Monthly Archives: June 2010

Back to the Garden!

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Back from the con!

I am, as always, so proud of my plants. Five waterless days with the temperature cracking a hundred, and the garden looks pretty much like it always looks–a little unruly, a little wilted, but largely unbothered.  (I think I lost the goatsbeard, but it was in much too sunny a spot and had been failing badly for weeks.) I spent part of the morning watering, as much because I wanted to spend time out with the plants as because they really needed it. A couple of the most recent transplants do require some regular watering, but once established, I mostly only have to touch the hose if I’m in the mood, or if it’s killingly hot and dry. Three, four weeks without watering in the spring and nobody flinches, and while I’ll soak down the swamp-dwellers once or twice a week in high summer, it’s not really essential.

The mourning doves, on the other hand, are VERY glad that my hose and I are back. Once the birdbaths were re-filled, they plopped their fat bird butts into it and are now just sitting there, trying to stay cool. Even the local bunny is only grazing in the shade.

Saw a tiger swallowtail that must have just come out of the chrysalis–its wings were wet and crumpled, and it was staggering drunkenly along the driveway, trying to fan them out. The hummingbirds are out in force, making their rounds of the plants–they love the hyssop, which doesn’t surprise me, and the zinnias, which kind of does. (You just think trumpet shapes with hummingbirds, not zinnias!) There are small praying mantises lurking among the plants, along with vivid green katydids and those enormous grey-brown grasshoppers that look almost like mourning cloaks when they jump.

The black-eyed susans finally opened after a month-long strip tease, and what appears to be a volunteer sunflower from the birdseed has established under the feeder and is close to flowering. (Meanwhile, the ones I planted deliberately all died weeks ago…isn’t that always the way?)

Meanwhile, I get the rest of the day off for con recuperation, and then tomorrow, it’s back to the grindstone!

Well, At Least Somebody’s Enjoying The Milkweed…

By | Insects, My Garden | One Comment

We be chillin'

This handsome little fellow is a Swamp Milkweed Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis. (Photo taken with iPhone, hence lack of stylish macro-photography.)

Despite my best efforts with Google, I can’t find that anything eats him or his offspring–apparently the milkweed sap makes them taste bad. (Black and orange are apparently the colors for the Milkweed Gang, a motley crew of various species united in their foulness and their love of the weed. I knew people like that in college, but it was a different weed, and they mostly wore flannel. It was the 90’s.)

I am somewhat puzzled by a native bug that nothing else eats. I can only assume that they perish in various foolish accidents–motorcycling without their helmets, refusal to wear seatbelts and lifejackets and so forth, until the survivors gather in tiny milkweed beetle nursing homes and eventually expire of old age.

No monarch caterpillars have put on an appearance, and there’s all of one beetle, so I’m glad SOMEBODY is enjoying the milkweed, and better him than milkweed aphids.

Seeking my kind of permaculture…

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So I’ve been reading this book called Gaia’s Garden about permaculture, which has about ten different definitions, as you would expect from any process where people with liberal arts degrees get involved.*

For our purposes, we’ll go with this–permaculture is the art and process of extremely small-scale sustainable agriculture. Basically it’s gardening that’s good for you and hopefully good for the planet, and doesn’t waste lots of resources and makes life better for the gardener and the critters without making it significantly worse for somebody somewhere else. There’s a big focus on conserving resources and trying to generate resources on-site (or as close to on-site as possible.) So instead of buying fertilizer, you compost, instead of watering from municipal sources, you put up a rain barrel, etc, etc. There’s also an emphasis on positive interconnections–ideally you’re creating a working garden ecosystem where Plant A feeds the bugs, and then is mulch for Plant B who feeds the birds and the humans and is interplanted with Plant C which attracts the bugs that prey on the pests that attack Plant B which in turn provides the shade that Plant C needs and so on and so forth.

