Archive for category Vegetable Gardening

2015 Review of Renee’s Garden Seeds: Part I

Rudbeckia 'Cappuccino'

Rudbeckia ‘Cappuccino’

With apologies for tardiness, here are my thoughts about the free seeds from Renee’s Garden that I trialed this year. As those of you who have been reading my blog for a year or two may recall, every year, Renee’s Garden offers up to 15 free seed packets to members of the Garden Writers Association in the hopes, I imagine, that we will write about the seeds we try. I know that I feel obliged every year to write up how my Renee’s Seeds samples fared. I had hoped to squeak in my review before last year slipped entirely away, but I know most folks haven’t ordered their seeds yet, so you’ll still have time to ponder my results here.

Zinnia 'BluePoint Florist' mix

Zinnia ‘Blue Point’ mix

I ordered 11 seed packets, and received an additional sample in a promotional mailing sent out by this company, so I tried 12 seed varieties this year ranging from perennials to annuals to herbs to a vegetable. I’ve assigned grades ranging from A to F to this year’s seeds, but many more high grades than low ones. This post describes all the varieties that earned an A from me.

Grade A

Kale ‘Tuscan Baby Leaf’ — A

baby kale seedlings

This was the freebie seed packet sent with a promotional mailing. Described as a cut-and-come-again salad baby kale, I had to try it, and it has not disappointed. I first tried it with the spring garden greens and loved it then. For that round, I started seedlings in the greenhouse and transplanted them out when the weather had settled. They produced well and were delicious, but they bolted sooner than many of the other spring greens.

However, when copious autumn rains began to fall, I decided to plant a small fall vegetable garden of broccoli and salad greens. I direct-sowed all the greens, using the same packets of seeds from the spring. All germinated enthusiastically, including this baby leaf kale. When our autumn temperatures turned absurdly warm, I was able to protect these crops through minor dips in temperatures by covering them with a tent of spun garden fabric. At this point, after something like 8 inches of rain during the month of December, the salad greens are mostly mush — except for this kale, which continues to happily grow and produce. I’m guessing that the prolonged cold forecast for January will finally end this delicious, tender, productive vegetable, but I’ll let you know.

Conclusion: I must give this variety an A for prolonged, delicious productivity, but with the caveat that my region experienced an extraordinary fall growing season. As a spring green, its productive life was too short to be worth the space it occupied.

Foxglove ‘Freckled Rose Princess’ — A-minus

The flowers lived up to their name.

The flowers lived up to their name.

I like foxgloves. I think they provide elegance to a flower garden, and the ones I’ve grown usually bloom for quite a while. Pollinators of many persuasions like them, and because they are poisonous, deer and rabbits don’t touch them. They aren’t native, but the ones I grow have never demonstrated any invasive tendencies. This variety sounded lovely, so I figured I’d try them.

I sowed the seeds in the greenhouse. They weren’t the fastest germinators, but they came up reasonably strongly. I managed to grow about 8 or 10 plants to transplant size, then planted them in their permanent bed at one end of my enclosed vegetable area. This bed is a trial bed for plants I’m testing.

Basal rosette of leaves in early November

Basal rosette of leaves in early November

A late spring-early summer drought required me to water the new foxglove plants attentively. By doing so, I was rewarded with a number of bloom stalks that showed off rosy bells for about six weeks. When the flowers were done, I removed the stalks. About that time, the rains returned enough to encourage lush growth in the basal rosettes.

Digitalis in mid-November

Foxgloves in mid-November

I was looking forward to a 2016 mid spring full of foxglove flowers until one of the wettest, warmest Decembers ever recorded hit my region. The last time I checked, most of the foxglove rosettes appear to have rotted into brown goop. I have a feeling they’re gone for good, but I’m going to wait to see if new growth emerges when spring returns.

Conclusion: This is a beautiful perennial that needs even moisture and perfect drainage to flourish. I’m not sure my gardening conditions meet this variety’s requirements. I’ll update you next spring. I’m giving this one an A-minus, because my December rains were more than many fussier perennials could probably handle.

Parsley ‘Gigante Italian’ — A+

Greenhouse-started seedlings

Greenhouse-started seedlings

All parsleys are biennials, meaning they grow vegetatively through the first year, then produce seeds the following spring, after which the plants die. I started my parsley seeds in the greenhouse and got abundant, nearly instantaneous germination. I ended up with about a dozen vigorous seedlings that grew rapidly and well. I gave away a few plants to friends and transplanted the rest in open areas of my bed of chives, where they flourished.

