Sunday, June 24, 2012


            In her fascinating book, Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World, entomologist Marlene Zuk posits that humans have trouble relating to insects because they’re so difficult for us to anthropomorphize. Mammals are easy to love, even de facto nasty ones like pandas and koala bears. We can even stretch our affections to reptiles and amphibians, demonstrated by that adorable GEICO gekko, the teenage mutant ninja turtles, Majolica Palissy ware, and the explosion of frog-themed garden ornaments. That third pair of legs, however, apparently cancels out any hope of potential cuddliness. (Snakes elicit the same emotional disconnect because they lack “hands” or “feet” all together.) Zuk cites a 1973 survey that puts bugs at number three—tied with “financial problems” and “deep water”—on a list of things people fear most. “Public speaking” and “heights” beat out the six-legged ("death" came in sixth, in case you were wondering), but she says if spiders had been lumped in with insects, they may have soared to the number one spot.  

            The more contemplative yogic disciplines emphasize opening ourselves to the beauty and harmony in all things, a practice I have a lot of trouble with when it comes to people-in-general and politicians-and-bureaucrats-in-particular. Bugs, not so much. Entomologists have found evidence that insects can communicate, learn, teach, and manipulate their environments. Some species make very good parents, a finding that more daring scientists think may indicate personality and emotions. On the other hand, people who love sci-fi films that depict evil, alien creatures as insectile would appreciate the more grisly aspects of reality in Bug-World: sexual deviancy and cannibalism, despotism, chemical mind-control, slavery, live sacrifice. Hey, bugs are sounding more human all the time!

            Like most gardeners, I have only a nodding acquaintance with most of the bugs passing through my yard. We wave, but don’t know each other’s names. A comprehensive reference work with photographs—either print or online, Bug Guide notwithstanding—doesn’t exist yet. The undertaking is too massive. Insects account for more than 80% of known species on Earth. They were here long before us and will be here long after.  Naturalist E.O. Wilson said, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

            Kind of rips a huge hole Homo sapiens carefully cultivated superiority balloon, doesn’t it?     

            Read Zuk’s book. She’s a decent writer with a flip sense of humor, and her subject will broaden your mind.

            Meanwhile, crawling around in my own yard, I make an effort to notice bugs. I take pictures of the ones I don’t recognize, and send them off through the ether to the entomologists manning the Plant Disease and Insect Clinic (PDIC) at North Carolina State University in Raleigh for identification. The Extension specialists there also offer control solutions, if any are necessary. Me, I just want names. (See my posts Bugged and Bugs, the Good for more information on PDIC.) I encourage all enquiring gardeners to do the same, because once you know who they are and their place in the scheme of things, six- and eight-legged creatures become less threatening, less, well, other. No, really, they do.

            Here are some of the beautiful animals to whom PDIC has formally introduced me this season.

            Two caterpillars, and the moths they metamorphose into:

Eight-spotted forester caterpillar
(Alypia octomaculata)
Eight-spotted forester moth


Saltmarsh caterpillar
(Estigmene acrea)
Saltmarsh caterpillar moth




            Two larvae, and the adults they become:

Wheel bug (an assassin bug larva)
(Arilus cristatus)
 Wheel bug (assassin bug) adult


Euphorbia bug larva
(Chariesterus antennator)
Euphorbia bug adult

Green stinkbug, ovipositing
(Banasa dimidata)
            An egg-laying (ovipositing is the technical term) stinkbug (an alert anole ate all the hatchlings, though):


Leaf-cutter bee
(Megachilidae family)

            A leaf-cutter bee:


Narwhal-nosed bee fly
(Dave didn't know what species)

            A narwhal-nosed bee fly:

Basilica orb weaver
                (Mecynogea lemniscata) 

            Two spiders, the first very common in my back yard, the other seldom seen:

Spiny-backed orb weaver
                (Gasteracanthus cancriformis)

What's your name?

            And the latest, not-yet-identified submission, a black-and-white wasp-like creature:

None of these guys require controlling: only the stinkbug and euphorbia bug have even the potential to hurt my plants, and neither is likely to be present in sufficient numbers for any damage to be significant. And isn't that nice to know?

