Vultures, like these Turkey Vultures here, have an image problem. You know the cartoon cliché of a man dying of thirst in a desert, vultures circling, patiently waiting for the man to expire.
It’s true that vultures dine upon death, but without such scavengers, we would be up to our eyeballs in slowly decomposing bodies — assuming the corpse-eating bugs and microscopic life were at least still on the job.
This time of year, Turkey Vultures roost together in large numbers on the high-voltage power line towers about a half mile from my house. When morning temperatures rise above freezing, they lift off and often slowly circle over my house and the adjacent woodlands until they disperse in small groups to find a broken body for breakfast. As sunset approaches, they circle again overhead in increasing numbers until some tacit signal sends them all to their nighttime roost.
I think Turkey Vultures are excellent examples of creatures doing their best with the circumstances thrust upon them. Their naked heads may be practical — easier to clean — but let’s be candid — they are not breathtakingly beautiful birds. They remind me of bald old men — a bit cranky as they argue over a meal, or jostle for the sunniest spot on a winter-bare tree limb. Yet, they endure, and even thrive filling a vital ecological niche that ensures a less messy landscape for us, and survival for them.
And they know how to make the most of an unseasonably warm winter day. Yesterday was such a day at my house; the Turkey Vultures turned it into a spa day in and above the creek adjacent to my property. From my back deck, I had an excellent view as about a dozen of them gathered on sycamore branches leaning over the water.
One at a time, they took turns fluttering down to a wide sand bar. With wings slightly extended, each waded slowly into the water until only its head remained unsubmerged. Due to almost no rainfall in the last couple of months, the current is quite sluggish, so the birds were in no danger of being pulled downstream. Each bird would linger in this mostly submerged position for about 30 seconds, then slowly wade back up to the sandbar, and shake its feathers vigorously. It then fluttered back up to a low-hanging branch, fully extended its damp wings, and let the sun dry its feathers while another bird took its turn below.
Their pool party lasted about two hours, only ending when the sun dropped below the tree line, casting their sycamore perches into shadow. They lifted off, circled, and headed for the power line towers, having squeezed maximum enjoyment from an uncharacteristically warm winter’s day, and reminding me of the importance of grabbing the most joy I can from every possible moment.
Party on, Turkey Vultures, and thanks for the lesson in mindfulness.
Winter Solstice occurs at 4:55 a.m. EST tomorrow, December 21. Those of us lucky enough in this world to be blessed with adequate food, shelter, and safety are mostly fixated on the holiday season that culminates (for many) with New Year’s Eve celebrations in less than two weeks. These often family-focused upcoming days can be wonderful affirmations of our connections to kin and home, and I wish all of my readers the very merriest of holidays.
But before these happy times occur, we celebrate an older tradition born from earlier centuries, when the sun’s presence – and absence – was deemed critical to the survival of everyone. On the darkest, longest night of the year, bonfires were built, prayers were chanted, and the sky was anxiously scanned for signs of dawn’s new light – the return of the sun, of life – of hope.
Light is often equated with hope, and darkness with despair. But today I invite you to consider the yin-yang of things – that dark and light are not opposites between which we must choose. Rather, they are parts of a whole, and perhaps holding too tightly to only half is contributing to the current state of our planet.
The dark can be a scary place, there’s no denying, but it is also critical to the life cycles of all living creatures. Most seeds require a dark meditation period in the embrace of earth before they germinate and reach for the light above. Roots of plants great and small embrace the darkness, drawing sustenance from it. Myriad creatures including microscopic bacteria and fungi, worm-hunting moles, root-nibbling voles, and bug-hunting salamanders all dwell happily in the darkness of earth. These darkness dwellers are essential to the survival of those of us who prefer the light. We need each other, and we need to understand each other.
I fervently wish I had an easy solution to this dark-versus-light crisis currently clutching our planet in a near stranglehold. But we humans are complex creatures, and attempts to oversimplify reality are not helpful. Thus, I have recently spent a good bit of time pondering what actions I can take myself to create more balance in my world. Of course, being a devoted lover of the Green World, I pondered ways I might be able to bring more balance – and love – to the natural world I see under assault everywhere I look.