Chives and flourishing recently transplanted parsley plants in mid spring

Chives and flourishing recently transplanted parsley plants in mid spring

I harvested parsley leaves all spring, summer, and fall. This large, flat-leaved Italian variety enhanced salads, sauces, and many other savory dishes. About September, the plants surprised me by sending up flower stalks, which I had not been expecting until the next spring. I responded by cutting off the stalks before the flowers opened, in the hopes of prolonging their productivity. The tactic seemed to work, because the plants are still alive. This is one of the few herbs (chives being the other) that didn’t seem to mind the deluges of December.

Still tasty, thanks to a record mild December

Still tasty, thanks to a record mild December

Conclusion: I’ll be growing this variety again. Santa brought me a food dehydrator, so that I can dry and preserve the abundant tasty leaves of wonderful herbs like this one.

Basil, Thai ‘Queenette’ — A

Thai Basil

Renee’s Garden imports the seeds of this variety directly from Thailand, and I can attest that this is the very best Thai basil I’ve ever grown. Greenhouse-started seeds germinated well and produced strong, well-branched plants. This annual herb was powerfully fragrant and flowered constantly, attracting a great diversity of pollinators, including many of the smaller, solitary bees and wasps so important to a healthy garden.

Queenette flowers

Queenette flowers

I don’t cook much with this herb, but many folks do, and I know it is used in teas too. I grow it mostly as a companion plant for my vegetables, because it attracts beneficial insects, and I think its strong fragrance confuses some pest insects. My plants flourished with almost no supplemental water during the dry early summer. And later autumn rains didn’t bother them either.

Queenette plants in mid-July

Queenette plants in mid-July

The flower stalks make great additions to bouquets, and I used them often that way all growing season.

It is very frost-sensitive.

It is very frost-sensitive.

Conclusion: This is a wonderful summer annual herb that adds fragrance and insect appeal to any garden. I would happily grow it again, despite the fact that the faintest of frosts kills it completely — well before even other basil varieties surrender. This variety gets a solid A.

Zinnia ‘Blue Point’ mix — A-minus

Color representation was heavily weighted toward the pink shades

Color representation was heavily weighted toward the pink shades

I try a different zinnia variety from Renee’s Garden every year. Sometimes I’ve been wowed, sometimes disappointed; this year fell somewhere in between. In the past when I’ve tried a mix, I’ve been pleased by the relatively even color balance that resulted from the greenhouse-started seedlings I transplant into my garden. But this annual variety yielded more pink shades by far. They were nice enough, but I like to use zinnias for bouquets full of color. This year required more monochromatic bouquet construction.

One of the few whites from this trial.

One of the few whites from this trial.

The plants grew tall — about 5 feet or so, and the rains of autumn plagued the leaves with fungus. But for much of the summer, they looked pretty good.

Zinnia bed in June. Note the abundance of pink flowers in this "mix."

Zinnia bed in June. Note the abundance of pink flowers in this “mix.”

Still, zinnias are annual flowers I will always include. They are easy to grow, make great cut flowers, and draw a diversity of pollinators to the garden. Every piedmont gardener with four or more hours of sunshine on a flowerbed should grow zinnias.

Great Spangled Fritillary enjoying a Blue Point zinnia

Great Spangled Fritillary enjoying a Blue Point zinnia

Conclusion: I might try this variety again, but if I get another uneven color mixture of plants, I’d discard this zinnia option permanently. I’m giving it a provisional A-minus, based on the hope that future mixes would yield more color variety.

Rudbeckia ‘Capuccino’

Flowers on a single plant in mid-July!

Flowers on a single plant in mid-July!

What a gorgeous perennial this turned out to be. I had tried this the year before, but only got a couple of weak plants started in the greenhouse that never took off when I transplanted them. I had better success on my second try. I still had germination problems. More than half the seeds didn’t germinate for me in the greenhouse. This is very unusual. I almost always get excellent germination from any seed — perennial, annual, vegetable, etc. — that I start in my greenhouse. But the plants that did come up grew vigorously. I was able to transplant out four very healthy plants.

All the pollinators loved these flowers.

All the pollinators loved these flowers.

Floriferous is the word that best describes their productivity. During June and July, the two plants that survived vole and drought challenges bloomed copiously and constantly. I imagine they would make great cut flowers, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut any, because the pollinators were addicted to them — and they looked so gosh-darned fabulous in the garden.

I liked the way the flower patterns and colors varied.

I liked the way the flower patterns and colors varied.

