Writings about

the many life lessons

unearthed when we dig

in the dirt . . . and pursue

a range of other interests

in the constantly evolving

garden of life.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Water for the Birds – But No Demon Rice

Endlessly entertaining, birds do so much for me that I feel compelled to do something for them. While I don't feed them store-bought food, I do plant for them, putting in shrubs and trees, such as winterberry, spicebush, dogwood, beautyberry, sumac and barberry.

And, I make sure they have ample water to wash down their food.

Funny, they're called birdbaths, but they obviously do multiple duty, these water containers; birds do bathe in them, some, like the brown-headed cowbird, so vigorously that they splash most of the water out of what I call watering holes. Others, including the neon-bright goldfinch, sip carefully, swiveling their heads to avoid surprise attacks from prowling predators.
Here's Bobby; Where's Whitney?

When I first started gardening in Connecticut a decade ago, most birds visiting my place were seasonal, stopping in during spring and summer, then starting to head south during the fall.

But, in recent years, I've seen more and more permanent residents, their boundaries apparently pushed farther north by warmer temperatures brought about by climate changes around the world.

It is strange to see hummingbirds in autumn, even stranger to see bluebirds in winter. But, along with the climate, times have changed. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection notes that bluebirds "are becoming more common year-round in certain areas of Connecticut." My area certainly is one of those. And, not just for bluebirds.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Is Trying to Hurry Seasons in Our Nature?

Posting on 13 August, I declared there was "a touch of fall in the air." Well, today, fall is on the calendar, but that touch I felt last month is gone with the wind, replaced by warm, sticky mug and rain – more tropics than New England. All of which shows, yet again, that you can't hurry nature.

But, some of us sure try to. In late winter, I can hardly wait to welcome spring, and like many gardeners, I declare its arrival repeatedly until it shows up in the weather. So, last month when I said autumn had arrived in my mind, I was wishfully hurrying one season off the stage and trying to pull the next one on.


Well, at age 70, it's certainly not because I want to hurry my life away; rather, it's the anticipation of a better season than the one we just survived. I never try to rush spring away in favor of summer, and I won't be wishing away fall, in favor of winter.

But, autumn – ahhh, autumn.  Season of hot color and chilly weather, vanquishing the long, hot, killer summer, preparing us for whatever winter will bring. Autumn, season of festivals and harvests and ancient pagan rituals.

Hello, autumn. It's your time now. You're calendar certified, so get the tropics out of your system and give us some of that fall feeling; be cool. Take out your magic brushes, your crisp colors, and paint my shrubs and trees, my grasses and vines. Then, stay a while.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Observed – Blood Grass Glowing

"Come out to the driveway and take a look at this," Lyn shouted, interrupting her departure and rolling down the car window. "You have to see this!"

I'm glad she gave me a shout because a few minutes later, that perfect scene was gone. It held for the few minutes it took me to dash indoors to get my camera.

Japanese blood grass always stops traffic in my garden, but yesterday was special; all systems were go: setting sun, pristine air, almost autumn, when the reds get redder. Too, the grass clumps had become healthier than ever after abundant rains and cooler temperatures.

Blood grass, one of the showiest of my ornamental grasses, has been a staple in every garden I've grown for the past 20 years. Growing 1 to 2 feet tall, it clumps and spreads by rhizomes, leading some to declare it a pest. Well, any plant's a pest if you don't want it growing where it is. Dwarf bamboo was my pest.

But blood grass? I love it anywhere it goes in my garden, and that's in a lot of places; it's naturalized, and wherever it pops up, it looks naturally beautiful.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Strangers at First, Plants Grow Into Family

Here they come again, the houseplants that went out in spring. Any day now, I'll bring the first load back into the house. Already, when I do my garden walkabouts, I make mental notes about which ones can stay outside for how long.

Nearing the end of the outdoor season always reminds me of the histories of individual plants. All started as strangers in our home. All have become members of the family.

Sarah Frond is the oldest. Some plants get names, and this zoftig Boston fern is one of those. As my wife Lyn and I were beginning a life together in 1985, I bought Sarah as our very first houseplant. She lived in a pot in the middle of the floor of our Washington, D.C., home until our furniture arrived. From Boston. Since then, she's lived in three homes in Georgia – and now regally presides over the indoor-plant kingdom here in Connecticut.
Sarah Frond, Living Large After a Life Struggle

Life has not always been easy for Sarah. At times, I've given this fern too much light, and at other times, too little water. Such hard living wore her down to fewer than a half dozen fronds about a dozen years ago. The symbolism of losing our first plant together motivated me to do everything possible to save Sarah. Repotting, misting daily, watering and lighting with great care – I did it all. Sarah came back, and we recently celebrated her 26th year as a member of the family. She's never been better. Or bigger.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Compost Threat Makes a Plant Bloom

No matter how many times it happens, I'm always amazed that tossing a plant into the compost seems to make it bloom.

