Collective Nouns in the Garden

Collective nouns are (as the name implies) noun applied to a group or collection of animals or things taken as a whole.  When applied to groups of animals, the English have traditionally referred to them as “terms of venery” or “nouns of assembly” and it seems that they are based in English hunting tradition.  I think that the reason people continue to find terms of venery intriguing is that that are so evocative of the animals themselves at least that is why I think they are interesting.  If you really become enamored of these terms you may want to consult An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton (he of Inside the Actor’s Studio fame) which  catalogs collective nouns.  Here are some we have spotted in our garden over the past few years:

An annoyance of grackles

A murder of crows

A scurry of chipmunks

A Vatican of cardinals

A banditry of chickadees

A bevy of doves

A charm of finches

A glittering of hummingbirds

A quarrel of sparrows

A rafter of turkeys

A drumming of woodpeckers

A flutter of butterflies

A skulk of foxes

A brace of mallards

A warren of rabbits

A dray of squirrels

A round of robins

A scold of jays

A banditry of titmice

A coterie of groundhogs


On the Moral Importance of Lupines

“The Lupine Lady lives in a small house overlooking the sea. In between the rocks around her house grow blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way. I know. She is my great-aunt, and she told me so.”

So begins one of our favorite children’s books which has also become a gardening inspiration for Elsie and me, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney.  Though first published back in 1982 I only became aware of it a few years ago when dear friends of ours gave a copy to Elsie.  The book is not just a great story and moral tale for children but is also beautifully illustrated by the author.  I am not little or old (yet) though we do live near the see in a home surrounded by rocks in between which grow blue and purple and rose-colored flowers and we have Barbara Cooney and her character Miss Rumphius to thank for that.  How could you look at an illustration like this and not want to plant a lupine or two (or ten)?


There are some 200 species of Lupine across North and South America as well as North Africa and the Mediterranean.  Most gardeners are familiar with cultivars of  Lupinus polyphyllus (native to the pacific northwest) and Lupinus x regalis. Those most popular with gardeners and that are routinely encountered in garden centers are the result of careful selection, hybridization, and breeding by English gardener George Russel in the early 1900s.  The popular compact (growing to 18 inches or so) multi-colored “gallery” series are a result of his diligence and are available in a wide range of colors like ‘Gallery Pink, “Gallery Blue,” ‘Gallery Yellow’ so on and so forth. I have been growing the gallery series for a few years now, and they are beautiful. In addition, they are a favorite of pollinators and hummingbirds and are deer resistant, making them a perfect addition to a habitat garden.


Like other gardeners I have found the gallery series to be a bit fussy, with perhaps 50 to 75% returning for a second or third year.  Vermont based nursery American Meadows indicates that many gardeners (especially those in New England) may prefer to treat the gallery series as annuals. I think my mixed results may also be because of changing sun exposure in the garden as plants have matured; Lupines like full to part sun and I fear some of mine may have gotten shaded out.

They are a stunning plant and while I will continue to lavish care on my gallery series lupines in order to promote self-seeding. I also want to introduce some other species and/or cultivars in the coming years that may be a bit more durable including native sundial lupines Lupinus perennis which is significantly taller than the gallery series and can grow to 36 inches. L. perenis typically has a light blue flower but can show some variation in bloom color. On a recent trip to Maine I spotted some lupine growing by the side of the road on Deere Isle as we waited for the ferry to Isle au Haut.


Apart from their beauty and value as a plant for pollinators Lupines also contribute to the health of other garden plants as they are a nitrogen fixing legume. This year I am experimenting with planting Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) around the lupines as a way of keeping the root zone cooler.  When planting, pick your spot carefully; Lupine grow from a tap root that does not like to be disturbed and therefore do not take well to transplanting once they are established in a spot that makes them happy.

Anyone who has ever watched the racems emerge from the mount of dark green palmate leaves and progressively bloom from base to tip knows that this is a plant he or she will always want in the garden.