Tiger bee fly
(Xenox tigrinus)
            A note about bee flies, a category of insects I’d never heard of before NCSU’s entomologist extraordinaire Dave Stephan clued me in to the identity of this impressive screen-sitter last summer. Members of the family Bombyliidae (pronounced bom-bi-LIE-ih-dee), stingless bee flies eat nectar and pollen, making them important pollinators. Their larvae are parasitoids of other insects (what’s “parasitoid"? See Chatter from OG). That uncanny resemblance to bees may be a defense mechanism, to throw predators off track. Not a whole lot is known about this group, because they are not seen in great numbers. Keep your eyes peeled, you citizen-scientists, and you can help increase mankind’s knowledge of the world around us before we do ourselves in.

Not to worry: the insects will clean up the mess we leave.

Thanks for dropping by.


Monday, June 18, 2012


            It’s a beautiful day here in southeastern North Carolina—sunny, warm but not too hot, not too humid, a steady southwesterly breeze. It’s too nice a day to sit at the computer, even if one does have a blog entry to post. So I wandered outside with my camera and took a picture (or 12: what did we do before digital photography?) of every plant that has flowers on it in my yard. Now, with a minimum of commentary, I’ll share them with you.

             I like blue (and blue-ish) flowers best of all, so I have lots. This is false hyssop, Agastache foeniculum ‘Blue Fortune.’ Bees and butterflies love it, deer disdain it because of its anise-scented foliage. It’s not reliably perennial for me, but I don’t care because Christine grows some every year.

            Our cat Fred thinks catmint—Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walkers Low’—might actually be catnip. He’s wrong, of course, although it’s aromatic enough that deer don’t bother it. While “Walkers Low” refers not to the height of the plant but to an English garden, Fred keeps ours well below the 30 inches gardeners without 18-pound pets can expect.

            The passionflowers I observe for the National PhenologyNetwork’s Nature’s Notebook bloomed early this year due to the mild winter. Which is nice.

            This blue-themed pot contains annual Phlox intensia ‘Blueberry’ and a selection of summer snapdragons, Angelonia angustifolia-Serena series.

            My poor aster. Not only is it stuck with a nasty botanical name—Symphyotrichum laevis—but deer uncharacteristically grazed it nearly down to the ground earlier in the season in a fit of pique over our fencing of the tomatoes. So now it’s blooming. Be interesting to see what happens this fall.

            My next favorite flower colors are the pinks, purples and magentas, so I have lots of those, too. Here is a clump of perennial petunias, Petunia integrifolia integrifolia. I have no idea why the specific epithet is repeated. One year I planted these free-flowering magenta beauties in a raised bed with chartreuse sweet-potato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Margarita’): the effect was stunning. Also not reliably perennial, it survived this year’s mild winter handily, never even dying back all the way.

            One of the mildew-resistant garden phloxes, Phlox paniculata ‘Bright Eyes,’ keeps large pink panicles coming for most of the season. ‘Laura’ is another cultivar I like, with blooms more on the purple side of pink, but she’s not blooming yet.

            This Liatris spicata, saddled with the dopey common name “blazing star,” is a specimen of the straight species, lankier and earlier than the stocky cultivar ‘Kobold’ that grows on the other side of the garden.

             My specimen of evergreen Serissa foetida started life as a tiny bonsai I rescued from the Philadelphia Flower Show in 2005. It certainly wouldn’t fit back into the two-inch-wide pot it came in anymore.

          This is rock rose, Pavonia lasiopetala. A shrubby little thing, it produces its cheerful cerise cup-shaped flowers steadily—if not prolifically—all summer.

            Another trouble-free sub-shrub that enjoyed the warm winter was my swamp mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica—see “Field Notes for the Weary” post of September 28, 2011). Its first bloom appeared ten days ago, weeks ahead of schedule.

            Christine spoiled plain ol’ squatty Gomphrena globosa by introducing me to G. haageana ‘Fireworks.’ The cerise flowers with yellow “sparks” certainly live up to their name, and keep coming from mid-spring into October.



