Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Desperate Beauty of Fall

The nights are getting chillier. The sun is setting earlier and in an entirely different spot over Little Traverse Bay. In the garden, the Stargazers and rich wine-colored lilies are a defiant blaze of color against the larger and larger patches of deadheaded green.

For some gardeners, the adjustment to Fall is a sad and wistful time. I have always seen a fierce and desperate beauty in that turning season.

Those late bloomers of every species are finally coming into their own. Lush mounds of mums lift their buds to the sun, preparing to burst into glorious flower. Simple "prairie" asters, relatively low on the pecking order of perennial garden plants, lift their feathery purple and hot pink heads long after most of the garden is settling in for the long winter ahead.

This, too, is a season where the "volunteers" come into their own, misfit daisies or astilbe or Canterbury bells that just weeks ago would have been considered "out of place". Liberated by the latest deadheading, they burst into bloom amid that sea of barren green. Monarda, popularly known as bee balm, continue to hang on, appreciated late in the game for their tenacity.

For much of the summer, the gardener has cut back the emerging blooms on the hostas, encouraging the plants to send all their energy to producing those lush and beautiful leaves. Now the tall and wiry stalks are allowed to stand, lovely bursts of lilac in the midst of all that glorious green, white and cream foliage.

Creative deadheading allows the heads on the Annabelle hydrangeas a couple of precious weeks of bloom. By careful clipping around the edges or hand-maneuvering of those ponderous clumps of blooms, it is possible to eliminate the dried, brown and bloomed-out patches. The transitional fall garden may not display the abundance of the beds at their peak. Still, there is a beauty in simplicity and the sight of individual plants defying the shortened daylight hours to bloom even as the hint of frost threatens to put an end to it all.

How different from Spring, I find myself thinking, where all is hope and promise and struggle, but with the awareness of a prolific summer of blooming to come. In Fall, the garden cannot escape the reality that the long, hard Winter is not far behind. And yet, it blooms.

The Fall garden can teach us a great deal about our own growing seasons. Fall in the garden is the best argument I know for hope. Those plants are short on excuses and long on determination—the desperate faith that it is never to late to bloom and grow. Tough stuff, life and time in a garden, but beautiful for all that.

Risk, Hope and Grace in Gardening

“Sing a song of harvest home”, the traditional Thanksgiving hymn urges us. Safely squirreled away in the freezer, the fruits of a summer of vegetable gardening reward us with memories of work productively done. Now is the time for family and friendships and a well-deserved fallow time as our garden rests for the season.
Precious memories for dark and difficult days, as well as the coming winter. In my novel, TIME IN A GARDEN, the heroine and gardener, Eve, writes a great deal about gardening and growing older, about life beautifully lived. “Words like ‘risk’ and ‘hope’ and ‘grace’ do not pop up a lot in horticultural magazines,” she says, “ That is odd, because you cannot survive long in the gardening business without them.”
I don’t think anyone would argue that hope is commodity we all badly need these days. “As a culture,” Eve writes in her diary, “we tend to want immediate gratification. Gardens do not operate that way. Gardening works. . .only when we learn to plant by a calendar in which months and years and even generations become the measure of what has been accomplished.”
Shortcuts and greed-is-good ethics don’t work particularly well in the garden. If we get lazy and plant the bulbs too shallow, they freeze or rot. If we skimp on fertilizer or don’t keep an eye on the nitrogen content of the soil, the harvest is skimpy or we wind up with great foliage and no veggies. In the end, all the alpha-dog hubris in the world cannot substitute for honest and careful stewardship. We reap what we sow.
Yet, for all our short-sightedness, our gardens also remind us that it is never too late to begin again.“Gardening opens the possibility of second chances,” Eve writes. “Our failures are only final if we give up or if we refuse to learn from our experiences. The saga of a gardener is the story of hope.”
“Gardening is both life-affirming and humbling. It teaches us to have faith in new life to come and to hold on through the darker days. It grounds us—literally and figuratively—in what really matters as the seasons play out around us.”
Perhaps the greatest gifts we can share with our families this holiday season are not bought with mega-bucks, but with a loving investment of common sense, the kind of life-lessons that only gardening can give. Seeds packets are not as cheap as they were when many of us were growing up. Still, the dividends they pay may be absolutely priceless.

