When my dad was growing up in Dallas, he remembers a truck fogging his entire neighborhood with DDT. One time, he was killing hornets with a tennis racquet in his front yard when the truck drove by and most fell to the ground before he could kill any more.
After nearly a century of ruthlessly effective pesticides and the steady march of habitat loss, many insect populations have been devastated, a fraction of what they once were. I have heard stories of fireflies numbering in the thousands on a summer night while now there are maybe a dozen if any at all. When I search online for a blog post like this, I frequently get websites for exterminating the insects that I’m trying to learn about. Of course, there are insects I don’t like. I started an organic mosquito control program this year and I spread carpenter ant bait around my deck every once in a while. I’ve never had a roach problem, but if I did I’m sure I’d call someone. I like to think the active centipede population in the basement keeps them all in check.
I was raised to appreciate insects and in recent years I’ve started to care even more. I do what I can to help out by plating beneficial plants and offering decomposing waste in the compost. For the most part, I just enjoy these creatures and appreciate all the crazy shapes and personalities that insects bring.
May 2 – This was the first time I’ve ever seen an eastern eyed click beetle. The false eyes as a defense mechanism definitely made me look twice and feel like it was watching me as much as I was watching it.
June 1 – The earliest major pollinator show of spring around here is watching honey bees and bumblebees swarm a pair of Verbascum chaixii ‘Wedding Candles’ (aka Mullein). I first noticed this burst of activity last year and was very much looking forward to it this spring.
June 10 – It’s been a long time since I was this excited about an insect. When I first saw this hummingbird moth on some English lavender I was confused in the way that whomever named it obviously was as well. It hovers and flits just like a hummingbird and has what looks like the beak of a hummingbird, but it is actually a moth with a long tongue for drawing nectar.
June 11 – I let some parsley flower this spring. It’s the first time I’ve seen a parsley flower before and it was interesting to notice which insects were attracted by it. I’m hoping it goes to seed and brings back a whole flower bed of parsley next year. Below is a cool, black and blue false wasp.
Here are two Margined Leatherwing beetles ensuring future generations.
June 15 – In the next two photos, a metallic green sweat bee and a bumblebee forage on the earliest Echinacea blooms of the season. The sweat bees are especially beautiful to watch in the sun.
June 20 – Catnip is actually a great pollinator. I planted this last year and it really took off this spring. I’ve been watching all kinds of bees and hover flies swarm around.
June 24 – This next one might gross some people out – feel free to skip
I was recently cutting back suckers on a Crape Myrtle when I found a whole civilization of millipedes (Apheloria virginiensis, I believe) living in a crease in the stump underneath. I took a photo then also a video because the way they were all moving at the same time was completely mesmerizing.
June 27 – This is Euthyrhynchus floridanus, the Florida predatory stink bug, holding its prey. It’s a native stink bug that sometimes travels in packs to hunt other insects.
June 27 – A false wasp on English lavender. I think false wasps are some of the coolest looking flying insects in the garden.
Compared to other varieties, I have not been very impressed with yarrow (Achillea millefolium) as a plant for attracting pollinators. That changed this weekend when I looked more closely at our (much-expanded) clump of yarrow and noticed it swarming with a variety of insects. I planted it in spring 2020 and I imagine that for the past two growing seasons there wasn’t enough of it to attract the insect life I’m seeing today.
When I find some time, I would like to transplant some to the edges of my vegetable beds which are basically empty at the moment. I am not feeling particularly motivated to do veggies this year and I’m also dealing with a pretty overwhelming gastropod situation. Yarrow grows so densely it might deter the snails and slugs (and/or provide a sacrificial meal) while also attracting beneficial insects and apparently accumulating nutrients in the topsoil.
