A neglected garden trudges on…

After six weeks of zero garden time, but thankfully also six weeks of oddly regular rainfall, it was time to take stock of the gardens in early April.

The previously un-sprouted kale had sprouted…to feed the snails.

The beans (green and soup, alike) had mostly kicked the bucket – seemingly before ever growing the feet necessary with which to do so…looks like I’ll be buying more green bean seeds as self-saving doesn’t work when you lose every plant.

So while our table was set for more grocery trips than last year, we weren’t without pleasant surprises. This spring has been a lesson in success in spite of (or perhaps due to) neglect.

The nasturtiums never minded the lack of attention. Their sowing directly along the walkway to the front door helped them survive an infestation of leaf-footed bugs through diligent squishing by DH (thank you!) They’re just about done these days, but in their prime reached two feet across and more than a foot tall.

The butterfly bush came back just fine, or should I say never really left? It’s been battling aphids, mostly on its own, and is also almost done for the season now, but here it was early April.

I forget this lovely lady’s name. I wasn’t expecting her back after the winter, but am glad she returned.

The grocery store had snapdragons on clearance for $0.98. I’d always loved snapdragons. Making their mouths open and shut as a child. Watching bumble bees pry open their mouths to get at the pollen and get pinched in their jaws only to extract themselves with a little extra yellow on their coats. I wasn’t sure it would make it. I wasn’t sure it would survive the winter. I wasn’t sure of much, but for $0.98 I was sure I was going to see what would happen.

And then it was time for the surprises. I’d sown untold numbers of seeds into the Hot Bed. Seeing what would take, seeing what wouldn’t. Seeing what would start and stop, or grow but not blossom. Delayed gratification. Pleasant surprises. Anticipation and future glee were the name of the game.

These guys I had no clue on when they started. They grew taller, spindlier. They put on buds, and then paused. Finally, one morning, they appeared as red lipstick tips and by the time the sun broke the clouds, they were ready to reveal themselves.

Scarlet Flax

Scarlet Flax

This one I hoped was what I thought it was. I was fairly certain after years spent on grassy knolls in Oregon that I knew this one. As soon as the bud formed, I was 99% sure, and when it opened, I’m pretty sure I either jumped for joy or clapped my hands…or both.

But enough about the front yard. The backyard was up to its own mischief…

Crawly critters

I am grateful for my lack of furry critters making use of my garden as their market. We have rabbits and deer in our neighborhood, but they haven’t found my garden to be worth the fence-hop. As for the community gardens, I can only assume they don’t like the busy roads on two sides.

I do get quite the surprise sometimes when it comes to the crawly critters. Awhile back, it was the caterpillar bigger than my middle finger. This time, it’s a few things.

Like this thing. A cicada shell. They’re currently peppering tree branches and leaf piles throughout the neighborhood.

Each board is two inches wide. It’s head is to the left, bent under. That horizonal line moving from left to right was the middle of its back, before it split the shell to escape in it’s new, bigger, shell. (Cue flashbacks to the movie Alien if you’ve seen it, I have not.)

I found this shell when chasing down a tree roach that leapt from the earth I was digging, just fast enough to make me jump before I saw what it was, and race off.

(Backstory: I grew up a tomboy. I liked lizards and spiders. Grasshoppers were fun. I claimed a daddy-long-legs in my bedroom corner as my pet when I was five. I went searching for earthworms and snakes to discover under boards in the pasture. I woke up once with a mouse on my shoulder, staring me down from four inches away, and was fine with it. And then I moved to Texas. The grasshoppers here make me jump. (They’re HUGE!) The lizards are more colorful (and plentiful) and I finally encountered a bug that just *got* to me. I finally understood the visceral reaction so many have in response to spiders, or snakes, or any other oft-feared creatures. I had encountered my first tree roach.)

I’m not sure of their actual name, but imagine a cockroach, that gets about three inches long, and FLIES. Then imagine it hosts a demeanor of an attack missile. Sometimes when you come upon one and startle it, it will actually run away. Other times, it will come AT you. It’ll get stuck in your hair, hang onto your shirt, and otherwise make you dance around hitting yourself like a maniac only to leave you with the creepy-crawlies for the rest of the day.

I mean…

Not familiar with a tree roach? This was the best photo I could snag of the fellow.

Or, for easier viewing, I found a funny post by another Texas-transplant here – with much better visual aids.

And then there’s the Case of the Creepy Sweet Potato. Fiber issues? Drought issues? Bug issues? What’s your guess?

We’ll finish this Creature Feature with a wonderfully ancient-looking caterpillar. It reminds me of both The Neverending Story, Chinese dragons, and Alice in Wonderland. Have you guessed yet?