Rhythm of Gardening and Life

Some gardeners find Fall a sad time, others a time of badly needed rest after the exhausting season of work behind them. The Fall cutting back and raking is done. The dried and yellowing foliage is gone, hauled off to the mulch pit.
What remains can be a sad reminder of times glorious blooming past. Instead, I like to think of the autumn of a garden’s life as a precious opportunity to take stock, literally and figuratively, of what needs to be done to encourage new growth once the long, hard winter is past.
For starters, even after the annual garden cleanup, in Fall the plant structure is still there, pruned back but still very identifiable. It becomes easier for a gardener to see the crowding for what it was, plan objectively to deal with the excesses that can quickly turn the garden into a jungle next year.
In the young Spring garden, it can be more difficult to distinguish what goes and what stays or delude ones’ self that those plants aren’t going to be elbowing one another for space in just a matter of weeks. I usually feel so relieved my plants have survived the harsh winter, that I am reluctant to get out the spade and do what needs to be done and tame that first wild rush of new growth, until it becomes a back-breaking business.
The Fall garden is beyond such well-meaning but misplaced sentimentality. I can see at a glance where the iris are impinging on the astilbe, where the border plants are getting out of hand. Walking my Fall garden provides a sense of distance, the precious wisdom to see where work needs to be done if my garden is to continue to grow and flourish next season.
Even though the leaf mold wreaks havoc with my allergies, I love that fallow time as I fix in my mind’s eye one last time how beautiful it all was. The garden and the plants have done their work all summer. I have done mine. Even the winter to come cannot change that reality, the wonderful memories of what was accomplished.
Maybe some of these thoughts have contributed to making gardening the number one hobby in the U.S. In the seasonal rhythm of the garden’s life, the gardener can gain deep insights into the changes and wrenches of their own.
As creatures we are meant to grow and bloom. There is no ‘retirement’ from that cycle, from the flowering and losses that define our years and days. A good gardener learns from experience. A good gardener understands the discipline of pruning and weeding, of setting boundaries for themselves, their gardens and those plants. Gardening is about life and vice versa. Good stuff, all of it.

Gardening as Therapy

Willard Scott on the Today show recently featured a couple, married happily for seventy-five years. The secret of their longevity? Never fight, but when it gets a bit tense on the home front, the husband goes out and gardens. They have the biggest garden on the block.

I laughed but gardening as therapy make an awful lot of sense. I tell friends that, for me, the grittier tasks like weeding and deadheading have all the satisfaction of cleaning the bathroom but none of the drawbacks. A guy is outside in the fresh air. It is obvious that something tangible has been accomplished. Life doesn’t get any better.

Gardeners love to talk about the “deeper meaning” of their favorite past-time. Google just about any topic and there are web sites devoted to quotes about what getting out there in the dirt does to the human psyche. For starters, note the language—gardening “grounds” us.

That annual Fall garden clean-up, a very tough and potentially nasty chore? Poetically among gardeners, the process is known as “putting the garden to bed”. I can’t imagine a kinder, gentler way of describing that bittersweet moment when we realize it’s time to call it quits for the season, get out shears and clippers and getting rid of the greenery that if left behind, can rot the garden at its root. The tough task behind us, visions of “long winter naps” and the promise of Spring’s “awakening” are not far behind.

Then there’s my personal favorite job and expression, “deadheading”. Wow. It took some imagination to come up with whimsical term for the lowly but important task of snipping away the bloomed-out and unsightly. Deadheading speaks of life-changing transitions, not blisters and broken finger nails. Deadheading is not about death or loss but about revitalization.
According to the “Ask Oxford” online dictionary, the word ‘garden’ itself stems from 14th century Northern French gardin, a variation of Old French jardin (still used in modern French). Its roots may be even older in the early Germanic languages.
The word ‘yard’, though, is one of the oldest words in the English language, in use since 300 AD. The Oxford online search says its origin is the Germanic word geard ‘building, home, region’ which also has ties to ‘gardens’ and ‘orchards’. A whole family of words related to ‘enclosures’ and secure spaces have similar endings, including city names as far away as the Russian Novgorod and Petrograd.
I like that whole notion. Even with all those shears and other sharp objects lying around, even fighting deer and numerous flying and creeping predators, gardens in word can be wonderful places of safety and shelter for gardeners and plants alike.

