While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.


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The Tenacity of Life, Part III, or “Don’t worry, I know what I’m Doing.”

The urge to travel has always called me although it hasn’t been often that circumstances allowed me to answer.  I have been fortunate enough to visit 25 states and 5 countries, but as a comedic actor once said, “Canada and Mexico don’t count because they’re attached.”

Compared to many people my age, that number is underwhelming.  However, I feel fortunate that I have traveled at all and have had some life-altering experiences, giving me many wonderful memories.  One such memory is of a trip my daughter and I took to Costa Rica in 2006.  The entire time in that gentle country was a whirlwind of new sensory experiences – so much taken in so quickly, so little sleep in such a rapid 2-week adventure that I remember feeling like we were on the move from the time we woke each morning until bedtime.  It was, and will most likely remain, my favorite travel experience.  Not the easiest at all, but the most rewarding.

In fact, it was in the Monteverde Cloud Forest that I decided to pursue horticulture for the remainder of my working life.  If you have visited a tropical rain or cloud forest and stood in awe at the intensity of heat, humidity, and deep shade that enveloped you, or stood at the edge of a tropical jungle and listened to the primal, unsettling sounds that seem to swallow you whole, then you will understand how small and vulnerable one human really is.  It didn’t help that our guide held a large machete at the ready in case a snake dropped from a tree limb onto one of us.  No snakes encountered, but we did hear the low, deep rumble of a distant jaguar’s growl – a sound I will never forget.  A sound so palpable that it left us, each one, speechless.

But what impressed me most vividly was the plant life.  Shades of green I had never before seen in person, reds and oranges so intense they appeared artificial, leaves large enough to make a cape or floor-length dress, and a subtle sweet fragrance that permeated the entire forest.  It surrounded us, rose above and through the mist, and kept the still heavy heat from becoming oppressive.   And it was during this trip that I came to appreciate the beauty of bamboo.  I had one container of golden bamboo, Phyllostachys aurea, at home but nothing in the landscape.  From our bus I saw huge groves of giant bamboo (probably the genus Chusquea) as we bumped along on partially paved roads.  I found these enormous wind-driven stands of bamboo as impressive as any group of giant Sequoia or Pseudotsuga menziesii.

Once back home, and still under the influence of bamboo, I quit my job at the Poison Center and enrolled in the Horticulture program at Edmonds Community College.  This was a surprisingly easy transition to make considering that I had been employed either full-time or ¾ time since age 18, with a 3-year break as a stay-at-home mom after the birth of my daughter.  And it was during my second quarter in school that an opportunity arose that I just couldn’t pass up.  The founder of the horticulture program, an extraordinary teacher, was in the process of thinning a large stand of Phyllostachys nigra, Black Bamboo, from his garden and offered small stands free to any student willing to help dig it out.  “That’s a good job for my spouse!” I thought with much enthusiasm.

After committing my spouse (and me) to the job and agreeing upon a good time to stop by my instructor’s garden, we gathered some tools, donned our gardening clothes, and headed forth.  Somehow, in all our enthusiasm to bring home this beautiful plant, we neglected to bring twine or rope with which to tie the bamboo to the top of the car.  Not sure what we had been thinking – nothing practical, apparently – but when I saw the height of the plant I became worried.  Not my spouse, though; he opened the back of the car (a hatchback) and said “No problem.”    After much digging and some cutting of roots (mostly done my professor), they managed to get the root ball into the back of the car as far as possible.  Then my professor said, “Did you bring a red flag?”  My spouse and I looked at each other as if to say, “Well, did you?”  Forgot that, too.  Somehow we found something orange which we tied to the longest culm, and after a good visit, a glass of iced tea, and a tour of his beautiful garden, my spouse and I headed off down the road with our treasure – with the hatchback wide open and about 5 feet of bamboo extending from the car.  Because we were traveling from northeast Seattle to northwest Seattle and over the many hills in between, I assumed that we would take back roads and drive at a slow speed.  Nope.  As soon as we turned onto a major road, I suggested taking another route.  “Don’t worry, we’re fine”, was the response.  No sooner did we get up to speed with the surrounding traffic then the bamboo started to bounce around, not unlike a large, happy dog running in circles in the back of a car on route to his favorite dog-park.  “Let’s slow down”, I suggested.

