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.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Do My Weeds With a Stream of Fire

I've never seen a poster or bumper sticker that reads: I'd rather be weeding.

Despite its necessity, its opportunity for quiet contemplation, weeding is the gardening chore from hell. I've used every weeding tool I've seen, including the stirrup hoe, or scuffle hoe. It's more efficient than the conventional hoe, but it's still a hoe, which means it's monotonous and back-hurting. Scuffle is an apt description for weeding; it is one.

Enter the torch. It almost makes weeding fun.

I'm not big on heavy garden machinery, and my pickup truck is not on steroids, but I love the torch's big fire-power. This thing is transporting, recalling flamethrowers in wars. My enemy is weeds, of course. And, I'll settle for a scorched weed outcome, while throughout history, some armies have favored a scorched-earth military strategy.
Can Weeding Be Fun? (Photo by Lyn May)

My civilian version of the flamethrower hooks up to a liquid propane tank that I tote around. It puts out 500,000 BTU. Which impressed me, as I figured that was really hot. 

When I bought the torch several years ago, I intended to use it to clear my field of "woodies" (blackberry, blueberry, oak and birch saplings) and turn the field into a meadow, with native grasses and flowers proliferating and choking out soft-bodied weeds. I'm still working on that, digging out the woodies after flaming them, though I must admit I feel odd about getting rid of all that food, including wild strawberry, when we could just let the berries grow and have them for breakfast.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Finding the Perfect Plants for 'Sahara'

Ever have a spot in the garden that simply refuses to do right? Well, I have; mine was a sunny knoll facing west. So sunny that I called it Sahara.

Nevertheless, in the early 2000s, soon after starting my acre of gardens here in East Haddam, Connecticut, I had it in my head that this knoll was perfect for mosses. After all, some mosses do grow in sun. And, I wanted the pleasure of stepping off the porch onto a plush moss carpet, early in the morning when the sun's rising on the other side of the house.

So, I harvested some clumps from sunny locations and transplanted them to the knoll. This after working hard to kill the grass (mostly crabgrass, which, not surprising, grew with gusto).

Well, that didn't work; no mossy knoll for me.

Mosses just sat there, not spreading, if they lived at all. As time went by, ornamental grasses  from my nearby field crept closer and closer to the knoll, until a miscanthus established a little clump. And, knowing that miscanthus does not remain small for long, I had to come up with a new plan.
Between Paths, One of Two Sedum Triangles

Yes, of course. Sedum! How obvious. Good for rock gardens, which certainly fits its being called stonecrop. Between the field of grasses and the knoll, I already had a few clumps of prickly pear cactus, but I ignored planting the succulent sedum on the knoll because . . .  well, to be honest, I don't know why I ignored it. Closest I can come to a reason is, I simply wanted mosses, and I was determined to have them. In that spot. And, it didn't matter that reason and experience were shouting, Stop! You're wasting your time."

It was a few years ago that I finally listened to reason. I stopped fighting and started planting. And, obsessive gardener I am, having finally come around to sedum, I needed to plant the entire knoll, about 50 feet across, right away.

Only problem was I chose August to do this. Some New England summer days made me feel like I was back in Georgia.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Connecting Again . . . in My Father's Garden

My 1995 coming-of-age memoir, In My Father’s Garden, focuses on relationships and gardening, including my relationship with my father. We had an unlikely reconnection more than two decades ago on a sultry June day, a day that remains as vivid as ever. The following essay is based on that first meeting and the fulfillment that sprang from it.

Summertime always makes me think of my father. It was June 20, 1989, when we got together again. We hadn’t seen each other for 39 years when I walked up the narrow cement walkway to his home in Meridian, Mississippi – the same home I’d lived in before he and my mother divorced when I was 9 years old.

My Father, on Our Reunion Day
After a few awkward moments of springing back and forth in the two metal chairs on the front porch, followed by the inevitable talk about the weather – it was hot –  we discovered we had something big in common: gardening.

Then and there, we knew we were not only kin; we were kindred spirits.

Pretty soon, we stopped springing and walked in his garden, the first of many such walks that we took when I drove to Meridian, often with my wife Lyn, whose strong sense of family values had bolstered my decision to visit my father. Our walks, it turned out, helped us get to know each other, bridge a gap of almost 40 years without writing or talking on the telephone.

