Blanket of snow thrown off – get it off me!
The garden’s waking up
Still drunk and put to bed wet.
Matted grass and pools of ice collage
A colorless straw lawn. Shrub limbs akimbo
Sport last fall’s dead leaves
Dangling like almost-severed fingers
Wiggling “no no no” in the breeze.
What smashed the terra cotta pot?
Has old man winter grown young again,
Rolled his up his t-shirt sleeves
To show off his new tattoo
And beat the garden senseless?
Some redneck’s battered her for sure.
Where there’s a crocus there’s a broken rain gauge.
Where there’s a daffodil there’s death.
Dead leaves, dead branches, dead seed-heads,
Dead piles of who knows what this stuff is.
Winter left litter all over the place
Like a renter bolting without notice,
Like an apartment on an episode of Cops.
March won’t go out like a lamb,
He’s going out like a thug and leaving his trash.
The garden’s abused
And shows few signs she’ll make a recovery.
How can anything suffer such shame
And still grow a future?
A tiny gray bird perches in the barren plum tree,
Flies down and pecks in the mulch,
Then sits atop a coneflower
Saying the holy word
“Yes” as the sun drags itself up, up, up.
Bunnies who nibble my asters. But even worse, bunnies who pass away and I must bury them.
A lilac, admired in Spring, brown with powdery mildew by the end of Summer.
Speedwell pruned, refusing to bloom.
Tennis balls which have been thrown from my neighbor’s yard, lodged in my evergreens or mistaken for small pumpkins. Tennis balls chewed by the neighbor’s dog found in the most unimaginable places in my garden. I have therefore made a game of throwing the tennis balls back to their yard and getting as many as possible to land on the garage roof.
The absence of Monarchs while milkweed is fresh in bloom and witnessing this endangered butterfly visibly grow more elusive before my eyes year after year.
Bees in my hair.
Building a bee house, and finding wasps have taken up residence.
Winter, although when Winter first arrives she is a welcome guest, providing amusing respite from Summer’s frenzy. But Winter always stays too long, becoming a guest one wishes to expel but cannot do so without tactless words, and so one endures her presence.
Piles of fur.
How I admire the trees when they lose all ornamentation and stand stripped bare for the winter. I’d like to have that kind of strength when I get old, and not depend upon pretense for beauty.
Stark branches speak to many people of melancholy, but to me they speak of hope. The raw canopy of black veins against blue sky is mirrored underground by a network of roots. Trees can survive losing one third of their branches above ground because the real heart of the tree is hidden in the soil. When a woody plant looks dead, give it a little time. It may show signs of life in spring.
Fall is my favorite planting time, especially for woody plants. Many of my deciduous shrubs were dead sticks when I brought them home, and now they flourish. Garden stores reduce prices by 50% to 75% in the fall because the plants look terrible. If you know what plant you’re seeking or want to take a chance on something new, you can get a shrub almost for free.
This time of year any branches you’ve layered can be dug up and replanted to start new shrubs completely for free. I’ve accidentally layered many shrubs. Real gardeners do it on purpose. The technique is simply to bury part of a low-lying branch until it grows its own roots. You leave the end of the branch above the soil, first wounding the spot on the branch where you want roots to grow, and weight it down with a rock or something. Many months later, you get a free shrub. I didn’t do any of this; the branches layered themselves, and I now have Limelight hydrangea, Little Henry, and Diablo Ninebark to replant.
Fall is my favorite time to move and increase perennials. Perennials get dug up, roots divided, and plants put in better places. Sometimes I just dig up half the plant and leave the other half in the ground if it is in a good place. I’m not very careful about dividing. In fact I’m a clod. That’s why I divide mostly in the fall. Everything looks dead anyway, so the sad little divisions fit right in to the overall wilted, sagging look of the fall garden.
Also I move plants around capriciously. I like to think they enjoy the adventure of mobility. It must be like a carnival ride for them, getting moved, like riding a roller coaster. Very exciting. Fall is often rainy, and despite cold temperatures above ground, plants keep growing roots below ground where it’s warmer. They don’t need to put energy into making leaves or flowers, so all the energy goes into making roots for a good strong established plant before the demands of spring begin taxing them.
