Diary of a Garden Goddess – Part I of III


A Garden Daydream by Laura Chilson

This is a mostly-autobiographical story I wrote quite a few years ago, when my daughters were little and I tried my hand as a gardener-for-hire for part of the summer. It was first published in Greenwoman #4.

—Sandra Knauf


July 3rd

The first three hours working in the wealthy client’s garden that hot morning are business as usual, focusing on the labors of weeding, watering, dead-heading, and tying rose canes to arbors, all the while enjoying the sunshine and occasional refreshing mountain breeze. Then boredom sets in. Because my daughters are young and I’ve been reading bushels of storybooks about talking animals, it seems natural to amuse myself by inventing tales about plants and other animated citizens of the garden.

I imagine the Kentucky Bluegrass family are the well-fed and manicured lords and ladies of the manor. And it’s made them quite uppity.

“Oh, look, it’s Mr. Dandelion,” whispers Lady Bluegrass to her friends, eyeing the stranger standing across the ballroom. “How did he get in here?” The ladies secretly think Mr. Dandelion dandy, a good-natured hunk with a gorgeous yellow mane. But he’s not of “their kind,” so they’d never say this aloud.

Lords Blade and Spike stand nearby. Blade smirks. “Oh, look Spike, it’s Dandelion. You know how the Dandelions are—give them any room at all and they’ll simply take over.”

“Yes, and they’re so garish! You know, I heard the Vincas are in the process of moving,” says Spike. “They are quality, but still, it’ll be nice to have the neighborhood to ourselves again.”

The ladies overhear and smile at the lords. Everyone nods in approval.

I dig Mr. Dandelion out with my apple green Martha Stewart trowel. He takes it like a weed. Doesn’t say a thing. “Sorry,” I whisper, before tossing him next to the vincas I’ve dug out and potted.

In the hole created by Dandelion’s departure I spy two worms. They, too, are insufferable snobs.

“You’re a Broadmoor worm, son, act like it!” says Big Daddy Squiggles.

Sonny Boy Worm stretches tall, trying to make it appear that he has a spine.

Everyone knows their place here in the Broadmoor, our city’s most monied, most pampered burg. The Broadmoor, home of the five-star, world famous hotel of the same name has been Colorado Springs’ mecca of East Coast gentility since the town was founded in the once-wild 1860’s West. It’s nestled next to Cheyenne Mountain and the hotel has a new fence around it, just put in this year, to keep out the riff-raff. That would include me. I’m no one special. Just the hired help. A gardener.

I soon grow bored with the play, yet I’m still mostly content, deep in a blissful sun/work trance.

The spell vanishes when loud arguing comes from the mansion.

A male voice declares, “I only said I found her moderately attractive.”

The female’s reply is garbled.

Who are they talking about? I guess someone along the lines of a secretary, and I’m embarrassed to hear a domestic row. Then I imagine that perhaps the argument’s about me. After all, there I crouch, easily visible not ten feet away from their huge Palladian-style windows, trimmed down and toned considerably from weeks of physical labor, brown as a berry, healthy, flushed with sweat and sunshine, feeling creative and a little sexy and interminably bored. Perhaps, I muse, my cleavage is visible as I tend the grass. Maybe the Mr. has a wondering eye, and the Mrs. is quite fed up with it.

My mind drifts again. I think about a movie I watched recently, Gods and Monsters, and how the gay director of Frankenstein fame lusted after Clay, or “the yard man,” as he was called, played by Brendan Fraser. The old tomcat watched Clay from his window, greedily lapping him up like so much yardman cream. Soon Clay is invited in for a glass of iced tea, then lunch, then receives an offer for a modeling job, posing nearly nude for a painting.

