They're happy little butterflies, but maybe they have a dark side?

Pretty doldrummy around here what with the dog days of summer laying on the baked-out land like hot tar on a sunburnt stomach. There’s a parched sadness in the air; dust devils twirl along the highway. Our lawn is going dormant and although it now requires no maintenance—which is fine by me—the grass is as disturbingly brown and crunchy as KFC chicken coating. Not that I would know.

The gardens of some folks around here are lively and colorful, it’s true. What their secret is, I’m not sure. Maybe because they know what they’re doing. We’ve vowed to take Schiddygarden that direction for sure. It’s just that the gardening learning curve is steeper than we figured. Maybe I shouldn’t blame it on the curve. It’s possible that our learning torque has not been up to the task of climbing the learning curve. We’re not clueless; we're torqueless. Nevertheless, we have big plans for a livelier, more colorful outdoor space. Big plans.

Meanwhile, there’s compensation to be had within our climate-apocalypse summer: the cabbage white butterflies.

Right now these little white fluttering energetic cloud puffs, Pieris rapae, are absolutely bonkers for our small clump of lavender. With most blossoming stuff petering out, the local cabbage whites are drawn to our lavender with a kind of cheery desperation, like last call on a Saturday night. There may be a couple dozen or more at any one moment (butterflies, not last calls, although it’s theoretically possible that a significant number of last calls occur at any one moment), along with a smattering of honeybees, that make for an entertaining and lively kinetic show throughout the sweltering day.

Apparently, however, these lovely little BFs have a dark side. They lay eggs on cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli, and those eggs hatch into hungry larvae appropriately (and not very imaginatively) called "cabbage worms." Although they’re a mild nuisance for the backyard gardener, info on the website of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University notes that cabbage whites can be a scourge for large-scale commercial farming operations. How ironic that our cute-as-a-bug (the very definition!) butterflies would end up being eco-terrorists.

Apparently, there are insect-resistant varieties of cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli (take that, learning curve!) which are helpful in deterring the larvae. But it’s a devil’s equation, isn’t it? Removing the larvae reduces the number of butterflies and proportionally reduces one’s personal garden appreciation. Too bad they don't lay their eggs on lawn weeds, which we have in abundance. The cabbage whites would have an ample supply of hatcheries and their larvae would chew our weeds to nubs. Everybody wins—it's perma-cultural bliss!

Meanwhile, the day comes down like a sledgehammer and the summer of 2021 simmers. Don’t let the heat bug you!

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  • John R

It wouldn't leave, so I grabbed a mattock and took a deep breath.

It all began with the swamp grasses. I don’t know the official name of this plant, but ours were reedy and stubborn and spiky and we called them “swamp grass” with not a small amount of ill will. Nevertheless, they persisted. We didn’t visit that side of the house that often and when we did, we’d sigh and one of us would say, We should take out these stupid swamp grasses and the other would agree and say, Yes, we should, and then we’d nod and turn and go to another part of the yard and that would be the sum of our swamp grass actionables for another year or so. Swamp grass renovation was just very low on our list of Things We’d Do if We Were So Inclined.

So they grew and grew at the side of our house, thriving despite—or perhaps because of—our disinterest and neglect. And this is taking into account Deb’s executioner sensibilities, predisposed as she is to finding plants to murder. She’s the Dexter of yard maintenance. Okay, maybe that's a tad extreme. Let’s just say that her gardening forte consists mainly of reduction and extraction. Anyway, she deferred the job of removing these particular plants, insisting that the honor of hacking down obstinate swamp grasses would be mine and mine alone. Procrastination was perhaps another reason the swamp grass persisted, year after year.

The other side of the ennui coin was that fact we had no plans. After the swamp grass, then what? Bare foundation walls and a host of fresh weeds proliferating in the shallow depressions where the swamp grassed used to be? What was the plan?

Me? I kind of liked the swamp grass. It was alive, which put it way in the plus column. It was sort of green, which was pleasant. It hid certain foundation blemishes. But in terms of priorities, dealing with the swamp grass did not top our list of Things To Do Before Time Runs Out and We Die. There were other major gardening projects to complete, such as watering and getting unconfused about soil pH.

Yet, it did happen. One day I swallowed an ungodly amount of coffee, went to the shed and grabbed a spider web-encrusted mattock, a shovel, and string trimmer, strode around to the side yard and confronted the swamp grass. Today, I spoke solemnly to the plants, is the day.

And it was. Sort of.

The swamp grass proved to be admirably reluctant to give ground (pun intended only in retrospect). The reedy spikes sneered at the trimmer—it was like trying to cut rebar with wet spaghetti. The hedge trimmer was equally ineffective, gagging to a halt on mouthfuls of indestructible cellulose. I finally resorted to the lawn mower, reared up on its hind wheels to expose the whirring blade, and rammed it into the grasses to chop away by degrees. The massive, intricate root system was equally stubborn; digging it out was like trying to extract a humongous, buried Brillo pad with a fondue fork.

