Summer Solstice

target pond

baby geese in a parking lot pond

Tonight, a little after midnight in Ann Arbor, is the summer solstice. That being the case it seems better to call it the shortest night of the year rather than the longest day. These astronomical markers seem to argue with the earthly seasons: summer and winter in full swing before their solstices, fall and spring unhinged from their equinoxes. The heat lags the light.

All manner of life gets its start now, looking to ripen in a few weeks or months: green tomatoes in the garden; flowers; baby animals, probably,

alas, including woodchucks. The birds have finally found my birdbath, and the female cardinal is especially fond of this little spa. There’s not much more

two blond kids

two blond kids

to plant – more basil seeds, good to sow in succession so I can let them go to flower; more woodruff in the woods, more lamium in the shade. Everything wants to be fed and weeded, or staked. But now the days are long enough to accommodate however much there is to fill them, a feeling that flows over onto all other subjects: that time has expanded – thank you, stars – until there’s plenty of it for all you could ever want to do, have, or experience.

The Aftermath of Daffodils

june: thyme is overwhelmed

thyme overwhelmed

As summer glides in, the dame’s rocket is subsiding, and the yarrow and nepeta are stepping up. The long leaves of my hundreds of narcissus turn yellow, and I pull them up by the handful each time I walk along the driveway. Lamium and ceratostigma

june: nepeta does its part

nepeta doing its part

chuff over them in places and even the nepeta does its part to hide the leftovers, but the thyme I thought would do likewise is overwhelmed. Here you can see what worked and what didn’t in the Great Daffodil Cover-up Effort.

june: ceratostigma

ceratostigma wins!


I realize I have a different idea of what constitutes a hot day, compared to most Michiganders. It’s my California experience, I’m sure. They walk around in shorts while I’m still in my sweater; they turn on the air conditioner while I’m sitting on the deck enjoying the breeze. No, I do not think eighty degrees is hot. Eighty degrees means you can finally wear your sandals. Ninety degrees, however, is hot.

june: last resting place

last resting place

This level of heat usually waits for the Ann Arbor Art Fair in July, but there’s no arguing with weather; we’re getting a dose of July right now. Still, the problem’s not heat – tomatoes love it, and the sturdy Michigan perennials, I was surprised to learn, can take it. The problem is watering them. The weather map is festooned with tiny thunderbolts, the weather radar teems with green and yellow blobs, and with much rain predicted I’m not going to run the sprinklers, overwater everything, and encourage rot and fungus.

june: incipient tomatoes

hot, happy incipient tomatoes

But then the large blobs and tiny thunderbolts dissipate into the ether, a monsoon in Grand Rapids, a deluge along the Ohio River Valley, and peaceful blue skies over Ann Arbor. Leaving my yard and garden unwatered. The last three days have been like this, so I watered everything today. This should make it rain tonight, right? I’m doing my civic duty for the benefit of the whole town.

Flower Follow-Up

IMG_2050The dame’s rocket that was just coming out a couple of weeks ago has become exuberant. I’ve always loved exuberance in a flower and this rampant, luxurious petalmania is no exception. But I have also come to appreciate a certain kind of restraint.

Last week I posted a photo of some iris standing preternaturally straight and tall, but neglected to comment on them. They are Siberian iris, and their habit is to stand like that, though all around them – outside the photo – the bearded iris are losing it. The bearded iris are gorgeous, but they get top-heavy, fall over, and have to be propped up; and as blossoms fade they turn sort of slimy while clinging to their perches, impinging on the grandeur of the newer blooms. Spent flowers of Siberian iris shrink discretely back into their spathes, withered but polite, getting out of the face of new blooms. No need to deadhead them; I just cut the whole flower stalk down at my leisure, when the plant is done with it.


Siberian iris, top-down view

I found Siberian iris while looking through the White Flower Farm catalog for something dark blue and deer resistant for my Michigan yard. The color was called “Caesar’s Brother” so they must have seen it as royal purple, but it looked blue enough to me. The deer-proof claim turned out to be true, it did very well where I wanted it, and then I discovered this tidy habit it has. So I expect I will plant a little more every year.

I don’t have to plant dame’s rocket. As long as I yank the garlic mustard and pull the buckthorn sprouts, the dame’s rocket will flourish. I discovered this by trial and error, the key to gardening: the garden shows you what it wants, you just have to pay attention to see it. As they say in “The Trouble With Poets,” ain’t that just like life.

