Monday, September 29, 2008

Work it, Grasshopper!

I do really think I have lost my mind. My sanity has been questioned before, more than once, but I think the continuing heat, the continuing drought, three days at the Austin City Limits festival, and a rapidly approaching birthday have pushed me over the line.

But when exactly did line crossing occur?

Maybe it was when I ran back inside to get my camera rather than shooing away this grasshopper?

Maybe it was when I wished that this grasshopper was a creosote bush grasshopper instead of most likely an ordinary American grasshopper because finding a creosote bush grasshopper in my backyard would have been more of an entomological coup?

Maybe it was when I decided NOT to trap it from my specimen collection because I thought it was too pretty?

Maybe it was when I told the grasshopper to WORK IT for the camera?

Maybe it was when I believed that the grasshopper was responding to my request, ever so slightly rotating around the trellis so I could get a different view of it with each frame?

And not just trying to get the heck away from the crazy lady telling it, "The camera loves you, baby!"

Monday, September 22, 2008

Plants, Bugs, Birds, and Butterflies

Or what more can you ask for in one morning?

Last Saturday's photography class at the Wildflower Center was wonderful opportunity to combine so many of my interests.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I rented a tripod for the day and was happy to test it out and learn how it could help me. Unfortunately, it weighed more than my dog, and I found it difficult to reposition to catch any quick actions.

Sometimes, if I was set up and focused on a plant, and lucked out when the birds and insects arrived. (See if you can find the hummingbird in the above picture.)

And sometimes I still couldn't quite get the insect in focus.

Tons of butterflies buzzed about the Gregg's mistflower, and I got many chances to catch a queen.

You can tell a queen from a monarch butterfly by the venation on the top of the wings. Monarchs have more veins running on the top of the wings.

Really, this picture was just an excuse to be able to repeat Mike Quinn's butterfly joke: Even in Texas, it's legal to have male and female Queens.

Mike, one of the speakers at my entomology training, keeps track of the insects he finds in his yard in Austin. If you are looking to identify what's in your yard, you might want to check it out.

I wasn't the only photographer excited to see this zipper spider, also known as a yellow garden spider. Another speaker at entomology training told the story of an elderly lady who had died on her front porch. The entomologists were called in because someone thought that the zipper, or zigzag, ribbon of the spider web above the woman's head spelled out MURDER.

Apparently, the woman's death was not necessarily from natural causes, but murder was not confirmed.

As much as I loved the snow on the prairie I was really trying to get a close-up of this bug so I could identify it. I wasn't sure if the Wildflower Center would approve of my taking insect specimens.

I still haven't quite been able to identify this bug. I never got a really good angle on it, but I'm still checking.

Any ideas?

Photography Class at the Wildflower Center

Hello, sun!

Last week was a very busy one Chez Vert. I was very happy to attend all the master gardener learning opportunities--entomology training, photography training, and Patty Leander's fall vegetable lecture--although I probably could have absorbed more of the information if it hadn't all been coming at me at once. By Saturday afternoon I felt like the zombie ants just moments before their head fell off.

Even with a low retention rate, I came away with some good new tips for improving my photography. Step one, take a camera class and you get in to the Wildflower Center early, before anyone else, when the light is good! Step two, calibrate your camera.

We all took photos of a gray card and should have found a single center spike on the histogram. My camera did not show that single spike, which indicates that my camera is routinely overexposing my pictures. And here I thought it was just me! That difference in my camera is probably within the factory allowances, although I will take it in for a check-up. I can compensate for that deviance with exposure compensation.

Step three, make sure that your camera is using single area focus. At least for me, taking plant pictures. I don't know enough on this topic to explain why you would want to use other focus areas, but here's a visual display of the difference. I could not figure out why my photo of the purple coneflower was so washed out even when we were using a filter to soften the light. It even took the instructor, Brian Loflin, to determine the problem, but thank goodness he spent the time to figure it out. In the left photo, the camera was on multiple area focus and exposing for the gravel in the background, not the flower, which is blown out. In the right photo, the camera is exposing for the flower. Notice how much warmer and more accurate the color is.

