Wednesday, October 29, 2008

ABC Wednesday: "Beary" Proud Grandma

This week we have come to the letter O, which logically for me, and for the season, should be Oak tree, but I am saving that for a later post on fall foliage. Instead, the letter O stands for an accomplishment . . .

. . .Obedience School Graduation!

That's right--little Bear, my youngest Granddog---er, Grandson, as Daughter prefers I call him-- successfully completed his first puppy school course and passed with flying colors. No, that is not Daughter in the photo, and I apologize for the quality of the picture; I imagine she took it with her camera phone. Daughter was very proud of her "son's" accomplishment and immediately e-mailed the photo to Grandma. Daughter, who has no human children, is a little sensitive about family dynamics and continually reminds me that I should treat all my grandchildren the same, regardless of their species. So I thought it was only fair that since my last post featured my human grandchildren, I should give equal time to one of my canine grands.

In case you don't recognize the facial features, Bear is a Mastiff puppy. Did I mention he is only 5 months old?

I haven't had a chance to see him in person yet, but I will be visiting Daughter and her family in Arizona in early December. I'm looking forward to taking Bear for walks, so I do hope the obedience school training included being led on a leash. The last time I visited her, her pug Odie was so happy to see me that he slept on the air mattress with me every night.
This time I will have my own room with a queen size bed! But I am a little concerned now--today Daughter called me today for advice on dog food--apparently Bear is having a little problem with indigestion and flatulence. The bed may not be big enough for the three of us . . .

More ABC Wednesday posts can be seen by visiting Mrs. Nesbitt's Place or the no-comment blog ABC Anthology.

Monday, October 27, 2008

In Search of the Perfect Pumpkin

Halloween has never been a favorite holiday of mine. (Please don't tell Joy I said that!) The problem with Halloween is that it falls at the end of October, a time when I used to be extremely busy. It was end of the quarter time at school, so I would be frantically grading papers and averaging grades while trying to figure out costumes for my kids' big school Halloween party. As they outgrew the costume party, football games and activities were added, then when the girls became teenagers, it was volleyball season. All in all, it was all I could do to buy enough candy for the hordes of trick or treaters that would come to our house each Halloween.

Now, of course, all that has changed--there are no papers to grade any more and no children here needing volleyball or football uniforms cleaned or last minute costumes to put together. Living out in the country now, we don't even have any trick or treaters (other than the grandchildren), so I have to be careful not to be too tempted by sales of Halloween candy.

One tradition I did enjoy, though, was our annual trek to the "Pumpkin Patch" for pumpkins for jack o' lanterns and decorations. When the kids were young, we used to go to a pumpkin field about 10 miles away and pull a wagon through the fields, searching for the perfect pumpkins. But children grow up, and eventually the prospect of trudging through muddy fields and rejecting misshapen or moldy pumpkins no longer interested them. When the grandchildren came along, we revived the tradition occasionally, enjoying their child-like wonder at fields full of giant orange globes.

A few weeks ago, I decided taking all the grandchildren to find pumpkins would be the perfect cure for a brief case of the blues. (It was the day after the Cubs had finished their abysmal showing in the playoffs and had broken my heart once again.) It was a warm Sunday afternoon, one of those days that seems like a distant memory now. I decided to go to Curtis Orchard, which is on the outskirts of Champaign. Some years ago, the Curtis family purchased what had been a pig farm and planted apple orchards. (I'm sure the developers of the upscale subdivisions nearby are thankful they didn't want to raise more pigs!) Over time, they added pumpkin fields, a small general store, a cafe, and many children's activities. It has become a popular attraction for the locals, not only for delicious apples and fresh doughnuts, but also as a great place to take the kids on a fall afternoon.

Fortunately, both daughters-in-law and one son decided to accompany me, because otherwise Grandma surely would have lost one child before the afternoon was over! It seemed as though every parent within a 30-mile radius had decided this was the perfect place to spend the afternoon, too. I had come for pumpkins, yes, but I also wanted to just spend time with the grandchildren, and I knew they would want to enjoy the different activities first.

Yes, I know you can't see Granddaughter's face, but that is on purpose--I hope you understand.

The pony ride was the first stop. The three little ones picked their ponies, and we adults guiltily helped them on. I know these ponies are well-cared for, but I can't help feeling sorry for them spending their afternoon going round and round in circles.

