Kelly has been stepping out into the back yard with me now and then, even asking at the door to go out. She’s never shown any interest in the 15 years she’s been with me until this spring, and I can’t help but think she associates the outdoors, and the spring forget-me-nots, with Cookie, as I do. Kelly is now the lone senior cat, and she’s very lonely without an older kitty to cuddle with and protect her; she’s a little intimidated by the gregarious black cats. Observing what she does, I think she’s looking for and communing with Cookie, again, as I do.
This is a kind of an odd angle—I had my zoom lens as I’d been photographing details of forget-me-nots and buttercups together and the cranesbill geraniums and columbines with raindrops from last night’s storms. Kelly’s a little foreshortened, but it’s a good view of her face and those brilliant green eyes; even without the reflection of lush vegetation, Kelly’s eyes are like gems. It’s hard to believe she is 18 this year because she is still active, lithe and graceful, and because she was the youngest for 11 years I still think of her as the little one.
Read Kelly’s story in five parts: A Little Bit About Kelly.
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All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.
Fleas, like most other insects, live everywhere around us and it’s how we manage our surroundings that helps to control their populations. Like managing mosquitoes, for instance, by eliminating still pools of water where they can breed, you can also manage the flea population around your yard without the use of toxic chemical so that fleas can’t set up a happy colony where they are ready and waiting when your pet comes outside—or even when you come outside and carry them in
Spring is the prime time to get ahead of them, so take spring cleaning in your yard as seriously as in your home and begin early. By initiating or modifying a few of the ways you care for your landscape you can eliminate nesting and breeding spaces and welcome their predators, an effect that can last all through the warm months of summer and fall.
Where Do Fleas Come From?
Fleas begin in the great outdoors, even in the nicest yard, and don’t think that simply because you don’t let your pet outside, or it’s only outside for a short while, that fleas won’t find them. Fleas are tiny and can hop amazing distances to get to a warm body for their blood meal, they can ride in on your own body though they don’t generally feed on humans, and encountering another animal that has fleas either on a walk outdoors or even at the veterinarian’s office can infest your pet without it ever setting a paw in the back yard.
But fleas are slow to wake up in the spring and are a snack for a number of predator insects. These two facts of their life cycle help you to get ahead of them.
Integrated Pest Management
I’ve always taken one or more of my cats into my back yard, so I’ve always included fleas in my pest management. Adult fleas are very particular about moisture and temperature, but flea eggs can live through a lot of punishment and still hatch and carry on the next generation so they need to be managed from year to year, not just for the summer.
Aside from the dangers of insecticide toxicity, using an insecticide generally kills off all the insects in an area, not just the ones you are targeting. Where fleas are concerned, an insecticide just kills the adult fleas which are only about 10% of the total flea population. There may be some residual left to kill the eggs and larvae as they mature into adults, but with unpredictable weather it’s often washed away before it does any good.
Pest insects have adapted to reproduce more quickly than their prey so the fleas will return long before their predators return, resulting in a more serious infestation than before. Without any predators you really need to keep applying the chemical, but all you do is knock down the numbers, never winning the game, and often completely kill off all predators, and not just those of fleas, while building up toxic levels in your soil which run off into local waterways, affecting more wildlife than you ever intended.
It’s obvious that species have been kept in balance for millennia by some means outside of human controls. I am a Master Gardener and began years ago to start my own plants, identify seedlings, diagnose pests and diseases and build soil. I manage my little yard as a wildlife habitat, friendly to all native species as well as the plants I choose to grow and have always called on the forces of nature to manage the populations as an ecosystem, allowing it to find its own balance, and this has worked for managing fleas as well as other insect pests in my lawn, vegetable garden, flower beds and natural areas.
The two basic steps in managing any pest that outgrows its controls is to find out where it lives and destroy that habitat to any extent possible, and then find its natural predators and encourage them to inhabit and flourish, forever if possible.
