FORTE: Look who's coming to dinner
A praying mantis peeks out from a screen of white salvia — their ability to turn their heads and face the camera really makes them seem more knowing. (Theresa Forte/Special to Postmedia News)
By all rights, I shouldn’t be sitting barefoot, on the back deck, this late in the season, but you won’t hear me complain.
The sun is shining, the wine-press fountain is splish-splashing on the edge of the patio and the crickets and birds are singing up a storm. There’s a gentle breeze swirling around the garden. It carries the last scents of summer: sun-warmed basil, lemon verbena, sage and Swedish ivy, but it also cautions that winter is just around the corner, with the scent of musty leaves and spent foliage.
It might seem as if it’s too late for butterflies and bees, but the garden is buzzing with insects today. I’ve been watching a pair of painted lady butterflies collect nectar in the zinnia patch for the past hour, they seem to be in no particular hurry to fly south this year. A single monarch butterfly is keeping them company today. She seems to prefer the tall florist zinnias, and finds a stable landing pad on the flowers’ sturdy petals while she stretches up to sip nectar from a golden crown of disk florets that tops the pincushion-like base. These cushions (filled with seed) become more pronounced as the flower matures and the once colourful ray floret petals fade to buff — the whole stem develops an architectural form that can hold its own in the autumn garden.
The stems and leaves fade to a pewter colour, (really powdery mildew) as the plants decline. While we might be tempted to cut back the fading flowers, the butterflies and bees are not fussy about looks and are content to spend the warm afternoon grazing on zinnia nectar.
Butterflies aren’t the only wildlife that enjoy the October garden, crickets scatter every time I step on to the path in the circle garden, and the resident bunny hops to safety when he hears my footsteps. He really keeps a low profile, it’s hard to see him unless he feels threatened and darts away. I’m not sure what he’s eating these days, there is not real evidence of chewed leaves.
Also sheltered in the circle garden, a praying mantis plays a game of peek-a-boo from behind a white salvia. Clever fellow, his wood coloured back wings and front legs are well camouflaged in the autumn garden. Reaction to this relatively new visitor is mixed. The grandchildren are amazed and hold the mantis gingerly until he decides that he’s had enough and leaps/flies to safety. Praying mantis neither bite nor sting humans. The adults seem less enthralled, but is he really a friend or foe in the garden?
Two forms of praying mantis (also known as mantids) found in north-eastern North America were introduced for insect control, the European mantis (Mantis religious) and Chinese mantis (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis). Both are insect eating machines, they will eat caterpillars, butterflies, flies, bees, wasps, beetles and moths, and are not particular — they eat the good bugs along with bad.
I did a little digging, and I suspect our praying mantis, with his wood-coloured back wings and legs, is the Chinese mantis. He certainly blends in well with grasses and shrubs in the home garden. In our climate, mantids hatch in the spring, mature in the late summer and die when the cold weather arrives. The female deposits eggs in frothy brown cases attached to twigs. The cases harden to protect the eggs from predators and cold weather. If you find a case, you can move it to your garden. They are also available from insect suppliers.
My research also revealed an interesting trait, not only are praying mantis insect devouring machines, they are also cannibals. According to www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/praying-mantis, the young will eat each other if they don’t find immediately find prey. The adult female will consume her own mate, severing the male’s head while the pair are in the act of copulation. Yikes!
The warm autumn temperatures continue to encourage tomatoes to ripen around the garden. Most prolific are the sweet million and yellow grape tomatoes growing along the south facing brick wall. Not to be outdone, the San Marzano and chocolate sprinkles tomatoes grown in containers on the patio have produced a bountiful crop of fruit. My trial plantings of tomatoes in the hottest, sunniest spots in the yard has really paid off — give it a try if your tomatoes are failing to produce a generous crop. Along the back of the sunny border, I planted a row of tomatoes and eggplants as a test, nothing ventured nothing gained.
Two plants really stood out, Sicilian eggplant, which offered a steady stream of small, but very handsome egg-shaped purple/white fruit, and bush tiger tomatoes that seemed to take forever to get rolling but continue to offer pretty yellow and orange striped plum tomatoes (that are incredibly sweet) at this late date. Their companion plants have long since given up the ghost.
Get outside and enjoy this glorious time of the year, slow down and take the time to really have a good look (and listen) to your garden — enjoy the colours, textures and scents of the season. Savour the last tomatoes, snip a handful of fragrant thyme or parsley — slow down and see who else is dining in your October garden.
— Theresa Forte is a local garden writer, photographer and speaker. You can reach her by calling 905-351-7540 or by email at email@example.com.