While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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Beyond the Gray

Approaching are the deep gray days of late winter.  Soon, February’s heavy-lidded darkness will greet the gardener who searches for young weeds in the saturated compost.  Soon the mid-day sky will appear so low that we can almost reach up and touch its damp dullness.   We seek out color – as much as our eyes can take in.  Gardening catalogues, magazines, and books are strewn about the living room floor – opened and in clear view as if in self-defense against monochromatic days.  Any little glimpse of bright, flamboyant color is welcome now.

A welcome day-dream arrives and I think of a clear spring day when I walk through the garden to celebrate signs of life.  I think of Rhododendron linearifolium, Spider Azalea, and how I will be captivated by the contrast between its pink blooms and gray/green foliage, and how the flowers and leaves intertwine.  I will forget to look at the entire plant, forget to search for signs of problems because I will be so busy enjoying its display.

Leucothoë fontanesiana, ‘Rainbow’, will be one of the most colorful plants in my garden with its pink, green, and tan-to-purple foliage.   It will be – is always – a vibrant surprise on a gray day.

Cornus alba, ‘Elegantissima’, a favorite plant of mine, will stop me in my tracks when it begins to leaf out in spring.   Its delicate, white-edged leaves will show distinct and luminous against red limbs; the shrub is under-panted with Ophiopogon planiscapus, Black Mondo grass, and Carex elata, ‘Bowles Golden’.   I look forward to a morning surprise when all the plants are up and answering spring with a vibrant demonstration of life.  A woolly gray foliage Rhododendron pendulum, nestled in a blue-rust colored container, will make an agreeable contrast to the entire scene.

I look forward to the green, blue, golden, and busy variegation that will fill my garden.  I will think back to winter and be grateful for full rain barrels, grateful for luxurious free time to plan a new direction for the garden, grateful that all plants survived the season.  And I will look back and think, “Winter wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”


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Between Your fingers water falls,

clear and cold, bright.

Each drop is new, a constant.

Each drop is what remains.


Behind You tumbles all the light from daybreak

to the night.

Nothing more to You than light?

To me, all.


Between Your fingers water falls,

pure and wild, stark.

Ample as the day this water reflected back at You.

Reflected back before its capture.

I cannot halt its fall.


Behind You dances drops of light

Sharp upon a dimming hour.

Old as prayer, wild in motion,

light moves away from me uncaptured.

It does not touch the void.


Between Your fingers water falls,

clear and cold, bright.

Apparent in its flowing movement

one word teased from unvoiced thought

from which fear grants no stay.

I look ahead to follow laughter,

Job echoes back.



It seemed like a good idea at the time . . .

Most gardeners are familiar, and agree, with the notion that a green lawn is, in essence, a desert.  So, when I heard this expression many years ago my response was to begin the long, arduous process of removing sod that covered our average-size property.  I’m still removing it.  It’s been a long process.  In its place I have installed meandering paths, raised vegetable beds, a small dwarf-conifer forest, a mini prairie-style garden with a wide assortment of grasses, countless perennials for pollinators, a few tall trees, a few broadleaf evergreens, and a fish pond.  Seed-bearing plants, plants for nesting materials, nectar producing plants, places to burrow and hide – there’s something for everyone here.  (And if I define ‘everyone’ as squirrels, birds, raccoons, and a possum, at times it seems like everyone parties in my garden.)  I love the results of all this work, although on those early mornings when my garden is a blur of motion and chaos – squirrels running up and down trees and falling from trees, raccoons fishing in the pond, birds of all sizes and colors swooping throughout the yard and fighting each other, a possum wandering around as if lost – I question the wisdom of my actions.  But after just one summer morning filled with butterflies, dragonflies, bees too numerous to count, and the lively sounds of bird song, I know the idea was good.

