November 11, 2009

Green Theology

What is a garden? It could be acres of tailored woods and meadows, pathways, ponds, topiary and pergolas. It could be a tapestry of wildflowers in a seam of formerly neglected dirt along a schoolyard fence. It could be herbs and tomatoes, lettuces and broad beans, sunflowers and marigolds in a big city tenement backyard. It could be a haiku of cherry blossom, peony, arched laquer red bridges, swans and raked sand. It could be fat wooden barrels of impatiens, snapdragons, daisies and English ivy standing sentinel at the doors of a firehouse. It could be clay pots of jade, aloe, sempervivums and fountain grass strung shoulder to shoulder along a high rise balcony. It could be teacups of African violets capturing the sunshine on a kitchen windowsill. Or it could be, as in my garden, a small village lot quilted with old-fashioned country garden stalwarts and favorites.

We've now come full circle of one whole year in these writings on the garden. Winter has come to call once again, drawing down the window shades on the sun and icing closed the gateway to the garden. This year, watching the big-bellied snow clouds somersault across the sky, I think of tropical islands and the desert Southwest, Hawaii and the Florida Keys. Places where gardening goes on all year long.

The English landscape gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, posited, “A love of gardening is a seed that, once planted, never dies.” Her sentiment is a perfectly accurate summary of my emotional relationship to the fine art of gardening. Every year, as incremental knowledge and skill in the practice of this art are sought after, obtained and heightened; as thrilled acquaintance is made with previously unknown plant species; and as the garden in my keeping grows ever more populated, multicultural and mature; so also grows apace my love of gardening. It's fair to say the fruits of my gardening labor – physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual – provision me with the greatest happiness and fulfillment of any m├ętier I've turned my hand to since parenthood.

Gardening is as definitively an artistic pursuit as painting, composing music, choreographing dance or writing novels. Earth is the artist gardener's blank tablet, upon which a uniquely individualized creation is constructed, layer after assiduous layer. Like any work of art, the garden can never truly be declared a fait accompli, can always benefit from a smidgen more fine tuning, another wash of color, sowing actions better suited to the setting.

Given the seminal position gardening holds in my heart, mind and way of life, why do I dwell in a northern, wintry clime? Sometimes we choose a place to live, and sometimes a place chooses us. Lake coastal northwestern Michigan chose me. Wooed me, petitioned and cajoled me here, and it does not look fit to let me go anytime soon. We get wed to a particular place because it (or somewhere closely resembling it), was the landscape to our childhood, which we all ache to recapture in some ways; and because the place shelters family, friends, neighbors with whom we want to keep close proximity; and because the physical attributes of the land, the colors and contours, stones and waterways, flora and fauna, quality of light and darkness, act upon us as balm and inspiration, soothe us and stimulate us like nowhere else we've hung our hat.

Hence it is that whenever a gardener finds herself to have, in the fullness of life, put down strong rootstock, be it in city or country, in groves of buildings or of trees, studio apartment or suburban tract or log cabin, in that place of her belonging she will ply her chosen craft and make a garden. The definition of a garden has no fixed size, shape, locale or cultivars. It is not any list of characteristics, however lengthy or broad, but rather is a testament, sworn in seed, soil, moisture and light. Here I am, it states, here shall I abide, find a handful of earth, plant, nurture, believe in tomorrow, and raise up life. A garden is a womb, a faith, and a hope.

October 22, 2009

The Contumacious Gardener

The bulbs put into the ground for the fall planting season over the last couple weeks: dark purple Dutch iris; windflower anemones; double-blossom mixed yellow and white narcissus; cherry vanilla double-blossom tulips; Thalia snow-white narcissus; and hyacinths. All these bulbs enlarge upon the existing colonies of their species already in place in the garden, building its repertoire for a broader, bolder and longer yield next spring. The anemone and tulip bulbs, which are to deer, rabbits and squirrels what hot fudge sundaes are to the gardener, once placed in the ground and before covering over, got sprayed to soaking wet with garlic and egg liquid deer repellent, to improve their chances of staying in their beds and not being precipitously dug up for a critter dinner.

The garden has three large round mats of dianthus plantings which have increased their diameter annually and resemble a plush green carpet all spring, summer and fall. They're aged approximately four to five years, and this past spring, for the first time, produced only a scant smattering of flowers during bloom time in late May and June. With these, and the creeping phlox whose spring display also was diminished this year, composted cow manure was dug into their root stock and layered around their crowns. Hopefully the fresh, rich soil will feed them up over the winter sufficient to bring back their profuse bloom habit.

After cutting down the yellowed, floppy leaves of the Siberian iris and daylillies, the long leaf blades were sheared into lengths of three inches or so, and layered back around the plant cores. Thus do the leaves get put to use as green mulch, warmth, and protection to the soil and plant roots from erosion by the rains, or freezing and thawing and heaving from winter temperature fluctuations. The chrysanthemums, some of which are still doing their beautiful work of fall flowering, are not going to be cut down to the ground this year. Several gardening professionals have mentioned in recent writings that mums do better through winter in cold climates with their leafy, woody stems left intact to shelter the plant crowns from the weather. As they finish flowering, I snip off the dead flower heads, and trim the leafy torso of the plant down only half way, leaving it three or four inches above ground until next spring's advent of more gentle fahrenheits.

Other trimming, tidying up is ongoing, but the bulbs no doubt mark the last gardening (as in actually planting something) to be done this year. There is an old saying that one can bury a lot of troubles by digging in the dirt. Certainly that is true for me, heaven knows the soil of my garden is laden deep and wide with truckloads of troubles, worries, melancholia, and fears worked out and into it over the years. Gardening is the most potent, immediate and efficacious treatment for unhappiness I've ever come across. Getting the hands dirty out of doors and sowing possibility and hope, witnessing and tending to the physical fruits of one's labor, beats the pants off any pharmacopoeia or counseling on offer to the sore of heart. And so it is with sadness and feelings of dread that the gardener downs tools and watches the inexorable advance of the season of dormancy and death across the meadows, hills and forests.

The trees are emptying of leaves, autumnal gales and rainstorms rudely tumble the afternoons away. Frost falls down at night, the sun offers only a cold shoulder to the days. Any gardener who claims to like the wintertime is surely, at the least, disingenuous. Yes, the woods boast wonderful hot-coal colors in late October, shiny chestnuts and sweet, beanie-capped acorns can be gathered, but to the gardener, all this brown, gold and flame-orange means death is coming creeping, gnawing relentlessly away at the green, the alive. As autumn marches on toward a frozen, still-life tomorrow, the gardener can do nothing except bundle up self and garden against the walloping cold a northwestern Michigan winter invariably delivers.

Preparing the garden to withstand the slings and arrows of another winter, and laying in bulbs to better clothe it in resplendent color and output next spring, hasn't been enough, this year, to tranquilize my discontent and woe that summer is finished, another year of gardening has ended, winter is nigh. The turning of the seasons is part and parcel of living in a northerly climate, and necessary to the existence of many of my favorite garden dwellers – the lilacs, the peonies, the forsythia and high bush cranberry. And yet, and yet, maybe it's the too short, too cool summer we were allowed this year; maybe it's the bittersweet knowledge that the penny-candy pink and pale apricot mum flowers sitting so prettily in china jugs on my tabletops are the very last flowers I will be able to cut from the garden this year; maybe it's that the top third of the quaking aspen tree has already been burgled of all leaves by the windstorms, even as the leaves hold their shimmering gold final fling with color – but I do not, this year, go gladly into the long garden goodnight of winter. I don't want it, I don't like it. I go to the Lake Michigan shore, take off my moccasins, and wade defiantly up to my knees in its pellucid 50-degree waters. I contemplate going for another swim (insane idea), and exhort the temperature gods to go against all odds and rise, rise.
It will probably take nothing short of the first big blizzard to put a halt to this feckless, childish, contrary behavior. Until those furbelows of snow come swooping into the garden, the gardener will probably persist in impotent resistance to Mother Nature's procession down the ancient, necessary pathways of the seasons, in all their tempests, wisdom and power.

October 5, 2009

Think and Think Again

This year the foundation border under the front living room windows flagged around mid-summer, taking on a peaked and slightly famished appearance. Every season one or another spot in a perennial bed or hedgerow grouping or flowering border will do this, suddenly becoming anemic or revealing under-populated areas, plantings that are growing more feeble instead of more fecund, and calling out for re-invigoration. Once the columbine, bleeding hearts, delphiniums and bee balm began winding down in late July, this south-facing border sported more vacancy than arresting occupants.

Much of the blame for the under-employment of this very visible sunny patch falls to the holly bush. Meant to anchor and fill up the back of the border with high gloss, leafy, spreading branches and clusters of red berries, the blue-girl and blue-boy holly couple had not grown above knee high in six years of residency. More distressingly, despite the arranged match-up of a male and female of the species for pollination purposes, the missus had never grown even a single berry.

The location is a hot one, getting sun nearly all day long, although the river birch and Cleveland pear centered in the front yard have matured enough in the last couple years to alleviate the sunbath somewhat with shade. Still, the strong summer light, heat and dryness seemed to be undermining the holly's prospects for vigor and expansiveness, and forcing the conclusion that it was simply uncongenially sited. So more accurately, the gardener who placed the holly there because she wanted green and red bushiness splayed picturesquely against the front house wall, is in fact really the culprit who must bear the blame.

