Writings about

the many life lessons

unearthed when we dig

in the dirt . . . and pursue

a wide range of other interests

in the constantly changing

garden of life.

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.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Surprises spring from the cold, cold ground

When I hired the Bobcat man to rip out foundation plants back in June, I could not have known how many unseen plants previous owners had left behind; bulbs don't talk. At least not until this time of year.

Even in this cold, cold spring, bulbs burst through soil, twisting and shouting, happy, oblivious. It might as well be warm.

Likes and dislikes separate gardeners everywhere; plants one person grows are never guaranteed to please the next steward of a garden. Last May, I left my acre of gardens in East Haddam, Connecticut, after 12 years of building the spaces. I knew some of my carefully planted, tended and loved trees, shrubs, bulbs, perennials and mosses might pass new owners' muster and some might get ripped out. Maybe the whole garden.

No matter; I had sold it all. As I had done previously in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and McCaysville, Georgia. Leaving those gardens meant leaving my emotional investment in them – while at the same time holding on to the memories. I've never gone back to a garden I've built and left. At least, not physically.

I thought of all this as I discovered what the previous owners had planted and left here in Marietta, Georgia. First came crocus, near the driveway, with slivered leaves, blooms purple or gold, some buried up to their heads in oak leaves and pine straw.

Crocus, leading parade of early spring flowers.

Daffodils came next, popping up in the front garden, first on the sunnier side, then later on the side less sunny. Like crocus, daffodils came not in great swaths, but in random little patches of two, three, two, four, the way nature might distribute them.

Pale lemony-to-white, these trumpeters of spring put on happy faces while all about them may be dreary, unpromising.

Knowing these flowers would bring at least as much cheer to the indoors as they do whenever I walk past them outside, I cut a few and placed them in single flower displays, for the eye as well as
for the nose. This one, in a stone kenzan, sits on a round black leather ottoman in the media center.


As the weather moves slowly, steadily toward feeling like spring, warmth that cannot be denied pulls up more remnants of owners past. On the side of the house, near the door to my writing room, several white-blooming pieris seemingly suddenly burst into white necklaces.

Seeing them bloom made me glad I had the good sense to let the shrubs be. And seeing more leaves pushing up around them made me doubly glad. Tulips? What kind? What color? Not tulips?

They're a mystery. And like the daffodils, they are a surprise. And a thing of beauty.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Humans and birds in annual seasonal search

The calendar says spring, and as always, this season stimulates the housing market. Like people, birds are on the hunt. To help us help the birds, longtime friends Sky and Di (Schuyler and Diana Rector) joined Lyn and me for lunch, bringing a brand new house that Sky made for bluebirds.

After making some 50 houses during the past 15 years in the Peterson style favored by bluebirds and watchers alike, Sky's dwellings have become professional grade. A stockbroker for 30 years, he retired in 1995 and now embraces bird-watching with a passion; one of the three houses on his property is a gift from his children and has a camera that allows watching from a monitor in the kitchen. "They're so fascinating to me," he says of bluebirds. "I just love them."

As do many of us who appreciate birds for their connecting us to the natural world, their beautiful looks, along with the movement they bring to the garden – flitting, zipping, swooping and diving. And singing through it all.

Before lunch, Sky got busy, installing the pole, mounting the coated-pine house and giving a tour inside and outside, including the peep hole with a sturdy hinged door.

A welcoming entry, just the right size and shape.

Good-sized side opening allows watching up close – through plexiglass. 
Obviously we weren't the only ones impressed by Sky's new house. It was on the market only a few days when the first looker wanted to see the inside. Thing was, this was not a bluebird. In sailed the early prospect, not bothered at all by the man installing doors at our home as he went back and forth, his plastic sheets and materials laying on the ground just  few feet away from the bird house.

I popped an e to Sky, reporting the non-bluebird. I could just hear Sky chuckling as he answered: "Congratulations! You are the proud birdfather of a Carolina Chickadee!" He added that he has two at his place and that he's heard stories about their flying up to people and eating out of their hands.

That could happen, but not at this bird house, I think. A short while after the chickadee left, in came a pair of bluebirds. Traditionally, the male finds a prospective home, and the female decides whether it's suitable.

Says Sky: "Ive seen males start building to attract females," but after they move in, he lets her do the rest of the building. The pair played out the house hunt by that script, with the male showing up, followed by the wife a couple of minutes later:

"Hon, it's great. Come look while I take your place on that Japanese maple."
"It's nice. Brand new. But I'm telling you, if you think I'm doing all the work again, you got another think coming."
Who knows what will happen next. I've seen the bluebird couple both morning and afternoon, but I haven't seen them gathering pinestraw or other nesting material. Still, the season is young; they may be moving in as the season does.

As do my first hesitant, winter-wearied but unbowed cherry blossoms on my my first spring day in Marietta, Georgia.

If you're interested in bluebirds, the Website sialis.org is chockful of useful information.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ohhh, finally, can this really be the end?

It's got to end sometime – winter I mean. Could this be its last gasp? Weather guessers are predicting below-freezing temperatures tonight and tomorrow night here in Marietta, Georgia. Right now, that chilly front is blowing in on northwest winds gusting at around 30 miles per hour. Last winter freeze? It's got to end sometime. Doesn't it.

I don't know for sure whether this winter is as long and horrible as it seems; the problem may be that I expect a Georgia winter to be shorter and warmer.

I expect March to be high gardening time.

My memory is that when I lived here two other times, I was out there digging and planting and basking in March warmth without having to look over my shoulder for another blast of winter.

Whether it's historically normal, or the new normal, it's still winter now.

As it hangs on, I stalk the indoor garden and get transported to  winterless climes where flowers light up spaces with hot color and warm perfume. My plant numbers rise as the temperatures fall.

Walk with me for a minute or a few.

Above, clivia's cheery blooms mix with bromeliad's tropical air.

This African violet, in bloom for weeks, brightens the longest winter.

Strong and sweet, oncidium orchid's fragrance bounces off walls.

Another orchid, this one terrestrial, spent most of the winter forming its tall bloom stalk and opening flowers. The show is worth the wait. I really do believe it had fragrance one year, but not this year. Either I'm mis-remembering, or this winter is worse than I thought.

Which ever, one thing's certain: It's been a long one. These houseplants and many others helped get me through.

One more – a bird of paradise:

If the freezes and howling winds are still around when this budless beauty flowers, my fears will be realized: Winter will never end.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Live long enough, and you'll miss something

You know you're getting old when you lament the news that RadioShack is hemorrhaging money and customers, planning to close 1100 stores, and threatening to die.

While the once-iconic electronics chain is still breathing, I need a moment to shower in nostalgia. It is not just for The Shack, but for all the beloved that fall from favor if one lives long enough ~ music and movies for grownups, romanticism, dressing for special dinners, language (Is everything seriously awesome?).

What's good and valued is in the heart of the beholder. We know what we like, and we mourn its passing.

Amid the rise of other chains like Best Buy and Staples, along with the ubiquity of cell phone sellers, RadioShack may already be dead to many people, but its name lives in my mind.

Going way back to the 1960s, when I was a boy soldier in West Germany (way back when there were East and West), I was a radio operator sending and receiving Morse code in a little building known in Army language as the radio shack.

Forwarding fast to the 1980s, I was a Los Angeles Times correspondent based in Washington, D.C., and traveling in America and other countries to write stories and file them to the mother ship in Los Angeles via one of the early laptop computers sold by RadioShack: the TRS-80 Model 200, known fondly among journalists as the Trash 80. It could run on AA batteries or electricity. It  transmitted stories via an internal modem and was light enough to carry in my shoulder bag.

I've always loved technology, and during those early computing days, I could fix it. When I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, covering the long trial of fallen preacher Jim Bakker, I needed to add more memory to the Trash 80. So I had a part overnighted to my hotel room, where I scrubbed in and covered my hair to keep any particles out of the machine, opened it up, inserted the part and closed the case. Job done.

Today I wouldn't have a clue how to mess with the innards of my Mac laptop. Same goes for my iPhone and my Samsung Chromebook. I have lost the accessibility and intimacy and wonder that I had with my technology those decades ago. In exchange I have gained near-infallibility. Gadgets ~ efficient and reliable ~ are much like gas stoves, hot water tanks and other household appliances.

The decline of RadioShack reminds me of all that. Maybe I'm not the only one who misses the wonder of early technology. That could explain the new cell phones and radios inside old cases and other retro designs that provide the best of both worlds ~ new technology and the old feel of intimacy, accessibility.

I still have my TRS-80 Model 200, pictured on this page. I haul it out of a drawer from time to time just . . . well, just because. And RadioShack is still around too. But I miss it already.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A mighty fine day for a gift of moss

In the middle of moss season, on days like this – cool and misty – the little green plants practically dance, leap and swell right before your eyes. I know this from years of moss love, and saw it most recently when friend Paul Allen arrived with a load of moss from his property in a nearby town.

"This is for you," he said simply, knowing this gift was far bigger than the few words might indicate.

Paul, who describes himself as a handy man, is in fact a talented artist who did more to help get our home niced up ~ painted, repaired, electrified, restored ~ than any other craftsman. He has stood and labored with Lyn and me since last May when we began our journey into another home in Marietta, Georgia.

Retired as a supervisor after 40 years at Lockheed Martin, the aerospace and defense company, Paul also is a fixer, as in fixing us up with other skilled people and helping us navigate local bureaucracies and building-supply sources.

Too, he's paid attention to my love of mosses and my efforts to attract them to my current garden (click here). He saw me killing grass and encouraging the bryophytes by spreading aluminum sulfate and sulfur, then covering the ground with newspapers, cardboard and pine straw.


On this fine and sunless day, perfect for mosses, I took Paul's gift box and quickly got busy ~ indoors and out.

Moss on potted plants adds appeal and retains moisture.

I took the rest of the Paul moss outside, where my efforts to attract mosses have begun working, as the images below show. Once mosses feel welcome, they will come to earth, stone and tree stumps alike.

Remaining moss went here and there, resembling little pines close-up.

Whether seen from near or far, the 12,000 known varieties of mosses are uniquely beautiful, softly luxurious to the touch, growing a fragrance that mixes earth, sea and grass.

Seemingly small, these plants loom large in my garden and in my mind; one small box of them can grow and spread mightily, leading to a garden full of enchantment.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Spring is here, spring is here. Maybe.

Birds know. At least they think they do. This week as temperatures rose into the 60s, so did the level of birdsong. At dawn the other day, the tunes and the chatter escalated dramatically, more notable than in weeks. Truth be told, this day truly was worth singing about: dramatic, evocative; this image bears witness.

Standing among my pines out back, looking at the moon, and the sky rising blue, I couldn't help recalling the Ray Charles song, Georgia on My Mind,  couldn't help hearing him sing about his native state:

. . . Georgia, Georgia
A song for you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines

Song birds were singing,  my hawk was screeching, circling, rushing among the trees in my garden and elsewhere around the neighborhood.  This same hawk that spends a lot of time in my garden, including an occasional visit to the fence and surprising, becoming a hawk on a wire.

With all the commotion, the break in the weather, I couldn't wait to see what the birds had felt. As they'd indicated, spring was not only in the air but in the ground, too. Virtually overnight, leaves and buds had pushed up and out.

Up and popping, chrysanthemum leaves wait for the cutback and cleanup.

Lenten rose, maybe cold-delayed, leaps from ground,  sporting flowers and winter-worn leaves.

The beautiful witch hazel blooms crawled out of branches during this warm-up after the storm, but surprising, they brought no fragrance with them. That was disappointing, given the cheerful enthusiasm with which the birds have been hailing spring's arrival.

When Cindy the mail lady stopped today, we talked about the birds' enthusiastic singing of spring songs, their certainty that winter is done with us. After all, this is Georgia, not New England.

But we both knew all bets are off these days and that birds may not know anything. Said Cindy: "They just have cabin fever."

As do the rest of us. To be sure, we're all birds now, singing and hoping, scratching through fallen leaves, looking for signs but watching our backs.