Sunday, June 29, 2008

OK, carpenter ants in MY house, this is war!

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 29, 2008)

I've always considered the occasional infestation of household ants to be Mother Nature's way of monitoring my housekeeping skills. When ants appear, I see it as a sign to step up my domestic duties. Counters must be wiped diligently. Dirty dishes can't sit unwashed, and jars, bags and boxes that contain sweet or oily foods have to be tightly sealed.

Unfortunately, in the past few days, our household has experienced an ant infestation so extreme that I can no longer attribute its appearance to a mere slacking off of housekeeping efforts.

Great gobs of swarming carpenter ants -- ugly winged creatures and their wingless counterparts -- emerge at dusk from the walls of my former office where large sections of trim never secured the space between the wooden wainscoting and the painted plasterboard.

One disadvantage of being an owner-builder is that we often overlook finishing details that never would be left incomplete if a house were being built by a contractor. That's what happened in my former office, a small room with 30-inch-high pine lower walls. A piece of trim is supposed to cover the opening between wood and drywall, merging the two wall sections into one unit. Our intention was always to trim out the room, but we never got around to it. In 1992, we were busy with work, young children and a building project that was taking longer than expected. Certain tasks were put on the back burner -- the far, far back burner.

Besides, we rationalized with convoluted logic, a few missing pieces of trim wouldn't prevent the room from functioning as a viable work space.

For years that was true. The room did provide me with a pleasant work space. After a while, I stopped complaining about the missing trim boards and learned to live with an inch-wide lateral gap around the wall halves.

Until the bugs appeared.

One reason I moved out of that room into my current home office was to get away from pesky insects.

I'm not sure when I first noticed them or how long they lasted, but as the years passed, more ants and antlike insects crawled out of the horizontal wall gap and flew or crawled around the room. They were drawn to the light of my computer, and that meant they were drawn to me.

Because I try to avoid chemical compounds whenever possible, my initial responses were to shoo away, swat and, when that didn't work, satisfyingly squish the annoying intruders. I also poured and sprayed nontoxic products such as boric acid, diatomaceous earth and pyrethrum into the wall crevices and along window edges. When none of those methods made a significant dent in the bug population, I turned to harsher chemicals. I sprayed the room's interior and the house's exterior perimeter with one of the home defense systems available at the garden center.

Still the bugs came.

Eventually, I admitted defeat. Getting into a Zen-like state and coexisting harmoniously with nature's minutia hadn't worked, nor had environmentally friendly nontoxic methods. Even big bad chemicals had been less than successful at conquering the enemy. There was nothing left to do but move into another room and pretend that what I couldn't see wouldn't hurt me.

Unfortunately, it would.

Ignoring the problem enabled the insects to multiply unhampered by human intervention. The other night when the house exploded in a frantic frenzy of flying ants, we realized that the source of the insidious scourge was the glaring gap in my old office wall.

"Unbelievable!" I muttered to my son and husband. "This is where they're all coming from!"

The two types of carpenter ants -- Camponotus floridanus and Camponotus tortuganus -- that live in Central Florida dwell in colonies. In my case, that colony is somewhere inside the office walls. A single queen fertilized by one short-lived male produces larvae that develop into worker ants. Those workers grow up to care for the queen and help her produce more and more worker ants.

After two to five years -- that accounts for why I saw a steady increase in insect intruders -- the colony needs to expand its territory. To do so, it sends out alates -- those are the long-legged, small winged ants I'd noticed. The job of these reproducers is to make more workers for a new colony near the original nest.

Although just thinking about carpenter ants conjures up images of crumbling walls, the good news is that the types of carpenter ants that live in Central Florida homes don't damage a house's structural integrity.

But they do bite people, and that alone puts them on my must-eliminate list.

I'm not sure exactly how to overcome this problem. No doubt we'll continue spraying the ants to limit their vitality. I'm also going to take advantage of the wall opening to pour more borax and diatomaceous earth into their living space. Regardless of what we do, this episode of people versus pests should be the motivator we need to finally -- 16 years after it was built -- finish trimming out the office walls.

