Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Last, Best Day

So June saves its best day for the last.
Perfect dry air all day, beautiful but somehow soft light.
I sit in back garden, on the patio, while my son cooks dinner. A bird, probably not a thrush, but just as melodious this evening, repeats its call, singing from somebody else’s tree. Ours are thickly leafed, having survived another caterpillar spring.
Given the number rainy days this month, growing conditions are close to perfect when the sun finally comes out. Perennials (I say once again) don’t need as much sun as we do. I complain and moan whenever we get a wet spell – oh will I ever see the sun again? – while the plants drink deeply and wait for the next solar holiday.
We have come to the show-off moment for the part of the garden surrounding the bistro set beside the oak tree. I like this midsummer cohort of flowers best when they first emerge, the first full flush of plus-sized primary colors. The spiky red tops of the bee balm; absurd corkscrew feather-like petals kicking up from a humble stalky herb. From the point of view of my seat on the patio, they line up in front of a phalanx of fresh-blooming daylilies, ruddy orange towers of flower, the region’s native skyscrapers.
Below them a dense development of five-floor co-ops – all crayon-yellow evening primrose, undergirding the summer scheme. A few remaining floxgloves from an earlier period of the growing season’s archeology watch from the side. Behind these, a low spot on the horizon of fence, a barely blue hydrangea flowers opens its summer season with a program of showtunes and light classics.
Up close, from the patio, a thin filter of skinny spires from the pale yellow small-blossom race of foxglove-imitators elevator into the view. Higher and slighter in their girding, loose-gowned Queen Anne’s Lace announce it’s time to wander down high summer footpaths beside perfumed mowings. A second-year colony of coreopsis begins a golden sunrise.
Up closer to the patio, in the so-called “violet” section, things are quieter. But the coral bell is blooming – pinkish white flowers over red-violet foliage – along with a little first-year pincushion flower with pink flowers, and a verbena offering up a deep violet flower, which I’m trying to forget (for pity’s sake) is only an annual.
On the far side of the weeping cherry a modest little deep blue geranium offers two flowers at a time – never more than two. I walk over to say hello, a quick visit with an old friend, who prefers a low profile.
On the other, or north side of the weeping cherry, the “yellow” section began unveiling its summer collection about a week ago. A few yellow sedum, followed by thick beds of yellow primrose, yellow tufted achillea (yarrow), and a buttery collection of low stella d’oro daylilies. A few low red roses sing a different but hot tune as well.
Purple spiderwort mixes in there as well. Behind the primrose a couple of fat, expanding astilbes, glowing blood red and papery white, lead the entourage surrounding the sundial, which almost overwhelms it now. Some purple blooming climbing flowers show their color there now too, whose I wrote down last year but have now forgotten.
All of these sing in the midsummer sunshine. But they’ll take be just as happy if a few dark, rainy days come along as well to keep them going.

