Great Golden Digger Wasp–Beneficial Insect

Sphex ichneumoneus (Great Golden Digger Wasp)

Sphex ichneumoneus (Great Golden Digger Wasp)

Its hard not to notice an inch long wasp, let alone 5 or 6 flitting from flower to flower around you in the garden. Last week while weeding I was mesmerized by the imposing wasps clambering over the allium flower spheres. Each made its way around, poking its head into the open flowers, twitching its wings and hanging upside down when needed. I was curious about the identity and activities of these creatures who took no heed to my investigation.  I took some videos, moving my phone and later my camera within inches of them. At times one would jet to another flower if I cast a shadow across it, but they were completely docile.

A little research in my entomology books and online revealed my busy garden friends to be Great Golden Digger Wasps (Sphex ichneumoneus) from the family of Sphecid wasps. With orange legs and wings, and an abdomen that is half orange tipped in black, the wasp is mostly sleek, except for the flaxen hairs on it’s black head and thorax. The antennae are black. Like most solitary wasps, meaning those that nest individually, they are not aggressive (no hive to protect) and are seen only in summer when the adults eat nectar, which explains their attraction to the flowers. They are found from southern Canada throughout the US.

Great Golden Digger Wasp eating nectar from an allium flower

Great Golden Digger Wasp eating nectar from an allium flower

As the name suggests, the Great Golden Digger female excavates holes in sunny, open and sandy areas where she creates underground burrows where her larvae develop.  She forages for grasshoppers and crickets to feed her young, a great service to us gardeners.

Great Golden Digger wasps are predatory insects that paralyze what they catch with a toxic sting before dragging it into its tunnels.   After provisioning the burrows with the still living but motionless prey, the wasp will lay a single egg on the hapless grasshopper and cover the burrow.  There are some amazing videos of Sphecid wasps actually moving pebbles to deftly cover the entrance holes.

The eggs hatch in about 3 days and immediately begin voraciously feeding on the still paralyzed insect. Yikes! The following year, the larvae will have developed into an adult wasp and the lifecycle begins again when it flies from the tunnel to mate. Adults only live a couple months, during which time we might be lucky enough to see them and marvel at their interesting characteristics and appreciate their contribution to disposing of garden pests in the family of Orthoptera, which includes grasshoppers and katydids.

After I saw them in my own garden, others around our area have mentioned noticing them, too. Apparently they can sting if manhandled, so don’t catch them–just let them do their thing, bizarre though it may be.  Watching them dance around a flower as they dine on nectar is a lazy summer diversion and a cool reminder of the diversity of nature.

One of the most interesting sites I found about the Great Golden Digger Wasp is a site put together by Galveston County Master Gardeners at

In addition, there are some fascinating videos online of this engaging wasp as it creates its burrows.  In my opinion, insects are some of the planet’s most amazing and entertaining creatures, especially when you start learning about the habits of the predatory insects!

©Colleen Miko, 2015

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Christmas in July–Garden Art

Glass ornaments hang from our entry pergola

Glass ornaments hang from our entry pergola

They may look like Christmas in July to some, but I love the multi-colored globes that hang from the big pergola over our entry path.  Looking into the garden from inside the front door or kitchen window, I watch them sway in the wind and drip rain.  When backlit by the western sun in the late afternoon they glow brightly.

In spring when the wisteria vine that engulfs the pergola blooms, that’s when most visitors notice the rainbow of ornaments that otherwise hide ten feet above our heads in the foliage.  Either that or when the thug of a vine sleeps in winter and the colorful bubbles plainly dangle.


Wisteria blooming with a suncatcher from Dog and Pup glass

The spheres range in size from 3″ to 6.5″ with one heart that I found some years ago at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show on Valentine’s Day.  They have held up very well exposed to the elements year round, some for 5 years now.

While I have purchased them all over, my favorite place to get them is from Dog and  Pup glass in Coeur d’Alene Idaho.  I discovered them when in Spokane on business.  A huge display in a store window caught my eye and I ogled over the globes that were shining and tempting me like candy.  I couldn’t believe how reasonably priced they were compared to others I had seen.  Not only that, Dog and Pup makes their “suncatchers”, as they call them, up to 6.5″ in diameter, which is rare.  They have a booth at various festivals throughout the Northwest, but also sell online, which is how I have purchased mine.  You can order by the color and size and if they don’t have them readymade, John and Darlene Johnson will create them custom for you.  Check them out at

Globes stand out when wisteria is dormant

Globes stand out when wisteria is dormant & add unexpected color when there is none

Slowly my collection is growing and it will take a slew of them to have the impact I want. The pergola is 10′ high, 8′ wide and covers a 12′ run of flagstone pathway.  Now that I have ten globes it’s starting to look bold and festive like I envisioned at the start.  I wonder how many I will have when I decide it’s “right”?

