I have trouble focusing on just one thing in the garden.  This is an important time to be planting early spring vegetables and thinking about producing food, but I am also keeping my eye on the beauty of the flowers and taking a little time to clean them up and weed around the beds.  I love seeing the trees and shrubs starting to leaf out and bloom.  Even the lawn must be attended to a little.  In all the activity I am always watching birds and even what is crawling in the compost pile.  Like I said, I have trouble focusing and specializing.  I just dabble in whatever interests me at the moment.

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Serviceberry amelanchier laevis.  This native serviceberry is blooming now with a promise of sweet berries in June.  It grew so much this past year that I am guessing it is eight feet tall now and is solidly established after a slow start.

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Another native shrub – spicebush lindera benzoin.  It looks like this shrub could use some pruning, but the tiny yellow flowers are just starting to bloom.  There are no berries here, but it is a host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly.  Actually, I think I might get berries if I had a second spicebush for cross-pollination.  You can see the serviceberry bush in the background.

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I spent quite a while yesterday morning cleaning up four strawberry patches I have around the garden.  First I cleaned out dead leaves and pulled up runners.  I moved some of the smaller plants to new locations.  I put down compost between the plants and watered it in then laid down straw from my ornamental grasses between the plants.  That keeps the strawberries off the ground and there are less problems with pests and diseases.  Can’t wait!

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Time to eat these onions.  This weekend I planted more onion bulbs, red potatoes, and seeds for peas, kale, pak choi, turnips, and lettuce.  I am also trying spinach again, which I have never had much success with.  These plants all do well in cool weather.  There never seems to be enough room for all the vegetables I want to plant, so I mix them in with the flowers or pull up more grass to plant more food.

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A project for the weekend was putting in two poles for laundry.  Previously we only had one laundry line.  Thanks Dan!!  The green side of me likes to limit my use of the gas dryer whenever possible.  In the background you can see the red leaves of the crabapple.  In the foreground the common lilac is getting ready to bloom.  On the left are the strawberries.  The yellow daffodils are still looking good, but starting to wind down in some areas.

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This is one of the later daffodils with white petals and a yellow trumpet.

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Another late daffodil with a peach colored trumpet.  I am glad to see these flowers multiplying each year.

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I started to turn the compost pile yesterday, but realized that the shovel I was using was likely to slice a lot of worms in half and kill other critters in the pile, so I went and got this pitchfork.  It is called a 5-tine manure fork.  Now I really feel like a farmer!  I need to finish turning the pile.  Parts of the pile were steaming but other parts seemed a little slimy, so it needs some oxygen.  We have gotten a lot of leaves blowing in from the neighbor’s yards this year, while I appreciated and added to the pile.

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I disturbed a nice worm while cleaning up the oregano patch.  The worms improve the structure of the soil and eat organic material like bits of dead leaves, then poop out worm castings, which are great fertilizer.

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Wild violets are blooming in the lawn and here among the ground cover plants.  Such a delicate design!  I am not sure what I will do to improve the front lawn this year.  I would like a nice organic lawn service to make it look good!  The back lawn, which I do not worry much about, is full of creeping charlie, my least favorite plant.

Notice:  At some point this blog will run out of storage space.  At that point I am thinking of starting a new blog that will refer back to this blog.  I guess I will do this when I have to and I am not sure when that will be.  I don’t feel like paying for the additional storage space indefinitely.


Last week we took a short trip to Florida.  On a day that forecast some rain we headed with our umbrellas to the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida.  It is a little north of the Everglades and it was just a fascinating morning.  Everywhere we turned we saw a captivating bit of natural wonder.  In fact our admission fee was good for two days, so we returned the next morning and saw more birds.

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I believe this is a Prothonotary Warbler.  Dan took this picture of a migrating bird that the Audubon guide told us had just come to the swamp two days earlier.

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The first day a guide along the walkway stopped us to point out this barred owl.  We were also able to located two quite large babies in two nearby locations.  The mother was keeping track of them and maybe taking a few daytime naps, too.

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The next day we saw two different barred owl babies that were still way up in a bald cypress tree.  You can see the face of one and some feathers below of the second owl.

