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_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.


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.

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.

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.


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.


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.  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.

Pesticides and Wildlife

If you follow this blog then you know that I write a lot about pesticides.  They’re something that I enjoy reading about and studying.  For whatever reason, I find them fascinating.  That said, they can be some of the worst things for wildlife.  But there are pesticides that are more “wildlife compatible” than others, so today I’m going to cover some of the worst pesticides that you can use in terms of wildlife, and some of the pesticides that might be more acceptable (though far from perfect).

First, here’s a brief rundown of pesticides that have been some of the worst wildlife offenders over the years.  Fortunately most of these are gone.

1.  DDT – long gone (though I know people who still have old bottles locked up in chemical cabinets here and there).  Modern evidence points to it not being as bad for human health (cancer) as many made it out to be, but it was a mess in terms of environmental effects — it built up in the environment (it is stored in the body and is not rapidly excreted — in large part because it isn’t water soluble — so when a predatory bird ate a small mammal who had DDT on (or in) it, all of that DDT would stay in the bird — and the DDT from the next mammal it ate, and so on — this is called biomagnification) and resulted in predatory birds producing thin-shelled, barely viable eggs.  Another problem with DDT was that it lingered for a long time — it doesn’t break down quickly.  It had other problems too – but the biomagnification and persistence issues were the most obvious and, at least to me, the scariest.

2.  Endrin – Relatively closely related to DDT, but a lot more toxic to a lot more animals and so a lot scarier.  Once upon a time this stuff was used to all but sterilize fields.  Toxic to everything that moves, and, like DDT, it built up in the environment.  This stuff was (fortunately) never really used by homeowners.

3.  Temik (aldicarb) – Nasty, nasty, nasty.  EXTREMELY high acute toxicity, AND it’s water soluble.  A pesticide which I have had to use in the past.  Apply it to a tree (I was working with pecans when I used it) and that tree’s foliage would be free of any insects.  And, amazingly, the stuff didn’t translocate to fruits and veggies – if it weren’t so darn toxic to things besides insects it would have been a great insecticide – some people still consider it a great insecticide.  This stuff was known for its misuse.  Apply it near a weed which deer eat and that weed would absorb the pesticide and poof! No more deer.  Agonizing death too.  Wolves and coyotes could be poisoned with just a little bit of tainted deer meat.  This stuff wasn’t supposed to be used by homeowners, but, again, it is known as much for its misuse as its use.

Fortunately most of those over-the-top killers are gone or on their way out.  Still, in your garden you do have the opportunity to use some poisons which it would be best for you to avoid if you’re interested in saving/protecting wildlife.  These poisons are called “broad-spectrum” poisons and they are preferred by many because they kill so many different types of pests.  Unfortunately being able to kill many kinds of pests usually also means that they’re able to kill many types of good creatures.  Many pesticticides such as sevin (carbaryl), pyrethrin, orthene (acephate), and sulfur are broad spectrum poisons that you should avoid, but here are some that, if you want to conserve wildlife, you should be especially wary of.

1.  Permethrin – This is probably the most used broad spectrum insecticide used around gardens today.  It will kill just about any insect which it touches and it lasts for about 10 days.  It is certainly effective, but it shouldn’t be used by anyone who wants to encourage insects or the birds who eat insects in their gardens.

2. Metaldehyde – This is a very effective slug poison.  It is both attractive and deadly to dogs and cats, and is thought to affect birds and small mammals as well though there aren’t as many documented cases of wildlife poisoning as there are of domesticated pets being poisoned.

3.  Copper sulfate (Bordeaux mix) – This is an organic fungicide that is often overapplied because it is considered safe.  It can limit the plants which grow in an area, and it is extremely toxic to aquatics – keep it away from water.  Finally – copper doesn’t break down – as you use it over the years it will build up in your soil – so try to stay away from it.

And finally, here are some which, if they are used properly, are less likely to affect wildlife.

1. Kaolin clay – it’s not popular, but it’s out there if you look for it.  This is a type of clay which it sprayed onto plants to protect them from insects.  It tends to work pretty well (it’s not perfect), but it has minimal effect on wildlife.

2.  Insecticidal soap – It will kill some insects that you don’t want to kill, but it’s a heck of a lot better than permethrin.  It is unlikely to hurt mammals or birds.

3.  Roundup – The controversial part of me wrote this.  Roundup has been implicated as doing all kinds of things to aquatic organisms, but, if it is only sprayed on the leaves of the plant you want to kill, it is not going to cause any significant environmental damage (besides removing a plant that wildlife may want for food).

Want more bird visitors? Nonnative plants may be the answer

We’ve posted before about the native vs. nonnative conundrum, especially as it relates to invasive species.  So let’s complicate the issue a bit more by considering how birds are affected by our landscape choices.

About 10 years ago my UW colleague Sarah Reichard and I collaborated on a literature review on the interaction between birds and non-native plants.  While we know that invasive plants can displace native plants and create less biodiverse environments, the resulting impact on species like birds is not so cut and dried.  And what about noninvasive, nonnative plant species?  How do they affect bird populations?  Here are some of the practical bits of information that we found:

1)    Nonnative shrubs and trees are often chosen for their brightly colored fruits, especially those that produce them in a different season than native plants.  Winter color is highly valued by gardeners.