One of my surprise survivors came back to life a few years ago when I was growing vitex here in Connecticut. After producing those sweet-smelling purple flowers a couple of summers, it didn't come back the following spring. I waited until summer and seeing no signs of new growth from the plant, I tossed it onto the compost.

Well, a few weeks later, in July, the composted vitex began sprouting like mad. I rescued it and put it back in the ground, where it lived another couple of years before dying off again. I dug it out of the ground again, but this time I tossed it not onto the compost but into the woods. For all I know it's established a colony there, but I haven't seen it again.

The vitex and others bloomed in reaction to being uprooted and composted. But, this past spring, I had my first experience of seeing a plant bloom in response to a threat, not the act itself.

Clivia is the plant.

I bought this orange-blooming, strapped-leaf, warm-climate plant five years ago, grew it as a houseplant and got it to bloom two years in a row. Sparsely, one or two stalks, but bloom nevertheless. Then, for the next couple of years, it just sat there, leaves beautiful, blooms non-existent.
Clivia Flowering Out of Fear?

Those times it had bloomed were in winter, when lush blooms are so appreciated. So, giving it one more last chance, I did everything the experts said: Last fall, I let the plant chill outside without fertilizer for a couple of months, keeping it on the dry side before bringing it indoors and resuming feeding and watering.

Still no blooms this past winter. By spring, I'd waited long enough. In April of this year, I examined it closely for signs of blooms that wedge between the strapped leaves, then push up atop the stalks. Seeing nothing, I hauled clivia outdoors to await its fate; there were two possibilities: I'd pitch it onto the compost, or I'd repot it and give it another last chance. I hadn't decided which, but I knew if the roots looked bad, repotting wouldn't be an option.

In any case, I had to get the root-bound thing out of the pot's tight squeeze. As I struggled, I was amazed to see a touch of orange that I swear had not been there the day before. Delighted, I let the clivia stay in the pot. It produced more blooms than ever before; they slowly squeezed their way up through the strapped leaves, and they lasted through the summer.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

From the Garden Bench: Use It or Lose It

Do empty houses start to fall down as soon as people move out of them? Or does it just seem that way?

I've always found it sadly intriguing the way a house seems to go down fast as soon as people move out. I began noticing that years ago when I'd drive down a street or highway, seeing a house look good for years, then seem to deteriorate when left empty, unused.

That's happening a lot in the aftermath of the mortgage mess: People lose their homes and move out, leaving houses that seem to decay surprisingly fast. Yes, such structures would eventually sag and fall down if ignored, not repaired. But is their demise hastened if there's no longer movement in them, footsteps that "exercise" the floors and walls?

Visions of loss and decay came to me the other day as I looked at one of my favorite rockers. It was covered with one of my favorite plants – clematis 'Montana', a fine vine that produces vanilla-scented, purple-whitish flowers. I usually cut it back several times in a season. This year, however, I didn't keep up with the cutting, and the rains sometimes came in torrents. At the same time, the heat, the bugs, the wind and rain made sitting on the porch not nearly as much fun as it ought to be. Even in Connecticut.

That combination of weather, pests and failure to prune allowed the clematis to really put a hold on my chair, making me wonder whether an unused rocker would start to weaken and come apart in the same way an unused home seems to.

I couldn't let that happen. So, I hacked back the vine and plopped down in the newly-freed chair, rocking furiously to give it some needed exercise. I think I got to it just in time.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Seeing the Light After Week of Irene

The power came back Saturday, marking seven long days of doing without. During that week, time and life stood still in East Haddam, Connecticut, or so it seemed. One day was much like the one before. At one point, I didn't know what day it was;  I was not alone. Neither did my wife Lyn and several other people I know.

In some ways we all had been cast back into, say, 1882, where life was very very small, narrowed to a sliver of its 2011 pace.

Quickly, we fell into a routine centering on basic needs: sleeping (going to bed early and sleeping longer), washing up (quickly and with minimal water), eating (whatever survived without power). It was impressive how small our footprint became. We used virtually no electric power, of course, and our water use amounted to a fraction of what was normal before the blackout. Meals were spare and anything but expensive. We drove Lyn's Prius or my Toyota pickup only in pursuit of whatever basics we needed, including a generator lent for an afternoon by friend Rob Smith. I charged my cell, laptop and a couple of gadgets before casting us back into darkness.