Keeping the Ants Out of the Hummingbird Feeder

We have a little community of Black Chinned and Rufus Hummingbirds in our backyard.  After work, Frank and I like to sit under the shade of the elm trees and watch them fight over the feeder.  Recently, a large adult male moved into the neighborhood.  He sits on the electric cable above us, guarding the nectar against the other hummers who might try to eat there too.

When we set up the feeder at the beginning of the summer we had a huge ant problem.  Hundreds of ants would climb up the post and over the hanger and down into the feeder, where they would drown in the sugar water.  The birds turned up their beaks and refused to drink there and told their friends that we were not keeping up the sugar bar.  Then they attempted to drink from our red patio umbrella.

Frank tried spraying ant killer on the pole.  Not only did this not work, but it put pesticide on the buffalo grass we have growing there, disrupting whatever might be living down there minding its own business.

So, I checked google who recommended a water trap for ants.  A quick stop at amazon.com and a little red cup on a hook arrived a few days later.  We hung it from the hook and hung the feeder from the loop on the bottom, filled the cup with water and waited.

We were not disappointed.  The ants climbed up and over and down until they reached the water.  The ant super highway screeched to a stop.  The feeder has remained ant-free ever since.  The birds are back to fighting amongst themselves over the feeder and we get hours of entertainment.

There are several versions of ant traps for hummingbird feeders.  Some, like ours, use a cup of water as a deterrent.  There’s one that is just a copper wire but I’m not really sure how it works.  Here’s the affiliate like to the one that we have (I get a small commission from your purchase, thank you).

Hummingbirds are one of my favorite parts of summer.   Post your hummingbird pictures in the comments!

Sunday Garden Round-Up

Check out what other gardeners are doing this week.

For my friends who are agonizing over the right plants for container gardens, check out Pam Penick’s new post in Digging

The AZ Plant Lady is growing bouganvillea in containers.  Bougies in containers work great in high altitude gardens because they can come indoors in the winter.

The Lazy Gardener talks Tarantula Wasps

And Sacred Datura at the Santa Fe Garden blog (though I never irrigate my datura, just sayin.)

What’s Up With My Zucchini?

When I was a kid my father, who was never one for moderation, would plant a 20 foot garden row of zucchini.  While the garden was meant to keep a family of 5 in vegetables for a year, this was over the top.  We ate zucchini in one form or another nearly every day during the summer and two entire freezer shelves were dedicated to squash that had been either sliced or grated.  This does not even to begin to count the zucchini we gave away to – well – anyone who wasn’t quick enough to flee.

This is why, along with the humiliation of other people’s Instagram posts of giant, fecund zucchini, it is so aggravating to me that my plants are failing.

It’s not squash bugs.  So far, I’ve been spared the rape and pillage of my curcubits by the mongols of the insect world by some unknown sorcery.   But there is some other dark magic afoot.

So here’s the situation:  the  leaves are big and lush and I am getting both male and female blossoms and they are setting fruit.  The fruit gets to be about 2 inches long, then turns yellow and falls off.

There are two possible reasons that my squash are rotting:

  1.  It’s been hot and even though I’ve been pretty diligent about watering, the heat stress will definitely cause vegetables to fail.  However, my cherry tomatoes are fine.
  2. Calcium deficiency:  Last fall I bought 2 loads of composted horse manure and sawdust and sort of half-assed a lasagna garden (a layer of manure, layer of cardboard, layer of leaves, repeat) and used that for the growing medium in the vegetable beds. Even though the composted manure sat over the winter, I think it may still have been a little high in ammonia.  Elevated ammonia levels can cause a calcium deficiency.  However, I added some bone meal to the garden beds during the first week in July and nothing changed.

So, I’m not sure what is the problem – heat stress or calcium deficiency.  It would be great to get a few more  zucchini this year, but I’m not holding my breath.  We’re planning on an entirely different set up for next years garden, to include wicking beds (more on that later) and a shade structure that doesn’t fall down the first time  the wind blows.  Maybe as the temps drop through late summer and fall, the plants will be happier.

If any of you have an answer, I’d love to hear it!   Post it in the comments.

 

4 Great Shrubs for the High Desert Garden

I’ve put a few new plants into the Hellstrip this week.  I’d like to say I showed some restraint but that would be lying to all of you.  What can I say?  Plants of the Southwest had a sale and it would have been foolish to let such an opportunity pass me by.

