Sunday, October 28, 2018


After reading this review, you can heave a big sigh of relief -I will have caught up with all my gardening related book reviews!

Having just finished Climate-Wise Landscaping, I feel very au courant in writing this review!

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but somehow this book seemed different from what the title suggested it was going to be - different in a good way, more important, filling a gap that's been existing in gardening literature.

Climate-Wise Landscaping:  Practical Actions for a Sustainable Future, by Sue Reed and Ginny Stibolt, New Society Publishers, British Columbia, Canada, 2018, is a perfect guide for people who are worried about our planet's future and are looking for something that they, personally, can do to help lessen climate change and to make our ecosystems healthier.

Every single piece of land can help heal our planet.

There are ten sections in this book, each section dealing with an area of the landscape around a typical home, wherever it is located, starting with the lawn.  Why do Reed and Stibolt begin with the lawn?  As they put it, "...[C]hanging the way we think about and deal with our lawns might be the easiest and most significant step we can take to help the planet."  How much lawn do you think there is in the continental U.S.?  According to the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, as quoted in this book, there is about 63,000 square miles of lawn, an area approximately the size of the state of West Virginia.  That's a lot of lawn - and most of it gets mowed weekly, inundated with fertilizers and pesticides, and irrigated.  Despite all those inputs, lawn produces no food, for people or even for wildlife.  It's essentially a sterile wasteland.

Reed and Stibolt go on to cover many other ways we can help the climate by changing the way we use our landscape.  For example, planting trees sequesters a lot of carbon, as does, surprisingly to me, increasing the health of soils and decreasing the disturbance to them.  Did you know that soils sequester more than 4 times the amount of carbon as forests?  I didn't.  Apparently they are the second largest carbon dioxide absorbing system on our planet, after oceans.  I also didn't know that every time you disturb the soil - through digging, for example - you release carbon dioxide.  So switching from planting annuals, which have to be replanted regularly, to planting perennials actually helps the planet by sequestering carbon!

I'm all for minimizing digging, so that's what I call a win-win.

There's a section on how good planning and design of a landscape can help decrease energy use (and thus carbon dioxide emissions), as well as a section specifically devoted to urban issues.  Each section contains an introductory explanation, followed by a series of "Action Topics", specific ways you can make your landscape work to help stabilize Earth's climate and often to help yourself and other living things at the same time.

Last, but hardly least, the final section covers materials that are commonly used in landscaping and evaluates their carbon footprint, helping us choose rationally among such options as concrete, brick, stone, even asphalt.  This is the first time I've ever seen a carbon analysis of landscaping materials and I really appreciate finding it included in this book.

This is an excellent resource to start with if you're interested in personally doing something specific to help the future of our species and of our planet.  It's a broad overview of the topics covered;  for specific details, you will probably want to explore the areas that interest you further, with further reading or study.  Most of all, Climate-Wise Landscaping examines a broad array of possibilities - and possibilities are a great starting point for building a better future. 

Friday, October 26, 2018


I don't know about you, but I have a perplexing habit of buying books and then getting distracted before I actually read them.  Thus my shelves are full of books that look awesome, but that I haven't read yet.

The Inward Garden:Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning, by Julie Moir Messervy, Little, Brown and Company, 1995, is a book that has been a victim of my book hoarding habit, but this spring I finally read it - cover to cover - and  I fell in love.  I truly don't remember when I found and bought this book.  I'm hoping it wasn't shortly after it was published, in 1995, because that would mean that I've been unnecessarily missing the wisdom found within its pages for over 20 years.

Unlike the last 3 books I've reviewed, which have focused on native plants and gardening for wildlife, this book is more of a classic garden design book.  And yet it's so much more than just that.....

The Inward Garden encourages us to make gardens more than just pretty places.  In the beginning of this book, Moir Messervy describes a garden in this way, "...[A] garden means far more than just a planted place.  It is a touchstone;  a repository of memories that forms a place of joy in your life.  A garden exists not only as part of your backyard landscape, but as a site that resides in your imagination, a collection of personally satisfying images that can be expressed upon your land."

Do you remember your favorite outdoor places to be as a child?   Are you drawn to enclosures or promontories?  What's your personal image of paradise?  Moir Messervy guides us through these sorts of questions, showing us how our gardens can reflect our own personal histories and memories, our own personal inspirations.  First, though, we have to THINK about these sorts of questions - and then we have to take the answers we've come up with and help them take shape within the parameters of our actual physical space.

There are so many components we can draw upon to create our own touchstone gardens:  color, form, sound, light, plants, geometric vs. natural order, uniformity vs. variety.  It's hard to keep track of all of the different possibilities, but Moir Messervy helps us think about each one in turn without dictating what is "right" or "better".

To a great extent, this book is a combination of psychological concepts and gardening, examining such classic themes as the sacred forest, a classic hut, the need for enclosure, thresholds, bridges, and gateways.   Moir Messervy talks about journeys through our gardens, both mental and physical, with starting points, pathways, and destinations.  

 "...[P]eople garden in order to make something grow; to interact with nature; to share, to find sanctuary, to heal, to honor the earth, to leave a mark.  Through gardening, we feel whole as we make our personal work of art upon our land."

