Sunday, July 14, 2019

Life...

This hummer liked to sit on the glass snail that sits in the pot where the wrens built their nest.
I miss my little neighbors.

A month or two ago a pair of Carolina wrens built a nest cozied in between two plants in a large pot on our front porch. Within no time five little eggs occupied the nest, then five gaping mouths (that was all we could see of the babies in the deep nest). We anticipated watching the babies eventually fledge.

The plants in the pot started looking a bit ragged because I was afraid to water much. I didn't want to flood the nest, especially after the babies hatched. While we sat on our porch at meals, we watched the parents come with caterpillars or other tasty treats, then go again. Often they would perch on top of an iron sculpture at the corner of the porch and belt out a beautiful trill before flying off to go hunting.

Then one morning, a week ago, my husband went onto the front porch and saw the nest overturned and empty. The parents returned, screeching in anguish. It was heart-wrenching.

I know that feeling. A few years ago a cardinal pair built a nest in the bay tree on our front porch. I loved pulling back the shade a crack to look at the eggs, then the nestlings. But one day I looked out and the babies were gone. It must have just happened, because the parents returned and went into hysterics. It tore my heart out.

A year or two before that, cardinals nested in the bay tree. Only to lose the nestlings.

Life is hard for bird parents. It makes me wonder just how many bird babies actually make it out of the nest alive. After watching cardinal parents lose babies from their nests in the bay tree, I saw a cardinal nest tucked away at the top of the black raspberry brambles. It was difficult to see, even when I knew where to look. Surely these babies will fledge.

But, no. They too perished too soon.

Being so small and tasty and easy to capture, baby song birds are on many critters' dinner lists -- snakes, cats, raccoons, other birds. Even squirrels will eat birds from time to time, I recently learned.

Squirrels? No wonder one of the wren parents chittered with such concern when a squirrel was lurking about on our porch. I couldn't figure out why the wren was so concerned about a squirrel. It was as much of a mystery to as is what the silly squirrels like to do on our porch. Sometimes they seem to be licking the concrete. What?

Anyway, we figure the squirrel go the baby wrens, and a squirrel was possibly the culprit in taking out the cardinal babies.

How do song birds cope with losing their young so frequently? I guess they just build another nest and lay more eggs.

Life.

We've decided that if other birds start nest building on our front porch that we're going to prevent them by removing any nesting material they lay down. Maybe the birds have learned to cope with their frequent losses, but I don't think I can.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Abundance


This morning's harvest.

Four kinds of lettuce, peppermint, and nasturtiums, with a handful of snow peas underneath the peppermint.

The lettuce, nasturtiums and snow peas became salad, and the peppermint became cold tea. A refreshing summer repast.

This blog post comes to you courtesy of one of my followers (I have followers? Oh my!) who sent me a message yesterday wondering if I was all right. It's been March since my last posting, after all. (That long? Oh dear.)

I've had a lot of blog posts go through my head since then. So much happens in the garden from March through June. The poppies, purple cone flowers, lilies and yarrow were magnificent and still look lovely, even though they're moving past their prime. What's next?

In the spring my husband urged me to plant lettuce, lettuce and more lettuce. So I did, even adding another "even more lettuce." Now we have more lettuce than we know what to do with. Abundance.

Abundance came in other ways, such as a bumper crop of pie cherries. Cherries, cherries, and more cherries. Unfortunately, as it is with great wealth, I couldn't pick all the cherries before it was too late. We bought a cherry pitter, which significantly speeded up that process. But with everything else to do, I just couldn't get them all and many cherries rotted on the tree. What I did harvest will be held preciously.

We also have apricots. Just the ones I've gathered off the ground were more than we've gotten in all nine years since I planted the tree. Somehow those left in the tree are disappearing. Either they're being eaten as soon as they fall to the ground, or someone is stealing them from the tree. Hmmm....

This week I'll be picking cabbages. Lots of cabbages. Sauerkraut, stir fry, roasted cabbage "steaks," the possibilities are endless. No babies in the cabbage patch yet. (Does anyone continue that fairytale?) Yesterday I started a batch of green sauerkraut. In a day or two I'll start red cabbage sauerkraut. So looking forward to it.

Bonus lily photo.
The peppermint is going crazy. I'm actually managing to dry up a bunch of herbs -- peppermint, tulsi, sage, oregano, etc. -- to use for tea and cooking. I don't always manage that. With so many tasks to do I am easily distracted.

