Natural events, August 2016

August typically juxtaposes garden overabundance with disheartening losses to pests. Likewise, August typically combines outrageously good food with utterly miserable weather. In these ways, August 2016 was pretty typical.

Featured this month:

  • Berries
  • August food
  • Attack of the flea beetles
  • Shade cloth pitfalls
  • March of the armyworms
  • The woodpeckers strike again
  • 2016 cash crops
  • Cup plants in flower

Weather recap: Muggy was the word of the month. Temperatures never broke 100ºF, but the heat index sure did. Precipitation whiplash continued. The month got off to a start with a more-than-we-needed downpour, but irrigation was back in the picture by mid-month. Then it went back to being on the wet side, with rain falling on 6 of the last 8 days of the month.


Quiz: What do these plants have in common? Answer below the break.

Sumac (left), elderberry (middle), and wild grape (right) are all plants that produce berries suitable for wine-making. In fact, lately we’ve been quite enjoying some 2015 vintage sumac wine from our first ever 3-gallon batch of wine. Though not suitable for wine snobs, it tastes a bit like gently alcoholic lemonade, and it’s received good reviews from a few friends who have tried it. When it comes to a 2016 batch, though, sumac whine is all we’ve got, as the plants simply have not set berries this year for reasons we don’t understand; we did see flowers earlier in the season. Elderberry production is slightly better, and we have a first small batch of elderberry wine underway, though the yield is smaller than hoped. Some wild grapes by the pond look promising for a possible small batch of genuine grape wine in September. We also got to taste our first homegrown domestic grapes in August, and boy were they tasty!

aug_natural_yummy_foodAugust food: Most of this post is a run down of pests that are competing for tasty things we’ve worked to grow. But it’s worth remembering that in spite of these problems, we ate really well in August (and spent a fair amount of time stressing about the overabundance of food to preserve). A few highlights:

  • Upper left: We found a lovely Chicken of the Woods mushroom. Weighing in at more than 3 pounds, this was as hefty as a real chicken but a whole lot less messy to harvest. The texture is surprisingly reminiscent of chicken, and it added immensely to many tasty meals.
  • Upper right: Dairy goats chow down on Hog Peanut, a leguminous vine that helps to generate good milk yields. We’ve been experimenting with recipes from The Art of Natural Cheesemaking. Our kefir-started chevre hasn’t come out in a quite chevre-like fashion, but it has resulted in a yummy melt-able cheese that Eric nicknamed “Missourella.” We think the yeasts from bread & wine in the kitchen might be altering the kefir’s activity.
  • Lower left: Crimson Sweet watermelons! Great watermelon year for us. We planted a lot, and we got a lot. Most of the vines eventually collapsed, and we believe blister beetles are partly to blame, but we still have a nice stash in the refrigerator. We also freeze and dehydrate both watermelons and musk melons for later enjoyment.
  • Lower right: One of many yummy meals featuring mostly home-grown ingredients.

Attack of the flea beetles: Our flea beetle biodiversity includes at least three species. Upper left is a zoomed-in photo of a small beetle that goes after brassicas; photo below shows feeding damage on a young turnip leaf. Another grower we talked to agreed that the flea beetles have been hitting the young fall brassicas especially hard this year. The middle photo shows a flea beetle on eggplant, which has suffered heavily from an infestation since transplanting. We skipped row cover this year to see if we could succeed in growing eggplant without it, though unfortunately we didn’t do a controlled experiment. Regardless, we usually see the plants outgrowing flea beetle damage, though this year the plants seem especially stunted. On the right is a beetle that is also a flea beetle, though it is considerably larger than the other two. This one specializes in attacking amaranth.

aug_natural_shade_clothShade cloth pitfalls: Several years ago, in a very bad rabbit year, we had all of our rabbit-deterrent fencing in use and needed to transplant some tender young cabbages. We decided to use shade cloth over hoops as a substitute “fence” to keep the rabbits out and learned of a great side benefit: The shade cloth also excludes the adult moths and butterflies that visit brassicas to lay eggs that hatch into hungry caterpillars. We’ve now used shade cloth over fall brassicas for a number of years with excellent results on the cabbage-eating caterpillar front. However, we’re finding that shade cloth does have some pest porosity.

Some caterpillars are more mobile than others. The chrysalis under the shade cloth (above) is evidence that caterpillars can crawl right through. This is a Monarch chrysalis, and as the food plant for the caterpillar is not present under the shade cloth, it obviously walked right on in. Monarchs are obviously not a danger to cabbages, but the highly mobile caterpillars featured in the next photos below are. Striped Blister Beetles (Epicauta vittata) have also been congregating on and eating up some of the cabbage plants, and the shade cloth is no barrier to them. Last year we think slugs were a problem under the shade cloth, as well. Though we didn’t usually see them in action, we saw their slime trails.

aug_natural_armywormsMarch of the armyworms: Yellow-striped Armyworms (Spodoptera ornithogalli) have been especially common recently. We’ve seen them munching fall brassicas, gnawing on asparagus, and mowing down a young alfalfa/clover planting. Judging from the photos at, both of the caterpillars in the photos above are the same species.

aug_natural_woodpeckersThe woodpeckers strike again: And again…and again…on our tree fruits (not shown) and popcorn (left) and tomatoes (center). Most of the popcorn damage has been the work of one or more Downy Woodpeckers, while the Red-bellied Woodpeckers seem to be the primary offenders on the tomatoes. The big-eyed scarecrow has proved somewhat effective at protecting the tomatoes. When effectiveness started to wane, we added some holographic scare tape. The woodpecker populations are unlikely to decline anytime soon, though, as trees in our woods just seem to keep dying. We recently lost yet another large oak in the woods near the orchard.  aug_natural_seed_crops2016 cash crops: Fortunately, not all of our crops are being decimated by pestiferous creatures. We have three seed crops going this year: peppers, beans, and cowpeas, and they’re all looking good. The cowpeas have been taking their time with pod set, but the flowering seems to be picking up. If we can avoid too-crazy weather (such as rain on 6 out of 8 days) for the next month or so, we should have a good crop.

aug_natural_cupplantCup Plants in flower: We wrote about the Cup Plant back in the June natural events post, and the plants are now flowering. They’re quite pretty, as well as being attractive to birds including American Goldfinches, which visit for the seed.

3 thoughts on “Natural events, August 2016

  1. We have those amaranth flea beetles too. They are surprisingly big and less prone to jumping, than the smaller kinds of flea beetles.

    I have a question I think you may have answered on your blog somewhere, but I couldn’t find it – are there particular trail cameras you would or would not recommend??

    Thank goodness it’s September. August has been even more grueling than usual. Something ate big holes in our watermelons. Big holes, as is with a sawzall, not serrated edged holes. Any ideas?

    • We don’t have a lot of experience with different types of trailcams, but the website has some useful guidance to help narrow down the options. There are some features we do and don’t like, but that may be a topic for a longer post, or a conversation in October.

      On the melon front, we use electric nets to keep the critters out, so fortunately we don’t have a lot of firsthand experience with actual toothmarks on them.

  2. This is an answer to Pam from Joanna’s dad.
    Coyotes are known to feed on watermelons; it’s general knowledge here in the Ozarks.
    Personally I’ve never had the problem, but then we have large fences around the whole garden.

    I did once have a cantaloupe fed on (before we built deer fences) so, suspecting a raccoon, I set out a have-a-heart trap, and captured a red fox. It was such a beautiful animal, I just let it go right where I trapped it and it never returned. But it shows, canines can have a sweet tooth.