If you’re an early riser like myself, you know that the pre-dawn morning air is softer and sweeter than any other time of day. There are fewer car sounds, and you can hear birds, bees, and rustling leaves. Somehow, standing outside in a quiet morning hour, I feel as though anything is possible. As the day progresses, it becomes more difficult to hear those natural sounds, partly because humanity is noisy and partly because I get busy and forget to listen for them.
Research has shown that natural sounds can reduce pain and improve mood. They even make us kinder and less likely to feel annoyed. So how can you create a soundscape? And how can we add natural sounds to homes? Let’s find out.
It’s no surprise that we plant gardens for fruits, herbs, or vegetables, colorful flowers, or fragrant aromas. We’ve already talked about sensory gardens and scent gardens, but you can create a garden for its sounds, too.
Barriers against noise
Add fencing, hedges, or a tree line to block the sounds of traffic and other distractions. There are other benefits to these noise barriers. Some hedges are fragrant, while others produce food. Ornamental Thuja plicata ‘Atrovirens’ smells like pineapple when crushed. Or you can harvest blueberries from a berry hedge. Just be careful with bamboo. While some varieties can grow very tall rather quickly, they can spread and become invasive. Keep in mind that sound can travel around barriers.
While adding bird feeders is often touted as a good way to attract our avian friends, research is beginning to show that these unnatural food sources are disrupting natural migration patterns and increasing the incidence of bird diseases. Rather than being part of that problem, reach out to your local native plant society. They can help you identify the best plants for attracting native birds and beneficial insects without creating problems. Those native plants often have the added advantage of requiring less effort on your part.
Annual honesty (Lunaria annua) provides lovely flowers in summer and bright fluttering sounds through autumn and winter. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) provides beautiful flowers and fairy rattles that remain standing for quite some time.
Indoor soundscapes are trickier to create. Unless you open the window, there aren’t any breezes. And you probably don’t want any birds or buzzing insects flitting about in your kitchen. In fact, I was unable to find any advice online aside from adding yet another app to my daily life. No thanks.
As a child, I had a sequence of pet parakeets. I loved them and I like to think that I took good care of them. As an adult, however, I would never put a bird in a cage. Heck, even my chickens had tons of running around room. But now that I live in an apartment high-rise, things have changed. I could do what my upstairs neighbor does and feed the birds to get more bird sounds. Of course, that also means more bird poop on my balcony and it messes with the birds’ natural cycles. That being said, I do have a hummingbird feeder, which brings the sound of their wings to my daily life. I could add a native seed-producing plant to my balcony. I’ll have to check with my local native plant society for that one. Cats and dogs certainly add natural sounds (and love) to your home. A fish tank will add the sound of moving water to your home, but I don't know if fish can love people or not.
Probably the easiest way to add natural sounds to your home is with an indoor tabletop fountain or waterfall. There’s just something about the sound of trickling water that soothes us humans [and drives beavers into a dam-building frenzy]. Most of these tabletop water features are quite small and easy to care for, making them perfect for apartments. You may even be able to grow some watercress in one. I'm not sure if it would work, but it might be fun to try.
Add some natural sounds to your environment for a more relaxed, happy, and healthy day.
Did you know that plants can hear? We’ll talk about that tomorrow.
Nutrient deficiencies (and toxicities) interfere with plant health. And it’s not a simple matter of being present. Soil can be chock full of nutrients. And plants may still be deficient.
The 20 or so minerals used by plants as food exist in soil as ions. Ions are atoms and molecules that have either a positive or negative charge. These cations and anions, respectively, attach themselves to water molecules and are pulled into the plant by root hairs.
Negatively charged clay and organic matter can attract and hold positively charged nutrients, such as calcium and potassium. Clay, in particular, holds onto more water and nutrients than other soil textures. Sometimes, it holds on so tightly that plants cannot access the food they need. Positively charged sand and water hold on to negatively charged particles, such as phosphorus and sulfur.
The ability of a plant to pull nutrients in also depends on soil texture, structure, and pH.
Nutrient deficiencies and soil composition
We describe soil by its texture (size) and structure (arrangement). Soil texture can be large (sand), medium (loam), or incredibly small (clay). Soil texture determines how well it drains. It also impacts which nutrients are easy for plants to absorb.
Soil structure describes the way minerals clump together with microbes, earthworms, and organic matter. Spaces, called macropores and micropores, occur within and between these particles. Compacted soil makes it difficult for plant roots to get to their food. Sandy soil often allows water and nutrients to drain away before plants can get to them.
Soil pH ranges from 0 to 14, with lower numbers indicating acidity and higher numbers indicating alkalinity. More nutrients are available, and there is more microbial activity when soil pH is between 6.0 and 7.0. Most plants can survive in soil pH from 5.2 to 7.8, but each species has a narrower range that allows them to thrive. As plants absorb these anions and cations, the soil pH changes ever so slightly. Too much or too little of certain minerals in the soil may interfere with nutrient availability. You may want to look at Mulder’s Chart for a more detailed explanation.
Without the necessary nutrients, plants cannot thrive. But too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, too. If there is a lot of a specific nutrient in your soil, plants may take what they need, or they may eat themselves to death. It depends on the nutrient and the plant species.
In my old yard, the soil was compacted clay with a severe iron deficiency. Since plants use iron to help them absorb several other nutrients, it didn’t matter that the previous owner kept adding a balanced fertilizer. As soon as the plants used up the iron, there ended up being too much of everything else.
So, how do you know if there’s a deficiency, and what can you do about it?
Is your soil deficient?
The only way to know if your soil is deficient is with a lab-based soil test. Over-the-counter tests look great, but they cannot provide accurate information. Luckily, laboratory soil tests are not expensive. They cost about the same as a large bag of fertilizer and can save you a lot more than that by preventing overfeeding and poor plant health.
