March 28, 2011

Lynx Rufus

from Nat Geo (photo: Norbert Rosing)
When I opened the bedroom shades this morning, there she was, sauntering through my back garden, about 50 feet from my window.  Everything is brown and mottled out there in these last weeks of cold and dormancy, and she is brown and spotted too, but there was no hiding her.

Our bobcat is back.

I wrote about her in one of my first blog posts in winter 2010.

Although the wildlife sites tell us bobcats are elusive and nocturnal, ours is not.  She hunts in the middle of a sunny day, and ambles around our garden in broad daylight.

We watched in fascination last winter as she made her pounces capturing mice in the snowy meadow.  It's a spectacle: creep, creep, creep .... stalk, wait with hunched shoulders and laser focused eyes, and then a swift arching leap three feet in the air to deliver the deathblow.  It looks like an acrobatic stunt.

We watched her do this four times, and she was successful twice.  After a successful kill, she simply crouched where she had landed and ate her lunch.
last winter from my dining room window

The first time I saw the bobcat in our yard it was 6 p.m. on a summer evening several years ago, and she sauntered (yes, that's the only word I can use; it's a hip swaying slow liquid stroll) through the garden with a giant rabbit dangling from her mouth.  I was on the deck, about 30 feet away.  She took no notice of me.  Or she noticed, but was too self satisfied to acknowledge me.... as if to say "I have dinner plans tonight and you don't."

I have seen her several times since.  We don't know if it's a female, and haven't seen it with cubs.  Females are a little smaller than males.  The National Geographic site shows an illustration of a bobcat's relative size to a human.  Our bobcat looks smallish, so we decided it's a female.

Lynx rufus (or Felis rufus) is smaller than the Canada lynx, but twice as big as a house cat, and three times as big as the skinny Siamese felines who prowl around inside our house pouncing on their food dishes.  The bobcat is solitary, and we have only ever seen ours alone, patrolling by herself.

She owns a territory of about 5 square miles, so we don't see her often, as she covers other parts of her range.  Bobcats actually do well in urban edge environments, as long as there is prey, and we have a rich menu of voles and mice and rabbits in our gardens. They will hunt fawns too, and can bring down an adult deer, but I suspect that is rare, although deer are certainly on offer here too, and I'd appreciate any efforts by the bobcat to keep them in check.  Bobcats have no natural predators.

note the bobbed tail, practically nonexistent

I didn't get a picture this morning of our Lynx rufus, so I'm posting the photos from January of 2010.

This morning, when I raised the shades and saw her, I just watched rather than rush to find the camera.  There is something arresting about seeing a predator so close.  She's no threat to me or our indoor housecats, but her wildness, her stealth, the way she absolutely owns my garden, is heart stopping.

March 26, 2011

Why Bother?

I subscribe to Garden Gate Magazine, and I enjoy it.

It has no ads, lots of garden pictures, helpful hints, great diagrams and plant profiles.  It's a "how-to" resource.

Nothing elaborate or awe inspiring, nothing to pore over, just well documented, basic gardening advice with pictures. 

I'm a fan, really, and find much to enjoy when it arrives in my mailbox. 


They recently asked subscribers to take a survey indicating how likely they would be to read an article with the following titles:

Very Interested Somewhat Interested Slightly Interested Not Interested At All
Ultimate Perennial Handbook
27 Easy-Going, Easy Growing Flowers!
No-Fail Plant Combos
Flowering Shade Combos Made Easy
Easy Weekend Gardens
Ultimate Garden Borders

 No.  And no.  Not interested.  Why?  That ridiculous word in half the titles:

Many others have ranted about the dumbing down of gardening, and advertising efforts to make gardens something you install and forget.   It drives me nuts.

The marketing premise is that putting plants in the ground is highly complex and such a chore and the very essence of disagreeable.

