Friday, August 31, 2007

Squash flowers and squash bees

I "surprised" a number of bees this morning in flowers of my vining Tromboncino squash, a Cucurbita moschata cultivar. I vaguely recalled that squash had specialist bees, and had fun finding out more about them. Early in the morning is when squash bees visit flowers (these actually looked like they spent the night). Squash bees are native bees that specialize in flowers of Cucurbita plants -- zucchini, winter squash, pumpkins, etc. They forage early in the morning, collecting nectar and pollen from both the male and female flowers.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Time to garden again

The recent rains are really encouraging. And, the temperatures look halfway moderate through the week as well, so hopefully I'll be able to sow some flats of mesclun this weekend, and some of the greens as well. I noticed one of the radicchio plants (the female squirrel's favorite) is starting to bolt. So much for thinking I might get some lovely red leaves this fall. But I think I'll sow some more. I'd better check to make sure I have some that form the lovely red heads in the spring.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Lightning, thunder, and rain, oh my....

Just after musing about planting fall vegetables yesterday, the sky darkened and the wind starting building up. We'd been away for an outing in the mountains, and my gardening partner headed off to get ready for class today. About 4 o'clock, it started pouring, the wind was howling, and whipping trees around, and for a minute, Mocha and I felt like we were in the Wizard of Oz. The power flickered and then went out. Not surprising, given the amount of wind. After things let up, but it was still drizzling, I ventured forth to see what had happened. My bean trellises in the vegetable garden had been flattened, amazingly, almost all the tomato supports had tilted over, and the basils were all askew. When I went down the road to check on what had knocked out the power, it was obvious we were lucky. Trees had fallen, bringing down the telephone lines, including some really large trees. This was no ordinary storm, but probably some kind of microburst that was localized in our neighborhood. The older subdivision behind us still had power; their lines are buried. The power came on again at 2 am.

There wasn't any damage in our yard, except for a branch from the old Pawlonia tree, tolerated for now, but on the way out. The GOOD news was that the storm brought another inch and a half of rain, sorely needed. Maybe I can plant those fall vegetables next weekend....

I came across a picture of one of my containers last fall-- a cheery sight!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fall vegetables


The recent rain, (slightly) cooler weather, and the greening up of the garden overall have me thinking about sowing greens for fall. It certainly seemed way too hot in August to contemplate sowing broccoli for transplant and I certainly wasn't able to get chard or beet seedlings to survive, although maybe the squirrels nibbled them.

But I've had tremendous success in previous years (photo above) with a variety of greens in fall -- Tuscan kale (also known as dinosaur kale), different sorts of red kales, radicchio, and perpetual spinach (a sort of beet). Mizuna, red mustard, chard, and argula are all great, too, if there aren't too many late cabbage butterflies. Lettuces are beautiful in fall, and the really hardy winter varieties can make it through heavy frosts in mid-winter, if conditions are right. I also need to start sowing the small Violas that are so much nicer than pansies, and less demanding and take cuttings of Spanish lavender, to increase my supply.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hooray for stray thunderstorms

We woke up sometime in the night to thunder and lightning flashes. Strong thunder and lots of crackling lightning. At first, it sounded too far away to worry about, but then unplugging the computers seemed like a good thing. Even though they’re surge-protected, we err on the side of caution. And then the unfamiliar sound of raindrops began, and they began to come down harder. I hoped briefly before going back to sleep that it might be more than just enough to wet the ground, but I didn’t expect it.

But waking up, I could see raindrops glistening on leaves outside the window. I walked out before it was light in my bare feet and bathrobe to check the rain gauge. ¾ of an inch! Yippee!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Water is key

After such a long hot summer and the dreadful heat (there's no other word for it) of the last 3 weeks, water in the garden is essential for the 'backyard' wildlife.






















The birdbath and the two additional dishes on the ground are avidly visited by birds of all sorts, squirrels, and perhaps even a chipmunk or two. I surprised a chipmunk returning from my walk a couple of mornings ago. This evening, a blue jay, not a usual visitor to the birdbath, was taking a drink.

With natural water in such short supply, it's interesting to observe how much our 'backyard' critters rely on the water we provide. It's a bit of work keeping the birdbath and dishes clean and filled up almost on a daily basis, but nice to see how it's being used so much.

I just wish it would rain. It's so odd that there are floods and continuous downpours in the Midwest, and we're in the worst heat recorded historically. The heat's so extreme, the drought isn't mentioned so much in the media, yet. Those of us who are gardeners and outdoors people realize how bad it really is. It means that fruits don't develop, leaves drop off prematurely, and lots of people who aren't noticing are going to lose plants in their landscapes.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The nature in gardening

We're fortunate to have a welcoming and peaceful garden, with lots of space. It suits us well. We've tried to re-create the sense of nature -- of 'being in the woods' -- from our part of the world, the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The yard definitely wasn't lovely when we started, being nothing much more than a vast expanse of lawn punctuated by a few large trees, so we have the satisfaction of having nurtured it ourselves. The journey of becoming gardeners as well as botanists (there is a distinct difference between botanists, horticulturists, and gardeners, for sure) and taking pleasure in the rapid growth of many plants is continuing, as we worry about this year's drought and drag the hoses around.