Unreal City

City of flowers
Make believe summer skyline
Magic to the eye

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Angel of Death

Some time in June a search and destroy party arrives in the back perennial flower garden and sets to work reducing the biomass. You could call this weeding, but really that homely term doesn’t do it justice. The party of one, who has christened herself the Angel of Death, brings a civilizing influence to the wild overgrowth she encounters.
She wants to drain the swamps to eliminate disease. She wants to thin the heavy rushes back to the borders of polite, thinly-fingered Maiden Grass to flush mosquitoes out of their hiding places. She runs her critical eye over planting beds thickly strewn with low, middling, and tall plants and decides which of these things is unlike the others. She vows to put an end to overweening stalky intruders, sniff out volunteers masquerading as “real plants,” counterattack aggressive colonies which have expanded well beyond their natural and historic borders. She wants to know what she can get rid of.
At the end of her reign of terror, an afternoon or so, old friends have re-emerged from the overgrowth. Larger shrubs once again have rounded forms, full sides, feet which touch the ground. Pathways emerge where wilderness had threatened to close over the roads. Little flowering things drink fresh air into their lungs, pleasantly surprised to see the sun once more.
Death is part of life, the Angel says. Foresters know that “trees kill trees.” If you don’t thin the herd in the woodlot, none of your trees will grow tall and strong and full. Every thesis, the dialectical philosophers used to say, generates an antithesis. Without the “editing” shears, clippers and (on occasion) shovel the Angel brings to the management of the “world” of the perennial garden, overpopulation will overthrow the balance of nature. There will be no room left for babies, children, all manner of little guys taking root where soil and sun meet, until some monstrous plague arrives to kill off all the unweeded elders.
The poets back her up. That outraged Puritan, the young Prince Hamlet, images his mother’s world of license and decay as “an unweeded garden, rank and gone to seed.” We know what “seedy” means. We don’t like “swamps.”
And so the wilderness vision of the Creator takes a beating around this time every year. In early spring, given the illusion of a blank slate, the Creator plants anew, divides and transplants, acquires new births of floral beauty, re-arranges the furniture to give more scope to favored children, and finds new homes entirely for laggards which may yet be saved by the right conditions. He hopes all his ventures prosper.
But, inevitably, when his plants do prosper, they soon begin to get in one another’s way. The creator unsheathes his grass clippers to primp and trim and cull and prune, relying also on his supple fingers to slip out the unwanted species by the roots from the midst of those many mixed border regions where worlds collide. But those clipped edges and policed borders soon run riot again. He’ll be fine-tuning all summer, running from hotspot to hotspot, and dangerously close to losing the war.
He needs an intervention.
I am here, says the Angel. I will deliver you from chaos. I will restore order to the universe and vision to the eye – Look! Thou may behold the big picture once more.
Just don’t watch me work.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Diversity in the Garden

A Day in June

On hot days,
People cook hamburgers
And the smell
Bloodies the air.

It wakes the carnivore
In everyone.
I go forth
To eat flowers.

It is June and Sonya and I have been gardening together. We are both supposedly working in our money-making occupations as well. She on her laptop, I in my study room staring at this desktop machine and making words. But we both knew we just want to get enough done to soothe our consciences so we can go outside again and mess around in the garden.
In the garden we discover the natural politics of diversity. It turns out the answer to every question in life is “more diversity.” Who you should marry, who should get tax breaks and who shouldn’t, where should people live, where should we go to eat, how do we replace fossil fuels and save the planet…? Whatever the question, whatever the issue, policy question, political question, workplace question, diet question, the way forward is whatever choice encourages more diversity, more experimentation, innovation, change, new combinations. Cross breeding, as gardeners and botanists know, produces a strain that is strong and fertile.
Varieties, as Darwin realized, fuels evolution. It doesn’t work if everything is the same.
And so we apply this principle when “weeding the garden” – an inadequate phrase for reducing the biomass of the entire property in whichever direction you look. So I leave a few of various kinds of our most expansive volunteers – violets, mint, wild geraniums, lots of others I recognize from long acquaintance but don’t know their name – dandelions, even, soft-leafed lamb’s quarters – the tall spear greens that make small blue flowers around their middles --- and of course the northern sea oats, which are not really volunteers since I planted them, and transplanted them, and intentionally spread them, but now like the magic water bearers of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice are everywhere, multiplying and unstoppable – some of these also I have left in various locations. Who knows what they’ll get up to? Blue flowers will shoot out of nowhere when the native orange daylilies flag in their efforts. A couple of “wild” geraniums turn out to be a small blue geranium I bought and planted a couple years back and have carefully kept from being squeezed out by everything around it that grows faster and bigger.
Because if you don’t preserve your rare personalities, your dreamers and eccentrics, the desired diversity will be overwhelmed by the burgeoning colonies of evening primrose and the Anthony’s Waterer spirea which eats ground like a defensive tackle, expanding clusters of tall phlox, big-leafed green carpet vine which is once again climbing underneath everything less densely textured than a steel tank to pop up and tangle the delicate flavors of mosses and edging plants and anything you really care about.
So it turns out that weeding – holding back nature with one hand while you cultivate with the other – is essential to preserving diversity in the garden. And if your approach, like mine, says yes to all comers until they prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have to say no, then the constant gardener turns out to be the constant weeder.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