But my purchases weren’t entirely frivolous.  I picked up 4 shrubs that fit well into our plan.  They are either edible or medicinal, require very little water and fill in a part of the wildlife habitat that we are developing.  Our plants are still pretty small compared to what they will be in a few years.

  1. Creosote Bush:  One of the oldest living organisms on the planet is an 11,000-year-old Creosote Bush in the Mojave desert.  It can live for up to 2 years without water but when it does rain, the resins in the leaves give off the fragrance of the desert during monsoon season.  The creosote bush is antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal and its constituents are being studied as a treatment for cancer.  The roots secrete a substance that keeps its own seeds from germinating but it’s an important “nurse plant” for other native species.20626145_469784536724136_6038609878967296277_o
  2. Ephedra viridis:  A beautiful, nearly leafless shrub that is a native to the Southwest, it is traditionally used for bronchitis, as a stimulant tea, and for discomfort due to a bladder infection (BTW: this is not meant to be medical advice).  It loves sandy soil that’s not too rich and prefers to stay on the dry side.  The flowers and cones aren’t flashy but the birds like them.20729132_469784543390802_2621974716829113112_o
  3. Four Winged Salt Bush:  I was a bit ambivalent about adding this to the garden.  It gets messy looking, doesn’t have nice flowers or a lot of obvious advantages other than being extremely drought tolerant.  But it turns out that this rangy looking shrub is incredibly valuable.  The seeds, which are high in niacin, can be boiled up like oatmeal and the leaves can be used to season soups and meats.  The dried leaves are also used by the Zuni people as a soap.20643528_469784540057469_3326413689700785772_o
  4. Fernbush:  Also known as Desert Sweet and loaded down with creamy white flowers in the summer, this shrub is hugely popular with pollinators.  It’s also a great refuge for birds and other small animals.  The leaves can be made into a tea to relieve an upset stomach.20645499_469784510057472_7791826574679091434_o

These are fairly slow growing plants but when mature, will take up quite a lot of real estate, so I’ll have to be conscious of that as I consider what to plant next.  They will eventually give us a lot of privacy from the street traffic while also providing food, medicine, shelter and beauty for us and the other living things in the neighborhood.

Check out the links below for more information on these amazing plants:

The ethonoherbalist talks about creosote bush and Four Winged Salt Bush

New Mexico State University talks about ephedra

The Awkward Botanist talks about fernbush/

What useful plants have you considered putting into your difficult locations?  Let me know in the comments.

5 Reasons To Create a Certified Wildlife Habitat in Your Garden

We live in downtown Albuquerque, not far from the Rio Grande Bosque State Park.  In about 15 minutes I can walk to a beautiful riparian habitat filled with egrets, herons, song birds, porcupines, beavers and muskrats.  While we can’t get the fabulous water birds in our yard, we can create a wildlife habitat at home that brings in songbirds, lizards and other wild things.

I can practically see your eyebrows raising as you read this.  Why on earth would we want to do that?  Doesn’t wildlife = cat eating coyotes and smelly skunks?  How does this benefit a city dweller?  We’ll start with the five most obvious ways

  1. Year Round Beauty:  a backyard wildlife habitat has a wide range color and texture that changes throughout the year.

2.    Low Maintenance:  If you choose native plants or non-natives that are appropriate to your location, you’ll spend less time watering, mowing, and taking care of it in general

3.  Natural Pest Control: A healthy eco-system isn’t over run by bugs bent on ravaging     your veggies.  The whole circle of life is happening right there in the garden without any interference on your part

4.  Free entertainment:  Watching the hummingbirds battle it out over the feeder like tiny fighter jets is way better than any war movie

5. Helps Protect Our Native Birds and Other Wildlife:  Urban development is happening at ever increasing speed, often with little thought of its effects on the non-human world.  We can help to mitigate some of the damage we cause by using native plants and taking care of our winged and wild neighbors.

To create this little urban oasis, you need 4 things:

Food: put out a bird feeder or plant sunflowers.

Cover: anyplace where critters can hide from predators is good.  We have a butterfly bush, and a huge rosemary where sparrows like to hide.

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Butterfly Bush

Water:  a bird bath or a fountain. Bees and lizards will appreciate it too.  You might also be visited by thirsty mammals.

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Our birdbath under the Desert Willow. The rocks are there so that the bees have a place to land and get a drink.

