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.

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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? 

Buy local

2016_RIWPS.Best Native Plant Sale in RI. JuneMy tastes range too far-and-widely and I have too little impulse control when I’m plant shopping to ever be called a native plant fanatic. But I am a big fan. (You know I beat their drum every chance.) I have always valued natives for their common sense usefulness: for being likely to survive and thrive the climate and soil profile in my garden with little to no supplemental encouragement. But it wasn’t until I read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home that the other common sense reasons to plant natives hit… well… home. Now that I understand how essential they are for providing ecosystem services; for feeding the bugs that feed the birds, I have made a point of adding New England and Rhody native plants to my shopping list every year — and sticking to it.

It’s SO much easier to stick to the list when there are no exotic temptations to be had and that’s why I’m bummed to miss the sale this year. If I didn’t have to work I’d pick up a Little Compton-grown Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) to replace the one I lost to root-disturbing home improvements. (Big sigh. It was just the best bee and bird feeder in the garden.) And I wouldn’t bother to deny myself a wagon-load of impulse purchases too.

Can you make it to the RIWPS sale, or your own native plant society’s sale? What’s on your list?

Malacology is cool

File this one under learn-something-new-every-day.

It’s not often that a book rocks my little world. Which is saying something considering I’ve been a book addict ever since the code was revealed, and now that I work part-time in a library, I cross paths with life-altering literature at least twice a week. But a few weeks ago a friend pushed book I’d never seen before across her kitchen table saying, “You might enjoy this.”

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http://www.elisabethtovabailey.net

She was right. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is a deceptively diminutive book about one of the world’s most ubiquitous and tiny creatures: a common forest snail. But I didn’t just enjoy the book. I loved it. I loved it because it’s beautifully written; straightforward and without superfluous adjectivery, yet rhapsodic. And because I learned more than I ever knew I wanted to know about gastropods.

Bailey, a Mainer and gardener rendered horizontal and practically paralyzed by a mysterious illness most likely contracted during a European vacation, was given a peculiar gift: a terrestrial snail harbored in a potted violet. Over the course of a bedridden year when she could do nothing more strenuous than watch time slip away, Bailey observed the snail go about its own life in slippery minutiae and delved into the its fascinating life history and cycle, and its impact on her life. She eventually gave it a home (in a terrarium) so welcoming it produced 118 offspring. In the years that followed the snails’ release back into the woods, as Bailey’s health allowed and improved, she researched mollusks and wrote a book that deserves a place on every gardener’s shelf. (Says a gardener with a copy she doesn’t want to give back.)

Have you read it? Do you have a newfound admiration for snails now too?

Down to earth — I like lichen

Originally published December 2, 2015 in East Bay Newspapers.

Lest we become completely overwhelmed and demoralized by horrendous events happening around the world, the news media have also been reporting, as they usually do around the holidays, on the benefits of gratitude. According to one article I read, recent studies show that expressing gratitude will improve heart health and help us live longer. Or was that coffee? Either way I’m all for it. I read another article suggesting to those of us without the glass-is-half-full gene, which is a “mutation,” according to the author, that we might start our journey along the path to happiness with baby steps. Be grateful for the little things.

Like lichen. I hardly ever notice lichen in the dry summer months when it’s dormant and obscured by foliage. Now that we’ve had some rain, and more light is reaching stems and trunks and rock walls, the lichen is waking up and promising to offer a few extra colors to embellish winter’s monochrome. Some of what grows on stone is orange and yellow, while most of the tree-dwelling lichen is a dull grey green that glows a brighter sea foam or deepens to moss on dark and damp days. It takes the form of lacy speckles, flat rounded patches that flake like lead paint, and fuzzy tufts of reindeer moss that litter the sidewalks after a good wind.

Despite appearances to the contrary, lichen does no harm. It’s a passenger, not a parasitic devourer of tree flesh. And “it” is actually two things, a fungus and an alga, a dynamic duo, in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides support by hitching a ride on bark, rocks, and anything else that stays put long enough for it to grow at a snail’s pace, and collects moisture and minerals from the air. The alga uses the moisture and nutrients in its work to convert sunlight into food it subsequently passes back to its partner. And together, aside from being beautiful in the eye of this beholder, they provide sustenance for insects and animals, nesting material for birds, and when it sloughs off, nitrogen for the soil. Because pollution restricts lichen’s growth, it is an excellent gauge of decent air quality too.

