Reminding Memory

Fuchsias must be back in style again because after years of drought they’ve suddenly started popping up in garden centers. Being the stingy gardener from a long line of thrifty immigrants, I even managed to buy a small specimen that didn’t cost the fortune required for elaborate hanging baskets doomed to fry in someone’s overly sunny yard. My precious prize is sharing space in a recycled hanging pot with a small bit of vining variegated vinca for contrast.

As a child fuchsias always meant summer to me, when my father brought my mother’s parents the annual basket from his nursery to hang on their shady screened-in porch with the aluminum frame lounge chairs and puffy cushions I helped scrub and hose down every June when school was over and the long hot Maryland afternoons stretched into endless days of hay baling and competitive croquet. During years of childhood chaos, I could always count on my grandparents’ timeless routines where nothing ever changed and nothing in the house ever moved. You knew right where the Old Maid deck was stored and how long the Concord grapes needed to ripen on the groaning arbor.

These days I remind my mother of these memories. She lives in an unknown land with an uncertain fate. Each phone call focuses on a different topic, a test if you will, of what she and I remember. Whether they’re accurate doesn’t really matter because every five minutes her question will be repeated. I feel like I’m taking an interminable test that never ends and has no good grade. There is only loss and failure as the past slips softly behind doors that will probably never be opened again.

So I turn to the memory of plants and smell the spicy boxwood in my grandparents’ yard, taste the crazy squash my grandfather grew from foraged seeds that always ended up being slightly spaghetti in the center no matter what. I feel the downy pink puffs of the mimosa tree he planted that became our trickiest croquet wicket. To this day whenever I see a downy quilt of fescue lawn I want to fall down prostate on it to the childhood church of innocence.

As I walk my own yard, I spy the peonies adored by my step-grandmother, the sharp chicory of my mother’s salads, the zonal geraniums my father grew from seed by the thousands, the strawberries my maternal grandmother mixed with sugar and served over vanilla ice cream and the fuchsia that hung on the porch overhead during long evenings sitting with my mother’s father as he asked the same questions over and over, every five minutes.

Fence Me In

March has been a mixture of frenzied outdoor activity on warm days and cowering in the house on cold ones. We seem to be ending on a bitter note as the wind chill hovers around freezing today. The old adage “If you don’t like the weather in (insert state’s name), wait a minute and the weather will change” could be applied to this entire month regardless of where you live.

There have been periods when we rushed out bundled up in hats and coats to tackle some backyard project, shedding outerwear like strippers every hour before the next cold front blew in with much bluster and fanfare. Even so, we managed to build two screens for our patio from bamboo macheted from our neighbor’s jungle up the street, pound in twelve metal fence posts around the garden for our deer fence and trellis our rambunctious black raspberries in the back of the yard.

Currently I’m learning how to master a jigsaw so I can construct a garden gate and wooden frames fortified with chicken wire for my raised beds. Since our supply of bamboo is endless, we’re also considering more privacy screens and barriers for our little backyard world. As much as I appreciate our open southern exposure on the side of a hill, I crave a little privacy from prying eyes and hungry critters. Establishing boundaries can lead to peace in many ways, from peaceful relaxation in my sequestered outdoor living space to peace of mind when my vegetables aren’t decimated.

I’m also finding that fences provide borders which frame and enhance the views. For example, the bamboo grid on my patio creates interesting patterns with the lines from our maple tree canopy, singling out a particular curve of a branch that would get lost in an overwhelming sky. Likewise, the garden fence will help me focus on a finite space for planting. Rather like furnishing a room, the fence walls control the arrangement while providing some vertical space for growing.

In my research of beautiful gardens, the best designs unfold like a series of secret rooms that reveal their treasures only when you turn a corner or follow a winding path. While it may take years for my backyard to achieve such a sense of private mystery, I can learn, grow and observe on the journey to peaceful refuge.

Peaceful Kingdom

The first month of 2022 has already tested my new word for 2022. Last year’s “Growth” certainly proved profitable and prolific in my little household. I always stand in awe of the power held by a word in focus and intention, and the unpredictable ways that my word will play out in the year. The literal outcome for Growth was that I started and bought more garden plants than I knew what to do with, while the spiritual journey led me to appreciate all that I don’t know and can learn from.

