March 2010

Sick as a dog today. Feels like the space around my eyes is poured full of concrete–which is pretty much the description that I got from the person who passed this one on to me, so there’s no question that it’s her cold and not allergies. Blarrrgh.

Need to get a Digger done today, and then I’m going to go fall down again.

So there I was, on the toilet, contemplating the things that one contemplates while on the toilet, and outside the window flashed the showiest of Southeastern butterflies–the tiger swallowtail!

I was very pleased to see him. Swallowtails are one of those things that we should preserve for purely aesthetic reasons, damnit–it’s a bird-sized piece of origami in black and bright yellow. They lack the personality of our militant little morning cloak, but for sheer glory, they’re hard to beat.

If my reading is correct, he would have spent the winter as a chrysalis, probably under the leaf litter, and only just pupated now that the weather’s warm. (This is another of the prices we pay for our lawns–we kill a great many insects, including butterflies, by destroying leaves. Fall is a regular chrysalis apocalypse in the suburbs. If you can rake your leaves somewhere–under the trees, or whatever–and leave them, rather than bagging them or burning them or whatever, that helps bugs. And also makes much better dirt.) 

I’m feelin’ kinda blah today–throat’s still sore–so once I’ve finished off my obligatory Batbreath and done a turn around the garden, I’m gonna go lay down for awhile.

So last night, I started to get a sore throat. Unexpected and FAST. And quite painful. I didn’t have it when dinner started, and by the time I was driving home, I was swallowing and going "…huh. This is odd."

I medicated with my Home Remedy of Choice–hot lemonade cut with vodka and honey–which will kill any sore throat that ails you…or at least, after two treatments, you don’t much care any more, and that’s just as good. I was thinking it might be post nasal drip from allergies, although it was much stronger and more sudden (and I wasn’t all that stuffed up, which is rare this time ‘o years.)

This morning, as I was clearing my throat, I realized I sounded exactly like my hairdresser, who I saw Wednesday, and I bet I got her crud.

Well, poo.

Seems to be a walking wounded thing at the moment. If I can get my Obligatory Batbreath Illustrations done, I’ll call it a day and go lay in bed and play Civ or Plants vs. Zombies or something.

I spent the morning trying to save part of the backyard from Japanese honeysuckle.

I was out there for nearly an hour, and by the end I was mostly just discouraged. There’s a couple of spots in the backyard that I’m about to declare Sacrifice Zones and just hose down with glyphosate, but this particular area contains a stand of native shrubs called hearts a-burstin’ that I really want to save. It’s lovely, it’s mild-mannered, it’s weird, and I’m delighted to have it.

Unfortunately, it is also completely buried in honeysuckle. After a solid hour of ripping up vast tangles of the nasty stuff, and uncoiling strangling vines from around the base of the shrubs–they’d killed a couple of ’em already, but I’m pretty sure I got to some others in time–I still wasn’t  done clearing a stand that’s only about the size of the kitchen table. It was depressing as hell.

I sat down on the stairs up to the deck and put my head in my hands, feeling like I was trying to hold back the Sahara desert by scooping up buckets of sand. Who am I kidding? If I stop fighting this stuff, in five years it’ll overrun the entire yard. It’ll smell lovely and birds will come visit it, but there will be fewer and fewer birds because no bugs can live there, and it’ll strangle the big trees and pull them down, and eventually it’ll be a perfumed green desert draped over the rotting trunks. There’s a stand on the neighbor’s property that’s going that way already. It looks like somebody set a wicker basket over it. And down the road, with the best intentions in the world, somebody is probably planting a pot of the stuff right this minute because they sell it at Lowes and it doesn’t occur to them that a big home improvement store would sell a noxious weed.*

And then I discovered that I had stepped in dog shit. 

With both feet.

There comes a time when every woman must admit that she is Done For The Day. I went inside–taking my shoes off first–and sulked.

But of course, I’ll be back out there tomorrow, and the next day, and the next week. If I hold off the invasives for five years, then that’s five years of birds and bugs and five years for natives to get established enough to fight back. I am doing the Lord’s work, as Grandma would have said, and if our version of the Lord who’s work we are doing is significantly different, the premise still stands. No use praying for him to send a solution–he already sent one. I’m it.

Grandma was a good Catholic. My vision of the deity who watches over the garden is…well…a little smaller and a little more personal. And a little more cute.

Squash Pulls Weeds

I bet if there are gardening gods–and if there are gods of anything, surely it must be gardens–they have to do their weeding by hand, too.

*Heh. Heh heh. Everybody laugh with me now, because otherwise the weeping will get out of hand.

Slow to Break Dormancy

One of the things they say on plant tags–sometimes–is "Slow to break dormancy." 

