What is that black and orange bug in my garden?

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The suggestions on a recent “what’s this bug? post on this blog made me realize how hard it was to tell apart several common garden bugs: the harlequin bug, the bagrada bug, the milkweed bug and the boxelder bug. They are all flattish, orange/red and black, under an inch long, and seem to always be mating.

After doing the research, I really wanted to see all the bugs side by side, so I made this picture and this simple reference chart. It is now my gift to you. You are welcome.

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Easter Lessons

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So, facing an overabundance of eggs, and having hard boiled a dozed out of desperation and having espied a charming post on naturally dyed Easter eggs, I decided to have a go at dyeing eggs on Saturday night.  The eggs our ladies deliver are all shades of beige to brown, so I worried that they’d not take dye as well as white eggs, but the post promised good results with brown eggs, and the dyes were deep and earthy enough that it seemed it would not matter.

The technique was simple–a one to one ratio of organic matter to water, boiled 15 minutes or more, cooled, and then spiked with vinegar. The eggs soak in this mix for as long as you like, perhaps overnight, refrigerated. I tried out onion skin (russet dye), red cabbage (bluish dye) and hibiscus flowers(purplish). All looked well. I went to bed imagining the rich, solid colors I’d find the next day, the arty pictures from the original post dancing in my head.

This morning I pulled my eggs from the fridge, all excited, only to find something had gone wrong. The onion skin eggs looked all right at first, a nice rusty shade, but when I touched them the color came off, a thin layer of colored slime peeling aside to reveal a much paler egg below–an egg perhaps still of its natural color. Same for the cabbage. The hibiscus was a total nightmare–for some reason its slime was thick and bubbly and black and utterly disgusting. I mean, like Black Plague-level disgusting. Easter buboes! Zombie eggs!

Here’s my theory: chickens coat their eggs with a protective coating before the eggs leave the “factory.” Just like auto manufacturers! This protective coating is called the bloom. The bloom is washed off in industrial egg production facilities because the eggs have to be washed and sometimes bleached to get the filth off them before they go to market. So bloom is never an issue when dyeing store-bought eggs. I’ve never tried dyeing our own eggs before, and I believe the bloom was interfering with the dye’s adhesion. If I try this again, I will give the eggs a thorough washing first.

What do you think of this theory? Any similar experiences?

Anyway, all was not lost. When I washed all the slime off the eggs, I found that some color did get through, and it came through it truly random and marvelous ways. My eggs don’t look so much like Easter eggs, but more like rocks, or dinosaur eggs. I didn’t get what I was expecting at all, but instead I got something kind of wonderful. That’s DIY in a nutshell for you.

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Bees will love your Coyote Brush Hedge

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Image: Wikipedia (our picture of the NHM’s coyote brush hedge came out blurry–which really is a shame because they were good looking hedges. You wouldn’t guess it from this pic).

One of a series of posts inspired by our recent tour of the new gardens at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

Baccharis pilularis, called coyote brush, or chaparral bloom, is an unassuming Western native plant with a secret super-power: native and non-native pollinators love, love, love! its tiny little flowers. If you want to lavish affection and care on the pollinators in your garden, plant one of these babies, if you can. It really is one of the best plants for the purpose. (For more info on coyote brush, here’s a nice post at the Curbstone Valley Farm blog with lots of pictures. And here’s its page at Theodore Payne Foundation.)

What I didn’t realize until our recent garden tour at the Natural History Museum, though, is that coyote brush makes a perfectly lovely hedge if it’s pruned up right. I’d never even thought about it. Most of the talk one hears about coyote brush is that it is sort of ho-hum in appearance but can be used to provide a background to the more showy native plants. I never even thought about how its small, sturdy, bright green, evergreen leaves make it a perfect hedge plant.

So, the lesson here is that you can have a more formal/tidy/traditional garden, and still serve the pollinators– as long as you lay off the clippers for a couple of months in the summer and let the hedge bloom. No excuses now!

For those of you in other parts of the country, can you name a good hedge bush that pollinators like for your area? And be sure to name your area, so folks around you can use the information.

