Friday, June 1, 2012

The birds and the bees

Yes, it's a post about sex. Flower sex, that is. But also, birds and bugs. Really, just a free for all of things that could be covered under the title "the birds and the bees". I think I did a post like this last year, but it's good to reiterate this stuff sometimes.
Last week at work we had "The Mystery of the Paintbrush". I have a small, thin paintbrush that I keep on my desk and it went missing. My coworker remembered that my boss had found it when I wasn't around and didn't know what it was for, so she'd done something with it but she didn't know what. (I later found it in a cup of pens for patrons to use.) I had to explain that the paintbrush is what I use to pollinate the tomatoes in the office. When I told my boss that, she got this mischievous, slightly scandalized look, as if I'd just said a dirty joke. I suppose I sort of did, since I was essentially talking about plant sex. Tomatoes indoors (as well as some other fruiting plants) need to be hand-pollinated to take the place of the bugs which aren't around to do the job. I've found that the best and easiest tool for this is a small, thin paintbrush that I found in the office a while ago. I simply swirl it around inside the flower, collecting pollen, and then move along to the next flower. I generally get each flower twice per round, just to be sure I haven't missed any of them. And I do this every day. I know I get some flowers multiple times, but it's best to be safe. This isn't exact, and it doesn't lead to 100% pollination, but it gets the job done quite effectively. Before I tried hand pollination, I got zero tomatoes.
I also go between my two cherry tomato plants frequently, just in case they need to be cross-pollinated. I'm worried that my giant Cosmonaut Volkov tomato needs to be cross-pollinated, because I don't have another (not at work, anyway) and it's much too large to be moved. (I thought it was supposed to be a bush variety....)
My beans and peas don't need to be hand-pollinated, thankfully. I checked to be sure before buying them, so you might want to look at specific varieties on the internet to see if they need outside pollination. If you're wondering why your indoor plant isn't producing anything, try hand-pollination to see if that does the trick. If not, it might be suffering from either a lack of nutrients or a lack of proper light. New windows have all sorts of UV-filter sprays and screens on them that block out certain shades or colors of light which are bad for people, but good for plants. It's one of the reasons my plant starts at home end up a bit weak and small before I set them out. (And I know it's a problem.) At work, the section of the building that I work in is old and hasn't been renovated. (Yet.) We have crappy, crappy windows probably from when the building went in during the...50's? 60's? A long time ago. So my plants are getting the full range of light, even if it isn't direct sunlight for most of them.
This is the time of year when we're also inundated by bugs of all kinds. Some are great--I saw my first butterfly of the summer today! Some I tolerate, like the spiders. (They kill mosquitoes, so I let them live.) And some are absolute pests, like the mosquitoes and the fruit flies. I have become a slayer of bugs. There's a swarm of them around some of the plants at work, including the ones on my desk. My coworker laughs at me because every once in a while she hears a loud BAM! from my direction and knows that I've killed another bug. I'm not sure how to get rid of them yet, but I'm thinking vinegar. Perhaps a spray solution?
Vinegar is also my friend in the kitchen, with the fruit flies. They are awful for us. The easiest solution is to stick a little container (I use an old jam jar, low and wide) about half full of apple cider vinegar, with one drop of dish soap to break the surface tension. The fruit flies are attracted to the fermenting smell of the vinegar, but once they get in it they drown. We did try it without the drop of dish soap (literally, just one drop) and it didn't work as well. The bugs are small enough and light enough that they can't break the surface tension enough to drown. Shane just rinsed out and refilled the vinegar last night. When I checked it this morning there were about ten new corpses floating in it.
Finally, birds. We have a sack of bird seed that's been sitting on our front lawn since last summer. It was left with us by our friend who camped out in our driveway last year. And it's still as full as it was when he left it. Commercial bird seed is generally shipped from places like China, which have lots of plant species which are classified as invasive in the U.S. So to ship their seeds here, they need to go through a process (irradiation, I think?) which makes the seeds inactive, and also kills what makes them nutritious for birds. The worst part is, this process doesn't even manage to kill the invasive seeds all the time, so we're giving birds the equivalent of junk food and bringing invasive plants in at the same time. Lovely, right? As far as I'm concerned, it's totally unnecessary.
With this bag, not even the ravens have eaten the seed or bothered it at all, and you know it's bad then. The ravens eat trash, for goodness' sake, and even went so far as to peck apart the sandbags we had in the back of the truck (for traction on icy roads) thinking that they were trash bags. (Those stupid birds are as bad as my dog!) When the ravens don't bother eating something, it's probably not even mildly edible.
So my point to all of this, really, is don't buy commercial bird seed. It doesn't do you or the birds any good. Find other ways to attract birds to your area. I love having birds around, waking up to their chirps and calls so I'm trying to find other ways to attract them, like with a bird bath. (Not that I have one yet.) Shelter is also good, so having trees and big shrubs will give them a place to hide or possibly even nest. You can even put out bird houses and cross your fingers that they find them nice enough to nest in. Not only would you get to watch the birds, you'd get to see their babies too.
Try planting flowers in your yard that you know will attract birds. Have hummingbirds in your area? Look up the flowers they're most attracted to and plant some. Or try sunflowers, which are large and have seeds many birds love. (Of course, this is bad if you actually want the seeds for yourself.)
If you really feel that feeding them is a must, make your own seed mix. Go to the bulk section of your grocery store and pick out some of the seeds, or even some nuts. Chickadees and a few other small birds apparently go crazy for peanuts. Most birds love sunflower seeds, and flax seeds or sesame seeds might make a good addition. Try it out, see what you come up with. Mixing it with peanut butter works well, too.
When I looked out the window this morning, I saw a hugely fat robin sitting on our fence. The cat noticed him, too, and did the little chittering noise that cats make when they see birds. Fortunately, I was keeping our kitty inside anyway. And even if I let him out, he's never caught anything so I'm fairly certain the birds are safe. But not all cats are like mine. Last weekend J let one of his cats outside, and the cat returned with a live bird (which he let loose in the house, of course). This is the same cat he caught playing catch and release with a bird last summer. (He'd drag a bird under the porch and struggle with it for a minute, then let it go and chase after it. Soon enough, he'd be back with a bird, which would soon be let go. J was never sure if it was the same stupid bird or if he was catching a new one each time, but he watched the cat release about five birds before he figured out what was going on.) So if you like birds, but have a bird hunting cat, I would suggest that you perhaps leave the bird-attraction techniques to others. Unless you really like having live birds let loose in your house or bird corpses littering your lawn?

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