58, 59, 60…
For the past week I’ve been watching the mercury inch up my thermometer
61, 62, 63…
Seventeen year cicadas emerge when the soil reaches a critical temperature of 64 degrees Farenhite. Not a degree more, not a degree less. Isn’t that cool? We’ve all been hearing about them for months now. The New York Times. The Huffington Post. It’s been a virtual hailstorm of media: these two winged, bug eyed, clicking, clacking buzzing beasts have captured the attention of millions of people. And guess what? They’re cooked. Cicadas have been sighted up and down the east coast as of last week!
But let’s get one thing straight. This is not an invasion. These insects won’t destroy your garden. In fact, these perfectly natural native insects are part of an ancient, efficient nutrient cycle that keeps our forests rolling in the good stuff. The turkeys, who eat ticks as well, will be happy this year, as will our native skinks, red squirrels, and bear. Frankly, that makes me pretty happy, too. So sit back, and enjoy the show.
Image by Nathan Lamb
Oh the serenity of nature! The blissed-out beauty of watching the sunset over a green mountain crest! The basking, uninterrupted blanket of dusk! That is, until the inevitable nip of the season’s accompanying nuisance: bug bites. A plague to New England from June through August, Black Flies and Mosquitoes can be real party crashers.
Prepare for your uninvited guests responsibly this season with Meow Meow Tweet’s Camper’s Kit. Eschewing the noxious common insect repellent ingredient DEET (found to be toxic if used under certain conditions), this gleeful Camper’s Kit opts for natural ingredients like citronella, rosemary, lavender, lemongrass, cedar wood and fir needle essential oils to keep winged wanderers at bay. Arm yourself with a morning shower using their Citronella Fir Bar Soap, a few splashes of All Natural Herbal Insect Repellent throughout the day, and the romantic yet practical flicker of the Insect Repellent Soy Wax Candle at night and you may just find yourself feeling a little big like Bubble Boy in your impenetrable sphere of bug protection. Interlopers, you’ve been warned!
In recent years, backyard fowl have become as commonplace as flower beds in neighborhoods both urban and rural. Understandably, as chickens and ducks vastly improve the health of your garden. Birds truly make the best yard maintenance crew; plus, they turn your waste into food. Likewise, you can turn their waste into food. Assuming many of us already keep fowl for these reasons, here are some key tips to making the most of your flock.
-Introduce ducklings. Chickens are more popular than ducks- ducks get a bad reputation for making a mess. Yes, I admit, they are water birds and will surely muddy up wet areas, but they also provide certain benefits that chickens do not. They are superior foragers, feasting on a wide range of insects and grubs, including slugs, which can be devastating to plants. Ducks can also be easily herded and- most importantly – egg laying breeds produce eggs richer in fat and protein than chicken eggs. All the better for superior cake baking.
-Raise the water. Traditional waterers, which sit on the ground, work fine. I find, however, that for cleaner water – and a cleaner coop, a suspended water dispenser works better. You can purchase a set of red chicken “nipples” for only a few dollars. Simply insert these into a standard, 5 gallon bucket using a hand drill. Hang the entire system from a rope. The chickens will naturally attract to the red color and the scent of the water. Adjust the height as the chickens grow. Less mess, less wasted water.
-Move the coop. The grounds of a duck or chicken pen are rich in manure. The easiest way to make use of this natural fertilizer is simply to turn the plot of the pen into a garden. Ideally, you should adopt a seasonal rhythm for your yard – regularly rotating animal spaces and growing spaces. This will overtime, improve the health of your soil. Managed rotation is the easiest and best way to put all of that good bird waste to use. I also like to think the animals appreciate a change of scenery.
-Watch your birds. This may sound unnecessary for such self sufficient creatures, but chickens are highly social and problems can easily develop within the flock. There is often a hen who is picked on more than the others, or a rooster who is too aggressive. After feeding, hang around to see who does what. Is one bird getting shooed away from the scratch? Is the rooster actively assisting hens in finding food? Backyard fowl provide so many rewards to the gardener. In return, make sure your coop is full of happy, healthy (laying!) birds.
