Thursday, March 29, 2012

slimy surprise

Earlier this week I just about finished deadheading all the freesias and hyacinths in our front garden. It's a complex process and has required several sessions of work. We're talking about hundreds of snips here, with faded blossoms joining the perma-mulch and leaves left to dry in place while nourishing the bulbs and corms beneath.

After our recent rains, the floppy freesias tend to form an ugly sodden mass, and so I have developed a technique of lifting their leaves, trimming off the faded blossoms, giving the leaves a shake or two, and letting them fall. This exposes weeds -- petty spurge, oxalis, tufts of grass, and even the occasional Star of Bethlehem -- while fluffing up the dying freesias and making them look a little better during the wait for convolvulus mauritanicus and Mexican evening primrose to fill in.

Hyacinths' blossom stalks stand taller than those of freesias, and their glossy leaves stay dark green after the flowers fade, so deadheading them is easier. Nevertheless I started poking around in their foliage to look for weeds and -- voila!  -- found snails clinging to the undersides of hyacinth leaves. Since discovering Sluggo Plus two years ago, we have not had a problem with snails and slugs, but by the time I'd finished deadheading the hyacinths I'd found eight mature snails and trampled them gleefully in the gutter.

And now my morning ritual must include hyacinth leaf surveillance and land mollusk sacrifice, until the snails find safer places to wait out our summer dry spell. Three succumbed this morning.

Monday, March 26, 2012

noiseless, patient

I enjoy watching spiders, indoors and outdoors, at home and at cultural venues such as zoos and natural history museums. I try to set a good example for arachnophobic friends by transporting spiders gently outdoors instead of smashing them or sluicing them down the drain. I do try to stay away from the black widows and brown recluses, but tarantulas fascinate me.

The phrase "a noiseless patient spider" often comes to mind when I am watching spiders, and recently I felt an urge to know more about its origin and context. I turned first to the works of Emily Dickinson. Since she had written "a fly buzzed when I died" and "how public, like a frog." I assumed she must be my spider poet.

So wrong!

Walt Whitman wrote A Noiseless Patient Spider. This knowledge was strangely satisfying to me, because I've always liked Whitman's poetry much better than I've liked Dickinson's. Reading the whole poem, I was entranced by its tight structure and the parallelism of its two five-line stanzas: the first describing the spider in its "vacant vast surrounding" and the second making an analogy to the poet's soul, "Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them ...Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere."

Ah, the old microcosm / macrocosm theme! Of course I was reminded of Andrew Marvell's On a Drop of Dew, which for me is the quintessential 'metaphysical' poem. "Seeking the spheres to connect them," I moved on to William Blake's Auguries of Innocence, which starts: "To see a world in a grain of sand ... And eternity in an hour" but turns into a series of rants against cruelty at all levels, including "The wanton boy that kills the fly / Shall feel the spider's enmity."

And so I am brought back to spiders, and to my surprise that Walt Whitman had written A Noiseless Patient Spider. I think of Whitman as the poet of noise and impatience -- known for the "barbaric yawp," and "happiness, knowledge, not in another place, but this place—not for another hour, but this hour" Carol of Occupations, line 157).

I prize silence and spiders, but might never have thought of them together if I hadn't been stuck in this web of poetry.

Monday, March 19, 2012

tree revision

In Cyathea mater epiphiticorum, I wrote about tying a variety of epiphytic plants to the trunk of a dead tree fern that has stood in our front garden for years. I had started this experiment late last fall with two cuttings of basket plant (Callisia fragrans).

With almost daily misting from a spray bottle, the basket plant regularly produced new green leaves at its tips, while its older leaves turned a purplish red and then brown. The redness was caused by exposure to sun, while the crispy brown leaves were simply dead. As new growth slightly outpaced losses, I not only rejoiced in having remade a tree, but also added epiphyllums and epidendrums to the mix and  gave my creation its outrageous Latin name..

A couple of weeks ago, while cutting off dead leaves,  I noticed something sticking out of one of the basket plant stems. Curving to a sharp point, it looked like a parrot's beak, but in fact it was a whole new shoot of tightly furled leaves. Looking more closely, I saw that it was growing on a short piece of stem that had no other leaves. Evidently this stem had broken off one of the two original cuttings.

Delighted with the new growth, I looked critically at the tree as a whole and decided that the clumpy epiphyllums had to go. They had made absolutely no progress, and even if they had, they didn't seem compatible with the feathery basket plant. And so I untied several strips of the raggedy brown towel I'd used to tie the epiphytes to the tree fern trunk, removed and discarded the epiphyllums, and moved a sad epidendrum to a less obvious position.

Two delicate tillandsias of different sizes took the place of the rejected epiphyllums. Finally I added some strands of Spanish moss (actually a type of tillandsia) at the top of the trunk and the bottom of the basket plant stems.

Potentially, my recycled tree fern could bear five different colors of blossoms. I have never seen a basket plant in bloom, and would bet on the common epidendrum to be the first if not the only flower. But it's time for me to step back and let nature surprise me with whatever new growth my efforts may have fostered. Meanwhile, nasturtiums are creeping toward the base of the tree and will create their dependable bright orange accents.

Balanced between control and chance in this fascinating project, I feel uniquely ready for the equinox.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License