Saturday, April 30, 2011

End of Semester Quote

“The natural world need not be logical in any obvious way. Science [or literature!] does not consist of imposing our reason on the world but rather reducing our preconceptions to the point that the world imposes its logic on us. This is very difficult indeed, involving a minimalization of our ego while maintaining our full powers of observation and receptivity. The capacity to perform this feat is what the teacher of science [or English!] attempts to foster in the student. No one succeeds completely.”

--L. Slobodkin(from Simplicity and Complexity in Games of the Intellect)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

There's A Bluebird....

Each year we see more and more birds and insects as the garden grows. Last night was my first-ever-in-my-life sighting of a bluebird, who inspected the lawn from the red maple, then the fence, then lifted away. Strange how exciting such a moment can be, yet afterward, such a let down. Whoever wrote the lyrics for that song didn't have it right.

My (free) bluebird house is late in arriving, and is surely too late for nesting anyway, but even still, I doubt my suburban lawn would be the large enough, field-like habitat they prefer.

"There's a bluebird on my maple, it's nice, here's my picture, it's even taken with my SLR."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

It's Spring, Think Fall -- Get These Native Plants

I can't tell you how many gardeners I talk to who say they wished they had more fall-blooming plants. What is it with all this spring and summer stuff? Isn't THAT boring? Everyone's so excited to get as many flowers ASAP once the snow melts, then an early fall hits because you're out of blooms by August. Yikes.

Mid October, 2010
(various asters, grasses, coreopsis)

I garden for fall, when my landscape gets a massive second wind. Winter's already long enough, why not have flowers into November (in zone 5 anyway)? Not only will your seasonal affective disorder thank you, but so will many migrating birds and insects, as well as insects stockpiling for winter.

What you should plant now, ensuring a decent-sized plant by fall:

-- New England Aster (purple, not gaudy pink please)
-- Aster oblongifolius ('October Skies' blooms like mad for me and makes a nice small shrub)
-- Aster ericoides (a groundcover that blooms tons)
-- Aster laevis (smooth aster gets by far the most insects of any aster in my garden)
-- Aster lateriflorus (calico aster, chocolate leaves)
-- Aster macrophyllus (big leaf aster)

-- Goldenrod (I have stiff goldenrod--a monarch butterfly favorite--zigzag, wichita, and Ohio)

-- Mistflower (Eupatorium coelestium, blooms blooms blooms)

-- Salvia azurea ('Nekan' is a blue sage native to Lincoln, Nebraska, and I get hummingbirds on it)

-- Sunflowers, of course, yellow, red, orange, whatever

Hummingbird on Salvia azurea 'Nekan'

There are also late summer plants, say August into September, that are especially important for monarch butterflies as they migrate thousands of miles south:

-- Liatris aspera (rough blazingstar)
-- Liatris borealis (northern blazingstar)
-- Liatris ligulistylis (meadow blazingstar, and a monarch magnet--I've had six or more at a time on one plant)

(-- Milkweed -- don't forget to plant some well-behaved Asclepias incarnata or A. sullivantii to raise monarchs. Don't plant A. tuberosa, butterfly weed, as it is far less attractive to monarchs.)

Monarch on Liatris ligulistylis

Where to get these plants? Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery, or if in Lincoln, the UNL Arboretum.

As I continue to evolve as a gardener, I plant FOR INSECTS. I think it's easy to be afraid of bugs--especially bees and wasps--but they are the basis for life in the garden and beyond, and so I've come to find them beautiful and even honorable (particularly as they rid me of aphids). Think about what one aster laevis could do for struggling native bee populations or diminishing song bird populations. Just one aster off the patio is huge. And three? A godsend. If all the neighbors on your block have one? A veritable wildlife refuge.

If you haven't, I urge you to read Doug Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home, especially regarding the importance of native plants for native insects and birds. You'll discover which butterflies need which plants, by region, and how surprisingly beneficial trees and shrubs are (oak, willow, chokecherry...). The more native plants I get, the more wildlife I see, of ALL KINDS. Even butterflies ignore my non native plants, like butterfly bush, if natives are blooming. Astounding. But it makes sense.

