Summer to Fall

Two essays have recently been on my mind, “After a Summer Without Butterflies, I Cling to What Endures,” by Margaret Renkl, and “Why You Should Do Your Spring Planting in the Fall,” by Margaret Roach.

Margaret Renkl is a regular contributer to the NYT opinion section who has made me sigh more than once. Her observations in the garden connect with me on so many levels, from the plants and insects that we share to the sense that things are not what they once were. As someone who has lived in both extreme corners of the South (Eastern Texas and Virginia) I always appreciate her references and storytelling. She writes in a Southern lament style as she finds beauty in nature as well as the death and decay below the surface. In a more practical way, the essay by Margaret Roach shares wisdom from the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park. While Renkl mourns the loss of butterflies, Roach reminds me that while rural and suburban America are a toxic wasteland of pesticides, a new wave of natural meadow-style landscaping is turning cities into oases of natural beauty. Here are just some quotes and photos I enjoyed from each piece.

From Renkl, there is always beauty and death. She and I are living parallel lives and I’m so grateful that she writes because she helps me organize my own thoughts, she connects the ecosystem and helps me appreciate each part.

“How ragged we are now, dragging summer behind us like an old blanket we can’t set down. The homicidal heat of August has given way to the merely cruel heat of mid-September, but we are done with it even so. Everyone is cross, and not just the people.”

“And yet.

The mornings are a gift. Cool and damp, they feel like part of an entirely different ecosystem. If I’m poking around the garden early enough, I can spy all the darling bumblebee butts deep in the bells of balsam flowers where the bees have tucked themselves in for sleep.”

“The spent zinnias and coneflowers and black-eyed Susans provide plenty of seeds, and the beautyberries, arrowwood berries and pokeweed berries are ripe now, too.”

“Already the fall wildflowers are beginning to come into their own. The goldenrod throws its yellow plumes into the air; ironweed and asters purple the fields and roadsides; snakeroot blankets the forest understory; anise hyssop and elephant’s foot flowers call to the bees on the naturalized side of our yard. All of them feed the insects that feed the birds who need fuel for the migration, or for surviving the winter at home.”

“A basilica orb-weaver spider has built her cathedral outside our front door. Her web has been pummeled by rains again and again, but her pearly egg sacs, all strung together in a row, are safe. Every day I check them to be sure, and every day their mother watches me warily as I check.

She will guard them faithfully until she dies, and the last thing she will do is secure the guy wires they’ll need to guide them when they climb out of their sacs next spring.”

From Roach, practical wisdom and photos that make me dream of my next trip to New York.

“Rather than following the common practice of planting and transplanting in spring, for instance, she suggests shifting virtually all of that activity to autumn — and not cutting back most perennials as the season winds down.”

“But in just 11 years since the first section opened, the place has become a refuge and breeding ground for diverse and unexpected species. The state-threatened golden northern bumblebee (Bombus fervidus) can be seen happily collecting nectar on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), while nearby, fluttering swarms of the common but colorful little pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos) are delighted to find so much of their host plant, smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), to savor.”

“More than 180 species of birds have been sighted in the park. And not just the mallards and herring gulls that you might expect on a waterfront, but swallows, woodpeckers and rare sparrows, as well as 31 species of warblers. An extremely rare painted bunting (Passerina ciris) spent two months in the park one winter.”

“The practice she adheres to is called ecological horticulture. It’s the polar opposite of the purely ornamental version, which is driven by asserting control of plants in the name of aesthetics.”

“Spring planting “gets in the way of our work, instead of complementing it,” Ms. McMackin said. And in the past four years, her crew has gradually phased it out. Next year, there will be no spring planting at Brooklyn Bridge Park, except for some tree species that resent fall root disturbance.

“When we do plant in spring, and then summer arrives, it can be such an extreme environment — hot, dry and windy, too,” she said, and those are hard conditions for plants trying to root in. With a fall planting schedule, the winter that follows is easier on them.”

“In May and June, instead of planting, we can get weeds while they’re still small,” Ms. McMackin said. “You can hoe rather than having to hand-pull — getting rid of things that can cause massive problems later, if you don’t.”

“At Brooklyn Bridge Park, the gardeners skip most of the traditional fall cutbacks and cleanup. That leaves plenty of seed that can self-sow, or be eaten by birds, and preserves an overwintering habitat in the leaf litter for arthropods. Except where mulch or compost is needed, the approach is hands-off.”

“We just had an endangered sedge pop up. And we had a state-threatened saltmarsh aster appear that we relocated to our salt marsh,” she said. “It’s amazing what happens when ‘Leave things alone as much as possible’ is part of your maintenance strategy.”

