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Are Dahlias Worth the Trouble?

You decide.

It seems like a lot of trouble to dig them up in the fall and store them through winter, a necessity in this climate, but to me the rewards are great once they start to bloom.

The best way I’ve found to overwinter dahlias is to leave them in a pot of dirt and cut them back, (or dig them out of a bed and plant shallowly, even in layers, in dirt in a pot), and bring them into the cool mudroom, then cover it lightly with something so no light gets in. I lift the cardboard, or other pot, or whatever I have on top, periodically to make sure it’s not getting moist or moldy. In spring, I pull the pot or pots out and either just begin watering them, or dig up the dahlias and replant them in the garden.

All manner of bees and other insects find ample delight in them when they bloom, which makes it all worthwhile to me. With regular deadheading, they provide a long season of fabulous color and rich pollinator provisions.

Coreopsis, above, is an abundant self-sowing perennial and a great source for all kinds of pollinators. Though I have not the luck of some whose snapdragons self-sow, it’s worth buying a few four-packs each spring to feed the bumblebees!

This year, cilantro has gone wild in my raised vegetable beds, and flowering now hosts tiny wasps and flies as well as some bees. Its lacy flowers interspersed with the vegetables and other blossoms looks lovely, and its precious white buds resemble the green coriander seeds they morph into. This year, I snipped most leaves off the plants just as their stalks began, chopped them in the blender with a smidge of water, and packed them into an ice tray. Now I have a tablespoon of ‘fresh’ cilantro whenever I need it for the kitchen.

Out in the woods, deep in the canyon, we discovered a turkey vulture nest last week. At first sight, these two chicks still had luxurious white ruffs around their necks descending well down their breasts. Since last Thursday, most of this down has transformed into mature feathers. Rumor has it that they are not common nesters in Colorado, though I can’t imagine why not, so I feel lucky to have found a nest in my canyon. It’s not a nest in the sense we generally think of: their mother laid her eggs behind a big rock in this pile.

Western tiger swallowtails are not as common this summer as they were ~ was it just last summer? ~ but still I see one or two a day. This tired butterfly straggled into a hanging basket, and then sought respite on the painting that hangs on my east wall. Recently unearthed from storage, this fanciful creation was painted by my brother when he was an early teen, and even then captured my love for the wild world. I’ve finally found the perfect location for it.

A Scary, Cold Spring

IMG_8669Never have I been so excited to photograph a honeybee on Nepeta, the catmint. Here it is mid-May and today I am relieved to finally see honeybees! Last year bees were late arriving; this year they were even more alarmingly late. Maybe because it’s been so wet and cold all spring? Maybe because there are fewer bees. There are definitely fewer bees.

When Amy first visited me a decade ago, she pointed out the sound of my yard: buzzing everywhere. For a couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about sending her a video of the big Nepeta patch outside my front door, with a “What’s missing from this picture?” caption. These flowers, usually crowded with bees from the minute they begin to bloom, were silent.IMG_7745

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The driveway a month ago, running with rainwater and still growing and greening to this day.

Spring is exceptionally green this year, after nearly incessant precipitation since Christmas. This is great, for the garden, the fields, my potential to sell my field, the irrigation ditches; also for the weeds, now knee-high throughout the yard where I haven’t gotten them whacked yet. And unless the precipitation continues through the summer, it could be a very good year for the wildfires. Not for those of us at risk, all species, but good for the fires themselves, which thrive on the fuel grown in a verdant spring once it dries out.

Oh well. As Bill Nye the Science Guy says, “The planet’s on fucking fire!” Only with conscious effort and some sacrifice from everyone (that “everyone” raises so many questions about justice; it’s a rabbit hole I’ll not go down right now) can we slow down climate chaos. This has been the coldest, wettest May that anyone remembers, generations back. A wheel of upper level lows has been plaguing the western half of the US… Something about the jet stream being stuck in an exceptionally low trajectory. Climate chaos.

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Lilacs drooping under May 23 snow shower, heavy and wet, and about the hundredth snow shower this month…

It begins snowing big steady flakes as I write this. No wonder the bees aren’t out. But they were earlier, just a few, in the few days that have been warm and sunny rather than wet and windy.

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A rare flowering grass emerged surprisingly in late April.

