Weeded and mowed. And first monarch caterpillar!

I cut back the bee balm this week. It’s stems sprawled, leafless and leggy, and a mildew rusted the few withered leaves that were left. A fresh crop greens the ground where the desiccated bee balm swayed before, and fresh stems leaf towards the sky. 

Cutting that back inspired me to demolish the catnip as well. It had bushed into a chest high tangle of brown stems and withered leaves at its base and almost to its tips, leggy and past its prime. Birds and bees still loved it for its flowers and seed heads, which caused significant internal conflict about cutting it back. We’ve got a ton of other flowers and seeds and branches for perching, so I whacked it.

 After two weeks out of the garden, and after a drenching rain, I needed to trim and neaten. Weeds trashed the garden. It looked like an abandoned parking lot. The grass was shin high and gone to seed as well. The yard was not tidy like I like it.

All week I watched the forecast, hoping for a pleasant Saturday to garden. All week, the forecast called for rain. I slept in, and when I awoke, the sun shone on sparkling wet grass. 

I spent the morning tearing out weeds, snipping dead flower stems, chopping aphid-infested seed pods off of milkweed. And in doing so, found our first monarch caterpillar of the season:

Everything is blooming, and the hummingbirds don’t mind that I cut back the bee balm. One just thrummed in front of me, zipping over to the firecracker plant. It’s drinking there now. I’ll finish up the mowing and go sit in my chair to enjoy the flowers without the distraction of weeds and tall grass.

Rainy day at the book store

I am at Barnes & Noble on a sodden Friday — my flex day. On the round Formica café table are my coffee, two gardening magazines, and a warm peanut butter cup cookie on a white ceramic plate (“For here, please”). The café hums behind me — I spent far too much time selecting my seat (in the corner? by the window? with a wall behind me? facing the tables or the bookstore?) — and in front of me a man in a cobalt blue sweater and well-worn sneakers browses the technology aisle. Rain drops run in rivulets down the store windows, and I am cozy with my coffee, cookie, and composition book.

I left my laptop at home. In this murmuring book store, on my day off, I am surrounded by physical media. Journals, books, magazines. Vinyl, compact disks. My pen tip scratching across the blue-lined paper of a wide-ruled Mead composition book (they didn’t have college-ruled, which is probably for the best now that I have old-lady eyes).

Before I left home, I opened my computer to pay a bill and look up some phone numbers (eye doctor, nail salon) and hours (library, book store). As soon as I opened it, Slack boinged at me, Telegram dinged at me, red notification bubbles glared at me, and browser and calendar banner notifications slid open in the upper right of my screen. I quit every application quickly so I wouldn’t see anything that might suck me in.

I managed to not work — a narrow escape! — but did not manage to avoid falling into the digital chasm. After I finished my online errands, I somehow spent 15 minutes searching for desktop wallpaper to satiate my craving for turquoise water, warmth, and a feeling of tranquility. I have no idea how I ended up there. I did not find satisfactory wallpaper before realizing the trap I was falling into. I shut the laptop and left it behind so I could spend my rainy day flex day at the book store.

Cherry blossoms are popping pink against the brown landscape, and I saw my first tulip of the year today, a spring yellow. 

Today’s drenching should green the landscape quickly. I wanted to spend some time today weeding,  but I’m not sad the rain is keeping me in instead. I haven’t started thinking about the garden yet this year, and with how warm it’s been, I’m finally ready. On the table in front of me are a glossy, staple-bound Virginia Gardener and a matte, glue-bound Gardening for Birds & Butterflies

The green of their covers is fresh and alive compared to the dreary March grey outside. I fear I will leave here with a mind full of wishes, and a dangerous desire to spend a lot of money on flowers.

August in the garden

All that work laying out flower beds, killing grass, shoveling mulch, and digging 150+ holes to drop plants into has paid off. I’m sitting under the dogwood tree, watching a hummingbird drink from pink salvia flowers not ten feet away while further down the garden a monarch lays eggs on the milkweed. 

It has been weeks since I’ve had a chance to bring my chair under the dogwood to enjoy the flowers, but yesterday, beast though it was for all the chores, I got all of my must-dos done so I could do exactly that: sit under a tree and watch the hustle and bustle of a summer flower garden.

Writing and butterfly-watching

We’ve been getting more butterflies as August marches on, and I usually see them from the car window as I arrive or depart the house, or from the living room window while I type on my laptop for work. Not enough do I come out and sit in the fresh air with the mountain breeze and the insect sounds. 

Yesterday, amidst all the chores and errands, I squeezed in some gardening in the horrid heat. I got to see everything up close again and engage with the flowers, the herbs, the bees, the dirt, the aphids. I waded through waist-high salvia to deadhead, chopped forests of thigh-high basil, cut milkweed so infested with aphids I couldn’t touch it without getting little orange bodies all over me, and pulled tufts of grass and dandelions until my fingernails hurt. 

And in the middle of all that chopping, weeding, and squirting aphids with soapy water, I saw our first monarch caterpillar. That fat, squishy, striped baby butterfly made every bit of the work worth it.


