While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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A Wealth of Difficult Decisions, a Poverty of Easy Solutions, and a New Year to Sort it all Out

After many years of hard work, extensive research, experimentation, and vast amounts of labor and money, my garden is where I want it to be.  For now.  Plants are strong, healthy, and beautifully pruned (can’t take all the credit for that).  Our plant collection, while not extensive, is diverse and unique when compared with many neighborhood gardens.   Over the years the garden has become a wildlife sanctuary, often with amusing results.  In addition, it has become a neighborhood attraction.  On occasion, I have looked out a window to see someone coming up into our yard to take a closer look at a plant.  I remember a pleasant incident 3 years ago when I looked out the kitchen window to see 2 people standing in my front yard, talking.  Not recognizing them, I decided to come outside and introduce myself.  As soon as I came down the walkway, I recognized a fellow student from the horticulture program I had attended whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.  We hugged, she introduced me to her friend, and told me that she had admired our garden for years but didn’t know that it was mine.  Her friend explained that he was struggling with the direction in which to take his garden.  We discussed his soil, orientation of the property, favorite plants, and amount of time and resources he would have to give to his garden. The more we discussed and explored his options, the more I thought about redoing my garden.   In many ways, I envied the decisions ahead of him, and I began to consider removing a majority of my plants and starting over with a new plan.  The thought of building a new garden was exciting – so many more unique plants are available now than when I first began gardening, a wealth of new ideas for the type of garden I could create, a naturally xeric garden would be a blessing – but honesty ultimately made the decision for me.   Eventually, the decision may be easier to live with but, still, I wish I could have proceeded anew.

Some years ago I bought a Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Wilma Goldcrest’.  At the time of purchase (late summer), the plant was in a 1 gallon pot with an odd greenish tint to the yellow foliage, and was severely root-bound.  But, it was a bargain at 50% off so I couldn’t pass it up.   After an unsuccessful 30 minute struggle, a 2 hour soak in a large bucket of water, then extensive pruning of the congested root mass, I was at last able to plant the little tree in a large terra cotta container.  Overnight, the tree seemed to double in size.  It grew noticeably on a daily basis and within two months I decided that it had outgrown the container.  Just days before the first freeze of late autumn, I found a vacant spot in the garden that a tree of small stature would enhance, and there I planted ‘Wilma’.  The tree is now 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide and growing fast.  I love this tree and appreciate its decorous, symmetrical profile, but I must admit it has become too large for our landscape.   My spouse looks askance at the tree each time he walks up the path and I know what he’s thinking.   I see the way he visually measures the space the tree envelopes and I know what this winter will bring.   As I said, I love this tree and this is a decision I do not agree with but have to accept.  I console myself with the realization that soon a large empty space in our garden will need to be filled with new plants.    Still, I think of the condition of most conifers on earth and regret that this strong, healthy tree will be gone soon.   More than any other emotion, I feel guilt at taking out a thriving tree.  But, to prevent future problems, the tree will come down . . . but maybe, first, an arborist could help us decide if the tree will become a nuisance in the future.

Summer of 2014 was extremely long, hot, and dry.  Two large rain barrels supplied water for new ornamentals and container plants through the early weeks of summer; by July, they were empty.  Water use is a primary concern for me, and watering ornamental plants becomes more difficult to justify as each summer becomes longer, hotter, and dryer.   But the big water usage is for our food crops – and the more food I grow here the more city water we use, especially as we do not use rain barrel water for these crops.   I debate whether to continue to grow food at all, or to convert the vegetable beds into a xeric garden.  The advantages of growing our own food are many and well-known, but the responsibilities of, and effort involved in, growing food crops are even more numerous.   First and most important is safety; we control what we put on and in our soil.   We control pests and diseases without the use of pesticides or fungicides; we are selective with the seed stock and plant starts we purchase; our entire garden has been organically maintained since 1995; watering and weeding on a consistent schedule is central to ensuring a good harvest; and protecting crops from weather issues is a constant.   Whew!   But the water issue is one that I haven’t reconciled in my mind yet, and not just when I receive our summer water bill.  The extended drought that has effected much of the western region of our country for years is most likely the new normal.  As bad as water issues are now, future generations will have even more drought to contend with.  This is an issue I have struggled with for years, and one not easily resolved.

