Tuesday, May 31, 2011

5/30 May shines up, lines up

Last week somebody threw the switch on the warm air current. The first day was a Tuesday: up to eighty and humid by the hump of the afternoon. A warm, sunny week led to summer-like Memorial Day weekend, humid at times, occasional bouts of fog, threats of thunderstorms, and windows open all night. Birdsong at four-thirty a.m. comes in loud and clear.
I revel in the opportunity of so much fine outdoor weather; an endless stream of happy high-on-fresh-air hours. I go from glancing nervously at the sky, wondering whether I will get the next little pie-faced Green-man Scottish Moss in the ground before the clouds open up again, to putting everything else in the ground I’ve been keeping around for over a week.
Those six-packs of eager little annuals – lobelia, alyssum? Your time has come!
I make space for them by lifting up a carpet of thick-leaved viny monochrome green groundcover, which I’ve been using for years for outdoor flooring. It’s taken over a triangle in a highly visible place – the oxbow twist in the winding central path that divides the back garden. A site for a showplace. I dig the big green groundcover out, en masse, and re-set the pieces in some difficult terrain under the oak tree.
I set the low, cheerful lobelia and alyssum along the newly freed borders of the path. I work in the one-of-a-kind perennials, fresh discoveries picked up at last weekend’s garden club sale – which has come to rival a Home Depot of stock choices, though with plenty of stales personnel and selections divided into “sun,” “shade,” “groundcovers” and a long demonstration table with examples of the plants to be found displayed in their proper departments along the long Wollaston Congo church Driveway of Fertility.
It was actually too crowded and no longer a place for unexpected discoveries and face to face encounters with the growers of the specimens you’re planning on taking home. It had changed from a tag sale to an auction.
I fill up a cardboard box with precious dirt and plant material – the gifts of fertility – to a weight heavier than I can decently carry and struggle down the street, straining under my loot. Can’t wait to take advantage of the big vernal dig.
I spend big hunks of each day outdoors. Each day slightly different, each one marvelous in its own way. A dry brilliant day, clear as cool water. A warm, thunderous day, ending with gin and tonics outdoors. A day with a long evening walk, just cool enough to make moving a pleasure while we lecture our poor visiting daughter on the twists and turns of "Lost." A hot humid Saturday, interrupted by a bout of fog, highlighted by a trip to buy advanced vegetable seedlings and to begin planting tomatoes.
A day when the green seedlings planted three weeks ago finally revealed their identity.

Ground Spice haiku

At last cilantro
The soil asks to be taken
The spice box opens

A Human Bee-ing

Flowers are the sex organs
Of hot momma nature.
We all love the colors, the shapes,
the delicate constructions.
They bring us together.
Do not ask what makes
that deep, persistent buzz
what hovers above zouavish skirts and bell-flared trousers,
transparent angel wings extended,
and wiggles its nose between stamen and pistil.
It is us.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Rain Forest Massachusetts

All things that grow are greener than green in the very-wet merry month of May. Even under solidly overcast skies, the foliage shines. A beam of green light emerges from of the raspberry thicket where I have focused the lens of my unabashedly malevolent gaze on the squirrel climbing the pole to the birdfeeder. Move that lens a silly centimeter and what you have see are green vines, low green branches of heavy-leafed trees, tall green shrubs, a spurt of red azalea blossoms, and an overflow of ruggedly burgeoning raspberry canes, all of them green, green, green!
Weeks of rain and chill have put me behind in my planting. As for weeding, some sections of he back garden have already reached the you’ll-never-catch-up stage, and the usual portfolio of all-consuming, back-again-this-year, completely adaptable volunteers have leapt into the breach. When I sneak out between fresh wettings for an hour or so, I go to the places where appearances will be noticeably improved once I yank up or trim away the armies of enthusiastic followers which nudge hopefully against their powerful patrons – the over-dressed peony tree in the clock circle, for instance. Its neighboring astilbes, two fat brothers happily soaking up the green juice of spring. The garden germander, a low herb-like creature growing in asymmetrical weaves like a weed itself. I work to free a colony of Forget-me-nots (tiny baby blue florets; a few pale pink), adept spreaders themselves limited only by the herd of wild violets, marauding primroses, and posses of local homeland weeds tussling the space away from them.
To free them up, I pull handfuls of the nameless, big-leafed groundcover which grows like a bouncy mat – the green eraser – wherever I let it out of the spongy earth. Only when I’ve exposed enough space to see bare dirt can I think about inserting some new color into the borders of the stone path that wanders like a river through the heart of things, from patio to fence. It’s the central wiggle in the garden path.
I’m a tactile designer. When I can feel the cool, wet dirt through the finger tip holes in my glove, I decide where to place the two yellow-green clumps of a low mossy plant (called Scotch Moss by the plant center) to improve the density of the half dozen we planted last year along the stones of the central path. As I begin interring these, making my bet against nearby footfalls, returning weeds, and nosy squirrels, a steadily darkening sky turns down the thermostat on a late afternoon. The day had been dreary but still and rather warmish – fine weather for squatting in the damp and getting your clothes dirty. Now the air drops ten degrees in five minutes (coat goes back on) and begins to drip. Quick with the shovel, the ground too moist for pre-planting watering. Pull the root ball apart, dig a small hole, marry the roots to the soil. The rain picks up. In a tumble I get my second plant in; the rains sends me scurrying.
Indoors, I hear the thunder rumble.
Or… Maybe not a rain forest. Maybe just rain-merry old England. Gardens always look great there, and things are looking pretty good here too.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty: A Poem

