A Practically Perfect Spring

But There is a Catch

It’s late May when I begin this piece, and it’s been windy and rainy for seven or eight days. Last I checked we had seven-going-on eight inches in the rain gauge, with more coming in, remnants of Bertha. Water is so high in the canal it slips under the old bulkheaded dock and laps at roots, pirating invisible crumbs of soil.

Some old, established plants decide to check out for good. Azaleas, mounded up in an already raised bed are sitting in puddles up to their ankles.

Garden beds look like the morning after mad merry-making. Plants are tousled, crumpled, lounging, flopping, high on hangovers and needing one big stake-up. Jackmanni clematis pictured here was battered and spirea shibori, heavy with blooms was flattened.

Axiom (mine): When foxgloves bloom proud and tall, look for storm winds to blow and hard rains to fall.

These foxgloves, here shown casually staked, would bow and break to weather. Hopefully I can gather seed and try again next year.

By early June the sun has cut through. Leaves should be basking in warmth and revving up. Instead, they are drooping, in a sulk. Roots below are still sluggish in cold, super-soaked ground and resent being woke by demands from the cheeky penthouse. Soon enough, they’ll all get over their snits.

But none of this matters. None of this takes away from the Practically Perfect Spring this year. I want to remember every detail, so I grab my camera and I can’t stop taking photos.

Always the gardener, I am also thinking poles and string for the totterers and leaners that I meet. But plants are quickly straightening up, as if they know what I am thinking and do not want to be straitjacketed.

Frankly, I am more interested in photographing plants, not straitjacketing them. Maybe, if I had an obedient little garden elf whom I could command by pointing a perfectly manicured finger at a weedy bed or a toppling plant. . . .But I have neither elf nor perfectly manicured fingers. . .

Instead, despite the weather’s roughhousing these past few days, I am reveling in this, the best of springs. Wisps of a breeze carry potpourri through moist air. Florida anise is pungent as I brush by. The tang of a briny seashore floats in; are otters teasing fresh-water mussels again? Will I find a stash of shells in broken down hurricane slag?

I bend to inhale the subtle sweetness of peonies (festiva maxima) bunched against poppies that outdid themselves this year.

Fragrant, slender blooms of mock orange greet me, reminder of my mother-in-law’s gift from her garden.

I embrace faint musky clove from sweet william, though I try to avoid cat’s pee of salvia guaranitica.

And perhaps a whiff of japanese honeysuckle? Early gardenia? A rich earthiness underlies it all, sometimes sour, sometimes rotten. From soggy, anaerobic decomposition? Or a stinkhorn fungus lurking in detritus and expecting visits from flies?

And then I remember, This is a Practically Perfect Spring.

It is the shrubs and trees, vines and perennials that deserve a fanfare. Beautybush, with exquisite shell-pink blooms.

Native flame azaleas with eye-popping orange blooms.

Our native wisteria, ‘Amethyst Falls,’ blooming even though I’ve chopped it unmercifully. (It wasn’t supposed to be so aggressive.) Looks like a pine cone with polished nails, doesn’t it?

Those sunny bands of irises, Japanese, swamp, Louisiana, that bloom and pollinate happily in wet soil and years ago captured my heart after bearded irises balked.

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Clematis bounds up and about, flouncy, carefree. Even the native clematis, whose cup-shaped bloom is tiny, probably only an inch or so deep, is romping over its neighbors and blooming with gusto this year.

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Pendulous white flowers of deutzia Rochester, a slip years ago from a manicured plant on a college campus, cascade over spirea shibori and bright yellow oenothera.

Hot pink carpet rose, vanished years ago?, a wisp last winter, sprouted and bloomed passionately, though shy of camera. Creeping St. Johnswort (Hypericum calycinum) a meandery forgettable in previous years, has become bold this year.

Swamp dogwood wrapping round the gazebo, a diminutive competitor in southern swamps, becomes a lavish specimen on its own, dripping with hundreds of blooms, upstaging the nearby male holly, whose tiny flower petals cover walkways like chaff.

Native amelanchier, or Juneberry, a cloud of white this spring, first to bloom and first to berry, gives first feast to robins and squirrels. I’ve managed to catch the last few.

Striking, tall elderberry, grown up from a wayfaring seed, with large white clusters that bring bees in spring, then birds in late summer for the dark berries — if the mockingbird allows them a nip or two.

And, earlier in the season, our faithful bank of George Tabor azaleas, mature now, from cuttings years ago, practically carefree, and partnered with variegated Solomon’s Seal.

No matter the parade of weeds, no matter the endless mulching, no matter the tiresome staking, I am thankful that after thirty years and mountains of compost ground from millions of leaves laid thick on sticky clay soil, we have lived this Practically Perfect Spring.

Moderate temperatures kept blooms hanging on a little longer with richer, more intense color, unbleached by heat. Sun and rain played equally in the garden. No blasts of heat shriveled new growth and no tongues of cold blackened ripe buds.

It’s time now to stop my royal ramblings and take my turn at being the Handmaiden of our Garden. (The handmaiden with grimy fingernails, that is.) I am thankful that I can partner with a Royal Steward in grimy jeans who is willing to grind leaves or ferry truckloads of garden cast-offs.

For there is a price to pay for this Practically Perfect Spring. And that is — A Summer of Practically Nonstop Pruning.

Here, George Tabor takes over the bench.

But before I get out the shears, let’s dilly dally and take a look at what the garden is giving us in June . . .late azaleas, hydrangeas, daylilies, hosta.

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A Tale of Hellebores in Two Gardens

Dazzle and Disappointment, Inheritance and Intuition

A dazzle of hellebores, also known as lenten roses. Can you find duplicates? Photo by Susan

Part I

Imagine this dazzle growing in one garden. Yup, just one garden: Susan’s Zone 5 garden on a rocky hillside in New Hampshire. Appropriately, she’s floated these beauties in a heart-shaped glass bowl — because don’t we all love hellebores! Commonly called lenten rose because of when they bloom, these hardy pioneers clear away the last tired patches of winter.

Early April, wan sunlight gives a lift to still sleepy plants in a New Hampshire garden. Photo by Susan

Now, New Hampshire is well known for a spring season that takes forever to show up. Less well known is its reliable Fifth Season, usually around March-April — a dreary intermission between glorious calendar-photo snowscapes and glorious spring color. The locals call it Mud Season.

A patch of bloodroot breaks bare ground, along with other hopefuls near a vibrant yellow display. Photo by Susan

 

A closer look at bloodroot, an early-spring New England favorite, as it breaks bare ground. Photo by Susan

 

Another taste of spring? Photo by Susan

When do hellebores bloom in New Hampshire? You guessed it. Mud Season, when the weather is at its, well, dreariest. Perhaps that Mud-Season ambiance was what impelled Susan to look for a dash of cheer from hellebores. Several years ago she scoured nurseries for the new and elusive.

A high point of color in Mud Season will give way to spring perennials in May. Photo by Susan

Masses of sunbeams in Mud Season. Photo by Susan

North Carolina nurseries were high on the list, specifically Big Bloomers in Sanford. One bright day in late autumn we steamrolled through multiple greenhouses. There we found nuggets of promise in small pots at small prices. She couldn’t leave any behind, so she took one of each variety, many shown here. I got to keep them alive during our relatively benign winter – and incidentally watch them open their first blooms.

Looks like froggie is happy to hug a leaf from the bouquet behind him. Photo by Susan

 

Massed against a sunny wall. Photo by Susan

Was I envious that my foster plants would eventually go flying north?