My lingering bit of zen fades. I begin to feel as trapped as the yard man did in Queen Leer’s studio, but in another way. I miss my girls, who are home with Andy, my self-employed husband. I’m tired of working out in this heat every day, waiting for my skin to shrivel up like a dried peach. My own garden’s now seriously neglected, and I have an idea for a novel that’s begging to get out on paper. I’m sick of working in spoiled rich people’s gardens. Who am I kidding? I’m amusing myself by having the plants perform, by making up sexy gardener scenarios. I’m bored out of my freaking mind. I have been almost since I started this work.

dandelion cropped Rachael Davis

Dandelion by Rachael Davis

* * *

For a few months I’ve been playing professional gardener. Hattie Goodacre, who found herself short-handed in April, asked me to come work for her part time, only fifteen to twenty hours a week, and I jumped at the chance. I knew all about the gardening part, back-breaking labor mixed with equal parts bliss, and figured the experience wouldn’t be too far from that. Getting out of the house, a break from domesticity, was a plus, as was having a “real” (read “paying”) job. I welcomed the opportunity for camaraderie, outdoor work, and extra cash with which to indulge my own garden.

April 18th

Hattie picks me up on the first day in her small truck. The back of it’s covered with ecologically-minded bumper stickers and hippie words-of-wisdom, like “Who Owns You?” and “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm,” “Dare to Legalize Drugs,” and “Trees are the Answer.” Hattie’s ten years older than I, in her 40s, and I’m one of her greatest admirers. She’s an individual in a city that’s seemingly run by fundamentalist Christians and developers; where marching to the tune of your own drummer is nearly as frowned upon as same-sex marriages. She’s an early hippie and she looks the part, with nearly waist-length, beginning-to-grey hair braided in a ponytail and covered with a floppy straw hat, tie-dye tank shirt, Teva sandals, and dangling jewelry of silver and wood.

We met a few years earlier at the Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener program. I was student, she was an instructor. I discovered Hattie possessed something rare and precious: a philosophy relating to gardening and her connection to nature. More importantly, she walked the talk. She spends much of her free time on environmental awareness, promoting permaculture, helping to save wild spaces, and non-environmental causes, such as helping the poor. Sensing a kindred soul, I gave her a copy of Michael Pollen’s book Second Nature while I was taking the master gardening course. She, in turn, invited me to join her garden club. I learned she was also a writer; we became friends.

On our first day working together, we head to the nursery to pick up some Feathermeal, a deer repellent. She banters with the help as I take it all in, happy to be part of a new adventure. I’m wearing faded jeans, a green T-shirt, sneakers. I hate hats and have left mine in the truck.

As we pull out of the driveway, Hattie spies the seashell shaped top of a birdbath, lying near a fence. It’s chipped on one side. “Look at that.”

“Garden art,” I say.

“I’m going to go ask them what they’re going to do with it.”

I wait in the truck. It’s a throwaway and Hattie claims it. Back in the cab she says, “Bitchin’.”

Hattie’s also a foster mom for plants. Her home garden’s filled with orphans rescued from trash and compost piles.

At the first client’s home I meet Hattie’s new business partner, a twenty-two year old woman named Jill. Hattie filled me in on the way—Jill’s a former class valedictorian, taking some time off from college, she’s just bought her own home, a small ranch style house. Hattie discovered her last year, working for $8 an hour for another gardener. When that gardener moved out of state, Hattie snagged Jill. “I could not believe how much she knew,” Hattie told me earlier in the truck. “She’s a genius.” Although Jill knows a lot, she hasn’t yet been accepted into the Master Gardener program.

Jill looks younger than I imagined; her short blond hair is pulled into a ponytail, kinda Gidget-y. She wears a big smile and no makeup.

“Man, the nepeta’s seeded everywhere,” she says when we arrive, “also the asters. We’ll need to work on that today. There’s also tons of ash tree seedlings.”

“Ah, the asters.” Hattie winks at me. “I call ’em pain-in-the-asters.”

I find that while Jill delights in letting plant-Latin roll effortlessly off her tongue she also speaks Slang-lish; she says “bitchin’” a lot, like Hattie, but her favorite expression is “killer,” as in “those were some killer pachysandra.”

It’s clear Jill and Hattie are tight. They both wear Teva sandals, and carry matching Hori Hori knives Jill ordered through Horticulture magazine, in their matching ladies’ size leather tool belts. I can’t help but be a little envious of their relationship.

