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.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Noticed: a Change in the Insects

Amid the terrible outbreak of West Nile virus in Texas and other states, it seems strange that here in my part of Connecticut mosquito numbers seem eerily low. That certainly is the case around my garden, and gardening friends report the same.

Even at dawn and dusk, I water and do other gardening chores without the usual bites and those constant whines that usually prevail in summer.

Also taking an amazingly low profile are deer flies, so notorious in these parts, they have inspired a defensive dance featuring fast moves, with hands above the head. We whisk our hands back and forth as if we're dusting them off – in an effort to ward off the flies, known to be the most ill-tempered insects around.

Call it the Connecticut Quick-Step.

As a measure of their absence this year, instead of getting nailed by a swarm of deer flies whenever I walk to the road each morning, as I have in past years, this summer I encountered one tired-seeming fly that made one half-hearted run at my head each day until about a week ago. Then, it was no more.

While some insects, as well as rabbits and squirrels, are missing in droves this summer, other insects are more numerous than ever around here: spiders.

This web lasted three days outside kitchen window, an unusual location. (Thermometer inside.)
The webs are everywhere, including in paths they'd never webbed before. One repeatedly spun a huge web blocking access to the porch steps. I took down the web when the spider wasn't home, and it was a matter of hours before the web reappeared.

No doubt there are scientific explanations for the insects' unusual absence and presence. Explanations having to do with moisture, temperature, warm winter, hot summer. In short, weather and climate. Raising the question that just keeps popping up: What's next? 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Woody and the Maples

If a woodpecker pecks maple wood, does that mean the wood is dead? And if it's not dead, will the bird kill it? Is the bird looking for insects?

Such are the the questions raised when my resident woodpecker visits from time to time, visits that first began last year when it commenced to pecking furiously at two threadleaf Japanese maples, scattering bits of bark like a power drill. The bird took some time off, then returned a week ago. I call it my resident because it is comfortable enough to stay put even when we're as close as 15 to 20 feet.

These images show the bird at work on the two maples. The tight shot shows the results of its efforts.

This last image raises another question. Will the bark ever grow back to cover the bare spots? For now, I'm appreciating the change as a bonsai technique called jin in which the bark of a branch is torn and stripped off to create an aged and dramatic effect – like driftwood, or deadwood.

In nature of course, jin happens to branches all the time, created by wind, snow, drought, lightning. Woodpeckers.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Zeitgeist: Random Acts of Civility

If Mars rover Curiosity somehow managed to find life on the Red Planet and shipped a being back to this planet, what an odd impression we Earthlings would make.

Through myriad communications tools, we bombard one another with non-stop words and images about war, murder, rape, hate, hinky politicians and who's zooming who.

All this surely would make Martian visitors believe our world to be totally self-destructive, preoccupied with the worst traits ever.

Taking the next thing smoking back to Mars would make sense.

To be sure, we're doing a fine job doing one another and ourselves in every day, in every which way.

It is good, however, to be reminded that the end is not here.

Living in small, slow-paced places, away from madding crowds and maddening words offers reminders daily in the most ordinary ways. Places like my town, East Haddam, Connecticut, population approaching 10,000, nestled along the Connecticut River, some 20 miles north of Long Island Sound.

Dirt portion of the road I live on.
My regular visits to the recycling center (affectionately known as "the dump") often lead to random acts of civility. Here's a recent exchange between one of the employees and me as I make a haul on the most vibrant of pre-fall days:

Don (walking across parking lot): Hey, Lee, how you doing?

Me (opening car trunk): Great, Don. Hard to be bad on a day like this.

Don: I hear you. Take it easy, brother.

Me (driving off): You too, Don.

This is but one in millions of simple but profound, civilizing exchanges that take place daily around the world – even in places where bloody hell breaks loose regularly. How easy to forget that through it all, civility lives. How important to remember.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Man in the Hoodie

As the Internet burns with details, puzzlement, fear and loathing of Facebook CEO Mark Zukerberg and his company's plunged stock value, one fact emerges:

Style matters.

What you wear always sends a message, and how that message is interpreted often depends on how well you perform. Be successful, and you can do whatever you want. Stumble or fail, and you'd better tighten up your wardrobe.

Zuckerberg's plight is best summed up for me in the Los Angeles Times story headlined: Is Mark Zuckerberg in over his hoodie as Facebook CEO?

So, many are saying the Facebook fizzle may be caused by a wardrobe malfunction. That's big news as it involves big money, but style doesn't affect just moguls; what ordinary people wear means a lot in everyday life.

To the dismay of some of my friends, I wrote an essay for the Hartford Courant about style – and the absence of it. Here's the piece:

Time To Grow Up And Ditch The Cargo Shorts

September 18, 2011|By LEE MAYThe Hartford Courant
Labor Day once signaled the end of white shoes for women. If only it would decree the end of baggy cargo shorts for men.
No such luck; it's become year-round, hasn't it? What a shame that Stacy London and Clinton Kelly rarely, if ever, feature men in their "What Not to Wear" television show. If they did, they could do some good public service: Trash the cargoes.
Dudes. Guys. Brothers. Grow up!
Too many of us are forever young (love the song, not the look). That's fine when it comes to attitude about aging well, but when it comes to clothing, we need to man up. That means dressing not like your boy children but like an adult who can find a way to dress comfortably without resorting to baggy shorts with more pockets than I had in the combat gear issued to me when I was a boy soldier. What's in all those pockets, anyway? Oh, I know: gadgets. And youthful dreams.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Rare Sights in Strange Times

It's been an ususal weekend: It rained.

And in these strange times, it doesn't just rain; it rages. Angry torrents rush in and suddenly the sky faucet shuts off and the heat returns. Nowadays, it's either drought or downpour.

