While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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I Learned how to Garden from a Buddhist Monk

Botanists have confirmed what gardeners have long known – plants communicate.  They communicate with nearby plants by relaying chemical warnings of dangerous pests and diseases when they are being attacked.  In addition, they communicate with humans when their needs are not being met.   All that is required of us to understand this communication is to pay attention.  Listen.

For example, a wilted plant can be the result of one or a combination of causes (besides poor gardening skills) – too much or too little water, too much or too little sun/heat, soil that is too acidic or alkaline, compacted soil, soil with little water-holding capacity, etc.  A plant showing discolored foliage can be caused by any one or combination of the above problems, as well, or an overabundance or insufficiency of specific nutrients.  Again, paying attention to the plant is the key to understanding your garden.

Let’s say you had familiarized yourself with the needs of a new plant you added to your garden and determined that your garden environment would meet its needs, and the plant seems to be struggling or growing at a slower rate than you anticipated.  When that happens, do a bit of detective work.  Some perennials and grasses are slow to establish and may be very slow to come up in spring.  Be patient!   For instance, my first experience with Sporobolus heterolepis, Prairie Dropseed, showed that this warm-season grass may not “green up” until mid-June if spring temperatures are cool; long after other grasses are up and filling out.  I discovered this during the plants’ first year after I had pulled out the dormant grass and dumped it on the compost pile.  When I checked the pile a month later, the little grass was covered with pale green blades.   Apparently, it responded to the heat in the compost pile.  I took the hint, replanted the grass in a warmer area of the garden, and it is thriving.

Last summer I encountered my lovely little Cascade Azalea (Rhododendron albiflorum) that I had purchased in early spring.  After nurturing it all through spring, I had forgotten to water it as summer wore on and when I came upon it on a very warm, dry morning it was in bad shape – curled, crunchy leaves, a couple of dead stems, some leaves already gone.  That’s as clear a cry for help as a plant can give.  After transplanting the Rhododendron to a container where I could water and feed it throughout the remainder of the season, the plant returned to health, although a bit smaller than when I purchased it.  I hope the plant will show its gratitude by blooming this year.

Paying attention, being present in the moment, is crucial to the success of any effort one makes.  Be it relationships, work, hobbies, the expression of creativity, prayer, or meditation, paying attention to the moment at hand develops awareness of our actions and their consequences.  I learned this deceptively simple yet painfully difficult lesson during the 3 years I took meditation instruction directly from a Buddhist monk.  He taught Vipassana insight meditation, and I can attest to the fact that it takes a strong constitution to make it through that course.   I learned to put aside what I wished reality was and work with what was in front of me.  I gained immense insight into my actions and thoughts.  One of the many things I learned about myself was that I can turn any situation into something to worry about.   No matter how pleasant a situation may be, I can find something in it to worry me.  But, along with this insight, I learned not to take my worrying seriously.  In fact, I have found much humor in this great talent.   So, even though meditation does not alleviate ones’ true nature, it teaches how to work with our nature and not be overwhelmed by it or succumb to it.  This insight has helped me in my gardening work more than anything else – even more than my Hori Hori knife which I feel a deep attachment to.  (This is one attachment I am not willing to let go.)   Although I “failed” at Buddhism, the lessons I’ve learned from 16 years of meditation have taught me to respond to traumatic or disappointing experiences in a flexible and graceful manner.  And at times, I succeed.

As a new gardening year begins, I realize that I have become a bit more successful in listening and responding appropriately to my plants and their needs.  The garden becomes healthier each year, more wildlife find sustenance and safety in our property each year, and failures decrease and become less painful or embarrassing as time moves along.  Years ago I took a trip to Vancouver, B.C. to take meditation and dharma instruction from The Dalai Lama (along with 8,000 other folks).  I learned much from him, but what I remember most was that if you approach a task or situation with sincerity, honesty, and openness, the outcome will be positive even if you perceive it as a failure.  And the means to that end is to pay attention.  Listen.  Be still and listen.

You will be amazed by what you are taught.


