Friday, December 01, 2006

Sharing a Few Last Favorite Fall Experiences

A few last fall impressions:

This is the bloom of an 'Alba Plena' camellia. It's one of the oldest of all the named camellia varieties, and I love its stately grace. (For a sense of scale, this blossom is about 4" in diameter.)

In fact, I've become rather a camellia fan after living here for 6 years. Their wildlife value is, of course, negligible, for which reason I doubt that I'll ever go completely nuts about them, but their beauty is undeniable. Their foliage is deep and lustrous, and their blooms are captivating.

One of the many assets of camellias is that they bloom in the late fall, winter and early spring. Alba Plena is one of the first camellias to bloom, so it's another sign that fall is winding down and winter is fast approaching.

I love finding co-inhabitants of my garden...and it's even better when I can photograph them and share those photographs. This captivating guy was hiding out underneath an aster in the wood nymph garden at the beginning of November. I think he was hoping that I didn't see him, as he stayed perfectly still for a long time, inadvertently posing beautifully for me!

I'm assuming that he was there because the asters were absolutely shimmering with insect life, especially bumble bees and skippers, feeding on the nectar. It must have been like an all-you-can-eat buffet!

And, finally, here is our "Outback" seating area, surrounded by signs of fall. Maybe it's just that I've spent so many mornings and evenings sitting out there, sipping coffee or some other beverage of choice, journalling or just enjoying the life in the garden, but this vista makes me smile just looking at it.

A sanctuary. And how lucky we are to have it.

A Limestone 'Begging Bowl'

This limestone slab has been fascinating me for the last month or so. We've had it for over a year now, but it had such a blandly smooth surface that I've had a hard time figuring out what to do with it in the garden. It seemed so characterless and unnatural.

Now, however, the falling leaves have literally left their mark on it and it has morphed, almost overnight, from a blank spot to a daily changing canvas of impressions.

My biggest frustration at this point is how to capture it most effectively in a photograph. Lighting and shadows, changing displays of leaves coating its surface, and naturally evolving tannin prints all create its appeal to me. To a great extent, though, it's the fleeting nature of those patterns that fascinates me and, in trying to photograph them, I destroy that very nature that speaks to me.

Whether I ever get the photograph that I want, I now feel that having this blank canvas in the garden is a big plus. In its own way, it's the classic monk's begging bowl - highlighting the day's or the season's offerings.

Looking back a little....

I've been sorting through photos from the garden, putting together an album of how the yard has looked throughout the year. Seeing the months condensed like that, it is amazing how much the garden changes annually...even though it is purely normal and therefore technically not amazing at all.

Just for kicks and grins, here are three vistas of the east side of our garden, over the course of the last year....

First we have spring - March 12, to be exact. Deciduous plants are just starting to leaf out. The azaleas have been blooming for a week or two and will be in full glory in another week or so. A week before this photo, the yard looked noticeably barer, but I wanted to show the azaleas really starting to ramp up.

Next is the start of full summer, June 6. The spring flowers are gone and the lushness of summer is setting in. Heat and humidity are almost radiating from this vista.

Last in my quick series is fall, November 28. The green is fading out, taken over by bright fall colors. Leaves are falling, and those that remain bear witness to a growing season's worth of life experience: spots from minor diseases, missing sections where insects dined, dessicated edges reminding of dry spells.

Each season has its beauty...and each season has its flaws. Life's rather funny that way, isn't it?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Going to the Source...So To Speak

I just got reminded about why it's better to go directly to the source than to rely on secondhand information. I was able to find the original blurb about the organic farm study in the July/Aug 2006 Audubon magazine online.

In reading it, I realized that the story was misquoted somewhat in Utne. (I am disappointed in Utne. I thought they had better journalistic standards than that.) As summarized in Audubon, the original study was a four year study, not a five year study. And while the percentage increases were correctly reported in Utne for plant species and number of bats (105% and 75% respectively), the percentage increase for winter birds was 62%, and there was actually a 48% increase in spiders. Insect species and/or numbers were still not mentioned.

My junior English teacher in high school had us do a great exercise comparing the same story as reported by several different sources. I have never forgotten how different the story was depending on who reported it.

And it makes me wonder what changes have occurred in the translation between original study and the report in Audubon.

Anyway, despite the discrepancies, the message remains the same.

Now I'm on a quest to find the original study report.

It's Just Better When It's Organic....

According to a 5-year study discussed in Audubon's August 2006 issue (and excerpted in Utne's Nov-Dec 2006 issue, which is where I read about it), organic farms in England have 105% more plant species than their non-organic counterparts. This provides more habitat, leading to 48% more winter birds and 75% more bats.

Not having read the original article in Audubon (let alone the actual study!), I don't know if they tallied the increased number of insect species found, but I'd be willing to bet a fair amount that insects showed similar gains. More importantly, I'd be willing to bet that insect predator species rebounded significantly, working to control insect plant eaters and balance the farms' ecosystems naturally.

If farmers, who have to make their livelihood from their land, can increase habitat and species diversity like this, just think what us homeowners could do if we all decided to go organic!

I need to try to find the Audubon article. Better yet, I'd like to read the original study. But why wasn't this study widely reported in the national news? It seems to me that its conclusions are one more clue pointing us in the direction of a healthier and more balanced lifestyle.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Scarlet Bodied Wasp Moth

Isn't that a cool name? It's a pretty cool moth, too. Not easy to forget, once you've seen one.

I first found one dead on my doorstep, believe it or not, about a week ago. With my eyeglasses needing an update and my fantastic old loop magnifying glass playing a permanent game of hide-and-go-seek with me, I wasn't quite sure what type of insect it was. So I picked it up and saved it on a plate in the refrigerator, hoping to be able to identify it.

Two days ago in the late afternoon, I noticed several dozen of these unknown insects feeding on the asters in the back yard. I'd been enjoying all of the other "bugs" at the asters, but this was the first time I'd seen these creatures in the mix. They were even more dazzling alive than dead. (To give you an idea of scale, their bodies range from 1/2 - 3/4" in length.)

By watching closely, I was able to figure out that these guys were feeding with a proboscis, nailing their identity as a moth. I checked my guides, but the only information I could find out was that clearwing moths, as a family, are borers and can actually cause quite a bit of damage. Peach borers and dogwood borers, for example, are in this family. That caused my heart to sink, and I had visions of these beautiful insects creating untold havoc in their larval stage.

Luckily, a quick Google search set me straight. This is a scarlet bodied wasp moth, and it is indeed in the clearwing moth family. Its host plant, however, is the climbing hempvine - not what you would call an important commercial plant! This moth is considered to be a tropical species, which is why I wasn't able to find it in the guides that I had.

So I can enjoy these little beauties with a clear conscience. I've noticed that I primarily see them in the late afternoon, rather than throughout the day, despite the fact that they are supposed to be diurnal. Who knows what else I can discover about their habits as I watch them making themselves at home in my garden?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

More Signs of Fall

Here are a few more photos celebrating the season.

First is this photo of a painted lady feeding on the asters in the wood nymph garden. (It's hard to see because I was fairly far away, but the butterfly is almost exactly in the middle of the frame.) While this isn't the best picture of a painted lady, it commemorates two other neat phenomena. First, this is the first painted lady that I remember seeing in my garden this year, despite all of the other butterflies that have made this yard their home. Second, although I haven't been able to capture it in a photograph, these asters are positively bouncing and humming with insect life right now. There are literally hundreds of bumble bees and skippers moving constantly from flower to flower, with occasional other butterflies and insects joining in the feeding frenzy. It's stunning to watch.

Next is this photo of a native, fall-blooming tickseed, Coreopsis integrifolia 'Chipola River', blooming beside one of the paths in the yard. These coreopsis have proven to be extremely happy in their bed, and I have debated all year long as to whether I should thin them out and rein them in. Now that they are blooming so cheerfully, I'm glad that I resisted the impulse. There's time enough to redefine their limits when cold weather comes.

Although the flowers seem full of life still, the half-century fountain shows a different side of the season. Full of fallen pine needles, dead dogwood leaves and bright red dogwood berries, it is almost a quintessential picture of autumn's movement towards winter's quiet.

"Show Condition" and Showing Off

It's been over a month since I posted, but I have a reasonably good excuse: we've put the house on the market and I've been frantically trying to get it in "show" condition and maintain it that way.

Now, as those of you who know me are well aware, I'm not a "show condition" sort of person, so this has been rather stressful. But I'm surviving. More tellingly, so are Prairiewolf and all the animals.

I've finally decided that it's time to quit worrying quite so much and start enjoying my life and my garden again. With that in mind, I've started taking a few photos and thought I'd share ("show off") a few of them....

First, here is my wood nymph, contemplating life's bounties while surrounded by a bonanza of fall flowers.