We are just exiting spring in Richmond. There are flowers on asters, peas, Spiderwort and mullein. Buds on the coneflower, beardtongue, yucca, and yarrow. And by the afternoon today and tomorrow, the temperatures are expected to approach triple digits, twenty degrees above average. Texas recently struggled to produce enough energy during a heat wave and in India birds fell from the sky. When I got home yesterday, with the weather and everything else on my mind, I was gifted a visit from a Luna moth.
Whenever I start to think that the garden is my responsibility, weeding, watering, and (unfortunately) overreacting when my toddler accidently tramples plants, I am reminded how fiercely nature is already fighting for itself. You can only take so much credit.
In a sort of baptism, I watered everything last night that I worried might be affected by the temperatures. I told the plants that rain with cooler air was on the way. I also wondered briefly if covering plants, typically something done to protect against a freeze, might soon become a summer-time protection from the heat.
I love the beauty and symbolism of gardens, but I also worry that the climate will change faster than we can adapt. I try to give what I have to give and hold on to gratitude for every bud and bloom.
I have a few patches of Ajuga reptans in the back yard that have been swarming with carpenter bees for the last couple of weeks. It’s a great match because both the bees and the plant are so aggressive. I got buzzed by a few bees while I watched and they were constantly fighting each other. The plant is spreading so quickly that earlier this spring I contemplated digging it out, but after watching the bees I’ve decided I’m going to let it go for now. It’s also an attractive evergreen groundcover and, for now, there is plenty of room for it to spread.
When I first moved in to the neighborhood, a man named Ly Hia walked over and talked to me about the plants on our property and how it had changed with previous owners over time. Whenever he drove by he would wave and smile and I spoke to him if I saw him outside. One time, a car with a flat tire pulled over near his house and the two of us worked trying unsuccessfully to change it.
A year ago, I learned that he had died. A post on NextDoor drew over 50 comments and neighbors shared stories about the man who had immigrated from Cambodia and made a life in Virginia. He had been an avid gardener and guerrilla tree trimmer around the neighborhood. I didn’t realize until he died that he had been keeping English ivy off of a Dogwood near his house. As the weather warmed, the ivy saw an opportunity and by last fall it had completely enveloped the tree, hanging low over the road.
On Election Day last November, a new work holiday, I decided to try and trim the vines. I didn’t have enough time to finish the project, but I cut them at the base of the trunk so they would gradually die off over the winter. Even the small portion of vines I removed filled an entire supercan.
This spring, I spent a few hours on a ladder removing all the remaining ivy and smothered limbs that had died. It was more work and way more dead plant material than I had expected. The tree suffered, but survived. A few weeks later I got the reward I had been hoping for: flowers for Lei, in memory of his energy and life.
In the summer of 2019, my mom connected with the family of her birth father, Bill Fothergill. We learned that he was a fun-loving man with fair, British skin and dark, brown eyes. He had met my mom’s birth mom in New York City after college. It’s fun to imagine that my mom’s newfound origin story might somehow be tied to my irrational love for the city.
After learning about her birth family, I moved into a new house and began obsessively researching plants to fill the property. One shrub that I came across was Witch Alder, aka Fothergillia. I love the look of this shrub. The leaves are dark, shiny, and irregular. The flowers come before the leaves, starting as chartreuse buds (my favorite color) then blooming into clouds of white. In the fall the leaves turn a rich red-orange.
I feel a special connection to this plant because of my heritage. I don’t know if we are related to Dr. John Fothergill, the English plant collector who brought the plant back to England, but it seems plausible enough. Because of the connection and a general interest in the plant, I ordered two Fothergillia gardenii (dwarf witch alder) the second fall we lived in the house. I’ve watched them grow for the past year, one doing much better than the other, and started to recognize it in other settings beyond my garden.
This past July, while we were in Tennessee, I saw the familiar leaves and branches of Fothergillia. The shrubs were beautiful, large, and well-established. They were also putting out suckers all around. I told my sister about them and we talked about snagging some before we left. The last night of the trip, before dessert, we walked over to the flower beds and unceremoniously yanked as many suckers out of the ground as possible. We went back to the cabin, wrapped them in moist paper towels, and put them in plastic bags for the journey home.
