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.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

So, Why Not Just Let Nature Do the Garden?

Every year, as the seasons go from young and fresh spring to red-hot plump summer, then finally to lean and brittle winter, I see two gardens: the one I plant and tend – and the larger garden of nature's wild trees, shrubs, plants that surround my cultivated space.
Before I Dug My First Hole in East Haddam

So, why do I, and millions like me, feel the need to garden in places like my rural piece of Connecticut?

The question arises any time I look at borrowed scenery bordering my acre of gardens, any time I take a walk into the woods, seeing close-up what grows there – the ferns, wildflowers, pines, oaks, beech. Isn’t nature’s garden enough?

Friends of mine and I agree that we garden because we share a basic need, a desire, to mark the land. To put our stamp on it. To be sure, we could do nothing but enjoy what nature gives us, and our land would be marked, as nature marched right up to our homes. But, that passivity would be disconcerting. It also would lead to a loss of control, as nature would literally cover us up.

So, we mark the land.

Over and over again, I've seen them in places throughout the world: plantings around dwellings surrounded by incomparable scenery. (Even when fires or storms destroy homes, you can still tell someone years earlier  marked the land with plants such as ivy and verbena, two I’ve noticed around many ruins grown over in the woods.)
By 2010, I Had Marked the Land
In the highlands of Puerto Rico, where stunning views of sea and valleys and mountains take your breath away, where the most lush vegetation and
colorful flowers thrive on their own, gardens still grow around houses everywhere.

On the Isle of Wight, I learned that most residents could not resist planting – hydrangeas were particularly popular, with vibrant fall leaf color – even though the woods and water could thrill forever. On Cape Ann, Massachusetts, too, and in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where natural beauty awes and inspires, where coastal waters and arid delights proliferate like sea grasses and sagebrush, people must put their own stuff in the ground. We all want our stamp on it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Private Little Cherry Blossom Festival

Well, the Cherry Blossom Festival in the nation's capital went on without me this year, but the one in my garden is just starting. In fact, thanks to my twice-blooming Yoshino cherry, I get one mini-festival in the spring and another in the fall.

By no means is my cherry fest even close to what I've seen around the Tidal Basin in Washington, of course. But, one fine tree can delight like a forest. Certainly, my single cherry gives me a forest full of pleasure.

The swelling pink buds that look as tasty as gumdrops start the show, tightly attached to branches' dark bark. As buds open, branches add glow, little pink-white beacons on a foggy morning, brighter lights on sunny days. I don't know, but I choose to believe they open one by one, imperceptibly. So, they open. And, light. Sometimes, a branch seems to light up in a day. At other times, it takes forever for a branch to go from buds to blossoms.

When all buds open, they hang there, perfect for a time, never a time certain, always depending on rain, heat, cold, wind, sun. However long their perfection lasts, it satisfies, marking the progression of spring or fall. And, in some ways, marking the cycle of life itself.

When blossoms have spent all their time at the show, they leave as they came, one by one. Drifting down, they weave a carpet pink and white – the rest of the little festival, the show on the ground. This part seems barely there before big winds, hard rains, natural decay, all get together and disappear fallen blossoms. At the same time, leaves appear on the once glowing branches. The festival ends.

But, that's later. Today, I'm enjoying the beginning.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Stone Strengthens Garden Mightily

Nothing else is like a rock.

Without moving, it exudes strength, mystery, independence, energy. And beauty. I've never met a rock I didn't want to take home. In woods, on beaches, in the middle of streams, stones of all shapes, colors and sizes assert themselves,
winding up in my traveling bags, car trunk, pockets – on their way to
my mantels, tables, floors and garden. Perfect souvenirs. Those are the
free ones. Too, I've bought a few, from 2-ton field stones down to
6-inch-diameter pyrite suns that once lay hundreds of feet deep, in the
coal mines of Southern Illinois.

Then there's the Shona sculpture from Zimbabwe, a face carved loosely
out of serpentine. Part of what attracted me to this piece was what the
artist said about rocks, something similar to what people practicing the
Shinto religion in Japan say: Everything on earth, animate or inanimate,
has a spirit.

If that is true, my part of Connecticut is flowing over with spirits. When I plant a tree or shrub, I can dig a 5-gallon hole and get 3 gallons of stones. Nirvana.

And, because the boulders grow so plentifully, people are trying to get rid of them. Which works for me; when I began building my acre of ornamental gardens in 2001, I was offered as much stone as I wanted by a man who was expanding his horse stables in nearby Deep River, Connecticut. I wound up with 10 dump trucks of stone that would have been hard to come by in many places.