Gardening is in my DNA – “it’s in the bones”, as my Grandma used to say.  For all the concerns, problems, expense, time, labor, and thought that life-long gardening demands, there really is nothing that brings greater satisfaction than digging in the dirt, helping something grow, and knowing that my small plot of earth is healthy and vital.  I don’t know what will happen to this garden once I am no longer responsible for it, but for the time being I am pretty certain which direction I will take it in . . . that is, if I can make the decision!


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Schrödinger’s Cat, Phare’s Fuchsia

I’ve heard it said that you don’t know a plant until you’ve killed it . . . more than once.  If this is true, I know hardy Fuchsia better than I know any plant in my garden.  It’s been hard not to take the deaths of these plants personally, be they F. magellanica, F. gracillis, or F. magellanica var. molinae.  Whatever name they’re sold by, they’ve died.

My first attempt was with two F. magellanica, the beautiful species with deep red and purple flowers.  I asked a very helpful nursery person if the plants would survive winter and was told, “Absolutely.  It takes a lot to kill this one.”   Full of confidence, I brought home the lovely plants in early spring, planted them where they received morning sun and afternoon shade, kept them well-watered, ensured excellent drainage (easy to do in my sandy soil), and carefully mulched and tended them through fall.  Both plants bloomed until the first week of November, when cold temperatures took them down.  No concern there as I knew this would occur.   I tended both plants, mulched them, and watched them throughout winter and hoped for the best.  When spring came along, I waited impatiently for signs of life.  Nothing in April, no buds in May, live twigs in June but still no buds.  Dead in July, I dug out both plants and added them to the compost pile.  Apparently, it didn’t take much to kill those two.

My next attempt was with the beautiful ‘Queen Esther’.  This plant I placed in full sun and watered it a little less, and the plant responded with an outstanding bloom through summer.  It faded by early October but, again, this did not worry me.  Full of hope, I ignored it through winter.  No interference from this gardener whatsoever.  When spring came around the plant looked as dead as a dead plant can look, but, keeping in mind the observer’s paradox, I remained hopeful in spite of appearances.  It was either going to bud out soon or it would not.  I resisted the temptation to add fresh mulch and do a scratch test so as to avoid interference, and waited for the outcome.  Sure enough, it lived up to appearances.  Dead.

Because I am as stubborn as a Beagle, I decided to try one more time.  I returned to the nursery, spoke with another very helpful and enthusiastic plantsperson who told me that hardy fuchsias usually do not die from cold but from rot brought on by our extended wet fall and winter weather.  So, I decided to grow my next selection in a container.  I decided upon F. magellanica var. molinae ‘Sharpitor Aurea’, not only for the flowers but for the variegated foliage which caught my eye.  It thrived through spring, summer, and into fall.  Once our incessant rains arrived, I moved the container to a covered area and walked away.  I did not interfere with its progress or lack thereof.  In late February, I checked the soil once and gave the plant water, and then left it until April when I brought it out into full sun.  The only water it received was from rain.  When I checked the plant in late May, I saw buds.   And they looked healthy, viable, and strong.  Again, I left the plant alone until the end of June, when the rains ceased and the days warmed.  At that point, the plant was in active growth and the gardener in me took over.  I watered, fertilized, and pruned the plant.   After the strong foliage growth of spring, it began a less vigorous but extended bloom season that ended with our first cold weather in November.

‘Sharpitor Aurea’, along with ‘Debron’s Black Cherry’ and another fuchsia whose name I neglected to record, are wintering over in our covered terrace.  There they will be ignored but not forgotten, neither observed not interfered with, until early spring when I can’t stay away any longer.