But it can be made tolerable with EASY plants, and it can be made less onerous with EASY garden plans.  You can do it!  It's no-care, no-fuss, no-interest, no commitment.  So easy.
 Is gardening such a chore?
Effort saving articles, time reducing hints... just get the things in the ground so you can get back inside.  You see this approach everywhere, in ads and at home stores and garden centers, and even in helpful newspaper gardening sections, not just in this particular magazine.

Here's my issue:
Why would you want to turn off a potential market like that?  Don't garden suppliers and publications want to nourish an ongoing love affair with plants?  Why discourage buyers and readers from gardening by implying it's such a chore and time waster?  You see the results, with homeowner landscapes full of languishing trees and shrubs that were installed and "needed no care".

Snnnxxxx.  Don't make me go outside.
Really, if it so disagreeable to have to garden, why bother at all?  Instead of searching for an easy no-effort way to do it, why not just dump the whole idea of growing anything at all?  That would make it really easy.

Let's all go inside and take a nap.

March 23, 2011

Pride Goes Before a Fall

Don't get too smug.  Pride goeth before a fall.

I have been guilty, not of sinful pride so much as stupid smugness in my garden.

I was awfully sure that I had no vole problem in the narrow strip of garden that borders my front walk.  Having no vole problem in New England is the same as gardening indoors with houseplants.  It just means you haven't been outside.

But for the first three years, I was able to create a nice mosaic of low plants in a hot dry strip along the garage wall, where bulbs and shrubs were not bothered by voles at all. 

I was proud of the effect I had created, especially in spring.  I had alliums: tall purple globes and small golden garlic and some sweet pink rosy garlic too.

And tulips!  'Queen of Night' and 'Triumphator' made a nice black and white study in early spring, and the voles left them alone.  Surprisingly, the tulips came back each year.  I even added some pink and green viridiflora 'Groenland' tulips this fall.

Planted among the bulbs I had little bun shaped false cypresses and last summer I added two iteas -- Virigina sweetspire 'Little Sprich'.  There were sedums -- 'Angelina' and 'Red Carpet' and a tall sedum with white and green foliage called "Frosty Morn', and a frothy Amsonia hubrichtii with gorgeous yellow fall color.

My theory was that the voles, which plague our lawn and gardens, would not cross the cement walk to get into this narrow strip.

My second theory was that all the the alliums I had planted here discouraged the voles with their strong oniony scent.

Whatever the reason, I had no problem with voles, and when I read Frances at Fairegarden's problems in her wall garden, I smugly thought: "Ha, I don't have to do that!  Poor Frances....."

Fall color was nice too, with the garnet red of the iteas shining against the brick wall.

Then, last fall, disaster struck.

Everywhere I looked there were tunnels.  Entry and exit holes and piles of excavated dirt.  Tall sedums toppled over, their roots gnawed off.

The little bun shaped false cypresses kept losing the lowest branches from underneath.  Every time I touched a plant or deadheaded or did anything in that area, the plants wobbled.  By late November the whole strip was a disaster, with plants keeling over.

Entire  branches of the young iteas were chewed off and left lying next to a vole hole. The woody iteas were easily upended from the earth, and on inspection, bereft of most of their roots. 

I added sharp gravel all over the area, since voles have soft bodies and won't cross a gravelly barrier.  ha.

I sprinkled peppermint oil down the holes, and used the old chewing gum trick, and various obstacles stuffed in the tunnels.  ha.

Mouse traps baited with peanut butter were raided, the bait completely eaten, but the traps unsprung.  ha.

I was so smug.

Humbled now, I know I have to dig up the entire strip.  I have to dig down 18 inches, add inches of gravel, not just a sprinkling, and lay down a sheet of hardware cloth.

Then I will add soil and replant what can be salvaged that might still have some living roots.  Or I will buy new plants.  More gravel on top.  A big friggin' project.  Fortunately I have Frances's Wall Project post showing how to do it, complete with pictures.

What was I thinking?  Of course I have voles in this garden.  I even see them, brazenly scurrying around my ankles as I try my escalating levels of rodent harassment and murder.  I have heard high pitched squeaky laughter as I work to salvage this devastated garden.

