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, February 23, 2012

The Larger Garden: Late Winter

Until 10 years ago, I lived on small pieces of land in cities around the Eastern United States, growing little gardens in which I planted drifts of one. I didn't even dream of gardening larger spaces. Now, living on a little more than two acres, I've built an acre of gardens.

The rest of the land is woods that border on protected green space. Together, they become part of what I call the larger garden – nature. Nature, just being left alone. But, that does not mean it is static. Anything but.

In every season, I love trying to capture its dynamism with a camera, as I did recently. Come walk with me.

During winter, the larger garden mirrors my built gardens in some ways. Both are spare, bony, more spacious with no leaves to fatten trees. The scene: decay, broken limbs, fallen trees, peeling bark, stumps that squirrels have turned into dining tables holding acorn shells and mushrooms. Amid the decay, there is a certain chaotic energy, perfect examples of nature's random power.

Decay is not the only feature in this garden. Some of my favorites live here, too: stones. And, there also are mosses (Here's my earlier post on mosses), the perfect evergreens . . .

. . . and Christmas ferns that get their name from leaflets that resemble little boots.

Signaling spring, skunk cabbage pops up all over, as in this sky-reflecting stream.

Nature's art is everywhere. Roots atop the ground show where we get the idea of growing bonsai with roots exposed.

As I ended the walk, I vowed to pay more visits to these woods. Too often, I'm so busy working in my built garden, I neglect to appreciate nature's larger garden, one which asks nothing, requires no maintenance. Punctuating that thought, here's what I saw as I left the woods, looking to the sky.

It's been a pleasure walking with you. I hope you'll join me next time.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cat Chronicles: a Garden Wannabe

As an longtime expert at being managed by cats, I write about them from time to time, including a post from last April, called Some Cats Garden. Some Don't.

Now, here's the latest installment of my cat chronicles:

Cats can be swell companions. Or not. Living with Cat Bette, I see both sides. Much of it is the downside; Bette is not fuzzy and warm as a rule, though she has her moments. She is often whiny, bossy, ill-tempered and stubborn. Indoors in winter, she usually sleeps the day away, waking only to demand food.

Outdoors in other seasons, she is as happy as a kitten, flitting here and there, adding movement to the garden. Buuut, she often kills birds at the watering holes I made for them, and she ambushes frogs sunning on rocks in my little pond.

Through it all, cats intrigue. Bette's inscrutability is interesting; thoughts clearly go on inside her head when confronted with a cat toy ("I do not play with toys"), which is better than slavish devotion. She's a good communicator. She has only to meow and look toward the basement door to convey her need to go down to her ensuite bathroom.

And, during her short hunting season, she catches and kills volemoles (probably more moles than the plant-destroying voles), often displaying her victims on the  stoops as proof that she's on the job – and as justification for demanding extra rations.

Like many cats who manage people, Bette has a wonderful life.

Which explains why a big calico frequents my garden and lounges around as if she lives there. Clearly, she wants to. I'd be fine with that as long as she whacks a volemole often enough to earn the pleasure she gets from visiting. Look:

Her whiteness, along with her whaleness led to an obvious nickname. Moby is what Lyn and I call her.

One day, I approached Moby to offer her official residence, noting the quid pro quo; she'd have to hunt. She thought about it briefly, turning her back.
Shortly after I made the offer and this image, Moby went missing. I learned that she had people, as they knocked on doors in the neighborhood, showing a picture and asking if we'd seen her. They called her Mitzi.

After going missing for more than a week, she came back, walking through my garden just like old times, though looking a little worse for wear.

We still call her Moby. And, if she wants to be a garden cat, the offer still stands.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Warmth Can't Stop Winter Color

Conifers know.

To be sure, this winter has been confusing to some plants, making them break ground and bloom out of time.

But, several of my conifers put on their regular colorful winter show, starting a month ago and still going on. For example, two golden Virginia pines float in a sea of purplish Russian cypress, transformed from the standard conifer green they wear the rest of the year.

So, when I look at them, I see winter, even if it feels like spring. And, just to heighten the illusion, I haul out an image from last year, when snow dropped in and never wanted to leave.

For now, the two pines style and vamp in golden needles, waiting for winter white.

