Monday, June 29, 2009

A Day in the Life of a Daylily

The daylilies are on parade. It wouldn't be a Fourth of July celebration without their fabulous skirts flashing their sexy stamens at the sun-soaked sky. I have now more than a dozen varieties. This is Strutters Ball and she grows in two places in my garden, one near the footpath and another by the Harry Lauder Walking Stick. They break open in the morning, flash with a furious flourish all day long and collapse in exhaustion as soon as the sun sets. One day, 24 hours, for every lily. If I had just one day to live, I'd do it just like Lady daylily. I'd put on my best dress, fix my hair up right (yes, that's some Bruce, "Out on the Streets") and bring the world to my knees. The Putterer

Saturday, June 27, 2009

If A Garden Had to Produce Like We Do, What Would It Offer?

I wonder what it would be like to work without deadlines. To just work until the work is done. I hate the feeling of a deadline. The way it wraps itself around the base of your spine, and travels up through your ribcage, compressing your ability to breathe deeply, and then settles into your neck. That vice-like grip on my body has haunted the last few days of every month for my entire professional career. It makes me short on patience, it causes sleeplessness and needless worry. And now, as we broaden our publishing interests from print to web and other products, the deadlines are more frequent. Now besides once a month for the magazine, I publish twice a day on a blog, and twice a year for a visitor's guide. There's never anytime to clear out the mess, regroup, retool. There's no down time.

What would a garden look like on that schedule, if it was constantly producing and never had time to rest or re-nourish itself and regrow? I'll answer that for you. I know just what it would look like. It would be a dull, monochromatic space with vine-like plants--pachysandra and English Ivy, perhaps--that grew uniformly across the landscape. There would be few opportunities for delight. All of the annuals would wilt and fail. The bulbs, too, would play out in exhaustion. The seasonal flourish and flash of color, too, would be gone. The trees would not be able to keep up either. They would possibly shed all their leaves and then just simply run out of sap.

It's a Saturday morning, and I am charged once again with ambitions that I can't possibly achieve in just two days. There's laundry, grocery shopping and yard work to do (I make a distinction between yard work and gardening; one work, the other pleasure.) There are expectations from others and there are my own expectations. I want to be able to go for a run. J wants me to spend time with him at the pool this afternoon. I hate to say this. But quite possibly, I'm going to have to go to the Mall to buy a few things. I hate shopping at Malls. And yet, here I sit, having a cup of coffee, cozy in my happy weekend surroundings, no haste, no worries. Living the discipline of a deadline has taught me one thing. It always gets done on time. Even the worst of the deadline violators eventually put down their pencils and say that it's done when the deadline is hard at hand.

It's a beautiful day today. I'm off to enjoy it. The Putterer

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Point to Set For Ourselves

I'm sitting on my white sofa this morning and thinking about how we achieve happy solutions and balance in our lives. Can a sense of contentedness be a set point and does our spirit naturally seek it or do we have to always correct course to arrive there? I am content more than I am not. I do not need to work to achieve it. Or perhaps, I should redefine what I mean by work. Because the work I do rarely seems like work at all. I often tell people that I love to work in my garden. But, then, is that really work? Most of the time, I love to work at my job. It only becomes a tedious obligation when I have to interact with the kinds of people, there, who do seem to think their work is more a chore. When I am around these people, the proportionate sense of contentedness, compassion, enthusiasm and joy shifts and I feel hostility, anger, and mean pettiness. These feelings arrive like intruders and they sap my energy, slow my production and hinder my ability to sleep well. Lately, I have been sleeping well. And when I wake up in the morning, pour my coffee, settle into my white sofa and look out at the morning light in the trees, I am just simply content.