The client’s home is palatial, with a huge, water-sucking front and back lawns of green, lush Kentucky bluegrass, something I find disgusting in our time of drought. Flowers and shrubs border the lawn on all sides, and a tree-filled wild area sits at the back of the property. Hattie says she’s found bear poop out there before and, last spring, a swarm of bees clinging to a tree branch. She also says it’s a good place to squat and pee if you have an emergency, since we won’t be using the facilities at the house.

I ponder that for a millisecond. I don’t think so. While I’m not fearful of wildlife, I don’t want to be spied pissing in someone’s backyard.

We spend four hours weeding.

The end of the morning finds us on top of a stuccoed cement wall, pulling up ash tree seedlings.

“Damn, this bra is killing me,” says Hattie, tugging at the bottom of hers. “Women shouldn’t be trussed up like a turkey.”

When I get home I feel good, but tired. Spending most of the day out in the fresh air is wonderful.

* * *

April 20

This morning I work for another gardener. Kate is Hattie’s friend and a brilliant garden designer. She asked Hattie if she could spare someone and Hattie asked if I was interested. I know Kate and I like her; I said sure.

We labor hard at a beautiful hotel, beginning with planting five gallon shrubs all morning long.

The second task is climbing to the top of a fifteen-foot ladder leaning on a stone wall, with five-gallon buckets of soil that probably weigh about thirty pounds. We dump the soil at the top. Heights-neurotic that I am, I’m terrified at the prospect of doing this; luckily one of the younger workers, a British girl, doesn’t mind standing on the ladder while we bring the buckets to her. The fair-haired Brit has a nasty sunburn by the time we leave.

At the end of the day Kate tells me that she’ll pay me the fifteen dollars per hour, the wage Hattie gives me, but only for today. She says she’d love for me to work for her again but, in the future can only offer $12. She tells me the other women working for her, including one who is over 40 and has to drive sixty miles round trip to work each day, receive only ten dollars an hour for this back-breaking/no benefits/no healthcare work. With no hard feelings, I realize that to her, I’m just a glorified hole digger and bucket hauler. I’m not doing anything the untrained can’t do. The saddest part of it is $12 is not a bad wage, in this city, for this type of work. But it’s a survival-only wage. My husband is also a contractor, heating and air conditioning, and this is a big reason we’ve never hired anyone; it would be almost impossible to pay them decently and we couldn’t offer benefits (vacation pay, sick pay, health insurance) that we ourselves do not enjoy. I’m subcontracting out my labor as a gardener, and it’s just not going to be worth it to work for Kate again.

* * *

April 22

Today I work with the whole crew, comprised of Hattie, Jill, and two younger women who also work part time, usually on the days I’m off. We crawl over a high, rounded garden bed near a driveway, fill in the few bare spots with new perennials. I’ve only been a professional gardener for a couple of weeks and I’m still self-conscious. I’m regularly asking Hattie how she does things, what’s her technique.

The plants we put in today are bigger than usual, quart size, and we move the thick mulch and dig the holes. There’s always a significant mound of soil next to the newly planted addition, in a little pile beside the mulch.

“What should I do with all the extra soil?” I ask. I realize it’s a stupid question, but can’t help myself, everything is so meticulously groomed.

Hattie laughs out loud. “I’m going to give you an Indian name, ‘Extra Soil.’ Just smooth it around.” I’m grateful she doesn’t comment on how uptight I am.

Later she tells me how happy she is I’m working for her. She compliments everyone on a daily basis. It’s the first time I’ve experienced this behavior in a “boss,” a word Hattie hates. She refers to all of us as gardening goddesses.

* * *

April 24

Hattie doesn’t usually pick me up until 9:00, at the earliest, and we don’t get to the first garden till after 9:30. I hate getting to the job so late. It feels like I’m not getting enough done at home in the morning, and then, by the time I get home again in the afternoon, I’m worn out. I’d prefer to go out early in the morning, when it’s cooler, but Hattie says the clients don’t like us to arrive until after 9 A. M. La dee da, I think, who cares if the gardeners have to work in more uncomfortable, hotter conditions?