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Landmark Cypress 8.  There were 12 landmark cypress trees, each with a little story about their backgrounds printed nearby.  Many of these trees are 400 to 500 years old.  Think about that!  The vines surrounding the tree trunk are strangler figs.  The owls seemed to make nests high up in bald cypress trees.

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We saw this Anhinga on the same branch both days.  It apparently spreads its wings to dry them out.

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Great Egret.  These birds were almost killed to extinction for the plumes used to decorate women’s hats.  The Audubon Society was created to stop this slaughter.  These birds are still threatened by agriculture and development, which has been taking away their habitat.

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Lettuce Lake at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  Birds, alligators, and turtles are among the residents of this pond in the bald cypress swamp.

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A little blue heron hunts on lettuce lake.  It was walking on top of this “lettuce.”

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We got many nice pictures of this little blue heron, but I like this one where you can see the plumes fluffed up.

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Nearby was an immature little blue heron, which still had its white coloring.  I was so thankful for the Audubon guide who quickly identified the pictures on my camera, or I would have been confused by this one.

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While a group of us had stopped to look at the Anhinga, an alligator emerged from the swamp and everyone became silent as they observed this creature we had all been hoping to see.

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Florida Redbelly Turtle at Lettuce Lake.

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Gray Catbird.  I had a distant picture of a catbird in the cypress trees, but after we finished our walk this bird came up to our table hoping for some crumbs.

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Red-shouldered Hawk.  On our second visit to corkscrew swamp sanctuary this hawk let us take several pictures while he kept an eye on us.

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Red-shouldered Hawk.

Other sightings included:  a blue-gray gnatcatcher, a great-crested flycatcher, a black-crowned night heron, many white ibis, black vultures, zebra longwing butterflies, and what appeared to be an eastern mud snake.

As I write, Dan is cooking and we are listening to an audio book called “The Dirty Life” by Kristen Kimball.  I saw it recommended on a garden blog and checked it out from the library.  It is a story about a city woman who marries a farmer and their experiences on an organic farm.  It is great fun, since Dan grew up on a farm, and can relate to the stories.  Since I don’t raise food full-time it is fun to hear of others who do this and to follow their adventures.

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This is one of the farm implements at Lake Katherine, where I went for a walk this morning.  This reminds us of a time when farms were small, so they were more manageable for people who wanted to try to make a living this way.

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I have never ordered from this company, but they seemed to have a lot of perennials that I am usually looking for.  I ordered purple monarda and venus heliopsis for my little meadow, to add flowers to the tall grass.  I also bought yellow butterfly weed and a small butterfly bush.  I ordered two kinds of mums to go along the east fence, a hakonechloa grass for a shady spot, and a peppermint ice hellebore for an early winter flower.  My goal is to have flowers from early spring to late fall to keep the bees, butterflies and insects happy.  I also ordered tomato and pepper transplants from Seed Savers Exchange again.

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The snow pack is very deep in the back yard.  It may be a long spring thaw.  The hoop has been covered by snow for many weeks, so I do not know what is going on under the plastic.  It has been too cold to want to investigate.

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I have two buckets of kitchen scraps that need to go in the compost pile, shown in the back of this picture.  This is the first time that it has been such a challenge to get the compost in the pile in winter.

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Squirrel munches on crabapples.  It is a challenging time for wildlife with the deep snow cover.

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Vegetarian kale soup.  I cooked up some soup yesterday and put most of it in the freezer to have when I get home from days at work.  It was really tasty!

The freezing weather is coming this week, but there is still a lot of life in the backyard.

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Kale flowers and cabbage white butterfly.  I always called this a cabbage moth until I looked it up now online and see that it is really a butterfly.  The caterpillars like cabbage, so it makes sense, since I have so many brassica plants in the garden.

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Virginia ctenucha moth on spice bush.  This is a day-flying moth and the caterpillars eat grass.  That makes sense since I have several clumps of switch grass nearby.  You cannot see the body of the moth, but it is dark blue.

