Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hatchet's Wild Kingdom

I have a yellow jacket problem and I'm not referring to clothing.
"Whatchu lookin' at, beyotch?"

I found the entrance to their underground nest in my front yard. Right where I need to be weeding, of course.

These would be the critters that are keeping us from eating anything with meat in it on the deck at breakfast, lunch or dinner. There are too many aggressive flying bombers to want to stay out there and risk being stung. Or listen to the children scream about them. Or to continually tempt fate by swatting them away. These Western yellow jackets can just keep on stinging you, if they've a mind to do so! Ack!

So we broke out the wasp attractant traps (Which we should have done in early spring and thus had fewer of them around now!) and I suddenly discovered the secondary benefit: the hummingbirds can now (mostly) feed without being chased off by Demon Insects! I thought that hummers were territorial when it came to the sugar water feeders, but they can't compete with a critter that can sting the heck out of you!

Now for a little someone I found in the front yard by the door!

The sphinx (hummingbird or hawk) moth! They're awfully cute for an insect, aren't they?

Strangely enough, they are a lot easier to photograph than an actual hummingbird. They appear to move slower and stay at a single flower longer. Or maybe I was just lucky. So if you run into any weird looking chrysalises in the ground under your bleeding heart plants, chances are it's these guys. My advice: Don't freak out about weird brown wiggling chrysalises.

I was lurking about in the hammock, laying in wait for a hummingbird to photograph when I thought that I should really plant some more butterfly friendly flowers on the deck. Then this guy came flying along and obligingly landed on the same agastache that the sphinx and hummers like.
Tiger swallowtail.

As much as I love butterflies, I'm always reminded that they're insects! every time I look at them a little too closely. (Eek! Long spindly buggy legs!) Then I get squicked out.

Not enough to stop loving them or photographing them, though.

Another big fan of my backyard is the common squirrel.

Squirrel! Point!

They like to help the finches clean up the hulless sunflower seeds the finches fling all over the deck. Squirrels are helpful like that. They also like to steal my neighbor's ripe apricots (as does Caitlin, but she's just not agile enough) and unripe peaches (When you hear squeaky crunching noises coming from the trees, there's a squirrel up there, desperately attempting to eat rock hard, green peaches.) and any old pecans we may have tossed out the door.

The squirrels like to tease the cats, too. They come right up to the door, where Domino watches the finches...plotting. Kaboom will occasionally jump at the squirrels and clonk himself on the glass.

Of course I still have mice roaming in my raised beds and trying to nibble on my tomatoes. I'm up to 5 kills so far this summer. Unfortunately one of those kills was a lot more up close and personal than I liked. Now I have mouse murdering sadness. I want them dead, yes, but quickly and as painlessly as possible. When you find an injured one, you have a decision to make: let it go and let it die on its own somewhere else or put it out of its misery. Poor little mouse.

On the bright side, I found that I have snakes in the front yard.

Maybe just the one I almost stepped on, but I feel pretty certain that where there's one, there's likely more! I may yet turn Eric into "Bob" from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom series (Clearly dating myself here.). Bob was the guy that the announcer always made stick a critter they wanted to examine into a bag.

"Now Bob will place the juvenile alligator in a bag for tagging." [Gator wrassling noises ensue.]

"Now Bob will put this deadly King Cobra into the bag for venom milking." Bob glares at the announcer but stoically gets his snake grabbing stick ready. "Be careful, Bob! That thing's deadly!"

If I could get Eric to find that snake and relocate it to the tomato bed...Well! Wouldn't that be awesome?!

Note that I don't have any photos of the snake, since it hissed at me and I leaped about 3 feet into the air and then ran to get Eric and my camera. However, when I got back, all you could see of it was the tip of its orange-striped tail. It was probably a common Western garter snake. Probably.

So...yeah. I have entire food chains happening in my own backyard. Exactly as planned!*

After spending a few days trying to shoot photograph hummingbirds in my yard, and being continually thwarted by excited and loud ~3 year old twins, I got a few good pictures.

Are you lookin' at ME?

I'm pretty certain that these are female broadtailed hummingbirds. Rarely do I ever see the males, although I have heard them and have watched them chase others off from the feeders. At least, I think it's a male. Could be a tough old girl!

Who? Me? Never!

Seeing the hummingbirds every summer lifts my heart and continually reinforces that what I'm doing in my yard is the right thing. The right mix of plants and water and trees and space for us and the wildlife around us.

It's also got me thinking that next year I'll put a whole lot more red flowered plants in pots on the deck! Texas sage? Check! Cardinal vine? Check! Scarlet zinnias? Check! Also, more agastache.

Maybe a new kind of fuchsia, too. Since it took me until just this year to realize that there's no way that this beak
My schnozz is so tiny and delicate!

can reach the nectary in this flower.

Yup. Just kinda figured that out one day while wondering why I never saw any hummers sipping at this hummingbird "friendly" plant.