Fleas live in moist, shady areas in the yard, in the thatch in your lawn, debris piles, leaf litter, cord wood stacks and even under your deck or porch unless it’s completely dry. They’ve often overwintered in these areas and with the moisture of spring eggs start hatching as soon as it’s warm enough and shady after trees and shrubs have leafed out, about when temperatures rise above 60 degrees at night or 70 degrees during the day.
One of the first things I do in spring, way before fleas hatch, is clear off all the debris in the yard and toss it in the compost pile, which as the materials break down heats up to a point that kills any eggs or seeds within it. I leave native plants standing for wildlife through the winter, but in spring it’s all taken down, even mowed if possible, then raked in order to remove possible pest habitat (including plant diseases which may have overwintered). If you don’t have a compost pile you can throw the material away in a bag, but just don’t keep it around, piled in a corner, or it can become a breeding ground for everything that laid eggs in it last year. This helps immensely with reducing the initial populations and you’ve also destroyed a lot of eggs and habitat for many insect pests.
This also helps to delay the onset of fleas in your yard, but they’re going to start hatching some time regardless of chemical or organic controls, so be prepared with methods to manage flea populations through their life cycle.
Manage Areas Fleas Prefer
To start with, try to minimize or eliminate damp and densely shaded areas in your yard—underneath a shrub, for instance, often a favorite place for pets to hang out on hot days because it’s cooler and the soil is a little damp. It’s absolutely flea heaven, especially if you’ve either left the leaf litter from last year or added some decorative bark or wood chip mulch. This one area can support three stages of the flea: eggs can be laid here, the larvae can live on organic matter, and they can build their cocoons here as well, hatching into adult fleas that feed on your kitty taking a nap in the shade.
My yard tends to be very damp and I also have a slug problem (that’s an understatement), and for years I’ve sprinkled diatomaceous earth (DE)in all the moist shady areas for the slugs that feast all night, also taking care of a good many fleas. This product is not soil at all but the shells of diatoms, tiny sea creatures, crushed to a fine powder. Sea shells are actually formed of minerals and while the powder looks like dust it is actually very tiny, very sharp particles that cut into the exoskeleton of the flea, causing it to dehydrate and die. It does the same thing to slugs, but other creatures, from earthworms to birds, simply digest it with no ill effect, and it’s completely a physical effect with no chemical effect at all.
Diatomaceous earth has a short-term effect outdoors, though, because it mixes with soil and other organic matter, diluting its effect, and is washed away by rain or even heavy dew, but generally sprinkling it weekly in damp shady areas through the summer is a good plan. Just make sure it’s the DE intended for gardening use NOT pool use because this has chemicals added, and wear a mask when you sprinkle it because prolonged inhalation can cause some respiratory discomfort.
At one time I used pyrethrum-based products to control fleas and other insect pests indoors and out, and while pyrethrins break down quickly in sunlight and are diluted by water, tests later showed that if they are not in conditions that break them down they can build up in soil and in the home, and can be toxic to some flora and fauna outdoors, and children and pets indoors. Many organic gardeners quit using them, though they are still sold for outdoor treatment as well as specifically flea control products. I have included a link to the CDC report at the end of this article.
Modify Your Lawn
Also manage your yard, especially your lawn, to encourage flea predators. You can apply beneficial nematodes to damp and shady areas as well as the DE, especially where you can’t change the conditions by trimming shrubs or cleaning up debris such as a bed of heavy ground cover like ivy or pachysandra, or where you’ve landscaped with mulch, sand, gravel or small stones. You may need to reapply every year or two; this was my experience, but they definitely keep populations down while they persist.
You can also encourage the flea’s natural predators to come and live in your lawn and garden. Insect predators include ants, spiders and ground beetles, other species include amphibians such as toads and salamanders, reptiles such as garter snakes, and even birds that feed on the ground.
Hmmm… you don’t like spiders and snakes, and everything else sounds like something you don’t want anywhere near your house, except maybe the birds? Trust me, they are much more interested in their natural diet than they are in you, and unless you go looking you’d never know they’re there—except that you’d have fewer fleas and other pest insects generally.
Welcome them by managing your lawn in a way that might be different from the typical grass-only buzz cut, incorporating native plants and herbs and allowing your lawn to grow a little taller. My lawn is only about half grass, while the rest is a mixture of short native plants and ground covers, plus opportunistic peppermint, pennyroyal and marjoram escaped from my herb gardens and the seedlings for next year’s forget-me-nots, daisies and other biennials and spring ephemerals. This diversity of flora encourages a diversity of fauna and eliminates large areas of one type of habitat so nothing has a chance to overpopulate.
Because I have less grass, I only have to cut the lawn about once a month after May. The native plants have a predetermined growth habit, most of them staying below six inches, and after the spring flush of growth the grass grows much more slowly. I can cut it higher than two inches, the minimum height to encourage ants and spiders, the main predators of fleas. Cutting the grass taller and less often helps the predators develop habitat and do their job on the fleas.
I also feed birds year-round, and while I always credit them with keeping vegetable and flower pests under control, I know they also peck around through the grass eating fleas.
Even if you’ve done all this you can still expect a few fleas, but you’re suddenly totally infested—what else can it be?
It’s that darned squirrel that hangs out on your deck, or the groundhog that’s burrowed underneath it—or the opossum that nested in your piled-up porch furniture until spring, or the little field mice and voles who sacrifice themselves to your cats in the basement.
I had sprinkled the house with diatomaceous earth, bathed and combed the cats regularly, washed everything washable, swept everywhere just about daily, removed throw rugs and pillows and such, tossed non-washable things into a hot dryer, and removed as much from my house as possible. This was all I needed to do for years and the flea population never reached an infestation.
But this year the fleas kept coming back, and increasing all the time. Where were they coming from?
I began to notice that when I walked out on my deck, my legs were immediately covered with fleas, a dozen or more at a time. Fleas don’t fly, they jump, and while they can jump far, in a situation like this you can move around and check the numbers of fleas that jump on your skin (or wear a pair of white socks so you can see them easier) to help pinpoint an area of infestation. I started stepping around the deck, knocking fleas off my legs into a cup of water, then stepping again to see where numbers seemed the worst.
Most wild animals harbor a few fleas, and some species are typically infested. My squirrels spend about half their time scratching, and wild rabbits, chipmunks, gophers, mice and voles are also heavily infested with fleas. The squirrels hang out on my deck trying to get into the bird seed, the rabbits hop around near the basement door, and I always have a juvenile groundhog who excavates under my deck before I can trap it, chipmunks run around chirping everywhere, and field mice and voles really do show up in my basement.
And I really did have an opossum on my deck that winter. Being nocturnal, we didn’t cross paths though I saw her through the back door now and then. With the unusually heavy ice and snow I didn’t have the heart to encourage her to find another home, and I didn’t unpack all my deck furniture this year, so I have no idea how long she stayed.
It was the area right in front of the door—right over the groundhog den under the deck—and on one side of that unmoved pile of things for my deck. The groundhog had left my yard to eat someone else’s vegetable garden, but left the fleas behind. I began deconstructing the pile of porch furniture and found evidence of nesting, though not recent. In both places, a heck of a lot of fleas.
So this was the source of my infestation, right outside the door that I kept open for most of the summer, locking the screen door at night and when I was away. Fleas could hop in when I opened the door, and ride inside as I walked in and out the door. My basement door has a space at the bottom because the concrete walk just outside is lifted and the bottom of the door jammed against it, so I trimmed the door.
Normally every spring I clean off my deck, sweep, wash and apply water-based waterproofing to the wood, then move things back, but this spring’s schedule didn’t allow the time. Once I cleaned off the deck, swept and washed it as well as hosed down all the items that were there, the constant re-infestation stopped. Whew!
