Friday, October 29, 2010

Stink, Stank, Stunk

Found this dinosaurian insect lolling around on the strappy leaf of a daylily today. He wasn't in a hurry to go anywhere and took no offense at my sticking a camera in his face.

Which is a good thing, because he's a stinkbug. Specifically, a green stinkbug. As you might've guessed just by looking at him.

Stinkbugs don't like to be disturbed. In fact, when they are, they make a stink about it. A real stink. The odor is described as the essence of skunk with notes of dirty sock and a hint of cilantro. It oozes from glands when they're upset; if squashed, they get the last laugh by releasing lots of their repugnant pong.

Birds aren't fond of the fluid's taste, which is presumably as bad as its smell, so the stinkbug's perfume makes a great defense. A predator that catches it may drop it in disgust, giving the stinkbug a chance to escape. Still, many birds, spiders, and other insects aren't repelled enough by the smell or taste to forgo making a meal of the stinkbug. Maybe a stinkbug is akin to Limburger cheese or truffles in the animal world.

(Some stinkbugs will even eat other stinkbugs. Then they're put on trial and the judge gets to say, "Odor in the court!")

This stinkbug is probably looking for a place to overwinter in the garden, someplace slightly damp and protected from the elements. Next spring he (or she, I guess) will emerge to lay eggs.

My Audubon field guide makes it clear that green stinkbugs aren't exactly beloved: "This pest damages apple, cherry, orange, and peach trees, and eggplant, tomato, bean, pea, cotton, corn, and soybean crops." It probably leaves the top off the toothpaste tube and dishes in the sink, as well.

Just for fun, I decided to find out how you say "stinkbug" in German (since so many words are much funnier in German than in English, at least what I remember from my many years of German back in the day). Not knowing where my German-English dictionary is (and feeling about as lazy as a late-fall stinkbug on a daylily leaf), I decided to use an online dictionary.

This resource didn't have an entry for "stinkbug," however, and instead asked me if I'd meant to look for "shooting box steamships." Well, yeah, of course. Isn't that obvious?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

No Grizzlies Mangling Pumpkins, but Still a Lovely Day

Went up to the zoo today, intending to join a press photo shoot heralding this upcoming weekend's Pumpkin Bash--an event featuring the joyful union of curious, hungry animals and large orange gourds. (Think "hippo eating pumpkin.") I looked forward to seeing meerkats dart in and out of Jack o' Lanterns and the grizzly bears destroying theirs. This week, however, has been confusing, and I had shown up on the wrong day.

But this was not even remotely a disappointment. For the sky was deep blue, the air crackling with autumn chill, the leaves flaming with color. And any day that includes meeting a wallaroo is a good one.

The keeper noted that this wallaroo is
the grand old lady of the zoo's mob and
often appears to pose for pictures with
great dignity. I like her black gloves.

The barred owl was enjoying a nap
on his branch, stirring only to regard me
soulfully before shutting his
eyes and no doubt getting ready
for a good day's sleep.

The Komodo dragon, proudly displaying his lacerating claws
and his deadly, bacteria-laden saliva.

You can never have too many meerkats.
The day also offered up many non-zoo animals to enjoy: a bevy of crows in a bare birch tree, lots of very busy squirrels, and many tiny Anna's hummingbirds zzzeeping and zipping overhead. Anna's hummingbirds overwinter in Seattle, which is a fairly recent phenomenon. Ornithologists speculate that a combination of feeders, exotic garden plants, and climate change may account for this shift in behavior (and they have suggestions here for how to take care of hummingbird feeders in winter).

Hummingbirds can also sink into a state of torpor at night
when it's cold in order to conserve their energy.

The nice thing about having missed the photo shoot, of course, is now I have an excellent excuse to skip off to the zoo again in the middle of another work day.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Spring's got flowers, birds, and rebirth, and summer's got long, lazy, nostalgic days, but there's nothing like the snap and tang of a beautiful autumn day as crisp as a firm apple.

A friend once expressed astonishment that I actually liked fall. "All that death and decay!" she exclaimed in horror. But it just doesn't strike me that way. Maybe because getting into flannel pj's and settling in with a good book and a glass of wine on a chilly evening is so lovely, and the way the overwintering insects, other animals, and plants prepare to go to sleep for the winter seems so akin to that settling-in to me. Not like death at all.

And the excited chatter of the birds pausing to refuel in our trees sounds more like pre-vacation hubbub than the start of a forced march south.