Gaia’s Garden is a pretty good book, I’ll recommend it, with the following caveat–the writer’s waaaay too fond of Russian/autumn olive and bamboo. Probably this is because he lives somewhere that they are not a psychotic invasive.  While I agree with his assessment that if we would just stop creating disturbed sunny edges with new development, we’d stop having problems with a lot of these plants, autumn olive is one of those nasty plants that will invade a pristine ecosystem quite happily and form a massive stand through which nothing else can grow, and thus should not be planted in any climate where they show even the faintest sign of invasive tendencies, by which I mean “most of North America.”  Yes, the berries are probably quite delicious and undoubtedly antioxidant-laden, but it’s a bad plant out here. My nerve endings will simply have to oxidize on their own. Check your invasive plant lists before you stick one in the ground–there are some fine native alternatives and even non-native alternatives that don’t want to eat the world.

That aside, it was fascinating stuff, and largely practical, with scalable plans for even wee urban lots and rooftops. As long as you take those aforementioned bits with a grain of salt, it’s a great read.

Fine and good. I mentioned this to my mother in passing. “Say, Mom–have you heard of this “permaculture” thing?”

“Oh!” said my mother. “Yes! I was on the Keeweenaw Permaculture something-or-other. I was the resident artist. I was teaching people how to draw up maps of their property to work from. Mostly I just listened to the other people talk, though–it was fascinating!”

My mother is possibly cooler than I am.

A week later I was talking to my father about his fruit trees. He was describing the orchard on his suburban lot. “Lemons as big as your head! And the branches are breaking under the weight of the peaches! I can’t eat them fast enough! I bring bags to work!”

“Do you spray?” I asked.

“Spray? Why? The chickens eat all the bugs. The only thing that’s a problem is the grapes, because the chickens can’t reach them…”

Apparently Dad is living the permaculture dream. Dad is an Arizona Republican who actively campaigned for Perot. He also made his own bio-diesel for years and heats his pool with solar panels. He is also possibly cooler than I am. (He also restores Jaguars, which pushes the coolness factor way over where I can hope to reach.)

Right, I said. Clearly it is in the family tradition.  I should go permaculture something.

So I went to the internet, and that’s when I ran into trouble.

I can’t seem to find a permaculture blog for people like me.

I am not doing this because I am anticipating the collapse of civilization. Civilization has proved pretty resilient, and if it collapses, I am screwed on many medical fronts, so I’m working on the assumption that it will be continuing. Also, I have few useful skills, and they all require civilization. I cannot imagine that in the new Road-Warrior-esque world order, there will be much call for digital artists. My mad Wacom skills will probably be less than useful.  So we can rule out the survivalist type blogs.

Similarly, I don’t want to live off the grid. I LIKE the grid. I wouldn’t mind putting up solar panels one of these days, when the budget allows, but the grid and I are old buddies.

And I’d rather not read endless politics. I want to fix my garden and make it work better, not get mad about stuff. I am all for getting mad in a good cause, but I have a limited supply of mad and it gets burned out quickly these days. Something that’s politics 24-7 rapidly gives me eco-fatigue and makes me want to curl up with some potato chips, which were undoubtedly grown unsustainably and fertilized with the blood of endangered kittens.  I don’t mind occasional politics, but so many of the green blogs are just unending things I should be outraged about, without even occasional “And now that you’re mad, go build a swale to collect rainwater runoff on that slope in the backyard!”

In my attempts at googling, I found one blog that “provides solution oriented information to help catalyze and support the creation of localized regenerative initiatives.” Okay. Good luck with that.

I just want a blog or a site or something for somebody who wants to do good with limited time and limited money and boundless enthusiasm. Also I am not good with tools. I am awed at your greywater collection bog–that’s a fantastic idea, I wish I could build one, but bugger if I’m gonna go muckin’ about with the plumbing any time soon.  Kevin will not thank me if I try. So limited engineering skills are in there too.