Recently, after a long, productive day in the garden when I moved all the container plants to their winter homes, I came inside, cleaned up, poured a glass of wine to sooth my sore back, and sat on the couch next to our cat, Tag the Tail Cottonball (named by my daughter when she was 4), aka Taggy.  As I stroked Taggy’s fur, I wondered how much, or how little, influence tending a plant really has on its life.  After all, so much in nature is beyond our control, as should be the case.  We interfere, frequently at our peril, and our interference often has unintended consequences.  When we interfere we effect our life, as well as the lives of other species.  As I thought about this, I looked at Taggy.  She looked at me with the beautiful but bored expression that only a cat can give when I asked her, “What do you think, Taggy, Schrödinger’s Cat, dead or alive?  Phare’s Fuchsias, dead or alive?”   She yawned and looked at me with an expression that said, “I don’t care about the plants, but put a dog in that box and then we’ll talk.”

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The Tenacity of Life, Part IV, or No Garden for Old Squirrels

My garden is home to a 70-some year-old Pieris japonica.  It is pruned to allow sunlight to filter through its 12 foot tall canopy and to highlight its twisted trunk and peeling bark.  This is no lollipop shrub – Pieris japonica may be a common plant but its austere beauty at maturity is rarely surpassed when allowed to show its pure form.  I can see most of the plant from a hall window, and a portion of the upper trunk and canopy is visible from a window above the kitchen sink.  It’s my daydreaming plant; I travel, have conversations, work out problems, etc., in the presence of this much loved shrub.  And while washing dishes one late June evening I noticed a large wound on an upper portion of the trunk.  Upon close inspection, I realized that this injury looked similar to a wound, now sealed, on the trunk of my young Acer japonica.  The Maple was stripped of bark early in its life by a hungry squirrel, the result being a 7 inch long, open gouge.  I enclosed the Maple in a squirrel-proof cage while the wound sealed, and I would have caged the squirrel had I been fast enough to catch him.  And I knew that the Pieris’ wound was caused by a bad case of Sciurus griseus, the Western Gray Squirrel.  The Pieris trunk was much too large to enclose in the same type of wire cage I used on the Maple, and too close to a concrete path to plant Mahonia or Berberius as deterrents.    So I decided to hang things from the canopy near the injury to discourage the little devil.  Since this technique is successfully used on fruit trees to keep Starlings away I was sure it would deter a squirrel, for these creatures are certainly less endowed with brain power than is a bird.

My first effort at discouraging the rodent involved hanging brightly colored plastic spinners from the canopy.  Colorful, but with no effect.  As a matter of fact, I think the squirrel enjoyed watching the spinners because he would sit on a limb close to them and stare as if hypnotized.

My second attempt was to wrap the injury, including above and below the damaged area, with bubble wrap.  To keep the wrap together I used duct tape, but the only tape on hand was bright lime green in color and printed with the peace sign (which did not influence my attitude one bit).  This method did have an effect, but not the one I aimed for.  The critter just moved down the trunk to resume his work, and my neighbor across the alley commented on my unique 4th of July decoration, and said he might try it at his house.

Not one to quit even while down, I tried something a bit more dramatic.  I coiled limbs from an enormous Rosa rugosa (from a demonstration garden I maintain) around the Pieris trunk, and tied them with heavy twine.  If you know the Rugosa rose, you know its thorns.  So it was with great determination, and in some pain, that I wrapped the Pieris trunk.  This should have slowed down the little squirrel – but it didn’t.  And finally, one sunny afternoon, I caught him in the act.  I charged out the back door, shouting, waving my arms, and making enough noise to upset the dog two houses down the alley.  The startled squirrel jumped off the trunk and flew past me, running through the covered work area, and down the sidewalk.  My spouse, who happened to be sitting at the kitchen table at the same time that the squirrel ran past, commented on the rodent’s girth – especially his rear end.  “It looks like it’s wearing furry parachute pants,” my spouse said.  Then he asked if this could be the same squirrel I had nursed back to health years ago. (At this point, I must confess that I have history with more than one squirrel.  About 13 years ago (before Pippin, aka the Handsome Hound, came to us), I found a tiny, starving squirrel pup hiding under a tree on the property line between mine and my neighbor’s yards.   As it didn’t run off when I found it, I thought I could help it by bringing food to its location.  My intent was that once recovered, it would return to its nest and that would be the end of it.  I was wrong.  That was just the beginning – it made itself at home in every garden bed on our property.  So maybe my spouse was correct and this was the same squirrel – older, bolder, and a little wider.)