I felt a little like Dr. John Fothergill, collecting specimens for my personal collection. I potted them, put them in a place with morning sun, and essentially forgot about them for the next few months.
Three of them survived and I planted them in the easement along our property where I hope they will thrive and spread for many years. I can’t wait to see the blooms in the spring after establishing their roots all winter and I hope to eventually have suckers to propagate and spread.
As my mom has learned about her birth families I have felt more drawn to the maternal, Italian heritage we discovered early on: the wine, the pasta, the crowded plazas. This reflection has helped me embrace my English heritage: gardening, walking, observing, and my growing collection of information, plants, and ideas.
After writing the last post I went for a couple of walks around the neighborhood and started noticing other composting systems I wanted to save for future reference. Here are two plastic systems, one in a little bit better shape than the other. I like how the one on the left has a spot to pull out compost from the bottom, but I’m not sure the compost is able to breathe as much as it might want to. The stackable system would be cool since each element looks light enough to carry around the garden. I see what looks like avocado leaves growing just behind.
Next to that is a nice, simple, leaf compost system similar to mine just smaller and more vertical. It saves a lot of space in this little alley spot and still accomplishes the goal.
Here’s another leaf compost system that looks nice and doesn’t require any set up. Both this one and the one above could be replicated in the corner of a smaller patio or urban-scale garden.
Here is the view from above of the leaves with my Crocks making a cameo in the corner — the official shoe of COVID.
My neighbor across the back alley is serious about his composting. He told me that their ground was hard clay when they moved in years ago and they’ve built up a great topsoil with leaves and kitchen scrap compost. He mows his leaves to chop them up which accelerates the process. I definitely want to mulch my leaves somehow, but I just don’t have the time or energy so I take the slower route.
Speaking of the slower processes, I appreciate the vines growing into the compost. Even though they’re an invasive species, it’s a good reminder to me that the compost can provide nutrients for plants at every stage. I might try to work in smaller little compost holes into the middle of my vegetable garden beds next spring. If I sink the five-gallon bucket into the ground and fill it with compost I could also water the vegetables by filling the bucket and letting those nutrients seep out with the water and spread the compost in the same bed once it’s ready.
The Fonticello Food Forest has a solid system going in order to make use of the leftover donated food that spoils before it can be given away or is left unwanted. I love this kind of system because the slats can be removed for very easy access to the entire pile and like the slats double a signs that can be moved around as needed. The one on the left is just for leaves that are composting and also providing dry matter from the other piles. I need to incorporate some kind of sign that tells me which bucket to add scraps to along the same lines as the “FEED ME” sign on the far right.
For the record, bagging up leaves is still a composting system. The leaves in the bags below will decompose into beautiful leaf mold eventually, we just won’t have easy access to it when it’s ready. When I was young, we stacked bags of leaves like this probably 20 feet down the sidewalk. I loved how tidy the yard looked and it was so satisfying to the bags piled up when we finished the job. I think it’s safe to say this is still the norm. For now 🙂
I think about compost all the time. From food scraps to humanure, we discard, bury, sterilize, and burn some of our most fertile resources. Decomposition of organic matter happens naturally, we just have to set simple public health boundaries for rats and transmissible diseases.
Growing up, my parents kept a couple of compost piles in the back yard and it was very normal for us to save food scraps in a plastic bin under the sink. I think the bin was actually a drawer from the freezer that we didn’t need for some reason. My interest in composting went to a new level during Thanksgiving break in the fall of 2008. I decided not to fly back to Texas and instead I visited my older brother at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, a community devoted “to caring for people and the Earth by learning and demonstrating a holistic, sustainable culture.” I had never been to such a place and I soaked it up. There was so much to see everywhere on the property. It felt like a place where every mundane aspect of life had been reimagined. Most important in the context I this post is that this was the first time I ever used a composting toilet. I will always remember my time at Earthaven as a formative, positive, eye-opening experience. Over the next couple of years I realized my role could be connecting with the culture and innovations at places like Earthaven and helping to translate them to the mainstream. In my mind, that involves making these practices beautiful and functional.
