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  • Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

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    I can’t remember when I last mentioned the monarchs in the garden, maybe back in late March or early April? I think I said that I’d just seen a few monarchs flitting about the yard but hadn’t seen any caterpillars yet—of course a few days later I found several caterpillars crawling all over the tropical milkweed. Keeping up with where they are has been a challenge, mostly because I think the birds might be eating a lot of them. Which is fine, that is nature’s duty, but I do feel like we really should consider the butterfly tents to raise them. Chris was concerned about having enough milkweed in pots to feed them, which he’s right about, but I dug three seedlings up out of the compost and potted those and we have quite a bit that he seeded in a large patch that we could dig another five or more plants up to pot and rotate out for feeding them. And the larger plants in the garden are already flowering which means we will have seed pods soon, which means we can easily start more seeds this summer to get more milkweed growing. Purchasing milkweed can be expensive if you can’t find it in 4-inch pots; often they are in gallon pots which are sometimes priced around $8 at the good, non-pesticide using nurseries.

    My if-you-plant-it-they-will-come theory for the black swallowtails worked. Most of the dill that I planted in late fall/early winter was knocked back by the freezes but apparently whatever we grew in the garden last year reseeded itself heavily all over the place and we’ve got dill coming up everywhere. Which is totally fine by me because I’m working to dry it and save the seed for pickling, but it became a buffet for the black swallowtail caterpillars, too. I even saw one of the fennel that I had bought for them! But, when one day I had found upwards of 20+ caterpillars in various instars around the garden a few days later I was having trouble finding them. I think, again, the birds got to them while they were foraging strawberries and tomatoes, too.

    The last one is a caterpillar I found while I was pulling weeds out of the cactus bed. I’d finally decided I’d had enough with the weeds in that bed—-we’ve been avoiding really weeding it for over a year now, though we’ve pulled some here and there, we’ve never tackled the whole thing because spines! So I got in there and started pulling and found this chompy friend hanging out in the gravel. I think it is an army worm of some kind, maybe either Spodoptera latifascia or Spodoptera ornithogalli and they turn into moths.

    I have a couple of other interesting caterpillars we found recently while at Brazos Bend State Park but I still need to process those photos.

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    Tomato season has arrived, finally. It seems like overnight the tomatoes went from one to two foot tall to reaching over the tops of their cages and onward for the sky. It’s been a dry spring compared to last year, though we’re getting about one good day of rain a week. Well, at least we were until the last two weeks. We seemed to have missed the storms that were supposed to come to frution with the last front that blew through. I have in my gut that we’re headed for drought again—don’t know why I feel like that, just do. I am enjoying the non-swamp aspect to our yard currently. What can I say, last year’s weather left me nervous about any major storm event that seems ready to blow through.

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    And so yes, tomato season has finally arrived. The Matt’s Wild Cherry tomatoes were the first to begin ripening. The plant produces very small tomatoes, supposedly cherry sized as per their name, but let’s go with a slightly larger than pea sized tomato. They are more like those small wine grapes you would find specially at the store. I would not call them cherry tomatoes at all. They are tasty, however, and remind me a lot of the Everglades tomatoes we grew in Florida. I tried germinating some Everglades seed we had but have not had any luck so far in getting them to sprout. A lot of my older seeds just did not germinate this year and I will probably try doing some larger seed sowing next December to see if I can get any to germinate. If not it will be time to order new seed. I enjoyed keeping the seeds we had from our time in Florida but if none are viable, I guess it is time to move on.

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    Second to ripen were the Sungolds. These are definitely a cherry sized tomato and one of the tastiest tomatoes, I think, and maybe one of the most grown tomatoes. The Romas were next and they are finally starting to ripen in batches. Soon I will have a San Marzano and a Bella Rosa tomato ready to eat. It has been a challenge getting Forest to understand that the green tomatoes aren’t ripe, and if you aren’t watching him closely he’ll come running up to you with a tomato saying “Got one!” or something similar. The kid just likes to pick fruit, which I understand, but I’m not going to have any tomatoes if he is unsupervised anywhere near the tomatoes! I can even be a few feet from him, turn my back to get a weed, and find him grabbing a tomato to pull off the plant!