Blooming Where We are Planted

The growing season is late this year, two to three weeks by some estimates. How hard and frustrating it was, all through early July, to watch the daisies struggle out there in the garden, wondering if they would ever bloom. Even the annuals in the planter boxes were having a tough time of it and are only now beginning to show signs of hitting their stride.
Still, plants seem to have this tenacious need to bloom. They are born to flower no matter what is happening around them.
With the tiniest of incentives—a little more sun and less rain, though hardly typical hot and sultry summer days the plants might have been expecting—the garden suddenly explodes in a riot of color. Before our astonished eyes, the peak flowering season compresses into just a few wildly intense weeks. Species that normally don’t bloom together like daisies, astilbes and oriental lilies burst into bloom at the same time. The garden becomes wall-to-wall color, shades and textures, a single glorious living carpet.
Life can be like that. Just when we think we have it all figured out, that we’re stuck in a rut, feel disconnected from everything and everyone around us, something happens to shock us back into life, what we were meant to be. Though there is still a damp chill to the air, out of the blue, in a burst of glorious energy we find ourselves blooming where we are planted with renewed excitement and joy.
True, the “getting there” may be stressful as all get out. Like those poor perennials, waiting for a summer that seems to never come, it can be tough just to stand upright or get out of bed in the morning. Out in our garden, we get up after weeding too long and sciatica kicks in with a vengeance, a painful wake-up call that the Spring of our lives is many a decade behind us.
And then a friend calls or a buddy passes along via email a great story or video clip off the Web. We forget the heating pad, worries about out 401Ks and the fluctuating price of gas and think about blooming, like our gardens, all those plants desperately flowering together before the season ends.
Rationally, we know that for everything there may be a season. But oh what fun it can be when life surprises us and that Gardener’s almanac proves less than accurate. In the garden, for all the work and planning and fertilizing and fretting, the wonder and awe remain—the outrageous and unexpected capacity, against all odds, to become what we are intended to be.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A New Travel Destination....Your Garden

With gas over $4 a gallon, we search for creative ways of satisfying our wanderlust without breaking the bank. One possibility—to revisit our gardens, not as “gardeners” but as incidental tourists in pursuit of precious spiritual healing.

At first light, the grass is deliciously cool under my bare feet as I stroll along the beds. The dark night is behind me. Delicate teardrops glisten on the leaves and blossoms that turn their faces to the rising sun. All is hushed and still, expectant—welcoming the new day. The perfume of unfolding buds drifts on the faint hint of a breeze.

Next to the stands of astilbe with its red-tinged stems and lacy foliage, a lone obedient plant is poking out of the dark earth where it hadn’t been the day before. Anything but obedient, I chuckle to myself. It is a moment of high comedy to encounter spontaneity in the midst of all that deliberate cultivation. I have stumbled on adventure, right here in my own backyard.

High noon I retrace my steps, caught up short by the shimmering waves of heat swirling around the daisies. The air is heavy with green, the scent of the tropics in our northern clime. I relish the exercise amid a sea of crimsons and whites and raucous yellows.

In my leisurely stroll, I find nature hard at work all around me. Ponderous in flight, bees move to a droning cadence from flower to flower under the glare of the midday sun. Velvety orange against the hot pink of the peonies, butterflies swoop and soar, all grace and restless energy. In the pine branches overhead, the shadow of a hawk contemplates lunch scurrying about, foraging down below. I curl up in the shade with a good book, half-listening to the frenzied stirrings of life in the garden going on around me.

Night falls slowly, in a distant blaze of oranges and purples across the water of Little Traverse Bay. Twilight spreads over the garden like a blanket pulled tight around me. Weary petals curl in upon themselves, holding in the warmth of the sun. Like the foothills of some storied mountain range, monochrome as the night itself, the plantings stretch out into the moonlight, all grays and blues and dark shadows.

The garden sleeps. With a full day behind me, I too am ready to rest.

My travels have taken me from Eden to the equator to the Appalachians in a single day. No travel agency could have plotted an itinerary as intimate or refreshing.

The Creator walked the garden, the ancient text reminds me, and found it good. And at the end of the day, the Creator rested.

Garden Railroads

Something new is blooming in my garden. For years my long-suffering spouse, John, has been helping me dig, weed, transplant—that, despite the fact he is allergic to most flowers and has a back even worse than mine. Given his druthers, he would plant all hostas or ground cover. Still, he concedes around a foot of sod a season to turn our front yard into a cottage garden. If that isn’t loyalty, I don’t know what is.

