Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ch-ch-ch-changes

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I've been reading up on swallowtail caterpillars. Did you know there are five different caterpillar stages (called instars)? I didn't. I knew there were four developmental stages going from egg-caterpillar-pupa/chrysalis-butterfly, but I didn't know there were five sub-stages within the caterpillar stage. I kept wondering how all the different-looking caterpillars I found through Google Image Search could be the same species!

During the first and second instar stages, swallowtail caterpillars are dark brownish-black with yellow-orange spots, black spines and a white band around their middles. I saw some of these, but didn't get any pictures. I hope I get another chance to show them to you.

In the third, fourth and fifth instars, the caterpillars turn various shades of yellow, cream and green. I suspect the photos from yesterday are third instar caterpillars and today's photo is a fourth instar. Fifth instar is a pre-pupa stage, just before they form a chrysalis.

How do caterpillars go from first to fifth instar? They molt (shed their skins), just like a snake! Birdchick has some great information on her blog, including a video of a molt and pictures of caterpillars in various instar stages.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Caterpillars, and plants that look like them

These swallowtail caterpillars are the offspring of the one in my last post.
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If you look closely, you can see all sorts of mealybugs and spider mites on the fennel, ew.
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The plant got a forceful rinse with the garden hose after these shots (except for the spots where the caterpillars were).
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No bugs on the purple fountain grass.
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I took these at dusk with the setting sun hitting the fuzzy seed heads just so. The shade turned the gray sidewalk a deep blue.
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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Blooming xeric plants for Central Texas summers

Given the wailing, moaning and gnashing of teeth over the positively horrendous heat here in the ATX (myself included), I thought I'd try to cheer everyone up by posting some pictures of plants that are blooming their bloomin' heads off, despite 107 degree temperatures and an Exceptional Drought. (Oddly, lantana isn't among them. Boy, when it's too hot for lantana, it's HOT, I guarantee.)

First, in the front yard:
Salvia longespicata x farinacea ('Indigo Spires' sage).
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Thymophylla tenuiloba (Dahlberg daisy).
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Melampodium leucanthum (Blackfoot daisy).
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Coreopsis grandiflora 'Mayfield Giant'.
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Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' (Purple fountain grass).
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Asclepias curassavica (Orange milkweed, Butterflyweed).
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And in the backyard:
Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii (Flame Acanthus). Can you spot the bee?
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Echinacea purpurea (Purple coneflower).
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Ruellia. Not native, not sure of the variety.
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Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), plus a black swallowtail caterpillar. (She laid eggs and they hatched; now the fennel is covered with baby caterpillars (larva to you lepidopterologist types).
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Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii (Turk's cap). Do you see the hummingbird?
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The cosmos are coming up, but no pics yet. Trust me, there's time. Hmm, I think I'll plant zinnias this weekend. Plant flowers? From seeds? In a 107 degree drought? Watch me.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Shovel-Ready Project – Installing a Drip Irrigation System – Part Two

Part Two: Installation.

95 degrees and not a cloud in sight – what a perfect day to install a drip irrigation system! The plants in the front yard are going to be thrilled, except for the fiber optic grasses, which appear to have succumbed to the dry conditions already. Maybe they’ll bounce back with a little water. We’ll see. If not, oh well. “Survival of the fittest” reins supreme in my garden.