One large area of our property has caused countless problems until just recently, and unfortunately this area faces the street so all my mistakes are on public display.  As the neighborhood is built on a hill, our front yard has a considerable slope down to the street.  But rather than this slope terminating in a gentle decline and an attractive rockery, it comes to an abrupt edge, about 6 feet in height, above street level.  To contain this large expanse of difficult space that runs the entire width of the property, interrupted only by stairs leading to the house, the builders installed a retaining wall of large triangular concrete “planters”.   Big, ugly planters.  Lots of them – 74, as a matter of fact.  That’s a lot of planters to fill.  When we bought our house in early spring neither my spouse nor I noticed that most of the planters had been filled with annuals only.  That first year, as spring sailed into summer and summer glided into fall, the planters soon became empty and the large expanse of concrete became a very visible eye-sore.

Over the years, I have filled this area with a wide variety of plant material but because the space is so difficult to water and has full-sun (western) exposure, many plants struggled noticeably before they died.  Dust and pollution from the street contributed to the problem, also.  But about 15 years ago, I discovered a plant that not only thrived in this unfriendly location, but spread as fast as Hedera helix, English Ivy, and covered ground more efficiently than Buttercup (Ranunculus pallasii).   Vinca major, with its dainty little violet flowers, is a bully.  And I didn’t know its true nature until one summer afternoon, just a few years after planting it, when I decided to remove it and plant lavender, Sedum, and other ground covers in its place.  For each clump of Vinca I dug out, I found three more spilling down from above or beside me.  As the pile of removed clumps grew higher and spilled out over the lawn, I was reminded of an incident many years ago when I had put the wrong kind of soap in the dishwasher.  In my defense, this was the very first dishwasher I had owned, my younger sister and brother were living with me and my spouse (we were all very young), three of us were working and one was still in high school, and we were always on the go so the household was busy.  We had run out of the correct soap and I didn’t have time to shop so I decided to use the liquid soap I normally used for hand-washing dishes.  I knew enough to use a much smaller amount of liquid soap than powder in the machine and I was very careful with the amount I put in.  A short time after I started the machine, I heard an odd chugging sound coming from the kitchen but I was busy with another chore, so I ignored it.  Second bad idea.  A short time later, I came into the kitchen to get a glass of water and saw suds coming up into the kitchen sink, flowing over the sink edge, and spilling out the sides of the dishwasher.  I shut off the machine, opened the door, and was greeted with a wall of bubbly, frothy, white suds chugging towards me, slowly and purposely, as if it were alive.  I screamed and said a bad word.  My brother and sister heard the commotion and ran downstairs to the kitchen.  After a look from me that said “Don’t ask!” they helped me scoop out the frothy mess.  As all the sinks and drains were filled with bubbling suds, our only option was to dump the soapy mess outside on the patio where it could melt in the hot Yakima sun.  So this is what ran through my mind that day as I saw the many clumps of Vinca spill down in front of me, and all that remained to dig out.

The retaining wall is now filled with xeric plants that thrive in hot, dry conditions.  Among my favorite is Zauschneria californica, California Fuchsia.  This tough little plant drapes down from the top of the wall where hummingbirds can visit it without harassment from neighborhood cats.  Also planted in this area are Delosperma, Heliathemum, Thymus, and many different species of Sedum.  At long last, this retaining wall is an asset to the property but the learning curve was long, slow, and very public.  I hope that those passersby who have seen my many failures and new successes over the years have learned a bit from my experiences, and therefore, have found their gardens a little easier to understand and maintain.

And, just maybe, some of my ideas were not so bad after all.



In the season of sun, early morning light splashes down to the garden floor from a canopy above, and each hour fills the air with a different shade of green.   I listen to the garden.  As the sun rises, the presence of quiet follows me as I walk.  It is nice to be accompanied by such an unobtrusive partner; an easy companion.

Morning opens to a larger view.  Edges blurred become crisp and solid, the obscured becomes real.  And sounds arise.   The still becomes motion, and I hear rustling of leaves.  A small movement of life on the garden floor becomes a bird looking for food.  I walk towards the bamboo as wind animates its stems and leaves, and they whisper.  The air warms and surrounds me.

I miss summer.