Bumblebees on goldenrod

So it is / just was Earth Day. Get some fall-flowering plants in the ground and think ahead for yourself, and for the life we depend on that's swarming around you.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Naming

Here's another small bit from my latest manuscript--Sleep, Creep, Leap: The First Three Years of a Nebraska Garden. What will my wife say? I'll let you know after dinner.

My wife and I are walking the garden after lunch. She comments on how thick everything is, especially in contrast to the picture I emailed her that morning, which showed the garden sprouting in April. After the annual cut down in March, the place is a moonscape—you could play a football game here unimpeded by any plant, except for a shrub or two. I often forget about the change that occurs, but when I stumbled upon that photo my jaw dropped. The garden is not a miracle, but it as close to one as I’ve ever witnessed.

My wife stops and says, “I mean, look at that.” She nods toward the coneflowers and bluestem. “That was nothing just two months ago. I can’t believe it.”

I stoop to pull a weed and reply, “Yup, that’s herbaceous perennials for you. Pretty amazing.”

She looks down to me with a quizzical look, as if I’d just stammered, or started speaking in French. “What kind of perennials?”

“Herbaceous,” I say, “perennials that come from the ground up every year.” She turns back to look at the coneflowers and a moth landing on an early bloom.

“Her-bay-shus” she says slowly, as if rolling a piece of candy around in her mouth. “Her-BAY-shus,” she says again, but putting more emphasis on that stressed second syllable.

“Are you ok?” I ask.

“Yes. I just like the way it sounds. Her-BAY-shus.” She says it this time a bit more sensually, like you might say “curvaceous” as you slide your hands down your body parallel to one another, imagining the form of a perfectly sculpted supermodel.

“You’re weird.” I say, staying on my knees, reaching into plants for more weeds I’m now noticing. She ignores me, and with the delight of a new word still pulsing through her, asks what a tall plant is.

“Eupatorium,” I respond, looking up then looking back down quickly, getting lost in my work as I do too often, the garden an impossible siren song I can’t ignore.

“Yew-pa-tor-ee-ummmm,” she says, letting the last consonant hum through her and echo, ricochet through her bones. “YEEEEW-pa-TOR-eeee-uumm.” The second time is more playful, a quick “Yewpaw” and a long “toreeum.” She says it again, and it reminds me of watching Sesame Street, with the words on the bottom of the screen and a ball bouncing along on each syllable as it’s spoken. Somehow, this comforts me.

She starts walking again around the garden, on her own now, completing a circuit that often takes her no more than ten minutes, and can take me anywhere from thirty minutes to a few hours. Soon, she’s sitting on the bench, staring off into the distance, then the sky as several franklin’s gulls circle west overhead. I get up and stoop a dozen times, pulling weeds, noticing insects, calculating when something will bloom. I can see my wife on the bench mouthing the words I’ve taught her, sometimes looking at me, sometimes a plant. Each sound is a concrete thing like the perennials, but also as abstract and ephemeral as a summer afternoon seducing you to stay a while longer.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Monarchs are Too Early

If you've been hanging around Monarch Watch and Journey North, you know monarch butterflies are ahead of their annual migration, and well ahead of milkweed growth. Some of the images at Journey North show dozens of eggs on milkweed only a few inches tall. Not good.

Warm temps and strong south winds have coaxed the butterflies north at a rapid pace. Chip Taylor, the director of Monarch Watch in Kansas, says that unless temps stay warm, populations will suffer. Obviously, cooler temps (above freezing) will slow down caterpillar growth, but a freeze would be deadly.

I've started milkweed in my house for the first time ever, heat mat and everything, and hope they make it (new to the nuances of starting plants). I do have swamp milkweed and common milkweed poking up outside, and since the monarchs are on the KS / NE border, it's none too soon. Usually, we don't see butterflies until Mid May, but it looks like it could be later this week or early next.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Big Cut Down of 2011 -- Images

Gardening is a contact sport. I'd show you my arms, but even I can't stand to look at those candy cane twirls of scratches and painful cuts.

