Happy Valentine’s Day

It’s Friday, the kids are home from school with their second snow day in a row, and it’s Valentine’s Day…. but it’s not a gardening day….snow in PennsylvaniaSnow, snow, and snow.  At least the morning dawned sunny and bright so there’s hope for a change.daybreak after the snow

I won’t complain,  I actually like the snow, and this steady snow cover and lack of ice storms is keeping all the early risers safe asleep under a protective blanket, still it’s tough hearing about snowdrops and hellebores in full bloom across Europe while mine are two feet under.snowy front bedIt’s a good argument for winter interest.  “Dallas Blues” panicum is still as perky as it was in October, and the reddish tones are nice with or without the white.  A few evergreens would compliment the grass, plus a “Midwinter Fire” red twig dogwood would look good….. (the dogwood is on my lookout list since last winter) but I’m sure I’ll be saying the same thing next year (interest in winter interest drops to near zero once the snowdrops appear!)dallas blues panicum with snow

Things are supposed to warm up next week with temperatures finally going above freezing, and I can’t wait to see a couple sprouts and signs of spring.  That will be nice, but as long as things are locked away in snow and ice my spring fever stays in remission…. spring sprouts and a thaw will kill my resolve.  Right now the front border screams cabin fever a lot more than anything related to spring.karl foerster feather reed grass in snowBy the way, the odd lumps are snowman and snowlady bodies.  It’s all part of a whole new winter world out there with the tropical border acting as a sled run, the cyclamen bed as the foundation for a snow fort, and dried hydrangea as excellent snowperson hair.  Looks like we’ll be enjoying it for at least another week or two!

Enough with the bugs!

So I’m bored with the garden, ok?

Until we get some decent rain most things are at a standstill…. except for the bugs.  They’re going full tilt and doing what bugs do (which is eat and multiply).  The grasshoppers are moving in off the dead grass of the meadow and taking advantage of the lush, watered parts of the garden.  I can do without a plague of these suckers, and fortunately they don’t seem to do too much damage.  I just pick them off and toss them on their way.grasshopper eating flower

Katydids always show up on the purple leaved cannas.  I’m not sure if it’s just that the holes are more obvious on these big leaves, but I always seem to find one here.  If you look carefully you’ll see a second one further back, to the lower right.  These guys (actually this one might be a female) get their names from the “Ka-ty-did, she-didn’t, she-did” song they sing at night.  It’s one of the summer sounds I always look forward to.  If you want to see something even cooler, look up “pink katydid” and you’ll see some uncommon color forms of this already far too pettable insect.katydid eating canna

Believe it or not these things can fly too, and between their cool leaf shape, summertime song, and impressive size, I really don’t mind them eating as much canna leaves as they want.  Plus the kids love to play with these slow moving gentle giants.  I love having all this life going on in the garden and it’s the number one reason I avoid spraying whenever I can.katydid eating canna

The bugs don’t always have it that easy….. A big bug makes for a big meal and besides all the birds that search the garden each morning, these yellow garden spiders wouldn’t mind making a meal out of a fat bumble bee or grasshopper.  Judging by it’s plumpness I’d say the living is easy right now.  yellow writing orb spider

As you can see the phlox is still holding on, and I’ll try to show a couple flowers next time instead of continuing this parade of creepy crawlies.  But just look at the size of that spider!  Oh, and also notice the white zigzag “writing” on the web above and below the spider.  These orb spiders are sometimes called writing spiders, and I think the pattern is supposed to keep birds from flying into and ruining their webs…. Flowers next time, I promise.

Wild Kingdom

It’s confirmed.  Our little patch of Pennsylvania which hasn’t had decent rain since mid July, sits in the middle of a rain-garden of Eden.  In the last few weeks we’ve traveled out on each of the points of the compass and in each direction the lawns are lush and green and the roadsides are bursting with flowers.  But not here.  The lawn hasn’t needed mowing since the second week of July and the less popular plantings are dried and hanging with drought.  Such goes our summer.  Still I prefer this to the icy blast of winter, and I’ll take it.  I’ll just slow down the pace, stare at the brown lawn, and continue to drag around the hose.

The watered areas of the yard seem to be drawing in more than their share of wildlife this summer.  Besides drought, we’re experiencing a plague of frogs this season.  Gray tree frogs both large and small are showing up all over, particularly around the house.gray tree frog

Before grilling the bbq gets a once over, and before moving furniture a quick look around helps prevent an ugly accident.  Raising the deck umbrella is always fun, since the plopping down of a frog or two on the table and umbrella-raiser is always a possibility and refreshing shock.gray tree frog

I like the frogs but never really thought I’d have to add “sweep frog-poop off deck” to the pre-party to-do list.

