Connecting to Our Food Web Dedicated to educational resources towards building and sustaining viable food webs and ecosystems Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 Welcome to My Jungle - March, 2019 Fri, 01 Mar 2019 08:00:00 +0000 New Organic Grower, developed a blocking mix a number of years ago that is basically 3 parts peat for structure, 1 part perlite for aeration, 3 parts compost/garden soil, lime for pH correction and a base fertilizer for nutrient needs, which is made up of blood meal, rock phosphate and greensand. This mix works better than standard potting mix when making soil blocks (growing transplants without a pot). A blocking mix needs to be more fibrous so it can stand up to wetting it to the consistency of brownie mix, then being formed into blocks using a soil blocking tool (purchased or made). Using Eliot's recipe, I usually make a batch in a wheel barrow, then dry store the finished mix in a large lidded garbage can for convenient access. The recipe can easily be scaled back though if a smaller amount than two bushels is needed. And just like in the kitchen, I have been known to make substitutions when I don't have all the called for ingredients. In general I prefer perlite over sand because it's so much lighter and easier to mix, but sand works just as well in terms of drainage if that is all you have at the time. I have used all compost instead of adding garden soil and that seems to work just as well too. Substituting fertilizers though takes a bit more consideration. This recipe calls for organic fertilizers, which in general are low in analysis and slower in their release of nutrients to the plants. If synthetic fertilizer(s) are substituted, one of the slow-release fertilizers like Osmocote® may be the best option to avoid the potential for plant injury due to over-fertilization/salt burn. Follow the label for the appropriate amount to add to the volume of planting media being mixed. Because this recipe is intended to meet organic standards, the amount specified for lime would be for agricultural lime (calcium carbonate) rather than hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide), which is not allowed as an organic input. If hydrated lime is substituted, less is generally needed because of its higher neutralizing value. I compared two Bonide® brand limes which are readily available to home gardeners, hydrated lime and agricultural lime. After comparing the analysis on these two specific products, the hydrated lime turned out to be 14% more reactive, meaning you would need to use 14% less of it to get the same effect compared to the Bonide® brand agricultural lime. Remember though, just because you use less does not mean it is the cheapest. I have found that Eliot's advice on mixing order to be really sound, particularly if you are mixing the full recipe or larger. It is tough to mix it all at once, especially if you used sand instead of perlite…unless you are blessed with one of those small cement mixers. It is so much easier to get a uniform blend of the lime and fertilizers if you mix it in the peat moss first. Ignore the picture I took of the individual ingredients in the wheel barrow before mixing…I did that just for demonstration. Start out by adding the lime to the peat moss and mixing thoroughly. Next add the perlite (or sand) and fertilizer, then mix again. Finally add the garden soil and/or compost and one last mix. Then to make soil blocks, add water until the mix is like paste. Soil blocking tools (metal expulsion mold) of various sizes can be purchased, or someone handy could devise their own from re-purposed materials.

Blocking Mix Recipe from Eliot Coleman's The New Organic Grower, 1995

  • Using a 10 quart bucket as the unit of measurement
  • 3 buckets brown peat
  • ½ cup lime (agricultural) Mix
  • 2 buckets coarse sand or perlite
  • 3 cups base fertilizer Mix
  • 1 cup blood meal
  • 1 cup soft rock phosphate
  • 1 cup greensand
  • 1 bucket garden soil
  • 2 buckets compost Mix
Welcome to My Jungle - February, 2019 Fri, 01 Feb 2019 08:00:00 +0000 My jungle still has the look of winter sleep, but a few plants are starting to stir. As expected, the buds are swelling on Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) and fragrant dawn viburnum (Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn'). Daffodils (Narcissus) and Italian arum (Arum italicum) are pushing, but unfortunately, so is the purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum). After looking closely, I noticed the hellebore (Helleborus spp.) blooms developing close to the ground but looking a bit rough around the edges. The same sub-zero temperatures that dinged up the hellebore bloom doesn't seem to have fazed the leaves of Prague viburnum (Viburnum x pragense), purple stem dwarf sweet box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis 'Purple Stem'), cow's tail pine (Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Duke Gardens') or Japanese Sacred Lily (Rohdea japonica). All add green color in a time of drab, but also texture and form beyond the standard evergreen conifers.

