Tag Archives: gardening

NaPoWriMo Eve, 2021

On the cusp of National Poetry Month, I’m excited about focusing (a little more than usual) on poetry for the next 30 days!

I’m also sad because temperatures are expected to drop significantly below freezing the next three nights, and all the plants that have begun blooming and leafing out will be severely damaged. It may seem trivial, but the past twelve months have been difficult, and my capacity for resilience has dropped considerably.

Here are some pictures from my yard, while everything still looks beautiful and alive.




Others may gripe
about the late spring
snow shower,  but I smile
because the flowers
are not fooled.


First flowers

(This post is for my British beekeeping blogging buddy, Emily Heath, of Adventuresinbeeland. Sorry I have no cake to share! )

After three warm days here in the Bluegrass, the snow has mostly melted, except for those big piles in parking lots. I had forgotten that the first bulbs to bloom in my gardens are not the crocuses:


but the Iris reticula.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t usually notice them until the yellow ones open, which might be today, given the forecast.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey’ve even beat the hellebores to the punch!


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThough we’re supposed to have a fourth day of sun and warm (temperatures in the 70s F), tomorrow night is supposed to get down in the teens. I just hope the magnolias don’t jump the gun and get zapped when the temperatures drop.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo bee activity to report in my yard yet, though I have seen some flies on a window screen. Maybe I’ll take a walk in the Arboretum today and see what’s blooming and if any bees are active there.

Addendum, later that afternoon: I was right about the yellow iris!


Circle of life (and all that)

leaf-footed bugs 1

I noticed some familiar arthropods on the leaves of my swamp magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) the other day. These are Leptoglossus fulvicornis, commonly called leaf-footed bugs because of the shape of their hind legs (“foliaceous hind tibia” in entomologese). The two adults in the photo at right show the characteristic flattened shape of those rear leg segments.

They are true bugs, members of the suborder Heteroptera, along with squash bugs and stink bugs. Leptoglossus fulvicornis is also known by the species name magnoliae because it only feeds on the fruits of magnolia trees.

I first met these critters in college, where they were frequent visitors in our dorm rooms once the weather turned cold. This now makes perfect sense to me because the courtyard of the dormitory sheltered several ancient and glorious magnolia trees from the harsh winds that blew off Lake Michigan.

leaf-footed bugs 3Anyway, back to the present. This photo shows a cluster of nymphs of various ages — the youngest have bulbous red bodies, somewhat reminiscent of the bright red magnolia fruits they eat (also shown in the photo). Six juveniles are huddled together on the leaf in the foreground, with an adult on another leaf in the lower background. They are hiding because a female cardinal (not pictured) has figured out that this tree offers not only delicious fruit but yummy bugs. She’s been in the front yard a lot lately (I hear her out there now, in fact), and I’ve noticed much fewer leaf-footed bugs on the tree than in previous years.

Incidentally, this tree stands next to the porch where the parsley sits in its pot. It seems this cardinal also has a taste for grasshoppers (you go, girl!) and swallowtail larvae (sadly). She flew off the step when I opened the front door one day, and I found the swallowtails all gone, save for half of one she dropped when I startled her, and odd bits of grasshopper scattered about the porch.

Saddened as I am at the loss of the swallowtails, it is affirming to see the ways in which my little corner of the ecosystem reflects the resourceful adaptability of the whole. It also lets me experience myself and my yard as part of that larger system, and reminds me that most imbalances will correct themselves if I only give them time.

Mother Nature calls in the troops

Remember the over-abundance of grasshoppers I complained about in a previous post? Well, help is on the way!

goldenrod soldier beetle croppedSee those yellow beetles with black spots? They’re goldenrod soldier beetles (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) also known as Pennsylvania leather-wings. The adults feed on nectar and pollen (hence their interest in the Sedum matrona) but the larvae feed on aphids (hurray!) and — get this — grasshopper eggs! Is it any wonder that a large number of them have chosen to hang out in my front yard? I saw quite a few mating pairs on the sedum, but decided to photograph the singles because it’s easier to see them.

