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Got to get to that weedy patch today. Absolute priority. It’s gone so long the weeds think they have a right to hobnob with, no, be the boss of and push around my lovelies.
Someone has already called to ask if we’re going to the public meeting about the wind-farm. But I tell him, no, I’ve set my priority for the day, and nothing will get in my way. (I happen to be in favor of the wind farm.)
Before I get started, though, I really should water the pots with the sweet potato vines, and while I’ve got the hose, I might as well give the new guinea impatiens in the window box a drink. They melt so in this heat, and it’ll only take a minute.
My goodness, that double orange daylily, Kwanzo, I think it’s called, is almost done blooming. I love it, especially with rudbeckia, but it’s a rogue, always a surprise in the bed. Best dig those four upstarts out now before they drop their last blooms, and I forget they’re not some prize I’m coddling. This’ll only take a minute.
Now where is that shovel, did I forget to put it away again? Nope, it’s actually hanging where it should be.
This’ll be a snap. Well, sorta, I guess. They happen to have strong roots that are invading the entire bed. No problem, once I wrestle them out, it’ll take no time at all to cut them back, root prune them, and plunk them all in one large pot. Then they’ll be ready — for what, exactly, I’m not sure.
While I’m about those daylilies, I might as well pull out the ugly brown scapes on my favorite growers. It’ll only take a minute because I’m not cutting the plants down, as I often do – they still look too good.
Hmmm, these particular scapes seem pretty strong. I wonder if I could use them to prop up that hummingbird clethra that’s sprawling? (It probably is not getting enough sun.) Nope, won’t work. Best find some real metal stakes. Should only take five minutes.
Wouldn’t you know, now that I’ve uncovered the clethra, I find mugwort the thug, that awful chrysanthemum look-alike that weasels its way into every bed. And there’s mugwort’s partner, creepy lizard tail, muscling in. It’s a native that escaped our pond and is now putting down happy little rhizomes. I’ll do a quick pull on both of these and maybe that’ll slow them down. (Dreamer!) Just a couple of minutes.
While I carry the dreaded weeds into quarantine, I see that persicaria ‘red dragon’ has taken over the hosta bed. The combination looked great earlier in the season, for oh, maybe ten minutes, before the persicaria began to prop itself up over the hosta. Won’t take any time to get the pruners and nip and tuck, maybe pull them away.
Oops, too late, that one clump I cut was actually propping up the phlox.
Now the phlox need staking. I’m running out of metal stakes, so I have to roam the garden for some I can pull from other plants. What a nuisance, this was only supposed to take a minute.
O dear, the crepe myrtles are wilting. Should have put them in bigger pots, I guess. I’d better stop the stake-hunt now and water them before their buds dry out. But I won’t repot them today, have to stay on track.
Which reminds me, I need to repot the heuchera from Linda so I can keep an eye on it in the porch where it is shaded. Don’t dare plant it out in this hot weather, can’t trust my memory to water on schedule. And the hibiscus Janice dug from her yard – looking a bit wilted. Soak it in the pond and put it by the back door so I can watch it. Well, that took no time at all.
Ah, here’s a couple stakes I can take from the fennel, it’s so big now, they can’t hold it back. But what do I see next to it?
Bumblebees all over catmint blooms. I really should try to get some pictures. They’re so efficient, and they move so fast – try, reject/sip, fly, try, reject/sip, fly – I can’t keep up with them, but it’s so nice to see them busy and happy. Take just a moment.
Now were did I put those stakes? And what did I want them for?
Bob says there’s a leak in the mister watering system. Should I go help him find it? I’m not crazy about getting soaked.
Well, I’ll give him some moral support. While I’m half-heartedly doing the rah-rah thing, I can cut back the nearby shasta daisies. Now where did I leave those pruners?
My eye catches a hint of glitter in the soil. Ah, over there! Closer look, shucks, no, that’s only flowing water. Hey, I yell, here’s the leak, it’s under the yaupon holly hedge. I figure I’m off the hook now and I can go look for the pruners, but no, not until I hold the hedge out of the way while Bob fixes the leak.
Free now to do a pruner-search, I wander the garden, retrace my steps. Let’s see, daylilies, persicaria, clethra, fennel. On my route I find the stakes, so I fix the phlox. That’s something.
Sigh, I’ll never manage my pruners. I garden by holding them in my hot little hand like a security blanket and I carry them everywhere – bad habit — until I put them down without thinking. With luck they are where I remember, but sometimes the memory and the pruners just slip away.
