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.

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 – It’s time to move the keepers back inside

(Originally published October 6, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

My back deck has been one of my favorite places in the garden this year. There are just enough potted plants displayed on it to be lush and interesting but not overly jungle-y. (Unlike the rest of my garden.) The angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) loomed and bloomed in a corner and is about to bloom again. The array of house plants (begonias, jasmines, mistletoe fig and the like) on a bleacher-style plant stand looks like a living wall against the otherwise boring blank of the house. I love the color and texture contrasts in an assortment of ‘Wasabi’ coleus, dark red dwarf New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax ‘Jack Spratt’), echevaria, and golden creeping Jenny clustered in individual containers on the deck’s risers. And even as I write this, I’m entertained by hummingbirds visiting a big Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ parked right under my window.

a mid-September deckfull

I don’t want to let go of the garden on my deck. Especially since the sun has lost its bite and I can finally kick back and drink my morning coffee out there without feeling scorched. All summer I have also enjoyed the spaciousness of a nearly plant-free living room. I left some token plants inside for their green (a house entirely devoid of plants feels weird to me) but most are out. Their shelves and tables have collected small stacks of books instead and the empty square-footage under the windows makes the room feel that much bigger.

Nevertheless, chilly nights have cued the start of the move back inside. For the tenderest of plants such as begonias, some ferns and citrus, it’s best done early anyhow. They’re less likely to sulk, become stressed or look like death if they’re not subjected to temperatures they hate. As for all the others that can take a chilly night on the chin but can’t survive a killing frost, they will be much happier if we bring them inside before closing all of the windows and turning on the heat. Give the poor things a chance to acclimate to their winter exile.

view of the deck from the bathroom window...My natural inclination, because I love to be on and look out to a deck full of plants, is to wait to bring them inside until the very last minute. But because I’ve procrastinated in the past I know exactly how the frost-warning panic and subsequent backache feel. Not great. I also remember how messy a rushed move in can be. If I’m going to leave my houseplants outside longer I’d be smart to at least take the time to clean them up a bit. Over the summer they have accumulated debris, their own dead leaves and others’, as well as weeds and the occasional insect or spider. I like to think that the birds and other bugs take care of the pests on my houseplants but that’s not always the case as I discovered today. Two of the ferns that might have come inside before the latest dip into the 40s were still infested with scale, and I discovered that a pretty little Cape primrose (Streptocarpus) was harboring a legion of mealy bug. Even though those plants still look remarkably healthy I might leave them outside permanently rather than attack their dinner guests with my fingernails, soapy water, or any stronger pesticide. I have more plants than I need and better things to do.

In fact, I should use my time to clean plant saucers and clear all indoor surfaces and windowsills of books, clutter, and cats. If I were as ambitious as I imagine you are, I’d wash the windows too. I’m sure my plants and I would be happier in the darker seasons if light could enter the house unfiltered by pollen, dust, and cat snot. In the meantime though, I feel a magnetic pull back outside. It’s much too pretty a fall day to not spend it relaxing out on the deck, face to the sun, with a good book and a cuppa.

It’s now October 13th or thereabouts and I still haven’t moved everything back inside. Have you?