It’s the¬†happy-looking Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar.

See that charming smile?

I put him back on the potted orange tree where I’d found him. DH says he’ll be evicted if he takes more than his fair share. I went to check on him a few days later to discover that he had a new little friend of the same kind, and he himself had more than doubled in size.

In my brief reading to research this caterpillar, it became obvious that they like citrus trees. Why he and his brother selected the orange over the lime, I couldn’t say. Mimosas over margaritas, perhaps?

And they’re all / going to / Bug City / for the night…

I apologize in advance for the graininess of the close-ups! Wrong lens in poor light – double whammy…

However – double plus bonus points for anyone who recognizes the song quoted as the title!

I guessed that this guy was a “bag bug” and he met his end shortly after this shot was taken.

I had let myself believe the mealy bugs wouldn’t return this year. Just when I thought we were safe (and just when I stopped taking good care of the plants in the backyard beds…which is always how it goes…you’d think I’d learn ūüėČ ) they’ve returned.

If I had it in for any bug more than a squash bug, it would be these. They were what tried to kill my Oxalis. They completely decimated my tomatoes in 2010. As much as I cannot squish caterpillars, I can squish these with my bare fingertips without hesitation.

Oddly enough, they also like Blanketflowers?

This crawler, I have no idea. Do you?

This is only the evidence. The caterpillar, and subsequent moth, are long gone. If you ever see a leaf curled up like this, be sure to make certain the tunnel is empty!

This guy, I wasn’t 100% sure on. I am slowly learning my adult-bug identification, but at the nymph stage…I’m farther behind.

With a side view, I could see his striped antennae. I remembered that Leaf-footed bugs have striped antennae (as I’m sure many other bugs do, but oh well) and this leaf was his last meal.

Mysteries of a tree-ish nature.

There are a few mysteries growing in my wild bed that are starting to look more like trees than is appropriate for a plant living in such close quarters with the garage foundation and front walk.

Any ideas as to the general variety? If they’re this intent on surviving (and miraculously non-invasive and yet invading my bed) I’d like to attempt a transplant. If they are invasive, I’ll have to turn them into soil food.

Nancy Drew requested a close-up on the first one:

And from a distance:

Second on the agenda for Encyclopedia Brown  is this one with a less tree-like habit:

And the Hardy Boys had to have their turn as well. I’m fresh out of Tree-like Mysteries, but here’s a tall mystery all the same:

Onions from seed: Attempt number six.

My fall garden is planned. It’s sketched. It’s charted. It’s timeline-ed. And this year, I’m also ready with Plan B through Plan E so that I don’t encounter the same issues as last year and spend most of my winter with an unnecessarily empty garden.

I ordered my garlic, some Chiogga beet seeds (because Cylindra was just too tiny for my tastes), and have had my seed trays going for awhile now – cat interruptions aside. I have have plenty of greens seeds, carrot seeds, and other plotted plants seeds leftover from previous trips to the¬†drug dealers¬†seed catalogs…

I tried to order my onion starts. Sold out.

I tried another farm. Sold out.

Another, and another. They all ship January through May and are asking me to check back this fall, to pre-order for next spring.

Well, crap. A decent section of space has been designated onion space. I know our climate will allow for onions planted in October. Apparently the climates of those who sell onion starts are a different story.

I recently learned the difference between Short Day Onions and Long Day Onions (who knew?) and that solved the Mystery of the Failed Onion Seeds of 2009. The Puzzling Case of the Attempts of 2010, 2011, and 2012? Still puzzling.

They germinate just fine, as seen here in January:

And they gain some height just fine, as seen here shortly thereafter:

And that’s about as far as I can get them. From that stage, they put out itty bitty little white legs, that may or may not be roots, and try their hardest to die while I try my hardest to keep them alive.

I have a three-pronged approach this year.

  1. Richer seed-starter mix. I learned this past spring that onions are hungry little guys, but want the food far from their root zone. This will be for the indoor attempt.
  2. The bird method. Meaning I’ll prep the soil where I want the onions in the fall, sprinkle the seed, and water if needed. Otherwise, I’m going to leave them be and see if I’m just getting in nature’s way.
  3. Order onion starts from a company that ships as early as December. If my indoor sowings and outdoor sowings both fail, we can still have onions.

Anyone out there grown onions from seeds before? Any tips to getting them from leggy little blades of green to actual plants?

Known and unknown – another bug mystery!

I saw a sleek and stylish caterpillar in the garden the other day munch on, of all things, a pepper plant! It was time to see what I was in for. Would it eat every plant for the next two weeks? Was it likely to have an entire herd of chic caterpillar friends? I was determined to find out.

