Spring Fevers

When last heard from, Inconstant Gardener was rolling up the garden and putting it away for the winter. And anticipating more time for blogging, hence more frequent posts all winter.

Guess what? Well, look at today’s date, and you’ll know. I last posted shortly after we went off daylight saving time. We’re due to go back onto it this coming weekend.

Where did the past three-four months go?

Does this ever happen to you during winter? You start out with all these ideas about how you’ll make the winter cozy and/or productive and/or b-e-a-r-a-b-l-e, and before you know it, none of that has happened and the seed catalogs have piled up and there has been no knitting, barely any pickles or chutneys made, and no chestnuts roasting by an open fire. Nor has the stack of must-read books receded by one millimeter.

For the last of those, may I say in my defense: I have been reading, but somebody who will remain nameless but sports the initials I.C.G. keeps ordering two books (or three, or four) for every one read.

But seriously, where does the winter go? Or to be more specific, where the hell did this winter go?

Spring is on the Way. Yikes!

Not to get too far ahead of myself. It is still winter out there, and I have the photo to prove it. (Okay, it’s a week old, and it was 66° a day or so ago, so most of it’s gone now, but still….)

Snow-covered garden section showing outlines of 2 raised beds, with a small cast-iron decorative fence and some stakes to the left of the beds; beyond and on a lower level the trunks of some small trees can be seen rising out of the snow.

Not ready yet.

What a weird winter it has been. I had looked forward to a chance to use my snowshoes, newly bought in 2020 and never used. But snowfall has not cooperated. On average, we get 28 inches of snow from November through February. This year, we got barely more than half of that. The snows that did fall subsided faster than usual, too.

Climate change? November was 2° above the historical average; December, 4° higher; January, about average; February, 2° higher. Those averages don’t convey the seesaw we saw, though. Daily highs in February of 52, 58, 62 and even 66°, hopscotching with highs of 32, 28, 22 and 20°—and many of the lows in single digits. Climate whiplash!

And yet, and yet. There’s that switch to daylight saving time coming, followed shortly thereafter by the Ides of March, and about a week after that, spring equinox. It will be May before I know it.

Are we there yet?

We New Englanders know all too well that winter ain’t over till it’s over, but there are harbingers outside the calendar too. My daffodils out in the north forty (feet) started poking green feelers above ground back in mid-February. Something next to the front stoop is trying hard to assert itself, and once the pile of cleared-from-driveway snow melted away, that something revealed itself as undaunted.

We can’t rest easy (ha! we can’t get too active outside, is more the point) until mid- to late April, and I dare not plant much out there until a good deal later. But I know from sad experience that if I don’t get ready well beforehand, I’ll miss the spring boat.

Photo of ground with snow at top of photo, and some mulch-covered soil in foreground with several shoots of spring bulb plants coming up green through the mulch

Harbingers or foolhardies?

Do you know the last frost date for your area? (If you never get frost, don’t gloat. Remember you will never savor the joys of chilblains and frostbite.) And do you know when to get bizzzy with the spring garden tasks? Some call them chores, but that sounds, I dunno, kind of onerous, like it’s work or something.

If you’re planning on planting from seed, or putting in any tender plants, you need to anticipate what Ma Nature could toss your way unexpectedly. For that matter, even if you aren’t gardening, it’s a good thing to know that last likely frost date. Some years ago, a friend of mine in Boston, psyched for spring by a spate of March weather in the high 60s, put away all her winter clothes at the beginning of April. Whereupon of course the wind turned and she froze her tushie off all of April and into early May.

Your garden odometer

So, gardener or not, you may want to study carefully this tool from Dave’s Garden:

Look up your first and last freeze dates by zipcode

For reading the table you’ll get from your search, remember that degrees of probability matter. For my area, for example, there’s a 50% chance of light frost even after May 10; to get down to only a 10% chance, I have to wait until May 24. I might luck out with tender babies planted on May 11, but half the time I probably wouldn’t. So I will wait on those until late May.

Of course, if I’m planting the tough guys, like peas, I (and they) can afford to scoff at frost a bit. Those could go in as early as April 12. Peppers and squash, on the other hand, should only go into the ground after June 1. If you know what you’ll be planting in the veggie, herb, and annual flower department, Margaret Roach has put together a spring garden calculator that helps you figure out when to sow them outside or plant indoors. Or, if you prefer a more graphic guide, you can order the gorgeous spring planting poster from Hudson Valley Seed.

Down and Dirty

Cover of Fedco's 2022 Seeds and Supplies catalogThen, naturally, we need the seeds. Temptations in the form of seed catalogs started plopping into my mailbox in December. I resisted temptation the only way I know works: I didn’t open them. But they still whispered to me. I stashed them all with the gardening books and files, nearly a dozen of them. Johnny’s Selected. Fedco. Baker Creek Heirloom. Seed Savers Exchange, High Mowing, neseed, and a bunch of others.

That tally does not include the bulb and tuber and corm vendors. Those catalogs poured in with covers adorned with legions of irises and lilies and their sisters decked out in colors that would turn a rainbow green with envy. Some of those catalogs got saved too.

Why, I do not know. Because here’s the truth of the matter: there is no room at the inn. Well, maybe a tiny bit more. But only if I assemble the new cedar planks-and-connectors into the 3’X18’ bed I have in mind for the bottom of the stone wall. I find, however, that planting spaces are like unexpected money that rolls in. I can always think of three uses for every extra dollar. And by gum, I can always think of ten uses for every square foot of garden space.

Garden space has tricks my dollars haven’t learned, though. When it comes to veggie or annual flower plantings, I can often get two uses out of the same spot, with early and late crops. Like the late crop of beans and peas and carrots and radishes and lettuce and chard that kept me harvesting into late October last year.

Still, there are limits, unless I yield to the temptation to dig up yet another part of the lawn—a big part—and get Serious. But—no. Not this year.

Plan. Plan again.

I think I told you last year it’s best to have a plan, but you saw how that worked out. Even with a plan, I ended up way over-buying on seeds. Some of my neighbors benefited thereby.

But I may not have mentioned that I also bought all sorts of seed-starting paraphernalia. Grow lights and the chains to hang them. Heating mat. Trays and pots and a plastic-domed setup for starting the pickier seeds. None of that got used, but it beckons now, with many of last year’s leftovers labeled (last fall) START INDOORS IN MARCH or APRIL.

Meanwhile, I planned on something simple for the edible garden this year: herbs and salad, with a few bug-repelling flowers for company. How’s that for a resolution? The resolution stuck until I arrived at my local co-op market a few days ago to find confronting me, right upon entry and even before the bananas, several racks with choirs of seed packets crooning just to me. I resisted the melons and the broccoli and the cauliflower, but oh how the peas and squashes stirred my soul.

To the tune of the assemblage below.

photo showing fronts of a couple dozen seed packets of vegetables, herbs and flowers

Too much of a good thing

Another happy event for the neighbors.

Well, down at least

If you haven’t nabbed your seeds yet, you can still order online or even via mail-order (yes, some companies still do that!). For readers’ convenience, I have started a Resources section on this website, where you’ll find Seeds as the first crop, emphasizing organics.

But if you have the self-control necessary to run the risk of over-buying, check the seed racks at your local garden center, not the big-box one but the co-op or mom-and-pop operation. You’ll be supporting your local economy. Many of the companies listed on the Seeds page sell through stores as well as online.

A jumble of supplies for indoor seed-starting: peat pots, planters, mounts for grow-lights, timed extension cords, etc.

Batterie de jardin indoor

My next act with the seeds: to pull out the seed-starter equipment and get to work. Fortunately, the pandemic continues to curtail my wanderlust. Once the seeds get planted in the starter battery, I can’t leave them for more than one overnight without risking their drying out and expiring.

Up first: nicotiana, whose flowers, believe it or not for a name like that, are said to have an intoxicatingly sweet aroma.

Stay tuned. You may get to see candid shots of tiny shoots.

What got away

Here’s my admission of winter failure, though. I’d planned to plant a bevy of native wildflower seeds, the kind that require “cold stratification.” In English, that means they need to freeze their tiny buns off in cold wet outdoors for a couple of months before they’ll sprout.

Last fall I ordered Joe Pye weed, red columbine, and New England aster seeds from Maine’s Wild Seed Project. For those, you could just spread them out on the ground in fall and let them take their chances, but good luck telling them apart from the weeds when they come up. The more surefire approach requires sprinkling the seeds in a pot, watering well, and placing them outdoors in an enclosure to protect them from critters.

Surefire? You’re supposed to do that in November or December. Maybe January, if you’re pushing it. I intended November, really I did, and even got a 3’X3’ cedar frame set up ready. Then I intended December. Then I figured Oh well, January. And lo! it became Feb. 15, so I said Next year.

Yeah, I do that a lot.

The perennial problem

Cartoon in 3 panels, with 1 leader and 3 responders: <br>panel one: Who are we? (responders); Gardeners!<br>Panel two: What do we want? (Responders): All the plants! <br>Panel three: Where will we put them? (Responders): We don't know!The irony here of course is that if I had started all those nifty natives, by summer I’d have faced the dilemma of where to put them (see above disquisition on space limitations). Which brings up my favorite gardening cartoon. I wish I knew what brilliant soul came up with this, because I’d like to give credit and get permission. So if you know the source, please let me know!

The moral of this story: I’m beginning to understand why Japanese gardeners came up with bonsai. But that gets us to the topic of pruning, which I’ll have to reserve for the next post.

Meanwhile: make sure your garden really is warmed up for spring before you start “cleanup,” or you may destroy some of the beneficial insects that overwinter in leaf litter and dead twigs. I’ll say more on that next post, too—before spring advances too far.

While you’re waiting for that last frost

Dandelions growing alongside a gray curb; the street and most of the dandelion plant have been sprayed the blue in the Urkainian flag; a single dandelion remains bright yellow.

“Ukrainian Flag,” by Olga/ _Nezemnaye_
CC BY-ND 2.0

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created hundreds of thousands of refugees, and may mount to millions; it has also destroyed the homes and livelihoods of countless Ukrainians. If you’re looking for somewhere to donate or something to do, and aren’t sure about reliable organizations, here are a few possibilities.

Remember that in situations like this, there are rarely ironclad guarantees that your money will be used responsibly. Perfectly reliable and honest organizations may be so busy responding to urgent needs that they don’t get around to timely tracking or accounting for funds. So if you don’t feel comfortable with the assurances by particular collectors, investigate further or find organizations vetted for by a source you trust.

(NB: I’m not vetting, but I am passing on links provided by people or organizations I consider reliable. If you find the same organization/s recommended by several sites, they’re possibly that much more reliable, but they could just be more mainstream.)

  1. GoFundMe fundraising for Ukrainian Humanitarian Fund. According to the site: “All donations raised will be distributed to verified nonprofit organizations supporting vulnerable communities to obtain access to shelter, food, medical services, education, and psychosocial support….” Read the fine print! You can find here a listing of the organizations that have received funding so far, and those likely for future funding.
  2. How you can help the people of Ukraine, from the Obama Foundation.
  3. Want to support the people in Ukraine? Here’s how you can help, from PBS.
  4. How to help people in Ukraine and refugees fleeing the conflict with Russia, from NPR.
  5. How to Help LGBTQ+ and Black Ukrainian Refugees.
  6. Stand with Ukraine. Provides links to places to donate, but also to some non-financial actions you can take.
  7. Help Ukraine Win. The section up top is for supporting the “the Ukrainian tech community,” but if you scroll down there are links to other organizations and actions. Also includes link to widgets you can place on your website to link to the Help Ukraine Win site.

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment appears after their posts, so scroll down till you find it.) I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. What’s the first thing you do in your garden in the spring?
  2. How do you get your new plants started? Sowing seed indoors or out, or buying the seedlings started for you?
  3. What’s your favorite seed company or garden supply outlet, whether bricks-and-mortar or online? (You can provide one link per comment.)
  4. If you know of a good organization or action for helping Ukrainians affected by the invasion, could you post about it here? (One link per comment, please. You can post any number of comments.)

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

Wishing everyone a spring that brings peace.

Thanks, as always, for reading, and double thanks for responding!


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Eleventh Hour

Happy Unhalloween!

‘Tis the season, at last, for dealing with the last dead or dying scraps before wrapping up the garden for the winter. (Don’t worry: the blog will continue. And I’ll have more time for it!)

A few days past Halloween, I happened upon a scene that seemed tailor-made as a motif for this season—and I even managed to park and get the phone camera out fast enough to get several shots, and a video to boot. Herewith, a sample:

Three black vultures near yellow center line of a road, two of them picking at some roadkill while the third appears to be supervising from about two feet away; tombstones of a cemetery in background, with green grass going brown and trees behind, most of them with leaves already dropped. In far background, a hill can be seen, topped with blue sky.

Picks just keep getting harder to find.

As I drove down the road towards this scene, I thought at first that it was crows picking at roadkill in the middle of the asphalt.

Wrong! Carrion eaters, but not corvids: VULTURES. Vultures picking daintily at a dead carcass. Not turkey vultures, apparently, unless they’ve been at the Clairol. Black vultures, which supposedly don’t range up this far north, but hey, climate change.

