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The Unkindest Cutworm of All

March 30, 2012

By Maggie Dwyer permalink

This year I have learned about cutworms. The hard way.

I don’t recall ever seeing them in my garden before. When seedlings were lopped off it was usually snails doing the damage to my bean sprouts. This year I saw the gray-black greasy muscular caterpillars when I worked the soil but I didn’t know what they were. Until my tomato bedding plants started falling over like trees being logged in the night.

I am planting much earlier than usual. My neighbor has always insisted that tomatoes won’t grow if you plant before Easter, and in previous years, it was still cool enough that they didn’t thrive when placed in cool soil. Perhaps the worms were there and I never saw them because they stopped munching before I planted. I realize in hindsight that I spotted representatives of both the culprit moth and worm when I put out beer to get rid of snails in mid-March.

I consulted a tomato thread at Dirt Doctor and they were identified. I’ve tried several treatments, with some success. Good thing I got the tomatoes for cheap, so I can afford to replant. I took a dilute mix of orange oil and water to spray the ground around some plants, and the next day found a dead worm near one of my tomatoes. I dropped citrus peel and segments (from some dried out clementines) and that seems to have repelled the worms near a couple of plants. Meanwhile, I’ve found more damage. They have chewed major chunks out of some of my iris and have leveled a couple of small Swiss chard. I suspect some onions have also been tasted by these annoying juveniles.

Last weekend when I was doing some serious weeding and digging, I found several per square foot of garden soil, each just under the surface. These, to the left, were accumulated in about 15 minutes of weeding.

I linked to this image from a web page at North Carolina State University.
Tonight I will water then put out beneficial nematodes. I will use some BT very close around the plants (no broadcast, I don’t want to harm butterflies). I found a couple of the stages in my bowls of beer in early March, but they aren’t so consistently drawn to beer that it is worth trying to lure them in, and I don’t think these worms climb well. I am having success by sinking plastic containers into the soil around my tomatoes – they don’t seem to be interested in burrowing under the plastic or climbing over.

I’ll replant tomatoes this weekend. I dug around in my recycle bin to pull out various cylindrical plastic containers to cut up and use to protect the base of the plants until they’re bigger and hardened.

Many of the crop plants I prefer are in the tobacco family – tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, and peppers. Until I resolve this problem with the tomatoes, the rest of the garden will have to wait. Treating for cutworms now may also help control the voracious cousin, the tobacco hornworm. (See my essay Without A Trace for that beefy green guy. I like them – just not in my back yard!)



August 13, 2011


August 13, 2011

Not the tropical Sadie Thompson sort of rain, keeping people indoors and insane day after soggy day, but the welcome surprise of gentle showers in the prairie after months of high temperatures and drought. Indeed, our dry beautiful days were making us a little crazy.

This morning I rolled over, the alarm must be going off too early, the window was still dark. I glanced out at the side fence I use to tell if I can drag hoses to water today; before dawn on even days my neighbor’s sprinklers hit the lower two-thirds of the silvered wood, but this morning the entire thing is dark.

Opposite the fence the dogs weren’t outside, they were in the doorway of the garage, looking out into the yard. Polite inquiring looks asking if they had to get wet this morning. Only for food or a chance to hang out in the house would they leave their straw-filled stall.

After months of moaning about the heat and drought, we got our wish, a gentle rain. I can smell the moist soil, the concrete, the roof, the bricks, the garden, all giving off their wet scents that a hose or sprinkler can’t duplicate. We’ve lost a lot of plants, some will be giving off the gentle composting scent of death as they stand brown in the moist earth. The whole world will probably smell like compost tomorrow with all of the dead turf and down leaves through the region.

I don’t know how long it will last, but right now I am perfectly happy with the weather. These photos are dark, there is no fill-flash, no retouching to lighten them in Photoshop. They were taken after dawn on a rainy North Texas morning and are perfect just the way they are.

The Anti-Social Life of Paper

August 6, 2011


August 6, 2011

Several years ago a Malcolm Gladwell piece in The New Yorker reviewed a book to do with how we use and store printed paper documents, and what struck me most profoundly is how we stack and store paper. Like a squirrel burying nuts and returning for them later, we seem to have a memory based upon proximity, tempered by remembering color, texture, and size, so we can find papers in the appropriate stack. I’ve used the topic in my my writing about libraries, and I’m sure I still have the original article here, torn out of the magazine, and I think I’ve downloaded and printed it a couple of times since, when I couldn’t find my clipping.