I didn’t see Mr. Pants again for the rest of the summer.  In early fall, after determining that no more damage to the trunk had occurred, it appeared that he had given up and moved on to friendlier digs.  I removed the rose limbs (ouch!) and inspected the wound.  It was on the mend – and a cleaner wound than the maple had endured.   But to protect the shrub during the frantic activity of fall, I hung a large blue glass float wrapped in a heavy macrame hanger from the limb immediately above the old injury.  The float hung low enough that the squirrel would be hampered by it if he resumed his activity, which he did – and it did.   More than once I looked out the kitchen window to see him hanging upside down from the macrame holder, looking perplexed.

It was, also, around this time that our neighborhood was overrun with squirrels.  I claim no responsibility for this (I’m only feeding my crow, after all), but a next-door neighbor came over to visit and mentioned that squirrels woke him early that morning by rolling mysterious things down his roof.   He had let out his dogs to give chase, but this just resulted in more frantic activity on the roof and the dogs running in circles.  He never did find out what the squirrels had been playing with but the dogs found some apples (from my tree!) on the ground around his house.

A few days later I was witness to a 3-squirrel head-on collision at the ground feeder on our terrace.  I had just filled the feeder with peanuts in the shell, as my crow watched, when one squirrel charged up the sidewalk towards the feeder at the same time that Mr. Pants came running around the corner of the terrace and yet another squirrel ran to the feeder from the neighbors’ yard.  All three running at break-neck speed, all in the same direction, all with the same goal in mind.  Food!  This was when I realized that squirrels don’t do reverse.  The collision was dramatic and messy – legs, tails, peanuts, and fur flew in all directions.  The crow, the only creature with a working brain in this group, patiently waited out the chaos and ended up the lone recipient of the scattered nuts.

That same month brought an answer to one of Pippin’s prayers.  On a beautiful, sunny afternoon I went outside to begin removing a small patch of sod in the fenced portion of the yard that belonged to him.  He came outside with me and stretched out in the shade of our apple tree, contentedly chewing on a bone.   Out of the blue (actually, out of the tree) an apple and a squirrel fell to the ground and landed no more than 10 inches in front of the dog.  Pippin froze.  He stared at the poor stunned creature in the grass in front of him, blinked once, and then realized what had just happened.   He shot up to full attention, legs tense and tail flagging so fast that the white tip became a blur, and let loose with an ear-shattering, bone rattling, high-pitched bark directly in the stunned squirrel’s face.  Nothing happened.  The squirrel remained sprawled on the grass with its legs outstretched.  Pippin waited a second or two and let out with another mind-numbing bark while making a slight lunge in the squirrel’s direction.  This got the little guy’s attention – he jumped up and ran to the hedge with Pippin hot on his tail, baying, yelping, and barking at full volume.  The squirrel made an easy escape into the hedge but Pippin became stuck in the laurel, the small wire fence, and a 3’ x 5’ sword fern.  It took some time to disentangle the dog from the hedge limbs and fence, and pull him out of the flattened fern.  I brought him back to his bone, pulled sword fern out of his ears and out from under his collar, smoothed his ruffled fur, and patted him on the rear.  He licked my hand and looked up at me with an expression that said “This is the best day of my life!”

The life of a suburban squirrel can be difficult – they have been trapped, shot, poisoned, hunted, chased by dogs, eaten by coyotes or birds of prey, turned into stew, or run over by cars. I keep this in mind on those rare times when I shell out a meal or two for them, under the watchful eye of my crow.  It seems the least I can do to repay them for the many years of unintended enjoyment they have given me.

And as I put a few more peanuts in the feeder, I keep in mind that plants regrow and damage is repaired, and in some small way I make my garden a bit kinder to those creatures with whom I share space.