Honey bees love crocuses

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) love crocuses, but only if the crocuses are producing nectar and pollen, as well as having a detectable scent. Unfortunately, many hybrids may not have pollen, nectar, or scent because these traits have been bred out of them. So, if your garden goals include attracting pollinators, be sure to look for heirloom seeds and plants. Don’t be fooled by pictures of a butterfly photoshopped onto a beautiful flower in the seed catalogs.

The crocuses in the photos below were purchased as bulbs from Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Michigan, several years ago. I chose the Crocus Tapestry from their catalog, which contained (still contains) 5 Mammoth Yellow (1665) bulbs, 5 white Snowbunting (1914) bulbs, and 5 bulbs each of 3 lavender crocuses–King of the Striped (1880), Tommies (1847), and Vanguard (1934). Yes, those are dates in parentheses, so you can rest assured that they are heirloom crocuses, guaranteed to attract pollinators. The lavender crocuses shown below are Tommies and Vanguards, sometimes I’m not sure which is which.

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are long-tongued bees, so they can sip nectar from long, narrow pistils like those on crocuses. This bee seems to be cleaning its long tongue with its forelegs. There are special notches in the forelegs of a honey bee that are used to clean their antenna, but I haven’t actually read that they clean their tongues, so I don’t know for sure what the bee is doing. This photo does clearly show the long tongue.

The truth is, when I first noticed dozens of bees swarming the crocuses, I didn’t know they were honey bees. I wasn’t even sure they were bees. Consulting a book on my bookshelf, The Bees in Your Backyard by Wilson and Carril, I determined their identity and started to learn something about them. Since honey bees are social insects, I worried about where their hive was located. An online fact sheet from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture informed me that natural colonies of honey bees are extremely rare. So I was left to wonder who was keeping honey bees in my suburban New Jersey neighborhood. Honey bees may travel 3 miles or more to find a good source of nectar and pollen. When I discovered that our town’s community garden, which, as a bee flies, is about a mile away, provides space for beekeepers, that mystery was solved.

Honey bees have scopa (pollen-collecting hairs) and corbiculae (pollen baskets) on their hind legs for gathering and transporting pollen home to their hive.

I was relieved to learn the whereabouts of the hive because a member of our family is allergic to stings and once visited the emergency room due to multiple wasp stings. As many people do, we called them “bee stings,” but they weren’t. It turns out there was a hornets’ nest in the lawn he was mowing at the time. It was a scary experience. Other members of the family, including me, have been stung by yellow jackets. Daisy, my yellow Labrador garden dog, and I were chased by yellow jackets once, when we unknowingly got too close to their nest in our magnolia tree. Only a handy garden hose, which I grabbed to spray the yellow jackets, saved us from multiple stings. Hornets and yellow jackets are wasps, not bees. Still, bees do sting, so I was relieved to learn these honey bees were visitors to my garden and not taking up residence.

Crocuses are “perfect” flowers because they have both pistils and stamens. This honey bee has hold of the pistil, which is comprised of the ovary at the base, the stalk, and the stigma at the top, which receives the pollen. Crocuses have 3 stamens surrounding the pistil, composed of stalks called filaments topped by anthers, which are pollen bearers. The crocus is pollinated when insects such as honey bees carry pollen from an anther, either on the same flower or on a neighboring flower, to a stigma atop the pistil.

While wasps can sting multiple times, honey bees sting only once, and only worker bees, which are always sterile females, can sting. Worker honey bees are the only bees to have a sting with a barb on it, so it sticks in the skin of a predator and keeps pumping out venom. When the worker bee pulls away, the sting and venom sack are torn from her abdomen, and she dies as a result. Honey bees are social insects. There are tens of thousands of workers in a hive. When a predator attacks the hive, worker bees will defend it by stinging the predator. Some worker bees will die in defense of the hive and the queen bee, but a majority will live to carry on. Honey bees rarely sting when they are foraging away from the hive, although it’s always best to keep a respectful distance.

This honey bee is perhaps just leaving this crocus flower. Her long tongue is still extended and pollen has collected on the hairs of the midleg, but has not yet been collected into the corbiculae, or pollen basket, on the hind leg.

I am still puzzled by the presence of these honey bees this spring. Did their hives just recently become established. Did my crocus patch finally get large enough to be detected from a distance by the bees. Did the honey bees visit my garden last year and I just didn’t notice. Today is April 10. The crocus flowers have been gone for some time now, and so have the honey bees. Will they come back when other flowers bloom. I have more questions than answers.


“Busy as a bee” takes on new meaning after watching honey bees foraging on crocuses. I can’t help but laugh at their manic antics. This industrious bee is collecting pollen moistened with nectar in the corbiculae, or pollen basket, on each hind leg, which she will carry back to the hive.

Honey bees are not native. European colonists brought them here in the 16th century. Today they are used extensively for industrial agriculture pollination with hives shipped around the country as needed. Parasites can have a devastating effect on honey bee populations, and a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder has caused honey bee populations to decline. It also may be the case that the presence of honey bees impacts native bee populations adversely. Much has been written about these problems, which are beyond the scope of this post.

This honey bee looks quite heavily laden with her large corbiculae, or pollen basket. The hind leg on the other side is undoubtedly the same. I’m not sure, but I think her mandibles are in evidence. Mandibles, located on either side of the head, act like pliers and are used for any chore requiring grasping or cutting, such as cutting into the anthers on stamen of flowers to release pollen.

On September 30, 1852, Henry David Thoreau and 3 friends set off in a wagon to find wildflowers where there might still be honey bees. Most of the wildflowers were gone, but finally they discovered a sunny hillside near Walden Pond where goldenrod and asters were still in bloom, and they heard the hum of bees. They had brought especially made boxes in which to collect some bees, as well as dried-powder paint of different colors to mark the backs of bees they collected.

The trapped bees sipped honeyed water that had been placed in the boxes until they had their fill. After receiving a daub of powdered paint on their backs, the bees were let loose to return to their hives. Thoreau and his friends knew there were hives in the village, but they also seemed interested in perhaps finding a new wild hive. 

The first painted bee they released circled around the box in ever larger and higher circles, as if, Thoreau says, “to examine the premises that he might know them again” and then “as if to ascertain the course to his nest.” After this, the bee “darts off in a bee-line” toward the village hives. Subsequent bees set loose in a similar fashion also went off in the direction of known hives. 

The first bee, marked with red paint, came back straight to the honey box within 22 minutes, but this time, after loading up again on honeyed water, “he” took off, but without circling, as did the other bees, marked with different colors of paint. Thoreau refers to the bees with the masculine pronoun, I guess not knowing at that time that worker honey bees are all sterile females.

Thoreau makes the astute observation that a casual “rambler in the most remote woods and pastures” would never guess that the bees he sees there might be from his own village, “perhaps from his own yard, come to get honey for his hives.” Thoreau writes he “felt richer for this experience,” which taught him that “even insects in my path are not loafers, but have their special errands. Not merely and vaguely in this world, but in this hour, each is about his business.”

IMG_0683 (1)
One more photo of the manic antics of worker honey bees. This one seems in almost a death dance with the pistil on this crocus. Her corbiculae, or pollen basket, is quite full. She must be almost ready to fly back to the hive.

Thoreau and his friends were scouting out wildflowers and honey bees in September. They didn’t seem to consider the collection of pollen. Their emphasis was on the honeyed water, a substitute for nectar, being fed to the honey bees in the boxes. Workers collect nectar from flowers and transport it back to their hives. The nectar is partially digested and then regurgitated into honeycomb, and finally thickened into honey when the bees buzz their wings over the honeycombs to evaporate excess water.

This busy honey bee must be ready to fly home. Just look at the large bundles of pollen moistened with nectar she has collected in her pollen baskets.

What Thoreau describes as circles the bees made when they left the box with honeyed water is now commonly known as the “waggle dance,” which is executed by a worker bee as a means of communication to sister worker bees. indicating to them both the direction of and distance to a food source she has discovered. Although Thoreau’s bees were heading to the hive, the waggle dance usually takes place at the hive, showing the way to a new food source. As Thoreau observes, this dance occurs only at the beginning of the foraging expedition. After that, the bees take off in a bee line, as there is no longer the need for circling. 

The more I learn about the common flora and fauna in my garden, the richer I feel for the experience, as Thoreau says. Birds, butterflies, and bees are not loafers but have their special errands. Egocentric persons may think these creatures are on display for their pleasure, but that pleasure is a byproduct. Life goes on whether we observe it or not. I find it hard to express how wondrous these little creatures seem as “not merely and vaguely in this world, but in this hour, each is about its business.”

Many other photographs of my garden may be viewed and/or downloaded at shutterstock.com/g/gardenlife.


Peppers (Capsicum annuum)

In March of 2018, I wrote the post Pepper plans for 2018, bemoaning the fact that my 2017 garden had produced very few red ripe peppers, and I was dreaming of better success in my 2018 garden. Well, as can be seen in the photos below, it happened. Whether it was the weather or better timing or better soil, or a combination, by September my 2018 garden was producing fabulous red ripe peppers. Frying peppers, jalapeños, cayennes, pepperoncinis, and anchos. There was also an abundance of tasty immature green peppers earlier in the season. They were delicious although not so newsworthy as the red ripe peppers later in the season. Now I hope to do as well or perhaps exceed expectations with the 2019 pepper crop.

I made a few decisions last year that carry over into future gardens. I decided to try a non-rotational strategy for tomatoes and peppers. I also decided to grow peppers in grow bags with the bottoms cut open to allow moisture and earthworms into the bags. This year will be the first test of non-rotational growing, by which I mean that peppers will be planted in the same grow bags they grew in last summer. I do plan to replace some of the old soil in the grow bags with fresh soil from the garden mixed with compost. Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog prescribes a 6.5 pH soil with abundant phosphorous and calcium for peppers, so I added small amounts of garden lime, rock phosphate, and oyster shells to the compost.

Pepper plants indoors under grow lights April 30, 2019

Peppers were planted indoors in a soilless growing mix on April 10. Their tray was placed on a heating pad and covered with a plastic dome to keep humidity high. After germination, they were placed under grow lights. When the first true leaves appeared, I thinned them to 2 in each small pot, as can be seen above on April 30. They are still in the soilless mix, which is a combination of peat mosses, compost, and perlite. When they are bigger, I will transplant them into larger pots in regular potting soil. Our frost date is around May 15, but I usually wait until the end of May to transplant peppers out into the grow bags. They can get hardened off in late May by taking them outside on nice days but bringing them in at night. I hope to do updates to this post as the season progresses, so please check back from time to time.

Cheyenne F1 cayenne chiles October 2, 2018. I’m retiring cayennes from the 2019 garden because we don’t need so many hot peppers, but I’m already feeling sad about my decision.

My 2019 pepper choices are the same as last year, except that I am retiring the cayenne peppers, as seen above. I love both the sight and taste of them, but with all the dietary issues in our family, we don’t need so many hot peppers. I’ll still grow habanero peppers, which are off-the-chart hot, for Mexican dishes. The jalapeños, ancho/poblanos, Havasus, and pepperoncinis are called hot rather than sweet, but to me they seem to be varying degrees of warm rather than hot.

But, first, the sweet bell peppers:


Sweet Sunrise F1. Blocky to slightly elongated fruits. Flavor is fruity and sweet. 65 days to green; 85 to yellow ripe. Both green immature and yellow ripe peppers were produced throughout the 2018 season. Although the plants were robust, they did not produce many peppers. Perhaps the additional minerals mentioned above will help with yield in 2019.

Intruder F1. Large, blocky fruits with thick walls. 62 days to green; 72 to red ripe. Didn’t produce well in 2018 although the plants were robust. None turned red ripe. Why am I planting them again. Well, because I had leftover seed and couldn’t decide on a better alternative. So I will give them one more chance. Bad reasoning I know. No photos.

CORNO DI TOROS (bull’s horn)

Carmen F1 frying pepper. Best tasting sweet Italian frying pepper. Sweet flavor for salads and roasting. Tapered fruits averaging 6″ long and 2 1/2″ wide. 60 days to green; 80 days to red ripe. Carmen frying peppers make my miserable life without bountiful sweet bell peppers bearable. They are good green and incredibly delicious red. They can be used raw if needed, and are just fine for salsa if nothing else is available. They are at their best sautéd in olive oil with onions and served with sausage. Sautéd peppers and onions freeze well to bring back the taste of summer to winter stews and casseroles. I haven’t tried roasting them. Perhaps this summer I will. I love Carmen frying peppers in all their many uses.

SANTA FE (Guero Chiles)

Havasu F1. Thick-walled peppers, changing from pale yellow to orange to red. 60 days to pale yellow. 80 days to red ripe. As can be seen below, Havasu peppers were prolific in the 2018 garden throughout August and September. As I’ve confessed many times in my posts, I’m a pushover for names of vegetables. Havasu peppers bring back good memories for me of hiking in the Grand Canyon although I’ll admit I don’t know as much as I could about the Havasupai tribe or their surroundings. Havasu peppers in all their colors are tasty and dependable and will always be a part of my garden.


El Jefe F1 jalapeños. Speaking of great names for vegetables. The boss. The perfect name for a jalapeño. Best combination of earliness and yield for jalapeños. 67 days to green. 90 days to red ripe. Warm, not hot. Thick-walled. I had just 1 grow bag of jalapeños in the 2018 garden. It was enough for salsa, both fresh and frozen. Jalapeños are pretty much indispensable for salsa. You don’t need to have all jalapeños as peppers in a batch of salsa, but you need some to get the best warmth and flavor.

Helios F1 habaneros. Extra early and very hot. 67 days to green. 87 day to orange ripe. Just 1 small grow bag sufficed in the 2018 garden for the habaneros as well. Hot. Hot. Hot. A little goes a long way in most recipes. Always wear gloves when working with habaneros. I like to mince a few and freeze them in olive oil in small Mason jars. They can be chopped out with a sharp knife as needed throughout the winter. If I have any left after that, I let them dry in the kitchen. Then I either use them in cooking, or I crush them and spread them around in the compost piles where critters, mostly mice and chipmunks, are burrowing. Works really well. Cinnamon works well too, but I have to buy that. In the summer, sprigs of mint will keep critters out of the compost. I also have planted mint around the compost piles. It comes back each year and smells wonderful. But I digress. A few habaneros are a necessity in the garden, in my opinion. A few go a long way.

Baron F1 ancho/poblanos. Very large 2-lobed fruits. 65 days to green. 85 days to red ripe. I was favorably impressed with their yield and taste last summer. I tried roasting some. They were delicious. This summer I hope to become a master pepper roaster and try new recipes with red-ripe roasted anchos.

Baron ancho/poblanos October 2, 2018

Pepperoncini peppers from John Scheeper’s Kitchen Garden Seeds. These are the only pepper seed not from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I had great good fortune with the pepperoncinis in the 2018 garden. Pepperoncinis should always be eaten red-ripe, not green. They are lovely cut up in a garden salad. Their history is still something of a mystery to me, like San Marzano tomatoes. Are they from a particular region. Are they open-pollinated. I hope to have answers this pepper season.

