Monday, December 9, 2013

Pam's List of Gifts for Gardeners

When it comes to holidays, I'm a minimalist—which makes what I'm about to do entirely out of character. I am going to offer my list of Gifts for Gardeners. You can blame Kate Copsey, who invited me onto her "America's Home Grown Veggie Show" to talk about the subject, for this.
We give gifts often because it’s expected, sometimes because we feel the need to fill a need, and, ideally, because we are motivated by a sudden inspiration and decide not to stress about whether the receiver will think it is too much or too paltry, or misconstrue our intentions. The truth is, I would like to be that person who gives gifts willy-nilly all the time for no reason at all. Yes, something to work on.

This particular list has a theme, and that theme is “gifts with a mission.”  Or, it could be “gifts that give.” Still, it is I who gets to decide the missions, which gives the gifts a selfish bent. The whole topic is fraught with peril. Nevertheless, here goes:
1.     A $50 membership to the Garden Conservancy will do some good, even if the recipient puts the membership card in a pile and rediscovers it in October, 2014 after the frost has blackened the basil. But, assuming that does not happen, he or she will receive an Open Days Directory, and thereby be alerted to some wonderful garden visiting opportunities. The mission, in this case, is that of restoring once beautiful spaces to their former glory. Before this worthy organization existed, landscape restoration—if it was considered at all—took a back seat to building preservation. Which was simply not fair.
2.    The HerShovel was designed and manufactured by women for women. The shape of the handle, the angle of the blade, and the enlarged step were thoroughly thought out by Ann and Liz, the Pennsylvania entrepreneurs who started Green Heron Tools. They minimize their environmental footprint, advocate for the interests of women in agriculture, and seek out women to trial their line of tools. Just for the record, I am (sadly) not one of the testers. 

 3.  There are a few books on nature and garden journaling out there, each aimed toward a different type of “noticer.” For the writer, I suggest The Forest Unseen by biologist David Haskell, who has the gift of noticing the microscopic world and relating its nuances to the vast geologic time scale. His writing soars. Artist's Journal Workshop by Cathy Johnson is an expansive and joyful effort that includes journal pages from 27 artists. Her project ideas and drawing guidance will leave you hankering to create. Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles Roth is an oldie but goodie that offers a more nuts-and-bolts approach. The mission here, of course, is getting us all to pay more attention. So we will care, and know what it is that we care about.
4.     A tool holster (such as this handy Tommyco model) has the beneficent mission of saving tools from the sad plight of losing themselves to the wildness that is your garden. And you know how that ends: if they reappear at all they turn up rusted beyond repair. So there you have it. A simple, inexpensive device can save the lives of loved ones. You too can be a patron of lost tools.

5.    A Phalaenopsis orchid may seem like a stretch, but consider this: To keep an orchid alive, to appreciate it and coax it into a second, third, and fourth bloom, I believe you have to strive to think like an orchid. That is, you must imagine yourself clinging to a tree and absorbing the minerals in the rainwater that runs down into the channels of its bark. Your ropey green roots aim this way and that, exposing themselves to the moist night air, epiphytically grabbing convenient surfaces. And after a time, when all is right, you send up a root lookalike, which magically transforms itself into an exquisite series of intricate blooms. If you think like an orchid, you will be less likely to drown your plant’s roots. But, more to the point, you may also be inclined to think like a pillbug, an eagle, a cloud. And imagine if all humans troubled themselves to think beyond their own wellbeing. The earth would be a better place.

And wouldn’t that be lucky?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mowing the Leaves

After the first serious frost the mulberry leaves on the tortured tree in my back yard—the one that is destined for the woodpile any day now—rain down. This happens all in one gusty hour. In that very same hour, just around the block, the yellow leaves of a neighboring gingko go from dangling adornments to brilliant golden carpet. Meanwhile, the Ebenezer Scrooge in front of my house obstinately grips its green. Even as all of its fellows lighten their loads, my badly topped, misshapen silver maple insists on photosynthesizing, as if to say, “Hate me if you will, but I command you to marvel at my genetics.”

My silver maple: still photosynthesizing in November.
When Bob and I moved into the house on Cherokee street with the silver maple and the hacked and bleeding mulberry three and a half years ago, we made a deal. Phil comes, too. Every week or two Phil pulls up in his white van, gets the gas mower out, and cuts our modest lawn, as he did Bob’s lawn on Evergreen Street for many years. I do the gardens. In my last house, I succeeded in reducing the lawn to a 5-minute mow, and I’m slowly doing the same here, but until that time, there’s Phil. He edges too, not because we’ve ever asked him to, but because that’s the way things are done in our neat little town. My mower hides out in the shed until after the hour of raining mulberry leaves.

