Saturday, December 31, 2011


Through the snowy night

flakes paw at our windowpanes,

melt to nothingness.

Snowflake photos taken by Wilson Bentley (1865–1931) from

Collective Nouns

A crowd of crows,

a cacophony of caws

murder plus mayhem.

More info on collective nouns at

Photo from Click on photo to enlarge

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An Escher of Squirrels

I am etymologically confused.

A squirrel’s nest is called a “drey” (with an “e’)– although I suspect most of us just call it a nest. A group of squirrels is called a “dray” (with an “a”) – or, alternatively a “scurry”. Most of us would designate such a gathering as a bunch. I myself would dub them an “escher” – based upon the behavior of the most recent octet of Sciuridae Sciurus that inhabit our native suburban wild animal refuge.

The derivation of the word dray (or drey) has something to do with carts without wheels, and nothing to do with tree rats. But “scurry” does make some sense. According to my IMac’s dictionary, as a verb scurry means “move hurriedly with short quick steps” and as a noun “a situation of hurried and confused movement”. And scurrying is what a squirrel does when it moves across my yard to/from the front border oak tree that is the entrance/exit ramp for the elevated superhighway of branches and wires that the little gray rodents traverse on their various individual commutes throughout the day. But they only seem to scurry when they are traveling alone.

In a group setting the little tree-critters move fluidly and confidently – like a live, light gray, furry M.C. Escher drawing.
(Click photo to enlarge)

Maurits Cornelis Escher is perhaps the world’s most recognizable graphic artist – best known for his morphing tessellations and “impossible structures” that fool the viewer’s eye.

A tessellation consists of a shape repeated over and over on a single plane without any gaps or overlaps. “Previously, tessellations were created with rather simple shapes. Escher distorted and manipulated these simple shapes to resemble things such as various animals. In his “Metamorphoses” series, the tessellations “morph” into changing shapes or even leave the plane such as in Reptiles. In this lithograph, reptiles seem to be following a continuous cycle in which they “enter” an image of a drawing of a tessellation and then come out of the drawing, walking back around it to the same entrance point.” (NBMMA)
(Click photo to enlarge)

And this explanation is actually less confusing than the drawings themselves. So try this. Escher creates impossible objects – 2-dimensional illustrations that could not actually be constructed in three dimensions.

The squirrels, when performing en masse, move in a continuous nose-to-tail cycle across the lawn, and up and down the trees – abruptly changing direction in perfect unison through a series of rapid-fire, gravity-defying maneuvers impossible to execute in three dimensions, and equally difficult to illustrate in two – a hyperactive tessellation.

In other words, an escher.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


An unprecedented late October snowstorm damaged scores of trees in our state. Our hometown’s Physical Services department collected these fractured limbs, chipped them, and took them away. Last week, in the parking area for our town wilderness area, I discovered where some of them had gone.


Snowstorm ravaged trees
cook in steaming compost mounds,
scent of smoky pine.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Ivy Covered Walls

We pathologically inveterate gardeners frequently find great pleasure in doing things that other, more normal, people might find less fulfilling – for example pulling back the ivy.

Our residence is surrounded on two and one-quarter sides by beds of the ground creeping, wall climbing green-leaved woody plant. They came with the house when we bought it thirty-plus years ago. I have never tried to evict them but I suspect that even if asked nicely, with a promise of a good new home, they would refuse to cede their stake in the earth. And actually I wouldn’t want them out of here – the ivy is, in its own way, perhaps the most entertaining plant on our property.

On the ground they keep a low profile – a totally unobtrusive, pleasant change of texture and color between the green grass and the gray concrete house foundation. But, unlike other groundcovers, Araliaceae Hedera has higher aspirations – and, like the gray tree squirrels that also inhabit our property, has the climbing ability to achieve them.

One of the surfaces it likes to ascend is the brick chimney that adorns the north side of our abode. Not having been smart enough to experience ivy covered walls during my collegiate years I’ve always had a secret admiration for the old money, academic ambience of that look.

Not so the appearance of sinuous vines clinging to the gray vinyl siding that covers our house on either side of the smokestack, as well as the remainder of the building along which the ivy beds lie in wait. And even worse the tendrils that insinuate themselves under the synthetic resin shingles and creep upwards between that surface and the Tyvec that covers the outer walls of the building. Still worse – occasionally one of the ivy leaves makes its way into our family room, which, being a former breezeway from the house to the garage, sits directly atop a concrete slab.

Ground cover is good. Undercover is not.

Mars and I have visited North Carolina and seen the way that runaway Kudzu vines gradually encompass and ultimately bring down abandoned buildings so that all that is left is a stack of leafy vines in the shape of a homestead. This is not going to happen here on my watch.
The fortunate thing is that, for whatever reason – exercise, fresh air, Zen concentration, catharsis (or all of the above) – vine ripping is one of my favorite gardening activities. (It’s probably not a good sign that my horticultural proclivities tend toward the destructive rather than the nurturing. Or maybe it’s just a guy gardening thing.)

Anyway, the other day Mars noticed that another ivy leaf had invaded the family room. It was a sunny, unusually warm (55-60 degrees) December day, and I for some reason had a surplus of nervous energy to burn.

Say no more! I was on that job like white on rice.

The routine is the same each time that I do it. Wearing leather gloves because of one long ago barehanded incident with a vicious bee that was apparently taking a break in the vinage I crouch down and peel back the self-bundled creepers to reveal the tail end of the camouflaged climbers. Then I grab the ascending offender and rip downwards, with luck releasing its death grip from the side of my house

Some ivy remains attached to the exterior surface with its Velcro-like tendrils. Bare hands are called for in order to pry it loose with my fingernails. If that fails then I leave it in place hoping that it will fall off after it dies and dries up. Mostly it doesn’t.

During all this grunt work my body is perpetually crouching down and standing up as I move sideways along the perimeter of my house. And periodically twisting itself pretzel-like beneath or between the branches of the shrubbery that also provides decoration along the foundation. Some of these are pricker bushes – and they hurt. I use my anvil pruning shears to cut away some of the vines that have bunched up and to take out my anger at the vines that refuse to leave go of their perpendicular places. Most of these cuts are done blindly as I feel my way through the interlaced ivy.

The effort takes about thirty minutes. My legs are stiff from the constant raising and lowering, and if I am fortunate I have not severed any fingers with the pruners or encountered any feisty honeybees. I’ve worked up a moderate sweat, even on the 55-degree days, and my nervous energy is dissipated.

People who pay other people to do this stuff just don’t realize all the fun that they are missing.

Photos of kudzu covered house from

Friday, December 02, 2011

Haiku Traffic Signs

A friend sent me this link to a NY Times article about the placement of some unique and artistic traffic signs. "Safety warnings, in the form of haikus, are sprouting up on sign poles around the city. Submit your own haiku, and we'll post the best."

Here is my submission:

Trying to compose
a haiku while motoring
I spaced and crashed.

Sunday, November 27, 2011



The crows settle in,
the girl on the swing is gone,
the tree carries on.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Welcome to the first meeting of the B.B.B.F.F.B.F.

"Good evening everyone. And welcome to the first meeting of the B.B.B.F.F.B.F. – the Burning Bush Best Friend Forever Benevolent Fellowship.

"I apologize for the cold, dark accommodations but being as we are an advocacy group for an officially declared invasive plant and therefore of necessity an underground organization we will be holding all of our gatherings in this abandoned root cellar at an undisclosed location on the once active Wilkus Farm property.

"It is especially fitting that we meet now as this is the time of year when Euonymus alatus compactus is in its glory – displaying its spectacular red fall foliage for all to see, putting to shame those other pretenders at autumnal flamboyance such as Hosta, Bloody Geranium, Ferns, Switchgrass, Blue Star and Peony.
"I ask you – is this ostentatious exhibition the behavior of an invasive? (One of Connecticut’s Top ten in fact)

"And I answer, as any intelligent adult would respond (while lying on my back and pounding my hands and feet on the ground) – “No! No! No! No! No! No!”