And a sense of humor would be nice.

Any suggestions? Anybody?



*Although I have not personally witnessed it, I’ll put a dollar on the table that somewhere on the internet, some of these same people are having savage fights about the definition and whether something is good enough permaculture, because human nature is the same the world over.

Scarily Productive

By | Day-to-Day, Insects | One Comment

It is not yet noon and we have accomplished all kinds of stuff, including blueberry pancakes and nailing up a trellis for the Hairy Dutchman’s Pipe (which I would grow just for the name, I suspect, although the fact that it’s a fast-growing native vine that hosts the pipevine swallowtail doesn’t hurt.) The trellis did a lot to stabilize the railing on the back deck, which has gotten a trifle wobbly. If we were meticulous carpenters, we would disassemble the railing and re-nail it to be absolutely solid, but we’re actual humans, so y’know.

I also staked up the blue vervain, which had gotten distinctly fall-over-y. The vervain is a lot bigger than the stakes, though, so I kinda suspect that the first good rain that comes through will knock it down again, and I will come out to discover the vervain sulking sideways with uprooted bamboo stakes clinging valiantly to their stems.

This was too much productivity. I think I need to play video games for the next few hours to make sure I don’t sprain something.

The cup plant has finally flowered, though, as has the hyssop, and the black-eyed susans are juuuuust about to pop. So is the liatris and the pepperbush. There are even flowerbuds on the swamp milkweed and the various hibiscus (and the fact that I can grow forms of hibiscus directly in the garden still strikes me as demented.)  The zinnias are completely crazy. I am sold on zinnias. I will grow zinnias from seed forever. They are wonderfully absurd.

Photo by Christopher Jones, Wikimedia Commons

The caterpillars on the fennel vanished yesterday. I suspect some passing bird had a good nosh. (Ah, well…maybe next year I’ll put some in an aquarium and hatch ’em out by hand.) I suppose that still counts as “making a difference,” if slightly less romantically. There was a great crested flycatcher hanging out in the yard right before they vanished, so I have my suspicions, although the cardinals are also on the list.

There are woolly-bears out and about though, and damn, those things can MOVE! I saw one cruise by and thought it was some kind of mammal at first because it was bookin’ along at a speed one does not associate with caterpillars.

So a good day all around. And now to go play video games.

Gardening Achievements

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After my flippant comment t’other day, now I’m trying to think of new “Gardener Achievements.”  (Hey, everybody else gets them…)

Rudimentary Green Thumb — Grow something that doesn’t die.

Localvore — Eat a vegetable you grew yourself.

Roots — Grow a root vegetable. (This is really a whole ‘nother level of commitment than a potted pepper.  I still haven’t got this one, although I hold out hopes for the garlic.)

Resurrection — Have a perennial return the next spring.

Really Localvore — Eat a meal primarily composed of stuff from your garden.

Eat Your Yard — Find some edible weed you didn’t plant. Eat it.

Plant Doctor — Figure out what’s wrong with a plant. Fix it.

Host Plant — have caterpillars host on one of your plants.

Butterfly Attractant — Attract at least three species of butterfly. (Presumably this one would keep going up, maybe to 10 and 20, perhaps topping at the rare and coveted “Butterfly Master” where you get every species known to occur in your region.)

and specifically:

The Monarch — Host a monarch caterpillar.

Snake (Non)Handler — Provide habitat enough to sustain a snake.

Life  Comes To Frogtown— Provide habitat to sustain a frog.

Bird Nursey — have birds raise young in your garden.

Organic Gardener I — Go a year without pesticides or inorganic fertilizer. (Again, would stack.)

Localvore From The Other Direction — Fertilize with manure from local livestock.

Closed Circle — Fertilize with manure from your own livestock.

Noah’s Ark — Plant or host a species endangered in your region.

I’m Not Drunk, Officer — use your own or your significant other’s bladder in an effort to ward off deer.

