Exploding Ants and Bolted Spinach

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While Tony and I listened to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on NPR (our Saturday morning ritual), Griffey suddenly went into attack mode from his seat on the couch. He stood up, looked out of the window and began barking. Because he rarely barks at anything (such a helpful trait in a watchdog, really), we took notice.

We noticed that he was barking at New Neighbor’s little guy, completely ignoring our latest resident baby bunny sitting on the patio, just outside the french doors. The bunny was eating the new grass sprouts, unafraid of the noise and unafraid of me as I made photographs through the glass. He chomped and chewed his way through the leaves, glancing at the “Certified Wildlife Area” sign in perfect comfort.

When I stepped outside to start my day of garden work, he still sat there, hunching into the soft green grass, cautiously optimistic. Then I sneezed and he bolted away, shocked into sudden flight by that loud noise.

First on the list of things-to-do was removing the bolting spinach. “Bolting” is an apropos term, as it does seem to happen quick as lightening. One moment, you are happily cutting sweet, tender spinach for a salad, and, while your back is turned putting the leaves into a colander, the plants have sent up shoots covered in blossoms and seeds, making the spinach bitter and tough.

I pulled out all the plants, retrieved the garden rake and roughed up the soil. From my gardening file drawer, I pulled out the Ziploc bags full of leftover seeds and found the bush beans from last year’s ill-fated Burpee order. My square foot gardening technique recommends four plants per square foot and I pushed the white bean seeds into the ground, keeping to the proper pattern.

My Bauhaus design-trained mind loves the square foot plan. It is much more productive than rows, enabling me to “see” a quilt-like plan with more variety and more possibilities. Our harvest is bigger this year, with every inch of the garden being used effectively.

I pulled some bolting mesclun plants and cut lengths of basil to dry, trimming back any possibility of bloom.

That blackberry bush, while wildly entertaining and delicious, is draping onto the grass and covering up my butterfly bushes, one of which is struggling back from the drought last year. Having already received New Neighbor’s permission (yes, legally what drapes on my yard can be cut by me – but really is unnotified trimming the best way to build a neighborly relationship?), I cut back about 5 branches, careful to keep the symmetry of the shape while eliminating the annoying. Tony is so happy; for once, I didn’t leave the branches there for him to clean up, or drag them next to the house, waiting for him to clean them up. I cut them up and put them into the yard waste bin. Without a grinder, these cannot be composted.

I started digging out whole plants, as my brother- and sister-in-law’s condo is in need of some color and personality. I pulled out six sedum, opening to the air and sun the aloe plants that were getting overwhelmed. I strategically pulled coneflower, foxglove, coreopsis, monardia and oenothera. A clump of red lilies, eaten alive by coneflower, also came out. They were all put in plastic bags (see, that newspaper subscription is so helpful in gardening) and piled on the patio for Sunday’s planting.

An ancient container full of catmint was also full of clover. When I pulled the clover and inserted a pinwheel, the soil in the container simply exploded. As if an evacuation alarm had sounded, ants and ants and ants and more ants suddenly fled from below, covering the soil, covering the catmint, dripping onto the hibiscus, onto my gardening gloves, onto the ground below. There were absolutely thousands of the creatures, each shiny and black and shapely. I was entranced, amused and awed. That container has been hiding this secret for how long? Exactly how many ants made their home here? What was the attraction to this particular pot? Was it the pulling of the clover that disturbed them? Or the sudden drilling of a mine shaft (the pinwheel stem) into their nest?

When I called Tony out to see this wonder, he had a question too – just one. “They’re not coming into the house, are they?”

 

Baby bunny through the window.

Baby bunny through the window.

Ants!

Ants!

More Ants!

More Ants!

Ants on ME!

Ants on ME!

Do they look alike to each other, too?

Do they look alike to each other, too?

SO MANY ANTS!

SO MANY ANTS!

I am a pollinator too!

I am a pollinator too!