Some Resources for Chemical-Free Outdoor Flea Control
You can get ten pages of results or more in an internet search on flea control, diatomaceous earth, pyrethrins and so on, but I try to find studies or information from non-commercial sources to cite.
Yardener.com has a series of articles about dealing with fleas in your yard, and the article about preventing fleas in the future is especially informative—plus the site is a great resource for dealing with all sorts of pest problems in your yard.
Even though this article is from 1986, it gives a brief history of the use of diatomaceous earth from a study project at McGill University that is still applicable today about the effects and usage of DE.
CDC Report on pyrethrins and pyrethroids: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp155.pdf
If you’re interested in more information about Backyard Wildlife Habitats, please visit the Backyard Wildlife Habitat page on my site with articles on developing your habitat and articles showing the photos, paintings and sketches I’ve done that were inspired but my backyard.
All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used in any way without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.
I once had a pure white long-haired kitty with pea green eyes and a pink nose named Sally. She was also completely deaf, and completely fearless; without distraction, she lived in her own little world, full of sleep and joy and play. She was the inspiration for many sketches, paintings and photos, and for this little piece as well.
Almost everywhere I’ve lived there has been a quince bush, an old-fashioned favorite for its early bright pink flowers—so early, in fact, that the bush in my neighbor’s yard in the years when Sally was young bloomed every year during the January thaw, and then snow would fall on the bright pink blooms, nestling in the curve of the branches like Sally when she’d found a good cozy spot.
The style of this design was inspired after studying and practicing many illustration traditions, from Asian-inspired block prints and brush paintings to metal and wood etchings and block prints used for books and periodicals. My reference photo (which I kept) shows the branch with the flowers against a brilliant blue sky, and a soft little pile of snow in the angle which became the sleeping kitten.
Also inspired by the idea of a book illustration, it’s just a little thing, image is 5″ x 3.5″, with mat and frame outside dimensions 10″ x 8″.
Print only, $15
Hand-colored print, $25
Matted and framed, no color, $30
Matted and framed, hand-colored, $40
All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.
Why all the fuss about whether or not this rodent sees his shadow?
February 2 isn’t just Groundhog Day and a holiday made by humans to break up the middle of cold winter season. It’s actually an occurrence in nature that humans have observed and found reason to celebrate long before people in Punxsutawney wanted to bring tourists to their little settlement in the woods of Western Pennsylvania.
February 2 is exactly halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, marking the date that winter, literally, becomes spring. The seasons don’t change as if you’ve flipped a switch, but they move gradually from one to another in a cycle. The solstices and equinoxes mark the highest points of those seasons, and the cross-quarter markers in between mark the day one season has clearly blended with another. I notice this every year from my garden to the trail to just observing wildlife.
By February 2, in our modern time we notice the days have lengthened enough that there really is daylight when we leave work at the end of the day where just a week before it was still pretty dark. Ancient and not-so-ancient people saw it another way.
Nearly every culture and faith tradition has a name and celebration for this event. At the Winter Solstice, the sun stood still just long enough to make civilizations think it may have stopped moving, leaving us to suffer in the darkness and cold of winter. Then it began slowly moving again, the days lengthening so gradually that all we may notice is perhaps feeling better because there is more daylight, but ancient cultures centered feast days and celebrations around the return of life.
The full moon in February is often called the Hunger Moon because, though people have managed through the deepest extended cold of winter, their food stores put by at the previous autumn’s harvest may be near gone:
Half your wood and half your hay, you should have on Candlemas Day.
February lies ahead, often as frozen as January with not much nourishment in sight for hunter-gatherer or agrarian societies until the first edible greens begin to sprout, about a month away in early March, later in far north regions. Animals are often just as undernourished as humans, female animals are often bearing young, so hunting is usually out of the question. Yet the end was in sight and that alone was reason to celebrate in the harsh world before furnaces in the house and cars for travel and grocery stores offering food all year round.
