Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thinking About Leaving a Garden

It is a dazzling fall day. I am walking in the frost-dusted grass and thinking about leaving, among other things, the tiny Cornelian cherry dogwood that is only twelve inches tall but already has flowerbuds, and the stewartia and its orangey-red fall foliage. The Kwanzan cherry we picked to take the place of the hollow old apple tree is beginning, at last, to spread its limbs and create the privacy I envisioned when I planted it three years ago. Its leaves are yellow against the brilliant blue sky. Six months before selecting the cherry, on the first anniversary of our moving to Cherokee Street, Bob and I together dug a hole and set the Donald Wyman lilac in place. We took turns watering it. The following summer my son laid down an eight-sided flagstone patio. 

I am thinking about leaving the winterberry hollies that have copious numbers of fat red berries for the first time this year, and the Persian parrotia that I covered with netting last week to save it from browsing deer. And the yellow maple leaves that lay inches thick on the ground. So precious has this house, and this garden, been that leaving will be torturous, but staying perhaps more so.

I am thinking about leaving this place where I was loved beyond reason, where one summer night Bob and I sat out on the patio my son built and watched a hundred-thousand fireflies blinking above the grass and shimmering in the trees. Where he placed rocks in my beds and borders, big heavy rocks in the first and second years of our sharing this space, and then, as he became weaker, progressively smaller and lighter ones. When he could no longer physically move them into the particular spots he deemed perfect, he directed his son, who would have done anything to keep his father happy for one more day, to place this one here, next to the stewartia, and that one there, by the Solomon’s seal. 

I am not feeling the prompt to dig a new bed, as is my fall tendency. Last week I cut down and chopped up the dying castor bean without enthusiasm, solemnly skirting the spots where his ashes lie. But despite my sorrow I cannot help but feel a quiet thrill at the dozens of foxglove clumps, vigorous in the cold November air. They will keep me here, at least until July.

The oat grass has grown tall, concealing the fallen Sungold tomatoes I did not have the heart to harvest, or eat, when they were sweet and firm. Next spring the ground will be moist and diggable, and the life-and-death cycle will begin again. Whether I stay or whether I go, I will be compelled to plant tomatoes. This I know.

I have rearranged my life, my clothes, the furniture in my house. I have given away shoes and coats and tables. Shuffling pieces of my past has brought relief.

And yet, I cannot bring myself to shift a single rock.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Happy Accidents in the Garden

Sometimes it is the unplanned garden combinations that turn me on the most.

I planted the Pink Zazzle (a hybrid gomphrena of secretive parentage), but the sweet Alyssum came up all on its own, and from a variety (one of the 'Stream' series) that I thought was sterile. Perfect partners!

This paddle plant (Kalanchoe thyrisiflora) occupies a pot that perfectly matches its coloring. And behind it, 'Red Sails' lettuce picks up the leaf margins. All of these contributors were leftovers and castoffs: the paddle plant, a lanky stem cut from a plant that began to sprout at the base; the pot left over from a bay laurel that outgrew it; and as for the lettuce seedlings, I couldn't bear to throw them out.

 And there are times, many times in fact, when being a messy gardener pays off. Lettuce, Nigella, and bells of Ireland all sprouted from seed tossed (with very little thought about the consequences) on the ground last fall. The sweet Alyssum and 'Golden Jubilee' agastache were intentional, but who knew they would be befriended so sweetly? Bells of Ireland, I have found, must move from place to place in order to thrive. It appears to be autotoxic -- even more so than sunflowers.

Rudbeckia maxima needs sturdy companions, so isn't it lovely that larkspur stepped in to fill the gaps between this trio: the giant coneflower, Agastache foeniculum, and Phlox paniculata 'Robert Poore'.

Here bells of Ireland and larkspur fill in the spaces between phlox and 'Blue Shadow' fothergilla. Dill, though not in this photo, plays a minor but beautiful role. 