If you’ve ever been estranged from anyone, you know that the longer the separation goes on, the easier it is to just let it keep going on.

Life had rolled along – my father’s remarriage, my mother’s remarriage to a man who was as good a father as a boy could have. Reaching middle age and feeling mortal, however, I felt a keen need to at least try to know my birth father, to know who I might become. So, with a story to cover nearby for the Los Angeles Times, I telephoned. He said, as if it were a natural thing: “Come on by.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Magical Mystery Tour of the Dark Side

By Day, This Is Just a Larch
A garden in the dark is a thing of mysterious beauty. Even though you know what grows there, you see, feel it in ways you never can during daylight.

Whenever I spend long hours digging and planting, I take time after dark to see what I can see. In one section of the garden, seven shaggy buffalo stand silent and still, waiting until morning; that's when they revert to weeping hemlocks. Nearby, a prehistoric beast hunches over, threatening to let loose an ear-piercing yowl, but by day it changes to a weeping larch. Similarly, the 8-foot tall bat with a wingspan almost as wide, morphs into a very happy weeping juniper.

If the night has a thousand eyes, I too need that many to appreciate what a garden offers after dusk. Nighttime, the right time to see what the sun can't show, transforms space, figures and masses, altering perception, destroying perspective, but building beauty.

And, fragrance. Some plant scents intensify at night, of course, including one of my favorites, four o'clock, which in Connecticut, becomes eight o'clock. Valerian, too, comes on strong at night in my garden. Ironic that it so appeals, as years ago I pulled it all out because it was acting like a weed, popping up all over the place. I gave up that fight, reasoning that at least it's a very good-smelling weed.

Those night smells, mingling with the all-day fragrances of rose, daphne, jasmine, mock orange, abelia, create a cocktail that seems strengthened by the night. It's as if the cover of darkness sharpens the sense of smell, focusing that sense without having it diluted by the sense of sight.

All in all, a walk on the dark side is a sweet, imaginative way to end any day in the garden.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

High-Bloom Season: How Short It Is

Left to my own pace, I've always been a man with a slow hand. Rarely have I found reason to hurry. Running track in high school and dashing around the world to write stories for newspapers were among the few exceptions.

With those times behind me now, generally, when I start the day with a cuppa, I like it make it a coffee ceremony, grinding and mixing several different beans, pouring water off the boil over the grounds in a French press. During the few minutes of brewing, I begin my tour of indoor plants, checking for moisture, buds, pests and such. A leisurely tour that could go on for a while.

Lately, I've had to change pace, get outside quickly lest I miss a big part of the spring-summer show in my acre of gardens.

Wisteria Came and Went in a Heated Rush
Comes now a late-spring heatup that feels like mid-summer. Wasn't it not too long ago when we had snow on pieris blossoms?  My garden is in the middle of the first heat wave of the year, which has come just days after big winds helped speed up the end of spring flowering. All those blooms I'd waited for since last year have been going away in a heated rush: Poof! 

Seems I've had less time than ever to take close looks at many of my blooming plants. As I have never kept a journal of temperatures, bloom times and duration, I can't swear that this year's high-garden show is shorter than previous ones, but it sure seems that way. Maybe it's a kind of Einsteinian view of time as relative: The older I get, the faster time flies. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Another War With Dwarf Bamboo

My father was not highly educated, but he was a very wise man.

One of his profoundly simple pieces of wisdom about gardening and life was: "A man lives and learns; at least he suppose to."

Those words come back to me every time I look at my dwarf bamboo running rampant, shooting up several feet away from where I planted it – another case of a beloved plant deteriorating into a weed, like a onetime friend who changes into someone you no longer want in your life.
My So-Called Dwarf Bamboo

You'd think I would have learned my lesson about dwarf bamboo after my first bad encounter with it back in the 1990s. In my Atlanta garden, I planted three clumps in a raised, brick-walled spot about 10 by 12 feet. In a year or so, it began creeping around the space. I loved its airy texture, just as I loved, and still love, tall bamboo canes. The dwarf bamboo, growing to around six inches tall, provided a lacy counterpoint to nearby rhododendron, so I thought it was OK to let it cover a bit more ground.

I thought wrong.