Inquiring Neighbors Want to Know: Why Isn’t Your Lawn Mowed?

It’s a good thing we don’t live in town, or we’d be getting little notices that we need to mow. Actually, I’m surprised we haven’t gotten them for our town properties. Yes, our lives are filled with little clusters of impediments that drive us all to distraction, and the spring grass situation is one of them. We don’t want long grass by the house, because it attracts our snake friends, and some snakes we’d rather not be all that close to.

This is not particularly attractive, or safe to wander in. Plus, it’s mostly burr clover.

Many of you know that our usual ranch-mates have been stuck at the other farm for a long time, thanks to a snake bite that went bad, very bad. Kathleen can’t drive, so her devoted spouse has had to stay there and help. That is all fine by us! However, the equipment maintenance over here at the Hermits’ Rest is in his hands. That’s been a problem, though not his fault.

This is all sunflowers. Also not something we want to cultivate in such huge numbers (we usually leave a few, hence, more show up).

Why? Because every single one of our mowing devices has developed an issue that Lee and his brother can’t fix. The brother set out to mow one day, but boom, a belt popped off and he’s in no shape to fix it. We don’t know exactly what’s up with the ZTR, but it isn’t going either. And certainly the push mower is not cut out for our acreage…but it’s not working either.

Yep, this looks like snake heaven, too.

Well, Suna, any observant neighbor or in this case, Hearts Homes and Hands employee, would point out, the grass is so long and lush that we really need to shred it (in Texan, that means mow with an attachment on your tractor). We have a tractor (it runs!). We have a shredder (it works!). What we don’t have is anyone who can attach said shredder to said tractor.

Lee re-enacting a photo I once took with lots of evening primrose. Directly behind him is the SHREDDER.

Other inquiring neighbors might ask, well, why don’t you just get someone to fix your mowers? Or pay someone to mow? Well, heck yeah, those are good questions! I’m sure it’s occurred frequently to the poor people across the road, who mow many acres to a carpetlike perfection weekly. They have to look at our flower-covered mess, shudder, and shake their heads.

If we’d mowed, we’d have missed these backyard beauties.

The thing is, every week we expect to be reunited with our family. Once we’re all back at the ranch, we’ll be a well-oiled machine of accomplishments and the doing of things. Every week, the darned wound will not heal. I can assure you we are ALL frustrated by this, but you have to deal with what life hands you.

Heck, even the mock dandelions are enjoyable, especially when they have a cool long-horned bee in them.

The good news is that we are finally breaking down and seeing if our tenant will fix the mower belt and hope to see if he’ll help Lee attach the shredder. That would let us at least get started. I won’t be quite so worried about a snake in the long grass biting ME that way.

The Bright Side

Of course there’s a bright side to all this! We have beautiful wildflowers all over the fields in front of and behind the house now. Because we don’t spray herbicides on our pastures, all kinds of native grasses and flowers are showing up.

Every one of these flowers came off our “lawn.”

We have way more scarlet pimpernel than I ever noticed before, and the blue eyed grass has made it to the back part of the house. I have to say an entire wildflower meadow for a yard, that I didn’t even have to plant, is a fine thing.

The little scarlet pimpernel.

I can’t think of anything prettier than fields of evening primrose, either. I remember when we first moved here and Sara and Ralph were still ranching on our larger pastures, they would bloom into a sea of pink. It was spectacular. But, we have our own little ponds (or tanks?) of pink in the parts we maintain!

This “tank” of pink evening primrose is waving in the wind like an actual body of water.

Still, we do know we need to mow. We do wish the deities of functioning machinery weren’t so hard on us and that the germs in south Texas weren’t so tenacious in that snake wound. But, THIS week things will change, one way or another! (We will leave some flowers, though.)

It turns out that the trampweed doesn’t really flower. It goes straight to these happy little puffballs.

Summertime Is Coming and the Chickens Are Laying

I hear y’all like my ranchy stories, so here’s what excitement greeted me when I got back to the ranch today. Since no one had picked up eggs, the first thing I did was check the top of the garage fridge. There were at least three eggs per hen, but 5 white ones. Little Henley had gone into overdrive! I’m guessing she laid two in one day. Wow. One was tiny compared to her usual eggs.

