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Saturday, April 29, 2017

NATIVE SOLITARY BEES


We have bee action at the Insect Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky! The queen in the picture above is laying eggs in her nest. Unable to make a positive ID from peering at her down the dark hole with a flashlight, my assumption is that this is a carpenter bee, given the mandible shape and general all-over fuzziness.

The gardens at the Nature Center provide pollen and nectar and the bees, messy little pollinators that they are, give back by cross-pollinating flower gardens, vegetable gardens, trees and orchards, both at the nature center and in the surrounding community.

The Nature Center hotel was established by a Boy Scout troup a few years ago and has been successfully provided homes for insects and native bees. Weather and the elements have caused some settling of the materials and so a renovation is in order.

Insect Hotel - Louisville, Kentucky
Materials gathered for the upcoming renovation include: bark, pine needles, pine cones, and logs. I am currently cutting logs and drilling the preferred size holes for solitary bees to nest in. Add a few canes to the collection and I'll be ready to update the hotel habitat. My goal is to create as much bee habitat as possible.

Slabs of bark, pine cones, and pine needles - almost ready!
Blue Orchard Mason Bees and Alfalfa Leafcutter Bees, among many others, are fascinating to watch and can be easily assisted by providing simple habitat. They are gentle bees and rarely sting (unless squished, of course) and there is so much to learn, I have only just begun to scratch the surface. Did you know that you can harvest their cocoons, store them over winter, and then hatch them in the Spring? This is definitely on my "To Do" list! I feel a presentation coming on!

The queen shown at the top of this blog has her nest in one of these logs
Mason bees plug their nests with mud
As I explore their world to learn more, I will be writing about the different types of bees, their nesting habits, cocoon harvesting and suggestions for providing homes and other necessary supplies, such as flowers and mud. Keep your eyes peeled for native bees and you will begin to see their diversity. 

I welcome you to journey along with me as I learn and share information about these gentle, vital creatures. Feel free to ask any questions or leave comments, I would love to hear from you. 

Happy bee watching! 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

RENOVATION OF A SMALL CONCRETE POND

video

The beauty of a water feature in the yard or garden is in the eyes of the beholder.  The peace and tranquility they bring is unsurpassed but they do come at a price.  Aside from cost and labor of installation there is maintenance and upkeep that will last indefinitely and this becomes even more intensive if you add living organisms such as plants and fish.  Strong consideration should be given as to how much time and money you wish to dedicate to such a project but one thing is for certain, whether you spend a little or a lot, it will be worth every penny!

Case in point, I recently had the opportunity to renovate a small concrete pond that had been abandoned.  The lease had run out on the property and the tenant had moved, leaving no one to care for the pond.  There it sat with rainwater stagnated and the rocks smothered in a stinking muck of accumulated bio-material. Weeds grew all around as it fell into neglect.  A couple of years went by and, finally, a new owner took possession of the property.

Yard was overgrown and neglected
Stagnant from years of neglect - so sad!
Aside from the overall mess that neglect had created, the wiring and pumps that had been built into the concrete were burned out and of no use. Water circulation vents would need to be plugged. The concrete and all of the rocks - some giants in there - would need to be scrubbed completely with an algaecide agent (a huge laborious undertaking) to prevent regrowth of the muck that had called the pond home for so long. 

Discussion ensued as to whether or not the pond should be restored or simply used as an annuals planter or gathering space for potted plants and flowers.  Annuals can be a considerable yearly expense to a business owner and planting perennials would mean the pond's certain destruction as the bottom would have to be removed for root growth.

The pond was an elaborate fixture when it was installed and so, for the love of water, flowers and all things beautiful, the owner made the decision to restore it.  The posts on each side of the pond were to be used to support the business's signage.  The pond, I decided, would not compete with the sign. The water and plants would enhance it instead, creating a welcome ambiance. 


I roughed up three quick design ideas - all included two fountains, one on either side of the sign balancing the view for customers and local residents walking by from either direction on the sidewalk.  Tall plants would be installed on each side at the small curve to soften the posts that would hold the sign.
A naturalized plan using the existing rim and a few 
small pebbles with soft plantings to mute the edges of the pond
A slightly more formal plan utilizing black slate to hide the concrete rim,
the black slate would blend with the black posts and red and black sign
A plan that utilized the numerous exising round rocks
 as a screen for the rim with plantings mixed in
Plan number three was agreed upon and the cleanup ensued.  First the stagnant water, then the muck and then the rocks.  I had help with this messy part, thank Heaven! Two things that cannot be stressed enough is 1) electrical safety - if you don't know for sure that it is safe, then hire a professional to help you, don't guess, and 2) always call before you dig.  It is very easy to dial 811 and your gas and other lines will be marked.  Don't assume its 'just a hole' for a plant; some require holes twice the size of their pot and that can get you into trouble if you are not careful.  

