Friday, October 31, 2008

Scary Plants--A Halloween Post

During our recent camping and hiking trip, I kept noticing all the dead and dying plants. I have always loved this stage of the plants.

And of course, I thought what a great Halloween post idea. The ghouls and goblins of the plant world.

Can't you just imagine blood dripping off the head of this plant?

Speaking of blood, I also came across this prickly pear covered in white fuzz.
During my entomology class, I learned that this fuzz is actually cochineal scale. Scale are hiding under all that protective white fuzz.

If you scrape some of that scale off and crush it, you'll find yourself covered in blood.
Okay, not really, but you will be covered in a red gel that is used as a scarlet dye. Dr. Mike Merchant told me that the British Redcoats used this dye to make their coats red. (If you are really interested, this blog has a detailed discussion of whether the British could afford to dye all those coats with crushed cochineal.)

What I want to know is how did the Aztecs, the original dye users, figure this out? Did someone fall into a prickly pear, find himself bleeding, and then realize that it wasn't blood after all but squished bugs?

What would a Halloween post be without a spider? How about a spider reeling in a grasshopper twice its size?
I don't have any pictures of Children of the Corn, but I do have one of Dog in the Milo.
I have saved for last what many people view as the scariest part of camping.
Just down this lovely path is the . . .

Have a scary Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Grow It and They Will Come

One of the many reasons why I wanted to add a full sun flower bed in the backyard was so that I could grow a passion flower. I just think that the flower is one of the most unusual and beautiful ones out there.
I have mentioned before that I have moved on past my disappointment that the flower is not purple. I have come to love all the parts of this vine, including the tendrils that are quite space age-y.
And now that the plant is fulfilling its other role as caterpillar food, I love it, no matter the color.
After a busy few weeks, I walked out the other day to finally determine why the vine's leaves had holes all over them. Perhaps most gardeners wouldn't be thrilled to find their plant riddled with holes but I was delighted to find all sizes of caterpillars munching away. Once these guys have metamorphized, they will be Gulf fritillary butterflies.
I saw a Gulf fritillary swooping through the yard today but wasn't able to get a photo of it.

But it was looking for this? It's old home. I was so excited to see this evacuated chrysalis . . .
and yet so disappointed that I missed seeing it before the butterfly emerge. But now that I am stalking these caterpillars, I hope to get a photo soon.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I'm a Stalker

So much has happened since I last posted. I've even gardened (imagine that!) but first here are some photos from our recent camping trip to Caprock Canyons, with a side trip to hike in Palo Duro Canyon. I still plan to post photos of the canyons and their lovely vistas.

But what struck me as I viewed the photos was how much stalking I did. Insects, spiders, birds, bison. I was an equal opportunity stalker. If they moved, I was there right behind, beside, and in front of them.

Just outside the entrance to Caprock Canyons State Park is the official Texas State Bison Herd. Interesting enough, although we couldn't get that close to them. I took this photo with a 200mm zoom lens.
Outside the fence, just next to the road, I found a more interesting, more Wild West kind of scene. Two caterpillars approached each other; both wanted the same plant. I couldn't wait for the showdown. This guy had already staked his claim to the plant.
This guy was approaching rapidly. They seemed on a collision course for a cat(erpillar)fight.
And then this guy realized there were more than enough leaves for him, and the showdown at Caprock Canyons fizzled into nothing.The people who pulled up behind our car were left wondering why I was focused on a small plant and not the bison herd, but heck, I'm getting used to people wondering what I'm doing.

Back at our campsite, our dog performed admirably as sentry and often alerted me to the presence of insects.

Such as this beetle.

Or this grasshoppper.
Or this dragonfly. (Don't these all look like they could be on the surface of Mars?)

Sometimes the dog needed to be a little more directed in pointing out potential interlopers. Here she is showing me a walking stick bug,
which I followed until it had safely run away from both of us toward safety.
After a couple of days, I (or maybe it was the insects) got bolder. Near Lake Theo, I found this grasshopper sunning himself. I had seen many grasshoppers by this time in our trip, but I didn't yet have a photo of the grasshopper, well, hopping.
So I held the camera in one hand, with my finger on the shutter release, while I threw rocks at the flower. I didn't ever hit it, no worries there. I just wanted it to hop. It never did. Plenty of its cousins hopped on me later but never when I had the camera ready.

