Thursday, September 25, 2014

While you're outside enjoying this fall weather, divide your spring-flowering bulbs

If you, like me, think every spring about how you just must divide those daffodil bulbs this year when they bloom in a crowded mass in the spring, but you forget about this task after the green foliage fades, consider this article your reminder.  In the spring, bulbs should remain undisturbed so they can change sunlight to food with their green leaves.  If you wait until the winter to divide the bulbs, you risk chopping of emerging shoots that will become flowers.  Summer and fall are the best time to divide spring-blooming bulbs because the plants are dormant.

To divide bulbs, use a spading fork or a shovel and insert it into the soil outside the area in which the bulbs are growing, and pry up.  You’ll probably end up severing some of the bulbs; toss those on the compost pile.  Separate the bulbs and replant them 4-6 inches apart and 4-6 inches deep, pointed end up.  Give the extra bulbs to friends, or expand your beds of flowering bulbs. 

I have planted daffodils throughout my woods, and in early spring, the woods are speckled with spots of yellow and white flowers.  Daffodils are reliably perennial, or come back every year, here.  Deer do not usually eat them, and so they are the perfect bulb to plant nearly anywhere in full sun.  Early, mid-season, and late blooming flowers are available so that the season of bloom can last from late winter to late spring. 

Here are my two girls enjoying the daffodils.  Don't worry, they didn't actually eat them.

Many of the daffodils I planted in my woods decided they could not survive their harsh life among tree roots, and have died.  I hope I’ll be able to divide my bulbs this fall, and to consign more bulbs to the woods.

Tulips are beautiful, but they do not  come back here reliably because our winters are not cold enough to give them the winter chill they need to prosper.  I obtain the best flowers by either putting them in the refrigerator, inside a paper bag, away from ripening fruit for about six weeks before I plant them, or by planting them in a container outside where they get cold temperatures without the insulating effects of the earth.  I treat them as annuals and throw the bulbs on the compost after they bloom.
Muscari, or bluebottles, make a nice container planting that lasts for years.

Bulbs make winter and spring container plantings interesting.  Instead of just planting a pot of pansies, tuck some bulbs underneath the pansies, in colors that coordinate with the pansies, and enjoy the surprise when they emerge.  If you plan to change the arrangement of perennials in the garden, consider putting flowering bulbs among the perennials so the emerging foliage of the perennials will conceal the bedraggled foliage of the bulbs. 



Thursday, September 18, 2014

Attack of the Praying Mantis

My mother has fed dozens of greedy hummingbirds from her back porch every summer for years.   She makes her own hummingbird food from sugar and water, and she fills 6-8 large feeders every other day, using about ten pounds of sugar a week, during the birds’ busiest time.

I used to feed the hummingbirds at my house, but I had difficulty flipping over the feeder without spilling the food and leaving a sticky trail on the porch.  When my mother goes out of town, she asks her neighbor to feed the hummingbirds in her absence because the birds become emphatically demanding about their need for more food.   I don't need the responsibility of feeding any other critters. 
Salvia 'Black and Blue'

To attract hummingbirds to my yard without having to fill feeders, I plant flowers that give them natural food.  Hummingbirds love flowers with tubes into which they can insert their beaks to slurp out the nectar.  Although they may prefer red flowers, they feed from almost any flowers that are tubular.   Phlox, salvia, agastache, bee balm, butterfly bush, lantana, and red columbine (although in our climate it may finish blooming before the hummingbirds arrive) are some perennials that attract the birds.  They also like honeysuckle, trumpet vine, and red Cardinal Climber, although those can be invasive in our area.


Earlier in the summer, my girls and I sat on the porch with my parents, shelling peas and watching the hummingbirds.  When we traverse the porch, we watch out for torpedoing hummingbirds; they shoot from their hiding place in a large cedar tree to the feeders and across the porch.  Many times one has missed hitting my head by inches.  The birds communicate by chirping, which is quite a cacaphony when 20 or more birds are talking at once. 

Over the din, I heard a different sort of chirping which was more frantic than usual.  I waded into       the flowerbeds to investigate, and I found an enormous praying mantis, five to six inches long and    with an abdomen as thick as my thumb, holding a hummingbird in its forelegs, and biting it with its mouthparts.  Evidently, the hummingbird decided to rest on the phlox plan on which the mantis sat, and the insect grabbed it.  The hummingbird squealed in pain and fear as the mantis ripped at its feathers. 

The 6 inch long monster
I donned gloves, because I was a little scared that this monster mantis might grab my hands, and brushed at the bird until the praying mantis dropped it to the ground.  The bird was alive, and we all examined the tiny body.  On its chest, tiny white and gray feathers covered the pulsating heart, and emerald green feathers covered its head.   It wasn't bleeding, but some feathers were missing and its eyes were half open.   I lay it on some pea shells to rest, and I tried to get it to drink some
hummingbird food, or to suck some nectar from a flower.  As we watched, it opened its eyes fully, and then began to hold up its head.  After about 10 minutes, it flew away while we were not watching it.

While I took this photo, I worried  that it might attack me!
As far as I know, it survived the attack.  I don't think the mantis penetrated the bird's skin; it was not bleeding.  A week later, my mother said the insect is still living in the flowerbed where it must be hunting successfully. 