As ever, this fall saw us trekking out to a pumpkin patch, where we took pictures that we've taken a zillion times before and will no doubt snap again in future.

It's a very, very sincere pumpkin patch.
Never noticed how much corn buttress roots look like dinosaur feet...

...nor how much a corn tassel looks like a hydra.

This year the pumpkin farm added an adorable horsy tractor-train--quite amusing to see it chugging across the field from far away; you could only see the horses' heads over the corn stalks.

Rose hips in hedgerow.

Another sure sign of autumn: the pumpkin cannon, which can hurl
a pumpkin across two fields and into a swamp.

Picture 2,412,693 of our paper birch in fall splendor against blue sky.

I know we're very safety-conscious in the USA,
but are falling leaves really that heavy?
Autumn also means maple pumpkin cupcakes from Cupcake Royale.
Nothing sad or decaying about that!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dandelion Fork Useless against Day-of-Dinosaurs Plant!

Yeah, it looks all dewy and innocent now,
but just wait til it shoulders aside all
your other plants.
It is politically and native-plantishly incorrect to admit that I loathe and detest the horsetails that grow in my garden. But I do.

These horsetails are hogs. They don't share with other plants, even if they're natives, too. They poke up between anything else that grows on long, lanky stems; then their bottle-brush tops bristle in all directions, completely obscuring anything shorter than two feet in height.

This wouldn't be so awful if they stayed lime-green and frothy. At that stage in their lives, they form a cloudbank of greenery, functioning like baby's-breath in a bouquet. But no...instead, they fade into pale olive, brittle toothpicks, then sigh and crumble, eventually resembling worn-out tumbleweed litter strewn about the bases of other plants.

When I first tackled this garden after moving into our house more than a decade ago, I naively thought I could conquer the horsetails, or at least incorporate them into a new garden design after ripping out the low-growing junipers covering the slope out front. That's before I realized what a vigorous underground stream burbled beneath our house and front yard, and how well suited this little habitat was for horsetails.

And certainly before I knew that these plants, the only remaining members of their family, had been kicking around for more than 325 million years. They saw the rise and demise of the dinosaurs and were surely snacked on by them. They grew to dinosaurian sizes themselves at one time, long before the first flowering plant ever opened a blossom to the sky. (One South American species still grows to a height of about 30 feet; I should consider myself lucky that mine are only about 30 inches tall.)

Spindly top of horsetail struggling to outdo
similarly sized neighbors.
The Sunset Western Garden Book sums up this persistent pest from the past by describing it as "extremely invasive and difficult to get rid of." Read: well-nigh impossible. The editors helpfully suggest that one "root-prune or dig out unwanted shoots rigorously and constantly." Read: Sisyphean task.

Short of poisoning the entire front yard (not an option, as I don't use herbicides, and anyway, apparently this ploy ends up killing all the plants except the horsetails) or swathing it in barrier material, clearly the only way to cope was to give up the notion of a slope sweetly bathed in low-growing alpine plants and to plant things taller than horsetails.

So far, this plan's worked rather well. The horsetails push and shove their way through the crowd of other plants, but can't kill them. Their stalky remains are largely hidden as they decompose in winter.

The horsetail, as you might guess, somewhat resembles a horse's tail (that is, an ungroomed, scraggly horse's tail). Other people in its worldwide range think so, too: The Dutch call it "paardestaart"--horsetail--and it's coda di cavallo and queue de cheval in Italian and French, respectively. (These names make me think of Pigpen in A Charlie Brown Christmas saying, after hearing about the ancient history of the dirt boiling around him, "Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect!")

It also puts people in mind of a frightened cat with an upright, bushy tail: another Dutch name for it is Kattenstaart, "cat tail," and some Germans refer to it as Katzenwedel--"cat frond."

But many of its names suggest how it was used by people from Native Americans to rural Europeans: "bottlebrush," ,"scouring rush," Zinnkraut (tin-herb). The high silica content of its stems made it gritty enough to work like sandpaper, and it was used to scrub cooking utensils and to smooth wood. Apparently it's still used as sandpaper by some woodworkers (and as a makeshift potscrubber by backpackers).

We decided to put our handy crop of horsetails to the test on a pot badly in need of scrubbing--one that got ignored while it was boiling noodles for us and now bears ghostly images of noodles on its burned bottom.

Burned pot, before.