“We’re fine”.

‘We’re coming to a hill, and it’s a big one.” I said.  “Maybe we should drive a little slower.”

“Nope, we’re good.”

“Oh no!  Watch out for the pothole!”

“Don’t worry, we’re fine!”

At that point, I closed my eyes.  It becomes rather noisy riding in a car with the rear wide open, going about 30 mph up a hill, dodging potholes, with a big, leafy plant flapping around in the back.  Noisy and nerve-wracking.  But a smitten gardener will do most anything for a prized plant.  We crested the hill – the bamboo still with us – headed downhill and came to a corner.  At that point, I reached around to the back and tried to hold onto the root ball as we swung around the curve and up another hill.   “Damn”, I muttered as it bounced away from me.  By this time all the culms were bouncing up and down and it reminded me of the time my spouse and I moved into our house.  My brother had come by to help us move in.  We had a full-size mattress to bring up the steps, up a long sidewalk, and up into the house.  My brother decided that the most efficient way to get it into the house was for the three of us to carry the mattress on our heads, which we did, bouncing all the way up.  It’s difficult to control something that bounces, slides, and flaps without having a secure way to hold on to it; and the mattress hit the lawn a few times before finally getting into the house.

I was sure the bamboo was going to hit the pavement before we could get it home, but as we turned off the road and into our alley I finally relaxed.  We turned into our narrow driveway and, Thwack!  The bamboo connected with the gate.  Crash!   Down went a garbage can, and we came to a stop.

“See, I told you we’d make it”, beamed my spouse.

Bamboo is a hardy plant, and I am very thankful for that.  Ours is now a lush, full stand with shiny black culms and a canopy that creates graceful, lace-like shadows across the deck at sunset.  I’ve learned it takes considerable trauma to get the best of a strong plant, and this bamboo surely ‘took it on the chin’.  But with much love and care it has become an outstanding addition to our garden.

And as many times before, my spouse did know what he was doing.


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The Post-Game Show

2014 has been a successful gardening season.   It brought the first flower of a young Eucryphia x intermedia, ‘Rostrevor’; a non-stop display of blooms from Monarda didyma ‘Raspberry Wine’; and so many ‘Top Hat’ Vaccinium corymbosum that even the birds were allowed to share the harvest.   Astrantia major, Masterwort, took control of its garden early in the season and never let up.

This season saw the best color to date on Chamaecyparis obtusa, ‘Nana Gracilis Aurea’ and ‘Baldwin Variegata’, and almost no brown on C. pisifera squarrosa sulphurea ‘Sulfer Moss’ – a huge accomplishment for this little underdog of a tree!   It brought a gold of Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan-Sugi’ so stunning that passers-by stopped to admire it.   And dwarf Ginkgo biloba so bright it looked like it had been painted a high-gloss yellow.

But the stars of the season were the grasses.  Who could resist a cheer for a mature stand of Imperata cylindrica, ‘Japanese Blood Grass’ when seen against the background of a red/pink/purple sunset?  Not me.  Schizachyrium scoparium, ‘Little Bluestem’, Sporobolus heteropelis, Prairie Dropseed, and Sorghastrum nutans, ‘Indian Steel’, and Panicum virgatum ‘Ruby Ribbons’ took the field in such a dramatic show of color – blue, purple, bronze, red, orange, silver – that even red ‘Knock-out Rose’ fell behind.

As the season comes to a close and the riot of color fades, shades of quiet, subdued brown and tan will take a stand and remind me of what is yet to come.  And that is one more win to cheer for.


