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 28, 2015

Fall(ing) Fruit - Loquat season reigns (and rains)

We have two mature loquat trees at our house( along with fintupplety zillion seedlings).  Loquats, members of the rosaceae family, were originally natives of China.  They've been in cultivation for over a thousand years in Japan and have naturalized worldwide, especially in more temperate zones.
There are reportedly varieties hybridized for home cultivation featuring flowers that open serially, meaning the resulting fruit ripens a few at a time, but our trees most certainly do not do that. The loquat trees we have flower in abundance with the fruit that follows all ripening within the span of a few days.
Loquats are tasty enough, a bit like apricots, but with multiple large inedible seed present in each fruit they are labor intense to process for jam or other uses.  I've gone to the trouble a few times, but the stained fingers along with the potential for fruit flies developing on the mass of ripening loquats it takes to make even a small batch of jam, means most years the fruit is left for wildlife to enjoy.  Squirrels, birds, they all show up to get their share.
Surprisingly to me, even the butterflies line up for loquats.
Polygonia interrogationis/Question Mark Butterfly (note the tiny white punctuation mid-wing) sipping away.
The loquat fruit that ripens and falls naturally to the ground, in combination with the many (many!) more that are partially eaten and then discarded by tree top diners, serve as a reliable draw for both Red Admiral and Question Mark butterflies.
Three to a loquat, no waiting.
Every year as the fruit on the ground reaches critical mass butterflies begin to arrive for an easy feast.  The Hub labors tirelessly to keep the walkway clear, but after a few days the sugary juices accumulate and dry in and on every nook and cranny, making the entire area attractive for puddling.
This Question Mark wasn't budging, no matter how close I came.
According to some sources eating the fruit in quantity results in a mildly sedative effect.  I cannot say how that works in the nervous system of a butterfly, but I have noted behaviors that indicate something is going on after they've spent enough time siphoning up the juices.
Red Admiral on the half shell..
After nectaring, flight apparently becomes optional, with many butterflies simply walking from fruit to fruit, stopping occasionally to fan their wings. As we walk under those trees, some butterflies will still take flight, but they launch only at the last moment, fly to a height of a few feet, and then promptly land again to continue feeding.

Clearly suffering from a lack of good judgement, this Red Admiral decided I looked like quite a reasonable post-juice perch.
OK mister I'm cutting you off.  You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here!

I have a real love-hate relationship with these loquats. The trees are evergreen, with fragrant small flowers pollinators love in late winter, and lovely large leaves that provide significant shade during the hottest part of the year.  As non-natives go, loquats provide all sorts of benefits to the local wildlife and don't seem subject to any threats other than bad weather.  The tops of both trees are currently hail pocked but that hasn't slowed them down in the least. 
On the down side, loquat seed has a very high germination rate. Local squirrels have spit-planted seedlings all along every frequently traveled fence top or tree branch.  In addition, we get a thriving mini-forest of loquat babies sprouting annually immediately underneath and around both parent trees.  The seedlings uproot easily at first, which means I tend to ignore them until they are taller and harder to dislodge.  
This little plot of shame in particular has loquat seedlings ranging in age from one to four years old.  I know... I'm embarrassed for me, too.
I try to imagine, if I had it all to do again, whether or not I'd choose to plant loquats.  While I'm standing outside enjoying the cast shade and surrounded by butterflies, I think I would.  When faced with aprĂ©s-fruit cleanup and/or seedling clearing, I'm not nearly so certain.  That said, if after reading this anybody out there is interested in a free loquat seedling (or eight), boy oh boy, have I got you covered.  


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Wish fulfillment

When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are.  
Anything your heart desires, will come true.