6.6 So Rare

The main thing about June is how beautiful the days are. We had a tough May, until the last week of what is often my favorite month, and a cool, dark April. So far this month we’re getting compensated by a run of clear, sunny, often spectacular days, ranging from clean, clear angels-walk-this-earth mornings to balmy heat-soaked afternoons when evening breezes stream in like little rivers of bliss. (We also have Sonya visiting this month, her birthday month, so what can be bad?)
Okay, so why do we feel good when the weather is good? And bad when it’s bad?
Maybe the plant kingdom can offer a clue.
Pansies like cool weather. They like sun, plenty of it, but they don’t care how low the temperature goes. Gardeners put them out in early spring and these days even supermarkets sell them in April. If you can work the soil, the plants are pretty much certain to take root. Give them a few weeks to get used to being in the ground and they light up the cool earth with bright colors. As soon as you get a run of hot days, however, even in early June, they start to fade. Their stems lose their stuffing. The blossoms falter, dry, fall over. New blossoms are slow to open and no new next generations appear on the floral conveyor belt. Once July settles into a hot, humid spell, it’s all over. Wilt city. Some years I dig them up and try to hide them in the shade somewhere in the back until it gets cool enough to bring them out again.
Basically, pansies like the same weather Anne does.
Most of the other plants like the same kinds of weather I do. Cool, warm or hot; sunny or moodily dark; lightly showering (though not all day, and only when the garden needs it); dry air rather than humid, though I can take a hot, sticky day once in a while.
Nobody I know really likes long stretches of hot and humid. Plants, at least the temperate zone ones, are the same way. They like the same weather we do. When my garden is wilting, thirsty all the time and begging for somebody to turn the heat down and open a window, I’m generally tending in that direction myself.
When my plants are happy, I’m happy. That’s an easier equation than most partnerships allow for. Plants are generally happy. All things considered, they’re just happy to be here.
Temperate zone perennials do however have a far greater tolerance for cold than I do. This year’s chilly April and the long windy, rainy stretches of May that I found dreary, eminently avoidable, and bearable only by regular recourse to the indoors do not seem to have bothered the perennials. They were gathering their strength. Drinking deep. They thought they were in England.
I need to take a lesson here. Sure, let’s enjoy that great stretch of end of May and early June weather. Those room-temperature, scintillating sunny, dry-air days. Those dreamy late afternoons giving way to delicious after-dark cooling off periods that feel like a benevolent parent’s reward for being a good boy on a hot day. Some brilliant, optimistic mornings when we say, with Wordsworth, “This morning gives promise of a glorious day.”
Those days make us forget the disappointing ones, when raindrops kept falling on our head. But we should have known the good ones were coming. They always do – and that should be enough to keep one’s spirits up. Apparently it was for the lilacs and the roses and the clematis and the poppies.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


