Archive for October, 2013

Funnel webs on rug juniper

Funnel webs covered the juniper

Funnel webs covered the juniper

Our next door neighbor has planted his bank along the road with blue rug juniper. The other morning when I drove by, I noticed that these junipers were covered with a patchwork of spider webs. It was really neat looking and I had to stop to snap a few pics with my phone. Actually several of our neighbors have landscaped the roadside bank with these low growing junipers and as I drove further down, I saw that all of them were splattered with these spider webs. The early morning dew really made them stand out. Kinda cool looking!

A funnel web built at the corner of the porch railing.

A funnel web built at the corner
of the porch railing.

The spiders that build these interesting webs belong to a group called funnel weavers or grass spiders (Family Agelenidae). As the name implies, they build webs that consist of a flat sheet of webbing with a funnel leading downward near the center. The webs are not sticky and are fairly densely woven. They are usually oriented horizontally and are commonly found on top of turfgrass (hence the common name grass spider), on top of dense shrubbery, among rocks, and in the corners of buildings. I find them on my porch all the time.


Webs that are built on the lawn and shrubbery become very obvious and are quite striking in the early morning when they are covered with dew. Often you will see large numbers of them covering an area, especially on a lawn.

The beautiful web of an orb weaver

The beautiful web of an orb weaver

The webs of funnel weaving spiders are quite different from the webs spun by orb weavers like the large black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia). Those beautiful webs have an intricate open weave and are generally oriented perpendicular to the ground. They also include sticky strands and are usually located higher up to be in the path of flying insects.

The funnel webs are densely woven and located parallel to the ground. They vary in size but can be quite large, sometimes as wide as 3 feet. The biggest ones I saw on these junipers were about 18″ wide. The funnel was normally located near the center of these expansive sheets of silk but in a few cases it was near the edge. This funnel creates a lair and hiding place for the spider. It can be quite long and is angled downward into the substrate below; either into dense foliage, between grass blades, or into cracks between stones.

Funnel web on juniper

Funnel web on juniper

Only the female spider of this species is capable of creating a web. The spiders themselves are not often seen because they are normally hiding in the funnel waiting for prey items to wander onto the sheet part of the web. When she feels a vibration on the web, she darts out of the funnel ready to attack. You can sometimes coax them out by gently tapping on the sheet part of the web. I tried this that morning but I guess it was either too cold or she wasn’t fooled by my antics!

Web with the funnel on the edge.

Web with the funnel on the edge.

Funnel web spiders often build their webs on the top of beautifully manicured hedges of boxwood, yew, and other dense evergreen shrubs. Normally the webs blend into the foliage pretty well and aren’t particularly noticeable except when covered with dew or after a light rain. Then, as I said before, they become quite obvious. I’m sure that the webs I photographed on the rug juniper had been there for a while but I didn’t notice them until that dewy fall morning.

Spiders of all kinds seem to become more active in the late summer and fall. Starting in August we normally have to hold our harvest baskets in front of us to block the spider webs as we walk down the wooded path to the vegetable garden.

I’m happy to have these spiders in and around my gardens though because they do their part to eliminate many of the insect pests that attack my plants!

So cut these critters some slack this fall! They are normally shy and non-aggressive and happy to be left alone.

And – besides they are efficient little predators!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Native dogwoods have beautiful fall color

The leaves are becoming more colorful every day. Apples are ripe for the picking, pumpkins and mums abound, bountiful harvests, hay rides …

What a glorious time of year!

Fall is also a busy time in the garden. October is the time to begin putting your gardens to bed for the season. Spending a little time on garden cleanup in the fall will make your spring garden chores easier and also help reduce the incidence of insect and disease problems in your gardens next year.

Phlox paniculata with a pretty severe case of powdery mildew

Phlox paniculata with a pretty severe
case of powdery mildew

Many common plant diseases, such as rust, botrytis, powdery mildew, and anthracnose, as well as many insect pests can overwinter in dead foliage and dropped leaves left in your garden. These pests can survive to reinfect your plants the following year.

The cleanup projects that you tackle in the fall will really boost the health and vigor of your gardens in the spring.

Besides, fall is such a beautiful time to be outside working in the garden. The days are warm but not too warm and not too cold either. If you wait until spring to clean your gardens, it can often be cold and sometimes too wet to work in the garden. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, sometimes the growing season can begin before you are quite ready for it. Working in your gardens or even walking in them when the soil is wet is one of the worst things you can do. It can destroy the soil structure and turn the ground into something akin to cement! Not good!

So – what are the important chores to get accomplished this fall?

Fallen fruit and leaves from under quince may harbor rust spores.

Fallen fruit and leaves from under
quince may harbor rust spores.

Rake, rake, rake

If you’ve had disease problems in your flower or vegetable garden, one of the best ways reduce these problems for next year is to carefully rake up and remove all dropped leaves, fruits, and cuttings from the garden. Disease causing fungal spores can overwinter in this plant debris and will reinfect the plants when they emerge in the spring.

This is especially important …

  • in the vegetable garden – Squash and cucumber vines can be covered with downy mildew, powdery mildew, or anthracnose spores. Dried tomato vines may carry spores of various tomato diseases.
  • Fungal diseases of tomatoes can be reduced  by destroying the old vines.

    Fungal diseases of tomatoes can be
    reduced by destroying the old vines.

    under native dogwoods – Dropped leaves may harbor anthracnose spores.

  • under rose bushes – Black spot can overwinter in dropped leaves.
  • under and around fruit trees, crabapples, and grapes – The fungi that cause diseases like scab on apples and crabapples, black rot of grapes, and brown rot of stone fruits, produce spores that overwinter in the fallen leaves and mummified fruit left on the ground.

