Monthly Archives: May 2010

Unlikely Gardeners

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My main garden bed last month, before we got quite so much rain. Everything's much taller and floppier now. The giant metal chicken is a non-native, but has so far showed no inclination to spread.

So we went to Kevin’s cousin Amy’s place yesterday for a Southern tradition called a “pig-pickin'” which involves a very large grill and a deceased member of the Sus genus. It was delicious, even if I will never understand the North Carolina concept of “barbecue”* and there were a whole bunch of people there.

I had two really great discussions. One of them was the sort you have when there are three divorced women sitting in a row passing a bottle of wine back and forth, the details of which shall not be repeated here, but which was cathartic.

The other, however, involved a lovely older woman who was a gardener, and into wildlife gardening, and our conversation had that kind of discovery-of-kindred-spirit quality that’s so lovely. I mentioned the hummingbirds coming to the Texas sage, and she jumped in with “Oh, I love that! I’ve planted in it all the beds!” and within about twenty minutes we’d covered native plants, bed design, and Kevin had out his iPhone and was looking up a bird for her that she’d been unable to ID (it was a Great Crested Flycatcher in full mating color.) We talked about nesting thrashers visiting monarchs and native moonflowers and it was awesome.

It was as she was leaving that I realized what an unlikely-looking bunch we were. Here I am in my early thirties, with the large tattoos and goth-dyed hair, Kevin is heavily tattooed with a shaved head, looks like he should be beating up people for their lunch money, and owns every Apple product ever made–and this very nice woman was older, not in fantastic health, walking heavily with a cane, and at least a generation and a half our senior.  The only ways that people like us general come in contact are family reunions and elevators. But there we were, unified by our love of gardening, birds, and Texas sage, in the manner of people who have particular obscure obsessions and do not generally expect to find other people with those obsessions at their local barbecue.

It kinda reminded me of that one ad for Yahoo back in the day–the one where the heavily pierced punk rocker joins the sewing circle.  (I loved that commercial.)

“It was so nice talking to you!” she said, as she prepared to leave. “And you boyfriend…” she looked around, made sure he wasn’t in earshot “…he’s so cute.” (He is. To my knowledge, he has also never beat anyone up for their lunch money.)

It was kinda like finding the Lutheran pastor who played Resident Evil, except that I think this time I might have been the unlikely one. But it was awesome anyway.

*I can appreciate the tastes involved, but for me, barbecue involves heavy red sauce, damnit.

Blue Dasher

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Photo taken in my garden, 5/26/10

This handsome creature is (according to my awesome readers over at LJ!) a female and/or juvenile Blue Dasher dragonfly.

It’s perched on a poppy seed pod. It’s a non-native annual, but supposedly a fairly mild-mannered one. (We’ll know next year, anyhow…) My mom used to grow them, and the seedpods are just awesome looking.

The Grail Bug

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It was a good day in the garden. Saw a pickerel frog last night, saw a bunch of dragonflies this morning (none of which I can ID–what was the bright green one with the black bands on the tail? I can’t find it in the lists of North Carolina dragonflies. Who are those gigantic throwback-to-the-dinosaurs dragonflies cruising over the garden ten feet up?) only one of which held still long enough to photograph, nearly stepped on our local ruby-throated hummingbird, who is obsessed with my Texas sage, and then, just as I had ganked my knee trying to get a shot of a katydid nymph, I saw…it.

It was a monarch butterfly.

I didn’t know whether to squeal like a little girl or burst into tears (also possibly like a little girl) because we’ve never had one of those in the yard before. They’re in the area, but our yard was never of interest to them. And they’re like the holy grail of wildlife gardening…they’re one of those bugs that many of us suspect in our heart of hearts we’re gonna lose–they’re so specialized, and the chain of events that keeps them going is so bizarre and fragile–but there’s this tantalizing possibility that if all the gardeners pull together and plant the right plants–and nobody messes with the groves where they winter–we can form this network and make it work.

First I had to make sure it was really a monarch, not one of the mimics. I stalked it with the grace of an injured water buffalo, and finally managed to get close enough to see the harlequin spots covering the body before it took off again. I made squee noises again.

