Super Villain in the Garden

This morning I woke up eager to get outside. It is a beautiful morning: sunny, blue sky, and refreshingly cool. I made coffee, made breakfast, made potato salad so it would be cool for lunch, and got outside as quickly as I could.

I decided to pull down the trumpet vines that are swallowing the house. I know they attract hummingbirds, which I really enjoy, but they are like something in a scary science fiction movie–vines growing quickly and consuming everything in their path. They are everywhere in my yard. Everywhere. I constantly find long tangles of trumpet vines where there were none the day before. I constantly do epic battle with them. They are super villains and I am the superhero.

The only thing I like about trumpet vines is that in the fall, thousands of sparrows gather on them before they go…wherever they go. When we walk near the vines, thousands erupt from their hiding places–wave after wave–and they fly around for awhile before settling in the vines again. At night we can look out an upstairs window and see them sleeping. Pretty cool. So I have hesitated to pull down the vines in the fall (or anytime) because I love the sparrows and I don’t disturb them. In the winter I forget to pull them down because it’s snowy and cold–and who thinks of yard work in the winter? Not me. I think of cuddling in a blanket in front of the woodstove with a cat on my lap.

June 2013 005The trumpet vines are crawling over the house, and I am increasingly concerned they will damage it, so this morning I took loppers and I cut the bases of the vines, and then I pulled them, and large sections came raining to the ground. It was quite satisfying

But, suddenly, I heard frantic cries. I immediately released the vine I was pulling on, but it was too late. I had dislodged a nest of Robin babies, and they came falling to the ground…and died.

Please don’t send me comments about how stupid I was. I was and am utterly horrified. I didn’t know the Robin nest was there. I felt like a terrible godzilla in the garden. I went inside and cried. And cried some more, and soaked four or five paper towels with my tears. My husband was sort of amazed I was crying so much. There is a rhythm to life, he said, and life and death is part of the rhythm. Do you know how many birds die every day–sparrows stealing wrens’ nests and pushing out their eggs?  And besides, there is nothing you can do to fix this, so you have to deal with it.

I know he is right, but I still feel like a monster, and I have no pleasure in my garden today. And, I told him, I’m not just crying about the baby Robins. The Robins just seem a part of a world that suffers: mothers who die of cancer leaving small children behind. Fathers who lose their job and can’t provide for their families. I read yesterday that a mother had encouraged her boyfriend to rape her little four-month-old baby. The baby died. In some countries, girls are executed because they were raped…while the rapist goes free.

I hate the death of the innocent. And I am sad that today I caused death.

And now, since I have already become a super villain in my garden, I will go and destroy the home world of the Red Ants.

Ok. Maybe not today.

(There is an update to this story at Baby Bird Rescue.)

The Herb Garden…and the Angry Ants

Click to enlarge

Our driveway is wide, not long. We park our vehicles side-by-side, not one behind the other. About 2004, I decided to make another garden area by taking away some of the driveway. Since our yard has  different levels separated by rock walls, I decided to use rocks to outline the garden. Our friend in the country let us have as many rocks as we wanted, so we got several pickup loads, and I positioned them in place. In the photo, a flower garden is in the foreground, and my husband and son are shoveling out the dirt into the new garden.

The flower garden is still there. The new garden has been a tomato garden and a strawberry garden, but for the last few years, it has been my herb garden. I use fresh herbs from the garden in the summer and dry herbs for winter use. I am growing chives, oregano, sage, basil, thyme, parsley, lovage, borage, fennel, garlic, catnip (for the cats), spearmint…and probably a few others I am not remembering right now. Oh, and I just saw lemon balm today, but lemon balm quickly spreads so I want to dig it out before it takes over the garden. I also am growing rhubarb, raspberries, and sunflowers at the back of the herb gardens. The picture I use for this blog (at the top of the page) shows my herb garden.

antsI love my herb garden. The only problem is the angry ants. They built their nest under the rocks where I enter the herb garden. Whenever I weed in that area, angry ants come swarming out. Even though I try to be very careful and I do not stand where they are swarming, within seconds I can feel their bites and look down and discover a dozen or so ants on my jeans and shirt. I do not know how they get on me so quickly. I then do the “Angry Ants Are Biting Me” Dance, which involves quick brushing-off movements and a few hops. These are not fire ants or the crazy ants that are invading the south and that eat electronics. However, their bites still pinch and itch. I think I am going to have to get rid of them because they prevent me from being able to work in my garden and I just read that they can be harmful to plants and pets. I am going to try the solutions I found at e-how.