Unwilling to give up on the mistreated holly, and the capacity I am sure still lurks suppressed within its woody loins for putting forth a bird-feast of red berries, a remedial relocation was undertaken forthwith. A new home along the east side of the house, shady and cool in the afternoons, was chosen. A day before the move, a trench was dug with a shovel down two feet or so, in a circle around the shrub and a couple feet out from its trunk, to sever the roots and telegraph to the holly that changes were in the offing, thus giving it a day to get used to the idea and to ameliorate the physical trauma attendant upon being dug up out of the ground. The following day, a large hole was excavated in the new domicile, thoroughly soaked with a couple gallons of water, and lined with bedding bottom and sides of composted cow manure. The holly was then gently unearthed and moved, with as much of its root ball intact as possible. Well watered in and kept watered bi-weekly since then, to all outward appearances it seems to have taken quite blissfully to the transplantation, even after just two months shining green and glowing and, methinks, more flush with health.

The gaping wound in the front border was sutured up, the same day, with a new clethra summersweet ruby spice shrub. This newcomer is an upright, fan-shaped bush, that flowers from mid-July through summer's end with bottle brush candles of flowers in soft pink. The flowers give forth a rich, incredibly sweet fragrance, which one hopes will waft through the front windows and infuse the rooms of the house with one of summer's headiest perfumes. Flowering occurs on new wood with a clethra, so future pruning for shaping can be done at will, spring, summer or fall. Butterflies and hummingbirds find its nectar irresistible, and in a conducive setting, it can grow six to eight feet tall.

A summersweet shrub is an augmentation to the garden I have specifically coveted for quite some time, since being introduced to its munificent flowering talent and almost decadent, intense scent in other gardens and along country lanes and creeksides. The garden can always use more summer into autumn bloomers, as well. This shrub makes an excellent foundation plant, according to the information sheet printed out from the Ohio State University extension service website, after the clethra was installed in its new dwelling and I decided to do a little investigation into the finer points of its personality. For preference, the information sheet went on, clethras incline to moist and shady soils. Uh oh.

And hence begins another campaign by the gardener to encourage and raise up an adoptee in a less than optimal, poorly thought-through situation. Maybe the annually widening, deepening shade of the birch and pear trees will offer adequate, compensatory canopies to offset the gardener's shortcomings in advance planning and research. Maybe – no, certainly – the gardener has dimwittedly consigned herself to hours of auxiliary watering down the next few years of hot summer months to come. Maybe the shade and extra watering, taken together, will be just the ticket to stimulate the clethra to live up to its name, and be a big, bushy helping of summer sweetness in the front border. If not, then yet another re-think and revision to the border will, one future day, need to be done.

The garden is never entirely what the gardener envisions and wishes it to be. Plants don't always like their placement. Pest deterrents are never one-hundred percent fail-proof. Weather isn't always kind, seeds are not always fruitful. With even the best will, intentions and assiduous labor, not all garden components will prove their mettle and grow up well and successful. Reinvention, rejuvenation, relocation and other forms of change, flexibility and adaptation are unavoidable concomitants of the pursuit of a bountiful garden. The gardener's lot in life is to be a constant copy editor of her creations. Especially when, as with yours truly, garden design is directed more by desire and impulsiveness than careful, cross the t's and dot the i's forethought.

September 20, 2009

Garden Schooled

Water, water, water. So has read the garden duty roster over the past few rainless weeks, thereby countermanding one of the core tenets of my gardening philosophy. Water is a cherished and finite resource on this green planet, and a guiding belief in building a garden has been that its plant life shall be capable of becoming, upon maturity, largely self-sufficient, self-propagating. A garden should co-exist harmoniously with nature rather than combating it, harming or depleting it. Yes, well – chance would be a fine thing!

The reality, of course, is that aside from maybe a prairie wildflower meadow or a desert cacti bed, there's no such creature as the autonomously thriving, no-maintenance garden. Whether it be taking measures to fend off omnivorous deer, rabbits, aphids and other critters who view the garden as their personal banquet hall; or schlepping and shoveling mulch, compost and other soil-enriching and protective materials; or broadcasting runnels of fresh water up and down the garden when clear skies rule the heavens for days on end; or any of the score of other cossetting, supportive, laborious chores that perforce must be completed – a healthy, lively garden can be sustained only with the continual attention of and intervention by the gardener.

All the 25 shrubs and 11 trees planted over the years in my garden are native to Michigan, supposed to be well-suited to growing robustly in the particular kind of environment on offer here. They also number among the more feisty, hardy contenders of the plant world, rather than hailing from the squads of the fragile and easily perishable. The lilac, forsythia, American high bush cranberry, red maple and oak, aspen and river birch, and the other species are, indeed, often found growing old and going strong in deserted farmyards and untended forest land throughout the state.

While I celebrate whatever happy circumstance of micro-ecosystem maintains such wilderness dwellers, the fact remains that none of the trees or shrubs in my garden came here by choice or natural selection of just the very spot where they could flourish into a ripe old age. All were brought to their garden location by my hand, all are still in the childhood of their possible lifespans. And although it contravenes my desire and intention, goes against the grain of how I believe one should garden in the best of all possible worlds, these youngsters need watering when it doesn't rain.

I feel responsible to and for the trees and shrubs in the garden. To leave them to their own resources come hail or high water, after purposefully adopting them and bringing them home to new lives in the garden, does not seem right nor fair (not to mention being spendthrift foolish). The trees and shrubs would likely survive without supplemental water, but if they get less than a couple certain inches per week, they will toil and gasp their way through winter, their viability will be weakened, and I'm persuaded they will never thereafter be as strong or as capable of longevity and fullness as they could have been with a modicum of gardening care. Evidence of the dangers of benign neglect is currently on view in most of the (unwatered) curbside trees throughout the village, whose leaves are already largely dry, curling at the edges, and burnt reddish brown, while those in gardens and by watercourses hold their vibrant green over 95 percent of their foliage.

For as many years as I can recall (back to around the mid-1900s), a reliable annual component of Michigan's weather calendar has been the onset of a brilliant course of Indian summer weather on or about Labor Day weekend. It generally persists for at least a couple of solid weeks, and some years holds its ground right through the month of September. It features flax blue skies, hot sunny days that bring the crops in the fields and orchards to harvest-ready perfection, and scant to no rainfall. Occasionally the odd early frost or sudden deluge breaks this annual pattern (as well as the corn, pumpkin and apple farmers' hearts), but that is the exceptional year, not the rule. Indian summer in Michigan can be counted upon probably nine years of out each decade to usher in a wonderful hiatus to the onward march of autumn toward winter, a bonus few weeks of summer weather wherein the gardener gladly swaps weekly hours of watering for the opportunity to bask in sunshine, warmth and a few more swims in the untroubled lakes and rivers.

Weather means a lot, means more to you when you garden. This heightened mindfulness and cognizance of weather is but one of the sundry ways that cultivating a plot of earth connects the gardener closer to the natural, living world. To garden conscientiously makes one a student in the lifelong curriculum of nature. It is a course of study that can never be completed, but always has new lessons and a further wisdom up its sleeve. Gardening is a kind of schooling in which the door never closes, the mind keeps getting the gauntlet thrown down to open wider and take in more knowledge, and no final bell of dismissal ever rings. And thank goodness for that!

September 8, 2009

Best of Autumn

In ancient China, where the earliest known chrysanthemums (called Chu) were cultivated as a flowering herb as far back in the mists of time as 1,500 years before Christ, the plant was believed to hold the power of life. The flower petals and sprouts were eaten as salad greens, the leaves brewed as a tea, and an infusion of the roots championed as a cure for headache. Brought to the western world many centuries later in the mid-1700s by Swedish botanist Karl Linnaeus, he it was who christened the plant with the name chrysanthemum, from the Greek words for “golden flower.” Golden and one of the most glorious forms of life in the autumn garden it assuredly remains in the present day.

If springtime means the portal to the garden is swinging open upon the magical, tantalizing cornucopia of all the wonders to come, in autumn the doorway is slowly narrowing toward its close. The sophisticated, finely tailored, stately-paced chrysanthemum places a well-shod foot into the garden doorway and holds it firmly ajar for another month or two of color, scent and bloom, when nearly all the other plants are discarding their bib and tucker, and turning with drooping eyelids towards the long winter sleep.

Because chrysanthemums keep us in the company of flowers during September and October, they number high on my fairly brief list of favorite features of the autumn season. Their sedate, regal progress through the cycle of growth and bloom mirrors the slowing, more peaceful pace that is a second gift of the season. The garden ceases the mad dash that characterized it in spring, as well as the busy, dawn-to-dusk endeavors of summertime, and grows more quiet, contemplative and serene. Resting on the laurels of its high season accomplishments, it envelops the plants, the birds, the bees, and the gardener in welcome respite from continual toil. In autumn the garden folds us to its ample bosom, encourages repose and reflection among its languid and leafy bowers, whispers and hums lullaby-style in place of its bravura choruses of spring.

The colors autumn dons are another of its treasures. Jubilant pink, exclamation-point white, buttercup yellow and bold-boy blues give way to warm, firelight, harvest tints, the tawny garments of the garden wardrobe. Autumn is the color of honey, of burnished copper along the fringes of the peony and red oak leaves, and lavender-mint shading in the bird's nest baskets of the closing Queen Anne's lace flowerheads. The colors of spring are youthful exuberance which cannot wait to flaunt itself before our gaze, the colors of autumn are mature, mellow, gentle on the eyes, and reveal themselves in a long, decorous meander across many dappled weeks.

