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.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

It's time for me to go

During my three years of writing this Web log, I've dug a lot of holes, planted and pruned, blogged a lot of stories in Connecticut and Georgia. The experience has taught me more about how I garden and why I garden than I could have known when I filed my first post (on mosses) in 2011.

Much of that teaching has come from comments by other bloggers and gardeners, along with readers who do not blog. Or garden. I read each one, feeling the kinship, support and connections born in cyberspace, shared in the heart.

Thank you.

Too, I've learned a lot from the act of writing, which keenly focuses one on the subjects we write about – a truth made clear over and over in my decades as a journalist.

Now, it's time for me to stop blogging and go on gardening in the spaces I'm building here in Marietta, Georgia. Time to go to the kitchen and practice more sourdough. Do more reading; I'm tired of the steely stares from all those books I've gathered, stacked, cracked open but not read.

No, I do not expect to gain time; it goes too fast and ever faster no matter how we use it. I am simply rearranging it, hoping the way I'll spend it will be as satisfying as the last three years have been.


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.

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.