Friday, August 27, 2010

The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Last weekend, I was showing our farmsitter, Beth, what needed to be done to take care of our buffs when she spotted this running along the ground:
Click on the pic for a closer look. It's a red velvet ant, a.k.a. the cow killer. This is probably one of the prettiest insects around but it's also quite dangerous. While its name is inaccurate--it's a wingless wasp, not an ant--its reputation is apparently quite well deserved. The sting will not kill you but it is said to be so painful that you will wish you were dead. Fortunately, these beautiful creatures are quite shy and will only sting if you step on them or try to pick them up.

I have seen one or two of these before for just a brief second or two. They're very adept at going to ground quickly when spotted. The picture doesn't do justice to the intensely beautiful orange-red color and the velvet-like texture (judging from looks only) of their hairs. It would be very tempting to touch one if the consequences weren't so dire. Red velvet ants like sandy soil and here on Sandy Mush Creek, we've got plenty of it, so if you come for a visit, we definitely recommend keeping your shoes on when you're outside.

The next morning, I went out to take water to the buffalo, reached down to grab the black metal handle of my garden cart, and gave a small black snake a big surprise. Actually, it was a mutual surprise. I swear I heard the snake say "ACK!" just as I did. The little snake couldn't have been more than 14 or 15 inches long and was very skinny. I thought it might be one of the young black rat snakes. Perhaps it was using the handle as camoflauge.

I think I'm going to start calling Old Creaky the snake tree because this happened under the same tree where we had our snake-on-snake violence. A week or so ago, I also found this under the tree:
Yup, it's a snake egg. It had a hole in it out of which was poking a bit of fetal snake. It clearly wasn't in good shape and when I opened up the egg, it was obvious that the snake-to-be was not to be. I began to wonder if the king snake in the tree was a mama snake and she booted this one out when it was clear that it wouldn't develop properly. Or was it stolen? I don't know enough about how snakes care for their eggs or not to make an educated guess.

So, back to my little snake. It slithered off toward the mimosa tree and I went on with my morning. That afternoon when I was mowing the lawn near the well house, the little snake darted out in front of the mower. I turned off the blades and watched the snake stop just a couple of feet away. I waited for it to move, so I could continue without worrying about harming it. It reared up a bit and then I noticed--it was just about to finish eating another small snake!

Now I'm wondering if this was a young king snake that made a food run over to the well house where I know we have rat snakes. It's that or it was preying on a sibling. I felt less kindly towards it at this stage but no sense in losing two snakes in one day. I went and mowed in another area for a bit to give this reptilian gourmand a chance to relocate. Fortunately, it disappeared--into the snake tree, no doubt--and I finished my mowing of the yard.

Then, it was off to the driveway portion of the mowing (our gravel driveway has a grassy strip in the middle). Sure enough, as I got up towards the big barn, our biggest rat snake, King Rizzo, was crossing the driveway. I backed up to give him room to run and he eventually returned to the ditch from which he'd come. After I passed up and back, I looked back to see him attempt the crossing again. As he headed toward the barn, I noted that he, too, had recently dined as evidenced by a large, rodent-shaped bulge in his belly. Do snakes have bellies? No matter. You know what I mean. Made me think of the elephant inside the snake in Le Petit Prince.

Anyone up for a picnic at our place?????

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Zucchini Mystery

OK, all you gardeners, botanists, and horticultural types. Anyone have any idea why I'm getting albino zucchini?
This plant, one of several plant starts that I got from a local nursery, has produced several nearly white zucchini. They have just the faintest hint of green about them. None of the other plants have done this. What's especially odd is that the plant alternates between one of these and one classic dark green zuke. The zukes are structurally perfect (best of any of the plants this summer) and taste fine. I have my doubts about the soil as this is the one I planted in an old tire in the soil that was there when we moved in and I didn't add any amendments. Still, since the plant is alternating, I'm wondering if it's just some genetic anomaly. Thoughts?


It's always fun to show off what goes well in the garden--
like these edamame-- or what we think will go well like the amish paste tomatoes below:
But at this time of year, it seems only fair to talk about what isn't going well. And that has all to do with pests. I have just about given up on the squash and zucchini as most of the plants have been devastated by squash vine borers with a few other (potato?) bugs adding insult to injury. Early in the season I was able to squish most of the bugs by hand, but now there are too many and I can't get at the ones inside the stems (I think I'll try injecting Bt with a hypodermic needle next year).

