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Garden Help Desk: Identifying odd spiders in your yard or garden

By USU Extension - | Dec 10, 2022

Courtesy Photo

Cat-faced spiders have an unusual, somewhat scary appearance, but they are very beneficial pest-control partners in the garden.

We saw this spider in our yard. I have lived in Utah almost all of my life and have never seen one like it. Can you tell me what it is?

This little beauty is a cat-faced spider, also known as the jewel spider (Araneus gemmoides). It’s one of the orb-weaving spiders, harmless, but very beneficial. The pointed projections and dimples on the abdomen resemble a cat’s face, especially on the back side, and give these spiders their common name.

I’m surprised you found your spider on a sidewalk, as cat-faced spiders aren’t really “wanderers.” They’re common landscape spiders and efficient pest control partners in the garden, tending, mending, and rebuilding their orb-shaped webs to catch insects of all sizes. It’s not unusual to also find them near outdoor lights where insects are abundant.

In the fall, at the end of the gardening season, mated females will find a spot near their web to lay their eggs. These mother spiders will die shortly after laying their eggs and all the other cat-faced spiders will die by the time frigid winter temperatures arrive in our area. The overwintering eggs will provide the new generation of this important garden helper.

I’m going to visit relatives for a few weeks this month. What should I do for my houseplants are OK while I’m gone?

Courtesy Meredith Seaver

Gathering houseplants closer together during a vacation can help them use water more slowly and tolerate your absence.

What you do for your plants will depend on a couple of things- what kind of plants you have and how long you’ll be gone. The season of the year is always a factor, but today we’ll focus on keeping your plants healthy when you’re away during the winter.

Houseplants don’t need fertilizer during the winter, so the two important issues for your plants while you’re gone are soil moisture and temperature.

Most cacti and other succulents can go three to four weeks or more between deep waterings. They don’t need any special attention if they’ve been watered before you leave. Other indoor plants need to be watered more frequently, once every one to three weeks, depending on the kind of plant. There are also houseplants that do best with constant, slightly moist soil. These plants that need moist soil will need extra help to get through your absence.

If you’ll be gone for less than ten days, you can simply water your plants very deeply before you leave and turn down your thermostat a few degrees. This deep watering is the basic first step for any plant, except cacti and succulents that have already been recently watered.

If you’ll be gone for more than 10 days, or you have plants that are a little more demanding than the average houseplant, there are additional things you can do. Here are some suggestions you can try on their own or in combination.

  • Group plants together to raise the humidity around them and slow water use.
  • Move plants a little farther from their light source to reduce their water use.
  • Loosely cover your plants with a plastic bag to reduce water loss from your plants. Push thin dowels, long bamboo skewers or old chopsticks into the soil to keep the bags from resting against the foliage. Don’t gather the bag tightly around the pot; there still needs to be some air circulation.
  • Mulch the potting soil to slow evaporation and conserve moisture for the roots of your plants. Sand, compost, perlite, fine bark nuggets and aquarium gravel are all good options.
  • Consider using an automatic watering system for houseplants. These systems draw up water from a reservoir. The longer you’ll be away, the larger the reservoir you’ll need.

Courtesy Anna Seaver

Plants that are neglected during vacation may manage to "recover" after you return home, but they don't always recover their original beauty.

Lowering the temperature in your home will also reduce your plants’ water needs. Keep in mind, though, that most houseplants are originally from tropical and semi-tropical climates so there are limits to how low you can set your thermostat. 60-65 degrees is a safe lower limit if you have a variety of houseplants.

Some plants need weekly attention. If you have a special-needs plant, one that requires watering more than once a week, can’t tolerate cool temperatures, etc., you’ll need to enlist the help of a friend or neighbor who can either check on it at your house or take the plant to their house. Written care instructions will make their job easier.


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