"So what is an invasive anyway? To me it is something that (a) silently sneaks into an area, (b) blends in with its surroundings, then (c) slowly and insidiously takes over.

"Does BB meet those criteria? Here is what the DCNR Invasive Exotic Plant Tutorial on says about it.

"(a) 'Winged euonymus was [intentionally] introduced into the USA from northeastern Asia about 1860 for use as an ornamental shrub. [It did not arrive furtively on the underside of a wooden shipping pallet nor did hide in the hold of a tramp steamer and crawl onto shore.]

"(b) This shrub is one of the great beauties of the autumn season. [Admittedly though the rest of the time the BB lives in relative anonymity.] It is best left unpruned although it can be cut back if you have space issues. The shrub is not at all fussy about soil requirements (except for excessive wet areas) and it has no significant pest problems. It also transplants very easily. It is truly a maintenance free shrub. [It can be seen in at least two or three yards on every street in Wethersfield.]

"(c) While it behaves well in suburban areas, burning-bush planted near woodlands, mature second-growth forests, and pastures can be a problem. It has escaped from cultivation in the Northeast and Midwest, notably in Connecticut, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. The earliest evidence of naturalized populations of winged euonymus in eastern Pennsylvania dates from the 1960s. Today it is found with increasing frequency in moist forests throughout eastern counties.'

"But whose fault is this alleged infestation? Do the little BB seeds tiptoe in the dark away from their suburban homes and into the surrounding woods? I don’t think so!

"Seeds do fall rather prodigiously near the base of the plant, leading to more little BB’s clustered around the mother bush. Other BB seeds are spread by birds, which are attracted to them by their nutritious, fleshy, red covering. Seeds dispersed this way germinate easily and spread rapidly.

"But whose fault is this? Can the BB help it if birds of all feathers are fatally attracted? (“Don’t blame me for being beautiful.”) It’s just a simple evolutionary device for preserving the species. It’s the birds that go overboard.

"B.B.B.F.F.B.F. says 'B.B.N.B.B. (Ban Birds Not Burning Bushes)'”.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Gardening is not just good for the plants

As a gardener I try to follow the advice (spoken in a thick Italian accent) of Phillip, a longtime professional and amateur horticulturalist, and former member of my garden club – "Always leave room in the bush for the birds to fly through." However, as a gardener, I also like to position my perennial plants close to each other – really close. It is the way that nature spaces things, and I do like that less-structured look.

Growth happens, and several times a year Phillip's Rule Number 1 needs enforcing. Once again I realize:

Gardening Is Not Just Good For The plants

Pruning back tangled stems –
Nothing exists in the world
But what’s being done.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Beauty in Ugliness

Much of the pizazz in this year’s gardens was supplied by three ornamental sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) that Mars potted and placed on each side of our garage door and near the edge of our family room flowerbed.

The recent pre-Halloween snowstorm decimated them and so, as part of the après storm cleanup I removed the vines from their containers. Some came out easily, one did not. I took my fork-tongued hand weeder and wedged it into the potting soil, levering up the reluctant vine. To my surprise I unearthed what looked to be a deformed sweet potato.

This evidently is not stunningly unusual – at least according to the forum on The starchy tubers apparently are edible and easily propagated. Unfortunately I learned this information after I had added mine to the ugly plant portion of my compost pile – from which it is now too late to retrieve.

My mind however was more attuned to the aesthetics of my discovery rather than the gastronomic. I tried to photograph it in a way that improved its appearance – while at the same time trying to figure out a way to write about the ugly vegetable. I thought perhaps something about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave wherein the shadows represent the imperfect world, and my spud (in this instance) the realm of reflected reality – except the silhouette was better looking than the real thing.
I went inside and Googled “beauty and ugliness” and found lots of links to local television “special reports ”on the “ugly truth behind the beauty industry” – as well as one interesting blog from a Canadian designer who spent time in India and returned questioning her long held artistic assumptions. The piece was entitled “The beauty in ugliness, the order in chaos.” – the first part of which also happens to be a great middle line for a haiku. – which got me to thinking

Oft, in gardens too,
the truth behind the beauty
lies buried in dirt.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Dream Weaving

Mars and I recently underwent an 8 day and 8 night electric blackout due to an unprecedented late October snowstorm. The heavy wet snow accumulated on the leaves that were still on the trees, causing branches to fall or bend down on power lines. Our magnolia took down the wire connecting our house to the power grid.

We found warmth during the day at our health club and the local community center. We spent nights in our 45-50 degree bedroom hunkered down under multiple quilts in our warmup suits, socks and ski caps.

On one of those mornings we were lying in bed trying postpone the inevitable return to the cold air. While trying to recall her previous night's REM sleep fantasies Mars uttered what became the middle line of the following haiku .

Where do they all go,
the dreams I don't remember?
Am I living them?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Badge of Honor

For fencers (of the sword fighting type) the traditional badge of honor is the “dueling scar”. For gardeners (of the do-it-by hand type) our mark of merit is the “raking blister”.
I know a little bit about dueling scars because our son Bram is a fencer. He began taking lessons from a series of local college students in his early teens. Knowing nothing about the sport he and I went to a match in which his very first tutor, Dom, was competing. He was fencing sabre. (There are three types of fencing “swords” – the other two being foil and epee). In sabre fencing the target area (the part of your opponents body that you can touch in order to score a point) is everything from the waist up – including the head. During Dom’s first bout, his opponent lunged and stuck his weapon through Dom’s mesh facemask. It did not cause a dueling scar, but I got the concept.

Unlike dueling scars which (a) were actually sought after by upper-class Austrians and Germans involved in academic fencing at the start of the 20th century and (b) are permanent – raking blisters are both unwanted and temporary. No matter how much gardening work I do during the spring and summer, I never (in all of those activities) press enough tools against the base of my thumb to develop a callus.

As a result, even with thick leather gloves, after about forty-five minutes of drawing and dragging leaves across my front yard the wooden handle of my large plastic rake has generated a small but painful bubble on my right hand. I take a break and put on a bandage which will stay there until I complete the remaining thirty minutes of yard-cleaning later that day.

In the interim I will proudly and publicly display my gauze-covered wound and look for the knowing smiles of other similarly tourniquet clad brothers of the rake.

Meanwhile, in Santa Fe New Mexico, our son the fencer will blow the leaves off of his crushed stone front lawn – raking not being an option on that surface.

It’s too bad that he doesn’t have that choice. Everyone deserves their own badge of honor, and I would much rather see him with a bump on his hand than a scar on his cheek.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Mars and I were Philosophy majors in college – 2/3 of the ones in our graduating class in fact. So to our minds the “dream argument” is not that strange a thing to think about. This argument (also known as "Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly" (莊周夢蝶 Zhuāngzhōu mèng dié)) claims that we have no way of determining conclusively at any moment whether or not we are dreaming. Hence, it is possible at any given time that we are dreaming.

But even if I had not had this kind of formal training, what happened to me early this morning still would have made me wonder what was really going on.

At 4:00 a.m. I dreamt that I was verbally roused by Mars (“Hey Jim!”) from a dream in which our Financial Advisor Chris was encouraging me to lie down in a human body sized plastic “Relaxation Egg Bed” that was located in his office and intended to bring his clients to a state of calmness. I was there because a former work associate (Sandy) had asked me, in an earlier nighttime vision, who managed our investments.

When I looked over at her, Mars was deep in hibernation.