I appreciate the aesthetics of these garden happenings because they came about, more or less, on their own. 

I enjoy them without the weight of pride.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Winter Windburn 2014

The cherry laurels in my neighborhood are not looking good. Chinese Euonymus and Japanese Aucubas are a bit haggard also. Where they come from, this sort of thing just doesn’t happen. And you know the sort of thing I’m talking about: extreme cold followed by snow followed by blustery days and nights. Prunus laurocerasus comes from parts of southwest Asia that enjoy hot, dry summers and mild, relatively rainy winters. Euonymus kiautschovicus (Manhattan Euonymus) hails from eastern China, where winter temperatures generally hover around 40°F.  So there was never a need for them to develop the techniques that keep our own broadleaf evergreens fit for spring.

Rhododendrons, for example, reliably roll their leaves into cigars when the temperatures dip into the low 20s F. Their pores are located on the bottoms of the leaves and the curling mechanism protects these vulnerable undersides. It also allows them to conveniently shed any leaf-loads of ice and snow. You can tell the temperature just by watching the rhododendrons; when it warms up to about 32° again the leaves flatten, no harm done. Wouldn’t it be dandy (or should I say handy) if our own bodies had a similar maintenance system?
You can tell the temperature by the rolling of rhododendron leaves.
But no, we are more like the cherry laurel and the Manhattan euonymus. When water evaporates from these broadleaf evergreen leaves faster than their roots can replace it—which tends to happen when the ground is frozen solid—cells die. Leaves turn brown. Plants turn ugly. It’s their version of human frostbite.
Our response to those same cold temperatures starts with the narrowing of blood vessels in exposed body parts. If this goes on long enough, blood flow to extremities drops and tissue dies, fingers and toes and nose tips being, relatively speaking, expendable.

Of course we have mittens and boots and down-filled jackets, and in fact we can make use of this bundling up concept to protect our tender visitors from rude extremes of weather. We can swaddle them in burlap or spray them with an antidessicant or, like the Staten Island Italians used to do to harbor their figs, build linoleum towers.

We could also choose to plant only natives that are adapted to the weather, but this feels rather hypocritical. We go to extreme trouble to make all kinds of adaptations to our living conditions for the benefit of our fingers and toes (like extracting stuff from 10,000 feet below the soil). It seems only fair to make the habitat suitable for our guests when things turn nasty.
The good thing is, the ugliness of cherry laurels is only spring-deep. Unlike our cold-blasted extremities, their damaged parts were destined to fall anyway, eventually, and will be replaced with fresh new functioning parts. 
How convenient for them.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

This Week Last Year

This week last year I harvested five pounds of baby lettuce, two pounds of spinach, two pounds of hakurei turnips, and two pounds of arugula. I miss the greenhouse—the one that used to be heated with an outdoor wood furnace until the fire went out and the heating element froze up, and then came the zero-digit temps followed by all that snow so why bother even fixing it, not that we were going to anyway. This week last year the daffodils were in bud. And on a sunny day, I would walk into the 70° greenhouse air and breathe in the sweet scent of rebirth.  

Next week this year I will set up my seedling trays and my heat mats and get out my adjustable grow lights, of which I have two, perch them on the card table that was once upon a life a wedding gift and the setting for rubber after rubber of bridge well into the night. But that was another time. That was another life. There are slashes in the tabletop, and fissures between partners who communicated competently using the conventions of Goren, but not so well otherwise.

This week this year white snow weighs heavily on tan grasses. The greenhouse is cold and the spinach has traveled from California in plastic baskets. It is not a good week for gardening. It is a good week to play with letter tiles on a Scrabble board and eat chicken satay and spinach salad, even if the spinach is from California.  

This week next year I want to see daffodil buds. I want my gains to have outnumbered my losses, and my children and their children to have found a road of their choosing, a sunny road that smells of fresh baby greens. I want to be dancing every dance. I want to be saying yes and taking chances. I want eternal spring.

