Tag Archives: gardening

Did Mr. McGregor Ever Try Non-Attachment?

The lilies were mere days from opening. Six stalks heavy with close to three dozen blossoms, each blossom swaddled within its own petals. In full bloom they would soon measure five to six inches in circumference,  bright white petals outlined in deep pink.  I went out to check on them yesterday and …

They were gone.

Every. Last. One. Vanished.

Each flower had been snipped off at the base of the bud.  And to add to the mayhem, mystery:  the severed blossoms were nowhere in sight. It was as if someone had come in the middle of the night, clipped them with a hedge trimmer and made off in the dark with my long-awaited botanical bounty.

Who or what could have done this? It would have been one thing if the blossoms had been scattered four feet below on the ground around the base of the plants. The rabbits love to do that. It’s a special bunny game called Torture-the-Gardener. It goes like this: watch for the tulips to bloom that the Gardener planted last fall. Await her cries of delight and excitement as the tulip flowers are 17 hours from fully opening.  Creep out in the light of a spring moon, nibble them off at the bases and leave the petals scattered like so much dead confetti for Gardener to find when she comes out the following morning. Enjoy watching her scream and steam. Cover Baby Bunny’s ears from the foul language.

I’ve quit skirmishing with the chipmunks of late. They’re impervious to the taste of Tabasco, use  putrid egg potion as perfume, are dextrous enough to pilfer a single nut from my Hav-a-Heart traps. But they couldn’t have climbed the lilies’ sturdy stalks, could they? Bitten off the flowers one blossom at a time and carried them down into their little chippie tunnels? Had they invented specialized lily-ladders? Or had deer come for a midnight snack? I saw no tell-tale prints, nor droppings, but I have seen a few of these white-tailed destroyers every now and then in the neighborhood. As far as I know, I have no human enemies, no neighborhood gardeners who envy my echinacea.  Irrelevant, who did the dastardly deed. I am nevertheless lily-less.

A few years ago, staring at those stems, shorn of all that potential and imminent beauty, I would have been truly livid. Today, I just shrug. It’s not worth the wrath. So the deer ate the lilies. Or the chipmunks managed to pilfer them in some way, lock, stock and stamen. Maybe it’s all the yoga. Or maybe thirty years of tilling these dear patches of earth, riding the peaks and valleys of growth and destruction has taught me non-attachment.  Maybe this is what a Zen garden truly is — not one of tenderly raked gravel and exquisitely pruned shrubs.  But a garden where destruction is met with equanimity and joy can still be savored in what was potential and imminent.

How is your garden growing? Share this column with your gardening buddies by clicking Facebook’s “f”.  And if you have some tricks to keep the varmints at bay, do tell.

One for Me and One for You

Well, the sky’s not blue but the pink dogwoods are in their glory and when I look out my bedroom window I see the azaleas peeking through the petals of the dogwood flowers. If I didn’t know better I could be in Atlanta this birthday!

The final post of this birthday challenge is below. An interesting exercise to discipline myself this way. I know, tons of other bloggers post daily or tweet or whatever. Next challenge, to do this once a month moving through the cycle of topics. Wherever you are, whatever is blooming in your state, enjoy the day and thank you for your comments and sweet wishes and celebrating with me the whole week through. And now the fifth post.

A few years ago I had the privilege of volunteering in Cranbrook’s gardens. My second or third week, the Garden Mother offered me some rudbeckia she was digging up. I said as polite a no thank you as I could; rudbeckia is such a tenacious spreader that even the thought of introducing it into my flower beds made me cringe. Whatever she saw in my face obviously changed the assumptions of her newest volunteer, for her next words were, “Ah, so you’re a real gardener, are you?” Yes, I guess I am.

Our gardens are often filled with cuttings from one friend or another’s garden. The sweet woodruff cheerfully colonizing the shady patches at the edge of the patio was given to me by our wonderful neighbor Kay. She was moving away, uprooting not only herself and her husband, but some of her magnificent flowerbeds as well, sharing her mature perennials with friends. It’s lovely to see the bright green leaves of this well-behaved creeper and remember when Kay lived across the street. And by pure coincidence she now lives near my father and step-mother, so we still get to see each other.

A college friend of mine has hosta cuttings from our garden that she planted in her mother’s backyard some two decades ago. When she purchased her first home a few years back, we got together to celebrate, and there in her own garden were the offspring of our hostas that she had divided so long ago. Makes me smile to consider this leafy thread of propagation making its way from house to house, state to state, garden to garden.

The summer after I demurred on the rudbeckias, the Garden Mother was separating some magnificent Japanese anemones. These are wonderfully showy plants. Sprays of pink and white flowers, the shape of apple blossoms, cascade from slender stems that bob gently in summer breezes. When they’re happy, you know it because the flowers are profuse and keep a comin’. I was thrilled to be offered three cuttings.