Places to raise young:  trees or shrubs for nesting, bat boxes, bird houses etc.  Often, the cover and food source will also serve as the place to raise babies.

It doesn’t take much by way of effort or resources.  You may already be doing these things in your garden without any special recognition.  If you really love this process and want to tell the world what you are doing, you can register your backyard habitat with the National Wildlife Federation for $25 and they’ll send you a sign to put in your yard.  This donation will help them in their work to protect wildlife and habitat, advocate for the environment and confront climate change and make you look super-green to your neighbors.

Starting Baby Cacti From Cuttings

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Don’t judge my mini-forest too harshly, we’ve just started!

One of my ongoing projects is landscaping our Hellstrip aka parkway aka that strip of dirt between the sidewalk and the street that gets full sun and zero water.  When we bought the house there was nothing in it but dirt and goat-heads, the bane of bike riders and barefoot folks throughout the southwest.  Before we left the country, my husband had weed barrier fabric and crusher fine gravel put down.  There was no real curb appeal but it was easy to maintain.

After doing some reading on urban permaculture, I decided to create a dry climate food forest in that part of the yard.  So I started out with 3 mesquite trees and 3 banana yuccas.  The mesquites have edible seed pods that can be ground up to make a flour and the yuccas will have edible fruit, flowers and roots.

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Banana Yucca (Yucca Baccata) and Opuntia Ficus-Indica (Indian Fig Prickly Pear)

I’ve also added Prickly Pear and Cholla (cho-ya) cacti to my baby “forest”.  The fruits and flowers of both these cacti are edible and the pad of the prickly pear is absolutely delicious and is a staple of both New Mexican and Latin American cuisine.

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This Indian Fig Prickly Pear was transplanted last fall and already has fruit and a new pad.

So far, I’ve got 3 varieties of prickly pear and one variety of Cholla – the pencil joint cholla and have developed a bit of an obsession with the prickly pears.  Just in the southwest, there are 20+ varieties of Opuntias, from bright purple to dark green, spineless to covered in 2 inch-long daggers.  All of them are edible but the most common is the Indian Fig variety, which can be found in dry climates around the world, even in Greece and Morocco.

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Cow’s Tongue Prickly Pear

Although you can pick these plants up at big box stores, native plant stores, and online you can certainly get them for free.  All the cactus in my garden are grown from cuttings ( I found a few of them just laying on the sidewalk) and it’s ridiculously simple to get them started.  You’ll need a pair of leather gloves, your trowel and a cactus pad or stem.  They don’t like nice, rich, loamy soil and if you give them too much to drink they’ll rot and you’ll be sad.

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Don’t forget the gloves! Pencil Joint Cholla (Opuntia Leptocaulis)
  1. Find the hottest driest place in your yard with the worst possible soil
  2. Bury your cactus cutting about 1/3 deep
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In the background: Golden Barrel Cactus and Pink Plains Penstemon (Penstemon Ambiguus)
  1. Dig out any tiny invisible spines that got through your gloves
  2. Ignore your cactus

In a couple of years, we’ll have all the tacos nopales we can eat – along with mesquite flour tortillas!  Now if I can just talk Frank into getting goats – we’ll have fresh cheese to go with them.

Have you tried starting cactus cuttings?  Tell me how it went in the comments.

Book Review – High and Dry: Gardening with Cold Hardy Dryland Plants by Robert Nold

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If you are gardening in the high desert, I have three words for you:  Buy.  This. Book.  Robert Nold is a Denver based gardener and columnist for the “Colorado Gardener” and North American Rock Garden Society who, after many years of fighting his high desert  conditions of crazy weather and poor soil, had an epiphany about native plants.  Instead of trying to coax rhododendrons out of rock hard, alkaline soil, low humidity, and high city water bills, he started looking at penstemons, purshias, and piñon pines.

Mr. Nold gives his garden no supplemental water and relies solely on the 15 inches of precipitation that Denver receives annually.  He admits that this gives his garden a slightly neglected look but he has blooms from the last frost to the first.

The first chapter of the book covers his journey from conventional, midwestern/east coast gardening to Dry Garden guru including his battle with caliche soil, plants that inexplicably died, and his neighbors’ confusion about the “weeds” growing in his front yard.

