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Making a Garden in the Woods

Thursday, June 28, 2012

In January 2011, my father-in-law, Bill Thompson Jr., co-founder with Elsa Thompson of Bird Watcher's Digest, jazz pianist, sometime college vice president, and immediate past director of the Marietta Community Foundation, passed away. We miss him terribly.

Before a day had passed, he was resting out in our orchard, nothing fancy, no chemicals, no polished wood or chrome involved...just gone to earth here in a place he loved.  

Chet can't tell it's a garden, the shape it's in right now. Get over here!

It's a good little walk from the house, out in our overgrown orchard which is no longer an orchard at all, just rows of trees and vines and redbud, ringing with the songs of blue-winged, hooded and Kentucky warblers, of ovenbirds and vireos and tanagers and bluebirds. 

The grass grows up and the weeds take over and I meant to do something about that. I wheeled out the longsuffering garden cart that my sister Barbara gave us in 1993 when we were married. Bill Jr. and I put it together on a long, hot, sometimes hilarious Saturday that I'll always treasure in my memory. When we were done and my Bill was coming up the driveway, Sumbitch climbed in the cart and acted simple and I wheeled him around the yard. 

This time, I was loading it up with gardening tools.

Last fall, Bill and I planted five purple coneflowers, knowing they'd like the place. On June 3, the first flowers were opening, and a great spangled fritillary kept visiting.

I looked down at what had been bare earth, and saw that I had a lot of work to do. Dewberries and Indian strawberries and grasses and honeysuckle and what have you had completely covered the mound.

I worked and worked and after about five hours I could see the soil again.

To weed such stuff in our clay/loam soils, you really have to lift the roots with a spade or trowel, so it's labor-intensive. It wore Chet Baker out completely.

You will notice little patches of Perlite-laced potting soil in the photo above. 

I decided to plant out this spring's crop of several hundred rosepink seedlings and let Nature take care of them for two years.  I also set out the finger-nail sized yearling plants, all dozen of them.

If you look vewy, vewy cwosewy you can see the itty bitty seedwings.

I doled them out in 27 little patches. Even as tiny as they were, they already had roots 2" long!

I watered them in and stood back to look. Better. Much better. If things went well and the stars aligned, the rosepink might be blooming by July 2013. Then what a sight it would be!

Chet Baker was so exhausted from the effort he slept most of the time, breaking to beg for bits of Clif bar, which he promptly buried.

I planted the royal catchfly plant at the head of the plot, where I hope it will get 6' tall, bearing dozens of red stars in midsummer. It should increase in beauty every year. These clayey loams are just what it likes.

Should it live to bloom and set seed you may be quite sure I will be gathering those tiny black jewels. Ha. I'm far from cowed by the two-year sucker of the Rosepink Project. Just getting going.

 I rested on the bench and gazed at my handiwork, but not for long. There were still plants to be set in.

The whole time I worked, I thought about Bill Jr., who also answered to Geepop for his grandkids and Sumbitch for his kids. I sang a few songs I knew he liked. I miss so many things about him, his laugh and his wisdom and his wicked sense of humor but oh, I miss his music, real jazz, piano jazz, melodic, strong, sensible and warm.

I thought long and hard about common burial practices in America today, and about what I feel is wrong about them. It doesn't seem right to me to have a loved one disappear in a burst of flame and come back in a can. It's not real. It doesn't give you a chance to absorb it all and most of all it doesn't give you a place where you can come and devote your thoughts and memories to that wonderful person.

This feels right, planting a garden, knowing he's right here. It's a great luxury to be able to do this, I know, to have enough land to be able to devote a little clearing to someone, and then maybe as the years go by, someone else and eventually to your own family and the little dogs, too.
It's the way they used to do it, and like so many other things, the old ways can be the best ways.

From a weedy clearing, a memorial garden is born. The act of working the soil and planting with intent made it so. It became a garden on June 4, and I mean to keep it one. The rosepink will come up and bloom or it won't, but I have a feeling it will, having been planted and tended with intent and love.

Rest in peace, Bill. We'll be around to visit.

Sowing More Rosepinks

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Not one to be put off by infinitesmal, abysmally slow-growing plants, I sowed another big crop of Sabatia angularis in March 2012. They were up by the first of May. And once again, they looked like this. Like you needed a magnifying glass to even see them.

