Month: July 2011

Roar, Whine, Grumble and Snap!

I’ve been under the weather lately and thus have spent a couple of days near my garden but not in it (i.e. in a bed, the kind with a mattress). Maybe that’s why I noticed ambient sounds more acutely than usual, not having the distractions of deadheading, trimming, raking and watering.

Out of all this comes a list of grumpy observations:

1.  Gardening in suburbia is a noisy business. For much of the two days in question the roaring of lawn mowers prevailed, a relentless noise that made me feel I was in a war zone, not in peaceful, quiet Oak Bay. I reminded myself that some folks hereabouts find the “racket” of crows intolerable and a few huff and puff that “the government” should “do something” about them. But the epic roar of mowers, is, apparently just fine.

2.  Ditto for the whine of string trimmers (weed whackers, weed eaters, whipper-snippers et al.) Believe me, these devices whack more than weeds. They can do untold damage to young trees and the nerves of the weary and irritated. And we can look forward to leaf-blowers in fall, oh joy!

3.  Maximum noise from these mainly gas-powered devices is achieved on weekdays, when hired guns (lawn and garden services) arrive with their arsenals and rip through a property quickly, mowing and trimming at the same time. The property owners, of course, are at work, and arrive home to find their place all ready for kicking back around the barbie. Unfortunately, weekends are the favoured time for mowing and trimming by those who do their own “yard work” (as distinct from gardening). Some have a knack for getting out the self-propelled, auto choke with EZ start monstrosity on calm, (otherwise) idyllic evenings perfect for gardening or relaxing around the barbie. This is permitted by law, but keeping chickens is tightly regulated — because of noise and smell.  Hydrocarbons and combustion engines, of course, are signs of progress, lifting us from our agrarian, chicken-scratched patches of earth to suburban bliss.

4.  Still with the subject of garden sounds, here is one not caused by any machinery but by the clumsy gardener:  OK, you’re halfway into a perennial bed or border, secateurs in hand, doing maintenance. You admire a nice spike of flowers, on Digitalis lutea, for example. Then you lean forward to trim off a spent peony bloom. Just as you reach it, you hear (or maybe “feel” is more accurate) a quiet, juicy snap. When you straighten up, the yellow foxglove bloom is hanging at an acute angle, never to rise again. You can call it “premature deadheading” if you like, but it’s annoying, especially because it’s your own fault, not the neighbour’s.

5.  Being sick in bed is a great time for dreaming up half-baked conspiracy theories, something I’ve always enjoyed at the best of times. Such as the notion that we humans are too hard on this planet and so must have come from somewhere else in space. Maybe our distant ancestors were exiles from a tougher world — one of stainless steel and teflon, blessed with endless sunshine, hamburgers, beer and fossil fuels. And maybe the current U.S. debt crisis can be blamed on Dr. Spock’s advocacy of permissive child-rearing. Well, maybe not — the good doctor apparently denied being in favour of that kind of permissiveness. Dang. Well how about…

Finally, a reminder that there are only nine days left in the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale — only nine days in which to acquire my novel, The Friendship of Mortals, at a 100% discount.

A Garden of Weeds

The other day I noticed a pink-flowering type of field bindweed in lawns along a street near where I live. It was pretty. The plant acquisition part of my brain went into action. Wouldn’t that be a great groundcover in a dry garden, with eryngiums and mulleins, perhaps. Then the weed-phobic garden manager replied, “Don’t be an idiot. That’s bindweed! So what if it’s pink; it’s a noxious weed!

We are entering the driest part of the year, when my garden goes quite quickly from lush and lovely to seedy and weedy. This year, above-average rain in spring and cool temperatures have delayed the onset of watering season, but in the past few weeks I have been dragging hoses and racing around with the watering can. And I’ve even caught myself thinking that I’d really rather not do this anymore. Why not just give up on the garden?

It’s not that easy to do, for one thing. You can’t quit gardening the way you quit work on a knitting project. Digging up all the perennials and shrubs and replacing them with grass or paving would be a lot more work than watering and maintenance of the existing plantings. Watching everything wither and die would be horrible, and you would still have to do the lawn or pavement installation afterward. Or you could just plant… weeds.

This an idea I have entertained from time to time — a garden of weeds. The space would still be divided into “garden rooms,” with paths, structures and beds, just as it is now, but instead of needy, feeble garden plants, the subjects occupying that space would be weeds: docks, wild lettuce, thistles, cow parsley, nettles, groundsel, dandelion, shepherd’s purse, vetch. And bindweed, of course. Many of these plants have distinctive foliage and growth habits that would permit attractive visual displays, for a while at least. But the best thing (assuming you have matched your weeds to their preferred conditions) would be no watering and minimal maintenance.

Oh really? I suspect that by August, a weed garden would be just as or more of a mess than a regular one. Weeds have a tendency to go to seed quickly; once that’s done, they pack it in for the season. In late summer, a whole bed of weeds would be full of blowballs and rattling seed pods over tired, yellowing foliage. Not exactly a restful haven for the gardener. The following spring, hundreds of seedlings would obliterate any structure in the composition, unless they were, yes, weeded out. And the bindweed, given any chance at all, would soon take over. Which is why you don’t see many intentional weed gardens. If you’re going to knock yourself out doing garden work, you may as well have something more than weeds to show for your efforts.

And don’t even think about introducing bindweed to any place that’s free of it!

Bee Watching

This is a double long weekend — Friday, July 1 was Canada Day and Monday is the Fourth of July. After a rather cold spring, it finally feels something like summer here on the west coast. Conditions are therefore in place for one of the best ways to savour a summer day — watching bees.

The garden probably contains more bee-attracting blooms right now than at any other time of year — foxgloves, peach-leaf bellflower, campion, toadflax, lavender, hardy geraniums, mulleins and more. Not to mention shrubs like cotoneaster and privet, whose small flowers may escape human attention with so many flashier ones around (roses, for example), but which are of great interest to bees, and are quite numerous besides.

You can’t go wrong spending part of a warm July morning watching bees doing their thing among abundant flowers. One thing that becomes immediately apparent is how many different kinds of bee-like insects there are, everything from what look like tiny wasps to honeybees to bumblebees of varying sizes, to real wasps and hornets and some creatures that look like a cross between wasps and giant ants. I have to admit that I haven’t as yet been motivated to learn what all these bees and others are, but noticing their variety is an experience in itself.

Bee on Lavender

Among the bumblebees there is an amazing variety of colours and patterns, different arrangements of black, yellow, white and orange. Some bees have prominent pollen sacks, others don’t. A single flower may be visited by a number of bees, while others are ignored. Watching all these happenings is interesting enough to engage the brain but requires no effort or decision on the watcher’s part and is therefore not in the least taxing.

Photographing bees, on the other hand, is not at all easy. By the time you focus and are ready to shoot, the bee is gone or has moved around to the other side of the flower. Or you notice a bee hovering around the delphiniums, for example. Remembering that the centre parts of delphinium flowers are called “bees,” you think What a great picture! and race for the camera. When you get back, the bee has departed and does not return.

I did manage to take this picture, however, and have now decided to end my experiments in bee photography. Bee watching is too rewarding an activity to spoil with the anxieties of capturing the experience for posterity.

Bee on Delphinium