I had more hope for the bold jumping spider that showed up on my chair. Fearful that he would get away before I could take a good picture, I trapped the spider in one of my collection jars. What? You don't travel with collection jars?
I released him and then followed him as he moved quite quickly without jumping.
I probably took about 50 pictures of this spider hoping to catch him jumping boldly. In the end I had to settle for this shot of his metallic green fangs.
My last stalking story, because I will not for now share my efforts to get a picture of copulating insects for Annie--please ask her, not me!, is about this guy, who isn't an insect.

When we were checking out the amphitheater at the park, I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. I told my husband to grab the dog and head in the opposite direction.
For about 20 minutes, I snuck around very sharp cactus, trying to get a photo of this roadrunner. I almost slipped down into the canyon itself. I decided then that I had tried hard enough to get a good picture. I figured the roadrunner cartoons weren't wrong--they are fast birds.
As it turns out, the bird knew its best angle and was simply waiting for me to stop chasing him. He posed and posed and posed.
He didn't even flinch near the dog, who strangely had no interest in this bird. Maybe I am converting her into an entomologist?

Monday, October 13, 2008

More Visitors in My Yard

Yesterday I found this visitor on my car. Crazy Billionaire also recently found a praying mantis on his car. What exactly are the mantises thinking? That they can hitch a ride to a better neighborhood? That if they wait long enough one of us really big animals will come along and be their next meal? They do eat vertebrates after all.

(More correctly, this insect is probably a Carolina mantid, and not the European mantid (Mantis religiosa) most commonly known as the praying mantis, but really do you care? I've gone so far to the insect side that most of you probably now just see an insect and move along. I don't blame you. I would have done the same a month ago before my entomology indoctrination training.)

I just read that adults mate in September and October so maybe they are looking for love. And wow, did you know that females often eat the male after mating, and that there is a not necessarily PG video of it?

I wish I could write more about the video, because it's truly fascinating and slightly revolting at the same time but dating back to this post, I'm really beginning to wonder about the direction of this blog. My ISP may soon be blocking me from my own blog due to adult content.
So let's refocus. Did you notice how the mantid is still looking at the camera? No, I didn't tell it to work it like I did the grasshopper. The mantid did it all on her own. She can turn her head 180 degrees.

Before driving off, I relocated her from the car to the plateau goldeneye blooming in my front yard.
She wasn't there when I got back. Maybe she was really a he, and ended up as somebody's post–adult activity snack?
Moving on to the G-rated backyard, I think this beauty on the Mexican bush sage is some sort of skipper, but I couldn't quite find an accurate identification.
The latest and most frequent visitors to my yard aren't pictured here.

They are squirrels. They have been digging holes throughout my yard, including digging up some of my newly planted plants that I haven't even been able to show you. I've cursed, I've covered the yard with cayenne and chipotle pepper, I've told the dog that she had my permission to run those squirrels ragged, and still each morning, I come out and find more holes, just at the edge of the plants' rootballs.

After failing with the brute force approach, I decided to go in another direction. I made an offering of my first Belinda's Dream bloom to the plant gods. Maybe they can have a chat with the squirrels.

If nothing else, it was probably a good idea to appease the blog and ISP gods.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


When I saw that Zanthan Gardens had "a momentary lapse into cuteness," I knew I had to participate in The Inelegant Gardener's LAPCPADPOUB (Let's all post cat photos and dire poetry on our blogs) day. The cat and I are celebrating our 10th anniversary this month, and he deserves a mention after so many more mentions of the dog, otherwise known as the animal ruining the cat's golden years.

And his name is an English phrase--Cheerio. He's actually named after the cereal; in his younger days he had white O's on his sides.

I have cuter pictures of him, but this one shows him the farthest he's been out in the backyard in years. He's actually on top of table, next to a bottle of Superthrive, for you eagle eye gardeners.

A few years ago I found out from the neighbors across the street that he used to cross the street, jump their fence, and roll around in their catmint. Luckily, they found his trampling of their herbs funny. I didn't know he did this, and it took the neighbors a while to realize he was ours. He rarely went outside and even more rarely left the yard so the neighbors had never seen him in our yard, just theirs.

I guess I could grow some catmint or catnip for him on this side of the street, but if you've ever seen a cat coming off a catnip high, you'd know why I don't want to feed that habit.