A year later, I started a composting program on my college campus. Digging up some of that pristine grass and installing the composting system at UR was one of my favorite days of college. It was my small attempt to make the place more interesting and feel connected to the soil.
It was a special project for me. I loved seeing friends carrying bags of compost from their apartments. Like many college programs, the compost system fell into disrepair and the boxes were removed a few years after I graduated.
My first year out of college, the brother who had lived at Earthaven moved in with me. He started a compost pile in the backyard and it was fun to get back into that routine. Of course, composting can sometimes be a little like a cast iron skillet: everyone has their own way to do it and sometimes they are hard to share. One time, I was doing something that my brother didn’t like and we got in one of the biggest fights of the year together. We’re passionate composters 🙂 My main issue was that I wanted composting to be a low-stress activity. Things break down. I don’t want to think too much about it. A few years later we moved into a different house and I felt the energy to get it going again. I bought a plastic tumbler, pictured below, because we had just a small garden in the front and patio out back. This is a picture of it in its current, discarded state.
This tumbler served me well for a couple of years. I like how easy it is to turn, how sturdy it is near the ground, and how it collects compost tea in the reservoir below. My main complaint is that it is difficult to get the compost out. It gets stuck in the corners, the opening is too small, and the compost can tend to get too wet even with the drain holes in the bottom. It was also not enough room for us. After it filled up I started supplementing with five-gallon buckets with holes drilled in the bottom and sides.
My current composting system is a little more ambitious. We have more outdoor space now so lots more room to experiment. A couple of months after moving in I noticed that one corner of the back yard had a steep slope. The soil had washed down the hill and left the area eroded and also created a gap under the sidewalk above. I had read about contour lines and thought that I could set up a fence sort of perpendicular to the slope to hold my leaves, collect rain water, slow erosion, and start to build up the soil. As a bonus, I had somewhere to put my leaves every year. At some point in the process I also learned about leaf mold (composted leaves) and it has been incredible to dig to the bottom of the pile and find loads of this soil amendment to spread around the garden.
During the summer of 2020 I planted a wildflower seed mix around the top edge of the leaf pile. I like the flowers and also wanted the roots to help with building up the soil. I also added two natural wood terraces on contour, the top for planting and the bottom for walking around and reaching everything.
Around that same time I made a connection: if I was piling all of my dry matter in one place, it made sense to do my kitchen scrap composting there as well. I started to prefer the five-gallon buckets to the store-bought tumbler and I moved them over to the leaf pile to try it out. Once the buckets filled up, I let them compost until I needed the room. For the next stage, I dug holes into the clay farther up the hill and put the compost there to finish. Whenever I have the motivation, I dig it out and save it or spread it around. The photo below is from the summer of 2020.
And this is from the most recent fall, 2021. This photo was taken after the first major raking effort in the back yard so the pile finally started to fill back up. I love the look of leaves.
At one point I spray painted the buckets a camo grey color to try and help them blend in. I think it helped, but the paint is also chipping which is not ideal and eventually I just dug the buckets into the ground so they could be more easily buried in the leaves.
I really do love having the leaves so accessible. Not having enough dry matter has always been an issue for my compost so this is a real significant win-win.
I also like that with the compost more connected with the soil there is room for volunteer plants to sprout. Here is a spaghetti squash that unfortunately did not survive, but added some nice greenery.
These tomatoes at the top of the hill are all volunteers from the compost. They were prolific, producing far more than the tomatoes I planted “on purpose.” I wrote about them already in a previous post.
Here is a more recent view of the leaf pile after raking all the leaves from the back yard, front yard, and street. It is more than it looks.
Here is the same pile after doing a little grape stomp to keep it from blowing away.