I was very hopeful that these plants would survive the winter and return for a new growing season. After all, the native rudbeckias have no trouble with this. But like the foxgloves, my Capuccinos did not fare well during the warm, absurdly wet December my area experienced. The vigorous basal rosettes present in November seem to have melted into mush. Like the foxgloves, I will not dig up where I planted them until the new growing season begins. If I don’t see signs of resprouting then, I’ll know they drowned.

I liked the way the petals of new flowers un-rolled themselves in the sunshine.

I liked the way the petals of new flowers un-folded themselves in the sunshine.

Conclusion: As much as I want to give this variety an A+ for its wow factor, its weak germination combined with its apparent inability to handle wet soil mean I must give it a provisional A-minus. If it comes back next spring, I reserve the right to revise the grade upward.

Red Admiral on dahlia6

That concludes my description of the varieties that earned A grades in my garden. In my next post, I’ll describe the varieties that didn’t perform quite as well for me, along with a couple of varieties from previous years that continue to do well.

Here’s hoping the new gardening season will bring us optimal growing conditions. We could all use a break from droughts and deluges.

 

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Freeze Frenzy

Gather ye peppers while ye may

Gather ye peppers while ye may

I’ve been away from the blog a bit, because I’ve been outside trying to catch up on gardening tasks. Those tasks achieved urgent status this week when it became clear that the first killing freeze of the season was imminent. In my region, it is supposed to be tomorrow night. But I live in a cold pocket, so I’m betting we’ll see temperatures below freezing in my yard tonight.

Yesterday afternoon, I picked all the greens that were big enough to eat, along with fresh chives, parsley, dill, and basil, and every pepper left on the plants. Peppers faint at the slightest sign of chilly air. I also picked a big bouquet of nasturtium flowers. They are another plant that melts into mush when 30-degree temperatures visit the garden. I love the fragrance of nasturtiums; they smell like heirloom roses — sweet, but not cloying.

The green basils all melted into fungal yuck during our two weeks of rain, but the purples put on a late growth spurt.

The green basils all melted into fungal yuck during our two weeks of rain, but the purples put on a late growth spurt.

I’ve covered the greens bed with a tent of garden fabric, and I expect they will  mostly survive the two-day chill we’re in for. Warmer temperatures are predicted to return after that, so I’m hopeful more home-grown salads will be in our near future.

Enthusiastic broccoli

Enthusiastic broccoli

My tented broccoli loved the two-week rain. I don’t think I’ve ever grown such happy fall broccoli. Flower heads are just beginning to look big enough to harvest. After the cold snap, I’m going to fertilize these veggies and the greens in the hopes of encouraging some faster growth before prolonged cold settles in.

Chives and parsley also loved the two-weeks of rain.

Chives and parsley also loved the two-weeks of rain.

The drought had turned the chives into dry stalks, but they got a new lease on life after two weeks of rain. I’ve never had such a healthy autumn chive crop. And the parsley perked up too.

A sure sign of colder weather

A sure sign of colder weather

This afternoon, Wonder Spouse helped me drain the front water feature and relocate the partially submerged pots of plants that summered there. It’s slimy, mucky work, and we had to relocate four unhappy frogs down the hill to the small pond on our floodplain. These frogs were not born in our little water feature; they migrate up from the creek during rainy summer nights. The tree frogs and toads that start as tadpoles in spring in our artificial pool metamorphose and move out into the yard.

The water in the bucket is murky, but you can just make out the outlines of the four frogs we relocated today.

The water in the bucket is murky, but you can just make out the outlines of the four frogs we relocated today.

Earlier this week, I cleaned up my greenhouse, which had been vacant all summer. Then I weeded my way to where my potted plants had been summering beneath the Southern Magnolia, cleaned up all the pots, then loaded them into a wheelbarrow for transport to the greenhouse. By the end of summer, these pots harbor a wide assortment of weeds, slugs, snails, rolly-polys, and occasionally (but not this year) tree frogs or a Carolina Anole. This year’s biggest surprise was a cranky black rat snake that considered the area its turf. I posted some photos of it on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. It has been quite annoyed by my weeding, and today it was very upset with us as we drained the water feature, even rearing up as if to strike when Wonder Spouse stepped closer for a look.

Nestled snugly in their greenhouse for their winter naps

Nestled snugly in their greenhouse for their winter naps

The good news is that the frenzy of activity prompted by the impending freeze is done — and a good thing, because I’m not sure that either Wonder Spouse or I will be walking fully upright tomorrow. We were pushing our joints and muscles pretty hard, and our “mature” bodies just don’t bounce back from that sort of abuse the way they did a few decades ago.

