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.

A successful onion harvest

A successful onion harvest this year. Hurrah.


Last year, half of my storage onion crop rotted. I ran out of storage onions some time in January and bought at least 1 bag of onions from Trader Joe’s every week from then until spring, when scallions became available in the vegetable garden. Probably $3 to $4 a week. It’s not so much the money as my exasperation with myself that the rotting situation happened at all. When an onion rots, it doesn’t mess around. You think perhaps half of the onion might be salvaged for immediate use. But no. The whole thing is brown and slimy and fit only for the compost pile. Exasperating.

This year was different, for reasons I will explain. Above are photos, first of Patterson yellow storage onion straight from the garden with dirt still clinging to nice, firm onions. Never wash a storage onion. Below that are photos of Redwing red storage onions after they have been curing for a few weeks. As can be seen, the outer layers of tissue have been discarded, along with the garden dirt. Good compost material.

Last year, I pulled the onions when their leaves were dying back and left them to dry on straw in the vegetable garden. This is a procedure recommended in many garden books. It may work in an arid climate. Not so much in New Jersey. From this year’s observations, I would say that storage onions can be left in the garden for as long as you like, so long as their roots remain firmly in the garden soil. I pulled them over a period of weeks and did not observe deterioration at any point. As soon as the onions were pulled, I brought them indoors, dirt and all, and placed them loosely in trays in my new grow light cart. Without the grow lights, of course. They were either in air-conditioning, or on cooler, less humid days, near an open window with good air circulation. What a much more satisfying experience.


From time to time, I would rub off loose layers of tissue until they were clean. Daisy, my yellow lab, is usually oblivious to garden doings, but she strenuously objected to the sound of loose skins being rubbed off of onions and garlic. She would whimper and take herself upstairs as far from the cleaning activity as possible. There was a squeaky noise associated with the cleaning, particularly with the garlic. It must have been much more excruciating to dog ears than to human ears. Poor Daisy.

It’s important not to peel off skin or tissue that is not loose. I think of it as leaving a scab alone until it’s ready to fall off of its own accord. The whole drying process with storage onions takes several weeks. It’s an very sensory experience. Touch. Smell. The sight of beautiful, shiny onions finally ready for winter storage.

Storage onions are now in brown paper bags in the coolest, darkest corner of the basement. I check the bags frequently, hoping to catch any onion that’s softening before it  ruins other onions. So far, just 1 bad onion. I’ll hope for the best as winter progresses.

Some onions planted this season were not storage onions and were eaten through the spring and early summer as scallions in salads and as fresh onions in various recipes.

Storage onions were of 3 varieties, all from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. For several years, I have ordered onion plants from Johnny’s. This year, I also started onions from seed. Starting from seed is obviously less expensive. I’ll try to move in that direction as soon as I’m sure I can do it successfully. I really dislike buying onions from the store, so I’m determined to grow and store enough onions to last through the winter until spring scallions are ready to eat.


So, 3 varieties of onion plants. Patterson yellow onions on left above. Redwing red onions on right. Red marble cipollini onion center front. That strange onion to the right is an Egyptian walking onion. I don’t know what to make of Egyptian walking onions.

The smaller Patterson yellow onions and Redwing red onions above are the ones grown from seed. Seed was started in January. The plants were kept under grow lights until planting out in March. Germination was good, and I probably crowded them to fit the garden space allotted for them. So, given proper attention, I’m sure onions from seed can be as successful as the onion plants. That’s a decision to be made in January when I’m ordering for next year. I will say in defense of the small onions that they are so incredibly good in stews and soups when you put them in whole. The pleasure of biting into a little onion all soaked up in chicken stock or tomato sauce is something special. Sometimes small is good.


The 3 onion varieties are all commendable. I like the cipollini red onions, seen at center above, for salads. Their deep red and white rings are not only crunchy and delicious but visually appealing as well. Good garden lettuce, a little feta cheese, good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and cipollini red onions. That’s summer. Although cipollini onions are not listed in Johnny’s catalog as storage onions, I’ve had good luck with their lasting through the winter.

Above on the left are the Redwing red storage onions. As you can see, they also have distinctive red and white rings. Johnny’s catalog points out that Redwings are late to mature so may be better grown from transplants. Perhaps I should continue to buy Redwing onion plants while trying to grow Patterson yellow onions from seed. Hmm.

To the right above are the Patterson yellow onions. The large ones are from onion plants. The small ones from seed. They are delicious for everything sautéed, roasted, or simmered in a soup or stew. The best bought onion cannot compare.

