Gardening as spiritual practice: Slowing down, looking around

Sometimes, when I approach my house from the road, I think “Oh, what a terrible mess.” I see the weeds that need pulling, the plants growing in the wrong places, the big gaps where plants haven’t filled in as quickly as I hoped.

Thinking about the garden this way–Don’t I owe it to the neighbors to stay on top of my weeds? Is my garden turning into the neighborhood eyesore?–turns it from a joy into a chore. Moreover, such a mindset prevents me from enjoying nature in its cycle, where it is and as it is, in the present. So yesterday I took a few minutes out from weeding to appreciate the gorgeous rosy colors of fall in my garden. The oranges and yellows are here, too, but today I’m sticking to a softer palette.

aster tataricus

Aster tataricus

rose chrysanthemum with yellow center

An unknown chrysanthemum, picked up from a bargain table a few years ago. I’ve made many more of it from its cuttings.

Bee on aster tataricus.

Bee on Aster tataricus

iris domestica seed pod

Deep purple-black seeds of Iris domestica (blackberry lily)

ceratotheca triloba

Fuzzy, foxglove-like blossoms of Ceratotheca triloba.

spider egg sacs in yucca plant

Two egg sacs of Argiope aurantia

anemone hupenensis 'Pamina'

Anemone hupenensis ‘Pamina’

physostegia

A pass-along Physostegia (obedient plant) begins to flower.

Advertisements

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.

Brief intermission

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

henry

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!

 

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.

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

Dear Friend and Gardener: August 1, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

How on earth can it be August? The summer is flying by, and I must start thinking about my fall garden. Already I am somewhat behind (what else is new?).

This past week I planted baby bush lima beans and pulled out the ‘Contender’ bush beans. The flea beetles abused the ‘Contenders’ horribly; next year I’ll do a better job of protecting them at the outset. I have two small eggplant growing, but something’s making eyelet out of the leaves. I do hate to spray but it may be time to pull out the neem oil. Oh, how it smells!

flea beetle damage beans

Flea beetle damage on ‘Contender’ bush beans

The tomatoes, however, are performing well. We’ve had cooler weather lately, in the mid-80s, which means the plants have a better chance of setting fruit. While the fruits do taste better when they ripen hot, I have to wonder, how hot is hot? What’s the optimal temperature for good-tasting tomatoes? The other challenging factor is that we’ve had lots of rain. I have to really keep an eye out and harvest the ripened fruits before they split.

I got my first fig on Wednesday! It was, I tell you, the best fig I have ever eaten. Do you grow figs? I intend to plant another one this fall because I have heard that they set better when there is another fig close by. And I also have ambitions to grow some more blueberries. Well, I have lots of ambitions.

One of my lingonberries died during a heat wave but the other is chugging along nicely. I’m starting kale this weekend and some lettuce as well. I should make room for carrots, garlic, and shallots. I’m fortunate to be able to harvest food year-round here, if I get organized in late summer and through the fall. How long is your harvest season?

Hope the weather is treating you well and the late blight stays at bay.

Best,

Amy