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Woolly bear caterpillar.  I understand that these caterpillars actually freeze during the winter.  Eventually it will become an Isabella tiger moth.

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Painted lady butterfly on yellow zinnia.  I have fewer zinnias and mums in the yard this year, which may be why I have fewer butterflies.

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Some of the fennel flowers have turned to seed now.  I ate a few of them yesterday and the licorice flavor is strong.  I ended up spitting them out.  Maybe I will just try one seed at a time next time.  No wonder I have so many volunteer fennel plants in the yard.

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Rozanne geranium after the rain.

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There are still plenty of flowers on the Russian sage.  I saw the bees buzzing around this plant this morning.

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Dusty miller is an annual that I planted last year and it survived through the mild winter.  It is looking pretty healthy, but I wonder if it will survive another winter.

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Leaves of viburnum dentatum – ‘blue muffin.’

Cooking adventure:  My friend teased me about making kale cake, but seriously we have a lot of kale that we need to be creative with.  So yesterday we blanched a batch of kale and froze it in two freezer bags.  Hopefully having it picked, washed, and cut up will make it easy to add to whatever we are cooking this winter.

Magnifying Grass

September 29, 2013

Turf grass is something we have to have in the suburbs in our front yard.  Unfortunately our organic grass does not look as great as the grass our neighbors meticulously care for.  So yesterday Dan rolled an aerator around the lawn and I spread some fertilizer and grass seed.  I watered a little and it rained some, so hopefully things will improve.

In the back yard I am much more interested in ornamental grasses and native grasses that are becoming more prominent this time of year, and will last through the winter.

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The pink seed heads of Korean feather reed grass – calamagrostis brachytricha.  In the back are white boltonia flowers.

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The zebra grass in the drought garden by the patio has its red seed heads this week.  The variegated, banded leaves are beautiful all summer, but the tall seed heads add something special in the fall.

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A close up of the zebra grass show what looks like little yellow flowers, which I assume will become grass seed.

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Miscanthus sinenesis ‘morning light’ at dawn.  I have two of these large grasses in the yard and this is where I often find praying mantis egg sacs hidden.

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Cabbage moth rest on miscanthus ‘morning light.’  You can see that the stalks are just getting ready to produce the white seed heads. Damselflies like to rest on the leaves in the summer.

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‘Little bunny’ dwarf fountain grass – pennisetum alopecuroides.  These grasses are very small, but I thought this one was cute in August.

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In my mini-meadow I let turf grass go to seed.  The grasshoppers and crickets do well here.  I also planted two kinds of little bluestem grasses in this area, along with a giant sacaton grass.  In another area of the yard I have several varieties of panicum switch grass.  I like to try out these native grasses and cultivars of native grasses.  Some of these grasses act as fillers while I wait for shrubs to grow up.  Then I remove the grasses as the shrub border takes over.

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In the same theme, the butterfly weed seed is getting ready to take flight.  I still have not seen any monarch caterpillars or butterflies this year.

I wondered what would happen to my four black swallowtail caterpillars in the parsley.  They all seem to be gone now.  One evening this week I saw one of the caterpillars taking a long crawl across the patio, where it disappeared behind a brick near some ground cover.  I guess it had a plan…

Part of the fun of encouraging biodiversity is seeing all the little critters this time of year.  I try to have something blooming from March through November, if possible, and that gives opportunities for many species to survive.
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The sedum is even busier this weekend.  This praying mantis has been sitting on the sedum all weekend.  It did not actually snatch anything while I was watching.  The painted lady butterfly was on the sedum all weekend, too.

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Side view of painted lady butterfly on sedum.

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Also on the sedum were this little skipper butterfly and many kinds of bees and flies.  I can see why the praying mantis hangs out here.  There was also a little yellow sulphur butterfly, I am not exactly sure which kind of sulphur it was.  I can’t show pictures all the species that were on the sedum!

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Praying mantis blends in on miscanthus “morning light” ornamental grass.  This one has a reddish brown color and looks a bit like a leaf or twig.

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Last week I was cleaning up some leaves and scared out this brown paying mantis that has been hanging in the hostas and yew plants, where there are a lot of crickets and spiders.