Sort of like life, if not just like it, is my Shady Lady. She sits in a right-sized chair nextgreen lady to my garden bench on the north side of the garage, and I’m still working out plants for her. Her lamium shoes have established themselves nicely, but it’s hard to keep her hands and knees watered, with the pots on their sides like that. These are all supposed to be perennials. Last year, her first on the scene, I tried Jacob’s Ladder for her hair, but though it’s doing very well on the ground there next to her, it didn’t like being in a pot. So this year she gets coleus, perennial in Pasadena but annual here. I won’t feel so bad when it dies. If it does well up to frost, she’ll get a new treatment in a different color every year, just like the hair of lots of other ladies.

Memorial Day

image by stephen marrinan

photo by stephen marrinan

When I was growing up, Memorial Day meant a parade down the main street of our small town. People’s fathers appeared mysteriously in uniform, accompanied by the high school marching band, scout troops, local service clubs, and fire engines. My sister Lorna and I walked into town to see it, and followed the end of it to the VFW post, where speeches were made, ice cream in dixie cups was given out free, and a softball game was organized in the weedy next-door lot.

We had pictures at home of my father wearing the Army Air Force uniform that hung in our hall closet, but he did not put it on or join the parade. He was raised a city boy, but he hated crowds. Lorna and I weren’t big on crowds either, but we were very big on ice cream. Still in our single digits, we didn’t understand what memorials, or veterans, or foreign wars were, or what they had to do with the official start of summer, permission to wear white shoes, or free ice cream. But we gleaned from the speeches and the surroundings that the point was to be grateful: for the veterans who fed us, expecting nothing in return; for the musicians carrying their shiny instruments in the gleaming sun just to play for us; for the watchfulness of the firemen; for the warm light of summer; for the softball game that might last until dark; for all these things we licked our sticky fingers with gratitude.

irisSometime later I found out what war was, all loss, terror, and heartbreak, and then I was truly grateful for anyone able to pitch in and stop one. This meant the World War veterans, of course, but I had also heard of Victory Gardens. Now I thought I knew what they were – a way to stop war by getting people to garden. It made sense to me: if people put in the effort needed to grow things, to care for them patiently and see how beautiful they were, why would they want to blow them up?

It was later still that I found, sadly, that people could think of other people the way I thought of, say, the woodchuck. His needs opposed to mine, he becomes The Enemy. It’s a word that has momentum.

More May

Over the weekend Doug put another round of cedar planks on two of my raised garden beds. I lugged a few hundred pounds of dirt into them, and though they could have used more, I planted my tomato seedlings anyway. They were getting leggy indoors. The Supersteaks had grown so tall they already needed staking. IMG_5086Here they are with tomato towers from two manufacturers: the galvanized ones from Burpee are heavier gauge, so they stand up to windstorms better; the green ones from Gardener’s Supply, which they call tomato ladders and which stack, are taller and support the tops of the vines better. I don’t have a favorite between them, and never having been one for matched sets of things, I like mixing both kinds. I have a third type of stake, too – the spiral kind – which I will deploy for the other tomatoes. I don’t use tomato cages. They make it too hard to weed, and anyhow, I like to claim I have free-range tomatoes.

Speaking of weeds, a number of them snuck into my herb garden, so I’ve also been putting time into evicting them. It’s the herb garden that’s really free-range, right out in the open because deer won’t eat fuzzy, scented leaves. Except for getting weeded IMG_5081now and then, it really fends for itself. It has a long season, providing sage for Thanksgiving dinner and thyme whenever not covered with snow. The lavender, garlic chives, and chamomile are self-supporting, and it also boasts monarda, russian sage, and shasta daisies. The only annual is – or, will be – basil, various kinds, colors, and sizes. As soon as I get the aforementioned weeds out of the way.

Another area getting my attention now is the woods. I have vastly reduced the amount of garlic mustard growing there, but eternal vigilance is required, as many of the neighbors upwind are not so careful. I don’t so much weed the woods, as curate it. Pulling the garlic mustard has made the ferns very happy. IMG_5082The lovely tall flowers blooming all around my chair here are dame’s rocket – not phlox, as I thought when I first saw them. Many people put them on an equal footing with garlic mustard and react to them with horror, but they are way less trouble, much easier to keep out of places they’re not wanted. And the deer don’t eat them, which is not true of phlox.

And then there’s the front yard. No time for that right now.