At center bottom are the sliced Egyptian walking onions. I want to have an opinion about them, but I don’t. I apologize. I should not have included them in the photo.

So, progress made with onions this year. I’ve learned more about curing them for winter storage. I’m moving toward growing my own from seed rather than buying expensive onion plants. Mostly, they have become part of my enjoyment of the vegetable garden. Watching them grow in early spring. Tending them while they dry and cure. Cooking good stuff with them. Guess they are a blessing.

Version 3



What are monarch butterflies doing in my garden

Monarch (Danaus plexippus).


What are monarch butterflies doing in my garden. No, I don’t mean what right do they have to be in my garden. I mean, literally, what is it that they are doing.

We all know monarchs are migratory. Adult monarchs from this area spend winters in Mexico. It’s obvious from the photo above that this monarch likes zinnias for nectaring. I’ve never seen a monarch anywhere near a milkweed plant. So why is it important for me, in New Jersey, to provide them with milkweed, their larval food plant. I need a monarch education.

My first sighting of a monarch this summer was on September 13, captured in the photo above. Isn’t it wonderful how nature pairs up the most extraordinary colors, and they always look beautiful together. At least to me.

Gochfeld and Burger, in Butterflies of New Jersey, report the first arrival of monarchs in New Jersey in mid-May, with a first brood in late June, and 2 or 3 later broods throughout the summer. Southward migration starts in late August, peaks in September, but continues through October, with a few monarchs still moving through the state in early November. NABA North Jersey Butterfly Club website gives extreme dates for North Jersey monarchs as 4/15 to 11/29.

So, the monarchs in my garden this September are Mexico bound, it appears. So, again, why am I planting milkweed, their larval food plant. Maybe I missed some early monarchs. Maybe, these September monarchs hatched from eggs laid on the milkweeds in my garden; as caterpillars, maybe they went through their 5 instars, or stages between molts; formed pupa; and metamorphosed into adult butterflies right here, right under my unobservant nose.

The butterfly in the photos above, taken on September 20, is a male. The NABA Club website explains that males have small black scent patches along inner hindwing veins, 1 of which can be seen in the photos above. There were 2 monarchs in the garden on September 20, but I got photos of only this one. Look at his left wing. There’s something wrong with it. Still, he seemed to fly ok. But will he make it to Mexico. We’ll never know.


Butterflies in New Jersey lists zinnias as attractive to swallowtails. I agree. In my observations, also attractive to great spangled fritillaries and to monarchs, plus multitudes of bees, wasps, and other insects. But Butterflies in New Jersey makes an important distinction in zinnias. The “double” varieties that have been bred for their showy looks have little or no nectar. So, look for the old-fashioned zinnia varieties that have the small, yellow central heads where nectar is produced. Good thing to know.


According to the Monarch Watch website, butterfly sensory systems are very different from ours. They see ultraviolet light and hear ultrasound, for example. They have chemoreceptors, like tastebuds in humans, scattered across their bodies. Their antennae are densely covered with chemoreceptors, which they use for many things. For mating, to discover their host plants, and to sense nectar sources. When butterflies sense nectar through chemoreceptors on legs and antennae, they extend their proboscis to feed on the honey-smelling, sugar-tasting nectar. No wonder this monarch looks somewhat obsessive while nectaring. That’s good stuff.


Also according to the Monarch Watch website, monarch butterflies deter predation by vertebrates, such as birds, by sequestering poisonous cardenolides, or cardiac glycosides, from the milkweed they eat as caterpillars. A predator may bite the monarch, taste the poison, and release the butterfly without killing it. Perhaps that’s what happened to this monarch. As an additional deterrent, the bright coloration of monarchs is a warning to predators that poisonous chemicals are present. Wow. And we like to think those beautiful colors are there for our enjoyment.

So milkweeds contain poisonous chemicals. I know that as a child I developed some sort of allergy to common milkweed found growing in pastures. But my cousins seemed immune to whatever caused my skin rash, or whatever it was. My memory is sketchy, and I am no longer able to ask those people who might be able to enlighten my memory. One of the drawbacks of growing old.

I planted 3 types of milkweed in the gardens. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).


Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).


Red milkweed, or swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).