Jumping out of a mini-"hayloft," a maze, a bouncy house, and face painting were just a few of the activities they enjoyed. The kids did pause long enough so that Grandma could take their photo together.

Wait--I have 5 grandchildren--where is Grandson #1?

Oh there he is--sliding down the inflatable slide. Even the youngest, who's one, enjoyed this slide--riding down on his Daddy's lap, of course. We also took a wagon ride through the orchard as our driver explained the history of the farm and the different varieties of apples available. Of course, I was in grandkids-photo-taking mode, so I didn't think to take any photos of this.

After two hours of running from one activity to another and being bitten by those pesky pirate bugs which were thick around all the apples, the kids were too tired to trudge out to the pumpkin patch for pumpkins. The orchard does offer already picked pumpkins and gourds for sale, but the lines were very long, so in the end I went home empty-handed. But, of course, we did have fun, and my mood was elevated considerably.

Later I heard about a farm not too far from here that raises pumpkins, and decided last Monday that Grandson #2, who's four, might enjoy a little trip with Grandma. When we arrived at the farm, we were disappointed to find that the only pumpkins they had left were enormous. As I explained to Grandson, "If Grandma can't even lift the pumpkin, then it's too big!" Apparently, news of this pumpkin farm had spread, and business had been booming since the first of October.

The afternoon wasn't a total loss, though, as I bought some gourds and mini pumpkins at a very reasonable price. Grandson was intrigued by the Indian corn, so I bought some for him to give to his mother, but when he wanted some corn stalks, I had to explain that Grandma already had plenty of those at home ready to be picked! This was a "real" farm, so he also had a chance to see the cows, pigs, and some goats.

He was satisfied even if we didn't buy any large pumpkins. And Grandma, well...when I picked him up from daycare, he ran to me, shouting "Grandma!" and gave me a big hug. When your time together starts like that, nothing else really matters, does it?

Time was running out. So where did we finally find our "perfect pumkins"? . . . At the local Meijer's! They may not be "farm-fresh", but the "thrill of the hunt" was the best part anyway.

No frost on the pumpkins yet, but it is supposed to get below freezing tonight, so it is only a matter of time.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Woolly Prognosticaters: Winter is Coming

. . . Eventually. Right now on these crisp fall days it is hard to think of winter. The trees are beginning to turn: the hackberry is a luminous yellow-gold, the ashes are shades of gold, orange, and rust, and the maple leaves are changing in a downward progress to a bright orange. While the oaks are dropping a few leaves--and lots of acorns--they are still green for the most part. Occasional gusts of wind have scattered leaves across my front lawn. Temperatures have finally dropped to seasonal 60's during the day and low 40's at night, but this has truly been a magnificent fall.

Yet we know that winter is inevitable. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago during a very warm spell when I spotted this little guy clinging to the porch wall.

"Oh no," I thought, "he's black!" Why should I worry about his color? It's simple--around here anyone would tell you that the color of the common woolly worm is a sign of what type of winter we are going to have. A light colored woolly worm indicates a mild winter; darker colors signify varying degrees of a harsh, cold winter. A black woolly worm, obviously, is not a good sign!

I thought the belief in woolly worm prognostication might be a Midwest legend, but I discovered yesterday that it is more widespread. Woolly worm festivals are held throughout the United States, according to a news article by a local County Extension advisor. This advisor writes a weekly column in our local paper every Saturday, and it seems she anticipates every gardening and nature question I have: she was the one who identified and explained those pesky pirate bugs that appeared out of nowhere a few weeks ago as well as the origin of the equally pesky Asian Lady beetles. This week's column was all about woolly worms, saving me from having to do any other research for this post. (Thanks, Ms. Mason!)

I learned that "woolly bears," as they are also sometimes called, are actually the caterpillars of different species of tiger moths. In central Illinois, "the most common and most famous is the banded woolly bear with its bands of red and black hairs. " Woolly worms are actually present all summer long, but we don't usually notice them until fall. Often times a "herd" of them can be seen crossing the road en masse.

Question: Why did the woolly worm cross the road?

Answer: To find a warm place to spend the winter under leaves and bark.

No, that wasn't a joke; it's a scientific explanation. Unlike other butterflies or moths, the woolly worm spends the winter as a caterpillar; when spring comes, it feeds for a short time, then pupates, and emerges a few weeks later as a tiger moth.