Spring bestows heady rejuvenation in the garden, autumn gives us time. It takes our hand and strolls us unhurried along its dense banks of stippled dune and fountain grasses, rust-red cattails and cabernet sumac, and day by day, layer by measured layer, it delicately paints the deciduous forests through months of sumptuous, molten color. The tree color tour in the northern Midwest is never an event of a single day, weekend or week. It isn't one of nature's all-in-an-instant, cataclysmic occurrences, such as a volcano, earthquake, tornado. The changing of the leaves takes place as a gradually developing acquaintance, beginning with just a brushing of the tree's fingertips at the outermost edges of the crown, then moving downward and inward at a snail's pace across the limbs of the tree. Each day the friendship with color advances by wee increments and deepens, until the ultimate culmination is reached in the tree's full-flung love affair with autumn's brushed reds, golds and chestnut browns.

Weather is the last best facet of autumn for the gardener. Once St. Bartholomew's “cold dew” comes falling nightly round about August 24, even in drought years the garden reclaims a green cast to its foliage and is refreshed. Cool nights averaging in the forties typify September and October, perfect for sleep and windows left open to the freshening air. The days awaken misty, with thin shawls of fog on meadows and hillsides, then warm rapidly into hot, sun-filled afternoons exactly right for dawdling down the shady rows of an apple orchard, plucking the ruby-ripe fruit.

Autumn brings regular, dependable, sometimes quite spectacular rain showers and lightning storms, nature's unequalled fireworks that burn across the long, open horizon of the big lake. Few pleasures can match that of a Great Lakes mighty thunderstorm rolling in, its waterfalls drumming against the rooftop and windowpanes whilst the gardener sits snug and warm at the hearthside, knowing the trees, shrubs, and flora are drinking their fill, soaking up the fresh water that is the garden elixir of life. Autumn weather is the gardener's able assistant, recharging life in the garden and refueling its stores for the months ahead. Thus in its unassuming, slow, lustrous way, autumn returns like a comfortable old friend, bearing its special gifts and making itself very welcome.

September 1, 2009

Two Tomatoes

Two tomatoes, four radishes. Therein is the sum total of fresh produce yielded to date by the small vegetable patch put in this summer. The patch was sown in early June with one row each of seeds of sweet green pepper, radishes and cucumbers, and two six-inch high Early Girl tomato plants. Then along came, according to weather records, the coolest, most rainy Michigan summer in about one hundred years.

The tomato plants gained only about six new inches in upward growth all summer, and each managed to generate only one tomato. These fruits are still smaller than a tennis ball and still green, though one began to show tracings of a pink blush this week, so they should ripen enough for consumption by mid-September. Truth be told, the minimal yield and growth probably cannot be blamed solely upon the weather, although that did play its inauspicious part. Three doors down the block, my neighbor's tomato plants stand a much healthier four-feet high, with lots of tomatoes, albeit also small and still stubbornly green. The neighbor fertilized her seedlings, I alas did not, mistakenly trusting in nature and composted manure to feed them sufficiently, and having a reluctance to introduce and use foreign chemicals, even organic ones, in the garden.

The bell peppers sprouted, and tiny sprouts they remain to this day, apparently having decided this was all the maturation they could or would accomplish under the cool, cloudy skies. The cucumbers initially showed great promise, sprouting within a couple days of seeding and developing into a leafy, healthy row of young plants with plenty of yellow flowers. Beyond the surge of those first weeks they simply stopped, and nary even a single cucumber has emerged.

As for the radishes, the plants bounded up, green and thick with leaves, put forth a sweet display of soft pink flower heads, and then bolted straight into seed production while the nascent radishes beneath the soil got no bigger than a fingernail and no wider than a pencil. My guess (and that's all it is since my agriculture know-how is obviously sorely lacking), is that the row should have been thinned rather radically at the sprout stage to give those left more elbow room, as it were, and as advised on the seed packet instructions. I'm cowardly and disinclined when it comes to culling eager young sprouts, and did not do so. The four little radishes salvaged, cleaned up and eaten had a great, pungent and pronounced flavor, but taken together added up to not even a whole mouthful. As far as this first foray into vegetable gardening goes, let's just say it's very fortuitous farmer's markets abound in these northern Michigan parts.

Every year without fail or hesitancy, Mother Nature redesigns the garden laid out for the summer, sometimes in ways to the gardener's liking, sometimes decidedly not. In the present season, besides stunting the vegetables in their infancy, her less favored, wholesale, scatter-shot propagation ran to invasive ground pine throughout the plot, from woodchip-covered unplowed ground to flower beds; the apparent assassination of half a dozen of last year's hardy (ha!) chrysanthemums; spotted knapweed, white campion, common mullein and tough-as-nails weed grasses everywhere; and the self-seeding replication of one variegated sage into a half-dozen new plants, volunteering round and about the flower bed that formerly housed most of the chrysanthemum victims.

On the plus side, to give her due credit, Mother Nature took kindly to the bunches of extraneous lavender flowers pruned off last August and spread about the yard as green mulch, giving the garden this summer a dozen or more new, surprise lavender plants now on the go, and viable enough for transplanting to any bed or container which could use filling out. Likewise, nature brought the garden random new outcroppings of pretty little snow-in-summer and violas; ten or twelve big, confident, flower-bedecked stands of the always beguiling, olden-times evocative Queen Anne's lace; a half-dozen or so plants of the late summer showgirl, black-eyed Susan; and a real plethora of decorative hoary alyssum and ox-eye daisies. A watchful eye does need to be kept on these wildflower volunteers, as given their breeding habits they are but the thin edge of the wedge, and allowed half a chance and a free hand, will gladly migrate and reproduce throughout the whole yard, becoming a bit too much of an otherwise mostly good thing.

The British gardener and writer Hugh Johnson has said, “no two days are the same in one garden.” To forestall disappointment, a similar expectation really ought to inform our approach to each new season in the garden, wherein the standouts and fond companions of last year may or may not return for another fine go-round in subsequent summers. The garden is, after all, just a microcosm of the beautiful, ephemeral, temporal Earth we inhabit, nothing here is permanent nor certain except constant change. Every summer surely brings losses to the garden, false starts and failures. Fortunately for the gardener, it just as surely bestows gains, surprise packages and unexpected success stories. And that's what keeps the gardener pulling on the tattered old straw hat, hitching up the dungarees, and heading out to get down, dirty and atwirl with nature, year after year.

August 20, 2009

Pack Mule Season

It is only the middle of August and it's already begun. Truthfully, it goes on all year except when the garden is under snow, but August through November marks the apogee. Summer's end days up to first snowfall is the season when the gardener's job most closely resembles that of a pack mule.

Cutting back and away the greying lavender blooms, spent Shasta and Ox-Eye daisies, yellowing stalks of phlox, delphinium and daylilly, seeded heads of coreopsis. Loading up the wheelbarrow with all the wilting detritus, and trundling it through several trips across the uneven ground of the neighborhood green space to a wild woodlot where it can be dumped out of sight among the thickets of brush, and maybe start a wildflower patch in a spot that actually is wild. Re-loading the wheelbarrow with sacks of composted manure to feed and replenish the beds where bulbs, peonies, iris and creeping phlox are gathering strength and nutrition for next year. Trucking fresh mounds of cypress mulch to smarten-up bare patches and give protection to the soil cover of perennials. The larger and more productive a garden is, the greater will be the number of gardener's hours of slog and hack and haul, from summer straight through the autumn.

Clearing away and fall bulb planting just do not confer anywhere near the same measure of enjoyment as do the laying in and sowing of spring and early summer. The latter is a labor of love, the former a drudgery carried out with an achy-breaky heart. The payoff that end-of-season garden work will yield (apart from a more spic and span appearance), is in the far distant future of next year. The gardener is embarked upon a rather melancholy reduction of garden companions, a long-drawn series of goodbyes for another whole year to each species as it finishes its turn before the footlights, and segues from glowing energy to a bedraggled demise. The best days in the garden – the childlike optimism of spring and the cornucopia bounty of summer – have waned, the prospect of the garden's annual disappearance into winter hibernation looms upon the horizon.

Each year since planted six summers ago, pruning the lavender plants alongside the front walks has become a more onerous task. Begun as six seedlings, each about the size of my forearm, they have annually grown so luxuriantly as to now form almost a continuous shrubbery on either side of the walk for nearly 20 feet in length, 3 feet in width, 2 feet in height, generating tons of flowers every season. Completely self-sufficient and drought-indifferent since their one-year birthday, each late summer (well before any slightest possibility of a damaging fall of frost), they are pruned back by the recommended one-third of their greenery. This must needs be done to stimulate next year's fresh leafing-out and flowering.

The last couple years, the pruning has been more like half the bushy growth, just to prevent the lavender from totally obliterating the sidewalk and nearby companion plantings. One is not supposed to cut into the leafless “old wood” of the lavender trunks, on pain of possible death of the plant, but the gnarled and thickened wood now stretches up and out about a foot from the ground on these plus-size specimens. Perhaps the season will come when the proportion of woodiness exceeds the foliage and flowers, and they will have to be excised and replaced. I don't believe there is any means of keeping lavender from eventually going this route, as how could one stop a shrubby plant's trunk from increasing in density and size while it is alive and growing?

The rudbeckia Prairie Sun sown in seed in June have attained only about 6 inches in height this cool, rainy year, they may not reach flowering stage before the killing frosts descend. And another source of heartache, the dratted deer passed through night before last and ate all the at-peak flowers and the buds on the hybrid roses and the daylillies. They caught me unawares, after rainfall had washed the plants clean of sprayed deer repellent.

Thank the stars and planets for the Russian sage, ornamental grasses and the chrysanthemums during summer's diminishment. The sage is a 6-foot spray of long, lilac plumage, and bears a honey-spice fragrance more pleasing and less earthy than other sages. From now until winter, the miscanthus grasses, blue oat grass and switchgrass are in their glory, full, covered in feathery fronds, capturing and refracting the watery rainbow shafts of northern Michigan coastal light and shadow. The mums, in tints of ochre, cotton candy, burgundy, eggshell white and burnished gold, are just now beginning to peek open their flower buds. That's why I love chrysanthemums so, the rare flower that holds its promise close to the chest until ready for August-September delivery.