An iridescent purple hellebore brightens a bed that in two months will be thick with perennials. Photo by Susan

Not at all! Our garden was still recovering from Hurricane Isabel ’03, and most of our hellebores had skittered off after the trauma. I was not yet ready to purchase replacements. I bought a Japanese snowball bush instead. . .

Photo by Susan

Part II

. . .And waited patiently for a new crop of hellebores to appear. Unlike the dazzle pictured above, our blooms, when they finally arrived, had a range of soft mauves and rosies, with exquisite freckles on faces forever bowing.

 

When they arrived, I chose the best colors and planted them in masses. Stirred from sleep by late winter sunbeams, they would nod in still-chilly breezes, coaxing me to get the camera out each spring to capture their joyful return.

My prize plants seeded abundantly. With good potting soil and a sprinkle of fertilizer now and then, the seedlings that I pricked out would mature into handsome plants in a couple of years. We began to offer them for sale at garden shows.

 

One year we had so many they became decorative accents at a Master Gardener flower show, and everyone had to have one.

 

For a few years we had success with hellebore niger, the lovely white Christmas rose that blooms earlier than the lenten rose.

Lately, though, I’ve come aware of changes I hadn’t picked up over the years. I must confess that after I greet these reliable old friends with a smile each spring, and they nod greetings from comfortably crowded beds, garden chores consume me, and my vision tunnels.

These are old friends, after all. Or are they? Today, many of those subtle mauves and rosies that I had taken for granted are gone. What happened?

 

I began to suspect a pattern. Over the years, scattered solo plants would grow splendidly, then drop out, leaving a big hole in the landscape. Why? They’d all been given standard hellebore treatment: a modest amount of sun and velvet compost, and occasional sprinklings of 10-10-10 fertilizer in January when they began growing. (Not necessary, but it does give a nice boost to the plants.)

Hellebores are usually carefree and long-lived. Apparently not mine. I have not yet mentioned one key element in the equation: good drainage. Pottery clay cradles our garden. The water table is a scant 18 inches or less below the surface. Raised beds help, but they are not always the answer.

Young plants greedy for nutrients and water will send out roots and thrive. But larger root systems of older plants can’t always find purchase in soils that are swamped during rainy spells or wet winters. Root-rot or stem-rot can set in and plants give up.

It’s a pattern we now recognize and even expect to occur in certain varieties of shrubs. Prunus (cherries) and weigela, for example, grow into lovely plants and then one day they are leafless.

In crowded beds a small patch of dead leaves does not warrant full-up inspection, so it was a while before I cottoned to this revolving door of hellebores. Mature plants survive for a few years, then cede the land to their offspring.

Here’s the rub. The offspring are disappointing. They are not as pretty as my chosen favorites. I suspect that those basic laws of inheritance about dominant and recessive genes are playing out in my garden. Over time, dominant genes tend to produce survivors with tame blooms.

 

Still, they are welcome each spring, and I will always thank my first hellebore for opening my eyes to a guiding principle in gardening. As a gullible neophyte, when I purchased a picture-perfect hellebore with spectacular blooms, guiding principles were nowhere in my thinking.

It was picture-perfect the second year, too. But the expert-in-the-book said to cut out the leaves in spring. Tough and glossy the leaves looked. Healthy. But I’d heard that hellebores were persnickety. If I didn’t follow directions, maybe my plant would die. So I cut. And it died.

That was when I learned that I should trust my own instincts and my own observation, that knowledge should be tempered by plain old common sense. I can’t say for sure that my pruning killed the plant. But from that time on, my judgment calls were based on my gardener’s intuition, an unexpected gift from my first hellebore.

 

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In a Hatter’s Mad World There is Escape to a Garden

Of all the quirky grounds I can think of for escaping to a garden – snooping on box turtles, smelling the rain – never would I have listed escaping a pandemic. More specifically, the noise of the fear.

‘Jet Trail’ quince and native honeysuckle, early spring bloomers, opposite variegated Solomon’s Seal just emerging, backed by George Tabor azaleas

I am acutely conscious that a universe of microbes with spikes is waiting to get their tenterhooks into me. I know I must be vigilant about washing my hands and touching the mail and holding my breath around suspicious people and keeping track of toilet paper and sanitizer.

Now I am addicted to checking media minutiae, not once, but several times a day. Then I promptly forget the meaningless numbers, or I drop zeros, or maybe add some – which is why I have to check several times a day.

Between tallies, late-breaking sagas explode like curve balls.

Press conferences from the Twilight Zone. . . .Bidding wars on ventilators and masks and whatever else may be profitable for sellers. . . .Cruise ships adrift at sea. . . .Workers furloughed. . . .Velvet gloves for corporations. . . .Clogged sewers. . . .Overworked caregivers in bandanas and plastic garbage bags. . . .Concerned patriots silenced for honesty. . . .Beach parties and barbecues. . . .

Forget the virus, it’s the stock market, stupid. Barely mentioned, but oh so sad, people sick and dying alone. But we soldier on in our isolation, tethered to phantom statistics drained of life blood.

Are we living a mad modern twist to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland without the memorable charm of the original?

A cloudy blue sky mirrored in tannin-stained waters

In the chill of an early spring morning I walk in my garden. The bleating fades. The world seems reassuringly ordered. Geese are honking (to sweethearts?), wrens are chorusing from fence posts, cardinals are calling out territories with civility, a hairy woodpecker is vigorously attacking our house, and it looks like a beaver has been tackling an 80-foot gum.

Pink flowering almond explodes with joy

The sweet green growth of spring has quietly come round, early, while I have been sidelined by noise. Its breezes are shaking off remnants of winter as, bit by bit they unmask secrets of summer. Kindly, I am invited into a charmed and reassuring circle of seasons that I thought had gone missing.

Japanese red maple ‘Bloodgood’ glows in an eastern sun

Dogwood blossoms seem brighter and whiter this year. Red maple leaves redder. Crab apple bouquets showier.

This lavender azalea, a gift from a friend’s garden, is among the first to bloom in spring

Azaleas flouncy (except for shrubs the deer chewed along paths that we’ve provided).

A splash this spring, Japanese snowball bush is on its way to becoming queen of the border — I hope

Japanese snowball, still gawky after ten years of dawdling, is beginning to live up to its teasingly voluptuous promise.

There are surprises everywhere: blooms on a finally-settled-in cherry tree, flower buds on a tired old mock orange I am reviving. And it looks like azalea slips from a neighbor’s overgrown plant will soon show color.

‘Okama’ cherry has been slow to come round, but I shouldn’t complain. Except for wild cherry, it’s the first cherry, or prunus, to make it in our garden

At my feet fresh new leaves of epimedium poke about, before I’ve even thought of nipping last year’s tired, burgundy-blotched foliage.

Fresh green leaves of epimedium ‘Sulphureum’ roll right over last year’s, backed by flowering lenten rose

Amelanchier (Juneberry the colonists called this multi-stemmed native tree) has puffed out a frothy white halo. What berries there will be in June! What feasts for birds.

Shame on lesser celandine, that flashy rowdy. Now I’m bound to teach it some manners.

Erlicheer narcissus, one of the best daffodils for the south, holds up well during warm days in April, sharing the stage here with crab apple petals

Daffodils, ahead of schedule, are fading already, will soon need the shears, though the late-blooming, fragrant erlicheer are giving us an early show.

I am fortunate that I can escape to this rambling, casual garden (euphemistic excuses for tardy trimming and tidying). Heaven knows, as I look around, there is enough to do on our green acre to push the noise out of my head for a long stretch.