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Behemothic Blackberries and a Bounty of Birds

Jo and I once talked about the tree at the edge of her yard. One of her children had brought it home from school, a seedling in a paper cup. They watered the plant and then, when it outgrew the cup, she planted it in the yard. She had no idea what it was, she never pruned it or tended it and now, it’s been growing for over 20 years.

Jo moved out early last spring and we have new neighbors, a younger couple with a toddler and infant. The yard is now filled with colorful toys, wading pools and a small raised bed vegetable garden. There are squeals and laughter and chases and the occasional crying. This is no longer an Invisible Neighbor.

The tree is still growing. Part of it drapes over my yard with a fountain of branches, about two stories high. However – it’s not a tree.

It’s a blackberry bush. Isn’t nature cool? Somehow, Jo’s lack of attention was the perfect treatment and this spot in the full sun was the perfect spot to make this thing go just crazy.

Right now, it is covered with blackberries, big and juicy and bursting with sugar as they ripen. The branches are laden with fruit, drooping towards the ground. They have already begun to drop off the bush, filling the lawn and beds below.

I am not the only one who noticed the berries ripening. The wildlife noticed too. The tree is like O’Hare Airport, robins flying in, collecting berries and flying back out. Constantly. All day long, the brown and red birds, with our resident cardinal and his wife making occasional appearances, swoop in and out. They sit on the grass and bounce their heads, pushing the berries down their throats. Mama robins stuff berries down baby throats. Squirrels climb up the canes gone wild, perching on branches that seem much too slender to hold them. They hold the berries in their hands and nibble, nibble, nibble. They are too busy eating to play with each other. There is a rare flash of house finch and a goldfinch or two, but this is mainly the robins’ buffet.

I can sit on the bench by the vegetable garden and watch and count. Most robins fly out with the berry in their beaks, but there is an infrequent multi-tasker, with berry in beak and in talons as they leave. Many just sit in the tree, eating berry after berry, their heads making that awkward motion as they gulp them down.

Today, a puff of feathers sat in the yard and squawked. A baby robin, waiting for his next berry, opened his beak and loudly and often to let his mama know how hungry he was. He was not afraid of me and let me get right next to him to make a photograph. I sat on that vegetable garden bench, far away from him, and watched and waited.

Robins came and went, but not one paid him any attention. I waited and I watched. I thought that perhaps my paying attention to him meant Mama was nervous, so I avoided looking at him. He hopped a little closer to the bush and squawked and cawed, louder and louder, quite put out by the lack of food or maternal care.

I was beginning to have thoughts of stuffing berries down his throat myself.

I wondered where the hell this irresponsible mom could be. Couldn’t she hear his obvious pain and need? I began plotting foster care for this little guy, thinking of boxes lined with kleenex, bread mushed with milk and smashed berries in eyedroppers.

Finally, a bird swooped down near him, berry at the ready. She hopped away and ate it herself.

Well. That must not have been Mom. Or it could have been Mommie Dearest.

I waited and watched a few minutes longer, then had to cut the Parent Surveillance short and return to work. Mom might come back once I was safely in the house.

Eliza returned from her bike ride and I asked her to go check on that baby. She wasn’t able to find him. Momma must have found him, fed him a nice juicy worm and some berries too. Because heaven knows, we’ve got plenty.

The "tree" that is a blackberry bush.

The “tree” that is a blackberry bush.

Baby robin

Baby robin

blackberries in the flower bed

blackberries in the flower bed

bumper crop this year!

bumper crop this year!

Bolting spinach

Bolting spinach

bolting lettuce

bolting lettuce

see his little self in the grass? he's so sad!

see his little self in the grass? he’s so sad!

berry caught in the coreopsis - it's raining fruit!

berry caught in the coreopsis – it’s raining fruit!

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A Radish Recipe

Who knew radishes could pose the same problems as zucchini?

In May, I sprinkled those tiny seeds in a 1 foot x 6 foot area, nestled between the runner beans and the sugar snap peas. They sprouted quickly and prolifically.

Last time I planted radishes, I neglected to thin the seedlings until it was just too late. This year, I paid close attention, waiting until conditions were just perfect, the root just long enough, the leaves just sturdy enough, the ground just damp enough to make thinning easy and safe.

