Two months ago I was feeling hopeful and sentimental about spring and excited about the potential of the buds on my serviceberry. This week, I discovered that the supposed abundance of berries I was hoping to eat in June are now disgusting and inedible. The plant apparently has something called Cedar Apple Rust. Now the berries that were flowers that were buds full of potential are just hosts for a fungus preparing to spread.
I don’t know what this means for my metaphor. That the world still exists in 2021. COVID is still ravaging communities, politics continue to get weirder and weirder, and Black Lives Matter is still a controversial idea in some circles. So I’m letting it sink in that my plant has a disease. That disease will never really go away. Even if this shrub recovers, as I’m told it will, the disease is always around. The spores can travel miles to their next host. It’s unrealistic to believe that this will not happen again to my serviceberry, but I know there will be a spring that the spores happen to skip this place. This experience will make me significantly more grateful for a season down the road, hopefully, that we get to enjoy the berries, ripe and ready to eat.
Yesterday morning I shared a sugar snap pea with my 18-month old while we watched bees forage on some Verbascum (Mullein) that I planted earlier this month. I’ve had some flops this year so far including beets, fennel, poppies, bachelor’s button, etc. I’ve already rearranged several plants that were either crowding each other out or not getting the amount of sun they require. So often, all I can think about is the work that still needs to be done, but in that moment, thinking about the benefits to nature and our quality of life, I was grateful for something going well. And considering the ease of use and the quick reward I will definitely be doubling down on these peas next year.
Last year, I had a lunch on the calendar with an old coworker set for March 12. We hadn’t seen each other since my son was born and we had lots of work gossip and life updates to share. Of course, as the date arrived, the COVID threat grew and we decided it would be safer to postpone. We pushed it back to April 30, then August 13, then again to January 13 (the worst date out of all of these), and May 12, then finally over a year later to May 26, 2021. With vaccinations and revised CDC guidelines in tow, it looks like our lunch is finally going to happen. We are not close friends or family, not in either’s inner quarantine bubble. I think we both acknowledged this and while we were looking forward to catching up we also didn’t take the rescheduling personally.
Of course, we could have cancelled, but I don’t think either of us wanted to give up on the lunch. We just wanted to be safe. Also, it was nice to have something normal on the calendar even if we knew it might have to be moved.
Many people have talked about how COVID gave them a new understanding of their closest network, who matters most in a time of crisis. I also think COVID has given us a new appreciation for the influence of a broad network of weaker ties on quality of life. There are loads of people I admire, but don’t know particularly well, who I have missed this year. I even miss strangers. The friends laughing at a table nearby, the interesting clothes people wear, the small acts of kindness on the street.
There have been far more serious casualties of COVID-19 than a lunch date or a wedding. Important communal sacraments and traditions have been postponed, some opportunities to grieve or celebrate feel lost forever. The entire experience of the pandemic will be a part of us, regardless of how we experienced it. I don’t want to forget the small things that keep a city and community moving forward during non-COVID life which has plenty of disappointment and excitement on it’s own.
One example that I have been daydreaming about lately is being in a full, buzzing coffee shop again. Since the first fall when I moved to Richmond almost 14 years ago, coffee shops have been my home away from home and I have missed them dearly. I miss real mugs, real plates, and silverware. I miss the caffeine-induced brainstorm. I miss the community board with events and vendors. And of course, I miss the eavesdropping and people watching. You just can’t fit this into a take-out container.
Sometime this summer or fall, whenever they are ready to reopen, I imagine myself in Sub Rosa with a cappuccino at the bar around 10:30 a.m. on a disastrously busy weekend morning. With myself, the Times, and who knows what former friend, neighbor, or coworker that might walk by. Croissant flakes and dirty dishes are everywhere along with the smell of chocolate, polenta, and smoke. I’m grateful we all united over COVID by staying away, but I can’t wait to see everyone and catch up on the other side.
Update: My lunch date was actually pushed back three more days because his wife was scheduled to get the COVID vaccine during our lunch window. It felt like a fitting end to the saga.
