Tuesday, March 31, 2009

You can tell it's spring: clean garden gloves. Soon they will be brown, not yellow. Gloves know how to become one with the soil--they cover themselves with it. It sticks to them. It knits itself into their fabric. Even when washed, the gloves carry stains from the soil. Just last night I was reading Edward P. Jones's The Known World, in which the storyteller, a slave named Moses, tastes the soil at different times throughout the year. Each season has a different taste. But Moses doesn't taste the soil to find out what season it is. He tastes the soil to be come one with the land--a touching, true act that caused me to reflect on whether or not there are any ways that I try to become one with the land.

Some would say that wearing gloves separates me from the land, and I suppose it does, but sometimes we need protection even from the things we love the most--like sun and soil. Working the soil in the spring, whether with tractor or with the hands, is an act that brings us together with the land. Just now farmers are beginning to chisel plow their fields here in southeastern Minnesota. When they start to do that, I know I can pull on my gloves, grab a fork, and turn over some soil on my own. Maybe I work in some of the composted leaves I piled on last fall. Maybe I just need to do some aerating. Whatever I do, I will see the soil respond: in clumps if it is too wet, like raw oatmeal if is too dry, or like chocolate chip cookie dough if it is just right. When the soil can be packed together, but it contains different sized chocolate chip-like chunks and it can be rubbed between the hands and made to fall apart again, back into the bowl of earth, it is ready to be baked again into another tasty morsel.

I don't wear gloves when I make chocolate chip cookies--but I suppose I could wear those clear plastic food service gloves if I wanted to. I do taste chocolate chip cookie dough, however. Moses tastes the earth. I believe he is getting the better diet: Food for the soul. Maybe it's time for me to take off the gloves?

Monday, March 30, 2009

A painting teacher told me once that every painting should tell a story. Photographs, on the other hand, ask us to "capture the moment". I'd like to take credit for this beautiful sunrise photo from the first day of spring, but I can't. My friend, Connie, took it, and I thank her for sharing. She was awed by the orange fountain effect just as I was, seven miles away.

Connie's photo of the sunrise is spectacular to me not just because of the unusual configuration of early morning light, but because of the story it tells of the land we call home. A country road with no cars on it, a field of corn stubble on one side and a pasture on the other, and then two massive trees that rise above the horizon. Their urn-like shape says they could be among the ever-shrinking number of surviving elms in southeastern Minnesota. They stand like pillars, as if they were placed there to be a gateway to the countryside beyond. In actuality, they probably planted themselves and now ask only for a little respect for their ingenuity and endurance. They, too, have a story to tell. The sunrise is framed by another tree, a sturdy white oak wearing its brown leaves for a winter coat.

Rolling acres, woodlands and the work of human hands tell us of all the earth can provide if we tend it carefully. In this beautifully captured moment, I see a story any painter would be proud to portray. The sunrise is its exclamation point.

O, Wise One
Trees in fur-coat leaves,
fences and fields,
that row of perennials
you never had time
to transplant,
logs waiting to be split,
electricity not yet running through the wires,
snow everywhere
beneath a furnace sun--
how can this be?
Ask a tree.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The author Robert Heinlein is quoted as having said "Always listen to the experts. They'll tell you what can't be done and why. Then they'll do it.'" When I do what people say can't be done in the garden, it usually stems (ha) from desperation: I move plants that shouldn't be moved, I move plants at times when they shouldn't be moved, I place plants in too little or too much sun because I can't seem to find any other place for them.

