About a decade or so ago, scientists discovered convincing evidence that the smell of rich, compost-filled earth stimulates the production of “feel-good” compounds in human brains. Yes, there is a reason that gardeners are happiest when outside playing in the dirt. Beneficial soil bacteria emit gases that stimulate human brains to boost levels of serotonin and norepinephrine – cheaper than medications and with no potential side-effects!
Of course, even if you aren’t getting your hands dirty every minute in your garden, odds are high you feel better when you’re spending time among fragrant and colorful flowers and nurturing an array of vegetables for your table. However, without good earth, flowers and fruits cannot flourish. Sure, you can try dousing them in chemical fertilizers and spraying them with insecticides, but those plants will never be as healthy as ones grown in good earth.
Very few new home sites are blessed with good earth. Any topsoil that was there was scraped off by bulldozers. Exposed clay was compacted by heavy equipment, leaving “soil” unable to receive rainwater gifts. Instead, water rushes downhill to flood intermittent and permanent streams – too much, too fast, and often filled with polluting fertilizers and other chemicals. It takes effort to rebuild these wounded places. But the return on your efforts to create good earth is critical, not only for the gardens you may want to plant, but for all the native birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, fungi, and beneficial bacteria that rely on good earth.
The key, of course, is to add as much organic material as you can to your soil. If you don’t have a compost pile, create one. If you are blessed to have a yard with sizable trees and shrubs, cherish every deciduous leaf that falls. Southeastern woodlands left to their own devices build up layers of decomposing leaves that feed every creature in the forest, directly or indirectly. Leaving fallen leaves beneath your trees and shrubs will help heal your damaged soil, rebuilding good earth.
We know that all soils are not created equally. Certain parts of our country are known to be ideal farmlands. Certain parts of my state – North Carolina – are known for their rich farm soils. But all that good earth is disappearing at alarming rates – about a million acres/year – lost forever, replaced by subdivisions and strip malls. Such good earth cannot be recovered. Greed-driven “development” is starving the future of our children and grandchildren.
A number of nonprofit conservation organizations are trying to slow this destruction of good earth by offering farm owners ways to preserve their lands in perpetuity, offering alternatives to the siren song of corporations that only view land as a vehicle for profit, blind to the blessings of good earth. I am grateful for the efforts of these groups, grateful that they understand the blessings of good earth. When you are contemplating your year-end charitable donations during this holiday season, I encourage you to support a land trust near you that is working to preserve local farmlands. There will not be enough food to feed the hungry if the farmlands that grow the food disappear.
This American Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the good earth that nurtures our brain chemistry, our stomachs, and our spirits.
This morning marked the first freeze on our five acres. Our outdoor thermometers tell me the temperature has lingered at 29 degrees Fahrenheit for at least four hours, possibly longer – more than enough to signal that autumnal preparations for winter should be nearly completed.
Deciduous leaves of tulip poplars, sweet gums, sourwoods, red maples, black gums, dying green ashes (victims of Emerald Ash Borer), spicebushes, beautyberries have already discarded at least a third or more of their summer leaves. Oaks, always last to leave the party, are only just beginning to release their leaf bounty to the forest floor.
Strong winds ahead of recent cold fronts ripped off many leaves before today’s freeze. Swirls of dancing red and gold would leap into stormy air, then tumble down together, a few leaves plastered by raindrops to windows.
This morning’s freeze brought an entirely different kind of leaf fall – a peaceful release. First singly, and then more and more as the morning sun kissed them, trees gently let go, their leaves drifting as they floated to frosty ground.
It is time for extra blankets, cups of steaming beverages, and winter meditations. May the season bring peace to all.
I can feel it. Can you? The strong push of our first serious cold front arrives later today, abruptly escorting summer out the door, making room for the arrival of the autumnal equinox at 9:03 EDT this evening. It is time to synchronize our systems to this turning of the seasonal wheel.