Over the last month I've spent a few hours here and there taking my time cutting down herbaceous perennials--plants that, in 2010, had begun to reach their full potential. As someone who likes tall plants, I was quickly overwhelmed this spring. Plus, I was sad to see a beautiful winter garden end.

I don't know how clean of a practice this is, but for the first time I broke up, by hand, as much as I could of what I cut down and reused it as mulch. This made things last much longer, but also saved me the expense of a mulcher / chipper or paying the refuse company to pick up my plant bits (I don't have a suitable compost area because I'm worried about resale value in a year or two).

So, below are before and after shots. You'll notice that the after are greener--I took too long. Even the butterfly bushes, some 7' tall last year, were already putting out growth all the way up their branches. I cut them down to 12" each year, and assumed I still had some time. Assuming makes an ass out of you and me (and perennials). I---am---tired.

I still have to do the summer grasses, then on to bigger issues in anticipation of the garden tour in late June--replanting stone steppers, patching holes in lawn, deciding whether or not to give up on that weeping bald cypress which grew to 10' in one year, then has slowly died back to 4' over two years. I should just kill it and replace it, shouldn't I? But I love it. But it's just taking up space where I wanted a small tree, not a de-evolving shrub....

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Me + Orion Magazine = Bam!

I'm going to have a picture and a short block of words in the July / August issue of Orion. It's one of my favorite publications, and now I've got my foot in the door. It's just so cool, you know?

The image is of my wife on a gravel country road trying to get close to some of the 500,000 sandhill cranes that come through here every spring. Link to this post to find the image.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Catius Birthdayus

When I was a kid in Minnesota my grandmother would visit from Oklahoma, where she grew up and began raising her kids on a farm. As she'd sit on the end of the living room couch--as far against the edge as possible to protect half of herself--one of our cats would be closing in on her from the other end. "Oh gum!" she'd explain. "Phooey! I can't believe you allow dirty animals in your house." And then the cat would lay down, the arcing back pressed into her side, perhaps purring, and my grandma's arm lifed up above her head in dread. If that cat didn't know what he was doing, twisted and dark humor, I'd be shocked.

My family first got cats while living in Oklahoma, when I was around 8. In our exhuberance, and after failing with a dog, my dad, sister and I went to some stinky apartment and picked up a fat, gnarled, unkempt tabby something-or-other we saw up for grabs in the classifieds. As soon as we brought it home I'm pretty sure my mom said take it back. We just wanted a cat!

A short while later, with Mom in charge, we went to some woman's house and picked up two kittens--a female for my younger sister, and a male for me. Though my sister's cat never took to her, mine took to me, often only leaving my room or closet to eat. He died of diabetes when he was 9, back in 1994 (senior year of high school).

I immediately got another cat at the humane society, one who tricked me in the cages, so desparate was he to leave. We never bonded, likely because I was still grieving and would soon be in college. He lived with my parents until 2007, when after peeing all over their house seemingly uncontrollably, they put him to sleep (right before I got married, but they waited to tell me).

We did have a sort of house cat growing up, the king, who often snuggled next to me in evenings growing up, who would growl and hiss when anyone but family visited. A few times he jumped into an open dryer, sat atop my other grandmother's clean load of warm laundry, and hissed at her so she couldn't begin her folding. He died of cancer when I was in college.

In 2001, living on my own for the first time in Columbus, Ohio, I drove two hours north to Cleveland to snag a manx--a breed reported to be able to play fetch and open doors (right). I took the tail-less, 6 month old kitten home, and over the next few months he slept on the bedroom floor. Right now, in his third house, he's sitting behind me on my office chair.

When I'd take him to the doctor in Ohio, the vet, noticing his attentive, patient, happy-go-lucky nature (odd for a cat), asked me if he'd often just stand in a nearby doorway, or lay in a place in the house where he could both see me and every other room. I said yes. It was strange. She said he was my animal guide, a protector, and though it struck me as too mystical at the time, I knew it was true. He always has to know where I am, even if he's not touching me.