After six years of building a garden from scratch in Quincy, we have a good showing in irises. I transplanted them from a semi-shady (or really shady) place on the side of the house to a redesigned half-moon hangout directly in front of the vegetables. We have a big orange flag iris and cool blue one with an interesting white inner pattern (very much resembling the iris of the eye), which I just bought at a garden club sale and dug into the ground – which is really cheating. And a couple of rows of vivid Siberian irises, the little guys, but abundant enough to make a spunky show.
We had lilacs this year. They opened the perfume bottle in late May. Last year the light-blue iris in the front garden didn’t bloom at all. I kept waiting, a groom left at the altar. The garden center said, try lime, they like lime. A “master gardener” in another center I complained to said “Beat them up. Stick a fork in their roots. They respond to that.” So I bought lime, surprised I hadn’t thought of this, and kept digging it in; and also probed a little gently around the root with a pitch fork. I don’t have the heart to beat up any of my plants. Whatever the cause, probably its own inner logic, the plant lit up with pale blue candles this year and stunk sweetly of the perfume counter.
I gave some of the same treatment, lime mainly, to the Korean lilac in the back garden against the fence and got the best result we’ve had yet from that plant’s red-violet blooms. We cut these and brought them inside for the classic New England spring scent.
The wiegelia grows tall, wide, and colorful, looking a little odd – like a bicycle wheel with its spokes unsprung – from my attempts last fall to tame its wildly exuberant growth. It didn’t hold a grudge, pumping out the usual array of pink and white trumpet-shaped blooms.
I did a major trim job on the rhododendron, which lost leaves and whole branches to the winter, the weather, age, disease, life, who knows what, and was full of brown holes this spring. I cut all the brown stuff off – snipping a few buds along with them – and the big old trooper of a plant pulled it together for its spring turn on the runway. This is one case where the pictures look better than the real thing,
The white peonies. I bought a couple of divided peony plants, thinking it was one but finding two in the pot, at the garden club sale probably six years ago, planted them in spare conditions, too little soil, too little sun, suffered with them, built up the soil, and rejoiced at seeing a first opened bloom a few years back. This year they stood up to the skies with flowers in every raised fist. Peonies ball their fists – they have a dozen or so of them – then open them in sudden June bursts, generally with the assistance of ants. Wow, I thought, they are so tall and I don’t even have to stake them. When the snowball-sized flowers opened this week, the branches promptly fell over the brick walk. We staked them.
The first, white foxglove opened along our curved back garden path. The perennial geranium opened at the same time. It makes rows of delicate pink-peach, mostly bleached flowers, lighting up its neck of the woods for maybe a week and a half. As is so many matters, enjoy them while they last.
The clematis came around the same time as everything else referenced above. Disappointingly thin last year, it’s thick with both vines and blue plate-sized blossoms – crab nebulae on the vine – this year. Again, I had cut back the vines last year, thinking what the hell. Maybe it was good for them. But, again, almost everything seems to be strong this year.
I too am stronger this year. The hard winter? The sudden exuberance of spring with its infusion of solar energy? I don't know, but the garden gods are smiling. I am creating in their image.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

5/30 Floral Runway

When the windows are open, which they are all the time now for most of a week, the scent of the lilac broadcasts inside. (Its favorite song is “Lust for Life.”) You can smell it everywhere now, particularly in the warm humid evenings. The perfume-counter scent saturates the air.
In the midst of our second week of warm weather – as if the divine stage manager had made an announcement and the veil of shadows fell away – a parade of early summer favorites are stepping up on the seasonal runway for their turn in center stage.
The fat orange poppies bending over the front sidewalk like a benediction on a world that passes by.
The blowsy, deep-pink tree peony blossoms say an exhausted goodbye. They pass from wrinkled to rumpled, collapsing like tired ballerinas and decadent old ladies.
The deep blue clematis, climbing the front porch trellis. Thick with vines and stems, it opens its big blue thumb-thick petals in time for Decoration Day weekend.
The striving pink foxglove peers over the rose bush, and the pink dianthus raises its skinny skin arms, scores over them, over its head.
Lagoons of pink-violet mazus. Working its way between the stones.
The mullein. Stalks of delicate white flowers, with a hint of pink veins on opening.
The Korean lilac against in the back. Its deep red-violet blossoms shout the first scent of summer.
Clusters of white flowers, opening in unison from a dozen different points, wherever it escaped being pulled up last year. White stars from tiny bulbs strong enough to raise strong, thin grassy stems and grow all over.
Sonya and I plant the warm-blooded members of the vegetable garden on Memorial Day weekend. I plant potatoes on a hot, humid Sunday afternoon. Deep rows, with mounds on top. She plants 2 cucumbers and 2 zucchinis. I plant two rows of bush beans and a row of soybeans, then a cluster of broccoli plants.
Sigh. Breathe the air. I plant the next generation of perennials, the argetum and the scented heliotrope, finishing off my new display bed.
And then the irises sweep away all previous impressions. Big showy yellows. Delicate blues. Slim, ice-blue Siberian blooms.
They take their turn. They bow. Take a good look. They won’t hang around for long.