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Oh wait, it was just fallen apricot blossoms speared on sharp spring blades of regular old grass…

Butterflies and hummingbirds have also appeared but not in their usual numbers. I saw about half a dozen species of butterflies in April during a warm week, but not the usual Mourning Cloak.

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This painted lady had hot competition from native bees on the almond tree… but not for very long, before the snow and wind moved in and the tree leafed out.

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Red admirals were plentiful for a couple of days. By plentiful, I mean I saw a few at a time. 

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But too many of the flowers this spring went without pollinators… just pretty flowers. 

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It’s been a great year for Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja) with all the snow and rain. And right as rain, just as the first paintbrush buds emerged the black-chinned hummingbirds arrived. But so did the broad-tails, who usually come a few weeks later; both species arrived at least a week earlier than usual, because snowpack in the high country kept their food sources up there underground.

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There have also been a lot more globe cactuses blooming, most with more blossoms than usual. 

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Wild asparagus has also been abundant!

IMG_8553Mountain bluebirds, inspiration for our famous Colorado “bluebird sky,” are nesting close to the house, providing joyful glimpses frequently throughout the day. Magpies successfully fledged at least one chick from the nest north of the house, after spending months shrieking all day. It’s a sound I don’t mind, though; like the spring flicker drumming on the metal roof, or the phoebes chirping around their nest in the eave over the front door.  IMG_8566IMG_7577I’ve done some experimenting with the beautiful red salvias which are annuals in our zone, and might elaborate on those results later. It’s been far too cold to put them all in patio pots yet, so I put out the tray of tender flowers every morning, and bring it in every evening. I’ve had to put them outside even on cold blustery days like yesterday, and they’ve survived multiple hailstorms, snow showers, and wind attacks, though much the worse for wear, because the dear little hummingbirds started feeding on them right away, while they’re in 4″ pots on the patio table.

At last though, just this weekend, it looks as though the weather pattern may shift, and we might start our spring warmup a month late. Fingers crossed for some semblance of normal balance. IMG_7667

Inside the Kaleidoscope, Driveway Edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Valentine’s Day at Mirador

 

IMG_5820It was a long, slow, cold, dark winter. A few days of sunshine sprinkled amongst weeks, months of clouds, fog, and snow. Driveways in our neighborhood drifted more times this winter than in the full decade past’s winters. These photos are sequential, from Valentine’s Day through last week, showing just some of the excitement of this turning season. Some have days between them, others only hours.

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February 16, drifting in progress

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The next morning after neighbor’s stealth plow job

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February 20, evening

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… the next day

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Inside, warm and sleepy

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February 23, early; the most spectacular drifts of the season

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An hour later, neighbor Joe deep cleaning the driveway

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Pooped again

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February 28, warming fast

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24 hours later, one whole snowbank has melted…

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March 5, the first crocuses opened at last! More than a month later than last year.

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March 9, flurries overnight. This time of year the snow has ceased to be a threat. No matter how much comes, it will melt soon. There is a sigh of relief with mud season, knowing that snow won’t stay long, and even though the firewood is low, it won’t be needed much longer.

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Walking the mammals, a nearly daily joy.

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Meanwhile, inside the sunroom

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… and outside, full-on crocus patch, with the first honeybee!

 

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Day by day, snow melts away

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Inside, orchids and geraniums in full bloom…

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Iris reticulata in full bloom outside, while tulip leaves get nibbled by deer. Those worthless dogs don’t chase them off anymore, so I’ve had to cover them with scrap wire and sticks.

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Snowstorms turn to rain, and after rain…

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Hummingbirds: an Ongoing Commitment

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This Gaura has been as delightful a plant as any I’ve ever grown. Catching a glimpse out the window this morning I marveled at it again, dancing in the breeze in early September sun. I planted this a couple of times in the ground, but it wouldn’t overwinter, so I tried again this summer in a big clay pot. The combination of pink, white and red flowers has been spectacular.

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It draws hummingbirds as well as bees, even though the hummingbird feeder is just five feet away. Nothing is better food for these tiny dynamos than actual flower nectar.

I’ve mentioned some tips about feeding hummingbirds in previous posts, but I’m motivated today to just tell all. A friend asked me the other day, When should I take down my feeders? She asks me this every year. Every year, I tell her, About ten days after you’ve last seen a hummingbird.

