While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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Gardening with Wildlife: Regarding the birds and the bees; and raccoons and coyotes, squirrels and possums, bats and herons, stray cats and lost dogs, and on and on.

There are as many varied opinions about wildlife (and not-so-wildlife) in the garden as there are gardeners.  And most of these opinions are strong.  Feed them or not?  Chase them away or accept them?  These are questions and concerns that can have long-term consequences – either positive or negative – and that affect not just one garden but nearby gardens, as well.  Many people feel that if bird feeders are used, the feeders just invite squirrels, rats, crows, and other ‘pest’ creatures that are viewed as opportunistic.  Other people believe that it is our responsibility to feed creatures – most frequently birds – because of declining populations of native birds world-wide.  And, they’re cute.  Some people leave feeders out year-round.  Other people feed creatures during winter only. After years of struggling with this issue, many trials and a few errors, I have found the philosophy and its manifestation that works best for my garden, and its neighboring landscapes.

In late autumn, after seeds and berries that my garden supplies have been consumed, I put out a ground feeder of a variety of nuts and seeds for whomever comes by.  This feeder is used through winter and put away in very early spring.  I fill it once every other day, early in the morning, and it is empty by the afternoon of the second day.  I watch it closely and have never seen rats at the feeder.  This may be because of the very large, active population of outdoor cats in my neighborhood, as well as a Cooper’s hawk and a coyote.  On those rare occasions that a large group of crows come by, I will remove the feeder for a number of days before using it again.  This has proved successful in discouraging all but one crow – the crow who has been gardening with me for many years.  (This remarkable, opinionated, and highly intelligent bird recently left ‘home’ for the spring, but has returned twice this month.  Time will tell if he returns to stay, or has moved on to better feeding grounds.)

We live close to a 216 acre, forested city park that is almost 100 years old and is home to eagles, herons, hawks, skunks, and coyotes, in addition to many other animals.  But though large, this park land is not adequate for the amount of wildlife it houses.  Because of this, I supply food, water, and shelter for wildlife year-round in addition to the supplemental food as outlined above.  These creatures have enhanced my life in the garden in ways that few other experiences have.  I believe it is important to share my small plot of land with the abundant life that surrounds it.  After all, they need the land as much as I.


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Gardening with Wildlife: A good friend.

Some would say it’s difficult to determine with certainty if this interspecies relationship can be considered a friendship.  I think it is.  It grew slowly, with tentative steps and cautious acts.  We watched each other’s movements and responded to subtle hints and before long, trust developed.  We rarely communicate vocally but we have come to understand each other fairly well.

In 2006, my garden was attacked by a gang of starlings (officially, a group of Starlings is called, oddly, a chattering.  That’s not what I would call it).  These birds would not be dissuaded by my very enthusiastic beagle nor by my cat who always wanted outside on the porch to watch them gather, and not even by a beautiful great blue heron who would sometimes breakfast at our fish pond.  And certainly not by the irritated gardener who would charge outside, arms waving widely, running in their direction yelling rude things.  They would wait until I was almost on top of them before taking flight.  This chattering was not just great in number, but tremendous in noise. Their vocal abilities are equivalent to that of mocking birds in the south, which reminds me of the time my spouse heard what he thought was a typewriter being used outside, in a tree, at 6 am (this was in New Orleans in the 1980’s.  In New Orleans, a person in a tree at 6 am would not be unusual – typing, I’m not so sure.)  Our friend told us that the sound was actually a mocking bird who had learned to mimic the sound of his typewriter.

Anyway, these starling visits continued throughout spring.  There were only 2 times I noticed genuine alarm among the birds; when a Cooper’s hawk would swoop through my garden, or a crow family would perch in the apple tree across from my blueberry plants that the birds so loved.  Knowing full well that I could not attract the little hawk on command, I decided to train the crow family to come into my garden at specific times.  Being very bright birds, it took me just a week and a few days to train this family to come into my yard when the starlings visited.  (By the way, walnuts are a favorite food!)  Before summer was over, the crows were very well fed and the starlings were long gone.

I slowed, and then stopped, feeding the crow family and life seemed to return to normal.  Except that occasionally I would notice a member of the family sitting in our apple tree, watching me as I worked.  Always the same bird, identified by a small gray patch on its shiny black wing.  At first, I didn’t pay much attention to the bird because my life at that time was hectic – I worked, had returned to school, volunteered at my daughter’s middle school, and volunteered with EarthCorps.  As a result, my time in the garden was short, intense, and very focused.  But eventually I began to slow down and to give the bird some attention.  It seemed to be young.  I decided to refer to it as ‘my crow’, and chose to call the bird him rather than it.  He may have thought of me as his human.  Eventually, I would put out a few walnuts for him which he always appreciated.  Before long, I found myself looking for him whenever I worked outside.  It didn’t take a great amount of time before we were interacting – he would sometimes drop items on my head (Doug Fir cones, small twigs – nothing too hard).  We would watch squirrels bury nuts in my garden and then inexplicably run away; my crow would then fly down to dig out the nut.  A couple of times I would point to a spot he had missed.  He watched me and my family when we would eat dinner outside during summer, and one evening after we went inside for the night he took one piece from a group of small glass creatures I used as a centerpiece on our table.   In return, he placed a tiny plastic doll in the same spot.  My crow alerted me to the presence of a feral cat that had begun using our garden as hunting grounds, and called me to the living room window when the heron came by to fish.

