In the children’s song, Teddy Bear’s Picnic, a group of Teddy Bears has a party in the woods when their humans aren’t looking. (When I was 4, I found this song particularly terrifying. Maybe was the idea of toys sneaking off into the woods, or the minor key or the scratchy record it was playing on in my preschool classroom.)
Today, I was pleasantly surprised to find a party of fuzzy caterpillars (colloquially known as “Woolly Bears”) hanging out on the undersides of various plant leaves in the garden.
Brown woolly bear on sunflower leaf by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0
reddish brown woolly bear on nasturtium
Cream woolly bear on holy basil by PPJ (2018) CC-BY-SA 2.0
As cute and fuzzy-appearing as they are, I avoided petting them. The spines in the caterpillar fur can sting or cause allergic reactions in humans, which is a pretty useful self-defense mechanism.
I’ve posted photos on iNaturalist to see if I can get more specific id’s, but I suspect these are probably some variety of Tiger Moths (Family Arctiinae).
In other more terrifying caterpillar news, I also observed a hornworm (Sphinx Moth larva) on my tomato plant being parasitized by brachonid wasp cocoons.
The female wasp lays her eggs inside the hornworm caterpillar. (She also injects some venom and a symbiotic virus that inhibits the caterpillar’s immune response and prevents metamorphosis.) The baby wasp larvae feed inside the caterpillar’s body, then form cocoons on the outside of the caterpillar. It’s like the hornworm caterpillar is the babysitter, who has to house and feed the babies dinner (from its own hemolymph). Of course, when the adult wasps emerge from their cocoons, it usually kills the hornworm.
This is probably has helped my tomato plants, by slowing how much damage to hornworms can do by nibbling. We got a great crop delicious cherry tomatoes. On the other hand, I recognize a certain pathos in the doomed caterpillar.
On my way home from work in Ann Arbor, I stopped at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens to spend a few minutes of quiet contemplation to end a busy week. When I entered the Gateway Gardens (the first section visitors encounter from the parking lot), I was blown away by the pops of exuberant color in “ordinary” garden flowers like zinnias, marigolds, and nasturtiums.
Cup-plant closeup by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0
Cup-plant wall by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0
Wild color by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0
Nasturtium border by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0
Coneflowers and Black-eyed susans by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0
Color pop by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0
Zinnia explosion by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0
“Whoa!” I thought. “This is what I would do if I had a yard. Rip out all the manicured grass and replace it with a wild riot of summer color.” These plants are not hard to grow at all in Michigan, and have been frequent residents of my community garden plots alongside the edible plants. I just love how bright and cheerful they are, as well as how humans are not their only admirers.
Images of color-drenched gardens swarming with pollinators have been dancing in my head every since my visit.
Over the summer, I diligently more-or-less managed to water my garden and to document its growth on my camera phone. Even though I have worked with gardens and growing things for awhile, it is still really exciting to be able to see the changes over the course of the season. I also know that annual plants are supposed to produce seeds, wither and die at the end of their life cycle. But it’s still always a little sad to witness the green garden I nurtured turning brown and crumbly.
My contract with the community garden stipulated that I had to vacate my plot by October 15th. I finally got around to pulling out the dead plants two weeks later, and putting their considerable biomass into the dumpster at the park. In an act of minor rebellion, I left my sage (which was still abundant and green) and the still-blooming sweet alyssum (which had grown huge and floofy.)
Sweet alyssum (mid June)
Sweet alyssum (late October)
The days here in Michigan are turning colder and rainier, which gives me the opportunity to upload and organize all those summer garden photos. I was trying to use Flickr to arrange photos taken of the same of angle of the garden in chronological order, to show the planting, growth and decline of each section. I’m ambivalent about the results, but readers are welcome to check them out here.
I think it may be better to just showcase specific plants in their various life stages. Even the dried-out sunflowers make me pretty happy (I used to see goldfinches eating the seeds, but my camera skills are not strong enough to get a good picture of the birds).
