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Homestead Reflections- October 2019

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 October Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Today is another glorious, late summer day. It is especially a blessing in light of the recent weather-related disasters, occurring in other areas around the world.  Having these sunny days interspersed with days of gentle rain, has been great for end of garden harvesting and the re-seeding of cover crops.

Even with my scaled-back garden, there is enough abundance to fill the larder with frozen, canned, dehydrated and fermented vegetables and fruit.  And it continues to be a big fruit year. After the less than stellar spring strawberry harvest, I’m happy to report that the fruit trees have really come through.  Plums and peaches galore! We just harvested and dehydrated 15 pounds of Italian prune-plums to go along with the plum conserve and frozen & dehydrated peaches.  The pear and apple trees are also loaded with fruit waiting to ripen.  Then it’ll be more dehydrating, sauce and cider making!

Tomato Hornworm with parasitic wasp cocoons
Tomato Hornworm with parasitic wasp cocoons

The cover crop “cocktail” which was seeded (July 28th) into the empty bed after garlic harvest is now (September 15th) around 20 inches tall.  It is a dense planting of oats, peas, barley, sorghum, buckwheat, and radish, all of which will winter-kill and produce a thick layer of mulch for winter soil protection.  Right now though, the buckwheat is in full bloom and is “a-buzz” with pollinators and beneficial insects.  From fat hairy bumblebees to very tiny creatures, they are all gathering nectar and pollen.  The beneficial insects (ladybugs, parasitic wasps, lace wings, …) need food and shelter while they await their main meal of aphids, caterpillars, hornworms and other garden pests.  For this reason, I also leave a smattering of “weeds” throughout the garden and along its edges.  Queen Anne’s Lace, mustard, fleabane, asters, goldenrod, clovers and such draw in a diversity of these insects.

Monarch catepillar
Monarch catepillar

Last week I found several tomato hornworms devouring a tomato plant.  I was torn between leaving them in hopes that some parasitoid wasp would come along and lay its eggs in them or killing them to save my tomatoes.  Luckily, there was another solution.  I picked them off the precious tomatoes and took them to a “volunteer” tomato plant in the compost, which was too young to produce a crop.  I watched as the Hornworms ate away at that sacrificial plant, and then yesterday I noticed that the Hornworm had been parasitized!  A wasp had laid eggs in the Hornworm host where they hatch and consume their host from the inside out.  The larvae then emerge onto the skin of the Hornworm where they spin cocoons. Hope I get to see the baby wasps emerge from the cocoons. But if not, here’s a link to a cool video of this happening.  (Though it might be a bit scary for the faint of heart!)

The other amazing and thrilling insect activity in the garden this year is the abundance of Monarch butterflies.  Pru calls it the Year of The Monarch!  We have a 15’ x 8’ patch of Milkweed (which I try to keep from spreading and taking over more of the garden!) on the edge of the garden.  In the last few years we’ve had a few Monarchs enjoying the patch, but this year they’ve exploded.  We’ve been thrilled to find and watch the beautifully striped caterpillars munching away on the Milkweed. 

Tomato Hornworm with parasitic wasp cocoons
Monarch chyrsalis

Before this summer, I had only seen 1 or 2 Monarch chrysalises.  This year there were dozens, everywhere around the homestead.  We found them hanging from the garden fence, from trellises, within stone walls, on the electric fence, and even hanging from vegetables, like kale leaf ribs.  The chrysalises themselves are also beautiful, a small pale green, sack-like pouch with a ring of golden specks.   It takes between 10 days and 2 weeks, for the larvae (caterpillar) to grow and form its chrysalis and the same period of time for the adult Monarch to emerge from the chrysalis.  After discovering their location, we would monitor them waiting for the change in color, (pale green becoming translucent with a darker black & orange) which indicated the imminent emergence of the adult. Being busy homesteaders, we felt very fortunate when we were able to watch the birth and first flight of a beautiful, vibrant, adult Monarch butterfly. 

Monarch butterfly
Monarch butterfly

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve moved a caterpillar now and then to a different Milkweed stalk, which still had some green leaves left.  However, this week we were able to affect a “rescue mission” for the half dozen caterpillars on stalks totally devoid of any leaves.  We transferred a few stalks from a friend’s garden to a bucket of water in ours, thus bringing food to the hungry!

I did just read that the generation of monarchs emerging in mid summer live several weeks until their eggs or sperm are used up, while those of late summer make the big migration south. While watching this butterfly flitting around the garden, (well, actually, stalking it to take its photo) it is hard to imagine its pending journey.  The Monarch migration is one of those natural phenomena that is both amazing and awe-inspiring. 

Pru has been reminding us that this increase in Monarchs is also a sign of HOPE.  These beautiful insects, which have been under extreme environmental stress, caused by us humans, (pesticides & herbicides like Roundup), as well as climate disruptions, seem to be making a comeback due to the good work of human intervention.  People are taking steps to decrease their use of toxins and to plant and protect Milkweed, which is so essential to their survival. This really seems to have made a beautifully dramatic difference.  Having this gift, during these days of doom and gloom over national politics and climate crisis, is a good reminder that each of us can (and do) make a positive difference in the world.

Well, back to the joyful tasks of food preserving, putting the garden to bed and performing random acts of kindness. 

I hope you too are enjoying these glorious fall days and your gardening experiences.

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