Step four, figure out depth of field. I have read about this concept and thought I had a handle on what it meant. But I found it harder to correlate that knowledge with the size of the aperture. Then there's the whole f-stop thing. And then there here we are again at the point where my head falls off.

But Brian explained the term and its application in a way that I finally got it. (Or maybe it was just the repetition that finally made it click.) If you want a lot of the area in your picture to be in focus, use a higher f-stop. This gives you a large depth of field, use an f-stop with a large number like 26 or 32, shown below on the left. If you want a shallow depth of field, where only a small area of your picture is in focus, use a small f-stop, like 5.6 or 6.9, shown below on the right.

If you are taking a close-up of a large flower, like a hibiscus, you want to use a large f-stop. If you want to blur the background and highlight one flower, use a small f-stop.

Step five, use a tripod. If I've heard this once, I've heard it a thousand times now. When I asked Bruce Leander, Patty's husband who takes the photographs that accompany her articles and on the cover in Texas Gardener, for his tips on taking great plant pictures, he answered, "Tripod, tripod, tripod."

I had not done the research I needed to feel confident buying a tripod so for this outing a rented one from Precision Camera and Video. The lighter version with a ball head was not available so I was left with the world's heaviest tripod ever. My triceps may never recover. It was a pain to lug around and to set up, but in the end it took better pictures. I later chatted with the very helpful staff and have a plan for the tripod purchase. I think I'll just leave the card with the specific make and model lying around for my husband to find just in time for my birthday.

Now before I make your heads explode I'll save the rest for another post and leave you with some pretty pictures from the Wildflower Center.

(And did you notice the photos that are side by side? A lot of learning going on around here, I tell you. Even if the photos aren't quite lined up like I want, who says you can't teach an old blogger new tricks?)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Zombie Ants

How do you make a group of master gardeners and budding entomologists cheer? Show them a video loop of the phorid fly stinging a fire ant and laying its egg in the insect.

How do you make that group roar with excitement? Show the part of the video where the ant's head falls off.

Almost every speaker this week has shown us that video, and it has never failed to elicit that response. (Unfortunately, it's a National Geographic video available for educational purposes, and my blog isn't yet considered educational. If you google it enough, you might find it, but I am way too tired to do that.)

But you know what is even better? Watching the decapitation in person!

Today we visited UT's Brackenridge Field Laboratory on Lake Austin Boulevard to see where this amazing project takes place, and I was just absolutely fascinated.

You can read more about it here and here, but I'll also share my observations.

I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, which is famous (or infamous as the case may be) for two main things: celebrating the original Mardi Gras in the United States (having gone to college in New Orleans, I know that the New Orleanians are going to want to fight you on this one, but hold your ground, or at least bet a few drinks before you show them they are wrong), and being the port of entry into the United States for invasive fire ants in the early 1900s. (Hmm, I wonder why the City of Mobile website doesn't mention that factoid?)

Growing up, I had no idea that these biting, pustule-forming pests weren't everywhere. The invasive ants were imported accidentally from Brazil and Argentina, as ballasts in ships returning from South America. I certainly had no idea that they caused $6 billion worth of damage annually, $1.2 billion in Texas alone, that they can attack and kill ground and tree-nesting birds and animals, or that they had spread throughout Europe, creating one supercolony expanding from Italy though France into Spain.

Okay, okay, enough of the history, on to the decapitation. The invasive fire ants thrive and spread here in part because they have no natural predators. Scientists figured out that native phorid flies keep the populations in check in Brazil and Argentina. The flies, which are far smaller than the ants, terrorize the ants, who literally cringe in fear. The flies sting the ants, depositing eggs into the ants' abdomens. This whole process takes 1/30th of a second, and the fly can repeat it between 100 and 200 times.

The stung ant retreats into the mound, where the egg grows inside the ant and metamorphizes. As the fly reaches its last instar, it heads into well, the head of the ant. The fly larva eats the ant's brain and muscle tissue, creating a zombie ant. The ant is still alive but the fly instar is controlling it. The fly turns on the ant's drive switch and gets the ant (now the fly's vehicle) to travel out of the mound, which is an unsafe place for the fly to hatch. Once the ant has reached a good place for the fly to emerge--sometimes 10 to 15 feet away, the fly bursts out of the ant's head. At the same time, the ant's head falls off.

