Well, nature is cruel, and yesterday I witnessed a downy woodpecker pecking at the bee babies in my bee condo. (I had the camera with me because I’ve been trying with no luck to get a photo of a hummingbird who has been frequenting the yard for several days.) This morning, I checked the condo and found all of the mud-plug holes had been dug out — so either the bees all hatched at once or there is a very full woodpecker somewhere in my neighborhood. On the good news side, literally swarms of bees have been around my garden this summer, especially near the raspberry plants. I’m hoping to be very full of raspberries in another week or two.
Archive for the ‘Critters’ Category
Nearly every spring, I have to remove a nest or two of Eastern Tent Caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) from the apple trees in our yard. This year appears to be a good year for the caterpillars as I’ve pulled four nests out so far. Eastern tent caterpillars build their silky, web-like nests in the crotches of cherry and apple trees. The caterpillars feed on the tree foliage for a few weeks before pupating into a moth.
While most sources say the caterpillars will not kill a tree, they can defoliate one pretty thoroughly, so I’ve generally tried to get rid of them. These caterpillars nest in groups and the nests themselves are interesting to watch as the caterpillars move in and out several times a day to feed. I don’t like to use pesticides, so I remove the nests (the best time is right before dawn or dusk when most of the caterpillars are at home) by cutting off the branch where the nest is and burning the nest. For more information on caterpillars, check this site out.
Well, there I was, feeling all zen about having a mole in my backyard, recognizing the great things about moles and feeling very accepting of critters in general. Then, I went outside yesterday to set out some winter sowing containers and what should I discover in the melting snow but the distinctive tracks of not moles, but voles. You can see the tracks in the photo right behind my dog Lily’s backside and running across the yard. Looks like Lily is on the scent, though she is way too old and slow to catch anything. What we need are a few more hawks around here.
Unlike moles, which generally are solitary creatures and not that harmful to plantings, voles can wreck havoc with trees and shrubs. They also reproduce wildly, with female voles ready to start making babies at three weeks of age. Yikes! I’m not sure what will be my plan of action in the spring. Apparently vole populations tend to hit a peak every four years and it looks like we’re in that peak.
Like many northern gardeners, I’ve battled critters pretty much as long as I’ve gardened. At my old house, the issue was raccoons, who had a cozy home in the storm sewer under our street. At my current house, we’ve dealt with mice, pocket gophers, and most recently moles and beavers. Unlike many northern gardeners, deer are not a problem where I live.
If they are a problem where you live, however, run out right now and get Neil Soderstrom’s new book, Deer Resistant Landscaping: Proven Advice and Strategies for Outwitting Deer and 20 Other Pesky Mammals. Soderstrom offers a sane approach to dealing with unwanted garden visitors. Readers learn why these creatures are in our landscapes, what their role in the environment is, and what you can do to discourage their presence or live peacefully with them. The book focuses first and foremost on deer, including in-depth profiles of nearly 200 plants deer don’t like.
While that is extremely helpful information, it’s Soderstrom’s discussion of animal behavior that is most interesting. For instance, expectant deer mothers become very territorial. They spend most of the year traveling with other female relatives, but when they are close to delivery, they head out on their own. Opossums, which seem more prevalent here the last couple of years, move their dens every few nights, and while they can be a terror if they get in your garage, opossums are helpful in that they feed heavily on snails and keep the populations of mice and voles down. Mice enjoy making nests in the spare tire well of cars and while voles breed pretty much constantly, moles breed only once a year.
If you have a critter problem, but aren’t sure what it is, Deer Resistant Landscaping has photos to help you identify it, including shots of animal tracks, tunneling and burrowing systems, mug shots of the various suspects, and critter doo-doo pictures. What I really liked about the book is that Soderstrom helps homeowners consider their options carefully. For instance, the mole who was bugging me last summer is actually eating a lot of bugs in my yard and there’s likely only one mole, so maybe doing nothing — and adjusting how I mow the lawn to camouflage his tunnels – - is the best bet. Soderstrom offers practical advice on how to dispatch animals in the least inhumane way possible and he’s quick to point to the situations that really demand a professional. (Transporting a skunk: No, thank you!)
For sound and responsible advice on dealing with critters, you can’t do much better than this book.
Today I completed a really unpleasant, but totally necessary job. I disassembled and moved my compost pile in an attempt to get rid of habitat that I suspect has been attracting undesirables to our yard.
For several months, bunnies have been running rampant in my garden, nibbling beans down to the nub and leaving their calling cards around for my dog, Lily, to munch on. (Yuck.) I knew we had another animal in the yard, too, but the signs were less clear. Walking across the grass, I would sometimes feel the ground give under my foot. Then, I started to notice tunnel-like patterns, with raised areas, which sometimes (not always) were raised again the day after I would push them down. My neighbor’s cat, Leo, started hanging out in the yard. But, unlike the pocket gophers who tormented me two summers ago, these critters did not leave huge mounds of dirt in the yard that seemed to scream, “Ha, ha, let’s pretend you’re Bill Murray in Caddyshack!”
Recently, a neighbor, who grew up on a farm and knows all about critters, confirmed that we likely have a mole. I’ve also noticed chew marks on one of my smaller trees, which might indicated voles, too. One of the standard ways to deal with critters is to remove potential habitat, such as a messy compost pile. Oh-oh. My bad.
