life goes on

Every time I thought about posting a blog about plants and gardening since the last time I did, back in November, it seemed too trivial to bother. So beside the point. Not worth your feed space. I also haven’t thought a lot about my garden. Politics and the steady stream of crazypants has sucked the life right out of it — or at least my interest in it. That, and maybe winter.

But life goes on. It has to.

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Galanthus nivalis

I’ve heard birds (finches?) singing in the predawn. Witch hazels are blooming. My hellebore and pussy willow are weeks ahead of schedule. The little camellia I keep in the plantry has been wearing pink and a light clove perfume for days now. Snowdrops and crocus are blooming all over town.

Noticing is a start. I like to think going through the motions of recording every tiny event will help lift me out of the pit of despair. And my fingers are crossed that spring will be the elevator it usually is. I need its miracle magic more than I ever have before to remind me how to move forward and rise up.

So while I temporarily ignore the news and shirk my political responsibilities (I’m endlessly grateful to those keeping the fire burning) I’m going to try to get gardeny and garden blahggy again.

Because life goes on. It has to. (Plus I’ve missed you!)

Down to earth — I like lichen

Originally published December 2, 2015 in East Bay Newspapers.

Lest we become completely overwhelmed and demoralized by horrendous events happening around the world, the news media have also been reporting, as they usually do around the holidays, on the benefits of gratitude. According to one article I read, recent studies show that expressing gratitude will improve heart health and help us live longer. Or was that coffee? Either way I’m all for it. I read another article suggesting to those of us without the glass-is-half-full gene, which is a “mutation,” according to the author, that we might start our journey along the path to happiness with baby steps. Be grateful for the little things.

Like lichen. I hardly ever notice lichen in the dry summer months when it’s dormant and obscured by foliage. Now that we’ve had some rain, and more light is reaching stems and trunks and rock walls, the lichen is waking up and promising to offer a few extra colors to embellish winter’s monochrome. Some of what grows on stone is orange and yellow, while most of the tree-dwelling lichen is a dull grey green that glows a brighter sea foam or deepens to moss on dark and damp days. It takes the form of lacy speckles, flat rounded patches that flake like lead paint, and fuzzy tufts of reindeer moss that litter the sidewalks after a good wind.

Despite appearances to the contrary, lichen does no harm. It’s a passenger, not a parasitic devourer of tree flesh. And “it” is actually two things, a fungus and an alga, a dynamic duo, in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides support by hitching a ride on bark, rocks, and anything else that stays put long enough for it to grow at a snail’s pace, and collects moisture and minerals from the air. The alga uses the moisture and nutrients in its work to convert sunlight into food it subsequently passes back to its partner. And together, aside from being beautiful in the eye of this beholder, they provide sustenance for insects and animals, nesting material for birds, and when it sloughs off, nitrogen for the soil. Because pollution restricts lichen’s growth, it is an excellent gauge of decent air quality too.

The presence of lacy lichen undergarments on your trees and shrubs is an indicator of slow growth: plants that hold onto their bark for a while before shedding it offer lichen an opportunity not unlike rent control. Most trees grow more slowly as they age, and others are naturally slow even in their youth; lichen on their limbs is no cause for alarm. On the other hand, an abundance of lichen on an otherwise fast growing species can signal compromised health, such as root stress perhaps due to soil compaction or flooding. We gardeners should be grateful for the message even if some of us aren’t inclined to appreciate the messenger.

I am. My paths towards happiness — the one around my garden, and the one I take over the river and through the woods — are festooned in lichen. It will be a sight for my winter-sore and color-starved eyes, and serves as a reminder to breathe deeply. It’s one of the little things I’m going to remember to feel grateful for.

Do you like lichen? Do you keep a gratitude list? What’s on it?

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?

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.

Vacationland

Over a lifetime of summer vacations spent lakeside in the great state of New Hampshire I can’t recall ever wanting to pick up sticks and live there year-round. After one week on the Damariscotta river in Maine I can’t stop thinking about leaving little Rhody and living the rest of my life as a Mainer. (Mainiac? Downeaster?) I am aware that the winters are long and cold and I became acquainted with deer flies and ridonculous Vacationland traffic. But I loved the smells. Part pine forest air freshener, part salty shell-fishiness, part mud. And I loved listening to the shoreline forest’s sounds that included (but wasn’t limited to) an invisible (and so far unidentifiable) bird in the treetops that sounded exactly like a squeaky swing set or unmusical-me playing a penny whistle, others with a pterodactyl scrawk, easily identified as great blue herons, and whole colonies of terns pipping and screeching. I loved the quiet around those sounds. I loved the pull of the tide and letting Bazil run free on long dirt road and forest walks to chase and never catch tiny red squirrels.

View from Pirate's PointBazil's walk

And I loved abandoning my reading (and listening and gazing) perch on the screened porch to visit quaint and intensely touristy harbor towns and one very cool garden. Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has only been open since 2007 but looks and feels full grown (aside from a few slender trees) and fully established. And it was hopping. Not since visiting the Highline years ago on a sunny summer Saturday have I known a garden to be such a popular destination for gardeners and non-gardeners alike. My pictures don’t do the place justice — it was a brighter day than forecast — so I’ll spare you the full roll and vow to go back. Perhaps in the fall when this hillside (below, top) of thread leaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), Tiger Eye sumac, and bowman’s root (Porteranthus/Gillenia trifoliata) blazes.

CMBG Haney Hillside Garden
CMBG Haney Hillside Garden
CMBG Lerner Garden of the Five Senses
CMBG Lerner Garden of the Five Senses
CMBG Vayo Meditation Garden
CMBG Vayo Meditation Garden

Have you taken a summer vacation? Where to? Did you want to stay forever too?