The DIG installation guide recommended unrolling the 1/2" polytube and laying it out in direct sunlight to warm it up and make it easier to work with. Did someone say direct sunlight? Because we have lots of that here.
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Next, I screwed the backflow preventer onto the faucet, followed by the pressure regulator, then a short line of garden hose.
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I used a part called a swivel adapter to connect the end of the garden hose to the 1/2” polytube. It has a washer with a little screen inside it.
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I started laying out the 1/2” polytube along the east side of the garden, much like a soaker hose.
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When I got to the corner of the bed, I cut the tube and attached the cut ends together with an elbow connector.
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I continued laying out the 1/2" tubing, repeating the above step at each of the next two corners.
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The tube cut easily with a standard pair of utility scissors.
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Once I had 1/2” polytubing laid out in a square around the bed, I laid out additional tubing in a series of rows, next to as many plants as possible. I used tee connectors to hook up the additional tubing to the main tubing. It was easy to cut the tubing, insert a tee and hook up the additional rows.
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Initially, I was going to set up separate systems on each side of the stone walkway, but I lost one of the connectors I needed to attach the water hose to the tubing, so I decided to hook the drip irrigation systems on both sides of the garden together. The 1/2” polytubing fit nicely under the flagstone at the end of the stone path.
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The way the plants were arranged on the west side of the garden didn’t lend itself to rows, and I was running low on 1/2 inch tubing, so I snaked the remaining tubing around the garden as close to as many plants as possible.
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After I had all the 1/2” tubing laid out and connected like I wanted it, I turned on the water to flush out any dirt that might have snuck inside, then capped off all the ends with figure-8 closures.
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Now it was time to insert the drip emitters. The kit came with a little manual punch to make holes in the 1/2” tubing next to each plant. I pressed the barbed end of each drip emitter into a hole; a satisfying “snap” let me know I had the emitter in place. Because these are drought resistant plants, I used 1GPH (gallon per hour) emitters.
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A handful of plants were located a bit too far from the 1/2” tubing, so I had to run 1/4” minitubing from the 1/2” tubing to the plant. The kit came with little connectors with barbs on both ends; one barb went into a hole made in the 1/2” tubing, the other into a piece of 1/4” minitubing. A drip emitter went on the opposite end of the minitubing.
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After anchoring the tubing with stakes, it was time to turn the water back on and test the system to make sure everything was working properly, with water dripping from each emitter.

Ta da! Everything works!
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Drip, drip, drip...
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Can you tell which lucky plant got a 2GPH drip emitter?
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Done--almost. A layer of mulch will go on top of the irrigation system, to hide the tubing and keep the water from evaporating. We still have stone edging to complete, flagstones to level and boxwoods to trim. But it's getting there!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Shovel-Ready Project – Installing a Drip Irrigation System – Part One

Prior to this project, I knew very little about irrigation systems. I did know that watering by hose or sprinkler wasn’t proving very efficient in “the dead of summer” – that period of time between mid-May and mid-September when the temperatures exceed 95°F (35°C) for weeks, sometimes months on end, as the City of Austin implements mandatory watering schedules and the Central Texas region fluctuates between “extreme” and “exceptional” on the US Drought Monitor – that period when even my most drought-resistant plants suffer at some point every year. In fact, the main impetus for the front-yard overhaul was the death of our St. Augustine lawn, partly from drought, and partly from disease (rust, Take-All-Patch). Drought stresses plants and renders them more susceptible to pests and diseases.

I did know our water pressure is high enough to blow out a standard soaker hose in a matter of months, that hose repair kits don’t work well on soaker hoses, and that seven-year warranties on soaker hoses are meaningless when the manufacturer gives zero information on either the product label or their company website on how to submit a claim, and won’t respond to numerous email requests from the consumer.

I did know I didn’t want to dig trenches and install yards of underground PVC pipe and pop-up sprinkler heads only to watch gallons of water running off the curb, down the street and into the drainage ditch.

I wanted a system that would be easy to install, reasonably priced, adaptable to garden redesign and new plantings, and would get the just the right amount of water directly to each plant that needed it.

By way of a Google Search, I visited the Austin Lawn Sprinklers Association website to get information on what sorts of irrigation systems are available, and what the experts think about them. The ALSA is a group of local licensed contractors and suppliers specializing in designing, installing and maintaining residential and commercial irrigation systems. The ALSA page on drip irrigation listed many advantages: water savings, reductions in runoff, evaporation and weed growth, precise water control, low installation costs and reduced plant stress from what they called the “wet/dry phenomenon” – exactly what my plants suffer from each summer.

I felt confident I could deal with most of the disadvantages ALSA listed (expecially the ones about how professional installers aren’t familiar or comfortable with drip irrigation!). However, the ALSA and I shared one major concern: “Shoddy Products.” As the ALSA site explained, drip irrigation products are constantly being introduced, often disappearing after a few months, and failed products are hard to locate, replace, or repair. I wanted a system from a reputable company that would be there for me with new parts when my parts needed replacing.