They wait because snow surely will come before they have to get back to their regular green. Conifers know.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Introversion, Extroversion in the Garden

Jonathan Rauch wrote an eye-opening essay in The Atlantic magazine titled Caring for Your Introvert, describing an introvert as someone whose preferences include "hours alone every day" and "who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate."

Rauch writes with humor and insight about society's perception of introverts as "guarded" or "reserved," while viewing extroverts as vibrant and warm. By acknowledging his own introversion, he has liberated himself from these "damaging misconceptions and stereotypes." Rauch had some serious fun with the piece, written in 2003 and still popular. He offers advice to people living with introverts, including: " . . . when you see an introvert lost in thought, don't say, 'What's the matter?' or 'Are you all right?'"
Watercolor by Lynn Greer

Experts say extroversion and introversion operate on a scale and that most people are in the middle range, with traits from each category. Some of us tend toward the extremes on that continuum. No doubt, introversion dominates in me.

While Rauch does not deal with the notion of a connection between introversion and gardening, I certainly feel it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Weather Gadgets: Don't Need, Must Have

Two of my loves, gadgets and weather, intersect time and time again. That's more true than ever amid record-breaking weather patterns that make more news than I've ever seen.

Natural law makes every gardener pay close attention to the weather, but I don't know how many of us are suckers for gadgets. I am. Are you? Just as I cannot pass a nursery without stopping in, I cannot resist one more weather toy when I see one, either in a store or online.

Barometers give me a heads up when storms are coming. One of my favorites is the one that contains colored water that rises in a spout when the air pressure falls. Aptly called a storm glass, it performs the same function as the more traditional barometer gadget, which also measures humidity and temperature.

Thermometers are like peanuts around my place; I can't stop at just three or four or more. I love indoor thermometers, outdoor ones, and those with the remote sensors that read conditions inside and outside. Like so much today, countless thermometers are sold at disposable prices, with utilitarian looks.

But, once in a while, I spy a thermometer that is out of the ordinary, form and function, like this one made of zinc; it hangs by the door outside the kitchen.
One of my favorites is the Galileo (indoor) thermometer below, named after the Italian physicist (though he did not invent it). The colorful orbs floating in clear liquid vary in density, causing them to rise and fall as the temperature rises and falls. The number on the lowest ball's tag matches the air temperature.
The gadgets go on. With such extraordinary rainfall amounts nowadays, my rain gauge gets a lot of work. And, I've bought a few wind gauges over the years but gave up on them because dashing out into 60-mph winds here on my ridge made me feel as foolish as TV weather-guessers look when they cling to trees and posts during hurricanes.

I still have a wind gauge, however; it's a feature in Big Momma's Garden. The blue ribbons I attached to tomato stakes began as a way of lending movement to this garden whenever a breeze kicked up. Then, I noticed that the ribbons told me the direction of wind and gave me a sense of the speed.
This serendipitous anemometer fits handily into my ever-growing collection of weather gadgets. Of course, you and I know I could garden and keep abreast of the weather without any of them.

But, the fun . . . wait, wait, just one more: Look at this radiometer.

It measures the light, using black and silver wings inside the globe. When the sunlight hits the solar wings, they spin. (Fluorescent lights won't work.)  The faster they spin, the more light there is on, say, a window sill.

OK, as I was saying, you do some things just because they're fun.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hold Your Nose as You Read This

You just never know where your next gardening adventure will come from.

On a recent quiet day, I heard a knock at the door. The Men of Allphase were paying a visit: Tom Gilbert and Dave Andeen, talented craftsmen. Allphase Construction is their company.

They built the room that has become a sunny, peaceful plant room at our home, but on this day, they were not wearing their building hats.

The subject was gardening. Specifically, Dave had brought me a box, from which he took a tuber he had dug and saved. Dirt and promises of spring cling to it.

Already, the orange-sized tuber shows pink growth rising from its center.
Leave it in the box, put it in the basement until spring, and don't water it, Dave says. Then, I should either plant it in the ground or in a large pot, as the tuber will grow to a very large size, he tells me.

