Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Tour of New Moon Nursery

Being a member of the New Jersey Native Plant Society came with an unexpected perk this year. They held a fund raiser where we got to tour New Moon Nursery. They're a wholesale nursery native plant nursery, family run, started back in 2003. They do dabble in a few nonnatives but only under contract.

Before then the property used to be a chicken farm, and you can sort of see it in some of the buildings. Also they keep a couple dozen chickens around.

This is their shipping department, which was I believe they said were originally chicken cages from floor to ceiling. Basically one day a week, they go out and collect the flats to plants customers have ordered. They then take empty trays and assemble the orders from these flats and load them up into trucks or set them aside for customers to arrive and pick up.

It's at this point in the tour that we were given our free reign to fill up a flat of our own with with up to 50 plants, including a few things they had listed as limited supply and not available! The only real restriction was they had to be plug sized. This was a gift for just a $100 donation to the NJ Native Plant Society made well in advance. The nursery has 5 heated greenhouses, 10 row cover house, and a few outside areas filled with several hundred species of plants. Basically everything was up for grabs!

The tour continued into the greenhouses where they showed us how they start up seedlings in trays. I found it neat to learn they then take small cuttings of the seedlings after they germinate and root them to double plant production. The end product still maintains genetic diversity and they're able to mass produce cultivars that way.

Seedlings were a small part of the overall products they had. Pretty much everywhere else had hundreds of trays of plugs that we were free to take. It was actually fun just walking around the greenhouses, letting your hands glide across warm season grasses, rushes, Amsonia, and other perennials.

Around back they had an area setup for shade plants. These were mostly sedges which are more cold and shade tolerant than most grasses. They are also larger than plug size and thus not up for grabs, though each species was represented in the greenhouses where we were free to take them.

There was a small garden area back here where one native plant stole the show.

Spigelia marilandica, Indian Pink, is a shade plant with a brilliant red and yellow flower. Despite the slight warning "It will spread on you," this perennial remains one of the more expensive and in high demand native plants around. This is something of a contradiction that I don't know the answer to. (Probably should have asked while I was there, whoops.) I think the demand is created by the fact that so few growers grow the plant.

Around the front was the Pièce de résistance. This is where most of their plants are kept that are ready for sale. At this point the tour basically fell apart as everyone went and started filling up their trays.

Naturally I'm drawn to what brings in the pollinators, and this time it was a surprising number of cultivars. 

I had to just marvel at the number of Scoliid Wasps on their goldenrod they had. There must have been a thousand of them on this one patch.

Two Hours Later, here's what I brought home:

5 Helianthus angustifolius, my favorite Swamp Sunflower.
5 Spigelia marilandica, Indian Pink.
5 Senecio aureus, Golden Ragwort, which I'm trying out in the meadow garden.
5 Sedum ternatum, Stonecrop, which I'm giving a try for the first time.
Symphyotrichum laevis 'Bluebird', which I've seen in action among black eyed susans and they look great together. 
Symphyotrichum oblongifolius 'October Skies' which I have blooming now in nice fluffy domes of flowers out in the meadow.
Symphyotrichum noave-angliae 'Purple Dome'. This New England Aster is a compact cultivar, similar to S. oblongifolius.  I was going to alternate this with 'October Skies' to make a boarder.
Caltha palustris, Marsh Marigold, I've been trying to establish for years now and think I have a spot it might like to grow. 
5 Sisyrinchium angustifolium, Blue-eyed Grass.
Eurybia spectabilis, Showy Aster, was a last second decision. The flowers are larger than most Asters and certainly are showy, but I recall the overall plant not being that impressive.
3 Chrysogonum virginianum
'Superstar'. This is a selection of Green and Gold which is another first for my yard. It's a shade loving ground cover that blooms from April into June.

All and all I'd say it was a great trip.

Also Photographed:
In the cardboard are plants from Bluestone Perennials.
3 Solidago 'Fireworks'
3 New England Aster 'September Ruby'

I bought these two because they flower together and I love the combination of red and yellow.
(Also not photographed are a few dozen Tulipa clusiana 'Lady Jane' bulbs which I'm giving a try next year. I'm curious to see if species tulips are better at attracting pollinators.)

And a native Pitcher Plant which had some Sundews flowering in the moss. This came as a free gift from Aquascapes Unlimited

How to make Beetle Pancakes

Breakfast time just got real!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Black Swallowtail Caterpillars (2014)

This year's crop of Black Swallowtail Caterpillars is shaping up to be a nice one. I have at least 15 caterpillars all coming of age to form their chrysalises. The had ignored my yard all year until a month ago, despite having 8 full clumps of parsley and a patch of Golden Alexander going strong. And it all seems to be thanks to one female flying through the yard one day.

I'm going to leave these outside in a sheltered cage for the winter. Hopefully I'll have better luck than I did two years ago when I raised them in a cold basement room. They started emerging in February and in batches every two weeks after that. I doubt they'd like to fly when there's snow on the ground.

