My godmother mulched the garden with the outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage. I also use corn husks, spent Oriental poppy leaves (first carefully removing the seed heads to avoid a poppy epidemic). I cut the tired, browning iris and day lily leaves and lay them in cross hatches on newly watered ground to hold the moisture.
I now work alongside the robins, who’ve returned to take up residence among the fast-ripening grapes. The flickers are back, too, babies with short tails stumbling through the apple tree branches, and the adults, no longer especially interested in aerating grass for ants, are hunting berries. They’re especially fond of woodbine. It feels like great good fortune when they leave us a coral-colored feather.
1,000-year-old flicker feather headdress, origin unattributed, University of Colorado Natural History Museum
The downy woodpeckers work the mullein for bugs. The woodpecker’s scientific name, Picoides pubescens, comes from the Latin for “puberty.” The down resembles the first signs of a young man’s beard. According to legend, the woodpecker’s red head indicates its ability to find fire by boring into wood. The blaze on its crown seems to underscore its industriousness, too.
A clumsy young downy lands heavily on a mullein, causing it to sway and bend alarmingly. The grown ups land lightly on the mullein next to it, then dash back and forth feeding the not-so-little guy and, I suspect, trying to show it what do by example. They look exhausted.
Two weeks ago, my husband’s best birding buddy and his wife came for lunch. By mid-afternoon, there was, as Merrill put it, “an amazing amount of activity.” (The birds had gotten used to us by then.) While Ronna and I talked, Jack whispered, “hairy.” He and Merrill turned slowly in their seats, removing themselves completely out of the conversation and into one of their own with the birds. Ronna and I are used to it. We glanced over to admire the larger hairy woodpecker — an unusual visitor — and carried on chattering without missing a beat.
A white-breasted nuthatch is visiting the feeder … and eats upside down. S/he’s hanging around, but a pair of orioles, gorgeous even in their faded fall feathers, stopped in to check things out for just a few minutes this morning. In the evening, a mourning dove dropped by. The most beautiful taupe color I’ve ever seen. S/he trilled as she landed on the clothes line. Trilled as s/he dropped to explore the ground. Trilled as s/he flew off.
As noted before, I keep a wild place for the animals. I also keep piles of garden debris on the same sort of principle: a gift to the creatures who honor us with their visits, and where, for instance, birds can find nesting materials.
The garden is dedicated to the birds, the butterflies, the dragonflies, the bees, the squirrels, raccoons and whoever else shows up to make it real and worthwhile.