Friday, April 28, 2006

The Un-Secret Garden

It was a beautiful day today, and I spent quite a lot of it outside working in the yard. In the yard, not in my garden.

I was working in the front yard and, as I worked, I wondered quite a bit about why I almost always dislike working there. Somehow the front yard does not feel like a true part of my garden, despite the fact that I have made beds surrounding the existing trees and shrubs just as in my "real" garden in the backyard.

I came up with several possible explanations:

1) It's public space and I dislike gardening in public. This doesn't hold much water, though, as I work publicly at the Botanical Gardens all the time, generally getting just as grungy...or even grungier, and always in view of other people.

2) It's public space and I dislike having my design decisions (or lack thereof) continually on display to other people.

3) It's public space and I feel obligated to modify my planting and designing decisions based on some nebulous idea of what "the neighbors" will think acceptable. There is some actual truth to this thought, as our neighborhood has restrictive covenants about which everyone is very conscious.

4) It's public space and thus I feel obligated to maintain it for other people, rather than for myself, which always makes a little spirt of rebellion rise up in protest within me. For starters, I tend to keep it neater and more consistently weeded than my "real" garden, I plant higher numbers of fewer species in it, and I use a different mulch on it so that it will look "nicer". In fact, that all rather makes it seem like I'm working for other people, rather than for myself or my family, when I'm gardening there.

5) It's public space, and part of my internal concept of a garden is that it maintain an element of "secrecy", of a getaway that is there just for me and my family and friends. (The Secret Garden still holds a special place in my heart!)

6) It's the space that will provide the first impression of our home to prospective buyers, so I feel continually obliged to design for these mythical people, rather than for myself. And, in the manner of people everywhere who try to please "everyone", I rather feel like my front yard pleases no one very much.

With the general exception of the first reason, I suspect that there are elements of all of the above in my feelings about our front yard. However, I soldier on, trying to make it as "normal" as it is possible for me to make it (some would argue that's not very much!), yet still make it a garden I can find enjoyment in.

And today I did find that enjoyment. I "edited out" a lot of plants, including weeds and some stray liriope that's been looking scraggly. I transplanted seedling petunias, hoping to jump the rafts of brilliant reddish-purple from the single bed they are in to other areas of the yard. And I ruthlessly tidied the crabapple. There's more to do - there's always more to do - but I'm feeling a lift as I look over my little domain. That's a good sign.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Poetry and Gardening

I'm finding that journalling in this blog encourages me to read more poetry. I'm not sure why, but for once I'm just going to flow with the experience without questioning it further.

Recently I've been reading Stanley Kunitz's The Wild Braid. There are a few phrases and bits that just captivate me....

"...among the sodden seethe of leaves...." (p. 32, from "The Testing Tree")

"...In the haze of afternoon,
while the air flowed saffron,..." (p.35, from "The Testing Tree")

"I conceived of the garden as a poem in stanzas." (p.72, from "Stanzas")

"We could say the playcodon is rhyming with the thalictrum." (p. 74, from "The Gate to Hell")
(Isn't that a cool idea - plants rhyming with each other in the garden? Repeating the theme of color or texture or height. So much more vivid to say they are rhyming!)

"Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses...." (p. 139, from "The Round")

And some of the images in my garden remind me of visual poetry:

the rich royal blue velvet of the Salvia blooms against the cool gray weathered fence

fragile, purple-streaked, snow white blooms of the peacock ginger emerging daintily from the coarse brown mulch

fresh green froth of the maidenhair fern.

Okay. Well, maybe I DO see why I'm being more attracted to poetry these days!

Patience, Impatience, and Armadillos

I've been hard at work in the garden for the past several days and I'm beginning to see some signs that reward my efforts....

First, the value of "no effort", also known as patience. Remember that poor sapling blackgum tree that my 8 month old German Shepherd chewed off a couple weeks ago? Hoping against hope that it might have the life-force to resprout, I've left it in the ground. This weekend it paid me back by putting out 3 side shoots. I've now caged it in with a cheap wire obelisk from Lowe's (to protect it from more interest by Becker) and I have high hopes that it will survive and even thrive.