Planting in fall can be more relaxed and haphazard than in the spring. In spring, everything has to look good because there are people who just buy all those perfect cookie cutter annuals and make those of us who are actually growing plants look bad. In the fall, I can slap some divisions and baby shrubs in the ground, and any mess I make will get covered by leaves twenty minutes later. Awesome.
Sloppy gardening habits probably benefit plants more than delicate precision. New starts get to keep a clump of the old soil their parent plant was happy in, and leaves, leaves, everywhere leaves to tuck the plants in and make them cozy and well-fed. I keep all my leaves for mulch and compost. When I see the sere branches of the exposed trees, I see the old grandmothers of the garden, giving all those leaves year after year to help the younger, smaller plants grow up and thrive.
This fall marks one full year of absolutely no chemicals or fertilizers or pesticides in my yard. My shitty organic lawn is in fact no longer totally shitty. It’s quite green. It’s nice. Sure I’m a little anxious for spring and seeds and flowers, but I’m trying to stay present appreciating age and decay and leaves, and my lovely, green, weed-filled lawn.
They provoke both hatred and cooing. They are cute, soft, furry, plant-eating machines. They breed like…rabbits. They amuse me with their adorable wiggly-nosed antics and reduce me to elmer fuddish displays of impotent rage. They remain undeterred by the barrier of the new “fence,” in quotation marks as it proves to be a barrier to nothing except larger dogs and children. Maybe.
I love the fence for its visual privacy. To me gardens should be enclosed spaces, with a bit of secrecy and mystery, unless one lives on a grand estate or a true farm. My favorite spaces have always been little nooks. A small space like ours needs a fence to feel romantic and cozy, as a nook should.
I foolishly believed the new fence would keep out rabbits better than the old fence. During construction the yard was unfenced for a few days. Gazing out my patio doors one morning with my husband’s cat Jinx, she started to have a conniption and stood up like a meerkat at the window. I followed her line of sight: three little bunnies in the butterfly garden, small as mice, nosing around, blindly gumming plant material and nuzzling one another. Finally they settled into a little pile.
The fence was completed the next day. Their mother never came back. They stayed in a pile. When I realized they weren’t moving, all I could do was bury them.
If you want to laugh at me for crying about this, you may. Wild animals die all the time. I’ve got no business growing maudlin over the death of an animal because I am not a vegetarian. Still, I cried. Yet even as I tearfully pushed dirt over the small bunnies, a dark part of my soul cackled with triumph: the fence kept the mother rabbit out! Yes! It works!
My guilt about this evil joy has been assuaged by the realization that the rabbit was just a bad mother, or was eaten by something. I know she could have traversed the “barrier” of the “fence” if she had tried because innumerable rabbits have been here since. So what have I done about the rabbit problem? How much damage have they done? How’s that clover lawn idea working out?
First, the clover in the lawn looks wonderful! I added white clover seeds to the existing grass lawn in May because a monoculture of grass is unsustainable in my climate (maybe any climate) without excessive chemicals and watering, and clover adds nitrogen to eliminate the need for fertilizer. I had a hare-brained theory that I could stop mowing the lawn if the plague of bunnies could be encouraged to munch it by adding clover. It kind of works! Here you see a rabbit eating the lawn instead of the spinach and lettuce right behind him:
The only vegetable plants damaged were chard (which I planted too much of and don’t mind sharing), some parsley, and my second round of beet seedlings which were decimated by the baby rabbits. Wait, you’re thinking, she said the baby rabbits passed away! I’m talking about the other baby rabbits, the ones that were born in the hydrangea garden right under my nose between the patio and the house, the ones who kept very quiet until they were old enough to survive without their mother, the ones who moved into the more dense cover of the Pink garden after I spotted all FIVE of them.
Imagine my horror. Five hungry baby rabbits, born into a paradise of food, water, and shelter with a fence to keep out predators and no cultural taboos against incest. I pictured my garden pitted with warrens and gnawed to the ground by twenty, thirty, a hundred rabbits. This is not what I signed up for when I started to develop “wildlife habitat” in my back yard.
