I am constantly questioning many of the things I see; wondering how complete is my failure to understand nature and its perfect order. Recently, I mean in the last couple of months, I rented a plot in the Boca Raton Community Garden and started growing some plants. Knowing that I was about to do this, I bought some seeds, potting soil and peat moss pots to start germinating my own plants. That process went pretty well and within about four days some zinnias had burst through the surface. Soon after that I had peppers, tomatoes, and okra.
A few weeks later the community garden opened up for us weekend gardeners to start planting in our plots. I took my meager little plants over and placed them around the site. But they didn’t show up much in relation to the area I had to cover. So I decided to give the plot a shot in the arm. Something I knew I wanted to do was to have butterflies – both come to visit my garden, and for the plot to be a breeding ground for them. So I bought two nice big milkweed plants and placed them on one side. I also bought about a dozen mature marigolds and placed them in the corners. That wasn’t enough so I bought several other varieties of colorful flowers and planted them around.
Now I had a garden that showed up really well – healthy plants and lots of color. My tomato plants grew well but did not yield anything in the way of tomatoes, maybe one or two, but they were really anemic. The okra grew, but I left it on the bushes too long and they dried out. My peppers came and went. All this spotty success made me decide to go for the color and forget the vegetables.
But my main objective by this time was to breed butterflies. I wanted to create something that my granddaughters, Kali and Luna, could get excited about. I even went so far as to plant some plants in their yard that would attract butterflies so they could see the wonderful process that nature afforded. They dug around with me and helped me create the garden. Then they would excitedly report back to me when they saw butterflies and other critters hovering around the small garden.
The milkweed plants in my community garden plot really began to produce. Every time I visited there were monarch butterflies flying in and out feeding on the plants and laying their eggs. It was not long before the eggs hatched into caterpillars. Soon the plants they were born on began to show serious signs of being eaten. The caterpillars began to grow big and healthy, just exactly what I wanted to have happen.
My cousin, Barbara, is a master gardener and loves to have butterfly gardens. So I called her for advice and she told me to create a cage for the caterpillars and watch them go through metamorphosis. That is they would grow to full size, hang down in the shape of a J from a branch or the roof of the cage, soon turn into chrysalises (cocoons), and a few days later hatch into butterflies.
I went to the pet store and bought two terrarium like cages so that I could bring the caterpillars home and the family watch the process. Kali went with me as we found five caterpillars and cut down the branches on which they were perched and brought them to their new homes.
The move was successful, and the caterpillars thrived. Each of them grew up, hung down in the shape of a J, and soon turned into cocoons. Sometime between one and two weeks later those cocoons began to change. Looking closely I could see that the walls of the cocoons thinned out and there was something distinguishable as the patterns of monarch butterfly wings. And then there was movement within. This I learned was the final stage of development. The movement was the actual butterfly struggling to break out of the cocoon and free itself. That process only took a short while, perhaps a couple of hours.
And then a butterfly appeared. It was new and weak. It climbed around its cocoon shell for a while as it spread its wings. While it was developing, it had consumed a lot of the milkweed plants and had a lot of digested material to poop out. The bottom of the gage got quite messy. As the butterflies emerged they started to walk around the gage and climb on branches. They tried to climb the walls of the cage but could not get a hold. I knew it was time to set them free or they might hurt themselves by moving around the gage.
At separate times, because they matured at different rates, I would take the cage outside and open up the top. I would place my finger in front of the butterflies and they would climb on board. Then I would either just let them fly away, or if they appeared unable to do so I would put them next to a bush where they could step onto a leaf or branch until they were ready to take off. Four butterflies flew right away from my finger. One had to be transferred to a plant leaf, but he flew away from it after just a couple of minutes.
Meanwhile Kali and Luna’s garden was also producing caterpillars, so we created a cage for them too. Several of their caterpillars made it to butterfly and were released. A few others made it to chrysalises, but did not mature beyond that. I bought some more milkweed plants for the girls’ garden so they could attract more monarchs and caterpillars.
The caterpillars eat the milkweed plants very quickly and the plants end up as sticks, completely denuded of leaves. There’s not much for them to eat after a while. At first I just cut the plants down to about a foot high sticks because I was told they would come back. But my plot is very small and I don’t have time for crop rotation. I found a couple of caterpillars on my denuded plants but they really had no leaves to eat. So I went and bought a couple more milkweed plants to start the process again.
I have always been a gardener. I started working when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I got a job at Frank Murphy’s Garden Center in Mattituck, Long Island. Admittedly I mostly cut lawns and did basic cleanup of peoples’ yards, but it was a start and I earned about $8 per day. Then a job came up where a man named Vic Williams managed a nursery for Albert Stern, a wealthy New York executive who had a vacation home nearby. The nursery was too much for Vic to handle on his own so he always hired a helper for the summer. This year I got the job. I would work Saturdays and sometimes after school during spring and fall, and five days a week in the summer. I did whatever the nursery needed, transplanted trees, fertilized, trimmed, mowed the lawn of the house, raked leaves forever and a million other jobs around the place. That job paid $1.25 per hour so I made about $50 per week when I worked full time. I kept that job every year while I was in high school, and I learned a lot about nursery work and planting and growing and grooming trees. It was hard work, and sometimes I dreaded it, but what I didn’t know at the time was than I was really drawn to it and would love to use my gardening skills to take it to the next level.
