Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Metamorphosis Is Not Easy

It was just ten days ago when I chose the Monarch Butterflies over green beans.  Today was sunny and hot.  There was no doubt that a butterfly was inside this chrysalis this morning.  I found this quite exciting.  Not every Monarch makes it this far.  When I checked back just before lunchtime the butterfly was gone and the chrysalis was empty.  I saw no sign of an orange and black butterfly anywhere near the green beans. That is probably great news for this butterfly.  Ed did point out another green chrysalis on one of the bean plants so the saga continues.

In another part of the garden I passed by two newly hatched Monarchs on the white asters.  They surely are bright and beautiful when they are newly hatched.

 Sometime later when I returned, one of the Monarchs was gone.  The butterfly that remained had a fold on the edge of her right upper wing.  Her left wing did not pump up properly.  It is good to remember that not all eggs get to hatch, not all caterpillars get to be butterflies and not all Monarchs get to migrate. 

There are still some beautiful flowers in the garden. This pink phlox is fragrant and lovely.  The really big excitement for today in the garden came when Ed called my attention to a black butterfly that was cruising around the garden.  I was the lucky one because I was wishing to get a better look to identify the butterfly and it flew over and sat for perhaps ten seconds with its wings open on a flower right in front of me.  It was a black and blue butterfly.  I know that doesn't sound very pretty, but the upper wings of the butterfly were black and the lower ones were bright blue when they caught the sunlight.  When I came inside and checked my butterfly book I was almost certain that this was a Pipevine Swallowtail.  Most of the blue butterflies around here are tiny.  I love to see them but this butterfly was the size of a Monarch or perhaps even a bit bigger.  I was totally captivated.  Now I will be looking for a place to get a native Pipevine.  Yes it is true that we are just north of  the Pipevine swallowtail's range but I saw one and I want more.  I will dream tonight of big beautiful black and blue butterflies in next years garden. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

September Splendor

We have been having warm sunny days and walking around outside in the garden has been truly splendid!   For someone who has purposely loaded the garden with nectar plants preferred by butterflies and their caterpillars these are the best of times.  Most of the time butterflies take off when you walk by or even if your shadow passes over them.  Just one click of the camera  usually sends them off.  Sometimes they speed past directly in front of you.   The beautiful creature you see here is a Painted Lady butterfly, Cynthia Vanessa.  I have seen painted ladies here before, but never so many as this year.  Several years ago it was Red Admirals that were so plentiful.  Their caterpillars practically ate all the stinging nettles to the ground!

This Painted lady is enjoying the October Skies asters in front of the house.  All of the asters are having a magnificent year and these purple beauties are one of my favorites!

Many of the blooms on my butterfly bush have gone past, but the ones that are still blooming are fragrant and welcoming.  There are four Painted Ladies in this photo.   Each one sits on a plume of pink flowers except for the one that is flying and I think just about to land.

This amazing clump of  Malva sylvestris is in the same bed as the butterfly bush.  I am lot more accepting of the holes in their leaves now that I know mallows are a favorite food of painted lady caterpillars.  We still see some Monarchs, Sulfurs and others, but this year the Painted Ladies have made for a splendid September!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Garlic Bed Awaits

This is our garden near the back woods.  We looked here for new ground that had not been contaminated by several years of trying to grow diseased garlic.  Slow to learn, our first crop here was garlic from our old stock.  That poisoned the far bed that now supports strawberry plants.  We will never plant garlic in that area again and the soil borne disease seems to have stayed put.  This year our seed garlic will be planted in the near bed.  It was newly opened this spring.  Potatoes were the first crop planted here and they provided us with a substantial harvest.

Twelve five gallon pails of soil amendment and a sprinkling of lime were added to this ground.  Our mix contains our own compost that never contained garlic, Black Kow dehydrated manure and peat moss.  This soil is vastly different from what we have near the house.  Here stones are relatively few in number and this ground contains a great deal of clay.  The clay retains moisture helping the plants survive rainless periods but it bakes nearly as solid as bricks.  We will try to add soil building  amendments that will loosen this ground.   The relative lack of stones has prevented the completion of stone paths between the planting beds.  Reground tree bark mulch covers the path separating the two halves of this garden.  Anything organic fills the path between two beds.

