While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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The Whispering Season


Photos courtesy of Plumb Pixel Photography, Terri Johnson, Owner.  To see the photos that accompany this article, please use the link below.


The Whispering Season:  Between the closed-fist grip of deep winter and the gentle touch of early spring resides another, much shorter, season.  Gardeners are familiar with this brief time of year and respond to its arrival with hope and joy.  Its duration is brief – sometimes just 3 weeks – but its days are filled with the soft green shoots and emerging buds of early perennials and shrubs poking through a mist of soft fog or the crumble-top layer of tired mulch.

In the Demonstration Gardens at Carkeek Park, few plants are in bloom during this time of year but the Gardens’ gifts are on full display.  We have a large selection of Hellebores and Heucheras, as do most gardens, but above and beyond those important plants we have a full palette of subtle colors and interesting shapes best seen during this short season.

The small, bright yellow buds of Mahonia aquifolium sparkle against shiny, deep green leaves.  When planted in mass, Oregon Grape is a shot of sunlight on a dark winter day.  Lucky visitors find delight in the nascent, cheery white pedals of Hepatica acutiloba nestled in our shady woodland bed.  Trillium ovatum, Coast or Pacific Trillium, shows the beginnings of a flower tucked inside its protective leaf-coat.  Most of our trillium flowers are white, although we have a few deep maroon blooms that are always a welcome sight.

The tiny, round pink buds of Kalmiopsis leachiana ‘Umpqua Form’ compliment the round, compact form of the plant.  Visitors who bend down to inspect this tidy little plant at close range are impressed by the many buds they see, and make a note to return in spring to see the plant in full bloom.  They are never disappointed.

Viburnum tinus, Spring Bouquet, offers two rewards for close inspection – shimmering blue berries and small pink buds.  Even before the flowers open and their fragrance warms an early spring garden, the berries and buds offer a bright reprieve from the deep gray of winter.

White-flowering Ribes sanguineum buds are beginning to open and create a delicate, cascading presence against the plants’ dark stems.

Foliage and/or stem color is on full display during this short time period.  Mahonia repens shows its deepest purple, red, and maroon in these weeks between winter and spring.  It is a rare plant in the Pacific Northwest that sports such dramatic winter color.  This Mahonia is especially beautiful when its leaves are dusted with the glitter of frost or dew.  Intriguing and confusing to some visitors are the fertile, dark-brown fronds of Matteuccia struthiopteris, Ostrich Fern.  Visitors see these fronds and mutter that the gardener is pretty lax in clean-up.  But when the fiddle-heads begin to show through the snow or mulch, our visitors realize that there is a reason these brown fronds remain on the plant.

Leucothoë fontanesiana, ‘Rainbow’, responds to winter with highlighted reds and greens, and a more pronounced white.  Against a background of fog, its spectacular show causes many visitors to steal a moment from their jogging or conversations to stop and appreciate the display.

Seed-heads of perennials that have retired for winter persist with architectural interest and unique beauty.  Eutrochium purpureum, common Joe Pye Weed, and Achillea millifolium, Yarrow, create a strong vertical presence in a horizontal landscape.

Especially attractive during this season is the combined impact of deep red stems and lustrous green leaves of Vaccinium ovatum, Evergreen Huckleberry.  This important plant is used in many beds in the Carkeek gardens and makes an exceptionally attractive addition to each bed.  But, isn’t this the case with most plants in the Ericaceae family?  (And our young Manzanita is a budding Ericaceous star in the gardens.)  I would be hard-pressed to find a family of plants as versatile and hardy for this area.

A contrast among dark colors during this time of year are plants that offer a glimpse of white.  Perovskia atriplicifolia, Russian Sage, displays dusty white/gray stems and an amusing presence as it serpentines its way through the structure of more vertical, traditional plants.  As these stems wind through the foliage of evergreen plants they offer the visitor a sharp delineation in color, texture, and movement – a welcomed sight throughout the many garden beds of Carkeek.  And another plant that brings interest through winter is our native snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus.  Most birds will eventually eat the berries although it is not their favorite food, but the persistent white berries are a bright sight in the dark of winter.

Last, and always a pleasure to see, is the small beauty of Lewisia cotyledon when its leaves are outlined with frost.  This plants’ symmetry is best highlighted when its deciduous neighbors are down for the season, the ground has a thin, sparkling cover of frost, and the plant can be seen without its flowers.  Maybe it brings out the frustrated mathematician in me, but Lewisia’s logical shape and austere form is more attractive in winter than any other season.

It is during this brief time of year that the garden and its inhabitants share with us its most elusive gifts; gentle beauty, delicate color, unique form, and subtle promise.  These quiet gifts, whispered to the person patient enough to listen, are on full display in the Demonstration Gardens of Carkeek Park.

And they are waiting just for you.


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A Reason for Optimism, Part I – the value of a human life.