The Inward Garden is a book to aid us in making our gardens into true personal works of art upon our own land.  With ideas and passions to inspire us, this is a book that gives us a serious look at the kinds of gardens we can to aspire to create.  The richness in this book is many layered and it invites us to return for refreshment and new inspiration again and again and again.  I highly recommend finding a copy of this classic work and immersing yourself within it.  You'll be so glad that you did.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018


Quite a few years ago now, I started "talking" with my books by underlining passages that spoke to me and by writing comments in the margins.  It was hard to do at first, but once I got over my good-girl habits of keeping my books pristine, I found that it really helps when I go back to a book to review and refresh myself about what it said.  Most importantly, doing this provides a conversation to join when I reread the book.  I can see what captured my attention originally and compare those ideas to what strikes me now, making my understanding of the book deeper with each reading.  Occasionally I've even shared a book with a friend and invited her to comment (in a different color ink), which adds yet another level of interaction with the written words.

Because of this habit I have of physically talking with my books in written form, one of my easiest "sorts" for which books I want to keep and which ones just need to be passed along is a simple look to see whether or not I've underlined and commented in the book in question.  If it wasn't interesting enough to mark up, it's not interesting enough to keep.  Maybe someone else needs that book more than I do.

A New Garden Ethic, by Benjamin Vogt, New Society Publishers, BC Canada, 2017, passed my "Do I keep this?" sorting question with flying colors.  It's marked up all over the place.  It's marked up so much that my big question for this post is, "How can I possibly do this book justice in a simple, short review of it?"

As I sat down this afternoon to start thinking about writing this review, I began to thumb through the pages.  An entire paragraph highlighted here.  Exclamation point there.  "Great series of questions...." on one page.  Lots of "Wow!" and "Yes!" comments in the margin.  Ideas for blog posts.  Books to read.  More underlining.  Asterisks.  Occasional notes asking about sources for certain claims.  There is so much to digest here that I've become convinced A New Garden Ethic would make a wonderful book for a gardening book club to read and discuss - probably over a long weekend, as a single hour or two wouldn't be nearly long enough.

One interesting twist to this ecological gardening book is its author, Benjamin Vogt.  Dr. Vogt has a PhD, but it's in creative writing, not in biology or ecology or horticulture or landscape architecture or any of the myriad fields that one would normally associate with a book of this nature.  That said, prairie and ecological garden design are obviously deep passions for Vogt and he's educated himself accordingly.  Coming from a creative background, his writing has a vibrancy that can sometimes be lacking in more scientific tomes.

I'll be up front, though:  to me, Vogt's lack of scientific training shows up rather glaringly here as a lack of citations for some of his specific facts.  It is not enough to say Scientist Y did a study in which she found xyz.  I want to know where to find that study - what journal was it published in?  when and where was the study performed?  what were the parameters?  I want to be able to delve into some of those studies more closely to see if the findings are being accurately reported in what was written.  I may want to use those statistics in something I write, too, but I'm not going to quote statistics without knowing where they come from, even in a simple blog post.  A revised edition with this major flaw remedied would strengthen this book significantly, in my opinion.

Beyond that flaw, though, there's an incredible amount of substance in this book that captures my spirit and that doesn't rely on specific studies or individual facts.  Take this wonderful passage that I've seen others pull from the book as a quote, "We live in a world of perfectly spaced plants that mimic headstones aligned in exact intervals.  Wood mulch is more important to us than flowers.  We clean up our gardens like they are living rooms after the children have gone to bed."  With 3 lines, Vogt has given us several iconic images that capture the lack of real life in so many modern gardens.

In the first chapter of this book, Vogt gives us a basic framework about what he sees as being right and wrong about most gardens, yards, and natural areas in our current day and age.  This framework leads him to a statement of a new garden ethic that he believes we need to live by if we want to have our gardens function as more than just a pretty fashion accessory...and Vogt is compelling as he shows us why we want our gardens to function so richly.

With native plants being integral to ecological function in any landscape, Chapter 2 is generally a discussion of native plants, their importance, and the pushback against their use in many circles.  There's a small, fascinating section on the politics and culture of using native plants:  is it "fair" or "democratic" to say that gardeners should only use native plants?  "When we step in and impose our ideals of democracy on a landscape, we disrupt and destroy the landscape, altering life processes that have worked long before we created human democracy...."  Vogt notes that plant culture should not be mistaken for human culture, that nature and ecosystem function have little to do with patriotism or freedom or other political concepts.

In the remaining 3 chapters of the book, Vogt discusses a wide variety of topics ranging from cognitive dissonance and the value of anger and hopelessness to the impact of the Enlightenment on where we are today, all with the object of moving us towards developing and being willing to utilize the defiant compassion that he believes we need to bring to our relationship with our landscapes and gardens.

A New Garden Ethic is a call to action, a call to enrich our own lives and the world immediately around us by connecting deeply to our specific physical environs.  By answering this call, Vogt believes we can each help to save the planet's living fabric, one garden at a time.

Monday, October 22, 2018


After running across and deeply enjoying Nancy Lawson's blog, Humane Gardener, I was excited when I realized she was writing a book by the same name.  The subtitle of her blog is perfect, "Cultivating Compassion for All Creatures Great and Small".  Lawson worked for many years as an editor for the Humane Society of the United States - and I think that caring and compassion for ALL animals has seeped into her psyche, based on the writing she shares both on her blog and in her book.