My compost pile, which grew to two piles over the past couple of years, is not one of those neat, enclosed affairs turning out black gold every six weeks. The first pile was enclosed in a wire cage, about 4 feet across and 4 feet high. The height of the cage made it hard for me to turn it, and consequently, I did not, and it seemed nothing ever rotted in there. It became a pile of dry weeds and sticks. So, I started a second pile next to it. At first, this was just a pile of sod removed from the yard to which I’d add spent perennials, weedings, and vegetable kitchen scraps. This baby rotted like crazy, which I think was mostly due to the dirt clinging to the sod that was the foundation of the pile and the fact that I could flip it around without climbing on a ladder.
Well, it took a couple of afternoons of work, but both piles have been flattened. I did not find any critters or obvious critter nests, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. Here’s the good news: Both piles yielded a remarkable amount of compost. After I took apart the cage and pulled all the dry stuff off the top of the first pile, I pulled out four wheel-barrows full of gorgeous compost that had sunk to the bottom. The second pile yielded three smaller wheel-barrows of compost. I spread most of this on my raspberry and vegetable beds. I took a big load of the dry stuff to the Northfield compost heap, which is open through Nov. 16, and I also started a smaller, open compost pile closer to the vegetable garden.
What to do next year? I’m not sure. While doing research for this post, I came across this video on how to make a raised compost bin that you can rotate, mostly using things from around the house. It’s a good idea, and the couple in the video are kind of cute.
Final note: The cherry tree with the bite marks on it now has a nice collar of hardware cloth to prevent future chewing, I hope.
As has been blogged about elsewhere, a beaver family has taken up residence in my neighborhood. At first, I found the beavers fascinating, watching them swim in the pond and seeing their dam get built, and then rebuilt after the city pulled it down several weeks ago, listening for the slap of their tails on the water. Others spotted the beavers toddling around the wild area, looking larger than expected. Now, as fascinating as these creatures remain, I’m feeling a bit threatened as well.
The beavers have pretty much cleared out the trees that they are likely to go for in an area one of my neighbors refers to as “the flats,” that is the public land and a couple of private lots closest to the beaver dam. Our property is about an eighth of a mile away from the dam and just a short distance from one of the beaver ponds. I’m pretty sure a hungry beaver could make the trip easily. So, with that in mind, I have surrounded several trees in our backyard with hardware wire.
According to several beaver sites, beavers prefer aspen trees–and, indeed, the yard that has suffered the most beaver damage so far had a beautiful stand of aspen on it. But beavers also like willow, cottonwood, birch, maple, oak, and cherry trees. I have a couple of nice oaks and a cherry in my yard, as well as two conveniently placed (if you are a beaver) apple trees. I didn’t wrap any of the bushes…at least not yet.
Anyone know what kind of bugs these green guys are? They pretty much destroyed the flower head of this sunflower, and I have seen the bugs in other gardens, too. I checked the Minnesota Extension insect site and my guess is it is some kind of aphid. That makes sense in that yesterday I discovered a batch of these creepy red aphids on black-eyed Susans in the front garden. My usual attitude toward bugs is disdainful tolerance, though I removed the stalks of the black-eyed Susans, since they were spent anyway.
I did not have my camera with me, but I spotted a monarch in my front garden yesterday afternoon. It’s perhaps the third one I’ve seen this year, compared to dozens in a normal year. The prevailing theory about the monarch shortage is that it is weather related–cold spring, dry summer.
A surprise encounter with the fellow at left and a recent post on GreenGirls, the Star-Tribune’s entertaining garden blog, got me thinking about butterflies and caterpillars recently. The Green Girls note that butterfly numbers appear to be down in their gardens. While I’ve seen butterflies recently–mostly white ones, but a few monarchs as well–I have not had the abundance of them that have been in my gardens in the past.
My garden is not a butterfly garden, per se, but it has many prairie plants and they seem to attract their share of interesting insects. Yesterday, while picking raspberries, I found the caterpillar in the top photo. It took a little poking around, but it turns out it is the caterpillar that becomes the white-marked tussock moth, a very common, very plain moth. The one at left, I found on my parsley plants. According to this bug web site, which I encourage every parent of 7-year-olds or other children who like creepy things to check out immediately, the caterpillar is nicknamed the “parsley worm” and will eventually become a black swallowtail butterfly. I’ve seen those in my yard many times, and am happy to sacrifice a little parsley to their growth.
Are you seeing more butterflies or fewer this year?
Since envy is one of the seven deadly sins, is zone envy a particularly egregious offense for gardeners? If so, I am guilty after a trip to Chicago this weekend. I went to help my daughter, a student at Loyola University, move home for the summer. Early Friday morning, I left Minnesota amid wind, cold, and threats of snow showers. Traveling across Wisconsin, I was pelted by heavy rain. But on Loyola’s pleasant urban campus, there were azaleas in bloom, tulips filling the planters, flowering crabapples, and near the shore of Lake Michigan, a planter filled with blooming (blooming!!!) roses. Chicago is in zone 5, according to the USDA map, only one zone lower than Minnesota, but the lake may moderate temperatures even more on the campus. Fortunately, I was able to ease my suffering with a bit of retail therapy at Ferraro’s Garden Spot, a small garden store near the hotel we stayed in. Ferraro’s had a good selection of Jackson and Perkins roses, so I bought two: ‘Purple Passion’ and, not surprisingly, ‘Iceberg.’
UPDATE and ADDITION: After I wrote this post, we were back on campus, and what should appear but this fox. My daughter had a startling late-night encounter with a fox several weeks ago. Apparently, the fox is a regular on campus. (Keep in mind, these photos were taken near a building overlooking Lake Michigan and less than a block from North Sheridan Road, a very busy intersection.)