The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

June 12, 2018

Milkweeds can be weeds

Filed under: Flowers,Native plants,Weeds — Tags: , , — bob @ 7:56 am

In this day and age pretty much everyone knows about the relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants. It wasn’t always that way.

Before modern chemical weed killers, farmers had limited ways of dealing with weeds. Depending on the weather conditions, a farmer might have to go over a field two or three times with a horse drawn cultivator. Later, cultivators were mounted on tractors but the process stayed the same. An efficient farmer could do a pretty job of controlling most of the annual weeds, perennial weeds were harder especially if they became established in a field. The only thing to do was to send the family out to the fields with hoes to try to keep the weeds at a minimum.

Milkweeds were one of those perennial weeds that farmers were constantly battling. When the first herbicides were developed, farmers no longer had to spend so much time and energy constantly going over their fields. Perennial weeds like milkweed still were a problem however and farmers hated them. I remember when I was young seeing a beautiful field of some sort of crop — I don’t remember what crop it was — that was completely free of weeds except for a colony of milkweeds that you could see from over a hundred yards away.

Nowadays modern herbicides are very efficient at controlling all types of weeds so we never see milkweeds in farm fields anymore. They’re limited to fence rows, ditches and other out of the way places. The number of milkweeds for monarch butterflies to lay their eggs on and for their caterpillars to eat has been drastically reduced. Now, farming organizations that used to join in the battle against milkweeds now pass out seeds and encourage people to re-establish them.

Milkweeds still have the potential to get out of control and become a nuisance. Once they become establish they will spread by way of underground roots. Those roots are very tough and strong and are able to push themselves into surrounding areas and compete with other plants. In one spot in my yard, I started out with a single milkweed plant next to my garage a few years ago. That has now turned into a colony of plants that is over 40 feet long. One of these days I’ll have to do something with them before they really get out of hand.

The nearest milkweed stalk is over three feet away from this shoot pushing up through the concrete expansion joint.

The nearest milkweed stalk is over three feet away from this shoot pushing up through the concrete expansion joint.

Another patch is beginning to encroach into the vegetable garden. They’re pushing their way up through seams in the plastic mulch I have laid out.

I don’t mind my milkweeds being a bit unruly, it’s fun , at least for now, to see those plants thrive in the yard. It reminds me that it won’t be long before the monarchs are back.

Bob

 

 

Finding a sphinx moth pupa

Butterflies and moths overwinter in different forms depending on the species. For example, the famous Monarch overwinters as an adult, swallowtails in the chrysalis stage. Other species of moths or butteries spend the winter as as eggs or as pupae.

Earlier this week I was filling up a plant container with growing mix that I had saved from last fall. The mix was stored in a few open trash cans inside the barn. Using an antique coal shovel, I was able to make good  filling transferring the potting soil to the planters. I noticed in one trash can, lying there in the soil mix, was a brown, leathery looking cigar-shaped thing. Looking closer I could see it was a large insect pupa, that of a sphinx moth.

A sphinx moth is the adult stage of the tomato horn worm, those big, ugly, destructive caterpillars we often see chomping away on our tomato plants during the summer.

A sphinx moth  pupa is quite large but not often seen.

A sphinx moth pupa is quite large but not often seen.

Sphinx moths are one of those species that overwinter as pupae. As autumn approaches, the huge hornworm caterpillars leave the plant and burrow into the soil to morph into a pupa. Although hornworms are abundant, finding a pupa is relatively rare. That’s because they burrow so deeply. Most rotary tillers only till to the depth of six or seven inches or so. A gardener with a spade may work the soil as deep as eight inches. The hornworm tunnel down to at least a foot, well under the disturbed topsoil layer.

The "jug handle" structure contains what later will be the moth's tongue.

The “jug handle” structure contains what later will be the moth’s tongue.

The caterpillar that formed the pupa that I found came from one of two places, it either traveled from the garden and crawled up the side of the trash can into the mix, which is highly unlikely. Or, I missed it when I was emptying the deep planters last fall, which is probably what happened. One of the planters did have a couple of tomato plants in it, that would explain why the hornworm was there in the first place.

We have a love-hate relationship with these insects. During their caterpillar stage they can be quite destructive, defoliating entire plants sometimes.  As an adult however, they are fascinating. They don’t have much color but they are quite large and at first glance are often mistaken for a humming bird. They act like a hummingbird too as they hover over flower blossoms gathering nectar.

So, I have a decision to make: should I squash the pupa so it won’t develop into a garden pest later in the season, or let it go to emerge as an interesting visitor to the flower garden. What would you do? Let us know in the comment section below.

Bob

May 15, 2018

An iris that blooms near the end of daffodil season

Filed under: Flowers — Tags: , , , — bob @ 3:10 pm

Our Pumila iris, also called dwarf iris, has been putting on a colorful show for several days now. Each spring we look forward to them coming into bloom just as the daffodils are fading, weeks before other irises even think about blooming

We have a hot, dry, sandy area right along our walkway that closely mimics their original habitat in eastern Europe. Our soil is fairly acidic with a pH right around 5.4. Dwarf iris prefers the soil to be slightly acidic, 5.5 to 6.5. That may explain why ours wants to grow toward the sidewalk and not in the other direction. The sidewalk is slowly leeching calcium from the concrete slightly raising the pH in the process. It’s fascinating to watch how a plant like this reacts to its surroundings. They’re slowly but surly expanding their cluster.