The Humane Gardener:  Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, by Nancy Lawson, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 2017 is a relatively small book, almost a series of 6 essays rather than a scientific tome or an intense guide of gardening methodologies.  Each essay, or chapter, is accompanied by a "portrait" of a real garden and its real gardener, exemplifying the characteristics talked about in the companion chapter.  The gardens range from California to Florida, from Ontario to Oregon, with Colorado and the Chicago area filling in the area in the middle.

More than most gardening books, The Humane Gardener focuses on the animals that are so often collateral damage in modern gardening methods:  from the wide variety of small animals that get chopped up, along with the grass, by lawnmowers to the tiny denizens of leaf litter when it's allowed to lie undisturbed under shrubs and perennials.  There are a few statistics ("The nestlings of 96 percent of North American terrestrial bird species survive on spiders and insects, mostly caterpillars, who are themselves babies with specialized habitat needs....") but most of the information and advice is given in anecdotal form, which makes it easy to digest.

In the book's introduction, Lawson remarks that the gardeners she chose to highlight "embody the ethic of compassionate landscaping, challenging long-held assumptions about animals, plants, and themselves."   Compassionate landscaping.  Compassionate landscaping.  I love that term and the ethic it defines.  The Humane Gardener is a great introduction to this ethical concept.

This ethical concept does not, however, meld well with the perfection-driven standards promoted in most regular garden literature, and Lawson talks about her journey from a mainstream gardener to a compassionate gardener, from being willingly sucked into the "marketing ploys of the Landscaping Industrial Complex" to learning from the plants and animals sharing her yard with her.  In her garden portraits, she often talks about the journeys these other gardeners have made, too. 

As a map of a changing journey in gardening, this book is written as a general guide of concepts which can be used across the entire country.  Thus there is little talk of specifics:  don't look to this book for which particular species to use where or what the best method of performing a particular task is.  The overarching ideas Lawson shares are widely adaptable and easily understandable, though.

The last section of The Humane Gardener is a series of resources you can turn to if you want to get started practicing compassionate landscaping yourself:  among them are a couple addresses for excellent blogs, a short list of regional references for wildlife habitat gardening, notes on the individual chapters, and a selected bibliography.

I greatly enjoyed The Humane Gardener and I would highly recommend it to anyone intrigued by the idea of using compassionate landscaping in their own home environs.


As I started thinking about getting ready for holiday guests and Thanksgiving feasts, I realized that I had a pile of books on our dining room table that were there to remind me to write about them.  It's a pile that's been slowly but steadily growing for quite some time now - and I was somewhere between shocked and dismayed to realize that, in that pile, I had amassed 6 books with gardening as their theme.

So I've pulled them out and arranged them in the order that I read them, in the process realizing that one book had been added to the pile without my actually having read it.  Oops.  Wrong pile.  (Yes, sadly, I have many piles of books around the house.)  So let me get busy with the first of the remaining 5 books in my dining room table pile.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on Garden Revolution, by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, Timber Press, 2016, which I read about a year ago, in November 2017.....

Subtitled "How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change",  Garden Revolution truly amazed me.  I've been interested in gardening for and with wildlife for decades now and I have read a lot on the subject.  I am deeply interested in the environment and in ecology.  Not surprisingly, I've done a lot of hands-on gardening and landscaping for wildlife over the years.  Native plants are my "go to" species in planting my yard and its individual gardens.  Truthfully, it's rare for me to find a book with a really new spin or a new series of concepts on any of these subjects - but that's exactly the sort of book I found as I delved into Garden Revolution.

Larry Weaner is a landscape designer who specializes in ecological restoration AND fine garden design.  One of his early insights as he worked in garden design was "...a traditional garden is like a beautiful car with no engine.  The body is sleek, the interior is plush, and the stereo sounds great, but the owner will always need to push it up the hills with bags of fertilizer, weeding forks, and watering wands."  Weaner works WITH nature, in truly amazing ways, to develop beautiful, continually changing, living landscapes.

Working with nature....  What, exactly, do I mean by that?  Before, I've always just meant avoiding pesticides and using native plants, while trying to match the plant species to its preferred growing conditions and hopefully creating habitat for wildlife.  Weaner takes it so much further.  He pays attention to the seeds found in the "seed bank" that is present in every soil, adds in seeds for species that will help succession move in preferred directions, plants small clumps of wildflowers as seed sources to allow for natural spread, and has many other techniques to nudge natural processes in ways helpful to gardeners and landscapers.

Presented in large format with lots of photos, Garden Revolution at first gives off a vibe almost like a "coffeetable book", but it's much more than that.  There is background information, both historical and biological, presented conversationally so that it doesn't overwhelm.  From Weaner's decades of work, there are examples of gardens from large estates to small suburban gardens, discussed in the text as well as illustrated by gorgeous photography.

Using aggressive native species to outcompete problematic invasive species.  Planning and planting for seasonal and successional niches instead of just planting a "once in time" landscape plan.  Cutting weeds off just below the surface instead of pulling them out by the roots and disturbing the soil.  The new ways of thinking about garden design, preparation, planting, and maintenance just keep coming in this book.

Want to help nature and our planet's ecosystems in a very basic, personal, and satisfying way?  Want to help yourself have a thriving landscape with less work?   Want to attract wildlife to your surroundings?  Read this book.  You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Tired Time of Year in the Garden: Time to "Tolerate the Uglies"

As I look around my garden these days, there are definitely places where it's starting to look worn out and ratty.

For example, what's the end result of this sight, on August 25th?