I have no idea how the legend of the woolly worm as a weather predictor came about, but I did learn from this article that the color of the woolly worm has more to do with the severity of the past winter than the winter to come. As woolly worms age, they molt, becoming lighter in color. So in reality the black woolly worm I spotted above was probably just a youngster.

The problem in forming forecasts based on woolly worms is that you might spot caterpillars of different colors. A week or so after spotting my first black one I spotted this lighter orange one feasting in the garden. Since then I have seen only a few caterpillars, ranging in color from black to a light cream.

So how do you know which woolly worm to believe? If you live in central Illinois, you can tune to the local television station and get the "Woolly Worm Forecast." Weatherperson Judy Fraser gathers information from a number of area volunteer "woolly worm reporters" and bases her annual prediction on their sightings. This year's report found that 60% of local woolly worms were black or dark brown, 30% were white, and 10% were multi-colored. Her conclusion? Based on the high percentage of dark caterpillars, this winter will be "cold and snowy."

Of course, Judy depends on more scientific methods of weather predictions, but she did say that the woolly worm forecast has been 75% accurate in the past. This is not the only method she uses in long-range forecasts, though: another popular method is looking at persimmons. I don't remember this method as well, although I think it has something to do with the size and shape of the persimmon seeds.

As for me, since I don't have any persimmon trees, I'm going to have to depend on the woolly worms for my winter preparations. Right now I am going to enjoy this beautiful autumn weather for as long as it lasts, but I might just go out and buy a new snow shovel before the rush hits!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

GBBD: October 2008

(For those of you visiting for ABC Wednesday, scroll down to my earlier post today.)

It's hard to believe a month has passed since the last Bloom Day. My garden looks tired, as though it is ready for a long winter's nap. In fact, I have only one new bloom since the last GBBD, this lavender mum.

No, this is not one of my purchases made two weeks ago; this one is actually growing in my garden, a Walmart refugee I managed to save and plant last year. I didn't expect it to survive the winter, but it did, and I trimmed it back severely in July so that it wouldn't bloom too early.

There are quite a few flowers still blooming right now, but most look rather faded. The sedum "Autumn Joy" has turned from the rosy hue I pictured in September to a russet.

Let's look a little more closely at one flower--what is this clambering over the center? What else, but another praying mantis! I apologize for all my photos this time--my photo editing program was being cranky, so none of these photos have been cropped or edited in any way. Of course, the blurriness of this little guy is the fault of the photographer, not the computer.

Not everything is fading, though. This Knockout rose is full of blooms once again--if you enlarge the picture, you'll see more buds on either side of the flowers. Tea roses are much more beautiful and have heady fragrances, but this is the rose for those of you like me who don't want to have to fuss too much with plants. These roses have survived traumatic transplantings, severe prunings, drought, and onslaughts by Japanese beetles, and yet they continue to grow and bloom right up until a hard frost.

By this time of year my container plantings usually look pretty pathetic. I admit some of them are looking rather straggly right now, but many of the annuals are still blooming up a storm due no doubt to our unseasonably warm weather--this past weekend the temperatures were in the low to mid 80's. The pink zonal geraniums look as good as they did in June.

While some of you are busy cleaning out your containers and putting them away for the winter, I just can't bring myself to do that yet. I'm going to enjoy the annuals for as long as they last.

Of course, the real show right now is not the flowers, but the leaves. The leaves are just beginning to turn; we are probably another week away from seeing their full fall glory.

You can see this in my maple tree, half of which is covered with leaves of this bright orange hue, while the other half is still green.

I passed by the maple tree on my way down the lane to the roadside garden to show you a few blooms there. Look what I found hiding behind the dried coneflowers?

Apparently this little flower didn't know she was supposed to bloom in July like all the other coneflowers. She must have been a new seedling this year; next year she'll know to join the rest of the family in mid-summer. But I like pleasant surprises like this, don't you?

I've left the rest of the coneflowers in their wilted state so the birds can feast on them, but they don't look as bad with the bright flowers of the salvia "Victoria Blue" hiding them somewhat.

I've shown this salvia several times here, but I can't repeat often enough how much I like this annual. It's another flower that will bloom right up until frost. Once winter sets in, the blooms turn a frosty silver that adds a perfect touch to the winter garden.

