Sunday, July 29, 2012

Visitors of the Stinging Kind

Have you ever had visitors you're not sure you welcome and yet you're undecided about whether you should drive them away?

Yesterday, I discovered a buzzing hive of activity on a low-hanging branch of my viburnum shrub.

Yes, they are hornets, aka paper wasps.

Their nest is a smooth gray orb about the size of a small cantaloupe. It hangs just three feet high on the large shrub that's smack dab next to the driveway (right side).

As recently as Friday, I mowed the front lawn and came within a few feet of that nest. Nothing happened. I could have easily jostled the lower branches. But all was well.

Yesterday, I had a young couple arrive at the house to purchase a teak cabinet I was selling on Craig's List. I suggested they transport it down my front lawn to their truck in the driveway rather than try negotiating my stairs. As they got near the truck, she brushed up against the shrub, and was quickly stung 2 or 3 times on her arm.

I have to say I was horrified. I routinely get stung once a year, usually yellow jackets nesting in the ground, when I run the lawnmower over them. In fact, I just got stung a few weeks ago. While I'm not allergic, I do swell up like a red beet for as much as a week. It's a painful sting, and it's not fun. But I've never been stung 2 or 3 times at once and I was quite concerned about her reaction, although she said she wasn't allergic.

She was a trooper for sure. She said it was no big deal, turned down my offer of Benadryl and the pair drove off with the teak cabinet. I really hope she doesn't get a delayed reaction, later.

Now I'm left wondering what to do about that hive. If I could be assured that no one would be visiting me here at home for the next three months, I'd just as soon give the hive wide berth and let it be until a hard frost takes care of them. (I'd also like to get my hands on that hive to use as an indoor decoration. It is a rather amazing creation.) This is a feasiblie option since I live alone and I could just mow "around it."

However, I am more concerned for the safety of possible visitors. I don't have many, but who knows when a UPS or FedEx delivery truck might pull up and for whatever reason, choose to exit the vehicle from the right side, as they can do. Not that I have many deliveries. I could make a point to just not order anything online until the fall.

I could put some sort of obstacle in front of the shrub by the hive to prevent people from parking or walking there. Like a wood step ladder. I have been observing the hive from a distance of about 10 feet and it appears safe as long as you're not in wasps' flight path.

This option appeals to me also because I am quite leery of trying to kill the wasps myself, yet in my underemployed state, I don't want to spend money to hire a professional to do it. I've done a lot of reading on the subject and basically have the drill down. You cover every inch of your body so that no skin is exposed. That means, in my view, a winter coat, double pants, boots, gloves, goggles and a helmet. I would need to find/borrow some goggles somewhere. (I'm sure it would be worth a photo.) You wait until dark when all the wasps are snug in bed and then, from a safe distance of 10 or 15 feet, you obliterate them with a steady stream of toxic insecticide.

Not crazy about the use of poison and I'm wary of getting stung. I did read of one woman who said that spraying Murphy's soap worked for her as it coats their wings and they cannot fly, so you can then step on them when they fall to the ground.

Umm, but that would mean getting up close and very personal if you need to step on them. At least with the insecticide spray, you can spray the poison from a safer distance. Also, wouldn't the Murphy's soap tend to clog the sprayer?

On the other hand, I have heard that hornets tend to get more aggressive as the hive gets bigger, and the "territory" they defend in the immediate area of the hive becomes larger.

I have a nice, large vegetable garden that has been largely free of insect pests. Perhaps I have the wasps to thank for that. In recent weeks, I'd also had a horrible infestation of house flies inside my house. I don't know for sure how they were getting in, but I must admit to using used kitty litter to drop down an active woodchuck burrow close to the house. I have used that method in previous years, with success, and it sure beats other methods I've read about that hurt the woodchuck or contaminate your groundwater! But that no doubt attracted flies.

I do have the cats' litter boxes in the basement, and yes, I often am lazy and leave the garage door open overnight; there's enough space for flies to crawl under the basement door that leads into the garage.

My father suggested that all it would take is one fly to get in the house and then lay eggs to create a new generation of flies buzzing around the house. But I can't help but notice the flies are completely gone.

The jury is stil out. Feel free to weigh in!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Version of a Miracle: Cauliflower Baby

They say cauliflower's hard to grow. I casually planted a few seeds last May, not expecting much. And then I discovered that one of my leafy, bowl-shaped plants was hiding this!

It's only about two inches wide, but suddenly, I was VERY interested in growing this little thing. Did some quick online research. You're supposed to time the planting so that they DON'T come to maturity in the heat of summer. Oops. Mine looks like it's doing great despite 2 weeks of very high and humid temperatures. I "blanched" the head, meaning that i loosely folded over some of the leaves to cover the top and protect it from strong sunlight, which can alter the taste and make it turn green.

So exciting!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Nature is not always kind

The forecast for a 30% chance of rain today got me outdoors earlier this morning to mow the back lawn. I was about 80% done with it (can you tell I like percentages?) when I felt a nasty burning sensation in my left leg, just below the knee.

I'd been stung by a hornet. I walked, half ran down the Stairway to Heaven toward the garage, abandoning the lawn mower. I realized now the hornet was chasing me so I dove inside the garage and closed the door.

Back inside the house, I quickly downed an antihistamine. I'm not deathly allergic, but when I get stung (and it seems to happen once a year or so), the swelling lasts a full week. Even now, I see an angry red blotch is spreading across my leg.

A little while later, I decided I needed to rescue the lawnmower in case it rained later, so I pulled on a pair of jeans, a corduroy jacket with hood, all buttoned up, and a pair of gloves. If a neighbor saw me out there, they clearly must've thought I was crazy. It's only 90 degrees out there.