All too often, we see what looks like a nutrient deficiency and we apply a nice 10-10-10 fertilizer. At first, everything looks better. But it never lasts. That is because it is the balance of nutrients in the soil that makes all the difference.
Symptoms of deficiency
Nutrient deficiencies often present in specific parts of a plant. This has to do with nutrient mobility and how the plant uses a particular nutrient. Plants can move mobile nutrients, such as nitrogen, to wherever they are needed. Older leaves look poorly as nutrients are pulled away to help with new growth. The opposite is true for “immobile” nutrients, such as calcium. It takes a lot of water for a plant to move these nutrients, so symptoms occur in fruit and new growth. Let’s take a closer look.
Magnesium, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium deficiencies are visible on older leaves, or near the bottom of the plant. We see molybdenum and sulfur deficiencies in the whole plant or around the middle. New growth and the tops of plants exhibit boron, calcium, copper, iron, manganese, and zinc deficiencies.
Deficiency symptoms can overlap, making the diagnosis a bit tricky. This table may help.
What can you do to prevent or correct deficiencies?
First, get your soil tested. You can’t know what’s going on without it. Once you have your test results in hand, only add what’s needed. [Feel free to contact me if you need help interpreting your results.]
If your test results indicate that toxicities are present, you can reduce those numbers over time by harvesting as much as possible. You can plant and harvest heavy feeders, such as cereals, melons, or squash, to help reduce excess nutrients.
In some cases, such as potassium deficiencies, the damage to an individual leaf is irreversible, but you can still improve conditions in general, helping the plant recover. The following good practices will help keep your plants healthy and well-fed:
Apical dominance is why trees and many other plants end up tallest in the middle, but there’s more to it than that.
from each branch also grew into a full-sized limb. You can see how convoluted things would get rather quickly. Apical dominance is what keeps that mess from happening.
Apical dominance refers to the way that central stems are dominant over other stems. It also describes why branches are dominant over their twigs. It makes sense. If the twigs were bigger than the branch, it would eventually break. If side branches were bigger than the central trunk, trees and shrubs might not get enough sunlight. Let’s see what makes plants behave this way and learn how we might use this behavior to our advantage in the garden.
Apical dominance and sun exposure
Plants need sunlight to grow. The tallest plants get the most sunlight. By growing upward first and then outward, a plant’s chance of survival is increased. For conifers, which often grow at higher latitudes where sunlight is lower on the horizon, the triangular Christmas tree shape provides the greatest amount of sunlight. For deciduous trees, growing at lower latitudes with more overhead sunlight, the rounded canopy provides the most sun exposure. In both cases, the woody structure supports the leaf canopy that allows for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is all about sugar production. And, contrary to popular belief, sugar is the reason behind apical dominance.
Apical dominance and terminal buds
The buds at the ends of stems are called terminal or apical buds. This does not mean they are waiting on a visit from hospice. Just the opposite. This is where meristem tissue is found. Meristem tissue is new, undifferentiated life. This is where growth happens. Even though growth is happening at all the buds and twigs along a stem or trunk, the ones at the top and/or ends have priority. We used to think that this happened because of a plant hormone, called auxin, but research has shown that it is the growing tips’ demands for sugar that robs their neighbors of enough sugar to grow equally fast.
If apical buds are removed, lateral buds are free to demand more sugar and grow more quickly. This is where pruning, coppicing, espalier, pollarding, and tree training come in.
Apical dominance and pruning
If you pinch off the central stem of a basil plant, just above a pair of leaves, it will grow to be bushier and produce more delicious leaves.
Imagine, if you will, that every bud on a young tree grew into a full-sized branch, and that each twig If you apply production pruning to your nectarine tree, it will produce significantly more fruit. Different fruit and nut trees benefit from different types of tree training, but the results are the same: healthier, more productive trees.
Espalier uses the same concept but in two dimensions, rather than three. Apical buds are pinched back to stimulate side growth.
Pollarding and coppicing apply the same principle but on different parts of a tree. Coppicing refers to the practice of cutting small trees and shrubs back to ground level regularly to harvest several thin stems that are useful for basket-making, firewood, and wattle-and-daub fencing. Pollarding is the same practice but done higher up in a tree to promote new overhead growth.
How are you putting apical dominance to work in your garden?
Midges and gnats are common names for many different tiny two-winged flies (Diptera) that congregate over birdbaths and soggy areas.
Midges and gnats are found everywhere there is moisture, including the Arctic and Antarctica. Some of them bite, and some of them don’t. The words are used interchangeably, depending on where you live and who you ask.
We have already discussed fungus gnats, but the midge family is huge. To be accurate, most gnats are biting insects in the Nematocera suborder (making them distant cousins to mosquitoes). Midges can be from non-biting, phantom, or biting families. You can see why it gets confusing.
Midge/gnat life cycle
You may have seen swarms of tiny insects over a birdbath or wet soil some summer evenings. These swarms are mating dances that may last for several days. Some of these swarms can get big enough to hear, and they may look like clouds of smoke from a distance. In some cases, roads can become so slick with gnats that accidents occur. These insects may also sun themselves on the side of a house in such numbers that it appears coated.
Many midge adults do not have mouths. They only live long enough to reproduce. After mating, masses of 3,000 to 10,000 eggs are laid on water or wet soil, and the adults die a couple of days later. The eggs sink to the ground and hatch in 2 or 3 days. Larvae look like microscopic grubs and can be green, red, or white. Most midge or gnat larvae spend this stage in water or burrowed into mud. There can be up to 4,000 larvae in a square foot of mud. These larvae feed on algae and other organic matter. At this stage, they are helpers in the decomposition process. After 4 weeks or so, the larvae begin to pupate. Two days later, they emerge as adults, and the cycle continues.
