I really need to find myself a good constellation map. The stars out here are incredible. I’m pretty sure I knew what some of them were when I was little and Daddy used to take me out stargazing in a vacant lot a couple of blocks from our house, but I’ve forgotten most of what I knew, and at this point, I’m lucky if I can find the Big Dipper and Orion’s belt.
Look at my new squiggly friend! I met him in the garden this afternoon.
I would like the record to show that I was a very good girl and did not try to pick up my slithery new friend or pet him, even though I really, really wanted to.
I showed my pictures to people at work today, but nobody there likes snakes. I don’t know why. I think he’s cute. I like his racing stripes and his pretty brown eyes and his flickery little tongue. I was pretty excited to find him in the garden, partly because I’ve never seen a snake in my yard before and partly because cold-blooded animals are a sure sign of spring.
I spotted this armadillo sort of bumbling along Themis Street the other night. From a distance, I thought it was an opossum, but then I caught up to it and realized it wasn’t. That’s the second one I’ve seen in the last six months. Fearless little things; the first sauntered across my path like I wasn’t even there, and this one sort of walked with me for half a block and then just stood still and let me take its picture, because obviously indulging humans with photo ops is a totally normal thing for armadillos to be doing at 10:30 p.m.
I’m kind of delighted. Armadillos look like what you’d get if a dinosaur had puppies. Plus they eat grubs, which obviously makes them heroes in my book.
I had no idea they were so nonchalant about humans, though. Not gonna lie: I kind of wanted to pet this one, but I figured that was probably rude, and I wasn’t entirely sure how it would react. Something tells me Ron would NOT be pleased if he had to rush me to the emergency room because I’d picked a fight with an armadillo.
If we start getting them in our yard, I’m totally gonna sit outside all night with a dish of mealworms and try to make friends, though. Leprosy, schmeprosy. I want to pet a dinosaur puppy.
Ron wanted to check out something we’d never seen before this weekend, so when we were both off Friday, we drove out to Bollinger Mill, a long-defunct grain mill at Burfordville that has been preserved as a state historic site.
Ron, whose late uncle used to run a feed store, liked touring the building and seeing how the machinery worked, and we both enjoyed meeting the resident mill cat and walking across the covered bridge next to the mill, but for me, the best part of the trip was the trail leading up through the woods to Bollinger Cemetery.
Amboy Crater remains my favorite place to hike — followed closely by Tucumcari Mountain and La Bajada Hill — but beggars can’t be choosers, and I’ve become increasingly enthusiastic about the prospect of spending time off traipsing through the woods, usually at a pace considerably faster than Ron would like. For everyday training, I like smooth, fast trails or climate-controlled tracks and treadmills, but there’s something to be said for rugged terrain that demands your full attention and forces you to focus on the task at hand instead of counting steps, timing intervals or making mental to-do lists while you log your miles for the day. Tree roots, spiderwebs and steep inclines force you to be fully present in the moment; failure to do so generally comes with unpleasant consequences.
I was too busy concentrating on keeping my feet under me — a demanding task, as the heavy rains we’ve had this summer appear to have eroded the trail pretty badly — to take many pictures, but the trail is pretty, and the hill is just steep enough to be challenging without posing any significant risk of shin splints or sore knees on the way back down.
Bollinger Mill is off Route HH about 19 miles from Cape Girardeau. If you go through Gordonville, to get there, I highly recommend a stop at the Gordonville Grill for lunch. If you hike the trail during warm weather, take bug repellent. I didn’t have any with me Friday, and the mosquitoes were exceptionally obnoxious.
I got to help with a cool project Saturday morning. Some volunteers from the local Islamic Center teamed up with some members of Abbey Road Christian Church — which I’ve been visiting for the last few weeks — to pull weeds and trim back perennials in the flowerbeds around the church’s labyrinth.
There has been a strong effort lately to foster better communication between members of the Muslim and Christian faith communities here in Cape, which delights me to no end. (My favorite high-school anecdotes all start with what sounds like the setup to a bad joke — “A Muslim, a Jew, and a vegan walk into a pizzeria” — and end with a bunch of kids laughing until our faces hurt while our scholar-bowl coach tried to figure out what we were up to this time.)
Anyway, between my fondness for interfaith activities and my love of labyrinths, showing up Saturday was a no-brainer, and I spent a couple of happy hours making new friends and working in a pretty garden.
Unfortunately, the project became less pleasant for three participants who encountered a colony of red paper wasps that were nesting in one of the flowerbeds. Paper wasps are usually fairly docile, but if you disturb their home, they’ll invoke the castle doctrine.
Several church members suggested using pesticides to kill the wasps, as they presented a safety issue for the volunteers as well as anyone who might come out to walk the labyrinth.