That abnormality, which now has become normal, makes me think of other elements of weather. Wind we can hear and feel but not see. Heat and cold we can feel but neither see nor hear.

But rain, rare, strange rain, we can see, feel, hear. So, when it stormed in this weekend, I grabbed slicker and camera and rushed into the wet, relishing the feel on my face, the sight of the entire garden reviving, making tired plants, blooms, leaves young, fresh, new.

Not knowing when this would happen again, I took it all in – the fragrance of damp earth, instant streams in ruts, big rain tap-dancing on the roof, stones glistening, drops sparkling like diamonds.

A few images, starting with rain running off the porch roof, onto a path, downhill to the rain garden:

'Chicago Apache' daylily

Desert rose
Rain knocks down leaves from heat-stressed trees and pushes up mushrooms aplenty.
Stone in front path becomes temporary birdbath.
Lichen-mottled stone, leaves nestle in rain-revived moss.
As suddenly as it appeared, the rainstorm goes from buckets of water to just a few drops as skies lighten and air thickens.

It'll take a lot of rain to make up for this year's deficit. And, who knows how long it'll be before big rains come again. Maybe in a day, or a few. Whenever, my slicker will be dry, and my garden thirsty.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Growing Food – Sort Of

Every year, I try to grow food. Years ago, I put in several crops, including corn, eggplant, squash.

Now I'm down to two crops – three if you count strawberries, which grow by themselves,  for the chipmunks. I grow cayenne and other peppers because I like spicy. And I grow tomatoes because most of the ones in stores taste like cardboard and ought to be illegal.

So, as usual I planted my two crops in pots in late May – after frost danger was past. Since then, it seems the weather has played only two tunes: Rain and drought, alternating between the two.

During that time, I've carried enough water to those plants to float a boat. I kept them alive, but the patio tomato vine broke in half sometime in July, leaving half the original fruit. I reasoned that was a good thing, as the half vine needed less water. 

Onward I gamely struggled, dragging my two plants to August, trying to protect them from heat, rot, drought. I dusted them with diatomaceous earth to fend off slugs (see picture below), which materialize whenever rain interrupts drought for a day.

I picked those two tomatoes recently. By the time I cut away all the rot, about two bites were left. The others have been stuck on green for weeks. And they're still hard as stones.

As for the other crop, here's the container of four peppers, followed by an image of my harvest so far: a giant cow horn that apparently managed to take in steroids from the air.

A cayenne  this size would be terrific if it had any fire in it, but unlike other green cayennes I've eaten, this one was as mild as a bell pepper. Meanwhile, others in the pot show no signs of turning red. Or hot.

So, what does this all mean?

Except for herbs, food-growing eludes me; I did not get the gene, even though my parents were masterful food growers. I do not like trying to survive  crop-destroying critters and weather in order to eke out iffy crops. It makes much more sense for me to leave food-growing to those who can. Meanwhile, I'll try hard to buy locally grown produce at seasonal markets.

Every year I have to re-learn these truths.

Well, no more. I'm done. From now on, I'll focus on my day job: ornamental gardening.

When It's Too Darn Hot . . . .

When the heat and humidity soar to red alert, and I don't even want to think about going outside, I enjoy looking out the front four windows. Here are two views.

While the tropical weather makes me stay indoors much more than I want to, it also encourages me to consciously appreciate what I grow indoors – something I don't do often enough.

Under the windows, I've placed benches to hold plants such as orchids and African violets, which enjoy the northeastern exposure.

Above, that dendrobium in the center recently produced its first bloom stem in the two years since I repotted it – an ordinary occurrence for experts but an Olympian accomplishment for this amateur orchid grower. Here's a closer look:

Any week now, that baby will extend and finally burst into bloom. Meanwhile, join me in a toast to the future blooms, and to all those plants everywhere that keep us cool when the outdoors is just too darn hot. Cheers!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Update: Bird-Killing Bette Wins a Round

It seemed like a good idea.

And it was for a while. Thwarting Bette the Butcher, I built a fortress around the birdbath that had become her hunting ground. Birds seemed to appreciate the protection of surrounding plants blocking Bette's path to murder.

But born to excess, I figured if a few objects around the watering hole were good, well a lot more would be great. I kept adding this and that, a couple of watering cans balanced precariously, clay pots on top of clay pots, some booby trapped with drain saucers. The better to startle a menacing cat, you see.

This is how the fortress looked after I jumped the shark – a low-rent reference to the contraptions of Rube Goldberg.

After tarting up my construction, I noticed a drop in visitors. As if the word had gone out: "Nah, meet me someplace else, man. That joint started off cool, but now it's really tacky."

The silver watering hole became the someplace else, getting more action than it ever had before. Even though its smaller size meant it could never accommodate large gatherings.

Something had to be done. I could have taken away a few objects, trying to find the sweet spot again, but I decided to start over, dismantling the fortress last Wednesday, about a month after building it. The old look is back, but so far the birds are not.

For the life of the fortress, Bette played a waiting game. Knowing there was more than one way to skin a human, she feigned disinterest in her old lair. Now that *I'm* thwarted, she'll return and wait for the first bird to warily take a drink at the watering hole.

So, Round 2 goes to Bette the Butcher. But it ain't over until I say it's over.

Starting Round 3 this morning, I put a pot of rosemary in the spot where Bette lies in wait. My blogging pal Beth over at Daylily Soup made that suggestion in a comment on my earlier post. The herb seems to work for Beth, repelling cats. (This afternoon I added two more pots, never wanting to be accused of under-kill.)

Word is, cats just hate the smell. Here's hoping Bette got the word.