Biting midges (D. Ceratopogonidae) are blood-suckers. Like mosquitoes, these midges need blood to reproduce. This group includes black flies, no-see-ums, and sand flies, which inflict painful bites and can transmit human diseases. Some members of this group also suck the bodily fluids from insects. Many of them also drink nectar. Larval biting midges are sometimes called bloodworms because they contain blood.
Phantom midges (D. Chaoboridae) are also known as glassworms. You can see why
Most phantom midge adults do not eat. Those that do only drink nectar. Phantom midge larvae are rather bizarre in that their antenna have evolved into grasping organs that crush prey and other foods, somewhat similar to the hands of a mantis.
Several midges create galls and damage buds, leaves, or roots. Some of the more common midges, and the plants they damage, include:
When midges damage plants, the first signs will be small discolored areas, general failure to thrive, and wilting. Over time, the effects of midge feeding and burrowing can significantly reduce crop size. It also makes plants susceptible to other pests and diseases.
Removing standing water is always a good idea, and not just because of midges. Mosquitoes can be more than just a summer annoyance. These tips can help manage both midges and mosquitoes:
Interesting fact: chalcid wasps (the ones who give us figs) are midge and gnat predators.
If midges have become patio pests, turn off your lights or get one of those bulbs that claim to not attract insects. [I’m not sure how well they work. Have you had any experience with them? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.]
Some midges are major pollinators of the cocoa tree, so they aren’t all bad. There are also predatory midges. Aphid midges (Aphidoletes aphidimyza) devour aphids, while predaceous gall midges (Feltiella acarisuga) protect your plants against a surprising number of spider mites.
May all your midges be beneficial, and gnats be absent from your landscape.
Most of us are unfamiliar with pawpaws. Even my computer didn’t recognize the word. This is a shame because pawpaws (Asimina triloba) are North America’s biggest edible tree fruits. We don’t see them in stores because they bruise easily and start fermenting as soon as they ripen.
Tagged with a variety of common names such as Indian custard, Hoosier banana, custard apple, and Quaker delight, the word pawpaw is believed to be from the Spanish word for papaya. They are said to taste like a combination of banana, citrus, mango, and pineapple, with a consistency similar to Hachiya persimmon. These North American natives are commonly found from the Great Lakes region south to the Florida panhandle. More often than not, pawpaw trees are completely overlooked, their bounty left for bears, grey foxes, and other wildlife.
I think that it’s time we all knew a little more about these cousins of cherimoya.
Pawpaw tree description
Pawpaws are large shrubs or deciduous trees that can reach 35 feet in height but are commonly much smaller. They tend to form thin-trunked colonies in shady bottomlands, but will not thrive in full shade. They spread using root suckers. Seed reproduction only rarely results in viable trees in the wild. They have large, simple leaves that grow in clusters at the ends of branches. When bruised, the leaves are said to smell similar to green bell peppers.
Pawpaw flowers are reddish-purple and can be 2” across. Because these flowers smell more like carrion than fruit, blowflies and carrion beetles do most of the pollinating
The fruits, which are berries, are large yellowish-green to brown ovals, similar to mango or papaya. They have pale to bright yellow flesh and can be up to 6” long and weigh more than one pound. Each fruit contains several large seeds. Ripe fruits fall from the tree, but you can pick them just before that happens.
How to grow pawpaw trees
Pawpaws can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 5—9. While it is easiest to start your tree from root suckers or bare rootstock, you can use seeds that have been kept moist and stratified in cold storage for 2 or 3 months. The problem with seeds is that each seed is genetically different from its parent and siblings, so there’s no way to know for sure what you’ll be getting. On the flip side, root suckers have very few roots, while seedlings started from seeds have substantial taproots that help them get established.
Pawpaws can be grown in containers at first, but will eventually need to be put in the ground to stay healthy and productive. Since fruit is produced on new growth, annual pruning is important. Being deciduous, it is easy to prune pawpaw trees in winter. Pawpaws should be fed in early spring and again in early summer.
Pawpaws prefer slightly acidic, moist soil with good drainage. These trees grow best in sites with strong morning sun and afternoon protection.
Problems with pawpaws
Pawpaws suffer from surprisingly few diseases or pest problems when compared to other orchard fruits. The most common problem faced by pawpaw growers is insufficient pollination. While pawpaw trees have both male and female flowers, they cannot pollinate themselves, so you will need more than one tree. You can improve pollination rates by hand-pollinating. Commercial growers have been known to spray their trees with fish emulsion or hang chicken necks in their trees to attract the appropriate pollinators. I don’t see myself hanging chicken necks in trees. Ever.
But a cluster of low-maintenance pawpaw trees along a back fence sure sounds appealing.
Frogeye leaf spot refers to three different fungal diseases. One attacks soybeans, one infects peppers, and the other prefers your apples. Let’s look at all three, shall we?
Frogeye leaf spot in apples
Frogeye leaf spot in apples is caused by Botryosphaeria obtusa. This pathogen is also responsible for cankers in apples, cranberries, and quince, and dead arm disease in grapevines. Apple leaves infected with frogeye leaf spot develop purple specks that expand into brown spots with purple margins, hence the name. Left to progress, frogeye leaf spot causes black rot in your apples.
The only treatment for frogeye leaf spot in apples is to prune out infected branches, sanitizing your pruners between each cut. Infected plant material should be thrown in the trash and not composted. To prevent this disease from continuing, all fruit should be removed from the tree. As a gardener who loves her fresh apples, this can be a sad fact. Hopefully, those apples are ripe enough to eat and use for applesauce. The fungus won’t hurt you, and you can cut out the bad bits, but this disease can cause significant leaf and crop loss.
