Ladies’ day out in my garden

Painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), that is.

Painted lady and monarch on verbena October 4, 2017

Painted ladies are sometimes referred to as cosmopolitans because their range is nearly worldwide. They are not resident in New Jersey, but they often migrate to this region from the deserts of northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Their abundance here varies by year. This year, 2017, has been an irruption year for painted lady migration. Online sources from across the continent, from Colorado to Iowa to Montreal and spots in between, have reported their epic migration. They have been abundant in my New Jersey garden this fall for sure, as have monarchs. What a joy.

Painted lady on verbena September 11, 2017

Painted ladies are smaller than monarchs but usually larger than American ladies, with whom they are often confused. Female painted ladies are somewhat larger than males. Painted ladies have an orange spot enclosed by a black median band forming a semicircle on their topside forewing, as can be seen above, which distinguishes them from American ladies.

A sure identification of a painted lady is the 4 or perhaps 5 eye-spots on its lower hindwing, as can be seen in the photo below.

Painted lady on verbena September 25, 2017

American ladies have 2 big eye-spots as opposed to the painted lady’s 4 or 5 smaller ones. I don’t have photos of American ladies yet, but photos of them can be viewed at the NABA North Jersey Club website. Look under True Brushfoots.

In Butterflies of North America, Glassberg names red admirals as the third lady that migrates to this area. I photographed a red admiral in my garden on July 10, 2015. See the post Red admirals for details. On October 13 of this year, I spotted a red admiral in my garden but did not get a photo of it.

Larval host plants for painted ladies are first and foremost thistles, which I don’t have. I’m not sure that I want them. Gochfeld and Burger, in Butterflies of New Jersey, suggest burdock and hollyhocks as other possible host plants. I allowed a burdock to grow once, just to see how awesome it might grow to be. I pulled it out and sent it curbside for municipal pickup when the absolutely frightening seed pods appeared, so I think burdock is out for me as well. I’ve always wanted to grow hollyhocks like I remember in my grandmother’s garden. Maybe I’ll give old-fashioned hollyhocks a try. Hmm. However, according to Marent and Orenstein, in Butterflies, painted lady caterpillars feed on more than 100 species of plants. That may be a reason for their worldwide presence.

Painted lady adult butterflies love verbena and zinnias for nectaring, just like every other butterfly and bee that visits my garden. If you decide to grow zinnias to attract butterflies and bees, remember to grow the old-fashioned single-blossom ones. The newer double-blossom hybrids don’t have nectar and therefore will not attract wildlife.

I planted verbena from seed once several years ago. Since then it has self-sown itself and comes up volunteer without fail. Verbena particularly loves the rich soil and abundant water in the vegetable garden, as what plant doesn’t. It’s a weed-like nuisance at times, except that it’s beautiful, and I’m always entertained by the butterflies and bees that visit while I’m working with the vegetables.

On September 25, at 9:37 a.m., I took 5 photos, in 28 seconds of time, of a painted lady nectaring on a verbena. The photos demonstrate the butterfly’s proboscis and antennas quite clearly, as you can see below.


The first 3 photos show the proboscis, or “tongue,” deep in a verbena blossom. The proboscis is likened to a drinking straw and is used to suck up liquids like nectar. Marent and Orenstein, in Butterflies, report that in most butterflies, the length of the proboscis is perhaps 80% of the butterfly’s body. The last 2 photos above show the proboscis curling up under the butterfly’s mouth.

The antennas are also clearly in evidence. In the first 2 photos, one antenna is a blur of motion. The clubs at the end of the antennas distinguish butterflies from moths. They contain chemoreceptors used for smelling. In the last 3 photos, the antennas are stationary.

The fourth photo shows a front leg in motion. Finally, look at those eyes. According to Butterflies of North America, butterfly eyes are composed of subunits, each of which functions as an eye as we know it. Imagine seeing like a butterfly–just for a few seconds.

According to Butterflies, a painted lady may visit 150 flowers in less than an hour. Since the lifespan of most adult flying butterflies is measured in mere weeks, there’s no time to waste.

Painted lady on verbena October 4, 2017

NABA North Jersey Club website gives painted lady flight dates as mainly June to October with extreme dates in North Jersey of 4/5—12/22, so these October painted ladies fall well within that range. But what are they doing in my garden.

Painted lady on verbena October 4, 2017

Butterflies are always intent on one thing. To reproduce their cycle of life–adult butterfly, egg, caterpillar, pupa, back to adult butterfly. Some butterflies depend on diapause, a temporary suspension of their life cycle, while they wait for better conditions to hatch from an egg or to emerge from a pupa. Painted ladies are not known to diapause. Also, they overwinter as adult butterflies. If they try to overwinter in New Jersey, they will probably freeze to death. Our first nip of frost was on October 17 this year, when the thermometer in my garden dipped to 30°F.

So the flying adult butterflies in my garden could attempt to reproduce a new brood, or perhaps they already have. Or they could start a southerly migration. I assume they have to direct their energies one way or the other–that they don’t have enough energy or time to do both. Early October was unusually warm here this year. Perhaps their course of action is influenced by the weather, or perhaps by day length.

Painted lady on verbena October 10, 2017

Butterflies of New Jersey, published in 1997, reports that painted lady migrations are one-way trips northward, where they breed and die. But, as later studies indicate, maybe not always.

Everyone agrees that the northward migration of painted ladies is spectacular. It doesn’t happen every year. When the deserts of northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest experience rain and the wildflowers bloom, the butterfly population explodes. When there’s no food left in the desert due to overpopulation, the painted ladies migrate northward in huge numbers.

Painted lady on verbena October 10, 2017

In September of this year, painted ladies were reported by the National Weather Service to be flying across the Front Range of Colorado in a 70-mile wide mass visible on weather radar. What is not clear to me is whether this migration was northerly or southerly–or perhaps even downward from higher altitudes. At this time of year, one would think they were headed south, and most seemingly knee-jerk online accounts of the phenomenon assume a southerly fall migration, usually comparing the painted-lady migration with the better known monarch migration. But, as was reported in the Boulder Daily Camera, Jan Chu, a volunteer with Boulder County Parks & Open Space, thinks the spectacular show of painted ladies along the Front Range was a special fall migration northward from the Anza-Borego region of Southern California, which had more moisture than usual this year.

Painted lady on zinnia October 18, 2017

A northerly migration may be bad news for the painted ladies in my garden. If they are still northward bound, they may be nearing the end of their adult flying lives, and the coming frosts will undoubtedly kill them. On the other hand, it’s possible that these painted ladies of October are a successful brood born and bred here. Maybe they are young ones getting ready for a southward migration. Or maybe there’s a mix of old and young painted ladies. Much is not known about painted lady migration, and I personally know even less, but I’m trying to make sense of it.

Painted lady on zinnia October 18 2017

In 2009, an enormous northward European migration of painted ladies occurred from North Africa across the Mediterranean to as far north as northern Norway, a distance of some 4,000 miles, according to Butterflies. During 2 days in May, 2 million butterflies were radar-tracked crossing the English coastline. Butterflies reminds us that it may take as many as 6 generations of painted ladies, hatched at different points along the route, to complete a migration cycle.

What Butterflies doesn’t make clear is that the 2009 data include a return migration of painted ladies at high altitudes. BBC Nature reports that while radar tracked some 11 million painted ladies entering the UK at high altitudes in the spring of 2009, it also counted 26 million departing in the fall.

The BBC Nature article mentions a “Pied Piper hypothesis” concerning painted lady migration–that painted ladies make a one-way migration north from North Africa to the UK only to die in winter. But the 2009 data prove otherwise–that painted ladies do indeed complete the migration cycle of some 9,000 miles, often at high altitudes out of sight except by radar.

Painted lady on zinnia October 18, 2017

Well, that’s pretty exciting news regarding the painted ladies in my garden. Perhaps they are awaiting propitious conditions for a southerly migration. Maybe not the tattered ones, like the painted lady in the photo above, who looks as ragged and worn as the verbena and zinnia blossoms. But perhaps the younger, more able ones, are awaiting the right conditions for a southwesterly migration.

In a Montreal Gazette article, Max Larrivée, an entomologist at the Montréal Insectarium and founder of, was reported as saying that the early arrival of painted ladies in April and early May allowed for 2 generations instead of the usual 1, creating a huge population of painted ladies in the eastern half of North America. Larrivée believes that their southern migration this fall was interrupted by strong winds from the south that forced them to the ground where they are nectaring on fall flowers, waiting for a shift in winds to the southwest that will carry them back to Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. He adds that some painted ladies may be migrating already at such high altitudes that we are not aware of them.

Painted lady on verbena October 19, 2017

The strong winds from the south Larrivée mentions must have been the unsettled weather conditions brought on by this fall’s hurricanes, which were not destructive in this area but did result in a period of wind and rain coming up the coast.