It’s not a jungle out there just yet

Now, if you’re expecting me to jump right to political topics, sorry! Sure, we’ll be getting to that as usual, but in the meantime, given several successive nights of real frost (and some humdingers; I woke up to 24°F one morning, and precious little warmer on others), winter is truly setting in, and deserves a mention.

Weeds are at last gasp; I can hear them choking when I step out onto the deck. They’re sitting ducks now for the pulling, which I have resolved to do this week, after I get this posted and the temperatures go up enough to make gardening less excruciating.

A bluish-white iris bud just about to blossom, but killed by frost. frost can be seen on the bud tip, on the beigy-brown casing, and on a flurry of iris leaves behind the doomed blossom.

What a frosted reblooming iris looks like.

Flowers? Curtains.

Yes, I actually did still have flowers. Quite a few: Montauk daisies. Black-eyed Susans. Coreopsis. Butterfly bushes. One or two gallant coneflowers. Some stalwart reblooming irises. Even a couple of gorgeous peachy-pink foxgloves that kept chugging right up until the mercury hit 28º. Requiescant in pace, every last sweet one of them. See ya in the spring.

But my main concern was the vegetable patch, of which, believe it or not, a good deal remained. In the last week of October, I ripped out the faltering pea and bean vines and harvested all the remaining cilantro, which still sits in a vase of water on kitchen counter awaiting judgment.

A large bunch of leafy cilantro, deep green, stems showing in the bottom of a large glass vase on a white kitchen counter. Miscellaneous small packages and bottles partially visible in background. Backdrop includes the lower right sections of a natural-wood window frame, a white cellular blind on the left side of the photo (closed), and off-white wall to the right.

Highly recommended if you need greenery for a flower arrangement!

Corn and bean salad? Chicken larb? Freeze the suckers? I’ll get back to you on that, because….

Pressing matters

The real drama remains in the veggie beds. Seeing the frosty forecasts, I hastily consulted my go-to source: The Internet! Can carrots survive frost, I asked Google. Are parsley and chard frost-hardy, I inquired of DuckDuckGo. (BTW, I highly recommend the latter as your go-to search engine. It does not track your every move the way supposedly first-don’t-be-evil Google does.) Mostly, the more reliable sources said no problema, although some drew the line at 24°F, others at 28°.

I ran to the garden store and found a GardenQuilt, 12ftX20ft, so I could cover the poor babies in the cold cold ground with a nice warm blankie. (It isn’t really quilted; it’s just a thickish layer of “spun-bonded polypropylene fibers,” which doesn’t sound very organic to me.) Before opening the quilt, I moseyed outside to assess the situation, and made an executive decision: a quilt was nuts. As in, what am I going to drape it over, and how many spots do I have to cover, and what will I hold it down with, and do I really want to cut this thing up and what about next year???

But I’m not reckless. To be on the safe side, I went to…

Plan B!

Part of a raised bed, viewed horizontally, with lots of bright green carrot tops showing at the left edge of photo and in the middle, with light tan saltmarsh hay tucked several inches high alongside the carrot rows. To the right of the carrots, some clumps of leaves of red-ribbed chard and bluish-green kale can be seen, with bare soil around them.

Settling in for a short winter’s nap

I piled a lot of salt-marsh hay alongside the carrot rows, muttered best-of-luck to the chard and parsley, and yanked out the last couple of lettuces. Then I went inside and turned on my central heating. (I held off till Nov.1 this year, in honor of our beleaguered planet, but also because we had such a warm fall.)

And what to my wondering eye did appear, that first morning after the first serious frost?

The raised bed, now seen vertically, with all vegetable leaves frost-covered: the hay-mulched carrot foliage fallen sideways, the red-ribbed chard leaves lying low. Only the kale, although also frosted, looks undaunted.

Frosted veggies! (Those floppy things in the middle and in back are/were carrot tops.)

I thought they were all goners for sure. But later in the day, I took a break from composing their epitaphs to survey the damage, and lo!

The same vegetable bed, from the same angle as in the preceding photo, with frosting gone, and most of the leaves perked back up.

Back up they perked!

Almost as good as new.

This hasn’t been a matter of one frost, though. I think we’ve had a string of five consecutive mornings that started off around 26° or even lower. When I checked yesterday afternoon, the parsley and the chard looked like they were having second thoughts about hanging on much longer.

My plan is to put them (and the carrots) out of their misery today or tomorrow—and to plant the garlic and shallots in their stead. The kale can stay; it has a bring-it-on insouciant air that almost makes up for its being… kale.

Planet A

Circle of life, right? I harvest the carrots, and put in a couple of allium cousins.

Some vehicle leaves roadkill, and the vultures get it.

Meanwhile, as I was beginning on this post, COP26 was just getting going in Scotland. It started on Halloween, apparently no irony intended by the organizers. (This gives you some idea of how long I labor on these posts. You’re welcome!)

Photograph of earth as seen from outer space, with part of the globe in total darkness; about 2/3 of the circle is visible, showing mostly blue with some continental masses buff-colored; swirls of white clouds overlay the whole. The background is pitch black.

The only one we’ve got.
NASA photo from collection “Looking back from Apollo 11,” July 16, 1969

If you were blissfully unaware of what COP26 is all about, well, not to bum you out or anything, but it’s a big UN conference, an international talk-a-rama about what to do about the increasingly dire situation of climate change. My apologies for giving you only Greenpeace links here, but you would not thank me for linking you to the Minotaur’s labyrinths of circumlocution on the UN and official UK (host for this session) sites for the conference. (I looked; I barely made it out alive and/or sane.)

That might be taken as a portent for what comes out of the conference, which continues till November 12. There may be slight progress, but nowhere near what’s needed given the challenges we face now. As far as I can tell, the main outcome seems to be that we’re all still lined up as not-too-distant-future roadkill. Maybe slightly more distant than before. Maybe not.

I’m not sure who will get to pick our carcasses, but to the extent that the homicidal vehicles have any drivers, they appear to be a mix of those aiming straight at us (big oil and big coal, can you hear me?) and those busy doing the après-vous-Alphonse shuffle over who will take the wheel if it means shouldering the responsibility of finding a better route.

In the nick of time

A group of short cylindrically shaped carrots, bright orange with lush green foliage tops still on them, set in a metal bowl on top of a pebble-glass table. A small white plastic plant label "French Baby Carrots" sits alongside the carrots in the bowl.

What the world needs now?

In the face of what’s coming at us, poking around in the garden sometimes seems nothing but a slightly more elegant variant of the ostrich-head-in-sand gambit. I mean, seriously, is what the world needs really more organic French Baby Nantes carrots or Festiva Maxima peonies?

Before I managed to work myself into a hopeless pretzel over this (which I confess could just be an excuse for giving up on the garlic planting), Rebecca Solnit’s latest book, Orwell’s Roses, landed in my mailbox.


I’m about halfway through it, and it’s so good I plan on devoting a whole future post to it.

But I can tell you this much now. Solnit discovered, almost by accident, that George Orwell, that famously acerbic essayist, novelist, and memoirist, was an avid gardener. And that he relished the beauty flowers bring to our world, as well as enjoying the tasty things he brought to the table from his veggie patch. In the midst of the Great Depression. Before and after taking part in the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, which pummeled the UK for six years beginning in 1939. And postwar, while slowly dying of tuberculosis.

Solnit makes a strong case for the necessity of beauty in its many forms (from flowers to philharmonic orchestras) to sustain us as we work for a better world. So, en avant, carrots and peonies! And now I’ve got to get to the garlic.

But before I do, in case you aren’t already involved in action on climate change, let me suggest that you take a look at grassroots-oriented groups in your area. Or check out 350.org, which works at the grassroots internationally, describing itself as a “planet-wide collaboration of organizers, community groups and regular people fighting for a fossil free future.”

As for that contest:

Remember these?

Mystery fruit A

… and Mystery fruit B

… along with Mystery fruit C

Several eager readers made stabs at identifying these fruits. We had two guesses for A (mangosteen and loquat), and two for B (pawpaw and mango). C seemed the most popular item: two people went for lychee, and two for kousa dogwood.

And the correct answers are….

A: medlar

B: pawpaw

C: kousa dogwood

Nobody got all three, but one person did get both the pawpaw and the kousa dogwood right. Helen, I hereby declare you the winner. I think a suitable prize, unless you already have it, would be a copy of Orwell’s Roses. Will be in touch!

Thanks go to Corky for the photo of the kousa dogwood fruits. I took the pictures of the other two fruits during an Edible Landscaping Walk (and talk) at Cricket Hill Garden on October 9. Dan Furman of CHG gave a fascinating introduction to some fruits that gardeners often don’t even know about.

Photo of a pawpaw fruit, opened and partly scooped out with a spoon. The fruit is in a round white bowl, with a black-handled spoon inserted into it. Part of the creamy yellow flesh has already been scooped out, and a couple of the large dark brown seeds are partially visible, as is a small line of the greenish skin around the fruit.

A pawpaw, open for business.

Such as the pawpaw. As part of the walk, we all got some sample fruits. I took my pawpaw home with me, set it sideways to slice off a small lengthwise section, and used a spoon to scoop out the fruit. It was delectable, like a cross between a sweet custard and an applemuch like its aptly named tropical cousin, the Custard Apple. I nearly jumped back into the car to drive the 2 1/2 hours back to Thomaston CT to collect a couple of pawpaw trees for myself.

Only one thing stopped me. As long as I had (and have) no idea where to plant the aronia bushlet I’d brought home with me, buying a couple of trees was maybe not a great idea.

But I have plans for spring.

And one little heads-up, for the ecologically minded

The Berkshire Botanical Garden has announced its Sixth Annual Rooted In Place Ecological Gardening Symposium on November 14. This year they are offering two different types of registration: one for physical attendees on the day of; the other, for online-only, which provides recorded sessions you can dip into any time from November 21 until New Year’s Day 2022. I’ve signed up for the online version. Some of you may want to do so as well. ($ involved, but not an outrageous amount.)

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment appears after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. Is there anything you’ve given up on in your garden and consigned to winter’s blast? Anything you’re still hanging onto, or moving indoors?
  2. What steps do you think it’s helpful or useful for us to take in our gardens or in our daily lives that might, albeit infinitesimally, slow down our hurtling into climate change, or mitigate its consequences? And if you know of any good organizations working on climate change, please share that info. You can include one link per comment. Multiple comments are fine!
  3. Asking again, in case you’ve had a brainwave, or recently joined us: What topics would you like to see me tackle while we’re hunkered down for winter in the coming months?

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

Thanks, and stay healthy and green in the best of ways!

Posted in animal life, fall, garden tasks, plants, winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Falling Behind

Every year before this one, fall has come like a kind of reprieve. All those tasks still undone turn moot. Weeds keel over and expire of their own accord. Way too late to plant more veggies; sigh of relief there. The rodent marauders have done pretty much all the visible damage they can manage, and I happily leave the overweening hosta to them.

But not this year.

Mixed signals

My memory tells me that by late September, we’re supposed to have had our first frost. Yes, I know memory could play trickster. But I think the plants, too, were all expecting the frost, and don’t quite know what to do with the extra time this year. They seem like the householder halfway out the door getting ready to lock up, suddenly realizing that the lights and the iron and the TV are still on, and the washing machine has somehow stuck between the wash and rinse cycles.

Muted colors this fall

Halfway out. Some of the hardwoods finally gave up on waiting for frost and decided to strut their fall colors regardless. The trees that wear yellow in autumn have decked themselves out spectacularly. Driving back-country roads on sunny days during the past week has felt like a slide through tunnels of incandescent butter.

The red and orange crowd, though, haven’t kept pace.

My poor old ailing granny sugar maple ordinarily ramps up from tangerine to cherry red in late September. This year she started dropping her leaves in October without the formality of fall colors at all, unless you count brown.

tiny bright red crabapples (looking like berries) on a dark gray-brown branch; indistinct green background

Crabapples, on the other hand, are putting on a gala fruit display this year!

The veggies have shown confusion, too. The late peas and beans continued producing into last week, but well before that the pods seemed resigned to losing their race against the shriveling, from ground on up, of their parent plants. Except for the snow pea plants, which apparently thought all along that their job was to grow as high as possible and skip the pods. Topping six feet, and a grand total of six pods.

They’re improvising…

…different responses to what they must all sense: the shrinking days. They just can’t figure out what to do when daylight and temperatures fail to correlate as usual. So they wing it.

four tiny red lettuce seedlings spaced to grow in a dark gray-brown bed; at the top of the photo, the edge of a chicken wire crop coop slghtly obscures a couple more lettuce seedlings and a few leaves of a small chard plant.

Can you spot the lettuce? (Hint: it’s red)

Me too. About 10 days ago I planted ten lettuce seedlings, just to see what happens, if we don’t get frost till November—not such a bizarre supposition, judging by our ten-day forecast. (Thus far, approximately nada has happened in the lettuce patch.)

So this year it’s a different kind of reprieve: extra time to do things that I’d ordinarily have given up on. I’m still not sure I want that kind of reprieve. I’d like to be able to look out the window and say to myself, Wait till April. After six straight months of nonstop gardening, haven’t I earned a rest?

Apparently not.

