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Lemon Zesting Rodents?

In one of the gardens where I’m working this summer, all of the citrus have had the peels eaten away by some kind of animal. I’ve never seen this before; it looks really strange. The garden is near Berkeley’s so-called ‘Gourmet Ghetto’ in a relatively urban neighborhood that probably has some rats lurking about. Do rats do this? Do they like lemon zest? It doesn’t look like something squirrels or birds would do, and I can’t think of anything else that would do this.

– Update 8/30 — I asked at one of the nurseries and someone there said, yep, it was rats. Kind of gross.

Another Bee Tree

And in another quick follow up on a recent post, we did a consultation at another house with a wild bee hive last week, this time in an old willow. Maybe bee trees are more common that I thought. This hive was much more exposed than the one in the silver maple, and the bees were a lot less comfortable with me sticking my camera up close, forcing me to retreat pretty quickly. These bees over-winter on-site, the client said, visibly present, but with a very low level of activity. They’ve been in the willow for six years, and the fruit trees in the yard have, predictably, had bumper crops ever since. When the tree (now moribund) dies, the owners are planning to plant a vine to grow up the trunk to keep the wood shaded and the bees happy.

The Bee Tree

‘…a hole in back you could put your fist in, if it were a small fist and you wanted to put it there…’ Hemingway, A Natural History of the Dead

The last few weeks we’ve been working in a yard that has a wild bee hive in an old silver maple. Apparently, they vanish each winter and a big, noisy swarm returns in the spring. On cold days, the hole in the trunk steams faintly. The bees are mellow in the morning, but in the late afternoon they make a loud buzz like every cartoon representation of an angry bee swarm that I’ve ever seen. It’s a little disconcerting, though they are far too busy to pay any attention to me.

I bet there’s some nice honey in there, but I’m sure not going in after it.

The Deer’s Perspective

Feed me rainbows from MARCO MORANDI on Vimeo.

Maybe I should be a little more sympathetic towards the deer browsing the gardens we install. If this is their experience, who am I to begrudge…

Spittle Bug Season

Spittle Bugs in the Ninebark Buds

Spittle Bugs in the Ninebark Buds

April is the start of spittle bug season in our garden. Spittle bugs are the little froghopper nymphs putting drips of saliva on a lot of our plants, a weird thing which I don’t particularly like, but find kind of intriguing. Apparently, the nymphs suck the watery xylem out of the stems (as opposed to the more nutrient-rich phloem that their aphid relatives and most other sucking insects prefer), and they need to process a lot of xylem to get enough nutrients; at some point these unappealing spittle cocoons evolved as a protective byproduct of all that excess water.

The nymphs like new growth and especially bloom stalks, and as April is our biggest month for bloom stalks and new growth, April is also our biggest month for spittle bugs. As I understand it, the small orange nymphs are young nymphs, the yellow ones are older, and the larger greenish ones are in the last phase before they morph into adults. Most of ours are orange right now. We’ll have the nymphs for a month or two, and then later we’ll get the hoppy adults. Neither one seems to affect the plants much.

Close ups of spittle and a butterfly are below. (more…)

Skunk Season

skunk on the porch

skunk on the porch

Our skunk season started last week. At least one of them has been digging in the garden every night, and then one came up onto our porch during a rainstorm this weekend. This seems to happens each spring, coinciding, I think, with the time when their young are born. Judging from past years, we’ll see a lot of digging for the next few weeks, tapering a bit through the summer, then a lot more digging around late summer or early fall when the young skunks discover the garden. Project Wildlife has an info page with tips on living with skunks, but it doesn’t really mention gardens. From what I can tell, we do nothing to discourage or encourage the skunks, which pretty much sums up our attitude. They dig holes in the garden, but they’re cute, so it balances. It’s hard to dislike an animal that waddles when it walks.

Project Wildlife claims that “an estimated 70 percent of a skunk’s diet consists of insects considered harmful to humans,” so some of the digging is for a good cause. Things they eat include insects, earthworms, and slugs in our garden, plus lizards, rodents, birdseed, kitchen waste, and petfood elsewhere if they can find it. Established plants are not hurt by the digging and the parts of the garden that don’t get watered are almost completely ignored. The skunks seem to particularly like soft, recently dug, recently watered soil, which basically describes whatever spot I have just planted something, so I lose some transplants when I add them into the vegi garden; though if I check every morning, I can often replant the dug up plants without them being noticeably affected. So far this year, I haven’t lost anything, knock on wood.

Does anyone else get skunk damage? The skunks don’t directly target plants, so I’d never really thought of them as a possible garden pest. It took us a little while to figure out who was doing all the digging.

Below, I put a skunk portrait from around dusk yesterday and another photo of a hole dug through the woolly thyme planted in our patio. The skunks casually waddle away when we approach to photograph them, so we mostly get photos of the bushy tail and striped back. I’d like a photo of one threatening me with its tail raised, but so far I haven’t mustered the nerve and poor judgement to initiate that encounter. I actually like the smell when they spray next door, but I have a feeling I’ll feel differently if it pulls the trigger in our yard.

– Note — In case that was said with excessive bravado, let me say I don’t recommend anyone causing a skunk to raise it’s tail at you. I’ve had it happen twice in my life, though not here in our yard, most memorably when a motion sensor light clicked on to reveal a skunk about three feet in front of me and just about to move past the bluff stage. That moment got my heart racing as much as the time I accidentally touched a death adder. 

Though after three years of living with skunks in our yard fifty to a hundred nights a year, I can say that they have no intention of spraying and very little fear of me. That’s partly based on their absolute confidence in the effectiveness of the raised tail, that anything that can dissuade a hungry mountain lion should be sufficient to dissuade me. Like most animals, they prefer to bluff rather than fight, so leave them alone, and they will leave you alone, too. The one candidate likely to get sprayed is your dog, so if you have a dog, don’t have a dog door. You don’t want the dog able to come inside immediately afterward. At least one neighbor has learned that lesson the hard way.

– Note #2 — Just after posting the previous note, while I was potting up veggie starts, the skunk came into the yard and scratched around in the bamboo twenty feet away from me for about ten minutes and then wandered off. This was at around six o’clock, the third time this week that we’ve seen it in the daylight, and it’s definitely not rabid, just active and not particularly shy. I’m not sure what it was eating.

– Note #3 — The skunks have been particularly bad this year. We’ve realized that family with 7 young skunks is living under the neighbor’s porch. We’ve put rags soaked in ammonia around the garden to dissuade them digging. It has been somewhat effective. I did get a photo of one of the young with a tail raised, threatening me, though the photo is a bit blurry, no doubt from my shaking hands and submissive attitude towards the skunk.

Are you talking to me?

Are you talking to me?

(more…)

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