Down to earth – please take a seat

(Originally published June 26, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

From here on in, one of the best things to do in the garden is nothing at all. I believe that staring at the garden is at least as important as weeding it. It’s like gazing deeply into the eyes of a loved one: a great way to get better acquainted and stay connected. We should sit long enough to see beyond the weeds to the garden’s glorious details. Long enough to spot the black swallowtail caterpillars on the parsley and bronze fennel. We should watch as poppy petals shatter and scatter, or as the night blooming cereus flowers unfurl. It’s only when we sit still that the hummingbirds give us a face to face once over. (Are those your lips or a flower full of nectar?) And it’s only when we stop moving around that the goldfinch light on seedheads nearby. Sitting and staring is also necessary for our health as summer heats up and we run out of steam. But as much as I love to, I don’t stare at my garden nearly often enough.

I am almost incapable of sitting still when there’s work to do in the garden. And I don’t know a single gardener who wouldn’t say the same thing. No sooner do we sit than we pop back up again to pull a weed, trim a branch, plant a container, take a picture, mow the lawn. But all garden designers and most landscape architects through history have decreed that gardens must have places to pause and take in the view. Even if we (its gardeners) rarely or only momentarily avail ourselves of them.

It could be argued that in our gardens, seats are for other people. Visitors. Certainly we want our guests to relax and no doubt we’d be a little alarmed, and very embarrassed if they paced the garden as restlessly as we do, pulling weeds and making piles. They must sit! And so we should provide some options. That’s no hardship for me. I happen to have a “thing” for chairs and collect them as I do plants, taking in strays and cherishing gifts and sublime scrimped-for specimen.

trash-picked symbolic seat with a beebalm viewChairs and benches may be used as destinations. To give us a reason, even if only a symbolic one, to walk all the way to the end of a path or to pause en route. For that, I employ a trash-picked, skeletal relic of a rattan armchair that has a geranium growing up through its bones. It no longer supports my weight (my last plop down on the seat snapped its ribs) but even so, it elegantly marks a place along a path from the back yard to the front where I need reminding to pivot and take in the view.

Whether ornamental or actually comfortable, chairs and benches can also function as focal points and anchors in the garden. I generally prefer my tiny garden’s focal points to have outstanding foliage and/or flowers so I’m grateful to have a pair of see-through welded-wire spring-loaded rockers on permanent loan from one of my favorite gardeners ever. They’re just visible enough to be practically invisible. And because they’re much more comfortable than they look, I like to place them wherever I might enjoy the view from their seats. And no matter where that may be from one season to another, I believe that the view of them and through them enhances the garden’s design.

The other day I managed to accomplish so much weeding, planting, mowing and photographing in my garden that I actually had the thought, “I’m done! I can sit now.” Of course I wasn’t done—gardens are never done (that’s part of their hook)—but I sat anyway. First on the porch stoop, then in a chair on the deck with a keyhole view of my back border through a rose in full bloom. Taking the time to thoroughly enjoy my garden—without popping right back up again—was the best work I did all day.

Mission control

Star magnolia - my favorite rescue plantI almost succumbed to the everybody’s-doin’-it peer pressure of making room for a dedicated vegetable bed in my garden this year. Instead, I’m probably the only person on the planet who is not planting arugula. And I’m totally ok with that because now I have a plan.

At work we have a mission statement (preserve, educate, inspire, yada-yada) and a master plan in the works. At home it was the debacle of the nicotine patch/grave site bed that made me realize I needed to develop a mission and a master plan for here too. (Only I’m not going to seek grants to pay professionals many thousands of dollars to draw something up.)

It was when I started thinking about my garden’s mission that I remembered that vegetables are not really my thing. They’re too much work. My garden’s mission is much lazier than that. I want it to be beautiful – there should be a place for every orphaned plant that comes my way – including whatever pretty vegetables – and anything that causes me to bust out the wallet because I can’t possibly live without it. There should be very little lawn because I don’t enjoy mowing. It should not cost much because I don’t have much to spend. I want to sit in it with a book or a bevvie in my paw and feel like the weeding can wait. I want it to be visible from the road and welcoming. I want it to be a habitat, not a yard. Yesterday a kid passing on a bike called to me – “Nice garden!”, he said. That’s what I’m talking about – that’s my mission.

As for a plan…  No matter how much I want it to be a gorgeous tour worthy grown-up garden now, the seedling trees that will provide shade and a feeling of enclosure have years to grow and we don’t have the money for every major project so we’ll pick one at a time – a vine arbor for the deck, first – and save the others for later. Lawn eradication will be a process of years too but I’ve made some strides in determining what stays for the dog’s sake and what’s slated to go. I know it’s important to live in a place for a while before making major changes but indecision was making me crazy. With a mission in mind, I can see the garden more clearly now. – And I have a better idea of what I want to see.

truck full of foundation plants

new bedsThis weekend I took out the last of the horrid foundation shrubbery on my hit list; Z and I filled up the truck and came home again from the dump with an enormous load of town compost (free). With that, I made two new beds with the lazygirl lasagna method and enlarged and amended others – I have plenty of room now for a growing collection. I had my soil tested this spring and am low-lead-level free to graze so I’ll be sure to tuck in a few good looking veg in the established beds and ride on the bumper of that bandwagon too. (Everybody’s doin’ it.)

Does your garden have a mission?  Do you have a master plan? (-Does it keep changing?)

