Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

All's well that ends well

One of the most consistent pleasures I get from gardening is growing my own herbs.  It makes me deeply happy to go out into the garden, snip off something fresh, and then bring it back into the kitchen to use in preparing a meal.

I started out growing a handful of well adapted herbs for our area: oregano, thyme, rosemary, basil. I soon discovered how tough parsley is, overwintering even through our coldest spells and surviving our hottest summer temperatures.  Better yet, parsley, along with fennel, is a magnet host plant for butterflies.

I ought not to have been surprised when I stumbled into my kitchen the morning after harvesting parsley to use on a lamb roast last Sunday, and saw this scattered across the tiles:
No, that's not an unfortunate poppy seed spill.  That's frass, ladies and gents, or to put it in less gentile terms, caterpillar poop.
I'd had everything but the parsley sitting in the windowsill for days so knew my freshly harvested herbs were the most likely hiding spot for the frassinator. I took a closer look, and sure enough, blending in perfectly with the green stalks of parsley was this guy.
It is too early for me to tell exactly what sort of butterfly or moth this caterpillar will become.  Perhaps a swallowtail butterfly, they do love parsley.
I took the caterpillar back out into the garden beds, where the parsley stalks are all still attached at the roots.  I didn't try to detach it but snugged it up against the base of the main plant, where it will certainly find its way back up into the produce section.

Phew! That was a bit of a close call.  I'm reminded to be more cautious when bringing garden greens indoors.  They often carry visitors hiding in plain sight. I'm relieved I didn't "find" this guy with my knife on the chopping board.  Happy trails, little butterfly-to-be!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Fly Overs and Hangers On

Continuing my efforts to record not just what is in bloom here, but who my visitors are.  In no particular order...
Orange Sulphur - perhaps a Sleepy Orange Sulphur (Eurema nicippe) Update:  Now believe this to be an Orange-barred Sulphur (Phoebis philea).
Snout butterfly (Libythean bachmanii) Their closed wings afford them camouflage as "dead leaves".
Teeny-tine crab spider (aka Flower Spider) Thomisidae, possibly misumessus?
Syrphid Fly (Palpada vinetorum) on Pyracantha blooms
Crab spider - Thomisidae
Tumbling Flower Beetle - named for it's behavior when netted.  It is black - the "color spots" are bits of clinging pollen from the Primrose blossoms.  
So very noisy overhead - four small planes flying in formation one way....
...then heading right back the other direction.
First Red Admiral Butterfly for the season (Vanessa atalanta)
Paper wasps - these had to go - they were building too close to the front door.
I originally thought this was Palpita kimballi but they don't occur in Texas.  Turns out this ghostly visitor resting on the coral yucca stalk is Stemorrahges costata.
Sleepy Orange  Orange-barred Sulphur and Crab Spider time-share.  Bees reportedly won't land on a flower that has anything obviously unflowerlike inside.  Some of these spiders can change color to "hide" while hunting, and will hold their long front legs out to mimic stamen filaments.  

Friday, April 25, 2014

Scarcity and Desire

Growing up in Central Texas, I liked Pink Evening Primroses the best of all the spring flowers.  As a little girl, the masses of blossoms reminded me of the scene where Dorothy skips through a field of poppies in the movie, "The Wizard of Oz".
While most other people were waxing rapturous over the bluebonnets, it was the masses of pink flowers that I waited for with joyous anticipation.  Typically beginning their bloom phase later than the striking blue stalks of our state flower, the pink primrose patches lasted far longer, blooming well past the point when the oak pollen fell to negligible levels and I could venture out of doors again without concern for a supply of tissues for my nose.
After primroses, it was the appearance of Hill Country Rain Lilies I yearned for the most.  I was born during a historic draught.  As a young girl I picked up from the adults around me how desperately we needed precipitation.  It was no mystery why all but the most hardened hearts would quicken at the beautiful sight of tiny white flowers appearing alongside roads and fence rows in response to rain.  It was not only the beauty of the blooms that Texans welcomed, but also the life giving moisture that preceded them.
That was all forgotten however when I saw my first Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata).  Though I no longer remember exactly when or where it was I saw my first deep magenta bloom with the striking white center, I do know I fell immediately and deeply under its spell.
To this day I find them absolutely enchanting.  The shape, the color, the brevity of each flower's appearance.  I never get enough.
With my infatuation undiminished, it is a given that now I have my own outdoor spaces to manage, I've got a couple of winecup plants in our garden beds out back.  I had to move them from the front beds.  The deer like to eat them as much as I like looking at them.  Unfortunately, the only spots out back with enough sun and drainage in combination were already crowded. The winecups must fight for their place year to year.
But fight they do.  And perhaps it is precisely because of their relative scarcity that I still find myself  drawn time and time again to this particular scattering of blooms.