Because I'm not an expert, I rely on the expert advice I find in my gardening books or on the Internet, which is fast becoming my go-to source for garden questions. Universities all across the country offer information based on good, solid science and there is so much to learn from them. Yet when I'm up to my elbows in roots, I don't usually take time to run to the house and check the computer. Call me compulsive, but I just have the need to get those roots back into the ground somewhere. Anywhere! Oh dear. Results are sometimes stellar, sometimes not so hot. But there is that of the expert in each of us that wants to prove we can do what no one else can do, that seeks a surprise, that sees the garden as a quest and not as a rectangle in which to grow plants. Experts get to be experts, after all, by taking chances and learning from both success and failure. In nature, where so much is still unknown, we find endless opportunities to become experts. But in case you want to rely on other experts and decide to take your laptop to the garden--don't get dirt in the keyboard. That's my expert advice for today.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hakone Gardens: Winter

like a blanket
over toes.
Path wends
along layered green fabric edges
multiplying in loops through gray gardens of stone lanterns
on combed gravel,
across circled stepping stones.
Gardener trims great trees
with tiny scissors
in the shadow of a teahouse
built without nails.
Water trips
down granite
into the oval pool
where orange and white koi dart
beneath an arched bridge.
Murmuring giants, the redwoods shelter,
Bamboo colonizes,
crowded yet courteous.
Camelias tease--
promise scent
but give only waxy, perfect leaves
and peony buds that morph into almost-roses
so that what is false
is also true.
slowly rooting in shallow loam
offers its tiny seed
to the valley
and then the next mountain
but, oh--
so slowly.
One path.
Many journeys.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I visit gardens to see the plants, to get ideas for my own garden, to learn about techniques--all right, and sometimes I lust after what they have that I don't have. But sometimes the thing I remember most has little to do with plants. At Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, California (February, 2009) I was struck by two buildings nestled in the garden. Both were built without nails, an ancient Japanese tradition. Although wooden pegs were used, the structures depend on joinery design for their quiet strength. I picture the job site with no bulldozers, no cranes, no air hammers or pneumatic guns. No doubt I romanticize, but I do not hear anything. The upper building, especially, has a sacred presence. It invites visitors to sit and watch the moon make its way across the sky in silence.

Hakone was quiet the day we were there. We never met anyone on the paths, though we could see other visitors as we edged our way up the mountainside. We crossed bridges, passed through the bamboo forest, feasted our eyes on the showy camelias, soaked up the simplicity of stone sculptures like sponges, and calmed ourselves by the waterfalls. As we walked, I thought about the process of putting together a building without the use of nails. Since coming home, I have thought about it even more--and not with an eye to acquisition. Though I often try to duplicate things I see in other gardens, I honor Hakone not by copying it, but by learning from its peacefulness. Its plantings use the same thoughtful design pegs as its traditional buildings, offering up not a nailed together look, but a coordinated whole. Peace. Where peace is fostered, peace grows--a great idea to bring home from any garden. A new seed to plant.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Before Green

Not in raptures
not in bloom
(not in someone's living room)
not in songs
and not in style
not in ruse
and not in guile,
not in sweetness
but in light
comes the spring--
a sorry sight.

Wreck of winter
mold of snow
wind that everywhere
does blow,
wasted summer
faded fall
roses once
that stood so tall--
spring now cuts them
down to size,
prunes us back
and makes us wise.

Monday, March 23, 2009

First potting. Some people have been planting seedlings and potting up things for weeks now, but I seem to need to work up to it. Like a plant who knows by the length of each day's light when it should sprout, I seem to know by the lengthening days that it is finally time to go searching in the basement for the geraniums I pulled from their pots and stuck in an empty fifty pound sunflower seed bag last fall. If only I could recycle all of my bags this way. Actually, not long ago I saw a great shopping bag made from an just such a seed bag, the kind that is plastic coated on the inside. The outside was turned in so that the outer appearance was white, but on the inside you could still see the pictures of cardinals and read the words "black oil". But alas, my seed bags seem to find more mundane uses, like housing geraniums for the winters, and even more mundane, being filled with trash and stuck in the waste can. I need to learn to make better use of these sturdy bags.

The pots, stowed away in haste, are in need of a good cleaning. I give them a cursory one, the need to get to planting overriding good sense, as usual. And I wish I could say that I added all new soil to each pot, but I didn't. Each was still about one third full, and so I loosened that soil, added a teaspoon of slow-release fertilizer and then some new soil. Next I set the thirsty-looking geraniums in place, then filled with new soil and watered. The wind was gusting up to 40 mph during all of this, so that I managed to get potting soil in my eyes and hair--but at least I didn't have to sweep the deck when I was done. And how did the geraniums fare, you ask? Unlike seedlings that would have whipped themselves into a salad of their former selves in such a wind, the geraniums stood their new ground. If they only had noses, would have turned them up at this wind, having withstood at least five summers of wind and thunderstorms considerably more fierce than yesterday's blow. They stood serene, composed, and if not ecstatic then certainly pleased with themselves for having survived another winter in the dark. And don't we all?