In the new year, I hope to share some of what I’ve been reading and thinking about, but today I want to leave you with some of the many signs of hope I have recently encountered as I have been searching for ways to facilitate balance in my world.
- A local church blessed with acreage has dedicated their space to serving the homeless – humans and native plants and animals – by building spaces on their land that will serve those groups, creating a green, safe sanctuary that will shelter and heal bodies and spirits.
- A local high school has committed over the last few years to a native landscape, creating beautiful, diverse plantings around their buildings. And now they have begun planting a forest where a vast expanse of sterile Bermuda grass lawn once dominated. Row by row, native oaks are lovingly planted, and site-appropriate smaller natives are tucked around and between the young saplings. The man leading this transformation estimates it will take about 20 years for trees to become young forest, the Bermuda grass to vanish, the natives – plant and animal – to make homes in the new landscape. But the manifestation of the vision is underway – vibrant life from sterile lawn, light from darkness.
- Several groups of local citizens are beginning to tackle the enormous task of reclaiming their neighborhood greenways. Long-dominated by aggressive invasive non-native plant species, these recreational corridors are in many areas entirely dominated by a mix of non-native thugs that have outcompeted the natives that were there first, degrading essential habitats that native animals rely on for survival in an increasingly urbanized region. One stretch of greenway at a time, these groups plan to establish the light of a balanced, native landscape from the dark snarl of invasive plants that currently dominate these corridors.
That’s only a sample of what I’ve learned about activities going on in just my little corner of southeastern piedmont. But what I have also learned is that similar projects are emerging all across the United States. It seems to this lover of the Green World that many of us have reached a similar conclusion about the current state of our planet. To bring light from darkness, we must act locally. One project at time – one bonfire at a time – we are creating green light from darkness.
On the long, dark night of this Winter Solstice eve, I invite all my readers to take a few moments to reflect on what you are doing to bring light to our planet. Whether you choose to act on behalf of the Green World or perhaps one of the many other causes or disenfranchised groups in desperate need of your light and energy, I think the important thing here is to act.
Embrace the darkness; see the kernel of light always within it. Build your bonfire, and light up night’s sky.
Adapt or die – I see that phrase in many contexts. The business and financial realms are especially fond of it. This evolutionary imperative has been on my mind a lot lately. On the minds of many, of course, are the political earthquakes – not to mention the geological ones – shaking many parts of the world, leaving us slack-jawed by the pace of change. I’m more concerned about the impacts of rapid change on my beloved green world.
Around the globe, the natural world has been taking more hard hits to its stability than humanity has ever had to deal with before. Whole ecosystems are disappearing, species extinction rates are soaring, and of perhaps more immediate concern to humans, water availability and potable quality are no longer givens in parts of the world and even my own United States. Arable soils are becoming more rare, air quality more erratic. And increasingly unpredictable weather patterns are creating difficulties for humanity and the natural world.
One thing seems certain: we can’t go back. Humanity has irretrievably altered the blue-green jewel upon which all life depends. Our choices are clear: adapt or die. Thus, my Thanksgiving meditation this year is to try my best to be grateful for change.
No, this is not some Pollyanna pipedream. I am not suggesting we all don rose-colored glasses. I am suggesting that we recognize that change is almost always an opportunity for growth. New ideas can rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of chaos – ideas that can create doors to new worlds.
For the last several months, I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking hard about how I can contribute to a transformation that will permit much of my beloved green world to survive without any remaining wild lands on our planet. A number of good minds are working on this. You can see the evidence in a growing number of places around the world – green roofs that grow food, solar panels generating clean power, wind turbines that don’t kill birds but still generate energy, sustainable agricultural practices. These are exciting developments – and I am grateful for all of them.
