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.

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

Podcast #5 – Selling Sustainability

Everyone (including me) hates how the word “sustainability” has been overused and misused. Yet there are some good concepts associated with the word that can help gardeners make rational decisions about products and practices. This week’s podcast deconstructs sustainability into specific actions that gardeners can easily follow:

  • Discovering and nurturing the natural processes that keep your gardens and landscapes healthy and functional
  • Choosing plants and products wisely to conserve natural resources
  • Creating gardens and landscapes that don’t require constant inputs of packaged fertilizers and pesticides

The podcast illustrates each of these points.  First, there’s a research article that demonstrates the benefits of polyculture in growing vegetables.  Next, there’s a critical look at a website presenting a “Sustainable Garden Starter Kit: 10 Must-Have Products for the New Green Grower.” Lastly I dispel the myth of “instant landscaping”, which is code for “long term disaster.”

The interview this week is on building your own garden pond. Dr. Jim Scott (PhD in horticulture), turns his talents to the plumbing, electrical work, and aesthetic disguises needed to build a really great garden water feature. Lucky for me, he also happens to be my spouse!

Jim and Linda try to figure out how many years it took to do a week long project


…cleverly disguise pump system…

…and filter system

Seasonal guests

Permanent residents (the little orange guys in water)

Please let me know what you think of the podcast; you can email me directly or post a comment on the blog. Suggestions for future podcasts are most welcome!

Weird Plant Wednesday!

Greetings, all!  Things seem to be pretty slow in the blog-reading world…middle of summer, vacations, etc. Plus we’re all out there gardening, unlike the dead of winter when we’re deprived of this joy, so the next best thing seems to be reading about it.  Thanks to all who check in with us, even if just occasionally!

I’m taking over the Wednesday slot for a little while – I have a backlog of cool/weird/new/unusual plants to share, and  Weird Plant Tuesday just doesn’t bring the alliteration.

Our first subject: Aristolochia gigantea – Brazilian Pipestem (or Brazilian Dutchman’s Pipe – bit of a culture-clash ). The genus Aristolochia is chock-full of unusual-looking flowers, but I think this one takes the cake.

This flower is actually upside-down, hanging off a trellis. The lobes are at the base of the flower.

The big, blorpy bud starts out vaguely rude-looking, then opens to a maroon and white-netted beefsteak of a flower.  I do like the National Tropical Botanic Garden’s description that “The back view of the flower superficially resembles a pair of lungs with a canal leading into a stomach-like pouch.”  The perianth/base of the flower is inflated, and the purported pollination strategy is to get flies to enter the “maw” and then hang out in the pouch (“Get in mah belleh, fly!”). Pollen is exchanged in the interim.  Scent is a big part of attracting flies, but I don’t find the fragrance offensive, it’s just a little sweet/off.

Aristolochia gigantea – an open flower from the side (left) and a bud. At Saul’s Nursery re-wholesale yard in Atlanta, Georgia

The vine itself is really vigorous; even with our cooler summer nights here in the Blue Ridge, mine is running amok along the deck railing. The older/larger the vine, the bigger the flowers – I’ve seen some conservatory specimens with two-foot-long flowers. This is, by the way, very tropical. It won’t overwinter in the landscape north of USDA Zone 9. Mine will enjoy a chilly winter in a barely-heated greenhouse; we’ll see how that works out.

How’s that for a start to Weird Plant Wednesday?

A Garden Professor migrates east, albeit briefly

I was AWOL last week, as I had 3 presentations to get ready for 3 different states all in the span of 4 days.  Yow!  But they are over and done, and I’ll try to keep up on the blog from now on.

This is a short but amusing post (to me anyway).  My second talk was in Virginia, where I spoke to Master Gardeners at their annual conference.  The speaker right before my talk was fellow GP Holly Scoggins.  (Note to self: never agree to follow Dr. Scoggins again.  I’m not nearly as amusing, though I am almost as tall.)

