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? 

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?

Make way for sweet peas

There’s not a lot of room out in the plantry. I try very hard to keep the entrances onto the porch and into the house clear of plants and tools but inevitably the backyard door will only open so far, impinged by a reluctantly coiled hose and a tubtrug full of debris. The rest of the space, all 6×6 -or so- feet of it, is filled to the gills with frost-tender plants on various levels of floor, tables, and shelves. Normally, after I puzzle out light requirements and try not to hide anything thirsty from the hose, I leave them be for the duration of their winter internment. But this year, my first without access to a greenhouse and orphaned seedlings, I had to make way for sweet peas. I pitched some things that looked like they’d never recover from being dead, moved my jasmine into the living room, relocated a blooming orchid that wanted water and admiration, and somehow managed to clear a spot for a flat.

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Starting North Shore, April in Paris, and Zinfandel sweet peas

I was very restrained and only bought 3 varieties of sweet peas (my greatest pleasure and challenge in previous employment was narrowing my favorites down to a baker’s dozen), and filled a tray of 18 pots with two seeds per pot. Which, if they all germinate will give me plenty to share. And there are plenty of leftover seeds to try direct sowing too if I remember to be on the ball around St. Patrick’s Day.

Some gardeners nick the seed coat to promote germination. Others soak the seeds in warm water. I did what I learned to do at work: stuff them a half a fingernail down in a pot of regular (coarse) potting mix, water in, and wait. Two weeks should do the trick. Being a cool season crop, they should be fine on the plantry (where temperatures range from 40F at night to 70 something during the day) until planting them out late April.

Have you made way for sweet peas — or anything else?

Down to earth — frost warning

(Originally published October 21, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers. Since writing it a light frost mostly-toasted the dahlias, the one African blue basil I left out for the bees, and my zinnias. The salvias didn’t blink.) 

With below-freezing temperatures forecast for the weekend I should be spending every waking moment moving the rest of my container plants indoors. Digging and potting up as many tender perennials as I can wedge into the plantry and living room is on the list too. But I’m still enjoying this edge of fall and am more inclined to rhapsodize. I’m also not ready for my frost-tender salvias, cuphea, and African blue basil to quit working. They’re still feeding the bees — bumbles mostly but honeybees too on warm days, and offering a nutritious pit stop for any migrating hummingbirds that might catch their colors from a sky-high fly by. I’ll take my chances on leaving some outside to shrug off a light frost, if that’s all we get, and bloom on for a few more weeks. By the time you read this, you’ll know if I made a savvy or stupid choice. (Full disclosure: Of course I caved to frost-warning panic and filled the plantry to the gills. I left what I couldn’t fit outside to take their chances.) 

The late garden, so wild and wooly, tall and half gone by, is my favorite. (As always, I reserve the right to change my tune come April and over again May through September.) Seedpods of swamp milkweed (Aslepias incarnata) and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) have split at the seams to release great clouds of silk capable of carrying their packages miles on a decent breeze. – I spotted some floating in Bristol harbor the last time I was out on the water. Harlequin glory bower’s (Clerodendrum trichotomum) lipstick-red bracts, which were so recently puckered around fragrant white flowers, have begun to display indigo-blue berries instead. I love the black eyes of black-eyed Susans much more now than when they were ringed in gold eyelashes.

Meanwhile, dahlias, Japanese anemone, asters, and chrysanthemums offer fresh-as-daisy counterpoints to the seedheads and tatters of almost everything else. I allowed a weedy little white aster to grow in my garden. I’m sure it blew in and don’t know its name (might be hairy white oldfield aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pilosum) but its thin stems and minuscule leaves and buds never annoyed me or got in the way, so I left it here and there, and I’m glad I did for the way its branches of fingernail-sized flowers hover like a lace veil over the garden’s shoulders.

My favorite chrysanthemum, Sheffield pink, is a perfectly hardy old-fashioned perennial completely unlike the potted muffins offered at every roadside stand and nursery. I’m tempted daily by those but they can’t hold a jack-o-lantern candle to Sheffield pink. Its dusty apricot-pink petals are as long and lax as the plant’s stems and the whole picture is as graceful as a loose-limbed ballet dancer. Alas, the patch I started with has been crowded out of my borders, and I’m forced to enjoy it in others’ gardens.