Convinced that drip irrigation was my best option, I began to research various brands by visiting both online and brick-and-mortar stores. Although I planned to purchase parts locally to avoid shipping charges, I did want a brand with parts available online, in case local stores were out of a part or didn’t carry a part I needed. RainBird and Toro brands were frequently mentioned on professional sites, along with some brands that appeared to be available only at the wholesale level. Sites directed toward DIYers tended to mention Orbit, DIG and Raindrip brands. Lowe’s carries Mister Landscaper products, as do some Ace Hardware stores. Dromgoole’s Natural Gardener carries a Texas brand called Submatic, a company originally based in Austin but relocated to Lubbock. I visited DripWorks USA, Drip Depot, Mr. Drip, and other online vendors to see what brands they carried. Even Amazon carries drip irrigation starter kits and parts. This is by no means a complete list of brands and vendors out there, but merely a description of what I came across.

Right about the time my brain started spinning and my eyes started swimming from all the descriptions of the various types of tubing, emitters, connectors, layouts and whatnot, I came across three very helpful resources. One was Jess Stryker’s excellent site dedicated to irrigation tutorials, with a whole section dedicated to drip irrigation. I also found an episode of Rebecca’s Garden on drip irrigation that made it look all sooo easy, and the DIG Corp’s single-page flyer on Drip Irrigation Installation in 7 Steps. Seven steps! Certainly I can do something that only takes seven steps…

After a few weeks of research, I realized I wasn’t really going to understand all the ins-and-outs of drip irrigation unless I jumped in and tried to put one together. I decided to go with the DIG Corp's Irrigation Products for a number of reasons:
1. Their products are made in the USA – DIG has 40,000 square feet of manufacturing capability in Vista, California.
2. They’ve been in business for 29 years, since 1981.
3. Their primary focus is drip irrigation for landscapes, greenhouses and nurseries. They don’t make lawn mowers or automatic sprinkler systems.
4. They have a reasonably priced starter kit that’s very complete.
5. Parts are readily available from a variety of online vendors and local stores.
6. Their pamphlets and website contain detailed but easy-to-understand instructions.
7. Customer support is available (although I haven’t needed it yet).

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DIG’s basic Drip Irrigation Kit G77AS is an insanely cheap $18.59 at Home Depot and includes all of the following.
1. 50 feet of ½ inch polyethylene tubing. The ½ inch tubing acts as the main water conduit for the system. You lay it down in the garden just like you would a soaker hose.
2. 50 feet of ¼ inch distribution tubing. By hooking the “micro tubing” to the ½ inch tubing, you can direct water to areas that are inches, feet or yards away from the ½ inch tubing. NOTE: most professionals do not like this “spaghetti” tubing for numerous reasons (it’s easily clogged and/or damaged) and do not recommend using it for large portions of your irrigation system.
3. 24 drip emitters: 20 emitters rated at 1 gallon per hour (GPH), two rated 2 GPH and two rated 4 GPH.
4. A manual hole punch for punching holes in the ½ inch tubing to insert the drip emitters.
5. 1 backflow preventer. Very important if you do not want dirt, bugs, bacteria and critter waste migrating into your drinking water.
6. 1 pressure regulator. Very important if you don’t want to blow out your hoses and emitters.
7. 1 swivel adaptor with screen. Necessary for hooking up the tubing to your water source.
8. Various connectors (straight and tee pieces) for connecting pieces of ½ inch tubing together.
9. Various barbs and valves for connecting ¼ inch micro tubing to ½ inch tubing.
10. Stakes for anchoring ½ inch tubing (3) and ¼ inch micro tubing (5) to the ground.
11. 2 goof plugs for plugging holes in ½ inch tubing.
12. 2 figure-8 hose end caps.

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The store had a stack of free installation guides near the parts display. I flipped through the guide for about 10 minutes before deciding to purchase two starter kits, plus an extra 100 feet of ½ inch tubing ($10). Because my front yard is square, I also purchased several elbow-shaped connectors for ½ inch tubing, which were not included in the kit, plus an extra package of end caps and some extra emitters and connectors that I thought I might need.

Coming up in part two: the actual installation.