I’ve filled it this much at least once more since taking these last two photos and I think I have one last large batch to rake before my full leaf harvest is complete. It may look like just a leaf pile, but it is an entire universe of worms, millipedes, ants, fungus, and an occasional salamander. Birds love to pick through the leaves for food. Here is some compost I recently turned out to make room for the next batch.
Composting is definitely a lifestyle. It can be messy and it usually involves interacting with rotting material at some point in the process. It’s also just so much easier and quicker to throw everything away. Even though I like my system, food scraps can pile up quickly. This is an aesthetic and time-consuming aspect of composting that can sometimes be a turn-off.
At this point in the process, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve become the “difficult composter” I wanted to avoid. In making this system that works so well for me I have also made it difficult for other people to participate. I want to work on the user experience so that anyone could take out the compost bucket and know what to do. In the spring I also want to plant some native honeysuckle around the fencing. I personally don’t mind the appearance, but I’ve received some negative feedback. Like I said, I want people to leave with a positive impression of compost and I want composting to be beautiful as well as functional so I’m happy to make the change. If friends and family associate rotting food with the sweet smell of honeysuckle then I will feel like I have done my job.
Last year, my younger sister came and stayed with us to help watch our toddler while daycare was closed. She also gardened a lot. At one point while she was here she planted garlic, just the regular kind from the store. It came up quickly and grew all winter long until I pulled it out looking like this:
After harvesting it, I dried it in the basement over the summer. I am not sure this is the right way to do it, but I finally brought it up today to take a look.
I’m pleased to say it all looks and smells like garlic! I appreciate how magical growing food still feels.
I’ll probably plant half of this in the next few days, roast the garlic scapes in spring, hopefully harvest the rest when it’s ready, then do it all over again. It makes me think about whenever it was that garlic was first spreading as a food. One person harvesting a head of garlic and planting it all that fall. Then, with several heads of garlic the next year, sharing a clove with close friends and family so they could start a crop of their own.
I admire perennial, wild gardens that have been cultivated to bloom throughout the growing season. When I see most of my perennials have gone to seed, I especially notice examples of flowers that that are still or for the first time in full, glorious bloom. I don’t have the time or energy to add anything to my garden right now, but I hope to eventually bring in the first and third on the list. I know it isn’t going to save us from climate change and mass extinction, but it is still so encouraging and sweet to see bumblebees floating from flower to flower this late into the fall.
Canada goldenrod, Tall Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) – this flower has been planted as a companion to fruit trees in the Fonticello Food Forest near my house. I am a little worried that the goldenrod is actually crowding out the trees at this point, but I don’t care because it is incredible on its own and appears to be attracting all kinds of insects.
Panicled aster, Lance-leaf aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) – also at the food forest, I noticed this aster completely buzzing with activity. They have it planted in a wet, low lying area of the property and it has thrived. When I got home, I was kind of thrilled to realize that I had two clumps of it growing in my garden also (last picture), a surprise gift from the native wildflower mix that I spread in 2020.
Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) – I was at the Barboursville Vineyard last week for a wedding and noticed for the first time the Allegrante Meadow just below the tasting patio. Its acres of flowers had clearly faded from their peak summer color, but the blue mistflower was thriving. It’s color pops brilliantly against the browns and blacks of fall.
Sulfur cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus) – Another gift from a seed mix in the past, Sulfur cosmos have started to take over a corner of the garden. This summer I saw one bloom and go to seed. Then I saw several more. Now there are dozens of these flowers adding a really nice pop of orange. It does scare me a little how prolific this flower seems to be so I may add in some other flowers that will start to compete for space. Or just let the cosmos completely take over and be happy about it.
Update (10/25): yesterday I walked by a lovely mound of Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), probably ‘Raydon’s Favorite,’ and realized it needed to be on this list. It was already somewhere in my garden plans, but seeing this example in person was an extra dose of motivation to include this plant some day.