Maybe in this pail of weeds? Nope, but the cultivator is there.
That weedy bed, you ask? Well, you can see I can’t tackle it today, I have an emergency on my hands. That’s tomorrow’s priority . . . perhaps.
For a brief moment, our garden became the Forest of Arden (though without “the oak, whose boughs were mossed with age”), while Katie and Schuyler strolled its paths. In another time and age, they could have been characters stepping out of one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.
Prom season is here, that gala fifth season tucked between spring and summer that celebrates youth and promise. Juniors anticipate a perfect evening to cap their next-to-last year of high school. Seniors anticipate a last fling before that first summer of the rest of their lives.
Tradition decrees that you wear your best, a special corsage, a boutonniere, a wispy wreath, always fresh flowers that seem never to fade. The high school gym is dressed to the nines and bouncing to the music of your generation. And, of course, there is the memorable after-party with friends.
The rainy spring had produced lush bloom on azaleas, clematis, fringe trees, viburnum and iris, and the woods were deep and green. So, despite its flaws, the garden was appealing, particularly in the evening, when the sun cast gold across the bowers. Still, we’d never thought about our garden — always a work in progress, with wheelbarrows of weeds and carts of cut limbs, and patient lines of plants in limbo — as a setting for prom-goers. Yet neighbor, friend and photographer Pam, who is a gardener herself and has a creative eye, managed to conjure magic from the moment.
I’ll say no more. Let the photos tell the story.
This is the time for gardens to sing
This is the time for April showers
This is the time when Gardens are King
This is the time when gardeners garden.
Put on your gloves and your high rubber boots
Muck in the mud, don’t trample the shoots
Get out the trowels, tug on the rakes
Pull up the dead, replace all the stakes
Not much time for crowing
How the garden’s growing
There are all those seedlings
There are all those weedlings
I try so hard to make the cut
My knees get black, my back is broke, but
They grow too quick
They grow too thick
How then can I clear out the glut?
Oh, this is the time for gardens to sing
This is the time for April showers
This is the time when Gardens are King
This is the time when gardeners garden.
Buy triple ten and scatter like grape-shot
Unholster the pruners, nip on the spot
Stir up the soil and pile on the compost,
Watch the plants grow and get ready to boast
How those worms are dancing
See those ants advancing
There is too much chewing
I smell trouble brewing
They’re ravenous, they lunch all day
Shred perfect leaves, to my dismay
Those greedy bugs
That swarm of thugs
How then can I keep them at bay?
Oh this is the time for gardens to sing
This is the time for April showers
This is the time when Gardens are King
This is the time when gardeners garden.
Oh, this is the time when gardeners garden. . .
Urban Oases and Millennium Park
Dateline October 2015. Susan and I had both read Erik Larson’s absolutely spellbinding book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that changed America. Our curiosity was piqued. A visit to Chicago was in order.
The book chronicles late 19th century Chicago and the turbulent race to create a World’s Fair in 1893 that would put Chicago over the top in the eyes of the world.
The White City, of course, is the Fair; the Devil is an archetype serial killer who fed on the hustle-bustle of the Fair.
Now, why in the world do I bring up this book in a gardening post?
Because Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame designed the Exposition’s landscape? Well, no. Unfortunately, most of what he did has been obliterated (though Jackson Park, the Wooded Island, and Osaka Gardens, features of the fair, are now going through major rehab, with a completion date of 2017, and the American Institute of Architects considers Wooded Island one of 150 great places in Illinois.)
Because we stayed at the old Congress Plaza Hotel, said to be haunted, where the Devil snared victims? Curiously, we never thought about the connection. We booked the hotel because it was inexpensive and convenient: where Michigan meets Congress.
Because the vision that Chicago could eventually live up to its founding motto, “urbs in horto,” or “City in a Garden” was inspired by this World’s Fair? Yes! The Exposition of 1893 was a watershed in city planning that took fire across the country.
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Daniel H. Burnham, Director of Works, World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893. Burnham married himself to his credo. He committed years to bringing about an Exposition that dazzled the world. The magic of the White City stretched imaginations and inspired visions of what cities could look like.
Instead of soot and noise, planners and people began to dream of light and beauty in cityscapes. A City Beautiful movement sprang up, and Daniel Burnham designed a plan for Chicago that would replace railroad sidings and stockyards with a ribbon of lake shore parks for people — concert goers, baseball fans, art lovers, ice skaters, strollers and picnickers, and gardeners, too. Today, there are 570 parks in Chicago covering 8,000 acres.
