When Soledad Robledo moved to the countryside, she faced new challenges she hoped The Humane Gardener book would help answer: “How can I coexist with nature?” she wrote in an email from Chile last summer. “How can I remove uninvited guests? How can I convey this learning to my community?” A few months later, she followed up with this thoughtful submission to our ongoing feature, “Where in the World Is The Humane Gardener?“
Where in the world is The Humane Gardener?Rinconada de Los Andes, Chile
Who’s reading: Soledad Robledo
How The Humane Gardener has inspired me: First, home gardens supposedly had to follow certain aesthetics, with exotic flowers and neatly kept spaces. My idea of what a “beautiful” backyard is has changed. Now I’m aware that nature has various designs, shades and textures. And most importantly, it’s full of life.
Education is key. I had no idea that lawns didn’t welcome the natural cycles. But then again, my childhood house’s grass was nice, but not many insects were around. Besides, lots of water had to be used to keep it green throughout the year. Let’s not even mention the chemicals that advertising persuaded us to buy!
I thought nature only existed in mountains and natural parks. But animals and vegetation do exist, on a smaller but equally important scale, in the neighborhood park or on an apartment’s balcony. People like you and me have the power to heal the planet by the actions and lifestyles they choose to live by. And that starts at home.
How do I help nature?
My family and I saved as many native plants as we could the minute our house began to be built. There are several Acacia caven trees, which get water through their long roots. Springtime sprouts the delicate purple Conanthera campanulata flowers by the dozens. Also, my husband and sister saved a tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) that was about to be cut down and transplanted it at our house. A giant hummingbird visits it every day!
We didn’t cut down any dead trees. Then we planted some ivy by one of them. It looks poetic. I’ve even seen birds resting on them. All trees equal life.
Last but not least, if an uninvited guest such as a cricket or beetle came in, I’d politely take it outdoors where it’d meet up with the rest of its buddies again. But this wouldn’t be the case for mice. We eliminated one last fall. That made me feel so guilty that I made up my mind to find a humane solution next time. So about a month ago when a little mouse visited the kitchen, my dear husband helped me get it into a box, releasing it in a nearby ravine immediately. Today, I truly understand that all creatures have to be respected.
“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” —Albert Camus
It took me a long time to appreciate the beauty of subtraction. As a new gardener years ago, I always yearned for more. More flowers, more color, more lushness, more everything.
As with so many outsized cravings, this lust for proliferation resulted in an imbalance in my yard. Focusing on all the colorful things I could readily see in summer, I often neglected the subtler but perhaps even more significant elements of creating a dynamic wildlife garden: the leaves of host plants for insect specialists, the tree snags for cavity-nesting birds, the seed heads that provide sustenance when temperatures drop, the brush piles and leaf litter where countless creatures take shelter and breed.
These things weren’t banished from my spaces; they just weren’t high enough on my list of priorities for me to even notice, much less encourage.
While I age along with the property, I have gained new appreciation for the reminders issued by nature during these dark days. In winter we can view the world without distraction, observing as if with X-ray vision the bones of our surroundings. Shedding their extravagant petticoats of summer, the trees reveal the structure of their limbs, and we see through them. Letting go of their rough exteriors, the milkweed pods spill out fluffy promises, and in them we see the shape of things past and the shape of things to come.
Even though it feels like all of nature is retreating, it’s still there. The birds’ struggle to find seeds and insects becomes my struggle. The deer lying in the yard quietly grooming her front paws at dusk isn’t that different from my dog who used to do the same—or from me, for that matter. We all need a safe space and a little sustenance to get us through the day.
These things are obscured from view in the height of summer. Though the leaves are deeply missed now, their absence also gives us a chance for new perspective. Recently I saw in a new, wintry light even more wonders of the season when the Maryland Native Plant Society and the Calvert Nature Society convened a group of sun-starved hikers in search of anything green or interesting at Ward Farm Recreation and Nature Park. Here’s a taste of what we found.
Nature’s candy: Rose bushes near a pond were difficult to identify, so we did what any self-respecting plant lovers would do: We ate them. The hips were somewhat sweet, but the flavor still did not reveal its species.
Why is it called Christmas fern? Though green is scarce in Maryland’s winter palette, we saw a number of these draped along sloping, moist edges and over tree roots. Its name apparently derives from its evergreen nature that makes it available for Christmas decorations. But I prefer the explanation of our hike leader Karyn Molines, chief of Calvert County’s Natural Resources Division and a board member of MNPS: The leaves turn up at the ends like the feet of little Christmas stockings.