Where we will be this week next year no one can predict. There will be daffodils, somewhere. There will be joyful dancing and sweet baby turnips. Somewhere.

Important note to subscribers: My new website and blog is up and running. As my subject matter leaned more and more toward understanding the mysteries of the natural world, I decided to create a new place for these ramblings. I will still write about gardening, but not as often. You can sign up for my new blog at

Monday, December 9, 2013

Pam's List of Gifts for Gardeners

When it comes to holidays, I'm a minimalist—which makes what I'm about to do entirely out of character. I am going to offer my list of Gifts for Gardeners. You can blame Kate Copsey, who invited me onto her "America's Home Grown Veggie Show" to talk about the subject, for this.
We give gifts often because it’s expected, sometimes because we feel the need to fill a need, and, ideally, because we are motivated by a sudden inspiration and decide not to stress about whether the receiver will think it is too much or too paltry, or misconstrue our intentions. The truth is, I would like to be that person who gives gifts willy-nilly all the time for no reason at all. Yes, something to work on.

This particular list has a theme, and that theme is “gifts with a mission.”  Or, it could be “gifts that give.” Still, it is I who gets to decide the missions, which gives the gifts a selfish bent. The whole topic is fraught with peril. Nevertheless, here goes:
1.     A $50 membership to the Garden Conservancy will do some good, even if the recipient puts the membership card in a pile and rediscovers it in October, 2014 after the frost has blackened the basil. But, assuming that does not happen, he or she will receive an Open Days Directory, and thereby be alerted to some wonderful garden visiting opportunities. The mission, in this case, is that of restoring once beautiful spaces to their former glory. Before this worthy organization existed, landscape restoration—if it was considered at all—took a back seat to building preservation. Which was simply not fair.
2.    The HerShovel was designed and manufactured by women for women. The shape of the handle, the angle of the blade, and the enlarged step were thoroughly thought out by Ann and Liz, the Pennsylvania entrepreneurs who started Green Heron Tools. They minimize their environmental footprint, advocate for the interests of women in agriculture, and seek out women to trial their line of tools. Just for the record, I am (sadly) not one of the testers. 

 3.  There are a few books on nature and garden journaling out there, each aimed toward a different type of “noticer.” For the writer, I suggest The Forest Unseen by biologist David Haskell, who has the gift of noticing the microscopic world and relating its nuances to the vast geologic time scale. His writing soars. Artist's Journal Workshop by Cathy Johnson is an expansive and joyful effort that includes journal pages from 27 artists. Her project ideas and drawing guidance will leave you hankering to create. Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles Roth is an oldie but goodie that offers a more nuts-and-bolts approach. The mission here, of course, is getting us all to pay more attention. So we will care, and know what it is that we care about.
4.     A tool holster (such as this handy Tommyco model) has the beneficent mission of saving tools from the sad plight of losing themselves to the wildness that is your garden. And you know how that ends: if they reappear at all they turn up rusted beyond repair. So there you have it. A simple, inexpensive device can save the lives of loved ones. You too can be a patron of lost tools.

5.    A Phalaenopsis orchid may seem like a stretch, but consider this: To keep an orchid alive, to appreciate it and coax it into a second, third, and fourth bloom, I believe you have to strive to think like an orchid. That is, you must imagine yourself clinging to a tree and absorbing the minerals in the rainwater that runs down into the channels of its bark. Your ropey green roots aim this way and that, exposing themselves to the moist night air, epiphytically grabbing convenient surfaces. And after a time, when all is right, you send up a root lookalike, which magically transforms itself into an exquisite series of intricate blooms. If you think like an orchid, you will be less likely to drown your plant’s roots. But, more to the point, you may also be inclined to think like a pillbug, an eagle, a cloud. And imagine if all humans troubled themselves to think beyond their own wellbeing. The earth would be a better place.