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Plant Shaming II, the Everbearing Disappointment

My daughter’s favorite fruit is strawberry.  I remember her as a toddler with a bright red smile and red fingers lining up the berries that had just come home with us from the market on the kitchen table.  So it was about that time, 17 – 18 years ago, that I decided to grow strawberries.  Our property has always had more than its share of full-sun areas, and our garden wasn’t as full then as it is now, so adequate room was available for a hand-full of plants.  My favorite nursery suggested an everbearing variety ‘Quinault’ (Fragaria x ananassa) as a successful plant for the Pacific Northwest.  In what I had intended as a fun teaching moment, my daughter helped me choose bare-root plants from a large container filled with sawdust that, apparently, she thought needed “fluffing” and tossing around the nursery until I was able to distract her.  I learned; she had fun.  But our plants made it home intact, and the afternoon was spent planting them in a circular bed surrounded by her pansies.   As I knew the plants would not produce edible fruit in their first year, I made sure to have a small supply of berries available for snacks.  Delayed gratification is not a developed toddler skill.

If you are familiar with Fragaria x ananassa, you will be aware that it is an aggressive grower when well-watered.  And if you are a parent, you will remember the toddler age as years of interruptions, unfinished projects, and forgetfulness.  For instance, the parent will decide to water a garden (with help from the toddler, of course) but no sooner is the hose placed and water turned on than the toddler takes off down the sidewalk to follow a group of 10 year-old boys shouting and yelling while skate-boarding down the street accompanied by a barking dog, and the toddler’s mom goes running after the child to stop her from tumbling down the front steps and the mom forgets about the water until later that afternoon by which time the plants are very well watered.  And as this happened more than once that summer, the plants thrived.   They thrived so successfully that by the end of the following summer they had completely surrounded a mature rhododendron that shared their bed, and had made attempts to jump the lawn.  The plants succeeded in their great escape by year 3 when I found that a couple of little strawberry plants had indeed jumped the lawn and crept up on a large rosemary plant.

All that growth isn’t so bad if you really need ground covered, which I didn’t.  The primary problem with such exuberant growth is that it discourages fruit production, or such was the case in our garden.  In the plants 4th year, we harvested at most a grade-schoolers’-hand-full of berries.  By the time my daughter entered 5th grade, the plants were producing nothing but leaves.  So much for everbearing.  But the ever-patient mom-of-a-grade-school kid will let the plants alone while she juggles class-room field trips, PTSA meetings, volunteering, birthday parties, music lessons, and naps (I remember those so fondly).  And she will hope for the best.

The plants are still with us after all these years.  Still growing, still covering ground, still jumping their borders, and still not producing fruit.  Someday, I will remove them and try a different variety.  In the meantime, however, I think I’ll take a nap.


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God’s no Saint; Monkey Business in the Garden

I read a lot of science – books, magazine articles, and journals – to balance the fiction and religious material I read.  With the exception of just a few authors, most writers on both sides of the science/religion debate portray each other in intentionally narrow, unflattering, terms.  The exceptions, N. T. Wright, Marcus Borg, Robert Wright, Chet Raymo, and Kenneth Miller, are insightful, respectful, and sometimes playful authors.  (For example, Raymo’s book title When God is Gone, Everything is Holy, is as sincere a tribute to mystery and miracle as anything you will read.  Don’t be misled by the title.)   Underlying each book and article I’ve encountered are three basic principles of life; to make more life, to control life, and to find meaning in life.

A gardener who works outside sees evidence of the first two principles most often – especially this time of year, late winter/early spring.  I have been outside daily during our unusually warm, sunny late winter days and have been entertained by the antics of our frustrated resident squirrel, he of the ample haunches and bald tail spot.  He’s been chasing another squirrel who has been reluctant to allow him to catch up with her (I’m making the assumption that it’s a she).  She’s not given him that “come hither” look yet, and if her behavior is an accurate indication of mood, it’s not coming any time soon.  But he’s persistent, and only seems to be distracted by an occasional peanut.

Our crows are acting up, also.  I’ve seen a couple of altercations and a few chases on-the-wing (an impressive sight!).  They are pairing up, if appearances are accurate, and trying diligently to get on with life.  Spring is in the air and wildlife is responding.  All species follow the dictates of Genesis 1:28.  After all, it’s in the genes.