I didn’t sign up for a dead possum clogging the downspout on the garage, giant blueish black wasp colonies on my milkweed, or tomatoes mysteriously bitten, moved, or disappeared by something that must have hands to actually pluck the fruit…all of these inexplicable occurrences plus rabbit invasion plus a year of drought equals one harried, discouraged gardener. However, as I write, fresh tomato sauce for chicken tikka masala bubbles on the stove, pink roses crowd my view, and my biggest worry is what to do with all the basil and akashiso before they go to seed.
How did I solve my rabbit problem? I didn’t. And this is why I really am starting to think gardening is actually magic.
Other than a little research into Havahart traps and Michigan laws stating it’s illegal to relocate wildlife, all I did about the rabbit problem was put some chicken wire around the lettuces. I thought chicken wire incredibly tacky and cringed for days before I installed it, but now that it is up, I think it looks very cool in an aggro-chic kind of way. Very Homestead Hipster, especially with the “ghost bunny” yard art from my mother-in-law’s house as a sentinel, don’t you think?
So essentially, I did nothing about the bunnies, except watch them play, or chase them and then laugh because they were cute and tried to hide underneath each other, or stare in dismay out the window at my yard becoming a teletubbies set, bunnies everywhere happily jumping, cavorting and munching. They definitely ate more lawn than anything else, so I kind of watched and waited.
One by one, the bunnies just went away. The last one to leave was living in the chard, and would panic every time I worked in the veggie garden, so I would say “oh you’re so bad!” in a high voice and he would run away. He was like my little mascot. I forgave him for eating my parsley; I should have planted more. He, too, left the backyard to find his fortune in the bigger world. Ultimately, I guess the frequent human presence drove him away, or whatever that thing with hands is that picks tomatoes.
Last year the lawn looked like hay by this time in the season. This year, it continues to stay green despite a record breaking drought. With the addition of clover, I have a greener lawn with less supplemental water, no de-thatching chores to break my back this fall, and no patches of grass dead from parasites or fungus. I’ve added diversity to the lawn. What’s wrong with a lawn being a community of plants? It’s a lawn, not a golf course. I can handle a little visual texture.
I’m 100% chemical free this year. I’ve had fun with baby bunnies who eat more clover than anything else. The garden worked its magic and solved its own problems when I waited and practiced non-action. I’m declaring Project Cloverlawn a resounding success.
There were so many things I could have done today. The closet door needs to be fixed, both of the cat trees need to be re-wrapped with rope for scratching, I certainly could have vacuumed and/or mopped, dust can always be found somewhere if you peer closely enough, and weeds can always be found in some nook or crevice. Laundry can always be done, pictures can always be drawn, and cats can always be petted: there is no end to the things that one needs to constantly accomplish.
And yet, doesn’t one need time to dream?
When the milkweed fills in and blooms, I’ll be spending my free time here: My butterfly garden is next to the patio, so the butterflies get up close and personal when the nectar plants start to bloom. As host plants I have three types of milkweed, also dill, parsley, clover, asters, and joe pye weed. For nectar and visual pleasure I have Buddleia, verbena, Marguerite daisies, Scabiosa, Casablanca lilies, and columbines. The pink garden extends the habitat with coneflowers, more asters, Filipendula, a giant Eupatorium, and a plum tree.
I’m sure there are other wonderful native plants I’ve forgotten to mention – oh, like the elderberry and Aronia! How could I forget! They both provide shrubby cover and produce berries for the birds.
The milkweed is coming in like gangbusters this year compared to the past. Here’s the most finicky one, Asclepias incarnata: You have to understand, this time last year I could barely see a few tiny stalks peeking above the mulch. These are luscious clumps for May! The flowers on this plant are like monarch heroin. When it’s blooming there’s always monarchs hanging around, and I have seen up to five in the yard at once. Every bug in the city seems to gather round. It’s like a bug rave by midsummer.
Five monarchs seem like nothing compared to thousands at their migration site in Mexico, or even twenty or more at some of the other Monarch Waystations, but the delight comes in the immediacy of stepping out my own back door into a functioning habitat. It’s not an island paradise, but it is a sort of oasis, an island of live green space in which to float and dream of a world filled with beauty.
Time to dream should not be a precious commodity only enjoyed while on vacation. Dream space is an essential nutrient, and should be part of everyday life, so the mind, like a butterfly, can sip some nectar from every different flower.