Survival story #2: I've also been avoiding pulling out another "dead" tree, a 6' tall, multi-trunked yaupon that I mistreated this winter by letting it spend many months in a wheelbarrow while I decided where to (trans)plant it. It survived that trauma with great dignity (if many fewer leaves than it should have had), and we planted it out in a great spot about 6 weeks ago. At which point it promptly appeared to die. The remaining leaves turned deep, dead brown and the tree just sat there. But under the bark still showed green, so I continued to hold out hope. And have been rewarded! There are now many little sprouts up and down the main trunk and on a few of the side branches. I'm sure it will show the memory of its trauma for the rest of its life, through its altered form, but I'm thrilled that it survived. The less than perfect form will just remind me of the lessons in Broken for You, emphasizing the beauty in imperfection and healed brokenness.

So those are my "patience" lessons. Sometimes impatience wins out though. I attacked the Artemesia again this morning, carefully digging deep into the soil and sifting out every remnant of root I could find. For over an hour. Until at last my rapidly blistering hand and increasing blood pressure and temperature ruled the day. Deciding that 2 square feet cleared was not a good value for time invested, I vowed to remove every last photosynthetic surface and starve the sucker out. So that's what I did. Whether it will be a successful way to remove such a tenacious plant remains to be seen, but it sure looks better right now. And I feel a whole lot better too.

Speaking of my blood pressure going up, it's also armadillo season. Each spring an army of the pesky mammals seems to invade the garden, digging deep and massive holes in the lawn and under a lot of my favorite plants. After several days of filling in the holes and hoping that the plants weren't too badly damaged, I took pre-emptive action last night and barricaded up my drainage holes under the back fence. It seems to have been effective, as I didn't see any new damage this morning...but now I have to remember to take down the barricades before each rain.

Which reminds me that Darwin, Australia, is being pummeled by a major cyclone today. Here in the U.S. it would be called a Category 5 hurricane, with sustained winds of 180 mph and gusts to 220 mph. My stomach clenches at the thought. I wonder what this year's hurricane season will bring to us....

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Earth Day Memories

With Earth Day being trumpeted today on radio and TV (even Bush is laying claim to being environmentally aware today!), my mind keeps going back to the first Earth Day I celebrated....

It was the spring of 1971 - the 2nd Earth Day ever. I was in 9th grade at Curundu Junior High School in the Canal Zone and an active member of that school's first ever Ecology Club. Our sponsor, my 9th grade physical science teacher, Mr. Jack Pylant, told us about this exciting new holiday called Earth Day. To celebrate, we decided to do that quintessential 60's/70's activity: picket (the Commissary, in this case), carrying signs about saving the Earth.

I doubt that we converted any Commissary shoppers that day, but it was through Mr. Pylant and the Ecology Club that I developed my first real awareness of environmental issues.

We had a great time in Ecology Club. One of my favorite memories is of a film that we made: a Super 8 motion picture about "Captain Ecology", who jumped out of trashcans, shower stalls, and other improbable places, wearing a cape and catching environmental "wrongdoers" at the moment of their transgression. I get a smile just thinking of it.

So on this Earth Day, I would like to remember and honor Mr. Pylant, my 9th grade science teacher, wherever he may be. He instilled and nurtured in me a love for and an awareness of the environment that has been with me for my entire life. He enriched my life tremendously, and I hope that I have been able to pass along the torch, in some small way, to others. Thank you, Mr. Pylant.

Friday, April 21, 2006

"We Don't Hate Insects"...or "Truth" in Advertising?

I am disgusted. For the umpteenth time in several days, I've just watched a pesticide ad on TV sweetly proclaiming, "We don't hate insects. We just love trees." - or some such blather.

First of all, I want to state up front that I hate pesticides on general principles. Like so many quick fixes, they usually make the problem worse in the long run. In the case of pesticides specifically, they usually kill a much wider spectrum of animals than just their "target" species, negatively affecting the ecological balance of the area they are applied to, as well as that of nearby areas. For example, a pesticide that kills "grubs" (aka baby beetles) will often kill the immature form of almost all insects. That includes the immature forms of "beneficials" too, including predators such as bees, wasps, and lady bugs. And don't forget that caterpillars are immature butterflies. Pesticides often kill butterfly babies too.

