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.