Guerilla Gardening

There’s an episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge (a program I recommend) on “Radical Gardening.” It’s hard to imagine any kind of gardening as being radical.

One of the segments was about Richard Reynolds and the “guerrilla gardening” movement which I wrote about here years ago.  He talks about his adventures as a guerrilla gardener – someone who tends and plants on someone else’s land. It’s illegal, and yet, I don’t think most people would object to it in the vast majority of cases. It’s the abandoned lot that gets cleaned up and filled with flowers. It’s the ugly roadside that gets covered with native wildflowers. Reynolds is the author of On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries.

May first is celebrated by guerilla gardeners as International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day dedicated to sowing sunflowers in your neighborhood.

I like all the suggestions and plans people have posted on their website about creating “seed bombs.” Those are good bombs made of seeds, soil, fertilizer, water and such which you can hurl over that chain link fence into that ugly abandoned lot.

Another guest on that episode is James William Gibson who wrote A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature which examines the ways that people are looking to reconnect with the natural world. That includes the desire to protect rather than exploit it.

If you associate guerrilla and bombs with war and terrorism, then guerrilla gardening and seed bombs are excellent alternatives. If you associate enchantment with wizards and magic, then a re-enchantment with the natural world is also a friendly approach.

Raking the Garden

I enjoy raking my garden as it changes through the seasons. In early spring, I turn the soil and then rake the dark brown dirt until it is flat, even, and smooth. Nothing is planted. Nothing is growing. No weeds. It looks like a kind of perfection.

It reminds me a bit of a Zen garden. You will find them with stones, gravel, maybe sand. They are not gardens planted with flowers or vegetables – which is what my garden will be. Zen gardens have been used for about 800 years. The care of the garden old, and at the center of its care and upkeep is a quiet, mind, especially raking, is meant to be a practice that is mindful, like meditation.

You might think that a Zen garden would be very precisely designed, but that kind of straight lines and symmetry is really a Western concept. Japanese Zen gardens are less symmetrical. There is often a centerpiece. It could be a rock garden and the raking is done so that the pattern mimics water. They are usually small. You can even find desktop gardens and meant for individual contemplation. I know that sounds like it couldn’t give many benefits but I have a small one indoors and it is a good mindfulness practice to care for it.

My outside dirt and plants garden that was Zen-like in early spring gets greener and greener and my raking meditation becomes weeding meditation. Summer turns me to admiring the colors of blooms, harvesting vegetables, picking bouquets, caring for plants suffering from the heat, insects, disease, too much rain, or not enough water.

In peak summer, the plants have their own kind of symmetry. The zucchini, squashes, melons, and pumpkins look chaotic but I look for patterns.

In the last days of summer and into autumn, the plants start fading and dying. The time comes to clear out the plants and then to rake the garden back into its clean, brown simplicity.

Gardening doesn’t have to be a Zen experience or mindful to be calming and beneficial, but I would recommend taking some aspects of the Zen garden into your gardening.

Tomato: Fruit and Vegetable

tomato seedling

I’m tending my young tomato plants today in preparation for them going into the ground. It is still cool in Paradelle – frost-free but still some 40 and 50 degrees nights and days. I’m a jersey boy and I grew up growing tomatoes in that Garden State in every year I can remember.

My father showed me how to plant seeds in flats the month before the last predicted frost. I didn’t like plucking out tiny seedlings in order to keep the best ones. I wanted every seedling to produce tomatoes, but that isn’t the way it works in a backyard garden.

I learned to dig big holes, add composted manure, plant the seedling deep. I didn’t like putting them in so deep that they looked like such tiny plants. they went in all the way to the first main leaves so they would send out deep roots and not shallow roots that could easily burn in the hots days of Juky and August. We left a bowl-like depression to catch the water. We covered them with modified milk cartons to keep away cutworms, discourage invaders and protect for those first cool nights.

Today’s podcast of The Writer’s Almanac  (which is primarily about writers and literature but often takes little diversions – as many writers do when they should be writing) coincidentally had a segment about tomatoes.

It was on this day in 1893 that the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit. The Tariff Act of 1883 said that a 10 percent tax had to be paid on all imported vegetables. The importers argued that according to the dictionary definition of fruit — the structure that grows from the flower of the plant and holds the seeds — a tomato was a fruit. The government read the definitions of “eggplant,” “squash,” “pepper,” and “cucumber” — all of which, like tomato, are fruits in the botanical sense — but which are considered vegetables.

Justice Gray delivered the opinion of the Court: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, but in the common language of the people, they are vegetables which are usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

sliced red tomatoes

I knew most of that, but it struck me that the real problem was that “vegetable” has no actual scientific or botanical definition. It is a culinary term.