This sight on September 9th!  And LOTS of gulf fritillary butterflies gracing our yard, too.  Just recently a seemingly unpenetrable wall of green, the passion vine (Passiflora incarnata) is literally skeletal now.  All of its leaves - literally ALL of them - have been eaten by gulf fritillary caterpillars (Agraulis vanillae), leaving nothing but awkward stems with the remnants of a few fruits hanging on.  I'm not worried, though.  The passion vine will be back next spring, as full and pretty as ever.

Also, did you notice?  The leaves of the vines were beginning to turn yellow by the end of August anyway.  They weren't going to last much longer even if the caterpillars hadn't been eating them.

The victim of twin onslaughts - monarch caterpillars and advancing age, the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is looking rather pathetic too.  It's a battle to see whether the caterpillars will eat the leaves first or whether they'll turn yellow and fall off from the bottom up.  (The tall, leggy plants in the photo above are the swamp milkweed, planted just behind the birdbath basin on the ground.)  It's the legginess and ugliness of this stage of their life cycle that encourages me to generally plant swamp milkweed in the back of the border, hopefully behind some "fluffy" lower plants like red sage (Salvia coccinea) or short species of asters.  If you look closely at the left side of the photo, however, you can see that the monarchs aren't upset by the state of the milkweed at all. 

There are still many flying in the yard, with females frequently seen laying eggs here and there - even on "ugly" plants.  

Flyr's nemesis (Brickellia cordifolia) is just about done blooming, so its small, cotton candy pink pom-poms of flowers are fading into grayish lavender mush.  The leaves still look good, but the stalks have sprawled everywhere, thanks to the weight of all those beautiful blossoms over the last couple weeks.

I've got these few stalks held up with stakes because they were lying flat on the lawn.  Our 3 year old grandson gives a good sense of scale against these shortest of the Flyr's nemesis stalks.  Despite the waning number of blooms, the monarchs, gulf fritillaries, and little bees are all still enjoying the Flyr's nemesis immensely.

Declining in the same way they grew, from the bottom up, the Dr. Seuss flowers of spotted horsemint (Monarda punctata) are past their prime as well.  There are still individual flowers in the upper bloom clusters, but the bottom clusters are turning brown and drying out.  Like the Flyr's nemesis, the stems have sprawled from the weight of bountiful blossoms.

Looking up into the trees, numerous nests of fall webworms (Hyphantria cunea) pockmark the ends of the branches of the pignut hickories (Carya glabra).  I've noticed an increased number of birds like bluejays up in the canopy since the webworm nests appeared, so I'm guessing that the birds are having quite a nice, seasonal, tree top feast up there.

In the front gardens, even the tidy green mounds of the trailing pineland lantana (Lantana depressa) are showing signs of decline, although thankfully you have to look fairly closely to see them. 

Many leaves have been used as caterpillar food by some sort of leaf rollers this summer and they have become gray ghosts of themselves.  Empty flower stalks are numerous now, too, although the blossoms still attract most of the attention, especially from a distance.  Luckily, again, the butterflies, skippers, and other creatures don't seem to mind at all.

When I worked the phone line for the Master Gardener office, we'd always get concerned calls at this time of year, "My plant leaves are looking so sick.  What should I spray on them?"

My response then was the same as it is internally to myself now, "It's the end of summer.  The leaves have been working hard all summer and they are tired and worn out.  It's almost time for them to fall, where they will continue working to make the garden healthier as they decompose into rich topsoil.  Don't spray anything.  This is all just part of the natural cycle of life.  Nothing is wrong at all."

Or, in other words, it's the time of year to remind ourselves to "tolerate the uglies" as the seasons begin to change yet again, moving us into the release of fall and the quiet peace of winter.  This, too, shall pass.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Dollarweed - What Good Is It?

Talk about a plant that everybody loves to hate!  Dollarweed (Hydrocotyle sp.) is a native plant, also known as pennywort, that loves to grow in the same conditions that also favor lawn grass:  bright sun, plentiful water, low surrounding vegetation.  It's hardy and it requires essentially no care.  With its single, round, silver dollar sized leaves, it is easily recognizable and it boldly stands out in a mass of linear grass leaves.  As such, dollarweed has gained great notoriety - heaven forbid that a non-grass plant disturb the carpet-like splendor of a lawn!

If you look at dollarweed simply as a plant, however, it's really rather attractive.  The bright, shiny green leaves reflect sunlight and are held aloft on pliable, sturdy stems. 

The flowers are umbels of white that are not glamorous, perhaps, but that are quite attractive in a quiet, lacy way.

 This photo shows how the umbels open up as they get older.

This morning, as I took photos, the insects I found on these flowers in a garden bed were tiny ants.  Truthfully, I didn't even see the ants until I opened the photos up on my computer screen.

Perhaps dollarweed's biggest flaw as a garden plant is that it doesn't tend to form solid mats but, instead, prefers to interweave through other plants, refusing to stay neatly in one place.  It's also difficult to completely eradicate from a lawn or flower bed with underground rhizomes that break off readily at each node. 

Because it's a native plant, I've wondered how dollarweed fits into the ecosystem here, but I haven't taken the time to really study it.  All I've noticed on the plant in my yard is an occasional leaf miner.   I'm not sure what insect is doing this particular leaf mining - the larva of a fly? of a moth? of a sawfly? of a beetle?  Any of these different types on insects have certain species whose larvae are leaf miners, feeding on the leaf tissue between the upper and lower surfaces of leaves.

