Monthly Archives: March 2011

Me and My Mulch

By | My Garden | 9 Comments

Mistakes were made. I’m just gonna put that out there right now. Mistakes were made.

So, mulch.

Mulch is very important in the garden. It is what keeps your garden from turning into a massive field of stuff you don’t want. Mulch is the stuff you put down around and between your plants to suppress weed growth, keep moisture in, keep the soil an even temperature, and generally makes the gardener’s life much easier. You want mulch. You like mulch. Mulch is your friend.

And I had put in this long bed in the backyard along the fence, because of a miscalculation with the number of edging bricks in a quarter-pallet-load. (There’s a lot. The Vibe can hold a LOT. They offered me the rest of the pallet because they didn’t want to unload it, and I got a discount, but then I kinda wound up having to put in another flower bed because I still had like sixty feet left over after finishing the vegetable bed. )

That may have been the first mistake. But I mean, it’s not like I wasn’t going to work on the backyard eventually ANYWAY…

So then I get the bright idea to get a load of mulch delivered. I don’t want to drag all those bags of mulch back and forth in the car, and it’ll totally be cheaper to have it delivered, right? Right!

So I went and ordered 5 cubic yards of mulch to be delivered from a little local landscaping place called Poultry Villa. I had no idea how large an area I was covering—tape measures vanish into this house like a black hole, I swear to god, someday I’ll pry up the floorboards and there will be fifty tape measures in a breeding tangle somewhere—but it was like…um…a bunch.

Have I mentioned I’m not good with spatial measurements? I’m not.  Kevin can testify about this at great length, with hardly any provocation at all.

“Are you sure that’s all you need?” asked the man at the mulch place.

“Errr,” I said. 5 had seemed like a lot, but then again, I ALWAYS underestimate everything—except the edging pavers that time—and I had used lots of mulch on the front yard last fall, so…

“Better make it 7,” I said, and went home feeling that I had done a responsible thing that would keep me from running out of stuff mid-project.

FUN FACT: It takes a dumptruck to carry seven cubic yards of mulch.

The dumptruck pulled up Thursday morning, dumped my load of double-milled reddish tree slurry on the sideyard (covering over a prairie dropseed, a little bluestem, and the rattlesnake master) and drove away, leaving me with a pile approximately as tall as I was and a whole helluva lot wider.


Lotta stuff in seven cubic yards. Whole…lotta…stuff.

It's hard to tell scale, I realize, but that pile is about five feet tall.

My first task was to excavate out the rattlesnake master and the prairie dropseed, which I did. (The little bluestem may be a loss.) Then I embarked on a mad weeding-and-edging of the foundation planting along the front walk, which I had needed to do for a couple of months, took out a wheelbarrow load of chickweed and other miscreants, and then I mulched hell outta that.

Made no dent whatsoever in the mulch.

I threw myself into the backyard bed that I had bought the mulch for in the first place, and I am pleased to announce that after two days of manual labor, I have successfully mulched the entire thing.

This has reduced the pile of mulch by perhaps 20%.


I guess I could…err…well, I’ve got the other side of the foundation planting, that’s…um…maybe another five or six wheelbarrow loads, and I should really mulch the prairie planting, and…uh…I mean, I hadn’t planned to build that one bed in the backyard for, oh, three or four years yet…but the mulch is here NOW…

I think I need to buy a pitchfork. The shovel is really not optimal for this stuff. It’s awfully stringy.  (“Oh, good,” said Kevin, “you can put out both eyes. And pierce your ears. Simultaneously.” “I’ll be like a fashion-forward Oedipus!” I said.)

I have a vague dream that by summer, I will have conquered Mt. Mulch. I will probably also have landscaped the backyard a heckuva lot faster than I ever intended, and mulched things that I had never really planned TO mulch, but…well…

Mistakes were made. Mistakes!

Planting a Tree, Despite that Jerk in the Parking Lot

By | My Garden | 7 Comments

I so very nearly had a good day.

After another morning of unrelentingly bleak news, armed with PMS and temporarily out of manure to haul, I decided to do something constructive. I would plant a tree!

Specifically I would plant a sourwood. Lovely trees, sourwoods. Sourwood honey is a beautiful thing, and I look forward to it every year. I have a perfectly good spot for a sourwood in the back, where we could definitely use some understory trees. So I hied myself to Niche Gardens, turned off the radio and put on the Pogues, and felt…oh, marginally better about life.

