Wednesday, June 30, 2010

6.30 Consider the Lilies

Cooler this morning, with radiant sunshine. Clear skies this high-sun time of year mean it will feel hot again this afternoon. Summer is about to set in for good, if it hasn’t done so already. Everything, as they said in the farmers market, came in two weeks sooner this year. So also with flowering plants. The native day lilies, which I used to date by experience to July 4th have been blooming for two weeks. They will be almost done by July 4th this year.
And with the sun at its height, I think – but of course in actuality the sun has already passed its height. The sun is no longer peaking; it’s already peaked. If you live in a cool northern “temperate” climate, you look forward the to the sun’s climb in the sky, enjoy the late evenings, celebrate the longest day of the year. It’s a big difference from the early dark of the bleak midwinter. But now the longest day has already passed. So am I looking forward to summer, or already saying goodbye to it?
Everything coming is also going.
The blooming of the day lilies is an annual garden peak. They light up their stems like candle flames in the green night of the afternoon shadows. The ornamental lilies, fewer in number but even more spectacularly tinted, are also showing their colors. We have fewer of them; I can probably count the buds. We could count the days until they’re all gone; but who would want to? Is this the best time of year? Is this the peak?
But in fact we have longed for the best of times. Isn’t it only natural to look forward to the good things you know will come in time? Vacation. An annual gathering. A visit. The opening of the floral show you’ve been preparing for months, maybe years.
The ornamental lilies are perhaps the best example of high ratio of color to foliage, the basic definition of bang for the buck. Nobody keeps them around for the foliage. It’s all riding on the bloom – at last, they’re here! Then soon enough they’re gone, and you’d better have something else to look at. Other plants, gladiolas, all the bulbs, really, are in the same class. Big show, then go. To a lesser extent, the same is true for all the flowering perennials.
They have their moment in the sun.
This weekend, the July 4th holiday, marks the traditional beginning of the summer vacation season, as we are reminded every year. But we’ve had our summer vacation here already, with the kids’ visits in June. Emotionally speaking, the long-awaited summer peak which is just beginning for others has already happened for us.
This brings me back to the matter of peaking. As always, the garden illustrates the point. Things build to a peak, and then decline. That’s nature for you. Are we in nature? Where else would we be?
The garden reminds us that time passes. And by the peculiar laws of time (which is to say existence), that which we draw to us – in our heart, spirit, or mind – will also draw away.
As we pull our summers – our vacations, our good times – toward us, we pull them past us as well.
We know time passes, just as animals do, by the clock of the year – the sun in the sky, the seasons, the trees, the garden.
We know our sun has its ups and downs. It’s already peaked this year. We watch plants of all sorts and conditions grow to their height. Because plants keep going until they reach their goal, seed production, we get to eat.
In the performance of human achievements, peaks are reckoned good things. But by definition, like the sun once you “peak,” you begin to go down. Peaks are slippery and almost inevitably partake of disappointment.
So when does a garden peak? In its profusion of spring wildflowers, in June’s rhododendrons and roses, the lilies of the midsummer fields (which this year are rushing the season), in the dense late summer landscapes? It’s a meretricious question, and peace of mind is abetted by leaving it alone. We wouldn’t want to know the answer, even if we could have it, any more than we want to know where we stand in our own circle of life.
Just like the lilies, we are disappearing all the time. The garden is the beautiful image of our evanescence.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

