And so it begins

We woke up to snow on Friday morning, totally unexpected, even to the weather guys who were blindsided by it.  By mid afternoon the snow had melted, and it was if it had never happened.  This morning I woke up to this

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It begins.  Despite the snow and the cold, Mother Nature is shoving her way out of the ground, shaking the cold of winter out of her hair,  and shrugging the chill of winter off her shoulders and defying every convention out there.

Crocuses are the first signal of spring, their cousins the hyacinths are already out of the ground and setting buds.  The daffodils have pushed their heads above the snow and are setting flowers.  In just a few weeks there is going to be a fireworks display of spring flowers overrunning the garden.  It has begun, and my heart cannot be more glad.

Hanging Out the Laundry

One of the many nice things about hanging laundry outside to dry is that you get to notice little things that perhaps you would miss otherwise.  Certainly you are not going to see anything interesting on the inside of a dryer unless it is that missing sock that you have been looking for.

Today on my way out I noticed that one of the garden spiders had caught herself a Cicada, which I thought was a pretty impressive feat, considering their size and strength.

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One of the Golden Orb Weavers had also caught herself one.

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It would appear that Cicada season is all-you-can-eat buffet season for the spiders.  I also noticed this small, but incredibly beautiful spider. SONY DSC

The photograph doesn’t do it justice, the yellow and orange spots were really iridescent  in the sun.  I also noticed another type of Orb Weaver, not quite as large as the other females that I have seen and with slightly different coloring.

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What wonderfully hairy legs it has.  I also discovered that the web worms are at it again.  SONY DSC

This is the second time this year that they have been cloaking the trees with their tents.  While hanging up socks I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the Wandering Jew, considered somewhat of a weed around here, was blooming, and despite the flowers being tiny what a wonderful true blue, rather than a purple they are. SONY DSC

I also noticed that in the dark bottom of the yard the sun shone through the trees onto our little SONY DSCcemetery where St. Francis and all of our long gone pets reside.

It amused to me discover that the pink Morning Glory flowers remain in bloom well into the afternoon

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while their blue cousins have already closed their flowers up tight for the day.

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So not only is hanging laundry out to dry both economical and eco-friendly, it is also educational.  Not only that but your clothes last longer, whites are whiter, and there is nothing better in the world than sliding into bed between freshly washed sheets that have been line dried.   There isn’t a fabric softener or drier sheet out there that can replicate that smell.

 

Where have all the butterflies gone?

In normal circumstance at this time in my garden with the Lantana blooming, and various other nectar rich flowers around, my patio would look like the butterfly house at Kew Gardens but without the glass roof.  I would have swallowtails, skippers, fritilliaries, you name it.  This year nothing.  I have seen perhaps one Tiger Swallowtail, and one Black Swallowtail.  Today there were a couple of Silver Spotted Skippers out there feeding on the Milk Vine and the Pentas.

SONY DSC  It is Sulfer season so a couple of Sulfers were out on the Mexican Sunflower

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But other than that?  Nothing.  I am beginning to think that while I plant specifically to attract butterflies the fact that because I do not use any type of pesticide my garden contains a lot of butterfly predators that they are avoiding my yard as a matter of survival.

To begin with I have a large population of dragonflies thanks to my small working pond where the adults can lay eggs and the naiads can thrive.  Also as I have said before I have a healthy population of Garden Spiders and more recently Golden Orb Weavers, as well as a healthy population of Preying Mantids.  The spiders tend to build their webs where there is a constant supply of prey, in that case it tends to be in and around my flower beds where the butterflies are more likely to fly into their webs.  But the question remains, does that account for the lack of butterflies in my garden or is there something else afoot?

To be sure, my predators take advantage of the all you can eat buffet aspect of my landscape, case in point, this young lady munching on a moth that was visiting the milk vine and obviously didn’t see the heavily camouflaged hunter waiting for her.

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Even one of the dragonflies fell pray to a garden spider web.

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Although I am happy to report that after taking that photo I noticed that the dragonfly was not dead, but was simply trapped in the web and I managed to unstick him and he flew away unscathed.  At what point though do we intervene?  At what point do I make the decision that there are simply too many predators in my garden to enable my butterflies to survive?

This is the first year that I have not had a single Black Swallowtail caterpillar in my garden.  I purposely plant Bronze Fennel as well as copious amounts of parsley and dill in order to feed them, and yet this year the parsley, dill and fennel have gone uneaten.  Unheard of in my garden.

Has anyone else noticed a severe butterfly shortage this year or is it just me?  I know that there is a crisis when it comes to bees but is there perhaps another crisis which involves our prettier pollinators that is not being so extensively reported?

Okay Now Things Are Just Getting Creepy

As I stood on the patio checking on the wrestling status of the dogs and to make sure they were not scaling the fence to escape into the swamp, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye that I didn’t quite truly believe.   To make sure I wasn’t seeing things I put on my glasses and confirmed my initial thought.  It was not a pleasant sight.

