Giant Leopard Moth

The giant leopard moth is a gorgeous insect to stumble upon, though I have only seen a few of these over the years. At first glance they only look black and white, but up close, you can see hints of royal blue on its head and legs. It is the largest of the Eastern tiger moths and its larval-stage is a black fuzzy/spiny caterpillar that will roll into a defensive ball when touched, when you may catch a glimpse of orangish-red cross sections on the body between the rows of spines. Despite these fuzzy spines, this caterpillar does not sting.

Here are a few photos of the moth so you can see its cute little face as well as the majestic wings.

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The Bloom Has Begun

We have had a gorgeous week of sunny spring weather. Finally! Today, I even broke out the tank top and shorts and added a little natural color to my complexion. I have been busy every day over the last week planting the seedlings and bare root plants that have been piling up, delayed by our cold April. Finally, with the majority of the plants in the ground, I have a moment to sit, write and share my progress. Experimenting with my new macro lens, I took shots of my garden in bloom. And because all of my fruit trees have blossoms, I anxiously await peaches, cherries, pears, and blueberries in the months to come. Enjoy the images and the updates on all my new plantings will come during the next post.

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Daffodils

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Daffodil

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Tulip

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Tulips—patio border.

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Peach blossoms

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Cherry blossoms

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Pear blossoms

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Blueberry flower buds

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Hyacinth

Pileated Woodpecker

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We have had a pair of pileated woodpeckers that live on or around our wooded property for several years now. While the tremendous sound of their drilling is easy to identify, it is always a challenge to see them, despite their brilliant red head. This year, I have spotted the male on a few occasions feeding from a stump in our garden. However, creeping up on this guy to get a photo is just about impossible, and I do not have a telephoto lens. I followed him on foot and snapped several photos as he flew from tree to tree today, but this was a close as I could get. Notice the full frame shot below versus the zoomed in version above. Hopefully, I will be able to catch him on that garden stump again and catch him on film, up close from my sliding glass door.

If you have never seen one in person, it is difficult to appreciate the size of the pileated woodpeckers—truly huge, beautiful creatures with bodies as large as 19 inches tall with a 30 inch wingspan. They live in wooded areas that have plentiful dead wood for them to harvest ants, caterpillars, and other insects. A pair will claim a territory and defend it year-round, though they might make an exception for another pair to stay temporarily during the winter. They live approximately 10 years and mate for life, though if one of the pair dies, the other will often find a new partner. They will have one brood of young per year, typically three to five eggs.

If you live near a wooded area, keep your ear out for a quick successions of loud drumming and try to catch a glimpse of this amazing bird.

Can you find the woodpecker?

Can you find the woodpecker?

Planting Season is FINALLY Here! AKA: The Ground is Finally Thawed

Digging the holes for our four apple trees.

Last week was spring break, and usually this is the big garden planting week in our household. But the weather just hasn’t cooperated this year so my planting schedule continues to be pushed back. My raised beds were still frozen as of three days ago and the last of the snow finally disappeared yesterday.

Here’s what we accomplished (which is not much compared to my initial March To-Do List):
• Pruned 18 roses
• Pruned dogwood and rose of sharon
• Started hardening off seedlings
• Some general garden cleanup
• Designing new orchard spaces

But the BIG news is that we had our buddy come with his backhoe the last few days to prepare the sites for the orchard. We had to take down a couple of tulip trees, remove some old stumps, and dig the planting holes for the four apple trees, two paw paw trees, two mulberry trees, and three grape vines. My husband dug all the holes for our peach, cherry, and pear trees by hand and it just about killed him. Our NY soil is full of rocks and boulders—sometimes more rock than soil in your selected location. You can bet your money that there will be a gigantic rock exactly where you want to put your tree. Now, no more killing ourselves for the garden.

The trees themselves should be arriving any minute by mail order, and we still have a ton of work to do to sift/mix the planting soil (like I said, we have a lot of rock to remove from the dirt piles). But it is supposed to be cold and rainy all week—good if the trees were already in the ground, but miserable if you need to be working outside preparing and manicuring the planting sites. Looks like Saturday will be a big day.

I originally had three holes dug along our frontage fence line where I had planned to plant the grapes. Luckily, I remembered that there is a black walnut tree growing on the other side and was able to have more holes dug far, far away from the walnut while the backhoe was still here. Because these trees exude juglone, a chemical that inhibits the growth of other vegetation around it, I cannot plant sensitive plants like grapes within 60 feet of the walnut. So those holes were a mistake (and also explains why I have had such mixed success in my garden in that area. It will be redesigned this year.) However, my ground isn’t all dug up for nothing—there are a few fruiting shrubs that can tolerate the walnut’s allelopathic chemicals, so I plan to plant currants and/or gooseberries in that spot. But those are last on the list of plants to add, so if I don’t get to them this year, they’ll be a priority in the fall or next spring.