Below are photos of peppers and onions sautéd and put into Mason jars for freezing. Absolutely nothing, except perhaps frozen tomato sauce, brings back summer like they do. Remember that you don’t tighten the lids on Mason jars when using them for freezing.

I’ve been slow with publishing this post. Today in June 16, 2019. I just fertilized the peppers in their grow bags and watered them. We’ve had plenty of rain this spring, but the grow bags dry out quickly. I used an organic slow-release fertilizer. I’m not happy about using fertilizer, remembering what Eliot Coleman says about feeding the soil, not the plants. Possibly plants in grow bags require a little extra boost. I’m not sure. I may be over-compensating. I’m hoping for even more red-ripe and yellow-ripe peppers for summer eating and freezing for winter.

Below are photos of the peppers in their grow bags as of today, June 16, 2019. Looking good.

Vegetable garden plans for 2019: carrots

Carrots (Daucus carota)

The 2018 carrot crop was my best ever. But there’s still lots of room for improvement. Following Louise Riotte’s advice in Carrots Love Tomatoes, I planted carrots around the edges of raised beds where tomatoes would be planted in the centers in due time. The carrots did indeed love the tomato beds, but the tomatoes did not return the compliment. Tomato plants without the border of carrots did consistently better than the tomato plants with the carrot border. Perhaps this year I’ll plant fewer carrots with the tomatoes–perhaps in the corners of the tomato beds instead of all around. Hmm.

Daily harvest of carrots on July 11, 2018

I like the multicolored carrots that are available these days. When I don’t have garden carrots, which is much of the year, I depend on Trader Joe’s organic Carrots of Many Colors. Orange, red, and purple carrots may vary in sweetness from batch to batch, but they almost always please. Yellow carrots are usually OK, but often not as sweet, whether from the garden or the store. White carrots are almost always disappointing, and I have determined not to grow them this year. When I buy from Trader Joe’s, I look for the package with the fewest white and yellow carrots. Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, in The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook, are not particularly pleased with the white and yellow carrots either, faulting them as I do for lack of sweetness. They note approvingly that orange carrots contain the antioxidant carotene, and red carrots have more lycopene, another antioxidant. But they think the purple carrots with orange centers are simply gaudy. I agree with all that, except that I like the purple carrots, particularly the Purple Haze carrots from Johnny’s, which are dark purple with a bright orange core.

Too many yellow and white carrots were harvested on July 16, 2018. I won’t waste garden space on them this year.

Michael Pollan, in Second Nature, tries to think like a carrot in order to discover what his carrots need in order to achieve their sweetest potential. I wrote about this in the post Carrots. After considering their needs in this way, he lightens their soil with sand, compost, and peat moss, and he thins them ruthlessly, creating more shoulder room, as he says. In due time, he harvests long, broad-shouldered carrots that are sweet with intense carrotness. It’s a great garden story.

Johnny’s catalog agrees that carrots require deep, loose soil. Riotte stipulates that sweet-tasting carrots must have sufficient lime. She also notes that too much nitrogen will cause poor flavor, so beware of commercial fertilizers. Hot weather will also adversely affect the taste of carrots. Coleman notes that carrots take up pesticide residues from the soil, so it is particularly important to grow carrots organically. He recommends enough lime to keep the soil pH around 6.5. Also that carrots benefit from the minerals in greensand.

Malbec carrots harvested on July 13, 2018.

With all this in mind, I prepared the carrot beds the second week in April, working them deeply with a broadfork, and adding ample amounts of compost with greensand. The resulting soil was loose and crumbly–friable, as they say. I like that word friable. You can see the broadfork in action here.

Mostly Purple Haze and Malbec carrots harvested on July 28, 2018.

For orange carrots, I planted 2. Romance, a main crop carrot which Johnny’s catalog says has impressive flavor. Also Napoli, which is good for fall planting as well as spring. For red carrots, I stayed with the Malbec, which I prized last year. For purple carrots, the Purple Haze, also a favorite from last year. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. All varieties are from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Four raised beds of newly planted carrots seen behind the bag of mulch. One bed each of Romance at left, Malbec next, Napoli in narrow bed, and Purple Haze at right. April 9, 2019

In the above photo can be seen the carrot beds newly planted on April 9, 2019. I plan to tuck some carrot seeds into the corners of the tomato beds as well after the beds have been prepared. Carrot beds must be sprinkled several times a day while germination is taking place. Today is a rainy day, so nature is my sprinkler today. Germination may take a week or 2, depending on the temperature. Two months or thereabouts to maturity. July and August, hopefully. Then try for some fall carrots. More about that later.

Daily harvest of carrots August 17, 2018

As with other vegetable crops this year, I hope to track the carrots from planting to harvest with photos and notes added to this post. So if you think about it, check back from time to time to see how my garden grows.

Vegetable garden plans for 2019: lettuce

Allstar gourmet lettuce mix April 2016

March 15. It’s time to start some lettuce indoors for transplanting out as soon as the ground thaws and the snow disappears. Hopefully. Last year the last big snow storm was in April, so spring weather is always iffy. But lettuce likes cool weather. A gardener can always add a row cover.

It seems to me from years of experience that lettuce is easy to grow but hard to manage. Early spring lettuce grows best. I have the best luck with lettuce started indoors and transplanted out. I like the practice of cut-and-come-again, which works even with head lettuce. Just trim a few leaves from around the edges while the head is forming. Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog instructs lettuce growers to plant every 3 weeks through the season. Yeah, right. The problem is that, once the soil temp warms to 65°F., germination tapers off. After the early spring lettuce has matured and been eaten or has bolted, I haven’t had much luck with succession planting for lettuce.

One more photo of Allstar gourmet lettuce mix April 28, 2016

So the Allstar gourmet lettuce mix featured in the photos above looks like the answer to a lettuce gardener’s dreams. And it is. I bought seeds again this year, planted some indoors, and will transplant the young seedlings out soon. It’s beautiful and delicious, but it doesn’t please me because the varieties in the mix are unknown, varying on availability of seed. Always red and green oakleafs, romaines, lollo rossa, and other types of lettuce, but the varieties themselves remain a mystery. I can understand how this is a good idea for seed companies, but I like to know what I’m eating. Not just lettuce, but Crispino iceberg lettuce, or Nancy butterhead lettuce. I’m a pushover for good names. For example, I will always plant El Jefe jalapeño peppers just because the name is such a perfect match for the product. They also taste delicious, but that’s not the point.

Lettuce seed planted indoors on March 15, 2019

So, this year I’m making an effort to grow a nice mix of individual lettuce varieties that I can identify by name in succession plantings that will carry me through the summer into fall. It won’t be easy.

From Johnny’s Selected Seeds, my goto seed company, I chose the Allstar gourmet mix, just to get the season going. Then, also from Johnny’s, I chose the following varieties: Coastal Star, a green romaine; Nancy, a green butterhead of the Boston type; Newham, a green bibb mini head; and my much beloved Crispino, an iceberg. I also started some early mizuna and some red giant mustard left over from last year.

Lettuce sprouts under grow lights on March 21, 2019.

The photo above shows the lettuce sprouts less than a week after planting. They are now under grow lights after spending a few days germinating on the dining room table without lights under plastic domes to keep the humidity high. They now are in desperate need of transplanting out of the seed-starting soil mix into potting soil in larger pots.

Early mizuna transplanted into potting soil in larger pots March 26, 2019

Above you see the early mizuna transplanted into potting soil in larger pots. The other lettuce will soon follow the same transplanting path. After that, they will be transported to the deck on warm afternoons but still spend nights indoors until the night low temps are above freezing. Then, I hope to put them still in their pots into the vegetable garden under row covers. Finally, I will plant them into raised beds in the vegetable garden still under row covers as needed. I hope to document their journey from seed to salad with updates to this post. If you are interested, check back to see if I’m keeping garden and blog going as promised.