Each day as I stepped outside into my gardens, there were many surprises, some wondrous, and quite a few . . . not so pleasant. As I’ve revealed in previous posts, our urban bungalow lot is home or close neighbor to squirrels, rabbits, skunks, groundhogs and local felines, all of whom can make their presence known in interestingly destructive ways. Last year various deterrents were employed, with physical barriers working best even though chicken wire and row covers aren’t the most attractive solutions. Stinky sprays smelling of garlic and rotten egg were also effective until the rains came, or the critters got used to the smells.

However, the biggest (physically and destructively) perpetrator of them all, remains undeterred for the most part. Even in these last few bleak wintery weeks they have polished off whatever isn’t inert or tied down. As much as I love their quiet demeanors and soft doe eyes, the deer and I have a love-hate relationship in regards to gardens. So much so that I’ve decided that a good wire deer fence is a necessity for these urban herbivores who think that everything I plant is especially for them. And I do mean everything — even strong-smelling herbs and bristly shrubs aren’t off limits. I guess the herd hasn’t read the deer-resistant plant lists yet.

I also plan to continue offering sacrificial plants that they can eat like last summer’s extra tomato plants I stuck in the very back of the yard, an offering to the antlered gods and occasional ground rodent. Various raised bed frames and screens are in the works, too, since we can’t fence in our entire yard at this time. Barricades can make good neighbors and keep the peace in edible turf wars. Therefore, my word for 2022 is “Peace,” both internally and externally. My hope is that we all can experience peaceful communion this year, not only in our backyards, but also in communities, towns, states, countries and the world.

So may it be.

Summer’s Farewell

September has been a long, lingering sip of wine for me. In my youth, I was thoughtlessly busy with the beginning of school, homework, new friends and harvesting on the farm. This year I have slowed to a crawl and savor the heat and dry days while letting go of my former life yet again. I’m facing the fact that I will never return to work with the public as a teacher, writer or artist. The crone’s inward turning after 60, release of old blood ties and obligations, and a new gratitude for simply waking up every day have replaced the angst in my fifties.

I am grateful daily for the little dramas and triumphs I find in my small urban lot–the spiders who live or die by what ends up in their web, a mockingbird’s virtuoso performance all day long in the backyard, the monarch’s heroic journey as it finds respite from the Tithonia or zinnia of its homeland before heading south, and the late-planted poppies that insist on flowering no matter how late in the season.

I hesitate before planting my fall crops, afraid to break the spell of this enchanted late-summer slumber before the hard frosts. I know the cold will come but I’m in no great rush, lulled by the soft song of tree frogs and crickets amid the whir from grasshopper’s wings that continue to fairy dance on languid evenings. Winter will come soon enough, but until then I pause on the doorstep, listening to the faint echo of summer’s retreating footsteps.

August Angels

They came in all forms, winged, buzzing, and pollinating their little hearts out. The seeds I’d ordered through catalogs in the dead of winter, nurtured from faith under grow lights, transplanted to flats that waited through a cold spring, finally planted in ground later than usual — were waiting for them. The targets were a mix and a gamble, all of them. Some blooms had started out strong and sure, budding and expected to perform, only to be cut down in their prime by ravenous rodents or hoofed invaders. The weak and spindly that were not expected to survive have surprised and surpassed expectations, a reminder that struggle can create strength.

I am always humbled as a gardener to witness the urge to grow and flourish at all costs, to sacrifice the root and plant for the flower and seed, the extraordinary acrobatics required to fertilize and perpetuate all species. I’ve seen nature be cruel but also extravagantly generous. In the garden, as in our human culture, bullies and victims exist under our noses, those who succumb senselessly to infestation and the lucky ones who flourish where they are planted.

On nature’s stage, her dramas and comedies put any of Shakespeare’s plays to shame since life and death is not an illusion to be performed the next day. There are no repeat performances with the fear of winter’s breath blowing down the necks of those desperate to reproduce for another year. Every day I stand in my yard and gaze in wonder at the bumblebees wearing their pollen pantaloons that are so full they can barely fly, cardinals gorging themselves on the bowing sunflower heads, lightening bugs who are still shining for their mates as autumn kisses the breeze and crows congregating for their rowdy fall fraternity parties in the trees.

