Thursday, April 22, 2010

Violet Season

It’s the violets, though, that amaze. I have transplanted them from the hot, sunny side of the front yard, where they grew among the patchy grass we found here on the “sunny side of the street” when we moved in five years ago. In most places these transplants take right away. In the thin-soiled root-world beneath the canopy of the maple tree, however, they came up disappointingly skinny and short on flowers last year. But this year they are making a show.
Some of these plants will struggle. Some will disappear. Some will persist, carrying on from year to year, dying back to almost nothing in their down seasons, then suddenly shooting up in a favored spring.
Let this be the favored spring for the under-tree violets!
We will forget thee, oh humble violet! when your blossom is long gone and you edge into other territories, just another green leafy colonizer, another root to feed, among so many. We will cut you back. We will even uproot you – some of you – then, to make space for the later arrivals.
But this month you light your fires in dull and ordinary places.
Dark blue, white, and purple-flecked violets from previous transplantings are also blooming all over the back garden and on the side of the house.
Violets: a poem

This changeable month
You light your white and purple fires
In ordinary hearts

Brave New Hopes

I spend the best hours of an afternoon weeding and cleaning up a couple of small plots in the front garden. It’s amazing the difference one spring makes. One spring from the next. A winter’s worth of forgetting in between.
“O brave new world that hath such people in it!” exclaims Miranda the innocent.
“’Tis new to thee,” answers her father Prospero, the voice of experience.
The best thing about this is finding the plants that have come back so much stronger than a year ago. I dig out the lingering brown leaves that have tangled among the roots or otherwise escaped apprehension up till now and find spreading examples of a saw-toothed leaf plant I am now pretty sure is a poppy. The lily-of-the-valley now look to be coming in thickly enough to make to make a visual chorus of white bells next month.
Admittedly, the joy of discover is abetted by a year of forgetting and scatter-shot record keeping. I planted more than one kind of poppy two years ago, I think, and one of them (though I have no idea which) appears to be gathering strength.
Another low plant is pushing out strikingly attractive small, dark green, close-together leaves – amazing how much variety is encompassed by the simple word “leaf.” What is this new arrival? But then I actually find a purchase tag with a name and a picture of a low blue-flowering plant with leaves that just may be what I’m seeing. I christen thee (at least provisionally) Evolvulus Blue Daze. The plant is strong and healthy; I’m looking forward to seeing, or remembering, what it does.
This season is promise embodied. It’s the objective correlative for hope.
The lace-flower hydrangea, which has struggled since I planted it (in the wrong place) two years ago, is full of beaming light-green leaves. I clip off all the dry, taller branches which are lacking leaves without looking up whether it’s the right time to do this or not. It makes the plant look better now; I am in an immediate gratification state of mind; I don’t care if it ends up reducing the plant’s size. Maybe this hydrangea, which has flowered but also wilted in the hot weather, will end up weathering the mid-summer sun this year even though my estimate of how much shade this smaller moiety of the front garden received was wrong – to the detriment of a shade-loving species.
I have hope for the stunted monkshood as well, which failed to get up in the world far enough last year to flower, and for the English daisy (I think that’s what it is), a mottled, flat-leaved, ground-hugging stranger that hasn’t done anything but make these few low leaves in the past.
It’s not easy ground, this side of things, close to a big maple shade tree and a thousand searching roots. I dug this area up myself two years with a spade, removing the thin turf, turning over the root-bothered soil, cutting out bigger roots where I could. Today I use my new claw tool to cultivate the tetchy soil, loosening it, but not as easily as in places further from the tree. I add humus to this spot, peat-moss, compost, every year but part of me suspects that any soil improvements I make just encourage the tree to send out more roots to soak up the new nutrients.
I move on to the still more difficult plot directly under the maple tree. Here I am cheered that a few bunches of grape hyacinth have taken hold and are considerably thicker than last year.
But the Ajuga reptans which was the star of the flowerful month of May out here last spring seems to have died back drastically. (A cold winter without enough snow cover?) A patch of poor growth on poor, rooty ground, which had showed some drying out last year, seems to have multiplied by ten since last year. I decide to give it time. So far all I do is pull weeds, which means tufts of determined the grass in this spot, clean out dead leaves, thereby “staging” the area by highlighting the deep greens and bright colors of the plants that have come back with their bright spring surge upon them.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Things Are Happening Every Day