So what's the problem with killing all the insects in an area? Why should, for example, a gardener or a homeowner care? The answer is that, in nature, the plant-eating animals in a food chain generally greatly outnumber, and greatly out-reproduce, their natural predators. (Think of rabbits and coyotes, with their respective numbers and reproductive rates.) If you kill off ALL the insects (or all the mammals) within a given area, you are killing off the predators as well as the plant-eaters. It will take the predators much longer to repopulate than it will take the plant eaters. And while the predators are trying to ramp up their numbers, the plant-eaters will be busily eating every plant in sight. And doing much more damage than they were doing before you attempted to take matters into your own hands.

Thus in a typical home landscape/garden, if you use pesticides you generally create a much worse problem than if you had just waited for a few weeks, endured a few unsightly leaves or branches, and let "Mother Nature" do her thing. In the long run, beneficial insects and other predators, who work 24/7 for 365 days a year, will do a much better job of controlling pest populations than some ham-fisted human with a spray bottle guaranteeing "instant results."

(On a side note: if you, the gardener, have a plant that consistently does poorly, examine whether you've planted it in the wrong situation or whether you should even have planted it in your climate at all. Insect pests are usually attracted to plants that are stressed and unhealthy in the first place.)

But back to this imbecilic ad. The commercial makes using this pesticide sound so healthy and noble - you are "protecting" your trees and shrubs, but not hating insects, after all. So I looked up the pesticide they were touting. It's an analog to nicotine and works by effectively clogging the nervous system, especially of insects. All insects. Not just leaf-eating insects. Or tree-eating insects. Insects. As usual, it's a "broad-spectrum" insecticide, meaning that it kills the "good guys" as well as the "bad guys". (See my comments on the effects of such pesticides on an ecosystem above.)

Then think back to the ad. They boast that you only have to apply this product once for 12 months "control" - in other words, the pesticide is persistent in the soil and/or in the plants for at least 12 months. Persistently killing almost all of the insects that it comes in contact with. This is hardly benign to the soil ecosystem, many of whose insect members perform such essential tasks as helping to decompose organic material and return nutrients to the ecosystem.

And there's no data on what this chemical does to other invertebrates, other than a warning that it is "highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates." So what IS its action on earthworms or on beneficial nematodes or on rollie-pollies or on any of the myriad of other soil invertebrates? One reputable site listed the product as very toxic to earthworms, but the company literature says absolutely nothing on the subject.

As I searched further, it became obvious that there were other potential problems. There have been strong concerns voiced about this pesticide's rapid migration into groundwater, where it is highly stable and accumulates from year to year. Its breakdown products are apparently even more toxic than the parent compound and are also persistent. And to round off the good news, resistance to this chemical has appeared in as little as 2 years in populations consistently exposed to it. (That would be populations of insects, probably plant-eating insects.)

Does the company hate insects? Well, I wouldn't say they love them. More importantly, I would say that the company is being disingenuous at best regarding the "benign" environmental profile of their product.

Would I use this product? It's not very likely. Not impossible, but not very likely. Interestingly enough, I haven't used an insecticide in my garden in 5 years (except for a rare squirt of wasp spray to take out a poorly placed wasp nest) and I almost never have a problem with "eaten" plants.

As an added bonus, I have the joy of watching anoles (little lizards) patrolling my deck and fences and plants, toads hunkering on the porch when I go out in the evening, birds foraging high and low all day, and tree frogs clinging to our window glass during many summer nights. The link between all these animals? They eat insects...for breakfast, lunch, and supper, and at anytime in between. And I'll take their fascinating presence over a persistent bottle of chemicals any day.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Weeding Out

I finally got back into my garden this morning - it feels like I've been away on a long trip. (Actually, I've been distracted due to house painters, out-of-town guests, a newborn niece, and a persistent respiratory "bug.")

Sadly, the garden looks like I've been away on a long trip, too.

The first order of business was to start the sprinklers running full time again. The water I poured on 2 weeks ago has not been supplemented by Mother Nature, so it's back to dragging the hoses around the yard. I'm just thankful that we have the ability to water - I wouldn't have much of a garden or lawn left without it at this point.

After getting the sprinklers going, it was on to clean-up work. First I dead-headed the iris, a quick and satisfying task. Then I spent the rest of the morning weeding and attacking the edges of a rampant patch of Aster and variegated Artemesia. Despite liking the brightening effect of the Artemesia, I've decided that it's too aggressive a grower and that I need to remove it totally. I'm thinking of it as a gift of omission to whoever inherits my garden! Meanwhile it has formed an almost solid mat about 8' in diameter and the roots are a dismaying admixture of fragility and tenaciousness. They snake high and low throughout the soil, breaking off readily when I pull on them. Unfortunately, each piece left behind is dedicated to sending up a new shoot as soon as I leave it alone again. I won't be lacking something to keep me busy anytime soon!

