Leaf Eaters and the Power of Attention

Summer heat presses down on Lake County, politicians sling mud from one national convention to the next, kids soak up long days of vacation, and in my Cobb Mountain garden, the healing metaphors keep springing up left and right. If you’re up for a little sunflower saga, read on.

Lots of things demand my attention in the garden, especially this past month, when I aerated the soil with a spading fork, transplanted my late-started corn and amaranth and sorghum into beds, babied the transplants so they wouldn’t wither in the day’s heat, adjusted irrigation, tied up tomato vines, dead-headed dahlias, the list goes on.

With all this activity, my sunflower plants reached about two feet high before I noticed that they were being seriously chomped on.

As with most things I grow, I really care about these sunflowers. I had tried to order this rare variety last spring (Hopi black dye), but they were all sold out. Getting the seeds in the ground this summer fulfilled a small, but cherished yearlong hope. I only slated space for five plants, but those five plants are precious.

When I saw the large holes in their leaves, I flashed back to the last time I grew sunflowers, when the plants could barely keep ahead of whatever phantom pest chewed them. At six-feet-tall, the flowers bloomed, but under them stood sad stalks with skeletal leaf stems drooping. The perfectionist side of me is embarrassed to say that I never did figure out what was eating those leaves, never did take the time. I was busy learning the peculiar needs of other plants.

This year, though, I was caught up enough on everything else to pause and do some research. I mentioned the chewed leaves to my husband, and he said he’d seen birds munching away out there. I googled, “Do birds eat sunflower leaves?” and sure enough, goldfinches are notorious for the deed.

The next morning (earlier than usual), I got myself out to the garden and looked at the leaves again. A couple of white droppings hinted at the culprits. Then, to be sure, I sat still and just watched, unlike my normal garden bustle.

With my stillness, the birds returned that had startled when I walked in. Sure enough, they descended upon my five beloved Hopi black dye sunflower plants: a gang of tiny goldfinches, jubilant, fluffy, adorable, and systematically ripping the life off my plants.

Because I took the time to ask the question, seek help, and carefully observe this small corner of my garden, I was able to cover the plants in bird netting, leaving the finches free to play in the birdbath and hop about other plants, but keeping them away from what appears to be crack for tiny birds.

And here’s what leapt to my mind about healing: our bodies, our beings, our lives are much like my garden—a living organism with moving parts and much diversity. Oftentimes, it feels like it requires all our focus just to keep everything moderately balanced and alive. When a problem crops up in a tiny corner, it can be easiest to keep charging onward, letting the damaged part limp along behind, even as it causes us pain.

Over and over, I am amazed at what some quietness, some open questions, and some observation can do for physical, mental, and spiritual issues alike.

I judged myself a bit for not giving attention to the sunflower problem years earlier, and it’s common to feel shame about a problem we believe we should have already figured out. It takes courage and humbleness to really ask questions (What’s causing this? What do I need?), and to observe, and, if needed, to seek help from someone with another perspective. But those simple actions can help us see and change something that’s been right under our noses yet so far out of our reach. And that, my friends, is a freeing and empowering experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *