March 11th, 2011


Wine and Grumbling

Some days I think the sole purpose of the internet is to make me angry. Then I turn on NPR and wonder if the sole purpose of news of any sort is to make me angry. Then I dismiss this news-as-solipsism and go haul bags of manure, which tends to take the edge off. Very few outrages can sustain themselves through 400 lbs of steer crap, and if it does, I can always go get rocks and build beds.  (I finished digging the pond, so that’s out.)

Someday the entire garden will be bedded and ponded and manured and then I will probably have to go on Valium or something.  I can’t dig a second pond. A second pond is just crazy talk…glorious, glorious crazy talk…

Ahem. Where was I?

Right, right. Anyway, so many of the things that make me angry are beyond my ability to talk about rationally. Compare abortion to slavery and I am reduced to anguished frothing, tell me about Libya and Wisconsin and the frothing becomes even more anguished and by the end of the week I am reading Barbara Kingsolver essays in the middle of Panera and trying not to cry into my bread bowl, because I am very small and there is so little that I can DO.

But one thing I CAN address, and that’s the smaller argument goin’ down in gardening circles at the moment, which also makes me angry, and which I feel reasonably equipped to talk about it.

So a coupla weeks back, a scientific paper came out that said, in effect, “Honeysuckle-covered areas of Pennsylvania attract a lot of fruit-eating birds. There are lots of robins and catbirds there eating the berries, more than in areas without honeysuckle. They also eat any other fruit in the area. Go figure.”

This is perfectly sensible. They’re fruit-eating birds. It’s a fruit. There’s a lot of it. They come eat it. I have no quibble with the science or the scientists involved. I think they’re probably right–-there probably ARE quite a lot of fruit-eating birds eating that fruit. This is perfectly good science, and I gots no beef with it.  I quibble with some of their conclusions, but I have no problem with the observational science.

And then a surprising number of gardening blogs and nursery newsletters jumped on this to say “Look! This means invasive species aren’t a big deal after all! Go tell your friends who got into native plants after reading Bringing Nature Home to relax, already!”

It was really kinda messed up. (Some of these people have SEEN kudzu, too. I question how anyone can witness kudzu in action and not think that invasive species are maybe kinda a problem worth considering, but there you have it…)

About the only thing that keeps me from tearing my hair out in big elaborately-dyed chunks is that quote from Gandhi–-”First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We sure haven’t won, but hell, at least we’re past the ignoring stage.

I am sure most of my readers are fully capable of seeing the problems here, but let me go off, because A) it makes me feel better, and B) I’ve had wine.

Robins and catbirds, the two species mentioned in the article, are generalists. They eat a lotta stuff. And they are perfectly good birds, even charming birds, but I want more than two birds in my garden.

So I want to know about the wood-warblers, about the hummingbirds, about the woodpeckers. How are they handling a life over-run by honeysuckle? I want to know about whip-poor-wills and hawks, mice and moles, the elegant little shoe-string sized ringneck snakes and the big black racers, the salamanders and the cricket frogs.

And how about the bugs? How about the pollinators, in fact? I’m sure they ate hearty when the honeysuckle bloomed, but that was too late for a lot of them, since the honeysuckle also leafed out early and shaded out the spring ephemeral flowers that serve as the first meal for a great many pollinators.  And the hummingbirds probably had a good meal too, but I suspect they had to leave after that and find somewhere else to breed, since a honeysuckle-strangled world offers far fewer flowers later in the year. Come to think of it, robins have to feed their young bugs like everybody else–-what are the breeding numbers like, long-term, in a honeysuckle-dominated area? A quick snack for migrants, I can see, but I bet it’s not preferred nesting areas…well, anyway.

So honeysuckle thickets aren’t quite as ecologically dead as kudzu forests. Whoopty-freakin’-doo, sez I. This is good news in the “not-quite-as-horrible-as-we-thought” sense, but hailing it as “Therefore stop worrying about invasive species! By the way, we have a special on privet and barberry!” makes me want to scream and bite things, or perhaps take a very long nap. (A NAP OF RAGE! Oh, shut up, like you’ve never done it…)

Even leaving all that aside, let me point out that A) you cannot generalize about the effects on an entire ecosystem by the effects of one plant in one area on a couple of specific species. There are tons of pigeons and rats in Manhattan, but the success of those two species in those conditions does not mean that paving over the world and putting up skyscrapers would be good for vertebrate species across the board–-all it means is that a couple of very adaptable species can adapt and thrive.

Sigh. A little science in the hands of people who want to be reassured that THEY can’t possibly be doing anything bad to the planet is a dangerous thing. I hate bad science. I hate good science made into bad science by people with agendas. And certainly no nursery could have a hidden agenda or anything. It’s not like they make all their money selling exotic plants or anything.

Oh. Wait. Hmm.


Apparently this is a backlash to all those so-called “native purists” I keep hearing about, who want nothing that isn’t native and chew you out if you plant catmint or cannas.  I would like to meet one some day, because I still haven’t. (I once had a nursery owner get really pissy with me when I said that I was big into native plants and asked if she had any inkberry holly. There was eye-rolling and sighing. I instantly became a problem customer. Presumably a busload of these legendary purists had just left, after spitting on her privet bushes and making unkind comments about her Bradford pears—that’s the only explanation I got.) Now, I’m huge into native plants, I love them, I collect them, I have, at last count, put in over a hundred different native species into this 2.5 acre madhouse I live in, and god, if that’s not obsession, what is?—but I am still not out there slapping the azaleas from anyone’s hands. (I rather like azaleas. And I have tons of Walker’s Low Catmint, a pomegranate sapling, cannas, my salvia collection of doom…I will plant non-natives with a glad heart, as long as they don’t eat the freakin’ world. And goddamn, if the deer keep biting off mouthfuls of my “Autumn Fire” sedum and spitting them out, I am seriously gonna cut a bitch.)

