Join the International Monarch Monitoring Blitz

By now I’m sure you know we are in danger of losing the monarch butterfly migration in our lifetime. This critical situation was addressed in 2014 when President Obama met with President Pena Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Harper of Canada about it. At that meeting they agreed to “to establish a working group to ensure conservation of the monarch butterfly”. Since then much has been done to encourage research into the habits of monarch butterflies. One such result is the establishment of the annual International Monarch Monitoring Blitz.

This is an event that takes place all across the range of the monarch butterfly that spans large parts of  The United States, Mexico and Canada. The purpose is to try to get a count of the number of monarch butterflies during a small window of time. This year the count started July 28th and runs through August 5th.

Scientists are looking for help during the Blitz, they’re asking for “citizen scientists” to step forward and pitch in for the butterfly count.  It’s simple and fun to participate as a citizen scientist, anyone can do it. All you need to do is count the number of monarchs you see in all stages of the insect’s development; egg, larva, chrysalis and adult and make some observations about milkweed plants. Once you’re done, report your findings online at the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project website.

There’s another one! Add him to the tally.

This is only the second year of this international event, so now’s your chance to get started as an amateur researcher. Years from now as the Blitz expands and becomes more well known, you’ll be able to proudly tell your friends you were among the earliest participants.

We’re working on our part of the Blitz right now  and hope you find the time to join in too. It’s a great way to spend some time outdoors while knowing you’re doing something tangible to help save our beloved monarch butteries.

Bob and Judy

Quilt gardens tour in Elkhart Indiana

We recently visited the Quilt Gardens, a really fun ongoing garden tour in the Elkhart Indiana region.

Volunteer gardeners from that area installed more than a million plants in eighteen gardens. Flowers and colorful foliage plants are arranged to reproduce quilt patterns on a large scale.

A geometric quilt pattern reproduced with flowers.
Another quilt garden.
Quilt garden next to a building.
Ornamental peppers provided color in this quilt garden.

In addition to the gardens, twenty one large quilt pattern murals adorn assorted buildings along the tour.

This large quilt pattern mural dresses up this otherwise plain wall.
Quilt makers will recognize the quilt patterns.

The Quilt Gardens are open to the public now until October 1 and are free of charge. For downloadable maps and guides visit their website.

Unless you’re short on time, we suggest you plan on taking at least two days to enjoy the gardens and other attractions along the way.

Bob and Judy

Tomato blossoms damaged by hot temperatures

During the past couple of weeks I saw a lot of gardens having problems with tomato plants not producing fruit. When discussing this problem with gardeners, the first thing I hear from them is usually,” I’m growing lots of leaves but no tomatoes”. Then they go on to attribute it to an overabundance of fertilizer of one sort or another.

Nutrient imbalance may cause problems, but this season it is likely due to the extended hot temperatures we had until the break in the weather happened this week.  Temperatures in the mid-nineties can damage tomato blossom causing them to fall off the plant — no blossoms means no tomatoes. This phenomenon is known as “tomato blossom blast”.

Heat damaged tomato blossoms turn brown.

There is really nothing we can do to prevent flower damage when the temperatures are so high except wait it out. Now that the weather has moderated, our tomato plants will start producing more blossoms and setting more fruit.

If another heat wave occurs, it’s likely we’ll see another round of tomato flower blast.

Bob

Become a bee helper

By now, most people are aware of the declining honeybee population. What is not as well know is wild bees are having the same problems.

Wild bees are important because in many instances they are more efficient at pollinating some crops than are honeybees. They are also highly adapted to pollinating wild flowering plants making them an essential part of our ecosystem.

Some commercial beekeepers make a large part of their income by renting hives of honeybees to farmers who grow valuable food crops. Almonds are one example of a crop that requires honeybees to pollinate large plantations of trees. There are now a new breed of beekeepers who are commercially raising wild species such as alfalfa leaf cutter bees and renting them out to farmers. I guess in that case they’re not wild anymore.

So what can we do to help out out little flying friends? We can plant pollinator friendly plants in the garden. We can be be aware not to spray our fruit trees when wild plants like dandelion or dutch clover are blossoming in the orchard. But not everyone has fruit trees or even has space for a garden. Not everyone has the inclination or desire to become a keeper of honeybees either. Or if they did, they may not have the time or resources to spend on a hive of bees

You can however become a beekeeper of sorts with very little effort. Instead of keeping honeybees, you can provide a home for wild bees. Most species of wild bees are solitary. They do not congregate together to form colonies like honeybees. They never will see their parents or siblings unlike honeybees who are surrounded by thousands of family member all pitching in to raise them.

