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October 2006
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December 2006

Reading About Wasp Behavior

I just bought a second book on the behavior of wasps. This one is called Wasp Farm, and is by Howard Ensign Evans. This wasp expert watched wasps on an 8 acre farm in upstate New York, and wrote about it in 1963. I found the book used, with the title on the spine barely readable, but when I opened the cover and saw the inside cover emblazoned with a wasp family tree, I knew this was going to have solid information. And I am looking forward to the chapter called "Thirteen Ways to Carry a Dead Fly."

My other book on wasps is called The Hunting Wasp. It was written in 1955 by a South African whose name is John Crompton. He reports on the observations of a number of others, including the famous French entomologist, Henri Fabre, and the Americans, a couple by the name of Peckham.

Most wasps are predators or parasites of garden pests. For example, some dig a nest in the ground and bring to it a paralyzed caterpillar. In this they lay eggs, which hatch into larvae, and these eat out the innards of the caterpillar, pupate, then emerge as adult wasps. Others, tiny wasps, lay eggs in aphids, parasitizing them.

Wasp behavior is sometimes quite remarkable, as when the Ammophila wasp spend considerable time choosing a pebble of just the right shape and weight, carries it to her soil-covered nest, and uses it to hammer down the loose soil. A tool-using wasp!

I'll report on this new (to me) book.

The bulbs are waiting to go in...

Every year I forget how difficult it is going to be to get all of the spring bulbs into the ground in time. In colder climates, winter is a time of rest for gardeners, but not here. We plant our spring bulbs in November or December, keeping them in the fridge until then, to make sure they get enough chill.

My mailorder bulbs came a couple of weeks ago, but then I took the trip to see Dad, and now Thanksgiving is upon us. And the days are suddenly short. (I was walking down the hill to pick up my serviced car the other night at 6:30, and in the dark, it felt like 10 o'clock.) Holiday preparations and rainy days will also reduce the time for planting. But the clock is ticking, and I know I must get all of these promising nuggets into the ground before the end of the year.

I need an old year's resolution, rather than a new one. This year, I will get every bulb into a nice, deep, well-fertilized planting hole before January 1st of 2008!

I have tete a tete daffodils, hyacinths, and crocus. And, for a friend, blue pearl iris, mixed parrot tulips and a purple turk's cap lily (Lilium martagon). This last is so intriguing. It is supposed to grow, to 5 or 6 feet tall, topped with many small purple lilies in summer. It is said to be shade tolerant, so I will put it mid border on the north side of a low fence, next to a camellia, and hope for the best.

Dad explains the Corn Plow

Still at my dad's house. We spent three hours on the web the other night. We visited this blog, and he read a bit of what I write for the Chroncle (at Then we researched some famous relatives of the last generation and just browsed about again. His caregiver was astonished that he stayed awake and alert for so long. I think he truly understood the breadth and scope of the internet and declared it a fine library.

I think one of the values of my visits to him is that I remind him of the names of plants and other info that no one else here would know. I mention the genus name of a plant, and he tells me the species, or he mentions the traits of one of his fruit trees, and I remind him of the cultivar. He looks joyful when he remembers the names. Good for his memory and feelings of connection.

Dad taught me the scientific names of many plants when I was quite young. By the time I was 10 I was the go to kid in the school for 25 or 50 tree leaf collections with common and scientific names. Dad gave me this wonderful gift, and one I encourage my adult students to give to kids they may have or know. Even if you only teach a few scientific names or plants or animals to a child, I am convinced that it will make it easier for them to begin to learn them later.

Yes, I agree with the person who has commented that gardening and farming can be good for one's health, although farming can also be dangerous due to danger from animals, machines, and chemicals. Dad farmed before the machines and chemicals, so he had only the animals to fear. He doesn't have any stories to tell about his own relationships with animals however. He seems, on the contrary, to have been exceptionally good with animals. He tells of taming a particularly fractious heifer and getting her to let them milk her. Before he began, the cow tried to gore people and other animals, afterwards, Dad could lead her around by the horns.

His father did have a close encounter with a pig. A full-grown pig is a huge animal. The pig got angry and chased grandpa. Grandpa went across the pigpen and over the fence faster than he would have thought possible, but escaped injury.

