• 07Sep

    I can’t rave enough about hairy vetch. I need to get going ASAP and order seeds to plant for fall!

    It’s a legume (adds nitrogen to the soil) and a good cover crop. In spring, you can do a variety of things with it: til it into the soil for a green manure, mow it and use as a good mulch, or do what I do: leave it.

    It brings the ladybugs in like crazy (plus bees and other good creatures), it’s pretty as all get out, and it really keeps the weeds down. I’m going to plant it in every bare spot this fall, including on top of lasagna starts, and I expect to have few weeds in spring. In every spot I planted, hardly a weed at all.

    Then I simply plant “into” the vetch, making a little spot for plants (and making sure they have enough room and sun), and that’s it. In mid summer, it dies back into a good mulch and continues the weed suppression.

    You can get hairy vetch seeds at some seed stores, but Johnny’s has it, and they have it in small quantities. I think I’ll probably just get a pound. The seed store kind of laughed when I bought one pound, but I don’t farm hundreds of acres. I must be the only one buying it, because they haven’t had it in stock the last year or so.

    Johnny’s also has the inoculant, which I’ve never used. I’m thinking I’ll try that this year. You’re supposed to use it to get the nitrogen going. So I think I’ll add some nitrogen back into the soil.

    My other rave is kaolin clay, marketed for the home gardener as Surround WP. I bought five pounds last year (I think from Gardens Alive?) and only used it mid season this year. Next year, I’ll be using it from day one. It’s fun to spray, kind of cool looking when it dries, and it really stopped the flea beetles immediately.

    But everything I’ve read about it seems to suggest using it early in the season to confuse and repel bad guys. My problem bugs are cucumber beetles, leafhoppers and squash vine borers. So that’s going to be my main bug warrior (besides my beneficials) for next year.

    I have lots of big changes planned for 2009, including new, raised beds. I’ll be obsessing about it all winter long and spending too much time on the seed company websites.

  • 07Sep

    If these eggs aren’t the coolest thing ever, I don’t know. These are green lacewing eggs, and they hang on the little threads to keep them from eating one another when they hatch.

    Lacewing larvae look like funny little alligators, then turn into pretty green lacewings. The larvae are also called aphid lions, because they devour aphids. I am still amazed that one day, my butterfly weed was just covered in oleander aphids, the next day…gone. The lacewings and ladybugs had an end-of-summer feast.

    Here’s a creepy grasshopper that wouldn’t stop looking at me while I photographed the eggs. I probably should have killed him, but I didn’t have the heart for it.

    Am I the only person in the world who now LIKES the aphids? Instead of pests, I’ve begun to view these guys as food for my friends.

    These red aphids moved in as I was taking pictures, and then a few ladybug larvae marched on in and ate them.

  • 03Sep

    Wow! A few days ago I found the most unusual eggs on my butterfly weed. Little tiny white eggs, hanging from little hair-like threads. They were in perfect alignment, in rows, as if a little perfect army of warriors, waiting to hatch.

    My digital camera doesn’t take great pictures of tiny things like that, so I use my good equipment. But that’s film, which means I have to get it developed. I did get some pictures of the eggs, though and will post when I do. They’re cool. I had to google to find out what on earth they were.

    Oddly enough, the first year I went organic I bought lacewing eggs from Planet Natural. I didn’t know what I was doing, so they weren’t really appropriate for my problem of cucumber beetles and leafhoppers. But I followed the instructions, let them hatch into tiny little larvae, then pranced around and sprinkled my “fairy dust.” It was crazy good fun. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 01Sep

    The spined soldier bug is one of the most coveted beneficial insects in the garden, preying on over 100 kinds of insects. I’ve now tragically discovered they also like my younger monarch caterpillars. Fortunately, other monarchs survived and they’ve all left now to become butterflies. I always miss them when they leave.

    Any time you read about beneficial insects, the spined soldier bug is at the top of the list. You can buy eggs for about a hundred dollars. That’s a little more than I’m willing to spend on 250 eggs.

    One plant that is said to attract them: goldenrod. In fact, some people actually go to meadows in the fall to try and find one of these bugs on a goldenrod, then take it back to their gardens. Some people even take them inside and raise them.