So yesterday, I dragged the 100-foot cord to the patio outlet, plugged in the mower, and gave it its first annual workout. Across the street, a man in a tractor was dragging a huge tarp filled with leaves to the curb. He raked, he piled, he pulled. My chopped mulberry leaves fell between blades of grass and disappeared behind the path of my electric mower. I’m not saying my way is the best way, but … he raked, he piled, he pulled. For hours.

Feeding the worms
Every October, Phil would rake the leaves of Bob’s sycamore trees on Evergreen Street into big piles along the curb. He never, to his credit, used a noisy leaf blower to blast every single messy leaf onto public land, but, just the same, Bob’s lawn was perfectly devoid of anything that might spoil the neatness when the job was done. And then a big vacuum truck would come along and steal the piles. Criminal.

No thank you, I tell Phil, I will take care of the leaves on Cherokee Street. Meaning, I will keep every one of my leaves thank-you-very-much. Now, I could say that I was thinking about worms and other helpful soil animals as I monotonously mowed my mulberry leaves, and how they would churn the leaf bits into lawn fertilizer with their digestive system. But that would be a lie. I was thinking that, with a fractured rib, walking behind a mower was so much more possible that raking and piling and lifting. I gave the front lawn a cursory pass. The curled maple leaves—those that had in spite of their best efforts to hang on come loose in the wind—crumbled under the blades. Striving for perfection would be a thankless waste of effort at this point.

It’s a messy time of year. The leaves of my once handsome castor bean plant hang limp and ugly on the suddenly awkward frame. It disturbs me. I would like to say that I am comfortable with my garden going to ruins. But, again, I would be lying. It’s not like in high summer, when the coreopsis is in glorious disarray and annual ageratums and petunias fill the garden gaps leaving no room for weeds or discontent. In the throes of the growing season, I revel in a manageable measure of messiness.

Stewartia leaves on 'Lavender Stream' sweet, and still fragrant, alyssum.
In a week, or a month, I’ll be mowing the leaves again. It’s a job I would happily turn over to Phil, but he would look at me funny. He would be thinking (or maybe this is my paranoia talking), “but that’s not the way we do things around here.” If I did not watch over him he would empty the bag at the curb and my leaves would be stolen, sucked up by the big vacuum truck. My leaves. Of course, my version of fall order is equally dogmatic and, in the scheme of things, just as quirky as Phil’s. On a large and small scale, we all manage our messes, continuously. That’s what we do. 

And if they get away from us, nature manages them for us.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


In one of the last episodes of “Sex and the City,” the writers slipped a sardonic chuckle into an otherwise serious story. Momentous life decisions are made, a snowfall creates a magical city scene, a party queen falls to her death from an upper story window. Oops. 

The title of the episode: “Splat!”
And I have a large hand.
This is one of the many thoughts that passes through my mind as I approach the corner of Iroquois and Keystone Streets on a late October day. Warty chartreuse softballs line the road on both sides, but none survive where the wheel treads trail. Instead, roughly circular blots mark the asphalt. Splat!  If you are unlucky enough to intercept the hefty fruits as they drop from the tree, the sound on the car rooftop is more of a “Bang!”

All this useless beauty.
Rounding the corner to Wenner Street, I see that osage oranges have been neatly staged in cannonball-style pyramids all round the bend. Is this an artistic statement, I wonder each time I drive by?  Three days later, my question is answered. A cardboard sign reads, “FREE! 4 Spiders.” And another comical image enters my mind. But no, the helpful homeowner is not expecting expect giant arachnids to carry the fleshy balls home to their young. The fruits have a reputation—unearned as it turns out—for repelling spiders.