Next, here is the "outback" seating area as seen from the deck, showing off the yard's new openness which is compliments of the post-Katrina beetle infestation. Luckily (and I'm knocking on wood as I say this), the beetle infestation seems to be over for now. The remaining pines look wonderfully healthy.

Last but not least for this post, the pink flower is a Confederate rose - actually sort of a cousin to the rose-of-sharon or althea. Its scientific name is Hibiscus mutabilis (althea's scientific name is Hibiscus syriacus), and the blooms are supposed to open white and then change color to pink and finally to red. Mine, however, opens this pretty pink and seems to enjoy the color enough to stay the exact same shade until the flower gets tired and falls off. Xanthy gave me the start to this beautiful plant a couple years ago, but this is the first year it's bloomed. Ivan toppled it in 2004 and Katrina stripped it bare in 2005. It's a survivor, though, and is now about 12-15' tall and covered with blooms.

It's hard to believe with all the blooms in the yard, but fall is fully here and winter is just around the corner. It will be interesting to see how much longer I continue as the custodian of this garden. It will be hard to leave and turn over guardianship to another, but that's been in the cards since the first day we moved in. Meanwhile, I have vowed to just enjoy the time I have left - and to see what lessons are still waiting for me to learn here before I go.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Assorted "End of Summer" Photos

I've tried to go back and add these photos to my "End of Summer" post, but for some reason, it's not working. So I'll add them here.

First, a couple shots of my "flying flowers". The butterflies are gulf fritillaries. The flying fritillary (blurred) had amorous intentions on his/her mind, but the one clinging to the spent flower stalk was interested only in resting. This was one of several "overtures" which the resting fritillary resisted while I watched, trying to get a decent photo.

The second photo is of two bees (carpenter? bumble?) nectaring on Rudbeckia blooms. The entire plant was covered with blooms, and the blooms were hosting dozens of wasps and bees of many different species. Interestingly, the butterflies didn't seem very interested in the Rudbeckia blossoms.

The last photo here is of pokeberry berries. I love the deep purple color of the berries against the bright red of the stems and the dark green of the leaves. The mockingbirds love the taste of the berries, so they disappear fairly rapidly. This is, unfortunately, one of the plants I'm feeling I ought to grub out of the yard to make it more "sellable." Pokeberries are poisonous for humans to eat, despite being such good wildlife food, so it's a plant I wouldn't recommend for a yard where small children play.

Gulf Fritillaries Galore

For the first time in several years, we have oodles of gulf fritillaries managing to live through their caterpillar stage and pupate successfully. The first year I planted their larval food, maypop (Passiflora incarnata), we had numbers like this. But then a pair of Carolina wrens moved in and gave us a firsthand demonstration of "natural control". It's the maypop that's been winning in recent years.

That natural control on the fritillary population doesn't seem to be "working" right now, though. Not that I mind in the least. I've seen a Carolina wren recently, and the pair successfully raised a brood earlier this summer, so I'm not too worried about their survival. Right now, despite the wrens' obvious reproductive success this year, we have ragged, defoliated maypop vines, multitudes of bright orange, "thorny" caterpillars happily munching away, and dozens of pupae hanging off eaves and in lots of other creative places. (In the photos, the caterpillar is next to its outgrown and discarded exoskeleton, and the chrysalis is hanging on the underside of our trashcan handle.)

Most stunning of all, at any one time I commonly see 10 or more velvety orange adults doing twining mating flights, resting in the sun, laying eggs or (occasionally) feeding.

The garden itself may be looking pretty ragged right now, but butterflies are in their glory!

Poetry That Sustains Me

I stumbled across this poem earlier this year, and it resonates within me on many different levels. It's by Stanley Kunitz, and it's called "The Layers". Although I've seen it in several compilations, in this case it's from his book, The Wild Braid, p. 82-83:

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Summer's End

I've finally gotten back out into the garden again, spending several hours just restoring order in the back yard over the last two days. I still have serious work to do in the front yard, but I don't think that's too bad for a garden the size of mine, especially considering that I've hardly set foot outside for almost a month now.

Before I go any further, though, I HAVE to mention the activity in the butterfly garden - there are so many butterflies, moths, carpenter bees, wasps, and flying creatures of all sorts that it feels like the very flowers themselves are flying as I stand and watch.

On a more somber note, for the first time as I work, I really feel like I'm preparing the garden for someone else. I'm making the edges a little neater, being a little more rigorous in cutting back, being more careful to remove tiny weed seedlings, and generally being more "J" than I normally am as I garden.

I find myself trying to converse with the gardener who will (hopefully) come after me....

"Sorry about these variegated artemesia - they get out of hand so easily in this bed. Be sure to keep them pulled out."

"I'll always wonder about the gripeweed in the yard. I thought it was such a pretty plant when I first saw it (a mimosa seedling?!) that I left it to 'see what it would do'. Would it be as widespread if I'd been less tolerant and more vigorous in pulling it out right away?"

"What do you think about this variegated vinca major? I agree. I think I'll pull it out and save you the trouble. The bed will look much neater this way."

"Should I grub out all of the pokeberry? The mockingbirds go crazy over its berries and it is so pretty, but I understand why you might not want it around."

I sure hope the next owner likes to garden; despite losing so many pines this summer, the yard has really started to come together. The blue spiral ginger is blooming beautifully and putting up several strong new shoots. The arborvitae fern is starting to fill in, becoming a graceful mat against the deep mulch. The Florida anise is almost as tall as I am now, and looking lush and healthy after such a misshapen start to life. Speaking of misshapen, the oriental chain fern has finally put out a few fronds on the right side and is almost completely balanced now. Its large-scaled daintiness looks fantasic next to Miss Lily's sturdy peacock gingers. The Grape Sensation gaillardia is purplishly spectacular, and the Knockout roses are head-high and absolutely covered with burgundy new growth, fresh buds and fluorescent pink flowers.

I could go on and on, but I'd be belaboring the point.

One last verbal picture, though: the wild beautyberry by the back shed is so loaded with brilliant magenta berries that it gleams richly in the dappled shade. I literally stopped in my tracks when I first saw it this week, its gracefully arching, heavily laden branches swaying drunkenly in the slightest breeze.

By the time we leave, those berries will have passed through the digestive system of a variety of birds and they will have been deposited, with a healthy dose of fertilizer, all over the local area. I have to believe that at least one or two will carry the genetic wealth of their parent and grow to create grace and beauty and bounty somewhere nearby, no matter what happens to their parent in this garden.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Changing Seasons

Although the temperatures are still in the 90's on most days, I am beginning to see signs that summer is waning and fall is coming.

Most notably, everyday now there are a few golden and brown leaves slowly sifting down out of the trees, letting go, weary from their nonstop duties of capturing sunlight and converting it to food. The Half Century Fountain seems to attract a fair number of these tired-out toilers, so each morning I find myself skimming out the prior day's leavings.

Having finished their primary job of creating food for their parent plant, now the leaves will slowly decompose. Ironically yet fittingly, they continue to feed their parent through their death and recycling.

An anonymous quote caught my attention last night: "Humans - despite their artistic pretensions, their sophistication, and their many accomplishments - owe their existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains." How much healthier our psyches and our world would be if we'd all realize and remember that fact.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Flotsam and Jetsam

There have been many crosscurrents lately. The flow carrying Prairiewolf and me toward our move appears to be gaining strength and velocity. It begins to look like we'll have the house (and garden) on the market in October. Running almost directly counter to this steady movement is the current that contains my friends and botanical "family" here in Mobile, carrying me towards the shore of the Fall Plant Sale...also in October. And when I've occasionally had the chance to bob around in a few, gentle, backwater eddies, I've been reading a great book on permaculture in the home landscape, entitled (ironically enough) Gaia's Garden,
by Toby Hemenway.

With such conflicting currents constantly pulling at me, it's hard to focus on any one thought, botanical or philosophical, for very long. But a lot of interesting things are happening, and somehow it feels soothing to take note of them and share them.


Two more pine trees became infested with pine beetles. I was lucky enough to find a tree service who could remove them relatively promptly; they came in less than a week and took them out today. Which, unfortunately, was necessary and therefore good. Hopefully we got them out before the "infection" had spread to any more healthy trees in the yard.

Countering the relief at getting that unhappy chore done, though, is the fact that both tree services I consulted recommended taking down a third pine tree that looked weak to them...and I decided to follow their advice and have it taken out. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that after the tree was cut down today, the stump rapidly covered with sap, bleeding over the fatal wound. The beetle infested trees were already dead and did not bleed at all. My heart aches at the unnecessary death that I caused today, however well-intentioned my decision was.