(“You must come to see me,” he says. “I will show you my garden.” Then when you go just to please him you will find him with his rump sticking up somewhere among the perennials… – from The Gardener’s Year, by Karel Capek)

I do it because it is outdoors
Because I can
Because you can do it alone
And you need – very little – but not nothing
You need a growing season.
(What am I doing in New England?)
I take no prisoners
I take no shit
(except out of the manure bag)
I need growing things – creatures willing to grow
Any volunteers?

Let me tell you about spring,
When the earth looses its madmen
And ambitions grow like weeds –
No, that would take too long.
Summer is ravishing, ecstatic, nature on steroids.
Summer is falling in love – wild, messy, overheated.
Lush. Inebriated.
Too damn short.
In addition to which, nothing you do then is ever good enough
To satisfy the wild sense of possibility
You smell like the desire of the stamen for the
Honey bee’s many legs
And even if it were, you can’t stop time

And at the end, when it’s all in the rearview mirror,
Or all in your head, make-believe, even,
when you are sobering down with a good glass of hoar frost
And a fresh delivery of number two heating oil

In the garden, even then, death is beautiful
Autumn is beautiful, like death.
Life is only valuable because we die
(If you don’t believe that, imagine life without flowers,
Families without babies)

We are obliged to be happy
We look at the fading asters, or the Montauk daisies, or the furtive, modest, ravishing anemone and realize, with some degree of calm,
That we are all on our way, in time, out of time,
To the same place
Which, if we are lucky,
Will strongly resemble a garden

In the garden, I know,
That everything is forever and always was
Until it isn’t
And even then I’m hedging my bets
Because, understand, there’s a garden metaphor for everything,
Even the things we haven’t thought of

