Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fooling Wasps in the Garden

“What is that green papery thing you have hanging next to the back door?” my mother asked. “It’s a paper wasp nest,” said I. An artificial wasp nest made of paper, as opposed to a nest made by paper wasps.

“What’s it for?”

“To keep away wasps.”

“Does it work?”

Ah…that’s the question. Several gardening catalogues sell these Chinese paper lantern type wasp nests as wasp deterrents, and others sell ones made of fabric. The theory is that you hang them in areas where you don’t want wasps. Supposedly, paper wasps are very territorial and will not build a nest in an area where one already exists. So, you hang up these artificial nests and voila! no wasps.

But does it work?

Well, I routinely had wasps build nests next to one of my sheds. And while I’ve come to terms with bees, I’m not so trusting of wasps. Some, like the bald faced hornet, are very aggressive and don’t need much (if any) provocation to attack. As soon as I would see the beginnings of a paper wasp nest, I would knock it down. Luckily, this worked, but I knew that the battle would only repeat every year unless I took some other measure.

Enter the fake nest.

I purchased a two-pack of paper nests a couple years ago. They lie flat and squashed in the package. All you have to do is stretch them out and lock the wire frame in place. Instant wasp nest. Then you hang it in a strategic location. I placed one next to the back door, easily within viewing distance of the corner by the shed. The other I hung inside the porch (a double assurance against wasps coming into the house – or at least this was the plan).

For two years I have followed this routine, and for two years I’ve had no wasps nests built near my shed (or anywhere along that side of the house). Could it be this really works, or is it merely coincidence?

According to www.wasps.net, fake nests are good for up to 5000 ft. away. The folks over at http://iberianature.com/britainnature/tag/fake-wasps-nest/ also agree: fake nests are an environmentally friendly way to control wasps around your house and gardens.

So there you go! A chemical-free, pet- and child-friendly, totally non-toxic way to control undesireables. If only every pest could be so easily fooled!


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Adirondack Garden: A Good Word for Weeds

I know that most gardening columns are filled with advice on how to get rid of weeds. But I want to put in a good word for them. I’m looking at one really huge one right now just outside my kitchen window: the Box Elder tree (Acer negundo) that is wildlife Grand Central Station all year long, right here in the middle of Saratoga Springs. Of course, that could be because of the seed and suet feeders we hang from its boughs, and the discarded Christmas trees we cluster around the trunk in the winter, and the birdbaths we keep filled in every season –- including a heated one providing liquid water through 25-below-zero nights. But I’ve also read that — even without our additions — the Box Elder tree is ranked among those with the highest value to wildlife.

That ranking is probably because of its seeds that, unlike those of other members of the maple genus, hang onto the boughs until well into the winter, providing food for squirrels and birds when most other seeds are gone. Another positive attribute is its ability to spring up from seedling to tree in a hurry, or as some might say, “grow like a weed.” That’s what our neighbor (who actually owns the ground this Box Elder grows from) said about this tree when he wanted to cut it down. “Just look at the mess it makes — bugs in the summer, seeds all over the place, leaves plugging up the gutters.” Well, we begged and pleaded and pointed out how its boughs provide privacy for his tenants, and he relented. Sort of. He cut down about half of it, but what do you know, it grew right back to its original height (and more!) in just about a year. Ha!

Here’s the thing: if you love the birds and butterflies and want to have them around, you just have to learn to love bugs and weeds. Some people think I’m kind of a nut about that. Two years ago, I led a wildflower walk in downtown Saratoga’s Congress Park, a park more known for its Olmsted-designed formal gardens than for anything allowed to grow wild. But (oh happy fault!) there are geologic faults that run right through Congress Park, creating the springs that Saratoga is famous for, as well as steep banks and marshy spots where the mowers just can’t mow. And there’s where the wildflowers grow, dozens and dozens of beauties most often overlooked: Birds-eye Speedwell, Canada Anemone, Willow Herbs Northern and Hairy, Buttercups, Forget-me-nots, Cuckoo Flowers, Cattails . . . I could go on and on.

