While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.


The Self-Help Row for Gardeners; plastic pansies in winter

Gardeners are a unique group of people.  And I define unique as stubborn, inquisitive, obsessed, artistic, scientific, kind, sleep-deprived, and almost always poor.

For instance, some of us will awaken in the ungodly hours of morning in a panic, sit upright in bed and shout “Oh no!”, because we forgot to water the container plants during the previous 93˚F day, and then our spouse will mutter something under his/her breath that we can’t understand but its gist is clear enough.

Some of us will go to heroic lengths to keep a plant alive over winter by wrapping it in roofing insulation, bubble wrap, and old-style (heat-producing) Christmas lights, or dig it up and store it in the crawl space under the house until spring.

Some of us will fill our bathrooms and spare room (if lucky enough to have one) with all manner of potted plants too delicate to survive our mild winters.  Some of us who have a bathtub separate from the shower stall will use the tub to overwinter plants – quite convenient because you don’t need to worry about water dripping unto a wood or carpeted floor.

Some of us will forgo buying groceries for a pay-period just to ensure we have the money to buy an over-priced but beautiful species rhody that really caught our attention, and that would be a perfect choice for that bare spot in the shade garden (those of us without kids at home).  Some of us will try to produce a new plant – maybe a Kalodendron or a Rhododenmia – by pollinating a rhody with the pollen of a Kalmia.  Repeatedly.  Didn’t work.

Some of us will try to grow the Black Bat Plant (Tacca chantrieri) not one, not two, not three times, but a bunch of times – with no success – while following directions to the letter every time!

But, of all the evidence available to support the uniqueness, tenacity, and kindness of a gardener, none speaks louder to me than that of a tiny, ancient woman whose garden I would pass by while jogging.  She kept her lawn and garden immaculate – no sooner would a leaf drop on her lawn or garden bed than it would be raked away.  The 1950’s style of gardening.  Each plant pruned to within an inch of its life as soon as the calendar said autumn had arrived.  Not my style at all, but then, it wasn’t my garden.  Each winter (in the 1980’s when we still had actual winters), sticking up through a soft covering of snow, bright plastic pansies would appear near the sidewalk, in a neat row, that ran in front of her house.  (This was before the days of the ubiquitous cell-phone that has become a new human appendage.)  Some people laughed at the sight, some responded with contempt, some said “That’s just ridiculous.”  But for as much as I intensely dislike plastic plants of any kind, in any setting, for any reason, I think we understood what she was trying to do.  All passersby would stop and look.  Just for a moment.  We would take a minute or two from our jogging, our dog-walking or our fast walking-for-exercise, from our self-absorption, to stop and look at the odd, silly plastic pansies that dotted her garden with color.  We would stop and talk to each other for a moment.

Just for a moment.

And I think that was her intent.


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An Autumn Walk

An afternoon walk on a cool, bright day is a pleasure I always look forward to.  Sun is shining.  Colors are sharp.  Air is clean and crisp.  People I meet are few and happy.

The speckled lambency of afternoon light shows through the canopy of a birch grove.  Some gardener planned that small space well.  So much yellow and gold it hurts the eyes.  Even late autumn lawns look thankful for the sun.  Their soggy blades stand a bit taller and look a bit greener.

Birds are busy.  Squirrels are frantic.  I wonder if they eventually feel ‘caught up’ with their work.  I can’t recall ever seeing a laid-back squirrel.

An occasional flower attempts a bloom, usually a rose.  I appreciate its efforts and recall seeing frost on vibrantly colored petals; reminds me of sugar sprinkled on holiday cookies.

I meet a friend and her dog out for a walk.  My friend is bundled – coat, hat, gloves, and scarf – but she is pink-cheeked from the cold.  She’s a warm weather person – Palm Springs and south.  Her dog prances along beside and ahead of her.  Dogs love cool weather.  It enhances smells, and what dog doesn’t live for the next intriguing scent?

On the way home I almost miss the small, delicate bells of Salal.  Most days – most seasons – I walk past this stalwart plant without a glance.  But when it is in bloom, as today, I stop and admire the subtle artistry of its flowers.  Many Ericaceous plants are easy to overlook when not in bloom, but they are so important that our world would be much less green and rich without them.  Every continent except Antarctica is home to at least a few plants in this large family, and I am grateful for their variety and strength.

I return home as the sun begins its slow fade, and I’m greeted by a palette of color – much of it on the ground now.  I’ll rake these leaves later.  For now, I enjoy their crunch under my feet and the tapestry they bring to my garden

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The Tenacity of Life, Part VII; The Many Shapes of Green (edited)

A recent vacation to San Diego offered the opportunity to see “in person” plants I’ve only seen and admired in pictures.  This was a pleasure on many levels, not the least of which was a huge variety of the countless hues of green.

I spent most of my short vacation in Balboa Park, exploring the many gardens and plantings throughout its 1,200 acres.  As I walked north on 6th Avenue headed towards the Cabrillo Bridge entrance, I was greeted by the opened-arms, exuberant look of a group of tall Hoop Pines (Araucaria cunninghamia).  Cousins of the Monkey Puzzle tree (sometimes seen in the Pacific Northwest), Hoop Pines have similar dark green, sparse foliage but are less conical and have a wider canopy than Monkey Puzzle trees.  Farther in the park, tall palms* and Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) dot the landscape, bringing a tropical, exotic feel to the many paths inviting visitors to explore.  Palms are attractive, and I appreciated seeing them close-up, but after a while they all begin to look alike.  And I didn’t find the one palm I was searching for – the Thai Mountain Fishtail Palm (Caryota gigas).  (This is a palm worth traveling to the ends of the earth for, which someday I will do.)