Monday, May 16, 2011

5.11 Something New to Work With

Some of my plants didn’t make it back this year. Some bare spots appear in the planting beds. Since there are a lot of planting beds here, bare spots are nor surprising –I think of them as opportunities for improvement.
Oh, boy, I get to buy something new!
Three days – or its five – of a May northeaster, with the wind blowing clouds and occasional rain passages off the ocean, so improvements are on hold. I’m dying for some sunshine. The persistent wind is even worse. Hey, guys, we’re burning May. The wind makes the air feel colder than the temperatures. A high of sixty with no sun and the wind blowing in your face is just not the same as sixty in the sun, still air, and the birds singing.
We finally get our sunny day for the week. It’s Friday. I am busy finishing one story and writing another from notes taken the day before. It’s late in the day before I get outdoors, but I make time for a trip to a small, local plant store. Sunny days are good buying days; it puts you in the mood.
Saturday morning, another cloudy day, Anne and I hit the plant market in Quincy, a gypsy-like seasonal business that pops up under a tent roof on a parking lot squeezed between a supermarket and a car dealer at peak selling times such as spring planting, pumpkin harvest, and Christmas tree season. The annual seedlings all look great, vigorous and colorful, they haven’t outgrown their little ice-cube measures worth of dirt yet, and plants such as alyssum which often arrive scrawny and weak in early summer are well grown and in flower. It’s been a good year in plant production world.
So, after a pair of shopping expeditions, by Saturday afternoon we have some 20-odd little round plastic containers or six-packs of colorful new plant life to paint the beds with. I tell the garden it must be its birthday.
Working against the threat of a rainy week in the forecast I set to work under overcast skies to patch the new life into the places where it may help to elevate the current beds up to a higher expression of whatever it is we are working together to do. The prospect that almost nobody will notice the difference except me never intrudes on the trance of gardening.
Almost at once I have entered the zone in which what other people think – and what I ordinarily might be thinking about – no longer matters. This is what creative work is. Possibly this is what work really is, period, or should be. In the ideal world if you’re painting a barn, or digging an asparagus patch, or patching a road, or writing a poem – it doesn’t matter how hard, sweaty, inward or outward the process is, what matters is how much you care about and are thoroughly involved in what you’re doing. You care about the result. You care about doing it right, making it work, making it beautiful, or making it useful (or some of both), about helping someone, or improving the situation for all of us, or repairing the world. That’s what work is.
When you’re really there, doing it, that’s what the “trance” of gardening or any real occupation is – so-called because you’re not looking at the clock. You are occupied by the task. You’ve eliminated time – the objective, measureable march of the hours, minutes, and seconds. Or at least pushed it far into the background.
In the foreground is dirt, on your gloves, on your fingers, any part of your body or your clothing that you touch with your hands. And plants – including the weeds, which you will now scrupulously remove, after overlooking them for weeks, in order to clear the area where you are considering berthing a new plant. And your body, which you will have to maneuver into some far too small and uncomfortable space by kneeling, squatting, standing awkwardly between the plants and places you don’t want to be stepping on while you bend or stretch or otherwise get at the portion of earth where you think a particular example of biota will improve the state of the world – which in this instance means the look or balance or future prospects of a particular planting bed.
It’s a little thing, but our own.
Let us fill the bare ground. Before the weeds do. Let us connect one patch of green to another. Let us add color, intensifying the color that is already there, or adding some complementary hue. Let us paint with plants. Or add a line to the story.
Let us sing in the sunshine.
(If and when it finally comes back.)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

5.12 Killing the Squirrel

We are two animals in a territorial fight.
He – the new lean and mean super-athletic squirrel; aka the little bastard – runs up the pole to the bird feeder. No other squirrel has done this in the three years we have had this set-up. I leave the garden hose, with the faucet turned on, looped through the fence on the front porch. When I see him working his mouth into the glass clear plastic container, I open the kitchen storm door, release the hose and squirt it directly at the bird feeder. He hears me come out to the porch (the door squeaks) and detach the hose, waits till the last moment, then throws himself off the bird feeder and dashes across the neighbor’s lawn a split second before the stream of water arrives.
The other day, a gray afternoon parsed by bouts of drizzle, super-squirrel and I perform this maneuver 20 times in a row. He is on his way back to the feeder by the time I have replaced the hose and stepped back into the house. When I pause by the kitchen widow to see if any birds have found their free lunch, I see his gray hairy rodent form climbing back up the pole.
Open door. (Noise alerts squirrel). Detach hose, aim. (Squirrel lifts head). Squeeze trigger on hose gun. (Squirrel flies off bird feeder perch.)
The thing is, I have pretty well given up on feeding birds for the season. We generally stop around this time of year, with nature back in bloom. The birds will find us again when it’s berry season in a couple of weeks. Some of them found us today when I hear a chorus of chirping and look up to the lightly leafed oak tree and see a pack of black birds working their way through the tree. That means that caterpillar infestation season has begun. The tiny inch worms are too small still for my eyes, but the birds know they are there. They have a bird’s eye view.
So it’s not about saving the bird seed for the birds. It’s the principle of the thing.
It’s about who’s boss.
Today, when the sun comes out, first time in three or four days, I slip outdoors regardless of the status of a story over deadline and begin work on a backed-up chore list: plant the perennial Anne got for my birthday in the spot chosen in the front garden. Weed that area and consider whether the fast-rising Clematis – it’s on steroids this year – needs intervention yet. We’ll have to tie it to the trellis eventually, but I decide it’s still climbing straight up on thin air rather than leaning over and leave well enough alone.
Clip the old leaves off a cluster of ornamental grasses, called liriope, most of them purchased last fall and just beginning to put out new round-edged baby fingers. Since I have the clippers in my hand, begin thinning the long, falling locks of a climbing – in this case falling – wild rose whose extensive vines are obscuring the azalea just as all the azalea’s dreamy red lights are switching on. Stop, briefly, to consider that some perennials, like the azalea, are having the best season they’ve had in several years. Can only speculate why. Then move on to the next task on my punch list, uncovering the mulch around the pea plants to see what’s up.
As I’m pulling old leaves away from the peas’ wire towers, uncovering a so-so level of germination, I hear, almost subconsciously, a familiar sound. The base of the bird feeder tap-tapping lightly against the pole. I look up, sure enough, super-squirrel is hanging in a familiar position, determined to dig the last few sunflower seeds out of the cylindrical feeder. I stand and take a step toward him. He hasn’t realized I was on the other side of a blackberry bush, mostly concealed, and is a step slow off the mark. I lift the trowel in my hand and throw it hard at the feeder. It’s a long, heavy projectile, with a bit of an edge. I am thinking, if I hit him in the right spot it may do some serious damage.
In short, I am trying to kill the squirrel.
My aim is a little off. The trowel-projectile tangles in some raspberry canes before it reaches the feeder pole, but the ferocious malevolence of the act – wild animals are pretty good at reading intentions – sends him in panic flight out of the berry patch and racing for the nearest cover. Which turns out to be underneath the car in the parking area.
I gather up my weapon and go back to the peas. Later, it occurs to me that what I could have done is go get the hose, aim the stream underneath the car with one hand and be ready to throw the trowel with the other when he bolts.
I’d probably miss, but I might get lucky
It’s not about the bird seed any more, Mister Bushytail. It’s territorial. This garden is my territory and a squirrel is welcome only if he follows the rules. No climbing the bird feeder; no digging in my plantings. The squirrel rules also include running for cover at the sight of me, the lord and master of the realm.
Fear me, squirrel. I am out for blood.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