Tree facts from Gaia's Garden:

Planting a tender plant under the canopy edge of an evergreen tree can protect it enough during the winter to allow you to grow a plant that normally requires at least one higher hardiness zone. (p. 115)

A full-grown tree (presumably deciduous, although it's not specified) can transpire up to 2000 gallons of water on a hot, dry day, cooling the air around and beneath it. (p. 100)

The same full-grown tree can have between 10 and 30 ACRES of leaf surface, filtering dust and pollen and spores and pollutants and nutrients from the air. When rain comes, it coats the leaves first, making a "soup" with the ingredients captured on the leaf surfaces. When the rain does finally fall from the leaves, it is essentially carrying the tree's own fertilizer and innoculant with it. (p. 100-101)

Sightings around the garden:

There are butterflies galore right now. Yesterday morning, I saw 2 perfect giant swallowtails majestically feeding on Salvia, along with several pairs of gulf fritillaries flirtaciously chasing each other, a tattered and dull black swallowtail methodically nectaring, and several skippers flipping from bloom to bloom.

Hummingbirds are everywhere too. Just when you least expect it, one will buzz by and make you jump. Like the swallowtails, they are also enjoying the Salvia...although I saw a couple checking out the leaves of an oak tree this afternoon, for some strange reason.

I have recently learned that having your water moving during the day is not enough to deter mosquito larvae least not if that water is still at night. Now my Half Century Fountain sports a debonair mosquito donut bobbing about, and I'm hoping to sport a few less mosquito bites on my ankles and arms.

After seeing quite a few small banana (golden silk) spiders in the garden a few weeks ago, I'm finding almost none now. Discussing with friends who had noticed the same phenomenon in their own gardens, we concluded that the birds have been reduced to eating the spiderlings because of decreased insects due to the drought.

Which leads me to comment that the drought appears to have broken at last. We've been getting our normal afternoon thunderstorms almost daily for the last 10 days or so. It seems odd to be celebrating extreme humidity and damp...but sometimes what you need isn't necessarily what you enjoy!

It's time to drift on to other activities. To mangle a truism, "A time for everything...and everything in its time."

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Free Cell vs. Life's Problems

I have been playing FreeCell a lot lately, subconsciously trying to bring order to my life. It's funny how I default to that game when I'm feeling out of control. Knowing that every hand is supposed to be solvable, I feel as if I'm somehow solving all of my life's problems by carefully ordering the cards in descending order, black on red on black on red....

Unfortunately, of course, what I'm actually doing is wasting time.

I've been feeling stressed lately. The formation of Tropical Storm Chris in the Caribbean is a good part of my dis-ease, but not all of it. Three more pine trees in the back yard have gotten beetles and have to be removed now - an expensive problem at any time but really problematic if a hurricane gets here before the tree service folks. Most of all, though, it's time to seriously finish putting the house in order and have it ready to show. Several people have expressed interest, and I'd like to be able to invite them in for a look around at a moment's notice.

Funny, it's not the move per se that has me uptight - it's selling the house. Somehow it feels like my life and my decorating ability (or lack thereof) and simply my general worthiness as a human being are all being judged by a bunch of strangers. If the house sells rapidly, I've done well and I am "worthy"; if the house languishes on the market, I'm being found wanting. (And given the fact that this house had languished on the market for months before we bought it, I feel like the deck is stacked against me to begin with.)

Logically I know that this is stupid and that I am not my house...but it's what I feel emotionally. And it adds a horrible degree of stress to what is already a somewhat stressful situation (i.e. moving).

I know that this too shall pass. We have successfully sold 4 other houses. We will eventually successfully sell this one. But, boy, I will be SOOOO glad when we have come through this gauntlet and have moved on to other challenges.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Goodbye to a pine tree

The tree guys finally got here yesterday and cut down the dead pine tree.

While I'm sad that it died and had to be cut down, I'm VERY glad that they got here and took it out before any tropical storms or hurricanes decided to take it out while rearranging our roofline.

The picture to the right here shows the first major cut being made. They had a rope tied to the top section to make sure that it fell in the direction they intended.

The second picture, to the left, shows the top down and the leftover "stub", which they rapidly felled to lie right beside the top.

After cutting the trunk up into 8-10 foot sections, they systematically loaded everything up into the bucket of a Bobcat and carried it out of the yard to a waiting dumptruck. Even the pine straw was eventually scooped up into the bucket.

In less than 1 1/2 hours, they were done. The tree was gone, the stump was ground up, and a new normal was being established in the yard.

The thing that amazes me the most is how open and vulnerable that area seems now. Since the tree has been dead for almost 2 months, and since we saw nothing but the bare trunk at our eye level, I didn't expect to feel as much of an impact in the yard as I do. It will be good for the butterfly garden to get a little more sun, but we've lost any sense of destination and/or enclosure for the "Outback" seating area.

A little side note: the tree was younger than I expected. Counting the rings, I estimated that the tree was between 42 and 47 years old, depending on how long it had stayed in the "grass" stage. Overall, about my age or a little younger. Somehow that gives me pause.

Life goes on. Typical of any gardener, I suppose, I'm already planning what I'm going to put in the empty space. Suggestions anyone?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Meditating on Weeds...and IPM and Lawn Care

As I did my walkabout this afternoon, I kept thinking of the concept of weeds.

My favorite definition of a weed is "a plant out of place." Therefore, an oak seedling can be a weed in a lawn; grass is often weed in a garden bed. The plant species is not really the problem, it's the placement of the plant that is at issue.

A weed is just a plant out of place. That's all. A weed is not the precursor to the downfall of civilization as we know it. It is not Public Enemy #1. If weeds make you feel slightly (or very) panicky, you've been watching (and believing) too many herbicide commercials on TV. Remember (and repeat after me): "The goal of herbicide commercials is to sell herbicide...and fear is a good sales technique. Weeds are not evil creatures of the devil waiting to ruin my home and yard. Weeds are simply plants out of place."

That being said, weeds can take nutrients away from the plants we desire to grow. As such, we often want to remove them from our lawns and gardens. In a garden setting, weeding by hand, mulching the beds, and maintaining appropriate mowing/watering schedules for the lawn are usually all that is necessary for reasonable weed control. Generally "command and control" is a better weeding motto than "total eradication." You're not going to achieve the latter anyway, and you're going to waste a lot of money and poison a lot of earth trying to do so.

All this leads me to a difficult confession, though. Our yard can no longer really be considered organic. As we get ready to move, we are more truthfully operating under "Integrated Pest Management (IPM)" strategies. Specifically, Prairiewolf has been spot-spraying broadleaf weeds in the lawn with an herbicide as he mows.

I am not happy about this.

The lawn is looking the best it has ever looked. You could make the case that the herbicide weed control is the reason for the lawn's health, but I think it's more because of several other concurrent factors:
1) We finally realized the importance of regular watering to the health of the lawn grasses here in the Deep South, and therefore we have been watering religiously whenever the grass begins to get that gray-green color that denotes water stress. Centipede and St. Augustine, our two turf grasses here, don't really go healthily dormant when drought occurs like fescue and many other turfgrasses do.
2) Prairiewolf has been mowing extremely regularly. To my knowledge, he has only missed one weekend all summer. This is much better for the grass than skipping weekends and letting it get too tall. Keeping a consistent height encourages runner formation and keeps the grass from getting too stressed by having too much leaf surface cut off at once.
3) We have been gradually changing out the backyard grass from centipede, which can't handle shade, to St. Augustine, which can. The St. Augustine is doing much better under all our trees.
4) Whenever we get any brown spots or unhealthy looking areas in the grass, Prairiewolf brews up some compost tea and treats the area(s). This has proven to be a wonderful remedy, keeping the lawn much healthier overall.
5) Besides mowing the grass regularly, Prairiewolf has also been cutting the grass quite high. This keeps the soil cooler, prevents a lot of weed seed germination by keeping the soil surface shaded, decreases water evaporation from the soil, and generally reduces stress on the grass.
6) Last but not at all least, we haven't caused or been the victim of any real goofs lately - goofs like killing the "dormant" centipede by applying Round-up to the embedded winter weeds in January or having a contractor kill a large swath of lawn in the middle of the front yard by laying down clear plastic to "protect" the grass as he painted the front door. Come to think of it, it's been a couple years since those things happened. (Knock on wood!)

So there are a lot of reasons why the lawn is looking good this year. It's a lot more than just the broadleaf herbicide. In fact, I contend that it doesn't have anything to do with the herbicide...but I'm sure that Prairiewolf will contest that statement!

Any way you look at it, weeds are a powerful issue in gardening circles.

Can animals be "weeds"? Why not?

How about people? ...It's an interesting concept to meditate about during my next walkabout in the back yard.

Back in the Saddle Again!

