Native Delaware: Beneficial Spiders

October 27, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

A big, furry, fake spider, dangling over a doorway or front porch, should produce a few screams from unsuspecting trick-or-treaters — before they dissolve in giggles when they discover that this particular arachnid is made of plastic.

As for real spiders, people don’t have much to fear, especially here in Delaware, according to Brian Kunkel, an entomologist with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.

Most large, hairy, and scary-looking spiders, such as the wolf spider, will hurt a fly but they won’t hurt you.

“Delaware’s native spiders are more friend than foe,” says Kunkel.  “Only one poisonous spider is found in Delaware, the black widow. Of course, for those who are allergic, any spider bite can be a problem.”

Spiders are considered beneficial because they keep insect populations in check. Insects and spiders are both classified as arthropods but insects have three body parts and six legs, while spiders have two body parts and eight legs. In addition, spiders have two hand-like appendages called pedipals that they use to hold food. The pedipals contain sensory organs that allow spiders to taste their food. These sensory organs also are found on the spider’s legs.

The majority of spiders have eight eyes but despite all those eyes most spiders have bad vision, says Kunkel.  An exception is the jumping spider, which relies on its keen eyesight to locate its next meal. After spotting its prey, this spider takes a flying leap and, if successful, lands right on top of it. The wolf spider also captures its prey by hunting and chasing it down, though it’s more a sprinter than a jumper.

Another group of spiders captures its prey by using the ambush method – they just hang out, motionless, until a tasty little insect comes along into easy grasping range.

Constructing a web is the most common method that spiders use to capture prey. Web spinners in Delaware include the orb weaver, comb-footed, sheet web and funnel web spiders.

When it comes to dining habits, spiders are generalists, meaning they’re a lot like the guy at the smorgasbord sampling one of everything. In contrast, the monarch butterfly caterpillar is a specialist because it eats milkweed and only milkweed. If you want to attract spiders to your yard – so they’ll gobble up all the bad bugs – plant a variety of plants and plant types, says Kunkel. Use as little pesticide as possible; it can kill spiders as well as the pest insects.

“Spiders are a sign of a healthy garden,” says Kunkel. “They are often the most important biological control of pests in the home landscape as well as on cropland. In addition, spiders are a good source of food for birds and small mammals, particularly in winter and spring.”

Doug Tallamy, chair of UD’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, can personally attest to the role of spiders in controlling pests. The first summer he lived in his house it was overrun with flies, thanks in part to a nearby horse barn.

Then Tallamy and his wife began transforming their barren yard. “When we moved in, the yard supported little more than mustard grass and ragweed,” he says.

After he planted a wide variety of native trees and plants, the wildlife came – everything from bluebirds to spiders.

“One predator, in particular, that I saw pouncing on the flies is a species of jumping spider,” says Tallamy. “These small but powerful spiders learned that our windows are great hunting grounds for flies.”

Because our trees and shrubs have grown since that first summer, the jumping spider now has plenty of places to hide and lay its eggs. And our native plantings provide an alternative food source, as well.”

So go ahead and scare someone with a fake spider this Halloween – just don’t scare off the real, beneficial spiders in your yard and garden.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Evan Krape

View the original post on UDaily by clicking here.

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An apple a day

September 22, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

As Hurricane Irene approached Delaware, those of us who weren’t ordered to evacuate searched for ice, gas and batteries, and secured lawn furniture and trash cans. But at Highland Orchards in North Wilmington, there wasn’t time for anything but harvesting.

“It was all hands on deck – the goal was to pick apples, peaches and everything else that was ripe or near ripe before the storm blew through,” recalls orchard co-owner Ruth Linton. Her 10-year-old daughter, Katya, picked apples while her 82-year-old mother, Elaine Linton, cut flowers that are sold in the orchard’s retail shop.

For several days straight, the Lintons and their employees labored to save the early apple harvest and, for the most part, were successful. But they couldn’t do a thing but about the mid-season varieties, which weren’t ready to pick.

Those apples – galas, ginger golds and Paula reds – blew right off the trees. A few tree limbs came down, too, but not many, thanks to Linton’s pruning work last spring. “Pruning out smaller limbs protects from wind damage because it gives the larger limbs more room to sway,” she says.

Like many Delawareans, Linton lost power during the storm; in her case for three days. That meant no cold storage for all those just picked apples. Fortunately, she was able to rent a refrigerated truck but it took hours to move the apples from cold storage to the truck and eventually back to cold storage.

Today you’ll find an ample supply of apples at Highland’s shop, just not as many varieties as usual.

“Normally, we have about 10 varieties of apples in early September but we only had three varieties earlier this month,” says Linton. “Currently, we’re offering 10 to 12 varieties; usually we have 15 to 20 varieties in mid-September.”