Places like  Atlanta, where I gardened for 12 years, and where I occasionally had to buy stone and have it hauled in on a flatbed truck. When my Connecticut rock donor told a friend visiting from Atlanta how much stone he had given me, she was incredulous, asking him: "Do you know how much money you could get in Atlanta for that much stone?"

Good thing reclaiming his gifts was not an option. My land would seem naked without all that stone. And, it would feel empty and weaker without all those powerful spirits.

Bringing in the Moss – First, Kill the Grass

Mosses grow along a dividing line. On one side stand people who are indifferent to them – or downright hostile. Across the line, people like me can’t get enough of those lovely plants; we’re trying to keep them happy, so we can keep them growing.

That’s because we know there are few gardening pleasures more keen than what you get from mosses. Soft, firm, beautiful, like ground clouds, mosses invite you to walk barefoot, caress them with your feet and hands, get close enough to inhale their fragrance –  a fresh combination of earth, sea and grass. As a design element, mosses create a lush, clean background for shrubs and trees. Moreover, they can choke out weeds, don’t waste water, don’t appeal to deer and, once established, escape even blue-jays, squirrels and other rodents.
Hair Cap, Which Reminds Me of Little Trees

I’ve enjoyed mosses all my life, mostly in woods. But, over time I knew the woods were not enough; I needed to make them a large part of my garden. Like so many pleasures cultivated in life, this one would require work.

Oh, what long, hard, sometimes strange, satisfying work it has been.

Moving to Connecticut from Georgia in 2001, I got something I’d always wanted: a blank canvas, 2 acres growing nothing I wanted to keep. Gardening on half the property was my plan, and I knew what I had to do:

First, kill the grass.

Precious Moments Captured in Light

One day as I was roaming my indoor garden in search of orchid blooms and gardenia buds, I noticed the small crystal bowl I had put in the kitchen window was doing its job better than I ever would have imagined. I had put it on the windowsill to catch the light. Did it ever.

A Technicolor image, a rainbow, was projected onto the kitchen wall. It was mesmerizing, so mesmerizing that I followed it from one spot on the wall to another. Its invisible, persistent movement, reflecting the turning of the planet, reminded me of how life can change before you even know it.

Wanting to preserve this image, I rushed to get the camera and captured the rainbow.

I captured a moment.

And, like so many moments wrapped in light, this one was gone in a heartbeat.

Light has always been one of the more important features I look for in a house. During hunts for homes, I always take along a compass so I know where the light will be coming from and where in the house it’ll go. With this information, I can place high-light plants here, low-light ones there, moving them around as the seasons change. My compass hit pay dirt in this small home that sits in a clearing, surrounded by trees. The house is situated so wall corners correspond to the four main directions on the compass, making it easier to know where the plants must go.

Even without plants, however, light would be a crucial feature in any place I lived. Light makes the ordinary remarkable, as it did a spot on a pine floor at just at the moment the sun was shining through a plant, casting leaf-shadows on the golden brown wood.

For light lovers, sometimes the need for privacy clashes with the desire for light. For my wife Lyn and me, the clash is not a big one. Drawn draperies? Not in our house. Shutters and blinds, yes; they give maximum light and complete closure, too.
When we leave home, I’m always pleased when I get a little touch of home, as was the case at a bed and breakfast in New York, where morning light strung a row of silver beads down the center of  the clothes closet.
As can happen when light works its magic, this surprising image felt like a musical moment, including the lilt of a flute, thunder of an organ, the clash of cymbals. Then, it was gone.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Good Eating: Sardines to Shrimp Pie

On grocery day recently, Lyn asked for my contributions to the shopping list. “Sardines!” I called out. Then, after a moment, I added, “Potted meat.” Increasingly engaged, I remembered, “Skins,” or pork rinds, as some call them. “And, how about some pickled okra and goobers.” Which is what my Alabama ancestors called roasted peanuts.

Well, as you can imagine, this is not a list for someone like my wife, who takes good-looking meals and healthful eating seriously. But, after years of seeing me add my renegade foods to her otherwise well-mannered list, she’s used to it – and responds with little more than a sigh and a slight roll of the eyes.

She knows that I’m simply laying in my supply of home-alone food.

This stash gets me through those times when I’m “batching,” on my own for feeding myself. Occasions when I might be spending long hours in the garden, without Lyn’s expert care and feeding – and when I don’t have the time or energy to dash inside and whip up a gourmet meal from scratch.