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    Getting him to like tomatoes is probably going to take all summer, which is fine. I think he will come around, though. We were amazed how much he enjoyed pulling a carrot or two and eating them while we were in the garden most evenings, and after a few false starts with snap peas he came around to eating a few of those. Strawberries, of course, were easy to entice him with, and just tonight we pulled the very first blackberry of the season. After what I thought was going to be a no-go for him, he licked it and bit it slightly, he then asked for it to be washed (though we didn’t really need to). Once I washed it he chowed it down in a few bites, blackberry juice dribbling down his lip. We might not make it to the house with the bowls of blackberries this season! So yes, as for the tomatoes, I’ve been offering him the smaller ones which he will bit into, make a face, and then hand me back the tomato and say “Mom, eat it!” So, I do. But he keeps trying them when I offer, that’s the important part.

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    So much is going on with the garden and I have more to share from what we’re harvesting and what is blooming in the flower garden. More soon.

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    (Airplanes > bees !)

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    Four years ago we brought our first package of bees home to the hive and they thrived for three years, more or less, until last year’s rainy mess of a spring and a hive beetle infestation took over the hive. Since then the hive sat unused, other than for the odd roach and other insect, in the flower garden. While the hive was an interesting aspect to the flower garden, after tending to the bees there for so long I really began to re-think where the hive should be located. It was frustrating for me not to be able to enjoy the garden to its fullest while having to think of bees—not only for myself but for guests and especially for Forest.

    Over the last year I brainstormed a variety of places we could move the hive before Chris ordered more bees. And through many discussions and frustrations we finally settled on moving the hive to a grassy area along the fenceline, adjacent to our driveway. It’s more out of the way from daily activities but it is easy to access and we can still pop in to check on how the bees are doing. I’m much more happy with this location and hopefully they will thrive there.

    Bee day round 2 came a week ago and the three of us drove over to Navasota to pick up a fresh package to try this bee keeping thing once again. Forest enjoyed scoping the bees out before Chris installed the bees into the hive. Chris had to go out of town a few days later so it was up to me to check on the bees, replacing their sugar water and keeping track of them building new comb in a straight manner. It isn’t my favorite thing to do now because I’ve become more uneasy since getting stung between my eye and nose a few years ago, but I’ve managed to do it without too much anxiety. I mean, I have a suit on and all but still—a little nervous there!

    So far they have settled in well and we’ve seen them flying around the yard, gathering pollen and doing their job pollinating the plants. Chris said he’d noticed a decrease in honeybees in the yard since we stopped keeping them over the last year. Sure we have some native bees hovering in and out but after I thought about it, he was definitely right. Hopefully we will get a new batch of honey later this summer. I still need to get around to making mead with the honey we have in our pantry from the last time Chris harvested comb!

    More talk about bees on my blog here.

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    We’ve been gorging outselves on strawberries the last two months. The season is slowing, coming to an end and it will be back to cartons of grocery store strawberries soon. I had hoped to make some jam with our strawberries but they haven’t lasted long enough to get that far—someone eats them before they can make it to jam! I will likely end up making some jam from store bought berries eventually. It just sounds good!

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    The addition of the arches at the back of the garden has really helped the garden structurally—it looks a little more formal and enticing to enter. The arches were necessary for beans and other climbing plants because we can’t fully utilize the outside fencing due to the deer. The placement of non-tasty plants to deer need to go on the outside and those certainly aren’t beans or squash!

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    I’ve let the radishes flower, both for the bees and other pollinators as well as for myself, to collect seeds. I’ve never done this before so it will be a new experiment for me. I’m still pulling radishes to eat sometimes, so we will see if any make it to the seed collection phase. A few pods are already starting to form on a couple of plants.

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    The Parris Island Cos lettuce is a new favorite for me. The plants are maturing well and I’ve been including them in salads I’m picking at the beginning of the week and eating off of throughout the remainder of the week. I will definitely be saving seed from this lettuce! I haven’t liked some of the other lettuce mixes we’ve had in the past, too bitter or spicy, but this lettuce is very tasty!

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    The kale and red giant mustard is going strong in this particular bed. I sowed more kale in front of the blackberries and those are coming in well now, too.

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    Roma tomatoes! Both Roma plants have tomatoes on them and a few other tomatoes have fruits, too. I can’t wait for them to ripen!

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    I might be savoring the smell of tomato leaves these days…

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    The area in front of the blackberries, sown with various greens and a big patch of dill.

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    Replanted swiss chard that is now taking off. I’m hoping it will last the summer.

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    This Clathrus columnatus fungus popped up after a recent rain and I was intrigued by the brown goo in the middle. I don’t think I’ve seen that in other ones in the yard before, or maybe they were gone before I saw them. Anyway, this is the gleba, the part of the fungus that holds the spore mass. I had to look that one up!