Frogeye leaf spot in peppers
Frogeye leaf spot in peppers is caused by Cercospora capsici fungi. Also known as Cercospora leaf spot, this disease infects eggplant and tomatoes, along with peppers. It starts as tiny, grayish-brown spots with dark margins on leaves, petioles, and stems. These spots eventually grow to one-half inch in diameter. If you look at one of those lesions with a hand lens or microscope, you will see tiny black flecks. Those flecks are fungal spores.
Frogeye leaf spot in soybeans
Frogeye leaf spot in soybeans is caused by Cercospora sojina. This disease is found in many parts of the world and has been expanding its range northward from the southern US. Frogeye leaf spot in soybeans causes small, somewhat rounded, or angular reddish-brown to purple lesions on upper leaf surfaces. The interior of these lesions is often grey or tan. As the disease progresses, leaves become tattered and fall off. Pods and stems can also become infected and covered with dark-rimmed lesions with reddish-brown centers. The lesions also produce ethylene gas which increases leaf loss. And nobody wants rotting soybeans.
This disease can occur at any time during a soybean plant’s lifetime and several different stages of the disease may occur at the same time on different plants. The pathogen overwinters as mycelium in the soil, seeds, and plant residue, and remains viable for up to two years.
In each case, frogeye leaf spot is most likely to occur in situations with warm, humid conditions or long rainy seasons. To reduce the chance of frogeye leaf spot occurring in your garden, use these tips:
Fungicides can also be used, but the frogeye leaf spot pathogens have already developed resistance to some of those treatments (strobilurins). As temperatures continue to rise, frogeye leaf spot is expected to become a more common problem.
Three-lined potato beetles are more likely to damage your tomatillos and cape gooseberries than your potatoes, which is why they are also known as tomatillo leaf beetles. But they will cause problems for your tomatoes and potatoes, too. Both adults and larval forms are voracious leaf eaters.
Originally from North and Central America, three-lined potato beetles (Lema daturaphila) are now found in many parts of North America, Australia, and South Africa. Although these pests are relatively rare, so far anyway, they can cause significant damage.
Three-lined potato beetle identification
As their name states, these invasive pests have three black stripes that run lengthwise on their mustard-colored to bright yellow wing covers. They are ¼” long and have an orange head and prothorax with two black spots. The prothorax is the bit just behind the head.
Larvae look like dark gray slugs with black heads and three pairs of prolegs. Three-lined potato beetle larvae have a nasty habit of covering themselves with their excrement to deter predators. I imagine it works. Eggs are oval and orange and laid in clusters on leaves.
Three-lined potato beetles look similar to western corn rootworms (Diabrotica virgifera) and striped cucumber beetles (Acalymma trivittatum), both of which are more likely to be found among your cucurbits and corn. Also, cornworms are smaller than three-lined potato beetles, while cucumber beetles are larger than both. Colorado potato beetles (Leptinotarsa decemlineata) may be found around potatoes and other nightshade plants, but their shape and color are different
Damage caused by three-lined potato beetles
Adults tend to travel and feed by themselves, so the damage they usually cause is minimal. As they eat, they may create holes in leaves, or they may remove entire leaves. The larvae, on the other hand, feed in groups and can cause considerable damage. Like other creatures who have evolved to eat members of the nightshade family, they are immune to the lethal tropane alkaloids found in the leaves of these plants.
All this leaf-feeding means less photosynthesis, weakened plants, and reduced crop size. It also makes plants more susceptible to other pests and several diseases.
Three-lined potato beetle lifecycle
These garden pests overwinter as adults or as pupae in the soil, depending on the local climate. Adults become active in late spring through the summer, laying eggs on host plants. The larvae usually hatch in early summer, though there can be two generations each year.
Three-lined potato beetle management
Hand-picking the caterpillars is your best defense since adults can fly. Simply pluck them from your plants and drop them in a container of soapy water or feed them to your chickens. Row covers can protect plants from three-lined potato beetles, and eliminating weeds in the nightshade family will make your garden less appealing to these pests.
Vampire moths may sound like something out of European folklore, but they exist and they suck blood.
The vampire moth family
Vampire moths have an entire genus of their own with 17 known species. Ten of them drink blood. Originally from Malaysia, the Urals, and southern Europe, Calyptra have expanded their range to include northern Europe, Sweden, and Finland. Due to international shipping and travel and climate change, it is expected that these moths will continue to expand their range. The Canadian owlet or meadow rue owlet moth (Calyptra canadensis) is the only New World member of this group.
Many adult moths do not eat. Some of them do not even have mouths. Those that do often have a surprisingly long, slender straw, called a proboscis. Moths keep their proboscis curled up in a flat, vertical spiral. The proboscis is generally used to drink nectar. The hawk moth has a proboscis that is over one foot long. In the case of the vampire moth, the end of that straw has a serrated edge that is sharp enough to cut through elephant skin. I don’t know how long it is.
Vampire moth diet
Male and female vampire moths eat the nectar of meadow rue and other members of the buttercup family (Thalictrum). They also suck the juices from fruits, such as strawberries. Vampire moth caterpillars feed on leaves.
Unlike mosquitoes, where it is the females who must drink blood to provide for their offspring (obligate), blood-sucking vampire moths are male and they drink blood because they like it (facultative). Some scientists suspect that male vampire moths drink blood for the salt, which they then pass on to the female in their sperm to provide for their offspring. No one knows for sure just yet.
Male vampire moths pierce the skin of vertebrates, including us, to drink blood. They do this by using a proboscis that is divided into two parts. They use a back-and-forth sawing motion to pierce the skin of their victims with these dual tubes.