The tulip bulbs surely brought them in.  They just waited a few years until I was proud of this space and smug about what I had created.  Then they moved in.

Humility is a lesson I am still learning.

March 20, 2011

My 2011 Resolution

The time for New Year's resolutions to lose weight and get better organized is long past, but I think the start of spring is the perfect time to make gardening resolutions.  It's the start of a new garden season, and some long standing bad habits must be addressed. Improvement is possible.  In fact, in earliest spring, all things beautiful and better are possible.

So, with careful thought and the hope that I can stick to it, I share my 2011 Gardening Year's Resolution with you:

I resolve to photograph my garden only in early morning and late afternoon.  I will put down the camera at high noon.

No more shots of jeweled blooms and glistening leaves washed out by the blast of a high sun.  No more hours spent photoshopping the exposure levels and manipulating the details I wanted to see because the shot is swimming in white glare.

Too bright! I hate explaining how pretty this caryopteris is if only you could see it better.

The caryopteris in lower light.
This is not so simple to do.  My daily routine involves a morning spent leisurely getting going, and my late afternoons and evenings have their own rituals.  It's mid morning when I get outdoors, and on a sunny summer day the light is too bright.  Like the deer who plague my yard, I am a little habit-bound.

But I can change.
GAAA!  Red is hard to photograph, but this peony 'Blaze' looks like plastic in the harsh direct light from overhead.  The metallic purple fireworks of 'Schubertii' alliums add to the eye hurt in such direct light.

I will have to rework things a little, but I am game to try.
  1. I resolve to keep the camera by the back porch where it will always be ready.  
  2. I resolve to get up, have my coffee and go outside (e-mail, facebook, the newspaper, and garden blog checking will wait). 
  3. I resolve to always keep a pair of boots by the back door so I don't get dissuaded by the fact that the grass is too wet to go out there.
  4. I resolve that the last tool I use in the garden at the end of the day will be the camera.  Then, and only then, I'll put the other tools away.
I don't aspire to be a great photographer, and I'm not much for macro shots of the private parts of flowers.  I just want to do justice to what I see out there and let you see it too.

That's my 2011 resolution.  If I can lose weight too, I'll be really happy.

March 17, 2011

Move Over Monet

Claude Monet in the garden
My husband doesn't say anything about the gardens I have surrounded him with.  He mows around them carefully, he will help me with any yard work when I need it, but he isn't much for acknowledging the delights of a specific plant or the exquisite design of a particular grouping.

So, like any duly aggrieved wife, I work myself up, thinking "He doesn't care!  He doesn't value what I've created!   He doesn't even notice all I do."  Sob.

He goes off on a Sunday to see the Monet exhibit at the Hartford Atheneum, leaving me to muck around in the mud cleaning up winter debris from the perennials.  Sniff.

Then he comes back, spends a whole lot of time in his basement workshop, and after a week, presents me with his latest painting.

It is called "Laurrie in the Garden."
Laurrie in the garden
That's me working the earth, and a deer eating everything I have planted in the garden next to me.  He tells me there are symbolic touches, like a dead vole he put in there just for me, but I'm not sure I see that.

But I do see my garden and those are my trees and plants, and that is me, and he really notices and he really cares and he does see how beautiful it all is in a vivid and impressionistic way.

There are hearts in the sky for chrissake.  Four of them.  Sniff.

March 14, 2011

Becky's Bees

My friend Becky lives on a high ridge in eastern Kentucky, not far from Lexington.  She has extensive flower gardens, layered shrub borders, a big veggie garden, many newly planted trees, a grassy field and some mature forest around it all.  She has a far view of the river below where the mists settle in the deep ravine on warm mornings.  She has hilltop breezes, and a hammock in the deep shade where I have dozed on a hot summer day.

 She has four acres that she tends, and it is a truly beautiful spot.

