Featured this month:
- Harvest begins
- Strawberry issues
- Blackberry borer revisited
- Miscellaneous insects
- Non-orchard news: Three nests
Quiz: Identify these plants, at least to the the family level. Answer below the break.
All are plants in the rose family, Rosaceae: Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora, upper left), some kind of domestic rose planted by the prior property owner (upper right), a native wild rose (lower left), and a young rose-hip shaped fruit, more commonly known as an apple. Apples are members of the rose family (Rosaceae), as are many other orchard plants including pear (Pyrus spp.), Juneberry (Amelanchier spp.), strawberry (Fragaria spp.), cherry/plum/peach (Prunus spp.), and blackberry/raspberry (Rubus spp.). We’re big on having lots of biodiversity in all of our plantings, so it’s humbling to stop and realize that many of our fruits are in the same family, a factor that matters in the sense that plants that are closely related often tend to be prone to similar diseases and other problems. Non-rose-family perennial fruits that we’re growing include blueberry, gooseberry, elderberry, grape, pawpaw, and persimmon.
Temperature: Wow, what a nice month, with gentle swings between a little warm and a little cool. We didn’t break record highs or lows. We didn’t experience a May frost (something we’ve had in our valley more years than not). There were some nights that were chilly for warm-weather-loving annuals, but for perennials in the orchard, this weather was remarkably nice.
Precipitation: Precipitation for the month was a little below normal, but having had a soggy end to April, a bit of drying was appreciated. On the other hand, the dry spell we seem to be entering into at the beginning of June may be another matter.
Harvest begins: The rewards of orcharding really start to kick in each year in May. By mid-month we were picking so-called “June-bearing” strawberries, and Juneberries were ripening in late May. We also tried to outwit the birds and squirrels to get a taste of mulberries by wrapping a couple of branches in row cover; it kind of worked, temporarily. And we harvested and dried some elderflowers for winter teas.
Strawberry issues: Over the years, strawberries have been our most successful fruit crop; last year was an exception, but this year more than made up for it with bumper yields (40+ quarts in the freezer, 7 gallons of wine underway, plus jam & dried berries). That said, some problems come up now and then. We saw a small percentage of berries that been munched in a way that left a hollowed-out hole (left). We’re pretty sure this is slug damage, based on similar damage on other crops (such as last fall’s sweet potatoes), as well associated trails of slug slime in some cases. Over the past few years, we’ve had a population explosion of big, slimy, spotted, Leopard Slugs (Limax maximus), and they seem to be munching on multiple crops. These slugs are invasive, and we’ve watched them invade here at Chert Hollow. They’re annoying, but not problematic enough to do anything about. Another issue that we have a little more control over is sun scald. We had some bright, sunny days early in strawberry season and some of our Earliglow Strawberries basically started to cook on the plant (center photo). The easiest remedy is to put shade cloth over the bed (right photo). We did this for our first-year planting of Earliglows, but the Sparkles had so much foliage that they weren’t experiencing problems. The right-hand photo also shows another pest-protection measure that we always use for strawberries, which is an electric net fence to keep out mammalian pests, particularly raccoons. We learned early on that this is an essential preventative measure here. Remarkably, birds haven’t (yet) discovered our strawberry patch, but shade cloth would be an easy solution for birds, too.
Blackberry borer revisited: In last month’s natural events post, we showed photos of the larva and pupa of an insect that was boring into blackberry crowns. (We found it in the dead part of crowns, but we don’t know whether or not it actually damages the living part of the plant.) Here’s a photo of the adult. After spending some time on bugguide.net, we’ve come up with an identification of Strangalia luteicornis, which is a type of long-horned beetle. Unfortunately, having an identification has not helped us find additional information with respect to this beetle’s interaction with blackberry plants.
Miscellaneous insects: We found these in and near the orchard in May. The wasp at left was on the greenhouse door; the long ovipositor combined with its size (not tiny) suggests to me that it’s probably in the Family Ichneumonidae, a group of wasps that contains many beneficial parasitoids. To the right of the wasp is a fishfly; we don’t know of any specific ecological significance to the orchard, but this is the first time we’ve documented a representative of the Order Megaloptera here. Upper right is an unidentified caterpillar. This one was feeding on Autumn Olive, which is fine by us. Caterpillars can be damaging to fruit trees, and it’s worth monitoring for excessive numbers at this time of year. Adult butterflies such as the Great Spangled Fritillary (lower right) can assist with pollination; this one is on some wild bramble blossoms. The host plant of the caterpillar of the Great Spangled Fritillary is the violet–a plant that grows wild in abundance, so we can fully enjoy the presence of this butterfly in the orchard without worrying about it laying eggs that will result in caterpillars munching on our fruit-bearing plants.
Three nests: In news from outside the orchard, we photographed three notable nests this month. The Field Sparrow nest (left) is in a small Multiflora Rose bush, almost at ground level. The difference in size and bill color of the two nestlings photographed makes us wonder whether one is a Brown-headed Cowbird. We also found a Red-shouldered Hawk nest in the woods; we had great views through binoculars, but the center photo is the best we could do with our camera lens. The one fuzzy white chick is visible in the photo, facing to the right (as of June 6, it had fledged and was hanging out near the nest).
Then, on May 26, I was hoeing a bed in preparation for pepper planting when I found an Ornate Box Turtle (right) who appeared to be nesting. The location is within about 50 feet of the sites of Three-toed Box Turtle nests (one from 2015, one from 2016), so apparently turtles have decided that our annual-vegetable growing areas make good nesting grounds. If she was indeed nesting, I found her near the end of the nesting process, so I missed much of the action, but nevertheless there were multiple notable differences between her approach and that of the Three-toeds:
- She was much more shy than the Three-toeds; they kept doing what they were doing as I watched, but the Ornate stopped what she was doing and/or tucked up in the shell anytime I approached.
- She seems to have had a different excavation technique than the Three-toeds, who exclusively dug a hole with their back legs. This Ornate had mud streaks on the lower part of her shell, and she seemed to be rotating around in a dinner-plate-sized crater. She even left a considerable crater marking the site after her departure, unlike the Three-toeds who disguised the sites to make it look like nothing had happened. (I’m not sure if my presence made her nervous and encouraged her to leave before she was truly done.)
- She departed the presumed nest site in the late afternoon, around 4 p.m., whereas both of the Three-toeds laid their eggs and covered their nests near dusk. Again, we’re not 100% certain that this is a nest, and we don’t want to dig into it to find out because we could never cover it again as carefully as mother turtle did in the first place. However, we’d love to hear from anyone who has seen an Ornate Box Turtle during nesting.
Swallows: May brings the peak of spring bird migration, a favorite time of year for us. Warblers usually start arriving in big numbers in early May, but the weather system that dumped all the rain at the end of April and beginning of May seems to have interfered with migration for a while. However, on May 5, while going to get some asparagus from the orchard for lunch, we were delighted to look up and see a flock at least 40 migrating swallows darting around above the orchard. The flock was dominated by Cliff and Barn Swallows along with a few Chimney Swifts and a few unidentifieds (Bank Swallows or Rough-winged Swallows). We watched them for a good 10 or 15 minutes as they focused their activity above the orchard, and we wondered whether this was a random spot for them to “stop” and hunt on their migration, or whether our orchard management somehow made this a particularly desirable location. After all, don’t all orchardists hope their work results in lots of swallows? Puns aside, warblers did eventually arrive, and we tallied 20 species of warblers here in May, with highlights including Blackburnian and Bay-breasted.