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I have seen many strange things in my garden in the twenty years I have lived here but I have to admit I have never seen anything like this.  In case it is not clear, that is a large female garden spider dead in the web of a large female garden spider. At first I suspected that the spider had shed her skin and what I was seeing was the shell, but on closer inspection it became obvious that that was not the case.   I honestly have never heard of this happening.  I understand from research that quite often the female garden spider will eat the dead male garden spider after mating but I cannot find anything to indicate that they actually prey on each other.  I am not sure how this came about, perhaps it was a territory war in which the dead spider lost the battle, as the web is in a prime piece of real estate as far as a spider is concerned, that being attached to the Mexican Sunflowers and Lantana both of which attract a large amount of prey that the spider would be interested in.   In any event I found it distinctly creepy.

As I returned to the house I could hear what appeared to be a crunching sound.  I looked to where the sound was coming from and saw another bizarre sight.

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In this case the garden spider had obviously caught something large and powerful in her web and was attempting to subdue it.  Whatever it was (it was impossible to tell) it had powerful enough jaws that it was eating its way out of the shroud that she was building for it.  It was also obviously tough enough that the venom that she had injected it with was having no effect, because it was clearly moving its legs inside the shroud no matter how many layers of silk she spun around it.   She kept spinning and spinning and spinning attempting to subdue it, but every time she moved away from the mouth area in an attempt to keep the legs from bursting free, it again began to eat away at the top of the shroud with its powerful jaws.   When I checked on it later, she had obviously managed to get enough venom into it that it gave up the struggle and she had her prize neatly stored in her pantry.

I am constantly surprised by my garden’s ability to constantly surprise me, even after all these years.

The best laid plans etc.,

As I mentioned previously my Elderberry Tree has been spectacular this year and was covered with blooms and is now covered with very quickly ripening fruit.  As I also mentioned that I always plan to harvest some berries and make some home-made Elderberry jam but invariably I feel sorry for the birds who love the fruit and end up letting them have all of it.   Well obviously this year it was not to be.  We have had several days of absolutely drenching rain and the rain hitting the fruit and weighing down the branches caused two of the most fruit laden branches to snap spectacularly from the central trunk and crash to the ground.

While I am happy to allow the birds to harvest the fruit I certainly didn’t want the bounty to rot on the ground or simply be eaten by bugs.  My other concern was that with the ripe fruit laying so close to the ground I would be putting the birds feeding on it at risk from my cats, and it didn’t seem to be worth it.  With all those things in mind I decided to harvest the fruit from the two broken branches.

After harvesting and stripping from the stems I have ended up with approximately ten pounds of fruit which I will be turning into jam tomorrow.  I am now grateful that I kept all those glass mason jars and lids that my preferred pasta sauce comes in because I am going to need them.   I am assuming that I am going to be giving some away to friends and neighbors because it is going to yield many jars of jam that I will not be able to eat on my own.

Luckily only a small portion of the Elderberry Tree was affected by the rain so there is more than enough fruit remaining to keep the Mockingbirds and Blue Jays happy, and of course they are going to eat all of the grapes, so there is that.   I am sure their pet name for me is “sucker”.

Elderberries

The elderberries are already ripening and it seems awfully early to me, I seem to remember that they normally do not ripen until late August or early September, perhaps my memory is just fuzzy.  In any event I have such a bumper crop this year that I thought I would make an attempt at home made elderberry jam.

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This evening I was outside in the garden with the dogs and noticed the elderberry tree shaking and saw a Mocking Bird hopping from branch to branch and pulling the fruit off the tree in delightful abandon.  This made me smile and to be honest shake my head at the same time.  While I am glad that I am helping to feed the birds (in addition to the feeders that I keep filled) it means that for the next several weeks while the fruit is available to the birds my laundry will be in jeopardy thanks to elderberry bird poop.

I rethought my elderberry jam plan, just as every year I rethink my home made grape jam plan as I watch the Blue Jays happily feasting on the bunches of black grapes that clamber all over the trees on the side of my yard.

I am pretty much a sucker when it comes to wildlife benefiting from the produce I grow, as I had mentioned I have a Carolina Box Turtle that now lives in my vegetable garden and feasts on the tomatoes that have fallen off the vine.  Last weekend when I was picking my tomatoes I actually began examining them and finding any small flaw on them rather than thinking I would simply slice it off I designated it a “tortoise tomato” and tossed it to his feeding area.  I reckon I am going to have one fat and happy tortoise this year.  Like I said, I am a sucker.

Mother Nature’s Sense of Humour

I enjoy observing and photographing almost all of the things in my garden but I have to admit that I take particular joy in capturing on film some of Mother Nature’s little oddities, those particularly strange and almost surreal creatures that makes one wonder what came into her mind during the creation process.  The Ebony Jewel Wing, a type of damsel fly, always makes my heart skip a beat whenever I observe it dancing through the air.

