About Me

My photo
I am a mother, a teacher, and a nature lover. I grew up on a mountain we called Owls' Knob in the Ozarks of Arkansas. The first seven years of my life were spent living in a log cabin, far from a store or streetlight, without electricity or running water and after twenty years of travel, I returned to the abondoned homestead. Now I live on a hill by a small lake and work at a public garden. These are stories about nature written from a women deeply influenced by place.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Could it be Climate Change?

Yellow leaves and fruits on the Ohio Buckeye Tree

The heat affects people in different ways. Some people love summer and thrive in the sunshine. Others prefer to be cold rather than hot. I fall in the later group. The heat steals my mind away, flips my stomach upside down, and makes me light headed. I do not sweat much, so my body can not cool itself well. Therefore, I have been cursing this terrible heat wave.
But I realize there is more to it than that...

Two feet of snow and cold
The past few weeks have been so sweltering that even people who enjoy mild heat have been hiding in the shade. With temperatures over 100 degrees every day since the endless rain stopped in June, who can appreciate summer? It has not rained a measurable amount since the flooding in May. Usually the Ozarks gets afternoon showers throughout July and sometimes into August. But this has not been a typical year.

Endless rain and a confused wren
In winter, we had record snow fall and negative temperatures that wouldn't budge. Then the spring brought record rain with flash flooding and a perfect storm of deadly tornadoes. There was no break between the chilly showers of May and the sweltering heat of June. Now we are experiencing record heat and drought conditions all throughout the region.  

Dry leaves and dry grass
The plants don't know how to react. All spring seeds were washed from garden beds and saplings drowned in the saturation. Along every river trees laid dying, drug down by the overflowing banks. And spring seemed to last forever, well beyond its welcome. Then overnight summer hit like mallet. The sun baked out any moisture and the clouds retreated. Now it is not even August and trees are changing color, dropping their leaves because they can not afford to loose any more moisture. Black berries are ripening before they get plump. The buck eye trees, like many others, are dropping small shriveled fruit that was suppose to hang on until autumn. Dogwoods and redbuds are drying out and look like death. I am honestly concerned for the dusty plants.

Looking out at the bewildered forests, I can't help but blame myself for climate change. These are transitional times. If you are awake and can hear me, you must also share in my fears. If you are sleeping and don't believe in climate change, than it is too late for you. I don't know if we can turn this thing around anymore. I just hope for a fresh beginning.

It looks like fall in summer

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Each Moment, A Discovery


          Zane discovered a beetle crawling on the floor. He laid down close to it and examined it intently. The creature hobbled because it had lost a leg. Its yellow stripes were designed to mimic the stripes on a wasp so that predators would not know its true identity. To me this was obviously some type of long horned beetle. I researched it later and found it to be the redheaded ash borer. It lays its eggs in the cracks of tree bark, particularly in green ash trees. The larva eats the inner bark and eventually carves tunnels into the tree's core. It is destructive shad trees. However, to my son it was a new creature, flawless and without a history. To him it was nothing but beautiful. It could be dangerous like the wasp it mimics or it could be beneficial like the pollinators on the flowers outside. To a child, all life is as pure and amazing as he!

Redheaded Ash Borer

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Raspberries for Zane

In the Ozarks we call wild raspberries wine berries. Like most wild berries, they are smaller but more flavorful. A patch if these wild red berries sprouted up among a carpet of poison ivy, near a broken down chicken hut. The sight does not seem ideal in any way. It is shaded, surrounded by competing vines, and amongst trash. Yet that is where the raspberries wanted to grow.

Then I found out that the patch was in the exact location of an old outhouse. After twenty years the human manure had enriched the soil like expensive fertilizer. I don't think these delicious berries as thriving off of shit as much as recycling in a closed loop. Really, it is a beautiful cycle. 

Every year the raspberry patch grows a few more sprigs and a bit more berried can be collected each day. This year was a plentiful year. I trudged through the ivy, avoiding its poisonous juice, to reach the sweet grove. In a matter of minutes I picked a cup of ripe red berries.

After popping a few in my mouth, I offered one to my son. He was taken aback at first, surprised by its intense and often sour taste. Then he dove in. He shoved handfuls of ripe berries into his mouth until his cheeks were full like a chipmunk's. Juice trickled off his chin and made a stream down his chest. He eyed me suspiciously, and hovered over the cup of fruit, guarding the treat. When they were gone, he asked me for more. I had no more. He fussed a bit. Then he waved bye-bye to the empty cup.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Parasites on Parasites...

Catalpa Tree
Catalpa trees were plagued by the catalpa sphinx caterpillars this year. I watched the beautiful heart shaped leaves disappear nibble by nibble. The sound of chewing and crunching leaves was not drowned out by traffic. On the ground all around the tree lay tiny pellets, apparently caterpillar poo!

