Archives for posts with tag: beneficial insects

When you’re a gardener, it’s reassuring to know that you have friends.

Friends such as earthworms (the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout…).

Not to mention the pollinators, by which I mean mainly the bees.

Also nice—and quite beautiful—are the butterflies and hummingbirds.

Frogs are friends of the garden as well; they eat plenty of harmful insects.

And then there are dragonflies. I’m not sure if they are beneficial or merely benign but they’re not harmful, definitely. Also, they are curious and always seem genuinely interested in whatever I am doing.

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The deadly night shades (tomatoes, bell peppers, and eggplant), the cucurbits (squash and cucumbers), and the legumes (string beans) continue to toil away in the mid-summer sun, slowly extending their stems, unfurling new leaves, presenting blossoms to eager pollinators, and fattening their fruits. Their harvest times remain weeks away.

Meanwhile, the members of three families of root vegetables—the crucifer (turnips and radishes), the goosefoot (beets), and the umbel (carrots)—bide their time until we decide to pluck them from the soil. They have matured for the most part and only slowly enlarge with each day’s dose of sunshine and water. We could harvest them all but they are safer in the ground than in the refrigerator, at least in the short-term.

In fact, in the ground is where these root vegetables like to be. Their purpose is to store energy over the winter so that the plants can flower and go to seed in their second spring. The roots will keep a long time and that is why many people store them for winter consumption. Doing so requires that they be kept dry and out of the sunlight, which, somewhat ironically, can harm them as well. Being buried in boxes of sand or soil and placed in the basement protects them until they are needed in the kitchen.

We don’t grow enough of them to feed us over the winter—hence, we do not put them in the cellar—but we do grow more than we can eat at one time or even at the rate that they mature. The icebox is one alternative but it is too cold and too humid, conditions that would foster mold or rot. Therefore, we keep the root vegetables on figurative ice.

We have to be careful, though. If kept too long in the soil, they can become woody or tough and will lose flavor. And if forgotten or neglected, they might decay or provide a feast for insects.

We won’t let that happen. When we are ready to eat them, we’ll them pull up, wash them off, and separate their greens. The roots we will roast and the greens we’ll sauté. And if we don’t eat them all, we will share them with others, which is perhaps the best approach to the abundance.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Over the last few days, the blight (or whatever it is) that has been affecting the cherry tomatoes almost completely overwhelmed them.  There are now only a few branches that are not mottled or completely brown.  This is the first time we’ve had a disease that affects the fruit.  Clearly, it is time for some aggressive pruning.

In the process of amputating the diseased branches, I uncovered four hornworms (I would say that my worst fears were confirmed except that I have come to accept their inevitable presence).  None of them was very large and one was quite small; two had been visited by braconid wasps and were carrying egg sacs.  And despite their numbers, they had done relatively little damage.  Instead of killing them, I simply pruned the branches on which they were munching and tossed them onto the refuse pile.

When I had snipped away all of the afflicted Sungold and Black Cherry vines, there was not much left to look at, perhaps one gangly stem per plant, several feet long, with a small fan of leaves and a few clusters of tomatoes at the end.  I carefully draped the stems over the top of the supporting cages to prevent breakage or kinking.  Some of the remaining fruit has nearly ripened so the season is not quite over for them.

Inspecting the other tomato plants, I found that the Aunt Ruby’s German Green and the Red Brandywine vines are suffering from the same disease; many of their branches, leaves and fruit are similarly overcast with a sickly brown pall.  I took the same approach as with the cherry tomatoes and pruned away the damaged branches.  Not surprisingly, I also found more hornworms.

Much earlier in the season (see September 2, 2013), the Country Taste Beefsteak tomatoes became ill but with something different.  Instead of a uniform brown cast, their leaves are speckled with small, brown polka dots.  Eventually, the leaves turn yellow, wither and then die.  Sometimes, the fruits develop the same spots but these do not otherwise impair their color, ripening or flavor.  Just to be on the safe side, I pruned away most of the afflicted branches.

The only tomato plants that do not seem to be suffering are the Yellow Brandywines.  Given their close proximity to the others, however, I do not give them much of a chance to remain disease-free.  Still, the season will probably end due to weather before a possible infection can have an effect on production.

After I was finished, it looked like the tomato plants had been given a military haircut.  There are next to no branches on the vertical portion of the stems and the foliage is only slightly bushier at the top.  On the positive side, there are still plenty of tomatoes left.

Many of which are green, including a big bowl of cherry tomatoes and several of the other varieties that were attached to the branches I had to prune (a handful ended up in the garbage because they were almost completely covered with the blight).  We’ll make the most of them:  one green tomato casserole coming up.

I haven’t said that much about this year’s crop of string beans but that’s not because there hasn’t been a lot to say.

Most notably, both of the varieties we planted matured earlier than expected.  Based on the days to maturity listed on the seed packets, the Roma II bush beans would, on average, begin yielding ripe beans on Labor Day; the Amethyst Purple, a filet bean, theoretically would have needed another two weeks after that.