When an adult female solitary bee looks for a place to lay her eggs, she doesn’t look for a hive. Instead she looks for a sheltered spot where the egg will be safe while it is incubating on its own. This is most often a crack or fissure in a tree or even better, an opening made by some other animal such a a hole left behind from a tree boring insect.

Complete bee houses are available already built. Or you can build your own, bees are not picky.

Small bee houses for these solitary bees are available to those who would like to help out our wild bees. These bee shelters come in an almost endless variety but they all have one design feature in common, holes that mimic natural cavities for female bees to lay their eggs. Some designs are not much more than simple blocks of wood with many holes drilled into them. Others use stacked up hollow stems of bamboo to form the shelters. Sometimes a roof is attached to keep the rain out.

You can make your own or buy these bee houses at garden centers or online. Either way it is an easy way to become a beekeeper or at least a bee helper. Unfortunately, solitary bees don’t make honey, they have no reason to.  On the other hand they don’t sting.

Bob

 

The lawn of the future

Imagine self-propelled robotic lawn groomers, too sophisticated to be called merely lawn mowers, taking care of your lawn without any help from you. Miniature drones with intelligent eyesight hovering over your lawn identifying weeds insects and diseases, zapping them with pin-point precision accuracy. All this guided by on-board artificial intelligence leaving behind an absolutely flat, emerald green, expansive mono culture of grass that is your lawn. NOT!

That vision of the the lawn of the future may soon be outdated and considered quaint and wasteful. There’s a grassroots movement beginning to grow in this country that has an entirely different view of what a lawn should be. Millennials and upcoming generations are abandoning old-fashioned lawn ideas for something quite different.

Rather than boring grass (yawn), perennial broadleaf plants are replacing much of the grass in these new lawns. Growing together in pleasing patterns they form a natural tapestry kind of look.

This mix of broad-leaf plants is an attractive alternative to monotonous turf-grass.

Broadleaf plants are quite variable in their growth habits, each one has a different texture, color or leaf pattern. Most will even flower for part of the season adding an extra element to the lawn tapestry.

In an ecosystem made up of dozens of species of plants, instead of one or two grasses, turf diseases, insects and other pests can’t even get a start much less spread. Legumes like white dutch clover fix nitrogen from the atmosphere then add it to the soil reducing or eliminating the need for added fertilizer.

This type of lawn can be mowed much like grass to keep it looking neat. Most people cut their grass too short so typically, the height of the mower will need to be raised to allow more leaf area on the plants to keep them healthy and looking good.

Weeds can still be a potential problem in this system however typical lawn herbicides can’t be used to control them. The very herbicides used by lawn companies are designed specifically to kill those kind of broadleafs that make up the new lawn.

No more herbicides and no more fertilizer has the potential to upset the lawn care industry. On the other hand, the trend, over time, will probably move beyond a do-it-yourself project encouraging a new generation of entrepreneurs to develop a new industry installing and maintaining the new look. As an analogy, think of what micro-breweries are doing to the beer industry.

In the meantime, you can start your own lawn mosaic. Start by eliminating the use of herbicides that kill lawn “weeds” — that includes so called “weed and feed” formulations. A wider variety of plants will be encouraged by improving the fertility of your soil. Try experimenting with different types of seeds to see how they grow in your lawn.

There’s no need to feel sorry for the herbicide industry as they lose market share, there will always be people who will stubbornly hang on to the old ways of growing a lawn.

Bob

Liking your lovage

Every once in a while we’ll be making something that calls for celery, like potato salad or chicken soup. I’ll check the fridge only to find out there’s no celery in the crisper drawer. Not to fear, there’s a perennial plant growing in the garden that’s always on stand by for such an eventuality — that plant is my cherished lovage.

I’ve been growing lovage for many years, it such an easy plant to grow. And once it gets established, it seems to grow forever barring any drastic; like letting the chickens roam in the garden in early spring forgetting that the lovage was there. But I digress.