Here’s to good summer eats with lots of summer salads. Good for body and soul.

Vegetable garden plans for 2019: onions

Onions (Allium cepa)
Patterson yellow storage onions from 2018 harvest August 17, 2018

For the first time, in planning my 2019 vegetable garden, I did not order field-grown onion plants from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I’m growing onions exclusively from seeds this year. Onion plants were easier but cost more. Each bunch of 50-60 plants costs $16.79. They arrive by mail the end of March. Pop them into prepared beds, and you’ve got an instant onion garden–although it does take them a few weeks to establish roots and start to grow. So, will I congratulate myself on saving money this year with $4.35 seed packets, or will I end up feeling penny-wise but pound-foolish. If my onion crop from seed fails, I will be buying onions all summer and fall instead of pulling luscious yellow and red onions from my vegetable garden for salads, salsa, sausages with peppers and onions, and other dishes. No store-bought onion is as good as one pulled that day from the garden, or even stored for a short time. Gardening is a gamble.

Last year, the daily harvest on July 12 included green frying peppers and a few yellow Havasu peppers, along with Red Wing onions, Patterson yellow onions, and a few little Red Marble cipollini onions, as seen in the top photo above. Sautéing peppers and onions, as seen in the photo at bottom above, happens pretty regularly during the summer months, producing some for eating right away, and some for freezing. Today is a wintry February day, and we will be enjoying sausage sandwiches with peppers and onions from the freezer for lunch.

Salsa ingredients from daily harvest August 12, 2018

Salsa from the freezer is another daily staple during these winter months. It is good on tacos, burritos, chips, or just about anything else. Garden ingredients for salsa can be seen above–Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes, fresh garden garlic, cilantro, red-ripe peppers–frying peppers, cayennes, and pepperoncinis–with a few yellow Havasus, Patterson yellow onions, and a lime. All ingredients except the lime are from my vegetable garden. Many of the garden onions went into salsa last summer. Of course, many were used in salads and daily summer cooking. A few dozen were stored in the basement in brown paper bags, but they were used up before the end of the year.

Yellow summer squash, green cayenne peppers, and a Patterson yellow onion July 21, 2018

Yellow squash casserole with peppers, onions, and lots of oregano–maybe some tomatoes and feta cheese too, is a favorite summer dish.

Well, enough dreaming about what was last summer. My challenge this year of 2019 is to grow enough onions from seed to match or surpass last summer’s bounty. My seed choices are simple. Five in all. A yellow–New York Early, to replace Patterson. A red–Redwing. A sweet onion–Yellow Spanish Sweet Onion from Seeds of Change. A red cipollini–Red Marble, and a white cipollini–Gold Coin. Cipollini onions are small and flat. All seed varieties but one were purchased from Johnny’s.

According to Johnny’s catalog, onions seeds can be started indoors in late February to mid-March. I am planting long-day onion seeds. At a latitude of around 41°N here in northern New Jersey, these onions could be direct seeded into the garden in April or early May. I’ve never had much luck with that, so I will try transplanting this year. I like to use a seed-starting mix like Johnny’s 512 mix, a blend of peat mosses, compost, and perlite. Of course, I have to pay shipping charges for that. Espoma seed-starting mix is good as well, and it’s available from my local nursery. Both are organic.

Space is one problem with starting vegetables and flowers indoors. The onions will commandeer our round oak table until they sprout and can be placed under grow lights or out into cold frames. Weather will have some say in this, but as Eliot Coleman points out, day length is always dependable. With days getting longer–10 hours and 55 minutes as of today, February 20–and the sun getting stronger, cold frames may be an option for the tender onion plants until it’s time to transplant into the garden in April.

Onion seed planted indoors February 20, 2019

I’m worried if temps are warm enough indoors for germination without heat pads. Johnny’s has a germination guide for onions, starting at about 50°F. and peaking at 86°F. Our indoor temp is pretty steady at 68°F. That should be good enough. I have heat pads, which are essential for starting peppers and tomatoes indoors, but they are difficult to set up on this table.

Plastic domes on flats until seeds sprout February 20, 2019

Again following directions in Johnny’s catalog, I sowed 5 seeds per cell in the flats seen above. New York Early yellow onions–24 cells. Redwing red onions–18 cells. Yellow Spanish Sweet Onion–18 cells. Red Marble cipollini–6 cells. Gold Coin cipollini–6 cells. The flats can be watered from the bottom. Clear plastic domes cover the tops. Thin to 3 plants per cell, which can then be transplanted out without disturbing the roots. In well-prepared beds with loose, friable soil, 3 onion plants can push themselves apart and grow to a nice size.

That’s it for the moment. When the onions sprout, I will remove the clear plastic domes and make sure they are adequately watered. I hope to update this post to show the progress of this onion crop, so check back if you are interested.

Young onion plants in garden on May 29, 2018

Ugly weeds of summer: prostrate knotweed

Prostrate knotweed (Polygonum aviculare)

Prostrate knotweed growing along a path June 12, 2015

Prostrate knotweed is a summer annual that grows in hard, compacted soil near footpaths and gate entrances. It emerges early for a summer annual, more than a month before crabgrass, a fellow summer ugly, makes its appearance. New sprouts of prostrate knotweed will continue to emerge throughout the spring and early summer.

Prostrate knotweed emerging among ornamental rocks June 5, 2018

Cotyledons, the seed leaves or first leaves, are very narrow and grass-like. Leaves are alternate, elliptic to lanceolate in shape, and tend to be dull blue-green, although they are more green than blue when young, as in these photos. All descriptions are from Weeds of the Northeast.

Pulled prostrate knotweed showing slender branching stems, and nodes, called ocrea, surrounding stems at base of leaves June 12, 2015

Prostrate knotweed soon develops many slender branches with whitish-brown sheaths, called ocrea, surrounding stems at the base of leaves. Small pinkish-white flowers with sepals but no petals will appear in axils of leaves later in the summer, followed by achenes, or fruits, with seeds inside. Although dead wire-like stems may persist through winter, prostrate knotweed is largely an annual that reproduces by seed.

Pulled prostrate knotweed showing fibrous roots with thin taproot June 5, 2018

Prostrate knotweed is considered a superior indicator weed of compacted soil. Its common names include door-weed, mat-grass, or way-grass, suggesting that it is common to areas with heavy foot traffic. In his book Weeds: in Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, Richard Mabey points out that the role of such weeds is to fill the empty spaces left by environmental degradation. They are first succession plants, stabilizing the soil, restricting water loss, and providing shelter, thus creating a more hospitable environment for a succession of plants to come.

From the gardener’s perspective, ameliorating the soil herself might make for a speedier succession of more desirable plants. But if the footpath is a necessary pathway, maybe she should just not worry about it. One homeowner summed up her pragmatic response to prostrate knotweed last summer by remarking, Well, anyway, they’re green. Just leave ’em be.

It may have occurred to some readers that we could use a herbicide, like RoundUp. First off, it’s the case that, once established, prostrate knotweed is difficult to remove with herbicides, according to the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at University of Michigan website. Secondly, I don’t use herbicides by choice, green weeds being preferable to the ecological harms and health hazards of glyphosate or whatever. It’s also the case that broad-spectrum herbicides will kill clover, and that is totally unacceptable to me.

Prostrate knotweed sprayed with vinegar June 10, 2015

A few years ago, I tried spraying prostrate knotweed with vinegar. Vinegar can be used in areas where there are no desirable plants, such as along a compacted footpath. The vinegar experiment seemed to work for awhile, but soon new grass-like cotyledon leaves could be seen re-emerging, as in the photo above.

