Monday, September 1, 2014

Today's Special Treat: Watching a Monarch Emerge

Caterpillar munching
on  milkweed on Aug. 19.
Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to babysit four monarch butterfly caterpillars for my friend Diane. In the past I have reared black swallowtail caterpillars, but monarchs have different needs.

First, they dine on milkweed. Second, they have very specific living conditions. In their early stages as a caterpillar, they need to be kept on a clean milkweed leaf that is placed on top of a damp paper towel. This paper towel needs to be changed almost daily for hygiene. The leaves need to be replaced between every 2-3 days to remain fresh. In addition, this paper towel/milkweed leaf combination is kept in a small plastic container with the lid ajar (to allow for air circulation) but to help keep moisture in.

As the caterpillars grow larger, they can live on a stem of milkweed in a small bud vase filled with fresh water. (Diane used recycled iced coffee drink containers which worked really well.)

Caterpillar prepares for chrysalis, Aug. 21. 
While I was babysitting the four caterpillars for a week, one entered the chrysalis stage about two days after coming to live with me (see photo at right). The second caterpillar was about ready to enter chrysalis when it was time to return home. The smaller two caterpillars continually grew in size. A few times I worried they weren't doing too well, but then I learned through reading online that periods of stillness meant molting is about to occur. (MonarchWatch has a detailed page on the life stages of the monarch butterfly.)

The chrysalis stage of the monarch butterfly, photo taken on Aug. 22.
Luckily, my four charges did well under my care. Diane let me keep the first caterpillar that entered chrysalis under my watch (see the photo above).

Today, this caterpillar became a beautiful (female) butterfly. (Live Monarch has a helpful page in figuring out if the butterfly is male or female.)

But she took her time in coming out.

The coloring of her pupa began to lose its green hue last night. It gradually became more transparent as the night went on. The wings were visible inside.

Early this morning, the wings were visible.
For four hours this morning, I kept vigil. (I found it hard to focus on anything else!) I didn't want to miss it. I learned that the top part of the pupa had to lengthen before the butterfly would emerge. (In the photo below, it is the upper top right portion - the gold pointy line lowered a little as the top stretched.) This is the area where oxygen enters through tiny holes, which helps the butterfly breathe and emerge. (For more information, check out this page.)

And then, at 12:09 p.m. - magic happened.

Letting her wings dry.
Learning how to use her wings.
Set free in the garden. She humored me for about 10 minutes for photos,
then she was on her way.
Butterfly weed in bloom.
I hope I can find more monarch caterpillars in the next few days and weeks to raise again. It was so much fun to keep an eye on her as she grew. The area where I kept her, under my grow lights, seems empty now.

Needless to say, it's important to help monarch butterflies because their numbers have been steadily declining over the years due to increased pesticide use and land development. In both cases, the host plant of monarch butterflies - milkweed - has been greatly reduced.

You can help monarch butterflies by not only growing plants that provide nectar, but by growing milkweed and butterfly weed in your garden. These two plants act as host plants for female monarch butterflies to lay eggs on. Milkweed is the preferred plant, but I have seen monarch caterpillars settle for butterfly weed in the past, as seen in the photo below from September 2012.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Floral Friday: Vacation Day

Normally Floral Friday reflects how my garden looks at this point in the growing season. However, this week brings me to sunny, breezy Rhode Island, so I decided that instead of skipping the feature, I would instead highlight some of the beautiful flowers I have discovered here.

The majority of the flowers are reblooming roses that can be found on the Salve Regina University campus in Newport. (Photos this week are taken with the iPhone.) Enjoy!

What's blooming in your garden this week?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Recipe: Tomato Soup

Banana Legs is a nice paste tomato.
I'm in the midst of tomato season at my house. It's been a very good, prolific year, which is a nice change because the last few years have not had the best yields. (Perhaps this year's dry growing season is the reason.)

Nevertheless, I'm trying to use up tomatoes in ways besides making sauce. (Last year I made a big batch of tomato sauce and froze it, but it got buried in the freezer and forgotten about. I haven't mastered canning, with the main hurdle being my ceramic cooktop stove.)

So I am trying to find other creative ways to use up my tomato harvest, besides the obvious tomatoes with mozzarella and bacon lettuce and tomato sandwiches.

