Tag Archives: gardening

Get Out Your Trowel

Every time I close the arched cobalt blue door behind me and enter Cranbrook’s Sunken Garden my breath catches in my throat. It is just so beautiful. I volunteer in the garden (nearly) weekly during the summer, digging and planting, weeding and uprooting. I return home tired, dirty and achy. And I say a silent blessing of thanks that I have the opportunity to work in this little piece of Eden here in Southeastern Michigan. It’s one thing to visit a spectacular public garden; it’s quite another to work in one, to be a part of it soil, root and petal.

We are a motley group — voluteers of all ages and both sexes, bound by the pleasure of digging in the dirt, making things grow, taking delight as each week brings new color and pattern. We are also bound by an intense dislike of hungry rabbits and visitors who ignore the signs and bring their dogs. Above all we are bound by a commitment to preserve this treasure. We are the Garden’s stewards; I feel no sense of ownership, just gratitude that the garden is here for me to enjoy and tend.

The Garden Mother (yes, that is what each woman who heads up a garden is called) took it on a quarter century ago — cultivating the earth so that it now crumbles in my palm soft as oatmeal flakes. Over the years she and others cleared and planted, experimented and replanted. She knows flowers not only by blossom and leaf but by root as well. She is forgiving of a neophyte’s mistakes and careless feet. “Plants grow back, that’s the beauty of them,” she says, her eyes blue as the bachelor buttons she has just transplanted.

There are such gardens large and small in every community. Most, if not all, depend on eager volunteers willing to get dirty, to weed and water, with no expectation of gain other than the pure joy of working in a place of beauty. If you have a couple of extra hours in your week (and even if you don’t!) consider spending them at a nearby garden. You will reap so much more than you will sow.

Local Michigan photographer E.C. Campbell spent an afternoon at Cranbrook. Her photos are on her blog. Scroll down for one of the blue door.

Channeling My Inner McGregor

Joyce Wadler’s Peter Rabbit Must Die had me laughing so hard I nearly watered the lilies. Best vicarious thrill I’ve had since seeing Made of Honor a couple weeks ago. Rabbits long ago ceased being the cute cotton-tailed creatures of Potter (Beatrix, not Harry) fame. They are varmints, plain and simple. Garden desecrating, always defecating, spirit dissipating varmints.

Last fall I threw in the trowel. No longer would I feed them in the manner to which they had become accustomed. No freaking way I was going to spend a Ben Franklin on tulip bulbs, three fall afternoons planting them, and another few Lincolns the following spring on odious-smelling potions (think rotten egg) just to keep Mr. and Mrs. Peter from doing what came naturally. To wit, hopping into my garden come spring to sever each and every beautiful tulip flower from its sturdy green stem. Red, pink, yellow, white. Didn’t matter, they decapitated them all. One day before full blossom. Every spring. Every blossom. Visions of lapin al la cocotte danced in my head. But I keep kosher. And don’t own a gun.

However this spring was different. Not that Mr. & Mrs. Peter haven’t been hopping overtime to breed more desecraters, defecators and spirit dissipaters. I haven’t quit gardening, nor have I ceased fantasizing about doing great and gusty harm to them. I simply took a zen approach and planted daffodils, flowers I can now confirm rabbits turn their twitchy noses up at. (That’s two for you, Sir Winston.)

The varmints are still hanging around, but they’ve left my daffs alone. Every single one of them. Because, Sam-I-Am, rabbits do not like daffodils. They do not like them in the front yard. They do not like them in the back yard. By the patio, beside the fence, beneath the tree, they let them be. Just like that.

Come fall I’ll plant even more. Maybe the bunnies will turn cottontail and find greener pastures and pinker tulips elsewhere. And if not, let them eat rake.

On Goldfinches & Zinnias

We never had goldfinches in the neighborhood until Shelby came to town. My neighbor two houses up is an amazing gardener. Forget about green thumbs; make it all ten digits. She also has a passion for Labs and since I’ve known her I’ve also come to know Chutney (brown), Smudge (black) and now Madison (yellow).

And Shelby is a birder. The windows outside her family room are continually aflutter with wrens, chicakdees, jays, all coming to have a nosh at the feeders. A hawk has even paid a visit or two evincing the reality of the food chain: Shelby once looked over just in time to see a great WHOOMPH! of swooping and feathers. And one less birdy at the feeder.

The goldfinches are my favorites. Tiny taxi-yellow flashes of delight they dart throughout the neighborhood like rushed cabbies trying to get their passengers to JFK. Wherever I am in the neighborhood, when I glimpse one of these bits of sunshine with wings I send her a silent thank you.

I love the color of them because it’s the same saturated color that zinnias are known for — that submerged-in-a-paint-can intensity — orange, red, pink so hot it flashes, and of course yellow. Each week in spring, while they were blooming, Mrs. Lyle, my fourth grade teacher, brought in a vase of zinnnias from her garden. I was mesmerized by their intensity. Sometimes I pretended I didn’t understand something just so I could go to her desk and get up close and personal with the zinnias.

I get up close and personal with zinnias each year now. Their colors, so deep you could fall in, still make me hum with delight. But in the past few years, something has been eating them. I would come out into the garden and see petals nibbled away to tiny nubs. Some mornings all that remained was the dullish little cushion of center that had anchored the brilliance. What was eating my zinnias? The rabbits? This violation gave me one more reason to hate those voracious wonton creatures. But what I couldn’t understand was how they did it? How hadn’t they bent the stems? Where were their footprints? At least their hygiene had improved — they were dropping their droppings elsewhere.