Urban Farms

A few days ago I went on a tour of urban farms in Detroit. The city has large swaths of empty land where derelict buildings were torn down, and a lack of fresh produce available to current residents. city orchardThis combination would seem to make urban farming an obvious win, but as we learned on our tour, there are many complications. The soil is poor, and full of debris; the city still has many restrictions in place that limit farm options; and then there’s the human factor. For every group happy to have the tomatoes, there’s a group that wants its city back. What is the best use of this land? What is the possible use of this land?

Detroit is about 140 square miles in area, and there’s not even agreement on how much of it is vacant. One group claims it’s 40 square miles; another claims it’s only 25. Being a city built around cars, its glory days featured neighborhoods spread out with plenty of road access and parking. When you knock down two houses that once had landscaping around them, you get a bigger empty space than when you knock down an apartment building where several times as many people once lived. Houses in these neighborhoods stand now like a melancholy smile with teeth missing.

city emus

Emus guarding city chickens

In one such neighborhood – Boston Edison – we visited Food Field, an urban farm named as a play on Detroit’s home football stadium, Ford Field.

city farm

Miufi farm

Not far away in the North End, we saw a farm run by the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, or Miufi.

The various small farms in Detroit get together to sell community farm shares, since each farm grows a fairly small range of produce. The miufi farm gives its produce for free to anyone who shows up and asks for it, though that may soon be only for North End residents.

detroit 14

Up on the Roof

And one more example of urban farming in Detroit is up on the roof of the fifty year old restaurant/bakery/ microbrewery/dairy, Traffic Jam and Snug. They grow fresh herbs and vegetables for the restaurant, and with a greenhouse up there too they have fresh herbs all winter. They don’t have to struggle between their urban and farm roles, but do both at once.

If Detroit real estate recovers its value, these farms may find their land worth too much to keep undeveloped. Farmland around Ann Arbor is protected by non-profits that buy the development rights; thereafter the land can still be sold, but only as a farm. Will Detroiters come to love their urban farms, and conserve them? Will they outgrow the farms? Or will urbanization by mid-21st century will take some completely different form? Detroit may be a good place to see what happens.


Usual Miracles

It happens every year of course, but it’s still fairly amazing when the lawn goes from frozen white to flowy green, and the trees from bare fingers to fluffy gloves, in so short a time. I start seeds indoors in March in perfect confidence that this will happen, and then it does, and I’m amazed all over again. This is an important part of why I love having four seasons – the sheer strangeness of it, for all its familiarity. It’s a cliche and a revelation all at once. When I lived in California and missed the seasons, people would say, oh but you can drive from lawn to snow and back again here all in one day. This completely missed the point. Going somewhere else and finding it different is hardly a surprize. Waking up to it in your own yard is.

Once the trees that bloom on bare branches have strewn their pink and white in profligate manner for a couple of weeks, it’s time for new leaves, on them as well as on the other trees. The bright bunchiness of new leaves can make the trees look full of yellow flowers, and makes me think of some lines by Robert Frost: “Nature’s first green is gold/ Her hardest hue to hold.” But as he goes on to sound a cautionary note about the passage of time and I am not in such a mood, I won’t quote the whole poem. Frost is the perfect name if you’re going to write a cautionary poem about spring. You can find it here, if you are in that mood:

and page down a bit.


Another cool plant emerging in the woods now is the mayapple. My first year here, I pulled up some towering garlic mustard and found a forest of foot-high green umbrellas hiding underneath. Each plant had a single leaf but there was a thick patch of them, and they really looked creepy. Sinister. may applesI had no idea what they were, so I posted a photo to Ann Arbor’s Natural Area Preservation facebook page and they identified it for me, along with their compliments on the garlic mustard removal. Mayapple. On further inspection each leaf had a dainty white flower under it, sort of like a lonely apple blossom; but the entire plant was poisonous. So my initial impression was correct: sinister. It’s interesting to think that we have some kind of inborn recognition system for dangerous plants, and intriguing to wonder who decided to undercut that native wisdom with a perhaps cynically chosen name.

I have to say this for garlic mustard – it is well named. Pull even the tiniest seedling of it and you smell the garlic on your hands. I make the most progress by starting at the west edge of the property, and clearing the garlic mustard as thoroughly as I can going east. That way, though I still get seed blowing in from neighbors to the west and seedlings come up ridiculously thick at that edge of the woods, there are few seeds launching from the middle of my woods to continue eastward. The patches peter out there. But it’s important to try to establish something else when the garlic mustard comes out, to give future seeds less purchase. I’m trying an assortment, in addition to the catmint, plumbago, and lamium I’ve already mentioned, and will report on what works best.