Anyway, Holly was discussing garden trends among other things and mentioned meta-gardens.  Hmmm.  I hadn’t heard of these, but assumed that, like meta-analyses, they were probably gardens that showcased plant collections from other places.  Kind of like arboreta but smaller, and maybe something you could do at home.  I nodded wisely, pretending that I was fully on board with this new trend.

Alas.  My west coast ears were not adapted to Holly’s southern accent.  As I discovered several slides later when it was obvious she was talking about meadow gardens.

Oh well.

Er, Too Much Coverage?

When botany and advertising collide.  Here we have the latest from AT&T.
The advertisement description’s in quotes.

“We open on an urban setting and see a vine begin to grow up a

What kind of vine?? It looks like a mutant clematis, though the leaf arrangement’s wrong, and there are no orange large-flowered ones. Oh well, let’s not be picky. At least it’s some kind of ornamental plant. We’ll call it Clematis broadbandii. Definitely non-native, though.

“From there, we see various landscapes being covered with
similar vines.”

What the…well, I guess the overpass does look better. And the city’s doing a great job keeping it out of the road.

“As the seedlings grow, they sprout brilliant orange
flowers, covering the cities, towns, and countryside’s in a spectacular
orange hue.”

Honey, drive faster. This neighborhood gives me the creeps.

This is ridiculous… I’m calling Linda Chalker-Scott! Or maybe Jeff Gillman, for a fair and balanced herbicide recommendation; or maybe Bert Cregg could suggest how to cut it back. Holly Scoggins is a flake; she’d just tuck Bounce sheets everywhere...

“Coverage is a beautiful thing. AT&T covers 97% of all Americans.”

Dear AT&T: the National Invasive Species Council will be in touch. Unless their call gets dropped.

Pure Nelida: the story of one Viva Farms participant

Nelida was born in a subsistence farming community in Oaxaca, Mexico. She escaped an abusive alcoholic household at 14 by going to live with her (soon to be) husband’s family, who took her in, then took every opportunity from that moment forth to remind her what a burden she was for them.

After marrying at 16, the young couple migrated north to the US in search of a better life where they found farm work. They toiled 12 years on commercial farms in California, then headed further north, seeking farm work in the lush Skagit Valley in Washington State.  They added children to their household until they were nine in all…plus a steady stream of cousins, brothers, nieces, nephews, uncles, and others who’d joined them in their search for the good life. With family, Nelida’s work multiplied: farm worker by day, Oaxacan mother/wife by night.  Life in Washington wasn’t exactly the American dream, but Nelida knew it was better than the nightmarish situation her relatives faced back in Oaxaca.  Then, one day, things took a turn for the worse.

One of Nelida’s sons fell violently ill. When the traditional herbal remedies she learned from her grandmother failed, Nelida pleaded with her husband to take the boy to the hospital for tests.  Her husband refused, petrified of hospital bills (he had no health insurance) and of being fired for missing work. But a man’s greatest fear is no match for a mother’s love.  She looked her husband straight in the eyes and told him, “Si tu no eres lo suficientemente hombre para salvar tu hijo, yo mismo le llevare’ al hospital.” (If you’re not man enough to save your son, I’ll take him to the hospital myself.) She didn’t have a driver’s license at the time so she carried him to the closest hospital.

The doctors diagnosed the boy with late-stage leukemia and ordered treatment immediately. They told Nelida that if she’d waited even a few more days it may have been too late. Nelida quit farming and dedicated herself to her son’s recovery. She accompanied him back and forth from Mount Vernon to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle for weekly chemo treatments. Between treatments she made and sold tamales, empanadas, pan de burro, fresh tortillas, anything friends and local Mexican stores would buy. She needed every penny she could earn for the cancer treatment, which she was determined to pay for herself.

