Carrots or Caterpillars?

My favorite thing about gardening is sometimes you get visitors. It’s not my partner’s favorite thing. She’s still put out, I think, that I didn’t save her carrots. But I was too busy taking pictures.

The problem is a basic difference in gardening philosophy. B is trying to grow food which I think is fun and amazing, but even more fun to me is attracting wildlife. Sometimes those goals aren’t at cross purposes. If you’re talking pollinators, for instance, flowering veggies and herbs are quite handy. They benefit from the visitation of various bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and I get photo ops. But most critters see only two uses for greenery – to lay eggs on, like the mother of all my lovely caterpillars did, or to eat. And if you’re growing food, you don’t want something eating it before you do – I get that. But look:

Aren’t they lovely? Before I tell you what they turn into, let me start at the beginning. Caterpillars are eating machines. Their only purpose is to eat as much as possible in order to fuel the changes to come. All these lovelies, started as eggs which hatched into something like this:

As they grow, caterpillars shed their skin several times. Each of these stages is called an instar and they can look quite different at different instars. This one is the second instar, I think. The first would have been even smaller and looked a lot like bird poo.

This is the maybe the third instar. It’s getting bigger, the color is changing but the knobby things are still present.

Eventually, we get to the fat, happy stage – the last instar before it’s ready enter the chrysalis stage. Most of mine were getting very close to this point.

In the meantime, I got to watch them completely denude B’s carrots of all leafiness.

And I learned that if you poke one, this orange organ will appear. It’s called an osmeterium and it emits a foul smell to discourage predators. How’s that for a superpower?

So for the last two days I’ve been hovering about my caterpillars waiting for one of them to move on to the next stage. This morning I went out and counted. Nine of fattest caterpillars had disappeared! I searched and searched, and found this:

The chrysalis. The last stage. I only found one. Where the other fat little larva went is a mystery. I scoured the garden and surrounding area. I’m afraid that perhaps their foul smelling superpower wasn’t enough to save them from hungry birds, though I prefer to believe that they are just particularly adept at finding a hidden spot to anchor themselves with silk and split their skin that last time to become a chrysalis.

The fun part is what happens inside the chrysalis. The body of the caterpillar will basically liquify and rebuild itself. And in 8 to 12 days a butterfly will emerge. So are you ready to see what kind?

A black swallowtail. (This one is a male.) Maybe my lonely little chrysalis will release a female. And  after it mates, maybe it will find a garden like mine with some dill or parsley or fennel or carrots to lay its eggs on and the whole process will start again.

Garden Variety Fun

A few years ago, my partner and I decided it would be good for us to have a garden – someplace to putter, to plant, to dig in the dirt and grow pretty things and salad things and mostly, serve as an excuse for us to get outside more often. We’re still not really good at it, but we learn a little every year, and I’m always tickled when we manage to not kill something. So here are a few garden things that have made me happy this year.

This was the first bloom on the clematis vine this spring. I planted it just last year and it stayed very small and bloomed just a couple of times. This year, it went crazy (not long after I took this photo), but I neglected to take a picture when it had a gazillion flowers. My mom always had one of these in her garden, and I always thought this color was the most awesome shade of coolness.

My partner and our youngest son love fried okra so she wanted to grow her own this year. They were the only plants in the garden that didn’t wilt during the wicked heat and dry spell in July. And now they’re producing okra quicker than I can harvest them. These things grow fast and are hard to kill – my kind of plant. It makes me feel like I know what I’m doing. I do, however, think okra in any form of food is revolting, but look what pretty flowers they have!

As I was hovering over the okra plants with my camera, a bee flew by my nose, landed on a flower, stuffed himself inside it, and didn’t come out. This is him. I think he went into some kind of pollen coma or something. He just stayed there kind of buzzing under his breath.

Thai basil. Also easy to grow and hard to kill. And it has pretty flowers that attract fun insects. This came up all over the front of the garden a few weeks ago. I thought it died over the winter.

Portrait of a tiny, tiny flower.

Sunflowers make me ridiculously happy. These are my first. They’re of the giant variety and so are taller than me and just started blooming a couple of days ago. I went out to take a photo of one and this Spicebush swallowtail was considerate enough to flutter up and plant himself (sorry, can never resist an awful pun) on my flower.

He really, really liked the flower but got irritated at my clicking at him and sailed off over the house a moment later.

Anybody else have fun stuff going on in your garden this year?

A Garden in Spite of Itself, Part 2: All the Pretty Flowers

My mother is an amazing gardener. Her yard is always a lush, flourishing mass of foliage and blooming things and trees that attracts all manner of wildlife from butterflies to bluebirds to cotton-tailed rabbits. Hummingbirds flit from flower to flower, their ruby throats glinting in the sun. Tortoises plod through the dappled shadows. Hers is not just a garden. It’s an aesthetically delightful ecosystem that she planned and put together herself.

If there’s a gene for such green witchery, I did not inherit it. I kill house plants. I kill cactus in pots, ficus and ferns and at least one rubber tree plant. I’ve killed pothos. Nobody kills pothos. I’m pretty sure it’s immune to death. But I did it. My cat might have helped by attacking it on a semi-regular basis, shredding its leaves and eventually, I think, peeing in its pot. Repeatedly. But still, the plant was in my care when the cat killed it. So I think, karmically speaking, it goes on my record.