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    The collards are hanging in there between the arches.

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    And the Kentucky Wonder beans are reaching for the skies, with flowers now opening and beans on the horizon.

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    The last remaining bok choy has bolted as have all of the cilantro. Sweet, sweet, cilantro—your season is too short!

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    This photo is at least two weeks old here and the snap peas in the front of the photos are already at the top of the cage and trying to reach higher.

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    We need a little more mulch in the vegetable garden and I’ve been trying to pull weeds as I see them. Compost needs to be put on the leeks, to fill in their trench. There are little chores here and there that need to happen. Soon it will be time to pull the peas and plant beans and cowpeas, squashes and zucchini, then okra and melons and pumpkins.

    Seasons move fast.

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    The last time we noticed, or at least I noticed, giant swallowtail caterpillars on the citrus trees was back in October 2014 not long after Forest was born. I’m sure there have been more caterpillars in the years since; however, we recently found ourselves hosting some very fat and hungry caterpillars. In the first instar they looked so tiny and like they wouldn’t terrorize the citrus too much but as they’ve grown into other instars they’ve shown themselves to be the ravenous babies that they are, munching away on our poor citrus. The citrus that was badly set back from the freeze in January. Our lemon tree took the worst hit—devastating, too, because it was the largest of the trees—and Chris trimmed back the dead limbs only to have the remaining central limb destroyed by some surreptitous animal despite being fenced in. The tree is still alive but trying to come back from a 3′ stump.

    I threw out an idea that we should get a sacrificial lemon tree, a larger and healthier tree, to plant and move the caterpillars so our citrus could recover. It was only after Chris bought the tree home and told me he had gotten it from Lowe’s that big flashing warning signs lit up in my brain. A friend on social media had recently been complaining about the complicated/secretive tags on plants at Lowe’s regarding bees and regarding the status of the plants being sprayed with pesticides. I’m only saying Lowe’s here because that’s where we were both shopping, but you can just transplant this scenario to other big box stores. This friend was shopping and was looking at the tags which said something to the effect of keep away from wildlife and to not ingest. I guess this was changed from previous tags which stated more effectively that they had been sprayed. She asked the vendor putting the plants out if they had been sprayed with pesticides and that was confirmed. I checked some of our plants that had been bought at Lowe’s, just some general annuals Chris had picked up, and sure enough the cryptic tag label was there. I wasn’t terribly upset because we don’t have a ton of them at the moment but it made me think a little bit about buying plants there anymore, particularly because we will be getting bees again soon.

    Anyway, Chris brought the new lemon tree home and said it was from Lowe’s which made me stop and wonder if the trees were sprayed. Sure enough we found a tag on the tree that it had been treated with neonicotinoids by the grower in early March prior to it being shipped to the store. We opted not to intentionally risk all of the caterpillars and only moved two as a test run, to see if the spray was still affecting the tree. Upon my research I found that there were two options for the chemical treatment, drenching of the root system in which the chemical is taken up throughout the plants system, and general spraying. The spraying had a better chance of it dissipating faster but the drench could stay in the system quite awhile, months or longer.

    Well. The tree was definitely treated because both caterpillars didn’t last a day. And we have *not* transferred any more over. I feel really bad that we sacrificed those two but I’m glad we now know better. It also made me wonder if other citrus (or trees and plants in general) are sprayed at other nurseries, the more local and organic places. Honestly I imagine the citrus to be treated no matter what because of all of the citrus issues and how badly ag offices in various states want to prevent crop damage from spreading. As for other potted plants, I have no idea. But I will be asking more questions now.

    Aside from that frustrating situation, we now have a fourth citrus tree that hopefully will be a good caterpillar host next year. Meanwhile the other caterpillars are chomping away and as you see that last fat one, in 5th instar, looks like its heading for the chrysalis stage. I’ve checked throughout the weekend for the tell-tale silk of it attaching itself to the tree but haven’t seen anything yet. *crossing fingers*

    I saw my first monarch the other day while I was mowing and I’m now on monarch caterpillar watch, checking the milkweed every few days for eggs or small chompers. I’ve been finding all sorts of other caterpillars and need to start a notebook of the ones I see in the yard so I can be better at identifying them.

    Happy April!

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    Today is a rainy, dreary day and we’re going to get a slight dip in temperatures to the 50s and 60s for a few days before we return to life in the 70s and probably 80s once again. I was hoping to get a few things done in the garden this weekend, pull some weeds, plant some seeds, and transplant some stuff, but that might be held off until later in the week.

