Thursday, July 31, 2008

Local produce

The photos are from the market in Hoi An, Vietnam, the market in Pisac, Peru, and a vegetable grower in his home garden near Hoi An.

We have two farmer's markets in our immediate community now -- the one on campus is associated with the Student Organic Farm, and the other is in a small historic town nearby. Both are wonderful to have; I like to visit both, even though we don't exactly need many vegetables this time of the year. (We did a CSA share with the Student Farm for several seasons, before I realized that there was no way that the two of us could eat all those vegetables, in addition to what I was growing - and finally, the huge bunches of edamame two weeks in a row - in pods and on their stems in a giant bag, was the tipping point).

And, they're really nice students, but they don't always know that the secret to delectable vegetables is to harvest them at the perfect time -- when they're young and tender, not when they're big, especially with squash and beans.

But free-range eggs (from our university's flock), fresh melons, peaches, and whatever else might be offered are reason enough to visit and support both markets.

Today, I bought fresh figs (I really want to have a fig tree) and some delicious red-fleshed plums from an older couple, and then bought a small loaf of bread from a bread-baker who grinds her own flour. I definitely don't need to buy bread (being a keen bread-baker myself), but the idea is so appealing to me that she's baking bread and cookies from flour that she's freshly ground (even if the wheat kernels come from Montana) that I can't resist.

As a child, visiting my paternal grandparents in Northern California, I was fascinated by the navel orange tree that grew over the fence. My maternal grandmother had a pantry full of canned vegetables and preserves, and had a large vegetable garden and berry patch that was well-tended and productive. The produce markets in the East Bay area (across from San Francisco) were already thriving three decades ago; as a graduate student, I discovered a bounty of diverse peppers, fresh mushrooms, brussels sprouts, and fresh carrots (my mom, not an avid cook, relied on frozen vegetables, as did many of her 'modern' generation). The summer fruits that California produces in abundance were also available, fresher than any that were shipped.

And visiting markets in Europe, Asia, and South America and seeing the diversity of things that we can grow has only encouraged my interest in what I can grow (and what people in my community can grow) and the vital connection that we have with soil, habitat, and the plants and natural communities that sustain us.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Delicious basil

I've grown basil for a long time, but never have been fully pleased with the results. Sometimes the plants would become large and woody, developing stronger flavors than were pleasing. Plants in containers always did better, probably because they remained well-watered.

But, clearly, I needed to cut it back more severely, too (a recent article in Organic Gardening suggested cutting at 6 nodes down to keep flowering in check -- wow -- it really worked).

An accidental experiment sowing a flat of older seeds has also been wildly successful,.

Germination was unexpectedly high, and after transplanting as many as I could manage, I just started harvesting the basil like mesclun mix. Fabulous! The leaves are tender and delicious, and as I cut, growth just continues. I'm definitely going to continue doing summer plantings in flats on a regular basis.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Starting fall vegetables

It's hard to imagine in mid-summer, when it's so hot and humid here, but I should already have stout brussels sprouts and broccoli seedlings ready to transplant if I want to attempt a fall crop. The seedlings that I have are pretty small, so I'll have to hope that they'll do OK.

But, I have all the seeds I need to start sowing the last rows of summer beans and squash, and gradually work my way through the sequence of planting beets, carrots, kale, lettuce, peas and spinach (not necessarily in that order!) A friend was lamenting the absence of any tomato transplants for fall in our local big box garden centers. It's a pity since it would be a great time to put in a 'second shift of tomatoes' in our warm climate. For us, as odd as it seems in a rural area, either growing your own seedlings, or ordering transplants through mail order are the primary options, unless you manage to get some at a local farmer's market.

I was delighted to read a By Design opinion piece Grow your own today in the New York Times. A city dweller, Allison Arieff reports on an urban trend (think NY, San Francisco, and Portland) of hiring an 'urban farmer' to come in and convert part of your yard to a vegetable garden, tending and picking it for you. The comments to date on the piece (and this trend) are fascinating, from raves to disparaging remarks.