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It’s jet black wings and stunning electric blue body are amazing to behold and thankfully it is somewhat easy to photograph.  If it feels threatened where it rests it will flit a short distance and land on a leaf.  Luckily thanks to the color of its wings it is easy to follow to its next resting place.  Once it feels comfortable it will spread its wings a couple of times and flash its brilliant body for a moment.  The speed of the wing spreading is however tricky to predict and I have yet to get a half way decent shot of it.  I think this could be considered my best so far.

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Another of my favorite oddities is the Golden Tortoise Beetle many of which are currently feeding on the Morning Glory vines that seed themselves in my garden every year.   These are much more difficult to photograph as not only are they very small (about the size of a Lady Bug) but they are notoriously shy, feeding on the undersides of the Morning Glory leaves and they will think nothing of dropping to the ground should they be spotted.  Luckily this one cooperated recently.

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From a distance they look for all the world like a drop of liquid gold resting on the leaves, and it is not until you get close to them, (if they let you) that you notice the absolute complexity of their tiny bodies.  They are a joy to watch, and I always smile when I see my Morning Glory leaves being turned into doilies knowing that it means I will more than likely be seeing them.

This last one just makes me giggle.  Every time I see it.  The Tussock Moth Caterpillar.

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I have this scenario in my head where Mother Nature and her helpers are having a relaxing evening after a day of hard work creating and they are sampling some of their recent recreational plants.     It goes something like this.

Helper:  Oh damn boss, we were supposed to create that caterpillar today and we totally forgot, you want to go ahead and do it now or wait until tomorrow?

Mother Nature:  No lets do it now, okay make it fuzzy, that’s a given,  (inhales and coughs) now, I know give it four tufts of hair on the back, that’ll look cool.

Second Helper:  How about we give it horns!  It’ll look cool with horns!

Mother Nature:  Yes (laughing uncontrollably)  I know, I know, give it a horn on its butt too!

Helper:  And a bright red head!  How about a bright red head?

Second Helper: And cat whiskers, it’s a caterpillar after all gotta have cat whiskers.

Mother Nature:  And make it black and yellow stripes, and more fuzz and make the tufts of hair yellow and put a couple of red spots on its butt for good measure!.  (Laughs herself into unconsciousness)

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I should imagine she woke up the next morning with a very thick head and said “What was I thinking?”

Weed of The Week – Violets

I have never understood the almost visceral hatred that some people have of violets.  They were my Grandmother’s favorite flower and I have always adored them.  It amazes me that the same people who will dig them up and discard them when they pop up in their lawn (or worse spray them with weedkiller) will happily go to the garden center and pay big bucks for their more gaudy cousins the Pansies.  SONY DSC

Whenever it is time for my husband to mow the lawn I go out early that morning with my trowel and rescue the violets and other natives that I like to move out of the way of his mower.  To be honest, I really don’t have to do that because they think nothing of having a haircut every two weeks and seem to thrive.  Nevertheless I dutifully dig them up and place them in a bed in a shady spot where they can do without the haircut and bloom.   They begin to bloom early in the Spring with their delightful deep purple flowers and also quickly form neat little colonies that no only brighten a shady spot with their heart shaped leaves but also serve as an excellent ground cover crowding out any weeds that I don’t like.  Another bonus is that Violets are the host plant for some of the Lepidoptera butterflies (Fritillaries).

So the next time you see Violets popping up in your lawn, don’t curse at them and reach for the weed killer, do yourself and the Violets a favor, grab your trowel and find a shady spot for them.  You’ll be glad you did.

Flossie Learns a Life Lesson

This morning I let the puppies into the garden and instead of running across the patio and into the garden they stopped short at the edge of the patio.    I walked down to see what had stopped them and I saw this

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I ran back into the house to grab my camera when I heard a yelp and Flossie came tearing into the house as if the Devil himself was chasing her. I went outside with the camera and saw that Skeeter was not going to make the same mistake that Flossie obviously had.

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I got Skeeter back into the house and checked on Flossie and she seemed to be fine albeit a little spooked.  As the morning wore on it became apparent that the turtle had done a number on Flossie’s jowl.

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If the swelling hasn’t gone down by tomorrow afternoon I shall take her to the Vets but I am pretty sure that her pride hurts more than the boo boo.  One thing is for sure, it will be a cold day in hell before she messes with a Snapping Turtle again.

 

Weed of the Week – English Plantain

Another plant that I regularly rescue from the lawn is English Plantain.  I know many consider it a noxious weed but I have a fondness for it.  It reminds me of home, and its neat little clumps of sword shaped leaves and dainty pollen laden flowers that dance on the slightest breeze makes it an attractive alternative to ornamental grasses in the garden.

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It is reliably perennial and also has medicinal uses, one of the main ones being a tea brewed from the leaves being a highly effective cough medicine apparently (I have to admit I have never tried it).