Let’s talk about plants (baby)

Would you look at that. I almost went a whole month without a post. Oh well. Hey, check out the seeds I’m planting this year!

Seed packets for mint, hyssop, echinacea, yarrow, lavender, and sunflowers.

You might notice a few themes here, not the least of which is that everything but the sunflowers are perennials. It is my firm hope that not only will these plants survive and thrive in my garden, but also that I’ll never have to replant a thing after this year.

Another theme is that these perennials could perhaps best be described as “wildflowers,” or more accurately, “able to hold their own and spread.”

This year, I’m taking a more hands-off approach with my garden and the surrounding yard. Rather than fuss about, pulling “weeds,” and constantly watering, I’m more or less just going to let it be.

See, back a couple of months ago, I was flipping through one of my many Peterson field guides and recognized a few of the “weeds” I pulled last year. More specifically, I learned that half the plants I yanked were either edible, had medicinal properties, or both.

Free food and medicine, just torn out and tossed on the compost heap.

For this and other reasons I’ve decided to treat my garden and yard as a kind of “learning laboratory.” I’m going to stuff the garden with the seeds I bought, then basically just sit back and watch what happens. By which I mean that I’ll be spending a lot of time outside, sitting on the ground with a stack of field guides, and making friends with whichever plants show up.

And believe me, I’m ready for the plants to start showing up. Winter has been…winter.

Speaking of my garden, last year I tried something different. Or, at least, I tried to try something.

I had heard of this thing called the “Ruth Stout Method” of gardening, named for this amazing woman who, at about the age of sixty, realized that modern gardening is kind of silly actually. Tilling the soil, fertilizing it, etc.? Nowhere in nature did this sort of backbreaking manual labor occur, and yet the woods are full of plants. So, one year she decided to just throw a bunch of straw mulch down on the earth at the end of autumn, and the next year she dropped her seeds into the mess and waited to see what happened.

And plants were what happened. Her garden not only did absolutely fine, but it did better than ever. The straw held moisture so she didn’t need to water, it prevented invasive plants from coming in so she didn’t have to weed, and as the straw broke down it fertilized the soil all by itself.

Photograph of my garden, covered in broken down leaves.

This kind of “no dig” gardening really appeals to my lazier side, and I’d hoped to use all the leaf litter and pine needles we rake up every year in the fall as my mulch. Unfortunately, that plan didn’t exactly work, since it turns out that we don’t actually have enough leaves to get the six-to-eight inches of mulch the Ruth Stout Method requires.

I can’t tell you how surprising this was, given how much work it takes us to clear the yard of detritus every year. Still? Free fertilizer!

The leaves sat out in the garden all winter, and I plan to till them into the ground in a few weeks. I also plan to drop another half a dozen bags of good garden soil into the mix, since I’m still trying to build up the soil quality of the yard.

As for the sunflowers? We have a strip of lawn which sits between our driveway and our neighbor’s fence. Not only is lawn something which I hate in principle, but this particular stretch of lawn is a nightmare to mow. The soil is soft and prone to bogging down the wheels of the lawnmower, and the grass itself is some kind of extra-thick super species which even a freshly-sharpened blade struggles with.

So this year, it dies. We’re ripping it all out, tilling the ground, and putting in seventy-five sunflower plants. Hopefully we’ll get to eat a few seeds, but my guess is that the neighborhood squirrels are going to treat these sunflowers as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

But whatever. At least the yard will be a little prettier.

Photo of a forsythia bush full of yellow flowers.

And speaking of pretty, check out our forsythia. This thing has really taken off these last couple of years. Fun fact: forsythia fruits are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as an antibiotic and antiviral, so I’ll definitely be learning how to collect and process them this year.

Which brings us to the point of this post, I suppose.

Years ago, I was standing around in my local bookstore when, for some reason, I picked up the first of those Peterson field guides I mentioned. I flipped through its pages, glanced at the drawings and color plates, then decided to buy it. To this day, I couldn’t tell you why I bought it, just that I had the feeling I should do so and I’ve come to trust those feelings…to a certain degree. (I’m a terrible, impulse buyer and so I do have to pump the brakes on these feelings from time to time.)

After buying that guide, I ended up going down the rabbit hole of wildcrafting, foraging, and what is commonly called “wilderness self-reliance.” I watched hundreds of hours of YouTube videos, dug through dozens of websites filled with herbal info, and bought several additional field guides. All of this basically so that I could go into the woods and look for plants to work with.

And yet, sitting right there in my backyard, and “clogging up” my garden, were dozens of plants which I had been ignoring. Or “weeding.”

What’s in your yard?

Groundhog days

The day after I installed the fence around my garden, I identified the culprit eating my chamomile. It’s a groundhog.

I know it’s a groundhog because I watched him first try to rip the fence down with his teeth, then failing that, he proceeded to just dig under the thing.

The next few minutes of my life involved grabbing a mop, opening my garden gate, and attempting to shoo the critter out.