But where does this leave native wildlife? Where do the native pollinators – without which our food chain breaks beyond repair – shelter, feed, and reproduce? Where do the native birds that eat pest insects shelter and raise their families? Where will the forests and prairies, the trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses be able to thrive when they are being increasingly displaced by bulldozers and concrete, invasive non-native plants and animals, and climate change?
Many experts believe the answer lies with the force that disrupted the Earth’s natural processes: humanity. But for this to work, all of humanity must agree to change old ingrained habits, replacing them with new adaptations that will improve the survival chances of the natural world – and the humans who rely on it.
“But,” I’ve been asking myself, “I am one plant-obsessed gardener in the southeastern piedmont region of the United States? What can I do?”
I am starting by doing my best to be grateful for change. I am endeavoring to embrace this new reality as an opportunity to advocate for the implementation of a new gardening paradigm that every suburban homeowner, urban condo-dweller, and farmer can adopt. In short, we must transform every speck of green space remaining into actively managed gardens. We can work to make them as self-sustaining as possible, but with the clear understanding that natural processes on this earth are now too disrupted to maintain themselves without at least occasional human intervention. These green spaces will never resemble the wild places of even fifty years ago. But they can serve as the critical refuges needed to maintain the insects and animals we need to put food on our tables, to clean our air and water, to keep Earth’s biological engines running.
In future posts, I will describe some of the changes I am planning to make to my five acres of southeastern piedmont. I am basing these plans on some of what I’ve been reading, but attempting to adapt it to work for small landowners. For this change to take hold and work, even suburban homeowners with quarter-acre lots will need to revise their thinking about their landscapes. And the real estate industry, home-owners associations, government regulators, and construction industry must join us in the 21st century, accepting that old practices cannot be sustained in the face of the rapid deterioration of the natural world upon which, ultimately, we all rely.
I invite my readers to join me in this challenging exercise of being grateful for change. You might want to add these two books to your winter reading list. I’ll be writing about both of them in future posts:
- Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
- The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben
The green world has always been a refuge for me. It is where I have always turned to lift my spirits, nurturing me body and soul. It has never failed me. This blog has been part of my way of giving back some of the blessings I have received from my lifelong relationship with the natural word. But now I think perhaps it is time to try to do more, and pray that others will join me.
This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for change, because it has given me the opportunity to do more than merely describe all the aspects of the natural world that I love. Now I have a chance to try to help preserve it. Of course, I may just be a dotty old woman tilting at windmills, but in this adapt-or-die world in which we all now live, I feel obliged to holler “Charge!” and see where this mission takes me.
I know I cannot stop change, nor do I wish to. But perhaps I can help steer the changes impacting the natural world toward less devastating directions. Random change can be terrifying, but metamorphosis is miraculous.
May we all find ways to create positive transformations for ourselves — and our world.
During the wee hours this morning while the moon — one day short of officially full — silvered the landscape, our first killing freeze finally arrived. This morning’s low was 23 degrees Fahrenheit — low enough to dissuade even heartier perennials from further blooms. This is as it should be, of course. In fact, I’m grateful that we can all now turn to winter meditation tasks, while bees and butterflies, mosquitoes and gnats take a well-deserved break from their appointed tasks.
As the sun reluctantly rose this morning, evidence of last night’s moonlit chill was abundant. Sparkling white diamond frost coated every leaf, stem, flower, and garden bench. Where the sun’s rays touched the frost, it melted into submission. But the moon had already done her work, ending another growing season.
I sleep poorly when the moon is near or at its fullness. I especially love to wander through my dark house in the wee hours of a winter full moon. I can walk without tripping, because moonlight streaming through windows allows me to see everything in its silvery glow. All is quiet, except perhaps for occasional howls from hungry coyotes, or in late winter, the pipe-organ calls of owls claiming territory and hooting about love.
This year more than most, I need this quiet, moonlit time to re-gather myself, to find my way forward. Always for me, of course, that will mean immersing myself in the green world — growing food, for humans and wildlife — and sharing my love of this world with others, in the hope that we will all enjoy centuries more of silver-touched, fertile landscapes.