I think it's a wonderful first step for Allison and her husband to start enjoying their backyard as a source of veggies (and green space), then realize that doing it themselves is even more fun. Just becoming more aware of where all of your food is coming from, how it's grown, and how it got to you is revealing.

Lots of people hire folks to mow their lawns and blow their leaves; why not hire someone (experienced) to grow vegetables, and teach you in the process?

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Rain overnight...

Everything was damp in the garden this morning, and there hadn't been any sign of rain when we went to bed. Woo-hoo!

There was 4/10 of an inch in the rain gauge, and the main vegetable garden looked remarkably lush.

The beans are flowering again, finally, after a bit of a heat break last week, too.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Cranberry viburnum

There are lots of wonderful native (Eastern U.S.) viburnums, along with interesting hybrids and Asian species.

This cranberry viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) is striking right now.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

After some rain...

Finally, a stray thunderstorm rained on our garden. The wind whipped the trees alarmingly and then the rain pelted down for 15 to 20 minutes. It was only about a quarter of an inch, but since we've barely had an inch over 2 1/2 months (our 'normal' is 4 inches/month), this is significant.

After the rain, the light was wonderful, the plants perked up, and the clouds were tinged with color.

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Growing tomatoes

In a warm summer climate, with plenty of sun, tomatoes are almost a given in a vegetable garden. Even non-gardeners may stick one or two tomatoes in the ground, just to have some fresh ones. One of our neighbors has two staked tomato plants at the side of her house, in otherwise a sea of lawn.
a 'Beefy Boy'
Garden centers, nurseries, and local 'feed and seed' stores usually offer up the traditional hybrids: Big Boy, Better Boy, Roma, and Sweet 100, with some recent additions of Brandywine, Mortgage-lifter, and other well-known heirloom varieties. There are hundreds of different varieties of tomatoes, with varying levels of acid and sweet, shapes and sizes, colors, and stripes.

I've grown different sorts from seeds, too, and tried unusual types bought at horticultural student plant sales, and have just about come to the notion that growing ONLY disease-resistant tomatoes in my Southern soil is productive, and any non-disease resistant (heirlooms) need to be in containers. I love the diversity and history of heirlooms, and they're wonderfully delicious, too, of course.

This summer, the VFN-resistant varieties have been the clear winners. The so-called Amish paste tomatoes (actually a striped heirloom of some sort) have declined due to nematodes, the non-resistant Sweet 100's haven't lasted long either, and a couple of heirloom peppers have had some sort of sudden wilt, bacterial, I think. Hhrmph.

I haven't always been so scrupulous with rotations, and of course, that's the first line of organic management of common plant diseases like fusarium and verticillum wilt, and buildup of Southern root-knot nematodes (they LOVE the roots of non-resistant varieties of tomatoes and peppers).

Using rotations with French marigolds, canola, sesame, grasses, and cole crops are other ways of reducing nematode populations, along with solarization in mid-summer - I'm going to give those a try, too.

I'm quite tired of yellowing tomato leaves and sad-looking plants!

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

It was a lovely evening...

It's still hot in the afternoons, and humid (the thunderstorm buildup should drop rain right overhead, but is passing us by). But the evening was cool and pleasant, with less humidity -- my gardening assistant (having been a bear dog up in the mountains last night) is enjoying it.


An unexpected flower

Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) are everywhere in the Southern U.S.; they're used (overly so) as street trees, in home landscapes, in commercial landscapes, etc. Brought to the Carolinas by botanical explorer Andre Michaux, they're attractive in flower, have lovely bark and architectural shape, and are TOUGH.

But, I've never thought too much about them, because I haven't see many insects or birds using the flowers or eating the fruits or seeds. They weren't high on my 'plants that work for a living' list.