6.29 Creative Services

How to describe the role of the gardener in the thing itself?
Today I spoke to an artist for a story. One of the things he likes to do, he said, is design landscapes and decks.
Landscapes and decks? What I heard was “gardens.”
My artist interview was an illustrator and furniture maker who considered himself both artist and artisan. He drew, painted, measured, built, designed, cut, hammered, finished – provided artistic solutions to customers’ problems – and did everything by hand.
He worked on his own property the same way, building a deck, a stone wall around the entire yard, a stone stairway down to the garden. It was just another way of making something beautiful.
I know that gardening – which to me means “caring for plants”; a definition I borrowed from an essayist and scholar whose book I read a few years back – feels like a creative activity to me. The feeling was strongest back when we were creating a garden, the assemblage of plants shining back there right now in the midsummer sun, out of almost nothing five years ago. We were creating a living work of art.
I do this, I remember feeling, because on top of all the other reasons practical and impractical I can adduce, it feels creative. I am painting, I thought, not in a medium but in living things.
I don’t do any two-dimensional art. I can’t draw (at least not well) and I don’t do or make anything beautiful special with my hands, except (on happy occasions) dinner. I’ve long been aware of a desire to paint, draw or in some visible fashion portray nature, though my only homages require the abstract medium of language. Thank god for digital photography, but photos (at least the way I take them) are still flat, and lived experiences, even ones as simple as walking in a garden, are alive in more dimensions than we can count.
Nothing “captures” being there. By definition.
So what is the gardener’s role in the creative process that results in the created landscape? Gardening, growing living things, obviously contributes to the created “there.” It’s there because we helped it to grow. We help make the world. We’re not “the creator” in the sense of prime mover – that’s nature, the life process. Life, the life force, forever indefinable, grows the plants. But we had a hand in the work. We put our fingers into the bowl, we kneaded the dough, we pounded the grain, we rolled the clay between our fingers – we planted, watered, dug the earth – we chose to put what where. That’s what creators do.
The artist I mentioned above told me he and his wife took a property that had nothing but some “rotting trees” and chicken wire in it and turned it into a showpiece landscape with a beautiful deck. It took about 10 years. You could never imagine back then, he said, what you see today.
I know what you mean, I told him.
Gardening, helping things grow, may be a creative outlet for me, but it’s also the most philosophical thing I do.

Window Scene

Butterfly alights
Purple lands open to thee
Monarch of the sky

Thursday, June 24, 2010

6.21 Cool Days, Hot Days, June Days

We have a cool week and I worry that the plants aren’t getting enough sun, especially the annuals which have to make hay – or tomatoes, or peppers, or eggplant – in that relatively short time frame when the sun is supposed to shine. At the same time, I worry they’re not getting enough water because while the days are gray with threatened rain, not much rain actually hits the ground. The top layer of soil looks gray and crusty.
Then the weather changes, as of course it will, and we get a stretch of warm days, a couple of them humid as well, and now (while the tomatoes are happy) I’m afraid that some of my flowering plants are wilting in the heat. The leaves droop in the middle of the day, especially in this period of the hottest sun of the year. A new one goes on the watch list: have I put it in the right place? Does it need water every day to survive? If it does, then it can’t be in the right place, can it?
Warm days blending into hot ones – high eighties, humidity in the air by breakfast time – create a new regime. Now I think about watering first thing in the morning. It’s a summer time schedule, a summer vacation lifestyle: windows open, so wake to birds and neighborhood noise; go outdoors first thing to inspect the garden; walk around with the watering can or the hose as soon as something triggers the too-dry alarm; eat breakfast outdoors under the tree.
Of course, that routine doesn’t last either. We don’t live in a climate where the same weather pattern goes on day after day, week after week. It will rain tonight; I won’t worry about watering tomorrow morning – or breakfasting outdoors.
But while my classic-summer-conditions weather routine persists, I decide that systematic garden inspections may tell me something useful. How well will my new plants or “heat-sensitive” perennials hold up to the sun this year? I’ll do a morning check, a high noon inspection, and an end-of-day walk through.
At high noon yesterday, which means one o’clock eastern daylight time, I paid a visit to the heat-unhappy lace-cap hydrangea in the front garden. The plant has been a challenge since I planted it around the start of July two years ago on the shadier side of the front but yet, it appears, in a place still too hot and sunny. High summer sun penetrates there. With its leaves flopping piteously on the ground day after day, I watered the plant daily on sunny days and the same pattern continued last year. This year, after a pruning, the plant is fuller and its leaves have a ruddy dark-green tone. The flowers are just starting to open, and so far everything looks good. But will the good times last? Though the hydrangea is fine in the sun today, I remind myself that a good storm the other night soaked the area – wait till we get a real hot spell. I water it, in anticipation.
Are there new holes in the leaves of any of my new plantings? I’ve only recently accepted that something chewing on the leaves of young plants (probably at night since I never see these cunning pests) is a problem. Too late for two tiny marigolds, which have been largely stripped of anything resembling a leaf. My theory now is when you plant annuals or young perennials in among established plants, the pests – tiny inch worms that munch by night – are already established among the elders and quickly seek out the tender new leaves of the young. I make a mental note to spray these again.
Another annual, a zinnia, looks great after a rain but declines quickly into a ragged, chewed-up state after a few days without water. It’s so-so today. Remember to water.
Ah, the morning glory. A little too early in the season for flowers even after a morning this glorious. But the question is, any new chew-holes? The new leaves look good, but this is another plant (another annual) that needs regular watering, and I need to keep watching the new leaves daily for signs of nighttime predation.
The evening primrose, a well-rooted perennial, will drop its leaves in a graphic surrender of heat prostration on hot afternoons, so that makes it another candidate for attention. Today so far it’s good.
The butterfly bush will flag as well, as I’ve noticed with surprise for several years now. The thing is, as far as I can find out, this is a sun-loving plant, but the tall rather leggy bush against the back fence seems to be telling something about its sensitivity to hot dry weather. Does it too need water all summer? – as well as full sun to grow its flowers?
So maybe I don’t mind that it’s going to rain tonight and probably stay gray all day tomorrow – it relieves the watering schedule.
Somebody break the news to my tomatoes.