The sun wanes and our shadows lengthen after cicadas march down into earth for another seventeen-years’ sleep, monarchs lay their eggs on the way to Mexico, the honey bees gather their last golden mead, goldfinches rear their final offspring and we don our masks for another season.

Happy harvest and safe travels to another spring.

Summer of Rain

June and July became blurred by extremes in rain and heat. Rainfall totals broke a 165-year-old record in my area and when the sun turned red from wildfires in the west bringing the heat with it, our wet soil cracked under the strain. We were told to pull all bird feeders and drain the baths when a mysterious illness started killing the songbirds. Scientists still don’t know the source. Luckily, all the flowers I have endlessly planted have come to the rescue for pollinators and seedeaters who flock around the house. We harvest from our vegetable garden daily now, and I am thankful to freeze the bounty as we begin to don our masks again with the new variant.

With all the torrential changes in weather, mood and outlook, I have learned to go with the flow and let the fear drain away. My soul is too exhausted to hold on to the terror of what will be, adrenaline racing with worry at every news update and media blitz. I consciously change the station in my head and head out to the garden or sit beneath a tree old enough to remember another kind of blitz, its roots burying the ills of man to feed the tender shoots of a new beginning, nibbled on by fresh fawns who have existed for only a second in the world, but who are already wiser than I.

Autumn is usually a dry season, but this year who knows? With reservoirs full and rivers overflowing, water will still find a way to leave and wind its way toward the collective oceans. And like the summer itself, I cannot hold the water back or prevent it from moving on. Even the dew will disappear one day soon, to be replaced by its cousin the frost.

Until then, I admire those sparkling jewels I find displayed in the morning garden.

Omens and Optics

The Romanesco (a little past its prime)

I was preparing my usual last-minute blog post for May when one of my eyes began it’s long-awaited vitreous detachment during the Memorial Day weekend as a consequence of my eye surgeries last year. Most of June and two retinal tears later, I can finally bend over to plant my garden and lift the watering can again. I’m grateful for technology and medical advances but there are always nerve-wracking tradeoffs and repercussions to any alterations that didn’t come in my prenatal package.

After a relatively quiet spell of weather in May (although unusually cold) we were treated to a huge tropical storm system that precipitated a deluge of over four inches of rain in less than two hours. My family thanked our lucky stars that we lived on a hill as my husband and I bailed out our basement in the middle of the night while hundreds of sirens wailed eerily all over town for water rescues after flash flooding roared through downtown, the nearby university and right down the hill from us. I don’t think I’ve ever lived through so much rain in such a short period of time–over seven inches in three or four hours!

Someone local was wondering what we had done to deserve plague, locusts and now floods. But I surmise that we only have ourselves to blame. Oh, and the locusts are really beneficial cicadas that turned our backyard into the land of plenty for many critters and birds and left my garden alone, although there were some comical cicada rescues from my row covers and barricades to keep wildlife from eating all our vegetables. Despite the setbacks we were able to harvest lots of lettuce, broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage and a new one–Romanesco cauliflower (or broccoli depending on who you talk to).

Speaking of wildlife, we watched the birth of deer triplets over Memorial weekend from our kitchen window. I was all set to work in my backyard that morning until I saw mama deer giving me the stink eye from our neighbor’s yard. Something about her behavior and long-forgotten childhood memories of our dairy cows about to give birth alerted me that we should stay inside and just watch. The process took all morning, and the deer’s efficiency in birth, cleanup and nursing without any human intervention was astounding to me after witnessing so many difficult birthing sessions with cows and sheep. Sadly, two fawns did not survive beyond the first week and the remaining one has a terrible leg injury. I can’t imagine trying to raise fawns in a heavily populated urban environment. There are so many hazards and predators, including a bobcat recently spotted at the edge of town.