A heavy duty pump is on my shopping list
Pumping the muck out - this is actually a wonderful biomaterial that was distributed to the back yard
The pond scrubbed and cleaned, I set upon the task of scrubbing each of the boulders and stones with an environmentally friendly cleaner and then set them in place around the pond. Not surprisingly, my quickie design was not to scale.  Some of these rocks were HUGE and I did not like the look. There was no room for the plants. It had the appearance of a quarry.  Given the small yard space it was just too overwhelming so I made the decision to place the majority of the rocks inside the pond and surround the rim with plantings that will grown in and soften the concrete.  

Scrubbed and ready for rock placement
Ugh! Too much rock and plants will eventually cover them
Much better - now for the plants!
The Plant List

I had many ideas of the different plants that I would love to install here but availability made for a quick reality check. If you have plenty of lead time you can do the research and then order the plants if they are not available, however, your local nurserymen have already done most of that work for you. So off I went and it took visits to three nurseries and the better part of a day before I found what was needed for this site:

Lavender - Phenomenal - (one of the owner's favorites and perfect for the base of the posts).  An evergreen of silver foliage, Amazing purple flower power and blooms summer to fall.  Disease and extreme weather resistant.  24-48" tall and 24" wide.  

Dwarf Japanese Garden Juniper - (an evergreen to soften the rim and add texture).  I love the color varieties this little evergreen provides (light green, then blue/green, purple in winter.  Plus, it looks best left un-pruned making it low maintenance.

Vinca - Summer - (an annual for some late season color - red, of course, to match the sign!)  These are considered annuals in colder zones but might survive a mild winter.  There is also a ground cover variety that would look lovely with the pond. But this late in the season I ended up buying the last few vinca the nursery had to offer!  14-24" tall with red blooms and dark glossy leaves.

Sedum - Gold Mound - (contrasting color and texture).  Low growers at about 4" tall. They can grow 2-4' wide.  They love the sun, tolerate drought, and require very little care.  Oddly, I couldn't find this plant description at my usual go-to online nurseries but rather overseas nurseries had them.

Plants are in with pine bark mulch,
I added two fountains for sight and sound enjoyment
The photo above not only shows the pond plantings but also the border in the background, the plants at the steps and the new plants at the facade on the right.

Lavender, sedum, juniper, and vinca Summer in the foreground,
all grouping nicely as they grown in

Walkway, Border Plants, and Facade Plants

Two other areas of the yard needed sprucing up, too.  For the steps up, I used Liriope grasses to greet visitors, mixed in with sedum.  The border was set with drift roses and ornamental kale for a soft cottage feeling.  At the facade of the house, which is more shaded, I planted nandina and azalea. 

Ornamental Kale - Brassica oleracea - (border plant for texture and color).  Seed companies have this plant in abundance but I recommend checking with your local nursery for started plants, if you are in a hurry.  A mounding annual that adds seasonal color and is water-wise.  Grows 12" x 12".

Drift roses - The Red Drift Rose - (groundcover rose for border).  Disease resistant shrub, blooms all season.  1.5' high x 2.5' wide.  I LOVE this little plant and will be using it in my yard at home this summer.  Beautiful cottage look that can be used in rock gardens.  Loves full sun.  

Liriope - Big Blue - (dark green grassy leaves).  The spikes of lavender blooms will pick up the color of the lavender plants at the pond. Grows slowly to about 12-24" tall by 12-24" wide.  Low water, cold hardy and no pruning required.  I used this plant to soften the concrete steps leading up the sidewalk. 

Nandina - dwarf, heavenly bamboo - (a soft mounding shrub to accent the facade).  To soften the facade rather than hide it like the old box-type shrubs that were planted there. This plant has coppery red leaves that turn to lime green in the spring, tiny white star-like flowers when it blooms, scarlet berries and purple-red leaves in the fall - what a show! 

Azalea - Gumpo white - (intermixed with the nandina at the facade).  These bushes provide a color contrast with their darker glossier leaves.  They produce large white blooms.  I would have preferred red blossoms but these were the only azalea bushes that were left.  There is something to be said for being able to plan a project ahead of time!  Azaleas are iffy in Zone 6 so we will see how they do.  

Nandina and azalea in their new home
Ornamental kale
Drift roses and kale - a lovely combo

THE POND BEFORE RENOVATION:



AFTER RENOVATION:





Welcome to Surroundings LLC, Anna Krejci, Owner and Interior Designer

Yes, this feature will need to be cleaned and treated, on a regular basis - for mosquitos, algea (it sits in full sunlight), and falling leaves.  The pumps will need to be cleaned and maintained occasionally, and plants that may fail will need to be replaced.  But, given the ambiance it provides, it is well worth it.  