5.5. Out of My Head

Doctor’s appointment for a hormone shot, scheduled for 11:30. I get a late start leaving the house, drive like maniac, reach the Sherman building with about five minutes to spare, decide at the last moment to go past it and park in Brookline instead to save the parking fee. The street is packed but I squeeze into a borderline legal spot, then get out and run back across the Riverway, across Brookline Street, into the building, and take the elevator up nine floors to the oncology/hematology department, where the clock shows I have five minutes to spare. Guess my watch is fast.
I check in, sit and wait. As I said, 11:30 appointment. I get my shot at 1 p.m. Just one of those things.
I’m supposed to call them if I get a rash from the shot. I leave the building, run back to the car, and manage to get to the highway before the afternoon build-up. Back home I try to catch up on my work, and sort of get somewhere, and then get tired.
Eventually I get myself out of doors. It’s about four thirty, but after a day of some rain, more threats of rain, and a steady cool wind, there’s some sun in the sky. I work on the vegetable garden, because I want to plant some more peas and get some greens in the ground, and the hard work with the shovel will warm me up. Half an hour later it starts to rain hard; run back indoors. Looks like my outdoor time is over.
But fifteen minutes later, the sun is out again.
It’s chilly now, but the light looks great on the fresh green plants. I squat down beside a patch of Mazus, a low thatch-like colony of light green “stepable” plants that make a delicate pink flower once they settle in good for the season.
I finally get what I need.
I stop having the usual thoughts. And start having different thoughts. It hardly matters what they’re about.
Green thoughts.
Not about the “green” in nature, but green in the sense of newly grown. And of course they’re not really “new” to me, or probably anyone else. But green as in the sense of fresh. We eat the green leaves off plants, like lettuce of spinach, because they’re fresh. Deer eat the green shoots from plants, including the ones in your yard.
Green as in newly emergent. Not “new,” but new again.
The produce you buy in the market, or pick from your market, is fresh – but a fresh carrot or tomato is hardly something new under the sun. It’s different materially – not the same carrot you ate last year, but definitely a carrot – the same in essence. That’s Platonism 101.
My thoughts are like my violets, my Japanese primrose, my ever-spreading blue “forever” flowers. The fresh expression of seasonal product.
Which is why people spend time doing things they like, why they need to. My “gardening” is a really a matter of spending time with plants. After a while I stop thinking about what I should be doing better, and then the fresh thoughts push their way up from beneath the surface of whatever we are. The earth of us.
We feel refreshed.