Embracing Autumn

Our summer has finally turned to autumn. Cooler temperatures and more rain mean the grass has begun to grow again, green shoots sprouting through rain-driven drifts of dead vegetation.

The tomatoes are browning, spent after summer’s excess, and while I mourn their loss, I welcome the fruits of autumn—pumpkin, wild boletes, black beans, apples and a return of leafy greens. I welcome warming soups and casseroles. I welcome the smell of baking pie, simmering beans, and sautéing mushrooms.

I welcome the reduced workload in the garden, too. There’s still plenty of harvesting to be done, and I’ll be clearing away dead plants throughout autumn and winter, but soon I’ll release the chickens into the garden to keep the weeds and pests in check until spring.

It’s time now to take stock. Plenty of summer soup, pickles and jam in the cupboard; strings of onions and garlic hanging in the kitchen; pesto, peas and corn in the freezer. Jars of popcorn and dry beans line the shelf, and a basket of apples sits in the kitchen. We will eat well this winter, food and effort stored in jars and freezer boxes to be released and enjoyed on dark, cold evenings. 

So I will savour the warmth and sun that remains, but embrace the cold to come.

Alpine Delights

The family spent a delightful hour on the Dobson Nature Walk in Arthur’s Pass National Park on Wednesday. The track is an easy one, and hiking it quickly takes about 20 minutes. But it’s not a walk you want to do quickly, especially in summer. It winds through alpine and sub-alpine vegetation, including some beautiful tarns, and in summer, so many plants are blooming, it’s hard to take five steps without finding another lovely orchid, daisy, or hebe in bloom.

For me, the best part of the walk is the abundance of sundews in the tarns. As an entomologist, I’m naturally drawn to carnivorous plants like sundews. Sundews catch insects on the sticky hairs you can see glistening in this photo. The hairs are sensitive to both touch and taste, and when they sense a struggling insect, they fold inward to further entangle their prey. Enzymes exuded by the hairs then digest the insect, and the leaf takes up the nutrients in order to grow in the nutrient-poor alpine wetlands. 

These sundews were just beginning to flower—many plants had flower buds, but none had yet opened. The flowers sit above the leaves—an important adaptation, since the plant needs to be pollinated by the very insects it eats.

The alpine summer is short, so when these plants are done flowering, the leaves will slowly shrink into a structure called a hibernaculum that sits near the soil surface and protects the plant through the winter.

Catlin’s River Walk—a little bit of magic

My family and I were in the Catlins last week, in the southeast corner of the South Island. It’s a wild and remote area, home to more penguins and fur seals than humans. No urban adventures here—it’s a place for outdoor recreation.

One of the things we did was to hike part of the Catlins River Track (we didn’t have time to do the full track). It was unlike any other place I’ve been in New Zealand.

In fact, it reminded me most of eastern Pennsylvania, in spite of the fact that it shares not a single common species of plant or animal.

The track follows the Catlins River, a beautiful waterway that cuts through layers of limestone in one little cascade after another. Swing bridges cross the river several times, providing great aerial views of the water (and a little excitement for those who don’t like heights). The forest is old-growth beech which provides habitat for myriad native birds, carefully protected by intensive predator control. 

In addition to the beech, we were delighted to see two species of orchid on the forest floor, red-flowered mistletoes in the treetops, several species of slime mould, some lovely mushrooms, and a beautiful native harvestman. The birdlife was noisy and varied, but we weren’t lucky enough to see any endangered mohua. And, amazingly, there wasn’t a single sandfly! 

The whole effect was one of an enchanted forest. We were certainly enchanted.

The track is relatively flat—easy hiking for kids or those who can’t face the usual Kiwi hiking track going straight up a mountain, and because there’s no “goal” to reach, you can simply walk as far as you’d like, and then return. The entire length is 12 km one-way, with a return loop option through forestry land away from the river. 

I highly recommend this track. I’ll certainly be going back when I have enough time to do the whole thing.

Summer?

It’s been decidedly un-summer-like recently. We’ve had an exceptionally wet two weeks—there’s a puddle in the yard, Coes Ford is flooded, and weeds and mushrooms are sprouting everywhere.

Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped the strawberries. When my daughter braved the rain to pick, she found a surprising number of slug-bitten but delicious ripe fruits.

Strawberry shortcake for dessert, strawberries on my morning muesli, strawberries every time I walk through the kitchen…it must be summer!

Now, if only we’d see the sun…

Potential Realised and Unrealised

But those apricots may or may not survive the next nor-west wind. The blueberries might be eaten by the birds before they ripen. The tomatoes could be hit by herbicide overspray. The beans might be stripped by hail. A thousand disasters might befall any of these plants and destroy their promise. And sometimes those disasters do happen—hailstorms have shredded the garden, wind has stripped every tree of fruit, birds have plucked out every seedling from the ground, overspray has twisted and stunted vegetables and decimated the grapes. I can be certain of at least one disaster every year.

But every year, something goes right, and potential is realised. Maybe the hail comes with a little extra rain that helps the vegetables recover from the damage. Maybe that wind-blown fruit can be used to make chutney. Maybe the birds ignore the blueberries, and we eat them until we think we’ll turn blue ourselves. Maybe the wind is blowing the other way when the neighbour sprays, and the garden grows unmolested by agrichemicals. A thousand things can go right and lead to abundance in the garden.

I think about this a lot as I prepare my son to leave home in a few months. He’s taking his final high school exams next week and will head to university in February. For him, it’s a time of incredible possibilities, as he launches into adulthood and pursues his passions.