You see, I was trying to figure out how to proceed. I wanted to give these seedlings a different growing protocol. Just like with the bats, I thought that if I could learn from my mistakes and stick with it long enough, I'd be the Queen of All Knowledge About Growing Sabatia angularis (or overwintering healthy bats, or what have you). Sure, there's some Leonine ego in there, but think about it. Who aspires to be the Queen of such things? There's not a lot of competition. Just sayin'.

I had had a modest success with my now two-year-old plant of royal catchfly (Silene regia). I deemed it ready to go outside. Here it is last May 2011  (see the teeny tiny seedlings of rosepink all around it?)

And here it is in June 2012. Looks like a happy plant to me.

I mentioned that I was planning to try a different growing regimen on this batch of several hundred rosepink seedlings.  And I had just the place to try it. It is a spot in our old, overgrown orchard, open to the sun, where I gathered the original seedpods in 2010. It's a place that's become sacred to us, in the truest sense of the word

I'll take you there in the next post.

Growing Sabatia angularis

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Mighty oaks from tiny acorns do grow. Or...not.

The rosepink seedlings grew, all right, but they grew incredibly, painfully slowly. I kept expecting them to pop up, to get in gear, to become something. And they kept not becoming anything. 

I grew them all that spring and summer of 2010 in the same planter. By fall, this is what they looked like. 

My finger for scale.

Here's the planter with about 60 seedlings in it. The one above is one of the bigger ones.

(The big plant to the left is a seedling of royal catchfly that I had bought in summer 2010 at a native plant conference. Another slow-starter-late bloomer if I ever saw one!)

 I did a little reading and discovered that Sabatia angularis has only recently been discovered to be a biennial. Meaning it does not bloom its first year of life. No duh. Anybody who tried to grow them would figure that out fast. As to the recent discovery of this rather basic aspect of its natural history, I doubt most botanists could see the durn seedlings, much less figure out what they were!

The upshot of all this is that I would have to overwinter my tiny seedlings, which had now formed what gardeners call a "winter rosette" of leaves, again. I chose the floor of the greenhouse once more.

A winter rosette is a cluster of leaves that hug the ground closely. Many of our garden perennials form winter rosettes, saving their energy to send up a blooming stalk come spring. Dang, these were tiny plants. 

So I overwintered them in 2011/12. And though I'd been watering these teeny little plants since fall of 2010,  I got caught up in a two-week trip to South Africa in February 2012, and a bunch of them croaked while I was otherwise occupied. Bill watered them while I was gone; I forgot once I got back. A bunch of them croaked. But some lived.

And lo and behold in April 2012 they started to show an upward inclination. They were finally growing, albeit in extreme miniature. This is what those 2010-sown plants looked like on June 3, 2012. 

I was down to a mere dozen, and they were not even an inch tall. 

This is where I started to get suspicious that my growing regimen might not be the greatest. I had been afraid to feed them, knowing that rosepink grows in poor soils on hot, sandy slopes. But they sure looked like they could use a shot of Miracle-Grow. How could these Lilliputs do this by late July??

A Wildflower-growing Experiment

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Regular readers will perhaps remember my great affection for Sabatia angularis, also known as rosepink, rose gentian, or bitterbloom. Amazingly fragrant, with a light muguet scent; showy, rare, this gentian has it all. And it grows on my road. 

In the summer of 2011, I was greatly dismayed to find a member of our township's road crew had unknowingly mowed down "my" stand of rosepink, which was in full bloom on a dry bank not two-tenths of a mile from our driveway. I spoke with him and we came to an agreement: If I'd stake off the stand of flowers, he would respect that and we'd both be happy.

Which I did. And we were all happy. 

Now, back in the summer of 2010, I decided I'd try to grow my own rosepinks. If I loved them so much, I should be able to grow them and plant them wherever I wanted on our land, without fear that someone would come mow them down. So I waited for the seedpods on some plants in our orchard to come ripe. And waited. And waited.

The late summer turned into fall and it started getting cold and Halloween was approaching and those darned pods stayed green and hard. Wouldn't you think they'd dry up and pop open SOMETIME before Christmas?

Sometime in November 2010, they finally did. And they were full of lovely little grains, each with the potential to become a rosepink plant.

I harvested two pods from the finest plant, and that was plenty to get me started.

I sowed the dust-fine seeds in fine potting soil in a long planter that fall of 2010. I kept it watered and left it on the cold floor of the greenhouse all that winter. By late April 2011, this is what was coming up. 

Those are grains of perlite. Each seedling is about the size of an average grain of sand.
Well, I didn't expect a lot more from a seed that fine, anyway.

I decided to grow them until they were big enough to transplant. And there started another journey of learning.

You know, not everything I decide to do turns out smashingly. But I'm driven by curiosity and the challenge as by the hounds of Hell itself.

Benson the Box Turtle Goes Free

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

When we last left Benson, I was about to pick him up at the Ohio Wildlife Center in Columbus, where he'd spent almost a year convalescing and gaining weight...and color! Here he is with a painful bilateral aural abscess (that's what makes his ears pooch out on the sides).

And here he is nine months later! The red has come back to his eyes! The yellow has come back to his scutes!

Ah, Benson, we hardly knew ye. 

Just lemme go. I see the woods and I wanna go.

Benson had a charmingly hitchy gait, lifting his knees high and setting his feet down with a jerk, like a turtle who had, oh, I don't know, maybe lived in a cardboard box for 20 years...

but he could move, and move he did.

I decided not to take him to the place on Dean's Fork where he'd been abandoned last summer, but to release him on our place. You never know what's going to happen to the forests around here. Most likely, as soon as they near maturity, they'll be cut.

Not ours.

I carried Benson out and left him by a tadpole-filled puddle, the meadow to his right, the woods to his left.

He was still thinking when I left.

 Good luck with your next 75 years, Benson. May you never end up in a cardboard box again.

Note tiny black Pied Mountain Boar in the background. The elusive Skunk-Dog of the Ohio woods.

This post is for my DOD, (Dear Old Dad) who would have turned 100 on June 18, 2012. He was 47 when I came along, the last of five. Little did he know when the nurse announced that he was the proud grampa (!) of yet another girl (the family legend says his face fell...I prefer to think it's because she congratulated him as my grampa) that the girl would follow him everywhere he went and soak up all he had to teach like a thirsty tomato plant. Thank you for all you continue to give me, not least of which is a great love for box turtles, and a resolve to live in the country forever after. You are the BEST. And you're still teaching. Your voice is right here in every word.

A Box Turtle, Discarded

Sunday, June 17, 2012

It's easy to forget the other little patients in my care when I'm yanging on and on about just the two starlets, Stella and Mirabel. Does anyone remember Benson?

Last August, we were walking Dean's Fork with Tim Ryan and Nina Harfmann and Shila Wilson and Phoebe called, "I found a turtle!"

Phoebe and Tim came back with the report that the turtle was soaking in a creek (never a good sign) and his coloring was off. Another bad sign. Turtles who feel lousy crawl to the nearest water and soak for days or weeks. Pale or "off" coloration indicates malnutrition.  Just look at his eyes--the irides are white. They should be blazing red!

You can see that he started life as a beautiful, highly colored turtle, but something has befallen him.

A closer look revealed that this poor gent was suffering from a bilateral ear infection, something that can strike a turtle who isn't getting what he needs. The ear infection, it turned out, was not his major problem.

Because I am not a veterinarian nor am I a surgeon, I asked Tim Ryan to drop "Benson," as Phoebe named him, off at the Ohio Wildlife Center in Columbus on his way back to the airport. Tim was happy to leave several extra hours to make that happen, and he's remained in touch about Benson ever since.

Not long after, I was up there myself, and I spoke to my rehab guru, Lisa Fosco of OWC. 
She showed me several aspects of Benson's overall condition that indicated to her that he was a long-term captive.

It's hard to convey it in a photograph, but the back of Benson's shell shows malformation. It's sunken in on the sides, it drops straight down in back, and is a bit knobby over the pelvis, and it's got a wide outward-trending flange that goes out over his hind legs. That, his emaciated condition, the poor soft part coloration and the bilateral ear infection (very common in malnourished captive boxies) all indicated to Lisa that Benson had been abducted from the wild and kept in substandard conditions years earlier.

"But I found him in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of hundreds of acres of woods!" I said. And then I realized that Dean's Fork is perfectly accessible by car or ATV or foot, and Benson was found just a few yards off the road, soaking in a creek in late August. If you had a longterm captive turtle who just kept getting sicker and all you knew is you wanted to get rid of him, what would you do with him? Dump him by a creek in the middle of several hundred acres of woods and hope for the best, that's what you'd do. 

Poor Benson. He felt horrible. But he snapped at and ate a sowbug that crawled by him, and he cleaned up a mess of earthworms and fruit, and his life was about to get a whole lot better.