©Colleen Miko, 2015

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Natural Car Air Freshener–Viva Verde

Rosemary & English Lavender on my dash

Rosemary & English Lavender on my dash

This week I was gifted an inspiring idea.  I went to visit friends Eugene and Deborah’s productive garden to talk about their rain water cistern for a magazine article.  As I pulled up, Eugene handed me a green bundle and said, “Here, throw this in your car; it will smell good.”  I placed the fragrant posy onto my dashboard.  It is a lush sprig of rosemary and 4 English lavender flowers tied with a snip of sisal twine.  When I returned to the car after our visit, indeed my car smelled like heaven.

Driving into work, catching glimpses of the green and purple reflected in my windshield, I was inspired to think of other natural car air fresheners.  What a great idea!  Why hadn’t I thought of this simple delight before?  Anyone with good scents knows that the cardboard trees sold to hang off the rearview mirror are cloying at best.  I have so many great plants in my garden I can use instead.

Certain herbs came to mind right away.  June’s bumper crop of spearmint has meant many fresh “Nojito” drinks (non-alcoholic Mojito).  The crisp mint fragrance in the car would be refreshing.  Other culinary herbs of course would work, but my Greek oregano would be a bit much on a hot day!  It could make me hungry, or more likely put me off souvlaki, my favorite food.  Perhaps the universal palette cleanser of parsley would be more suitable in the auto.

I can imagine the aromatherapy benefits of plants and flowers in the car.  Will the lavender make me a calmer in traffic?  Could lemon balm or grapefruit peel help to wake me on my morning commute?  Cedar might be a good one to try when I don’t want flowery or culinary smells so I will try some of the other conifers to see how I like them. Would pine put me in the holiday spirit come fall?  On the rare occasions when I take my kitty to the vet, could catmint (Nepeta sp.) ease the ride for the both of us?

More daydreaming has me wondering about other botanical car air fresheners.  I love how the leaves of Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) trees smell like cotton candy when they drop to the ground in the fall.  I wonder if a bouquet of green ones drying in the car would impart that same sweet aroma of warm sugar?  And I wish I was still growing Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua), an annual grown for it’s yummy smelling leaves.  Speaking of Artemisias, I know I will pass on curry, or anything that might make my car smell like I left takeout on the passenger floor too long.  That calls to mind the unfortunate time in high school when my friend Cheri and I left a falafel in the car during a warm Southern California autumn while shopping for prom dresses.  I can laugh about it now.

I would love to hear reader’s ideas for plants for natural car air fresheners.  I am confident that there are endless combinations to try and lots of cool ways to display them, too, from woven mats of twigs to lavender wands.  Then there are you lucky VW Bug drivers whose dashboards come with a built in budvase.  Chime in!

©Colleen Miko, 2015

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Plum Crazy: The Late Spring Garden

Baptisia 'Purple Smoke' is a delightful perennial with upright spires to 3'

Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ is a delightful perennial with upright spires to 3′

The woodland garden is quieting down; trout lilies, hellebores and epimedium are now setting seed.  In the meantime, the rest of the garden has just about caught up as the last of the leaves unfurl. Wisteria is always late, the leaves showing up at bloom break.

The garden is plum crazy right now.  The seemingly unnatural color of bulbs is  a memory and the pale and tender foliage of most plants make the violet hues stand out all the more.

The deep and delightful purple foliage of Diabolo ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus ‘Diabolo’) and Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii cultivars) may recede into the lushness of the summer landscape, but for now they appear novel in concept.  Purple foliage! The deep, moody leaves are wine, purple or red, depending on the direction of the light that falls and the foil of neighboring plants.

Clematis jackmanii blooms on the deck railing

Clematis jackmanii blooms on the deck railing

This year my summer blooming clematis jackmanii is quite early and has caught up with the floral show of clematis montana ‘alba’, which started in April.  I missed the late winter window to prune away last year’s dead, crispy leaves before the huge flowering, velvety purple clematis bloomed on new growth.  I ignore the tangle of brown yesteryear because the mess of 5″ wide flowers have a colorful hedgerow in the background.  A tall ornamental plum and several large, arching Rosa glauca are the backdrop that echo the plum symphony.

Rosa glauca is a garden shape-shifter whose dusky stems and leaves alternate from grey, muted blue, red and purple.  I would be lying if I said that I had planned the effect; it simply happened when I added as much purple to the landscape as I could find.