This year, after growing Banana Legs tomatoes for the first time, I decided to make yellow tomato soup! 

Here is the recipe I use. It is enough for one large serving of tomato soup. If you need to feed more people, double the recipe.

4 cups of chopped tomatoes
1 medium white onion, cut in half (save the half that won't be used for something else)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped up into small pieces.
2 cups of chicken broth (you can use vegetable broth as a substitute)
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp all purpose flour
salt, to taste
1 tsp sugar (not needed with yellow paste tomatoes since they are sweeter to begin with)

 First, slice up your tomatoes.

Add the chopped onion and garlic. 

Add the chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Boil gently for 20 minutes. 

It should look like the above photo after 20 minutes. Remove from heat and run the mixture through a strainer. (I don't mind if some pieces of onion or garlic get through, or tomato seeds.)

In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour to make a roux, until medium brown. Gradually mix in a bit of the strained tomatoes. Make sure there are no lumps. Add another small addition of the strained tomatoes. Then add this roux to the strained tomato soup. Stir well. Season with salt and sugar to taste.

Makes a generous one portion serving. If you are having grilled cheese or something else with your soup, you can get more servings of soup.

What do you make with your tomatoes?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

'My God, I Lost Half of Me!' - Give Your Hydrangeas Motivation to Grow

A beautiful oakleaf hydrangea in Rhode Island.
MIDDLEFIELD, Conn. - Is it time to prune your hydrangeas?

That depends on which of the five varieties of hydrangeas you grow.

Chris Valley, a wholesale plant representative from Prides Corner Farms, Inc., recently visited Country Flower Farms to demonstrate how to successfully prune hydrangeas. (Hydrangea macrophylla - the most popular category - is covered in a separate post found here.)

Hydrangea Quercifolia
Valley's favorite hydrangea is the oakleaf hydrangea, which is a "pretty easy plant to grow." It is hardy to USDA Zone 5 in well-drained soil. It has exfoliating bark which also adds to its design appeal.

"If we didn't cut it, the plant would have no reason to push out new growth," Valley said. "After you cut it off, the plant says, 'My God, I lost half of me!' and will start to grow again."

Hydrangea paniculata blooming
in late August.
This variety of hydrangea does best in part shade and blooms from June to early July. The flowers open white and fade to pink as they age. The leaves will turn a burgundy color in the fall and the flowers (now brown) will stay on the plant all winter long, which can provide winter interest for the garden.

This variety of hydrangea is lightly pruned every year. Reference books agree that this plant blooms on old wood (which typically means pruning now in late summer), but Valley has had success pruning them in the spring by a third.

"Every five years, prune out the old wood to spur new growth inside," he said. "Once it fills back in it will look much better."

Hydrangea Paniculata
Hydrangea paniculata
"Paniculata hydrangeas are tough plants," Valley said. "You have all winter and early spring to prune it back. If you prune in early spring, you end up with larger flowers. If you prune in fall, you get much sturdier stems but smaller flowers."

This variety of hydrangea blooms on new wood, has the ability to reach 6 to 8 feet tall and wide, and will grow in full sun to part shade. A few examples of paniculata hydrangeas are Limelight and Pinky Winky.

Pruning paniculata hydrangeas is a good garden chore for the first warm day of spring when gardeners need an excuse to be outside. "You take about a third of the plant off to increase branches in the growing season," Valley said. When pruning, make sure the cuts are uniform so the entire plant grows at the same rate. "After five years, take out the main branches to reinvigorate the plant and spur new growth."

Hydrangea paniculata
"If you never prune them, the rain will make [the flowers] flop down, and it's hard to get them back up," he said. "An unpruned one will look more wild. A pruned one will be a nice bush," he said.

For the paniculatas offered in tree form, Valley recommended pruning them "hard" for the first couple of years while the branches are still in reach. When it gets to be a tree it will already have its shape. It is hardy to USDA Zone 4.

Hydrangea Arborescens
The most popular varieties in this category are Incrediball, Annabelle and Invincibelle Spirit for either their pink or white flowers.

It is hardy to USDA Zone 4 and will grow in full sun to part shade, roughly 4 to 6 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide.

