Monday, August 13, 2012

Open Shelving

It's Monday afternoon and the dog has convinced me to join her on the sofa for a minute. Plus I'm not really eager to tackle the next pile of blighted tomatoes that need to be cut into pickle chunks, so I've been flipping through the latest issue of Country Living.

I'm not sure why I subscribe to Country Living. It's not like my log frame home is decorated in a really country style, unless you mean in an eclectic-chaotic-haphazard way with a few quilts, vintage goods, and half a dozen cows out back. Mostly I like to look at the decorating trends and styles featured in the magazine, but frankly I don't think I'd actually try much of what I see pictured.

For instance, take the concept of open shelving as featured on the cover of the September 2012 issue of Country Living. This is a gorgeous picture with the apple green shelves covered with white dishes and contrasted by the dark ladder and door. I love the idea of having open shelves where I could see my dishes on display in the kitchen.

But the reality is that this is not a viable option at my house and probably not for most of us.

1. I have an odd, random assortment of dishes that don't always match. Sure, my everyday set that we received as a wedding gift would look swell on those shelves, but not with stacks of Ally's plastic cups from various child-friendly restaurants beside it. Usually examples of open shelving in a kitchen come from houses featuring childless couples.

2. Floor to ceiling opening shelving just means that the dog has open access to lick any plates she wants.

3. Our house has spiders, wasps, and occasionally birds, mice, and bats. None of which I want anywhere near my cereal bowl and I certainly don't want to contemplate washing dishes before I use them every day.

4. Open shelving would make it a lot harder to stash the leftover Halloween candy if Ally and Steve could see right into the big bowls I use sometimes.

5. I can only assume that people who have open shelving for their dishes must live in areas where pollen is not a problem in the spring. At our house those white dishes in the above picture would be approximately the same shade of green as the walls behind them in only a matter of days thanks to the pollen in our area. And if pollen's not floating about, we still have our usual dust year round.

6. Dishes on open shelves seem awfully vulnerable to a stray ball, frisbee, dog toy, or Steve's remote controlled helicopter.

No, I think I'll keep my dishes in the cabinets behind close doors where they'll stay safe, clean, and away from the dog. And where those leftover Twix bars can stay hidden.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

So, where was I?

It's early August and I'm already pulling up my tomato vines. That pretty much tells you how my summer has been this year. The garden was doing pretty well up until late June, right about when we had a freak derecho blow through town. We were lucky in that we had no property damage and didn't lose power for a week like some people did locally. Even my garden survived intact, but the derecho marked the start of the end.

After the derecho we had weeks of dry, relentless hot weather with little rain. My sweet corn started to tassel when it was only about 4 feet tall, but the heat caused the silks to dry out prematurely before good pollination occurred. My half runner beans got tough and stringy right away. The squash bugs took all my yellow squash, patty pan, zucchini, and pumpkins in just a week.

Determined to save what was left, we set up our irrigation system and began watering regularly. We traveled to Texas in early July and I worried about the garden, but it did fine in my absence with the irrigation. The tomatoes took off and were gorgeous. Tall, full of yellow blossoms, and repeatedly needing more staking to prop up the rampant growth. The okra, peppers, and tomatillos were looking good, but by golly those were the prettiest tomato plants I'd ever seen.

Then right before we left for a week at the beach in late July, I found late blight on my tomato plants. If tomatoes develop late blight in late August or early September, you can often still get a decent harvest in before the fungus kills the plant. However, July is early for late blight in our state. My plants still had small, hard green fruit. I didn't have time to get the material and equipment to spray my plants before we left for vacation, plus sprays for late blight are most effective when applied preventively, not after the plants are already infected. Nearly in tears I realized that there wasn't much I could do about my plants and I didn't know what might be left when we returned from the beach. And recognizing that our regular watering schedule, along with me planting the tomatoes too closely together, hastened the development of this fungal disease didn't make me feel any better.

Every one of my tomato plants was infected when we returned. (To add insult to injury, the corn ears that did develop should have been picked while we were gone and had already started to turn starchy.)

Late blight will infect tomatoes at all stages of development, so now in August I'm culling as much of the green tomato fruits as I can. I tried leaving a few infected tomato fruits on the vine to see if they would ripen more, but the blight lesions simply spread too much into the fruit before it changes color and the whole thing becomes inedible. At least I can cut the lesions out of the green fruit and make pickles with the remaining good part, but it's a lot of extra work that I hadn't planned on doing.