In some ways, eating this kind of food is a welcome counterpoint to many years of eating expense count food during my frequent traveling as a newspaper writer. The best that my newspapers could buy was the order of the day. Having dined and wined with movers and shakers around the world, eating home-alone food is much like putting on a t-shirt and loose-fitting pants after doing time in tuxedos. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Round 'Em Up, Put 'Em Out: House Plants

Ready or not, here they go: A bunch of my indoor plants, like hot-house children, will get shown the door.

Despite my repeated threats to let indoor plants be indoors all year, I  again cannot resist putting some outside. Even though I know that, come fall, I’ll curse the forth-and-back moves as I scrub dirt off pots and try to make sure worms and spiders and such don’t hitch rides on the incoming plants.
Clivia Ready to Travel

But, that’s months away. Now, it’s putting as many as two dozen “houseplants” out for spring and summer, including  jasmines, gardenias, clivia, aralia, aloe, sweet olive, boxwood, night-blooming cereus, cast iron plant, some orchids. Then, there are “garden plants” not hardy here that I grow in pots and save by bringing them in for the winter – camellias, agapanthus, tea olive, rosemary, chrysanthemum, geranium, lime.

As a gardening addict, I see little distinction between house and garden plants; I’ll grow, or try to grow, almost any plant anywhere. Which means I play a continuing game of musical plants. In-out-in. Too, there is the substantial physical toll, as I still insist on growing plants in clay containers instead of the back-saving lightweight materials.

 Amazing, how the same containers get heavier every year.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Some Cats Garden. Some Don't

It would be going too far to claim that cats and I have a love-hate relationship; let’s just say it’s complicated. Like anyone who lives with cats, I know they’re playing me, but I let them, because they do it in such intriguing ways.

They don’t twist and shout when they want a door opened; they just look at the doorknob, look back at their servant (me), and then repeat the process. After a few times, I’m trained. Of course, they like going in and out many times in a few minutes, just to reinforce their power. Serve them a food different from one they like, and they just turn and walk away. Lesson learned.

On the other hand, a cat can be as affectionate as a happy human baby. In fact, when they want to be petted, cats, the only animals thought to have domesticated themselves, make meowing sounds closely resembling infant sounds. And, after living with them thousands of years, humans still haven’t figured out how cats purr. To be sure, much about cats remains mysterious, which may explain why they’re not as highly favored as dogs.
Buuud: Late to Gardening, But He Came to Play

We do know how they garden. Often, they just be. And, when cats take ownership of gardens, they lend vibrancy and visual interest to them, flitting, jumping, climbing and sunning and lounging. Then, as a practical matter, cats afford protection from voles and moles (volemoles), along with chipmunks and other invaders. Alas, we pay a price for their protection: They seem to kill as many birds as rodents.

One minute you’re petting a cat, the next, you’re getting rid of a carcass that just appeared on your doorstep. Makes you want to smile. Makes you wanna holler. It’s complicated.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Walking Among the Wounded

Like a medic on nature’s battlefield, I walk through my garden to see what’s what. This annual trek, after the season’s last big snow, and before the leafing, tells me what survived, what was injured, what might be mortally wounded.

When the snow cleared this year, I was happily surprised to find so much unscathed, despite the frequent blow-downs that slammed branches onto the garden. Despite the now visible network of rodent tunnels, a string of excavations evoking a subway system. Many of the surviving plants seemed just like themselves, calling to mind a collection of cryogenically preserved specimens.

I had expected worse from the recently departed winter, so this should have been a celebratory walkabout.
Will the Center Hold?
But gardeners can be a strange lot; we take visitors around our spaces, and instead of basking in their praise and nods of approval, we instead focus on the tree that needs pruning, leaves that want raking, weeds that should be pulled, what the squirrels and deer did to which plants.

So it was the other day when I did my walkabout.

Amid so many hardy, fortunate survivors, my eye went right to a 2-foot high super-fine-threadleaf Japanese maple. The heavy, deep snow had engulfed the little beauty, frozen around it and weighed so heavily that the tree was split at the V, where its top branches flare horizontally. It split but did not break.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Getting Younger With Every Spring

Spring is the season of a thousand moods. Smiling in your face one day, snowing in your face the next. Chilly, cold, warm, wet; you name it, you get it. You could never call it boring.

Once upon a time, however, I did call it the second season, behind my favorite – autumn, which I loved because of its hard edge, its snap and crackle. But that was long ago, when I was young and cynical and agreed with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem Spring, which disparages “the redness of little leaves opening stickily”, ending with this slam:

It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,


Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Now that I’m an old man, an old gardening man, I couldn’t be happier to see another spring, smell freshly turned soil, spy a shoot bursting from soil that stood undisturbed the day before.  Even snow-covered, the land is alive. I am alive.
Snow on Pine; One of Many Spring Guises

What a difference the decades make.

