The month of June has been brought to us by the letters R, A, I, N, and the symbols @$#!. This has been an awfully wet period for much of our region, starting after the first week of May, in which round after round of rain keeps sweeping through. This has caused all sorts of agricultural headaches, including supercharged weed growth, plant disease, soil erosion, muddy farm roads, and soggy, un-hoe-able soil preventing us from planting, maintaining, and harvesting crops for sale or personal use. We’ve been keeping on-farm precipitation records since late 2009; here’s what the cumulative rainfall numbers look like for each year starting at the beginning of May:
While other years had higher totals at times, they also all had longer periods between rainfall events, providing a chance to dry out and get work done. This year, after the first week of May, only TWICE have we gone three days in a row without measurable rainfall, and the daily totals are often heavy. We’re not regretting our sabbatical from the CSA this year, as it’s been stressful enough managing the land under these conditions without the added pressure of biweekly harvest and deliveries.
Nevertheless, we experienced a lot of interesting natural phenomena in June, and took a lot of photos, so read on for an illustrated tour of the farm’s ecosystem during this time of year.
Big oak trees have been dying around our farm and region for years, stressed by age and the recent cycles between wet and drought years. A large one came down across the stream recently, and many more are hanging on like tottering sentinels in the woods. They make us a bit nervous, never knowing when one will come crashing down without warning.
We saw the first ergot fungus of the year on June 24 on fescue seed heads. We’ve also seen a fair amount of fungus on the leaves of wild plants, such as this poison ivy. Full scale mushrooms have been sparse: we had no domestic shiitakes or wild chanterelles during June, despite the seemingly perfect conditions for fungus to grow.
We’ve eaten more on-farm fruit this year than ever before, with the promise of more to come. Several wild mulberry trees yielded wonderfully in June, we ate our first cherries off a young orchard tree, and most of our young Asian pear and apple trees have set a nice crop of fruit. Strawberries yielded well again, and with low sales, we preserved well over a hundred quarts ourselves in various ways, including our first attempt at wine making. Wild black raspberries and gooseberries looked promising but didn’t all mature (or were raided by birds), but we still harvested a nice quantity for fresh eating and preserved some. Our blueberries continue to struggle, but the domestic blackberries are loaded with young fruit.
Biodiversity is part of our overarching land management strategy. The mix of flowers & plants above, part of our orchard, attract and support a wide mix of beneficial insects and pollinators, such as the honey bees above right, while providing visual interest during the overwhelming green of early summer. We intentionally avoid mowing areas like this, preferring the rambunctious mix of biodiversity to the relatively sterile serenity of a manicured landscape.
Dealing with abundant moisture has taken up a great deal of time. Above left, you see one of many small catch ponds Joanna started digging in various places to capture, hold, and distribute water across the landscape rather than letting it run off directly. Weed growth, such as in the bean beds above right, threatens to choke garden crops and has delayed or disrupted the proper maintenance of many growing areas we’d hoped to keep in beneficial cover crops during the sabbatical, as opposed to rain-fueled masses of seed-setting weeds. Under these conditions we’re grateful for our non-mechanized methods; we’d be even further behind if we needed to let the ground dry out enough for tractor cultivation. Note: The beds in the photo at right have since been hoed!
Due to overall declines in Monarch butterfly numbers, we’ve been light-handed on weeding out Common Milkweed in our vegetable fields during the last few years. We have a couple of vigorous stands that are flowering profusely this year. The flowers are aromatic and attract a great diversity of insects, including butterflies, bees, moths, and bugs.
The premier natural event of the month was on Saturday June 6, when Joanna was doing some hoeing in the field during a rare dry-ish evening and spotted a Three-toed Box Turtle making a nest. The turtle spent a considerable amount of time excavating the hole by pulling out dirt with the claws of her back legs, alternating one leg, then the other. Excavation took a while, so I alternated between hoeing and watching. Egg laying was surprisingly fast, and I came back just in time to see the final egg drop into the hole, for a total of four that I could see (and possibly more). Apparently, when it comes to laying, turtles are speedier than birds, most species of which lay only one egg per day. I watched as Mrs. Turtle carefully positioned the final egg in the hole, then proceeded to cover the nest, first with vegetative matter, then with soil from the excavation pile. In the photo at right, she is tamping down soil with both feet. Darkness and mosquitoes eventually got the better of me, and I didn’t see the finishing touches until the next morning.
Here’s the context of the nest: The photo at left was taken at the time of excavation; you can see her in in the sweet corn patch, lower center of the left photo. The photo on the right shows the nest the next morning. The nest is near the center of the photo, to the bottom right of the sweet corn plant. She did a masterful job of making it look like nothing happened, and I now see why I’ve never found a box turtle nest before. We will certainly be on the lookout for babies. I don’t know what the effect of the rain will be on their hatch success, but I will say that the nest is in one of the driest parts of the field.
Lepidopterans are photogenic, so it’s hard not to feature some during each summer month. Eric found the bird-dropping mimic caterpillar (upper left) on one of our apple trees; it is either a Red-Spotted Purple or a Viceroy. The moth upper right is in the genus Xanthotype. Below are Great Spangled Fritillaries and an unidentified sulphur butterfly on milkweed and coneflowers.
Dragonflies! Upper left is an Eastern Amberwing, and lower right is a Widow Skimmer male. Haven’t had a chance to ID the other two yet.
Odds and ends photos: Left, Fence Lizard, a male based on the turquoise color on the belly. Center, Japanese Beetle, which have been present but not at outrageous levels. Right, a crab spider on elderberry blossoms.
Other noteworthy nature observations:
For the first time since we’ve moved here, we routinely heard Northern Bobwhite calling through the month of June. Very nice to hear, but it is lousy timing for them to try to get established in the vicinity, because excessive rain isn’t favorable for successful quail reproduction. They’ve been audible from our main vegetable field, but we think they’re primarily using the fallow commodity fields across Silver Fork Creek, which do not appear to have been planted this year due to the rain. Normally such land would be undesirable for quail due to the high crop density of modern corn & soy agriculture.
We had a definite Copperhead sighting on June 22, within the buckwheat in a garden bed. Joanna might have seen one last year, but it was a brief view at dusk. We both saw this one, and the patterning, color, and triangular head gave us confidence in identification. We’ve both been jumpy since!