Bob limbs up a watermelon crepe myrtle that during the past thirty years has become a centerpiece in our summer garden

Which surprises me. After thirty or more years of toil, one would assume a pleasure garden would be shipshape, mature plants in place, weeds banished, gardeners resting on hoes, all ready for pleasure. Once or twice we were almost there. I can remember repeating, like a comforting mantra, Just wait till next year.

Long views are my favorite shots. They show me how far we have come, and weeds become instantly insignificant

But whims of time and weather, like unexpected knocks and bumps in our lives, can crumble rosy plans. Storms fell trees. Late winter blasts maim or kill. Flooding rains leave soggy ground that drowns. Early, unforgiving heat spells shrivel and blight.

Opportunistic wisteria cascades amid trees tumbled by high-speed straight-line winds. Note basking turtles

The opportunists survive. These are the hardy hardies that grow blithely on into jungles that threaten to swallow house and garden if they are not whacked back, only to rise again after the whacking.

Some of the “hardy hardies” we have whacked down (about a truckload a week)

Which is fine. In my isolation I have time and weather on my side. I can get my hands muddy or lean on a shovel while I dream about grand vistas. I can play musical plants till I find soul mates for a patch. I can flit from one corner to another and still feel a sense of control, even mastery.

I work in cinematic slow motion, with cuts and edits and replays, but there is serenity in not having to hurry. Maybe this year will be that next year. And if not, it doesn’t matter so much.

And yes, I feel fortunate. Even when I must leave my sanctuary and wash the good earth off my hands and return to the din of the Hatter’s Mad World, I know my garden will be there for me.

One of my favorite spots in the garden, a gift, because it needs little attention

My heart goes out to those on the front lines and those seeing bad times. I hope each of you can find a garden of your own somewhere, a sanctuary that will heal the hurt and restore the heart.

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Garden Memories

Three decades of my memories are seamed to the garden with a lock stitch that cannot unravel. The quiet months, January and February, when the green world seems asleep, often draw me back to those first years, when I was fresh and curious and eager.

I collected spectacular (to me) trophies with a sense of adventure and the zeal of a religious convert, haphazardly, from anywhere – weedy fields, abandoned gardens, rural mom-and-pop roadside offerings.

Rose’s Department Store and the old K Mart had interesting plants, too, for practically pennies. Plants-by-mail were cheap, postage nickels and dimes. As we explored the coast, from Florida to Maine, I inveigled plants from specialty nurseries, motel managers, garden caretakers.

Image from an old glossy photo. This was not a smart stop on a windy road, but I got my prize, cuttings from an old-time deutzia. Wicked candid by Mike

Verges along country roads gave up some gems, too. The challenge was in the chase.

That was when plants were allowed to have personality; they grew however they chose to grow. Once armies of modern nurseries brainwashed plants with chemicals to demand bug-free uniform growth and put them in fancy pots with printed logos and charged a lot of money for them, plant collecting lost much of its allure. But those happy early days had hooked me and laid down the warp and woof of my memories.

This granddaddy pine stood above the garden for years, witnessing my floundering, but after six or seven decades, buffeted by storm and weakened by bark beetles, it became another memory

Well, many of my trophies perished along the way. But many lived on, too. For a long while I believed I was the guiding light in the process. Chastened by experience, my focus – and my memories — broadened from plant collecting to looking, really looking at my garden, absorbing the joys and disappointments as they came along.

Not a memory — yet. This fragile gazing globe, gift from daughter Ellen, has so far survived my clumsy efforts to protect it from wind and weather. It was part of our original fairyland

On a grand scale I rejoiced in a fairyland of dancing lights and shadows on summer afternoons when the sun came in from the west. Then sadly we cleaned up the messes when storms struck down the fairyland.

On smaller scale, I took delight in blossoms lit by stray sunbeams that tarried after sunset. These picture memories taught me about how fragile the beauty of a garden is. How impermanent over time.

Azaleas, spirea, crabapple in the soft light of spring frame our favorite elf who traveled with us from England twenty years ago. The crabapple, broken by storm, is a memory today.

I discovered that coyote, bobcat, beaver and otter were temporary wayfarers. (Was this garden a safe zone for them? For me?) I can’t forget my close encounters with the animals, large and small, that passed through the garden, and I still wonder about how they survive from day to day in this small world of change.

As I uncovered new (to me) secrets of plants and soil, I learned more about the ways of life in the garden and my memories grew richer as years passed.

Wisps of snow on a fall-blooming ‘Yuletide’ camellia. The plant is one of Bob’s air layers and this photo comes to us from friends who are enjoying its bloom in their garden.

Favorite plants bring good friends to mind. Storms create war zones that leave scars that don’t fade. But rainy winters and scorching summers, bubbling springtimes and wrinkled autumns, they are the dependable rhythms that give anchor to the garden. (As do the ever-so-dependable weeds.)

That said, I hope you can glimpse some fragments of my garden memories from these few photos. They tell a story of contentment and loss, beauty and friendship, youth and old age, surprise and change. A tempering by time that is much more satisfying than my original rows of trophies.


Our Norman Rockwell crabapple sheltered robins’ nests in spring and fed berries to squirrels and birds in fall. It never quite recovered from sacrificial injuries endured when it held back the pines that fell against the house during Hurricane Isabel. Out of gratitude for the weakened and broken but still-blooming tree, we withheld the axe for many years until it inevitably declined.

Last monarch butterfly of the year, late about her rounds. She hovered here for two weeks one November, clinging to, sipping from, the long, tubular flowers of pineapple sage, sharing small pools of nectar with honeybees and sulfurs. The riot of untamed sage succumbed to wet seasons, so we shall never see a repeat performance.

Was she cast among detritus as the year waned?

Before the pines fell and the fairyland was gone, there was shade in our backyard, and hydrangeas cascaded with hostas down to the dock.

Today, natives, Joepye weed, St. Johnswort, boltonia and New York ironweed, flagrant and unruly, battle for territory in wide open space and the western sun.

Our last plant sale. We ran it annually for more than a decade to support environmental causes, and it was a grand excuse for meeting new gardeners and old friends. . .

. . .and for gathering later under the gazebo for a pot luck feast and good fun—even in the rain.

There’s always a frog or two in the pond. This particular visitor usually hid under a lily pad, silent until he heard us chatting during lunch break in the gazebo. Then, he’d harrumph his two cents in a loud bass fiddle. When we stopped talking, he quit croaking. Laugh if you will, but we had a connection with this croaker beneath the waterlily.

Grandpa and Tom drag the remains of two dwarf Burford hollies, sentinels by the front door, into our woodland brush pile. Even with repeated pruning into lollipops (I guess you’d call that topiary), they threatened to swallow the house.

Master Gardeners visit in the rain. They’re hardy fellows. But wait, half the group has disappeared. To drier terrain under the gazebo no doubt.

Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield’ began life in our garden as a single-stemmed stowaway hidden among thorns on an old rose bush from a friend’s garden. Rambling and rambunctious, it brightens our November gardens and is an oasis for last-minute insect visitors.

Prom night for high school seniors ready to take on the world, but first a photo session in our garden with a professional photographer.

My favorite memory of all. Master Digger Bob working in the garden to make it grand.

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43,000 People are Suing Bayer over Cancer from Roundup

A David and Goliath Story — With some Twists

Plaintiffs in these high-profile cases are a mix of professional and amateur groundskeepers, landscapers, gardeners. They have used Roundup for decades and claim that their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that can be fatal, was caused by the glyphosate in Roundup.

(This is the same weed killer that kills the milkweed that Monarch butterflies depend on to survive.)

Monsanto, the manufacturer, is now owned by Bayer, so this is the Goliath that must take the hits.