The painters finished the living room this afternoon (YEAH!!!!) and I have actually been able to do a walkabout in the garden, with blueberry ale and grocery bag in hand, repairing armadillo damage, clipping back overexuberant growth, and pulling weeds.

As a testament to how carefully I put the garden "to bed" last month, it took me less than one hour and only one plastic sack (albeit a full one) to complete my rounds in the backyard. Of course, with the armadillo(s) rooting around nightly, the weeds don't have much of a chance to grow in several of the beds. Neither do the garden plants for that matter.

Be that as it may, it felt great to be back in the garden in a relaxed, gardening mode. I hadn't realised how much I missed it.

Wishing for Rain

I'm back from San Antonio, where I actually got to experience that wet stuff falling from the sky. I hear it's called rain. Funny, we haven't had much experience with that here in Mobile lately. For a city that I've seen described as the wettest metropolitan area in the continental U.S., that's rather unusual.

I saw a report on the Weather Channel this morning - Mobile is behind over 20" of rain for the year. Given that our specific location has missed at least 5" of rain that the airport received during the last few months, that makes our yard/garden behind by about 25". And that's just for this year. We were dry for the last 4 months of 2005 too.

My water bill was outrageous last month (about 6X normal, to be somewhat more precise). In the area of the yard that I haven't watered, even the pokeweed (!) is wilting.

There's a chance that we'll get rain on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday this week. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. (For the uninitiated, that's my tried & true, highly scientific method of encouraging events to happen....) Meanwhile, I'm dragging hoses around the yard and figuratively watching the water meter spin around and around.

And I'm thinking of all the places that are flooding this year...which reminds me of "An Inconvenient Truth". If you haven't seen it yet, I have to reiterate: Go see it. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Different Way to Live Life - An Older Way?

I just finished reading Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry. It's a first person narrative (fictional) of an old woman telling the story of her life from before WWII to sometime around 2002, and it left me with a sense that here was a key to a deep kind of happiness and sense of belonging that few of us seem to find these days.

What struck me most about this book was its depiction of a different way to live, a way that is perhaps older and more natural for humans than the frantic activity and amassing of stuff that passes for life these days.

Through his fictional Hannah, Berry talks of the "membership" of her life - of belonging to a place and to a community of people. He talks of the bond that develops between the land and a person or a family living on that land for most of their life (and getting their livelihood from that land) - how each mirrors the other.

p. 106: "You can see that it is hard to mark the difference betwen our life and our place, our place and ourselves.
As the years passed and our life changed, the place changed. It emerged, you might say, from what it had been into what we needed and wanted it to be, never perfect of course, but always a little better. It came under the influence of what we foresaw in it, and of our ways of using it and going about in it."

That quote spoke to me. I've sometimes wondered what the places we've lived in - or more precisely, what the land that we've lived on - would be like if someone else had lived there instead of us.

But back to the book.... In talking about the "world of membership," Berry contrasts it to the "world of employment" or the "world of organization." In the latter, he says you are disconnected and free, but you are also disposable and unmemorable, interchangeable with many others. "But the membership...keeps the memories even of horses and mules and milk cows and dogs." (p. 134)

There are nuggets of advice about living life scattered throughout the book too. How Hannah was almost most in love and aware of her husband when she was angry with him...and of how often she observed men picking fights with their wives simply because they were feeling neglected. How "the chance you had is the life you've got" and you shouldn't complain about the chance you got because it cheapens the good things and good people that you've shared your life with. How always searching for some mythical "better place" often leads to an unravelling of family and continuity and thus to a worse, more disconnected place.

This was a book to read slowly and to savor the language and the thoughts. It's not a gripping story; it's more like a window into someone's soul as she thinks back over her life. At times it even felt like a window into the soul of an old-fashioned community that is slowly dying as the people who should be keeping it alive move away to find a mythical "better place." It was listening to an elder think back over her life and evaluate its richness and its rough spots, and finally the love that bound it together and made it worth living.

Idealizing a mythical place and way of being is seductive and dangerous, and I can see where this fictional account could itself fall very easily into that category. Yet it can also be instructive to try to imagine a different way of being in the world that speaks to some of our deepest longings and needs as human beings, longings and needs that aren't being met by our current societal patterns. For me, this book does just that.

"Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater." It's an old maxim, but it speaks a deep truth. Maybe, just maybe, this book is saying that we've done exactly that. Now we would be wise to figure out how to rescue the baby and start taking careful care of it again.

Another Place

I am in San Antonio this week, helping our daughter move into and establish her new home.

It's a new world here. The vegetation is so different from either Kansas or Mobile. I barely recognize any of the trees or shrubs. In a way it's invigorating and exciting, and in a way it's disconcerting.

I'm beginning to learn a new rhythm of place. Wasps seem to be a lot more abundant here, starting nest after nest under the eaves and on the porches. There are big wasps and little ones, but most seem to be paper wasps of some variety or another. A large nest of small wasps under the eaves of the house next door entertains me with its comings and goings as I eat or read at the kitchen table.

A small scorpion scampered across the kitchen floor last night, tail held menacingly high over its back as I came up to look, admire, but ultimately to squash.

Earwigs, ants, spiders.... They have all been in the new house over the last few days. I'm guessing that they are the dispossessed, and I feel bad that their habitat is gone. For better or for worse, as humans we move into a new habitat and force out its old inhabitants. We are not very good neighbors.

It will be a challenge to learn the workings of this new place as I help Jess settle in to this new place, especially since so much of my learning will have to be done from so far away. I relish the challenge, though, as it will make me feel ultimately more a part of life in general, and thus ultimately much richer.

An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth is incredible. Go see it. Please.

Prairiewolf and I went to see it last Friday, after we accidentally discovered that it was unexpectedly showing in Mobile. I didn't have very high expectations, given that it was supposedly based on a slide show, it was about a topic I'm fairly familiar with, and it was showcasing Al Gore. (Although I think Al Gore got the shaft in the 2000 election, being unfairly tarred with Clinton's faults and not seriously examined as a man in his own right, I also found him stiff and less than riveting, despite being obviously intelligent and thoughtful.) Nonetheless, the reviews of An Inconvenient Truth had been good and we wanted to support the idea of a serious, thought-provoking movie amidst the deafening blather that normally passes for entertainment in this country.

The movie is a thoughtful documentary that will literally change the way you see the world.

If you tend to agree that our world needs thoughtful care, go see it because you will learn new things, see fascinating photos, learn incredible statistics, and generally come away with a new energy about actively working to better our planet.

If you tend to disagree that we need to take better care of our world, then please see it anyway to let me know where you find flaws in the reasoning and factual information presented. I would dearly love to hear both sides of this issue.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Armadillo is Dead! Long Live the Armadillo!

When Prairiewolf came in at dawn on Sunday morning and quietly announced that he had dispatched the armadillo, all I could think of was, "The armadillo is dead! Long live the armadillo!" In the typical fog that attends my earliest morning thinking, I couldn't remember what the original quote actually was, or where it came from. Eventually it came to me that I had reworded the salute that is traditionally given when royalty dies.

Not that "our" armadillo was royal (unless you count acting like a destructive force as royal behavior), but the phrase contiued to echo in my head all that day. Finally that evening, I sat down and typed in a blog entry, both celebrating and mourning the passing of the armadillo.

Then fate took a hand. As I finished the blog entry, a thunderstorm was brewing. When I tried to post the entry, we lost our internet connection and my blog entry disappeared into that cyber-nothingness from which there is no return. In fact, fate was really feeling spunky that evening, because it turned out that something in our DSL server had been fried seriously enough that we didn't get internet service again for over 24 hours.

In the meantime, the next morning I decided to do my normal morning walkabout, looking forward to the first clean-hands venture in weeks. (After the armadillo had been rooting around, every morning walkabout included filling in holes, smoothing mulch back into place and sometimes replanting entire uprooted plants.) As I started out, strolling by the butterfly garden, my heart sank. There was a fresh hole in the grass. A little further on, there were a couple more holes, and over in the fern bed it looked like a little boy had been playing with his frontloader between all the plants and along the front edge. Several of the holes were 6" deep and 10-12" wide, at the base of some of my most delicate plants. All the holes were fresh. An armadillo had definitely been at work. Again.

Prairiewolf assures me that it can't be the armadillo that he killed Sunday morning, so we are left with the inescapable conclusion that we had more than one "little armored one" dining in our garden. We've spent the last two nights getting up several times throughout the night, trying to catch the second one in the act of foraging, but so far we've been unsuccessful. We'll keep on trying as long as our less-than-young bodies can take the lack of sleep.