I've been humming that tune for several days now.  Despite the periodic march of storms through our area, certain flowers persist in blooming (albeit the flattened ones much closer to the ground than is usual).  Area butterflies are not ignoring their colorful invitations.  Yesterday I spent blissful moments out watching as a mix of about a half dozen Red Admiral and Painted Lady butterflies danced from flower to flower.
Red Admiral and Painted Lady (Vanessa atalanta and Vanessa cardui) on Coreopsis lanceolata.
A year or so ago I learned pollinators are happiest with masses of blooms in one place, which makes perfect sense, as they all have their favorites.  Who wants to shop all over the garden for singleton bloomers when there are other places packed with prospects?
Possible Cloudless Sulphur (Pheobis sennae) nectaring on Purple prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida)
That fact changed the way I thought about my beds and began to dictate where I put additional native plants into play.  Abandoning my "one of everything, everywhere" approach I began concentrating on "more of some things all in one place".  Judging by the action I've seen the past few days, working with winged visitor's natural preferences is already beginning to pay off.
Reakirt's Blue (Echinargus isola) with wings folded on Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Wings open, the rationale behind the name for Reakirt's Blue (Echinarga isola) is revealed
A remarkable exception to my "native plants first!" rule has been the Ox-eye daisy, or Leucanthemum vulgare.  These were introduced as part of a mixed packet of wildflower seeds I scattered sometime after we took large swaths of lawn out in 2007-8 and have since colonized wherever I left them alone.

The blooms consistently draw in several different local pollinators, enough so that we've had butterflies land on cut flowers adorning a table on the deck. These daisies sail through summer heat and winter cold and don't seem picky about water or soil.  I'm happy to give them space here even as non-natives on that count alone.  Because they also tolerate transplantation well I'm systematically pulling daisy mounds out of prime full sun real estate in deference to native plants, plugging the easy going daisies in to anchor shadier, barely developed beds.

True confession: I've devoted a certain amount of time, energy and expense putting in both native and non-native milkweed plants to support threatened monarch populations, but I rarely see queens or monarchs either one.  Maybe they feel I'm trying too hard, I don't know.
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) on Coreopsis
I console myself in their absence with the other winged visitors who are busily working the beds, just what this particular gardener's heart always desired.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) with wings folded on ox-eye daisy.
The issue of what will happen when I fill my computer to capacity with hundreds of photo files of butterflies that I cannot bear to throw out is yet to be addressed.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), wings opened
I'm optimistic having actual butterflies arriving in ever larger numbers will help me become more disciplined.  Once I've gotten clear photos with wings open and closed of the majority of our usual suspects, I plan to discard most, um, many of the tens of dozens of photos I've accumulated of each type.
On a slightly different note, I finally successfully identified a visitor that had me scratching my head for a week or more.  First seen on fennel fronds and then again today on a Meyer Lemon tree, this 1/2 inch ladybug look-a-like is actually a Labidomera clivicollis - or Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle.  Dun dun dunnn...  As the name suggests, this rather large beetle will feed on the leaves of milkweed plants, slicing stems open to drain sap and if left unchecked, is capable of potentially defoliating entire plants.
Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle
I left the beetle unmolested in both instances as I had not yet determined its status as pest or beneficial predator.
As mentioned before, I put in milkweed plants specifically to draw the winged creatures that are dependent upon it for their life cycle, so in this instance I suppose I did get my wish.  Just with a different visitor than I anticipated.

I've only seen one beetle at a time so far, and always on other plants.  I checked today and there is not currently visible damage to any milkweed plants. I have to admit, I think the beetles are kind of handsome.  And it is good that somebody RSVP'ed to the milkweed.  I'll maintain a watchful eye, if I see more than one beetle at a time or signs of damage, it'll be better soap than sorry.  Now there is potential competition, maybe the monarchs will deign to reign?  Time will tell.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Gardening (and loss)

Recent hail storms in the Central Texas area reminded everybody in no uncertain terms how humans make plans while the weather always manages to have the last word.

