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Mantis Garden Leaves
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Praying Mantis Egg
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Female Chinese Mantis
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Mantis Garden Leaves
It’s not time to give up, or even to merely luxuriate in the garden catalogues – it’s time to think two things: spinach and mantises.
You’ve put the garden to bed. Last year’s garden refuse is composting into next year’s soil. What’s a gardener to do in winter, beyond curling up with the garden catalogs, where all the tomatoes are ripe, all the cucumbers are straight, and all the eggplants and onions are above average? Before you let visions of golden-podded peas and chocolate-colored peppers beguile you into ordering 10 times the number of seeds you need, get out your leftovers and go through them. Be brave. At the very least, throw seed left from the 1990s and the early aughts onto the compost pile.
In particular, check what you have in the way of spinach seed. Why? Because old spinach seed is a notoriously unreliable germinator – and spinach loves cold weather. According to a North Carolina State University horticulture information sheet I found online, spinach seed over a year old “rarely germinates over 80 percent. Older seed is even less viable and germinates more slowly and irregularly. It is important to use new, fresh seed every year.” The leaflet says that fresh spinach seed will germinate when the soil temperature is 38-40 degrees, “readily” between 50 and 60 degrees and “less well at higher temperatures.”
Toss out all spinach seed more than three years old, then take the rest of it out to the garden on a sunny January or February day and plant it. If there’s snow on the ground, toss it on top of the snow (so long as there is bare soil, not mulch, under it). If the ground is bare, scratch it up a little, then scatter the seed and scratch around a little more. Go inside, have a cup of tea and feel virtuous. You’ve launched the garden year. Now you can open those catalogs and order some new spinach seed for an early spring planting.
This planting method I just recommended is not espoused by the NCSU leaflet, but I know it works, because I’ve done it. The leaflet does note that spinach is “very sensitive” to acid soil, so if you have some wood ashes that you need to get rid of, sprinkle some (don’t dump the whole bucket) on your future spinach bed in lieu of lime, preferably before you scatter the seed, to allow it to work itself into the soil a little. You’ll want to mark the spot where you’ve done this casual planting because you don’t want to dig it up by mistake later. (Why not plant the spinach where a warm weather crop – squash or beans or tomatoes – will go after danger of frost has passed and the spinach has bolted?) And if you have garden “friends” – adorable bunnies whose taste for early spring greens rivals your own – you must prevent them from harvesting the crop before you. If any of that old seed comes up, fence around the seedlings.
What else can you do for your 2011 garden in January and February? Prune the raspberry canes and clean up whatever you didn’t have time for in the fall. While you’re doing that, be on the lookout for praying mantis egg cases. Mantises attach their egg cases, which look like brownish globs of hardened foam, to the stalks of plants – often to thorny canes of multiflora roses or raspberries, or to substantial stalks of goldenrod and aster – in the fall of the year. I came upon two such egg cases on aster stalks when I was cleaning up a flower bed in October. Roadside thickets are good places to spot them too, if you’re out walking instead of gardening. Mantis egg cases are sold to organic gardeners because mantises are fearsome predators, although authorities disagree as to their efficacy. I’ve never bought a mantis egg case, though I collect every one I come upon for my garden. The downside of installing mantises in your garden is that they are undiscriminating. They’re as happy lunching on a butterfly or bee as a caterpillar. The upside: They will eat all manner of insects I don’t want to eat, or eat after. Stinkbugs, for example. I’ll roll out the welcome mat for anything that will eat a stinkbug.
Storing Mantis Cases
I’ve learned not to leave mantis egg cases where I find them. Why? Because mice and birds can find them – and do. And while those egg cases are both tough and waterproof, a hungry bird or rodent has powerful incentive to tackle the problem of extracting the contents. If you find an egg case, cut a section of the stalk it’s on and store it in a jar or terrarium on a porch, or in an unheated garage or outbuilding. The container should be covered (punch holes in the jartop before you screw it on). Each egg case will produce 100 to 200 cream-colored hatchlings, who will eat one another if no other meal presents itself. So store the egg cases where you will remember them. If you bring them into the house, they will hatch prematurely.
Around the first of May in the mountains – earlier if you live in the lowlands or farther south – attach stalks with egg cases to garden stakes or posts, and let nature take its course. As the garden season progresses keep an eye out for ever-larger mantises. Only the adults have wings. Hatchlings may disperse on the wind, but intermediate stages pretty much stay put. (I had one last summer that divided its time between a pattypan squash and nearby fennel for weeks.) —EH
What Mantis is That?
The mantises you encounter will probably be Chinese mantises, introduced in the United States in 1896 as beneficial insects (sale of their egg cases has vastly expanded the species’ range). Another possibility is a European mantis, introduced around the same time by accident. The two are quite similar, though Chinese mantises are somewhat larger. Both are green to tan in color. If you live in the Southeast (Virginia to Florida and west to Indiana), you might see a native Carolina mantis. I’ve encountered only two, one on my grape arbor, another at the Cone Estate on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although my field guide says they are pale green to brownish gray, both those I saw were mottled brownish gray, very different in appearance from the garden variety. —EH