    Soldier bug nursery

    So last year I bought and planted a goldenrod. It’s in a different garden, so I don’t know if it had anything to do with my soldier bug. I had been seeing a stink bug, and spined soldier bugs look like your plain old stink bug. I cannot tell them apart. I made the decision to leave that stink bug in case it might be a soldier bug, because one stink bug isn’t going to cause much plant damage. (Part of my philosophy is to not worry about bad bugs as long as there are just a few. The exception would be bugs that transmit disease, particularly my nemesis the cucumber beetle.)

    That stink bug did turn out to be the spined soldier bug, so I made the right decision.

    Despite what I like to call “The Monarch Murder,” I’d like him to stick around and make himself at home.

  • 01Sep

    A week ago, I was checking on my caterpillars and my butterfly weed was loaded with monarch cats, along with the usual bug universe. Such diversity!

    I saw one of my cats hanging from a leaf, just dangling in the air. I thought he might have gotten tangled in a leaf fiber or something and wondered if I could help him. I thought I could untangle him and place him back on a leaf.

    And then pure horror!

    It was not a leaf fiber, it was the killer harpoon mouth part from a spined soldier bug. They kill by stabbing their prey with the harpoon, and releasing a chemical that paralyzes it, then they suck all of the delicious juices from the body.

    My heart just sank. I wondered if I could rescue the caterpillar, but the spined soldier bug looks mean and I decided not to go to battle with him. I spend too much time in that garden, in the plants, and he might hold a grudge. So I ran to the house to grab my camera instead.

    There was a strong breeze, so I had difficulty getting the picture. It’s not good, but you can see quite the food chain. You can’t really see the spined soldier bug (I can, but I know he’s there…hidden in the leaves). The sadness is the caterpillar hanging from the tongue of death. And if you look carefully, you can see a blur of a ladybug on her way to eat some aphids. On top is what I believe to be a katydid wasp.

    This next picture was a moment later, and both the spined soldier bug and the caterpillar were GONE.

    I surmise one of three things happened:

    1. The wasp, which does eat katydids and other insects, ate them in the moments I was forwarding the film and training the lens back on the plant.
    2. When the wasp landed, it created enough thud that it knocked the spined soldier bug and his prey off the plant into the ground (I did look, but didn’t find them).
    3. The spined soldier bug, seeing the wasp, took his food and got the heck out of there when he saw the wasp.

    It was both traumatic and exciting to witness this bit of Mother Nature. It just hadn’t occurred to me that there might be some predators who would eat my precious monarch cats. I work so hard in that area to make a nice, inviting home for monarchs and other butterflies that I have little feelings for them. Not as much as I love my cats, but I do care, and I stroke the caterpillars as they feed, hoping they’ll remember me when they return as butterflies. They don’t seem to mind, and I have to say that I always have at least one butterfly who will frolic with me and sometimes land on my finger.

    Here’s a better picture of a spined soldier bug (actually a pair of them – tag team) sucking on a caterpillar. More on the spined soldier bug in my next post.

  • 26Aug

    As promised, I’ve uploaded some of my beetle sex photos into the photo area. Clickie on the picture for a better view.

    This was the day I was invaded by Japanese beetles. I’d had about one per day and was hand picking them and putting them into the “Can O’ Death,” which is a coffee can with soapy water. By the end of the invasion, it was smelling pretty funky.

    So on this day, two Japanese beetles were coupling and I said “Wow.” I just never thought about bugs doing it, and it was bizarre in an interesting way. Before I finished saying wow, more came and landed in a sex pile. When I took this picture, there were five in the pile, and Mr. Studly marching to join in. All but one entered the Can O’ Death, and the other one got away. Hopefully to tell his friends to stay away.

    And then here are two pink spotted ladybugs having sex. What was so interesting about this was that the one on bottom just kept on trucking, headed for the aphid patch. I’m assuming the one on bottom was the female. Apparently the male was a lot more interested, and she just wanted something to eat. She crawled all over the plant with that guy on top of her. These are my favorite ladybugs because of their color.

  • 22Jul

    I was just taking some goods to the compost pile, and I’m constantly drawn to my back butterfly garden. The Cinderella butterfly weed is enormous, it’s blooming, and I’ve even had a monarch already. I’m watching for my caterpillars, but no sign of any yet.