            And how can any one have a garden without classic Zinnia elegans? This cultivar is called ‘Cut and Come Again’ for good reason.

            I depend on the black-eyed Susans for yellows in my gardens. Perennial Rudbeckia fulgida subspecies and cultivars provide the color in fall, but wonderful annual (but freely seeding) R. hirta ‘Indian Summer’ carries the torch until then.


             The sunflowers are blooming! The sunflowers are blooming! These are Helianthus annuus ‘Van Gogh.’

            When I lived up North, I loved nasturtiums. Over a season they’d grow into huge frothy mounds of neatly round foliage dotted with orange, yellow or red flowers. Not so in North Carolina, where the heat takes a toll. Regardless, I plant some every spring and enjoy them until they inevitably crash.

             I don’t have a lot of summertime whites in my garden, so for now, I’m grateful for the dainty blooms of my potato crop, Solanum tuberosum.

            So that’s what’s providing color out in my yard today. And that’s all I have to say, until next time.

            Thanks for dropping by.


Monday, June 11, 2012


Jane Friedman
(Photo from
           The Garden Writers’ Association reminds me of Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Although I stopped paying dues some years ago (for the full story, see “A Blogging Crisis” from 22 October 2011), I’m still on their mailing list. The latest emailed GWA News Clippings contained a link to a blog post from Jane Friedman’s eponymous website (“Being human at electric speed: Exploring what it means to be a writer in the digital age.”) with an intriguing hook—“Top 10 Blog Traffic Killers.”

            Turns out GFTGU must plead guilty to two of Friedman’s no-nos: specifically, not posting often enough (in the aftermath of the aforementioned blogging crisis); and exceeding the optimum target of 500 words (all the damn time). People have changed the way they read, Ms. F tells us. Their fractured attention spans can handle only the briefest of scans before fluttering off to the next thing.

            Well, huh.

            Turns out Miss Jane (a former CEO of HarperCollins) turns out ebooks: hence her knowledge of cyber-readers’ inability to focus. Here in anti-electric-speed-land, however, most of us can and do read more than headlines and snippets. Then we actually think about what all those words mean, and use them to learn about the real world, where diverse views serve as stepping stones to expanded understanding.

            Be that as it may, adhering to word-counts does tend to tone up flabby writing. By way of experiment, here’s a 510-word piece on sunflowers for all length-challenged cyberians out there. Try to stick with it all the way to the end, okay?

            Sunflowers personify summer, in color, in stature, in fecundity. Beautiful yellow ray flowers attract butterflies and bees while sturdy stalks lend support to leaners like tomatoes and annual vines. Ripened seeds provide oil- and vitamin E-rich food for birds and mammals. Naturally vigorous plants, they’re easily started from seed.

Helianthus annuus 'Lemon Queen'
           The genus name, Helianthus, is an amalgam of ancient Greek words for sun (helios) and flower (anthos), referring to the way the flowers keep oriented to the sun’s position in the sky. The biological mechanisms behind this phenomenon, called heliotropism, are amazing. Motion happens when specialized potassium-pumping cells just below a flowerhead or in a stem detect blue light rays, causing potassium ions to alter the turgor pressure in nearby tissues. On the shady side, increased rigidity causes elongation of certain cells, causing the plant to “follow” the light.

"Vase with 15 Sunflowers"
by Vincent Van Gogh
            When anyone mentions sunflowers, the picture that springs to mind is of Helianthus annuus, glorified by personalities as varied as Vincent Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde, the enduring symbol of the Aesthetic Movement. In the Victorian era’s language of flowers, sunflowers signified “haughtiness” and “adoration.” In the 21st century, the Great Sunflower (bee-counting) Project chose an annual cultivar, ‘Lemon Queen,’ to ensure uniform citizen-scientists’ observations. Annuals account for the bulk of edible seed harvests. A darling of breeders and florists, sunflowers are enjoying boom times. No longer confined to shades of yellow, lately reds, whites and bicolor versions abound. Heights vary too, from 12 inches (‘Elf,’ ‘Big Smile’) to over 12 feet (‘Mammoth Russian,’ ‘Sunzilla’).