So the monarch flitted around the garden, and I chased after it with the camera. It landed on the Texas sage “Dark Dancer” and spent some time hanging from one of the red flowers (I vowed to plant ten more. No, twenty.) then transferred to the sundrops, which were also interesting (I vowed to extend the bed out two feet in every direction and plant nothing but Texas sage and sundrops.) shunned the pink petunia (I shun you as well, accursed annual!) inspected the daisy fleabane (when the revolution comes, you will be spared, fleabane) and finally spent a little time on the damp gravel driveway, inspecting the puddling possibilities (there will be no asphalt on my watch!)

I never did get my photo–it whirled away into the trees. I hope it’ll be back. My milkweed stand isn’t enough yet to host a caterpillar, but it will be someday. Check back, monarch! Send your grandkids! You’ll always be welcome!

Plight of the Pollinators

By | Insects, My Garden | 12 Comments
Nom nom nom nom

Have you seen me? Photo taken at the Raleigh Arboretum last year.

So I’m wandering around the garden lately, and noticing lots of interesting bugs. Thanks to the reader who sent me the pic of the robber fly–I saw one today! Eating a much smaller fly! And there’s a grasshopper nymph lurking on the sneezeweed and lots of the adorable little bee flies around and skippers and butterflies and gigantic dragonflies and wasps and little tiny flies and glossy ladybugs–an insect menagerie impossible to adequately catalog.

But one species is notable by its absence. They should be everywhere.

Where have all the bees gone?

As many of you probably know already, bee populations are crashing across North America (and in the Old World as well, if my quick googling is any indicator.) Colony collapse disorder, weird viruses, parasites…it’s a nasty mix. Some bee populations are down 70% or more.

This is bad. This is Very Very Bad. Pollinators make agriculture happen. Bees are the big pollinators, the heavy hitters, and without them, we’re in a world of pollination hurt, because no pollinators means we lose a whole lot of vegetables which means that farmers will have to hand-pollinate their crops, which will make any complaint you’ve heard about the price of food seem laughably antiquated.

They’re already bringing in stunt bees. We may yet see a day when those get hard to find.

I started getting concerned earlier this year–I mean, I’ve heard all about the bee problem, but I hadn’t really SEEN it. But the big bumblebees that should be all over the garden, the dominant bug in it, the ones that were here last year, are severely reduced. Some days I wouldn’t see a single one. Most days I’d only see a single one–usually poking her head into my Husker Red penstemon (and I hope to god that plant comes back next year, and if it does, I’ll buy five more, because the bees luuuuv it. Unfortunately penstemons seem to not-do-that-well in the South. Better gardeners than I claim it’s the combination of heat and humidity, and I have no reason to question that.)

Two showed up when my arrowwood viburnum flowered, and rolled around the big white flowerheads, getting coated in pale pollen. A few more arrived for the sundrops’ dramatic yellow bloom. As the season advanced, they began slowly to appear in greater numbers, attracted by the clover in the unmowed lawn (which has also given rise to blue-eyed grass and tiny violets.) But last year’s droning hordes are conspicuously absent.

And those are bumblebees.

I have seen one honeybee this year. One. It wasn’t in my yard–it was at the college where I walk occasionally, where they have multiple bee hives, and there was a single bee working on a bit of clover. If there has been a single honeybee in my yard, I have missed it, and believe me, I’ve been looking.

Okay. Well. Problem stated–what do we DO?

The big thing you could do, of course, is keep bees. I’m not there yet myself, but in two years, I’ve gone from instinctive cringing away from bees to genuine delight when I see one–it may yet happen. The memory of painful stings is still strong, but it’s starting to ebb. Still, that’s a big step I’m not yet willing to take, and probably a lot of you are right there with me (or don’t have enough space to make it viable, or whatever.) But there’s gotta be a way we can still help, right?

Fortunately, yes, there’s a bunch of stuff the lay person can do, and most of it comes down to feeding the bees. We talked about planting spring ephemerals awhile back. From comes the much simpler suggestion–don’t kill the dandelions! Dandelions are apparently a VERY important early source of nectar for bees, and while they’re a non-native weed, they don’t usually make the jump to invade and disrupt more pristine ecosystems, so I’m not gonna yell at you. (Bees will make honey off a lot of nasty non-natives, mind you, and that’s no reason not to take them out–but see if you can’t replace that screaming buttweed with a nice non-invasive that the bees will also enjoy.)