Regardless of what it looks like outside, the calendar tells me it is time to get prepared for planting the vegetable garden. First is knowing when the last average frost date occurs for the area, because planting dates for different groups of vegetables are based on this date. From state weather records averaged over the last 30 years, I know the median date for the last 32°F freeze for the St Louis metro east is roughly the 2nd week of April. First to be planted are the cold hardy vegetables, and as you can guess, they like the cold and are tolerant of frost. Cold hardy vegetables need to be planted in the window four to six weeks prior to the area's last average frost to mature before bolt-inducing heat. For me, February 24 through March 16 is my target window for direct seeding cold hardy vegetables like kale, kohlrabi, leaf lettuce, onion, pea, rutabaga, salsify, spinach and turnip. Soil temperature also plays a factor into early season planting. Pea for example requires a 45°F soil temperature for optimal germination, so avoid planting too early in the target window if soils have not warmed sufficiently.

A number of cold hardy vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and parsley are planted in this same window, but as transplants. For those growing their own transplants, plug trays should have been seeded roughly six weeks prior…the 2nd to 4th week of January. For the rest of us, purchasing transplants is an easy alternative. This is also the time to source vegetative material for planting horseradish (root), onion (set or plant), potato (tuber), rhubarb (crown or plant) and asparagus (crown).

Welcome to My Jungle - January, 2019 Tue, 01 Jan 2019 08:00:00 +0000 Does unseasonably warm weather in the middle of winter cause woody perennials (trees and shrubs) to "wake up" too early? As with all things in nature, it all depends. Most trees from temperate climates require the accumulation of winter chill (500 and 1,500 chill hours) and subsequent heat during their dormant phase to resume growth and initiate flowering in the following spring. Chilling hours are the number of hours of exposure to about 45°F, and are measured from leaf drop in autumn until mid-February to early March. Chilling hours for fruit plants usually accumulate between 35°F and 55°F, with 45° considered optimal. The Midwest Regional Climate Center is close to this ideal; they assume if the temperature at each station at the top of the hour is greater than or equal to 35°F and less than or equal to 45°F (35°F <= T <= 45°F), then the station's season's chilling hour accumulation is increased by 1 unit. As of January 6, 2019, the collar counties of St Louis, with a few exceptions, have accumulated at least 501-600 chill hours so far. This means any temperate woody perennial requiring less than 600 chill hours has most likely met its cool-temperature requirement and is ready for stage-two of breaking dormancy. In stage-2, the temperate woody perennial must then receive a certain number of growing degree-hours (warm-temperature requirement) in order to resume growth. Normally, most temperate woody plants adapted to our climate accumulate sufficient chilling hours by roughly mid-January, then begin accumulating growing degree-hours before resuming growth in the latter half of March. Where we normally run into problems is when temperate woody perennials accumulate their chill requirement too early in the season, resulting in accelerated budbreak and an increased risk of exposure to freeze damage. For this reason, low-chill cultivars should be avoided in our region. They tend to break bud at the first winter warm up, then are severely damaged by returning freezing temperatures. For example, 'Cresthaven' peach is well adapted to our region and is reported to require 950 chill hours. Compare that to 'UFBest,' a peach cultivar developed for central and south Florida, requiring only 100 chilling hours. If 'Cresthaven' is following the books, it should still be snug in its dormancy, while 'UFBest' would be primed for a winter kill.

