Letter from Birdland | A summer to remember

Letter from Birdland | A summer to remember

It's high summer in Birdland, and this summer holds the weather of my dreams. The heat is calmed by the soaking rains that foster my amnesia of the bitter drought just a week or so ago, when I despaired of weeding in the concrete pavement my garden had become.

On my meadow path, a scattering of volunteer sunflowers grow through the grasses and weeds. They are gathering buds at the top of the stalk, and their heads follow the sun before they even have heads, nodding east in the morning and west in the afternoon. They grow taller than I am now, and still only the star-shaped quiltings of green show where the buds will be.

Black-eyed Susans are blooming. Buds are tiny golden fists opening one finger at a time. The heat and the rain are good for my tomato and squash patch. My school schedule gives my garden a late start every year, but these are growing in earnest now. Michael has spread composted chicken manure on the beds by the house and around the pond.

My husband is stunned at how he's enriched the weeds; garlic mustard and lamb's quarters grow huge but are easy to pull from the opulent humus. The chickens must have eaten tomatoes because tomato seedlings have come up in the irises, and I will dig them this evening to plant in my tomato patch. I'll have to extend it some.

My tomato patch is in my corner meadow, and my path winds around the back of it and opens suddenly into what appeared to me a natural gateway.

Weeding the little bridge to the tomatoes has joined it to my path, and I see that the mullein has formed a straight line into the kitchen garden. It took us a few weeks before we figured out how it happened. I love the fuzzy leaves and the yellow flowers sprouting directly from the thick stalk that sometimes splits like a saguaro cactus.

When I'm pulling stickweed and ragweed, I leave the mullein with any Susans, asters, sunflowers, coneflower or milkweed. I also leave anything I don't recognize, just in case it turns out to be a prairie plant. (That's how I got so much stickweed, so maybe I've learned my lesson, but it's also how dogbane came to stand in my vegetable patch, a stately, slender cousin of milkweed, with bunches of tiny, white flowers, like a bridal bouquet).

After a few seasons of encouraging mullein, I find it growing all around — in the path and in the meadow. In the fall, the stalks dry to a brown stiffness, and the seeds rattle in the hulls like little bells on a rainstick. I believe a stalk fell from the edge of my path, spilling its seeds in a straight line. It has made a natural gate on one side, and I'll lay a stalk on the other side, so next year I'll have a mullein wall on either side to welcome visitors to pick tomatoes.

Oh, I know it's not a true prairie plant — another European invasive, but I like it for its shy, yellow flowers, nonetheless.

Our milkweed population has grown, and finally we are seeing a few monarchs, both butterflies and caterpillars, but not as many as we used to with fewer milkweeds. I'm worried about how pesticides and weather have put them in decline.

But meanwhile, my little crop of dill transplanted from the gardens of the Backyard Beauty Flower Farm has hosted two black swallowtail caterpillars. I don't begrudge them the one plant they decimated, and when I tried to move one caterpillar to a fresh dill plant, it put up scary orange horns and held so tightly to the stem of dill that I backed off.

When I checked again today, the plant was nothing but a stem, every feathery leaf, every green seed on the umbel, gone. I'll have to go for a bigger crop next year.

For the past half hour, a tiger swallowtail has been fluttering around the driveway, alighting in the gravel, and then taking off again. It may be gathering moisture from the recent rain, and it seems to have homed in on the shaded bit near the house. I watch it for a bit and then go on back to my chores.

Flutter in beauty; ripple in peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is grateful for the green progression of high summer. You can follow Birdland on Instagram (@BirdlandLetters) and Twitter (@BirdlandLetters). Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.

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