Down to earth — arachnophobia to philia

Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers October 12, 2016.

I just spent an hour scrolling through dozens of images of spiders — some of them much too close-up for comfort — to answer a question that must be at the front of your mind if it’s plaguing mine. Why are there so many spiders around in the fall? I hope you’ll spare yourself a nightmare-inducing internet search because I found the answer: there aren’t so many. Just the usual amount. Granted, some have matured to their full glory, more visible than invisible the bigger they get. spiderwebAnd dewy mornings are turning our gardens into galleries of exquisite web art.

I used to be terrified of spiders. As a child my arachnophobia was nurtured by a family member who pretended to catch daddy-longlegs between thumb and forefinger and chase me around the house. Hilarious and character-building? Maybe. One time, as an adult, I levitated across an impossible span of chairs to avoid touching the same floor traversed by a spider my peripheral vision insisted was the size of a puppy. (It wasn’t quite that big.) That night I became my own hero by relocating said spider, without assistance and while adrenaline gave me the shakes, and started down a cobwebby path to desensitization and appreciation.

We all know it’s bad luck to kill a spider. Contrary to popular nightmares, even the venomous ones mean us no harm. Spiders are voracious and indiscriminating insectivores and will only bite humans in near-death defense, not for supper. But anything that gets caught in their webs without breaking right through is fair game. Aphids, yellow jackets, mosquitoes, flies, you name it. The more bothersome the insect, the more gratifying it is to see it wrapped like a burrito. It’s much less enjoyable to witness the entanglement of honeybees, bumbles, and butterflies — some occasion rescue efforts — but that’s nature and nature is cruel. I mean cool. Nature is cool.

orbcrossweaver
cross orbweaver and her prey

Of course, not all spiders spin webs. Some, like the bold jumper (that’s really its name) that lives in my mailbox, stalk their prey. I have also encountered what is either a broad-faced sac spider or woodlouse spider when I’ve been planting or weeding the garden. The former spends its days resting in leaf litter and hunts at night; both are a startling shade of red.

The seeming proliferation of spiders has prevented me from completing some of my garden chores. I’ve been meaning to bring container plants inside but I hate to disturb the webs. Most are classics spun by very fat and happy cross orbweavers. A few grass spiders have taken up residence within the vortices of funnel webs. Fascinating creatures. I’d rather they stay outside. They would too. — Most of us assume spiders will try to come inside right about now looking for warmth. That’s a myth; they’re “cold-blooded”, not heat seekers.

That said, there are spider species — all benign in this neck of the woods — that have adapted to indoor living and are unlikely to survive long outside particularly if relocated now. Frost is the end of the line for some garden spiders too but they will have been busy ensuring the next generation’s eggs are tucked up in a sac somewhere safe for the winter.

As careful as I try to be, my houseplants do sometimes arrive inside with hitchhikers. Last year a grass spider spent the winter under her sheet web in an aloe, a plant I rarely water. Poor thing was probably thirsty but managed to survive for a while on what must have been a limited diet of house spiders and the odd aphid or fungus gnat. You already know I have a lax attitude about housekeeping and am grateful to anyone who helps tidy up.

That’s a long way to come from the utter terror I used to feel. My first close-encounter with an enormous black and yellow garden spider nearly gave me a heart attack. Now I get a little adrenalized thrill when I spot her telltale zipper (a bird alert) in a web. I do prefer to appreciate spiders from a certain distance but the more I see in my garden the luckier I feel.

Truth be told it has been many years since I’ve seen a black and yellow garden spider in my garden or anyones else’s. Seen any in yours? — Do you have love or fear or both? 

Down to earth — got bulbs?

Most of this was originally published in EastBayRI newspapers September 14, 2016.

This was a tough summer. Too stupidly hot, humid, and rainless to maintain momentum after work. I avoided my own garden, only ducking outside periodically to water containers and catch night breezes from the deck. I wish I could say I spent my time in front of the fan wisely. I haven’t been blah-blahging and I didn’t place a bulb order. Lucky for me, it’s not too late.

It’s disconcerting to page through a bulb catalog in the middle of a hot summer. Spring is too delicate for such bruising weather. Crocus would be flattened; tulips would shatter. Daffodils and snowdrops strike me as a little tougher than most but I have no faith fritillaria would hold up. It’s hard to remember that the heat is temporary and spring, knock wood, is rarely so summer-like.