Fieldstone path

Soon after we moved into our current home, I started doing one of my favorite things: digging up grass. One grass removal project became a cutting garden and a fieldstone path through the easement to a gate into our back yard. It was definitely worth the effort, we use it all the time. Here is what the area looked like before we started, just a standard, anonymous piece of grass:

In July, I got some help to dig out the first iteration and see how it felt. The path went from the street to the sidewalk, but I realized it would only work for the one car parked near the path. The stone in version 1.0 was just old concrete and pavers I’d found around the yard and these are still piled up in a stack at the end of the flower bed, waiting for me to have the energy and inspiration to do something with them. At this point, it was actually more dangerous to walk on because nothing was set. Then, I saw this post on NextDoor:

It was a lot of fieldstone (flagstone?) and a great price. It took my sister and I at least three trips in my smallish SUV and I was definitely worried about the suspension, but we got it to the house and started to lay out the new path. I never would have had the motivation to do this without her help.

First, we dug down into the path to start making way for the stone. We wanted the stone to be level with the curb and sidewalk. We also decided to extend the long tail of the path all the way down the side of the street so that any car parked along the way could use it. We poured paver sand down and added more wherever needed to level the stones and make the path smooth. We filled in the gaps with sand then dirt and some moss in the hope that it might take over eventually. I planted one plant at this point, a butterfly bush that was a replacement for one that had died within the return window. Here is how it looked soon after we finished:

To prep for the cutting garden, I amended the soil with compost, leaf mold from the garden pile, and peat moss. I wanted good moisture retention and good drainage. I don’t like tilling up soil and I may find another way to do this next time.

Later on last fall, I laid out peony (Shirley Temple, Sarah Bernhardt, and Karl Rosenfield), allium (giant Schuberti, Ivory Queen, and tiny caeruleum) and tulip (casa grande). I didn’t get pictures of it all, but I was glad to see the bulbs come up nicely in succession through early spring. The peony also all emerged and look great, still growing well into the summer months. Here’s a WIP photo with my peony roots laid out for planting down the right side of the bed:

In mid-spring this year, we added Roses (blushing knock out, Lichfield Angel, and coral drift), hidecote lavender, two asters, and another lavender moved from the backyard (originally from our last house). I also planted a catmint that is so far looking like it needs more sun and two Gerber daisies that I’ll want to move eventually since the colors don’t really fit in. Some more photos for now,

Always a good sign of soil health when you have mushrooms popping up in July 🍄

Flying insect hang out spot (video)

Something about the combination of these plants has made this picket a hot spot for flying insects, especially at a time in summer when many other flowers have dried up.

Finding the value in the trees of Creighton Court

As a part of my last job, I regularly drove through the neighborhood of Creighton Court to make deliveries. This is the second job that has brought me through this part of Richmond and for all these years I’ve been amazed by the huge, hardwood trees.

Looking north on Creighton from 9 mile
Looking north on 9 mile to I-64
Looking south on 29th

There are many articles already about why the redevelopment process is problematic in many ways and I support those efforts. What I want to add to the conversation now is an awareness of the existing trees and reasons to preserve them for whatever comes next. When I saw the plans for Creighton, I was disappointed to see that most of the trees on the design have been listed as uniform dots rather than left as the existing trees like you see along 9 Mile Rd. in the design below.

To be fair, the drawing doesn’t say explicitly that the trees will be torn down, but I’ve learned from experience not to trust Richmond to preserve them.

I used to live near the former Ethel Bailey Furman park in Church Hill. It was mostly an open field for dogs to run, pick-up baseball, ultimate frisbee, bike polo, and block parties. Around the perimeter of the park we’re around a dozen old, hardwood trees. When the city decided to build a school on the park property, the A&E firm they hired just erased them. I came home one day to a massive pile of roots and branches that had all been still in the ground when I left that morning. Here are some before photos:

And after:

The shade, the natural beauty, the sound break, the birds, and so much more are gone. In their place are Leland cypress and other predictable landscaping trees and shrubs. They didn’t even really need the space where the trees once grew because they were all around the perimeter of the lot. With some creativity they could have been preserved.

Now, in the 21st century, after all we’ve learned about the role that trees play in cooling our communities in a warming climate and how these trees are already rare in formerly redlined neighborhoods like Church Hill. With all of this knowledge, the city spent tax dollars to have these trees piled up and thrown away.

By the way, as insult to injury, the city said they were going to rebuild the park on another area of the lot and they never did.