Painted lady on verbena October 19, 2017

Many reports of abundant painted lady populations this summer and fall have counted hundreds or at least dozens of butterflies. I have seen 5 at the same time at most. More likely I see 1 or 2 at the same time, which I consider an abundance in my small garden. Still, I wonder if these few painted ladies are capable of joining up with the thousands that may be migrating southward at high altitudes.

Painted lady on verbena October 28, 2017

My last photo of a painted lady was taken on October 28, as seen above. It still seems in good shape for migrating. I can only hope so.

One final thought concerning my research into painted lady butterflies. Many online sites are in the business of selling caterpillars for children’s science projects and adult butterflies as release packages for weddings, funerals, and memorial services. Sources include individual sellers’ websites as well as sellers on Amazon and eBay. Release packages are being sold for as much as $500. I’m surprised and appalled by this, somewhat naively, I guess.

The best response to this practice is perhaps on the NABA website in the FAQs & Links section, which I have quoted in the paragraph below:

This well-meaning but misguided practice spreads diseases to natural populations, inappropriately mixes genetically distinct populations of the same species, may disrupt migratory behavior of native butterflies, confuses scientific studies of butterfly migrations, and usually results in the untimely death of the butterflies released.

Me again. The untimely death part bothers me most. It also seems to me that children who grow up thinking it’s a good thing to mail order caterpillars are more likely to plan weddings with release packages of adult butterflies.

In an article on the NABA website entitled “There’s No Need to Release Butterflies–They’re Already Free,” butterfly experts call the practice of releasing adult butterflies at weddings and other festive occasions a form of environment pollution.

From a quick online search, it seems that while monarchs are no longer advertised for butterfly release envelopes, painted ladies have become a popular choice. Perhaps the excitement about their epic migration this year will save them as well. Let’s hope so.

Monarch and painted lady on verbena October 28, 2017

October 28 was my last sight of the mighty migrating butterflies, in the form of 1 monarch and 1 painted lady, as seen above, in my New Jersey garden. Here’s hoping for their return next year and for many years thereafter.





A new garden plan for Fortex green pole beans

Pole bean (Phaseolus vulgaris).

August 12, 2017

Fortex green pole beans have been my favorite green bean for many years now. I’m not inclined to try bush beans (again) or to experiment with new varieties of pole beans. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the way I feel about Fortex green pole beans. However, I’m contemplating a new garden plan for next year to make Fortex green pole greens in my vegetable garden more productive for a longer period of time.

But first, here’s a look at this year’s beans. The photo at top shows the vegetable garden on August 12. The green pole bean plants, seen at far left in the photo, in 2 3’x3′ raised beds, are just starting to predominant in a vegetable garden slightly overrun with volunteer dill plants and wildflowers. Life is good when wildflowers surpass weeds as the garden nuisance.


In August and early September, the pole beans, planted on Memorial weekend with 2 bean seeds per bamboo pole and 6 poles per raised bed, seemed about right in both timing and number. Above are photos of vines and beans on September 5. Nice long beans on plants with leaves that still allow some air flow and sunshine in. Green beans that are uniform in size, perfect 7″ thin filet beans, for example, are the supermarket norm, but that just doesn’t happen in a real-life garden. Some pesky beans always get hidden away until they reach the 11″ length that Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog describes. So it’s fortunate that the 11″ beans continue to snap resoundingly and to crunch after a 9-minute boil.


By September 7, the bean vines are more densely packed, as can be seen in the photos above, keeping the interior and northeastern side in shade. The blooms and beans are mostly on the southwestern side, on vines sprawling over the vegetable garden fence and climbing over any wildflower in their way.

September 11, 2017

Sunflowers, seen above, which were evidently planted in the bean beds by the birds, like the compost-rich garden soil just fine. Pulling out sunflowers because they are in the wrong place is not one of my strong points as a gardener, especially when the American goldfinches stop by for sunflower seeds while I’m working in the garden. Bean vines and sunflowers coexist, with the bean vines using the sunflowers as another means of support.


The photo at left above was taken on September 7. The photo at right above on September 16. The difference is striking. At left, the leaves are healthy; the beans are straight enough. At right, the leaves are showing signs of rust and the bean is deformed. Possibly, bean plants are in their prime for only a short period of time. Hmm.

Let’s take a look back at bean history in my vegetable garden. Last year’s post on green beans, Fortex pole beans are thriving, published on September 20, 2016, shows photos from September 9 with healthy vines, leaves, and beans, pretty similar to this year’s September 7 photo above.

Going back to 2015, the post Green pole beans in June reports that Fortex green pole beans were planted on May 15 that year. On June 7, when the post was published, the little bean plants look healthy but are not vining yet, so they were off to a bit of a slow start. However, by June 13, the vines were vigorously climbing up the twine. The post Green pole beans in July, published July 3, shows healthy bean vines topping the bamboo teepee with some blooms in evidence. By July 13, 2015, in the post Harvesting green pole beans, the beans are long and plentiful, and the bean vines and leaves still look fresh and healthy. But by September 8, 2015, a post titled Trouble in Beanville bemoans problems with rust and spider mites. The bean leaves look terrible and no beans are in evidence. By that time, the beans, planted May 15, were almost 4 months old. Perhaps that was the problem.

This year’s beans were planted around Memorial weekend, so let’s say the end of May. Soil temperature needs to be at least 60° F. for bean seeds to germinate. Fortex green pole beans take 60 days to mature. I have always planted beans once a year. I’ve never considered succession planting for beans. Perhaps I should rethink that strategy if I want to produce more and better Fortex beans over a longer growing season.

September 5, 2017

Let’s guess that beans planted the latter part of May will start growing vigorously the first of June. So 60 days to maturity means they will spend most of June and July maturing, with some bean production the last part of July and all of August–6 weeks of production perhaps. By September, if the vines become too thick or develop rust or other problems, they should be torn down and taken curbside for municipal pickup. Never composted because of the danger of disease lingering in the soil. Below is a photo taken September 19 of some ugly bean leaves with no beans in evidence. Time to tear these bean plants down.

September 19, 2017

But I want beans in September if possible, so I will need to try succession planting of beans. Let’s say May 30, June 15, June 30, July 15. The July 15 sowing will mature around September 15. Our frost date is the end of October, so that’s 6 weeks of production if all goes well.

Of course, beans may not grow well in the fall for other reasons, so the July 15 planting may fail. But at least I will know which plantings are worth the effort. Having green beans in steady production from the end of July to sometime in October would be awesome. Certainly worth writing a post about.

Besides tasting good, green beans have amazing nutritional value. We all understand intuitively that garden-fresh vegetables are good for us, but to find out a little more about their nutritional value is a remarkable thing, amazing, really. And don’t forget there may be nutritional values yet to be discovered in all fresh produce.

To start with, green beans are low in calories with no saturated fat. They are a good source of vitamins A, B1, B6, and C as well as minerals and dietary fiber.  I didn’t realize that green beans contain phytonutrients such as lutein and zeaxanthin, those magical patented ingredients in Bausch + Lomb’s PerserVision designed to protect old people from macular degeneration. Who would have thought the humble green bean could be so trendy. They are an excellent source of potassium, which helps to control blood pressure and heart rate. Also rich in iron for persons like me with a history of anemia. Many online sources provide nutritional information on green beans. Garden-fresh green beans are nutritious, for sure, along with garden-fresh lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and many more. If you are able to do so, plant a garden for nutrition, exercise, fun, and all-around good health. It doesn’t come in a bottle.

One of my favorite easy recipes for summer is as follows. Boil the green beans for around 9 minutes or until they achieve a lovely soft crunch when you sample one. Spear it on a fork and run it under cold water before sampling so you don’t burn your tongue. While beans are boiling, sauté some peppers and sliced summer squash in olive oil and butter. If the squash gets a little brown, that’s perfection. Drain the beans and dump the peppers and squash into the bean pan. Stir to give the beans a lovely coating of oil and butter. Salt and pepper to taste and enjoy. See below.

September 20, 2017

Back to my green bean plan for next summer. I’ve always used 6 poles in the teepees in each 3’x3′ raised bed. Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog suggests 4 poles per teepee. I’ll give that a try to cut down on the density of the leaves and vines as they grow bigger.

My new green bean plan will require the use of 4 3’x3′ raised beds, but not all at the same time. If I pay attention, I can plant radishes and lettuce before and after the bean plantings, or perhaps sow some green manure crops into the beds after the beans are cleared away. Just remember to clean the bean plants up really well to prevent disease. Also using a 3-year crop rotation for the beans will help to keep them healthy. That’s a lot of planning come to think of it. But an extended harvest of delicious, nutritious green beans will be well worth the trouble.