The destruction in our neighborhood was significantly less severe than in areas just a couple of miles away.  Arbitrary, insensate, the storm shuffled and hurled walls of ice, accompanied by flattening winds.  The track of the storm displayed no care for garden, or gardener.
In combination with this date's many celebrations of Earth Day, it all got me to thinking about gardening.  More specifically about how, hard as a gardener might work to get a garden "just so", as with any living thing, change is the only constant.
Black chin or rufous?  Impossible to tell in this photo but appearing the morning after the hail storm, and first of the season.
Whatever corner of the outdoor world we frequent, it is filled with little creatures working through life cycles that can seem accelerated to human sensibilities.  The gardener, out and about, working in and enjoying spaces in wildlife's company, cannot help but be aware of their arrivals, and occasionally even of their passing.
Blanket flower/Gaillardia pulchella
Plants go in and out of favor.  Last year's weed becomes this year's coveted native ground cover.  Horseherb, long considered a bane to St. Augustine lawns, is now just as often welcomed as a low growing xeric alternative to grassy monocultures.
Horseherb/Calyptocarpus vialis
Other native plants are sought out and valued not only for their toughness and willingness to spread.  Blooms that attract butterflies are valued for the enjoyment they bring in combination.  Flower spiders, though uninvited, are equally pleased with the arrangement.
Crab spider/Thomisidae captures a Juniper Hairstreak/Callophyrys gryneus, aka dinner.
Unless of course, said native also delivers everybody's least favorite irritant (urushoil).  Poison ivy is native across the lower 48 states and as far as I can tell, universally reviled.  Despite all that it has berries birds love and also attracts butterflies.  As wonderful as I ordinarily find those two qualities to be, I yet spent hours yesterday in amateur hazmat gear, carefully removing every sprig I could find.
Poison ivy/Toxicodendron radicans
As a gardener, my plans and practices offer the pretext of control.  I determine what is pet and what is pest.
No-spot ladybug, Cycloneda munda on Pink Evening Primrose, Oenothera speciosa
I move about consciously dealing out death to targeted lives.  On this individual scale my actions could read every bit as arbitrary and insensate as the violent weather fronts that damage one garden, while leaving another garden unscathed.
Striped Rabdotus snail/Raddotus alternatus
Lessons learned or ignored, beauty is yet a constant companion.  Generations of a native flower discovered and then taken from a graveyard now bring joy to countless other spaces dedicated to growth and life.
Henry Duelberg salvia/Salvia farinacea
Color and form are there to be appreciated at every scale.
Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth/Lycomorpha pholus on Lance-leafed Coreopsis/Coreopsis lanceolata
We human beings want what we want.  Carelessly I can accept desired results as my just reward while experiencing undesired results as an personal affront.
Clasping coneflower/Dracopis amplexicaulis
All along, while we alternately chafe and cheer, natural systems patiently play out their schemes, both long and short.  Things live, things die, things change.
Winecup/Callirhoe involucrata
The earth, carrying its life forms as both blessing and burden, moves mysteriously in and out of our conscious consideration.
We plan, we plant, we celebrate successes and mourn losses.  We fret and we frolic, right up to the moment when we ourselves leave this life for whatever comes next.

I find it all a little overwhelming.  When I think about it at all.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ask not for whom the soap suds...

it suds for thee.

They always start out innocently enough, my obsessions.  I see a butterfly, it is gorgeous. Watching it makes me stop whatever I was doing.  Later I want to share what I saw but it is clumsy communicating deeply moving experiences when your descriptive language is limited by ignorance.  Eloquence and inaccuracy are uneasy partners at best.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail/Papilio glaucus
I was raised to look things up when I had questions I could not answer, so I attempt to find out what sort of butterfly I saw.  I find images of several butterflies that look similar but none are precise matches for what I remember seeing.  I find images of many more butterflies that bear little resemblance but are still fascinating to read about.
Red Admiral - Vanessa atalanta
Next time I go out to the garden I bring my camera along.  I see another butterfly, different yet beautiful in its own way, and I drop whatever work I am doing to give chase and try to capture an image.  It is blurry but better than relying on my spotty memory and the image is clear enough at least to lend confidence to my identification efforts.