But he has a difficult year ahead of him—on his own for the first time, in a new city providing lots of distractions, and without his support network of friends and family around him. A thousand things could go wrong. He could focus too much on fun and fail his classes. He could focus too much on classes and become over-stressed. He could make no friends. He could make the wrong friends. He could start drinking, smoking, using drugs. 

No doubt, one or more of these disasters will happen next year. 

But I like to think that possibilities for my son are a bit like possibilities in the garden. Regardless of the disasters, some things will go right. He may make good, positive friendships. He may enjoy Friday-night partying without losing sight of his studies. If he does fail a class, it might convince him to redouble his efforts. A thousand things could go right.

In the garden and with my son, I’m preparing for things to go wrong—for potential unrealised. But I’m also preparing for things to go right. There’s an abundant harvest building up, and I can’t wait to see what it is.

Spring Babies

It’s that time of year again! The preying mantis egg case I collected in the autumn is hatching.

Because these mantids were in the warm office for half the winter, they’re early. Mantids in the egg cases outdoors haven’t yet emerged. So they need a little extra care. As the babies emerge, I transfer them to a large tank where they’ll be warm and well-fed for a few weeks while the weather improves. Eventually, I will release most, keeping only a few for use in educational programmes.

I never tire of this annual event. I love watching the newborn mantids stretch their legs and catch their first meal. And I’m always amazed that so many insects can emerge from such a small egg case. The current one, just 15 mm long, has disgorged 35 mantids so far, and only half the case has hatched. The mantids don’t all hatch at once—hatching seems to progress from one end of the egg case to the other over the course of a few days. In the wild, I suspect most of the later hatchlings are eaten by the early ones—it’s a mantid-eat-mantid world out there. It happens in my tanks, too, though I try to minimise cannibalism by spreading them out as much as possible and giving them plenty of hiding spots. I used to raise each individual in its own peanut butter jar, but that gets to be pretty time and space-consuming when there can be 70 mantids in each egg case.

Everyone’s heard the sensational ‘fact’ that female preying mantids eat the males after mating. It does happen, sometimes, in some species, but not as often as you might think. Mantids are creatures of instinct, and one of their most powerful instincts is to capture prey. In fact, this urge is so strong that, even when their digestive system is completely full, and they can’t actually eat anything else, they will continue to capture prey.

So it’s no surprise that a female mantid might snack on her mate, especially since she’s bigger than he is. In species where the females are significantly larger than the males, there’s a higher incidence of cannibalism after mating. Among New Zealand mantids, cannibalism at mating is rare—females are only slightly larger than males, and so the males have a good chance of fighting off the females. I’ve seen this in action in captivity—one of my females had a go at her mate, but he was every bit as feisty as she, and their tussle ended with both alive and unharmed.

My little babies won’t have to worry about mating cannibalism for a while yet, but there are plenty of other dangers out there—other predators, parasites, pathogenic fungi, freezing weather, and careless gardeners all take their toll. Of the maybe 70 mantids that will hatch from my egg case, only one or two are likely to survive to adulthood.

I’ll give my babies the best start I can, and then they’ll be on their own. Watching them now, catching gnats like pros, I think they’re well-equipped.

5 Simple Things You Can Do to Help Conserve Species

It’s Conservation Week here in New Zealand. Fittingly, one of the kōwhai trees we planted years ago has chosen this week to flower for the first time.

Conservation week is a good time to talk about backyard biodiversity. I’ve blogged more than once about biodiversity issues. It’s a topic near to my family’s heart, and something we strive to improve all the time.

Our yard is, unfortunately, home to a wide variety of non-native weeds, but it also sports native plantings (and even a fair number of native ‘weeds’). Here are just a few of the simple things we’ve done to improve the habitat value of our back yard for native organisms. You could do these, too.

  1. Plant natives instead of non-natives. Here in New Zealand this is especially important, but it’s a good rule of thumb wherever you live. Native vegetation will best support native wildlife, because they evolved together. Choose plants that provide food and shelter for local wildlife—shrubs with berries for birds and lizards to eat, dense grasses that provide hiding spots for invertebrates, and flowers that provide food for insects.
  2. Create lizard refuges. A pile of rocks or a stack of broken terracotta pot shards makes a nice refuge for lizards—the rocks and terracotta warm up in the sun, making a convenient basking spot for the lizards, and the little cracks between ensure a quick, safe get-away when predators appear.
  3. Just add water. Birds, insects, and other animals all need water to survive. Provide a bird bath, a small pond, or an attractive water feature, and you’ll find many more animals drawn to your yard.
  4. Kill non-native predators. Less important in some places, but here in New Zealand, protecting native birds and lizards requires controlling invasive predators. Trap out possums, stoats, and rats to give native birds a chance to nest successfully. Put a bell on your cat and keep it indoors around dusk and dawn when the birds are most vulnerable.
  5. Learn what you’ve got. No matter how small, your yard teems with species. Look closely, and you may be surprised at the diversity. Though our yard tends to be quite dry, we’ve discovered half a dozen species of moisture-loving slime moulds on the property. Once you know you an organism is present, you can tweak your planting and maintenance to protect and encourage it.

And that brings me back to the kōwhai tree, finally blooming. It’s not enough, yet, to attract bellbirds or tūī, across the vast stretches of agricultural land between us and the nearest populations, but someday, our kōwhai and flaxes, along with the neighbours’, may very well support a healthy population of native birds. All it takes is for each of us to care for our own backyards, and collectively we can improve the habitat for all our native species.