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    The garden is awakening well now, with a few plants taking a little longer than others. A couple of plants I am actually wondering if they are dead but we will give them another month before we do something about them. Sometimes plants are sleepier than others and they take awhile to come back.

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    We’ve had a ton of milk thistle reseeding itself in the vegetable garden from the compost so I’ve been trying to transplant some of them into the flower garden. I’ve been reading and listening to a few podcasts/blogs that talk about using thistle in various manners and I may try to see what I can do with our thistle once they are grown. I’ve been thinking a lot about trying to use more of the plants and weeds in the yard for whatever edible and medicinal uses they are known to have.

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    The Rhododendron canescens is blooming and has been for about a week. Now that I’m thinking about it, we have a few more behind Chris’ man-cave (the garage) and I don’t usually go over there but I bet those are blooming, too.

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    A couple of weeks ago we got a third load of mulch which I spread out on the final areas of the garden, some of which is seen here. I spread it on a Saturday and on Sunday I noticed a few plants looked grey and a little weird but I thought it was from the mulch dust and just shook off whatever mulch was left on the plants and didn’t think anything else of it. Chris and I planted a few things and I sowed some seeds in that bed and then on Monday we had a good rain. On that Wednesday after I went through the garden to see what was going on and I was horrified to see plants bleached out and looking like they were dead! A quick Google searched suggested that the mulch had not been cured properly and alcohols had built up in the mulch which basically burned the plants. I truly thought the plants were dead but by a week later I saw a couple of plants look like they were trying to pull through. If you see the purple plant and two little green plants at the bottom of the photo, those are two that I thought were toast but here they are severa weeks later, pulling through. I was a little dismayed at the mulch issue because we’ve bought from that company many times in the past and had no problems. Needless to say we will be more vigilant in the future!

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    The Gladiolus dalenii are thriving after Chris started spraying some fish emulsion on the flower beds. It has been working as both a fertilizer but also a deer deterent. I had to replant one gladiolus bulb continually because the deer kept pulling one up when they were nibbling.

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    The patch of blue-eyed grass has expanded over the years and if we let it I think it would take up an entire section of the flower bed. Nevertheless, it is a gorgeous addition to the front flower bed.

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    We had several nice marigolds that really made the corner of one of the beds look really awesome last year and they all self seeded and germinated back in January. Looks like we will have another great patch again this year.

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    One of our goals this year is to provide plenty of milkweed for the monarchs. In addition to swamp, common, and ‘butterfly’ (tuberosa) milkweeds, Chris bought more tropical milkweed seeds so we can really get a thicket of it growing. Some of it reseeded from the plants we had, and even came back after the freezes, but we are looking to have more plants this year as I think we may end up raising many caterpillars in a caterpillar tent. We need to get more pots of it so we can have a rotating supply of it in the tents as the cats chomp them down. We’ll see.

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    I left this dandelion because it was just too happy growing out of that nook!

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    One happy surprise is seeing the golden lotus finally bloom! Progeny of a pup we gave Chris’ dad back when we lived in Florida, it’s like having an old friend back!

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    Things are looking good. It will be vastly different in a month!

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    And like that, the strawberries have begun ripening and now we’re harvesting the fruits! Last Friday we picked the first few strawberries; I had found a couple at lunch that day but knew Forest would get a kick out of picking them so we waited until after dinner that evening to go out and pluck them from the beds. Forest has decided he likes strawberries lately, the ones I’ve bought from the store, and thus he is very interested in eating the ones grown at home. As a strawberry enthusiast, I like this new development! He’s also, finally, starting to request to try other things we are eating at meals so there’s hope he will begin branching out his toddler taste buds soon.

    The evening light is slowly lengthening and we’ve been poking outside for a bit after dinner a few nights over the last week or two. Being able to walk around the yard or neighborhood has been a refreshing change from the months of hibernating inside during the evenings. I’m contemplating pushing his bedtime back an hour or so once the time change happens so we can enjoy being outside in the evenings this spring and summer. We will see how that goes. There are pros and cons to keeping the current routine and changing the routine so I guess we will find out which one works best here in a few weeks.

    Sometimes he wakes up and asks to go outside or into the garden! Of course, sometimes he asks to watch helicopters or airplanes on YouTube, so take that for what you want, but I think we’ve been indoctrinating him into the world of outside pretty darn well!

    My brother has his own posted, too, so check it out!

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