I go out into the garden just to look some days.  I see more butterflies.  I take my camera out routinely now, and get many images, some of them very pleasing.  I find out some of my butterflies are actually moths.  I wonder if I can get a good photo of a bee, so I try.
Sweat bee/Agapostemon surrounded by Carpet Beetles/Anthrenus lepidus.
Editing my "bee" photos I realize I am getting images involving a lot more variety than I expected.  What are these non-honeybee bees?  Back to the internet.  It is all so fascinating and abruptly I reach a point where I am wondering how difficult could it be to get photos of everything I see crawling, hopping and flying through the garden beds?   Not just butterflies, moths and bees. I want to find out what everything is, I want to know all the names!
Uh oh.  Soldier beetle, probably Cantharis pellucida.
Right about here is where things all got a little dicey.  Now I've become a little better at sussing out what kind of crawly thing it is I just took a photo of.  (A little better...)  Now it all stops being hypothetical and gets personal, fast.
Forest tent caterpillar/Malacosoma disstria
Inevitably, a certain percentage of these critters are turning out to be bad players.  Borers, suckers, stabbers, skeletonizers, they all spell damage if not doom for some plant out there. Some plant out there in my garden beds. Some plant out there in my garden beds that somebody important shared with me, or perhaps some plant that I raised from seed. Some plant out there that I carefully selected, paid for, planted, hand watered, and protected from killing freezes. Some plant out there I am deeply invested in keeping alive.
Carpet beetles (making some area rugs)/Anthrenus lepidus
I struggled briefly with what an appropriate response would look like.  I am using mostly native plants precisely to draw in and support more wildlife.  All these potential pests are just as much wildlife as the butterflies I so admire. Where should I draw the line? Follow the Prime Directive, simply observe and chronicle?  Watch and wait and allow natural systems to find their own balance without my intervention?
Western grapeleaf skeletonizer (Harrisina metallica)
Pffft.  As if.  Once the numbers of non-benefical insects I observe in any given season reaches critical mass I cannot help myself.  I am simply propelled into action.  To me this is nothing more but nothing less than the good guys versus bad guys, the beneficials versus the plunderers. I consider it my job to teach the lesson as often as it is needed: In this garden, under my watch, plunderers never prosper.
Confession: I don't do anything about these dangling from the oaks but I do enjoy watching the birds eat them.
I am against spraying chemicals and have a low gross-out threshhold for smashing bugs with my bare hands.  My solution is to break out an empty tennis ball container, fill it one third of the way up with soapy water and then go out to wreak havoc upon the invaders.  Carpet beetles?  I'm knocking you into the soapy water. Four lined leaf bugs?  Likewise.  Grasshoppers and Leaf footed bugs?  Flea beetles?  Into the soapy Bath of Doom you all go.
This image from last year (Aztec spur throated/Aidemona azteca). Immature nymphs show up later in the season but I've already spotted at least one of the duller brown adults hopping off at my approach.  
Honestly, I take no real pleasure in the process. The tiny bodies in the soapy water are hard for me to look at, so for that very reason I make myself look at what it is that I am doing.  I try very hard not to accidentally soapify beneficial insects, but the truth is there is often a bit of collateral damage.

Occasionally in the process I end up mauling the very blossoms I'm out there trying to protect.  Pleasant or not, I feel this population control response is a necessary part of being a good steward to the plants I've introduced into these spaces.

I can sum up my philosophy best with this borrowed and slightly altered phrase from medicine:  "Better the planter than the pest".
An ongoing ID nemesis - some sort of Skipper, subfamily Hairstreak
I am not proud that I purposefully kill in my garden.  It seems antithetical, incompatible with what I believed gardening, and especially "Gardening for Wildlife" would comprise.  I try to assure I am killing specifically, personally, and accountably.  I try to understand who the visitors are that the plants are receiving, and potentially, why they felt invited in.  Beautiful, or not.
Anolis carolinensis on San Francesco d'Assisi
As native daughter and native plant/wildlife gardening inspiration Ladybird Johnson herself once said, "The nature we are concerned with ultimately is human nature.".