If ever there will be any hits.

At first Bayer dismissed the cases as “nuisances.”

Only three cases have gone to court so far. But the verdicts have been stunning. Juries awarded millions in damages, two billion in one case. (Even-handed judges have reduced awards, but they are still in the millions.) Bayer is appealing.

To this day Bayer insists that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.

Jurors and plaintiffs disagree. Studies presented during trials convinced them that indeed glyphosate is poisonous. They are angry. They’ve been misled, lied to and taken for fools by Monsanto/Bayer, and the verdicts mirror their disgust.

Internal company documents, unofficially called the “Monsanto Papers,” revealed that scientists were bribed and bullied, reports were ghost-written or buried, and employees colluded with regulators. Said one of the judges: “There was nothing suggesting that anybody at Monsanto viewed this issue objectively or with any consideration for the life of human people.”

Now Bayer is whining about unfair adverse publicity and blaming junk science for distorting facts.

To date, there are three big wins, no losses. Clearly, the Davids have the advantage. The slingshots are primed and aimed.

But not yet free to fire. Goliath is flexing his muscles.

Behind the scenes Bayer is muscling in on the courts. A fourth case, to be tried in Monsanto’s home town of St. Louis has been pulled from the docket. Stays are being granted for many other cases.

The Environmental Protection Agency has never formally ruled on the safety of Roundup. Instead, the Agency maintains glyphosate poses “no risks of concern to human health” and is “not a carcinogen.”

So it is no surprise to learn that EPA has now become an ally of Bayer. In an incredible turnabout, EPA and the Dept. of Justice have joined hands to file court papers in support of Bayer as it tries to reverse a California jury’s award of 25 million to a cancer victim.

But burying so many lawsuits is an impossible feat, even for a Goliath like Bayer. The conglomerate is now agreeing to mediation, though with the proviso that settlements will be financially reasonable and that there will be a cap on future liability. Mediation will no doubt drag on for years.

Bayer is confident. With allies in government and strong demand for Roundup by US farmers and property owners, to the tune of 26 million pounds a year, the company’s bottom line will not suffer.

Goliath appears to be winning, despite slingshot buckshot that’s taking the shine from his armor.

Most discouraging: Even if we Davids choose not to use Roundup in our gardens, we are getting a dose of the poison every day in foods that we eat. Glyphosate is routinely sprayed around crops to kill weeds and directly on some crops before they are harvested.

Most encouraging: Some slingshot buckshot is coming from, of all companies: Kellogg’s. The cereal producer plans to stop using glyphosate before harvest on all of its crops. Surely more companies will follow?

Slingshot buckshot is being fired from other directions. A peach farmer in Missouri is suing Bayer for damage to his orchards from dicamba, yet another Monsanto product that is combined with Roundup for extra punch. Trouble is, dicamba drifts uncontrollably and has contaminated farmfields and settled on dwellings in the south.

Slingshot buckshot is being fired on PCBs, too. Four states and ten cities are suing Bayer over PCBs produced by Monsanto for more than half a century from the 1920’s until they were banned in 1979. PCBs, widely used in industry, have polluted our waters and tainted our seafood. Monsanto knew for half a century how deadly poisonous they were.

Enjoy your apple a day the Monsanto/Bayer way.

No view is quite so dazzling as a vast field of cotton in September after it has been defoliated by, for instance, a combination of glyphosate and dicamba. Foliage is  dessicated and bolls pop. Cotton is routinely defoliated for more efficient picking and packing by machines that resemble alien craft with searchlights when they operate at night

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Remembering Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868)

Global Johnny Appleseed?

(One of an occasional series about unsung players in the world of plants)

If Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward had been able to grow ferns in his garden, we might not enjoy bananas in our cereal today.

Dr. Ward was a 19th century physician who lived in East London. He spent his teen years in tropical Jamaica, where flambuoyant foliage there may have inspired his passion for plants.

Unfortunately Dr. Ward’s London garden was, instead, a study in shriveled blacks and grays, where even ferns were casualties to soot from volumes of smoke issuing from surrounding manufactories (his words).

The smoke from “manufactories” in London cannot be understated, even into the 20th century. 1926 newspaper photo. Credit: Creative Commons Wellcome Collection

We can readily imagine pea-soup fog enveloping Dr. Ward’s neighborhood when we read these lines in Tyler Whittle’s book, ‘The Plant Hunters’:

What is known is that Wellclose Square, that part of dockland where he lived, was a Sherlock Holmes sort of place; not exactly producing lepers, abominable lascars (foreign sailors), and wicked Chinamen, but giving that impression all the same.  And had Holmes and Watson been acquainted with their contemporary, Dr. Nathaniel Ward, undoubtedly they would have admired his scientific method of observing and deducing.

Dr. Ward was not a world traveler, but his discovery would ultimately fuel the mighty British Empire.

Lithograph, 1859, by Richard James Lane, National Portrait Gallery, London. Dr Ward would have been 68.

Intrepid botanists and gardeners had been navigating the globe since Columbus and coming home with exotic plants and animals. But there were big problems.

Listen now to what Carl Linnaeus, that great Swedish scientist who showed us how to classify plants and animals had to say:

Good God. When I consider the melancholy fate of so many of botany’s votaries, I am tempted to ask whether men are in their right mind who so desperately risk life and everything else through the love of collecting plants.

The HMS Endeavor, commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, made a voyage to Australia and New Zealand from 1768 to 1771, more than half a century before Dr. Ward began his experiment.  Captain Cook, as he is commonly called, was the first to reach Australia. Naturalist Joseph Banks was on board.

If hunting plants was perilous for collectors, it was even more so for plants.

95 percent died en route. Only 5 percent survived in any condition to grow.

The year is 1829 and Dr. Ward is about to have a Eureka! moment. He has placed the chrysalis of a hawk moth in a tightly sealed glass jar with some soil. He notices that moisture condenses on the glass during the day, then returns to the soil in the cool of the evening, thus keeping the earth always in the same degree of humidity, he writes.

After a week he finds the beginnings of a fern and a blade of grass growing in the bottle. (Presumably, the moth is also doing well and will eventually fly off into the smog.)

How long, he wonders, can plants survive in a tightly sealed environment?

He intends to find out. He hires a carpenter to build two large glass cases with hardwood frames to resist decay and close glazing to create an airtight seal.

An example of what came to be known as the Wardian Case

By July 1833 they are ready for shipping. They are filled with native ferns and will spend six months at sea before they reach Australia.

The plants arrive in Sydney alive and thriving. They are ditched and the cases are refilled with plants from Australia. The return trip is storm-wracked and will take eight months.

In 1835 the plants arrive in England alive and thriving.

Percentages are reversed from 95 per cent loss to 95 percent survival.

Dr. Ward is ecstatic. Glass cases aboard ships are already common, but the tightly sealed environment, independent of surrounding conditions, is the breakthrough that changes plant exploration forever.

In 1842 Dr. Ward publishes the results of his experiments

The Wardian Case, as it comes to be known, can be as much as 4 feet long. It becomes a fixture on sailing ships.

Smaller versions become fixtures in middle-class Victorian homes. Now amateur gardeners can grow healthy ferns in their parlors in a controlled, humid environment, protected from rancid city air.

The Wardian Case, or terrarium, adapted to Victorian parlors

The Wardian Case becomes a household word – and incidentally precipitates massive excavation of native ferns from the countryside.

Dr. Ward, who will never profit from his invention, envisions the impoverished of London growing green, uncontaminated lettuce in window-box Wardian Cases.