The rest of the book is divided into flowers, rock gardens, bulbs, cacti and shrubs which are best for irrigation free landscaping.  Each group is further divided into plant families and have some nice color photos of specimens.  His descriptions are honest and often humorous.

Besides the books of Judith Phillips, the New Mexico native plant expert, this is the first book I have read that specifically addresses the issues facing gardeners living at altitudes over 3000 ft:  hot, dry summers, freezing winters, high winds that desiccate delicate annuals, and our monsoon rains.

While he scoffs at formal garden design, he does give some practical advice for setting up a space.  Put in the pathways first, though these will probably change over time, and don’t put cactus next to pathways.  This is more for safety’s sake than aesthetics.

After reading High and Dry, I felt like my options completely opened up to a whole new world of colors and plant shapes that I had never explored.  This week, I planted 4 varieties of penstemon and some chocolate flowers.  When these little plants mature in a year or two, I’ll have flowers in reds, blues, and yellows that will attract all types of pollinators, from moths to hummingbirds.  While these plants will  need to be watered while they get established this summer, they should be pretty carefree next year.

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I don’t know how these got in my car.

I picked up my copy on Amazon.com.  It was a little pricey for a used book but totally worth it.  Robert Nold has also written books on Penstemons and Columbines. His articles can be found in “American Gardening” and “Horticulture” magazines. Below is my affiliate link to Amazon (I get a commission on the sale of the book).

 

What are your favorite gardening books?  Post them in the comments, please!

Confessions of a Serial Killer

 

I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself.

  • J.C. Raulston, paraphrasing Sir Peter Smithers –

We all have our fantasy gardens, fragrant and lush.  We are sometimes so overcome with plant lust that otherwise prudent and wise gardeners temporarily lose their minds. Impulse purchases of completely unsuitable plants happen to all of us, even when we know better.  There are errors in judgment like putting a delicate plant on the south side of the the house when it prefers partial shade or just straight up not watering the poor thing. And then there are the utter horticultural mysteries.  Things that should be perfect for our soil, our climate, and our watering schedule but shrivel up and die anyway, the greatest botanical betrayal of all.

I’ve killed dozens of plants this year alone and it’s only July.  I fully expect to kill again.  Here is the body count so far.

Lavender:  I love lavender.  I love the clean, resinous fragrance and the airy mound of pale purple blossoms buzzing with bees.  So far this year, I’ve killed 6.  They were in full sun, partial shade, fairly dry, slightly moist, luscious black garden soil and sandier soil.  In other words, they have had every possible combination of conditions that I could offer and they still died.  My heart breaks but I go on.

Peppermint:  WTF?   Who kills peppermint?  It’s the tribble of the plant world!

Western Sand Cherry (x4):  Supposedly good for arid environments. I tried it in 4 inch containers and I tried a bigger, 1 gallon size.  I tried full sun and partial shade in order to give it some protection.  Nope.

American Wild Plum:  It was planted 3 days before the hellish heat wave we had at the beginning of July and didn’t survive the week.

Showy Milkweed:  Totally in the wrong location.  It needs better soil and more moisture.

Wisteria:  more weeping.  Fortunately, it was a bareroot plant that I picked up for $5, so I didn’t lose much.

Clematis, both clematis jackmanii (which grows extravagantly in my brother’s garden, utterly neglected) and a native clematis, which hung on for a few weeks before dropping all of it’s leaves and giving up the ghost.

Peonies:  What was I thinking.

Red Sorrel:  It just couldn’t stand up to the heat, no matter how much I watered.

Missouri Evening Primrose: The right soil, the right light, the right water.  Died anyway.

Canna lilies: never even came up.

This isn’t a complete list of everything that has died under my care this year but it’s all I can bear to talk about without a stiff drink.  There’s a great episode of Let’s Argue About Plants by the editors of Fine Gardening magazine in which they discuss their many plant murders.  Even the experts fail sometimes.  The trick is not to quit but to learn your lessons, do your research and try again.  Persistence is always rewarded… eventually.

What have you killed in your garden this year?

What’s Happening This Week

It’s still crazy hot right now,  97 degrees to be exact.  I tried to walk around the front garden barefoot for about 3 seconds before I scurried into the house to find my flip-flops!  Even with the high temps, we have some blooms and some veggies.

The Desert Willow has been putting out gorgeous blooms for weeks now.  There are always little goldfinches hanging out, eating the seeds.

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Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis); the center piece of the front garden.

