Sunday, June 1, 2014

How To Train Your Dragonfly

Dragonflies are one of nature's best fliers--they can hover, track vertically up and down, and even fly backwards--at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour. They make swift turns and catch insects mid-air, so capturing and training your own dragonfly could be very useful for trips that require speed, agility, and rapid turns. Plus, dragonflies are neat-looking, so flying around on one would make you the coolest kid on the block.

It's very simple to obtain your own dragonfly. First, make a sign like this one and put it in your garden:

This tells the dragonflies that you have opened a dragonfly airport. The dragonflies will stop over between their flights; then, just buy a ticket and fly to your chosen destination! Easy, right?

There's only one problem: dragonflies can't read.

You'd also need to find a REALLY BIG dragonfly if you wanted to ride one. The prehistoric ancestors of the dragonfly were much bigger 300 million years ago; they measured up to 28 inches across, which still isn't big enough to ride but is large enough to earn it the record for being the largest insect that ever lived.

Even if you can't ride a dragonfly, they're still fun to see as they swoop and dart catching insects. They eat annoying and disease-bearing insects like ants, wasps, flies, and mosquitoes, so they're not just entertaining to watch--they're useful helpers for maintaining a healthy and happy garden.

You can attract dragonflies to your yard by building a pond surrounded by shrugs and reeds. Dragonflies lay their eggs in and near water, and it's important to have plants next to the pond so dragonfly nymphs can climb out of the water when they are ready to turn into adults and fly.

Unfortunately, ponds also are habitats for mosquito larvae, which are a big problem because they carry West Nile virus. You can still attract dragonflies as long as there's a population somewhere within a few miles, as dragonflies are strong fliers and often search for food far away from their home pond.

Dragonflies like to perch up high so they can see other insects fly by, so by putting a few wood dowels or bamboo sticks around your garden you'll provide the perfect place for dragonflies to scope out their lunch.

Sometimes you don't even have to put out sticks; dragonflies will find natural perches in trees or shrubs, like this flame skimmer dragonfly did in our dwarf apple tree. Isn't he a gorgeous copper color?

We call this dragonfly "Smiley." Can you see why? His eyes have almost 360° vision, and see more colors than ours.
Dragonflies, like our butterflies, like heat, so keep watch for them in the summer. You can read more facts about them here and here, and hey…maybe some dragonflies can read after all!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Saving Water - The "Sprinker Toy"

California is in the middle of a terrible drought. It's important to save as much water as possible, but we also want to keep the plants alive so the butterflies have some place to feed on nectar, lay eggs, and the caterpillars have something to eat.

One way we can save water is by reclaiming "gray" water. Water is called "gray" when it's not straight out of the tap, but may have soap or other stuff in it that's not dangerous. For example, water from showers, tubs, and washing machines can be gray, but water from a toilet cannot. Another way we can save water is by capturing water that would otherwise be wasted, like using a bucket in the shower to catch the cold water while we wait for the shower to heat up.

At Archie's Garden, one of the things we do is to keep a bucket in the shower. When it fills up, we use the water for the plants. Distributing the water from a five gallon bucket, however, can be tricky - it's easy to pour too much in one place because the bucket is heavy. If you transfer it into a watering can, it takes more time and it's easy to spill.

To solve this problem, we built a prototype of what we call the Sprinker Toy!

We start by getting a five gallon bucket, and cutting a hole in the side. Using matching screw-threaded adapters and disks cut out of a sheet of rubber, we build a 1/2" PVC connecting port for "slip" style connectors.

Outside of port

Inside the bucket

From there, we drilled a small hole in the end of each of a collection of 1/2" PVC end caps. Cutting various short lengths of 1/2" PVC pipe, and using slip-tees, we assembled the sprinkling portion. Then we made a whole bunch more!

Components of one sprinkler

And a whole bunch more!
This is where the Sprinker Toy name comes in. These little sprinklers get connected to each other like Tinker Toys! Using different lengths of pipe, the sections are easily plugged together to fit whatever layout you need. Tilting the sprinkler part downward guarantees that the water will pour out rather than sit in the pipes.

Single set up

Two buckets

Spare parts

We made extra pieces so that if we move Milkweed plants in or out of the Butterfly Fort, we can put them into the watering system.  If you need to change the layout, it's easy, since the sections are just plugged together (and not glued, cemented, or otherwise permanently attached). The pressure in the system is very low, so you don't have to worry much about leaks.

When you want to water, you just pour into the big bucket, and gravity does all the rest!