Scientist at Brackenridge now import multiple species of these flies, let them have at ants carefully selected for size (some fly species like the big ants, others the smaller ones) in the Mass Attack room, and then guard these zombie ants for about two weeks until the flies explode out of their heads. (Have I mentioned that part yet? About the fire ants losing their heads?) Sometimes the scientists make controlled releases of these flies to combat the fire ants. Other times the new flies are sent into the Mass Attack room to do what they were born to do.

I hope you've gotten the general idea, and when I've got more time, I'll discuss the differences between the invasive and native species of fire ants. (In Austin, if your house was built before 1980, you probably have native fire ants; if you live in a newer house, you probably have the invasives.)

I certainly never thought I would find fire ants and flies so fascinating!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Bug Class*** Updated

I just got home from my first day of a week-long Master Gardener Entomology Specialist Training. It was fabulous. So interesting. By the end of the week I should be able to identify the bug my husband found in my new herb bed. And I should know not to call it a bug but more properly an insect.

Until then, I thought I would keep track of some of the most fascinating tidbits of today's class.

--Ants walk in line by sending each other chemical cues.
--Insects are the most diverse form of life on the planet. There are 30 million species.
--Not all insects have wings but if you see an insect with wings, it is an adult and will not grow any more. In other words, if you see a small grasshopper with wings, it will not grow into a bigger grasshopper. If you see a larger grasshopper, it's a different species.
--Only female insects sting. They have ovapositors, an appendage for laying eggs and for defense. So if a fire ant stings you, it was a lady.
--The exoskeleton of insects keeps it from drying out, not from drowning, which is how diatomaceous earth kills many insects. It's a dessicant and makes holes in the exoskeleton allowing water to seep out.
--Horticultural oils work by clogging the spiracles and preventing insects from getting oxygen.
--The cicada shells that we often see around are the last molt of a cicada nymph. All the previous molts occurred underground. For the final molt the cicada grabs on to a sturdy surface, like Iris's signs, splits through its head, and then continues the molt down the body.
--Even bug geeks like to have fun: Q. Wheeler and K. Miller named three species of slime mold beetles: Agathidium bushi, Agathidium cheneyi, and Agathidium rumsfeldi. They claim the naming is an homage.
--A German cockroach can lay up to 36 eggs at one time.
--There are many different types of fleas including cat fleas, dog fleas, squirrel fleas, and rat fleas. Some fleas are very species specific.
--Most fleas in Texas are cat fleas, which will live on any furred animal. If you have fleas but no furred pets, you've got a furred animal somewhere in your house.-)
--Some flies have no mouth parts so they die fairly quickly after reaching adulthood.

The rest of the week will include specimen gathering--we get a really cool insect kit with the class--at a few spots around town, and detailed information on more classes of insects. I can't wait!

***Gee, do I have frass on my face! My mystery bug not only isn't a bug it's not even an insect. It's a spider, a jumping spider. Spiders and insects are both anthropods, but spiders are not insects. I actually learned this yesterday (and probably knew it before and had forgotten) but had forgotten again by last night.

I think one of the reasons I've so enjoyed learning about all gardening aspects is that I know so little. After years of accumulating more knowledge in narrower areas, it's refreshing--and completely humbling--to jump into a new arena. And because I care less about looking like a fool as I age, I have no problem asking questions and revealing my utter ignorance.

But I still appreciate Annie in Austin's very sweet way of letting me know I know so little!

What a Difference a Day Makes

Twenty-four little hours.

My "best" bed went from this to


A new herb bed filled with Mexican mint marigold, common sage, rosemary, Italian oregano, Mexican oregano, lemon balm,


French thyme, lemon thyme, hot 'n' spicy thyme, dill, spearmint, peppermint, and berggarten sage. I've also planted some chive seeds and left room for some annuals I'd fogotten: parsley and cilantro.

Some, like the common sage, I transplanted from my vegetable garden.

