Where the Wild Things Are

Back when I used to rent my house, this was the time of year I came face to face with all sorts of interesting characters: a church group who held Sunday morning hootenannnies on the front porch, a compulsive sweeper, a lawyer with a thing for my Black & Decker weed wacker, and an antique dealer who looked like Stevie Nicks and who swore up and down there were snakes in the ceiling.

I didn’t have snakes in the ceiling. A couple of oil paintings nailed over some holes where light fixtures had been removed in previous decades, but definitely no snakes.

Yes, a lot has transpired in my little cottage over the years, but I’ve never seen anything like this…

It began about a month ago with the moths. Not the kind that eat your cashmere sweaters and get into the French milled flour stock. And most certainly not the small Psychodidae you sometimes see around kitchen and bathroom drains and that turn to powder when you crush them. These were big luscious gray moths found hiding on the backside of an aqua colored shower curtain from Bergdorf’s and inside the cheetah-trimmed burlap chandelier shades. Luckily, I was able to shake and shoo them out of the bathroom before they caused any damage.

Next came the crickets; a hundred strong and traveling east to west across the living room floor one Sunday night during an episode of Brothers & Sisters. I put down my glass of wine and grabbed a Chinese cricket cage to try and tempt a few to stay. It brings good luck, you know, the cricket. My effort was in vain. They were just passing through.

After the crickets, the ants arrived. Just a few on a sticky sugar spoon left out on the counter. They were easy to get rid of, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled. A good friend recently arrived back after spending way too much time in Fort Liquordale found his Mercedes convertible crawling with ants. Thousands of ‘em, he said, running up and down the dashboard. So many he had to set off a bug bomb. Even his moped was infested. When he started it up they came pouring out of the throttle.

Then he found a snakeskin on the pool pump. Thought it was a Dolce & Gabbana belt, but it wasn’t.

Back at my house, you’re not going to believe what was spotted in my rose garden: a pair of red foxes. Not the mangy kind occasionally seen running around Rehoboth, but handsome ones of Middleburg quality. Like those in the classic fox hunting print pursued by hounds and red-jacketed men on horseback.

The red fox, you might not know, is rather common in this region and frequently observed out on hunting forays in the spring. They’re solitary animals, so seeing two together was quite rare. They paused for a while in the rose garden before continuing on their way.

Foxes aren’t the only ones enjoying my garden. Just the other day, I spotted a small possum among the boxwoods up on its back feet sipping delicately out of the birdbath. A raccoon rambled by too.

Then there’s the skunk…

While I do enjoy the faint whiff of skunk on a summer night, I don’t particularly like one loitering around the neighborhood. This particular skunk is trim, healthy looking, and walks in a very determined manner. A neighbor was hanging his wash on the clothesline one morning when the skunk appeared, tail raised and stomping his feet. My neighbor dropped the laundry on the ground and fled.

The determined skunk has been seen in my rose garden and at the composter. He’s been spotted over across the street pawing for grubs in the neighbor’s croquet lawn. If you’re thinking skunks only come out during the day when they’re rabid, you are wrong. It’s a myth. Skunks actually are crepuscular, which means they come out around dusk and dawn in search of food.

Yes, it’s wild over here on Columbia Avenue and the summer has just begun. All I have to say is good. Let the wild rumpus start!

Columns, Photos

Petunia Envy

With spring in full swing and summer soon upon us, many of you are no doubt wondering what the well-dressed garden will be wearing this season. Pink or lavender? Blue and yellow? All white perhaps?

How about black?

You heard me right. Black flowers have intrigued gardeners at least since 1850 when Alexander Dumas published The Black Tulip, his historical adventure novel about a Dutch contest to breed the first black tulip. Plants men, in fact, tried for centuries to produce a black tulip until “Queen of the Night” came along in 1944. Considered the closest there is to a true black tulip, the Queen is actually a very dark maroon. In fact, most so-called black flowers aren’t black; most are extremely deep shades of purple, maroon, or burgundy.

Though the tulip is the most popular black flower, the gardener seeking something unusual and elegant today has his or her pick of more than two dozen black roses and several types of black irises and lilies. Carnations, dahlias, geraniums, hollyhocks, and pansies even come in basic black too.

This year’s black sensation is a petunia called “Black Velvet” developed by flower breeder Jianping Ren for the Ball Colegrave Company. It took her four years to breed the extremely dark petunia — what some are calling the Birkin bag of the garden — using traditional methods of pollination and not genetic modification. Two years is what it usually takes to produce a new color of petunia, according to Ren, who boasts over a dozen patents on new varieties of petunias.

Petunias are a classic summer annual, a cousin to tobacco and the tomato and a native of South America. Flower hunters introduced the petunia to Europe in the early 1800s and breeders immediately began crossing them in search of larger flowers and more colors. The first true red petunia was brought out in 1953. Yellow was introduced in 1977.

Those in the know claim it is rare to get a flower as near to true black as “Black Velvet,” which is why gardeners around the world are snatching them up despite a rather high price attached to what is still regarded by many as a rather common plant. I bought all I could find over Easter weekend.

Now, looking at flats of the black petunias still sitting unplanted in my garden, I had to wonder: was I was following in the tradition of great botanical explorers of the 17th and 18th Centuries whose pursuit of exotic flowers took them across the globe? Or, was I merely a garden fashionista sucked in by the power of a horticulture industry that still thinks about plants like next season’s shoes?

There’s even an ad campaign touting the “Black Velvet” petunia as an instant classic, the most unique flower of the year, and one hot plant sure to make your garden the envy of your neighbors.

Moreover, what does this black petunia means in the grand scheme of gardening, which has been trending towards more natural, nativist plantings? Am I out of step in my desire for the trendy annual? Last year I went gaga a for a chartreuse colored zinnia called “Envy.” Before that it was blue batik irises and an heirloom tomato called “Mr. Stripey.”

While I mull this conflict and, more importantly, try to figure out what do with all these black petunias I bought, at least I can take comfort in knowing they’ll look great with the black and white striped awnings on my white house.