So apparently if you can just refrain from mowing until the dandelions have gone to seed, you can make a lot of bees happy. If you can leave the clover in the lawn, even better.

Secondly–don’t spray for bugs. Insecticides are bad for insects. Lots of insecticides are very bad for bees, and have a high residual toxicity so they keep on being bad for bees and the bee comes by to get nectar from a previously treated flower and goes home and feels very ill.

(I know, I know–you have ticks! You have to kill the ticks! Ticks are awful! Unfortunately, the common tick sprays kill bees. And ants and butterflies and spiders and crickets and many other bugs we really kinda need to get by. They tend to be a very non-specific poison, like Permethrin, which is the most common tick spray. And it does kill ticks. It also kills fish, crayfish, the above mentioned bugs, causes frog deformities, and reduces oxygen carrying blood-cells in birds. It’s pretty gnarly stuff. Them’s the breaks. They don’t make a spray that just kills ticks.)

You want to help the bees in your yard, you kinda gotta stop spraying insecticides. There’s not really a middle road on this one.  Sorry. I wish there was–I hate ticks as much or more than anybody else on earth. Believe me, I feel your pain! And also your itch, although this creme the doctor gave me is helping quite a lot.

If you can manage to do those two things, the bees will thank you. (And seriously, not mowing and not spraying–how much easier does it get?) But if you can also plant some spring ephemerals, that’s fantastic, if you can plant some good nectar plants for later in the year, that’s awesome too. Some of the very best bee plants are actually trees, like the tulip poplar and black locust. (And if you needed yet another reason to avoid those stupid Barlett pears–their flowers are huge and showy and attractive and have no nectar for bees whatsoever. It’s like putting up a restaurant and the food is made of plastic. Sheesh.)

There’s lots of online resources–a quick trip to google will turn up a lot. This is (fortunately!) a well known problem, and it’s one where people with gardens will likely make a big difference in the future. And any suggestions you guys have, please–I’m planting plants, but I’m not any kind of expert, and I’d love to hear more!

Stuff in My Yard: Wild Indigo

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This large stand grew in one year from a single plant shoved into an untreated clay bed overrun with honeysuckle, weeds, and mint.



Wild Indigo

Baptisia australis

If I was given only one genus of plants to put in the garden, I’d pick the salvias, hands down. But if I was given two, the second would be the baptisias.

I can’t speak highly enough about these plants. They’re tough as nails, native, grow like crazy, handle drought and sogginess in my garden with equal aplomb, will grow in completely unamended clay, pollinators like the flowers, and the one I put in last year is about five times the size of the initial plant and sent up spectacular towers of blooms this spring. I’ve seen no significant pests, it’s deer-resistant, and if you’re into cut flowers, this one’s awesome.

Species you’re likely to find in the garden center include Baptisia australis (shown here) and Baptisia alba, white wild indigo. (They’re also occasionally called “false indigo” because their dye is used as a substitute for “true” indigo.) There’s also an increasing number of cultivars, with names like “Prairie Twilight” and “Carolina Moonlight.”

I’m glad it’s getting more cultivars–it’s already one of the more common natives in gardens, but seriously, I don’t know why every gardener in the zone doesn’t grow this stuff. (Zone 3-8! It’s tough! Baptisia alba will even take part shade!) I often make snarky comments about only having one of anything in the garden, but I’ve got four indigo plants. Three are new this year–having seen how well the one did, I plunked in three more, including an alba and a yellow “Carolina Moonlight.”

According to wikipedia, the seeds are rarely viable owing to a parasitic weevil that gets into the seed pods. Interesting. I hadn’t seen any volunteers, maybe it’s because of weevils.

You can make dye out of it, but I’ve never tried, not being a textile type. Still, if I wind up planting as much of this stuff as I suspect I will, I may wind up with enough to dye my own denim.

Anyway, if you have a hankering for native plants and don’t know where to start–wild indigos are about as trouble-free and rewarding a plant as you can get, and I can’t speak highly enough of them.