In addition to the trees, I need to get my vegetable garden started. The ground is finally workable, so this weekend I have to direct sow my spring veggies: carrots, peas, spinach, lettuce, kale, chard, beets, leeks, and onions. Normally, I would have started with the peas, spinach, kale and lettuce around March 15, but there’s no fighting Mother Nature. My April To-Do List is intense so wish me luck!

Pruned rose bush. This bush will be trained to climb the stone wall this year.

Pruned rose bush. This bush will be trained to climb the stone wall this year.

April To-Do List

Newly emerged tulip collecting raindrops.

Newly emerged tulip collecting raindrops.

As you know, the weather has caused serious delays, so many of the items on my March To-Do List still need to be accomplished. Here is what is on deck for April. It is a hefty load, both literally and figuratively!

April 1-6
1. Prepare orchard sites
    • Take down tulip trees
    • Remove stumps
    • Dig planting holes
    • Remove rocks and amend soil in planting holes
2. Prune roses

April 7-12
1. Plant trees/shrubs/vines
    • Four apple
    • Two paw paw
    • Two mulberry
    • Five peony
    • Three grape
2. Direct sow vegetables
    • Leek
    • Spinach
    • Kale
    • Lettuce
    • Chard
    • Peas
    • Carrots
    • Beets
3. Mulch veggie garden
4. Deer spray on consecutively sunny days

April 13-19
1. Finish planting trees
2. Train fruit trees with branch spreaders
3. Turn compost
4. Soil pH testing (especially for blueberries)
5. Weed block garden paths to prepare for wood chip delivery
6. Transplant broccoli, Brussels sprout, and onion seedlings

April 20-30
1. Flower garden weed block and mulching
2. Pick up and plant raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, fern, and pachysandra pre-ordered starter plants

On-going
1. Garden clean-up
2. Deer prevention
3. Hardening off seedlings

Permaculture Landscape Plans—Orchard Plot 1 (Pears and Peach)

Orchard Plot 1—Landscape Design

Our current orchard surrounds our circle drive and is planted in the front lawn. If facing the house, Plot 1 is to the left of the path leading to our back deck, Plot 2 is in the center lawn between both paths, and Plot 3 is to the right of the path leading to our front courtyard entry. Plot 1 contains two pear trees and one peach tree, Plot 2 contains two sweet cherry trees and one sour cherry tree, and Plot 3 contains two donut peach trees. Today I will be focusing on Plot 1—this will be the only one I am redesigning this year, in addition to planting the new apple and paw paw plots.

The above picture is the landscape plan I designed. It is drawn to scale, representing each plant at their full grown size and/or allotted spacing for plants that spread. However, the canopy of the fruit trees is drawn at its current size—approximately 3-4 feet, depending on the tree. These canopies may eventually grow to 10-12 feet, in which case I may have to redesign the annuals, but based on the path of the sun and their light/shade requirements, the perennials should all be happy despite the trees’ growth. The baptisia should grow to 3-4 feet in height and diameter after about three years, which will bring it to the top of the stone wall which is the backdrop to this plot. This plant does not tolerate transplanting, so once it is in the ground, it is permanent. All of the other plants can be repositioned if necessary. If you haven’t already read about how and why I chose most of these companion plants, read my previous post: Permaculture—Companion Plants for Polycultures.

My April TO-DO list for this plot is to remove the grass that fills this bed, plant the perennials, and fill with leaf mulch over the top of thick newspaper weed block. I am also considering doing lasagna layering [thick cardboard, topsoil/compost, leave mulch] to smother the grass and allow it to break down as natural composting. However, due to the thick, absorbent nature of cardboard, this will increase my water requirements this year. To be determined…

As far as the perennials [black-eyed susans, echinacea, catmint, yarrow, and lamb’s ears] I will be dividing or finding wayward babies to transplant in this plot. I planted the daffodil bulbs last fall. I had to order starter plants of the baptisia (false indigo) as my seeds did not germinate. And my three agastache (anise hyssop) plants that I put in last year are still too small to divide, assuming they successfully return, so I ordered these as well.  And I have three small pots of chives started from seed, but I need to start many more to spread around all of my fruit trees.

