Monday, February 27, 2012

Watch Out! Praying Mantis Egg Cases!

   I've been doing a bit of Spring cleaning in the garden beds recently and have been trying very hard to keep my eyes open for overwintering insects or eggs, so as not to accidentally toss them into the compost pile. Once again, it's truly amazing to see what's up under our noses, unbeknownst to us all this time. So far I've found three praying mantis egg cases, and thanks to David at A Native Backyard for the ID tip. Apparently, right before she dies at the end of summer, a female praying mantis lays her eggs in these hard foam cases to overwinter and hatch the following spring.
Please! Be careful while tidying up this spring and don't unintentionally toss away one of these egg cases of this most beneficial insect!

I plan on checking them every day (if I can remember) in hopes that I'll get to see them hatching.
They're quite small, probably only 1-1.5 inches across...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

First Insects of the Season

Jeff wins the prize for spotting the first real insects of the season! These fellas wasted no time getting out as soon as the snow melted. (well, it is 60 degrees today)

Red Shouldered Bug (Jadera Haematoloma)
A scentless plant bug, similar to the Box Elder Bug. Supposedly they don't have stink glands like many other true bugs. Jeff neglected to squish one to find out if that's true.

Red Shouldered Bug (Jadera Haematoloma)
Probably mating, but he didn't interrupt them to ask.

Net Winged Beetle (Dictyopterus aurora, maybe)
They resemble fireflies, however they're active during daytime. Larvae feed on fungi.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Snow is Beautiful, Snow is Evil

We finally had our first real snow of the season yesterday. When I woke up in the morning, the outdoor temperature was 45 degrees and the forecast of 6 inches of snow seemed quite ridiculous. By noon the temperature had dropped to 33 and it was beginning to snow. By 4pm we had around 6 inches and it was quite beautiful. By 8pm we had 8 inches and down on the golf course, limbs on the White Pines were snapping like toothpicks under the weight of the heavy, wet snow. It was heart-wrenching to hear, and suddenly what was so silent and lovely was now so devastating and cruel. Now as I'm typing this the temperatures are on their way to a forecasted 48 degrees and the snow is melting quickly. Not quickly enough, however, to have prevented all the tree carnage.

3pm...A winter wonderland

The birds were feeding like crazy which made for great counting #'s for the GBBC

Notice the big, wet flakes coming down

At this point the trees were still holding up well

8pm...I step out to take a picture because it's so beautiful. It should be completely dark now but it stayed this light almost all night. The glow on the left side of the horizon is from the lights of an office park, it looked quite ethereal. I was thinking this was pretty damn cool until I started hearing the snaps of these trees losing limbs, and my heart sank.

7:30am this morning, the damage isn't visible until you walk to the edge of the yard and look down the fairway.

It's a shame I can't enjoy it's beauty since I know how cruel a storm it was.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Heart's Day

"Hey! Look over here!"

"Thanks for taking care of us critters! We love you!"

You're Welcome-We love you too!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Winter Sowing Seed Project: Part 2

In my ever-increasing quest for more native plants, and because as Oscar Wilde said, "More is never enough", earlier this winter I started a seed sowing project. Most native plant seeds need to experience a cold, moist period in order to trigger their DNA to germinate. This can either occur naturally out in a garden bed, outside in a container of soil, or inside in your refrigerator- then planted outside. Supposedly sowing seed directly in a bed produces the lowest germination rate because the seed is the most vulnerable to being washed away, eaten, covered up with debris, or otherwise re-located. I've read reports on the internet (and everything we read on the internet is true, right?) of higher success rates by sowing in containers left exposed to the elements or pre-treating in the fridge then sowing in containers. Theoretically we're controlling some of the variables which should lead to a higher success rate.

Back in December, I selected a few plants to experiment with and planted seeds both outdoors in the elements and indoors in baggies for the refrigerator method. This will be especially interesting this year since it has not exactly been a properly cold winter. Some seeds require as much as 60-90 days of cold, moist stratification, like Vernonia fasciculata (common ironweed) and I will be able to compare the results of the same seed with natural stratification and forced stratification. I won't be surprised at all if the Vernonia I planted outside doesn't germinate as well as the Vernonia seeds I stratified in the fridge thanks to not receiving adequate chilling time courtesy of our warm winter.

Seeds sown in outside in containers, rather than scattered on the ground

I'm also trying the "milk jug method" on a few seeds, but I'm finding they heat up quite a bit- not good if you need them to stay frozen or cold. Specifically I'm using the milk jugs for Columbine, which need to be surface sown and the jugs offer some additional protection.