The natural world has been readying itself for the last month. Leaves have been browning and dropping prematurely, calling it quits early, thanks to a two-month drought. It is impossible to walk anywhere in my yard without risking web face. Mama spiders of all kinds have spread their traps wide to catch as much prey as quickly as possible, fuel for the laying of their egg sacs. Most of the American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries are gone, devoured by birds fattening up ahead of migratory travels. American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) fruits still linger, at least until traveling troupes of American Robins spot them.
Late-season wildflowers bloom on valiantly despite the drought. Asters abound as do tickseeds, various sunflower family bloomers, and Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) in the wildflower meadows on my hilltop. Floodplain bloomers continue with enthusiasm. That soil is still moist, thanks to the work of beavers. Here, Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and abundant Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) mingle with Crown-beards (Verbesina helianthoides) and Late-flowering Thoroughwort (Eupatorium serotinum). River oats seeds dangle in breezes. Swamp Milkweed seeds float on silken parachutes, drifting to unknown destinations.
Great Blue Herons still stalk shallow creek water for fish or frog meals, while a Belted Kingfisher flies overhead, uttering its rattling territorial call. My wildlife cameras tell me the white-tailed deer are gearing up for mating season. Groups of heavy-antlered bucks strut through the dark, sometimes stopping to tussle with each other, antlers locked. A mama raccoon strolls by with two youngsters almost her size following. A solitary opossum waddles past, stopping briefly to dig at something it smells in moist soil. A coyote patrols the dark, seeking unwary victims. All the creatures know it is time to fatten up, secure a winter stronghold, readying themselves for summer’s unwinding into colder seasons.
As I walked my yard this morning, I took a lesson from surrounding flora and fauna. I slowed my pace. I stopped often to savor the beauty of late bloomers, give thanks for abundant walnuts and pecans dropping from laden trees, and the still-ripening sweet Italian peppers in my vegetable garden. Syncing with the autumn season feels good. I am done with summer, ready for a slower time, a fresh start, a dance with gold and crimson fallen leaves in crisp air.
Welcome, Autumn! I am ready for your arrival, grateful for the constancy of the turning of the seasonal wheel, comforted in knowing that winter’s meditative slumber will soon be upon us.
Hi, folks! This is just a quick note to let you know that the latest edition of the magazine of the North Carolina Botanical Garden has just been released. When there’s an electronic file on their site that I can link to, I’ll add it to my Recent Publications page. Until then, you can get a taste of this edition’s contents via these photos of the first pages of the articles I authored.
For those of you interested in acquiring native plants for your yards, this edition of the magazine should be helpful.
Perhaps you are one of the fortunate souls like me who remember childhood summers as times of great joy, when daylight lasted past bedtime, lightning bugs provided nightly fireworks, thunderstorms were welcomed respites from summer sun, and ripe blackberries filled every thicket – ideal snacks to fuel childhood explorations. As much as I missed school (yes, I was one of those children), summer’s seemingly infinite daylight, bird song, humming lawn mowers, thrumming cicadas, and smoky backyard barbecue smells provided ample compensation.
These days, my feelings about the summer season are mixed. Climate change brings excessive heat by mid-spring, and dangerous heat by early summer. Weather patterns are more extreme, alternating earth-parching droughts with flooding downpours punctuated by large hail and terrifying winds that throw trees to the ground. As a child, I never feared thunderstorms. Now I find myself praying for the many giant trees that surround me, asking that they withstand winds that bend them nearly in half during violent storms.
As a lifelong gardener, I do still pray for those storms to come, because my thirsty green charges need the water now more than ever. I’ve learned to start my gardens earlier than I did twenty years ago. Spring crops must be in the ground by mid-February, then protected from late cold snaps by garden fabric tunnels. Otherwise, there is no spring lettuce or spinach, peas, or broccoli. I start the summer veggies in the greenhouse in early March, then nurse the plants within that enclosure until the last wild temperature dive to freezing temperatures is past. This year, that was not until mid-May in my garden.
