The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

September 19, 2019

Migrating monarch butterflies

In past years, goldenrod has received a bad reputation through no fault of its own. For decades, doctors implied their patient’s allergy symptoms were caused by goldenrod pollen when in fact, the actual culprit was ragweed.

The thinking behind it was ragweed flowers are relatively inconspicuous compared to flowers on other plants. Unless you’re really looking for it, ragweed can be hard to find. Goldenrod on the other hand, with its bright yellow flowers can easily be seen by a man on a fast horse. Since goldenrod blooms when ragweed is shedding pollen, it was simply easier to tell allergy sufferers to expect their symptoms to show up when goldenrod is out. Botanists would call this a phenological event. That’s when something goes on with one species of plant that is a signal for something else.

Goldenrod flowers produce large amounts of nectar so is always eagerly anticipated by beekeepers. A large goldenrod bloom can make the difference between no honey crop or a bountiful one. It is one of the last family of plants to remain blooming after others have stopped for the year.

Honeybees are not the only ones that take advantage of the nectar bounty. It’s an important fall food for wild pollinators and butterflies such as monarchs and other species.

Earlier this week we were sitting on our front porch taking a break and noticed some movement in our wildflowers. Looking closer, we could see over twenty adult monarch butterflies feeding on nectar from the goldenrod growing in our yard.

Look closely, how many monarch butterflies can you see?

Look closely, how many monarch butterflies can you see?

Judging by what is happening in and around my stomping grounds, it looks like a good year for monarch butterflies.

The monarch migration is underway and coincides with the fall bird migration (and Michiganders heading back to Florida).

During our break we also watched a kettle of broad-winged hawks circling high in a thermal updraft. They were on their way south to their winter home. While watching the hawks, way up in the air we could see something passing by in and out of our field of vision through the binoculars. After re-focusing and zooming in on them, we discovered they were monarch butterflies!

More monarchs were flying just over the tree tops. It was a lot of fun watching them fly at those different altitudes instead of fluttering around the garden.

Pair of monarch butterflies mating in mid-September

Pair of monarch butterflies mating in mid-September

There are still quite a few caterpillars feeding on our milkweed plants too. We even spotted a pair of mating adults. That seemed late to me. The eggs will have to hatch; the caterpillars have to pupate; and the adults emerge before the weather gets too inclement for them to fly south. I’m not sure if they’ll have enough time to complete their life cycle this fall.

Bob

 

 

September 12, 2019

Growing buckwheat to improve your garden

I’m a big fan of cover crops both on the farm and in the garden. Cover crops are not harvested, instead they’re used for other purposes such as preventing erosion or improving soil tilth.

One of my favorite cover crops is buckwheat, the same plant that gives us grain for buckwheat pancakes. It is very fast growing, so fast in fact, that it will beat out most weeds in a race to the finish.

For use as a cover crop, buckwheat can be planted any time during the growing season. If planted early, it will mature quick enough that you’ll be able to till it into the soil and grow a second crop if need be. I often grow a late crop of buckwheat that gets tilled into the soil. I then follow that with a crop of winter rye. Growing buckwheat as a grain to harvest is a different story.

This time of the year I’m growing buckwheat for a few reasons. First, it makes a fine placeholder in the garden, a kind of living mulch. If I have a large spot that is not going to be planted, I’ll sow it with buckwheat. It keeps the area from being overrun with weeds by overpowering and smothering them.

Buckwheat helps maintain soil fertility. While it grows, it picks up and holds minerals in its leaves, stems and roots. Later, when the plant is eventually tilled into the soil, those minerals will be released back into the soil for the next crop to use. Plus, plenty of valuable organic material from the roots and tops will improve topsoil.

Buckwheat’s flowers produce an enormous amount of nectar making it a valuable plant for honeybees and other pollinating insects. For example, an acre of buckwheat can provide enough nectar to allow honeybees to produce as much as 150 pounds of honey. Less than a month after planting, buckwheat will begin to flower and not long after, seeds will appear. It will continue producing flowers and seeds until frost. Its flowering habit provides honeybees with a source of food when few other plants are flowering.