A gourmet spread for butterflies: Long after my own patch of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) spilled its seedy guts to the winds, a few plants in a tree-ringed space of the park were still spreading hope for new life that will support monarch caterpillars and other animals next summer.
Peeling back the layers: A river birch (Betula nigra) growing near a pond punctured the gray landscape with rusty beauty. This swamp-loving species provides food for many animals, including ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, and mourning cloak caterpillars. Deer are fans of the leaves and twigs, and other species drink the tree’s sap.
Spiraling into control? In deeming 2015 the Year of the Vine, the Maryland Native Plant Society wants to counteract tree stranglers like the Japanese honeysuckle that made its home here. Instead of planting nonnatives, we should celebrate our own, non-strangling coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia), and even poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) for their beauty and high wildlife value. Fascinating plants, many vines actually grow toward shade, Molines observed, because they’re looking for trees and structures to climb. In so doing, they conserve energy for producing big leaves instead of trunks. “How can I find someone else to do my work for me,” Molines asked, channeling a vine, “so I can spend all my time eating and having sex?”
What’s in a Name? Here was what we’d come for: a peek at anything green amid the gray and brown landscape. True to its name, spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) is one of few natives that holds its color throughout the winter. Listed as endangered or vulnerable in several northern states and Canada, this little beauty sends up dangling, delicate white flowers in early summer.
Appreciating the architecture of winter: As we stood between a pond and an open meadow, one hiker suggested the idea of planting invasives alongside natives to demonstrate the difference. Molines had a different idea. “This is really what winter looks like in Maryland,” she said. “I’d rather get people used to what things look like.” Many people want year-round color, but what appears to be most alive to our eyes may not be servicing the critical needs of the creatures around us. Nonnative plants generally don’t provide the food and shelter our animal friends need. The more attuned we are to their specialized habitats—and the more accustomed we get to “what things looks like”—the more life we will ultimately sustain.
[As an expression of my gratitude for all creatures during this week of giving thanks, I’d like to celebrate a groundhog who helped heal my heart. This essay was originally published in 2010.]
My dog died during the second week of June, the kindest month, on a table in the vet’s office when she could no longer stand without leaning against walls. On her final ride I could not restrain myself from violating the personal space she normally required, this animal who had always doled out love in short bursts and on her own terms but otherwise demanded a wide perimeter. All I could do was wrap my arms around her sedated, shaking body and hope she knew what I meant.
No one is ever prepared for the emptiness that lies ahead, the split-second moments of forgetting that conjure silhouettes of a dead pet in all her favorite spots. As I would soon come to realize, most of those flashes of wishful thinking would haunt me in the one place Mattiebo and I wanted to be together more than any other: the garden.
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that her departure left gaping holes in my life. One was under the deck, where on warm days my wiry pixie dog liked to drum up dramatic dust storms, making her bed in the soft dirt. It was an ongoing project, made more complicated by my husband’s repeated insistence on filling the hole back up again, as he feigned annoyance and predicted the far-fetched calamities that would soon befall us if the dog dug too deeply and disturbed the structural integrity of the deck stairs.
Mattiebo and I liked to feign annoyance back, though we were secretly grateful for his attentiveness, since it wasn’t in our nature to properly care about things like the house falling down around us. She was too busy raising her worshipping nose to the winds and defending our borders. I was too busy ensuring the peppers were planted far enough apart and the sunflower seeds were sprouting.
Periodically our goals clashed, Mattie’s and mine, and she would take her job of scaring school buses and delivery trucks so seriously that she trampled my new plants while running up and down the fenceline and barking ferociously. But the flowers were forgiving and bounced back. And the schoolchildren rode their bikes by on the weekends and laughed.
After she died, I took stock of the evidence of her life and found that I could hardly bear to be in the garden we had cultivated together. Once a source of solace, it became a place of longing. Planted firmly in the tall, drooping grasses were my memories of Mattie peeking out of them, her bandit face topped by what looked like a green Medusa wig. Squirrel sightings seemed odd without the little bright flash in tow—a white-tailed deer appendage of a behind and belly on an otherwise black-and-tan mongrel.
My husband didn’t take it upon himself to fill the holes anymore; they sat for a long while, empty and hopeful, a tribute to an industrious dog with her own inner life. My attempts at gardening grew half-hearted, less a passion than a laborious effort to try to regain something that was gone for good. With my companion missing, I had no one to chat with about the baby worms and the just-waking bees and the kind of day that was in store for us, no one to share the joy of a raccoon sighting or a mysterious crosswind holding the promise of a much needed rain. I had no reason to get up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday and sink my knees and hands into the dirt. In short, the outdoors felt less like a sanctuary of abundance than a reminder of all I had lost.
