plant with no sign that anything had ever munched hard on it.

I, the brave gardener, did nothing but accidentally Tolerate the Uglies.  The plant survived and thrived.  The butterflies survived and thrived.  And I survived and thrived.  A big win for doing nothing at all (except observing and learning).

I'll share another couple stories about tolerating occasional garden uglies in the next post or two....