I understood their concern, but as a beekeeper, I knew I could suit up and remove the threat without harming any adult wasps, so I suggested everybody simply avoid that flowerbed while I called Ron to bring me a protective suit and gloves.
Once Ron arrived, it took about 15 minutes to suit up, find the nest and remove it. Problem solved. I brought the nest home so the pupae developing inside the sealed cells could finish maturing and hopefully hook up with a colony in my garden when they emerged. (Sadly, the larvae and eggs were doomed the minute I removed the nest from its original spot, but I’d rather lose a little brood than destroy the entire colony.)
I’m always amazed at how far I’ve come with respect to wasps.
As a kid, I didn’t know much about stinging insects, and I was terrified of them. As I grew up and learned more about pollinators, however, fear gave way to understanding, respect, and appreciation, and today, I’m not the least bit shy about running interference on their behalf when necessary.
Left to my own devices, I would have ordered at least one nuc hive and two packages of honeybees this spring, and we’d have a yard full of pollinators tending my garden and entertaining me. Ron, however — frustrated by the departure of yet another colony of notoriously flighty Carniolan-Italian hybrids last year — decided he wasn’t spending another dime on bees this spring and would just put our names on a couple of swarm lists and wait to catch a feral colony.
No one called, so we didn’t get the opportunity to catch our own swarm, and as a direct result, my cucumber crop this year consisted of three fruits. THREE. A typical plant will produce cucumbers faster than I can put them up, but those flowers won’t pollinate themselves, and without several thousand bees living a few feet away, the blossoms just withered away without producing anything.
When I finally realized what was happening, I decided enough was enough and ordered myself a leafcutter bee kit. Leafcutters are a gentle, solitary species that don’t produce honey but do pollinate at least as enthusiastically as honeybees.
The bees arrive as pupae encased in little pouches made of — you guessed it — pieces of leaves their mamas cut from lilac or rose bushes. My kit came with a little bee house consisting of a plastic PVC pipe with a cap on one end, predrilled for easy mounting to a fence or other vertical space, and a wooden block with holes drilled in it for the bees to use as nests.
One bee had already emerged from her little cocoon when she arrived a couple of weeks ago. I peeked in the other day, and it appears the others have emerged, although I haven’t seen any of them in the garden.
I may not. There are no guarantees they’ll like my yard; these are, after all, living creatures with minds of their own. But I planted a rose bush for them before they arrived, and I’m hopeful they’ll find the foliage and flowers in my garden attractive enough to entice them to stay, raise kids, and overwinter with me.
I had a secondary motive in trying leafcutters: I have a mild allergy to bee venom that seems to have gotten worse in recent years. I still prefer A. mellifera to all other bee species, but if the day comes when traditional beekeeping is no longer a safe hobby for me, I’d like a reasonable alternative to ensure I can continue to nurture pollinators in my garden.
We’ll see whether these girls decide to stick around. I’ll keep you posted.
Today was warm enough that I finally had a chance to clean out the pond. It desperately needed it; that cold snap we had a few weeks ago came on so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to rescue the floating plants, so I ended up with a thick layer of decaying vegetation floating on top of the pond. Yecch.
I’d been planning to wait until spring to change the water, but once I’d scooped out most of the dead plants, I could see how nasty it was, and I was a little concerned the decaying organic material would compromise the oxygen level in the water — endangering the goldfish — if I left it all winter, especially when it gets cold enough to warrant shutting off the pump, so I went ahead and swapped out about 30 gallons of water, which Ron poured onto the garden.
I also hosed off the top of my homemade filter, which had gotten clogged with roots from the dead plants, and used a quarter-inch drill bit to enlarge the holes, which instantly improved the flow rate on the pump.
Water lettuce and water hyacinths are pretty, and they definitely kept the algae down this year, but those long roots kept clogging the fountain this summer, and I suspect they were responsible for its premature demise. I’ll swap them for duckweed next spring. It’s just as good at preventing algae bloom, but its roots are shorter and less likely to clog up the equipment.
I am pleased to report that my goldfish are thriving. I found the body of one very small fish caught in the roots of a rotting hyacinth, but I couldn’t determine the cause of death; it might have frozen, but given its size in relation to the other fish, I suspect it simply succumbed to the law of natural selection. The dead fish was only two inches long, and the three survivors are all four or five inches long, so I’m guessing they just out-competed the little one.
BTW, there is no need to spend ridiculous money on fancy goldfish for your pond unless you just have your heart set on a particular breed. Koi are fine as far as they go, but they’re expensive ($12 to $150 or more) and require more space and better water conditions than plain old feeder goldfish — a.k.a. comets — which are cheaper (25 cents or less), tougher (I’m pretty sure these guys could thrive in a mud puddle), and IMHO, just as pretty as their fancier counterparts. They’re just as smart, too; I’ve heard koi owners brag about how their fish come right up to the edge of the pond to greet them when they come outside, as if that’s some amazing feat of intelligence. I’ve kept comets on and off for years, and I’ve yet to see one that wouldn’t swim to the surface and beg when it saw me walk outside. These guys know a gravy train when they see one.