Taking my own advice

show off before the move insideYou know the adage “do as I say, not as I do”?  I’m the worst.  I did a little research for my post at work about citruses which pretty much confirmed what I already knew.  I am a plant slayer.  And I don’t like to take my own advice because it’s generally tedious or time consuming or otherwise inconvenient.  I have been keeping my ponderosa lemon orphan out in the plantry because it looks good out there showing its fruit off to the neighbors and because it would take up too much room inside.  I knew it was the wrong place for it.  Citruses, as I reminded myself the other day, can take temperature dips into the 40’s but prefer to winter at about 60°.  The plantry’s average nightly temperatures are in the 40’s but sometimes drops into the scary low 30’s like when I forget to turn on the heater or when it goes into the single digits outside – which has been a fairly frequent occurence this winter.  kittens help with leaf washingAnd the lemon doesn’t look so good.  Although, since I’ve moved it to the livingroom, scattering lemons, branches and leaves in my wake, I’ve decided it looked a lot better before.  Now it will be a daily reproof sitting sickly at the end of my couch, taking up half of a much darker room and plagued by horticulturally fixated kittens who don’t realize just how thorny the thing is.  But what’s a plant junkie to do?  I can’t bring it back to the greenhouse – the only reason I have it is because we don’t have room for it there.  And I can’t put it out in the very cold to die quickly.  The only thing to do is to do as I say, not as I do.

Frigid air

It’s freezer-ish out and fridge-ish in.  Especially out in the plantry.

The outside temperatures have been forecast to plunge into the singles and inconceivable negatives for windchill or “feels like” temperatures for the next and past couple of days and I’m a little worried (a lot, a little) about the poor kids out there.  Yesterday morning I got up at 4am when the howling wind woke me (an hour before the alarm) to make sure they weren’t all frozen.  — As if I, barefoot in my bathrobe, could have reversed the process at that point.  (My great-grandfather, so I’m told, was just as nutty.  Plant Anxiety is a hereditary trait.)

Orange in the east.  Lavenders and geraniums featured.There is a heater running – an electric oil filled radiator – when I remember to turn it on.  Lately I’ve been leaving it on even on sunny days just in case there’s too much crème brûlée in my evening and I might forget.  And yesterday Z stopped at Ace is the Place on the way home for some clips and hooks so that I could hang dog blankets in front of the drafty crappy doors for a little extra assurance.  blue for the west door.  Ponderosa lemon and agave featured.(I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes the latest trend in home decor and I’d leave the blankets up indefinitely but the dog might protest.  He’s been very generous though, so far.)

But that’s my only plan for this terrifying temperature dip.  I have no back up.  If the power goes out, those plants could become icepops in a matter of hours.  Hours that I’d most likely be spending down the road making sure more important plants don’t die.  It’s ok.  I’m resigned.  I love my kids but almost everyone in the plantry is an orphan from work – I’ve already given them a second chance; a third might be too much to ask.  And mostly it’s ok because it would be a lazy gardener’s nightmare chore to move them all inside – especially after my trip to Logee’s.  It was difficult enough to find flat surfaces for a few 2″ cuttings – where the fershlug would I put the enormous lemon or the agave?   It’s so much easier to cover the doors with dog blankets and hope for the best.

In honor of Garden Bloggers Bloom Day hosted by Carol of May Dreams gardens, here’s a list of what’s in bloom at Champignon (that’s our fancy name – means mushroom, yo – for the house and gardens):  Pelargonium sidoides, Pelargonium – something scented and variegated – maybe ‘Apple’?, Lavandula dentata,  a new Begonia from Logee’s – ‘Candlelight’, an old Begonia maculata var. ‘Wightii’ or “Polka dot” from Logee’s and an aphid ridden African violet.  Everybody but the begonias and African violet are in the plantry.

Pelargonium sidoides in full bloom

Stay warm this mid January and worry free (unlike me)!


Magnolia stellata in budThere are still summer (and spring!) blooms in my garden which is really inappropriate for a mid-November Garden Bloggers Bloom Day (Thank you, Carol for hosting).  But what really excites me are the buds revealed on my newly naked star magnolia (Magnolia stellata).  This was the first thing I planted after my Z and I bought our house two years one year, 8 months ago* and like our kids (Nino and the kittens) it was a rescue.

The magnolia was offered to me by a co-worker whose parents moved into a new home and rather than keep this stellar shrub, they preferred to junk it and plant a Rose of Sharon instead, no lie.  (The horror!)  Z and I drove over to Portsmouth to check it out – it was a good 5′ tall, 4′ wide, beautifully shaped and fully budded; we dug it up; tortured it by driving it unwrapped over the Mt. Hope bridge; planted it in terrible soil with little amendment and I proceeded to half forget about it during a drought year.  The poor thing.  Last year’s buds were pathetic and few and I hated myself for being a terrible gardener/plant slayer.  I really thought it was a goner.  But it survived.  Bloomed even.  And now it’s entirely budded up in a promise of spring splendor and I couldn’t be more relieved.

Here is further evidence that plants are forgiving of a lazy gardener:

opportunistic Tassel flower (Emilia) in a driveway cracksometimes Forsythia blooms again in the fallPurple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) - blooming when it should and going bya lonesome scuttle of peppers ('Fish' I believe)Salvia leucantha and protected Profusion zinnias

By sending this GBBD post off to May Dreams Gardens, I am also making a sort of promise to keep writing about my own garden.  And that means I’ll have to keep gardening (as if I could ever not have a garden) and maybe even follow through with all the promises I made to myself about the garden when we bought this place.  Do you find that blogging about your garden helps you keep your promises?

*time flies but not always as fast as it feels…  Hey, maybe I am still 28!