But checking plants near the potting bench this morning, I kept hearing a couple of hummingbirds twittering and whirring high up in the crape myrtle nearby. Were they eating small insects attracted to the flowers? Were they annoyed with me because I was near one of 'their' feeders?

What's going on with crape myrtle flowers anyway?

First I checked for nectar (none), then looked at some open flowers, and noticed a couple of honeybees collecting pollen at the center of the flower. A few Google searches later, and I found out that Lagerstroemia flowers produce two kinds of anthers (the pollen-producing structures), the fertile 'real' pollen is produced by the longer peripheral anthers, with the 'attractant' pollen produced by the central clusters of anthers.

One of my 'hits' was a research paper that had determined that the composition of the two pollen types was different too, the 'real' pollen being higher in sucrose, whereas the 'food' pollen had a balanced amount of glucose and fructose. These researchers (this was an abstract from a 2003 article in Plant Biology) looked at lipid composition, too, but I wasn't able to read the full paper online.

I also 'hit' on an interesting site that has most of Charles Darwin's correspondence posted.

He exchanged letters with almost 2000 people during his lifetime. Apparently, Joseph Dalton Hooker (a notable botanist of the time) had given Darwin a Lagerstroemia indica, suggesting that he'd find the flowers interesting. And Darwin had indeed, corresponded with a botanist at the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew about the flowers.

Looking at the flowers again, I saw a small bee collecting pollen from the fertile anthers, the hummingbirds were still up in the tree, and I had a totally different perspective of an 'ordinary' garden flower.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Birds at the feeders

A goldfinch on the thistle feeder caught my eye from the study window.

When I went outside, I heard a woodpecker up in the oak tree, and saw him finally. Then, he dropped down to get some suet.

Then, looking back towards the feeders, I saw a male hummingbird, getting a long couple of swallows, then the male goldfinch back on the thistle feeder. Shortly after that, a female goldfinch came to the feeder, followed by another male. Then, they all flew off.

It was a lovely way to spend a few minutes in the garden.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Blueberries for Sal

A Robert McCloskey book that I loved as a child was Blueberries for Sal.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that I went blueberry and blackberry picking today!

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Make Way for Ducklings

I first heard the story on NPR; a loan officer in Spokane, Washington, had noticed a female mallard, first with a nest, and then with a newly hatched group of ducklings on a second-story ledge outside his office window. He proceeded to catch them (after the first hit the sidewalk) as they jumped from the ledge to follow mom. He and his co-workers (with the help of a large copy paper box) then helped shepherd them several blocks to the Spokane River.

A friend sent me the e-mail version, complete with lots of photos, written by the loan officer's sister with pictures from his colleagues.

It reminded me of Make Way for Ducklings, a book that my sister and I loved as children, and that's now an enduring classic of children's literature.

On a visit a few years ago to Boston, I saw this wonderful sculpture by Nancy Schön on Boston Commons, commemorating the book, and its author, Robert McCloskey.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mystery seed

My mystery summer squash is probably an interloper, based on the composition of the Summer Squash mix packet from Gourmet Seeds that I recently received (from a second order).

Even though the packet is labeled C. moschata, the variety list (Di Napoli, Romanesco, Rondi de Nice, Golden, and Bianco di Trieste) are largely C. pepo, I think. I recognize all of these, except for the 'Golden' in my satellite garden plants. But I think 'Golden' was replaced by a gourd, which is quite tasty when young, but is not happy in our summer heat (the leaves wilt dreadfully in the afternoon).

Happily, I've been harvesting the other squash varieties, too, having the best summer squash harvest I've ever had (aside from the tromboncino squash, which is flourishing).

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Neighborhood hawks and owls

For the second day in a row, I've seen two small hawks in the woodsy neighborhood behind us.

The houses are nestled into a forest of generally large oaks and hickories, punctuated by patches of lawn, and bisected by a dry creek streambed where water flow seems to have been diverted to the storm water easement.