They were out of sourwood. One of the staff went off on a quest, found only unrooted cuttings, apologized, and then another staffer (actually I think the owner) emerged from the back triumphantly waving the last sourwood sapling in the place, and there was much rejoicing. I love the staff at Niche. Most of them are very nice–one was a trifle abrupt at first, but has warmed up to me considerably. We talked enthusiastically about spring being sprung enough for planting, particularly since we just had a massive ground-softening rain, making it a damn good time to get those saplings in.

I was in a good mood. Really, I was.

So on the way back home, I swung by Lowes to get a coupla more bags of compost (because the news won’t get any better, god knows) and some mulch for my newly acquired tree. Trees. (Okay, fine, possibly some buckeyes also came home with me. IT HAPPENS.)

An employee planted squarely in the little-old-lady archetype came up to me to ask if I needed anything, and I explained I needed dirt, and I swear to god, O readership, I expected her to say “Okay, let me get somebody.” They employ young men with shoulders like draft horses for just this reason, and make frequent use of them.

Instead she got a cart and started loading up bags of mulch herself.

Well. Okay then.

I found myself at this point ‘twixt the horns of a dilemma as they say. On the one hand, I once worked in a job where there was some mild lugging involved, and had at least one customer who always used to insist I “get a man” if I lifted anything over five pounds.  (If memory does not fail me, she once told a co-worker this, adding that she would “strain her lady bits.”)  This is obnoxious behavior. If I said I could do it, let me freakin’ do it already.* Also, while there may be a graceful way to say “Pardon, but you appear far too old and frail to move my dirt,”  I have no notion of what it may be and would fully expect and deserve to be punched in the midriff were I utter such.

On t’other hand, this woman was a head shorter and at least twenty years older, and…well…no.

Fortunately I was getting a fair amount, so compromise was at hand. I grabbed another cart and began loading the other (substantially heavier) half of my order on it, so then we both had a cart, we were both lugging, and I felt we had achieved an equitable arrangement between courtesy and gallantry.

Now, this would not be significant in any way—we all make such social negotiations a dozen times a day—but for what happened next.

I proceeded to check-out, pulled the car around, and we began loading it up. She took the side door and began loading through there, I took the back hatch and unloaded my cart in that way. I finished first, took my cart back, and headed back to the car, while she finished maneuvering the last bag ‘o mulch in the side.

At this moment, just after she’d finished and the words “Thank you so much for your help,” had left my mouth, a car pulled up, and a middle-aged man leaned out and said “You should be ashamed, a young thing standing around while she does that! There’s something wrong with this picture! You should be ashamed!”

And drove off, while I stood flabbergasted, in a cloud of exhaust and really clever rebuttals that I would think of Any Minute Now.

Said little old lady had already proved to be fairly deaf and was already moving the cart back inside, so I don’t know what she thought of the matter or if she even noticed.

Sigh. I never think of anything clever on the spot. I didn’t even think to flip him off. I am really no good in the face of unexpected hostility—I can’t even remember to honk my horn when cut off in traffic.

So, while I’m sure he doesn’t read this blog, let me just say for the record—screw you, nameless motorist, you had no damn idea what was going on.  I hope your life turns into a Nick Cave song.

Tomorrow I plant my tree anyway.


*Tangentially, one of the great hang-ups to emerge from my divorce and the subsequent half-dozen moves is a deep and burning desire to be able to move every essential thing I own by myself if needed. The day I upgraded to a flat-screen monitor was a great triumph. This has relaxed somewhat since moving in with Kevin, but if I had to move out, the only thing I’d need help shifting would be the couch and the giant metal chicken. It still comes up when arranging con-kits, as I flatly refuse to countenance any system which I myself cannot lift.

There are worse neuroses to have, I suppose…

Wine and Grumbling

By | Invasives | 5 Comments

Some days I think the sole purpose of the internet is to make me angry. Then I turn on NPR and wonder if the sole purpose of news of any sort is to make me angry. Then I dismiss this news-as-solipsism and go haul bags of manure, which tends to take the edge off. Very few outrages can sustain themselves through 400 lbs of steer crap, and if it does, I can always go get rocks and build beds.  (I finished digging the pond, so that’s out.)

Someday the entire garden will be bedded and ponded and manured and then I will probably have to go on Valium or something.  I can’t dig a second pond. A second pond is just crazy talk…glorious, glorious crazy talk…

Ahem. Where was I?

