Never Pull Up and Discard What You Cannot Identify

Readers of my book Plant Whatever Brings You Joy: Blessed Wisdom from the Garden will recognize that the title of this post is one of the 52 lessons upon which my book is built. And the Universe has kindly offered me a kick in the pants refresher course in that vital maxim.

As many of you know northern California was hit recently with a major heatwave. Not much actual gardening got done, other than to make sure plants were watered and that roses were cut and brought inside in the early morning rather than to wither in the harsh sun. But finally the fog came in, the heat receded and early morning gardening was very happily resumed. Let’s get out the clippers and do something about that rangy butterfly bush, shall we?

So there I am, clippers in hand, tackling the cutting, cutting, cutting back of the largest of my three butterfly bushes. Butterflies tend to come in the warmth of afternoon sun, so morning is a time when they will remain undisturbed. And suddenly I encounter a branch with desiccated, curled up leaves, entombed in webbing. Ick. My mind flashed first to spiders and then immediately to tent caterpillars I’d seen in my two years in North Carolina. As I cut off the offending branch I noticed some movement inside the webbie mass, so I took the time to take a quick pic of what looked like maybe caterpillars. I knew that butterfly bush is notoriously held as strictly a nectar plant, never a host plant, so I did not consider for a moment I might be looking at butterfly larvae, so I blithely tossed them into the recycling bin. Done. Moments later I was unpleasantly surprised by two more such branches, though these had far less damage. And I continued my trimming of the buddleia without much more thought to the spidery branches.

Until later, when I took the time to post the pic to FB asking if anyone might ID, and a bug expert in Davis posted a comment that “they look like mourning cloak larvae.” WHAT???

By now it was late afternoon, still hot from a burning sun, and, plagued with guilt I fretted until I went out into the garden, tipped the full recycling bin on its side and foraged through a mound of cuttings looking for the three webby ones I’d dumped that morning, acting against all hope. What could possibly survive? Amazingly I found the first and largest of the three upon which two or three tiny caterpillars appeared to still have life within them. And I placed the branch gently back into the safety of the butterfly bush where I’d found it. Eventually I found the other two branches, though there was no sign of life. I took small comfort that perhaps I’d saved one or two butterflies and went inside, still feeling bereft, as well as angry with myself that I was not following my own teachings! “Never pull up and discard what you cannot identify,” Kathryn!

The next morning I went out into the garden upon arising and I did see a couple of caterpillars on the one branch and tried to console myself again. Given that it was now Monday morning I dragged the recycling bin to the street for collection the next morning. As I settled it into place I saw an amazing thing. One tiny caterpillar, no bigger than half an inch long, on the top lip of the recycling bin. What? How could this be? I immediately maneuvered him into my hand, no small feat, and took him into the back garden to join his siblings. Wow. Could there be more? I popped the top of the bin open and looked inside. Indeed, I found another making his way to the top, to light, to air, out of the bin. Astounded, I rescued him and carried him to the butterfly bush. (No, I am not used to carrying a caterpillar in my hand!)

By now I was fully engaged and spent the next four hours going in and out of the house, checking for more babies. By the heat of the day I had watched and relocated fourteen of them, as one by one, over the hours, they found their way up to the top. Simply astounding. And so redeeming, as you might imagine. Whew! Not a total disaster then.

By now I am questioning how it was that butterfly larvae were using my butterfly bush as a host plant, completely against everything I’d ever heard. How was this possible? I emailed Art Shapiro, a very well known butterfly expert and author, sending him a pic. He wrote back to confirm they were butterfly larvae, but added, “These are not mourning cloak butterflies. They are checkerspots. And the only time I’m aware this has happened [like, ever, except one in a lab in 1940…] is in Mariposa County. The fad must be catching on.” Now my mind is completely blown.

Checkerspot butterfly

I have just rescued checkerspot larvae I’d tossed in a bin, and replaced them on a buddleia to continue on their path, and it’s an unknown phenomenon outside of one known such occurrence in Mariposa County, over 300 miles away?? Turns out that event was such a big deal Art and the woman who reported it, Katie, co-authored an article about the experience. I immediately wrote to her. And learned she’s a gardening blogger! And she had written up the experience on her blog! As you can imagine this was getting more and more exciting and, frankly, amazing.

So now I check on these babies every morning and a couple of times a day. They bunch up together at night. They are spreading out to new branches and munching down their small territory. They are getting bigger. And, yes, I’m posting to YouTube.

