Monday, August 23, 2021

Red in Tooth and Claw

Our dog came upon this large Chinese praying mantis in our yard this morning in incriminating circumstances. The mantis was on the ground directly beneath our hummingbird feeder, and I found the insect surrounded by small feathers, with some of which it appears to have bedecked itself according to the custom of hunters from time immemorial. It reared up in an intimidating manner and the dog, who is no fool, backed off and quickly lost interest.

Until I can decide its fate I have brought it inside and put it in a transparent plastic container where I can keep an eye on it, and vice versa. I can't simply release it; it's an invasive species and they do eat hummingbirds, as improbable as that seems. On the other hand I can't quite bring myself to kill it.

For the last few hours it has been hanging on upside down to the lid of the container, which permits the passage of air. I gave it three Mexican bean beetles in case it got hungry, but they appear to have died of fright. Now it's staring in my direction, awaiting my next move. If I am murdered in my sleep tonight you will know who to blame.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Nancy Griffith 1953-2021

The gifted songwriter and performer Nanci Griffith has died at the age of 68. Here she is in her prime, with a lovely live version of one of her best songs.

The New York Times has an obit.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021


One day I hope to retire to grow the vegetable marrows, but until then I have only the window box. — Hercule Poirot

Il faut cultiver notre jardin. — Candide

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
— Yeats, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

When a knight retires his only plan
is to live in peace and quiet like a gentleman.
He makes a modest living selling honey and cheese
and his golden helmet is a hive for bees.
— Peter Blegvad, "Golden Helmet"

Monday, August 02, 2021

Report of the Committee on Agriculture (I)

I admit it: I'm a squash obsessive. Not so much summer squash, which actually don't grow that well for me these days, but the winter cucurbits, the acorns, buttercups, butternuts, hubbards, and all the other countless hard-shell variations. I like eating them (some are better than others), but I really like growing them. As much as I enjoy planting and harvesting beans, turnips, tomatoes, peppers, and all the rest, to me there's a particular satisfaction to be found in the heft and durability of a winter squash that just can't be derived from any other vegetable. You stick a few seeds in a little patch of ground and a few months later, if it all works out, you have vines trailing all over your yard and a nice solid crop of produce that can be measured in pounds or even tens of pounds instead of a few ounces. If you're lucky, the harvested squash will keep all winter and be on your table for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Squash aren't foolproof, however. Where I live, the insidious squash vine borer — a kind of moth larva — reliably wipes out any potential crop of zucchini, yellow squash, and the like, anything, that is, that belongs to the most widely cultivated and diverse species of squash, Cucurbita pepo. There are strategies for combatting the borers (spraying with chemicals isn't an option for me), but ultimately if you've got a serious infestation your vines are likely toast. Fortunately for the gardener, however, there are other squash that show strong resistance to the borers, especially anything belonging to the species Cucurbita moschata, the most familiar type of which is the delicious and productive butternut squash. These, knock on wood, have done reliably well for me. But I'll save the butternuts for a later post; they are, after all, still on the vine as I write.

Acorn squash, which are C. pepo, are a bit of an outlier among winter squash, maturing earlier than the massive blue hubbards and their ilk, but also not storing quite as long. I've tried them once or twice, but the borers caught up with them eventually and I didn't get much yield. This year, however, something unexpected happened. I designated two areas in my garden for squash, one a strip in the back of the yard where long butternut vines have plenty of space to stretch out, and a 4'x4' section of framed bed in my main garden which I set aside for zucchini (which generally need less room) and just a couple of butternuts, figuring that I could train a vine or two onto the adjacent lawn when they overflowed the bed. As it happened, though, the squash got the jump on me.

When I cook store-bought winter squash in late fall, it's been my habit to scoop out the seeds in the center and fling them into the garden, which by then is bare, figuring that the bits of stringy pulp will enrich the soil and that the seeds will be snacked on by squirrels and other critters. (I do the same with the remains of our Jack O'Lanterns, which by the way are also C. pepo.) I'm not sure how much interest our squirrels actually have in these offerings, but in any case some of the seeds occasionally survive and work their way into the soil, where they germinate as volunteers in the spring. This year I had a bumper crop of unidentified volunteers popping up by mid-April, a few weeks before I had planned to plant. I left some and pulled up the rest, then put in four or five hills of the seeds I had purchased over the winter. As it happened, those purchased seeds never really got going, but on the other hand the mystery volunteers absolutely thrived, sending out dense growths of vines that would have overwhelmed my entire main garden if I hadn't taken steps to contain them. And soon enough I had vines full of squash, which turned out to be the very acorn squash I was sure wouldn't grow successfully for me.

Not only that, I had fruit from at least three and possible four distinct kinds of acorn squash, a conventional green one, a white one, a mottled green-and-white striped one that resembles the "Mardi Gras" cultivar, and a more perfectly spherical type that may in fact be a small pumpkin. I don't remember what varieties I may have bought for eating last fall and scooped out, but there were presumably several. As I said, I'm fond of squash.
In all, before the vines started to show signs of decline at the end of July (those borers, I suspect), I harvested about fifteen squash from that tiny 4'x4' plot. Which gives me hope that next year, if I deliberately plant acorn squash, I might actually get a few. If, as the saying goes, even a blind pig will find a few acorns, maybe even an utterly unscientific backyard gardener can raise a few acorn squash.