Here’s an up-close and personal look at one of the pests I love to hate. This is the first of thousands of Japanese beetles that will alight on my Virginia creeper this year. Left unchecked, with their insatiable appetite, the beetles will strip the large plant of each and every leaf.
If you don’t want to spray several applications of poison to control the population — and I don’t — the experts say one can simply pluck the bugs off the plant and thrust them into a bucket of soapy water. I’ve devised a more efficient and less intimate strategy.
I fill a Shop-Vac with a few inches of soapy water, hook up a long extension cord, and quite unceremoniously suck the buggers up the nozzle. It’s especially satisfying if you can catch them copulating, but that’s just me.
With their iridescent green head, I can see where one Japanese beetle mind find another utterly fetching. And if they weren’t so destructive, I might be inclined to agree. But as one who had the unique experience of feeling a Japanese beetle floundering along my scalp at 65 mph down the freeway, I will be the first to say they are completely unwelcome.
The Creeping Charlie is at it again. It’s more of a march than a creep, to be honest. I pulled out a whole yard waste bin of it, uncovering, to my surprise, the milkweed I planted last year.
This afternoon I took a bicycle ride around town, and was delighted by how many gardeners have included this vital Monarch Butterfly treat in their yards.
As I pedal, I like to wave or nod to neighbors working on cars, mowing lawns, or having a glass of ice tea on the front step. It’s an old-fashioned gesture reciprocated more often by older folk than young, who double-take, smile and quickly glance away. I like to think it’ll catch on.
Maybe I’ll just always be that crazy waving neighbor lady. I’m okay with that, too.
It’s that time of year when we dream of new life. Tulips breaking the ground, their faces to the sun. Seeds bursting open with tender roots and delicate shoots. Tiny blades of grass finding their way through last year’s thatch.
Ah, the lawn.
That bane of man’s existence. That symbol of status or flag of defeat.
This picture undoubtedly elicits one of two reactions in you:
“Look at the pretty little purple flowers!”
“Sweet Mother of God! That’s Creeping Charlie!”
If you are in the first group, bless your little heart. Although pervasive, they are pretty.
If you are in the second group, I’m guessing you’re stocking up on herbicides as we speak. I’ve stopped buying herbicides and fertilizers. I buy compost and grass seed. I rarely water. I’m gradually planting the yard with flowers and shrubs that need little care, and adding raised gardens. Fresh vegetables eaten right out of the garden? Now there’s a symbol of status for you. Ideally, I’d like to have just enough grass to sink my toes into while I sip a glass of wine.
As for Creeping Charlie and dandelions, those reliable messengers of spring, they’ll feed the bees until everything else catches up.
One fresh August morning, I thought I’d get some air and sunshine into the place. I raised shades and opened windows in every room. In the bedroom, there is one we rarely open. The shade stays down and if we want a breeze, we use the adjacent window.
But as this was a day for sunshine, I yanked on the shade to retract it on its roller. And was immediately taken aback in horror. Attached between the inner window pane and the outer storm window was a wasp nest the size of a tangerine. Not quite an orange, not a clementine, but — you know — a tangerine . . . but not quite as sweet.
Once I realized they had no access to the inside of the house, I stood perplexed. It was like one of those bee hives you can watch from the safety of a glass pane. Except I don’t want one of those in my house, and these things weren’t making honey. They were making a home and they intended to stay.
I walked outside to view it from another perspective. I posted it on Facebook, hoping for sage advice. I texted friends. I called my brother, who was on his way out of town. Unfortunately, he said, he was not close enough to help. I talked him through it, but he had little to offer.
My Facebook friends replied with everything from, “Walk back and forth muttering, ‘Tut, tut, it looks like rain’,” adding “It worked for Winnie the Pooh” to “Run!” My text query produced the response, “Call an exterminator.”
There are a few things you should know about me if you don’t already. I’m frugal. I’m not going to pay someone to do something I can do myself. I’m independent. I’m not going to rely on a man for something that doesn’t involve brawn or . . . well . . . anything else I don’t have. I’m resourceful. If there’s a will, there’s a way, and I definitely had a will to get rid of this thing and all its little inhabitants.