Oh and this video from PBS "Magic in the Air" certainly helped me come to that conclusion. It struck me that this is a plant that is probably meant for a different hummingbird. One with a longer bill. Watch the video, it's beautiful!

If you want to lure hummers to your yard, get a feeder and put out nectar. You don't need to buy special mixes from the store, either. Just remember that it's a 4:1 ratio of water to sugar. So if you have 1 cup of water, you only need 1/4 cup of sugar. Boil for a minute, let cool and then fill your feeder. You do NOT need to add any color to the nectar. You should never add anything other than sugar and water. (I don't care how much you think they "like" it...Mom.) Just be certain to clean out the feeders twice a week in the heat of the summer since the nectar will spoil. You don't want to make your hummingbirds sick!

Also, the comment that they "live on the edge of survival" motivated me to pick up a new feeder with bee guards to keep the yellow jackets away. I parked it right next to my garden window next to the kitchen sink. Now I get to gawk at them up close while doing dishes!

There you have it. Hatchet's Wild Kingdom. Just as I'd planned, years ago when I first started my garden. I think it's working out beautifully!

*Except for the yellow jackets. Who eats those, anyway? I need to invite those predators to my yard!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The First Day of Fourth Grade

It was the first day of 4th grade and we were running late as usual.*


We did the back to school shopping in record time. Eric took Caitlin out the day before classes started and bought piles of supplies. We never actually went clothes shopping, but considering that it's the middle of August, it's not like she needs fall weather clothes. Instead, she just jumped into a tee shirt and a pair of holey gauchos and was ready to go.

But I said, "No. Not on your first day of school."

So I made her change her clothes. Two more times.

With that issue mostly settled, and breakfast in everyone's belly but mine, we rounded up the twins, my camera and tea and toast and drove up to the walking-up-the-hill point. Whereupon the twins took it to mean that it was time to whine and scream about being picked up and carried up the hill. While we were lugging an enormous bag of school supplies, a camera, a coffee mug, toast and unwilling twins.

They slowed us down, to put it mildly.

Eric started getting antsy that the bell would ring at any moment and was going to send Caitlin on ahead without us, but I insisted that we would all make it. So we hoisted the Dramatic Duo and hurried ahead. Made it into line with plenty of time to spare, but not enough for good photos. Instead, we'll all have to make do with these.

Bye Caitlin! See you after school!

She was excited and looking forward to getting back to school and learning new things. Hopefully it will be a better year for her than last year. Less sneak reading and more homework completion. More after school programs and, hopefully, new friends.

Welcome to 4th grade!**

* The first day was the 17th of August. Whatever happened to the week before Labor Day?!
** When did she get old enough to be in 4th grade, anyway?!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hatchet: 3, Mice: 2

It's that time of year again.

The tomatoes are swelling on the vine and looking almost ready to pick when I notice chew marks. Little tiny chew marks in the soft flesh of my lovely pineapple tomato.

And now...something must die!

So I rustle up the 2 mouse traps that were over wintering in the basement, taking out those that dared to come inside and attempt to escape the weather, and return them to the raised bed. One on either side of that mysterious hole that wasn't there a few weeks back.

That was last night.

This morning, I found 2 dead mice who will gnaw on my tomatoes no more. However, with last year as my first foray into Mouse Murder 101, I know that those will not be the last of them, so I reset the traps. I checked once more before lunch and there was another dead Mickey.

It makes me sad to have to kill them. However, I have a line drawn in the soil and that line is this: I am willing to kill for fresh tomatoes. Like I said last year, I'm not willing to poison them because of the unknown consequences downstream, but I am willing to give them a swift, sharp death to keep them away from my food.

The compost heap and sunflower seeds the birds throw around should be enough for them. Anything else is stepping over the line.

Last year, I closed the season out at 17 mice. Apparently I didn't kill off all of the stupid ones.


P.S. Next year I swear that I will only plant 5 tomato plants in a single bed and will plant nothing else in there to compete. I'll even cage them up. Ugh!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Finger Painting

Since the twins like to make a mess, I've always been leery of letting them have access to paint. Pencils, pens and markers are an automatic guaranteed mess and will likely result in my walls becoming even more "decorated" than they currently are. Paint just seemed like a horrible, horrible idea.

Except that it was really nice out and I didn't have any other pressing matters (i.e. bread baking or weeding. House cleaning just isn't on my summer list of Things To Do.), I thought we'd give it a whirl.

First we had to get mostly naked, though, because I know what will happen to their clothes otherwise. Then I put down a large piece of paper and a small amount of red and blue paint. Then I went away for a little while, just to let them get into it all on their own. This is the aftermath of the creative process.

Emma looks slightly guilty while Logan is cheerfully showing me his purple hands.

"Is OK to be messy?"

"Logan, you got a little paint on you tummy. I hep you wif dat."


Emma: "Do you think this is messy enough?"
Logan: "I don't think so."

Logan's hands.

The squiggles on his nose please me.

Show me your hands!

I love Emma's curl here and Logan's soulful eyes.