And I was going on and on, extolling at length the virtues of one particular plant that spreads through the grass, Ground Ivy. I had read in a wonderful book by Hannah Holmes (Suburban Safari: A year on the lawn) that patches of this lovely little flower, as pretty as any orchid (click on photo above), are sought out by crows in molting, when their new feathers are poking through skin and causing them pain. Apparently, this Mint-Family plant has both analgesic and antiseptic qualities that soothe their pain and prevent infection, and the crows will roll around in it. Now, I found that pretty fascinating and was sharing my enthusiasm for Ground Ivy when I was interrupted by “Ugh! That’s Creeping Charlie! [Another name for Ground Ivy] I can’t get rid of it in my lawn! That’s a weed!”

Well, yes. It is. But such a nice one. I don’t think she thought I was nice when I responded to her revulsion: “Why would you want to get rid of it? Get rid of the grass instead.” Because, you see, that really is my ideal. Why would anyone prefer plain old grass to deliciously herby Ground Ivy (what a pungent, minty scent it emits when mowed)? Or to Speedwells of every kind, dainty little striped blooms in shades of blue from royal to mist? Or to Violets, white or purple or yellow? Or to Strawberries, Buttercups, Daisies, Clover. . . good lord, even Dandelions! All carpet the ground no taller than ankle-high, so they don’t need frequent mowing. All grow without needing to poison the soil with pesticides or chemical fertilizers. All thrive without being watered. All provide food for butterflies, caterpillars, ants, worms, birds, and bees. All are as pretty as pretty can be. And every single last one of them is a weed.

Let’s hear it for weeds!


Thursday, August 6, 2009

CCE Campaign Promotes Seasonal Recipes for Local Foods

Eat Well, Eat Local and Eat Together is the theme of a campaign by Cornell Cooperative Extension in counties across New York State, including locally in Warren County, that coincides with the local harvest season. Also known as Eat3, the program’s goal is to help families choose, prepare and enjoy healthy meals together using locally-grown produce.

Each month, from July through November, the campaign will feature one local and healthful meal that families can prepare and enjoy together. The recipes have been chosen to emphasize kid-friendly foods that take advantage of fruits and vegetables in season. For example, the Meal of the Month for July features Broccoli and Black Bean Quesadillas and Fruity Pops. The quesadilla recipe boosts the nutritional value of a traditional tortilla and cheese quesadilla by including broccoli and beans. The frozen fruit and yogurt “pops” uses seasonal fruits, such as berries and peaches, in an easy recipe that kids can make themselves.

Cornell Cooperative Extension is currently distributing recipes highlighting July’s Meal of the Month, as well as postcards and a colorful refrigerator magnet to remind families to Eat Well, Eat Local and Eat Together. Families are also being encouraged to visit and register at the Eat3 website, www.Eat3.org. Those who register on the website will be entered into a monthly drawing for a $50 grocery store gift card. Two gift card winners will be chosen each month. The website features additional seasonal recipes with nutrition information, tips, games and a chance to share comments and questions about the recipes and eating together.

Contact Alexis Flewelling at amf252@cornell.edu or at 518-668-4881 to request July’s free Meal of the Month recipes and magnet from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Warren County.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Late Blight: What Not to Do

A Wilmington woman who suspected her tomato was afflicted with “late blight,” a fungal disease killing area nightshade crops, put the plant in her car and drove it to the Hhott House garden center in Saranac Lake late last week to get an expert opinion.

The opinion was, yes, the plant did indeed have late blight, and now it had traveled through Lake Placid, home to Cornell University’s Uihlein Potato Research Station, which provides seed stock for much of the state. It had also come within six miles of Tucker Farms, a commercial potato grower in Gabriels, and, less important, within a block of my potato and tomato plants, the latter which are finally fruiting.