Anyone that has every grown this stunning perennial also understands why Barbara Cooney would make it the centerpiece to the story of Miss. Rumphius.

Alice Rumphius spent much of her time as a young girl in the company of her grandfather who was a carver and painter and who had sailed to foreign lands.  Captivated by his stories, Alice Rumphius promises that she too will travel the world and see exotic places and when she grows old she too will live by the sea.

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

So she travels the world and as she grows old she comes to live by the sea. When I spotted some Lupine growing by the rocky shores in Stonington, Maine I thought of our Lupine loving traveler and the moral imperative passed on from her grandfather.  Looking up the sloping ground above the harbor dotted with small clapboard houses it appeared to me that this little town may have very well emerged from the pages of Comey’s book.   In fulfillment of her promise to her grandfather Miss. Rumphius spreads Lupine seeds among the rocks and hills surrounding her little town.

“All that summer Miss Rumphius, her pockets full of seeds, wandered over fields and headlands, sowing lupines. She scattered seeds along the highways and down the country lanes. She flung handfuls of them around the schoolhouse and back of the church. She tossed them into hollows and along stone walls…

The next spring there were lupines everywhere. Fields and hillsides were covered with blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. They bloomed along the highways and down the lanes . Bright patches lay around the schoolhouse and back of the church. Down in the hollows and along the stone walls grew the beautiful flowers.

Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!”

My day job is as a professor of social work at a local university where I teach health care policy (among other things) and lecture on health and behavioral health ethics.  When I look at the current debates on health care or other social welfare policies I see emerging a disquieting line of ethical reasoning which says that our moral obligations in this world extend no further than doing what is in our own self-interest; ethicist call this moral egoism.  If you’ve ever read Ayn Rand you will spot this impoverished sense of morality straight away. It is the sort of stilted ethics we often associate with children and teenagers whose ego development is still in progress or who have otherwise not yet learned how to share.

As a parent I search for ways to teach my daughter that one’s own self-interest is not a moral end.  We teach her—as most parents do—that we have a duty to others.  For us this also includes other species and so gardening is as much a moral exercise as it is a physical one.  The story of Miss Rumphius has been one of the tools we use in thinking and talking about the moral dimensions of gardening and our greater responsibility to something more and other than just ourselves.  The lupines we plant are a reminder of her story that we look forward to every spring.

It is true that we tend to our planting for reasons that may be motivated by our self-interest.  We certainly cannot discount our own aesthetic enjoyment or the peace we find in digging in the soil and seeing our efforts to fruition each spring, often in a dramatic and colorful fashion.  But it is more than that.  We plant in order to restore the land and to provide for others.  A place to live for animals or seeds for birds or the creation of something beautiful for other to enjoy, and we do all of this hoping it will continue to flourish long after we are gone.

“Sometimes my friends stand with me outside her gate, curious to see the old, old lady who planted the fields of lupines. When she invites us in, they come slowly. They think she is the oldest woman in the world. Often she tells us stories of faraway places.

“When I grow up,” I tell her, “I too will go to faraway places and come home to live by the sea.”

“That is all very well, little Alice, ” says my aunt, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” I ask.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful . “

“All right,” I say.

In my professional life I am confronted with the stories and images of those for whom life is a daily struggle of sickness, or poverty, or homelessness, or mental illness or addiction. I am then challenged to help come up with policy solutions to these incredibly complex problems.  When one understands as I do the magnitude of the challenge it is sometimes hard to muster the fortitude to keep plugging away.  Thankfully, I have many things in my life that inspire me. Most notably the hundreds and hundreds of students that have passed through my classroom who have made great sacrifices in order to pursue a career serving others.  It is hard to be too pessimistic about the future when you spend your days surrounded by people who have committed themselves to the welfare of the most vulnerable and marginalized.