We snatched a big handful of horsetails, added hot water to the pot, and started scrubbing. And scrubbing.

And you know what? It worked. Sort of. There were definitely some silvery spots showing up in the blackened surface.

It would definitely take a lot more elbow grease to get the job done. And a lot more horsetails. But we've got plenty of those. Though I doubt horsetails will replace the Brillo pad. And I know for sure my daughter will not only not be scrubbing the pot mightily anytime soon, but if she does, it won't be with a fistful of horsetail.

Burned pot, after. Still desperate,
but there's a little patch of silver
that wasn't there before.
"Don't mean to insult you, Mom, but you look pretty silly standing at the sink with a bunch of plants scrubbing pots," she said, just before fleeing to go harvest the wheat crop on her iPod.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Butterfly in a Strawberry Tree

This Red Admiral was intent on fueling up on nectar and wasn't the
least bit distracted by me or the romping Labrador.
Azure sky, glowing leaves, and a fetch-hungry Labrador conspired to drag me away from my desk and outside yesterday afternoon, giving me an opportunity to check on the continuing growth-and-decay on display in our little plot of Earth.

The squash plants were still bravely opening Cheddar-orange blossoms, laboring to produce fruits even as fallen, split cherry tomatoes surround them in heaps, rotting into the soil. The creeping geraniums flaunted a few vivid, purple blooms, and a little forget-me-not vied for attention with one last tiny blue flower.

For the strawberry tree, though, fall isn't the off-season at all; that's when it flowers, and it's covered with bunches of bell-like blooms--which made it the perfect rest stop for the only not-a-cabbage-white butterfly I've seen in our garden all year: a gorgeous Red Admiral probing for nectar in the topmost bundle of flowers.

Red Admirals are very common, widespread butterflies--the book Butterflies of North America by James A. Scott says that their habitat is "almost everywhere from the subtropics to the edge of arctic tundra south to Guatemala and the Greater Antilles" as well as much of Africa, Eurasia, New Zealand; it's also "a stray to Iceland." Even so, seeing one of these splendidly colored butterflies perched in one's garden still feels like a one-of-a-kind encounter.

They're known for displaying quite a lot of self-confidence--unlike most butterflies that quickly flutter away from your approach, Red Admirals will seemingly inspect you. They will even alight on your arm.

They're related to the Painted Lady, a species known for its migratory behavior, so I wasn't surprised to learn that Red Admirals are migatory, too. There are two flights northward in much of the nation and four or more flights in southern parts of its range. The Audubon field guide suggests that adults and chrysalises overwinter in mild areas, but I think the fact that we do get freezing days in winter makes it unlikely that this butterfly would be riding out winter here. The Audubon guide also notes that "there is some evidence of a dispersed return flight in the fall," so maybe this butterfly is fueling up for a southern trip.

I thought it might be a marvelous idea to plant some of the Red Admiral's host plants next spring, so as to lure it to lay eggs here. The caterpillars use silk to bind leaves together to make little tubes, in which they can safely feed out of the sight of birds. A marvelous idea--until I learned that their host plant is the stinging nettle. Which is about the last thing I want growing in my garden. (Other related, supposedly less painful plants will also do, so if I'm not overwhelmed by inertia next spring, maybe I'll track them down.)

Still can't get over the insect feeding frenzy going on, of which the Red Admiral was just the most visible example. The dog and I walked past a wall of English ivy afterward, and the whole thing thrummed with the sound of busy sweat bees and flies going at the small round flowers. The honeybees are still rampaging over the goldenrod and anything else that's blooming, the spiders are still snaring the distracted bees, and yellowjackets clamber through the foliage looking as though they're desperately searching for a carelessly discarded winning lottery ticket.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hanging On to Summer, but Autumn's Making Inroads

People get confused enough in fall, what with all that setting back clocks by one hour in November and ultimately arising in the dark and returning home from work in the dark. But right now it's the plants that seem muddled in my area.

Just as the vine maple and the birch in the garden are turning orange, yellow, and red, some of the plants are merrily bursting into bloom as if spring were right around the corner. I can't say I blame them--the weather last week was stunning, with blue skies and temperatures above 70F. But it's as if the trees are serious sages who are tapped into the wisdom of the ages, while the shrubs and perennials are ridiculous grasshoppers from a fable who won't stockpile food and insist on playing the fiddle instead.

