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.

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