My friend Leila has been fighting stage four cancer for several years now. Thanks to her extraordinary response to experimental drugs, she has battled the tiny tumors that remained after surgery to a virtual standstill.
After she recovered from her initial surgery, I persuaded her that she needed gardens on the sunny flatter side of her new house perched on the top of a rocky North Carolina Piedmont ridge dominated by a canopy of white oaks and a ground cover of wild grape vines. Leila had never gardened. She was always too busy traveling to remote corners of the planet, first working for the Peace Corps, then the World Bank. Her speciality was helping disenfranchised groups (often women) start small businesses that would generate income used to support families.
I thought the gardens would be an excellent form of horticultural therapy for Leila, providing her with beautiful flowers that would draw wildlife to her door and light work that would get her moving in fresh air as she planted, weeded, and watered. Leila loved the idea, and over the years, the two beds created with help from strong friends and occasional hired helpers have become filled with a diverse array of spring bulbs, native wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs both native and non-native — all chosen by Leila for the emotional response they created in her. Some were old friends from childhood, and many were chosen for her aesthetic response to them. Probably because of the location of the beds on a hilltop in the middle of a forest, during the growing season her gardens are alive with fluttering butterflies, stalking praying mantises, and busy native bees and wasps. In short, the gardens have worked exactly as I had hoped they would for Leila — until this summer, when Leila’s health declined.
It seems to me that fighting cancer can become a frustrating game of whack-a-mole, wherein the steps taken to quell the cancer create new challenges that can become as debilitating as the original disease. About two months ago, Leila developed headaches that have become increasingly severe. One eye no longer tracks correctly, which creates such severe double vision and vertigo that she has trouble walking. She hopes to have some definitive answers — and treatments — for these new issues very soon, but for the last several months, her normal activities have been significantly curtailed. Her gardens were understandably neglected.
Leila has not been up to socializing, but a few weeks ago I came to her house to drive her to a doctor’s appointment. It was then that I saw her overgrown gardens. The person Leila had hired to help her maintain the beds had quit on her unexpectedly earlier in the season, and Leila had not felt up to finding someone else. She expressed her dismay at the state of her once-beautiful gardens.
The beds are too large and were too overgrown for me to tackle by myself. I am woefully behind on tending my own gardens these days, and abundant rains have amplified the weeds a thousand-fold. That’s when an angel whispered in my ear, “What about Leila’s neighbors?”
Leila had told me about the neighborhood community in which she lives. They all know each other, and even have community seasonal celebrations from time to time. And as it happens, I know one of Leila’s neighbors fairly well, because she only recently retired from working at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. I took a chance and wrote to her about Leila’s illness and neglected gardens. That was all it took. She and her husband sent out a note to the neighborhood and nearly instantly, volunteers for a workday materialized.
We settled on yesterday. The weather was phenomenal, with skies hinting of fall — with low humidity and lower-than-normal morning temperatures. There were so many volunteers yesterday that I didn’t get a final head count. I think it was somewhere between 12 and 15. Some neighbors even brought their children, who pulled weeds as enthusiastically as their parents. It was, frankly, amazing. In addition to all of Leila’s neighbors, whose names I didn’t always catch (sorry), three of my Facebook friends appeared to help. Leslie and Beth are both serious gardeners and were thus able to help folks discern weed from desired plant. And the third Facebook pal, Sally, also recently retired from the North Carolina Botanical Garden, where she was known far and wide for her expertise in identifying weed and native plants. I was thrilled to have her there to guide Leila’s neighbors as we all worked to restore order to Leila’s beds.
It was Sally who immediately noticed a pernicious annual weed recently introduced through the nursery trade that is so aggressive it must be collected and thrown away in trash bags when found. If you simply add Hairy Crabweed to a compost pile, it will go to seed and spread everywhere. Volunteers filled a half dozen trash bags with the weed, so we hope we have at least slowed down its reappearance in Leila’s gardens.