Becky and her first bees, 2009
And she has bees.  As if gardening on four acres is not enough, she has a hive of bees producing honey and is about to add a second hive. 

This is now starting to sound serious.  One hive is a hobby.  Two hives are big business.  In fact, she is going into production, and is starting a label.

That's where you all come in, loyal blog readers.  I know you are plant enthusiasts and garden designers and not marketers.  But Becky's honey needs a name.  She is getting labels made, and needs something catchy.

I have been amazed at the creativity I see on the garden blogs I read, so I'd love to know what any of you would name a locally produced artisanal honey.  

I haven't tasted her golden treasure yet, but Max, who supervises the bees, says it will be light, with elements of wildflower and clover.
This is Max, who has been no help at all in naming the new honey, although he does have strong opinions about everything else.

March 11, 2011

Beautiful Decay

We live in a very old town in north central Connecticut.  It was settled in the early 1700s.  There are homesteads that have been here for centuries.  Some have been preserved, most are gone, but a few have fallen into gentle, beautiful decay, taking with them their stories of families, livelihoods, and struggles.

My own home is a new, modern, upscale house built by a national "luxury" home builder in a development of 70 homes.  It's carved out of former woods and pastures, with zoning setbacks and community covenants and restrictions (No clotheslines!  No swingsets!)  It even has a eye-rolling faux royal name: "Regency" (really?  and am I then the queen of all I survey?  A princess in Sloggers with a Cobrahead scepter?)

The long-time locals, descendants of the old New England farmers, bemoan the new fancy houses with their fake siding, big lawns and sprinkler systems.  They tell us they used to snowmobile and hunt deer in the open meadows that are now our yards --- our deer-infested yards.

I feel conflicted.  I too bemoan the loss of the old aesthetic.  But...  I love my home.

I do love my home.  I love the view, the open sky and meadow, the opportunity to remake an abandoned pasture into a real garden.  All with a modern open floorplan, efficient plumbing and energy saving appliances.
The beautiful decay that I drive by when I am out and about in town is a reminder that it all changes, and it changes all the time.  My new, fancy vinyl sided house will also decay some day.  I wonder if it will fall down with the same soft whump of deflation that collapsed the old sawmill and the sawyer's home, and let the saplings come in to repopulate where its ancestors had been felled.

And what will happen to my gardens?

from real estate listing when it was for sale
We actually looked at buying an old house in town, rather than moving in to a development that had such an impact on the town's dwindling open fields.  It was built in 1787, had been renovated enough that it was in no danger of falling down, and the history and sense of connection were beyond charming.   But it belonged to another world.  The basement was still dirt, and none of the 4 fireplaces that took up almost all the floorplan worked.  The stairwell had a head clearance of 5 feet 8 inches.  Jim is 6 foot one.  He had to crawl hunched over to make it upstairs.  It was utterly unworkable for us.

My goal, in atonement for the travesty of our new house scraped out of this old field, is to create some beauty around it.  Hence the gardens, the 100 trees I have planted so far, both to reforest what the builder tore out, and for my own fulfillment. 
In 2004 this was an open field.  Now it's my home and garden.
In hundreds of years, when the trees are grown and my house is ready to fall down in its own slump of decay, will it be beautiful in the way the old barns and relics around town are now?

March 8, 2011

Wet Knees

proof of a good day
I got outside!  It was the first time I have been out in my garden in 10 weeks.  I puttered, I checked on plants, I even scrabbled around in the mud to clean some things up, and I have the wet knees to prove it.  It was cold, the snow and hard frozen earth are still obstacles to any gardening, but oh, it felt so good!

It started snowing the day after Christmas, and the snow cover never let up all winter.  Everything has been buried for months.  Roofs collapsed in nearby neighborhoods, roads were turned into tunnels with frightening snowbanks towering on either side. . .  I could go on, but I won't.  It's over.

Not winter; that's not truly over yet.  But it's early March now, and for the first time parts of the yard are uncovered, low areas are big swamps of snowmelt, and plants are emerging from under the icy blanket.  It was cold, still just in the 30s today, but the south facing front walk was warm enough to entice me out to clean up.

