Urban Almanac: June 2012

May 25, 2012

Diane Olson

Day by day in the home, garden and sky. PLUS: Diane says goodbye to Urban Almanac, at least for a while.
by Diane Olson

JUNE 1 The Sun rises at 5:58 a.m. today and sets at 8:52 p.m. The average maximum temperature is 82º; average minimum is 56º. It rains an average of .08 inches.

JUNE 2 Hugelkulture is the practice of burying huge amounts of organic matter (logs, branches and other yard refuse) in the subsoil underneath to create massive raised beds. While it takes a lot of effort up front, it’s said to create self-fertilizing, low-water-use permanent beds. I’m a little skeptical about the sharp pitch on the beds (why wouldn’t the topsoil run off?) and the heavy nitrogen consumption that would occur the first couple years (you’d want to use already-rotting wood, and pack a lot of green materials into the top layers), but it’s definitely interesting. richsoil.com/hugelkultur

JUNE 3 Stromatolites (also called biostromes) are mats of blue-green cyanbacteria that grow in shallow, highly saline bodies of water. Over time, the calcium and other minerals precipitated by the colony harden, forming ever-growing dome-shaped structures.

Among the oldest organisms on Earth, stromatolites were a dominant life form for over two billion years, creating extensive, coral-like reefs and flooding our young planet’s toxic, carbon dioxide-based atmosphere with oxygen. They helped form the ozone layer, which enabled the evolutionary development of complex organisms—such as humans.

Today, living stromatolites are somewhat rare. One of the largest remaining colonies is in the Great Salt Lake, where they provide habitat for brine fly larvae and pupae. And while most of us don’t much appreciate brine flies, they are a critical food source for millions of migratory birds.

You can see them off Buffalo Point on Antelope Island, and at the mouth of the Great Salt Lake Marina.

JUNE 4 FULL STRAWBERRY MOON. PARTIAL LUNAR ECLIPSE. As it sets just before dawn this morning, the Full Moon will be partially covered by the Earth’s umbral shadow.

JUNE 5 TRANSIT OF VENUS. Venus passes directly between the Sun and Earth today, becoming visible as a small black disc moving across the face of the Sun. The transit begins at 4:05 p.m. and will still be in progress when the Sun sets. Best viewing time will be 7:26 p.m., as it reaches the halfway point. A transit is similar to a solar eclipse caused by the Moon, but Venus is so far away that it doesn’t block the Sun—even though it’s actually four times bigger than the Moon. Transits of Venus occur in pairs at eight-year intervals separated by over a century. The last one was June 8, 2004; the next pair will be in 2117 and 2125. To view it, you’ll need special eclipse-viewing glasses, #14 welder’s glasses or a pinpoint projector.

JUNE 6 There’s still time to plant basil, beans, beets, carrots, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, melons, peppers, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, turnips and all hot-weather flowers. Extend your harvest season by planting successions of carrots, snap beans and corn every two weeks.

JUNE 7 When you’re thinning crowded seedlings, remember to clip them off at ground level, rather than pull them, so you don’t damage the roots of the ones you’re keeping. Toss the clippings nearby as a sacrifice to insect pests, which tend to zero in on wilting or damaged plants.

JUNE 8 Noctilucent (Latin for “night shining”) clouds are thin, electric-blue wisps, visible only during the summer months. Formed in the mesosphere, 50 miles up, where Earth’s atmosphere meets space, they are so high that they remain lit even after the Sun sinks below the horizon.

Noctilucent clouds were first observed in 1885, two years after the eruption of Krakatoa, and until the past two decades, were only seen at extreme northern latitudes. It’s not clear how they’re formed (they may be seeded by micrometeors or particulates from volcanoes), or why they’re now visible as far south as Utah and Colorado, though many scientists believe they are somehow related to climate change.

JUNE 9 Downtown Farmers Market begins. Some hospitals chains are now hosting Farmers Markets onsite, to encourage healthier eating habits.

JUNE 10 Of the 31 species of snakes found in Utah, seven are types of rattlesnakes. Thanks to their distinctive warning, rattlesnakes used to be easy to identify—at least the adults were. Now, due to selective pressure by humans, rattlesnakes are learning not to rattle. That’s because non-rattling snakes are less likely to be noticed—and killed—and so go on to reproduce. And those offspring are less likely to rattle.

So, with non-rattling rattlesnakes around—and harmless gopher snakes that look very similar to rattlesnakes—it’s good to know the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous serpents. Poisonous snakes generally have elliptical pupils (cat eyes) and a single row of scales on the underside of their tail. Rattlesnakes also have a pit midway between their nostrils and their eyes. Non-poisonous snakes have round pupils and two rows of scales on the underside of their tail.

JUNE 11 LAST QUARTER MOON. It’s time to prune spring-flowering shrubs, and divide early-blooming rock garden plants, like rock cress, ajuga and snow in summer. If you’re looking to reduce the size of your lawn without the effort of digging it up, you can plant low-growing ground covers around the edges and let them slowly infiltrate.