His “gardening” of choice up until now has been water gardening that took the form of two ponds. One is the size of a large picnic table, the other a washtub. Still, he has some interesting flora going out there, one very tough goldfish (a former 10-cent feeder fish saved from the pet store) that even survived a baby osprey hunting from the vantage point of our neighbor’s eaves. It took 7 years, but a family of frogs has moved in for several seasons now. I love the sound of running water thanks to his modest waterfall.

All that is changing, big time. After I spent last summer in Bay View building an HO-gauge railroad in our cottage dining room with my grandson, I couldn’t help spot the wistful looks from John as he helped us turn a commercial tin can into a very believable tunnel.

I got the hint. For Christmas, Valentine’s and every celebrate-able date in between, I gifted him with a G-scale garden railroad. And before I could say, where’s the shovel, he had carved out a 15 by 10-foot network of tracks for engines, passenger and freight cars and a trolley happily toodling back and forth on a track of its own, along with a growing village of structures made from birdhouses.

It’s an amazing engineering feat, not quite the Brooklyn Bridge but close. Part of the magic are the plants that make the layout come alive, greenery that resembles full-size bushes and trees.

The project demands looking at plant growth tags literally from a whole new perspective. Essential are small leaves and flowers, as well as slow growth and low heights when mature. When it comes to rocky hillsides and lawns for garden-rail structures, moss and lichens are perfect. Other favorites are dwarf phlox, Creeping Jenny, Partridge Feather, miniature succulents like sedums and Hens and Chicks, and varieties of tiny ground covers.

I am not advocating we all dig up our perennials and start laying track. When it comes to gardening, though, I have learned a valuable lesson. One guy’s chore is another guy’s can’t-wait-to-get-at-it moment. Sometimes those plants we take for granted are a lot more diverse and versatile than we think.

Garden as a Spiritual Place

For our anniversary, my husband gave me a wonderful book and CD, “The Rose, the Lily & the Whortleberry” [Harmonia mundi], a breath of spring as we head into the planting season. They celebrate the story of the medieval garden with the help of music performed by the Orlando Consort and art prints from illuminated manuscripts of the period.

Gardens in medieval times were small and intimate, the book explains. The earliest were enclosed gardens [hortus conclusus], so-named because they were surrounded by a protective wall. Inspired by poetry in the biblical “Song of Songs”, these gardens were meant to reflect an innocent Eden-like harmony between human beings and the natural world. Eventually a second style developed, the secular pleasure garden [jardin d’amour] in which courtly lovers enjoyed the good life.

The European Renaissance changed all that. No simple Eden here. Object was to display human skill in taming nature, with elaborate formal paths, geometric beds, cascades and terraces. Even individual plants were sculpted into exotic shapes [topiaries]. Later on historically , the English garden represented a deliberate return to the wild, “natural” gardening style.

Other cultures also have cultivated the ideal of the “garden” as a spiritual place or a “romantic” haven. In the Muslim tradition, the garden represents paradise and rulers in those ancient lands created elaborate pleasure gardens. The seemingly fanciful landscape scrolls of the Orient are actually faithful reproductions of mountainous parklands in which rocks, water and plants are carefully manipulated to create a sense of mystery, peace and awe.

These “idealized” gardens appeal to all the senses. Plants with colorful blossoms or exotic foliage become a feast for the eyes. Some plant choices create a sense of healing with their herb-like smells and still others are prized for their romantic fragrance. Others are selected for their fruit or because they produce spices that stimulate the taste buds.

Even without strolling minstrels, the connection between gardening and music is magical. From the medieval fountains to the murmuring sounds of modern water gardens, to the random bird calls and scurrying of insects, the garden comes alive with a music all its own.

No wonder so many centuries ago, troubadours like Jacques Arcadelt [1505-1568] were singing “woe is me, whose life is not restored by flower, branch, grass, air, grotto, wave. . .shade or breeze”. I invite you to celebrate spring this year by sharing your favorite “garden” song, poem, painting or photograph, even recipe with a gardening buddy—or even better, readers of this column. For starters, it will put all the weeding and digging to come in perspective.

Spring is in the Air

I was threading my way through the snow and black ice last week when a greenhouse sign caught my eye. “Tired of winter. . .just come on in,” it said. They didn’t have to ask twice.