Welcome To My Jungle -- December, 2018 Sat, 01 Dec 2018 08:00:00 +0000 Many gardeners are trying to attract more native insects, both in number and diversity into their landscapes in an effort to collectively patchwork a healthier ecosystem. There is an increased number of research projects focused on plant-insect interactions, trying to determine whether natives have a home field advantage over non-natives or cultivars of native plants. Several studies suggest that wild bees prefer to forage on the nectar and pollen from native plants...though not exclusively, while some studies have shown no preference one way or the other. Annie White, in her 2016 dissertation (The Univ. of Vermont), reported insect pollinators on the whole prefer to forage on native species over native cultivars. Because this preference was not true in all cases and also not exclusive suggests that some native cultivars may be equal to the native species. The Mt Cuba Center has an interesting report rating cultivars of our native Phlox paniculata. In it, they note P. paniculata 'Jeana' not only stood out for its mildew-free foliage, but found 'Jeana' attracted more butterflies than any other garden phlox in the entire trial. I checked to see how 'Jeana' performed against the native species, but was disappointed to learn the straight species did not survive. In a more recent HortTechnology article by Baisden et al. (2018), researchers found altering leaf color of native species from green to red, blue, or purple reduced insect use of a plant for growth and reproduction; concluding such native cultivars are not the best option when selecting plants to support insect-based food webs. No consistent pattern of use among the species and cultivars though were found for other traits such as variegation, fall color, habit, disease resistance, or fruit size; though the authors did suggest increased fruit size may present a problem to certain bird species. Additionally, there is concern native cultivars with reduced usefulness (i.e. red, blue or purple leaves) in terms of ecosystem health will potentially breed with native populations and hypothetically reduce the overall usefulness of the native species. The cat may already be out of the bag on that front, but the question still remains.

The take home to all this is nature is complicated and insects follow no hard rules. Many native pollinators would not hesitate to feed from an open apple blossom, even though it is not native to North America. More research is needed to understanding insect preference across the whole spectrum of plants for us to have a better understanding of a healthy ecosystem. So far though, research tends to support an overall preference of insects for native species…at least based on the limited number of species and locations included in studies to date. Keeping that in mind, those who want to make their landscape more inviting to insects and other wildlife should at the very least attempt to increase plant diversity, with a focus on incorporating native plant species. View your landscape though another lens: one that includes retention of leaf litter for overwintering beneficials and feeding your soil; plants that provide food (insect-based food web), shelter, nesting and landing sites for birds; and plants that additionally support a diverse population of insects.

Welcome To My Jungle -- November, 2018 Thu, 01 Nov 2018 08:00:00 +0000 Fall-blooming plants like Chrysanthemum dendranthema 'Cambodian Queen' are a very important source of nectar and pollen late in the season, and on a pleasant sunny fall day can be like Grand Central Station in the insect world. Because there is not much in bloom this time of the year, flower-visiting insects tend to congregate on the few plants that are in bloom. Just casually glancing recently at this pretty pink perennial mum stopped me in my tracks for what turned out a very rewarding flower watch. Not only were there bumblebees, honeybees (6) and various butterflies working the flowers, but also hoverflies, a.k.a. flower flies in the family Syrphidae (2 and 3), sweat bees (5), spotted cucumber beetles (a.k.a southern corn rootworm) (4), and orange assassin bugs (1) just to name a few.

You'll notice right away that many hoverflies have ornate body patterns, often of black and yellow, to mimic wasps and bees. And if you feel safe enough to look more closely, you might discern they have only two wings, meaning they are in the fly order (Diptera) and cannot sting. And yes, some flies do bite (think mosquito or horsefly), but hoverflies are nevertheless in the harmless group. You'll also find they are easily distinguished from bees or wasps by their huge eyes that seem to cover most of their head. Plus, they are amazing flyers and get their name for their ability to hover like a helicopter. Adults (flies) feed on pollen and nectar in flowers, while the larvae (maggots) are voracious predators of aphids and other small, slow-moving insects. Some hoverfly species overwinter as adults, though most overwinter as larvae in leaf litter; further emphasizing the need to maintain adequate leaf cover for beneficial insects.

The orange assassin bug (Pselliopus sp.) truly looks like a nasty piece of work, but all the same, strikingly beautiful. Like other assassin bugs, this true bug (Hemiptera) is predatory and feeds on other insects…not being particular who it catches. These patient hunters may either stalk their prey, or quietly wait for an unsuspecting insect to come within reach, then suddenly attack with their dagger-like, piercing-sucking beak. A word to the wise; some assassin bugs can and will deliver a painful bite if picked up and handled carelessly. They overwinter as an adult, usually sheltering under loose bark, rotting logs, or stones. Eggs are laid sometime during the spring (March-May) in loose, circular clusters. The nymphs in turn emerge June-August, taking about 85 days after the egg hatches for it to develop into an adult.