JUNE 12 Ichneumon wasps are seriously scary looking, but totally harmless—unless you’re a tremex wasp. Adult female ichneumons sport what looks like a four-inch stinger, but is actually an ovipositor, or egg-laying appendage. It’s used to drill into trees and lay eggs inside the grubs of the tremex wasp, which they parasitize.

JUNE 13 Prune or shear evergreens as soon as the new growth starts to turn a darker green.

JUNE 14 Look for Mercury, low and bright in the western sky at nightfall through June 20. Because Mercury is so close to the Sun, it’s hard to directly observe from Earth except during twilight.

JUNE 15 Thin melon plants to one or two plants per hill, and bury each runner at two or three nodes to create additional roots. Water weekly with diluted fish emulsion until flowers develop.

JUNE 16 The Mormon cricket is actually a type of katydid, not a cricket. According to recent research, Mormon crickets swarm and become migratory not just to find new sources of food, but to avoid being eaten by each by their hungry buddies approaching from behind. Seriously, they keep moving to avoid being cannibalized, and for insects, they move at a pretty fast clip (over a mile per day). Though other Mormon crickets aren’t the only thing that eats them: They’re preyed upon by rodents, crow, coyotes and, famously, California gulls (which are said to vomit after eating them). They were also an important food for local early Native Americans, who sometimes preserved them with salt from the Great Salt Lake. During swarms, some communities use loud rock music to divert them, though it’s unknown whether they dislike the genre or the vibrations caused by it.

JUNE17 Jerusalem crickets aren’t true crickets either, but are in a class pretty much of their own. In California, they’re called potato bugs; to the Navajo they are Woh-tzi-Neh, variously translated as “old bald-headed man,” “skull insect” or “bone-neck beetle.” In Spanish they’re nina de la tierra, or “child of the earth.” Whatever you call them, they’re creepy looking, emit a foul stench and can deliver a sharp bite. They’re rarely encountered, though, as they live underground and usually only visit the surface at night. Though you may find a mangled one in your pond; the Jerusalem cricket is parasitized by the horsehair worm, which drives the Jerusalem cricket to drown itself, at which point the worm bursts, alien-like, out of its body. Ick.

JUNE 18 Speaking of aliens: Some popular bedding plants, like double marigolds and overly-ruffled petunias, have been so altered by plant breeders that they no longer produce nectar or pollen.

JUNE 19 NEW MOON. Astronomers recently discovered four nearby white dwarf stars surrounded by disks of material that could be the remains of planets much like Earth. One star, in particular, appears to be swallowing what’s left of an Earth-like planet’s core. White dwarfs are the leftover cores of stars that have burned through their fuel. As they near the ends of their lives, they may expand and engulf nearby planets and disrupt the orbits of others, causing collisions and creating orbiting clouds of debris.

JUNE 20 SUMMER SOLSTICE. Summer begins in the Northern Hemisphere at 4:09 p.m., as the Sun reaches its farthest point north of the celestial equator—the Tropic of Cancer—and begins heading south. The year’s earliest sunrise and latest sunset actually don’t coincide with the Summer Solstice; the earliest sunrise occurs on June 14, while the latest sunset won’t happen until June 27.

JUNE 21 The Tropic of Cancer is the circle marking the latitude 23.5 degrees north, where the Sun is directly overhead at the moment of the Summer Solstice; the Tropic of Capricorn marks the latitude 23.5 degrees south, where it’s directly overhead at the Winter Solstice. When those latitudes were named 2,000 years ago, the Sun was in the constellation of Cancer during the summer solstice and Capricorn during the winter solstice —hence the names. But over time, as Earth’s axis of rotation has shifted (an effect called the precession of the equinoxes), the sun is now in Taurus during the Summer Solstice and Sagittarius at the Winter one.

JUNE 22 The precession of the Earth’s axis is also affecting the positions of the north and south celestial poles. Currently, the star Polaris, known as the North or Pole Star, lies approximately at the north celestial pole; eventually that will change, and another star will become the North Star.

JUNE 23 Utah has three species of carnivorous plants, all of which are water plants called bladderworts. Bladderworts are pretty and showy, with bright yellow, orchid-like flowers that float on the surface of the water to attract pollinators. Beneath the water, they have hollow bladders filled with tiny hair-like cells that respond to motion. When stimulated by water fleas, nematodes, mosquito larvae or event tiny tadpoles, the hairs cause the bladder to inflate and suck in water—and their prey.

JUNE 24 Raccoons apparently like cities more than the country, and the challenges and opportunities of urban living are causing them to evolve rapidly, both physically and intellectually. In some areas, there are 50 times more raccoons inside city limits than in the surrounding countryside, thanks to the plethora of available food.

JUNE 25 Mars, crossing into Virgo, is visible near the waxing Moon tonight.

JUNE 26 FIRST QUARTER MOON. “Gnat” is a general term, and can refer to all kinds of tiny flying insects. In Utah, “gnats” are most often midges.