And then one morning while I was having breakfast a flash of yellow at the window caught my eye. It darted between the flower stems. And then landed, bouncing gently before it tucking into its breakfast. I watched the goldfinch, its yellow wings perfectly contrasting the deep red zinnia that was quickly being whittled to stubs. Before I finished my eggs, that red zinnia was toast.

How annoyed could I get? S. had given me the gift of goldfinches. Feeding them was a proper thank you. I plant extras now, and then wait for the zinnias to open, knowing that as soon as they do, the goldfinches and I will be breakfasting together once again.

Going for the Cobalt

Around our house cobalt blue is called “Debra blue” because everyone knows how much I love the intensity of that hue. I wear it, collect it, plant it. I’ve been told I’m drawn to this color because the lightwaves projected by cobalt blue resonate with my own wavelengths. Or something like that. More simply put, I have a cobalt vibe.

Lobelia’s a thready little plant that comes in white, sky blue, lavender, deep purple and you guessed it, cobalt. A friend says that the cobalt variety makes her eyes dance. Naturally it’s the first hue to go at the garden centers, so some years I manage to find only a few packs. Other years I luck out and find a whole flat. This spring was a whole flat year. Usually I tuck a few plants in among the other flowers in the window boxes and planters, parceling out these little sprigs of visual ecstasy in amongst the marigolds, verbena and vinca.

But this year, once I’d finished the window boxes and the planters, I had a good half flat left over. Where else could I tuck it in? And then it came to me. Why not have an entire intense patch of this dreamy color to meditate on, swoon over, lose myself in? How extravagant! Why not indeed. And so I did. Instead of parceling out these eye-dancing plants in mincing steps, I planted close to forty of them — yep, I choreographed an entire stage of deep blue brilliance to shimmy beneath the shade of our dogwood tree.

Why do we give in to our pleasures in such tight little bundles? Whether it’s watching three movies in a row, or eating a banana split, or hunkering down under the covers to read for an entire afternoon, we should be going for the cobalt, losing ourselves in that very thing that makes not only our eyes dance, but our souls, too.

What is your cobalt? Got it? Now go for it!

On Dogwoods and Daughters

I don’t know which is stranger: that my azaleas bloom in June or that the soil anchoring their shallow roots is black, rich, and humusy.Having spent my childhood years in Atlanta where flowering begins in March and the earth is red and rusty, I still find these small details jarring. Even after twenty five springs north of the Mason Dixon line I am still not accustomed to this. Transplanting is funny business.

Each spring I ache in a small place I can’t name. It’s not simply that slogging through March, April and a piece of May makes me long for a the landscape of my childhood. It’s the realization that my children and I do not share nature cues, those deeply embedded sensory memories thatevoke home once we’re grown and gone.For them, spring wafts in on crab apple breezes cool with morning. I snip lilac branches and put them into nightstand vases to scent their dreams. When they were little, they played “Catch the Helicopters” as maple seedlings spiraled to earth. Magnolia blossoms? Honeysuckle nectar?Fuggeddaboutit. Nature has imprinted my children with a different beauty, different cues for home.

I occasionally hear my kids slip in a “ya’ll” when calling out to their friends, but more often it’s “you guys.” Their A’s are flat as Redwing hockey ice. When they were toddlers, they’d say, “Daddy help me with my pajamas.” and I would cringe. “Daddy” squeezed from their vocal cords as “Deeaddy”. Ditto “p’jeeamas.”My children sometimes sound like strangers to me. Where are their drawls? I taught them to speak, but their ears have found other accents to mime.

How can I imbue my children with a sense of the South when we only visit once a year? Especially since we usually visit in December? The South means swinging with their aunt and uncle in the backyard hammock. It’s pine straw fights and hearing their grandpa say, “C’mere bubba, gimme some sugar.” It’s going coatless in winter and seeing velvety pansies planted by an intrepid gardener, but not camellias, not gardenias.

In his terrific memoir The Provincials, transplanted Southerner Eli Evans recounts his son’s birth in a New York University Hospital delivery room. In one hand he held his wife’s hand. In the other, a fistful of North Carolina soil, “scooped from the UNC campus…because the truth was I wanted my son to know his roots.”

Darn! I wish I’d thought of that. But UNC dirt or no, I’d lay a bet Evans’ son, born and bred in Manhattan, nevertheless stands on line not in line. It’s hard this passing on the sense of place. We can do the big stuff. Religion. Ethics. And I suppose that’s more important. But it’s the little things that make us who we are. That root us in place.

Yet I have hope. By sheer luck and the yearning of the Southerner who owned our house before us, two dogwoods bloom outside my daughter’s bedroom window: one pink, one white. Over the decade and a half we have lived in this house we’ve watched them grow until they are nearly as high as the attic. Each spring those dogwoods are the first thing my daughter sees upon awakening and the last thing she sees before dreaming. My husband and I once toyed with moving to another neighborhood. “We can’t!” Emma wailed. “What about my dogwoods? I wait for them every spring.”

My daughter, who adores snow, whose accent holds no trace of Georgia red clay, who has never bitten off the green bulb end of a honey suckle flower to drink a drop of its sweet nectar, nevertheless waits for the dogwoods to bloom.It matters little that her inner clock has patience for June while her mother’s is ready in March. Emma waits for dogwoods. That is enough for me.

Long ago I promised myself that if she were to settle somewhere in the North and bless me with a granddaughter, I’d plant a dogwood outside the infant’s window.And should my daughter settle in a land alien to us both, somewhere like Montana or Washington state, I imagine we’ll both be out in the garden — I with a dogwood, and she with a lilac, rooting into the earth not just flowering trees for springtime delight, but the essence of our childhoods as well.

Emma is no longer at home when the dogwoods outside her window bloom. So I call and tell her when her blossoms unfurl, each one a four-petaled reminder of earlier days.