Dwarf iris flower stems are quite short compared to the irises we normally see.

Dwarf iris flower stems are quite short compared to the irises we normally see.

Pumila iris come in a wide variety of color due to a a lot of cross breeding done by horticulturists, those are not the true wild species types. On the other hand, even wild species populations exhibit a wide variety of color depending on local growing conditions.

The Pumlia we have are probably a wild species type — I say that because of their unique history. There’s a population of dwarf iris that has been growing at Matthaei Botanical Gardens perennial garden for at least thirty years.  Several years ago the irises needed to be divided and renewed. Ours were rhizomes from that project that were rescued before going the compost.

If you have a “problem area” with the right growing conditions, you might want to try planting some dwarf iris. They’re available at plant nurseries and garden centers.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planting almost no-till potatoes

This year I’ve decided to try a minor experiment with my potatoes. I guess you might call it a kind of no-till planting.

There are a couple of reasons I thought it might work well. First, the spot where they’re going was recently an area where some of my older chickens were penned in. I purposely kept them confined to a relatively small area to help clear it from weeds. They did a great job eliminating all of the existing weeds and keeping new ones from getting a foothold. Chickens enjoy grazing on fresh green plants and those wild greens provide plenty of vitamins.

Even though they are small, chickens can disturb a lot of soil in a short period of time. That makes them destructive if they get loose into a flower garden or other valuable spot and start scratching. Believe me, I had plenty of experience shooing chickens out of  flower gardens. It’s that relentless scratching that makes them such good helpers in the garden before planting time.

The area where my no-till potatoes are going there were no visible weeds. Under the surface however, there were thousands of recently germinated seedlings ready to pop up into the sunlight. Instead of using my rototiller, I used my sharpened swan hoe to skim along top half inch or so. I was able to cut off the weed seedlings before they had a chance to get started.

The theory is that while roto-tilling will destroy young weeds, at the same time it also drags up new seeds to the soil surface where they will germinate and grow. Shallow hoeing will kill weeds but not drag up new seeds. That Sounds like a good idea but there are plenty of dormant weed seeds waiting to take the place of their lost cousins. But over time, if done consistently, you can eventually reduce the number of viable seeds.

Back to my potato patch.

The second reason why I feel my quasi-no-till will work is because the soil is a sandy loam that really doesn’t need tilling to provide a good seed bed. If it was a finer textured soil with more clay content, I would probably not plant them without tilling.

Instead of using a trowel or shovel to dig the planing holes, I got out my two-handled post hole digger. That way I was able stand straight up to do the digging and I got a great upper body workout to boot.

Marking the rows with a hoe first made digging the holes go faster.

Marking the rows with a hoe first made digging the holes go faster.

The holes are plus or minus a foot apart with the rows around 28 inches apart.  At that planting density, the potato plants should eventually grow together enough to shade the soil surface keeping it cool and shading out weed seedlings.

I know I’ll have to keep up with my hoeing through the season, “no-till” doesn’t mean “no-work”. I’ve seen many inexperienced gardeners learn that the hard way. Real no-till involves the use of herbicides to control weeds but I’ve never used herbicides in my vegetable garden and plan to keep it that way.

While hoeing will be my main method of weed control, I’ll mulch what I can.

Bob

May 1, 2018

Two weeks behind schedule in April

Filed under: Weather — Tags: , , , — bob @ 8:47 am

The colder than normal April has been a topic of conversation with just about everyone. Mostly I hear people complaining about it but when I talk to people who spend a lot of their leisure time outdoors, the conversation gets much more interesting.

Fishermen I’ve talked to have mentioned how far behind their season is. Mushroom hunters are wondering about their upcoming picking season. Other outdoors people are saying much the same thing. As a gardener, I have to concur, we’re about two weeks behind normal. The agricultural weather people at MSU have measurements and statistics backing up observations made by us outdoors types. The statistic they look at is “growing degree days”.

The growing degree days system is a way of calculating when a crop should be planted and at what stage of growth it should be during the growing season. This is much more accurate than looking at the calendar and expecting “the corn will be knee-high by the fourth of July”. A month like the April we’ve been experiencing demonstrates just how inaccurate simply looking at the calendar date can be.

Late April the rye cover crop was way behind last years growth.

Late April the rye cover crop was way behind last years growth.

RyeCroppedPic

The photo above shows the rye in 2017 was over a foot tall at the same date.

Plants require a certain amount of heat in order to grow and reach their different developmental stages. For example, corn seed germinates, then the seedling grows and forms leaves. The plant later forms silk and tassels out. After fertilization, ears of corn form and eventually ripen. A certain number of growing degree days will have accumulated at each one of these stages.

Insects, since they are cold-blooded, also require heat to grow and progress through their stages of growth: egg, larva, pupa and adult. Like plants, at each stage a certain number of degree days must have accumulated before that particular stage is reached. That gives farmers and gardeners a tool to help predict when an insect pest might arrive and cause damage.

So now that we are two weeks behind at the very beginning of the growing season according to the calendar, what does that mean for us in a practical sense? One way of looking at it is: insect pests have no choice in the matter. They are already two weeks behind in any development they might have made during a normal year and even further behind if this were a warm April. Gardeners will most likely be planting their gardens at pretty much the same time, say near the end of May. If the trend continues, conceivably it would mean gardeners will have a two week head start ahead of the insect pests.

It will be interesting to see how this cold start to the season plays out.

Bob

 

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