It's incredibly disheartening to pick all those green tomatoes and then pull the vines out of the ground when I should be up to my eyeballs in red, ripe tomatoes at this time of the year. Plus, late blight smells foul. The infected plants are susceptible to secondary bacterial rot and that part of the garden just reeks of decay. Luckily the spores won't overwinter on my tomato stakes and the infested plants won't be a problem if they rot down entirely, which shouldn't be an issue in early August.

So it's been a rough season in the garden. Other gardeners I know in my area have had similar problems with drought, disease, slow plant development, and various unwanted wildlife, so I know it's not just me. On the bright side, we were able to join a CSA through Steve's workplace while at the beach, so we do have fresh local produce each week now. And thankfully I'm not trying to feed my family out of my garden through the upcoming winter, but y'all can probably expect a jar of green tomato pickles for Christmas this year.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Texas Lorikeet

Truly, you have not lived until you've had a lorikeet stick its tongue in your ear.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Rambling about Brambles

It looked like it would be another good year for blackberries. My wild canes were full of blooms this spring.

Fruit set looked pretty good, and then some questionable visitors showed up.


These are rednecked cane borers, Agrilus ruficollis, on the wineberries. The females lay eggs in the canes and the larvae produce gall-like swellings that predispose the canes to breakage. However, they're the least of my worries when it comes to harvesting blackberries.

This is the brown marmorated stinkbug, Halyomorpha halys. It's feeding on the developing drupes of the blackberry fruit. Keep this picture in'll be more relevant in a few minutes.

Some of the plants are looking pretty good. These are mostly canes growing in part shade.

Some plants growing in sunnier areas are marginally okay. The fruit is ripening but the berries are small or only have a few drupes.

And this is what many of my blackberries look like right now. The excessive heat and lack of rainfall is killing the canes, often right before the fruit ripen fully.

And remember the stinkbug? This is what stinkbug damage on blackberries looks like. Many of the drupes are brown and look somewhat mummified. I've heard that stinkbug feeding with make the fruit distasteful, but honestly....bad blackberries are hard, seedy, and sour so I don't think the fruit could taste any worse.

Combine heavy stinkbug feeding with excessive heat and you get this: brown berries with no juice! Ugh!

We have black raspberries, blackberries, and wineberries on our property. There are only a handful of black raspberry plants and they did fairly well, escaping much of the damage I've shown here, but I probably only get a cup or two of fruit from them. The wineberries are just starting to ripen now, and they also seem to have escaped much of the damage as well even though they grow side by side with the blackberries. I think this has to do with how the plant blooms and sets fruit.

For a couple of years I've wondered why I never saw the wineberries in bloom. They have fruit, but I never saw any flowers. As it turns out, their flowers are small and immediately forgetful.

Wineberry flowers are no where near as showy as blackberry blooms. And after flowering, the calyx encloses the developing fruit, which might protected it from marauding stinkbugs.

As the fruit nears ripening, the calyx splits apart. By this time the blackberries are also ripening and maybe the stinkbugs find those berries far more attractive in size, number, and availability than the wineberries.

Wineberries will slowly turn from a bright orange color to a deep wine color. They seem to be sweet as soon as they begin to color up, although the flavor continues to develop until they are wine colored.

Wineberries are a type of raspberry from Asia. The fruit is composed of drupes around a pity core that remains on the cane after the fruit has been picked. Wineberries are considered a naturalized plant at best and can be downright invasive in certain areas. I don't mind having them on my property and I'm wishing I had more of them given the blackberry crop this year.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Derechos, Zucchini, Family Dynamics, and Other Natural Disasters

It's the height of summer now and this has just been one long week that started with a little thunderstorm cell in Iowa last Friday. The thunderstorm developed into a derecho that galloped east and ultimately flattened a wide swath of the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic states. I was at my parents' house in Poquoson when the storm hit around midnight. I've never seen wind quite like that before and I'm still amazed that my daughter with the storm phobia slept through it all. Thankfully we didn't have any damage at either my parents' house or our house in Christiansburg. My in-laws in Roanoke lost power and still don't have any at their house. The current estimate is that power will return to all of Roanoke by sometime late Sunday night. That's a long time to go without power, especially when the daytime temperatures have been hovering in the mid to upper 90s. We're all out of sorts thanks to the heat, the lack of rain, and our upended schedules.

My garden is also out of sorts. We've been watering regularly for the past week and things look okay but just not quite right. The corn is lush and green, but it's only about waist high and getting ready to tassel. The tomatoes look good, but I didn't get them staked early enough and I really had to wrestle with them to tie them up. I tasted my first half runner last night and it seemed a little stringier than I expected for this early in the season. I don't think I'll have much in the way of zucchini this year, thanks to the squash bugs. They've also taken out some of the cucumbers and some of my pumpkins. I'll have to spray the rest of the vines this weekend if I want any pumpkins at all this fall. My peppers are still pretty small and I think the voles have eaten all the beets.

