The secret life of a backyard at night

I live in a suburban part of town. There’s lots of houses close together, though some of us have good sized backyards. It’s a quiet place with a little hint of mother nature — birds, squirrels, and some rabbits. Maybe a skunk and a woodchuck once in awhile. I live within about 400 feet of Route 110, and close to its busy intersection with Main Street. There’s no boonies here in this neighborhood, although there’s a swamp and some woods.

My cat loves being outside at night, and I used to oblige him. At least, up until I got a wildlife camera with an infrared setting and started filming what goes on at night in the backyard.

Turns out I really had no clue just how wild the backyard really is. Here’s a few photos from the wildlife cawgi_0005m to prove it.

The camera is secured to a fencepost at the edge of my garden, about 200 feet or so from the house. There’s a light wooded area that it looks out on, but otherwise it’s surrounded by lawn.

The photo I posted at the top of the blog is one of the very few daytime photos that I managed to get. It’s a full sized doe that has been coming to our yard for months, occasionally jumping over my garden fence and raiding it until I figured out how to keep it out (that’s the subject of another blog).

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The first nighttime photo I’ve posted here is what appears to be a lone coyote. That’s a surprise to me, because I’ve never heard a coyote howl in all the years (23) that I’ve lived in this neighborhoowgi_0003d.

Next up is what I think is a fisher cat. And that’s probably the worst of the backyard critters. These creatures are known of their ferocity and hunting prowess. They will attack all sorts of domestic animals, such as chickens and cats.  I heard its strange, child-like howls the same night that the camera snapped its photo.

The third photo is a fox. Another prowler who likes domesticated animals. I’ve never seen one in this neighborhood during the daytime.

Next up is a new visitor — a 6-point buck. I’ve seen him around the backyard at dusk a few times, but the wildlife camera showed me that he’s here every night, visiting and revisiting multiple times each night. I have dozens of photos of him. He’s very bold and brash, and I’m surprised that he’s managed to live here so successfully. There are busy roads all around us, including Interstate 495, yet somehow he’s managed to swgi_0034teer clear of cars.

The last photo, which is posted at the end of this blog, is the most satisfying. The doe that I photographed last summer seemed to disappear after awhile. I feared the worst had happened. But one night, the wildlife cam captured a fuzzy but interesting shot — there she was, accompanying the 6-point buck. Maybe next year I’ll be recording photos of the two of them and their  fawn.

Oh and the cat’s nighttime escapades are over. I bring him inside every night now that I know just how wild the backyard is at night.

John Macone operates a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury. For more information, visit his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/wgi_0081

 

Winter is coming… and so are the moths

It’s mid November and we’ve had enough hard frosts to pretty much kill off nearly every insect, but there’s one remaining pest that’s about to hit us with its full fury. Now’s the time to take some steps to protect your trees and shrubs from this ravaging creature.

It’s the winter moth, an invasive species imported from Europe that can cause devastating damage to your plants. They first arrived in Nova Scotia over a half century ago and slowly migrated southward. They have hit much of New England hard, doing immense damage. They are particularly fond of trees that produce fruited blossoms, like apples, crabapples, pears, cherries, plums, and especially blueberry bushes. They also attack ash and maple trees — sometimes completely defoliating them — as well as other species of native trees.

Around the end of November they will emerge from the ground. The males – ugly grey moths, about 2 inches across – will flock in great droves to lights at night. That’s the signal that the entire population is active and reproducing. The females can’t fly; Instead  they climb up trees and lay their eggs by the tens of thousands.

Next spring — around April — the eggs will hatch, and the small green worms will burrow their way into fruit blossoms and destroy them. They will then move on to the leaves, and in many cases they will strip them bare. If you have winter moth larvae in your trees, you’ll no doubt have seen their “ballooning” migration — they attach themselves to thin, silk-like strands and billow down from trees by the hundreds. After about 6 weeks of heavy feeding, they burrow into the ground, waiting for the winter to arrive to start the process all over again.

The numbers are unbelievable. Scientists say up to 250,000 winter moth larva can hatch in a single tree. Sounds like a locust plague, and in some ways it is. They don’t have any native predators to speak of, so their numbers grow substantially each year as they spread to new territory. In my own experience, they hit our neighborhood like a freight train 2 years ago. They ate their way through many of our neighborhood trees. I have 5 large blueberry bushes that produced 40 quarts each year — until the winter moths arrived.  I haven’t gotten a single berry since then.

What to do

With numbers like this, it’s hard to put a big dent in their population. But you can protect your most cherished trees, such as flowering crabapples or fruit trees. Right now your goal is to stop the females from climbing up the trunk. There’s a few ways to do this.

One way is to get some sticky tree wrap. It’s available in many garden centers. It’s a paper wrap that goes around the trunk, with a sticky coating on the outside that creates a barrier that the moths get stuck on. It’s semi effective — you really need to monitor it, as it can get overwhelmed by the sheer number of climbing moths. They can also crawl underneath it if the bark surface is fairly bumpy — or they will lay their eggs further down the trunk. If you use sticky tree wrap, check on it daily and replace the band as needed.

