Nurture, Respect, Learn, Educate, Always Grow!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Controlling a Squash Beetle Invasion

This August we were away for more than three weeks leaving the garden to mostly fend for itself. This is only possible because I companion plant, rotate our crops each year, have good soil management and mostly importantly a wonderful husband who diligently kept the garden hydrated during the heat of the summer. But even with the best practices in place it seems that while the gardener is away the insects will play.

Our watermelon vines were invaded by a lady beetle look alike, known as the squash beetle (Epilachna borealis). This beetle is a native to Eastern North America and is larger than your typical beneficial lady beetle.

adult squash beetle on cucurbit with larvae on underside of leaf

Unlike most lady beetles which are a gardener's friend, since they eat loads of aphids and scale insects which feed on our fruits, vegetables and flowers, the squash beetle attacks the leaves of cucurbits which include squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, gourds, watermelons and cantaloupes; sucking on the tasty juices.

Southern Meadows

The squash beetle has an odd behavior of circling the leaf area that it feeds on. A study at the University of Delaware found that this feeding method preserves the leaf tissue's suitability for feeding because it reduces the influx of chemical defenses from the injured plant (source: Purdue University Extension). This typically creates a skeletonized appearance on the upper side of the leaves.

The larvae are yellow, alien looking creatures found mostly on the underside of the leaves. Aren't they creeping looking things?

Southern Meadows

According to the University of Purdue Extension the best time to control these insects is at noon since the beetles are easiest to find. They can be hand picked and placed in a container of soap and water. Be sure to check the underside of the leaves for eggs and larvae. I usually remove the entire leaf if their are eggs present or you can try to scrape them off.

The photo above shows old eggs but it will give you an idea of what to look for. They are very similar to the beneficial lady beetle eggs (yellow, bullet-shaped) but if you find them on cucurbits your probably safe in assuming they are from the squash beetle.

If you are not inclined to remove them by hand you can make a homemade spray of liquefied ingredients: garlic clove, small onion, fresh or powdered hot pepper (habanero, jalapeno or cayenne).  Add this to a quart of water and let steep for an hour. Strain off the solids and then add a drop of dish soap to your liquid solution. Spray this mixture onto the lady beetles (adults and larvae) that are on your cucurbits. If your not one to make your own spray Neem Oil is an option.

At the end of the growing season be sure to dispose of all the plant residue so you won't have any overwintering beetles in your soil. Rotating crops is a good practice to keep diseases and insects in check too but diligently attending a garden to catch the signs early is the best way to go! 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Bodacious Button Bush

Hands down the most popular plant in our garden right now is the button bush. (Cephalanthus occidentalis). Its like grand central station with all the different species of bees, flies, butterflies and other insects arriving and departing from this shrub from morning until night.

painted lady butterfly and bee on button bush
painted lady butterfly with bee on button bush

The flower balls are an excellent source of nectar for a variety of insects come mid-summer.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on button bush bloom
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Butterflies of all sizes and families enjoy nectaring on the pincushion flower heads from the smaller skippers to the mid-sized, painted lady and the larger swallowtails.

skipper butterfly on button bush
silver-spotted skipper on button bush
All variety of bees are also found drinking nectar and gathering pollen here. Honey bees use the pollen to produce honey.

Several syrphid flies also like to drink nectar from these spheres. We often see these flower flies making a circle around the blooms. Look closely at the photo below and you can see the fly drinking.

syrphid fly on button bush
Syrphid fly on button bush

Another really fascinating hover fly is the yellow jacket hover fly also known as the 'good news bee' because these guys will hover in front of you as if to give you the latest news from your garden.

Yellow jacket hover fly (Milesia virginiensis)

They are often mistaken for hornets since they fly aggressively and buzz loudly as if mimicking a hornet. Can you see the resemblance? But no worries, syrphid flies are completely harmless and good for your garden. Their larvae will eat lots of aphids.

yellow jacket hover fly 'Milesia,virginiensis'
Yellow jacket hover fly (Milesia virginiensis)
The button bush is usually found in swamps and marshes but it is tolerant of soil and moisture conditions once established. Ours is located at the bottom of a slopped area and it benefits from all the water run-off. We will be adding another one near our house in an area that tends to flood during heavy rains. It is perfect plant for a rain garden.