And beneath the snow plants are gathering energy, seeds are swelling, roots are spreading, and above the snow the days are growing longer. The ewes, cows, goats and the females of other livestock as well as of wild animals are beginning to produce milk in preparation for the birth of their young later in the spring.
So this day has many names to commemorate all these observations that would become celebrations to humans weary of the cold and dark: Immolc or Imbolc, translated from “in the belly” referring to mothers and their young, and the first production of milk in preparation for birth; Brigantia or St. Brigid’s Day, who welcomes the light with candles and represents the light half of the year; and Candlemas when candles for the year are blessed celebrating Jesus’ presentation at the temple and the purification of Mary are the ones best known in Western culture.
Another traditional rhyme shows us that the day had become one for prognosticating:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.
And before English and German settlers began landing on these shores, they were keeping an eye on the hedgehogs to determine if the little buggers saw their shadow on Candlemas or Brigantia morn. Other animals leave their burrows around this time as well—it’s snakes in another tradition—and you’ll often see birds pairing off. It doesn’t always happen exactly on February 2, but because the day was a longstanding cross-quarter day in the ancient calendar it’s carried the reputation of being a day for prognostication and celebration.
As with most other traditions, taking stock of things on February 2 came over on the boat with those early English and German settlers, and Pennsylvania still has many towns and neighborhoods settled all those years ago dedicated to these nationalities.
So why a groundhog? Why not a groundhog? They don’t get a whole lot of credit for anything else, especially not in my garden! This is one day when a fat, smelly, not-so-pretty North American native that reminds us of a large rat can get some respect and news coverage, and that’s never a bad thing for anyone. Really, they’re kind of cute and silly, especially when they’re little, they only become oily undulating eating machines in late summer when it breaks my heart to find all the beans I’d been looking forward to are reduced to bare stems.
Why Punxsutawney? Why do they wear top hats and dress coats? You can read about the Groundhog Day tradition and about Punxsutawney on the “official website of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club” http://www.groundhog.org/. You can read more about the traditions of this day and this time of year through links on Wikipedia.
And with that, I hope it’s another year before I have to type the name Punxsutawney again.
All images and text used in this article are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.
It’s my annual paean to gardening and the cycles of life. While it may not seem to have much to do with cats and animal welfare, my garden, my backyard, my love of the seasons and enjoyment of all the creatures who live in my yard, even the slugs and groundhogs, is all rolled into one big idea. And for as long as I’ve been gardening, there has always been at least one cat who shared my work, and their spirits are as much a part of my garden as the living things.
Every year in the month of March I awaken one morning with the knowledge it’s time to plant the peas, another step in the flow of the seasons. Though I have plants growing indoors, this is truly the beginning of the gardening season for me. Whether it’s the sun, moon, weather, schedule or simple urge to get out there and get my hands dirty I don’t know, but I enjoy the simple manual labor without assistance from any electronic device, ears open to the birds, face feeling the breeze, hands and feet feeling the earth.
This photo is obviously not from today, but one of my favorites from pease past.
Temperatures in the mid-60s, bright sunshine, wind, bird song—and all in February! I ran out for a happy two-hour sojourn as far as I could go on the trail and into the woods to see the brilliant swatches of green here and there, the stream rushing along, birds flying crazily overhead and singing in one big chorus.
I took off my shoes and ran through the mud in my bare feet, stepping into the freezing, rushing water of the stream, climbing hills and rock faces and photographing with my camera and my mind’s eye and all my senses the exhilaration of this day, coming back with muddy feet, wild hair filled with leaves and twigs, scratches on my arms and lots of images and inspiration.
It’s a traditional respite from a frozen winter, a “spring thaw”, too early to be permanent but enough to reawaken our senses and begin stirring the life forces in all of nature.
The full moon in February is often called the “Hunger Moon”; though people have managed through the deepest extended cold of winter, their food stores put by at the previous autumn’s harvest may be near gone and a frozen landscape still surrounds with not much nourishment in sight until the first edible greens begin to sprout in March or later in far north regions. People and animals who’d made it this far would often perish if spring was too long in coming.