One by one, balls disappear from the piles, presumably to take their places under the beds of arachnophobes. A few sideliners are squished—by errant wheels, by curious kids, by squirrels. The once battle-ready order takes on the same disheveled look as the natural fruit-fall on the other side of the road. Apparently there is not much demand for osage oranges among local raccoons and deer. This makes the giant fruits something of an anomaly: they seem to have lost their function. Too big for most animals, osage oranges, also known as hedge apples, have been known to cause death among ruminants by lodging in the esophagus. The great majority of the fleshy fruits rot beneath the canopies of the trees from which they drop, which makes no sense. Why would a tree waste energy creating a pulpy fruit when it has nothing to gain? Other fruit-bearing trees have partners—birds, bats, deer, bear, or for that matter humans—that disperse their seeds and spread the species over large areas, keeping them fit and vigorous and adaptable. Why should the osage orange be an exception to this evolutionary rule?  
Osage orange flesh is unpalatable to most animals.
Ecologist Dan Janzen calls this “the riddle of the rotting fruit.” And he has a theory. Some eleven thousand years ago the great mammoths and mastodons disappeared from the Western hemisphere; whether they were hunted to extinction or victims of an abrupt change in climate is a matter of debate. There is evidence that many of the giants were forest browsers, rather than plains grazers, and so it is entirely possible that they are the key to the riddle or, as Connie Barlow puts it in the title of her book about this and other ecological curiosities, “the ghosts of evolution.” In their absence the fallen osage oranges are sometimes picked through by squirrels and made viable, but seldom does the tree species migrate far from the spot where the fruits first bounced onto the ground.
Big thorns make good fences.

There was a time when humans took over the role of dispersal agent by planting miles and miles of living fences to keep their livestock from roaming. Pruned to fence height, the osage orange tree sends up multiple suckers and becomes "horse high, bull-strong, and hog-tight" in four years. It is estimated that at the height of its popularity, a quarter million miles of osage orange hedge grew in this country. (1)

The late 19th century introduction of barbed wire put an end to this practice but vestiges of the living fences remain in areas that were once farmed, and continue to produce suckers long after the mother plants are gone. The wood is now prized for fence posts. Archers value it also, as they have for centuries. In the early 1800s a well-made osage orange bow was said to be worth a horse and a blanket, or a “comely young squaw” in trade. Tribal wars were fought for possession of lands with generous supplies of osage orange trees.
The curious rind of the osage orange
Useless pulp lies smashed on the road. Splat! Trees that once functioned as living fences are chopped down and made into dead fences. Strong curved bows of osage orange wood may conceivably have contributed to the extinction of the animals that once kept it strong. The osage orange saga, full of twists and ironies, continues, with handmade signs pleading with anonymous passersby to take these warty green balls and give them a function—under a bed, or along a basement wall, or anywhere. Just take them.
Centuries of history go by; a tree’s stock rises and falls. Tire treads mark the intersections of Iroquois and Keystone, of ancient mastodon and modern transportation.

Bales S. 2007. Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley

Monday, October 7, 2013

Fall is for Digging

Fall is for digging. It’s for nudging your imagined gardens toward actuality.

Spring may start languorously enough, but it soon quickens its pace and leaves you with half-completed projects as you race to keep up—with planting, and weeding, and pruning, and mowing … and wishing and hoping.

But in fall, everything is dying anyway. It’s easy to put off boring end-of-season tasks, and re-imagine your space. And so you dig. You create a garden, knowing that you don’t have to fill it for at least six months. Such luxury. Such promise!

If you have read my Rules of Gardening, then you know that I believe in shortcuts. I believe in letting nature work for me. I believe in leaving space for things that I don’t know—yet—that I will want. I believe in simple tools, and in preserving my joints. 

I love my Radius Pro Transplanter.

And so, on Sunday, I picked up my Radius Pro Transplanter, and I turned over the sod—which was actually 1/3 clover, 1/3 mock Indian strawberry, and 1/3 grass. And I piled the upended tangle high with mulch, and with straw that had been resting and rotting all summer in preparation for just such a moment as this. On one end of my new garden space I planted a small dogwood tree that a friend had given me two years ago, when it was a mere Audubon whip, and I braced it with a bamboo tripod, which had served as summer support for a crop of rattlesnake pole beans. Later, or sooner, I will wrap it with deer netting.

After using my aged straw, I went out and purchased 3 more bales ... for next year.

My new dogwood will make flowers in the spring and shade in the afternoon. Yes, it will take time, but better to plant young things that you can shape and watch over, than “install” large expensive trees with their roots in a knot. I think of a friend—she may be 85, or she may be 90, or 91 even—who, when asked what type of tree she would like to receive as a tribute to her years of patronage, pronounced (with the aplomb only a self-confident woman in her ninth decade can muster), “I would like a white oak, a small one. I like to watch trees grow.” So we planted the small white oak, on her instructions, in the middle of an open field, where, in her aging mind, it took on the majestic proportions of lone oaks you sometimes see standing out in the middle of fields of grass. “Lone oak” is a dignified name bestowed on farms and campsites, cities and wineries, and even senior housing facilities. The stalwart, elegant image is universal, and it pleases us all.