Tomatoes have always been for me a vegetable because that was the way we treated them in our home. But there is one exception to that.  When I am in the garden in summer, weeding, staking, looking for pests and watering, I can’t help but pick a very red and ripe tomato and biting into it in the same way I would eat an apple, peach or plum from the trees in my childhood backyard.  No tomato tastes better than those. And some are “grape cherry tomatoes” their shape and size suggesting that other fruit.

As I am typing this, I can see my seedlings outside in their tray with a net cover. I also see two squirrels running around the yard and a rabbit snooping by the deck wondering about when my plants will be set into the ground. And that reminds me of a poem by a teacher I once had in a summer workshop. here is an excerpt from “Blue with Collapse” by Thomas Lux.

It’s spring, the blooming branches
nearly hide the many dead ones.
A squirrel, digging for a nut, upends my frail
tomato plant and fails
to replant it, even though he has the tools.
I find this kind of squirrely oblivion everywhere.

A Katydid Love Song

August is the sound of insects at night. When I am sitting outside I am assaulted by cicadas loudly announcing that it is mid-summer.

I wouldn’t call their sound a “song” and cicadas are pretty creepy looking. I came upon a dead one today when I opened the barbecue grill. (Take a look at this cicada molting for a quick sci-fi moment.) They have those large, wide apart eyes transparent, veined wings.

Cicadas are often colloquially called locusts, but they are unrelated to true locusts. In the second half of August,  you find their cast off shells around the garden.

And then there are the katydids.

You can hear some calling out “Katy did! Katy did!” in one part of the trees, and another answering “Katy didn’t, didn’t, didn’t!” from the opposite direction.   Listen to them.

Katydids are a large group of insects in the order Orthoptera, and are sometimes called long-horned grasshoppers but they are more closely related to crickets than to any type of grasshopper.

Okay, I admit that I don’t really hear those words clearly in their song.  I have trouble with bird songs that are compared to human speech and seeing the “pictures” in constellations. It is a bit of a stretch, but good for the imagination.

True katydids (Pterophylla camellifolia) are relatives of grasshoppers and crickets. They grow over two inches long and are leaf-green in color. Katydids have oval-shaped wings with lots of veins which makes them look a lot like leaves. They spend most of their time at the tops of trees.

Females chirp in response to the shrill of the males, which sound like, “katy did,” which is how they received their name. The males use this sound for courtship, which occurs late in the summer.[10] The sound is produced by rubbing two parts of their bodies together, called stridulation. One is the file or comb that has tough ridges; the other is the plectrum is used to produce the vibration

According to my nature calendar where I record buds, blooms, fruiting and other signs of seasonal change, the katydids usually show up right at the start of August. This year, the cicadas and katydids arrived a week early.

It is a folklore observation that says that autumn will arrive 90 days after the katydids start to sing.  That would make it the last week of October here in Paradelle.

You are much more likely to hear a katydid than see it.  And what are they singing about? Like many insects, they are singing for love. Or lust, I suppose, as the males are trying to attract a mate. This is their reproductive season (August through mid-October).

The males are high in the trees and females come to them. Katydids are poor flier, preferring to walk, and a male katydid may never leave the tree on which he was hatched.

Their song comes from rubbing their wings together (known scientifically as stridulating) and the other katydids are listening with tympanal membranes on their knees.

The song’s tempo is faster in hot weather and slower on a cool night. Their number diminishes as we get into autumn and that first hard frost will kill the remaining ones.

Katydids eat leaves of most deciduous trees and shrubs and seem to like oaks best. But they don’t do any serious damage to the trees or shrubs, so we don’t bother spraying insecticides for them. Their enemies are birds, bats, spiders, frogs, snakes, and other insect-eaters.

There are some folk stories about “what Katy did” but none I have read are very interesting. I prefer to think of them as a signal that summer is half over, and their song fades as summer fades.

Night of the Planter’s Moon

In past years, I have written about this month’s full Moon as the Pink Moon and the Egg Moon. This year I chose the name that American Colonist’s might have used – the Planter’s Moon.

The Colonists focused more on their own use of nature in marking the seasons than Native Americans and the Ancients who generally looked to signs from the heavens or nature to name the moons.

April marks the last melting snow and the rain and melt water that along with warmer days made it the time to prepare fields for planting. In earlier times, the full Moon allowed farmers to work later into the night.

A piece of planting folklore that is still followed by some says to plant root crops, such as carrots, radishes etc., during the days between the waning moon that comes after the full moon, until the new moon. Your above-ground crops (barring a late frost in your area) should be planted during the waxing moon. That is the phase so named because the moon thickens like the wax drippings of a candle, and goes from the new moon until the next full moon.

Though these ideas are not really “scientific,” the thinking was that the moon’s pull on the tides naturally pulls at all things that contain water. So, not only the ocean, but our blood, and the water in plants and seeds. Those green leafy plants will reach towards the moon during the waxing phase, and those root crops will be pushing their energy down, away from the moon, during its waning phase.