The Wine

by Sara Teasdale
I cannot die, who drank delight
 From the cup of the crescent moon,
And hungrily as men eat bread,
 Loved the scented nights of June.
The rest may die — but is there not
 Some shining strange escape for me
Who sought in Beauty the bright wine
 Of immortality?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Wages of Moths (and butterflies)...

Every action in the natural world has a consequence.  When a gardener chooses plants specifically to "attract and host" butterflies and moths, here is what they are also asking for.

Caterpillars.  Brilliantly colored eating machines.  Mouths with legs (and in this case a bright yellow tail horn).
Sorry Charlie, but the All-You-Can-Eat Primrose Buffet is out in the back yard!
I can't tell you for certain which sphinx moth the caterpillar pictured above belongs to.  I'm pretty sure it is Hyles lineata, but we get regular visits from all sorts of sphinx moths so this guy, (gal?) could be a close relative.

As these things go, this particular caterpillar out by my front sidewalk was eating its way up to the ripening seed pods on one of a very few pink evening primrose plants growing where I'm trying to get them established.   I've got banks of them out back.

So I did what I could to gently dislodge it from the singleton plant it was eating bare and I moved it out back to the masses of Oenothera speciosa, where the damage will be negligible.

This may sound silly, but later I went out to the area where I'd moved the caterpillar.  I wanted to see if I could find it again and assure myself I'd made the transfer without causing undue harm.  The very first caterpillar I found (photo below) had different markings, so while I knew it wasn't the same one I'd moved, I at least felt reassured I'd picked an area other caterpillar mothers chose for their offspring.

The next candidate looked a lot more likely, but how to know for sure?

Truth be told, with my poor identification skills, there was no way to know for sure. After spotting a third caterpillar in the same bed however, I felt that no matter how my original passenger had fared, the survival of the species was not in any way jeopardized.

Once I started "seeing" these caterpillars did I become a little obsessed with hunting for more?  You already know the answer.

This one is headed back down the stem after a job well done.  You can see why they don't run much risk of attack from behind.

It turns out this patch of primroses is a veritable sphinx moth nursery.  Lullaby and good night!

Postscript:  I wrote and scheduled this post before I discovered another "eater" in the patch - an infestation of four lined leaf bugs.  If you didn't previously read about my decision to let one species feed while attempting to eradicate the other, check the post out here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Everybody eats...

Alternately:  Why it is important to know what's what in your garden spaces

Recently, while obsessively stalking sphinx moth caterpillars happily munching on the stems, blooms and even seed heads of my Pink Evening Primrose plants, (Oenothera speciosa) I spotted and grabbed a quick shot of what I thought was some sort of beetle.

"Hey - that's pretty" I thought.  The teeny beetle promptly jumped off the leaf to the ground and disappeared from sight.  I didn't give it another thought.

Later the next day I noticed a second bout of leaf damage to the Four-o-Clocks emerging out front.  The day before I'd looked for insects as a cause but hadn't found any so I'd just pinched off and removed the damaged parts.  This time I not only found more damaged leaves, but I spotted another one of those "pretty" beetles sitting on a leaf nearby.

"Hmmmm," I thought to myself, "this could be a total coincidence. I wonder if the beetles I'm seeing are actually causing the damage to these plants?  Maybe they're just here hunting the true culprits.  I've gotta find out what these are!".

Thus began yet another quest to identify garden UFOs.

In my mind, most bugs turn out to be some kind of beetle. I promptly turned to all the "help identify your beetle" pages I could find.  I scrolled fruitlessly through dozens of photos with nary a match.

Having strained my eyes and my patience both, I turned to the professionals.  I sent in a couple of photos to the helpful folk who run the identification request service at BugGuide.net.  I had my answer in under 20 minutes.  The reason I wasn't finding a match on any of the beetle pages was quite simple.  This guy isn't a beetle.

Meet the Four Lined Plant Bug.