Maybe that's what Mother Nature intended all along. Instead of merely monitoring my housekeeping skills, she has upped the ante -- admonishing me to "get off your butt and finish what you started!" If that's the case, I'm on it. I'll do anything to stop nature from bugging me.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The versatile star fruit just 1 example of backyard potential

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 22, 2008)

Until my husband pointed it out to me yesterday, I didn't realize our carambola tree was fruiting again.

The carambola, or star fruit as it's more commonly called, is a small tree that provides big yields of juicy, sweet-tart, star-shaped fruit throughout most of the year. Originally from Southeast Asia, carambolas were introduced to the Florida landscape about 100 years ago and are now grown commercially in four South Florida counties as well as in Hawaii, Taiwan, Malaysia, Guyana, India, the Philippines, Australia and Israel.

Although our own tree is thriving in a protected corner between the shed and house, in the beginning I didn't think it would survive.

Sensitive to cold and strong winds, the young tree suffered a severe setback shortly after planting when a winter chill killed all the leaves and most of the branches. After waiting a few months to see if any new growth would appear -- it didn't -- Ralph took out his handsaw and hacked off the entire top half of the tree. The remaining stump, all 3 feet of it, was a pitiful reminder of promised fruit yet to come.

After the tree's encounter with the saw's sharp blade, I gave up on growing a ready supply of carambolas. But I was wrong to dismiss the tree's vitality so abruptly. When the weather warmed, a flush of new branches sprouted out of the carambola's stubby base. The new shoots grew, leafed out and flourished. Soon clusters of small whitish-pink flowers appeared on the thinnest of branches. The flowers gave way to fruit -- clumps of plump, yellow-orange bells dangled enticingly beneath a canopy of leaves.

From then on, a year hasn't gone by without the tree producing at least a few -- and many times, much more than a few -- star-shaped wonders. In the past couple of years, our harvest has been bountiful and the tree, now about 15 feet tall and equally as broad, produces fruit intermittently all year round.

Although star fruit is popular in many Asian countries, most Americans are unfamiliar with it. That's too bad, because fruit from the carambola tree is as versatile as it is beautiful. It can be juiced, dried or cut into pieces and added to stir-fries. You can make pies out of it, jellies or jams. Or you can do as I do -- pluck a ripe fruit from the tree and eat it as a table fruit. When cut crosswise, a single carambola turns into a series of five-point-star-shaped slices -- yummy as well as artistic.

Living in an immediate-gratification climate where plants grow quickly and fruit production begins within only a couple years after planting, I find it unfortunate how few people experiment with edible plants.

In addition to star fruit and a wide range of citrus, Central Floridians can grow their own papayas, mangoes, Surinam cherries, figs, bananas, mulberries, blueberries, strawberries, guavas, grapes, pears, pineapples, peaches, pomegranates, plums, persimmons, avocados, blackberries, lychees, loquats and sapotes. I'm sure I'm leaving some fruit out, but the point is there's a virtual cornucopia of choices for the backyard gardener wanting to spice up his or her diet with freshly grown produce.

Not only are most of these edibles easy to grow, but they are often also attractive plants that make a welcome addition to any landscape.

Although one carambola tree has been providing our family with as much fruit as we can use -- especially now that our three older children no longer live at home -- my husband recently purchased a second tree from a nursery in South Florida. It's a different variety from the one we already have.

"Why are you getting another," I asked, "when the tree we have produces more fruit than we can eat?"

His answer reflected the unbridled passion of a fruit-loving gardener.

"I thought it would be fun," he said, "to grow some more. Besides, we can always dry any extra fruit or give them away, or freeze them or juice them or . . ."