At the same spot, again this morning, the two hawks were swooping around from branch to branch, perhaps disturbed by my passing by. They were smallish hawks, about the size of a crow, and I'm thinking that they were Cooper's hawks, since sharp-shinned hawks are more the size of a jay. Both like to take feeder birds, so would have a good territory in the neighborhood. These two birds were the same size, so probably both male, maybe juvenile ? -- they certainly looked like this photo taken by David Faintinch.

Later in the morning, from the back garden, a friend and I heard a barred owl calling from the same general area. We've had barred owls visit our yard before, and perch at dusk waiting for something tasty to appear. Nice to hear an early morning call!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Monarda for hummingbirds

I had meant to get a bright red Monarda didyma to attract ruby-throated hummingbirds, but found this magenta one 'Raspberry Wine' instead. It's done remarkably well since it was planted last summer. Being next to the bird bath has definitely helped provide moisture that's otherwise in short supply this summer.

It's struggled a bit with powdery mildew (like most Monarda spp.), but provides a welcome patch of color nevertheless.

This morning, I saw a hummingbird spending time methodically working through open flowers, extracting nectar (naturally, I didn't have my camera!) Fortunately, the inflorescences have lots of flowers which open over an extended period of time.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

A puddling butterfly

A bluish butterfly caught my eye in the main vegetable garden yesterday, near the base of the tomato plant that I had just finished watering. It (s/he) was methodically getting moisture and nutrients from the damp mulch, opening and closing its wings in a typical fashion. I was hopeful it was a pipevine swallowtail (I REALLY need caterpillars on the big pipevine to do some pruning (that is, chomping!), but it turned out to be a pipevine mimic, a red-spotted purple.

Red-spotted purple

Mimicking the distasteful pipevine (because of the aristolochic acids sequestered from its host plant) helps reduce predation, since birds quickly learn to avoid them.

This one spent quite a bit of time 'puddling' before heading off.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sorting out plant labels

Perhaps writing about plants is helping me become a better record-keeper! I love playing around with plants and seeds, but it is frustrating to have something flourish, only to forget exactly what it was. Usually, it doesn't matter very much -- there's more than a little 'flexibility' even in propagated cultivars and labeled seeds, but if I want more Nepeta 'Walker's Low' but get 'Six Hills Giant' instead, then it does make a difference.

The lovely apricot-colored Agastache that I planted last year is most likely A. aurantiaca 'Apricot Sprite' (thanks, CEN, for reminding me). I bought it as a plant (a bit surprisingly) at the garden center of a local big box store. I'd been reading about interesting Agastache species native to our Desert Southwest last summer, and wondering if some of them would flourish here (being tolerant to drought), and picked it up when I saw it on the table.

In any case, pondering about this encouraged me to look through my saved plant tags (a feeble attempt to keep track), and actually sort them out and organize them in my garden notebook.

The notebook looks more impressive than it actually is in this picture, but I felt good about organizing it.

An Agastache 'Apricot Sprite' tag wasn't among them, but lots of other interesting plants were.

In my enthusiasm, I even swept up the floor of my garden shed, since it's going to be up in the mid-90's for the next couple of days, and really NOT good planting weather.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Plants in the ground

I decided to go ahead and put most of the young native plants in the front meadow this afternoon (they're the ones that leaped into my car late last week). I'm thinking that they're all tough customers, we're not yet under a watering ban, so I'll keep a watchful eye on them and keep them hydrated. There are Indian grass seedlings in the meadow, amazingly, so maybe these plants will be equally tough.

(Disclaimer (since I'm supposed to know better): we DO recommend planting in the fall and spring as a general rule, and transplanting should preferably be done on overcast days, with rain in the forecast, etc...)

My gardening assistant (here waiting for my gardening companion to finish watering) is looking very patient, having had a lovely outing today which included dips in two local rivers (the Chattooga and the Chauga).

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A beneficial garden predator

When I was puttering around near the potting bench yesterday, I noticed there were quite a few yellow jackets foraging at ground level.