I am myself quite slow to break dormancy most days, as Kevin can attest, so I’m glad they include this note, although I wish they’d include it more often. If a reader hadn’t told me that buttonbush was slow, I would be starting to wonder.

Basically this means "Don’t expect anything until after you’ve given up hope." Aesclepias–butterfly weed–is the worst for this. I have little hope of the one I planted last year returning, but I really really want one. (It’s apparently easy to grow and starts easily from seed. You could not prove it by me. I have read all about the requirements and the dry feet and poor soil and whatnot, and I may just have to accept that it doesn’t love me.) I got another one from Niche and am putting it in another place in the yard, in hopes that at least ONE will get the magic combination…but I won’t know for awhile, because that one of course has not broken dormancy either.

And the other thing is that slow-to-break-dormancy doesn’t always hold true. My chocolate snakeroot is supposed to be slow. Last year it was slow. This year it shot up as fast as anything else in the yard and is forming quite respectable clumps. (I planted three of them in the fall when I moved in–those and the hyssop are the oldest things I’ve planted. One of the hyssops didn’t make it this year, but its buddy is coming back, and the snakeroot apparently finally decided that it’s time to get down to business.) 

Today I’ll try to finish up the bump-out on the bed, which mostly just involves tilling the clay like crazy so I can mix it up with the bag ‘o dirt. It’s annoyingly cold out today, but digging will undoubtedly warm me up. I’m also gonna transfer a little of the bee balm–if it’s spreading that vigorously, it can try standing up to the pineapple sage. And if it continues to go crazy like this, then next spring I’ll transfer several clumps to the Deathbed and see how it likes life over THERE.

Oh. Apparently squirrels will eat mealworms.


I guess…they’re rodents, I should have figured…but…there’s something kind of unsettling about the fellow sitting in the feeder, calmly chomping off dried mealworm heads.

I’m gonna write off mealworms as an experiment, I think–I haven’t seen a single bird eat one, and that’s awfully expensive squirrel food.

The problem with having an aerial view of the garden from my studio is that I am staring out at it more or less constantly, going "I could be out there RIGHT NOW."

Occasionally I pull my birding binoculars off the windowsill and examine plants. How sad is that?

The other problem is that I notice things less obvious on the ground, like the large patch of dead lawn next to one side of the peninsula bed. It’s a strip about eighteen inches wide at the widest point. It is entirely my fault–I planted lantana and pineapple sage in the bed there, not knowing what those plants do in the south. (Answer: They do very very well.)

The lantana didn’t survive the winter–it’s not supposed to in my zone, so I was pleased it didn’t, but jesus, I see why that’s an invasive in slightly warmer climes. The pineapple sage did just as dramatically, turning into a shoulder high shrub. (I tried waving the little tag at it, informing it that it was only supposed to get three feet high and was Doing It Wrong. The plant ignored me. It’s back again this spring. I may have to keep it pruned this year.) It’s just that spot, too–the pineapple sage on the OTHER side of the bed remained a reasonably well behaved, if vigorous little plant. I think it probably gets an hour or so less sun a day there. Go figure.

Anyhow, the two crazy growers muscled their way out into the lawn about two feet, and smothered everything under it. This spring, that patch is bare–there’s one or two little clumps of grass, but it’s mostly empty.

And y’know…if there’s nothing growing there NOW…I could just bump the bed out over that semicircle, break up that bare clay…dump in a bag of dirt and some mulch….and hey, I HAVE a bag of dirt! And some mulch! It’s practically begging to be added! And that’s a couple of square feet less of lawn for Kevin to mow…and I could transplant the false indigo, which is getting lost next to the chicken, into that spot…and I’d have space available for that inevitable moment later in spring when I see a plant that I Really Really Need…

Right, off to buy bug repellent and then, perchance, to garden.

Ursula! What is best in life?

To make a cup of tea, wander in the garden, and be delighted by the growmentations of your plants!

…yeah, somehow, I doubt Crom will smile upon me for that. Perhaps when the time comes to yank up weeds we’ll get on better terms.

At least part of the weeds is definitely the sprouted millet, as expected. When the rest get past the two-little-paddles stage, we’ll see what they turn into–more millet being the likely contender. I don’t really care about the millet. The area under the birdfeeder lives in a perpetual state of mulch and churn anyway, and I have written it off for deliberate planting. I yoinked a few small things elsewhere that seemed up to no good. The patch of clover can stay for the moment, since the strawberry that was supposed to be covering that patch has been nipped down to stems by marauding deer. (It came back reliably. It just hasn’t been allowed to stay…)

As some of you may have heard, the historic courthouse in our little town of Pittsboro was gutted by fire last night. No one was hurt, but the building is a near total loss. Smoke was hanging over most of the town. We went out to the Brewery, not realizing that since the courthouse is in the middle of the town–literally in the center of the traffic circle in the middle–all the main streets would be closed and we’d have to take side streets to get to the other side. (Or that the Brewery would be jam-packed because there were only two other restaurants in town that you could GET to.)  Apparently they’re still finding hot spots this morning. Not good.