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A Kindness in the Gift of Time

In October 2002, I received a thoughtful gift from a close friend.  The gift was a surprise; one that allowed me to choose how to use it.  My choice was to purchase a plant – Phyllostachys aurea, Golden Bamboo – and a large terra cotta container in which to grow it.

I bought the plant because bamboo was one of my brother’s favorite plants.  Some years before, he and my spouse had planted a small stand of Golden Bamboo in the little garden outside our living room window.  My brother loved to see its progress each time he came to visit.  When the plant outgrew the garden and we removed it, he asked us to salvage a small stand of it for the future home he envisioned.

My brother’s future did not develop as he hoped.

He did not give himself enough time.  I understand this is not my judgment to make, and I recognize where it comes from.  Often it seemed as if none of us had enough time with him; maybe that luxury was not his to give or ours to take.  His was an impatient nature; a restless and frightened intelligence that struggled through a frantic and chaotic life.  He found only one way out of the chaos.

The stand of bamboo I set aside for him lived for some time, and for a few years my brother would ask about its progress.  Eventually, he stopped asking and I never told him it died.  The bamboo I bought after his death has proven to be successful.

My brother did not give us time to say good bye.  There was no time to offer one more moment of help.  But we have had the luxury of many years to find, maybe because of  him, the peace that eluded him during life and to hold a deep love for the compassionate, funny, joyful person we saw when he was calm.

And that was his gift to us.

In memory of Kirk Samples,  July 10, 1956 – October 19, 2002


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The Tail End of Trouble – He’s Back, and this time it’s Personal

An unseasonably warm, dry October morning brought me outside to finish the garden clean-up I began last month.  Bags of mulch set out near their destination, tools sharpened, cleaned, and oiled, compost bins at the ready, bulbs to plant, gardener thoroughly caffeinated – I was filled with the spirit!

A pleasant breeze set Phyllostachys aurea dancing, blades of Panicum virgatum ‘Ruby Ribbons’ moved in unison and evoked seaweed moving under water, Leycesteria formosa nodded under the weight of its berry clusters, and Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan Sugi’ created its own sunny glow.  Other than a film of yellow pollen from Cedrus deodara covering the street and sidewalk, the day promised to be perfect for work.  Because I had kept up with weeding over the summer I had time to spend on the fine details of gardening – pruning away spent, tired leaves and small, spindly limbs that make a plant look messy and would most likely die during winter; cleaning and rearranging the rocks in a dry stream-bed; permanent placing of some large, beautiful Philadelphus limbs taken down a while ago; covering the beds with a layer of mulch – the fun, creative projects that make a sore back and stiff knees tolerable.

It’s quiet in my neighborhood in the early morning hours and this morning was no exception.  It is a productive time to work, early morning, and a pleasure to be able to start a job, follow through, and finish without interruption.  It is, also, the time of day I put out a few peanuts for my crow.  He seems to enjoy kicking back with a snack and watching while I work.

The job I chose to start the morning with was mulching of beds.  I know of few jobs that offer such a huge reward for so little effort.  Gardeners are well aware of the many benefits of mulch, be it in the form of wood chips, home-made compost, leaves and plant debris, or any combination of these materials.  Having chosen the job with the most obvious benefit, I indulged in my favorite mulch material – soil building compost.  This mulch is great stuff!  And it’s beautiful.  Expensive, but worth the cost.

With the cumbersome bags and a wheelbarrow full of mulch ready for application, I plotted a course and began the process.  I started at the garden by the gate and worked downhill around a young Pinus mugo, ‘Carsten’s Wintergold’, around Rosa glauca and its healthy thorns (ouch!), under Leycesteria formosa, Styrax japonica, Mahonia repens, and down to the recently pruned and shapely Ceanothus.  Finishing this part of the garden, I stood up and reviewed the work.  “Beautiful stuff”, I said.  My crow seemed to concur – he had watched me from the kitchen roof and made a soft, clicking sound in agreement.

