Thursday, May 31, 2012

Roses, Irises, Peonies, and All Their Seasonal Companions

They come and go like comets. They’re special because we know they don’t stay around too long. They bloom like sudden surprises, like a letter from an old friend. We try to make the best of their visits, knowing that they’re brief. They open their faces and give us those stunning smiles. From the kitchen window we see the roses this morning. These are the two old climbing bushes that were here when we moved in seven years ago. They weren’t in good shape then; they looked like hell. I cut off the deadwood, pruned and fed them, and they started making old-fashioned deep red roses, right on time, like the timeless June bloomers they are. They’ve been right on time ever since, a few days early this year. The vines bloom for a few weeks, and then the roses fade. Then the leaves get chewed up by the rose disease which catches all the old rose plants in this climate. But they survive and bloom once more the next time the sun swings back around into position. They are a gift from eternity. The deep blue, purple-blue Siberian irises grow on themselves and flock together in a purple sea. They fill the space like a race of beautiful aliens grown up among us. Like a rain of blue diamonds. The flag irises, or bearded irises, are even more spectacular on an individual basis. Anne and I have to feast our eyes on those produced by other gardens, in others’ photographs, because ours are floundering rather than flowering this year. I don’t know why. Too crowded. Or else the skinnier but taller Siberian irises have eaten their sun. No matter. We don’t own their beauty. They bestow it where they choose. As the transcendental beauty of these queens of the late spring – peonies, roses, irises – enjoy their reign and pass away, like the centuries, the stars, new garden races raise their heads. We’re seeing dianthus, blue Ansonia, geranium perennials, the deep blue button-flowers on the spiderwort, some purple salvia, and the late spring round of lamium. Most of these are old friends too. The laurel, which appears to struggle each spring just to get to this point, as if it were born with death in its bones, has put forth its rounded pyramidal puff balls of wedding cake frosting. From the look of them we think they must be edible, sugary architectural wonders. They’re here now; enjoy them while they last. They’re set off by the foxgloves, as skinny and tapered as the laurel flowers are rounded with a sleep. Everything lives and shines and fades and teaches – about coming and going – in the same glorious moment.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Audrey’s Picture of Peonies

My cousin Audrey Berg cuts some of her peony blossoms and sets them in bud vases. Then she arranges vases across a kitchen window. Sunlight backlights the flowers, and through the window we see the garden, her garden, in which the glorious peonies grew. The result is more original than a Martha Stewart design and flat-out gorgeous. Audrey posts the photo on Facebook; it’s about the second post in a year I’ve seen from her. It looks fantastastic. Meanwhile our white peonies have blossomed in their heavy, round white-sun globular way, they are suns with their own corollas, but the weight of the blossoms is way too much for the branches, especially when multiple flowers crowd the edge of the branch. Their beauty weighs down the bush, the blossoms bend over to the ground. Some actually reach it. What to do? I don’t have some sort of wire shrub trellis for holding up downsloping blossoms. It’s time to cut some flowers. I cut them with the house scissors and bring them in, but our bud vases don’t work for many of these bouncy balls of white energized plant flesh. I try some of the more standardized vase sizes, including the “Grecian Urn” (the inscribed image of a sheath-clad nymph runs among the flowers) that came originally from Grandma Mildred, and eventually come up with enough settings for the flowers that sort of work. Here’s a photo, below.
It seems to me it’s all right to borrow other people’s ideas. “Cultural borrowing” is how civilization grows. You just have to borrow the good ones.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Garden Heals