One neighbor arrived early with his mower and weed-eater. He quickly cut back the grass growing in Leila’s driveway and along the rocks bordering the garden beds, making it much easier to access the beds and less likely that the driveway grass will invade the beds. At Leila’s request, we cut back overgrown shrubs and pruned back spent wildflowers. When all the weeds were pulled and plants pruned, it was easy to maneuver between plants to spread the fresh mulch that had been delivered the day before. Many hands made for light work. I don’t think anyone was more than pleasantly tired at the end of the two-and-a-half hours it took to complete our tasks.
While all that work was going on, Leila’s neighbor, Stephanie, and her husband (whose name I have forgotten — sorry), worked on rearranging the planters on Leila’s deck so they could set up the new grow bag Leila had acquired. Due to heavy deer predation, Leila gave up this year on growing summer vegetables in her garden beds and instead grew them in a large grow bag on her deck. The plants are thriving, so she decided she wanted to try some fall veggies in a new grow bag. Stephanie and her husband set up the grow bag and added the three kinds of soil amendments Leila uses. The filled bag is ready for planting when Leila feels up to it and the weather has cooled a bit more.
When the volunteers had finished their work, we were left with the remaining mulch piled in the middle of Leila’s driveway, where the delivery person had dumped it. Leila’s neighbors grabbed their shovels and wheelbarrows and relocated every speck of leftover mulch to an out-of-the-way spot nearby.
Leila’s neighbors arrived at 9:00 a.m. yesterday morning. By 11:30, they were strolling back down Leila’s driveway, pushing the wheelbarrows and carrying the tools they had used to transform Leila’s gardens. Quiet descended on the top of the hill so quickly that it all felt a bit like a dream to me. I was glad I had taken photos to prove it was not a dream.
Lately, the news has upset me so much that I only listen to the local TV newscasts long enough to hear the weather. Then I turn it off. To keep up with larger events, I scan newspaper reports online. Somehow, reading horrifying news is easier than hearing about it, probably because it is easier to skim it briefly. Frankly, the news has shaken my faith in humanity — so much perversion of truth for selfish ends, so much inhumane treatment of fellow humans. But yesterday, my faith was restored.
I think most folks are basically good souls who long to make better worlds for themselves and their children. That instinct can become dulled by TV and internet broadcasts designed to manipulate minds and separate us, denying the power of community. Yesterday, I was privileged to witness that power firsthand.
Thank you to Nancy and Chuck, Alan and Julie, Stephanie and spouse, Jennie, Raj, and all the other neighbors who came out yesterday to help Leila. Special thanks to my Facebook pals, Leslie, Beth, and Sally, who also generously gave their time to this effort. And a big shout-out to Cosi, Leila’s dearest friend, who provided volunteers with cool water, lemonade, and an array of fruits and other snacks.
I know Leila has been deeply touched by your act of love, as I have been. May this love spread to communities everywhere.
In my region of central North Carolina, it has been a very sparse year for butterflies and moths. The local lepidopterists (folks who study this group of insects) suspect that an especially severely cold winter followed by a wet early spring may be responsible for the dearth of this insect group. This is not just bad news for those of us who enjoy watching colorful butterflies drift in clouds from flower to flower. It is very bad news for the ecosystem, because myriad species of animals — most especially nesting birds — rely exclusively on the larvae of this group (caterpillars) to feed their young. Caterpillars are the perfect baby bird food — packed with protein and other key ingredients that insure that chicks grow quickly to fledgling stage, where they become less vulnerable to predators. In fact, caterpillars are the only food parent birds of familiar species such as Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Chickadee, and Carolina Wren can use; their chicks require the specific nutrients in those proportions to grow and fledge.
The well-known classic, Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson warned the world about what happens when insects disappear from ecosystems. The banning of DDT saved our birds that time. A more recent classic, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, by Douglas W. Tallamy, details specifically which species of insect rely on which species of native plants. The list is long and alarming — at least to me — because many species of insects rely exclusively on only one species of plant to feed their larvae. If that plant species is unavailable, the insects that rely on it cannot complete their life cycles. If the host plant species becomes widely unavailable (as species of Ash trees are becoming now, due to devastation by the non-native Emerald Ash Borer), insects that rely on those species will disappear.