He kept on talking as I walked back to my office. Obviously, more is better in some people's book and maybe that's how it should be. When it comes to fresh fruit grown organically on your own backyard trees, there's no such thing as too much of a good thing.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Nature, au naturel blend in outdoor showers

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 8, 2008)

After a busy day, the only thing better than a long, hot shower to wash away weariness is taking that shower in the open air.

I know because for the past 21 years I've rinsed away the day's grime beneath sunny -- or sometimes moonlit -- skies.

There's something special about showering outdoors. While indoor showers are predictable events -- one turn of the faucet and you know what you'll get -- outdoor showers are full of surprises. With so many variables -- weather, sounds, sights and smells -- each shower is an experience in and of itself.

Consider the air. One day it might be chilly, another day hot and humid. There might be a breeze, a strong wind or no breeze at all. The sun could be shining or the sky a mosaic of white, fluffy clouds. It could even be drizzling. Birds might be singing, butterflies flying or a hummingbird hovering overhead as the water pours down.

Then there are the fragrances. No matter what time of year, the air carries the sweet scent of flowers -- different aromas for each season. The only thing constant about an outdoor shower is the hum of insects -- an ever-present undertone harmonizing fluidly with the shower's percussive beat.

And consider the maintenance, or lack thereof. Outdoor showers are a cinch to clean. Without glass doors to accumulate soap scum, shower curtains to mildew or grouted tile floors to discolor, an outdoor shower is a housekeeping dream.

Occasional sweeping clears away leaves while larger debris can be sprayed off with a hose. No need for chemical cleansers or an arsenal of scrubbers. An outdoor shower practically cleans itself.

With so many pluses, you'd think showering outdoors would be all the rage. That's hardly the case. The very idea of stepping outdoors au naturel makes many people uncomfortable. Issues of privacy and modesty, feelings of vulnerability and concerns about safety surface at the mere suggestion of an outdoor bath.

By far, the most common worry is of being seen by others. Fortunately, that fear is easily overcome. Privacy is guaranteed with the simple construction of a three-sided trellis. A few pieces of lattice attached to pressure-treated wood or vinyl posts not only offers an inexpensive and effective screen, but it also is the perfect climbing spot for a sweet-smelling vine such as jasmine or honeysuckle.

My friend Michael, who lives in an older neighborhood in Delray Beach, has what I've always thought of as an ideal shower arrangement. The second bathroom in his two-bath house has an exterior door that leads directly into an enclosed outdoor shower. From inside, all an eager bather need do is open the door and step outside. Not only does a vine-covered lattice enclosure provide immediate privacy from nearby neighbors, it also offers an aromatically pleasing and pretty barrier between house and yard. Accouterments such as hooks for clothing or towels are plentiful, as are shelves on which to line bottles of shampoo, soap and conditioner. Our families don't have the opportunity to visit often, but when we do, I take advantage of his shower to soak in the South Florida sunshine as I'm washing my hair.

The shower at Michael's house is accessed through an exterior entrance, but homes without that option still can enjoy the beauty and pleasure of outdoor sudsing thanks to a wide range of products now on the market. There are canvas enclosures, portable cabanas and a wide range of "instant" shower units that connect effortlessly to an outside hose bibcock.

Long celebrated as a fashionable feature of upscale spas and resorts worldwide, the trend toward outdoor showering for the home has gained momentum during recent years. Although still more novelty than necessity, people are beginning to realize why open-air bathing is so popular in much of the world.

Trends and pop culture don't mean much to me, but if it takes commercialism to modify outdated cultural modes, I'm all for it. Outside showering in safe, secure places should be more accepted, because it's one of the most natural ways to be one with nature. Cleansed by the sun, cleansed by the water, cleansed by the breeze and the sweet-smelling air. Bottom line: It feels simply amazing to be naked outside.

Butterflies are much more than fluttering beauties

Simply Living

Butterflies. So many butterflies.

My office overlooks an impromptu garden -- a thrown-together assortment of colorful blooms. Despite being totally disorganized and untended, the garden attracts quantities of winged creatures.