We've also had an abundance of rain this summer. May was drenching. Our pond filled again, for the first time in a few years. June was much drier on my hilltop, but dropped six inches of rain over three days last week. The forecast looks a bit more "normal" for the coming week, hot and drier but with a slight chance of rain, which if it comes will fall in torrents with lots of nature's fireworks to rival the human-made ones. The early rain kept me out of the garden, but encouraged the weeds. Weeds, weeds, weeds, and abundance of weeds. I'm weeding, weeding, and weeding. What to do today? Weed or pick cabbages or trim raspberries or climb the tree and get the last of the apricots? Oh look, the peaches are turning.

Better get to them before the squirrels do.

Up next, elderberries and summer apples. And starting cabbages (again?) and other vegetables for the fall garden.

Because I promised readers of my newspaper column, here are some links to gardening guides. From Seed Savers Exchange . The K-State Research and Extension Garden Guide.

Enjoy.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Spring... a Tentative Step

Juniper contemplating the disappearing snow less than a week ago. She thinks spring is on its way.
The snow has disappeared -- except for a tiny patch where we piled snow scooped from in front of our garage.

The snow is gone, as are single digit temperatures (please, please, please). The winter aconite survived the minus 3 degrees Fahrenheit while blanketed in snow.

The snow is gone, but the yellow flowers remain, looking much like sunshine bubbling out of the earth. A quick look today revealed the yellowed tips of daffodil blades, spiky crocus leaves, and the tips of surprise lily leaves.

Yesterday and today I walked barefoot in the garden. Where the sun shone, the ground was warm enough. But ice remains in the ground where shade lies all day. It will be gone soon, though, soon.

I've been able to set my baby cabbages, broccoli, and other spring vegetable transplants on the front porch to harden off. With good fortune we'll have a run of dry sunny weather before the end of March so I can set them in the ground. A few days ago I started peppers and eggplants. Sometime this week I'll start tomatoes. Maybe I'll even plant peas in the garden later this week when it clears off, briefly.

We've started buying our wood for next winter. With luck, the wood we bought last year will last through the cold weather this spring.

It is spring. It feels like spring. The birds say it's spring, and the calendar says spring begins next week. I'll take it. Finally. I hope.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Prairie Posting: Native Resiliency

Blue sage, a native salvia, waves beautiful blossoms in the tallgrass prairie in late summer.
I grew up on the eastern edge of the Flint Hills, probably the largest expanse of virgin tallgrass prairie left in existence. The prairie is home to me, it's part of who I am. Even though I don't live in the midst of tallgrass prairie now, restoring and preserving a tiny piece of prairie near my home feels essential.

At one time, before European settlers began plowing, the central portion of North America, up into Canada, was covered in tallgrass prairie, with medium and shortgrass prairies covering dryer parts of the region. Little of that virgin prairie remains. In some states, less than 5 percent of the original prairie still stands. Kansas, however, has a large portion of the remaining prairie.

Most likely, what saved much of this tallgrass prairie is the terrain. Too rocky and hilly to make good cropland, it was, and still is, ideal for pasturing livestock. Large herds of grazing animals -- bison, elk, deer, and others -- served as a major force in preventing the prairies from being overtaken by woody plants and turning into woodlands. Along with the grazers, periodic fires pushed out the woody plants. At some point, the indigenous people of this land learned to use fire to their advantage, as the succulent growth that followed a prairie fire drew these grazers that provided food, skins, bones for tools, and other resources. And the excrement and urine of these animals fed the prairie plants, creating a lush grassland.
Butterfly on a butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa

The prairies aren't just grasses, though. They also contain many, many species of forbs, better known to you as "wildflowers," that fed adult and larval forms of the thousands of species of native insects. Many factors, including the loss of habitats containing native plant species, have significantly reduced the number of native insect populations.

The loss of insect populations is quite obvious to me. At one time, when I went driving at night the front end of my car would become crusted with the smashed corpses of insects that jumped or flew into my path. I no longer need to scrub that crust off the car, regardless of how often I drive at night.

Great! You might be thinking. No more bugs!

But hold on a minute. Insects are the foundation of any ecosystem, as they are at the bottom of the food chain. A dramatic drop in the insect population creates a great loss in populations of creatures that depend upon them for sustenance -- birds, frogs, toads, other amphibians and small reptiles, and birds. Oh. Did I say "birds" twice?

Many people might not care much for amphibians and reptiles (and many do), but birds, now... that's a different story. Why else would people spend so much time and money on bird feeders and bird food? Those sunflower seeds you feed them certainly helps survival, especially in hard winters, but birds need insects. That's their source of protein for their young. They don't feed chicks sunflower seeds, they feed them insects.

"Most caterpillars don't turn into butterflies and moths," said Betsy Betros, entomologist, "they turn into birds."