I left hardy growth every inch or so, not in a row but more in a checkerboard pattern. I’m following the square foot gardening theory this year and so far, it’s working a treat.

These lucky ones grew and grew and in many cases are still growing. Some are big as golfballs, some are even larger. There are a few that are still rather small and tender.

But there are so many. Many more than I thought I left. And gracious, how many radishes can you eat? We are putting them on our salad at every possibility, but that takes care of just one or two every day.

So I googled radish recipes and googled again and again.  What I found were recipes that used one or two radishes, just as an accent or garnish. I searched and searched. Then bingo – I found a recipe that used a bunch of radishes, that featured them as the main ingredient. It was perfect, as I could use up a good portion of this harvest in one fell swoop. It was also super simple and made sense theoretically, as radishes have a bite like an onion.

So I picked about 8, cleaned them up, trimmed them and quartered them. I placed them in a small casserole dish, dotted them with butter and sprinkled salt and pepper, covered them with foil and stuck them in the oven on 350.

About 45 minutes later, they were tender and soft. I served them with pork chops, elotes and green salad from the garden. Tony took a forkful and so did I. My hopes were high, thinking about getting through this crop quickly and deliciously.

We tasted.

Eh. Just – eh.

I should’ve planted zucchini.

The Radish Casserole

The Radish Casserole

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The Pigheadedness of Peas

Pea plants provoke me.

Because of their perversity, the seeds (unusual in the seed world – they are actually exactly what we eat, so what we sow are dried, shriveled versions of what goes on the dinner table) are placed parallel to the climbing trellis, exactly so, as Mr. Elton might say. The peas pop, just two leaves at first presentation. They proceed a little taller and proceed to put out a tendril or two.

Then the plunge. As if there is a magnetic repellant in that trellis exactly above these seedlings, the tendrils reach out and up and always always always away from the trellis. They reach towards the radishes, the tomatoes, anything that is Not Trellis. They reach for the fence, which is supposed to be removable to help with weeding and tending.

The grower (that’s me) visits every morning and gently untangles tendril from fence, threading it back through the trellis twine. I visit during an early afternoon break, and gently untangle the same tendrils from the same fence and tomatoes and radishes. In the evening, we go through this very same ritual again.

And so it goes – day after day after day after stinkin’ day. I unwind and redirect. The peas cheerfully acquiesce, then giggle and jiggle and wiggle back into those same wrong wrong wrong supports as I disappear into the house.

These peas are pissing me off.

cypress in the pond. From 8" to almost 8' in just 9 years!

cypress in the pond. From 8″ to almost 8′ in just 9 years!

hostas, sundrops, salvia, foxglove and wild geraniums by the pond

hostas, sundrops, salvia, foxglove and wild geraniums by the pond

the preferred position

the preferred position

Peas after retwining - just for a minute

Peas after retwining – just for a minute

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Asparagus Surprises

A rustle, a shake, a twitch. And then a flash of brown with that tiny flag of white.

There is a baby bunny living in our garden again.

He prefers to keep to the backyard, curled up in the bed behind the chimney, with easy access to the brush pile under the rainbarrel platform. That brush pile is purposeful, but it was meant for birds, not Damn Rabbits in development. Occasionally, he braves the 5 or 6 feet of open grass to dart into the sedum in the butterfly bed and then wind his way down to the vegetable garden.

He is still stumped by the chicken wire.

He is adorable. Why does he have to be so darned adorable?

I walk down to the vegetable garden and see that the peas need direction, the radishes are ridiculous and the carrots need thinning. I climb into the chickenwire enclosure (really just a matter of lifting my leg and stepping over one of the shorter panels) and take a look at the sea of soft, tufty feathers that are the carrot sprouts.

Hmmmm. I don’t even know where to begin.