In the meantime, however, I changed course and headed to the Desert Garden – my initial destination.  I have seen pictures of this garden, and expected a wide variety of plants new to me, but I was awe-struck by what I found.  Here, looming huge, contorted, and distinctive, were hundreds of cacti in shapes and sizes that I didn’t know plants could achieve.  From the Spiked Cabbage Tree (Cussonia spicata) to Candelabra Tree (Euphorbia candelabrum), from the charming Pig’s Ear (Cotyledon orbiculata) and enormous Paddle Plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora) to the many bright Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), from the busy Chandelier Plant (Kalanchoe tubiflora) to the high-spirited chaos of an Indian-fig Prickly Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica), every available space was filled with the evidence of how plants have adapted to environments that are as harsh and miserly as any on earth.  Also among this outstanding collection were many Aloes and Agaves.

As I rounded a corner, not entirely watching ahead of me, I came face to face with a drooping Euphorbia ingens in all its tall, weeping glory.  I don’t know if this wondrous plant has a common name, but I would name it something grand like Tears of God or Many Arms of God; maybe God’s Broken Heart.

Impressed as I was with the multitude of shapes and sizes that these spectacular cacti have developed, it was the differences in the color green between each genus and species that most amazed me.  Subtle shades of green-brown, tan-green, bluish-green, light and dark green on the same plant, green-purple, red-green – what accounts for this variety?  A plant’s environment – heat, sun, shade, water, nutrients, insects, disease – acts upon the plant in ways we do not entirely understand.  We do know where cacti store water (in the stems) and why most cacti stems are round (more efficient water storage capacity).  We do know that the stem is where photosynthetic activity occurs, and we know that the spines of a cactus are modified leaves.  We know, also, that water stored in the stem is converted into a more viscous solution which inhibits evaporation.  This solution also protects the plant in freezing weather.  We know quite a lot about the reasons behind cacti shapes.  But the colors!  Some cacti have a wax-like covering over their skin (a cuticle covering the epidermis) that reflects light, but there must be other reasons for the wide variety of colors.  We know that some environmental influences produce an immediate response in a plant; some influences may show years later – especially in long-lived plants.  I suspect that is part of what accounts for such a variety in the family of cactus.

The many different ‘colors’ within a green plant are one of countless tangible demonstrations of life and its resolute ability to survive.


*Just a few of the many palms I saw in the park:

Bismarckia nobilis, Bismarck Palm

Butia capitata, Jelly Palm

Phoenix canariensis, Canary Island Date Palm

Syagrus romanzoffiana, Queen Palm

Washingtonia robusta, Mexican fan Palm

To see pictures of  Balboa Park’s Desert Garden, go to Balboapark.org/Desert Garden.  You will be amazed!

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Each in its own time, its own way.

My observant spouse and I were out walking recently, enjoying the spectacular colors of autumn, when he pointed out that the foliage of a Styrax japonica, Japanese Snowbell, was showing autumn color change from inside the canopy first before working its way to the outer leaves of the tree.  He stated that most trees he sees follow the reverse pattern, and he wondered if this pattern is normal for this tree.  I mentioned that our Styrax follows the same pattern – inner leaves change first followed by outer leaves.  We contrasted it with our Ginkgo biloba, Jade Butterfly, which seems to change to its stunning golden autumn color all at once.  One day it’s the usual green, then the next day – pow – it’s golden!  And then a week later – boom – it’s naked!   Seemingly, all at once!  This is a no-nonsense plant that seems to want to make the change fast and get on with winter.

Our Cornus florida, Eastern Dogwood, changes color slowly and with a very different schedule, one that shows no particular pattern.  Leaves along a branch that are bright red are interspersed with green or  brown foliage or leaves just entering color change; some leaves drop much earlier than their companions showing the same amount of color change, some showing no signs of color change at all.  It’s a pretty little tree but looks messy once chlorophyll starts to break down and its leaves begin senescence.

We walked past a stand of maples showing color change in the outermost leaves first; many leaves near the trunk still green, but the red of the changed leaves glittered and sparkled.  Lovely!

Against a dark house, yellow/orange leaves of an old, leggy forsythia glowed sharp and bright in pale, gentle sunlight.  This tall shrub’s autumn display tends to look like an after-thought; a haphazard and disorganized arrangement of changed leaves that persist on the plant while green leaves drop before any hint of change.  Its ungainly growth habit doesn’t help, either.  Odd how each plant responds differently to the same seasonal influences and internal processes.  Odd, but beautiful.

I don’t know why one plants’ leaves change color from inside the canopy out, while another’s change from the outside in.  Is it a result of a group of leaves having more of one type of chlorophyll than the other – more A than B for instance?  All leaves contain both types of chlorophyll – A and B – and there is just a slight difference between the two in their molecular composition.  Where A may not be able to absorb enough sunlight at a certain wavelength, chlorophyll B picks up the slack, thereby ensuring that the leaf absorbs enough light from the combined sources.   Could it be that some leaves have received less water during the growing season than other leaves just a short distance away but on the same branch, thereby stressing those particular leaves?  Could it be a slight variation in age of a leaf; one leaf opened earlier than a nearby leaf?  Or could shade – either from within the canopy or an outside source – cause the discrepancy?  I don’t know, and to date, I haven’t found an answer.

But, I do know the variety is delightful and I appreciate the show in all its diversity.  And it’s a mystery I will continue to pursue.