Over the years, my crow and I have become very fond of each other – we take care of each other.  Does that sound like a misunderstanding of another species actions?  Just a common anthropomorphic interpretation of unintentional acts?   You can decide for yourself.   On a late July evening 2 years ago, I sat on the front porch.  I was crying (very quietly) – no one else home, no one around – about something that was excessively cruel and dishonest.  I sat outside until the sun began to set.  I was unaware of anyone around me until I looked up to see my crow perched on the garden gate nearby.  He was watching me closely.   Small, quiet clicks and clucks came my way.  He stopped, as if waiting for me to respond.  I asked him how he was and he responded with a slight body fluff, a few more very quiet clicks, and then moved a couple of steps my way.  We looked at each other for a short time, and then I said “It’s nice that you’re here.  Thanks.”  Another slight feather fluff, a bob of his head.  Sometime later, I said “I’m going to bed.   It’s getting late.”  I stood up, walked up the steps to the front door, and turned around to thank him again – to say “I’m ok.”  I received one more very small click or two, and he flew away.

Friendship?  Absolutely.  And he didn’t even ask for a nut.


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Gardening with Wildlife

Too Much Talking.

Late one summer evening, just after lights went off and sleep called, a conversation kicked up outside at the fish pond.  One creature chattered to another, another interjected with a short comment, the first creature answered, and then the group began moving rocks around.  A splash, a chuckle, then more chattering followed by a few squeaks.  My spouse turned to me and said, “They’re back.”

Raccoons are a talkative species.  They talk while they work, while they fish, and during play.  And they let everyone know when they mate.  They talk while they cross our yard, dig in the mulch, and overturn the rocks lining our pond.  I have pulled rocks up from the bottom of the pond every summer since my spouse installed it – more years  than I care to remember (but at least 10).   I listen to them, and have come to recognize two repeat offenders.  The big guys.  One, in particular, hissed at me one evening a few years ago with such intensity that I stay inside when I see him saunter up our yard.  He owns the place, and he’s equipped with weapons sharp enough to defend his pond.   His mate, also quite ample, is not as grumpy towards me but she does have quite a bit to say.  Her little one, the baby, is the culprit I caught playing in my tabletop fountain last spring.  It took me a couple of months to find all the rocks he/she had tossed out of the fountain.  What is it with rocks and raccoons?  Looking for bugs, grubs, or anything crunchy, I guess.

These territorial animals are adept at fishing but they’re lazy.  Our fish have learned that when they hear the rocks surrounding the pond scraping against each other, they swim down to the deepest section of the pond and are safe.  Each summer I think I have lost my entire fish population but by summers’ end, some always return to the shallow section and ask for food.  Covering the pond has not proved to be successful, besides, the wire grid  disrupts the flow of the fountain and I lose as much water as if a strong wind has kicked up.  Anyway, once the fish hear the raccoons they will stay in the deep end for days, and raccoons don’t seem to appreciate having to make a great effort when fishing.  As a result, the fish I have are the oldest.

So, when my spouse and I heard the conversation (and the splash) that summer evening, my spouse grabbed the flashlight and charged outside to break up the party.  He shown the light directly into their faces and they scrambled away, into the neighbor’s yard, fussing all the way.  They didn’t return that evening, and morning showed that only one rock needed pulling up from the bottom.  Considering the damage they had done to the pond plants earlier in the summer, and the tear in the liner that had occurred in early spring (those claws are sharp!), I considered their visit a success for humans and a disappointment for raccoons.

And I am keeping score.

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A few thoughts on an anniversary.

I am taking a short break from the garden to celebrate our wedding anniversary.  The gardening blog will return soon.

A Commitment to Love.

Today my spouse and I celebrate our 45th wedding anniversary.  We were young when we met – I was 19 and had just left home, and he had recently returned home from the war in Vietnam.  We met in a college book store.  I was flipping through record albums (remember those?)  and had decided upon one to purchase when I stepped backwards and landed on his foot.  Our life together began with that step.  Within a month I moved from the dormitory to the house he rented with an artist.   Within 7 months, we were married.  With 2 short separations along the way, we have been together and in love since that day.

Often, I am asked how we have stayed together for 45 years – “what’s your secret?”  It has always seemed like such an odd question to me but it is, ultimately, very easy to answer.

First, you must genuinely love the person you marry.  Love is far more than passion; it includes respect, friendship, and trust.

Second, have a sense of humor!  If you can laugh at your own mistakes you will understand your partners’ mistakes.  Are you perfect?  Well, neither is your partner.

Third, be kind.  Life can be brutally difficult.  If you treat your partner with kindness, it will come back to you.

Fourth, and most important: forgive!   If you and your spouse treat each other with kindness, if you remember that this person has a life outside of yours, and has difficulties and struggles just as you do, then there is nothing that can’t be forgiven.

I wish you all a lifetime of happiness and love.