Know Your Garden

Know Your Garden

By Margaret DiBenedetto

“Know your garden!” he insisted. “Know your garden! What’s the point of it if you don’t know what’s there?”

Truth was, I deserved the tirade. He’d merely asked about the birds, and I’d stammered and stuttered and could barely think. Truth was, I was completely starstruck by this famous birder and could do little more than stand agog and agape; my brain would not function and there was definitely no pathway from my thoughts to my mouth. I couldn’t tell him about the chickadees, the orioles, the juncos, morning doves, goldfinches or downey woodpeckers, even if I’d tried.

The birder was British, so the ‘garden’ he’d referred to wasn’t my little patch of lettuce, kale, and tomatoes; he meant my backyard. And he was right. I should know who comes to my yard, who uses the bird feeders, the surrounding shrubs, the grass of my lawn. I had barely a clue beyond the obvious and readily identifiable visitors to my little postage stamp of the world.

I took his admonition to heart and learned more about the birds. I learned more about the mice and the moles and the squirrels (Aargh! The Squirrels!). 

Then I turned my attention to the lawn. More accurately, the function of the lawn, in respect to wildlife. The relationship between the growth called ‘weeds’ and their contribution in a basic and necessary way to the foundation of the wildlife food pyramid. Grass supports insect life. Dandelions, daisies, and other flowers support insects and bees, which in turn support dragonflies, bats, and insect eating birds.

The fireflies!  Grass supports fireflies, who live among the blades and lay their eggs under the stems and roots.

Each firefly population is fixed in place, anchored to its own field, lawn, or patch of scrub. The blinking buggers do not migrate. The fireflies sparkling above your lawn tonight are descended from fireflies who have lived at that site for thousands, if not millions, of years.

Their sensitive larvae are susceptible to both pesticides and herbicides; entire populations of fireflies disappear daily across the country because of it.

Mosquitos? I’ve learned to accept them. They are a vital food source for hummingbirds, dragonflies, and the few bats we have left. I remember my parents, so proud of the bug zapper that hung by the cellar door. It didn’t zap many mosquitoes but scattered beneath it each morning were the husks of beneficial bugs, along with many. many fried crane flies, which ironically, eat mosquitoes. Ah, technology.

The luna moth is another disappearing treasure. Used to be fairly common in past Junes and Julys to spy on the ground the light green gossamer wings of a luna who had been dinner for a bat or an owl. These days? Maybe one sighting every two years? Three? Five? Hardly ever one that’s alive. The culprit in this case is light.  Lunas are drawn to light. My friend Leslie T. Sharpe says they have a love affair with light. After hatching, lunas live for about 10 days. They don’t eat; have no mouthparts. Their only function is to reproduce. But they are guided by the moon, and are so attracted to porch lights and pole lights and streetlights left on all night long that they often spend their short lifetimes mesmerized by the artificial illumination, rather than yielding to the lesser pull of the opposite sex.

The mind boggles at the billions of microorganisms in a pound of lawn dirt. I’ll settle for the ones I can see, the macro-life I am responsible for by virtue of ownership. I will trust that if I do right by the big ones, the smaller will thrive. My plan: get to know more about my garden, take better care of it, and hope that my brand-new granddaughter will get to experience for herself the intricate design of a luna moth.