Friday, March 20, 2009

First day of spring. Beyond this morning's gray skies and low ceiling, the sun is rising exactly in the east--I marked it on the neighbor's fence line one year during an especially beautiful sunrise and so today I know where due east is even though I can't see it. What I can see today is all of the junk that has blown into the road ditches during the long, long winter. Plastic cups from fast food places, aluminum cans, bottles, a piece of metal that looks like it once belonged to someone's car, a shoe. All of these things I expect. I don't expect to be walking along a deer trail through our ravine and find a large piece of discarded machinery, though obviously it has been there for quite some time and I just haven't been looking. A little way beyond it, I come upon an owl pellet under a tall oak tree. The pellet's charcoal-colored fuzz holds the bones of tiny birds and rodents eaten by the owl, all of them looking like they have been soaked in bleach--litter, but educational litter. I walk on but do not find any deer horns, though it is the time of the year when old horns are dropped and new ones begin to grow. It is spring: Time to clean up the road ditch before the bugs hatch and the poison ivy ignites, and time to leave some things well enough alone, like this work-weary machine--litter with a story I wish I knew.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Good morning from Flag. Chaser of squirrels. Sniffer of field mice and moles. Runner-off of rabbits. Finder of turkey eggs. Barker at deer. Leaper at low flying birds. Inspector of anything new on her turf. Greeter of visitors. Racer through garden paths and non-paths. Jumper for treats. Listener to garden exclamations. Licker of faces for those on their knees tilling the soil. Nudger of elbows for petting. Leader on every walk. Lover of her family. Designer of garden topiaries.

Flag's design career began when she more or less destroyed a bushy, six-foot arborvitae shrub by repeatedly leaping up after robins nesting near the top. Last spring, while I was planting and weeding and transplanting and weeding, she was leaping. And leaping. And leaping. While her muscled legs cleared the greenery on the way up, on the way down her paws caught the branches, gradually breaking them until the tree looked like it had been through a shredder. Why did I let her do this? Well...because short of locking her in her kennel, there really was no good way to make her stop. Besides, I knew that she was only doing what instinct told her to do: Birds are the business of English Springer spaniels. She was just doing her job. And since "spring" is part of her job description, springing up five feet or more is what she does best. Because she was only two at the time, she was all about intuition.

I looked at the poor arbor vitae and my first thought was that I should cut it down. It really was too large for its spot among the Asiatic lilies and irises and cone flowers. I had planted it there a few years ago just because I didn't know what else to do with it--it was one of twenty-five seedlings we bought from the local Soil Conservation office, the first twenty of which were carefully placed at the edge of the woods and up near the house. By the time we got to number twenty-one, we were tired. "Just put the rest of them in the garden for now," I probably said to my husband. "We can always move them later". I did not say how much later.

After seven or eight years, the shrub had a five-inch diameter trunk and could have been called a tree. After Flag was done with it, there was nothing to do but get out the lopping pruner. Down came the broken branches, all except for the one-foot segment at the top that Flag hadn't been able to spring to, the segment where the robins, whose little hearts were no doubt pounding frantically, were still nesting. The parents squawked vehemently the whole time I pruned. I promised them I would hurry, partly for their sake and partly because I am probably the only person in the world who could picture herself being attacked by a robin--but I can.

When I finished, I had a big, green lollipop in the garden. Its rough-barked trunk was a beautiful contrast to the waxy ball on top. Its sheen, height and evergreen lifestyle added a certain je ne sais quoi to the garden, all because of Flag's tireless design instincts. A morning with Flag is a very good morning, indeed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spring is full of happy accidents. Like trying to get a close-up of one Star Magnolia bud and botching it, but then seeing that what I have instead is a picture of a whole web of white branches against a blue sky. The longer I work in the garden, the more I am aware of which colors lift the spirits--and normally I wouldn't say that grayish white is among them. Still, sunlight on these branches brightens what all winter has been a mass of somber grays and changes the palette completely.

