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 apr├Ęs 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.