Last summer, a member of our family, who was convalescing from serious illness, decided to eradicate prostrate knotweed along the footpath by pulling it out. In between throwing balls for our dogs and enjoying the spring sunshine, he pulled prostrate knotweed, dropping it into handy yard-waste trash cans stationed strategically around the area. He filled many trash cans full of prostrate knotweed and sent them curbside for municipal pickup. His fingers soon became proficient in finding the little knot just below the soil line and pulling up the entire plant with taproot intact. He started noticing prostrate knotweed wherever he went. Alongside the road at a summer cottage. In the pastures of a local sheep farm. A friend had to remind him, in a good-humored sort of way, to look up and watch the sheep they were herding with their dogs, and not look down at weeds.

Prostrate knotweed emerging in grassy area June 13, 2018

Pulling prostrate knotweed was tedious work when the knotweed was small, as can be imagined by contemplating pulling knotweed like that in the photo above. Reward time came when more mature plants grew large and spread out, as seen in the photos below. Pulling one of them yields a huge biomass of green stuff and results in a big empty space devoid of weeds. We had more rain than usual last summer, so on most days the taproots could be pulled out easily without breaking off.

The best part of this prostrate knotweed eradication project was getting the weeder out into the spring sunshine for extended periods of time, which may have aided his convalescence, but it’s also true that it worked to get rid of the weeds. By the middle of July there were no emerging prostrate knotweed to be found. And all the mature plants had been pulled. Eliot Coleman advises that the most effective weeding is done early while weeds are small. And before they go to seed. Will the prostrate knotweed be back this spring. Well, probably, since there may be residual seeds in the soil. But not many plants went to seed last summer, so at least there may be fewer this year. We’ll see what happens.

Prostrate knotweed in a drainage ditch with a more upright growth habit July 13, 2015

Fruit-eating birds: American robins, northern mockingbirds, and gray catbirds

9 American robins on 2 winterberry shrubs December 22, 2018

What the above photo lacks in quality is hopefully made up for in quantity–of robins, that is. After looking at it for a long time, I make out 9 American robins on 2 distinct winterberries. The winterberry shrub in the foreground with purplish berries is a Sparkleberry (Ilex serrata x. I. verticillata), a cross between a Japanese and a native winterberry. The winterberry shrub in the background with bright red berries is a native Winter Red (Ilex verticillata). See the 2017 post, Robins ate the winterberries, for more information on the winterberry shrubs. The robins were part of a small flock of 20 or so who came early for their yearly feast of winterberries in my garden.

Immature American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

By going back and reading previous robin posts, I find that I first observed robins eating winterberry fruits in 2015, and then every year thereafter. They’ve come for the winterberries on dates ranging from December 28 to March 20. The common denominator for their yearly visits seems to be warm weather more than anything. Robins form small flocks in winter and migrate in order to find food. While some robins make a complete migration to southern states and to Central America, other robins make shorter random migrations in search of food. Some don’t migrate at all if the weather is mild enough and the local food supply is adequate.

Male American robin on Winter Red winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

According to Birds of New Jersey Field Guide, male American robins sport a black head and tail, while females have gray heads and a duller chest. Juveniles are similar to females but have a speckled chest.

American robins on Winter Red winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

In March 2015, a particularly cold and icy month, I fed winterberry and crabapple fruits to a lonely old robin who sat around under the Sparkleberry winterberry shrub looking hungry. At the time, I naively marveled that robins ate fruits and berries, never having noticed them doing so before. See the post A robin experiment for details. Back then, the Sparkleberry shrub was new to my garden. Its young branches were too limber to support the robin’s weight. I didn’t have crabapple trees then, so I brought crabapple fruits from a nearly park to feed the robin. This experience convinced me that adding fruit-bearing native shrubs and trees to my garden would be a good thing for both me and the birds.

Male American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

In the spring of 2016, after much research, I bought and planted 2 small crabapple trees. See the post Golden Raindrops crabapple trees for details. They bore small yellow fruits for the first time this year. The fruits soon disappeared. I suspect robins but don’t have proof of that. The small trees have grown to the point of providing some screening for our deck. They are fast growers for sure. Below is a photo of May crabapple blossoms.

During the spring and summer, robins are also partial to the fruits of a serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) in my garden. I’m calling it A. arborea, or Downy serviceberry, because that is the only serviceberry listed in the American Horticultural Society’s A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants with red-purple fruit. All the others listed have blue-black fruit. When I see the serviceberry branches bouncing about on a windless day, I know the robins are busy harvesting the fruits.

The photos below are of robins in the vicinity of the same serviceberry tree in June 2018, checking out the edibility of the fruits, I presume. June is mating season, so robins no longer travel in flocks and become territorial. I have not found a robin’s nest, which is just as well because our dogs would undoubtedly kill the baby robins during the time that they leave the nest but before they can fly.

My greatest success with fruits for the birds has always been the blueberry bushes, which have been in my garden for many years. I planted them as food for myself, but now I’m content to share the blueberry fruits with robins, northern mockingbirds, and gray catbirds.

Blueberries June 8, 2018. Not ripe yet.

There are 6 highbush blueberry bushes in my garden. I bought them from Johnny’s Selected Seeds ten years ago. There are 2 early-producing Patriot bushes, 2 mid-season Northland bushes, and 2 late Jersey bushes. I see in Johnny’s 2019 catalog that the same 3 varieties are still available. Blueberries are acid-loving plants, so a dressing of bone meal or peat moss is not amiss. I’ve taken to spreading used coffee grounds under the acid-loving plants in my garden. They seem to like it.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), seen above, came for the blueberries in June and serenaded us from high on utility poles and rooftops early every morning during blueberry season. We graciously considered him an alarm clock and welcomed the ecstatic, manic string of bird calls pouring down upon us at sunrise. As if we had a choice in the matter. The mimicked songs were familiar to me from hearing local birdsongs, but I’m not very proficient at identifying birds by their songs and calls. Mockingbirds love blueberries. I know that for sure.

A gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), as seen above, has come for the blueberries for several years now. I don’t know if it’s the same one each year or not. The first photo above is not good, but it does give a hint of the catbird’s chestnut highlights, particularly under the long tail. All the fruit-eating birds are no doubt supporting a mate and offspring at this time of year. I think of the area as my garden. Being territorial, they would probably contest that description. Their garden.

According to Birds of New Jersey Field Guide, grey catbirds are secretive birds with a call that sounds like a cat mewing, and so their name. Just like the robins in the serviceberry tree, they give away their presence on a still day by bouncing the blueberry branches around as they harvest the ripe fruits.

Gray catbird among blueberry bushes and milkweed on July 10, 2018

The photo above perhaps best shows off the grey catbird’s main features. Again according to Birds of New Jersey Field Guide, it is slate gray with a black crown, long, thin black bill, and long tail with a chestnut-colored patch underneath. Male, female, or juvenile–all the same. Now that I am accustomed to watching for the gray catbird each year, I cherish its presence far more than I miss the blueberries it harvests from my garden. His garden.

American robin eating blueberries July 4, 2018

Above is a robin on July Fourth, celebrating the day by enjoying some ripe blueberries. The blueberries tend to ripen over time, not only from varietal differences, but also on the same bush. If I get out early enough in the morning, I can usually pick a cupful of blueberries for my breakfast. Of course, I eat twice that amount in a hand-to-mouth manner, which is the best way. After that, the fruit-eating birds will show up, and the ripe berries will be gone until more have time to ripen.

