Carolina wolf spiders, or Halloween Arrives Early

I got a bit of a shock the other morning when I went to pick up a stray bit of laundry on the bedroom floor and found this fellow scrambling around in it:

big scary spider aerial

I trapped her in a clear plastic container so I could examine her more carefully. As a result, the photos are not as sharp as they might be.

The first thing you’ll notice is that she’s huge. That’s part of what makes me believe she’s a female. If I’m correct in my identification, she is a female Hogna carolinensis, or Carolina wolf spider. Females of this species have bodies between 22-35 mm (.8–1.4 in), while males are smaller, at 18-20 mm (3/4″) in body length. I would estimate this one to be close to 35mm long, about the length of my thumb from the first joint to the base of my thumbnail.

Carolina wolf spider (Hogna carolinensis)

Carolina wolf spider (Hogna carolinensis)

She’s also quite beautiful, with elaborate markings on her cephalothorax and slightly less extensive markings on her abdomen. Her legs are hairy but without stripes. She scrambled frantically inside her plastic trap and was strong enough to push the container around on the wood floor when I didn’t hold it down.

Carolina wolf spiders are the largest wolf spiders in North America (oh, good!), and they are hunters, not passive web-weavers. They’ll eat large insects and even small rodents. They like arid areas, which perhaps is why I found this one inside my house. It’s been really wet lately; perhaps she needed somewhere to dry out. I’d rather not reflect on what she may have been eating while I sleep.

big scary spider 2Carolina wolf spiders dig burrows six inches deep in which they deposit egg sacs of 100-150 eggs. Wanting to find neither a six-inch-deep hole in my house nor 150 baby spiders like her, I slipped a piece of tin foil beneath the edge of the container, onto which she jumped, then slid it across the opening to secure her within the container. I took her outside and dropped her into the vegetable garden, where I hope she’ll terrorize every flea beetle in sight.

Growing cyclamen from seed: Cautiously optimistic

Last year, I tried growing cyclamen from seed.

Spring came and went and I saw no evidence of success; only empty pots topped with chicken grit. I set them on my potting table outside and left them to do what they would. Deep down, I believed I was merely procrastinating at composting their remains and sanitizing the pots for something else.

Last week, I happened to glance down at the table as I passed by.

cyclamen coum seedling sept 2014 2

A single leaf of Cyclamen coum emerging from beneath the gravel

A seedling of Cyclamen coum emerging! I studied it for perhaps five minutes before I convinced myself it wasn’t a weed. And then I noticed something else: I seem to have two (count ‘em!) seedlings of Cyclamen rohlfsianum coming up.

Two seedlings (the one on the right is really tiny) of Cyclamen rohlfsianum.

Two seedlings (the one on the right is really tiny) of Cyclamen rohlfsianum.

I’m delirious with excitement. I intend to keep my hands well off them for some time until they appear resilient enough to cope with me. I will also leave the other pots to see if they’re thinking similarly…Bittster, how long should I give them?


Brief intermission

It’s been a really busy week here, in large measure to the impending arrival of this little guy:


His name’s Henry. He’s 9 months old, and he came with the name.

It’s just like having a human toddler in the house again. He’s delightful and sweet, but requires a lot of monitoring just now.

I just got my soil test results back, so I hope to post soon about how those came out and how to mix your own fertilizer blends. You know, just in time to put the garden to bed for the winter. Or maybe I’ll review one of Henry Mitchell’s essays about hounds in the garden. They apparently have an innate sense as to on which plant you’d like them most not to sit.

A new adventure awaits!


Great garden bulbs: Sternbergia lutea

Last year, I visited Montrose and became bewitched by a charming little bulb I’d never seen before: Sternbergia lutea.

A diminutive amaryllid native to the Mediterranean, Sternbergia lutea isn’t widely grown, but it should be. It looks like a tall yellow crocus, but blooms in September. The blooms can be short-lived, but they are followed by grassy green foliage that persists through the winter, then disappears as the rest of the garden wakes up in the spring.

Sternbergia lutea growing at Montrose.

Sternbergia lutea growing at Montrose.

They like their summers dry–so dry, in fact, that the bases of oak trees provide ideal planting conditions –and prefer being left alone. Heavy clay doesn’t bother them,  either. Don’t lime them, whatever you do, and keep them clear of automated watering systems.