Some of them are leaving the core group. And some of them are encasing themselves inside little web tents. I just love it. Every minute of it.

Art says they will eventually drop to the ground, where they will live amongst the ground litter, and then they will finally walk off way away from the butterfly bush, and encase themselves in their chrysalides. Apparently it’s unlikely I will ever see this part. (Boo hoo.) But I’m feeling profoundly blessed they chose my garden to live in one of my butterfly bushes (sorry for the rough welcome) demonstrating that buddleia does indeed, serve as a host plant, turning conventional scientific knowledge on its ear. Nature, ever adapting. How lovely and special and please help me spread the word that butterfly bushes can serve for some species as both a host and nectar plant, ensuring its place in butterfly history.

Love and gardening blessings,
Kathryn xoxo

Footnote, learned on Katie’s blog: Not all buddleia, apparently, are super fertile. If you are worried about their spreading, perhaps research ones that will not. I personally have never seen a buddleia moving about in my garden.

Book News: Recently I have uploaded the latest iteration of Plant Whatever Brings You Joy: Blessed Wisdom from the Garden to both Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. If you do read I would be incredibly happy if you were to rate the book in either of these venues. Thank you so much in advance. Very kind. It makes such a difference to author sales–also to our hearts.

Creating a Meadow, Part One

For eons I’ve been imagining that it would be possible to convert the lawn in the front garden to something more imaginative. Like a meadow. In my imagination I have envisioned longer grasses, clovers, wild violets, lupine and perhaps some Queen Anne’s lace. Simple, poetic, appealing to the Pisces soul. And so I began.

Interestingly (or not) the lawn out front is composed of two distinct canvases, one of which I’ve named, aptly and appropriately, The Meadow and the other half (the small half, I say, comforting myself) is the Evil Half. And I’ll tell you why. But first The Meadow in making.

I began by saying, “I’m never mowing this lawn again,” and, to prove my point, put my lawn mower out front with a free sign on it and a postman pulled up within 45 minutes and asked if it was, indeed, free. It was. Gone.

And I simply let the lawn grow. This allowed me to begin to explore what was growing out there, what I’d inherited when I moved here over a decade ago, because, as I was soon to find out, if you continue to simply mow grass down, chances are, and my chances were really, really good, you won’t really know what’s afoot. Literally. Haha.

In The Meadow half of my lawn (the Big Half) I was not disappointed. The clovers grew out and spread. My cousin in Ohio ID’d them as White Dutch Clovers and I immediately went to the local feed store and bought a bag of seeds to multiply their presence, charmed as I was by them.

And I was especially fond of those growing in a family at the entrance to the property.

At the back of The Meadow are wild violets, finding their place in the scheme of things, and the borders are filled with ferns, white lilac, spirea, and enormous soft pink camellias. So this is going really well and leaves little to be desired, really. I’ll be adding other choices little by little.

Meanwhile, the Evil Half of the lawn, on the other side of the walkway, apparently has a very dodgy history. For what I’m discovering are the likes of the very plants you never want to hear are growing in your garden. All together. In one big patch. Lucky me.

*Dreaded burclover (Looks so innocent, right? Has a lovely tiny little five petal flower. Totally fooled me!)

*Poa, aka annual bluegrass

*Bermuda grass

*And bedstraw, aka cleavers, catchweed, stickyweed, robin-run-the-hedge (!), stickywilly (do tell), stickyjack, and grip grass. You get the picture. 😉

After stewing for a couple of days and suppressing tears of frustration I resigned myself to the practical solution of resuming mowing that half, the small half full of wicked stepsisters, back into obedient oblivion. Shopping for a small electric mower.

But I’m moderately grateful for the horticulture lesson.

And the bright light is that I planted a lot of crimson clover seeds (guess where?) and I have meticulously transplanted them into the Beautiful Meadow, where they will thrive, I have no doubt. And then they will look like this.

Won’t that be so pretty?

Thank you for letting me share my emerging Meadow story. It’s been a joy and learning experience and I highly recommend considering letting go of your lawns. My Border Collies are loving walking through the grasses, chasing toys each early morning!

Love and garden blessings,
Kathryn xoxo

Book/Blog News: Plant Whatever Brings You Joy the blog has once again been honored by another award, this time in a collection of popular home and garden blogs. My thanks to them!