The sun was hot; sweat poured down. One by one I pried chunks of soil-laden root jumble out of the ground and carted them via wheelbarrow to the side of the driveway, where I stared at the mound of root dirt and spike stubs and realized I had no plan for the widening pile. What to do with this shit? The city didn’t take dirt in the yard waste bucket and the local refuse station charged sixty bucks per load. (I realize that the Dirt Problem is really a subset problem of the Main Problem. Solutions for the Dirt Problem are TK. (BTW, TK is editing shorthand for “to come,” meaning something hasn’t arrived yet but is expected. Like if you wanted to bullshit an editor about why your assignment is overdue but temper the shortcoming by speaking edit-speak you’d email them and say, Thank God I survived the earthquake but now that I’m settled I’m going to put the finishing touches on that assignment and it is TK.)

The nugget of the venture, really, was that I finally had a plan for the side yard. I was going to put in a raised bed for exotic chili peppers. If you're a chili pepper aficionado, you know what a motivator dreams of Scotch bonnets and chilhuacles can be. Scoville units, here we come.

It would be a raised bed made of landscaping blocks. I knew this from the beginning because that’s what Deb said it should be. (A quick aside here: landscaping blocks are heavy.) The bed would be 14 feet long, three feet wide with curved ends and a built-in sprinkler system. Including a gravel base would remove a good amount of lawn—a mind-numbing, labor-intensive job I only completed thanks to the help of my son, Nick.

The bed did turn out pretty good. We filled it with whiz-bang Happy Frog dirt and added some Tip-Top Red Worms and toasted our success. At long last the swamp grass was gone.

What’s next? Well, this is a two-part blog. The second part, about growing the chilis, is TK.

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  • John R

The Tree Guy tried to pin this one on me. I’m not buying it.

After all, it was The Tree Guy who planted this zelkova in our yard many years ago when we still lived miles away. We were getting ready to move to our new digs and I’d instructed the Tree Guy to plant the zelkova in our absence, picturing a day in the not-too-distant future a backyard awash in scrumptious zelkovistic shade.

After a couple of seasons I saw the wound on the back side of the tree and called TTG to have a looksee and recommend a remedy.

“Hmm,” he said, lifting his baseball-style hat to scratch the back of his head in wonderment. “Looks like somebody banged into this tree pretty good.”

By “somebody” The Tree Guy obviously meant me.

“I never hit this tree, banged into it, or rammed it with the lawn mower,” I protested, assuming the role of a wrongly accused defendant in a courtroom drama.

The Tree Guy nodded, unconvinced, playing the part of a jury of one who has predetermined the defendant's guilt. “Well, I don’t know if it’s going to survive.”

tree, zelkova, garden, gardening, humor
Not my doing.

He raised himself up and looked into the tree’s canopy. “Too bad.” He proceeded to make suggestions, such as cutting back any loose bark around the wound to prevent earwigs from nesting in crevices.

Well, snap! Years after that encounter, the zelkova has survived and thrived, despite the fact that it has suffered a number of egregious wounds since. It's like a dorky high school kid who gets shoved around a lot and frequently comes home with a black eye or ripped jeans and when you ask him what happened he says, I walked into a doorframe and you say, How the hell does that happen? and he says, I’ve got homework.

tree, zelkova, gardening, garden, humor
Not this, either.

I swear I don’t know where most of these accumulated scars have come from—and trust me, I’d lay blame if I knew. I’m suspicious that The Tree Guy knows more than he’s letting on. Regardless, I have been concerned enough to contact our state’s extension service for advice. I sent them pictures and explained in no uncertain terms that I was not to blame for any of the visible tree damage. Their advice:

“Damage like this can occur due to a number of reasons from winter injury to summer heat to kids hitting them with baseball bats! (author’s note: maybe some unsupervised local ruffian who harbored an overwhelming desire to bludgeon a tree sneaked into the back yard?) Typically a physical injury of some sort. Not to worry, it looks like the tree is healing/sealing off the injury and doing well. The damaged area has been compromised and wood rotting organisms will have gotten in. The tree may live with this situation for a long time before you see any trouble. I would leave it alone for now. Don't let the overhead irrigation hit the trunk in the summer if you have any. Otherwise, enjoy the shade.”

Wow! Do great minds think alike or what? “Leave it alone” is Number One on my gardening to-do list, with “Not to worry” a close Second!

tree, zelkova, sapsucker, garden, gardening, humor
Sapsuckers drilled these holes (not me).

And that advice seems to be working, witness the exquisite zelkova canopy in the photo below. The tree is a survivor, a hardy soul, something of an inspiration. It’s taken its share of slings and arrows (not from me) and now we have plenty of thick, luxurious shade in which to sit with a cold one and toss peanuts to the scrub jays. Yup, outdoor life devoted to leaving stuff alone is tres sweet, n'est-ce pas? Enjoy the shade!

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