Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring and New Beginnings

The Spring Equinox was earlier this week, and it's a New Moon today.

Not coincedentally at all, I'm getting married on Saturday! Yes, Daniel and I are finally making it official and tying the knot.

Nature seems to be smiling on us as well, even though the mountain laurels were early this year, so the flowers are already gone and we won't be able to use any for wedding decorations like we had hoped for. But we did have a big thunderstorm come through on the actual equinox, and then things cleared right up, and Saturday is going to be warm, sunny and beautiful, while all that rain has insured that we'll have plenty of flowers and greenery surrounding us at our outdoor wedding.

There's even a second rose growing on the rosebush in our new yard, just in time!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rhinoceros Beetle Grubs

Warning: This post contains graphic pictures of very large insects. Bug-phobic people should look away.

Look what Daniel found while pulling the dead English Ivy off the oak trees in the front! (The English ivy probably died in the drought, and good riddance too, since it's an invasive species and was smothering those trees.) These gigantic grubs are larval Rhinoceros Beetles. This is another one of those somewhat-tropical species that reach the northermost limit of their range here in Central Texas (and elsewhere in the southern U.S.). Texas has a few species from the rhinoceros beetle subfamily (Dynastinae, a subfamily of the scarab beetle family), and while ours aren't as impressive as some of the truly tropical ones, these beetles are still MUCH BIGGER than any other beetles we have around here.

Digging around in the thick accumulation of leaf litter under the trees just yielded more and more grubs. Daniel ended up pulling out eight of them, and we're sure there were even more in there.

He ended up relocating them to a different pile of leaves, so they wouldn't get stepped on and squished. Lucky for them Bear Grylls isn't around! He'd have a feast! I admit, while insects don't gross me out as much as some people, I'm still pretty grossed out by insect larvae. Something about how soft and squishy and squirmy they are. I think it's because they remind me of maggots, so even the larvae of other species (like even butterfly larvae) gross me out by association. So even though I know these guys are completely harmless (though I guess maggots are too), I let Daniel go ahead and dig them up and carry them around himself, and didn't help out.

Though, on whether or not rhino beetles are harmless, I'm actually finding conflicting reports. These guys are probably Ox Beetles, Strategus aloeus, because that's the only species of rhino beetle I've ever actually seen in person around here, though theoretically we could also get some Eastern Hercules Beetles (which I more commonly hear called "unicorn beetles"), Dynastes tityus, which are even more impressive. Daniel said he's seen a couple of unicorn beetles around, and found a dead one he has pinned in his bug collection (don't worry, he only collects already-dead bugs). Most people around here just call the Ox Beetles "rhinoceros beetles", even though technically they're just one certain species of rhino beetle, probably because they're the most common one.

According to Howard Garrett's Texas Bug Book (which is a good book, by the way), rhinoceros beetles are harmless detritivores that live in gardener's compost piles. He even has a picture of one on the cover! Texas A&M also says they're "Not generally considered a pest." However, Wikipedia says they're a pest and eat plant roots.

Well, I guess that just shows you that you can't believe everything Wikipedia says. I think I should trust Texas A&M. So far the only rhino beetle grubs I've ever seen have been in my compost pile, or in piles of rotting leaves like these. Even if they do eat a few live plant roots, which I seriously doubt, the adults are just so darn cool looking, that I wouldn't kill them anyway. So I hope these guys make it, and this summer I get to see some adult Ox Beetles marching around.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Soil Test for the New Garden(s)

Just got my soil test results for the new place. Looks like I'm going to need to do some work. I took a sample from the area in the back I want to plant a garden, and the area in the front where I might also plant a garden. Both areas are, in general, not as good as my former garden, and the front here is in worse shape than the back, which doesn't surprise me. It looks like the area in the back had been a garden before, and has probably been amended in the past. The area in the front, on the other hand, if it was used for anything by previous residents, it was for parking cars if the driveway was full. I got the same test that I got for the last garden, which tests the NPK, pH, micronutrients, and organic matter content. I noticed they have added some more tests I could do, like seeing the % of sand, silt, and clay, but I decided this test covered what I mostly care about.

My previous garden had a pH of 7.6, which is only slightly alkaline. It was low in nitrate, with 5 ppm, slightly low in sulfur, with 11 ppm, and organic matter was pretty high at 6.34%. And this was in a patch that I hadn't added anything to. All the other nutrients were above the critical level (CL) which means I had enough of them.