Image from The Encyclopedia of Vanished Species by David Day (McLaren Publishing, 1989)
Certain bird calls are as familiar as the taste of mint or the weight of a no. 2 pencil. Crows, gulls and some owls come to mind. Roosters, geese and ducks. Birds whose voices we have words for, or whose songs we can easily mimic. Then there are the birds whose voices we hear year after year in our yards and woods and parks without ever thinking to name or hoping to describe.
That is until, thanks to a good field guide or a knowing friend, we do.
The melodic sigh of the hermit thrush fell into place for me that way. And the quippy chatter of jays.
For so many reasons, recognizing birds by their call or song is a good skill to have. Excepting jays, who flit foxily into view, most successful bird watching involves a great deal of bird listening. And sometimes that’s all you get. Or all you want as in the case of the thrush – a dull brown lump with a surprisingly wistful, lilting song.
Recently, this time thanks to the Internet, I learned to recognized the territorial call of the northern flicker. The following morning, one showed up next door. It took losing a hat, missing a bus and arriving late for work, but now the bird’s rough whoop is as telltale as a single set of footprints trailing behind me in the snow.
Bees start stirring somewhere around April, but to tell you the truth, they’re never completely idle. In the wild, the big momma queen bee of the burrowing bee species begins to lay eggs in January far below the frost line. If you’ve got a hive, your honey bees will start expanding their brood more slowly and a little later, in February. Every time there’s a warm snap, and they come more and more frequently as we close in on May, bees take flight to stretch their wings and scout for early flowers. Boost your garden’s productivity and biodiversity and bring bees- of all different species- to the garden this year:
Squash bees: Squash bees, unlike the honey bee, are as American as apple pie (I mean, technically speaking they’re more American because apples are Eurasian…). They’re cute cuddly, and black and yellow striped just like honey bees- but many greenthumbs consider them better pollinators of crops in the pumpkin family. Got gourds? You’ve probably got these pollinators already. Just to make sure, plant any of the Cucurbits like cucumbers or zucchini!
Shaggy fuzz foot bees: YEAH. I’m serious. This is the bee’s real name. PRETTY AWESOME, no? Shaggy fuzz foot is another native bee species that, like the squash bee, specializes in collecting pollen from a narrow subsect of native plants. In this case, it’s the blueberry family. Equipped with a long tongue- long enough to plunge down the throat of the elongate, tubular flowers of most blueberries and reach nectar, this bee does the work that other bee species can’t. Next time you check out your blueberries, see whether you’ve been visited by the magical shaggy fuzz foot, or whether another kind of bee species has ‘stolen’ nectar by piercing the flower at it’s base, rather than doing the polite thing and helping out with pollination duties before making off with the goods. To attract the fuzz foot, there is nothing better than planting blueberries, but they also like apple and cherry flowers, too.
Other tips: In general, the more floral diversity, the better. Bees are attracted to all kinds of flowers. The daisy family Asteraceae is a failsafe with many different kinds of garden varieties to choose from like black eyed susan, cone flower, and aster. The mint family is another favorite with nutritious nettles, pennyroyal, and the aptly named bee balm all on the roster of ’best bee plants’ .
“Among the 20,000 species of butterflies that exist around the globe, the monarch butterfly holds a special place in the hearts and minds of entomologists and animal lovers alike. Both the mesmerizing patterns of their wings and their epic journeys are a source of admiration and astonishment, and it’s no wonder why: Monarchs amount to the largest mass of all migratory species in the animal kingdom.”
Elizabeth Flores wrote that in the Fall 2012 issue of Wilder Quarterly. (You can download the full article here.) Flores spent some time at the Mexico’s Bioreserve pondering the five generation migration cycle of the butterflies and their shaky future. Last Friday, The New York Times penned a similar piece about the decline of the Monarch Butterfly coming with some scary stats such as ”the area of forest occupied by the butterflies, once as high at 50 acres, dwindled to 2.94 acres in the annual census conducted in December.” And with the Monarchs go all sorts of insects who are part of its ecosystem.
So what to do? Stop logging? Stop using herbicide which kills off milkweed, the Monarchs favorite feast? Sounds like there is no easy way out.