My May TO-DO list for this plot is to plant the annuals. I have started all the annuals from seed [cosmos, calendula, zinnia, marigold, and sweet alyssum] and they are currently between 3-6 week old seedlings. By May 20, the last frost date for my area, they should be close to flowering if I haven’t accidentally killed them during the hardening off process (of which I am still an amateur).

So total expenses for this project:
Baptisia starter plants x 2=$14
Agastache starter plants x 2=$8
Possible topsoil/compost delivery (TBA)
Seed packets for marigold, sweet alyssum, cosmos)=$7.50
Seed starting mix/trays for annuals=$20

Swallowtail Caterpillar Eating Carrots

As the snow has been steadily falling all day, I needed a reminder of what summer will soon bring. Check out my swallowtail butterfly caterpillar chomping down my carrot foliage last summer. The apiaceae family plants—carrots, dill, fennel, parsley and Queen Anne’s lace—are hosts for this larval-stage butterfly. If you plant these in your garden, keep a look out for this caterpillar and have fun watching it eat, up close and personal. If you’re lucky, you will be able to find its chrysalis and watch it transform to a butterfly.

Permaculture—Companion Plants for Polycultures

Echinacea

After researching a wealth of plant species, I have narrowed down the list of companion plants for my fruit tree guilds. While I have (or will have in about a week) the following trees—peach, cherry, pear, apple, paw paw, and mulberry—I am still in the process of mapping the landscape, so I’m not yet sure which of these companions will be planted around each tree.

Each of the companion plants I have chosen must have at least three benefits for the landscape, and all must be aesthetically pleasing. (I will soon be writing a post about aesthetic permaculture, as I believe that natural/wild doesn’t need to look raggedy.) The benefits listed may not be all benefits of the plant, but the ones I am most interested in (and I won’t be addressing any medical/holistic uses).

Key
E=Easy to Propagate
Ed=Edible
DR=Deer Resistant
DT=Drought Tolerant
DyAcc=Dynamic Accumulator/Green Mulch
G=Ground Cover
N=Nectary/Pollinators
NiFix=Nitrogen Fixer
PR=Pest Repellant
ShT=Shade Tolerant
ShH=Shelter/Host for Beneficial Insects
W=Wildlife Forage/Shelter 

Ornamental Perennials
* Anise Hyssop—DR; DT; N; ShH (tachinid fly, parasitic wasp, lacewing); W (hummingbirds)
* Yarrow—E; DR; DT; N; ShH (ladybug, hoverfly, parasitic wasp, lacewing)
* Catmint—E; DR; DT; N; ShH (ladybug, lacewing)
* Lamb’s ears—E; DR; DT; N
* White Clover—E; DT; N; NiFix; ShH (parasitic wasp, lacewing, spiders, ground beetles)
* False Indigo—DR; DT; N; NiFix; ShH (parasitic wasp, lacewing); W
* Daffodils—DR; N; PR (rodents)
* Echinacea—E; DR; DT; N; ShH (parasitic wasp); W

Perennial Herbs
* Lemon Balm—E; Ed; DR; DT; PR (mosquitos); ShH (tachinid fly, hoverfly, parasitic wasp)
* Mints—E; Ed; DR; DT; G; PR (rodents, aphids)
* Chives—E; Ed; DR; DT; N; PR (Japanese beetles, aphids)
* Thyme—E; Ed; DR; DT; G; N
* Oregano—E; Ed; DR; DT; G; PR (multiple insects)
* Comfrey—E; DR; DyAcc; N; ShH (parasitic wasp, lacewing, spiders)
* Garlic—Ed; DR; N; PR (repels aphids, Japanese beetles, snails, cabbage loopers, peachtree borers, rabbits)

Ornamental Annuals
* Marigold—E; DR; N; PR (mosquitos); ShH (ladybug, hoverfly, parasitic wasp)
* Calendula—E; DR; DT; N
* Zinnia—E; DR; DT; N; ShH (hoverfly, parasitic wasp)
* Sweet Alyssum—E; G; N; ShH (hoverfly, parasitic wasp)
* Cosmos—E; DR; DT; N; ShH (hoverfly, parasitic wasp, lacewing)

Annual Herbs
* Dill—E; Ed; DR; N; PR (aphids, squash bugs, spider mites, cabbage loopers); ShH (ladybug, hoverfly, parasitic wasp, lacewing, swallowtail butterfly)
* Cilantro—E; Ed; DR (moderately); PR (aphids, Colorado potato beetles, spider mites, cabbage loopers); ShH (ladybug, hoverfly, parasitic wasp, lacewing)
* Basil—E; Ed; DR (moderately); PR (flies, mosquitoes, aparagus beetles)

You may have noticed that the majority of plants that I chose are easy to propagate—I will be dividing many of the perennials or finding stray babies in the garden to transplant. The annuals I have all started from seed to keep costs down as I invested in baptisia (false indigo) and anise hyssop starter plants. I will also be purchasing comfrey, garlic, and bulk seeds of clover and thyme to establish the ground covers.