The patch in the back, which is now all rototilled up, is not as good as my previous garden, but not too bad.

pH = 8.1
Nitrate = 3 ppm
Organic Matter = 5.14%

So the pH is even higher, the nitrogen is lower, and the organic matter is lower (but still pretty high, because from what I looked up, anything above 5% is good). I wonder if adding a load of composted manure could help with all those things. All the other nutrients are above the CL, so they're fine.

The front yard is in the worst shape. The pH is even higher, the nitrate is hardly detectable, the organic matter is even lower, and it's also deficient in phosphorus. All the other nutrients are fine.

pH = 8.2
Nitrate = 1 ppm
Phosphorus = 34 ppm (CL = 50)
Organic Matter = 3.33%

I'm going to have to add a bunch of manure or compost or something, and I'll also have to find a source of phosphorus to add as well. When I looked up what to add for phosphorus, I got bone meal and rock phosphate. I'd rather use bone meal, since it's a meat by-product, instead of something that has to be mined, like rock phosphate. Don't know how much phosphorus manure or compost would provide.

Texas A&M also lists the NPK requirements for the more common vegetable crops, which is helpful because the soil test just gives a general critical level for vegetables. I was thinking of planting squash in the front yard for this first year, and letting the vines roam around freely in that big space. It says that squash needs 20 ppm of nitrate, 45 ppm of phosphorus, and 125 ppm of potassium, so I'll have to give them both nitrogen and potassium to make them happy.

I guess the good news is that phosphorus stays in soil much longer than nitrogen, so once I build up my level, I shouldn't have to add more again for a long time.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Bluebonnet Moon

This week was our average last frost date! That means it's spring! I've also got a few bluebonnets coming up in my front yard. Not that many, so this fall I might buy some bluebonnet seeds to help them increase.

I think mine have blown over from the large patch across the street. That's how I want mine to look! I'm glad I live in a neighborhood where many of the houses have bluebonnet patches, instead of all perfectly manicured Bermuda grass lawns.

We haven't mowed the backyard since moving here, and that's probably a good thing, because now we've got spiderwort coming up back there. That's a wildflower that looks a lot like some sort of thick-bladed grass, but don't mow it down! If you don't, you will be rewarded with these nice purple flowers.

Speaking of purple flowers, the mountain laurels are still going, but they don't last long. I'm afraid they might not last until my wedding in two weeks, because I was wanting to pick some to use for decoration. I hope we still have some left by then.

I got a nice shot of a Red Admiral drinking from a mountain laurel bloom. At first I was all excited thinking it was a butterfly I hadn't seen before, because it had it's wings closed, but then it opened its wings and I saw it was a Red Admiral. Don't get me wrong, they are very pretty butterflies, but they're also one of the more common butterflies around. There was also a black swallowtail fluttering around, but I didn't get a picture of it. Those guys are fast!

There are also a lot of robins around. Great big flocks come by digging through the fallen live oak leaves for worms and grubs and bugs. I don't remember seeing big flocks of robins like this at my old house. Twice now I've also seen a Hermit Thrush mixed in with them (American Robins are also in the thrush family), but when he sees me get my camera, he always takes off. Maybe he's shy because he's a hermit. I don't see Hermit Thushes very often, and I've never heard them sing. Maybe it's because they only spend the winter here and then breed further north. It's a shame because they've got one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard, second only to maybe the Veery, another thrush that doesn't live around here. I've heard recordings of them, and they give me goosebumps. Like other songbirds, they have a syrinx to make their sounds (unlike the larynx of us mammals), and that allows them to actually sing two notes at once, so they can harmonize with themselves. Their songs have a melancholy, almost eerie quality.

A couple of weeks ago we rented a rototiller from a local hardware store to till up the new garden. It was a lot harder than I thought! This beast here was a huge pain to control. Daniel thinks it's an older model that might not be built as well as newer ones. It was like a cross between a lawnmower and a wild animal. To use it, I'd have to hold onto the handles, and then dig in my heels and lean back as hard as I could as it tore at the ground and tried to leap up and take off across the yard, dragging me along with it! I was going to do this job all by myself, but that proved to be impossible. Daniel and I took turns, and when one of us was exhausted from wrestling with that beast, the other would take over for a while.
Here's the result of all our hard work, a 20' by 50' patch of well-tilled earth as the sun set. That, and some very sore muscles for a few days. Later I tried to till up the area in the front where I want to plant some stuff, but I only did a couple of passes before giving up, because my body just couldn't take it anymore.

If I ever rent a rototiller again, I think I'm going to try a different place, and see if they have one that's a little easier to use. This was supposed to be less work than digging everything up by hand, but I'm not sure if it was. It was faster, at least. It would have taken me several days to dig up that area by hand.

I also sent in a soil test to A&M's lab and am waiting for the results.