Sunday, August 19, 2012

Beneficial Insects

A lovely monarch caterpillar. It's been years since I've seen a monarch butterfly in my yard so this discovery was an unexpected treat. Each evening during my late summer walk around town I use to look for monarch caterpillars to bring into my classroom. I walked past a large patch of milkweed, the monarch's host plant (plant that female monarchs lay their eggs on) and their favorite food, and checked it for caterpillars. Each year it was the same, nothing. Not one caterpillar. I finally gave up. My middle school students would look too. Nothing. Obviously I wasn't the only one who hadn't seen one in a while. There was a brutal snowfall and freeze in their Mexican winter habitat a few years ago and that had a devastating effect on the monarch population. So I decided to sprinkle milkweed seed (the plant in the foreground in the picture below)along the edges of my yard hoping to lure them. It took a few years but finally the plants grew. And they even sprouted up in my garden which wasn't great as they have an underground root system that spreads. But this one plant which is in front of the Echinacea I decided to let stay and I'm glad I did (even if the caterpillar in the photo above was on a dill plant).
While monarchs may not be considered your typical "beneficial" garden insects in that they don't eat insects that damage our plants, they are beneficial to the overall environment and thus our gardens. Many insects are helpful because they go from flower to flower bringing pollen from one to the other. That makes them pretty beneficial to me. This is the basis of pollination and many garden plants require such pollination in order for their fruits and veggies to grow. Squashes are one example of a plant with an absolute need for such cross pollination. So any insect or bird we can attract to our gardens will help with making the garden stronger and more productive. Not only are butterflies helpful to our gardens they are just lovely, a visually appealing addition. By planting flowers that attract butterflies and bees we are encouraging such beneficial insects to visit and do their work. Shown in the picture below is a Butterfly Bush which is not only beautiful but it has a fragrance that can't be beat. This particular plant is enjoying a visit by a lovely little butterfly. I wish I could remember the name of it. But as Rachel Carson once said, "It's not half as important to know as it is to feel." I find that true now with this pretty little butterfly. It's just pretty to look at and nice to enjoy. Nectar providing plants like this Butterfly Bush are so important to include in your garden especially once you've set up a habitat which lures butterflies to your garden. By including such nectar providing flowers you provide the food, aka nectar, that they will love to drink. Over the years I've planted flowers, perennials and annuals, with the goal of luring butterflies, bees, and birds (not crows!) such as hummingbirds to my garden and this year it seems that the plants have matured to the point of working. Honey bees, native bees, bumblebees, butterflies, moths, many types of birds are always flitting from flower to flower. And I must say that it's rather nice. So consider including flowers in your veggie garden. They will make your garden look pretty and inviting as well as provide the needed diversity to lure beneficial insects.
Enjoy these glorious late summer days and plan for some butterfly plants in your next year's garden, Mary PS - A list of butterflies and preferred host plants can be found here: List of nectar plants:

Saturday, August 4, 2012


Lovely plums from our beautiful Japanese plum tree. This is the second year this tree has given us delicious, sweet, juicy plums. Two years ago was the first time we ate plums from this lovely little tree. Then last year we were disappointed that there were none. So I'm thinking it might bear fruit every other year. Once we eat our fill and feed some to the chickens (they love them as much as we do) I'm going to make a batch of "Plums in Vanilla Syrup", a recipe from a fairly new canning book called Tart and Sweet written by Kelly Geary and Jessie Knadler. This book caught my eye last year as it's written by two talented, young women. Kelly is an award winning young chef from NYC and Jessie is a well published young writer from VA. Together they come up with tantalizing and creative recipes for putting up small batches of summer's harvest. They see that canning is going through a renaissance as they put it and they are inspirational in helping modernize the flavors of canning. Here's a link to their book: Hope you are able to enjoy some delicious and nutritious food from a garden. Keep pulling those weeds, picking your ripe produce, and enjoying them any way you can. Mary