Landscape gerber daisies

I see my dogwood spreading its roots and its graceful form toward my patio. As for the straw-mulched arm that stretches from the patio to my young champion, I have no immediate plans. Probably I will find some alluring annual flower that I will need to try. I generally do. Last year it was my beautiful landscape gerber daisy; this year, my most gratifyingly dwarf leonotis. And even while the mystery belle of 2014 is proving her merit, I will be tossing more permanent prospects around, trying them out for size in my imagination. 

Dwarf leonotis, a spectacular garden success story.

I have all winter to luxuriate in the possibilities. Nothing, not even an apple pie in October, is more delicious than a rich bed of empty soil in April.  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Love in a Puff

Plant names are often whimsical, their origins obscure. Kiss me over the Garden Gate. Forget me not. Hollyhock. Who came up with these names, and why?

Love in a Puff is a more literal description, or so it seems at first. A wonder of geometry, each bilaterally symmetrical (or nearly so) leaf sports a triplet of three-part leaflets. Each flowering stem produces a pair of tendrils, from which spring three branchlets, each with three tiny buds. The buds burst into petite white blooms, each one becoming a puffy three-sided balloon. Hence the “Puff” in Love in a Puff. The trinities do not end there, for inside of each Puff are three partitions, and clinging to the three-wall joints are three round, black seeds. Inscribed on each seed is a perfect ivory “heart” (known in math circles as a cardioid, albeit slightly modified), hence the Love.

Cardiospermum halicacabum seeds
Love, or at least the cardioid shape, is everywhere in my garden. Redbud leaves and wood sorrel, moonflower and salvia, katsura, violets, hosta all have heart-shaped leaves. Almost always, they unfold gracefully from a center seam, each side the mirror image of the other. Sometimes, they fold up at night. But the hearts that hide in puffs have no center seam, and they expand, rather than unfold. Are they scars, enlarging from the center point of attachment? How they came to be so reliably heart-shaped rather than sensibly circular is a mystery. 

'Forest Pansy" redbud leaf. Note the folded young leaves.
We, like almost all animals and most leaves, are bilaterally symmetrical, at least on the outside. Scientists attribute symmetry in animals to the fact that, if we are to propel ourselves in an efficient fashion, the mirror image model makes the most practical sense. Right foot, left foot, we walk, arms swinging in opposing directions. On the inside, asymmetrical design has taken over some core functions. Intestinal tubes fold and roll, pushing other organs off pattern. The heart itself is neither “heart”-shaped nor is it symmetrical. It’s more like a screw. 
Which begs the question: how did we come to associate the modified cardioid—comma facing comma—with love in the first place? It took a few centuries, as it turns out. The long story involves ivy leaves, playing cards, and religious icons. Eventually Hallmark came along and sealed the deal.  (see below for a more complete explanation)

Outside of the animal kingdom exist types of symmetry other than the bilateral that shapes our preferences and our design sensibilities. The rotational symmetry of flowers (and the three-sided Puff), the spirals of nautilus shells and sunflower heads, and the six-sided symmetry of crystals follow rules of their own. Rooted organisms have no need for economical locomotion. Floaters have other options. The mathematics of the multiple spirals of pinecones that run both clockwise and counterclockwise have been figured out, named, and categorized, but that does little to diminish the mysteries. 

We have always taken our cues from nature. Sacred trinities and technologies draw from its wealth. The hexagonal combs of the honeybee inform aeronautic materials. The famous Guggenheim Museum borrows from the nautilus. The bilateral symmetry of skeletal frames infuses the arts, the automobile, the Taj Mahal, the Brooklyn Bridge. 