            Helianthus contains other, perennial species. One of the best for southeastern North Carolina is H. angustifolius, or swamp sunflower. Flowering through October, its stalks can tower to ten feet or more. The two-to-three-inch-wide golden yellow rayed discs may not be a match in size to those of their annual cousins, but more than make up for it in numbers.

Helianthus angustifolius
Helianthus angustifolius
towers above Fitzes' back yard


Heliopsis helianthoides 'Sommesonne'
            Other sunflower relations include members of the genus Heliopsis (loosely translated, “like the sun”). A prolific ditch- and roadside brightener in wetter years (like this one), wild summer sunflower grabbed the attention of German and English breeders, who hybridized weedy-looking H. helianthoides with the more restrained subspecies scabra, resulting in garden-worthy cultivars like ‘Sommesonne’ (“Summer Sun”).

Helenium sp., common sneezeweed
            Helenium is another perennial genus of sunflower, named not for the sun but—somewhat ambiguously—for Helen of Troy. Its common name is sneezeweed, an undeserved epithet deriving from the fact it blooms in the fall around the same time as ragweed.

            To grow sunflowers, all you need is a packet of seeds and a piece of ground that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day, has good drainage and access to supplemental water should rains fail to come. When cultivating sunflowers, be aware that, early on, birds or squirrels may eat freshly planted seeds; they are also partial to very young shoots with two to four leaves. At the other end of the season, competition for the mature seeds is brisk.

            It's not too late to plant. Pick up a packet of seeds this afternoon, and grow yourself some sunshine.

            If you managed to get through the opening commentary and this conclusion, you’ll have read a total of 819 words. Those of us who think 819 words is merely a good beginning salute you.

            Thanks for dropping by.


Monday, June 4, 2012


            About two weeks ago here in southeastern North Carolina, a pleasantly unusual long spring transitioned into summer. I know that because there’s no longer any discussion chez Fitz if the nighttime temperatures and humidity levels might allow both open windows and comfortable sleep: they don’t. As much as I dislike the idea of air-conditioning—artificially controlled climate negating the realities of the natural world—I have to admit I’d really miss it, especially as age has made me less resilient in the heat.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
            (In case you’re wondering, I suffer less of a moral/psychic dilemma over central heating by picturing early man huddled around a smoky fire as the cave entrance fills with snow. And I have no qualms at all about plumbing and electricity—a ten-year tenure in the Girl Scouts taught me more than I absolutely needed to know about living without those particular luxuries. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” or something to that effect.)  


Image of 2004's transit of Venus
            An astronomical note:  Venus passes between Earth and the sun on June 5th, causing a visible dot of a shadow to traverse the sun’s disk from west to east.  The first bit of Wednesday’s Transit of Venus can be witnessed from North America as the sun goes down (the entire seven-hour event will be visible from Alaska, where the sun never really sets this time of year). If you’re at all interested, grab this opportunity: your next chance--and I use the second person advisedly--won’t occur until December of 2117.

            Tim and I learned about the transit of Venus from an episode of the third series of BBC’s Inspector Lewis, in which a bon-vivant Oxford don learns he has an inoperable brain tumor, returns to Mother Church, and jilts his long-time mistress, who then accidentally pushes him down the observatory stairs. (It’s a good series, ’way better than the schlock aired on this side of the pond.)

Jeremiah Horrocks observes the transit of Venus
One subplot pivots around Jeremiah Horrocks, the 17th-century British self-taught astronomer and wunderkind (he died at age 22, his best-known achievement a proof that the moon’s orbit around the earth is elliptical), who first systematically observed the transit.  Horrocks’ thumbnail biography on the University of Central Lancashire’s Transit of Venus website tells us “[h]e was able to make three measurements [before the sun set on the village of Much Hoole, near Liverpool] and hence calculate for Venus its Transit path, angular size, and orbital velocity. He derived a value for the solar parallax, smaller than previously recorded, and so concluded that the Sun was further away from the Earth than thought.” Those three measurements also led him to postulate that Venusian transits occur in pairs, eight years apart, and then not again for more than a century (1631 and 1639, 1761 and 1769, 1874 and 1882, 2004 and 2012, 2117and 2125…)  

Some 75 years later, Horrocks’ work led Edmund Halley to call upon the international scientific community to compile their observations of the upcoming 1769 transit so that a greater understanding of the size of the solar system could be reached. Astronomers everywhere heeded Halley’s plea, giving rise to the first ever global collaboration and establishing the foundations of modern science.