When I do recover and the warmer weather returns, I’ll resume my attempts to catch up on weeding. The prolonged rains caused every weed to quadruple in size, so it’s going to be a winter-long task.

That’s if the winter will let me. Weather scientists are saying we’re in the midst of a strong El Nino year, which for my region means average temperatures and above-normal precipitation.  Frozen or liquid, precipitation impedes yard work. But perhaps that is just as well. I confess the idea of remaining warm indoors with books and my computer for a month or two is sounding pretty darn wonderful about now.

Stay warm, ya'll.

Stay warm, ya’ll.

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Now you see them, now you don’t

It’s been a week of appearances and disappearances in my yard and gardens. Last weekend, Wonder Spouse and I were checking out our sad little creek, which has morphed into a series of shallow pools separated by sand bars, when we noticed this:

beaver3

That was a large branch of a buttonbush growing beside the creek. All the leafy goodness was removed recently by a beaver.

It quit halfway through this one.

It quit halfway through this one.

We figure it’s probably the work of a juvenile beaver recently expelled from its parents’ territory, because the only other damage we could find was to a stand of naturally occurring hazelnuts that grow downstream from the buttonbush about a hundred yards. If a pair or more of these rodents had moved in, we would be seeing much more damage. The other possibility is that a group has set up camp somewhere in the wetland beyond the creek, which is criss-crossed by a number of channels that eventually feed into our creek downstream of our property. However, if that were the case, I would have thought even our part of the creek would have higher water levels.

Note the striations from those mighty beaver teeth.

Note the striations from those mighty beaver teeth.

I’m hoping it was a juvenile just passing through. If I had a hundred acres, I’d happily share ten with beavers — that’s the average size of the impoundment they prefer to create. But I only have five acres, and they’re full of trees and shrubs that I planted with love and have labored and watched over for decades. So I’m hoping this one moved on after decimating the tastiest woodies it could easily access.

Caterpillars of black swallowtail butterfly on bronze fennel

Caterpillars of black swallowtail butterfly on bronze fennel

My bronze fennel and parsley plants were playing host to about three dozen caterpillars four days ago. They were growing fast, and I was looking forward to searching for their chrysalises when they were ready for that transformation. However, I think they were instead transformed into dinners for my local bird population. I’ve been grateful all summer for the steady work of bluebirds, wrens, gnatcatchers, and warblers as they prevented tomato hornworms from inflicting any serious damage to my tomatoes.

Fat, finalized, and apparently delicious

Fat, fennalized, and apparently delicious

But I should have realized that the same bright eyes that spotted the hornworms would eventually notice the swallowtail caterpillars. A few mornings ago when I came out to inspect their progress, I found one lone caterpillar on a fennel. Thinking it was too exposed there, I moved it to a parsley plant disguised by chive leaves. The birds must have been watching from the trees. My relocated caterpillar didn’t last the day.

This is a tough one for me, but if forced to choose between aiding the reproduction of a beautiful pollinator species and nurturing a healthy horde of insect-devouring feathered flying machines, I think the birds are doing my landscape more good than the swallowtails. Still, it was a jolt to see my fennels suddenly devoid of caterpillars.

Red-spotted purple butterfly

Red-spotted Purple butterfly

As if in compensation, Red-spotted Purple butterflies are suddenly back in my yard. This one was sipping the moist bed in my vegetable garden that I had enriched with compost and deeply watered before I planted it with spinach, lettuce, baby kale, and beet seeds. As of yesterday, germination was evident for all varieties. I see much transplanting and watering of small seedlings in my future.

The greens bed just after planting.

The greens bed just after planting.

I am gambling big time with direct-sowing these veggies, but I had the seed, I’m craving good spinach and lettuce, so I planted. A possible hurricane may get close enough next week to make temperatures soar, but odds are we won’t get any rain out of it. I’ll be lucky to keep the seedlings and the broccoli transplants I’ve added alive until more autumnal temperatures arrive. And if the rains don’t come soon, lack of water may finish them off. But even the faint chance of sweet fall broccoli, savory spinach, crisp lettuce, and maybe even more sugary red beets was more than I could pass on. As any vegetable gardener knows, once you’ve grown — and eaten — your own, it’s very hard to go back to the grocery store.

Soldier beetle enjoying a zinnia

Soldier beetle enjoying a zinnia

Another sign of summer’s waning is the appearance of increasing numbers of soldier beetles. They are mobbing my flowers almost more than the bees.

dragonfly

Sky dragons sporting an array of colors and patterns patrol the skies from dawn till well past sunset. Given their numbers this year, it’s a miracle I’ve seen any butterflies flitting about at all.