Our major hurdle remains clearing the ground of quack grass and preventing its reentry.  Repeated applications of dried grass clippings encourages the quack grass root system to move out of the ground and into the rotting grass clippings.  Rolling large clumps free of the soil requires persistence but the weed is nearly completely removed.  Followup removal of missed roots eventually clears the ground of this pest.

These four planting beds have been cleared of weeds and three of them covered with leaves collected last year.  Some of the leaves have experienced a trip through the lawn mower while others await their turn.  The chopped leaves decay much faster than the whole leaves and are far less likely to be wind blown about.  Despite this effort, some of our treasure of millions of weed seeds will find an opportunity to grow alongside of the desired crops that we plant.  We would prefer that our garden remain weed free but all that we manage is to give our desired plants a head start.  Some hand weeding is timely completed thereby feeding the compost pile.  We are certain that this is a never ending task.

This bark mulch moat is intended to keep the quack grass from reentering the planting beds.  Both the cardboard base and the bark chips will rot but removing the weeds is rather easily done.  We previously tried landscape fabric but the weed roots firmly anchored themselves in the fabric.  The tops of the weeds could be pulled free with great difficulty but the remaining roots quickly sent up new growth and completed their steady march into the planting beds.  This modified system will likely work better.  We need to take this system around the corner and to the far edge of the new garlic bed.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Potato Planting Time

This is not the generally accepted time of the year to plant potatoes.  Here, mid May is generally accepted as appropriate potato planting time.  Anyone that has grown potatoes has experienced last year's missed spuds growing as weeds in the following year's crop.  It just seemed obvious to me that fall planting was possible.  Others have tried this without success.  My reasoning was that those selected for seed should remain in the soil.  I usually have the dishpan filled with soil ready for the seed as soon as it is found.  That is not being done here as I was confused when these were dug.  They have been out of the ground little more than two hours but there is nothing that can be done about that now.  So, I plant, record and hope.

Summer squash grew in this bed earlier this year.  Leaf mulch was used to control weed growth and the ground remained mostly free of unwanted plants.  Two rows containing twelve seed potatoes each were planted in the 12 ft. X 5 ft. planting area.  Red Pontiac's finished off this planting.  As a mid season red potato, they are impressive.  A search was required to find the size preferred for planting.  Most were too large to plant without cutting.

The coarse leaf mulch that spent the summer under the squash was forced through a wire screen sieve with a 1 in. X 1 in. hole size.  This smaller size will help keep the mulch in place over the winter with no plant growth above it.  Also, the leaves will largely rot away by spring.

We have planted six each of the four varieties Red Pontiac, Rio Grande, Genessee and Purple Viking. That will give us a red skinned white flesh potato, a russet of impressive size, a tan skinned white potato and a psychedelic patterned red and purple skinned white potato.  Only the Purple Viking is in its third year here.  It tends to throw lunkers so finding suitably sized seed is difficult.  This variety may well be in its last year with us.  We are reluctant to keep planting our own seed thereby risking blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


There are numerous signs that the season is about to change.  Fallen leaves from the wild cherry trees that line our lane are among the earliest signals.  Now lawn maple trees are coating the green with the brown of dropped leaves.  A more pleasant sign is the flowers of the asters.  Purple ray flowers with golden centers make the New England Aster a personal favorite.  It is a common roadside weed here but that fact did not prevent me from bringing it into the gardens.  Wild specimens are frequently limited to a single stalk or two but given care and fertile ground, monsters follow.

A perfect natural color combination places Goldenrod and New England Asters together.  In this instance both are growing as weeds that have taken over a planting bed.  These are slated for removal soon as we try to take back tended ground.

  This is a natural color mutation in the New England Aster.  These line the roadside ditches on the route we drive several times each week.  We were tempted to steal a plant or two but that goes against our standards of behavior.  After a long wait, one of these plants simply appeared here.  Patience and divisions have increased our holdings to five substantial clumps.

The proper name of this wild plant is not known to us.  It grows in several different locations here.  Placed along the edge of an abandoned pasture in full sunlight, this plant towers over me.  Located in the nearly full shade alongside of the lane severely limits the size of this plant.  If we gather together the various asters that grow here we can expect runaway growth.  As problems go that is not a bad one to have.

 This light blue variety's name eludes us.  It also grows at the edge of our shady lane.