On my desk, the middens grows to the point of sliding apart and forming new sub-stacks. I have many flat surfaces in my office, indeed, in my house, that have papers on them. And for some time now, I have been fighting a slow but important battle to overcome both the amount of paper and my habit of piling it higher and deeper.

No, I don’t have a Ph.D, but a master’s degree and an all-but thesis second masters are enough to have fed my paper habit for years. Now I am being the postmodern writer and deconstructing my stacks, files, shelves, and boxes, where I may have stashed important papers. Odd boxes on the floor contain papers I was going to go through soon, to sort out then toss. Didn’t happen; they just got buried by the next box. I don’t know what might be in some of the boxes, but having had a couple of near-misses with identity theft, I know better than to just toss the boxes unopened, even though I know that what I don’t know is gone I won’t miss. What I won’t miss someone else might find very useful.

Generational Habits Die Hard

This image came from the blog of Liz Qualman. Great looking site.
My parents were both readers. Newspapers, books, magazines, letters, and more, so after moving away from the region I regularly received manila envelopes stuffed with clippings from the home papers and periodicals they knew (correctly!) would interest me. Magazines slipped in, occasional books, cassettes, VCR tapes and CDs all came my way. And now that my parents are gone, these notes from the past seemed more precious. From the perspective of years it’s clear that if I don’t need them, these thoughtful packages are also clutter.

After all of this, it is necessary to say I’m not a hoarder. No intervention is required here, you can see lots and lots of dusty floor tile and carpet in my house, my books are all on shelves, you can sit in my chairs and move around furniture and through rooms without moving things or turning sideways (well, all except the sun room, where I stash my eBay stuff, but that room is meant for that). You can even get in and out of both sides of my pickup in my garage without having to scoot in through a mess of stacked stuff along the sides. But there are boxes and shelves and stacks in my office and a few other areas around the house that need addressing. I sometimes feel like until I slay those earlier ideas of things to research or write about, of letters and cards from decades ago friends long forgotten, it’s difficult to move forward. I was somehow trying to capture snippets of myself and others but I’ve lost myself in the evidence.

The heart of my problem has been that I’ve done for myself what my parents used to do, set aside things that are interesting that I might use later. But where they had to make selections and then package and mail the most pertinent pieces, anything that caught my eye for a moment could go into a stack or on a shelf. These in the past were paper landmines, slithering stacks that tripped me up or made it difficult to work because I had to keep moving them. So I put them in boxes, the ones I need to sort.

Paper is only one part of the clutter problem here. Inherited furniture and interesting stuff from a couple of my east coast great aunts I met when I was a young adult is part of it. These objects took the place of the family members I never met and wished to know more about. I gathered up what I could and brought it back here to examine, and to use to remind me of the stories and conversations I had with these interesting elderly women. I have given away and sold pieces of furniture and objects that I simply can’t use and things that I don’t collect. I tell myself myself that my home is not a museum.

My children might be interested in some of these pieces of furniture when they have homes of their own, but they won’t need all of this stuff, and like so many of us who have worked on estates of parents and other relatives, I know I don’t want to leave a mess for my kids. My parents both had houses full of stuff; Dad’s house was tiny but packed and he had a shed across the road with more. My mom had a large house full of a lifetime of stuff, yet she collected things (carvings) later on just so she could give each grandchild a collection. Ironically, the bits that we really love are not artificial collections but are the things that we know they both valued from many years from work and travel. The things they chose when they were poor, and the tangible products of their hobbies, the things they spent their time doing.

The tyranny of paper and stuff

This came from a Colorado architect firm, Trendir Modern House Designs. I consider a house this neat and clean to be pure fantasy or OCD.
My parents lived through the Great Depression. I’ve heard it all, thought it all. And now I look at the drifts of papers, the mass of notes to my future self and recognize a cacophony of ideas smothering interesting objects from my family. Smothering the lines of the house. I have realized that a passing idea alone doesn’t make a good story, but if it comes my way several times, then I should make a note and file it where I can find it and use it when the time is right. Don’t let it drift into a stack and be forgotten until it tumbles back to the top again. (This photo is of a house I will never visit, but it’s nice to think that someone was able to pick up all of their paper before the photo was taken.)

There is a good outcome to this: I’ve identified things that I have no interest in keeping that collectors have bought from me on eBay. I’ve given away pieces when people expressed an interest, and I’ve donated a lot. The garment that my mother made of interesting cloth that I wouldn’t consider wearing is turned into beautiful cushion covers for a window seat. I am using and reducing what is here. One of these days I’ll have the house I visualize.

The kids may be stuck getting rid of books. I’ve thinned, but there are always going to be a lot of books.

