Weekly Homestead Report 5: Sept 12, 2016

This week Hurricane (then Tropical Storm) Hermine  made its way up the coast. In Northfield, it manifested as two days of misty rain, high humidity, and relatively cool weather. I jumped on the opportunity to divide perennials and fill in the new flower beds by the driveway.  We got almost 3/4 of an inch of rain on Friday, and another half inch (along with serious wind and a little thunder) on Sunday, all of which should help the plants survive the uprooting.

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This is the season of being overwhelmed by the garden’s productivity, so I’ve been busy preserving it. I canned another batch of tomato sauce, a big batch of salsa verde (tomatillo base), and a ridiculous quantity of hot pepper jelly. Tomatoes are ripening faster than I can keep up with them, so we’ve been trying to give away a lot, too. We’re getting lots of cucumbers, ground cherries, tomatillos, peppers, squash, and eggplant. We picked another outstanding watermelon, and made our first pumpkin pie of the season. I’ve been collecting dry legume seeds; we’ll plant the peas in the hoop house this winter to eat the greens, and the black beans are just plain food. Charley brought the first bunch of delicious fox grapes home from work on Friday. A few more beach plums were ripe (one bush makes orange ones instead of purple, we learned yesterday), and we’re still getting strawberries. The raspberries are going strong.

Last week (Wed, Aug 31st), I saw a monarch lay her eggs on a milkweed plant, and posted Charley’s photo. Nine days later (Friday, Sept 9th) the eggs hatched into these tiny caterpillars! On the third day, one of them had molted into its second instar.

Eager to get things going in the hoop house, I started building the raised beds. This one bed will have the highest quality compost, since we have only produced a limited supply and need to use some of it in other parts of the garden.

Our soil is dramatically different across our property. This is well demonstrated by the size and vigor of kale planted on the same day in the “upper” and “lower” gardens, but perhaps best seen by comparing these sunflowers. They range from about three inches to eight feet tall, with flowers of less than an inch to over a foot in diameter.

Having a “wild” yard means we get to see wildlife. On Friday a big flock of turkeys wandered through, eating grass seed and insects. I really enjoy their dinosaur-esq appearance, and I’m glad they’re not as damaging to the landscape as chickens (which seem to prefer bare dirt, and scratch the vegetation to death if allowed enough time). In the interest of full disclosure, this photo is from last year.

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I’ve been mentioning different asters blooming in each post; this week belongs to the Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve). This particular plant seeded itself in right by the corner of our driveway turn-around. It’s over four feet tall, although someone drove over it in June and many of the stems were broken off. It has re-sprouted, but the flowers on those younger stems aren’t yet open.

Several of the perennials that I grew from seed this spring started blooming. The verbena started almost a month ago, but the hyssop and balloon flower just opened up this morning! Some kind of hypenoptera (a cuckoo bee, I think) was sleeping in the hyssop when I went out to photograph it.

Weekly Homestead Report 2: Aug 22, 2016

First, a note to my email subscribers: the formatting will be much better, and the photographs larger, if you click on the link and read the blog online rather than in your email program. I think I’ve set it up so your email will be a summary with a button that will link you to the blog, but since I’m new at this, I’m not sure. Now, on to the week’s news!

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This is a week of beautiful caterpillars.

Over the last three years, we have converted a sterile lawn into habitat-rich orchard, vegetable garden, and meadow. The meadow has grown simply by not mowing regularly, and selectively mowing around desirable plants to promote them and suppress the prolific non-native invaders. The meadow and flower beds now include several large stands of common milkweed, lots of goldenrod and asters, a sea of Queen Anne’s lace, and some native shrubs—like spicebush.

Last week I posted a picture of a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar. This week, you can enjoy a younger instar. It has cleverly disguised itself as a bird dropping with eyes. All instars have pretty convincing false eyespots. The caterpillar’s actual head is tiny and tucked down, making it difficult to see its true eyes, and I suppose the guise works to persuade potential predators that it is actually a snake or something much fiercer than a caterpillar.

Queen Anne’s lace is in the parsley/carrot family, so native insects associated with this family are happy to eat this non-native plant. Just yesterday, we spotted a black swallowtail caterpillar. Last year, we found a few eating our cultivated carrots, and transferred them over to the Queen Anne’s lace. This one had found the Queen Anne’s lace on its own.

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Sometimes, very bland moths are very beautiful as caterpillars. Brown hooded owlet moth caterpillars certainly fall into this category. The caterpillars eat goldenrod and asters, so they’re happy in our yard!

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In the past, we have noticed milkweed beetles and milkweed bugs, but this week, for the first time ever, we spotted a monarch caterpillar! As is broadly known, monarchs are in decline for a number of reasons, including increased pesticide use and decreased habitat (farmers eliminating “weedy” hedgerows to maximize crop area). We have only one record of an adult monarch in our yard, on September 29, 2015. Obviously there must have been one in our yard a couple weeks ago, too, in order to lay the egg! We also spotted a milkweed tussock moth caterpillar and fall webworm eating milkweed.

Aside from caterpillars, we’ve been enjoying some great wildflowers. By the chicken house, the native sunflowers that we yanked up from the gravelly shoulder of the road near Charley’s parents’ house are blooming.  It was a patch he’d been admiring for most of his life, and when we noticed that they’d spread into the path of the highway department’s mower, we decided to transplant a few of the most at-risk. In the two years since then, they’ve spread wonderfully. Yesterday I photographed bumblebees, hover flies, a crab spider, and even a dance fly hanging out on them. Hover flies are bee mimics, reminding me of sweat bees, and while they do sometimes hang around sweaty people, even lapping moisture off of us with their sponge-like tongue, they are truly flies. They are in the family Syrphidae; many syrphid larvae eat aphids, and therefore are important biocontrols for farmers and gardeners.

In the woods, hog-peanut, common boneset, and white wood aster have started blooming. White wood aster is one of the most abundant woodland plants in New England, and its sweet white flowers brighten up the woods in late summer. At least on our land, they are the first of the asters to bloom (although we spotted the first calico aster bloom today, just a few days after the white wood aster).

In the garden, we’re picking an abundance of corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, summer squash, and eggplant. I’ve been canning. In the photos below, the really tall plant behind Charley is broom corn.

We’re finishing the last of the black currants and gooseberries, and are still enjoying ever-bearing strawberries. The ground cherries (or husk cherries) are just starting to ripen, and they are delicious! Ground cherries are native nightshades (the family that contains tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant). The fruits, like those of tomatillos, are “wrapped” in a papery husk (a modified calyx). The fruit falls off the plant and finishes ripening on the ground; the husk turns brownish and crinkly when the fruit is ripe. Unwrapped, the fruits look like golden tomatoes, but taste sweeter and less acidic (Charley says, “like creamsicles”). Last year we dried some, creating unusually delicious raisins. So far this year, none have made it beyond the garden fence.

In other news, we acquired two additional hens on Wednesday. These girls showed signs of scaly leg mite, and even though their previous owner said they’d been treated, we decided to give them another leg-drenching and a 24-hour quarantine before introducing them to the rest of the flock. They’re still a bit shy with us and the other chickens, but I’m confident that they’ll fit in soon.