Monday, April 29, 2013

The Grackle Moon

Thursday was April's full moon, and I'd say that the warm-season crops are just about all planted. Finally time to relax a little bit after the frantic March and April planting season and watch things grow.

Here is the front garden. The only thing left to do is mulch that last bed, but I'm waiting until the pole beans get a bit bigger and start climbing the poles. Getting the front garden ready took up a lot of my time, so some of the planting was a little late this year.

I put sticks over the ground to keep the neighbor's chickens from digging up the sprouting beans. That seems to be working so far.

Most of the peppers that survived the winter are coming back nicely. I transplanted them to the front garden, but I'm afraid a few of them might not have survived the trip. Or maybe they're just taking their time.

The tomatillos already have lots of fruit on them. The husks grow first, and then the fruit grows into them (right now the fruits are about the size of marbles).  I got the seeds from an online trade, and they were supposed to be purple tomatillos, but they sure don't look like it to me.

In the back, the Tuscan kale is starting to bolt. I think I'll go ahead and let them and save seeds from them. I'm not going to plant anything in that spot anymore. It's too shady. Too close to an oak tree. The Elephant garlic is starting to make scapes, but it looks like the Romanian Red garlic is all dead now.

The potatoes are starting to turn a little yellow, and I can't tell if that means they're starting to finish up and get ready for harvest, or if they haven't been getting enough water.

The arugula seed pods are starting to dry and shatter. I've been going out there and clipping pods off to save seeds, but a lot of seed is ending up on the ground anyway. I guess I'll have lots of arugula volunteers.

I just planted some Calico lima beans around two bean tepees right next to this year's new pepper plants. I put these pepper plants in the back to isolate them from the peppers in the front for seed saving purposes.

I've started harvesting peas, but only enough to eat fresh right off the plant. The peas are turning out to be a disappointment this year. I think it's a combination of planting them late (after we moved here in March), a dry winter, and then the trellis I made for them keeps falling down and damaging the plants. I'll do better next time, when I will plant them in fall (like I usually do) so they can grow through the winter, and I'll be sure to build a much sturdier trellis for them.

The fava beans are starting to make pods. I'm not sure if I'll have enough to eat some, or if I should just let the seeds mature to increase my seed supply and plant more this fall.

The herb garden is doing great. The roses are finally starting to bloom, about a month later than they did last year. I trimmed back the esparanza and now it's coming back.

I planted watermelons, squash, cucumbers, cantelope, and okra seeds in pots to buy me a little more time to decide where I want to plant them, and to let some of my winter crops finish out before I plant them out. Also, some of the seeds were kind of old, so I wanted to make sure they were going to germinate. I also have basil plants in pots I need to plant out soon.

I've been getting lots of compliments from neighbors about my front yard vegetable garden. I'm really glad I did that. I think it might actually be a better spot than the one in the back (less shade, less rocky), and I'm feeling rebellious because a lot of neighborhoods don't allow front yard vegetable gardens at all. It's like I'm stickin' it to the Man!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Rescuing Baby Birds

It's that time of year again. Time when wildlife rehabilitation centers everywhere are flooded with "rescued" baby birds. Unfortunately many of those birds didn't need to be rescued at all. So what do you do if you find a baby bird on the ground?

The best thing for any baby animal is to try to reunite it with its parents. They can always take care of that baby much better than any human can.

A lot of times when people find a baby animal, they're actually completely fine. Their parents are out foraging and they're just waiting for them to come back. A lot of mammals like deer and rabbits do this. As long as the baby isn't in immediate danger, like near a road, or where cats or dogs can get it, it's best to leave them alone.

A baby bird found on the ground might need some help, though. The youngest baby birds are called "nestlings", and they definitely shouldn't be on the ground. These are birds that haven't gotten their adult feathers yet, so they may be covered only in down, or even naked. Once they start to get their adult feathers in they are called "fledglings", and start to take some practice flights out of the nest. They're still not good fliers at this point, and it's very common to find them on the ground after they've been practicing flying.