Hattie and I dig a new bed together at a home I hadn’t worked at before, a house they call the “Pink House” because the owner has a preference for pink flowers.

I ask her about rabbit hutches. My husband’s building one for our daughters’ new rabbit, Oscar, and I’m wondering about size. Hattie’s kept rabbits for years. She rhapsodizes about bunny manure; it’s the best, it’s low in nitrogen so can be put right in the garden and won’t burn plants.

“He should make it big,” she says of the hutch, while popping out a dandelion.

“It is.” I rip out a bindweed vine.

“Real big.” She grins wickedly. “A big ass hutch.”

I laugh and echo her, “Yeah, a big ass hutch.” We snicker together under our straw hats, Heh hehheh, sounding like the female horticultural version of Beavis and Butthead.

I bought one of the leather tool belts, trying to fit in with Hattie and Jill I suspect, but I don’t like it. Every time I crouch down, a tool pokes or juts out at me. And, as a person who won’t leave home without at least some makeup on, it feels a little butch. I’ve gone back to carrying my tools in a bucket and leaving them, now and then, scattered like rose petals, on the job site.

rabbit 001 (2)

* * *

May 10

Today I’m edging a huge flower bed, going along with a shovel, slicing out pieces of sod that are creeping in too close, shaking out the grass from the soil, making a pile of Pennisetum for the compost pile. The owner doesn’t like the black plastic lawn edging so it’s all done manually. Hattie reminds me to switch legs periodically, telling me she blew out one of her knees with the shovel work.

I’m enjoying the gardening, but I can honestly say I’m not too impressed with the neighborhood. While I admire much of the architecture and all of the beauty, it all seems too big, much too big, for so few people. I had a brief experience with poverty as a child. After my mom and dad divorced, my twenty-something mom, me (then seven years old), and three younger siblings lived on welfare for a few years. We drank reconstituted powdered milk, ate “govm’t” cheese and canned chicken. Once we received Christmas presents through a charity, including (this was the early 1970s), a used stuffed animal, a donkey. The donkey was adorable but I remember being repulsed. Spending a winter using an outhouse and sharing heated bathwater in a big metal tub by a fireplace is something that only sounds romantic. And you never forget. Seeing all this entitlement and grandiose living feels like a cockle-burr, snagged on the hem of my worn out jeans, prickling me now and again.

* * *

(Stay tuned for Part II next week.)

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1024px-Sonnenblume_Nahaufnahme_Hüllkelch (2)

“Close-up of the involucre of a sunflower (Helianthus)”. Image by 3268zauber via Wikimedia Commons



meteor shower
June drizzle
gift wrap
birthday candle
one wish
wind blow
seed sow
root raceway
green sprout
bean stalk
giant’s head
corolla choir
crown coronet
gold coin
soil bank
dig in
pull up
chin out
twittered perch
fractal dance
fall fling
seed spill
loose tooth
naked truth
sun salute


Photo by Darrell Salk.

Tricia Knoll is an Oregon poet with two books in print – Ocean’s Laughter(Aldrich Press 2016) and Urban Wild (Finishing Line Press 2014). Website: triciaknoll.com

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The Green Wasteland

canstockphoto1881083 (3)vintage lawnmowers

Image from CanStockPhoto.

My sister and I ended many summer afternoons in the 1970s green from the knees of our jeans down, sweaty, and reeking of gas and exhaust. As servants of the Great American Lawn, we regularly mowed ours, the elderly Miss Howard’s next door, our grandma’s, and once in a while, our great Aunt Flora’s.

It was work that was necessary, and our lawn in particular was well used—the six kids in our family played games of tag, pitch and catch, badminton, and we used the space, as teenagers, for sunbathing. Dad saw physical labor as the best character-builder, so he “volunteered” us to maintain it. We received $5 a lawn, to share.

