Friday, May 30, 2008

Rescue Me

Mars and I have started a "Rescue Garden" on the parcel of earth that in previous years has been the site of our vegetable plot. That wasn't what it started out to be - it is however what it has become.

After thirty years of competing with them, we finally decided that the local farmers in our neck of the woods can in fact grow a greater variety of higher quality fresh produce than we are able to generate in our little thirty feet by six feet piece of ground.

And of course there were the rabbits that on several occasions during those years have decimated our burgundy bean crop.

In the morning we would see several rows of newly sprouted shoots ready to germinate. By evening it had become a trail of stubs neatly gnawed off with the precision of an automated grim reaper. One time we caught one of the floppy eared decimators in flagrante delicto. Mars rushed up to him in the garden shouting obscenities in transit and stopped within a foot of the rapidly moving rodent mouth. She continued her tirade. He looked up at her as if she were a crazed religious zealot interrupting the peaceful meditations of the Dalai Lama, and left. Later that night the remainder of the beans was destroyed.

But the Rescue Garden really got started with Monica's hollyhocks. Last October we were visiting Monica and Bram in Santa Fe when Mars noticed the tall Eurasian plant of the mallow family, widely cultivated for its large showy flowers growing along their driveway. Since it was seed harvesting season she liberated some of the plant's little reproductive units with the intention of redeploying them somewhere in what was then still planned to be our mostly vegetable garden.

After a little thought we decided to convert the entire plot to flowers with the hollyhocks being the centerpiece and the majority of the remainder being perennials.

My first plan was to have every flower in the garden be cut-able. Actually "plan" is way to strong a word. I had a vague notion that we could have a flowerbed filled with a combination of perennials and annuals that would reach bloom in carefully ordered succession beginning in mid spring and extending through the autumn and thus provide a steady supply of flora to decorate the vases within our domicile. I actually even looked in a couple of brochures that had been given to me by one of the speakers at the men's garden club of which I am a member. In reality the only plan that we had was to go to our favorite local nursery on Memorial Day weekend, purchase some stuff, and plant it.

Then I saw the peonies. I had been working at the town rose garden. It is our garden club's major civic project. And as I walked back to my car I spotted several of the burgeoning plants sitting neglected and abandoned in what was once the town's "Heritage Garden" at the adjacent town hall. The building is undergoing significant renovations. The work that is involved and the consequent placement of equipment have largely decimated the area. Prior to the construction our club relocated many of the plants to various other public spots in town. Somehow we had missed the peonies.

I checked with the appropriate authorities and went back later that day, with Mars, to save them. After I had dug them up Mars asked that always-fateful question, "What is that maroon feathery plant up there against the wall?" And I gave my traditional answer, "I don't know. Let's bring it home, plant it, and see."

So we did. Along with the wispy, white-flowered plant next to it and the green-leaved, possibly Daisy bush to its other side.

Since we already had three peonies I potted them for future disbursement to other parts of town. The three unknown plants, however, looked pretty desperate so we planted them immediately. The plumed plant still was not looking well so we gave it extra water and cut off its dead-looking appendages. Two more days and it looked as healthy as the other two.

Then, during the week before Memorial Day I, along with several others, received an email from one of my fellow garden club members.

"Subject: Inventory reduction event

Giving away assorted perennials and andromeda, burning bush, azalea (red, white, pink), yews (upright and spreading), globe thistle, white pine, lilly of the valley, arborvitae, juniper, rhododendron, astilbe, jack in the pulpit, boxwood, tiger lilly.
All in pots and ready to go....Be there."

Mars and I have seen stories like this on local television - house overrun by hundreds of cats or dogs; overwhelmed pet owner shown with their sweatshirt over their head being led away by the authorities; pitiful pictures of orphaned pets; plaintive pleas for willing adopters from the news anchors. If it happens with fauna it could happen with flora. This was obviously an SOS in advance of the crisis. And we were there within hours to help.

