Lessons Learned from Our First Season in a Community Garden

My midsummer work-in-progress. Photo by CGIOS

And that’s a wrap, literally. On the last Saturday of November, a few of us gardeners worked to finish preparing our plots for the winter. Some were discussing if it was too late to plant garlic. Others finished pulling up plants, raking out the soil, and laying down dried leaves, newspaper, and mulch as ground cover. Joe and I went the lazier route and covered our plots with black tarp. A fellow neighbor scoffed at our amateur solution to killing weeds and let us know it would benefit us to spread dry leaves out between the ground and the tarp to ensure that the soil stays rich for next season. Okay, so maybe it’s not totally a wrap, but we have done enough to meet the garden police’s deadline for winter prep. We will fill in the gaps later. Or not.

This was our first summer working in the community garden. Just over two years ago, as soon as I realized we were moving into the neighborhood, both Joe and I signed up for the community garden wait list. Just as our first lease was expiring, we each received notices that we had finally secured plots on the community garden. Renewing our apartment lease was a no-brainer.

It was a rough summer, but fun if you’re down with sweating through your clothes and raking and digging through symptoms of heat exhaustion, cool with inexplicable amounts of rain turning your wood chip paths into canals and soil into shoe-sucking mud, and chill with mosquitoes chewing through your pants. That entire description is euphemistic at best. As the elements became increasingly swampy towards the end of summer, we admittedly found reasons we couldn’t make it out to our plots.

All said and some done, we plan to do this again in 2019. Here’s what we learned!

Lesson 1: Don’t dig a hole unless you are ready to fill it.

One corner of Joe’s plot was inhabited by an enormous hibiscus bush, its dry branches a disingenuous representation of its being. The fact that it came threateningly close to the six-foot height limit made it a bit of problem with the garden rules. The fact that it took up a ton of space, both above ground and below, was the main issue. That it appeared completely dead made it superfluous. He spent hours and buckets of sweat digging the bush out with a pickax, only to learn that it had been sucking up the extra water in the soil. It had been, in fact, very much alive. The first time it rained after he removed the offensive twig cluster, the space left by the excavation turned into a soppy mess. He had to build a raised bed to fully recover the now empty corner as a functioning garden.

Lesson 2: It’s fun until the mosquitoes arrive.

Wearing pants and drenching legs and pants in bug spray are futile actions when protecting oneself from DC’s type A mosquitoes. Full stop.

Lesson 3: Don’t trust the compost.

According to garden rules, we are not allowed to put food scraps in the community garden compost. Fair enough. No need to attract rats and other critters. However, many of the gardeners seem impervious to other rules, such as not throwing wiregrass and other nefarious weeds into the compost. I used the garden compost all summer and spent hours upon hours raking and sifting the tiny threads of these weeds out of my soil. I’m considering investing in raised beds and weed-free soil from the store next season.

Lesson 4: Wolf Spiders Jump and They Like to Stay Where You Found Them

When this season started, I was pretty proud of the fact that I was seeing small spiders around my plot and it wasn’t bothering me one bit. If you’ve ever met me, you know this is no small accomplishment. I can’t exaggerate my spider phobia. But then I found a pregnant wolf spider. Or she found me. We clearly had a common interest in occupying the garden. There was a lot of loud yelping and deep breathing on my part, especially when she jumped at me as I unexpectedly and repeatedly unearthed her. I can’t speak for the spider, but my guess is she was doing her own version of anxiety reduction.

Lesson 5: The Art of Nurturing the Seeds

Seedlings by Joe. Photo by CGIOS

Joe spent months cultivating all kinds of plants from seeds in our apartment. He started peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, tomatillos, brussels sprouts, and more by making tiny seed pots out of old egg cartons. It was painstaking work, the kind of work I don’t have patience for, as I’m a controlled chaos kind of gal. Joe is slow and thoughtful and meticulous. I give him most of the credit for the successes in my garden because of his initial careful cultivation of most of my plants. I, on the other hand, threw a bunch of seeds in and saw little reward.

Lesson 6: The Tomatillos Though

Paper lanterns on a tomatillo plant. Photo by CGIOS.