One of these eggs is teeny!

Then I went to find Bertie Lee’s eggs. But there were NONE where I found the last bunch. So I looked under everything. Voila! There were 7 eggs, one broken, in the original corner where she first started hiding her eggs, on an old mop. Let’s hope she keeps this location up.

All 19 eggs I found.

That just left Big Red. The little darling had laid two while I was in Austin. Oddly, they were two different colors. That led me and Sara to wonder if she’s really two hens, but they never appear in public together. That’s plausible, right?

So many shades of brown!

Now I am about ready to sell or give away some of the eggs. We have lots now!

There are other signs summer’s coming around here! I’ve seen scissor tail flycatchers already. Another summer of watching their beauty has commenced! And the intensely fuchsia wine cups on our property showed up. I’m relieved.

My favorite jewel of a flower. Look at all the pollen!

I’ve saved the best for last, though. My favorite violent murderer bird is back! I really missed the loggerhead shrike when it left last year. I haven’t seen it. But it’s handiwork is easy to see.

Loggerhead shrikes impale insects and save them for later. This is a female grasshopper, because you can see her wings.

I was never so happy to see two dead bugs in my life!

Beautiful scarab on barbed wire.

Yeah, it’s hot already. But I’ve got my two red buddies, Apache and Big Red, to entertain me. After my long week, I just sat and watched them this afternoon while Sara worked with Ace. As always, being with them helped. It’s yet another way I can maintain my equilibrium.

My buddies in peace.

Hope you have a peaceful or fun weekend. I have a Zoom wedding to look forward to.

Creepy Crawlies, but Not Worms

I think it’s time to stop messing with the oak trees for a while. Don’t get me wrong; I had a nice break today, out walking around my work building and checking out what was dead, what was still alive, and what was going on with the oak trees in north Austin. But, it’s the time of the year for the “tree worms,” as people around here call them.

This guy would not leave my hand, even when I silked it to a tree.

I learned from Tallamy’s book about oak trees that these squirmy worm-esque creatures that hang by threads from oak trees right around when the oaks are blooming are not worms, but rather caterpillars of various oak moths (all of which seem to be brown and mottled, to blend in with oak bark and limbs). They hang from a strand of silk to make it harder for insect-eating birds and others to get to them. They can not only wiggle, but move up and down their strands of silk fairly rapidly.

Aren’t they fascinating? Sure, unless they are getting all over you and crawling around. I had this brilliant idea that I could get a picture of one of these caterpillars hanging from its silken thread, and spent at least 5 minutes trying to focus on one, but it kept swaying and wiggling. That was hard on the phone camera. Meanwhile, I was concentrating so hard I didn’t realize how many “worms” had landed on me.

No idea what these are but you can see their insides.

I gave up and moved on to looking at one of my favorite groupings of oaks and other trees that shelter the office building from traffic noise. The motte of trees was generating its own sounds, though. A group of cedar waxwings was going to town on some of those bugs and singing, too. And there was one of those very loud wrens bopping up and down a tree trunk, along with a mockingbird, who was getting bugs off the ground. I saw evidence of a crow, too, and a big nest, just the right size for squirrels. Yes, there’s a lot going on in these city hideaways. No wonder the birds were singing, the trees contained quite the insect cafeteria for them.

I wandered back to the central courtyard a while later, and that’s where I found these tiny possumhaw holly blossoms. It made me feel more hopeful that at least the native plants in the courtyard made it. And with the rate things are coming and going in my life right now, that is a very good thing.

Tiny blossoms
This little yellow one came out blurry, darn it.

Unfortunately, when I got back to work, I kept finding caterpillars and bits of web on me. Good thing the little darlings don’t bite people. I put them all in a cup and let them go when I left for the day. Sorry, but I didn’t feel like photographing that collection. I still feel itchy, though. I do believe I’ll shower very carefully and thoroughly this evening. I bet no one would blame me!

Nonetheless. Hooray for all our resilient native plants and the life they support. Do you have yearly visits from the tree worms where you live? Are they all one kind, or a variety?

Social Media Update

Our blog and podcast now have an Instagram account! Follow #hermitsrestranch for updates there.