I gathered the remaining mulch and moved to a lower part of the garden, behind a 12 ft tall Cupressus macrocarpa that the nursery had sold as a ‘Wilma Goldcrest’ but was no longer gold and certainly not ‘Wilma’, and began applying mulch around Viburnum rhytidophyllum – a dramatic and stately plant.  As I worked, a friend and her dog walked by and we talked for a short time.  During our conversation I heard the crow cawing but assumed he was fussing about the dog, so I ignored him.  My friend resumed her walk and I returned to my work but the crow continued to caw with increased volume and intensity.  I thought he might be telling me the heron had returned and was fishing, so I walked to the gate garden but instead found a large, messy hole in the mulch I had applied earlier.  I looked up at the crow and said “Did you do this??”  However, it didn’t look like one of his caches – he had never made this much of a mess before.  I cleaned up the area and told him to hide his cache someplace else next time.  He fluffed his feathers in response.

I returned to the lower area where I had been working and continued mulching the beds.  My eyes watered a bit from the Cedar pollen but not enough to slow me down.  A hard sneeze cleared my sinuses.  After another hour or two, I had finished the entire lower portion of the yard, 90% of which is garden instead of lawn.  I stood up and reviewed the work.  “Gorgeous!  I wish it would stay this way all year!”  I began to clean up the bags and tools when I realized that my crow had been calling for some time.  I had been so involved in the work that I had not paid much attention to him, so I decided to see what this fuss was about.  I walked back up to the gate garden where I saw not one, not two, but a group of deep, messy holes dug into the freshly applied mulch, and the bag of bulbs torn open.  With mulch, dirt, and bulbs scattered on the lawn and sidewalk, and some rocks pulled away from their setting, I suspected a raccoon had been at work.  “What a mess”, I thought!  To have a raccoon in the garden at the same time as the gardener is unusual, and possibility dangerous.  These animals are, after all, big enough to do damage to a person.  I recently had a run-in with some Hobo spiders which resulted in a trip to a hospital and was not anxious to discover the damage a raccoon could inflict.   I left the garden and went around the corner to the shed for a clean pair of gloves but instead came face-to-face with  – The Squirrel!  It’s him!  I would know that tail anywhere!  With mulch and dirt on his paws!   And the same frantic, terrified look on his face as the last time I saw him!  “!*&@!. It’s you!!” I shouted.  “Scram!!”  And he did.  Right up into the canopy of our old, venerable Pieris – saying the same thing he said to me after our last encounter.

I found a clean pair of gloves and returned to the garden where I found the crow rummaging around in the holes, apparently looking for the peanuts the squirrel had stashed.  This proved to be no challenge for the crow – he flew off with a peanut in his beak when I stamped my foot at him.  With watering eyes and a runny nose, I filled in the holes, replaced the mulch, salvaged some bulbs, and rearranged the rocks.  They are not going to ruin this day, I told myself.  With renewed vigor and determination, I set to work on the other side of the garden.  This side, near my neighbor’s Crataegus monogyna and my stately Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, is the driest area in my yard.  These two large trees take up every bit of water I offer, and the mulch I apply in early spring is gone before summer arrives, so it requires more time, effort, and mulch than any other garden bed on our property.  It is, also, more open and exposed to street noise.  That may be why I didn’t hear the commotion occurring behind me while I worked.   Or it could have been because I was sneezing from the pollen infestation.  Any reason would cover it.  After spreading the last bag of mulch I stood up to stretch my back.  In doing so, I turned around in time to see the squirrel and the crow scattering mulch and rocks all over the sidewalk and into the lawn.  Together!  My crow, right behind that squirrel!  This was just wrong.

