Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Delicate Daredevils

If you want to spice up your next fiesta, try discussing the topic of immigration.  Nothing breaks through the crust of dry conversation like a political hot potato.  Immigration has been simmering and spouting on America’s back burner since the Statue of Liberty bid the tired, poor, huddled masses to come.  We didn’t become a ‘melting pot’ without a little heat, after all.  I am not looking to light a fire in this column, but I do want to draw your attention to another population of undocumented immigrants that is literally flying past border security. 
Monarch sipping Zinnia juice.
Note the tattered wings.

Monarch butterflies flash their tiger-colored wings over the Rio Grande with nary a thought to green cards or governments.  They are embarking on a journey no reasonable, safety-conscious human would attempt: 1,600 miles on parchment-thin wings.  Without so much as a map or American Express card, these delicate daredevils take off into the vast unknown.  What could tempt them to throw caution to the wind?  Appetite, of course. 

They’re coming for a North American delicacy: Milkweed (Asclepias sp.).  When mama Monarch finally rests her weary wings on a Milkweed plant, she has more than nectar on her mind: she’s been carrying a load of progeny and it’s time to deliver them.  She lays her eggs (up to 400!) directly on the leaves.  She’s catering to her finicky offspring: milkweed is the only food they’ll eat.  Flattering as this singular affection may be, the plant does not take larval nibbling lying down. 

The Milkweed/Monarch saga is a twisted plot worthy of a James Bond flick.  Milkweed, loaded with booby-traps, carries a license to kill.  Flowing through its veins is a thick, latex sap.  One poorly placed larval bite can open a veritable floodgate of white glue.  Monarch larvae are easily overwhelmed by the surge of goo: those that don’t drown in the flux, often find their mouths glued shut.  Less than one third survive the namesake sap.  Those that live to die another day, learn to carefully deliver a kill bite: they drain the main vein, leaving the foliage defenseless to their feasting. 

Monarch vs. Milkweed.  The battle begins.
Sap is not Milkweed’s only line of protection: its stems and leaves are laced with cardiac glycosides, a toxin capable of killing small vertebrates, like our twitch-whiskered, cottontail friends.  This protection does not slow the Monarch.  In fact, it acts as a backhanded blessing.  The toxins, while not lethal to the butterfly, accumulate in its body, making it unpalatable to predators. 

After months of indiscriminant pruning by ravenous caterpillars, the plant gets the last laugh.  Fresh-from-the-cocoon Monarchs waltz through pollen as they slurp sugary nectar through their proboscis.  Fluttering from blossom to blossom, they jumpstart seed production for the Milkweed’s next generation. 

Last summer I watched a flock of migratory Monarchs settle into the neighbor’s Maple for the night.  The sun had set, but the branches flared to life as orange and black wings flexed open and closed in the dusky light.  I look forward to catching a glimpse of it this year, but Monarch populations are declining as their wild milkweed habitats are disappearing.  You and I can have a directly impact on their survival:

·      Being careful not to destroy stands of Milkweed is essential.  When they are gone, the butterflies will be gone as well. 
·      Incorporating host plants in our landscapes, like Asclepias tuberosa, Butterfly Weed, provides new habitat for Monarchs.  With its bright orange flowers and drought tolerant nature, it’s an Illinois natural. 
·      Avoid pesticide use.  Insecticides kill butterflies and herbicides kill milkweed.    

Pretty pollinators make gardens doubly beautiful and keep those flowers and fruits a-coming.  Let’s do our part to keep these south-of-the-border beauties floating through Kankakee County.

Monarch caterpillar on Butterfly Weed

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Outsmarting Peter Cottontail

Mr. McGreely discovers his gnawed sprouts.

Before my boys were sucked into the literary black hole of Star Wars comic books and Captain Underpants novels, we used to snuggle up on the reading couch and read cleverly written, beautifully illustrated picture books.  One of our favorites was Muncha, Muncha, Muncha, the tale of Mr. McGreely, a heartless horticulturist with anger management issues and rabbits aplenty.  To prevent the bunnies from eating his yummies, the grumpy gardener erects a prison structure around his vegetables, complete with floodlights, barbed wire, and a moat.  Readers understand immediately who to cheer for: each bunny is cute-as-a-button, complete with floppy ears and twitchy whiskers.  The illustrator is not so kind to the gardener.  Angry eyebrows hover over McGreely’s beady eyes.  He swims in an oversized pea-green hat, hinting at his small-mindedness.  In the end, the cottontails’ determination and perseverance are celebrated, as McGreely gives up and reluctantly shares his produce with the  
resourceful rabbits.

As I was photographing rabbit damage for last week’s column, and contemplating how to prevent further destruction, that book came to mind.  Several minute’s reflection later, I arrived at the horrifying conclusion that I was Mrs. McGreely.  The initial disappointment in myself gave way to indignance towards the author and illustrator of Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!  Why must rabbits always be portrayed as innocents?  As far back as I can remember, they’ve been cast as the darlings of the great outdoors.  Bugs Bunny was my favorite cartoon character and the Velveteen Rabbit was a treasured childhood read.  The Easter Bunny certainly doesn’t get much bad press, and what kid doesn’t like Nesquik Bunny’s chocolate milk? 