2)    Frugivorous birds (those that eat fruit) generally benefit from the introduction of fruiting species as an additional food source, even if the species is invasive.

3)    Birds tend to prefer fruits that are red and/or black, or that have red arils or pseudoarils.

4)    Birds tend to prefer fruits that offer the most pulp; interestingly, highly invasive plants species tend to have larger fruit displays and therefore higher bird usage than less invasive relatives.

5)    Additional food sources can allow frugivorous and omnivorous birds to expand their ranges and/or their breeding seasons.

6)    Nonnative shrubs and trees with structural features such as thorns and spikes can provide protection to small birds from predators.

It’s clear that birds are highly adaptive and will quickly learn to utilize new food resources – and in doing so, may contribute to their spread through seed dispersal.  It’s enough to make your head spin.

Here’s what I recommend for choosing bird-friendly trees, shrubs and vines:

1)     Use native species first if they are adaptable to your site conditions.  (Note:  many native species, especially those of forested environments, don’t like urban conditions.)

2)    Be sure to provide structural diversity in your landscapes – groundcovers, small dense shrubs, larger open shrubs and small trees, big trees, and vines – to provide shelter and nesting habitat.

3)    Before choosing nonnative species, check the web for information on invasiveness.  The USDA Plants Database ( has information on invasive species.  If it’s invasive, please don’t plant it!

4)    Birds see best in the red end of the color spectrum, so select plants with fruits and flowers that will attract them. 


The Garden Professors Go Wild!

It’s ‘Wildlife week’ on the Garden Professors.  One of the most common questions that we get when speaking to garden groups is, “What can I do around my home to promote wildlife?”   My stock answer used to be, “Throw a party!”, but only a handful of people ever got it so I’ve backed off of that one.  Anyway, since the subject of gardening and wildlife comes up so often we’ve decided to dedicate a week to the topic.

Questions about wildlife (the animal kind) always take me back to my undergraduate forestry days at Washington State University and Dr. Zamora’s Wildlife Management course.  Even though I’ve always been more of a plant person than and an animal person, I found this to be a fascinating course.  In fact, assembling the winter browse twig ID collection was one of my proudest undergraduate achievements.  Doesn’t seem like much; but try wandering the Palouse hills in the dead of winter and see if you can indentify 50 browse species without the benefit of leaves, you’d be proud too!  In addtion to a notebook full of mounted twigs and a mild case of frostbite, I took away from the course several key principles of wildlife management that have stayed with me over the years.

What do wildlife need? In general, all wildlife need four basic elements: food, cover, water, and space.  The specific types and amounts of these elements, of course, will depend on the type of wildlife you wish at attract.  Homeowners can provide or enhance these elements through plants or through other, non-living means.   Important non-living components include feeders, bird-baths or other water features, piles of rocks or sticks (provide cover for small animals), salt, and standing or fallen dead trees (provide habitat for cavity-nesting birds and mammals).  Plants can provide both food and cover.  Important plant components in designing for wildlife include evergreen conifers for cover, summer fruits and berries, fall fruits and seeds, winter fruits and seeds, flowers that provide nectar, and trees that provide nuts and acorns.

At this point the questions often turn to the importance natives versus exotics.  In light of Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, many people assume that only native plants can serve these functions.  But there are several factors to consider here.  First, Tallamy’s discussion is largely focused on co-evolutionary relationships between native plants and native insects, and even here some of the reasoning is stretched thin (see Linda’s Feb. 12 post).  There is more to supporting wildlife on a broad scale than insect/herbivore interactions.  Non-invasive exotic conifers, for example, can certainly contribute winter cover, vertical structure, and edge effects.  And, while some animals have evolved very specific diets (think koalas and eucalyptus), many herbivores are generalists and in some cases even prefer to feed on exotics.  So, in thinking about wildlife it’s important to consider function and providing the elements animals need than to simply fixate on whether plants are native or exotic.  This is especially true on tough, disturbed sites where natives may be poorly adapted and unable to survive.  Habitat provided by an exotic will be preferable to no habitat at all.

Lastly, another factor to consider is whether attracting wildlife around your home is always a good idea.  Along with the wildlife we’d like to see, improving habitat may increase the likelihood of running into critters (skunks, raccoons, possums) that we’d rather not encounter on the way to take the trash out late at night. Also, in many parts of the country, people and their pets are encountering large predators such as cougars and bears with increasing frequency.  Obviously a lot of this is due to human encroachment into the predators’ habitat, but it may be prudent to consider a ‘defensible space’ strategy as we do for wildfires. Keep the elements that are likely to attract larger animals a safe distance from the house.  Stay tuned for more as ‘Wildlife week continues’.

NOTE: Thanks to my high school choir-mate and college soccer team-mate, Tim Schlender for the timely wildlife habitat cartoon.