Cat TV and tulips

Like many gardeners, we provide a couple of bird feeders in our yard. Along with the desirable birds, we get less desirable visitors like pigeons and squirrels. Having tried (and failed) to make our system squirrel-proof, I finally decided to wave the white flag and embrace our furry visitors with their own bowl of treats – raw peanuts and sunflower seeds in the shell. We put this on our deck next to the sliding door so our cats can enjoy the show.

IMG_8162IMG_8301

IMG_7890Cat TV is very popular viewing at our house.

A completely unexpected benefit of Cat TV is that the squirrels no longer dig up my bulbs and gnaw at them. Nor do they destroy my tulip buds. In fact, for the first time ever my tulips are intact and gorgeous.

IMG_8299

Now if I could come up with something for the pigeons…

Digging these wasps!

After writing about the unusually bad scourge of Japanese Beetles earlier in the month, I thought I’d continue on down the “garden bugs” path. The Japanese Beetles have died down, but now we have oodles of these pretty black and yellow-spotted waspy things around. They’re everywhere, and in large numbers. I planted some buckwheat over our potato garden bed, and it is covered up with them. The point of the buckwheat was as a primo late-season nectar source for our honeybee hives as they prepare for winter. Blooming for the last week or two, I kept checking it expecting to see happy bees, feasting away. Nada. Just the wasps.

Intriguing. A brief googling revealed the wasp to be Scolia dubia, one of the “digger wasps.” They rarely sting, and better yet -their larvae are parasites of Japanese Beetles! All that swooping around over our so-called lawn is apparently the mating dance, then the female digs into the soil to find the grubs. After stinging the grub, she lays an egg…and you see where this is going. Cozy winter grub cocoon for the pupating larvae!

Blue Wing Digging Wasp on buckwheat.
Blue Wing Digging Wasp on buckwheat.

Back to the bed of gourmet buckwheat. I’m thrilled to see all those wasps feeding on the nectar. Eat, dig, and be merry, ladies! But what about the honeybees – seemingly ignoring this glorious patch of buckwheat planted just for them? I don’t need any more picky eaters…aren’t our two dinner-snubbing dogs enough? So I asked Dr. Richard Fell, legendary Apiculture faculty here at Virginia Tech, about this mystery. “Honeybees only work buckwheat in the morning” sayeth Rick. Went out this morning and observed that buckwheat is indeed the breakfast of champions. The entire patch was literally humming with multiple species, including loads of honeybees. I’d only been checking in the evening.

Addendum:
So my post apparently isn’t breaking news. Just came across this as I checked my Scolia spelling. Sounds like they had beetles galore in Maryland as well this summer.
If you’re not familiar with Dr. Michael Raupp, Entomologist and Extension Specialist at University of Maryland, he’s awesome, and his “Bug of the Week” blog is a must. His September 1 post reviews the digger wasp/japanese beetle relationship as well, with more factoids and a lovely video featuring writhing grubs. http://bugoftheweek.com/blog/2014/9/1/white-grubs-beware-the-blue-winged-digger-wasp-iscolia-dubiai-has-arrived

Re-using containers? A cautionary tale.

I attempted to clean up our little home greenhouse over the holiday break. There’s no good place to recycle pots around here, and I hate throwing them away…so I suffer from container build-up. Figured I’d sort through the haphazard pile in the corner of the greenhouse, wash and re-stack the useable ones, and finally ditch the busted ones.

As I started separating the first stack, I noted a tiny flash of red. It is well-known and oft-reported among my gardening and grower buddies that the Southern Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans) really enjoys a nice stack of grubby pots. But I hadn’t seen one in quite a while, and not at our current location.

Boy, did I hit the jackpot.

blackwidow1

I’m not afraid of spiders. At all. Quite fond of them, actually – they are immensely useful and fascinating critters. And only a very few pose any kind of danger.
In the case of the Black Widow, a bite injects a neurotoxic venom (latrotoxin). The bites and ensuing symptoms are allegedly quite painful, though rarely fatal. In this instance, I chose not to sacrifice my comfort for our collective edification, i.e. “How Bad Can it Hurt?” (see Blister Beetle post).

So, I squished her. But felt pretty bad about it.
As I worked through the stacks, I found another.

spidy2

Shook her to the floor and did some more tap-dancing. Perhaps it was time to stop taking pictures and put some gloves on.

By the time I got through the entire pile, I’d found and mushed thirteen of them, sized small through pretty darn large. The landscape fabric on the greenhouse floor was peppered with little beige, black, and red blobs (you don’t need to see that photo).

There were none in the stacks of shiny new nursery pots I’d ordered for our blueberry transplants. But if there was some growing media or plant debris still stuck inside, there was a high probability of finding a spider.

Moral of this story? Think twice about leaving a bunch of dirty plant containers piled up. A simple hosing out before I’d stacked them would have probably prevented such a large infestation.

There’s also a significant chance that I will forget all about the need for caution the next time I’m potting up stuff. Which may lead to an even more educational and entertaining blog post, where I describe “Adventures In Lactrodectism.” Because I’m sure I missed a couple, or they’re hiding in the gravel. As the old saying goes,

“Seeing a spider isn’t a problem. It’s a problem when it disappears.”