Rabbit refugee saved from a run-in with John Deere.
A weak moment of compassion...
Brace yourselves.  Here’s the truth: rabbits are wolves in sheep’s clothing.  We mustn’t be swayed by their twitching noses, big brown eyes, or downy-soft fur.  It’s all camouflage to distract us from their evil end-game: plant pillaging.  So how do we handle these bunny bandits?  Elmer Fudd was probably on the right track with his trusty shotgun.  A shotgun in my hand, however, would not be so trusty.  So, I’ll have to outwit those waskily wabbits with my superior intellect.  Here are some options to consider:

1.     Fencing.  A physical barrier would work for a vegetable garden, as long as it is completely enclosed.  Since rabbits can chew through plastic barriers, sturdy fencing is a must (chicken wire works great).  A fence 3’ high should keep the hoppers out, but consider burying a few inches below grade in case they try to burrow in. 

2.     Plant selection.  I’ve always been a picky eater.  I pass by the pickled beets at the salad bar and go straight for the bacon bits.  Rabbits, too, have a selective palate.  They prefer some plants over others.  Had I simply planted daffodils instead of tulips, they wouldn’t have been gnoshed down to nubbins.  Here are a few plants rabbits avoid: Columbine, Black-Eyed Susan, Bleeding Heart, Poppy, Lamb’s Ear, Astilbe, Begonias, and Impatiens.  For an extensive list, check out  http://www.imustgarden.com/rabbit-resistant-plants.          

3.     Spray them away.  Havahart produces several spray repellents effective on rabbits.  Deer-Off utilizes repugnant smells (rotten eggs and garlic) and flavors (capsaicin – hot peppers).  DeFence is approved for organic gardens and only uses rotten egg smell to repel.  One application of either spray should last up to 90 days through moderate rainfall, but I’d be prepared to apply more if it looks like they’re moving in again. 

4.     Take the spraying up a notch.  If you’re at your wit’s end with those fuzzy nibblers, you could consider investing in a ScareCrow.  It is a motion-activated sprinkler that will douse intruders. 

5.     Time for a trim.  Sprinkle human hair around the garden.  I’m sure your local stylist would be happy to share some of her clippings. 

6.     Meow!  Lock a cat up in your garden.  Then again, it might be safer to just spread some used kitty litter around the perimeter.

7.     If all else fails, move to the Antarctic.  While rabbits have managed to find a way to exist there, gardens have not, so you’ll have nothing to fight over!    

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reality Bites

My garden is flickering with life.  

Plump mourning doves, normally docile, have been dive-bombing both the competition and their ladyloves: flirting, flying, and fighting.  

Asparagus spears are poking their pointy heads up through the earth and fresh lilac blooms are exploding like fragrant purple popcorn.  

And just off my porch, Dicentra’s delicate branches arch with single-file lines of rosy hearts.

Dicentra spectabilis

Creeping Charlie's attempt at seducing this gardener....it won't work.

And the grass needs a good mow. 

Reality is never far removed from the magic in my garden.

Creeping Charlie was one of the first plants to emerge here this spring.  The weedy DNA pumping through his roots gave him a jump-start on mischief making.  He was immediately up to his old tricks, trying to gain square footage on the law-abiding citizens of my garden before they could shake off their wintry slumber.  The only thing that lies between prized perennials and a weedy eviction notice is the sharp edge of my trusty soil knife.  If there were a legal system in the garden, Charlie’s criminal record would be a mile long.  He would, no doubt, be serving a life sentence in a maximum-security prison.  Too bad it’s only the dream of a deluded and desperate gardener. 

Charlie visiting Centranthus...this is no social call.
Charlie dividing the Daylilies

 If it weren’t, I’d also press charges against the Snow-on-the-Mountain currently infiltrating my lawn.  Unfortunately, I’d most likely be named as a co-conspirator on that charge.  After all, it was I who stupidly introduced it to the landscape.  Weary of pulling weeds beneath the serviceberry, I thought Snow-on-the-Mountain would solve the problem.  It did.  The dandelions and crabgrass couldn’t compete with its dense foliage and underground stems.  Now, having subdued that competition, it’s heading out to conquer the grassy ocean of Kentucky Blue.  At this rate, it will meet Creeping Charlie halfway across my forlorn yard by August and we’ll have a showdown of nuclear proportions. 

Another drop of reality rests beneath our catalpa tree.  Last year, I was determined to infuse more early spring appeal into our scenery.  The ideal place to bury bulbs was beneath catalpa’s limbs: it’s right outside our picture window.  It is a wise idea to consider window views when planning your landscape:  

If you can enjoy the site from within 
as well as from out, 
you’ve doubled your pleasure.  