Seeds still attached, at the heart, to the inner walls of the puff

The perfect Puff—light as air yet strong, geometrically intriguing, poetically beautiful—is as elegant a structure as exists anywhere. Its three-walled pod, the climax of a series of threes, inflates, seemingly magically, when our heads are turned. So it is fitting that it’s name bursts with enigmatic romance. A source of inspiration, to be sure.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Garden Photos

We have had so much rain this summer that the gardens are going wild!
Morning Glory 'Sun Smile Blue' with scaevola

Garden overview

'Summer Jewel salvia, deep dark 'Marooned' coleus, 'Limelight' hydrangea

'Black Pearl' pepper, 'Limelight' hydrangea, 'Gay Butterflies' asclepias

Hibiscus acetosella, Agastache (rose mint)

Sunpatiens, 'Gay Butterflies' asclepias, 'Blue Fortune' agastache, and (in the center) 'Goshiki' osmanthus

'Dragon Wings' begonia, 'Gryphon' begonia, caryopteris

Dahlia 'Karma Chocolate with lantana

Landscape gerber daisies!!

Brugmansia 'Cassie's Curls'

We have had so much rain this summer that the ants laid their eggs in the dryest place they could find, my hose nozzle!
And they scurry to save their eggs

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Of Wasps and Half-Marathons

"Are you training?" my sister asked in a recent email. 
Last September three siblings (out of seven) walked a scenic half-marathon around Schroon Lake, in the beautiful Adirondacks. This year, we will be four. My brother from Arizona, 10 years younger and 10 inches taller than me, is joining us. And no, we are not in competition. It’s a solidarity thing. It’s a sentimental journey. We had a summer house not too far from Schroon Lake when our parents were alive.

Am I training? I was training, a little, until Friday, when I injured my toe running from a wasps’ nest I had disturbed with my weeding tool. They were probably northern paper wasps, which are downright amiable, compared to their cousins, the yellowjackets. Paper wasp colonies are small, and if you get too close (that’s assuming you actually notice that you’ve gotten too close) you will see one or two guards giving a threat display. They stand tall, spread their wings, and look menacing. It is very effective.

This is a European paper wasp, sipping dill nectar.
Wasps are omnivores, like us. They like sweet nectar but also kill caterpillars and beetle larvae to provide food for the developing larvae. This is a good thing, for gardens. The colony includes a number of females—males are not produced, or in fact needed, until the end-of-summer mating time approaches—but it is the queen who is most diligent about defending the nest. As the workers invest more time in the care and feeding of the colony, they get a little more aggressive, but they don’t mark and chase you.  

If you’ve ever disturbed a yellowjackets’ nest, you know what that means. These aggressive wasps deposit a chemical pheromone on the hapless one who disturbs their peace, communicating alarm and riling up the entire colony—of 5-10,000! The chemical persists for hours. I once watched a whole hive of yellow jackets converge on a sweatshirt that was stripped and tossed midway through a breakneck run. Remarkably, the young man who put his foot in the nest got away clean. The wasps had marked his clothing, not his person. It was a full day before he could safely retrieve the sweatshirt.

Had I been thinking logically, I would not have risked my toe to escape the paper wasps, because when they retaliate against an interloper, it is generally a one-shot deal. The sting hurts like heck, but a single infusion of venom, or maybe two, each summer seems, at least in me, to dampen the immune response; it has been years since I have swelled and itched after being stung. 

This is the offending guardrail, dressed in moss phlox last spring.
So, there I was on one side of a low guardrail, along with the wasps. Below us was a ten-foot drop. It was the guardrail that, literally, caused my downfall. All in all, northern paper wasps are friendly neighbors, as long as you give them their space—which I did not, last Friday.

This was my second digital injury of the season caused, indirectly, by an animal. A month ago, after repeated attempts, I caught a groundhog in a Havahart trap. I did not (have a heart, that is), but that’s another story. I set the empty trap down on the ground, and then, with my arms full of lettuce and scallions, tripped over it. I hit the ground—hard! The ugly thigh bruises came and went but one little finger, to all appearances uninjured, still remembers the fall every time someone shakes my hand. All in the service of an armload of greens.

Am I training? I will be. Last year I was lax, and I paid for it with aching thighs. This year, I aim to do a weekly 5-mile fast walk, starting now, so that my muscles will be ready. This means no more stupid moves in the garden.

Over the years there have been plenty of purple bruises and tender joints, and even a couple of black eyes. One I acquired the traditional way, by stepping on the business end of a hoe, the other more creatively when my pruners flew out of my hands (of their own accord) as I was wrestling a giant wisteria, and landed on my brow. I hate it when that happens.