I was delighted to spot this fresh-looking Juniper Hairstreak dining on Swamp Milkweed in my pollinator garden yesterday. This small butterfly is often overlooked, because of its soft green color, but it is relatively common in the Piedmont region of North Carolina because its larval food plant — Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is also relatively common. On my five acres, we are lucky to have a number of 40-foot mature specimens. They provide shelter for birds and other creatures, their bluish “berries” (actually cones) are beloved by Cedar Waxwings and other birds, and their sturdy shade and deep green color make this evergreen species well-suited for any landscape. If sited where air flow can stagnate, a colorful fungus that uses this species as an alternate host can appear, but I solved this issue in my yard simply by limbing up the trees to permit better air circulation.
References tell me that male Juniper Hairstreaks linger on branch tips of their host tree until a female is attracted. Females lay single eggs on the tips of branches, which eventually hatch to become very well-camouflaged caterpillars similar to the one in this link. I’ve never seen one on my trees, but then again, I’ve never gone looking for them either.
But the presence of this fresh-looking specimen on my Swamp Milkweed yesterday tells me that my Red Cedars have been playing host to green caterpillars that have likely been helping to feed the three broods of Eastern Bluebirds reared by the ambitious parents that nested on my property this year.
In a world so filled with darkness these days, the appearance of this petite green butterfly gives me at least small hope for my planet’s future.
One of the great imponderables of gardening life: Why does it take so long for the first tomato of the season to ripen? And then when it does, why does it take forever for the rest of the tomatoes to transform from hard green to juicy red?
Amidst the heavy harvest of Fortex pole beans, one Sweet Treats cherry tomato was ready yesterday. It was consumed with great ceremony at last night’s dinner — one half going to Wonder Spouse, the other to me. It was so good!
But now the waiting begins in earnest. So many green tomatoes, so few signs of color change — except for yesterday’s delicious outlier. Somehow the memory of its perfect tomato flavor must satisfy us for — who knows how long?
All the tomato plants are still very actively growing. I tie new growth to the trellises daily. The undersides of my thumbnails are stained dark green from using my nails to snip off unwanted suckers as I tie my enthusiastic charges. When I wash up, the soap suds turn yellow-green from the tomato pigments that coat my hands as I groom the plants.
I’ve been doing this — growing tomatoes — for over four decades now. The routine is the same every summer. About fifteen or so summers ago, I wrote a poem about growing tomatoes. I hope you’ll indulge me as I share it with you here.
There they go again.
This year I swore I’d keep them under control —
every sucker pruned,
every new shoot tied to a support.
I thought I had them tamed.
Obediently, they clasped their cages —
yellow flowers nodding
from the weight of visiting bees.
Today, the riot is well underway.
An antigravity avalanche of green
shoots skyward, sideways, all ways —
like a group of guilty children scattering
in all directions at the approach of an adult.
I can almost hear them giggling.
So here I am once again —
This is not a task for timid souls.
You must wade right into the plants,
disregarding spiders and sticky aphids.
You must show no fear as you use a firm hand
to tie them to their supports.
Emerging from the struggle,
sweaty and coated in green tomato tang,
I bow to my partners.
Soon they will offer me heavy red globes
to transform into refreshing summer salads,
and fragrant rich sauces to freeze for winter feasts,
certain to fuel warm dreams
of summer sambas with tomatoes.
Happy Summer, everyone. May the fruits of your labors bring you as much delight as mine bring to me.
* I hope you enjoyed this repeat of a post from 2013.
I always carry my camera with me when I step outside this time of year, even if I’m just walking the 100 yards to the mailbox. If I don’t bring it, some butterfly, bee, bunny, or bird does something photo-worthy that I don’t catch if I’m unprepared. These shots are what I caught today.
I spent the morning working in the vegetable garden. I needed to work longer, but the sun is ferocious, the humidity unforgiving. Yesterday, I finally harvested our first squash and first two eggplants. We ate them last night and I can report that they were delicious. Today, I picked another eggplant, decided to give a couple of squash one more day to fill out, exhorted the tomato plants bent low with the weight of green orbs to hurry up and ripen, and rejoiced in sighting the first bean flowers on all three varieties I’m growing. A little photographic documentation follows. To enlarge a photo and see its caption more easily, click on it.
