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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Am I the only one?

Am I the only person distressed at the sight of bags of leaves lining nearly every street on trash day? I get that cleanliness is next to godliness and that wet leaves pose a hazard when walking, but--every leaf rounded up, encased in black plastic, and sent to a landfill? Do most people know what is in those bags?

  • Leaves are the providers of fertility. That wonderful deep soil of the world's great forests was provided by millennia of fallen leaves, broken down by thousands of generations of all the tiny organisms that provide decomposition services and keep the planet from becoming one great reeking mass of corpses. Few of us live in cabins in forest clearings anymore, but that fertility can be shared with our own gardens, just by finding a place where those leaves can break down naturally.
  • Leaves are habitat. Millions of small creatures live in leaf litter, including salamanders, toads, and baby bumblebee queens, who get only one shot at surviving the winter and establishing a new colony in the spring. If we freeze or landfill all the new queens, there will be no bumblebees for next year's pollination. In addition, many of the birds that so many people love to watch rummage through leaf litter in search of insects and spiders. Birds need protein, not just the seeds we put in our feeders when we remember to do so.
  • Leaves are the nurseries of life. Entomologist Doug Tallamy notes in Bringing Nature Home that oaks alone support 534 species of lepidoptera (that's butterflies and moths, folks). Eggs are laid on leaves, overwinter, and in the spring hatch into caterpillars that sometimes become butterflies and sometimes become bird food. Baby chickadees are 100% dependent on caterpillars for food. When we trash our leaves, we are ending millions of lives before they even get to start.
Something to think about.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Endings and Beginnings

Yet another fall is bringing yet more endings. A colleague's spouse died last week--just in her sixties, but after a long struggle with Alzheimer's. Another colleague, still in her fifties, died a few days later from a stroke, her youngest grandchild only three weeks old. At today's funeral home visitation, everyone still looked shell-shocked, not having expected that the bubbly woman we had left planning the college's fall craft show would be hit that night with major brain trauma from which she would never recover. A dear friend lost her father to heart failure earlier in the month, while a church friend and yet another coworker are battling cancer. Too much loss. Too much grief.

But this is a time of beginnings, too. Besides the aforementioned grandchild, who today was being doted on by a variety of people, a pair of former students announced yesterday that they are expecting a child. Even the long-suffering spouse and I are starting over, preparing to leave Chipmunk Ridge for a flat in a downtown duplex. As much as we would love to transplant our entire block, we are ready to abandon what has come to feel too much like suburban living: I had not realized the degree to which I would miss streets with wide planting strips between the sidewalks and the cars, and the option of walking anywhere I need to go (with the exception of work, the college being where it is). Downsizing and heading back to the town where I had lived for a quarter-century feels right.

But transplanting is happening. While our move won't take place until the new year, our lawn strips are already home to some favorite plants. This particular new beginning is our first pollinator bed, which next summer should add a little color and life to an old neighborhood.





Stay tuned to see who shows up for the seed and nectar feast.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Winter ys icumen in

I won't follow up with Ezra Pound's profane comment on the return of cold weather, but we, like everyone else, it seems, have been suffering through a bout of what seems unseasonable cold. If we had any pumpkins, the frost would definitely be on them. But there are compensations for the cold:
  • Outside work slows down. If the plants aren't growing, they don't need to be mowed, deadheaded, or weeded.
  • The birds put on a show, feasting on the seedheads of the now-dead perennials and coming to the feeders in greater numbers.
  • A few trees keep their leaves after most of the others have gone, extending the fall show and making us appreciate them more than when everyone is showing off.
  • Sycamores come into their own when we can see their elegant bark.
  • The juncos come back from the boreal forest to spend their winters with us.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fall color

We all ooh and ah over the look-at-me color changes trees go through, but this fall has brought color changes much closer to the ground to my awareness. This was the first year that I had noticed that liatris leaves turn red (lousy photo, but this one shows the truest color).


Aromatic aster and muhlenbergia capillaris put on quite a show


though the muhly does all right by itself.


Aromatic aster, by the way, is a great favorite with late bees, and clump-forming grasses like the muhlenbergia make good hideaways for young bumblebee queens, who need someplace warm to spend the winter.