There is a construction site near the Nickle Bridge toll station that I’ve been running by for the past month or so. My first fear was that they were building a new road access to enter the trail parking lot right after the toll booths, but I realized that would cause traffic issues. While searching for another IFB, I recently came across the plans for the project and I was pleasantly surprised. The city is installing a new Pump House Park Trail that will connect the sidewalk of the Nickle Bridge to the North Bank trail entrance and the Pump House beyond. The project which includes “500-foot long and eight-foot wide multiuse asphalt trail with an ADA-compliant portion, requisite storm water management elements including a rain garden, and other landscaping and site furnishing elements” was awarded to Jeffery Stack Inc. in Jersey, VA for $186,380. I was surprised there were only four bidders, but contractors are very busy right now.
The plans designed by the Timmons Group, attached below, look simple and thoughtful. I appreciate the use of native plants in the rain garden. I’d like to know more about the policy or program that required the use of natives. Pollinators are going to love the wax myrtles, sweetspires, dogwoods, tulip tree, bee balm and more. I would have liked to see fruit-bearing shrubs included in the designs like serviceberry, blackberry, and blueberry. I like the graceful curve of the trail, and the way that the project prioritizes foot traffic at the juncture of so many beautiful outdoor spaces: Byrd Park, Maymont, the Nickle Bridge/Southside/Buttermilk Trail, the North Bank trail, and of course the Pump House. I especially hope the Pump House, with more foot traffic, visibility, and awareness, continues to become the destination that folks have been saying it could be for years. Designs and files attached below.
Last fall painters pressure-washed our 100 year old windows. Water went everywhere inside the house through the cracks and between the windows and the sill. On the books, curtains, floors, rugs. Did I need to specify that “pressure-wash” didn’t actually mean applying pressure as other painters have explained to me in the past? I should have realized at that point that I cared more about their work than they did. We had planned to be out of town that day, but we were home to clean up the mess and stop them from spraying any more. They sanded the window sills, but didn’t scrape. Chips of paint left to be sealed in by more layers of paint in the years to come. They didn’t paint the trim in the correct shade of white around the porches. Not entirely at least, sections here and there in the primer white and in the new color. Almost like they were telling me I was a brat for paying to have trim changed from one white to another. They washed off their paint brushes in the yard. They left old rotten boards that they removed from the deck in the garden under leaves. It seemed like they thought I didn’t take care for the back yard well enough to even notice. They didn’t even paint the tops of things, boards, columns, etc. Cutting one corner puts the whole project into question. I started to notice columns with one streak of Dove White paint down the middle with the sides left in a primer coat. During “magic hour” the errors became much more obvious. I start to question myself, should I have been more specific? I call them back to finish their work even though I mostly want them to just go away. Next time I know that every detail needs to be discussed, written down, and signed on. And find a new company. In not too long we’ll do it all over again.
One year ago, there were buds on the serviceberry bushes in Richmond as there are today. I didn’t notice, of course. Even if I had known what they looked like to identify them, we were too busy helping our son heal from surgery and reading the news about a virus infecting the world. The service berry bloom historically signaled the time for bodies of those who had died over the winter to be interred. It’s hard to imagine putting a loved one in the ice for months until the ground was soft enough to bring them back out for a funeral. After one year of lockdown, loneliness, denial, and all the ways we’ve inhabited this pandemic, it feels appropriate to think that we’ve also postponed our grief in the same way.
Seeing these buds feels encouraging, but also too soon. They are going to bloom any day (some already have) and provide an early meal to pollinators as they emerge. Similarly, we are emerging from COVID, searching for what aspects of life will return to fuel us in the coming months. Although we may not be ready to let go of the darkness and confusion that we’ve been inhabiting for the past year, the buds are a reminder to me that we need to start preparing ourselves to grieve and to be ready to see the good.
Sometimes it can be hard to accept that spring has come, that things are beautiful again, if you still feel cold on the inside. It can be hard to accept the next chapter when you haven’t been able to let go of the last. Burying and memorializing the dead has long been part of the process of appreciating life. It will also be important for us to bury and memorialize what we have lost in other ways, the friendships, jobs, marriages, favorite restaurants, traditions. We could also bury aspects of COVID that aren’t serving us well like fear and the compulsive sanitizing.
