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.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Shadow and Shoes

Touring my garden the other day, I noticed a shadow in front of me, a man wearing a hat. I pulled the trigger, not knowing the image would be a keeper until I saw it out of reality, on a screen where I could look at it without distraction of air, light, sounds. Once again, an image of a moment enhances and preserves that moment. Whether it's as momentous as polar ice melting, wildfires burning, storms raging, or as simple as a gardener enjoying the day.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Trashing the Larger Garden

I don't know what ticks me off more – drivers who ride my tail, even if I'm speeding or drivers who blow cigarette smoke out of their windows and toss the butts after it.

They're both trashy. I hate trashy. Trashers are inconsiderate, and they diminish the pleasure some of us get from the larger garden: spaces that are not our own, including tree-lined roadsides, lively gardens, soothing woods.

Confronting trashers can get you into trouble; I know that. But, I've done it anyway.

I've stopped my car, gotten out and asked a harassing driver: "Why?"

Usually, there's simply stunned silence or sputtering apology. I stopped doing that a few years ago when road rage became the rage among aggressive drivers.

Several times, after seeing someone toss a fast-food bag or candy wrapper on the ground, I've scooped it up and told the tosser: "You dropped something," as I offered the trash to it. Most take the offer.

A couple of years ago, a man who was parked in a shopping center in Colchester, Connecticut, tossed a cigarette butt out the window. I asked him he if he wanted it back. He ignored me.

Fortunately, I'm not alone. I don't know when this sign was placed on my street, but it looks official, like other road signs. I noticed it recently:

Walking back to my car I noted that while it may be a coincidence, my road does seem to get trashed less than it once did.

Then I saw one more picture.

On close inspection, it seems this litter has been around a long, long time. Before the sign went up. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Red-Hot Weather and Blooms

Super-hot days last week were a pain, but they did bring a silver lining: red-hot blooms by the bushel. Here are a few:

The hardy cactus (opuntia) surprised me with its red center the first time I saw it several years ago. Here's a closer look.

This cactus, whose winter hardiness surprises, is a great passalong plant and is much underrated. Or desparaged for its exuberant growth and prickliness. But not by those who like eating the fruit that follows the flowers. That fruit of course gives the plant its common name, prickly pear.

Here's the yellow version, the one I grew for years, long before I found the red-flowered one. Both types grow near the sedum garden.

Seeing a huge stand of this spiny succulent growing in front of a house years ago in Gadsden, Alabama, where I was working on a newspaper assignment, I brought my rental car to a screeching halt, knocked on the door and asked for a piece of the cactus (begging's a grand gardening tradition). I eventually persuaded the resident that this was a plant (not a press) emergency, and he let me take a hunk of the cactus, wrapped in newspaper. That start led to huge stands of my own in several gardens, including my current one in Connecticut.

Few plants shout, "Summer!" the way zinnia does. Usually, I plant mine in the ground, but this year I'm trying pots. Either way, they lively up the season and make one of the finest cut flowers I know.

I'm expecting temperatures this week to be down, up and all around, but no matter. As long as the blooms keep coming, the garden will stay red hot.

Waitaminnit. I should say red hot, and blue.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Noticed: First Magnolia Blossom

This is big. Today, the Southern magnolia opened its first bloom of the summer,  reassuring me that the connection between my time in the American South and the North remains alive and well.

Having spent about half my life in each region, there were years when I never saw, let alone grew, this leathery-leafed, big-blooming tree that is an iconic image for Southerners.

Southern girls, headed off to college, packed magnolia blooms in suitcases, then floated them in bowls of water as reminders of home.

Southern boys climbed the massive evergreens and talked about Southern girls.

Illinois, Ohio, New York were not magnolia land for me. But when I discovered the cold-hardy 'Bracken's Brown Beauty' Magnolia grandiflora, the connection was made here in Connecticut.

This is the fourth summer the magnolia has bloomed here. And the creamy white, lemony-scented flower is evocative as ever, recalling sweet-hot nights in Georgia, Alabama and in Mississippi, the Magnolia State.

Lyn and I have a tradition of walking through the garden and making "sightings," discoveries of new blooms. Today, she pointed at the lone creamy-white blossom, saying she knew I'd already seen it.

I hadn't; the sighting belonged to Lyn. But I did get the first smell.