Bug Bopper

July 2, 2011


The life cycles of insects in the garden are most obvious when they impact me. I see the lace bugs as adults walking on my eggplant leaves and I find (and eradicate) the sticky eggs or the cluster of young before they do any more damage. I finally intercepted the bugs tacked together butt to butt, to get the rest of the story. I’ve seen the cycle with the assassin bugs on my cactus plants, the leaf-footed bugs on the datura. One can be a voyeur in their own yard and no one the wiser.

I have tarantulas and tarantula hawk wasps, neither of which I’ve seen mating or eating, but a few years ago I finally saw a wasp drag a stunned spider across the yard and drag it into a hole. It was a study in navigation genius as the wasp dragged the spider around weeds and over dog poop and hoses. This insight into the wasp/tarantula link was fascinating, because the life cycle activity that happens when I’m not out there looking remains a mystery. Only rarely does it present itself with a thump, like last Wednesday.

The cicada killer wasps have been in my gardens for several years, and each year there are more. I’ve seen them mate, fight, and dig, but it wasn’t until last week when I finally saw the comedy of one of these wasps hauling a cicada to the nest. This act is apparently fraught with difficulties. I was standing next to the front tomato bed, when I felt a thump on my side, as if a badminton birdie had hit me. It had about that size, weight, and velocity. I looked down to see a huge cicada lying on its back and a wasp detangling itself before flying off. Since Mom wasp never returned for the cicada, I can only presume that she lost interest or thought I might eat the cicada myself. I had observed a recent wasp casualty in the garden so I placed that dead wasp next to the stunned or dead cicada to give some perspective to the process going on in the garden. They are resting beside a standard size nail clipper for scale.


Little Rocks Make the Big Rocks Work

June 1, 2011

June 1, 2011

By Maggie Dwyer

Several years ago I decided to take a proactive approach to the speeders who laid rubber on the curve around the front of my house – youthful (and not so youthful – I saw you, with your middle-aged lead-feet!) drivers habitually charged past my house, testing the G’s on my curve, on their way out of the village. And there is the “T” intersection out front – a side street that intersects and lines up directly with the front bedroom on the southeast side. If someone doesn’t stop, or hits a patch of ice, they could easily end up not only in my yard, but in my house. And I didn’t want my sleeping son to be mashed by a reckless car. So I started building The Lump.

It isn’t pretty, but it was put there to do a job – keep automobiles from charging across the lawn to hit or penetrate my house. I started building this with earth-filled tires (I picked up trash tires dumped in the woods across the road) and covered those with dirt, compost, and mulch.

My kids and I took the wheelbarrow to the woods across the road during the winter months, when we could see the tires dumped in years past. I have probably 6 or 8 tubeless tires, packed tight with earth, anchoring the heart of the berm. As I gardened I dropped my compost and occasional bags of dirt and mulch on top to slowly build it up.

Neighbors would occasionally ask me what I was doing with that lump, and once I explained, they understood. They’d seen deep tire marks gouged into other neighbors’ lawns, especially those on curves. They probably winced inwardly at the idea of this lump of mine out in the front yard, but they understood. They may not quite visualize the intended final results, but I had a plan.

I have a lot of spare pieces of quarried limestone extant in the yard, from a demolished planter structure that once sat near the front porch. It was torn down years before I bought the property. My house has a rock front, limestone, and this large and probably very ugly planter had once commingled with the wrought iron gate that I found around the back when I moved in*.

The limestone pieces were dumped at the back of the yard, down near the gate to the creek. Once I cleared out the brush, and found the gate, and started clearing, I realized I had tons of beautiful limestone rocks. I began to use them to make informal walls around my side door and my driveway vegetable garden, and I even built a keyhole garden with a bunch of it. But the main use of this rock, as I always intended, was a wall in front of the berm. All I was missing was the dirt that would fill in between the wall and the berm. I could buy $50 worth a half mile from the house, but they wouldn’t load it in a pickup with a camper shell. It wasn’t worth it to me to 1) remove the shell or 2) pay double the price of the dirt to have it delivered. So my berm/wall waited. Last month my next door neighbors had a new footer dug for an enlarged patio, and there was a lot of extra dirt. So I grabbed it, and this was the missing link in my wall building. No more procrastination – I had what I visualized needing, so I finally built the wall.

I’ve worked out in the open, wearing my hat and bandana in the bright sun, and my extra long over-size t-shirts to avoid getting a burn on the small of my back that appears when regular sized shirts pull up and expose the skin. People passing rarely stopped to ask about my project, they continued past silently. But they did notice. I spoke with a woman in the next block, she’s about my age–on her own, with the same interest and the drive (and no extra money)–to take on this kind of challenge at her house.  “I’ve been watching your wall. It’s beautiful!” she said recently. “I’ve had to build it in stages, as I had time,” I answered. “Of course!” – she responded, understanding perfectly. We do these projects as our employment allows.