And then there are the zinnias! When I planted a packet of seeds here, I just wanted something tall as a backdrop for my "Oranges and Lemons" gaillardia. I had no idea they would become the focal point of this area this fall. Many of them are 4-5 feet tall, and I love the bright mix of colors.

The best part is they show no signs of letting up, as evidenced by this emerging bloom or the bud below.

Finally, I wanted to show you the burning bushes behind the roadside flowerbed. They've begun to turn into a blaze of crimson. No doubt I will be showing more of these bushes when their transformation is complete.

While taking these photos I suddenly noticed the berries on these bushes, which you can see in greater detail below. I should have looked a little harder when I did my short post on berries a few weeks ago--there are more berries in my garden than I realized!

As always, I enjoy the Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day--it makes me look a little closer at all of the garden to see blooms and details I might otherwise miss. And I enjoy seeing what is blooming in everyone else's garden. For more Bloom Day posts visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Note: This is a first for me--two posts in one day! I always join in the Bloom Day posts, but I also wanted to participate in ABC Wednesday today, as I occasionally do, just to show off another mantis photo:) Today, though, is another special day in Blog Land as many people are joining in a Blog Action Day and posting about poverty. I would really recommend you visit a local blogging friend, Joyce, who has written an excellent post today. It will only take a minute to read, but it will make you stop to think and appreciate that you have a garden to work in and the time to appreciate its beauty.--Rose

ABC Wednesday: Autumn "M's"

This week we have reached the letter M, which is perfect for this time of year because M is for . . .

Mums, which add bright spots of color to fall gardens.
M is also for . . .

Maple trees, which are slowly putting on their autumn coats.

And M is also for my favorite insect . . .

. . . The praying Mantis!

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have become fascinated with these creatures that seem to have found my garden a good place to establish a colony this summer. For those of you who visit only for my occasional entries on ABC Wednesdays, this is not the same mantis I pictured last time for "I for Insects." If you would like to know more about the praying mantis you can check out an earlier post with many interesting facts about them. Besides the large number I've seen this year, another reason I've been able to get so many photos of them is because they move very, very slowly. The one pictured above was ready to catch some prey, so I clicked onto video to get it in "action," as you'll see below.

For more ABC posts on a variety of subjects, visit Mrs. Nesbitt's place or the ABC Anthology.

(To my usual garden blogging readers, I hope to have my GBBD post up in a few hours.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

When Life Hands You Lemons . . .

Since the beginning of summer, my good friend Beckie and I have talked about taking a short trip to Chicago to see some of the many garden sights in the Windy City and, if possible, to meet up with a few Chicagoland Bloggers. One thing or another kept preventing us from going until we finally decided the first week in October was it--we would try to spend a couple days in Chicago or at the very least make one long day of it. We put it on our calendars, but as so often happens these days, "life" intervened, and we weren't able to go. We were both disappointed, but decided we could at least take part of a day to explore something interesting closer to home.

Beckie recommended we visit the Master Gardeners' Idea Garden on campus to see its fall colors, and I suggested we stop first at Meadowbrook Park to see the wildflower garden there. Beckie had never been to Meadowbrook, and my other visit was in August to see the Prairie Restoration site, but I missed the wildflower garden. The wildflower garden is located on the south side of the park on a street I seldom drive, so I had never noticed that the farmstead located there is actually part of the park.

We began our walk down the path to see any wildflowers that might still be blooming, but obviously fall is not the best time to view wildflowers. You could see the dried seedheads of Queen Anne's Lace and we did spot a lone coneflower still blooming, but even the goldenrod had turned to brown. It really is a lovely, shaded place--perfect for a walk--so we put it on our mental "to-do" list for next spring and summer when it should be in all its glory.

Our stop, though, was far from disappointing. On the way to the wildflower path, we passed by the farmstead which was surrounded by an herb garden and flower beds still in glorious bloom. I was especially happy to realize that rather than demolish the existing farmhouse and outbuildings, which so often happens as a result of urban sprawl, the park preserved these buildings and incorporated them into the park. I'm not sure what any of the buildings are used for or if they are open to the public, but they certainly look well-maintained. They even preserved the old windmill, once a common fixture on every farmstead, but now a rarity.