I think they’d look spectacular mixed into a bed of black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens,’ which will tolerate the drought-like conditions the Sternbergias need in the summer, or another dark-leaved ground cover like Ajuga reptans ‘Mahogany.’ Alternatively, a broad-leaved, yellow-variegated ground cover like Lamium maculatum ‘Anne Greenway,’ would complement the blossoms handsomely.

Lamium maculatum ‘Anne Greenway.’ Photo by

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens.’ Photo by

Unusual garden bulbs make great garden plants. They’re easy for the novice gardener, cheap to buy and grow (many reseed or reproduce by offsets, and require little in the way of fertilizers or pest management schemes), and many bulbs can last forever in the home garden.  Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, VA, carries Sternbergia lutea, among other terrific and unusual plants. And they’re not a sponsor of my site; I just like them.

What are your favorite plants for the fall garden?

Controlling flea beetles in the fall garden (help wanted)

I didn’t get row cover on my beans in time this spring, and the flea beetles found me.

tired beans

Flea beetle is something of a catch-all term used to describe several species of beetles (not all of the same genera), all of which are tiny (1/16 to 1/10 of an inch long), that live in the soil and cause mayhem in North American gardens. They adore feeding on your vegetable plants, and can reduce a favorite crop to smithereens if not dealt with promptly. One treatment won’t suffice: They can produce four generations or so in a warm-climate growing season. Overwintering adults typically emerge when temperatures hit about 50 degrees (10 C). In recent years, it’s been 50 degrees at Christmas.

Here is my quandary: Their preferred cuisine is cruciferous, which happens to be what I need to get planted soon. Most winters are mild enough here that greens and root crops may be harvested year-round if grown under horticultural fabric, but that means getting seedlings and transplants off to a good start, starting now.

Row covers can be effectively employed to exclude flea beetles from pristine soil, but (clearly) that’s not what I have. Installing row cover where an infestation has already occurred just traps the beetles inside, keeping them safe from predators while they devour your spinach. Row cover must be sealed tightly all the way around to be effective, by the way.

Trap crops come highly recommended. “Plant a crop of mustard greens!” the gardening literature exhorts. Alas, the trap crops are what I want to eat this winter. Kale, collards, mustard greens, broccolini, radishes, tatsoi, arugula. These are the seed packets sitting on my desk, awaiting my decision. I fear that planting a trap crop, even far away (relatively speaking) from the vegetable bed, will only encourage more of the little punks to move in and feast upon everything in sight.

The garden literature also recommends scouting newly planted beds and counting the beetles as they arrive. This presumes the gardener can count insects best differentiated from dirt with a hand lens before they jump to the safety of the earth. Anyone who has brushed against a plant infested with flea beetles has seen a spray of tiny bugs fleeing the scene of the crime. Who can possibly count them in situ? Even if the gardener manages to hunker silently down and get a view of the action, must she hold her breath to avoid disturbing them? What if she needs to sneeze? (It’s fall pollen season, you know.)

Flea Beetle Management for Canola, Rapeseed, and Mustard in the Canadian Northern Great Plains. Graphic by the Government of Saskatchewan.

I don’t want to spray if I can avoid it. I have been known to pull out the neem oil from time to time, but it’s only moderately effective against flea beetles.

What to do, then?

Possible solutions to flea beetle infestation

I’m tempted to try one or a combination of the following. Have you had success with any of these?

1. Diatomaceous earth. DE is a fine powder made of fossilized remains of diatoms, a kind of algae. When used as an insecticide, the powder absorbs components of the waxy coating of insects’ exoskeletons and causes them to dehydrate. It’s critical to obtain food-grade DE for this application to be effective.

2. Interplanting with garlic. Garlic is a moderately effective insect repellant when sprayed on plant surfaces. I have to plant my garlic somewhere; I suppose it may as well go between my rows of kale.

3. Parasitic nematodes. To read about parasitic nematodes is to discover another of Mother Nature’s horror shows. Employing them can be a bit tricky, because the gardener must get the correct kinds of nematodes (families Steinernematidae and Heterorhabditidae, and some species are picky about who they infect); time the application to coincide with a larval stage of the target species; and keep the soil moist, not too hot, and not too cold.  On the plus side, they don’t infect birds or mammals.

Parasitic nematodes. Photo by Penn State University Extension.

Given my warm climate, and extrapolating unscientifically from the graphic above, I guess I might be able to interrupt a larval cycle if I went out tomorrow and applied the nematodes…maybe?

Please send your advice, post-haste.