The plant was bagged and discarded in the trash, as it should have been to begin with. Late blight is spread by spores that can travel several miles on the wind. Here is a reminder from the Clinton Essex Cooperative Extension on what you should do if you suspect your tomatoes or potatoes have late blight.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Adirondack Gardening: Habitat Close to Home

When the editors of Adirondack Almanack asked me to take over Ellen Rathbone’s garden columns while Ellen is on vacation, I couldn’t help thinking, they have got to be kidding! Me, write a garden column? I guess they don’t know that I’m more of an anti-gardener. Not anti in the sense of “against” (I love other people’s gardens), but in the sense of “antithesis of.” In short, I’m a weed-loving wildflower nerd who will risk drowning and broken bones and heart attacks and Lyme disease pursuing additions to my wildflower “life list,” but I faint at the thought of cultivating the plot behind my house. » Continue Reading.


Friday, July 31, 2009

Meet Guest Contributor Jackie Donnelly, Woodswalker

Elen Rathbone will be away on vacation for a couple of weeks so we’ve asked Jackie Donnelly, who writes the Saratoga Woods and Waterways blog, to fill in. She’ll be posting Ellen’s columns under the name Woodswalker beginning Sunday.

Jackie is a former editor/writer recently retired after 15 years as a Hospice nursing assistant. She’s not a professional naturalist (she majored in English), but a self-described “lifelong nature enthusiast and wildflower nerd.” She also says she is an admirer of Ellen Rathbone, whose blog inspired her to start her own on January 1 of this year, she says “hoping to document a full year’s cycle of the beautiful wilderness settings and amazing diversity of flora and fauna close to my home in Saratoga Springs.” Liberated from land by her Hornbeck canoe, she primarily haunts the Hudson River where it forms the northern boundary of Saratoga County, with occasional forays into the “genuine” Adirondacks.

Please join us in welcoming her.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bee Balm – Garden Pest or Protected Species?

Earlier this year we had a visitor in who was telling me how she had submitted a floral arrangement at a garden show only to have it rejected because it had bee balm in it and bee balm was a protected plant in New York State. “What?!?” I said. “Bee balm’s not protected; it grows like a weed in my gardens!” “Oh, but it is,” she claimed. I promptly grabbed a copy of New York State’s Protected Plant List (put out by the Department of Environmental Conservation), and sure enough, bee balm (Monarda didyma), aka: Oswego Tea, is protected.

In truth, this plant is not yet an endangered species, nor is it threatened. It is, however, listed as exploitably vulnerable, which means it is “likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of [its range] within the state if causal factors continue unchecked.” As I stand there and stare at my flower beds, which are slowly being swallowed up by bee balm, I find this hard to imagine.

New York is home to five species of Monarda: basil-balm (M. clinopodia), bee-balm/Oswego tea (M. didyma), wild bergamot/horsemint (M. fistulosa), bee-balm/purple bergamot (M. media), and dotted horsemint (M. punctata). Of these five, only one (basil-balm) is non-native, yet at the same time it is listed as rare.

Two of my gardens are a sea of red: bee balm that has gotten out of control. Still, the hummingbirds like it, and that’s why I planted it. What I have yet to discover is why this one is so aggressive, while the other varieties I have planted have obligingly stayed in their private little clumps: the pale purple wild bergamot, which blooms late in the season, the lovely pink one, which is only just now budding, and the scrawny white one, although I’ve got my eye on this one because it seems to be slowly spreading (I’m just now thinking it might be basil-balm). I had a deep magenta variety which also spread, but I haven’t seen much of that one lately; it could be I dug it all up and gave it away.

Most bee balms that you find in nurseries today are hybridized varieties, which come in all sorts of colors and fancy names. Domesticated. The only problem I have found with these is that many are prone to powdery mildew, which doesn’t seem to harm the plants much, but it sure looks awful. My phlox are also susceptible to the mildew, but I’m not too keen on the white phlox, so I don’t feel too badly when I pull out contaminated plants.

Since I’ve sort of made it a mission to promote native flowers in my gardens, I guess I don’t mind too much that the bee balm is thriving, especially now that I know it is a protected plant. Maybe I’ll start offering it to the State for reclamation plantings!


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Adirondack Gardening: Is All Poo Created Equal?