To get to the vegetable garden, I travel through the front yard and pollinator gardens. Here’s a sample of what I saw today.
In the center of my front yard, the Chinese Pearl-bloom tree commands full attention as it nears peak bloom.
We especially enjoy this time of year because of the near-daily emergence of tiny new amphibians from the front water feature. A few days ago in the early morning after a night-time shower, Wonder Spouse and I counted 25 hiding on various plants growing nearby. I suspect that most are Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, but I’ve heard other amphibians singing lustily beside the pond at night too, especially Narrow-mouthed Toads. When they are this tiny, though, I have no idea how to tell them apart.
Every day brings new discoveries, fresh food, and hard work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Gardeners are time travelers. Our ties to good earth, green plants, and all the creatures that rely on them anchor our bodies while simultaneously transporting our minds through a river of time that flows both ways, forward and back. When we plant a seed or a young tree, we see in our minds what that plant will become. When we see a mature oak, its full green branches laden with acorns, our minds travel back to the time when the acorn that became the mighty oak was planted. As I plant and tend a garden, I slip into the timestream, seeing clearly the ripe tomatoes I will pick in a few weeks, ivory flowers that will perfume the air when a Bigleaf Magnolia attains blooming size, and the berry-eating birds that will flock to the holly and viburnum fruits produced by the shrubs I settle into the ground today.
Experienced gardeners and other adept readers of the land, such as ecologists, slip easily into the Green World timestream as we go about our lives. Visions of past and future landscapes unfold with our footsteps; trees and rocks whisper their stories to us.
Such was the case when I first encountered a gnarled tree with heart-shaped leaves standing stoically beside the pond of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site on the grounds of a small church in Chapel Hill, NC. The vicar of that church was eager to show me the tree because she was deeply attached to it, even though she didn’t know its identity. Her parishioners had wanted to cut it down, but she resisted the suggestion. To her, I think, it represents resiliency; despite its apparent suffering, as evidenced by gnarled branches sporting spindly green shoots and obvious dead branches, the tree had not died. The vicar showed it to me that day hoping that I would be able to give her beloved tree a name.
Heart-shaped leaves narrowed down identity options considerably, which helped. It wasn’t a redbud; leaves and branches were all wrong for those species. It wasn’t – thank heavens – an invasive non-native Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa).
By that time, the vicar had told me the story of the land her church occupied. It was a piece of an old farm; they use the old farmer’s home as their parish house. The small pond was part of the farm too, stocked with fish and regularly visited by local fishermen for generations. The church is committed to maintaining the pond for those fisherfolk, even supplying poles for those who care to stop by and try their luck.
As I listened to her describe the history of the pond, the puzzle resolved. I knew instantly that the gnarled old tree was a Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). Technically native to slightly more southern states, these trees have naturalized in North Carolina, likely in part because humans have been planting them beside fishing holes for generations as bait trees.
Southern Catalpa is the host food plant for the caterpillar of a sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae) that is commonly called a catalpa worm. The outer skins of these caterpillars are tough enough to anchor a fish hook, and their insides emit a scent – even under water – that is catnip to catfish and other fish likely to inhabit farm ponds. Practical fisherfolk of earlier generations soon learned to plant Southern Catalpas beside their favorite fishing spots, so that bait would be handy when they got a hankering to toss out a line.
When I had my aha moment of identification, my mind carried me back to earlier times – probably at least 50 years in this case – when a time-traveling fisherman planted this Southern Catalpa because he could see that it would grow large beside the pond, be visited by moths that would lay eggs that would hatch into fat catalpa worms, providing irresistible bait for fish caught to feed hungry families.
I pointed out the tree to a fellow plantsman, who was intrigued by its story. He remembered it when he was acquiring plants at a local nursery and noticed in a corner two very pot-bound saplings of Southern Catalpa that the owners were planning to discard. He asked if he could have them, they happily said yes, and he brought them to me to plant beside the pond that has become the home of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site. Wonder Spouse helped me plant them last year, not far from the gnarled original. They are growing well, and the vicar was pleased that if her old gnarled friend succumbed to time’s travails, its tale would be carried forward by the two new trees.