When her son achieved remission, Nelida did not return to being a farm worker.  She stepped up the organic production like she’d always done at home. She crammed pots and trays of vegetables and herbs into her kitchen window-sills, into her tiny balcony, her front doorstep, anywhere she could put them. When a community garden was created in her farm worker housing complex, Nelida was the first to sign up for a plot.  She was delighted with her garden plot but wanted more ground. Couldn’t she just use the whole 1/2 acre, she would ask the residential director. That would be enough space to feed her family and even sell a bit of surplus.

That’s when I met Nelida. When she told me how she had transported special plants and seed with her from Oaxaca to California, tended them in the migrant camps and then moved them up to Washington with her, I knew she was an ideal candidate for the new Latino farming program I was helping WSU Skagit Extension launch in the valley.

Nelida enrolled immediately in our first bilingual Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching course. She graduated and signed up for the more advanced Farm Business Planning course, in which she developed a business plan for a three acre diversified organic farm.  She now leases 1 acre at Viva Farms (Washington’s first bilingual farm business incubator) and two acres at a second site. Her goal is to purchase 10 acres with a house, where she can live and expand her organic produce sales that now complement her already established food business.

When we met to develop a name and logo for Nelida’s one-woman organic farm and food business, I could think of only one name to encapsulate her brand personality: PURA NELIDA, like the saying pura vida but with Nelida as the life force.  I asked Nelida what symbolized pura vida* and purity for her. She thought for a moment then smiled and replied, “una cebolla blanca“(a white onion). So that’s what she is seen cradling in the logo we designed for her farm.

So to those who feel discouraged by how long it has taken for us to farm as if we love and cherish life…I offer one of Nelida’s organic white onions: let its crisp, sweet, spice and purity cure you of your ills. Soon you’ll understand why, when I stand and behold Viva Farms, I am apt to repeat “Pura Vida…” again and again, like a mantra.

For more information about WSU S
kagit County Extension and Viva Farms, please view our websites at http://www.wsu.skagit.edu and http://www.vivafarms.org. [Note: Nelida (via Viva Farms) is offering a weekly box delivery in partnership with Growing Washington, another non-profit that serves beginning and Latino farmers. 20 weeks, mid June-Halloween. $25/wk small share, $36 large share. It’s a great way to support the next generation of sustainable farmers. Contact sarita@growfood.org to sign up.]

Don McMoran is an Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Education in Skagit County, Washington.  You can reach him at donaldm@co.skagit.wa.us

Some Super-Cool Stuff

For the past ten years or so I’ve worked to try to transfer information about horticulture to people.  It sounds simple, but it actually took a lot of time and effort to figure out the best way to do it, and I’m still not there yet — and probably never will be.  The reason that I mention this is because I appreciate it when another horticulturist, such as my fellow garden professors, work to get information about horticulture out to the public.  So yesterday we had a speaker come to our depoartment to give our annual end of the year lecture — It’s kind of a big deal for us — We usually have a big name person (horticulturally speaking of course) and pay him or her pretty well and have a reception.  It’s nice.  We also hand out scholarships to our undergraduates who earned them and any awards which we have to give.  But anyway, back to the speaker.  This year we had a guy come in who I’d never heard of before besides some strong recommendations from some of my colleagues here in the department.  I also did a cursory check of his website.  I liked what I saw, but I wasn’t blown away.  Sometimes I’m such a dingbat.  Simply put, this guy gave one of the top two or three horticultural (actually I should say botanical — it’s more botany than horticulture) presentations which I have seen.  His name is Roger Hangarter and he is a professor at Indiana University.  In a nutshell he films plant’s moving using time-lapse photography to demonstrate important concepts.  Here is one of his websites:


But if you do a google search for him he has a lot of other things on different sites.  He has even created a traveling display for museums called slowlife.  Very, very cool.  There aren’t a lot of people who I’m in awe of — but this guy is one of them.  If you have a garden club or run a master gardener program you NEED to get this guy on your calendar if you can.