Garden Journal

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(I started doing digital journal pages like this prior to my trip to Africa, and while it’s way too much work for a daily journal, to commemorate the occasional interesting experience, it’s a lot of fun!)



Odd Happiness

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I woke up this morning feeling happy. I’m not quite sure why–I had a vague impression that there was a smell in the air that I liked, or a quality of light or something. It had something to do with the garden, which suddenly looked a lot better than it has all winter (and not just because I spent three hours out there yesterday thrashing down dead stems and pulling up pepperweed.)

I went downstairs and there was coffee and even cream, and that was clearly a sign that the universe is good, or at least knows what’s good for it.

It must be said, I’m not always a happy person. I am a cheerful and busy person, and that looks like happiness from a distance. I like my life and my people and I do a thing that I generally enjoy and this all contributes to making life pretty good. But of course I am gnawed by anxiety like anyone else and I have deadlines that loom over me like the wave in that Hokusai painting…and this winter has been LONG.

So I am not entirely sure why I am in such a good mood. The likely cause is hours spent in the sun over the weekend–Tuscon is a blaze of desert sunlight–which undoubtedly kicked my vitamin D level up a notch, and yesterday’s gardening probably also helped in that regard.

Plus I finally started getting my hands back in the dirt, now that things have warmed up. And I could go on about the spiritual benefits and connection to the earth–which I do believe in, though I won’t tax you with it–but the more concrete element is Mycobacterium vaccae, which is a soil bacteria that increases your seratonin levels. It lasts in the system for about three weeks. In a short winter, I’m never not digging for that long, but this one has gone on (and on and on) and I have been busy and I suspect it kept getting punted. (Yes, gardening literally makes you happy, or at least less depressed. Humans and dirt have a long history. Incidentally, it’s apparently related to leprosy!) You can get it from vegetables that haven’t been brutalized, but it’s much easier to just dig around and inhale the stuff.

I was planting peas last week and getting my hands in the damp dirt and poking around. Maybe that’s the reason I’m feeling great today. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.


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It’s spring! It’s spring! Did I mention it was spring!?

I got back from Arizona and suddenly spring is everywhere. There are buds on the elderberry and the hydrangea and the dogwood. The trillium are sudden coming up! (They hadn’t even poked above ground before I left.) The eastern waterleaf is out and the Christmas fern and various mountain mints are appearing in places where I will probably someday regret planting them. Did I mention the trillium!?

My trout lilies bloomed and my toothwort and Jacob’s ladder are going nuts and the raspberry is budding and a deer ate the top off my red buckeye but it’s still got another set of buds and the roses are putting out dark red leaves and the cherry blossomed and I SAW A BEE!

My heart may not be able to take much more of this. Sometimes I wonder if gardening is just a random hobby I will someday tire of, and then I wander around making “Urrrk!” noises like I’ve been kicked whenever I see a new plant come up, and I think it’s probably not gonna happen.

And the mourning cloak is out! Doing his little patrols! And I saw an Eastern Comma butterfly! And pulled a tick off myself!

Okay, that last wasn’t quite so exciting. But still.

Thrush-Bob is back!

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I was staring out the window, looking at a Tufted Titmouse and thinking “Man…I guess Thrush-Bob isn’t gonna come back this year…” and literally at that moment he landed on the birdbath and began splashing around.

This is his third year here. Hermit Thrushes do often display site fidelity, but the northern forests are big and life is tough for birds, so I am never sure if he’ll make it back here. And of course, since he showed up on the back deck three years ago and began demanding mealworms (a behavior he trained into us, not the other way around–Hermit Thrushes are supposed to be shy and retiring!) he is now one of the crew.

I think we’re basically the winter spa–fairly regular water when it’s freezing, hot and cold running mealworms, and a sheltered corner of the deck. I always worry because there are feral cats about, but making it three years (or more–we have no idea how long he was showing up in the area before he learned that monkeys were a good source of mealworms) means Thrush-Bob is a tough and canny thrush.

More broadly, Hermit Thrushes are one of the few migratory songbirds whose numbers are rising. We are told that they are rare in backyards and don’t come to feeders, but apparently Bob didn’t get the memo, or “feeders” did not include “Kevin shuffling out at six in the morning muttering “‘Blood and Mealworms for my lord Thrush-Bob…'”

Birds, Plants, Stuff

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Went out twitching today after a rare bird that was just plausible enough to be sighted in Durham…and discovered that some idiot had been listing the exotic waterfowl collection over at Duke. (I just map-quested the coordinates and didn’t realize where it was located until I got to the gardens and had a sudden sinking feeling. What I get for not checking closer.)

