Monday, August 31, 2009

Last Day of August

It takes guts to go to the garden
in the autumn when day lilies sprawl,
when orange rose hips harden
and hollyhocks brown,
when crab grass covers it all.

Cleomes tower above me
crowding out those who are weak,
scratching with glee,
tall as young trees,
they challenge this gardener meek.

I dread the Siberian iris,
where mice are now making their nests,
no pastoral bliss
has a chance to exist--
more likely is cardiac arrest.

Defending their hive, wasps
get annoyed at my lightest footfall,
they chase me and dive
while I run for the house
like Favre carrying the football.

Yet I screw up my courage each day
and off to the garden I go
for fall's on its way
and soon housebound I'll be--
wanting danger so much more than snow.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

This is the year I was going to get all of the Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' out of my garden except for the single row on the east side. Well, well. Another success story.

I was warned not to let this sunny intruder stage a takeover, and yet I did. All spring, I dug out wheelbarrow loads of it and gave it away to everyone who drove in the yard. All summer, what remained of it was just another shade of green among the peonies, between the irises, next to the lilies. Now, in late August, it shows its true color--and what a color it is. The color of the August sun. Of ripe corn. Of tasty squash. A foreshadowing of turning leaves.

Common old Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'--so eager to please that it just can't help itself. It sings the end of summer, but not a lullaby. This is blaring jazz, all trumpets and brass. Soon I will begin digging it out of the garden again--but not all of it. Never all of it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Drupe. And droop. Anyone might think these two words that sound the same would come from the same root, right? But, of course, they don't. "Droop" comes from an Old Norse verb meaning "to hover" or "to hang the head for sorrow" (OED), while "drupe" comes from the Latin for "overripe olive". Both words, however, describe American spikenard, aka Aralia racemosa, aka That-big-wild-plant-I-didn't-know-the-name-of-for-several-years. Spikenard epitomizes another "d" word, too: drape. Its broad leaves, three together, drift beautifully on the slightest breeze. In early summer, the flower heads nodded primly with a practiced droop, and now they have turned to drupes--clusters of tiny berries in colors from khaki to burgundy to near black.

Spikenard grows along the edges of rich woodlands and is a cousin to ginseng, the mysterious plant I've heard tales about since I was little (my father gathered it in the woods of western Wisconsin and sold it to earn some cash during the 1930s Depression) yet have never seen except in cultivated plots. A ginseng collector walked all through our woods but didn't find any, and I take him at his word, yet I am always on the lookout for it, basing my search on Internet photos of the plant, which as you may know from trying to identify plants from photos, is no easy task with no sure-fire solution.

I only happened on the identity of Aralia racemosa because I happened to be reading Lynn Steiner's Landscaping with Native Plants of Wisconsin and voila! There it was--and her photo looked exactly like the plants growing along our driveway. So now I have the solution to one more mystery of the woods around me. Ginseng remains my quest. I wonder if ginseng droops? Or has drupes? Or drapes? All I know is that, like each of these words, it is valuable for its root (ha...) which is probably why none is growing wild on my property. Aralia racemosa, on the otherhand, which has no market value whatsoever, is invaluable because it is big and beautiful and comes up faithfully each year with no help at all from me. And it allows me to use the words "droop", "drape" and "drupe" which are fun to say. Nothing else is really needed.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Two Deer Crossing the Lawn