I didn’t mind the work, but Missouri summers were hot and humid, and occasionally at Miss Howard’s I ran over a toad (a horrifying thing).

I learned more about turf at age 20, verifying sales for a lawn-care company in Colorado Springs. I telephoned clients, confirming that they had joined our fertilizer/weed killer program, with insecticide and/or fungicide treatments as needed. With our help, their lawns would be the envy of the neighborhood!

During our one-day training, we learned to instruct clients with pets to remove dog and cat bowls before spraying, as there had been pet deaths from tainted water. We also cautioned them to keep pets and people off the grass until the applications dried. It sickened me to realize that the men who drove the trucks and sprayed these toxins daily would inhale them, get them on their clothing, their skin, and bring these toxins home. I wondered why people would pay good money for lawns you wouldn’t want a baby crawling on.

A decade later, as a college grad, mom, and hobby gardener, I had my own lawn—or, rather, weed/native grass lot. Seduced by the American ideal, we installed sod in our backyard. For a while, it looked gorgeous; but without pampering, chemicals, or a sprinkler system, it deteriorated fast. In Colorado, as in most parts of our country, lawns require not only constant maintenance but constant life support.

A few years later when I became a master gardener, I determined to get rid of our lawn. Bit by bit, with a tiny budget and lots of elbow grease, I created a garden instead—with fruit trees, herbs, flowers, native plants, sandstone paths, even a goldfish pond. I kept patches of grass/weeds for our dogs (and the occasional badminton game for the kids) and maintained it with a reel mower, enjoying a good workout in the process. Our established xeric garden requires less maintenance than a lawn. Except for the vegetable garden, I water once a week, deeply, and I do not water the grass/weeds at all.

I realize that turf is a multibillion-dollar U.S. industry and many are wedded to the old ways. Lawns, those pretty green carpets, do have an aesthetic charm, and they are good for sports. But they don’t support butterflies, honeybees, birds, or other wildlife, and caring for one is the antithesis of green. Five percent of all our nation’s air pollution comes from gas-powered lawn mowers. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one gas-powered mower, used for one hour, emits as much pollution as eight new cars driven at 55 mph for the same time.

According to the EPA, Americans burn 800 million gallons of fuel each year trimming their lawns. Of this, 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. This is more than the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Fertilizer pollution is a huge problem, and lawns require significant water, yet another burden on our limited resources.

In addition, nearly 80 million pounds of pesticide active ingredients are used on U.S. lawns annually. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that “homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops.”

It’s past time to see traditional lawns for what they have become: antiquated, wasteful, and harmful. I propose that we return to our roots—cottage gardens. Gardens assist nature on a meaningful scale, and they are excellent outdoor classrooms/playgrounds for children and adults. My children had more fun in our back yard than I ever did in the 1970s as they had chickens, and flowers, and a pond—and lots of places to let their imagination run wild. Our home landscapes can also provide us with locally-grown food. You cannot grow luscious plums, pull up sweet carrots, snip chives for your potatoes (and grow potatoes, too), pick wildflower bouquets, or provide bird sanctuary or forage for honeybees with a grass lawn.

As the industrialized world races toward green living, homeowners everywhere can make a difference. It’s easy—take up your shovel and start getting rid of your lawn.

People Powered Machines (much of their information comes from the EPA),

Environment and Human Health, Inc.,

CSU Extension Service,

Note from the author: This essay originally appeared in The Denver Post in 2009. I think it’s also one of the most important essays I’ve ever written, especially in light of the honeybee collapse that we now know is caused in great part by the use of insecticides and other toxins. The year I wrote this, turf was a billion dollar a year cash crop in Colorado. But the recession had just begun, and the numbers have changed as the lawn industry was impacted and continues to be. Times have changed (back then we did not imagine that marijuana would become our #4 cash crop in five years!), but lawns are still the norm for the home landscape. Fifty percent of all water used by homeowners in Colorado is used outdoors.