Once attached, vampire moths are not easily removed and they may remain in place for up to 50 minutes. They do not technically “suck your blood”. Instead, they use their victims’ blood pressure to do that work for them. If you are the victim of a vampire moth, you will not turn into a vampire or a moth, but the site will be red and sore for several hours with an itchy rash. Vampire moths are not believed to carry or spread any diseases.
It is believed that vampire moths evolved from purely fruit-sucking species. I can’t help wondering what my tomato plants are planning…
Ghost ants may be scaring up problems in both your home and your greenhouse. Or, they may be helping you stay healthy.
Thought to have originated in Africa or the Orient, invasive ghost ants (Tapinoma melanocephalum), also known as tramp ants, are now found everywhere. Like other ants, ghost ant farm aphids and other sap-sucking garden pests for their honeydew, protecting them from their natural enemies.
Ghost ant identification
These ants are smaller than most ant species. Workers average only 0.051 to 0.079 inches long, which means you could line up more than a dozen of them across the face of an American dime. They have dark heads and milky white to translucent legs and bodies, hence the name. Ghost ants look similar to pharaoh ants.
If you were to look at ghost ants with a hand lens, you would see that their antennae have 12 segments. When disturbed, ghost ants tend to race around erratically. These ants do not sting, but they do cause problems.
Problems with ghost ants
Ghost ants have a sweet tooth. While they eat many household foods, including greasy foods, they have a strong preference for sweets. They will track down and devour your honey, syrup, cakes, and cookies while indoors and every sweet, juicy fruit and sap-filled stem outside.
Being a tropical species, ghost ants frequently invade and nest in homes, greenhouses, and potted plants. These ants are so small, they can create tiny satellite colonies inside plant stems and in between the books on your shelf. Most ghost ant colonies are significantly larger and are commonly found within the walls of homes and underground. Each colony may have several queens.
While cold weather generally limits the spread of this species, it is now found as far north as Minnesota, New York, and Canada. Apparently, all of our buildings are making life easier for ghost ants. Because ghost ants farm aphids, they also spread disease. These pests are so small that they are proving to be problematic in quarantine greenhouses. They sneak in, feed for a while, and then go elsewhere, taking whatever diseases were present in the greenhouse with them.
Ghost ants aren’t all bad
Ghost ants are scavengers in the garden, eating dead insects and speeding the decomposition process. They also eat the larvae of small beetles, moths, and butterflies. Ghost ants will also put a significant dent in the local two-spotted mite population. In Venezuela, ghost ants eat the eggs of kissing bugs (Rhodnius prolixus). Kissing bugs are vectors for Chagas’ disease, which damages the heart and nervous system.
Ghost ant control
Ants are one of Earth’s most successful species. Controlling them is difficult, and it all starts with cleanliness. If ghost ants are haunting your home, put all foods into airtight containers and wipe up spills right away. Caulk cracks and other points of entry. These pests enjoy a little moisture, too, so eliminate leaks and condensation.
If you can control aphids, whiteflies, and other insects that produce honeydew, ghost ants will find your garden less attractive.
Ant baits are effective against ghost ants. The closer they are placed to the nest, the most effective they will be. Just follow the ant trail. Also, make sure outdoor plants are not touching your house. Those stems make excellent insect highways to your home.
Apparently, if you crush a ghost ant, they smell like rotten coconuts.
Another name for your household ficus tree or weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) is strangler fig.
Strangler figs get their name because their seeds germinate on the branches and trunks of other trees, as well as boulders, buildings, and soil. As roots emerge, they wrap around their host, strangling them.
Strangler figs are not always the bad guys. In many cases, the host tree ends up gaining strength against storms from this exterior structure. I don’t know that the relationship is so benign when they start battling for sunlight.
Most of these trees produce both male and female flowers. Their fruits are inverted inflorescences, called syconia, that have mutualistic relationships with specific wasp species. Leaves are broad and waxy. Strangler fig trees, in particular, are hemiepiphytes.
Unlike most plants, strangler fig roots start out by growing aboveground. This makes them something called hemiepiphytes [hemi-EP-ifits]. Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants without being parasites. Air plants, many ferns, and orchids are epiphytes.
Strangler fig fruit
Your garden variety fig tree (F. carica) is not a strangler, though they are cousins. Some strangler fig tree fruits are delicious. Some of them are pretty bland. Banyan tree figs taste awful, but they won’t hurt you. Wherever they grow, strangler fig trees are important food sources for native fruit-eating birds who, in turn, spread the seeds near and far.
These trees make very nice house plants. Unless they are native to your region, they do not belong outside because they can easily become invasive and disrupt the local ecosystem.
Note: If your ficus tree keeps dropping its leaves, give it more water and be sure it’s near a sunny window.
Now you know.
Rhizopus head rot is the most common fungal disease of sunflowers, and it can result in losses of up to 100%.
It starts with a tiny wound and ends with the loss of the entire head.
Rhizopus head rot is caused by three different fungi: Rhizopus stolonifer, R. oryzae (syn. R. arrhizus), and R. microsporus. These fungi are everywhere. They are found in the soil and are easily disturbed and spread on the wind. These are the same fungi that cause bread molds, and soft rots in carrots, melons, raspberries, sweet potatoes, and many other crops.
Rhizopus head rot symptoms
The fungal spores that cause Rhizopus head rot first make their way into your lovely sunflowers through wounds caused by birds, hail, rubbing, and head moth and other insect feeding. At first, these wounds look like small holes or dark spots on the back of ripening heads. Those spots start to rot, eventually drying to a dark brown. As the disease progresses, heads dry prematurely, and the interiors take on a shredded appearance.