A couple weeks ago, I noticed a closeup photo of the bloom of dollarweed on Instagram.   Responding to the photo, which was identified only by the scientific name, presumably to minimize automatic knee-jerk negative responses, I commented on my interest about how this plant worked in the ecosystem.  The poster replied back with a list of Hymenopterans (bees, ants, and wasps) that had been observed by scientists in 2015 on dollarweed flowers at Archbold Biological Station here in Florida. (See note below.)

Here's the list "floridaplants" sent, comprised of 10 solitary wasps and one native bee.  As you scan it, be sure to note the prey that these wasps use for feeding their young: orb weaver spiders, beetles, flies, leafhoppers or planthoppers, leafhoppers, flies, flies, flies, moth caterpillars, and moth caterpillars.

Episyron conterminus posterus - a spider wasp specializing in orb weavers to provision their nests
Cerceris blakei - a digger wasp that provisions its nest with beetles
Ectemnius rufipes ais - a square-headed wasp that nests in dead wood, provisioning its nest with flies
Epinysson melippes - a solitary wasp that provisions its nest with leafhoppers or planthoppers
Hoplisoides dentriculatus dentriculatus - a sand wasp that provisions its nest with leafhoppers
Oxybelus emarginatus - a prong-backed flyhunter wasp that provisions its nest with flies
Tachysphex apicaulis - a square-headed wasp that provisions its nest with flies
Tachysphex similis - a square-headed wasp that provisions its nest with flies
Leptochilus acolhuus - a mason wasp provisioning its nest with moth caterpillars
Parancistrocerus salcularis rufulus - a mason wasp provisioning its nest with moth caterpillars
Halictus poeyi - Poey's Furrow Bee, a small native bee in the sweat bee family that provisions its nest with nectar and pollen

Wouldn't it be great to get some free, round-the-clock pest control in your gardens?  Especially pest control that specializes in controlling some of the insects above without, at the same time, killing praying mantids, honeybees, or monarch butterflies?

Well, you can have exactly that sort of pest control - IF you leave dollarweed and other small, flowering plants alone in your lawn, instead of treating them like public enemy #1.  In fact, this sort of situation is why Greg and I don't use chemicals on our lawn.  If it grows low, is generally green, and can be mowed, we let it be.  Because of their relationships with native pollinators, I prefer to have native plants as weeds in my grass - rustweed and some of the sedges, for example, as well as dollarweed - but it's almost impossible to have native broadleafed plants without also having non-natives, so we "live and let live".  

The only one of the insects in the list above that I've knowingly observed in my yard is the native bee, Halictus poeyi, Poey's Furrow Bee, shown in the photo above on Gaillardia and identified on  Coincidentally, it's the only one of the insects on the Archbold Biological Station's list with a common name. That doesn't mean the wasps aren't an important part of the natural web of nature, too, it just means that people haven't paid a lot of attention to them.  They're generally small.  They're not very colorful.  They don't bother people. Until recently, it's simply that nobody has paid much attention to them.  Generally, scientists often don't know which species, exactly, each wasp specializes in utilizing as prey for food for its larvae.

What a shame that we've ignored these important parts of the ecosystems in our yards and gardens...but what an interesting chance for everyday gardeners to help restore the balance of nature.  Literally as well as figuratively.  Best of all, this ability to help restore Earth's ecosystems is as easy as refraining from using chemicals on our lawns.  Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Note:  According to the Instagram poster "floridaplants", self described as a botanist, this is the list of wasps and bees that were observed nectaring at dollarweed, Hydrocotyle umbellatus, at Archbold Biological Station in Florida.  The scientific paper (?) is Deyrup, M.A. and M.D. 2015. Database of observations of Hymenoptera visitations to flowers of plants on Archbold Biological Station, Florida, USA.  Unfortunately I haven't been able to get a copy of this database online, so I'm going out on a limb here and assuming the information is accurate.  After all, it's not like many people have the interest or ability to make up a list of scientific names like this.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Monarch Caterpillars, Chrysallises, and Wasps: Sometimes Things Go Wrong

Two days ago, as I came back into the house after dumping my coffee grounds in the garden, I noticed a small black and white wasp sitting on top of something on the swamp milkweed.  Looking closer, I saw what I thought was a discolored monarch caterpillar, about the size of a 2nd or 3rd instar.  "Damn.  Oh, well, her babies have to eat, too," I thought to myself.

Of course I grabbed my camera to capture some photos, but it was early morning and the humidity was high, so I was only able to take a couple frames before the lens fogged up and became too opaque for me to continue.  By the time the lens cleared, the wasp with her payload had disappeared.

Well, my garden is definitely a place for nature to "do its thing", so I made no attempt to intervene.  In the late afternoon, I noticed what looked like the same female wasp working at the entrance to a hollow tube in my bee house which is above and behind the swamp milkweed.  Obviously that was where her nest was.

When I downloaded my photos, I was relieved to see that the caterpillar the little wasp had was NOT a monarch caterpillar.  If I had to guess, I'd say it was a cutworm of some sort, actually.  Much as I love insects, that's not a caterpillar I'm sorry to see feed some baby wasps.

Yesterday, when I went back out to take photos, the nest tube this little wasp was working on had been completely closed off.  It's the right hand tube near the center of this photo.  Inside it, I am sure that a wasp egg is developing into a larva that will use this hapless caterpillar to create the next generation of mason wasps.  As horrific as that seems in one sense, at the same time it seems pretty amazing.