Others I purchased or grew from cuttings and transferred from their wading pool to their new home.

The only nonherb I have in the bed is this plant, which I thought was called a common bottlebrush until I tried googling it. The bees were totally loving it at Barton Springs Nursery and practically followed me home. I bought it just for its beauty. Now if only BSN would add tags or labels to their plants for those of us who can't remember them!

As for the "worst" bed, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A half-yard of soil made barely a dent in what the area needs, but the dog still objects. At least this glorious weather has arrived and picking up more soil won't be a burden.

I'll knock wood and just allude to the idea of fall. Shh. If you don't mention it, it might stay!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Tale of Two Beds

Normally, I am a hand-tool kind of gal. Yikes, that sounds a little racy. How about, normally I'm a double digger? I like digging in the dirt. I like running the soil through my hands, breaking up clods. I became a gardener after spading and forking my back 50 feet into a producing vegetable garden.

So, it was hard for me to admit defeat, but with a shrinking gardening WOO (window of opportunity); a new bed composed of what can only be described as rock; and a dog who wasn't performing up to expectations, I rented my first tiller. The Honda mid-tine tiller.

The dog didn't give up her job without a fight. She blocked the tiller's path. I now call her Luddite.

I safety geared up. I did not realize until I was uploading this picture that the glove is flipping me off. I guess it had a better idea of what I lie ahead than I did. I should have taken heed.

The salesperson at the big box store talked me out of the smaller tiller and tried to get me to rent the big boy, but I went middle of the road. I mean, if I could dig three inches in the new bed with my muscles, shouldn't a medium-sized tiller work miracles?

It didn't.

My rock-, glass-, and nail-filled yard did not magically transform into beautiful loam with one pass of the big gun.

The truth is much dirtier, as I was I, from head to toe. Unlike Bonnie, I will not post a picture of me tilling. I do have proof of my work but even without scratch-and-sniff Internet, the sweat stains would disgust you and that is definitely not a photo in its prime.

The tiller uncovered more broken glass, rusty nails, and rocks than I had found previously in the whole yard--and I had already filled a large trashcan full. After each pass, I raked the debris out of the way to allow the tiller blades to sink farther in. At first, I picked up each piece of glass and metal. After one hour, I decided to only pick up glass at least one inch by one inch and nails longer than two inches.

Nevertheless, my four-hour rental quickly rolled into a 24-hour rental.

My work was also not without collateral damage.

The other bed I decided to prepare was a bit easier to till. When I told my husband I was going to title this post "A Tale of Two Beds," he asked if the first line would be "It was the best of beds; it was the worst of beds." Not exactly.

The "best" of beds was not without its problems, most notably the Pipe to Nowhere.

A few years ago we found water pooling in the area of the new bed. Our neighbor happened to have a plumber working at her house so we asked him to take a look. He thought that the city's water line was backing up into our yard so he suggested we call the city first, as the city would have to pay if the problem was its pipe.

A city guy showed up--on a Sunday afternoon no less-- and couldn't figure it out. Our water lines drain to the lines in the front of our house, not the rear. He called some colleagues, and the next thing I knew five city workers were congregating in our backyard marveling over the Pipe to Nowhere. They all wanted to know what the pipe was doing and where it was connected, but after checking old files, they couldn't figure it out.

They all thought it was pretty cool but left without doing anything.

They guessed that we could take the pipe out without any problem. Key word: guessed. So the pipe stayed there until yesterday. With help from a tiller, a fork, a spade, a husband, and a dog, I removed 10 feet of the pipe.

So far, so good. We'll see what happens if Hurricane Ike brings us a lot of rain.

The "best" bed is on the left, the "worst" bed is on the right. For the "best" bed, I think I can get away with just adding more compost, but for the "worst" bed I am going to have to add some actual soil.