We wondered what we’d see in October. We stepped out of our hotel on to Michigan Avenue, just minutes from the Chicago Art Institute.
Despite risk of attack by brigades of revved motors, we had to stop and photograph exuberant islands of plants dividing the grand boulevard, inspired, we learned later, by the City Beautiful movement.
Plant palettes range from grasses to exotics, hedges to hydrangeas.
We would see these combinations repeated in oases across the city, lovely garden islands punctuating concrete.
Blooms on paniculata hydrangeas, a staple in these gardens, were muted now, but tropicals were bold and flambuoyant.
We guessed we would see a lot.
(After an all-day marathon in the Art Institute.)
We drifted into Millennium Park, a slice of Grant Park, and what a slice! We were drawn not so much by tourist imperative, but by its inviting design and lovely plantings.
It’s the newest and most visited addition to the lake shore greenbelt, and it’s hard to believe it tops a 2,000-car parking garage, which, in turn, is stacked above Illinois Central railroad lines and a Meta station. So, Chicagoans didn’t eliminate railroads along the lake shore. They just hid them, along with the memories of industrial wastelands that sullied once pristine wetlands.
This is a classy park. It should be. Fully half of the roughly 500 mill it cost came from Chicago biggies: the McCormick Foundation, Boeing, Chase, Wrigley, the Hyatt Hotels family and the Crown Family.
There were 91 million-dollar-plus donors, including McDonald’s, AT&T and BP. Here is an outstanding example of public-private partnership that worked despite fits of acrimony and charges of cronyism.
Anchoring the north end of the park is the mammoth, ultra modern, ultra popular Pritzker amphitheatre, a complex structure of steel plates arcing over a manicured playground for concert goers.
Walk south a few minutes and you come to The Bean. It’s so beloved by Chicagoans that its formal name, Cloud Gate, is rarely heard. What fun!
It’s a gathering place for tourists and anyone else who wants to see the city – and themselves – reflected in — a gigantic bean (or cloud) of highly polished steel plates.
Then there is Crown Fountain, more fun: two fifty-foot towers of streaming water separated by a long narrow pool that invites toe-dabbling in nice weather.
Giant videos on the towers paint glowing portraits of Chicago residents while water cascades.
Some crafty humor here. If you are patient, you will see lips pucker and spit before one image dissolves and another appears.
Without intruding, it flows and unites, imperceptibly leads us, and finally, invites us to set a spell, guiltless, in a busy city.
Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole is quite the adventure, but it wasn’t much different from winding through the maze that lies a few inches beneath our garden spades.
Of course, if you really want to follow Alice, there is this niggling problem of size. Alice, you may remember, drank from mysterious bottles, or ate cakes made from pebbles, or nibbled pieces of mushroom to change her size. Well, consuming items that do not have dietary labels or wear dates is not my cup of tea (reference to “Alice” intended).
Happily, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago opens up these wonders with no suspicious toxins in an exhibit called Dig It.
We didn’t intend to Dig It. We wanted to compare this midwest gem of a museum with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, our stomping grounds of years back.
Yup, it’s just as grand, maybe even more spacious, with arches and vaulted ceilings and balconies in the atrium, fine old display cabinets of polished cherry wood, and dioramas that carried us to magic-carpet destinations, and, oh, those gemstones.
We wanted to meet Sue, too. It turns out that Sue is a Tyrannosaurus rex of superlatives: the largest, the most complete, the best preserved, the most famous.
Nobody knows if Sue was a boy or a girl. She’s called Sue because a Sue (Hendrickson) discovered her while examining a cliff in South Dakota. Here is a picture of the 67-million-year-old Sue. She was 28 years old when she died.
All this was a lot to absorb, so we decided a bathroom break was in order, which is when we discovered Dig It.
Curiouser and curiouser we followed the signs and wound through a special tunnel of imagination that shrank us down to the size of a penny, or maybe less, all without strange potions.
What Susan and I saw there was the invisible life in the subway of our gardens. What surprises us most? The creatures we meet are every bit as fantastic as Alice’s acquaintances. There’s one BIG difference, though. All these creatures play a role in creating or enriching soil. They mine, they dig, they transform nitrogen, or they are undertakers, disposing of the dead.
There’s a fierce, devoted mama earwig who seals herself underground to feed her babies and lick them clean, all twenty or thirty, or more of them. That ominous tail? She rattles it to warn trespassers away.