But now it’s January, and we have just endured our first polar vortex of the winter with temps in the teens or below and wind chill at minus degrees. On one of the coldest mornings, 3 robins came and perched momentarily in the bare crabapple trees and winterberry shrubs. I saw them out the window. Before I could even think to get my camera, they were gone. So much for the theory that robins come for the winterberries during warm spells. I can only hope these robins found food and shelter during that dangerously cold weather.

The wind it doth blow, and we shall have snow.
And what will the robin do then, poor thing?

American goldfinch: common bird with unique characteristics

American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).

Three American goldfinches on chicory July 23, 2018

Do you see 3 birds in the photo above? A darker-colored female American goldfinch to the far left isn’t easy to spot. A yellow male goldfinch is center left. I suspect that I saw only this bird as I snapped the photo. One male goldfinch to the far right is half out of the picture. Obviously, I hadn’t noticed its presence. Below is a closer view of the female and male. The female on the left is still hard to see.

Version 2
A female and male American goldfinch on chicory July 23, 2018.

Female American goldfinches are rusty brown to dull olive gold in color, depending on the season. They do not sport a black patch on the forehead as do breeding males. One reason American goldfinches are unique is that they go through 2 molts every year, whereas other members of their family have only 1 molt. In the fall molt, male goldfinches exchange their flashy yellow for an appearance more like that of the females. In the spring molt, males turn yellow and females more olive gold. Juveniles resemble the females.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fullsizeoutput_1644.jpeg
Juvenile American goldfinch on chicory July 23, 2018

I think the goldfinch in the photo above is a juvenile because of its appealing youthful appearance. The photo was taken in late July. American goldfinches are late nesters, from late June to early August in most areas, probably because they are almost exclusively seedeaters, which is another of their unique characteristics. Breeding later in the summer assures that there will be adequate seed to nurture their young. Incubation takes 12-14 days. The young leave the nest 11-17 days after hatching. So it’s possible that a fledgling might be sampling chicory seeds all by himself by July 23. More likely he is just getting used to life beyond the nest. Seeds are regurgitated by the parents into the mouths of young birds, making the seeds more palatable. Young goldfinches are still fed by their parents for 3 weeks or more after they leave the nest.

2 American goldfinches on chicory July 23, 2018

Nests are cup-shaped, built by the female, made from plant fibers, lined with plant down, and secured to supporting branches using spider silk. Thistle down for lining nests is often mentioned, as is thistle seed as food for goldfinches. I’ve been trying to eradicate bull thistles from my garden, so few of them reach the flowering stage when down would be available, but milkweed in my wildflower patch was producing its down in July. Perhaps the female used that. I did not find a nest, which is reportedly all of 3″ across and 2″-4.5″ high. Goldfinches often build nests in deciduous shrubs or conifers. Forsythia bushes and small pine trees are close by the wildflower patch, so this may have created a desirable environment for starting a goldfinch family.

American goldfinch on chicory August 23, 2018

The photos above give some idea of the wildflowers in my July garden. Chicory (Cichorium intybus), bee balm (Monarda), and purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are visible. I have not seen goldfinches on the bee balm, but they surely enjoy the seeds of chicory and purple coneflowers. Coneflowers supply seeds through late summer. Sunflower seeds are also available later in the season.

Male American goldfinch on purple coneflowers August 10, 2018
Male American goldfinch on sunflower August 10, 2018

Asters are often mentioned as a source of food for goldfinches. There are asters in my fall garden, but I have not seen goldfinches feeding on them. It’s true that goldfinches are much less obvious after molting in the fall. They are probably still with me. I just don’t notice them as much. They join small flocks after breeding season and may migrate far enough south to find food. A few stay the winter in New Jersey, according to Birds of New Jersey field guide. American goldfinches are the state bird of New Jersey, as well as Iowa and Washington State. I guess that’s another reason they are unique.

American goldfinch with wings crossed in front July 23, 2018. I don’t have an explanation.

I stopped using bird feeders this spring after finding a house finch with eye disease caused by a bacterial parasite Mycoplasma gallisepticum. All finches are susceptible to this disease, which probably spreads through contact with other finches either at feeders or on the ground under feeders. Care should be taken to clean feeders thoroughly and rake ground beneath feeders. After seeing the pathetic little house finch trying to navigate to find food and water, I couldn’t trust myself to keep the area free from disease, so I took the feeders down.

House finch with eye disease at feeder April 12, 2018

For more information on the house finch eye disease, go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site and look up house finches.

I miss seeing many of the feeders birds. Chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers in particular. I called them the jet set of my feeder birds. This winter, I know I will miss watching the dark-eyed juncos under the feeders. Actually, the jet-setters are still around. I hear the tufted titmice in particular from time to time, but they are harder to spot and to photograph without the feeders to draw them in.

There are feeder birds I don’t miss so much. Not because they are not all interesting in their own ways, but because there get to be too many of them at the feeders. House sparrows, house finches, starlings, grackles, mourning doves, pigeons, and the like. They are still around as well, just in more manageable numbers.

One good argument for maintaining backyard feeders is that suburban feeders help feeder birds meet the challenges of urbanization, agribusiness, and climate change. One good argument against feeders is that they are really for our own narcissistic enjoyment of seeing and photographing birds. There’s truth in both sides. After seeing that poor little house finch with eye disease, I didn’t find much pleasure in the feeders. I am trying each year to add more native shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses to my small suburban garden. Perhaps in that way I can still help the birds and enjoy their presence without causing harm.

Male American goldfinch on purple cornflowers August 16, 2018

But that was a digression. Coming back to the topic of this post, American goldfinches are common birds with some unique characteristics. They molt twice a year with males changing colors dramatically. They breed later than most songbirds. They are seedeaters almost exclusively, making them one of the bird world’s strictest vegetarians. According to the American Breeding Bird Survey, American goldfinches are numerous, although their population declined somewhat between 1966 and 2014. Whenever I hear a statistic like that, I think of passenger pigeons. But with a global breeding population of 42 million, according to Partners in Flight, I won’t worry too much yet. If I continue to privilege native plant species with lots of seeds in my garden, perhaps American goldfinches will come back to the wildflower patch for future breeding seasons. If they do, I will write a post about them.

Male American goldfinch on chicory July 23, 2018

Weed early and often: creeping buttercup

Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens).

Creeping buttercup on May 8, 2018

When creeping buttercups first appeared in my garden, I was inclined to think positively about them. After all, they seemed preferable to pachysandra, which I detest, as a ground cover. I thought they might be hardy geraniums until the yellow flowers appeared. Geraniums have pink flowers. When the stolons, or runners, first became apparent, I wondered if they might be a kind of wild strawberry. Beware of having kind thoughts about cute little weeds in your garden. They will likely grow up to be ugly monsters.

Creeping buttercups along fence on May 7, 2018

Here is a photo of creeping buttercups in the wildflower corner on May 7, 2018. They are growing along a metal fence, under a lilac bush, around day lilies, and among strawberry plants.

Creeping buttercups among blue violets on May 7, 2018

They grow readily among blue violets, or any other plant for that matter, as can be seen in the photo above. The King County (Washington State) website wastes no time in describing the negative impacts of creeping buttercups. First and foremost, 1 plant can spread over a 40-square-foot area in a year’s time due to its stolons.

First root on stolon of uprooted creeping buttercup on May 18, 2018

I devoted over a week of gardening time in early May 2018 to eradicating creeping buttercups from the wildflower corner and, to a lesser extent, from various other sites in my garden. In summer of 2017, I didn’t have much time for weeding, but I did notice the stolons on the creeping buttercups for the first time and got really concerned about their rapid spread. They weren’t creeping. They were bounding. Bounding buttercups.

My solution last summer was to mow them where I could without destroying desirable plants. That was ineffective because they quickly regrow from nutrients stored in corms, or short swollen stems at ground level, as can be seen in the photo below.

