An unseasonably warm, dry October morning brought me outside to finish the garden clean-up I began last month. Bags of mulch set out near their destination, tools sharpened, cleaned, and oiled, compost bins at the ready, bulbs to plant, gardener thoroughly caffeinated – I was filled with the spirit!
A pleasant breeze set Phyllostachys aurea dancing, blades of Panicum virgatum ‘Ruby Ribbons’ moved in unison and evoked seaweed moving under water, Leycesteria formosa nodded under the weight of its berry clusters, and Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan Sugi’ created its own sunny glow. Other than a film of yellow pollen from Cedrus deodara covering the street and sidewalk, the day promised to be perfect for work. Because I had kept up with weeding over the summer I had time to spend on the fine details of gardening – pruning away spent, tired leaves and small, spindly limbs that make a plant look messy and would most likely die during winter; cleaning and rearranging the rocks in a dry stream-bed; permanent placing of some large, beautiful Philadelphus limbs taken down a while ago; covering the beds with a layer of mulch – the fun, creative projects that make a sore back and stiff knees tolerable.
It’s quiet in my neighborhood in the early morning hours and this morning was no exception. It is a productive time to work, early morning, and a pleasure to be able to start a job, follow through, and finish without interruption. It is, also, the time of day I put out a few peanuts for my crow. He seems to enjoy kicking back with a snack and watching while I work.
The job I chose to start the morning with was mulching of beds. I know of few jobs that offer such a huge reward for so little effort. Gardeners are well aware of the many benefits of mulch, be it in the form of wood chips, home-made compost, leaves and plant debris, or any combination of these materials. Having chosen the job with the most obvious benefit, I indulged in my favorite mulch material – soil building compost. This mulch is great stuff! And it’s beautiful. Expensive, but worth the cost.
With the cumbersome bags and a wheelbarrow full of mulch ready for application, I plotted a course and began the process. I started at the garden by the gate and worked downhill around a young Pinus mugo, ‘Carsten’s Wintergold’, around Rosa glauca and its healthy thorns (ouch!), under Leycesteria formosa, Styrax japonica, Mahonia repens, and down to the recently pruned and shapely Ceanothus. Finishing this part of the garden, I stood up and reviewed the work. “Beautiful stuff”, I said. My crow seemed to concur – he had watched me from the kitchen roof and made a soft, clicking sound in agreement.
I gathered the remaining mulch and moved to a lower part of the garden, behind a 12 ft tall Cupressus macrocarpa that the nursery had sold as a ‘Wilma Goldcrest’ but was no longer gold and certainly not ‘Wilma’, and began applying mulch around Viburnum rhytidophyllum – a dramatic and stately plant. As I worked, a friend and her dog walked by and we talked for a short time. During our conversation I heard the crow cawing but assumed he was fussing about the dog, so I ignored him. My friend resumed her walk and I returned to my work but the crow continued to caw with increased volume and intensity. I thought he might be telling me the heron had returned and was fishing, so I walked to the gate garden but instead found a large, messy hole in the mulch I had applied earlier. I looked up at the crow and said “Did you do this??” However, it didn’t look like one of his caches – he had never made this much of a mess before. I cleaned up the area and told him to hide his cache someplace else next time. He fluffed his feathers in response.
I returned to the lower area where I had been working and continued mulching the beds. My eyes watered a bit from the Cedar pollen but not enough to slow me down. A hard sneeze cleared my sinuses. After another hour or two, I had finished the entire lower portion of the yard, 90% of which is garden instead of lawn. I stood up and reviewed the work. “Gorgeous! I wish it would stay this way all year!” I began to clean up the bags and tools when I realized that my crow had been calling for some time. I had been so involved in the work that I had not paid much attention to him, so I decided to see what this fuss was about. I walked back up to the gate garden where I saw not one, not two, but a group of deep, messy holes dug into the freshly applied mulch, and the bag of bulbs torn open. With mulch, dirt, and bulbs scattered on the lawn and sidewalk, and some rocks pulled away from their setting, I suspected a raccoon had been at work. “What a mess”, I thought! To have a raccoon in the garden at the same time as the gardener is unusual, and possibility dangerous. These animals are, after all, big enough to do damage to a person. I recently had a run-in with some Hobo spiders which resulted in a trip to a hospital and was not anxious to discover the damage a raccoon could inflict. I left the garden and went around the corner to the shed for a clean pair of gloves but instead came face-to-face with – The Squirrel! It’s him! I would know that tail anywhere! With mulch and dirt on his paws! And the same frantic, terrified look on his face as the last time I saw him! “!*&@!. It’s you!!” I shouted. “Scram!!” And he did. Right up into the canopy of our old, venerable Pieris – saying the same thing he said to me after our last encounter.
I found a clean pair of gloves and returned to the garden where I found the crow rummaging around in the holes, apparently looking for the peanuts the squirrel had stashed. This proved to be no challenge for the crow – he flew off with a peanut in his beak when I stamped my foot at him. With watering eyes and a runny nose, I filled in the holes, replaced the mulch, salvaged some bulbs, and rearranged the rocks. They are not going to ruin this day, I told myself. With renewed vigor and determination, I set to work on the other side of the garden. This side, near my neighbor’s Crataegus monogyna and my stately Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, is the driest area in my yard. These two large trees take up every bit of water I offer, and the mulch I apply in early spring is gone before summer arrives, so it requires more time, effort, and mulch than any other garden bed on our property. It is, also, more open and exposed to street noise. That may be why I didn’t hear the commotion occurring behind me while I worked. Or it could have been because I was sneezing from the pollen infestation. Any reason would cover it. After spreading the last bag of mulch I stood up to stretch my back. In doing so, I turned around in time to see the squirrel and the crow scattering mulch and rocks all over the sidewalk and into the lawn. Together! My crow, right behind that squirrel! This was just wrong.
I decided to sneak up on the pair and give them a fright that would keep them out of the garden for months (or at least days). I walked quietly and slowly around the lower part of the garden, across the sidewalk, and came up behind the Not Wilma Goldcrest. There I stood for a moment planning my surprise attack. (At this point, I remembered a co-worker who, in response to my complaints about wildlife in the garden, told me that “they are God’s creatures, too!” Easy for her to say, I thought, she lived in an apartment and didn’t have to deal with little demented demons destroying her gardens.) Anyway, I knelt down and crawled ever-so-silently out from behind the tree towards the little conspirators. If you have ever grown a Cupressus macrocarpa, you will be aware of the intense fragrance of the foliage when you brush against it. I love it, but it has proven to be a slight irritant to my sinuses at times. This was one of those times. Combined with the heavy Cedar pollen in the air, the mulch dust, and being on my knees in the grass – let’s just say that this created a perfect storm for a sneeze. And just as I jumped up to scare them, I let loose with a sneeze that knocked me on my rear. And then another. And one more! When I was finally able to open my eyes, the squirrel was long gone and the crow was up on the chimney.
At this point you may be wondering why I put out food for these little creatures, and I often wonder about this, too. I do believe that we all must share resources, we must make room for each other, and we must be mindful of our dependency upon all forms of life during our short time here. We must forgive the mistakes we make – ours and others – and be patient but honest with those who feel they are without blame. We must move beyond our innate narcissism and realize that we can always improve. We must realize that we are not the pinnacle of evolution but just one more form of God’s creation. And we must accept responsibility for our actions and the consequences thereof.
And that is why I feed all those little creatures who wander through my garden, no matter how demented they may be.