I see these little wasps hunting in my gardens frequently.  It would be fascinating to know how many caterpillars they remove over the course of each growing season - and what species get "harvested".

In other caterpillar news, I was thrilled a few days ago to notice a monarch cat hanging upside down in the classic "J" position as it started the transition from caterpillar to pupa/chrysalis.  Because we've been watching Youtube videos about metamorphosis, I carefully pointed it out to our oldest grandson, Connor, who is 3.

We were both ecstatic to see that the caterpillar had completed its change the next morning...

...but by the following day, I began to suspect that something was seriously wrong.

Two days after it had formed, I removed the remnants of the chrysalis, as well as the leaf it was attached to, fearing for bacterial contamination.  It was probably too little, too late, but I figured it was worth a try to keep further contamination from spreading to other monarch caterpillars in the area.

Does anyone with more specialized knowledge of monarch/butterfly metamorphosis know more precisely what caused the demise of this pupating monarch?

Once again, as with bird nests, if I find it, I'm beginning to assume that the chrysalis/pupa is not likely to have a positive outcome.  Sometimes I have to be content with letting exciting events happen "off stage" in the garden.  If the result is more baby birds and more adult butterflies, then it's all good and my curiosity will just have to go unsatisfied.  Thank goodness for Youtube videos!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

BugGuide for the Win!

A big thank you and shout out to the folks at for their help in identifying so many of the little beasties that I see in my yard and gardens! 

Last week was a perfect case in point.  I saw a large black bee nectaring on swamp milkweed from my kitchen window and I grabbed the camera to get a few photographs.  This insect was new to me,  but it reminded me of a bee that had been recently talked about and shared in a Facebook group about pollinators.  So I looked up the two-spotted longhorned bee, the species in question, and it looked good...but maybe just a little different from what I was seeing. 

The abdominal spots were smaller in my individual than in many of the photos of the two-spotted longhorned bee in BugGuide and the long hairs on the legs of my individual were dark, not light, but otherwise it looked like a reasonably good match.  There are really a limited number of large black bees it could have been, excluding bumble bees, which this wasn't.  So I tentatively identified my photos and submitted them as an ID request.

Within a day, Dr. John Ascher had identified my specimen as a southern carpenter bee (Xylocopa micans), a species that I was totally unfamiliar with and had never even considered. I actually thought that the eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) was the only large carpenter bee in our area so I hadn't thought to look more closely at carpenter bees.

According to the brief research I did, there is not much known about the life cycle of the southern carpenter bee.  A fact sheet from the University of Florida reports that the only nests that have been reported were in small branches of Ligustrum (1958) and red maple (1975), about 1-1.5 m above the ground.  Apparently this species is NOT an economic problem, as the eastern carpenter bee can be.

Was this an earth shattering identification?  No.  But the only other way I know to really identify many of the insects I photograph, including this one, would be to catch them and kill them, then look at them under magnification, using keys.  While that is certainly the classic way to deal with insect identification, I am gardening on less than 0.4 acre in the middle of a suburban development where new assaults seem to occur daily against the wildlife present.  Trees and shrubs are cut down and replaced with chemical-soaked lawn.  What flowers there are come from the big box stores which, around here, means they are full of neonic pesticides.  There are far more non-native plants than natives in everyone's yards, providing little food for native insects and other animals.  Often I only see one individual of a species in my yard - and, if I collected it to identify it, I might have just kept that species from keeping a toehold around here.  For example, I have not, to my knowledge, seen a southern carpenter bee here in the 3 years we've lived here - and I haven't seen another one since I saw this individual a week ago.

Why do I find it so important to know what the various insects are in my yard and gardens?  I ask myself that question on a pretty regular basis, wondering if I'm wasting everyone's time, including my own.  Then I identify a new species and learn about it, finding out that I have...

... a wasp species (Prionyx parkeri) that controls short-horned grasshopper populations and pollinates flowers...

... or a fly species, tiger bee fly (Xenox tigrinus), that parasitizes carpenter bees and balances their populations...

... or yet another syrphid fly whose larvae eats aphids.  (The syrphid fly larva is the large, brown and white blob on the milkweed stem, surrounded by its food, oleander aphids.)

The complex web of relationships in even my basic little gardens truly astounds me, and I learn so much by identifying the different species and researching a bit about their life cycles and feeding habits.   I try to share that information with others, too, hoping to encourage fellow gardeners to just relax and let Mother Nature keep the balance in their yards instead of pulling out the poisons to "keep everything under control".

In fact, thanks in great part to the insect identification help I've received from BugGuide, I've come to think that human "control" is highly over-rated and much more likely to do harm than good, especially in a garden.  What insects are YOU seeing in your garden, and what are you learning about the balance of nature all around you?  Have you dared to go chemical free yet?

Milkweed Signals?

Watching for caterpillars as closely as I've been doing this summer, I noticed an odd phenomenon on the milkweeds about a week ago.

As of August 5th, last Sunday, I had not seen a single milkweed bug, large or small, on any of my milkweed plants this summer.  At midday, I was out in the backyard, photographing insects and flowers like the swamp milkweed above, when I noticed something reddish flying in the middle of the backyard. 