They weren't paying much attention to me, so aside from keeping a mindful eye towards possible nest sites, I didn't think about them much, although it is early to be seeing so many.

But this morning, checking on things, and making mental notes of gardening & harvesting needs, I noticed a group of yellow jackets at the base of a tomato plant. Much to my surprise, they were all over a doomed tomato hornworm (the caterpillar of a sphinx moth), which was either still alive, and twitching post-stings, or was being flung about by their feeding.

If you'd asked me if I had currently had tomato hornworms around, I would've said no -- having not seen any, so this was a surprise.

I hadn't much thought about what yellow jackets eat -- we normally worry about hitting a nest with a shovel or a mower and inciting stings or their late summer preference for sugary picnic foods -- but they're tremendously good predators of caterpillars, beetle larvae, flies, and other potentially troublesome garden insects. So these adults were carrying back bits of the protein-rich caterpillar to provision nest larvae, in addition to their nectar and fruit consumption.

There wasn't much left of the hornworm by the time I returned from my morning walk.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Summer gardening

I spent a wonderful morning in the garden: deadheading some early-flowering asters, trimming old stems, cutting back the leggy Agastache (anise-hyssop) to encourage branching, and snipping back spent Salvia flowers.

It's fun to tweak borders and vegetable garden blocks; this morning I focused on the shed border, moving a couple of plants that needed more space, or a different site, and freeing the edges from the inevitable Bermuda grass invasion.

I redid several containers near the potting bench, too, whose perennials had outgrown their pot, and created new plantings with shade-tolerant Heuchera (coral root or alum root), including one of the lime-green leaved ones I'd bought on a whim).

I'm enjoying this apricot Agastache -- I've forgotten the species (hopefully, I saved the tag or mentioned it in a blog post) -- its light open flowering pattern is lovely against the shed wall.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Oh, dear, more plants

In a dreadful drought, I really don't have any business buying more plants, even drought-tolerant natives. But I couldn't resist; at the weekly local farmer's market, offerings from a small local native plant nursery (Carolina Wild) looked wonderful. There was wild quinine (Parthenium intregifolium), orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), grass-leaved golden aster (Pittyopsis graminifolia), broad-leaved tickseed (Coreopsis latifolia) and others equally tempting.

I ended up buying 11 small pots -- I'm planning to simply up-pot them and keep them watered until a (hopefully) decent fall planting time.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Almost full

The moon was high above the horizon just after sunset this evening. It won't be full until early morning (4 am) on Friday, but it looked lovely, with golden hues that the camera didn't pick up.


Young vegetables

One of the most delightful things about growing your own vegetables is that you can harvest lots of young fruits. 'Baby' squash are so amazingly delicious compared to their mature siblings, it hardly seems to be the same vegetable.

A trip to a local farmer's market this afternoon had me eyeing giant yellow squash and zucchini, with overly mature green beans as well. I did buy a largish heirloom eggplant that was delicious, to be fair, but wondered why they were picking such large fruits and not the smaller more desirable ones?

To me, the beauty of fresh veggies is to harvest them at their peak, when they're still tender and succulent, and eat them right away. Big is not better in terms of vegetables!

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Flower visitors

I enjoy watching flower visitors. Are they collecting nectar or pollen (or both)? How are they visiting the flowers? Many are effective pollinators, transferring pollen between flowers, but not all are.

This bumblebee was sonicating ('buzzing') horsenettle flowers (Solanum carolinensis) to discharge pollen. Then, they take the pollen back to provision underground brood cells. About 8% of the world's plant species require 'buzz pollination' to effectively transfer pollen to stigmas.

Some large bees (such as this carpenter bee) 'rob' the nectar of available flowers, such as this Salvia, poking a hole in the base of the flower (corolla) tube.

Butterflies rely on nectar for a source of energy as adults, some getting energy from rotting fruits. Some will collect salts and minerals from shallow puddles, dung, or salty spots. Here's a silver-spotted skipper visiting a bee balm flower for nectar, getting an energy-rich boost.