I am daydreaming about some kind of memorial that involves serviceberry bushes and other spring blooming natives. A memorial that is beautiful every year around the time we started the slow crawl out of COVID-19. A memorial that gets better with time, perpetuates itself, serves nature. We are still in a pandemic, but it’s time to start getting ready to not be in a pandemic some day. I don’t want to be stuck in the last year, I don’t want to pretend like it didn’t happen, but I also don’t want to miss the blooms and the berries.
Most of my creative energy these days goes to daydreaming about my garden. I have a mental map of the spaces I want to improve and a growing list of the plants that I want to grow, but I started to realize I needed some way to organize it all outside my brain. I don’t want to learn a new program right now and I’ve been happy to realize that Paint does the job. These designs are in varying states of completeness, but really it doesn’t matter because they will all end up different than I imagine. This is just the starting point.
This daydreaming gives me joy, but it also makes me feel like I don’t have enough time. It could be years or forever before I finish all of these projects. I think it’s a good thing to take this project slowly (even when I don’t like to) because I’m constantly learning about new plants and designs that I want to fit into the mix. If I did it all with what I know now it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.
My main values that guide me are to work with plants that are mostly native, support pollinators and birds (and other wildlife), don’t need much special care, and provide year-round cutting for inside the house. I have lots of climate anxiety and it’s helpful to focus on tending to my plot (among other things). For me, planting low-maintenance plants that benefit the ecosystem and are also beautiful is a win-win. Maybe I’ll check in for an update once planting gets under way next month.
As we enter spring, I’ve been getting extremely nostalgic for last summer when I watched my first wildflowers grow from sprouts. I’ve planted more seeds for more wildflowers in the past week, but honestly I still have this worry in the back of my mind that the seeds won’t grow this time. It’s a problem of modern life that I’ve very rarely sprouted and grown or done anything with seeds up to this point in my life, but it’s also fun to have a kind of childlike fascination with them like they’re magic (which the basically are). Since we’re in a new house now, I’m also thinking about all the landscape work that we did at our last house and wanted to put together this blog post to share and also save the memories for myself. Many exhausting weekend days went into making this “yard” into a garden that we could enjoy.
When we first moved into our last house, the front yard was a mix of tall grasses, one shrub, and one established Crape Myrtle. The fence was unstained and badly warped. The ground level of the front yard was higher than the fence so that it met the bottom cross beam and left no room for the fence and the siding of the house to breathe potentially leading to rot. There also was no clear walkway around the house and little visual interest in fall, winter, and early spring.
The property faces south and receives full sun all day long. We knew we needed to find plants that could withstand the heat and also some more trees to eventually provide shade for the house and the garden. We also knew that we wanted the garden to be low-maintenance so we looked especially for heat and drought tolerant plants.
The first major change we made was to dig out the entire yard including a few inches of soil (several truck loads) to lower the ground level, remove the grass, add mulch, and prepare the space for landscaping. We also planted two more Crape Myrtles, one large one to mirror the existing one and provide shade on the south-facing front of the house
We also planted a knockout rose, a small arborvitae, and a gardenia (the last two did not do well).
I hired a landscaping company to install French drains around both sides of the house and redo the back patio. The patio had been installed violating code (sloping toward the house and covering the lowest board of siding) and needed to be redone to prevent the risk of rot.
To give the existing Crape Myrtle more room to spread and encourage upward growth, I trimmed limbs growing toward the middle of the tree as well as lower limbs and many smaller limbs that I didn’t think looked good where they were growing. It has continued to grow and fill out nicely from this initial trim.
After considering many options, we decided to install a permeable brick path around the right side of the house leading to the side gate and the back patio. We used old reclaimed bricks from a friend’s backyard in the neighborhood so the path would match the historic character of the house. Along the brick, we planted a variety of sedums and aromatics including rosemary, lavender, and thyme as well some dwarf evergreens and Gerber daisies.
I potted yuccas (one foraged and one purchased) and placed them on either side of the front steps for more year-round, no-maintenance curb appeal.