On that theme, here’s a link to beneficial plant lists, organized by region, created by the Xerces Society.

Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder

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Bird feeder in the LA Natural History Museum garden.

One of a series of posts inspired by our recent tour of the new gardens at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

The Nature Gardens at the NHM are not large by the usual standards of botanical gardens, and they are only about a year old, but they are already rich with bird and insect life. (A poorwill even visited, which apparently caused quite a bit of excitement in the birding community.) This is because the designers chose plants to serve wildlife, and the wildlife responded. Build it and they will come.

Off in one shady corner of the garden, I watched two bird feeders being merrily ransacked by more types of birds than I’ve ever seen in one place. It reminded me that I had once wanted a bird feeder–partly for the birds, and partly to provide “TV” for our indoor cats, or Kitty Convicts, as I like to call them. They really love watching the birdbath out the window. I imagined a bird feeder would be doubly exciting. After doing some window shopping and reading, though, I convinced myself that any bird feeder I bought would just end up feeding our pernicious tribe of squirrels, so I gave up the idea, figuring that in our climate, the bird bath was more critical to the birds.

So, with this in the back of my mind, I asked head gardener, Richard Hayden, how the staff kept squirrels away from the bird feeders.  He said simply, “Thistle seed. There’s just thistle seed in there and squirrels don’t eat thistle seed.”

Ohhhhhhh.

Some things become so easy once you get the right information. We just have to buy a feeder built to hold thistle seed. Which we’re doing.

Kitty TV just got a new channel.

How to Get Skunks Out of Your Basement and Yard

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Basements and crawl spaces under houses make idea dens for urban critters. If we could charge rent for all the skunks, raccoons and feral cats that have taken up residence under the house we’d have paid off the mortgage by now. Our particular crawl space critter B&B was opened by virtue of a flimsy access door. Some animal, most likely a raccoon, pried it open. The problem with this situation is that you can’t just close up the door. Some poor creature would die a horrible death and then stink up the house for months. The answer is to create a one-way critter exit.

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In Defense of the Paper Wasp

Paper wasp building a nest. Image: Wikimedia.

Paper wasp building a nest. Image: Wikimedia.

I really don’t like gardening advice that divides the natural world into lists of good and bad bugs. From nature’s perspective all creatures have a role, even the much despised paper wasp.

Paper Wasp Biology 101
Wasps perform important duties: some wasps eat other insects, other wasps are scavengers, acting as nature’s garbage disposers. That’s not to say that wasps don’t earn some of their bad reputation. I’ve found that, unlike honey bees, they can sting without much warning. And their sting is sharper, reminiscent of the unpleasant after-burn of cheap booze.

The wasps I see the most around our house are paper wasps (family Vespidae and probably of the genus Polistes, though there are many different kinds of paper wasps). Paper wasps like to build their small nests under the eaves of the house. Their diet consists of caterpillars, flies and beetles—anything that eats those kinds of bugs are a friend of mine. Nests consist of around 30 to 40 wasps–workers, queens and drones. They are much less aggressive than hornets and yellowjackets.

How I stopped worrying and learned to love the paper wasp
Of course, sometimes paper wasps build nests where we don’t want them. A neighbor was having her house painted a few years ago and called me over to remove a nest of paper wasps. I put on my beekeeping suit and pulled the nest off the eave of the house only to discover that you can’t move paper wasps. They just flew back immediately to where their nest had been.

Wasps don’t like scented products such as perfume, cologne, aftershave or hairspray. Come to think of it, if I were a wasp I’d sting people over this stinky stuff, particularly at the gym. But I digress.

Concluding rant
I suppose there are legitimate reasons to kill the occasional nest, but I wish more people knew the important role wasps play in our gardens.

And we really need teach everyone to tell the difference between wasps, honeybees, yellowjackets, hornets and bumblebees. You wouldn’t confuse an iPhone with and Android.