My favorite outdoor chair faces the savannah garden, a late-afternoon view that would inspire me to Impressionist-style painting if I had any artistic talent.


It's amazing what a little sunlight does for a few fading perennials.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The little late ones

It has been way too long since I last found my way to this blog. Much has been happening that may or may not get written about someday, but it is worth noting that many things are generally happening in any given ecosystem, in this case, the planting bed along our driveway.

Our New England aster and "Fireworks" goldenrod started blooming well before fall flowers are supposed to bloom, and the cold snap we had did in most of the blossoms, including all the "Autumn Joy" sedum. But a few have hung on, and a few plants that had gone dormant seem to have been revived by the cold. We have rudbeckia flowering again and will have a few obedient plant spikes in bloom if the frost waits a while.

More interesting than the late plants are the insects that are hanging on into the fall. Bumblebees are still active, and I get a little sad each time I see one of the fuzzy girls going about her business. Worker bumbles live only a single season, so the bees buzzing around right now have only a few more weeks to live. They probably don't know this fact of insect life, so they keep doing what they do up until the end. There is probably a message there.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

No pictures, but...

my short sit in the garden last evening was most satisfying, so much so that I didn't bother to go inside for the camera. (My phone is not one of the fancy varieties with internet access, and I probably didn't have it, either.)

The New England aster behind my head was starting to bloom, giving off its faint sweet scent, and the caryopteris divided and transplanted just this spring has put out the almost-unbelievably-blue flowers that only appear when the temperatures get a little warm for human comfort. (The blossoms are one of the best things about August, IMHO.) The Indian grass, big bluestem, and purple lovegrass in the savanna garden were in full, glorious bloom. (Okay, a couple of pictures, even if these were taken a few days ago. Have I mentioned that I love our native grasses?)


The tall grasses are still being joined by the pink puffs of Joe Pye weed (next to the house), which was attracting butterflies in what count for hordes this summer, 2014 being a better year than 2013 but still not great.


We finally got around to putting out sunflower seed, so the chickadees and sparrows were having a fine old time flitting from the rhododendron to the feeder, even though I broke down and had someone take out the twelve-foot pokeweed they loved so well. (I was deliberately away from home the week the removal occurred; I don't think I could have watched, having a perhaps unreasonable fondness for our giant purple-stemmed thug.) The occasional cardinal flew in for a seed and then hid in the crabapple.

To perfect the interlude, a male goldfinch decided to dismember an echinacea while I watched the show. I do love August.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

If you feed them, they will come

I don't know if other people pay attention to such things, but plants go to a lot of trouble to attract pollinators and seed dispersers. Yes, the situation is a win-win for both the critter and the plant, but I cannot think of plants as inanimate, even if they are generally quiet.(Mine may sometimes whisper, "Water! Water!")

Some plants put out the herbaceous equivalent of neon signs. Look at this pair of jewelweed blossoms.


Those dots are markers, leading pollinating insects and hummingbirds into the center of the blossom, where the nectar and pollen are found. "Eat here" is the likely message. Successfully pollinated jewelweeds celebrate by turning each blossom into a seedpod that can explode its contents across a wide area for something so small (hence the other common name, "touch-me-not").

Other plants produce flowers in abundance. What we call the flowers of daisies (and their relatives, the asters, coreopsis, zinnias, sunflowers, and whatever I'm leaving out) are in fact not flowers; they're modified leaves. The little yellow things in the center of this "Wild Romance" blossom are the individual flowers.


That's a lot of baby asters waiting to happen.

An unsprayed planting attracts lots of pollinators. This patch of obedient plant frequently hosts so many bees that their buzzing can be heard several feet away.


A not-particularly-outdoorsy relative noted with some surprise that the bees express absolutely no interest in nearby humans--and why would they, with all those tubes of nectar and pollen attracting their attention?

The feathery tubes of liatris have been one of this year's more popular eateries, with the same stem often hosting multiple pollinators. There seems to be plenty for everyone.


And it's not only flowers that feed animal visitors. Once all that pollinating has resulted in seed formation, seed-eating creatures come in for the harvest. I've never been able to photograph a goldfinch in action, but this semi-denuded echinacea seedhead is the remnant of a goldfinch snack.


I sometimes wonder why we bother with bird feeders.