As a young child, I visited my grandmother in Oregon. We had hunkered down, picking luscious, red strawberries in her garden, when a snake suddenly slid over my hand and disappeared under the straw. Needless to say, I was startled. But it didn’t bite me, nobody killed it, and we resumed our strawberry picking.
We know then when we see them: skinny, legless, earless, some would say slimy reptiles. They frequently trigger a visceral response, but most snakes are more helpful than harmful. Case in point, you are nearly ten times more likely to die in the US from a lightning strike than a snake bite.
However, even nonvenomous snake bites can cause an allergic reaction, so we should know how to respond.
Treat all snake bites as though the snake was venomous, using these tips from Johns Hopkins Medical:
Contrary to movie drama, do not suck out the venom or apply a tourniquet. If the swelling worsens, or your breathing becomes labored, go to an emergency room.
Preventing snake bites
The easiest way to prevent a snakebite is to leave them alone. If you are like me and created a meadow in your landscape, you can prevent snake bites and other foot injuries by wearing boots instead of flip-flops. And make sure you can see into dark spaces before reaching in with an unprotected hand. Snakes aren’t the only things that may be hiding there. Rat bites are far worse than snake bites, in my opinion. Snakes are solitary creatures and will avoid you when they can.
As cold-blooded reptiles, snakes will often sun themselves to collect warmth. You can encourage snakes in your garden with rock piles that provide a place to hide, as well as a place to safely catch some rays. Before panicking at the first sight of a snake, let’s learn a little about these amazing creatures.
The snake clan
There are approximately 3,900 species of snakes (Serpentes) in the world. Of those, 725 are considered venomous. The US is home to two types of venomous snakes: coral snakes and pit vipers. Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads (water moccasins) are all pit vipers. To see which venomous snakes are native to your state, the antivenom company, CroFab created a handy interactive tool you can try here.
While each region has its favorites, the most common garden-variety snakes include garter snakes, kingsnakes, milk snakes, racers, rat snakes, and water snakes.
It is easy to confuse snake species, especially when the adrenaline is flowing. This rhyme may help:
“Red on black, a friend of Jack; red on yellow, kill a fellow.”
Or, simply, “Red on yellow, kill a fellow.”
Also, snakes of the same species can look very different depending on the region, locale climate, and other factors.
Snakes smell using their tongues, and many species have heat sensors on their snouts. Their bellies are very sensitive to vibrations in the ground. Unlike bears, which sleep during hibernating, snakes remain awake but unmoving in a behavior called brumation when temperatures drop. And snakes do not dislocate their jaws. Instead, their lower jaws are flexible enough to allow them to swallow prey larger in diameter than they are.
Snakes as an indicator species
As predators, snakes only live where there is food. If your garden hosts a snake, you can pat yourself on the back for creating a healthy and diverse ecosystem in your yard. Snakes commonly eat insects, mice, moles, rats, slugs, tarantulas, and voles that damage your crops. On the other hand, snakes are food for birds and other mammals. A garden with a snake is generally a healthy place
Sharpshooters are cousins of cicadas and a type of leafhopper (Cicadellidae). And they can bring several diseases to your garden plants.
Almonds, blackberries, citrus, cowpeas, elderberries, grapes, and stone fruits are are just a few plants vulnerable to sharpshooter feeding. And their tastes appear to be expanding to include other crops.
Diseases spread by sharpshooters
Once an adult sharpshooter becomes infected with a disease, it will act as a vector for that disease for the rest of its life. Those diseases include the following:
Scientists are still learning about sharpshooters. They believe further research will demonstrate that even more diseases will be associated with sharpshooter feeding. So how do you know if sharpshooters are in your landscape?
Symptoms of a sharpshooter infestation
Sharpshooters are hard to see. They are very good at hiding. When disturbed, they often leap into the air or shuttle sideways. The first sign of a sharpshooter infestation is leaf stippling. Leaves may also turn brown. New shoots curl and die before they ever get a chance to produce a crop.
These pests feed on the sap found in the xylem. This sap is 95% water, so they must eat a lot to get the nutrients needed. They may be small, but sharpshooters can consume hundreds, or even thousands, of times their body weight in sap in their short lives. [That would be like you or me drinking 400 gallons of water each day!]