In gardening parlance, manure is pure gold. It has all the necessary ingredients for successful plant growth: nitrogen (helps plants produce the proteins necessary to build green stems, sturdy roots, and lots of leaves), phosphorus (facilitates energy movement within the plants), and potassium (regulates photosynthesis, helps move nutrients within the plants, and helps make plant proteins). In addition to the big three (NPK), manure also contains humus, a mixture of plant and animal remains that form a bulky and fibrous material that is not only nutritious for your garden, but also makes the soil a better growing medium by fluffing up heavy clays, providing food for the critters that live in the soil, and retaining moisture during times of water shortage.

And yet, while some farms can’t give the stuff away, others of us have the devil’s own time trying to acquire it.

For example, I live in a very small rural town here in the mountains. If I walk down the street a few hundred feet from my house, there’s a family with a bunch of horses. I called one day to see if I could relieve them of some of their no doubt copious piles of manure. Sure…that’ll be $300 a load. Oh, and the “load” is mostly “topsoil” with a little manure throw in. I decided to look for other options.

There’s the bison farm about half an hour away, with all the free bison doo that you can cart away. Likewise, there’s the goat farm down towards Thurman – nannyberries galore, yours for the taking. Sounds great! But how do you cart away a load of manure when all you have is a Prius? Another acquaintance of mine, who raises sheep and chickens, has offered me a load of dung…sometime. I think I’ll follow up on this lead while I’m on vacation next month, maybe offering an exchange of labor for this largesse.

As I made the rounds trying to find a good source of poo for my nutrient-starved garden, I was struck by the variety of manures available within a short distance of my home: horse, bison, sheep, chicken, alpaca, goat. About the only types we don’t have nearby is cow and pig. I started to wonder, then, just how much of a difference there is between each type. I’d heard that goat droppings are a “cool” manure that can be put on the garden right away without danger of “burning” the plants, unlike horse or cow manure, which is “hot” and must age for at least six months before use. So I decided to do a little homework to see which type was best. Here are my findings.

Pig and poultry poop are very high in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen can burn your plants. If you use pig or poultry poop, you need to let it age for several months before use. Bird droppings are often quite prized by gardeners (as are bat droppings, which are also very high in nitrogen). One of the greatest inventions for utilization of poultry poop is the mobile chicken coop. This nifty device makes garden creation a snap: you set up your chickens in a location where you want a future garden. The birds spend the summer scratching up the dirt, fertilizing it, eating the bugs in it and basically turning it into a pre-fab garden plot. Next spring you relocate the birds and turn their old run into ready-to-use garden beds.

Horses and cattle (and bison) spend a lot of time grazing, and what goes in must come out. As a result their dung is very high in the fiber department, which means you will have lots of good humus if you use horse or cow manure. On the other hand, you are also likely to get a lot of weed seeds. Horse and cow manure both need to age before you can use them. The general rule is to let it rest and decompose at least six months before use. During this time you can decrease the weed seed problem if you cover your manure pile with plastic and let it really cook for those six months. My pumpkins liked the horse manure I planted them in last year, but the books say that horse and cow manure are both rather low in those essential nutrients N, P and K. You can do better, but if this is all you have available, it’ll work just fine.

Goats and sheep are prolific poopers and their dung comes in tidy little pellets (so does alpaca poop). Because of this, it breaks down quickly and easily, which means you can make use of it sooner than you can horse and cow manure. In general they have more K than horse and cow manure, but N and P are about the same. Unless… I read that if your goat droppings come from goats that are kept indoors (like milking goats often are), then you will likely get additional nitrogen in your manure load because you’ll get the goats’ urine mixed in with the hay and droppings that are mucked out of the stalls. Can you put goat or sheep dung directly in your garden without aging? Yes and no. You really should age/compost any manure first, but because the droppings of goats and sheep are small, they break down more quickly. You can put them directly in your garden, but be sure to keep them off roots and away from stems.

After doing my research, I’ve concluded that any manure I acquire will be a welcome addition to my gardens. And if some of it doesn’t have, say, quite enough K, then I can supplement with something else, like greensand. The bottom line is that you cannot keep taking nutrients out of your garden without somehow replacing them. Manures are probably the easiest source of nutrients around. So roll up your sleeves and make friends with your local farmer. Swapping some labor in exchange for a load of poo seems like a pretty fair deal to me.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Visual: Whallonsburg Farmworker Housing

I took this photo because I’d been wondering what the farmworker housing in the news looks like.