For the last dozen or so years in late July I have been able to suspend disbelief and work on bulb orders for my employers’ gardens but have never — not once — despite my best intentions, placed an order for my own garden. Last year though I got lucky in the bulb department. A friend who had just joined the team at John Scheepers (www.johnscheepers.com), offered to send me a box of bulbs at no charge. A grab bag assortment based on a loose wish list (something along the lines of, “I’d sing the blues, and it’s not easy being green”) arrived like Christmas one October day. My box included Tulip ‘Green Star’, green-cupped Narcissus ‘Sinopel’, and was full of “the blues” too. Chionodoxa, brodiaea, and Allium azureum. I was never happier to make room for those gifts or more grateful to see them bloom last spring.

The memory of that gift reminds me, in a way much better than my work experience ever has, of the benefit in following through. Now that September is doling out stormy excuses for indoor activity and some of the sunny days are more crisply spring-like, I will endeavor to think spring and put an order together rather than procrastinate until local nurseries have sold out of the most interesting choices.

My wish list is still heavy on the blues and greens. I must have more chionodoxa. They naturalize beautifully but I want more, more, more, sooner. For the view from my window to look as if a dusky sky has fallen. I enjoyed the June-blooming knee-high amethyst blue spikes of Camassia quamash in another friend’s garden so much she shared them with me but I’m greedy for more of those too. Fingers crossed they’re as happy in my garden’s lean and mean soil as they are in my friend’s rich cake mix.

Until the neighborhood deer population discovers my garden I will add more viridiflora tulips to bolster dwindling supplies. (Hybrid tulips lose vigor after 2 or 3 years.) Not only is Tulip ‘Night Rider’ new this year (and thus extra covetable and possibly sold out by now) it boasts the best of both worlds: blue-ish (purple) petals with green flames. ‘Artist’ displays my other favorite color, orange — blue’s complement, go figure — behind green flames. A must have for a spectacular spring.

As I write this I’m stuck inside while a storm swirls around outside. The John Scheepers catalog is open on the desk next to me. One of my browser tabs is displaying a link to the array of tulip choices and there’s a credit card burning a hole in my wallet. All I need to do to get my order in is make a few clicks and hit send. Might just follow through this time but if I don’t, believe me, I’ll wish I had.

As I post this, I’m stuck inside because I’m still avoiding my garden. Its neglectful state overwhelms me. And I still haven’t placed a damn bulb order. Have you?

Not goodbye

A couple-three weeks ago, just as I set out on vacation, I learned that I wouldn’t be returning to Blithewold.

Like many humans, I’m not a huge fan of change — whether self-inflicted, foisted upon, or a combination. But change happens, so they say. And everyone (including me) who’s been through some claims that it’s good.

The worst part was not getting the chance to thank and say goodbye to the people I so lucky to meet, work with, and learn from at Blithewold for the past 12 years, or to those who followed our adventures in gardening and joined the conversation through the Blithewold blog.

I’m no good at goodbyes. I am usually the one leaving, who, coat on and halfway out the door, awkwardly keeps the conversation going while the wind blows in. I’m the one standing on the dock, watching and waving until you’re out of sight. Breakups have been interminable. My family has long since adopted a goodbye ritual, which must be followed to the word (my rules), to prevent excessive lingering. I would have said goodbye — for awhile — if I could have.

But I also don’t want to say goodbye. Just as lasting friendships have been the consequence of most of my endless breakups, I would rather hold onto heartfelt connections. So I’m just going to hang out right here in the doorway of this blog, waving and saying everything but goodbye.

Down to earth — stop and smell the roses

(Originally published June 24, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers.)

There’s so much going on in the June garden my choice of topics is overwhelming. I could share my latest list of impulse purchases, which includes ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) number three, a moundy-roundy purple-flowered mint-scented tender perennial I’d never heard of (Hesperozygis), and enough packs of amethyst flower (Browallia americana) to fulfill the promise I suddenly remembered making last June to give my garden the blues. I would also love to commiserate on the aches, bone-deep fatigue, and gratification of getting everything in the ground before the heat hits or the rain pours. Except I’m not nearly done yet. And every time I start to land on a thought worthy of sharing, the scent of roses completely fills my idea box.

I am no fan of Rosa multiflora. It is an invasive scourge capable of climbing, crowding, and killing otherwise healthy trees, shrubs, and perennials. Even whacked back to the ground (nice try), it can resprout from its roots (most roses can) and all of the birds that find its tiny hips delicious drop the undigested seeds in a packet of manure (roses love the stuff) all over the neighborhood and woods. But boy, does it ever smell good.