By the way, the milk jug method is roughly as follows: take an empty, clean gallon milk jug and cut it in half almost all the way around, fold the top half back, fill with seed starting mix, seeds, water, tape shut, leave cap off to breathe, stick outside in the shade, then move into the sun in spring. You can also Google it and find lots more info and pictures.

Milk and Spring Water jugs, with Columbine seeds

Some seeds have already completed their 30 day treatment in my fridge and are ready to be planted outside. This afternoon I'll be potting up the Verbesina alternifolia (wingstem) and Verb. occidentalis (yellow crownbeard) and placing them outside to (hopefully) germinate when it warms up. These two are also seeds, like the Vernonia, that I also planted in flats outside and I'll be able to compare the germination rate between outdoor only stratification and refrigerator/outdoor stratification.

Pre-treated Verbesina seeds, ready to be planted

Even better are the plants that need no pre-treatment, like Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) and Echinacea purpurpea (purple coneflower). I decided to do another experiment to compare the germination rate, hardiness, and overall growth characteristics between starting some of these seeds early indoors under my grow lights, and outdoors in containers au naturale. The ones planted indoors, just last week, have already germinated. Woohoo! They're going to get a huge head-start before spring, this will be really interesting. Of course, the ones sown outside have not germinated yet.

Echinacea sprouts

Have you ever noticed how almost all seeds' first leaves look similar? Generic and round, perhaps to catch the most light. A seedlings second pair of leaves usually look most like the mature leaves of the plant it will become.

Monarda sprouts
Do you folks have any favorite plants or other native plant species you might recommend as easy and fun to start from seed?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: Color and Texture on a February Morning

Monarda fistulosa seedhead

Moss growing between bricks on our sidewalk

Rosa "Conrad Ferdinand Meyer", can you believe deer nibble on this?

Parsley that's surviving winter, waiting for early Swallowtails

Weeping Blue Spruce needles

Rhododendron bud

Monday, February 6, 2012

Instant Gratification

I planted some Basil seeds last week to specifically grow indoors for winter harvesting and they've already sprouted! In just 4 days! I chose a compact variety that (I'm hoping) will do well in a pot on my growing stand, and as you can see, the seeds came from Renee's. This is my second year of ordering several types of seed from them, last year I didn't know what I was doing and I still had great success. 

By the way, Basil comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors, and is a fantastic pollinator friendly plant. It was a pleasure to watch (and eat) as it bloomed all summer and was a favorite of the tiniest of bees and flies. Once the sun went down, the moths were drawn to the white flowers like magnets.

There's nothing quite like the excitement I get from seeing those little green specks pushing through the soil. I know it's just silly little Basil, but it's so much fun.

I can't quite find a word for it...but it just makes me happy.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Unusual Birds for This Time of Year

The peculiar happenings of our peculiar winter continue.

*You fly back to school now little Grackle, fly fly fly...

Never have I tried so hard to get a picture of a Grackle, but I was determined. It's quite ridiculous really, in a few months we'll have no fewer than about a 100 and the last thing I will want is a picture of one. Aren't we birders supposed to love all birds? (House Sparrows and European Starlings excluded) Well, I admit I'm not fond of the Common Grackle. When they arrive in the Spring, to roost, feed, and multiply before returning to their wintering grounds, I have to remove most of my feeders because they can empty them en masse in about an hour. They're noisy, grack! grack! grack!ing away all day long. Because there's so many of them and they eat so much...well...certain things on the ground get lots of white polka dots. They're bullies, and I don't like bullies. They are listed as year round residents here, but we've never had them in our yard in winter before.

Please don't be calling for re-inforcements

The unusual thing is that they are flocking birds that tend to over-winter elsewhere, and I have one individual who's been showing up regularly for about a week. Not earth-shattering, I know, but interesting nonetheless to nerdy birders like me.

The birds are so confused, this little fella' was singing his heart out all morning what sounded like his mating song. We're about to get cold again, so hopefully that will set his mind right.

I don't have a picture, but another somewhat unusual visitor in the area is a Rufous Hummingbird just a few miles from my house. There's even reports of another on the other side of town. I don't recall ever hearing of a hummer staying all winter in our town, but December was the record warmest ever so I'm not surprised. The surrogate parents are going to great lengths to provide for the bird, and it even made a feature story in our local newspaper. It's a charming story (with pictures), check it out!

A bird I have not seen this winter, that I usually do see is the Red Breasted Nuthatch. We normally have a few hang around our feeder area during the winter months, but nary a "peep" or "hank".

Have you seen any unusual (for this time of year) birds in your area?

*Silence of the Lambs reference