Checking Out Oaks for Myself

After reading the book about oak trees last week, The Nature of Oaks, I felt compelled to go find some old oak trees and see what’s living and growing on them. What kinds of ecosystems would I find in and on the oak trees near me? The closest ones that are easy to see are the ones at the Walker’s Creek Cemetery, which are old white oaks that were probably planted there when they founded the cemetery in the late 1800s.

One of the beautiful oak trees at the cemetery.

Right now, they are in their blooming stage, so I got to see a lot of oak catkins, which Doug Tallamy told us in the book are the male parts with all the pollen on them. They do look pretty, even if they make many folks all clogged up with sinus stuff and turn our cars yellow.

Very fresh leaves and lots of catkins, pollinating all they encounter.
Two insects, or chrysalises or something. Note there are already holes in some leaves.

I was wondering what I’d see living on the shiny new leaves that had just poked out after their very chilly winter slumber. I found lots of little bugs, but I was having camera focus issues and couldn’t identify any of them. A few leaf clusters had multiple types of insects crawling on them, probably eager for some tasty young oak snacks. Another thing I learned from the book is that the leaves develop more and more tannins and get harder and harder as the spring moves to summer and summer leads to autumn. By the time the leaves are ready to fall, only leaf miners and other insects that can get to the soft centers of the leaves are able to get much nutrition out of oak leaves. How about that?

While looking for life on the oaks I couldn’t help but see some more life in neighboring shrubs. There were a few very interesting Eastern tent caterpillar nests. These have only one generation per year, and from the number I saw, they aren’t doing too much harm to anything. They appeared to be on hackberries, a native tree no one’s all that fond of, so I’m happy to let them build their nests.

Tent caterpillars and their poop.
This nest appears to be on a hackberry and a smilax vine.

The thing is, the little caterpillars are jumpy as heck! I’m used to caterpillars slowly moving along a plant, chomping away. These guys were flinging themselves around frantically. I don’t know if they were reacting to me disturbing them, were getting ready to pupate, or what. They were fun to look at, though.

I didn’t see any moths, but I did see a lot of little wasps that were too fast to photograph. I also saw a beautiful pileated woodpecker, chickadees, and the usual cardinals, all on the oaks, so I confirmed for myself that these oak trees support a lot of life.

What’s going on in your neck of the woods? (look, I stuck with my tree theme!)

The Ranch Resurrection

It’s the time of year when my Christian friends are thinking about resurrection. To me, Easter comes at the perfect time of year, since flora and fauna are coming back to life all over the place. The Hermits’ Rest Ranch is no exception, but this year, after the unusually cold winter, we haven’t been sure if everything was going to come back or not. Every time I look out the window and see a monarch butterfly feeding, I feel grateful that some of them made it here and have food.

Everywhere I look there are monarchs, and I know I have milkweeds out there for them!

I’ve been periodically patrolling the land around our house, checking to see if plants are coming up at their usual times and numbers, and what kinds of insects are showing up. The good news is that most of the old friends are returning, but the bad news is that some are not as numerous and are later than usual.

One plant I’ve been anxiously looking for are the Texas baby blue eyes (Nemophila phacelioides), which only grow in one spot on the edge of the woods near the house. Usually by this time of year, we have a nice stand of them. Today I finally found one blossom, along the fence. I hope there are more of them among the green things in the woods!

Well, that’s one, at least.

The Indian paintbrush that usually covers our front field and the one down the road are nowhere near as numerous as usual, but the fact that there are some gives me hope for future years. The bluebonnets are okay in numbers, but I haven’t seen a winecup yet. The delicate roadside gaura (Oenothera suffulta), however, has managed to come up, in such a pretty stand that I thought they were some other flower.

Usually you don’t see so many together. They turn pink when finished blooming.

I was comforted today to see that the little spring is still flowing, and that plenty of prickly sow thistle (Apache’s favorite snack), yellow evening primrose, pink evening primrose, ragwort, and dewberries are blanketing the ground.

Future food for lots of birds!

And the big, purple thistles, which are a pain in the butt, but good for the soil, are getting ready to bloom.