I look forward to sharing the orchard landscape drawings with you as soon as I measure out the plots—I’m going to attempt drawing to scale instead of a rough sketch!

Permaculture Part 1—Inspiration to Change the Way I Garden

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I discovered permaculture last spring when I stumbled upon the memoir Paradise Lot, by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates. The book is aptly subtitled “Two plant geeks, one-tenth of an acre and the making of an edible garden oasis in the city.” This book is my inspiration—if these guys can grow 800 pounds of food a year on a tiny lot in suburban Massachusetts, why can’t I do the same on two acres?

Eric and Jonathan began their project with significantly more agriculture and horticulture experience than I—they were already well-educated and experienced in the field. But what they offer their readers when detailing their 10+ years in Holyoke, MA, is the encouragement to take nothing and turn it into paradise. They took a dilapidated property with poor soil, toxic fill, and no vegetation other than Norway maples (as well as the resulting shade from the trees’ canopies) and turned it into a four-season gardening oasis by following the principles of permaculture. I have two acres of nutrient-rich clay-loam soil with full sun. I’m sure I can do the same thing if I’m willing to put in the same time and effort—and here’s where “permanent agriculture” piqued my interest.

According to Toby Hemenway, the author of Gaia’s Garden, a must-have resource on home-scale permaculture, permaculture principles create gardens that really work with nature. “Permaculture uses a set of principles and practices to design sustainable human settlements. If we think of practices like organic gardening, recycling, natural building, renewable energy, and even consensus decision-making and social-justice efforts as tools for sustainability, then permaculture is the toolbox that helps us organize and decide when and how to use those tools (5).”

Whew, that is a mouth-full. I have been reading resources on permaculture for over a year now, and I am still wrapping my head around the vast spectrum of theories, techniques, and practices that make up this new way to approach gardening. So here is how I simplify it in my head:

Permaculture is way to model your landscape design that mimics the way nature sustains itself without human intervention. It then uses ecology to work for humans in the most productive and sustainable ways, with the least amount of effort and resources needed to maintain production. Still too dense? How about this: Permaculture works by creating systems where each part benefits the other parts in multiple ways, naturally. And as Paradise Lot details, permaculture creates ecosystems that require much less human support once established, thereby freeing up time, money, and resources—especially important to this newbie homesteader.

After thousands of pages of reading, being both inspired and overwhelmed, it is difficult to figure out where to start. Do I map out my whole property? Do amend all the soil? Do re-do all my current garden spaces? Do I map the sun for a year over my gardens? I have worked on all of these in increments, but two acres is just too large (and too expensive) to design all in one shot. So what seems most applicable and relative to me in the immediate present is to apply permaculture principles to the orchard we will be planting in a few short weeks. I will work on one space at a time and as I continue, I will link the next piece to the last. I will start with a drawn design of the orchard. I will test and amend the soil. I have informally kept track of the sun’s movement over this plot throughout the day and over the course of the year. I will invest the time in planning so that I do not waste time or money on creating a garden that will not succeed as I envision.

But the part I am most excited about is establishing “polycultures” around each fruit tree—a variety of plants working together to benefit each other—plants to benefit soil heath and provide nutrition for the orchard, plants to attract pollinators, host plants for beneficial/predatory insects, plants to repel pests, plants for mulch and/or ground cover. And not only do these supporting plants benefit the fruit trees, but they also benefit us by providing a decorative landscape and additional food sources (eg: herbs).

I am very excited about changing the way I garden, even if that means having to rip up a lot of lawn we worked so hard to establish. And though permaculture can seem too grand and lofty to attempt as an individual, by reading about Eric’s paradise project and the years it took to establish, I know that by working on one space at a time in my own landscape, while keeping the overarching permaculture principles in my head, I will be able to do the same thing.

Stay tuned for the next permaculture post—Permaculture Orchard Landscape Plan—which will detail the plans and plants I am considering for the orchard polyculture.