I have forgotten, now, the name of this hydrangea. I'll have to go and look it up in my notes. It is supposed to be a dwarf variety, but I think it's going to grow up beyond its breeder-prescribed size. It's unusual purple color is only more interesting when you play with the way light falls on it. Last weekend, my brother came over with his camera equipment and we both became engaged in trying to capture the reflective light on this hydrangea. I was holding a gold-fabric reflector beneath the plant, while Chip made photo after photo. Both of us silently adjusting our variables and working in tandem. Neither of us noticed the minutes we were spending there. It was a kind of balance and state of contentedness that comes naturally. We had achieved a set point, I think. The Putterer

Sunday, June 21, 2009

My Favorite Chair

In my garden, I have a chair. It's rugged, worn and really old. Next to it sits a bright yellow new one, but I prefer the sagging, worm-ridden one. My brother bought it for a buck at a flea market. Sitting in it, I feel its ancient strength at my back, and a kind of sun-warmed wisdom and solace.

My garden became a metaphor the moment it was created. It began in the waning days of my mother's life. She had long found joy in growing things. And as her body succumbed to illness, her garden flourished as if she'd transferred her own life force to it. Many of the plants in my garden were transplanted from hers and every season they come back and pay homage to her. The day she died, my brother and I went shopping for plants. We didn't know what else to do.

From my chair, I look at a flowerbed that I created on my birthday, shortly after our home was renovated about eight years ago. There, I planted a black-stemmed hydrangea, lovely old ferns that I transplanted from my grandmother's home, and a bush called a Sixteen Candles (appropriate, as I was wrestling with raising teenagers). The witch hazel I planted next to the stairs was but a twig back then.

Now, its branches grow up, and out, and wide, in a crazy every which-a-way fashion that just confounds my attempts to prune it. But this season from my perch in my chair, I noticed high over my head, the tip of the witch hazel’s furthest branch is just touching the tip of the branch of the old dogwood growing from behind my chair. In the dappled sunlit ceiling, their fingertip branches recall the iconic Hand of God in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

One season, I went crazy for daylilies. Those beguiling ladies dot the landscape and throughout June and July while their blooms play out in my garden, their names read like a poetry slam at the local library: Strawberry Candy, Elegant Candy and Buttered Popcorn; Lady Rebecca Staunton and Mini Pearl dance around Moonlight Masquerade, and don't forget the glorious Strutter’s Ball, Sue Raurbach and Spanish Glo.

Over many seasons, I’ve become obsessed with composting. I grind up my leaves in the fall, collect my grass clippings all summer, and horde the detritus from my kitchen waste. My brother and I even went rogue in our composting efforts. Cruising the neighborhood riding low in his truck, we’d sneak up and make off with bags of other people's yard waste. The rich scent of “black gold” filled with fat, wriggling earth worms still turns me on.

A few seasons back, I lusted for a raised bed to grow tomatoes, herbs and early spring greens. I could have bought a ready-made cedar box from a garden supply store, but instead I built one myself. I bought untreated pine boards and stained them with a recipe I found in a farmer's catalog, dated 1865: "Take boiled linseed oil and stir in its pulverized charcoal to the consistency of paint. Put a coat of this over the timber, and there is not a man that will live to see it rotten." (It hasn’t yet rotted.)

The year that I built my garden box, I was spending all my spare time in my garden. Throughout the cold months of December and January, I plotted and planned new beds, which I dug myself whenever the winter days were warm enough. I brought in huge stepping stones and with the help of my friends' teenage sons, I laid in garden paths. Everything was going as planned, when in February, a strange dimple in my left breast turned out to be cancer. And as if that wasn't enough, the right breast had it too, just a different kind.

I knew that summer, my gardening days would be numbered and as the date of my surgery loomed, I frantically planted, weeded and prepared the garden to a perfection. I remember the evening before my surgery in May. In a most inconvenient downpour, I finished potting my geraniums with rainwater cascading down my neck and arms and back. My friend, Deb, forced me to come in out of the rain. She ordered me to the shower and fixed me a cup of tea. That night, just as I had perused garden catalogs and built my garden, Deb and I poured over porn magazines. We were searching for a perfect set of breasts to show the plastic surgeon, who would rebuild my body.