Underneath the Desert Willow is a cute little Gazania.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be in the shade but it likes a little more water than the rest of the garden.  Since it’s pretty shaded and heavily mulched, it seems to be happy here.

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Gazania, part of the aster family

The Dahlia’s have been the big surprise.  I really didn’t know if they’d do well but they don’t mind the drier soil and full sun, so YAY!  There will be more of these next summer for sure.

These delicate little things are called Fame Flowers.  They are out in the hellstrip, that area between the sidewalk and the street.  It’s hot and I only irrigate that section once a month.  The Flame Flowers are totally happy there and I’m going to add a lot more next year.  In the background, there is a sad little desert marigold, a baby Banana Yucca, and some Wine Cups that haven’t bloomed since we had that heat wave a few weeks ago.

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Fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus) will only grow 10 ” wide by 6 inches high. I’m so happy it’s a perennial!

 

In the same bed the Prickly Poppy’s are sending out a bloom every once in a while.  I think they’d be happier with a little more water.  They are natives of Colorado and Wyoming and are used to just a bit more precipitation.  We’ll see if they make it to next year.

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Prickly Poppy (Argemone albiflora)

 

The pink ice plant is also pretty happy.  Frank picked these out because the shiny, hot pink blooms look like plastic and he thought that was hilarious.  They’re low maintenance and don’t seem to mind the low water schedule.

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Pink Ice Plant (Delosperma ashtonii): Drought hardy and cold tolerant. Yes, please.

The Moonbeam Yarrow is having a second bloom.  I just pruned back the spent flowers, which I should have done 2 weeks ago.  Hopefully that will kick it into gear again.

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Yarrow (Achillea moonshine)

In the veggie garden, we’ve got cherry tomatoes.  Those never make it into the house because we eat them like candy.

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Cherry tomatoes, I planted 3 of these and am guarding vigilantly against Tomato Worms!

 

There is this mysterious volunteer squash.  I have no idea what it is, maybe a kobucha?  We’ll have to wait and see.

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Here’s a little sunflower among the chilis.  Sunflowers just seem to pop up everywhere.  I didn’t plant any but I think the birds probably scatter seeds from the feeders all over.

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Flamingo photo bomb

What’s going on at your place?  I’d love to see your pictures in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

The Great White Menace

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Every spring, little white butterflies flutter in the garden visiting all the spring flower.  They look so pretty and unassuming, so lovely among the lilacs.

Then the kale comes up, beautiful dark green and lush.  Dreams of sausage and kale soup settle in your brain.  You head to the garden with a bowl and scissors, whistling a happy song.  Then you notice the holes.  Your beautiful kale has been chewed to a skeleton.  Little light green caterpillars are hiding under the leaves, trying to look like they didn’t steal your food.

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Your garden has been invaded by Cabbage Moths.  An adult female lives for 3 weeks and during that short time can lay 300-600 eggs.  You’ll find tightly packed bunches of yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves.  They hatch in about a week and then set about to devouring your kohlrabi and broccoli for the next two weeks unless you catch the little buggers and do away with them.  If that wasn’t enough bad news for one paragraph, there can be up to 10 generations of moths in a single growing season.

The best control for these greedy things is to set up a healthy habitat in your garden with plenty of birds and beneficial insects like Green Lacewings, parasitic wasps and yellow jackets.  Trichogramma wasps are especially fond of nice plump larvae for laying their own eggs.

Floating row covers can keep the moths away from your veggies in the first place.  If they can’t get on your chard, they can’t lay eggs.

Tansy is a natural repellant for cabbage moths as well as a medicinal herb.  Plant it in between your brassicas to keep them at bay or spray tansy tea on the leaves.  Make sure to get the tops and bottoms.

Inspect the plants and pick off the larvae by hand.  Drop them in a bucket of soapy water.

Use a biological spray to keep the moths away.  There are several commercial varieties or you can whip up a batch of chili-garlic sauce that these insects hate.  My husband swears by simple salt water.

If you’ve got poultry, they love a little cabbage moth larvae buffet.  Don’t let them hang out too long though or they start dining on your cabbage too.

Some gardeners recommend clearing all the debris from around your veggie beds to deprive cabbage moths from their cozy winter lodging.  However, removing all the leaves and stems from the beds means that the soil loses all the nutrients from rotting vegetation.  Your call on that one.  For me, composting in place has a better ROI.