As soon as any vegetable or flower goes in the ground, it is heavily mulched with the aged compost we buy by the truckload for that purpose. The compost holds in precious soil moisture, slows down weed encroachment, and slowly feeds the plants over the growing season. I cannot imagine trying to grow a vegetable garden in traditional rows with today’s climate. Raised beds full of rich soil, well-mulched plants, and regular, deep watering are gardening essentials.
When I describe my current process – how I rise at dawn and only work until 9:00 a.m., when the heat and humidity force me indoors, how I mulch and weed and water attentively – I am frequently asked why I bother. My answer: my body, my heart, and my soul are tuned to and intertwined with the dance of the seasons. I cannot imagine myself not dancing along with them. Yes, the dance has grown wilder, more chaotic, and more challenging, thanks to human-made climate change. But the dance continues.
Despite destruction and disruption by bulldozers, invasive species, and the profligate application of pesticides and herbicides by humans, Mother Earth’s native species are still doing their best to dance with the seasons. Today, in the wetland that adjoins our property, goslings of Canada geese have transformed from yellow fuzz balls to slightly smaller versions of their parents. Tadpoles crowd every puddle – and my front water feature. Frogs chorus at deafening volumes on hot, humid nights. Mother turtles climb out of the wetland to lay eggs on our hill every few days. I finally heard the cowp-cowp call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo yesterday, and the first summer cicadas were tuning up to greet the solstice a few days ago. The wildlife cameras have documented small spotted fawns closely following their mothers. Wild turkeys mutter to each other as they forage for blackberries and ash tree seeds along the creek.
Decades ago, I turned away from the sort of gardening one reads about in horticulture magazines. Except for my vegetable beds, our five acres are jam-packed with native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses planted to encourage and nurture the native animals still valiantly dancing as Mother Earth turns. Pollinator gardens and meadows buzz with winged visitors, but they also frequently host an array of hungry native birds, bunnies, and other wildlife. If they focus too hard on a particular plant, I encourage the plant-nibblers to move along with an application of non-toxic repellant spray. The secret, I’ve discovered, is to offer as much good native food and shelter as possible, so there is enough for all native animals to use without negatively impacting the plantings. It’s a delicate dance, and missteps still happen. For me, it is enough that we are all still dancing.
It is challenging to create such plantings on a scale that can support native wildlife on a small suburban lot – but only if you are the sole gardener in your neighborhood trying to do this. So don’t be the only one. More and more, I hear of HOAs in my area that are adopting policies of only planting native plants in common areas, of encouraging native plantings in home landscapes, educating homeowners about invasive species and how to remove them. More and more groups are joining the dance, and not a moment too soon.
I think of my five acres as a green anchor connected to a network of similar spots all around Mother Earth. Together, we are doing our best to keep the dance going by nurturing the music-makers. I invite you to add your home landscape, your neighborhood, to this critical network by planting and nurturing the native plants and animals that were there before you, and without which none of us will survive for long.
On this Summer Solstice, celebrate the season of fruits, flowers, and flip-flops by dedicating yourself to the dance. Keep the music going by making your yard another green anchor in Earth’s network. For without music, there is no life.
This is a quote from a recent article published in Scientific American as an opinion piece written by psychology researchers. It seemed to me to be a rather obvious point, but as I pondered the article, I realized — not for the first time — that the way I live my life is probably quite different from the way many Americans go about their days.
The authors of the article posit that, in addition to three agreed-upon factors that make existence subjectively meaningful to us (the feeling that our lives make sense, having clear and satisfying long-term goals, and believing that our lives matter), a fourth factor should be noted: they call it “experiential appreciation.”