Apparently the groundhog was having just as bad a day as I was, though, because rather than make a dash for the convenient opening I’d made, he panicked and decided that the best course of action would be to run laps just inside the fence.

He ran past the open gate three times before finally digging yet another hole under the fence to make his escape.

We had a few choice words as he ran off, then I began doing some serious Googling to figure out what to do next.

The bottom line? Unless I want to buy a new, six foot tall fence, bury a foot of it in the ground, and turn my whole garden into some kind of Gitmo-esque prison for plants, I need to trap him.

Which, of course, will leave me with a different problem: what to do with a cage full of confused and bitey groundhog?

I consulted the fish and game department’s web site and found the number to a helpful wildlife control agent who coached me on my options. None of the paths before me are ideal, but there’s a good possibility I can just relocate him to a more suitable environment away from my herbs.

Unfortunately, I hit another snag. There are no stores in my area which sell the sort of cage trap I need.

One store swears they have them, because their computer says so, but after two employees did the most thorough search I’ve ever seen, they came up empty. That means I had to order one online, and it won’t get here until the end of next week.

So, I’m pretty sure my herbs are done for.

This whole thing has been an enormous gut punch, especially last night. I saw a fresh hole dug under the fence, and found that all of the chamomile which had been blooming had their stems eaten off. The groundhog seems to be leaving the rest of my plants alone for now, but the chamomile was what I’d been looking forward to the most.

It’s been a frustrating few days.

And because I like to overthink things when I get frustrated, I spent a good deal of time last night contemplating all of this and what it might say about the idea of control.

Over the last several months, most people have had their ideas of control and self-determination challenged in ways they’re not used to. The pandemic itself, the government’s response to it, and the unrelenting fire hose of awful news has been the kind of thing most people are ill-equipped to even think about, let alone come to terms with in any real sense.

When I see a video of someone losing their minds because a store employee asked them to put on a mask, what I’m really seeing is someone losing their minds to the once-in-a-generation existential crisis we now call daily life.

It actually reminds me of when I used to work a desk job where the company kept all of the office supplies in a vault.

I wish I was making this up.

The company literally had a bank vault, within which they kept all of the pens, pencils, and Post-Its. Only one person in the office had access to this vault, so if you wanted something you had to go to them.

Here’s how those conversations typically went…

Me: “Hi, I need a black felt-tip pen and a notebook.”

Them: “Why a felt-tip?”

Me: “Uh…because I like to write with felt-tips.”

Them: “They’re more expensive than a ball-point.”

Me: “Okay, well, is that a problem?”

Them: “Didn’t you need a pen last week? Did you lose that one?”

Me: “Maybe? I need one now, though.”

Them: “Mmm. Hmm.”

Me: …

Them: …

Me: “So…can I get a felt-tip pen?”

Them: “Fine. Was there something else?”

Me: “A notebook.”

Them: “Didn’t you need one of those last week, too? How many notes are you taking?”

It was like this every time. Every. Single. Time. And they were like this to everyone, not just me.

If you’ve never worked in an office before, you might be scratching your head about this, wondering how anyone could possibly have this protective attitude toward staples and White-Out. Rest assured, though, everyone in the company knew exactly what was going on.

See, this person’s job title basically described a mid-level “manager,” but in truth they had almost no actual authority in the company. They were at most one step above an administrative assistant, and they knew it.

They had to deal with irate customers, they had to call clients who were late paying their bills, and they were as woefully underpaid as everyone else working there.

Access to the office supplies was the one thing they had absolute control over, and by God they were going to exercise that control.

They knew that if you needed a pen, you had to talk to them. They had the keys, so they were in charge. The vault was their domain, the treasury of paperclips theirs to dispose of, and the rest of us cubicle-dwellers were mere commoners who needed to show proper respect to the liege if we wanted something.

It was an insane situation, but ultimately an understandable one if you know how office politics work. A friend of mine put it best:

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Petty power corrupts all out of proportion.”

The pandemic, and the widespread social upheaval we’re in the middle of? That’s a little harder to wrap your brain around than the office pecking order, but it’s clearly stirring up the same reactions in a lot of people.

We’re stuck in a situation over which we appear to have almost no control, so we’re seizing every opportunity that comes along to assert some, even when it makes us look unhinged.

Like a shrieking fat man with a mop, chasing a groundhog around an herb garden, we’re all overcompensating for a perceived lack of self-determination.

How else can you explain people who refuse to wear a mask in public because it’s “Stalinesque tyranny”? Or how there are other people acting as though anyone not wearing a mask is literally a murderer?

Is there a lesson in there? A solution? I have no idea.

My conception of free will is that it’s a lot less “free” than we like to tell ourselves, so maybe this is all just an argument for stoicism. A kind of aggressive acceptance with regard to the state of the Universe, coupled with a just-as-aggressive drive to change what we can for the better.

For my part, I’m going to keep an eye on my garden as best I can, and set up the cage trap when it arrives. If I don’t have any chamomile left by then, well, that’ll suck, but I’ll have done what I could.