Autumn fruits are also coloring up on a wide array of shrubs and trees in my yard, but I’ll save those for another post. For now, I advise my fellow gardeners to keep close eyes on your charges during this transitional time of year. Otherwise, you’ll almost certainly miss some of the comings and goings in your patch of green.

A motion-blurred male Spicebush Swallowtail attempts a dalliance with a female enjoying an annual salvia.

A motion-blurred male Spicebush Swallowtail attempts a dalliance with a female enjoying an annual salvia.

A note to my NC piedmont region readers:

I post a number of links of local interest on my Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. Along with many extra photos of my yard and gardens, you’ll also find links to relevant local events and to articles of interest. Check it out, and if you like what you see, follow me there.

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Recent Arrivals

Asclepias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa

Although summer heat and drought continue unabated, the quality of sunlight at dawn and dusk has changed. First, dawn is coming later, dusk earlier. But also the angle of the light is changing. Now the sun’s rays spend more time slanting through the trees, golden arrows that spotlight lichen-covered bark, a bit of mossy ground, or a bright cardinal posing on a branch.

Fortex bean trellis

Fortex bean trellis

Both pole and bush beans are losing leaves to time and fungus, but still their growing tips actively push out new shoots and flowers. I’m doling out water to them from the shallow well about every third day, and picking tasty beans about as often. It’s been a good year for the beans.

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

The tomatoes are also still producing, albeit much less enthusiastically. As usual, Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes win the prize for prolonged productivity. If I could give them more water, I’m sure they would produce even more heavily, but a handful of fruits every other day is more than enough to quell our tomato hankerings.

Broccoli tent

Broccoli tent

Last weekend at the local farmers’ market, a gentleman was selling vigorous seedlings of a number of broccoli, chard, and collard varieties. I never get around to starting fall crops in time, because my little greenhouse is too hot this time of year. I couldn’t resist the healthy broccoli babies. I got 6 Packman — a southern standard in these parts — and 6 Arcadia — a variety I’ve never tried that is supposed to be very cold-resistant, thereby extending the broccoli season into late fall — theoretically, anyway. We love fall broccoli at my house, because the frosts seem to sweeten them, but there’s a fine line between frost and freeze, and you can’t always predict when that line will be crossed.

Enter my little tent above. Yesterday, I planted my broccoli babies, mulched them with compost, and watered them very, very thoroughly. I draped spun garden fabric over metal hoops to enclose the plants completely. Right now, that’s mainly to keep out the cabbage moths that love to lay their eggs on broccoli, resulting in green loopers chomping the plants to stubs. As cooler temperatures arrive, the tent will protect the plants from frost damage; sometimes it even deflects the first few freezes. I leave one side loosely tacked down so that I can lift it easily for watering, because even though the fabric does let water through, much does bounce off. And the rains continue to avoid my house anyway. We are so very dry here that it hurts me to walk around the yard and see all my suffering, wilting green friends.

Writing spider breakfasting on her latest victim

Writing spider breakfasting on her latest victim

The Writing Spider whose web was draped parallel to the tomato trellis relocated herself. Now she has anchored her home to the trellis on one side and a tall basil plant on the other, stretching across a garden path to optimize her chances of catching unwary fliers. I think it’s working for her, as you can see.

Sunflower multiplicity

Sunflower multiplicity

Of the five sunflowers (Sunflower ‘Birds and Bees’ from Renee’s Garden) that managed to grow for me this dry summer season, four produced single large flowers on top of their stalks, while this one, which bloomed last, produced multiple, smaller heads. The pollinators seem to feel that size doesn’t matter.

Black swallowtail caterpillars

Black swallowtail caterpillars

A few insect species that I normally see by June have only just recently appeared in my garden this year. Case in point: Black Swallowtails and their caterpillars. Finally, the bronze fennel I plant especially for their caterpillars to dine on is covered in these colorful, voracious critters.

Carolina mantis

Carolina mantis

After only seeing the Chinese mantises all summer, I was quite relieved to spot this native Carolina Mantis staked out on my Autumn Daffodil daylily in the front garden. They are much smaller and differently colored. This one did not like being photographed and kept jumping about, hence the slightly blurred photos.

Waiting for unwary pollinators

Waiting for unwary pollinators

That’s the tip of a daylily petal, so you can see how relatively small this one was. I don’t think it was full-grown, but this species never attains the size of the Chinese mantises that often displace them from their preferred habitats.