Photo note:
My gardening companion took the horsenettle and bee photo, and a fellow educator just sent me the photo of the skipper visiting bee balm.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Cicadas and evening light

Growing up in Central Texas, we saw lots of billowing cumulus clouds, often tinted with darker, stormy edges. The sunsets were often spectacular, as the clouds viewed across a long horizon turned orange, gold, and purple.
But here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachian range, our views to the east are muted by the escarpment. But in the summer, the high humidity creates a luminous quality in late evening and early morning which I love. And, if there's a possibility of thunderstorms, the cloud towers become tinted with the sunset.

The sounds of cicadas, crickets, and katydids are a summer constant, a bit muted this summer because of drought. But evenings in the Midwestern U.S. and the West are silent in comparison; the nocturnal symphony is something that's ours to appreciate.

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'Backyard' birds

Even though there are many species of birds now in our garden, I don't see many of their nests, since they're generally so well hidden. But I know we've had brown thrashers, cardinals, jays, towhees, and Carolina wrens nesting near the house.

Northern Cardinal nest
We have a small nest collection at the Nature Center, which illustrates some diversity in common nests, and it's fun to show kids what's happening in our nest boxes linked to webcams, or the phoebe family under the porch roof. People like to bring us nests (especially wren nests), and even though it's technically frowned upon, it doesn't seem to be a problem with common species who rebuild nests seasonally.

A friend brought me a cardinal nest recently -- the mom had abandoned it after construction and laying several eggs. It was interesting because of its twiggy character, lined by dry grasses.

A male towhee is singing loudly outside right now.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

A trio of greens

I've been growing something called 'Italian dandelion' for some time. Actually, since it seems to be perennial, and has really deep roots, I can't actually dig it all out. It's quite attractive and tasty, if prepared by leaching out most of the bitter sesquiterpene lactones first! It does appear to be a selection of common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale; my plants came from seed ordered from The Cook's Garden.

There are lots of other chicories that are enjoyed in Italy and elsewhere, with a number of different species being eaten as a salad herb or vegetable.

I sowed a red-stemmed Catalogna chicory in early spring this year which has flourished.
Radicchio, which has tall and heading varieties, are largely subspecies of Chicorium intybus.

Italian dandelion ~~~~~~Catalogna chicory ~~~~~~~Treviso radicchio
Here's a trio of greens to be part of dinner this evening, braised with olive oil and fresh garlic.

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Leafcutter bees

The unmistakable hole-punch round chunks that are missing in these redbud leaves are evidence that leaf-cutter bees are nesting nearby. Leafcutter bees line their nests with these carefully cut-out pieces, creating a multiple celled nest - one for each larva & its pollen food source.

An important pollinator, leafcutter bees are dark bees about the size of a honey bee -- I'll have to keep an eye out for them.

There are so many different kinds of bees to learn about! Here in North America, there are some 4000 species of native bees. has a wonderful site to poke around, with all sorts of useful information. Here's their bee page.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Squash vines and blueberries

The rain this last week came just in time for the current crop of blueberries. The earlier berries were staying dry and sour from lack of water, then shriveling up. Blueberries (we grow rabbit-eye blueberries, Vaccinium asheii, in the Southern U.S.) are usually trouble-free, drought-tolerant, and attractive, too, in addition to producing lots of berries without any fuss.

The squash 'beds' are turning the satellite garden into a squash carpet, as they sprawl down the slope, and around the garden. They require frequent monitoring for errant direction (up neighboring shrubs, the tomato cages, bean trellises, etc.). The mystery squashes definitely need eating when they're quite small (and delicious), as they're tough-skinned and seedy if left to become large. And the tromboncino squashes are starting to produce more heavily -- hmm, perhaps I should have only planted one?

Since the woodchuck ate everything last summer but onions, garlic, and tomatoes (it seemed like), I think I thought I needed an insurance policy with extra seeds!

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