They’ve now gotten a bit too happy and last year I divided one of the clumps and tucked it behind some azaleas. She was a bit peckish last summer but we’re hoping all will be well once spring is underway. It gives me a thrill to know that a small piece of Cranbrook’s magnificence is happy in our yard. Even better I was able to offer her some bee balm when I was thinning them. That something from my little patch of earth has sunk down roots at Cranbrook is way cool.

Looking around the yard, there’s one spot where no perennial flower has ever taken hold. The earth is too rooty from the Bradford Pear; it’s shady. Some daisies are persevering, but not really spreading. You know, I bet they’d look great accented with some…

And a great big thank you to my writer buddy and friend Diana D. for this lovely birthday bouquet of grape hyacinth. Diana, the color swoonful and I love it! Thank you.

Planticipation, or Waiting for the Garden to Bloom

With my 56th approaching by week’s end, I thought to throw out a birthday challenge. Can I create a post a day, limit 300 words or so, each one about Nature or our garden? Of all the topics I blog about, writing about Nature thrills me the most.

Born in the spring and raised in Atlanta, I always thought the world celebrated by birthday my bursting into blossom. And while many a birthday up here in the Great Lake State has often been spent wearing snow boots, this year my day has been heralded for nearly two weeks already.

I am grateful for each of you who stops by, leaves a comment or just allows my words to lift your heart or pique your curiosity. I won’t send out a daily notice of a new post. Just know that there will be a nature reflection each day this week. Here’s Day Two’s post.

No matter how small or large, simple or complex, gardens take work. Either you’re weeding or planting, lugging around and working in soil conditioners, or you’re watering or fretting over the lack of rain. Your back is aching, your hands are blistered. And I’d wager any gardener you ask will tell you it’s worth it.

I’m a pissy gardener. I gripe halfway through planting the dozens of bulbs I couldn’t pass up. I whine about all the weeding. Each year I swear we’re moving into a condo where I’ll plant a handful of annuals in one, count it ONE, terra cotta pot.

But then the first warm breath of spring comes and with it delicious anticipation as those first curls of green force themselves through the earth. Day by day, inch by inch the leaves spiral upward; blossoms begin to unfold. Then the snows usually return and shock the heck out of these beautiful gifts. But they persevere, reminding me that I, too, should get out in my glory and give winter a big “So what!”

Whether it was global warming or the Passover pixies, all of our bulbs were up and glorious just in time for the Seders. I’d planted a ton of daffodils and on the advice of a fellow gardener, nestled a few tulip bulbs within a circle of daffs. “Rabbits won’t go near daffodils, so your tulips will be safe.” I was only willing to risk losing a half dozen or so of Holland’s best, but my pal was right. The spawn of MacGregor’s nemesis only got to one. The rest stayed safe within a circle of yellow-capped soldiers.

Passover has now passed. The hyacinths are waning. The daffodils have bid their adieux. I deadheaded the lot of them today, a sad endeavor. No matter how long they stay, it’s never long enough. But look! The lilies are breaking through the earth; at the other end of the bed, the peonies are opening their leaves to the sun. Anticipation quells all garden gripes, salves the blisters and mutes the aches. No, I could never be satisfied with a single terra cotta pot.

The Birthday Challenge

With my 56th approaching by week’s end, I thought to throw out a birthday challenge. Can I create a post a day through Friday, limit 300 words or so, each one about Nature or our garden? Of all the topics I blog about, writing about Nature thrills me the most.

Having been born in the spring and raised in Atlanta, I always thought the world celebrated my birthday by bursting into blossom. And while many a birthday up here in the Great Lake State has often been spent wearing snow boots, this year my day has been heralded for nearly two weeks already.

I am grateful for each of you who stops by, leaves a comment or just allows my words to lift your heart or pique your curiosity. I won’t send out a daily notice of a new post. Just know that there will be a nature reflection each day this week. Ready for this week’s 56K Birthday Challenge entry? So am I. Here is the first one.

Forsythia. I sometimes think of it as a garden’s stepchild. Glorious for about two weeks, it fades to a utilitarian green, branches wild and unkempt its taxi-yellow blossoms faded to brown mush upon the earth. Forsythia is a great garden element, but nothing to build a landscape around. And yet this bright golden-yellow shrub is spring’s harbinger, coming into bloom even if there is snow on the ground, waving her blossom-laden branches as if shouting to one and all, “Hey! Wake up, everybody! Spring is here and I AM SHE!”