The authors argue that those of us who routinely take moments to notice and appreciate the wonders around us have more meaning-filled lives. They have conducted studies to quantify this factor and demonstrate its validity. I suppose I commend their efforts, but, frankly, it makes me a bit sad to think experts were needed to identify a factor that most any gardener or lover of the natural world has always known.
Why else do we all snap photo after photo of the daily wonders we encounter? Why else do we become happily silly at the sight of newborn babies — human or otherwise?
Personally, that deep sense of wonder, the excitement and awe I feel when I encounter beauty is the fuel that keeps me going. In fact, it is so important to me that I made this notion the subject of my post for Earth Day this year, in which I wrote about being perpetually gobsmacked by the natural world.
If these scientists succeed in helping others realize they need to slow down and literally “smell the roses,” then bully for them, I say. In fact, their article led me to one of their moments of “experiential appreciation” as I realized just how deeply fortunate I am to live every day immersed in my green world, and why I am moved to share my experiences via this blog, Twitter posts, and even my LinkedIn page. It is why I’ve taken on an apprentice to share my knowledge and teach her how to see the natural world the way I do.
If these researchers succeed in making even two people put down their smartphones and actually see the world around them, to immerse themselves in the beauty of the now, then I applaud them. You demonstrate it your way, gentlemen, and I’ll keep attempting to show them my way. Helping to deepen an individual’s appreciation of the beauty in life is always a worthy goal, and maybe, just maybe, it will motivate humanity to take better care of Mother Earth.
This was my friend’s garden the first year after I encouraged her to add gardens around her new home. Leila had been diagnosed with stage four liver cancer and was recovering from major surgery. Leila’s work had taken her all over the world, but she returned to the county she considered to be home after her diagnosis. She had never gardened in her life, always too busy heading off to her next adventure. She liked the idea of sitting on her deck and enjoying flowers and butterflies, and so my amateur attempt at horticultural therapy began. I thought bulbs might provide a quick return on effort expended, and the lilies that came up that first spring were proof of concept.
Leila was thoroughly hooked. She continued to expand her garden area, adding mostly native wildflowers and small shrubs. Her home sitting atop a wooded ridge became an enchanted garden full of life and color that turned Leila into a strong proponent of the benefits of horticultural therapy. I like to think her gardens were a secret weapon as she battled her disease for over six years before finally succumbing to it.
Nearing the end of her battle, her gardens became neglected. But Leila had chosen her neighborhood wisely. One Saturday morning, many of her neighbors showed up to restore her gardens to their past glory. I like to think that day was therapeutic for all who participated.
My work with Leila was not professional horticultural therapy. Although I had volunteered a bit with the Horticulture Therapy staff at the NC Botanical Garden (NCBG), and I do have a B.A. in psychology, I was improvising without a plan. Having worked with the HT staff at the NCBG, I knew that the practice of professional therapeutic horticulture is a discipline backed by decades of research that demonstrate its benefits for a wide range of clients, including those dealing with memory issues, mental illness, eating disorders, mobility limitations, and other challenges. Plants heal — of course, I knew that much.
Many Occupational Therapists and other related practitioners are adding a certificate in Therapeutic Horticulture to their personal toolkits, because it expands the ways they can help their clients. I believe the time put in to earn that credential is well worth the investment. And now there’s a way to begin this learning process online at your own pace on your own schedule.
The NCBG has partnered with the NC State Extension Gardener Program to develop a series of online courses that teach Therapeutic Horticulture. The first in the series, Introduction to Therapeutic Horticulture, will begin next week, May 23. All the details you need to learn more are provided in the link in this paragraph. I know and have worked with one of the instructors, Sally Haskett, for many years. Her breadth of experience and friendly approach to the subject made interactions with her a consistent pleasure. I feel certain that this online course will reflect that.
Teachers of all kinds may well find the techniques used in Therapeutic Horticulture to be of great use. Volunteers who work with the elderly, children, or clients with mobility and/or psychological challenges would also likely find that adding this knowledge to their toolkit would aid their work.