Several reporters I know who have followed this issue for the past few years have come to the same conclusion: the Adirondack Park Agency would have granted a permit for these houses if the farm had applied for one; this is a battle of jurisdiction and principle between two well-lawyered parties.

The reaction of the farm’s owner, former Wall Street trader Salim B. “Sandy” Lewis, to his recent state appellate court win can be found on his Web site. The APA has not commented yet. But if the reporters are right, we should see the question of whether these structures are more essentially “farm accessory” or more essentially “house” ascend to another court.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hawthorn vs Hawthorn – Avoiding The Invasives

I took a few moments this morning to read the comments on past posts to the Almanack (thank you, all) and found a potentially distressing note on my deer-proofing post. I had mentioned that a good deer proof plant to include in your arsenal was hawthorn, and someone commented that we need to be careful about invasive hawthorns. Invasive hawthorns? I didn’t know there were such things, so I had to look it up.

Lo! and behold, the anonymous commenter was correct: there is an invasive hawthorn out there. It is Crataegus monogyna, the oneseed hawthorn, aka: English hawthorn. This plant has become quite the pest out in California, but it seems to have made inroads throughout the West as well as the East. According to the range map I saw, the middle of the US seems to be free of this invasive so far. » Continue Reading.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Matt Funiciello Reports: Scott Murphy Comes Town

Matt Funiciello sent us the following report on Scott Murphy’s trip to the north country last week. Matt writes a regular blog that can be found here.

I went to visit Scott Murphy on Tuesday morning. The new Congressman was opening the doors of his new congressional office in Glens Falls, N.Y. Located at 136 Glen Street, it is just around the corner from my own cafe. About 65 people were gathered to voice concerns and ask questions of the 20th District’s newest representative. Murphy appeared calm and thoughtful as he answered all the questions asked of him for about 45 minutes.

He first spent twenty minutes talking about his initial 7 weeks in the House and extolling the virtues of the Credit Card Reform bill and the Mortgage Reform bill which he voted for. He also spoke at length about his support of the recent (and controversial) Energy Independence bill. One citizen critic opined that the bill was a boondoggle designed to put carbon-trading credits under the control of Wall Street bankers.

Murphy noted that there were pluses and minuses to the bill and pointed out that, in New York state, we spend far more for power than other states because we have already done so much to clean up our power sources. He cited, as well, the credits that were negotiated right before the bill passed concerning “woody biomass”. These credits, he said, will favor pulp and paper mills like Finch-Pruyn, located in Glens Falls, which he specifically mentioned.

Although many questions were asked, a reasonably large number of people were in the crowd to voice their support for a Single-Payer Health Care plan (HR 676, Improved and Expanded Medicare For All). We were there to ask Mr. Murphy why he has not signed on as a sponsor to the bill. John Thomas, from Hartford, asked him to define single-payer as he saw it and Peter Lavenia, co-chair of New York state’s Green Party asked why he would not sign on as a sponsor.

Murphy said that, “I haven’t decided which of the various bills that I am going to vote in favor of or against.” He went on to say that he was looking at access to health care for those who don’t currently have it but also the retention of “choice” for those who do. Further, he said that Americans “have the most expensive system with the most mediocre result.”

David Nicholson, a Vietnam Veteran, was holding a sign that read, “Rub Out The Two Party Mafia” and a compatriot of his had one that said, “Washington. You’re fired!” I spoke to Nicholson prior to the event and he said that he wanted to ask about whether or not Murphy would support the HR 1207, the bill Ron Paul and Denis Kucinich have sponsored which would allow for proper auditing of the Federal Reserve. They did not have a chance to speak directly with Murphy before he took the event indoors, so after pledging my support (as a businessman, an employer and a person who grew up under a single-payer system) to HR 676 and urging him to consider supporting it, I asked if he would support Ron Paul’s bill.