I decided to sneak up on the pair and give them a fright that would keep them out of the garden for months (or at least days).  I walked quietly and slowly around the lower part of the garden, across the sidewalk, and came up behind the Not Wilma Goldcrest.  There I stood for a moment planning my surprise attack.  (At this point, I remembered a co-worker who, in response to my complaints about wildlife in the garden, told me that “they are God’s creatures, too!”  Easy for her to say, I thought, she lived in an apartment and didn’t have to deal with little demented demons destroying her gardens.)   Anyway, I knelt down and crawled ever-so-silently out from behind the tree towards the little conspirators.  If you have ever grown a Cupressus macrocarpa, you will be aware of the intense fragrance of the foliage when you brush against it.  I love it, but it has proven to be a slight irritant to my sinuses at times.  This was one of those times.  Combined with the heavy Cedar pollen in the air, the mulch dust, and being on my knees in the grass – let’s just say that this created a perfect storm for a sneeze.  And just as I jumped up to scare them, I let loose with a sneeze that knocked me on my rear.  And then another.  And one more!  When I was finally able to open my eyes, the squirrel was long gone and the crow was up on the chimney.

At this point you may be wondering why I put out food for these little creatures, and I often wonder about this, too.  I do believe that we all must share resources, we must make room for each other, and we must be mindful of our dependency upon all forms of life during our short time here.   We must forgive the mistakes we make – ours and others – and be patient but honest with those who feel they are without blame.  We must move beyond our innate narcissism and realize that we can always improve.  We must realize that we are not the pinnacle of evolution but just one more form of God’s creation.  And we must accept responsibility for our actions and the consequences thereof.

And that is why I feed all those little creatures who wander through my garden, no matter how demented they may be.

 

 


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A Season of Giving

There are many jobs required to keep a garden in good shape; weeding, composting, mulching, pruning, dead-heading (depending upon plant), watering, pest control and use of IPM principles, lawn care, edging, tool maintenance, chasing squirrels, and on and on.  Of course, my favorite job – choosing the plants!

But in my experience, applying mulch is most important and beneficial of all garden chores.  In addition to the most obvious benefit – aesthetics – mulch keeps roots cool in summer and protected from freeze/thaw in winter, conserves moisture that sandy soil loses so quickly, alleviates compaction and keeps soil friable by improving its structure, slows or stops erosion of top soil, counteracts the effects of poor soil texture, and makes weeding much easier.   (Contrary to popular belief, weed seeds will germinate in mulch but the openness of the soil structure allows the plant and root to be pulled out intact.  The exception, of course, is the dandelion.)  But, the greatest benefit derived from mulching a garden is that it feeds the soil.  It is said that one teaspoon of healthy soil contains millions of micro-organisms, and it is those micro-organisms that support plant growth and can make or break a garden.  For soils such as we have in much of the PNW – sandy, lean, acidic, with little water-holding capacity – mulch is essential for improving pore space for water retention which in turn makes nutrients more available to plant roots. Mulch is crucial in xeric gardening, or in the gardens of those who put off watering in the summer months as long as possible (I water ornamentals only once or twice during summer months.)   Mulch will break up the tight structure of soils comprised of heavy clay, giving roots ease of movement, greater access to water, and improved availability of essential nutrients.

In nutrient-poor soil, mulch supplies needed nutrients as it breaks down.  Greater pore space facilitates the exchange of gases that roots require to maintain healthy growth.  Better soil structure allows a greater number and variety of plants to be grown in the same bed, as is often the case in perennial beds.  And last, mulch provides habitat for insects and the countless small creatures that help build soil.

Mulching twice a year (late fall and early spring) is a good habit to develop, but if time doesn’t allow then a deep layer of mulch once each year can do wonders for the garden.  Keep fallen plant debris on the soil surface, also, unless it is diseased.  Fallen leaves, twigs, cones, etc. are a good addition to mulch.  If it looks messy to you, cover it with a light layer of mulch (or lower your standards).  I’ve found this to be a very successful practice which keeps the garden looking tended and cared for.