Tidbits of Animal Behavior and Beetle Porn

By | Animals, Insects, My Garden | 5 Comments

Unf unf unf

I was out yesterday taking garden photos, and a good thing, too–we had a thunderstorm last night that finally soaked the ground completely, and also blew my pepperbush into serious disarray, stripped the petals off my poppies, and left my sundrops heeling over hard.

Still, worth it for the rain. It’s been a really really dry spring. Plenty of my native plants are profoundly drought-tolerant–I b’lieve you can actually grow Texas sage on the surface of the sun–but it’s normally so soggy and the clay holds water so well that I’d taken to planting a lot of swamp species, and they’ve been needing supplemental watering.

Among the things going on yesterday was lots of beetle sex–those are flower longhorn beetles over there, on an oxeye daisy. I have a fair number of the oxeyes–it’s a common invasive weed here, but it stays in the driveway and the Deathbed, and frankly, it’s low on my list of things to annhilate. (Maybe after I get rid of the screaming buttweed and the stiltgrass and the blackberry inching up on the back of my beds and that one spiky thing in the front that I do not trust in the slightest…)

Anyway, it was a regular beetle orgy on there on the daisies–the daisy fleabane was also home to a great many beetle couples. Flower longhorn beetles are common around here, and the Asian longhorn is a serious pest, but it’s hard to find out any information about them beyond “By the way, the Asian longhorn is a serious pest.” They like flowers and larvae bore through dead wood. That’s all I know.

I also saw a Carolina wren using the in-ground watering hole as a birdbath. It’s much too deep for a tiny bird to bathe in, and there are perfectly good birdbaths a few feet away. But what he’d done was to inch down the stick (placed for dragonfly larvae toclimb out) and was clinging to it with his feet and splashing his wings and breast into the water.  It seemed like a lot of work for a bath, but he seemed to enjoy it (and I’ve never seen a wren in the other bird baths, come to think of it.)

There. Black and white. Now it's art.

The third thing I saw that was definitely peculiar was another case of Omnivorous Squirrels. This one had a long bald strip down the middle of his back, like a part in a bad weave. Disgruntled at his inability to reach the newly baffling bird feeder, he stomped over to one of the small logs bordering the garden, grabbed a bit of bark still attached to the log, and yanked it off.

The ant colony that had apparently been hanging out under the bark immediately panicked, and the squirrel reached his head in, grabbed a mouthful of ants, and stomped off.

That was a new one on me.





A vast ignorance…

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It's a hoppy...thing....

I took my cup of coffee out on the front porch today and sat on the steps for awhile, and I am struck, once again, by the depths of my own ignorance.

My garden is alive.

It’s an ugly garden by the standards of garden design–it’s got one of everything, and a couple of bare patches, and in other places things are shoved too close together, and it has not yet achieved that dramatic growth that makes even an ugly garden lavish and impressive. I have not arranged things based on harmonious color combinations, being rather more concerned with “Is there room?” and “Will it grow here?” because I’m really quite inept and cannot take these things for granted, so orange zinnias are trapped between purple sage and pink petunias and lavender chives.  I did try to put the tall stuff in the back or the middle of the bed, whereupon the native vervain grew a lot taller than the stuff behind it and the Culver’s root, which “adds an impressive vertical element to the garden” promptly fell over, and is now providing an impressive horizontal element to the garden.

And the poppies, which I remember as a deep red-orange from the days my mother grew them, are a sort of regrettable-bridesmaid-dress salmon pink.

Despite these failures on my part as a designer, the garden is alive. It is hoppin’. And this is where my own ignorance strikes me, because, while I’m pretty confident that in a few years, I’ll be good enough at the plant-care thing to maybe practice some garden design, I’d need to go back to school and get a degree to ID most of the stuff out there.

I can do birds pretty well. Birds aren’t bad. I’ve even gotten pretty good at our local lizards–the garden’s alive with Carolina anoles and five-lined skinks and even a few adult broadhead skinks, which are big honkin’ monsters the color of burnished metal. But the bugs…lord, the bugs.