6.13 A Wildflower by Any Other Name

I am not the sort of gardener who comes upon an unknown or uninvited plant and pulls it at once from the earth. I am the sort of gardener who decides (in a startling burst of optimism) that what others call weeds are truly wildflowers.
There is much to be said in favor of weeds – excuse me, “wild plants.” They cover the earth. They colonize ground where your domestic hybrid pretty thing fears to tread. The hold down the earth, especially the valuable top layers, in times of fierce rain and spring floods. They provide habitat for many other life forms – bees, bugs, ants, birds. Who would like to look at a bare forest? What is a forest but a metropolis of wild plants permitted to follow their nature, high and low? What else covers the sins of human devastation so quickly?
There is much to be said against wild plants too, I suppose, on the grounds of spoiling the beauty and the order of the flower garden, which of course they do if a philosophy of embracing the wild and the natural is taken to its logical conclusion. But much of the settled and unexamined animus against them comes from householders trying to grow or preserve a perfect grass lawn. The war on weeds, especially when prosecuted by chemical herbicides, is a war on nature. Weeds are a natural visitor; they are naturally there in my yard, your yard, everybody’s yard. A lawn of non-native grass hybrids is an unnatural impersonator. The classic definition of a weed is a plant for which we have failed to discover a use. A grass lawn doesn’t have a use for anything but lawn grass, so all of nature’s free gifts are by definition weeds.
These gifts, admittedly, often come with baggage of their own. Poison ivy, for instance, is not a desired guest anywhere people live. I suppose it has its role in the balance of nature, but I’m not interested in discovering it.
Other weeds – I mean “gifts of wild nature” – may have thorns or other unpleasant characteristics – stinging nettle, wild rose. I remove them, like everyone else.
But I still tend to look at volunteer plants other than a familiar set of problematic intruders (crabgrass, hardwood saplings, the nightshade vine) as opportunities for discovery. For one thing, they may be new arrivals of the plants you are trying to grow; you have to let them go a little to learn to recognize them. Your volunteers may turn out to have desirable characteristics, attractive flowers or foliage, if you allow them time to develop. They may be lady slippers or asters or wild geraniums.
After a few years – here’s the “turn” in the story – you get to know they’re not.
You get to know them. You recognize them by their first three-eighths of an inch out of the grounds. You think, ah, fresh parsley, a new season’s supply, how fortunate! Or, oh, I see my neighbor’s waste tree has bombarded the back garden with spoor once more. I will now begin pulling up these thousands of little nameless saplings, even though it might be interesting to see what they produced, because otherwise I will have no garden at all.
Sometimes the volunteer plants are wild geranium. And in the case of the particular member of that large tribe which comes our way, that means I must hunt through every square inch of the property and remove them, because they grow anywhere and everywhere, and even though they will eventually produce some sort of flower, one knows from experience that the game is not worth the candle.
One also knows that when you pull one of them, being careful to grab several stems at once in order to have a chance of pulling up the roots as well, you must pause and look carefully at the same spot where you have just pulled because there will inevitably be a second one, a smaller cousin, understudying the first. You cannot get lettuce, herbs, tomatoes (or lawn grass) to seed this thickly.
Nothing seeds as thickly as weeds. It’s a trick of survival.
Then there are the violets, which I don’t know whether to call wild, or weeds, or garden flowers, because wherever we live they are always with us. In Quincy I began by
pulling out the crabgrass in the small, degraded front yard and leaving the violets, which flower so remarkably and consistently in April. Then I took to spreading them around, making them an all-purpose reliable groundcover. But after a few years of this, as the perennial flower garden began to look like something and the plants we (rather than nature) chose for it filled available space, all those violets are simply in the way. After April’s stirring show, they hold up their green heart-shaped leaves to the sun or let them flop to the ground during a drought, but filling the space is all they do.
And so I have come to realize, as all must, that gardening is balance. If I am to have flowers, color, plants that bloom in their season the rest of the summer, after violet time, I must extract from the earth all those thousands of – wild? Is that the word? – native? – violet plants I first encouraged to grow here and there along the edges of our plantations in order to border the beds. Their success is my failure. If we want to see what else we have grown, we must make room to allow our plants to show themselves.
I must treat my beloved violets as if they were – how else can I say it? – weeds.
It is a learning experience for me, and he who doesn’t learn from experience may as well crawl upon the earth and grunt. “Nature,” as the lady said in the film, “is what we were put on earth to rise above.”
I don’t go that far. To rise above nature is to disappear. You have to get along with nature; each side gives a little, wins a few, loses a few. I like to leave my plantings thick enough so that birds and bees can make use of them. They rise almost to the status of habitat; but it’s our habitat as well. As interesting as I find them, sometimes the weeds have to go.