Are you experiencing it too? Something buzzing in your lampshade. Something crawling up the window. Something (oops) crunching beneath your foot. When cold temperatures well and truly hit, all things outdoors try to find a way indoors. This includes your friendly neighborhood ladybugs. But before you swat it or squish it, DON’T! Ladybugs can eat up to 1,000 aphids a day and, I don’t know about your houseplants, but mine definitely have aphids. The often cramped indoor over-wintering places where we store our plants are less than ideal. Limited air circulation and lower light levels stress plants out, and leave them vulnerable to pests and other nasties. So take a look around your windowsill. Your door frame. Under pots or shoes. See if you have any spotted saviors seeking solace, scoop ‘em up, and let them live out the winter, doing the dirty work of pest patrol for you.
Here in the Northeast, migrations are upon us. Geese flock overhead, Monarchs are gone, and, recently, the wooly bears are out. Swaddled in stiff hairs from top to bottom, the orange and black wooly bear caterpillar is winter’s waddling herald. Legend has it the black bands covering its head and tail are predictors of the impending season’s severity. If the head is darker than the tail, the winter will start out brutal, tapering to an early spring. If the reverse is true, we’ll have that indian summer we all dream about followed by stubborn april snowfall. If both bands are big and black? We’re screwed.
The myth has made it one of the most recognizable caterpillars in America. Check it out next time you see it struggling across the road and make your own prediction.
Although they are present year round, the American Goldfinch is really easy to see come August. It’s at this time of year thistles, milkweed, and sedges start to produce abundant seed, bringing these bright, feathered acrobats out into the open. In fact, the gold finch adheres to what might be the strictest all-seed diet in the ornithological world- a characteristic that means that brood parasites that require insect food, like cuckoos and cowbirds, rarely survive in a gold finch’s nest. To attract these birds to the garden plant almost any native species belonging to the daisy family (Asteraceae). They especially love sunflowers and are a wonder when seen in a group, dangling from the plant’s seed head, bright yellow wings taking the place of vanished yellow petals.
There are little signs here and there when it begins to happen. A red blotch on a once green leaf. The bursting of a floret of goldenrod. The mornings contain a goose pimpling chill that wasn’t there the week before and the shadows at dusk no longer stretch long and languid as they lurch out of the day, conceding to night. But the biggest sign to me that summer has begun its all too hasty descent to fall is the monarch. Golden eggs on milkweed, a stripy caterpillar munching on their leaves. They’ve been here now for a couple of weeks, these silent, paper winged heralds.
So pick those tomatoes while you can. Grab another bouquet of flowers. Sunbathe. Drink lemonade. stroll in the green grass barefoot. Because although you may not be able to believe it, these butterflies only mean one thing: september is coming.
The Emerald Ash Borer could be coming to a tree near you. Recently spotted last week in Connecticut, populations of this highly mobile, extremely destructive pest have got conservationists, botanists and horticulturalist wringing their hands. If current predictions come true, this pest is slated to destroy millions of trees on a scale similar to the diseases that felled the American elm and our mighty native chestnut.
Keep an eye out for this bug’s glossy green shell and it’s characteristic bore hole, and for the love of the woods, alert your local parks department or cooperative extension if you see it- right away.
The 1920s experiment to reverse-engineer wild cows.
In 1920, the brothers Lutz and Heinz Heck, directors of the Berlin and Munich zoos, respectively, began a two-decade breeding experiment. Working with domestic cattle sought out for their “primitive” characteristics, they attempted to recreate “in appearance and behavior” the living likeness of the animals’ extinct wild ancestor: the aurochs. “Once found everywhere in Germany,” according to Lutz Heck, by the end of the Middle Ages the aurochs had largely succumbed to climate change, overhunting, and competition from domestic breeds…
Read the entire story here.
We were lucky to have Cari Vander Yacht create these two fantastic watercolors for the Summer issue of Wilder Quarterly. They accompany two articles: the seasonal pest (the cute, but destructive, woodchuck) and the seasonal beneficial (the White Lined Sphinx Moth).
The woodchuck painting makes me laugh every time.
I’m a big fan of animals. If you ask me, everything in life is sweeter when a furred, feathered, whiskered companion is part of it. Last week in my vegetable garden I was lamenting my poor choice of hay for mulch because of its tendency to harbor wet and slimy voracious slugs. My young chard is lattice work. My squash leaves, like doileys. Answering my expletives without the merest hint of a smile on his face, my boyfriend said ‘why don’t you get a duck?’