I thread my fingers through the green leaves and start to begin to perhaps see where one plant stops and another begins. With all the rain, the soil makes it easy to pull one or two without disturbing the rest, but I soon realize they are really too small to pull effectively, the size of toothpicks. And there seem to be thousands of them, amazing as I believe the seed packet said 100, which may take hours to decipher and thin. And I stupidly planted them between larger plants, so they are difficult to access.

I curse myself for planting carrots, pat myself on the back for accomplishing a few inches and then give up. I tell myself it’s only for now, but secretly, I am harboring an urge to give up altogether. I am already beginning to convince myself that we don’t even like carrots.

Last year, I planted asparagus in this area; three big crowns from that Nirvana of the Garden, Sunrise Greenhouse. I dug holes, built up mounds in the middle of those holes, splayed the weird finger-like roots over the mounds and then buried it all. I watched anxiously until they sprouted and celebrated with the Happy Dance. Then the Damn Rabbits chewed them down to the ground. Each time they struggled up, each time, even though they were protected by hoops and cages, the Damn Rabbits managed to get through Berlin Wall-like defenses and chew them back to the ground.

After several battles in this mighty war of irrepressible stems and unyielding incisors, the asparagus gave up. Sprouts no longer appeared. The Damn Rabbits had to make do with dipping hosta leaves into their hollandaise sauce and lemon juice. I assumed the asparagus were, quite frankly, cooked.

But the garden is full of surprises. This spring, with that area now revamped and the fence rebuilt and reinforced, the asparagus emerged, right along with the corn I planted. The asparagus is ferny, airy, almost ethereal in its daintiness, next to the wide, solid leaves of the corn. Safe (so far) from Damn Rabbits this year, it is developing its root system as we let it go “wild.” Next spring, or perhaps the spring after, it will be Tony and I with the hollandaise sauce. We will eat the asparagus on the patio, laughing it up as the Damn Rabbits huddle in the beds, cursing chickenwire.

The monardia in the front butterfly beds is finally pulling out of their Camille-like drama caused by transplanting. No matter how much I watered, no matter how sunny the weather, they wilted, they drooped, they sagged and they slumped. I cajoled and encouraged and watered some more. Finally, they now stand erect, green and full. This stuff spreads in a blink, so I’ll have lots to give away come fall – and I will include special memos about their initial very silly behaviour.

The prairie milkweed is growing taller and taller, in more and more places in the garden. This should be a bumper crop year. I glimpsed one of those nymphomaniac milkweed bugs earlier, but I haven’t seen a single one since. Prairie milkweed is the Only Plant (as in ONLY – there are no others – anywhere – of any type) where the monarch butterfly will lay eggs. They prefer the bottom side of the uppermost leaves and I’m checking every day. But I haven’t seen a single monarch yet, and there is no sign of any eggs. Patience, patience. It’s early days yet and my patch of milkweed is a long way from South America for an aged butterfly!

I circle back to the curious “clawed” plant in the hammock bed. I brought this home from a native plant class as a seedling and have now lost the identification sheet. This plant must have some charming, appropriate common name. I’ve combed through my gardening file drawer and my binder (it’s amazing how long mud on paper can last). I’ve googled and I’ve searched. I’ve been misdirected to flowers in Western Australia, to flowers that are clearly not purple and to flowers that aren’t even clawed.

Like that baby bunny and the chicken wire, I’m stumped too.

Escape route of the baby bunny. Note the brush pile for easy camouflage!!

Escape route of the baby bunny. Note the brush pile for easy camouflage!!

Liatris and a bowling ball. The bowling ball is there for "whimsy"

Liatris and bowling balls. The bowling balls are “whimsy”

Help! Do you know what this is?

Help! Do you know what this is?

walking into wonderland

walking into wonderland

nope - still no eggs!

nope – still no eggs!

monardia finally pulling itself together

monardia finally pulling itself together

bigger beer garden!

bigger beer garden!

corn stalks

corn stalks

corn unfurling

corn unfurling

asparagus among the corn

asparagus among the corn

brush pile

brush pile

thinning started - miserably

thinning started – miserably

teeny tiny carrots - how cute!

teeny tiny carrots – how cute!