Pipevine Swallowtail

Pipevine Swallowtail

The most abundant dark swallowtail butterfly in my yard is the Spicebush Swallowtail, probably because the shrub for which it is named grows all over my yard. Finally yesterday I spotted my first Pipevine Swallowtail. The shimmery blue of their hind wings is unmistakeable, but it is very hard to get a decent photo of them, because they drink nectar while hovering — just like hummingbirds. In photo after photo, I end up with motion-blurred wings.

The blue hind wings shimmer like water dancing in sunlight.

The blue hind wings shimmer like water dancing in sunlight.

I planted some native pipevines two years ago in the hopes of attracting more of these beauties. I suspect the drought may have damaged them; I’ve been afraid to look, because I just don’t have any water for them.

Golden wings of this dragonfly shimmered in the sunlight too.

Golden wings of this dragonfly shimmered in the sunlight too.

This dragonfly showed up a few days ago and posed on one of my ornamental grasses. I’ve never seen dragonfly wings edged in gold before.

Formosa lily blooms signal summer's waning.

Formosa lily blooms signal summer’s waning.

Tall Formosa Lilies lean from the weight of their enormous white trumpets. Their sugary fragrance perfumes the humid morning air.

Finally!

Finally!

I’ll close with this somewhat fuzzy shot. The point here is that I managed to get two Eastern Tiger Swallowtails in one photo. For most of the summer, even this common species has been sparse. Finally, in the last week, they are everywhere, drifting from blooming abelia to bright lantana to Joe Pye Weed and Cardinal Flower. Finally, I am having to walk carefully to avoid colliding with these floating lovelies.

It’s been a long, dry summer, and we’ve more to go before autumn arrives. It lifts my spirits to see these recent arrivals. Better late than never, as the saying goes.

Now if we can just persuade that tropical system out in the Atlantic Ocean to send its moisture — but not its winds — our way, that would be a fine ending for this season, and a great opener for the next.

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Pollinator Palooza

Feather-legged fly

Feather-legged fly

I have been spending way too much time outside with the camera lately. I’m not sure whether the diversity of pollinators in my garden has expanded this year, or I just wasn’t paying attention until now — mostly because I never had a camera that could come close to capturing these tiny, very active insects.

Well, mostly tiny. That very cool-looking creature above is actually relatively large, maybe the size of one of our common carpenter bees. Those “feathered” back legs are its diagnostic feature. It was bouncing around on my bronze fennel flowers.

It always held out its wings like this.

It always held out its wings like this.

As I mentioned on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page earlier, this fly is a garden ally, not just for its pollination prowess. Its larvae parasitize the larvae of squash bugs and green stink bugs. Bring on the feather-legs!

A scoliid wasp maybe?

A scoliid wasp maybe?

This one was much smaller and also on the fennel flowers. Its red body-black head and wings conjures in my admittedly strange mind a mini-superhero pollinator.

Ready to leap into action?

Ready to leap into action?

All of these little wasps, bees, and flies are covered in tiny hairs that catch pollen.

A scoliid wasp, I think, enjoying the tiny flowers of my Greek oregano.

A scoliid wasp, I think, enjoying the tiny flowers of my Greek oregano.

I’ve learned that scoliid wasps come in a dazzling array of colors and stripes. All have larval forms that parasitize scarab beetle larvae, many of which are also garden pests. Until I had a camera that could capture these tiny beauties, I never realized how diversely wonderful they are.

Another scold maybe?

Another scoliid wasp maybe?

I ponder the shape of this one and wonder how such tiny “waists” are adaptive.

Perhaps another scoliid wasp -- this one with reddish-yellow stripes.

Perhaps another scoliid wasp — this one with reddish-yellow stripes.

The oregano and fennel flowers — both tiny and numerous — seem to attract the most diverse array of pollinators. This fall, I’m going to add some new perennials that will produce similar flower clusters. I want to attract all the squash bug and beetle eaters that I can!

The honeybees like the oregano flowers too.

The honeybees like the oregano flowers too.

Many different bumblebees, carpenter bees, and honeybees were all over the fennel and oregano too, but not dominantly so. The bees seemed to prefer anise hyssop flowers, zinnia blooms, and the abelias currently perfuming the humid air.

A buckeye enjoying oregano flowers.

A Common Buckeye enjoying oregano flowers.

The butterflies are still around too, but still not as numerous as I’d like. I still haven’t seen a Monarch, although sitings not far from me have been reported.

A battered Red Admiral enjoying abelia flowers.

A battered Red Admiral enjoying abelia flowers.

Far more numerous than the butterflies are the dragonflies. I think they are largely responsible for the ragged look of many of the butterflies.

They patrol the skies from dawn to dusk.

They patrol the skies from dawn to dusk.