Short, swollen stems of creeping buttercups on May 7, 2018

Creeping buttercups can overwinter as rosettes or die back to ground level. In early spring, before the blooms and stolons appear, they are probably best identified by the swollen stems radiating out from a center rosette. The leaves alone can be deceiving to an untrained botanical eye, looking somewhat like hardy geranium leaves, or like mugwort, or even like parsley. According to the King County website, pale patches on the leaves, as can be seen in the photo above, distinguish creeping buttercups from hardy geraniums.

Creeping buttercup leaflet at left. Mugwort leaf at right. Although this photo happens to show a difference in size, size is not a reliable factor in identification.

Creeping buttercups are really nothing like mugwort, except in early spring when the untrained eye focuses on individual basal leaves or leaflets instead of the whole plant. I write from personal experience. Whereas the mugwort leaf at right above is a single leaf, the creeping buttercup leaflet at left is part of a compound leaf, as can be seen below. The most distinguishing features, as the season progresses, is that mugwort spreads by rhizomes underground, while creeping buttercups spread by stolons aboveground.

Version 2
Compound leaf of creeping buttercup with 3 toothed leaflets, each leaflet with its own stalk

Above is a compound creeping buttercup basal leaf on a long petiole, or stalk, divided into 3 lobed leaflets, each with its own stalk. I have to get used to thinking of that whole structure as 1 compound leaf with 3 leaflets.

Compound parsley leaf

Above is a parsley leaf, which is also a compound leaf with 3 lobed leaflets. Often, a gardener identifies plants simply because they are in the right place. Right where she planted them, or right where they were last year.

Creeping buttercup blossom on long grooved petiole, or stalk, on May 8, 2018

The glossy blossoms for which buttercups are named first appeared in my garden this summer on May 8, 2018. The blossoms grow singly on long grooved petioles, or stalks, as can be seen in the photo above. The 5 petals are highly reflective which, among other things, make them difficult to photograph.

Creeping buttercup bloom reflecting the sun on May 17, 2018

According to a recent study from the University of Groningen measuring light spectra, buttercup petals have a unique anatomy that’s found in butterflies and some bird wings, but is not known in plants other than the buttercups. A layer of air just below a thin one-cell-thick epidermis that contains the yellow pigment causes light to be reflected on both sides of the epidermis, resulting in a white sheen that seems glossy. The study suggests 2 reasons for this unique feature of buttercup blooms. First is that it attracts insect pollinators. Second is that, since buttercups are heliotropic, meaning that the bloom always moves to face the sun, the satellite-dish shape of the buttercup bloom and the glossy aspect of its petals aid in collecting solar energy, which may warm its reproductive organs and hasten the ripening of pollen, fertilization, and seed development. It also must seem nice and cozy to those insect pollinators.

Buttercup blooms are heliotropic. That is, they follow the sun. The glossy petals collect solar energy, which may enhance fertilization.

According to the Wildflowers & Weeds website, buttercups are a primitive group of plants that have retained most of their ancestral characteristics over time. They are considered simple from an evolutionary standpoint because all their parts are independently attached. Petals, sepals, stamens, and pistils of simple plants are all of an indefinite number and separate from one another. I can’t see this in the photos taken this summer. I’ll try to pay more attention to this fascinating aspect of creeping buttercups next summer. I’m pretty sure they will be back.

Version 2
Blossom of uprooted creeping buttercup on May 9, 2018

According to legend, farmers gave the buttercup its name when cows eating buttercups produced the sweetest milk and richest cream. But this can’t be true because buttercups are toxic to livestock, and cows generally avoid them. But you know how legends never die. Holding a buttercup under the chin and seeing a yellow reflection on the skin supposedly indicates a liking for butter. So the legendary associations of buttercups with dairy products seem to persist.

Creeping buttercups on May 15, 2018

Creeping buttercups are not unattractive, as the sun-dappled photo above suggests. Wildflower or weed. The gardener has to decide. Due to their stoloniferous habit, they are a weed to me. I should add a note here, however, that not all buttercups have stolons, only creeping buttercups (R. repens). Weeds of the Northeast, my goto weed book, also describes bulbous buttercups (R. bulbosus) and tall buttercups (R. acris). Both have the unique buttercup blooms without the stolons. I might consider those to be wildflowers and nurture them if they ever show up in my garden.

Indian mock-strawberry on May 8, 2018

Early in the week of my creeping buttercup eradication project, I focused on any small yellow flower. But I soon discovered that many plants with yellow flowers looked more like wild strawberries, as can be seen above. Weeds of the Northeast identifies these yellow-flowered plants as Indian mock-strawberries. Wild strawberries have white blossoms. The dainty yellow flowers are quite different from the glossy yellow flowers of creeping buttercups. I quickly became accustomed to identifying which was which in a glance, helping me feel a little more in control of my eradication project.

Photo on September 1, 2018, of area of wildflower corner where creeping buttercups were manually eradicated in May 2018 and area covered with wood chips

When I finished digging out creeping buttercups from the wildflower corner, I covered the area with wood chips and started searching the remainder of my garden for smaller infestations of creeping buttercups, reminding myself that a single plant can cover a 40-foot-square area in a single summer. Creeping buttercups spread by seed as well as stolons. Seeds are dispersed by birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and boots, as well as wind and water. Seeds remain viable in soil for many years. Once a single plant is established in a new area, stolons provide the means for covering an ever-larger area. In the fall and winter, stolons often fall off, leaving each new daughter plant with the potential of future seed dispersal and multiplication by stolons the following year. What an amazing survival strategy.

Blooming creeping buttercup among many other plants, mostly weeds.

My eradication project turned from drudgery to adventure as I started searching for single creeping buttercup plants throughout my garden. If they were blooming, I simply had to distinguish them from the yellow blooms of Indian mock-strawberries. Always with a sharp-pointed trowel in hand, I could quickly but carefully dig out the plant–roots and stolons and all–dispose of it in a nearby yard-waste trash can–we have lots of those–and continue my search. This was a good time to put Mrs. Magnus Olson’s dictum to work. As I have mentioned in other posts, in a 1971 letter to Organic Gardening magazine, Mrs. Olson claims that she achieved a weed-free garden by always pulling 10 weeds whenever she stooped to pull 1. As can be seen in the photo above, finding 10 weeds to pull or dig out is not difficult.

Compound leaves of creeping buttercup in among sweet woodruff, Indian mock-strawberries, and irises on May 21, 2018. The 5 visible compound leaves are radiating from just 1 center.

If the creeping buttercups weren’t in bloom, it was necessary to detect the compound leaves in among other plants, as can be seen above.

Corm, or swollen stems, of creeping buttercup, hiding out in sweet woodruff patch on May 21, 2018

Here is a closer view of the corm, or swollen stalks, at the center of the creeping buttercup in the sweet woodruff patch.

Uprooted creeping buttercup plant discovered in sweet woodruff patch on May 21, 2018

Above is a photo of the uprooted creeping buttercup. Notice the stolons already producing the leaves and roots of daughter plants.

On September 2, 2018, after writing the above description of creeping buttercups in the sweet woodruff patch in May of this year, I wandered out to see if all was well with the sweet woodruff. Look below at what I found.

The creeping buttercups were back in the very same spot where I pulled them out last May. Perhaps I broke off a daughter plant and left it behind back then, or perhaps these are from seed. In the photo at right of the uprooted plants, it’s hard to tell which is the daughter plant. They look fragile enough now, but just remember that 1 plant can cover a 40-foot-square area in a season. That fact is burned into my brain it seems.