Button bush 'Cephalanthus occidentalis'

It is a great native alternative to the butterfly bush which is considered invasive in some parts of the country. And unlike the butterfly bush which is only a nectar source, the button bush is also a host plant to 18 different Lepidoptera species including the promethea moth, hydrangea sphinx, and dagger moth.  You may just be lucky enough to find a saddleback caterpillar on it! The button bush is hardy from zone 4 to 11 and will grow anywhere from 6 to 10 feet tall.

This is by far one of my favorite plants in our garden and one that every wildlife garden should include.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Finding Caterpillars

Can you hear it? I'm letting out a HUGE sigh of relief. Why you wonder. Well, I am very excited to report that at long last we have caterpillars! Yes, Caterpillars!

Southern Meadows

We have been patiently waiting for months to see signs from the butterfly community that they are back and strong. In my last post, Beyond Butterflies, I wrote about the lack of butterflies this year. Now, here we are in July and we are starting to see few more butterflies but I have yet to spot a male/female pair of the same species.  I have not seen any black swallowtail butterflies this season and they are typically numerous and frequent in our garden. There is not a black swallowtail caterpillar to be found on the parsley, fennel or golden alexander.

But its not all doom and gloom for every butterfly species. Sometime when we weren't looking the fritillary butterflies managed to find mates and have been laying eggs. I first found two variegated fritillary caterpillars on a viola in front of the house. We have lots of violas around the garden for this very reason. They migrate all over the garden and I just let them grow where they will hoping a gulf fritillary will find them. And they have!

Southern Meadows

This prompted me to look at the passion vine again. I had been checking them regularly but finding nothing for weeks so I honestly had stopped looking everyday. Much to my surprise I found this hungry caterpillar devouring a leaf. This was enough to get me jumping up and down in my garden boots.

Southern Meadows

But wait there are more, lots more! Aren't they gorgeous!

Southern Meadows

Southern Meadows

And, in all different instar stages too. I just needed to turn over a leaf or two and there they were.  Happy day! 

two variegated fritillary caterpillars on passion vine

Southern Meadows
The passion vine is also the host plant for the gulf fritillary butterfly and I found several of these caterpillars crawling around as well. Like the variegated fritillary, they are orange and black but missing the white markings.

Finding Caterpillars: Southern Meadows

Finding Caterpillars: Southern Meadows

This is really good news! Hopefully we will have a lot more fritillary butterflies fluttering about the garden in the next few weeks.  I am still keeping my fingers crossed that we will see other butterfly and moth families make their appearance very soon! Have you been seeing more butterflies in your garden yet?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Beyond Butterflies

Blogger friends, how I have missed you! Life has been so crazy busy lately, running my kids to the moon and back, that I haven't written a post in almost two months. I've also barely had time to read any of your blog posts either. OK, let's just say it out loud, I've been a terrible blogger friend! I hope that we can reconnect again and what better week to do it than the one designated to celebrate our precious pollinators!

Like many wildlife gardeners, I started the journey by gardening for butterflies. Creating a butterfly garden is an easy way to support these beautiful creatures whose existence is being threatened by habitat loss, pesticides and diseases.

Southern Meadows: Beyond Butterflies

We have all read about the tragic decline of the monarch butterflies and honeybees but I am also concerned about many of the butterflies we typically see in spring, summer and fall in our garden. Despite the fact that we have all the components to attract native butterflies (a vast array of host plants, nectar sources, as well as puddling, perching, and basking spots) they are especially sparse this year. I have seen a few fluttering around the garden but haven't seen any butterfly caterpillars. Not a one! Is the population so thin that they aren't finding mates? Our abnormally cold winter and late spring surely had some impact on the populations and I've been waiting patiently but I'm getting concerned. Where are all the butterflies?

Southern Meadows: Beyond Butterflies

My plants are lonely! We have passion vine growing all over the garden, up trellises, hedges and on the ground, just waiting for some gulf or variegated fritilary butterflies to lay their eggs.

Southern Meadows: Beyong Butterflies
taken last summer, gulf fritilary on passionvine

The bronze fennel and parsley have bolted and the golden alexander is blooming happily because they haven't been eaten to the ground by black swallowtail caterpillars. This photo was taken in April last year when we had 22 caterpillars on one fennel plant and I had to rush out and buy more because I was afraid they would run out of food.

