On Real Very Hungry Caterpillars

A few weeks ago some cute caterpillars started appearing in my yard. I was busy preparing for my craft fair at the time, and hardly spent any time in the garden. I noticed the little crawlies, but didn’t pay them much attention.

At one point I took a break from sewing to peek at the newspaper. Our local paper mentioned a caterpillar-epidemic in my town. Somehow, I didn’t connect this tidbit of information to MY caterpillars, and just didn’t think much of it.

Anyhow, I have this agreement with wildlife, you see. Critters of all sorts are entitled to live peacefully in their own habitat outside, as long as they leave the inside of my house to me and my family. How they conduct their lives is their own business.

As the days went by, however, I found more and more caterpillars crawling all over my windshield when I drove the kids to school. When I got out of the car, more and more of them stuck to my hair. They were dangling from the neighbor’s oak tree, whose overhanging branches cover most of our driveway. It started getting a bit annoying.

One day my daughter made an atypical demand: “Mom,” she said,  “you should kill those caterpillars.” But how could I kill caterpillars? I’m vegetarian! And, like everybody else, I raised my kids on “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” story. Caterpillars are cute. They’re fuzzy and hairy. And they turn into butterflies… OK, not always butterflies. Some turn into moths. Like those very caterpillars in my yard, which, I later learned, were all western tussock moth caterpillars. But I like moths, too. When I was working on my Dare! quilt, I did research on moths and realized some were as beautiful, if not MORE beautiful, than butterflies. I just couldn’t kill them.

A few days later I happened to look out of a second-floor window. I saw my neighbor’s oak tree from above, and noticed something was off about it. It took me a while to realize what it was: all the ends of the branches, even the ones on the very top, were chewed to the bone. The new spring growth was all eaten away, about 20 inches of it on each and every branch! Someone badly chewed many of the old leaves as well…

That was when I realized that caterpillars weren’t that cute after all.

But I was still busy preparing for the fair.

Another week went by. I was bringing the garbage bins back in from the curb one evening, when I noticed my dwarf avocado tree. I planted that tree about three years ago. It didn’t grow much the first couple of years. Early this spring it finally spouted new branches and leaves! I was looking forward to seeing the tree grow. But when I saw it now, it was completely ravaged!

The tender, new leaves were entirely gone. Most of the old ones were badly shredded, too! I suddenly knew what Pharaoh felt like when the plagues hit!

This was not cute AT ALL! This, my friends, was a declaration of war!

The very next morning I drove to a hardware store, where I bought a bottle of an all-insect pesticide. I returned home promptly, and sprayed the tens of caterpillars on my avocado tree. Then, I sprayed their comrades on the nearby bush. I sprayed the ones feasting on my roses, and on the plant next to those. In fact, I sprayed any caterpillar I saw! I came back in the afternoon and sprayed some more. Came out again the next day, and the one after that…

By the end of the week I could find no more live caterpillars. I thought I won. Then my neighbor pointed out the cocoons. Western tussock moth cocoons now cover his oak tree like a cream-colored fuzzy blanket. They are high up, of course, on the trunk and upper-most branches, way out of our reach…

Soon moths will hatch, I know. They will lay more eggs. And next year, new caterpillars will crawl all over my plants… But worry not. I will be ready for them this time! Me and my spray bottle.

You might wonder what became of my avocado tree. I was sure it was done for. In the last few days, however, it started showing signs of new growth. There’s still hope for it, it seems! I’m watching it closely, just in case…

Year of the Weed: Spring in My Garden

I’m not sure how it got here so fast, but March is upon us already. Spring will officially start this weekend, with the move of the clock. It was a great relief, after four long years of drought, to finally have a rainy winter in California. Not just any rainy winter, mind you, but a record-breaking one at that! Our water reservoirs are now full and overflowing, and our snow-caps are at record deep. We sure needed the water, but many of us were no longer used to the long stretches of dreary, wet weather. Recently, however, the days of rain have started to be interrupted by longer and longer intervals of sunshine, and hints of spring are all about us.

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Falling Leaves Don’t Only Inspire: The Art of Composting

It took only a day or two of rain and some strong winds to strip the glory off the maple tree that inspired my Falling Leaves quilt. In the last few days, instead of shining with magnificent fall colors, my garden was filled with sad-looking naked branches, and huge piles of fallen, muddy leaves:

Fallen leaves in my yard

Granted, I must admit that some were still quite beautiful, even on the ground:

Fallen leaves in my garden

To me, however, even in their deplorable state, falling leaves are a pure treasure. And not only for their former (or lingering) beauty. I already confessed to being a little obsessed with recycling. Whenever possible, I religiously recycle paper, plastic and metal, and of course–FABRIC. I also already mentioned my love of gardening. So it is only natural that, whenever possible, I try to recycle in the yard, as well.

One of the first things I did once I got my own garden, was to take a composting workshop. This might seem somewhat unnecessary to all you seasoned gardeners. At the time, however, I really didn’t know much about decomposition. A workshop seemed appropriate. It lasted about two hours, and could be summed into one sentence: fill a bin with 50% green cuttings and 50% dry material, mix, wet, and wait.

Since then, I’ve been trying to return everything that comes from the garden back into the garden. In the city’s garden-waste bins I deposit only diseased plants, parts that are too fibrous, or especially-thick branches. Everything else goes into my compost bin:

My compost bin

In fact, there are many weeks in which I don’t even bother to take the city garden bins to the curb. They are often completely empty.