Finding a rabbit in the lavender isn’t really a surprise. I suspected he was living there all winter, but couldn’t catch him outright. At least I hope it’s a “him.” I seriously do not want baby bunnies in my backyard eating everything this spring.
I cannot deal with animals eating my garden, and I cannot deal with harming soft furry things. I do not want to make any Us versus Them decisions; I just want a backyard fence without holes that will keep out hungry bunnies. The front is already planted with bunny-proof plants. Why is it so difficult to do no harm?
One answer to that question is simply, you cannot live without harming and killing. It is a condition of life. Nutrition can only be derived from things that were once alive. Vegans and vegetarians are not exempt; they just have their own rules. I do think most people feel very different about taking the life of a plant than they do about a fish or bird, and different still about a mammal. Where you draw the line about which things you are or are not allowed to kill and eat is intensely personal.
Gardening involves constant choices. Gardeners routinely kill one thing to grow another, even if the victim is only a weed. And what if we find out a weed is not a weed? What if we find out the violets we want to weed out of the garden are a host plant to endangered fritillary butterflies?
Before I ever dreamed I would live in Michigan, I remember seeing the documentary “Roger and Me” and being especially horrified by the rabbit slaughter scene. I feel different about it now because I don’t pretend food comes from a grocery store, despite being brought up that way. Gardening has paralleled and informed changes in my relationship with food. My reaction to the scene now contains admiration for a woman who knows how to live off the land. I can tell you as a Michigan resident, if society breaks down, we’re not going to starve. This place is teaming with rabbits.
Don’t worry, gentle reader, I’m not going to eat the bunny! I don’t even harm the bugs, for goodness sake – except the Japanese beetles, as they have no natural predators on this continent. The worst thing I’ll do is chase the rabbit out of the yard, and try to plug the holes in the fence. I couldn’t hurt him; look how cute he is!
I won’t harm the bunny. In truth, I’m wondering if he could stay.
Last year I lost my second lettuce crop to a bunny, so I know I’d need to protect the lettuces if he stays. However, once the lettuces were decimated last year, I started observing his habits rather than chasing him out of the yard. Observation is one of a gardener’s most powerful pest control tools. I saw the rabbit eating some chard, but there was always more than enough to harvest for us humans. I saw him hanging out in the Pink Garden near the yarrow and the coneflowers, even the roses, but those all bloomed like crazy and I couldn’t see any damage. Most of the time, the bunny seemed to nibble on the lawn, where clover grows in the grass.
Do you see where this is leading? Oh, this is really exciting! Since I am already planning to plant more clover in the lawn to eliminate grass, the munching bunnies could eliminate mowing!
I know it’s a pipe dream. (I can’t stop myself from saying it’s a hare-brained idea. I sincerely apologize.) I know my image of my happy little meadow with bunnies and butterflies is a bit childish. I know this because I designed it this way. I made it frivolous and joyful on purpose. So allow me this fantasy until spring bulbs come up, when the rabbits will devour every blossom of the white, purple, yellow and amazing blue crocuses that I love so dearly. Then I’ll go running across the yard waving my arms and chasing the buggers away. Or not…
Look at him. He knows I’m watching. He’s looking right at me. The bunny let me get really close to him and snap these pictures. He knows I’m not a threat. He knows I’m a sucker for his cuteness. He knows he’s owned me.
Help! I need a new sturdy fence, immediately, before I become an accidental rabbit farmer.
It’s time to get the lawn off drugs. If you really care about your lawn, you will help it get clean. Your lawn on drugs is slowly killing the critters, microscopic and macroscopic, that live in the soil. Your lawn on drugs is poisoning the ground water. Your lawn on drugs is harming children and pets that play on it. Ultimately, your lawn on drugs is killing itself.
Lawn, an attempted monoculture, requires a diligent codependent partner to keep it alive in its highly strung-out state. Grasses do not naturally grow to four inches tall with no other plants among them. They do not remain uniformly green whether in shade or sun. Grasses in a meadow intersperse with many other plants, attain greater heights, grow their own seeds to reproduce, and have a life cycle that includes aging and dormancy. A golf course lawn is a form of artificial turf, if you really think about it.