You can also spray heavy-duty insecticides on the female moths while they are climbing. I’m not a big fan of this approach, as I like to stick with organic solutions. It also requires frequent spraying, and no doubt many moths will muscle through when you aren’t monitoring and spraying. It’s not an effective remedy.

I have a third solution that’s proven highly effective — get some chickens and let them do the dirty work for you. Chickens are a fantastic alternative to pesticides in general. They spend their entire day eating bugs. It’s what they are hardwired to do. Here’s an example — I have a flower crabtree in my yard that was devastated by winter moths. Two years ago they stripped it bare of all its flowers and most of its leaves. The next year I built a chicken run under it,  and the following spring the tree was full of flowers and leaves — and also quite robust from the other “gifts” the chickens laid at its roots.

This year I’ve extended a temporary chicken run around my blueberry bushes. The chickens are already busy digging around underneath them, no doubt finding a trove of winter moths. I look forward to seeing what kind of impact they have on the winter moth population.

In many towns in the local area, raising chickens in your yard is legal and the regulations are common sense. Unfortunately in the town I live in, the rules arechix far too restrictive — it’s too bad, as chickens can solve some of the environmental woes that our government officials spend tons of time and money trying to regulate. But that’s a topic for another day.

This time of year provides you with your first opportunity to fight against the winter moths. If you have them, you should take steps to knock back the adult population by preventing the females from getting up into your most prized trees. In the spring you can wage another campaign against their larva. We’ll talk about that in a few months.

John Macone operates a small organic farm in Amesbury, Mass.

 

Don’t let your leaves leave your yard

It’s late fall here and the leaves are mostly off the trees, scattered across lawns and piled up against fences and walls.

Most people are raking them up, putting them in those big brown paper bags, and leaving them at the curb for the Department of Public Works to pick up and cart off.  That’s the routine that we’ve all be trained to follow — make the yard neat and cart all the leaves off to somewhere else.

It’s a bad idea. You and carting off one of the best fertilizers you can get for your garden and your lawn. And whoever invented those badly-designed bags is making a fortune off you. You can find better things to spend that money on.

Nature has its own clever way of dealing with leaves, but you can do a few things to make it work even better.  All you need is a little help from your lawnmower, and maybe your rototiller if you have one.

Why leave the leaves in your yard? Think about the last time you were in the woods. Every fall it’s blanketed with fallen leaves, pine needles and plant debris. They provide two essential assets to the forest — a protective ground cover and a fertilizer base. That blanket of leaves protects plant roots from the dehydrating effect of cold. They also gradually break down into an excellent source of compost for trees and plants. Pound for pound, leaves are actually more nutritional to your plants than manure. They contain not only the three essential compounds — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — but also a host of other minerals that should get back into your soil.

Chop them up

The natural process of leaf decomposition is very slow. It takes months, and in some cases, years. You can speed it up and make it far more efficient with your lawnmower. You may want to start by raking your leaves onto your lawn, then start mowing from the outer edges, constantly directing the leaves inward. Go over them slowly, you’ll want the mower to  really chop them up good. Go over them a few times.img_1217

You’ll be astonished by what’s left. That huge pile of leaves is now reduced down to a mere shadow of its former self. What remains will be about 1/10th to 1/16th the size of the initial pile that you started with, and most of the tiny shreds are now implanted into your lawn. You can use a rake to evenly spread around the tiny pile that remains. This may look a little unsightly compared to the guy next door with the cleanly-raked lawn, but those leaf fragments will be gone by the time the grass starts thriving in the spring. Earthworms and other natural processes will chew them up and convert them into fertilizer.

And next spring, when the guy next door is paying $50 to $150 for chemical fertilizers and sweating profusely while he’s spreading them on his lawn, you’ll be swinging in your hammock with a great-looking lawn underneath you.

Garden application

The other thing you may want to do with your leaves is transfer them into your garden, chop them up and then rototill them in.  This is an ideal fertilizer that will get your soil in top shape for the spring. You’ll want to apply some lime as well, as the leaves are acidic. One 50lb bag per 1,000 square feet of garden space is ample. A bag of lime should cost you about $5.

My usual thing is to rake the leaves onto the lawn, then mow them with my riding tractor. This also cuts the lawn and introduces grass clippings into the mix, which are very high in nitrogen — they’re like gasoline for your composting fire. Then I put the lawn sweeper to work. These sweepers are definitely worth the money if you have a lawn large enough to merit using a lawn tractor. They cost about $150 to $350 depending on size and quality, and the better ones have a great dumptruck-like feature that allows you to dump the load without having to dismount from the tractor and jigger around with the sweeper.  They are a fantastic labor saver, well worth the money. Be sure to get a good one, don’t cheap out, because they take a beating.

I attach the sweeper to the tractor and run over the lawn, picking up the chopped up leaves and grass clippings. Then I dump them on the garden, spread the piles out, and rototill them in. Sounds like a lot of work? It kind of is. But it’s worth it to use those leaves as your fall fertilizer.

John Macone operates a small organic farmstand in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Like his Facebook page at Farmer John’s Homegrown Foods.