Writing spider finishing her breakfast

Writing spider finishing her breakfast

Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed the pollinator palooza going on in my garden. The predators become more numerous daily. In addition to the sky dragons, spiders are setting up shop between tomato plants, on the bean trellis, among the tall zinnias — anywhere that’s likely to intercept the flight path of an unwary pollinator.

An Asian Praying Mantis doing its best to imitate a bronze fennel bloom stalk

An Asian Praying Mantis doing its best to imitate a bronze fennel bloom stalk

This mantis set up shop in the bronze fennel several days ago. It’s still there, so I’m thinking it is enjoying picking off the busy pollinators visiting the flowers just above this predator’s head.

Pollinators beware!

Pollinators beware!

When the mantis is extra hungry, it eschews its disguise, preferring to perch boldly right on top of the flowers.

Wheelbug on a fennel stem

Wheelbug on a fennel stem

This wheel bug moved in on the mantis’s fennel turf yesterday. They are ignoring each other, so I guess there are enough delicious pollinators to go around.

Small skink in the boulder garden

Small skink in the boulder garden

Of course, pollinators also need to be wary of non-insect predators like this young skink, which was chasing Pearl Crescent butterflies in the boulder garden.

Green frog on rim of water feature

Green frog on rim of water feature

As always happens in summer, mature green frogs have moved into my little water feature. Here they are safe from predators, such as water snakes, and can focus on being predators themselves.

Ailanthus Web Worm moth on Joe Pye Weed flowers

Ailanthus Web Worm moth on Joe Pye Weed flowers

I’m picking beans and tomatoes every day, thanks in large part, I’m sure, to all these busy pollinators. But that productivity won’t last much longer, unless summer rains decide to visit my yard. In the last few weeks, all the storms have missed me. My creek has stopped flowing; it’s just a series of puddles between sand bars at the moment. Here’s hoping some juicy clouds have pity on my yard soon.

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Garden Arrivals and Departures

spider

The Writing Spiders have grown large enough to make their presence known throughout the landscape. The yellow-and-black beauties that scrawl squiggles in their webs are probably about half grown now — big enough to spot, sited strategically among bean vines and trellised tomatoes. They know where the tasty bugs are to be found. I don’t argue with them, as long as they don’t cast their webs across the rows where I must walk. There’s nothing like a face full of spider silk to wake a sleepy gardener from her early morning harvesting tasks.

buckeye open

Butterflies continue to increase in numbers and species diversity — finally! The online butterfly group I follow seems to think they are the result of a second reproductive wave that has been vastly more successful than the first one. Whatever the reason, I am happy to see them animate my landscape as they float from zinnia to anise hyssop to abelia to coneflower.

sick coneflowers

Recently, flowers of one Purple Coneflower and one Black-eyed Susan morphed into blooms that looked as if they belonged in a Dr. Seuss book. A quick search of the Web revealed they were afflicted with a disease called Aster Yellows. This disease is spread by leafhoppers; they inject the responsible organism when they feed on the plants. No cures are available. To avoid spreading the disease, the experts advise removal of the plants — and disposal in the trash, not the compost pile.

sick coneflower

The disease can affect over 300 plant species, and grasses and weeds can act as reservoirs for the disease. Two of the most likely weed reservoirs are plantains and dandelions, both of which abound in my “lawn.” Symptoms of the disease vary with the infected species, but the Dr. Seuss-like flower tops are apparently key clues. The infected coneflower also had green, sickly petals — another sign.

sick Susan

The leaves of the coneflower looked green and healthy, and even the flowers didn’t look too bad, just strange. However, the infected Black-eyed Susan was clearly sick. Like the coneflower, it had the strange growths in the centers of its flowers, but the leaves were also yellowing and dying.

sick Susan2

I photographed the infected flowers and then disposed of them. The link above also notes that the infection can be spread between plants via dead-heading, if you don’t wipe off your clippers with alcohol between plants. The disease was probably isolated to only these two plants in my garden because I don’t dead-head coneflowers or rudbeckias. I prefer to let them set seed, so the goldfinches and other seed eaters can enjoy them.

poke milkweed flowers2

The Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) that I planted last fall is blooming. Compared to the showier butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), it is a demure plant. But I find I like the pendulous pale pink flowers. Alas, so far its flowers have attracted more ants than bees or butterflies. Still, it’s there if the Monarchs manage to find my garden.

Amelia tomatoes

I’m picking tomatoes and beans daily again, now that the temperatures backed down to the low 90s and we’ve had some rain. And the basil is having an excellent year. I cut whole stems of it for a vase in the kitchen, so that Wonder Spouse has leaves handy as inspiration moves him to add them to his culinary masterpieces.