I can't express how much joy (and joint pain) this project gave me.  While the boulder rolling was nothing short of exhausting, I did enjoy every moment and especially seeing the water fire up and hearing the lovely tinkling music of the fountains.  I'm humbled by the word I've received about comments from neighbors as they enjoy the feature on their daily walks.  From muck and mosquito bites to an enjoyable sight, sound, and scent experience, this was one of my favorite and most successful projects.  

Please feel free to comment or ask any questions, I am happy to hear from you!


Saturday, November 5, 2016

MONARCH BUTTERFLIES



As I write this, monarch butterflies are pouring into Mexico and southern California.  What a journey!  In four generations, they spread across North America with the last generation making the flight south where they collect in colonies in their winter roosting sites.  They were slowed by strong southerly winds produced by the storm systems coming in off of the east coast, but they are making it home now. 

Here's hoping the monarchs have a good winter.  Early this past Spring they suffered a deadly freeze and it is estimated that 1.5 million butterflies were killed, including half of one of the largest colonies.  As you know, monarchs were already struggling and the Spring freeze was a devastating blow.  Now they need our help more than ever.

LIFE CYCLE

At their roosts in early Spring, monarchs get busy mating and then take off north to look for the only host plant they prefer, milkweed.  The female typically lays only one egg.  The egg hatches into a larva or caterpillar.  These brightly colored eating machines munch away at the milkweed plant.  The caterpillar then becomes a pupa.  It pupates by creating a chrysalis or shell where it hangs from a leaf until it finally emerges as an adult monarch.  The process of metamorphosis takes approximately one month. Mine is a very brief description of a very complex process but much more information can be found at the University of Minnesota's monarch site.  


Feeding on nectar from a sedum blossom

THE PLANTS

It is as simple as planting a nectar plant, a milkweed plant, and a plant that attracts.  Purple coneflower, common milkweed, and Tithonia Torch (Mexican sunflower) would be perfect.  A few additional plants are listed below, broken down by category. You may already have some of these plants in your yards and flower beds.  A number of these are native species and easy to grow.

MILKWEED - host plants - This is the only place where an adult monarch will lay its eggs and the larvae that hatch feed on the plant.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

An interesting note about milkweed is that it contains a toxin called cardenolides.  The larvae are able to consume the toxin safely and it is thought that this toxin protects the caterpillar and adult monarch from predators – a toxicity also indicated by their bright colors!

Young common milkweed, tall with large leaves providing
 lots of foraging for the caterpillars - first choice of monarchs

Swamp milkweed in bloom, second favorite of monarchs

Butterfly weed, not a monarch favorite, but a compact host with lovely flowers

Milkweed pod burst

Where there is milkweed there are milkweed bugs 
and they are not a problem, no squishing necessary

Milkweed bugs feed exclusively on the seeds inside the pods

General Nectar Plants - attractors - these plants feed the adult monarchs:

Asters (perennial)
Viburnum
Phlox
Hyssop (Agastache ruposa or feniculum)
Butterfly bush – only sterile varieties of buddleia
Chaste Tree (Vitex)
Red Hot Poker (Knophofia)
Yarrow (Achillea)
Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)
Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea)
Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
Zinnia (Zinnia elegans) or any zinnia
Dahlia Mix
Lantanna
Pentas
Penstemon

Butterfly bush can get huge but they also take pruning very well
and pollinators love them

Coneflower, native, hardy and drought resistant

Young Mexican sunflower, a tall plant with large dahlia-like blooms
in vivid red or red orange – a key monarch attractor!

GARDENS

In July, I had the opportunity to attend a Jefferson County (KY) Master Gardeners Association Lessons Learned tour at a home that featured a monarch/pollinator garden.  One of the most important things that occurred to me while walking about and observing the overall design of the garden was that the host and nectar plants had been casually incorporated among other existing and favorite annuals, perennials and bushes throughout the yard.  What a relief! Being extremely picky, I had turned placement and spacing into rocket science. 

In designing a brand new pollinator garden I have been measuring, griding, and studying sunlight to give it the best chance for success, which is good thing but, if you have an existing garden, just go ahead and poke the plants in where they will work best.  Remember, these plants require sunny locations with at least six hours of direct sunlight and some of them are very tall.

Below are photos of the urban residential pollinator garden that I had the good fortune of touring.

The garden is host to a variety of pollinators, including monarchs 

A bee hotel providing hospitality for a variety
 of smaller bees and wasps, also important
for carrying out the pollination process

Coneflower varieties abound

Swamp milkweed in a raised bed along with nectar plants

More milkweed in a raised bed

Bumble bee on a sweet pea blossom

MonarchWatch.org suggests a couple of layouts – tallest plants in the back planting down to the smallest plants in the front, if it is viewed from one side.  Or, tallest plants in the center and the rest planted outward around them, if it is viewed from all directions.  Group them together or spread them around, no matter, the butterflies will find them. 