Oh, well. It got me out of the house, anyhow. I haven’t been birding in weeks, beyond glancing into the backyard occasionally. There are worse fates than a morning spent birding at Duke Gardens, even if it’s all yellowthroats and vireos.



I mean, I grow this stuff, and this never occurred to me. (I don’t have a slope like that, mind you…) It’s a clumping native grass with pink seed heads, grows about two feet tall, gets a pretty good spread. Never ever seen it used like that.

Then I stopped at the Botanical Garden on the way home, and there went the rest of the morning. Did you know there is a plant called “Farkleberry”?! (Okay, it’s been rebranded as “Sparkleberry” and is a native holly, but seriously, that used to be “Farkleberry.” The little tag informed me solemnly that not even google knew the origins of “farkle.”)

So that was my morning. Didn’t suck, even with the not-actually-wild goose chase.

Turtles, Turtles, Everywhere

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So for those of you not on Twitter, Turtle-Bob made a triumphant return last week, all patched up (though with a scar) and was duly released in the garden. (The rehabber informs me that Turtle-Bob is a girl, incidentally. Also, when I arrived to pick up the turtle, I was handed a bottle and drafted to bottle-feed a fawn. Needless to say, I did not resist terribly hard.)


You can see the scar and the lump there–they had to drain the cyst repeatedly, so she’ll probably always have some kind of lump, but it no longer looks like she’s got another head.

Now, box turtles are nearly invisible when they’re in leaf-litter or mulch, so I have no idea where Turtle-Bob got to–she could still be lurking in the garden, she could be in the next county, I have no way of knowing. We commend her to whatever saint watches over small box turtles and hope she lives to a ripe old age, and of course I’ll be delighted if I trip over her again in the garden.

This morning, however, as I strolled down the path, I nearly stumbled over ANOTHER box turtle, this one twice the size of Turtle-Bob. He was, for a box turtle, very large, and not terribly impressed by humans. (He looked at me, I looked at him, neither of us retreated.)

It’s been very cloudy for the last few days, and I know they navigate by the sun and sometimes wander afield when it’s cloudy, so he may have trundled off his territory and into the garden–or this may BE his territory, for all I know, although given that adult boxes have come through before, that could mean that a couple are sharing this particular chunk of their range. I have no idea if they do that. It’d be considered a food-rich environment, I suspect–veggies to raid, worms and slugs to nosh, lots of mushrooms–but this requires an insight into box-turtle behavior I lack.

He most definitely did NOT come in through the chain link though–he wouldn’t fit–so he had to come in under one of the two gates with a gap. Or he lives here full-time and I just haven’t had a good look at him before because, as previously stated, box turtles can become damn near invisible.

Thoughts on Beans

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I suspect the number of people who actually care about my bean growing experiences are few, but what the hell. I have grown six bean varieties this year, and you get to hear my reviews!

It hasn’t been a great year for beans for me–the weather was too weird, the peas ran late, and then everything got whacked hard with powdery mildew. (High humidity + lack of rain = oh, the mildew you’ll grow!) But honestly, that sort of thing happens–we’re in a desperately humid climate and mildew is a way of life–so it’s a good test of bean sturdiness.

I grow only for dry beans–we’re too busy and too deranged to get to green beans on time, so it’s just easier to dry, shell, and store. They get watered regularly via soaker hose and grow in soil treated with some form of compost early in the season.

Arikara Yellow — This is a bush bean, which I didn’t know when I planted it, so it grew more or less in the wrong spot and got abused by surrounding plants. Despite that, it produced a fair number of pods per plant, and according to reviews, will tolerate more shade than many beans, so I’m tentatively impressed and may grow again, despite a bias against bush beans. No significant powdery mildew problems, and holding up to our humidity well despite being from Dakota territory, which I gotta assume is a bit drier.

Good Mother Stallard — Still the champion! Getting significant powdery mildew but still growing vigorously despite it, producing a solid crop of gorgeous purple-and-white marbled beans. It’s being hit pretty hard and I’m traveling too much to baby it, so I don’t know if I’ll get a second flush of pods, but the initial round is at least a couple meals worth of rice-and-beans. Always growing this one.