I finally found a blooming example of one of the plants I’ve been watching, velvetweed (Oenothera curtiflora). It’s another gaura, but grows much bigger and has lovely soft leaves. Every year I forget what that plant is until it finally blossoms.

It will be much bigger and more showy soon.

One plant I’d hoped the freezing weather would wipe out is the poison ivy, but I should have known, given how thick the vines are that climb the trees in a certain area, that they’d be back. Sigh. It looks so healthy and shiny, too. The mesquite tree, another one that’s sort of a pain (but also has its good points, unlike poison ivy), is coming back, as is the prickly ash, another Texas thorny tree. Well, at least they break up the monotony of our little wooded area, which has mostly cedar elm trees in it.

Now, I’ve saved the best news for last. As of yesterday, I was sure that the Shumard red oak that we’d planted last year behind out house, to someday shade the chickens, was a victim of the weather. I was not surprised, since it hadn’t had much chance to expand its roots. But, lo and behold, I spotted something red while I was out checking on the roosting hen. Little leaves! It looks like the tree will be with us another year after all. And that is good, which you will learn more about soon, when I report on the book about oak trees I just got!

Brand-new oak leaves!

No fooling, April 1 has been an encouraging day, at least for the plants around here! Our wildlife is returning to life and bringing us joy, in Nature’s yearly resurrection.

You Never Know Who You’ll Meet around Here

I ran into some residents of the ranch I don’t normally see today, all of whom I thought were darned cute. It made for a great lunch break!

First, I headed over to feed the chickens this morning. When I opened the supposedly tightly locked storage container, I heard a rustling. I looked into the scratch, and four little black eyes calmly looked up at me.

This is primo chicken food! (note second nose at far right)

There were two tiny deermice enjoying the seeds. They are just about the cutest little vermin imaginable. I told them hello, then took them over to where I knew there were other mice and let them go. One trotted out and disappeared into the grass, but the other one took a little encouragement. It was a nice visit, but I need to make sure to shut the chicken food container completely from now on!

But, we just met! We don’t want to leave yet!

As I was waiting with Lee for the vet to come and give us our heartworm medicine and trim the dogs’ nails (no, that did NOT happen, and there will be sedation in the future), I wandered around looking for interesting plants and insects. More and more Indian paintbrush plants are blooming, and I just can’t get enough of how pretty they are.

Such an interesting plant.

But, mostly I chased this one butterfly. It was all white, at least from a distance. I’m sure I looked ridiculous trying to befriend it, but eventually I got it close enough to get a reasonable photo.

I’m quite fond of the sorrel blossoms

So, it was not all white. At first all I saw was the spot, but when I looked up the white family of butterflies, I saw that there was a border of black and white along the edges of the wings. Aha, it wasn’t a regular white butterfly, but was Anthocharis midea, the Falcate Orangetip, which apparently doesn’t always have an orange tip. No wonder I was confused. I now know they were discovered in 1809 and are mostly found in Texas and Oklahoma. What a cool visitor to meet!

Action shot.

The next encounter I had was with a whole family, or more accurately, 3 of the four lifecycle stages of one insect. First I found this cool looking fellow, scrounging around with a few of its buddies.

This grass is delicious, and so is the chicory.

I was pretty excited when it came up as a seven-spotted lady beetle (ladybug). Sure enough, that’s what the larval stage looks like. Pretty soon I found this happy specimen who’s an adult.

Slightly blurry lady beetle.

Then, a few feet away, I noticed this guy, who I’d never seen before. The bug was very easy to photograph.

Just resting. Nothing to see here.

When I looked that one up on iNaturalist, I got all kinds of beetles, but none of them looked right. Then I got to thinking that it sort of looked like that adult and larva ladybug. I googled the life stages of a ladybug, and there was my finding, a ladybug in its larval stage! That means that in 15 minutes I found every part of the lifecycle except eggs!

I also spotted the first pink evening primrose on our property this year. That’s good news!

I’m going to declare this lunch hour a successful social event, where I met some fascinating neighbors!

Stinky and Dangerous Ranch Drama

Just when you think everything has calmed down, of course it has actually has NOT. These are not calm times at the Hermits’ Rest!