I am stitting close to the ground. Only the depth of a brick path is between me and the brown crumble of earth we live on, eat off, mine, harvest, dig for cold, squeeze the juice from to grow our strawberries and tomatoes. Isn’t this where people go to hide, as well, when they “go to ground”? It’s where animals hide when they need to feel safe. “Get down,” we say when there’s danger, serious trouble. Grab some earth. You don’t have to be in extremis to remember where you, or at least a part of you, belong. When somebody is whole, or solid, or well-founded, we say he or she is “grounded.” We want our theories, our speculations, our ideas to be grounded – in fact, reality, experience, demonstrated knowledge. In something. Not just floating around in our heads. So I go to ground. Especially this time of year, when the earth begins to warm. The earth sucks my anxieties back inside, my disharmony harmonized. Dissonance absorbed to earth song. It’s not enough, in my case at least, to have my “feet on the ground.” I need my behind too. I pull weeds, get my hands on the plants, listen, watch what’s going on. A bee stumbles through the pink tips of the spreading, still flowering Mazus. A butterfly appears on a dome of leaves. A “painted lady,” perhaps. Not sure of the identification, certain I’ve seen it (or its kind) before. Year after year, in fact. A garden, as I have learned before and will no doubt need to learn again, is healing. Anthony Shadid, the award-winning journalist who wrote a book about restoring a cherished family home built a century ago in a Lebanese town by his great-grandfather before most of his family emigrated to the US, discovered this too. His book, titled “House of Stone,” deals with family and region, history and today, the Middle East in a divided Lebanon in the period following the 2006 July War with Israel; and the region as it was for centuries, undivided in the imperial but pluralistic rule of the Ottoman Empire. It deals with the little wars inside him as well. Shadid had been a year leave from work, but he felt the pressure of time when it came to restoring a stone and tile mansion built in a fashion that has disappeared from the world. Time and place have a different rhythm in what Shadid called the “dying” town of Marjayoun in a newspaper story that upset some of the locals. You couldn’t find a contractor on the Internet, gather estimates, turn the job over to the experts. Everything seemed to take forever, each day offering its own little tragedy or farce of delay or dissension. But then one of the town’s remaining human treasures came to help him plant a garden. Shadid found himself spending more and more time there. “Each day I probably walked around the plants four or five times, watching roses comng out, plums and peaches appearing on trees I had planted only weeks before, flowers blooming from a clump of wild tulips I transplanted, and buds emerging on gravpevines that once seemed lifeless,” he writes. “… I learned to respect the garden… Patience was requisite. There was redemption in silence. Seasons were restorative. A garden, I realized, heals.” Shadid died earlier this year, while covering the uprising against a dictator in Syria. He leaves a great book behind, in “House of Stone,” and a family home reclaimed from time’s neglect. He also leaves a healing garden.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Who Speaks for the Trees?

The photos above are of city workers taking down a tree on a cross-street about 100 feet from our house. Earlier this spring they cut down a tree in front of our next-door neighbor’s, without any notification to the homeowner from the city that they were going to do it. When it comes to cutting down “street trees” in the city of Quincy, Mass., there is no notification rule, no public process. Earlier still, some time in late winter, two large maples were summarily executed on our street, two blocks down. There was nothing apparently wrong with these trees. We have walked or driven past them hundreds of times. An examination of the trunks left behind showed no sign of disease or rot. Somebody wanted them cut down, but when my wife asked for the reason, no one could tell her anthing beyond that they “were on the list.” Nobody could produce the list. If you don’t have a rule to follow, a legitimate public process, you can do whatever you want and no one can call you to account. Trees are not people, of course, but when it comes to an old neighborhood in an old city, like ours, our big shade trees are arguably more important than we are. People come and go; “new” residents like ourselves, though we are in our eighth year, move in because the street “looks nice.” It’s the trees that preserve the character of the neighborhood. Its “livability.” Drive though a city or town neighborhood, any place where the houses are within shouting distance of one another. Ask yourself whether you could imagine living there or not. If you say yes, I suspect you’ll find some trees in the picture. If the answer is no, if the place looks cold, unfriendly, unhappy, or even “rough,” chances are the trees are gone. There were probably at least some trees on these streets at one point, but they’re gone now, lost to neglect, accidents, untreated disease, civic difference. Nobody replanted. Big, old shade trees need care. Diseases come and they need care, pruning, treatment, as people do. If a tree can’t be saved and presents a danger, obviously it needs to be removed before it falls on a house or a car or a person. But whenever a neighborhood loses an old tree, it loses a benefit that cannot be easily replaced. New trees should be planted to replace the lost ones, but it will be decades before they replace the shade, the cooling, the air-cleansing quality the big ones provide. Trees, big ones especially, eat greenhouse gases. Urban areas are filled with pavement. Pavement creates “heat islands,” raising temperatures, and tempers, reflecting car exhaust and other forms of pollution. Only healthy green space combats the asphalt junge effect. Every leaf on every tree is green space. The city workers cutting down the tree in the photo said this tree was too diseased to save. I saw the rot in the trunk, it was considerable, but whether the tree was salvageable or not, or would have been ten or twenty years ago if the city had been paying attention, is something I can’t say. The man in charge said he was an arborist. I’m not. I don’t have the expertise to challenge his judgment. But cutting down a big, old street tree is not like throwing away the garbage. It’s more like pulling the plug on a relative. That’s why state law requires a public hearing, a requirement evaded or ignored in this and I suspect other communities. A public process including notification would help, but I’m not sure even that goes far enough. We need people who know more about trees than I or most residents do. We need a Speaker for the Trees.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Border Wars

