Category Archives: Garden


I’ve been using some salvaged wood to make repairs to the goat barn. One of the pieces seemed unusually light. I flipped it over and found a perfectly round hole on one side: the entranceway of a female Eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica.

The bee that left this hole used her mandibles to gnaw into the wood, then she slowly tunneled through the timber. I’ve seen these bees at work on the rafters of several of the small barns that we’ve built for animals and hay. On a quiet day in early summer you can hear the crunching of chitin on wood as the bees make their slow progress. Below the holes, small piles of sawdust accumulate.

I’ve seen many entrance holes, but never had the opportunity to see the extent of the tunnels inside. So I made a series of longitudinal cuts in my wood scrap, a 4×4 dissection of sorts. Inside, I found the tunnels extended about a foot away from the hole. One or two tunnels branched. This is an impressive hidden network, like a subway with just one exit. No wonder the piece of wood was so light.

The bees make these tunnels for their young. The female makes a ball of pollen and nectar, then lays an egg. All this is sealed into the tunnel with a slug of compressed sawdust. Once the passage is sealed, the mother leaves her offspring to their fates. These futures sometimes involve woodpecker beaks. The drilling of these hungry birds will finish what the bees started. The two species, bee and bird, are an anti-carpentry team. But I also think of these animals as supreme carpenters: they’ve been making homes from wood for millions of years and they spend their lives happily sprinkled with the sawdust of their labor. So they are both über- and anti-carpenters.

Away from wood, the bees do good work as pollinators. They are eager visitors to many species of flowering plant. Some farmers even erect pieces of wood to attract them into their orchards. I’m OK with a few at our place, but a year ago we had an invasion of battalions of barn-destroyers. So I relived my glory days of college squash-playing, dispatching them with a killer backhand from a dustpan. I felt bad, but not as bad as I would have had the barn needed rebuilding. These days we just have a few carpenter bees buzzing around and I leave them alone.

One more smutty webpage

These are healthy corn tassels, ready to shed their pollen:

And these are tassels that have been infected by a fungus, the “corn smut” (Ustilago maydis; formerly U. zeae):

Smut spores overwinter in the soil, then as the weather warms they blow up onto corn plants and infect leaves, tassels, and ears. Like corn itself, smut is native to Mexico and thrives when the weather is hot and dry in early summer. This Mexican weather came to Tennessee in June, so we’ve had a good crop of fungal growth this year.

The fungus causes grotesque swellings on the corn. These pustules eventually burst and disgorge clouds of dark spores. The whole process is interesting to watch: the civilized, elegant growth of a plant hijacked by an ugly, destructive mob. Depending on your mood, this discord is either disturbing (the world’s order is threatened) or profoundly hopeful (the world’s order is indeed threatened).

Fungal infections are usually unmitigated bad news for gardeners, but this one has a surprising silver lining. The fungus causes uncontrolled growth and swelling of cells in the corn plant, cells that then get filled with…mushroom. In Central America and Mexico, smut is considered a delicacy, called “huitlacoche,” and farmers can get a higher price for infected ears. I was unfortunately not aware of the gastronomic possibilities when I culled the smut from our corn patch. Next year, perhaps?

The word “smut” obviously has another meaning. The etymological common origins here are straightforward: lewd smut and fungal smut are both “dirty.” The Online Etymology Dictionary (one of my favorite websites…a celebration of the anastomosing evolutionary trees of language) traces the word to pre-1500s West Germanic, smutt-, “to make dirty,” through the 1400s where smutten meant “to debase or defile,” then to the 1660s when the word meant both “black mark or stain” and “indecent or obscene language.” There is a botanical irony here, of course. The smut fungus is “defiling” one of the more overtly sexual plants under cultivation, one that sheds its pollen to the air and lets both male and female parts hang exposed (at eye-level, no less; I blush to gaze at a field of corn). But only when these parts become darkened with unbidden strands of fungal desire do they count as smut. Order is indeed threatened.


While walking down the garden path, I was stopped by the sight of a black rat snake, its body woven loosely through the low weedy plants. The snake was a youngster, too young to have the heft and scratched hide of a mature adult, but too old to be striped and worm-like. It was about two feet long and was basking in the weak heat of an overcast noon. The snake was entirely still, but its whole being said: alive.