The presence of lacy lichen undergarments on your trees and shrubs is an indicator of slow growth: plants that hold onto their bark for a while before shedding it offer lichen an opportunity not unlike rent control. Most trees grow more slowly as they age, and others are naturally slow even in their youth; lichen on their limbs is no cause for alarm. On the other hand, an abundance of lichen on an otherwise fast growing species can signal compromised health, such as root stress perhaps due to soil compaction or flooding. We gardeners should be grateful for the message even if some of us aren’t inclined to appreciate the messenger.

I am. My paths towards happiness — the one around my garden, and the one I take over the river and through the woods — are festooned in lichen. It will be a sight for my winter-sore and color-starved eyes, and serves as a reminder to breathe deeply. It’s one of the little things I’m going to remember to feel grateful for.

Do you like lichen? Do you keep a gratitude list? What’s on it?

Down to earth — everybody’s gotta eat

Originally published October 7, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast life newspapers. 

When I was first bitten by the gardening bug, I hated them. Insects and creepy crawlies of all stripes gave me the heebies. (Butterflies excepted.) Gardening for me was about being outside under a warm sun surrounded by the fragrances and prettiness of flowers, and the shapes and textures of foliage, full stop. Almost completely disconnected from the ecosystem. Although for the sake of my own health (and wallet) I never purchased an arsenal of toxic chemistry, I became a soapy water sharpshooter, doing my best to destroy the spittle bugs that bent the stems of my lavender, and left beer traps for slugs. I had it out for the aphids on rosebuds, and saw every hole in every leaf as a mortal wound and tragedy.

No more. Now I see those holes as little victories of nature over nurture.

My change of heart came slowly as I learned to appreciate certain insects, like bees, spiders, and praying mantids, for being “beneficial” helpers, and was followed, years later, by a great now-I-get-it epiphany that changed the way—and the why—I garden. The credit for that goes to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, who argues for the use of native plant species. According to professor Tallamy, we need insects. Their job is to convert sunlight, by way of particular plants, into high protein food for those next up the food chain. In a nutshell, no insects, no birds. Everybody has to eat and our gardens should offer buffets.

I’m not alone in seeing the light through hole-y leaves. Back in September I attended a daylong program called “Your Backyard Matters”, offered by the Sogkonate Garden Club in Little Compton. During the morning session several members presented their experience and successes in gardening for particular wildlife. Some cultivate meadows that welcome nesting Bobolink. One couple propagates, sells, and donates dozens of species of trees, shrubs, and perennials that host native insects. Others have planted beds that attract pollinators and Monarch butterflies. And that afternoon, they each opened their gardens for inspection and inspiration.

The take-home message was to recognize your own garden’s wildlife potential and run with it. I don’t have the requisite space for a meadow full of Bobolink hatchlings but my .17 acre plot is big enough to invite other types of songbirds, plenty of insects to feed them and their young, butterflies, and more species of pollinators than I can count on both hands.

It’s easy to garden for pollinators: plant more flowers. Butterflies need host plants for their caterpillars as well—Monarch caterpillars can only digest milkweed species plants. By planting native trees and shrubs for insects, along with seed and berry-bearing plants, such as coneflower and winterberry, I can help keep my favorite local songbirds fed year round. And by leaving the garden standing instead of putting everything “to bed” now, I can give them and the next generation of insects, including a lot of pollinators, a safe place to overwinter too.

I probably say this every fall, but unless your garden is infested with voles (who may only ever be discouraged by bare ground that makes them visible to predators—everybody has to eat) there’s no reason not to be a procrastinator now. You might argue that a fading garden looks messy; I’ll say quit worrying about what your neighbors might think. Besides, there’s tremendous beauty in senescence. The trick is to make fall’s “mess” look intentional and tidy. I remove broken and fallen stems. I trim unruly foliage (Siberian iris) and prune anything to the ground that might harbor a fungal disease (peonies). Most of the rest I enjoy through the winter and put off cutting back until spring when I’m desperate to be outside under a warm sun doing something vigorous.

Meanwhile though, until a hard frost signals winter, and barring any damage from forecast storms, my garden is still alive and blooming. On warm days pollinators and other insects are as active as ever. I have high hopes migrating hummingbirds will stop on their way south to tank up, and songbirds have started shopping the seed stores. Nature is at home here. And so am I.

Does your garden provide a feast for critters? Intentionally or unintentionally?