Bird Wars

Call me incredibly naive, but whenever I thought of having bird feeders in my garden, I imagined a very gentle, peaceful, idyllic scene. Something like this:

garden angel

I didn’t know that the reality would be a heartbreaking turf war, filled with drama and death. I mean, I’ve read that birds fight for territory and sometimes steal nests and crush other birds’ eggs. However, when I’ve read about putting up birdhouses, it all seemed beautiful.

New Sparrow Neighbors
New Sparrow Neighbors

I couldn’t tell at first who had won the battle because I saw both the wrens and the sparrow on the bird house this morning. Later, though, my husband EJ saw the wrens eggs broken on the ground. Now I see only the sparrows at the bird house. So the sparrows won and the wrens lost not only their house, but also their unborn young.

When our son heard that the sparrows were now living in the house, he was upset and wanted to avenge their deaths. He is tender-hearted and wouldn’t intentionally hurt any animal, which is why he was upset that the sparrows had taken over the house and pushed out the wrens’ eggs. Even though I was sad, I told him to let the birds work it out. It’s part of the drama of life.

Even though I am not sure I am ready for this tragic life and death soap opera outside my window–for goodness sakes, life is stressful enough and all I wanted was to enjoy the miracle of birds nesting–I am searching for more birdhouses to put up. It is true that life is often a heartbreaking struggle, but the struggles still can’t silence the wonder and joy of life.

Still…I will try to find wren houses that larger birds can’t get into to.

Drama: Wrens vs. Sparrow

This afternoon I looked out my kitchen window and thought that the bird in the birdhouse looked rather different. As I watched, the bird came out and I saw that it was a sparrow. It was trying to steal the wrens’ house! The wrens were very upset. I do not yet know the final outcome of this conflict.

I took a couple of short videos of the epic drama. The first video shows the birds more clearly. In my excitement, I accidentally identified the wren sitting on the fence as a sparrow.

This second video shows more of the drama, but it is not as clear as the first. I had zoomed in and the window screen prevented a sharp focus. You can hear how upset the poor wrens are.

I always thought having birdhouses and feeders would be a gentle, peacful thing. I never realized there was so much drama involved!

New Neighbors

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast year my husband made a new pen for our dog, Danny. The new pen is bigger and shadier and it is made up of cattle panels so the breeze can get through on hot summer days. Not that Danny spends much time in it–he’s usually with us–but it’s there if he needs it.

EJ attached the cattle panels to long posts, which he intended to cut off even with the fencing, but we decided not to cut the posts off. Instead, we thought we’d put birdhouses on top.

Garden 011Several weeks ago, EJ put up our first birdhouse. It is the only one we own so far. I am patiently and impatiently hoping to find more birdhouses at yard sales or thrift shops instead of buying them retail. Buying birdhouses is lower on our list of Things We Need to Buy, and we are frugal.

I asked EJ to put the birdhouse on the post just outside the kitchen window, positioned so we could watch the birds if any moved in. 

A little more than a week ago, I was doing dishes and looking at the empty birdhouse. I know that it takes time for birds to discover new houses or feeders, but I was wondering if any bird would ever move in, or if the birdhouse would be merely an empty decoration.

Even as I was wondering, I suddenly saw a marvelous sight:

Fowl Neighbors 005
I was so very, very thrilled! I excitedly ran to tell EJ about the new neighbors. We stood and watched them for a long time.

Here is a video I made of the little birds building their nest and singing their beautiful melodies, which we get to enjoy all day long. My cat, Yafah, is in the video watching the birds. She was very excited. The cats (especially the younger ones) were very interested in the birds at first, but they have gotten used to them and mostly ignore them now.

Now I REALLY can’t wait to find more birdhouses!

Companion Gardening

My husband likes to do companion gardening.

For anyone who might not know, companion gardening involves planting two or more plant species together in order to create a beneficial situation for both.

A number of different goals can be accomplished with companion planting. Some plants, like Marigolds, are offensive to insects, so they can be planted to repel insects that might damage a crop. Other plants, like Nasturtiums, attract insects, slugs, and other pests, luring them away from a more desirable crop.

You can also plant crops that grow and thrive together, such as corn, beans and squash. Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen to the following year’s corn. Bean vines also help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines become a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crops chances of survival in dry years. Spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans. The large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic matter and improve its structure.