Today, Valen, V, the Valenator, turns 10, or 56. He was a strong antidote to my solitude in Ohio--a nature that both heals me and makes me terribly vulnerable. It is true we tend to put too much of ourselves into our pets--our hopes, fears, expectations, desires, persona--but in turn they reflect them back, filtered, made better I think. I am biased, but cats are better at this. They are subtle, they are opinionated, they have moods, they have conversations (V will talk to me forever if I keep up the gab). Cats are metaphors.

Happy birthday, big guy. Even though you've made it to the whiney "my god why haven't you fed me yet I haven't eaten for an hour" phase of your life where you vomit to bring the point home, it's all oddly charming when I've had enough sleep.

Cockroach V -- ready to play with socks as I fold them

Cats simply make you jealous

Cats simply befudde you

Cats are far more comfortable in the world than we are

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What Are We Here For?

" 'What is the world?' [my son asked] What the world is and who we are meant to be within it and how we are to conserve what is good and beautiful and true in the world, and in ourselves; and how we are to forgive and, if we can, redeem what is bad and ugly and false in ourselves and, because of us, in the world--this may be what we're here for."

-- Mark Tredinnick

Monday, April 4, 2011

This Guy is an Idiot

Did you all read the native v. non native article in the New York Times, "Mother Nature's Melting Pot?" Hugh Raffles makes me want to girdle him with some roots. I can't belive he wrote Insectopedia, the 2011 Orion Book Award winner. Maybe he was on drugs when he wrote some of the things below:

"The anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country, from draconian laws in Arizona to armed militias along the Mexican border, has taken many Americans by surprise. It shouldn’t — nativism runs deep in the United States. Just ask our non-native animals and plants: they too are commonly labeled as aliens, even though they also provide significant benefits to their new home."

"While the vanguard of the anti-immigrant crusade is found among the likes of the Minutemen and the Tea Party, the native species movement is led by environmentalists, conservationists and gardeners. Despite cultural and political differences, both are motivated — in Margaret Thatcher’s infamous phrase — by the fear of being swamped by aliens."

You know what I'm afraid of? Morons like you. I'm not afraid of things I don't understand or differing values or cultures. Well, I am afraid of you. People are gonna read your column and think they can plant any old damn thing anywhere. We'll get to why that's bad in a second, since you clearly have no idea what you're talking about (to start, go read a book everyone else has read called Bringing Nature Home).

"But just as America is a nation built by waves of immigrants, our natural landscape is a shifting mosaic of plant and animal life. Like humans, plants and animals travel, often in ways beyond our knowledge and control. They arrive unannounced, encounter unfamiliar conditions and proceed to remake each other and their surroundings."

They arrived because we brought them here, stupidly, arrogantly, and with no foresight (Asian carp?). That's how we destroy ecosystems and, Mr. Anthropologist, how we've murdered millions of our own kind. How we treat the planet is how we treat ourselves.

"Designating some as native and others as alien denies this ecological and genetic dynamism. It draws an arbitrary historical line based as much on aesthetics, morality and politics as on science, a line that creates a mythic time of purity before places were polluted by interlopers."

Arbitrary? Are you on crack? Ok, sure, there was no "purity" (was Mary a virgin?). Or was there purity, compared to now? Not only have we diluted ecosystems, we've simplified them, made them and all the species that hold them up vulnerable to extinction. Ecosystems, as well as people, thrive on diversity, yes. But ecological diversity is a delicate balance, easily destroyed after 100,000 years of slow cooperation and balance. What we've done to the planet is not balanced, just as what we do to ourselves is a mark of insanity. We fear our own human diversity, try to create order or a system which creates a "democratic" status quo, but find that order is in direct conflict with the evolutionary chaos of native organisms. You can't tell me Russian olive trees are a good thing. Or kudzu. Or corn (especially for ethanol).