The spiders and insects, however, appear to know the jig is up. Some of the garden spiders seem to be nearly the size of salad plates and their webs as big as wagon wheels, and many of them have caught so many insects that they've stockpiled future meals on the spokes. Meanwhile, the honeybees are in an absolute frenzy of nectar gathering. I've noticed quite a few mummified bees in the spiders' larders.

Mexican orange blossoms.

Rose--I've lost the tag, but it's some sturdy wild
shrub-rose variety, with lovely salmon and yellow tones.

Busy bee on goldenrod, a flower that IS supposed to
bloom in late summer/early fall. Poor goldenrod, always blamed
for hay fever, but not responsible for it at all; the bee
pollinating it is proof positive of its innocence.

Spirea blossoms.

Fly on fall-blooming aster. It isn't actually supposed
to be sideways, but Blogger can't seem to handle
vertical pictures, even when you crop them to be
horizontal. So just lie down to view your screen.

Friday, October 1, 2010

You Say Tomato, I Say Weird Looking

Mama and baby turkey tomatoes.
We grouse a lot about the weather in the Pacific Northwest, even though we'd never want to live anywhere else. (Most of the time.)

But this year we had good reason to complain. According to University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass, "We had far fewer 70F days (55) than normal (72) and in fact this has been the worst year by this measure since 1980! Yes, the worst summer for three decades! No one younger than 35 can remember anything worse!"

Fall has been odd, too. September, usually a glorious month, warm and dry, was sloppy and wet and chilly for a few weeks before suddenly turning tropical and humid. Flowers are blooming even as the trees are turning orange and yellow.

But I don't know if any of this explains the weird-looking tomatoes.

By all measures, our vegetable garden was a flop this year. A very cold, wet spring and cool, damp July didn't encourage our seedlings to grow--there wasn't any sun to reach for. The strawberries languished, the snowpeas barely clung to their frame (they looked like those cartoon characters who dangle from cliff edges by three or four elongated fingers), and the chard bolted. For at least a week I felt like Katharine Hepburn in "Stage Door" mournfully speaking of calla lillies, except I was chanting, "The chahd has bulted."

A plateful of proper tomatoes.
The tomatoes, however, absolutely thrived, even though I never did get around to staking them. We can't grow big, juicy beefsteak tomatoes in the Northwest without a lot of effort--we just don't get the warm nights and hot days they require. (Which makes me think back very fondly on the day my sister brought home huge, farm-fresh slicing tomatoes, fresh bagels, and cream cheese when I visited her in Maryland--just one slice of tomato was enough to cover an entire half-bagel.)

But some varieties, such as Early Girl--the kind I planted--manage to yield a bumper crop during our warm-day/cool-night summers, and even during a crummy summer like this past one. The plants, which are sprawling out of their bed and flopping on the lawn, have produced pounds of tomatoes ranging in size from apricots to softballs. I don't know how they manage to ripen, but they do: one day they're caterpillar-green, the next day they're candy-apple red. No wonder they're reputed to be the most widely grown tomato in the Pacific Northwest.

And the taste! And texture! They don't squash when you cut into them--they slice cleanly, without a watery "splort" and expulsion of lots of goo and seeds. And most important, they taste like tomatoes. Meaning they actually have a taste. Not like the polystyrene ones from the grocery store.

The only ones we didn't devour rapidly were those aforementioned weird-looking ones, the knobby tomatoes with noses, beaks, and limbs that popped up in the garden this season. They look like they should have plastic googly eyes glued to them and be kept as pets.

This one's got antennae.
I wondered if this could be the tomato scourge known as "cat facing," in which a tomato gets deformed with scar tissue, ridges, bumps, and tough skin, particularly at one end, or if they'd just leaned against a stem or another tomato while growing.

After a bit of research, I did find that some growers do attribute a cool, wet spring as the cause of cat facing, and blame temperatures below 55 degrees during flower growth as the cause. The flowers, according to this notion, stick together and produce weird, conjoined blossoms, which in turn become weird tomatoes. Apparently the big beefsteaks and other large tomatoes turn into pretty awful looking, lumpy-bumpy monsters striped with scars, but smaller tomatoes just end up looking a little funny.

We took some pictures of them before slicing them recently. So we can confirm that although they look weird, they taste just fine. We're kind of leaning toward the completely unscientific theory that the seeds we planted from a misshapen, warty Halloween pumpkin of last year somehow influenced the tomato starts underground--the roots of all evil, as it were.