I don't really have a poem, but I guess I have something dire. The cat and I may be celebrating 10 years together, but he's much older--somewhere between 15 and 19 years old according to the vet. He's now deaf, doesn't eat much, and has slow kidney failure. This might be his last LAPCPADPOUB Day but even if it is, he's had a good life with me.

Even if I do exploit him shamelessly for a blog post.

**After a long, good life, Cheerio Maceo Orangina (c. 1990-2008) passed on to the great litter box in the sky on Sunday, October 26.

Meow, meow, Cheerio. Meow, meow.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Growing Garlic

Last night I planted garlic. A lot of garlic. Halfway through the process I thought I really should have just kept the garlic to eat and not even bothered trying to turn one clove into a bulb I had so much of it.

But I had started the process and couldn't (or wouldn't) turn back.

In August I ordered the All Warm Weather Winter Area Sampler Assortment from Gourmet Garlic Gardens. I had also looked into ordering some garlic from Seeds of Change, but their garlic was all accounted for in early August! Apparently, you have to plan ahead if you want to grow garlic.
The garlic arrived sometime in September. The month was such a blur of gardening activity that I don't remember when. I knew I was supposed to get the bulbs planted in October so I was good to go. Because I am running out of room in the fenced-in garden area, I prepared for the garlic last season's cut flower bed that I never cut from because it was too pretty.
(As an aside, I am pondering the usefulness of the fenced-in area. My intent was to keep out the dog, who was then a puppy. That part worked, but now the squirrels see it as their personal cellar, protected from that now famous (p. 58) Texas black dog. The squirrels taunt her as they dig in my newly seeded beds. Sometimes the latch of the gate doesn't catch, and my dog runs inside the off-limits bed--and is been unable to find her way out. I have to run outside to open the gate for her--after taking her picture, of course. Good thing she doesn't embarrass easily. I just hope the squirrels noted that their sacred pecan-bearing area is not always dog-free.)
My sampler, a "special selection for gardeners in the deep South, Texas, and California," included Metechi Marbled Purple Stripe, a hardneck variety; Inchelium Red, an artichoke variety; Simoneti, another artichoke garlic; Burgundy, a Creole garlic; and New York white (hmm, I couldn't this one on the website. Will a NY garlic grow in Texas?).

I have to admit that at this point I am in over my head.

(That should really be over my neck to fit with the garlic theme, but then you'd groan and wince at the obvious pun. Well, except for Pam and Annie, because they would have already thought of it and worried that I'd missed an opportunity for punnage.)

I should have kept one clove from each garlic just to notice the differences. Despite my love of cooking, I've never tried much garlic beyond the bulk bulbs at the grocery store. (I've even been known to use the pre-chopped garlic in jars, but please don't tell anyone.)

But what better way to learn more? I can't wait to cook with the garlic scapes from the hardneck varieties.

Following the instructions that came with my garlic, I soaked the cloves overnight in water with a bit of baking soda. For three to five minutes before planting, I soaked them in alcohol. The instructions didn't specify what type of alcohol. I know what you're thinking. I combined my need for more edging with my need to soak the cloves, but you would be wrong.

That would be a waste of wine. I bought and used 90 percent rubbing alcohol because that's the kind you need to preserve soft-bodied specimens, like spiders. Two birds, one bottle of alcohol.
I prepared the bed, as the instruction suggested, with some compost and then I threw in some coffee grounds for good measure. I spaced the cloves six inches apart.
I've got a little room left at the end of this bed for some flowers. I don't have more pictures mid-process because I was running late to meet some friends and was planting quickly. I also must have quickly looked at my watch, because I thought I was in a Zen-zone moment and time was at a standstill. Then I looked again and saw that it was actually a whole hour later than I thought it was.

So I sacrificed pictures for a shower.

Even after a shower, I'm sure that some aroma of garlic infused with alcohol, mixed with manure-laced compost and coffee grounds wafted ahead of me into the restaurant. Good thing I'm already married. I'm not sure whom I would attract with that scent.

Stay tuned for the ongoing garlic saga. And I do mean saga. The garlic won't be ready for harvest until June 2009.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

You've Got Questions; I've Got . . .

Well, a partial answer, but after yesterday's whiny post on my lack of germination, here's something of a thank you for not just telling me to shut up and sow.

How to Create Side-by-side Pictures
I tried to write this without just providing links, but while I have been doing a lot of learning around here, I haven't done enough to write about HTML code without having that HTML code function.