Finally, I’m very grateful to my husband and daughter for stoically planting the multitudes of seedlings in June that I grew and refused to compost. Packs of annuals, native perennials and vegetables sat in trays for days while I recuperated from my laser eye repairs and tried to figure out where to put them all. (Note to self next year: Don’t plant or buy anything unless you have a place for them.) Now in year two, I’m still figuring out sun and shade movement around our home, and where to place containers for best effect. The new patio provides full morning and shifting afternoon sun that can be a challenge for demanding plants, and the recently constructed raised beds still need lots of amendments (I’m tracking down some organic dried chicken manure even as I type).

After the big June monsoon you’d think we would settle down into drought, but we seem to be trying to turn into the northern tropics, which our neighbor’s cursed bamboo is wildly celebrating by taking over the block along with all the groundhogs, rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels that reside in there. I’m half-expecting to see a panda emerge from the depths of his jungle any day now and wander down the street. If June is any indication of things to come, I won’t be a bit surprised.

Bountiful Beltane

On this last day of April I look up to receive the emerging leaves on our backyard red maple, an ancient sentry that has overlooked our little bungalow for decades. As the lone tree on this skinny lot, she reaches her arms out to welcome and shelter us as we go about our outdoor chores. Last year on the final day of May I had just been given permission to begin gardening again after some scary eye issues post surgery. I’ve never been more grateful to get back to the earth and ground my grief for the world in fertile soil again.

This year I may have gotten a little carried away with the seed buying and propagation, but I’m determined to see no plant left behind. This vow of mine may become quite a challenge since my neighbors are equally intent on sharing their abundance of riches after a year of scarcity. I’m thrilled to share my bounty with my daughter living up the street, and together we will spread gardening cheer in spite of the deer, rabbits and groundhogs that cruise through our yards like they own the place (which they do).

With the help of my editor husband who needs a break from the hours of remote business meetings he covers, we have dug up a good bit of our front yard lawn to make room for new flower beds that will host native plants and pollinator flowers for the insects that are rapidly disappearing from our world. There are four new raised beds for the vegetables in back as well as a no-dig vegetable plot. The radishes and greens are already thriving and the snow peas are popping up. To my mind there is no better sign of hope than flats of seedlings ready for launch.

As I clear away the non-natives and invasive plants, I am learning to recognize the natives that I will leave and encourage. That includes loads of wild violets in every shade of purple, lavender and even white. I cheer on the white clover and enjoy watching rabbits nibble up the spent dandelion stalks like spaghetti noodles. Our bluebird pair has returned but unfortunately the neighborhood mockingbird who serenaded us with an amazing repertoire of calls was taken by a hawk last week and the yard falls silent in the evenings now. Its absence serves as a reminder that there is still loss in the midst of fresh new life that kisses the boughs and peeps from nests lined in rabbit hair.

I count myself lucky to prepare for a second Beltane in my little yellow house. May you all enjoy a beautiful May Day tomorrow!

Growing Up

Time once again for the annual unveiling of my word for the year, a theme that always becomes eerily accurate as the months flow by. Last year’s “Rebirth” certainly lived up to its potential by anticipating my eye surgeries as well as our recent relocation. Little did I know how life-changing 2020 would be in my little corner of the world and all over the planet as social, political and scientific transformation was brought to disruptive, often violent, life.

Since I began to stay home and avoid public spaces last January in preparation for my medical procedures, I have essentially been homebound for a year now. My new life became very limited in scope, forcing an internal perspective and examination which I had been avoiding for decades. For me, it was much easier to mold my motivations and actions around someone else’s agenda than to determine my own. For one, it’s easier to blame the other party when plans don’t work out, which is usually the case when you aren’t on the right path.

In retrospect, my forced isolation in childhood and subsequent expulsion when I no longer fit the family dynamic catapulted me into a series of careers and relationships that never seemed to work out. Like the prince in Cinderella, I searched tirelessly for someone or something that would fit my life’s slipper without really examining the shoe itself. What color and style was it, what was it made of, and where did it come from? I acted out the traditional roles of artist, writer, academic, teacher, librarian, proofreader, shopkeeper, caregiver, house cleaner, and office assistant to fulfill others’ wishes and unfulfilled dreams, and conform to the expectations of my generation. In many cases I didn’t feel I had much choice as a female raised by a woman who thought my role was to marry a farmer and stay at home while also insisting I go to college and become a famous writer or artist.