Couldn’t resist adding photos of an American goldfinch female on a purple coneflower stalk. Goldfinches seem to enjoy purple coneflower seeds almost as much as they enjoy sunflower seeds. Male American goldfinches lose their bright yellow coloring in the fall, but they keep their black forehead year round. So this is a female American goldfinch. Wildflower seed heads may look a little ugly in the fall and winter, but seed-eating birds add enough beauty and entertainment to make up for any ugliness.


Weeds of spring: purple deadnettle, henbit, common chickweed, and hairy bittercress

Weeds of spring, also known as winter annuals: purple deadnettle, henbit, common chickweed, and hairy bittercress.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Last year, in the posts Purple deadnettle, or is it henbit, and Weed report 2016, I fessed up to misidentifying purple deadnettle as henbit and wondering if any henbit was even present in my garden. Also, in the post Weeds of April, I identified weeds in a photo as common chickweed, but the photo clearly shows a predominance of hairy bittercress in the center of a patch of chickweed. Now, I wonder how I ever could have made such errors. I think the errors derive from paying too much attention to blooms in late spring. I saw purple blooms and thought all of them were henbit, even some creeping Charlie blooms. When more attention is paid to the leaves and structure of the weeds such identification errors start to look pretty silly. But one learns by making mistakes.

In this post, I will describe each of these winter annuals in turn, showing photos of each, and also showing how the 4 of them intermingle in the spring garden.

Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum).

Weeds of the Northeast identifies purple deadnettle and henbit as similar species, even comparing their habits and blooms in illustrations. For me, distinguishing one from the other started with observing that purple deadnettle has triangular leaves with shallow lobes. The upper leaves of purple deadnettle are predominantly purple. The petioles, or leaf stalks, are long near to the roots but become shorter nearer to the blooms.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), on the other hand, has leaves that are more rounded and deeply lobed. Below is a photo of henbit in some creeping juniper alongside the driveway, a favorite spot for henbit, it seems. Its square stems, characteristic of the mint family, can be seen.


The lower, young leaves of henbit have petioles, or stalks, while the upper leaves are sessile, or without stalks. Henbit also has purple blooms, which have not yet appeared in the photos of henbit below, taken on April 8.

Henbit and purple deadnettle often occupy the same bare ground in early spring. Below are some examples.

These photos were taken in early April from alongside the driveway. It’s easy to distinguish the triangular leaves of the purple deadnettle from the more rounded, lobed leaves of the henbit. The purple deadnettle is blooming before the henbit this spring. The pyramidal structure of the purple deadnettle at center in the lower photo is striking, but not always a dependable identifier.

Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is omnipresent in my garden. This is the 3rd year of my 7-year weed eradication project without herbicides, and chickweed has become more pervasive each year. This is not progress toward a weed-free garden for sure.

Common chickweed grows in bare spots of the area we mow and call a lawn. As Weeds of the Northeast points out, chickweed can remain prostrate in grass while forming a more upright habit in open areas. This upright habit is certainly in evidence around the blueberries in my garden. Chickweed foliage is lush. The blooms and seedpods appear simultaneously. The white blooms look like 10 petals but are actually 5 deeply lobed petals. Robins and juncos like chickweed seeds, so when my chickweed gets out of control, I think of the birds and what a kindly act it is for me to let the chickweed run rampant.

Above are photos of common chickweed blooms. Many seed capsules are in evidence. They are present at the same time as the blooms. Each capsule contains numerous seeds. The leaves are opposite and rounded to egg-shaped to pointed. This description from Weeds of the Northeast. The leaves have petioles, or short leaf stalks, for the most part, but the petioles may be lacking on some upper leaves, as seems to be the case in the top photo above.


Interestingly, no chickweed has appeared so far in the serendipity corner, seen above, which was covered in chickweed last summer. Is this because the corner tends to be shadier and moister than other areas of my garden, or is it because it was mulched with wood chips. This corner was the last spot for the March snow to melt. According to Weeds of the Northeast, in shady, moist conditions germination of chickweed often occurs throughout the summer with multiple generations being produced in a single summer. So I shouldn’t rest easy about the chickweed problem in the serendipity corner yet. They may appear later.


Garden columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) is plentiful in the serendipity corner, as seen above, promising much loveliness in the coming weeks. Not a weed. A wildflower.


Back to spring weeds. Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) starts as a basal rosette of heart-shaped to kidney-shaped leaves with upright flowering stems sporting seed pods, or siliques, extending beyond the blooms. The siliques are making an appearance in the photo above of a larger than usual hairy bittercress rosette, at least larger than most in my garden. The first true leaves, those that are heart-shaped or kidney-shaped, are somewhat similar to the more rounded leaves of chickweed, but the structure of the plants is very different, and the later pinnate leaves of hairy bittercress are unique unto themselves.

I confused hairy bittercress with chickweed last year, only because I wasn’t paying attention. Both have white blooms, but the blooms are quite different. Chickweed blooms look like stars, hence the botanical name stellaria. Hairy bittercress blooms cluster at the end of stems, have 4 white petals, 4 green sepals, or outer floral leaves, and 4 or 6 stamens, as can be seen in the photo below. Not like chickweed blooms at all.


Hairy bittercress is often found standing erect in a patch of prostrate chickweed, so I think that may be the reason for my confusion.


Above is a photo of hairy bittercress and chickweed mixing it up. Mixing me up. The bloom of the hairy bittercress is prominent. The later pinnate leaves of the hairy bittercress, seen directly below and to the right of the most prominent bloom, now contrast with the rounded, pointed, egg-shaped leaves of the surrounding chickweed. Pinnate leaves have 2 rows of lateral parts along an axis. It’s complicated. No chickweed blooms are evident in the above photo.


Purple deadnettle is mixing it up with common chickweed is the photo above. The purple blooms of the purple deadnettle are apparent, as well as the starlike blooms of the chickweed.

Finally, a few other spring weeds are coming on now. Corn speedwell (Veronica arvensis), seen above, is another winter annual. A few showed up in the vegetable garden paths, just enough to remind me of their existence. Now that’s the way I like weeds to behave. Just a few dandies in the spring. Just enough galinsoga to remind me of its unusual name. But no, that’s just not the way most weeds operate. Corn speedwell produces tiny blue flowers at the very top of the flowering stem, which are not in evidence in these photos, taken April 13..


Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and wild mustard (Brassica kaber) obligingly grew side by side for the easy photo op seen above. The garlic mustard, on the left, knows its place in my garden and is easily pulled. Its white blooms have not yet appeared in this photo, also taken April 13. The wild mustard, on the right, is a pest this spring in the area we mow and call a lawn. Wild mustard is not hard to pull, but we have been content so far to just keep mowing it down. And it keeps coming back. The photos below show its habit of invading bare spots in a so-called lawn.

This post could go on and on with spring weeds, but it’s been too long in getting published already. My 7-year weed eradication project without herbicides has taken a hit this spring because I haven’t spent enough time at it. For the remainder of this growing season, I plan to work on weed control, without herbicides, instead of eradication. Fill in those bare spots. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Weed eradication may be a fantasy anyway. Weed control, on the other hand, may be a practical and rewarding endeavor.





Robins ate the winterberries

For Christmas 2015, I bought a small Winter Red winterberry shrub (Ilex verticillata). Sometime the following January, something ate the red berries. I suspected the robins, but did not have proof. This Christmas, the winterberry bush was double in size with multitudes of beautiful red berries. Below is a photo of the winterberry on December 12, 2016.


On December 28, a small flock of American robins (Turdus migratorius), perhaps 10 or so, showed up for lunch. They sat in the magnolia tree above the winterberry and took turns swooping down to enjoy the berries. Perhaps they have a custom about not eating the festive red berries until after Christmas. You never know about birds. They also sampled some holly berries, which did not seem to be as tasty. Below is a photo of 1 robin enjoying the winterberries. That was the only photo I got of the robins. Drat.


In a short period of time, the Winter Red winterberry was bare, and the robins were off. I didn’t get around to taking the photo below of the bare winterberry shrub until January 9, but it was bare by the time the robins left on December 28. So, a small puzzle of the garden is solved. I am eyewitness to the fact that the robins ate the winterberries.


In Wild Fruits, Thoreau includes a section on winterberries. He identifies them by their common names of winterberry and black alder, but he also identifies them as Prinos verticillatus, rather than Ilex verticillatus.

The Monticello shop website sheds some light on this name disparity. Carolus Linaeus, the Swedish father of modern taxonomy, gave the name of Prinos verticillatus to this native American shrub, thus indicating that it is the species Bernard McMahon, a Philadelphia nurseryman at the time, listed as “Ilex prinoides–Deciduous Holly.” It’s complicated. Thoreau has something to say about Europeans giving names to American native species in Wild Fruits, pretty much indicating that they didn’t know what they were talking about in naming American species much of the time, often giving a European twist to naming that was unwarranted. McMahon was right, winterberries are deciduous hollies, but they didn’t get their Ilex name until later.

