• 07Sep

    This is a long, photo-heavy post of what’s been going on in my gardens. I’ll put the photos behind the cut.

    It’s been feeling like fall is in the air. I’m not ready yet, but I feel this way every year. I always see so many fruits that just aren’t going to make it by the time first frost arrives. It’s not over yet of course. Our first frost average is mid to late October, and this year, I have row covers that I plan to use to try and extend my season.

    BTW, you can buy row cover material by the foot at Pinetree Seeds. I bought four dollars worth so I could try it out. If I like it, I’ll buy more next year. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 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.

  • 27Aug

    The caterpillars are hatching, butterflies are coupling in my gardens and it’s my big reminder why I went 100 percent organic.

    I keep a stack a pot filled with herbs on the back deck so that when we need them for cooking, all we have to do is step out the kitchen back door and harvest.

    But I plant lots of herbs in every garden for companions and extra parsley and dill for swallowtail cats. They’re sometimes called parsley worms and can eat a parsley plant overnight. The solution to that is to plant several – some for them, some for you.

    I was just spraying a new batch of hearty compost tea, after accidentally plugging up the sprayer, and there’s a large dill plant next to a tomato plant. I started to spray, and then saw them. Several cats of varying sizes, but none were full grown.

    I rushed to my “butterfly garden” and saw the monarch cats were hatching! They’re all over the place. It just doesn’t take much in my garden to make me giddy.

    Getting so heavily into gardening again has really helped my mental health. When I’m working outside, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Just me, my bugs and my plants. And occasionally one of the cats, when he gets a special treat. (Indoor cats, but he’s so behaved I let him out with me in the gardens now and then, but the other kitty has to be sleeping or she throws a fit. I would too.)

  • 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.

  • 16May

    Update: The clay balls were a disaster. The little cat who must dig in everything scooped them all out and before I knew it, was playing in them as if they were a pile of mice. It was the biggest mess. So back to square one; I guess next I’m going to try a soiI-free pad thing I saw online.

    End of update.

    I had a great day at the organic store and not only got my guano, but I also got some earthworm castings and some little clay balls. Those are some kind of hydroponic thing (so far, every organic store I’ve gone to specializes in hydroponics), but I’m going to use them to grow cat grass. One of our cats gets frantic around any kind of soil or soil-like substance (like coir) and digs like a dog until she’s torn it all up. This is why I can’t have any live, reachable houseplants in the house, and it’s why she can’t go to the basement.

    I just hope she doesn’t think they’re balls to roll on the floor. We’ll see.

    Then while I was out that way, I went to a nursery I’d never visited, and was…disappointed. Big time. They had a nice website, and it looked a lot bigger than it is in person. I may be spoiled by the greenhouse near me that has acres of greenhouses.

    Anyway, this place had a listing of the available plants, and they had good prices it seemed. (And same supplier as “my” greenhouse, but half the price) First off, they *didn’t* have what I wanted, despite having said they have several varieties of a plant I want. Second, the lady I asked barely knew what a petunia was. Seriously, she was NEW to the gardening world. And anyone who might know where certain things were, or if they had them, was either off for the day, or on an errand.

    Third, their Asclepias incarnata plants were infested with aphids. Those little orange buggers were hopping around and having a blast. To be fair, these aphids aren’t a big deal and as far as I know, only go after this plant. If you grow it, you’ll get the aphids; it’s almost a certainty unless you live on Mars.

    On the other hand, all it takes is a blast of the water sprayer to get rid of them. I’ve never had them come back after one squirt. Perhaps it’s not unusual for a nursery to allow aphids on the Asclepias? I’ve never seen it before, but I actually only started growing this variety of Asclepias last year. (Successfully from seed, but this year, my seed didn’t germinate. I do think I have some growing in the ground…I’m not 100 percent sure. Crossing my fingers, though.)

    I got the aphids last year and got excited, thinking they were monarch eggs. They actually look delicious, like caviar. Every time I see a picture of the aphids, I get hungry for some caviar. Is that icky or what?

    But check it out: aphids on the left, salmon caviar on the right. And the aphids don’t always move around. That’s why I thought they were eggs at first.

    Aphids or Caviar?

    Here is Asclepias incarnata in bloom, mid summer:

    Asclepias incarnataAsclepias incarnata

  • 16May

    I’ve got to run a few errands today, so also planning on heading to the organic garden store, which is a thirty-minute drive (not so many miles, just heavy traffic). And then by a nursery I’ve never gone to before. Their website says they have Joe Pye weed, which the butterflies allegedly love.

    I thought I bought some at the herb festival, but I ended up with a tansy I didn’t know was in my box (I already have a HUGE tansy that I plan to divide – it hosts beneficial insects plus supposedly wards off the evil cucumber beetle and other baddies). Either I accidentally grabbed a tansy at the festival instead of a Joe Pye, or someone swapped when I’d set my box down. (The festival was a real madhouse.)