This photo appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after Dylan provided music at a UTA Library faculty reception.
In April 2010 my son Dylan played classical guitar in the UTA Central Library atrium as a faculty reception was getting underway.
This charming young man sleeps in the front bedroom in my house.

Today I put the last few little rocks on the top layer – and I must pay brief homage to those little rocks that made this all possible. The big ones are charismatic, they are the ones people will notice as their headlights illuminate this limestone wall, but it was the little rocks that helped it all fit together. The ones I scrambled to find as the work progressed. And the last few I stuck onto the top of the wall before layering on a coat of mortar. I finished that wall with its coat of mortar on top with a cheap Dollar Store whisk broom that has been my constant companion. Cleaning off the rock surfaces each time I resumed work, and then at the end, providing the lovely scored surface to the mortar I smeared on top.

This wall has grown slowly, and the end result isn’t much more than two feet tall, but the goal is to stop a vehicle in its tracks if it slides into my yard. My goal is to save the life if the sleeper in the front bedroom.

Thoughts range widely if you work without a radio or phone in your ear. Thoughts about what lived here before the house was built, and about the life in the yard itself. I like to attract wildlife with my organic gardening and plant choices. There is a domestic shorthair feline buried nearby, next to the Italian Stone Pine in front of the wall. This is Clementine’s wall. I’ll plant flowers to make the whole area shimmer with color, so  who will care about a wall when it has bright zinnias or chartreuse sweet potato sprawled over it? A ghostly calico cat might lounge there watching people pass by, only we will notice.

I am an organic gardener so it always pains me to dig up a bed in the spring or fall and find displaced lizards, snakes, spiders, etc. With this wall, I have added habitat. A gorgeous large tarantula moved in as I was finishing the mortar cap of the wall.

As I placed the last stones and swept the mortar across the top of my wall this evening I saw a large tarantula climbing the stone support on the right-hand side. I couldn’t pull off my gloves fast enough to get the phone camera button pressed to capture the beauty of this velvet spider with it’s black thorax and russet patterned abdomen as it moved into a cavity in the new wall. I sent a message via my phone, and Dean Crabtree responded “Tenant already? Very nice job, I would say!” Of course! Not only is this a protection for my house, but I have created a new habitat area in the yard.

The stone matches that on the house. Most people probably won’t notice it after a while. The little wall is a passive sentinel, standing in place to protect the inhabitants of the house, and provide shelter for native wildlife. Not a bad assignment!

*There is a family story about an ugly planter, that takes place in Connecticut. My great aunt Josephine lived across the street from the Ansonia Public Library. There was a very modernist pink or beige granite-looking horse trough and fountain at the front of the library property. It turns out that the land was donated by the family of Anna Sewell, the author of the Black Beauty stories. And legend goes that if the trough and fountain are removed, the land reverts back to the family. So the library groundskeepers filled the trough with dirt and planted flowers.

One man’s trash is this woman’s compost

May 8, 2011

May 8, 2011


An Open Letter to my neighbors in the Edgecliff Village area:

I picked these bags up a few weeks ago. I typically mix them in with my own weeds from the garden.
If you haven’t given any consideration to the nutrients that are in your lawn clippings, preferring to bag them and send them to the landfill, I have a request. I do value them, but some of you are making rather a mess of the process.

In the spring, usually when you start “thatching” or cleaning up your yards and mowing that first mass of tender weeds and winter grass, this organic material is really great for making the compost cook. So when you bag it and put it at the curb, understand that I may drive by in the evening and look into or at least give the bags a few tentative pokes to guess the contents, and then load them up to take home to my compost. Try to follow these simple rules:

Don’t tie the bags so tightly shut that I can’t untie them. A simple granny knot or square knot will do, so I don’t have to rip it open. That way I can reuse your old trash bag for hauling compost from the city’s free compost bunker or put my own trash in it. (I rarely have enough for a trash bag, but that is another blog entry.)

Don’t commingle tough branches in with your lawn clippings, and though it may seem funny to visualize my pain, PLEASE put the holly in its own bag. It really hurts to grab those leaves.

Don’t commingle your garbage into the lawn clippings. No plastic pop bottles, shingles that slid off of the roof, or other chunks of stuff that I’ll have to sort and throw away later. You have your regular trash can for that.

Do please included shredded leaves in with your lawn clippings, they are wonderful for adding micronutrients.