Plant Whatever Brings You Joy is more than a simple gardening blog. Reading through its articles feels more like reading a book, or having a conversation. The author puts her life’s experience into the articles that she writes and offers some great advice about how to take care of various plants.

The blog contains an overwhelming number of articles that cover anything you could ever want. You can find ideas for different ways to plant flowers, how to take care of your gardening tools, and much more. There isn’t an online store of any sort, but it doesn’t feel like the feature is missing. This is simply a really useful, traditional blog.

Tools and Their Care

No one is born a perfect gardener. It’s a learned skill. Some of us began our education as children, helping our mothers or fathers or grandparents or aunties and uncles to weed and harvest and learn organically. Some of us were not so blessed and began our ventures much later in life, perhaps after becoming parents ourselves. And our styles are varied and abundant. And mine is random, experimental, delving, deeply appreciative, and full of curiosity. Concurrent is a gradual learned discipline, ever evolving, shaping our lives in the garden, and this includes our use and care of tools.

Folks who have read my book Plant Whatever Brings You Joy might recall a saying I learned from my Brazilian gardener, that it was “better to dig a five dollar hole for a fifty cent plant than a fifty cent hole for a five dollar plant”. This bit of wisdom, coupled with the realization that the men in my life who were gardeners were able to do things I could not not because they were men, but because they owned the proper tools for the job, got me to start investing in some for myself. Haha. 😉

One of those tools was a lawn mower. And gradually the accumulation grew and they all have their various and sundry places now, in my home–out in the shed, if used less often. The many pairs of gloves live with the small tools in a handy drawer in the dining area. Every single time I open this drawer my Border Collie, Ruby, runs to the back door in anticipation of going into the garden. It’s very endearing. But she’s right. We are off for a good time and some exploring.

Nearby is a larger drawer filled with Big Tools. Let’s just call them that, OK? Occasionally I am called to use them.

And the third spot in my home is a little cubby in the kitchen, sharing space with indoor tools. Its height allows for long tall tools, and keeps them clean and handy. Blower, small rake, edging tool and cutting tool all at the ready.

So, with good storage handled, what else need I consider?

I must confess to not always getting the shovels back into the shed in a timely fashion. I’ve learned that soaking a shovel sporting rust in a mild solution of water and vinegar does most of the hard work. A bit of steel wool might still be required to finish the job.

If I told you I followed professional advice and washed my clippers each time I used them with soap and water to avoid passing along (whatever) from plant to plant, I’d be lying. But I do rinse them off and that will do for now.

After researching the care of wooden handles of our shovels, etc. I concluded for myself that oft-recommended linseed oil, which is combustible, was not anything I was going to adapt, and have opted instead for a bit of high quality olive oil to maintain my handles. If someone has a better idea, that does not involve the possibility of burning down the shed, I’m open to learning.

While all of the above I consider important, the tools I’m most inclined to want to encourage my gardening readers to care for is your own body. Your hands and nails, your skin, your muscles, eyes, hair, lungs and feet are all integral to happy and successful gardening. Here’s a quick list:

*Hands and nails are best kept healthy and happy protected with gloves. Find a pair or two you love. It can make all the difference. Moisturizing and sunscreen are important. Have nail brushes handy when you shower or bathe, as well as at the sink. Use a really good handcream often. (I love Burt’s Bees Almond Milk Cream.) I give my nails a quick filing after every gardening adventure.

*Cuts and bruises need care. Wash cuts–no matter how small–with soap and water and treat with something you trust. Bruises do well with an application of arnica gel. Big bruises do better with Tiger Balm.

*Muscles need to be stretched prior to use. And incorporating an additional practice that strengthens muscles avoids injury.

*Wear a hat in the sun. Find one you LOVE. Otherwise you will collect a few that never seem to make it to the top of your head. I love the ones that serve specifically as sun protectors.

*Wear proper footwear! I invested in Hunter wellies this year and I love the protection they offer me in wet weather–up to my knees!

*If you suffer from allergies, protect yourself from pollens as you can. I use Alleraide and it basically eliminates symptoms. It’s homeopathic.

Those are some of the things I’ve learned over the years. I would love to hear some of your tips to make gardening one of the happiest activities in your life.

Love and gardening blessings,
Kathryn xoxo

Blog news: Honored to once again have this blog be acknowledged as one of the top gardening blogs around. I’m so glad it serves so many people. It’s my joy and privilege to share from my corner of the world here in Northern California. Thank you for visiting!
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