Chasing it down, I saw that it was a large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) which had landed on a small yaupon bush (Ilex vomitoria).  Note:  I apologize for the quality of this photo, but it's the only one I took at the time.

The next morning, August 6th, when I got up, there were probably a dozen large milkweed bugs on my swamp milkweed plants, primarily on the blooms.  Many were in the process of creating the next generation of large milkweed bugs.

In the space of 24 hours, my yard went from absolutely no milkweed bugs to a single large milkweed bug to a dozen or more large milkweed bugs.  The numbers have continued to increase over the week.

Where did they all come from?  No one else I see around the neighborhood has milkweed plants and there is little "wild space" nearby.

What brought them all in at essentially the same time?  The swamp milkweed had been blooming for over a week at that point, the tropical milkweed for weeks, and the butterfly milkweed for months, so why August 5th-6th?  Why that day specifically?

I have no answers to these questions, but it's a fascinating little mystery to me.  Sometimes it seems like the more I learn, the less I know.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Tolerate the Uglies!!!

After carefully watching my larval plants for several months (which felt like years!), I'm finally seeing caterpillars on them. 

There are monarch caterpillars on the milkweed,

black swallowtail caterpillars on the parsley,

gulf fritillary caterpillars on the maypop vines,

and - based on the foliage - probably phaon crescent caterpillars on the fogfruit. 

YEAH!!! My plants are starting to get ugly!  They are making butterflies!!!

As much as I love seeing the caterpillars, though, I find that I do cringe at how ragged my plants start to look at this point of the summer.  Not only is the heat taking a toll, the plants are so large that any dry spells can cause wilting and brown edges, even partial leaf drop.  By the time the caterpillars show up and start eating the leaves, the plants can start looking like I should yank them out of the garden at the first possible moment.

Of course I don't pull them out.  I chose and planted these plants especially as butterfly food.  Why would I pull them out just as they are starting to actually produce butterflies?  Even if I do "mentally hear" my neighbors gossiping about how ragged my garden is looking these days.

Honestly, couldn't these plants be a little NEATER and PRETTIER while they go through this stage of their life cycle?!

My own phrase for this is "Tolerate the uglies!"  Benjamin Vogt of Monarch Gardens shares the same concept with his phrase of "Redefine pretty."  In a world saturated with television ads showing happy, beautiful people in manicured yards that don't have a single tattered leaf or brown spot in the lawn, it feels subversive to allow caterpillars to actually eat the leaves on your plants.  Seriously, shouldn't this be done behind closed doors, people?!

To be even more subversive, this summer I've noticed that my monarch caterpillars seemed to purposefully deflower the milkweed they are feeding upon. 

First, mama monarch laid quite a few eggs underneath flower bud clusters, so the caterpillars have been eating the flowers and buds from the moment they hatched.

Secondly, as the caterpillars reached one of their later, larger instars, I noticed that 3 of them had cut the stem of the entire flower cluster partway through, resulting in the entire bloom head hanging upside down and dying.  Seriously, what's up with that?!  The only thing I can figure out is that, evolutionarily, this decreases the chances of parasites being attracted to the plant for nectar and thereby finding the caterpillar(s) nearby to host their offspring on.  I've never heard of this as a "thing" before, though, so I don't know if my imagination is just running away with me - or if, maybe, I'm on to something.  Any monarch researchers out there that might want to look into this idea?

Along the same lines, is it coincidence that the eggs were laid shortly after the buds started opening and the plants started blooming?  Evolutionarily, could it be that so many eggs were laid on these newly opening flower buds to decrease the overall numbers of blooms, decreasing the seed production, and thus moving the plant energies into leaf production, thereby providing more food for more baby monarchs?

Or is this egg placement just a way to hide the caterpillars until they get a little bigger and less attractive to wasps and other caterpillar parasites who might not care that they don't taste good?  See how well that monarch caterpillar is hidden?

Can you see it now???

How about now?  Pretty safe hiding place, isn't it?

WHY the timing and placement for egg laying?  Coincidence or evolutionary plan?  Inquiring minds want to know.

While I contemplate these possibilities, I meander my garden enjoying the new life chomping hungrily on my plants and try not to cringe at the blooms being cut short and the leaves disappearing in the process.  Life is a balance - and never more so than in a garden.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

A Recent Cast of Characters in My Gardens: Pollinators and Predators

With the initiation of several days of rain, it seems like a good time to share a few garden photos from the plethora I've taken over the last few weeks.  Since I'm obsessed with pollinators and other wildlife, that's what I'll generally be showing you!

Gaillardia (Gaillardia pulchella) brings in a lot of insect activity.  I have several pots of gaillardia on our back patio, as well as a few plants along the street by our mailbox.  Not surprisingly, most of my photos are from the plants I see most often - the ones near my back door.

This is a lousy photo, but I wanted to share the single bumble bee (Bombus sp.) I've seen in my gardens so far this summer.  Gaillardia is the ONLY flower I've seen her on so far.

A female monarch (Danaus plexippus) finally visited the yard for several days last week and she left several eggs behind.  Here's she's ovipositing on a swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) I planted a couple months ago.  I'm a "survival of the fittest" biologist, so I don't collect the eggs and raise the caterpillars inside;  I'm waiting to see if I see any caterpillars - this photo was taken on the 28th, so there should be a couple tiny babies out there munching away, but I haven't gone looking yet.  (Update:  my grandson and I went out in the rain this afternoon and found at least 3 tiny new monarch caterpillars!  Yeah!)