Really? I thought you were supposed to take them down so they don’t miss their migration. Somehow this Myth resurfaces every fall instead of the answer I’ve given everyone who asks me for years. The birds won’t stick around late just because you have your feeders up: in fact, even after your summer population leaves, migrants passing through will benefit from your feeders staying up and clean.*

It’s not just the feeding schedule that matters when you commit to sustaining a hummingbird feeder through the season. Every summer, I inevitably encounter ill-kept feeders at the homes of people who should know better. Some of you have learned to keep your feeders clean, and some of you haven’t. Next time I have to say something, I’m naming names! And yes, I am scolding. I can’t help it, it’s in my nature. I’ve been subtle about this issue long enough.

COMMITMENT

Everybody means well when they put out feeders. Despite our best intentions, as frail and fallible humans, we don’t always follow through. Feeding hummingbirds isn’t something you do at your convenience, because it’s nice to have the pretty birds around. It’s a commitment: You commit to serving the welfare of the birds daily, because otherwise you contribute to their demise. There are so many ways to do it wrong, and the consequences are dire.

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Blue and red salvias planted in pots around the patio, when fed and deadheaded regularly, provide bountiful food for young hummingbirds migrating later than their parents, and learning to trust my garden as a reliable resource. I’ve learned it’s worth it to buy these tender perennials annually and tend them well, for the bountiful beauty they provide with both their blooms and their pollinators.

IMG_7334-131IMG_7300-132Caveat: exactly when to take down feeders is an art as well as a science; some people in the far north take them down at the first hard frost, or even earlier. This may be where the Myth originates. Places with year round hummingbirds obviously don’t need to stop feeding at all. I could send you straight to Audubon for all you need to know about feeding hummingbirds, but that would leave me nothing to say.

Here in the central latitudes of the continent, experience tells me to leave my feeder up for at least ten days after I’ve seen the last hummingbird, cleaning and refilling it as needed.* There is always a last hummingbird, sometimes after I’ve taken down the feeder, so I keep a jar of nectar in the fridge for a few weeks even when I think I’ve seen the last one, just in case of an exhausted straggler. I’ll make one cup, and if I don’t use it in a week I may make another cup. A small waste of sugar is worth a hummingbird’s life.

This time of year, I see mostly summer’s youngsters in my garden. They’re learning what’s good food and what’s not. They check out all the flowers, and don’t use the feeder nearly as much as their parents did earlier in summer. Many adults, especially males, are already moving south. These juveniles are exploring, gaining insight and wisdom, as they check out red honeysuckle berries and rose hips as well as salvia and snapdragons.IMG_7225-128IMG_7329-130Tending hummingbirds demands dedication. When you put out a feeder you initiate a real relationship with a particular population of little beings, the closest thing to fairies in our remaining wild world. Connie and John used to feed hundreds of hummingbirds of four species just a few miles south and a thousand feet higher than I live here. They were committed. They brewed gallons of fresh nectar a day, and their feeders never had a chance to get cloudy or moldy. The sound was amazing! They moved to Wisconsin.

NO RED DYE!

That shit shouldn’t even be legal to sell. Would you add an absolutely unnecessary red chemical to your every meal? No, you wouldn’t. Red food for hummingbird feeders is a sales scam, and hard on their tiny kidneys. Yes, they’re attracted to red, and that’s why feeders are usually red, but the food in them should be clear.

Once and for all, the best and cheapest nectar takes just a few minutes of your time. One (1) part refined white sugar to four (4) parts water. One to four, sugar/water, nothing else. You can put them both in the pan together, bring to boiling, and boil for a minute or two (no more!), or you can boil water in your kettle, pour it into the jar with the sugar, and shake the bejesus out of it until it settles clear, and you can’t see any sugar residue. The reason you heat the water is to increase its absorption of the sugar granules. There’s no need to cook it, as long as you make sure the sugar is thoroughly dissolved. Then let it cool to room temperature before pouring into clean* feeders.

I hear that hummingbirds don’t like to drink cold nectar, so maybe when you have refrigerated nectar you want to change your feeders at night. When they come to feed in the morning, the nectar is ambient temperature. On super hot days, nectar can spoil quickly, so change it every day or two even if they haven’t finished it. In early spring or fall, if it’s going to freeze at night, bring feeders in for the night and put them back out early in the morning so the food is there, not frozen, when they wake up.