Bean beetles attacked the edamame tho' they didn't get most of the crop. The most interesting pests this year, however, were these guys:
Longtime gardeners may recognize these as tobacco hornworms. If they weren't so devastating in how quickly they can strip a plant of its leaves, they'd be worth keeping around for pure entertainment value. I found their markings quite beautiful--even their strangely geometric poop (a bit like a bright green grenade) was interesting when fresh--until I saw how much of my already blight-stressed tomato plants they had eaten. The little buggers had even gnawed on a few tomatoes. Unforgiveable. These two were put out for birds to eat after I snapped a few more pix.
Every other week since then, I've found one or two on the tomatoes. Death has been swift but messy. Too big to squish without squeamishness, I have opted for a quick snip with the kitchen shears. Then, this lady showed up:
Well, I assume it's a she since it appears to be covered in eggs. I couldn't risk all those future tomato munchers being released into the world, so after their photo-op, everyone got dunked in the jar of alcohol normally reserved for ticks that hitch a ride on us or the dogs. (Note: I've just been informed that these were not hornworm eggs but rather the cocoons of a parasitic wasp. I should not have killed them--they're a beneficial. Next time I'll know to let the wasps develop so they can kill more hornworms).

Although this last pest has not really been an issue for us, I couldn't resist this perennial problem child when I saw it newly-emerged on Old Creaky:

Pipped at the Post

I had better get some more posts up before Green Roof Gardeners steal all my good ideas.

I, too, had okra flowers to show off:
Who knew Yankees would be growing okra? I should have taken pictures Tuesday while I made my first attempt at pickling okra. By the way, I had previously mentioned that I don't like okra. Turns out, if you cook it right, it's not bad. One simple preparation that worked well for me was just washing/drying the okra, slicing it into rounds which were then dredged in cornmeal, and frying them up in oil. Quick and tasty. Best of all: no slime factor.

And then there was going to be the extensive discussion of my worm bin:
I do mine a bit differently. I bought a commercial version called a Worm Factory. It uses red wigglers and a series of bins that allow you to have several stages of compost at all times while providing compost tea via a spigot (truthfully, however, my spigot is almost always clogged so I just get the tea when I remove a layer).

In each layer I put a layer of food scraps (mostly veggies--no meat, dairy, fats, or garlic/onion). That's topped with a whole lot of shredded newspaper to give the worms a place to hang out when they're not eating. On top of that is a couple of layers of moist newspaper just to hold everything in. The worms move up and down eating and pooping. The layer on the bottom is harvested when all the food is digested and what remains looks like the richest soil you'll ever see. I keep putting new food in the top layer so the worms will move up.

Since worms don't like extremes of heat or cold, I keep the bin just inside our back door near the catbox. It doesn't smell (unless I accidentally put onion in there) or at least it's nothing compared to the catbox. And it's much faster at composting than my outdoor compost heap. I've had this bin system for about two years now and I've never had to buy more worms. I also make fewer trips out to the big compost heap, so it's more convenient. Best of all, I feel less guilty when food spoils before I get around to cooking it. Didn't get to that basil in time? Cilantro go slimy too fast? Not to worry. That's dinner for the worms.

From Overdue to Overdone

Thanks to a combination of guilt and inspiration, I feel a whole lot of blog posts coming on. Bear with me as I catch up on some odds and sods.

Here's some wildlife that didn't make it into the last post:
Can you see the little two-toned furry critter with the prehensile tail? Click on the pic to enlarge. Yes, it's the cutest 'possum I've seen yet. It's unusual both in that it put in an appearance in daylight and that it's not roadkill. I wish I could say it was just good luck, but after watching it with binoculars, I realized that it had been wounded--no doubt by our great hunter dog, Bru. One of the poor opossum's hind legs was bloodied and it was not walking too well on it. Still, it managed to get out of our yard and head back to the relative safety of the overgrowth around the fish pond. I'm guessing it survived the attack by, um, playing 'possum. Bru gives up on any critter once it stops moving (except box turtles--he always wants to get the prize inside the box).