ruin & resilience

I woke in the dark to curtain whipping at my bedside, rain and wind spraying in through the open window beside the bed. It was strangely refreshing—the cool moisture on my face, the scent of rain in a year of severe drought. But then came the noise of hail, not merely pinging on the glass but thrashing it. My dream-soaked mind wandered a moment longer and I remember thinking this must be what it's like at the base of a great waterfall where elements collide, icy water on stone.

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I woke in the dark to curtain whipping at my bedside, rain and wind spraying in through the open window beside the bed. It was strangely refreshing—the cool moisture on my face, the scent of rain in a year of severe drought. But then came the noise of hail, not merely pinging on the glass but thrashing it. My dream-soaked mind wandered a moment longer and I remember thinking this must be what it's like at the base of a great waterfall where elements collide, icy water on stone.

Then the window slammed shut—and I must thank my wife for doing that because if left to me, I'd have lain there while the endtable and everything on it got drenched.

A fierce high plains hailstorm was shredding everything green and delicate in my garden, a thought so damned depressing that I knew I'd never fall back to sleep unless I put it utterly out of my mind, immediately. Which I did. I was sleeping again within moments, and when I woke in the morning, I had not one but two cups of coffee before I got up the nerve to survey the damage. The first peek through the blinds revealed pools of still frozen hail, pea-sized and piled 6 inches deep, all over the lawn. I'd learn later of reports from neighborhoods nearby of people shoveling off a foot or more of accumulated hailstones.

June is ascendant; the days are growing longer still toward a peak two weeks away and plants absolutely lock into that, putting on heavy foliage to take advantage of the abundant sun-into-nutrient opportunity. They are typically at the point of transition from tender to tough, rooting more deeply, branching vigorously, and setting first blooms for the fruiting phase. Two days ago, my garden was absolutely rocking. I had visions of a forest of fruiting plants taller than me, because that's what this patch does by mid-July.

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June is ascendant; the days are growing longer still toward a peak two weeks away and plants absolutely lock into that, putting on heavy foliage to take advantage of the abundant sun-into-nutrient opportunity. They are typically at the point of transition from tender to tough, rooting more deeply, branching vigorously, and setting first blooms for the fruiting phase. Two days ago, my garden was absolutely rocking. I had visions of a forest of fruiting plants taller than me, because that's what this patch does by mid-July.

There is no good time for a massive hailstorm but this phase of growth is a particularly bad time for it. As the photos above prove, the wind-driven ice macerated leaves and snapped off what had been good sized branches from peppers, tomatoes, pole beans, and squash. The most ruined of all were the Japanese cucumber plants, barely two inches high and just lifting crenellated leaves toward the waiting trellis; after the deluge, they were bare, bruised stems, pulped, unsalvageable. 

Or not. A friend said to me, "Maybe it won't be so bad. Plants are resilient." In that moment, I realized I was in for a lesson in how a garden recovers from being pummeled. I've certainly seen it before—my garden journal from 2011 notes that on June 13, almost exactly a year previous to this date, hail the size of grapes hit the garden, though it did not fall as thickly nor for as long (7-8 minutes) as it did this time around. Since I can't rewind and skip the hailstorm, and since there isn't a thing a gardener can do when one comes, my only option remains to give the garden what care I can and see how it comes back.

Just 48 hours after the storm came through I already see things improving. Two sunny days have started healing many plants, set as they are in now deeply soaked loam. New growth is springing from the bent limbs of tomato plants and the squash is looking like it may bounce back well. The pole beans are chewed up, but their tough tendrils are gripping and climbing again. The cukes . . . well, I still think those babies are goners, but I'm letting them go a while to see if they can pull through.

All this was running through my mind as I was preparing a meal this afternoon when my visitor arrived.

I caught movement just above the valerian blooms, a bright flash of color, and I knew. I ran for my camera, nearly tumbling over my giant dog who had leaped up in front of me, startled by my dashing around. I hustled out to the patch where I grow larkspur, or what I call swallowtail bait. And there it was, in all its glory—a beautiful, 5-inch wide butterfly, proboscis buried in the open throat of a purple bloom.

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I caught movement just above the valerian blooms, a bright flash of color, and I knew. I ran for my camera, nearly tumbling over my giant dog who had leaped up in front of me, startled by my dashing around. I hustled out to the patch where I grow larkspur, or what I call swallowtail bait. And there it was, in all its glory—a beautiful, 5-inch wide butterfly, proboscis buried in the open throat of a purple bloom.

Last year was the first time I ever saw one of these creatures. It's a long story but let me boil it down: I carelessly tossed a handful of larkspur seeds into my garden about 15 years ago and every year since, I've had to pull out the free-seeding plants each spring to keep them from inundating the beds. Last year, I let some grow to maturity again because they are, after all, very attractive wildflowers and pollinators find them tasty and productive of nectar. I also put in a water fountain, solar powered, and that, too, has seemed to attract many more pollinators to the patch.

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Last year was the first time I ever saw one of these creatures. It's a long story but let me boil it down: I carelessly tossed a handful of larkspur seeds into my garden about 15 years ago and every year since, I've had to pull out the free-seeding plants each spring to keep them from inundating the beds. Last year, I let some grow to maturity again because they are, after all, very attractive wildflowers and pollinators find them tasty and productive of nectar. I also put in a water fountain, solar powered, and that, too, has seemed to attract many more pollinators to the patch.

My hunch was correct—let the larkspur grow and the swallowtails will come back. I like these photos, but they don't fully communicate the brilliance of the colors, the size of the butterfly, and the experience of getting close to one as it feeds, close enough to hear its wings move the air. I might not have been too surprised if it spoke, and I'm pretty sure it would not have said, "Poor garden." Most likely, at some level inaudible to my ears, there was the sound of slurping pleasure because this bad boy was going at it with abandon, and that was its only commentary.

The hail sucked, but so did the butterfly, except in a good way. Clearly, this insect was alive and protected during the storm, and as far as I know, without memory of or regret over what transpired. It is getting on with business, attracted to what is alive and well. I have indeed learned a lesson, and will follow suit.

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