"The armadillo is dead! Long live the armadillo!" I guess the phrase ringing in my head was prophetic after all.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Thoughts on "The Disenchanted Kingdom"

I've read another excellent interview article in one of my old Sun magazines. This one, by Derrick Jensen, is with George Ritzer and they are discussing the "McDonaldization" of American (and increasingly human) culture.

The article, "The Disenchanted Kingdom: George Ritzer on the Disappearance of Authentic American Culture," appeared in the June 2002 edition of The Sun. Here are a few excerpts from the article that caught my eye....

p. 6: Jensen: What is "McDonaldization"?
Ritzer: It's the process by which the principles of the fast-food industry - efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control through technology - are being applied to more and more sectors of society in more and more parts of the world.

p. 7 ...people who try to be creative are likely to get fired because, from the point of view of the system, they are more likely to mess things up. One of the irrationalities of rational systems is that the system - a nonliving thing - takes priority over living beings such as workers and consumers.

p. 8 The preparing and eating of meals is one of the most basic of human expressions. In most cultures, meals are something to be savored, to be enjoyed communally, to be lingered over....
Fast-food restaurants - and consumer culture at large - work to eliminate genuine human interaction, because interactions are unpredictable and waste time.

p. 8 German sociologist Max Weber called this the "disenchantment of the world." In a progressively rationalized culture, the magic, the mystery, the religious qualities of the world are always being challenged....
...Anything that is magical or mysterious is apt to also be meandering and inefficient. Furthermore, enchanted systems are often complex and highly convoluted, having no obvious means to an end. And how do you quantify the enchanted? Since it cannot be readily calculated, it is ignored and quite often eliminated.

p. 9 Jensen: So, having disenchanted the world, these McDonaldized systems offer us a sort of simulated enchantment in its place.
Ritzer: Yes, Las Vegas is a perfect example of this. Its casinos and hotels are not "real" enchanted settings. There's a phony New Orleans, a phony Paris, a phony Venice. They get people in the doors by providing huge simulated extravaganzas in an ordered, clean, controlled environment.

p. 10 ...there seems to be a relationship between excluding the natural world and controlling people....
....The great advantage of artificial settings over natural ones is their controllability. If you want to use people's surroundings to control them, your settings have to be unnatural. The sad thing is that, in our society, increasing numbers of people seem more attracted to these simulated settings than to natural settings.

p. 10 There are fewer and fewer places we can go to get away from this manipulation. Where can we go anymore to learn how to be real human beings?
In a way, we are turning into a new species of human. The incessant bombardment by these various forms of manipulation distorts us into McDonaldized pseudopeople who no longer even know what we want, but have to be told. And even if we manage to retain some idea of what we really want, McDonaldized society increasingly deprives us of the opportunity to get it.

p. 10 Another irrationality of rational systems is homogenization. McDonaldization is about the elimination of differences. There is virtually no difference between regions of the United States anymore, because they've all been McDonaldized.

p. 11 ...the more time we spend engaging in meaningless interactions in simulated settings, the less we are able to engage in authentic, meaningful relationships. "You are what you eat" is true not only for the food we take into our bodies, but also for our other modes of consumption: the images and instructions we internalize.

p. 11 The most powerful system is that which leads people to police themselves, without any perception on their own part that they're being controlled.

p. 13 How do people who've been taught to be subordinate - at home, at school, in the workplace - become active, creative agents in a changing society?

p. 13 In many ways, our method of rationalization is much more resilient than a centralized totalitarian system, because we have a multitude of separate systems of rationalization and McDonaldization. Consequently, it's much harder - and getting harder all the time - to tell who the enemy is. And even when we do identify an enemy, it doesn't necessarily do us much good.

p. 13 Ritzer: People often ask me why, if I'm so pessimistic about the possibility of a solution, do I bother writing about the problem. The answer is: to increase awareness. When we're conscious of being controlled, it becomes much harder for those in power to maintain that control....
...It's sometimes remarkably easy to throw a monkey wrench into the system. That's one reason why the system tries to eliminate creativity: because creative action can cause the system to fall apart.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Drifting Thoughts

Yesterday was summer solstice. As seems to be our habit lately, we didn't celebrate it particularly, but we did remember it. We're trying to start marking these seasonal markers, but finding it rather hard to know how to do it appropriately. Copying supposed ceremonies from religions that do (or did) mark these days seems too contrived and somehow disrespectful for people who aren't actually members of those religions. Starting your own meaningful traditional ceremony is turning out to be amazingly hard.

The ceremony we really need is a rain dance. We are dry, dry, dry. According to last Saturday's paper, from last Sept. 1 to the prior Thursday (June 15) was the driest such period on record for the Mobile area since record-keeping was started in 1930. Even with almost nonstop watering going, I'm starting to see signs of major water stress in the yard - I'm probably going to lose the Hummingbird clethra in the front yard, and the autumn ferns under the live oak are looking crisp. Areas of grass, especially in the sunny areas of the front near the pavement, are drying out almost as fast as I can water them. I'm dreading the water bill.

The tree people haven't come yet to cut down the dead pine tree. I'm just trusting that they will come before the first hurricane. Meanwhile, the second pine tree has several branches that have died at the top, leaving me trying to decide whether to go ahead and cut it down or keep hoping that it can seal itself off and recover. The cynical, paranoid part of me says that the tree folks are just waiting as long as possible to see if that second tree dies so that they can make twice as much money.

I'm feeling like a prisoner in my own house, sitting here waiting while the painters work. Since I don't want to bother them, I'm basically confined to the kitchen and living room, but I have very little to do in here. (They've been working on the hall, upstairs and downstairs, for a week now and they are still not done.) So I'm reading my back issues of The Sun, reading and writing blogs, and watching a little TV. And talking way too much to the animals. I worked through the backlog of charity appeals on Friday, baked cookies on Monday and had a plant sale meeting yesterday morning, but otherwise I'm just sitting here trying to keep from going crazy. It's getting harder and harder each day.

Good news from the garden:

Patty's pink crinum is blooming for the first time. It's a very pretty, fresh shade of medium-light pink.

My pink Amarcrinum (a cross between an amaryllis and a crinum) has a big pink bud on it too. I'm looking forward to seeing that bloom as well. This is the second year it has bloomed.

The summer phlox is blooming. Although I have at least 3 different varieties, they are all blooming the exact same color of fuschia, leading me to suspect that they've reverted. They're still pretty, and hopefully they've managed to retain the mildew resistance that was one of the characteristics I selected them for.

Last but not least, the Grape Sensation gaillardia has another bloom at long last, despite almost being uprooted by the armadillo. Actually, the plant's looking pretty healthy overall. It's supposed to be a hort variety of an endangered species, so I'm particularly excited that it seems to be thriving in the garden. It wouldn't be the first time that gardeners have rescued a plant from the brink of extinction, but it would be particularly exciting to be part of the rescue!

Speaking of a plant almost uprooted by the armadillo, there are no major developments on that front. The damage has been lighter lately (and almost nonexistent last night), but I've learned my lesson about premature celebrations.

Send thoughts of soaking, gentle rains our way!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Thoughts from "Down to Business: Paul Hawken on Reshaping the Economy"

As I'm sorting through my old Sun magazines, prior to recycling them, I'm finding some wonderful articles. I've decided to start excerpting quotes from the ones that speak the most strongly to me.

This article was in April 2002, an interview by Renee Lertzman with Paul Hawken entitled, "Down to Business: Paul Hawken on Reshaping the Economy." Most of the quotes are excerpted from Hawken's replies to Lertzman's questions.

p. 7: Human society is a subsystem of Mother Earth. As the earth changes, every aspect of society is transformed. It is happening before our eyes. Most of the changes cause suffering. This is the problem, but also the starting point for intervention: how do we relieve suffering?

p. 7: is not the purpose of society, and it's certainly not our purpose on earth. Businesses can serve humanity, alleviate suffering, and nurture life, but those that do are far too rare. [Emphasis (bold) added by me.]

p. 10 [Hawken speaking] I would never suggest that any solution is the "only" means of solving a problem. If we are dwelling within a system that is degrading life on earth, then every node of the system requires attention. This is heartening because it means that farmers, teachers, mechanics, parents, architects, and people in every other vocation have a role to play. We are not talking about change from on high. We are not talking about charismatic white males leading a sustainability revolution. This is change from the margins, from the understory.
...if we think of SUV owners as careless, nonthinking despoilers of the commons, we are further in the hole, because then we are marginalizing - if not demonizing - our fellow human beings. Not a strong basis for change. This world is riddled with ignorance. You can blame people who knock things over in the dark, or you can begin to light candles. You're only at fault if you know about the problem and choose to do nothing.

p. 12 Bear in mind that the American colonies rose up not against the tyranny of a crazed King George, but against the rule of his chartered corporations.
In essence, America was created to end corporate abuse. That we have become what we feared is ironic, and would be merely of historical interest were it not for the fact that corporate activity today threatens life itself.

p. 12 Marx was wrong. Religion is not the opiate of the masses. The drug of choice is the materialism flowing from corporations.

p. 13 Lertzman [the interviewer]: How do you respond to the other question: Is there enough time for us to correct our destructive trends?
Hawken: I usually respond that time is irrelevant.... We cannot know the future, not even a minute from now. What is critical is to be engaged in something that is worthy, to live a life that you will feel good about when you die, even if you die tomorrow. When you are engaged in this way, the issues of life and death and time become less important than the care and grace with which you serve. [Emphasis added by me.]