Readers of my adventures with Beanstalk Children’s Garden in Kansas City, MO may remember my stint with the Portulaca Witness Protection Program. I was deeply invested in transplanting volunteer Portulaca grandiflora (moss rose) seedlings from the cracks between the garden path bricks into new homes at the base of our raised beds. The relocated plants turned out to be pretty successful at thriving at the new sites!
Here in Michigan, I’ve decided to put some of that portulaca cloning to work in my summer garden plot at the community garden. I started with a few portulaca seedlings that I purchased in flats at local nurseries. I planted these in the gaps between the bricks of my raised bed.
by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
After the initial stress of being transplanted, the portulaca plants recovered and began producing new sprays of fleshy leaves. I broke off some of the smaller tufts of new growth to produce cuttings for propagation. From the cutting itself, I also removed the leaves from the stem portion that would be covered by the rooting medium.
New growth on portulaca by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Small tuft of new growth with stem. I removed some of the leaves along the stem to plant it in a rooting medium. by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Portulaca cuttings to be rooted! by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
In an old aluminum foil baking pan, I mixed vermiculite and coir (coconut fiber) with water to create a rooting medium. (Kind of looks like brownies!) I tucked the cuttings into this substrate, kept it moist and out of direct sunlight until they developed some roots.
Vermiculite, Coir & Water to create rooting medium. by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Bury cuttings stems in moist rooting medium. by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Close up of cuttings by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
After about 2 weeks, the cuttings’ roots had grown large enough for me to attempt transplantation back into the garden.
Portulaca are hardy plants with succulent leaves/stems that do well in sandy/well-drained soil, as well as tight places like cracks between bricks. In my experience, it’s easier to transplant a small portulaca seedling (volunteer or cutting with developed roots) into a gap than smoosh a whole plant (i.e. from nursery flat) into a larger space.
If the portulaca seedlings take to their new homes, the growing plants will spread out across the bricks, creating a beautiful “carpet” effect, as well as providing nectar to insects. I never keep track of the flower color of the parent from which I take the cuttings, so it will be a surprise to see what colors combinations emerge.
I haven’t had much luck making a cutting and immediately sticking it directly into the soil. The cuttings always seem to dry out too quickly and wither, unless they have a set of well-developed roots. Even with roots, the transplants must be watered frequently for the first few days.
Putting in the baby portulaca seedlings only managed to feed my vision of portulaca carpeting the outside of the brick raised-bed. So I made some more cuttings from the original parent plants. Still didn’t keep track of colors.
End of Season Update: November 9, 2017
A large proportion of my baby portulaca cuttings failed to root. However, the ones that did managed to bring a lot of color to the bricks of the raised beds. Towards of the end of the summer, I discovered many of the portulaca plants ripped out of the cracks by the roots, with the green parts nibbled away. My guess is that deer visiting the garden decided that these were tasty, or at least worth some nibble attention.
My newest adventure this spring has been my adoption of a raised bed in the local community garden. While I have extensive garden experience, my labor has always been in the service of an organization’s particular vision and purpose (i.e. education, food pantry, CSA). This season is the first time I decided to plant a garden for myself.
It all started over the winter, when I saw a notice in the Parks & Rec brochure that community garden plots were available for rental by township residents. Some years ago, an Eagle Scout worked with the township to create a collection of raised beds located at the local park. These were designed for apartment dwellers (like me!) to plant their own vegetable gardens.
As I read the notice, daydreams of tomatoes and herbs danced in my winter scarf-ed and be-hatted head. “Yes,” I might have whispered to my vegetal fancies. “You shall be mine!” I made a note on the calendar to reserve a plot with Parks & Rec on March 1st, and slipped back into my winter routine.
Then in January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species. My social media feeds were inundated with articles and information about the dire plight of native bees and other pollinators. I was very worried. Without bees, there wouldn’t be any tomatoes. Without bees … I didn’t even want to think about it.
I decided that I was going to research and create a pollinator-friendly garden. Yes, the bumbles needed me! I was going to have the happiest darn visiting pollinators in Wayne County, Michigan.
“It’s okay to plant flowers, not just vegetables?” I asked the Parks & Rec staff member, when I paid my garden rental fee for my reserved spots.* “Sure!” she said. “Just as long as you don’t plant any noxious weeds!” (*The city allowed each family to rent up to 2 beds. I took them up on it.)