But beneath the snow plants have been gathering energy, seeds are swelling, roots are spreading, and above the snow the days are growing longer. Just two warm days in January or February are long enough to melt the snowcover and pour it into streams, soften the top layer of loam in the woods and everything that has life will spring to life, even if only temporarily, insects hatching, mosses blooming, ferns sending spores into the wind, living just long enough to reproduce, though the parents themselves may not survive.
These in turn provide a burst of food and fresh water for birds and animals to rejuvenate and energize and prepare for the effort of the months ahead, giving birth and raising their young.
I’ve always found the spring thaw, whenever it comes, to be a magical time, a gift from our compassionate mother in nature, perhaps, the world so full of life and energy that tired souls weary of the struggle of daily existence in a harsh frozen world will be reminded of better days to come. It is a moment outside of normal chronological time that we can find peace in a chapter of hardship, difficulty or sadness.
This day also reminded me of a similar spring thaw five years ago when I knew that my Moses was letting go. I hadn’t lost a cat in quite some time and was frightened at the prospect, though she was calm and accepting. I just happened to be in the woods for a photo assignment the day I realized Moses’ condition, and as the air was full of life around me I decided to take some time in the woods after the assignment.
It was that loving respite from my fear and worry, the life and energy around me, that filled my heart with the understanding and acceptance I needed to help Moses through her last time, and, as it turned out, four others within the next 18 months; it would not end there.
But now all my losses have become one and are no longer losses, not a big chasm of dark sadness but a bright collective of memories of all their lives mingled with mine in the same way I remember the turns of the seasons. Their losses are not separate from me and my life, but their lives are a permanent part of who I am and the cats I live with today as I remember being in the garden with Moses, the day I first saw Stanley with ice crystals collecting on his fur, the way the furniture was arranged when I moved in here and everyone collected on the table by the door when I left in the morning, watching Mimi outside and deciding she should come to live with me.
Their lives are not a part of my past, but of my present; just as the earth holds the memories of all that’s past and turns it into new life, so do I.
We are resilient; even after the harshest treatment has forced us to retreat and protect ourselves, we are ready again for the fullness of life when encouraging conditions return.
I wrote the first six verses of this poem sitting on a moss and lichen-covered rock in the woods that day I realized my life was about to change with Moses’ imminent transition, then the last verse during her last few days.
Dedicated to the most gentle, loving being I have ever encountered.
Things I Found in the Woods
Tiny rivulets of water released from thawing soil
flowing beneath last year’s debris, trickling and gurgling all around
hurrying down hillsides before the freeze returns.
A cup-shaped fungus holding a tablespoon of snowmelt
for a song sparrow to sip, practicing its vernal melody
for the time when spring arrives in earnest.
Ferns, newly-green, draped on cliffs,
fluttering like garlands in the mild, caressing breeze
gathering a little nourishment to last the rest of the winter.
Fallen trees blanketed with bright green moss,
thick and lush already in the brief January thaw
filling a span of life in but a few days.
Four young white-tailed deer, capricious as the gusts,
feeling the flush of their first spring as adults
cavorting as if winter might not return tomorrow.
An understanding that life and love are cycles,
and that the moment must be taken for what it offers
even if what it offers is not what we expect.
A fraction of your dignity,
and the desire to walk with you to the end of the path
as you transition from this beautiful world into the next.
I had never before experienced the spring thaw in such wonderment at the transience of life—still winter but everything that lived was taking advantage of the moment.
So was Moses. So should I.
So I resolved just to let her follow her course and she would let me know what to do.
I have kept this lesson in my heart with each of the older kitties I’ve loved since. I don’t care what’s coming for us. I love them right now, this moment.
Ten years ago I lived with a largely different group of nine cats, only Cookie and Kelly still with me from those days. Ten years from now the group will be similarly changed. But each of them from before this time and the years to come is forever a part of my life.