Two commonly held beliefs about the origin of human life are: life arose from the early oceans of our young planet through the random processes of evolution; or, human life was created by God.  Each belief has a large, devout following of true believers – people who will not consider any other explanation.  Many of us have had uncomfortable encounters with ardent devotees of either belief and have come away from those encounters bewildered and confused when a simple statement or comment is perceived as a (unintended) full-scale insult or offense in the blink of an eye.   Misunderstandings occur easily, sometimes intentionally, and such misunderstandings do a tremendous disservice to believers of both points of view.  At times we feel that finding common ground is beyond our capacity, but I believe we can reach an understanding of each other’s beliefs.  Our species has that ability.

Very briefly stated, my understanding of the religious point of view is as follows. People who hold the belief that God is humankinds’ creator find within this belief an importance and exceptionality to human life that places it above all other forms of life, even as those other forms of life are created by God.  Human beings were created in God’s image, he blessed them, admonished them to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over every living thing – all was made for humankind (Genesis 1:27 – 31).  As humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation, the miraculous nature of our existence is inherent.  Each human starts life via the breath of God; each life is a specific miracle brought to consciousness for a specific purpose and from a specific reason.  There is no randomness in God’s creation.  All creation has a place, a purpose, and reason for being.  And at the top of God’s earthly creations is humankind, and the only form of life aware of its own mortality – and by extension the mortality of all other life.

And again very briefly stated, my understanding of the scientific point of view is as follows.  All biological life originated from chemical interactions of simple molecules in the oceans (or in the atmosphere and then rained into the oceans) of our very young earth.  These interactions are an entirely chemical process driven by these simple molecules’ ability to reproduce themselves (an early RNA molecule that could replicate itself), and develop into more complex forms through random mutation.  Most of these organisms died but those with mutation(s) that allowed greater ability to obtain nutrients survived to reproduce.  From successive generations, even more complex life forms were created – again, through the process of random mutation.  As these life forms interacted with the environment, those with characteristics that enabled the organism to survive long enough to produce multiple generations out-competed those organisms that were less successful in reproducing.  Countless hazards were encountered and many extinctions occurred in the early life of our planet.  The fact that from single-celled organisms human life developed is remarkable.  Even more remarkable is that Homo sapiens have awareness of self and are cognizant of the mortality of all life.  Most biologists still believe that no other member of the animal kingdom has this awareness (there are some of us who strongly disagree).  But the primary aspects of the scientific view of the origin of human life is the fact that our species has evolved to this level against enormous odds, and that we are not the pinnacle of evolution.  Life on earth continues to evolve.  It cannot do otherwise.

I see a common thread in these beliefs.  Human life has received, either from God or through evolution, a gift of importance and value beyond any gift conceivable.  This gift is the knowledge and awareness of mortality.  We are aware of the fact that all life on this planet has a limited life span.  This knowledge is with us at all times; it guides our actions and thoughts regardless of whether or not we acknowledge this.  Some people fear death, some welcome it, some worship death, and some people fight it.  But all beings are subject to it.  What has always appeared absurd, and exceptionally cruel, to me is that humans allow themselves to feel justified in intentionally harming or taking life from another.  Where does this justification come from?   What has so much power that it can convince a person that another deserves harm, or to die?  Whether one believes the religious reason for life or the scientific basis of life, the implication in both viewpoints is that all humans are kin.  We share a common ancestor(s), be it a single-celled organism or Adam and Eve.

When ideologies (religious, political, or scientific) become so entrenched in societies that they override our sense of common humanity, catastrophic events can result.   History is rife with horrific acts one human and/or society has committed against another.  Each act is justified through a combination of belief of superiority, viewing those as “the other”, and denial of responsibility for our own actions.  The common declaration, “I did this because you did that. . “ should be replaced with “I chose to do that because I . “.  The easy path of retaliation should be rejected and replaced with attempts to understand why the initial act occurred.  When no understanding or common ground can be found, when the differences in belief appear insurmountable (and this does happen), accepting the distance and walking away is best.  If we make a conscious decision to recognize the common humanity of another, regardless of our differences, we can succeed.  A primary factor that hinders our efforts to overcome conflict is that we are trapped within our own mind.  Try as we might, we cannot completely see or understand anothers’ point of view.  No one can.  We have the ability to empathize with each other but we can never completely know all the nuances of thought, belief, and feeling that make up the other person.  Because much of how we interact with each other and our world is unspoken, and often fleeting in our own consciousness, we frequently don’t have complete understanding of our own actions.  Insight is difficult to obtain.  It requires a lifetime of constant effort, and to believe that we know all the reasons beneath an act of another person is extreme arrogance.

But, even if we cannot completely understand and find common ground within in our human family, we can allow each other their own point of view.  We do not need to respond to every harmful act.  We do not need to correct beliefs we see as flawed.

Pacifism is not popular, nor is it admired much anymore.   Currently, it is viewed as cowardice, admission of guilt, or simply utterly ineffective.  But it has succeeded in past conflicts, and it can succeed still.  Education, compassion, understanding, and a willingness to accept anothers’ beliefs as they stand are the hallmarks of a true human society – a true human family.

We are kin.  And we should do no harm to each other.

We can do this.