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.