Saturday, March 24, 2012

Spring Training 2012

Ok everyone! It has been officially spring for about a week now, and we have had unusually warm weather anyways... so, I hope you all are getting ready for full swing gardening!!  Yep, time to get our chubby-wubby, frumpy-dumpy bodies off the couch and get busy!

What I did first of all was make a list, (ok, ok, several lists..its what I do!)

1-an all encompassing spring clean up/outdoor project list including things like fix the lawn sweeper trailer, pull weeds, clean out deck boxes where I store pots and tools, things that need trimming, garden ornament lanterns to be painted, check hoses for leaks, etc--everything.

2- a list of all the veggies, fruits and herbs I plan to grow this year with source of seed/plant and date to sow listed, as well as which ones we still need to buy when they are available such as sweet potato plants.  I am sure you have seen the wall o' seed packets at your local store's always very exciting. So many to choose from!

3-a "garden map" or visual layout of the gardens and what is going to go in where, taking into consideration rotating crops from where they were last year.

Now, since we've been sittin' around all winter (not even much snow to shovel this year to keep us in shape) it's going to be rough getting started out there!  But you don't really have to pull any break-your-back all day events, not yet anyways.  For the past couple weeks, I have been trying to work in the garden for at least an hour every evening, and I have so many things marked off the list already.   Here are a few things you can work on this weekend to stay on track with me and the GetawayGarden...

-Onions, the starter sets should now be available in your local garden center. I picked up a bag full of regular yellow onions and a bunch of sweet onion sets and got those in the ground a few days ago.  For onions the earlier the better as far as planting goes.

-Peas and Greens actually do best in cooler weather so they can be start now too.  Day before yesterday I sowed seed for spinach, shelling peas and snow peas.

-Experimental Radishes and Beets--I have not grown either before, but the seed packets say to sow as soon as the garden soil can be worked in the spring...they're in the ground now so we'll see what happens.

-Seed starting pots--peat pots are readily available, or review my post from last year about making your own out of newspaper.

-Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant, Herbs--all of these seed packets suggest  starting the seed indoors (or in the greenhouse) about 8 weeks prior to last frost date. For our area that is right now!  And that is just what I did today.

-Fruit trees--Last year we started our "orchard"  of 9 fruit trees (3 apple, 3 pear, and 3 peach). I was a little late in reading up on the fruit tree care and missed the first time they should have been sprayed already this spring, but I did spray them with appropriate fruit insect spray this evening hoping it isn't too late. I will read a little more about them and try to stay better on schedule with that.

That should be enough to keep you busy this weekend.  I will be "supervising" the men & boys outdoor work party day tomorrow so you have plenty of time to catch up!  Have a great weekend.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Plant Profile: Snowdrops

One of my favorite signs of spring is the lovely white snowdrop, a member of the Amaryllis family. I have them planted near the main entrance door of our house so I will be sure to see the leaves start to peak up through as the snow thaws. With a few warm days scattered in here and there the delicate flowers begin to bloom, usually lasting a couple of weeks.

I have heard of several varieties, however I believe mine is the most commonly found "Garden Snowdrop." The thin stems grow about 4 inches high, and 2 or 3 narrow leaves emerge with the stem, from the base of the plant. A slightly sweet, almost honey-like fragrance adds to the beauty of the flower which consists of 3 pure white lobes and shorter inner parts with distinct bright green spots.  The plant readily multiplies by offsets (small bulbs form along side the primary bulb) meaning a clump of Snowdrops will become quite dense within only a few years of planting.   Also, they seem to be pest-free as none of the deer, rabbits, or chipmunks who frequent our gardens have ever bothered with them at all.  This honey bee however is a welcome visitor!

Do any of you have these early bloomers in your yard?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Wildlife Feature: Praying Mantis (part one) "Oooo! It's an Ootheca?"

What in the world is an "ootheca" you ask? In a literary context, it is a combination of Greek word oo or oon meaning egg, and theca or theke meaning container.

I did a little research this week after I found a strange looking growth attached to one of the Burning Bushes in our yard. My first thought was "Oh great, what kind of gross or destructive creatures are going to come out of this thing." I needed to find out so I would know if I should leave it alone or smash it now before it could develop or hatch into a zillion nasties to infiltrate the garden!

My research revealed it is an ootheca or egg case of the Praying Mantis, and is therefore a good thing to find in the yard after all. Knowing it was a unique find, I scoured the bushes to see if there were any more and sure enough I counted 11 attached to Burning Bushes that line the edge of the driveway, and found none anywhere else in the entire property. At this point my interest was certainly peaked, and I wanted to know more about the responsible insect.

You can see in the photos I took that the egg cases are about an inch and a half in height and about as big around as a half dollar, though these were the best specimen and some of the others were smaller.  They are a tan color (remind me of the size and color of a perfectly toasted marshmallow) and they resemble Styrofoam.

I learned that the female, after mating in the autumn,  lays between 100 and 400 eggs deposited in a frothy substance.  Each egg is in a separate compartment with a sort of one-way valve opening to the outside, and these compartments are in in layers. (I pulled apart one egg case which seemed to already be damaged so we could see what the layers looked like--see photo below)   Sometimes the female will create 3 or so of these structures before the onset of winter. The foamy secretion then hardens to form a tough, protective encasement, to keep the eggs safe from winter weather and predators.  Depending on the species of  Mantid, the ootheca may be on constructed on a leaf or fence post, deposited on the gound, or wrapped around a twig such as those I found.
Ootheca split into layers showing separate egg compartments

According to information I read, the eggs will hatch after several weeks of warm weather in the late spring or early summer. Nymphs (which resemble the adults) will emerge from the tiny flaps/spaces in the ootheca and hang on silk-like threads a few inches below the case, until they dry out. The process occurs within a small window of time, only around 2 hours, so it is hard to observe.  At that time they will disperse into the plants and begin eating and growing, and will molt their exoskeletons as many as 10 times during the summer until they reach their full size.

Praying Mantises are meat eaters...that is why they are beneficial to the home gardener! They do not eat vegetation, but have insatiable appetites for almost every kind of insect. For this reason, live adults and/or ootheca egg cases such as I have, are sold to organic farmers and others to replenish this natural form of insect control. Grossly enough, the larger Mantises can even overcome and devour larger things such as hummingbirds, frogs, lizards, and mice!  The adult insects hold their front legs together in the well known "prayer" position, and will wait for long periods of time for their prey to come just close enough, then strike with an incredibly fast grasping motion.

The Praying Mantis is easily recognizable due to the following features:
-3 body sections (head, thorax, abdomen) with part of the thorax extended in a distinct "neck"
-2 large compound eyes
-Very freely rotating head
-Large front legs (famous "praying hands"), extremely strong with spikes to seize and hold prey.
-Color--many shades of camouflage, varies with type, however in our area most notably a shade of green

I located the picture below on Wikipedia.  If all goes well, we should be seeing these later on in the summer.  Actually, now that I think about it, since we have 10 more egg cases which could each have several hundred nymphs break forth...oh unusual infestation?  Of course the praying mantises are cannibals and eat each other, and are subject to predators like large birds, bats, and the giant insect eating hornets, so that will lower the numbers too.  It will be interesting to keep an eye on the cases as the temperatures warm up this spring, and I am excited to have these bug eating helpers in the garden this year!  I will write a follow up post later in the season and let you know what happens!
Praying Mantis photo taken from