Books arrive with directions for managing window gardens in the Wardian Case

But the Wardian Case, or terrarium, as it is called today, is destined for far greater arenas than tenement windows.

Covetous entrepreneurs, long on desire but short on morals, dream about profits in plants. British colonialism gallops into a new and prosperous era. If some shady deals are necessary — well, it’s all for the good of the empire.

For instance, take your everyday cup of tea. The British East India Company sent botanist Robert Fortune into China to learn as much as he could about Chinese tea that was produced deep  inland. Europeans were forbidden to explore much beyond port cities, but this did not stop Robert Fortune.

He disguised himself as a mandarin and trespassed on to forbidden land. He smuggled plants and seeds out  (in a Wardian Case). He stole ancient secrets closely held by the Chinese, complex techniques for  turning freshly picked camellia leaves into tea.  Soon English tea from plantations in India was eliminating the profitable tea trade in China.

Repeat that scenario, with variations,  for rubber plants stolen from Brazil and brought to India, where vast rubber plantations eventually broke Brazil’s monopoly and her economy.

Orchids, flowers, mangos, bananas, coffee, citrus, cocoa and vanilla bean plants are shipped to and survive in British colonies courtesy of the Wardian Case.

Tea Plantation in Ceylon, 1930’s. Shutterstock.

But malaria plagues life in the tropics and cuts deeply into profits. The Wardian Case brings relief.

The bark of the cinchona tree has an alkaloid that kills malaria parasites. In 1860 cinchona plants are smuggled out of South America into India. The bark is processed into quinine that is dissolved in tonic water. The last obstacle to expansion of the British empire falls.

Bark, flowers and seed from the cinchona tree. From a poster by M. VanHyll

Or — maybe the next-to-last obstacle. Doses of tonic to keep malaria at bay are bitter. The British soon discover that gin makes bitter tonic water pleasantly palatable, and gin and tonic presides over happy hour in the colonies. The last obstacle has fallen.

Exotic spices, flowers, and fruit find homes in kitchens and gardens worldwide. Rubber helps build the auto industry and provisions two World Wars.

Vast fortunes are made.  Great monopolies are created on the backs of slave labor. A mighty empire dominates the world. Global ecosystems are forever rearranged.

How would this epoch of plant-based power have played out without the introduction of the Wardian Case?

Next time you see a terrarium, or an aquarium (which is an upside-down terrarium), consider the shadowy 19th century figure who lived near the London docks and who never made a cent off an invention that changed the world in so many unpredictable ways: Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, Global Johnny Appleseed.

Orchids in a glass case, New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Kristine Paulus

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Climate Change and the Gardener

Garden Got You Bonkers? You’re in Good Company

Rising seas, melting ice, monster storms, raging fires. Climate events on planetary scale.

Do our gardens reflect a changing climate in quieter, less dramatic ways?

From its shaky beginnings, our garden has been a perennial game of chess. Soil, Drainage, Exposure, and Storms are the King, Queen, Bishops and Rooks. Plants are Pawns.

If I play the game with finesse and win, plants flourish. If I falter, I am checkmated by too much sun, too much shade, too much drainage, too many storms, too too too. . . or the flip side, not enough not enough not enough…

But maybe, these days, there are other reasons for being checkmated in a garden. Our Cooperative Extension agent, Katy, told me she’s been talking almost daily with distressed gardeners who are losing plants. Long established plants just seem to be giving up.

These Grayswood hydrangeas flourished for a decade in sun with modest shade but had to be removed when loss of a tree increased sunlight marginally. Could they have managedif weather had been less erratic? I miss them in mid-summer, when weeds crowd in where once there was elegance

Could erratic weather, an errant Knight, be the final piece in this garden game of chess, sometimes confounding our best intentions? Is erratic weather a partner in Climate Change? Let’s look back at the past couple of years here in northeast North Carolina.

Single digit temperatures in winter 2018, records for Zone 8.

Spring freezes in 2018 and 2019 as fresh new growth is emerging.

Unseasonally hot dry weather in May 2019 that shrivels tender growth that is replacing tender growth damaged by early spring freezes.

An unusually hot dry spell in August 2019.

Cascades of rain from Hurricane Dorian in early September 2019.

Followed by days of unseasonal heat and “flash” drought.

Oh it wasn’t all bad. (See September Renaissance.) Sometimes weather was an ally and some plants grew fast and lush – greedy for what the elements could give – but some were not able to adapt to erratic jolts when weather became the foe.

Many native plants, like this amelanchier, or serviceberry, held sturdy against erratic weather

Katy’s thoughts: “Things are giving up. Whereas they might have tolerated one or two of those stresses, they can’t continue to take hit after hit. I’ve even had landscape architects tell me that gone are the days of a once-and-done landscape. No more 30-year landscape plans. The landscape is now ‘temporary!’”

We took our pittosporum hedge for granted. Note the contrast in size between the big, old one finally showing signs of recovery, and the small new one that is taking much too long to settle in.

Farmers, too, are distressed. Nick Maravell, owner of an organic farm in Buckeystown, Maryland, has this to say in an Organic Consumers recent e-newsletter:

“It used to be farmers would get together and talk about having a good year. Now we’re getting together and hoping for a normal year, and we haven’t had one in a long time. We’re getting what I call the broken record syndrome. Every few years we break another record . . .

“We go from the driest year on record to the wettest year on record back to back. We go from the coldest spring to the warmest spring back to back. We have these stretches of erratic, from a farmer’s perspective, unusual long hot spell, long cold spell. That never used to happen to us. I’ve been doing this 40 years and believe me, the climate has changed.”

There was strangeness in our garden, too. Our fringe trees bloomed well but defoliated later in the season

NPR, in a piece on winemaking in France, reports that “French vintners say heat, drought and erratic weather are altering the landscape and their centuries-old way of working.” High sugar content caused by dry summers spikes alcohol level in grapes, which threatens consistency. More troubling, unshaded grapes shrivel on the vine.

Rainy spells are longer and more severe, as are cold spells, especially in spring. Hail is more frequent. And three-hundred-year-old vines have died in successive heat waves. (To maintain consistency, the French wine governing body prohibits irrigation.) Now the hunt is on for heat-tolerant replacements.

And the weeds! Lately arrived weeds, emigres from warm climates, can spoil batches of wine if not policed vigilantly.

Do upstart weeds in vineyards echo exuberant weeds in gardens here?These days our weeds live the high life. They grow fast. They multiply fast.

Nandina ‘Flirt’ is a new addition to our garden. We are hoping that it will become a low hedge, 18 inches, that will be a reliable shield against weeds

Even mulching gives only temporary relief. Now the hunt is on for reliable groundcovers to shade them out: low varieties of nandina, like ‘Harbor Dwarf’ and ‘Flirt’ for sunny spots;  epimedium ( but it can be slow), umbrella-like giant hosta, and fast-growing autumn fern for shady spots.

Autumn fern is a reliable evergreen groundcover in our garden

Losses of favorite plants, slow rebound of damaged plants, and poor performance often can’t be explained. At first we blamed our losses on old age, poor siting, and pruning violations. But the plants in question have performed well for decades. Why are they suddenly stressed?

Our Yuletide camellia, a heavy bloomer,  mostly died back during Winter 2018, now showing signs of recovery. Our other camellias were not damaged

Here’s a summary of what has happened in our garden over the past two years.