Southern Meadows: Beyond Butterflies

What does this mean? Well, the reduction in butterfly numbers and species is a good indication that there is loss in plant communities. It is particularly evident with species, such as the monarch, that are dependent on one species of plant. Here we've been adding more and more milkweed to our garden every year. (we are up to 5 varieties) but haven't had a monarch butterfly visit our garden since fall of 2012 and haven't had any monarch caterpillars since fall of 2011. We're not much of a monarch way station, are we! 

Southern Meadows: Beyond Butterflies

Because of their relationship with plants, butterflies are extremely important in reflecting loss of habitat. Its true that our blooming plants are on a delayed schedule because of the weather and it goes to reason that the pollinators are on the same delayed schedule, but many plants are blooming in our garden now with very few visitors to pollinate them.

Unfortunately, there is more and more evidence that the populations of many pollinator species are in decline. As home gardeners, Mr. Southern Meadows and I have transitioned from our days of butterfly gardening to gardening for all pollinators...moths, bees, beetles, birds, and even flies. We've worked hard to create a pollinator friendly garden on our 5 acres to help preserve native pollinator populations. In doing so we have attracted many fascinating pollinators to our garden that really makes our garden come alive. Watching a healthy ecosystem function from our back deck is incredibly rewarding!

Southern Meadows: Beyond Butterflies
long horned beetle on daisy

Pollinators not only help put food on our table...every third bite of food  we eat comes from a plant that depends on insects to pollinate it...but they also are essential in natural plant communities because they create food for other wildlife.

Without pollinators there wouldn't be any berries or seeds for the birds and other mammals to eat.

Southern Meadows: Beyond Butterflies

Pollinators are themselves food for spiders, birds and many mammals.

Southern Meadows: Beyond Butterflies

The pollinators world has been substantially altered by urbanization and agriculture. Often home gardens and the marginal habitats along roadsides are the only places pollinators can forage for food and nest. I believe that we can coexist with the pollinators by restoring habitat for them. Managing roadside plantings with native wildflowers with overlapping bloom times and host plants (milkweed for example), especially along migration routes, would greatly benefit pollinator populations.

Southern Meadows: Beyond Butterflies

Education along with implementing pollinator friendly practices in our municipalities, neighborhoods, parks and forests as well as businesses is an important step. I believe as home gardeners we CAN make a difference too. If you haven't done so already, you can begin by creating your own pollinator friendly habitat in your garden. Click here for more information on how to build a pollinator friendly habitat as well as pollinator friendly gardening practices.

And you can thank a pollinator every time you eat a meal. Without them we would have very little color on our plates!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Wool Sower Gall

As our habitat garden has grown, there have been new discoveries to be made everyday. Yesterday Mr. Southern Meadows found a weird growth on one of the white maple trees. Was it a fungus, cocoon, gall or something else? It is about the size of a ping pong ball and looks like a cotton ball with pinkish spots. It is spongy but solid. It could almost be a flower as they are located at the end of the branches. Any guesses?

Southern Meadows

An internet search reveled that it is a gall specific to white oak trees and only found in spring. According the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Department of Entomology, this wool sower gall (sometimes called the oak seed gall) is caused by secretions of grubs of a small gall wasp, Callirhytis seminator. They lay their eggs in winter and the eggs hatch as new leaves appear on the tree in spring. Chemical secretions from the young grubs stimulate the plant to develop the gall tissue which provides protection to the developing larva and nourishing food.

Southern Meadows

If one pulls the gall apart (which we did not do) it would reveal seed-like structures. The gall wasps develop inside these structures. Apparently they are never enough numbers to do any harm to the oak trees. We only found two galls on one of our trees. I think parasitic wasps are so incredibly fascinating. They often have pretty complex life-cycles and have co-evolved with their hosts. To see a photo of the parasitic wasp click here.

Have you ever found a gall in your garden?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Wildflower Wednesday~Carolina Jessamine

Yellow is such a beautiful color in the garden. One of my favorite yellows is our native evergreen vine, Carolina Jessamine. It can be found in abandoned fields and climbing in the canopies of our pine forests.