This photo clearly shows the down side of having goldenrod and asters planted together.  Goldenrod simply overruns an area quickly becoming the only plant growing there.  One season of repeated mowing eliminated the goldenrod.  There are places where it grows in the gardens that makes digging it out without damaging the desired plants impossible  We will try repeated total pruning to eliminate it there.  Here on the sloped ground adjacent to the fields it simply grows unchecked.

We found the air filled with bright new Monarch Butterflies today.  These did not display the behavior typical of migrating butterflies so we feel that they were recently formed here.  The goldenrod serves as their major food source since many of the other flowers are no longer in bloom.  For the benefit of the Monarchs,  we encourage milkweed growth and tolerate the invasive nature of the goldenrod.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Fool With Mother Nature Fool

We are located near the northern limits of the Monarch Butterfly's natural range.  They come here to lay the eggs that will create the butterflies that will complete the migration flight to Mexico.  Milkweed is encouraged to grow here as a food source for the caterpillars.  Left to follow its natural cycle, milkweed flowers just after school is out for the summer.  That is about the time that the first Monarchs appear here.  They do feed on the milkweed flowers but they also feed on many other flowers.  It is the milkweed leaves that are critically important to the survival of the butterflies.    They, and their near relatives, are the only source of acceptable food for the caterpillars.  My concern has focused on the fact that the plants are nearly spent when the caterpillars need a food source.

My interference in the natural order is to mow several acres of former farm fields that now grow milkweed.  A mowing or two force the milkweed plants to start growing again.  This creates bright green young leaves suitable for caterpillar food.  We have seen female butterflies depositing their eggs on the underside of these new leaves.  This is a high point in our summer since we feel that we are helping this threatened species survive at least just a little longer.

A recent walk among the insects revealed this robust looking caterpillar feeding on an old tough nearly dead leaf.  It would appear that the normal order is working just fine without our help.  Reality aside, I will likely continue to mow the milkweed fields creating extensive stands of young plant growth.

This egg hatched in our garden.  Despite milkweed's extensive deep root system, we continue to allow far too many plants to claim parts of our garden beds.  Butterflies and their caterpillars add greatly to the events unfolding in our gardens.  Wire fence is hardly a natural site for the transformation from worm to butterfly to occur but that location is commonly used here.  A casual walk in the garden recently revealed a newly emerged butterfly drying its wings while clinging to a section of wire fence.

This chrysalis formed on a grass leaf.  We are working to clear our planting areas before the weeds drop their seed load.  This natural treasure went unnoticed until the leaf had been pulled.  Becky used her weaving skills to attach the leaf to a piece of wire fence.  Orange and black color patterns can be seen on the developing butterfly.  We hope to soon see this new butterfly fly free.  In this instance if the weed had simply been thrown on the compost pile the butterfly would probably have perished.  As far as mowing milkweed is concerned, our interference may not be necessary but we choose to think that the survival rate for caterpillars feeding on new leaves may be higher than those eating nearly dead leaves.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Alien Invader

Becky recently noticed this previously unknown to us plant growing next to our driveway.  Her investigation revealed that this vine is as bad as the plague.  Since we missed the flowers, we do not know if this is Pale Swallow-wort or Black Swallow-wort.  Actual identification matters not since either must be removed and destroyed.  Dig it, black plastic bag it then bake it in the sun until nothing plantlike remains.  This area will require future watching to insure that we have indeed removed all of it.

This small plant was growing under the tangle in this spot.  We must attempt to remove the larger plants as completely as this small one.  Anything less than 100% removal represents failure so we will be working this area almost forever.  All growth will be removed and we will work to keep this ground devoid of any plant growth.

These seed pods will open releasing milkweed like seeds that float under silken parachutes.  This plant is related to milkweed and Monarch butterflies do mistakenly lay eggs here.  Unfortunately any larva trying to grow on these leaves will die.  Both the wildly invasive habit of Swallow-wort that will choke out native plants and its negative impact of the Monarch butterfly mandate the removal and destruction of this plant.  When this area is cleared, we will begin searching for other possible locations of this pest.