One note of caution: while mulch is most effective when applied in a 3 – 4 inch layer in beds, keep it light around the root zone of plants (no deeper than 1 inch).  Mulch applied too deeply around a plant’s root zone can prevent needed air from reaching the roots.  And make sure not to touch the crown of the plant with mulch – this can cause rot.

Autumn is an important time of year to apply mulch – a surplus of fallen leaves and other plant material available and free to the first taker is a gift of health and beauty for your soil, and a gift to be treasured.  Give your soil a little TLC and you will be richly rewarded.


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The Tenacity of Life, Part II; or Flushing Banana peels down the Toilet

An unpleasant surprise greeted me one warm mid-summer morning.  I was in the garden by 6:30am with the intent of beating the heat, and my plan was successful for about an hour.  The day was to end so hot and still that even the birds were quiet.  But I followed the shade as I worked.  And shade was where I encountered the young rhododendron I had planted in early spring – and had forgotten.

Rhododendron albiflorum, Cascade Azalea, was a welcomed addition to my collection of rare or unusual native plants.  In my searches for these plants, I had seen pictures of this rhododendron’s clusters of white flowers and wrinkly leaves.  I liked what I saw and was pleasantly surprised to find a few 1 gallon plants for sale at my favorite nursery.   Without hesitation, or concern about where I would find space for it, I brought it home.

I remember watering it well through spring and into early summer, but then something happened and it slipped my mind.  I don’t remember what happened but I’m sure something occurred, otherwise, why would I forget about it?  This worried me.  “Maybe this is the start of Alzheimer’s,” I thought to myself.  The disease is on my father’s side of the family – he has it.   Not much remains now of the dad I grew up with.  As is common with dementia patients, he has lost a considerable amount of mind-body connection and has almost no short-term memory.  He forgets he has just eaten, and will ask when a meal is due within minutes of having had a meal.  He seems unable to recognize that he is full.  Often he fails to recognize the food he eats or what to do with the non-edible parts of foods.   More than once he has brought the plumbing system at home to a halt by flushing odd things down the toilet – banana peels among those items.  His wife is long-suffering, and sometimes she loses patience with him, but without her he would be lost.  He may not know his daughters and has no memory of having had a son, but he no longer suffers from depression and the volatile temper that it would manifest as.   He knows his wife, though, and is bound to her by a deep and sincere love.  This he has not lost, and I am thankful for this gift.

Occasionally I lose my keys, my glasses, or a book, but I always find what is missing and most importantly, I know the purpose of each item.  I don’t think I’ve flushed anything inappropriate down the toilet yet.  And our family did have a busy spring and summer this year – our daughter came home from college, I worked many hours of overtime in May and June, took a short vacation, and tended pets for a friend – usual stuff.  But to forget about a plant!  I had not done that before – or if so, I’d forgotten.

So when I came upon the rhododendron that warm morning it was in a bad state.  I had planted it in partial shade, as it requires, but it had not been watered for more than one month.  The few leaves that remained were not just crinkled, they crumbled between my fingers.  The soil around the plant was very dry, the root mass smaller than when I planted it, and one small twig did not show live tissue when I scraped away a small amount of bark.  “I need to hire a gardener”, I thought.  Refusing to give up on the little rhododendron, I transplanted it to a container where I could nurse it through the rest of summer.  With ample water and a couple of applications of fish fertilizer, it rebounded.  I wasn’t surprised that it recovered, however, because my faith in plants has never been shaken.  Plants may not always perform as expected, or as desired, but their ability to adapt to environmental or cultural stress has never failed to amaze me.   And as I rarely water ornamental plants during summer months, plants in my garden know stress.

As the rhododendron recovered I relaxed a bit and worried a little less about my cognitive state.  At this writing, the plant is thriving.  I will keep it in the container throughout winter to protect it in the event of a harsh season, and will plant it in the landscape next spring – where it will flourish because I will remember to water it!   I envision it growing and blooming beautifully and becoming an important member of my rare plant collection.

And next spring, I will remember to make a list of those things I may forget.