My family and I will continue to plant lupine among the rocks around our house not because gardening is some escape from the sometimes unpleasant realities of life or just an act of egoism and self-fulfillment, but because like teaching or parenting or the many other things we do that are aimed at a future and a world that is physically and temporally beyond ourselves planting something is always an optimistic act.

Every Groundhog Must Have His Day

When I first noticed that some newly planted cone flowers (Echinacea purpurea ‘Pow Wow Berry’) were chewed down to the nub I suspected that a groundhog had paid us a visit.  About a week after I found the damage I finally saw the culprit and indeed it was a groundhog.  The biggest, fattest groundhog I have ever seen, and having grown up around farmland in rural Pennsylvania that is saying something.


The corpulent bastard waddled his way across the rocks and decided that brunch would be two other cone flowers I had just planted.  I banged on the window and off he scurried (insofar as his size allowed for scurrying).

I immediately thought about how easily remedied this would be if I were still back home in Perkiomenville, PA.  One option would be to trap and relocate him, but this is against the law in Marblehead.  The less charitable option from back home would have been a .22, also a big no-no around here.  I started considering using my bow from the second story window.

As I quietly grumbled my daughter whose attention was grabbed by my window banging and groundhog cursing observed “well daddy, a habitat is for everyone, even groundhogs. He belongs here too.”   At six years old Elsie is not only wise beyond her years but is also often wise beyond my years.

Elsie reminded me of why we decided to restore the back yard habitat to begin with and in doing so reminded me of Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic.”

“we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” (Leopold, 1949, p. viii).

So I must sheepishly admit my preoccupation with our tiny slice of land as commodity, a thing that belongs to me and only me—well, given the price of plants at my local nursery perhaps I can be forgiven?  Leopold’s and Elsie’s points are well taken: why engage in this undertaking if I am not willing to share not only with my friends and neighbors but also with the occasional obese rodent?  What sense does it make to invite the birds that I love only to exclude other creatures simply because they have the audacity to eat things other than what I have allotted as “their share.”

On days when I am feeling more optimistic and less cynical about humanity I look back at the history of Western ethics and like to conceive of it as an exercise in moral evolution.  That is to say that as we move forward through time we increasingly see in the “other” not someone or something alien but rather our brethren with whom we share the same moral considerability.  This is what Leoplold is trying to capture, and for him the progressive dissolution of otherness and the ensuing moral embrace of that which had once been alien to us must include wider biotic communities.

“All ethics so far evolved” writes Leopold “rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land” (Leopold, 1949, p. 203).

I do consider myself to be a staunch environmentalist but I am by no means an animal rights activist; lord knows I have done my fair share of hunting and fishing and I understand the role of predator and prey.  But to destroy a groundhog because he shares my admiration for Echinacea purpurea?  That is just selfishness and conceit.

We want make room for our furry friend but don’t want to be completely resigned to nothing but plant stubs.  I still want to see some cone flowers grow and provide joy to bees and butterflies.  So, Elsie and I have come up with two solutions.  The first one is her idea which is that we will plant tender perennials near the hole under the fence where Mr. Groundhog makes his entrance and exit so that he won’t have to venture far into the garden to find a tasty snack.  A groundhog garden so to speak.  The second solution has been some chicken wire cloches I picked up from Gardner’s Supply to help protect some of the more vulnerable groundhog delicacies.


If this were a vegetable garden (rather than a habitat garden) that I relied upon to feed my family, I would perhaps have a different solution.  If I were a farmer protecting his crops I may be forced into more dramatic remedies.  But that is not our situation, and there is enough chaos and death in the world without me bringing it into my garden.

So, Mr. Groundhog, enjoy the buffet and as you dine please be sure to give thanks to one very kind hearted six-year-old called Elsie who reminded me that you belong here too.