We rescued a globe thistle, a trio of jacks-in-the-pulpit, and three other plants the names of which we no longer remember although we think one is "kind of like" a sunflower and should be pinched off early in the season to encourage growth, and another is "probably" low-growing and ground-spreading.

We placed the plants with the erect spadix overarched by the spathe that resembles a person in a pulpit into the small woodland area along our south border. And we put the others into our rescue garden. Because we couldn't go completely cold turkey in the homegrown vegetable department we also put in eight tomato plants. And we placed an octet of Zinnia plants in some of the remaining empty spots.

The centerpiece Hollyhock seeds were installed in a side altar abutting our Iris and Chive bed. Thus far we have seen no signs of life from them. Perhaps the plane flight from the southwest to the northeast was just too traumatic. Or maybe the surfeit of water has proven to be more than they can handle.

"In the language of flowers, hollyhock stands for fertility and wealth... A stalk of hollyhock is sometimes incorporated into celebrations of Lammas [the festival of the first wheat harvest of the year] as a way of ensuring the fertility of fields." (

Including themselves we hope. Although not really a rescued plant, the hollyhocks were the initial inspiration for the new garden. It would be both ironic and dispiriting if instead of being the stars of the show they instead became its first - or even worse, only - casualty.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Now You See It...

It is really hard to remain hidden in today's technological world.

I would call it accidental ego-Googling. When I used that Internet search engine to look for the phrase "stephen wright spider in shower" the fourth entry in my results list was

"It's like the old Stephen Wright comedy routine [about] taking a shower and seeing a spider scurrying across the white tiled wall. The spider stops and seems to crouch down thinking 'Yeah. I'll just stay still and press my little black body down against this shiny all white surface. Nah! He'll never see me.'"

I was trying to find the quote because of a picture that I took recently at one of our bird-feeding stations. It made me wonder - "does he really think that no one can see him?"

It seems that he does. Feigned invisibility is actually one of the squirrels' principal forms of self-defense against predators - "The coloring of the squirrel serves as a camouflage, especially when on the trunk of a tree."

Some of their other tactics are:

"The squirrel will also quickly move to the opposite side of the trunk, so the predator does not knew it has moved up to a different location."
[Also known as "fleeing the scene" - changing places is hardly unique to tree rodents. Its success does depend however upon having a predator who is easily convinced that "out of sight, gone for good" - like a dog who is totally mystified by the apparent disappearance of a fake-thrown ball.]

"Squirrels have the ability to turn their feet one hundred and eighty degrees, which allows it to quickly scurry up the nearest tree to escape."
[This one took me a while to conceptualize - and I'm still not certain that I understand it. This sounds too much like a scene from a Road Runner cartoon with the squirrel's body rising up on ankle-springs. How does having your feet facing in the opposite direction from your body make it possible to move any faster? And when you go forward are your really going backward?]

"A squirrel will flick its tail from side to side to distract a predator. When caught by a predator, the tail will actually break off, allowing the squirrel a chance to escape. This defense mechanism is also seen in lizards."
[Apparently the sight of a swishing bushy tail is quite mesmerizing to some of those who would prey on squirrels. Like the immediately above escape tactic I have never witnessed any voluntary (or involuntary) squirrel tail severing - nor have I found any evidence of it in my yard. I am assuming of course that the duped predator would be too embarrassed to keep their culinarily useless trophy and would just leave it behind.]

All of these squirrel stratagems however pale in comparison to the gift of self-invisibility. It's an ability that a lot of us would like to have - at least once in a while. For a while I thought that I did. After all I can still ego-Google my name and come up empty. But there is apparently a backdoor method of tracking me down.

I probably should begin some twisting exercises to make my ankles more flexible. You never know when I might need to be able to literally spin on my heels and move rapidly to another out-of-sight location.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

One That Does Not Wither

Every garden has the history of itself within it.

It is, at all times, the sum total of the peat moss, compost, topsoil, cow manure, fertilizer, and sweat with which the gardener has laboriously changed the clods of hard, red clay into a bed of dark brown fertility that sifts softly through his bare, dirt-lined hands.