Yes we can and we will walk 13.1 miles through a stunning fall display of leaves and lakes and mountains without embarrassing ourselves by strolling in after the food tent has been disassembled. Yes we will have 3 hours (ok, 3 ½) to talk and remember and experience the day, to create pictures and memories, to build solidarity. Last year, the young, fit sister could not deny her competitive spirit and “made the break” at mile 8. She may do it again—probably earlier this year, to improve her time. That’s all right. I will not run. 

Assuming, that is, there’s not a yellowjackets’ nest along the course.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Rules of Gardening

There are certain garden practices I do not do, and will never do. Double-digging, for one example. Hedge shearing, for another. They are no fun. Therefore I avoid them. They are unnecessary evils. 

Gardening is not knitting. It is not a step-by-step, but an exploration. And so you will not find maxims like “feed your lawn in spring and fall” or “tomatoes must be planted 3 feet apart” in my rulebook. My rules are my rules. Take them … or write your own. 
Finches love sunflowers, so I love sunflowers.

Rule #1. Never pull out a chance sunflower seedling.
I see the little seed leaves that are so unmistakably sunflower-like and in my head I see finches doing acrobatics on the seedheads. I see slow-moving bumblebees, oblivious to all of the other the darting pollinators, systematically sucking nectar from the hundreds of tiny disk flowers.  If the sunflower seedling has emerged clumsily close to a lilac or spiraea, so be it. The shrub will just have to share the space for this one year. It will survive.

Rule #2. Never plant a shrub rose where bindweed grows.
This rule comes from experience. It comes from bloody arms and punctured thumbs. Field bindweed is a problem anywhere, but it will twine up the thorny stems of a shrub rose and erupt into flower before you can even catch sight of the rapidly growing menace. Meanwhile the ropey roots are happily storing carbohydrates well below the soil surface. Though capable of spreading more than 10 feet in a growing season, the vines are generally so content with the strategy of growing within the rose that they don’t even need to venture outside of its protective thorniness. Let the bindweed seeds mature, and the pest will assuredly outlive both you and the rose. Seed has been found to be viable at the ripe old age of 60!

And while we’re on the subject,
Pilea pumila, one of the good guys

Rule #3. Get to know your weeds.
There is a hierarchy. Some weeds must be removed forthwith, bound up in plastic, tortured, burned … Aside from the abovementioned bindweed, I include the deceptively unassuming arum, Pinellia ternata, in this category. Its common names are crow dipper and, more aptly, miniature green dragon, and the secret to its success lies in the corm that remains securely buried in the soil after you yank out the stem. But, on the other end of the weed spectrum are the good guys, what I call the placekeepers. Lovely jewelweed holds a fertile spot until you find some other use for it, and then offers no resistance when you pull. Pilea pumila, also known as clearweed, is similarly benign. It is related to stinging nettle and, like nettle, sustains the caterpillars of some beautiful butterflies, including the Red Admiral. Both jewelweed and clearweed are, not so coincidentally, native plants.

Need to save space for dwarf ginkgo!
Rule #4. Always leave an empty spot or two in your garden.
This goes back to having fun. You just never know when you are going to encounter that plant that you must have. If there’s space to play with—even if it involves moving things around—you can say yes! Conversely, that empty spot will allow for “the quest.” The delicious hunt for that special something. You don’t know what it is, yet, but it’s out there. You'll know it when you see it.

Rule #5. If there’s an easy way to do something, do it!
And this goes back to double-digging, which probably has its advantages (though how would I know?). Nevertheless I’ve had great success with gardening without ever having to resort to this extreme method, which involves much sweat and muscle, a wheelbarrow or tarp, a tool that can dig a series of deep trenches without breaking, and a great chunk of time. I started my vegetable garden by laying down bales of straw and rolling them over once they had killed the turf, then forking and adding compost as needed. The straw, by the way, makes excellent mulch and is very easy to move around the garden, unlike 3 cubic yards of wood chips.
My vegetable garden: beautiful, productive, and not  double-dug.

The benefit, of course, to taking things easy, is that it encourages one to add more gardens. More opportunities for “the quest.” More space for sunflowers and bumblebees and finches.

More gardens, fewer rules. Isn't that the way life should be?

What are your rules of gardening?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The story of the beetles

Let me start with a disclaimer. I did not put the thirteen beetles into the bucket of water last Thursday evening. No I didn’t. They dove in on their own, sometime during or after the storm, the same storm that filled the white bucket with about two inches of rainwater in about an hour. 