So we come to Creighton Court and all the public housing communities in Richmond. If you look closely at the map on heat disparity in Richmond, these public housing communities (see arrow below) are not nearly as hot as Gilpin Court, the neighborhood most talked about, or even expensive neighborhoods like the Fan. My neighborhood elsewhere looks about the same shade of green as Creighton.

If the research is correct, much of that cooling affect is coming from the shade and transpiration of these old, beautiful trees. It would be such a shame for them to be taken away. Really, it should be a crime. If Richmond is taking climate change and equity seriously, the preservation of trees should be mandated. Planting a 10’ young tree (or several young trees) does not replace one that is 70’ tall. The trees do all the work, we just need to leave them alone.

Tomatoes will grow

Earlier this year, while I was gently coaxing tomato sprouts inside, some tomato seeds from my compost were already germinating and starting to grow right in the garden. I just harvested 12 tomatoes off of these volunteer tomato plants, recently thinned and trimmed. The plants that I sprouted and grew “on purpose” are weeks behind in their first harvest. This is a good reminder to me that this cycle of plants and seeds has been going on for millennia, mostly without human intervention. Without lamps, sprouting mix, and “hardening off” seedlings, these plants will find a way to grow.

Growing little fruit trees

I recently finished a book called Grow a Little Fruit Tree — a great, easy read for anyone interested in starting a home orchard. I learned about the book through NextDoor, my favorite social network of the last year. When I posted a photo of peach blossoms to celebrate early spring, I got a comment that it looked like I might not have pruned the tree recently and this book was suggested as a guide. I didn’t take it personally at all — this is a hobby and I am always learning from others.

I realized pretty quickly that I had done nearly everything wrong with the fruit trees I had purchased so far. Most importantly, I did not fully respect the full-grown size of these trees. Here are my notes:

  • The key to maintaining a small fruit tree is to prune every summer around the solstice. This keeps the tree small by reducing its vigor (typically this is the reason to avoid a summer prune)
  • Winter pruning increases vigor, use to thin out a fruit tree
  • Maintain 3-4 major limbs, the “scaffold”
  • 1 Apple requires 30 leaves
  • Compost goes on top, not in the hole, when planting trees
  • Planting a potted plant: as deep as the pot, 2x as wide, no soil on the surface, 4-6 inch berm around
  • The tardy prune (my situation for selecting tall trees and nit pruning last summer): at summer solstice cut the central leader down to knee height
  • 45-degree angle is ideal for an unsupported branch of a fruit tree
  • Too much water suffocates roots
  • Yellow leaf that falls easily = too much water
  • Yellow leaf that holds on = micronutrient defficency
  • Let surface soil dry at least a couple of inches (moisture = disease)
  • Water rarely, thoroughly
  • Add worm castings to mulch (compost) and apply each year
  • Figs fruit on new wood

And now, some before and after photos of my first solstice “tardy” prune. It’s all a learning exercise so I’ll watch these over the years to see how they do.

On that last Pawpaw I am hopeful one little sprout will get more nutrients as a result of this prune and add a third branch to my scaffold.

The next time I plant fruit trees I’ll start with bare root trees so that I can make this first hard prune right away. I’m still hopeful these trees will grow well, but probably not as well as they might have if I’d started from the beginning. Now I just watch and wait.

Early summer color pop

I’m enjoying this corner of the garden especially right now for its early summer pop of color.

I planted the anise hyssop (purple) and the mountain mint (silver/green) as plants from a nursery, but the echinacea grew from seed and has been prolific. I am amazed by how well it’s done considering my neglect – I honestly don’t even remember when I planted it.

Air layering figs

I tried air layering for the first time and so far it’s looking pretty good. These came from a neighbor’s Brown Turkey fig tree and are eventually going to be planted in a community food forest near my house. There are little air layering products you can buy, but my brother encouraged me to just use saran wrap and it worked well with about half of them rooting. You’re supposed to use peat moss, but I didn’t have any so I used potting soil with extra vermiculite instead. It’s incredible to me that you can make these as large as you want, especially since figs are fast growers and always have a branch to spare. Special thanks to NextDoor for connecting me with someone I already knew, but didn’t realize was my neighbor, who shared her fig and many gardening tips while I worked.

Hedge design (Sweet Bay Laurel)

Just sharing something I put together for a friend that wants to block the view of a neighbor’s house from their back patio. It’s not totally correct with spacing and siting, but could be tweaked pretty easily. I chose Bay Laurel because it’s evergreen and the leaves can be used in the kitchen (bay leaves) and the shrubs and perennials provide a nearly year round color mix, attraction to pollinators and birds, and are low maintenance once established. If I were to actually install this I would follow the instructions in this “How To Create A Privacy Hedge” video by Urban Farmstead.

Serviceberry Update 🤢

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.