But in general, both types of string bean have been very enthusiastic growers.  After pushing out of the ground a few days sooner than average, the seedlings quickly climbed their trellis to a height of two to three feet (and, like the Sugar Snap peas before them, two or three vines reached even higher).  Apparently, the long, hot days of July were much to their liking.

Cooler weather (relatively speaking) in August did nothing to slow them down.  Daily, the vines grew bushier and bushier (both varieties are of the bush type, after all) and produced many blossoms.  These were quickly pollinated (and not just by bees; the flowers attracted many moths and butterflies as well) and by early August, tiny string beans had formed.

By the last week of August—a week early—we harvested our first crop.  At the same time, the vines continued to grow higher, blossom regularly and profusely, and produce even more beans.  Since they started, we have picked several large baskets full (actually, we use a colander) of sturdy, but tender, beans.  We have been preparing them simply, sautéed with butter or, decadently, bacon fat (which adds a smoky flavor).  I particularly like the Roma II beans which are meatier than the Amethyst Purple.

All good things must come to end, however.  As the season has wound down, the string beans have also slowed and the number of new blossoms diminished.  Today, we made what I think will be the final search through the leafy vines to find and pick the remaining beans.

We collected a large bag full of the Amethyst Purple and only a few of the Roma II beans (which was not unexpected; this is, on average, an earlier variety).  It is enough for at least two meals during which we will celebrate one of this season’s bigger successes.

On this fine summer afternoon, we found ourselves looking for an outdoor activity, one that did not involve manual labor or anything that might be construed as work.  It is not as if we don’t have anything to do—our list of chores is very long and there is never a shortage of things to be done on a Saturday.  But we were in need of some downtime.  So we decided to make a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.

With some dismay, I realized that we have not been here since last fall (see September 16, 2012, part 2).  That means we completely missed spring and what would undoubtedly have been a dazzling display of blossoming trees, daffodils, irises and peonies (luckily, we got to see most of those at home).  On the other hand, while our previous visits have occurred in March, June and September, this is our first trip in July.

We were expecting that in the peak of summer, the colors would be primarily green; there are fewer plants that flower this time of year than in spring and it is much too early (thank goodness!) for fall coloratura.  However, the gardeners and landscape designers at Stonecrop have done an excellent job of diversifying the plantings and we were very happy to find many flowers in bloom.

Most notable is an impressive variety of lilies.  In our neighborhood, the majority of lilies is wild and of the tiger type:  dark orange with darker orange stripes.  In our ornamental garden, we have a bright yellow variety.  Here at Stonecrop, though, the lilies range from pink (both pale and Pepto) to peach to blood red (with yellow stripes) and back to yellow (although a much paler lemon shade, compared to ours).  The petals vary from short and wide to long and narrow (almost spidery in some cases).

Also of note (and as I have noted before) are the leafy groundcovers that fill many of the beds.  In addition to the typical green, we saw purple, yellow and blue (well, bluish) varieties.  And among the green-leafed types, some have variegated leaves with accents of red, yellow or white.

We were happy with the broad spectrum of colors on view.  Even happier were the bees and other pollinators who were busily making their rounds of the beckoning flowers.

When we returned from our trip, a large padded manila envelope was waiting for us.  It had arrived in the mail from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds and inside were the vegetable and herb seeds we had ordered just before leaving for Hawaii.

Each package is decorated with simple drawings of the leaves, blossoms and fruit of the plant whose seeds are contained within, along with a honey bee or lady bug (for whimsy).  Spread out on my workbench, the packets make a pretty picture that beckons us to move forward with our seed sowing project.

Who needs a thermometer when there are cicadas and crickets in the neighborhood?

When it is hot outside, the cicadas spend the day buzzing away raucously like construction workers tearing up a roadway.  In the middle of a sultry summer afternoon, they seem to be the only ones with the energy to work (if you can call it that) outdoors while the rest of us retreat to the shade of a tree or sequester ourselves indoors.  The drone of the cicadas is piercing and even the motorized hum of our air conditioners (equally incessant) cannot drown them out.

When I was a kid, I was told that if I counted the number of cicada clicks per minute and then performed some mathematical operations on the result, I could calculate the ambient temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.  I loved the idea—cicadas as meteorologists—but I could never figure out how to make an accurate count.  I did know, however, that the faster the cicadas beat, the hotter the temperature.  There was clearly a proportional relationship.

On a warm evening, the cicadas’ tune diminishes in volume, becoming a steady background rhythm for the song of the crickets.  They are the stars of the nighttime stage and their chirping reminds me of the calypso beat of steel drums.  And like beach parties in the Caribbean, the music goes on all night.  The crickets’ rhythm is actually much more complicated, a combination of hundreds of players that are mostly, but not quite, in sync.  It is a beautifully melodic exercise in harmonics.

Now when the weather turns cooler, as it has around here in recent days, everything slows down and becomes quieter.  The cicadas, having finished their summer construction projects, pack up their jackhammers and head elsewhere.  The crickets, diehard partiers that they are, stick around but seem to move the celebration indoors; the music plays on but it is attenuated, muffled perhaps by layers of vegetation as the crickets burrow in to ward off the cold.