Summer here at last
The clipper cuts through green wealth
Violets, adieu!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Help and Hope for My Strawberries

Rain in early June. I am going on vacation. What will happen to the strawberries?
Every year I fecklessly let the strawberry plants run wild. They are our most reliable food crop. I keep waiting for the plants to tucker out and stop producing berries, as commercial growers and reference sources say they will. They start slowly in the spring, and I think, oh well, this may be the year. I remember how thick and tangled they grew last year; and how so many of them rotted during the long rainy spell when dark weather kept them from ripening before they rotted, and wet weather kept me from wanting to fight my way into the overgrown patch to pick them.
I like a natural look. But my strawberry patch has been a jungle.
My plan this year is to put boards on the ground to make paths between the plants, i.e. the areas of exposed earth in early spring before the plants gather steam and suddenly there is no more exposed earth, using various pieces of waste wood I collected last year. In April I put the boards down, beginning on the shadier house-side of the patch, where the plantings are less lush. The make an awkward pattern from the kitchen window. I run out of skinny boards before I get to the sunnier side of the patch where the plants – not only strawberry, but Shasta daisy, raspberry and blackberry – thicken up and make picking almost impossible.
So when the strawberries do send out their low runners in all directions, confounding my predictions of a downturn, they quickly tangle up the area where I have no paths and no easy way to get at them. Still the berries are slow, by my internal clock, though the weather is mild, and I mutter to myself – sadly? hopefully? – we’re not going to get too many strawberries this year.
Then they sprout, tangle, blossom, set fruit, and by the last days of May the undergrowth turns red.
I stay on top of them at the start, picking the first ripe handfuls on the first few sunny days of strawberry season. Then the weather changes, rain comes regularly after a few weeks’ dry spell, and berries begin to rot before I can rescue them. They seem to ripen deep red on the outside and fill with damp on the inside at the same speed. You reach for them, and as soon as your fingers touch the flesh they feel the unnatural softness, and your mind says, “rotten,” “gone,” “done for”; add them to the compost pile.
If you miss that stage of red but rotten, in a few more days they turn gray and fuzzy on the outside. Sometimes they fuzz over without ever reaching ripeness.
So that, as I tell myself for the second year at least, is why the serious growers, doing what the reference guides to direct serious growers, do not let the plants go natural. They pull off the runners. They keep open space between lines of plants – rows. They don’t let the vines run in between other plants – big Shasta daisies, roses, bush berries. That’s why strawberry fields (forever, or not) all have the same dusty, conventional look.
And yet however amateurish my technique, we still collect strawberries by the quart, freeze some, and eat too many. We have strawberry pancakes. I cook berries in mango juice and a few spoonfuls of sugar, creating a breakfast topping halfway between compote and syrup.
And this year Anne makes a pie, somewhat after a recipe in the Globe, laying whole strawberries over a crust and then a strawberry filling of broken berries, sugar, and cornstarch to thicken; then putting the pie into the refrigerator to thicken.
It’s off the charts delicious.
We go to country tomorrow to visit Anne’s family for a few days, with scores of berries still marching toward their destination of ripeness and rot.
We’ll come back and I’ll shake my head over the waste, the soft unsalvageable ones, and pick a few edible ones. Dry weather would help; more rain will hasten decay.
But every year we grab more than a few bowls of strawberries in their prime, or close enough to it, and enjoy them. How much better can you do in life? Take the good things life offers, be thankful. Don’t worry about the ones that got away.
Nature has a plan for them too. It’s called compost