    But I’ve never seen so many bees in my life. They just love that butterfly weed. I don’t remember last year being like that. I counted 15 big bumblebees (the velvety kind) and many more other assorted bees of various kinds. And one big wasp. I’ve got to get some pictures so I can identify the many bees. I put my face probably an inch away from these guys to get good looks, and I’ve never been stung. (I’ve been stung stepping on bees, but that’s it.) Either I’m the bee whisperer or bees really won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. Heck, I bother them and they don’t sting me. (But no swatting…I just like close looks and squeals of joy.)

    I’m afraid the bees may be working on those plants and neglecting my melons, though. I have zillions of blooms, but haven’t seen one melon yet. I plan to hand pollinate tomorrow and try to get some going.

    So I was admiring the bees (and the fact that rain evidently washed away a lot of the aphids) and a flutter. Just inches away from my face was a golden little bird. I thought a goldfinch, but it may have been a golden oriole. I’m not sure, and probably won’t be sure unless I can see it again and get a picture.

    I gasped from excitement and he flew away, so I headed back to the house. As I walked by the vegetable garden, there he was, with a friend! Two of them. Sitting on tomato stakes. I just don’t think I’ve ever seen birds that yellow before, and I’ve seen many goldfinches. (They like my sunflowers, though I don’t have any growing this year.) For a second, I thought someone’s pet birds got loose…that’s how striking these birds were.

    I’m also starting to see hummingbirds, in my butterfly garden (kak supriz), and at the feeder.

    It is so incredibly ironic that it took moving FROM the country to suburbia to find the joy in the birds.

    There are few things I like about the burbs, and bird watching is one thing. The other things include: DSL, cable TV, pizza delivery and being able to run to the store for a candy bar.

    Everything else sucks. You can take the girl out of the country, but you can never take the country out of the girl. I’ll never stop missing it.

  • 16Jul

    Yeah, the first monarch has arrived! And she was a beauty. She visited the lantana, butterfly bush, butterfly weed and a couple of other things, and she was fairly friendly. My monarchs have almost become like pets to me. They brighten my mood, no matter what.

    I hope she laid some eggs.

    Then I saw THE BIGGEST ladybug ever. She was huge. Those oleander aphids must be good eating.

    Unfortunately last night I saw a cucumber beetle, on the melons. (Not watermelons, but some kind of Israeli melon and some other round melon I’ve forgotten. I misplaced my ananas melon seeds from last year darnit.) He was too fast for me (and I even tried to catch him barehanded) and flew away. I searched and searched but never did find him. I hope he hasn’t given wilt to my melons and cucumbers. My county fair cukes are the only cuke resistant to that wilt, which cucumber beetles transmit. If it wasn’t for that disease, I wouldn’t be so terrified of these bugs. But with one dirty bite they can wipe out a crop, and I’ve had it happen several times.

    So today I’m spraying things with Kaolin Clay, which is a clay used in makeup and other things. Very safe stuff. It makes a barrier on the plants and the bugs find it bad tasting and sticks to their little feet. However, reading the instructions, I should have sprayed a couple of weeks ago. Bummer. So we’ll just see how it all goes and hope I’m not too late.

    I had to water, so I’m waiting for the water to dry off a bit before spraying. The company says it’s totally safe for bees, but I worry that if I spray any blooms, will it make it distasteful for them? Actually this stuff doesn’t kill anything, just makes it taste bad and difficult to eat. They apparently have been using it quite successfully in orchards.

    It’s hard to find in smaller sizes since it’s made for orchards. But GardensAlive.com has it in five-pound bags. That’s the only place I know of where you don’t have to spend a hundred bucks and buy 25 pounds. However, with shipping, it’s about 35 bucks, but if you search around the net, you can find coupons for your first order at Gardens Alive, and they have other great things too. That’s what I did last year, and then didn’t even use the product. (Didn’t need it, but so glad I’ve got it now!)

    I’m not spraying any of the butterfly plants. They don’t need it, plus I keep everything pristine on those plants, for my monarchs. I just wipe off some aphids now and then with a gloved hand (it’s gross and the aphid guts stain your fingers).

    Oh, and I had two more Japanese beetles having sex on the butterfly bush. Got em. They’re now floating in the coffee can of Japanese beetle bodies. As it turns out, it’s better to catch them coupling because they’re too busy with that to see me coming. The good news is even though I’m finding two or three a day, they aren’t doing any major damage.