Another late fall flower for our area is a reblooming (remontants) iris, though freezing fall temperatures can damage blooms before they have a chance to even open in some years. But this year 'Again and Again' managed to bloom ahead of a killing freeze. I try to plant these types close to the front door so they can be admired by all who arrive…and from the cover of the front porch during rainy weather. Still, even in named reblooming varieties, reblooming may or may not occur every year. All cultivars vary in their ability to rebloom according to their genetic makeup, plant age and environmental growing conditions. Whereas 'Again and Again' came as promised this year, 'Zee,' 'Summer Olympics' and a host of others just didn't get what they needed to perform again. Maybe next year will be better.

Welcome To My Jungle -- October, 2018 Mon, 01 Oct 2018 08:00:00 +0000 The Missouri Botanical Garden has transformed an area of turf adjacent to the Lehmann Building into a space of wonder. Hundreds of thousands of flowering bulbs carpet the lawn in a succession of bloom from late winter well into fall, starting with dwarf iris and spring crocus, and ending with fall crocus (Colchicum spp.). Turf has never been that interesting to me but this technique was so transformative, I was encouraged to try it in my jungle this fall…though to a much smaller scale. To naturalize bulbs in my selected turf area, I started with late-winter bloomers to hopefully give foliage enough time to "ripen" completely next spring before the lawn needs mowing. I borrow the word "ripen" to mean that the leaves will have enough time to sufficiently feed the bulb before being fully or partially mowed off. I randomly planted early crocus, three dwarf iris cultivars (Iris reticulata) and striped squill (Puschkinia libanotica). Some I planted in groups of various sizes (2-5) and others I planted singly to give a more naturalized appearance. If all goes well next spring, I may consider adding some winter aconite (Eranthus spp.), glory-on-the-snow (Chionodoxa spp.), snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) or mini daffodils like 'February Gold' next fall.

Bulbs usually come with instructions on how many should be planted per square foot for bed planting. But what if you like circles of colors rather than squares? A square foot is equivalent to 144 square inches (12" x 12"). Then calculate what the diameter of a circle whose same area is 144 square inches. Using the area of a circle formula (A=πr2), we find a circle with the interior diameter of 13.54" equals 144 square inches. You can now make a simple template out of a cardboard box regardless of whether you like squares or circles, while still maintain the proper density regardless of how big of bed you are planting!

Rodents can be serious pests following bulb planting, especially to small bulbs which are not planted deeply. Just in a short period of time, scavenging rodents, most especially squirrels and chipmunks, can dig up all your hard work. Edible bulbs either mysteriously disappear or little bits are left behind on the surface to signal their destruction, while the inedible ones are usually just left scattered on the surface. For this reason, inspect planting sites the next several days after planting to insure that any uprooted bulbs get replanted and any obviously eaten ones are noted for the next bulb order. From experience, any noticeable disturbance in the soil attracts rodents to scavenge, so effort should be made to conceal signs of digging. To reduce scavenging, always plant bulbs to their maximum depth using soil to firmly refill the hole rather than mulch, just to make it less attractive. Camouflage the disturbed area with leaf or bark mulch, followed by watering just enough to settle the planting area surface. In some cases, wire mesh over the planting area may be warranted until the soil settles and removed before foliage emerges in the spring. Where moles are an issue, some bulbs can be underlain with wire mesh to protect them from underground feasting. Incidentally, my dog shows the same behavior with disturbed soil. Anytime I do a poor job of camouflaging a newly planted "anything", she digs it up enthusiastically as if spying a rodent in its burrow. Out of thousands of plants, she can immediately find and harass anything newly planted.

It is pretty obvious that brown marmorated stink bugs (BMSB) are now congregating and looking for winter lodgings. While I was planting bulbs the last day of September, various layers of clothing including a sweatshirt, gloves, hat and apron came on and off throughout the day. When off, they were draped over one of the patio chairs and in just a matter of moments, several BMSB found their way into the nooks and crannies and had to be shaken out before redonning. Out of curiosity, I opened the umbrella we keep on the patio for taking the dog out when it's raining, only to find it totally infested with BMSB. By the time I had removed them all, I had to go inside for a breath of fresh air. I'm pretty sure one came in with me!