Friday, June 22, 2012

Update: Pollarded Maple in Full

In March I wrote about my effort to correct my mistake of planting a paper-bark maple too close to the porch. My solution: pollarding, cutting back new growth each late-winter-early-spring to create knobby branch ends – recalling street trees in places including London, Paris and San Francisco.

There are those who see my pollarded tree and are not impressed, including my wife Lyn. Others are curious and want to know what the tree looks like this time of year, when those club-like branches have put on a couple feet of growth.

So, for those of you who wanted to see the tree in full, this post's for you.

In some ways, this is a convertible tree – exposed clubby branches for a while, then a more conventional leafed-out look this time of year.

Oh, by the way, those Louisiana irises blooming next to the tree? I moved them there last year, figuring they might distract certain anti-pollarding folks. It's working. Walking through the garden the other day, Lyn said, "Oh, how beautiful that iris is. I love that."

Not a word about the pollarded maple, styling high with its top up.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nature's Design Full of Surprises

Japanese painted fern has always been one of my favorites. So, when I began building my Connecticut garden in 2002, naturally I had to buy two or three or a few – just as I'd done in other gardens.

Here, something happened that had never happened before: The painted fern (Athyrium niponicum) naturalized and now pops up and grows with gusto all over my acre of gardens. In open areas, among stones, under trees.

The first place I noticed – six or seven years ago – was along the foundation of the house, on the right as you face the home front. The ferns were not alone; they were joined by coral bells, (Heuchera 'Palace Purple'). In this image, you can see where it all started, as this still is the thickest part of the mix.

This is good naturalization. I love this design. It is a design I may not have made on my own. But, as I've always known, nature is a consummate designer. Nevertheless, as I noted in this essay last year, we gardeners garden because we must mark the land, despite nature's natural talent. 

Year by year, nature worked its design magic, as the two perennials spread left in the ground and among the stones I placed at the roof's drip line, toward the steps, making a happy combination as the ferns' silvery green fronds, accented with burgundy, played among the burgundy coral bells. I planted that maidenhair fern growing on the left side, and it has not moved.

However, the two happy travelers have jumped across the steps and now have begun coloring up the other side.

As before, the ferns start first and are joined by coral bells, barely visible on the lower right side of the photo above, near the small green stones.

Soon, both sides of the steps will be lush with nature's design; eventually, the plants could become thicker than I want. Then, I'd face decision time. Undo what nature has done? Share the wealth with others?

That decision's easy. Friends, visitors, gardeners, bring your trowels.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Few Words About Stepfathers

Stepfathers don't get enough respect. Small wonder, given portrayals in popular culture, such as movies and television shows depicting abusive men terrorizing children after marrying their mothers.

"Stepparents in America have experienced at best a grudging acceptance, and at worst a negative and suspicious reception throughout American history," says a report on stepfamilies in the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society.

Yet, adds the report, "We do have historical evidence that as heads of households, stepparents took on virtually all the responsibilities of natural fathers even if they were not officially recognized as such."

I'm a witness.

On the day that honors fathers, I continue to honor my birth father as I did in an essay last year: Connecting Again . . . in My Father's Garden.

This year I say a few words to honor my stepfather. The word itself did not do justice to the man who was a father to me after my mother and birth father divorced when I was nine years old. I did not refer to him as my stepfather; he was Dad.

Mother, Dad, East St. Louis, Illinois, 1950s.

A muscular man about five feet, eight inches tall, strong physically and gentle emotionally, Milton Walker never made me feel I should shun my biological father. At the same time, he made it perfectly clear that he was ready to be my father in 
every other way.

And, he was. In 1950s Meridian, Mississippi, Dad taught me to ride my Schwinn bicycle, how to take it apart, grease the parts and reassemble it.

As a factory laborer, he did not earn enough money to buy me a lot of toys, so he taught me how to make my own, including a popgun. Cut a footlong piece of elderberry and hollow-out its pithy center. Whittle a plunger and use it to push a green piece of chinaberry fruit through the elderberry "barrel." The berry would explode out the end with a wonderful bang, traveling as far as a hundred feet.

In a 1946 green Chevy Dad taught me to drive on the backroads outside Meridian. I learned how to fish on lakes and creeks, the three of us spending hours at the ends of bamboo poles. Years went by before I realized we were not fishing for sport; it was to put food on the table.