The Monticello website also mentions that George Washington was probably thinking of winterberries when he rode out looking for the native Red Berry plant to transplant to Mount Vernon. I’m thinking I have a historical shrub in my garden.

Finally, the Monticello website mentions that the dark green foliage of the winterberry turns yellow in the fall. This is a great relief to me since I feared that my Winter Red winterberry was in ill health when its leaves turned yellowish in October, as can be seen in the photo below, taken October 16.


Winterberries have male and female plants, both of which are necessary if you want the red berries, which of course I do. In my garden, there is a female Sparkleberry winterberry with a male Jim Dandy companion. These are early bloomers. The female Winter Red has a male Southern Gentleman companion for later blooms. So far at least, the Winter Red is superior to the Sparkleberry in all-around growth and berry production. RareFind Nursery catalog calls Winter Red the standard against which other winterberries are measured. I think so too.

I’ve always been annoyed that the Sparkleberry was marketed as a native Ilex verticillata by the local nursery where I bought it, but it’s really a cross with I. serrata, which is a Japanese winterberry. Impulse buying is not good at garden nurseries. Best to plan on 2 trips–the 1st to shop around, and the 2nd to buy only after going home and doing some serious research and thinking about the purchase.

But back to Wild Fruits. Thoreau takes into account the usefulness of wild fruits for human consumption, the appeal of their beauty to the eye, and their importance to wildlife. As to human consumption, Thoreau does not seem shy about tasting wild berries, but does so not foolishly, but through knowledge and experience. He mentions that he learned about some edible berries by walking behind an Indian in Maine and observing the Indian eating fruits which Thoreau had never thought of tasting before that. He also mentions the Indian’s hand-to-mouth use of berries. I like that. I have a hand-to-mouth habit of eating blueberries and raspberries in the garden during the summer. Also sugar-snap peas. Most never make it to the kitchen.

Thoreau often notes the beauty of wild fruits to the eye. In the case of the winterberries, he describes how handsome they are, first the bright-red berries against the dark-green leaves of summer, and also later when the berries remain bright red on the bare branches. When he describes high blueberries in another section, he says that our appreciation of their flavor commonly prevents our observing their beauty. So we admire holly berries, which we don’t eat, yet fail to admire the beauty of blueberries, which we do eat.

Winterberries are significant wild fruits in Thoreau’s mind not because humans eat them, but because robins, partridges, and mice do. In November, he discovers the skins of winterberries at the entrance of a mouse burrow under a stump, the mouse having gathered the winterberries in the night and eaten the insides near the safety of its burrow. Thoreau’s response to this discovery underscores his understanding that edible fruits include fruits for wildlife, not just for humans. He writes, What pretty fruit for the mice, these bright prinos berries! 

When he is describing chokeberries in another section of Wild Fruits, Thoreau says the taste is pleasant enough, but they leave a mass of dry pulp in the mouth. But, he says, it’s worth the while to see their profusion, if only to know what Nature can do, but she can do some things as well as others and has other children to feed beside us.

Is it any wonder that we continue to read Thoreau, and that we continue to find hope and solace in doing so.

Next winter, I hope to have more berries in the garden for the robins to feast on. More winterberries, more holly berries, and, hopefully, some little crabapples from the Golden Raindrops crabapple trees even.

Bird news: dark-eyed juncos, American robins, and common grackles

The dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are back.


The first juncos of the winter came to the feeders on December 12 as a light snow moved south from upstate New York. It’s good to see those roly-poly sparrows with the stick legs once again. Juncos come down from the northern boreal forest to spend winter with us. They are our snowbirds.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, juncos are numerous and widespread with a total population of approximately 630 million, and a global breeding population of around 200 million, 81% of which spend some part of the year in the U.S. However, there has been a 1.4% per year decline of dark-eyed juncos from 1966 to 2015, adding up to a 50% decline in junco population for that period of time.


Male dark-eyed juncos are territorial in their northern breeding habitat. In winter, juncos tend to gather in small flocks, flying together at sunrise and sunset, but fanning out to forage for food individually during the day. Juncos exhibit hierarchical behavior at feeding sites, the larger males driving away the younger birds and females. This may be the reason females tend to migrate farther south than males. Anything to get a vacation from those insufferable males. Well, actually the females are probably more intent on not starving to death than in taking vacations. It’s also the case that males stay closer to their breeding grounds up north in order to protect their territory, or to stake out a new claim in the case of the younger males. Females may be more intent on the best food supplies in order to produce the most and best offspring.


Dark-eyed juncos in the eastern U.S. tend to be slate grey with males being darker than females. Birds of New Jersey also mentions an ivory-to-pink bill and white outermost tail feathers, which appear as a white V in flight. The white tail feathers can be observed in the photo above. I have not personally seen the white V in flight, but birds in flight are difficult to observe closely. Also tough to photograph.

In addition to the juncos’ arrival, American robins (Turdus migratorius) were seen in a local park on December 11. It seems they also flew in ahead of the snow. Robins often make short migrations in search of food. They tend to fly high during a migration, so are often unobserved in migratory flight. They travel as far as 200 miles in a day. Unfortunately, I didn’t get photos of the robins. The next day, December 12, they were gone from the park. Perhaps they moved farther south ahead of the storm.

Last Christmas, I bought a small Winter Red winterberry shrub (Ilex verticillata). It was covered with bright red berries, which the birds did not seem interested in eating. Then, one day, the berries were gone. Totally gone.


So this year, the same winterberry bush, now much larger, is once again covered with red berries. I mean to keep an eye on it this year, in the hope of discovering who is eating the berries, and when. I hope it’s the robins.

The robins always come to that same local park because of 2 crabapples trees that are loaded with very small crabapple fruit. It seems that the fruit has to winter over before it is edible for birds. At any rate, those 2 crabapples trees are the star attraction of that park, so far as the robins are concerned. Last spring, I bought 2 Golden Raindrops crabapple trees for my garden, but they didn’t bear fruit last year. Maybe this year. I bought them for the robins, of course.

But back to the juncos. Last winter (2015-2016), I saw 1 junco on November 20, but it disappeared. December was quite warm last year. I didn’t see juncos again until around January 13, and they stayed until early March.

So, this winter (2016-2017), they arrived on December 12, hopefully to stay. We had a dusting of snow that day, which didn’t last long. The high temp for the day was 34° F.

No such luck. The juncos and all the feeder birds disappeared on December 13 and stayed away for several days. There were feathers on the ground around the feeders. I think they were junco feathers. I suspect a black feral cat that we have observed in the area. Drat. I put fencing around a small red cedar tree that is closest to the feeders, hoping to deprive the cat of its nearest hiding place. The birds can still access their roosts in the red cedar, but maybe the fencing will slow the cat down and give the birds a better chance. I also put hardware cloth around the area below the feeders. All the ground feeders, even the large rock pigeons, go inside the hardware cloth enclosure, but they forage outside the circle as well. I’m thinking of putting another larger circle of fencing around the feeders to encompass more of the feeding area. As I have already said, the fencing doesn’t keep cats out, but it slows them down. At least that’s my working hypothesis.

By December 17, in another light snowstorm, the dark-eyed juncos were back. It’s hard to say what makes them come and go in winter. Perhaps predators, or the weather, or better shelter and food in other nearby areas. Above are some photos of the returning juncos. I’ve counted as many as 10 around the feeders at a time. I always laugh when I see those white bellies and stick legs.


The above photo of a junco shows a little of the environment around the feeders. A hemlock in the background. A river birch branch in the foreground. To the right and out of the photo is the small red cedar as well as several large hemlocks and a dogwood. A small neighborhood park is in back of this area.


Other feeder birds came back as well. Above are house finches and a male downy woodpecker on December 17. Chickadees, tufted titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches came back as well. I’m happy about that.

On December 18, a warm front moved in with rain melting the snow, producing a wonderful fog. A flock of blackbirds came to the feeders. Above are photos of common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) that made up most of the flock. They do look rather ominous in the fog with their otherworldly gold eyes, don’t you think. After eating everything available under the feeders, they were gone.





Butternut squash bounty; also pumpkins

Bugle butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata).


In the spring of 2016, I planted Bugle butternut squash seeds from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. Above is an October 16 photo of the squash patch, which covered the mulched area near the front fence where the old maple tree stood until it died.

Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog reports that Bugle butternut squash is an improved variety from Cornell University that is resistant to powdery mildew. The catalog description mentions 5-pound fruits, but my largest weighed around 3 pounds. Maybe next year.


The old maple tree mentioned above was taken down by the tree guys, after which the stump and roots were ground out by yet another tree guy, and we were left with a huge pile of wood chips. The area was an uneven mess with many maple roots still left to rot, so we decided to cover it with a thick layer of wood chips to aid the rotting process. After doing that, the area looked bare and in need of vegetation. First, we planted small American holly trees to get started on a new screen from the busy street just beyond. Then, we sank black grow bags into the mulch, filled them with good soil and compost, and planted pumpkins and butternut squash.


The Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog describes Bugle butternut squash as having thick, meaty, sweet-nutty orange flesh and a small seed cavity. As can be seen above, that’s a pretty good description. Perfect for roasting, baking, or boiling.

The pumpkins were Baby Pam pie pumpkins from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which unfortunately are no longer available. These were leftover seeds. The vines are compact and the pumpkins are small and delicious. 6 small pumpkins were harvested, 1 of which is seen in the photos above. Perfect. 3 for Thanksgiving, and 3 for Christmas. I made pumpkin bread from 1 pumpkin for Thanksgiving, and a pie with the other 2. I plan to do the same for Christmas. And of course the seeds, coated with olive oil and kosher salt and dried in a slow oven, are delicious. But I’ve grown pie pumpkins before, so they were not new to me. The butternut squash was the cause for celebration.


I had never planted winter squash because there wasn’t room for them in the vegetable garden, so this was a new garden space to be utilized. In time, hopefully, the American holly trees will grow into a lovely screen and the area will turn into more of a woodland area with trees, shrubs, and flowers. But for another year at least, it will be dedicated to squash and pumpkins. Next spring, we are thinking of burying sawed-off tops of old trashcans in the mulch, instead of grow bags, filling them with good soil and compost, and planting the squash and pumpkins in them. The butternut squash has quite long tap roots that burrowed through the bottoms of the grow bags. This is the reason, I think, that the squash was so prolific.


The local supermarkets had butternut squash for $1.49 a pound in season. I figure that the above photo of this summer’s crop represents around 25 pounds of squash. $37.50, or thereabouts. Not bad for the price of a packet of seed. I don’t usually think of the vegetable garden in economic terms. I prefer to think about quality of food, and of course good exercise and peacefulness, but this easy calculation gave me an additional reason for happiness about the vegetable garden.


So far, I’ve made a stew with pork loin, pinto beans, tomato sauce, peppers, and squash, as seen above. The pinto beans are from Gold Mine Natural Foods, which is an exceptional source for quality beans and rice. The tomatoes and peppers were from the garden, via the freezer. And, of course, storage onions and garlic from the garden are always part of a stew. I don’t think the pinto beans were added to the stew yet when the photo above was taken. They were probably still cooking separately.

I also tried a lamb stew with squash and chickpeas–chickpeas also from Gold Mine. I made puréed squash soup. Also a risotto with squash and bacon. For Thanksgiving, I made a simple mashed squash dish with nothing but butter and salt and pepper, baked covered in the oven in a little water until tender and mashed with a potato masher. That was my favorite since it allowed the squash flavor to shine without distraction.

I’m still planning to try a butternut macaroni-and-cheese recipe. Also a roasted squash and red onion dish with pine nuts. Most of these squash recipes are from the NY Times, which is good about showcasing recipes of vegetables in season. I always manage to substitute and embellish of course.

Butternut squash is a great winter vegetable, nutritious and filling, a beautiful color addition to any menu, and an excellent storage keeper through the winter months. Can’t ask for more from a vegetable than that.


Weed report 2016

Weed report for 2016.


Lovely photo above of crocus blooming on March 11, when you would think that the garden is weed-free, at least visibly so, but just look in the upper righthand corner. Creeping Charlie. In March. At least it isn’t growing.

This is the 2nd year of my 7-year weed eradication project. In 7 years, if I weed long enough and hard enough, my garden will be weed-free. Oh, sure.

As I have written before, this idea came to me as I read various authors who wrote about weed-free gardens, usually someone else’s garden, not their own. In Odell Shepard’s The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals, Thoreau praises his friend Minot for having no weed seeds in the soil of his farm. In Second Nature, Michael Pollan writes that his grandfather had a weed-free garden. In My Weeds, Sara Stein knows someone in Maine who has a weed-free garden. In The Illustrated Garden Book, Vita Sackville-West writes that she prefers gardens to be weedless and tidy. In a 1971 letter to Organic Gardening magazine, Mrs. Magnus Olson writes that when she bends down to pull 1 weed, she stays down until she has pulled 10. In this way, she achieves a weed-free garden. Barbara Damrosch, in The Garden Primer, and Eliot Coleman, in The New Organic Gardener, have strategies for achieving a weed-free garden in 7 years.

But Damrosch also warns that 1 year of backsliding will mean starting over on the 7-year eradication project. Coleman specifies 3 strategies. Don’t bring buried weed seed to the surface. Get rid of weeds while they are small. Don’t let weeds go to seed.

In Weeds: in Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, Richard Mabey doesn’t hold out hope for weed-free gardens. He points out that weeds fill up bare spots. That’s their job. It’s what they do. Weeds have a purpose as first succession plants in disturbed areas. So if you want to control weeds in the garden, don’t leave bare spots.

So much excellent advice and encouragement. In this the 2nd year of my weed eradication project, I realize that weed eradication is not a linear march toward a successful outcome. So much depends on variations in rainfall and temps. Chickweed was a minor nuisance in the spring of 2015, probably because the bitter cold of March kept it from making a good start. This spring, after a mild winter, the chickweed came on like gangbusters. Also the other winter annuals, like purple deadnettle and hairy bittercress. In the photo left above, taken on April 5, purple deadnettle can be seen intermingled with lush chickweed. In the photo right above, taken on April 7, hairy bittercress is lifting its siliques above a small patch of chickweed.


In addition to the mild winter, there is another reason for the abundance of chickweed this spring. Bare spots. In the fall of 2015, I gave the blueberries a dressing of compost and peat moss. Although the blueberry patch is covered in wood chips, close up around the bushes were bare spots of rich nutrients. As can be seen in the photo above, taken on April 7, chickweed liked that environment just fine.


Also in the fall of 2015, hoping to make the serendipity corner even more serendipitous, I removed some large pieces of slate and tore up some black plastic mulch that was buried under a thin layer of soil. More bare spots. After reading Mabey’s Weeds, I’m not surprised about the chickweed. Under the blueberries, I created a rich environment for the chickweed seed that was probably lurking in the compost. In the serendipity corner, I unearthed weed seed lying in wait under the slate and plastic mulch. The photo above of those cute little chickweed plants in the serendipity corner was taken on June 20–2 months later than the chickweed under the blueberries. An excellent article on the Penn State Extension website reports that chickweed seeds ripening in warm weather are not dormant and can sprout immediately. Chickweed seeds ripening in cold weather must wait for spring when alternating temperatures break their dormancy. So temps are a factor for when spring chickweed gets its start. The article also mentions that chickweed seeds below 1/4 inch of soil will remain dormant, so seeds need to be very near the surface to germinate.


As I’ve written in previous posts, early this spring I gave chickweed a big bad 10 in my weed hierarchy, meaning that I had to drop everything and eradicate chickweed whenever I saw it in the garden. This quickly became onerous because there was just too much chickweed. So, I grew philosophical, having just read Mabey’s Weeds, and thought chickweed might make a good ground cover under the blueberry bushes. Plus, robins depend on chickweed seed as an early spring food, so the chickweed in the serendipity corner would be a welcome treat for the early robins in my garden. Life is good.


However, after the chickweed grew huge and started producing seeds–see the seed pods in photo above, taken April 8–I changed my opinion of chickweed again. There was too much to ever hope to eradicate this year, but I had to work on control hereafter. I guess that’s a 5 in my weed hierarchy. Sort of like creeping Charlie. I pulled masses of chickweed. At least when it gets huge, it pulls out in huge bunches. Unfortunately, all these lush greens cannot go into the compost pile since they are covered with seed pods. They have to be sent curbside for municipal pickup. What a waste.


In the fall, I worked at scrubbing the little chickweeds out with a collinear hoe. So, perhaps I made some progress against chickweed for next year. Now that I recognize those cute little plants instantaneously, it’s easier to focus in on getting rid of them in a timely fashion. But they will be back next spring. I have no doubt about that.


Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), seen above, which I had previous identified as henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), was not a huge weed problem, maybe a 3 in my weed hierarchy, and has the redeeming quality of providing an early spring nectaring source for honeybees. Its fibrous roots make it easy to pull in moist soil. I’m looking forward to next spring when I can observe and photograph its growth in order to figure out if I have both purple deadnettle and henbit in my garden, or if it’s all purple deadnettle. Each year is different, of course. Next year may be the year that purple deadnettle, or henbit, takes over my garden and becomes a huge nuisance.


According to an article on the University of Kentucky Ag website, the lower leaves of both purple deadnettle and henbit have long petioles, or stalks. However, henbit’s upper leaves are sessile, or stalkless, while purple deadnettle’s upper leaves have short petioles. According to Weeds of the Northeast, both weeds have lobed leaves, but the upper leaves of henbit appear more lobed while purple deadnettle’s upper leaves are more triangular. Looking at the photo above, the upper leaves probably have short petioles, or stalks, thus identifying the weed as a purple deadnettle. And the upper leaves are more triangular.