And plants do it, too.  In the Carkeek Park Demonstration Gardens, I have tried to control the reproductive expertise of bind weed (Convolvulus arvensis) and English ivy (Hedera helix) since my first day on the job.  If ever there were plants built to survive at all costs, they are those two.   As we don’t use herbicides in the Gardens, we resort to pulling out by hand and smothering sprouts and seedlings with deep layers of bark mulch.  Each year we see a slightly smaller population of these plants than the preceding year, but we haven’t eradicated these nuisance weeds yet and I’m sure we never will.  These plants are built for the long haul.  It is a given that each spring I will find ivy or bind weed in a new part of a bed while congratulating myself on the successful eradication of both from another bed.  How did these plants come to be so successful?   At times I want to shout, “Who’s responsible for this mess?!”  But I know the answer.  In their native environments, both plants provide food, shelter, and nectar to a wide variety of birds, insects, and some mammals, and controls on their growth do exist.  But here in their adopted environment, there are no naturally occurring controls on growth and they’re not that beneficial to wildlife.  Goats will eat both but they will eat most anything they encounter, and are not practical in botanic gardens.  When I found both vines coming into my home garden from a neighboring yard, not even my beagle would eat them.  And this was a dog who would eat my slippers, his blanket, fir cones, and green apples.  Go figure.

After a winter rest, a garden comes alive with astounding speed, variety, and creativity.  Each season offers unique beauty.  Even weeds have purpose.  What meaning, intent, or purpose we glean from the environment we are so intricately bound to and part of determines how we respond to each life form we encounter.  Whether we see life as having come from an intentional act or see life as the result of a long evolution of random mutations, our responsibility is clear.  Each action has consequence.  We are only one part of a vast but delicately balanced and finite system, not the end result as we often like to see ourselves.  Our actions often lead to disastrous, unintended consequences – the true meaning of monkey business.

And being just one part of this precious system, we must be mindful that we could be its end.


Spring Cleaning

The calendar is wrong – spring is here.  Or, so says my garden.  And accompanying the many signs of spring is a strong desire to ‘clean house’.  In my case, a part of this includes plant shopping!  Surely you feel the same way?  It could be the many colorful varieties of Primrose, blooming bulbs, and early spring ephemerals filling the nurseries.  Could be the many nursery catalogs that arrive almost daily in my mail box offering gorgeous new plants that promise “less money, less work, more blooms!”  I wish these catalogs would offer a gardener accompanying the new plants – “now you really won’t have to work!”   But, I’ll settle for the new, improved plants this year.

One of my gardening tasks that occurs each spring is a walk-through of the beds to look for winter damage.  I decide if a plant should be moved, if a plant should be taken out, or a new variety of an old favorite should be added (almost always yes!).  This is a job filled with mixed emotions; plants I’ve grown tired of but once adored, plants that have outgrown their space and don’t respond well to rejuvenation pruning, plants that re-seeded to the extent that they have become weeds (Nassella tenuissima comes to mind immediately) or plants that haven’t aged well.  In my early years of gardening I had a very limited budget (and limited knowledge) and would buy most any plant that promised to spread.  Certainly, I am dealing with the consequences of that method now.

With each spring, the chore of removing unwanted plants becomes easier.  If the plants are in good shape, they are given away.  If not, the compost pile is nearby.  Cleaning house, as the expression goes.  As spring progresses and the variety of plants at nurseries increases, the empty spots in my garden decrease.  As the weather warms and dries, the workload builds, my time outside increases, and unresolved situations become as apparent as the budding weeds I face.  Problem plants demand to be dealt with; I’ve avoided them far too long.

Cortederia richardii, Toe Toe Grass, is one such plant.  Although it hasn’t re-seeded in my garden or in neighboring gardens, it has become so large – 6 feet in width and 8 feet tall in bloom – that it overtakes surrounding plants even though I had planted it with adequate space.  I have moved most other plants that surrounded it but its blades are cutting and sharp-edged, so the task is not easy.  Although not as belligerent as its relative, it has worn out its welcome and it will be taken out.  Removing it is a decision a long time in the making.  But, the decision is sound.  All that remains is the laborious chore of cutting it down and digging it out.  And much like the decision to remove a troublesome plant is the realization that a troublesome relationship has finally ended.   It is no great insight – this realization that many years of sincere effort to build a good relationship can fail abruptly.  But, when the person you have tried to get along with terminates the relationship, no further efforts should be made.  Even if the termination is based on dishonesty, the only compassionate response is to accept the dissolution.  After all, allowing a lie to stand unchallenged and a relationship to fall away is a small price to pay for the resurrection of peace.

So, 2 persistent problems have been resolved in this pre-spring season of cleaning, and that is a blessing.  And I will celebrate by adding a new, kinder plant to the garden!