• John R

Sometimes, when everything seems to be burning and the morning sun is red behind a pall and the first thing you do is check the daily AQI and masks are once again de rigueur and you can’t tell if that person is smiling at you or scowling, sometimes you have to look for five good things. Searching for the positive in the Schiddygarden can seem like such a hopeless endeavor—but sometimes there are no alternatives.

checkered skipper Pyrgus

This is a checkered skipper, Pyrgus communis. I saw it the other day and was immediately enchanted because I’d never seen one before, although a little research reveals that this is one of the most common butterflies in North America. If you are a butterfly aficionado this pic is probably causing you to yawn and want to take a nap. It’s entirely possible our yard has been filled with P. communis for years and I have failed to notice until now, but nevertheless this little guy is adorable. And now that I think about it, I am a little sleepy.

chili pepper—a chilhuacle negro black Oaxacan mole

Say hello to my little chili pepper—a chilhuacle negro. Rick Bayless says it’s absolutely essential for making authentic black Oaxacan mole, and if there’s anything I want in this life it's exactly authentic homemade black Oaxacan mole, I’m not kidding. Rick says the authenticity of this particular mole is dependent on this very rare, hard-to-find chili, but I was able to get seeds from Refining Hot Chilis, a mail-order biz in San Diego. I started a few plants from seed, and lo and behold they have grown and are actually starting to produce fruits. The fact that a chilhuacle chili plant has survived nearly an entire growing season under my stewardship has renewed my faith in miracles. BTW, the Rick Bayless recipe for black Oaxacan mole requires 27 ingredients and apparently takes about 11 days to make. Here’s hoping I don’t screw it up.

Continus smoke tree bush

We have a smoke tree in our backyard, and a good way to describe its flowering characteristics is capricious. It sort of happens, then doesn’t, then does again. Cotinus has fluffy, 10-inch-long blossoms that apparently resemble smoke, hence the clever common name. I have seen other smoke trees in our neighborhood and they seem awfully content to offer thick, billowy layers of everlasting flowers. Ours, by comparison, doesn’t. However, every once in a while it comes up with a single gem, and there are times, like now, when that’s good enough.

black soldier fly, Hermetia illucens

This guy landed on a pepper plant leaf. I figured it was up to no good, so I took its picture to add to my pantheon of garden things that are bad, then I flicked it off. Turns out it was a black soldier fly, Hermetia illucens. The BSF looks like a wasp, but it isn’t. It can’t sting or bite, doesn’t eat garden plants, and it won’t buzz about your backyard barbecue. In larval form it’s one of the most useful bugs in the world. I have more info on that topic but I’m saving it for another blog because I know if there’s one thing readers have come to expect from me it’s illuminating information about maggots.

leopard lily

The giant leopard lily in the side yard is an amazing plant and one of the more fetching things growing in our yard. It gets up to seven feet tall and in summer shows off gaggles of winsome blossoms hanging down with exotic, primal elegance. It was planted by someone else, big surprise. Here’s an example where things are better off if I leave them alone, which I have faithfully done.

Bonus good thing: Props to me for this recovering Fatsia japonica. I planted it then sort of forgot about it and during this period of neglect it tried seriously to die. I more or less rediscovered it and motivated by a guilty conscience, nurtured it back to a semblance of health. It’s still small, but it’s surviving in our side yard. If you could have seen it in its previous uncared-for incarnation—it looked like someone had doused it with kerosene and set on fire—you would have bet against me saving it. I certainly would have bet against me. But I took a personal interest in this particular plant, perhaps formed an empathetic, two-way, plant-and-human kinship. Is that possible? I gave it plenty of water and removed encroaching greenery and now it has actually turned green. Up high, Fatsia! Um, okay, down low then. Oh yeah!

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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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