I’m trying to keep up with the butterflies, but even they defeat me. What are those rapid little grey things? What’s the big bark-colored moth spending the day on the inside of the porch roof–or that other one–or that one? Those things are some kind of skipper, but I’ve no idea what. The red-spotted purple, the question mark, the mourning cloak I love, but what kind of azure are those teeny bopping things, and what’s the little grey one feeding in such numbers on the oak tree sap?

Are you a good ladybug or a baaaaad ladybug?

Get off butterflies, and I’m lost completely. What’s that vividly colored green hopper, or that bouncing iridescent green thingy? What are those slender beetles with the white spots, or that stark white hopper with the little red spot? What’s that adorable bee(?) with the snout and the big eyes that looks like it was designed by Miyazaki? Or that other bee that lives in the ground in the prairie planting? Who emerges from the green almost-inchworms? The airy-legged spiders lurking by every flower are called “harvestmen” but there’s at least a dozen kinds of them around here, and the wee jumping spiders come in all shapes and sizes. I can ID a flower longhorn beetle, a common resident of the yard, but the large black beetles lurking in the leaf mulch still baffle me.

Fire ants, okay, I can spot the mounds–but what are those large, single-minded black ants who are carefully clipping the big leaf veins on the top leaves of my pink turtlehead and downy skullcap and harvesting the resulting sap? (I find them fascinating, even as I am annoyed by their pruning of two good plants.)

I might have a chance of IDing the giant green dragonfly that goes by with a wingspan as big as a goldfinch, but the regular flies defeat me utterly, and I didn’t feel like disrupting the single snail on the black-eyed susans to haul him inside and google him.

And I can tell if it’s a ladybug, but not if it’s a native or a Chinese import. (This one was from my place in Raleigh–there are some spotless varieties in the yard here.) There is simply too much variety to insects–what is it, a fifth of all species on earth are beetles?–and without a camera along every minute, I am overwhelmed by my own ignorance.

They seem to like my yard. That much I know, and can be happy with.

On the other hand–as proved by the fact that I had to stop this post to yank a very large Lone Star tick off my ass–there are elements of our local insect life with which I am entirely too familiar.  (Lone Stars do NOT carry Lyme disease, for which I’m grateful. They do carry some other weird thing that makes your joints hurt, but I apparently haven’t gotten it yet, and it’s supposed to clear right up with antibiotics.)

….and then the grosbeak.

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Female blue grosbeak (which is not even remotely blue, but rich brown) on the feeder.

“There’s something on the feeder.”

“It’s a cowbird.”

“It’s not a cowbird, it’s not dark enough and it’s wagging its tail and those are chesnut wing bars!”

“To the internet!”

I set up a platform feeder a few days ago, and dude, I should have done that years ago, it’s bringin’ ’em in like crazy. I’ve only seen one other blue grosbeak in my life, and not in this yard. Who knew?

ETA: And there’s the male!

This makes me happy, because A) he’s just an unbelievably gorgeous bird, and B) it means I was actually right on my ID of the female, which, though I was pretty confident, isn’t the easiest ID in the world to make.

Another decade or two, and I might actually get good at this bird thing!

The Insect Eaters

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With the spotting of a Great Crested Flycatcher today (a name which really ought to go to a more

Great Crested Flycatcher photo by Peter Wallack, Wikimedia Commons. This is the most saturated I've ever seen this bird--usually they're drabber, and I've never seen the throat so gorgeously blue. Great photo, dude.

impressive bird–the GCF is pretty enough, in an olive-and-rust-and-yellow sort of way, but if you’re gonna saddle something with “Great Crested Flycatcher” they ought to be a foot tall, chartreuse and vermilion and shocking pink, with anime-style haircuts.) the list of yardbirds hits forty species, and I didn’t even count the vultures and the geese and swallows and whatnot that go by overhead.

Actually the total is at least 41 species, but as I have no idea what that one thing hopping around in the rain gutter was–something in the general flycatcher-peewee-pheobe spectrum, a hopeless ID to attempt before breakfast–we shall go with forty.

The flycatcher, as the name suggests, is a voracious predator, probably stopping in to investigate the insect menu. The other insect predator I have noticed recently in my garden is a bit more subtle, but just as welcome.