At this point, you may be thinking, what difference does it make. A weed is a weed. This is true, but the challenge of identifying weeds keeps me going on my 7-year weeding project. Without the company I keep by reading various authors and bloggers who are also interested in weeds, I likely would not put in the time.

Because purple deadnettles and henbit are winter annuals, their cute little seedlings, as seen above in December 4 photos, are present throughout the winter, albeit easily overlooked. A cold, sunny day in December would be a good time to pull a few. The 2 seedlings above both have square stems. The seedling to the left was found in among some creeping juniper alongside the driveway. The seedling on the right was found in an unused cold frame without the plexiglass top on it. They are different, aren’t they.


I pulled some of each to get a closer look. Again, on the left, the seedling found among the creeping juniper by the driveway. On the right, in the unused cold frame. Could the left one be henbit and the right one be purple deadnettle. Or are they some different weed entirely. All I can do is keep watching the seedlings in each area, particularly as they mature next spring.


As can be seen above, purple deadnettle, or henbit as the case may be, doesn’t look a bit like creeping Charlie. At top of the photo above, taken on December 2, is a fairly compact purple deadnettle/henbit seedling pulled from alongside the driveway. At bottom is the sinuous, rooted stem of creeping Charlie, carefully extracted from the blueberry patch. The leaves are somewhat similar, rounded and lobed, but there the similarities end.


As described in a previous post, I decided on a day in April to wage war on hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), another winter annual. I was frustrated with the likes of creeping Charlie and chickweed, which I couldn’t eradicate, and decided to take revenge on a weed I thought could be eradicated. Hairy bittercress was it. I put on some gloves, grabbed a 5-gallon bucket, and set out to pull all the hairy bittercress in my garden. Because I thought I could, of course. This is my treatment for weeds that I’ve ranked a 10 in my weed hierarchy. Singleminded focus on that weed, with absolutely no diversions into other garden chores, until the weed is eradicated for that day to the best of my ability. I managed to fill a trash can with hairy bittercress and send it curbside for municipal pickup.

Today, December 4, I looked for hairy bittercress seedlings. I didn’t find any. Or maybe I’m just not identifying them. So we will see if hairy bittercress comes back to my garden next spring, or if I did indeed eradicate it.


A final winter annual, corn speedwell (Veronica arvensis), barely made a showing. It can be seen in the above photo taken April 22 in a dry, sunny strip between a wooden deck and a slate walkway. We’ll see if corn speedwell has ceased to be a weed of my garden, or not.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) made its customary showing in the raspberry patch in April, but the plants seemed to be individual plants without extensive rhizomes, so perhaps my mugwort diligence in summer of 2015 paid some dividends. Of course, mugwort can’t be left alone or it will start its spreading habit once again. Mugwort is always a 10 in my weed hierarchy. Dense patches of 3′ high mugwort with huge seed pods in August in the local parks are enough to keep me motivated about eradicating mugwort in my garden. Or trying to.


Here is mugwort coming up through cracks in the driveway in December. The weed whacker controls mugwort plants in the driveway, but doesn’t eradicate them.

Wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis) and garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata) both made brief appearances in April by the metal fence. Next spring I plan to watch them for awhile before pulling them. I want to see how menacing their siliques, which all mustard plants have, look as they mature. They reproduce by seed, which are jettisoned from the siliques in due time. Each plant produces 1200 seeds or so. The seeds can persist in the soil for many years. All this from Weeds of the Northeast. Perhaps, like dandelions, they will persist in my garden even if I pull them all every year.

Hairy galinsoga (Galinsoga ciliata) and Pennsylvania smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum) made their expected appearances in July and stayed around until frost killed them. Both reproduce by seeds. Lots of seeds. Galinsoga, seen above in photos taken in October, is sometimes called quickweed because its seeds germinate as they are falling to the ground, or so the story goes. It is quite tender and will turn black with the first frost, like basil.


Pennsylvania smartweed, shown above on October 19, is not so easily done in by frost as galinsoga. Its foliage turns brownish-red after the first frost and the plants linger, but they will not persist through the winter. This information is from Weeds of the Northeast, my goto weed identification book.

Both galinsoga and smartweed did not seem so pervasively overwhelming in their sheer quantity this summer, so maybe I’m making progress. They are first-succession weeds for sure. They monopolize any bare ground available. So it’s important to cover bare spots either with other plants or with mulch. Last summer, we distributed 2 big truckloads of wood chips around the garden, probably 20 cubic yards of wood chips. The 1st truckload was from our own garden, mostly from the old maple tree that died and was cut down. We covered the old maple tree area with mulch after the roots were ground out. Wood chips were also laid down deep under birch trees and pine trees and around the blueberry and raspberry patches. A layer of wood chips was put down in the wildflower corner before I planted wildflowers. I’m grateful to say that I was the helper in this labor-intensive endeavor, not the main muscle behind the wheelbarrow.

But galinsoga and smartweed will always find nooks and crannies to grow in. I’m pretty sure about that.


I have a fun story about broadleaf plaintains (Plantago major) this summer. At least as fun as can be expected when weeding is the topic. Plantains are one of the big summer uglies and require the intensive 10 treatment in my weed hierarchy, if it’s possible. This summer, July and August were so dry, and the soil in the area that we mow and call a lawn was so compacted, that digging plantains to get the roots out was impossible. In the photo above, taken June 20, a plantain seedpod can be seen among clover. Believe me, the seedpods only got bigger and badder as the summer progressed.


Since the plantain plants could not be pulled out of the dry, compacted soil, we compromised and picked the seedpods. I left cans and buckets around the garden where the seedpods could be easily thrown away. Whenever we went out for a stroll around the garden or a break from computer work, we would pull off the seedpods and throw them in the nearest can or bucket. Of course the seedpods came back, a little smaller, but we pulled them again. The process was fairly painless and didn’t require thought or preparation. After the rains came, I went back to pulling the plantain plants with the dandelion/plantain tool and disposing of them in trashcans at curbside for municipal pickup. In this way, we may have reduced the available plantain seed for next year. Only time will tell.


We also tried a new experiment with the omnipresent creeping Charlie, seen above under a blueberry bush in an October 19 photo.


Creeping Charlie is the major weed in the area we mow and call a lawn. So, during a rainy spell in October, we used the weed whacker to take the Charlie down to ground level. Then we spread lime and top soil over the area and planted tall fescue and white clover seed. We encircled the area with benches and boards, mostly to discourage canine traffic. After the rains, we continued to sprinkle the area several times a day. As can be seen in the photo above, taken October 19, the tall fescue and white clover are up and flourishing. Of course, the roots of the Charlie are still there, but how will they compete with the grass and clover. I can only hope this is the beginning of a winning strategy against creeping Charlie in the area we mow and call a lawn.

Evidently, crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis) and prostrate knotweed (Polygonum avoculare) were too ugly to photograph this summer, since I took no photos of them. I pulled crabgrass religiously however, although often only after seed pods were in evidence, so it will be back. Prostrate knotweed grew once again along the pathways and by the gate in bare, compacted soil. It’s very difficult to pull. I sprayed vinegar on it once again, but that’s only a temporary fix–also ugly since the plants turn brown until little stems reappear from the roots. Both of these uglies are summer annuals that reproduce by seed. They will be back next summer.

Tumble pigweed (Amaranthus albus) also reproduces by seed. A few tumble pigweed plants raised their ugly heads by the garden gate. Although they have a taproot, they were fairly easy to pull. I hope I disposed of them in time.

Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) will always send up its shoots around the shed. It spreads by rhizomes from the park behind my garden. All I can do is pull those little shoots the minute I see them. This is a really big bad 10 in my weed hierarchy. I often pour vinegar down the little hole left after pulling a shoot. I don’t know that it helps since the shoots always reappear. Control is my only option here.

Last year, I counted blue violets (Viola papilionacea) and Asiatic dayflowers (Commelina communis) as weeds. This year I decided to call them wildflowers instead, which means that they are desirable but must be controlled.

Blue violets are larval food plants for great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) butterflies. The eggs are laid not on the blue violets but in nearby wood chips or leaf litter. Knowing this changed my attitude toward the blue violets. Now I’m hoping to nurture them in the wildflower corner without letting them take over the garden completely. If more great spangled fritillaries in my garden are the result, it will all be worthwhile.


Here is a photo taken September 18 of the blue violets in the wildflower corner. Great spangled fritillaries overwinter as larva. I haven’t found any, but I hope some of those caterpillars are overwintering in the wildflower corner.