After the surgery, I sat in my chair, I could do little else. And I despaired over not being able to care for my family and my garden. It was all for not. The garden flourished without me. I don’t recall a single weed that year. So did my children. They became young, caring little women that summer. It was as if I'd paid forward during all those years of nurturing.

Today, my garden is growing old with me. Seedlings are maturing into hardy plants. Saplings are becoming trees. The burgeoning irises and lilies and hostas will again need to be divided and dispersed among my friends. My mother's plants, too, will continue to bloom long past the day she planted them. Together this garden and I are gaining wisdom. To everything there is a season.
The Putterer

Friday, June 19, 2009

Garden Gloves

I wore out another pair of garden gloves today. It's always the middle finger that rubs clear through. And now there's dirt under my nail. I did a cleanup run through the garden today. It looks fabulous. I'm going to write a "My Garden Story" for Washington Gardener magazine. C will shoot the pictures. The Putterer

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Would that I Could Putter Today

I met old man Lear last night at the Shakespeare Theatre. It was powerful performance with Stacy Keach giving Lear all of his magnificent complexities. Is this a man to fear or pity? To despise or love? The kingdom divided couldn't stand. Greed and powerlust caused its fall. And poor Cornelia loved her father, but was sadly scorned. Happy Father's Day Lear.

Now, I'm tired and have to go to work. The sky is clouded over. The air, though, is filled with light and gentle freshness so rare in Washington. Would that I could just putter today. The Putter

Monday, June 15, 2009

Spirits in the Night

Crazy Daisy and her mission man were back in the alley tradin' hands
'long came Wild Billy with his friend G-man all duded up for Saturday night. (This is the Putterer's favorite Bruce song.)

I bought Crazy Daisy from Bluestone Perennials early this spring. She's planted in three places around the front yard. Two in front of the fence and one behind (near the gazing ball). And her mission man is a beautiful Japanese Iris that I bought the first season of my garden.

The summer surge is about to begin. The hydrangeas are all at the ready. The oak-leaf is looking majestic. I trimmed back the other bushes to give it some space. The progensis was overgrown and looking more like a Dr. Seuss character than an elegant bush, so I topped it off. I'm not the most gentle of horticulturalists. It's looking a little mauled at the moment.

The cone flowers have hints of pink in their buds. The old fashioned daylilies (Kwanzo) are in glorious orange. They all lean in the same direction, following the sun's rays through the day. The back bank is crushed by their numbers. One day, I should probably thin them out and spread them all around the neighborhood. The elite daylilies are blooming or just about to. The purple-throated Moonlight Masquerade was the first to appear this past Saturday. I have eleven now and their names are worthy of a poem: Strawberry Candy (by the old birdfeeder in the front yard); buttered popcorn (next to the St. John's Wort in the back); Elegant Candy (grows under 16 Candles in the back); Moonlight Masquerade (by the black-stem hydrangea); Mini Pearl (by the back steps); Lady Rebecca Staunton (near the tomatoes); Stella D'Oro (front fence and in the back); an unknown yellow (transferred from Kate's yard and in the front); two Strutter's Balls (in the back); Spanish Glow (by the front fence) and Sue Raurbach (in the thyme out back).

Enough garden reverie. It's off to my day job. The Putterer

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Can Pokeweed Be My Friend?

Pokeweed is invasive.
It's poisonous. It's huge. It spreads with underground suckers. (And yes, an underground sucker is a scary thing to behold. It's like a scene from an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers film!)

Pokeweed has been my nemesis these past few gardening seasons. As my yard opened up to more sunlight, the poke was the first to make its persistent appearance. I have yanked on it. Whacked at it. Dug it out. And alerted my neighbors to its unholy, horrific conquest of our garden spaces. We are all now on constant vigilance. Even its genomic name is kind of frightening, Phytolacca. It sounds like one of those unsightly aliens you'd meet in the Star Wars bar.