    This nursery has Joe Pye, plus a variety of butterfly weeds. My first summer gardening here I planted a butterfly weed. It was a lark – there were clearance herbs at a nursery for a quarter each and I bought some things I’d never grown. A scraggly little butterfly weed was among those plants, and it grew into the most beautiful bush.

    The monarchs moved in, and that’s when I fell in love with the butterflies. All because of a clearance sale.

    And it trickled down – the butterflies then caused me to learn about organic gardening, and I haven’t used a chemical since.

    So today I’m on a quest for butterfly weed and Joe Pye weed…and probably any other plants that catch my eye. Kids buy candy; I buy plants for my gardens.

    Update: they had no Joe Pye weed, but then I found that I *had* bought one at the festival. I still don’t know where the tansy came from.

  • 21Sep

    The monarchs haven’t yet started to migrate south I guess, or maybe they are migrating and I’m a stopping point. My butterfly garden has paid off. All of the crazy watching the caterpillars, the delight, the excitement…just exploded.

    They’ve been out there for days and I finally ran to Kmart yesterday to get another roll of film. With digital cameras, it’s not that easy to find film, and when you find it, the choice is very limited. (Unless I wanted to drive 30 minutes to a camera store, which I did not.) By the time I loaded the camera, they had gone elsewhere.

    But here they were again today, along with other butterflies I can’t identify. I shot the entire roll in about five minutes, trying to get shots of their wings opened. We’ll see what I end up with, but I guess I’ll pick up a couple more rolls. Digging out my old camera equipment (that was high end when I bought it all) has been so fun. My friends still in photojournalism have been telling me that digital sucks, film still rules. It’s really true….the pictures are just so much more alive. Or maybe it’s me, enjoying the heavy lenses, remembering when I used to spend hours and hours in the darkroom, hanging out with all my journalist friends, chasing politicians and asking stupid questions. I miss it. I miss the chase, I miss the words, I miss the deadlines and I miss the newsroom.

    Back to the butterflies instead of wandering down memory road…after I ran out of film I had no excuse to chase them. I just couldn’t stand the joy and began swirling, my hands in the air, my heart full of absolute pure happiness.

    For those moments I could block out any stresses, any worries and bad thoughts. It was just me and the monarchs. They sailed, I twirled. I twirled like a child, and wished I had on a sun dress that would flow out at the skirt as I moved.

    If any neighbors looked beyond the fence and saw me, I’m sure they now know I’m really, truly crazy. Maybe they wished they had the courage to just let go like that. It’s not often I have the abandon for it, but the monarchs drew me in, away from inhibition.

    I wish I could have taken a video of myself. Anyone who would have seen me would have at least a moment of gladness.

    For those moments, I swirled, the monarchs sailed through the air, landing and sipping nectar, then sailing back up and around. It was as if they joined me in a dance and we all just soared.

    There was never a more perfect moment in life than letting go with these beauties.

    And now I cry. It was that emotional. Only a fellow butterfly lover could possibly understand such triumph.

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  • 12Aug

    It seems the first batch of cats are now emerging from the chrysalis stage into butterflies. I saw about five out in the butterfly garden this morning, varying sizes.

    The mosquitoes are so bad, though. I’ve gone around the house looking for areas where they might be breeding, and I can’t find a thing. My bird and butterfly baths don’t hold much water so they evaporate every day.

    I’m suspecting neighbors’ pools. The neighbors next door use theirs nearly every day, so I doubt it’s theirs, but other neighbors have pools that just sit. Why have a pool if you’re not going to use it? At least drain it or drop in some BT dunks.

    My uncle has a next door neighbor who has had a difficult time since her husband unexpectedly died. He left her with a financial mess and all kinds of entanglements. Of course he didn’t expect to drop dead at that age, but he left some real disasters. She had to sell the family vacation home on Padre Island. Anyway, she has adult sons who have mostly abandoned her and she has no incentive to keep her pool up. It needs to be drained and just filled in with dirt, but I guess you’d have to chop out the concrete first.

    Each year, she actually gets DUCKS in the pool. And frogs. It’s a mosquito farm, except that my uncle does go over and put dunks in the pool all summer.

    She has a tennis court, too, and the blacktop is all split. It’s just sad to see such a beautiful estate go downhill like that. Too much for one woman to handle, especially since she was one of those women whose husband handled everything. Obviously not very well.

    That strayed off topic, but the point is, the mosquitoes here are killing me. I have to spray down every time I go outside and I resent that. If I knew where they were breeding, I’d get dunks.

  • 08Aug

    I have an entirely new nursery of monarch caterpillars. The other cats were full grown, and were gone in a couple of days, off to complete their transformation into beautiful monarchs. These are the assortment pack. There are little tiny, tiny babies, medium and one large. I guess those eggs hatched.

    The butterflies are the reason I went organic. I wanted to create a non-toxic, safe home for them and I think it’s mission accomplished.

    Monarch Monarch caterpillar

    I have two adult monarchs that I’ve seen. The first one didn’t like me much and would fly away when I approached. But they’re getting used to me and now allow me to softly stroke their wings as they feed. That is one of my greatest pleasures, petting my monarchs. It’s soothing.