The rains have also inspired the weeds to new heights and numbers. Truly, a gardener’s work is never done. I do the best I can, as I observe and enjoy the comings and goings of flora and fauna through their seasonal dance.

spider close

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Insects own High Summer

green dragon

 

The heat and humidity have begun to wear on plants as well as humans in my patch of Piedmont. I saw a notice from a local extension agent that dreaded basil mildew disease has been spotted. I think it held off longer than usual — as did most of the fungal diseases — because our June was unusually dry and hot.

A Milkweed bug

A Milkweed bug

July has brought heavy, but scattered rains, and lingering humidity and heat. Fungal diseases are certain to soon plague my tomatoes, and perhaps the beans. The vegetables, while still producing well, are looking a bit tired. Many flowers are still blooming well, which the abundant insects are clearly appreciating.

damselfly mystery

The nearly butterfly-free summer continues at my house. Iridescent members of the dragonfly clan dominate the thick air, causing me to worry about the fate of the few butterflies I am seeing. The rains have finally brought around a few butterflies, I’m happy to say.

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was enjoying the Chinese Abelia flowers that finally opened after we got some rain.

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was enjoying the Chinese Abelia flowers that finally opened after we got some rain.

No clouds of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails this year, but a few are passing through from time to time. Pearl Crescents (I think that’s what they are) are easily the most numerous butterflies on my flowers.

A Pearl Crescent enjoying a Rudbeckia flower.

A Pearl Crescent enjoying a Rudbeckia flower.

I spotted a couple of dark swallowtails over the last few days.

Also on the Chinese Abelia flowers

Also on the Chinese Abelia flowers

And this one high up on a dogwood yesterday was drying out after a bit of rain from the previous evening.

A Spicebush Swallowtail maybe?

A Spicebush Swallowtail maybe?

My happiest butterfly moment of the summer so far was this Red Admiral sunning itself on my driveway yesterday. This is the first one of this species I’ve seen all year.

Welcome back, Red Admiral!

Welcome back, Red Admiral!

More numerous — by a bit — than the butterflies are the sphinx moths, also called hummingbird moths, because their mostly clear wings vibrate as quickly as those of hummingbirds as they hover beside flowers to drink nectar. As an amateur photographer, I find them very frustrating to capture. But I’ve gotten a few almost decent shots over the last few days, if you’ll indulge me.

This is typically how I see them, wings nearly invisible as they hover for a drink.

This is typically how I see them, wings nearly invisible as they hover for a drink.

In this hover shot, you can at least see the outline of their wings.

In this hover shot, you can at least see the outline of their wings.

Yesterday, I saw one spread out on a tomato leaf sunning itself in the early dawn light. We had very heavy dew on the ground, and I think it was drying itself.

Finally, you can actually see its beautiful wings in this shot.

Finally, you can actually see its beautiful wings in this shot.

And a final profile shot as it rested on the tomato leaf:

These creatures are so ethereal as they almost perpetually dance among my flowers that I think of them as tiny angels blessing my efforts.

These creatures are so ethereal as they almost perpetually dance among my flowers that I think of them as tiny angels blessing my efforts.

I’ll close this photo post with a few flower shots to show you what the insects are enjoying.

Seed-grown Rudbeckia 'Cappuccino' has turned into a stunning plant seemingly oblivious to the heat and humidity. Score!

Seed-grown Rudbeckia ‘Cappuccino’ has turned into a stunning plant seemingly oblivious to the heat and humidity. Score!

Echinaceas in the boulder garden are covered in pollinators from dawn to dark. That's a rosemary plant in the middle. It loves the heat from the sun-warmed rocks.

Echinaceas in the boulder garden are covered in pollinators from dawn to dark. That’s a rosemary plant in the middle. It loves the heat from the sun-warmed rocks.

The milkweeds I added to the boulder garden last fall continue to bloom -- repeatedly! This butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is on its second round of bright blossoms.

The milkweeds I added to the boulder garden last fall continue to bloom — repeatedly! This butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is on its second round of bright blossoms.

The rain made the weeds explode into productivity, of course. My gardening to-do list grows ever longer, while my enthusiasm for working in the summer weather continues to wane. Still, for fresh-picked blueberries, juicy tomato sandwiches, and a dazzling array of pollinators, I’ll endeavor to keep up as best I can.

Amelia tomatoes -- so good!

Amelia tomatoes — so good!

Stay cool and hydrated, ya’ll. Fall planting season will be here before we can turn around twice.

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