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I have seen clear-winged moths flying around the yard this week, so I decided to look for tomato hornworms.  I found one right away on the tomato plant, but the predator wasps had found it first and laid their eggs in it.  You can see the white babies hatching out of the hornworm and using it as nutrition to get their start in life.  It’s a wild world….

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Last week I mentioned that I found a black swallowtail caterpillar and moved it to this bunch of parsley.

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What a surprise later in the week to find I had not one but four black swallowtail caterpillars chewing on my parsley.  Can you see three in this picture?  I have a little less parsley to eat, but hope some of them make it to the butterfly stage.

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These spiders make the really big webs all over the garden.  This week I found her in the vegetable garden with a web across the path between two huge kale plants.

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It was beautiful weather on Saturday, so Dan and I bought some half-inch pvc pipe and put up hoops so we are ready to cover plastic over this part of the garden when the frosts come.  While we were getting started Dan saw the end of a snake slip into the kale behind us.  I have not seen the snake this year, but am glad it is there, even though I really don’t like to meet up with it!  I also have seen several little toads around the yard, so I know the visiting cats have not eliminated all the biodiversity.

Cooking:  Dan just cooked a delicious kale and potato soup to last us though the busy days of the week.

It was  96 degrees on Tuesday and will only be 65 degrees today in the Chicago area.  It has been so dry, but today we have a light drizzle.  We could really use a soaking rain!

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The sweet autumn clematis has been blooming on top of my laundry pole.  It is always difficult to get a good picture of these flowers, since they are up on a pole.  I had to climb on a wooden stool to get this picture.

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I enjoy looking at the clematis from the kitchen window.  You can see how brown the lawn has become after so many dry, hot days.

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I think this is an eastern carpenter bee on the sedum, which is getting very pink now.  There are so many different bees and flies visiting these flowers.  One day I saw a red admiral butterfly visiting, but did not get a picture.

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This week I ate breakfast in the garden before work several days.  Then I would have to take a few pictures before brushing my teeth and getting in the car.

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I enjoyed the sunrise while eating breakfast in the garden.

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Rainbow Swiss Chard.  On the right the two little blue flowers are wonder of staffa asters.  Last year they were so prolific and this year they finally put out two tiny flowers.  As the days get shorter I have less time before and after work to take pictures in daylight.

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Grasshopper on rhubarb leaves.  I love taking pictures of grasshoppers!

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A few nasturtiums are stretching out around the garden.  The nasturtium seeds I planted two weeks ago sprouted some little leaves.  I wonder if they will grow enough to bloom before the frost.

Bird and moth story:  We went with some friends to the Morton Arboretum on Friday evening.  As sunset approached we were near the hedge garden where they had tall annuals between the trimmed hedges.  There were many clear-winged moths sipping nectar at the flowers as well as at least one hummingbird.  (No camera with me, though our friend took pictures.)  Our friends’ little girls were playing hide and seek in the hedges and it was a delightfully peaceful evening.

September Snapshots

September 8, 2013

Things are drying up in the garden, but if you wander around there are some interesting things happening.

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Pink phlox.  These planted themselves in my yard a few years ago.

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The pink turtlehead flowers continue to bloom.  Below, the yellow mums are getting ready to re-bloom and in the back are yellow nasturtium.  Yesterday morning I walked out with my camera and saw a hummingbird working over the turtlehead flowers.  My camera cannot capture the hummingbird, but I spent about 5 minutes watching this cute little green bird flying from plant to plant.  Finally it landed on big kale leaves where is took a bird bath in the dew-laden leaves.   Very cute!

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Yucca plant in the agave family.  After the beautiful white flowers on this plant earlier this summer I just let the stalks go brown.  Finally the seed pods pop open and you can see the seeds inside.  Last year the woodpeckers pecked away at this plant seeking the grubs that sometimes live in this plant.

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Speaking of seeds, I noticed these pumpkin seeds in an area of the vegetable garden.  Was it a squirrel?  Seeds are a good treat for the wildlife this time of year.

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I have been eating a juicy strawberry every day or two.  The best ones are in this container on the patio these days.