Important to remember that milkweed is a weed. I accidentally hit the stalk of a milkweed that was past flowering with a weed whacker, and the explosion of seed pods was startling and impressive, to say the least. Butterflies in New Jersey reports that milkweed seeds have a poor germination rate. When I saw all those cottony seedpods floating in the wind, I was somewhat comforted by the idea that perhaps they would not all germinate. Weeds. But monarchs need them. And they are attractive. Weeds or wildflowers. It’s always a tradeoff in a small garden area.


This is a photo of what remains of the milkweed after the weed whacker incident. The backdrop is a jungle of Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes. So much remarkable wildness in a suburban garden.

But I still haven’t answered the question of why I’m providing milkweed to monarchs in New Jersey. So far, I’ve watched a couple of monarchs nectaring at zinnias in September, preparing for their southward migration. Again using Monarch Watch website as my source of information, I learn that adult summer generation monarchs live from 2 to 5 weeks, as compared to the fall migratory monarchs, who live 8 to 9 months. Wow.

Summer generation monarchs go from egg to adult in 30 days. Female monarchs lay 100-300 individual eggs on the underside of the top leaves of milkweed plants. The eggs hatch after 4 days. The larva, or caterpillars, go through 5 instars, or intervals between molts. Molting being the shedding of skin as the caterpillars grow in size. The caterpillar stages last 10-14 days. After which the pupa or chrysalis is formed for a duration of 10-14 days. The adult monarch emerges and the metamorphosis is complete. So, my milkweed is important for summer generation monarchs. In New Jersey, this would be from mid-May through late August.

I must suspend my disbelief and nurture the milkweed in the hope of finding it useful to monarchs. Perhaps the summer generation monarchs have not discovered my garden. Perhaps they were here during the summer but I didn’t happen to see them. My monarch plan, which is really a butterfly plan, is to provide the best larval food plants and nectaring plants for New Jersey butterflies, to continue to learn about them, and to be more observant. At least now I have a better idea of what monarchs are doing in my garden.










Some problems with peppers

Peppers (Capsicum annuum).


The good news about peppers is that over the last several seasons I have made progress in identifying sweet and hot pepper varieties that are best for my taste and needs. The bad news is that I haven’t figured out the best methods for growing them. Maybe next year.

The problem is with space in the enclosed vegetable garden and has to do mainly with crop rotation. Tomatoes and peppers count the same in terms of crop rotation. My solution is to leave the tomatoes inside the vegetable garden fence in a 3-year crop rotation, and plant the pepper plants outside the vegetable garden in grow bags. The need to plant in grow bags is 2-fold. First, I’m not happy with the soil in the gardens when it comes to vegetables. I’m told it was the city dump before the house was built in the 1940’s. We dig up old bottles, old rusted metal objects, and crumbled cement from old foundations. At least the trash is from a pre-plastics era, but it’s not pretty. Second, pepper plants, particularly when small, need protection from Daisy, my yellow lab, and her dog friends. So, grow bags seem like a practical solution to planting peppers outside the fenced-in vegetable garden.


Unfortunately, peppers in grow bags did not produce well this year. Here you can see some Havasu Santa Fe peppers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds prospering in their grow bags. They look good. We have enjoyed Havasu peppers in salads and salsa. Their warm heat and lovely pale yellow color make them an essential pepper in my garden every year so far as I’m concerned. The problem is that 2 plants in 2 grow bags have not produced enough peppers for dehydrating and freezing for winter use.

The same sad story can be told of the bell peppers, the frying peppers, the jalapeños, and the ancho/poblanos. On the other hand, the habaneros, the cheyenne chiles, and the pepperoncini peppers have produced enough for my needs, but that’s mostly because I don’t seem to need so many to last the winter.

I don’t want to give up the crop rotation for the tomatoes. In a small space, it’s important to keep vegetable crops healthy from year to year. So, I’m stubborn enough to decide that I have to make the grow bags work for the peppers. Otherwise, I have to enlarge the vegetable garden, which is a huge undertaking that I’d just as soon not do.

My solution to the pepper problem is fairly simple. If I’m going to ask pepper plants to produce over an extended period of time in a limited amount of soil, I have to amend the soil aggressively. Not only to start with the best soil for peppers, but to fertilize on a regular schedule, and to water, water, water.

As with tomatoes, peppers require abundant phosphorus and calcium to produce well. Possibly I didn’t pay enough attention to really good soil in the grow bags this year. A mixture of good top soil and compost, with the addition of rock phosphate and lime may give them the start they need. Followed by a regular schedule of fertilizing with a fish/seaweed emulsion fertilizer watered into the soil. This is my plan for both tomatoes and peppers next year. I’m thinking I will fertilize on the 1st and 15th of each month that peppers and tomatoes are in production.