I took the first two photos above with my little camera, sans tripod, standard lens. But I leave you with this moon portrait shot by the ever-amazing Wonder Spouse. He used my camera, but attached his fancy, longer lens, and attached it all to his tripod. After a little post-processing, the result is this shot here.
The wacky, way-above-normal-temperatures weather continues in my piedmont garden. We live in a frost pocket. Our yard gets zapped by frost when nearby neighbors remain un-iced. So when I tell you that my house — on November 4 — still hasn’t seen a speck of frost, that is testimony to the strangeness of this year’s “autumn” weather pattern.
The weather forecasters have been promising cold any minute now for the last month or so. But every time a front approaches, it fizzles out, so that the cold air behind it never gets here. There’s talk of record snow in Siberia that will eventually mean deeply cold temperatures for much of the US, including my area, but I gather that weather is at least a month away. In the meantime, we continue to enjoy the best Italian sweet pepper crop we have ever grown.
In normal years, my staking system for these peppers is entirely adequate. Usually they are long gone by early October, either due to drought or frost. But this year, the peppers just keep growing, and flowering, and pushing out gorgeous large, heavy fruits that drag down overlong branches to the point where I’m having trouble finding the ripe fruits lurking deep inside this pepper forest. Those blue flowers bumping into the peppers are Blue Brazilian Sage (Salvia guarantica) — a very frost-sensitive perennial that is usually long gone by now.
No ripe fruits appear in these photos, because I had already picked them before I took these shots. I picked every ripe fruit I saw, because the forecast called for a nighttime low that usually translates to frost at my house. And peppers are very frost-sensitive. But the chill didn’t materialize, and today I picked a dozen more beautifully ripe fruits, some red, some yellow, all tasting of summer sunshine and vitamin C.
Wonder Spouse only just planted the garlic he ordered, because the soil thermometer warned us that the soil was too warm until just a few days ago. Yes, that’s a potato in the foreground of the shot. A tiny spud somehow eluded Wonder Spouse during last spring’s harvest, and he didn’t have the heart to pull up such a healthy-looking plant.
About six weeks ago, I direct-sowed all the remaining seeds of the greens I had planted for this past spring’s crop. I sowed thickly, because the seeds of lettuce and other greens are not supposed to keep well. Mine had been sitting in a box in my study, so I guess the air-conditioned house kept them happier than I realized. I think I got 100% germination from all varieties, including the carrots. I thinned as much as I could, moving seedlings to adjacent beds. But eventually I ran out of room. And enthusiasm.
Those are Queen Sophia marigolds in the foreground of the shot of the second big greens bed. They’re usually done for the season by now too. Not this year. I couldn’t bear to pull them up to make room for more greens. They were there first, after all.
A couple of days ago, the weather forecasters began speaking excitedly of the imminent arrival of seasonal autumn temperatures, so I broke out my row covers and covered the salad greens. The big tent on the left is protecting broccoli. However, the crop is not happy; I think it’s just been too hot for the plants to thrive. Of course, now the forecasters have raised the predicted nighttime lows to temperatures well above freezing. But the weather is at least cooler now. The row covers will probably just encourage the lettuces, spinaches, carrots, beets, and dill to grow a little faster, meaning more fresh salads. We aren’t complaining.
The marigolds I tucked in beside squashes, tomatoes, beans, etc. months ago have grown to epoch dimensions, spreading out as dead summer crops were pulled out of their way. Local bees — and the few stray butterflies still flitting about — are delighted the Queen Sophias continue to reign with enthusiasm.
What a strange autumn. We had almost no fall color, because the nighttime temperatures were too warm. A cold front that blew in today denuded many of the canopy giants in my yard. Yet summer peppers, salad greens, and sunny marigolds continue to thrive. That’s why I’m still gardening after more than 50 years of playing in the dirt. Every year — and every season — is different.
I’ve been blogging about gardening in the piedmont region of North Carolina since 2011. Occasionally, companies that provide gardening-related products contact me asking me to try their product and write about my results. I’ve done this for a number of years for seeds from Renee’s Garden, because they send me a number of seed packets for free to try. You can find my reviews by searching on the company name in my blog.