The absolute best thing about this month is that things change literally every day. The blue grape hyacinth which I planted a few years ago have begun to flourish in some difficult places to grow anything – directly underneath a large shade tree, and in the curbside strip.
I have put a little bit of everything that was doing well elsewhere underneath the maple tree in the front yard, a patch of thin earth utterly hemmed in by pavement and eaten up by tree roots. The ajuga has actually flourished here, producing a solid purple month of May last year, though so far it has not come back so strongly this spring. Where the ajuga doesn’t grow, and the soil is particularly thin or non-existent – between roots and parking area – I throw turf, old mulch, weeded dandelions, and anything else I think might turn into soil, and one year I dropped bulbs into the mix. I’m happy to see some color here this year. On the other side of the tree, the low phlox hangs over the sidewalk, a little spot of rare street-level color.
The sidewalk strip, which I have resolutely planted with something or another for five years, has been through a lot. It gets sanded, salted, assaulted, snow-piled, shovel-shocked, gravel-strewn, tree-rooted, and dogged.
A couple years ago, after I had started some speedwell going there, it had a ditch dug through it when our sewer pipe clogged (another gift of the maple tree) and the city came with big trucks and armed men (and women) to tunnel out the old pipe and replace it with a new one made of plastic. Apparently, tree roots don’t like PVC, an evolutionary oversight I expect will be remedied in time.
Whatever disappeared then I replaced with sedum, the one constant star in that section which shines in all seasons, making fat bright-green leaves in early April and waiting till September, or later, to flower, thus living up to its “autumn joy” varietal name. Some violet are catching on in this strip too, so I was happy to see the grape hyacinth unfurl their little blue, bell-like flowers this week, playing on the blue-violet end of the spectrum.
Also showing this week, a light pink hyacinth; an eccentric reddish tulip whose origins escape me; some splashes of deep blue vinca flowers; more violets here and there.
In the back garden, I am finally figuring out Lenten rose. The flower color is as green as the plant’s leaf on the outside, but white on the inside. I think they bloom in March. Who knows when I would have noticed them if I wasn’t cleaning out the old leaves in that spot.
The white blossoms of the cherry tree are flying off in the breezy weekend days following Friday’s all-day rain. Still beautiful against Saturday’s cool, dry-blue sky. Vinca blue and violets spackling through the fresh green groundcovers. Some shrubs, lilac, Japanese maple, unveiling new leaves.
New leaves for everybody. And something new for me to notice every day.

April 7: Too Beautiful, Too Soon

The shock and awe day which I have been predicting.. In the eighties this afternoon, and still climbing. When I open windows, the temperature in the house goes up about 15 degrees immediately.
Later, the kitchen thermometer registers 91. Eighty-nine in Boston, the radio tells me, a record. Guys shoot at a basketball hoop and board on Exeter Street, at an increasingly dilatory space as the day wears on.
New flowers today: the first violet blossoms, absolutely not there yesterday. About 20 blossoms in a couple of locations in the front.
Many more vinca blossoms in the back.
Some new vinca, not there yesterday, blooming in the front near the rose bushes.
Things done: Dug up the raised-bed garden area for peas, scooped out the high-smelling compost, too much bending, from the bin and pitch-forked it in. Not broken up enough when I worked the ground today.
Put down metal climbing cones and planted pea seeds around them.
I plant morning glory seeds in the glass-roofed seedbed, using decay-able seed pots, the sort of product that looks like chewed cardboard. Way too hot to put the glass cover on top of them.
Dug out the plants in the corner of the back garden where sump pump pipe trench will run, and moved to safety. Will I remember them all? What will the collateral damage be?

Perfect Days

We had beautiful, unusually mild Easter weekend weather. Mild, room-temperature weather continued Monday and Tuesday with a prediction of eighty degrees tomorrow. Suddenly, though it won’t last – it can’t: that’s the definition of April – we’re in the Other Place. You wake up in full sunlight, you get out of bed without turning the heat up, you look out the window right away. You find some reason why you have to go out of doors before breakfast; possibly before anything.
The Other Place has its own routines in the garden. You step outside without looking at the thermometer first, without thinking what to wear, and you go not to get the paper but to see what news the earth has warmed up. You check to see if anything new is blooming. Or if the light is doing something different when it brings out the color of the scattering of bluets (little sky-blue bulb growers), which appear to have done some work spreading themselves around without much assistance from humankind. The grape hyacinth had grown shapelier and may even be preparing to open in some unpromising territory under the maple tree before too long.
The green spears of the day lilies – those woodsy New England leaves of grass – have grown greener, richer, more prosperous looking every day. They don’t bloom for months, but they begin to be a presence in March, long before many of the spring bloomers have any appearance.
So in the last few days, taking advantage of the weekend, we have undressed the garden of its brown winter wear – all those dried brown tree leaves which the garden wears like a shabby brown coat, worn out by the weather. The garden has been sleeping rough, under rags on a bench. The rags kept it warn. Now it wriggles out; stretches fingers and toes in the smiling air.
Tabulations: About a dozen to fifteen big brown leaf bags filled up and scattered around the yard, some lined up against the front porch, some stationed near collection areas in the back and side.
New blossoms: The weeping cherry tree bloomed full-white today. It was halfway there yesterday. You could see the blossoms, unopened, on the branches a few days before Thursday when I was looking at it with Anne’s parents. Stay a few more days, I said, and you’ll see it bloom.
A few more vinca flowers, looking purple along the blue granite flagstone walk.
A few bluets – that’s what I’m calling them; tiny bulbs making light blue flowers with thin, star-like petals, in the side yard.
A couple of photos: the cherry tree, the day lilies, the first round of purple vinca in front of the Adirondack chairs.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Poetry in flower