While we are on the topic of plant pests, here is another that in the end will reclaim our gardens.  Quack grass grows in all of our abandoned fields.  We work to remove it completely from our planting beds but where the garden and the field touch the quack grass reenters the cleared soil.  This bit of ground was diligently cleared of all weeds this spring.  Summer squash was planted here and a thick layer of mower ground tree leaves smothered weeds.  This bed looked well tended and weed free all season.  Now the squash was removed, the rotting leaves were pulled aside and the tips of this quack grass root system revealed themselves.  Working carefully, the root was removed all of the way back to the edge of the field.  A wood bark mulch fills a trench intended to separate the garden from the field.  This system works well but it is not perfect.  This root was removed intact and fall planted potatoes are going into this ground.  The leaf mulch will be reapplied and all will appear great when the potatoes begin to grow come spring.  We expect to remove new quack grass invaders and we will harvest a crop from what appears to be well tended ground.  We also expect that quack grass will completely reclaim this ground within two years of our departure from this place.  We know this because we have already seen this pest take back planting areas that we could not properly weed.

The following day tools were taken to the site of the invasion.  We were surprised to discover a large number of these nasty plants growing in this waste area.  The five foot long pry bar deeply penetrated the rocky ground allowing removal of both the above ground growth and the root mass.  We fully expect that bits of root were broken off and left behind.  Return visits in years to come will be necessary to keep this weed in check.  Total eradication is our goal but we know that this plant will reappear here for several years to come.

These seed pods have changed color indicating their seeds will soon be mature, free to float away on the wind.  In that regard we were lucky to discover these invaders when we did.  We may leave behind bits of root to regrow but we bagged hundreds of seeds.  Cooking inside of a black plastic trash bag will render these seeds unable to sprout.  That in itself makes this a day well spent!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Green Beans Or Monarch Butterflies

I have been feeling a bit under the weather!  When a beautiful sunny day came along a chance for little fresh air and sunshine was more than I could resist.  I thought I would see if there were any more green beans worth picking and clean up that garden bed.   I opened the cage and moved my little garden cart into position.  Sitting that close to the ground the first thing I noticed was not green beans.  Instead I saw two Monarch caterpillars on one milkweed plant.

"Fine!" I though," I'll look elsewhere."  I moved to another area of the green bean bed.  Once again I noticed two Monarch caterpillars on one milkweed plant.

One more time I moved.  This time a single, but large and healthy looking Monarch caterpillar caught my attention.  I still had not seen any green beans worth picking.  In the end I chose the Monarch butterflies.   As I closed up the fence I noticed a few more caterpillars in the green bean bed.   As I pulled my cart back toward the house, a bright orange and black, perhaps newly hatched, Monarch butterfly flew across  my path.  I definitely made the right choice.   Monarch butterflies it is!

Friday, September 1, 2017

September First Frost

Just to be clear, this post title refers both to the first frost of the season and the fact that it occurred on the first day of September.  Located in the Southern Tier of New York, we are accustomed to seeing the aftermath of a late September frost some years but never this early in the month.  The weather service did not speak of possible frost last night but mentions it for tonight.  Last night's forecasted low was in the mid forties.  We have been here long enough to know the likelihood of frost in our location when the weather station expects numbers in the forties.  It came as no surprise when we looked out this morning and saw wilted leaves on the squash.

The pattern of the damage raises more questions than answers about the actual movement of the cold air that caused the damage.  Long after we placed our garden we observed the pattern of frost on the grass.  Cold pours down from the high ridge behind the ridge that we can see from here and its path is defined by our low notch.  That river of cold follows the contour of the lower ground and finds an exit toward the west.  Unfortunately for us, a wide bend in that river washes over much of our garden.  The basil is planted on slightly higher ground and escaped any damage last night.  We hope that it remains undamaged come morning.

When I first came to this area little more than one half of a century ago, the old timers spoke of the year without summer.  They had heard stories from men much older than themselves of a year when frost formed every month of the year.  Only July and August are usually free of freezes but there are old tales of frost then. If the frost formed before midnight last night, then we just experienced frost in August.  So in this youngster's memory, frost eleven months out of the year is possible but rare.  A July frost seems highly unlikely but who is going to argue with tales from the collective memory of old timers.

This is just a little good news.  Ingaborg gave us these plants many years ago and we refer to them as Inga's mallow.  They self seed and reappear in many places in the garden.  They can be transplanted if the move is completed early since they grow from a taproot.  These beautiful flowers never fail to spark fond memories of a true master gardener.

This is the season of mums in front of many stores.  We prefer to grow our own but the plants prefer a warmer location.  This Mammoth Pink has held its location near the south facing house wall for the past two years.  It is self shaped since we never get around to that task.  These flowers should be fine tomorrow since our frost river flows far away from this spot.