No sound of footsteps--
no telltale prints
in the grass
no evidence
of rose filled rumens
no picture snapped
blurry and faraway
no touch of amber coat
or wet black nose--
nothing remains
of two golden gods
sleek and assured
who ambled across the
morning's dewy green velvet
except the snapshot I store
of when they looked up
and saw that they were not alone
in Eden
after all.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Did you ever notice how nature reuses design ideas in the plant and animal worlds? Like making the center of this cosmos look so much like a bumble bee--or is it a yellow jacket? This has been a good summer for bees (and wasps) in my garden, and just now they seem exceptionally busy. So far I have managed to avoid stings, but I suppose one day soon I will happen onto a nest and enrage these otherwise peaceful creatures. If this has never happened to you, you might not be aware that yellow jackets build ground nests as autumn approaches. Should you see a small hole which you might take for the work of a mole, it probably was at one time, but now it may well be inhabited by yellow jackets. Avoid these holes at all costs. Chances are that the wasps won't bother you if you don't bother them. I made the mistake of running over one of these small holes with the lawn mower a couple of summers back, which is how I learned just how angry yellow jackets can get. They stung me several times, then followed me as I ran to the house (screaming) and then followed me inside to sting me some more. Despite this kind of way-too-close encounter with apian friends, I continue to marvel at the sight of bees--and even wasps--in the garden--especially the stingless variety in the center of the cosmos.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lady's Mantle is the very definition of a "toothed" leaf, isn't it? The edges look like the saw blade on the old hand saw I use for wood projects out in the garage (I haven't graduated to power tools), so maybe the term should be "saw toothed" instead of just "toothed", but anyway, they are distinctive and lovely. I read somewhere that Lady's Mantle makes a good underplanting for rose bushes, and so I have been dividing mine each year and transplanting them under the large shrub roses and between the smaller ones, where I sometimes think they might be trying to stage a coup. Nevertheless, Lady's Mantle makes a nice companion for the roses, both species ruffled and round, exuberant and dewy-eyed. The misty, yellow flowers work well in rose bouquets, too, giving a vintage, cottage garden look. The flowers, of course, eventually turn to brown and are less appealing, but can be cut back so that they rebloom to work well with late summer flowers like Brown-Eyed Susans and purple asters.

The leaves of Lady's Mantle, however, are the main attraction for me. This close-up photo shows the Lady's Mantle's teeth and the sought-after dew drops, but also some brown spots on the leaves. Unlike a glamour shot, this amateur photo shows a lady's face just as it is, age spots and all. We can choose to look at the spots (and perhaps to eradicate their cause), or to focus on the graceful shape of the leaf, the way it works together with its sisters to form a pleasing mound in countless shades of green. We can look at the deep veins that feed it and see the symmetry of its construction and the genius of its design. Simple and unassuming, Lady's Mantle does not seem to mind being seen without retouching, or being compared to an old saw blade. It just keeps on growing, keeps on giving. I just keep on transplanting. If my blog disappears one day, you may assume that the Lady's Mantle coup has at last been totally successful.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Henry James once said that his two favorite words were "summer day"--such a succinct a thought for someone not known for his brevity. A beautiful summer day seems such an unearned pleasure, a gift of which we are not worthy, something almost too good to be true--and yet, there we are, breathing in the scent of roses and tasting the sweet fruits. There are, of course, also the not-so-sweet fruits, like the black currant, a fruit I had never heard of until we traveled to England and found black currant preserves everywhere we went. Tart, tangy and rich in color, black currant preserves became a must-have for every "full English breakfast". When I came home and was unable to find this new delicacy anywhere, I ordered three black currant bushes from a nursery. They arrived, three little twigs with bare roots. My hopes fell, but I planted the little "bushes". They surprised me by branching out within weeks and forming compact shrubs not quite two feet high. The first year a handful of currants appeared. By the next year, the branches filled with the black fruit. The three bushes now produce enough for five or six jars of jam each year--enough to satisfy the Anglophile in me, and to remind me, even on hot, humid, terrible days that a summer day is a special pleasure, to be dreamed of in January, longed for in February and lusted after in March. Henry James may have been eating black currant preserves on a bleak midwinter day when he penned his famous quote. Just a guess.

Monday, August 3, 2009

In all seasons, things go to seed, both plant and animal. The connotation is usually unflattering, as in calling something "seedy", yet what a sad world we would live in were it not for the going to seed of things--asparagus, for example. Few plants are more glorious in their waning days than tall wispy wands of asparagus all covered with green droplets, each one of which, under the right conditions, could become a new asparagus plant. Alas, the conditions are never right for all of them. Some blow off to become the wild asparagus growing on the roadside. Some feed sparrows. Some fall to the ground and do not germinate. Some germinate and reappear as tiny wispy strands--and are promptly uprooted by greedy weeding hands. Some are uprooted by mistake, when their fragile roots get mixed up with the wrong kind of friends and they are all busted together, despite the gardener's best attempt to hold the baby asparagus on the right path.

Then, too, there is the grape vine which would happily suffocate the whole patch in order to produce its own seeds inside of drupes of indigo fruit. If grape leaves were not so beautiful, if their vines were not so gorgeous, if their healthy profusion were not so elegant, I would be at constant war with grape vines and their seeds, but I am not. A skirmish here and there, yes, but not an all out battle. Like these wonderful plants, some of my gardening energy is now going to seed. Time for a truce--and a new connotation for the word "seedy".