Unnerved by this abrupt awakening – even though I know knew it was all imaginary. I rolled onto my side thinking “I am not getting back to sleep” – until I opened my eyes and saw 6:16 a.m. on the clock. At which point I realized that the last two hours of perceived wakefulness was most likely just another REM fantasy preceded by a dream that at 4:00 a.m. I dreamt that I was roused by Mars.

Or not.

{4:00a.m. {“Hey {Egg {Sandy} Bed} Jim”} 6:16 a.m.}

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Batatas Gone Wild

By far the most successful plant in our gardens this year is the ornamental sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) that Mars potted and placed near the edge of our family room flowerbed. This is particularly apparent now, in early autumn, as the maroon elephant ear foliage pushes aside the previously dominant orange Chinese Lanterns.

Their roots may be bound
in soil and pink bisque pots --
vines still get around.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Monarch on the Aster Redux

I wrote the following haiku piece week.

"Yesterday I was startled by a vividly colored Monarch butterfly feeding at our equally intense Autumn Aster. But it wasn’t the sudden proximity of a large-winged insect that jolted me. It was instead the jarring juxtaposition of coloration.

"Little did I realize that I was witnessing what haute couture critics are calling, 'Fashion's coolest clash…

"'Thanks to Gucci and Diane von Furstenberg – Kim Kardashian, Cheryl Cole and Jessica Alba have all been rocking the look on the red carpet in recent weeks.'”

The Monarch on the Aster

Orange on purple –
is it real color blocking
if it’s natural?

At that time I was unaware that “color blocking” was much, much more than simply combining violently clashing hues. And that butterflies actually CAN see in color. Apparently everyone and everything involved really know what they are doing.

“Color blocking is a styling technique that hasn’t quite been picked up by the masses. It involves some knowledge of the color wheel and a bit of bravery. The main idea is combining different colors that support and compliment each other.”

Most of us are familiar with the Color Wheel from some introductory Art class that we took way back when. There are the primary colors – red, blue and yellow; secondary colors– green, orange and purple – which result from the combination of primary ones; and tertiary colors that are the products of yet further mixing.
Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel. Complementary colors are directly opposite one another. Either of these categories of colors are good combinations.

The purple/orange combo exhibited above by Kim Kardashian, Cheryl Cole or Jessica Alba (or whoever that is), and by the monarch butterfly on the aster are both pretty darn close to the complementary color guideline.

So apparently Gucci and Diane von Furstenberg were not totally tripping on some manmade substance when they pushed their color clashing mannequins onto the red carpet. As are the FedEx corporation and the Memphis University Tigers. Although I might question MU’s choice of mascot. Maybe even the orange and black Danaus plexippus knew what it was doing.

Butterflies it seems can see the entire range of colors that humans can – plus they see ultraviolet colors – colors with wavelengths shorter than that of violet, well beyond the wavelengths that we humans can see – with a correspondingly more complex wheel. It is at least one of the methods they use to tell them where the nectar is.

This is similar to the superior sense of smell that dogs have relative to us humans. Canines have about 25 times more olfactory receptors than humans and, as a result, can detect odors at concentrations nearly 100 million times lower than humans can. For example a dog can detect one drop of blood diluted by five quarts of water.

When conducting searches we people have learned to trust the snout of the bloodhound more than the sight of even the most skilled humanoid tracker. So I guess if the apparent clash of orange on purple is okay with the butterflies – then it should be good enough for the rest of us.

Sunday, October 02, 2011


It’s early October. Our son, Bram, in New Mexico tells us that the Aspen there are changing color. Meanwhile, here in Wethersfield Connecticut....

Our neighbor’s Maple

is turning. Nothing else is.
Autumn is Mike’s tree.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Political Statement of International Importance

Each year around this time Mars and I begin cutting back our dried-out spring and summer perennial plants.

It’s an annual balancing act between deciding which shrubs still serve a useful purpose (i.e. bee/butterfly/bird-feeding) and/or even now have aesthetic value (an artistic statement on decomposition perhaps) – versus those that just totally look like hell. For the record I tend to favor the former position, Mars the latter.

But sometimes we take an action because we really feel the need to make a political statement of international importance.

We unseated our
Egyptian Onions this week –

you go Arab Spring!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lighter Than an M&M

The bees seem to be getting really fat on our Phlox pollen this year. Really, really fat! Hindenbee fat! Supersize me fat! Heavy enough to bend the plant ninety degrees fat! Able to hang on to a fragile petal in twenty miles per hour wind fat!

This summer, for various reasons, I have spent more time looking out our front family room windows than I usually do. The view out into our yard is partially obscured by several pink Phlox that have lived there with varying degrees of success for the past decade or so.

Marsha uses the growth of these tall perennials as an indoor guide to the passage of the gardening season. In early summer they make their first annual appearance barely peeking over the top of the widow sill. Then week-by-week they climb past the two white horizontal lines formed by the frames inside the windows panes. Finally they shoot up into the upper windows and sway calmly in the light warm weather breeze.

I didn’t really notice the bees until late July. They were, at that time I thought, larger than I remembered from years before. And now they seem to be considerably larger still.

Now granted “considerably larger” in a bee is a relative concept. According to the average size of a bumblebee is from 12 to 16 millimeters (1/2” to 5/8”) and their standard weight is one tenth of a gram or four one hundredths of a ounce. For comparison one M&M candy (regardless of color) is ten times heavier at 1.13 grams/ .04 ounce.

Periodically one or two of the little honey-makers sneaks inside our family room and hangs out at these self same windows looking longingly at these self same Phlox. This breach in our security has been going on for several years and Marsha and I have yet to figure out where the point of entry is. In any event the bees are quite passive – either hovering lazily alongside the glass or taking a break on the windowsill. My job is to capture our visitors in some paper product, usually a napkin, and (without crushing them) to transport them back to their native outdoor habitat. The wood pulp cocoon feels weightless and if it were not for the gentle vibrations I can feel in my hands I would have no idea whether I was carrying anything or not.

Once outside I open up the swaddle like a magician releasing a dove and the bee floats away into the ether. The audience in my family room politely applauds.

Still, in spite of their gravity-free state, the little humming insects seem to me to be transitioning from being quite easily seen, to extremely noticeable, to blocking-out-the-son enormous. So I decided to carefully observe what was happening in my family room garden. Here, combined with some supporting information that I gleaned from the Internet, are my findings.

All morning the Phlox is in the shade. There is absolutely zero bee activity.

At noon the sun begins to warm the tall pink perennials and shortly thereafter the bees, mid-sized and agile, arrive by the dozen. For about an hour they dart from flower to flower, somehow avoiding mid-air collisions. Then the majority (presumably younger guys with other things to do) leave. Two of them, whom I’ve named Cliff Clavin and Norm, settle in for the afternoon.

By two p.m. Cliff and Norm have attached themselves firmly to their favorite barstools and are growing both larger and logier as their bodies and brains become progressively more encased in nectar. This increase in size and lethargy continues throughout the afternoon until, fully satiated, they drag themselves slowly away from their afternoon hangout and head home where they are hailed as heroes and gently stripped of their temporary sweet outer skins by their fellow hive mates. Then, after sleeping it off, they come back the next day for another round, or two, or three.

Not every worker bee is cut out for it – witness all of the less experienced early afternoon dropouts. But if it is what you are meant to be, it’s probably not that bad a life being a “regular”.

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Useful Life of Trees

useful life

Period during which an asset or property is expected to be usable for the purpose it was acquired. It may or may not correspond with the item's actual physical life or economic life.

I am a gardener, so by my nature I like to see things grow. My favorite horticultural activity is planting. Oddly enough, my second best-loved one is pruning. But even that activity is done in an attempt to further the growth of my plants by either eliminating/reducing overcrowding (both within the shrub itself or with its neighbors) or removing deadwood. Pulling up my annual gardens in the autumn is my unhappiest pastime.