Leopold, A. (1949) A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There,

New York: Oxford University Press

Old Irises and Old Neighbors

When we first move in we had a neighbor named Patrick Walker with whom I hit it off immediately.  Pat was a WWII veteran who served in the U.S. Navy which, according to him, largely involved getting drunk in foreign ports (the war was winding down by the time he enlisted).  Pat was very friendly and whenever he saw me working in the yard he would come out to chat about anything and everything including our favorite pipe tobaccos, the Red Sox, and either Civil War or WWI history.  Pat was also an inveterate collector of antiques (vintage board games, safety razors, Civil War memorabilia, furniture) as was his wife Bonnie who had died some 15 years before I met him.  I once told him we got along because he liked old things like I did, to which he replied “well, I am an old thing.”  Pat had been a hydrologist with the USGS for many years and was also pleased that a civil engineer (that would be my wife Hilary) moved in next door.  He was in his late 80s when I met him and decided the time had come to move to Maryland to be close to his children.  I was very sorry to see him leave and I miss our conversations.

Pat and his wife had also been gardeners though he claimed his wife Bonnie did most of the planting.  By the time we moved in Pat really wasn’t active in the garden anymore.  Nevertheless, plants are persistent and his back yard was filled with Iris blooms in the Spring from plants that Pat and Bonnie had planted perhaps decades before.  After Pat moved away and my new neighbors moved in they were doing work in the back yard and asked if I’d like to dig up any plants and save them so they were not destroyed.  I took several Iris rhizomes and planted them in my own garden.

These are a bearded Iris.  I am by no means an authority on irises but my best guess is that this is  Iris variegata X Iris sambucina ‘Neglecta.’  It has light purple—almost white—standards, yellow beard, and blue to violet variagted falls. This variety was first hybridized by Jens Wilken Hornemann in 1813.

Pat died in September of 2015 shortly after moving to Maryland.  Whenever I look at the blooms though I think about him. I like that plants can be reminders.


Spring Planting

With the major hardscape construction out of the way we started returning plants to our back yard habitat.

As I have mentioned previously, the poor, rocky soil presents some challenges and therefore careful plant selection is key–it may take a while before we discover what is working and what is not.  Some areas of the back yard have better conditions than others, and we have added a lot of compost.

The Delphinium x Belladonna ‘Cliveden Beauty’ on the right is new this year. The picture on left is not a new plant, but rather a volunteer colony of the incredibly resilient Dennstaedtia punctilbula (Hay Scented Fern)


I really like native plants, and that will probably be predominately what we decide to plant.  That said, I have no opposition to non-native plants as long as they are noninvasive.  This article does a good job of articulating the difference:

One of the challenges in gardening among the igneous outcropping behind our home is the many shallow divots in the rock (created by the northward strike of the rock) that hold soil but not enough depth to support many landscaping plants due to poor moisture retention. Fortunately these areas are happily colonized by Sempervivum tectorum (hens and chicks) which is not native to New England. Just behind (in deeper, amended soil) is Cornus sericea ‘Baleyi,’ a native red twig dogwood.


Friends of ours gave Elsie a copy of the book “Miss Rumphius.”  ever since then we have been planting Lupine.   This is Lupinus polyphyllus ‘Gallery Pink’ planted in a shallow crevice along with Iberis sempervirens ‘Whiteout’ (Evergreen Candytuft).


And who doesn’t love lavender?  Unfortunately i don’t know what cultivar this one is.


And this Clematis ‘H.F. Young’


We have been a bit preoccupied with the back yard this spring but have not totally ignored the front yard.  We added some Tiarella cordifolia ‘Spring Symphony’ (Foam Flower), a favorite native pant along with the native Podophyllum peltatum (Mayapple) and a non-native spotted dead-nettle Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy.’


Lots more has been planted.  Will update as things come into bloom.

Back Yard Habitat Restoration

When we bought our house here in Marblehead three years ago it was literally the only house in the town that we could afford—it was also aesthetically unique and we loved it at first sight.