I have three water sources in the front yard. Two are standard birdbaths. The third is an in-ground watering hole, made by the simple expedient of digging a hole in the clay, popping in a plastic pot from Lowes, backfilling partway with the clay and sticking a large rock in it so stuff could climb out. It is as low-tech as this sort of thing gets. Insomuch as I was thinking anything, it was that some of the non-flighted members of the animal kingdom might like a chance to wet their feet, and perhaps one of the many toads that lurk in the yard might enjoy a swim now and again.

I refill it every couple of days with the hose, to replace whatever’s evaporated, and to kill off any mosquito larvae that might be lurking, since we have all been told that any standing water will lead to the entire neighborhood dying of West Nile virus within the week. But an interesting thing has occurred…there aren’t any.

I’ve got larvae in the other two birdbaths, which are summarily executed with the hose during regular watering. But this much deeper watering hole is mosquito larvae free.

What it DOES have are dragonfly larvae.

Dragonfly larvae are little swimming dark bits, and they eat mosquito larvae for lunch…and breakfast, and dinner, and afternoon tea.  The birdbaths are not deep enough to tempt them, but my crude little watering hole apparently is.  (No idea what species, would need a magnifying glass–probably the common whitetails that are all over the yard, at a guess.) I don’t know that it’s a large enough environment for one to actually eat enough to become a full-grown dragonfly, but certainly they’re keeping the mosquito population completely under control.

This is the sort of thing you only get by not using insecticides (and probably not being close enough to any neighbors for THEM to use insecticides) and I don’t know that I’d rely on them as mosquito control in an urban area, unless you had a ton of dragonflies in the area already as indicators of environmental quality…but damn, it’s kinda cool to see even such a terribly simple food chain in action.

Nest Succession

By | Birds, Day-to-Day, My Garden | 2 Comments

I was glancing up at the woodpecker nest this morning when I saw an unexpected sight.

Two tufted titmice were going into it.

Tufted Titmouse. Note subtle non-woodpeckerness.

Being a truly gifted birdwatcher, I immediately realized that these were not the birds I had been watching. They’re about half the size and lack the day-glo marker heads. Also, y’know, there’s the bit with them not being woodpeckers.

One went into the nest cavity, followed by the other one. Then both emerged, sat on a branch just outside, and conversed like a pair of buyers outside a home. “Did you like it? I liked it. A few coats of paint, it’d be really nice. Wonder if the septic works…”

I was getting a little concerned at this point. Was the young woodpecker still in there? Had two grey weirdos just popped in and wandered around, moving the furniture and commenting on the decor? Was it socially awkward for everybody?

So, of course, I went to the internet to find out if I should be worried. (Most people probably look up their weird rashes, but I have priorities.)

It takes a red-bellied woodpecker 12 days to hatch and 24 days to fledge. I first noticed the woodpeckers 28 days ago. If we assume that the female had laid an egg a week and some change before I noticed them–coming and going would presumably be less marked during the egg stage, not like the frazzled two-parent bug-stuffing of later weeks–then yeah, the hatchling could have decamped sometime in the last day or two. I haven’t seen the parents in the last day or two, now that I think of it–there was some seriously frantic bug-stuffing last week, but nothing recently, and usually I’d see them at least a couple of times a day.

So either it left home or died, and if there was a dead fledgling decaying in the bottom of the nest, I kinda doubt the titmice would be moving in quite so soon.

Tufted titmice, on the other hand, are cavity nesters just like woodpeckers, but they can’t excavate a cavity. So what they’re doing is textbook titmouse behavior–they’re using the hole dug by the red-bellies to raise their own group of fledglings.  (They’re definitely moving in, too–I’ve seen them go in and out twice since starting this entry.)

Meanwhile, the bluejays are still on the nest. By my math, they’ve probably still got at least a week to go with their brood. I probably spotted them right after they moved in–woodpeckers are common around here, easily overlooked for awhile, but you really can’t miss the bluejays.

Well, since there is no way to know for sure, I choose to believe that the red-bellied woodpecker fledgling is out following its parents around demanding to be fed. (I know flickers do that, anyway.) They may be back next year–apparently they often excavate another nest right on top of or under the previous one. I’ll keep an eye out for them.

Meanwhile–welcome, titmice! Good luck with your brood!