            The low, pink-flowering plant sold under the Steppables brand called “Amazing Mazus” is spreading and blossoming its little heart out. It was probably peaking last weekend when I took these photos (which are already, I notice, on Google images, so I trust the rest of the universe is enjoying them).
            It’s also almost completely covered an area which I had been fondly thinking of as a “path.” True, because they’re “Steppable” these plants are supposed to survive a little footwork, but who wants to step on a patch of little pink flowers. So, what to do?
            The Mazus (technically Mazus reptans; here’s a reference: is also in a constant border war with some of its neighboring groundcovers. It gets pressure from the large, aggressive vine whose name I have never known although the creature seemed to come home with me from a shopping expedition years ago, and which I have lately taken to calling “demon plant.” The plant makes fat shiny green leaves looking somewhat like overdeveloped stonecrop sedum, only shinier, produces a yellow flower in May or June and is not bad looking – but it just takes over. When it aggresses into the Mazus patch, as it does continually, I pull it out as vigorously as possible. Demon plant grows under other plants’ roots however, so I end up pulling up some of the Mazus as well, which have the most shallow roots imaginable. They live lightly on the earth.
            The Mazus also runs into the thyme (thymus albiflora, I believe), another low, thick, earth-hugging groundcover, which occasionally offers spring flowers of its own, little white ones, but is really picky about conditons. It’s more like a really cool-looking mat than a flowering plant.
            This is a more difficult boundary dispute. It’s hard to pull up the Mazus here, especially when it’s flowering, but the thyme is the weaker partner, at least in this climate, and is already suffering from the dry winter. There are bare brown spots where this colony has receded, and serious decisions are yet to be faced about its future.
            In addition to the Mazus, I also remove violets, demon plant, vinca and white-flowering sweet woodruff from the thyme patch.
            After years of regarding my wild violets as the universal solvent for bare patches, I have come to the point of recognizing the need to simply recycle these to the mulch plant instead of trying to find new homes for them somewhere else in the yard. They’re way too adept at finding their own new homes.
            The Mazus and the thyme aren’t the only borderland patches that require policing. Things don’t stay in their places, they don’t respect other species’ places, and some plants (like my columbines this spring) simply pick up their roots, pack their bags, and travel to another spot in the garden they like better. Only big shrubs or trees with deep roots and a happy connection to the conditons of their neighborhood seem secure from year to year. Or solid native colonies like day lilies. Almost everything else has a mind to wander, and requires minding by me.
            It’s probably my fault though, because that’s the way I like it. Something different every day.
            I’ll get that path back, by the way, but only after the Mazus stop flowering.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Lucky Color Red

            Its blossoms as big as your hand, the “tree peony” was voted the “unofficial national flower” of China following a nationwide vote in the nineties.
            The tree peony grows taller and has more of a classic branching-out tree shape than the more common peony shrub. It has a woody trunk and branches like a tree, and you don’t trim the woody parts back
            And it seems to bloom earlier. I was surprised when it bloomed early in May last year. This year it bloomed in April.
            The blossoms are large. It’s hard not to stare at the them, if you’re in the area. They’re the neon signs in the Times Square of springtime’s Nature City.
            I purchased ours six or seven years ago from the little garden shop in the Wollaston, our part of Quincy. The store owner had a few on hand in part because the red color of the blossoms appeals to the local Asian community. In China, red is the color of good luck.  
            According to an internet source (okay, Wikipedia), the common name “tree peony” has been given to four different species of peony. But judging by the photos, the variety we have is clearly “Rock’s tree peony” named for a Joseph Rock, who added it to the western catalogue of nature. The more interesting point is that the plant is in fact native to the mountains in the middle of China in a province called Gansu and in some of its neighbors.
            The plant is widely appreciated in this country too.
            A place called Linwood Gardens near Rochester, N.Y., has an extensive display of these peonies with blossoms in various colors. Describing itself as “an island set apart from the everyday world,” Lindwood Gardens is so proud of its collection of tree peonies that it celebrates their spring blossoming (in May) with a special event called the “Tree Peony Festival of Flowers.”
            That’s kind of how I feel too. By the time the big red blossoms of the tree peony open every year, life is good and the garden season has taken hold.
            Temperatures were cool last weekend and it’s actually raining today, May Day, so I’m hoping the blossoms will hold for a while. Like anything that’s truly perfect, they don’t last long.