There are ants, true miners of the soil, thousands of them nesting in networks of tunnels, stirring up the soil like earthworms, bringing minerals to plant roots.
There’s a mole cricket who was born to dig, front feet shaped like shovels that breast stroke through the soil, creating winding tunnels to find worms and grubs to eat — or to keep from being eaten — or even to sing to a female.
There’s a wolf spider who commutes from burrow to daylight to find food. In Dig It he’s ready to suck the insides of a June beetle larvae, a fat white grub with stubby legs who would otherwise molt successfully and live as an adult above ground.
There’s a messy-looking rotten root, fungi and bacteria busy digesting it, mites and springtails grazing on the decomposers, and predators like a rove beetle hunting the grazers. Here is the underground food web in action.
There are rhizobia, not creatures, but unsung soil bacteria living in roots of plants. They transform atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants like peas and beans can use.
There is a crayfish who looks like a giant lobster, and who, in real life, will burrow down to the water table so he can bathe his gills in water and get the oxygen he needs.
But don’t take our word for it. Have a look for yourself.
Early November, Lowe’s Home Improvement was selling agastache ‘Purple Fortune’ almost bloomed out and looking like a ragamuffin, for one dollar. Like the perennial optimists we gardeners are, I rose to the challenge and bought two. Yes, I can coax these cast-offs back to good purple fortune.
Most gardener-resuscitators would immediately cut back plants like these. Such good husbandry never occurred to me. Nor did my usual excuse for leaving spent blooms come to mind – that I might want to collect their seeds. I squeezed the plants into a postage-stamp spot, figured they’d probably spill over next year and vex me. But why plan(t) ahead? In fact, I gave myself points for planting promptly and not consigning forgotten cast-offs to plant purgatory.
A day later a monarch butterfly was sipping from the scant, pallid blooms. Well, now, wasn’t I the canny gardener. My lumbering movements startled this light-weight. She flew up and circled. She was perfect, fresh from her chrysalis, but she looked very very small against the gray sky, and this was, after all, November, and she had miles to go before winter.
Hey there, I said when she landed again, why don’t you try that nice low butterfly bush—it’s blooming quite respectably. The skippers seem to like it. She flew off. I walked on. She settled down. I passed her in my planting rounds. She flew. And so she danced this jittery dance each time I went by. I never did see her on the butterfly bush.
It took a while before I could tell with any certainty that she was a lady. She wouldn’t give me more than a passing glance. Conserve your energy, I suggested, but she remained wary of this pesty giant.
The vein lines in her wings gave me the first hint, boldly etched in black, unlike the male’s more delicate traceries. A closer look confirmed that the telltale spot of dark scales on the hind wings that mark the scent glands of the male were missing.
One day she was gone. The dance was over. Bon voyage, I silently called, melodramatically envisioning the winds that would buffet My Monarch under a lonely sky. Then I met her round the corner sampling sprawling lantana blooms. So much for drama.
A week or so later our holly-leaf osmanthus came into lavish bloom, a first for this ten-year-old. An eastern sun was sidling among the trees, casting its spotlight on buttons of small, oh so fragrant flowers climbing stiff branches. The wands of white flowers shined. Crowds of insects zipped in and around them, and sunshine reflected off their bodies and they sparkled like scatterings of gold dust.
Among them was My Monarch, still here, quietly sipping. In sunlight, her wings glowed like fine cathedral glass. She was gone a moment later, but that image will register long in the camera of my mind.
I looked for her next on the lantana, but it was shaded and vacant, a shuttered neighborhood tavern in early morning.
Insects that take energy directly from sunlight have little patience for plants in shade.
A few feet away, in the sun, pineapple sage was blooming with fire, and here was the carnival. There was My Monarch in staccato action, moving from bloom to bloom. Topsy turvy much of the time, legs clasping and reclasping each flower, wings folded or fluttering for balance, antennae waving, proboscis going deep, or maybe not, hard to say with all the acrobatics, but so determined to drink from those long, tubular flowers she never noticed me. I could have reached out and picked her off. (The slide show below catches more acrobatics, but stills don’t capture her boundless energy.)
A second monarch sailed in. They could have been twins, but this one flitted. Side trip to the chrysanthemums (less agility required for sipping and a reliable pinch-hitter when frost blights the garden, but maybe second-rate nectar?). Back to the sage.
Once the two flew up and circled each other. (Checking out sex? Travel plans? Or just a friendly hello.) Otherwise, their operations were solo.