If you are such a person, please ponder the detailed description in the link above, and if you are moved to do so, consider taking this first step in your journey to learning how to heal hearts, minds, and bodies with the help of the green world.
I’m finding it a challenge to remain positive these days. Humans seem so full of anger, hatred, and fear. I think I would have trouble crawling out of bed if not for the green world. Living on five acres beside a flourishing wetland guarantees a good gobsmack at least once a day, often more.
I love this British slang term for the feeling of mouth-agape awe (gob is British slang for mouth) that I get when a shaft of early morning sun spotlights the vibrant flowers of native deciduous azaleas – a blooming rainbow for the eyes and a festival of sweet fragrance for the nose.
Two days ago, I found myself standing, mouth agape, at the sight of a Monarch butterfly laying eggs on just-emerging milkweeds in my pollinator gardens. I’ve never seen this species this early before. It is deeply satisfying to have visual verification that my hard work establishing milkweed species on the property is paying off – a gobsmacking moment to be sure.
Sometimes the gobsmacks elicit giggles of delight from this aging gardener, as when while clearing out an overgrown area of wildflowers, my helper, Beth, and I discovered, not one, but three different green tree frogs – all different sizes – living among the chaos. I gently relocated each one to nearby undisturbed areas.
When Wonder Spouse and I set up our front water feature for the season a few weeks ago, the weather had been dry for several weeks, and the temperatures were, I thought, a bit cool for toads and Cope’s Gray tree frogs that sing and lay eggs there every year. But as soon as I began to fill the water feature, a Cope’s Gray loitering somewhere nearby began croaking, greeting the arrival of the water feature with clear enthusiasm. Can it smell the water, maybe hear the hose filling the shallow pool? my gobsmacked self asked.
About two weeks ago, Wonder Spouse’s sharp eyes spotted a rough-looking nest of sticks high atop a dead snag in the adjacent beaver-built wetland. With the bird scope, we were able to confirm that a pair of great blue herons had begun a nest! That was quite a gobsmack, because herons usually nest in large groups, called heronries. My research, however, did confirm that they are occasionally known to nest without being surrounded by others of their species. We got a bigger gobsmacking surprise this week when we realized a second pair of herons have now built a nest on another tall snag near the nest of the first pair. It appears we have a heronry in the making – a wonderful gobsmacking surprise indeed.
Yesterday, I was sitting on my couch enjoying an early-morning second cup of tea when I noticed movement on the floodplain/wetland. A look through the binoculars revealed a pair of Canada geese strolling around with three small yellow goslings stumbling behind them. The parent geese took their triplets to the narrow streamlet that now dissects our once-dry floodplain, where they practiced swimming in the shallow water. It was a gobsmackingly adorable moment.
The family was back out there today for another early morning walkabout. When the goslings grow a bit larger, I expect to find the family in the thriving wildflower meadow near the garage. Since I planted that area, I’ve encountered geese families there every year – always a gobsmacking moment. We surprise each other as I emerge suddenly from the house and parents herd the goslings quickly back down the hill to the safety of the wetland.
Being gobsmacked by the natural world does not require five acres adjacent to a healthy wetland. When your heart is open, gobsmackery abounds — in suburban yards where tall sunflowers turn their colorful heads to follow the sun, and in patio pots full of fragrant rosemary and mint that provide zing to meals. Gobsmackery is all about being open to wonder. And joy.
On this Earth Day, I ask my readers to open their hearts to Nature’s gobsmacking wonders. Any bit of green can surprise you, when you are paying attention. Perhaps a praying mantis will land on your deck plantings, or a bluebird couple will rear babies in the nest box you erect in your back yard. Every native plant you add to your landscape invites more gobsmackery.
