GREEN THOUGHTS: Chipmunks drive me nuts

This chipmunk photo was taken by Pat Thorne, a Rensselaer County master gardener.

IT’S EASY TO DISLIKE MOST GARDEN PESTS, including spittlebugs (ick!), slime mold (yuck!) and jumping worms (ew!). The rub comes when the pest is cute, and not much is cuter than a chipmunk. A chipmunk or two can add animal color to a garden—they screech, I jump, and I swear they laugh—but my tolerance decreases as their population increases. Yet who but a real jerk could hate a chipmunk?

So that’s the rub. But I do have some facts on my side. Chipmunks invaded my large planters and uprooted the transplants repeatedly, killing a couple of coleus at $6.95 each. After my sweet corn germinated, the chipmunks pulled up each seedling and ate the withering seed and expanding roots. I blamed the deer for sampling the tomatoes, but that turned out to be the chipmunks. I wouldn’t mind sharing, but why do they have to take a bite out of each ripe tomato, then leave the remains to rot, and sample the green ones, too? They’re taking their cheeky behavior a bit too far. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Mr. Cottontail

Mr. Cottontail. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

DESPITE OUR RESTRICTED SUMMER our local cottontail rabbit population has thrived. By the varying sizes of offspring they have raised several batches of bunnies that are all over the yard and trails through the woods. Last week the cutest tiny little one raced off the driveway and dove into a hole under a flat slab of concrete left over from when the house foundation was poured over a dozen years ago. At least that wasted bit has been put to good use.

We have rabbit droppings everywhere and they are often sitting under cars parked in the drive. They are rodents with teeth that grow all their lives, so they constantly chew on things to wear them down and can be very destructive. Years ago, we noticed that a neighbor had flowerpots that seemed flung across the lawn. We stopped and asked what happened, and she said a rabbit kept gnawing on her patio door. She got so mad she picked up some empty flowerpots and started throwing them at it. She wasn’t sure if she hit it, but it hadn’t come back.

This technique or similar measures may be taken here because a rabbit is the prime suspect for gnawed garage door trim at about the height that a rabbit could reach. Chipmunks or mice had already made a hole in the corner of the rubber seal at the bottom of the overhead door and have been coming in. Our old cat caught most of the creatures in the garage. He would certainly have taken care of the rabbits too, but we did not let him outdoors because of the numerous cat predators in the area. Our current cat gets into things he shouldn’t so isn’t allowed to hunt the garage. If the rabbits eventually gnaw their way in that will be another story. Inside the garage may become his territory too. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Summer cannot end

White-tailed deer buck in velvet. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT WAS LATE AFTERNOON of a beautiful day when a large deer burst out of the woods on a dead run into the field. Sometimes biting flies will drive a deer crazy or a coyote. This deer had strange horns and binoculars clarified the situation. He stopped for a minute and incredibly, his 8-point rack was pink. The eyes looked wild as he panted and shook his head.

This time of year the weather starts to cool and daylight decreases, triggering the fall rut or our white tail deer mating season. It signals hormones to change and the velvet on the antlers becomes irritated. The brown, blood-filled covering nourished the horn as it began growing in June, and now bucks try to get rid of it by rubbing their horns on bushes and saplings until the velvet hangs off in tattered shreds. The buck in the field had removed it all, leaving the newly uncovered antlers light pink with blood running down his face. Tines were intact and when dry and fully hardened he would be a formidable opponent to other bucks in the area.

There had been several bucks grazing together as summer pals and now they have separated and been chased out by this big boy. Aggressive competition for does ends friendships. Most of the fawns are losing their spots, are bigger and plump from grazing clover from the field, and more independent from their mothers. Their winter grayish hair is coming in and the reddish summer coat is mottled and fading. The does and bucks change coats too. The gray, coarser hair is hollow, which provides strength and better insulation against cold and snow. Does are becoming more nervous and look over their shoulders between bites of grass. The young still do not have a clue but follow their elders or get out of the way. Their peaceful summer is ending. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: August Gold

A male American goldfinch. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

SOMETHING SOFT AND SHINY FLOATED PAST reminiscent of a dandelion seed attached to its airy parachute. It rose and fell with the slight breeze and sparkled in the sunshine. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a tiny person and ride it into the distance, miles away? It rose and disappeared as several more came through in its place.

What was it and where was the source? It was too large to be a dandelion seed and it was too early for milkweed to disperse. After following them back and westward, there was the answer, a large clump of thistle and an industrious little bird gleefully pulling apart the once purple but now seed-filled brown flowers. This was the source of the floating seeds. Bits of fluff stuck to the bird’s head and body while it extracted and ate the thistle seed. For every seed he ate, several escaped to drift away and start new plants for next year’s harvest. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Monarchs are here

Monarch butterfly. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT WAS WONDERFUL YESTERDAY to finally see a monarch butterfly fluttering around at my place. Each season has something to look forward to, and finding this butterfly always makes me happy. Milkweed, or Asclepias, is a genus of herbaceous plants that contains over 140 species. Their blossoms are one of the sweetest flowers and insects are attracted to their abundant nectar. There is quite a variety of insects, from beetles to bees to butterflies, that sip the nectar and sap, and munch on the nutritious leaves.

Milkweeds are important to us too. Some types have edible leaves that can be cooked and used as greens. Milkweeds, particularly the species called butterfly weed, are used in gardens for their beautiful orange blossoms, sweet smell, and their ability to attract butterflies. Some species of milkweed may contain toxins, so it is good to identify the variety before handling or eating them. In fall the milkweed plants form pods of seeds that dry, open, and the seed, via its attached silky parachute, is carried off on the breeze. The silk has been used for insulation and filler for pillows. The milky sap contains latex in an amount too low to be a good source.

Probably the most important value of milkweed is being the host plant for the monarch butterfly. This butterfly lays its eggs on milkweed and the resulting larvae eat the leaves. Eventually it finishes the pupa stage on the plant and emerges as an adult. No milkweed means no monarchs. Over the past years there have been fewer and fewer monarchs and the decrease is a mystery. The theories for their demise include the spraying of insecticides on crops, and the use of chemicals to kill the milkweed and other “weeds.” Many smaller farmlands and weedy fields have been left to grow up to forests or developed for houses, while the remaining farms are fewer and larger, and tend to spray crops much more than in the past. Mowing and bush hogging also destroys the plants and the monarch eggs and larva. Read more…