Fast-forward to late May of this year, when I was visiting the site to slip in some beautiful donated plants from another nursery, lovingly dug up and delivered to me by a wonderful plantswoman who works there. I had finished my work and was taking a few photos of what was blooming on this patch of piedmont that is transforming rapidly, thanks to the addition of over 1000 native plants added this year by volunteers who support this vision of creating a sanctuary of native plants to feed and shelter local wildlife being displaced by the rapid urbanization of the region.
I walked down to admire the young Southern Catalpas, which now stand near a honeybee hive added this past spring – a fortuitous location, given that flowers of these trees – when they are old enough to start blooming — are beneficial to these pollinators. That’s when I noticed that the elder Southern Catalpa had more fresh leaves growing on it than I had seen since I met it two years ago.
When I approached it for a closer look, I realized it was covered in gorgeous flowers! They reminded me a bit of orchids, hanging in pendulous clusters. My mouth gaped long enough that I was lucky one of the nearby honeybees didn’t fly right in.
Of course, I took photos – lots of photos. When I told the vicar, she was astonished. “That tree has never bloomed!” she exclaimed. “How is this possible?”
I can only speculate, of course, but I do have a couple of theories. My first is that perhaps the tree felt valued again when we planted two more of its kind nearby. That is an entirely subjective explanation I realize, but if you want to put a scientific veneer on it, I could offer that perhaps increasing the plant diversity of the site as a result of the Piedmont Patch project somehow enlivened the plants already growing there.
My second theory has no scientific basis, but as a time-traveling gardener, I have to wonder if perhaps this tree slipped into the Green World timestream back to a time when it was more vigorous. Maybe the work of Piedmont Patch volunteers on the site carried it back to more vibrant times, causing it to burst forth in an enthusiastic flower display more typical of past decades.
Transformation is definitely the motif of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site. Already, every day brings new wildflower blooms, new birds, and a continuous stream of volunteers bearing plants and offering labor to further the creation of this native haven. Already, it is a place of peace, beauty, and above all, hope.
As I travel forward in my mind to envision this site a few years from now, I see volunteers – the Piedmont Patch Stewardship Team – tending the site. As they pull out unwanted plants and add more native species, work to eradicate nearby stands of invasive non-native species, and document the site’s continuing transformation, I see this site serving as inspiration for new piedmont patches springing up in the region. Every patch will be different – as unique as the group creating it and the site upon which it is established. But all will be growing green havens of native beauty that shelter and feed wildlife, from pollinators to birds to lizards, frogs, and cottontail rabbits.
All will be symbols of hope, refuges also for souls of weary humans who too often lose touch with their connection to the Green World. Perhaps these havens will help more of those disconnected souls regain a knack for time travel, to see what a healthy future for the region – and the planet – looks like. As a time-traveling gardener, I hold on to that hope for transformation. How can I not, when I see a seemingly dying tree burst into spring bloom, and a pond-side full of random weeds become a vibrant assembly of native grasses and wildflowers?
On this blog on past Earth Days, I have mounted what I call my green pulpit to preach about the struggling biosphere on our beleaguered planet. Frankly, I am so discouraged by what humanity is allowing to happen these days that I almost didn’t bother to write anything today. But a recent local event motivated this post.
Wonder Spouse and I have lived on the same wonderful five acres for 29 years. Because we live beside a perennial creek with an adjacent wetland, beavers have moved into our immediate area several times. Photos throughout this post are of the current beaver pond adjacent to our property. The transformations they manifest on the local environment are immediate and mostly wonderful. From a human perspective, though, because they cut down and eat trees and raise water levels to flood multiple acres, they are often considered a nuisance.
About ten years ago, the last healthy 1000-acre stand of forest near our house was erased and replaced with a truly enormous subdivision full of houses packed so closely together that I am sure neighbors can hear each other with the windows tightly shut. Yards are tiny and all look alike, adhering, no doubt, to strict HOA rules. Frankly, the place gives me the heebie-jeebies.