I still remember the old windmill on my grandfather's farm, creaking in the wind. Maybe I'm getting too sentimental, but they look more attractive than the new wind turbines popping up across the country, don't you think? Of course, the old ones were used to pump water from the well; I don't think they had the capacity to provide much more power than that. As electrification spread across the countryside, the old windmills became obsolete, and most were eventually torn down.

Before we headed to the flowerbeds and herb garden around the house, we noticed a sign that said "Organic gardening plots" and decided to give them a quick look. I believe these are plots given to anyone who requests one, similar to Veg Plotting's allotments in the UK. Each plot was surrounded by a small fence of chicken wire, and various gardening styles were apparent. There were still some vegetables, including tomatoes, chili peppers, and broccoli, and also some fall plantings of onions, swiss chard, and gourds, as well as some unusual vegetables we weren't sure of. A tall plant held what appeared to be large okra, and a vertically climbing vine had cucumber-like fruit. But what really attracted both of us were the mass plantings of flowers still in bloom. These plots aren't much larger than my own small vegetable garden, but they all seemed to find plenty of room for flowers amongst the veggies.

Zinnias were still showing off everywhere, but these cosmos were especially beautiful. These were over 6 feet tall.

I've seen cosmos pictured on so many blogs this year, but I've never grown them. Now I wonder why--I really like these flowers. Thanks to Tina and the seeds she sent me, though, there will be cosmos in my garden next year!

Here's another flower I never grow--nasturtiums. Again, I think why not? Another omission I need to remedy next year. This close-up of the blossoms doesn't show the size of the large mounds we saw.

In the flowerbeds on the farmstead site we were treated to lots of fall blooms. I liked this combination of lantana and salvia in front of the cannas. Notice the verbena boneriensis popping into the far sides of the photo. Thanks to Cheryl, I will have this plant in my garden next year, too!

Beckie and I could have each done a lengthy post on berries in the garden if we had only waited until yesterday! This plant was just one of many with berries, but we were completely puzzled as to what it was. It wasn't until we later went to the Idea Garden that we saw the same plants labelled as a "blackberry lily." Does anyone grow these? I would love to know what they look like in bloom.

After Meadowbrook Park--which has now been added to our list of places to visit more often-- we headed to the Idea Garden. I've posted about this garden several times; in fact, this was our fourth visit this year to see it. Hoping to get some ideas about how to add some color to our own fading fall gardens, we weren't diappointed.

Even from a distance you can immediately see that this garden isn't languishing as the days turn cooler. Of course, with a crew of volunteer Master Gardeners at work, it is easier to keep up with all the gardening chores.

Annuals that were past their prime were pulled up and replaced with fall plants like these mums and flowering kale.

I really liked this small kale--"sweet" sounds a bit treacly, but it's the only word I can think of to describe it. A small variety, the soft pink flower at the center resembled a rose.

Not everything was new, though--this sumac tree has finally come into its own, showing off its bright oranges, yellows, and rusts. Unfortunately, it was mid-day, so the sun washed out some of its beautiful color in this photo.

Other plants were sporting berries for the fall, like this beautyberry bush.

This was a plant we couldn't identify. We don't remember seeing it before; could it be it has changed to this lovely magenta for the fall? Unfortunately, some of the labels were missing or completely obscured by other plants. Does anyone know what this might be? It had to be well over six feet tall.

The garden still holds its appeal for wildlife also. On this beautiful October day we saw so many bees and butterflies flying about the garden. This bee on the salvia was just one of several enormous bumblebees we saw.

And of course, the painted ladies, which seem to be the most common butterfly in Illinois this year.

But here is the piece d' resistance--I finally managed to get a picture of a Monarch! Monarchs seem to be in short supply around here this year, and I have been futilely trying to get a photo of the one or two that have shown up at home. This photo can't even compare to some of the beautiful shots I've seen on other blogs, but I'm afraid it's probably the best one I'm going to get this year.

As we were preparing to leave, who should fly in for a visit but my friend, the mantis! I think these guys follow me around:) I'm not sure what he was after in these zinnias, but I wish he would have eaten a little faster. During the 2-3 hours Beckie and I spent in the different gardens, we were bitten numerous times by pirate flies. These tiny gnat-like bugs have become quite a nuisance lately. They have an annoying bite, much like a mosquito, but they are supposed to be harmless and the itch goes away much quicker. The other pest we seem to have an abundance of lately are the Asian lady beetles, those small brown beetles that look like a ladybug but fly into your home and stink to high heaven if you kill them. I made a hasty exit from the garden so that I could inconspicuously extricate one that had flown down my shirt.