But just the same, a couple of years ago, my partner and I decided we wanted a garden. It would get us outdoors more, give us something new we could do together, and make our front yard look less like a vacant lot. I thought, What’s the worst that could happen? I should never ask myself that. I am very good at visualizing the worst. I saw us buying all the new expensive plants and putting them in the ground and fertilizing and watering. Then I saw plants shriveling and dying one by one until our garden looked like a botanical graveyard.  The neighbors shook their heads. I felt sad and vaguely ashamed. Or, I thought, things might not die. They might grow and flourish. Plants would bloom spontaneously at my touch and neighbors would say, Look at her pretty little garden! I decided to risk it.

So we had prepared the bed (See Part 1). The time had come to populate our little growing space. And this is where, I must say, I’m proud of my mother. She wanted very badly to tell us how to plan and what to pick for a successful gardening experience right off the bat. I told her, No, we have to learn this ourselves. The whole process, from the ground up. (And yes, I’m a little proud of that pun.)

We wanted to choose everything and arrange it all on our own. So we went to Home Depot and wandered the aisles of the garden center. And that’s when I almost had a nervous breakdown. There were so many choices! And variables to consider. And here we were ready to just pop things in our basket willy-nilly and take them home. At least my partner was. She was excited about the garden and ready to dive in the deep end. I had thought I could follow her lead. But I just don’t work that way.

I am a methodical kind of person. When embarking on a new endeavor, my nature is to research it thoroughly, taking all variables into account, weighing them against each other, and eventually making informed, careful decisions thus maximizing our chances of success. Of course, using my method, spring and maybe summer would have passed before I made my carefully-researched choices for our garden. And B knows that.

We’re going to go, she said, and just pick what we like. So we did. She would hold up a plant and say, How about this? I would remove the little plastic tab thingy from its pot and begin reading out loud about the plant’s sun exposure and climate preference, its eventual height and breadth, water requirements, etc. B would listen as far as the name, make a decision, put the plant back or in the cart, and move on with me trailing behind, still studying the little plastic thingy and muttering to myself. Soon I had a whole handful of little plastic thingies and I was seriously starting to lose my shit. B made soothing noises and led me to the checkout line. Once the purchase was made, I was okay again.

Until we got home. Now it was time to decide what to put where. We had a row of small shrubs already planted and a big expanse of bare dirt waiting for the rest. I started arranging pots on the dirt thinking about all the variables again. Were they annuals or perennials? How tall would they be? What color? Spring or summer bloomers? I rearranged. And rearranged again. And finally B saved me again.

“That looks perfect,” she said.

“You think I should put the Dusty Miller over…”

“It’s perfect the way it is.”

“Or maybe move the Salvia to…”

“Why don’t you start digging holes?” She said and handed me a shovel.

And that’s how we got all our pretty flowers planted. And miracle of miracle, only a couple of them died and the rest flourished and bloomed.

Stay tuned for Part 3: Killing Tomatoes

A Garden in Spite of Itself, Part 1: Dirt

Our dirt

Tomorrow I’m going to buy dirt. I’m trying to make a garden. Dirt seems to be a prerequisite. I know what you’re thinking. Don’t I have enough dirt already? The ground is kind of, you know, made of dirt and all. You’d think that would do.

But our garden is still a baby, and I’m learning as I go along. Last year, I decided to double the size of the garden which extended it into a valley in the yard. When it rains, the valley becomes a mini-river running from the driveway across the yard to the ditch that marks the western boundary of our property. So I was going to have to buy dirt to raise the bed and reroute the river. That’s when my education began.

Buying dirt wasn’t as simple as I imagined. After some examination of the relevant products at Home Depot, I made these determinations: There were at least three major types of dirt and many brands of each ranging in price from 98 cents for 40 pounds of “topsoil” (looks like orange dust with rocks in it) to almost $14 for 2.5 cubic feet of Miracle Gro “potting mix” (apparently the super food of the botanical world). I settled on one of the cheapest “gardening soils” and loaded up my cart.

When I was done adding dirt, the garden bed was high and safe from flooding. But at some point in the last year, it sank like a grave. A really big grave. So we need more dirt. And peat moss. Last year, after some reading, I learned that adding peat to soil that had a lot of clay made it hold water in a way that made it more available to plant roots. That seemed like a pretty slick trick for a humble moss, but who am I to doubt accepted gardening wisdom? I bought the peat and tilled it into the garden with the new dirt.

My tiller

I should mention here that our tiller is kind of a basic model. It is not gas-powered. It has no motor. It is basically a big fork with twisty tines and a handle on the end. It is operated by plunging it with some force into the ground, grasping the handle, and twisting. This process can be viewed as an invigorating workout or as an exercise in pain, depending on your perspective. So I used the big fork to mix the peat and new dirt into the garden. The old dirt is very sticky and clumpy so it was sort of like mixing up a really big batch of cookie dough. Add the butter. Stir. Add the flour. Getting really hard to stir now. Add the manure. (Sorry. I dropped the metaphor a little abruptly there.)

I didn’t actually add the manure. Apparently, proper usage of animal poo is also more complicated than it might seem. There are issues to consider involving the source of the poo, its age and how it was stored. Who knew? Bottom line is, when you add poo to the soil, it’s best to let it “age” before planting. This has something to do with nitrogen in the poo and nitrogen-loving microbes in the soil that sometimes get over-excited by fresh poo and use it up so quickly the plants can’t get at it. Or something like that. Since it was already mid-spring, I didn’t have time to wait for the manure to mature properly. So I skipped the poo.

I went through all this prep work because I needed the garden bed to be a particularly friendly place for plants, resistant to floods and full of rich yummy freshly-turned soil. I needed the plants to have every advantage I could give them at the start, because after that, they were going to have to rely on me. And after a lifetime record of killing all green, leafy things in my care, that didn’t bode well for the garden’s future inhabitants.

Stay tuned. Part 2 coming soon.

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