Greg thinks I should "nuke" the area with Roundup, but I'm rather enjoying the challenge for now - besides which it feels more in line with my overall gardening philosophy to battle it "finger to root", so to speak.

Ironically, while I'm weeding and selectively eliminating things outside in the garden, I'm also trying to do the same thing inside with our household possessions. There's nothing like an impending move to wake you up to how vigorously the number of items you own has been growing.

And whether it's plants outside or possessions inside, I find it hard to weed them out. Without trying to be too PollyAnna-ish, I tend to see the positive potential in these things, rather than the positive potential of the open breathing room that their absence would provide.

But I've learned the importance of that breathing room the hard way, both in the yard and in my life, so I'm once again trying to work against my normal instincts by weeding out. Difficult as it is, in the end I'll be glad that I did it. And so will the garden.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

What Comes After a Garden?

Lately I've been reading Wendell Berry's collection of poems entitled A Timbered Choir. While many of them speak to me, one in particular has been hanging in the back of my mind as I garden these days. He wrote it in 1991 and it's called "The Farm". Even though my garden is not remotely qualified to be called a farm, as I work I'm conscious of the same poignant feelings expressed in this excerpt....

There is no end to work -
Work done in pleasure, grief,
Or weariness, with ease
Of skill and timeliness,
Or awkwardly or wrong,
Too hurried or too slow.
One job completed shows
Another to be done.
And so you make the farm
That must be daily made
And yearly made, or it
Will not exist. If you
Should go and not return
And none should follow you,
This clarity would be
As if it never was.
But praise, in knowng this,
The genius of the place,
Whose ways forgive your own,
And will resume again
In time, if left alone.
You work always in this
Dear opening between
What was and is to be.

I love the thought that when I'm gone, "...the genius of the place, Whose ways forgive [my] own, ...will resume again In time, if left alone." The only part that does rather bother me is that when we go, my garden will not be left alone, but will be at the mercy of whoever buys our home. But a garden, like a life, is never static and freezing it in some "perfect" condition is never an option anyway. Hopefully at least some of the native plants that I have planted will be allowed to remain, returning to the area a small fragment of the natural habitat that makes up the richness of diversity originally known in south Alabama. Then I will have succeeded, in however small a way.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The plant sale is done and I'm free to get back to work around the house and yard. It's been so dry that the first order of business is to water...and water...and water. Rain down here seems to be a feast or famine experience, and we are currently experiencing a famine.

Most of the established plants seem to be doing fairly well, but the grass has started to show signs of stress. I would very much like to tear up all of that grass but, since we live in a suburban neighborhood and will probably be putting our house on the market soon, that's not a logical alternative. And, too, if I'm totally honest I have to admit that I love the look of dappled sunlight filtering through the trees onto the green carpet of the lawn.

I found the chrysalis - empty - that Lauren discovered last week. It appeared to have emptied by the happy egress of the (now) moth and not due to predation, so I'm anxious to show it to her.

My biggest challenge in gardening this week, besides the lack of rain, has been our oversized puppy. After purchasing and planting a new blackgum sapling in the empty deck well (where a silver maple stood before Hurricane Ivan toppled it), my husband was anxious to show me how great it looked when I got home. We went out there only to discover that Becker had chewed through the entire trunk and bamboo support stake about 15" above the ground, toppling the young tree completely and leaving the 4' top leaning sadly against the corner of the deck. I'm leaving the stub and hoping that it will put out new side buds, but I have a feeling that's wishful thinking. That deck well may be covered over yet.

I put in a live oak sapling, a Tensaw dahoon holly, 2 arborvitae ferns and a little Dianella start yesterday morning. So far Becker has (thankfully) ignored those. I suspect that under the deck has been declared canine-only territory.

The iris and roses are in full bloom, and I discovered that the Byzantine glads were blooming for the first time too. My hostas are pushing up strongly, despite the warm winter. Only the leaves of the Hummingbird clethra and the Kaempferia rotundifolia haven't put in an appearance yet this spring, but I have full confidence that they will. The eternal optimism of the gardener!