Persicaria 'Red Dragon' is a stellar perennial best protected with applications of deer repellent

Persicaria ‘Red Dragon’ is a stellar perennial best protected with applications of deer repellent

The purple-blues of the garden such as columbines (Aquilegia alpina) and camassia have been surpassed by mauve–chives, Penstemon ovatus, and meadow rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium).  The bees are foraging. It’s these plums that shine alongside the more reddish foliage of heucheras, Persicaria ‘red dragon’ and Japanese maples. Rosa glauca will add yet another hit of this rosy hue in a few weeks when it’s tiny flowers open in clusters.

The mornings are still cool and moisture hangs in the air. It won’t be long, however, before the summer sunshine of yellows, oranges and reds arrives to overpower this moody, purple haze.  Plum foliaged plants compliment May flowers now but also contrast the hot colors of summer and fall making it the most adaptable and seamless foliage color to add to the overall landscape.

©Colleen Miko, 2015

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Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’ (Pearlbush)–Plant Fix

Showy pearlbush

Showy pearlbush

Bright as a beacon on this gray, drizzly day, my pearlbush is in full bloom.  Tons of pure white, cup-shaped flowers stand out in the shrub border.  The common name comes from the perfectly rounded buds that resemble strings of pearls on short, terminal racemes.  Finally this slow growing shrub that I started from a 1 gallon pot about 10 years ago has reached a size where I can cut flowers for a showy bouquet and still leave a magnificent, full garden display.

bloom smallThe rest of the year it doesn’t look like much.  Dull green, oblong leaves are sparely placed on gray branches so the overall appearance is open and plain.  I wouldn’t call the form graceful; it bends toward the sun in a floppy manner.  This rose family denizen, however, is a bold, powerful sight in early spring and its carefree manner more than makes up for it’s ho-hum summer appearance.

exochorda blooms smallExochorda ‘The Bride’ is a compact shrub said to top out at 6′ high and almost twice as wide.  We’ll see: mine is about 3′ now.  The size makes it usable in a small garden.  It is thriving in full sun with minimal summer water, and the soil it’s in is rocky and certainly not rich.  Other than now, when it’s a blooming knockout, I seldom notice it in the shrub border, but that’s just fine.  I give it a shaping and create a lovely arrangement with the prunings in early to mid-April depending on it’s bloomtime.

exochorda bouquet smallA squat vase is perfect for the short flowering racemes, which I have mixed with camellia leaves and shapely branches of contorted filbert.  In keeping with the nuptial theme, the basket cradling the vase next to my front entry is stuffed with Spanish moss and champagne corks.

‘The Bride’  is a French cultivar introduced in the early 1900s.  I can attest for it’s reliable nature and stellar blooms–a marriage of attributes that has made it a botanical classic.

©Colleen Miko, 2015

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Arum italicum (Italian Arum)—New WA State Noxious Weed


Arum italicum in May

I have Arum italicum (Italian arum) in my garden, and in fact, 4 years ago I posted an ode to its beauty and ease of care in the garden.  I will be digging it out this spring after learning that the plant is listed for 2015 on the Washington State Noxious Weed list.

I remember seeing it for the first time in at the Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens in Woodland, WA.  There it was used as a dramatic herbaceous foil to their fabulous April display of spring bulbs, and of course, lilacs.  I subsequently purchased it for my garden.  This was in the mid-90s, but the tuberous plant has proven to be too successful at naturalizing in the wild.

The cultivar ‘Marmoratum’ is better known than the straight species because it’s leaves have a striking white pattern.  My arum has plain green leaves.  Either way, I understand that once plants are established, they are difficult…

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Camellia Floating Flower Arrangements–Make It

floating camellias blog

Camellia flowers in a vintage, footed bowl

There are several flowers that lend themselves particularly well to floating on water rather than bunched on their stems in a vase. These flowers tend to hang downward from the stem, so that  their cheery faces are obscured.  Many species of hellebores, which are in bloom now, have nodding blossoms.  This is why many of the newest hellebore cultivars have been bred with Helleborus x niger, a species with upturned flowers so that we can better appreciate the flowers.  Hellebores look darling in floating arrangements, and I have featured them as such in previous posts.

camellia bud small

Camellia bud a few days from opening.

Another flower well-suited for floating are camellias. The late winter, early spring camellias can often be hidden on the stem under their big, waxy leaves.  And the blooms attach to the stem so tightly and at an angle that makes them challenging to arrange in traditional fashion.

Camellia flowers are flattened on the back, and when removed from the stem entirely, look great doing the backstroke. This way the flowers are center stage.  Because they are heavy, they are best placed in a very shallow dish so that they don’t sink and become waterlogged.  I have several vintage, footed dishes that are perfect for arranging camellias this way.

When floating face up, the true beauty of the camellia flower is revealed–the luminous sheen of the petals, the intensity of color, and in some types, irregular streaks of color.  Camellias are common landscape plants in most parts of the country and grow with ease and little care.  Due to this, we may take them for granted.  Step out and pick a few flowers and float them in a bowl on your kitchen island–I guarantee you’ll find a new appreciation for camellias.