Please bag the good clippings, then I can carry them
home. I won’t disturb your trash can if you fill it with yard waste.

Once trash is at the curb, it goes somewhere. Efficient men come by in the morning and toss these bags into a compactor truck and take it to the landfill where it is buried away from sun and air and where it doesn’t break down or do much good for the environment.

You may have an inkling of proprietary fondness for your trash – it’s yours, you can do what you want with it, but in a lot of places, a growing number of places, that isn’t the case. One of these days, I hope, you’ll have to sort your trash and recycle the glass, plastics, and metal, and you’ll have to put yard waste in a decomposable bag. Until then, have pity on those of us who sort and recycle voluntarily and who keep an active compost system going in our yards with your lawn waste.

Thank you.

Your neighbor with the white pickup truck.

Did you know that when I pick up your bags of grass clippings that they smell of compost already, and are warm to the touch because the composting is beginning in the bag? I leave these bags in my back yard and every time I have a wheelbarrow full of my own yard clippings or weeds from digging the vegetable garden, I mix in at least one of these bags of yours, pouring it out over the existing pile then put my weeds on top to hold yours down (especially if it is loose leaves – I want them to stay put). Your clippings help kick start the next cooking phase in my compost.

Looking toward the next door yard last fall, you can see the site I dug last year and two working piles.
I tend to pile it and work these layers, the pile gets so big that I don’t try to turn it much. Two years will pass before I sieve then shovel this fine dark brown compost into my garden. There are composting hot shots with thermometers who are going for heat records as it cooks, I prefer to let time do it’s job, and I keep three piles going. The one I’m digging from this year, last year’s garden waste is nearby, and the stack from two years ago is waiting to be used next year. In this photo from last summer, you can see two stacks and the bare area left from where the oldest one was completely used that season.

It takes a surprisingly long time to fill this, but beware, it is really heavy if you fill it up. I'm switching to worm composting to use this bin less.
As mentioned in the last blog post, I also put kitchen waste in the compost, but because I have dogs who think all food is interesting, I let it break down in a bin first, then pour the soupy mix into the middle of the compost. It still smells pretty interesting to them, but I have started with Howard Garrett’s suggestion of mixing up a bucket of dog poop tea (just what it sounds like) to pour over the compost once I’ve poured in the liquid and covered it over. The poop smell repels the dogs, who under most circumstances, leave their own droppings alone.

I know one argument I’ll hear already: what if those people use chemicals on their lawns? I can’t help that, though I push the organic message pretty hard in the village. I get the earliest clippings, before folks fertilize. I figure it’s the least I can do, to recycle those nutrients before chemicals kick in this year to replace what they threw away.

As mentioned last time, I am adding a worm bin. I completed my research and am now in the design phase, but it should be up and running by late June. I have the parts and now I need to build the bin and get the bedding started before adding worms.

Dogs love stinky stuff – compost stories

April 10, 2011

By Maggie Dwyer  permalink

My kitchen scraps build up in a large bowl during the day; trimmings, things too old in the fridge, whatever, as long as it isn’t meat or oily, and then I take them out to drop in an 18-gallon bin to break down for a while before pouring the slop into the middle of my compost pile. This process was an experiment to keep my dogs out of the kitchen scraps in the compost pile.

Last night I dug a hole in the top, poured this anaerobic soup into the pile, then covered it over and set a sprinkler on top for a while to soak it in and keep the dogs out until it soaked in. They stayed out as long as the sprinkler was running, anyway.

My pitbull, who usually telegraphs her misbehavior by looking guilty before I’ve discovered the problem (i.e., she loves to tear up boxes and newspaper), reeked of it, and showed not one iota of guilt; I can’t say how much she ate, if she ate any, versus just digging around or rolling in it, but twice I chased her out of it before I remembered Howard Garrett’s suggestion to make some “dog poop tea” (just what it sounds like!) and pour it over the area I want them to leave alone. When I checked this morning, they hadn’t gone in through the top where the poop is, but they did run an experimental tunnel from the side, so I can conclude that I must get full coverage for dog poop tea to really work. I scoop and toss poop in compost, but I hadn’t done it for a while. I rotate two of these bins, so when I empty the one that is still aging, I’ll police the yard and have a big batch of the tea ready to treat the compost.

The 18-gallon bins are very heavy and stink of the ripest compost. It’s produces a soupy slurry during decomposition, and except for the fact that it probably isn’t an aerobic process, it could be the way to produce a potent compost tea in it’s raw form.

I’m going to move on to worm composting for a while and see if it is any easier to manage. The dogs at least should smell sweeter.