The only branches that show their true colors here are the magnolia twigs in the foreground, their bronze-red like blood flowing just under their skin, telling me they itch for spring. All winter these buds have been swelling in their chinchilla coats, looking to the east for some sign that only magnolias know. One day soon, probably the first week in April, they will see what they have been looking for. They will light up the edge of the woods with a cascade of white flowers which will delight neighbors and passersby who look for it every year.

The magnolia is about thirty years old, about thirty feet tall, and one of the true joys of this place in the woods. Until we moved here and my gardening education began in an avalanche of trial-and-error, I never knew that magnolias grew in Minnesota. I hadn't been paying close attention or I would have seen them here and there, but even now they are not common. I have planted two more, a Leonard Messel which failed on its first attempt but whose replacement is now ten feet tall (and ten years old), and one of unknown parentage which appears to be more of a shrub than a tree, but which has buds this year for the first time in its four-year-old life.

Another happy accident here is that this photo shows me something I hadn't noticed before: that quaking aspens--poplars, in common parlance--are trying to get in on the action behind the magnolia. In fact, they look like they are really crowding this wonderful specimen. Then again, they may just be trying to get a close-up, too.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I see the garden as it will be--around June first. Peonies in full bloom. Roses, too. So many shades of green I can't chronicle them all. Oh sure, I see the dead elm tree at the edge of the woods, too, and hope that we can cut it before it blows down onto the arbor and flowers. Then again, if it stays one more year we might have a nice crop of morels under it in early May: dead things have their place in the world, too--especially in the woods.

But today the garden's palette is so many shades of brown I don't want to chronicle them all. The dark brown rudbeckia seed clusters on their lighter brown dried stems made a striking contrast to the snow throughout the winter. Now they blend into a wash with the wet soil, all of it suggesting it is ready for spring just as much as I am. Sometimes I think plants and animals don't belong in separate categories at all. The more I work in the garden, the more I marvel at how much alike we are. We all want to grow. And we will, in ways we do not yet even know.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Just another quiet walk in the garden. I see it not as it is, but as it will be.

All blogs start somewhere, for some reason, I suppose. The tracks leading up to mine were made by years of writing about everything from garage sales to novels about the lives of weavers during the American Revolution to poems to, now, a new book about my first two years in the country and what I learned--and am still learning--from looking at the tracks I make in the world. I'm a perennial writer, journaling most days, working on other projects, too--and always reading. And a perennial gardener, too--not that I only grow perennials. It's just that the garden and the woodlands that surround mine, the birds and the animals that are part of this cycle, and the elements that make it go around are never far from my thoughts.

So what's blooming today? The first sixty degree day in Minnesota since November 6, 2008, that's what. Zone 4b is taking a bath in what looks like orange juice this morning, the sun pouring itself out on the horizon like a pool I just have to jump into. The snow still on the ground reminds me that when I jump, I'd better be wearing my Mukluks. But spring is out there, waiting to melt into me, and I know that what blooms in spring has been germinating in the winter of my life under all of that cold armor I wear. Or maybe it was already blooming last year and was just resting for a while--a perennial.

Perennials are among my favorites in the garden--so hardy, so dependable, requiring so little of me. Perennials want to please. Many of us under our armor have the need to please that paralyzes the rest of our lives. Perennials do it naturally, though not forever. Eventually they need to be pleased. They need to be divided, fertilized, deadheaded--or as I like to call it "freshened". Still, when spring sneaks up on me while I'm still making tracks in the snow, perennials are already getting ready to do what they do, not necessarily because of me but probably in spite of me. If I don't make tracks and cut down these scrubby looking phlox and filipendulas, they will just start growing without me. Well, who said there was anything wrong with gardening in Mukluks? I see the snow, but on my feet I see sandals.