Right, right. Anyway, so many of the things that make me angry are beyond my ability to talk about rationally. Compare abortion to slavery and I am reduced to anguished frothing, tell me about Libya and Wisconsin and the frothing becomes even more anguished and by the end of the week I am reading Barbara Kingsolver essays in the middle of Panera and trying not to cry into my bread bowl, because I am very small and there is so little that I can DO.

But one thing I CAN address, and that’s the smaller argument goin’ down in gardening circles at the moment, which also makes me angry, and which I feel reasonably equipped to talk about it.

So a coupla weeks back, a scientific paper came out that said, in effect, “Honeysuckle-covered areas of Pennsylvania attract a lot of fruit-eating birds. There are lots of robins and catbirds there eating the berries, more than in areas without honeysuckle. They also eat any other fruit in the area. Go figure.”

This is perfectly sensible. They’re fruit-eating birds. It’s a fruit. There’s a lot of it. They come eat it. I have no quibble with the science or the scientists involved. I think they’re probably right–there probably ARE quite a lot of fruit-eating birds eating that fruit. This is perfectly good science, and I gots no beef with it.  I quibble with some of their conclusions, but I have no problem with the observational science.

And then a surprising number of gardening blogs and nursery newsletters jumped on this to say “Look! This means invasive species aren’t a big deal after all! Go tell your friends who got into native plants after reading Bringing Nature Home to relax, already!”

It was really kinda messed up. (Some of these people have SEEN kudzu, too. I question how anyone can witness kudzu in action and not think that invasive species are maybe kinda a problem worth considering, but there you have it…)

About the only thing that keeps me from tearing my hair out in big elaborately-dyed chunks is that quote from Gandhi–“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We sure haven’t won, but hell, at least we’re past the ignoring stage.

I am sure most of my readers are fully capable of seeing the problems here, but let me go off, because A) it makes me feel better, and B) I’ve had wine.

Robins and catbirds, the two species mentioned in the article, are generalists. They eat a lotta stuff. And they are perfectly good birds, even charming birds, but I want more than two birds in my garden.

So I want to know about the wood-warblers, about the hummingbirds, about the woodpeckers. How are they handling a life over-run by honeysuckle? I want to know about whip-poor-wills and hawks, mice and moles, the elegant little shoe-string sized ringneck snakes and the big black racers, the salamanders and the cricket frogs.

And how about the bugs? How about the pollinators, in fact? I’m sure they ate hearty when the honeysuckle bloomed, but that was too late for a lot of them, since the honeysuckle also leafed out early and shaded out the spring ephemeral flowers that serve as the first meal for a great many pollinators.  And the hummingbirds probably had a good meal too, but I suspect they had to leave after that and find somewhere else to breed, since a honeysuckle-strangled world offers far fewer flowers later in the year. Come to think of it, robins have to feed their young bugs like everybody else–what are the breeding numbers like, long-term, in a honeysuckle-dominated area? A quick snack for migrants, I can see, but I bet it’s not preferred nesting areas…well, anyway.

So honeysuckle thickets aren’t quite as ecologically dead as kudzu forests. Whoopty-freakin’-doo, sez I. This is good news in the “not-quite-as-horrible-as-we-thought” sense, but hailing it as “Therefore stop worrying about invasive species! By the way, we have a special on privet and barberry!” makes me want to scream and bite things, or perhaps take a very long nap. (A NAP OF RAGE! Oh, shut up, like you’ve never done it…)

Even leaving all that aside, let me point out that A) you cannot generalize about the effects on an entire ecosystem by the effects of one plant in one area on a couple of specific species. There are tons of pigeons and rats in Manhattan, but the success of those two species in those conditions does not mean that paving over the world and putting up skyscrapers would be good for vertebrate species across the board–all it means is that a couple of very adaptable species can adapt and thrive.

Sigh. A little science in the hands of people who want to be reassured that THEY can’t possibly be doing anything bad to the planet is a dangerous thing. I hate bad science. I hate good science made into bad science by people with agendas. And certainly no nursery could have a hidden agenda or anything. It’s not like they make all their money selling exotic plants or anything.

Oh. Wait. Hmm.