In doing so, they produce large quantities of sticky honeydew. Honeydew is a type of bug poop that contains sugar and ammonia. Honeydew creates the perfect growing medium for sooty mold. You may also see pale exoskeletons scattered about as sharpshooters go through five instars before reaching adulthood.
Sharpshooter adults are small, usually one-quarter to one-half an inch long, wedge-shaped, and slender. Depending on the variety, they are brightly colored or may blend with their favorite food plants. Immature sharpshooters are called nymphs. Nymphs look like miniature adults but without wings. They may also be a different color.
If you look very closely, you will see that the back of their legs are serrated. The most common sharpshooters found in North America include the following:
There are some nasty chemical pesticides used against sharpshooters in commercial environments. You can control them with ultra-light horticultural or neem oils. You can also protect your plants with reflective mulches, row covers, and yellow sticky sheets. And always quarantine new plants. You never know what's lurking.
The easiest way to protect your crops against sharpshooter damage and the diseases they carry is to encourage their natural enemies. These include green anoles, dragonflies, fairyflies, praying mantises, snare-building spiders, and twisted-wing parasites. There are even a couple of fungi known to attack and mummify sharpshooters — but I can’t imagine how you might organize that attack!
You can attract and protect beneficial insects by not using broad-spectrum insecticides, installing insectary plants, and providing a variety of flower shapes, sizes, and colors. Those flowers provide the nectar and pollen that attract and feed your garden helpers.
What looks like a sweet potato, contains no starch, and tastes like an apple crossed with watermelon?
It’s called yacón. Yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is a cousin of sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes, grown in Central and South America for its crisp, fruity tubers. It goes by several other names, including Bolivian sunroot, Peruvian ground apple, and strawberry jicama.
Yacón is a large perennial herb that grows from rhizomes. It can reach eight feet tall under ideal conditions. The leaves are large and furry on top, and the stems are angular and hollow. The bisexual flowers are relatively small and yellow. Dark brown seeds are achenes.
There are two types of underground tubers. The large brown tubers are preferred for eating, while the reddish rhizomes growing at the base of the plant are generally left to propagate. Those brown tubers can weigh more than four pounds!
How to grow yacón
While you can grow yacón from seeds, the plants will mature faster when started from rhizomes or stem cuttings. Unlike potatoes, you cannot start new yacon plants from the tubers.
Yacón grows best in temperatures between 65F and 78°F. Light freezing will kill the aboveground portion of the plant, but the rhizomes will generate new sprouts when things warm up. Heavy freezes will kill the plant, so you may want to grow yours in a large container. Raised beds with frost protection can also be used.
Plant your yacón around the last frost date. Each rhizome should have several sprouts and be free of any rot. Place them two feet apart and cover them with an inch or so of soil. Mulch the area thoroughly. The yacón plant will grow through the mulch.
They are heavy feeders, so top dressing with aged compost will help your plants get established. These plants grow fast, which makes them lovely patio plants. In six or seven months, after the flowers have appeared and died back, your yacón crop should be ready for harvesting. The soil around the base of the yacón plant may also begin to ‘heave’ when the crop is ready.
As the upper portion of the plants dies back, the tubers in the ground get sweeter, so you may want to harvest over an extended period. When you dig up your yacon, do not damage the skin. Brush off any dirt and let them dry in the sun before storing. Yacón is often grown alongside agricultural fields to provide quick refreshing snacks to the workers. You can enjoy yours that way, as well!
Yacón pests and diseases
Root-knot nematodes can create galls on the root system, and sunflower caterpillars may feed heavily on the leaves. You can plant sunflowers among your yacón to draw the caterpillars away.
Several Badnaviruses [Isn’t that a great name for a virus group?], such as the yacón necrotic mottle and yucca bacilliform viruses, can infect these plants. Rhizoctonia blight can also become a problem. You can prevent both diseases by installing certified disease-free cuttings or rhizomes.
According to WebMD, yacón root syrup may help manage diabetes, inflammation, and weight control. You could be the first person in your neighborhood with fresh yacon on demand!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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