Catalpa Sphinx Moths
Catalpa sphinx caterpillars are the larva of grey-brown sphinx moths. Their only food source is catalpa leaves. To keep these parasites from reaching their carrying capacity, are other parasites. Primarily braconid wasp larva feeds on the caterpillars. Adult wasps deposit their eggs inside the body of sphinx caterpillars. Because the caterpillar’s natural defense mechanisms would normally kill the wasp larva, the adult wasp also injects particles that scientist have identified as viral in nature. Therefore, the wasps seem to be actually raising viruses to use against the caterpillar which protects the survival of their larva. The wasp larva grows inside its host, feeding off its blood, and then forms tiny white cocoons on the caterpillar’s skin.
A caterpillar with parasitic wasp larva

While examining this relationship between the catalpa tree, the catalpa worms, and the parasitic wasps, I noticed one or two worms covered in wasp cocoons being attacked by ants. Upon further investigation it seemed that the ants were carrying off and apparently eating the wasp larva off the caterpillar.
Ants eating wasp larva off the caterpillar that is defoliating the tree

In my excitement over this unique series of relationships, I told John all about the science happening outside the backdoor. John became excited as well, but for an entirely different reason. Catalpa worms, as he calls them, are the best fish bait in the world. He retrieved a ladder and spent a good part of the day collecting fat caterpillars in a Ziploc bag which he put in the freezer for a good fishing day.

And the parasitic cycle grew another layer of symbiosis: the catalpa worms eat catalpa leaves, the parasitic wasps eat the caterpillars, then the ants eat the parasitic worms off the caterpillars, and finally the fisherman plucks the entire brood off the leaf to feed to a fish that will in turn feed the fisherman. 
In the end, many wasp cocoons died and many survived, the some catalpa worms died but most made their brown cocoons and will fly away as moths before the year ends.
The cocoon of a catalpa sphinx caterpillar

The tree will survive, but many of its branches are bare. The cycles and layers of symbiotic relationships go on and on. Who is to say which creature should live or which creature should go hungry?
The skeleton of a leaf eaten by catalpa worms

Saturday, July 2, 2011

My Number One Gardening Tip!

Yellow Squash Flower, Green Leaves, Iridecent Beetle

I don't have much of a green thumb. In fact, I can't seem to keep a house plant alive to save my life. So every gardening tip I give is golden since they are so rare. This year I heavily mulched my garden, as some of you might have seen last month. Just after mulching, I watered it heavily once or twice, and then left it to fend for itself. A week turned into a month and rain refused to fall. I stayed in town and didn not even touch the garden at Owls' Knob. I admit that I had a neighbor water it occasionally, but the heat and sunshine has been intense. When I went out to see the garden this past week I expected the worst. I was pleasantly surprised.

A heavily mulched garden is a happy one.

The greens, mostly varieties of kale, are thriving. But kale is one of the easiest plants to grow. They love the sun but don't mind shade too, they withstand drought well, and nothing really likes to eat it. I guess that includes most people too. I have been asked what the heck to do with kale and I will try to post some kale recipes soon. It is a great survival food for the gardener without a green thumb!

Zucchini Squash Plant
These squash plants were planted under poles for climbing beans because squash likes shade,
however the bean sprouts were mostly eaten by deer this year.

The squash is also rocking. Again, squash grows well here in the Ozarks. However, getting fruit off of it is another story. The squash bugs usually show up about the time the flowers fall off. These little grey bugs are easy to squish but they arrive in such numbers that it seems impossible to execute them before they execute the plant.

Cherry Tomatoes ripe for the picking

Cherry tomatoes always ripen before larger tomatoes. Often tomatoes seem to rot on the vine in this humidity before they are ever red. I have learned to pick them when they are yellow, like shown in the picture above, and then let them finish ripening on the kitchen windowsill.

Sprouting Okra

The mulch not only protected all of these plants and kept the ground moist, but it even allowed these okra seeds to sprout. It takes an extra amount of moisture to get seeds to sprout but lightly mulching with hay over freshly planted and watered soil seemed to work.

Marigolds standing guard at the mouth of the garden

Marigolds are lovely yellow and orange flowers, seen in the bottom of the photograph above, that repel insects. I had heard about their repelling qualities but never had much faith in them until now. This garden bed has many marigolds around it and the plants seems less burdened than other beds.

Sunflowers devastated by deer and Japanese beetles
Japanese beetles on young sunflower plants

However, the sunflowers didn't make it. Their leaves are loved by deer and the Japaneses beetles finished them off. The best deer deterrent I've found is a guard dog. As for beetles, farm stores sell pheromone bags for these pest. They work too well. My neighbors used them last year and my Japanese beetles flew almost a mile over the hill to get caught in their bags.

Zane's Fig Tree

The figs trees are doing better than all the other plants. I am particularly excited that the figs have survived and are thriving. Not only do I love figs, but this tree was planted as a sapling above my son's placenta on his birthday. Therefore, this is Zane's fig tree.

A cucumber plant that is not doing great but is not dead yet

So above all, mulch, mulch mulch! Though there are many other gardening tips thoughout this post, I believe the main reason I still have a garden at all is because I heavily mulched this year. Hay mulch works well but wood chips, leave mulch, or lawn chipings might also do the trick.

Now it is your turn, what tips do you have? It does not take an expert gardener to share gardening tips. Anyone who likes to get their hands dirty has a few up their sleeve. Please share your comments!