Mind you, I know full well that I bring this on myself. It was not my evil twin who decided it was a good idea to order all those pollinator-pleasing native-flower seeds. Those call for cold stratification in pots, outdoors in a screen-protected frame, which I have to build before the snow is under rather than on top of it.

Why did I opt not only to plant garlic again, but to add shallots to the mix as well? Both require late-fall planting.

section of garden plot showing just-planted elderberry sapling and a smaller shrub; in background an assortment of buckets in green, red, and lavender, and a large bag of topsoil on grass which extends into the background

One mission accomplished

And somebody—maybe that was my evil twin—ordered not only a stripling elderberry bush-to-be, but also an aronia. For several days both sat on my deck, waving importunately at me. There was space for the elderberry, so I finally got it into its home last week.

I looked up the aronia. It grows to 12 by 12 feet!

That had to be the evil twin’s doing.

Seeking the cure

Meanwhile, I’m feeling a bit like that ailing maple tree, wanting to drop it all without going through the standard steps. I make gardening schedules but don’t stick to them. Try to cram too much into an afternoon, and end up getting none of it done.

This has me wondering whether there’s a climate-change psychodiagnosis to match the Covid-19 pandemic one. You know, the discovery that many of us haven’t been exactly depressed or anxious or manic or catatonic for the past 19 months, but languishing.

How many of us manage to languish with grace and panache?
Languish” by mengzi13 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For climate change, when the weather gets weirdly out of sync with the seasons, I propose a diagnosis of wilt. Or maybe wilt-not, as in do the weather what it wilt, I wilt not do what I ought.

Is there an antidote for the wilt-nots? Thus far, I’ve found only one. It consists in tricking myself. In mid-afternoon (which seems to arrive around lunchtime these days), I put on the gardening boots just to take a tiny stroll outside. Once I get out there, the garden does its magic.


Chaotic and disorderly magic, perhaps. I go outside with no fixed purpose. Picking the last three beans can segué into transplanting those lettuce seedlings, which can incite some harvesting of lemongrass or sage, followed by weeding the clover out of the lowbush blueberry patch.

That trick got me out to put that elderberry into its new digs last week, just before heading out of town for a two-day break in my regimen of procrastination.

Maybe this week I’ll manage to trick myself into ripping out the useless landscaping cloth (hosting a bumper crop of weeds), in order to relocate the Japanese forest grass hakonechloa. And that will naturally transition to spreading a lot of the mulch that’s encumbered the driveway for two months.

Oops. Three months.

Michelle Obama, in olive green and on the right, and an unidentified child in blue jacket and dark watch cap on the left; both kneeling in front of a wood-edged garden bed with M.O. demonstrating planting a lettuce seedling; indistinct background with mostly bare trees and bushes and a partly sunny blue sky; yellowish green tinge of a bush in the background suggests early spring.

White House Kitchen Garden Planting (NHQ201604050007)” by NASA HQ PHOTO 
licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With luck I can keep busy enough to stop fretting about when I’ll be able to get a Moderna booster for my J&J vaccine. Or whether we’ll see yet another pandemic spike in the winter.  And when or even whether the global supply chain will mend itself. With even more luck, Mitch McConnell will take to poring over seed catalogs (let’s all send him one!) and realize he has a lot in common with Michelle Obama.

That’s the lovely thing about gardens. Hope springs eternal, if you just get down and dirty.

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment appears after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. Is fall lasting longer in your garden this year? If so, are you doing anything more, or anything differently, compared to “normal” years?
  2. If you’re one of the many millions who turned to or intensified your gardening during the pandemic, do you think you’ll keep at it when (I won’t say if) the plague has receded? How do you think you’ll adjust your efforts once the outside world’s distractions aren’t life-threatening?
  3. What topics would you like to see me tackle while we’re hunkered down for winter in the coming months?

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

For extra fun: can you identify the fruits pictured below?

Mystery fruit A

Mystery fruit B

Mystery fruit C

Give it a try; you can put your answer/s into a reply below. You can look for the answers (along with photo credits) in the next blog post. If you want to provide a link to a source for your answer, you can do so, but you should know that in order to prevent spamming by nasties, the blog is set up to allow only one link per reply.

Posted in fall, garden tasks, plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Department of You Think You’ve Got Problems

Every once in a while, I learn something that puts my problems into perspective.

This is not to say that I’ve bought into my mother’s pocket wisdom, based largely on her impoverished childhood. Whenever one of us kids was inclined to complain about some minor irritant—somebody picking on you at school, a smashed bike we couldn’t afford to replace, a parental prohibition on having any fun with friends on Good Friday—her invariable response, unless actual blood was spurting, was: “no matter how bad off you are, there’s always someone worse.” (I know that’s not grammatical, but that’s what she said.)

Don’t get me wrong; I am well aware that there are degrees of bad. There’s too much rain in one week, for example, and there’s the Greenland ice cap melting. There’s a very dry July, and there’s the Dixie fire and then the Caldor fire.

Best intentions

I’d been planning on treating you to a blog post about all the little things that were actually going right in my garden. Maybe I’ll slip in a few of those a bit further along here. But I have to admit I have been getting the tiniest bit grumpy because not everything has gone right.

My chickenwire crop coops (try saying that ten times in a row, fast!) have kept out the bunnies, but not the cabbage white butterflies. Twice now, within a week, I’ve found one of those fluttering inside one of the coops, trying to get out. Either they’re smart enough to figure out how to get in but too dumb to find an exit, or they’re hatching inside. In any case, I released them and now watch anxiously for signs of caterpillar devastation on my Pink Beauty radishes. None appeared, but something attacked the roots of the arugula in the same coop. Sayonara, last night’s salad.

And I delayed just a little too long before harvesting my beauteous basil. Five flourishing bushes of the stuff. When I finally went out with my knife, I found them all full of downy mildew. So, down the oubliette with those.

Bean plants in foreground, growing upwards supported by strings stretched horizontally attached to vertical wooden stakes. Right hand stakes for 3 rows of beans are visible. In background, other plants, chickenwire crop coops visible, with some lawn off to the right and trees in background, revealing a small splotch of blue sky.

When bush beans go pole…

There can even be too much of a good thing, like the bush beans that weren’t. Bush, that is. I thought maybe I misread the package, but I just dug it out again.  There’s the name on the label: Maxibel Haricot Vert Bush Bean. Two weeks ago, I had to sacrifice a half dozen of my 5-foot plant stakes to improvise a support system for bushies that seem to think they’re pole beans.

But at least they have started to form the skinny little haricots.

That, however, is not the perspective I got.


For that, I take you halfway round the globe and invoke the experience of my friend R.

R has lived in Bali for many years now. I’ve visited that amazing island a couple of times, and let me tell you, when people talk about tropical paradises, they are not exaggerating. Things grow fast, in profusion, with wild abandon. Everywhere. Rain is regular, and so is sunshine. Okay, maybe it’s kind of hot and humid, but hey, tomatoes and eggplants and peppers love that.

Thick Balinese jungly growth, with vines climbing up tall trees, and some large-leafed plants in foreground that look like vastly overgrown versions of house plants; dominant color is green in shades ranging from bright medium to shadowy dark green

“House” plants in original habitat

So do all sorts of plants that we here in the “temperate” (speaking of averages) northeastern US consider houseplants. But oh my, outdoors in Bali, they grow so big they’d never fit in your house. Unless you are blessed with cathedral ceilings and seven thousand square feet of unencumbered floor space.

R recently consulted me about what plants might be suitable for sprucing up his indoor open-air patio (aka living room and dining room). He thought Monstera deliciosa would be easy (and Monstera can sure live up to its name in Bali!). But he leaned towards some kind of Heliconia. We went back and forth a bit, and I suggested that he might want a combination that would fill out more lushly than the more narrowly vertical Heliconia.

Paradise, but for…

He replied that it’s not a good idea to “let things get too jungly,” citing experience.

There used to be two or three big vines of [a] climbing plant…. [I]t had morphed into huge, tree-like vines that climbed to the ceiling in two locations, some very big leaves, actually somewhat attractive.

Sounded pretty cool to me, all right, but he continued:

The problems is that when things get too jungly here, one can find that one has created a wonderful habitat for snakes.

His next sentence mentioned cobras and kraits.

He was not just dramatizing the issue. I did some research.

Bright green viper coiled on top of a branch; branch is bare, brown, and about twice the thickness of the viper's body. Viper's tail has a strip of red; the top of the head is a slightly deeper green than the body, which verges on chartreuse

White-lipped Island Pit Viper, Trimeresurus insularis
by Bernard Dupont
licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Bali is home to six species of poisonous land snakes: the spitting cobra, the king cobra, the blue krait, the banded krait, the Asian coral snake, and the island pit viper (which hangs out in trees and shrubs during the day). For a couple of these, no anti-venom is available. You might survive a bite from one of those, if they get you onto a ventilator fast enough, and keep you on it for a week.

Not that R had seen any of these interlopers in his living space yet, but he sure got me thinking. Especially after I ran across the photo of the seventh and highly venomous reptile, the banded sea krait. Normally they stay in the water, but they do come on land to lay their eggs. This particular specimen had its portrait taken after being found in a villa in the lovely little seaside town of Sanur.

Near where R happens to live.

Why invite trouble? Plant the Heliconia!

A patch of Heliconia pendula, with straight upright stems and large leaves somewhat like banana leaves, but flopped over, and strings of yellow-tipped red bracts hanging below the leaves, nearly to the ground

Heliconia pendula, by wallygrom
licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Next time I’m out shaking my head over the cabbage whites’ damage or muttering unprintables as I struggle to establish yet another tier of support for those boisterous beans, I’ll hear my mother’s voice saying, “no matter how bad off you are…”

Good news?

So, the good news is, I can reach in to harvest those haricots without worrying that my hand will come out with a krait attached to my wrist. This, believe me, is a great comfort. So much so that I barely notice the large spiders staring warily at me from atop the bean leaves.

Other things are going fairly well too. My main attention in recent weeks has been on the veggie garden. I was late putting much into it this summer, so most of the raised beds stayed pretty bare until late July. But I’m here to tell you: there’s a lot you can put into the ground in late July or early August, and still get a respectable crop.

Two French breakfast radishes and a handful's worth of thin haricot green beans, on either side of a 12-inch wooden ruler, showing that the beans are about 6 inches long and the radishes about two inches. The radishes are vaguely cylindrical in shape, with deep pink tops (here, inverted to bottom of the picture) and a small strip of white towards the root end.The aforementioned beans look likely to overwhelm me with their output. The arugula (the ones the mysterious root marauder hasn’t gotten to) and the lettuce are chugging along nicely, and bid fair to overwhelm me alongside the beans. The peas (peas!!! in September!!!) have started flowering and I cherish hopes of getting a few. Not too many, because: the beans. The radishes have yielded numerous pink globes and a few French breakfast pink-and-whites. (Never mind that half of them look more like a dog’s dinner; they taste just fine.)

Shiso has been spicing up my salads, and the cilantro is looking close to ready. The chard is rampant. And I just put some kale starts in a couple weeks ago; I’ll report back about those. Not sure yet whether I’ll get much out of the carrots, but the green tops sure look pretty. Thinking I should plant a lot of them as borders for the flowerbeds next spring.

Speaking of which, my sister was here for about 10 days and heroically weeded those beds, thus leaving me with more time for fussing over the veggies. Meanwhile her dog, by snuffling eagerly around the burrow apparently taken over by a wascally wabbit from Tamerlane-the-woodchuck, struck such terror into its resident that I have seen nary a rodent since. He is aptly named: Boo.

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, remember to sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. Did you do any late-season planting this year, and/or do you usually do so? If veggies, which ones do best for you? If flowers, please let us all know what manages to flower before the frosts hit!
  2. Or, if you’re already packing your garden in for the year, what are you looking forward to, to replace your work out in the garden?
  3. What’s the worst garden disaster you’ve experienced this year, and on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being meh, and 10 being a banded sea krait), how bad would you say it was?

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

Thanks for reading! (And P.S.: that’s a monarch butterfly’s caterpillar pictured at the top of the page, taking a rest from chomping its way through my one surviving Asclepias tuberosa.)

Posted in animal life, pests and problems, plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

To Do Or Not To Do


In case you’re wondering why I call this blog “Inconstant Gardener,” let me give you an example.

A screenshot of the top part of Charlie Nardozzi's Late July Newsletter, with a title panel in white font (on green background) reading "Gardening with Charlie Nardozzi" and an inset headshot of Charlie in blue shirt and wearing a panama-style hat. List of subjects under the Late July Newsletter line includes Tough Russian Sage, Plum Crazy, Bountiful Basil and Controlling Tomato Hornworms. Under that list is the top of a photo of a cucumber handing from its vine, surrounded by backlit leaves.

Gardening with Charlie Nardozzi

Last October, as I was starting up this blog, I searched for good blogs or newsletters on gardening. You know, so I would have some models, and some sense of what wasn’t being covered in gardening blogs. One of the newsletters I subscribed to was Charlie Nardozzi’s (you can sign up at https://www.gardeningwithcharlie.com), guaranteed to plop into my emailbox once every ten days, labeled by month and segment. “Charlie’s Early February Newsletter,” “Charlie’s Mid February Newsletter,” and so on.