Well, it wasn't the Morton Arboretum or the Chicago Botanic Garden, but Beckie and I did enjoy ourselves nevertheless. We even had time for a leisurely lunch and a stop at a unique shop we'd never visited before going home. Chicago is still on our destination list, although the gardens may have to wait until Spring Fling 2009. That date is on our calendars, and as Beckie said, there will have to be a major crisis or a complete meltdown to keep us away!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Rainy Days are Here Again!

If you are like me and have forgotten what rain looks like, click on the video. (This is my first attempt at uploading a video, so I hope it works!)

I know it's hard to tell from the video, but we have had a steady rain since late morning today. I don't even need to search through my archive of labels to know that every other time I have discussed the rain it's been to complain about it. But not today--after weeks, it seems, of dry weather, I welcome it with open arms. Right now it is falling gently, and the trees and flowers are soaking it up eagerly.

The coral bells are enjoying their shower (click on the picture to enlarge to see the raindrops), along with the other flowers in the shade garden. Watering with a hose just doesn't feel the same to them.

Besides knowing the plants are getting some much needed moisture, I am happy the ground is going to be soft and easy to work with once again. I have a few new plants to put in the ground yet before the cold hits us, including this bargain "Limelight" hydrangea I bought last week. (Yes, I had to go back to buy this one . . .it was too good a deal to pass up.)

I know it's not a very good picture, but I was getting drenched by this time and didn't have the patience to check my camera. I intended to plant it Saturday, but the ground was so hard, I was afraid I would break my spade! Besides this hydrangea and a few other plants, I have so many bulbs to plant. After two different shopping trips to buy bulbs, my first order came in the mail over the weekend and another one is on its way. More rain is in the forecast for tomorrow, which means by the time I have time to plant, the soil should be perfect, I hope.

I hope you are having a beautiful rainy day, too!

Let the rain kiss you.
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.
- Langston Hughes, April Rain Song

Rain is grace; rain is the sky condescending to the earth;
without rain, there would be no life.
--John Updike

Friday, October 3, 2008

Mantis Survives Wall Street Crisis!

I thought I might have to come up with a clever title to get you to read one more post on the praying mantis. But if you can bear with me, I promise this is my last post on the mantis--at least until next year. And there is a brief comment about Wall Street at the end of this. When I pictured a couple of mating mantises last week, I received many comments that included some interesting facts about the mantis I wasn't aware of. So I decided to do a little research on my own to find out more about these fascinating insects that seem to love my garden. All information comes from Wikipedia, which isn't the most reliable source if you're doing scholarly research, but it's a handy resource for basic information.

There are more than 2000 species of mantises worldwide. The name for the most common mantis family is
mantid, but because the entire order contains eight other families, the proper term for members of this order is mantis. Mantis comes from the Greek, meaning prophet or fortune-teller. The closest relatives of this order are the Isopteran, which are termites, and the Blattodea, cockroaches. Hmmm, I do hope the mantises don't invite all their distant relatives for a family reunion at my house.

Autumn is the time for mating, which may explain my good fortune in getting that photo last week. The female lays between 10-400 eggs, which are deposited in a "frothy mass" which then hardens, forming a protective shell. The egg case is called an ootheca. In a few species the mother remains nearby to protect her eggs.

Wikipedia included several photos, including one of the female laying her eggs, but didn't show a pregnant female. I spotted this large lady (I assume) two days ago. Notice her plump underbelly. The blurry photo below is an even closer look at her protuding belly. I can't be sure, of course, but I can't help but wonder if she is getting ready to lay her eggs. I will be scouring the flowerbed where I found her for an egg sac the next few days.

What many might find most interesting is the mating ritual itself. Praying mantises are cannibalistic, and as several of you pointed out to me last week, this predilection includes their male suitors. Scientists have studied mantises in captivity which are particularly prone to this behavior, and have drawn a few conclusions. Briefly, a wise male mantis will choose a female who has just eaten a full meal before mating, and, once he has satisfied himself, he should leave quickly!