Bonus: Because comet goldfish are marketed as food for larger species, when you buy one to live in your pond, you’re saving a life.
Yeah. Comets. Getchu some.
One happy side effect of getting the flow rate up on the pump is that it’s aerating the water better. The fish spent a lot of time playing in the ripples near the surface this afternoon, so I’m assuming they liked it, too.
The bees — who were very active today, thanks to the warm weather — were none too pleased with me for messing with their water source and taking away their landing strips, but I’ve been saving wine corks to serve as replacement perches, and I threw a few out there today.
In other news, the quail have quit laying. I could use artificial lights to get them going again, but the whole point of raising my own birds was to ensure they weren’t subjected to the kind of evil crap that goes on in factory farms, so I’ll just trust Mother Nature and let them set their own schedule. If they need the winter off, they can have it.
Hope you had a productive Sunday, wherever you are. I think I’m going to wind mine down by bottling some pinon-infused beer we started a couple of weeks ago and racking a batch of cider. (Homemade hard cider will be an Eco-Saturday one of these days if I ever remember to take pictures of all the steps. It’s a little time-consuming but very easy to make, and the end product is magnificent.)
Y’all know how much I hate winter. I spent most of today trying to ignore it: making avocado-and-quail-egg sandwiches for brunch, starting a batch of yogurt in the Crock-Pot, picking up a couple of gallons of sweet cider at Rendleman’s Orchard, sanitizing the keg to ferment the cider (I will have a post on the glory of homemade hard cider in the not-too-distant future), installing plastic over the windows, finishing up the second Roman shade for the living room, and having dinner at the Pilot House, which we’d never been to before, and which we really enjoyed.
We’re fond of stopping at promising-looking roadhouses when we travel, and the Pilot House, which is tucked next to a little creek on one of the back roads to Jackson, was a nice find. It might be all of five miles from home, but it felt like the sort of place we’d stop on 66 or 61 or maybe the Lincoln Highway — sort of like the Elbow Inn or the Luna Cafe or that crazy place we found out near Middlegate, Nevada, on the Loneliest Road where they serve the “Monster Burger” with olives for eyes. They’ve got the wheel from a riverboat mounted on the ceiling above the bar, and the bar itself is covered with pennies embedded in resin or something. I had a ribeye sandwich that tasted exactly like a ribeye sandwich from a bar is supposed to taste, and Ron had a barbecue sandwich that I will almost certainly order next time we’re there.
They also had Stag on tap, which is invariably a good sign. Stag on tap at a roadhouse is like sweet tea at a barbecue joint or horchata at a taqueria: If they have it, you can safely assume you’re in good hands.
In the Southwest, xeriscaping is popular, as it involves planting only native and/or drought-tolerant species in your garden so you don’t end up draining every aquifer west of Amarillo in a misguided effort to keep some delicate green thing alive.
Here in the Midwest, I practice a variant I developed by accident, which I call “Darwin gardening.”
The original Darwin Garden was located in our backyard in Belleville, Illinois, and it happened by accident: I started with a neat garden divided into four-foot squares delineated with old bricks I’d found in the garage, with neat mulched paths between them, and by the time we left, my laziness and absolute refusal to coddle weak plants left me with an unruly but outrageously productive tangle of perennials and vigorous self-seeding annuals that included echinacea, parsley, Roman chamomile, chives, dill, sage, spinach, cilantro, mint, marjoram, oregano, carrots, blackberries, and waist-high collards that thought they were perennials.
The Darwin Garden wasn’t neatly manicured, but it was healthy, low-maintenance, and completely organic. When you let natural selection dictate your landscaping design, you don’t need pesticides, heavy watering or other environmentally questionable practices to keep your garden thriving. You also don’t need huge blocks of time to take care of your garden, because your plants will be sturdy enough to survive without constant coddling.
We have a similar garden here. When we moved in last year, I planted a small garden, watered it occasionally, and otherwise ignored it, knowing the fastest way to find out which plants were suited to the local growing conditions was to neglect them and see whether they survived.
A year into that experiment, I’ve got sage, strawberries, mint, basil and Shasta daisies that came up with no help from me, and next year’s arugula and cucumbers have already planted themselves.
If you’re a little bit concerned about the environment and a lot lazy, consider planting your own Darwin Garden. If you can tolerate the frustrations of that first year, you’ll find it pays big dividends in subsequent seasons.