Monday, June 19, 2006

Reading in the Wee Hours

After giving up the hope of sleep due to the excitement of the armadillo chase, I eventually moved into the recliner last night and picked up another old Sun to read before consigning it to the recycling pile.

It was the August 2002 edition. The feature interview was with Duane Elgin, "On Simplicity and Humanity's Future."

I flirted with the voluntary simplicity movement 15-20 years ago, not long after Elgin wrote his first book, Voluntary Simplicity: Towards a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. I've always appreciated the general tenets, but found the "real life" practice much harder than it sounds. It was interesting to read about voluntary simplicity again, and to see how much farther Elgin has moved in his thought process.

A few points really struck me in revisiting this concept. First of all, voluntary simplicity is VOLUNTARY. Since economic hardship isn't voluntary, this isn't a "noble" state to which we can justify confining people by paying them low wages. Secondly, the point of voluntary simplicity isn't to deny ourselves. The point is to prune out nonessential areas of our lives so that we can more fully appreciate and enjoy the areas of our lives that bring us joy and meaning. Because what brings us joy and meaning is individual to each of us, voluntary simplicity will look different to each person.

(This reminds me of a story I heard years ago. A college professor asked her students how many shirts they needed to make them happy. Were 7 shirts - one for each day of the week - enough? Double that? Ten times that many? How many shirts and what was their rationale? She had them write down their answers and their rationales, then she had them go home and actually count how many shirts and shirt-like garments they owned. Most owned many, many times the number of shirts they had logically decided that they needed to be happy.

A hundred years ago, few people owned more than a couple changes of clothing. Yet we often romanticize that time as happier than ours.)

I can hear the comments already - "But I like having hundreds of shirts. It makes me happy to have this much choice!" And I'm not going to argue. I just know that FOR ME, I've been discovering that the more stuff I have, the more of my time and energy I waste taking care of it. I'm tired of spending my life that way. There are 2 especially hard parts to this, though: 1) refraining from getting more new stuff that I just "know" will make me happy, and 2) choosing what, out of everything that we already have, we can easily and happily do without.

To quote Elgin in this article, "The simple life is about freeing up time for what matters most to us."

I could go on for a long time (face it, books have been written about this topic!), but I'll keep it simple for now. I think, maybe, that it's time for me to seriously revisit these ideas in my life.

Midnight in the Garden - It's Good and It's "Evil"

Okay, so it wasn't midnight actually. It was 2:30 a.m., then 3:50 a.m., and then 4:40 a.m. We came, we saw, we tried to conquer.

The good news is that it's only a single armadillo. The bad news is that he has his main burrow under the shed...and he is extremely persistent.

Waking up at 2:24 a.m. due to normal insomnia (I just quit taking my nightly allergy pills, assuming - corrrectly - that my body would help me in this endeavor without having to set an alarm), I grabbed a flashlight, stuck on my gardening Birks and ventured by myself into the jungle of the garden at night. I couldn't hear the snuffling that the armadillos are reputed to make as they forage, so I simply walked slowly towards the back, listening carefully as I went. About halfway to the back I thought I heard some movement and turned on the flashlight. With very little trouble, my culprit, a full grown armadillo, was caught in the spotlight, which he made no real effort to avoid.

I followed him cautiously for a while, then decided to call out the troops. Back in the house, Becker was alert and ready for action; Prairiewolf took a little more time, but he was game too. In short order, all three of us were back to the chase. Again, it was easy to spotlight Mr. Armadillo; this time we encouraged Becker to go investigate.

As soon as he realized what we wanted him to do, Becker enthusiastically bounded over to take a look...and Mr. Armadillo went running for safety, with Becker in immediate, hot pursuit. Which is how we discovered the burrow under the shed.

I couldn't get back to sleep, so Becker and I went back out 2 more times last night. Both times Mr. Armadillo was busy foraging in my garden beds. Both times Becker enthusiastically gave chase. Since the chase led inevitably through the middle of my ferns and butterfly gingers the second time, and through a thickly planted perennial bed the third time, the cure is potentially as bad or worse than the "disease," but I'm hoping that Mr. Armadillo will get tired of being chased and move on to quieter feeding grounds.

At least we learned that there's only one, and where he has his main burrow. One way or the other, we are going to make this garden a less hospitable environment for him...I don't use a mechanical roto-tiller; I'm darned if I want an out-of-control natural one working in my garden every night either!

By the way, the first cardinal started singing at 5:08 a.m. this morning. It was pitch dark and beautiful.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Know Your Enemy

Some interesting facts about armadillos that I've learned:

1) Armadillos are mammals, in the same family as anteaters and sloths. They originated in South America.
2) There are actually 20 different species of armadillos, but only one species (the nine-banded armadillo) currently lives in the U.S.
3) Most species of armadillos are threatened or endangered. Currently only the nine-banded armadillo is actually increasing its numbers and range.
4) Nine-banded armadillos always give birth to four identical young (called pups or kits) - which develop from the same egg and share the same placenta. The female armadillos have only 4 mammary glands, one for each pup.
5) Nine-banded armadillos eat primarily small insects, which they slurp up with their long, sticky, saliva-covered tongue. Ants and beetles (including grubs) are their favorites. If pressed due to lack of insects, they will also eat plant material, carrion, and even occasional small mammals, eggs, and/or nestling birds.
6) Prior to about 1850, armadillos were not found north of the Rio Grande. Their range has currently expanded north to Nebraska & Missouri and east to Florida & South Carolina. This range expansion is occurring almost ten times faster than would normally be expected for a mammal species.
7) If startled, an armadillo will often jump 3-4 feet straight up into the air. While this is great for startling its predators, it usually proves to be a fatal response to an oncoming car.
8) The word "armadillo" means "little armored one" in Spanish.
9) Nine-banded armadillos cannot roll up into a tight ball. They usually run to a nearby burrow, dig into the ground or hunker down tight against the ground when faced with a predator. (Except, of course, when they jump straight up into the air - see #7 above.)
10) Armadillos are considered an important part of ecosystems because of their insect-eating (and therefore insect-controlling) habits. If you can stand their hole-digging habits in your yard, there is benefit to be gained by their appetite since they are excellent grub control.

Unfortunately, I'm having real issues with their hole-digging habits....

Sources of information:

Days (Nights, Really) of Depressing Destruction

I was incredibly naive. After a single day of no armadillo sign, I was hoping that our armadillo had moved on. Prairiewolf proudly (and unknowingly) blew that theory to Hades when he came in Friday evening announcing that he had made a discovery I would be quite excited about: he had just found the location of the armadillo burrow. Sure enough, there it was - well hidden and tucked in beside the Monstera philodendron, at the corner of the deck and house, going underneath the foundation.

So we dug out our livetrap and set it up, next to the burrow, with a concrete paver blocking off any other egress. To make a long story short, that didn't work.

In fact, it seemed to backfire with a vengeance. The next morning almost every bed in the yard had been mutilated, to one degree or another. Damage had never been this severe or widespread before. Several of my more special plants, including my Drimiopsis kirkii (South African hosta) and my Labrador violet, were almost totally uprooted. Everywhere roots were exposed and large holes had been left, thoroughly mixing the mulch with the dirt. I had visions of losing almost every fern and perennial in the yard.

I spent most of the day wondering if I should just quit trying to garden here. After all, we will be moving within the year. There will be no time to reestablish a garden; nor is there any point in spending the money to buy replacement plants. With our current heat and drought, trying to keep the uprooted plants alive, let alone flourishing, is going to be an incredible challenge.

To make me feel even more depressed, another pine tree was showing signs of dieback and my black swallowtail caterpillars appeared to have disappeared. (I can only watch the pine tree and see if the entire crown dies; the caterpillars are probably making new muscle or pinfeathers in two of the many birds, fledgling and adult, currently foraging in the yard.)

By yesterday evening, though, I had recovered enough optimism to fight back. One of the armadillo sites on the Internet mentioned that they don't like pine needles, and that seems to be borne out by the fact that our front yard beds, mulched exclusively with pine straw, haven't been bothered. So I remulched my most vulnerable bed with some chopped up pine straw mulch that I had piled up by the compost pile. We took the trap down, too, to make sure that we didn't force the armadillo into digging a new, undiscovered burrow.