Asiatic dayflowers can become a problem if they are allowed to colonize, but as single plants they have appealing little blue flowers and lush green leaves and stems. When I cleared some pachysandra to plant a small sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), Asiatic dayflowers cropped up almost immediately in the bare space around the magnolia tree. I can only think that the previous owner planted pachysandra to get rid of Asiatic dayflowers, which it did. When the pachysandra was gone, the dayflowers came back. They were dormant for at least 20 years. Wow.


Above is a December 7 photo of the sweetbay magnolia in its little wood chip area, which will revert to pachysandra or Asiatic dayflowers in the spring if I am not vigilant about eradicating the pachysandra and keeping the dayflowers under control.

I have come to consider pachysandra a weed. I hate it and am trying to clear it a little at a time, but it’s not easy because it comes back from roots left in the ground, and also because other weeds or wildflowers, like the dayflowers, will fill in any bare space, so it’s always a struggle, even with a wood chip mulch.

Believe it or not, I think I’ve now accounted for the major weeds of 2016. Here is a summary of my weed strategies, garnered from other weeders’ experiences and insights, as well as from my own weed experience.

Don’t bring buried weed seed to the surface.

Get rid of weeds while they are small.

Don’t let weeds go to seed.

Cover bare ground with desirable plants or mulch.

Control wildflowers so they don’t become weeds in the garden.

Of course, I always remember Mrs. Olson’s advice to pull 10 weeds whenever I bend over to pull 1 weed. And of course it goes without saying that I don’t use herbicides. Indiscriminately killing all broadleaf plants including clovers and wildflowers while polluting the environment doesn’t seem like a good weed strategy to me.

Weeds will still occupy my time and thoughts in 2017, the 3rd year of my 7-year weed eradication program. I hope I’m making progress.

Serendipity corner on June 1


Wild Senna and Sulphur caterpillars

Wild senna (Senna hebecarpa).

Something has been eating my wild senna (Senna hebecarpa) plant.

Above are photos of the same wild senna first taken on October 7, when its compound, even-pinnate leaves with 10-20 leaflets (this description from the NRCS Plant Fact Sheet) were on full display, and again on October 25, when nothing was left but the stems and dark brown seedpods. It’s amusing to me that before I became a butterfly gardener, I would have viewed this decimation in horror, but now I’m all excited about the possible signs of caterpillars in my garden.

Who was the culprit. Many sources list wild senna as a larval, or caterpillar, food plant for Sulphur butterflies. Butterflies of North America lists Little Yellow (Eurema lisa), Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe), Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae), and Orange-barred Sulphur (Phoebis philea) as possibilities.

Wild senna is a New Jersey native, but it seems to occur mostly in south Jersey. Although not listed as threatened or endangered in New Jersey, it is listed as such in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont due to habitat loss. In Connecticut it is listed as of special concern.

NABA-North Jersey Butterfly Club website concurs that wild senna is a larval food plant for Cloudless Sulphur and Sleepy Orange, noting that a few wild sennas grow in New Jersey. Interestingly, this website lists legumes as larval food plants for Clouded Sulphur and Orange Sulphur. Wild senna is a member of the pea family (Fabaceae), which is a legume, so perhaps these butterflies could be included in my culprit caterpillar list.


This photo of a Sulphur butterfly nectaring on a red zinnia in my garden was taken on September 27. It doesn’t seem big enough to be a Cloudless Sulphur, which is most often mentioned as using wild senna as larval plant food. The NABA Club website reports that Cloudless Sulphur butterflies are not known to overwinter in New Jersey and are more often seen as nonresidents in south Jersey. The same is true for the Sleepy Orange.

That leaves the Clouded Sulphur and the Orange Sulphur, which are resident in central Jersey, both of which are common and widespread. In fact, the 2 species are known to hybridize. The NABA Club website kindly counsels me not to be embarrassed to admit seeing a Sulphur, species unknown. So maybe I’m trying too hard here. Of course, there’s the problem that although these 2 species use legumes as larval host plants, no mention is made specifically of wild sennas. So everything is in limbo with regard to the culprits who ate my wild senna plant.


Perhaps I should mention that wild senna foliage is a purgative or laxative. Livestock and wild animals such as deer leave it alone. We are not having a local deer problem at present anyway. Quail or bobwhites like to eat wild senna, but I don’t think there are any around here. The leaves didn’t fall due to frost damage since there were no fallen leaves present under the plant. Anyway, it looks like caterpillar damage to me.

You may be wondering what a wild senna plant was doing in my central Jersey garden if they aren’t known for growing here. In the fall of 2015, I determined to make my garden more butterfly friendly by planting more wildflowers native to this area, including more larval host plants of butterflies I saw in the garden in the summer of 2015. Wild senna was among the seed packets I ordered online. The NRCS Plant Fact Sheet recommends that wild senna seed be scarified–not frightened to death, but chipped to allow water absorption. I rubbed the seeds between 2 sandpaper blocks. The scarified seeds were started indoors. Only 1 seed germinated. This plant was placed under grow lights where it thrived. I called it the fancy plant because of its unusual leaves. In the spring, I planted it out with several other wildflowers I had started similarly. They were planted in a corner of the garden I call the wildflower corner–what else, which quickly became my favorite spot in the garden.


Here is the fancy plant, uh, wild senna plant, in the wildflower corner on October 16. So it was decimated between October 16 and October 25. 9 days. Pretty fast work. To the right of the wild senna is a little holly tree and a New York ironweed plant. To the left are verbena, some asters, and some grasses.

Wild senna grows a deep tap root and will spread by rhizomes. It is drought tolerant. The dark brown seed pods split explosively and contain around 50 seeds. Wild senna can grow to 7 feet high. I’m fully aware that my lovely little wildflower corner may become a weed patch. That’s the way with wildflowers.

I hope to have more photos and more wildlife news about wild senna next summer. Somehow, I expect the plant to recover from its decimation, but maybe not. I’ll just have to plant more.


A little more about Clouded Sulphur and Orange Sulphur butterflies. Larval food plants also include clovers and alfalfa, both of which are present in my garden. There’s lots of white clover and some red clover. There’s summer alfalfa, which is used as ground cover as well as green stuff for the compost pile. Oh dear, how many pupas have I ground to bits in the mulching mower.

Clouded Sulphur and Orange Sulphur have several overlapping broods and overwinter as pupa. Clouded Sulphur flight period is from April to October with extreme dates of 2/25-12/13 for north Jersey. Orange Sulphur from March to December with extreme dates of 3/17-12/31 for north Jersey. Orange Sulphur may also overwinter as larva, or caterpillars. All this according to the NABA Club website.


Butterflies of New Jersey reports that Orange Sulphur, also known as Alfalfa Butterfly, was originally a southwestern U.S. species, but followed alfalfa cultivation east after 1870, invading the northeast U.S. since the 1930s to become common here. As mentioned above, Orange Sulphur have since hybridized with the Clouded Sulphur. But do their caterpillars eat wild senna leaves. That is the question.

A more vexing question for me is why I didn’t notice the decimation of the wild senna plant as it was happening. I would know much more if I had a photo of a caterpillar. Berating myself about my lack of observational skills calls to mind a passage in the Introduction to Walter Harding’s Henry David Thoreau: In the Woods and Fields of Concord, which illustrates Thoreau’s observational skills in an insightful and amusing way.

A Concord farmer named Murray was recorded as seeing Da-a-vid Henry, as he called Thoreau, standing by a mud pond as farmer Murray went out to his field in the morning. When Murray came home at noon, Thoreau was still standing by the mud pond. Returning to his field, Murray again observed Thoreau standing there, doin’ nothin’, as the farmer termed it, gazing down into the pond. When farmer Murray finally asked Thoreau, what air you a-doin’, Thoreau responded without turning his head. Mr. Murray, I’m a-studyin’–the habits–of the bullfrog. Farmer Murray then summed up Da-a-vid Henry as that darned fool for wasting his day a-studyin the habits of the bullfrog, and returned to his field.

Thoreau’s journals are punctuated by phrases like I sat awhile or I stopped to watch. When the reader thinks about it for a moment, Thoreau’s every encounter with nature and wildlife involves time spent in patient observation. And he didn’t have a camera, only paper for sketches or notes, and collected specimens that he often carried in his hat.

Patient observation must become a lesson I learn from Thoreau. It is not time wasted but an important aspect of gardening. And I have a camera.

Remember how space was supposed to be our final frontier. I think my little plot of suburban garden holds enough discoveries to keep me occupied for a long time if I take the time to look at them and figure them out. As does any square yard of natural habitat not cemented over and lost forever right under our unobservant noses.

By this time next year, I hope to have solved the mystery of who ate my wild senna plant. And if I do, I’ll write a post about it.

Wildflower corner on October 16, 2016.














Black swallowtail caterpillars on dill and fennel

Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes).


A black swallowtail caterpillar was discovered on a dill plant on September 13, as seen above.


A black swallowtail caterpillar was discovered on a fennel plant on September 14, as seen above. The dill and fennel plants were about 10 feet apart. Same caterpillar on different days. Or 2 caterpillars. I don’t know.