Except for the TOMATILLOS: Little beautiful paper lanterns, artful round purple and green marble fruits, and one plant that put out more tomatillos than we could give away. It was a salsa-verde-on-everything kind of summer.

Lesson 7: Rules Rules Rules

Understandably, our participation in the community garden comes with many rules. Being an avid rule follower, I feel like I spent most of my garden experience focused on creating a weed-free plot and periphery, instead of truly being able to enjoy the experience of actually learning how to grow plants. Joe had a much healthier and balanced relationship with his weeds. I do look forward to having a yard someday, with a garden I can manage by my own rules in order to truly enjoy the experience.

Lesson 8: The Beauty in the Beast

The birds are plentiful: gold finches, mocking birds, robins, great blue herons overhead…

Goldfinch. Photo by CGIOS.

We get front row seats to stellar sunsets.

It was something for Joe and me to do together, yet apart as we each had our own plot. And of course, there were moments when we each stepped in for the other with our individual strengths.

Lesson 9: Say Hello to Your Neighbors

I live by this. While I’m an introvert by nature, I love learning from other people and enjoy small talk that leads to surprise conversations. When I’m feeling up for it, I talk to everyone – in elevators, in ride shares, on buses and metro, in stores. In the garden, I met wonderful plot neighbors who gave helpful tips along the way. And it was just nice to feel like we are all in it together out there, sharing similar pains and frustrations and successes. It’s fun to see what others grow and the different personalities play out in the plot designs and types of preferred plants.

Our new friend Steve told us about the miracle of growing peanuts. I will write about that experience next season.

Getting Dirty to Keep Our Parks Clean

Viburnum in Glover-Archbold Park – Photo by CGIOS

The older I get, the more I feel I need excuses to put on wellies and jump in mud puddles. Why is that? And what’s a better excuse than signing up for a park clean up that also just happens to be on a rainy spring day?

Last April, I joined site leader Jerry’s group for the Rock Creek Conservancy’s Rock Creek Extreme Cleanup. Our task was to remove the trash from Glover-Archbold Park, a sub-unit of Rock Creek Park. For a map of all of Rock Creek Park and its finger parks, check here.

I made sure I wore comfortable clothes that I didn’t mind getting muddy in. And I honestly did fight myself a little getting out of the door. After all, rainy days are great for curling up at home with a book and a cat. At the end of the day, getting out was not a decision I regretted.

I arrived and paired up with another woman whose partner was at home with a broken ankle. Since the rest of the group seemed to arrive together from a college, it was lucky for us that we were each alone. Jerry handed us a large bag for garbage and one for recycling, gloves, instructions, and pointed us in the opposite direction of the big group. We were on our way.

We entered Glover-Archbold Park near New Mexico Avenue and Garfield Street. It was raining a little harder than I realized, but that added to the visual magic. Thanks to the rain’s broad brush over the earth, we were surrounded by new spring growth made bright green in contrast to the darkened tree bark.

What’s nice about volunteering in early spring is the beauty of the early growth mixed with the lack of poison ivy and bugs (if bugs aren’t your thing). My mother passed on her love of wildflowers to me, and DC is full of them. The very first things I noticed with delight were the prehistoric-looking Jack-in-the-pulpits everywhere! And there was a tree with beautiful cascading white blooms on one side trail that was a challenge to identify. After outsourcing the plant’s identification on Facebook, a friend who works in parks says he is 100% sure it’s viburnum. I returned the very next weekend, sun in tow, to snap pictures of both species.

Jack-in-the-pulpits – Photo by CGIOS

I was grateful for my clean up partner who had a much better sense of direction than I do. I was mostly teaching myself to use visual cues in the physical geography as breadcrumbs, but not very successfully.

We chatted some and learned about each other, and walked quietly and enjoyed the light rain while we collected trash on the network of trails. The park was mostly empty of people, probably from the weather. Their loss.