Another story he told was about plowing the corn. He said that a team of 2 horses pulled the "corn plow." I asked him to tell me what a corn plow was. He replied that it was used to keep weeds down when the corn was very young. It ran between the rows and piled a bit of earth on the rows. This killed the weeds between the rows by uprooting them, and the ones in the row by smothering. "Well, I said, that wouldn't work for, say, carrots, because they would grow slower than the weeds. You would just bury them. It works for the corn because it grows so fast." He agreed, saying that you had to be more careful with fragile garden crops. (I think that covering the base of the corn would probably be a help because corn has adventitious roots at its base, and covering them probably would make the corn stronger and less likely to blow over in a storm.)

Well, tomorrow it is back to the Bay Area, where I hear it has been raining. The better to get our radishes to grow.

My Dad's Banana Tree

I'm down in San Diego County visiting my Dad, who is a few months from his 100th birthday. He has a banana tree with 7 ripe fruits on it, and we ate one of them today. Pretty good little banana. He says they don't get as strongly flavored, that unpleasant too-much-banana oil taste that the standard grocery variety gets when it is too ripe.

Dad transplanted this banana tree about 4 years ago, from the back to the front yard, having decided that it was getting too battered by wind in the back. Mind you this was a big clump of banana stems, and on one of my visits, it had disappeared. Took me a couple of days to notice that he had moved one 4-foot tall stem to the front. At the time, Dad was walking with 2 canes, so I know it took him a while to get rid of the old plants and plant one stem. I had sent him a short-handled shovel, so he could dig sitting down, and that's how he dug the hole for the stem he moved.

These days, after 2 broken hips and 2 hip replacements, he is in a wheelchair mostly. During his recovery from one and then the other broken hip, the plants in his garden got somewhat sporatic watering, but most survived, and now my brother has put leaky hose all around plants so caregivers can water more easily. Dad has been anticipating these ripe bananas, saving them to eat during my visit.The banana plant now has as many stems as it once had in back, and they are a lot less wind-battered. There is a second inflorescense that has maybe 50 green fruits on it, They take 18 months from fruit set to ripe fruit, and he is looking forward to those bananas.

Ode to a Radish

Radishes are supposed to be easy to grow. Sometimes they are. This fall we put them in at just the right time to get cool weather at sowing, then some warm days and cool nights to fatten them up. They were French Breakfast radishes, and they sure were good. Red on top, white at the tip, plump, solid, crisp, and mild. What else could you ask of a radish? I feel grateful to the radishes that gave their all in our City College garden.

The only drawback was that we didn't plant enough of them! None of us had enough for a plate of radishes, as described in Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings, by Edward Espe Brown.

"platters of radishes, brilliantly red and curvaceous, some elongated and white tipped, rootlets intact with topknots of green leaves sprouting from the opposite end. Gazing at the plenitude of radishes, I felt a swelling joy." "To be able to see the virtue, to appreciate the goodness of simple, unadorned ingredients--this is probably the primary task of a cook. When radishes aren't good enough, pretty soon nothing is good enough. Everything falls short. Nothing measures up. Yet, when someone can pick up a radish and be delighted, this is the basis for innumerable dishes. Delight moves through radishes and people alike, letting things speak, perhaps even sing for themselves, bringing out the best at each step. A radish appears, radiantly expressing the radishness of radishes, and all brings benefit."

Yes, that's pretty much the way I felt about these radishes.

We have more radishes coming up now. I wonder if the weather will let us have such perfection twice in one season?

Rains Bring Spring in Fall

A gentle rain has been falling off and on for the past two days. Farmers used to call it a female rain--one that fell in small drops over a long period. The long, slow delivery lets all of the water soak into the soil. Male rains, on the other hand, were ones that fell hard and fast. Dramatic all right, but the big drops, falling in a short period, often lead to runoff, so these rains aren't as effective at getting the soil wet through. No comment on sexual innuendos.

Point is, the replenishing of soil moisture is beginning, the little green seedlings have begun to appear in unwatered places. Soon the hills of California will be the sweetest shade of green, and the greens in our vegetable gardens will be tender and sweet. Our glorious second spring! Our mediterranean paradox of spring in fall. As the sun retreats, the rain gets things going again.

Seeds we planted last week include mustard spinach (a mild mustard), arugula, radish, and cilantro. We transplanted young kale and mizuna mustard on a hot day, hoping it would take root before it wilted. The transplants have been droopy, but the central shoot has been upright, so I know this soft rain will get them going.

It also hasn't been very cold, so I still have hopes that a couple more cucumbers will ripen, and that the annual mallows will bloom. (One pink mallow is blooming now; I have my fingers crossed for the rest.)