So it was with great sadness that we had our multi-year, multi-story American Elm tree taken down last year. And it is with equal unhappiness that we have now decided to remove an equally tall, two-trunked pine tree and a slightly shorter Maple tree whose stunted growth and Quasimodo posture were caused by living literally in the shadow of the now deceased deciduous behemoth.

The elm fell victim to its eponymous Dutch malady – as apparently all such trees do eventually. Why Dutch and not American elm disease? Apparently, although originating in Asia, the beetle-borne infection was first identified in the Netherlands in 1921. Clearly not a Dutch Treat. In spite of several years of booster shots, and after forcing the tree to endure the embarrassment of a basically leafless spring and summer, we had it put down in early September 2010.

The Maple tree began dismantling itself just over two years ago when it threw one of its three large branches onto our driveway during the Wethersfield tornado of 2009. Mars and I pruning-sawed our way out leaving the remains of the fallen wood on our snow shelf for the town to remove.

This past month, during hurricane Irene, the second somewhat larger bough crashed loudly onto roughly the same spot in our yard – and, to our good fortune, partially into Folly Brook Boulevard, the street in front of our house. We called the town and because of the hindering of traffic, the municipal physical services guys arrived within an hour, removed the tree from the road and driveway, and then two hours later chain-sawed and ground it to oblivion.

This leaves limb number three hanging out over the street like a teapot spout making the trunk look as if it was ready to tip over at the slightest provocation. The tree, from all outer appearances looks to be well into my yard – however it is actually a town tree on town property. (Long story short: Folly Brook Boulevard, a two lane suburban street, was originally planned as a four-lane highway with land acquired accordingly. It didn’t happen.)

As a result I felt the need to turn my tree in to the town Tree Warden. He looked at the injured Maple, agreed it looked unhealthy and dangerous, and has reported it to the Tree Commission which will decide its fate. He has marked it with a striped band indicating its potential imminent demise.

The bilateral pine tree was roughly my height when we moved here in 1977. Now, at four or more stories high, it has become top heavy and branch poor. It swayed way too much for our comfort during the hurricane and, if broken, would easily fall on one of our neighbor’s houses or our own. Twice burned by the Maple, three times shy with the pine.

We called the arborist who removed the Elm tree and made arrangements. The only question now is whether the town or the arborist (at our expense) will do in the Maple.

Either way, it and the double-barreled Pine are going. Unattractive and hazardous are not useful – nor are they signs of healthy growth.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Form Versus Function

Mars and I have become involuntary horizontal gardeners.

And it turns out there is more than one-way to practice horticulture on a plane parallel to the horizon. There also is a so-to-speak grass roots movement in favor of something called vertical farming – an attempt to effectively use the only real available space in most urban environments to produce food, and thereby reduce the need for a city to continually spread into its outskirts – and a shining example of the architectural principal that “form should follow function”.

“The idea is that skyscrapers filled with floor upon floor of orchards and fields, producing crops all year round, will sprout in cities across the world. As well as creating more farmable land out of thin air, this would slash the transport costs and carbon-dioxide emissions associated with moving food over long distances.” (“Vertical Farming: Does it Really Stack Up?” The Economist)

Horizontal gardening on the other hand is both easier to understand and to implement.

It takes two forms. In the first method landscapers use plants that naturally grow horizontally to spread across the ground giving the garden a carpeted appearance. Creeping Juniper, Periwinkle, Prostrate Cotoneasters and Wintercreepers are some of the varieties commonly used to achieve this effect.

In our case we have chosen the opposite approach. Out perennial beds are by design quite vertical, sunflowers of various varieties, Rudbeckias and, daisies. At this time of year, after Mars pruned them back in early June, these plants have now reached heights of up to seven feet in some places. Then hurricane (actually tropical storm) Irene passed over our property and squashed bunches of these tall-stemmed flowers flat against the ground into some parody of a motionless Busby Berkley dance formation.
It looks awful. And the plants know it. They are lying there just staring up at us with a “Please, just put us out of our misery” look. But here is the problem. Within the next week or so the seed filching finches will be arriving by the boatload to freeload off the ripe flower heads. Ordinarily the tiny yellow birds would balance gingerly on the barely-strong-enough stalks and peck away. This blonde on blonde feeding frenzy is a highlight of our autumn gardening season – and one of the main reasons that we grow such seed bearing perennials.

So this fall it will be “function over form”. We have opted to feed the birds rather than appease the aesthetic gardening gods. Maybe it will attract an even bigger crowd. After all it has got to be easier for the birds to stand on the ground and nip at the pips than to swing and sway and jab away.

Then next year instead of cutting the flowers back in mid June we could build a low wire roof over them and just let them spread themselves horizontally – our own modest attempt to control suburban sprawl.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Sense of Place

I saw a hummingbird in our front yard yesterday morning.

That really shouldn’t be such a big deal. Mars and I have several native perennial plants on our property specifically intended to attract these small nectar-feeding tropical American birds – as well as one entire garden dedicated to these feathered hoverers as well as butterflies. For several summers we even put out a couple of those red sugary liquid holding glass feeders.

Except our seductive efforts rarely seem to work. On a daily basis the pollen producing perennials pull in more than their fair share of bees. And a reasonable amount of butterflies explore the plants on a weekly basis. The hummingbird feeders drew in an overabundance of ants. But this is only the third “hummer” that I have spotted in our yard over the several decades that we have been attempting to seduce them to drop by.

The first sighting was at least thirty years ago. I was at our dining room table when I spotted some rapid movement outside nearby our flowering quince. I looked out the nearby window and briefly saw a tiny olive green object hovering midway between the red flowered bush and the house. It took be several seconds to register what it might be. Before I could call Mars’ attention to it, it was gone.

The second one was probably fifteen or so years ago as I was standing next to our Butterfly Garden, selecting the next spot in which to do some weeding. I sensed a buzzing sound near my head and looked up to see a small green monster with a threatening curved beak staring at me.

My initial thought was that it was a mutant wasp, and just as I was midway through my instinctive jump backwards I realized it was in fact a hummingbird. At about the same time the bird apparently realized that I was not a direct source of nectar, darted forward a few feet, hovered, and fled the yard. I remember the confused look on its face – probably quite similar to the one on mine. Again the whole event happened to quickly for me to notify Mars who was working nearby. Therefore once again I had no corroborating witness.

Both of the above instances occurred on warm, bright afternoons when the sun-warmed nectar was flowing and the air was still. Both instances happened near hummingbird attractants.

Yesterday was a cloudy, windy morning. I was sitting in my family room working on a crossword when I looked out the window towards our flowering crab tree. Once again I saw that same tiny olive green hovering object. It jumped and hovered several times as if looking for something and then, apparently not finding it, exited stage right.

When Mars arrived home shortly thereafter I told her the story while walking her over to the spot that the hummer had visited. It was pretty windy and the tree branches and tall perennials were swaying. Two oversize bees were struggling to hang on the Phlox in front of our family room. Other than them the yard was totally lacking any wildlife.

We are expecting a significant hurricane to pass over our state in the next few days. Two days ago there was an earthquake on the east coast. It was reported that the animals at the Washington DC Zoo had become more active prior to the tremor – exhibiting atypical behavior such as writhing around rather than sleeping and bellowing rather than sitting around lethargically. Evidently other animals are more attuned to their surroundings than we humans are.

Obviously the hummingbird’s sense of place was thrown totally out of whack by the impending storm. Trust me. These little hummers have been ignoring us forever. There is no other reason for it to be here.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Natural Born Killer

We have sod webworms in our lawn. I have absolutely no idea what a sod webworm is, what it looks like, or what it does. Nor do I know how to get rid of them, assuming that they are something that should be gotten rid of. But I’m not the least bit worried – because I know that my organic gardening expertise will get me successfully through this situation. You see, back in my working career I was a project manager. So I know that in order to be an expert all that you need are the right people doing the job for you, and the ability to periodically act as if you know what these people are talking about while they are doing it.