Nature is fighting hard to remain on our planet despite humanity’s continuing efforts to eradicate it. Just this week, I read of a cloud forest in Ecuador that was thought to have been obliterated by tree plantations. Ecologists mourned this area known for its gobsmacking biodiversity, full of rare plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. But recently, ecologists returned to the area and discovered small pockets of intact rainforest where rare plants thought to have gone extinct were thriving. What a gobsmacking moment that must have been!
Imagine how fast our planet’s recovery could be if we all chose to help native flora and fauna instead of bulldozing it into oblivion. Every landowner, large or small, can make a gobsmacking impact. Trust me, if you plant a dozen milkweeds in a pollinator garden, the Monarchs will find them. And the butterflies will return year after year.
On this Earth Day, declare yourself open to Nature’s wonders and walk that talk by finding ways to support native ecosystems every day. Open your children’s eyes to Nature’s gobsmackery. Gently educate your neighbors and HOAs.
Mother Earth is trying, but she cannot do it without human allies. It’s time we all open our hearts, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. I guarantee that abundant spirit-lifting gobsmackery will be your reward.
I don’t know if it is just me, but spring’s arrival carries a bittersweet note this year. Human suffering seems more widespread than ever. Mother Earth, too, struggles from the burdens of climate change, pollution, and massive biodiversity loss. This beautiful season of hopeful new beginnings feels heavier than past springs.
Then I step outside into my crazy, mostly wild five-acre yard and my heart begins to sing – softly, as the calls of cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, bluebirds, and woodpeckers reach my ears; louder, as the deafening chorus of spring peepers and cricket frogs (with toad descant accompaniment) kicks into full volume.
The sweet, clean fragrance of witch hazel floats on a northern breeze. Sunny daffodils nod in greeting. Thousands of native bloodroots dance together on a rocky slope overlooking the creek, where quacking mallards and shrieking wood ducks paddle up and down for hours.
Five Canada geese have arrived. A small group visits annually at this time, seeking the quiet of the beaver pond to raise a new brood of goslings.
Native blueberry bushes full of blooms are alive with humming pollinators of varying sizes. Buds on native magnolias and azaleas are swelling visibly. The pinxterbloom azaleas will likely be open in another week, if not sooner.
My greenhouse is full of vegetable, herb, and flower seedlings. These will be the summer vegetable garden inhabitants. Already, an array of lettuces, beets, onions, chives, garlic, dill, and parsley are flourishing (and delicious!) in their spring vegetable beds.
A few minutes outside reboots my perspective. All around me, plants and animals are busy living their lives, starting a new cycle of growth and fecundity. Their message seems clear. It is time to get to work, find a purpose, and fulfill it.
I’ve been pondering how to apply this message to my own life. I’ve decided that sharing more of my green world is a good place to start. With that in mind, I’ve decided on these approaches.
- I will grow enough summer vegetables to yield extras to donate to my local food bank.
- I am beginning to write a book about my interactions with and lessons learned from working the same piece of Piedmont land for 33 years and counting.
- If there is interest, I plan to offer classes to small groups using my yard as my classroom. I hope to offer detailed descriptions of the classes soon, but if you are local to the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, NC area and you are interested, please send an email to the address on my About page, and I’ll be sure to put you on my email distribution list.
- I am hoping to find an apprentice or two, who might be interested in working with me here. In exchange for helping me with garden tasks for a couple of four-hour shifts a week, I will offer modest payment, abundant free plants, and as much information download as you can handle about native plants and animals, native ecology, invasive non-native species, and gardening methods from basic to advanced levels as warranted by the experience of the apprentice. I’m hoping to begin this by early May. If you know someone who might be interested, send an email to the address on my About page. I am willing to work with the right candidate(s) on weekdays or weekends, as long as we can agree on a consistent schedule.
Spring’s message for me this year is focused on nurturing – plants and people. Every seedling planted, weed pulled, and vegetable harvested is a prayer for a brighter future free of suffering, a petition for peace.
May this turning of the seasonal wheel bring lighter hearts and happier days to all of Earth’s inhabitants.