Linton says that late-season varieties weren’t impacted by the hurricane because, at that point, those apples were small so they weren’t blown off the trees. As long as rainy conditions don’t persist she says the late-season crop should be good.

“It’s been a crazy weather year,” says Linton. “First it was wet, then very dry and then very wet.”

But the family has seen worse. “From ’33 to ’34 during the Great Depression we had total crop failure. There was a drought the first two years and then a hurricane knocked down all the trees,” she says.

“So, 2011 is not the worst weather we’ve ever seen, it’s just the worst in the last 75 years.”

Fifer Orchards, outside the town of Wyoming, fared a bit better than Highland. “We were very fortunate that we were able to harvest what was ready before the hurricane and that most of the apples remaining on the trees were fine,” says Mary Fifer Fennemore, a co-owner of Fifer’s. “We did have some fruit on trees get knocked around and bruised, and some apples ended up on the orchard floor. A few peach trees were blown over but all the apple trees remain standing. We really got lucky; the forecast had predicted a lot more wind.”

Despite hurricane hassles, Fifer Fennemore says that the 2011 apple season is going strong. But, if you have a favorite variety, don’t delay your trip to Fifer’s or to your favorite farm stand or farmers’ market. “The crop is running about 10 days early because of the summer heat,” she says.

The dwarf trees in Fifer’s U-Pick orchard are in particularly good shape and abundant with fruit now. U-Pick is only open on Fridays and Saturdays; when it re-opens this Friday, Fuji and Mutsu varieties should be available for picking and possibly Stayman. U-Pick began operations several years ago to expand on the orchard’s successful Fall Fest and other agri-tourism activities. Fall Fest, which starts tomorrow and runs through Oct. 29, features corn mazes, pumpkin painting and other seasonal fun.

But don’t let the tricycle and rubber ducky races fool you. Fifer Orchards is a working apple orchard, one of only two large commercial apple growers in Delaware. The other, T&S Smith, is located in Bridgeville. (In addition, there are a few smaller orchards that sell wholesale. Highland only sells direct to the consumer via its farm store.)

Even with just a handful of orchards, apples are Delaware’s most important fruit crop. More than 10.4 million pounds are grown here annually, according to Gordon Johnson, a fruit and vegetable specialist with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. Peaches, the No. 2 crop, trail behind at around 1.2 million pounds. A large part of the state’s apple crop is sent to processors to be turned into everything from cider to applesauce.

Fortunately, there are plenty of Delaware apples set aside for the fresh market. Look for local apples in area grocery stores and at farm stands and farmers’ markets. Go to the Delaware Department of Agriculture’s website, and click on farmers’ markets or on-the-farm-markets to find one near you.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

Also available online on UDaily

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Sept. 8-10: UDBG Plant Sale

September 9, 2011 under CANR News

The University of Delaware Botanic Gardenswill hold its annual fall plant sale, featuring groundcovers and a host of fabulous fall bloomers, from Sept. 8-10.

The sale will be held in the production area across from the Fischer Greenhouse, behind Townsend Hall on UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources campus.

UDBG Friends can enjoy a members-only day at the sale on Thursday, Sept. 8, from 4-7 p.m. To enjoy this and other benefits, visit the UDBG website.

Hours for the general public are Friday, Sept. 9, from 4-7 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 10, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free.

The University of Delaware Botanic Gardens are open year around to provide ideas and inspiration, or for a quiet stroll. The gardens contribute to an understanding of the changing relationships between plants and people through education, research, extension and community support so as to instill an appreciation of plants in the landscape and the natural environment.

This article was originally posted online on UDaily.

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Fall in bloom

September 8, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

“I love fall plants, fall temperatures, fall colors, fall sounds. I think it’s the best time of the year for gardening,” enthuses Suzanne Baron, a Master Gardener with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.

The “third season” is ramping up for Delaware gardeners and many, like Baron, consider it the very best season. It’s starting to get cooler, especially early and late in the day, making it easier to accomplish garden chores. It also happens to be an excellent time of year to get plants in the ground, notes Sue Barton, ornamental horticulture specialist with UD Cooperative Extension.

“Fall’s cooler temperatures and typically higher rainfalls help plant roots become well-established. The soil is still warm and allows roots to grow until the ground freezes,” says Barton. “In contrast, plants may get off to a slower start in spring because the soil is cooler and in summer new plantings can become stressed from heat and drought.”

Planting for fall interest is easy because there’s a wide range of perennials and shrubs that exhibit good color, in addition to the dramatic foliage of many deciduous trees.