"That was fun!"

"I'm painting!"

Of course, all good things must come to an end. When their painting day was over, they happily ended up in the bath.

Red + blue = purple!

The purple bath.

That was so much fun that I may yet let them do it again! Maybe next time we'll do yellow and blue....

Monday, August 09, 2010

Mass Murder in the Garden

I love plants and I love gardening, as you well know.

However...there comes a time in every garden's life where things have got to change. Maybe it's because after 15 years, the backyard is no longer full sun. Or maybe those Keys of Heaven that were so nice when there were only 6 of them have taken over all available space. Or maybe it's just time.

So you've made up your mind and things have got to change. But first you have to have a plan. What will grow and be happy in part to full shade? What do you want to see? What will survive in your climate? After lots of research and too many sexy plant pictures, you make your decision. You order your plants and realize you have 15 years worth of weeds or unhappy full sun plants that need to be moved. You must clear the ground first to make space for your sexy new plants.

First you gently remove the plants you want to save and relocate them to the full sun parts of your front yard. Then you start weeding.

Then you start ripping out plants and weeds willy-nilly, in a frenzy of gardening, leaving bent, broken and weeping plants laying in your wake. You've become Attila the Hun, pillaging your very own land. Ripping and tearing and digging and clawing your way through the dirt!


But maybe that's just me?

2010 Garden Chores List (Not necessarily in order)
  1. Move big elderberry to corner.
  2. Dig up 6 agastache and relocate to front yard.
  3. Remove and relocate 2 Chinese grasses to front yard.
  4. Relocate caryopteris.
  5. Move "Dawn" viburnum down to the left ~3'.
  6. Fill with Russian sedum as ground cover.
  7. Feed crab apple tree on monthly basis through summer.
  8. Order and spread mulch.
  9. Take cuttings of sempervivums for new pathway.
  10. Install 2 kinds of thyme (Woolly and variegated) in new pathway to help with roof runoff issues.
  11. Relocate butterfly bush to front yard.
  12. Move compact burning bush somewhere else.
  13. Relocate plants from future pathway to side gate somewhere else in the xeric yard.
  14. Clear out plants from around sprinkler heads.
  15. Fix broken sprinklers. Repeat ad nauseum during entire length of summer.
  16. Replace old fashioned sprinklers.
  17. Move asters from back to front yard.
  18. Weed sidewalk garden.
  19. Weed xeric garden.
  20. Relocate plants around xeric garden to fill empty spots.
  21. Ditch irises from the front yard. Yes, all of them. Offer them for free to neighbors and meet new people. Neighbors LOVE free plants!
  22. Move blue fescue to sidewalk (SW) garden.
  23. Plant 3 new grasses in SW garden.
  24. Order 6 shrubs and 3 grasses for part shade garden in back yard.
  25. Rip out and relocate 3 peonies, Autumn Joy sedum, Blue Hills sage, large catmint, and 2 kinds of garden phlox.
  26. Rip out Keys of Heaven, bindweed, bee balm, clematis tanguica, lamb's ear and other assorted weeds.
  27. Sift wheelbarrows full of compost.
  28. Install Java Red weigela, 3 Miscanthus 'Morninglight' in newly weeded sunny part of back yard. Maybe this will keep me weeding that section more frequently?
  29. Move bronze sedge from shady part to sunny part.
  30. Finally plant new scented penstemon purchased at DBG plant sale.
  31. Rip out weeds and morning glories volunteering all over raised beds.
  32. Plant cool weather seeds for "fall" veggies (e.g. spinach, peas, beans, zukes [45 and 50 day varieties, just to see if it's possible], lettuce, pak choi, cilantro, dill [very old seeds, will they work?], green onions, and carrots,) by Aug. 2nd. Realize that I probably should have started this in mid-July, but hope for the best.
  33. Install new sprinkler line down to cover sunny corner of yard and keep new plantings happy.
  34. Remove potting bench and its mess off deck.
  35. Sort out pots and stuff, send bad pots to McGuckin's for recycling (Check with your local garden center - they may take all of your old pots for recycling, too!).
  36. Clean deck and organize potted plants on deck.
  37. Begin making mental list of plants to live on deck next summer.
  38. Install bronze/purple ajuga as ground cover in part shade garden.
  39. Install 6 new shrubs (Pictured at bottom) and 3 new grasses.
  40. Learned a new mulching/sheet composting method I plan on trialing this winter. Must steal bags and bags of leaves and get a few bales of straw.
  41. Begin planning 2 more raised beds for raspberries and rhubarb. Wonder if I can sucker husband into making two more beds? He likes raspberries....
  42. Determine that only crazy people garden like this.
  43. Lounge in hammock and drink lemonade.
  44. Wait three years for new garden to mature.
  45. Begin making 2011 garden chore list.

What are you doing in the garden this summer?

Click to enlarge. All photos from This is what my itty bitty quart sized plants should look like many years from now. I can hardly wait!
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