A Simple Test for Garden Nerdliness

So I’m watering my heat-beat pots of petunias and spy this little critter hanging out in the flower foliage.

A baby Praying Mantis in my petunias

A baby Praying Mantis in my petunias


Here’s the test:

  1. Did you, like I did upon seeing this bug, exclaim “Awwww” and feel a sudden surge of elation?
  2. Did your heart race, making you feel giddy like when you see an old flame, new flame or aspirational flame?
  3. If you saw this little Mantis in your garden, would you dash for your camera, so you could share a snap of this creature as though it were your own child taking it’s first bite of solid food?

If you can answer YES to any or all of these questions, you may be a garden nerd.

What’s so awesome about the Praying Mantis?

For me, it takes me back to when I was a kid and we lived in the San Joaquin Valley raising Lima Beans. Gigantic Praying Mantises, bigger than my kindergartner hand frequented the neighborhood where we lived in Modesto. A few years back, to share the wonder of this lanky bug with my offspring, I bought an egg case from a local nursery. After securing the case in a small bug house, we watched in awe as the tiny babies oozed out of the case.

baby mantises hatching

baby mantises hatching

Then the lessons in Praying Mantis ecology began. Turns out, they eat only live things, fruit flies for starters, then crickets and eventually each other. Delightful. The kids and I became frequent shoppers at the local exotic pet shop  where all manner of live food could be purchased. (And by the way, I watched lizards pole dance there…well, twig dance anyhow, but it was exotic) I kept the fruit flies in a plastic tub in my kitchen cabinet. They lived on a paste that smelled like rotting trash (see an old blog for further gross details). When the fifty or so Praying Mantises snacked themselves down to the three largest bugs, we set them free on the rose bush in the front yard.

I had never seen Praying Mantises in the garden before the release, but since then have infrequent sightings. The one I saw this morning may be a descendant of that batch of three. Seeing it reminded me of being a kid, having my own little kids and the beautiful cycle of life. Pretty sweet for a bug that eats its lover’s head off during sex.


Desert the Bittersweet

This is the kind of friend the desert is…the kind that tells you he just gave you the clap, but on the up side, he thinks you’re the one.

Here’s a question, does anyone even know what the clap is anymore? For those of you who weren’t sexually active in the seventies, or perhaps not yet born, it’s an STD. But for this analogy, it’s the caterpillars in my garden. And the upside is that my friend the desert can bring on beauty overnight just as easily as it can deliver decimation, often simultaneously.

To wit, the triple digit temperatures arrived this week and set off a flurry of blooms. Maybe the plants think the world is about to erupt into flames, so they must make hay while they may. Kind of like how everyone ran out and got laid for the Y2K Armageddon.

This happened in my garden:

Texas Sage exploded overnight. A gorgeous plant that usually is mal-pruned, so no one gets to see its blooms.

Texas Sage exploded overnight. A gorgeous plant that usually is mal-pruned, so no one gets to see its blooms.

The Tranquility Tree I've pruned to cascade over the courtyard entry went nuts with its tiny yellow flowers this season. Best blooms to date.

The Tranquility Tree I’ve pruned to cascade over the courtyard entry went nuts with its tiny yellow flowers this season. Best blooms to date.

The blooms up close.

The blooms up close.

p.s. Thanks to Anne Carson for writing Eros the Bittersweet…well…for writing everything she’s ever written.

Toil Becalmed in the Infinite Leisure and Repose of Nature

I’d like to say it was the Gandhi in me that opted a do-nothing approach to the Western Grapeleaf Skeletonizer infestation, but I was just too busy to deal with it. It took only a few days for the caterpillars to reduce the grapevine to this:



Gandhi was not one to advocate inaction anyhow. Didn’t he say: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” So the question I now face is what to do? The post-modern philosophers are too busy debating Delmore Schwartz’s thesis that “no one else can take a bath for you,” so perhaps the new age self help crowd can guide me in the aftermath of this feast (link to post on the PMP’s earlier advice on caterpillar infestation). Do I continue to let nature take its course? Deepak Chopra has noted that “nature reflects the moods of the wizard,” so there’s that. Other than make me feel warm inside, because I have a fondness for wizards, what tangible help is Chopra’s astute observation?

Here’s something else to ponder…The bugs this spring are super abundant, in part because we had a mild winter. We had a mild winter, perhaps due to climate change or urban heat island…or both. Either way, cars were involved, or cow farts, deforestation, dark surfaces, maybe the tangle of plastic trash twice the size of Texas that swirls about in the ocean and no doubt shifts marine currents (which are the true drivers of climate). The question, then, isn’t should I let nature continue to take its course, but has nature been steering the course in the first place? To deal with the caterpillars, should I direct my attention to these gigantic global ecological dilemmas, figure out how to turn the world thermostat down, and then just wait for the caterpillars to respond? Tony Robbins, famed motivational speaker and lover of the word GIANT, says “the path to success is to take massive, determined action.”

If Shakespeare weren’t dead, he might say to Robbins: “You speak an infinite deal of nothing.” And I would agree, in this case, since I believe in the butterfly effect, the idea that one small human can make one small gesture and set off a chain reaction that can impact huge problems. Well…one small human and a pair of pruners. While consulting my information guru, the Google, I came across this quote (without even having to read Eat, Pray, Love or see the movie!): “I am a better person when I have less on my plate.” I’m hoping Elizabeth Gilbert’s wise observation applies for caterpillars too.