Welcome to My Jungle -- September, 2018 Sat, 01 Sep 2018 08:00:00 +0000 Late summer flowering perennials may be less common but they are still an important addition to any garden, both for adding color in an otherwise drab time of year, and possibly as valuable pollen/nectar sources for visiting insects and birds.

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is native throughout much of Illinois and is happiest in a uniformly moist soil situated in a partly sunny location. It will take more sun if the soil is moist. Put it in a hot, dry sight and it will be toast. This herbaceous perennial grows to 1-4' tall, with an erect growth habit that usually remains unbranched. In my jungle, the beautiful china blue flowers are constantly visited by butterflies, bumblebees and other long-tongued bees, and to my never ending wonder, sometimes a ruby throated hummingbird. Great blue lobelia reseeds itself so you only need to plant one to get more. But this is one reseeder that I have never felt the need to reign in. Just pull up a chair and watch the pollinators come in for a visit!

Pink Turtlehead (Chelone obliqua var. speciosa) is a native of Illinois as well, though more so in the southern and western counties…including Madison and St Claire. With a spike of medium to deep pink snapdragon-like flowers and almost always handsome foliage, pink turtlehead will generally succeed in any rich soil in both sunny and shady conditions. It has some tolerance for brief periods of dry soil, making it useful as a rain garden plant. Pink turtlehead is upright, usually unbranched and growing to roughly 3 feet tall. It's easy to understand the common "turtlehead" name once you look at the flowers with a bit of fanciful imagination. Each inflated, tubular flower is irregular in shape, with the two upper petals fused into a hood-like structure (imagine a skull and upper beak) and the other 3 petals forming a bearded, 3-lobed lower lip (imagine the tongue and lower beak). Bumblebees though, fear it not.

Some pollinator plants can be like a watering hole full of crocodiles. Hold that thought. Hairy Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum) is native to Illinois, though more to the central parts of the state away from the extreme northern and southern counties. Multiple branching within the plant results in a slender bushy appearance, 2-4 feet tall. Compared to other mountain mints, P. pilosum has hairy leaves and stems, and slightly wider leaves. From a standing height, the bloom of mountain mints appear white, but if you look a bit closer you will see that each individual flower is liberally speckled with minute purple dots. The bloom of mountain mints are nectar-rich, making them very attractive to many kinds of insects, including a number of bees and wasps. Parasitic beetles (Ripiphooridae) have evolved to make use of heavy trafficked flowers to target their prey, which is mostly solitary bees and wasps. Adult beetles, depending on species, are known to visits other flowers as well, including elderberry (Sambucus), bonesets (Eupatorium), beebalm (Monarda) and goldenrod (Solidago). Once the female beetle lays her eggs on the selected flowers; the hatching instar (triungulins) attach themselves with their mandibles to a visiting bee or wasp, and are carried back to the bee's nest where they feed on bee larvae and food stores. The adults only live a few days, long enough to find a mate and lay eggs…making them somewhat elusive even if in reality they are quite abundant locally.  Because of the rather secretive nature of these parasitic beetles, and limited research to date, the overall impact on bee and wasp populations is unknown. After learning this, I wondered if I might find any of these beetle species on my own hairy mountain mint plant. Almost immediately, I sighted a suspect (see picture) and moved in for the capture. False alarm, this one turned out to be one of the tumbling flower beetles from the family Mordellidae, just out for a meal of pollen . Regardless, my eyes have been opened to yet another piece of our vast and dynamic food web.

These types of interactions are going on around us all the time, mostly unwitnessed or unknown. On a more obvious scale, I like to watch the comings and goings on various blooms with my camera ready. Many times, I have noticed various assassin bugs (Reduviidae) tending to hang out for an easy meal on my tartarian asters (Aster tataricus 'Jindai') and purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea). I cheer when it's a Japanese beetle and mourn when it's a bee that strays too near. Hopefully, you're ready to start looking at flowers a little closer.