Our garden is largely a native one, but still is suffering from the lack of rain, especially some species. The Joe-Pye that I love because of its attractiveness to butterflies is more than sadly droopy in the afternoon heat, in spite of all the extra water we've given it, even in the low-lying swale. The pleasure that I have being out in the garden is such a respite from stressful days. And the view from my study window makes up for being behind the computer. Noticing things like a sudden descent of a group of blackbirds gives me a break from whatever is demanding my attention.

I had an experience this summer that I was reminded of recently. In DC for a conference, each morning as I walked to the conference hotel, I passed an activity center for homeless people. By eight am, a good number of people were outside waiting for the center to open. One morning, I noticed a middle-aged woman digging in a small bed she had created next to the building. She was 'planting' weeds in small holes that she had carefully dug. She looked up at me as I walked by, and beamed.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Monarchs flying through

Seeing more butterflies now is encouraging after so many weeks of none to few. The monarchs are one of the signs that fall is coming, a welcome thought in these weeks of upper 90° weather, parched earth, drooping plants, and no rain in sight.


Monarchs spend the winter in north-central Mexico and the fall and spring migration usually comes through South Carolina. The last temperate zone generation of adults triggered by the short days and cooler temperatures are the ones that make the final flight, the successive generations fueled by the cycles from adult to egg, caterpillar, and chrysalis, all on milkweed. Their visits to nectar-rich flowers are fun to watch, especially in light of the remarkable migration that occurs. Here was a monarch visiting a zinna -- a great butterfly flower because of easy perching and abundant nectar.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tromboncino squash vines


Tromboncino squash are really amazing. I first tried them as a squash vine borer-resistant zucchini-like squash. Here in SC, my yellow squash and zucchini efforts have resulted in only a few fruits before the vines succumb to borers. But Tromboncino squash are tough customers-- a different species than zucchini and yellow squash, and hailing from Italy and the Mediterranean (they're actually related to winter squash, Cucurbita moschata 'Tromba d'Albenga'), they grow robust, sprawling vines that root at the nodes, and their stems are borer-resistant. Unfortunately, in the satellite garden, where I've had two years of rampant vine growth (and abundant squash production), the hungry woodchucks have been nibbling any plants I put out there to the ground. So I transplanted some fresh seedlings from my main vegetable garden, and have been training the vines on the fence.

Notice the growth in the transplanted vine along the fence in the picture above!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Butterflies and caterpillars

I've been watching tiger swallowtails do their spiral courtship dance near the phlox this morning. The black one is the female, the yellow the male. She'll lay her eggs on all sorts of host plants -- tulip poplar, ash, and black cherry, among others. It's great to see some butterflies now after such a poor season to date. The April freeze followed by drought must have really taken its toll on butterflies, since they've been conspicuously absent up until now.

One of my first forays into gardening as an adult was gardening for butterflies. In spite of being a biologist, I had no idea of what caterpillars or butterflies ate, not much about their life cycles, and certainly little about their feeding preferences. My fellow students did pollination projects, and my best friend reared caterpillars in plastic bags as part of her research, but I was oblivious to the nuances.

But, starting to learn about butterflies, their host plants, and caterpillars was fascinating, and I quickly became hooked. Expanding my attention to all sorts of garden insects, birds, and other wildlife was the next step and has been wonderful fun.

Only just now am I starting to see the striped caterpillars of black swallowtail butterflies, here munching on a fennel flower in the vegetable garden.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Passionflowers and carpenter bees


At mid-day in the meadow, the passionflowers open up. Our native passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is a lovely sprawling vine (sometimes a bit too sprawling, but it's easily pulled up when it gets out of hand). Each flower only lasts for a day, fading quickly. They're pollinated by carpenter bees, who drink the nectar pooled at the base of the flowers. I noticed this bee busily working one of the flowers about noon. Check out the pollen on its back! It's such a great example of how flower shape is adapted to promote cross-pollination. As the carpenter bee takes up nectar, pollen is continuously brushed on its back, to be transferred to the next flower visited.

This bee had so much pollen on its back that it was getting down around its mouthparts. Apparently, the pollen doesn't taste good, so she/he busily cleaned up, taking a break from nectar drinking.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Yard long beans and ants

I've loved growing yard long beans (Vigna unguiculata ssp. sesquipedalis) for the last few years; they're so unusual-looking, productive, and tasty, with the added bonus of beautiful flowers and attractive foliage. I first noticed yard long beans in Asian markets, marveling at their size and the flexibility of the pods. They're incredibly heat-tolerant, being native to Africa, and are easy to grow. (They were first domesticated somewhere in North Africa, and then spread throughout Africa, India, and Asia. In the process, cowpeas and yard long beans were selected for their different characteristics.) Interestingly, an older gardener in Belton told me that her mother grew yard long beans here in SC, perhaps the field pea relative that's also viney. Cowpeas are documented to have been brought from Africa by slaves. Yard long beans (also commonly called asparagus beans) can be snipped up and cooked like green beans, and have a lovely taste. Another nice aspect is their beautiful flowers, which have extrafloral nectaries visited actively by ants.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Heat and more heat

I heard on the radio today to expect the heat wave to continue through late August. This was not welcome news. The afternoon thunderstorms have been non-existent lately and even the hardy perennials need watering. My friend Meg's husband Joey grew up in this area, and remembers that the thunderstorms came like clockwork every afternoon at three. Not much evidence of them currently.