I’m writing to myself as much as you. I am guilty of sneaking a little herbicide or fertilizer to the desperate junky surrounding my house just to keep it from completely going off the deep end. I’ve set up a sprinkler in the past to try to stave off the lawn’s insatiable thirst. I’ve dumped grass seed on it every year to try to keep it thick and lush. And of course I mow, because I live in suburbia. I’m as guilty as you are.
It’s time for an intervention. Last year I vowed to go totally chemical free, but I failed. After a season of no watering, of weeding by hand (yes, hours and hours weeding the lawn, can you imagine the soul crushing tedium?), and of eschewing all fertilizers except the mulching mower’s debris, my lawn looked like absolute crap. My husband kept saying, c’mon, just one little application of weed-n-feed, what’s the harm? And I caved. I did it.
But this year, no. It’s time for an intervention. I will not let the Identified Patient of my plant community boss around all the healthy specimens and devour time and resources. This year, the madness ends.
To hell with peer pressure. This year my lawn goes 100% organic, no matter what. Here’s the plan:
- Less lawn. Find places for groundcovers, areas to plant new garden beds, and ways to expand existing garden beds. Less lawn means less mowing and more habitat.
- Add clover. The places where it already grows in the lawn stay evergreen better than grass. Since weeds will fill in any bare spots, I’ll choose the weed I want.
- Tolerate diversity. Reconceptualize the lawn as a community, not a monoculture. If grass can’t grow, plant something else.
I know the lawn will probably get worse before it gets better. I know recovery won’t be easy. I know the neighbors might talk behind my back. But I’m writing it down and putting it out there to keep myself honest. I can’t call myself an organic gardener and keep my lawn high on drugs. It’s time to hit rock bottom and start over. The lawn and I will just have to take it one day at a time.
Mulch is awesome. Mulch makes gardening easier and helps cut down on watering, weeding, and worrying. Mulching always leaves me feeling satisfied, like I just ate a big fat meal or gave someone a good back rub. How do I get such happiness from piles of debris? By following these seven simple rules:
- Ignore the fancy people who tell you to “clean out” your flower beds. What you’re cleaning out is the free, renewable, organic fertilizer provided by the plants themselves. Certainly we all need to cut things back or tidy up a sprawling mess of dying foliage a few times a year, but when doing so, chop the bits and pieces right into the garden and let them serve as mulch. The “pests” most garden advice columns warn about seem to be the most popular bird food in the spring, and as an organic gardener I want to see lots of bugs in my garden, yo.
- Keep your leaves. All of them. Leaves have nutrients no fertilizer can offer because they are fed by the deep roots of trees. The extensive root system of the tree brings minerals and micronutrients from places your little perennials and shrubs only dream about. The leaves release all this yummy goodness into the soil as they break down. Since leaves are a favorite snack of worms, the leaves will break down fast and the worms will aerate the soil as they tunnel through, and leave nutritious “castings” (i.e., poop) to fertilize the soil.
- Keep all your leaves. Seriously. Unlike many commercial types of mulch, leaves remain light and porous allowing air to get to the roots of plants. Leaves also conserve moisture, as they can hold many times their own weight in water. Chopping the leaves helps prevent them from blowing out of the garden beds and speeds their decomposition. You’ll want your leaves to break down a little faster than they would in nature to prevent nitrogen loss from the soil. I use an electric leaf blower on the vacuum setting to reduce the leaf volume by about fifty percent.
- Mulch over bare dirt to keep both moisture and temperature more consistent, preventing a freeze-thaw cycle that can damage roots in the winter, and water evaporation from the hot sun in the summer. If your soil is exposed, you’re wasting water. Dried out soil obviously deprives plant roots of water, but it also ceases microbial activity in the soil. Keep your soil hydrated and alive with mulch.
- Mulch to prevent weeds. Weed seeds may be less likely to germinate in mulch as they are deprived of light, and weeds are easier to pull out of a nice friable material. Since weeding is pointless if you leave a piece of root behind, mulch helps by keeping the dirt loose and flexible so the roots can be pulled all the way out rather than broken off to re-grow. Mulching makes weeding less repetitive and less frustrating.