And wouldn’t that be lucky?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mowing the Leaves

After the first serious frost the mulberry leaves on the tortured tree in my back yard—the one that is destined for the woodpile any day now—rain down. This happens all in one gusty hour. In that very same hour, just around the block, the yellow leaves of a neighboring gingko go from dangling adornments to brilliant golden carpet. Meanwhile, the Ebenezer Scrooge in front of my house obstinately grips its green. Even as all of its fellows lighten their loads, my badly topped, misshapen silver maple insists on photosynthesizing, as if to say, “Hate me if you will, but I command you to marvel at my genetics.”

My silver maple: still photosynthesizing in November.
When Bob and I moved into the house on Cherokee street with the silver maple and the hacked and bleeding mulberry three and a half years ago, we made a deal. Phil comes, too. Every week or two Phil pulls up in his white van, gets the gas mower out, and cuts our modest lawn, as he did Bob’s lawn on Evergreen Street for many years. I do the gardens. In my last house, I succeeded in reducing the lawn to a 5-minute mow, and I’m slowly doing the same here, but until that time, there’s Phil. He edges too, not because we’ve ever asked him to, but because that’s the way things are done in our neat little town. My mower hides out in the shed until after the hour of raining mulberry leaves.

So yesterday, I dragged the 100-foot cord to the patio outlet, plugged in the mower, and gave it its first annual workout. Across the street, a man in a tractor was dragging a huge tarp filled with leaves to the curb. He raked, he piled, he pulled. My chopped mulberry leaves fell between blades of grass and disappeared behind the path of my electric mower. I’m not saying my way is the best way, but … he raked, he piled, he pulled. For hours.

Feeding the worms
Every October, Phil would rake the leaves of Bob’s sycamore trees on Evergreen Street into big piles along the curb. He never, to his credit, used a noisy leaf blower to blast every single messy leaf onto public land, but, just the same, Bob’s lawn was perfectly devoid of anything that might spoil the neatness when the job was done. And then a big vacuum truck would come along and steal the piles. Criminal.

No thank you, I tell Phil, I will take care of the leaves on Cherokee Street. Meaning, I will keep every one of my leaves thank-you-very-much. Now, I could say that I was thinking about worms and other helpful soil animals as I monotonously mowed my mulberry leaves, and how they would churn the leaf bits into lawn fertilizer with their digestive system. But that would be a lie. I was thinking that, with a fractured rib, walking behind a mower was so much more possible that raking and piling and lifting. I gave the front lawn a cursory pass. The curled maple leaves—those that had in spite of their best efforts to hang on come loose in the wind—crumbled under the blades. Striving for perfection would be a thankless waste of effort at this point.

It’s a messy time of year. The leaves of my once handsome castor bean plant hang limp and ugly on the suddenly awkward frame. It disturbs me. I would like to say that I am comfortable with my garden going to ruins. But, again, I would be lying. It’s not like in high summer, when the coreopsis is in glorious disarray and annual ageratums and petunias fill the garden gaps leaving no room for weeds or discontent. In the throes of the growing season, I revel in a manageable measure of messiness.

Stewartia leaves on 'Lavender Stream' sweet, and still fragrant, alyssum.
In a week, or a month, I’ll be mowing the leaves again. It’s a job I would happily turn over to Phil, but he would look at me funny. He would be thinking (or maybe this is my paranoia talking), “but that’s not the way we do things around here.” If I did not watch over him he would empty the bag at the curb and my leaves would be stolen, sucked up by the big vacuum truck. My leaves. Of course, my version of fall order is equally dogmatic and, in the scheme of things, just as quirky as Phil’s. On a large and small scale, we all manage our messes, continuously. That’s what we do. 

And if they get away from us, nature manages them for us.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


In one of the last episodes of “Sex and the City,” the writers slipped a sardonic chuckle into an otherwise serious story. Momentous life decisions are made, a snowfall creates a magical city scene, a party queen falls to her death from an upper story window. Oops. 