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This is the first time I have grown brussel sprouts.  The plant is getting pretty tall.  I hope the brussel sprouts don’t get eaten by the grubs from the cabbage moths.  They look pretty good so far.  We have a ton of collards and kale in the yard now…

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This volunteer wax bean plant has been doing well as I have been watering some new seeds.  The lettuce plants, kale, and turnips are doing well.

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I finally saw my first black swallowtail caterpillar, only because this parsley plant is dying and there is no food for it.  I moved the caterpillar over to my other parsley plant, the host food for these caterpillars.

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I came back ten minutes later and could not find the caterpillar.  It is good at disguising itself!

Cooking discovery:  I have never really eaten pesto.  However, I am trying to find ways to use up some of my kale, and found this easy kale pesto recipe.


After I started making it in the blender I realized it should have been in a food processor.  I eventually got a chunky blend.  Yesterday I mixed some of it with macaroni noodles.  Today I spread it on Wasa bread and then on toasted tortillas.  I love the lemony flavor!

Labor Day in the Garden

September 2, 2013

It was great to have the day off and to be able to get a few things done around the garden.  I actually got quite a bit of cleaning done this morning and some seeds planted.  What I really enjoy this time of year are the insects and wild life that is everywhere, from spiders to butterflies.  I tried to get a picture of a black swallowtail butterfly, but it was fluttering so quickly I could not get it in focus.  Here are a few little creatures I was able to get shots of….
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At sunset a bee was resting for the night in a gaillardia flower.

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Dragonfly, I think a widow skimmer, on penstemon digitalis – husker red seed head.

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Grasshopper on green bean vines.

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Three pollinators on Agastache.  The bee and the soldier beetle on the right are familiar.  A new one was the long orange looking bug on the left.  It turns our to be a Ailanthus webworm moth.  They are not native, but have migrated north for the summer, as they like the tree of heaven, which is an invasive tree that is common now in our neighborhood.

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Now that it is September a few sedum flowers are turning pink and the soldier beetles are migrating over here and seem to be mating on the flower.  Bees and butterflies like these flowers, too.

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Ant on fennel with pink zinnias.

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Berries on viburnum arrowwood Chicago lustre.  This has been a good year for a lot of berries on the Chicago lustre and raspberry tart viburnum.

Today’s experiment:  On September 2nd I planted nasturtium and pea seeds that I harvested myself.  Are the seeds viable and will they germinate and sprout this late?  I also planted more lettuce, tatsoi, and onions, to keep it coming through the fall.

Late August Images

August 25, 2013

Other than some rain on Thursday, it has been very dry here.  Some plants die or dry up, some push out a few flowers, and others thrive when summer is hot.

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Some of the morning glories are purple and some are pink.  The vines are crossing the Virginia creeper vines, which have produced the blue berries.  Once we get cooler weather the Virginia creeper turns bright red on the fence.

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Coreopsis Moonbeam

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I just have a few turtlehead flowers.  I think they like more water than I give them.

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The russian sage is attracting a lot of pollinators these days.  This small brown moth or butterfly spent hours at this plant today, just flying from one flower to the next.  Unfortunately I was not able to identify it.  It was hard to get close enough for a good picture, but fun trying.

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Soldier beetles on parsley.  There are many soldier beetles around the garden.  Here and on the thyme they do not seem to be pollinating anything, but they also seem to everywhere that the bees go for nectar.  From the little I read they are in the same family as fireflies, but do not produce light.  They are a predator of aphids, which I have seen quite a few of in the vicinity.

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Today I noticed a couple more spears of broccoli have grown.  It’s not a big harvest, but a healthy one!

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The winter garden I planted at the beginning of August is coming along well.  The beets are the one thing that I have not been able to grow.  I might plant some more pak choi, tatsoi, or lettuce if the weather cools down again soon.

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We have a so many crab apples this year.  The birds don’t really start eating them until February or March, so the tree should be pretty this winter.

Bird sighting:  Yesterday we saw a yellow parrot or parakeet in our yard.  Did it escape?  The sparrows were chasing it.