WE NEED THINNING

WE NEED THINNING

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Dealing with Damn Rabbits and Frost Damage

The milorganite has failed spectacularly.

And of course, the failure began right after I began tentatively recommending it to others with Damn Rabbit problems.

I noticed chewing on Things Damn Rabbits Aren’t Even Supposed To Like on a walkabout the other day. New milkweed, sea thrift and coneflower in the back butterfly bed, balloon flower in both the front and in the back, even FERNS for pity’s sake, all had evidence of nibbles, noshes and often outright chomping. The fern wasn’t decimated, but obviously someone was curious and decided to take a taste, right at the bottom of a frond or two. That someone spit it right back out, but not before the damage was done. No longer is that fern a perfectly symmetrical green fountain of fronds. Now, it has missing chunks, where the fronds were damaged and now wither.

So out came the milorganite, those charcoal grey pellets of poop – albeit processed and sanitized. And I sprinkled cups and cups onto the thrift, the milkweed, the hostas and more.

I sprinkled it on the barberry bushes, recently transplanted into the back butterfly bed from the Neither Here Nor There bed to try to save them. The barberries are each at least seven years old but, because of continuous, continued and continual Damn Rabbit browsing, they are the size of popsicle sticks. But where a popsicle stick is a happy thing, these barberries are sad, pathetic and droopy. I thought moving them to a more open area would discourage the Damn Rabbits, give the bushes another chance at a happy, healthy life.

Bah.

Today, I see that what was chewed before is chewed again. And again. And again. They’re stripping the new milkweed down to twigs, which is exactly what they did in this bed last year. Coneflowers are barely an inch tall, struggling constantly against those vicious, horrible gangsters of the garden. The sea thrift seems to be the go-to meal.

And beyond all this is the recovery from frost damage, that seems to be taking a great deal longer for those Cherry Profusion zinnias that one might imagine. The hot peppers are coming back, after wilting and browning. The impatiens were unscathed, the broccoli reveled in that crisp bite of chill. While a brave little bud is emerging here and there on the zinnias, I clipped the vast majority down to the new leaves today, snipping off blackened leaves and bleached blossoms in hopes of rejuvenating the whole plant.

Just as confidence was building in the milorganite, it failed on my open perennial beds. But so far, I’m beating those Damn Rabbits in the vegetable garden. I’ve seen the Damn Rabbits gazing through the wire, thinking, plotting and planning but the chicken wire fences, built with loving care and basic math skills, are, at this moment, keeping my spinach safe.

Sundrops starting to bloom

Sundrops starting to bloom

foxglove and geranium

foxglove and geranium

back butterfly bed in its "creeping" year.

back butterfly bed in its “creeping” year.

Damn Rabbit damage on the sea thrift and barberry

Damn Rabbit damage on the sea thrift and barberry

what the Damn Rabbits did to the balloon flower

what the Damn Rabbits did to the balloon flower

Damn Rabbit evidence on the milkweed

Damn Rabbit evidence on the milkweed

but the native monardia is sooooo happy!

but the native monardia is sooooo happy!

WHY can't they just let the coneflower grow just a LITTLE?

WHY can’t they just let the coneflower grow just a LITTLE?

So far, keeping Damn Rabbits out of the vegetables.

So far, keeping Damn Rabbits out of the vegetables.

bee habitat - love those pollinators!

bee habitat – love those pollinators!

Damn Rabbits love hostas. I hate Damn Rabbits.

Damn Rabbits love hostas. I hate Damn Rabbits.

For fun.

For fun.

more hosta damage

more hosta damage

Frost damage on the zinnias

Frost damage on the zinnias

in the front bed, the milkweed budding

in the front bed, the milkweed budding

bumble bee on salvia

bumble bee on salvia

new - a dip in the sidewalk to walk around those garbage cans

new – a dip in the sidewalk to walk around those garbage cans

Miss Kim lilac on her way out

Miss Kim lilac on her way out

failed taste test

failed taste test

good place for a fairy garden?

good place for a fairy garden?

budding cattails

budding cattails

transplanted trumpet vine - most unhappy

transplanted trumpet vine – most unhappy

Phlox in the grasses bed.