When I went to check the numbers last year, when this piece appeared in US Represented, I found few updates, but a new report on the EPA site showed, in alarming detail, the health impact on humans of not only lawn mowers, but all lawn and garden equipment. It is titled “National Lawn and Garden Equipment Emissions” and was written by Jamie Banks, PhD, MS, of Quiet Communities, Inc. and Robert McConnell of the U.S. EPA, Region 1. Here’s the link for this must-read.

—Sandra Knauf

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Blueberries, Bluetinis, and one Blue Boa


Blueberries: Round on My Mind

You can buy blueberries. I spend a year
growing perfect ones.

Willing cross pollination and begging sun.
Prune dead twigs in March, fertilize

with acidity and mulch. Mulch again,
fertilize. Lure out Mason bees.

Water. Blow up the rubber boa
and drape to scare the birds.

Laugh when the dog steals
the ripest ones.

Make a pie that slurps over
and crusts in the bottom

of the oven
sweet smell of char.

Mix a cup with a quart
of vodka for winters

bluetinis. Freeze
for cold-day oatmeal.

You can buy blueberries.
I spend a year.

* * *

Tricia Knoll is an Oregon poet with two books in print – Ocean’s Laughter(Aldrich Press 2016) and Urban Wild (Finishing Line Press 2014). She is noticing that blueberries and raspberries are ripening in Oregon several weeks earlier than usual. Website: triciaknoll.com

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Green Thumb


“I’m a gardener. I spend long periods outside pulling weeds, planting sprouts, growing vegetables in my front yard. I like to imagine my thumb is green although I’ve experienced my share of failures. My hand in my garden, tendering to vegetable starts.” – Tricia Knoll

Green Thumb

We share the opposable thumb with the great apes
and in none of us is it cast in green.

The green I claim is a dream,
false starts of nightmares, invasives

like ivy and morning glory that want to claim
dominion. And the plants that die,

for a time it was always lavender and no one
else has trouble getting lavender to bloom.

So the accolades for my garden, the secret
whispers she has a green thumb

are true in the sense that my thumb knows
green, loves green, never fears

plunging deep into mud and putting
in and pulling out the creatures that green up

on sun, water, and the silent talk
of roots with soil. When neighbors whisper,

I whisper back to the corn rising,
my thumb hitches a ride on your magic.

* * *

Editor’s Note: Almost immediately after this posted, I received a comment about the nail polish. A reader loved it, and so do I, so I asked Tricia for the name and brand. “Verdis” by Revlon.

Tricia Knoll (2)

Tricia Knoll is an Oregon poet with two books in print – Ocean’s Laughter (Aldrich Press 2016) and Urban Wild (Finishing Line Press 2014). She is noticing that blueberries and raspberries are ripening in Oregon several weeks earlier than usual. Website: triciaknoll.com

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The Bread Line


The Bread Line

Bread lines on sidewalk cracks
start and end with silent smugglers.
Queued, ranks of worker ants scurry
to moist nests in fissures,
valets to white-rice eggs,
nothing matters but next.

Ants begin with burdens
larger than their bodies.
When something needs doing,
she does it – skirting roadblocks,
swerving to avoid gridlock.
Chemical tweets pass possibilities,
direct attention to great need.

Humans on the god-seat at picnics poke
twigs in mounds, ramparts of castle walls,
These Richter-nine earthquakes massacre
the breadline that ants rebuild,
haul waste, and scavenge leftovers
as if nothing feels like war.

Does a brainstorm
in swarm intelligence smell
yellow like a lightning bolt?
A gentle shower of sweated mutualism?

What does a message taste like
that can predict
the genocide of a tribe?

(First published in Urban Wild, Finishing Line Press.)

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Tricia Knoll is a Portland, Oregon poet who has maintained gardens all her life, sowing the seeds of sanity. She grew up admiring her mother’s roses and vegetable garden. She is an Oregon State University Master Gardener and volunteers at Portland’s Washington Park Rose Test Garden. Her chapbook Urban Wild is available from Amazon and focuses on interactions between humans and wildlife in urban habitat.