When the music finally stops, I know that it has turned very cold indeed.  Fortunately, we haven’t yet reached that point.

Our main flower garden is focused on butterflies.  It includes butterfly bushes, bee balm, phlox, brown-eyed Susan and rose of Sharon, all of which attract members of order Lepidoptera.  The lures are working and at this time of year, the garden is home to many butterflies of all sizes and colors.

The largest are the Monarchs and swallowtails, some of which would measure about 4” from wingtip to wingtip if they would sit still long enough to be measured.  There are smaller butterflies with orange-on-black markings that remind me of stained glass windows and even smaller ones (only an inch or so across) who are a monochromatic white or yellow, sometimes with a spot or two of black, the plain-Janes of the butterfly world.

They seem to be enjoying their environment.  They often pair up as they make their rounds of the pollen-laden flowers and express their joy by flying complex pas-de-deux over the garden and high up into the air.  I’m not sure whether the dances are part of a mating ritual or if they are chasing each other for sport, the way a pair of playful dogs will do to amuse themselves.

It is possible, I guess, that one of the butterflies might be protecting its food supply from the unwelcome advances of the other, like the miserly squirrels who never learned to share.  Whatever the reason, the butterflies look to be having a great time.

Moths are frequent visitors to our house and garden.  They often stop by on their way to somewhere else (or so it seems) and usually spend a day or two resting before moving on.  They pick an out-of-the-way spot—the shady side of a column or the inside of the storm door—settle in, and then sit motionless until they disappear.  Most of them are of the garden variety, medium-sized and brown, but occasionally we get something more exotic.  One year it was a Luna moth, which is colored a luminous yellow-green, and another year it was a flock of Ailanthus Webworm moths, which are very small and very colorfully and intricately marked, like hand-woven tapestries.

Today, when deadheading the petunias growing in hanging pots on the south side of the house, I brushed off what I thought was a soggy brown leaf, blown there (I figured) by a passing storm the day before.  As I flicked it away, I realized that it was not a leaf but a large, brown and shaggy moth.  Obviously, its natural camouflage worked quite well.  I inspected it to make sure I hadn’t harmed it and carefully moved it to a safer location, out of the way of foot traffic.  Later, I spotted a second moth of the same variety, quietly sitting on the patio.

I thought at first that these might be hawkmoths, the variety whose larval form is the dreaded tomato hornworm (or tobacco hornworm, in other parts of the world).  If that were so, I should be on the lookout in a few weeks for signs of these voracious eaters.  After consulting my handy Field Guide to North American Insects & Spiders (National Audubon Society), however, I learned that they are more likely Big Poplar Sphinxes.  Their caterpillars feed on poplars and willows, about which I am much less worried.

Another week, another application of liquid fertilizer.  In fact, I watered everything in the west planter with several bucketsful of the stuff (in lieu of regular watering).  The plants in this bed have turned a corner, growthwise, thanks in part to this light pink fluid.  As a further indicator, two bell peppers have started to form.

The garden was also due for general purpose fertilizer—it has been about a month since I sprinkled out a batch of Garden-Tone—but the only plants that looked like they could use it are the zucchinis.  I troweled a small mound of the granular product near the root end of each stem and watered it in.

To fill the void left by the Sugar Snap peas, we sowed seeds (from Burpee) for two types of string beans:  French Filet, a bush variety, and Blue Lake, a pole bean.  Using a stick of kindling as a dibble, I poked two-inch-deep holes into the soil and Rachel dropped a single seed into each one.  The seed packets suggested a spacing of three inches, thinned to six inches, but we learned from the Sugar Snap peas that we can plant much closer.  We chose a spacing of two inches.  When the shoots appear, we may thin them out (especially if they look stir-fryable) or we may not.

We planted the bush beans under the east half of the trellis, behind the squash plant that is not doing so well (and hence, not casting much shade).  The pole beans we planted behind the other, larger, squash plant.  Hopefully, the pole beans will quickly rise above them to get their share of the sun.

Of course, it is possible that neither squash plant will still be in the garden when the beans are reaching maturity.  Both varieties need about two months before they start producing.  Based on my spreadsheet (in which I track these things), that will bring us to the Labor Day weekend.  At this point in the summer, that seems like the very distant future.

I tend to focus on the harmful insects we have encountered but there are many helpful bugs in the garden as well, including dragonflies, lacewings and bees.  Of these, dragonflies (a category in which I include damselflies, whitetails and other similar insects) are my favorites.  They look to be enjoying themselves, quietly sunning on a rock or one of the tomato cages, and sometimes follow me around the garden when I am working.  They seem to be curious about what I am up to and want to be involved.

As we were finishing up, I spotted a ladybug on one of the squash leaves.  This is the first time I have noticed this beneficial insect in the garden (we have had many of them in the house over the years).  To her, I say “Welcome!”  (And ask, “Where were you when the aphids invaded the pea plants?”)