It really is not complicated and these plants can even be raised in a few pots on a patio, so long as you have sunlight. 

HOW YOU CAN HELP

If you would like to plant a pollinator garden, this site, monarchwatch.org, has everything you need to get started.  The cost for a kit is $16.00 and you can pick one for your zone.  They will send you a nice little packet with all of the host and nectar plant seeds as well as instructions for installing your garden.  You can even register your garden as an official Monarch Waystation!  They sell out but you can get on their list to receive an order later.  If you prefer to DIY, these plants and their seeds can be easily obtained at your local nursery. I will be posting another blog later as I finish designing my own and begin installation in the Spring.

Monarch garden seed kit

All bees and butterflies will love and visit your garden.  As the blossoms change so might your visitors, while others will become welcome regulars throughout the season.

I welcome your input and comments and if you have any questions about designing your own garden, please feel free to contact me.  I am happy to help!


Sunday, July 17, 2016

HAYMAKER'S PUNCH - REFRESHMENT FOR GARDENERS ON HOT SUMMER DAYS


Water just isn't enough for me when I'm working outside this time of year.  Here in the Ohio River Valley temperatures in the summertime are in the 90's and the high humidity levels create heat indexes over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit on many days.  So I guiltily gulp down energy drinks to replenish my rapid loss of fluids and electrolytes.

Enter Switchel or Haymaker's Punch.  I came across this recipe from The Old Farmer's Almanac and decided to give it a try.  I only had a 1/2 cup of molasses so I substituted a cup of pure raw local honey to go with it.

For the ginger, I grated a tablespoon and then crushed it on a saucer with a heavy spoon (a mortar and pestle would work well here).  I poured about a third to a half of the gallon of water into a pot and added everything so that I could stir it until it was well blended.  No need to cook!  Just mix and pour.  

Using a measuring cup I dipped and poured the mixture through a small strainer to catch the courser pieces of ginger and chunks of wax from the honey jar.  I recommend a funnel for this part of the process.  You don't have to strain the ginger because it will settle to the bottom and a little bit makes it through the strainer, anyway.  This is just my personal preference.

Into the fridge to chill but not without first making up an iced Mason jar with lemon and lime.  My first sip and - Oh My Goodness - it is delicious! Flavorful and refreshing and clean to taste.  And the best part - it is truly thirst quenching.  Now to put it to the test.


Shed to be demolished and replaced with covered potting shed and workbench
I tackled a dismal corner next to my house; weeding, raking and general clean up to prepare for the projects planned for this area.  Not a huge project but the sun was beating down on me and pulling weeds is never easy.  I toiled and sweated, sipping away at regular intervals.

Ready for new path and gravel on landscape fabric
Project complete, I have to say that I was able to maintain my energy level and I feel good! Drinking water alone drains me, making it difficult to finish projects and wipes me out in the end.  Drinking energy drinks helps me maintain my strength to finish but now, at least with Haymaker's Punch, I can feel better about what is going into my body.  How can it get any better than honey, ginger, and apple cider vinegar!


Everything tastes better in a Mason jar!
I hope that you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed sharing it with you.  Until next time, have fun in the sun!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

BEES AND BLOSSOMS

Peach tree blossoms
I paused from weeding for a moment to stretch my legs and admire the warm spring day for which the birds have been singing their praises.  While I felt the breeze and listened, I could hear a soft hum coming from the back yard.  Following the sound, I arrived at my Pop's old peach trees which are full of blossoms.

A variety of bees were mobbing the blossoms creating quite a hum of Spring music!  It was a treat watching so many pollinators busily gathering in one place.  There was such a variety and the smallest bees and wasps were so fast, I had difficulty getting pictures.

Hover fly also known as a flower fly
It would be hard to pick a favorite bee. Bumblebees, being so bright and fuzzy, come a close second to my first choice, the honeybee.  Their honey sweetens my chamomile tea and their wax has many uses but, most importantly, they pollinate our food ensuring that we humans survive.  They are one of the natural indicators of the health of our environment.


Honeybee
It was uplifting to see this gathering and I was a good kind of tired so I stopped my work for the day leaving blooming dead nettle, purple creeping Charlie blossoms, and yellow dandelions for them to forage on, along with the peach blossoms.  Not that I could ever get caught up on my weeding anyway, but it can at least wait until the bees are finished with the blooms.

The forecast promises thunderstorms which will remove the last of the peach blossoms and set Old Man Winter up to heave a last gasp of freezing temperatures.  The honeybees will cluster in their hives and I'll bundle up and get some chores done. You gotta love Zone 6!