I leaned in to watch the late arrival. She jumped to another flower. I took a step and she flew up. I moved again and she left to settle on the farther edge of the patch. Gave me pause. Which one was My Monarch?
To complicate matters, a third female joined the carnival, not so dedicated to these sage blooms that require so much work for a meal.
Within moments she was up on the persimmon, wings spread, soaking up sunshine before she left. Was she the one I later saw on camellia blooms?
There were other visitors to the carnival. Giddy, fidgety, unremarkably brown skippers with wings akimbo when they alight, or so it seems.
If skippers went to psychiatrists, they would be labeled ADHD and prescribed a chill-out on opium blooms.
They rarely settle and sip, instead they dive and zoom, chase and circle each other with such speed a mere mortal can’t single one out of a bunch.
A solo cloudless sulphur fluttered in. Earlier in the season bright yellow sulphurs supped long and greedily on the sage, then disappeared.
As I watched, six or eight or more began to converge on the patch, probably freshly-hatched from eggs laid by September diners.
They tackled the sage with skill and inherited experience. No struggling, no maniacal balancing acts, no flailing legs. Their table manners were positively fastidious.
The carnival brought back memories of the year we discovered monarch caterpillars chewing on milkweed in our ditch garden. We worried there weren’t enough leaves to go around. Did the fat ones live and the skinny ones shrivel? Four or five managed to pupate on swamp iris blades near the milkweed.
We watched as their crumpled reincarnations emerged and they pumped up their wings to fly for the first time and somehow we felt they belonged to us and our patch.
One day they were gone. Just like that. No goodbyes. No thanks for the milkweed memories. Just gone.
That was in September when food was still abundant and a flight to Mexico seemed reasonable.
Now I wondered if faltering supplies of flowers under short-sun days could fortify our three sippers on their way to Mexico. The sage here keeps pumping out blooms in pleasantly warm weather, but each day the carnival of flowers thins.
It appears (to me) that nectar is most abundant only at certain times in a flower’s life, further slicing the window of appeal to sippers.
I keep urging foragers to seek the freshest blooms, but they do not take my silent advice and may even gravitate to inauspicious time-worn blooms instead. There must be some secret I am missing.
I apologize. I have meandered and must return you to today’s carnival. The buzzing has been there all along, but I am only now waking up to its music.
It’s a familiar sort of buzzing, as Winnie the Pooh might say. A chattery buzz that signifies joy and busyness. Two decades ago I used to hear this buzz when burford holly bloomed in spring and glossy abelia bloomed in summer. I have not heard it since, though I listen and listen.
Honeybees! Yes, they are here, the first I’d seen in years. I’m surprised to see them working red blooms with deep throats. These flowers have two strikes against them: honeybees don’t see red, and their mouth parts are much too short to reach deep for nectar.
Honeybee color vision is shifted toward the blue end of the spectrum. They see ultraviolet rays but red becomes black. I’m betting there’s some blue hidden in those sage blooms (dying blooms become soft fuchsia), and some ultraviolet, too. Ultraviolet rays can create patterns and runways, invisible to us, that guide a honeybee to dinner. Do the bees see red sage as deep blue?
Granting the color-appeal of sage blooms, how could they get to the nectar? They looked to be biting the base of each bloom, but bees don’t bite. They worked with speed and deftness, not biting, but nudging petals apart at the base to reach that tiny pool of nectar. Doggedly they visited flower after flower, testing, sipping, rejecting, omitting, re-testing (absentmindedly?). Like the monarchs, they worked blooms upside down, clutching at petals in fast, frantic gestures.
One honeybee was so giddy she scurried around the floor of the deck, furiously poking at fallen petals. I watched her until I could stand the wasted motions no more, and though I usually don’t interfere, I gave her a little swat which lifted her to real live blooms. She was soon lost in the tangle.
A few, very few, bees had gathered pollen into dull yellow balls safely tucked into baskets on their legs. Pistils hang on to the flowers, attached by long white styles, but stamens that carry pollen are mostly missing. Only one bloom out of many yielded two stamens, each with a tiny platform that held the barest dusting of pollen. How long it must take to fill that pollen basket.
The weather is chilled. Sunshine is fickle. Flower gleanings are lean. The monarchs are gone. A few dedicated honeybees remain, along with some wispy wasps barely visible among aging flower stems.
A couple of inches of cold rain precede tonight’s cold front. I empty the rain gauge. I find a lifeless honeybee floating and I wonder what stories she could tell. Next morning I find a motionless sulphur berthed on the bark of a sweet gum tree.
The carnival is closing for winter.