My new outdoor perspective unveiled no answers. I couldn’t see how they got in, nor could I see a way to launch an anti-wasp assault weapon at the nest. As far as I could tell, the only access to the nest was from the inside. I walked back inside and strategized.
The only safe way I knew to kill a nest was to shoot it with wasp and hornet spray. The only access to the nest was to open the window. In order to keep them out of the room when I opened the window, I was going to have to seal it off.
I sealed the window with painter’s tape and lightweight plastic.
Releasing a couple of inches of tape at the bottom, I used a pole to push the window up, pulled the pole out, and quickly resealed the tape.
Now, did I mention it was a very windy day? No sooner did I raise the window, but a gust of wind came and puffed my plastic like a balloon! I could hear the tape straining, then the wind sucked the plastic out as if taking a bigger breath, and blew against the plastic again. I’d like to say I watched confidently chanting, “Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” But it was more like “Oh my God . . . oh my God . . . oh my God!”
Because all the movement had agitated my little stinger-friends, they took to head-banging themselves against the plastic with fury.
Plan B was forming in my head, and it went like this:
Close the bedroom door.
Call the exterminator.
But the tape held, and the wasps calmed.
I released the corner of the sealed plastic, as far from the nest as possible (we’re talking maybe 18 inches, tops). Aiming as carefully as I could through the semi-opaque plastic, I deployed my weapon of mass destruction. Once. Twice. Then quickly pushed the tape back down against the frame.
Part of being strategic is being able to add tactics as they become necessary.
When pushing the tape to the window frame proved unproductive, I realized the wet spray toxin had rendered it un-sticky. Hastily, I dispatched more tape to the corner, while wasps buzzed, drunkenly defending what they mistakenly assumed was their turf.
It’s a cruel death, really. As pollinators, I appreciate them. As tenants, I do not, and alas they had to go.
After a reassuring period of time passed, the plastic, tape, and finally wasps were removed. I found their access, and closed the gap.
Only one live wasp returned, probably coming back to his rampaged home to discover his loved ones had perished in a savage attack. Yes, I imagine bugs think like this, and it makes my life traumatic sometimes — when I do these little things one must do to secure one’s home from pests.
Anyway, it was a mercy killing. One swift and final blow with a fly swatter brought the last one to his fate.
That afternoon — I’m sure it was karma — three wasps came in through the back door. After my earlier adventure, I felt all-powerful. Fearless, even. Swat! . . . Swat! Kill, kill . . . KILL!
I tweeted, “Call me Jean, Wasp Warrior Princess of the North.”
I love to watch the sun come up over houses across the way. The neighbors’ trees stand high above their rooftops, and the sun lights them up like fire at this time of year. How fast the summers fly these days. Here in Minnesota, we grasp the end of the season like life itself is slipping through our fingers.
As I write, I see there is frost on the shingles. It will be a good day to bring in the remaining tomatoes that might have ripened in the garden. I made some notes for next year, entitled Garden 2016. It says things like
Lots of kale
Plant tomatoes in the side yard
Spread out herbs
Expand concrete block garden
Only two or three zucchini plants
Winter is as long as summer is short. I tend to forget what it was I wanted to do unless I write it down. Especially where zucchini is concerned. Zucchini is one of those things that gives a gardener a boost of confidence. If you’ve ever been offered an armload of zucchini, you know how prolific they are. I don’t know how many seeds are in a packet, but there are several dozen too many for the average family. Yet, planting two or three seeds from a handful of many seems somehow wasteful when it’s so easy to just pop a few more in the dirt. And that’s where the zucchini takeover begins.
The summer also brought me some really great luck with jalapeño peppers. They started ripening at the same time as the zucchini. One morning I began to harvest, stomach growling and mouth watering. I thought to myself, “There has got to be something I can make for breakfast with zucchini and jalapeño peppers.” And so I headed where all great cooks go . . . to Pinterest. I plugged “jalapeño” and “zucchini” into the search bar. Lo and behold, my screen filled with tasty options.
The most delicious-sounding recipe was some type of zucchini-jalapeño pancake. Unfortunately, I didn’t pin it, and I can’t seem to find it again to share with you here. As I read the list of ingredients, I checked my mental pantry. “Got that . . . yup . . . ooh, I have that . . .” I knew I’d like it because all the ingredients were my favorites. Then I read the directions. It called for squeezing the hell out of the shredded zucchini no less than three times, separated by 15-minute intervals. And I was hungry NOW!