And it turns out that’s a good question. Sluicing about with those shovel-shaped bills, ducks are death incarnate in a slug’s stalked eyes. More judicious weeders than chickens (which I have employed in the garden before) ducks tend to keep their eyes trained to the ground, sifting beneath mulch and rooting up seedling weeds. They also don’t worry the soil the way a chicken will, leaving roots intact and buried weed seeds where they belong. Plus they don’t do any cockadoodle-doing, and then there are those extra rich eggs!
But if you’re more into growing fruit, consider the prospect of an ovine pruner. In viticulture, small breed sheep like the Babydoll Southdown are used to keep grape vines neat and tidy, increasing fruit production. In apple orchards, both sheep and goats are used as a low impact method of mowing/weed control. How about that? You could throw away your weeding knife for good!
Summer’s heat and humidity trigger the proliferation of all the nastiest garden pests but most of the time, birds and other beneficials can handle it. Not so with the USAs latest insect invader- the winter moth. Hailing from Europe, winter moths are voracious leaf and blossom eaters, capable of completely defoliating entire trees. Although concentrated in MA, RI, WA, and OR the moth is spreading fast. In badly affected areas forests crackle with the dropping of caterpillar frass as loopers chomp their way through countless leaves. To ID this rather ordinary looking larvae, look for a pale white stripe running down either side of the caterpillar’s lime green body. The larvae often ‘balloon’, swinging out on transparent strands of silk to reach new feeding grounds. If you notice lattice leaves on your trees, begin watering heavily to aid in the production of a second flush of leaf growth and call your local extension office. They’ll have the latest updates on the winter moth’s spread.
The best treatments for combatting winter moth caterpillars are biological: Cyzenis albicans, a fly that parasitizes the caterpillar, and Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that lacerates the insect’s gut, are both safe effective ways of dealing with this pest.
So infrequently do we see the the all-important pollinators that run our garden’s errands. And even less frequently do we see those that fly by night, but feeding in the inky darkness are millions of moths, sifting through the night’s myriad of scents on chalky silent wings.
If you’re interested in seeing what’s out there, be an entomologist for the evening: hang a white sheet from it’s uppermost corners outside in the garden or on lower level fire escape and shine a very bright light on it. You’ll attract some species using just a regular lightbulb, but if you’re serious, look for a mercury vapor bulb, or an actinic light strip, which produce the blue end of the light spectrum. Check the sheet every 15 minute intervals and see what comes fluttering in from the dark beyond.
When it comes to bats, the majority of us think of leathery winged flying mice. Or maybe you have some kind of sharp-fanged, blood-drenched Dracula association? Although most North American bats are insectivorous, some do drink blood. But a few species drink nectar, too. In fact, bats are the primary pollinators of the iconic cacti of the American southwest, and right about now, they are performing that ritual under cover of the sonoran desert night. The luminous white trumpets of the saguaro cactus unfurl for but one night of seduction. Rich with the scent of over ripe melon, these funnel shaped flowers advertise nutritious pollen and nectar- the bats’ payment for the service of pollination. Two species, the lesser long nosed bat and the Mexican long tongued bat undergo grueling migrations from the neotropics to arrive in time for the desert spring. Saguaros aren’t the only cacti visited by these bats. Organ pipes, agaves, and cardons are all bat friendly, and can be cultivated in the garden. When selecting bat-sustaining plants, choose species with night blooming, light colored, strongly scented, large flowers. These kinds of plants speak bat, and know just what they like.
Image by Merlin D. Tuttle
Spring has come early this year, and the insects are beginning to catch up. Wafting from tree to tree I spied a Mourning Cloak butterfly today, the earliest butterfly to appear each spring. Mourning Cloaks more commonly feed on tree sap, but will occasionally do their pollination duty and seek out nectar sources from flowers. Oddly enough, Mourning Cloaks are an overwintering species, spending the cold season tucked away in the crevices of old logs, or lodged beneath the protected eaves of a building. As the name suggests, the butterfly’s wings are mostly dark, and somber colored- but the insect gets around. You should be able to find one of your own virtually anywhere in the USA. Look for adults and their spiny, red and black caterpillars on willows (Salix), elm (Ulmus), and birch (Betula).