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What’s all the Flap About?
Posted on : July 5, 2018

“I’m also convinced that like my Granny Ruth, everybody should be happy. Find what it is that you love, and then live and work with it. Like cornbread, everybody has a different recipe, but as I’ve matured, I’ve come up with a formula for what I need to be happy each day. If I see or hear a pileated woodpecker, a bluebird, or a zebra swallowtail butterfly during the day I’m good to go. One of them means it’s a good day. A second one means it’s a great day. And if I encounter all three in the same day, it’s a perfect day. I rarely have bad days. Read and enjoy and may one of my yarns make yours a good day.”

In Greg’s Garden, a Pineywoods Perspective on Gardening, Nature, and Family. 2010, Texas Gardener Press.

Yes, I’m quite sure that you’re tired of hearing me whine about juggling my new life, job, wife, cats, etc. But a long commute, weekly newspaper column, 150 Master Gardeners, dozens of public and professional gardening questions a day, 25 “accidental” new baby chicks and their extended families on a path of destruction roaming my garden, four terriers, two house cats, and one wampus cat have significantly increased my stress level.

I’ve long known of the complications of having horticulture has both a job and a hobby. One has to be careful not to overload in either direction. Keeping the bills paid is very important but then so is keeping the mind sound.

We gardeners all know how satisfying it is to garden. We have to do it. But with our busy hectic lives, we all have to decide what’s enough, and what isn’t. Last month I talked about doing away with my large vegetable garden next year. We’ll see if that’s humanly possible. I’m also trying to decide which flower beds I need, which pots/baskets I can keep up with, and which plants are truly dog, deer, and chicken proof. These aren’t unique decisions. We all deal with similar challenges.

This whole process has made me go back in time to my mental struggles with spine and joint surgeries. I remember asking myself, “What if you can’t garden anymore?” I also remember telling myself, “It will all be OK, as long as you can still see, hear, touch, or smell trees, birds, bees, flowers, etc.”

A few weeks ago as I was watering my little lawn of El Toro zoysia out front with my hose and sprinkler, I happened to notice a zebra swallowtail butterfly puddling in the mud for minerals and salts. It was my favorite butterfly on the planet and provided an immediate feel good sigh. In an instant, I was reminded of the forward I wrote for In Greg’s Garden. When I wrote it, it was true. But I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had time to practice it. So I made a vow to consciously make a note of when I’d seen or heard one, two, or three of my favorite flappers each day and literally remind myself how good each day was. We all know that no matter how bad it is; things can always be worse! Anybody can tally up the things that ruin a day. Where’s the challenge there? Finding good in this crazy life is a much nobler and satisfying goal. I literally say “It’s a good day” and make a note that no matter what happens, the daily label has already been bestowed.

But why birds and butterflies? I suppose because I see each of them as flying flowers that don’t have to be tended much. I also can’t help but envy their sprightly movements. Deciding on favorites is really, really hard. It’s often about beauty as with painted buntings and monarch butterflies. But to me it’s even more about local wildlife that I’ve helped encourage or preserve. To be honest I’ve since added brown-headed nuthatches and red headed woodpeckers to my daily equation.

Attracting my woodpeckers is easy. All I do is leave all my dead trees standing in my woods and have plenty of native berry and nut producing plants. That’s all it takes. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to have fallen in love with red-headed woodpeckers as a child, have them disappear here for most of my life, and now have them flitting and chattering all about in my yard, garden, and forest. I love them! The pileated woodpeckers never left, but I’m just as thrilled seeing and hearing them now as I’ve always been. With the ivory billed woodpecker more than likely extinct, the pileated is by far our largest and most dramatic woodpecker. Their haunting call is “jungle-esque” to me. Although we have eight species of remaining woodpeckers here, I confess that those two are my favorites. I’m convinced that a thriving diverse population of woodpeckers is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem because it tells you that there is a mix of plant species including healthy, older, and dead trees along with plenty of native fruits, nuts, and insects. Remember, woodpeckers evolved to control the insects that kill other trees. Right now they are apparently the only successful control for the dreaded emerald ash borer which was accidently introduced to the U.S. from Asia. And without woodpeckers which are primary cavity dwellers, there wouldn’t be secondary cavity dwellers like bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and many more. Did you know that without woodpeckers, there would have never been purple martins?

Thankfully my little friend, the brown-headed nuthatch, requires everything that I have here, especially a pine savanna full of pine seeds and insects, and woodpecker holes for nesting cavities.

The most important need for my zebra swallowtail butterflies is a plethora of native pawpaws (Asimina triloba), their only larval food source. Thankfully the creek and riparian forest running along my property provides plenty of pawpaws. And like most other butterflies they need plenty of flowers during the summer. Interestingly enough, the first generation that comes out of the woods in the spring is greenish white with short tails with each later generation getting whiter and longer tailed. Those I saw flitting around today had tails so long that they looked like kites in the wind! It was a great day. -Greg

Written by Greg Grant

Greg Grant is an award-winning horticulturist, conservationist, photographer, and writer from Arcadia, Texas. Each month he writes an article for The Arbor Gate Blog where he is given free range to write about any topic that interests him. During the week, he is the Smith County horticulturist in Tyler for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and on the weekends, he and his wife tend Greg’s grandparents’ old farmhouse, his Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary, a small cottage garden, a flock of laying hens, four terriers, one German shepherd, and two cats.

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