While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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The symmetry of a flower makes visual sense.  Symmetry is not just elegant and attractive; we perceive it as evidence of health, strength, and normality.  Most flowers have radial symmetry (think spokes of a wheel).  Another form of symmetry is bilateral, where if the flower is divided down the center the two sides look identical.

Camellias, dahlias, echeverias, and flowers in the Asteraceae family are among the many plants whose flowers have radial symmetry.  Pansies, orchids, snapdragons are a few of those flowers with bilateral symmetry.  Radial symmetry is so common in the plant kingdom that we often perceive a flower as having this pattern when in fact it does not.

One of my late spring chores is to plant the many containers I have around the property.   This is one of those infrequent garden projects that calls for creativity over chore and enjoyment over effort – mostly because it calls for multiple trips to my favorite nursery!   Not being a shopper gifted with patience, a nursery is the one store I visit where I don’t have to fight the urge to leave within 10 minutes of arriving.   So a warm, clear spring day called me forth and shopping I went.

Rows of blooming plants or colorful foliage for pots and hanging baskets complicated my choices for the many containers that needed filling.   I’m inclined towards annuals with colorful and/or unique foliage for most of my containers – less maintenance during summer and longer display time – but one flowering plant caught my attention.  The color of the bloom was hot crayon pink and its shape almost perfectly round; the leaves lanceolate; stems and foliage covered with fuzz.   ‘This is a ridiculous looking plant’, I thought to myself as I bought it.  ‘I don’t even like the color.’

I planted the Gomphrena in a pot alone and placed it on the front porch where it would receive full western sun and the reflected heat from concrete steps, and it bloomed continuously through summer.  An interesting effect was created as the blooms aged; small gold spots develop at the tips of the petals – a nice sparkle especially at sunset.    But as the color of the blooms was not my favorite and the plant required so little care, I didn’t pay much attention to it until my spouse (a scientist to his core) noticed that the blooms offered something out of the ordinary.  At first look, the flowers appear to have common radial symmetry.  But looking closer, we noticed the petals are arranged in a spiral pattern –   perfectly symmetrical, but spiral rather than radial.   Spiral symmetry seems not as common in flowers as bilateral or radial, but it does seem to be more common in leaf arrangement.   Some succulents have spiral arrangement, as do some vegetables.  The gorgeous, flavorful Romanesco broccoli is spiral; fractal spiral, to be specific.

Does spiral symmetry offer a plant an advantage over radial growth pattern?   Better ease of seed dispersal?  Quicker, more efficient pollination?  Neither seems likely.   A random mutation that proved as successful as radial symmetry, but no more so?  Does it just narrow down to the prevalence of self-similarity in nature?   Spiral patterns exist in all parts of the natural world – creatures in the oceans, the plant world, animal world, and many galaxies.  Or is it just that I haven’t been as observant as I should, haven’t looked as closely as I should to each bloom?  Spiral symmetry – this is one of the many small mysteries of the plant world that will keep me on alert for years to come.

What more can one ask of a plant?


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The Tenacity of Life, part 1

Taraxacum officinale, Dandelion
On a late summer afternoon, I met a good friend for lunch at our favorite cafe.  The café overlooks a shallow reflecting pool which is bordered on one side by a mass planting of Phyllostachys fortuneii, Dwarf Bamboo.  Some of its leaves display white stripes but most are solid green.  The bamboo has created a thick wall, about 2 feet in height, in their concrete and metal garden.  The effect is of control, order, and symmetry – that all is well in this small corner of the world.  And as the café is often noisy and chaotic, the garden offers a peaceful contrast.

As I returned to the parking lot after lunch, I noticed a tiny dandelion struggling through a crack in the cement.  Knowing how well these plants survive in my garden, I was confident that this one would not only grow but produce a multitude of achenes before succumbing to the harsh fate of a parking lot plant.
As tough and resilient as bamboo, dandelions withstand most anything humans subject them to. I’ve never succeeded in eradicating the plants or their seed from my garden – and my efforts have been heroic.  Among those efforts – drenching the foliage with vinegar on a hot, sunny day; wetting and loosening the soil around the tap root and pulling it out (resulted in the acquisition of an 11” long tap root!) but breaking off the root tip in the process; and deadheading the flowers before they set seed.  And yet they remain a strong presence in my garden.

As I drove home I paid close attention to the weeds in medians, sidewalk gardens, and front lawns.  Almost all were dandelions.  I had to admit that their defiance is admirable.

And at home, here they are – sprinkling my yard with bright blasts of yellow.   Sure, why not?  It’s comforting to know that Taraxacum officinale will be around long after we are gone.


But not so funny to the squirrel.

One of the perks of buying an older home is the mature landscaping that comes with it.  This can also be a pain, but it’s all in the attitude.