I also have to venture out to witness the spectacle of hardy begonia (Begonia grandis). Those of us who decorate our living rooms with rhizomatous begonias can’t help but be enchanted by a begonia (tuberous in this case) that can inhabit our garden without requiring winter shelf space. We just have to be willing to allow it room, in moist-ish shade or a dapple, to grow without overwhelming competition from neighbors (impossible conditions to provide in my burst-seams garden). By the time it makes its presence known in late summer, lopsided heart-shaped olive-green leaves reversed in burgundy, will catch fall’s low sun to reveal deep red veins. Bazooka-pink, or more rarely white, dangles of clamshell flowers through September and October would almost be beside the point if they didn’t add to the plant’s appeal. Better yet, they go to winged seed, ensuring, when happily situated, generations of fall extravagance.

Frost in the forecast is bittersweet. I’m not ready to let go of the season – it has gone too quickly as it always does. But I’m grateful for the warning to remind me to rhapsodize – and procrastinate – while I still have the chance.

Have you had a frost yet? What are your favorite fall flowers? 

Down to earth — begonias think spring

Originally published March 18, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers. 

I hope by the time you read this we can see our gardens again. I’m dying to get to work outside. If this were a normal March the hellebores would be blooming and I can see from my window that the witch hazel has unfurled its flowers again. But as I write this the snow bank that swallowed it is no less than knee high and I still look like Frankenstein tromping out to the bird feeder. I don’t trust that winter is over yet despite some thawing and a calendar that declared spring last Friday. (It snowed that day.) I was punished for my haste last year. Never again. (She says.) I’m sure I should at least wait until I can walk through my garden with a normal amount of poise and grace before I take loppers to the roses. So, like all of you, I’m going stir crazy. Thank goodness my begonias are in bloom.

Of over 1500 species of begonia in the world (mostly from the tropics) only a fraction of a fraction are cultivated for our gardens and windowsills. I have far fewer than that and even fewer than I used to. For a long time my living room was dominated by a gangly silver polka-dotted angel wing begonia (B. maculata var. wightii). Angel wing or cane begonias have sturdy stems between pointed asymmetrical leaves and seem to want to be twelve-feet tall. Supposedly they can be pinched back to encourage compactness but mine was never satisfied unless it was reaching for the ceiling and arching like a vulture over the couch. I loved its patterning and profusion of white flowers but when it finally toppled to the floor I said my goodbyes.

Begonia 'Midnight Twist'
Begonia ‘Midnight Twist’

Most of my remaining begonias are rhizomatous types that grow in low mounds from a gnarly tangle of ground covering stems and bloom with winter-blues-busting exuberance. ‘Midnight Twist’ is a Gothic beauty with ruffled leaves as close to black as burgundy can get and sprays of bubblegum pink clamshell buds that fade to nearly white after opening. My other favorite has tiny green leaves with red freckles and eyelashes all along their edges, white flowers the size of baby fingernails, and grows with the kind of generosity that keeps me at my potting bench.

I have one Rex begonia. Sort of. It’s barely surviving with half of a leaf and the start of another. Rex begonias have rhizomatous parentage on one side but have been bred for who-needs-flowers? sort of foliage with Tim Burton-esque curlicues and/or silver, pink, red, burgundy, and green zones, splashes, and/or peach fuzz. They are extra persnickety and wear their hearts on their sleeves. For example, my Rex’s disappointment about low indoor humidity has been displayed for months in necrotic brown spots, leaf drop, and death throes.

As a rule begonias want indirect light and to be watered only after the soil has had a chance to dry out and just before they start to wilt. Heaven forfend you ever leave them sitting in the overflow. Even though a few of my eyelash begonias thrive in terrariums it never occurred to me until I did the research for this that begonias need a lot more moisture in the air than they can tolerate at their feet. With any luck, my woe-begotten Rex will make a dramatic comeback now that it sits above a pan filled with water that will raise humidity levels as it evaporates, and enough pebbles to keep the pot high and dry.

I have all but forgotten about the tuberous begonias in my collection. They do their blooming in the summer and spend the winter completely dormant in the dark down cellar. But they too, in their own way, will help pull me through the last stretch of winter because I should start checking now for new shoots that will want the light of day and a drenching to get growing again. This year they might know it’s spring before the rest of us do.

I’m happy to report that in the time since I wrote this, the snow has melted from most of the garden. I can get to the feeder without lurching and the witch hazel is only ankle deep in the stuff now. Huzzah!

What is helping you through the (lack of) transition to spring?