You can differentiate this disease from others, such as bacterial head rot or Sclerotinia head rot, by the presence of grey threads (mycelium) and tiny black reproductive structures (sporangia) within the shredded tissue.
Rhizopus head rot management
High temperatures and high humidity set the stage for this disease. There isn’t much you can do about those besides avoiding overhead watering. There are no chemical treatments for this condition.
Wound prevention is the best way to prevent this disease from robbing you of all those delicious seeds. That means monitoring for bird and insect damage and possibly staking plants to prevent rubbing. If you live in areas with hail, there isn’t much you can do short of providing your sunflowers with umbrellas.
You can reduce the likelihood of Rhizopus head rot in your sunflowers by removing rouge plants that may harbor the pathogen and insects most likely to feed on sunflowers. While there are no resistant cultivars, sunflower varieties with more upright heads seem to be more susceptible.
Pickleworms! With a name like that, I had to learn more.
Pickleworms (Diaphania nitidalis) are serious pests of squash, cucumbers, melons, and other cucurbits. Mostly found in the southern United States, these pests are poised to expand their range. It can’t hurt to know what to watch for, right?
Pickleworm moths have triangular, iridescent brown wings with white edges and a yellow stripe. When light shines on these wings, they look metallic blue. Their legs and tail segment are white and the tail ends with a tuft of bristles called hairpencils. The wingspan is just a little more than one inch wide.
Caterpillars start out thin and white with black spots. As they grow and feed, they lose those spots and turn more of an opaque green. Spherical to flattened eggs are extremely small. They start out white but turn yellow in a day or so.
These moths are only active at night. Each adult female lays 300 to 400 tiny pickleworm eggs in small clusters on new buds, and flowers, and shoots. These tender plant tissues make the perfect meal for pickleworm caterpillars, who eat voraciously for two weeks, going through five instars. Then they curl themselves up in dead leaves where they pupate for 8 to 10 days and turn copper-colored. There can be up to four generations each year.
Pickleworms cannot handle extreme cold (yet), so winter weather often takes care of the problem for some regions. Pickleworms have several natural predators, such as soldier beetles and ground beetles, but these predators cannot eliminate the problem. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) can be used but is only marginally effective because of where these pests feed and hide. Pickleworm moths are not attracted to light and there are no pheromone traps available, so what’s a gardener to do?
Commercial growers facing pickleworm damage must resort to preventative sprays of insecticides. These sprays can also kill the honey bees needed to pollinate cucurbit crops. It’s a dilemma.
If pickleworms are a problem in your garden, you can buy Steinernema carpocapsae. These are parasitic nematodes that love to eat pickleworm larvae. Also, because these moths only fly at night and honeybees generally pollinate during the day, you can cover your cucurbits each evening with row covers and uncover them each morning.
I know it means more work, but those delicious cantaloupes and chocolate zucchini cake are worth protecting. And nobody wants wormy pickles.
Dusky stink bugs (Euschistus tristimus) are native to North and Central America and they feed on plant juices. Cousin to leaf-footed bugs, these pests have piercing and sucking mouthparts.
Dusky stink bug damage
Dusky stink bugs can damage several crops, but they seem to prefer fruit trees. Their favorites include apples, cherries, peaches, pears, and plums. As they feed, they create catfacing and dimpling in fruit. Those dimples allow other pests and diseases access to the fruit and rot quickly sets in. Early feeding can cause trees to abort fruit altogether. Your citrus, grapes, peppers, and tomatoes are also vulnerable to dusky stink bug feeding.
Dusky stink bug identification
All stink bugs have shield-shaped bodies. From above, dusky stink bugs look identical to brown stink bugs (Euschistus servus). They also look a lot like dreaded invasive brown marmorated stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys) and one-spotted stink bugs (E. variolarius). You can tell them apart, however. Dusky stink bugs are significantly smaller than brown marmorated stink bugs, and they have pointed shoulders (pronotum). Brown stink bugs have orange shoulder points and ‘duskies’ do not. Dusky stink bugs are smaller than most other stink bug species, ranging from ⅜” to ½” long and ¼” to ⅜ ” wide. They have long, slender antennae.
Dusky stink bugs tend to be dark brown to dark gray, depending on where they live and what they’ve been eating. And they have stripes on their sides. They get the tristimus part of their name from the three (sometimes four) spots found on their bellies, though they will struggle if you flip them over.
Eggs are cream-colored and barrel-shaped. Nymphs look somewhat like rust-colored, steampunked ladybugs with a dark head and a black stripe down the back.
Dusky stink bug lifecycle
Adult dusky stink bugs overwinter in leaf litter and plant debris. Eggs are laid in tight rows on the underside of leaves, netting, and elsewhere in spring and again in late summer. A single female stink bug can lay 500 eggs. In 40-60 days, those offspring are creating youngsters of their own.
Dusky stink bug management
If you squish or frighten a stink bug, you will learn how they got their name. They stink. And they are tough. Insecticides are only slightly effective against stink bugs and the timing must be perfect for them to work against immigrating adults. Handpicking is your best stink bug control. Drop them in a container of soapy water, or you can try feeding them to your chickens. Mine turned up their beaks most of the time. I guess stinkbugs taste as bad as they smell.
Selenium (Se) is a plant nutrient that easily falls into the “too much of a good thing can be a bad thing” category.
If you grow a lot of your own food and your soil lacks selenium, you might, too. In fact, selenium deficiencies are a global dietary problem. On the flip side, if your soil has too much selenium, it can make you very, very sick.
People and animals must have a little selenium to be healthy. The same is true of some plants. Let’s see what selenium does, which plants use it, and how to tell when there’s too much selenium in the soil.
How plants use selenium
Selenium isn’t considered an essential plant nutrient. For some plants, such as poplar trees, selenium is useful. Selenium is believed to stimulate plant growth and to counteract stress, pests, and disease. [In the human body, selenium makes antioxidant enzymes that prevent cell damage.]