Jason told me about the sod webworms. He is the technician from the organic lawn care company that has tended to the grassy part of our yard for the past decade or so. He said it matter-of-factly, with little or no inflection in his voice, like he was mindlessly reading from a menu of turf maladies and it was this particular ailment’s turn at the top of the queue. But Jason’s eyes belied his apparent lack of concern. They burned with an intensity that totally contradicted his bland delivery style. And his body language as he discovered this latest pest invasion and the single-mindedness with which then he applied his 100% natural spray weaponry to the crime scene indicated a level of concern probably greater even than Mars or mine for the situation at hand. He is, in the best sense of the words, a natural born killer.

Truth be told, Mars and I are pretty much bemused by this whole organic milieu of dangerous sounding menaces and wholesome solutions. We buy in totally to the general concepts of the pesticide-free cult: that healthy grass is the best defense against weeds and harmful insects; that chemical usage actually causes lawns to be unhealthy; and that run-off and residue from these poisons worsen the environment in general. It is just that the jargon that is used to describe the nitty-gritty of the organic operation sounds too absurdly amusing to be real. That may in fact be its major attraction to us.

Jason wrote down some of that verbiage on the “TODAY WE TREATED YOUR LAWN” form that he leaves behind after each visit – precise documentation is quite important to our corps of lawn rangers. – “Lawn has sod webworm (insects) in lawn. I treated all lawn areas. Please no mowing for 2 weeks.”

The paper went on to explain that he used 21 gallons of mystifying materials to combat this situation – 23 pounds of Fish Powder and 44 ounces of “K+Neem 70191”. It did not explain however how this math (lbs. + oz. = gallons) works out. It is probably just another organic mystery. In fact, this whole organic lawn care thing is one big enigmatic conundrum of previously unheard of diseases and crunchy-earthy cures that somehow are brought together into a coherent whole by its ordained priests. Our role is to sign the annual check, and act like we know what Jason et alia are talking about when they advise and recommend various lawn treatments. I listen carefully. Then I mention casually that I believe he has used the Fish Powder (or Liquid Compost Extract, or Hand-Extracted and Non-Acid Refined Dalmatian Dolomite or whatever) before in some other circumstance. Which Jason acknowledges and explains why it should be once again the weapon of choice. “You’re the man,” I say, retroactively approving the action that he has already autonomously taken

And this organic stuff is actually working. Over the years – as we have agreed to a series of Compost Tea Drenches, Natural Dethatching, Epsom Saltings, Free-Range Salmon Roe Saturations, and Pro-Biotic Grass Cleansings in order to combat various lacey-winged, multi-segmented, creeping and/or burrowing invaders– our grass has become thicker, greener, more weed-free and in general much healthier looking. Jason’s reasoning always makes logical sense – that is to say his solutions (expressed in words that we are mostly familiar with although not necessarily in this combination and context) always seem related to his statement of the problem (also expressed in familiar words used unfamiliarly). But if it weren’t for their past successes, these high-minded organic mantras would quickly turn to mumbo-jumbo gibberish in our ears and all bets would be off.

Mars and I follow the same approach in our investment strategy – find someone you trust, pay attention to the overall success of the big picture, and nod your head or furrow your brow at the appropriate times in the conversation. Recently when the market went south we managed to stay a little this side of the Mason Dixon line. And now we are once again firmly located in the northern part of the grid.

I have no doubt that Mars and I could learn to understand the arcane relationships between sod webworms and their ilk and K+Neem 70191 and its ilk – if that is what we wanted to spend our time and energy on. Then we could personally carry out these all-natural missions with the same degree of fervor and dedication as Jason does. Likewise we could pour over the financial data and generate our own graphs of trends and areas of opportunities. But neither of these would be our first choices for how to live our lives.

Better for us to leave these areas of expertise to those who truly get their kicks from anticipating stock swings or preemptively preventing the spread of the next great organic threat.

Those that can – do; those that can’t – teach; and the rest of us should consider ourselves fortunate for managing to hook up with those that know how to do it right.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Limits of Lazy-Faire Gardening

The following essay was prompted by a comment from our son Bram on my earlier piece "Its All in How You Spin It".

It is actually not that easy being a lazy-faire organic gardener. Like its similarly named economic counterpart lazy-faire organic gardening is the policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering. And like its economic counterpart, “without interfering” doesn’t really mean, “without interfering”. It actually means minimal involvement. In fact if it weren’t for these occasional interventions it wouldn’t be gardening – it would just be sticking plants into the ground. The hard part is knowing when to step in, and how much.

For example, Mars and I place many of our perennials pretty close together. We like that natural look of overflowing abundance and contrasting colors and patterns that result from semi-crowded beds of complementary flowers – “brightly colored patches that are messy but balanced” as the gardens of the Impressionist artist Claude Monet are described by travel writer Rick Steves. (Others might say congested and confusing. I ignore the others.)
Inevitably the daisies and the sunflowers intertwine. The adjacent green shrubbery begins to create a shady roof over the area. The thin branches of the Japanese Spirea push against the green stalks of cardinal plants. And the tansy starts to nudge out the Echinacea. Hands on intervention is called for to restore the amount of space each plant needs in order to breathe. Sixty minutes of clipping and ripping and the balance of nature is restored. For the next month or so the pruned back perennials respect each other’s space. Then normal growth leads to more polite pushing and shoving, and law and order needs to be gently restored again.

And of course there are weeds to be weeded. Some of these encroachers get discovered when I am down and dirty, crawling through the flower stems, looking for candidates to be thinned out. But not all of our flowerbeds are planted wall-to-wall. Other outliers are more obvious, brazenly showing themselves in the strips of soil between their more wanted brethren. This is not the look we are going for. More kneeling, crouching, pulling and tugging and the dirt is returned to its pristine, non-distracting appearance. Such is the mannerly ebb-and-flow of minimal interference plant care.

There is however no place in the world of lazy-faire organic gardening for bindweed.

Bindweed is a vining plant that snakes its way across the ground and over fences, plants, or any other stationary thing in its path. Bindweed can grow four feet or more in length, and has deep, strong roots.
Vigilance and persistence are the two most useful weapons in your arsenal against bindweed. Watch for signs of this vine, and remove it as quickly as possible. The best way to get rid of bindweed is to cut it off at soil level. Don't bother pulling it up; it will just sprout wherever you tore the roots (and you will. It's impossible to get all of the roots out.) organicgardening/

Occasional improvements are part of the vocabulary of the dedicated lazy-fairest“. “Vigilance and persistence” are not. “Bindweed” is not. It plays by its own set of anarchic rules.

We live in Connecticut where the ground is cultivated and the soil healthy. I don’t have any bindweed. (I think the genteel Yankee tradition and local zoning ordinances keep it away.) My daughter-in-law and son live in Santa Fe, New Mexico – arid growing conditions, average rainfall minus ten inches per year. (When they talk about “inches of rain” out there they are referring to the distance between each drop.) They, and many of their friends and neighbors, have bindweed – healthy, vigorous, pernicious, evil bindweed.

Fortunately this accident of geography allows me the luxury of not having to deal with this most vexatious vegetative villain – and of maintaining my hands off horticultural convictions.

If I did however, I would do exactly what they are doing – rout it with Roundup, the poisonous systemic, broad-spectrum uber-herbicide.

needs polite participants –
not bindweed bullies.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Its All in How You Spin It

I worked with Kwame several years ago.