The title of the episode: “Splat!”
And I have a large hand.
This is one of the many thoughts that passes through my mind as I approach the corner of Iroquois and Keystone Streets on a late October day. Warty chartreuse softballs line the road on both sides, but none survive where the wheel treads trail. Instead, roughly circular blots mark the asphalt. Splat!  If you are unlucky enough to intercept the hefty fruits as they drop from the tree, the sound on the car rooftop is more of a “Bang!”

All this useless beauty.
Rounding the corner to Wenner Street, I see that osage oranges have been neatly staged in cannonball-style pyramids all round the bend. Is this an artistic statement, I wonder each time I drive by?  Three days later, my question is answered. A cardboard sign reads, “FREE! 4 Spiders.” And another comical image enters my mind. But no, the helpful homeowner is not expecting expect giant arachnids to carry the fleshy balls home to their young. The fruits have a reputation—unearned as it turns out—for repelling spiders.

One by one, balls disappear from the piles, presumably to take their places under the beds of arachnophobes. A few sideliners are squished—by errant wheels, by curious kids, by squirrels. The once battle-ready order takes on the same disheveled look as the natural fruit-fall on the other side of the road. Apparently there is not much demand for osage oranges among local raccoons and deer. This makes the giant fruits something of an anomaly: they seem to have lost their function. Too big for most animals, osage oranges, also known as hedge apples, have been known to cause death among ruminants by lodging in the esophagus. The great majority of the fleshy fruits rot beneath the canopies of the trees from which they drop, which makes no sense. Why would a tree waste energy creating a pulpy fruit when it has nothing to gain? Other fruit-bearing trees have partners—birds, bats, deer, bear, or for that matter humans—that disperse their seeds and spread the species over large areas, keeping them fit and vigorous and adaptable. Why should the osage orange be an exception to this evolutionary rule?  
Osage orange flesh is unpalatable to most animals.
Ecologist Dan Janzen calls this “the riddle of the rotting fruit.” And he has a theory. Some eleven thousand years ago the great mammoths and mastodons disappeared from the Western hemisphere; whether they were hunted to extinction or victims of an abrupt change in climate is a matter of debate. There is evidence that many of the giants were forest browsers, rather than plains grazers, and so it is entirely possible that they are the key to the riddle or, as Connie Barlow puts it in the title of her book about this and other ecological curiosities, “the ghosts of evolution.” In their absence the fallen osage oranges are sometimes picked through by squirrels and made viable, but seldom does the tree species migrate far from the spot where the fruits first bounced onto the ground.
Big thorns make good fences.

There was a time when humans took over the role of dispersal agent by planting miles and miles of living fences to keep their livestock from roaming. Pruned to fence height, the osage orange tree sends up multiple suckers and becomes "horse high, bull-strong, and hog-tight" in four years. It is estimated that at the height of its popularity, a quarter million miles of osage orange hedge grew in this country. (1)

The late 19th century introduction of barbed wire put an end to this practice but vestiges of the living fences remain in areas that were once farmed, and continue to produce suckers long after the mother plants are gone. The wood is now prized for fence posts. Archers value it also, as they have for centuries. In the early 1800s a well-made osage orange bow was said to be worth a horse and a blanket, or a “comely young squaw” in trade. Tribal wars were fought for possession of lands with generous supplies of osage orange trees.
The curious rind of the osage orange
Useless pulp lies smashed on the road. Splat! Trees that once functioned as living fences are chopped down and made into dead fences. Strong curved bows of osage orange wood may conceivably have contributed to the extinction of the animals that once kept it strong. The osage orange saga, full of twists and ironies, continues, with handmade signs pleading with anonymous passersby to take these warty green balls and give them a function—under a bed, or along a basement wall, or anywhere. Just take them.
Centuries of history go by; a tree’s stock rises and falls. Tire treads mark the intersections of Iroquois and Keystone, of ancient mastodon and modern transportation.

Bales S. 2007. Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley