Writings about

the many life lessons

unearthed when we dig

in the dirt . . . and pursue

a range of other interests

in the constantly evolving

garden of life.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Back in Georgia, and fighting squirrels again

What goes around comes around.

I used to rail against squirrels when I wrote about them in my Atlanta newspaper gardening column, calling them names like buck-toothed bandits because they had a knack for swiping tomatoes juuust before I could pick them, unearthing new plants as soon as I turned my back.

The name I most often used to describe these destructive rodents was the one a sympathetic, empathetic reader used when he sent me this drawing: "Bushy Tailed Rat."

While I had no serious interest in shooting squirrels, I certainly got some vicarious pleasure from the deadly details in the drawing.

Since those days in the 1990s, I've moved to Connecticut – and now back to Georgia.

While in the Nutmeg State, aka Land of Steady Habits, I mellowed out, welcoming squirrels as part of the natural order of things. Easier to do, as there were plenty of woods – and a lot more plants to "share" than I grew in my small in-town Atlanta garden.

Well, now that I'm back in Georgia (Marietta this time), I'm trying to stay positive, trying to accept squirrels as – if not friends – at least un-enemies.

That was on my mind when my camera froze this moment: the glass door creating a rainbow on the squirrel's mouth.

What does it mean?

Could it symbolize a pot of peace at the end of my journey from Georgia to New England, and back again? Peace with the rats?

Well, you know it ain't easy; Georgia rodents have not changed during my 12-years away. As they did in the '90s at my home in Atlanta's West End neighborhood, here on my Marietta cul, squirrels enjoy a very long season of activity and still hang out in a huge oak next door, tossing down acorns that sprout little oaks, adding to my weeding chores. They still try mightily to upend new baby plants, scatter pine straw.

So, no question, I still have a mighty long row to hoe before I feel universal peace and love. Illustration: Recently, I was watering with the hosepipe and saw a young squirrel happily devouring the red fruit from a tall dogwood in my garden – then throwing down its seedy leftovers.

Instead of finding that a lovely, natural, harmless activity, I adjusted my hose nozzle to full and fire-hosed the rodent, which jumped around in the tree as if its pants were on fire, finally escaping and running away, soaked, chased by my laughter.

Such sweet satisfaction delivered a message more powerful than the rainbow: I'm home again, where a squirrel is still just a bushy-tailed rat.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Stumpery to rehabilitate my bad-acting loblolly

The loblolly pine has a split personality.

Tall, straight, scaly as an alligator, provider of lumber and turpentine, doubtless inspiration for Ray Charles' Georgia on My Mind, it is Southern to the bone, a popular subject for talented artists galore. On a far lower artistic scale, I went outside before sunrise last February just to try capturing an image of moonlight shining through loblollies behind my house.

Then, there's another side of loblolly, one that threw down a big limb, destroying an existing shed, (click here) soon after Lyn and I moved into our Marietta, Georgia, home last year.

Though I did not know it then, death was on this tree. Perhaps lightning had struck, severing the big limb, then traveling down to kill roots, as some knowledgeable loblolly watchers speculated.

For months, I saw it not produce needles, stood under it looking up, knowing it was a dead tree standing and could take years to fall or be a widow-maker in a heartbeat.

Recently, I did myself a favor, hiring a team of tree-cutters to come in and take down the tree. Seeing the final cut was watching a massive weight, physical and psychological, removed from the airspace over this land.

This was not only removal of a threat; this was an opportunity. That 5-foot piece of trunk left standing would be the first element of a stumpery. The crew boss used a small chainsaw to hollow out a foot-deep planting hole, which now is home to a spider azalea. The blocks of pine chips make a handy deterrent to the marauding squirrels that just love tearing out new plantings.

The tree cutting and stumpery signify the beginning of my reclamation of the back section of my acre of gardening space.

During the year since I ripped out all plants left by the previous owners, I have put my stamp on the front. But out back, I have planted less, annnd, the space is larger than the front, able to absorb endless numbers of plants; I've put in native shrubs, woodland plants, ferns, other perennials. Too, I have added ornaments, including found objects, metal sculptures and such, but there is much to be done, weeds to clear, space that wants gardening.

After taking a break from intense garden-building, I'm back to the back, hoping for an early autumn and laying in as many plants as I can stuff into the rocky, root-bound ground – plus a few more of course. Always more.

Churchill is what I named the heavyset leader (more than 100 inches around the middle) of the becoming-stumpery. And to symbolize support for that war-time British prime minister, I will gather the smaller stumps around, creating a kind of garden architecture, aka members of parliament. The first two already have taken their places, as seen from Churchill's point of view.

Stumps of various sizes will stand upright. Some will loll on their sides. All will become part of the environment.

And, good news: I won't have to pay to have them hauled off. Nor will I have to pay for the great exercise I'm getting from pushing around all this heavy wood.

The stumps, along with chunks of bark and wood and robust cones all will add texture and appeal to birds and other wildlife. To welcome them all, I'll hollow out other stumps and plant them with ferns and small natives, counting on nature to provide mosses, toadstools, lichen and other fungi I like.

Eventually, as all grows and decays into place, this collection of plants and pieces of wood that began with one giant loblolly will be a stumpery covering a significant portion of the back area.

As I turn attention to the back, I can never forget or ignore the other loblollies that dominate my property. Seven still loom, throwing down branches at will, like chunks of stone flaking off a threatening mountainslide.

Though I know the dangerous side of loblollies' split personality, I also know I must do everything I can to keep the remaining trees alive as long as possible. So, I periodically cut back the huge ivy stems – English and some I've never seen – that climb the pines and try to choke them to death. (No, I did not, and never would, plant ivy.)

Even in death the drying, rotting, stems cling, roadmaps showing where they've been.

Last year, a man stopped in front of our house on the cul, rolled down his SUV window and pointed toward the back, gesturing animatedly to his passenger. When I went to greet him, he explained that he had planted all the pines, collecting seedlings from the roadside during car trips when he was a boy in the 1950s.

He was so delighted to see his baby plantings now grown into giants that I didn't even consider whining about how much grief one of his darlings had caused me. After all, when he planted those trees, he was a child.

Now a man, I'm certain he knows that loblolly's split personality mirrors the personality of those of us who live with this tree.

Like many, I'd love to hate it, but I can't.

As some folks preemptively put the saw to healthy loblollies, many of us take our chances with these ticking time bombs, grateful for the trees' beautiful inspiration and marveling at their powerful presence.

Monday, May 12, 2014

A garden, through the camera lens

Photographing a garden in full is difficult; no, impossible. There's no way a camera can depict most, let alone all, of a garden's features – no matter how small the space.

When I made that observation to a magazine editor as he was scouting my former garden in Connecticut before a shoot (Here's my effort from 2010), he smiled and said: "No worries, we'll bring the magic camera."

I've never had a magic camera, but from time to time I try to shoot the whole, hoping to give a sense of change and progress during the 11 months since I cleared the canvas for my new space here in Marietta, Georgia. This is what it looked like during and after the tear-out:

Fast forwarding 11 months, I shot the whole on a recent morning:

While change is evident, I cannot convey what the eye sees during a walkabout and some looks at various "rooms" in this becoming front garden. In the following images I try to do that – starting with the view from the porch.

Gravel path in earlier photo, dumping into "pond"/scree.

Walking toward the porch, looking left . . .

And, looking right . . .
. . . where the bonsai rack stands.
Looking at the house from the street, the driveway divides my garden into two spaces: the left side, in the images above. And the right side, which I call the wildflower/native plant/prairie space. Or, simply, the wild side.

Some of this space belongs to the next-door neighbors, as is typical in the cul. Gardening in a cul de sac often means gardening without boundaries.

Like the rest of my front, this space was torn out as much as possible. On the wild side, however, I've been challenged by virtually indestructible turf grass. I have dug through it to plant, I have dug out chunks of the turf, and I have poured vinegar and placed cardboard on some parts. Anything to avoid growing grass and wasting water and fuel maintaining it. Not to mention the noise.

Grasses, however, I love. I've bought a few, and some wild ones have appeared on their own. Here, they all grow together, along with flowers, clover and "weeds," which are simply plants one doesn't want.

Purple coneflower working hard in broiling sun.

Evocative broom sedge came in from the roadside.

Weeds and wild grasses came in from wherever.

The sweet smell of this clover tells why bees love to use it for honey-making.

In time I'll surround the bench with wild things. As the space was just beginning last year, it was clear that it appealed to birds, butterflies and bees. After a long hard winter, the birds are back and singing. Butterflies and bees should start returning any day now, and I'll be waiting – and working – for them.

(While I've planted hard in spaces in front of the house, I've also steadily added to spaces out back, where I grow woodland and old-garden plants. Someday soon, I'll try to capture the progress in images.)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A rose thrives, despite my efforts

Some plants just won't die. The Rose, which I wrote about here,
is one of those. It performed so elegantly last year, I wanted to put it in spot better than next to the mailbox.