A pair of mated chickadees must hunt down 10,000 caterpillars in order to raise one clutch of chicks, Betros said during a recent panel discussion on "Native Plants for a Resilient Kansas." A more conservative estimate by author Douglas Tallamy (who was not on the recent panel), who wrote "Bringing Nature Home," was 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars. That's still a lot of caterpillars to raise five to 10 chicks. And black-capped chickadees are tiny birds. Imagine how many bugs it takes to raise a clutch of larger birds.
Echinacea paradoxa

The value of these birds goes beyond delighting us with their antics at feeders and their love songs. They also serve as food for larger birds -- owls, hawks, eagles -- as well as some mammals. All creatures eventually become food for something, be it vultures and other scavengers, or microorganisms. A significant decrease in populations of critters at the bottom of the food chain means decreasing numbers of critters all the way up the food chain. Except for humans. It seems we keep reproducing and growing in numbers in spite of all the signs that we should stop.

And then there are the native pollinators -- mostly insects here -- who are responsible for keeping the wildflower and food populations going. Bees, not just honeybees (which are not native here), are the most critical pollinators. With dire predictions of the potential collapse of the beautiful Monarch butterfly, everyone is planting milkweeds. But we need to do more to sustain all other native pollinators. While some of the non-native flowering plants we put in our garden will provide food for some of our native pollinators, our native plants attract a much larger variety of these insects.

Many insects -- particularly moths and butterflies -- use only one genera of plants as food for their caterpillars. For example, the Monarch's preference is for milkweed species. My common milkweed plants get eaten to the bone by larvae of the Monarch butterfly and the Tufted Tiger Moth. But that's the point. We need nurseries for the young, not just nectar and pollen sources. Native pollinating insect adults also seem to prefer pollen and nectar from native plants.

Plant native flowers. Save the world. Or at least save the insects... which amounts to the same thing. STOP USING INSECTICIDES. Provide habitat. Many of our native bees nest deep in the soil, an adaptation to survive prairie fires. Support organizations, such as the Kaw Valley Native Plant Coalition, and Grassland Heritage Foundation, and others that work to preserve and restore native prairies. They and others also are great sources of information on what natives to grow.

To learn more about various insects, check out Bug Guide by Iowa State University. This page is all about dragonflies and their relatives. Look for Betros's new book, "A Photographic Field Guide to the Butterflies in the Kansas City Regions." The more you know about insects, the more you'll love them.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Beneath the Snow... Spring

A week ago I found these beauties blooming in the garden. 

Winter aconite is always one of the first things to show up in late winter/early spring. During a winter when it seems that spring is never going to come, I was delighted to find these unopened buds. I wondered how they would fare with the bitter cold that was in the forecast.

This morning the digital readout said minus 3 -- that's Fahrenheit. Minus 3 on March 4; must be a record.

Snow covers the winter aconite now, so it should be safe from the deep cold. Snow creates great insulation against anything colder than the freezing point. So I'm pretty sure these yellow beings have survived. I don't know if they were fully opened before the snow fell, most likely.

I'm anxious to see the snow melt and find out how these lovelies fared.

I'm anxious to see the snow melt.

I am ready for spring.

And it's here.

Underneath the snow.

Spring.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Indoor Gardens: 5b Gnat Notes and a Loose End or Two

Summer Dreams
Looking at the forecast, which contains snow and below freezing temps beyond March 1, I'm beginning to wonder when the outdoor gardening will commence. So I'm happy to have stuff growing inside. But some of it must go outdoors sometime. I'm grateful for the moisture we've had, yet I would like to see the temperature going up a bit more.

So, about the indoor gardening. After I finished my last post, I realized I'd forgotten to mention a couple of things about fungus gnats, and thought I'd update another thing or two.

One way to keep fungus gnats in check, when the population is small, is to use cider vinegar. Put a quarter inch to half inch of cider vinegar in a glass, add a drop of liquid soap, then stretch a piece of plastic wrap across the top. Poke a few small holes in the plastic and place near the fungus gnat infestation. Fungus gnats are related to fruit flies and will be attracted to the vinegar, where they will drown. Wine works, as well.

Sticky traps also are a way to check infestations of fungus gnats and other small flying pests. You can buy yellow sticky traps, or supplies to make them, from most garden supply places. Flying pests are attracted to yellow for some reason. Or you can make your own sticky traps with strips of yellow paint chips from the paint store and petroleum jelly, according to one Web site. So I tried it. I didn't have yellow paint chips, and had no plans to hit the paint department anywhere, but I do have some yellow cardstock, and the petroleum jelly was cheap at a discount store.

But stick with the actual sticky traps. The petroleum jelly didn't work. I even saw a gnat land on it, walk a few steps and fly away. Now I have a jar of petroleum jelly and no use for it. Meh.

As part of my strategy against both fungus gnats and damping off disease I purchased a different type of potting mix, a "soiless" mix. It would be looser and dryer than the potting soil I'd been using for the microgreens, I thought.