Our house was built in 1942 and we purchased it in April, 1983.  Most of the plants we inherited were very common to the era in which the house was built – Rhododendron, Juniper, Pieris, and (music from Psycho) a laurel hedge.  Lord, how I hate that hedge.

But, there was one tall shrub I hadn’t noticed until June when it came into bloom.  Philadelphus coronarius, Sweet Mock Orange.  This shrub had not caught my eye before because it resided in the back of a large bed, surrounded by daisies, Rhododendrons, and one or two weeds.

The foliage is not unique, nothing special that would capture the attention of a passerby, but it does have lovely, flaking bark.  It can become leggy, as many plants in the Hydrangeaceae family do, but when it is in bloom, it has few rivals.  Delicate, 4-petal white blossoms that fill the air with a sweet, gentle fragrance.  On warm days I notice a slight spicy note to the fragrance, as well.   Heavenly!

Anyway, the shrub probably had not been pruned before we moved in, and we certainly took our time in tending to it.   Over the years that I gardened around the plant, its blooms had decreased, the canopy had become too open for my taste, and the center filled with old, dead branches.  So much for my gardening skills.   The plant was now in need of serious rejuvenation pruning, so I decided to have the job done in early July.  As pruning has always filled me with dread, especially when a venerable old plant is involved, I gave the job to my spouse.  His pruning style is of the chain-saw type – enthusiastic, power-driven, and noisy.  But the results are always beautiful, so I trust him . . . from a distance.   But by the end of the day, the shrub had been taken down by 1/3, all the dead material was gone, and a few of the tallest, oldest trunks had been pruned to the ground.  This pruned material gave me a couple of very tall, twisted, lichen covered trunks that could be used throughout the garden for many different purposes.  The largest, at least 7 feet tall and 6 inches in diameter, was exceptionally beautiful.  In addition to the lichen, the lower portion of the trunk had strips of flaky bark that revealed the cream-pink wood beneath.  Three smaller branches alternated up the trunk, and we pruned these back a few inches each to create a symmetry of length.   I wanted to put some thought into where and how I would use this piece, so I propped it against the (Psycho music again) laurel hedge for safe keeping.

Early summer mornings are a lovely time to work in the garden.  The air is cool and still, plants are refreshed, and my energy level is at its most caffeinated.  Early morning, also, is when the neighborhood wildlife is out and about; I share my garden with many.  One frequent visitor is a squirrel who can be ID’d by the missing patch of fur on his tail.  He’s come through our yard for a few years now.  When our beagle, Pippin (known to the squirrel as That Damn Dog) was alive there was bad history between them.  This grudge-holding little rodent would torment Pippin by sitting just a few inches outside the fenced portion of Pippin’s yard and eat peanuts.  Pips loved peanuts.  If he was lucky enough to find one, he would eat it, shell and all.  (There’s not much a beagle won’t eat.)  But this squirrel never shared.  Pippin would sit, nose pressed against the wire fence, and do a full-body shake.  Then a whine.  Then a full volume bark.  But the troublemaker wouldn’t share.  Another bark.  No peanut.  This torment, which was apparently fueled by the memory of an old chasing incident, lasted for years.  The chase incident happened when the squirrel was new to our yard.  Pippin had escaped through the gate that I forgot to latch.  He chased the squirrel at least twice around the house before the little monster remembered he could run up a tree to get away from the damn dog.  Pippin had great fun and thoroughly enjoyed the chance to bay in his own yard.  For the squirrel, however, it was a memory he couldn’t get beyond.

Anyway, on that lovely summer morning as I worked, the same little squirrel was rummaging through the fresh mulch I had just applied when he saw me walk by with a large shovel in my hands.  He froze.  I had no intentions of using the shovel on him, of course, but the sight of That Human who Owned That Damn Dog, with a large tool in hand, walking in his direction, was just too much.  He ran towards the hedge and shot up the tall Mock Orange trunk that leaned against it. There he clung, tail twitching with indignation, and chattered at me in rapid, frantic squeaks.  Maybe it was because of the twitching tail, maybe it was from his rude vocabulary, but somehow the trunk dislodged from its position and began a slow, unsteady slide down the face of the hedge.  The little miscreant froze again, eyes wide with terror.  The trunk caught on a thin laurel twig and stopped.  The squirrel used that instant to scramble up to the very top of the trunk where he stretched up on his hind legs, thinking maybe he would jump across the top of the hedge and escape.  He didn’t make it.  Still attached to the trunk with his back paws, the jump attempt resulted in the trunk breaking free from the hedge and going into free-fall, knocking the squirrel off-balance.  This caused the squirrel to land upside down on the trunk, chest flat against the wood.  The trunk fell rapidly, twisting as it went, while the squirrel clung to it with all his might.   At this point I began to feel some compassion for the little scoundrel and lunged to catch the trunk, but I missed and ended up pushing it towards our pond.  The trunk then fell across the pond, crashed onto the surrounding rock ledge, and lodged itself between two large stones.  The horrified little rodent, still clinging to the trunk, was now upside down with his tail touching the surface of the water.  This was his breaking point.  With a speed I didn’t think existed in the rodent world, he scrambled around to the top of the trunk, ran across its surface to the opposite edge of the pond, ran through the yard, across the street, and up a utility pole.  At the top of the pole he stopped, turned to face me, and let loose with a string of squirrel expletives I hope I never hear again.