…I had a point there. Hang on. Yes. More wine. Yes.

Robins and catbirds are very adaptable, and more power to ‘em. But I would kinda like to live in a world that also had, oh, warblers and trillium, sparrows and sapsuckers—hell, wolves and tigers and moose and ostriches, pileated woodpeckers and jack-in-the-pulpit and frogs. I would like the whole world not to look the SAME. I would like to go to the desert and have it look like the desert, the forest look like the forest, the swamp be an-honest-to-god swamp. I do not want the whole world to look like a subdivision. I would like to eat at someplace other than McDonald’s. And if we’re all planting all the same invasives, and all the same highly adaptable species are surviving, and all the others are quietly expiring under the kudzu, I don’t think we gain anything, and I think we lose a lot.

More wine, damnit. More wine.

Originally published at Squash's Garden. You can comment here or there.


Planting a Tree, Despite that Jerk in the Parking Lot

I so very nearly had a good day.

After another morning of unrelentingly bleak news, armed with PMS and temporarily out of manure to haul, I decided to do something constructive. I would plant a tree!

Specifically I would plant a sourwood. Lovely trees, sourwoods. Sourwood honey is a beautiful thing, and I look forward to it every year. I have a perfectly good spot for a sourwood in the back, where we could definitely use some understory trees. So I hied myself to Niche Gardens, turned off the radio and put on the Pogues, and felt…oh, marginally better about life.

They were out of sourwood. One of the staff went off on a quest, found only unrooted cuttings, apologized, and then another staffer (actually I think the owner) emerged from the back triumphantly waving the last sourwood sapling in the place, and there was much rejoicing. I love the staff at Niche. Most of them are very nice–one was a trifle abrupt at first, but has warmed up to me considerably. We talked enthusiastically about spring being sprung enough for planting, particularly since we just had a massive ground-softening rain, making it a damn good time to get those saplings in.

I was in a good mood. Really, I was.

So on the way back home, I swung by Lowes to get a coupla more bags of compost (because the news won’t get any better, god knows) and some mulch for my newly acquired tree. Trees. (Okay, fine, possibly some buckeyes also came home with me. IT HAPPENS.)

An employee planted squarely in the little-old-lady archetype came up to me to ask if I needed anything, and I explained I needed dirt, and I swear to god, O readership, I expected her to say “Okay, let me get somebody.” They employ young men with shoulders like draft horses for just this reason, and make frequent use of them.

Instead she got a cart and started loading up bags of mulch herself.

Well. Okay then.

I found myself at this point ‘twixt the horns of a dilemma as they say. On the one hand, I once worked in a job where there was some mild lugging involved, and had at least one customer who always used to insist I “get a man” if I lifted anything over five pounds.  (If memory does not fail me, she once told a co-worker this, adding that she would “strain her lady bits.”)  This is obnoxious behavior. If I said I could do it, let me freakin’ do it already.* Also, while there may be a graceful way to say “Pardon, but you appear far too old and frail to move my dirt,”  I have no notion of what it may be and would fully expect and deserve to be punched in the midriff were I utter such.

On t’other hand, this woman was a head shorter and at least twenty years older, and…well…no. (Let me add that there are plenty of people in that category who could whup my ass six ways from Tuesday, but she did not look to be one of them.)

Fortunately I was getting a fair amount, so compromise was at hand. I grabbed another cart and began loading the other (substantially heavier) half of my order on it, so then we both had a cart, we were both lugging, and I felt we had achieved an equitable arrangement between courtesy and gallantry.

Now, this would not be significant in any way—we all make such social negotiations a dozen times a day—but for what happened next.

I proceeded to check-out, pulled the car around, and we began loading it up. She took the side door and began loading through there, I took the back hatch and unloaded my cart in that way. I finished first, took my cart back, and headed back to the car, while she finished maneuvering the last bag ‘o mulch in the side.

At this moment, just after she’d finished and the words “Thank you so much for your help,” had left my mouth, a car pulled up, and a middle-aged man leaned out and said “You should be ashamed, a young thing standing around while she does that! There’s something wrong with this picture! You should be ashamed!”

And drove off, while I stood flabbergasted, in a cloud of exhaust and really clever rebuttals that I would think of Any Minute Now.

Said little old lady had already proved to be fairly deaf and was already moving the cart back inside, so I don’t know what she thought of the matter or if she even noticed.

Sigh. I never think of anything clever on the spot. I didn’t even think to flip him off. I am really no good in the face of unexpected hostility—I can’t even remember to honk my horn when cut off in traffic.

So, while I’m sure he doesn’t read this blog, let me just say for the record—screw you, nameless motorist, you had no damn idea what was going on.  I hope your life turns into a Nick Cave song.

Tomorrow I plant my tree anyway.



*Tangentially, one of the great hang-ups to emerge from my divorce and the subsequent half-dozen moves is a deep and burning desire to be able to move every essential thing I own by myself if needed. The day I upgraded to a flat-screen monitor was a great triumph. This has relaxed somewhat since moving in with Kevin, but if I had to move out, the only thing I’d need help shifting would be the couch and the giant metal chicken. It still comes up when arranging con-kits, as I flatly refuse to countenance any system which I myself cannot lift.

There are worse neuroses to have, I suppose…

Originally published at Squash's Garden. You can comment here or there.