For the past couple of months, I’m not so sure that my duck knows that she’s a duck. She and another female duck once shared a drake, and they all lived together in their own “duckingham palace.”
Sometime after the other female and the drake were taken by a predator, probably a fox or coyote, I thought our remaining female might enjoy some company at night. So I coaxed her to take up nightly residence with our three chickens -- a rooster and two hens -- who have their own house (“chickingham palace?,” actually more palatial than duckingham palace).
Not only has Ms. Duck moved in with the chickens at night but she also wanders around with the flock by day. Her special companion is the rooster, especially since the two chicken hens decided to spend much of their days sitting on imaginary eggs. Neither hen has laid a real egg for over a month. So the female duck and the rooster stroll together each day, gobbling up insects, weed seeds, and some vegetation, except, of course, in the fenced confines of the vegetable gardens. I’ve even caught them in flagrante delicto.
The duck, being a duck, enjoys water. Her idea of a pond is the 3-foot-diameter children’s sandbox repurposed with water that we’ve provided for her bathing pleasure. During the bath, the rooster stands nearby, watching and seemingly trying to figure out what’s going on with this water-loving belle.
This season has seen both an abundance and a lack of some other, smaller creatures here on the farmden. In July, I saw a few Japanese beetles and braced for an onslaught, ready to repel them with a spray of neem extract or kaolin clay if things got ugly. Although I heard about the beetles descending in hordes on some other gardens near and far, I’ve hardly seen any all summer. Last summer’s drought should have cut down numbers of grubs that hatched last year to become beetles this summer but biological systems are not always so simple.
Making up for a lack of Japanese beetles is the present abundance of yellowjackets, reflecting good weather conditions, for them, in spring. Perhaps it was the earliness of the last frost, perhaps it was the alternating bouts of wet and dry conditions. In contrast to honeybees, yellowjacket colonies do not overwinter; only the queens do. But the bigger the colony this summer, the more young queens develop to fly off and find winter quarters to build up colonies next summer. These insects start out the season feasting on high protein foods but have now shifted to sweets.
This shift has made berry-picking very difficult and the insects are capable of breaking through thin skins so are actually robbing a significant part of the late summer raspberries. A close eye is needed to avoid harvesting an angry yellowjacket along with a berry. Early in the morning, they are especially grumpy when wakened from their resident berry.
Yellowjackets are also a problem on compost piles in progress. Fresh additions to the pile, especially sweet ones such as melon rinds, quickly need covering with a layer of hay or manure. This hides the food and and gets it composting.
Although yellow jackets are beneficial in the garden for eating plant pests, their present habits outweigh the good, for me, at least. (I’m also allergic to their stings.) I seek and destroy nests with torch or insecticide.
Grapes have tougher skins than raspberries, skins that can resist yellowjackets. That is, until a bird takes a peck or a couple of diseased berries split open.
In anticipation of problems with yellowjackets, honeybees, birds, insects, and diseases, earlier this summer we enclosed 100 bunches of grapes in white delicatessen bags. Not that all unbagged grapes get attacked. But the bagged bunches can be left hanging the longest and, most of the time, we tear open the bags to reveal perfect bunches of grapes.
The first grapes of the season, Somerset Seedless, ripened in mid-August. This variety is another fine variety bred by Wisconsin dairy farmer cum grape breeder Elmer Swenson. The fruits of his labors literally run the gamut from varieties, such as Edelweiss, having strong, foxy flavor (the characteristic flavor component of Concord grapes and many American-type grapes) to those with mild, fruity flavor reminiscent of European-type grapes. Somerset Seedless is more toward the latter end of the spectrum and, of course, it’s seedless. Swenson red and Briana, which should be ripe as you read this, are more in the middle of the spectrum.
As you might guess from Elmer’s location, all the varieties that he bred are very cold-hardy.