It is also the latest generation of earthworms - few in number in the early days of the hardened earth but now appearing in multiples-per-shovelful, made momentarily motionless by the upturning of their home then slithering swiftly in search of new soil samples with which to nourish themselves and their surroundings.

And it is all those uninvited former residents whose descendents voluntarily appear in unexpected and sometimes totally unwanted locations year after year after year.

Some of these interlopers are weeds of the classic definition, "a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants". These unwelcome weasel-inners are, of course, forcibly removed on sight and consigned to the Ninth Circle of Horticultural Hell, a.k.a the bottom of the large green town-supplied trash collection barrel. Others however are not that easily dismissed.

Tomatoes for example. Here is a portion of the dialog on "volunteer tomatoes" from "answers/".

"I feel bad for I am pulling these as weeds. what do you think? out of garden space. (Oreo)

"For some reason I also feel bad and a little curious about weeding volunteer plants. Since most tomatoes are hybrids they don't grow 'true' from seed, but that's the fun, to see what the new tomato will look like after the plant is open pollinated. I've had normal looking tomatoes m
ost of the time but one year I had one that produced ribbed fruit like little red pumpkins. If you can find the room, save one for fun. (RScott)

"If there is little room, they won't grow well. Rip them out. (sncmom20)

"I usually leave the volunteer tomatoes. My regular tomatoes are caged to 1) support them, and 2) protect them from critters. I view the volunteers as a bonus if they survive, and it gives the critters (squirrels, rabbits, cats) something to get to so that they don't go after my 'good' plants. But, if you don't want them, and are concerned about the space in your garden, then pull them. Technically, a weed is just an unwanted plant. (B.B)"

Our volunteer tomatoes normally generate nothing more than a tower of compound leaves with healthy looking, albeit seriously undersized, leaflets arranged attractively along equally pint-sized rachises - but no fruit. The reappearing Amaranths however are totally the real deal.

Named from the Greek word "amarantos" meaning "one that does not wither" Amaranths are often used in literature and poetry to symbolize immortality. This plant has more families (sixty) than the Providence Mafia. And a big enough variety of distinguishing characteristics as to earn it the label of a "difficult genus" among horticultural systematists - those Latin speaking scientists who try to impose a difficult-to-remember-and-pronounce nomenclature on things that the rest of us have a hard enough time remembering whether we just watered or not. Amaranths are also know as "Pigweeds" which I think gives everyone a good idea of just how these official plant name-makers really feel about them.

Some Amaranths are considered weeds. However people around the world do value other varieties as leaf vegetables, cereals, and ornamentals. I believe the variety that grows in our garden is called "Amaranthus cruentus" or "Purple, Red or Mexican Amaranth". It may not be, but the pictures that I found for this model sure look like what happens to our yard every summer. Unlike the tomatoes that appear in groups of two or three, the volunteer Pigweeds arrive in mobs of thirty or forty at a time. Each plant can grow to a height of about five feet with a thin but muscular stalk (some have required a pruning saw) topped by a one to two foot tall maroon feathery flower - think Tina Turner as a maroon shaft of wheat.

I also came across a website for the "The Order of the Amaranth...a social, fraternal, and charitable organization whose membership is open to both men and women with a Masonic affiliation." And a music video called Amaranth by a "Finnish symphonic metal band" called Nightwish. In this three minute and fifty-four second movie two 18th Century looking young men find an injured female blonde angel (with really big wings) and bring her back to their house. The home is then set ablaze by the angry villagers, and the angel ascends from the flames. Any questions?

It is discoveries like these that are the real reason I haven't determined what the actual Pigweed variety that resides on our property is - along with the fact that I don't really care that much. Telling people that what there are looking at is an Amaranth is more than enough to impress 99% of the visitors to our gardens.