So, the basement becomes an incubator again. A few years ago, Tom shared some red canna tubers with me, which I wintered in a plastic bag in the basement. While some red blossoms lit up part of my field the following summer, my success was nothing like Tom's at his home nearby.

The gift tuber from Dave descended from a plant given to him by a friend years ago. As often is the case with gift plants, the name is missing, but I think Dave and I have figured out what it is: amorphophallus. More interesting are its common names, including voodoo lily, snake palm, devil's tongue.

Dave's description of its growth, bloom and smell matches what I've read about the plant. Fast grower, two inches a day or more, with a speckled stalk, beautiful leaves and a spectacular flower.

What's most spectacular about the flower?

As Dave puts it: "It smells like rotten meat. That's what it smells like to me."

One of my books, Curiosities of the Plant Kingdom, agrees, saying, "The smell of carrion emanates from the flowers, attracting hosts of flies," which serve as pollinators.

I can't wait to smell what I think.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Noticed: Less Spicy, But Wicked Good

Here I was, walking in the garden this week, scanning the earth for early signs of spring. I couldn’t believe I had failed to notice this outstanding early bloomer – until I saw the flowers.

Its name is as pretty as its scent – Jelena. Also known as Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'.

Every winter, when thoughts turn to spring, Jelena has been there to enable me. Usually, I don’t miss Jelena’s arrival, announced from afar by her perfume. But this year, she showed up without my knowing. Either her perfumed blooms don't stand out as much, or my smeller needs tuning up.

No matter. Jelena is here, and I’m always happy to connect with her.

Through the years whenever she's shown up, I’ve always felt my appetite sharpened for digging in the dirt. This fine-shaped shrub’s plentiful branches beg to be cut and put in a vase of water. There, buds ignite, and spidery, coppery orange blooms explode, releasing their spicy scent of expensive perfume. That’s the way it always was.

Now – maybe it’s just this year, but now – no matter how much I try to ignore it, Jelena is not as full of spice and pepper as she used to be, not as zippy as once upon a time.

But, then, who is?

So, today I cut a branch and put it in water; it’s what I’ve always done, always loved. And, with just one sniff, I realized Jelena may not be what she used to be, but she’s still wicked good.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Weird Weather Blues, Part 2

Hello, February. So far, you look even more weird than late January: strangely green, 62 degrees at my place, rain, sunshine, confusion. Which is making for some unpredictable responses in plants and people.

One Connecticut friend reports that her petacites flowers are pushing up now, a month earlier than usual. "I am amazed," she says. "I know it's the wacky weather, and I love it."

In a similar vein, The Weather Channel posted a piece on its Website headlined, "Chill Out and Enjoy the Warmth." Well, that led to an online debate among readers who commented.

"Why, in the middle of winter is 50 degrees in Vermont considered a good day?" asked one. "Can we please change our perspective on what 'good' days are? It is supposed to snow and be cold. That is what a good day is."

Seconding that emotion, another wrote, "The Weather Channel has forsaken us. And, soon North Adams, MA will be beachfront property."

But, there was also this: "There isn't the slightest thing that's bad about 60 degrees and sunny in January in the Northeast."

I can just hear my petacites friend agreeing enthusiastically.

And, so it goes.

For perspective I now turn to some musical philosophers:

First, Bob Dylan. His iconic Ballad of a Thin Man says:

". . . something is happening here/But you don't know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?"

The song is said to refer to a pompous, disconnected journalist interviewing Dylan. The lyrics inspire me to make a weather observation:

You look out on February, and you say this is good like spring
When summer comes, you tell me don't worry about a thing
One ten in New England is only slightly warm, so enjoy your bliss.
But, something is happening here, and I don't know what it is.

Not knowing what it is raises that eternal question, immortalized by the marvelous Marvin Gaye: What's going on?

That still-relevant anti-violence song, released during the Vietnam War, focuses on conflict surrounding the war that pitted police against protesters, divided families and the nation's political Establishment.

Gaye's song makes an impassioned call for reason, and it could apply to the war over weather:

Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today.

Understanding today is in eye of the beholder. Maybe these unusually warm, wet times are part of a cycle.  Or, maybe, as most scientists warn, maybe they're signs of a doomed future.

To paraphrase another song by poet Dylan:

Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of climate change
With weird weather blues again.