Composting everything is a lot of work, and requires some advance planning. For things to compost at a reasonable time (for me, that means up to a year), every plant needs to be chopped into smaller pieces. In spring and summer this translates into hours and hours of standing above the compost bin and chopping green cuttings. In the fall, the main season for collecting the “brown” component that composting requires, it means hours of collecting leaves. After I collect the leaves, I store them away in paper bags, and add them to the bin slowly over the remaining months of the year.

It’s actually really good for the soil to just let falling leaves decompose where they fall. There are parts of my garden where I do just that–let nature take care of itself. I collect only leaves that fall on paths, the lawn or on other plants. Depending on the location, I either rake or vacuum them. The vacuum automatically chops the leaves into smaller bits, which are easier to store and which decompose faster.

Last weekend was my last crafts fair for the year. The weeks leading to the fair were hectic, leaving me with little time for anything else. Once the fair was over, however, I took a break from sewing. This week I tried to catch up on all the neglected tasks. The garden was on the top of my list.

I still haven’t used up all the leaves I stored last year. This year, therefore, I decided  to  use everything I collect as ground cover. A thick layer of ground cover (preferably six inches thick) helps protect roots from frost, and in summer helps keep the moisture in. So this week I raked and vacuumed wherever needed, and then deposited piles of chopped leaves all over the yard:

A pile of shredded fallen leaves in my garden

In the coming days I will spread these piles more evenly, covering as much ground as possible with this highly-beneficial dry material.

The hours (and days!) it takes to collect leaves and other organic matter, chop , spread, or compost everything aren’t always pleasant. However, all that work pays off in the long run. My modest compost bin reliably produces rich, high-quality and entirely organic (!!) compost. My compost is swarming with life: earthworms, Armadillidiidae (also known as Roly Polies), earwigs and all kinds of other creatures call it a home. Once I even found baby salamanders in the mix! Every year I spread this compost around fruit trees and on flower beds. It enriches the native California clay soil, feeds the earthworms–who in turn dig and loosen the soil, bringing air to roots–and in general makes my plants happy.

The reward comes in spring and summer, with amazing flowers and tasty fruits . And it all begins with these leaves, that shine with golden light in the fall and then turn into black gold by summer!

No Time to Sew: Garden Fun

Abundant rain in winter following four years of drought resulted in a truly magical spring here in California. Seeds that waited dormant in the soil for years sprang to life. Fresh flowers covered everything in purples, pinks and the bright orange of California poppies. In April and May my garden erupted with flowers. The effect was truly breathtaking:

My garden in full spring bloom

The magic of life was so strong, that I didn’t have the heart to pull out plants that grew where I didn’t want them to grow. Soon, wildflowers covered our path, grew into trees and smothered other plants. Yet, I simply let nature celebrate in all its glory.

For a few precious weeks I woke up to this beauty every morning. I drank my morning coffee looking out the window, taking a little pause before turning my attention to the rushed madness that marked the last few weeks of school. I watched bees of all kinds feasting drunkenly on all that bounty, hummingbirds drinking nectar, and squirrels eating most of the fruits off my trees (OK, I admit I didn’t like that part that much. Usually, I don’t mind sharing with wildlife, but why do they have to take only one bite and toss the rest???).

Then summer came, and we spent the first couple of weeks indoors, cleaning up. By the time we finally finished and I was ready to enjoy my garden, things looked a bit different:

Spring flowers dead in summer

Hence began another week of intense work, this time in the garden. I did lots of pruning, pulling, weeding, cutting, digging, and yes–some planting. It got hot. My arms got covered in scratches. Burrs got stuck to my clothes. Dirt got under my fingernails. Can you tell I enjoyed every moment?

Inspiration: Spring

Spring arrived early in California this year. We had summer-like temperatures starting in February. After four years of a severe drought, we finally got some rain–not enough to solve our water problems, but more than we did in any of the previous four winters. The combination of warm weather and plentiful water did magic. My neighborhood suddenly transformed–from a depressing sprawl of brown gardens and dying trees it swiftly burst into colorful life. Lawns that looked dead for months suddenly resumed their original green. Plants that hardly dared bloom in previous years are now covered in red, yellow, pink, white or purple blossoms.

Here are some of the flowers that currently bloom in my garden:

African daisies blooming in my garden

Iris blooming in my garden

Spring blooms in my garden

I find this gush of life contagious. I’ve been taking long walks in my neighborhood amidst the plentiful blooms, finding inspiration close to home. All those colors probed me to choose bright, fresh colors for my upcoming spring bag collection. Instead of the usually dark, in-between colors I am often drawn to, I decided to go for bright pinks, magentas, purples and greens–the colors of spring.

These are some of my spring fabrics, in the colors of an awakening world:

Fabrics for spring collection

Spring inspited fabrics

Fabric for my spring bags

I chose these fabrics a few weeks ago, but only this week finally found time to actually cut them:

Cutting rescued fabric

I first cut these:

Fabrics cut for spring bags

And, finally, I cut the rest. Here they are sprouting like a garden on my living-room floor:

Spring sustainable fabrics

I am looking forward to making bright, happy spring bags out of these fabrics. I’m hoping these bags will fill someone’s heart with joy!
What does spring do for you? Do you find its livliness contagious, too?