That might not be enough, but at least I’m not locking up the office supplies.

So, I need to fence in my garden

Something has devoured half of my chamomile plants in two days.

Photo of two rabbits in a garden
Two completely innocent rabbits.

No idea what it could be.

None whatsoever.

On a completely unrelated note, a pair of rabbits has taken up residence near my house. They seem to enjoy hanging out in my garden all the time, so I asked them if they happened to see anything munching my plants.

They weren’t much help.

Given I’m completely at a loss for suspects, and the fact that I’d like the chance to enjoy some of the chamomile I’m growing, I figure it’s time to put up a fence.

When I started my garden last year, I’d hoped to avoid fencing altogether. I think fences look terrible, and I’m not strictly opposed to sharing my herbs and flowers with the local wildlife.

It worked out fairly well last year, but clearly word’s gotten out that I run the best salad bar in town. So, a fence it is.

Still wish I knew what was eating stuff, though.

The night-walker devours

So, remember how I said I planted some mint? Something slouched its way through the dark and devoured it all on Sunday night.

Whatever the critter was, it was very careful to leave the weeds alone.

So, that about does it for this front garden box. The only thing that has managed to grow in it is the seemingly-unkillable hydrangea that I hate. My plan for this year was to cram it full of mountain mint, since I hear-tell that stuff is also immortal, and let them fight it out all Highlander-style.

There can be only one, and I hoped it would be the one I could use for tea.

Alas, the hydrangea apparently called in an allied strike from…something, just as the seeds had begun to sprout. My father suggested it looked like a raccoon’s handiwork, but the fifteen seconds of painstaking research I did on Google seems to suggest raccoons hate the smell of the stuff.

I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m just going to leave the hydrangea alone. It’s over. It has the high ground, the low ground, and–apparently–the unwavering support of some mint-devouring, night-stalking horror from beyond.

Or a squirrel.

It’s probably a squirrel.

Late spring quarantine

I’m handling the pandemic-related isolation better than some people, thanks in no small part to my natural tendency to isolate during the best of times. I don’t know if I can be rightly called an introvert, but I’m just as content spending a quiet day alone, reading, as I am going out to do things with other people. It’s a drag not to have much say in the matter, but I’m getting by.

Besides, there’s gardening and bird watching to do.

My yard isn’t the largest, nor the most interesting, but there’s enough space for several small gardens, flowers here and there, lilac bushes, a few trees, and a bird feeder and bird bath which have been much busier than human restaurants and pools lately.

The gardens have been a bit anxiety-provoking, though. Late last month the weather was turning wonderful and I made the mistake of trusting it. New England loves the winter, and will drag it back six times before it finally lets it go for good.

I planted rosemary, sage, chamomile, and marigolds once temperatures were firmly in the forties at night. Then a week later the thermometer started dropping below freezing again, and we were treated to a couple of late spring dustings of snow.

Finally it looks like the cold is all behind us now, and my garden seems to have survived. I won’t know about the rosemary for another day or so, though. It’s a strange sort of plant. Doesn’t seem know it’s dead until about a week after it dies.

I have faith. Even planted some mint yesterday, but I’m holding off on the morning glories and basil until next week.

Morning glories. I’ll let you hypothesize as to why a wizard might want them around, but I planted them last year and didn’t get a single flower. This year I’ve changed up how I’m planting them in the yard, and I’m also going to try growing some in containers.

With any luck, I’ll be swimming in them.

Garden panic aside, it’s been a decent spring. The birds have been especially fun to watch this year. Cardinals, chickadees, and titmice swing by daily, as do grackles, blue jays, and mourning doves. There are others upon others, but my favorites are the wrens that just showed up.

We have a pair of birdhouses tucked away among the lilacs, and every year at least one becomes a home for a pair of wrens. I watch as some enterprising male comes by, gives the place a once-over inspection, then begins the process of building a nest within.

My ten minutes of ornithological Googling tells me this about wrens:

The male builds several nests, stopping just short of completing them. It’s the bird equivalent of getting the frame and walls up.

After he’s got a few nests to this nearly-done state, he starts chirping and singing for a mate. “Hey ladies!” And all that.

At some point, a female flies over, and the male wren takes her around and shows off his handiwork (wingiwork?). He leads her over to the house, she pops in, checks it out, he leads her over to the others he’s built.

If she likes one of the nests, she finishes it off, and they hook up.

That’s a lot of work. And it should really make you think about the relationships you’ve settled for in your life.

How many prospective mates have built you multiple houses and let you take your pick?

I don’t know what it is about them, but our birdhouses are straight-up love shacks. Every single year, a wren builds a nest in one, and gets lucky within a day. And if the happy sounds I’m hearing come of the house are any indication, this year is no exception.

So that’s quarantine for me. Playing in the dirt, watching birds, and trying to use every moment of isolation as I would any other.

That’s probably a decent sort of formula for everyone to follow just now.

If you can’t connect with human persons, connect with the non-human ones.