Chrysanthemums are the last chapter in the big, multi-layered, beloved novel of the garden. The revelations and tying up given in this final chapter are savored, but the end page is still approached with the sadness of knowing that soon it will all be over and the cover closed. But for now, even with the bale hauling, the garden is still a very good read.

August 10, 2009

Paean to the Daylilly

This is the summer of the large, completely smitten crush on daylillies. While always appreciated as reliable, hard-working border dwellers, this year they've knocked my socks off and given me new, heightened affection and awe. Perhaps because this year there was no offsite day job keeping me absent during the hours when their blooms spread wide to the sun and look most splendid. Being and working in the garden pretty much daily also meant spent blooms got deadheaded as soon as finished, letting the lillies stay comely and flush with only fresh flowers. And then there is the dizzying number of choice new hybrids.

The tiger lillies initiated my new-found dotage. Halting me in my tracks at the local nursery, three of the striking tall soldiers, with backwards-curving tangerine petals handsomely dotted over in chocolate spots (and why they aren't leopard rather than tiger lillies, I do not know), were promptly scooped up and brought to a new home under my front windows, among a bed of various cousins of the species. At once exotic, warm and impeccably beautiful, their sequentially flowering multiple buds kept up a continuous parade of new flowers from mid-July straight through to last week.

Rewarded daily with the on-going bursts of plush color and perfect posture of the tiger lillies, I was hooked. Subsequent trips to the nursery found me purposefully seeking out the lilly stock, discovering and bringing home several additional new, lovely hybrids – Pandora's Box, Strawberry Candy, Casa Blanca – in mouthwatering tints of cream, buttermilk, plum, peach, raspberry.

The earliest recorded mention of daylillies occurs in the writings of Confucius, some 500 years before Christ. Originally a wild flower of the Orient and Syria, lillies lend themselves so readily to hybridization and replication that there are now tens of thousands of varieties available, with millions of diverse, sumptuous color combinations, from the bold to the gossamer. Some hybrids like Stargazer and Casa Blanca have perfumes so rich and decadent they can waft scent across yards of space. In the first half of the 1900s in the U.S., daylillies were regarded as rather common and called “ditch lillies,” for their sturdy workhorse habit of naturalizing on roadsides, on the banks of creeks and ponds, across fields and untended urban lots.

Daylillies will thrive in a huge spectrum of climates, from south Florida to northern Canada. They are rugged, endlessly versatile, and so adaptable as to fare excellently in sandy soil or clay, inner city or countryside, waterside or in droughty regions. They do best with 4 to 6 hours of sunshine daily, turn their faces toward the direction of the sunlight (something to be mindful of when deciding where to place them in the garden), and welcome a bedding of compost after flowering and in autumn. They don't want fertilizing – which can actually render them more susceptible to disease – are naturally quite pest- and disease-resistant, and don't require supplemental watering once their first growing season is past. Further, they boast the desirable naturalizing habit of spreading at the plant crown, sending up new fans of leaves beside existing ones. The many cultivars offer blooming season that can extend from early summer through fall frosts, as well as everlasting bloom varieties that keep flowering all summer long. Even when not in flower, the hillocks of slender green leaf blades of the mounding-type lilly add attractiveness to the garden.

“The Daylily, a Guide for Gardeners,” is a big, thorough and loving volume by John Peat and Ted Petit, from Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. It can school gardeners in all knowledge needed to grow daylillies, it rapidly recruits the reader into the fan club for this strappy, solid, beauteous performer, and the coffee-table size book astonishes with the scores of photos of many incredible, extant varieties in all their undeniable glamor. Present day incarnations of the daylilly have come a very long way indeed from holding the position of drab scullery maid of the garden. Some of the frilled, narrow-petal hybrids, such as Crocodile Smile, Thin Man, and Wild Child, resemble the most extraordinary, sensational of orchids in their colors and elegant shapes.

Evidently, once could go on expanding a daylilly collection endlessly, certain to run out of space long before exhausting even a fraction of possible superb choices. Now there is a thought to warm the cockles of the heart of a gardener in the midst of a summer of daylilly love.

July 23, 2009

How to Look at the Garden

July is the month when a legal guardian or conservator really ought to accompany me on trips to the garden nursery, ostensibly to restock compost and mulch supplies, and deer repellent (which must be restocked with great frequency in northern Michigan gardens). Would that I could make it in and out of the nursery with purchases only of core gardening supplies. I cannot.

In any season, my instinctual response to entering a garden shop is akin to that of a child in an old-fashioned penny candy store, where peppermint sticks and licorice whips, hot-pepper gumballs, slo-poke all-day suckers, sophisticated candy cigarettes, love-bead candy necklaces, ruby red wax lips with soda pop filling, sour lemon drops and other delectables line the shelves in big glass jars. Substitute for the candies arrays of snapdragons, lillies, yarrow, dianthus pinks, convulvulus, and so forth ad infinitum, and essentially I want one of those, and those, and those – oh, what the dickens, just one of everything! Quicker than a skinny minute, I can divest myself of the entire contents of my wallet on plant purchases that, while infatuating, often fall short of being wise.

July is not the best month to buy potted plants. Many will have become root-bound and exhausted from being stuck in pots for a couple of months, many already will have peaked in blooming. It's too early for the penny-wise benefits of end-of-summer price mark-downs. It is the month, though, when the gardener is perhaps most seriously tempted to splurge, because it's when vacancies in the garden plot become most apparent. The fulsomeness of the spring-flowering bulbs is spent, and the high summer season of flowering has reached whatever apex it is likely to attain this year, thus laying bare to the discerning eye whatever gaps, gaffes and failures there may be in the beds and borders.

However large, mature and resilient the garden output may be, it is those disappointing gaps the gardener somewhat obsessively tends to focus upon. The bee balm may have grown to five feet this year, the lillies and iris may have generously multiplied their numbers, the reliable Russian sage has come back for another vigorous outing. But still, last year's alyssum didn't re-seed itself, the columbines returned only thinly and flagging, the limerock coreopsis and several chrysanthemums seem to have disappeared altogether. In the land of Michigan's punishing winters, on a sandy, wind-whipped, lakeshore plot, with nightly visits from forever foraging deer, every summer dishearteningly reveals fatalities and terminal wounds among the garden's rank and file. The garden shop offers so many tantalizing options for potential new plant recruits, so many dreams of more, bigger, fuller, better.

July is the month to keep firmly in mind that nature laughs when the gardener makes plans. And it's the time to look at the garden in its entirety, seeing and appreciating it whole, not just zeroing in on the sore spots. July is the month to revel in how far the garden has come, to touch, smell and really see the successes, decked in their best splendor, to hear the rustle and bustle of dozens of bees in the lavender spires, the back and forth soft tympany of summer breezes at play in the tall quaking aspen.

An excellent means of elevating the sensual enjoyment of the summer garden, and minimizing its flaws, is to sit right down upon the ground in its midst. This angle of repose puts the gardener right at eye level with the garden's best display of bloom and architecture. Seated on the warm earth, the line of sight goes not downward from above, but outward to the surrounding company. To sit right among the plants, shoulder to shoulder, side by side with the flower heads, branches and leafy torsos of the garden is like drawing up a chair at a banqueting table with a large, colorful, engrossing congerie of friends in every direction you look. Remember the feeling of complete, bone-deep contentment you got as a child, when laying in a grassy meadow on a sunny summer day? It's like that. The senses will be filled, the blank spaces barely noticed.

The gardener will still, doubtless, commit the sins of lust and covetousness at the nursery. Plant and garden love is an incurable affliction, once it works its wiles upon the heart. But looking at the garden from a seat at its summer-laden board could help instill a little more restraint and wise choosing into the inevitable purchasing process. One can but hope.

July 13, 2009

Color Scheme

One spring day walking home and, as I approached the house, contemplating and critiquing the front garden as I am wont to do whenever it is within view, I was startled to see that the whole front garden was awash in waves of blue and violet flowers. This startled me because I'd not planned nor specifically plotted a blue-toned garden.

Cool shadings of color are not what come to mind in my daydreams of the idyllic cottage garden. The dream garden is painted in delicate, gauzy cream, butter yellow, pastel peach and apricot, Necco wafer colors, nursery colors, with here and there judicious splashes of apple red. If a blue were envisioned in the dream scheme, it would be an ethereal, barely-there powder blue. Any more declarative blue I'd have judged, in theory, not to my taste, not my gardening style.

Yet there the front garden stood, adorned from left to right in frank, summer-sky blue, teal, navy blue, lavender, lilac, plum and deep purple. A blue-toned garden, planted by yours truly.

This came about because the garden plantings were chosen for their shape, structure, flowering time, scent, deer-proofness, popularity with bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, or just plain old nostalgic associations. Nothing was really chosen on the basis of its location on the color wheel, except the Russian sage in the back garden and the roses. The plantings were not all acquired and incorporated at once, either, in a grand and well-thought out design, but rather were accumulated little by little over the years, as money and inclination dictated. Certainly I knew the color of the flowers as each plant was brought home to be enrolled in the garden. Taken individually, the thinking went something like, hmm, a cerulean lupine, not my first choice of color, but how very good-looking!

And so it went. Lupines, violas, Canadian violets, alliums, mountain bluet centauria, lilacs, denim blue penstemon, lavender-colored chives, and velvet-robe purple Siberian iris. Stopping on the front walk, taking in the whole serendipitous blue picture painted across the late May garden, I really, really liked it. Part of the affection was simply gratitude to these perennials for continuing to come back to the garden each summer, surviving the tough, long haul through the northwestern Michigan winters, as some of the fairer-complexioned plants (columbines, gaura bee blossom, bleeding hearts, primroses) couldn't manage to do.

There are other colors I thought I'd forbid from my garden. Hot orange, neon pink, sunlight-sharp yellows once daffodil season had passed. Yet orange glows like a fireball from the daylillies at the foot of the white pines, and beneath the front windows reside mandarin-orange tiger lillies I'm currently madly in love with. The shout-pink of the creeping phlox cheerleads the garden into its first slap-happy springtime outburst, and shortly thereafter, a blood-orange and ripe-lemon petalled pyrethrum painted daisy unfurls razzle-dazzle smiles.

The moral of the story of color in the garden is that all colors work together in lovely harmony, for me. In practice, as opposed to best-laid plans, every color brings added visual value to the garden. Tints of every stripe gayly rub shoulders with one another, extending and expanding the interest, the attractiveness, the eye-candy richness of the garden. It seems there's no such thing as colors that clash in nature's paintbox. On the contrary, when it's a question of color in the garden, the more and various, the merrier and more convivial the garden fellowship becomes.

July 3, 2009

Splendid Shrubs for Michigan Gardens

When heavy-muscled storm clouds envelop the blue skies, and rain falls in foggy mists and sweeping showers for several days running, it is a chance to pause in the continual summer chores of the garden and assess how it is getting on. Among the various categories of plants that make up the perennial occupants of the garden, the shrubs flanking its boundaries and softening the front aspect of the house annually bring to the garden more density, height, color and scent. There are seven types of shrub, of the 15 or so I've planted in my garden, that can be wholeheartedly recommended for northwestern Michigan gardens.

Common farmyard lilacs in lavender, pink or white are a low-maintenance, fast-growing choice that never fail to please with their May offerings of wonderfully scented flowers. Lilac hedgerows naturalized into the wild grow all over the fields, country cemeteries, roadsides and former farm homesteads in this region, testifying to their adaptability and suitability for the hefty seasons and weathers. When in bloom, their scent pervades the air for miles through countryside and village. Picking the fragrant flowers for bouquets actually encourages lilacs to develop more flower buds for the following year. In the private garden, the flowers and the healthy forest-green foliage that stays intact late into fall give much benefit with very little care.

Forsythia likewise is exceptionally hardy, shoots rapidly upward once rooted in a sunny spot, and literally covers itself from stem to stern in merry, early springtime, sunshine-yellow flowers. The flower fragrance is clean, light and fresh, smells like springtime itself. The branches can be cut while in bud and forced into bloom indoors, long before anything else in the garden is display-ready. With regularly freshened water, the flowering branches will hold up well for a couple of weeks. If forsythia is pruned for shape and to remove dead or crossing branches after the flowers finish in spring, it redoubles its growth and flowering the next year.

Three types of shrub in the garden share the crown for being absolutely no-fuss, no-muss standout performers. Unlike hollies, bayberry, butterfly bush and elderberry which all have late-arriving, short-lived, summertime-only leafage, these three leaf out in early spring and stay foliage-full and beautiful throughout autumn. Unlike the slowpoke shasta and onondaga viburnums, they grow very rapidly, gaining a couple of feet in height and width each year. They all have lovely flowers and gentle scents. The three queens are the diablo ninebark, with rich burgundy leaves and clusters of seashell-pink flowers; the American high bush cranberry, with beautiful green foliage tipped by dark red that turns to flame-red in the fall, and cherry-red berries much loved by the birds; and the snowmound spirea, with some of the thickest, dark green foliage found anywhere in the shrub world, and cascades of sweet-smelling, late May, snowdrift-white blossoms.

The Chicago lustre viburnum, contrary to its dwarfish, hip-spreading cousins in the viburnum family, is an upright, handsome fellow who branches tall and fan-like. It always appears extremely well-groomed, with or without pruning, due to an unusually orderly, straight up, no-nonsense growth pattern, symmetrically veined and clamshell-shaped, precisely defined leaves, and very tight, neat little bundles of flowers in antique ivory. Not showy or flamboyant, it is straightforward, reliable and sturdy. It finishes off its annual strapping-fellow season with clusters of indigo berries.

Lastly let us sing the praises of the flowering quince. The tapered oval, grass-green leaves grow thick and glossy from first of May – no barren, spindly grey branches here to despoil the verdant spring landscape. The quince grows upward and outward in profligate ardor, very rapidly offering the deep thicket of branches that birds adore for nesting. It's got that unbeatable, hardy shrub resilience which, after the first year, releases the gardener from care and responsibility and does just superbly, thank you, all on its own stock. Best of all, it puts on a perfectly dazzling, citrus-honey scented princess gown of apricot flowers (or cream or cotton-candy pink, depending on variety), in late May, from head to toe. The wealth of bright and frilly flowers are a show-stopper, a fireworks explosion of color joyfully ushering in a new summer.

The landscaper Vanessa Kuemmerle, of Emeryville California, said, “A garden is like having an art museum outdoors, with constantly rotating exhibits and a living palette.” Shrubs raise the backbone and square the shoulders of the garden paintings. They contribute a feast of color to the scene, and strength and longevity in a setting where much else is all too transient and fly-by-night.

June 19, 2009

Just Sit a Spell

One of the more challenging things to do in the garden this summer is to repose at complete ease in the Adirondack chair or on one of the rustic benches. The gardener finds this challenging because whenever spending time in the garden or merely passing through, weeding takes place. Whatever purpose brought the gardener outdoors, be it watering new seedlings, having a whack at the grass with the push-reel lawnmower, heading to the garage to wheel out the bicycle for a ride, or intending to take a seat in the sunshine and read a book for a spell, bet the farm on it, weeding will occur.

Whatever it is I meant to be doing on exiting the house, and whether sitting still or walking around the yard, my gaze will keep returning to ground level, scouring the borders and woodchip pathways for errant weeds, mostly blades of invasive grasses and the hairy stalks of chicory. My feet will keep tracking these intruders, my body will keep stooping over, my hands reaching to yank out the ungainly offenders. Even with a lovely new novel on my lap approaching its crescendo, or a cup of Darjeeling tea in hand to toast a new morning, my eyes keep getting drawn into examining the ground and the next thing you know, I'm frenetically zigzagging around the garden without plan or pattern, filling my hands with pulled weeds.

In part this is true because the garden is a bit of a ragamuffin. Try as I might to keep it designed, shipshape and neat as a pin, it really doesn't fit this description in any of its quarters. It's blowsy, boisterous, likes to take frequent walks toward the wild side, and very much has an undisciplined and tatterdemalion mind of its own. However many weeds are disgorged and dispatched, there are always more shooting up, sending out branchlettes and explorers in every direction, pitching tents in yet more sections. The weeds grow like, well, weeds, with a wildfire speed and joie de vivre that far surpasses any such characteristics in the cultivated plants. And if one species of weed or wild grass gets successfully eradicated, before you can say Rumpelstiltskin, two or three newcomers of another variety will quickly arrive to replace the banished one.

So far this summer, the weeds (or wildflowers, if you will) identified in this one little garden, in addition to the ubiquitous common lawngrass and little bluestem, include dog fennel, lesser stichwort, milkweed, various types of snakeroot, chicory, hoary alyssum, common mullein, dandelion, yellow wood sorrel and bladder campion. Something the Sleeping Bear Dunes park botanist identified as ground pine, a creeping evergreen, has fanned out its vine-like growth of green needles across about a third of the woodchip-covered back yard. Queen Anne's lace also claims space here and there, maybe having heard on the wild-plant grapevine about the benefits of residing on this little lot, and there are lots of others I don't recognize nor know the names of.

The British garden writer Lewis Gannit aptly summed up a gardener's malady of compulsive weeding. “Gardening is a kind of disease,” he wrote. “When visiting friends for a garden party, you interrupt the serious cocktail drinking because of an irresistible impulse to get up and pull a weed.” Exactly what happens to me in my garden (except, more's the pity, for the serious cocktail drinking), and frankly, I'm a little fed up with myself about it. The realization came upon me, while lunging after yet one more cantankerous rhizome the other day, that not nearly enough time was being spent simply enjoying the garden, or truly relaxing in its presence, or appreciating all its fine and gorgeous cultivated specimens, which do vastly outnumber the scraggly uninvited guests.

Unless one is the happy possessor of a crew of assiduous groundskeepers and a formal, exactingly managed landscape, the fact is that a garden is never going to be perfectly groomed. If it is a healthy garden, it's always going to be kicking over the traces and dashing about in unbridled abandon. It's going to encompass surprise visitors who may be a bit riotous, even slovenly in style, and lacking in self-effacement or deference. A garden with any vitality doesn't know how to demur, and is messy, independent and irrepressible.
And part of the gardener's duty, I've decided, is to stop fretting over the garden's untamed heart, and take pleasure in it. Resolutely raise the eyes from weed level to the blooming flowers and lush, many-colored foliage, to all the keen and gleeful effervescence that is the benefaction of the garden in June. A contented gardener must accept imperfection, and let the correction and addressing of it be kept in the proper time and place, chore time, where it can't encroach upon the hours for simply savoring the bountiful and too fleeting garden goods. Is not that the desideratum of all garden toil?

June 12, 2009

As Summer Begins

It's now the middle of June (even if the weather for the last few weeks has perversely behaved like mid-to-late October), the garden is in rampant, early summer flush of growth, so let's take a step back and review. After six years, which of the many flowering plants and herbs sown upon this sandy northwestern Michigan garden lot can be deemed successes? Nurseryman Dan Heims of Portland, Oregon writes, "Anywhere there is light, moisture and a bit of soil, there is life." Indubitably, those conditions pertain in these country parts with moist Lake Michigan air currents and silky, sunny summers, but which of the plants chosen and fostered don't merely live, but rock and roll?

The rollcall of standouts begins with the lavenders and thymes, who take to the sand-based soil like ducklings to water, and have needed only hard trim-back each late autumn to grow denser and spread further each summer, with an extravagant harvest of flowers every year. Even in the most parched summers, these herbs never received watering to supplement the rainfall, a hands-off approach that has suited them to a tee, as well as making the gardener's chores much easier.

Hollyhocks and peonies likewise needed only to be given houseroom in a hole, tucked roundabout with chocolate-cake texture composted cow manure, and watered weekly their first summer to infuse their roots with get-up-and-go. Now they bound up and shake out very full tail feathers each spring, each one adding their particular green hedging to the borders. The only quibble here is with the dark red peonies, as unlike their pastel sisters, they don't develop very many flower buds, some years only one flower or even none per plant. This is the second summer the dark reds have grown thick, healthy leafage, but minimal flowers, I've no idea why. Perhaps the "eyes," those reddish shoots at the bottom of the plant, didn't get enough light under their winter mulch, this fall we'll try leaving them less covered-up.

The dark plum and the butter-and-cream Siberian iris are doing excellent, filled with tightly furled flower heads. If the sun actually consents to shine for a few days in a row, the iris will be blooming by month's end. Likewise for the vigorous beds of mixed poppies, lots of round, full buds on those, as well. The poppies took a couple years of leading by the hand to get themselves in growing and blooming gear. All were started from seed, some package and some from friends' gardens. The first year planted (whether sown in spring or fall), they barely put up stalks and leaves, with a sparse or no show of flowers. They've come on nicely and multiplied their numbers each year, however, this summer bearing more flower buds than any prior year.

Another entry that took a couple years to hit their stride are the lupines. Also brought along from seed, the two lupine patches are now in their third year and absolutely brimming with the tall, columnar, purple and peach flowers, with their ferny leaf bracts as wide around them as a debutante's tulle ruffles. The lupine flower is handsome, distinctive and somehow mysterious in its shapely form, and compensates very well for the absence of its somewhat similarly shaped cousin, the foxglove, which has repeatedly, politely declined to flower or perennially or biennially return to the garden, despite having been given numerous handmade invitations to do so.

The echinops globe thistle have filled and spill over a section of a flower bed where globe amaranth gomphrena were tried, struggled, fared poorly, and were ultimately abandoned as a bad cause. Another plant that takes virtually no watering to raise their proud and dapper lakewater-blue heads, the globe thistles will bring welcome color to the garden in July and August, when many of the other flowers are flagging or spent. They are kept company in their bed by penstemons, enthusiastically fanning out in only their second year in residence, and a mountain bluet centauria, which has flowered like there's no tomorrow all through this month and is still going gangbusters, setting up new flower buds.

Chives, snow-in-summer, snow-on-the-mountain, delphinium, the half-dozen rose bushes, lilly-of-the-valley and day lillies, phlox, muscari, crocosmia lucifer, daisies, rock cress, violets, stonecrop sedum, baby's breath, verbascum, and pretty, frilly little veronica waterperry, one and all have found their way back to the garden again this year, in greater size and strength. The dianthus pinks can also be said to be here to stay. They annually push the edges of their carpeting green foliage farther in diameter, but this year, for the first time, they haven't flowered very profusely, offering only a smattering of blooms. Lashings of composted cow manure, the richest natural fertilizer available, are definitely in store for them, come the autumn. Some of the creeping phlox swatches, especially the paler pink-shaded and variegated, also managed only a weak flower display this May, perhaps due to the colder-than-normal temperatures and rather niggling number of sunny days, or maybe because fallen birch and pear leaves weren't sufficiently cleaned off of them last fall. This autumn, fingers crossed and hand on heart, they will get a thorough raking over and fertilizing. Please may this return them next spring to their normal mad fandango of brilliant flower display.

When all's said and done, and with the tiny sprouts emerging of seeded rudbeckia, sunflowers, cosmos, bachelor buttons, chamomile and asters, the garden is full of vim and vigor, and looks pretty darn marvelous to me. In every direction there is color and enterprise, zeal and coquetry, energy and finery for the eyes to feast upon. The garden in June, after the long pewter and slate of a relentless Michigan winter, opens a crayola box of hue and possibility, life indeed, life aplenty.

June 2, 2009

Throwback Mowing

Propelling an old-fashioned rotary hand mower through the lengths of volunteer little bluestem and rye grass, chicory and milkweed, stinking chamomile and sundry other unidentified weeds that have set up housekeeping in the garden is pretty tough work. It takes a deal more elbow grease and leg power than steering and trotting behind an infernal combustion-powered mower. It necessitates more hand-clipping of the opportunistic weeds that cluster self-protectively close to the trunks of shrubs and trees. And the end result is a longer, looser, less tidy mop than the symmetrically close-sheared result one gets from the much faster rotating, gasoline-muscled blades of a power mower.

With such a shaggy outcome, and the extra sweat equity invested, is it really worth it, or acceptable to the gardener's neatness fetish, to switch permanently from a carbon-fueled powerhouse scything machine to a pre-industrial hand tool? Granted, it was lovely and satisfying at the hardware store to march righteously past all the big, shiny, lawn-mowing machines with their price tags starting in the hundreds of dollars, and ferret out one of the two push reel mowers, from the American Lawn Mower Company of Shelbyville, Indiana, way at the back of the store, out of the marketer's premier sight-line positioning. You couldn't beat with a stick the reasonable and affordable bargain price of $85. The assembled push mower, deftly put together by a teenage clerk who had the good manners not to sneer even a little bit at the archaic purchase, fit as easily as a pea in a pod on the passenger-side footwell in the front of a Honda Civic, whereas a pickup truck or transport van would have been needed to ferry homeward any of the motorized machines.

Likewise, the push mower slots unobtrusively into a very small corner of the garage, taking up no more storage space than would a large person. When the time comes to put it to use, it is simply rolled out of the garage, onto the grassy patches, and you're in business. No fiddling with spark plugs, checking and replenishing messy, smelly oil and gas, no priming, no yanking over and over again on the starter cord, and struggling to untangle the wretched thing when it twists itself into knots. No tearing of the hair over the inexplicable recalcitrance and frequent outright refusal of power mowers to actually fire into life and work. The deafening roar of the motor is blessedly gone, replaced by a gentle swish, swish, swish of the reel that compliments, rather than obliterates, the pleasant summer sounds of birdsong and wind in the treetops.

Rather than inhaling the choking, dehydrating, carcinogenic fumes of gasoline for a couple of hours, the gardener wielding the push mower smells fresh cut grass and the soothing, ambrosial scents of flower blossoms and herbs brushed in passing. Running a gas mower for one hour puts out the same smog-forming particulates as running 40 new cars for one hour. A person on a riding power mower cutting grass for four hours puts the same toxic cloud of carbon dioxide into the air as produced by an automobile driving across the North American continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Using just one push mower versus a gas mower reduces the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 80 pounds per annum. Turning the job of mowing over to a manual endeavor is demonstrably a good afternoon's work for the air that we, the plants and the animals are trying to breathe.

Unquestionably the grassy segments of the yard do not have that clean, lean, high-and-tight Marine brushcut when the job is finished. The grass and weeds, not as closely shorn as with the mighty gas mower, pop back up to thumb their rude noses at the gardener a little more quickly, which probably means they will need to be cut more often this summer than the once-a-month they got when clearcut by a power mower. That means a few additional afternoons for the gardener of a real physical workout, putting leg and arm propulsion into the little push mower, up and down the yard, hearing and smelling the good, warm essence of a summer's day, building muscle strength and filling the lungs with regenerating fresh air. Being wafted in memory back to childhood days of dawdling and daydreaming beneath a cornflower blue sky and breathing in the earthy green fragrance as my father, in khaki workpants and Detroit Tiger ballcap, trimmed the lawn to the blithe susurration of the simple, brilliantly designed push reel lawnmower.

Maybe a smidgin or two of untidiness isn't a bad thing, in the big picture. Maybe it is good to relax, lighten up on the control and precision and everything-in-its-place style. Follow in Nature's footsteps as she drops her greenery-yallery garments here, there and everywhere in a slapdash, overflowing, peaceable and ebullient profusion of sweet summertime.

May 25, 2009

Out, Out Damn Caterpillar!

Yuck and horrors, they are everywhere! Drive the country roads, highways, village streets of northwestern Michigan this spring, and nary a stretch can be found without trees, in the hundreds of thousands, hosting the triangular, silky white pouch nests of the eastern tent caterpillar. Hosting by brute force that is, not by choice, as tent caterpillars are an invading, parasitic horde who feed off and destroy the trees in which they set up camp. Across farm fields, meadows and hillsides, swathes of denuded, dying trees blot the landscape, the swollen caterpillar pouches the only remaining signs of life on their limbs.

Tent caterpillars hatch from egg sacs laid by adult moths the previous year, usually wriggling to life around early March. A greyish-black, hairy creature with a single yellow stripe along its back from head to tail, after sloughing off the egg, the tent caterpillar weaves its homesite pouch in the forks of tree branches or trunks. They leave the pouch to feed, usually in the early morning or early evening hours, and what they feed upon are the leaves of the host tree. As the caterpillars consume leaves, they enlarge their pouch and build subsidiary ones, with the pouches sometimes reaching a length of over a foot. Voracious little eaters, they can completely defoliate a moderate-size ornamental fruit tree in a couple of weeks.

Approach a tent caterpillar nest and through the nest membrane you can clearly see hundreds of the critters slithering about, probably doing a little worm-dance celebration of their good culinary fortune. Their favorite food is the leaves of wild cherry trees, with crab apples and eating apples coming a close second, very bad news for counties like this one, where cherry and apple trees abound. Failing the choice of these species, they will also colonize and chew the life from peach trees, sweet cherry, plum, pear, hawthorn, maple and birch.

In four-to-six weeks after spinning their nest, the caterpillars reach full-grown size of three or four inches, and wander off from the pouches to spin the one-inch long, white or yellowish cocoon they will inhabit while transforming themselves into an adult moth. The pale cinnamon brown moth, with two cream-colored horizontal stripes across each wing, emerges from the cocoon after about three weeks. The adult moths then mate, lay new eggs that will generate more tent caterpillars the following springtime, and expire. The egg sacs are shiny, dark greyish white, about one inch long, and have a hard casing like fossilized foam. They will be laid on the the twigs or trunks of trees, the walls of buildings, porch railings, and adhere to the laying site throughout the winter. One egg sac can yield up to 400 caterpillars.

Tent caterpillars pose no threat to humans, nor to any plants other than the trees in which they nest. They do not bite, sting, nor carry disease, they're not poisonous, they don't attack or eat any other plant besides trees. Other than imperiling the health and well-being of trees, they are largely just a blight upon the landscape and a nuisance pest. When the full-grown caterpillars set off from the home pouch to establish their own cocoons, they litter plants, walkways, driveways, even nearby vehicles, leaving slimy trails behind them and exploding, if stepped upon, into a gooey, slippery mess. They seem to bestow not one whit of good upon the environment to compensate for the havoc and ugliness they wreak, as birds or other possible food-chain predators don't fancy them much nor make enough of a meal of them to control their spread.

The natural resources office at the Sleeping Bear Dunes Park doesn't regard tent caterpillars as an actionable menace, despite the fact that many thousands of trees in the park are being assaulted by them this spring. A park spokesman noted that the caterpillar populations fluctuate from year to year in size of outbreaks, one year being widespread and then declining in the next year. Healthy trees, he posited, even when scalped of all their spring leaf growth, will often recover and grow new leaves by mid-summer. Holding this view, the national park will stand back and let nature take its course with the tent caterpillars, not making any effort to halt their rabid ways or come to the aid of the woeful trees.

To be fair, the park service, and county forestry departments, don't really have any good options for fighting tent caterpillar infestation across acres of woodlands. Even if they had the money to spray miles upon miles of infected land with pesticide, which they do not, even if they were willing to contaminate many beneficial insects, butterfly caterpillars, and plant life in shotgun-style poison spraying, which they absolutely should not, pesticides aren't very efficacious at destroying tent caterpillars. There are some wasp species and bacteria which can eliminate tent caterpillars, but these require individual, painstaking, tree-by-tree application, a process which is unfeasible for a pest that colonizes hundreds of miles of trees.

The private gardener, fortunately, does have an effective, easy recourse for eradicating these little tree-killers. Personally, I don't buy the year-by-year fluctuation, nature-can-deal-with-it, hands-off approach. A tent caterpillar pouch debuted last spring in my crab apple tree, and despite being promptly and thoroughly (I think) dispatched by my hand to oblivion, another pouch popped up in the fork of the same tree this spring. What's more, pouches were also woven this year in the young crabapple and cherry trees in several of my neighbors' yards.

Maybe a strong, adult, healthy tree that enjoys lots of water each year and mild wintertimes can, indeed, pull off a comeback after its first crop of young leaves are completely devoured. Or maybe not. There are stands of trees all over the county that have seen several continuous years of cannibalistic beseigement by tent caterpillars, and which are now clearly expiring. The winters are frost-heavy and tough around here, the summers can bring sustained periods of drought, and setting out new leaves in summer to replace stripped branches takes an enormous amount of energy, further depleting a tree's strength and resources for onward, healthy progress.

My crabapple and those of my neighbors were given a helping human hand. Purging a tree or two or three of tent caterpillars in private gardens is a quick and simple task. All one needs do is get rid of the nests and the dratted caterpillars in one fell, fatal swoop. Striking around noontime, in the heat of the day, will find them least active and lollygagging inside the pouch. Put on a pair of gloves to protect the hands from the necessity of touching the critters, or getting unappealingly slimed. Take a bucket and put an inch or so of rubbing alcohol in the bottom. Using the hands, the pouches can easily be pulled off the tree bark, into the bucket. Scrape any loose or escaping caterpillars into the bucket, and rub all remnants of the pouch silk off the tree bark. Check the ground beneath the tree and the branches around the pouch for other escapees, and deposit them in the bucket. As soon as the caterpillars hit the alcohol, they perish.
If there are more caterpillars than the alcohol can submerge, or it any wrigglers persist after dousing, take a kettle of boiling water, pour it atop the survivors, and it will polish them off for good and all. If your homicidal impulse remains unsatisfied, crush the sodden mass in the bucket with the back of a trowel until nothing remains but pureed caterpillar soup. This can be dumped down a garbage disposal if you really want to see the back end of it forever, or, once the caterpillars are well and truly dead, simply thrown into a ditch.

Watch for the hard-foam egg sacs on branches and elsewhere in your garden through summer, and they are easy to break off, crush and burn to prevent a return engagement next year. In such manner, the gardener can assist nature to deal with one of her more deviant, destructive creatures, and preserve and protect the precious fruit trees that bring a froth of lacy blossoms each spring, and food for birds, people and animals all summer and fall. Some actors on nature's stage just cannot be tolerated for repeats of their dismal performances, nor must the good gardener sit passively by, repelled and appalled, while their greedy premiere broadside plays out.

May 19, 2009

Seed Time

With the skeleton of the garden in trees, shrubs and perennials now, in its sixth year, well established and growing great guns, attention this spring is being paid to filling in some empty spots, introducing some new inhabitants, lengthening and broadening the flowering that occurs, and venturing into a little vegetable gardening. Most of the new planting took place this week, now that night frost has (one hopes and trusts) moved off the horizon, with a couple largely innocuous parting shots just as the cherry orchards budded out. That Jack Frost is quite the mischief-maker, isn't he, the spoiler at the party, the incorrigible delinquent of Mother Nature's household.

Other than a double white peony and a pinky-winky ever-blooming hydrangea, which will be planted as soon as they arrive at the cautious, previously frostbitten local nursery, all the planting done thus far and planned for this spring is in seed. Seeds are so inexpensive, compared to starter plants, and they seem to produce stronger, more viable plants, more able to hang on through the trials of their first summer, thrive and settle in for multi-year lifespans than is the case with scrawny or over-fertilized (i.e. hyperactive), often root-bound, sometimes sickly hothouse seedling plants. Some seed-grown perennials may not flower the first year, but that's fine if it means they are building strong root stock to keep them active in the garden for many repeat appearances.

Seed packet and live-plant displays always catch my eye and beckon me to them, whether in the village grocery, hardware store, nursery, or wherever, I'm an addict for them with little-to-no resistance. No doubt, once the nurseries are filled to overflowing with live plants, I'll succumb to some of their siren calls and splash out with more yarrows and bee balms, maybe a few additional bleeding hearts, columbines or irresistible delphiniums. For now, my gardening jones has been fed by the twenty or so seed packets emptied into the soil.

An unpleasant reminder of the national economic pallor and downsizing was revealed in discovering that commercial, standard brand seed packets this year held about half the amount of seed offered in past years. This proved to be the sad case for some half-dozen different big-name seed brands selected. Evidently penny-pinching and cost-cutting is reaching its hatchet even into the gardening industry. The one exception to this cutback phenomenon was from Botanical Interests (, whose packets yielded not the mere dozen or so seeds of the big companies, but palms full of probably three-to-four dozen seeds per pack. Botanical Interest packets also promise that all seeds are untreated with synthetic chemicals and contain no genetically modified seed, so they take first place in the competition for my garden dollars.

What went into the ground recently were rudbeckia Irish Eyes, a member of the black-eyed Susan family with a soft celery green, rather than chocolate center, stocks, mixed asters, ganzia daybreak (a compact flower similar to a strawflower), lupines, delphinium Pacific giants, bachelor buttons and double poppies. All except the poppies, chosen because there's no such thing as too many of these pretty comers, swear they will flower mid-summer into the fall. With lots of spring-flowering bulbs and plants already in place, summer and fall bloomers are what the garden wants more of.

Chives and radish also got sown, the chives, in all honesty, for their handsome purple flowerheads, the radishes as the start of the vegetable plot. To be added to this sunny spot in the backyard once the nights stay around and above the 60-degree mark will be bell peppers, cucumbers and sweet basil. The only vegetable (actually a fruit) attempted before was tomato plants, which shriveled in the withering summer sun and could not get their thirst quenched sufficiently, despite daily watering. This year's effort is to see if a few of the vegetables that are routinely purchased on every week's trip to the grocer can be grown at home. Vegetables are still (fingers crossed) relatively inexpensive to buy and readily available at farmer's markets, so there hasn't been much reason to self-grow them, but this year the idea of being able to pick fresh, wax and pesticide-free peppers, radishes and cucumbers from the backyard just really appealed.

All the seeds were planted in toppings of composted cow manure, the absolute best growing medium for any plant life on this green earth. Now come the tinkering, waiting weeks, with daily sprinklings for all from the watering can, except when given a day off by rainfall. Oh happy day, some of the rudbeckias actually have sprouted already, after only about seven days in the ground. It seems from past experience that maybe about one-third or at very best one-half of seeds sown will deign to put up green sprouts. If a third of the seeds put in this spring lift their fingers into the light of day, all will be well and smiles shall break forth and the gardener will raise a glass of Cabernet in toast from her repose on the Adirondack chair, grateful for the sprouting proof that perhaps she really does know a thing or two about raising a hale and bonny garden.

May 11, 2009

May, the Favored One

As a gardener, it is probably the better part of wisdom not to play favorites among the plants, lest it occasion hurt feelings, jealousy, sulking, and a case of the vapours in the less favored. Plants certainly sense and respond to vibrations in the air, energy and electrical impulses, and emotional currents around them. As with children, harboring or exhibiting anger and frustration with lackadaisical performance is not the best technique for inspiring them to step up their game and realize their full potential.

If the prolific lilac bushes are being treated to a nice helping of compost fertilization, therefore, the wise gardener will bestow a like beneficent treatment upon the layabout forsythia, or the hydrangea that's dragging its heels at flowering, or the untidy, perpetually disorganized rosebushes. Treated equitably, encouraged and praised rather than frowned upon, scolded or ignored, even the recalcitrant garden minions are more likely to achieve or exceed the expectations and fond hopes of their keepers.

The gardener's private preferences could never enjoy sufficient potency, however, to determine or alter the course of the seasons. Superstitions notwithstanding, the gardener's feelings do not change by one iota the earth's rotation through the weather courses of a year, so no harm befalls declaring and reveling in the fact that spring is the gardener's number one season of choice, or even going so far as to name May as the personal best month of the 12 contestants. The mornings dawn to the return of the purl and trilling whistles of birdsong, rather than rain and hail assaulting the windowpanes. The air currents are cool and invigorating, warming to comfortable shirt-sleeves' ranges in the afternoons, the furiously aggressive March and April winds subside into breezes that caress rather than pummel the skin. Glorious, delicate, newly-minted green comes back to town and country from its prolonged winter absence, sidling tantalizingly across fields and hillsides, up the branches of willow and maple, blushing its shy way to the tips of reeds, shrubs and sedges.

In the last ten days, all the spring flowers in the garden have progressed from the idea of climbing out of bed to eyes-wide-open bloom. Now there is a nature's jewel box of color spilled across the garden, from front to back. In bloom are sugar-almond colored hyacinths, daffodils and jonquils in shades of lemon, apricot, peach, ivory and orange, denim-blue grape hyacinths, primroses, forsythia, windflowers, snowdrops and tulips. The river birch is covered in dangling catkins and tiny lime leaf buds. The Cleveland pear is bedecked in buds as well, as are the Fuji apple tree, the sweet cherry sapling, the lilacs and rosebushes.

The garden will remain awash in the spring-flowering bulbs for the first half of the month, but May has even more plenty in store, currently powdering its nose in the wings for an entrance from mid-month on. The creeping phlox in magenta, dusty pink and periwinkle, the wizened little faces of violas, the lilacs with their delectable rich nectar scent, and the penultimate flower that will grace the final days of May, the luxuriant peonies. No flower that grows anywhere in the world smells more heavenly to me, none possesses looks of more perfect beauty.

Springtime, the merry, burgeoning month of May, and the fresh, delicious flowers it comes bearing win the affections easily after the long scent and color drought of winter. Because they are first on the scene after the months of drear and grey, May flowers have an inside track for the position of favorite. Then too, the spring bulbs require nothing of the gardener once they've been snuggled into the earth, holding everything within their dark core that is necessary to bursting into bloom, given a couple daily hours of incremental sunlight and some April showers. No pinching back, fertilizing, pruning, weeding, de-bugging, not one chore must be undertaken for the flowers of May to launch their splendor. For this month only, in the seasons of the garden, the gardener can mostly relax, gaze in awe at Nature's opening show of many-colored handiwork, and savor the pleasure, the gifts of the garden.

“Earth is so kind,” the English writer Douglas Jerrold says, “just tickle her with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest.” While that may not be a totally accurate description of earth's horticultural behavior in the perishing hot, dry spells of summer, or the alternating frosts and Indian-summer heat of autumn, it portrays the insouciance and largesse of the May garden to a nicety.

May 5, 2009

War of the Weeds

“The misunderstanding I have with Nature over my perennial border,” writes gardener Sara Stein, “I think it is a flower garden. She thinks it is a meadow lacking grass, and tries to correct the error.” A similar misunderstanding and attempted “correction” plays out in my garden every year. Since the garden is meant to cover the whole of the lot, however, the annual war of the grass weeds is fought across the entire yard, not just in borders.

The primary foe in the ongoing skirmishes is a wild prairie grass, called little bluestem or wiregrass (pictured here), seconded in the field of contention by common lawn grass. The surface of the lot is covered in cypress wood chips, and at this writing, about one-third of the lot also hosts garden shrubs, trees and plants. The wood-chip covered areas do not have garden plantings because time and money did not allow the whole lot to be landscaped at one fell swoop. While the gardened areas are added to and expanded each year, the wild grasses have been able to establish in swathes along the sides, front and back perimeters of the lot. Every fall, opportunistic tumbleweeds of grass seed blow into the yard from neighboring yards and meadows, and every spring the patches of prairie and lawn grasses merrily resprout in unsightly, random clumps and ragtag bands.

The grasses are incredibly resilient and disgustingly healthy. The gardener tromps around on them in all seasons, digs them out, never waters them, and regularly directs curses and spells towards them, all to no avail. They grow, as grasses are wont to do, like the dickens, and every summer must be mowed down every three weeks or so. Since mowing a lawn was never part of the garden plan, the gardener must needs borrow a lawnmower for this obnoxious task from a neighbor, then has to inflict a couple hours' worth of extremely unpleasant and harmful lawnmower gasoline engine fumes on the environs, and finally has to re-mulch all the mowed areas with new cypress chips, since the lawnmower chops and blows the ground cover to smithereens, leaving behind sad, bare stretches of earth.

Last year, the gardener attempted a more resounding assault upon the invaders. Using the weed-killer Round-Up, the blades of the grasses were sprayed as they emerged, primarily in the places where they were extending their reach toward the flower beds, and on the random scatterings of outcroppings in new, previously uncolonized locations. If the spraying occurred on a sunny day that was followed by at least a week or two of more sunny days and no rainfall (chance would be a fine thing!), most (not all) the sprayed grasses would, in fact, turn yellow, then brown, and die. The roots, apparently, seldom if ever met a like fate, as within another couple weeks, new grass infants would be born in adjacent locations.

The herbicide spraying tactic will not be employed this year. Not because in the big picture it didn't really work, not because Round-Up is very expensive, relative to the garden budget, and the profits go to Monsanto, a multi-national chemical company that has been manufacturing horticultural, agricultural and military poisons for decades. The spraying won't be repeated because the gardener does not want to commit murder, not even a little bit of murder of the earth, and that is precisely what synthetic chemical herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers do. The war of the weeds got the better of the gardener's knowledge, common sense and principles last year. I lost my patience (and a little of my mind) in the heat of battle, and employed a strategy I abhor. Never again.

The death of the particular sprayed grasses is not the issue. Common lawn grass and little bluestem flourish ubiquitously throughout the Great Lakes and Midwest regions, and across prairies and yards on the whole North American continent. They are invasive, not by any stretch of the imagination endangered. But spray-bombing a single species of plant or insect is not a finite act. Toxic chemicals do not simply kill the species upon which they are applied. They debilitate everything they come into contact with, and once a poison chemical enters the ecosystem, it cannot be confined nor contained. An ecosystem is a contiguous whole, its parts cannot be isolated one from the others, and what befalls any of its individual parts will migrate, stealthy, silent and deadly, to all.

Chemicals sprayed on plants or insects enter and lodge in the seeds, pollen, eggs, roots, underwater streams, wells and water tables, dew and rainfall. Animals that feed on the plants or insects ingest the poison, and in turn also become poisoned and poisonous. Toxic substances thus spread from the single plant or insect to the soil, earthworms, creeks, rivers, lakes and oceans, fish and birds, wild and domestic animals, and human consumers of the plants and animals. Poisonous chemicals from herbicides and insecticides have been found in the seeds and subsequent generations of plants of sprayed species, they have been found in the honey produced by bees from the nectar of sprayed plants, and in the eggs and fledglings of birds that feed on poisoned insects. What's more, chemically poisoned plants and insects can develop a survival resistance to their assailants and undergo a flareback phenomenon wherein they resurge in greater, stronger numbers. To unleash a fusillade of poisons on any segment of the earth's ecosystem can render it unfit for all life forms, contaminating the entire environment.

So, the gardener made an egregious mistake last year, but has mended her errant ways, and approaches the garden and contemplates the flings of swaggering new grass sprouts with a revised, chastened attitude. Bands of rangy grasses here and there throughout the garden will be accepted as flagbearers of Nature's exuberance, will to live, and vibrant health on this little plot of land. A benign trowel or spade will root out any brigades of grasses that forge into no-go areas of flower beds. A non-polluting, manually operated rotary lawnmower will be acquired to keep the larger stretches of grass in trim. The gardener will henceforth bear in mind that the goal here is to make this village lot a better, more fecund and robust corner of the earth, rife with life and propitious to all comers. Pinching fingers or hungry praying mantis are still the best deterrent for tentworm caterpillars, after all, and ladybugs like no dinner menu better than aphids off the rosebush.