*ALWAYS CLEAN FEEDERS!

You don’t have to scrub them every time you fill them, but you do have to rinse thoroughly in hot water, and swish away any sticky residue with a bottle brush or your fingertips, depending on the design of the feeder. Audubon recommends no soap, as the residue can harm them. Clean your nectar storage jars the same way you clean the feeders, every time you empty them.

You do need to rinse and refill more often during hot weather than in cool weather. And if there’s any sign at all of cloudiness in the nectar, or debris, or black or grey on the feeder, you DO need to scrub with hot water or a light hot water-vinegar solution, and rinse really really well. By the time you see that black stuff on the feeder, you’re already killing birds. It’s that simple.

An adult hummingbird who acquires fungus from your feeder carries it home to her tiny babies in their nest. She could die from it and leave them to starve, or she could transmit it to them. Or both. So keep your feeders clean. Invest in a bottlebrush or two, and get a pack of these perfect little brushes for the ports. It doesn’t take long for nectar to spoil in hot weather, and it doesn’t take you long to keep the feeders clean if you have the right tools for the job. I use really hot water if I’m cleaning a glass feeder, and less hot if I’m cleaning a plastic vessel.

OH, AND… CATS

I got rid of the feeders I kept for seed-eaters the summer before I started letting my two new kittens outside. It isn’t fair to bait the birds in when I’ve got cats that can’t help trying to catch them. I compromised on hummingbird feeders, cutting my three down to one, and kept that one mainly to supplement the flowers, which don’t always bloom at the right times anymore, another consequence of climate chaos. Last week I found the first dead hummingbird ever at my front door, and I think it was the one I photographed the day before, struggling to fly and feed.

IMG_6813-147You almost never see a hummingbird sitting still to feed. This little one was crashing about in the flowers all morning, clinging to stems while trying to feed, and tangling in the potted plants, most unusual behavior. Was she too young? Or too weak, or injured, or what? IMG_7016Another hummingbird kept diving at her, and I first thought it was the usual mine!mine!-aggression they all display while protecting a food source or territory. But the struggling bird didn’t seem to mind the other one, and when I followed them into the honeysuckle (with binoculars) it looked as though the strong bird was trying to feed the weak one. Were they migrating together?

IMG_6857-145Everywhere she flew this other bird followed, at times flying up underneath her as though for support or encouragement. Something was very wrong. It looked like the little slow one had a tuft of feathers sticking out where there shouldn’t be one, as though she might have an injury. It’s possible that this bird was snagged by a cat claw, or perhaps hit a window, or was in some other way compromised. IMG_7086It was one of those heart-wrenching moments when you wish there was something you could do but you know there’s not. Though she was flying badly she was still too fast for me to catch. And if I had, what then? So I left her to her fate, which I suspect was to be brought to my doorstep the next day, intact though darkly damp from cat saliva. I feel bad about that. These are the complex paradoxes that keep us dancing on our ethical toes.

Every choice we make has consequences, some (or most) of which we never fully know. Know that if you choose to put out hummingbird feeders, there’s only one right way to do it: Keep the feeders sparkling clean all summer, and keep them up til all the migrants have flown through your area. With habitat fragmentation, compromised migratory routes, and climate chaos all throwing anthropogenic challenges at these energetic little jewels, the least we can do if we choose to feed them is to do it right, helping rather than harming them.IMG_7232-140-141

 

Just Peachy, Really

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One of my best friends this summer has been the peach tree.

With James and the Giant Peach entrained early in life, there has always been something special to me about peaches, and this tree itself holds such meaning. Maybe that story is also why I love bugs and all other living creatures. That story, and “Are You My Mother?”

One of the first fruit trees I planted here, over the graves of a dog and a cat, I planted in memory of a woman I loved, Daryl Ann. She died of breast cancer twelve years ago, and lives in my heart for all time. So it’s a special tree, the peach tree.

It took a few years before it made more than a few peaches, and even since has only produced a bounty of peaches once before. This year, against the freeze odds, it made so many! I thinned, as I’ve been taught to do, a few weeks after the tree itself shed almost half its first flush of tiny green fruits. I’ve paid particular attention to it since then, nurturing with extra food and water, watching the growth and ripening of fruits closely, monitoring it daily for the past month in order to catch the most peaches as ripe as possible before the birds get them all.