Despite their very attractive appearance, four lined plant bugs are bad players.  While they rarely kill a plant outright, they typically cause considerable unsightly damage. If left to their own devices, four lined plant bugs will set up shop, laying eggs to over winter in the leaf litter around a plant, re-emerging every spring to wreak havoc.

The damage shown below is typical of the aftermath of a four lined plant bug feast.  Their saliva liquidizes plant matter which they suck out, leaving a sunken depression behind or in some cases, a hole right through the leaf.
Yeeikes, right?  I don't kill bugs "just because" but these little fellas are known to keep moving around a garden bed.  In some cases reported nearly every plant was damaged to varying extent.  This means war!

Is it speciesism on my part to allow the sphinx moth larvae to feed unmolested while I am out to eliminate the four lined leaf bugs?  Ummm, sort of?  I justify my decision thusly:Sphinx moth adults don't feed on plants, and their larvae only feed on particular host plants as part of their growth cycle.  The four lined leaf bugs cause damage as nymphs and adults, feeding on multiple plant families interchangeably.

I'm determined to keep these pests and their unsightly damage to the bare minimum but I'm not willing to use chemicals. Unfortunately, I didn't find any reports of natural enemies to deploy as countermeasure. My current plan is to go out several times daily, taking along a small container filled with very soapy water.  Whenever I spot a four lined plant bug on a leaf, rather than trying to capture and squash it with my fingers (super organic but also super gross) I'll tap the stalk of the plant to knock the offending bug into the soapy water where it should promptly sink to the bottom and drown.

My kill count so far is five adults and a couple of nymphs who all met their end with extreme soapjudice.  I doubt I'll be able to locate and eliminate every single one of these damaging bugs, but I hope to keep their population low and the harm they do to the bare minimum.

Hey!  In my buggy obsession I almost forgot.  Happy Earth Day y'all!


Monday, April 21, 2014

Apropos of April

I never seem to get organized in time to participate in variously occurring "days" where garden bloggers show off what is blooming at regular intervals (or in other cases, what their foliage stars are up to). I applaud those who do so.  I openly admit that sort of advance planning is not one of my strengths. 

Regardless, there is a lot going on in our spaces this time of year.  At the risk of being designated a "petal pusher" (I'm looking at you, DC!) and apropos of nothing more than April itself?  Here's what's been grabbing most of the local attention lately.
This Grass Spider (Agelenidae) is apparently suffering from an identity crisis as it spent all day posing on the pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa).

Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) has rewarded me for cutting back overhanging branches with an abundance of scarlet trumpets.

This stray cat has adopted our garden spaces.  We keep her well fed and I can gratefully report no signs of bird predation on her part, though she does find the water in the birdbath especially flavorful.
The Hub carefully repots and sets out his growing collection of Plumeria alba plants annually.  This anole (Anolis carolinensis) will be disappointed they've been moved to their summertime spot in the back as he was a regular sun bather out front in the afternoons.
This Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas or Flanders poppy) is not very deer resistant but I have hopes it will freely reseed so Bambi's periodic chomp-pruning won't keep me from having a few blooms each year.
The Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) was designated the official state bird of Texas in 1927.  This one serenades the entire neighborhood from various perches in the tops of the oak trees.   Occasionally he'll set up in trees close to a street light on our corner and sing all night long.  All.  Night.  Long.
Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata - I think) glows in the morning sun.

Another singer in the local oaks - a black crested titmouse (Baeolophus atricristatus)
A consistent favorite of local gardeners and birds alike - Possumhaw Holly (Ilex decidua).
I realize Pyracantha coccinea is now considered invasive, but this one has been growing here since before we moved in and has reached considerable size and thorniness.  The birds love it and as long as I don't have any work to do in the bed close by, I do too.
It can look pretty sketchy off season, but it is hard to beat Damianita Chrysactinia mexicana) in bloom.
I wish these two were more seasonally synchronized, but at least I've got one "late" bluebonnet playing nicely with an "early" Salvia coccinea.
Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia specigera) growing in between paddles of Opuntia ellisiana.
The delicate bloom stalk of Provence Lavender (Lavandula Intermedia which grows well here in Texas), highlighted against a backdrop of Damianita.
With a promise of blooms to come, Opuntia ellisiana, or spineless prickly pear, is setting out rows of buds.
Those are most certainly the highlights of our garden spaces so far this April. Happy Earth Day 2014 (hey - I can plan ahead!) and thanks as always for dropping by.