Last Night’s Stinky Drama

Last night I took a lovely, calming bath to help with sore horse-riding muscles. Right as I got my pajamas on, I heard Lee yelling at the dogs sort of frantically. I figured he was dealing with whatever it was and went in the bedroom. At that point, Carlton ran in and dived under the bed. Immediately I knew why.

We would like to go chase something, please. Maybe something stripey and stinky?

The dogs had upset a skunk. We have lots of them out here, and usually all is well, but apparently when Lee went to let Gracie (the little white dog of Kathleen’s) in, she had just discovered a skunk and ran toward it. The other dogs followed, naturally. Lee says he heard Penney make a yelp, then she acted like she was convulsing. That seems to have scared Carlton enough that he turned around, so didn’t get skunked in the face.

I stink. I’m trying to lick all the stink off.

No one else got close enough, and Gracie dodged the pew-pew. That was the end of the calm evening, as I ran to find something resembling tomato juice (it was plain tomato sauce) and trap the dogs in my office bathroom. Lee and I made a good team and got both Penney and Carlton smelling less awful, but the house is still a bit odiferous.

That red liquid bath soap was pretty tasty, I must say.

Carlton was pretty irritated with us for a while, but eventually settled down, and we all got some sleep.

I still smell bad, don’t I?

Today’s Dangerous Drama

Today, meetings started at 8:30, as usual, with no scheduled let-up until noon. I was in the middle of doing some Agile ceremony or another when I got a call from Sara. This does NOT happen during working hours, so I knew something bad was up. She said, “YOUR horse has gotten out again. I can’t catch him. YOU need to deal with this.” It took me a few seconds for this to sink in, since I wasn’t expecting that, at all. I didn’t mean to upset Sara, but I had to figure out what to do AND do my part in the meeting. I did not multi-task well.

As soon as I possibly could, I left the meeting and zipped over to the horse area. There were Apache and Fiona, in the middle of the greenest and longest grass for miles around. EEK! Didn’t I JUST get finished treating him for last year’s founder episode from eating too much green grass? That’s exactly the wrong thing for his delicate constitution!

This pretty ragwort was in the middle of the patch of incredibly lush grass they were eating from.

I quickly got the halter and some horse treats and cheerfully approached the naughty ones. Fiona was all like, “Hey, good to see you, Suna!” but Apache moved to an even longer patch of grass. I got worried he was going to leave, but no, as soon as I called him and offered the treat, he picked up his head, walked over, and let me halter him. Thank goodness for all that training.

I got them back in the pen with some hay. I could not figure out how they had gotten out, because I recall putting the safety chain on the gate, in addition to shutting it. We know Apache can move the latch, because he’s done it before. My guess is I didn’t wedge the chain in hard enough and he figured out how to lift it.

We would prefer to be out in that grass.

So I went out and found an old lead rope. I proceeded to wrap it all over the gate latch in various ways, just daring him to untie all those knots AND the fastener I put in the safety chain.

Try and unwrap THAT, horse. Note there’s a fastener attached to the end of the chain, which is now firmly wedged in, as well.

I went back to finish my meetings, along with googling grass colic and laminitis from too much green grass. I also called the vet. Around noon I headed back over there, to check on things. Apache was happy to see me (both he and Fiona peed in greeting), and I got him to walk up and down the pen a couple of times. So far, no signs of intestinal distress or lameness.

This is me, proving I can still walk just fine.

I canceled my trip to Austin for this week, so I can continue to check on him every few hours. He now has access to his dry-ish paddock again, so maybe he won’t be so starved that he’s driven to escape again.

I have nowhere else to put it, so look at this excellent moth I found last night! It is, I believe, a lettered sphinx moth.

I’m hoping that the drama for the week has all happened and I can get stuff done now! I hope you had a good weekend!

Exploring the Wild Violet

Today was just the best day I’ve had in quite a while. As if finding the eggs wasn’t enough, I got to explore a new place, and wow, I found some mighty fine bits of nature!

Spoiler alert.

My friend Pamela had told me she’s seen fresh evidence of beavers on her property, which isn’t far from the Hermits’ Rest. I talked my way into an invitation to go check them out this afternoon after work. I put on cowboy boots and headed with her and Ruby the hound over to the spring-fed stream out at the edge of the hay fields.