All that from watching a little dot float across the sun. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?


Other transitions are happening closer to home. 

What comes to mind when you think of the Bronx? Paul Newman’s grim movie cop in Fort Apache? Miles of blighted urban landscape glimpsed from trains entering and exiting Manhattan’s Grand Central Station? You might want to think again. June 2’s Gardening Gone Wild post tells of an Education for Sustainability partnership between Discovery High School, Rockefeller Center, the Cloud Institute, and visionary George Irwin’s Green Living Technologies (GLTi) that has transformed lives.

I recommend watching the three-minute video of Bronx teenagers planting and installing a green wall at the NBC Experience Store in Rockefeller Center, inspiring stuff at a time educational institutions in this country have lost their compass. When the last school bell rings, where does the current curricular goal of universal but artificially high levels of self-esteem leave kids who can barely read, are innocent of the basic principles of mathematics and science, have only a nodding acquaintance with history, are accustomed to receiving trophies for just showing up, and seem surgically attached to electronic devices? Education for Sustainability (as opposed to education about sustainability) might lead our over-praised, under-educated youth to make visceral connections between themselves, learning and their responsibilities to as well as their rights in the real world.

George Irwin
Gardening Gone Wild quotes Mr. Irwin (who uses as many parentheticals as I do): “The natural progression into education has allowed us to use the Mobile Edible Wall Unit (MEWU) as an educational tool. Celebrity teacher Steve Ritz (Discovery High School, Bronx NY) used the MEWU to improve attendance and achieve close to 100% passing regents scores. He credits the Edible Wall for engaging his students for bell to bell instruction.”

That's good news. Everything else aside, though, I want some MEWUs of my own. They would make nice additions to Toadflax Farm.


Last Thursday's harvest
Speaking of Toadflax Farm, it’s transitioning too. If it doesn’t rain, I have to water everything every other day, the containers daily. Harvests trickle in, a colander-full at a time—tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, green and wax beans, blueberries, blackberries. The peas have finished, and alpine strawberry yields dwindled down to nothing. It's time to plant the second bean and curcubit crops (which is where those MEWUs would come in handy). The squash and melons I planted on the arbor in the New Bed languished: not enough sun, I believe. Haven’t gotten around to planting the heat-tolerant lettuces yet: if only I didn’t have gainful employment and all my other, decidedly-ungainful-but-fun writing projects requiring time and attention to deal with as well!

Toadflax Farm on May 31
But. The poison ivy rash and accompanying Benadryl-induced stupor are gone for the moment (although I just read about a product applied to exposed skin before going out that allegedly deters urushiol from penetrating skin: I hope it’s not made of tar or bear grease. If I can remember where I saw it, I’ll check it out and keep you posted.) When I move slowly—which is my wont anyway—and take lots of water breaks, I can keep going in the heat. Three of four design jobs are done, presented and paid for. Only two clients still need their summer containers changed out; they’re both on the schedule for this week. I’ve decided on the latest direction the back garden will take, a blue, white and yellow billowy theme, and have almost completed assembling the plant list. Tim bought me a set of Ball canning accessories (head-room gauge and air-bubble popper, wide-mouth funnel, magnetic boiling lid extractor), so my initiation to the wonderful world of air-conditioned hot-water-bath food preservation awaits. My first batches of strawberry and blueberry jams came out runny, but they make yummy ice-cream sauces. Best of all, this spate of activity is forging new neural pathways in my brain, staving off dementia.

It’s all good.

            By the way, if you do plan to watch the transit of Venus, use proper eye protection. Nobody needs burnt retinas.

Thanks for dropping by.