So it's not quite the garden I had planned, nor is this quite the summer I had envisioned. I was hoping for a little more fun and fewer worries. Such is life: you make your plans and work to bring them to life, but then the universe smacks you on the head and now you have to change your plans. Or in my case, a rock hits your windshield and you suddenly have a meandering 18 inch crack right in front of the driver's side that will require a replacement. Actually I'm not sure what's the better metaphor for my life right now: a bug-ridden garden or a cracked windshield. Neither are truly disasters and certainly they are fixable to a certain extent, but they're still beginning to sap my energy and enthusiasm.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fewer Clothes = More Laundry

I seem completely incapable of packing for a trip without also tackling something else. Sometimes it's housework, that pile of unfinished projects lying in the corner, or cleaning out my closet. I'll pretend that the act of packing clothes today has prompted me to rethink some of my wardrobe instead of this actually being another form of procrastination. At any rate, I now have a pile of clothes lying in the corner, waiting to be donated to a charity.* (Obviously it's not the corner occupied with the unfinished projects, of course.)

The pants that don't fit well? Tossed. That t-shirt in an odd color of green? Tossed. The fifteen year old pair of shorts? Tossed. The shirt that never seems to go with anything else in my wardrobe, but has hung in my closet for the past five years? Tossed. The skirt I never wear? Yep, tossed.

This act of cleaning has made me realize a few things about myself.

1) My husband's choice of wardrobe colors has begun to affect my own and I didn't realize how many neutral or earthy colors I typically wear now. Steve is a computer programmer and cannot be held responsible for this as programmers naturally tend to wear clothes in the "mulch" family of colors, but I need to get out of this rut.

2) I should not be allowed to buy another brown shirt for at least a year.

3) I really don't have anything considered marginally professional left in my closet. That's okay as long as I keep working as a part-time/seasonal/contract hire, but at some point I might want to rejoin the truly gainfully employed, who don't have the luxury of working in their pajamas or that aging yet beloved t-shirt.

4) I'm still smarting over my mother's suggestion that a new professional wardrobe for me might only entail a new pair of jeans and a flannel shirt.

Anyhow, these are points for me to mull over. In the meantime I suddenly I have more room in my closet. And I don't have to avert my eyes and keep pretending that I don't see those clothes that I really needed to do something about. Being able to jettison clutter is a wonderful feeling. However, experience has taught me that purging my closet often results in having to do laundry more frequently. And now I have even fewer things to chose from to pack for a weekend trip, and it was my desire to avoid having to pick out clothes that led me to clean out my closet in the first place.

*For the record, everything I donate to charity is clean and usable. The fifteen year old pair of shorts will not be donated as they are somewhat out of style. Why bother? Please read this previous post:

Sunday, June 17, 2012


A few years ago I fell in love with heucheras, also known as the coral bells. I have a few splashy ones, mostly green leaved varieties with dark wine-colored veins or with silver patches on the leaves. One has carmel leaves with a reddish underside, while another is a dark burgundy with pink splashes on it. I made sure to bring them all with me to the new house when we moved several years ago. Additionally we have a few of the native coral bells growing wild on our property. They're pretty spindly and have unremarkable coloration to the leaves, so I've left them to themselves in the woods but it's always fun to run across one.

Last year my heuchera varieties bloomed their little hearts out. While these varieties are grown largely for their foliage and not for their tiny white flowers, the solitary bees loved them and I just let them do their thing well into late summer. Heuchera pollen must be brightly colored because I often saw these little bees with bright orange pollen in their leg "baskets" that they use to collect it.

Then I neglected to cut the spent flower stalks and they went to seed. Much to my surprise, I had volunteer heucheras coming up in various places this spring. And the parentage of these volunteers is to anyone's guess.

These crosses are not so much the love child of two consenting adult plants as the whim and fancy of the solitary bees that visited the blooming parents. Most of the seedlings appear to have green leaves with some silvering.

But a few also look like this, with more of a greenish-wine background overlaid with silvering and with dark veins. I'm curious to see if the foliage coloration will change as the plant matures.

It's entirely possible that the bees transferred pollen from my horticultural varieties along with some from the native plants nearby. One of my volunteers has already flowered, so who knows what might show up next year?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My Name is Tree, and I Approve of This Message.