Most of the trash in this area of the park was located closer to the street entrances. That is where the hard work was concentrated. However, one of the more disturbing things for me (and here is your embedded PSA, people) was the number of doggie bags people leave in the park. The point of the bags is to pick up your pup’s poo and remove it with you. So leaving it in the bag in the woods seems even more egregious than just leaving the waste there to decompose. We picked up quite a ridiculous number of bags. And also found a few plastic Easter eggs with toys in them, clothing, and the always ubiquitous plastic water bottles.

I know from my volunteering experiences over the years that people show up for a variety of reasons. I’m an introvert and love people but also love just plain hard solitary work. So I go for the joy of being outside and helping the environment, and the therapy that is ripping vines from trees and hiking into challenging crevices for a piece of trash. For me, there’s nothing like the feeling of taking a warm shower after getting really dirty and working hard. A lot of people volunteer for team building and for socializing and, yes, because this is DC, even networking. If you met your partner for life while volunteering, I’d love to hear about that! Tell us why you volunteer in the comments.

The Rock Creek Conservancy works to protect Rock Creek and its parks throughout Washington, DC and Maryland (including Rock Creek Park). Like in any system, the condition of one part can affect another part. The health of Rock Creek, for example, affects the health of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay (the bay closest to my heart). Join the efforts to protect these parks as a natural oasis for all to enjoy. For forthcoming information about the next Extreme Clean Up and other volunteer opportunities, keep an eye on this page.

The Rock Creek Conservancy volunteer experiences are well-planned, with site leaders who bring supplies and communicate about the event with participants. All you need to do is dress for the weather and the woods (and if you must, bring a business card or two). But most importantly, get out there and have fun!

5 Ways to Explore Nature in DC Without Owning a Car

Rock Creek Park. Photo by CGIOS

My beloved 1999 Honda Civic is going to be with me forever. It was my first car purchase and I hope my only car purchase in my lifetime. My mechanic, who says he loves the car as much as I do, takes great care of my elderly chariot. Yet I sometimes entertain the idea of not having a car.

While I don’t particularly enjoy driving, it is super convenient for getting my cat around, visiting family and hiking areas outside of the city, dragging my bike to the barrier islands, and tackling larger grocery runs. Walking the groceries home means deciding if the cat litter or the milk is the more urgent purchase. Plus there just really is no safe way to balance egg cartons in a bag. The car is also useful when I’m running late, and I’m usually always running 5 minutes late. Maybe I could do without and maybe not.

Since DC is full of transient residents, many of them don’t have cars. My friend Malaka asked me how to experience nature around the city without a car and no more than $25 in car share rides. Access to some of these destinations by a bike or bikeshare is allowed in her parameters.

I know I have my preferred places, some of them more worn in than others. So I decided to crowd source favorite nature locations from my Facebook friends and they delivered. Here are some of their answers and how to get there without a car. Don’t forget your binoculars and snacks!

Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

I can’t state enough how magical this park is. If you can’t afford a rocket ride to a new planet, this place is the very next best thing. June and July are great months to visit, though the aquatic gardens are relaxing any time of the year. Read my past post on their otherworldliness.

Their website offers multiple tips to get there. For those without a car, you can pick up a bike share and drop off at 4899 Minnesota Ave, NE, near the Deanwood Metro stop. If on foot, take the Orange line metro towards New Carrollton and exit at the Deanwood stop. Exit via Lower Polk Street, use the pedestrian bridge to cross Kenilworth Ave, turn left on Douglas Street and right on Anacostia Avenue. The entrance will be on your left.

Hours: Daily except some holidays, 8am-4pm
Address: 1550 Anacostia Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20019

Lake Artemesia

“It’s definitely a hidden gem in PG County” – Elisabeth. This park, highly recommended by a friend, is now on my to-walk list. To get to the lake, take the Green Line towards Greenbelt and exit at College Park station. It is about a half hour walk around the College Park airport to the lake, so wear comfy shoes!

Hours: Sunrise to sunset, daily
Address: Berwyn Rd & 55th Ave, Berwyn Heights, MD

Rock Creek Park

Every time I step into the woods here, I am amazed at how the city disappears. The loop that starts at the Nature Center off of Military Road and Oregon can be accessed by several different points of the city. The trails are beautiful and full of little surprises (rocky dry beds, sparkling clear streams, brief steep hillsides, an abundance of wildflowers from early spring to late fall). Often, it’s quieter on the paths that run off of the main drags. Glimpse deer, chipmunks, woodpeckers, barred owls, peregrine falcons, and fox. Grab your hiking poles and boots, though you may look over prepared compared to the joggers and coffee-carrying city couples who also use these trails.

