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.”
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.”