Plants grown on selenium-depleted soils end up being less nutritious for us. The Pacific NW, New England, the Great Lakes, and certain areas around the New Mexico and Arizona state line are traditionally low in selenium. But, as we all know, each yard has its own characteristics.
You won’t see selenium listed in a soil test report unless you specifically ask for it. The presence of certain weeds and other plants may. In some cases, high selenium levels are needed for growth. These plants will accumulate toxic levels of selenium in their tissues. These plants are referred to as obligate and include:
Facultative selenium accumulators do not need selenium to grow, but will accumulate it anyway:
Most other plants are referred to as passive selenium accumulators. These plants can absorb too much selenium and suffer toxicosis. This is especially true for grasses and cereals, such as barley.
Toxic soil can be corrected with something called phytoremediation. Phytoremediation takes advantage of the fact that some plants absorb toxins through their roots. Before plants can cough those toxins into the atmosphere through their stems and leaves (transpiration), the plants are harvested and disposed of safely.
Signs of selenium toxicity
Selenium toxicity appears as stunting, early leaf death, and chlorosis. Leaves of affected plants may wither and dry up. High selenium levels in the soil can also cause copper, iron, and zinc deficiencies. Of course, these symptoms can mean several other things, as well. You will have to consider symptoms, location, and the presence of the aforementioned plants in your analysis.
Too much selenium in the soil can make your edible plants toxic. This can be the result of native bedrock. It can also be caused by industrial runoff. If you suspect high selenium levels in your soil, contact your local County Extension Office or Department of Agriculture.
Mites and spider mites are garden pests. They suck the life from your plants and spread disease. Unless they are predatory mites. Predatory mites are our allies, though you may never see them without a hand lens.
Predatory mite description
Generally speaking, predatory mites are pear-shaped and translucent. They may also be white or the color of their prey, usually reddish or brown. Nymphs look like tiny adults with the same coloration. Wedge-shaped eggs are clear or white.
Some predatory mites are smaller than others. The Western predatory mite (Galendromus occidentalis) weighs in at only 1/70th of an inch in length (0.36mm). This means you could line up almost 50 of them, end-to-end, across an American dime. But don’t let their size fool you.
Predatory mite species
Predatory mites may be incredibly small, but they can take a serious bite out of your mite (Eriophyidae) and spider mite (Tetranychidae) problems. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different types of predatory mites. They are grouped into one of four categories:
Different species have different favorite meals, so you can customize your protection with just a little research.
Predatory mite lifecycle
The life of a predatory mite is short. Once the eggs hatch, they quickly go through a 6-legged larval stage and two 8-legged nymph stages before reaching adulthood. In her 30-day life, an adult female predatory mite will lay up to 21 eggs on the underside of leaves, in flowers, and within the crevices of buds. Depending on the weather, those eggs will hatch in 1 to 4 days. There can be up to 10 generations each year.
It is difficult to know if predatory mites are present because of their size, but you can buy them. They will help protect your avocado, citrus, grape, plum, strawberry, and many other crops. Before you release your predatory mites, be sure to reduce dust in the area by giving everything a quick rinse with the hose. You’ll want to avoid broad-spectrum pesticides and miticides, as well.
Miticides kill mites and protect rhinos. I’ll get to the rhinos in a moment.
When temperatures are high and humidity is low, mite populations can quickly get out of hand. They suck the life from your garden plants, reducing crop sizes, and making plants more susceptible to other problems.
Miticides are also known as acaricides. These pesticides specifically target members of the arachnid subclass Acari. If your garden plants are suffering from infestations of mites or spider mites, you may want to consider using miticides. Or you may not.
Researching various miticides for this post, I ran across some very hard to pronounce words and some scary warnings. I started to list the most commonly used miticides, their targets and toxicities and realized it made for tedious reading (and writing). Bottom line: not all miticides are safe to use on edible plants. Many of these chemicals are dangerous to beneficial insects, honey bees, and us. Whenever using chemical treatments, be sure to read the label completely and follow the instructions.
Organic mite control
Diatomaceous earth (DE) can also be used against mites and spider mites. It desiccates them and kills them without leaving any chemical residue. Other food-grade dusts that also kill these pests without chemicals. These other dusts have an advantage over DE in that they do not contain silica. Breathing in silica dust is bad for us, too.
There are also predatory mites that prey on mites and spider mites.
Whichever treatment you decide to use, don’t apply it on a windy day. It and your money will simply fly away on the breeze. To be effective, sprays and dusts must coat the underside of all the leaves affected by mites or spider mites.
Now, about those rhinos
Rhino poaching is being deterred by drilling holes in the horns of sedated rhinos and packing those holes with miticides. It doesn’t hurt the rhinos, but it brings on nausea, diarrhea, and convulsions in anyone who eats the horn, thinking it will provide them with some magical powers. And it won’t kill them. I think it’s the least punishment they should have to suffer for needlessly killing an endangered animal, don’t you?
This word may not help you grow better tomatoes, but it is relevant. I found it interesting and I hope you do, too.
No one knows where the word strig came from. In England, strig refers to the thread that holds a button to your shirt. It also refers to the tang of a sword blade. In the plant world, strig refers to the footstalk or pedicel of flowering or fruit-bearing plants, such as currants. A type of peduncle, these tiny stems occur within flower clusters or inflorescences. They provide support for the individual florets. The flowers that grow from a strig are called a sessility.
Female hops flowers are cone-shaped blooms called strobiles. If you sliced one of those flowers in half, you would see a central stem. That central stem is known as a rachis or strig. This strig is what attaches the flower to the bine or pedicel.