I have read that butterflies like Gatorade and will drink it in place of nectar or rotting fruit, however I was never able to get it to work. Captive butterflies just don't seem interested in feeding, though I'm sure I was doing something wrong.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Arizona: Meeting Ray Mendez

An incredible highlight of the Ants of the Southwest course was a visit to Ray Mendez's house.

Here is his house, and that's the view he gets to wake up to every morning.

It's Pogonomyrmex adjacent.

Inside he has some interesting artwork hanging from the ceiling. But you might be asking, what makes Ray so special?

He made the alien egg and worked on some of the effects for the movie "Alien." He also helped inspired what has to be the greatest tagline for a horror movie in cinema history. "In space no one can hear you scream."

He did the bug work for the film, "Silence of the Lambs."

It's actually a cockroach done up to be a moth.

He was the roach wrangler to the film "Joe's Apartment," which is admittedly a bad movie but the stories he has to tell about making it sound like they had an awesome time filming. (They got to pump a few thousand roaches up a girl's dress.)

His portfolio includes a smattering of advertising campaigns.

Here Ray bestows his wisdom to the Ants of the Southwest class in his workshop.

He also builds professional grade setups for museum exhibits and sets used for documentations to film. Pictured above is an above ground scene used in "Empire of the Desert Ants" a few years ago. It's hard to see but there are two openings leading down beneath the setup. Two different colonies can be hooked up here and their interactions filmed. For the documentary they filmed both the demise of the main colony, as well as the main colony conquering anther nest all at the same time. Because the ants of both colonies look identical you don't know that you're looking at two separate colonies.

For these setups, whole nests can be attached underneath. This allows camera men to film the workers right as they emerge from the hole. The whole setup as well as the disk can also be buried in the ground and blended in with the surrounding soil. This way filmmakers can have an ant nest in an ideal location for both lighting, background, and ambiance.

Here are two nest setups placed side to side. Each one is its own chamber to help with a movie trick. Also note the openings in the hydrostone/plaster against the plexiglass along the top.

Though empty now, ants can be added as needed. Because the front setup has windows on both sides, you can look all the way through into the second setup. Should a scene call for a wall of honeypot ants hanging in the background, to show the colony is doing well, they just slide that setup in back. But should the scene call for the colony having to rough it, they can either remove the ants or change the background nest entirely. This is a trick I'd like to incorporate into future setup designs someday.

When filming honeypot ants it's always nice being able to make the honeypots glow. This is achieved by shining a flash light down through the openings in the hydrostone/plaster.

As seen here.

And here.

Condensation can be an issue at times. Ray uses a fan, on low, to blow through a tube, sending a light breeze through the nest. It's important to leave a gap between the fan and the tube, otherwise it will create a wind tunnel and can blow the ants right out of the setup or dry it out too quickly. Typically ants don't go through tunnels that have wind blowing through them, but the use of metal mesh might be required.

Watering is done by placing a tube through the bottom of the setup when casting.

Once it's dry the tube can be removed and the ends replaced by nozzles. This way water can be added beneath the ants nesting area and allowed to absorb into the rest of the setup.

Setups for his personal colonies are surprisingly simple and yet ingenious. 

New queens are started in clusteral setups. Plaster lining the bottoms of vented containers. And a VERY THIN LAYER of soil media is added. I emphasis very little because Ray doesn't want the queen digging down into it, or building walls that will only collapse when watered. Also it was nice knowing that even he suffered from the problem "Collect 50 queens and maybe 10 of them are successful."

Queens that rear their first workers are moved into slightly larger setups. In this case a Myrmecocystus species, Honeypot ants.

Upon getting their first few repletes, he upgrades their nesting accommodation as needed.

We all got to eat a replete too. There's a trick to it because they're in a subfamily known for Formic Acid. You rupture them first to let the volatile chemicals disperse a sec, and then eat the mess left in your hand. Eating them whole also works but there's an immediate displeasing taste from the formic acid.

All his repletes had a taste of apples because he always keeps a slice of apple in the foraging area. The ants nibble at the apple over time, and then place their waste upon it, making clean up nice and easy. All you need to do is replace the apple slice.  

Colonies of Pogonomyrmex, harvester ants, are notorious for stuffing crud and frass right up against the glass. To get around this, he places them in horizontal setups so the ants can be viewed from above.

He does this with Aphaenogaster too but but I'm not sure if there was any specific reason for it.

He has a colony of Atta, Leaf-cutter Ants!

Leaf-cutter Ants cut up leaves to bring home and feed to their fungus gardens.

Here you can see the media workers placing little bits of leaves among the fungi.

Near the top of the main garden lies the queen. Atta queens are the largest ants in the United States at ~25mm long. The next closest comparison are some of our Carpenter ant queens that can be as large as ~20mm long. 

The only real tip he had about keeping fungus ants was to never let them grow their fungus on the ground. New queens just starting out sort of have to make do, but established colonies, even ones with basketball sized fungus gardens don't let their fungus sit on the ground. Often the fungus will grow amongst the roots of plants or on top of stones.

I learned an awful lot from Ray and can't wait to put this knowledge to good use. I'm thrilled to have met him and even asked for his autograph.