Southern Meadows

It is a pretty adaptable plant and does well in our clay soil. The great thing about this vine is that it can twine up trellises and over fences and walls but also makes a dense ground cover. I use it both ways in our garden.

Southern Meadows

The masses of fragrant flowers bloom in April in my garden and the tiger swallowtails love it. It was chosen as the state flower of our next door neighbor, South Carolina, because "it is indigenous to every nook and cranny of the State. It is the first premonitor of coming Spring; its fragrance greets us first in the woodland and its delicate flower suggests the pureness of gold; and its perpetual return out of the dead of winter suggests the lesson of constancy in, loyalty to, and patriotism in the service of the State" (S.C. General Assembly document).

Southern Meadows

All parts of this plant are poisonous which keeps the deer and other animals from munching on it. The primary pollinators are bumble bees, Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies, European honey bees, blue orchard bees and blueberry bees (source: University of Georgia).

This is a wonderful native to add to any zone 6 and higher garden. Is it growing in your garden?

To see more beautiful wildflowers be sure to head over to Clay and Limestone and enjoy!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

April Blooms in the Woodland Garden

The garden has really started to come alive the past few weeks. Not that it was completely dormant, but we do seem to be a few weeks behind the usually time frame. We have been anxious to see what survived our fierce winter and what perished. So far, things are looking pretty promising. But then again, we have another hard freeze warning tonight.

Southern Meadows
narrow view of woodland garden
Spring is the most exciting time in the woodland gardens at Southern Meadows and everyday there is someone new poking their head through the soil.

Southern Meadows

The Redbud trees are at the tail end of bloom time but our tree was spectacular, putting out more blooms than ever. We found this little guy two years ago while clearing part of the back garden. It was a very happy day.

Southern Meadows

The dogwood trees are still going strong. We have several varieties including Cherokee Brave which has a white center that fades to lovely deep pink bracts.

Southern Meadows

Lower to the ground the ferns and hosta are saying hello. They all appear in their own sweet time, some are out faster than others.

Some of my favorite combinations are variegated Solomon's Seal and Foam Flower. Unfortunately, I found it impossible to get a good photo of them together; so here they are separately.

Southern Meadows

Southern Meadows

I noticed the nodding trillium just yesterday. They are easily missed because their blooms hang down below the drooping leaves. This also makes them challenging to photograph. Stooping down in the leaf litter with one's camera is something every gardener does, right?!

Southern Meadows

The Celandine poppies are starting to put out one bloom at a time. One of our plants hasn't come up yet and I am thinking critters may be the culprits. These should spread in nicely in the woodland garden over time. I think they would look lovely paired with Virginia bluebells that I want to add.

Southern Meadows

I just love walking by the sweet shrubs because their blooms have the most heavenly, sweet scent. I describe it as pineapple sprinkled with orange. The shrubs were growing on the property when we moved here. On a whim, I purchased a sweet shrub at a plant sale last year and interestingly that one has a much spicier aroma and not a hint of citrus.

Southern Meadows

An adorable little plant that is tougher than it looks is the Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia). It starting blooming very late March to early April and lasts about a month. I shot this photo at the beginning of its bloom time just before it fully opened. The petals reflex upwards displaying a pointed yellowish tube with white and brown accents. Queen bumblebees are the most common pollinators to visit these flowers, but miner bees and green metallic bees will also visit. I read that they obtain the pollen through buzz pollination which is the rapid vibration of the bees thoracic muscles. This is another flower that offers no nectar reward so the bees are simply collecting pollen.

Southern Meadows

There has been lots of bird activity this month. The bluebirds have been actively visiting several nesting boxes and it looks like they have finally decided to set up in this box in the rose garden. Don't they make a beautiful couple~

Southern Meadows

The chickadees also showed an interested in this box but they decided on a box near the kitchen garden. I peeked in this morning and saw Mrs. Chickadee. One click of the camera from a precarious position and she was off.

Southern Meadows

I don't really like disturbing them during nesting time but I had to take a look to see what was happening  Isn't it a beautiful nest; filled with moss, dryer lint and some strands of dog hair...nice and soft!

Southern Meadows

How is your spring garden coming along? Is it slow to start or right on schedule? Be sure to check out what everyone has to share this month at May Dreams Gardens. Thank you Carol for being such a wonderful host!