A Little Woodland Wonder

What’s that bit of green poking through the fallen leaves and forest duff? You’ll have to crouch down to get a good look at Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). A mere 3-5″ tall, this teensy shrublet from the Ericaceae family (blueberry, azalea) has little oval leathery leaves, often mottled with purple or brown. A few urn-shaped pink to white flowers appear in early summer are followed by bright red berries. The berries persist well into the winter and help to distinguish it from similar-looking seedlings of mountain laurel or deerberry. When in doubt (or to clear your sinuses), break a leaf in half and inhale deeply. Yes, this humble little plant is the source of methyl salicylate – wintergreen oil – one of the active (though now synthetic) ingredients in IcyHot, Ben Gay, and other lifesaving remedies. Though non-scented versions are now available, that distinctive aroma alerts those nearby that you are an ATHLETE. Or perhaps just getting older*. Another common name is “teaberry” – hence the name of Clark’s chewing gum, flavored by the same compound.

Wintergreen is native throughout the Appalachians from north to south (USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8). Despite the pungent scent, when the acorn supply is low, deer will turn to wintergreen as forage. Birds, squirrels, chipmunks and others snack on the little red wintergreen berries, also redolent with the oil, and presumably have the freshest breath in the animal kingdom. In the garden, wintergreen does best in the shade of deciduous trees in acidic soil rich with leaf mold. Add wintergreen to the long list of N. American natives that have become wildly popular overseas but are under-appreciated here — it’s one of the top-selling nursery plants in Europe. Mix it up with Hellebores and hardy cyclamen to add some wildlife-friendly winter interest in the woodland perennial garden.

I can't find my own darn photo at the moment, but here's Gaultheria procumbens courtesy of Hedwig Storch and Wikipedia Commons.
I can’t find my own darn photo at the moment, but here’s Gaultheria procumbens courtesy of Hedwig Storch and Wikipedia Commons.

*Speaking of older, honk if you remember the “Teaberry Shuffle.”

Possum 1, Garden Professor 0

It was a dark and stormy Wednesday night.

Joel opened the porch door and whispered “you’ve got to come see this.” He’d taken the dogs out for their 9:00 p.m. constitutional, and there was apparently some excitement under the old apple tree.

“There’s a possum, and I think she’s playing dead.”

I grabbed the flashlight and hustled out.  Got around the corner to the tree, and sure enough, there was a rather large blob of silver and white mammal.

But as I got closer, my heart sank.

She was curled up, head askew, front leg sticking out at an odd angle.  Lips (?) pulled back , teeth and gums bared in a terrible grimace, tongue hanging out the side.  I shined the flashlight right into her eyes. No movement, no pupil dilation.  Being from a farm in Georgia, I claim the most possum and raccoon experience. Thus, my verdict. Deader than a doornail. Which made me sad.

“Aargh. Thanks. Now I’m upset.  Guess she got hit by a car and made it this far before expiring.  Could you put her out at the end of the garden? The soil’s pretty soft there.”

Joel apologized and went to get the shovel.  I scuffed back inside to finish the dishes, feeling awful for the little critter.  Thanks to our impenetrable hen stockade, we live in pretty good harmony with our country cousins, and hate to see harm come to them.

Ten minutes later, Joel was back at the door, shovel in hand.

“Um, I think it was faking.”

“No way. That possum was graveyard dead.”

“Well…it seemed to be o.k. enough to be sitting up and eating an apple.”

We hiked back out to the tree – no possum to be found.  My wildlife cred was blown.

“Looks like she was playing possum” I offered, helpfully.

Joel muttered “But I just dug a three-foot-deep hole.”

Who you gonna call?

As I noted last week, this has been a long winter in Michigan – OK, Jeff, no chortling from the frozen tundra of Minnesota…  Most gardeners in this area have only been able to do their spring yard and garden clean-ups in fits and starts as the weather allows.  We’re finally warming up a bit this week but now strong storms are in the forecast.  One of the things gardeners will want to do is to size up any winter damage that has occurred since they put things to bed last fall.  Although our winter was long, it was otherwise unremarkable with few temperature extremes – low or high – that would likely cause problems.  In fact, aside from some heavy snow in February, the winter of 2010-11 was probably the closest thing we’ve had to a ‘normal’ winter in the 11 years I’ve lived in Michigan.  Nevertheless, we will still be taking numerous extension calls on what we would consider ‘typical’ winter damage to trees and shrubs.

In this neighborhood not too far from my house, deer have declared open season on arborvitae.

One of the biggest issues we face is wildlife damage.  The two biggest sources of problems are small mammals and deer. Small mammals such as mice, rabbits, squirrels and voles cause damage mainly by gnawing on trunks and branches.  Despite their small size, these animals can kill trees by removing bark and underlying tissue around the circumference of a tree trunk, a process referred to as ‘girdling’.  If a large portion of trunk circumference has been girdled, trees are unable to move energy reserves between roots and shoots, and will eventually die.  Deer can cause extensive damage to trees and shrubs due to feeding and also through rubbing their antlers.  Deer feeding is often indicated by a ‘browse line’ based on how high deer can reach.   Rub damage from deer antlers can cause major deformation to trunks and can even kill trees by girdling.  I was in a new subdivision in the East Lansing area this weekend and well over half of the trees on the tree lawns will need to be replaced due to extensive deer rub damage.

At least half of the trees in this entire subdivision will need to be replaced due to deer-rub damage.

Dealing with wildlife damage is a complex issue and varies with local conditions and wildlife pressure.  Fortunately, wildlife experts from several universities (Cornell, Clemson, Nebraska, Utah State) have organized the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management. http://icwdm.org/  This site is one of the best resources I have run across for assessing and dealing with wildlife damage issues.  If you’re in a position where you have to deal with wildlife damage or advise clients about damage, this is a useful site to add to your bookmarks.