Her lyric and eco-poetry of  Ocean’s Laughter (Aldrich Press) focuses on a small town on the Oregon coast, Manzanita. Website: triciaknoll.com
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Be Careful of Little Lives

RedAnts-formica_rufa 001 (3)

Antique illustration of red ants, Formica rufa, Greenwoman collection.


Every spring when I start working in the garden, I am reintroduced to my friends, the ants. I call them friends now, but years ago I didn’t view them quite so warmly. Like most, I would become unnerved if I moved a rock and found hundreds scurrying, dozens carrying eggs, rushing to get their precious cargo to a safer place. I never harmed them, but my squeamishness only began to weaken when a garden guru/friend said, “You know, they’re nature’s excavators. They aerate the soil. That’s a good thing.” My research showed the ones most prevalent in my garden, carpenter ants, did no harm to my plants. Nevertheless, last year I was a little disappointed to see a colony had overtaken an old whiskey barrel planter. It took a minute to decide to not plant there, to let them be. I told myself it would be the garden’s above-ground ant farm. Weeks later the self-seeded snapdragon seedlings were flourishing, along with the mini rose I had left there. Everything, was thriving. The ants were very happy, doing what they were intended to do in their little paradise.

DB Rudin’s fascinating piece on ants first appeared in Greenwoman #5. It’s one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy it.

Sandra Knauf

Be Careful of Little Lives

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise:
Which, having no chief, overseer, or ruler,
Provideth her meat in the summer, [and] gathereth her food in the harvest.
(Proverbs 6:6-6:8)

Scripture praises ants, children are mesmerized by them, and yet ants in the garden are so commonplace as to be easily ignored by us adults. That however, would be a lost opportunity. Ants provide us a chance to witness the spectacle of miniature empires rising and falling in our own backyard.

It is not news that an individual ant is possessed of amazing physical abilities for its size. Scientists have put weaver ants upside down on glass where they can not only hold on but support 100 times their own weight. (Their secret is a liquid secreted from their feet.) However, ants don’t come into their glory as individuals; they all live in colonies and it is here that they shine.

There are ant colonies numbering only a few hundred individuals that fit into a single acorn (Temnothorax longispinosus) and others that include millions of individuals living in vast subterranean cities. One such grasscutter ant megalopolis was found abandoned in Argentina. Scientists pumped concrete into the entrances for days and when dry they carefully dug away the surrounding dirt. What they found was astonishing, a vast city where the ants had removed over forty tons of soil. It featured pathways and chambers that stretched down over 25 feet below ground. All accomplished without a central authority directing the activity.

It is easy to get swept away by the shock and awe of statistics, but it is the myriad ways that ants make a living that fascinates me. There are ant societies who make their communal living as farmers, ranchers, hunters and even slave raiders. One stormy July afternoon I discovered the hidden kingdom of the citronella ants, but that is a story for later.

Due to their complexity, ant societies are often thought of as the closest to human societies. And, like human societies, they have gone from strict hunters and gatherers to agriculturalists. Some of the most successful ants farm fungus in underground gardens. They feed their fungus grass or leaves harvested from their surroundings. Most amazing is that the fungus exists nowhere else in nature, besides the ants’ guts and their fungus gardens, and the ants must fight off other types of fungus and bacteria that threaten these gardens. They do this by applying their own form of antibiotics to any newly added plant material. They also have created ventilation systems that cleverly draw in fresh air and vent out carbon dioxide. This system is so efficient that over five million individuals may occupy a single colony.

There are not only farmers in the ant world, but ranchers as well. Their “livestock” are mealy bugs and aphids. These insects suck the sap from plants and then excrete excess sugar which the ants lap up. The ants in return protect their charges from predators and even hide them under leaves during rain. The ants pick up and move their livestock to “fresh pastures”, parts of the plants with more, and/or sweeter, sap. When the ants move they take their livestock with them.

436 (3) Ant Tunnel

Antique illustration of honeypot ants. The ones hanging from the ceiling are known as repletes and they act as living storage containers for nectar or sugar derived from aphids or scale insects.