Next, I decided to head down to the vegetable garden in the front of the yard to hand-pollinate my squashes. I was in luck: there was a female blossom open and waiting for my attention, so i dabbed a q-tip on a male blossom and then on the stigma, if I remember my high school biology right.

Before I knew it, I had collected a large bowl of yellow wax beans and green string beans, and I spied the season's first cucumber ready for picking.

While I was so occupied, I noticed a commotion in a spruce near the perimeter of my property. A group of four crows were showing inordinate interest in the spruce's dense inner branches. Suddenly, a mourning dove came dropping fast out of the tree and it almost seemed to stumble across the surface of the lawn as it fluttered low toward the shelter of a large burning bush.

I walked toward the spruce, flushing first one crow, then another and another. I thought there was one more in there, but I couldn't see anything. Seconds later, it emerged, rising high in the air as it flapped its wings to gain altitude, carrying in its beak a large mourning dove chick.

It was a helpless feeling to watch it carry its prize off to the treetops of the white pines. It galled me that a crow would snatch a chick right out from under its mother. Crows are known to be smart birds, and I'm guessing they're smarter than a mourning dove. Had they decided to gang up on the mourning dove to mob her or distract her while another crow made off with her baby?

I guess I'll never know that and I'm just torturing myself by speculating. I would have been saddened to see any bird attacked by crows, but the mourning dove, especially, seems like more of a victim. It's so placid and peaceful in its habits.

I know, crows have to eat too, although I wish they'd stick to roadkill. A small flock of hyperactive house finches caroused and quarreled nearby, shortly after the carnage. They seemed unperturbed, or unaware of, what happened.

I guess this kind of things happens every day, but most people probably wouldn't bother to investigate a group of noisy crows. I kind of wish I hadn't seen it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Holy Hypertufa!

I have long wanted to try my hand at making the lovely and rustic hypertufa planters. After reading yet another blog post about it, I finally decided that yes, this is something I can do.

First, you'll need the following supplies:

1. Portland cement
2. Perlite
3. Peat moss

You'll be mixing equal parts of all three ingredients with water, so plan accordingly when you make your trip to Home Depot.

It's also quite handy to have a garden hose near by. You really want to be making your hypertufa in the shade, so a garage is a pretty good spot.

Don't make the mistake I did when I didn't purchase actual Portland cement. I bought a bag of some other kind of mix that had lots of gravel in it. I went ahead and used it, but it mostly fell apart. You really do need Portland cement, which is a very fine powder which you will be tamping and firming down for good adhesion.

Now for the fun part....finding the right containers. I rummaged around my home, from basement to attic, and found quite a few containers that I thought would work. You want to steer clear of glass or metal, which won't be easy to remove from the dried cement. The best things to use are plastic or cardboard. These are somewhat bendable and aid in the mold removal process.

Here are some of my containers. I sacrified an old hat box as well as a plastic popcorn bowl I got for free from Orville Redenbacher for eating a lot of popcorn. If you don't have much around the house, a dollar store is a great place to rummage. Avoid using any container that has a lip around the top edge, as this will be an impediment to removing your mold.

The trick is to find a smaller container that fits well inside a larger container. Remember that you will be filling the space between the two containers with cement. Ideally, the gap between the containers should be at least 3/4" to as much as 2 inches wide. The larger the container, the larger the gap.

Before you do anything, put on a face mask and wear rubber gloves!! Mix equal parts of the Portland cement, perlite and peat moss. Use your hands to carefully mix the dry ingredients together. Then add water, a little at a time, and mix well until it resembles cottage cheese. You want everything well blended, but not soaking wet. Too much water weakens the strength of the pot.

Be sure to use a cooking spray like Pam to coat all sides of the larger and smaller containers that will be in contact with the concrete. This will facilitate mold removal.

When your cement is well mixed, begin using a trowel (I used my gloved hands) to pour a layer on the bottom of the larger container of about one inch thick. Tamp it down firmly. Then place your small container inside the larger one. It's a good idea to fill it with sand or a brick or maybe a few rocks to help steady it as you fill around it. Press the cement down firmly and level off the top as best you can. A small block of wood works well for this.

Here's what mine looked like, filled and ready to dry.

Put the containers in a shady spot and wrap them with plastic. They should be allowed to dry for at least 24 hours, or maybe 36. After that period of time, test dryness by trying to scrape the edge of a pot with your fingernail. If you can easily scrape off some cement, it needs more drying time.

When you've determined it's dry enough, remove the inner container. Gently bend it if it's plastic. Then remove the larger container, carefully. Now the pot needs to cure for a good three weeks.

After that, you'll want to put it outside and keep filling it with water for about a week. This will help leach out excess lime that could otherwise harm your plants.

That's pretty much all I've learned about making hypertufa. In the first batch that I made, two of the five pots were no good because I used the wrong kind of cement, as mentioned earlier. And I could see that I hadn't really tamped down the concerete well enough, allowing a pebbly surface to remain, and this just fell off the pot when it dried.

Here's what my first three pots look like, still curing:

OK, not exactly what I had in mind. My mistake, I think, was in not really tamping down the top edge of the pots; that's why they look all crumbly. I worked a little on them with a stiff wire brush to try to smooth them out. The idea is to make them look like they've been around for a hundred years, and with these you could see a somewhat artificial looking lip around the top of the pots. But I'll be working on them. They were still a little too friable when I brushed them before.

I know they don't look like much now, but try to picture them with a few nice succulents, nestled in little spots through the garden. I can't wait!

In other news, here's an old colander my mother was going to throw away. I lined it with burlap and made another planter with it.