change is good

I know better than to apologize for not blahblahging for the better part of a year but I am sorry because it’s put me out of practice. And I have things I want to (remember how to) say.

For starters, this:

Somewhere close to 15 years ago I came back home to RI from the West Coast because I needed a change. While searching for gainful employment my mother’s best friend’s sister offered me a temporary part-time gardening job at Blithewold. Less than a month or so in I felt like I had won the life’s-work lottery and stopped looking for anything else.

I was lucky to land a career in public horticulture, and you know how much I loved it! But in the last couple of years I have felt a shift. I’m not above calling it a mid-life crisis. Even as I created a new garden at Mount Hope Farm from scratch, and helped renovate others there, I started to feel more wiped than excited. More nappish than ambitious. More -meh- than evangelical. And because I’m as tuned in as the average lapsed yogi I tried to pay attention to that.

It occurred to me that maybe horticulture chose me. That’s cool. I’m so glad it did! But because I still want to want to garden, here at Squeezins especially, I decided it was time to make my own career choice and fill my workadays with something different. Something non-plant-related.

Once again I have been lucky. I have always loved libraries as a place to go where no one will give you the hairy eyeball for sitting quietly and getting shit done. Or for wandering aimlessly, staring into the middle distance, and getting nothing done. Also all of the books! I don’t feel the need to read every single one but just being around so much information and different perspectives is reassuring. I could know things. Understand more. There’s an app a book for that. I used to dream of living in the stacks; I always figured working in them would be the next best thing.

clean pawI looked forward to every shift I worked at Rogers Free Library’s main circulation desk and I will miss that place, the staff and patrons madly. But I’m wicked excited to start full-time tomorrow as the circulation supervisor at the Middletown Public Library.

My fingernails are clean; dirt tattoos and thorn scars have faded. This blog (and its title) might need to change with the times. Or maybe as I start gardening for actual pleasure again I’ll dig in here again too. I want to want to. I think I will. (Pretty sure. Mostly. Maybe.) Thanks, as always — and more than ever — for reading.

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.

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, and the Audubon field guide. Also, this list is pretty great.