This year’s babies seem to prefer the large leaves of amaranthus  and corn, and in the baby-green phase they fit in pretty good.gray tree frog

Another surprise this year is the bumper crop of snakes showing up.  Our plague of snakes is fortunately of the garter snake variety and because of that, non-poisonous and small (two pluses), but there’s always a shock to seeing a snake slither away from the path or slide behind a step.  A different kind of shock than having a frog drop on your shoulder, but a surprise still.

Here’s a shaky shot of one that was calmly hunting through the plantings just off the front porch.  I didn’t know they were such good climbers of shrubbery, maybe I’d still rather not know that fact.garter snake

Drought, Frogs, snakes…. I think we’re still far clear of repeating the 10 plagues of Egypt, but we do have a lot of gnats this summer, and we did get a number of flies when a garbage bag stayed around too long.

Next: bees and wasps.  This is paper wasp nest #3 on this year’s list of evicted wasp nests, it was brought to my attention one evening by the screaming of a stung five year old playing in the playhouse where they set up shop.  I’ve never had a large wasp nest in the garden until this year, so I’m not sure what’s brought on all these new neighbors, but at least I now know none of my kids nor the neighborhood kids are allergic.  They’ve all been tested as well as a few kids who were over for a birthday party last week.paper wasp nest

One day I’m going to try and figure out what all the bumblebees are.  The kids call them “fat bees” to group them away from “skinny bees” and “paper wasps”.  I still don’t follow their logic on the skinny bees, but it might be time for me to go a little more scientific and figure out all these black and yellow fatties.carpenter bee on phlox

bee on thistleThe bumblebees are interesting to watch.  On most of the flowers they “cheat” since their mouth parts are too “fat” to fit into the flower openings (hey, maybe the kids are on to something!)  On phlox for example, they stab a hole into the base and suck out the nectar without returning the favor of pollination to the bloom.  They seem to do this with a lot of plants such as butterfly bush, agastache, salvia… it’s actually a little annoying since on flowers such as the salvia and butterfly bush, they push in their mouths with enough force that they rip open the entire side.  The split flowers brown and fall off and I’m left with nothing colorful.  Oh well, at least they’re not stinging everyone.  I guess they’re more suited for open flowers such as hibiscus and sunflowers, or flat topped flowers like thistle.

Butterflies have been late to the party.  I’ve only just seen my first Monarch this week, and other types have been scarce all year.  But it looks like they’re working on it.  Here’s a Black Swallowtail on the potted parsley.  There’s something about these guys that I always like, and they’re more than welcome to a share of the herbs.black swallowtail larvae

Paper wasps!

We were off on holiday weekend visits for three days but to look at things outside you would think we’ve been gone a week!  It was hot, there were seedling casualties, but most stuff survived and the heat made a couple things explode into growth.

One thing that is growing is the paper wasp nest we found in the little dawn redwood. bald face paper waspI’d rather it wasn’t so close to the sandbox but the kids want it to stay and I’m willing to see how that works out.  The kids are old enough to know better than to antagonize them, but I’m not so sure how that will hold up when the boys get together and hit an “I’m bored” moment….. Obviously I wouldn’t be doing this if there were any known sting allergies around.

The nest is only about four feet up, and I’m curious as to how these guys chose their nest site.  Out of all the bushes and trees around the yard they pick this one.  The one closest to the play area.  Go figure.  But it is interesting to watch them working on the nest, doing what paper wasps do.bald face paper wasp

This can easily turn out to be one of those “that was stupid” posts…. time will tell.  Hopefully in the fall when this set of wasps die and they abandon the nest (they only use it one year) the next generation will pick a better spot.   In the meantime I hope they help themselves to as many caterpillars, bugs and spiders as they want, they can be a great beneficial insect, and I hope they’ll keep my kindness in mind when I absentmindedly bump the nest while mowing back there…. that should be funny to watch.

The Sandbox

This doesn’t exactly fall into the garden category, but it is out there and involves digging and I guess someday will retire to take on some kind of garden purpose, so here it is.
I wanted a sandbox for the kids and there was no way I was going to look at one of those stupid plastic turtles.  Plus I knew it would be around for a while, so I wanted something that could hold up for a couple of years.  Construction behind our house unearthed a couple nice large rocks, I had a couple slightly used bricks, and lo and behold a sandbox was born.attractive designer sandbox

It’s a hole lined with bricks and a couple of stones are patched in.  The boulders are intended for seating, but I’ve never seen anyone over the age of 10 sit there.  I dug out the pit to a depth of around six inches and then filled it in with something like a million bags of sand.  Each spring I end up adding a dozen or so more bags to replace the sand that ends up in our house and in the kid’s beds.

It’s held up well, this will be year three.  The only problem so far happened on the day the boy and his equally disorderly cousin decided to play with hammers and started mining bricks and then cracking them apart.  Such is life.

…..and in case you’re wondering, no, the neighborhood cats do not use the sand for their business.  They far prefer my mulched flower beds.