On cold snowy days in spring, hot sunny days in summer, the oppressive smoky days of high fire season, cooler ripening days, I’ve spent time with the peach tree, dusting early for aphids before they could cripple early leaves, thinning, communing, watering, weeding around, photographing; generally keeping company with the peach tree, hanging out with and appreciating it.

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early summer

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mid-summer

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A month of smoke from wildfires

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and finally, ripening!

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Cocktails with the peach tree before first harvest

 

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This summer’s first peach harvest, about a third of what was on the tree. I watched and waited every day, until after a big wind I saw a couple of peaches on the ground. That evening I picked every peach that would let go easily.

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Plenty of peaches left, growing brighter every day.

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The August Manhattan includes a dash of peach bitters in addition to the regular Angostura and the secret ingredient, and is garnished with chunks of fresh peach.

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We made a peach pie with the last frozen peaches from two years ago, in anticipation of a fresh harvest. Thawed slightly sitting out, or 20 seconds or so in the microwave, the peels slip off easily and flesh pops right off the pit. Thanks, cuz, for taking pictures!

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Silicone mat (thanks, neighbor!) makes crust rolling easy.

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The second harvest from the tree, a bowl to share and a bowl to keep.

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And STILL peaches ripening on the tree, irresistible after a light rain. Altogether I picked three big bowls, and a few in between, always only pulling those that gave up easily. 

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An early sign that I’d better get the last of them off the tree…

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… and after birds, just a picked-clean pit. I did leave a couple of dozen on purpose for the birds, including one with a perfect view from the patio, so I could catch someone in the act.

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Last peaches, gifts for birds, glowing in the August sunset.

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… the best part of the August Manhattan.

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The peach tree finally at rest after a fruitful season.

 

 

Among the Cleome

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Cleome serrulata, Rocky Mountain Beeplant, wild relative of gardeners’ Spider Flower, is a magnet for native pollinator species as well as honeybees.

Someday, I will find the photo I took of acres of beeplant along the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument when I was a ranger there decades ago. Acres of it! Right next to the river, in a disturbed field. That was my introduction to this native medicinal, dye, and food plant. When I lived in a trailer here 26 years ago, I scattered a native seed mix, including Gallardia, Ratibida, Linum, and Cleome. Of those four, only the beeplant has appeared erratically. Some years there are many, some, like this year, few. Maybe it doesn’t like drought. This particular patch, essentially two large stalks, I let grow in the raised bed between the Mystery Tomato and the Bolting Leeks.

Certain times of day, much of the day, these flowers buzz with the camaraderie of multiple insect species feasting at the same table. What is wrong with us? IMG_6541-109-110IMG_6222IMG_6330-101-102

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I don’t know everything. But it looks like this tiny native bee is shaking or rubbing pollen from a Cleome stamen. Another series of photos shows a big yellow bumblebee stroking the underside of two stamens with her antenna, but for some reason they won’t export. Oh well.

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This juvenile Rufous hummingbird sips the flower, which simultaneously produces fruit and seeds as blossoms continue to bloom and ripen up the stalk.

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Two distinct colors of honeybees inhabit my yard, a range of light bees, and one dark strain.

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I also don’t know the name of this bee, or even if it is a wasp. It’s over an inch long, and I only see it on the Cleome. It usually curls in on itself on these flowers.

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Bye from the Beeplant

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Young hummingbirds, this year’s fast-fledged hatchlings, seem to experiment more with the flowers than adults who’ve become accustomed to the quick-fix of the single feeder that hangs below the deck. They’re trying out the patio pots with red and blue annual Salvia, and the hanging baskets.

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mean… fuzzy wuzzy!

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Next time, the Bountiful Peach Tree.

Amidst loss and chaos throughout the summer, in my personal life as well as in community and country, and around the planet, this peach tree has brought peace and joy. Nurturing and watching from the last snow, through leaf and bloom, drop and grow, these last weeks of ripening, I’ve savored this tree in far and away its most abundant year. It keeps reminding me what’s real. One fruit of the romantic debacle/deception is that it’s driven me deeper into the larger love of my closest friends, my community, and my garden sanctuary. Let me remember to be grateful for love and lessons, every living moment of every day.