A year and a half has passed. The metaphorical holes still unfilled, I am a more haphazard gardener, forcing myself into a routine out of habit and obligation and a hope that one day it will help me heal from the death of not only my dog but my cat eight months later. Recently I got my first sign that, as winter approached, it was time for that healing to begin. Going out for a run, my husband saw a woodchuck in the back garden and called me to the window. Munching in the grasses, our unexpected guest appeared to be stocking up, letting his mouth be his guide across the space in zig-zags and circles.
Here was a creature who loved my garden as much as Mattie and I once had. We watched his gentle meanderings until the appearance of a feral cat—and the subsequent noises I issued in an attempt to prevent a fight—sent him scurrying toward a wall made of stacked railroad ties, behind a rhododendron surrounded in summer by ostrich ferns. It’s a place I know well: Cool and dark, the soil enriched for years by pine needles and fallen leaves, it once provided a safety zone where Mattiebo could see and not be seen, keeping watch on her small herd from a distance. Back then a shallow pit in the earth sculpted to conform to a hot mutt’s belly, the area has taken on new dimensions in the shape of a small mound with a carefully crafted entryway, still hidden by vegetation and sheltered enough from the elements for peaceful hibernation.
In that protected spot just beyond our comfortable reach, where she clawed out a sanctuary of her own, one of the holes left behind by my beloved friend has finally been filled.
This essay originally appeared in All Animals magazine, a publication of The Humane Society of the United States.
Like most things that used to pop up in my garden unexpectedly, the green giant I would eventually come to know as boneset was once cause for deep suspicion.
Its leaves were nondescript and thin, signaling a tenuous grasp on its circumstances. Among the zinnias and sunflowers and voluptuous native phloxes, this plant looked out of place at best and, on its worst days, like the lost soul at the seventh grade dance.
Whether inspired by some deep empathy for that feeling of not belonging or just a growing recognition that nothing is ever what it seems—or maybe a little of both—I decided to let it grow. And grow. And grow some more.
Until one day, my mystery plant finally bloomed. It was toward the end of a hot summer, when all the bright stars of the garden were waning and the tiny pollinators were running out of dining options. A composite flower, the species offered what so many others can’t: a last delicious stop on the breeding and migration highway.
Mostly the plant seemed to attract tiny bees and wasps, seemingly hundreds at a time. Within a few years, it made its presence known in almost every cultivated plot on our property—not so much in an intrusive way but rather in a manner that said, “I’m here, somebody loves me, and I don’t care what you think anymore.”
Once I’d identified the species as Eupatorium serotinum and Eupatorium perfolatium (I’m pretty sure we have both), I began to realize this was a rebel with a cause. As is too often the case with our natives, even its nicknames—boneset, thoroughwort, feverwort—were ill-fitting of its beauty and life-sustaining properties.
Perhaps these monikers made sense when the leaves were used to treat dengue fever. But now? They cast the species as so much litter on the side of the highway instead of a critical late summer and fall food for bees, wasps and butterflies. The plant is even a favorite of blue-winged wasps (scolia dubia), who keep Japanese beetles in check by laying eggs in the beetles’ larvae.
You’ve probably never heard that about this plant. In fact, you’ve probably never heard of this plant at all. And that’s because boneset has a branding problem. Attractive to some of the most stunning insects on the continent, it has an undiscovered inner beauty and a breathtaking appearance. But it is largely ignored.
Things may be looking up for this wild wallflower, though. Last spring at a favorite native plant center, Herring Run Nursery in Baltimore, I was heartened to hear someone approach a volunteer to say, “Excuse me, do you have any boneset?” Just before she was whisked away to the aisle of all things cultivated and appropriate, I invited the woman to my house, only half-jokingly, to dig up some of the many volunteer bonesets that had spread throughout the property.
And I would have followed through on the offer, had my fellow native plant enthusiast not done what most people do when confronted by something outside convention: laughed nervously without really looking at me and moved on, following the guide to the place where she could comfortably purchase a native plant in a plastic pot and go home. I can’t say I blame her. But I wish it were different. And I’ll keep trying to make it so by letting things bloom where they’ve planted themselves and inviting others to join, even at the risk of being a nerdy boneset in a field of zinnia-laden glam.