  • Decades-old pittosporum died after the extreme-cold winter. Normally fast menders, damaged survivors were slow to recover
  • Cold-battered and broken, our now gnarled and twisted ‘Yuletide’ camellia has taken two seasons to give us hope that it is recovering – or maybe not, depending on next winter.
  • Fringe trees began to look parched and thin this growing season, practically shorn of leaves, even after a reasonably fine bloom. Ditto for our long established variegated and holly-leaved osmanthus and other small trees, now balding. Will they come back next year?
  • After magnificent bloom, our watermelon crepe myrtles suddenly and prematurely defoliated, cluttering paths with shriveled leaves.
  • Native hophornbeam trees died, seemingly rotted out, though growing in higher drier parts of our property.
  • An old wax myrtle we loved for its convoluted trunks died suddenly, leaving Wizard-of-Oz branches that we could not bear to cut down until recently.
  • Large, old Grayswood lace cap hydrangeas, centerpiece shrubs, frazzled after a change of exposure when we took down a dying crabapple and were unable to recover.
  • Camellias near the crabapple drowned in soil made sodden by the loss of its thirsty roots and rainfall that exceeded the soil’s capacity to drain.
  • And finally, a young ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese red maple we raised and shipped to Zone 7 New York City in spring, lovingly potted and nursed, crisped its leaves after unseasonal 18 degree temperatures in early November. Will the young tree  survive the hit that it took before it was able to harden off?

Shaggy bark on one of our few remaining hophornbeam trees

We can’t control the weather, but we are hoping to stay even. We still believe that the soil holds secrets of life that give the best protection to our plants. We ’ll keep nurturing it faithfully, so it can give back to plants.

For us it is a never-ending task of raking-shredding-mulching. But what a lovely product from all those leaves! Partly composted, they are a fast-acting tonic that helps regulate soil temperature and moisture and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. This mulch does not, however, vanquish weeds as well as hardwood mulch.

Sometimes we don’t want to do all that work. Then we simply rake leaves directly onto beds in mounds that will settle into layers after a rainfall or two. No shredding, weeds are smothered, and deep down, but more slowly, crumbly soil is being created the same way it happens in a forest. Kinda nice to know we are a working partner with Mother Nature.

Camellias in beds benefit from layers of leaves put down in the fall (C. sasanqua ‘Hana Jiman’ pictured). We’ve had no losses of these camellias, despite heavy infestation of tea scale this spring that took us by surprise. It is pretty much eradicated now after Bob’s diligent spraying with horticultural oil

Pruning at the right time, during winter dormancy or before spring growth, when plants are not working at top speed to put out leaves and flowers, will minimize shock. And we try to follow this schedule.  Sometimes we can’t.  When plants like azaleas and loropetalum, for eample, have exploded, apparentlyttaking advantage of the erratic weather, we have to take action.

Keeping them (and others) in bounds has been a challenge – a truckload of trimmings to the landfill once a week during the growing season. Will these plants eventually resent repeated chopping during growing seasons? Or will they rejoice?

Camelias, too, needed pruning this year, drastic thinning and trimming in some cases, but they’ve managed well, with healthy leaf and flower bud growth (C. japonica ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’ )

It’s all one grand experiment that warns us, now more than ever, that nothing in the garden is for keeps. We shouldn’t go bonkers trying to win the game of chess.

So I will revel in the splendid color and the surprises that fall gave us this year.

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The True Strange Tale of an Unlucky Rabbit

In Which We Meet Rabbit

One fine summer morning we opened the door to find a wild rabbit sitting on our front porch. Might I come in? he seemed to ask, nosing the interior the way rabbits nose, but very politely. We chatted in a friendly sort of rabbit-jabber. We assumed he was looking for something to eat, though we would later learn this was not the case. He listened with the patience of a rabbit.

Rabbit would become a regular on our front steps

Where had he come from? Had somebody raised him? Had he stepped out of a rabbit hole? We did not want to be rude, but we are not in the habit of drinking tea with rabbits, nor have we ever invited any into the house.

Now this is something to think about

So, rather inhospitably, I’m afraid – although he was still most polite and did not try to venture inside – we took turns standing guard while one or the other of us hunted up some carrots. Since they were small, we brought out a few and laid them on bricks.

Rabbit did not eat like he was hungry

He nibbled on one, and nibbled and nibbled and nibbled but barely took a bite. What was he doing? No, Rabbit, there is no strange potion in the carrot. After what seemed like a very long time, he finished it.

Where had this rabbit been all his life? He attacked a second with more proficiency, having decided, perhaps, that it was tasty and potionless. A third carrot he carried off. He had had enough of us.

Or he might simply ignore the carrots

He was handsome, that Rabbit, larger than the wild rabbits that grow up (or don’t get to grow up) in our garden. His fur was luxurious and smooth, and it covered thick folds of skin that begged to be petted.

We did not, out of respect for his semi-wildness, but mostly because he wouldn’t let us. Considering his size, we assumed he would need to eat a lot, but then again, he looked more like a sitter than a bounder.

Definitely a sitter, he would watch patiently while I potted plants

During the next few weeks, we would see him lounging on the front lawn. If we were working outside, Rabbit would silently appear and sit next to us. Once I felt something brush the back of my leg, and there he was, trusting that I would not step on him. Wheelbarrows and rakes did not bother him.

As weeks passed, Rabbit would bound over to us when we came out of the house, as though he had been waiting for us, and there was joy in his bounding. He did not come to beg. He seemed to want to be near us.

But we are softies, so we made a beggar out of him. We liked him as much as he liked us. So we brought out the carrots when he came round.

Action Shot!

He seemed to especially savor apples because he would race away with the prize if you gave him one. Well, more like hopping than racing, but we could see determination in his step.

Maybe, under certain circumstances, even Rabbit could win a race with Tortoise. When Rabbit got tired of us, he slipped under the shed, his midriff and hindquarters stretching and thinning, until he looked almost as skinny as Brer Rabbit.

Watermelon rinds look interesting

Now, here’s the riddle. Rabbit always appeared gentrified: well fed, well groomed, unruffled. Didn’t much care about eating.  In fact, he didn’t seem to know how or what to eat in our garden. He might browse a dead twig or a dead leaf before he dropped the dry stuff in distaste.

This old garden shoe might have some possibilities

Once he tried a fern. Unpalatable. He’d nibble a weed here and there, or lackadaisically chew a crispy stalk hanging over a walk.

What’s so interesting among the weeds?

Or he’d dig in rocks. Rocks? He ignored the usual deer and rabbit fare: azaleas, hydrangeas and droopy but still juicy hostas. Which was fine with us.

Ferns? Stones?

In Which Glimpse Little Rabbit

From early fall on, we watched another, quite different rabbit. He must have been the only one left from a late litter. He was always alone. Scrawny, small, and alone.

We didn’t see how he could make it, but each time we saw him, he looked bigger and stronger. He was another with a strange diet. The only damage I found was heavily nibbled chrysanthemum leaves. The usual rabbit fare seemed untouched. Which was fine with us.

Little Rabbit never stayed long enough to have his picture taken, but here are some places where he would not spend time (the lawn) and where he might like to hide

Little Rabbit was growing up lean and smart. He was, as they say, a survivor. We never saw him on the lawn, though that has always been a favorite browsing spot for rabbits.

He had retreats throughout the garden, thickets of shrubs where he could hide safely. When he ventured out in the open, he didn’t linger. He dashed. Little Rabbit would definitely win a race with Tortoise, except you wouldn’t know it because he’d always be under cover.

Front Yard Hideout for Little Rabbit

I would talk to Rabbit about Little Rabbit. I would tell him he should not hang about on paths and lawns out in the open in full view of predators. He should hide in thickets more often. And he should not be so friendly with people. He was simply too trusting. He should act more like Little Rabbit, who skedaddled as soon as he saw us.