I wonder if the bronze statue "To Our Brave Confederate Soldiers" is still standing. (Boy, you know you’re in the south…)

Today, working on Batbreath! Tonight, signing at Flyleaf Books at 7pm!

In keeping with my resolution to feed the bugs, I am pleased to say that something is noshing on the golden ragwort. Woot! And while I was watering the pawpaw, I spooked a number of tiny hoppy things, and a rather larger jumping spider leaping after them.

The best, however, was a cricket frog I startled while digging around on the low hillside on the far side of the yard.* He glared at me.

"I’m doing this for your benefit, you know," I said. The frog appeared unimpressed. I suspect that I was much happier to see him than he was to see me.

To my delight, the wild quinine, which I had about written off, has put out teeny little nubules of leaves. Yay! And something else came back as well. Unfortunately, the tag did not. It’s probably either gaillardia or coreopsis. Probably.  I think. It formed a pretty heavy stem last autumn, anyhow.

Carolina geranium popped up in the bed too. I’m leaving it alone for now. It shows up on the weed lists, but it’s a native and not hurting anybody (and endangered in some parts of the northeast.) So it gets to stay until it proves itself untrustworthy.

While the bed is doing pretty okay on the weed front–lots of mulch and dense plantings help–there’s two small patches in the bed that are sprouting a bizillion little seedlings. I strongly suspect it’s the millet from the birdfeeder sprouting, but it could just be a generic weed invasion. I’m waiting until they get big enough to actually get a grip on the little bastards–at the moment, I’d have to weed with tweezers!–and then I’ll rip them out.

I may leave one or two just to see what it IS, though…

*I wasn’t going to work on that hillside this year. I wasn’t. But…well…look, the plant was called "Rattlesnake Master." I cannot be expected to resist that! And I had to put in a cup plant. According to the nice people at Niche, in addition to being an awesome wildlife plant, it’s a serious soil buster, and should be able to tackle even my grim clay hillside and break it into something approaching usability.


I noticed a few days ago that something has been noshing on my cabbage-leaf coneflower. Big, blue-green leaves, now with a few holes in them.

This irked me a bit. I felt like a bad gardener. It was hardly a life-threatening set of holes, the plant continues to grow well, but…holes. Clearly I was doing something wrong–or more likely, failing to do something right–to keep whatever bugs were chowing down on my plant in check.  It reinforced yet again that I have no real idea what I’m doing–my gardening, like my art and my writing, consists of trying things over and over until something works, and then doing that again until I get sick of it.

Those people with their elaborately planned gardens and intense scrutiny of every microclimate, with the huge glossy photospreads in magazines and gardening blogs jammed with lovely photos and whatnot…those people are gardeners. I have a small yard surrounded by trees and packed full of individual plants in no particular order. I try to grow natives, and I get holes in the leaves. Woe.

Then I spent most of yesterday reading Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy, and came to a great realization.

This is the same great realization I’ve come to any number of times in my life, and each time it’s true, and each time it’s a revelation.

I’m an idiot.

My coneflower has holes in the leaves because it’s a native, because I’m doing something right.

I am, in fact, feeding a bug.

The world is made of bugs. If it wasn’t for bugs, the world’s terrestrial ecosystems would collapse. Bugs keep the world going. God’s inordinate fondness for beetles is an inordinate fondness for life.

This is a bit painful, because frankly, bugs squick me out a bit. I wish I was a better person, I can handle snakes and rats without so much as a qualm, but bugs I dislike. I am a big charismatic vertebrate and as a result, I like other big charismatic vertebrates. Birds, say. Toads.

And yet, if I wanted to be a really good gardener, if I wanted to do my tiny part, my single acre dedicated to making the world a better place–I’d make it better for bugs. Because you get the bugs, and everything else follows.

All those birds I love, that I sit and watch out the window and cheer for–did I think that they were coming because of my birdfeeder?

Well…kinda, yeah…

I’m an idiot. The number of birds that eat JUST seeds are very very few. Something like 95% of North American birds eat bugs…and while they love the berries for a quick jolt of energy during migration, while they’ll crack my seeds happily, what they feed their offspring are bugs. They’re not shoving safflower seeds into teeny little throats, they’re shoving little wiggly things with too many legs that make me go "ew!"