A solitary red penta and three scarlet milkweeds are butterfly magnets. During daylight hours, scores of Lepidoptera -- the insect order that includes butterflies and moths -- are continually drawn to the red pentas and orange-scarlet blooming milkweeds. I've looked out upon this garden for several months but only recently, as the days have gotten hotter, have butterflies gathered in such unprecedented numbers. That's because butterflies need warm weather in order to fly. They're unable to be airborne until their body temperature rises to at least 86 degrees.

As I write this, two zebra longwings -- Florida's state butterfly -- and one Gulf fritillary are fluttering erratically around the penta blooms. A few minutes ago, a large black swallowtail alighted upon a scarlet milkweed flower followed by what I think was a tiger swallowtail. It's difficult to identify some butterflies. With wings flapping between five and 20 beats a second, there's little time to note distinguishing features.

I've always enjoyed watching these colorful fliers, but my knowledge of the order Lepidoptera was limited until I began gardening in Florida 21 years ago. Anyone who plants a garden soon will be rewarded by the flutter of wings. As long as your garden is pesticide-free -- chemical sprays will kill butterflies as well as harmful insects -- you will be rewarded with an ethereal parade of winged creatures.

Butterflies are dependent on certain blooms for food and habitat. Flowers provide nectar sources for mature butterflies and can act as hosts when it's time to lay eggs. Tiny eggs deposited on the stems and undersides of leaves eventually develop into leaf-munching caterpillars that make short work of their generous hosts. Although these hungry nibblers can reduce the greenery to a bare skeleton of itself, most host plants rebound when the munching ends.

Because butterflies can see only red, green, yellow and colors in the ultraviolet range, plants like penta, scarlet sage, porterweed, scarlet milkweed, coreopsis and firespike are among the many blooms they find attractive. When a butterfly senses a nectar source, it uses its feet -- all butterflies have six -- to "taste" the goods. If it likes what it samples, it settles in for a drink, uncoiling its long tongue or proboscis to sip the flower's nectar. But sipping nectar takes only seconds. Before long, the butterfly is off to another cluster of colorful blooms to slurp more of a flower's sweet juice.

Observing butterflies is always enjoyable, but it also can be memorable. My most unforgettable butterfly experience happened last year when Ralph and I were taking an evening stroll through the woods.

It was summertime, and we were taking advantage of the cooler evening hours for our daily walk. As we passed through one particular section of pine woods, I noticed a preponderance of zebra longwings fluttering about. Intrigued, I paused to follow their irregular flight paths up, down and around a particular stand of pines. Until I got closer, I had no idea why so many of these black-and-white-striped fliers were in one spot. Only then did I realize they were gathered together to roost. One thin pine branch was being used as a communal bedroom upon which at least two dozen zebra longwings already had settled. The butterflies that were still flying about were looking for a spot where they, too, could bed down for the night.

Until that time, I had never thought about where butterflies sleep. I certainly had no idea that the zebra longwing is such a, well, social butterfly. While most butterflies prefer solitary slumber, zebra longwings gather in groups, preferring the company of others during their nightly repose. Every day at dusk, a group of about 30 butterflies returns to the same spot to sleep. In the butterfly world, age has benefits. The oldest flutterers are the first to land, thereby securing the choicest perches. They are also the first to rise in the morning, and they dutifully waken the others with a gentle touching of wings.

Part of the fun of taking a walk through the woods is the possibility of making an exciting discovery. After that first spotting of a zebra longwing roost, I've been on the lookout for others and have since found two other locations where these winged creatures gather nightly. Now through the end of summer is the perfect time to seek out a butterfly slumber party in your own neighborhood. As daylight dims, lace up your walking shoes and take a hike. If you see black-and-white-striped wings flutter by, try to follow them.

Any garden that attracts zebra longwings is not far from a butterfly roost. The challenge -- and the fun -- is to find it.