Down to earth — May vagabond

(Originally published May 14, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

One of my favorite garden writers, the late great Janet Gillespie, Westport author and columnist for the New Bedford Standard Times, said of May, “in the garden seeds are coming up, weeds are proliferating, new plants arrive to be tended to and there are a hundred jobs to do. Don’t do them. Like Mole in Wind in the Willows, drop everything and go vagabonding.” She recommended taking walks in wild places, alone, at our own pace to explore the merry month of May .“Escape the demands of your household,” she wrote, “and get acquainted with yourself again.”

I’m all for a May vagabond (who wouldn’t be?) and I relish alone-time but find it as difficult to exit my garden gate in May as I do in September. Not because there’s so much to do (it can wait) but because there’s so much right here to watch unfold and change, and because the light has that sweet golden tinge. So my advice, based on Jan’s, is to put snips, spade and trowel away, and at least take some slow, restorative strolls through your own Mayscape. Pause often. Pack a picnic.

Vancouveria hexandra
Vancouveria hexandra

My walk takes me past some tiny clumps of fumewort (an unfortunate common name for Corydalis solida), which has smoky mauve flower spikelets and foggy blue-green foliage. Planted near it is a dainty spreading groundcover called white inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), with duck foot-shaped leaves on the most delicate wire stems, and flowers that I guess I already missed. (Are they really inside-out? Let that be a lesson to me to start vagabonding in April.) Both thrive underneath an alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), which, right now, has tiny pleated, red-edged leaves cupping mere nubbins of flower buds. Its foliage is as adorable in miniature as baby toes and as fuzzy as puppy ears. Aside from squee-inducing cuteness, fur on foliage provides protection from a scorching sun (its low angle this time of year can burn gardeners’ tender skin too) and untimely frosts (perish the thought).

full-grown flowering dogwood
full-grown flowering dogwood

Speaking of miniature, before taking possession of a property inhabited by a native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) I was never aware of how the knobby little buds on every twig end crack open into four-petaled “flowers” (they’re bracts, actually, surrounding the true flower) that start out the size of kitten noses and grow bigger, bigger, bigger by the day. Right now, the luminous creamy pale-green bracts, only the size of a cat’s paw, look like eyelet lace from a distance. But, almost as soon as you read this, every flowering dogwood in town will be a thick canvas of flowers, each about 2” across.

Fairy wings (also known as barrenwort — another terrible name — or Epimedium spp.) grow in the dry soil of my dogwood’s dapple. Talk about adorable. Last month I cut back old foliage (still greenish despite winter’s worst) just in time to see the eensiest fist-like buds break the soil’s surface. Since then, wiry stems elongated and thumbnail-sized flowers shaped like court jester caps began shivering in the barest breezes over heart-shaped leaves, some mottled burgundy, others edged with red, all batting eyelashes along the edges. Eyelashes! I have no idea what purpose those might serve but they sure are cute.

Tiger Eyes sumac is all about peach fuzz
Tiger Eyes sumac is all about peach fuzz

That’s the thing about spring. It’s darling. And soft. So shiny and new. (Some foliage emerges with a smooth polish instead of peach fuzz—reflectiveness probably offering a similar protection from sun scorch.) And gardeners otherwise harried by the season may find solace in solitary investigation and contemplation of its cuteness. So please do as Janet Gillespie “The Carefree Gardener” and I suggest: drop everything right now and enjoy it. 

I wrote this before a spell of summer-like temperatures and humidity made everything grow gangbusters. The dogwood is indeed flying its full canvas now. Trees are all leafed out (except my fringe tree and sourwood — natives are often fashionably late) and the weeds grew. Which means no more vagabonding for me. How about you?

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