The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

September 24, 2015

Elephant ears plants blooming

Filed under: Flowers,Potted Plants — bob @ 1:32 pm

I’ve been growing Elephant ears — Colocasia esculenta — for many years. Over that period of time I’ve rarely had them bloom. They just don’t set flowers very often.

Normally when plants blossom, it means they are all set to produce seeds. Colocasia, however has been cultivated for so long, that it no longer is able to produce seeds and relies on people to reproduce. In tropical regions, people plant the underground corms like we would plant a flower bulb here in Michigan.

Colocasia is a dramatic addition to the landscape with it’s huge leaves that easily grow to three feet long in Michigan. In it’s native area in the tropics the leaves can measure six feet in length.

People in the tropics don’t grow them for their landscape, instead they eat them. There, colocasia is called taro and is a major food crop where it is used like we use potatoes here. Millions of tons of taro are harvested each year.

One winter, many years ago, I had a recent immigrant from the south Pacific visit the greenhouse where I was growing dozens of colocasia in pots getting them ready for planting out into the landscape. She recognized them immediately and asked me if I was growing them for harvest. I told her they were for planing out in the landscape as a decorative plant. She laughed and thought that was quite funny!


This is the second flower bud on this colocasia plant.

This is the second flower bud on this colocasia plant.

My blooming colocasia was one that I stored in my semi-heated garage over winter. I kept it in its pot and let the soil dry out. I watered it once in a while.

The plant went dormant and was exposed to some cool temperatures for extended periods of time but it never got much colder than the lower 40′s. The only light it got was low, indirect sunlight from a small garage window.

I have a theory that stressing the plant somehow triggered a flowering mechanism. The other colocasia I had bloom was about 12 years ago and that plant was stored over winter much the same way.

I’d be interested to hear if any readers have had similar experiences with their colocasia.





September 17, 2015

The medicinal garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Filed under: Events,Herbs — bob @ 10:05 am

Not long ago growing culinary herbs in a home garden was regarded as an eccentric thing to do and only the most adventuresome gardeners grew medicinal herbs. Things have changed and more gardeners than ever are growing herbs of all kinds.

Seeds for medicinal herbs are readily available in catalogs and online stores making it easy to get started with medicinal herbs.

There are plenty of books and online resources available for anyone interested in growing medicinal herbs but nothing can replace seeing it first hand.

Over 40 percent of medicines are derived from plants.

Over 40 percent of medicines are derived from plants.

For a wonderful introduction to the world of medicinal herbs visit the Medicinal Garden at University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The folks at Matthaei have collaborated with the U of M College of Pharmacy to develop this garden. There you can see many different medicinal plants growing.

The garden is not organized by genus and species as botanists like to do but rather by human body systems: respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and more.  Other areas of the garden are devoted to disorders such as diabetes, infectious diseases, cancer, etc.

Matthaei Botanical Gardens is located near Ann Arbor at 1800 North Dixboro Road, a half mile or so south of Plymouth Road. They’re open daily from 10 am to 8 pm during the summer season.


September 10, 2015

Mud dauber wasps are busy at the end of summer

Filed under: Uncategorized — bob @ 7:44 am

This week while going through some items in a storage shed, I came across a beautiful dried ball of mud inside an antique trunk. It was the nest of a wasp known as a mud dauber.

When we think of wasp nests, usually the first thing that comes to mind is the papery nest of the paper wasp or the football-shaped nest of hornets. Mud daubers build their nests out of mud. There is plenty of mud for the wasps this summer because of all the rain we been having.

Mud daubers are not social insects like paper wasps and the others. Instead, they spend their lives as single, solitary insects. They do everything by themselves including, building a nest, laying eggs and collecting food for their young.

There are many different species of mud daubers in Michigan, this one is called the “black and yellow mud dauber”.

The adults look similar to the more common social wasps but are larger and have exaggerated features like the thread-like connection between their abdomen and thorax.

The female mud dauber builds the nest by collecting mud along the edge of puddles. Using her mouth parts, she rolls the mud into a ball then lifts it into the air and carries it to the nesting site. There she adds the mud to her nest, building rooms or cells for her young. Each cell is big enough for one young mud dauber.

While the female is away from the nest gathering mud or foraging for food, she temporarily closes the entrance to her nest to keep predators away from her young. During that time, the daubers are in the larval stage of their life cycle.

The mosaic pattern on this mud dauber nest is from the different types of mud that the wasp collected. The nest is about four inches long.
The mosaic pattern on this mud dauber nest is from the different types of mud that the wasp collected. Here you can readily see that the entrance is open.
The female mud dauber is working on expanding her nest. Note that the entrance is closed.
The female mud dauber is working on expanding her nest. Note that the entrance is closed. So far, the nest is about four inches long.

The female also packs away food for the developing larvae by placing insects or spiders into each cell so the larva has enough food in its cell to carry it through its growing stage. Some types of mud daubers — like the black and yellow — only prey on spiders while others prefer caterpillars or other insects.

The prey is only for the young though. The adults feed on nectar, honeydew from aphids or other sugary liquids. Sometimes you can spot them sipping sugar water from hummingbird feeders.

Unlike other wasps and hornets, mud daubers don’t defend their nests. They are not aggressive and rarely sting. Although if you try hard enough you can sometimes provoke one into stinging you.