Fortunately, UC Davis has a video:

Farmstead Egg Guide & Cookbook Giveaway

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You probably know Terry Golson from her addictive website hencam.com. We were lucky to meet Terry when she was on a book tour here in Los Angeles a few years ago. She’s got a new cookbook out, The Farmstead Egg Guide & CookbookThe book begins with a purchasing guide to eggs followed by a brief introduction to what’s involved in keeping chickens. Recipes–everything from omelettes to deserts–make up the majority of the book.

Terry is on a blog tour, and has dropped by Root Simple to share a recipe and give away a copy of The Farmstead Egg Guide & Cookbook. To win the book, all you have to do is leave a comment an this post. Tells us something about your own chickens, or tells us whether you’d ever consider keeping chickens. We’ll draw a winner at random.

Here’s one of the recipes from the book:

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Zucchini and Mint Frittata
Mint is not just for iced tea and garnishes on plates! Used in a frittata, it adds just the right savory and herbal note to the vegetables. A frittata can be finished in the oven, or it can be flipped over in the pan and finished on the stove. This recipe gives directions for the stovetop version, but you can also finish it in a hot oven as in the previous frittata recipes.

Makes 6 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup sliced onion
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 pound zucchini, sliced
8 large eggs
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet. Sauté the onion and bell pepper until soft and golden. Take your time on this step to fully develop the sweet flavors of these vegetables. Stir in the zucchini and continue to cook over low heat until the edges begin to brown. Set aside in a bowl.

2. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, 3 tablespoons of the Parmesan, the mint, salt, and pepper.

3. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the skillet. Pour in the eggs and then distribute the vegetables on top. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, until the eggs are set but not yet firm on top. Several times while the eggs are cooking, take a flexible spatula and run it along the edge and under the frittata to make sure the eggs are not sticking to the pan.

4. Take the skillet off the heat. Put a dinner plate over it and flip the frittata onto the plate. Then slip the frittata back into the pan, now with the bottom side up. Top with the remaining 1 tablespoon Parmesan.

Cook for a few minutes more, until the eggs are fully cooked.

Beekeeping Class at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano

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I’ll be teaching a two hour introduction to natural no-treatment beekeeping at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano this Saturday at 1 pm. To sign up buzz over here. Here’s the class description:

Become a backyard beekeeper and enjoy a healthy garden full of pollinators. Understand beekeeping tools, materials, and techniques to get started.

Beekeeping, or apiculture, is said to have begun with the Egyptians who used logs, boxes, and pottery vessels to make hives. Today, with bees dissapearing at rapid and never before seen rate, the practice of caring for bees is needed now more than ever.

Join us for this workshop on all natural, no treatment beekeeping. Learn the basics of beekeeping including makeup of the hive, equipement, types of hives, where to get bees, and reasons for beekeeping.

Learn how you can support bees in return and join us for this special workshop!

The Ecology Center is located at 32701 Alipaz St in San Juan Capistrano. Phone: (949) 443-4223

Print and Internet Resources for Natural, No-Treatment Beekeeping

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Image: Backwards Beekeepers.

Nassim Taleb invented the word “antifragile” to describe systems like beehives that benefit from adversity. Challenge bees with an invasive parasite such as Varoa mites and they’ll eventually figure out a strategy to deal with them. That is, unless we humans decide to prop up weak colonies with misguided interventions. Taleb says,

Crucially, if antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them. They will weaken, die, or blow up. We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything . . . by suppressing randomness and volatility. Just as spending a month in bed . . .  leads to muscle atrophy, complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors. Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top- down policies and contraptions (dubbed ‘Soviet- Harvard delusions’ in the book) which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems.

There’s not much information on antifragile beekeeping. To correct that, here’s a buzzing hive of natural no-treatment beekeeping resources for your consideration:

Web Resources

Books

You’ll find a range of ideas in these books and websites particularly when it comes to hive types–everything from Langstroth boxes to top bar hives to hollowed out logs.  What matters more than the type of hive you use is having a long range view and a recognition that too much intervention leads to the sort of antifragility Taleb is concerned about.

Your local club or beekeeping association may or may not be open to natural techniques. It could be difficult, depending on where you live, to find a mentor. That’s why I put this list together.

Let me know if I left out any resources in the comments  . . .