Unstuck in time — at Mt. Hope Farm

Ever since my daily schedule became …unstructured… I have been unstuck in time. Or rather, stuck on a date in August as if this has been one long week of staycation. No complaints because staycations are always blissfully productive but it’s a little strange given that August became September and the other day I had to flip the calendar page to October. It’s also strange to feel so confused given how much time I still spend outside with my eyes and feelers on every changing thing.

I have been doing fall things in the garden (taking cuttings, saving seeds, making room in the plantry), which must mean I’m not completely in denial, but I’m more inclined to credit my walks with Bazil for beginning to reset my internal calendar. Every morning is a little darker; every afternoon a little more apple-crisp.

We take most of our walks around town but Mt. Hope Farm has become our favorite place to find the season (and chase squirrels). We go there a couple times a week, sometimes meeting up with another human, sometimes not.

It’s a special place, mostly wild and wooded, and history rich. Mt. Hope was the seat of the Wampanoag sachem Metacomet (also known as King Philip), and the site of his assassination during King Philip’s War. The land was home, at least briefly according to one of my walking companions (not Bazil), to a Native American-themed waterfront amusement park. Now it’s a working farm (again), B&B, special-event venue, host to a year-round farmers market, and has miles of road and trails open every day to the public and their dogs, free of charge.

On the last day of September, right after the first rainstorm in too long, Bazil and I found October.

Where do you go to find the season?

Down to earth — change is good

Originally published on September 24, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers.

I wish I could put my hands on the New York Times article clipped for me by a friend in which the author, or maybe it was an interviewee, shared the reason behind his lifelong passion for gardening. The gist was, through all of life’s upheavals and shifts; through births, deaths, changes in status and financial situation, gardening was what kept him grounded. This friend knew it would strike a chord with me—as it must with most gardeners. My garden is where I go to process everything that happens in my life, good and bad. There’s something about pulling crabgrass and creeping Charlie that helps untangle the mind. And whenever life slides sideways, our own gardens offer the reassurance and satisfaction of complete (creative) control, or at least the illusion of it. But it also doesn’t make a lot of sense to feel grounded out there considering nothing changes as much as gardens do.

I knew my garden would grow during my weeklong vacation from it but it defied my predictions even so. I was sure the bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’) would spend the week bursting into bloom but it held off to do more growing instead, stretching its branches like an octopus across a vast expanse of occupied territory. I had to get the loppers out to reintroduce its neighbors to the light of day, and have enjoyed the boon of vases filled with glorious overgrowth. I also didn’t realize until I came back just how much rudbeckia I had allowed to grow. Again. This happens every year, as do floral arrangements heavy on black-eyed Susans. And I had been kidding myself about the weeds. They were in there all along waiting for me to need a good think.

premature fall color on my alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)
premature fall color on my alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

I was braced for the Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’) that we moved to make way for an outdoor shower, to keel over dead. It didn’t! But while it exhibits small signs of growth, the alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) left just outside the shower enclosure, which should be enjoying the benefits of runoff, is beginning to look ungrateful. I thought it might have a fungal disease but prematurely turning leaves more likely indicate drought stress.—I guess the shower’s drainage is sharper than we thought.

My serviceberry (Amelancheir × grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’) is in similarly rough shape. Every day I wonder what I was thinking planting an understory tree in a thimbleful of dry soil in the full sun between my driveway and side entrance. Most summers it’s dusted and distorted by cedar apple rust. This year its leaves began turning fall colors back in July and it didn’t do much growing. With any luck—and plenty of supplemental water at least until nature kicks in her share again—my trees will survive interference with their health and happiness. Just in case they don’t, I’m running through mental lists of replacements the bees, birds, and I might enjoy as much.

Nothing changes in the garden without presenting gifts of purpose and beauty along with exciting possibilities, which illuminates the irony: it must be the garden’s very inconstancy that helps us gardeners navigate through life’s sometimes terrifying feelings of groundlessness. Not just by bringing us back down to earth but by teaching us how to be comfortable with—and even enjoy—uncertainty.

Nally’s Lime Dots

It’s hard to believe I haven’t already waxed on about Boltonia asteroides ‘Nally’s Lime Dots’ (or is it ‘Dot’ singular?) but a quick search of this blog found only two measly mentions. (I found several on Bwold’s blog along with a myriad of my own photos in google images, some totally unrelated. Weird.) Anyhoo, I love this plant and it loves me. By which I mean, it loves my garden.