For all my gentle dissing of this beautiful flowering shrub, there is a nearby stretch of forsythia that is magnificent; I await its return each spring. The shrubs have been sculpted into a nicely-rounded hedge some six feet tall. And it stretches, are you ready?, for almost half a mile. Each year it calls to mind a great golden caterpillar inching its way down the road. The country club on Maple Road that maintains and nurtures this beauty does so from Franklin Road almost to Inkster. I am grateful to whomever the Knollwood deciders are who ensure it is kept up, fertilized, and trimmed so precisely into its signature form. With budgets being savaged everywhere, it is good to know that some expenditures endure for the good of all.

Had the author of Ecclesiastes been writing about forsythia, she surely would have added a coda to her time to plant, time to sow line: there is a time to blossom and a time to fade, a time to appreciate and a time to recall with delight.

Hydrangeas as Cover

Admittedly the news that inspired this post has already wrapped fish and is now likely composting.  I didn’t want this page lying fallow for too much longer and so offer up this meditation on planting spies.

“They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas,” as reported in the New York Times, June 28, 2010

Maybe 15-year old Jessie Gugig was on to something when she joshed that her Montclair, NJ neighbors Richard and Cynthia Murphy, just arrested on espionage charges, couldn’t have been spies because the latter’s hydrangeas were so lush and well tended.

I live in a suburban community much like Montclair’s: solid old houses, yards whose frontage is edged by sidewalk and landscaped by lawn and enough depth for a satisfying number of flowerbeds. We are gardeners all, enjoying daily walks and taking delight in one another’s combinations of monarda, phlox and campanula. Some of us are annuals-only gardeners; others favor perennials, preferences that can tell you much about a person although the distinction never reaches red state/blue state hubris and animosity.

But all of us garden, and all of us pretty successfully.  It’s part of who we are. We are united by this love of digging in the dirt, bringing forth beauty and vegetables. We commiserate over voracious rabbits and trade tips for ridding ourselves of voles. We are thrilled to share a divided hosta or astilbe with a neighbor who’s got a spot of empty shade. Someone once offered me rudbeckia, cheery yet invasive black-eyed Susan that conquers a garden faster than you can say Cuban missile crisis. When I demurred she replied, “Aha, so you’re a true gardener.” We use this earthy pastime as a yardstick of personal preference and acumen, and experience as well. We get to know our neighbors by their gardens. If someone’s good with hydrangeas, that says something about their character.

And so maybe the adolescent Gugig with, her off-hand comment about hydrangeas, intuited something important about commitment to one’s community. Hydrangeas are picky about where they will grow and blossom profusely; they require space, lots of it and a persnickety balance of morning sun and afternoon shade. Only those rooted in their gardens for the long haul take the time to tend hydrangeas, bringing them from nursery pot to mounds of big blowsy plantings whose blossoms are bigger than breakfast grapefruit. Hydrangeas are a magnet to passersby. Anyone wanting to live sub rosa wouldn’t go for hydrangeas but swaths of ubiquitous impatiens, pots of geraniums and petunias. You walk by them, smile and keep moving. Who stops and asks, “What’d you do to those impatiens to make them get so big?”

Gardening is past, present and future. Whenever we garden, a piece of our selves stays behind, mixing in with the decaying leaves of tomorrow’s nourishment.  Our gardens are our refuge, the place where the mind wanders free, dreaming dreams of days to come; taking solace from grief, the sun on our back, the earth pliant and accepting. For twenty-six years I have tended my azaleas.  Some now span six feet wide and five feet high.  Southern gardeners might sniff a “So what?” But I live in Southeastern Michigan.  I’ve babied these shrubs as long as I’ve had kids; each spring they return me to my roots, to the place where the earth is red and the word “yall” is regularly conjugated. Whenever I’ve thought about moving the first thought is always, “But what about my azaleas?” Gardening is not for the rootless. Leaving behind my azaleas would mean leaving behind a piece of myself as well – that self compelled to preserve childhood beauty and heritage.

Gardening attaches you: to your neighbors, to the earth, to the place deep within you where God, nature and creativity meet. When you garden you grow to love the earth beneath your feet and by extension the community beyond; if your hydrangeas are stellar it says this about you too.

Perhaps these wonderful plants, flowering in rose, white and Cape Cod blue, their leaves large, their blossoms round as a cheerleader’s pompoms, were the perfect American cover after all.

With Thanks to Barbara Cooney

I cannot see a lupine flower without thinking of children’s book author and illustrator Barbara Cooney. In Miss Rumphius, Cooney tells the tale of a woman who returns to the coast of Maine after leading an adventurous life and sets out to fulfill her father’s admonition to “do something that makes the world more beautiful.”

For Miss Rumphius, beauty and lupine flowers are synonymous and so she spends her remaining years harvesting their seeds and scattering them on walks along her beloved Maine coast. Cooney’s paintings, strewn with the periwinkles, blues and violets of Ms. Rumphius’ lupines, made my heart ache with their beauty. One day I wrote her a note of thanks for all the joy her books had given my children and me.