If you find a nestling on the ground, it has probably fallen out of its nest. If you can find and get to the nest, you can just put it back. Don't worry about the parents rejecting it because it has human smell on it. That's an old wive's tale. Birds don't have a good sense of smell anyway, but even mammals won't reject their babies like that.

If you can't get the baby back in the nest, you can try making it a new nest. Secure something like a small cardboard box or basket up in the tree, as high up as you can get it. Put the baby in there. The parents will be able to find it and take care of it from there, and at least it won't be on the ground.

Fledglings usually can be left alone, unless they're in immediate danger of being eaten by a cat or something. Then you can try the same thing: put it back in the tree, where it will be out of reach of predators.

Take the bird to a wildlife rehabilitation center as a last resort. Like I said, during spring, they are inundated with perfectly healthy fledglings that have been bird-napped by well-meaning humans thinking they needed help. (And even if the bird is not healthy, there's not a lot they can do besides give it food and water and a cage safe from predators and see if it recovers. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.)

Whatever you do, NEVER EVER try to raise the baby yourself. The wildlife rehabilitation center I used to volunteer at had a few birds there that were permanent residents because people tried that with them. They ended up imprinted on humans, and with bone deformities caused by being fed the wrong foods and getting nutrient deficiencies. Most baby birds that people try to raise themselves just die from improper care.

Yesterday was a very windy day, and that evening when my husband got home, he was holding a baby white-winged dove our cat had found in the yard. Doves build very flimsy nests that often get blown out of trees. The baby was just getting adult feathers in, but still fuzzy on its belly and head. It seemed strong and healthy, so we decided to get all the cats in, and put it under some bushes near where it was found.

This morning, it was still there running around on the ground where it was still vulnerable to cats. Time for Plan B, making it a new nest. My husband got out the ladder and strapped a plastic bucket lid to the highest branch he could get to. He filled it with leaves for padding, and put the baby in there. It seemed much more happy and relaxed when it saw it was back up in a tree. It perched on the edge of it's "nest" and went to sleep. I'm sure the poor little guy got hardly any sleep last night.

About an hour later I went to check on him, and there was an adult dove in the "nest" with him. Mom was back! The baby looked so happy to be reunited with Mom after his scary ordeal. Mom has been going back and forth ever since taking care of the baby.

Update: Well, I'm sorry to report that the little guy didn't make it after all. We had been watching the "nest" with the binoculars, and today (Sunday) we hadn't seen him peek out all day, even though the parents are still hanging around. My husband got out the ladder to check, and he had passed away. Baby birds have a very high mortality rate so I shouldn't be too surprised, but I'm still sad this one didn't beat the odds.

Looking back, maybe we should have built the "nest" immediately instead of leaving him out there in the bushes another night, so next time this happens (and there will be a next time), we'll do that. But other than that I think we did the right thing to give him a chance at survival.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Black Swallowtail Caught in the Act

A few days ago I caught a Black Swallowtail (Papilo polyxenes) in the act of laying eggs on my parsley in the herb garden.

I don't really mind too much, just like I don't mind the Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) on my lemon tree. As long as there aren't too many of them, I don't mind sharing. I have a lot of parsley growing.

I don't know if it shows up on the picture that well, but here are the eggs. Little yellow dots scattered here and there on the parsley.

People love butterflies, but I think they often forget about the caterpillars they start out as. When a person sees a caterpillar eating a garden plant, their first reaction is to kill it. Now, I don't like it when caterpillars completely decimate my garden any more than the next gardener, but I do try to hold off on the bug-killing unless they're really causing serious damage. I plant a lot of parsley and never come close to eating it all myself, so I don't mind sharing.

I'm reminded of an article I read a little while ago about how Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are having trouble finding enough milkweed, because milkweeds are usually killed by farmers and gardeners, being a weed and all. The article recommended to plant milkweed to give the caterpillars something to eat. I think milkweed is pretty cool looking, especially Antelope Horn, but I understand that it's the kind of plant most people would not consider pretty. It's certainly no Texas Bluebonnet or Indian Blanket.