It’s a pretty place.

The stream eventually goes to Big Elm Creek, but until it gets there it wanders around.

Near the start of the stream, which is on another property.

We set off to find beavers. There was definitely evidence of beaver activity, such as holes heading to the water and chewed saplings. But the first brush pile we looked at turned out to be a logjam, not animal work.

We enjoyed looking at plants and flowers until we got a little further down. You could see THIS was a beaver dam. It had lots of mud, sticks piled carefully, and entrance holes. We were happy! I took pictures of the holes, but to be honest, holes don’t photograph well.

All the water flows through one little area. How cool. Anyway we kept going, looking at dewberries and wild garlic and such.

Bugs, too!

We were enchanted by these very shiny, small primroses neither of us recognized. Maybe it’s an early buttercup? They are exquisite!

Then, as I trudged along the bank of the stream, I glimpsed purple. I squealed and said a curse word, but from happiness. I found violets! Wild violets!

Oh, my dear friends!

I’ve loved violets my whole life, and have missed them here. As we looked carefully, Pamela and I saw more and more. She was as delighted as I was, and we just had the best time spotting them.

Next, I got all excited to see cute little frogs and some minnows. Always good to see waterways alive with life!

Suddenly I saw a…thing. A big thing. Was it a fish, a salamander, or what? I yelled for Pamela to come see this huge thing.

Uh. It’s a…

Finally I figured out it was a dead frog, the biggest frog I ever saw in the wild (and I’ve seen those cane toads).

Not a great photo, but it was hard to get to.

Judging from its yellow throat, I’m guessing it’s a male bullfrog. It must have died of old age! I took a photo with Ruby in it to show the size. Ruby is a hound dog, not small at all.

Large.

After that, everything else was less dramatic, though we enjoyed the moss and other water-loving plants. We decided to name the little body of water Wild Violet Creek. Now it has a name!

Wild Violet Creek

I ended up going all the way to the back of Pamela’s property, where there’s a nice pool. Some short-horned cows came to see if I had any food.

Food, please.

I just ran around like a little kid taking in all the space, the hay fields, trees with woodpecker holes, and a very brisk wind. I didn’t mind. It was such a beautiful spring day!

Land spreading out so far and wide!

The water, woods, trees, and flowers washed away all the stress of the previous few days. Everyone needs access to something like this.

Peace, quiet, and beauty in the middle of Texas.

I hope you can find some springtime natural inspiration wherever you are. And maybe a giant frog or some violets.

Tired. It Happens.

Today was one of those do nothing but clean up and get stuff done days. For some reason, floor cleaning hurts my back, so I am zonked. But you need to dust and clean occasionally, right?

I got some good knitting in. My entrelac looks like something now. I enjoy knitting forward and backward, so I never have to turn the work.

A little lumpy, but nice colors.

The other one I started took a while to figure out, but will look good as it gets bigger. It’s a lot of slip stitches.

Hmm. Barf or nice?

I did see a few pretty plants and other living things today, plus I checked on the new fish, who all seem to be in the barrel. Enjoy these!

My sister made me and Lee a salmon dinner followed by a nice cake. Good ending to the birthday weekend.

I have been thinking about a few things and will get more interesting next week. Until then, here’s a checkered skipper butterfly.

Don’t Worry, Bees are Happy

Oh my gosh, y’all. I think I got the best birthday present EVER when I went out to check how the bee feeder was doing. Last night I checked it, and it was totally dry, with no bees. I was worried a dog had drunk all the sugar water, so I moved the feeder to a higher spot, added more rocks, and replenished the water. This morning, I saw THIS!

Now, THAT is a lot of bees.

There is some mighty buzzing going on around the chicken coop! There are still plenty of them at the chicken feeder, too, and they don’t seem to mind me adding food, or the chickens coming over and eating it one bit. They are busy bees. I discovered they are thirsty, too, because they are all over all the water sources, as well. You just have to listen to them! Check out this tour (bonus chicken footage).

Suna’s birthday bees

That’s all for now. I just wanted to share that helping bees is making me very, very happy. I needed that!