Perhaps Dad's most valuable teaching was done together with Mother (Riller Walker), through their own lives in Meridian and later when we moved to East St. Louis, Illinois: how to live a champagne life on beer money, enjoying what is free in nature and appreciating what is valuable in people – humor, intelligence, kindness, willingness to work hard and play just as hard.

These lessons are invaluable to children everywhere, and they are remembered for a lifetime. Regardless of whether they come from a father by birth or by choice.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hello, Sweetheart, Gimme Rewrite

My blogger pal Laurrie over at My Weeds Are Very Sorry told a big truth the other day when she noted: "Most good garden design is simply editing." Well, I've been editing big-time lately – preparing for Country Gardens magazine to photograph my garden this week.

There are many ways to edit, including moving plants (mine ought to be on wheels), removing them, or pruning them. All ways are in play in my garden.
This editing is much like my writing and rewriting stories as a newspaper man. Whether gardening or writing, the goal is to improve, to illuminate, to get to the essence.

Some of the changes I've made lately were long-planned, and some just came over me as I walked through spaces, looking critically.

Two small trees in the back garden had stayed too long and have been on thin ice for a couple of years. A weeping cherry, kept at about six feet tall, was wanting to be too wide for the space, thus shrinking the view of other plants and four red poles that "support" a tree in Big Momma's Garden.

 Timmm-berrr! Here it lies, just before heading off to the wattle.


Nearby, next to the bamboo fountain, another weeper, a small willow, got edited out of the garden. Then, a non-performing sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) got evicted for under-performance; its blooms were pitifully sparse. And, so it went. Lily of the valley. Ajuga. Bloodroot. All partially dug out.

The most severe pruning was of a weeping juniper that had repeatedly grown up past the eaves, and spread wider and wider, hogging the corner of the house.

While I love its look, this tree grew larger and faster than I thought it would, needing repeated haircuts to keep it the size I want. Fortunately, it has a free-growing twin that weeps over a bridge in another, more open, area of the front garden. So, knowing I had a backup, I was able to saw away, winding up with a fresh tree that now is integrated into this part of the garden.

After 10 years of happy growth, a number of trees and shrubs cannot be saved by pruning; they have to be taken out, often because their trunks become too large for the relatively low heights I want for the garden's scale. Call this the ultimate pruning.

Instead of grinding or digging out the stumps, I dress them up by placing an interesting stone atop the slowly decaying stumps. The example below is the stump of a yew that, after eight years, no longer fit its space in the middle of a patch of aster, chrysanthemum and woolly thyme. The stone not only feels ornamental to me, but it also tells walkers to mind the stump.

It'll be a while before the reshaped juniper has to go the way of the yew. Knowing when to be done is part of editing, so I'm setting aside my cutting tools for now. As a legendary editor in the LA Times Washington bureau used to tell us writers in a voice like gravel: "When the story is done, stop writing."

Thursday, June 7, 2012

O Beautiful, in So Many Ways

Mountain laurel, the state flower of Connecticut, inspires high praise and refreshing political bipartisanship. The state's official Website, for example, declares it "perhaps the most beautiful of native American shrubs."

Gardeners may disagree on what is the most beautiful of all, but I'll tell you, this little state sure did choose a big winner as its symbolic flower back in 1907. For years, two mountain laurels have been an important part of my front garden, adding pops of pink and white to an area that's heavily green.

In another area, off the porch, a red one glows all day long, softly on cloudy misty days like this one and brighter on sunny days, its color heated by western exposure.

Getting closer looks at the flowers, you notice they resemble little parachutes.

And, if you get really close, you can inhale the slightly sweet fragrance that attracts bees doing happy buzzes.

Mountain laurel is beautiful, yes, but it's not just the flowers; the form of this shrub makes it a natural for a garden like mine, where pruning is king. This shrub is born to prune. In fact, it is born with a shape so fine and curvy that it often looks pruned without ever being cut. Mainly, I simply expose its essence.

Beyond my control, blooms fall to the ground even as I photograph them. Like cherry blossoms, mountain laurel blossoms float down like so many flakes of snow. White, pink, red.

Gradually, all these once-vibrant blooms will fade and fall, and before too long, disappear, enriching the soil. Just as surely as they enrich my garden.