As it turns out, nothing major was in bloom at the moment under all those glass-enclosed aisles full of plants. It didn’t matter. Like the smell of printers’ ink to a writer, the rich smell of potted things growing is something guaranteed to get a gardener’s pulse racing. Moreover, I have come to appreciate, as a gardener, that foliage has a subtle appeal all its own—indoors and out.

Cool and lush, a classic shade garden can turn out to be a subtle island of calm and restraint in otherwise tough to cultivate nooks and crannies in a yard. Those delicate and muted shades of green, creams, whites and yellows are restful, quietly inviting us to look deeper for our definitions of beauty than the gaudier displays possible in sunnier beds.

Hostas and varieties of ferns flaunt their distinctive and showy greenery, elbowing one another for space in the shady ground. The incorrigible vinca minor or lesser periwinkle sends tenacious runners into corners where more showy flowering plants would balk at trying to establish themselves. Shady rock gardens can flourish like exquisite landscapes in miniature with their tiny red and crimson forests of shoots rising above the pillow-like hillocks of moss.

In the early morning when the ground is still wet or in the hours after a spring or summer shower, a walk through a shade garden is like a stroll through a tropical Eden. Life is flourishing on all sides, not to flower or pragmatically to fruit, but simply and joyously to be.

In a human world that values “bigger and bolder”, shade gardens are life lessons in simplicity and discernment. The aesthetics of a shade garden is grounded in the bare shape and structure of things. Its palette depends on an appreciation for subtlety as much as variety.

Shade gardens celebrate the long haul, the steady and the persistent. Long after species after species of perennials in the full-sun have flowered and faded, the plants of the shade garden go quietly on with their business of growing.

I left that greenhouse with a tiny fern for my terrarium. The wind was biting, the ground uncertain under my feet. Still, I told myself, somehow it didn’t matter so much whether March was coming in or going out like or a lion. Spring is coming. I smiled.

Color and Meaning in a Garden

As an avid community gardener, I don’t usually give too much thought to what perennials are my favorites. My job on the garden crew is to nurture the choice of plants of our garden planner. Since I work in a memorial garden, definite rules apply about what to include and what is considered inappropriate.

A major design principle in a memorial garden is use of color. Yellows and reds are considered too passionate and showy. Instead, the palette includes cool purples and blues, mauves and pinks which tend toward the blue, as well as pristine whites.

Such links between plants and the emotions are nothing new. One of the most famous lists of flowers and their significance occurs in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” when the doomed heroine Ophelia gifts the courtiers with freshly picked blossoms, in the process reciting the poignant emotional significance of each of them. In Victorian times, especially, people were obsessed with the “meaning” of different plants and flowers.

To this day, roses are seen as classic symbols of romantic love. Pink varieties supposedly convey admiration and appreciation. Red expresses passion or congratulations at achievement. White conveys innocence and humble grace. Yellow roses can express “welcome home” or friendship, but beware—also can symbolize jealousy.

Even “ordinary” garden plants have assigned meanings, such as daisies (innocence and loyalty) and irises (faith, courage). A whole emotional lexicon has sprung up around carnations. Pink, the official flower of Mother’s Day, tells the recipient, “I will never forget you”, while red says, “my heart aches for you”. White symbolizes pure affection. Yellow and striped carnations can mean disappointment or rejection. Chrysanthemums express friendship, except yellow which again has a negative connotation.

If I had to assign personal “meanings” my Top 10 floral garden favorites, they would be: 1) Iris—elegance. 2) Daffodils—gregarious, unpretentious. 3) Prairie Asters—persistence (the latest bloomers in my garden). 5) Astilbes—gracefulness. 6) Coneflowers and Brown-eyed Susans—joyous simplicity. 7) Helibores—hopeful (blooming even in the snow). 8) Day lilies—exuberance. 9) Foxglove—air of mystery (partly for their over-the-top snapdragon-like flower stalks and partly for popping up all over the garden season after season). 10) Lupine—frustrating (I have a dickens of a time growing them, but even their bloomed out seed pods are fascinating).

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we have a perfect chance to tell the gardener in our lives how we feel. While cut flowers can be wonderful for doing that, so can gifts of perennials that in just a matter of months can go out there in the beds, hopefully to flower for years to come.