He maintained, as many elected officials have, that an independent firm already audit’s the nation’s bank, but he also said that he would not be against further auditing being done directly by the General Accounting Office to allow for better oversight of the privately-held bank that has literally made $2 trillion disappear right in front of lawmakers’ eyes.

He had made an earlier statement about troop withdrawals from Iraq under Obama and I asked how he felt about the historical number of mercenaries that were being deployed to replace the soldiers now headed from Iraq to Afghanistan. I asked if this switch, along with our 14 permanent military bases in Iraq, could really be looked at as any sort of meaningful “withdrawal”?

Murphy responded, “As we are bringing our troops back, there are also people that are hired by the U.S. and by Iraqi Security Forces to provide security and, my hope is that, over time, we’re drawing that (number) down as well.”

Lastly, I asked him why our state’s dairy farmers are still being forced to deal with subsidies and price controls in an age when people are starting to eat real food and are getting used to paying what it is actually worth. I also asked his position on N.A.I.S. (the National Animal I.D. system which would have every farm animal tagged and coded for federal oversight).

Murphy said he has spoken with many dairy farmers and that he spent several days trying to figure out all the nuances involved in our “anachronistic” system of dairy pricing. He said that he was working towards answers but that it was a very complicated issue.

As for the tagging of every egg, chicken, cow and piglet, he said that it is not something “the agricultural community is very excited about” and that
he would not support it “at the current time”.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Importance of Weeding

To me weeding ranks right up there with housework: it’s one of those chores that just never go away. As soon as you clear out a patch of weeds, it seems to grow right back, like a gecko’s tail. After a while you begin to wonder if it really is all that important to do. Afterall, many books and garden gurus espouse the benefits of “green manure” and “living mulches” – what makes those different from your average weeds?

I have yet to resolve this question with any real satisfaction.

Green manure, perhaps, is easier to rule out. This is the name given to plants/crops sewn that will later be tilled into the garden bed. These plants are usually those that provide nutrients to the soil and are usually planted in off years when you don’t put any food crops in the bed. Green manure plants include things like fava beans and buckwheat. They are also great for attracting pollinators.

Living mulches, on the other hand, are plants you stick in the ground in and among your food plants, like clover. In theory they stay low, shading the soil from the harsh rays of the sun and the sharp patter of raindrops. Additionally, they are supposed to smother out “weeds.” I tried some of the clover last year…it did very well, grew quite tall, and took over a section of the garden. Hm…seems like it became just another weed.

So where do you draw the line between weeds and living mulches? Maybe it all comes down to the species of plant. Clovers, afterall, do help provide nutrients to the soil. “Weeds,” on the other hand, steal the nutrients and water from your crops, reducing your yield, sometimes monumentally. Does the clover not do this, too? Enquiring minds want to know.

Until I can find a satisfactory answer to these burning questions, I guess I will just have to resolve myself to pulling the weeds. And, if you are like me and keep putting it off, let me give you some hard-learned advice: don’t. Get out there and pull those weeds as soon as you see the buggers sticking up between your plants. If you don’t keep on top of them, they will take over and before you know it, those lovely gardens that you sweated and strained over, digging by hand, planting with loving care, will once more become part of your lawn and you’ll stand there looking at your strangled flowers wondering what happened. Yep. And then you’ll find yourself back at square one, having to redig those beds, only this time you have to be careful not to damage the surviving flowers and shrubs as you thrust your spade into the soil to uproot the weeds and grasses. Uh-huh…the hard-won truth is that you must keep up with the weeding every week.

They say converting your yard to gardens will save you time. Maybe they just meant you cut back on the time you mow (which is a good thing in my book; mowing is too much like vacuuming). And the time you save not mowing can now be put to good use elsewhere, like weeding.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Deer-Proofing the Adirondack Garden?

“There’s a deer in the hummingbird garden,” our intern said in a stage whisper. “It’ll probably be gone by the time I get there,” I said, as I grabbed the camera and made a dash for the door. Lo and behold, the deer stood there, ripping through our hosta as though it was so much buttercrunch lettuce, completely ignoring me as I stepped closer and closer snapping one shot after another.