"This is essential to prune in late fall or early spring, said Valley. The flower buds are formed in late spring and early summer. According to Valley's handout, this plant responds well to being cut back to about 10 inches above the ground to encourage stronger stems and larger flowers. He demonstrates how to prune this variety in the video below:

Hydrangea Anomala 'Petiolaris'
Climbing hydrangea grows
along a brick lamppost.
The climbing hydrangea is the easiest of hydrangeas to grow in that it usually does not require pruning. It can be trained to grow on a wall or trellis, or even a brick or concrete wall. "On places you can't get a clematis or wisteria to vine on - this will work," he said. It climbs by aerial rootlets and does well in full sun to part shade.

Firefly is one of the more popular varieties due to its variegated leaves. The slightly fragrant flowers are 6 to 10 inches across, and it blooms in June for two to three weeks. If pruning is necessary, the best time to do so is right after flowering. The main stems of the plant resemble a tree. "If you saw one of [the stems] off, it will spur new growth," Valley said, which can help fill in barren areas.

It is an adaptable hydrangea, but does very well in rich, well-drained moist soil. It is hardy to USDA Zone 4.

Hydrangea paniculata

A tree form of Hydrangea paniculata.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Floral Friday

What a busy week it has been! Life has kept me away from the garden momentarily, but I did manage to sneak in a little time to photograph flowers for this week's Floral Friday. (Excuse the iPhone photos, the camera batteries were charging!) While there are plenty of flowers still blooming, I unfortunately lost my zinnias to an unknown assailant.

Zinnias beheaded.
Argh! Rabbit? Groundhog? Who knows. But the zinnias that I sowed in July are now beheaded, so it looks like there won't be any blooms from them this year.

But, on a positive note, here is a collection of what is blooming this week in the garden. There are plenty of busy bees, which I'm happy to see in multitudes.


Joe Pye Weed

Perennial sweet pea, growing along with sweet autumn clematis, one of my favorite
flowers, not yet in bloom - but soon!

Butterfly weed

Perennial geranium

Besides the flowers shown above, most of the garden is taking on a green hue again. Another gap in color, which I hope to correct for next year. What's blooming in your garden this week?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Floral Friday

It seems as if every flower in the garden is competing for best in show this week.

"No, I'm bigger!"

"No, I'm showier!"

"I'm prettier!"

Here are the finalists - I'll let you decide who wins.

Poor hibiscus with sawfly damage ... but look at that color!

I'm lucky that my gladiolus come back every year without me digging them up.

Beauty in numbers for Black Eye Susans.

Love this daylily - it's blooming now when the rest have stopped.

Look at the ruffles! (!!!!)

I know this is the bee's favorite (sedum).

"Sloam Double Standard" Daylily. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

August Garden Chores

Sweet Autumn Clematis is one of my favorite flowers, which begins to bloom at the end of this month.
August is a fast month in the garden with hot days and the slow advancement toward less daylight. To get the most out of your garden this month, here are some guidelines that I will be following.

Seed Starting
Now is the time to divide rhizome irises.
Sow carrot, beet, lettuce, radish, spinach and pea seeds now for a fall crop. I'm going to plant some in my cold frame, too, so I can extend the crops when the days get colder.

Prune hydrangeas now for flowers next summer. There is a short three-week window to do this in August; after that, the plants will put their energy into creating flower buds for next year. Read more here.

Cover Crops
As vegetable areas are harvested, start sowing cover crops to help condition the soil this fall and over the winter. I like to use High Mowing Seed's hairy vetch and winter rye mix.

Divide Irises
This can be started in July and continued throughout this month in the Northeast. Irises should be divided every three to five years, or when clumps start to lack flowers. There's a helpful article on dividing and transplanting rhizome iris here.

The garden usually needs help this month with water, so keep an eye on plants. The best time to water is in the morning.

Poor perennial hibiscus with sawfly damage.
Keep shaking Japanese beetles into cups of soapy water to get rid of them. The best time to do this is in the morning or early evening hours, when they are not as active. Have you applied neem oil to your perennial hibiscus? I forgot to this year and the hibiscus sawfly is having a field day eating the leaves. The plants are flowering now.

Now is the time to figure out where you want to plant and what you want to order for spring blooming bulbs. Typically, the earlier your order, the better the availability.

Remember to get outside and enjoy the flowers! Summer is fleeting - onward!