The mantis uses camoufluage to hide himself from prey, which is why they are often difficult to spot. Usually brown or green, they blend in well with plants and are often mistaken for a small twig or stem. If you look closely at a mantis, it seems to be looking straight back at you. That's because they can rotate their heads 300 degrees, permitting a great range of vision, which also allows them a distinct advantage in spotting prey. Don't worry, though--they might bite, but they're not dangerous to humans.

The natural lifespan of a mantis is 10-12 months, but in colder areas it will die during the winter. During its lifetime, the mantis increases in size by replacing its outer body with an exoskeleton, molting up to 5-10 times. After the final molt, most species have wings. This was another new fact for me--I had no idea a mantis could fly. One day I was sitting on the porch swing when a strange creature came flying at me, veering like a drunken pilot. When he landed, I discovered this unusual mantis:

Yes, he is black. I couldn't find any reference in the article to a black species, and this is the only black mantis I have ever seen. However, in discussing the mantis' ability to camoufluage itself, the article did say some species in Africa and Australia have been found to turn black in order to blend in with environments plagued by brush fires. Could this be an exotic mantis come all the way from Africa or Australia to visit?? I doubt it, but it certainly was intriguing.

I've always thought of the praying mantis as a gardener's good friend; in fact, egg cases of native species can be purchased as a means of natural pest control. However, until some of you mentioned this, I didn't realize they also have a dark side. By nature predatory, the mantis eats not only pests, but beneficial insects as well, including butterflies sometimes. Larger species can also eat small lizards, birds, frogs, snakes, and even rodents. According to the article, they wait for their prey to come near and then lash out with "remarkable speed." I'll take their word for it--I've never seen a mantis move quickly, and I can't imagine them killing a rodent. (Maybe that's why I'm not bothered by squirrels??)

Fly, little butterfly, fly!! He's not as harmless as he looks!

So there you have it--everything you ever wanted to know about the praying mantis, and probably more than you cared to know! Despite its dark side, I'll continue to welcome him into my garden.

Changing the subject completely . . .

I am really bummed today : Things aren't looking too good for my Chicago Cubbies today. And that's all I'm going to say on the subject. . .

And another bummer: I don't usually comment on politics here, but the current economic crisis on Wall Street has me steamed. Perhaps by the time you read this, Congress will have passed the $700 billion bailout. A recent article by an AP writer tried to make this huge number comprehensible to those of us who have never seen a million dollars, let alone
700 billion. What else could you do with this much money? For starters, it would cover"one year's health care bills for more than 85 million seniors, disabled people, children and low-income Americans..." It could also "ensure universal health care coverage for six years." $700 billion would go a long way toward developing alternate energy sources and eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels. Any of these would be worthwhile causes, but the fact is we don't have an extra $700 billion in our Treasury in the first place, let alone spending it to save greedy or foolish financial "experts."

Now before anyone points out my naivete, let me be the first to admit I know nothing about economics. Through all my years of schooling, I somehow managed to never take a course in economics. When I receive my quarterly report on my small annuity (which has been losing my hard-earned money, I might add), I don't understand the difference between a large-cap fund and a mid-cap one. I still don't know who Freddie Mac is, and the only Fannie Mae I know sells delicious chocolate candies.

I don't know who is to blame for the current crisis, though everyone seems eager to point a finger at someone else. But I have trouble relating to CEO's who make millions of dollars in salary each year and have "golden parachutes." I don't think I even have a parachute. In fact, if the state's Teachers' Retirement System goes under, you will probably find me spending the rest of my life smiling and saying, "Welcome to Walmart . . .would you like a shopping cart?" Heck, maybe even I am partly to blame. When my husband and I got our "economic stimulus package" in June, instead of blowing it on a new entertainment system or a weekend in Vegas, we put almost all of it in savings. Had I only known...

I am doing my part to keep the gardening industry afloat--I bought more plants yesterday.

Seriously, I don't know whether Congress should pass the proposed bailout or not. Either way, I know it's going to eventually trickle down and affect every Joe or Jill Average American. In some way we are all going to have to pay for it, or our children eventually will. I particularly feel sorry for all the innocent people who may lose jobs or those whose retirement savings may be jeopardized or even lost. In the end, it always seems it's the "little guy" who gets hurt.