Thankfully, the outfit was easily described and as easily lead to proper identification – a yellow-striped armyworm.

See him there at the base of the pepper plant? This little pepper was a late volunteer, and likely wouldn’t have gotten to set fruit this year anyway. Seeing as this caterpillar is new to me, and all by his lonesome, I left him to enjoy his spicy salad in peace. The stripes are a little more yellow in person. The fading light washed out the hue.

This next fellow has a style all his own. He thought to match his brown overcoat with black and white striped socks! I was unlucky in my scouring of the internet for his name. Any one out there have a guess? In the photo below, he’s crawling about on a Painted Daisy. Just this morning I saw another one (perhaps the same one? although I doubt it) crawling along the top of a blade of Johnson Grass.

Apologies for the photo quality, I didn’t have the camera properly set for such a zoom! This bug’s about pea-sized, maybe slightly larger.

And for anyone who was wondering how the Great Ant Trap Experiment of June 2012 was going?

Aside from being impressed that it was hot enough to caramelize the sugar, I think I ¬†may have assembled it incorrectly. In the soap water in the bottom one could find two dead gnats, one dead hover fly, and some random debris. Nary an ant to be found. I’ll be in my wellies in the garden until further notice, and seeing as they’re not intended for garden use, what with their blue/grey plaid/argyle pattern on a cream background…when combined with gardening shorts, wide-brimmed white straw hats, and leather gloves,¬†I sometimes end up looking quite the character myself! (Perhaps I should ask the round fellow above where he buys his socks.)

What looks like a squash bug, but maybe isn’t?

Imagine a squash bug. Or a giant stink bug. Or a huge box elder.

Paint it mostly brown.

Give its rear legs some leaf-shaped bits.

Stretch its antennae really long and make them light yellowish for the ends, with two thin dark bands further back along the brown lengths.

And a light stripe short-ways across its shoulders.

Any ideas?

(I wish I’d had my camera!)

A leaf-footed bug (leave it to me to complicate things by thinking it would have a less-obvious name!) I really don’t have the stomach for crunching bugs still. I wonder if I should just start carrying soapy water in a jar every time I visit the garden? Like Bob’s goldfish Gill, in a jar around my neck? But then I’d end up with dead bugs in a jar around my neck…and that’s a little weirder than even I need to get.

I’ve lately found the perfect time of¬†day to go snail-hunting in the garden. It’s about two hours after that side of the house goes into the shade that the snails move out for their dinner, but it’s not yet too dark to see them. I have a giant old honey jar full of soapy water and pick them up and drop them in. They particularly like the section of garden with my beets and carrots. This last trip out snail-hunting, I noticed something new – on the far side of the bed the snails had forgone a tasty meal of carrot tops and beet bottoms in favor of an old dried up squash vine. Those snails, I left alone. Sure, they may move over to my carrots and beets tomorrow, and if they do, into the soap they’ll go, but until then I’m happy to let them turn dried up vine into snail poop.

What else I learned? Be sure to empty the snail soapy water when you’re done. Rotting snails smell something awful after boiling in the afternoon heat the next day!

Another battle I’ve decided not to wage? The caterpillars on the broccoli.

I sowed some Early Purple Sprouting Broccoli late last September. It’s been about four feet tall since January. It didn’t beat the cauliflower in the race to make heads to eat. Even though it was called “Early” I gave it the benefit of the doubt and waited. And waited. And here we are nearly in July and still – no broccoli. (I did notice the seed catalog I purchased it from has since renamed it “Purple Sprouting Broccoli.”) So I figured that if I wasn’t going to get to eat any broccoli, the least I could do was let the moths have at it.

There are probably a hundred caterpillars on it at the moment, and while it may make more sense to pull the whole thing and throw it in the compost bin that’s baking away, it’s made a miraculous improvement in my chard leaving it there as fodder for their hungry little mouths. So I thought I planted broccoli. Early broccoli at that. What I actually planted was some architecturally interesting, purple stemmed caterpillar food. I’m at peace with that.

Just like I’m at peace with the fact that each year a monarch caterpillar (or three) feast upon my potted parsley. It grows back, and I’m not eating it right now, so why shouldn’t they? And isn’t it just amazing how of all the plants in the yard, in the neighborhood, in the world, that there are some insects that only eat one plant – and that they find enough of that one plant to survive? It’s impressive and fascinating.

Puzzles around the yard.

On a magical afternoon a few weeks ago, there were an untold number of butterflies fluttering by the front flower bed. How many butterflies can you spy?

And then there are these guys. There were at least five wandering around on our Mexican White Oak with their warrior paint marked boldly down their backs. Any ideas?