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 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
For the past nine days, the only thing I’ve really wanted to talk about is an article in the New York Times by Brooke Jarvis titled, “The Insect Apocalypse is Here.” I had noticed the article on the homepage for a few days, but last Saturday I finally sat down to read it all the way through. I was not prepared.
The story follows scientists and “amateur” etymologists mostly in Europe and the United States who are all arriving at the same conclusion: populations of insects are declining at an exponential rate. The study that first alarmed the scientific community calculated a more than 75% loss in total flying insect biomass in 63 German nature preserves over the past 30 years. Similar studies of monarch butterflies, honeybees, moths and others have corroborated this research. Worry is growing that the insect kingdom will eventually disappear entirely. The consequences are expected to be catastrophic.
The article hit a nerve very close to home for me because for the past year or two I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and watching videos about permaculture design. I’ve come to believe that nature can heal itself with the right combination of human interventions. I’ve begun to follow Jeff Lawton, Colette O’Neil of Bealtaine Cottage, and Toby Hemenway of Gaia’s Garden. My YouTube homepage is full of recommendations for videos about swales, cob construction, and food forests.
The creativity and optimism of these teachers has given me some hope for the future, but this article reminded me that their endeavor is more urgent in more ways than I had realized. Insects are integral to the creation of soil, the fertilization of flowering plants, the decomposition of all living organisms, and the foundation of the food chain. What is permaculture without insects?
I started to look more seriously at how humans have shaped the environment, not just through the lens of permaculture vs. monoculture, but also from the perspective of insect habitat. We’ve taken our flowering meadows and replaced them with grass yards and immense monoculture farms, we’ve chopped up dense forests into subdivisions, we’ve dammed rivers and prevented them from flooding surrounding lands with their nutrients. We have replaced every known habitat with asphalt roads, parking lots, sidewalks, and other impermeable surfaces. We have removed elements of insect habitat everywhere: pollen, rotting trees and animals, feces. We have cleaned up our environment in every imaginable way and we are left with something monotonous and ugly in contrast to diverse and natural beauty like this alpine meadow that I experienced this summer, shown in the photo below.
Or this Hill Country valley next to Enchanted Rock from last winter:
As I continued to read, I remembered another article from February of this year, “Let Your Winter Garden Go Wild,” that taught me for the first time how insects, birds, and small mammals all rely on dead plant growth from the summer months for shelter during winter. Some insects burrow into the ground, I learned, while others “like ladybugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps spend winter in the hollow stems of old flowers.” For three years, I drove to work past farms south of Richmond, and every season I watched as plants were harvested and removed entirely from the environment: no rot, no hollow stalk for hibernation, no insulation for production from the wind and snow.
I also felt a very personal sense of guilt as I thought about the ways that I have waged war on insects on my own small part of the world. Insecticide, in addition to climate change, is seen as a major determining factor for insect population decline. When we moved into our current house, I sprayed a general insecticide all around the place. I don’t even remember what exactly I was trying to kill, probably ants, but most likely out of some irrational fear. I remembered when I was young how my dad would fog the back yard of our house with an insecticide a few hours before my parents had friends over in order to control the mosquito population. What does it say about the product if we children weren’t allowed go outside for an hour or more after he sprayed? In just the past year I’ve poisoned rats with kill boxes, I’ve trapped flies by the thousands, and I’ve killed wasps burrowed into the dirt around our house. Although annoying, these wasps are actually harmless and we’ve never known them to sting. The insecticide revolution (along with fertilizer) allowed for modern farming to proliferate, but also created a world inhospitable to insects.
“Hans de Kroon characterizes the life of many modern insects as trying to survive from one dwindling oasis to the next but with ‘a desert in between, and at worst it’s a poisonous desert.’ Of particular concern are neonicotinoids, neurotoxins that were thought to affect only treated crops but turned out to accumulate in the landscape and the consumed by all kinds of nontargeted bugs.”
Brooke Jarvis, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here”
Even small amounts of these toxins have been shown to wipe out insect populations. Jarvis writes that one of the theories about how neurotoxins affect bees is that it prevents them from finding their way home. Lost, the bees die alone and entire hives are found, not full of dead insects, but mysteriously empty.
Considering the insect apocalypse also reminded me that one morning in September of this year, while waiting for the bus, I had been excited to see a bumblebee floating from flower to flower on our purple heart plants. I was so excited that I even took a photo (below) and watched it for as long as I could. What I didn’t realize at the time, because it is so difficult to notice, is that my excitement was borne not of the presence of the bumblebee, but of the overwhelming absence of all other insects in the garden.
Jarvis writes that we are exceptionally good at forgetting how things used to be. “The world never feels fallen, because we grow accustomed to the fall.”
As I have now been made aware of this acute loss, my last response has been to imagine ways that I could contribute to insect habitats. I found a lovely British organization called BugLife that created the following diagram for gardening with insects in mind.
This diagram includes food, water, and habitat for insects to grow and survive all four seasons of the year. One of the core lessons that BugLife seeks to share is that in order to support insect life we need to do more and we need to do much LESS. We need to stop keeping our farms, yards, and gardens so tidy and we need to keep a much wider variety of flowering plants than in a traditional garden. Essentially, we need to return our small portions of the earth back to a more natural environment and we need to learn to see beauty in way that each element serves to benefit the other.
I’ve also been daydreaming constantly about buying a small parcel of land that’s for sale near my house and fully living into my permaculture fantasies. It’s a densely wooded area perched above a ravine on one side while bordering a neighborhood and an old semi-industrial area on the others. It looks like there is enough run-off from the street to feed a small pond or two on the property and enough room for a house and multiple outbuildings. While many trees would need to be cut down, the entire property could eventually be reshaped into a self-sustaining and diverse ecosystem of wild prairie, forest, ponds, as well as gardens and living spaces. I’ve imagined the houses incorporating sustainable design such as cob construction, passive and active solar, rocket stove mass heaters, and composting toilets.
Of course, I don’t know how to do any of these things and I can’t quit my day job, but it’s still fun to dream:
Until then, I will be actively swapping my anxiety for action with small changes to make the natural world around me more interesting, more wild, and a little more hospitable to our little friends.