At the Teaching Garden at the county Extension office in Newark, Baron and her fellow Master Gardeners have planted thread-leaf irownweed, which already displays bright purple flower tufts that will continue through early fall.  Another purple bloomer, Joe Pye weed, also is in flower. And while the pale blue flowers of Bluestar are long gone, its leaves will soon turn bright yellow. Later in the season, the black gum trees will turn bright red and the aromatic sumac shrubs will display brilliant orange, red and yellow leaves. Plus, the Teaching Garden features one of Baron’s fall favorites, goldenrod.

Baron has planted many varieties of goldenrod — ranging in color from vivid yellow to deep gold — at her farmette outside of Middletown. “I keep adding different ones to fill different needs in my gardens,” says Baron. “The flower lasts a long time and even in late October bees visit it.”

“Goldenrod is a great source for nectar in the fall,” notes J.W. Wistermayer, a Master Gardener who strives for a “riot of color” in his Newark-area yard.

Goldenrod and other fall blooms don’t just add pizzazz to the landscape, they also help out bees and other insects.  “Fall is an incredibly important time to think about flowering plants in the garden so that insects have a supply of nectar and can make it through the winter,” says Wistermayer.  “A lot of people think about planting for the pollinators in the spring and summer but tend to forget about it in the fall.”

In addition to goldenrod, pollinator-friendly choices include asters, spicebush and Joe Pye weed. “Joe Pye Weed is awesome as a nectar source and the hollow stems can be used by native bees when they lay their eggs,” says Wistermayer.

Carrie Murphy, horticulture agent for New Castle County Cooperative Extension, says that her home garden in North Wilmington starts out strong in spring but can be iffy in summer. She says the garden invariably “comes back to life” in the fall.

Murphy designed her garden with fall interest in mind, including such colorful choices as Virginia sweetspire, viburnum, blueberry and oakleaf hydrangea. “The oakleaf hydrangea never disappoints with its exfoliating bark, beautiful blooms that dry and hang on through winter and great fall color — reds, yellows, oranges,” says Murphy.

Asters, goldenrod and thoroughwort are the primary fall bloomers on Barton’s 11-acre property in Landenberg, Pa. They are complemented by the foliage of sourgum (brilliant red), sassafras (bright oranges and yellows), sourwood (red), sugar maple (yellowish orange) and red maple (bright red) trees.  She also has planted lots of sweet gums, which turn purple and orange all on the same plant. Most of these trees are at their peak color in October.

Barton also takes a long-range view on fall gardening. “Everyone focuses on fall color — foliage or flower — but bark, branch structure and remaining flower heads can provide a lot of interest,” she says, “especially late in the fall when most of the leaves are gone.”

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley


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Changing seasons provide varied birding opportunities

January 10, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

One of the things that Derek Stoner likes most about living in Delaware is that every season brings new things to see and enjoy outdoors. Birding is a great example of nature’s diversity throughout the year.

“Birding in January, when owls are breeding, is a lot different than birding in July, when shorebirds flock to the Delaware Bay during their southward migration,” notes Stoner, the past president of the Delmarva Ornithological Society.

Here are some of the avian highlights that each season brings. How many of these birds will you spot in 2011?

Winter

As the New Year begins, the woods come alive with the calls of owls. Delaware’s most-common woodland owl, the great-horned owl, begins nesting now. Listen for its territorial hooting calls at night. The Eastern screech owl is also active and makes a trilling call. So how do you identify all those trills and hoots? Before heading out, Stoner suggests listening to owl calls at this website.

In February, take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen science project throughout the U.S. and Canada. Last year’s count tallied more than 11 million birds of 602 species. Beyond the important scientific data that’s collected, the count generates excitement for birders, notes Chris Williams, UD assistant professor of wildlife ecology. Get involved by visiting this website.

Spring

In late April and the first half of May, birders flock to White Clay Creek State Park, where warblers, tanagers, orioles and other migrants are attracted to the large expanse of healthy woodlands. The best time to see lots of migrants, says Stoner, is after a night with steady winds from the south.

If you want to see red knots in the spring, there’s one place to go — Mispillion Harbor on the Delaware Bay, which attracts up to 90 percent of all the red knots in the world during this time period. Red knots fuels up on horseshoe crabs at the harbor. Check them out from the observation deck of the DuPont Nature Center. For a map and directions, visit the DuPont Nature Center website.

Summer

Summertime to Carrie Murphy means the return of the American goldfinch. This small finch is attracted to native perennials in her garden, including echinacea, black-eyed Susan and hardy ageratum. In its spring plumage, the brilliant yellow-and-black male looks like he belongs in a tropical rain forest instead of a Delaware backyard. Murphy, horticultural agent for New Castle County Cooperative Extension, says the goldfinch also likes annual sunflowers.

In July, look for blue grosbeaks, gorgeous blue birds with silvery bills. Doug Tallamy finds a pair nesting in his dogwood tree every July. “The male sings from May to September every morning for two hours,” says Tallamy, the chair of UD’s Department of Entomology and Applied Ecology.