Ojo De Cabra — “Eye of the Goat.” It’s a very pretty bean from northern Mexico, and it’s holding up to our humidity very well so far–very vigorous, fairly mildew resistant–but it’s not nearly so productive as Stallard. Will probably grow at least once more, to give it a fair shake, since it may flush out better later in the season.

Mayflower — Bah, humbug. This one was billed as being a staple of the Carolinas, but it’s wimpy, not very vigorous, the peas out-competed it (peas! For god’s sake, beans! Does this not bring shame to your ancestors?) the mildew nuked it, and while it was productive for being a tiny, spindly, sad little bean, that basically means I got a handful of beans to throw into mixed bean chili. Not impressed, will not grow again.

Rattlesnake Pole — Productive classic. This one’s great in chili and has been largely immune to the powdery mildew going around. It takes humidity like a champ and keeps going FOREVER. This is another one I’ll always grow.

Scarlet Runner Bean — There’s a specific way to prep these* and some day we’ll get around to it. They hail from Oaxaca. I had to stop growing them up my deck because they kept eating the railing, so I’ve replaced them with Rattlesnake Poles there. They are currently in a slightly more shady raised bed and are very leafy but not bearing heavily. In full sun, they’re amazingly productive and bring in hummingbirds like you wouldn’t believe, so they’re another always-grow, though I may need to find a new place for them to live.

I’m also growing Cowpeas, “Holstein” but they haven’t done anything much yet and are only now starting to get going. I’ve got four plants going, one of which is stunted, one of which is nearly dead, and two of which are gigantic and lush. We’ll see how it goes.

I like growing beans on arches, and may have to get another pair of arches for the garden, which will be a questionable design element but will allow for even more beans. And tomatoes! Tomatoes do great on arches! (Just harvested the first Roma and the first German Johnson. They are delicious.)

*No, they are not poisonous.

Quite A Morning

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So as some of you know, there’s a couple of feral cats that’s been visiting my garden and eating my birds and my frogs.

This displeases me greatly, since I didn’t design this garden to be an ecological sink, like some kind of horrible avian Roach Motel, and I have been trying to live-trap the damn things with no success.

Had to stop trying to trap for the season because it’s gotten so hot that if they’re stuck in a cage outdoors for hours, the cats may well expire of heat exhaustion, and while I have no qualms about taking a feral to the pound, I have a lot of qualms about it dying one of the more unpleasant deaths at my hands. So the cats are back, although they run like hell when a human comes (so I’m pretty sure by now that they are ferals rather than strays.)

Went out in the garden this morning to fix the soaker hoses, not thinking about much of anything, and there is an explosion of fur as one of the cats, who has been lurking around the birdfeeders, takes off at a run…and hits the chain-link fence like an idiot and runs its damnfool head into the fence and is then stuck.

I grab my gloves and run up to discover the cat is in the process of strangling itself in the chain-link. (I’ve heard of this happening with wild animals on fences with a good run up, but it hasn’t happened here in over a decade–everything is undergrowth and trees and vines and you generally can’t get a good enough run at the fence to get stuck. But the cat managed.)

Well, now I’m sunk, because I can’t pull the cat back out without probably breaking its neck, I can’t go and get the wire cutters and cut the fence open because it will kill itself before I get back–its tongue is already hanging out and things are Not Going Well–so I do the only thing I can think of and grab the fence and try to haul the wires apart and hope the cat’s got enough presence of mind to go back instead of forward.

(If you’re familiar with the construction of chain link, you’re aware that this was just this side of useless–I couldn’t get my fingers hooked through the wire around the cat’s neck, all I could do was haul on the wires near it and try to compress them enough to give it a quarter inch or so more to work with. This had my hands awfully close to the cat’s head and I figured if it got loose, there was a 50/50 chance I’d get a really spectacular cat bite, which would be an exciting trip to the E.R. for the rabies shot and the really good antibiotics.)

Well, luck was with both of us. It got loose and my gloves protected me from any random flailing. I had a vague hope I’d get enough time to grab the damn beast before it got far–it probably injured itself, and I still hope to get it off the streets–but it was out of there like a shot, over the gate and into the woods. A ninja could maybe have caught it, but I am nobody’s idea of a ninja.