Knowing that garlic mustard was imported deliberately as a salad herb, I once tried picking young, tender leaves and putting them in a salad. Blech. I also tried a garlic mustard pesto recipe. Blech again. I suppose it might do if you had no actual garlic. Why didn’t they just plant garlic in their gardens?

Happily, the more I curate my strip of woodland, the less the deer linger there. I didn’t expect them to mind it being less wild, since they have been known to destroy even totally-landscaped gardens in town. Out here on the margins they do have the option of open woods, and I am extremely glad to find they prefer them. recovering dogwoodsThe year before last I planted two small dogwoods and the deer nearly killed them, stripping off bark as they used the trees to scratch the so-called “velvet” from their new antlers. Seems like they could at least have dropped the old antlers in my woods, in exchange. But in the fall I wrapped some protective material around the trunks and they are now recovering, even blooming a little.


Spring Carries On

img crabappleThe yard is so beautiful right now, it’s a pleasure to be out there even if pulling garlic mustard. Petals of crabapples and pears drift down on me while I kneel, and it’s only by getting down to ground level that I see all the wonderful, desirable things muscling their way up. I know I planted some of them in the fall, but many of my markers have been heaved up by frost or hoofed up by deer, so I’ll just have to wait and see what’s where.

img lamium


I always try to get something else to establish when I pull out garlic mustard, and some of what I planted has turned out to be excellent at holding undesirables at bay: nepeta and lamium especially. Nepeta is called catmint, but my cat has informed me that the variety I’m growing is not catnip as she knows it. Lamium is called deadnettle, but I ask you, would you ever willingly plant something called deadnettle? It’s too lovely for that name.

My third confusing, but flourishing, groundcover is plumbago. In Pasadena, plumbago was a fairly tall shrub with thick clusters of pale blue flowers, which did like to sprawl but was definitely not a ground cover. It was also definitely not cold hardy – in our quindecennial frosts it either died back or died altogether, depending on how well it was rooted. How could they sell plumbago in Michigan? It turns out there is a variety called ceratostigma plumbaginoides, which is cold-hardy. It is also delightful, coming up just when needed to cover the fading daffodil leaves, and having deep blue flowers in summer and bright red leaves in fall. It’s hard to believe the two plumbagos are related. Taken together with the catmint that’s not catnip and the deadnettle that’s not dead nor nettley, I’m wondering what they were smoking when they named all these plants.

Meanwhile in the upstairs window, img tomato seedlingsthe tomato plants have started waving at me over the tops of their milk cartons: hello! Over here, person who calls herself a gardener! So I thinned them to one plant per container, and filled in around their stems with more dirt, almost to the cartons’ brims. They look happier now.


This weekend Doug took the chainsaw to the fallen trees, sliced them into fireplace lengths, and disengaged their tangled tops so they would no longer trap and protect the oncoming garlic mustard. Meanwhile, he was not the only woodworker on the premises. I went to the garage for some tools and caught the woodchuck in the act of, well, chucking wood. She was shredding the wooden molding at the base of the garage door, making good progress on ripping an entrance for herself. She ran away when she saw me, zipping right under the deck. Great. A nesting woodchuck. I sprayed some deer/rabbit repellent around the garage door, hoping she will find the smell of it as repellent as I do. Then I called the other resident woodworker over for a consultation; he said the woodchuck was nowhere near getting inside. Yet.

As of today she hasn’t been back to work on the garage, but this reminded me to check the garden fence for security breaches. I found a few. Some of them might, charitably, be blamed on weather or rust, but really most of them looked deliberate. Too small for the woodchuck, and though there’s no shortage of garden-loving critters around here, I wondered if these were failed attempts at making a bigger opening.

The possible prize growing in the garden right now is a double row of tulips. bunny tulip 2This is an experiment. It was suggested to me that, since the tomato beds are protected by the garden fence and are empty from fall through spring, I could plant tulips there and cut them for bouquets. The tulips would be done when I needed the beds for my tomato plants.

The fly in this ointment would be the squirrels, which parachute into the garden at will and sometimes eat tulips, sometimes not. Just to keep us on our toes. I’ve been watching the tulips carefully so I can beat out the squirrels. Today I gathered my first three tulips. I cut them, though some people pull them up bulb and all, which makes a pretty display in a glass vase. But I’ve noticed the squirrels are attracted by disturbed ground – no doubt hoping to steal some other squirrel’s newly-buried treasure – and since they’ve ignored the tulips so far, why risk drawing attention to them? Move along, squirrels. Nothing’s happening here.