Buckwheat produces nectar only in the morning, you won’t see bees in your buckwheat during the afternoon.

Buckwheat produces nectar only in the morning, you won’t see bees in your buckwheat during the afternoon.

 

Seeds are available online and at rural farm supply stores. Plant buckwheat by scattering the seeds over the surface of a freshly tilled area so that the seeds end up being around three or four inches apart. Then rake the area to cover the seeds with soil.

Buckwheat can re-seed itself and sometimes become a minor annoyance the following year. If you find that’s the case in your garden, mow or till it before it produces too many seeds.

Bob

 

 

September 5, 2019

Be careful not to introduce invasive plants into your garden

 

It’s surprisingly easy to introduce an invasive plant into your garden. It often happens when gardeners share plants with one another.

We have a few examples of that happening in our garden. One of those is Pinellia tripartita a plant native to China and Japan. I’ve heard it called Japanese jack-in-the-pulpit, although there’s another plant goes by the same name. Crow dipper is another name. One website refers to it as green dragon, another calls it voodoo lily. Botanically speaking, it’s closely related to our native jack-in-the-pulpit.

Pinellia is a smallish plant only eight to twelve inches tall and can grow in a variety of environments as long as the soil is well-drained. In our garden it is growing as a weed in full sun. Actually, it is growing in the shade of taller sun-loving plants, it is flourishing under the peonies that we brought in from another garden.

It was present as a persistent weed in that original garden too. We thought we were very careful to remove any trace of the Pinellia when we dug the peonies – apparently that was not the case. Now six years later we are still fighting it.

Unlike the other weeds we’ve accidentally brought in, these we have been able to keep confined to one relatively small spot in our garden.

Pinellia is very well adapted for reproducing itself and is quite competitive growing among other plants. It produces both tubers and numerous seeds, making it doubly sure it will reproduce one way or another.

You can see the small tuber growing on the root. Each piece of plant will have at least one.

You can see the small tuber growing on the root. Each piece of plant will have at least one.

This past week we re-dug the peonies along with the infested soil they were growing in. The peonies we saved and replanted; the soil we bagged up and set it out for disposal in the landfill. Home composting will not destroy all of the seeds or tubers.

In some parts of the country people are planting it as an ornamental, it really is an unusual looking plant. Either it behaves itself in certain climates or it hasn’t become a big enough problem in those areas. People on gardening chat sites marvel how well it spreads without any effort on their part. In some states it is officially classified as a noxious weed.

Even though you can find reputable plant sources online extolling its virtues, I highly recommend against planting it. People say, “I’m a conscientious gardener and would never let it get out of control”. That may be the case but what happens if you move and sell your house, would the new owners be as vigilant?

There is a purple cultivar of Pinellia tripartita that is supposed to be non-invasive, I would never take a chance on that one either.

Bob

 

 

August 30, 2019

Striped cucumber beetles can devastate your crop

The first striped cucumber beetles of the season have finally showed up in my garden. These bright and happily colored pests cause a lot of damage in the garden. Although cucumbers are their preferred food, melons are also attacked was well as squash and pumpkin to a lesser degree. At this time of the year, these are actually the second generation descended from those that were around earlier in the spring. I didn’t see those from the first generation in my garden but they must have been around in the neighborhood.

Cucumber beetles have a distinctive yellow color with black stripes.

Cucumber beetles have a distinctive yellow color with black stripes.

Typical cucumber beetle feeding damage.

Typical cucumber beetle feeding damage.

Adult beetles are a triple threat to cucumbers. First, the physical act of feeding by chewing holes in leaves reduces the leaf area stunting plant growth.

Secondly, they reduce the number of actual cucumbers by destroying flowers as they feed on them. Fewer flowers equals fewer cucumbers.

Cucumber beetles will eat  flowers as well as leaves.

Cucumber beetles will eat flowers as well as leaves.

The third threat is the most damaging of all. In their gut is a bacteria that causes bacterial wilt, a very serious disease that can destroy a majority of a crop. As the beetles feed randomly over the surface of the leaves, eventually they will have to defecate. The feces contains large amounts of bacteria that will infect the plant if it is deposited over a chewed spot.