Not being one to let the culinary arts get the best of me, I started to imagine something simpler. Instead of grating the zucchini and squeezing the water out, I would noodle them with my Veggetti™ (which my kids maintain is a vulgar-sounding gadget), and sauté the water out. Using all the same ingredients, minus the almond flour, I made the MOST delicious frittata. It was such a mainstay of my summer breakfasts, that I want to share it with you here.
1 T olive oil
1 medium zucchini, noodled or shredded
1 finely diced jalapeño pepper
1 slice cooked bacon, diced
2 eggs 1 T cream (or milk)
Salt and Pepper to taste
1/4 c shredded parmesan
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Heat oil in a medium oven-safe skillet over medium heat until a drop of water skitters on the surface. Meanwhile, whisk eggs with cream, salt and pepper. Add zucchini noodles and jalapeño. Sauté until vegetables are beginning to brown and the water has cooked away.
Pour egg mixture over vegetables. Sprinkle diced bacon over the top and place in hot oven.
When the eggs are nearly set, sprinkle parmesan over the top. Return to oven until eggs set. Best enjoyed al fresco!
Experiment with your own herbs, vegetables, and cheese. I made several variations of this frittata, and I couldn’t tell you which was my favorite. Whatever is in the garden and fridge is fair game!
Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love!
I’m keen on experimenting in the garden. My friend Mary says I’m a horticulturist. I like that thought, but I’m not sure I’d use that word to describe myself. Maybe just a goofy plant lady who gets bored seeding in straight lines.
Last fall I planted eight garlic cloves for the first time. In their place, eight tender green shoots reach up through the otherwise neglected soil. There is something about coaxing nature that satisfies me. One year I tested straw bale gardening. If I can find some good bales, I’ll try it again. I’d like to give keyhole gardening a shot in the front yard. The one thing I can’t grow is grass, but grass is on the way out anyway.
I’m just ahead of the curve.
My yard could also use a few rain gardens. I live in the middle of a big hill and there is an underground river that would like to flow right through the middle of my basement.
Bubba helped me fix the drainage so we no longer see any water in the house. But here’s the deal. If I and all my neighbors up the hill would do our best to keep our water in our own yard, fewer homes would have drainage issues.
The old adage is to divert the water away from the house. This is sound advice, but to most homeowners this means draining it from the yard and eventually to the street where it flows freely through underground systems to our natural waterways, fertilizer and all. We now know this has harmful effects on both the environment and those of us who live in it.
When I moved into my home, it was April. After some unusually long hard rains, I realized I was now the proud owner of lakefront property and a couple of ducks. My first instinct was to dig a little trench on the downhill side of the yard and let it all drain away. That worked great. This was the year of the foreclosure, and the houses on either side of me were vacant. The growing pond below me was a great solution.
Then the house uphill from me sold. A builder came in to flip the house. He had no interest in neighborliness, only profit. He used my water hose without asking and parked his trucks in front of my driveway before I had to leave for work. He pointed rain spouts right at my house, and all of the pavement drained my way. A call to the city resolved nothing. After the first good rain, there was a river through my basement, the garage, and the backyard. The little trench I dug out to drain the yard was quickly eroding and becoming a waterfall.
What’s more, I now had a neighbor downhill from me too, and I was feeling really guilty about draining into his backyard. But it wasn’t just his yard. Mentally, I mapped the route the water on my property had taken. Twenty houses uphill were all emptying their run-off downhill. Once it hit my yard, it went on to reach other basements, garages, the sewer and eventually our waterways.
Wishing the uphill properties wouldn’t drain into my yard wasn’t enough. I was a neighbor to those below me. A change had to occur somewhere with someone. And that was when I decided it might as well be me.
I stopped using chemical fertilizer and pesticides. What used to embarrass me, is now an emblem of pride. My dandelions feed the pollinators in early spring when other foods are hard to find. I also have a rabbit who loves for me to forage the chemical-free greens for her breakfast. As the gardens take over the lawn, maybe someday I can even get rid of my gas-powered lawn mower.