Last winter, I was contacted by a company called Super Sod. They have a local office in a nearby town, and I gather their main business is growing and selling sod. But they also sell a product called Soil3, which they describe as follows:
Soil3 is 100% organic compost comprised of grass clippings from our sod farm, wheat straw from our farm, and cow manure from a local dairy. We compost using a high heat method (160º) and add mycorrhizea. Beneficial microorganisms naturally colonize the compost as part of the process.
You can learn more about this product here. Their representative offered me a free bag of this compost (thanks, Shannon!) if I would try it and write about it, and they would deliver it to my door.
Well what gardener turns down free organic compost? The folks at Super Sod, like all companies that ask me to review their products, understood that my review would be based only on my results, not on how nice I thought they were to offer me this opportunity.
On the agreed upon delivery date last March 8, I was surprised to discover a massive yellow semi parked on the road in front of my house.
I think this is the truck that is also used to deliver sod, which always comes in big sheets, so it made sense after I thought about it. It was certainly a happy bright yellow, just like the color of the bag of compost.
I don’t know what you call the machine hooked up to the back of the truck that is used to deliver the compost, but soon the driver had it zipping down my driveway holding the bag of compost on the front prongs that probably also hold sheets of sod. I had intended for the bag to be deposited just beside the gate to my vegetable garden, but the delivery machine was too wide to maneuver there. So we went with Plan B and had the driver deposit the bag at the end of our driveway beside the walk to my house. It wasn’t optimal, but it was the best we could do.
As soon as he had dropped the bag, the driver zipped back down the driveway and drove off in the semi.
I was left with a bright yellow bag of compost — a cubic yard of it! The web site says it weighs about 1200 pounds, and I believe it. That bag was not going anywhere, which meant we had to offload the compost shovelful by shovelful into our wheelbarrow, then move the loaded wheelbarrow to the garden. It would have been much easier if we had been able to deposit the bag by the gate as we had hoped. But, hey, it was free compost. And, truthfully, when we get a dump-truck load of compost delivered from a local supplier, the pile isn’t any closer to the garden.
I knew that this bag would not be enough for all my garden beds, so we ordered half a dump-truck load of compost from our local supplier too. I had always intended to do a side-by-side comparison of the Soil3 compost with that made and delivered by our usual supplier.
I encountered one problem as soon as I tried to use the Soil3 compost the first time. The bag is almost taller than I am. When I untied the inner green bag to get to the compost, the compost level was about up to my elbows. I was not tall enough to maneuver my shovel into the bag, lift out a shovelful of compost, and deposit it into the wheelbarrow. My solution? Wonder Spouse, of course!
Our plan was to plant identical spring greens — lettuces, spinaches, and Asian greens — on two sides of one of our long vegetable beds. We mixed in Soil3 compost on one side, and the local compost on the other. Then I transplanted the greens, and we mulched them with a bit more of their respective composts.
It’s a little hard to see in the above photo, but the Soil3 compost was a bit darker, and it tended to clump into tiny balls. It was less friable than the local compost, possibly because it was quite soggy when it was delivered. Liquid oozed out of the bottom of the bag for weeks after delivery.
After tilling, the little balls of Soil3 compost broke up, so the soil on that side ended up being of a slightly finer texture that the side with local compost. And it was just a shade darker.
As usual, I started my greens in my little greenhouse. I transplanted them into their compost-enhanced bed just after the middle of March. Here they are on March 28 after about a week in the bed.
As you can see, at this stage, both sides (Soil3 in left photo) — which were planted with exactly the same varieties — looked indistinguishable. I got busy with all the other vegetables — and my new pollinator garden — and didn’t take any more side-by-side shots until the greens bolted in May, but I did pay close attention when I harvested and ate the greens.