It’s celery flavor is what I go for but it has other uses too, uses I’ve never tried. The herb is stronger tasting than celery but is much sweeter. All parts are edible. Homemakers in the past have used it’s seeds for flavoring breads, cakes and a whole lot of other foods. They’ve even added lovage leaves to cookie dough. A type of candy made from lovage was very popular at one time. The root is edible too.

Want to impress your friends and influence people? Use a lovage stem as a straw when serving Bloody Marys.
Want to impress your friends and go on more dates? Lovage stems are hollow, use them instead of straws when serving Bloody Marys.

My lovage is well over four feet tall and full of blossoms. It is really enjoying the regular rains we’ve been getting this spring. I have it growing in a sandy, well-drained area but my guess it will grow just about anywhere.

Lovage also has medicinal value helping to ease digestive problems.

You don’t hear much about lovage being used in the kitchen very often these days. Maybe back in the olden days it was grown a lot more because it has so many uses.  Then as people became more prosperous they started using store-bought herbs and spices, that’s just a guess on my part.

Chefs nowadays are always looking for that next big thing or that unique taste sensation that will bring them adulation from their patrons and admiration from their peers. I reckon lovage might be that flavor they’re looking for — it’s poised for a comeback in a big way. H-m-m, maybe I’ll start a lovage farm.

Bob

 

Mystery of the missing apples

At a function I attended over this past weekend the conversation turned to gardening. A friend mentioned his apple trees were being raided by an unknown animal. This animal was very stealthy, so stealthy in fact, that it left virtually no trace of ever being there.

The thief left no footprint despite the fact that apples were missing from all parts of the tree. Every branch had missing apples and none of the branches had any damage whatsoever. Apples taken from high up the tree implied the animal was either quite tall or was a good climber.

Since this is early in the growing season, his apples are still small and still in the developmental stage, about the size of a cherry. Maybe the suspect was a bird?

Our little group spent some time discussing all of the other factors surrounding the case: when did it happen? what other plants were near by? where there any apples on the ground? was grass growing under the tree? and so on.

I’ve come across this kind of mystery with apples before and it always takes place this time of year. As the tiny apple fruits grow, a natural phenomenon happens during the course of their development. The an apple tree cannot bring all of its young apples into full-sized mature fruit. There are not enough leaves to generate the amount of photosynthesis required to grow out all of that fruit. And even if there were, the shear weight of all of those apples would break off the branches. So the tree cuts off the flow of nutrients to a large number of young apples causing them to fall off. This phenomenon is sometimes called the “June drop”.

To make excess fruit fall off, apple trees form an abscission layer that stops nutrient flow to the developing fruit.

It was the June drop that was the cause of my friend’s missing apples. The apples fell very quickly over a short period of time which would explain the lack of damage to the tree. Once they were on the ground, mice and other small animals took advantage of the bounty and ate them or carried them way.

Bob

 

 

Milkweeds can become a nuisance

In this day and age pretty much everyone knows about the relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants. It wasn’t always that way.

Before modern chemical weed killers, farmers had limited ways of dealing with weeds. Depending on the weather conditions, a farmer might have to go over a field two or three times with a horse drawn cultivator. Later, cultivators were mounted on tractors but the process stayed the same. An efficient farmer could do a pretty job of controlling most of the annual weeds, perennial weeds were harder especially if they became established in a field. The only thing to do was to send the family out to the fields with hoes to try to keep the weeds at a minimum.

Milkweeds were one of those perennial weeds that farmers were constantly battling. When the first herbicides were developed, farmers no longer had to spend so much time and energy constantly going over their fields. Perennial weeds like milkweed still were a problem however and farmers hated them. I remember when I was young seeing a beautiful field of some sort of crop — I don’t remember what crop it was — that was completely free of weeds except for a colony of milkweeds that you could see from over a hundred yards away.

Nowadays modern herbicides are very efficient at controlling all types of weeds so we never see milkweeds in farm fields anymore. They’re limited to fence rows, ditches and other out of the way places. The number of milkweeds for monarch butterflies to lay their eggs on and for their caterpillars to eat has been drastically reduced. Now, farming organizations that used to join in the battle against milkweeds now pass out seeds and encourage people to re-establish them.

Milkweeds still have the potential to get out of control and become a nuisance. Once they become establish they will spread by way of underground roots. Those roots are very tough and strong and are able to push themselves into surrounding areas and compete with other plants. In one spot in my yard, I started out with a single milkweed plant next to my garage a few years ago. That has now turned into a colony of plants that is over 40 feet long. One of these days I’ll have to do something with them before they really get out of hand.