I have acquired 3 sizes of grow bags over the years. Gardener’s Supply has them, but they keep getting fancier and more expensive each year. I think the grow-bag market is moving toward rooftop or patio or deck gardeners. Handles and built-in plant supports have been added. More colors to choose from. There are other online sources, but the quality varies. Glad I bought some good ones while they were still reasonably priced. My oldest ones must be 10 years old, and they have not deteriorated. The largest ones hold 5 gallons of soil. That’s a huge amount of quality soil, but this is not the right time and place to be economical and cut corners. I also have 3-gallon and 2-gallon grow bags. Easier and cheaper to fill with good soil, but perhaps they are too small to support good production.

Here’s a rundown of the varieties I’m becoming attached to and their performance in grow bags this year.

Intruder sweet bell peppers from Johnny’s, seen above and at the top of this post, are far and away my favorite sweet bell. I love their dark green color and thick walls. Flavor is everything a sweet bell should be. They maintain their good color and texture in salads, chunky salsa, or onion-pepper sautés. They were grown in the smaller grow bags this year, but I think they need the big 5-gallon grow bags. I’m planning on 4 or 5 Intruder plants next year, in 5-gallon grow bags, with abundant fertilizer and water.


Carmen sweet Italian frying peppers from Johnny’s are my frying pepper choice for next year. I never have enough frying peppers. This year they are so scarce in my garden and so in demand in my kitchen they have not had a chance to turn red and achieve their full flavor potential. These particular Carmen frying peppers are on the kitchen counter right now, waiting to be made into hot sausage with peppers and onions for dinner tonight. Can’t wait. Next year, the same as with the Intruder sweet bells, more Carmen plants in 5-gallon bags with abundant fertilizer and water.


Moving into the hot pepper category, Havasu Santa Fe peppers from Johnny’s have been a favorite of mine for several years. It started with the name, Havasu, which reminds me of good times hiking in the Grand Canyon, but I soon learned to love them for their pale yellow color and warm taste. Last year, I grew so many that I still have dehydrated Havasu peppers in the freezer. Yes, I freeze dehydrated stuff. Sounds redundant, I know. It’s a matter of pantry space and an over-abundance of caution. Works for me.

The Havasu pepper plants were grown in medium-sized 3-gallon grow bags this year. The fruit is smaller than it was last year. Unless I buy more pricey 5-gallon grow bags, Havasus need to be in the 3-gallon bags again next year. I’m hoping better soil and more frequent fertilizing/watering will increase size and production. So, next year, 4 or 5 Havasu plants in 3-gallon grow bags with rich soil and frequent fertilizer/water. With hopes that my grow-bag economy is well-considered.

Tiburon ancho/poblano peppers from Johnny’s have intrigued me for several years, but my plants never produce well. Johnny’s catalog promises abundant fruit. Not so with mine. I don’t know about anchos, since they are the dried version, but the few green poblanos my Tiburon plants have produced are intriguingly beautiful. Shiny dark color with thin but strong walls. I really want to have a successful season with these. My plan for Tiburon peppers is the same as for Havasus above. 3-gallon grow bags. Rich soil. Abundant fertilizer and water.

Finally, we are down to the hot peppers I figure can grow and produce nicely in the small 2-gallon grow bags, with rich soil and appropriate fertilizing/watering, of course.


El Jefe jalapeños from Johnny’s. Last year I had almost too many of these, if such a thing is possible. This year there are not enough for freezing. Medium heat. Very thick walls. Good both green and red. Next year, plan for 3 or 4 El Jefe plants.

I should say a word here about cross pollination. In past years, I have had sweet peppers that were hot, and jalapeños that were startlingly sweet and mild. That’s not right. This year I planted the sweet bell and frying peppers in grow bags in a flower bed at the front of the gardens. The hot peppers were planted together in grow bags in a back wildflower area. Both areas get adequate sun. For this reason or for whatever reason, all the peppers seemed to be true to themselves this year. The jalapeños were medium hot and delicious as they should be.

Version 2

Pepperoncini peppers from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. Lidia talks about pepperoncini flakes. I wasn’t sure what they were. I saw pepperoncinis pickled in a jar in Trader Joe’s. Didn’t buy any, but at least I could see their shape and coloring. I grew 1 pepperoncini plant this year in a 2-gallon grow bag. It grew nicely and produced quite well. Next year I need 2 or 3 plants in 2-gallow grow bags. They are mild. A good addition to salads. In this photo, 3 red and 1 green pepperoncinis can be seen at center bottom. 3 red jalapeños are to their left. Sweet bells and Havasus are above. Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog says if pepperoncinis are picked green, they will lose their crunch. Oops.