Why would I love spring when I was 35. I didn’t need any renewal from any season; I would live forever. I was spring. Besides, appreciating spring back then would have meant slowing down, taking my eye off the rungs of the ladder that I was climbing toward career success. Better to keep on pushing.

Now, nearing 70, I can see more clearly why this is the season of choice for anyone who feels mortal.

A magical potion, spring makes old bones and hearts young again. The season fills the air with freshness – pollen aside. Recycled air from furnaces and fireplaces gradually gives way to breezes that make their way indoors, carrying fragrances of lilac and pine. Wisteria and juniper. Daffodils’ cheery faces light up a shadowy section of my garden, just as ever-growing sunlight lights hours that were dark only a few weeks ago. Songbirds sing longer each day. Inspiration reigns.

As does anticipation. This is the season of the possible. There’s something about a soft, fertile spring day that makes you believe the garden will be the best it’s ever been. Too, as spring each year turns my age to a higher number, it reminds me to live fully and mindfully in every moment possible. And, with that added year, I believe life will continue to grow simpler as I shed unnecessary belongings . . . and worries.

Spring offers a fine role model. The persistent, indomitable springness, presses on, through up-and-down weather, freezes and thaws, presses on until, eventually, it overcomes. We who have lived long enough to meet and overcome obstacles, tragedies, know that, hope that, they too will pass. And if they don't, well, we keep going anyway.

Friday, April 8, 2011

For My Money, Here Grow 6 Perfect Shrubs

When the garden is full of shrubs bent on showing off their shapes, blooms and leaves, it's easy to love them all. They're all equally desirable, yes?

No. Some are more equal than others. Some are perfect. Perfection, of course, grows in the mind of the beholder and the buyer. For my money, the perfect shrub excels in several areas and appeals year-round; it doesn't just make a quick hit in spring and fade away for the rest of the year.

Tops on my list of perfect shrubs are pieris, leucothoe, abelia, Scotch broom, nandina and boxwood.

Like people, they share some common features but have distinctive characteristics as well. And they come with their own stories, their own histories in my gardens.

They all share an important characteristic: They multi-task; none comes with just one feature. Not in my space. Features important to me include being evergreen, fragrant, having good form, leaf color, blooms, berries, seed pods. And, being a good bonsai subject. Each plant on my list has a good number of these attributes:

 – Pieris japonica. In some ways, it is like a temperamental artist; it can be difficult, with its tendency toward die-back, but once focused and inspired, it creates a scene of beauty.

Pieris Glows Pearly White on a Cloudy Day
When I first met pieris, I was surprised at its great thirst. When it didn't get as much to drink as it wanted, it did not faint, visibly. Instead, it tried to die quietly, branch by branch. My first ones, put in years ago in a garden in Washington, D.C., got cut down to nubs as I pruned away each dying piece. When they finally gave up their efforts to depart, their elegance was hard to beat.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Noticed: My Lagging Daffodils

I began gardening in East Haddam, Connecticut, in 2001, and it didn't take me long to discover that my daffodils, those fresh-faced harbingers of spring, are the last in the area to bloom. OK, they may not be the absolute last to bloom, but it seems that way.

Around the corner from home, what do I see: swaths of yellow and white blooms, grinning at me. And, farther away, in nearby towns all around the area, I see more daffodils, some in small patches, some in huge drifts, cheering all who pass.

On April 6, I received via email a photograph from Peter Pach, Hartford Courant Op-Ed Editor who lives in Middle Haddam. Tall, sturdy and, yes, blooming, his daffodils made a pretty picture standing in front of a spring-colored porch wall. On April 7, I went out – again – to see what mine were doing. Well, these pictures will tell the tale. 

I know there could be scientific, logical reasons my daffodils bloom later than everybody else's. I didn't plant them (seeds washed in from neighbors, or rode in on birds and animals), so they simply came up where they landed. And, that spot gets not a whole lot of sun. Too, my microclimate typically is colder and gets more snow than other parts of the area, particularly those closer to the Connecticut River, and to Long Island Sound.

Neither these possibilities, nor others, compensate for my daffodil deprivation. Moreover, that other yellow sign of spring, forsythia, lags, too.

As gardeners are wont to do, I've found a silver lining that keeps impatience at bay. While I have to wait longer than just about everyone to get my splash of yellow, mine will be around long after everybody else's has faded. So, henceforth, I will not call my yellow bloomers late; they are spring-extenders.