Rosa rugosa
Rosa rugosa

It’s almost as deliciously spicy as our beloved beach rose (Rosa rugosa), which isn’t ours at all but another invasive exotic from Japan. I hate the thought that beach rose has crowded out beautiful and ecologically important shoreline native bird feeders like beach plum (Prunus maritima), bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), and goodness knows what else might have lined the dunes before it was introduced, but full disclosure: I moved back home to Rhode Island from a Zone 8 garden in the Pacific Northwest because I missed the scent of Rosa rugosa on a salty June breeze.

I can’t in good conscience recommend planting it, particularly if you live on the water, but beach rose, in the classic cerise or more elegant white, is readily available for purchase and is one of the most disease resistant, drought and lousy soil tolerant roses on the planet. I planted one in my garden and have allowed its extra-thorny stems to spread hedge-like along a six-foot section of front fence. (It’s deeply rooted and a bear to edit.) Its hips should be too big for the birds to redistribute and are an excellent source of vitamin C for anyone with friends ambitious enough to put up jelly.

Of course there are hundreds of varieties of roses unlikely to colonize and commandeer the local ecosystem. Instead, most roses have a reputation for being high maintenance, disease and insect prone headaches and mid-summer eyesores that require an arsenal of toxic chemistry just to keep alive. Perish the thought. They may require slightly more care and attention, in the way of regular water and rich soil, than your average shrub but the bad rap isn’t entirely deserved and chemistry is certainly unnecessary. For one thing, breeders have been on a mission to develop disease-resistant cultivars — and are working hard to breed the heavenly scents back in too. And for another, any gardener who plants a garden-full of distractions for the bees, butterflies, and birds to enjoy as their roses’ blooms come and go is less likely to notice or care a whit about a smidgen of foliar imperfection here and there.

nameless once-blooming apricot rose...
nameless once-blooming apricot rose…

One of the other roses in my full-to-the-gills front border grew from a cutting off an antique shrub, possibly a climber, whose apple-scented, peach sorbet ruffles will only be open for a week or two. For the rest of the season it displays bright red prickles (roses don’t have thorns) and grass-green leaves that I would only notice if the rest of the garden died. (Perish the thought!)

Right now that un-named rose’s scent — and the rugosa’s — pulls me deep into the garden, through the prickles (the rugosa’s are particularly deadly; I bear my scars proudly) and past the bees. It distracts me from planting the dahlias, and scrambles every thought in my head except the one that sighs, “boy, do roses smell good…”

Are you distracted too?

Move it or lose it

One of the trees I was given and impulsively planted in the wrong spot was a Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’); a super sweet tree with deep green plumage and limbs spread like it’s stuck doing an interpretive dance. At the time it was given to us, by EB who happens to be the arborist in the family, it seemed like the best idea ever to plant it next to the house (quite close) on the back garden side. A few years later I planted a tiny alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) on the lawn side of it because there was no other vacancy in the yard, and besides, I wanted to watch the dogwood’s birds from my bathroom window (à la Doug Tallamy). In the intervening years both plants grew. The dogwood far outpaced my expectations and the Hinoki has been no slouch growth-wise either (both are 10′ tall). Even though the Hinoki ended up half hidden by the dogwood, I could have kept living with those stoopid decisions for a while if Z and I hadn’t started talking again about putting in an outdoor shower. The Hinoki, we decided, had to go. But I didn’t want to lose it.

After consulting EB, who prudently suggested we wait until fall to move the tree, we prepped instead for a more immediate move by watering the tree for a couple of weeks, praying for rain (we got about an inch last week), identifying a new spot on the north side of the house, evicting what lived there (my beloved Rubus odoratus), and digging a hole.

The move this weekend took about 2 hours start to finish, which seemed quick to me but then I didn’t have to do much of the heavy lifting or cramped-quarters digging. Big thanks to EB and Z for all that. And so far, although both trees lost significant root mass, so good. I’ll baby both of them with mulch, plenty of water (the dogwood will eventually reap the benefits of shower run-off), and have promised to loosely tether the Hinoki to keep it from tipping over in the wind. I’m beyond grateful to EB for his expertise, hard labor after a heavy Sunday breakfast, and reassurances that all will be well.

Have you ever planted a tree in the wrong spot? How long did you wait before moving/losing it? Did it survive transplant and thrive?