So it looks as though my “plague of locusts” may not be quite so bad next year. Platoons of goldenrod soldier beetle larvae will be on patrol.



Another reason to grow parsley

…or dill or fennel: swallowtail butterflies!

swallowtailcroppedA couple weeks ago, I noticed some swallowtails  winging around the front porch area where I have herbs growing in pots.

“I hope you guys are laying eggs on that parsley,” I told them. It seems that they listened. Last week, I noticed some tiny, black, fuzzy-looking caterpillars, each with a yellow band around its middle, on the parsley. I crossed my fingers and hoped they were what I thought they were. Yesterday, I saw the one above, finally grown into the familiar black-and-green-striped critter with yellow spots.

swallowtailcropped2The second photo shows two younger larvae. The larger of those is less than half the size of the larva featured in the first photo.

Most of the damage to the parsley visible in these pictures was actually the work of grasshoppers, a large number of whom have taken up residence in the front yard. I chased about five off the parsley yesterday before I thought to get my camera. (The droppings on the edge of the pot are theirs.)

Although I would happily forgo fresh parsley for the butterflies, the swallowtail larvae don’t seem to eat that much. I’ve never had a problem sharing with them. The grasshoppers, on the other hand, are not such courteous guests, though I’ve not seen them on the parsley before. I may have to explore ways to discourage them, but I will make certain it is not at the expense of the swallowtails.

Mulch and order

A few Saturdays ago, I had to work at the library for several hours. When I came home, one of the flower beds in the front yard had been transformed: weeds and chaos had given way to mulch and order.

It was like magic! I left a seedy looking yard and several bags of mulch and returned to a beautifully mulched flower bed. I felt like I had stepped into the Grimm fairy tale about the elves and the shoemaker.

I don’t have elves, but I do have Mulch Man.

In the presence of mulch and favorable weather, this mild-mannered traffic engineer transforms into a fearless defender of beds and borders. Dandelions, poison ivy, even creeping euonymus are no match for his mad mulching skills. He weeds! He edges! He carefully protects the crowns of perennials!

Thank you, Mulch Man! Without your vigilance, we would be in violation of several homeowners’ association regulations and in danger of being ridden out of the neighborhood on a rail. You have saved us from much humiliation and a number of fines. How can we ever repay you?

What’s that? No problem. One ice-cold beer, coming right up!


It may sound strange, but I love to weed. As a young person, I spent countless hours pulling weeds in the humongous kitchen garden we planted every year. That kind of experience would traumatize most people and put them off weeding for life, but it instilled in me a profound love.

In part, I love to weed because it takes me back to the cool, dew-drenched mornings and hazy, sun-drenched afternoons of my childhood. It reminds me of long hours spent in companionable silence or lively chatter, working beside a number of family members in various times and places.

But there’s something else about weeding that appeals to me on a deeper level, something in it that soothes my soul. It’s a form of moving meditation: active enough to keep my monkey mind occupied, repetitious and methodical enough to allow me to slip into a sort of trance.

I also find weeding very satisfying, in more than one way. It offers the cathartic effects of physical labor coupled with the psychological pleasure of tangible progress. I feel as ridiculously edified by aching muscles as I do by neat planting beds. And I feel peaceful, on top of the exhaustion and pride. What’s not to like?

Up until this last week, I haven’t been able to weed because it’s been so dry. Where I live, there used to be a foot or so of rich topsoil, an accumulation of thousands of years of decayed plant and animal matter. A couple decades ago, a developer scraped it off, sold it, and built houses and laid sod on the remaining clay subsoil. So my garden beds are built on and out of clay.

When clay gets dry, it becomes the kind of material that people have been building houses out of for millennia. Roots sunk into dry clay cannot be removed by pulling; it is impervious to most hand tools in that state, even my trusty hori-hori.

I feel like a black ops garden commando when I strap this puppy on.







So I am woefully behind on the weeding, and I don’t think the neighbors are happy about it.

I wrote the above paragraphs last week, before we got some much-needed rain. I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to get in a little weeding since, though we were away for three days of prime yard working time over the weekend. I’m still behind, but most of the really big weeds have been removed. Now the yard merely looks unkempt instead of overgrown.