If you want to add plants that attract hummingbirds, fall is  a great time to plant perennials.  Many garden centers are beginning to put their perennials and shrubs on clearance sale to get rid of them before the winter.  I don't know how to attract monster mantises, and I'm not sure I want to learn. 

Eastern Lubber grasshopper
We saw this Eastern Lubber grasshopper last weekend.  It was about 4 inches long and the largest grasshopper I've ever seen.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Plant your garden with Lewis and Clark's Discoveries

 When I visited St. Louis this past summer, I, as I usually do on my travels, looked for gardens.  My sister, Susan, has a neighbor with Missouri native plant garden on a mound of soil between Susan’s driveway and her yard.  In the Missouri Botanical Garden, as well as the St. Louis zoo, and in other yards, I saw gardens with an emphasis on native plants.

The Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower, in Hartford, Illinois, where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers meet, honors the men’s contribution to the opening of the West to settlement and gives the tourist a view of the joining of the rivers a mile or so distant over flood plains.  Surrounding the stark concrete structure are gardens containing plants Lewis and Clark saw on their journey.  One of the men’s tasks was to catalog and to send back to Jefferson specimens of plants and animals they found on the trip, many of which were unknown to science at the time.  Of course, these plants were known to Native Americans, but they were novelties to the European settlers.
At the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower

In the trees is the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.  In foreground is the Mississippi River.

Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower

Native plants are those that are found in the wild within a particular climate.  Many plants in our gardens originate in China or England, and are happiest in those climates.  Gardens of primroses, tulips, delphiniums, and lilacs won’t grow in South Carolina; they need cool summers.

View of the native plant gardens from the tower

Some plants like our heat, cool winters, and humidity.  I saw many of those same plants in the Missouri native plant gardens, although the plants were larger there than here.  Maybe it’s because of the beautiful Midwestern topsoil in which they grow, or maybe it’s because of the extra hours of daylight the plants receive further west.  I wonder if the plants know winter will come to freeze them soon, and so they put forth extra effort to grow large in their allotted time. 

Liatris growing much taller than it does in my garden.
The healthiest plants in my garden are plants native to the Southern US, and many of these plants are native to Missouri.  Insects such as bees and butterflies prefer these species.  Fall is the perfect time to plant perennials; the plants will have the cool fall, winter, and spring to become established before they must suffer through another hot summer.
Achillea, or yarrow, that's gone to seed, in the foreground
If you’d like to include native plants in your garden, consider planting spring and early summer blooming plants like Achillea or yarrow, Baptista, phlox, and bee balm, and plants that bloom later in the summer and into the fall like Rudbekia or coneflower, butterfly weed (a host plant for monarch butterflies), coreopsis, Joe Pye weed, and liatris.  Among these plants, numerous colors are available.

To maintain a garden of perennials, cut them to the ground after the first frost.  I prefer to do this with a weed-eater, and I leave the clippings where they fall as mulch.  Then over the clippings, I sprinkle a layer of mulch to provide coverage a few inches deep, avoiding the crowns of the plants.  My garden-keeping chores are over for another year, besides pulling the stray weed that meanders through the mulch, or clipping spent blooms to encourage the plants to repeat their blossoms.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Molting Chickens, Caterpillars Becoming Butterflies, and Picking Peas

 In the garden, I've been busy with late summer chores and some late summer discoveries.

The first chicken has begun her molt before winter, and she's unhappy and embarrassed about it.  She's cranky and antisocial, and refused to go with the flock when I moved them from their "vacation home," where I keep them when I'm out of town, to their chicken tractor surrounded by fencing so they can enjoy grass and bugs.  I tried to employ my usual strategy of chicken-catching: grabbing her by the tail, but her tail feathers came out in my hand.  I think she giggled at me snidely as she ran away.  At least she'll never know I put these embarrassing pictures online, unlike a child who might one day find pictures illustrating a bad day objectionable.  


In the garden, I sowed cover crops in areas in which I removed spent crops.

To the left is millet, which I'm leaving for the chickens, and in the bare soil of the garden I planted Austrian winter peas, mustard greens, buckwheat, and crimson clover. It will smother weeds, feed the chickens, and enrich the soil.

While I was removing plants, I found these Black Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillars on the fennel.  It's our second crop on this fennel this summer.  The first bunch made two chrysalises that we know of, and we observed one adult butterfly just as she emerged from the chrysalis.  

We are all fascinated by the caterpillars, and my daughters will visit them every day to observe their growth and progress.  We'll keep the chickens out of the garden.  
For a Kindergarten math lesson this morning, we counted 51 caterpillars, which is more difficult than it sounds, even for people who can confidently count to 51!

This is the butterfly that emerged a week ago from the first "batch" of caterpillars.  I let the chickens into the garden just before I found the caterpillars, and I put up the netting and wire to keep them away.  Many of the caterpillars disappeared, but I found no evidence of chicken-intrusion into the netting barricade.  

And, I've been engaged in the ongoing task of picking, shelling, and freezing crowder peas and Lima beans.  

Store bought beans and peas just aren't the same as fresh ones, and there's nothing easier for a vegetable side dish than pouring out a bag of peas or beans into a pot, adding salt, and boiling them until they are tender, usually 20-30 minutes.