Insect pests can also spend the winter in this old plant debris, so by removing it from the garden, you are also helping to control their numbers for next year.

Be sure to bag this plant debris up and discard it in the trash. Don’t add it to your compost because many compost piles don’t get hot enough to kill fungal spores or insect pests.

Cut back diseased perennials

Botrytis blight can destroy peony buds.

Botrytis blight can destroy peony buds.

The foliage of herbaceous perennials that showed signs of fungal disease should be cut back to the ground in the fall. This includes plants like herbaceous peonies (never cut back tree peonies!), summer phlox, Monarda, and hollyhocks. Put these cuttings out in the trash as well.

If you are in the cleanup mood, other herbaceous perennials can be cut back too, but it’s nice to leave some for winter interest.

Clear out the weeds

Weeds can act as both reservoirs and alternate hosts for a wide variety of insect pests and diseases that plague our gardens. This is one of the reasons that it is important to keep your gardens and also the adjacent areas as weed-free as possible.

Tilling in fall can reduce populations of corn earworms (a.k.a. tomato fruitworms).

Tilling in fall reduces populations of corn
earworms (a.k.a. tomato fruitworms).

Till the vegetable garden

Often the soil is drier in the fall than it is in the spring so fall is a great time to till your vegetable garden. After removing diseased plant material, spread some Espoma Plant-tone or Garden-tone down and till it in along with some good quality compost. The organic fertilizer will breakdown over the winter and the nutrients will be available to your vegetable crops in the spring.

One of the advantages of tilling in the fall is that it brings the pupae of insects that overwinter in the soil to the surface. This not only exposes them to the elements, but it also exposes them to birds and other predators that will gobble them up.

After you finish the fall cleanup in your flower beds …

Colorful early spring gardenFertilize your beds with a slow-release organic fertilizer like Espoma Plant-tone or Holly-tone. Organic fertilizers breakdown slowly and the fertilizer you put down in the fall will provide nutrients to your plants when they begin growth in the spring.

One of the most important things you can do to prepare your flower beds and your lawn for winter is to give them a deep and thorough watering before the ground freezes. This will provide your trees and shrubs with the water they need to survive through winter.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Woolly Bear

Why does the woolly bear cross the road?

The woolly bears seem to be on a mission! So many are crossing the road these days – and they’re not dilly-dallying either! They’re moving along at a pretty good clip – for a caterpillar that is! I find it very curious.

Woolly bears curl up in a tight ball when disturbed.

Woolly bears curl up in a tight ball
when they are disturbed.

Driving to work in the morning, I’ll see four or five at a time crawling across the highway. Then I’ll go a little further and find several more booking it across the road. I try to avoid them but there is only so much you can do. They seem to be everywhere.

So, why DO woolly bears cross the road? Good question! Most of what I’ve read says that they are just looking for a place to overwinter and the road just happens to cross their path. I suppose that is as good an explanation as any but if I walked through the woods or through a field, would I come across as many as I see on the road? I wonder …

A solid black leopard moth caterpillar. The bright red bands become obvious when they curl up.

A solid black leopard moth caterpillar.
The bright red bands become obvious
when they curl up.

I did see several in one of my gardens this weekend when I was doing some weeding and mulching. I picked one up and he immediately curled up in a tight little ball so characteristic of these caterpillars. I even found a large solid black “woolly bear”. This guy was a different species from the banded woolly bears that I was used to seeing. It turns out that he was the larval form of the giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribionia), a really pretty white tiger moth with a beautiful pattern of black circles and rings covering its wings. You can definitely tell where its name comes from! The caterpillar is solid black with narrow bands of red between the segments.

The characteristic red bands are difficult to see when the caterpillar isn't curled up in its defensive posture.

The characteristic red bands of the giant leopard moth caterpillar
are difficult to see when it isn’t curled up in its defensive posture.

Banded woolly bears are the larval form of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella). The adult moth of this species isn’t nearly as colorful as the beautiful giant leopard moth but its caterpillars are pretty adorable! There are usually at least two generations of these moths during the season. The last generation normally hatches out around August and these will overwinter in the larval caterpillar stage – the familiar, loveable woolly bears. Fortunately, these guys are not considered to be major pests in the garden.

A woolly bear crosses the gravel driveway at the nursery.

A woolly bear crosses the gravel
driveway at the nursery.

In the fall, the woolly bears become very active and quite visible as they begin to move from their summer feeding grounds in meadows and fields to woodland areas where they will hibernate during the winter months. This is when they are seen crossing roads, sidewalks, woodland trails, your driveway …

I guess we notice them in these places because that’s where WE are and they just happen to be on the move! Most of these caterpillars will spend the winter curled up under leaf litter on the forest floor, under stones or rotting logs, or nestled down in piles of wood.

During the winter, woolly bears are able to survive freezing temperatures by producing a type of “antifreeze” or cryoprotectant in their circulatory system that protects their cells and vital organs from the damage which would occur if ice crystals formed. So they survive in a frozen state all winter long – at least in the colder parts of their range. These guys are found as far north as the arctic!
That’s pretty neat!

In the spring, the frosty caterpillars thaw out and wander around eating a little before settling down to spin a cocoon. The adult moths emerge about a month later, mate, lay eggs, and a new generation begins.

So now you know why the woolly bear crosses the road – maybe!

Oh, and their notorious ability to forecast the winter? That’s another story and was the subject of a post I wrote a while ago. Check it out …

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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