A red-leafed barberry bush in my front garden has grown larger than I expected it would (even though I took the cutting from a huge bush — such is the self-delusion of gardeners). I was planning to prune it next spring, cutting out one or two of the oldest branches at the base. This, I reasoned, would reduce the overall bulk of the plant. Last fall, after the barberry’s leaves had fallen, I took a look at the bush in order to decide which branch or branches to remove. I never got to that point, because I discovered a bushtit’s nest in the middle of the bush. It’s hard to see in the picture, but it’s that brownish clump of stuff among the thorny branches. (The white berry near it belongs to a snowberry that has grown into the barberry).
Bushtits are tiny grey birds with long tails that hang out in groups, flitting through the garden at times through the summer. Their nests are woven of things like grasses, lichens and spider silk, suspended in a shrub, with holes near the top for the birds to come and go. I was surprised to find this nest, but now that I know it’s there, I’ve decided to postpone the pruning job until I know whether bushtits re-occupy nests from one year to the next.
This is one of the great things about being a gardener. You have to know what’s going on in your little paradise, and you have to accept that it is the domain of creatures besides yourself. The gardener can’t go along in happy ignorance — or at least the responsible gardener can’t. Yes, I have every right to prune “my” barberry bush, but I’ve decided not to exercise that right until I know whether it will harm the creature that was using the bush as a nesting location.
Gardening is in large part a matter of observation. Almost every day during the growing season, I walk around the place, just looking. How is plant X doing? Is plant Y spreading too quickly? Have the raccoons dumped the rocks into the pond again? (They have. Every time). Along with all those details, I make a multitude of other observations. Aphids on roses, sparrows in the lilac, moss spreading among the rocks of the paths, different sorts of mushrooms in various parts of the garden. Some of these things demand action, but most are simply interesting. After more than twenty years of gardening on this patch of land, I have come to expect certain phenomena to recur.
When you know a place in detail, you enter into a relationship with it that is deeper and more complex than when a piece of land is merely “real estate.” Which is why, as Henry Mitchell said, “Compared to gardeners, I think it is generally agreed that others understand very little about anything of consequence.”