  • 02Jul

    Holy cow, I had gone out to upright the potted chicory that had blown over and noticed a number of ladybugs on the butterfly weed. That made me happy, because I removed most of the oleander aphids the other day, but left a few for the ladybugs and other beneficials.

    I was particularly interested in two ladybugs that were apparently coupling. I don’t know what else they could have been doing for crying out loud. I seem to come up on a lot of bug sex, probably because I’m so into seeing what bugs I have. I suppose the female was on bottom and the man was on top (I did get pictures…lol, but have to get the film developed). Then they began to travel up and down the leaves…and she carried that other guy on her back as she moved around. It was the oddest thing.

    So I’m enjoying the mating ladybugs and some others, then there was a big fat bumblebee I enjoyed. He was taking in the last of the nectar from the Mexican Bush Sage.

    Then I look up and there’s a small Japanese beetle on my butterfly weed. Oddly enough, just yesterday someone asked me if I’d seen any this year and I said no. I guess I jinxed that!

    I’m keeping a latex dishwashing glove tucked under a plant out back to use on the aphids. It’s such a juicy process that I didn’t want the aphid guts leaking through a garden glove, hence the latex. But I was barefoot, so couldn’t step on the Japanese beetle. That’s what I’ve done in the past, then I display the body in the garden. Supposedly that sends out a message to the others that it’s dangerous, go somewhere else.

    I ran all the way back to the house (and luckily didn’t step ON a bee) because I had a small coffee can with dish soap water that I’d used for the aphids. I was pondering where to dump it, because squooshing them with gloved fingers was a lot more efficient than swiping with a Qtip and then dumping that in the can.

    I got the can, ran back to the butterfly weed and I’ll be darned if there weren’t TWO Japanese beetles. And they were having the sex! It was cute when it was ladybugs. Not cute when it’s those nasty Japanese beetles. They’re kind of pretty with their metallic green, but they do damage.

    What’s worse is that when you see your first one, you need to pick it quickly, kill it and put the body on display. That first one is a scout and he sends out a scent to let the others know to join the party. I’m frantically trying to get that gross rubber glove on my hand (gross because it’s now stained with the remains of orange aphids against yellow rubber) and all of a sudden….more Japanese beetles. They’re just flying in and landing with their friends!

    It was a pile of Japanese beetles. It looked like they were all just having lots of sex, but maybe they just land in a pile like that. It was horrific, whatever the process. I got my glove on, got my can of soapy water and scraped them in. And those little buggers were trying to climb out, so I had to shake the can to drown them.

    It was awful and traumatic and I guess there were six or seven of these guys. Now the coffee can with floating dead Japanese beetles is displayed next to the butterfly weed patch. It’s not attractive, but I’m hoping the message gets back to the clan. Stay away or the gloved monster lady will add you to the can.

    And I guess this officially means tansy doesn’t do squat in keeping them away. Last year I saw my very first Japanese beetle – MUNCHING on the tansy. It’s supposed to repel them, and he was eating it. He was the guy that ended up on display. And I’ve got two tansy plants near the butterfly weed.

    The nice thing about these beetles is that they’re easy to hand pick. I just hope I don’t see an attack like that again. It was really freaky and made me frantic.

  • 18Jun

    I have a lot of different butterfly weeds in my back garden, and one species gets aphids that only feed on that, and on oleander. They’re yellow or orange, and really not a big deal. You can swipe them off with your fingers and squoosh them, or blast them off with a spray of water. Often, they don’t return.

    aph.jpg

    But who likes aphids? Why, the ladybugs do! So I was pondering whether or not to bother with getting rid of some of the aphids and I saw a ladybug having a feast. It really made me feel like my organic gardening had come full circle. One of the goals is to plant things that attract beneficial insects, who then feed on insects and larvae that can damage your plants.

    It’s one thing to plant all of these things, and see the beneficials fluttering around, but to actually see one at work, doing what you wanted her to do? It was so exciting – I was witnessing the whole plan in action. Letting Mother Nature keep things in balance. Then I saw a baby ladybug, probably just beyond the larval stage. Ladybug larvae are freaky looking, like colorful tiny alligators.

    So for now, unless they really get out of control, I’ve decided to let the aphids be. They don’t bother any other plant, and they’ve never caused any damage on the butterfly weed. To be honest, I think the clusters of them are kind of pretty. (Until you zoom in and see those freaky little black legs.)