The cat is NOT in good shape, incidentally–leaving aside any neck injuries it may have just sustained, it’s nothing but fur and bones and there’s some kind of huge scar or mat along one leg that I didn’t get a good look at–and I would very much like to trap it, both for my birds and so it can get either medical care or a good home or a better end than nature will provide.

If you must have outdoor cats, people, for the love of god, spay and neuter them. This sort of thing is unconscionable and it’s entirely the fault of lazy-ass humans and swear to god, it’s things like this that are going to drive me to start drinking before noon.

The Middle-Aged Woman & The Sea (Plus Bonus Turtle!)

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I return from the vacation of vacationness!

It was pretty good. We walked on the beach and wore hats and went to small tacky beach shops and bought small tacky objects that seemed like a good idea and which will puzzle us in years to come. (Though I am quite pleased with my flamingo-shaped birdhouse.) We went out to Shackleford and saw the wild horses, which are not the Marguerite Henry ponies (I was wrong) but probably the descendants of Spanish horses, and are believed to be the oldest population of horses in North America. So that was pretty cool.

I went in the ocean. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I am highly skeptical of the Atlantic, because it is warm and not full of rocks. I suspect it is plotting something. It rewarded this suspicion by slapping me repeatedly with waves. I retired from the field of battle, because it is not possible to win against geography.

Got back home and went into the garden to do some much needed clean-up—the heat over the last week has slain the last of the peas, and the beans are starting to produce big pods that are yellowing up. Built a drying rack out of narrow RV window screens, which fits nicely in the studio window table and should be destroyed by the cats any moment now.

And then, as I was chopping back the native creeping St. John’s Wort, I saw this little guy digging into the mud alongside the path…


As you can see, he’s got something swollen on the side of his head. It turns out that ear infections are common in wild box turtles and cause abscesses. (Who knew?) It’s a pretty easy fix—you drain it and give them antibiotics—but well beyond my skills, so I started calling wildlife rehabbers in my neck of the woods. Fortunately, I got a gentleman on the second try who was still taking small stuff (I think, based on his cautious answers, he was afraid I was gonna dump a fawn on him or something) and said “Oh, that we can handle!” So I put Turtle-Bob here in a box and ran him out to the rehabber. (Big house, huge garden, peacocks and beagles roaming the grounds. I took him up to the front door, and the porch was covered in peacock feathers. My kinda people.)

The rehabber said that Turtle-Bob was quite young and that they tend to be pretty hardy with this procedure, so he’ll give me a call if he pulls through and we can bring him back to the garden. Box turtles have very small, very set territories, and while this one may not have settled yet, if he has, we don’t want to stress him out by trying to introduce him somewhere else and possibly having him get hit by a car. (We lost one to a UPS truck that way awhile back, and lots and lots of box turtles die on roads every year.)

Honestly, I occasionally think I’m running box turtle hospice here–I found another one a few years ago, and he hung out in the garden for a week or so, eating my tomatoes, then expired quietly. There wasn’t a mark on him, so for all I know, he died of old age or something. (I can at least be sure he didn’t get into any pesticide laden veggies here, but reptiles are hard and they get weird diseases that don’t make sense to us mammals. Anyway, I at least know he had plentiful food and peaceful final weeks.)

Hopefully Turtle-Bob the Third will pull through and be able to return, and if not, at least he got care.

And the rehabber told me to take a bunch of peacock feathers when I went, so I’ve got a couple in my studio now.


ETA: The rehabber just called—Turtle-Bob survived surgery just fine and is doing well! If all goes well, he’ll be ready to come home in a week or so!


By | Insects, Stuff In My Yard | No Comments



Found this guy (and a bunch more like him) making leaf nests in the Amorpha fruticosa, aka Tall Indigo-Bush. He is either a Silver-Spotted Skipper, or a Hoary-Edge Skipper–they’re nearly identical and while Silver-spotted are common, there have been a crapload of Hoaries around the garden this spring, which is somewhat unusual. So I am leaning toward the Hoary-Edge Skipper, though in other years, I would’ve leaned t’other way.

Once I’d photographed him, I returned him to his bush, tucked in where the birds and wasps hopefully won’t get him. It was rude to clip his little nest open, but rude for science.

I am staring out the window now, willing it to rain. It is doing little noncommittal droplets and damnit, we need a good hard rain-barrel filling frog-strangler of a rain. If they find me with my brain popped and my tongue hanging out, that’s what I was trying to do at the time.