As you probably can guess from its name, bacterial wilt causes vines to suddenly wilt. Early on during the infection, vines will appear to recover somewhat overnight only to wilt again the next day as the day progress. The vines will eventually die in about seven to ten days — there is no cure. Remove any infected vines and compost them or discard them away from the garden.

Symptom of bacterial wilt on cucumbers.

Symptom of bacterial wilt on cucumbers.

One single beetle is enough to infect an entire plant so it’s important to kill the beetles as soon as you see them. There are conventional and organic insecticide sprays on the market that do a good job controlling them.

Plant breeders have developed cucumber varieties that are less attractive to beetles than regular varieties. Organic farmers will grow the one of the new varieties as their main crop. At the same time, they plant a more attractive variety in different spot to lure the beetles away from the main crop eliminating the need to spray the main crop.

If all that damage is not enough, as a bonus, the beetles will feed on the actual cucumbers themselves leaving behind feeding marks that disfigure the fruit.

Another species, the spotted cucumber beetle, also can show up. They are the same size and shape as the striped beetles but have black spots instead of stripes. They cause the same kind of damage and need to be controlled too.

Bob

August 22, 2019

Purslane in the garden, friend or foe?

Returning to one of my gardens after being away for a week, I noticed there were a lot of weeds that had spread over the garden. I thoroughly hoed the garden before I went away the previous week but I didn’t have time to rake up the cut and dislodged weed stalks. Usually the hot August sun is enough to dry them up and finish them off. There were a couple of good thunderstorms that rolled through during my absence that dropped enough rain to keep the weed stalks moist.

Most of the weeds that got cut off by hoeing did die despite the rain. One notable exception was the purslane. It was present in fairly high numbers and the plants were small, but they did get hoed.

Purslane has succulent leaves that resist drought and desiccation. Small pieces of stems can take root and grow into full size plants. It also has a central taproot that, if cut but not removed, can rapidly regrow.

These cut pieces of purslane will root themselves if not removed from the garden.

These cut pieces of purslane will root themselves if not removed from the garden.

In one area the purslane formed a nice mat devoid of other weeds. In that spot the other weeds died from the hoeing while the purslane was able to reestablish itself taking up all available growing space.

Purslane does not compete very much with most vegetable crops for water and nutrients. There has been some thought by researchers about the possibility of using purslane as an alternative to herbicides for some food crops. Because it is low growing and can form a dense mat, it is able to reduce the number of more aggressive weeds from getting started. I’m not inclined to experiment with that this year but I may devote a small plot next year to a purslane companion plant trial. Let me know in the comments if that would be something you’d like to see.

Very few other weeds were growing in this dense mat of purslane.

Very few other weeds were growing in this dense mat of purslane.

Purslane is considered a wholesome food in many cultures around the world. It was brought to this continent by Europeans over 500 years ago, back when they didn’t know about introducing alien plant species to a new area. As a result, you can find it in most farm fields, gardens and landscapes.

Cultivated varieties have been developed that grow upright and have much larger leaves. Seeds for those are available at many seed sellers. I’ve even seen seeds of the wild variety for sale on eBay and other sites. I don’t think that would be a very good idea since each purslane plant can produce hundreds of tiny seeds that can eventually become a problem. I may be willing to grow a cultivated variety just to try it out but not a wild plant that has the potential to turn into a weed in my garden.

Purslane leaves and stems are edible and quite tasty,

Purslane leaves and stems are edible and quite tasty,

Lately I have started eating my wild purslane more regularly. In the past I’d nibble on a stem or two just for fun but now I’m including it in my diet more and more, especially since my lettuce is long gone. It is very nutritious, as are many other wild edibles. Along with high concentrations of the more common nutrients, very high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are also present – five times more than spinach.

My favorite way to eat purslane is to add a few sprigs to my salad or put it in a sandwich. Both the leaves and stems are edible.

About three and a half ounces of fresh purslane constitutes one serving.

 Bob

 

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