Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Milkweed for Monarchs

I love the wildflowers that grow on the areas of the farm we do not mow.  Here is a picture of what one of the areas looks like this spring.  When the sun is shining, there are lots of yellow flowers that are open.  This picture was taken on a cloudy day, so they are not open. 

Notice the flowering plant in the lower right corner of the picture.  Here's a closeup of one of the flowers.

This plant is a variety of milkweed named Antelope Horns.  Milkweed is essential to the life of Monarch butterflies.  The butterfly and the plant evolved together over the centuries. Caterpillars eat only milkweed leaves. Adult monarch butterflies eat nectar from flowers, which consists of about 20% sugar.  The chemicals in milkweed protect the monarch. The chemicals the caterpillar ingests remain in its body, even after metamorphosis, making the adult butterfly toxic and bitter-tasting to many predators. 

Monarchs migrate to warmer climes for the winter from their winter homes in South America and Mexico, a round-trip of about 6,000 miles. It takes them up to two months to travel each leg of the journey. Each butterfly only makes the trip once, and then its great-grandchildren make the trip the following year.

However, Monarch populations are declining at an alarming rate. The North American monarch population has declined by 90 percent over the past two decades.  The decline has been linked to a deadly combination of factors that includes illegal logging in Mexico, wildfires, droughts, and loss of their crucial milkweed habitat in the United States.

Milkweed is in drastic decline due to the human battle against weeds led by the increased use of glyphosate-based herbicides.  These are used on genetically modified crops and have been a leading cause of milkweed loss.  In fact, this study points to a 58 percent decline of milkweed in the Midwest and an 81 percent decline in monarchs in the Midwest from 1999 to 2010.  These declines coincide with increased use of these herbicides. 

While you and I cannot do anything about illegal logging in Mexico or droughts, we can do something to help increase milkweed populations where ever we live.  One thing is to plant milkweed in our yards and flowerbeds.  There are varieties that are very pretty, such as these shown on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website.  We can also encourage Monarch survival by stopping the use of herbicides and pesticides on our lawns and gardens.

More information can be found about the plight of Monarch butterflies in the following National Geographic article:   National Geographic News

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Lady Beetle Bugs

Last Saturday at our farmers' market we had a bunch of beautiful lettuce heads for sale in our booth.  As the morning progressed, I began to notice little critters, like this, on the heads of lettuce.  Looks kind of scary at first glance, but you don't want to squash this bug because it is Lady Bug larvae (or Lady Beetle which is the official common name recognized by the Entomological  Association of America).  At this stage of development, the larvae are also called "aphid lions" because they are voracious and can consume their own weight in aphids.  Adult Lady Bugs may consume up to 50 a day.

Here is another one of the larvae. After a while, I began to pick them off to take back home to the garden.  I collected some of the lettuce leaves that had fallen off and put them in a plastic pan.  Then, I put the larvae in the pan.  I think we made it home with most of them.  They can't fly at this stage, but they are quite mobile and can crawl pretty quickly.

We work hard to attract beneficial insects to our farm and keep them here.  We have large areas of the farm that we do not mow until after frost in the fall.  These contain lots of wildflowers, such as yarrow, which attract beneficial insects.  

After 20-30 days, the larvae pupate, then emerge as adults in another 3-12 days, depending on temperatures and species. Adults may live only a few months to more than one year. Here's one of the adult Lady Bugs that was on the lettuce.

Isn't she (or he) a beauty?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Nitrogen Fixing Plants

Every fall, Tom plants cover crops on our fields.  I wrote about the cover crops we planted back in 2011.

Normally, the cover crops include some sort of legume.  Legumes are plants that bear their seeds in pods. They are different from non-legume crops, such as tomatoes, squash, etc.  because much of the nitrogen they require is produced through fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by bacteria in nodules on their roots.  Common legumes you are probably familiar with are crops such as beans, lentils and peas.

Last fall, I decided to plant Austrian Winter Peas in one of my raised beds.  I didn't get them planted until late in the fall and I was surprised they even sprouted before cold weather arrived.  They were small most of the winter, but as the weather warmed this spring they grew to be about a foot tall.  A couple of weeks ago, Tom tilled them under so they could decompose and enrich the soil before we planted tomatoes in that bed.

I rescued this one.  It's sort of sad looking because I didn't get to it for several days after he tilled.

If you look closely, you will see little nodules on the roots that contain the nitrogen-fixing bacteria referred to above.   These, along with the plant itself, are what add nitrogen to the soil when the plant is turned under.

Using nitrogen-fixing cover crops, along with compost, is one of the ways we enrich our soil without using chemical fertilizers.  

Monday, April 27, 2015

Incarcerated Chicken

One of our young Rhode Island Red hens has decided she wants to be a mother.  It took several days for me to realize that this one particular chicken (I think Tom named her Big Bertha) was sitting on one of the nests every time I went into the coop.  In the evenings, Tom was having to get her out of the nest and put her on the roost bar.  Finally, last week I lifted her out of the nest box and put her outside with the rest of the chickens.  She walked around, upset and cackling, for a few minutes, ate a little bit of food, drank some water and got right back in the nest box.