Stay tuned for planting: an herb and vegetable bed, maybe with some pretty perennials thrown in will fill the "best" bed; the "worst" bed gets less sun than I previously thought so it will get a mix of part-shade perennials.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

In Their Prime

Last night I attended the first session of a Master Gardener sponsored plant photography class. Brian and Shirley Loflin, authors of Grasses of the Texas Hill Country, are teaching the course. A lot of the technical talk about sensor size, TTL metering, and histograms flew over my head. My Nikon D40x is my first SLR, and the learning curve is pretty steep. I have learned the basics of depth of field, ISO, and white balance so next time I'll have room in my brain to comprehend the more advanced concepts.

What I did understand easily was choose the plant in its prime. I do appreciate the value of less-than-prime specimens, and I think Brian and Shirley would agree that beauty can be found anywhere. But what they were emphasizing, especially for their books, is that if you are going to show a specimen of a plant then by all means pick the best-looking one!

And if you have to do a little grooming to make that best one stand out, then do it. Just try to return the area to how it looked before you took the picture if you aren't in your own yard. If your weeds are the offending ones, then you are free to pull them out. You're also always welcome to pull a few of mine!

Very few of my plants are in their prime currently. But I think the rock rose is pretty darn close. I've made my peace with my passionflower vine that isn't purple, especially now that it's blooming regularly. (Although I have hedged my bets on that love and have some purple passionflower vine cuttings rooting.)

I don't know whether Brian and Shirley would consider this photo one of a plant in its prime, but I love its prime potential.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


I ran into Annie in Austin today at the Natural Gardener and realized that I wasn't the only one Austin gardener gearing up for the fall season. We can't plant just yet but the moment that window to plant appears, we'll be ready.

The plants have been selected and purchased. (If I ever make a list of essential gardening tools, a wading pool will be one of them. It's great for soaking wine bottles and keeping potted plants watered during the summer from heck. Oops, looks like I forgot one wine bottle.)

The seeds have been purchased. The seed starting tray has been assembled. The grow lights (really just one warm and one cold fluorescent bulb hung in a work light on a chain) have been taken out of the shed.

I've filled my staging area (aka my driveway) with two kinds of mulch: the standard Texas native hardwood mulch in bags and the special cedar mulch that survived a recent spontaneous combustion. (I helped chip the cedar branches about a year and a half ago. My friend still hopes to plant grapevines on the cleared quarter acre.)

The fire started inside the pile and burned out from the bottom, incinerating the cedar logs my friend had saved for fence posts but sparing much of eight-feet tall mulch piles. The fire department didn't want the mulch hanging around any more, and now that my friend and neighbor as well as gardening buddy has a truck, I have mulch. You can see small pieces of charred mulch if you look closely. The combined aroma of cedar and fire make my driveway smell like a fall campout. I go outside and inhale and immediately feel 10 degrees cooler.

Behind the mulch is the revitalizer compost we (my neighbor, his truck, and me) picked up at the Natural Gardener. Have I mentioned how handy it is have to have a friend and neighbor with a truck?

The blue bottles that Pam passed on to me when I was collecting wine bottles are waiting to be turned into a bottle tree.

The new bed is well, not exactly ready to go. I successfully solarized the area but found it hard as a rock when I started digging. I reasoned that the baking sun had hardened the area as it killed the weeds so I watered the area thoroughly for several days. I started digging again yesterday and found that the the area wasn't just hard as rock--it was rock. Lots and lots of rock. The worst area I have ever tried to turn into a garden bed.

I sharpened my tools, which didn't help.

Getting nowhere fast I tried harnessing the natural tendencies of my garden helper.

Tossing a few dog treats in the area didn't hurt. But as it turned out, she had the attention span of well, a dog. A bird, a cricket, a shadow on the ground, and a stick distracted her, and she was off running in the yard.

Maybe I should get her a harness?

Normally I'm not a stickler for advance preparation but I know that once that glorious moment of fall hits it will be a headlong rush into winter--installing new gardens for Green Corn Project, refurbishing the garden at Lady Bird Lake, attending a week-long entolomology training, taking a plant photography class, surviving the heat at ACL fest, vetting a friend's new boyfriend for his husband potential, buying more plants the Wildflower Center sale, celebrating a marriage, celebrating a birthday, and celebrating GCP's 10 years for feeding Austin, one garden at a time at the end of October.

Whew. No wonder I'm getting READY TO G A R D E N!