When I saw them squiggling their hairy legs in an effort to stay alive on Friday morning I considered doing the humane thing. Yes I did. And I almost emptied the bucket and its contents. But that would have meant releasing thirteen beetles of an unidentified species into my garden to do who knows what. So I turned around and walked in the house. I left them there to drown. 

But a curious thing happened. They wouldn’t! Drown, that is. On Sunday morning, about half of them were still squiggling furiously. 

European chafer beetles = lawn pests

My interest (but not my compassion) piqued, I did a little research on the prisoners. Ah hah! My callous non-action was well advised. European chafer beetles, it turns out, are a sneaky sort of pest, escaping our notice by emerging at night. They buzz about for a week or two, congregating on trees and light posts. They mate and fall to the ground, where females lay about 50 eggs over the two weeks of their adulthood. Each. They don’t eat leaves (unlike their Japanese cousins), but each egg they lay turns into a little white grub with an appetite for grass roots. Large numbers of grubs will ravage a lawn. 

Like I said, sneaky.

It is now Sunday, early evening, nearly three days after some mysterious force (or maybe my porch light) prompted the beetles to take a swim. Five are still paddling, their life’s mission—to mate and lay eggs—thwarted, but their will as fervent as ever. Every now and then, one will climb aboard a dead comrade for a brief respite before resuming the quest …  to reach the shore?  To find a soulmate? Relative to a human adult life span, their time in the water converts to something like thirteen continuous years in a pool, without lunch breaks or naps. It is becoming clear which of our two animal species will come out ahead, should a cataclysm befall us all.

Monday morning.  Rain pelted the thirteen beetles overnight, raising the level of water in the bucket by about an inch. At first all seemed still. Motionless beetles rimmed the edge. But, a little shake, and three of them resumed their paddling.

Monday, early evening. With a fascination turned morbid, I jiggled the bucket, now about 4 inches deep. Surely they must be dead. The three beetles responded by wiggling their legs.

Wednesday morning. At first I thought, why even mention the fourteenth beetle that dove into the bucket sometime yesterday? Except that it seems to have brought renewed vigor to the three still-alive-and-kicking beetles. The four live ones swim the rim, occasionally engaging with each other (rather than with the carcasses of their companions, which are looking a bit soft, and unappetizingly fuzzy). The water in the bucket is now about 4 ½ inches deep; thunderstorms have been rolling through every afternoon and evening, and Philadelphia and other nearby cities have set June rainfall records. Along the river, water spurts out of the hills and spills over the road, and the river itself is opaque with mud scoured from the banks of streams. This is all good news for beetle grubs—more of them survive in moist soils. Even in a dry summer, however, beetles are in no danger of disappearing. They’ve been around for nearly 300 million years … and counting.

Thursday. It is hot and sunny, perfect weather for a swim. The three determined beetles have nearly reached the 7-day mark.

Friday. Ok. I really thought that this story would have a nice concise ending. That I could count the beetles, and the days, and come up with an intelligent wrap-up about how the lowly beetle will prove its superiority in the end, as we blithely consume ourselves into oblivion. But there is no ending to this story. Twenty-some beetles, some (I have stopped counting) living, and some dead, float in the water of the white bucket, along with who knows what else. Mosquito larvae may be hatching even as I write. Life is just not neat. Lessons are not predictable. 

This story ends with Dawn, about ten drops, stirred with a stick. 

Unceremoniously, I dump the bucket and its now impotent contents onto the grass. 

Natural History Museum. 2007.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Catalpa: Full of Life

Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing—during a period when the liturgy was chanted in the language of the dead and stained glass windows of aged churches stretched upward in ceremonious supplication—that caused me to stop at the sight of the old catalpa with the huge cavity. The arched opening ushered my eye into a dark interior, like the nave of an ancient cathedral. Jagged wedges of decaying wood were pocked with the traces of wood-boring insects. Brilliant daylight shone through a hole in the trunk. And yet the catalpa tree was very much alive. 
Nave of the catalpa tree

The bumblebee: a friendly sort
A bumblebee posed on one of the broad leaves, while a tick-like arachnid held tight to another. Lifting a leaf or two revealed that much of the action was hidden from view. I settled in to plumb the mysteries of the giant cavity, infected with a reverence befitting the Stations of the Cross.

Suddenly (and I’m not making this up) harp music began to play in the distance. And then, the voice of an angel began to sing:
“It must have been cold there in my shadow,
to never have sunlight on your face.”
Beetle's eye view!