Cheyenne cayenne chiles from Johnny’s are a favorite of mine. 1 plant in a 2-gallon grow bag produced what I needed. The plant did give up production after a few weeks, perhaps from lack of nutrients and/or water. 2 beautiful red cayennes can be seen at left in the photo, along with Intruder sweet bells, pale yellow Havasus, and 3 smallish green jalapeños.

Perhaps I should find more uses for cayenne chiles. I dream of drying them for flakes, and will try again this year. Otherwise, they are a good flavor and color addition to salsa. Maybe 2 plants next year with lots of TLC.

Finally, where would we be without habaneros for chili. Helios habaneros from Johnny’s. Very hot. Remember to wear gloves when handling them. If your fingers feel hot after touching habaneros, for heaven sake don’t rub your eyes. It’s painful. One little habanero plant in a 2-gallon grow bag is all I need. Mostly for chili through the winter. Once you’ve used habaneros to make a nice spicy hot winter chili, you’ll never go back. I seed the habernos, cut them into small pieces, and pack them in olive oil in small jars. And freeze them. Remember to leave the lids loose on the jars. I love just looking at beautiful orange habaneros.

Some final thoughts on pepper plans for next year. I hope I have enough of the right-sized grow bags. Will need to take a grow-bag inventory as they are put away this fall. 4 of the 5-gallon bags were used for pumpkins and winter squash this year. I may need them for peppers next year. Then what. I hate to think of buying more bags. So this is a puzzle to be worked out when there’s time for garden dreaming in January.

Watering grow bags can be tedious. Irrigation hoses don’t work. Too much water is lost between the bags. I use a soaker nozzle on a hose and move it from bag to bag. The grow bags are porous, so it’s easy to see when the soil is saturated, but frequent watering is essential. Dealing with this takes a certain mind set. It’s not tedious, l tell myself. It’s an opportunity to weed or harvest in the general vicinity of the pepper plants. Or better yet, it’s an opportunity to read or perhaps take photos. Just remember to provide a safe place for the book or camera when you move the hose from grow bag to grow bag. Perhaps working supplemental fertilizing into the watering routine would be a timesaver. Hmm. Got to think about that possibility.

As I’m writing this post, it occurs to me that I have hardly begun to explore the possibilities of cooking with peppers. Those Intruder sweet bells are just begging to be stuffed with something delicious. Johnny’s catalog says Tiburon ancho/poblanos are traditionally used for chile rellenos. I should explore that. And on and on. First, I must grow many, many more peppers next year. In grow bags. With rich soil. And abundant fertilizer/water throughout the growing season. It’s a good thing to write posts like this that keep me focused on garden possibilities.





Fortex pole beans are thriving

Pole beans (Phaseolus vulgaris).


Last year, the Fortex pole beans from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which have been a favorite of mine for several years, developed a rust on the leaves that pretty much ended the bean season for me. As can be seen in the photo above, taken September 9, this year’s bean plants are healthy and producing. Of course, this summer has been much drier, and I have used irrigation hoses, not getting water on the leaves. But I also think the bean plants are healthier this year because I planted fewer of them.


Johnny’s recommends planting 7 seeds at the base of each pole. I use a teepee with 6 poles coming together at the top. Last year, I think the beans leaves and vines were too thick, which may have contributed to the rust problem. This year, I planted 2 seeds per pole and thinned to 1 bean plant per pole. This offered more air flow through the leaves. To make up for fewer plants, 2 beds–3’x3′–were planted to beans, and bean production has exceeded last year’s. I know I’m eating beans every day. Good thing I like them.


Since I made the decision that green beans should be eaten in season, I’ve stopped trying to dry them or freeze them for winter use. Instead of that traditional bean casserole at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I plan on winter squash or sweet potatoes. This summer, I’ve been careful in cooking the beans to leave them still a little crunchy. I mix in a little olive oil rather than butter, add a little salt and a lot of pepper, and eat away, knowing I’m having a super healthy, low-calorie treat. Summer is good. Looks like the beans will still be producing into the fall as well.

So, next year, remember to plant fewer beans per pole. What about trying a new variety of beans. Well, just like Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes are perfect, so Fortex pole beans are perfect. And I never mess with perfection.