I love it for its chartreuse petal-less polka-dots. I enjoy the way those buttons catch the long late-summer light in halos (it’s not fall yet) and how it’s the only thing, so far, in my garden that refuses to be overwhelmed by Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’. In fact, they’re a pretty pair, thick as thieves. And I’m gratified by its generosity. No matter how much I edit out, it rebounds to grace the neediest spaces. And as Kathy from Avant Gardens says, “it should be a nominee for best supporting actor…whether in the garden or in a vase”. I’m never inclined to bring flowers inside until old Nally’s dots bloom.

The only thing I don’t love is that the flowers are unattractive. I’ve never seen a bee, wasp, moth, or butterfly visit the buttons. There’s nothing for the hummingbirds there. Too bad it’s so boring! If not for its evident sterility, it might be a contender for my favorite plant ever.

FINE PRINT: perennial, zones 5-8. Full sun to maybe partial shade; average to crappy soil, and drought resistant. Grows 4-to 6-feet and leans like a drunk. May be given the Chelsea chop to encourage sturdiness but, in my experience, still becomes tall and tipsy. 

What’s catching the long light in your garden? Anything vase-worthy?

Early morning night-herons

Three blocks away from our house is a scrappy little pond, the Tanyard Brook Reservoir, completely enclosed by a barbed-wire topped chainlink fence and a mishmash of native and invasive shrubs and vines. There are keyhole views through the fence that reveal muddy banks dotted with litter, and a surprising array of wildlife. I’ve seen muskrats and a mink, mallards, mergansers, egrets, and the odd cormorant. In spring there’s a nesting pair of Canada geese, box turtles that somehow make it up concrete embankments and through the chainlink to cross the street, as well as a frog chorus, and a siege of black-crowned night-herons. Somewhere around a dozen of those guys (and gals) stick around all summer (I’m sure the frogs and turtles do too) and entertain me on my dawn dog walks by sitting hunchbacked and completely still. — Doesn’t take much to halt my forward progress before I’ve had coffee. Yesterday I counted nine. Today I could only spot four. Apologies for the terrible iphone photos but they do resemble my own dim and bleary-eyed view.

Here’s what I’ve learned about black-crowned night-herons: Adults are mostly gull-gray except for their black back and crown, and pretty white plumes like streamers trailing from the back of their head; females are a little smaller than males, and juveniles, up to 3 years old, are spotted brown. They hang out in communal groups and do most of their feeding at night — probably elsewhere because there’s no way this sorry spot can support so many herons. We’re within their year-round range here but the herons will disappear in the fall, as they always do, to spend winter on saltier water, maybe further south.

Any cool wildlife in your neighborhood?

For more information on black-crowned night-herons, check out allaboutbirds.org, and the Audubon field guide. Also, this list is pretty great.

Freak of nature

The first time I saw a fasciated stem on an otherwise normal plant — a rose — I tried to propagate it. Given my soft spot for weirdos and misfits it’s no surprise I’d want an entire plant constructed of flattened and twisted (crested) stems dotted with midget leaves and topped by mutant flowers. But it didn’t root and I didn’t become a millionaire, alas. (I was pretty sure it would be a big seller.) This summer my bush clover, Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’, developed several fasciated stems and I’d be tempted to try again if it hadn’t already set flower buds and hardened past ripeness for rooting by the time I noticed.

I can only hope cresting will happen again next year. According to everything I’ve read (for a small sampling of more information, see below), fasciation is a random occurrence of meristem cell orneriness, not reliably repeated unless genetics are involved. — Cockscomb/Celosia cristata’s brain-ish strangeness is passed on by seed, but most plants grown for the trait are clones. It can be blamed on infection, insects (generally as carriers of whatever disease throws the cells for a loop), physical damage, or simply mutation for mutation’s sake. Whatever causes it, however on earth it happens, fasciation is pretty freaking fascinating.

Have you found anything fasciating in your garden? Have you propagated it? (Did it make you a millionaire?)

Plant of the week 2-22-08, University of AK extension;  WI Master Gardener Assoc. “Fascinating Fasciation”