Now, I hear the rat-a-tat of cicadas, the buzz of two fat bumblebees, the honk of a Canada goose flying overhead, and the shh-shh-shh of my husband sanding our canoe in the garage. A cool breeze lifts the pages of my pretty journal, and glassy dragonfly wings shimmer in sunlight over the grass. The butterflies weren’t out when I first came out. The morning was too young. But now they’re coming.

butterfly on joe-pye plant

Butterfly watch

It’s Sunday morning and I’m under my tree again. These past days have been hot ones, but under the dogwood, I’m able to stay cool. This is my favorite place to be on weekends — in a camp chair, in the shade of my favorite tree, observing the garden.

A few minutes ago, from the chaise lounge inside,  I watched a swallowtail drink from the milkweed for a good five or ten minutes. Its big wings beat furiously as it flitted from flower head to flower head and drank deeply. When it finally flew away, it staggered like a drunken sailor.

“Maybe it was a female and now it’s going to lay eggs on the parsley!” I said. “Or the rue.” I tried to peer farther out the window to see the parsley plants.

Then it occurred to me that the resident bird population might eat any caterpillars we get. “They’ve eaten all the blueberries, too,” said our son.

Oh well. This is the way of things.

I moved outside for a better view of the host plants, to watch for any signs of egg-laying. The swallowtail hasn’t come to the parsley, but a hummingbird is drinking from the bee balm about 15 feet away. It’s tiny body shimmers emerald in the sun, and its wings hum as it beats them fast enough to hover while it drinks from red trumpets.

Ooh ooh! Here comes the swallowtail! Towards the parsley, close to the parsley, will it see the parsley?

Nope, flew by without stopping. Dang.

It’s okay. Butterflies have been rare so far this summer. Now they’re finally coming. They’ve found the little oasis we tried to create, filled with host plants for caterpillars and nectar for adults. I see five flitting through the garden right now as I type. 

I’ll keep watching.

Reading under a tree

This morning was a lovely one: breezy with sun and fresh Appalachian air, cool enough to pull weeds and plant annuals without breaking a sweat. Leaves rustled, bees buzzed happily from flower to flower.

When I watered in the new bright yellow zinnias, scraping dirt from beneath my fingernails while I held the hose and thought about what I’d eat for lunch, a pair of small brown-orange butterflies flitted round each other in that twirling butterfly dance they do.

I looked over at the shade beneath the dogwood tree and thought, I want to sit there and read my book.

So here I am. Flowers bloom all around me, a soft yellow butterfly drinks from a purple salvia, grasshoppers chirp and birds trill, leaves quiver and shake, the sound of a far off lawn mower drifts over the hills, and the breeze makes a low whooooo sound across my ears. 

It’s going to be a good night for sailing.

I am enjoying blogging from my phone — it’s so immediate! I can publish from anywhere, including the shade of the dogwood tree in our front yard.

Die aphids!

I think I may be deriving too much pleasure from finding aphid corpses all over my milkweed plants. But it is so satisfying to squirt them with soapy water, then come back the next day to find desiccated aphid bodies where plump, orange life-suckers once were.

Killing aphids may be the highlight of my mornings now. Today I went out in quite a getup: purple workout clothes, green rubber boots, a flowery coffee cup in one hand, and a plastic spray bottle filled with sudsy water in the other. I giggled as I  squirted aphids, thinking of my friend J when she played out a similar attack on hornets. She used RAID and screamed a battle cry, “Die MoFos!* ” as she lunged in with the killing spray. (*cleaned up for public reading). She’s my hero.

The milkweed is for the caterpillars. Aphids beware.

Morning in the garden

When I left for WordCamp Europe, our garden was pregnant with plump flower buds: echinacea, milkweed, hydrangea. While I walked the streets of Vienna, admiring the red geraniums that spilled from window boxes, I wondered how my flowers at home were doing. We can never get our flower boxes looking as good as the ones I saw in Vienna, but that’s ok. I have my whole life to keep tinkering.

It was dark when I arrived home after 24 hours in trains, airplanes, airports, and cabs, but not so dark I couldn’t see the outline of a new purple coneflower when I dragged my suitcase into the garage.

Every morning since I’ve gotten home, I make a smoothie*, walk downstairs to the garage, slip my feet into green rubber boots, and walk out into the dewy grass. I inspect the milkweed, parsley, rue, and passionflower for caterpillars (none yet) and check out the progress of all the flower buds. I deadhead a few withered blossoms. Sip my smoothie. Listen to birds trill. Nobody in the neighborhood is outside. I have it all to myself.

I keep trying to get a good photo for y’all but I’ve had zero luck. Despite digging close to 200 holes and putting a plant in each one, there are still large open spaces in the beds. I know they’ll eventually fill in, but for now the garden is young and I just have to accept that. My husband said we can take our daughter to pick out some annuals this weekend to plunk them in the open spaces. She will be very excited.

Morning in the garden is my favorite way to start the day: beautiful, serene, full of life.

*For the smoothie-lovers, my smoothie usually has kale, banana, walnuts, flax seeds, frozen pineapple, frozen strawberries (or peaches or mangos), and pineapple juice.