Phlox in the grasses bed.

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Gardening Memoir with Eye-Popping Photography is “Part Humor, Part Mystery, Part Lecture and Completely Engaging”

Most year-long experiments are extraordinary sacrifices of inconvenience and toil – living biblically, eating locally or cooking an entirely new recipe every day. Rebecca Palumbo did something that one third of Americans might accomplish without any cost or resources, but that has never been done before. Beginning on the first day of spring and concluding on the last day of winter, she photographed, observed and wrote about the growth and evolution, the sex, the beauty, the violence – the entire Other World – right outside her door.

Radell Smith of the Atlanta Top News Examiner said, “Rebecca captured breathtaking moments in the garden visually with her camera, adding depth to a text that seeks to bring gardening lovers across the country right into her backyard. The Master Gardener’s new book is part humor, part mystery, part lecture and completely engaging to the reader seeking to learn what it is like being in someone else’s backyard gardening” in her review of the book

Written in exquisite detail and beautifully photographed, A Year In The Garden: Incredible Beauty, Explosive Sex and Violent Death in One Suburban Backyard (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CJGG79Q – $14.95) documents an average Midwest (Zone 5, for those keeping track) suburban garden for an entire lunisolar year. Through Damn Rabbits, prolific insects, disappointing watermelons and more, readers will not only learn how to divide perennials, build chicken-wire fence panels and control powdery mildew, they will learn how life in the garden mirrors real life, including the joy of a happy marriage, the recovery of the author’s son from depression and her daughter’s approaching adulthood. The book, jam-packed with educational information, reverent, telescopic observations and just plain fun, is truly a window into the soul of a gardener.

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Gardeners will watch the progression of each plant and bed as it unfolds in photographs and learn and reinforce concepts of plant care, garden care and pest repellents. For many, the most important tool will be the comparison of their own garden’s progression to the author’s garden.

Hope-to-be-gardeners will enjoy planning the possibilities for their own yards. Learning curves will be shortened as they learn from these successes and mistakes. Because of the photographs, they will truly understand the cycles of a garden and set reasonable expectations for their own, including their own time commitment to achieve the desired results. They will get a true sense of what it means to really be a Gardener, to feel that your slice of earth is a little part of the vastness of this universe, that the garden is not just about seeds and weeds, but that it’s about thought processes and personal growth.

Apartment and city dwellers and those who can’t garden will revel in this as it transports the reader into the garden, exquisitely, throughout the year. There is no need to sigh over asphalt, sealed windows or aged knees – reading this memoir and viewing the photographs will take them right into the garden – throughout the year. Each chapter is a mini-vacation to a paradise and for the reader, that paradise becomes theirs. They will get an understanding that life in the garden is mirrored by life outside, that a small garden is a microcosm of the world at large.

Beyond the “nuts and bolts”, readers will also find an almost divine experience in the verbalization of the spirituality we all feel when we’re in the garden. This book hits so many nerves – the need for nature, the need to grow things, the need to solve problems as we dig in the soil.

Since Rebecca Rollins Palumbo could hold a trowel, she has been gardening – first as her mother’s oft-reluctant assistant and now for her own joy and satisfaction. She has gardened in the frustrating full shade off the patio of her first apartment, in the troublesome full shade of her first house and now in a perfect combination of sun and shade in her present home, the subject of this book. She wrote a column about nature and gardening for the Chicago Tribune and continues to blog at TheSoulOfAGardener. She is a certified Master Gardener and a member of the Garden Writers Association and her garden is a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

Rebecca earned a Bachelor of Art from Northern Illinois University with a concentration in photography and a strong emphasis in English and writing. She is Creative Director of Rollins Palumbo Creative, a design and advertising firm in Chicagoland.  She resides in Tinley Park, Illinois, a southwestern suburb of Chicago, with her husband, Tony, two “young adult” children, a blissful lhasa apso and a betta fish named Sundance.

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