The grapevine as a clean plate for better caterpillars. See how like infinity it looks. That’s the wizard of nature at work. 🙂

p.s. thank you, Henry David Thoreau, for the title of this post…and for inventing a better pencil that helped free American pencilers from dependence on pricey British graphite, so they could afford to saunter about pondering our connection to nature.


Imagine if gardens were tended only by post-modern philosophers

Some days the garden offers more than pretty flowers. Some days it evokes ethical discourse…in my head this morning, since no one’s around when I go out to water and find the grape vine infested with yellow and black caterpillars. Here’s the dilemma: do I go all Spartacus on them and KILL THEM ALL! Or seek out my inner Gandhi and let the famished beasts continue to feast on the fleshy leaf parts until all that remains is lacy skeletons?

Western Grapeleaf Skeletonizer Caterpillars snacking in my garden

Western Grapeleaf Skeletonizer Caterpillars snacking in my garden

Maybe Derrida has some helpful advice…”The circle of the return to birth can only remain open, but this is a chance, a sign of life, and a wound.”

Kind of on the fence there. Perhaps his pal Nietzsche will be more helpful: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

So I must decide if these caterpillars are monsters. Lyotard would probably suggest that to do this, I need to investigate their narrative, not the Grand-Narrative (which in this case is no doubt mine), but the meta-narrative of each tiny caterpillar.So, here goes.

Meta-narrative of the Western Grapeleaf Skeletonizer: “My hunger knows no bounds. I must eat and eat and eat. And poop. These poisonous thorns on my body that welt your skin don’t make me a monster! They merely shield my soft body from harm while I eat and eat until I’m consumed with the desire to crawl under a scrap of bark to weave myself into a cocoon. And then emerge a moth that flies in the daylight. The daylight! Not under the moon with my moth brethren, but like some freak butterfly. My life’s a sham.”

Well, that’s no help. I empathize, yet want to put it out of its misery. Maybe Baudrillard can lend me a hand in deciding whether to kill the caterpillars or not: “You need an infinite stretch of time ahead of you to start to think, infinite energy to make the smallest decision. The world is getting denser. The immense number of useless projects is bewildering. Too many things have to be put in to balance up an uncertain scale. You can’t disappear anymore. You die in a state of total indecision.”

It may be time for wise old Hippocrates to chime in: “To do nothing is also a good remedy.”



Ungodly Blooms

A benefit to waking early―not farmer early, but night owl who has to pee early, which this morning meant 7:45―is getting to see the Easter lily cactus blooms, a lovely surprise especially since it’s mid-September. The weather is turning towards cool―again not Vermont cool, just late summer mid elevation desert cool, so low 80s―and I’ve decided to drink my morning coffee in the front court garden. I forgot to put on my glasses before walking outside and am too sleepy to fetch them, so I don’t expect to notice anything. I sit down and am about to settle into the quiet blur of waking my brain when I see the pink blooms. I knew they were coming since the buds emerge slowly over a matter of days, but I still gasped at first sight.

The Easter lily cactus is so called for its inclination to bloom at Easter time. I think mine is a pagan. It sends out flowers with complete disregard for the Christian holy calendar. It does have a habit of putting out three blooms at a time, a nod to the Catholic Trinity perhaps or just good design sense, following the rule of threes (though never fives for this particular plant). I bought it during a macro photography class I took in 2009, right around Easter. The class met to shoot pictures at a plant nursery and I found this cactus covered with flowers and spent the rest of the morning stuffing my macro lens into the blooms. The least I could do was take it home afterwards. Nurseries coddle plants so they look their best.  I brought the cactus home and it somehow knew rules in this new garden were loose. One year it put out tiny ragged flowers, each petal serrated like soft pink knives. This year, I think in response to all the rain we’ve had this summer, it’s opened up multiple times, almost aligned to summer solstice and fall equinox. Had it been more on top of it, it’d be downright Wiccan.

I credit exuberant blooms to either attentive gardening or imminent death. Not a coddler by nature, I’m concerned for the cactus. All these flowers might be the plant’s swan song, especially since it is also pushing out pups, small versions of itself that appear tenuously attached to the larger arms and could easily brush off and tangle in the fur of a hairy beast and then drop off elsewhere to make a life of their own. The only hairy beasts in my garden are the stray cats that live in the sewer drain at the end of the street. They frequent my front yard, lounging in the grass like miniature lions on the savanna, and leave sad piles of bird feathers on the lawn. They also spray smelly cat musk by my front door and drink from the courtyard fountain. Ours is a relationship of wary tolerance and while they lay about like they own the place I doubt one will ever leap up onto the wall where I keep the Easter lily cactus and give the plant one of those friendly side rubs cats use to get people to pet them.

So the cactus may be singing to no one. Except me and my camera. Click click, RIP. My eulogy for it might go like this: I remember your surprising flowers more than your otherwise quiet patience all the days you waited for just the right signals to bloom. I apologize for my narrow attention, but in this regard I’m not much different from a bee.

The Trinity of Blooms and a Bee by me