I filled in the drainage trench. Even if it means living lakefront once a year, I want to keep the water that comes into my yard from leaving my yard. If we all thought that way it would be an easier task. And we would be better stewards of our neighborhoods, cities, and the planet.
I built a hugelkultur. A hugelwhat?
A hugelkultur. There are right and wrong ways to say it. I say it hoogle coolter. That, I believe, is the wrong way, but I’m sticking with it.
I suppose there are also right and wrong ways to do it, and things to plant in it the first or succeeding years. As I am a dubbed horticulturist and stubbornly self-sufficient, I will learn as I go.
The word hugelkultur translates to the term hill culture. Typically, a hugelkultur is a raised bed with an inner filling of rotting wood and other composting materials. I highly suggest, if you have more than a bizarre interest in the word hugelkultur, you do your own research, and not use my trial as your reference.
Last fall I scooped out some earth to create an indent that will eventually become a rain garden. The sod and dirt, along with dead wood, was piled on the down side of the indent as a type of dam for heavy rains or spring thaws. The dam doubles as a raised bed with fertile, moisture-retaining compost inside.
I’ll plant the rain garden this year, making it larger after seeing how well it performed this spring. Once I add soil and prepare the hugelkultur for planting, I’ll share more photos and you can all watch from your armchairs without getting dirt under your nails.
The hard part will be keeping the dog off of it. The hugelkultur is in the direct line of Frisbee flight, and you may remember my past challenges with that.
— The Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622)
We’ve all heard these words of wisdom. Blooms are beautiful, and graceful, and showy. They also smell good. And who doesn’t want to smell good? But the old adage sounds a little to me like, “Shut up and get back to work.” I mean, making the best of things is always a good idea, but there’s nothing wrong with thinking outside the planter.
You may be a late bloomer, in full bloom, or just wearing bloomers, but I think we can all agree that blooming is good. A bloom is a plant’s marketing campaign. It’s like walking through Macy’s. You’re only going in for the white sale, when all of a sudden you’re sidetracked by the bright lights and juicy colors of the cosmetic department. Your head turns. Left, then right. The next thing you know you’ve walked headfirst into a woman spritzing you with this year’s version of Miss Dior Eau De Toilette. Suddenly you’re dancing around like a bee on a stamen.
When someone tells me to bloom where I am planted, it’s usually because they’ve buried me in dirt. “Sit here, I’ll bring you water when you look dry. Now, do something fabulous!”
Last year I planted some zinnia and sweet alyssum seeds. They came up great. They bloomed where they were planted as expected, and at the end of the summer, I pulled them out and dragged their dead, lifeless carcasses to the compost pile. Their job was done. I gave them water, sunshine and the occasional human-to-plant conversation. I enjoyed their grandeur, and I was grateful.
On the way to the compost pile last fall, a few seeds fell off and nestled into the scrappy little spot between our driveway and the neighbor’s. In the spring, they germinated. The seedlings were unnoticeable until their height surpassed those of the weeds. Eventually demanding my attention, I realized they were unmistakably zinnia. It wasn’t until a few weeks later I noticed the smaller, daintier white flowers of the sweet alyssum too.
My front garden blooms every year. It greets me on the way in, and rivals the draw of any cosmetic counter for the bees and butterflies. But it was the courageous zinnia with its alyssum companion that made me smile the most this summer.
While weeding the cracks, my neighbor called from his backyard deck, “Don’t pull the flower!” I knew they were smiling too. And it made me think about Saint Francis de Sales’ words a lot. I thought about the difference between blooming where you are planted, and finding a place to plant yourself.
When you find a place you want to grow, you’re no less beautiful, and you smell just as good — provided you practice personal hygiene, of course — but it might take a little longer to get noticed, because people won’t expect to see you where they aren’t looking. But once you rise above the weeds, and they get a chance to know you for who you are, you will make them smile. You will be blooming in a place they didn’t even realize needed a flower, or knew that one could grow.
In time, you might even find that they make a regular garden out of it, and you can take pride in knowing that your blossom was the first of many. And maybe . . . just maybe, as one day they haul your body off to the compost, one of your seeds will fall in a crack in some other forgotten space . . .