While this certainly gave us a wonderful wildlife encounter, it isn’t really the type of wildlife we want to see in our butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Already it has pruned the hollyhocks, and who knows what else it will munch on next. We’ve had little problem with deer before now, but once they’ve discovered the choice produce aisle, it is hard to keep them away. What is a gardener to do? » Continue Reading.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Wild and Woolly Adirondack Aphids

While hustling a group of first and second graders along the trail to get them back to their bus on time, I hit the breaks when my eye was caught by masses of white fuzz in the alders along the boardwalk. I zoomed in on the fuzz, with the kids right beside me. What could it be? When I got close enough, I knew what we had: woolly alder aphids (Paraprociphilus tesselatus).

Usually we see these insects in late summer and early fall when the bits of white fuzz start flying around. They are kind of pretty, in a fluffy faerie sort of way, with just a hint of pale blue showing through the fuzz. But, they are aphids, after all, and we all know that aphids tend to be bad news for plants.

In preparation for writing this post, I read up on woolly alder aphids, and it turns out that, like so many things on this planet, they are pretty interesting characters. For example, let’s look at that glorious white fuzz. It’s more than just a pretty covering. This cottony fluff is actually a waxy substance that the aphids exude to protect their juicy grey bodies from predators. After all, if you were looking for a mouthful of tender insect, and instead you got a mouthful of waxy fuzz, you might think twice about snacking at this location.

But every problem has a solution, and indeed there are two major predators of these aphids: the larvae of green lacewings (Chrysopa slossonae) and the caterpillar of a butterfly appropriately known as the Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius). This caterpillar, by the way, is one of the world’s only predaceous butterfly caterpillars. Both these predators adapt a pretty interesting hunting strategy: they cover themselves with the aphids’ own waxy fuzz. Thus disguised, they become veritable wolves in sheep’s clothing, hunkering down among the aphid colony and munching away.

But wait…the story doesn’t end here. The disguise adapted by these larvae isn’t so much to hide them from the aphids as it is to hide them from the aphids’ body guards. Like many aphids worldwide, woolly alder aphids have an arrangement with Ant Protective Services. If you find a colony of aphids, look closely and you will surely find ants nearby. These ants may look like simple shepherds, herding flocks of aphids and “milking” them for honeydew, but the arrangement isn’t quite so bucolic. Sure, the aphids squeeze out droplets of super sweet liquid (a by-product of the sap they sucked from the plant – more on this in a moment) when stroked by the ants’ antennae, and the ants then tote these droplets home for dinner, but in exchange for this the ants protect the colony from all intruders. Go ahead and stick your finger among the aphids and see what happens. Quickly your finger will be attacked by the nearest ants. So the clever costumes used by the lacewing and butterfly larvae do a pretty good job of tricking the ants. If you don’t believe it, consider this: some researchers introduced undisguised larvae to an aphid colony and the ants patrols effectively removed them from the scene.

The aphids get an additional benefit from the “milking” process mentioned above. As we all know, a steady diet of sugars isn’t nutritionally balanced; even aphids need some protein, especially when it comes time to reproduce. In order to acquire the necessary nutrition (nitrogen), the aphids consume more sugary sap than they need. Their systems then separate out the minute traces of nitrogen and excrete the excess sugars (honeydew). The nitrogen is then utilized in making the necessary proteins for reproduction.

And this brings us to the life cycle of the woolly alder aphid. When you gaze upon a colony of aphids coating the twigs and branches of your alders, you are looking naught but females. There won’t be a male in sight. This is because these insects reproduce asexually, via a process known as parthenogenesis. This system of reproduction is actually a lot more common than you’d think. Unlike many insects, the virgin female aphid gives birth to live young (no time and energy wasted in making eggs), all of which are daughters. In almost no time at all, the daughters are squeezing out girls of their own. This reproductive strategy has the advantage of producing individuals perfectly adapted for the host plant and its immediate environment. Some researcher with nothing better to do once calculated that one female aphid could give rise to over 600 BILLION clones of herself over the course of a single season! Thank goodness for predators, parasites, diseases and limited numbers of host plants, eh?