In Maryland, it's a native plant. In fact, it's native throughout eastern North America. It is a large-rooted perennial that can grow as high as 10 or more feet. Both the roots and the seeds are poisonous. You eat it, you convulse, you hurt, you hurl, you die. In late summer, the branches bear clusters of flowers and dark red fruits. The birds love the stuff and they feast on the berries and scatter them in every corner. It looks like nightshade (as in: "To be or Not To Be?") and so it's sometimes called American nightshade. It has other ignoble names like inkberry, pigeon berry, coakun, pocan bush, scoke, garget, and poke salad.

Now here's the rub, pokeweed might be so potent, it could be used as a cancer cure, or at least as a poultice, a kind of tumor analgesic. In other words, say we didn't have modern surgery and chemotherapy, and that lovely drug of mine, Tamoxifen. Back in the day, you could mix up a mash of polkweed and apply it to your sad, inflicted breast and perhaps stave off your inevitable death, or staunch your horrific pain long enough to have a few more happy moments with your friends and family.

In fact pokeweed is so potent, it's been used historically for syphilis, diphtheria, conjunctivitis, and topically for scabies. If I was out gardening and fell, I could even use it for sprains or swellings. And when I'm old and arthritic, the berries, if I could manage to eat them without biting into the toxic seeds, might ease my pain. (One is taken the first day, two the second, up to 7 and back down to one.)

And should I suddenly be moved to make art, poke berries make a beautiful purple die. Poke toxins might even prove helpful in controlling a nasty, invasive creature that is blocking our waterways, zebra mussels.

So here's my question. There's this monster pokeweed plant growing out at the far reaches of my now impenetrable meadow of asters, grasses, butterfly weed, Joe Pye weed and other happy natives? Is the poke friend or foe? The Putterer

Postscript: The next day, I went in and took poke out. At its base, the plant had five thick stems, at least 2 1/2 inches in diameter. I sprayed the base with roundup. (I only ever use the stuff for the most difficult of weeds.) I couldn't even get my long-armed clippers around it. When the plant fell, it toppled like a building.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Mothers, We're All the Same

A mother house wren is busily tending her children in my bird house. She took up residence last year and returned again this year. I got the bird house at Value Village--a cutsy, handpainted relic that I found in a bargain bin. Mother wren goes in and out the window. She arrives with a morsel in her mouth, and perches look-out on the rooftop. After scanning the horizon for the evil catbird, than quick as lightening, disappears into the house. I can hear her offspring frantically calling for their portion of the prize. Then she's off again in search of more. Last weekend, I tried to get a picture of her perched on the house, but I really pissed her off. She and her mate took up position in opposite bushes and just chewed me out with a fury that I could only admire. I mean, I totally get that. You mess with my kids and you'll rue the day. The Putterer

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Peony Perfection

Peonies grow slow. And they're a little bit fussy. They like the right amount of sun. Good soil is important to them. They're vulnerable to disease. And they cost more than the other flowers at the nursery. So to grow a peony takes time and patience. I started my garden with two. They both succumbed that year to some sort of invasive bacteria. I dug them out at the end of the season and pitched them. The loss cost me dearly. I think the two plants together were about $50. The next spring, I bought just one. She did okay that season. But her bloom was too heavy for her stem. And, as I recall, she only gave up one or two blooms. Rain wore her down and she wasn't strong enough and I had to tie her to the fence for support. Well several seasons later, I had paid her little attention. Other plants to plant and plots to plan. She came and she went. I think one season, I was away and missed her blooms. They happen over a matter of days. Well this spring, she apparently had had enough of my near negligence. About two dozen blooms formed in the early April days. Every time I walked by her post at the gate, an anticipation began to build in my gardening soul. My peony had, at last, grown to her full mature potential. And she had something to say. When at last her blooms appeared, I was stunned by her magnificence. I didn't have to tie her up to give her strength, she held her own. The Putterer

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Go Tell Aunt Rhody

Here's a story
of perseverance. When we bought this house in 1986, the backyard was a dark warren of dense shade tunnels between overgrown bushes, starved-for-light dogwoods and out-of-control English ivy. Lying in the midst of it was an ancient rhodydendrum. She was literally sprawled on her side. A huge branch had grown so weary searching for light, it had just grown horizontally across the ground. Half of her was diseased and rotting. A small portion of her, though, refused to give up. I remember hacking away at the dead wood and cutting her back to just a stump.