"And in any case, efforts to restore ecosystems to an imagined pristine state almost always fail: once a species begins to thrive in a new environment, there’s little we can do to stop it. Indeed, these efforts are often expensive and can increase rather than relieve environmental harm."

"An alternative is to embrace the impurity of our cosmopolitan natural world and, as some biologists are now arguing, to consider the many ways that non-native plants and animals — not just the natives — benefit their environments and our lives."

Yes, once humans began to thrive in, say, the Great Plains, there's little you can due to reverse the flora and fauna genocide. Because, hey, that's natural, us rampaging across the planet like a supernova. Whatever. No responsibility. Glorious suicide. Go gentle into that good slaughter.

Yes, let us embrace the non native plants. They surely don't wreak havoc, even if they don't spread like wildfire. The issue, Hugh, is not about embracing what is, so much as it is realizing that what we've done is terrible, and in trying to stop further genocide attempt to prevent new genocide--because what we've done to the earth is no less a genocide than if we all lined up people of another race or religion and mowed them down with machine guns. We DID mow down a few dozen million bison with rifles, and so helped mow down Native Americans by starving them out, and destroying a key component to their culture and world view. What is the culture of a native prairie ecosystem? What does it really depend on (I bet it ain't non native plants, which do exist my friend)? Research this, and then get back to me making careful comparisons to America as "melting pot" (an idea which is a mythic joke itself).

If we can't respect the planet, what's here, what we've done, we have no hope at all of respecting ourselves or each other--of truly valuing the diversity you champion. The minute you burn that rain forest or yank that milkweed from the earth, you condemn dozens of other organisms. You condemn humanity in ways you can't possibly imagine.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


For a homebody like me simple pleasures are gifts, more meaningful because I tend to stay put physically and psychologically. Cookies in the oven. A hummingbird at the sage. A monarch coming out of a chrysalis. An afternoon reading poems on a chair that was once my preferred spot as a child.

When I wrote a memoir I did copious amounts of research, often buying cheap, used copies of books online so I could reread them at my own speed, write in them, dog ear, and enjoy each on the bookshelf like trophies. Every day a new package was in the mailbox, and every day I felt the echo of Christmas or a birthday, ripping open this gift, not sure what was inside, surprised that what I had asked for—or ordered—was now here in my hands. Books are so visceral and alive, their glue binding a smell like those cookies in the oven, warm and soothing; the rough paper inside like skin, my wife’s skin, like pressed maple leaves or rose petals.

The only comparable joy to books in the mailbox is coming home after a long day of teaching to find a box or two on the front porch. Plants! Plugs and pint-sized plants, but plants nonetheless. Where are they from? Who sent them? How many are there? Oh, we must get them out and into the fresh air.

Online you can get anything from anywhere. I’ve even ordered from Amazon and Ebay. I once got a “tray” of 40 milkweed, test tube milkweed I called them—each plug was a bit smaller than I bargained for.

Every spring I get a box from Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery—they are no relation to one another. Prairie Nursery packaging uses lots of rubber bands and green bamboo stakes to space the plants and keep them from launching up to the top of the box. Prairie Moon packs their plants as dormant bulbs and roots in plastic baggies with dog tag labels. The former has taught me that smaller plants establish faster than larger ones, and the latter that roots establish faster than small plants OR die faster because I still haven’t mastered planting roots. In either case, without the shipments I’d have much less joy in my life, and far fewer native prairie plants, too. And the delivery men would be out of a job. In May there’s a well-worn path from the street to my door through the front lawn.

I place my open boxes on the gardening chest on the covered deck, visiting the plants in the morning and evening as if they were patients recovering from surgery. I pace the garden, plan out what will go where. From the deck I stare transfixed for half an hour imagining the color, texture, and size of the mature plant in different positions. I use my thumb to size things up like I was taught in art class in high school. I pinch my fingers around a similar-sized plant in the distance and lift that invisible space over to another bed. A blue jay squawks from the top of the elm before diving for peanuts, leaping into the garden with two in his mouth, and tucking them into the soil beneath an aster. I hope nature prefers us planners.