When I first met him his name was Cephas – the non-African name he was assigned as a part of the attempted Anglicization of his part of Ghana that was still going on during the 1950’s when he born and growing up there. I never got much of the story By the time we had met he had immigrated to the USA, become college educated (either here, there and/or somewhere else), married, fathered a daughter and a son, and settled into a career as a computer programmer at the downtown Hartford insurance company at which I was also employed. He never talked about how he ended up there.

We needed staff on my project and I was told that someone named “Cephas Irish-last-name” would be joining the team. I expected a tall red-haired, barrel-chested, boisterous Celtic. I got instead a mid-sized but muscular, square-featured, ebony-colored, thoughtfully quiet and reflective, problem solver. He shook my hand and told me softly that he was no longer going by his Christian appellation but was to be known henceforth as Kwame.

Kwame always wore a crisply ironed white dress shirt with a tie and cufflinks. And he proudly drove a large Mercedes Benz sedan. When I moved off the project to another position in the same division we became out of work acquaintances. It turned out that we were both tennis players of about equal ability each looking for someone to whack the ball across the net with. On the court he donned classic tennis whites to my baggy plaid Bermuda shorts and colored collared shirt.

Kwame was a steady backcourt tennis player who, like me, loved to put extreme spins on the fuzzy yellow orb and who, like me, took more pleasure in the complexity of the ball movement and the length of the point, than the final result. We played once, sometimes twice, weekly during the outdoor tennis season. And on every point each of us was trying to twist the arc of the returning spheroid beyond the world of the predictable into the realm of the totally unexpected and completely unforgettable.
He also had the ability to express things in a manner that shed an entirely different perspective on the situation.

For example, one time I brought into work a blueberry teacake that Mars had made with berries picked from one of the bushes in our backyard. I offered Kwame a piece.

He was reluctant to take even a taste until I assured him that I had sprayed absolutely nothing on the fruit bushes. In fact other than planting and watering them the only care that I gave them was to drape them in layers of tobacco netting.

“Ooh! Jeem. I did not know that you were an organic gardener.” he lilted, as he quickly popped chunks of the sweet crumbly cake into his mouth.

I didn’t know that either. I had thought, with some degree of certainty based upon personal experience and the opinion of others, that I was just lazy. Organic gardening, I believed, was more than just a hands-off gardening technique. It was a way of life – a calling – with its own set of labor-intensive, arcane, 100% pure rituals and practices. And an end product that said to the world “I have replicated Eden, and without the help of Dow Chemical.” In short, it was much more work than I wanted to put in to burnishing my moral standing in the horticultural universe.

But now I realized it was really just a matter of perspective. Once I had been put into the highest pantheon of plantsman by someone whose judgment I truly valued – since nothing validates someone else’s wisdom more than telling you what you want to here – I vowed to keep that lofty position by continuing to do as little as possible to influence the growth of my vegetation. A philosophy that I have assiduously followed all these years – “lazy-faire” gardening.

I was reminded of all this the other day when I was out in our butterfly garden silently bemoaning the extremely low number of Lepidoptera versus the large volume of humming-stinging insects that are attracted to that corner of our earth. I had made a similar complaint to Kwame one time when he was visiting my backyard après tennis. It was a slow patty-cake lob of a comment. The perfect set up for either a breath-stopping slam return or the most delicate finesse shot.

“In gardens and life –
if you want the butterflies
you have to have bees.”

There was, and still is, nothing more to say.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Woolly on One Side, Clipped on the Other

I read an article in the New York Times several years ago which pops back into in my mind every time that I am doing one of my regular yard landscaping chores. Unlike French author Marcel Proust the object that serves as my involuntary memory trigger is not a madeleine cookie but rather a privet hedge.

The newspaper piece is titled “Nature; As Privet Rises, Neighbors Take Sides” and it appeared in the “gray lady” in July 2003.

“SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y.‚ THE privet is blooming all over the Hamptons. And as it marches across the old potato fields, growing higher with every new McMansion, even its honey like fragrance is the subject of debate.

''’I love it!’ said Robert Dash, whose privet is blooming at Madoo, his garden in Sagaponack. ‘It's our summer lilac.’

''’I can't stand the smell,' Margaret Logan, a writer in Southampton, said. 'It's so cloying.'

“Some people let their hedges grow high and broad, billowing over the property line like a woolly mammoth. Others keep them as clipped as a stone wall. When they cannot agree, the hedge is of two minds, woolly on one side, clipped on the other.

“Discuss hedges in the Hamptons and you will hear history lessons, debates about nature versus nurture, metaphors about neighborliness, class consciousness and aesthetics and the need to create walls between McMansions. And while different philosophies of hedges have not reached the fever pitch recently reported in Britain, where in June a man shot and killed his neighbor in an incident attributed to 'hedge rage’, passions do run high here, almost as high as Bettina Milliken's Sagaponack hedge.”

The late 60’s – pre homeowner/gardener version of me would have strongly favored the laissez-faire landscaping MO – like hair “Flow it, show it. Long as God can grow it.” Although truth be told the feeling of my own locks barely brushing the top of my collar (yes I was wearing shirts with a band of material around the neck) would send me immediately to my local barber for a rapid redo. Still I liked to pretend that my inner sensibilities were pure alternative culture – cutting edge so to speak. Particularly when it came to other people’s hair – or hedges.

As I look back on the Hampton’s hedge hoopla now however I notice that the untrimmed bushes as described in the article seemed to retain their purity of species – by which I mean nowhere do I read about youthful Maple trees insinuating their way through the privet stalks and raising their distinctive leaves into the firmament. Nor do I see any mention of Solanum dulcamara, (also known as bittersweet, bittersweet nightshade, bitter nightshade, blue bindweed, Amara Dulcis, climbing nightshade, fellenwort, felonwood, poisonberry, poisonflower, scarlet berry, snakeberry, trailing bittersweet, trailing nightshade, violet bloom, or woody nightshade) twisting its tenacious vines around the defenseless hedge limbs and hiding its purple star-shaped flowers in amongst the privet’s lacey white florets. In the Hamptons there seems to be nothing but pure unadulterated Ligustrum Ovalifolium within and above itself.

Not so in the real world. And that just drives my arboriculture aesthetic apoplectic. Which is why I have sold out to the neat and trim sculptured privet point of view. That, and of course Ernest.

Ernest wasn’t his real name – I never knew until many years later what his actual appellation was – however it should have been. He looked too much like the Nobel Prize winning, macho American novelist not to have been named that. So Ernest was what I called him.

The first time I saw Ernest he was across the street doing yard-work for one of my neighbors. It was 1977.

He looked to be well past retirement age, about six feet tall, and thin. He was wearing clean, un-pressed tan chinos, brown work boots, a yellowing Irish knit sweater and a tan chino baseball hat. The hat was planted firmly on his head, at a slight angle, with the left side up. A thin stream of white hair flowed out of the sides of the hat and continued down his cheeks, merging with a short-trimmed beard and moustache. His neck was unshaven. When he removed his hat, I could see that the hair on his head was military short.

It was a sunny day, but Ernest didn't wear sunglasses. He squinted (even in the shade provided by the long peak of his cap). As he worked he removed layers. First he took off his sweater to show a clean plain-white tee shirt. Then the tee shirt came off to show an upper body, tanned and largely free of fat - but not muscular.

He worked continuously, pausing only for three things: to remove a layer of clothing, to take off his hat and wipe his forehead, or to smoke a cigarette. He sat and smoked between jobs. Between grass cutting and grass raking. Between hedge trimming and hedge raking. And before leaving.
The tools Ernest used were basic: a small, generic brand push power mower, hand operated pruning shears and a metal rake with several teeth missing. His cigarettes, I surmised from the size of the pack, were either unfiltered "regular size" Camels (my father's brand) or Lucky Strikes (my former one). The right hand that held the cigarette was always cupped. He rested that hand on his left wrist and rested the left wrist on a crossed right leg. He was very still when he smoked, except for his cupped hand slowly floating up to his mouth and back.