The woman from whom we purchased the house was a flipper, and as such there were things left undone, incomplete, and in some cases half-assed.  This also made the house affordable for us, and thankfully I have enough knowledge of carpentry, plumbing, masonry and the like that I have yet to have to hire a contractor as we slowly get the house to where we really want it.  It has been without a doubt a labor of love.  Along the way, my daughter Elsie has picked up some good skills that will make her self-reliant when eventually she purchases her own home.

One of the major undertaking over the past three years was the landscaping of the “back yard” with the goal of certifying it as a backyard habitat (Elsie’s idea).  I put “back yard” in quotes because the small bit of land behind our house is not really a yard per se; it is an exposed outcropping of the Salem gabbro-diorite formation that underlies much of the North Shore..   This is what gabbro-diorite looks like (with a lovely syenite dike). (Photo from


By Marblehead standards, our home is pretty young having been build in 1938.  By contrast, the Abrose Gale house down in Old Town was built in 1663, while the town itself was founded in 1629.  The rock formation it all sits on is over 300 million years old (a bit of geological background  The outcropping rises about 25 feet starting 5 feet or so from the back door.  Therefore, a major part of the backyard habitat restoration was making the area accessible and plantable.  this meant building steps and retaining walls. Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos of what the “back yard” looked like when we first bought the house.  Here is one that may give you some idea of what was going on:



The slope from the lower retaining walls up to the top was really just a jumble of rocks that with several yards of wood chips dumped on top.  The seller had added a few plants here and there.  The area is pretty steep and was not terrible accessible.

Step 1: Building steps to the top of the hill

In the middle of the slope was a “V” shaped cut in the rock that contained a alrge tree stump–it seemed like a natural spot to build steps.  I removed the stump and  excavated down to gabbro-diorite ledge, drilled some holes with a rotary hammer and drove in (along with some anchoring epoxy) 1/2″ rebar to tie the steps to the rock.  I then framed the steps in 6×6 PT lumber laced the interior with more ½” rebar.  The concrete had to be carried back behind the house and up the slope in 80 pound bags—all told it came to about 3 tons of concrete.  This project lasted two summers (delayed in no small part by surgery I had to repair a torn labrum in my right shoulder).  Once the final bit of concrete was poured a few retaining walls were built and/or repaired.  My wife Hilary and daughter Elsie got in on the act collecting rocks and mixing mortar.  Now it looks like this:


We are now ready to add plants back.  We are also launching a program to get the invasive plants under control (mostly multiflora rose, common periwinkle (Vinca minor) and Norway maples) and also remove several tree stumps that continuously send out suckers.  This is an ongoing process that I will discuss later.  There are still some Norway maples to come out which I will get to as I purchase native trees to replace them. The periwinkle is going to be a major chore.  Part of certifying our habitat is controlling plant species that crowd out native species–it will no doubt be a multi year process.

Elsie and Hilary have both been driving forces in the effort.  Hilary and I met back in the early 2000s while working together at the Delaware Center for Horticulture—I was the community garden manager while Hilary was an AmeriCorps volunteer with the education program.  We are both plant people.  Elsie is a lover of all things wild, winged, furry, or feathered.  She has been the one insisting that we make our yard a habitat to attract lots of wildlife and that it also serve as a refuge for pollinators.  Anything I use (like fertilizer) has to be safe “in case a bee or a butterfly drinks it.”  Elsie is the one who routinely surveys the property to makes sure we have everything in place that wildlife need: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young.  She is the one who went through the National Wildlife Foundation checklist to make sure we met the standards for certification.  So in addition to plants that provide seed, nectar (and that stabilize some of the steeper slopes) we have added feeders, bird baths, and nesting boxes.  Because of the shallow soils (that also are thin on organic material) we tend towards native plants that are drought tolerant: butterfly bush, cone flowers, sedum, monarda, Lupine, black eyed susan, daisys, and ornamental grasses.  For winter interest (and erosion control) we have massed together red and yellow twig dogwoods. More to follow as we make our way through our first serious planting year.IMG_1307