I put in snowdrops last fall, and they are up in the sun warmed area by the walk.  I really need them to multiply and form clumps --- the little onesies scattered in the damp mulch look dejected and forlorn.   Eventually my patch of bearberry will spread over the snowdrop patch, and in the future they will pop up among the glossy green foliage of the kinnikinnik.  I think I'll like that look.
a little sparse, looking like lost sheep in a bog
some are emerging from under the woody kinikinnik groundcover

I took a tour of my gardens, slopping around in the mud and snow, to see what winter left.  The voles got to every living thing in the yard and in the meadow.  Their gnawing depradations are evident on almost every tree and shrub.  I put mesh hardware cloth around most small trees and shrubs to protect them from gnawers, but the multi stems of some shrubs are impossible to encase.  Fortunately they sucker and form many stems, and will probably survive the bark stripping.
multi stemmed Lespedeza
Winterberry holly
sharp gravel at the base was no deterrent at all

The single trunk trees that I did not protect are in much worse shape; once the single trunk is girdled all the way around, as this volunteer ash tree is, it may die.
this ash tree sapling had reached almost 5 feet in height

But I am learning not to panic at the loss of plants each winter.  It happens.  I'll plant more.

Even with the evidence of winter's trauma all around me, I'm happy to be out in the garden again.  It's March.  I'm gardening and my knees are wet.  I can cope.
March is still a snow month in Connecticut: yesterday's view

March 7, 2011

The Borrowed View

While I tend and plant and design what I want to see growing in my garden, it's the borrowed view that draws my eye.  Especially from inside the house.  When I look out my windows I see the view in the near distance, and I didn't plant any of it. 

I have no mature trees in my yard, but I borrow this big old silver maple (Acer sacharrinum) growing wild in the pond area below our house.  It is my view out the living room window to the east.
The shot above, by the way, was taken from inside the house at 4:30 on an early December evening.  It's looking due east at sunset, out of my living room window.  We get incredible pink evening skies in the east on occasion.  We are between two low ridges, and when the sun sets, it reflects on the opposite side with pink and rose hues.  Out of habit now, I look east when someone says "nice sunset".

An ancient twisted white birch (Betula papyrifera) across the street calls to me from inside my house.  I notice it every time I look up and glance out the north windows.  I love it; the house and the overhead wires not as much.  Wouldn't that be a dramatic view with my green spruce in the foreground and the borrowed crooked birch behind it.... if only I could zap the house and street and wires.  That's one problem with views you don't actually own.

When we first moved in, all I had was a borrowed view, until my own gardens grew in.  And until other houses were built next to us. 
The ridge from our front porch initially.  Now a house is in that empty field.
My plants, framed by borrowed greenery from the woods beyond.  I love the intersecting angles.

Some borrowed views are expansive, like the hills that surround Carol at Flower Hill Farm in Massachusetts.  Her plantings are so much a part of the view that her garden is all one seamless fabric of tended hill and natural woods and wild meadow. 

The opposite is true of the borrowed view at Conrad Art Glass & Gardens in Wisconsin.  His beautiful garden is completely surrounded by farmland that features silos and flat open pastures.  The world outside his acreage is completely unrelated to the woodsy, enclosed, conifer-thick, birch shaded scenes he has created.
Even without a pink sky, I like this borrowed view in winter

My own borrowed view is a mix; no seamless blending of garden into hillsides, but I am not in an enclave of enclosed garden rooms either.

My view is a big old tree over there, a low ridge beyond, a rising slope, other old trees and vines over here .... and, distressingly, electrical wires, roads, houses and a playground down the street.  And much of the woods and ridgeline is covered with invasive plants and trash trees that I never would have planted.

I have to live with the scenes I don't like, and problematic plants that I see but can't do anything about.  But I'm fortunate to have the views around me that I do have... wild, beautiful, and borrowed.