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? 

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.”

wildsnailcover-209x300
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 — thaw’s hope

(Originally published February 10, 2016 in EastBayRI newspapers right after two snowstorms and before the negative digit descent into this abysmally cold weekend. I wrote it a week prior to all that, back when I had much higher hopes for winter.)

Is it possible this February won’t be like last February? Will we not have to spend weekend after weekend shoveling out, bundled up in wooly layers against polar vortices, rattled by bone deep shivers? Will we actually be able to go outside now and again without a puffy coat, smell the earth, and do some gardening? Last year’s thaw-less February and March nearly ruined my opinion of winter, so I can’t help hoping the weather stays this side of arctic. I might get my wish. Even if snow returns (a few inches are forecast as I write), it does seem as if the pendulum has swung to the mild side. (Knock wood, of course.) Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring and I took advantage of a preview.

My neighbors, whose gardening practices are generally more traditional, probably think I’m lazy for not putting the garden “to bed” in the fall. I’m the first to admit a preference for reading a good book on the couch with a dog on my feet over any kind of physical exertion, but that’s not my only reason for leaving stems and seedheads standing. I let the garden go because plants like nicotiana, tansy, borage, marigolds, dusty miller, and some salvias look decent and produce flowers right up until they’ve been buried in snow or zapped by a deep freeze. I also like to provide cover for insects and other wildlife. Some gardeners might balk at harboring “the enemy” but beneficial insects overwinter in hollow stems too. Bumblebees’ survival, and some butterflies’ too, depends upon the protection of leaf debris; and birds will hang out in a thicket and pick seedheads clean. And now that I’m itching to get moving, tidying gives me the excuse to go outside and the activity keeps me warm.

False indigo (Baptisia australis) was the first plant to land on the compost heap a few weeks ago. It saved me the trouble of snipping every stem by detaching as a unit from the crown, probably during a decent wind, and coming to rest in a tumbleweed tangle against my garden gate. Why the praying mantis always chooses to deposit her eggs on that plant is beyond me. Unless she knows I’ll tuck her babies’ branch back into the garden somewhere.

Nicotiana stalks were next. Their hideousness in death is in direct proportion to their beauty in life. I pulled most out but cut others back to nubs in case they re-sprout from the root. – Winter has been mild enough they just might. The garden looks better already.

Usually sometime in January the pretty wind-whipped waves of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) and the seedy tufts of love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) begin to self-destruct and blow all over. That stuff wanted collecting and I snipped and snapped the remaining stems to reveal emerging foliage belonging to a few bulbs I planted nearby last fall or the one before. My clumps of catmint (Nepeta ×faassenii) had become flattened mats of brittle stems, gratifying to break into bits with my fingers. I scattered the debris back around the crowns to insulate new growth already sprouted. That probably doesn’t sound like an improvement in looks but, trust me, is.

If you have any dormant pruning to do – remedial shaping of trees and shrubs, removal of damaged branches, deadwood, and fruit trees’ water sprouts – now’s the time. But save spring bloomers until after their display, and wait for hydrangeas’ buds to show signs of life before whacking them back. Hold off pruning your roses and butterfly bushes until the forsythia blooms.

Might not be long now. Maple buds are fattening. Skunk cabbage has been blooming since December. Daffodil foliage is up; snowdrops are out, and crocus are on their way. I asked a gardener with a better memory than mine if spring was early the last time El Niño was at the controls. She thought it was. It’s too soon for winter to be over but hope might spring during the thaws.

Are you taking advantage of the thaws? Does it feel like spring’s around the corner or still weeks away from your garden?

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?

Early morning night-herons

Three blocks away from our house is a scrappy little pond, the Tanyard Brook Reservoir, completely enclosed by a barbed-wire topped chainlink fence and a mishmash of native and invasive shrubs and vines. There are keyhole views through the fence that reveal muddy banks dotted with litter, and a surprising array of wildlife. I’ve seen muskrats and a mink, mallards, mergansers, egrets, and the odd cormorant. In spring there’s a nesting pair of Canada geese, box turtles that somehow make it up concrete embankments and through the chainlink to cross the street, as well as a frog chorus, and a siege of black-crowned night-herons. Somewhere around a dozen of those guys (and gals) stick around all summer (I’m sure the frogs and turtles do too) and entertain me on my dawn dog walks by sitting hunchbacked and completely still. — Doesn’t take much to halt my forward progress before I’ve had coffee. Yesterday I counted nine. Today I could only spot four. Apologies for the terrible iphone photos but they do resemble my own dim and bleary-eyed view.

Here’s what I’ve learned about black-crowned night-herons: Adults are mostly gull-gray except for their black back and crown, and pretty white plumes like streamers trailing from the back of their head; females are a little smaller than males, and juveniles, up to 3 years old, are spotted brown. They hang out in communal groups and do most of their feeding at night — probably elsewhere because there’s no way this sorry spot can support so many herons. We’re within their year-round range here but the herons will disappear in the fall, as they always do, to spend winter on saltier water, maybe further south.

Any cool wildlife in your neighborhood?

For more information on black-crowned night-herons, check out allaboutbirds.org, and the Audubon field guide. Also, this list is pretty great.