According to one university website, some species “sing” while building their nest! Mine didn’t seem to be in a singing mood when I found her.

Another interesting behavior of mud dauber is their sleeping habits. They don’t sleep on their nest at night as you would expect. Instead, they fly each evening to the same protected area away from the nest and spend the night there snuggled under branches or leaves.

They are generally considered beneficial insects because they eat other insects. You could argue that the spider-eaters are not very beneficial because spiders eat insects too — that is unless you hate spiders.

Most of the time we don’t notice the daubers until they build a nest somewhere where we don’t want it. Some people destroy the nest as soon as they find them. There seems to be a small industry built around exterminating mud daubers and getting rid of their nests. I prefer to let leave them alone and let them go about their business.


August 20, 2015

Silky Dogwood

Filed under: Shrubs — bob @ 8:44 am

One of my earliest childhood memories in the garden is discovering a shrub  tucked away in a out of the way corner of my grandmother’s  garden. The shrub had the most striking metallic-blue berries I had ever seen. Years later I found out it was a silky dogwood.

Now decades later, I found another silky dogwood growing on our property which, by the way, is only a mile or so away from my grandparents old farm. It is a wild plant that came up in the area that we use for the chicken exercise area. It was carved out of a part of our yard that we left as a natural area to attract wildlife.

The memories came flooding back to me when I saw the familiar cool-blue berries. This is not the blue of a ripe blue berry or wild grape. It’s more like the blue paint job of of a customized Gran Torino from the 1970′s. It really looks out of place in in the natural habitat.

The silky dogwood berries grow in clusters and are about 1/4 to 3/8 inch in diameter.

The silky dogwood berries grow in clusters and are about 1/4 to 3/8 inch in diameter.

Silky dogwood prefers low lying areas along streams or ponds. However, ours is growing in one of the higher spots in the yard, which is why I chose that area for the chicken run, so that the hens would have a high and dry area to roam. I know we have a fairly high water table here, and that is probably why the bush is growing so well.

The dogwood has a beautiful natural shape and bright shiny leaves that make it a very attractive plant. I don’t see many of these around anymore. In some states, like Indiana, where it was once common is now considered a locally endangered species.

In some parts of the country it grows to a maximum height of around five feet while in others, it can get 10 feet high. Mine is at least eight feet tall. My guess is that it all depends on its location or local population genetics.

The berries contain high amounts of fat, compared to other berries, and that makes it a favorite for migratory birds that need fat to sustain them during their migration. Flocks of cedar waxwings have found our wild area and are eating the wild cherries. So far they haven’t touched the silky dogwood berries. Maybe they’re not quite ripe enough for them yet.

I’ve never been tempted to try to eat these berries, even as a young child. Something about that blue just didn’t look right to me. I don’t ever plan to eat them so I’m not going to tell you whether or not they are edible, you’ll have to do your own research. Let me know in the comments section what you find.

I recall that some groups of native Americans used the the bark as part of their tobacco mixture called kinnikinnick. I’m not sure if it was used as a flavoring ingredient or if it has some sort of medical or other value.

Even if you don’t to smoke it or eat the berries, silky dogwood is an attractive shrub to use in your landscape especially if you have a damp problem area where other shrubs fail to thrive.

Seeds, seeding and plants are available online and at nurseries.


July 23, 2015

Attractive looking insect is destructive to peach trees

Filed under: Insects — bob @ 12:40 pm

If you see a rather large, black wasp with an iridescent blue tinge and brilliant orange ring on its body. Kill it quick! Spray it, swat it, stomp on it. It is the adult female of the peach tree borer.

This insect is not really a wasp, it just looks like one when you first glance at it. If you look closer at it you will see it doesn’t have that distinctive pinched body shape like a wasp.

A peach tree borer moth zooms quickly when it flies, very similar to a wasp. Most moths we see sort of bounce around when they fly, much like a butterfly. None of that lazy zig-zagging around for them. So actually, it won’t be very easy to stomp on them.

I spotted both male and female adults separately. Then a day or two later, I witnessed a pair mating. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me either time to get a photo for you to see.

It is not the adult that directly harms peach trees, it is the larval stage that does the damage. The adult female lays its eggs on the bark of the tree near the soil line.

Once the egg hatches, the tiny larvae start chewing their way into the inner back. There they feed and grow, burrowing their through the lower trunk of the tree. You can imagine how destructive this can be to a tree. The tree is either weakened so much that it becomes susceptible to other pests or it may, more likely, die outright from the damage.

Since the adults are mating and laying eggs right now, you may want to try using a preventative insecticide spray. Drenching the truck and lower branches with an approved insecticide may kill the newly hatched larvae before they have a chance to bore into the tree.

Once the borers are inside the tree, they are protected from sprays. At that point the best thing you can do is look for holes in the lower trunk made by the borers. Scrape away the bark and feeding debris. Be gentle, you don’t want to cause even more damage. Check the spot in about a week. The active areas will have new frass and other debris. That’s where the borers are living.

Make a vertical cut through the borer hole then poke a piece of thin wire into the feeding tunnel. If you’re lucky you’ll kill the borer. It’s a lot of fussing around but you may be able to save your tree.

There is another similar insect called the lesser peach tree borer that feeds higher up on the trunk. The adults look somewhat different but are just as destructive.



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