The nearest milkweed stalk is over three feet away from this shoot pushing up through the concrete expansion joint.
The nearest milkweed stalk is over three feet away from this shoot pushing up through the concrete expansion joint.

Another patch is beginning to encroach into the vegetable garden. They’re pushing their way up through seams in the plastic mulch I have laid out.

I don’t mind my milkweeds being a bit unruly, it’s fun , at least for now, to see those plants thrive in the yard. It reminds me that it won’t be long before the monarchs are back.

Bob

 

 

Finding a sphinx moth pupa

Butterflies and moths overwinter in different forms depending on the species. For example, the famous Monarch overwinters as an adult, swallowtails in the chrysalis stage. Other species of moths or butteries spend the winter as as eggs or as pupae.

Earlier this week I was filling up a plant container with growing mix that I had saved from last fall. The mix was stored in a few open trash cans inside the barn. Using an antique coal shovel, I was able to make good  filling transferring the potting soil to the planters. I noticed in one trash can, lying there in the soil mix, was a brown, leathery looking cigar-shaped thing. Looking closer I could see it was a large insect pupa, that of a sphinx moth.

A sphinx moth is the adult stage of the tomato horn worm, those big, ugly, destructive caterpillars we often see chomping away on our tomato plants during the summer.

Sphinx moths are one of those species that overwinter as pupae. As autumn approaches, the huge hornworm caterpillars leave the plant and burrow into the soil to morph into a pupa. Although hornworms are abundant, finding a pupa is relatively rare. That’s because they burrow so deeply. Most rotary tillers only till to the depth of six or seven inches or so. A gardener with a spade may work the soil as deep as eight inches. The hornworm tunnel down to at least a foot, well under the disturbed topsoil layer.

A sphinx moth pupa is not uncommon but is rarely seen.

 

The caterpillar that formed the pupa that I found came from one of two places, it either traveled from the garden and crawled up the side of the trash can into the mix, which is highly unlikely. Or, I missed it when I was emptying the deep planters last fall, which is probably what happened. One of the planters did have a couple of tomato plants in it, that would explain why the hornworm was there in the first place.

The sphinx moth pupa has a kind of “jug handle” structure that contains the moth’s long tongue.

We have a love-hate relationship with these insects. During their caterpillar stage they can be quite destructive, defoliating entire plants sometimes.  As an adult however, they are fascinating. They don’t have much color but they are quite large and at first glance are often mistaken for a humming bird. They act like a hummingbird too as they hover over flower blossoms gathering nectar.

So, I have a decision to make: should I squash the pupa so it won’t develop into a garden pest later in the season, or let it go to emerge as an interesting visitor to the flower garden. What would you do? Let us know in the comment section below.

Bob

Iris that blooms at the end of daffodil season

Our Pumila iris, also called dwarf iris, has been putting on a colorful show for several days now. Each spring we look forward to them coming into bloom just as the daffodils are fading, weeks before other irises even think about blooming

We have a hot, dry, sandy area right along our walkway that closely mimics their original habitat in eastern Europe. Our soil is fairly acidic with a pH right around 5.4. Dwarf iris prefers the soil to be slightly acidic, 5.5 to 6.5. That may explain why ours wants to grow toward the sidewalk and not in the other direction. The sidewalk is slowly leeching calcium from the concrete slightly raising the pH in the process. It’s fascinating to watch how a plant like this reacts to its surroundings. They’re slowly but surly expanding their cluster.

Pumila iris come in a wide variety of color due to a a lot of cross breeding done by horticulturists, those are not the true wild species types. On the other hand, even wild species populations exhibit a wide variety of color depending on local growing conditions.

Dwarf iris flower stems are very short compared to the irises we normally see.

The Pumlia we have are probably a wild species type — I say that because of their unique history. There’s a population of dwarf iris that has been growing at Matthaei Botanical Gardens perennial garden for at least thirty years.  Several years ago the irises needed to be divided and renewed. Ours were rhizomes from that project that were rescued before going the compost.

If you have a “problem area” with the right growing conditions, you might want to try planting some dwarf iris. They’re available at plant nurseries and garden centers.

Bob