Neither Wonder Spouse nor I could discern any differences in growth rate or flavor, and both sides bolted from early summer heat at the same time. I’ve always used local compost to mulch my vegetables, and it has worked wonderfully, suppressing weeds, and continuously but slowly adding nutrients to the soil throughout the growing season. But the Soil3 compost didn’t work well that way. It created a hard crust that actually would create cracks as it dried out.
By May 15, the spring greens on both sides of the bed were bolted and bitter. Plant sizes were indistinguishable by my admittedly unscientific analysis.
We also created comparison beds for tomatoes and peppers. One bed of each vegetable type was mulched with one of the two composts. Again, we discerned no differences in productivity, disease resistance, flavor, etc. And as with the greens, the Soil3 compost tended to clump and crack to the point of reducing its usability.
Eventually, Wonder Spouse had used enough of the bag so that I could now reach down with a shovel and fill my own wheelbarrow with loads of Soil3 compost. The closer to the bottom of the bag we got, the wetter was the compost, even though we diligently retied the top of the bag after every use. We even tried putting a plastic sheet over the bag to keep out more rain, but the Soil3 compost at the bottom of the bag never dried out, eventually become rather cement-like.
We still have several inches of it in the bottom of the bag. We plan to move it somewhere and dump it out, hoping that if it is out of the bag, it might break down into something usable again.
When the delivery man dropped off my bright yellow bag, he told me that many of their customers apply it as lawn fertilizer. I can see how that might work, if you have some mechanism for applying it evenly. But a 1200-pound bag of compost requires heavy machinery to manage. I kind of doubt typical homeowners like me would be able to devise any better way of dealing with this than I did.
To summarize my test results, I would say that Soil3 is no better or worse than the local compost I usually buy, in terms of vegetable productivity. In terms of usability, the Soil3 compost is more difficult to use than the local product in two ways. First, just getting the compost out of the bag and into the wheelbarrow is remarkably difficult for anyone under 5’10”. And second, the texture of Soil3 is much harder to work with, tending to become cement-like when exposed to drying.
My conclusion: Soil3 is expensive — at least by my modest standards. Given that the product was harder to use and we could discern no differences in crop productivity between it and our local compost, I would not buy this product for my garden. For larger horticultural operations with access to heavy machinery, it is possible that this product would be worth the investment.
Thanks again to Super Sod, maker of Soil3, for the opportunity to try this product.
New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) has always been a volunteer wildflower on my floodplain. That’s the native habitat for this passionately purple wildflower. This year when we built a new pollinator flower bed, I had an excuse to plant more ironweed. New York Ironweed tops out between five to eight feet, but I decided to try a taller species to plant behind some of the other flowers I added. I chose Vernonia gigantea ‘Purple Pillar.’
Purple Pillar is supposed to reach heights of nine to ten feet, but in its first year for me, it achieved about half that — not bad at all for a late-spring-planted newbie in a new flower bed. I planted two specimens; both bloomed profusely, attracting a wide array of native pollinators, including these:
Ironweed species native to my region of the southeastern US piedmont all bloom in late summer/early fall. Purple Pillars can theoretically bloom through October, but mine shifted to seed production by late September. I’m hoping that next year the plants will be larger and bloom even longer.
I didn’t do any formal record-keeping, but from my photos and my observations, it seemed to me that my ironweeds attracted a wider diversity of insects/arachnids than my enormously floriferous Joe Pye Weeds. Between these two species, I think just about every butterfly in my neighborhood found my new pollinator bed.
Although this wildflower naturally occurs in moist places, it is highly adaptable both in its moisture and light requirements. It will thrive in a typical flower bed. I pampered all my plants in my new pollinator bed with extra water this year, because they were just getting established. Next year, I’m hoping they will grow larger with no additional water from me — unless we are plagued with significant drought, of course. I’m certainly not going to let these beauties die from extreme weather conditions if I can prevent it.
At a distance or up close, covered in butterflies or standing solo, ironweeds are a native perennial wildflower that every piedmont gardener should grow. If you don’t have this species in your garden yet, plan on adding some next spring. You — and your local pollinators — will be glad you did.