At this point, something clicked in my brain and I realized my gal was "broody" and wanted to hatch a clutch of eggs.  Even though we collect the eggs every day and most of the time she was sitting on an empty nest, she was determined to sit there, hoping some chicks would appear.  She had no way of knowing that her attempt to become a mother was all for naught as we don't have a rooster to help in this regard.  Here she is sitting on the nest.

I've done some reading and talked to a couple of other folks about broody chickens.  Apparently, one way to break this cycle is to separate her from the other hens and keep her in a pen or cage away from the nest boxes until she "forgets" about hatching eggs.  So, here's what we've done.

The pen is a simple, portable affair that Tom built several years ago for something or other.  It may have even housed a compost pile at one point.  At any rate, it is just 4 panels, each made of board frames covered with chicken wire.  Each of the 4 panels is connected to one of the others with hinges at the top and bottom, like this.

This creates 2 sections that can be folded up for easy storage and transport.  The open side of each section has a hook and eye, so it can be secured to the other section.

I have been putting Big Bertha in this pen during the day.  I'm not sure this is going to work because she still joins the other chickens at night in the coop and that is where the nest boxes are.  So, she usually gets in a nest box before Tom gets over there each morning to open the coop and let them out for the day, thus reinforcing her desire to hatch eggs.   He gets up early, but not always as early as the chickens!

We'll see if this works.  I have covered the pen with shade cloth to keep her cool and have put a water bowl and food bowl in the pen.  The first day I put her in the pen, the other hens were very curious about this new turn of events.

She was not at all happy about being in the pen, much less having the other girls peering in at her.  She puffed up her feathers and spread her wings out in a menacing manner.

Although she was not wet, this gives new meaning to the phrase "mad as a wet hen"!  

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Nighttime in the Garden

A few weeks ago, I moved the wildlife camera to the raised bed garden to see what's happening out there.

I found that deer come through the garden.

  In fact, here is what appears to be a whole parade of them.

The neighbor's Great Pyrenees dog comes over to visit. This is a good picture of him in the fog one morning.

We don't mind.  It would be nice, though, if he would keep those deer out of the garden this year. 

Then, we have rabbits.

One night when we had snow in the ground, you could see tracks that seemed to appear out of nowhere, having been made by invisible bunnies!

And, there is the occasional coyote who comes through. 

Those rabbits better watch out with him on the prowl! 

During the day, there are other happenings.  We've started letting the chickens out to free-range a bit.

This one seems to be doing some sort of dance.

And, finally, there was this old couple who rode through on a Gator one day.  I have no idea who they could be!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Strawberry Cream Cheese

My husband is not an adventurous eater.  When he finds something he likes, he sticks with it and rarely deviates.  Take bagels for instance.  He likes sesame seed bagels with strawberry cream cheese.  I buy the bagels at Panera Bread and, until recently, I bought the cream cheese at the grocery store.

Now, I've been a label reader for years.  I normally check the ingredients on everything before I buy it.  I never worried about the strawberry cream cheese because all it should contain is cream cheese and strawberries, right?   Nope.  Silly me to trust a multinational food mega-conglomerate to have my best interests in mind.  I found that the most popular brand of this cream cheese contains not only the food dye Red 40, but the artificial preservative sorbic acid, as well!

Time to make my own.  After all, I've been making yogurt for years. I wrote about that in this post:  Making Yogurt.  How hard could it be to make strawberry cream cheese?  As it turns out, not difficult at all.  Here's how.

Buy a block of plain cream cheese and let it sit at room temperature until it is softened.  Hunk it up and put it in a food processor.

Add a few frozen strawberries that have been thawed.

Then add 2 - 3 tablespoons powdered sugar.

Process it until it is the consistency you like.

Put it in an air-tight container and store in the frig.

This is so much better tasting than the store-bought kind and one bag of frozen strawberries makes several batches.  Come to think about it, I have never checked the ingredients on frozen strawberries.  Surely they only contain strawberries?  Sigh.  I better go check.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bee Box

We've all heard the sad story of how honeybees are declining at an alarming rate.  Honeybees play a critical role in pollination of various plants and crops and their decline across the globe means a growing risk of food shortages. It is still a mystery as to why these bees are disappearing, but the good news is that other types of insects can serve as pollinators, too. One of these is the solitary bee, or Mason Bee.

Mason Bee

In the world of bees, there are many species. Each type is classified as either social or solitary. Social bees, like honeybees, live together with thousands of others and have specific job duties. Solitary bees, like Mason bees, spend their entire life living alone.  Every female bee is both a queen and a worker bee.

To help increase the number of bees on our farm, Tom built a couple of boxes especially made to attract these solitary bees and increase their population.  The boxes are simple to make and look like this.

They are filled with rolled up paper tubes in which the bees lay their eggs.  To make the tubes, cut sheets of paper into fourths.  

Next, take a pencil and roll the paper lengthwise around it.

Tape each end of the paper roll to keep it closed.

Next, fold one end of the paper tube and staple it closed.

Finally, put the paper tubes in the bee box with the open end facing outward.

The box should be hung so that it faces east or southeast so that the morning sun will help warm the bees.

We got the directions for building the bee box from the website Growing a Greener World.  This is a fantastic site with all sorts of information on sustainable living.  There is also a program on our local PBS station by the same name hosted by Joe Lampl. The website contains links to all the program episodes.  The specific episode that talks about Mason Bees and how to build the bee box above is:    Solitary Bees