Light hit the snake’s scales and melted. Black. Somehow, an earthy deity had lifted its head from the ground and breathed life into graphite. I’ve never been so captivated by a snake’s quiet presence.

In my admiration and greed, I wanted to catch and remember this beauty. So I walked to the house for my camera. Of course, the snake was gone on my return, leaving a wavy line of pressed vegetation as a mark of its passing.

So far this year, I have not seen the big old rat snake that used to patrol our garden. Even the strong snaky smell around the apple trees has dissipated. This newcomer may have wandered into a deceased old-timer’s empty domain. To stay, I hope.

Little blooms

Gray, gray day: you will not win.

As an antidote to the unrelenting rain and murk, here are a couple of tiny beauties that I photographed earlier this week. Both were growing between lettuce plants as “weeds” in my cold frames.

Bird's-eye Speedwell, Veronica persica. So small that ten of these flowers would fit onto my thumb-nail.

Wikipedia says that this species has "no known horticultural uses." Unbidden beauty is utility enough for me.

Small-flowered bittercress, Cardamine parviflora.

Each flower is about as big as a grain of rice.

This is the first year that either of these species has shown up in the cold frames. Their seeds may have come with compost from other parts of the garden or as “extras” in packets of lettuce seeds.

Cabbage beauty

Cabbage is not high on the list of plants that get mentioned in botanical love poems or odes to nature’s beauty. “Beloved, thou hast brought me many cabbages” — not likely. Stand aside and make room for hosts of daffodils (so angelic) or bunches of roses (so red, red).

But Brassica oleracea capitata has its own beauty, in a leafy, humble way.

The plant pictured above is particularly pleasing to my eye because the secret to growing cabbage in Sewanee’s climate has eluded me for many years. The springs are very cold, then suddenly switch to blazing heat; the cabbage looper caterpillars are abundant and bring with them an “all you can eat” attitude; and the late summer droughts are unfriendly to cabbage roots. Cabbage came from the wet, temperate climate of Northern Europe. It is out of place here.

But this year, I found a variety that seems to do well: Johnny’s “Storage No. 4” — evidently named by a modern Wordsworth. I helped the plants along with a little Bt to control to loopers, gave them some extra compost, and kept them moist during the summer heat. For a modest plant, they certainly like being pampered. If you’re looking for a cheap pastoral metaphor, there it is.

So far, they hold well in the chill, even in snow.

’tis the season to ponder descent with modification

Here in Sewanee, we take our dead, bearded patriarchs seriously. Socrates, Shakespeare, Darwin, Muir, God, God Jr., and Santa Claus all have their devotees and proselytes. Never mind that some are more convincingly bearded than others (biologists note with satisfaction that Shakespeare’s ratty bristles are unimpressive next to Darwin’s substantial cloud), the important thing is that these men are dressed right. With the Advent part of the Advent semester upon us, it was time to give Darwin some bling. So, today, on the final Biodiversity Friday of the semester, my Biodiversity class visited Darwin’s Garden one last time and arrayed our Victorian gentleman in seasonal finery.

Darwin’s Garden is located in the atrium at the center of Spencer Hall. It is a celebration of life’s history, with a walkway divided into the various periods in Earth’s history, starting with the Cambrian. Darwin was sculpted by Sewanee Biology graduate Jeanie Stephenson who did a fabulous job of including many of Darwin’s favorite creatures in her sculpture: finches, orchids, Galapagos tortoises, fossils, and even an earthworm on his shoe. Darwin’s bulldog stands close by.

We’ve used the garden throughout the semester to get a sense of how events in life’s history relate to each other and to understand the passage of time. It was fun to cap off the semester with, well, a cap for our guide through this journey, Mr. Darwin, the evolutionary biologists’ Virgil.


The four or five inches of rain that have fallen in the last day have me thinking that the garden is ready for conversion to rice paddies.

You would think that with all this rain, wild animals would have their fill of water. But goldfinches perched in the rain and carefully caught water drops from the underside of twigs. The birds would reach their heads down, below their feet, then twist to the side and scoop pendulous drops of water from under tree buds. The contrast between the elegance of the birds’ water-gathering and the disorganized squalling of the rain was striking.

Last night the rain turned to snow. Barely enough to dust a goldfinch’s knee, but wet enough to weigh down tree limbs.