I could hang a birdfeeder on every single horizontal branch in this entire acre, and bird populations would continue to decline around me, because I wouldn’t be providing anything for the babies. In fact, bird populations are declining around us, horribly so–there’s been something like a 50% loss in the last half-century–and they’re being replaced with things like pigeons and starlings and the European house sparrow.*

And with other animals, it’s even more obvious. My island bed is rather smaller than most suburban garden beds. But it’s a whole world to the tiny Southern Cricket Frogs that live there.  Did I think they were eating seeds? Were they sipping nectar, perhaps from teeny tiny martini glasses? Were the Carolina anoles that scuttled along the deck eating my hot peppers and waiting for the tomatoes to ripen?

Of course not. They’re eating bugs.


When I buy native plants, I tend to look for ones that have the big shiny pictures of hummingbirds on them, or such jaunty slogans as "birds love the seeds!" Because…well…nectar feeds butterflies and hummingbirds and bees! And seeds are good, because birds eat them!" I have passed over any number of lovely plants because they did not include these slogans, because damnit, I’m gardening for wildlife here.

And that’s where I went wrong.

I am trying to build a ladder, and I’ve been ignoring the bottom rung. I should be planting natives that bugs eat. The birds will take care of themselves. I should plant things that get their leaves turned to swiss cheese and cheer every hole. Those big glossy pest-resistant plants that fill garden magazines are no better than plastic as far as the ecosystem is concerned, and while my seed and nectar plants are great and fantastic, the yard needs more than that. A lot more.

As with so many things, my garden succeeds despite me. A thumbnail inventory says that there are currently thirty-odd natives that I have planted, and twenty-odd non-natives. (I’ve planted more than that, of both sorts, but not all made it, and probably not all of these will make it either.) And I recall going out with a camera last summer and being astounded–not just at the bees and the butterflies, although they’re the big impressive ones–but all the tiny little bugs, the flies, the leafhoppers, the grasshoppery things. The native plants brought them in despite my arbitrary selection. And following up to feed on them–the reason I know that the micro-ecosystem here is not utterly shot–are the dozens of spiders that I see scurrying everwhere.

My non-natives (all of which are nectar plants) are not nearly as good for bug production. Nectar, frankly, is cheap.

That’s the real cost of non-natives. We think that because they’re chock full of nectar and bees love them that they must be just as good. But they’re not hosts. Hardly anything eats them. That’s why they look so pretty…and why they don’t help as much as they should.

That doesn’t mean I’ll be ripping out my hyssop or my pineapple sage–nectar’s cheap, but I love them and they do it well. Feeding bees is also valuable in this world. But what I’m realizing is that, like bird feeders, just putting out nectar plants aren’t enough. If I want to actually help the birds, I have to feed the bugs–the chompers, the gnawers, the borers, not just the delicate sippers. I love my proud, ragged mourning cloak doing his patrols around the house, but realistically, whatever’s chewing through the coneflower leaves is probably gonna provide a much better meal for the bluebird down the block.

Unsurprisingly, the primary reason that things work well in the yard has nothing to do with me. It’s the wooded part of the property–the live oak and the white oaks and the pin oak, the half-dozen redbuds, the pine trees, the flowering dogwoods, the tulip poplar and the sweet gum tree. That’s what almost everything’s living on.

Still, my yard helps. Somewhere, a hive of bees got a really good set of meals because of these plants. The cricket frogs that live in the island bed are there because of what I planted–and anything I can do to help a frog is a glorious thing. The tobacco hornworms that nibbled delicately at my tomatoes got parasitized by wasps and those wasps provided any number of meals–and you know? I don’t think I lost a single tomato. (It hadn’t occurred to me until now that the reason I had no problems at all with pests on the veggies, despite my complete lack of any defenses against them–spray? Put up insect netting? Soak them with weird concoctions of cigarettes and soap? What? Why?–was because the flower garden was full of bugs. Hungry, predatory bugs. I didn’t get any pests of any significance. As usual, things worked because completely in spite of me.)

So, next time I head out to Niche Gardens, I won’t automatically ignore anything that doesn’t have a big hummingbird sign on it. Give me foamflower and bottle gentian and wild ginger for the shaded area. I’ll give spicebush one more try (this time in a pot, goddamnit, I have NO luck with that stuff, and I want to grow it bad…) and I will try, very hard, to work on feeding the bugs. Even if I don’t like them, even if I cringe a little at the waves of legs.

Give us ragged gardens with holes in the leaves. That’s how we know they’re working.

*There are those who say that there are just as many birds in North America now, so clearly habitat destruction isn’t doing anything. This is because they count a starling or a pigeon as highly as a red-cockaded woodpecker or a scissor-tailed flycatcher. If you meet one of these people, you have my full permission to punch them in the face and tell ’em it’s from me.

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