Want to attract blue grosbeaks to your own yard? “Blue grosbeaks like to include snake skins in their nests, so if you hang a snake skin up on a fence, you’re more likely to get them,” notes Tallamy.

Late summer is prime time for migrating shorebirds all along the Delaware Bay. Visit the impoundments at Fowler Beach and Broadkill Road of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge to see black-necked stilts, black-bellied plovers and many varieties of sandpipers.

Fall

“I like watching hawks fly out of trees to kill unsuspecting rodents during the fall,” says Brian Kunkel, an entomologist with UD Cooperative Extension. If the thought of watching hawks feasting on rodents makes you lose your lunch, just keep your eyes skyward. The northern tip of Delaware is the place to see hundreds of migrating broad-winged hawks on their way to South America. Check out the Ashland Hawk Watch page.

In November thousands of ducks, geese and swans funnel into the First State to take advantage of the abundant food and resting places. Places like Thousand Acre Marsh, Woodland Beach Wildlife Area and Silver Lake in Rehoboth offer great viewing.

Wrap up the year by taking part in the Christmas Bird Count, the world’s longest-running biological survey. Seven Christmas Bird Counts take place in Delaware. Learn more at the Delmarva Ornithological Society website.

Article by Margo McDonough

This article can also be viewed online on UDaily by clicking here.

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Fall Foliage on Campus is Spectacular

October 19, 2010 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Blue and gold aren’t the only colors at the University of Delaware. This time of year, the campus is ablaze in fall foliage. The American elms on The Green become a soft yellow, the maples at Trabant Student Center turn crimson, the serviceberry trees at the Fred Rust Ice Arena display orange leaves and the gingkos on South College Avenue become a luminous, clear yellow.

“The fall landscape is spectacular on the campus,” says Susan Barton, UD Cooperative Extension‘s specialist for ornamental horticulture. “When it comes to autumn color, I believe the campus and the entire state are every bit as beautiful as other regions I’ve traveled to during the fall foliage period.”

This week — the third week of October — tends to be the peak time for foliage in Delaware. The summer’s intense heat and drought conditions shouldn’t significantly impact the “wow factor” of the foliage, according to Barton.

“During the heat wave, some trees experienced leaf drop or brown, withered leaves and they obviously won’t be looking good this fall. But for the majority of the trees that didn’t suffer from heat it was actually mid-September to mid-October that was critical in determining the quality of the foliage now,” says Barton.

The process of leaf change gets under way at the time of the autumn equinox, she says. During the summer growing season, leaves look green due to the presence of chlorophyll, which masks the other pigment colors. With the arrival of the autumn equinox and the start of longer nights and shorter days, chlorophyll production in the leaves slows, and soon other pigments become more visible.

Sunny days and cool nights around the time of the equinox deliver the most dramatic fall color.

Purple and red pigments in the leaves need the breakdown of sugar that occurs on bright autumn days, explains Barton. Cool temperatures at night break down chlorophyll, allowing the yellows and oranges to show. However, too cool isn’t good, as an early frost kills the leaf cells and reduces the coloration process.

Too much rain in late September and early October, especially coupled with warm conditions, can make for less-than-brilliant color at foliage time. Delaware received a lot of rain in a short period earlier in the month – 7 inches was recorded in Newark on Oct. 1 – but that shouldn’t impact the foliage.

“That rain wasn’t that unusual — except for one day — it was just concentrated after a long period without rain,” says Barton. “If you counted up all the rainy days in the fall, we haven’t had that many yet.”

A variety of other factors have an impact on foliage coloration, including plant genetics and soil conditions (such as the pH and the availability of trace minerals), she says.

Barton gets to enjoy great fall color not only during her workday at UD but also at her 7-acre property, where she’s planted many natives that are known for fall color. Some of her favorites are sourwood, which turns brilliant red, and fothergilla, a shrub that has multi-colored leaves.

“Out of all the fall colors and hues, orange is my favorite,” she says. “I love orange sassafras, serviceberry and sugar maple. Even better, though, are sweet gum trees because they have orange color plus yellow and purple, all on the same tree.”

Barton has planted serviceberry behind a low retaining wall at her home and is looking forward to enjoying its bright orange display. But she’ll need to drink in the view quickly – serviceberry only stays orange for a few days before dropping its leaves.

Most native American plants are speedier than their European counterparts at transitioning from fall to winter, she says.

“In Edgar Anderson’s book Plants, Man and Life he notes that our native flora evolved for our ‘violent American climate,’” says Barton. “He describes it as ‘going into the winter condition with a bang.’”

Sounds like it’s time to get outside before the fall fireworks are over.

Article by Margo McDonough

Read this article on UDaily by clicking here.

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