Yesterday in the Insect ID Lab we opened a box of promotional materials sent to us by the Don't Move Firewood campaign run by The Nature Conservancy's Forest Health Protection Program. Many invasive pest species can be transported around the country on the firewood that people bring with them on vacation. Emerald ash borer, Asian longhorn borer, and Walnut twig beetle are just a few of the insects of concern. There's also a dozen or so pathogens that can be transported on firewood, including oak dieback, butternut canker, and thousand canker disease. Want more information about firewood and the danger it presents to our forest and urban trees? Please check out the campaign's website at

The promotional materials included the usual swag....informational cards, wrist bands, even some really cool temporary tattoos featuring emerald ash borer. But what really caught our eyes were the forest green water bottles that feature the Don't Move logo.

Who couldn't use another water bottle? But it's the slogan on the other side that was really interesting.

Yep, that does indeed read, "Be a good neighbor. Leave your firewood at home. That's What Tree Said."

Huh? This boggles my mind on several levels. I don't remember personally approving this message although I certainly support it, but mainly I just didn't know that my opinion carried so much weight.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Black Widows and Not So Black Widows

A couple of weekends ago I was cleaning out a storage locker that we use to store the covers for our patio furniture on our back deck. I was concerned about a couple of paper wasps that had taken up residence in the locker and didn't see this spider until after the wasp nests had been dispatched. (Yes, there was more than one paper wasp nest. I'm surprised they tolerated each other in such close quarters.)

This is, I believe, a Northern black widow (Lactrodectus variolus). I say "I believe" because 1) I'm not a specialist of spider taxonomy and 2) I'm identifying this spider from my photos and not the actual specimen. 
Mature female Southern black widowsLactrodectus mactans (the spider we think of as the "classic" black widow), are usually a shiny jet black with just the infamous red hourglass mark on their abdomens, but males and immature female L. mactans do have markings similar to these pictured here.

So why do I think this is L. variolus and not an immature or male L. mactans? The body of this spider was about a half inch in size, suggesting that it was a mature Lactrodectus female. Mature males are only about half that size. Again, the white bands on the dorsal side suggest L. variolus, but there's a better way to distinguish between the two species.

The red hourglass marking on the ventral side of the abdomen is incomplete in the Northern black widow. In contrast, the hourglass is complete with both triangles touching in the Southern black widow. My spider doesn't have a complete hourglass with both triangles touching, so I think this a Northern black widow, L. variolus.

Initially it may sound funny that the Northern black widow can be found in southwestern Virginia, but there's a good deal of overlap between the ranges of the Northern and Southern black widows. In fact, the Northern black widow can be found as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas, while the Southern black widow can be found as far north as parts of Canada. We have both species on our property, with a healthy population of Southern black widows in the stone block wall edging our driveway.

For more information about Lactrodectus spiders, Bugguide has great information on the genus Lactrodectus on their website and you can also find some terrific pictures there, too. And if you have any burning questions regarding these spiders or if you think you have one in your house, please contact your local extension agent for more information. Don't think you have a local extension agent? Don't be silly, they're in all 50 states of the USA and you can find yours here at the USDA website

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ally, Papaw, and Papaw's Boat

It was a chilly morning in May but Ally demanded a boat ride. They didn't get far from the dock before Ally decided she had had enough.

No matter. Sometimes if you're lucky enough to get on the boat, then you're just lucky enough.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Birthday Cakes

We celebrated Ally's fifth birthday last weekend. Lately she's been talking about how her favorite color is "lavender blue with sprinkles." I just happened to find lavender and blue sugar sprinkles in the cake decorating aisle, along with some shiny pink sugar flakes, and that's how we wound up with this cake for birthday number five.

Yes, it was rather florescent and the frosting got a little crunchy, but Ally loved it. (FYI, seven minute frosting will turn into meringue if you beat it long enough. Who knew?)

I've made Ally a variety of cakes for her birthdays. Some were prettier than others, but all have been fun.

There was a ladybug cake for her first birthday in 2009. It was strawberry flavored with pink frosting. It was so warm that day that the frosting began to melt and I didn't dare remove the wax paper strips because I was afraid that it might take off the frosting.

Ally didn't care.

In 2009 I made a monkey cake. It was a banana cake with chocolate frosting. Design wise, I think this one was my best so far.

In 2010 I made a simple vanilla cake with chocolate frosting decorated with butter flies and a flower. 

That's the year Ally learned about licking frosting off the beaters.

Last year we were at the beach, so I made a beach birthday cake. The "sand" is crushed graham crackers over a marshmallow fluff frosting (yep, marshmallow fluff straight out of the jar).

The shells are real, but I did run them through the dishwasher before putting them on the cake.

Again, I'm not sure Ally would have cared.