Monday, August 30, 2010

Ambush Bug

I have a spearmint plant that is currently flowering. The massive profusion of flowers attract a wide variety of pollinators including wasps, butterflies, bees, hoverflies, beetles, and even hummingbirds. I stepped out of the house the other day and was delighted to see a painted lady butterfly flapping in the wind as she fed from the flowers. As I got closer, though, I noticed that not only were her feet not touching the flower, they weren’t even moving. The butterfly seemed to have gotten her head stuck in the flower and died. Naturally, I took a closer look. What I saw was a small insect holding on to the head of the butterfly and feeding on it. The insect looked so much like the flower it sat on that it was difficult to see, even though I knew where to look and what to look for. What particularly impressed me was the size of the insect. Its body length was less than a third the body length of the butterfly and overall mass was probably a fifth or less that of the butterfly. Despite the saddening loss of a butterfly, I still found the whole spectacle fascinating.

The next step was to identify the predator. My first thought was that it was an assassin bug. Assassin bugs are very effective predators that I would be proud to have in my garden. They lie in wait, often with excellent camouflage. Lacking jaws, they stab their prey with sucking mouthparts, quickly killing them and then sucking out the innards. They are nearly as voracious as the more famous ladybugs and praying mantis, but smaller (usually) and harder to spot. Nonetheless, they are exceptionally beneficial for the garden. However, upon doing a little research, I found that the blocky head and praying-mantis-like grasping forelegs of my little guy didn’t fit the description of an assassin bug. A little more research showed it to be a close relative of assassin bugs, an ambush bug. Just like their cousins, ambush bugs are voracious predators that lie in wait, often on flowers, to grab passing prey. The article I found said that they can routinely handle prey ten times their own size. That’s about like a house cat taking down and killing a small wild pig.

Once I knew what I was looking for, I looked around for more and quickly found 6 or 7 more hiding among the flowers. I also found some eggs laid on the branches that I can only hope are ambush bug eggs. I must say that I will keep an eye out for these guys in the future. Maybe it is their fault that I have had little to no pest problems this summer. Or maybe it is the fault of the one praying mantis I have seen lurking about. It is probably a combination. Either way, they are a treasure.

Photos courtesy Jenny Williams

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Swiss Chard

Personally, I am a big fan of spinach. I could eat a few pounds of it a week. As a gardener, though, it is kind of a pain. I can get it to grow all winter long. I can get it to grow in the fall and I can make an abundance in the spring. But it just won’t grow in the summer. At the first sign of heat, it goes straight to seed and dies. So for my greens, I have another favorite, Swiss chard. Flavor-wise, it is very similar to spinach, though I find it to be a little tastier. Texture-wise, it is a little tougher. Raw leaves are not as palatable as spinach unless they are picked very young, though I still enjoy them on burgers and tacos. They just don’t make a very good salad. Make no doubt, though, Swiss chard packs the same nutritional punch as spinach.

The best part, though, is that chard is a biennial, meaning that it grows one year, storing energy all summer, and then goes to seed the next year. You just have to let one plant go to seed and you will have enough seeds to keep you and your friends stocked in Swiss chard seeds for years to come. It is also very cold tolerant. In my area (Zone 7 in Arizona), I can sometimes coax it to stay active all winter long. It is also a big plant, with leaves on mature plants sometimes reaching a foot long. Leaves can be harvested individually and the plant will keep putting up more. I also like growing it myself because a bunch at the grocery store often sells for $3 or so, which seems quite high considering how easy it is to grow. If you pick the right cultivar, like ‘Rhubarb’ or ‘Bright Lights,’ you can even plant them in the landscape beds for a bit of edible landscaping.

No that it is late August, it is time to consider what to plant for the fall garden. Might I suggest a little Swiss chard?

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Little Compost Math

I have been noticing lately that my homemade tumble composter has been getting harder and harder to turn, even though it has remained about the same level of full since I made it. One of the constants of compost is reduction. Assuming you do it right, it will continue to shrink in volume. Part of this is because the raw materials have so much space in them and they pack down as they decompose. However, a bigger part is that a very large amount of the mass, around 50% is converted to carbon dioxide or other gasses as a part of the decomposition process. As the carbon is lost, the minerals and nutrients get distilled down to a concentrated, nutritious form.

It occurred to me that I have been constantly filling this single 55 gallon drum since January. I started it with enough dry leaves to fill it one and a half times. I actually had to fill it and then wait to cram the rest in. I have added at least three baskets full of weeds, each a third to a half the volume of the compost bin. I added the remains of a previous compost pile that weren’t quite done cooking. Then there is the constant supply of kitchen waste. So I decided to do a little math to see just how much kitchen waste I have generated.

First of all, there is my kitchen compost bin. It is 11”x6.5”x10”, which gives me a total volume of about 0.41 cubic feet. I assume it was an average of about ¾ full when I took it out, so three trips would be a cubic foot. I figure I took it out about three times a week on average, so I generated about one cubic foot of compost a week. My compost bin is 55 gallons, which converts to about 7.5 cubic feet. That means I generated enough kitchen waste to fill it completely every 2 months or so, and have done so since January, so the kitchen waste alone has been enough to fill it about 3.5 times. Add to that the one and a half full worth of dry leaves and another filling or so for weeds and other materials, and I have filled it with enough material to fill it completely about 6 times. Yet it remains only about three quarters full, just as it has almost constantly since I put the first load of leaves in and wetted them down.

My compost is now getting heavy, which means it is getting dense. Perhaps it is time to stop filling it and let it finish cooking so my garden can have an infusion of nutrients and biological activity. I know I am itching to make some compost tea for sure.

And yes, I do this for fun. Did I mention I am a garden geek?