I don’t know anything about the soul that was being memorialized, but hearing “Wind Beneath My Wings” sung in the quiet of the wildlife sanctuary made my beneficent aging catalpa, a haven for creatures of all kinds, seem even more venerable. 

Daddy longlegs lurks beneath

Someday it will fall, and yet another renewal of life will occur. The decayed heartwood will break into chunks, and roots will find their way into the cracks. Invertebrates, from mites to centipedes to slugs and snails, will find passage along these openings. Salamanders and shrews will hide beneath the sloughed bark and rotten wood, and dig tunnels into the crumbly substrate. Fungi will abound.

Before I knew it an hour had passed. Again, a walk in the woods had worked its magic.

Just one hour, in a life filled with hours.  

Tiny spider. Hanging out on a beautiful day.
Woolly aphids make honeydew. Honeydew supports fungi, i.e. sooty mold.

Ref: Maser, C. and others. 1984. The Unseen World of the Fallen Tree.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Social Perils of Gardening

If you are smart, and sensitive to social ramifications of putting your obsessions on display for all the “normal” world to see, you will say “No, but thank you!” to social invitations that come your way during spring, when the natural world is full of exuberance and your gardening spirit has not yet been beaten down by explosions of bugs and infestations of holey foliage. 

“Why” you ask? 

Fava bean in flower!

Realize that you are all too likely to speak your mind. And your mind is, shall we say, differently attuned, than most? Without thinking you may say something like, 

“I’m so excited about my favas!”

Yes, I know, vegetable gardening has become the new “in” thing to do. Still, in the real world, your listener will more than likely reply, 
“…Favas? What’s that?”
“Favas are big beans. Some people call them broad beans!”
“So what do you plan to do with these beans?”
“I’m not really sure … this is the first time I’ve grown them. And they’re absolutely beautiful! Big, sturdy plants standing in handsome rows! Ants have been crawling all over them. You see, the plants have extra-floral nectaries tucked beneath their leaves, which draw the ants, which then keep away other leaf-eating insects … theoretically. It’s like watching a science project!”
Ants and favas. Perfect together?

“Extra what?”
“Extra-floral nectaries. Plant parts that are not flowers that produce nectar!”
“For the ants.”
Ladybugs to the rescue!
“Yes! I don’t think the ants have much to do with the black aphids that congregate on the tops of a lot of the plants, but they might. There’s a lot of research on that but I haven’t found any conclusions. I’m starting to see ladybugs on some plants, which is an exciting development! They’ll help control the aphids. I’ve found that spraying aphids never works. You need the ladybugs.”

At about this time you may notice (or you may not) your listener’s attention straying, and his or her eyes looking around the room for a reason to make a polite escape.
“Aphids, huh.”
“Black aphids. They’re different from the aphids on lettuce, which are usually green, or on tomatoes, which are sometimes pink. Isn’t that absolutely fascinating, how the color of aphids sometimes matches the plant they feed on?”
“Umm, yeah. Hey, I think I see my friend over there …”
“Now the fava flowers are beginning to turn black—that’s what’s supposed to happen—and I’m just starting to see the beans form. I’m wondering if they’ll get as big as they’re supposed to get. The thing about favas is … my son the farmer told me this … it doesn’t even matter that much if you get a big harvest. They’re worth the trouble just for their value as a cover crop! … oh … ok … we’ll catch up later.”

But, no.

The “bore” label has attached itself to you. Like a black aphid on a fava bean plant. Maybe staying home, gardening until dark, and after dark delving into the mysteries that have thrust themselves into your psyche, would have been a better choice.

But there must be a way that we can convert the masses into seeing the fascination, locking in to the mystery.

We need to get them outside.

It’s impossible to describe, in an inside conversation, the thrill of discovering connections, the excitement of getting a glimpse into how it all works. The kick lies in seeing for yourself the adaptations plants make for reasons we are only beginning to understand; becoming conscious of the complex interactions that go on outside the door every minute of every day. They set the mind spinning and exploring and looking for answers that only lead to more questions.

On second thought, say yes.

Because, you just never know.

I just have to tell you about the tiniest little grasshoppers I spotted on my tomato leaves today—they were smaller than my little fingernail. They must have been first instar. Did you know that grasshoppers molt five times before reaching full size? Oh, you have to go? Ok, we’ll talk later …won't we?