Ms. Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) here isn't a pollinator, but I love welcoming her and her relatives into the yard.  Every mosquito this mosquito hawk eats is a mosquito that doesn't bite me! Aren't her eyes particularly gorgeous?  The body of the male blue dasher is a beautiful powdery blue, but I've been seeing almost exclusively females lately.

This green treefrog (Hyla cinerea) seems to have decided that the outside corner of our gutter near the bright lights of the kitchen window makes a perfect home.  Over the past week, I've been seeing her (him?) frequently within just a few inches of this location.   Note:  nothing like a closeup photo to let you know the house badly needs a power washing!

Out front, the newly planted sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) has excited a lot of pollinator interest.  I shared the potter wasp and the 4 spotted scarab hunter wasp I've seen nectaring here in my recent post;  this is a carpenter-mimic leaf-cutter bee (Megachile xylocopoides) who also has seemed to enjoy the blooms. 

The deep velvet black of this bee's body and the iridescent blue-black of its wings are just stunning.  I wonder if this is the species that has been harvesting circles of dogwood leaves to make their nest cells waterproof?

Another little green treefrog was tucked away inside a Flyr's nemesis (Brickellia cordifolia), hoping against hope that I didn't actually see him as I looked around.  I let him pretend that I hadn't noticed him.....

With the spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata) beginning to bloom, I'm starting to see a little more activity in that section of the garden, including this small green anole (Anolis carolinensis).  I'm still not seeing many insects attracted to the spotted beebalm blossoms, but I did see a hummingbird feeding - even though I didn't have my camera with me so I could visually share with you.

Back to the anole for a moment, I've been seeing many tiny little green anoles for the last several weeks, which just makes me smile.  Obviously it's been a good year for anole love!

Another recent dragonfly visitor was the great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans), who perched on top of the poles in our tomato pots for a while - and was lucky enough (and good enough) to capture a passing moth shortly after I took the top photo.  Those big, black-spotted blue eyes aren't just for show!

Out front, enjoying the turkey tangle fogfruit (Phyla nodiflora), there's been the phaon crescent (Phyciodes phaon), nectaring - and possibly laying eggs, since fogfruit is their larval plant.  Note:  I don't know if this individual is a male or female.

The fogfruit has also attracted many other insects, including a female blue dasher dragonfly, a carpenter-mimic leaf-cutter bee, several  different species of wasps, bees, and flies.  In fact, the fogfruit is active enough that it's probably worth a post just by itself.  I just wish it looked a little more "gardeny"....

Anoles have been out in the front gardens as well as in the back.  Here was one haunting a summer phlox (Phlox paniculata) blossom.  Sometimes I wonder if I don't see huge numbers of pollinators because I DO see lots and lots of predators around the blooms - and I'm sure it's not a coincidence that they are hanging out there!

Speaking of predators, whether nymphs (like this one) or adults, I'm seeing quite a few milkweed assassin bugs (Zelus longipes) this summer.  I thought they were so-named because they were part of the milkweed community, but recent reading suggests their name comes from their coloration.  I've certainly seen them on many, many plants, not just on milkweed.

The clustered mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) in the back yard has brought in quite a few unusual (for my garden) pollinators.  Besides several wasp species, there is this grapeleaf skeletonizer moth (Harrisina americana) which has both a common name and a color pattern that make it a perfect Halloween animal.

Believe it or not, this small, colorful, Halloween themed moth, also nectaring on the mountain mint, is from the a group of moths known as bird dropping moths.  Yes, that's an actual common name for moths in the subfamily Acontiinae .  This moth goes by the hard-to-remember name of black-dotted spragueia moth (Spragueia onagrus)  and is an animal I've never seen before in my life.  Kudos to the helpful folks at for helping me identify this one!

Lacewing larvae, looking for all the world like prehistoric monsters or like some less glittery version of Tamatoa, the Crab, on Moana, are hard to see unless you look closely, but they are great allies in garden pest control.  This photo is blurry (the entire "mound" is barely 1/4" across and I wasn't using a tripod) but, if you look carefully, you can see the huge jaws under the front edge as well as a wing from one of its dinners right above the jaws.

In all, this lineup of characters from my garden highlights 6 garden predators (green anole, green treefrog, milkweed assassin bug, lacewing larva, blue dasher dragonfly, great blue skimmer dragonfly) and 6 pollinators (monarch, bumblebee, carpenter-mimic  leaf-cutter bee, phaon crescent butterfly, grapevine skeletonizer moth, and black-spotted spragueia moth).  During the 10 days that I photographed these animals, I saw many other animals, too.  Some, like the 5 species of wasps that I talked about in my last post, I've shared with you.  Others, like bluebirds, cardinals, bluejays, gray squirrels, chickadees, tufted titmice, house finch, mockingbirds, red-shouldered hawk, brown skinks, southern toads, and Eastern box turtle, I haven't shared.

How can anyone be happy with a statically "pretty" landscape, when a garden filled with wildlife changes minute by minute?!  I love the surprise of going out into my yard and meeting a new insect neighbor.  I love the pleasure of looking at a flower cluster and realizing that I'm looking into the eyes of a little lizard or camouflaged frog.  Each new animal I see adds a layer of richness to the world around me that delights and soothes me.  What an honor to be sharing my yard and gardens with all these other forms of life here on Earth.