The armadillo was quite active again last night, but at least it wasn't quite as destructive as far as uprooting plants. The pine straw mulch idea didn't work. This morning that bed was just as thoroughly dug up as any of the others. With the new level of damage each night, I'm beginning to suspect that we actually have a litter of young armadillos (they occur 4 at a time) living under the house, with or without their mother.

Despite all that, I'm retaining some optimism. Today we built a partial chute coming out from the burrow; tomorrow we'll complete it and try the livetrap again. If, after a few days, that doesn't work, we'll try harassing them out of the yard through mothballs or ammonia-/vinegar-soaked rags in the burrow, or our large, increasingly territorial, young German shepherd left out for a night or two. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that something will work. At this point, all I can do is keep trying.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Sky is the Same Color....

As I started working through a pile of magazines I've been saving, trying to work towards recycling them in my efforts to clear things out before moving, I couldn't help but dip in and read a bit. This quote jumped out at me:

Wherever you go, the sky is the same color.

Supposedly a Persian saying, it appeared in a list of quotes, "Sunbeams," published in The Sun, June 2004.

I like this saying; it's been resonating with me ever since I read it. It soothes me as I think about starting over again. It encourages me to remember that "we're all in this together." And somehow it makes me remember that the world is not really all that big a place.

Caterpillar Days of Summer

"Wonder of wonders! Miracle of miracles!" This morning was back to the more normal relaxing - and productive - morning walkabouts. In other words, no armadillo signs. Do I dare to hope that he/she has moved on to greener pastures?

Botanically, the garden is slowing down for the summer. The biggest and showiest bloom seasons have basically finished now. The azaleas and spring bulbs are long gone. The wisteria, iris and daylilies are done. Even the hydrangeas are almost over now.

The butterfly garden is still full of blooms, though, and the Knockout roses are continuing to flash their deep fluorescent pink flowers in big, bold clusters. (I've been careful to keep the Knockouts dead-headed, and I think it's paying off.) But most of the rest of the plant life is settling in for the long, hot, quiescent period, when it grows steadily but with no frills.

The animal life is increasing steadily, too. I've seen fledgling blue jays, mourning doves and cardinals in the yard lately, and I'm guessing that a couple of the "female" hummingbirds I've started noticing are actually this year's young.

Speaking of hummingbirds, I noticed an interesting quirk this morning. When a hummingbird stuck its bill into the salvia bloom to start feeding, it would almost always move the bloom up a little, changing the bloom's angle to a little above the horizontal. Does that make the nectar in the salvia blossom a little more accessible? Or is it simply a more convenient angle for feeding, based on the hummingbird's flight pattern and anatomy?

It's the start of serious caterpillar season, too. Last week I found a pipevine swallowtail caterpillar wandering around the deck, presumably looking for a good place to pupate.

Then this morning I noticed two black swallowtail caterpillars on the volunteer parsley plant in the butterfly garden. The caterpillars are only 1/3 of full size, so I'll get to watch them for quite a while still.

Last but not least, after noticing that one of my rose bushes was looking rather "eaten," I started looking closely and found two saddleback caterpillars hiding on the underside of nearby leaves. These funky looking guys are the larval form of a rather nondescript brown moth. If you see any of these guys, though, be careful. Those cute tufts of "hair" at either end of their bodies are actually stinging spines.

Everytime I go outside, I seem to notice something new or different. It makes it hard to stay inside!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Further Armadillo Troubles

I am discouraged this morning. Every day since my "Daily Rituals" post, I have done my morning walkabout and found uprootings and holes dug by an armadillo in the garden beds. Since we blocked off the holes under the fence, I have to assume that this unwelcome guest has taken up residence in the yard, although I have been unable to find his burrow so far.

On one hand, I can't blame him. We have water in the birdbaths, a ready supply of earthworms and other soil organisms, and plenty of bushy undergrowth to shelter his burrow. On the other hand, he's wreaking havoc on my mulch - bringing soil to the top that will put out the welcome mat for a whole variety of weeds - and uprooting at least a few plants almost nightly.

You would think that with FOUR dogs in the yard, at least one of them would make this garden a little less hospitable for him, but it doesn't seem to be working that way.

I've unblocked the holes under the fence and hope that he'll move on to greener pastures on his own. Otherwise this weekend, Prairiewolf and I are going to have to seriously search for his burrow and figure out how we're going to livetrap him and get him out of here. No other solution is, unfortunately, coming to mind.

Meanwhile, our drought is continuing. Just two miles away, they had a huge rain last week that soaked most of the city. And last night one of my in-town friends commented that she'd had rainshowers twice so far that day, probably compliments of Alberto. But we're still bone-dry out here in suburbia. I've had sprinklers going almost nonstop for over 2 weeks now. It's keeping the grass green and the plants from dying, but it's not the same as a good, soaking rain. I hate to see our water bill for this month.

On the other hand, at least we're not dealing with a hurricane. So far. So I'll try not to complain too loudly or too long.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Brief History of the Myth and Meaning of Gaia

Recently, a friend who has read this blog asked the question, "What does Gaia mean?" In one of those "Aha!" moments, I realized that many people may not know what I mean by naming this site "Gaia Garden."

So a quick explanation is in order.

For starters, in Greece, one of the earliest goddesses was Gaia, the Earth Mother (or Mother Earth, if you prefer). She was considered to be one of the founding goddesses, born of Chaos, and giving birth to the sky (Uranus) and the sea (Pontus), and sometimes, by some, to the mountains (Ourea). Without going into a great deal of detail, she was basically the original goddess, giving rise through her progeny to essentially the entire pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses. Eventually her progeny became more well known than she was.

Fast forward a LONG, LONG time (in human history) to the mid 1960's. An atmospheric scientist, James Lovelock, proposed that the Earth is a self-regulating organism. He called this "the Gaia hypothesis," after the old Greek concept of "Mother Earth." It took quite a few years and collaboration with Lynn Margulis, a biologist/microbiologist, but this hypothesis has now gained a fair amount of scientific credibility and generates a lot of scientific work in the field of ecological science. In short, now "the Gaia hypothesis" is often used as the more poetic name for current areas of science investigating Earth's homeostatic systems, or ways of maintaining its temperature, atmospheric mixture of gases, and other life-supporting systems.

In less scientifically rigorous ways, the concept of Gaia has come to symbolize the interconnectedness of life and the planet on which we live.

So in naming my site, "Gaia Garden," I'm trying to emphasize the concept of gardening by working WITH nature's processes, rather than by trying to "tame" those processes or "overcome" them. And in a rather idealistic way, I guess I'm trying to explore generally living in an "Earth-centered" way, at an "Earth-centered" pace too. Faster and busier hasn't necessarily proved to be happier or healthier or even more productive for many people. Maybe it's time we remember we're part of Earth, part of Gaia, and start honoring her and living by her guidelines.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Enriching Rituals

As I've gotten older, I've come to cherish the time and ability to enjoy certain daily rituals. Newness and adventure can be exciting and stimulating, but for relaxation, contentment, and the sheer enjoyment of being alive, give me these daily rituals anytime.

I'm not talking about mundane daily rituals like cleaning up the kitchen or brushing my teeth, I'm talking about the rituals that add richness to life. (I was going to include daily showers as mundane, but remembered that it doesn't take more than a day or two of having to go without one to realize what a wonderful daily luxury they really are! The trick there is remembering to be grateful for their simple pleasure.)

When I'm fortunate, I've got three sets of daily rituals that currently punctuate my days.

The first ritual of the day is in the early morning, when I do a leisurely walkabout of the garden, with a cup of coffee in my hand. As I walk, I visit every plant and give it at least a cursory once-over to see if it needs care of any sort. This is when I decide that I really do need to spend some time weeding, or that the hydrangeas desperately need water, or that it's past time to prune the asters back, or that the garden is looking great and I don't need to do anything much except enjoy it. This morning's revelation was that the *#%@!&#* armadilloes got back in the yard last night and, if I didn't want to lose a lot of expensive plants, I'd better repair their damage immediately and block the drainage holes again. Unfortunately, they completely uprooted one of my last 3 dwarf cleomes and, with the heat, I don't think it's going to recover.

The second ritual of the day is in the late afternoon or early evening, when I grab my beverage of choice and wander back to the "Outback" to sit and veg or sit and cogitate. Sometimes I do this one by myself while waiting for Prairiewolf to get home, and sometimes I do it with Prairiewolf, if he has gotten home at a reasonable hour and is so inclined. Mainly this is a time for relaxing and letting go of the day's concerns, while watching the birds forage, the leaves dance in the breeze, and the light grow soft and dim. Mosquitoes usually signal the end of this magical time.