When he was done the lawn was uniformly short and clean, and the hedges were squared-off and flat. He put his tools away and rode off on a blue one-speed bicycle, with his Irish knit sweater stuffed into a rusty handlebar basket.

It was the hedge work that impressed me the most. This house and property was the first I had ever owned, and the landscaping burden that came with it was my first ever adventure in plant care. I needed someone to guide me along – and there he was, across the street and into the trees.

The conversion wasn’t immediate. For several years my hedging tools of choice were an electric hedge clipper and a relatively sturdy aluminum stepladder. The privet that I inherited was about eight feet tall. I am just short of six and one-half. The extra height provided by the ladder, along with the not particularly well-balanced trimmer and the always-out-of-place cord made the entire pruning process an adventure – but not much fun.

So one day I cut them down to my height and began using my hand shears with my feet firmly planted on the ground. A few years later the hedge became kind of scrawny – the result I believe of its unfortunate position under the all-day shade of our multi-story elm tree. I hacked it down to the ground in the autumn. And the next spring it came back stronger, thicker – and shorter.

Then this past year we had to put the elm tree down because of disease. Our shade yard is gone. The privet is flourishing. The lower part is thick with leaves and the top is sprouting up in a relatively symmetric pattern.

Still, it is my belief, that beyond a certain height all of that symmetry would totally fall apart.
And I would be back on my ladder trying to regain control. So, about once a week, I take my hand shears into the fray and level off the upper edge. Then with my glove-clad hands I rip out the bittersweet, maple trees, and other interlopers.

When I am done I do something that I never saw Ernest do – I step back and admire my work. The privet is my bellwether bush. When it is neat and trim then all is well in landscape land.

Then I look across the street at the yard that Ernest no longer takes care of. Privet stalks shoot up randomly while maple leaves spill out of every nook and cranny. Purple bittersweet stars sit buried within the hodgepodge of hedges.

It may be beyond even Ernest’s ability to reclaim – if he were still here – which he is not and never will be again. It bothers me so much more to see this privet in disrepair than other even more disorderly ones.

I fight to control my rapidly growing hedge rage. As Ernest said, “Courage is grace under pressure.”

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Wait - Don't Throw That Away!

One thing that I have learned about gardening is that there is always something to learn, for example - several plants that Marsha and I have perennially treated as weeds, are in fact valuable commodities.

For as long as I can remember, plants resembling asters, with sturdy stems, narrow leaves, and dozens of tiny white flowers in clusters have invaded two or more of our flowerbeds. They are kind of pretty - delicate looking even - but they are always in the wrong place at the wrong time. (One of the classic definitions of a weed).

At first, probably because there were not a lot of equally attractive planned plants in my landscape, Marsha and I tolerated them. But over the years, as our vision of our backyard Eden became clearer in our minds and closer to reality, I began to hunt them down - resenting their affront, and disdaining their meager attempts at flowers. Each growing season I would rip them out. Only to have them return in different, or sometimes even the same location, year after year after year.
This year I learned at my Mens Garden Club plant sale that these previously anonymous attackers actually had a name - a fancy-schmanzy Latin name even - Boltonia. (Of course the notorious Roman Emperor Caligua also had a Latin name, so we know how much those monikers are worth.)

They also have growing instructions, and people who sell them - actual professional people who raise them at their nurseries - not amateur horticulturalists like myself and my fellow club members who uproot stuff from our own personal gardens and attempt to foist it (with some totally fictitious provenance and a few Photoshopped pictures) onto the unsuspecting customer base that comes to our event in search of our rare and valuable "homegrowns".

Then there is that fast growing, ground cover with purple spikes that appears along the outer edges of all my perennial beds - and sometimes in the middle of them. I have now learned that it is called "ajuga" or "bugleweed" (or Blue bugle, Bugleherb, Carpetweed, Carpet Bungleweed, Common bugle, or Burgundy lace). This incessant invader also has a Latin appellation - for all that's worth - "ajuga reptans". I have no idea what "ajuga" means but I think the rest of the name has something to do with disgusting, lowlife, snake stuff. Since the beginning of time I have been ripping it out of my yard. There is no room for reptiles in my Eden. It was, of course, at our plant sale.
And there are the faux Phlox. Every year Marsha and I spend countless wasted hours trying to differentiate between our potential Phlox crop and a look-alike weed that wants to share the same growing space. The goal is to eliminate the imposter before the stalks get to be higher than an elephant's eye. Usually we get it right. And then forget how we determined the differences when the next spring rolls around.
Both of these plants were available for purchase also.

All of which leads me to believe that maybe a weed is really just a plant with a bad publicity agent. With a little marketing expertise the club's plant sale could probably make a fortune just selling the contents of my garden throwaway pile.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Squirrel Starts Fire at Los Alamos

From the July 2 Albuquerque (New Mexico) Journal

Nature seems to have it out for poor Los Alamos National Laboratory. Earlier today a squirrel short-circuited an electrical transformer at the lab’s Neutron Science Center, setting off a one-acre fire that attentive crews quickly doused, according to a statement just issued by lab officials.

No word on the fate of the squirrel.

One power line felled.
One more southwest wildfire.
One flash-fried squirrel.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Simultaneous Occurence of Events....

In golf, as in life, concepts that seem counterintuitive often work just fine – even while they continue to feel counterintuitive.

The Simultaneous Occurrence of Events That Appear Significantly Related
But Have No Discernible Causal Connection

The slower you swing
the farther the ball will go –

Saturday, June 25, 2011

One Name That Is Not Very Well-Grounded

According to my online dictionary, a chipmunk is “a burrowing ground squirrel with cheek pouches and light and dark stripes running down the body, found in North America and northern Eurasia”. Perhaps its because I don’t have the most recent version of the wordbook – but it doesn’t mention anything about being found in trees or bird feeders – which are the two places where one of our resident terrestrial rodents has been spending most of its time lately.

Mars and I are not quite sure where on our property the tiny black-striped brown mammal spends its sleeping hours. It may be our garage – we have seen it slipping into that structure through a small opening on the bottom of the door. Or it could be one of our down spouts. We have those long extensions that direct the spillage away from the house and we have also seen him scamper into those caverns when we catch him unawares. Sometimes, when it is really quiet, I am certain I can hear the faint sound of pint-sized toenails ticking on metal echoing from inside the rain drains.

We know there are two of them because we have seen them together several times – sitting quietly in that suspended meditative state that members of the squirrel family frequently put themselves into. A couple of times we’ve seen them chasing each other around in circles in what is presumably some form of squirrel sex game. But all of those activities were earthbound.

Within the past week one of the pair – I am guessing the pursuer rather than the pursuee – has gone airborne. Although in actuality, unlike his larger gray cousins, his feet remain in contact with some material object at all times.

We have several bird feeders all located on or in the vicinity of an aging flowering crab tree whose dwindling number of branches provide a home for the avian restaurants and some degree of shelter to their diners. A large cavity sits at the juncture of the upward facing branches, into which we occasionally stuff corncob decorations or such that we are disposing of and want to share with our front yard wildlife

Under the tree we have a wrought iron shepherd’s staff shaped pole on which hangs (about four feet up) our “squirrel-proof” feeder – at least that is what it said on the box. It was a gift. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t work. The squirrels, along with the birds, suck food out of the tube at an alarming rate. And now the chipmunk is joining in the fray.

The squirrel’s favored method of access to the misnamed dining hall is the standing high jump. The little gray tree rodents position themselves on the grass one or so feet away from the gently swaying object of their desire and instantly levitate onto it. The ease of this maneuver would make Michael Jordan jealous.