For a longer hike, bike share to Connecticut and Albemarle and hike in through the trail head to Soap Stone Valley Park. For shorter versions, cab or ride share or bike (no bikeshare available) to The Nature Center off of Military and Oregon.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset, daily
Address: Visitor’s Center Starting Point- 5200 Glover Rd NW, Washington, DC 20015

Dumbarton Oaks Parks Conservancy

While I have only had a picnic on the grounds, this place is highly recommended by several people. In fact, it’s such a special place that my pilates instructor and friend Clare is leading monthly forest therapy walks there. A portion of the suggested proceeds go to Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy. Learn more about the benefits of Forest Bathing in this NPR article.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset, daily
Address: Most used entrance is via a short stroll down Lovers’ Lane, located approximately 200 feet east of R Street and 31st Street NW. (View website for additional ways to enter the park.)

Theodore Roosevelt Island

This park was the clear winner for most recommended. I like this little island, and mostly go there when I want to go for a hike that feels outside of the city, but don’t have much time to travel. This is a great little place to contemplate big decisions.

You can access the island by walking 10-15 minutes from the Rosalyn metro station or by bike (you will have to lock your bike at the racks near the footbridge).

Hours: Open year-round, 6am-10pm
Address: Potomac River near the Key Bridge

There are so many other areas of DC to cover in future posts, but please don’t let that stop you from adding your favorite outdoor spots in DC, ones that you can get to from inside the city without a car, in the comments!

What DC Coyotes Eat for Dinner

Coyote. Photo by jamescumming / 123RF Stock Photo

On my way home from a long work day, with the hours getting darker, the humid air still hung itself like a damp coat over the end of September.

As I walked towards the woods at the end of my street, I took in the darkness and wondered why no one on our ever-dissatisfied listserve has complained about the lack of street lights.

Ahead of me, I could barely make out the silhouette of a woman walking her two small dogs and hoped she could see my own outline so I didn’t surprise her. But something else was about. Just as we met up, we both heard the howl at the same time and her two dogs started barking. “Did you hear that?” “Uh, yes.” “Coyote. My husband told me he’s been seeing them around.”

For newcomers to DC who may think that the most exotic creatures we have here are interns, coyotes have lived in this city since 2004, according to the National Park Service FAQ page about the elusive creatures. Read Jacob Fenston’s article for WAMU, “Why Does A City As Dense As D.C. Have So Much Wildlife?,” to learn how our regional park corridors provide habitats and access to our backyards for our furrier neighbors.

I like telling people that there are coyotes in Washington. Maybe talking about coyotes could help remove the myth that DC is all stuffed suits and type A women wearing Ann T. You already know I’m here for the parks.

Not counting the occasional tropical bird that gets blown off course and ends up in New England or pet pythons released in Florida plumbing, there must be animals living in other cities and places that only appear to be interlopers.

Some friends of mine who moved from Capitol Hill to a cabin in rural Kentucky told me my favorite story of surprising residents. The Southern Devil Scorpions live in rural Kentucky. In the woods. And your shoes. These scorpions do sting but aren’t interested in people and not dangerous.

Please let me know in the comments what animals and insects you are most surprised to see where you live or have visited. Now back to the coyotes in DC.

How likely are you to see one?

The answer to this is you might see one while in and around Rock Creek Park and some of the adjacent neighborhoods, but it isn’t likely. The population appears to be small, and coyotes are most active in the evenings and at night.

And I know the burning question that is on our minds is: What do coyotes eat for dinner?

Coyotes eat dead things, vegetation, and small critters in the park. You’re safe, but keep an eye on your pets. It’s best if taking your animals on hikes through the park or near the park, that you keep them leashed. It’s the law anyways, though I witness it often ignored especially in the parks. (And normally I wouldn’t care because I love your animals as much as you do, except that someone’s very lovely, playful Goldie once yanked me off my fast-moving bike by my ankle. I’ve since forgiven the pup but not his people.)