August: Gardens Mulched and Chickens Happy

Milkweed; I started growing milkweed a few years ago when I noticed I wasn't seeing monarch butterflies. This year they are back and I'm delighted! But I did notice that planting milkweed in the garden is not a good idea. Very invasive. So I've left them out along the edges of the lawn and trees. Well, besides milkweed blooming it's a hot and sunny day here in Maine. High 80's and rather hot in the sun. But the coop and run are built and the garden pathways are (mostly) weeded and mulched with old hay that I got from a very generous friend. Same friend who shared her lovely Dominique chicks with me. What a good friend and all I had to do was give her maple syrup. Great barter I think. As far as weeding and mulching I say mostly because the top garden pathways have not been weeded or mulched because last summer I had the "bright" idea to use a heavy duty landscape fabric to mulch the pathways of the then new upper garden. Sure did work beautifully last year. Not so much this year. The weeds are coming up through the fabric and making pulling impossible. I will never use landscape fabric in the veggie gardens again. I will stick to my old method of weeding, then covering with newspapers and hay, and then watering. I do plan to get some cardboard from an appliance store nearby to do the upper garden. I usually newspaper and top off with old hay on the pathways and use straw mulch on the beds. But since I waited so long this year it seems many of the beds don't need a layer of straw mulch as the plants are big enough and close enough that shade is being naturally provided. That leaves me with a day of outside chores at a more relaxing tempo. I can take that. Nothing like gardening in a swim suit and jumping in the pool whenever the heat gets to be too much. Oh about every 30 minutes or so. I've also decided to finally make that naughty mint syrup and enjoy a mint julep by the pool later in the day.
But before I put my suit on and start my relaxed day of swimming and gardening I'd like to share something else I've noticed from all this being late with garden chores this year. Like everything else the squashes (pumpkins, cukes, summer and winter squashes) were all planted late. The good news is that they are basically unaffected by cucumber beetles, squash bugs, and stink bugs because there aren't many here. This is very interesting because last year the garden experienced an infestation that I dealt with by manually picking those yucky bugs every single morning and evening. Also of interest is that according to Johnny's Selected Seeds,local farmers are infested with cucumber beetles this year to the point of using conventional (yucky poisons) to deal with them. I still wonder why using poisonous chemicals in gardening is considered "conventional". Shouldn't organic be considered conventional and spraying poisons be unconventional? Cucumber beetles are bad because they inject a bacterial illness into the squash plants causing major harm. My guess is that when they emerged from the soil earlier this year and didn't find any squash plants they flew off in search of some. Ha! Another major bug issue I have had in the past was with potato beetles. I mean major gross. Then last year I happened to be late with my garden planting of potatoes and noticed, no beetles! So potatoes were planted late again this year, on purpose, and again no beetles. Hummmmmm....I think I will plant potatoes and squashes late again next year. By late I mean mid June for potatoes and late late June for squashes. Even with late planting I harvested my first batch of pickling cukes yesterday for countertop pickles and am sure I'll be canning pickles and dilly beans this week. Perfect timing for me...early August.
With all the gardening updates how can I not share an update on the chickens? We are settling into a routine and have noticed they love their run. Solo is a great rooster and he takes care of his girls. They stay close together all day long. They leave the coop in the morning when their little pop door is opened and they return to the coop on their own at dusk and take their places on their perch. One thing that I am debating on is when/if they will free range. I just wish I stayed home all day to let them do that. We'll see maybe a few hours in the late afternoon early evenings when people are home. We unfortunately have a dang fox that lives near here and wiped out a neighbor's hens. I, for good reason, worry about that. For now Solo and the girls spend their days in the pen and seem pretty content. I have noticed that they love peas, the whole pea plant pulled out of the garden roots, shoots, leaves, peapods, peas, and all. When I throw some pea plants in the run they go wild over them, almost as wild as they do when I give them very cold watermelon and grapes. Besides peas, watermelon, and grapes, up there on their list of things they enjoy are chard and beet greens. While researching what chickens like to eat I found "Chicken Scratch" at Nicholas Seeds and ordered a seed packet. It is a packet with a variety of greens seeds that is very good for chicken health. I will dig up one of the peas' beds as soon as one is empty and plant a bed for the chickens. We'll see how that goes.
That's it for today. Glad to be back doing updates. Hope it's not too hot where you are and if it is (and if it isn't) I hope you are able to have access to plenty of clean water for you, your garden, and your animals. Happy Gardening! Mary

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Welcome Dominiques!

Chickens! This summer has been all about chickens. What started out as a fun classroom project hatching six Dominique eggs at school has turned into building a coop and run for six hens and one rooster. The rooster above, Solo, was the one successful hatch out of our six eggs at school. How could we give him away!? This is the reason for not writing here until today, August 1st. A friend of mine raises and is actually a hatchery for Dominiques and BuckEyes, beautiful heritage chickens. She said I should try Dominiques because they are a gentle bird, more so then the BuckEyes. Yet she loves the BuckEyes more. Wiki says that the Domniques came over around the time of the MayFlower or something along those lines. I think they are from Haiti. They are very hardy in cold climates and are good egg layers. After she gave me six eggs and another friend lent me her incubator I set them up in school. 21 days later Solo hatched. We didn't know if she was a girl (hen) or a boy (rooster) but his light color and proud cockadoodledoo yesterday morning as he entered the run confirmed our suspicions. We have spent the summer building brooders, transforming a horse stall in our barn into a coop, and building a run. Who would have thought that it would take so much thought, research, time, and money! But it's six weeks later and all is almost complete. A final window went into the coop last night. Once that's secure and the nest boxes are put in the coop all will be set....for now! Even though I have been gardening all summer, I have always been behind. Behind on planting. Behind on weeding. Behind on mulching. But constantly watering, watering, watering. Never have I ever had to water so much. This is the driest summer I can remember. Now that the coop is done I've finally weeded the entire garden (thank goodness!) and mulched the lower garden. It is raining as I type, thank goodness again, so I'll mulch the remainder this week. Here are some pictures of our summer's project:
Young Chicks in the Brooder
Our Barn
Welcome to the Coop, Barn Entrance
Taking Down Shelves in the Stall
Putting Up a Wall in the coop
View of the Coop and Pop Door to Run
View of the Coop, Human Entrance
The Run in a Covered 3 Sided Extension of the Barn
Back Shot of Run
Solo and The Girls; First Day in the Run There we have it. Our new coop, run, and more chickens. Welcome! More posts to come sharing our building journey, our final touches: roost, nesting boxes, and new window. Only 12 more weeks to eggs! Mary