So to post side-by-side pictures in Blogger, upload your pictures. Go to the Edit HTML tab under posting (not the Compose tab), and see how your pictures are presented in HTML. The link will start with "a href" and end with "a." You also need to include the punctuation before and after the terms I just mentioned, but whenever I do that in this post, Blogger thinks I am trying to write some HTML code, and it does funky things, but I know you can figure it out. The title you gave your picture will appear in that very long code.

Copy the code on side-by-side photos from this link. (The part with first cell and second cell. Replace FIRST CELL and SECOND CELL with the code generated after you uploaded your pictures.)

(And continue reading there to learn how it is easier to move your pictures using the code for the picture under the Edit HTML tab, rather than trying to move the pictures under Compose.)

You will probably have to adjust the size of your photos if you want them to fit side by side. Your blog has columns with defined widths. The width of your main posting column is probably not wide enough to handle two photos at your regular posting size.

You can either investigate changing the width of your blog here, or you can right click on the picture in either cell you just created and you'll see some squares around the edges of your photos. On the lower right corner of your photo, you will also have a chance to zoom in or expand that photo.

(I don't know what you do if you have a Mac, but Macs are so intuitive that they probably just sense which photos you want to appear side by side and place them that way for you. Right?)

The total width of your two photos can't exceed the total width of that column of your blog, which is why you should scan through the post mentioned above on changing the width of your blog or at least learn what the width is. Look under Layout, and then Template, and look for the Wrapper information. If your Main Wrapper is say, 800, then you need each picture to be 400 (or slightly less if you have a margin) in order for each picture to fit.

If you are still here, you might also want to play around with changing the widths of other columns in your blog by using what you just learned about wrappers.

And then if your head still hasn't exploded, you can just go ahead and learn everything there is to know about HTML and CSS, and report back to the rest of us!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Planting by the Moon: 0; Squirrels, Sun, Heat, Drought: 8

Last August I was so excited to try out Tim Miller's planting by the moon schedule. Through no fault of Farmer Miller, the planting schedule has been a dismal failure chez Vert.

The lettuces I seeded back in early September yielded these lonely guys:
I seeded the whole area, about 4' by 3'. I shielded with shade cloth and still ended up with these three plants, which I really should worship right now. I just checked on them, and they are engulfed in ants. Didn't have the heart to try to figure out if they are fire ants.

And then there were the peas: shelling, snow, and snap that I sowed in late September. The shelling peas came up but the snows and snaps--nothing. I guess the squirrels were the ones upending them, and the beets.

For the first time, I actually soaked the beet seeds overnight, which is supposed to help with their germination. Instead, I got nothing. A few beets sprouted but none survived the heat of the last two weeks.

And the radishes, the easiest of the fall vegetables to grow? Zero! Zero germination. It can't just be that I bought bad seeds.

Maybe this summer's heat ruined my soil? I added more compost and a little organic fertilizer, but I just realized last night that I haven't seen a single earthworm in weeks! Where have you gone, my little harbingers of soil fertility?

I had better luck with germination when I had no idea what I was doing.

Last night I decided to throw out the planting with the moon and to reverse my sad fall vegetable mojo.
I wore these pretty new clothes my friend gave me as an early birthday present. (Thanks! They fit great, and I won't at all hold them responsible if I again end up with poor germination. I promise.)
I also brought out the dueling guns to cover my newly planted pea, beet, and radish seeds: that's cayenne pepper on the right, chipotle on the left. Those squirrels might try to get my crop again, but at least they will pay for it.
I also decided to use my German zinc watering can to water in the newbies. Maybe my watering wand on the shower setting was too strong for the little seeds of the last planting that I found pooled in a corner? And maybe the bat embossed on the can will spread some hypothetical guano on my plants.
As an additional line of defense, I placed row cover around the new seeds. And then it rained last night, which overall made me happy but I am afraid it might have been too much for my little ones.
I do, or perhaps did, have backup for some of these purchased starter plants. I have been hardening them off the last few days and then today I may have left them outside too long. They look sad and miserable, a little like I feel right now.

After the summer's disastrous vegetable failure, I was really pinning my hopes on my fall vegetable garden. The newly planted fall garden at Lady Bird Lake is growing well. The gardens I've helped install for others are bringing smiles to their faces.

Is it really too much to ask that I can grow vegetables in my own backyard?

At least, tomorrow is another day.