The Roman festival of Cerealia celebrated the return of Proserpina to the Earth and grains goddess Ceres. Yes, we get our word “cereal” from the name Ceres and this was the time for planting grain. (Ceres is comparable to the Greek goddess Demeter.)

The April Moon is also called the Chaste Moon, Growing Moon, Hare Moon, Maiden Moon, Grass Moon, Rain Moon, Growing Moon, Wind Moon, Seed Moon, Budding Trees Moon, Eastermonath (Eoster Month), Ostarmanoth, and Green Grass Moon.

The Pink Moon refers to the herb moss pink, or wild ground phlox, which is one of the early common flowers of the the United States. There a number of other nature signs that give us moon names, such as Sprouting Grass Moon, Fish Moon (for fish, like shad, that now move upstream) and Waking or Awakening Moon (for the end of hibernation).

One Medieval name was Seed Moon, and a Celtic name was the Growing Moon. In the Chinese moon sequence, this is the Peony Moon.

The Dakotah Sioux called this the Moon When Geese Return in Scattered Formation (that’s how we translate it anyway) and the Choctaw called this the Wildcat Moon, while the Cherokee called it the Flower Moon.

This year we do have an April Egg Moon, because it is the full moon before Easter, which does not occur every year. Though we often think of “Easter eggs,” the eggs came before Easter. Not only do domesticated hens start laying more eggs with longer days, but many bird species also lay their eggs now, and eggs have long been a symbol of spring, regeneration, rebirth.

We know that the ancient Persians painted eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration, which falls on the Spring equinox. At the Jewish Passover Seder, a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water symbolizes the Passover sacrifice offered at the Temple in Jerusalem. The pre-Christian Saxons had a spring goddess called Eostre, whose feast was held on the Equinox. Eostre’s totem animal was the spring hare (rabbit), and so it is often said that this connection with eggs and hares and the seasonal rebirth of the land was adapted into the Christian Easter. The Christian holiday of Easter sometimes falls this month, so the Anglo-Saxons and Franks called it Easter Month.

Raking With The Buddha

Lots of wind this past week, so lots of leaves on the ground. There are good environmental reasons not to rake up the leaves.  But, if you do choose to rake, you can approach it as good physical and mental exercise rather than a chore.

On the physical side, raking for 30 minutes a day, can increase metabolic rate, reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, tone muscles, improve flexibility, and even improve cardiovascular fitness. Raking burns approximately 375 calories per hour. (Jogging burns about 430 calories per hour.)

Maybe the more sustained benefits come the mental side of raking.

There was a Zen Master named Pai Chang who was famous for establishing the Zen monastic rule. One of his rules was about working every day. The story is told that when he was very old he continued to work. The monks felt bad about him working in his old age and hid his tools.

“I have no virtue. Why should others work for me?” he said, and refused to eat. “A day of no work is a day of no eating.”

So, the monks gave him back his tools.

Zen schools today still continue the practice of daily work. No matter what the work is, you can continue your practice in that work.

Besides raking as Zen practice, there are many horticultural therapy programs that include raking. I find that both raking and weeding both have physical and mental benefits. I think I like my vegetable garden best in the spring when all the soil has been turned and raked smooth, free of both weeds and plants.

I have also created big and small Zen gardens. These traditional dry, landscape gardens can be the size of a large yard or small enough to put in a shoebox lid.

You can find tranquility from your Zen garden in the simple raking of circular patterns and enjoying the meditative process achieved through creating patterns. Raking the sand, pebbles, gravel or rocks in the garden into circular and other patterns around objects (boulders in large outdoor gardens, small stones in small indoor gardens).

Zen gardens are not a place for vegetation. They are a place for peace and reflection, not vegetation.

It’s not really easy to rake a perfect circle. People spend years perfecting their raking, but a perfect circle isn’t the goal.

The focus on the practice. the patterns, the circle, will eventually teach you how to recall that focus away from the garden.

Of course, you don’t need to have a Zen garden or be a Zen practitioner to do this. Leaves work pretty well this time of year too.


When I’m working outside in my garden or raking my Zen garden, I sometimes think of Billy Collins’ poem “Shoveling Snow With Buddha.”

If we substitute “raking” for “shoveling” in his poem, it is still true that

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,

but I can picture Buddha with

his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.
…his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe

So there we are, working our way across the yard full of leaves. Or maybe we are raking the sand and gravel in a Zen garden.

In either place, I might call out to him

This is so much better than a sermon in church…
This is the true religion, the religion of [leaves or sand],
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

Because he has thrown himself completely into the raking

as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

And we both keep raking –  me constantly chattering and commenting while he keeps working “inside his generous pocket of silence.”

I rake the leaves or the sand until the noise in my mind disappears. Sometimes the ringing in my ears seems to disappear. Sometimes the monkey in my mind stops jumping from branch to branch. Sometimes the circle almost seems to be perfect.