Today, she's in glorious rebirth. And this season, I don't think I've ever seen her look so splendid. She's Aunt Rhody, the old lady of the garden. The Putterer

Friday, June 5, 2009

Rain. Four Years, Eleven Months and Two Days

And it rained again.
Wednesday night it gushed. Thursday, a steady drench all day long. This morning wet. Starting to feel a little Gabriel Garcia Marquez coming on. Are we in Macondo? Will it be wet for four years, 11 months and two days?

Fingers crossed for some sun. The Putterer

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Birthday for P

R wrote this lovely poem for P, on the occasion of her sweet 16 birthday.

If P were a pepper,
She'd be the hottest one.

If P were a pastry,
She'd be one delicious bun.

If P were a pancake,
She'd have chocolate chips galore.

And if P were a parchment,
She'd be Beethoven's first score.

If P were a popsicle,
There would never be a drip.

If P were a porpoise,
She'd give all the sharks the slip.

If P were a pachyderm,
She'd still be svelt and sleek.

And if P were a pickle,
She would certainly be sweet.

But this is all just crazy talk,
I'm sure you will agree.

Cause P--she's just P,
And that's how it ought to be!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Weary and Worn, A Woodpecker's Wisdom

The birds woke me up this morning. Well, that's not true. I was already awake waiting for them. A wood thrush, a Carolina wren. I love the morning calm. Warm cup of coffee. Fading darkness, gray morning light. I start to think about the day ahead. I have so much to do.

In the office today, I'll plant a few seeds. We are at the start of another growing season. Two publications went off to the printer. I start all over again. I'm a little spent just now. Weary from the last "growing" season. I have nothing but bare ground. I'll need to replenish the soil. Sketch some plans. Call on some experts. But people are waiting on me and I wish I had a little more time. The pace unnerves me. Rapid fire pings in my email box tighten my neck muscles.

With my attention splayed and split from one project to another, my eyes don't focus on the small things anymore and I miss things that I once easily caught. I worry that I will begin to make more errors. At night in my sleep, that worry turns to an all-night-long, dream-state anxiety and I can feel the breath catch in my throat even as I am sleeping.

Where in my garden can I find the tools to soothe my soul? Breathe deeply. Imagine the calm space. My worn, wooden chair beneath the dogwood. It's worm-ridden wood at my back. A cool breeze at my neck. Nothing disturbs me. Even the sharp, war-like call of the pilliated woodpecker. His red crown flashes in the grass. First I see him. Then I don't. His head bobbing like a chicken ducks beneath the grasses. His call resonates in the air, sounding more like something heard in an Amazonian rain forest rather than a backyard suburban garden.

And then he unfurls his wings, and never seeing me there in my chair, he flies straight at my head. As he swoops in, bringing our distance to a range that is rare between animal and human, I feel the power of his wings. He lands on the trunk of the dogwood just five feet in back of my chair. I hardly breathe admiring his incredible size and studying the variations of gray and white in his feathers. We sit there the two of us together. Time collapses. I slowly let loose my breathe. And then finally, he leaps with a surge of power and leaves me there in my chair, a weary soul, human--and bound to make a few mistakes. When will I find the wisdom to accept that? The Putterer

Monday, June 1, 2009

Going No Where

It was a no where zone. A place in my yard where you ended up because the path took you there but once there, there was no where to go. So I had to make it a destination.

Thus, Mom's Garden was created. It's no more than ten feet by ten feet. Surrounded by corners and walls, one brick, one cement and the edge of the deck. Overhead, part of it is underneath the upper deck, but surprisingly, enough light came through at various angles throughout the day. Enough light for black-eyed Susans, ferns, violets, pachysandra and hydrangeas.

Now it's a place to go to pause and remember. Sometimes late in the evening, I'll stop by and sure enough, quietly there, I sense her spirit, her love, her presence. The Putterer