But the California company that erected this monstrosity over fierce objections from the local community was clever. They market this massive people prison as “nature-friendly,” because they left alone small patches of forest around creeks and wetlands (where they couldn’t build houses easily anyway). They built trails through it, and I gather it is used heavily by residents. In fact, many of the residents claim they chose to live there because they are “nature lovers.”
One border of this suburban nightmare is less than a mile from my house, so it is no surprise that the creeks that run through it host a healthy beaver population. Recently, beaver activity there covered one of the expensive pedestrian bridges in their trail system, and the HOA voted to have the beavers exterminated, which created such an uproar from some of the residents that their protests gained local news coverage, and the HOA has temporarily halted their extermination plans pending further review of possible solutions to “the beaver problem.”
On this Earth Day, I describe this to you because I am flummoxed by the ability of the residents of this massive subdivision to see trees but no forest. In other words, they pick and choose what bits of the natural world they like and which parts they dislike, oblivious to the reality that nature is a system of complexly interlocking parts that evolved over spans of time beyond their easy comprehension.
These residents have decided they like beavers. But these same residents team up in blocks to get a group rate on poison applications in their yards to kill ticks and mosquitoes. The poison doesn’t outright kill honeybees, but it is concentrated in their honey. More important, the poison, which is sprayed 30 feet high into the trees, also kills aquatic animals like fish and frogs (big mosquito eaters). Imagine what it likely does to nesting birds!
So on the one hand, these beaver-lovers are fighting to save the wetlands created by these industrious rodents, while simultaneously poisoning that environment, all because they want to be able to sit on their patios without being bothered by the insects that are a key food for that aquatic environment.
These same residents trap squirrels visiting their bird feeders and release them elsewhere. This is illegal, by the way, but also demonstrates ignorance of ecology. If you remove squirrels, more squirrels will move into the vacated spaces. I guarantee it.
Another resident of this suburban monstrosity told me of the big argument she had with a pesticide company over not spraying poisons in her house. She told me that it is apparently a selling point of this subdivision that all the homes are constructed with pipes running through the walls. Once a month a pesticide company hooks up its tank of poison to the outlet to these pipes and fumigates inside the walls to kill any insect foolish enough to consider moving in.
As for ticks — which I readily admit are significant disease vectors — balanced ecosystems are less likely to be overwhelmed by them. White-tailed deer and white-footed mice are two key transporters of ticks. Both species are very happy dining on over-fertilized lawns and shrubbery and beneath messy bird feeders. Adding clusters of native shrubs that feed and shelter birds and reducing lawns in favor of, say, small pollinator gardens of flowers would help dwindling insect and bird populations and reduce the need for supplemental bird feeding except during winter months when food is scarce. Small brush piles provide habitat for birds and opossums — known by ecologists as “tick vacuums,” because when they are present, the ticks they pick up are eliminated by their meticulous grooming habits.
To all these residents who moved here from elsewhere, I ask you to embrace the fact that you now live in the southeastern United States. Our mild climate means insects thrive year-round. We who grew up here know this and long ago adapted to that reality. When you attempt to kill or remove every animal that you don’t like, your choices impact more than just those target species. You hurt the environment you profess to love. You hurt the home of those furry rodents you have anthropomorphized into your friends. This is not an either-or situation. Nature is a system, an orchestra composed of myriad instruments, a chorus of many voices. The richness of the song is diminished every time you exterminate a voice. The viability of the entire system becomes more fragile every time you impose your will onto the environment that supports all of us.
On this Earth Day, I implore my neighbors to embrace all of Nature’s parts, whether or not they inconvenience you. If you can find a way to co-habit with beavers, that’s great. But if at the same time you do not protect the health of the wetlands they create by ceasing to poison and over-fertilize your yards, by replacing biologically sterile lawns with native flowers, shrubs, and trees that support wildlife, by learning the names of all the native plants, animals, birds, and insects in your environment and teaching those names to your children, then you are merely killing your beloved beavers by slower methods than those planned by your HOA.