Thursday, July 21, 2016

I Lost a Caterpillar in my Car

Guest post by Susie Hill, Frederick County Master Gardener and former HGIC Horticulture Consultant. This article originally appeared in the Frederick News-Post.

“My mom threw your caterpillar in the grass when you weren’t looking.” Ella’s gargantuan blue eyes got even bigger. “I think I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.” I could only laugh and appreciate finally having the answer to what had happened to the tomato hornworm caterpillar that got lost in my car two years ago.
It was summertime. I had been in the tomato patch and found the largest tomato hornworm I’d ever seen in my life. So often, I see the evidence of their presence (missing foliage and poop, also known as frass) but I can’t find the camouflaged, chewing destroyer. On this lucky day, I found him.
The temptation to put him in a paper bag and take him to the pool was irresistible. I had to show curious children his enormous mandibles and explain how they move sideways instead of up and down like ours. I felt compelled to share that this caterpillar would one day become a sphinx moth. They marveled at my find — and its mandibles. Unfortunately, I didn’t account for the fact that jaws so strong could easily chew through the paper bag I’d chosen to use as his holding pen. This is how I lost a caterpillar in my car.
It could have turned out differently … if that caterpillar had been found by a braconid wasp first. Braconids are small parasitic wasps that feed on hornworms. The adult female lays her eggs under the surface of the unsuspecting hornworm’s skin. She uses a special piece of equipment, called an ovipositor, to lay her eggs. As an aside, ovipositors are commonly referred to as stingers. This means, of course, that male bees and wasps have no stingers. Anyway, eggs hatch out and feed on the caterpillar from the inside. Once they are ready to pupate, the larvae emerge from the skin and form white cocoons on the outside of the body. If I’d seen white cocoons on my hornworm, I would have left him in my tomato patch — one, because it would be dead — and two, the emerging wasps would go on to parasitize more hornworms.
As luck would have it, I found the hornworm first, got a little too excited, and as a natural consequence of my actions, lost an enormous hornworm in my car. It was unlucky to lose that thing in my car. For weeks, and months, I kept my eyes open for it, fully expecting a horrific smell to overtake my van — something even worse than my van’s usual malodor. Finally, after two years passed, I got my answer.
Historically, the sight and smell of my van’s interior has offended adults and children alike. Ella’s mom, Anne, has compassion for me due to my lack of home and car management skills, so she offered to help me clean my van. While my back was turned, she found the hornworm dangling from the bottom of one of the seats. Knowing that I would have tried to take it home to feed to my chickens, she swiftly tossed it in the grass, instructing her daughter with sign language for SHHH.
My hope for your tomato patch this summer is that the braconid wasps find the tomato hornworms before you. For the sake of your family, I hope that if you do find them, you will not choose to put them in a paper bag and take them to the pool for show and tell. If you don’t have a friend as nice as mine, the story might not end so well for you.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The year without a blueberry

Every year in the garden seems to teach a lesson about how things change. This year, I've been disappointed in my blueberries.

I wrote a post a few years ago about my blueberries and how I always manage to harvest lots of them despite giving them no protection from birds (and there are lots of birds around). Last year I lost a few more berries than usual, enough that I decided this spring to hang up some bird-scare tape, the shiny red-and-silver kind that's supposed to make birds think your plants are on fire. Well, I guess my birds are daredevils, or attracted to flashy things, and certainly extra hungry, because they've been taking ALL the berries from the day the first ones got close to ripe - in fact since then I have not seen a single berry looking anything like blue.

Blueberry harvest this year = absolutely zero. Down from weeks of decent harvest last year, plenty to eat fresh and freeze. So why the sudden change? My neighbor, a Master Naturalist, says she's seen a lot more jays, catbirds, and other large birds that enjoy and can handle the size of blueberries. We have many large trees in the neighborhood, and lots of food for birds, between insects, other berry and seed plants, and supplemental birdfeeders. Maybe the population is up and they have finally figured out - after 15 years or more! - that the blueberries are available.

I will also confess that I haven't pruned my blueberries properly in a while, and I plan to do that this coming late winter (and will remember to post about it then!). This should make the crop heavier next year - but will it be enough? A few flowers might have succumbed to the late freezes this spring, which decreased the fruit setting. However, I still should have been able to harvest some!

It's particularly infuriating to lose the harvest this year, because I've just planted six new blueberry plants in the space where we took out a useless privet hedge. However, the cleared space does allow me to put up some kind of structure around the new bed - something attractive, since it's a prominent part of our landscaping - that can be covered with bird netting while the plants are bearing. I won't be able to do that with the original four plants, unfortunately.

I also plan to create a structure around my newly redesigned black raspberry planting, since I have not harvested any of those either this year - and again, we are used to sharing with the birds, but always get plenty for both fresh eating and preserving a bit.

And who knows - maybe next year the birds will find something else to snack on, and the harvest will go back to normal. Anyone who's been gardening for a while can tell you that each year is different - the year you get no tomatoes, or no squash, or no beans, and the years that those crops are super-abundant - and the patterns are not necessarily predictable.

And luckily, the local farms have plenty of blueberries to pick - so my husband was still able to start his planned blueberry wine, and we've had snacks and cereal toppings and desserts. It's just not June and July without blueberries!