 

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On Fire

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Hummingbirds surf the desert willow as she continues to throw out waves of flowers.
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Sunset the other night behind the western edge of Grand Mesa. Smoke from a distant fire… also some closer fires, including the Buttermilk Fire just ten or twelve miles away.

This is the first day in over a month that I’ve been able to spend a whole morning outside. I usually get to spend two, at the very least one day a week devoted to the yard and gardens. With oppressive smoke and heat outside all day and night these recent weeks, and inside flames, of love, fears, blame, I’ve been neglecting my garden, my center, my path. I am still learning to walk.

The patio pots are out of control, in desperate need of deadheading and trimming. Stellar can’t stand that I’m talking to myself about it and not to him. He flops onto his left side and rolls his head toward me, then tries to roll his bulk onto his back, pawing at the path and making little noises. Rolling after running and eating is dangerous, so I go to him, get up baby, such a fine boy… He comes to standing, shakes, leans against my knees as I fold over him rubbing his belly, my cheek pressed to his velvet ear, his chocolate cheek, murmuring love words as he emanates his whole-hearted response. I’ve been neglecting the dogs as well as the garden.

A light shower last night and an even cloud cover this morning gave hours of enjoyment and work, nurturing the place that gives me succor: pulling prostrate knotweed and bindweed from paths, deadheading rampant gladioli and snapdragons, cutting back early salvias and dahlias, pulling from cracks between flagstones the errant catmints; leaving thymes and gourmet salad-size purslane. All the pots are buzzing with bees and other aerial creatures. Below, honeybee drinks from abundant Gaura in the pink clay pot.

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Honeybee prays for clarity on a smoky day

The sky has also been abuzz. The Buttermilk Fire at the west end of our mesa held my attention for a full week. I readied the Mothership for evacuation though I didn’t really think it would be necessary. This time. To date, around 750 acres have burned, mostly in wilderness piñon and juniper in steep canyons and ridges. Firefighters have contained 15% of the burn area and remain focused on keeping the fire heading south and east into the wilderness, protecting human habitations at the northeast edge and minimizing the threat of an ember rain.

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One water chopper coming in empty just south of the house, on its way to the reservoir. Below, another heading back on the north side, carrying 2000 gallons of water in its bucket. We all, when we gather, speak of our gratitude for these hardworking women and men. People bring them treats. Little kindnesses matter in the midst of chaos.

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Honeybee treats herself to pollen from a dahlia, gathering as she wipes her face.

What blooms along the seam of the path and the patio foundation varies year to year depending on what seeds sow, what weeds grow, what gets mowed down by the tortoise, dogs, garden cart or hose in daily passing. I keep hoping snapdragons will self-sow here, as they do at Rosie’s house, but so far the seeds haven’t landed in optimum conditions. As I trim and weed around the patio I wear gloves and watch closely. There’s always a chance of a black widow, though they don’t tend to inhabit this kind of niche, they prefer a deep and secret place with little or no traffic of any sort.

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Bumblebee on a snapdragon, maybe Bombus griseocollis, the brown-belted bumblebee.

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A bee fly, Bombylius, feeds at the Gaura. This delicate beauty is a parasitoid, feeding in its larval stage upon the larva of a solitary bee, killing it. In a sense, a predator as well as a parasite. Who would guess, from its gentle appearance?

Leafcutter bees have been crazy for the dahlias this week. I’ve finally figured out how to overwinter them: leave them in pots, bring the pots into the mudroom after the foliage dies back, and keep a paper bag over them. All those I saved in a box or a bag over the past few years since I started growing dahlias have withered, despite occasional misting, and failed to revive in the ground. Those I kept in pots last year grew again in abundance. Next spring when I bring them out I’ll divide them into even more pots. They bloomed early this year, like everything else, but they keep on going as long as I keep tending to them, and it’s hard to name a more cheerful flower.

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Share and share alike, at least with flowers…

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…or maybe not. Next time, more fun with Rocky Mountain Beeplant, Cleome serrulata. 

All the west is burning. Smoke obscures horizons for days. This is chaos, not change. The practice is to witness. The work is love. Our living planet needs each of us to rise up. Some hearts burn with passion, some with shame. Mine smolders with both but at least I’m on fire again.