We saw identical Amaranths to our home-growns on our trip to the Mediterranean island of Malta. There they were actually the centerpiece of many of the public gardens that decorated the town of Sliema and other parts of the limestone isle. Our personal Pigweed plague preceded this journey abroad so we recognized them when we saw them. And, since we already had them, we made no attempt to smuggle seeds back with us - not that we would have, it being illegal and all that. It did however move the purple plant up quite a bit in my personal estimation seeing as how it was such an important part of the ultra-cool Euro-Horti-Cultural scene.

Our Amaranth collection came from Mars' parents in whose vegetable garden it had likewise grown unsolicited for years. My recollection is that they snuck it in among our vegetables one day while we were at work. If true, while it would not be in keeping with the their normal behavior, it would be consistent with the stealthy way that Amaranth spreads itself around - at least here in "the States". I do not believe that either of my in-laws was in the Order of the Amaranth (although they may have secretly belonged). I am however quite certain that they never saw the music video.

The next year we probably had fifteen or twenty of the thick-stalked scarlet imposers. And from then on at many times that number annually. Although I feel badly about it, I rip most of them out of the dirt at first sight - not because I don't appreciate their beauty and attitude (Tina Turner, remember) but because of space constraints. Because the Amaranths just keep on coming this culling out process continues throughout the summer and beyond - even when the rest of the garden crops have packed it in for the year.

I have used dirt from my vegetable garden to fill in other spots around the yard and - you guessed it - the Pigweed shows up there also. These uninvited but welcome intruders are as much a part of the soil as the compost, peat moss, topsoil and worms. And they probably will be forever - even if the next property owners are not gardeners and do not appreciate them.

I mean what are they going to do - incinerate the insistent Amaranths out of existence? We saw in the Internet music video how well that works!


Then of course there is Walter.

Walter, as you may have guessed from his name, is a pigeon. He, or his doppelganger, has hung out at our house for the past three years - spring, summer, fall and winter - always by himself. Walter appears to be a genuine "confirmed bachelor" - only the second one of these I believe I have ever come across.

The other was my Uncle Bill. He was one of my father's three brothers and lived on the first floor of a three story flat with his sister and her husband. My parents and I lived on the third floor from the time I was in fifth grade through my senior year of high school when my father died and my mother moved us in with one of her own sisters.

Uncle Bill was a beer salesman (Schmidt's of Philadelphia); a hunter with a gun rack of several rifles; and a raiser and breeder of beagles, whom he kept in a series of wire kennels in the backyard. The small-hound population ranged from five to twenty-or-so, depending. He sold most of the puppies, keeping one or two from each litter if he thought they had game-dog potential.

When he was home, which he was every night, Uncle Bill was either: in his bedroom cleaning his guns or reading his hunting magazines; out back tending to his Beagles; or doing some hunting-related activity in the center bay of the three car garage in our backyard. His carport contained a refrigerator (for storing beer and game), a small stove (for cooking game), and at various times during the appropriate season, the skins or whatever of the game he had killed. I can remember eating squirrel stew and rabbit stew, and tasting venison - in the garage, but never in the house.

At work Uncle Bill always wore a white dress shirt, tie, and suit. At home he was always in some variation of his hunting clothes. I actually cannot picture him in anything other than his dress clothes or a red plaid wool shirt - but I am sure he didn't wear the latter in the hot summer weather of Connecticut. I imagine that we wore some third outfit to sleep in but that would be an assumption.

It was probably my youth but I always felt like you could feel a circle of peaceful solitude around my uncle - and Walter gives off much the same feeling.

He normally arrives shortly after sunrise and begins picking dutifully among the sunflower seeds that lay scattered under our bird feeders - then leaves quietly after thirty minutes or so. Over the course of a day he repeats this routine several times. Walter looks like a generic pigeon - no dramatic black or white markings, no funky head feathers, not too big or too small - just your average pigeon.