People like butterflies, but butterflies come from caterpillars, and caterpillars need something to eat. That means you need to have their host plants (and they're usually very picky about host plants), and then you need to have the caterpillars eat the plants. If a gardener doesn't like the host plant, they're probably not going to have it in their garden to begin with, and if they do like the host plant, they probably won't like letting a caterpillar eat it.

But that's what you have to do if you want butterflies.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Bluebonnet Moon (and Easter)

Oops, I was so busy with Easter preparation that I forgot about the full moon last week! My family has gotten into the pattern of my parents-in-law hosting Christmas, my sister-in-law hosting Thanksgiving, and I host Easter, so I was busy last week getting that ready, in addition to it being Midterm time at work.

Of course, out in the garden, it's a busy time as well. March and April is when Texas switches from Not-Summer to Summer, and Not-Summer crops are being harvested while Summer crops are quickly being planted before it gets too hot.

Again this year there are a few bluebonnets growing in the front yard, and not as many as I'd prefer. I forgot to add more seeds last year, so maybe I can do that this year. Some of them are already getting pods on them, so we're being careful not to mow them down until the seeds are mature.

In the back garden, I'm still waiting for a lot of the cool-weather plants to finish up, though as I showed you in the last post, the beets and carrots are pretty much done. The fava beans are looking lush and have a lot of blooms. We got 0.1 in. of rain on Easter, and hopefully will be getting more this coming week.
The celery (on the right in the picture) is still small, and I think it's going to stay that way. I've been harvesting leaves and stems from it anyway, even though they're not much bigger than parsley. They still add celery flavor to dishes that call for finely chopped celery, even though they would not be suitable for anything that needs nice big crisp stalks. On the left you can see the shallots, which seem to be doing well.

The peas are about waist high now. They have about two months before it gets too hot for them. I hope I can get some peas by then. Nothing like homegrown green peas.

The arugula is covered with seed pods. I'm going to have plenty of arugula seeds to trade and give away.

The garlic and kale are still looking just so-so. I've been able to harvest a little bit of Tuscan kale, but I am really doubting I'll get a good garlic harvest. Next time I really need to plant them in a better spot than up under this tree.

The front garden is just about done! I ended up making four 20' x 4' beds, with 3' paths between. I've decided I like that better than the 5' wide beds and 2' wide paths I did in the back. That turned out be a bit crowded, especially when the plants were full grown. Eventually I'm going to redo the back garden and widen the paths.

The front garden has all my tomatoes, tomatillos, and eggplants in it already. Now I'm working on transplanting the peppers that survived the winter from the back to the front. Here are the Lemon Drops. All of them survived the winter. In the back I'm only going to plant the peppers I'm saving seeds from, to make them easier to isolate from the other peppers.

We've also been planting things in other areas of the yard. Over Easter weekend, my husband worked really hard on our hedge of fruit trees along the front by the street. Now we have (in order from lower left to upper right in the picture) Wonderful Pomegranate, Meyer Lemon, Satsuma Orange, Key Lime, Gold Nugget Loquat, and the fig (unknown variety) that my in-law's gave us. The citruses should start bearing fruit by this winter. I'm not sure how long the other trees will take, but I'm sure it will be worth the wait!

I've also been planting more herbs, including this catnip (left) and catmint (right) in the shady area of the herb garden. First we just put wire cages around them, but some cat figured out how to pull it up and wriggle underneath, managing to eat half the catnip plant. So now we have these rocks around the cages to make that harder. I don't mind giving the cats catnip, once the plants are big enough, but I learned my lesson about leaving catnip unprotected. The cats end up eating it up so quickly it can't grow back and eventually dies. The idea behind the cages is to protect the main part of the plant, while letting the cats eat the parts that eventually grow through the cage. The cats just need to be patient!