Introducing my not-so-itsy-bitsy garden spider: Argiope aurantia

The other morning, I noticed a large spider in a yucca plant near the road in my blue slope garden. Yesterday afternoon, I nipped out to see if it was still there.

The black and yellow argiope (Argiope aurantia)

The black and yellow argiope (Argiope aurantia)

The black-and-yellow argiope (Argiope aurantia) is fairly common throughout the US and Canada. It lives in shrubs and tall plants in meadows and gardens, and eats the small flying insects it catches in its web, which may be up to 2 feet in diameter.

This is a female spider. Like most of her species, she spends her time hanging head-down in the middle of her web. I haven’t yet found an egg sac, but I shall keep looking. It will be a half-inch to an inch in size, coated in a brown papery covering, looking a bit like a fat acorn. The eggs hatch in autumn, but the young overwinter in the sac and disperse in the spring.

argiope close 2

The zigzag pattern in the web is known as a stabilimentum, but its purpose is of some debate. These spiders eat and rebuild their webs every day, except during periods of molting and egg-laying.

I watched her for perhaps five minutes, during which time she seemed to feel peckish. She turned around and began climbing towards the bundle she’d wound up earlier.

argiope climbing 3

 

argiope climbing 5

The short, light-brown leggy structures with which she seems to be holding the prey are called pedipalps. Although they look like legs, they function more as antennae. She uses her pedipalps just as it appears, to hold the prey steady and guide it to her mouth.

She wrapped herself around it, perhaps taking a sip in the process, and then moved her dish to another spot on her web.

argiope climbing 7

argiope climbing 8

argiope climbing 9

argiope dinner time

argiope my dinner argiope moving food argiope taking food

Wildflower Wednesday: Joe Pye Weed

My garden doesn’t have many fall native wildflowers (yet). One I do like very much, though, is hollow Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum).

Hollow joe pye weed

Native to eastern North America, Eutrochium fistulosum forms a massive clump, growing 5-8 feet tall and 4 feet wide in the moist soils it likes. Mine is a bit on the drier side, and so grows correspondingly shorter, topping out at around 6 feet high and 3 feet wide. During rainy spells in summer, I can practically watch it grow. 

Butterflies and bees love the flowers, which are rich in nectar. 

My plant suffered a setback from last year’s weather, I think; it’s half the size it was last year. Or perhaps it’s time to dig and divide. I’m keen to keep it going because it attracts so much wildlife. And the seed heads look beautiful all winter, especially under ice.

Ice on Joe Pye weed, Eutrochium purpureum

Ice on Joe Pye weed, Eutrochium fistulosum

Season: midsummer through fall; winter interest
Height: 5-8 ft.
Flower Color: Rosy purple.
Hardiness: USDA Hardiness Zone 4-8
Foliage: Lime green, lightly serrated. Red stems.
Flower: Loose, rosy purple inflorescences.

Site: Prefers moist sites but will cope with average to dry soils.

Propagation: Division spring or fall.

Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Soil: Moist and well-drained to wet. 
Origin: Eastern North America
Life Cycle: Perennial

Wildflower Wednesday is a celebration of wildflowers from all over the world. It’s hosted by Gail and Clay and Limestone on the fourth Wednesday of each month. 

Rain lilies

Late last year, I stopped by a favorite nursery and binged on plants for which I did not have a place prepared in the garden. Among the must-haves that found their way into my cart were Habranthus robustus, the nodding rain lily.

Habranthus robustus, rain lily

Zephyranthes sp. and Habranthus sp. are two genera commonly known as rain lilies, because they come into flower after summer rainstorms. Interestingly, they don’t respond in the same way to a shower from the hose or watering can–even if the water comes from a rain barrel. I am fascinated to know how these plants know the difference between the water sources. I have read a suggestion that it’s to do with nitrogen in the rainwater fixed by lightning, but they bloom after storms without lightning as well.