Other notes:

You can get fancy with this, by making sprinklers that work at different rates. You can vary the size of the hole you drill into the end-cap, or drill multiple holes in an end-cap.

We used 1/2 inch PVC and connectors. The whole thing was about $15 in parts. At many hardware stores, they sell bulk "contractor" bags of slip-tee connectors or end-caps.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

More Spring Happenings

This is the season where the garden changes visibly every single day. There's so much going on!
All kinds of flowers are blooming, and each day old flowers close up while new ones open.

There are monarch caterpillars of all sizes.

This is a close-up picture of a Citron flower. Citrons are a very old variety of citrus. The fruits are not particularly good to eat, but the peel of the fruit and the flowers are very fragrant.

Here's a very young Cloudless Sulphur butterfly caterpillar. He's very tiny, but he's already eating holes in the leaves of the senna tree.

This picture may look like the leaf has an eye-stalk like a snail, or maybe an antenna like a moth -- but it's really the egg of a Green Lacewing. Lacewings are pretty green insects that tend to fly around at night. Lacewing larva are considered very good for gardens, since they eat huge numbers of garden pests like aphids, thrips, mealy bugs, and leafhoppers.

Nasturtiums are not only colorful, but edible too. They're spicy!

Do you think this spider has a grayish abdomen? The answer may surprise you! It's actually a brown Wolf Spider, and that round gray thing is an egg sac that she's carrying around with her!

Saturday, March 15, 2014


 It has been a very dry winter in Archie's Garden - we have only had one or two good rains. Nevertheless, the flowers feel springtime coming on, and they're blooming. Here are the Irises and a variety of Nasturtiums showing off.

We at Archie's Garden change our minds each year which flower is the true symbol of Spring.

 Different flowers come at different times: usually, the Daffodils are among the first to bloom.

Sometimes the Toad Flax, Lupine, or California Poppies will be first, but they often bloom all together.

The Freesias are not the first to bloom, but they are not shy about filling the garden with color.

This year, however, Archie casts his vote for the Wisteria. This vine can really take over, but for a few brief days every Spring, the delicate flowers are extraordinarily beautiful.

The flowers are not the only ones celebrating the coming of Spring. This fellow was seen wandering around near the potted plants late at night. At first, he looks like a twig. If you look closer, he looks like a big worm. But then if you look really closely, you'll see he's a salamander!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Monday, September 2, 2013

New Resident in Archie's Garden

Yuck! While working in the Archie's Garden, Elizabeth noticed a gigantic and gross bird dropping on the leaf of an orange tree.
But hang on a second! There's something suspicious about that bird poop.

Hey... wait a minute ...
It turns out that it wasn't what it looked like... As you can read here, this is a caterpillar of the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly.

It's moving!

To protect itself from predators, this species uses "bio-mimicry," a fancy word for disguise. Unlike some caterpillars who depend on hiding under leaves, or only moving when it's dark out, the Giant Swallowtail caterpillar can stay right out in the open. Most predators will think like we did — that's just a bird poop — and will not pay any more attention.

(as always, click on the pictures for larger versions)

Sunday, August 11, 2013


This summer, very few Monarch butterflies have come to Archie's Garden. We have a brand new butterfly fort to protect caterpillars against wasps, but we don't have any caterpillars to protect. There are whole days that go by when not a single Monarch comes to visit. We're trying not to worry, but we don't really know what's going on.

The story is different when it comes to Swallowtail butterflies. We've had far more of these fast-flying butterflies than we've ever had in the past.

Swallowtail Butterflies (Papilio polyxenes) use fennel, parsley, and dill for their host plants. We have some fennel where caterpillars have been munching.

Swallowtail Caterpillar

Another Caterpillar

While Monarch caterpillars hang in a "J" shape before they pupate, these Swallowtail caterpillars create a silk "seatbelt" for themselves, and curl with their heads upright.  Interestingly, when these caterpillars have pupated, we've seen two very different looking pupae. On a wooden post, the pupa is mottled blacks and browns, while on the fennel stalk the pupa is yellows and greens. We don't know if it's camouflage, or if we are seeing two different species.

Caterpillar with
Silk "Seatbelt"



Yesterday, the dark pupa eclosed. I wasn't there when it happened, but I discovered the butterfly shortly afterward. It had damaged its right fore-wing. I was worried that it might not be able to fly. However, after an hour, it had fluttered a short distance, and was resting in the sun. A few hours later, it was gone. I hope that it succeeded in flying off to new adventures!

Just Eclosed

Pupa after eclosure


Wing Detail

(as always, you can click on the pictures to see bigger versions).