A word about me and God. Of my 12 years of primary education, six of those years were in Catholic schools including all four years of high school. My first year of college was also at a catholic school, Villanova University in Philadelphia. I was actively involved in the church and served as an altar boy for about four years. My faith was pretty strong, as I had been thoroughly indoctrinated through all those years. My mother reinforced all that by strictly making us go to church on every possible opportunity. So, when I broke away from the church during my later years in college, there was guilt, but there was also resolution. I claimed to be agnostic; concerned that to call myself an Atheist might cost me something in eternity. So, because there was stuff I wanted to do that the church taught against, like mostly fornicate with women, I turned my back on organized religion and set about to make my own rules. I never stopped believing that there was a higher power or higher intelligence, but I did not and do not believe the teachings of the church or the bible or anybody’s bible. There was just so much that I did not understand or care to think much about.
Through the years I tried a couple of times to understand religion. I even studied the bible with the Jehovah’s Witnesses for a couple of years, but I never really believed what I was being fed. So I went on with my life unimpeded by religious teachings.
In the period between 2014 and 2017 I returned to my gardening roots. I had a job at the Blue Angel RV Park in Pensacola, FL. I was on a maintenance crew that did all kinds of jobs throughout the park mainly having to do with keeping the place groomed. We mowed acres of grass, raked, trimmed, remodeled, painted, pressure washed, just about any kind of job a person could imagine having to do with the smooth running of such a large park. The park was on 1,200 acres of land, but only about a quarter of that was actual RV park. We had a pretty substantial mechanic’s shop where our machines, trucks, lawn mowers, Gators, and even power tools were maintained. There was electrical, plumbing and mechanical work all over the place. Early in my work there I kind of worked myself into a couple of jobs that became mine. Any pressure washing to be done on buildings or roads or anywhere; that was my job. The pressure washer was mine. Blowing leaves and other debris off the main roads was my job as well.
But what I really cornered was the landscaping work. Whenever such work became available, I was always at the center of it. I went to the crew boss and told him that I could build a small nursery to feed the landscape areas. They had practically no budget for flowers and plants, but I told him ways I could scrounge around and make something happen. He was also interested in gardening and he had the responsibility for the appearance of the park so he gave me free reign to get a program together.
An area of the park that had been used as a garden patch in the past was available to me. I had to beg borrow and steal to get seeds and decent dirt to start my plants. I also had a friend who worked nearby and had surplus decorative plants, so I prevailed upon him to share. I had a surplus of pots he needed for his nursery, and I had a surplus of pots that he could use. We entered into a trading program. I brought him the pots and he put aside some surplus plants for me. This program went on for a while and I acquired quite a nursery. Added to that I built a small green house with a couple of friends and started germinating my own flowers. I had marigolds, morning glories, zinnias, and ____.
Throughout the park there were seven landscape features when I got started. By the time I got done there were 21. A friend of mine who lived in the park part time supplied me with fertilizer. He had a garden of his own and dozens of quails that he kept. He supplied restaurants in the area with quail eggs, I think he told me about 70 dozen a week. He would bring me quail poop in bags, several hundred pounds at a time. I would scrounge around the woods for decent soil and use that for potting and planting.
I reserved an area in the garden for my vegetable plot. It was only about 500 square feet but I made the most of it. I would germinate young plants mostly in the greenhouse and eventually grew beans, squash, corn, cantaloupe, peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, okra, collard greens, eggplant, and even watermelon (unsuccessfully).
Now, getting back to how god fits into all this. I would be amazed to go into the greenhouse and look at my pots. One day I would put a seed in a pot of soil and later a green shoot would emerge through the surface. Those green shoots would grow into plants, some flowering like the zinnias (so easy to grow) and some into vegetables. As a plant would outgrow its container I would either transplant it to a bigger container or into the ground either in the vegetable garden or one of the landscape plots I had been building.
In the three years I had this program many of the plants I started and groomed grew into mature plants. This meant a constant maintenance program as well. I had to visit the landscape areas often, usually nearly everyday, and water them, fertilize them, and weed them or groom them. It became a full time job.
Out of dirt and seeds, some water and fertilizer came beautiful or delicious mature plants. I would watch as butterflies, bees, dragonflies and all kinds of crawling critters would land in the garden. They would eat, spread pollen, and lay eggs. There would be insects crawling all over the place. I had a good share of ants, beetles, worms and a regular menagerie. Each critter had its own job. No one told them what to do. They just were programmed to do it. That’s how nature works in complete symmetry.
And looking at these little bugs and animals doing what they were created to so, it blew my mind to see that each one had its own job to do and they did it perfectly. Some of the critters transported pollen. Some ate nectar; some ate the plants and laid eggs. Some fed the birds. There was a job for everyone. I just got to observe the symphony.
And all the time I watched this miracle take place I was asking myself “Who figured all this out? Who was the genius who created nature in such a way as to have all this come together?”
Now take it to the next step. Who figured out the relationship between oxygen and carbon, or any of the elements of the periodic table so that organisms could exist, so that man could be created, or water, air, dirt, diamonds, or iron? The elements of the periodic table create combinations that make up everything we know in the physical world. And that’s just what we know about that is happening on this planet in this galaxy. We don’t know that there isn’t a parallel universe where there is a completely different periodic table with elements coming together in such ways as to create completely different kinds of matter and organisms.
And the one thing we really know is that we don’t know anything. We don’t know how our thoughts come to us, or how our feelings are born. We work with our emotions everyday and we feel what is going on, but why and how?
From the smallest quark, which is about as small as anything we can guess at, to the expanse of the universe that we believe to be infinite, something made all that happen. If that isn’t a higher power, I don’t know what is.