But, even this sort of perfection has its limits, and towards the end of the summer, the host plant may be weakening, or the colony just needs to move on (perhaps the host is getting too crowded). Things become stressful and suddenly a generation is produced that has males. You will know this has happened when the formerly stationary insects have produced models with wings. The resources are now available for sexual reproduction, which results in the mixing up of genetic material. This in turn produces offspring that may be better able to survive conditions in other locations, so off they go. Natural selection will then determine which ones will survive.

What an amazing world we live in. Every time you turn around there is something new to discover. Who knew that white fuzz on a shrub could turn out to be so strange and exotic! I love science fiction, but part of me really believes that we don’t need to travel the expanses of the universe to find bizarre lifeforms: they are already here and living among us. So go forth, ye citizens of Earth, and see what fantastic lives you can uncover right in your own back yard!


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Contemplating Carrots

“Eat your carrots – they’re good for your eyes.” What mother hasn’t intoned this mantra to her children? Well, I’ve always loved carrots, and yet I’ve worn glasses since I was in third grade. Go figure. Still, carrots are good for you, and, even more importantly, they are easy to grow in the Adirondacks!

One of the things that makes the Adirondacks (or at least a good chunk of the region) ideal for carrots is the loose sandy soil. Root veggies need loose soil so they can grow big roots. If you suffer from heavy clay soil, you will have a tougher time growing things like carrots and beets, but with plenty of soil ammendments, you can still make a go of it. Afterall, my parents’ garden had terrible clay soil, it made weeding a misery, and yet we grew plenty of carrots and beets every year.

When it comes to picking out what carrots to grow, it can be difficult to choose. I tend towards heirloom varieties, partly because they have neat names, partly because they have some unusual colors, and partly because I like to support the folks who are protecting our seed diversity. I don’t particularly like the idea of one or two companies owning the patents on produce and making it illegal for folks to gather their own seeds from these plants. But that’s another story. This year I have Scarlet Nantes, Red Cored Chantenay, and St. Valery among my carrot selections.

Now comes the “hard” part: planting the seeds. Carrot seeds are tiny. Carrot seeds are light-weight. Planting on a windy day can be a disaster. They say to plant your carrots in rows two inches deep. This is difficult to do if you aren’t planting in rows. I mix my carrots with my onions – onions supposedly keep carrot pests at bay – but this means that I’m not planting in rows. So, I end up scattering my seeds on top of the soil and then raking the soil over the top. The trick then is to keep my shallowly-planted seeds wet enough to germinate.

Once they sprout (which takes a while), I discover that my scattering technique needs work. Vast areas are carrotless, while small patches are thick as turf. This leads to the next chore with carrots: thinning them out. I have always hated thinning my veg – it seems like I am wasting food! However, if you don’t thin, then you end up with runty carrots. Runty carrots are difficult to peel, although they make great snacks for the dog.

So I’ve come up with an alternate solution to thinning: transplanting. I tried this last year with some success, so I figure I’ll give it a go again this year. The goal is to take those thick clumps of carrots and spread them out into the Spartan spots; carrot seedlings are so much easier to handle than those weeny carrot seeds. All I have to do is gently remove the clumps, separate them into individual plants, and carefully stick them back into the ground, doing as little damage as possible to the root.

It’s worth the extra time and effort, however, when late summer and fall roll around and the time has come for the carrot harvest. They say that the later you harvest your carrots the sweeter they will be. Some even suggest you leave your carrots in the ground all winter, digging them as you need them. These pundits obviously don’t live in the snowbelt like we do. Dig them in winter? With what, a jackhammer? Nope, I’ll dig mine before the snow flies, thank you.

The final decision is what to do with your carrot crop. My family always froze our veg, so that’s the route I usually take. Still, I do like the idea of fresh raw carrots in January and February, and with a little planning, you can store your carrots all winter to use as needed. All you need is a deep container of damp sand. You fill your container partway with the sand and then lay down a layer of carrots. Cover with sand. Add more carrots. Continue until container is full. When you want a fresh carrot or six, you simply dig them out of the sand.

OH, and you’ll need a cool place to store your container(s), like a root cellar. I don’t have one of those, so I will stick to freezing my carrots.


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