The chipmunk prefers the Spiderman method. He runs up the post, over the crook, and down onto the feeder. Then he stuffs his cheeks and reverses his route. When we spy him doing his thing he quickly runs up the tree trunk and disappears into the
safe environs of the tree hollow.

That is all we know about it. Perhaps the wooden chamber is his love shack wherein he shares the booty of his triumphant dash to the stars. Maybe it is his storage area and ultimately the orifice will be awash in sunflower seed hulls, and no longer be open to the sky. Or could be he just takes temporary shelter – his wee heart pounding with fear at the imagined danger of those who are in reality his benefactors.

Anyway I don’t have the time to look into that right now. I am spending all of my energy trying to find out if the same person who came up with the term “squirrel proof” also dubbed these little critters “ground squirrels”. That would probably explain a lot.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

W. W. T. D.?

On television, watching the army of paddle-wielding marshals silencing the already well-behaved spectators at the U.S. Open Golf Tournament made me think.

Mars and I play golf on a public golf course located in the middle of a public park in an urban city (Hartford, CT.) A tarmac road, partially closed to vehicle traffic, encircles the course coming within twenty feet of the links in several places.

Large numbers of bicyclists, runners, walkers and dog walkers frequent the roadway. Recently one of these pedestrians was carrying on a extremely high volume "conversation" with someone at the receiving end of her highly volatile mobile signal.

The cell phone walker
drops "F bombs" as I tee up.

What would Tiger do?

(Incidentally I hit perhaps my best drive of the day. Maybe I am getting too used to "urban golf".)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Thirteen Ways of What??

Mars and I took the Wallace Stevens Walk as a part of Connecticut Trails Day. Stevens was both a well-respected imagist poet, and an insurance executive. The "walk" traces his daily 2.5 mile hike from his home on the west side of Hartford to his office at the Hartford Insurance Company – during which he composed portions of his poetry. For a photographic essay of the walk please visit Mars' website @

One of Steven's best and most famous poems is "Thirteen Ways of Looking a a Blackbird." Each "way of looking" is a separate verse. And the walk is marked with thirteen carved stones – each with one stanza engraved on it.

It is a great poem. But I think it could have been even better if the author had stuck to the subject about which he knew the most – instead of dabbling in the mysteries of ornithology. It is also, based upon my business background, one of my areas of expertise.

So, using mostly his own words, I have made those changes.

I now present:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Actuary

Among twenty paper mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the actuary’s mouse.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there were three actuaries –
Until I ran the numbers.

The actuary whirled in the regulatory winds
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and an actuary
Are a calculated risk.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of projections
Or the beauty of actual results,
The actuary whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the actuary
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
Of the 3 pm coffee break.

O thin men of marketing,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the women
Hang on the words of actuaries?
Chicks dig geeks!

I know noble algorithms
And arcane, inexplicable formulae;
But I know too, That Math 101 is involved
In what I know.

When the actuaries left for the day,
It marked the edge
Of one of many Venn Diagrams.

At the sight of actuaries
Creeping through a red light,
Even the bawds of caution
Would laugh out loud.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he had made a math error
But quickly he remembered
Twas he controlled the numbers.

The rates are changing,
The actuary must be calculating

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The actuary sat
Figuring the odds of each route home.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What is that Squirrel Thinking?

If I just stay still –
gray fur prone on gray tree bark –
the world can't see me.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Benign Neglect

We have lived at our house for thirty-four years – but they have been there longer. I had never seen nor heard of them before they startled me by popping up of nowhere on spring day when I was moving the lawn. I was certain that they had somehow crept onto our property overnight but Mars convinced me that I had just failed to notice them as they pushed up through the earth, grew, and ultimately blossomed. I moved them from their original location a few annums back to a spot where I thought they would be less lonely. Other than that, and cutting them down at season's end, I haven't touched them.

Peonies appear
as if by magic each year.
If it's not broken...

Monday, May 30, 2011

What's In A Name?

We bought the car, a model year 2001, in 2000. Because of the unanticipated demand, and because we were ordering a manual transmission there was a long waiting list. When it finally arrived we thought it was pretty special – made to order as it were. But after all these years we are noticing something that makes us wonder just how unique our "inferno red" vehicle really is.

All PT Cruisers
say “Limited Edition”
except for our own.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

That Would Be One Under Par

We played golf today at our favorite public golf course located in the middle of a well-used urban public park. In addition to the normal number of joggers and walkers that tread on the paved road that encircles the course, and an unusually large red-tailed hawk that patrolled the skies above and, at one point, landed in a nearby tree – there were others accompanying us on our round.

Twelve Canada Geese
Dining in the right fairway –
Chance for a birdie.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Pretty much every time that I cut my lawn the same ritual performance occurs.

Pecking and stepping
in the mulch of new-mown grass
the birds come to dance.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Three Ways of Looking at Yard Maintenance

Three Ways of Looking at Yard Maintenance

No dandelions,
green carpets bereft of weeds –
chemist’s fantasy.

Zero pesticides,
hands-off, laissez-faire lawn care –
weeds running amok.

Occasional weeds,
corn gluten plus snake-tongue tools –
Eden au naturel.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

In The Wrong Place

"A Weed Is Just A Flower Growing Where You Don't Want It."

I never really understood that definition of a weed until we had to cut down our elm tree last spring. Well, actually it took a year.

The elm stood in the southwest corner of our property. It was there when we bought this place in 1977 -- and, judging by its height, for several decades before then. It shaded the major portion of the yard in which it stood, providing us with coolness on hot summer days and preventing many varieties of other plants from taking hold in that area. Except for the Lily of the Valley.
Like the tree that towered above them, these fragrant woodland perennials had seniority over Mars and me. They formed a thick semi-circle around the front base of the elm, insinuating their thin but firmly attached rhizomes in amongst the much thicker roots of their overseer. Their bell-shaped flowers, when they appeared, were white and sweetly aromatic. Uncharacteristically (or so I have heard), they remained pretty much within the confines they established for themselves - rather than attempting to colonize the otherwise flower-less grass that surrounded them.

We have three other sub-gardens of LotV -- around our lamppost; on the entry door end of our family room plot; and surrounding the Mountain Laurel on the north end of our house. All four of these flower zones are the result of either (a) the gardening prowess of one of our home's previous owners or (b) the innate ability of the plant to realize that its best chance for survival lies in not overreaching. Based upon the almost endless opportunities for territorial expansion around my property, I am betting on (b).

It is now the middle of May and the sweet fragrance of the tiny flowers surround me as I enter and exit our family room, get into and out of our driveway-parked vehicles, and check on things in the north forty.

All of which made it harder to decide to rip out the now outlying ones still living at the former sight of the decimated deciduous entity.

For a while I thought about putting in a small perennial bed using the remaining LotVs as a border. But concerns about the lingering root system, and aesthetic issues convinced me otherwise. Of course, as soon it was decided that the land would now go to grass, the Lilies morphed into intrusive weeds rather than decorative demarcators. And the battle to extricate them was joined.

Grasping one of my two favorite gardening tools, the fork-tongued weed remover -- my other "fav" is the Japanese pruning saw -- I marched onto the field of combat and dug away.

Sixty minutes and four buckets later the job was done. I left a small border along the edge of a woodland garden that abuts that end of our property -- feeling confident that the practiced discipline of the Lilies would keep them from encroaching back into their former space. After thirty-plus years of peaceful coexistence I feel they have earned my trust. Even turning them into weeds does not change that belief.

On the other hand THEY may feel totally betrayed by my diminution of their status and choose to rise up and revolt -- in which case the lawn will look kind of strange, but mowing it down will be one enormous olfactory orgy.

Sounds to me like a win-win either way.