Midges look like mosquitoes. They occur in huge swarms, usually in the early morning or evening, in columns rising up from the ground. Most midge species don’t bite, but the ones that do, often called “no see ums,” take a serious chunk for their size. Like in mosquitoes, only female no see ums bite, because they need a blood meal to produce eggs. Unlike mosquitoes, though, they don’t puncture the skin, but rather cut it open with scissor-like mandibles.

JUNE 27 I may have to buy an iPad just for this app: Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe. It’s…wow. I mean seriously wow! The Wonders of the Universe series is also on Netflix. Look for Saturn to the left of the Moon, high to the south at nightfall.

JUNE 28 While few grazing animals can tolerate it, stinging nettle is the favorite food of many butterfly larvae. Stinging nettle stems and leaves contain hollow hairs shaped like hypodermic needles that break off when disturbed and inject irritating toxins. Some stinging cells contain prostaglandins, hormones that amplify pain receptors in vertebrates and increase the sensation of pain. Conversely, nettle leaves contain compounds that reduce inflammation, and have been used as an arthritis treatment for centuries.

JUNE 29 The short-horned lizard, often mistakenly called horned toad or horny toad, can withstand much colder temperatures than most reptiles, and so is found at surprisingly high elevations throughout the state. Despite their spikiness and excellent camouflage, short-horned lizards are preyed upon by raptors, coyotes and foxes, and so have evolved some additional tricks, such as digging their spines into the predator’s mouth (or in the case of humans, hands) and inflating their bodies up to twice their size, so they resemble a spiny balloon. If that doesn’t work, some species can, most impressively, shoot blood from their eyes. The blood can travel up to three feet, and contains a chemical that is particularly noxious to coyotes, dogs and wolves. Short-horned lizards mate in late spring and summer, and are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young. They prey primarily on ants, but also dine on crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, worms and flies.

JUNE 30 The Sun rises at 5:58 a.m. today and sets at 9:03 p.m.

In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.

So long, Almanac

When I began writing this column 17 years ago, I wasn’t really sure what to do with it; I just knew I wanted to write about things that would keep me grounded in the here and now. I was a new and enthusiastic gardener, winter was approaching and I didn’t want to lose that deep sense of grounding that comes with tuning in to natural cycles.

Then, as now, the column was all over the place—well, actually even more so. It touched on gardening, astronomy and biology, as well as the origins of Western holidays (which are all rooted in natural cycles), famous people’s birthdays, and even a bit of dime-store astrology. It was random, but fun to research and write.

Then, about a year in, I stumbled across a fact that finally gave me a vision for the column, and inspired me to dig ever deeper into my research.


The information was this: When a frog eats something disagreeable, it disgorges its entire stomach, brushes out the offending item, and stuffs its stomach back down its throat with its right front leg, which slightly longer than its left for that sole purpose.

I was gobsmacked. I mean, how fabulous is that? How amazing is it that frogs have evolved such an intricate mechanism for puking?

And so it became my mission to assemble facts so weird and wonderful (and, ideally, kinda gross) that my readers would be compelled to look at the natural world with fresh eyes.

In the process, I got serious about organic gardening, as it was my entry into the ecosystem of the Wasatch Front. And the more engaged I became with all of crazy-fascinating organisms that share our space, the more I wanted to nurture and protect them—and inspire you to do the same.

I’ve now been gardening in the same yard for 18 years, and I’m still amazed and enthralled every time I step outside the door. Though I live a mere half-block from a busy Sandy thoroughfare, my yard and neighborhood host an incredible richness of life. I encounter raccoons, squirrels, snakes, lizards, foxes, rats, mice, gophers, voles, innumerable birds and a whole universe of cool and creepy bugs. Not to mention a mind-blowing richness of plant life.

And that, my friends, is why I’m taking a break.

For the past several years, between working on the column and the book that sprang from it, I’ve spent more time writing about nature than experiencing it.

It’s time to get back out there.

I know I’ll miss writing “Urban Almanac.” It’s been a major part of my life for a very long time. And I adore my collaboration with the inimitable Polly Plummer Mottonen, who has made it a thing of beauty from the very start.

I was also fortunate to have the so-very-talented Adele Flail as an illustrator for a year. During that time, we attracted the notice of Gibbs Smith, who invited Adele and me to turn the column into a book.

Diane's-bookThe result, A Nature Lover’s Almanac: Kinky Bugs, Stealthy Critters, Prosperous Plants and Celestial Wonders is truly a dream come true. I started fantasizing about writing a book sometime around fifth grade, though at the time, I didn’t imagine it would include bug sex and vomiting amphibians.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to spending some time outside and away from my computer, and to exploring ideas for a future iteration of “Urban Almanac”—or something entirely new. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please let me know. I’ll undoubtedly be back soon, because writing for CATALYSTw is as essential to me as rich soil and sunshine.

Until then, I’ll be in the garden.

Thanks for reading.