Rabbit did not appear to care about my rabbit-jabber. He was, however, intrigued by Little Rabbit, who had never taken much notice of Rabbit.

One day Rabbit got up enough steam to lope after him, but Little Rabbit was having none of that and dashed, with dignity, I might add, into one of those thickets he frequented. He was a rabbit who knew how to take care of himself. Rabbit seemed to accept the rejection and came back to listen to more rabbit-jabber.

Side Yard Hideout for Little Rabbit

When I use the word “thicket,” I mean “thicket.” Leaf to leaf, branch to branch, thorn by thorn, our groupings of shrubs are packed: large hydrangeas, roses, azaleas, camellias, viburnum, forsythia, wax myrtle, and loropetalum, for instance. Perfect havens for rabbits when they tire of sunshine and lawn and seek a cozy nook away from predators. Even Rabbit used them once in a while. But not as often as I thought he should.

Little Rabbit’s Emergency Hideout after spending time in open space

So, while Little Rabbit would stay in hiding, Rabbit would willingly wait on a sunny path for me to come back with my camera. He would willingly sit for pictures, though he was not inclined to action shots.

Back Yard Hideout for Little Rabbit

Visitor to our home that Thanksgiving spent several minutes filming Rabbit while he ate carrots. We stood in a circle around him, gawking, as though carrot-eating were the equivalent of hang-gliding off a cliff. Another day, he participated in Facetime with our grandson, though his reticence was hardly conducive to animated conversation.

In Which there is a Commotion

It was not quite winter when it happened. We heard thrashing in a thicket. No other noises, just thrashing. We waited. A hawk half-limped, half-crawled out from under the brush. Ruffled and roughed up he was, and his wings were crimped and dragging. We thought he’d been in some sort of battle and had broken a wing.

Once out in the open, Hawk, probably a juvenile red-shouldered, managed to straighten up to his full size and stretch his wings and smooth his feathers. His magnificent wing span blocked full view of his head, but everything looked to be in good working order.

Yet when Hawk tried to take off, he seemed rooted to the ground. Hawk tried a second time. Still landlocked. Again, he tried but stalled. Had something gone wrong with balance, or navigation? Was there some internal damage we couldn’t fathom?

At last, Hawk took off and flew. We discovered the reason for the commotion in the thicket and his aborted attempts to fly. In his beak he had been clutching prey he could not manage. Once he gave up his quarry, shed those extra pounds, he could lift off with that majesty so characteristic of hawks.

We ran to the dropped prey. Maybe there was yet some life left, but it was too late. We recognized that lifeless body, oh, we recognized it.

It was smart, fleet  Little Rabbit who did all things as they should be done and had been deeply hidden in the thicket. In a twist of fate, he had the misfortune to be felled by a young hawk of the year, still learning how to target his quarry and not understanding the limitations of the hunt.

Diving into tangled bramble to catch prey that he could not hang onto was not a path to success. Hawk no doubt learned from this encounter, but smart, fleet Little Rabbit paid dearly for that lesson, and we will miss him.

We laid Little Rabbit in a depression in the woods and lightly covered him. Next day he was gone. Wild ways are unseen but efficient.

In Which We Learn More About Rabbit

A few months later, a neighbor stopped by and asked us how we liked his rabbit. He had seen him on our lawn, he said. He and his wife, a teacher, had raised three youngsters in the spring, two males and one female, who had the run of their fenced property. They would feed them apples left from school lunches. Aha! So many questions answered in a simple conversation.

But three’s a crowd. The male and female mated and Rabbit was chased out. Maybe he came visiting because he felt first-rate with us, We were usually around. We always welcomed him, never chased him, and that is why he greeted us so happily.

In case you are wondering, Hawk isn’t the only one who learned a lesson. Soon after the incident, Rabbit changed. Or maybe he simply grew old and wise. He took to being skittish, even with us. He avoided the front lawn and wide paths. He stayed mostly hidden. He came and went quickly. He no longer cared for rabbit-jabber.

Hard or a hawk to get to him here

Occasionally he would climb the porch steps to chew winter-purple leaves off clematis tendrilled around a post. But he took care to stay hunkered down.

Nothing like a snack of old clematis leaves

Sometimes he’d nose around, especially if it was cold. Hoping to be invited in? But we don’t drink tea with rabbits.

We don’t see him any more.

But we have our memories and our pictures

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September Renaissance

Unbidden Garden Pleasures

It never fails to surprise. Come September I fall in love with my garden again.

Spring is always first love, probably is for most gardeners, new and tender, impatient, welcome after a raw winter. Then sun-dried summers stress plants and bring their share of lovers’ quarrels.

It is September, after the garden and the gardener have mellowed, that brings reconciliation and joy.

We know autumn if here when mushrooms begin to pop up in the garden

The sun still looks like molten steel at midday, but it has slipped some, and crisp deep shadows shift among plants. A hint of tang comes through on damp, cool mornings, and plants respond casually, with tufts of growth here and there, though proud grasses beam in the sun and bumptious sprays of goldenrod give charm to roadsides.

But change is coming, change that spurs a-hurrying of life.

One sunny day, blue mist ageratum leaps into bloom. Yes, literally, leaps. It’s been a bother all season, weedy seedlings in spring and rangy lay-abouts all summer. Most gardeners wouldn’t put up with such shenanigans and every year I vow to take drastic action — tomorrow. Is their barely-month-long bloom really worth five months of tangle?

Blue mist ageratum with its fuzzy flowers is aptly named

By the time that hazy sky-blue wave cascades through flower beds in September I have my answer. I’ve completely forgotten that once I vowed to exorcise them from the garden.

It’s not just the blooms, though. It’s the visitors that come. Hundreds of them, insects — the kinds I like: wasps that fertilize flowers, and skippers, butterflies, bees– all having a marvelous time in the sun, testing and flitting, tasting and sipping, testing and flitting, and, incidentally, mating.

Fiery skipper pauses for a drink during a quiet time

I instinctively dodge as they weave around me when I jostle plants. They don’t waste a minute settling back down. Do they sense that it’s only her going by, the one with empty threats?

There’s more to September than bloom. The other day a scattered flock of warblers drifted in (if warblers can ever drift), hushed, except for subdued location chips, to case the garden for a few days.

They seemed to use a tattery swamp dogwood as their anchor. It’s a spreading, gnarly, multi-trunked tree, a one-of-a-kind, since its sisters in swamps are usually stunted from crowding and competition. It should be a standout now with ripening berries, but bugs like the leaves in fall, and, since warblers like bugs, they are scouting for bargains here.

It’s hard to pin warblers down. Warblers must be in some avian ADHD category, but I managed to spot. . .

Male redstart warbler. Wikipedia photo

. . .a redstart (how could I miss this warbler with its true Halloween colors, or its black-cat- yellow-eyes variation?)

Yellow-rumped warbler. Photo by Brian Sullivan

. . .a fleeting myrtle warbler (called yellow-rumped now by everyone but me. Who in the world came up with such a prosaic, unflattering replacement?)

Prothonotary warbler, plumage colors muted in fall. Photo by Rob and Ann Simpson

. . .and maybe a prothonotary warbler (resident nesters one summer, but conned into raising a cowbird instead, from an egg deposited by a burly mother.)

The sulfurs have been chasing each other for over a month now. They love red flowers, as do the Monarchs in fall. They all used to devour pineapple-sage nectar, but the plants are gone now, casualties of a couple of overly wet winters. These September days they skip from Turk’s Cap mallow to salvia guaranitica ‘Black-and-Blue.’

