It’s midsummer so it’s been pretty hot and sunny in recent weeks but of course this is the time when most farm work has to be done. After one particularly hard harvesting day earlier this week I was relaxing with my workers under the tree eating some lovely cold watermelon and enjoying the quiet. I mentioned how quiet it was to the guys.
One of them waved up at the trees with his fork and said.
”Trees not singing.”
I knew immediately what he meant. There were no cicadas singing in the trees. We usually have cicadas singing my mid July and with all the hot weather we have had this year which would speed up the larva development into adults they should have been out sooner but here we are in early August and still not one singing tree.
Where have all the cicadas gone?
Gone the way of the bees and the other insects , no doubt about it. Since these new pesticides came along the number of insects we have good bad or indifferent has plummeted. While we are go well beyond organic farming and use absolutely no chemicals at all that does not mean that our neighbors dont use them.
The problem is that bugs fly around. That can be a good and bad thing. Its bad if you dont want a pest in your garden or in our case farm and dont want them flying in from outside to infest your crops. However the flipside is that if you have good and beneficial bugs or bees on your property you dont really want them flying off to some other farm to get zapped by their nasty chemicals. Sadly unless you have a really BIG farm which these days are only owned by massive corporations who dont care about the bees, then its impossible to have enough land to keep the good insects on your property and not straying into areas that are dangerous to them.
The farmer on our eastern side is a soy bean farmer. He plants soy beans every year, and has done since we bought the farm. Never gets a really good crop from it (surprise, surprise) but he dutifully puts on his chemical fertilizer and then sprays his field later in the year. Even though we have a thick line of trees and vegetation between us and his field if he chooses to spray on a day when the wind is blowing then something is likely to reach towards us. Plus bees and other insects are bound to go and investigate the flowers once they start to bloom.
A new farmer has started working on the other side of the road too. Fortunately he is farther away from our fields because I suspect he uses more and different sprays than the soy bean farmer. So if our healthy bees and bugs fly around and if they decide to go check out his field when he sprays or go anywhere near it or get caught downwind of it then they are gonna die.
Is this a good thing? Personally I dont think so. Sure we get rid of a few pest species and produce absolutely perfect looking vegetables and fruit but what is the true cost? Killing every bug for a mile around your spray area is not good practice. There are a lot more helpful and useful bugs than there are harmful ones and even though most people dont like creepy crawly bugs we really could not live without them. Bees are only the tip of the iceberg. We have no idea what the repercussions of killing a lot of other different species off will be to us. What I see happening is the tough unwanted insects that often do more damage, like ants, survive and the more delicate, beautiful and useful ones are wiped out.
Think carefully before you use chemicals in the garden.
Dont assume that its all farmers doing this damage to the insects. Homeowners are a major use of chemicals and toxic products and often use them in much higher concentrations that farmers do. Sadly so many people have no idea how dangerous and damaging such chemicals can be. Just because its freely available purchase and easy to come by does not mean its not toxic to humans, pets, wild animals and all the other bugs not just the few that you are trying to kill. Please think very carefully before using any chemical on your plants. Dont just spray the plant as a precaution or because it looks sick. Make sure you know what is wrong with it and how to treat the particular problem before reaching for the chemicals. Dont just kill bugs because they are there. Not liking bugs around your property is not a reason to grab the chemicals and kill them. Dont spray just because you can and NEVER spray if there is any wind at all. It can get the chemicals on you, your family as well as your neighbors and even homes half to a full block away. One person with a can do a lot of damage with a single spray bottle of toxic chemicals.
If you have planted a diverse garden less chemicals or often no chemicals at all will be necessary. The more different flowering plants you have the more likely it will be that you dont get pests other insects are only too happy to come and eat them up. Most bugs are not interested in you and just want to go about their little lives without bothering anyone, or in a lot of cases joyfully chomping down on the nasty pests that are in your garden. Remember also that those annoying caterpillars that eat your plants can turn into beautiful butterflies so think hard before you pick them all of you plants and kill them.
Our farm is just not the same in the summer without the singing of the cicadas. To me they are the sound of summer and working in the fields to a orchestra of cicada song makes the job more enjoyable. Cicadas dont do any damage to crops, most people never even get to see one since they live up in the trees. Most people are have more experience with cicada killer wasps, and often are afraid of these gentle creatures that do us no harm and just prey on cicadas. I have seen a lot around the farm this year but they all look frantic with erratic flying patterns. These animals will most likely die out this year since there is not food for them. What other creatures also rely on the cicada or the wasp or other parts of the cicada life cycle. We have no idea what damage we are causing by eradicating just one kind of bug and most likely wont know for years until we discover a whole part of our ecosystem has collapses and its too late to rebuild it.
I miss my singing trees but sadly cicadas dont usually fly that far so once they are destroyed in one area it could take a lot of years before they repopulate my trees and they sing again. Perhaps they never will.
The snow melted yesterday and there under the snow were the bright yellow buds of the winter aconites (Eranthus hyemalis) Two days later the sun came out and the flowers opened and turned their little yellow faces to the adoring sun and laughed at winter.