I also do companion gardening in my garden areas, but my method is nontraditional. Rather than plant with compatible plants, my “companions” are four-legged animals who keep me company while I garden.

Barn UNraising 018My most faithful garden companion over the years has been my cat, Rikki-Tikki-Tabby (Rikki, for short). He follows me around and often sits on or near me as I work. Many times I have to work one-handed because he will lightly “bite” me or grab my arm if I stop petting him so I pet him with one hand and garden with the other. This can make gardening a challenge, but is it beneficial to us both in that we enjoy each other’s company. What better way to enjoy a garden than to sit among pretty plants with a purring cat on my lap?

Barn UNraising 007



Tesla occasionally joins me, but not as often as Rikki does. Mostly she likes to hang out with us when we are sitting at our patio table on the front porch.




My third garden companion is my dog, Danny. Years ago, my son and I used to enjoy looking at the small animals in Soldan’s, a pet supply store in a nearby town. One day we went to Soldan’s while my husband shopped at a nearby hardware store. (Animals are more interesting than hardware.) We didn’t know that once a month or so, the local June 2013 034Animal Shelter brought in cats and dogs needing homes. Volunteers would let customers pick up and hold cats, or they’d walk dogs through the store–all in the hope of getting the pets adopted by soft-hearted people like us. Unaware that THIS was the day the Animal Shelter brought in pets, I was stooping down to look at the ferrets in a cage when a black head suddenly thrust into my lap. I gave the little dog lots of lovings before the volunteer pulled him away. As long as I was in the store, Danny kept finding me and pulling the volunteer over to me. So my husband secretly adopted him for me, figuring it was a match made in heaven. Danny is extremely devoted to me, and is never far from me. He cries if he can’t be near me.

I also do indirect companion gardening. Rikki and Tesla are indoor/outdoor cats, but most of our cats are not allowed outside. They are indoors cats only. However, they also loved to be near us, so they will sit in whatever windows are nearest and watch while we work. The cat in the window in the picture below is Timmy.

June 2013 004

While I think the traditional method of Companion Gardening is a very good thing, I must say that I prefer my nontraditional method best. But that’s just me.

Barn UNraising 012




His, Mine, and Ours

When my son was little, we had more grassy lawn, but there were some parts of the yard that he never played in, so we turned them into garden. Gradually, we turned more and more of our yard into garden and now we have lots to weed and very little to mow.

My husband (EJ) and I have our own gardens that we each claim as “mine.” Of course, there is some overlap–I help him care for his garden, especially when his back is hurting, and I let him plant things in my parts of the gardens if he wants. Basically, what makes them “his” or “mine” is who has creative control over that part of the garden.

I love that my husband and I are compatible and work well together, while also giving each other creative independence. This is true both inside and outside the house. If one of us has a strong “vision” for a room or part of the yard, the other gives that one creative control. We give each other advice or suggestions or help, but the one who has creative control has the final say. We always end up liking what the other one is doing, even though we might have some misgivings at first.

We have different goals, philosophy, and methods of gardening. Although I like a wilder garden, I also like beauty so I garden with a desire to make my garden look nice. My garden areas are those seen by people driving or walking by. Most of my garden areas are shady so I have planted hostas, ferns, astilbe, lilies of the valley, various ground covers, and other shade-loving plants there. I am able to get a few plants to grow that prefer more sun–like roses and day lilies. I have a sunny place, in which I have planted sunflowers and herbs.

My husband has creative control over the back yard, which is sunnier. He prefers to grow veggies, fruits, and berries, most of which need more sun. He cares more about function than form and loves to “re-purpose.” He will plant stuff wherever they get the necessary conditions, even if it looks like an odd place to put them. He will put up old pieces of wire or fencing to protect or help the tender plants climb, even if they aren’t “pretty.” He makes container gardens using tubs or rotting logs and likes to do “companion gardening,” pairing compatible plants together.

Although we have “His” and “Mine” gardens and our gardening approach is different in some ways, we each appreciate and enjoy the other’s differences and garden areas. And, really, we see the whole yard as “Ours.”

The Art of Gardening

When I was younger, I was sort of a perfectionist, very concerned about doing things “right.” I would feel bad if someone who “knew better” told me I was doing something the wrong way.  I have become less of a perfectionist over the years. Experience has taught me that it’s an joyless burden trying to please everyone all the time.

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