However, it’s also good to consider the local wildlife.  I failed to remember how my dog loves to stomp through there, and the rabbits love to congregate there, and the birds prefer to peck there.  The tattered remnants of tulip leaves and grape hyacinth is all I have to show for my horticultural determination.  Sheesh. 

Not what I had in mind for spring color.

I'd like to thank all the little cottontails that made
this picture possible.

I have managed to overachieve in one Springly accomplishment: bug bites.  I have three already.  Seems a bit premature, but a morsel as tempting as my knee couldn’t be ignored for long.  Some lucky buzzer managed to squeeze an appetizer, entrĂ©e and dessert out of my leg.  I haven’t seen so much as one mosquito, but clearly, they have seen me. 

The gnats discovered me long before the mosquitoes did.  On the first glorious afternoon of 60 degree weather, I stepped out of the house and *THWACK*.  Bug in the eye.  Not fifteen feet from my front door before the reality of spring hit me smack dab in the cornea.  When they’re not getting plastered to my eye, those feather-weight fliers are being sucked into my nose.  I feel bad for the both of us.  Certainly I bemoan my circumstance more: their misery is over long before mine (so what if their misfortune has some permanent ramifications).  But truly, there are no winners here.  At least the mosquito got a meal out of the deal.        

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

3 Goals for 2013

The rubble of last year’s vegetable jungle has been cleared out, thanks to the diligence of my twelve-year-old.  I bribed him with nothing whatsoever.  He loves a good bonfire and was scraping up kindling.  Boys can be so handy that way. 

This year, I plan to grow a quaint and refined, yet wildly productive garden.  I’ve been told more than once that failure to plan is planning to fail.  I wouldn’t necessarily call last year’s garden a failure, but it wasn’t anything I would’ve allowed refined gentlefolk, such as yourselves, to rest your eyes upon.  No, that was a sight only for those bound to me by blood or property line, both relationships being rather bothersome to dissolve. 

In spite of its disheveled appearance and torrid bug affairs, our little vegetable plot was very fruitful.  It provided bushels of fodder for this column.  It taught me more about cucumber beetles and humility than I thought I needed to know.  It helped me sweat off my summer Dairy Queen indulgences and soak up some vitamin D.  And the produce?  Tastier than money can buy, cheaper than the lowest loss leader and seasoned with a depth of flavor that can only be realized when you have watered the soil with your own sweat. 

So, I’m excited to see what I’ll discover in the dirt this year.  My goals for 2013 are:

#1:  Squeeze blueberries in.  I have NO idea where I will fit these large shrubs into our outdoor square footage, but it must be done.  Last year’s snap-happy spring was a coup against fruit production, and my annual blueberry binge was overthrown.  Major, major bummer.  I usually put away 14+ pounds of those sweet indigo morsels, and I don’t mean ‘put away’ as in ‘freezing’ or ‘canning’.  If my skin is tinged blue at the end of July, it isn’t because I’m hypothermic.  Managing unpredictable frosts is a huge challenge for commercial growers.  The home gardener, however, has a fighting chance.  It’s one thing to toss some blankets on 3-4 shrubs.  Protecting 300-400 poses a serious dilemma. 

Strawberry magic waiting to happen
#2: Kick my strawberry procrastination.  As a landscaper, I found people always wished their trees were planted twenty years previous.  As a remedial gardener, I’ve always wished I planted my strawberries two years previous.  This defeatist attitude has led me to plant none, and each June rolls around to find me berry-less once again.  I’ve mooched off of family and friends and paid for U-Pick.  Time to give myself a fruity savings bond.  In two years, I’ll cash it in.

Goal #3: Give my tomatoes room to breathe.  The tomato debacles of 2008-2012 will not be repeated this year.  In the spirit of change, I was researching fresh, new ideas for tomato structures.  One site recommended planting them along a wall of livestock panels, which I thought was brilliant.  Their spacing, however, sounded a little problematic.  Along a 16’ panel, their plan called for 18 plants, 9 on each side.  Maybe this worked for them.  Maybe they pruned their tomatoes every 4 hours.  No maybes for me: that won’t fly in our garden.  I’m planning on spacing my tomatoes 8’ apart, which sets me wildly at odds with their schematics. 

Have I gone off the spacing deep end?  Possibly, but I am trying to assure the twelve year old that we won’t be scuttling through a tomato jungle to harvest this year.  He’s already spoken with me about the number of tomatoes I’m ‘allowed’ to purchase, etc, etc.  Little does he know, his grandma gives me most of my tomato plants for free, and this week she unloaded a few (three times his quota) on my porch.  Gardening insanity runs in the family.  One day, he will understand (it’s a genetic certainty), but for now, he can look forward to a humdinger of a bonfire next spring!

What’s on your list this year?  Tell me on the Design to Grow Facebook page or at www.designtogrow.blogspot.com

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