- Never use landscape fabric or, horror of horrors, plastic mulch. Please don’t even think about the rubber mats of fake mulch made from recycled tires. Remember that the soil is a living organism, just like you. Would you want a big sheet of black plastic stretched over your face? Mulch with something organic, free of chemicals and pesticides.
- Mulch for the future. Never dig. Feed the soil by layering on organic materials instead of fertilizers to build a stronger, healthier soil food web as the years go by. Allowing the vast network of underground fungi to develop in the soil brings stronger and better nutrients to plants. The fungi respond to signals from the plant and deliver the exact nutrients needed in the exact dosage required. Even if I had a laboratory in my backyard I couldn’t fertilize my plants with such precision, so I let the fungi do the work.
To some people, a big pile of leaves might look like a problem, but to me, it is the solution. I can get a good workout for free by raking, unlike my friends who pay for a gym membership. I can harvest piles of organic fertilizer for free, rather than spend money at the store for fertilizers and soil amendments. Recycling my own garden debris into mulch and compost closes one gap in the cycle of waste that defines suburban American living. Mulch rules, dude.
Today I saw a moss thief. Now I know I’m not the only one.
Some small trees planted at a busy intersection on Woodward Avenue have giant mounds of mulch called “death collars” piled up around their trunks. I see the trees every time I have to stop at the red light on my way to the store. The mounds are probably too high to allow the tree roots much air, and the landscape company sprays chemicals on the mounds to kill all the weeds. In the absence of other plants, and in the shade of the little trees, the mounds have developed a sumptuous covering of moss over the past year. I’ve admired the moss many times.
Today a fellow on a bike had stopped under the trees, and was carefully cutting out a patch of moss. His arm movements, his hunched posture, everything about him suggested moss theft. The only other possible action was a random act of bulb planting, which I’ve also considered. But it’s January, way past the time to plant bulbs, so I think he was rescuing moss.
Stealing or saving moss amounts to the same thing. Moss is considered a pest and a threat by many gardeners. One friend whose gardening advice I would otherwise respect warned me to “get all that moss out of your garden before it kills everything in its path.” She thought I was being lazy or careless by letting moss grow. She didn’t understand that I wanted moss, that I deliberately took it from the lawn, carefully pulled the grass out of it, and planted it on the north side of my house. She didn’t understand that I stole it from my neighbor’s lawn, too. So I will confess right now: I am a moss thief.
I love moss. It’s not like some kind of serial killer or fundamentalist army tearing down civilization. It’s just moss. It’s not a threat. It’s a solution. Do you have space between rocks or patio stones? Let the moss grow and you won’t have so many weeds or so much erosion of the soil. Wet shady area under a tree? Stop planting grass every ten minutes and make a moss carpet. Moss in the lawn? Let it take over and you won’t have to mow. Moss on a wall? Love it and enjoy it, or leave your fancy house to a plebian like me who will embrace the beauty of its age. Really, if you’re rich and live in an old brick house and feel frustrated by all the moss you may want to consider donating your home to someone who will appreciate it.
I love moss. Moss says there is just a little neglect, just a little age, just a little nod to the relentless gods of time. Moss says we are not new and shiny, but we can be classic. Moss says primordial rules still apply. Moss softens the ground it envelops. Moss makes you bend down and get your nose dirty to see the landscape. Moss can be a carpet, a cushion, and a time capsule. Moss doesn’t change very fast. Moss takes the bare dirt between plants and transforms it into a magic carpet to the past.
Preserving the past in the present is one worthwhile goal of gardening. While politics and social norms and aesthetics need to constantly evolve and change, the garden is one place where stability, repetition and old age can be embraced. What a relief to sit back and watch the landscape not change. In a world of frivolous ephemeral information lacking substance or consistency, a world where opinions and customs change and disappear before they can be evaluated or comprehended by most people with day jobs, moss just stays the same.
Moss can take a few years to cover an area, so I understand, empathize, and advocate for all moss thieves. That mound beneath the overly landscaped trees will get sprayed with toxic chemicals this spring to kill the moss and any weed that dares poke its precocious little head above ground. The man on the bicycle was saving moss, and doing it openly, right on the busy corner of Woodward Avenue for all the world to see. Hail the moss thief. He’s my hero.