If you open up a fresh fig, you will see lots of hair-like structures. Those are male and female flowers held up with strigs.
While adult pea leaf weevils (Sitona lineatus) are chowing down on the leaves and growing tips of your legumes, their miscreant offspring are underground, gnawing away at the nitrogen fixing nodules found in and around the root system. Originally from Europe, pea leaf weevils are now found around the world.
How can you tell if pea leaf weevils are attacking your plants, and what can you do about it?
Pea leaf weevil damage
Scalloped leaf edges and gnawed-off stumps where growing tips used to be are the first signs that these invasive pests have reached your garden. Leaf scalloping tells you that adult pea leaf weevils are feeding. What you can’t see without digging up the plant is all the damage being done to the root nodules. Larval feeding can completely halt nitrogen fixation, resulting in stunting, chlorosis, and plant death. All legumes are susceptible to pea leaf weevil feeding, though lentils are less likely to be affected. I have no idea why. Larvae may also burrow into young pea pods and start feeding on young peas.
Pea leaf weevil identification
Pea leaf weevil adults are one-fifth of an inch long, grayish-brown, and rather slender in physique. If you look closely, you may be able to see three pale lengthwise stripes down the thorax. Larvae are milky white with a dark head. Like other grubs, they tend to hold themselves in a C-shape. These larvae have no legs and are about the same size as adults. Eggs are white at first but turn nearly black just before hatching.
Pea leaf weevil lifecycle
These pests tend to have one generation each year. After overwintering in protected feeding grounds, adults fly and walk to new territories where female pea leaf weevils will lay 1,000 to 1,500 eggs on or near young legume plants. When those eggs hatch, the larvae enter the soil where they go through five developmental stages or instars. They feed heavily on the nodules that allow legumes to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form they and neighboring plants can use for food. While these pests feed on all legumes, they only reproduce on peas and fava beans.
Pea leaf weevil management
Commercial growers apply insecticidal seed treatments before planting, but that’s probably not an option for the home grower. The good news is that black clock beetles, ground beetles, and rain beetles all love to eat pea leaf weevils. By mulching and applying aged manure and compost around your legumes, you can encourage these beneficial insects. This will also provide your legumes with any nitrogen they may need.
As always, avoid using broad-spectrum pesticides. Those chemicals end up killing off all your helpers. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) can also be used against these pests, but it only works on the weevils it touches. Eggs and larvae will be unaffected. These other tips can help protect your peas and other legumes from pea leaf weevil damage:
I hope that pea leaf weevils never find your garden.
I thought I saw a whitefly on my apartment windowsill, but I was wrong. It was a dustywing.
Unlike whiteflies, which can carry diseases and suck the sap from your garden plants, dustywings are beneficial predators. They prey on slow-moving invertebrates, such as aphids, mites, and scale insects. They also eat arthropod eggs, including corn earworms, mealybugs, and tomato hornworms.
These net-winged hunters are very tiny. Their wingspan can range from one-twentieth of an inch up to one-fifth of an inch wide. They are covered with a whitish or grayish powdery wax. They secrete that wax from glands on the abdomen, head, and thorax. [Imagine being able to create your wardrobe that way!] They have tan-colored translucent wings and short antennae. Eggs are oval, yellowish-pink to orangish, and somewhat flattened. Larvae are red and white.
Dustywings are commonly found around woody plants. They are mostly active at dusk (crepuscular) and attracted to lights. Each female can lay up to 200 eggs. These eggs are laid singly on nearby leaves and on the bark. There are two generations each year. Each larva goes through four instars. And all that growing requires a lot of food. A single dustywing larva was recorded as eating 226 red mites. That’s what I call helpful!
You can encourage dustywings to stay in your landscape by providing woody shrubs for them to live in and avoid using broad-spectrum pesticides. Have you seen dustywings in your garden? I released mine into the Seattle wilderness.
Do your cucumbers, melons, squash, and watermelons have spots? Do your pumpkins have warts? It may be papaya ringspot.
Papaya ringspot wiped out 94% of the papaya crops grown on Oahu back in the early 1960s. As a result, papaya production was moved, under quarantine, to the Big Island of Hawaii. As is often the case in these situations, the virus found its way there, again devastating the papaya industry and homegrown papaya trees. More moves and more quarantines occurred, but it wasn’t until resistant varieties were developed that papayas could be grown successfully. That might be the end of the story, but it’s not
The papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) mutated, traveled, and expanded its diet to include several common garden plants. These include members of the squash family, tree spinach (Chenopodium amaranticolor, aka C. giganteum), peas, castor beans, and quinoa (C. quinoa). Currently found in the U.S., Europe, India, the Middle East, and South America, it is safe to say that papaya ringspot falls under the plant pandemic category.
Papaya ringspot symptoms
Like many other viral plant diseases, papaya ringspot looks like infected cucumbers and melons have developed measles. A mosaic of scattered dark green or intense yellow spots appears all over the fruit surface. Blisters may also be seen. Leaves of infected plants are chlorotic and distorted and may develop shoestringing. Stems and petioles may have oily streaks. This disease looks a lot like watermelon mosaic. In both cases, infected plants should be removed and tossed in the trash.
Papaya ringspot lifecycle
This virus congregates around the mouths of aphids, never actually entering the pest. As the carrier aphid feeds on sap, the virus moves from the aphid’s face to the plant’s veins. Wouldn’t that make an interesting video?
The papaya ringspot virus can also travel on seeds and seedlings.
Papaya ringspot prevention
There is no cure for papaya ringspot, and it can spread to neighboring healthy plants. Quarantining new plants and investing in certified pest- and disease-free seeds and seedlings are the best ways to prevent the papaya ringspot virus from attacking your garden.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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