Stolon of creeping buttercup uprooted on July 10, 2018

Above is perhaps the longest stolon I managed to uproot. This was on July 10, 2018. Creeping buttercup stolons can be short and thick between nodes, or they can be long and spindly, as above. It seems to depend on environmental conditions, and perhaps the time of the season.

Throughout this summer, in which I was blessed with lots of time to spend in my garden, I found creeping buttercups in a front corner, in the old apple tree area, in the serendipity corner, and, of course, in the wildflower corner where the eradication project got started.

On September 1, 2018, I checked back in the wood-chip covered area where I had hoped that eradication was complete. But no. As can be seen above, creeping buttercups were peeking from under the fence and trying to hide among some Indian mock-strawberries.

Eliot Coleman recommends getting rid of weeds when they are small, definitely a good idea because it’s easier to get rid of weeds when they are small. But what’s good in theory doesn’t always work so well in practice. Weeds have a way of growing while the gardener is busy doing other things. I started a weed hierarchy a few years ago. I rated weeds from 1 to 10. A weed in the 1 category was a non-issue so far as pulling it was concerned. More like a wildflower. A weed in the 10 category had to be pulled or dug up the minute it was spotted. Anything else I was doing had to be dropped and the weed had to be pulled. Mugwort and Japanese knotweed were and are 10s for sure. So now, creeping buttercup is my new 10 weed. When I see it, I pull it or dig it, no matter what. Doing so perhaps saves me a big eradication project the next season, so it’s worth doing. See the post Weeds for more information on my weed hierarchy.

Weed early and often. Especially the ugly weeds. This is Labor Day weekend. The end of summer. It’s when weeds are at their ugliest. Sometimes I just wish for a big early freeze.  But as the days get cooler–soon, I hope–the growing slows down, and the weeds don’t seem so ominous and oppressive. I remind myself that weeding at its worst is still better than herbicides.

Reading and writing about creeping buttercups got me feeling a little attached to them. I guess I would miss them next spring if I were to eradicate them completely. So I will hope for a manageable few glossy blooms next spring and remember weeding early and often is one important aspect of fine gardening. The alternative is a week-long eradication project, which is not fine.












Larval food plants for great spangled fritillary and common buckeye butterflies

A great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) and a common buckeye (Junonia coenia) were seen in my garden in the fall of 2017. September 22 for the great spangled fritillary. October 19 for the common buckeye.


October 19 was also a day when clusters of painted ladies and monarchs graced my garden. It was a special butterfly day for sure. Please see the posts Ladies’ day out in my garden and Home-grown monarchs and milkweed for details on painted ladies and monarchs. Butterflies in my garden send me searching for information about their life cycles and larval food plants, always in the hope of welcoming more butterflies each year by providing for their particular needs. NABA North Jersey Butterfly Club website is a handy source of regional butterfly information.


The above photos of a great spangled fritillary are from September 22, 2017. In 2016, I have photos of great spangled fritillaries on September 14 and September 20. Please see the post Great spangled fritillary: new butterfly in garden for 2016 photos. From above, the forewing of the great spangled fritillary has a row of black spots on orange below irregular bands of black, as seen in photo at left above. According to the U.S. Forest Service website, the word fritillus means chessboard, and that’s a little what the forewings look like. From below, the hindwing has shiny silvery spots on brown-orange separated by a wide cream-colored band, as seen at right above. Females are larger and darker than males. They tend to fly later into the summer to lay eggs. So this is probably a female. It is feeding on verbena, an excellent wildflower for late summer and fall nectar. As can be seen, this butterfly has a chunk of forewing missing, but doesn’t seem to be bothered by the absence.

Great spangled fritillary on verbena September 22, 2017

Great spangled fritillaries are common and widespread in this region of New Jersey. Because they produce only one brood yearly, reproductive success depends on many elements of their life cycle being in sync. Let’s start in early summer, when male great spangled fritillaries emerge, usually several days before the females. When females emerge, the butterflies mate, and the males die. Females continue on in reproductive diapause until late summer when they break diapause to lay eggs in wood chips and leaf litter near violets (viola), their larval food plant.

New growth of blue violets amidst wood chips and leaf litter April 18, 2018

Eggs hatch within 2 to 3 weeks, and the first-instar caterpillars soon go into winter diapause, hiding out in the wood chips and leaf litter around violets. Messy gardening is beneficial for these caterpillars, so remember to keep the fallen leaves around violets as much as possible.

New growth of blue violets amidst wood chips and leaf litter April 18, 2018

Caterpillars become active in spring when the violets, their larval food source, start to grow. They molt 6 times instead of the usual 5 times for butterflies. After all this growing, the caterpillars pupate, forming chrysalises attached by silken thread to nearby rocks or branches. I wish I had photos of all these steps. Maybe this summer.

And we are back to early summer, when the adult flying males and females emerge to start the cycle over again. With all this in mind, I need to nurture violets, maintaining wood chips and leaf litter around them. I’m thinking that I need to transplant some violets to out-of-the-way corners where leaves tend to collect in fall, taking the violets to the leaf litter instead of the other way around. It’s fun to make small tweaks like that in garden plans, and then watch for results.

I need also to keep my camera handy on a daily basis to hopefully record more butterfly activity in my garden this year. Recording actual dates for the different stages of the above life cycle will tell me much more about great spangled fritillary activity in my garden, and will help me to observe differences from year to year.

Common buckeye on verbena October 19, 2017

Common buckeye butterflies (Junonia coenia), one of which visited my garden on October 19, 2017, are not resident to this area of New Jersey. They are migrants. However, NABA-North Jersey website reports that common buckeyes are increasingly regular visitors to north Jersey. I had never seen one before. From above, each brown forewing has a large eyespot with a white band nearly surrounding it, as well as 2 orange bars on each wing. Each brown hindwing has 2 eyespots with an broad orange submarginal band. I did not get a photo of the wings from below. Common buckeyes produce multiple generations each year. They overwinter as adults, but not in northern New Jersey. They are resident across the southern U.S. and much of Mexico, expanding their range northward in the spring and making a return migration south in the late summer and fall.

Common buckeye on verbena October 19, 2017

The Missouri Department of Conservation calls common buckeye butterflies found in Missouri a breeding summer resident. I assume that may be the case with common buckeyes in northern New Jersey as well. So thinking about their larval food plants may not be amiss if I would like to see more of them in my garden, which I do.

Broadleaf plantain July 6, 2015

One of several larval food plants for the common buckeye is the common or broadleaf plantain (Plantago major), as seen above in my garden on July 6, 2015. Oh, wait, I identified broadleaf plantains as weeds 4 years ago and have been pulling them out ever since. I don’t want to reintroduce broadleaf plantains, even for the sake of common buckeye butterflies. There are many broadleaf plantains in the park across the street. I’ll just have to hope the visiting common buckeyes find them there.

Another larval food plant for common buckeyes is slender false foxglove (Agalinia tenuifolia), which is native to this area. I found seeds on Prairie Moon Nursery website and will try planting them this spring. That’s a start at least.

So, I have plans for 2 new butterflies.

The great spangled fritillary is resident to this area and uses violets as larval food plants. They sound easy to plan for, but they have only one brood per year, which might limit their abundance in a small area like my garden.

The common buckeye is a migrant for which larval food plants are not currently found in my garden. But they breed continuously wherever they are in their migration. They must have at least one brood per year in northern New Jersey. But why would they choose my garden except perhaps for nectaring. Nothing is easy when it comes to planning for butterflies. But they are worth it.


If I have any luck at all in attracting butterflies this summer, whether great spangled fritillaries or common buckeyes or other butterflies, and if I have the good fortune to be in my garden with my camera at the same time that they are, maybe even to discover and photograph eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalises in addition to flying adult butterflies, then I will be happy, and I will write a post about it.