Apparently this is a backlash to all those so-called “native purists” I keep hearing about, who want nothing that isn’t native and chew you out if you plant catmint or cannas.  I would like to meet one some day, because I still haven’t. (I once had a nursery owner get really pissy with me when I said that I was big into native plants and asked if she had any inkberry holly. There was eye-rolling and sighing. I instantly became a problem customer. Presumably a busload of these legendary purists had just left, after spitting on her privet bushes and making unkind comments about her Bradford pears—that’s the only explanation I got.) Now, I’m huge into native plants, I love them, I collect them, I have, at last count, put in over a hundred different native species into this 2.5 acre madhouse I live in, and god, if that’s not obsession, what is?—but I am still not out there slapping the azaleas from anyone’s hands. (I rather like azaleas. And I have tons of Walker’s Low Catmint, a pomegranate sapling, cannas, my salvia collection of doom…I will plant non-natives with a glad heart, as long as they don’t eat the freakin’ world. And goddamn, if the deer keep biting off mouthfuls of my “Autumn Fire” sedum and spitting them out, I am seriously gonna cut a bitch.)

…I had a point there. Hang on. Yes. More wine. Yes.

Robins and catbirds are very adaptable, and more power to ’em. But I would kinda like to live in a world that also had, oh, warblers and trillium, sparrows and sapsuckers—hell, wolves and tigers and moose and ostriches, pileated woodpeckers and jack-in-the-pulpit and frogs. I would like the whole world not to look the SAME. I would like to go to the desert and have it look like the desert, the forest look like the forest, the swamp be an-honest-to-god swamp. I do not want the whole world to look like a subdivision. I would like to eat at someplace other than McDonald’s. And if we’re all planting all the same invasives, and all the same highly adaptable species are surviving, and all the others are quietly expiring under the kudzu, I don’t think we gain anything, and I think we lose a lot.

More wine, damnit. More wine.

Obligatory Annual Deer-Hating Post

By | My Garden | 5 Comments

The suspense is killing me!

I hate deer.

My deer-hatred is a seasonal thing, peaking in early spring. Most of the year the deer are simply there, like death and taxes and the five hundred local Baptist churches—things I wouldn’t necessarily like, but have accepted and which do not trouble me over-much, unless they commit a particularly egregious act of aggression.

Woodchuck hatred, by contrast, peaks in late summer, when they systematically devour the whorled milkweed and the cup plant, plants that no mammal should be able to stomach. But spring is for the deer.

I went out this morning and found a scene of carnage—my native woodland phlox, which had leapt out of the ground with the enthusiasm of Alexander the Great arriving in Persia, had been laid low. My celandine poppies, a vital spring ephemeral, had been sheared off at the base and was leaking yellowish sap. My Stokes Aster appeared to have been hit with a weed whacker.

They even ate my chives. My chives! I was going to eat those! And they’re CHIVES! They’re on every deer-resistant-gardening list in the country, because they’re, y’know, CHIVES!

Bloody deer.

My bloodroot, which is perilously close to flowering, was spared, but I no longer trust the deer to leave it alone, so I photographed it, just in case I go out tomorrow and find it devoured.

This is really only a dire problem in early spring. In a few weeks, some unheard seasonal trumpet will sound and everything will be exploding out of the dirt and every time I turn around, something new will have erupted and the deer will have other things to chew on, and other than coming through occasionally to gnaw on my asters (they have a thing for asters) and strip the leaves off my chokecherry bushes, they won’t be too bad. All my delicate plants, like the oakleaf hydrangea, live in the fenced backyard already. (Come to think of it, maybe I should move the chokecherry…)

Meanwhile, they better just leave my bloodroot alone. I’m gonna have ONE spring ephemeral this year if it kills me.

Well, I’ll be damned.

By | Inept Activism | 18 Comments

So a little while ago, I was in Lowes, and saw a display of bulbs from a company called “Botanical Wonders.”

These were great plants. Jack-in-the-pulpit, Virginia bluebells, trillium, bird’sfoot violet, and the price was…2.95? That’s really…really…


An ethically sourced trillium—and you can get them—will run you twenty-thirty-forty bucks for the common varieties, and if you want something really obscure, get out your wallet.  They’re a rare plant to begin with and the seeds only sprout in the wild when they’re carried underground by ants. Growing them from seed is hard, and the plants don’t mature to flowering for years. People do it, but they sure don’t do it for $2.95.

I whipped out my phone, did a little googling, ran into all kinds of hate on the company for this exact reason, as well as allegations that one of their founders had been busted for plant poaching right here in North Carolina and actually served time. If the internet is to be believed (and with those prices, I’m very much inclined to think they are) they’re one of those places that strips wildflowers from wooded areas (including national parks!) plunks them in a greenhouse for a season so that they can be labeled “nursery grown” and then sells them at a stupidly low price, either to Lowes or to a third party who then sells to Lowes.

(What you’re looking for in your ethical plant, by the by,  is “nursery propagated” not “nursery grown.” When it comes to trillium, there are people who manage a kind of “wild-propagated” method that could be ethically done, but it requires having large existing clumps on your property, has a very low yield, and it doesn’t bring the price down at all. Also, anyone doing this would want these Botanical Wonders people shot, because they’d strip mine the whole clump and that’d be the end of the matter.)

I did what any good consumer does—I wrote Lowes a “this is why we can’t have nice things” letter.

And it was a pretty damn good letter for off-the-cuff outrage, let me say. I was polite. I rhapsodized about my pride in Lowes as a North Carolina company and my shame at this behavior, I explained the differences between nursery-grown and nursery-propagated, I used that critical phrase “I will tell my friends and family and blog readers…” etc.

Now, I assumed I’d get a robo-e-mail or a “We at Lowes are very concerned about customer feedback, thank you,” letter or whatever and nothing whatsoever would change. And indeed, I did get a polite “thank you for bringing this to our attention, we will look into it” letter and I shrugged and thought no more about it, other than scheduling a blog post on the matter over at Beautiful Wildlife Garden, where I blog on alternate Mondays.

This morning I got this in my e-mail.

Dear Vernon Ursula,

Thank you for giving Lowe’s an opportunity to respond to your concerns. We are extremely proud of our customer service, however; we are eager to hear customer feedback so we can identify opportunities to improve our service and customer satisfaction.

I have been corresponding with Michael, Director of Environmental Affairs for Lowe’s and he is going to visit Botanical Wonders Greenhouses. I just wanted you to know we are investigating these allegations with this vendor. I also have involved Ken, Merchandising Director of Nursery for Lowe’s, so he can look into this issue as well. Thank you again for bringing this to our attention.

If Lowe’s or I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to call me directly (number redacted, closing pleasantries, etc.)




Now, I know what’s likely to happen here. The odds are good that this gentleman will slog out to the nursery, be led around and have smoke blown in his eyes and verbal legerdemain engaged in, and nothing will change. I accept that.  It’d be lovely if they walked in and somebody was unloading a truck full of trillium, cocaine, and illegal Russian mail-order brides onto the loading dock, but it seems unlikely to happen.

But it means that this Botanical Wonders place is on their radar. And it means that if more people complain, and it keeps coming up, this place may well get a red flag as somebody that’s more trouble than they’re worth to deal with. And frankly, I think it’s fantastic that Lowes is being responsive and is actually trying to look into this instead of just blowing me off as another crazy, and I actually do want to point them out for good behavior—god knows they’re not perfect, they sell a lot of plants that make me less than happy, but on this single issue, I can honestly say that I think they’re actually trying to respond to customer concerns and get to the bottom of the matter, to protect their own reputation.

Baby steps.  But steps in the right direction.

If you’d like to write to Lowes about this issue, I suggest you A) first make sure that your local store has this display, and B) go to their online feedback form and leave feedback for your own store. Be polite, be firm, don’t scream obscenities–nobody keeps reading those letters—but tell them that you’re very concerned about ethically sourced plants.


By | Gardening Downtime | No Comments

I was nearly done digging the pond.  I have gotten tons done on it in the last month, and I was looking down into the mucky hole and thinking “Hey! I might be done today!” and the very next shovelful of dirt, my back went “THWANNNNG!”

“But Ursula,” you say, because you are a sensible sort, “why were you digging a frog pond by hand when you know you have a bad back and this sort of thing was likely—nay, practically inevitable?”

To which I say, “Shut up, shut up, I can’t hear you and anyway the doctor told me to get more exercise.”

That was yesterday. It rained hard last night, so even if I had completed the pond, I couldn’t do anything with it, as it’s…well…a pond at the moment, not an empty hole ready for lining. And I still have to get the field stone to edge the sucker with. (It will include a useful beach-head for critters to get in and out, but I still need the stone to weight the liner.)

However, there will be no fetching of stones, because my back is well and truly out, one of those impressive outages that send shooting pain down your hip as well. (Oh god, I’m thirty-three, I should not be crying “My hip!” and clutching at my pelvis for YEARS yet.)

Damnit. I had all kinds of stuff to do today that involved hunching! I was going to plant out onion sets! I had a cross-vine to dig a hole for, and an American bittersweet!

I want a bionic back, damnit.