As the Michigan spring gradually warmed, I was eagerly anticipating May 15th: The first day residents could work their raised garden beds. I watched enviously on social media as friends in warmer climates shared pictures of newly weeded, tilled and planted gardens. I checked out library books on gardening and pollinators and native plants. I bought a kit of garden hand tools from the grocery store seasonal aisle. I still only had the vaguest notion of what I was doing.
Since the Parks Dept has already tilled the soil, I only had to pull out a few weeds to make my beds ready for planting.
Before: Dandelions take up residence in the fluffy, tilled soil. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
After dandelion removal. (They did prove to to tenaciously rooted, I suspect I will see some of their offspring later in the season.) PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Filling my bed with seedlings was an entire process unto itself. Since I live in an apartment and have limited space for starting seeds indoors, I decided that purchasing transplants was the best way to go. I was trying to source plants not treated with neonicotinoid pesticides (systemic pesticides that get taken up into the plants’ tissues) to protect my pollinators from getting stoned by sublethal doses. (This adventure will be the topic of another post, as it proved more complicated and challenging that I expected.)
Eventually, I did manage to buy mixed flats of transplants (veggies, herbs and flowering plants) to put into the beds. The garden plot also was the beneficiary of some friend-donated Yukon Gold and Purple seed potatoes.
First round of transplants in the ground. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Tomatoes have landed! PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Yukon gold and purple seed potatoes planted (under soil.) PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
After my training at the Beanstalk Children’s Garden, I knew that a good layer of mulch would help maintain soil moisture and keep down weeds. At the garden, we had used cotton burr compost, which was a great mulch/soil amendment, but was often unpleasantly stinky.
I wasn’t able to locate cotton burr compost locally, but another gardener suggested cocoa hull mulch, made from the discarded outsides of of cacao beans. Unlike the composted cotton burrs, it smells wonderful (sun-warmed mulch redolent of chocolate!) However, because it is made from chocolate by-products, may be toxic for doggos who like to eat mulch. (I hope dog-adjacent humans visiting the park don’t let their canine buddies wander into the garden for this and other reasons.)
The garden (like all gardens) is a continuous work-in-progress. I keep squeezing new and interesting plants that appeal to me, creating a melange of edible herbs & veggies, pollinator-attractors, yummy smells, textures, and brightly colored flowers.
Portulaca for the narrow places. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Physalis (ground cherry) blossom close-up. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a lot all of my free time working at the garden, watering the garden, admiring the garden, acquiring plants and supplies for the garden, and when I’m not doing those things, thinking about the garden. It increases my physical activity, improves my mood tremendously and fuels a strange sense of accomplishment.
I love checking in at the garden every day to see what changes are occurring, as well as the various visible visiting creatures. Once camp starts next week, my available brainpower for garden-related activities decreases, but I am looking forward to keeping the blog updated with garden developments.
Shakes head at news. Closes computer in disgust. Puts on many layers, then snowpants, snowboots and parka. Goes for a hike in the snow. It is 25 deg F in Ann Arbor, MI.
A short time later, hiking around trails at Matthaei Botanical Garden:
Me: “This feels much better!”
Hears strange chittering in the woods. Is it a bird? No. Is it a frozen tree trunk squeaking in the wind? No.
There! Three squirrels (maybe Fox Squirrels?) chasing each other around the branches of a very large tree. Attempts to focus with cell phone camera prove futile. Oh wait, there are now just two squirrels chasing each other. Now they’ve stopped. … Oh, that is what is happening. I’ve turned into a squirrel voyeur!
Continues galumphing through snow for another hour. Am happy and cold and sort of tired.
Spots alien-like skunk cabbage sprouting at edge of stream.
Enters Conservatory lobby. Removes parka & several layers, which are temporarily stowed on coat rack. Opens door to Conservatory, the smell of tropical plants and damp soil predominates.
Goes home. Opens computer. Starts to upload photos from walk and conservatory to social media. Starts to look at news again…
Edit 2.9.17: Edited for formatting (replacing asterisks with italics) and correction of typographical errors.