When others arrive on the scene, whether of his or other breeds, he quietly hangs around with them, maintaining a social distance that seems to say, "I am being friendly but not familiar". The squirrels and other birds seem to honor his request for privacy - or at least they don't knock him down or run him over. If some of the other pigeons get romantic Walter simply continues his quiet quest for food, skillfully maintaining his space without impinging on the adjacent tango

Sometimes Walter flies up to the peak of our gable/hip roof and stares down at the yard below. Although all we can make out of the rooftop watchers are their silhouettes, we can always recognize Walter by the amount of space between him and his cohorts.

It's difficult for me to understand the joy of a solitary life - or even the possibility of joy therein. Still I believe that my Uncle Bill, by his nature, was happiest in his solitude. And he was able to carve out a niche in the everyday world that allowed him to live within that circle, as he wanted to.

At least I hope so. And Walter too.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Ducks Redux

A while back I wrote about some robins, ducks and sparrows that dropped in on our property earlier this spring - the land birds deciding to stay, the water ones not. Later I followed up on the apparently successful efforts of "Guido" the Robin to attract a mate to the homestead that he was trying to establish in our neighbor's Star Magnolia.

Guido's good luck seems to have gone south - at least I hope it's that direction, being as that's where the other eligible bird apartments on our premises are. A few days after the Star Magnolia went into full blossom, and his female friend went into the nest, the white flowers, as they are wont to do, began falling - re-exposing the bowl-shaped twig assemblage to the light of the outside world. And Lucia (as Mars had chosen to call her) decided that she no longer wanted to live there.

She has however continued to appear with her apparent main squeeze around the bird feeders so we suspect that Guido has established another residence more to her liking somewhere else nearby. I will probably discover their new home when I inadvertently come to close to it during my summer bush-pruning activities.

It has happened before - not with Robins but rather with roosts of both Catbirds (which have not yet been seen this year) and Mockingbirds (which have).

There are a number of thick, green, leafy bushes in our backyard ranging in tallness from three to five feet at this time of year to potentially double those heights.

I try to keep the bunch of them at a maximum of seven feet - my stature plus a comfortable pruning shears' reach. They grow quickly so it is not uncommon for me to cut them back every other week during the warm weather. And at least one of those trimmings will, guaranteed, occur during the brooding season.

I have never actually been attacked - although my former neighbor John was chased by contentious Catbird couples at least twice. But I am acutely aware of the possibility and as a result pay close attention when one or more adult birds pop suddenly out of the darkness of a shrub and begin to belligerently berate me for my proximity to whatever it is that I can't see inside. I quietly back away. The end results are (1) a family of undisturbed avifauna and (2), for a period of time, a kind of abstract topiary look to one or more of my bushes.

I expect that I will see Guido and Lucia, in similar circumstances, sometime during the summer. Along with the Mockingbird couple that arrived over the past week and some Catbirds who will undoubtedly reappear when the weather becomes warmer.

We also have the two Sparrows continuing to renovate the Downey Woodpecker constructed tree-hole; the pair of Downeys who have evinced no interest at all in reclaiming their vacated space but who do continue to appear daily in the feeding area; plus the male and female Cardinal that grace our seed-bottle at sunrise and sunset.

And I received the following email from our across-the-street neighbor who saw my original posting:

"The ducks also feed at J* and G*'s feeder, and at ours occasionally. Because we capture much of the rainwater runoff into our 3 rain barrels, our back yard doesn't form the usual deep puddle-pond for the ducks to swim. I* told us that the female duck is nesting in their front shrubs, and the original 12 eggs in the nest are now down to 7 (I believe). The female won't budge from the nest now, so the eggs are soon to hatch."

In other words, all of the usual suspects are back for another year. I guess familiarity breeds.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

All By Myself

Solipsism is the philosophical belief or theory that you yourself are all that can be known to exist - i.e. you may actually be more than just the center of the universe, you yourself may be the whole shebang. And you thought we Philosophy majors wasted our time and energy on meaningless things.

The very best thing

In being a Solipsist -
No one else complains.

And the very worst -
Believing that you can cross
Against the traffic.