When a card arrived with the postmark — Damariscotta, ME, I tore it open, stunned that Ms. Cooney had taken the time to reply. “My drawing board is lying fallow at the moment,”, she wrote, “but I expect to be back at work momentarily. Still waiting for inspiration to fall from the sky!”

Her confession of a drawing board, metaphorically and literally fallow, touched me deeply. Her? A Caldecott winner twice over? But I understood that fallowness did not mean barrenness. It only meant the creative spark was regenerating. I took comfort in her confidence that she would soon be painting again, her canvass coming to life from heaven-sent inspiration.

For that is how it so often happens. A chance overheard conversation inspires the plot of a novel; the seemingly incongruous melding of maps and dictionaries comes together in searing artwork; a father’s admonition to make the world more beautiful comes alive in the pages of a children’s book.

I planted lupine in my garden with Barbara Cooney in mind. For all of Miss Rumphius’ success, my experience with this luscious flower has been spotty.    I have finally found a place in my garden where it is happy but have been warned by experienced gardeners not to try and transplant the seedlings that sprout nearby in potentially inhospitable  patches.

Gardening entices me for a myriad of reasons — the pure joy of digging in the dirt while the sun beats warm upon my back; the joy of watching seedlings take root and blossom; the fire of righteous anger I direct at the rabbits who dine on my carefully tended plants; the infinite metaphors to child rearing. There are marvelous names that I husband into the loam of vocabulary — scabiosa; heliotrope; scaevola; bee balm; dicentra; holly hock; delphinium; cleome. Who wouldn’t want a plant called “party girl” in her garden?  One seedling planted years ago has morphed into a girl gone wild showing up in back yard and front, confronting the astilbe and sidling up against the asters.

And then there is the lupine.  This year one plant has sent up five, count them five, plumes of violet and white! I admit to indulging in the sin of pride. But it is so much more that that.  The lupines take me back to the days of rocking chairs and bed time stories, back to the years when I tended the slender shoots that were my children, weeding out sass, striving to cultivate kindness and character. The lupines remind me of the marvelously talented author and illustrator who took a moment from her drawing board to write a fan, unwittingly imparting her faith to a fellow writer that inspiration, like rain, can be counted on to fall from the sky.

The Backyard Beckons

Before I took a part-time job as an in-house writer at a local school, working in the garden was just that — working, one more chore to do. Of course, once I got started I enjoyed it: the rhythm of weeding, the cool tactile delight of patting seedlings into place, orchestrating window boxes into a symphony of pattern and color. But gardening was nevertheless one more chore to accomplish.

Working three days a week leaves precious little time for everything else I used to do in five. I was dreading adding gardening to spring’s list of things to do. But this afternoon’s spell in the garden was a little piece of heaven, backbreaking heaven, but heaven nonetheless. The azaleas are in bloom, clouds of crimson, orchid and pink. The ajuga has returned, purple spikes framing the azaleas with their zany spires. The dogwoods are in full blossom, pink as summer lipstick. The lilies of the valley are up in profusion, quiet little white bells nodding beneath a quill of green. Coty’s Muguet des Bois (what the French call lilies of the valley) was the first perfume I ever wore. I tucked a sprig behind one ear and spent much of the afternoon shadowed by my ten-year-old self.

One of the rhodies didn’t fare too well. The winter was mild but for whatever reason, a good third to a half of her leaves have been reduced to rust-colored curls. There are anemic flowers here and there. I’m not worried. This happens every few years. She dies down and comes back bigger and better. A good lesson to remember when a harsh season leaves me feeling wilted.

Moving from bed to bed I fed the azaleas. Some of them we planted more than twenty years ago; they are now close to five feet high and seven feet wide. A little touch of my Georgia childhood up here in Michigan, they thrill me with their brilliance every year. No matter how much snow we have, how endless and pervasive the grey skies, I know the azaleas are there waiting to reward me for making it through another winter.

There are the inevitable invaders: some “volunteers,” some mishaps of my own. I am still pulling up sprigs of saponaria, planted for its promise of a pink delicately scented ground cover. Pink, yes. Ground cover yes. Delicately scented, no way. One gardener’s perfume is another’s yuck.

Behind the azaleas, I brush earth from the memorial stone marking where we buried our dog’s ashes. “Beloved McKenzie” it reads. It’s been two years and still we miss her; miss her happy spirit, her bright eyes, her black nose. A garden holds so much: anticipation and creativity; devastation and bounty; renewal and wonder; God’s everpresence. And sometimes in a quiet corner, a garden also holds the perennial reminder of love given boundlessly and missed so very very much.