It’s Groundhog’s Day! (or How I learned to live with the groundhog and love it)

Today is one of my favorite holidays because it celebrates round, furry people who like to sleep and have the good sense to go back to bed when they wake up to find that it’s dark and cold.  Talk about hitting the sleep switch!

Groundhogs are remarkable creatures, though not much appreciated by most people. They are persistent, deliberate, adaptable, and not easily perturbed. I came to love groundhogs after discovering that we shared territory with one in our previous home. She lived under our woodpile, which was a bit of a mess; we vainly hoped she would straighten it up a bit, but apparently “woodchuck” is somewhat of a misnomer.*

Groundhogs are the bane of many gardeners because they are so cosmopolitan in their tastes: they will eat almost any sort of vegetation, and are particularly fond of garden vegetables, largely because of their moisture content. (Groundhogs are masters of energy economy; if they eat food with lots of water in it, they won’t have to walk all the way down to the creek to drink.) **

I discovered that the secret to living with our groundhog was to make sure she had what she needed. One early summer day, I watched her amble across the yard from the wood pile toward the garden, which was on the other side of the house. We have always had what we call a “freedom lawn” (which means we don’t apply any herbicides or fertilizers to it) and the yard was a sea of bright yellow dandelion flowers. Being energy efficient by nature, the groundhog ate the blossom off every dandelion she passed. About halfway across the yard, she paused for a few moments then turned around and waddled back to the wood pile, apparently full.

When the dandelions weren’t in bloom, I found out that she loved borage. Fortunately for me, the borage had self-sown madly around the edges of the raised garden bed closest to the wood pile. I came out one day to discover the borage had been eaten to the ground on three sides of the bed, but the vegetables and greens in the middle remained untouched. As I had plenty of borage all over the garden and it grew back rapidly, both the groundhog and I were extremely satisfied. I never lost any vegetables, herbs, or greens to her, and she got her fill at all times.

I learned a lot from that groundhog: never pass up a tasty tidbit; always stop eating when you are full; dandelions and self-sown borage are gifts from the garden gods; stop and soak up the sun whenever the opportunity presents itself; and most importantly, some days, the right thing to do is pull the covers over your head and get another forty winks.

Happy Groundhog’s Day!

* It’s actually an Anglicization of a Native American word (Algonquian) for the animal, wuchak.

** I’ve been told by a gardening friend that providing a shallow dish of water between the garden and the groundhog’s burrow will also deter vegetable predation, because the critters are chiefly looking for moisture when they raid the garden.

Meatless spaghetti meat sauce

I read an article today about a woman looking for ways to make some of her cooking healthier. Her signature lentil soup, for instance, used sausage for flavor and texture, and it took a little ingenuity to come up with an acceptable substitution.

That got me thinking about a discovery I made many years ago when I was trying to reduce the amount of meat (and attendant fat) in the household diet. I was able to substitute lentils and ground poultry for sausage and hamburger in a number of recipes, but spaghetti sauce made with these instead of Italian sausage just tasted, well, anemic. Even if they had the right texture, the flavor wasn’t quite right.

To my immense disappointment, boatloads of garlic didn’t do it, though it did make us all very safe from vampires and people sitting next to us in public places. (I love garlic and generally subscribe to the belief that it’s not possible to have too much in any recipe. I have learned the hard way that not everyone shares my religious leanings on this.) Something was still missing.

I finally found that the one ingredient that separates Italian sausage from all other sausages, mild or hot, is fennel seed. I subsequently determined that adding fennel seed, lightly crushed with my mortar and pestle, made even meatless spaghetti sauce taste like, well, like meat sauce. Hearty and savory and rib-sticking good.

So there you have it: the greatest secret of my kitchen. And if you want to know real joy, grow your own fennel — it’s a beautiful plant (I recommend the bronze foliage variety) and is a preferred larval food for Black Swallowtail butterflies. Just be sure you harvest those seeds; it self-sows freely and sends down deep tap roots.

Black Swallowtail butterfly larva

Bon appetit and happy gardening!