We added more plants including Lenten roses, Russian stonecrop, purple heart, more rosemary, and a second knock out rose. The Lenten roses provide nice winter blooms and have grown very well. We then spread some of our compost and planted a wildflower garden to attract pollinators and provide a bounty of flowers throughout the summer.
The wildflowers provided months of changing colors and shapes as different flowers grew and bloomed. It even got a little out of hand, but since they are mostly annuals, we weren’t worried about keeping it trimmed back as long as we could walk to the other side.
While we initially thought of the heat and full sun as a problem, we realized that with the right plants it could provide a bounty.
We also had the house painted a light, cool blue-green color to compliment the new landscape, mulch, and brick walkway. Then we stained the fence a light brown natural color to blend in and protect the wood. Hanging plants provide an additional layer of color.
By late summer, I had trained a morning glory vine up the front of the house and across the brick path toward the larger Crape Myrtle.
I really enjoyed watching everything spread and thrive. Especially considering how low-maintenance it became once everything was established.
Last fall, I planted some crimson clover cover crop that has taken very well and bloomed along with some returning wildflowers this spring.
It’s definitely hard to leave something that we put so much work into, but I’m glad to go back and see it is still doing well and remember that it’s a gradual process figuring out what plants and uses will work best for each space.
The photo below will link you to the full report summary for the overachievers:
In short, not even considering Climate Change, humans are ruining habitats and driving plants and non-human animals toward extinction. In Richmond, we need to do more to create and preserve habitats for the species that have long called this place home.
The City of Richmond and it’s constituent parts (RRHA, etc.) control vast stretches of land in the city that for the most part are empty save for rusting structures, parking lots, and mowed weeds. Entire farms exist on less. Here’s a fine example near the East End landfill:
These properties need to be cultivated in a restorative way that creates habitat (food, shelter, water) for insects such as pollinators as well as birds, small land mammals, amphibians, and other native species. I recently visited a small town doing amazing things for its pollinators, this could easily be done in Richmond:
As the caretakers of the Falls of the James and the vast James River Parks System, Richmond should also look into improving this property as a habitat which might include planting more native flowering and fruiting plants, building structures for habitat, and working to limit the negative impact of human activity such as pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and pollution. This includes the sewage that overflows into the river every time we have a hard rain.
As we consider our carbon footprint, we should evaluate ways to bring nature-friendly hydroelectric power generation back to our energy mix. I’ve been fascinated by small-scale generators such as Turbulent. Click the photo below for a video demonstration:
When you look at our city, essentially our human habitat, and compare it to a state or national park, it’s not hard to imagine the negative affect humans have had. We should require/incentivize every city block to include de-paved sections with native plantings for habitat, beauty, and the added benefit of water table recharge and less run-off in our sewer system.
We need to encourage more dense development to be sure we are fully utilizing our utilities (water, schools, emergency) as well as public transit. The denser development will ideally lead to cheaper cost of housing as supply increases and less distance that we all have to travel to get to work and recreation.
It’s overwhelming to read the research, but I’m convinced the best thing we can do is appreciate nature and do all we can to listen to what it needs. The answers will come to us as we go. For starters, I am personally working toward removing poison (insect, plant, rodent, etc.) from use and I believe as a city we need to find better ways to manage nature that don’t cause lasting and generic harm. I have planted a “mini-meadow” that I’ll be watching grow (and hopefully bloom) over the next few months. If this is successful, I’d love to plant little patches of wildflowers elsewhere in the city. Truth be told, it’s the first time I’ve planted from seed so I’m still a little skeptical, but it’s shaping up. I’d like to look into solar power, composting toilets, a greenhouse, wind turbines, electric razor scooter for commuting, and more. I’m limited by the cost and also questions about how things are regulated. I am ALWAYS taking in ideas and happy to hear that something can be done more efficiently.
We need to do more and we will also benefit from the beauty of nature, the health benefits of fresh food and an active lifestyle, and we can share our time with new friends we make along the way. If the pending environmental doom stresses you out, time in nature might just fix that too.