It's back and bigger than ever.

So, late last winter I pruned its canes, then in early spring I set out to relocate it, going at with a shovel and a pick. But it held on, making it clear that the only way to move it was to cut away most of its roots. Not wanting to do that, I simply ignored the plant. As I had done last year.

As it did last year, the rose survived, and bloomed, as these images show. In fact, this year it produced more buds than last year, when it got whacked accidentally by my string cutter; it is like many of us, made stronger in the broken places – often with no help from anyone.

I plead guilty to doing nothing for this determined survivor (pest-ridden leaves verify that), and I admit to enjoying it. Call it the rose that thrives amid my ambivalence.

When I cut the last bud and gave it to Lyn, she said, "We love that rose, and I'm glad you didn't dig it up."

Not because I didn't try. If I had succeeded in digging it up, the stress might have killed it – along with our pleasure. Sometimes a failure beats a try.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Whole lotta building going on in birdland

After I was given the bluebird house in March (click here) it quickly became clear that Carolina chickadees would be the tenants. Not bluebirds. It also is clear that those chickadees are among the hardest-working creatures in birdland.

I went out to the front garden and opened both the plexiglass viewing window on the side and the front door, hoping the husband and wife were not home. They weren't.

Through the plexiglass:

I had seen the two birds carrying these twigs through their little oval entrance, but I never would have believed they had carried this many. And that they had placed them j-u-u-u-st so.

Opening the pull-down front door, I learned the birds and I have something in common: We both love mosses. They borrowed from my stash and neatly tucked it into their castle.

The moss clearly was in first, apparently making a cushion for the twigs. All manner of other materials are woven through the nest, including leaves, pine needles and fur. Don't ask.

Whether the birds have finished building, I don't know. When they'll have little chickadees, I don't know either. I look, I listen, and I hope they survive Cat Bette, who seems disinterested in the birds – and afraid of my threats.

Alas, she does have a history. Click here for her rap sheet from my Connecticut garden.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tale of two plants, two states, two surprises

Once upon a time, a Christmas tree was just that, a tree that served through the winter holidays, then was tossed aside for the birds to nest, the machine to grind, the weather to rot.

Then, years ago, we began buying live trees, which I plant early in the new year. So it was in early January, when I hauled the 4-foot laurel out to the front garden, hacked out a hole in the frozen ground and shoved it in. Because it had been inside for a couple of weeks and was put out like a housebound cat on a sleeting day followed by brutally cold temperatures, I half-thought the shrub wouldn't survive. So did neighbors in the cul, judging from the skeptical looks as I planted.

But it did. Then, a few weeks ago it produced perfumed white blooms that lit up the garden and extended the season of sweet surprises.

The 'Otto Luyken' laurel, seemingly without effort, performed from bud to flower to fading blooms as if it had been planted in this earth for years. Of course, it is said to be hardy all the way to Zone 4, but I don't think it expects anyone to plant it in the frozen ground in the middle of a hard winter.

The final image in this sequence, taken today, shows that even to the end of its bloom cycle, the laurel was in a decorative frame of mind.

As the laurel fades to seed, another surprising survivor takes its place: a no-name lilac that moved from Connecticut, where it grew for a half dozen years in a hunk of volcano rock. I suspected it would survive the winter, but I had no idea whether it would bloom.

When I lived in Georgia before, I couldn't pay a lilac to bloom. Not enough cold for them, apparently. Well, this winter was plenty cold, so that may have been just what this rock-bound lilac needed.

It peaked today. I bowed and inhaled deeply, getting another surprise. It was the sweetest lilac I can ever remember. I swear it didn't smell as strong in Connecticut.

After all the years of lilac envy I suffered while living in Georgia back in the 1990s, this surprising success was as tasty as a big bowl of homemade ice cream on a hot day in July.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Stone on the move, in search of a sweet spot

This time, I really do believe I've found what I've been looking for. I came up with this combination of stones after a long and winding road through other designs that just didn't have what I wanted.

Many is the time I've said my plants should be on wheels because I move them around so much. Now, I have to say the same about stones.

By my front door, where water pools every time it rains – and lately it has rained a lot here in Georgia – I think about what design would be most practical, and ornamental at the same time. Among my efforts, there was the chunk of quartz from the North Georgia mountains, in Cherokee country.

The top of this quartz appears just under the rain chain in the image below of one of my earlier designs near the front door.

On the move again, the quartz wound up on the other side of the walkway, next to the turtle of stones that I brought from my Connecticut garden. (The turtle moved from the back garden to the front a while ago.) Like Zelig in the movie, that quartz usually has been in a scene by the door, fitting in with whatever stones are present.

I do get a lot of exercise, moving stones here and there – searching for a better place, a better look. Once in a while, I get what I want on the first try. Like this stone in the middle of radiating bricks. I reassembled these pieces after displaying them in Connecticut.

While it took longer to settle on the stones by the front door, I figured I had it right when I saw those river pebbles during their first rain in their new arrangement, glistening darkly as they rested atop the lighter-colored pea gravel, a happy little clump of moss growing near the rain chain.

Dry, wet, it was all good; design done. I'll never say never, but undoing that design is as close to never as I've ever been.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Birds, winterspring and my eye: some updates

Writings often go down roads that stop without finishing: We tell stories that continue to develop, but we don't return to continue the telling. Here, I catch up on some of those writings. 

When I wrote about this bluebird house  built by my friend Sky, the first visitor was not a bluebird, but a Carolina chickadee. Well, it seems the chickadees have moved in; I haven't seen a bluebird lately. But I'm OK with that; I've learned that the chickadees are beautiful, fine singers and nest-builders:

Weather stories continue. Spring is here, but winter's bones linger on. Down here in Marietta, Georgia,  freezing is in tonight's forecast. We humans are used to the surprises by now. As the UPS man said today as he delivered another box of plants I'd ordered: "If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute; it'll change." We both laughed, sharing a joke that people tell just about every place I've lived. Including Ohio, Connecticut, Kansas. And Georgia.

For the plants it's been no joke. Sometimes weeks go by in spring before damaged plants give up the ghost, and I give up hope. All things considered, including the killer winter in a new garden, I've done OK. And while my recent images show a beautiful spring, I'm losing enough to mention:

Here are two images of a camellia – the plant in the ground in my Connecticut garden two years ago and the same plant after a freeze hit it here in Georgia. Yes, I should have brought it inside. Believe me, I will protect it tonight, trying to save what's left of it.

Final update. In November I wrote about my eye surgery. Here and again here. After I realized the surgery had failed to improve my eyesight (in fact the operation left my eye with a scratchy feeling), I consulted a different eye specialist to get a neutral opinion on the current condition of my eyes – to help me decide whether it made sense to try the surgery again.

I came away knowing it did not make sense. My good left eye has good vision – 20/25 – and my bad eye will adjust and help as time goes by. I can live with the scratchy feeling, which is eased temporarily by eye drops.

Meanwhile, I'm feeling good about gardening, so good it might as well be spring. With one more last hit of winter tonight. As the cold wind blows and the temperature falls, I'm going out now to see what's what.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Warily, heart above head, go I into April

Walking out the front door on April's eve, taking in the warm-at-last air, I look left and am greeted by flowering trees that, in various colors, light up each springtime in Georgia – dogwood and cherry. Mine are a white dogwood and two cherries, one pink, one white – all just on the verge of flowering fully. All three grow in the area I'm turning into a meadow.

It is difficult to believe this really is spring, though it clearly is April; the calendar says so. But this is the year of false starts, of promises given, then snatched away, of weather-guessers who uncharacteristically did their did their jobs too well, reliably predicting bad news and delivering it.

What would Edna St. Vincent Millay say to a spring like this? To an April that barely skidded in on temperatures above freezing in Georgia. Not to mention the winter-like conditions north of here. She'd of course say what she said in one of my favorite poems:

To be sure, the unpredictable weather, the dire warnings about worldwide climate change, make me cynical about April's arrival, knowing it may not long remain as beautifully benign as its flowery entrance. Still, we only have one day at a time. And on this day, though I am wary, I cannot help loving what I see and feel. Renewal. Energy. Anticipation. Hope.

Any day now, the leaves on these Japanese maples will be fully open . . .

. . . and Cat Bo will have bountiful red leaves to dress him up. (Click here to read his profile.)

In these early days of April, many of us, especially those of us who dig in dirt, have a willing suspension of disbelief – as Millay must have had, even as she noted the fallacy of falling for the hype. How could any of us resist the almost-open panicles of a purple wisteria?

Or a daphne that was planted in fall, then survived a winter of winters and came back blooming.

No one I know even tries to resist. The fragrances of daphne and wisteria intoxicate, as do so many other plants growing from the sun-warmed earth. We are drunk on April. As was Millay. We're all sailing along willingly if warily, wanting just one more round. Go ahead, April. Hit me again.