The photo here is of the "Outback", complete with my new addition of windchimes, a celebration of age and friendship from our dear friends Flip and Shelley. The chimes are tuned to the notes of the Chicago Jazz Festival, and form a link with far-off friends and places. Note, too, the bright white exclamation points of the bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) blooms, shining beside the Adirondack chairs. Bottlebrush buckeye is one of Michael Dirr's favorite yard shrubs and, as this one gets bigger, I can really see why. When it's in bloom, it lifts my spirit everytime I look at it.

The last enriching ritual of the day occurs as we get into bed for the night. Our cuddly, orange fluffball of a cat suddenly gets a wild, demon-eyed look and leaps upon any movement under the covers, fully intent upon destroying the enemy obviously lurking there. (Needless to say, we keep a heavy quilt on the bed these days!) T.J. stalks and pounces for several minutes, until he's sure that he's made the area safe for the night, then calmly proceeds to curl up for a good night's rest. Not to be left out, our big German Shepherd pup lays his huge head on the bed near our pillows, sincerely requesting a serious and lengthy good-night petting, before he, too, curls up beside us on the floor and goes to sleep.

These routines cost little except time, but how precious they are to me and how lucky I am to be able to enjoy them. Sometimes I think that we, as Americans, get so caught up in making money for more "things" that we lose sight of what really makes us happy.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Oh, What a Beautiful Morning....

The garden is so full of life, light and beauty this morning that it makes my heart ache. As I watch the wind ruffle through the leaves, the chorus of birdsong is so complex that I cannot even tease out all of the different songs being sung. The bees are buzzing contentedly in the beautyberry bush, I got a glimpse of a skink gliding slinkily through the butterfly garden, and the birds are making each tree and shrub seem alive with movement.

The outside is drawing me like a magnet. Bluejays are taking turns flying through the sprinkler for a quick spritzing. Brown thrashers are alternating between foraging through the leaf litter and flying up into the branches to announce their presence. A newly minted tiger swallowtail lightly floated around the yard for a while, checking out the accommodations. The air is marshmallowy, padded with moisture, softly supportive, warm but not yet hot.

Life seems very immediate and vivid this morning. I feel lucky, not only to be alive, but to be so aware of it today.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Life As a Tree

As we think of moving from this place, it has become obvious to me that living here has changed me. In fact, each place we have lived has changed me in one way or another.

Years ago I had a dream that my life was like a patchwork quilt - a crazy quilt, full of rich patches that didn't necessarily match but that, stitched together, made for a beautiful whole.

That dream came at a time when I was trying to decide whether to take on a new responsibility, a rather demanding volunteer commitment. As those of you who know me probably realize, after the dream I decided to accept the position and I have been tilting at windmills through volunteer commitments ever since!

But I digress.

Even if my life seems like a crazy quilt, I personally feel more like a tree. Like a plant of any sort, I've been formed and molded by my environment. Sometimes that has been positive, sometimes negative...and often, it's just been what it was.

Sometimes, to amuse myself, I wonder what species of tree I am most like. Cottonwood has come to mind - quick-growing, easy to transplant, sparkling and graceful (I wish!), but brittle, despite its appearance of strength, and short-lived. I'd love to think I could be classified as a live oak or a bur oak, but I don't have the gravitas for either of those species. Maybe a red oak? Not particularly outstanding, but stalwart and stable and reliable. Able to live and thrive in a variety of habitats.

What pruning and fertilizing has occurred here in this patch of my life? I have become a gardener, and I have found fertile soil for myself in the company of other gardeners. I have learned the regenerative power of a positive focus and the wilting power of a negative one. I have learned the pleasure of a large group of friends getting together to celebrate, and I have come to strongly appreciate the talents of those who can make celebrations happen gracefully and beautifully.

On the more difficult side, I have learned the pain of being too far from most of my family (but also the joy of being reconnected with family members that had grown apart). I have tried to learn the difficult art of doing my best and then just letting life (and Mother Nature) take its course. For better or for worse, I am learning - again - the difficult art of working hard and doing my best, but not being able to ultimately accomplish a deeply desired goal. And along with those last two lessons, I am trying to learn to keep trying without getting discouraged, hoping to have moved ahead two steps for every step that gets taken backwards.

Overall, though, this has been an enriching environment for me, and I hope to take its richness with me as I move into the next habitat patch of my life. Most of all, I hope to have absorbed this richness thoroughly enough to pass it along to others in the future - my life has been made brighter here and I'd love to be able to brighten other people's lives in similar ways.

Pollyanna-ish? Probably. But I'm okay with that.

Buzzing Bees and Baby Spiders

Isn't it cool how a garden engages all of your senses? There are two types of hot spots in my garden right now, based on what I hear as I walk around. The first is the dead pine tree, with its powderpost beetles loudly and rhythmically feeding. The second are the "bee plants" - whole plants that are just vibrating joyously with the sound of the bees feeding at their flowers. Right now I have several of the latter in the garden: the beautyberries, with their small pinkish white flowers, which have little to recommend them to humans but obviously are irresistable to bees, and the Virginia creeper, a vine whose brownish flower clusters are even less appealing to me than the beautyberries', but which are humming with apiarian activity.

Question: Does the word "apiarian" refer to all bees or just to honeybees? These flowers are attracting bumble bees by the dozens as well as many other pollinating insects, but I'm not actually seeing many honeybees. Of course, I don't tend to see many honeybees these days anyway.

Another sign that summer is here are the baby banana spiders. They are only a fraction of the size they will be in a few weeks, but their webs are appearing everywhere and I smile when I see them...unless, of course, I've just plastered a web across my face unexpectedly! Thank goodness they're not aggressive to people.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Getting back into the swing....

We've been either preoccupied or just flat out of the state for the last 3 weeks, partying with friends and attending our daughter's medical school graduation in Kansas, so I'm only now getting back into the garden.

Luckily my work before we left paid off - having refreshed my mulch, the weeds are minimal (at least in the flower beds) and overall things look pretty decent still, despite my lack of attention. Watering has again become critical, though, as we have had almost no rain in weeks and the hot weather is upon us.

When I did my first real walkabout yesterday, I found two normally shy coinhabitants in the garden who "agreed" to be photographed: a tree frog, who froze in a gymnastic pose hoping that I wouldn't notice him against the green leaves, and an anole, looking a little ragged...or should I say rugged? he paused to survey this giant interloper in his territory.

These guys are a critical part of my 24/7 bug patrol, and I love sharing my garden with them. Getting decent photos of them is an extra bonus.

I noticed earlier this spring that the tree frogs were almost silent. I was worried that they might be experiencing a population decline, but they got noisier when we had a brief period of regular rain, so I've thankfully shelved my other, more ominous theories in exchange for a dry weather explanation. It makes seeing this green and gold beauty (you should see the shining lines along his hind legs!) doubly pleasurable.

Bad news, though, when we got back - another of our longleaf pines had succumbed to the stress of the recent storms and drought. My friend and tree expert, Cleve, was kind enough to come out and take a look; he saw no reason for the other longleafs in the yard to follow suit, so he recommended simply taking out the one that had died. And keeping my fingers crossed. (That's my addition to his recommendation.) I've got a company scheduled to remove the dead tree in the next 2-3 weeks. In the interim, I just have to hope there isn't a hurricane to bring it down...while I try to ignore the sound of the powderpost beetles having a feast as they begin the recycling process on the dead wood. It's amazing how loud their feeding sounds - I can hear them from 20 or 30 feet away.

On the positive side, I DID see a red-bellied woodpecker feeding on the trunk this afternoon! In some ways I wish I could leave the dead snag standing, as snags are important feeding and nesting sites, but this particular one could easily take out our roof if it falls, so pragmatism has to prevail.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Good Borders Make Good Gardens

Paraphrasing Robert Frost's "Good fences make good neighbors" quote seemed appropriate for today's work in the garden. Greg had made a strong line around the beds with the edger this weekend, so I've been using that line to pull out the extra grass and neaten the border edges.

It's funny, but it's taken me almost all of my life to recognize the importance of neat edges in a garden. We all have our points of rebellion, and for some reason one of mine revolves around keeping things neat. In my wise old age, though, I've come to realize that if I keep the edges neat, the beds and lawn can be downright weedy and/or overgrown and the garden will still look good...especially to the untrained eye.

Speaking of weedy and overgrown, another basic garden chore that I rebelled against for years was weeding. Justifying my reluctance to pull out unwanted plants under the umbrella of "biodiversity is good for any biological system," I kept wondering why my garden plants always looked so stunted and my vegetables produced so poorly. Call me stubborn. Call me stupid. I have learned better, though! It just took me longer than most.