And on and on. It’s like when I subscribed to the daily and Sunday New York Times, on paper. I felt obliged to read from the first-page headlines right on to the final section (although I did allow myself to skip Sports). The pile of not-yet-completely-read papers rose higher and higher, and then I had to start a second pile, and… yeah, you can imagine.

Well, I did okay with the fall and winter issues of Charlie’s Newsletters. The fall ones mostly talked about harvest and cleanup. Since my raised beds only got raised in October, I had no harvest to worry about. I reveled in Charlie’s wisdom on cleanup—mostly: leave it lie!—and immediately put it into practice by doing nothing.

So far, so good

Then during the winter, as the snow piled up and the winds howled, I got to read the previews of coming attractions. How-to’s on growing catmint, for example, or African violets (as if!). Or even, inventorying seeds left over from the previous year—an easy one for me: all of them!—and making a list of things to be done in the garden come spring.

Also an easy one. I excel at list-making. If you doubt that, I could show you the entire box of index cards containing to-do items, carefully categorized. House, garden, errands, calls, write, read, social media, fix, cook, tidy, office, and a fair number more. “Done” has its own category, just so I can reassure myself that I do occasionally get something done.

There are three cards in it.

The Hurrier I Go…

Closeup of card file box containing dividers labeled with garden categories: fruit & veg, perennials-sun, perennials-shade, annuals, shrubs, trees, plans/design, and three other dividers shaded so their headings are indecipherable; various colors of index cards can be seen ehind each divider.

Gardening with Inconstant Gardener

“Garden” got so big it now has its very own box, subcategorized to the nth degree.

And there’s Charlie’s newsletter, giving me plenty to put on the list. So much, in fact, that when spring sprang on us early this year and then we roared into summer, I fell a bit behind.

How behind? Let me put it this way. Charlie’s Late July Newsletter recently arrived. I’m still working on Late March. Now when they arrive, I file them in the Blogs/ Inconstant Gardener/ Materials folder and pray for December.

It’s not as though I haven’t been working out there. I have at latest count seven very full yard-waste bags of uprooted dandelions, plantains, Johnny jump-ups, crabgrass, and other assorted weeds whose names I still don’t know. (Because I’ve had no time to check them against the encyclopedic Weeds of North America.)

If you roamed my yard, you’d find two huge tarp-wrapped bundles stashed in odd spots. These are full of branches pruned (weeks ago!) from dogwoods, burning bush, Canadian hemlock, kolkwitzia, witch hazel that were contending too obstreperously with their neighbors.

And there’s garlic in one raised bed ready to harvest, which I planted in a big rush last November praying it wasn’t too late; and onions I planted in a big rush in April because it would be too late by the very next day.

Raised bed, seen longitudinally, with garlic plants ready for harvest in foreground, most of their leaves having turned brown. Behind them are basil and other plants flourishing (or not). To the left of the bed is a gravel path; in front, behind, and to the side of the bed is an area covered with straw mulch. On the right side of the photo is the top of a stone wall with a couple of herbs in pots on it, and beyond the wall, a stretch of green lawn.

Garlic, as good as at least ten mothers!

…The Behinder I Get

What else is in the raised beds? Welllll, there’s the rub. In late May I finally gave up on my seeds and got some herb and lettuce starts on sale at the garden store. Then about three weeks later when those looked about to give up the ghost if I didn’t do something, I bunged them in near the garlic and the onions.

But off the hook I am not.

Woman in white tank top and black running rights squatting in middle of a sandy/grassy path tying very long shoelaces on her right shoe.

Getting them jussssstttt right!
“Sporty woman tying shoelace on running shoes before practice” by wuestenigel, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Now, I know the importance of planning. You know, so I don’t do things in such a slapdash way that I end up not tying my shoelaces before beginning the race, so to speak.

I concentrate very hard on tying the shoelaces. The advantage: my shoes never fall off mid-stride. The disadvantage: the race is usually over before my shoelaces are finally tied properly.

A Woman, A Plan B

This late in the summer, I knew the time for planting early crops in the space left in those raised beds was long gone. But I took hope from the fact that I had plenty of room for late summer/ fall crops. As I ruminated over plans for those crops (inventorying seeds: all of them!), I stumbled upon a gorgeous multi-colored poster offered by Hudson Valley Seed Company. Late Season Planting Guide!

Colorful "Late Season Planting Guide" poster in graphic form with numbers running in countdown along top: 16, 14, 12, etc... to first frost, followed by 2 and 4 after first frost; to the left, sections are marked out for direct sowing outdoors or for starting in pots. Various vegetables and herbs (indicated with small pictures and names written in script) are represented in colored bars in the body of the graph, placed according to suitable planting times; areas in graph without bars are vividly illustrated with pictures of wildlife and fall tasks.

Late season planting guide for the planter who’s running late

Aha, thought I! This will guide me through the planning and planting. From what I could see of it in the online catalog, it looked so inviting. It depicted many delectables I could plant 16, 14, 12, 10 etc. days before first frost. Definitely a must-have. So I ordered it, well ahead of time: July 3. Even if it took a week to arrive, there was still plenty of lead time for the planting.

Are you already rolling on the floor laughing? Yes, it arrived, and only upon unscrolling it and reading the small print did I realize that those numbers up on top were not for days before first frost.

They were for weeks.

Plan C

Farewell, hopes of parsnips, winter or summer squash, cucumbers. No time for you!

This had its advantages: more room for the beans, beets, carrots, Asian greens, lettuce, calendula. Even peas! And the squash and cucumber seeds stay viable for a couple years at least.

rounded basket containing ziploc bags with dates showing inside each (week of July 11, week of July 18, etc.); in front of the bags is a green index card with vegetables listed after each "week of" date from July 11 through Aug. 22

Plan C

Disadvantage: RIP parsnips. They’re good for only one year, the finicky snips.

Now in acceleration mode, I divided all the seeds that still qualified for a try. They went into separate ziploc bags labeled “week of July 11,” “week of July 18,” “week of July 25,” etc. All the way to the week of Sept. 28, the likely zero hour (as in Zero Centigrade).

Then I decanted all the seeds in the first bag into separate little lidded plastic cups. (If you’re planting in a hurry, the last thing you need is to have all the seeds spill out of the paper envelope when you’re trying to fish out just one.) Stuck a little masking tape label on each lid, loaded them all into an aluminum pan, and sashayed out to the garden to get to work.

Seeds sorted into small individual plastic containers, labeled with a strip of masking tape across the lid of each: names (e.g., cylindra beet, summer savory, maxibel haricot), depth and spacing for planting, and where important, height of mature plant.

Ummmm, Plan D?

Whereupon I quickly realized that if I planted seeds for all the “Week of July 11” veggies, no room would remain for the Week of July 18, let alone the 25th. As for August, fuhgddaboutit.

Well, maybe not entirely. The garlic has to come out now, and the onions won’t be far behind, so there may be room for some kale and chard if I get the seedlings started indoors, which I am (according to the planting guide) supposed to do this week. Or was it last week?

Meanwhile, back at the wrench…

Keep in mind, we’re only talking about two 4’X8’ raised beds. A mere 64 square feet. My lot as a whole is a third of an acre, all burgeoning with weeds that did not fail to notice (unlike many of the recently planted perennials and shrubs) that we have been getting lots and lots of rain.

Photo taken from above, with small lilac bush on left, a few reddish-green leaves from an hibiscus plant to the right, and many many large vigorous weeds filling up the bed between them.

Weeds R Us

How much rain? One day, two and a half inches came down. For comparison’s sake: we got about two and a half inches of rain in all of June. In July, we got 11.92 inches.

Weed heaven.

Hence, on days when it hasn’t rained, I’ve been spending most of my time weeding and mulching like crazy. The veggies in the raised beds somehow have to be squeezed in between.

Pieces of a "crop coop" (chcken wire on frames of metal rods) still to be assembled, set on their sides against a table and still wrapped in plastic, with an instruction sheet protruding from below. All rest on a deck with brown wood-grain slats; only the black metal legs of the table are visible behind the pieces.

Assembly required. Natch!

And meanwhile, assembly work awaits me in the garage. The rotating compost bin that arrived (in pieces, natch) in June still sits patiently—no, let me amend that. It lurks in the garage, tapping its figurative feet and glowering balefully every time I venture in looking for an empty pot or a trowel or a trug for weeds.

Lately, though, that carton isn’t causing me quite so much guilt because three boxes containing Chicken Wire Crop Coops (also in pieces, natch) are now keeping it company. These, once put together, will protect my tender baby veggie plants from Tamerlane The Woodchuck and Thumper The Wascally Wabbit.

No doubt all of these would have been assembled much sooner if I had my work bench set up in the garage. That has sat (in pieces, natch) in the basement… for the past 8 years.

All Depends on Point of View

Photo shows a Greek handled vase depicting Hercules trying to subdue the Hydra, a monster growing more heads as each is cut off. Hydra in this case has 9 snake heads. Vase has light ochre background with decorations in black and dark ochre. In addition to Hercules and the hydra, the vase has a strip of stylized designs running along the bottom and the top of the vase. The handles are black, with petals of black radiating out from where they join the body of the vase.

“Heracles’ 2nd Labor: The Lernaean Hydra I”
by Egisto Sani
licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

How to do all that needs doing, when you’re only one person and every task done sprouts hydra heads?

Clearly, the obvious solutions will never happen. I will not become two, three, many persons (and I suspect if I did, the extras would set yet more goals and make things even worse). I will not change my basic approach to life and work. And I certainly will not suddenly become younger, more energetic, or able to leap tall buildings with a single bound (not a useful garden skill anyway).

So instead of tormenting myself, I’m going to have to change the way I look at the situation.

Here’s the way I’ve started thinking about the garden. I do this work because I love it. Not necessarily because I adore the results. Sure, I get a thrill out of the bursts of flowers in early spring, and the blast of hibiscus blooms in August. I enjoy harvesting my very own lettuce and chard and basil, and sharing them when they invariably exceed my capacity to use them up. If no rewards ever popped up, I might quit. But when I stop to think seriously about why I spend so much time, sweat, and money on the garden, two reasons come to the fore.

Philosopher in the Garden: 1

Closeup photo, from above, of bright yellow yarrow flowers with a bee, legs bright yellow with pollen, at the center. Some indistinct greenery shows in background.


First, every task I perform in the garden rewards me with a sense of focus while I am doing it.

I may start out removing the weeds to give the shrubs and flowers and veggies room to grow. But a very few minutes into the work, my attention rivets on the square inch or square foot that weed occupies. I notice the differences between the crabgrass roots’ expansive shallow clutch and the dandelions’ deep-plunging taproot. The way some weeds fight to maintain their hold while others surrender with deceptive ease (sheer trickery: they always come back so quickly).

Every coneflower or peony or blueberry bush or lettuce seed I plant represents a hope for future bounty. But while I’m placing them in the right spot at the right depth with the right nutrients added, my world consists of the earthworms squirming away from the site, the ants busy at their own focused tasks, the mama spider hurrying off with egg case bundled close, the texture of the soil, the way last year’s mulch is melting into earth, the match between the height of plant in pot and the depth I dig.

No matter how stressed I am when I step out to work in the garden, within five minutes this focus brings me calm and peace.

Philosopher in the Garden: 2

Second, the combination of happenstance and experiment serves up an ever-changing dose of nature’s reality, keeping me humble while poised on my toes.

Drought or too much rain or a hailstorm at the wrong time or a new marauder, fungal or four-footed or fluttering, may decimate the fruits of my efforts. I can experiment with ways to reduce the random disasters, like those crop coops or a better juxtaposition of plants or a liberal sprinkle of powdered cayenne.

A tiger swallowtail butterfly (yellow and black striped wings edged with bars of black outlining one strip of dark blue squares and one of orange-yellow squares, with a black "tail" at back of wings; body is light yellow with black stripes) perched on top of a bright magenta frond of butterfly-bush flowers. A bumblebee is busy at work on a frond above the butterfly's. Background is gray cement at bottom, white clapboard at top.

Astonished by joy

But ultimately, I cannot exercise total control.

On any given day I may be outraged at the chomps taken out of the heuchera or the lacework created out of what used to be a hibiscus leaf. But I may also stumble with delight upon the tiger swallowtail butterfly judiciously sampling every magenta frond of the butterfly bush, or the toad so blended into setting that I spot her only when she shifts position.

I could never in a million years have planned those.

Is There a Big Picture?

Joy is not on the to-do list. And yet, why else do we do so much that we do, if we aren’t hoping that some form of happiness will come from it?  (Not all of it. A stack of clean dishes does not thrill me, even though a stack of dirty ones makes my teeth hurt. Relief of pain is a good goal too!)

In this frazzled, crazy, productivity-is-all, doing-more-is-doing-better culture, it does make sense for me to pull back from the worm’s eye view of the to-do list and soar up to get the eagle’s eye view. Why do I need to do all these things, and why now? Do I actually need to do them, and even if so, are they really so urgent?

Sometimes life intrudes in ways that remind me of the importance of getting the eagle’s perspective more often. A very dear friend of mine died suddenly and unexpectedly just a week ago. I hadn’t talked with her in a while, and for much of the previous week I kept making mental notes to call her. But I put it off because there were urgent (so I thought) things on the to-do list. So I planted beans instead of making that phone call.

Believe me, the next time I think of calling a friend, I will do it right away. Beans I can get at the supermarket. Friends are not replaceable.

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, remember to sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. Do you ever manage to finish everything on your to-do list? If so, how do you do that??? If not, does it bother you, are you trying various approaches to deal with it, or do you figure it’s just the way things are?
  2. Is there any particular garden task that you feel you’re always behind on? Ahead on?
  3. If there’s a friend you’ve been thinking of calling, and you’ve been putting it off, make the call now! Then come back and tell us about it if you still have the time.

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

Thanks for reading!

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Home Sweet Home

Inconstant barbarian

I destroyed somebody’s home about a week back.

Actually, I probably do that a lot without even noticing it, and when I do realize that’s what I’m doing, I stop myself.

Like the day before the homewrecking, while I was watering the dwarf Norway spruce (“needs frequent watering unless you’ve been getting ample rain,” said the tag—or something to that effect). I’d already deliberately jet-hosed off the spider-mite webs lurking between branch tips. Those mites do a ton of damage to the poor little vertically challenged spruce. Then I spotted an expansive open-work web stretching the two feet between the spruce and its viburnum neighbor.

Still in cleaning mode, I was about to hose that away too, but hesitated.

Why spray it away? It’s not in my way. It may be in the flyway, for flies and mosquitoes and gnats and such. But—not that I mean to be judgmental—who needs them?

So I desisted, and received my reward. I spotted what I took at first for a curled-up brownish leaf lodged at the web-to-spruce intersection. It hung on to the branch in most un-leafy bouncy fashion.

I looked more closely, and spied a small tank of a spider, its huge boxy body supported by the kind of legs a Star Wars monster might stomp with. When I say huge, I’m thinking like a fly caught in web as Spidey hustles forth like Godzilla incarnate. Half an inch across at least, and all deadly menace. I would show you closeup photos, but you would not thank me if they gave you nightmares. Look here if you dare.

Full of surprises

A strange mess of slender gray/brown twigs, with some green coneflower leaves over and (a couple) under them, with the rim of a black plastic pot showing in lower right corner

The mysterious mess of sticks

My big surprise, though, was walking out onto my deck the fateful evening and finding, as I glanced at the four pots of coneflowers stashed in the rail planter awaiting their permanent homes, a strange intrusion. Masses of small sticks protruded that weren’t there in the morning.

Now wotthehell! I muttered. Weird things have been happening on that deck lately:

The gust that yanked the umbrella out of its stand and the surrounding table and launched it on an arc all the way to the garden’s edge. I didn’t see this happen, but deduced the arc from the fact that nothing in the straight line from launch point to landing got destroyed.

Or those flourishing Asclepias tuberosa (milkweed if we’re not talking fancy), all four of them set down tidy in their pots for the night atop a milk crate after bedtime watering. When I came out the next morning, I found skeletal remains: lost and half-gone leaves, and a few stalks also halfway gone. Ain’t no caterpillar did that!

Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly milkweed) in bloom, with clusters of bright orange flowers atop stems with foliage, alternating long thin pointed green leaves, against a background of brown mulch and gray cinderblocks

What the milkweed should look like

Four pots of Asclepias tuberosa after something munched them down by half; pots are light green plastic with black rims, a couple of them showing dark green script reading "Native plants." Pots are in a black plastic plant tray atop a glass table top, and parts of two lemongrass plants in smaller black pots can be seen nestled in two corners of the tray,

The milkweed, after the marauder got to them

But who else would have munched off most of the leaves and left half-bare stalks standing? Have I perhaps acquired a rabbit who toughly scoffs at milkweed toxins but dines daintily enough for Emily Post?

An investigation

So yes, like any gardener, I’m used to odd happenings. But these sticks ’midst the coneflowers were an anomaly of anomalies. They couldn’t have blown there at random. The coneflowers’ leaves massed so thickly they’d even made it hard for me to ensure that water got from the hose wand into their pots.

Bird's nest viewed from above, constructed of sticks and moss as described in accompanying text, with a few blurred green leaves showing at the four corners of the photo

Mystery solved

As I moved closer, I realized the sticks formed an interwoven structure. It wasn’t until I looked directly down at the plants from above that I realized the truth. Somebody of the avian persuasion had, in the course of one day, built a nest lodged tightly among the stalks and leaves. The stick edifice splayed out at the bottom, extending the underpinnings out among all four of the pots’ tops and the coneflowers’ understory. No wind would blow this nest away, unless the coneflowers, pots and all, took flight with it.

Closer to the center, the nest refined into fine intertwinings. At the very center, for the ultimate homey touch, the sticks spun into a bird-sized cup, carpeted with a soft, greeny-gold moss.

Moral calculus

Are you thinking, awwww, how sweet?

Not I. I faced a moral dilemma. To wit: If I leave the nest there, the coneflowers are goners. They need their homes in the ground soon. They might have a fighting chance if I keep watering them, but how could I spray cold water daily over a broody bird and her babies?

It came down to a choice between the bird’s nest, or the plants’ survival. I’d like to say I thought long and carefully, but I made the calculations fast. No eggs in the nest. It might have been built on spec—you know, Joe Robin builds a love nest to lure his maybe-lady to. But this year seems choc-a-bloc with these bird guys hopping about puffing their red chests out like there’s some MAGA rally in my yard. Maybe he has so much competition that he’ll never get lucky.

However, if he does get lucky, there might be eggs here soon.

Hell, if he can build a nest in a day, he can do it again. I’m proud to say that sticks are a dime a dozen (free, in fact) all over my yard. And there’s lots of moss handy too.

The coneflowers, on the other hand: seriously at risk.

Reader, I removed the sticks. And then I moved the coneflowers to a less bird-luring location.

A moral calculus?

An Eastern bluebird nest made of grasses interwound and containing three pale dusty-blue eggs, each about thumb size, as shown by the thumb on top of the nest at bottom of the photo

This would have stopped me cold!
Eastern Bluebird nest” by SeabrookeLeckie.com
licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I could justify myself by noting that if even one teensy egg had sat in that cushy nest, I wouldn’t have hesitated a nanosecond. The nest would still be there. I’d be praying anxiously for coneflower survival, while mama bird shrieked every time I stepped on deck.

Or if I had known it for a bluebird’s nest, with or without eggs, I’d have left it and let the coneflowers take their chances.

But I don’t feel good about my decision. This was somebody’s home.

And when I stop to think about it, I recall that homes—for wild creatures and humans alike—have been disappearing at an increasingly rapid pace in recent years.

Some of that we can blame on climate change: the ominous rise of seawaters, the devastation wreaked by more frequent and more violent rampages by wind, water, and fire. Bangladesh could sit largely underwater in far too few years. California could go up in smoke, and Wyoming, you could be next. Ultimately, those disasters stem from over a century of human impact on the environment, not deliberate but as a side effect (an “externality,” as the economists phrase it) of increasingly breakneck industrialization and burning of fossil fuels.

In the shorter term, though, deliberate human action has caused massive habitat loss for thousands of species, sometimes including Homo not-so-sapiens. Many of us shuddered at the reports last year of the accelerated setting of fires Amazonia to clear land for farming or cattle grazing. (You can see a NASA report based on satellite images tracking the past two decades of Amazon forest destruction, with some vivid maps, here.) Here in the US, the destruction of natural (diverse) forests, meadows, and wetlands has augmented the effect of invasive species to put hundreds of our indigenous species of birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish, trees and other plants at risk of extinction.

There may not be a lot I can do about all of those problems day to day, but I can (and should) put more care into making my own garden into a better habitat for other species. You’ll be hearing more about those efforts in future posts. (Mice, ants, and earwigs, if you are listening: this does not mean I will stop trying to drive you out of the house!)

Homes for all?

While I tinker on my own home, the issue of human homes has been weighing on my mind. Having volunteered in the past at a local survival center, I am keenly aware that homelessness among those of our own species is scandalously prevalent.

The numbers aren’t hard to find, although I suspect they understate the problem. The federal government uses a standardized approach in tallying the homeless. Every year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development coordinates locally organized counts of people without homes who are in shelters on one January night. Every other year, those who are unsheltered get counted too.

In 2020, the official tally found 580,466 people homeless in this country, nearly a fifth of them children. Over 200 thousand people had no shelter. In January.

If the numbers are a bit hard to see in perspective, think of it this way. If you imagine you had a clear field, you could put all these men, women, and children in Miami (FL) or Raleigh (NC) or Omaha (NE). You’d still have more than a hundred thousand of them left over. You could put them in Atlanta (GA) or Sacramento (CA), but over sixty thousand still would have nowhere to go. If you put them all in Baltimore (MD) or Minneapolis (MN), there would be enough homes left for only a few thousand others. Those however are the 2020 numbers. By this year, the increased numbers might top even those cities off.

And this doesn’t begin to capture the predicament of the ten million Americans living on the brink: in poverty and spending more than half their income on housing, or doubled up, due to poverty, in housing with people with whom their relationships may be precarious.

Hitting close to home

The issue has become visceral for me in recent weeks.

My sister has been ill for some months now, with a stomach disorder that has plagued her since childhood. It gets dangerous when she is under severe stress. She needs calm, stability, and security. Her stress levels ramped sky-high, what with losing a large part of her medical insurance during the pandemic and butting heads with the work-from-home bureaucracies for months on end; struggling with dirt-level poverty, bills piling up, meds unaffordable, dog getting sick, car dying—you name it. The mounting stress had her so sick that she lost about 50 pounds in two months.

Just as she was beginning to regain some health and strength, the owners of the little house she’s been renting decided to sell the property it sits on—land, big house, little house, everything. Before she moved in a year and a half ago, she told the owners she needed a place where she could stay put for at least 3 to 5 years. Their response: We’d never sell this. The real estate market in the area has now gone stratospheric. They’ve been living 200 miles away and like it where they are now. So they’re selling.

At first they said they’d wait till next spring. Then they said they wanted her out by September. Then in mid-June they told her she had to be out by July 15.

She’s been packing all day and vomiting every night since, and often spends half the night doubled up in pain.

The owners have every right to sell my sister’s home. Or do they? Legally, yes. Morally? You tell me.

I had every right to remove that bird’s nest. Or did I? I’m not so sure.

And now, your turn:

Remember to sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts, if you haven’t already done so. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but please feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. What have you tried in order to make your garden into a good home for more animals and plants?
  2. In your area, what are the biggest challenges to maintaining and expand habitats for native species?
  3. Do you know of any local community efforts to provide homes for those without any? Any ideas on the best ways to go about this?

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.


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Exceeding Expectations

In a garden, as in life, we think we like predictability.

The sun will rise in the east in the morning and set in the west after making its daily arc across the sky. In summer, it will take its sweet time on that trip. Where you have planted bean seeds, it will not come up as okra or asparagus. If you apply dark rich compost at the right time and right place, your garden will be more fruitful. If you pull the weeds, the plants you want will have a better chance. The sun is a given, naturally, but the others depend on our efforts. Efforts that often yield wonderful rewards.

But other natural forces are not givens, and sometimes things happen that foil our efforts. The state of the weather notoriously preoccupies farmers and gardeners. A couple weeks ago I watched my farming neighbor cutting his hay and leaving it to dry where it fell. He came back a day or two later to do the baling and get it into the barn. If rain had fallen in the meantime, it would have washed out time, effort, and money.

If rain doesn’t fall for a long spell, especially during a heat wave, the farm’s other plantings need irrigation. I can gauge when it’s high time to water my garden by when its sprinkler system starts spraying across the rows. In the drought of 2016, when the town declared a watering ban, the farm could draw on its own pond for irrigation.

Irrigation sprinklers at work behind trees and shrubs in foreground; green hills visible in background

I, however, had to haul buckets of household water from washings and rinsings out to the plants that needed it most. Some of them nonetheless died, and the middle-aged birch and the gigantic grandma sugar maple on my lot have never quite recovered from that season of stress.

Charms of the unexpected

And yet, the unexpected in the garden can bring zings of delight. I’ve been savoring many of those. The weather brings some, as when the spring weather came in early March this year and the crocuses and daffodils and grape hyacinths billowed forth a month before I’d anticipated.

Tiny mushrooms with pale stalks and dark grey heads, growing profusely on top of strawSome garden surprises reward without direct effort. I get enchanting side benefits to watering, for example, as when my gaze lazies across the raised bed while I spray-bathe the young onions and my sight is snagged by a legion of tiny mushrooms that sprouted overnight from the straw mulch. Ephemerals that keel over as soon as the sun hits them.

Two stalks of yellow foxtail lilies in bloom against a white clapboard background; spiky green foliage spreads far below where the flower heads beginWhat else have I missed?

I nearly missed the eruption of two 5′ stalks brandishing giant bottle brushes made up of hundreds of small saffron flowers. I must have planted them, but can’t remember when. The yellow blast whacked me when I turned the corner of the house. They’d materialized while I neglected even to look at, much less weed, that particular bed for far too long. The thrill of seeing those fully grown, a reward for virtue postponed. But what if I’d delayed longer?

Now that I’ve figured out what they’re called (Eremurus bungeinickname: foxtail lily) I’m already wondering what to plant to keep them company.

There are sur-prizes for timelier work. When I inch through the shrubs-and-trees bed uprooting invaders, I encounter another party crasher. A welcome one: a profusely blue-blossomed cornflower plant that somehow burst forth where no cornflower had gone before. Is it cheating if I count the garlic scapes that  emerged seemingly overnight and corkscrewed their ways around their parent stalks and each other? If I hadn’t wondered whether it was time to water the garlic again, I might never have noticed (or harvested) them.

Life’s little lagniappes

Closeup of garlic scapes (capped by swellings tapering into sharp tips) wound around each other and the garlic plants' stalks and leaves; straw mulch visible in background.

Garlic scapes in action

Don’t get me wrong. I have not turned into Petunia Pollyanna. I still worry about the bunnies and Tamerlane the Woodchuck eating that which should not be eaten (except by me, or in the case of the geraniums, at all). The growing paper-wasp nests that I find moored on the underside of the deck umbrella make me fret; I know I have to do something about those some cool early morning. And I keep finding weeds growing in the darnedest places.

Still, the garden delivers delightful daily reminders that I am not running a machine that processes inputs in some predetermined unerring way and spits out the exact predictable product. I think of the scientific discoveries that happened because somebody noticed something important when things didn’t go as expected. From one perspective, some mold messed up the staphylococcus culture Alexander Fleming had going at St. Mary’s Hospital. It could have been a botched experiment, but it turned out to give us penicillin.

Not that I’m equating cornflowers with the penicillium mold.

Blue-green Penicillium notatum mold growing in dark red beet juice, seen from above

Penicillium notatum mold
“Penicillium notatum on beetroot vinegar. June 1965” by Mary Gillham Archive Project; licensed under CC BY 2.0

violet-blue cornflowers seen from above, against a mass of chartreuse-green foliage


I think of them more as something like the “comp” your friend the chef may have delivered to your table as a freebie in the middle of the meal you ordered, back before the Covid-19 surprise.

Surprise, surprise

For the people who keep coming up with new varieties of vegetables and flowers, some garden surprises may just be a penicillium equivalent. Unexpected hybridizations. Small sports on parent plants, brandishing a novel color or shape of leaf, a multi-hued or double-petaled flower while their siblings keep to the original monotone and single-petal theme. Dwarfs parented by giants. Prostrate forms abandoning their upright origins.

closeup of a bloom of Peony 'Charles Burgess,' a deep red-petaled flower with luscious center filled with gold-tipped red staminoides

Well, wouldn’t you love to come back as this?

It makes me hanker for reincarnation as a plant breeder. Unless I could come back as a Paeonia lactiflora ‘Charles Burgess’—which would be quite some surprise.

For now, though, as the days and years tick past, I’m finding that my body does for me what the garden often does and computer technology used to do: every time something goes wrong, I learn something new. One major learning opportunity came on the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

How I spent my holiday weekend

Rain was predicted, so no gardening. Instead, I planned to escape for a couple of days in the Big City. (Well, Boston. It’s the biggest we have in Massachusetts.) I went to sleep Friday night thinking of what I still needed to pack, and was rudely awakened in the wee hours by turmoil in the intestinal tract, which turned into bleeding. So my Saturday went into several hours in an emergency room, transitioned into an overnight hospital stay, and seguéd on Sunday into an unscheduled medical “procedure” (the kind I usually refer to as roto-rooting).

A bit scary, yes, but I learned a lot about intestines. I will spare you the details, except that I finally found out the meaning of the word ischemic. (P.S. I’m fine now, am leading a more virtuous culinary life, and may never endure such an episode again.) I’m still waiting to open the bill from the gastroenterologist to learn how much this particular learning experience cost. My guess is, more than a new shrub. More than a big new shrub.

But the great lesson from this episode is that I found out how wonderful my friends are. L, who lives nearby, dropped everything in the middle of a creative flow to drive me across the river to the emergency room. M, who has an M.D., coached me through understanding what was going on, came to see me after the procedure and whisked me away to stay with her family so they could keep an eye on me—which they did, most sweetly. Another M ran over there the next morning to visit and dispense additional cheer. S drove half an hour up to pick me up and another hour to get me home.

Home again, home again

When I arrived home I also found myself in possession of two massive containers: one of homemade chicken soup, the other of homemade harira. Both delicious, and relieving me for days of any need to cook. Numerous friends and my two sisters who knew the situation called and texted all that week to see how I was doing and ask whether I needed anything. What a gift!

I’m sending love and heartfelt thanks to you all. If pictures count, I’m saying it with flowers.

A swathe of spring flowers: purple Siberian irises in foreground, with a few taller light bearded irises and bright crimson poppies in background

Saying it with flowers: thank you, dear friends!

Speaking of flowers, and for that matter, of trees and shrubs and veggies and grasses and fruits: this year they feel so intensely like ongoing gifts. Like I’ve had a mental cataract operation and now see more intense colors with sparkling clarity. Did it take a pandemic to remind me how beautiful life is?

at lower right, a tiny light lime-green grasshopper crawling on brown bark mulch next to tiny dicot seedling the same color as the insect; bottom of bright fuchsia tube at upper left, and at upper right and very bottom of the photo some pieces of landscaping cloth are visible

What does the grasshopper do?

Whatever troubles might be going on in my own tiny world, nature is out there ready to heal. And by “nature,” I mean the plants and all their friends. The blazing-ruby-throated hummingbird I spotted last night humming through a row of nearly spent flowers. The earthworms that squirm towards cover when I pull a weed from over their heads (do they have heads? Must look it up!). The underground fungal networks that help feed the trees. Invisible microbes that break down the mulch into something edible-for-plants. Even the tiny lime-green grasshopper, less than an inch long, scuttling away from my digging knife’s path. I have no idea what help a grasshopper gives, but this one sure looked willing.

It takes a village. All, salutary reminders that I am not growing these plants. They’re growing with lots of help from their friends. I’m only one friend among many. It’s a lovely club to join.

And now, your turn:

Remember to sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts, if you haven’t already done so. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but please feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. What do grasshoppers do?
  2. What’s the best surprise you’ve had lately in the garden? (Indoor gardens count too!)
  3. What lovely lesson have you learned from some mishap, in garden or out?

If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

Remember I’m running a contest for 2021: the reader who sends me (kateriffoley at gmail dot com) the weirdest garden-related snippet of news or information between now and December 31, 2021, will win some kind of cool prize. Might be a hori hori: might be a gorgeous gardening book. I promise it won’t be a woodchuck. I’ll offer a few choices when the time comes. So please, keep your antennae up for choice tidbits, and send them on!


Posted in animal life, garden tasks, plants, spring, summer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Spring, Sprang, Sprung

Whatever it is that spring does to the soul, it’s doing it bigtime this year. And even though I owe you a long overdue Post, full of facts and tips and musings (insight is accidental), all I feel capable of is an ode to joy.

Image of coronavirus as white ball with red spikes, with horizontal label across the center reading "CORONAVIRUS"

The “life” form we’re heartily sick of
Photo by Sergio Santos, Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

We’ve all spent a year-and-change fearing and fleeing from tiny white balls spiked with evil red points. And we’re not quite done yet. So, when I pulled into my driveway after two weeks away, bracketed by three airports and four flights populated by too many people who think masks are best worn below the nose, all I wanted was to collapse.

But what greeted me was a vision of spring sprayed across the front yard. Blast of awe! The colors popping atop green stems and dangling from branches, white and crimson and lazuli and dawn-pink and apricot and bright butter yellow (your choice, forsythia or dandelions; the bees love both), packed a powerful thrill.

a flourish of pink cherry blossoms, seen from below against a bright blue sky

Nothing like a cherry blossom sky!

I can’t quite pinpoint whether it was the sort of thrill that shivers your spine up to your heartstrings when a just-born baby belts out its first yell, or the kind that seizes your ribcage when you find you’re still breathing after dodging a bullet. Maybe a combination.

New life

Haven’t we all had our senses sharpened by the past year-plus of collective traumas? I know it’s not just me. The New York Times reports New Yorkers’ raptures over tulips they swear are more profuse, more aburst with color this year. I’m not saying that New Yorkers are the essence of blasé, but when you live in the second most exciting city in the world (yes, Paris wins), it probably takes a lot to excite you. After all, weren’t they the ones who invented the word meh?

Several lemony-yellow magnolia blossoms at end of a branch, with dark greenish-black background

Lemon magnolias in bloom
Photo: canva.com

They’re noticing what I’m noticing: there is beauty riotous around us.

Around me. Minutely: with the bumblebee’s lurch-landing on a spray of cherry blossoms; with the unfurling of the impossibly deep-purple tulips, every petal edged as though nature had shaped it with heavenly pinking shears. Or on larger scale, on the lemon magnolia that last year emitted one piteous flower, but this year bedecked itself top-to-bottom in a creamy yellow riposte to the buttery flaunt of forsythia across the lawn.

Forsythia bush in full yellow bloom, with a bit of cloudy sky visible behind it at upper left; in the background on the right, portions of green lawn, serviceberrry tree covered in white blossoms and a weeping cherry covered in pink blossoms

Forsooth, forsythia.

Name it. Tame it?

And even with the weeds—especially with the weeds! They flower so fast and so furious, they must know the fate I have in store for them. My first task in the spring garden is not to plant; it’s to weed, because I know from experience that the weeds will win if I ignore them.

I’ve been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, which makes me think that I should know those weeds’ names. So I ordered Dickinson and Royer’s Weeds of North America. I will not go to the extent of asking the weeds’ permission, but I can at least call their names as I root them out.

Plantain, its green rosettes of leaves easy to identify. I should, in fact, ask its permission for the rooting out, because it’s edible and medicinal, and adds zest to a salad. I should treat it with considerable respect, and maybe even eat it.

A large dandelion plant with five bright yellow blossoms and a few buds, growing out of a brick walk against a cement stoop

Dandy, these dandelions!

And dandelions! Read up on these and you’d think we should be cultivating them–except who needs to, when they grow themselves just about anywhere, thank you very much.

Then there are Johnny jump-ups, from the violet family. The Weeds guide tells me they hail from Europe and Asia, and have “escape[d] from cultivation.” I picture the getaway: the moment the cottage door shut out the evening, the Johnnies hiked up their leafy emerald pantaloons and hightailed it into the nearby meadow, flowery faces alight with laughter. They are still laughing. Especially at me, in hilarious popups all over the lawn.

Johnny jump-ups in profuse bloom with purple, lavender and yellow flowers above green foliage, growing between and alongside flagstones at edge of a garden

Johnny jump-ups jump up anywhere.
Photo by Patrick Standish,
Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

Others? It will take some scrounging to find their names. The tiny ground-hugging creepers with their fairy-blue blossoms. The low-leafed lurkers between the bricks of the walk, throwing up flower stalks like periscopes. I can see their whites blooming where an eye might peer out.

I could invent names for them myself, for now. That might add to the number of popular names they acquired before Linnaeus came around and pasted Latin on them.

All in good time

Portion of mulched garden bed with small tree trunk in center and leaves of perennial flowers in background; in foreground, a half-weeded section of bed with clean mulch to left of trunk and a spread of weeds to its right; gardening tools, gardening stool and gloves in foreground

The job that somehow never seems done

Did I say ode to joy? It may not be joy for the weeds, but for the garden as a whole, it’s a happy tradeoff. The crabapple trees nod their pink-festooned branches, tapping thanks at my hat as I remove the blue-blooming creepers besetting their roots. The new leaves of a resurging aster emerge into view as I dig out the dense carpet that had settled around it; by the next day the aster seems to have doubled in size. The prostrate larch exudes relief as I advance on those periscoped legions that had been greedily eyeing it, and resumes its inching progress toward bed’s edge.

two raised garden beds at right angles to each other; the only visible vegetation a couple of rows of leaves of garlic plants, the rest still bare soil or mulch

The tasks ahead…

Granted, I’m cultivating for decoration at this point; the veggies will come later, as will their weeds. But the big thrill is that things are growing. They are coming back. Life is recovering and taking over again. The grasses that will become July hay burgeon in the meadow. The trees at the woods’ fringe are shaking diaphanous scarves in shades of green. Male robins patrol their territories, while mockingbirds flirt shamelessly with each other; we all know what comes next there.

Me, I’m just trimming a bit to help point a few flowers in a particular direction on one infinitesimal patch of planet Earth. Outside doing my thing while everyone else does theirs.

The inner weeds…

Then comes a rainy day that drives me indoors, and starts me to wondering. We’ve all been so sequestered and shuttered for the past year. That has allowed some underground development—sinking new roots, inching into new territories we might never have explored had we continued ranging out in the open. But maybe, as we begin re-emerging, we—I—need to consider anew what to cultivate in the precious, precarious life that remains.

In order to give it light and nourishment, to bring it to bloom, what might have to be trimmed away? What should I be weeding out in my own life?

Name it; tame it. That’s going to take a good many rainy days to figure out.

And now, your turn:

Remember to sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts, if you haven’t already done so. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but please feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. What flowers do you most look forward to, in your own garden or others’, when spring arrive? What do you think makes them so appealing to you?
  2. How many of the weeds who frequent your garden and your lawn can you name? Which ones do you try hardest to get rid of, and which ones do you pretty much let go?
  3. Do you think this spring was especially powerful for you?

If you’re commenting for the first time with a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

Remember I’m running a contest for 2021: the reader who sends me (kateriffoley at gmail dot com) the weirdest garden-related snippet of news or information between now and December 31, 2021, will win some kind of cool prize. Might be a hori hori: might be a gorgeous gardening book. I promise it won’t be a woodchuck. I’ll offer a few choices when the time comes. So please, keep your antennae up for choice tidbits, and send them on!


Posted in animal life, garden tasks, plants, spring | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Getting seedy

Magical thinking

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about magic. Partly this was precipitated by a recent indoor cleaning frenzy. (The garden is not the only place I’m inconstant.) You know the state that can get you into, right? With everything moved askew or turned upside-down, vacuum cleaner attachments strewn around and the right one hiding when you need it, dusters losing the battle against the cobwebs…. Around then is when I start thinking of the Harry Potter series, and Mrs. Weasley waving her wand to set the wooden spoons stirring and everything whisking to where it belongs. Yeah, I could use a little Accio this and Wingardium leviosa that, come the reckoning with dust bunnies and worse.

Fortunately, no waxy yellow buildup. At least on the floors.

Old painting of Cinderella in kitchen with fairy godmother turning pumpkin and mice into carriage and horses

William Henry Margetson (1861-1940), ‘Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother’
by sofi01 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

But the other thing that has me pondering magic is realizing that for all the wondrous powers of wizards and fairy godmothers and such, they always had to start with something. Before you can conjure up the carriage, you need the pumpkin. And look at all the ingredients old Voldemort had to get assembled before he could rematerialize himself!

What does any of this have to do with gardening? Two things, really.

First, I’m still hoping for the day when somebody discovers the magical indoor equivalent of the outdoor no-cleanup, no-dig, leave-it-lie approach. Or maybe I have: I discovered that if you leave it lie indoors, things will grow in it. Indoors, however, you don’t necessarily want that to happen. Call me rigid, but that’s my reaction to what I unearthed.

close-up of sprout arching out of ground, with seed still attached at its end

Magic! Seed sprouting in soil
Getty Images Signature via canva.com

Second, I do consider gardening a kind of magic. But it has to start with something. Quite a few somethings, actually, but most of them were already outside under the February snow just waiting for the starting whistle. One crucial something, though, relies on me to act, and, I realized as February shazammed into March, act fast.

That something is seeds.

The clock ticketh

You may recall that a couple or three posts back, I said it was way too soon to order seeds. I continued blissfully to think that. Somehow, I had myself convinced that April is when I need to think actively about gardening again. Real gardening, rather than pretend, planned, or theoretical gardening, that is. Those, I think about all the time.

Closeup of many icicles hanging on an andromeda bush, with snow beneath.

It’s still winter, isn’t it?

Outside was snow and occasionally sleet and lots of lovely icicles, and temperatures dipping well below frostbite level. So I was still safe, right?

After all, I had vowed to approach the veggie/herb garden more systematically this year, which meant that (so I told myself) I should wait until all the seed catalogs had arrived (on March 3, still waiting for some) and then attack them in one swoop to see what I should order. Go about it in businesslike fashion.

The thought plickens

Covers of several books on no-dig gardening, foodscaping, vegetable gardening, and a naturalist's notebook

So many books, so little time….

First, I wanted to educate myself, so’s to make all the right decisions. That meant ordering books and signing up for webinars outlining special approaches: ecological gardening, no-dig, foodscaping, yada yada.

Do you have any idea how many gardening books get published every year? Neither do I, but I am afraid that my groaning bookshelves would never hold a tenth of them, even if pocketbook permitted.

Then there were the webinars: eco-gardening, bark, pecans. No, I’m not planning to grow any new bark, or pecans. Those were free events. How could a geek like me resist? If the Master Gardener certification training had been open for applications, I probably would have signed up for that too–but it wasn’t. Which left time, or so I thought, to…

Go to seed

a box containing seed packets sorted according to planting dates, with a few seed packets to the right of the box

Seed sorting, no bells or whistles

Yep. I sorted all the seeds left over from previous years. This is always a good idea, although maybe last fall would have been the best idea. But here they were, handily tossed into one box. I first sorted according to planting dates. If you want an easy way to figure out what to plant when, indoors or out, Margaret Roach’s website gives you an online calculator that generates the planting table according to your last-frost date.

Note: don’t throw out your old seeds until you check to see whether they may still be viable! Did you know some veggie seeds can stay good for five to as many as ten years? (Handy simple table for reference here.) Not all of them, though. Onion seeds are at the low end: toss them after the year’s up, or possibly (if they’re organic) use them in cooking. Waste not want not, no?

A number of my brassicas (aka broccoli, kale, etc.) and beans and peas should still be good to go. Even carrots, although they hark back to 2019, so maybe a tad iffy. Unfortunately, some of my bounteous supply of seeds with short viabilities dated back to 2014 and 2015.

No sooner had I sorted than in came the latest gardening newsletters, whispering that there might be a rush-to-garden again this year. So even though I did not yet have a plan (as in planting blueprint) or a list carefully sketched out and winnowed (which professionals say you really must do before you start buying), I jumped upon hearing the warning whispers. After colliding with last year’s shortage of canning jars, I’m leery of all shortages and figured maybe I should buy first and think later.

The supply dwindleth!

ten seed packets of various vegetables from High Mowing Organic Seeds and three packets from Ox and Robin

Impulse buying, for garden geeks

Now, I’d like to tell you that I had at least some system in doing this, but that would be fibbing.

The first purchases: pure impulse. Out of curiosity, I checked under the “Seeds” heading when ordering online for a grocery pickup from my local farm store. They had such luscious looking veggie seeds from High Mowing and Ox & Robin, and it is after all Year of the Ox (happy lunar new year, a little late). How could I resist? Besides, I was getting a 15% discount.

Looking just at these new acquisitions, I realized that everything wouldn’t fit in my garden. Not in the two new 4X8 raised beds, even if I follow foodscaping suggestions and plunk the kale and arugula out in the tree-shrub-perennial beds.

Here is where friends come in handy. I fired an e-mail off to my gardening buddy across the road, telling her not to buy any new seeds before checking with me.

six green lined index cards with handwritten list and notes for vegetables and herbs; backgrounded by a red-orange-green plaid mat

Desiderata or pipe dream?

Then I contemplated an old list of desiderata in the veggie and herbs department. So much still missing from my inventory! What about asparagus and skinny beans and golden beets and carrots and cauliflower? And that only got me through the C’s.

Out of not quite idle curiosity, I checked some seed company websites. Yikes. Johnny’s Selected Seeds was only open for home-gardener orders two days this week, reserving the rest for farms and commercial growers. Several sites showed Out of Stock for more than half the varieties of some vegetables; others had some seeds on back order. Clearly, delay could be fatal.

Screenshot of portion of web page at groworganic.com, showing three types of onion sets sold out

All. Sold. Out.

Embarrassing riches…

Peril lurked in every foray; that much was obvious from the dozens of items I marked in just one of the seed catalogs sitting on my coffee table. Nevertheless, I persisted. I set some rules for myself: do it online to avoid browsing up more yearnings; order no seeds for anything ordinary, anything easily/cheaply obtainable in organic form from grocery or farm store. Except do get parsley and dill, because the black swallowtail caterpillars love to feast on those. Best to order only one variety of each vegetable, or at most two. Well, maybe three, but not many threesomes. No, stick to two. Bush beans and pole beans are different vegetables, not varieties.

If you believe that, there’s a bridge for sale too.

Millennium asparagus (plants). Greensleeves dill. Cylindra beets. Yellowstone carrots. Maxibel haricot vert. Stuttgarter onion sets. Pink beauty radish. Perilla green ao shiso. Blue kuri squash. Toma verde tomatillo. I swooned.

Reader, I ordered twenty-seven of the suckers.

I thought I might go back in and cancel some, but one company almost immediately e-mailed me saying the stuff was packed and ready to ship. That, I concluded, was a message from the cosmos. And I do not mean cosmos the flower.

Photo of a British backyard vegetable garden with profusion of plants in wood-bordered beds, hedges along the left and small trees in background, with houses beyond

A girl can dream
“The Vegetable Garden” by Shelley & Dave is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

So off went another message to my gardening neighbor, telling her really not to order anything, except for tomatoes and eggplant and peppers. I may end up supplying the entire neighborhood with seeds. But if not, there’s that viability table telling me that everything but the parsnip seeds and onion sets will keep till next year, by which time I will most assuredly (do I hear snickers?) have a Plan.

I just remembered: I didn’t order artichokes! Maybe next year.

Of seeds and shortages

Maybe I went overboard on the seeds because of my anxiety over trying to get an appointment for a Covid-19 vaccination. Until my cohort was called, I didn’t think about it at all, and was content to be kept waiting till April or even May.

But then the state of Massachusetts declared it had opened eligibility to my age group (now you know just how wizened I probably am). I resisted the urge to stampede with everyone else, and thereby missed the first-day spectacle of the nearly immediate crash of the state’s vax-scheduling website. But shortly after that, as conversations among friends and fellow Zoom-workshop attendees percolated with did-you-get-it can-you-find-an-appointment try-here well-then-try-there maybe-next-week, I decided–purely as a matter of scientific inquiry, of course–to try getting an appointment.

A word-frequency distribution graphic with COVID-19 centered in red, and associated words surrounding it in shades of gray font, sized according to frequency of occurrence

by EpicTop10.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I won’t bore you with the rabbit holes I fell into. If you’re in Massachusetts, either you’ve already experienced them or you’re going to. If you’re not in Massachusetts, I don’t want to set you to gloating and then feeling guilty for your schadenfreude. Suffice to say: I tried seven or maybe it was eight separate appointment-scheduling sites, from whole-state down to very local. And from approx. Feb. 18, when they announced the second-rung geezers stampede, until last night, I got nowhere.

So seed-seeking might have siphoned off the residue of anxiety that yoga couldn’t cope with. It was either that or binge-eat chocolate chip cookies. It makes me feel a bit hamsterish, except that “hamster” might be too high in the evolutionary ladder for this sentiment. More like crazed reptile-brain directly wired to a laptop.

Intermittently during that frenzy of attempts, I kept reminding myself how lucky I am. Over half a million people in this country have died of this disease, many of them because of government mismanagement or worse, or because too many believed the disinformation spread by people who should have known better. I lost one dear friend and worried about others who were infected, but thousands have lost far more than that. I had the luxury of being able to hole up and have things brought by lovely friends or delivery angels. I didn’t have to homeschool children or serve as a solo caregiver. The pandemic did not fundamentally affect my livelihood.

So I don’t feel that I have a right to the anxiety. But is there anyone among us, after this insane year, who isn’t plagued by anxiety, even if untouched by objective harm? I hope, if you’re looking for vaccination, that you can get it soon, and that it helps relieve some of the stress. And that you and your loved ones can stay healthy until we get past this.

I am happy to report that I now seem to have a vaccination appointment that requires only a 10-day wait and a 70-mile drive (each way). I can afford the wait, and I am able to drive. As I said, lucky.

close-up photo of several lavender crocus blossoms not quite open, above dark green spikes of foliage; unfocused background of more such crocuses; in the foreground a couple of dark brown fallen leaves

by Infomastern is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Meanwhile, spring approacheth, and maybe for many of us the prospect of being back out in the garden helps restore some measure of stability and hope, whether or not we got all the seeds we wanted. I contemplate the arrival of 27 packets of seed, asparagus roots&crowns, and onion sets, along with the seed-starting paraphernalia (grow-lights! warming mat! cowpots!) that I ordered in between seed frenzies.

Next post maybe I’ll regale you with my adventures in first-time indoor farming.

And now, your turn:

Please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but please feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. What’s your approach to planning your spring planting? When do you start, how do you do the planning, and do you already have everything you’ll need?
  2. Have you tried foodscaping (planting food plants in among shrubs and flowers)? What worked or didn’t work, and what recommendations would you make?
  3. If you gardened last year, do you think you’ll do as much this year, or more, or less? Or will you do something differently, whether in a major or a minor way? Reasons?
  4. Any good ideas for sharing extra seeds or seedlings?
  5. How have you been coping with pandemic stress?

If you’re commenting for the first time with a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

Remember I’m running a contest for 2021: the reader who sends me (kateriffoley at gmail dot com) the weirdest garden-related snippet of news or information between now and December 31, 2021, will win some kind of cool prize. Might be a hori hori: might be a gorgeous gardening book. I promise it won’t be a woodchuck. I’ll offer a few choices when the time comes. So please, keep your antennae up for choice tidbits, and send them on!




Posted in garden tasks, plants, spring | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

For the birds

With feathers

Are you feeling like hope is back? I suppose it was there all along, but until noon on Jan. 20, it didn’t seem to be sticking its neck up very high.

Photo shows the top part of an index card listing dates beside seed company names and notations on actions taken or not; underneath are the labels on index dividers listing various categories of tasks

Proof of organization. Not constant.

Now we can get back to wondering when those seed catalogs ordered in December will arrive. According to my records (this time, for a change, I really did keep a record, and there’s the photo to prove it!) … as I was saying, according to my records, I ordered a slew of them in early/mid December. As I started writing this, only Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog had arrived, and overwhelmed me. Drowning in possibilities.

Pages of vegetable seeds: 140. Pages of flowers: 37. Herbs: 14.

Mind you, that’s not the number of varieties. That’s the number of pages. Even allowing for all the photos and tables and sidebars with cultivation tips, I figure it averages five to eight varieties per page.

Montage of seed catalog covers: Johnny's Selected Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, NESeed Growers Catalog, Hudson Valley Seed, shown atop a woodgrain background

And they keep on growing…

And then another three catalogs cascaded in. How’s a gal to choose?

By sidestepping! I started reading about birds. Not, mind you, with any great strategy in mind. I still don’t have my grow-lights setup figured out, and going through that first seed catalog, I knew it would take eons to figure out what I’d actually plant under the grow lights should I even get around to them.

But I needed to get something up for the blog before you give up on me, and I was wondering whether there’s anything going on outside that you might want to hear about, and I thought: BIRDS! Who doesn’t love them and want more of them around? (Okay, except when you just planted corn.)

So I looked into birds. That’s when it got interesting. Like a train wreck is interesting.

But hang on, because I also found some inspiration.

The ticking clock

A red-tailed hawk sitting on the crossbar of a telephone pole, against a gray sky

Red-tailed hawk surveys the landscape, or the photographer
© 2020 by Vilmarie S-R

Do you delight in seeing the pair of bald eagles nesting near your usual route home, or stop to watch when you spot a mama killdeer stilting across the lawn with her babies bumbling behind her? Or do you run for the binoculars to see who’s hopping around in the winterberry bush? Do you fill those birdfeeders with seed and suet and the birdbaths with water? If so, you are one of the people who has been paying some attention. Did you know that not only our springs but also summers, falls, and winters threaten to grow more silent year by year?

The experts have been sounding the alarm for decades now. It’s getting ever more urgent.

Bald facts:

  • North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds out of the total bird population since 1970. That’s about one in four birds.
  • Even as sedate a source as the US Fish & Wildlife Service lists 99 species of birds in the US and its possessions as either endangered (“in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range”) or threatened (“likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future”).
  • Now, as I am writing this, the Audubon Society warns that 389 species out of 604 face extinction in North America thanks to human impact on the environment—climate change especially, but not exclusively.

Rough arithmetic: 2/3 of our bird species may be gone in a few decades or less, if we don’t act fast.

Can we save them?

You may recall the sad fate of the passenger pigeon, a bird whose flocks once filled the skies, but which, thanks to rapacious hunting, now exists only in taxidermy cases.

That’s one species; a few others have already gone extinct. Some species have been rescued—for now, at least.

A line of whooping cranes flying behind an ultralight aircraft (heading from left to right of photo frame), against a misty background of wooded hills fading from very dark gray at bottom to light orangey-gray at top

“Whooping Crane Ultralight Migration” by USFWS Headquarters is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The whooping crane, for example, spells a success story of sorts. In 1941, this species, one of only two crane species in North America, teetered at the edge of extinction. The cranes were down to around 15 to 30 birds, from an original population of over 10,000. Huge recovery efforts, including captive breeding and training the birds to head north for breeding in the wild (by leading them there via ultralight airplane), have brought the population back up to over 800. Think of that. Sixty years of effort for 800 birds.

Economics alone would tell us that species-by-species, full-court-press conservation efforts like that are impracticable. Catching the attention of the public sometimes requires dramatizing the plight of some poster-child species (polar bear, whooping crane, black rhino, lowland gorilla), but in fact, these are but the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. They represent a far deeper problem: the downward spiral of ecosystem deterioration, in which the fate of every species intertwines with that of many, if not all, others.

That is a very big problem, and ultimately calls for big solutions. Over the long term, we can advocate for better environmental policies (and the funding to make them happen) and donate to conservation and environmental organizations.

In the short term, though, I am happy to tell you, we can start in our own back (and front, and side) yards.


I started by musing about how there seems to be more bird life in my spring-summer-fall garden than there used to be, now that I have more small trees and various sizes of shrubs out there. But why? Is it because I (more accurately, my plants) have been offering birds a wider range of nesting options? Better cover? Bird feeders? Birdhouses? How important is it that I try more deliberately to provide more bird habitat?

Front cover of Nature's Best Hope, by Douglas W. Tallamy, shot from side perspective showing numerous orange and pink flags marking pages

Proof that I’ve been reading!

Grabbing onto that last question first: pretty doggone important. Being both geek and gardener, I started digging. It was ridiculously easy to find the important facts.

I have to admit they astonished me. As I read, I found that I’d been looking at my garden all the wrong way. The eureka moment in my education came from a book I recommended a few posts back, Nature’s Best Hope, by Douglas Tallamy. It already sat on my shelf, but I hadn’t gotten far into it except to see what he said about garden cleanup. Now, on my bird quest, I delved deeper. And quickly realized that if I want more birds around, I need to think more like a bird. (Note: many of the facts that follow are gleaned from Prof. Tallamy’s book.)

Thought for food

A cardinal's nest amidst dark red foliage; nest is made of interlaced twigs, and contains 3 eggs, cream-colored with reddish-brown speckles

Cardinal’s nest with promises of future action
© 2020 by Vilmarie S-R

Picture this. Birds build their nests to raise a clutch of young. Thanks to the now omnipresent web cam, you’ve probably seen a parent bird arriving back at home sweet home to be greeted by two, three, four or more screeching babies with mouths agape, beaks jabbing towards mama or papa. They’re no sooner fed than they start squealing for more.

Three squares a day plus snacks will never do for these little darlings. Thirty to forty meals per nestling daily seems more the norm.

I recall that my mother found it oppressive getting dinner on the table once a day for nine people, and she didn’t have to run outside to forage for every crumb we ate. A weekly trip to the supermarket sufficed.

Bird parents have a far more grueling job: fly out, find food, grab it, fly home with it, pick the most insistent mouth and cram the food in. Fly out, find food… Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Anywhere from 150 to over 500 times per day. Not per pair; per parent. Mama bird seems to do the heaviest lifting. One researcher clocked her doing twice as much as papa.

Which goes to show, birds are only human.

Given this burden, birds have the sense to place their nests close to abundant food sources. No birdbrains here; they do the math instinctively and calculate the energy expenditures exquisitely. They want the food within about a 150-foot radius.

The long view down a supermarket aisle with a floor checkerboarded in pink and white squares; displaying shelves full of boxes and bottles, and several shelves full of candies at right foreground; at the back of the photo is a large sign for Pharmacy

Not for the birds: “Supermarket – WP_20130720_002”
by Nicola since 1972 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I imagine my local mockingbird couple sitting in their sugar-maple nest watching me pull the Subaru out of the driveway to disappear for an hour before coming back with food in bags and boxes. They must shake their heads. What a humanbrain!

But what is that bird food? Here was my shocker: it’s not in the bird feeder, or the seeds they peck up from the ground. Oh sure, when they’re not feeding nestlings, the chickadees and nuthatches and jays and sparrows may congregate at the feeder. But for the babies, they need nice, juicy, soft, squishy caterpillars. Hundreds per day.

So if you want to bring in the birds, plant for caterpillars.

The very hungry caterpillar

At this point I felt a tectonic plate of lifelong assumptions creak and groan and start to slide away. Because—wait a minute, isn’t gardening at least half about fending off pests?What (Thumper and Bambi and Tamerlane-the-woodchuck aside) could be more of a pest than the caterpillar that chomps its way up one side and down the other of the delicate helpless leaves of your oakleaf lettuce and your chard, that shears off the tender bud-heads of your broccolini, or gouges big holes out of the magnolia leaves? The tomato hornworm that horns in on the tomatoes?

All these years, I’ve plotted to keep caterpillars out of the veggie patch. Prized the perennials and shrubs that don’t attract pests. Ripped out weeds to create neatly manicured beds. It turns out I’ve been making my mini world less appealing to birds because it was less appealing to their tiny juicy prey.

Now granted, I have planned to put in more milkweed to feed those picky-eater monarchs. And after the thrill of finding a hefty black swallowtail caterpillar in the parsley and a couple more amidst the dill, I have been aiming to scatter those herbs all through the sunny spots in various beds. But that was merely to keep the most decorative butterflies going.

A large black-swallowtail caterpillar in center of photo, bright chartreuse with black bands spotted with bright yellow, poised vertically on a parsley stalk. with leaves of parsley above and below it and to its left, and some grayish-beige straw in the unfocused background to the right

A very hungry black swallowtail caterpillar eating my parsley

From a bird’s perspective, not much help. The monarch caterpillars concentrate a cardiac toxin from milkweed precisely in order to deter hungry birds. And frankly, having seen the swallowtail caterpillar up close, I think it a bit alarming as meal material.

Where the appealing caterpillars truly flourish is on the native flora that evolved alongside the native fauna. Often, introduced plants, especially those that originated far, far away, serve as food for only a handful of species, sometimes even only one or none. Native plants, on the other hand, may host dozens or even hundreds of different species of hungry insects. Bird heaven. Smorgasbord for the nestlings. Yum.

Planning: for the birds

So if I want my little domain to function better as an ecosystem, I need to rethink my planting choices, and go for the caterpillars. Granted, I’ll do my best to protect the two raised beds designated for food plants (human-food plants), but for the other beds, I will be choosing any new plants with a thought to going native.

Which takes some care. As Tallamy points out, “native” for flora means not specific to a region like, say, the northeastern US, but specific even at a level as local as a county. Fortunately, his research assistant Kimberley Shropshire put together a database that the National Wildlife Federation has turned into a Native Plant Finder. You can use that site to search for the yummiest plants for the caterpillars local to your own zipcode.

screenshot of front page of website https://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder, with a header photo, unfocused, depicting clusters of bright pink flowers and bright green stems and foliage; under the header (labeled Native Plant Finder [BETA]), a heading for Native Plants (By Zip Code), a subheading "Flowers and grasses," under which are boxes for goldenrod, strawberry, sunflower, and deer vetch; two of them have photos showing the flowers, and all show how many species of butterflies and moths feed on the plant

The Native Plant Finder

I gave this a spin, and it reassured me. Turns out that a lot of what I’ve already planted is native, and others that I’ve been considering landed on my list. The nifty thing is that the database also tells you approximately how many different species’ caterpillars might want to feed on each species of plant, and the list is organized by the number of feeding species, with the most numerous first. From this I conclude that if I want to plant strawberries, I’d better include lots of extras for the bugs. Because it’s for the birds!

Not that my little 1/3 acre is going to change the world. But early February is a good time to start thinking. If we all stop to consider why we’re doing what we’re doing in our own patches and educate ourselves about the implications, we might make our spring garden plans a bit differently. Maybe we’ll be able to help arrest the decline and then, gradually, roll it back.

And I can’t help thinking that the birds we will see are a glorious indication of how we’re doing at restoring the environment as a whole.

Where to start learning more?

I’m not going to say a lot more here, because there’s already plenty for you to digest. Just a little on where you might want to start, to find out how big the problem is for our birds, and what you can do.

  • The Audubon Society offers a Bird and Climate Visualizer. Audubon offers specific suggestions about what you can do, and you can also contact your local Audubon chapter by using the Audubon Near You page.
  • The North American Bird Conservation Initiative combines the efforts of government agencies, nonprofits, and others working on bird conservation; its 2019 State of the Birds report is well worth a look, although I do wish it provided a lot more detail, especially on what we can do at the state and local level.
  • If you’d like to start thinking a little more like those smart birds, take a look at the gorgeous new book by David Allen Sibley, What It’s Like to Be a Bird. This seems to be selling like hotcakes, so maybe I’m not the only one to stumble on the program of planning for the birds.

That’s probably enough for now, and the post really must go up—before you get too far into your garden planning for 2021. Stay tuned for more resource leads in future posts.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (house)

If you’ve been watching, you know that Punxsutawney Phil (Tamerlane-the-woodchuck’s distant cousin) has predicted six more weeks of winter, as of yesterday. I was appalled to see the poor sleepy creature being terrified by the yelling crowd, but I have to say that for western Massachusetts, six weeks is way optimistic. Fine with me; I am in no hurry for Tamerlane to make his reappearance. The crowd is welcome to come here and yell him out of town when he does.

The paperwhites and the amaryllis have bloomed. Did you want pix? Maybe I’ll post them next time, if you insist.

Either the peppermint oil installations are working, or the mice have gotten extremely clever, avoiding all the mousetraps and leaving no droppings. If you’re using the peppermint oil method, though, remember to refresh your little containers about every four weeks.

And now, your turn:

Please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear under their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but please feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. How good do you think your garden and yard are, from a bird’s perspective?

2.  Do you have any ideas about what you will do in the coming year to attract more birds?

3. Whether you’re tending a garden or not, what do you think you can do to improve birds’ survival chances? Anything you’re already doing that you’d like to share with us?

If you’re commenting for the first time with a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.

Remember I’m running a contest for 2021: the reader who sends me (kateriffoley at gmail dot com) the weirdest garden-related snippet of news or information between now and December 31, 2021, will win some kind of cool prize. Might be a hori hori: might be a gorgeous gardening book. I promise it won’t be a woodchuck. I’ll offer a few choices when the time comes. So please, keep your antennae up for choice tidbits, and send them on!

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