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ladies (and Gentlemen) Provide a Meta Moment in the Garden

Not much makes me stop my car these days, but the recent sight of royalty strolling about the water conserving gardens in front of my neighborhood's City Hall had me abruptly executing a bat turn and pulling over to the curb without pause.
Rollingwood (Texas) City Hall, Zone 8b
The team from public television station KLRU's Central Texas Gardener were out and about, interviewing horticulturalist Scott Ogden.  Ogden designed the Rollingwood Waterwise Demonstration Gardens along with wife Lauren Springer Ogden and Patrick Kirwin (Kirwin Horticultural Services).  Ogden and his wife are the creative force behind Plant Driven Design.  Scott and Lauren currently provide ongoing advisory and maintenance services for the community garden.

Joining in the discussion was Rollingwood Parks Commission member Robert Patterson, who was key to moving the garden from concept towards completion.  Living less than a block away, Patterson is a direct beneficiary of the new and improved view provided as he walks his dogs daily and occasionally rides his recumbent bicycle past the park.  He also walks the talk, having removed his own lawn a couple of years ago in favor of more xeric, naturalized plantings.

The community garden design, utilizing natives and well adapted neighbors, is meant to be both inspirational and instructive, providing by direct example what good can come AG (After Grass).  Most of the plants are clearly labeled, giving you a glimpse of what grows well and as importantly, where, under some very typical central Texas conditions.  The plants chosen, once established, require little supplemental watering.  As the gardens are unfenced and our area is populated with freely roaming white tailed deer, the plants in play are also proving their browse resistance under combat conditions.
Director of Photography Ed Fuentes relocates a camera as Producer/Editor Linda Lehmusvirta chats on site with Mark Morrow, in charge of Audio Ops for the segment.
After parking my car and just (barely) managing to avoid squealing like an adolescent, I casually dashed over and breathlessly inserted myself into the group.  I blurted out my blog handle along with how excited I was over the gardens getting airtime on the popular Central Texas Gardener program.  I apologized for interrupting but stated I wanted to thank Ms. Lehmusvirta and crew personally for the hours of enjoyment and invaluable information I've picked up over the years as a KLRU subscriber and faithful CTG watcher.

You know, I'm not sure how the CTG crew ever gets any work done when they are filming in a public place.  I was not the only one to recognize them and casually enter what was actually their work space.  It didn't matter - everybody was as courteous and congenial as if they were simply enjoying the day and not trying to get a segment filmed. After mis-identifying a small tree (just to assure everybody it was really me!) I realized I had originally been on my way to run an errand, so I excused myself and did just that.

Then of course, I scooted back home and grabbed my own camera.  Wouldn't you? As I was attempting to surreptitiously snap a shot of CTG's queen bee at work, I could not help but notice a couple of other important garden ladies busily working the spaces.
Harmonia axyridis - Asian lady beetle 
My role models for gardening come in all shapes, sizes, and numbers of spots.
Coccinella septempunctata - Seven spot lady bug
The Rollingwood Waterwise Demonstration Garden segment on Central Texas Gardener is currently set to premiere on September 26th, 2015.  (If you aren't an Austinite, check your local PBS listings for dates and air times.)

But don't wait to see it on television! If you are ever in the neighborhood, do stop at Rollingwood's City Hall on Nixon Drive and take a leisurely live self-guided tour of the garden and grounds.  I can't promise I'll recognize you, stop my car and say hello, but I can promise that possibility is not at all the best reason to visit.

Rght now, things are lookin' very good in the hood.

Rollingwood Waterwise Demonstration Garden
203 Nixon Drive
Rollingwood, Texas
Admission:  free