Fake news alert: Coyote wolf hybrids do not exist in Rock Creek Park. It takes two to tangle and without a wolf population, well, you just get more coyotes.

If you see a coyote: According to the National Park Service, notify Resource Management Specialist Ken Ferebee at 202-895-6221. Let Ken know the date, time and location you saw the animal.

Barred Owl in My Backyard


Barred owl. Copyright : Lynn Bystrom, 123rf.com

I’m always on the alert for animals, even in the city. I spend a large part of my day proofreading and apply that same Where’s Waldo scan to every tree I walk past.


Black and white warbler. Copyright : Marie-Ann Daloia, 123rf.com

Just two weeks ago, I noticed a small black and white bird on the tree that separates my office window from a view of Freedom Plaza and discovered it was a black and white warbler. I have never seen one before, so this was exciting. It moved quickly and the window washers hadn’t been around in a little while, resulting in blurry attempts to capture an image of the little guy. Thankfully, real photographers exist so you can see a picture.

In all my enthusiasm, unfortunately, sometimes I’m the woman who cried bird. While scanning highways and forests, I’ve been known to get excited over nothing. I mistook many white plastic bags high up in trees for snowy owls during the great snowy owl visit a couple of years ago.

But what happened last night was unmistakable. Around 1:30 am (Happy Autumn, everyone!), I was woken up by the clear “who cooks, who cooks for you all” call. At first I just laid there wondering if I had dreamed it. Or maybe some taxi driver who really loves birds got carried away choosing a horn sound for his car. Sure enough, after several seconds I heard the call again, loud and close, from somewhere out back by the trees that line the alley. I couldn’t see anything in the dark from my window, and the neighbor’s house light made any chance of spotting silhouettes impossible.

Then, as I was fumbling for my phone to try to get a recording, I heard squawking and considered there might be two of them. And then they were gone. While I wasn’t able to get a good recording, you can hear the same sounds I heard in the first two recordings on The Cornell Lab of Ornithology site.

My backyard wilderness. Photo by CGIOS

Owls are around. Apparently, they’re known for victimizing joggers in Rock Creek Park. A few years ago, a woman posted on our community listserv that she heard a bunch of commotion at her door and opened it to find a saw-whet owl staring at her. I’m not as jealous as I used to be, now with the barred owl experience, but I’d still really love to see a saw-whet owl sometime. It’s more unusual to hear or see any owl in your backyard, the further away from Rock Creek Park you are.

This morning, while I took a quick stroll through the alley to look for any visual signs of the visitor (owl pellets or tree tracks), I was happy to greet our backyard resident rabbit who is still alive and hopping. Keep on, little buddy. It’s wild out there.

When Push Comes to Shark


Photo by Jen Pekkinen and Dave Kaye.

Although I’ve actually never tried, I’m pretty sure I could sprint on water if push comes to shark, er, shove. My fear of sharks is bigger than your fear of anything. Just to give you an idea of what I’m dealing with.

The kicker is that I absolutely love being in the water. Swimming is as close to meditation as I get, snorkeling is my happy place, Sylvia Earle is one of my heroes (learn about her Mission Blue Alliance), and I feel most at home standing next to bodies of water. Also, there is nothing better than exploring tidal pools for the unimaginable.

As children, my sister and I used to swipe our nets along the bellies of floating piers to see what lived just out of our sight. At night, we leaned over the edges with flashlights to peek around. We witnessed tiny crabs, iridescent grass shrimp, sleek gar fish, coy anemones, abundant seaweed, creepy eels, and phosphorescent jelly fish. Thankfully, we never saw sharks.

While snorkeling I prefer to stay close to shore, for a quick escape to land just in case. I’m not embarrassed about snorkeling in two feet of water with my mask and fins, eyeballing schools of tiny silver fish and clumsy hermit crabs who are usually passed up for the much hipper reef inhabitants.

A starfish I found in a tidal pool in Nicaragua.