Winter aconites are really tough little guys and even though everyone says that snowdrops are the first sign of spring mine have yet to even show a leaf. If you want early spring color in the garden to cheer your spirits then winter aconites are the way to go. These lovely little yellow flowers grow low to the ground they produce a starburst of flat green leaves with one yellow flower in the center. Aconites grow from tiny bulbs about the size of a pencil eraser but they will self seed nicely once they are established. Collecting seeds is tough though, we tried it, it’s extremely time consuming and not at all cost effective. This is why the plants are usually sold as bulbs, which at present we don’t sell.
Aconites thrive in areas where there is summer shade. So planting them under deciduous trees where they get lots of winter sunshine but are shaded during the summer is ideal. The lovely rosette leaves last into the early summer providing a nice ground cover in the first part of the year. After that the bulbs go dormant during the summer months.
Don’t plant under bird feeders since they come up at the time feeders are most active they just get pecked to death. Birds don’t care about plants they care about the seeds around them.
Aconites are a cold loving species they are hardy from zones 3 -7 so they won’t grow in the warmer areas, but heck you don’t need spring indicators in the south! They will tolerate some moisture all year around but do like well drained soil. They thrive in sunshine or semi shade but not under pine or fir species. They like a rich humus soil which is found under deciduous trees. Left alone they will self seed and form a carpet of yellow flowers in early spring, then a ground cover which can be mown back by early to mid summer so they are ideal in a grassy area under trees or mixed with later growing perennials.
Winter aconite flowers open and close with the sun. when the sun is shining their petals open and they bath in the bright rays, when it goes down or on cloudy days the petals stay closed. The flowers can last for several weeks. More if there are a lot of cloudy days and less if there is lots of sunshine and warm temperatures.
I started my winter aconites with a dozen bulbs about 25 years ago, planted them outside my living room window they grew and proliferated. It was wonderful looking out the window every spring at the constantly increase carpet of early yellow flowers.
When I moved this farm twelve years ago I dug up as many as I could which turned out to be a several hundred. Not all of them survived the journey but a lot did. I planted these under trees and in flower beds that I can see from my dining room and living room windows. I think its important that you can see them from the house windows, it’s the first sign of spring in cold weather when most people are not working outside. Being able to appreciate them from the house lifts the spirits and see proof that spring is just around the corner. Back at my old house there is still a carpet of aconites every spring so I obviously only got a few of them.
Now I have a large clump on the berm under some of my Kousa Dogwood trees. These are always the first to flower as they get the most winter sunshine. The ones outside my living room window are located in a sheltered northern exposure and come up about the same time but don’t open as quickly. The ones in less sheltered northern exposures still have not shown themselves yet. This is fine by me. It means that my enjoyment of the yellow flowers is extended. The ones of the berm get mown over during the summer as they are in shade loving grass. The ones in the flower beds are mixed with Hostas which come up later in the year, about the time that the aconites are going down. So I get a carpet of yellow flowers followed by bright green ground cover with new Hosta leaves growing through them. By time the Hosta leaves are growing large the aconites are going dormant. It’s perfect.
Very early flowers are also important to pollinators especially honey bees. On warm late winter days they can come out of the hive for a fly around and a bathroom break. (bees don’t ‘go’ in the hive so these gals have been holding it all winter!) Finding some flowers while they are out is always a great bonus for them and an extra energy boost.
I love my aconites and always suggest that any gardener plant some. Brighten those winter blues with yellow flowers!
Last week I had the opportunity to attend an interesting day long workshop given by the Xerces Society on conservation of pollinators. It was a very interesting and informative day of presentations by people from the xerces society and from Rutgers University. I have become extremely interested in this subject especially this year since our pollinators seem to have diminished so much.
While a lot of the material they provided was aimed at farmers, who really need to be the ones that need to understand the importance of protecting pollinators there was a lot of material that can be used in the home garden as well.
While there was a very high turnout for the class, in fact it was full with a long waiting list, I had several friends who wanted to get on it but could not. I was disappointed to see that although the course was aimed at farmers only about half the people in the room where actually of that profession. There were quite a few master gardeners looking for education credits and some just interested gardeners. I truly commend these people because it is very important that we try as hard as possible to make a difference in our surroundings and help the pollinators but I was unhappy that more farmers had not attended as I am concerned that they are doing the most damage. However I may be wrong in some aspects of my hypothesis.
Over the next several weeks I will discuss many of the important points that were made at this workshop in an attempt to encourage everyone out there to create gardens that will help to attract pollinators and create habitats that will be irresistible to these creatures. Its easy to do and almost any person can do this. Even if you hate gardening, in fact if you do this might be the ideal thing for you to do as if its done right there is far less work to do once established than their would be to a ‘traditional’ garden.
The most important factors are to stop using pesticides and to embrace insect pollinators not just honey bees. Sadly far too many people are afraid of ‘bugs’ most in the mistaken belief that they are dangerous or will bite them. While a few are nasty bloodsuckers most are not. Learn to appreciate these gentle creatures and not just blindly eradicate them from our gardens. A lot of them are there to help you if you let them. Its up to you to appreciate and save your little corner of the world. YOU can make a big difference and start educating your friends and neighbours to make a difference too. All together you can change your world.