©Colleen Miko, 2015

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Insect Hotels–Design Inspiration

insect hotel smallGoing to the NW Flower & Garden Show yesterday recharged my gardening batteries. Inspiration was everywhere, but mostly in the people I met and those I reconnected with.  Landscapers, horticulturists, welders, sculptors, painters–artists all, whose ingenuity and skillful craft lit my fire for spring and for my own creative process.

So many artistic mediums spoke to me as I took in the garden vignettes and vendor booths but one of the most intriguing expressions came from the show garden done by West Seattle Nursery.  Cleverly called “Birds Do It…Bees Do It” (the overall show theme is Romance Blossoms), the garden focuses on welcoming our winged friends and features several charming insect hotels.

For many years I have been drawn to these functional works of art meant to provide habitat for beneficial insects and spiders.  Fashioned from reclaimed materials, twigs, rocks and whatever strikes the creator’s fancy, insect hotels are a mass of tiny, protective nooks and crannies.  The tenants are encouraged to deliver pollination services and natural pest control.  The garden display’s insect hotels were imbedded in a rock wall, garden steps and mounted on a tool shed.

small insect hotel 2Magazines and blogs of late have shown incredibly beautiful insect hotels, both diminutive and massive, as the concept has become more popular.  I saw at least one nursery selling them at the show.  Most of these art installations play on the contrast between hard and soft materials such as clay roofing tiles and moss, or difference in scale, as between bundles of thread-like twigs wedged next to slices of wood with age-telling rings.  Pattern repetition plays in, along with surprising repurposing of materials.  What a wholesome and exciting trend: art as habitat.

©Colleen Miko, 2015

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Winter bloomers for Beneficial Insects


syrphid smallToday I took advantage of a break in the rainy weather and went out to pull shotweed.  The Sarcococca and white forsythia (Abeliophyllum distichum) were perfuming the damp air.  Both shrubs had a barely perceptible cloud of tiny flies about their branches.  The flies, too, were enjoying the bit of sun, nectar and perhaps pollen.  Even in the winter there are insects out foraging, looking for that rare flower to feed upon.

The ‘Jelena’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) that I had planted a few years back in honor of our dear departed kitty Hazel is in full bloom.  A spider had laced a web amongst the bare twigs in hopes of getting a winter meal. Small gnats darted about as did one of the most common pollinators in my garden, the syrphid fly.  The syrphid is often taken for a bee due to it’s  gold and black patterned abdomen.  However, it’s large eyes and short, stubby antennae give it away as a fly.

The syrphid was drinking from the burgundy flowers of the witch hazel, pausing long enough for me to snap a photo.  It might have also visited the heath, hellebores or violets that are blooming elsewhere in the garden.  There isn’t much up yet, but every little bit counts for the pollinators in winter.

©Colleen Miko, 2015

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Lady Beetle: Queen of the Beneficial Insects

lady bug larvae on Clematis jackmanii

lady bug larvae on Clematis jackmanii

I have always been fascinated with insects and am always on the lookout for them.  Since I garden using least toxic methods, the balance of good and bad insects is key to pest control.  A healthy garden will have it’s share of plant eating insects so we all need allies in keeping those pest populations at a tolerable level.  My garden benefits from the presence of bats, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and of course, insects.

One of the most well known beneficial insects is the ladybug but there are many other interesting insects and spiders that help protect our vegetable, fruit and ornamental garden plants so that we can enjoy them.  I recently spied a ladybug larvae amongst the foliage of my Clematis vine.  How different they look from the adult beetle.  They are voracious eaters of other insects, especially aphids.

Beneficial Crab spider with its legs outstretched in typical fashion.

Beneficial Crab spider with its legs outstretched in typical fashion.

Since I have a mild problem with something perforating the leaves of the vine (not serious enough to do anything about it) I wondered if this little alligator looking dynamo is keeping the culprit in check.  Later that week I found a crab spider, also insectivorous, in the Clematis.  Crab spiders don’t spin webs, but wisely hang out in plants and flowers so as to ambush unsuspecting prey.  With friends like these, whatever is occasionally nibbling on the leaves is meeting its match.

Washington State University Extension has a new publication out this year called “Beneficial Insects, Spiders and Other Mini-Creatures in Your Garden: Who They Are and How to Get Them to Stay”.  The publication is number EM067E and is available to download as a free pdf.  Included are color photographs of lady beetle larvae and a variety of other fascinating and helpful garden visitors.  Visit WSU Publications to read this wonderful resource and learn how to recognize, protect and attract beneficial insects to your yard.

©Colleen Miko 2014


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