My Plymouth Library friends are reminding everyone that April is poetry month. They’ve got the right month – the poets have put April in the language. One of the few passages I was ever asked to memorize, the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, puts April in the first line: “Whan that Aprill with its shoures soute/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote/ And bathed every veyne in swich licour/ of which vertu engendred is the flour…”
I remember how to say the Middle English, but not how to spell it, so I looked up the spellings. The modern English goes something like: When April with its sweet showers, the drought of March has pierced to the root, and bathed every leaf in the liquid whose goodness makes the flowers…
I also remember our professor calling our attention to Chaucer’s evocation of the “droghte”of March, an ironical notion in view of recent circumstances. But ironical to Chaucer, too. There is no meteorological drought in March, then or now. Chaucer was talking about the spiritual dryness that comes from too much winter – April puts an end to that, on its better days at least.
“So,” Chaucer concludes that first passage, “piketh hem Nature in hir corages/ Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages…”
When nature awakens our hearts, that’s when we go on pilgrimages.
April brings a new season, spring – time for us to go on our pilgrimages.
People change their wardrobe and get outdoors any way possible, walking the dog, shooting hoops, flooding Boston Common. Anne and I spend all Saturday clearing dead leaves and last year’s growth off the back garden, revealing a whole lot of green, some purple vinca flowers, a few hidden bulbs, and the first green shoots of scores of other plants that will unfold their nature over time.
After Chaucer, April shows up all over the map. Eliot famously called it “the cruelest month.” Cummings (“April is a perhaps hand”) and Frost approach the month’s changeability: “You know how it is on an April day/ When the sun is out and the wind is still/ You’re one month on in the middle of May./But if you so much as dare to speak,/ A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,/A wind comes off a frozen peak/, And you’re two months back in the middle of March.”
But in April even raw, rainy spells make us think of flowers. And flowers make us think of the mixed blessings of our own nature.
In the “Immortality Ode,” which is really about reconciling ourselves to mortality, Wordsworth saves his finest bloom for the great nature-loving poem’s last lines:
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears.
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

After the Flood

We had a new season this year – flood month. The Great Spring Flood of 2010 came March 13 to15. We struggled through the rain to go to a Sunday afternoon concert in Boston, walking the rain-splattered streets and thinking that wearing wet clothes was the worst of it. We came back to find six inches of water in the basement. We spend a week clearing soaked stuff out of the basement.
I lay the pages of damp photo albums on newspaper on the living room floor in a flood reclamation project that is still going on by fits and starts. I worry about sorting through the hundreds of pics from our Lebanon trip to get them in some condition to share with friends. I suffer from a stomach bug for weeks, watching what I eat (a rarity for me) and husbanding my energy for work.
I try to love the spring.
The day after the rain finally stops, the sun comes out, the temperature warms, and spring fever breaks out in the Massachusetts masses. Shortsleeves; shorts. Smiles. Our crocuses break through the brown leaf and muck crust, but the back garden – my daily companion because I stare at it, at least a sliver of it, from my desk – still looks like the Lower Ninth Ward after Katrina.
So I’m still not in tune with the universe, and am disappointed with myself because early spring has been a favorite part of the garden experience in other years. Because it changes every day.
This week we wrap up our second major rain event (less dramatically for us, thank-you weather gods) and when the sun comes out on Thursday peace and harmony once more rule the land. Anne’s parents and I step outdoors for a walk at Wollaston Beach. They’ve been unable to go home to New York City for two days because the rain washed out the train tracks in Rhode Island. (Oh, did I forget to mention that other little change the flood season made in our schedule?)
As we go to the car, I glance at a little spot of bare earth in front of the 50-year rhododendron bush and see the round hats of the first violet leaves emerging. The leaves are actually heart-shaped, but when small and newly out of the ground they look round – little green mouths drinking up the sun. They were not there – nothing was there – the last time I looked at this spot last – if not the day before, no more than two or three. And here they are.
This is what I have been missing.
Other plants are up, of course. The crocuses have already blown and dropped. The lavender is drawing the color back into its leaves. Sedum leaves look green and plump already. But I had forgotten about that bare piece of ground where I introduced the violets a year or two ago: violets, this is ground. Ground, violets.
The things you forget about in order, so it seems, to discover them again. That’s the best part of spring.