…I could go on in this vein for hours, but I won’t. Your achievement suggestions welcome (and they certainly don’t have to be ones you’ve done yourself–I haven’t done a lot of these myself…)

Achievement Unlocked: Host Plant!

By | Insects, My Garden | 8 Comments

I don’t know if I get any gamer points for that–maybe we need gardener points!–but my bronze fennel is now host to five large black swallowtail caterpillars.


I kinda hope there’s enough fennel to support them, and that they don’t eat it down to nubs, turn to cannibalism, and then starve, as is apparently the methodology of caterpillars. (If they strip the plant completely, I’ll ferry them out to the dill and the Queen Anne’s Lace.)  They appeared practically overnight–there were a pair of instar larvae (the stage before this one) two days ago, and today there’s a fat munching horde.

This makes me very happy.  Sure, they’re not a remotely endangered species or anything, sure it’s only a handful of caterpillars, but they wouldn’t have been able to host here before, so I feel like our garden made an actual measurable difference, even if the measure is very small.

In less welcome bug news, I now spend about five minutes in the morning with gloves on, yanking Japanese beetles off that one mystery plant, and now off my zinnias.  Dropping them into a tupperware container full of water and Dr. Bronner’s Soap (It’s a mouthwash! It’s a birth control method! It’s a proselytizing tool for a completely incomprehensible religion! And it drowns beetles!) is not the most pleasant of occupations, but the flocks of starlings that are supposed to eat these suckers weren’t showing up, and my predatory bugs are apparently primarily good against larvae.  Which is fine for NEXT year, but they’re eating the zinnias now, so…Dr. Bronners it is.


By | Animals, My Garden | No Comments

There is a small brown frog sitting on the edge of the watering hole I put in the ground a few months ago. He is actually straddling the edge of the sunken flowerpot with one little froggy leg down and his toes in the water. It is unbearably cute.

I am watching this with binoculars from my second-story studio, because every time I get within twenty feet of the watering hole, there is a quiet “plop!” and I never see what’s in there. For weeks I was noticing movement and the occasional plop, but nothing. Today, however, I have managed to spot two small brown frogs, one rather larger than the other, living in it.  Since I’m using binoculars from this range, I can’t get much detail–yup, it’s a small brown frog, alright. It may be a “bronze frog,” that being the most likely culprit in size, range, and coloration, but I can’t get nearly close enough for a conclusive ID.

If it wasn’t so delightful, it’s almost be painful–making a frog habitat was SO EASY. It required virtually nothing on my part except twenty minutes labor. I dug a hole big enough for a plastic azalea pot about a foot across, dropped the pot in, tossed some dirt in, and filled with water. Now and again I splash with the hose to refill and stun the mosquito larvae, although if I have froggies, I don’t even need to be worried about those.  I don’t even clean the thing out–there’s leaf droppings and whatnot in there from the trees overhead, forming a slurry at the bottom that the frogs hide in when I walk by.

Eventually I put a stick in it, so that any dragonfly larvae in there could climb out.

Seriously. It is a plastic flowerpot full of water, in a hole, with a stick in it. That’s it. And frogs have moved in. They’re not even using the stick! The stick was purely optional!

The mind boggles.


By | Birds, Day-to-Day | 3 Comments

I was sitting on the front steps today, having attacked the boxwood for awhile.  (This is not exactly “pruning” and is rather more akin to shaving the head of a French aristocrat before they go to the guillotine.  I will be attempting a hugulkutur bed with the branches, but the real goal is to clear enough space that we can get at the bottom of the accursed plants with a chainsaw.)  This was hot, exhausting work, and I flopped down on the steps and went “Phew.”

I was peeling off my gloves and looking around for my lemonade, and looked up just in time to see a red-tailed hawk shoot by at my eye-level, about six feet away. He was cruising, too–if I hadn’t caught a flash of rust on the tail, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what species he was beyond “Holy crap, bird of prey!”

He landed somewhere in the wooded area, I think, but not anywhere I could see. The chickadees and chipping sparrows were out on the feeder immediately in his wake, and seemed unbothered by him. I wonder if he’s the one who was hunting in the yard before…?

Looong weekend…

By | Day-to-Day | 3 Comments

A lot of garden-related work this weekend. Kevin mowed, which was good, but a rock flung out of the lawnmower shattered my back window, which was…less good. Fortunately I have a reasonable deductible, because the back window of a Vibe is a bloody expensive piece of work requiring multiple holes and windshield wiper bits. Eh, these things happen.

My coneflowers are flowering, at last!

We also killed the last of the silk trees on the property. (Yaaaaay! No more fifty million seedlings!) This was a big one and required Kevin and the bow saw, but it went down quickly.

I was delighted to have it gone, but in the “unintended consequences” division, the dappled shade area under it is now a part-sun area, much to the irritation of the jewelweed that I’d plunked under it. I’ve ordered a serviceberry online to replace it. This particular jewelweed may not survive the five or six years until the serviceberry is offering serviceable shade, but given that the other four or five jewelweeds are happy as little clams and they spread like wildfire, I doubt there’ll be much problem maintaining a population.

Yesterday, we harvested the first Roma tomatoes and handfuls of basil and made homemade caprese. Clearly, it’s summer. But I’m already contemplating fall, and the enormous bed I’m plonking in the front yard. Enough of this lawn foolishness! I’ve been reading about sheet mulching, and I’m gonna try that. Although I’ll need to get a whole bale of straw to provide enough organic matter…although I can start by chopping back some of the boxwood, whose days are numbered anyway…

Today, we made pickles. Well, Kevin did most of the work with the chopping and the recipes and the brine construction. I just washed things and harvested the dill, which is flowering in the garden as we speak. If these turn out delicious, we’ll have to plant more dill next year, and maybe even cucumbers. (Madness!) I had intended the dill as a host for any black swallowtails that might be in the mood, but I’ve only found one of the instar larvae, and it was on the red hot poker, so screw it, we’re makin’ pickles. (They’re probably all out in the grassy area at the end of the drive, on the Queen Anne’s Lace.)

Japanese beetles have appeared on one of my plants–a mystery plant that was labelled “Salvia greggi” but is nothing of the sort. I have been watching it suspiciously, waiting for it to flower and indicate what the heck it is. Today there were a dozen beetles having lots of disgusting beetle sex.  If I’ve been doing this whole ecological gardening thing right, there ought to be predators around to pick off the little buggers at some point. (This is actually the first Japanese beetles I’ve seen, so I’m getting off lightly compared to most other gardeners in North America.)  Otherwise, I could get out the gloves and the bucket of soapy water, but that involves not being lazy, and I prefer to expend my marginal energy on things like “digging the bloody frog pond” and “cutting back the boxwood.”

It would appear we’re about to get a storm again. This is what I get for watering yesterday…(The first time in three weeks! It poured a few hours later! It’s like a rain dance!)

Eee! The system works!

By | Birds, Day-to-Day | No Comments

A flock of goldfinches have descended upon the yard, and in addition to the finch sock and thistle feeder, they are actually perching on the Cabbage-Leaf Coneflower and the Purple-headed Sneezeweed and yanked the seeds out of the seed heads. One was also investigating the flower heads on the blue vervain–I’m not sure if there’s anything there for a finch to eat, or if it was nipping at the little buggies, but it was certainly interested, beyond the mere perching that they do on any tall plant (the giant Joe-Pye Weed is a regular finch bench.)

Now I’m extra sad that my giant sunflowers were mowed down by bunnies or drought or deer or SOMETHING–but there’s always next year, and the system is working! (And hopefully the swamp sunflowers will actually establish well enough to flower this fall.) Go, little finches! Eat that seed!