Benson got his ear abscesses opened and scraped out and then spent almost a year in the care of one of OWC's expert box turtle rehabilitators. And one fine day I got a call that Benson was ready to go. 

It took me awhile to get up to Columbus, but I picked him up on May 9 when Bill and I went to participate in Columbus Audubon's superfun "Wine and Warblers" event at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center.  Hic. 

He was a different turkle. Just wait 'til you see him.

Release Day for the Bats

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Don't you want me back in your bedroom? How about your attic? I don't poop that much.

I’d already made contact with the owners of the house where Stella was captured, asking them if there were a quiet nook on a porch where I might tape up the bats’ roosting towel, with the girls bundled inside, for the afternoon. As fate would have it, the stately old house was under renovation, every square inch of it being scraped and prepped for painting. It was a forest of ladders and scaffolds and exactly the wrong place to hang up a couple of sensitive bats. It is ever thus with bats, and chimney swifts, too...the places where they can live are always being screened or boarded up, or in this case, scraped and painted. Uh-oh. 

 I thought hard. Bill’s mom lived only two blocks away, and her house looks out on Camp Tupper, a beautiful Revolutionary War encampment that’s now a tree-studded park. 

The mound you see is an ancient Hopewell burial mound made in the shape of a turtle. The turtle's head is facing you with a willow oak planted about where its beak would be. Its legs splay out to the sides. Bill and I had our first kiss on the head of that turtle. There's something nice about that. The park is also great bat foraging habitat. 

On the wall of her board-fenced back courtyard is a wooden cabinet that houses a garden hose—the perfect sheltered spot to hang a couple of bats for the day.

 I taped up the folded towel inside the cabinet, put food and water beneath just as I did at home, then peeled it back for one last look at the girls. Their eyes glittered in the bright light and they huddled smaller as bats will when they’re suddenly exposed. I stroked their backs gently with a bare finger. The last couple of days, I’d allowed myself to feel their fur without a glove. I ran my finger over the surprisingly cool, translucent membranes of their tails. As daytime bats will, they stayed perfectly still.  Good bye, sweet bats. Good luck, Godspeed.

I propped the cabinet door open so it couldn’t blow shut, giving them easy egress from their hiding place, and placed a bowl of mealworms and one of water just below the towel where they’d be sure to find it before they launched into the free night air. 

Three months later, I’d done wrong by them and then somehow managed to make it right again. They’d taught me what I’d need to know to truly be of help to other bats going forward. And they would live to fly again, maybe even have their babies.

A check of the cabinet a week later showed that they'd been in such a hurry to get out and wheel among the trees and old houses surrounding Camp Tupper that they didn't even stop to eat. They were probably tired of mealworms, anyway, probably lusting for the feel of mothwing powder on their tongues.

A last look at the cabinet where my girls were waiting for nightfall.

What a joy they'd been. So much more than flying mice; they were more like tiny flying Chihuahuas in their intelligence and sensitivity.

I like insectivores.

You can redefine "soft" just touching their fur. It's so soft you can barely feel it.

From Barb Stewart: My husband John just said, "One phone call to Julie, and the illustrated chapters on natural wonders we could never have know about or even imagined just keep on rolling into our lives."

Barb and John, how Stella enriched my life I can't begin to tell. What some might view as a mere nuisance (a bat circling a bedroom, ack!) was to me a gift beyond price or measure. I loved that bat, fiercely, for the short few months she was given to me to care for. Most of all she was a teacher. Everything she did gave me a glimmer of insight as to how to care for her. The final goal here is to do right by bats that come to me in the future. My instinct tells me that it is not right to keep them at room temperature in the winter; my instinct tells me that it's not right to feed them all winter. What I'm looking for is a protocol that will be the closest imitation of what nature would provide them. And that will probably be quickly integrating foundling bats into an existing winter colony where they can sleep and commune with others as nature intended. I don't know whether I can find an accessible colony, or even whether that will work, but it's got to be better than what I'm doing here.

Thank you, Barb and John, for my impetuous blonde, who is even now probably hanging back in your attic, and flittering over Camp Tupper in the evening. I miss her and Mirabel so!!

May 14, 2012. My to-do list for that day said, "Pack for Alaska.  Pack Liam for Camp Hervida. Liam orthodontist 4:15. Check on chewed turtle at Campus Martius. Release bats. Depart for Columbus PM." Two of these things are not like the others...

Here ends the bat saga.

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