Some ant societies have a more martial flair. They are highly mobile “armies” moving the entire colony on a regular basis, looking for fresh hunting grounds. These “army ants” not only feed themselves, hunting anything they can overpower, but many species of birds make a living following the ants around as well. Insects fleeing the ants are then snapped up by the birds. In fact there is a whole family of antbirds, Thamnophilidae , with over 200 members. There are antwrens, antshrikes, antvireos and the list goes on. Clearly it is a successful strategy to follow around hunting colonies of army ants.

Pushing the edge of the fantastic is the story of various slave raider ants. These ants raid other ant colonies and steal their eggs and pupae. They return to their own nests and tend the captives. When these captives are born, they are so immersed in the chemical cocktail of their captors’ colony that they assume they belong. Some slave raiders have become such specialized warriors that they can no longer take care of themselves. They rely completely on their slaves to gather food and even to feed them. One example from the United States, Polyergus breviceps, won’t even clean up after themselves or feed their queen without ant slaves from the genus Formica.

Colorado’s “monsoon” season provides the backdrop to a tale of intrigue and power. To tell that tale I must return to the citronella Ants. Great thunderstorms erupt in July and August dumping torrential rains. Many animals depend upon these rains, including ants. One July afternoon, out hiking in our neighboring Garden of the Gods Park, I came across small, uneven holes in the dirt. Clustered around the entrance were tiny, exquisitely golden ants. I had never seen anything quite like them. Days later I came back and they were gone.

It would be another year before I had the chance to unravel this little local mystery. This time, as thunderheads again threatened, not only did I rediscover the golden ants, but small black winged ants poured out of the misshapen holes. I then started noticing larger, solitary reddish colored ants running around in the same area. One found a hole and, bypassing the golden and winged black ants, disappeared down it. I took pictures and started sending them off to myrmecologists, ant scientists, hoping someone would have a clue as to what was going on.

Turns out these ants are known as citronella ants, Lasius  latipes, (they have an alarm pheromone that smells strongly of citronella). They are completely subterranean except during the monsoon season when the reproductive winged males and larger virgin queens take off for their nuptial flights. The black males die shortly after mating, their role in the story over. The queens’ stories, however, are just beginning. After landing they rub off their wings, and unlike other ant queens, they don’t build their own nest but rather plot a coup.

The queen I observed stealing into the nest was on a mission. Most likely she was from another species of Lasius ant. Wafting her own chemical scent, she would seek to woo the small golden female workers while hunting the resident queen. If successful, she would kill the reigning monarch and take over egg laying duties, her offspring slowly replacing those of the former queen. All the ants will return underground, regardless of the success or failure of the coup attempt, and continue their existence, herding their aphids and scale insects who feed on sap from plant roots. The entire colony and their “livestock” won’t visit the light of day again until the monsoons return again next year.

In our gardens, ants are the great equalizers. By hunting insects that become temporarily more populous, they make sure no one group of insects gets out of hand. Their tunnels aerate soil and allow water to penetrate more easily. They have been around for over 100 million years and have formed complex relationships in the environment, many of these we are still discovering. So should you find ants in the garden, relax, they belong there. If you should find them in the house, remember the words of perhaps the most famous ant scientist, Nobel Prize winner E.O. Wilson. When asked what to do if you find ants in your kitchen, Wilson replied “Be careful of little lives.”

446 (3) Single Ant b&w




DB with praying mantis, photo by Dean Frankmore.

DB Rudin is a freelance writer, teacher and environmental activist. He is currently the Education Coordinator at Venetucci Farm and Pinello Ranch projects of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation. David has been a columnist for Manitou Magazine and, most recently, Greenwoman Magazine. He is an avid birder and also has strong interests in herpetology and entomology. He lives near Garden of the Gods Park with his wife Margaret and their dogs, Gracie and Benny. He can be reached at dbrudin@yahoo.com. His blog, A Naturalist’s Journal, can be found here: https://naturethroughtheseasons.wordpress.com/

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