Well, that is indeed true. However, the microgreens did not sprout as thickly as they had before and are growing rather slowly. The stuff is apparently too dry and has no nutrition. The microgreens I planted a week later in the old potting soil sprouted thickly and are about the same size as the ones planted earlier. So, another "meh." I'm going back to the old mix and just keeping up the gnat strategy -- gnategy?

More snow and freezing drizzle this week. Sigh.
Stay safe out there.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Gardening Indoors 5: Gnatty Problem

Houseplants are a great addition to the decorating scheme.
They're baaaaaaack. (Violin going "screeech screeech screeech")

Those naughty gnats have returned. Fortunately, not in the numbers they had before. I have a plan; I am prepared.

After we had our microgreens going for a month or two, we noticed a proliferation of tiny black fly-things swooping up from the soil every time we cut microgreens. I'd seen these things before, hovering about the houseplants, but never in large numbers, so I wasn't ever concerned about them. However, they came up almost in clouds out of the microgreens.

I thought I knew what they were, but still I pulled out my organic gardening reference book, and did some online searches.

Yep, I was right. Fungus gnats.

Most of the info I found indicated that fungus gnats weren't a problem, although some said that they could nibble on plant roots, etc. But none of the information I found caused me concern. The fungus gnats were an annoyance, nothing more (so I thought, trying to avoid taking any action).

However, some of the microgreens started falling over, or not germinating at all. Damping off disease. (See my post from 2/4/19) The gnats could be transmitting damping off disease while hopping from one container to another. On top of that the weekly Horticulture Newsletter from Kansas State University Extension said that fungus gnats do cause damage. They won't really do harm to my mature houseplants, partly because they're so tiny and the plants are big. Because of the conditions the fungus gnats require, they don't proliferate to extremes in the larger pots, either.

But they are an issue for tiny, vulnerable seedlings, like my microgreens, and now my seedling transplants (see last post). And it was in the microgreens where they proliferated most.

Because... fungus gnats need moist soil conducive to fungal growth (which they eat as larvae and maybe as adults). One way to keep them under control in regular size houseplants is to always let at least the top two inches of soil dry out between waterings. Easy enough. You can't do that with microgreens, though, which have only an inch of soil to begin with. If I tried letting it dry out completely I'd end up with a bunch of withered seedlings -- damping off or no damping off, fungus gnats or no fungus gnats.

Drastic measures were needed. So I harvested all the microgreens and removed the soil-filled trays, planting no more microgreens. I purchased Mosquito Bits (like Bacon Bits that are not made of actual bacon, they do not contain actual mosquitoes). The Mosquito Bits contain a biologic toxin Bt, but not the same variation of Bt that I spray on my cabbages against the various butterfly and moth larvae that eat them. MB contains Bacillus thuringiensis var. israelensis, which not only kills mosquito larvae but also fungus gnat larvae.

Other products with Bt-i are Gnatrol and Knock-Out Gnats. The Gnatrol I found only in large quantities. It took some searching to find it available in anything less than a 16-pound bucket for more than $400. I had trouble finding Knock-Out Gnats. The Mosquito Bits were $19 for 30 ounces, which should last a little while. You might even be able to find them at a hardware store.

So I put the MB on the soil in my larger potted plants and watered to release the Bt. I didn't want to put it on the microgreens soil because they are only a couple of inches tall when you harvest, and so close to the soil. Bt is pretty safe as insecticides go, but I'd rather keep the greens clean. So we had no microgreens for two weeks. The gnats disappeared. The microgreen operation started back up. We started seeing a gnat here and there, so I reapplied the Mosquito Bits, and I keep a spray bottle of Safer Insecticidal Soap in the plant room. Whenever we see a gnat doing an aerial display we grab the bottle of soap and squirt, praying we actually hit it. The soap only works on contact when it's wet. Once it dries, no luck.

The gnats disappear quickly, so we can only guess where to spray. We coat the leaves in the area we saw the gnat to increase our odds. We don't spray the microgreens or the baby cabbages because insecticidal soap can damage seedlings.

The tactic is working, but requires diligence and repeat applications.

Other products also help to prevent fungus gnats. One product is essentially ground up glass that you spread in a half-inch or so layer over the entire soil surface creating a barrier to the gnats so they can't lay eggs or eat roots. Pretty much anything that creates such a barrier would work. My first reaction to the glass was "no way." But I would maybe consider it for a larger potted plant that won't be repotted often. However, it's not cheap. So I'll stick with my current program.

Fungus gnats. There are worse pests to have and shouldn't be an issue with ordinary houseplants. But if you've got microgreens or are starting transplants, don't ignore them. Don't be like me.