A starfish I found in a tidal pool in Nicaragua. Photo by CGIOS

My friends just got back from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Galapagos Islands, via National Geographic. I happily swiped through their Facebook photos liking every single one, until I saw the photo of a shark. They recounted seeing several sharks while snorkeling, and it was NO BIG DEAL. Jen reassured me these reef sharks were not carnivorous sharks. So they eat plants, I said, got it. They don’t really eat plants. She was over-reassuring me that I would not be a meal. The whitetip reef sharks snack on other fishes and crustaceans, and prefer not to chomp on humans. Unfortunately, they still LOOK like sharks. There are 30 species of sharks off the Galapagos Islands, making the location a great place to get to know these terrifying and awesome hosts.

My goal is to eventually learn how to scuba dive (and generally be more comfortable in the water), but that pesky little fear of sharks is in the way. The Nat Geo trip sounds like it could be a productive start to overcoming my fears, but also expensive.

Another way I’m working on my fear is by getting to know more about sharks. I’m now one of @MaryLeeShark‘s 70,000+ followers on Twitter. Mary Lee is a great white that @OCEARCH has been tracking and studying. The personification thing does wonders for phobias, although I still hope she will ping nowhere near Chincoteague, VA in late June. While I think I could eventually swim next to a reef shark, I’m definitely okay with never meeting a great white in person. Thank goodness for social media.

If you love the beach but are nervous about swimming where you can’t see your feet, this list from the Florida Museum of Natural History shows just how unlikely you are to be attacked by a shark anywhere in the world. If we think about the number of people in the water swimming, snorkeling, and diving at any given summer moment, and compare with the number of attacks on this list, we can all feel a little calmer. Not that I’m going to dangle my toes in the water in Chincoteague if Mary Lee is pinging anywhere near the Delmarva Peninsula. The Atlantic Ocean isn’t big enough for the both of us.

A black widow called. She wants her turnip back.

By Shenrich91 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Shenrich91 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I had originally planned to talk about the positive experience I had at an organic farm gleaning vegetables for DC Central Kitchen. Instead, I was inspired to write about the black widow spider because of all the questions I’ve been asked about the one I encountered at the farm. (I will get back to writing about the gleaning experience later because it’s important.) But first, let me put on my cape and save some hypothetical lives.

It was a chilly, rainy, fall morning on a farm out on the Eastern Shore. Armed with yellow rubber kitchen gloves, I began yanking up turnips from their neat little rows. Only ten minutes into the work, I found the nest. This turnip was different than the others. The ground released it easily. My first clue. Clue two: It was hollow.  Clue three: There was a bundle of white threads in the ground where the turnip had been. So where was the spider?

I then looked at the other end of the turnip in my hand and there she was. Perfectly identifiable. A sleepy black widow. The good thing about these venomous spiders is that they aren’t particularly aggressive. They don’t try to run, and they won’t bite unless they feel attacked. As National Geographic puts it, they “bite only in self-defense, such as when someone accidentally sits on them.” So try not to sit on one.

I stooped there for a minute trying to figure out what to do. On the one hand, I’m not particularly fond of any spider and here I was hanging out with a poisonous one. So I should probably kill it. On the other hand, spiders are just soooo good for the environment. I let someone else decide since I was too paralyzed by my fear to make a decision. (She squashed it with her boot. It was the right thing to do.)

The woman helping me pick turnips had no idea what we were looking at. She commented that I was a spider guru, implying I had an extensive knowledge of these things. The truth is the widow is the first and only spider I learned to identify by name as a child. I was surprised that she had no idea what it was. “Is it poisonous? If someone got bit by one, should they call their doctor?” Um, yes. The bite can make any human sick, and although rare, can be fatal to young children, the elderly, or anyone with weakened immune systems.

When I pointed out the spider to the farm head, she said casually that the pickers had been seeing many of them around the farm this year. I decided to see if the increased numbers were unique to that farm. Black widow populations have shown several booms across the U.S. in recent years. Kansas reported an increase in 2013 and New York City in 2012. Scientists attribute the larger populations to milder winters and warmer summers. Another thing to look forward to with a warmer planet.