Summer is coming to a close, fall is a few days away, and I still haven’t seen the little squirrel.  I doubt he’s forgiven me.  The beautiful Mock Orange trunk has been moved to its permanent location, and it is secure enough that if another squirrel ever decides to climb it, it will stay put.   I still put out a few peanuts in the areas our squirrel used to visit.  Maybe he’ll come around.  But even if he doesn’t, I believe that the balance of justice in the animal world improved just a little on that day.

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Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei ‘Pecos’ is a beautiful tree in bloom. . .when it decides to bloom.  It has been at home in my garden for seven years.  One bloom in all those years.  Full sun, good soil, adequate water – it has all that.  Each year I watch for the development of buds, each year I settle for its lovely autumn foliage color.  No blooms.  Next year will be better, I tell myself, next year it will bloom.  I prune back the Arbutus near it to insure Pecos gets all the sun my garden has to offer.  But this brings hope – our summers are getting warmer.  This year Seattle has had over 40 days with temperatures of 80+ degrees; more sun and heat than I want.  Not enough for Pecos, I grumble out-loud.  

But this morning while I was gardening, I looked up from the patch of weeds I was chopping and peered into the canopy of Pecos.  With sunshine on my face and in my eyes, I saw buds.   Lots of swelling, pink buds.  Most of its branches sport trusses so close to bursting that I wanted to stand in one spot all day and watch.This is it, I thought.  Just give us one more weekend of warm, sunny days and we’ll have success.   The buds will open to the strong, clear pink that I saw once before.    When these buds open, when this plant blooms, it will be worth the wait.  It will be the best of seven.

And it will start all over again next year.

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The Peace Agreement.

Unpredictable weather, lack of time, the expense built into gardening and all its toys – there are enough challenges inherent in gardening to discourage the heartiest of us.  Add to this list those uninvited creatures that make our garden their home and we can feel like pulling out every plant we own and installing one big rock garden.

Until about 5 years ago, I was losing an on-going war with a crow family who made their home in my neighbor’s Douglas Fir.  This family of three used our garden as their local market, playground, and hardware store.  Clever and very creative, these birds figured out how to empty our freshly filled bird feeders of seed in less than a day by using many different methods, including twigs to push out the seeds.  More often, though, they would use a tag-team approach.  The birds would grasp onto the plastic perches at the base of the feeder and swing it back and forth until the seeds spilled onto the ground.  When I installed larger, heavier feeders, one clever crow would perch on the tree limb holding the feeder and lift the feeder with his beak.  He would lift and drop it repeatedly, causing the seeds to spill.  The other crow would patiently wait on the ground for lunch.  This was a slower method but as the birds took turns, it was just as successful.

During the summer they would help themselves to some of our apples, but this resulted in so many apples being knocked off the tree before  harvest that our crop was often cut in half.

I reached the “breaking point” one lovely fall morning when I heard our beagle, Pippin, howling and crying.  I came around to the front yard and saw him standing at the fence, looking mournfully out onto the street at one of the crows.  Have you ever heard a beagle cry?  It’s a mournful sound that tugs at the heart.  Apparently, crows are immune to it.   Anyway, the bird had taken Pippin’s bone and dropped it in the middle of the road.  There the crow stood, pecking away at the beloved bone, occasionally looking up at Pippin as if to say, “Get over it, buddy.”

It was at that moment that I decided to win the war.  Knowing full well how intelligent and resourceful these birds are, I decided to train them.  Over a period of weeks I began putting out food, at the same time and in the same location each day, specifically for the crows.  I chased all other birds away.  I removed the seed feeders and discouraged them from eating anything else in the garden. Eventually, the crows learned to eat only what I put out for them and to stay away from the apples.  Pippin’s bone  – that’s a story for another day.

Some surprising benefits have occurred since these remarkable birds claimed our property as their own; we no longer have visits from Starlings who used to decimate our blue berry crop in a morning.  I am alerted, loudly and dramatically, when the Heron stops by to visit our pond.  No more disappearing fish!  The neighbor cats that prey upon the small, native birds living on the seeds in our garden are quickly and efficiently chased away; and I always know when the Coopers Hawk swoops through the garden by the sudden silence – the only time the crows stop talking.

In this war, everyone wins.