Larval food plants for black swallowtails include dill, fennel, parsley, and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota). The caterpillars above were quite noticeable, and I immediately started worrying that a bird would lunch on them. Reading online about their defenses assuaged my concerns somewhat. 1st, the caterpillars have a special gland called osmeterium that emits a foul odor. 2nd, the caterpillars ingest oils from the larval food plants whose foul chemical taste repels predators, such as birds. Well, that’s comforting to know. But, Jeffrey Glassberg, in Butterflies of North America, tells us that only 1 or 2 butterflies out of 100 will survive the complete life cycle to become adult, flying butterflies. They are mostly done in by parasites, diseases, and environmental factors such as drought or too much rain, but predators like birds and crab spiders also take their toll.

If I want my garden to be butterfly friendly, and adult, flying butterflies live only 2-4 weeks on average, I guess I’d better pay attention to the other life cycle stages: eggs, caterpillars, pupas, and finally, adult, flying butterflies. In addition to life cycle stages, there’s also the wrinkle in butterfly gardening that different butterflies complete their life cycles at different paces. Some butterflies take a year to complete 1 cycle. Some butterflies complete 2 or 3 cycles in 1 year. Each cycle is considered a brood. Important to learn the lingo of butterfly lovers. Of course, much depends on location. I’m located in central Jersey, so I’m focused on here. Black swallowtails may have as many as 3 broods per year here. By paying attention to fly dates, which are listed in Glassberg’s Butterflies through Binoculars: the East, last published in 1999, it’s possible to get some idea of what particular butterflies are accomplishing in my garden. Of course, many environmental and climatic factors have changed in the ensuing 17 years, but it’s nice to have a starting point and some expert explanations about butterflies.

So, Butterflies through Binoculars: the East shows flight periods for black swallowtails in this area as late April through mid-June for the first brood, with a peak period in late May; late June through mid-August for the second brood, with a major flight period in mid-July; and  most of September for the third brood, with fewer flying butterflies being observed during September. NABA North Jersey Butterfly Club website gives extreme flight dates for black swallowtails in north Jersey of 4/7–10/19.

So my caterpillar(s), observed on September 13 and 14, which are in their final stage, or instar, of caterpillar-hood, could have pupated, which takes 1 or 2 weeks, and emerged as adult, flying butterflies at the very end of the September flight period for the 3rd brood of black swallowtails. Or they might have pupated and entered a resting state, or diapause, to overwinter as pupas.


In this year’s vegetable garden, I’ve made a point of planting parsley, dill, and fennel. I don’t have Queen Anne’s lace, yet, but winter carrots are up and growing. Above is a magnificent dill plant drying up in the garden. How many eggs, caterpillars, or pupas are, or have been, on it. I don’t know. I haven’t found any.


I have dill to spare, but fennel is a more painful situation for me. I have come to enjoy bulbed fennel, which is what is growing in the vegetable garden, as seen above–which looks somewhat like dill, doesn’t it. I have a recipe using diced and sautéed fennel bulbs mixed with olive tapenade and creme fraiche topped with sliced tomatoes and parmesan cheese that is so delicious. I want to find more spectacular fennel recipes, but the caterpillars are getting in my way. Or are they pupas now. Or have they metamorphosed into adult, flying butterflies. Or were they lunch for a bird. I don’t know.

I think I saw 1 black swallowtail in the garden this summer. I didn’t get a photo. It was black and flying fast, which the NABA Club website says that they do. This one was traveling for sure. No time to waste. I neglected to record the date of this sighting. Drat.

In the fall of 2015–September 18, to be exact–I photographed a black swallowtail in a dried-up bit of dill, which is shown above. I can’t help but think this female black swallowtail may have been the progenitor of black swallowtails in my garden this summer. If this female was laying eggs, eggs taking 3-5 days to hatch, the caterpillars would have gone through their various stages, or instars, of molting and growing, for about 3 weeks, and finally entered their pupa stage to overwinter. That would be roughly the end of October, which seems possible since our frost date is usually the end of October.

There were fewer butterflies of any kind this summer in the garden, excepting cabbage whites, of course. This year was very dry with moderate to severe drought conditions here. The pear tree did not produce fruit this summer. Butterflies, bees, and all other insects, squirrels and other critters, including Daisy, my yellow lab, all adore rotting pears lying on the ground. I think the drought and perhaps the lack of rotten fruit may have contributed to the dearth of butterflies and bees in the garden.  I had hoped for an increasing number of all kinds of butterflies, but not so.

So, black swallowtails overwinter as pupas in this area. I take that on faith since I haven’t found any pupas, but I plan to leave all the dill, fennel, and parsley–even the winter carrots–intact in the vegetable garden, and hope that I am rewarded with more black swallowtails next summer.

Hope springs eternal.

Black swallowtail on September 14, 2015.




The yearly cycle of garlic

Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum ssp. ophioscorodon).


Here it is. October 12. The traditional Columbus Day. And here I am like a miser counting her gold. Only for me, it’s garlic cloves. I’m finding the biggest and best garlic cloves of the 2016 harvest to be planted today for the 2017 garlic crop. Columbus Day is garlic-planting day.


Garlic harvest was in July, when 72 heads of garlic were harvested and dried. It was a good year. Big beautiful heads of garlic like the one above.


On April 12, the garlic was already several inches high. Regular watering is most important at this point.


By June 21, the scapes, or blossoms, have been harvested. The plants are still green and requiring lots of water. When the leaves start to die back naturally in July, it’s time to stop watering. When the leaves are about a third dried up, it’s time to harvest.


Don’t wait too long for harvest because the heads will rather quickly grow more roots and start to deteriorate. I think I was a few days late with harvest this year, but the heads are still magnificent. If I do say so myself.


This year, the garlic was dried indoors on my new grow light cart, without the lights on, of course.


In previous years, in order to facilitate the drying process, I moved the garlic heads outside each day to the picnic table or other shady area, and brought them in each night in brown paper bags. But this year they stayed on the grow cart in an air-conditioned, low-humidity environment that pleased them well evidently. One would think that the garlic smell in the house would be overwhelming, but that really isn’t the case. When the heads are not disturbed, they don’t smell so much. Maybe I just get used to the smell, but no one has complained.


Here are the garlic heads on July 19, still pretty dirty–never wash garlic heads, and don’t rush the drying process–but certainly the leaves are much drier.


At this time, I pulled all the dry leaves off the stems. Most of the dirt on the heads also came off with the outer dried tissue on the heads. Starting to look good, don’t you think. This cleaning process drove my yellow lab, Daisy, totally crazy. Was it the smell, or maybe the squeaky sound of the dried leaves coming off. I don’t know. But the poor dog hid in the upstairs hallway until I had finished this process.

When I thought the stalks were dry enough, I cut them into manageable lengths and put the heads in a dark, cool corner of the basement in brown paper bags. We used some in cooking. They were used in salsa and marinara sauce for freezing. I gave some to friends and neighbors.

Now we’re back to today. October 12. Columbus Day. When the new garlic crop is planted. I prepared 2 beds–3 feet by 3 feet–by loosening the soil with a broad fork. The broad fork does a good job in the middle of the beds, but it’s still important to go around the edges with a smaller garden fork to get all the soil loose to as deep a level as possible. Above you can see how the garden fork can be buried in the loose soil–down maybe 8 inches or more. Think how hard the garlic plant has to push against the soil to produce those awesome heads. It’s really important for the soil to be friable, as they say.


Compost, rock phosphate, and lime were incorporated into the soil at this time. After raking this loose, amended soil as level as possible, I use a dibble, a 1 inch dowel with a 45° cut at the bottom, an Eliot Coleman invention described in The Winter Harvest Handbook, to create holes in the soil for the garlic cloves. These holes are invariably too deep. If the garlic clove slips down deeper than an inch, it will not develop well. So, make the holes with the dibble, and then fill them back in again before you push the garlic clove down to about 1 inch below the surface of the soil. Sprout end up, of course.

Finally, gently rake the soil over the holes, cover with salt hay or other mulch, and water thoroughly. I also sprinkled the garlic beds with some 2-4-1 fish fertilizer in water. Keep the beds well-watered through the fall. You may see some green appear before winter sets in, but hopefully, most of the growth and development will be below ground.

So, the 2017 garlic crop is planted on schedule. We have an abundance of garlic heads stored in the basement for use until the new crop is harvested next July. The yearly cycle of garlic continues. Life is good.

Looking back through my many garlic posts, it’s interesting to see the repetition in each year’s garlic cycle, but also interesting to note the evolution of my garlic strategies. So great to keep a blog. I recommend it to anyone with a hobby or special interest. Such a good way to focus your attention. Also a good way to keep notes. You know that diary you always wanted to keep but never did. Me too. Starting a blog is the way to do it.

Happy Columbus Day.