Some general things to know:

1. The female spiders are medium to smallish and are black with a red hourglass on the back (see pic). The males, which don’t have the vicious bite the females do, are brown.

2. They like dark places outside like woodpiles, patio furniture, and clutter lying around the yard. I heard of a woman getting bit once by one hiding in a cemetery vase. Careful where you put your digits.

3. When it gets cold outside, they may seek shelter indoors in attics, basements, garages, etc. We had one camping in our heater once.

4. When gardening or working around the yard or in dark spaces, wear gloves and pay attention. If you keep shoes in the garage, shine a flashlight in them before putting them on your feet.

5. If you get bit by a black widow or any spider, try to save the spider in a jar. Its identity will help you get the right treatment.

Find information on what to do if you or someone you know gets bit by a black widow spider. Whether or not you fall into one of the categories I mentioned above, it’s always best to be safe and seek medical attention immediately. Let the doctor decide if you need treatment.

Okay, time to remove this cape and shower the creepy crawlies off me.

The Pandorus Sphinx Moth Pays a Visit

sphinx moth

photo by CGIOS

This pandorus sphinx moth, over 3 inches in wingspan, is a beast. Its green wings look like leaves. Hopefully a bird won’t pluck him off the window before I get home from work. This is the first time I’ve seen one of these unreal looking creatures. Cheers to backyard biodiversity, which is greater than you’d imagine in the middle of a city.

The Hornworm’s Worst Nightmare


Wasp Larvae on a Tomato Hornworm, photo by CGIOS

Bet you don’t wish you were a tomato hornworm. Sometimes it’s hard not to be jealous of the creatures around us and their unique talents and tastes. I particularly envy swallows for their soft, repetitive flights and cats for their innate sense of play.

I would envy the hornworm for feasting on one of the garden’s most delectable summer treats: the tomato.

But then I witnessed the start of this hornworm’s cruel demise. See those little white tic tacs on its body in the photo? They are wasp larvae exercizing their right to the life cycle.

If you find a hornworm covered in larvae, leave it be. It will not harm your plant under the extreme duress of being eaten alive.

Let nature take its course and be grateful you’re human.


Bring on the Butterflies!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, photo by CGIOS

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, photo by CGIOS

Please excuse my enthusiasm.

I had my first experience with a butterfly bush several weeks ago while visiting my cousin and his wife. As I walked up the driveway, I witnessed this magically tranquil moment of Melissa sitting on the porch reading while dozens of tiger swallowtails floated around her. They weren’t actually attracted to her, but to the brilliant purple and pink blooms of the butterfly bushes she had planted at the edge of the porch.

My run-ins with the shrub have not been unlike the experience of hearing a new word and then suddenly hearing it ALL the time and wondering what rock you’ve been hiding under. After leaving my cousin’s house, I stopped in Ellicott City. At the edge of the parking lot, I saw butterflies everywhere. And yep, huge purple butterfly bushes. When I arrived back in DC and pulled into the alley, I noticed that my neighbor also had butterfly bushes planted. On my hike up Maryland Heights in Harpers Ferry, I noticed butterfly bushes at the very top. Zebra swallowtails were desperately trying to get the last of the nectar on these almost dead blooms. A note about zebra swallowtails: They hang out where paw paw trees (my favorite tree) grow. Their caterpillars eat the leaves. There are oodles of paw paws on the Billy Goat Trail.

Zebra Swallowtail on the Maryland Heights Trail, photo by CGIOS

Zebra Swallowtail on the Maryland Heights Trail, photo by CGIOS

The butterflies… In an effort to provide food for these well-dressed pollinators, I bought my own butterfly bush and planted it in the backyard in full sun. Find more information on how to grow and care for this hearty plant here. As for my luck/skill, so far so bad. The blooms are completely gone. I had hope when a few blooms opened last week. I tried to coax a swallowtail bouncing around the alley over to my humble food source. It floated over it but was clearly not interested. Maybe the plant is just suffering from the transition from pot to ground and will recover shortly.

I’m remaining optimistic and daydreaming about reading on the patio with dozens of swallowtails floating around me.