I am not sure why it’s called nodding rain lily–I didn’t observe the blooms nodding downward to any extent, but perhaps mine were duds. The position of the bloom, though, is one way to tell the genera apart: Zephyranthes species’ blooms tend to face upward, while Habranthus species’ blooms face outward, like those of their relative, the amaryllis.

The bulbs begin blooming in late summer, when little else shows up, and will often multiply steadily if planted in a happy spot. Unfortunately, I think mine may have been lost to last winter’s polar vortex. Plant Delights Nursery and Brent and Becky’s Bulbs carry lots of these fascinating plants, which are hardy between USDA Zones 7-10. I have read that Zephyranthes citrina is hardy to Zone 5. I’m keen to repopulate my garden with them all, but I may have to wait until next spring. I hear that another polar vortex may be in future this winter.

Crop experiment: Growing shallots

Have you ever grown shallots? I haven’t, but I’ve just ordered my first sets to plant this fall. I love the way they taste, so I’m excited to try them.

Shallots (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are botanically related to onions and garlic. They are native to Central Asia and have a very mild, delicate onion flavor that is wonderful in salads and egg dishes. They grow like garlic, forming clusters of offsets (small bulbs that form off the main bulb). Inside the bulb, shallots are layered like onions.

I’m growing French gray shallots (Allium oschaninii), which some consider to be the “true” shallot, and French red shallots, the ones most often found in grocery stores and markets. The red shallots are supposed to be easier to grow, but the gray ones allegedly have better flavor. The red shallots grow larger; the grey produce prolifically.

Like other root crops, they like well draining soil amended with lots of organic matter. My raised beds should suit them very well, as they contain equal parts composted manure, decomposed bark, and washed sand. I’ll perform a soil test before planting to make sure the pH is appropriate. I cannot plant them until mid-October, but if I wait until then to order them, they won’t be available. I made that mistake last year.

What crops are you trying out in your fall garden this year?

Dear Friend and Gardener: August 15, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

Looking out the window this week at all the mud and mess in the garden, I fell into a bit of a funk. But a little something came in the mail today:

seed packet delivery

 

And now I’m feeling a little brighter.

Are you planning your fall garden? Planting your fall garden? What will you be growing?

Gardening as spiritual practice: Waiting

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

 

August in my garden is almost always a time of waiting. The garden is my primary source for renewal and peace. It is where I am creative, and where I have space and quiet to think. But this August, after so much rain, it is a place of weeds, mud, mosquitoes, and rot. When I head out the door, I don’t see the fruits of my labor, or a blank canvas waiting to be painted. I see enemy territory. I see a long list of my least favorite chores. The garden, for a while, is nearly the last place I want to be.

Gardening teaches (and re-teaches) patience in lots of ways. We learn patience through happy anticipation, waiting for seeds to germinate, for flowers to bloom, for snow to thaw. Why is it that I struggle to view my late-summer landscape with the same anticipation? Is it because the lushness I see outside comes mostly from plants growing in the wrong places? (You know.) Their flowers and seedpods mean the same work for me next year–or perhaps even next month. Is it that this season’s relative dearth of butterflies and bees makes the environment seem lonely? Is it mostly the mud and mess, combined with a lack of available cash (see vacation photos…) to ameliorate the problem?

Whatever it is, I remind myself that the feeling is temporary. The humidity will break in a month or two, and the fall blooming plants will take their turn to delight and surprise me. Those weeds will always be with me, and I must learn to change my attitude about them. So many of them offer critical food or nectar sources for wildlife that I cherish. And so much is happening that I cannot see. Remarkable processes and relationships, which have taken ages to evolve, go through their rhythms before my unseeing eyes.

ants on peony thru magnifying glassI remind myself again that in the garden, there is always something to anticipate happily, and there is always something wonderful unfolding before me. The difference in the garden between a time to mourn and a time to dance is in the gardener’s intention to hear a waltz instead of a dirge.