Salvia guaranitica blooms from late spring through fall

Right on schedule, rarely missing a mid-September visit, comes the Red-Spotted Purple  butterfly. Satiny blue, shimmery wing scales blend to drabber wing tones with a painter’s masterly touch.

Red-spotted purple, one of the Admiral butterflies. Photo by John Morgan

It’s easy to miss those tiny nail-polish red spots as I follow the butterfly’s low-flying trail to a starry goldenrod. Its host plant is wild cherry, which manages to find a toehold here, but I’ve never noticed the lumpy-looking caterpillars in spring.

For all the hurrying, there is peace in a September garden. If we’re not looking, we may trip over a wandering box turtle. There are four or five of them, but they don’t congregate at the informal feeding station near the porch any more. Long ago (August) we devoured the last of the large, luscious canteloupes from Rocky Hock, and the turtles have no more rinds to nibble.

One way to get around. Mating done, he’s gone. (Summer photo)

Our resident birds take full advantage of this lull between seasons to sample seeds or berries or insects off-guard. I leave seedheads of toppled green-eyed coneflower and phlox for their dining pleasure, but I pull perilla, in spite of, or maybe because of, its abundant seeds that beget unruly truants that edge out innocent plants wherever they find a toe-hold.

Aster tataricus with moudry grass, a native, both seed freely

The bright red male cardinal and his mate poke among shrubs, occasionally testing out a tune, but usually we see him before we hear him. The wren can fling out a rouser, and the thrasher may peal off some fancy mimicry, or, abruptly, the yellow shafted flicker may rend the air with raucous laughter.

Later in the season, we may spot the cardinal in among sparkleberry, shown here, or native American holly

Otherwise, September is quiet in a hurrying sort of way.

Yes, I love September. Even when September dips back into August, as it has this year, and rain refuses to give the garden a bath, and I have to drag the hose around while shriveled brown crepe myrtle leaves litter paths and the tulip tree I planted as a seedling thirty-three years ago defoliates on our lawn, and ferns brown and hydrangeas wilt.

When tea scale blights camellia leaves and lace bug stipples azalea leaves, and deer come out of the woods to devour mounds of hosta ‘Honeybells,’ and the hawk swings low in the sky, hunting, I still love September.

Here are some of my photos from Septembers present and past. I hope you enjoy them.

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Top Ten Secrets for Tidying Tree Trash after a Big Storm*

Caution: This is Not a How-To Manual
(You have to figure that out for yourself)

We don’t want to brag or anything, but with all the tropical storms, straight-line winds, tornadoes, lightning strikes and hurricanes that have passed over us in thirty-odd years, we have become pretty good at Tidying Tree Trash. Here are some of our secrets.

First Secret. We assess the mess. Where do we start? What tools do we need? What kinds of piles should we make? Where do we put the trash after we collect it? In short, we make a Specially Tailored Uberaction Plan In Detail.

This probably sounds pretty nerdy to you, but trust me, if you do this carefully, with the forethought and insight that are required, it will now be time for lunch and maybe a little nap before you have to get out and do any actual work.

Second Secret. Rakes are surprisingly efficient at tidying. If you want to be even more efficient, you can do the ambidextrous thing, that is switching sides as you rake to extend shoulder power. This will greatly amplify your raking prowess. Commendable! But do you really want to be the Super Man of Tree Trash?

No no no no! You should instead aim to be the Elmer Fudd of Tree Trash. This will keep shoulders, neck, arms and back happy. You do this by promising the kids in your family some big bucks for the raking job. If you don’t have kids of your own, bribe the neighbors’ kids. (Good luck getting any of them to work.) If you can’t get anyone to substitute-rake, at least send them to the drug store for a vat of linament and a case of aspirin.

Third Secret. We particularly focus on Tree Trash that people might trip on, especially litter on driveways and paths. We don’t want to deal with legal action from maimed mailmen. Tree Trash that is visibly poking out of shrubs in garden beds is also removed promptly, for purely aesthetic purposes, unless Hallowe’en is approaching.

We also avoid bushwacking in chigger-tick territory for obvious reasons. A year or so later, when we finally get around to gardening there, we’ll have some happy diversions. “Well, will you look at this. I wonder when this came down?”

Fourth Secret. As seniors we take our time. Not like those  young people who are speedy speedy speedy at getting things done. Curious, since they have so much time ahead of them, while we in our sunset years ramble about like we have all the time in the world.

Fifth Secret. We hydrate. In case you have been asleep lately, that means taking a drink of something or other now and then. This can be tricky these days. If you are alert to recent health reports, you probably know that caffeine, sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar substitutes, artificial flavors, assorted artificial colors with assorted numbers, micro-plastics, and other unpronouncable ingredients should be avoided, which eliminates pretty much any palatable drink.

Of course, water is always a possibility, but if it isn’t coming from some Shangri-la thousands of miles away — or worse yet — you don’t know where your water comes from, well .  .  .

So, the best bet is probably a good IPA or a vodka sour as the alcohol will sterilize your system and fuzz your tidy-tree-trash brain for the rest of the day.

Sixth Secret. A word about picking up sticks, and pine cones which can be major components of Tree Trash. Some people use a grabber and a pail, but that involves dexterity and equipment with moving parts. Others prefer the Pine-Cone Stagger, a series of lunges, squats and knee bends that mimic medieval back torture.

Whatever you do, if you need to bend over, be sure your posterior does not face the road. People like to cruise the neighborhood after a hurricane and gawk. You do not want perfect strangers to be discussing the size of your derriere over a beer.

Seventh Secret. We maintain strict denial at all times. We deny that we may be doing the same thing two or three weeks from now. We deny that we will most assuredly have to repeat the operation in late fall. We deny that there will be winter storms. Any wavering of denial requires immediate and extreme psycho-therapy. We will have to quit for the day.

Eighth Secret. We maintain strict focus at all times. No distractions. If we have forgotten to weed the garden during the past month, now is not the time to concern ourselves with the minor diversion of a weed-free garden. Unless, of course, the weeds are so robust we can’t separate them from Tree Trash. In which case, we ignore the entire mess.

Ninth Secret. We refer to our Specially Tailored Uberaction Plan In Detail at all times. It may be that we can make Tree Trash invisible by simply throwing it behind shrubs. (Care should be taken to choose shrubs that are not destined for the plant cemetery but are robust and full enough to hide a mound of trash.)

This is reminiscent of sweeping dirt under rugs, but it is far more eco-friendly. In ten years the whole mess will be part of the soil.

Tenth Secret. Finally, a word about costuming. It is important to wear proper attire while Tidying Tree Trash, which, as we mentioned above, can  involve lunges, knee bends, stretches and bend-overs. Here I am not referring to sturdy gloves, sturdy shoes, a sun hat, and safety glasses.

Far more important is the general appearance you present to the busy community of neighbors, gawkers, workmen, and real estate agents who may be enjoying a stroll or idling through. Women—and men—should do their utmost to look chic when working in a front yard.

Color-coordinated outfits,  smart work-out clothes and dazzling new running shoes, bought for the occasion, should impart a sense of glamour, like those old movies where housewives wore high heels to do the dishes. Onlookers will be left with the impression that you are in total control of your garden at all times and are just doing this for fun.

It appears that this pile of Tree Trash violates our Top Ten. It  does not. The spot happens to be home to a lively mix of mosquitos, chiggers, ticks and spiders. When told about the exceptional fauna here, visitors do a quick-steppin’ jig  to get away with nary a look around.

*Top Ten was inspired by Hurricane Dorian’s run through northeast North Carolina as a weak Category 1 that, fortunately, did no major damage to our communities.

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