Needless to say I was confused. What I really wanted was to work in the family nursery and tend to the colorful seas of annuals, geraniums, poinsettias and tropical houseplants in magical kingdoms under glass. I come from a long line of growers and farmers who passed their green thumbs along to me. But due to misogynistic views and family dysfunction, that dream was not to be. So I created gardens for myself: an entire bedroom full of houseplants in high school, an assortment of zonal geraniums my father grew wholesale that I dragged around for all four years at college, an obsessive collection of herb plants at a duplex as a newlywed, a square-foot garden hand-dug while recuperating from a difficult pregnancy, backyard raised beds as first-time homeowner, an ambitious but doomed try at homesteading 5,000 square feet of mule pen out in the country, feeble attempts at container gardens in the suburbs and finally a stint at running a community garden at a retreat center with no help from the community.

Which brings me to today’s little California bungalow on a very narrow urban lot in a neighborhood that encourages gardens rather than lawns. In fact “Gardens” is in the name of this century-old historic suburb built for limestone, railroad and factory workers in a town known for its creative quirkiness. Last year, despite some medical setbacks and supply difficulties, I managed to start some seeds, buy plants, build a cold frame and create garden beds with my husband’s help. This year I’ve ordered seeds early and made big plans to replace our barren lawn with vegetables, flowers and native plants while continuing my quest for year-round harvests. The photo shown above of my cold frame was taken two days ago, in January. I can’t wait to winter-over more vegetables and greens next year.

Which finally brings me to my word for 2021. After last year’s traumatic and frightening process of birth, there has to be “Growth.” Now that I’ve found my place in the world, I have the opportunity to grow, literally and spiritually on my own terms. Will I create art? Well, yes, gardening is an art form, and I plan on producing some garden-inspired art, too. Will I write? I certainly hope so. There’s much to be noted in tending a garden, particularly nature’s lessons in humility. Will I engage with others? That remains to be seen, but I fervently wish to contribute to my little neighborhood and provide a better habitat for wildlife, especially the insect world that is rapidly vanishing while we wait for vaccines and herd immunity.

I guess the glass slipper may have turned into a gardening clog, but it’s still beautiful to me.

Harvest Reflections

Yesterday I put my small vegetable garden to bed after an unusually long harvest season, but isn’t the unusual the norm in 2020? As I fluffed straw over the garlic, spread fresh compost on new beds for next year, and harvested the last of the herbs and chard before the snowfall and windchill forecast for the next day arrived, I allowed a sense of accomplishment to settle over me for having come this far in a very difficult year.

November marks one year since my spouse and I moved to a new house and city after a turbulent 2019. Perhaps the events of last year helped me cope with what was to come. The sense of personal loss that haunted me for months was slowly healed by a little patch of victory garden that grew and produced against all odds. Without much to work with and a host of predators always hovering in the wings, the greens kept growing and the tomatoes producing (we are eating windowsill-ripened tomatoes right now!)

Finally the vision I had when we first saw this property of a winter cold frame on the south-facing side of the garage has been realized. In fact, the setup is so protected that it’s been too hot for the cold-weather greens I started in September but now they are taking off as the temperatures fall. Next year I know to plant a fall crop in the ground and wait on the cold frame garden until at least another month, the luxury of a warmer growing zone. One day I may achieve the ultimate goal of growing food in my own tiny greenhouse, but until then nothing gives me greater pleasure than to peek under the lid at hopeful green beginnings during nature’s time of endings and dormancy, much like we humans have been experiencing in our quarantined worlds this month and year.

As winter closes in, I turn to unfinished projects and home-grown remedies for the world-weary homebody. Abandoned knitting and new recipes for health and healing will replace the daily watering, weeding and barrier maintenance. Stacks of how-to books and seed catalogs await my attention. When I can tear myself away from the grim daily Covid counts and political travesties to focus on simple rituals of self-care, my soul is the better for it. Like my little bed of green beginnings, it is a luxury that many don’t have and I will never take this for granted again.