I ran the hose on all of my vegetables (they're waterhogs, of course), but we're now watering plants that normally never droop.

A climate change specialist mentioned on our public radio station today that rain events more than an inch had greatly increased over the last decades. It went from something like 8% of rainfall events were over an inch to 12 or 15%.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Stifling heat and parched soil

It's been pretty miserable for plants (and people) in the garden. The temperatures are close to 100° F ; it doesn't get below 70° degrees F at night and I don't even want to think about the humidity. Walking in the morning seems like a wet blanket envelopes the landscape, making it almost hard to breath. Morning and evening are tolerable, and the luminous light, because of the humidity, is some compensation. The vegetables, even the hardy sorts, are looking wan. The trombocino squash twining on the fence away from the thirsty woodchucks suffers from not being able to benefit from the abundant adventitious roots at each node. The large leaves predictably wilt each afternoon, recovering later on.

Milkweed bugs at different stages on the butterfly weed pods were a diversion. They're seed predators, pretty and easy to raise, so a popular classroom insect.

We're running the hose on even some really hardy plants. This evening, the oakleaf hydrangeas and Salvia guaranitica (Anise blue sage) were droopy and will benefit from evening refreshment. Unfortunately, there's no rain in the forecast.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Squirrels and salad?

In a optimistic mood, I sowed Treviso radicchio in the spring, thinking that I'd have nice small red leaves, in spite of the approaching summer heat. Unfortunately, Treviso radicchio turns red in cool weather, so I've had a lovely robust green patch all summer long; it's trouble-free but too bitter to eat without leaching out the bitter compounds before cooking, and then it's tough. I've left it in the garden as an experiment. I'm hoping that cool fall weather will mellow the taste, and encourage the leaves to actually look like radicchio. I had some lovely round heads a couple of seasons ago that were beautiful in the winter garden. So imagine my surprise when something started nibbling on a few leaves. We first thought maybe squirrels were using the flexible leaves in their summer nests, but I thought that the bitterness would deter them from too much activity. Yesterday evening, however, we had quite a surprise. The culprit (a cute female squirrel who's actually nursing according to a wildlife biologist friend of ours) was in full view of the kitchen window munching away. Who knew that squirrels like salad!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Summer bees and flowers

There are so many kinds of native bees, in addition to the introduced honeybee. They've been fun to learn about and observe in different flowers.



The big carpenter bees with their smooth black abdomens are the biggest, except for the occasional queen bumblebee. They visit a variety of different flowers, and are strong flyers. They're not above 'robbing' nectar from Salvias, either, poking holes at the base of the flowers, thereby circumventing entering the flower 'correctly'.

All of the smaller bees are fun to watch gathering pollen. These were visiting native Helianthus hirsutus and Rudbeckia fulgida flowers in the meadow.





There's a specialist bee that collects pollen from these portulaca flowers in one of my containers, but I wasn't able to catch it in a photo.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Goldfinches in the garden

The bright yellow flash of male goldfinches this time of year alerts me to their presence. Lately, a pair of goldfinches has been eating Liatris,
Rudbeckia, and purple coneflower seeds in the front meadow. I wish I'd been able to get a picture of the male hanging on the spiky Liatris -- they're skittish enough that it's hard to sneak up on them.

The woodchuck(s) must be hungry. They're now starting to eat almost green tomatoes! Or maybe this is a hungry cardinal... woodchucks are most likely.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Small summer containers



I like to keep something green in my containers throughout the year. Perennial herbs, herbaceous perennials with rosettes, Sedums and succulents; all of these are fun and easy to use.



Of course, I also don't want to be tied to watering all the time in the summer, too, which means drought-tolerant plants. But that still leaves lots of great plants to use, creating wonderful contrasts of textures and shapes. This summer's containers aren't quite as spectacular due to our drought here in SC, but some of them are quite nice.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Early morning

Coming back from a long walk on a summer morning often finds the view from the gate slightly misty with early humidity, with the colors clarified by the soft light. It's one of the best times of the day in a southeastern summer.


Mocha posed by the front meadow while I cooled off and snapped some pictures of the garage hanging baskets.


Amazingly, the nasturtiums are still flourishing in these baskets, in spite of the 90+ heat and afternoon sun.


I'm trying to use only drought-tolerant plants in large baskets to minimize watering!
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